Friday, April 16, 2010

Poverty - and a moral dilemma.

Steve at Bloggertropolis wrote an excellent post, highlighting how uncomfortable it is to be closely confronted with poverty. He describes an encounter with a street beggar, and his sudden realisation that this 'drunken drop-out' was also a human being; a thinking, feeling, hurting person like himself - but caught in a circle of homelessness, alienation and the temporary respite of alcohol.

In the UK we are insulated from absolute poverty, certainly compared to say Africa or parts of Asia. Indeed,  absolute poverty, of the type widely experienced in the Third World, is extremely rare in Western democracies. If we debate poverty at all, we are usually concerned with the relative poverty of our own underprivileged communities and social groups. But whilst absolute poverty may be 'out of sight - out of mind' the moral issues remain, and if we examine them carefully it is just as uncomfortable as getting up close and personal.

Some years ago I read a 'thought experiment' that tests our moral obligations to others. See how you get on with this...

Imagine you have just retired. You have a small pension that meets your basic needs but no spare cash - you are comfortable but only just. Then one day you win a few thousand pounds on the lottery, enough to buy the small car you have always dreamed of.

You buy the car locally but forget to arrange the insurance (senior moment!). Nonetheless you decide to drive it home, after all it is only a couple of miles. Unfortunately you stall the car on a level crossing and can't restart it. You get out and see there is is train approaching.  Oh no, your one chance to own a car is about to be obliterated....

As the train approaches you notice there is a set of points by the side of the track. You reason that by pulling them you will send the train safely into a siding. So you run over as quick as you can and are about to pull the points when it becomes clear that it is actually your car which is on the siding. Phew, there is no danger from the train and everything is going to be okay....

Except at that same moment you also notice a young child has walked onto the main line!!!!

The situation is instantly clear. If you pull the points your car will be obliterated. But if you do not the child will surely be killed. You call to the child but she does not hear... you must act quickly... you have seconds to decide.

What a terrible choice. Do you save the child at the cost of your most prized possession; something you will never afford to replace? Or do you leave the points alone in the knowledge that almost certainly the child would be killed?

What would you do?

Would you leave the points alone? After all it wasn't your fault the child walked onto the line. You could say you had not seen anything...  you could close your eyes and not watch the impact ... you have no legal 'obligation' to pull the points....

I think most people would argue that saving the child is the right thing to do. They would say we have a moral obligation to do so in preference to a car. I certainly hope I would pull the points no matter how precious my car was to me.

And yet... last year I spent well over a thousand pounds on computer equipment that caught my eye; I spent three times that on a holiday to France; and I could easily make a long list of expensive non-essentials I purchased in 2009. What is more, I spent this money when deep down I know there are millions of people who, through no fault of their own, are dying for lack of funds and resources. I am not alone in doing this. You probably did something similar.

The question posed by the thought experiment is whether there any substantive difference between my choice to buy luxuries and making the decision 'not to pull the points'? And my honest conclusion is that there is not a lot between the two. I might rationalise that there is little I can personally do about Third World poverty, that foreign dictatorships and wars make much aid worthless.. etc etc. But frankly, it is almost undeniable that had I given even half of my non essential expenditure to medecines sans frontier it would have saved some lives.

The difference is that the death on the railway line would be more immediate and more directly in my control.  But is it really possible to claim we have less responsibility to avert evils just because they are out of sight? I find it hard to give ethical weight to the idea that child starvation is not our responsibility because it resides abroad.

The philosopher Peter Singer agrees; in his book, One World, he argues that as we become globally interdependent, our moral obligations to a greater humanity are stronger than ever. The alternative view -  supported by John Rawls - is that States are ultimately selfish institutions and we are not obliged to help other nations. In practice, most modern democracies take a middle line - in the case of the UK that amounts to spending a meagre 0.7% of GDP on aid to the developing world.

In the West we enjoy societies that are freer and more affluent than ever before; that is a wonderful achievement - but at times that very security can leave me feeling uneasy. If political atrocities such as the holocaust were the moral outrage of the last century, it is at least arguable that history will take a similar view of our response to absolute poverty.

To return to the thought experiment, I could pick fault with the example; I could show how it is not a fair reflection of the real world; I could argue technical points of ethics. But no matter how I rationalise it away, the general point would remain - and I find its implications deeply disturbing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Creative me

Back row - fourth from left

I have been tagged by the Zoo Archaeologist to say seven creative things about me. So with a slight twist here are some thoughts on seven tutors, all of whom have been influences. And along the way, I'll try to say something about myself too.

When I was a child my Mum wrote a craft book for children. It was never published, but nonetheless we were her guinea pigs, testing ideas and being photographed with our creations. I remember making a lot of  hedgehogs from potatoes and cocktail sticks, In fact my mum had a thing about potatoes - potato sculptures, potato printing  potato heads. The legacy of all this is that I make just about anything (well, to child's eye anyway) from a few boxes, some glue and bit of paint.

The head of art at my high school, June Davies, was the first teacher I can recall (for any subject) who was genuinely encouraging. She taught me how to 'look' rather than spending hours on technique, and she recognised I was interested in more than making pictures that please. She once said to me, 'The difference with you is that you're already an artist; the others are just trying hard.' I have never forgotten that. In a round about way June Davies also gave me my first commission - a painting of sunflowers for a friend of hers who had seen my work at the school exhibition. I sold it for £10!

My A-Level entry 1979

I didn't study art at University; instead I read politics and philosophy. My tutor there, Professor John Day, helped me realise that creativity comes in different forms and has many uses other than craft or art. He used to say, to be a philosopher you need to think hard - very hard - and then you need to question; then think again, and question again, and again... 'Philosophy isn't about sitting in fields of flowers; it is difficult. And if it isn't, you are not doing it correctly.' I still practice that - though  I'm sure some people I know would rather he hadn't taught me quite so well.

Which is not the sort of thing John Skinner would say. John was my painting tutor for six years, and he had a greater influence on me than anyone except Jane and my children. Working with John was never easy; he as good as forced me to take my work seriously: 'painting is important', he would say, 'and I'm not interested unless you believe that too'. John was (is) challenging, irascible, caring, frustrating, brilliant....  my life was enriched when I met him and is the lesser since he moved to France.

Exhibition 2002

Shortly before John moved abroad I began writing in my sketch books. It was typical of him to see the possibilities and as I became more interested I used to visit his studio and spend the weekend writing instead of painting.  But it was Jane McNulty, my first tutor from the Open College of Arts, who gave me the enough confidence to have my work assessed and even published. Later this year I should complete my degree in creative writing - now that really would surprise some of my school teachers!

My penultimate choice is perhaps an odd one: it is the landscape. Of course this is not a tutor in the traditional sense. Nonetheless I take inspiration from the landscape and I am fascinated by returning to familiar places. A lot of what I write about is connected to the idea of time and place, of returning to think and question the past; and to think again, and again...

Porthgain, near my house in Wales

And finally, my children have taught me more about myself than anyone. They have also given me endless opportunity to practice all I have been talking about in this post. We have surfeit of cardboard box toys; I have their paintings stored and catalogued; I suspect we are one of very few families that discusses ethics and metaphysics; they all read my blog - even Dylan, who helps me with my-little-i . In fact, only today we were painting together; no surprises what he wanted to draw...

Monday, April 5, 2010

A very British hobby.

George Orwell observed that the British were addicted to their hobbies... ' a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts players and crossword puzzle fans.' And we might well add  train spotters to that list; as well as model railway enthusiasts, timetable nerds, and more recently 'steam railway volunteers.'

I know this, not so much by observation, as by having a five year old son who is similarly addicted. We have visited more than a dozen steam railways - some many times over. We own six different train sets (Hornby, Thomas, Brio, Christmas special, plastic cheapy and a spare for visitors!). And every day on the walk to school, my knowledge of steam trains increases.

This is an unlikely development. The older boys never played with mechanical toys; before they watched Top-Gear they wouldn't have known a Formula One from a Sports Car. And they still wouldn't know how a car actually works in practice. Not so Dylan. What is that pedal for?  How does petrol fire up?  Do we have to go the Zoo again?

And so, on Saturday, and with some predictability, he said, 'Great  idea, Dad. We can go to see 'Sergeant Murphy!' (Note that he's gone beyond suggesting railways in general, to mentioning specific locomotives.) And whose idea is this? I asked.

'All right, it can be your idea as well,' he replied. Adding, 'We can join the railway club too.'

The big boys declined to come. We didn't insist; they'd only spend the day text messaging friends. And so we left them engrossed in Animal Crossing and MSN while Jane, Dylan and I made the trip to the Teifi Valley in Mid Wales. It is a pleasant drive and we know the roads well; after all, it's not the first time we've been.

Sergeant Murphy wasn't working today. Instead it was Alan George, a narrow gauge steamer more than 100 years old. It is one of five locomotives lovingly restored by rather excellent, if somewhat eccentric,Teifi Valley Railway. Dylan wasn't disappointed; it was a new steam engine for his list, and because it had no cab he could see the workings. 'What does that dial do? Where is the whistle? Can I be the guard?...'

He wasn't disappointed by the journey either. Not that it is extensive. Alan George puffed the three miles from Henllan near Newcastle Emlyn, which is very nearly the middle of nowhere - to, well, the actual middle of nowhere! In fact, the track ends at the remaining half of a bridge that was washed away in floods.

At this point the passengers disembark, the engine does a shifty in a siding to get back to the front of the train, and everyone gets back on again. Dylan carefully positions himself at the front carriage so he can see the engine close up and direct the driver with a running commentary: stoke the fire, blow the whistle, check the water, put on the brakes...

On the return journey there is the option of stopping for a short nature walk, or staying on board and having a cup of tea in the volunteer run cafe. We chose the later; after which we visited the little shop, played on the swings, visited the charity shop, and had another ride on the train. All the while Dylan blew his whistle so loudly (I'm just helping the guard) that the other vistors kept wandering to the platform and I pretended Dylan had nothing to do with me. Nonetheless, he made friends with the driver, the guard (his wife), the lady volunteer in the charity shop who thrust a membership form under my nose. It seems they like enthusiasm in the Teifi Valley.

And quite right too. At one time I would have been as indifferent to steam engines as my teenagers, but I have come to like these volunteer societies - in a way I like them more than the actual trains. I like the way they create a community of interest; how everyone can play a part, no matter their age or class; I like how pointless the whole enterprise is in the grand scheme of things. There is a small industry of miniature railways (there must a dozen in Wales alone) that it is only made possible by people's enthusiasm and goodwill; by contributions that are not going to better anyone's career or make them richer.

And I think that explains why I particularly like the Teifi Valley Railway. It is small, down at heel. and probably not going far. I doubt the bridge will ever be rebuilt; in it's heyday the line never made it to Cardigan. But it is quirky and welcoming in a way that the larger enterprises cannot match. It is the perfect embodiment of Orwell's observation that we are addicted to our hobbies. And it is all the better for it.

As I drove home I was pondering that we'd actually joined a railway society. We will receive a quarterly newsletter, we will be welcome at the Tuesday night meetings and we can attend the AGM. I doubt we will do that. But perhaps we could make a contribution in our way? I could write the occasional publicity piece; Jane has already sorted some toys and bric-a-brac for the shop - and, as Dylan repeatedly points out, he'll happily stand in for the guard!