Welcome to the moral minefield

6th March 1998 at 00:00
More than 200 mixed sixth-year pupils are asked to imagine that they are female. (This will be easier for the girls, says the speaker.) They are then to imagine that they are being propositioned by a smelly, fat-bellied old man who wants sex in return for pound;1 million which he will donate to their favourite charity. How many would have sex?

No hands go up. Each "female" is then asked to think for 30 seconds about a child they love. They are then told that the child has an incurable illness which will mean a painful death. Is there nothing can be done? Well, (says the doctor) there is one possible treatment but it costs pound;1 million . . .

Now, we return to the smelly, fat-bellied old man. In these circumstances how many would submit to sex? A forest of hands, the vast majority, shoots up. Think of what pound;1 million of aid could do in Rwanda, says the speaker, damning the inconsistency, not to say hypocrisy, of the majority. Welcome to the moral minefield.

The speaker is Peter Vardy, of Heythrop College, University of London. The occasion is the annual conference on philosophy of religion and ethics hosted by Hutcheson's Grammar School, Glasgow, which has drawn sixth-year pupils from as far away as Aberdeen and the Borders. With new courses in philosophy and religious studies for Higher Still on the horizon the event is growing in popularity.

Dr Vardy cajoles his young audience. He teases them, makes them laugh, pulls them up short. He makes them think.

Author of 10 books including the Puzzle series on God, evil, ethics, the Gospels and sex which are aimed at pre-university students and which have sold some 4,000 copies (a best-seller in the philosophy and theology stakes), Dr Vardy guides his audience through the writings and dilemmas of Job, Augustine and Aquinas as he asks us to confront "Innocent suffering and the problem of evil". We stand at the lime-pit in Auschwitz, the brothers Karamazov by our sides, and with the words of one camp survivor ringing in our ears: "From now on theology can only be taken seriously if it is done so in the face of burning children."

Dr Vardy says: "Philosophy is too important to be left to the universities. Socrates did philosophy with ordinary people. It teaches you to analyse and think for yourself. My passion is to get youngsters to think for themselves and to realise that they matter."

He attends some 30 similar school conferences around Britain every year, though the Hutcheson's conference, now in its fourth year, is the only one so far in Scotland. Its organiser, Jeremy Hall, a teacher of philosophy and religious studies at the school, argues that "there is a huge amount of interest from senior pupils who are serious about the meaning and purpose of life. Philosophy can help them in day-to-day life to work out, for example, what their priorities are or should be. We deal a lot in moral issues as this seems to matter to pupils."

Dr Vardy says: "There has been a tremendous growth in interest in the philosophy of ethics especially. I think it is partly to do with the fact that in this secular day and age philosophy helps you to ask the right questions rather than, like the old catechism approach, trying to give you simple answers. It covers things like genetic engineering, business ethics and sexual morality. Philosophy raises questions with the pupils about what sort of persons they are going to become."

Pupils' comments on the morning session varied from "useful", "makes you think" and "keeps you on your toes" to compliments on Dr Vardy's style and sense of humour.

Information on the annual conference can be obtained from Jeremy Hall at Hutcheson's Grammar School (0141 423 2933). Mr Hall also co-edits Dialogue, a journal for religious studies and philosophy aimed at pre-university students which is subscribed to by more than 800 schools.

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