… why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?

by Chris Bertram on December 3, 2008

“Philosophy professor forgets to attend his own sell-out lecture on duty”:http://www.richmondandtwickenhamtimes.co.uk/news/3938645.Professor_forgets_/ .



Tom Hurka 12.03.08 at 3:25 pm

There are more specific versions of this, aren’t there? Several utilitarians I know, who preach the gospel of impartial concern, are in their private lives absolutely devoted to their families and children. Kantians, who claim to value autonomy, often show little respect for the autonomy of others, especially the intellectual autonomy of their students, who are required to toe the Kantian line or else. Etc., etc.


Harry 12.03.08 at 3:31 pm

Tom, does this make you think better of the utilitarians than if they followed their gospel?


Harry 12.03.08 at 3:32 pm

BTW, I feel sorry for him; I live in horror of doing something similar.


Kieran 12.03.08 at 3:50 pm

Based on experience and casual observation, I would strongly recommend against trusting the care of one’s child, small dog or car to your typical ethicist.


MH 12.03.08 at 4:03 pm

Kieran, you exclude big dogs because they can always eat the ethicist who forgets to feed them? Or because they won’t starve so quickly?


JP Stormcrow 12.03.08 at 4:15 pm

The book reflects on the challenges of duty versus pleasure.

I do think the article was remiss in not providing any details on what the professor had been doing instead. Festival programmer Penny Bowles said: “ When we reached him at a local bathhouse Professor Grayling was absolutely mortified when he realised what had happened, especially because of the nature of the talk.


Tom Hurka 12.03.08 at 4:29 pm

Harry: Yes, it makes me think better of the utilitarians (not being one myself), though they typically go on to give unpersuasive indirect-utilitarian arguments for why it’s best in impartial terms if everyone’s partial in the way they are. And of course I don’t think better of the Kantians for doing what they do.


Tom Hurka 12.03.08 at 4:30 pm

Kieran: I’m pretty sure you could trust me with your car.


Muttley 12.03.08 at 4:38 pm

They don’t like to take their work home with them.


ejh 12.03.08 at 9:49 pm

I’m enormously chuffed to learn from the link that there’s a Mount Ararat Road in Richmond. What’s more, if you cross The Vineyard you can reach Paradise Road.


Kieran 12.03.08 at 10:10 pm

Kieran: I’m pretty sure you could trust me with your car.

I think this proves my point.


joel hanes 12.03.08 at 10:11 pm

Love the post title.

Reminds me of this bit from Toads by Philip Larkin :

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.


joel hanes 12.03.08 at 10:12 pm

blockquote syntax considered broken as designed


Helen 12.03.08 at 10:20 pm

Ahem. I think in order to play up the amusing angle, or the gotcha, the original article and commenters have elided somewhat.

The premise of the joke is that the professor was lecturing on duty and failed to be dutiful, isn’t that right? but his failure was not one of dutifulness (grammar!?), if I read it correctly. He missed his own lecture because of a confusion over dates and was mortified, according to the article, when he found out what he’d done.

If he’d been at the pub in the full knowledge of his dereliction, and hadn’t regretted his action, then I would agree his action was undutiful, but as it is it was something else. Forgetfulness, or poor calendar reading skills. I’m not sure. But I think the deliberate setting of his gaffe against the content of his lecture is a bit of long-bow-drawing by a subeditor in need of an amusing angle.


jackd 12.03.08 at 11:36 pm

Perhaps I’m a bit dim or perhaps it’s because I’m from the States, but “sell-out lecture” made me think he had betrayed his principles simply by agreeing to give the talk. (The usage I would have expected to reflect the actual meaning was “sold-out lecture”.)

JP Stormcrow’s version of the story is much funnier.


Tom Hurka 12.04.08 at 12:56 am

Helen: One of one’s duties is to keep track of one’s duties.


mollymooly 12.04.08 at 2:11 am

Just because a Professor is giving a lecture on Duty doesn’t mean he is in favour of it. Maybe his take is: “Nuts to Duty: stuff it, go to the pub and screw everyone else”. In which case, deliberate non-attendance would be more eloquent than any mere words he might have spoken.


qb 12.04.08 at 4:22 am

oh noes, ethicists aren’t ethical! it’s so ironic it’s probably true! dear oscar wilde, please point me towards some experimental philosophy that proves it with science?


qb 12.04.08 at 4:27 am

But can you have a duty not to make mistakes?


chris y 12.04.08 at 6:15 pm

But can you have a duty not to make mistakes?

Surely this depends on the activity in which you might make the mistake. If you are working as an air traffic controller, it could be argued that you are presumed to have a duty not to make a mistake, since if you are discovered to have made a serious one, you will almost certainly be deprived of the opportunity to continue working as an air traffic controller.

In contrast, if you are working as a moral philosopher, it might be argued that you have a duty to make mistakes, so as to provide your fellow moral philosophers with continued gainful employment in discussing them. It’s a vexed area.


Helen 12.04.08 at 10:55 pm

And isn’t it the duty of professors to be absent-minded?


lemuel pitkin 12.05.08 at 5:18 pm

Like Jack D, I initially thought the joke must be that he’d missed his chance to sell out. (Could be a T-shirt: “Oh no, I forgot to sell out!” A good gift for a philosophy professor, maybe.) The main reason I’m commenting, tho, is to thank Chris for calling attention to the Ogden Nash poem, which is a delight.


qb 12.06.08 at 10:00 am

I guess it depends on your definition of ‘mistake.’ But I was assuming that genuine mistakes are always nonvoluntary, since it doesn’t seem possible to voluntarily do something other than what you intend. On that view, a duty to not make mistakes would require something impossible, namely, that you have voluntary control over some non-voluntary action. A duty to make mistakes would be incoherent for the same reason.

Of course, we have some voluntary control over whether and when we are prone to mistakes, so we can obviously have duties not to do thing that increase the likelihood of making them.

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