I iz on Moral Maze today

June 1, 2011 • 6:38 am

I hadn’t heard of this show before, but then I’m rarely in Britain, and when I am I don’t have much time to listen to the radio.  That said, I have enjoyed BBC Radio 4, which I believe is the British equivalent of National Public Radio.  Today I’ll be on the Moral Maze broadcast at 2 pm Chicago time (8 pm GMT).  You can listen on the internet for free at this site.  Past shows seem to be archived as podcasts here.

I’m told that the broadcast, which lasts 45 minutes, will involve a panel of four debaters who chew over a single moral issue among themselves, and then question a number of “witnesses” who have already been interviewed and have known positions on the issue.  Today’s topic will be the relationship between science and morality, and I am one of the witnesses.  (The panel includes Kenan Malik and Claire Fox). Yesterday morning I was interviewed for a long time by a researcher, who fired questions at me about morality, concentrating heavily on Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape.  This was a way of vetting me for radio-worthiness—I think the panel also fires questions at the witnesses.

Judging by the rigor of the researcher’s questions, these people know what they’re about, so it should be an interesting show.

53 thoughts on “I iz on Moral Maze today

  1. As long as you don’t have Mad Melanie Phillips quizzing you. Daily Mail columnist, played a role in the whole MMR scandal, got ticked off by listeners last week for being aggressive and bullying with an interviewee.

      1. Matthew Taylor is Labour/radio royalty. Another example of how you get a lift up if you have famous parents.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. I will be tuned in. I used to listen to this prog religiously, but I had to give it up because of the high incidence of windy nutbags on the panel (such as Phillips)

    The witnesses are usually more interesting, better informed & more informative than the panel

    Here is a transcript of one of the broadcasts to give you an idea…

    1. Yes – Longley is affable enough for a religious person but he often does ‘Thought for the Day’ on the Today programme – which is probably the most annoying thing on the BBC.

  3. It’s not the best of radio 4; they like to have at least one panellist who is rude to the witnesses for the sake of “good listening”, so be warned! The witnesses tend to have polarised viewpoints, so it should be interesting to see who else is on: no doubt the church will be well-represented.

  4. Warning – it can get quite combative in the questioning but I am sure that you will be up to it! Kenan Malik has been critical of evolutionary psychology. I heard the trail this morning with David Aaronovitch
    & thought it sounds interesting. The point is that you are just a witness. They ask the team their views to start with, each one questions one of I think three witnesses or so, then they draw conclusions/argue it out. It gets repeated on Saturday evening.

  5. I’ll buy you a beer if you can sneak in a comment about talking animals in a magic garden with an angry giant, and lunch if you mention Jesus’s penchant for intestinal fondlitude!

    (In all seriousness, in a discussion on religion and morality, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to mention that the YHWH character did personally and with malice aforethought drown each and every kitten on the face of the Earth — and all the puppies, too, for that matter. At the other end of the book, Jesus has a choice of whether or not to order infinitely torture for the dearly departed, and he chooses to do so not merely for human-scale atrocities such as Hitler’s but also for “crimes” that civil society doesn’t even recognize as illegal. Infinite torture for marital infidelity — or even blasphemy? Really? This is Ultimate Morality™? Seriously?)



          1. Yikes! I like capsaicin, but I don’t think it belongs in beer.

            No, if I were to offer a local sample, it’d either be from Four Peaks (just up the road) or I’d commission something from an acquaintance who’s into homebrewing.



    1. the YHWH character did personally and with malice aforethought drown each and every kitten on the face of the Earth

      I often wonder what would have happen in theology if a super-supernatural being decided to play “tit for cat”, as it were, with that despicable YHWH.

      But apart from OT revenge fantasies, what about YHWH killing off humanity not once but twice? First run was bad, throw the lab animals (except a seed pair) on the fire, do over. Next run will be bad, throw the majority of lab animals on the fire.

  6. Thanks for the post. I followed the link to see a transcript and will read it. I’m going to try to listen in, I did find the BBC Website for it I think. Looks interesting.

    I was amused that one commentator said that they always have a least one jerk(my word) and two polorizing witnesses. Sounds like Hockey.

    I’ve been following Moral Theory for awhile and am amazed at what I have learned. I’m going to buy the book The Moral Landscape. Enclosed are some Moral Theory sites:

    Here is The MoralFoundations.org Site:


    John Haidt’s Morals lesson in video.


    New York Times article


    Take a test to find out your “Morals position”


    I just did a post on my blog SpiritualThemes about Moral Theory(What Liberals Need To Know). I published it May 22. Thanks.

  7. Clair Fox is associated with the magazine ‘Spiked’ who have run several nasty anti new atheist pieces in the past year or so. They are ex revolutionary marxists who tend to be contrarians these days.

    1. Come to think of it there is a definite left look to the panel. Often Michael Portillo is on the panel but not today.

      1. Portillo seems to be the exact opposite of Mad Mel Phillips.

        Phillips started off as a liberal left of centre journalist writing for The Observer. I did not always agree with her, but she often had something interesting to say. Then something happened, and she now writes for the Daily Mail and has become a right-wing Christian bigot who is never right about anything.

        Portillo started out as a right-wing Conservative MP, who when he lost his seat decided to do some soul-searching. As a result he has become a thoughtful political commentator, who often has something worthwhile to say even when I do not agree with him.

          1. That reminds me of Tacitus on Galba “He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.” True for many ex-politicians.

    1. You did fine but Claire ‘grrr’ Fox did not – they were asking peculiar things and what seems to me the visceral dislike of science she has came through clearly.

  8. I can’t figure out what in the world the rather annoying man (I’m not sure which panelist it was) who was questioning Jerry at the end was trying to say. That was very confusing, to say the least.

      1. Hang on – now I am not sure – he has the deeper voice. Aaronovitch is the presenter, Matthew Taylor – son of sociologist Laurie Taylor.

        1. I noticed that the Anglican priest they had on as a witness gave the answer that God does things because they are good rather than the traditional Christian answer – the William Lane Craig style answer that anything can be good or bad depending on the will of God.
          Later on in the debate the religious guy in the panel brought up the point that we must get our morality from religion or God.
          We are reduced to the classic question – where does God get his morality from?
          Jerry did fine in his section but the format, with a generally poor panel like the one on show, just doesn’t make for a compelling program. If the first interviewee and Jerry could have been given more time we would have had a much better show. As it was we had Clair Fox showing a rather typical UK lefty arts style anti-science bias in her questions (and an absolute refusal to countenance that she might have something to learn from the interviewees) as well as some rather middle of the road religion friendly panelists.

          1. I agree completely about Fox. Giles Fraser the Anglican
            is a modern clergyman along the lines of – it seems to me – Don Cupitt (he wrote lots of books) or the former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins. He does not seem to believe in heaven for example. Like Longley he does the absurd ‘Thought for the Day’. If you have RD’s Devil’s Disciple it has is his version of Thought for the Day that he once did on the radio.

      2. Clearly the people quizzing JC were the anti-science brigade. The idea of using slavery as an example from Claire Fox was a strange one to me. Kenan Malik & Matthew Taylor were much better I thought in their questioning.

        Tallis is doing the Hay Festival as JC did last year.

  9. I just listened to the program. I don’t think Jerry was introduced properly, at least I didn’t hear his book “Why Evolution is true” mentioned. Also the witness format is quite frustrating; I felt that there were subsequent occasions in the program where Jerry could have intervened or commented, but this was not possible because of the program format.

          1. 🙂

            I’d just thought that comments came through for me timed to my time zone…actually, I don’t look at the times much, but did today to try to figure out where post-debate comments began, only to find that they seemed to begin about 2 hours before the debate. Sigh.

            It probably is just me; but I sure haven’t reset any time fields, lately…

            –Diane, GMT-5

              1. Thank you. Enough things are these days that I don’t need any more!


  10. I thought you were the best part, Jerry, and you handled the opinionated but not terribly well-informed Claire Fox very well.

  11. I hadn’t listened to Moral Maze before, but was unimpressed with the format. It takes time to raise a point, then clarify any misunderstandings, then reach a conclusion, but the host and guests are too eager to interrupt and derail the line of argumentation. The result is an apparently fast-moving discussion that sounds terribly intellectual to a casual listener, but actually makes little substantial progress, and whose apparent outcome in the minds of most of the audience is likely to be driven by rhetorical point-scoring. The woman tonight was particularly culpable in that respect, jumping immediately on any sensible qualification or caveat offered by opponents, with some premature retort like “then why do you say science has anything to contribute”, as if she had scored a zinging intellectual point. I don’t know who she is, but I would guess she has more experience as a debater than a careful reasoner.

    I thought it particularly interesting that, when offering an off-the-cuff circumstance that would justify violence, she jumped to “if my sister were being raped.” There is a whole pile of evolutionarily-based reasoning behind that particular knee-jerk example, from her choice of crime to her choice of victim. For instance, evolutionary theory could help her understand why she apparently feels she would be more justified in defending a close relative than a stranger. If she paused to reflect, she would find it very difficult to offer a basis for the apparent moral distinction she was making. We understand that it reflects an unconscious inclusive fitness calculation so fundamental to human social structure that society recognizes and respects it implicitly and unquestioningly. By illuminating the deep-seated psychological basis for the kin/non-kin distinction, science provides a solid empirical foundation for a discussion of whether someone in the kin-based circumstance should be judged more or less culpable for her actions than someone in the non-kin scenario. Of course, we cannot give the answer, but without that understanding, I don’t think we’d even be in a competent position to pose the question. The question also touches on the absence of free will.

    These sorts of substantive points and reasoned rejoinders cannot be made in a program with this format, unless you’re exceptionally quick-thinking (Jerry, you’re absolved, as she didn’t make that interesting and revealing comment during your spot).

  12. dang. didn’t see this until now. I stream radio 4 frequently. I wish it were like NPR in that I wish NPR had radio plays and panel gardening shows and political panels all in an afternoon. I’ll look for the podcast tomorrow.

  13. BBC Radio 4 is vastly superior to National Public Radio. Quality, breadth of programming and news coverage are all better than that delivered by NPR.

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