A runaway train is racing toward five men who are tied to the track. Unless the train is stopped, it will inevitably kill all five men. You are standing on a footbridge looking down on the unfolding disaster. However, a fat man, a stranger, is standing next to you: if you push him off the bridge, he will topple onto the line and, although he will die, his chunky body will stop the train, saving five lives. Would you kill the fat man?
The question may seem bizarre. But it’s one variation of a puzzle that has baffled moral philosophers for almost half a century and that more recently has come to preoccupy neuroscientists, psychologists, and other thinkers as well. In this book, David Edmonds, coauthor of the best-selling Wittgenstein’s Poker, tells the riveting story of why and how philosophers have struggled with this ethical dilemma, sometimes called the trolley problem. In the process, he provides an entertaining and informative tour through the history of moral philosophy. Most people feel it’s wrong to kill the fat man. But why? After all, in taking one life you could save five. As Edmonds shows, answering the question is far more complex–and important–than it first appears. In fact, how we answer it tells us a great deal about right and wrong.
David Edmonds is the author, with John Eidinow, of the best-selling Wittgenstein’s Poker, as well as Rousseau’s Dogand Bobby Fischer Goes to War. The cofounder of the popular Philosophy Bites podcast series, Edmonds is a senior research associate at the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a multi-award-winning radio feature maker at the BBC. He holds a PhD in philosophy.
A forty-year tightening of funding for scientific research has meant that resources are increasingly directed toward applied or practical outcomes, with the intent of creating products of immediate value. In such a scenario, it makes sense to focus on the most identifiable and urgent problems, right? Actually, it doesn’t. In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips.
This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director, in which he shows that Flexner’s defense of the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” may be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Dijkgraaf describes how basic research has led to major transformations in the past century and explains why it is an essential precondition of innovation and the first step in social and cultural change. He makes the case that society can achieve deeper understanding and practical progress today and tomorrow only by truly valuing and substantially funding the curiosity-driven “pursuit of useless knowledge” in both the sciences and the humanities.
Abraham Flexner (1866–1959) was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the world’s leading institutions for basic research in the sciences and humanities. Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist who specializes in string theory, is director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. A distinguished public policy adviser and passionate advocate for science and the arts, he is also the cochair of the InterAcademy Council, a global alliance of science academies, and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
From Socrates to Thoreau, most philosophers, moralists, and religious leaders have seen frugality as a virtue and have associated simple living with wisdom, integrity, and happiness. But why? And are they right? Is a taste for luxury fundamentally misguided? If one has the means to be a spendthrift, is it foolish or reprehensible to be extravagant?
In this book, Emrys Westacott examines why, for more than two millennia, so many philosophers and people with a reputation for wisdom have been advocating frugality and simple living as the key to the good life. He also looks at why most people have ignored them, but argues that, in a world facing environmental crisis, it may finally be time to listen to the advocates of a simpler way of life.
The Wisdom of Frugality explores what simplicity means, why it’s supposed to make us better and happier, and why, despite its benefits, it has always been such a hard sell. The book looks not only at the arguments in favor of living frugally and simply, but also at the case that can be made for luxury and extravagance, including the idea that modern economies require lots of getting and spending.
A philosophically informed reflection rather than a polemic, The Wisdom of Frugality ultimately argues that we will be better off—as individuals and as a society—if we move away from the materialistic individualism that currently rules.
Emrys Westacott is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and the author of The Virtues of Our Vices . His work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine, Philosophy Now, and many other publications.