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January news

kirk_s.jpgMy name is Kirk Surgener and I’m a teaching fellow in the Department of Philosophy, specialising in moral and political topics. My first interaction with philosophy came when an A-level teacher explained to me George Berkeley’s claim that there is no material world – all that exists are ideas in people’s minds. I felt sure there must be something wrong, but I found I couldn’t explain what. I studied philosophy to give me the skills to examine whether I have good reasons for the things I believe, or whether I should change my mind.

The reason why analytic philosophy fascinates me so much is that everything is up for grabs – in other disciplines you often reach a point where further questioning is frowned upon: there are certain assumptions that you just have to take for granted. Only in philosophy can we take a step back and reflect on those foundational assumptions.

The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars once remarked that “THE aim of philosophy… is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” By doing philosophy I get to contribute to that project of understanding how the world fits together. By studying analytic philosophy you will acquire skills that we can then apply to a huge range of issues: the nature of the world; our place in that world; how we should live our lives; how societies should be built and so on.

I’m most interested in seeing how we can make sense of the moral side of our lives. One module I’ve enjoyed teaching is the module Applied Ethics. There we ask how philosophy can help us resolve concrete, practical questions: Is having children permissible, and under what circumstances?; What should we do about climate change?; What’s wrong with evading tax? Teaching on this module is particularly enjoyable because we are dealing with ethical dilemmas we may actually face in our lives. By approaching them philosophically we can come to a more reasonable conclusion than relying on our gut reactions.
Recently in class we have been talking about the increasing role of technology in our lives. In particular we were worried about the consequences of automating work (e.g. self-driving cars and delivery trucks). On the one hand it looks as if automating work has a huge liberatory potential – we will no longer need to do sometimes unpleasant and difficult tasks – get a machine to do them instead! However, many of the students pointed out the ways in which work can be fulfilling and engaging. In order to balance these two concerns, one student argued, we’d need to reconsider many of our political institutions: how we distribute work and rewards needs to be rethought.