April 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
My book on the history of moral thought is written. In the process, I had to reduced the ms by some 30,000 words. Much of that is better off left on the cutting room floor. But there are also some portions coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent sections that are no longer in the book. This first of the ‘missing pages’ is on Machiavelli.
‘A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.’ The cynicism of Nicolo Machiavelli’s voice is unmistakable. However, as Bertrand Russell once put it, ‘It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he is certainly sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug.’
Machiavelli (1467-1527) was a Florentine who lived through some of the city’s most turbulent years. In 1494 the ruling Medicis were overthrown by Charles V of France and the Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola emerged as the new leader of the city. He set about morally cleansing Florence, organizing the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities during which any item deemed moral corrupting, including mirrors, cosmetics, pagan books, chess pieces, musical instruments, and women’s hats, were burnt in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria. In 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. The following year he was arrested, tortured and executed. Fifteen years later, the Medicis were restored to power. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 13, 2012 § 6 Comments
‘I’m going to assume that you accept the materialist view of personality, that character/mind is determined by both the brain and environmental factors. You used the examples of trust and anger as emotions that are not necessarily good for the former or bad for the latter. But what about indisputably pernicious tendencies like sexual predation/violence, psychopathy or homicidal urges? If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people? And if you answer “no”, what would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?’
So asked the blogger, Darrick Lim in response to my post on ‘Where Science Harks Back to a Biblical View of Morality’. Darrick poses here questions that get to the heart of the debate about crime, punishment, morality and free will raised by thinkers like Julian Savulescu, Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg. Two issues in particular are important: What do we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’? And how do we decide what is moral? I could write a long book on each of these questions (I am, in fact, writing a book that touches on the latter one), but I do not have the time to write even a short essay. So instead here are a few short points in response, hopefully to kickstart a debate. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 5, 2012 § 16 Comments
One of the themes in contemporary discussions of morality of which I have been highly critical is the idea that science can, and should, determine right and wrong. Morality, as Sam Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, is an ‘undeveloped branch of science’. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, he argues, ‘science will… decide’ which view is right ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.’ ‘Science’ here seems to have taken on a life of its own, existing independently of humans, and imposing its will and mind on human thought and activity. It as if science possesses moral authority and human beings do not.
There are some philosophers, like the Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who take the argument further still, looking to science not simply to determine right and wrong but also to make humans more right than wrong. The human capacity for morality is ‘limited’, Savulescu suggests, because evolution favoured a tribal, short-sighted sense of morality that is insufficient to deal with the problems of the 21st century, from climate change to terrorism. But space age technology can put right our Stone Age morality. A combination of positive eugenics and neurological intervention will, he believes, allow us to ‘inculcate certain values and certain forms of morality’ rather than be ‘neutral as we traditionally have been in liberal societies to different conceptions of the good life, religious traditions and different versions of morality’. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my book-that-is-almost-finished on the history of moral thought we have reached Chapter 18, which explores the contemporary debates about the relationship between science and morality, from Joshua Greene’s work to Sam Harris’ arguments. This extract is from the section that unpacks Alex Rosenberg’s arguments about morality in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.
The desire to root morality in science derives from a laudable aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask the famous question: Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If on the other hand, the gods chooses the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.
The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 17, which looks at the subjective turn in analytic philosophy, and the unravelling of morality in the twentieth century, from the intuitionism of GE Moore’s Principia Ethica to JL Mackie’s ‘error theory’ and moral nihilism. This extract begins with Moore and looks at how intuitionism gave way to emotivism.
GE Moore’s Principia Ethica, published in 1903, came to be both one of the most famous ethical work of the twentieth century and one of the most troublesome. It was a work whose arguments were extraordinarily flimsy and highly dubious and yet, as Mary Warnock observed in her study of twentieth century ethics, has come to be regarded ‘as the source from which the subsequent moral philosophy of the century has flowed, or at least as the most powerful influence upon this moral philosophy’. The publication of the Principia Ethica was, John Maynard Keynes wrote, ‘exciting, exhilarating, the beginning of renaissance, the opening of a new heaven on a new earth’. The influence and excitement and exhilaration of Moore’s book lay less in the lucidity of its moral argument than in its ability to locate a fundamental shift in the character of moral thought. If the eighteenth century had seen the triumph of the human in moral thought, and the nineteenth had wrestled with the moral implications of the death of God, the twentieth had to grapple with the consequences of the growing disaffection with human agency. One expression of this was, paradoxically perhaps, an increasingly subjective view of morality. In the Anglophone world that view found a grounding, in part at least, in the Principia Ethica. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 11, 2012 § 6 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-written book on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 16. Beginning in the eighteenth century with Enlightenment hope and ending in the twentieth with postmodern despair, this chapter explores how the changing character of movements for social and political liberation have influenced moral thought – and how changing moral conceptions have, in turn, influenced movements for liberation. This extract is from the beginning of the chapter, and tells the story of the Haitian Revolution and what that revolution reveals about the relationship between morality and politics in the modern world.
Aimé Césaire, the Martinique-born poet and statesman, once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus had landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed Saint-Domingue, as it called its colony, into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet which was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
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 »