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’.
January 5, 2012 § 13 Comments
Last October I wrote an essay about the decision of the European Court of Justice to deny a patent to the German neuroscientist Oliver Brüstle who had developed a method for turning human embryonic stem cells into neurons which could then be transplanted into patients with diseases such as Parkinson’s. The Court had decided that no patent could be valid on a process that involved the destruction of an embryo; such a patent was subversive of ‘human dignity’ and hence ’immoral’ and contrary to ‘public order’. I was critical of the Court’s decision, and equally so of Greenpeace, the organization that had brought the case before the Court:
If the court judgment is difficult to fathom, the attitude of Greenpeace is even more so. So hostile has the organization become to ‘big science’ that it is happy to line up with some of the most reactionary and obnoxious groups in Europe and jeopardize vital medical research… It is about time we stopped indulging theologians and Luddites in the absurd myth that they occupy the moral high ground. They don’t. They are using moral norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the practical alleviation of human suffering.
A version of that post was published in the Swedish newspaper Götesborg-Posten. Greenpeace took umbrage at my criticism of the organisation, and its Swedish campaign director Patrik Eriksson wrote a reply, to which I responded. I am publishing here Eriksson’s reply to my original essay (translated into English) together with my response. « Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
October 22, 2011 § 5 Comments
Court rulings on scientific patents are usually arcane and boring and of interest only to specialists. Not so this week. On Monday, the European Court of Justice made a landmark ruling banning any patents on scientific techniques that involve embryonic stem cells. It is a ruling that could endanger research into new therapies for incurable and life-threatening diseases and one that defies basic tenets of logic, morality and justice.
The case began in the 1990s when German neurobiologist Oliver Brüstle developed a method for turning human embryonic stem cells into neurons. The cells of an adult human are highly specialised – under normal circumstances a liver cell will always stay a liver cell, and a skin cell can never become anything else. Stem cells, however, can develop into any kind of tissue – liver, skin, nerve, heart. The best source of such stem cells are tiny embryos, a few days old, called blastocysts. Researchers hope that by growing specific tissue from these cells, it may be possible to repair damaged organs in patients suffering from conditions such as dementia or blindness. Because such tissue can be grown using the patients’ own DNA, so problems of tissue rejection, so often the bane of transplants, can be sidestepped. Professor Brüstle himself was on the verge of transplanting lab-grown brain tissue into patients with Parkinson’s disease.
In 1997, Brüstle obtained a patent for his technique of creating neurons. The environmental group Greenpeace challenged that patent in court. Brüstle’s work, it claimed, was ‘contrary to public order’ because embryos had been destroyed to gather the stem cells. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 10, which looks at the Renaissance and the Reformation and at the impact of both on moral philosophy. This excerpt is about Martin Luther’s theology and about the ambiguities of the Reformation, an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity that was nevertheless also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity.
‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. Martin Luther’s famous response to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, defending his right to challenge the authority of Pope on the basis of his personal convictions sounds to a modern reader as a ringing endorsement of personal conscience, individual freedom and free will. Whether Luther actually spoke those words remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it was never his intention to defend freedom of will. Luther dismissed as blasphemy the very concept. ‘Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin’, as he put in his Heidelberg Disputation, a famous debate within the Augustinian Order. Indeed he barely believed in any kind of freedom. When Luther insisted that ‘I can do no other’, he was defending not his freedom of will but his lack of freedom to believe and to act. He could do no other because he was compelled to do as he had.