Friday, October 1, 2010

A model of restraint

Moralizing is a perilous business. It's all too easy to convey not just a moral point, but a sense of moral superiority or self-righteousness also. Perhaps I'm oversensitive to these things and see smugness where there is none, but I do react negatively to most moralizers, especially (for some reason) when they happen to be philosophy professors. (Peter Singer comes to mind.)

I was reminded of these issues when I read a recent article by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Any response that I might make would tend to sarcasm. By contrast, Norman Geras remains dispassionate. His critique of Appiah's article is a model of conciseness, clarity and restraint.


  1. Mark,

    This is a genuine question. Why do I find myself snorting with amusement at most of your posts?
    I know your intent isn't for them to be funny, but still..


  2. Restraint is a good thing. I can't say I had to restrain my laughter this time, but Peter Singer was an amusing choice.

    To me, the most problematic moralists right now in the US and UK are on the Left. This Right-wing moralist comes to moralizing after a youth spent fighting against tradition. Now I'd like to spare my own children the decades I wasted. There is neither time nor need to learn from one's own experience, with all the consequences that implies, when certain traditions already codify the experience of generations.

    Examples: Spend less than you earn. Don't sleep around. Stay away from drugs. Don't be a pig. Be polite.

    What if everyone behaved like that? There would still be plenty of room for individuality and creativity--but most of what passes for individuality and creativity is neither unique nor new.

  3. Adila, I guess you are picking up on my super-subtle (so subtle it is hardly even there) sense of humour; alternatively you just think I'm a bit silly. :)

  4. CONSVLTVS, I agree. There's never going to be a threat to individuality from learning from trusted (and trustworthy) mentors - for one thing we all make more than enough mistakes, no matter how much good advice we get (and learn from them if we're lucky). I like your examples.

  5. Mark, you are talking about my little corner of the world. I've taught ethics for about 20 years. I now work in an ethics centre. So I belong to just the sort of category you are discussing. Moralising is my business. I like to think I am in the ethics racket.

    How to talk about morality without moralising -- that's a whole topic in itself. But even it involves the risk of moralising about not moralising.

  6. Norman Geras touches on one of the silliest of all ideas -- that of criticising the present from the standpoint of the future. How could anyone, even the dumbest of writers (and Appiah is not one of them), not see that this is impossible and that it involves projecting into the future what you wish the future to be like?

    But I won't go further, I've moralised enough already.

  7. Alan, you're not suggesting that I'm moralizing about not moralizing I hope. I see we are on dangerous ground - but amongst friends!!

    You may be in the 'philosophy professor' category but you are not in the category of self-righteous moralizers, that's for sure. Do you think I am being unfair to Peter Singer?

  8. No ... (unless you are being too kind to him and one can be unfair by being too kind)!

  9. Slightly off topic to this post, but ... Some time ago I mentioned in a comment here an article about individual psyche (or psychology) influencing conservative or liberal thinking. I didn't have a reference then, but promised I'd pass it along if I dug it up.

    I've dug it up.

    Personality Predicts Political Preferences

  10. Thanks for that, GTC.

    My fear is that the two factors being correlated are interdefined, so that there is no separation of cause and effect (as Hume and many others think you need to have for empirical work).

    But I haven't yet read the paper itself.

  11. Thanks GC, I'll have a look (and thank you Alan for the caveat).

  12. GC, let me get this straight: The piece is called Personality Predicts Political Preferences? That's PxPxPxP. So, this must be the "P to the fourth power" theory...

  13. I think the letter P is the most cheaply alliterative of all the phonemes.

    (Spoken English has about 44 phonemes, apparently.)