Philosopher Julian Baggini talks to Dionne Christian about moral dilemmas and exchanging ideas.

The original plan for my interview with British philosopher and journalist Julian Baggini was to throw him a "moral conundrum" and talk about the ways in which philosophy might be useful in approaching the issue.

But, still reeling from seeing the film Eye in the Sky - it stars the late, great Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren as career militarists who order a drone missile strike to eliminate a bunch of terrorists and then realise the "collateral damage" is likely to include a small girl - I decided my concerns were too first-world. Besides, the film left me feeling hard-hearted.

"Hard-hearted or clear-headed?" Baggini asked, posing a question of his own. "Part of the problem with trying to solve a 'moral dilemma' is that, of course, there's a calculating way of looking at it, but such dilemmas tend to be rooted in human sympathies and, given that, it's much harder to be dispassionate..."

And we were off: 37 minutes discussing, among other things, why philosophy is useful, what motivates him to write - his output is prodigious - and whether one needs a "grand plan" or if it's better to simply move purposefully forward. We more briefly talked about the future of journalism, food and eating, and the traffic in Bristol (congested, apparently). Even though it was a long-distance phone call - he was at home in Bristol - we did not mention the weather.


Baggini is an easy person to talk with, he laughs frequently and seems to have an insatiable appetite for trying to make sense of the world around him. He gained his PhD in Philosophy from University College London in 1996 and seems to maintain an air of youthful enthusiasm.

That he's not in the least bit condescending probably goes some way to explaining why he's described as "one of the UK's most respected and popular philosophers". He, however, prefers the description writer, because philosopher "assumes a certain sort of success" and it's too "contested" a term.

He's a writer, then, about philosophy, having co-founded The Philosopher's Magazine in 1997 and written some 18 books - a number co-authored with others - as well as numerous columns for The Guardian newspaper. He stepped down as editor of The Philosopher's Magazine in 2010 to concentrate on writing books described as being predominantly aimed at general readers.

Subject matter has ranged far and wide from atheism to food to free will and personal identity. Baggini says he's a generalist by nature with no shortage of things he finds "extremely interesting".

"I suppose my writing is a bit of a selfish enterprise as there are issues I want to get clear for myself, so I go off and write about them. I'm not a narrow specialist; a lot of people hone in on one thing that really gets them but I'm a generalist by nature who wants to understand many things in life."

Baggini says there's no "novel idea" at the heart of his books; rather he takes a topic or question he's personally intrigued by and draws together - "synthesises" - existing material in a way that appeals to a more general audience.

When he visits for the Auckland Writers Festival, he'll take part in the schools programme, partly because he thinks it's beneficial for young people to be exposed to new ways of thinking about the world.

"I think it's good for young people to know you can have constructive and questioning conversations; that you don't just have to take certain things for granted."

He adds there may also be others who, just maybe, decide philosophy is for them and, as he very reasonably points out, you can't discover a topic if it is not brought to your attention in the first place. However, he may not agree with all their teachers have to say.

Baggini recalls one school visit where his host - a school principal - talked to pupils about the importance of "cherishing their vision" and he felt that wasn't quite right because a number of them may have been too young or inexperienced to know what exactly their vision was. He says they may have, rather, been feeling inadequate for not knowing. "I reflected on the choice of words and just didn't feel it was quite right and I thought I just had to say something so I did, I think, in a way that wouldn't have offended my host."

While he may have always had an enquiring mind, Baggini says he never really had a grand plan; he's taken things in two-three year lots - a degree, then a Masters followed by a PhD, start a magazine - and just kept moving purposefully forward. "I take one step and then the next."

Baggini also speaks at a (now sold-out) Friday morning session in which he "ruminates on the nature of self and the construction of personal identity" then, on Saturday, takes part in "A Meeting of Minds" with University of Auckland history and theology lecturer Dr Hirini Kaa. He follows that with a spot on the Sunday morning panel discussion, "The Moral Mixing Desk", which considers where philanthropy ends and self-promotion begins.

"It seems a bit daft to fly all the way, stay in a hotel and leave it for just one one-hour talk," he says. "I said, 'I'm coming all this way and I want to be useful!' Besides, I like these types of events and I find them very interesting. They can be a great opportunity, from an author's point-of-view, to meet people, to exchange ideas."

Given that his next book is to be about philosophical traditions around the world, he reckons his time in New Zealand could be very useful indeed.

Julian Baggini appears at the Auckland Writers Festival.