Students on PKP normally take three academic courses during the programme, but it is also possible to do an independent supervision in place of one of the three courses. The supervision is a wonderful opportunity to research a topic in depth and to be guided in this work by an expert in Cambridge. Kaden, a Philosophy major at the University of Hong Kong, had the following to say about his supervision experience during PKP 2016.
I decided to do a supervision because I am interested in pursuing postgraduate study in the future, possibly in the UK and I wanted to see what it was like to complete an independent research on philosophy. I picked the topic because I am interested in the problem of poverty (in Hong Kong I co-founded Effective-Altruism Hong Kong to discuss how to create a bigger social impact). Prior to coming to Cambridge, I had read some of Peter Singer’s work and I had found it so inspiring. I wanted to look into the deeper theories and find out if they’re really coherent.
Peter Singer is a utilitarian so his focus is on creating better consequences for the world but he knows that not everyone endorses this theory so he proposes an alternate way of looking at the problem of poverty that he thinks most people would be able to agree with and I found that approach quite interesting. I wanted to see if he could actually convince people to contribute a lot to tackling global poverty without using a consequentialist theory.
I call it the ‘principle of beneficence’ although he doesn’t really phrase it that way, the idea being that if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. He takes this as self-evident and illustrates it by saying that as you walk past a pond and see a child drowning, he thinks that everybody can agree that we ought to do something to help the child. In helping the child, we may damage our clothes but that is ultimately not a cost compared to a child’s life. Singer thinks that this intuition can be shared by people from different theories. He thinks that this can create a moral obligation in all people even without them agreeing to the same principle.
I looked into a singular objection, that although many people can agree with this theory and find it intuitive, it leads into a very controversial consequence that suggests Singer’s theory advocates we need to donate a lot of time and money to help the poor which many people believe leads to a very demanding conclusion. Many do not think that ethics should be so demanding so they look for a more moderate theory.
Originally this was the debate that I wanted to look at but Dr Freeman encouraged me to challenge different premises of the argument. To start with I have been looking at why poverty is bad and why we should care about it. From there I also examined other approaches then to see whether they could work together with Singer’s Principle. For instance, some people think that we should help the global poor not out of sympathy or beneficence but because of the global order and for political reasons. People often thing that global poverty is a political problem not a moral one so I have addressed that aspect of this problem to see if this approach and Singer’s approach complement one another or not. Thus it became a work on the broader perspective.
At first I found the need to keep rethinking my work very challenging but now I see that it is a better way to look at the problem and actually easier. I know that a lot of people doing the supervision option on PKP felt that in the first few weeks, it was very strange to be so challenged by your professor on your thoughts and work but by the end, you get into the habit of it and you start seeing your work improve.
“Doing a supervision is a really rewarding although challenging experience.”