May 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
In completing my book on the history of moral thought I had to reduce the original manuscript by some 30,000 words to get it to a reasonable size. Much of what has been lost is better off left on the cutting room floor. There are, however, some sections coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent ‘lost pages’ from the book. The first was on Machiavelli. This extract is on Descrates and his influence (it has not been entirely cut from the book, but is considerably condensed). The book itself, which is called The Quest for a Moral Compass, will be published early next year.
Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted around 1657, reveals wonderfully the new eyes through which painters now viewed their subject. It shows a woman, ensconced in her own world, absorbed totally in reading the private words of another. There is a startling stillness about the room. Its physical features, the walls, the drapery, seem to define the boundaries of her mental world. She is alone in the room. There is an open window to the world beyond but she has eyes only for the letter in her hand. Reflected in the window is not the world beyond but her own face. The window is both a portal to the world outside and an opening to her thoughts inside, an expression both of her yearning to break the constraints of her domesticity and her total absorption in her own little world. There is an intimacy about the scene that is truly breathtaking. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
As I am away this week, I am republishing some old material that has not previously appeared on Pandaemonium. This is a review of Gray’s Anatomy, a selection of writing from the philosopher John Gray, It was first published in the Times in April 2009.
On the eve of the Iraq war, John Gray published an essay in the New Statesman entitled ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracy from Being Abused, and for Recognizing their Benefit to the Public (with Apologies to Jonathan Swift)’. It suggested that there should be a universal right to torture enforceable by regime change and that torturers should receive counselling for the mental traumas they suffered. The trouble is that few readers got the joke. ‘Months and years later’, Gray observes, ‘I continued to receive protests taking me task for my indecent suggestions’.
March 25, 2012 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 15, which looks at existentialism, and primarily the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. This extract is from the section that explores Sartre’s concept of freedom and his relationship to Marxism.
‘Existence comes before essence’. So claimed Sartre in his celebrated 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. It is a phrase that gets to the heart (one might even say the essence) of his understanding of human nature and of human freedom. Humans do not possess a given nature, an unchanging essence, from which their capacities, personalities and values derive. Rather humans create themselves and their nature by acting upon the world.
This, for Sartre, was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from a Godless world. ‘When we think of God as the creator’, Sartre observed, ‘we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan’. God ‘makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife’. But what if there is no God? Then there can be no God-created human nature. More, there can be no human nature at all. The only coherent way in which we can speak of a distinctive human nature is as a preconceived creative plan for human beings, just like the only way we can speak of a paper-knife is as a consciously manufactured artefact. Only God, in other words, could have created human nature. If we do not believe in God, we cannot believe in human nature. For Sartre the death of God provided also the last rites for human nature.
The idea that without God, there can be no human nature might seem a strange view, especially for an atheist, in the post-Darwinian world. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 8, 2012 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts that I am running from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 13, which looks at the moral ideas of Hegel, Rousseau and Marx, and at the historicisation of ideas of human nature and morality. This extract is taken from the section on Hegel, Rousseau and the debate about freedom and ‘self-realization’.
December 12, 2011 § 5 Comments
In the series of extracts that I am running from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 12, ‘Passion, Duty and Consequence’. Chapter 11 explored some of the ideas of the Radical Enlightenment. Chapter 12 turns its gaze more on to the moral arguments that emerged from the mainstream Enlightenment – in particular the work of Hume, Kant, Bentham and Mill. This extract is from the section on David Hume.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning… when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence.
So wrote David Hume almost as an afterthought in his Treatise on Human Nature. An afterthought it may have been, but there is arguably no single paragraph that has more resonated through modern ethics. Hume’s famous distinction between is and ought – between the world as it exists and the world as we would wish it to be – and his wrenching apart of the realm of facts and the realm of values has not only indelibly stamped itself upon modern ethical debates but has established one of the key distinctions between modern and ancient ethics. Many have come to read Hume as meaning that ought cannot be derived from is, that values do not derive from the facts of the world. That, as we shall see, was neither Hume’s likely intention nor the necessary consequence of his argument. Nevertheless from Hume comes one of the defining feature of modern ethics: the separation of facts and values. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 6, 2011 § 9 Comments
In the series of extracts I’m running from my still-being-written book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 11, which explores the ethical claims of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. The rise of the market economy and the growth of religious scepticism had, by the seventeenth century, corroded the ability of both God and community to warrant moral behaviour. Who or what could now authorize moral rules? This was the question now facing moral philosophers. One answer was revolutionary: humans could. Human nature, needs, desires, aspirations and possibilities would act as warrant for the moral good. But how human nature would play this role remained perplexing. After all, as Thomas Aquinas had pointed out, it was precisely the seeming ‘uncertainty of human judgement’ and the fact that ‘different people’ formed ‘different judgements on human acts’ and created ‘different and contrary laws’ that seemed to necessitate Man having to ‘be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God’.
Hobbes and Spinoza gave very different answers to this challenge, answers that were both to be highly influential. Hobbes helped launch a British tradition of moral philosophy; in his wake come Shaftesbury, Locke, Hume, Bentham and Mill. Spinoza helped shape what is now often called the ‘Continental’ tradition. Thinkers as diverse as Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche were all in his debt. The distinctions between the two traditions are often overplayed. Nevertheless, the ideas of Hobbes and Spinoza were to shape the way that the modern world came to look at the question of moral rules through the distinct answers they gave as to what should warrant moral behaviour. This extract is taken from the section on Spinoza’s Ethics.
Spinoza’s stock is today not very high. In the pantheon of great seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers – Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, etc – Spinoza is usually seen as hovering in the back row. He is surprisingly little known, often regarded as a philosopher difficult to understand and possessed of little influence. Yet he is arguably the philosopher who more than most has shaped modern thinking about freedom and equality and the possibility of a secular morality. No one else, the historian Jonathan Israel suggests, ‘during the century 1650-1750 remotely rivalled Spinoza’s notoriety, as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality and what was everywhere regarded… as divinely constituted political authority.’ Spinoza, Israel adds, ‘imparted order, cohesion and formal logic to what was in effect a fundamentally new view of man, God and the universe rooted in philosophy, nurtured by scientific thought and capable of producing a revolutionary ideology.’ Philosophically, Bertrand Russell wrote of Spinoza, ‘some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme’. As a ‘natural consequence’, Russell sardonically added, Spinoza ‘was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
October 30, 2011 § 1 Comment
I took part yesterday in a fascinating debate about evil at the Battle of Ideas with Mark Vernon (who has blogged about it), David Jones and Simon Baron Cohen. Here (slightly expanded) are my introductory comments to the debate.
The historian Steven Shapin famously began his study of the Scientific Revolution with the sentence: ‘There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it.’ I sometimes think that discussions of evil are infused with the spirit of that Shapin sentence. On the one hand, there are those who insist that ‘There is no such thing as evil, and I’m going to tell you what it is’. And on the other, those who claim that, ‘Evil definitely exists, but it is inexplicable.’
Part of the problem in discussing evil is confusion over the kind of debate we are having. There are two levels of debates one can have about morality. There are first order debates about normative ethics. These lead to questions such as: Is abortion acceptable? Is it just for bankers to receive million pound bonuses? Is equality a good? And so on. Then there are second order debates about metaethics: debates not about whether X is good or Y bad, but about what anchors our morality, and what ultimately justifies the insistence that X is good and Y bad. The two are closely linked, of course: what we think about abortion or torture or equality is inevitably shaped by the overall moral framework we adopt and, at the same time, helps define that framework. Nevertheless, the two kinds of debates are distinct.
Much of the difficulty we have in thinking about evil comes about because we imagine that the debate is about normative ethics, when it is also, indeed primarily, a debate about metaethics. When we say ‘Hitler was evil’ we are not making the same kind of statement as when we say ‘charity is good’ or ‘torture is bad’. What we are actually doing is making a claim both about the boundaries of morality itself and about human nature, about what it is to be a moral being. « Read the rest of this entry »