Reflections on Real Utopias

by Erik Olin Wright on April 3, 2013

A very wide range of issues have been raised in the many interesting postings and comments during the Crooked Timber seminar about my book Envisioning Real Utopias which ran from March 18-28. In what follows I will give at least a brief response to the core themes of each of the eight contributions to the seminar. I will organize my reflections in the order of the contributions in the symposium.

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Iain Banks is dying of cancer

by Henry on April 3, 2013

“Story at the Guardian”:, thanks to people in comments below. This is very sad news. He has been a wonderful and prolific writer, whose intelligence and considerable grasp of politics were often concealed by the lightness of his touch. I would have loved it had he written more in the experimental vein of some of his earlier fiction – _Walking on Glass_ is just a lovely book – but am grateful for what he has written. He never got the reception in the US that he deserved – some CT readers may not know his work. Readers interested in his literary side should perhaps start with _Walking on Glass_ or _The Wasp Factory_ (“It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.” – _The Irish Times_), and those more interested in sf should begin with _Consider Phlebas_ or perhaps _The Use of Weapons._ They’re all wonderful novels, in very different ways.

Some objective moral truths?

by Harry on April 3, 2013

Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:

Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

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