5 Questions | Julian Baggini

14 April 2020

The philosopher Julian Baggini will be taking part in a free live-streamed event on 13 May at 7pm, part of our #WigtownWednesdays programme, discussing how the present crisis may change the way we live. Here, he answers 5 questions from the WBF team.

Live online event with Julian Baggini
13 May, 7pm
Free | Sign up

1) Which philosopher has most to say about this crisis?

Many philosophers who have something to say are only echoing what a lot of other people have already said. But Aristotle put his finger on something that is largely unsaid, and not widely understood. He believed that being good was not about holding to a set of principles or having the right theory. It is a matter of character. The good person becomes virtuous by the practice of virtue, which is somewhat old-fashioned way of saying that if you want to be good, do good. But this isn't easy. It requires a special kind of practical reasoning, phronesis

What's that got to do with this crisis? Things have happened so quickly that there hasn't always been enough time to calculate what the right thing to do is, or for the more cynical, what you need to do to make sure others think well of you. So moral character has been exposed. Companies and individuals that have truly embedded their values responded with generosity, kindness and sometimes self-sacrifice. The selfish hoarded, ignored social distancing rules or, in the case of some organisations, treated staff appallingly. We've seen that being good or bad is not a matter of subscribing to any kind of ethical system, religious or secular, or having a corporate code of conduct. It's more deeply woven into character.

2) And which philosopher would you most like to be locked down with?

It would have to be the great Scot David Hume. Not only was a man of uncommon sense, he was also something of a gourmand who moved house late in life because the one he had was not large enough to cook and entertain in. We could converse over his dinners, with me doing most of the listening. I'd even try his sheep's head broth, which had his guests talking for days. 

3) Name one way in which this crisis might realistically change attitudes towards our daily lives or politics when we return to "normal"?

There's a lot of speculation about this, much of it I think is wishful thinking. People have an incredible ability to return to old habits with great speed. So I'm reluctant to predict any enduring changes. What I think will happen is that they'll be many resets, personally and politically. Many will use their time off work to think about their work and so there will be more career changes than usual. Some marriages and partnerships will be re-energised, but I also expect a spike in divorces once many have been forced to confront their failing relationships. Public service spending will become more of priority for years to come. And Brexit will be delayed but not cancelled. I think we know all this already. It's odd that everyone is saying this a time of great uncertainty but many are willing to talk with great certainty about what will happen next.

4) Your new book,The Godless Gospel, is out in the autumn. Tell us a little about it.

It has a simple premise. I meet a lot of people who say that they don't believe Jesus was divine but he was a great moral teacher. The book asks: was he? Really? Other than a couple of short mentions, the only record we have of his life and teachings is the Gospels and these are full of miracles and talk of the divine. If you believe Jesus was a great human teacher then you have to think that the philosophy can be separated out from the theology. So my starting point is to put a red line through all the non-natural elements of the Gospels and put what remains together into one Godless Gospel. I then examine the moral teachings in it. As an atheist, I found it richer than I expected. No spoilers but I think Jesus is a more challenging figure then secularists and comfortable Christains suppose.

5) How are you spending your time during lockdown?

I've had some practice. In mid-February I got pneumonia and beat the rush into intensive care. Just as I was feeling more able to get out we all had to stay in. Initially, I cleared most of my backlog of unwatched DVDs but now I'm almost as busy as ever, minus the travel, which means not too busy for once. I'm writing short pieces for newspapers and magazines and what I hope will become a book. I'm also kitchen manager, head cook and dish washer, which I quite enjoy. I'm lucky that my temperament and work suits spending a lot of time away from people, that I can get out for a good daily walk, that I have a garden, and that I'm further from divorcing the other person in the home than ever.

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