The best kind of book, to my mind, is the kind of book you can have an argument with. Not a book so wrong that I want to throw it across the room, but one that I disagree with and yet find challenging enough to force me to re-examine my own views, and often to put down my disagreements in writing to help me better to clarify them. So, here are five books for me to argue with over the next few months. And a sixth that I hope everyone else will be arguing about.
Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
The contradictions of our moral lives, psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene suggests, lies in our evolutionary history. Our brains were designed for tribal life. But we live in a globalized world that creates conflicts of interest and clashes of values that we find difficult to negotiate. Not only are we caught between the landscape of our evolved minds and the reality of the modern world, we are also caught between two mechanisms for moral thinking. Like a digital camera, human morality can work both in ‘auto mode’ or in ‘manual mode’. In automatic, point-and-shoot mode, the camera can take pictures quickly and easily, but often goes awry in difficult conditions. In manual mode, the camera can be fine-tuned to take perfect photos in even the trickiest conditions. But such fine-tuning is fiddly and takes time. Auto mode, in other words, is fast but inflexible, manual mode highly flexible, but slow and tricky to set up. The same is true, Greene suggests, of moral thinking. Normally we rely on point-and-shoot moral answers, responding quickly, instinctively, almost unthinkingly to moral problems. Our fast, instinctive point-and-shoot moral snapshot answers have developed against the background of our evolutionary history. We can, however, also step back from our intuitions, and reason our way to a moral answer. Perhaps most contentiously Greene suggests that the answers of auto mode are akin to Kantianism, those of manual mode to utilitarianism. I tackle some of these issues, and my disagreements with Greene, in my forthcoming book The Quest for a Moral Compass. If I have time, I might turn that into a proper review of Moral Tribes. In the meantime here a couple of essays and reviews on the subject of science and morality: a talk I gave at the ‘Talking Brain’ conference at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam on ‘Science, morality and the Euthyphro dilemma’; my review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape; and my critique of Alex Rosenberg’s moral nihilism.
Inventing the Individual:
The Origins of Western Liberalism
‘If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’ So asks the combative final line to Larry Siedentop’s retelling of Western intellectual history. What makes Western tradition distinct, Siedentop suggests, is the importance of the idea of the ‘individual’ in philosophical, political and social debates. The concept of the individual, and the origins of liberalism which draws upon that concept, emerged, Siedentop suggests, not with modernity, and through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as is often suggested, but lies at the heart of the Christian tradition, and was wrought in particular by the lawyers and philosophers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I am currently reviewing this book; I will publish the review – and my argument against Siedentop’s thesis – later this month.
An Intellectual History of the French Revolution
from The Rights of Man to Robespierre
Revolutionary Ideas is the fourth in a series of monumental books through which Jonathan Israel has sought to rewrite the history of the Enlightenment using as his frame the distinction between the mainstream and the radical Enlightenments. I am, as anyone who has read Pandaemonium for a while will know, a great admirer of Israel’s work, and of his excavation of the history of the Radical Enlightenment. But we also have our differences, some of which we chewed over when I interviewed Israel last year. I suspect that this volume, on the French Revolution, may be where our differences become clearest.
The Soul of the World
Roger Scruton is one of the thinkers I always find a pleasure to read, and often greatly enlightening, even though I almost always disagree with him. In The Soul of the World, according to the blurb, Scruton ‘defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism’. For Scruton, ‘To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things’. The book is not ‘an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion’ but ‘an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean… A world without the sacred would be a completely different world–one in which we humans are not truly at home.’ This is another book I will be reviewing. In the meantime here are two recent pieces that touch on this issue: my essay on what is sacred about sacred music and my tribute to ‘the haunting grace of Marilynne Robinson’.
A Troublesome Inheritance:
Genes, Race, and Human History
New York Times science correspondent Nicholas Wade has long, often controversially, sometimes dubiously, argued for the idea of race as a biological reality. ‘The more human populations are kept apart’, Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, described as ‘an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story’, ‘the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.’ Wade apparently claims a ‘genetic basis’ for ‘what we might call middle-class social traits – thrift, docility, nonviolence’, and appears also to argue that certain ethnic groups, such as the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews, have come to be naturally more intelligent. This is another book that I probably will be reviewing. In the meantime, here is my essay on why both sides are wrong in the race debate.
…a book I hope gets everyone else arguing. The Quest for a Moral Compass, my global history of moral thought, will be published in April. More about it in time…