Monday, 29 June 2009

The sublime and the ridiculous

On Saturday night I listened to the third of the Reith Lectures, given by the professor of government at Harvard, Michael Sandel. (Incidentally he's the model of Mr Burns of The Simpsons.) The over-all title is A New Citizenship, and he's looking at whether morality has a place in modern politics, now that religion is unfashionable. Saturday's was about genetic enhancement. He talked about 'the one-sided triumph of wilfulness over giftedness', if I remember right. And I was struck how apposite that was to the suicide debate. It's part of a culture which asserts the supremacy of choice over the fact that life is a gift. Clearly from a Christian perspective there are theological flaws in that view, but he was proposing general moral reasons why it's flawed. It's a symptom of the tendency to resist 'openness to the unbidden'. It will transform three key features of our moral landscape, humility, responsibility and solidarity. Far from choice bringing greater freedom, 'Changing our nature to fit the world is the ultimate in disempowerment'. He advocates the reverse: changing the world. Of course he was talking about liberal eugenics, but I was struck by the transfers to the end of life debate. (Lecture 3, about 20 minutes in.) And his analysis seemed to me to contain profound truths, which are often eclipsed by the more utilitarian arguments. Issues so fundamental, it seems to me, have to be discussed on this sort of level, even though it's not easy to package them for popular consumption - which is why TV sound-bite debate is so inadequate.

This morning Jane rang the wheelchair service about my manual chair. Its footplates keep falling down, which is a real nuisance when I'm trying to get into it, and its handgrips keep slipping off, which means Jane is in danger of losing me going downhill. There used to be a nice local firm, Keeps, which looked after the wheelchairs in Oxfordshire; but last year the Health Trust gave the contract to a London-based firm. Anyway, they were helpful when Jane rang, UNTIL she asked could they give us some idea of the time they might come tomorrow, because it helps plan the day. 'Oh yes, madam, anytime between 8 .30 and 5 pm.' Jane laughed. 'Thank you; most helpful!' It's not often, in our experience, that the NHS fails to live up to the Service part of its name, but this was one occasion.


  1. Hi Michael,
    Did you mean that Michael Sandel is the person upon whom Mr Burns is based, or just that he looks like him? I agree with teh secind statement but woul dbe intrigued if the first were true also!
    BTW have you seen this?

  2. Hi Tim

    Apparently it's true. His lectures at Harvard are incredibly popular and among his students were Matt Groenig and a lot of the other Simpson creators, and Charles Montgomery Burns is their ironic tribute to the great man himself.

    I hadn't seen that blog, but isn't it an acute observation?