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Interview with Nigel Warburton

Updated Wednesday, 13th February 2008

What was it like interviewing Sandel and Singer? What would Socrates make of podcasting? Derek Matravers caught up with Nigel Warburton and asked him about the making of Ethics Bites.

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Copyright The Open University


Derek Matravers: Hi, I’m Derek Matravers from the Open University, and I’m here today talking to my colleague, Nigel Warburton, who’s the presenter of the Podcast series, Ethics Bites. Nigel, hello. First tell us how the series came about.

Nigel Warburton: Well, actually it was a phone call from my friend, David Edmonds, who had this brilliant idea to do a series of podcasts called Philosophy Bites, which were interviews with philosophers of all types, not just ethicists. That went very well and as a result of that we’ve approached the Open University with the idea to take on a specific focus on ethics, because it lined up with many of the interests of the Ethics Centre at the Open University and the new course, Ethics in Real Life.

Derek: Once you’d been commissioned to do the series, was it difficult thinking about topics or people to speak to? How did you decide about that?

Nigel: Well, we had a wish list and we got just about all the people on the wish list. Basically, what we did was we picked either a topic and thought of who would be the best person more or less in the world we could ask about it, or we picked a person we thought what would they be good at.

Derek: You’ve got some pretty impressive philosophers. You’ve got people like Peter Singer and Mary Warnock, Scanlon. Were you intimidated? I know that you’re not a very intimidated person, but were you intimidated at having to speak to them?

Nigel: It’s impressive to meet or to talk to some of those people, and sometimes they think incredibly quickly, so I have to think quite quickly to come back with a question. Well, it was great to meet somebody like Mary Warnock, who has actually contributed to legislation in the area that she was talking about. You know, she’s talking about fertility, the right to have children and so on. So the work that she’s done on committees there have had a direct impact on what actually happens in government there.

Peter Singer, I didn’t do that face-to-face, but it was great to talk to him. I mean he, for me, is one of the major philosophers alive now. He almost single-handedly invented the animal rights movement in the Seventies. Obviously there was something going on before, but by his clear thinking there and by his consistency, he actually invigorated what was going on there and started a massive worldwide movement. He’s written in lots of other areas as well but it was really great to get a chance to talk to him.

Derek: One philosopher that I particularly admire is Michael Sandel, so I was quite envious of you going to meet him, so what was that like?

Nigel: Well it was quite tense actually because we were waiting to interview him just before he was going to do a radio interview, and it was pouring with rain and he was really late, through no fault of his own. We thought that the time we had allowed was narrowing down. We thought we were never going to get this done neatly in that time. He was an absolute professional and charming. We’d both read his book – David and I – and we were eager to ask some questions.

Flattered by that, he gave superb answers to the questions. He was an example of a philosopher with whom I didn’t agree, but I felt that the way he expressed his ideas was so interesting that it actually made me think very hard about why I didn’t agree. He seemed to be happier talking to us actually as we had read his book rather than going onto the interview afterwards which was with somebody who had no idea about philosophy.

Derek: I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve listened to. I mean one of things that surprises me about them is, and I have known you for twenty years, I guess, and I know that you have very strong opinions on some of these things, and one of the things that surprised me most is that you manage to restrain yourself. Didn’t you find yourself wanting to disagree with them and give your own views?

Nigel: Well, think, in that situation, if you’re talking to somebody who’s a major contributor to the area, part of my job is to actually elicit their views. But I did want to engage with them. I do actually ask them questions that do sometimes make them think, and I am not just prodding them and letting them go and give a mini lecture, because part of the point of this is you get a dialogue. It’s not just one way. And I get the chance to get them to clarify things or I summarise something and see if they agree with the summary and sometimes they don’t.

Derek: Well let’s just take the opportunity to ask you about some of your views. So, for example, I know that you interviewed Brenda Almond about the family. I just wondered whether you had an opinion about the state of the family in contemporary Britain.

Nigel: I think it’s very difficult to generalise about the family, particularly when it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the family means. I felt that she was perhaps too conservative in some of her views about what the family could be, and perhaps unfair about the rights and possibilities of, say, gay couples bringing up children or single parent families. She wasn’t punitive about them but she was arguing from empirical data about what seems to work best for children to what ought to be the case. She didn’t seem to take into account so much the notion that adults could have rights in relation to their own fertility, their own desires to bring up children. It was all focused on the child.

Derek: And another one that would probably spark a bit of debate is talking to Roger Scruton about sex; another philosopher who’s known for his conservative views. Did you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with him?

Nigel: Both. I think he had some very conservative views about homosexuality. He’s got some very interesting things to say about intentionality, the nature of sexual desire, the way that reciprocity’s at the heart of normal sexual interaction, but at the same time the conclusions that he wanted to draw from that seemed to be anti the permissive society. His ideal, again, was very clearly that of a heterosexual, monogamous couple. And I think there’s scope for lots of different ways of living, and for some people that’s not an option anyway.

Derek: If we move away from discussing the content of the podcast and just think about the form, you mentioned that one advantages is that you can listen to podcasts again. But is there anything else about podcasts that you think make them particularly suitable for philosophy?

Nigel: Well if you think about Socrates, he famously refused to write anything down. He thought philosophy should be alive. There are great advantages when you can ask a philosopher to clarify what they mean to put difficult cases to them, see how they respond. And there’s something that part of your lived existence rather than a dry academic subject that you study on the page. And so, for me, getting to talk to living philosophers, ask them difficult or easy questions, hear what they have to say, get a sense of the style, because a thinker is fantastic, and ultimately what you’re hearing, as a listener, is the energy or not in their voices. You can actually pick up on some of things that they really care about. You can feel how engaged they are with the subject they’re discussing. And for me the really enlightening thing has been how many of these philosophers devote their lives to things which really, really matter to them, particularly the area of ethics.

To go back to the example of Peter Singer, he really lives his philosophy. He’s like a classical philosopher. He used the analogy of chess. He says as a child he used to, and as an adolescent he used to love solving chess problems. Some people approach philosophy like a series of chess problems, but he doesn’t. He thinks, if you get a conclusion, you should live it; it’s actually part of what you are.

Derek: You’ve done a lot of podcasts. You’ve interviewed a lot of philosophers. Has the experience of doing that actually fed back into your day job, as it were, your philosophical research?

Nigel: I have interviewed over forty philosophers now for various things and that’s like having a series of seminars, a series of tutorials, with the best thinkers in the world in many cases, and that can’t but rub off on you in some way. Maybe it’s produced a kind of inertia in me that I couldn’t hope to achieve some of the quick thinking that I’ve witnessed and some of the subtlety of thought. But it’s inspiring as well because when somebody treats you seriously and you can engage them in arguments on the topic that they know most about and still feel that you’re part of that debate, I mean that’s great for me.

Derek: Nigel, you’re just one half of the Ethic Bites team, and unfortunately David Edmonds couldn’t be with us today, so tell us a little about him.

Nigel: Well I actually first got to know David in a rather odd way. I was going to write a book about the argument between Rousseau and Hume, which I never did, and I did a certain amount of research on it. I did publish a little article. David contacted me and said, “Look, I’ve got this great idea for a book about the argument between Hume and Rousseau and wonder if you could have a chat with me about it”. He didn’t know that I was planning, I’d been planning to write that book and I decided to hand on my notes and research to him at that point because I knew I’d never get around to writing the book. And he’d already written, co-written this excellent book called Wittgenstein’s Poker which was a massive best seller.

He’s got a PhD in Philosophy from the Open University, but he’s also, in his day job, he’s now a radio producer. So he’s the ideal person for me to pair up with to do podcasting, because he’s got both the technical expertise but also the philosophical knowledge and interest.

Derek: And if there was one thing which you hoped that listeners to these series of podcasts would take away with them, what would that be?

Nigel: I suppose that philosophy is a living subject. It’s not a dead museum of ideas. These are questions that matter. We’ve got a whole range of questions from the nature of the environment and what we ought to do about it, through what the family is. They’re important questions about the things that matter most to everybody.

Derek: If I thought about what I’d want people to take away, it would be all that and also just the thought that it’s possible. What philosophy can show you is that it’s possible to think systematically about a difficult problem that will actually leave you at a better position to solve the problem. So philosophy can just help you in your actions, help you in your everyday life.

Nigel: Well I suppose the other thing is, we’ve already touched on this, I didn’t agree with everybody I interviewed, and I don’t suppose every listener will agree with the content of most of these programmes, but it’s the first stage of thinking when you disagree. You’re actually actively fired up to think critically about the subject.

Derek: Well, thank you very much for talking to us. And don’t forget if you want to listen to the series of podcasts, you can find them here on

Editor's note:, referenced in this interview, merged with OpenLearn in 2011.

Learn more about Nigel on our Meet the presenters page.





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