March 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is the last extract from my book in progress on the history of moral thought. The book is now, in fact, no longer in progress, as I have completed it. This might be the final extract, but it is not from the final chapter, but the penultimate one, Chapter 19 (I have already run an extract from chapter 20). Chapter 19 explores moral debate in modern China, particularly after the fall of the dynastic system, and the creation, first of a republic in 1911, and subsequently, after four decades of conflict and chaos, of Mao Zedong’s communist regime in 1949. This extract is about the problems of moral thinking in post-1949 China, and the fraught relationship between communism and Confucianism.
For more than two millennia, the identity of China, and the character of its social order, was defined primarily in ethical terms, and given philosophical shape largely by Confucianism. When that tradition, and the social order and dynastic structure it sustained, broke in the twentieth century, inevitably there was chaos, a chaos made more turbulent by the distinctive role of ethics in Chinese society.
In Western Europe, Christianity had provided, for more than a millennium, a shared identity for peoples otherwise divided by language, nation or tribe, and a crucible within which all philosophical, political and moral discussion took place. The Church was the continent’s common voice and its moral guardian. Religion, certainly as it was understood in Europe, barely developed in China. The state, in the form of imperial bureaucracy, performed many of the roles and duties historically taken by the European Church, providing moral instruction, constructing a collective identity, and creating a sense of shared values. Not only was the social role of the state different in China, so was its relationship to the ruling class. In Europe, different sections of the elite – nobles, clerics, merchants, the landed aristocracy, the urban bourgeoisie – had vied with each other for the reins of power, and had fought to control and constrain the authority of the state. Through these struggles the space was cleared for what we now know as civil society, a space that became central to the development of moral debate. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
This is the penultimate extract from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. This is from chapter 6 – another of the chapters I am publishing out of sync – which explores early Chinese philosophy. This extract is about two philosophers, one of whom is well known as China’s most famous thinker – Kongzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West – and the other who has been almost forgotten, even in China, but who should not be – Mo Tzu.
He is known in the West as Confucius, thanks to the sixteenth century Jesuit missionaries who Latinized his name. He is revered in China as Kongzi or ‘Master Kong’. And he was born as Kong Qui around 551 BCE in Zou, in the state of Lu on the eastern seaboard. He lived at around the same time as the Buddha though neither, of course, knew of the other. This was in China the middle of Zhou dynasty, a time known as the Spring and Autumn period, after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu. Not only were there struggles between the fragmenting parts of the Zhou dynasty but also between fiefdoms inside and outside Zhou territory. The conflicts that marked the second half of the Zhou period were part of a complex transition to imperial rule and the unification of China. By the time of Kong’s birth, Lu was in a state almost of anarchy. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 22, 2013 § 5 Comments
Those who have followed the excerpts I have been publishing from my ‘Book in progress’ on the history of moral thought will know that there were several gaps in the chapters. That was because I left till the end a series of chapters on the Indian and Chinese traditions. These are now almost complete, and I will publish, as before, monthly extracts from each remaining chapter. Some of the chapters have been renumbered as you can see from the complete set of extracts.
This extract is from chapter 5 which explores the ancient Indian traditions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism.
August 30, 2012 § 6 Comments
Religious freedom, I argued in my Notes on Religious Freedom, is not a special kind of liberty but one of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and action. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent, nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These, I argued, should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.
It is true that many religious beliefs – about homosexuality, for instance, or blasphemy – imply practices that are often at odds with the norms of a liberal society, and this has been at the heart of many recent conflicts between secular norms and religious conscience. But such conflicts are not unique to religious belief. Racists, communists, Greens, New Age mystics – all could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices which are at odds with liberal norms. Nevertheless, a racist pub owner cannot bar black people from his pub, however deep-set his beliefs. It would be a criminal offence for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown GM crops, however strongly they might feel about such agriculture. Society should accommodate as far as is possible any action genuinely required by conscience. Nevertheless, there is always a line that cannot legally be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line, I suggested in my Notes on Religious Freedom, should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 22, 2012 § 26 Comments
My ‘Notes on Religious Freedom’, a shorter version of which appeared in New Humanist, was picked up by Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True and led to a fascinating debate, much of it critical of my arguments. I am grateful to WEIT for linking to the essay and for hosting the debate. What was striking about much of the criticism was the degree to which it was underpinned by deeply authoritarian sentiments. I have observed before the way that many contemporary atheists adopt an unpleasantly authoritarian stance. Many now demand, in the name of ‘reason’ or ‘science’, state restrictions or bans on views that might cause ‘harm’. It is a strange attitude for those who supposedly believe in free speech and free thought. (And before anyone jumps on me I am not suggesting that all atheists, or even most atheists, believe this – there were many on the WEIT thread who challenged such views; what I am suggesting is that such claims now form an important and objectionable strand in contemporary atheism.)
What is particularly disturbing is the casual bigotry that now seems acceptable and often goes unchallenged. One of the criticisms on the WEIT thread was of my opposition to the burqa ban. One commenter had this to say:
Alexander Hellemans: Imagine you would board the Paris metro, and there is a seat next to some person in a burqa, very fat, and you can’t see its face. Would you feel comfortable sitting next to it?
‘It’ is a person. However much one might loathe religion, however much one might despise what the burqa symbolises, to describe a person as a thing is sheer bigotry. It is to look upon that woman in the same way as do Islamist clerics. We should not need reminding of the consequences, historically, of such dehumanization. Yet no one thought it necessary to challenge Hellemans’ sentiment. Such comments turn up, of course, on many blogs (Pandaemonium included). But the failure to challenge it suggests that people are sometimes so blinded by their loathing of religion that they become inured to such bigotry and do not recognize the need to combat it at every point. That is a dangerous place to be. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 15, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument. This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)
A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.
Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 17, 2012 § 19 Comments
Given the degree of fractious debate recently over ‘religious freedom’ – from questions of blasphemy and ‘defamation’ to the storm over gay marriage, from the controversy over the banning of the burqa to the hostility directed at the ‘Obamacare’ plan to include contraception in health insurance cover – I have been rethinking the question of freedom of religion. These notes are a starting point for debate, not a fully-fleshed out argument.
Religious freedom occupies a special place in contemporary political discussions. It should not. This is not because religious freedom is not important but because it is no more and no less important than other forms of freedom of conscience, belief and practice.
Many believers point out that faith plays a unique role in their lives. That is often true. Those atheists who dismiss belief in God as no more credible than belief in Santa Claus or in fairies miss the point. Religion is more than an intellectual exercise or a matter of logic; it often has, for believers, a vital social and spiritual function. But acknowledging the vital and unique role of faith in the lives of believers does not commit us to providing it with a privileged position in society.
The reason that religious freedom has a special place in contemporary political debate is historical. Ideas of tolerance and of freedom of expression developed in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards primarily within a religious framework. Questions of toleration and expression were at heart questions of how, and how far, the state, and the established church, should accommodate religious dissent. « Read the rest of this entry »