George Berkeley – Dysart Castle

Ireland could make an awful lot more of its rich philosophical heritage. Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, Co Kilkenny is the childhood home of George Berkeley (1685-1753). Today it’s a ruin, and in danger of collapse, according to conservationists. It is also difficult for any member of the public to see. The Nore Valley Walk from Thomastown to Inistioge takes you close by the castle but it wasn’t visible from the path due to the thick forest of trees bordering it. (One is tempted to re-frame his famous question: If a castle falls in the woods, and no one sees it, did it happen?)

Another site associated with Berkeley is St Paul’s Church on North King Street in Dublin where the philosopher was consecrated as bishop of Cloyne in 1734. Ken McCue, a heritage campaigner in north Dublin city who works with Sport Against Racism Ireland, has been lobbying for years for a plaque to be erected on the church, which now operates as an enterprise centre.

Since learning that Berkeley owned slaves while on missionary work in America, McCue is “in two minds” as to whether to keep pushing for the plaque but, having grown up in a Church of Ireland family in a predominately Catholic Republic he is conscious of the way sectarianism saw certain figures written out of Irish history. Noting how Protestant culture became less visible in inner city Dublin in his own lifetime, he says: “I used to call it a bloodless genocide.”

For more sites of philosophical interest in Ireland see: Such sites of interest are being mapped by at

Euro 2020: Philosophical fandom

Schadenfreude is getting pleasure at the misfortune of others. The Buddhist concept of mudita, or “empathetic joy”, is “sharing in the happiness of others”. No prizes for guessing which feeling comes more naturally to humans.

A reflection on England’s defeat to Italy in the the Euro 2020 finals:

Should admission to college be decided by lottery, not points?

It’s not every day you get to talk to a “rock star philosopher”! I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Michael Sandel about his latest book The Tyranny of Merit:

The same issue is explored further with Carl Cullinane, head of research and policy at the UK Sutton Trust, Dr Peter Stone at Trinity College Dublin and Shane Bergin at UCD, in the context of the Leaving Cert:

Patrick Pearse, whose 1912 essay The Murder Machine addressed the topic of educating Irish schoolchildren. Statue on the grounds of St Enda’s, Rathfarnham, Dublin.

An earlier interview with Peter Stone on the same topic (without the paywall) can be found here:

Five lessons of Stoicism: What I learned from living for a week as a Stoic

I took part in this year’s Stoic Week – getting up at sunrise like Marcus Aurelius who advised: “Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad.”

Sandymount strand at sunrise.

A survey taken before the week and repeated after showed my life satisfaction rose by 42 per cent and flourishing by 11 per cent as positive feelings, as recorded by the questionnaire, conquered negative ones. I wrote about the experience here:

Have humans a ‘belief instinct’?

Even hardened atheists find it difficult to shake off the idea that “things happen for a reason”, according to research by the cross-country social science team Understanding Unbelief.

It found that, while atheists and less so agnostics “exhibit lower levels of supernatural belief than do the wider populations”, a minority of both atheists and agnostics come across as “thoroughgoing naturalists”.

American atheists are least likely to believe in supernatural forces, the report says, but only a third entirely reject belief in the afterlife, karma or the idea that significant events are “meant to be”.

I wrote about the issue against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis here

The rise of utilitarianism: Why we should be worried

The rise of utilitarianism can be seen in studies of how people respond to the trolley problem.

The moral conundrum designed in 1967 by the English philosopher Philippa Foot presents three scenarios and asks whether one is better than the next.

In the first, “switch” scenario, an empty boxcar is heading towards five workers on the main track and will kill them all unless you pull a switch diverting it onto a side track where one person will be killed.

In the second, “loop” scenario, you can divert the trolley onto a side track that bends back onto the main track. It means killing one person in the knowledge that the collision will bring the trolley to a halt, preventing further casualties on the main line.

In the third, “footbridge” scenario you can stop the train killing the five workers only by pushing a man off a bridge above the track into the train’s path, bringing it to a halt.

Trolley problem

Image: PNAS

In each situation, one person gets killed to save five but with the loop, and more so, footbridge options the manner of the sacrifice is perceived as more troubling.

In initial surveys, only about 10 per cent of people would agree to push the stranger off the bridge when presented with the choice. Significantly, that 10 per cent scored high on a measure of psychopathic personality traits, such as lack of empathy, glibness and impulsivity.

However, a 2017 trolleyology study – yes, it has now become an entire sub-discipline – examined surveys over several decades and it discovered the endorsement rate for “footbridge” has been slowly creeping up. This “begins with individuals born approximately in the 1960s, and accelerates among birth cohorts after 1990”, the US and Brazilian research team writes.

“Recent cohorts (often referred to as millennials) are significantly more likely to support utilitarian sacrifice than their predecessors (especially baby boomers, born before 1970) – a divide which may contribute to patent disagreement between younger and older adults in real-word debates about ethics and policy.”

A major study published in February, analysing the responses of 70,000 participants in 42 countries to the trolley problem, shows just how far things have shifted. Across all countries, the average endorsement rate for the footbridge sacrifice was 51 per cent. It was higher in most western countries (61 per cent in the US; 56 per cent in Ireland).

Should we be worried? Yes, I think we should. Bernard Williams’ words come to mind: “If utilitarianism is true . . . then it is better that people should not believe in utilitarianism.”

For more see here from The Irish Times: