Thursday, 18 February 2010

Southampton city council meeting

When Brian asked us to go to a council meeting last Friday, the first thought that went through my mind was: "Obviously, it couldn't go on like that... now they want us to do boring stuff...". Then I just dreaded the meeting until I managed to convince Sebastian to go with me - so that I could ask him in case I missed or misunderstood something.

We attended the Southampton City Council meeting, whose title was "Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee". In some respects, the meeting wasn't like I had expected: I thought we would be totally ignored by the councillors, told to sit in a corner and to keep our mouths shut. After we sat down on the very comfortable leather armchairs, to my great surprise, one of the councillors got up to give us the agenda and to explain what would be discussed during the meeting. I was really surprised by the warm and friendly atmosphere that was in the Council Chamber. Don't get me wrong though; there were also some very grumpy-looking people, which I can also understand given the tone of the meeting.

I'm going to be honest with you, I'd say I understood 50% of the meeting, and the task was not made easier by the councillors I'm afraid. First there were those who couldn't articulate properly, which sounded like gobbledygook to me. Then, there were people who couldn't use their microphones. And the third difficulty was... the content of the discussion - yes, I do tend to lose my concentration quite quickly when I don't understand and/or I'm not interested.

If I understood correctly, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss or even challenge some decisions that were recently made by the Council. Councillors were asked if they had any concerns or propositions to share with others, and those actually covered a wide range of subjects: trade, traffic regulation, how to encourage/help new businesses to grow etc. They also discussed criminality and drink related problems. To me, it sounded more like they were actually moaning about it more than really trying to solve the problems.

The positive thing I got out of this meeting is that life's too short! Make the most of it (and don't waste it in a Council Chamber).

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Summum Bonum or Highest Good

Our first History and Context of Journalism lecture of the term reminded me of a philosophy class I had a couple of years ago. To be honest, I actually never heard of Utilitarianism before reading Russell's chapter about Bentham, and after reading it, my conclusion was that Bentham's philosophy was not totally new.

Since Antiquity, philosophers are seeking a way to happiness or what they use to call in Latin " Summum Bonum" which means the Highest Good. In Greece, there were two philosophical schools who both claimed they knew how to achieve happiness and the Highest Good; Stoicism and Epicureanism (300 B-D). Both schools were looking for ataraxia, which is a state of the mind where men have achieved wisdom and inner peace. According to Epicureanism, this is the definition of happiness. Contrary to many beliefs, Epicureans were not people who used to eat all day and have sex all night. They were looking for "simple" pleasures and reachable desires. They condemned all kinds of impossible desires which could only bring pain. They also praised morality and virtue, which they believed were essential to achieve ataraxia.

The Stoic school was the opponent of Epicureanism, although it seek the same result: ataraxia. Stoicists only believed in virtue to achieve the Highest Good. They preferred a life without passion, without desires, which only bring pain and unhappiness according to them. Pleasure is ephemeral, therefore it cannot contribute to happiness and the Highest Good since they're supposed to last forever. Virtue is the only path to ataraxia.

Much later, in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant came up with another theory on how to attain the Summum Bonum: men can only act morally if they are driven by the idea that God exists and that there's a life after death. Therefore, the thought of being judged after death by God "forces" them to behave properly. Thus, they will achieve the Highest Good in Heaven.

At the end of the 18th century, Bentham created the theory of Utilitarianism: to achieve the Highest Good, men have to behave morally, but they also have to think of their actions' consequences. The action has to benefit as many people as possible. If the action does more harm than good, therefore it's not moral. The "innovation" in Bentham's theory is that it's no longer focused on one single human being: he wants the society to attain the Highest Good. Providing that most people act in a way that won't harm other people, society will probably reach a higher level of happiness. However, some might dispute that this theory could be valid. It could be argued that it's in human nature to be selfish and to seek its own benefit before others'.