October 17, 1996
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  Let's Agree to Disagree, Philosopher Stuart Hampshire To Argue in Tanner Lecture

By Ken Gewertz

Gazette Staff

Sex, politics, and religion are the three topics that dinner party guests are counseled to avoid if their aim is to skate safely over the thin ice of polite, conflict-free conversation.

Implicit in this advice is the recognition that people's views on these weighty matters tend to be diverse and irreconcilable. But to suggest that our society can never achieve consensus on substantial issues has often been rejected as subversive.

The proposition that consensus on substantial issues is impossible and, in fact, undesirable, will be the starting point for two lectures by the distinguished British philosopher Stuart Hampshire. Titled "Justice is Conflict: The Soul and the State," the lectures will be delivered Oct. 30 and 31, followed by a discussion seminar Nov. 1. The talks will be presented as this year's Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

"The popular philosophy is that we must aim at consensus, and that life will become intolerable if we don't achieve it," Hampshire said in a recent phone interview. "But that seems to me to be a myth. I believe that life would become intolerable if we did achieve it."

Instead of consensus, Hampshire believes that society's aim should be to perfect the institutions that arbitrate between opposing groups and allow them to achieve some sort of compromise. Hampshire identifies this tension between irreconcilable opposites as the essence of justice, hence the title of his lectures, "Justice is Conflict," a quotation from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

Hampshire said that the job of perfecting the social institutions that mediate between contending parties is not his area of expertise but that of specialists in jurisprudence. These institutions vary from society to society, but ideally they all have, or should have, one thing in common -- provisions that ensure that all sides of the dispute are heard.

"The rules that govern these institutions should eliminate the degree of bias that makes it difficult for unpopular points of view to get a fair hearing. The institutions must prevent the monied party, the powerful, from dominating the scene and squashing minorities, which they have a strong interest in doing," Hampshire said.

In his first lecture, titled "The Necessity of Conflict," Hampshire will discuss the basic principle of justice as conflict, developing parallels between the process within the soul of the individual and its occurrence in the state.

In his second lecture, "Adversaries, Contests, and the Idea of Fairness," Hampshire will talk about how the principle of justice is expressed in particular social contexts. Both lectures will take place in Lowell Lecture Hall at 5 p.m. They are free and open to the public.

On Friday, Nov. 1, a seminar will be held to discuss the ideas presented in Hampshire's lectures. The seminar will take place from 10 a.m. to noon at the Center for European Studies.

Stuart Hampshire was educated at Oxford University and was a tutor and lecturer in philosophy at Oxford and at University College, London, where he became Grote Professor in 1959. In 1963 he went to Princeton University and in 1964 became chairman of the philosophy department. In 1970 he was elected Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and from 1984 to 1990 he was professor of philosophy at Stanford University.

His principal publications are Spinoza (1951), Thought and Action (1959), Modern Writers and Other Essays (1969), Freedom of Mind and Other Essays (1972), Morality and Conflict (1983), and Innocence and Experience (1989).

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values is a nonprofit corporation administered at the University of Utah. It is funded by an endowment and other gifts received by the University of Utah from Obert Clark Tanner and Grace Adams Tanner.

At the request of a founding trustee of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, these lectures are dedicated to the memory of Clarence Irving Lewis '06, PhD '10, who served on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1920 to 1953.

Administered by the Office of the President, the series is designed to advance scholarly and scientific learning in the field of human values, and embraces the entire range of moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual values, both individual and social.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College