Ethics Untangled

Since lockdown, Leeds’ healthy culture of debate has extended online. To add to the likes of the Working Hours and Light on Leeds podcasts, the Inter-Disciplinary Ethic Applied (IDEA) centre of the University of Leeds has recently started its own podcast, Ethics Untangled. I caught up with IDEA’s Dr Jim Baxter to find out more about it.

JIM, can you tell us why IDEA started a podcast?

We wanted to share some of the research which is happening, both within IDEA and among like-minded academics elsewhere. I’ve always thought it’s an enormous privilege to have a job where you’re able to think as carefully as possible about the ethical issues which concern everyone. The aim of Ethics Untangled is to include as many people as we can in that conversation.

It’s not that I think philosophers have all the answers to these things, but I do think we can add a fresh perspective and prompt people to think differently. At IDEA we’ve always tried to face outwards from academia as much as we can, as well as contributing to the debate among academic philosophers. Ethics Untangled is the latest way we’re doing that.

How does it work, who have you had on and what issues have you explored?

Every episode, I interview someone who has been working on a topic in practical ethics. Interviews are typically around 45 minutes – enough time to get a bit of a discussion going rather than just covering the bullet points, but not long enough to outstay our welcome in your podcast feed. We try to make the conversations as accessible as possible and avoid jargon.

We’ve just released our first episode, which features a philosopher based at Durham called Joe Saunders. We talk about how we should behave online. What are the pitfalls that people can fall into on social media – virtue-signalling, moral grandstanding, echo-chambers and so on.

By the way, I’ve recently learned the term ‘nut-picking’ to refer to that phenomenon whereby your friends on social media will show you the most idiotic, morally egregious example of an opposing view that they can find, so that you can join them in mocking the other tribe. I shared it with Joe but I don’t think he liked it very much. Seems like a useful term to me though!

Anyway, we also talked about how people can avoid these pitfalls, but also whether we’re right to worry about them so much, and whether there’s a danger of preventing people from bringing about positive social change by insisting too much on things like civility.

What do you have coming up, who would you like on and what issues would you like to explore?

The next eleven episodes are already recorded. We’ve got episodes coming up on whether humans and robots can be friends, whether monogamous or other forms of romantic relationship are morally preferable, whether carbon rationing would be a good way of responding to climate change, what kinds of technique it’s morally permissible to use in persuasive speech, what is sexualisation and why is it bad…

There are a few high-profile philosophers who I’d like to get on eventually. Mostly though I just want it to be as wide-ranging as possible, and to explore issues which a lot of people are interested in or concerned about. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of conspiracy theories recently, which I think is a fascinating area, so it would be good to get someone on to talk about that.

Do you intend to have any live podcast event with an audience?

I’d love to do that! No specific plans, but we have talked about the possibility, so watch this space…

Visit the Ethics Untangled Podcast here

…or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon public discussion forum, and will bang on to anyone who’ll listen that Leeds is a ‘city of debate’.