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Trains of thought: Sarah

Tetralogue is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation between four people to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Sarah’s perspective.

Sarah is busy with a scientific solution to every problem, and quite willing to change her mind. She clashes violently with Roxanna, and finds Zac and Bob frustrating, but is willing to keep talking until one side is proven right (preferably hers).

Sarah: Did you see that woman? The one in lurid pink. She slapped her little boy, quite hard, just because he was crying. I’ve a good mind to report her. Look! She’s done it again.

Bob: My mum often slapped me, when I got too much for her. It never did me any harm. I preferred being slapped to when she was angry with me in a cold, silent way.

Zac: Times have changed, Bob.

Sarah: It’s outrageous to use violence on a child. The social services should intervene.

Bob: And take her son into care?

Sarah: If necessary.

Bob: That would be much worse for him than being looked after by his own mum and getting a few slaps.

Sarah: How can you be so complacent, Bob? That child is being physically and psychologically hurt in front our eyes.

Bob: He looks happy enough now, playing.

Sarah: You have no idea of the long-term effects. That child may be damaged for life.

Bob: Like me?

Sarah: You might not have needed to take refuge in absurd superstitions if your mother hadn’t abused you.

Bob: It wasn’t abuse, just slapping.

Sarah: Slapping is abuse, Bob. If I slapped you right now, which I almost feel like doing just to make you see sense, I could be prosecuted for assault. Defenceless children deserve to be protected at least as much as adults are by law, especially when their attackers are the very people who are sup­posed to be protecting them.

Bob: You keep saying we must be scientific about every­thing. What’s the scientific evidence for your ideas about slapping, then?

Sarah: I’m sure there’s plenty of statistical evidence for the damaging long-term effects of hitting children.

Bob: You mean you don’t know of any, you’re just sure there is some. Anyway, parents have the right to bring up their children as they see fit. They know best what their children need.

Sarah: Not always. That woman clearly doesn’t. Some parents kill their own children. Is that knowing best what they need?

Bob: Killing a child isn’t bringing it up. Anyway, I wasn’t talking about mad parents. I meant normal par­ents. That woman down the carriage isn’t mad, just tired and fed up, with a whining brat to look after all the time. Normal parents have the right to bring up their children as they see fit.

Sarah: Even if their methods are scientifically proven to harm children?

Bob: It’s not some scientist’s right to decide how that boy should be looked after. It’s his mum’s right. Whether she brings him up on scientific advice is up to her. Sometimes a good old-fashioned cuff round the ear is just what a boy needs.

Sarah: I don’t believe she has any idea what the scientific advice is.

Bob: Well, go and tell her then, if you’re so worked up about it.

Sarah: I will do exactly that. Someone needs to take some action.

Zac: Are you sure that’s wise, Sarah? . . . Too late.

Bob: I didn’t think she’d take what I said seriously. She puts her money where her mouth is, our action woman Sarah. She’s talking to that woman now. It’s so noisy, I can’t hear what they’re saying. Can you, Zac?

Zac: No, I can’t. Bob, perhaps you should be more care­ful about provoking Sarah.

Bob: I know, she takes everything so seriously. I can’t quite see what’s happening. . . . Ah, she’s coming back. What did she say, Sarah?

Sarah: I could only make out half her words. Most of those were obscenities I’d rather not repeat.

Bob: Did her boy say anything?

Sarah: He started to cry again. Then she threatened to set the police on me, for upsetting him—I could make that much out. There was no point continuing.

Bob: There was no point starting.

Sarah: The whole incident simply confirms my suspicion. The child should be taken into care.

Bob: Is that what science tells you, or are you just cross with her for swearing at you?

Sarah: You’re right, I must be careful not to lose my objectivity. But I objected to her slapping him even before I went and talked to her.

Bob: She had a moral right to slap him, whatever the law says. None of your science can prove otherwise.

Sarah: It can prove the damaging long-term effects of parental violence on the health and happiness of children.

Bob: I’m talking about a mother’s right. She has the right to use her own judgement in bringing up her child.

Sarah: Not when her own judgement manifests so much ignorance and stupidity.

Bob: She had a right to slap him!

Sarah: You’re wrong, she had no right!

Zac: Bob and Sarah, this is where I came in. You’re deadlocked again.

Roxana: What does Sarah’s science say about moral rights?

Sarah: Well, ‘moral right’ isn’t a scientific term. You can’t measure moral rights. But you can measure health, and even happiness. It would be more scientific to talk about them.

Bob: Don’t change the subject. I’m talking about a mother’s moral rights.

Sarah: That sort of emotive language gets us nowhere. To make progress in discussing children’s upbringing, we need to start using more factual vocabulary.

Bob: It’s a fact that a mother has a moral right to slap her child.

Sarah: Moral rights aren’t facts, they are matters of opinion. Matters of fact are the sort of thing that can be measured scientifically.

Roxana: Once scientists have made all their measurements, how do they decide what ought to be done?

Sarah: They recommend the option that maximizes prob­able health and happiness.

Roxana: They assume the moral theory that we ought to maximize probable health and happiness?

Sarah: What’s the alternative?

Roxana: There are infinitely many.

Zac: Sarah, health and happiness are not the only things a moral theory might say you ought to maximize. Some people say you ought to maximize total pleasure minus total pain.

Have you got something you want to say to Sarah? Do you agree or disagree with her? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Sarah’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 27 March 2015 from 2-3 p.m. GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Sarah’s response!

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