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The Shap Conference (1998)

FOR over twenty years, Michael Bavidge of the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Newcastle University has organized a Conference at Shap Wells Hotel, Cumbria. The Conference is held once a year in the last weekend of February. More recently, the Conference has been run in conjunction with the Philosophical Society, while 1998 was the first year Pathways became actively involved, with Geoffrey Klempner being invited as guest speaker to give a paper on 'The Ethics of Dialogue', the title of the Conference.

Pathways is now set to become a permanent feature of the Conference. The friendly atmosphere and beautiful surroundings make Shap an excellent opportunity for Pathways and Philosophical Society Diploma students to meet and immerse themselves in philosophy. The discussions are lively and often intense, but there is time to relax as well, with the opportunity for bracing walks in the Cumbrian fells.

Other contributors to the 1998 Conference were Michael Bavidge, Deputy Head of the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Ian Ground, who teaches philosophy at the Centre and the Open University. Michael Bavidge's paper 'What's Wrong with Telepathy' questioned the initially tempting idea that we would be much better moral agents if only we could read one another's minds. He concluded, provocatively, that it is the sheer difficulty of human communication together with the ever-present danger of misunderstanding which gives moral dialogue its purpose and force, the friction that gives our moral ideas something to grip. Without the need for moral dialogue, the very notion of moral obligation becomes emptied of content.

Ian Ground's paper, 'Why Do People Matter?' looked at the various strategies for providing a foundation for ethics — in sociobiology, utilitarianism, and a Kantian analysis of rational agency — and found them all to be wanting. By contrast, the claim that ethics arises out of ethical dialogue represented a radically anti-foundational approach. There is no bedrock underlying the contingencies and risks of human communication, even though our craving for security repeatedly tempts us to suppose that there must be. Human dialogue is the bedrock of meaning and of morality.

Geoffrey Klempner, in his paper 'The Ethics of Dialogue', explored the consequences of rejecting an ethic based on the Kantian idea of the disinterested view, and the seemingly insurmountable practical difficulties that face us when we attempt to negotiate the unnegotiable, given the plurality of views about what is moral or valuable. The inquiry was extended to a critique of John Stuart Mill's principle of liberty, exposing Mill's overly optimistic and rationalist approach to ethical conflicts and dilemmas.

In the discussions that followed the papers, the deepest division appeared over the question whether ethical dialogue, as the medium from which moral judgements arise, itself requires a logical foundation that only philosophy can provide. Ian Ground argued that such a foundation was not only illusory but redundant, since moral dialogue did not need a foundation of any kind. Geoffrey Klempner took the opposed view, arguing the need for a metaphysical foundation for ethics. This foundation did not consist, as Kant had argued, in rational agency being an 'end in itself' but rather in the refutation of the solipsist theory according to which 'the world is my world'.

Support for both views appeared to be evenly divided. What was noticeable, however, was the warmth and courtesy of the discussion, which, as one participant observed, proved 'an impressive example of the ethics of dialogue in practice'. 'The question, 'Why should I be moral?' is one that few would consider was seriously up for discussion, while at the same time in certain moods we feel the painful grip of moral scepticism, the necessity to respond with something more than simply, 'This is what we do.' — Which then is the illusion, the sense that in taking our stand on 'what we do' we are standing on firm ground, or the sense that if the ground is firm that is only because there is something underneath holding it up?

We came away from Shap invigourated, with many more questions than we arrived with, yet also with renewed faith in the philosophical enterprise. The ultimate justification for philosophy, it is said, is that human beings are naturally prone to doing bad philosophy. The point is to learn to do it well. On this occasion, we did it well.

Geoffrey Klempner