Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ethics and philosophy

I recently tried to sum up my general approach to moral questions in a few hundred words. (See Ethics in a nutshell.) I see myself as just stating what most non-religious people would generally see as obvious, really. The aim – given a secular and science-friendly outlook – is just clarity and certainly not originality.

Here I want to begin to extrapolate on what I said there, bringing out some ideological points which were not explicit in the original post. (I will have something to say another time about the specifically conservative thrust of my position.)

Philosophical discussions of ethics all too often get pushed off course into unproductive disputes which are sometimes reflective of fundamental metaphysical disagreements between the antagonists, and sometimes a result simply of competitive argumentation.

I have reservations about such discussions, which inevitably involve labeling one's own and others' positions, attacking the positions of others, refining and defending one's own position, and further attacking and refining and defending ad infinitum.

I suppose I would find myself labeled as some kind of (moral) anti-realist. The last time I looked, moral anti-realism was not particularly well-regarded in the philosophical community.

Why is this, I wonder, when I (and, I would have thought, most non-religious non-philosophers) would take it as relatively uncontroversial that, as I claimed in the linked post, there is no absolute or objective ethical authority, and no objective method for determining 'moral truths'?*

My explanation is as follows.

The philosophical community is not a random sample of intelligent people. Quite obviously, it is largely self-selected, and, although it comprises a wide cross-section of people with widely diverging views, those with certain general orientations are over-represented (by comparison with the general educated population).

Specifically, people are drawn to graduate studies in philosophy (and especially ethics) who wish not only to explore but also to promote certain ideas.

Clearly, the philosophical arena is attractive to religious people as it gives them an opportunity to promote, not so much their particular religious view (that would be unprofessional), but at least a view of the world which is in accord with their beliefs.

Similar considerations apply to non-religious people who have a prior commitment to certain moral, social or political views. Feminists, for example, have generally found academic philosophy to be a particularly receptive and protective environment, and very useful for the propagation of their ideas. Likewise those with liberal and left-wing political views. (Conservatives are not well-represented amongst contemporary philosophers.)**

No one is going to bother funding significant research into this kind of thing. (And why should they? Besides, such ideological issues are very hard to pin down scientifically.) But I am confident there is a lot of truth in what I am saying.

Anecdotes are not evidence, but this one will at least make my claims clearer. More than once, I have asked graduate students in philosophy why they chose philosophy. Needless to say, not all responses were the same. But one sticks in my memory as being both typical and emblematic.

And it wasn't just what he said but how he said it. With quiet passion.

'I strongly believe,' said the earnest, bespectacled young man with the wispy dark brown beard, 'that ideas matter; that, despite appearances to the contrary, ideas can prevail over self-interest. Might is not right…'

* And, if we can't reliably identify them, what sense is there in saying that these 'moral truths' exist? Actually, I'm uneasy about the term 'moral truths'.

Of course, there are moral facts, in the sense of facts about our systems of morality, 'moral instincts', etc.. But prescriptive ethics is all about choosing and urging and acting – about living – not about describing and theorizing.

Ethics is clearly not an intellectual discipline like mathematics and the sciences (including the historical and social sciences), all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, generate what one could call objective knowledge. [See also the comments attached to the linked post.]

** Many major philosophical thinkers of the past were, by contrast, politically conservative. I may do another piece on this, but a few big names that come immediately to mind are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Descartes, Maistre, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bradley, Frege, Santayana, Heidegger, Ryle and Quine.


  1. Re-reading this, I still can't see what you are implying about your wispy-bearded friend.

    1. Perhaps I should have put it like this: it was not so much what he said as how he said it. My point is that he gave the impression of being more a moral crusader than a humble seeker after truth, more interested in imposing his vision (this may be a little harsh) than understanding.

      I talked about people being drawn to philosophy by 'a prior commitment to certain moral, social or political views', and seeking to promote those views. He was an example of someone with a strong prior commitment to certain ethical (and, I daresay, political) views. Nothing wrong with that, you could say. But the consequences of this general tendency have been, in my opinion, disastrous.

      Many philosophy departments (and philosophy websites – like New APPS, for example) have become little enclaves of liberal and left-wing thought and political correctness. I've been quite appalled by the lack of diversity of opinion and the intolerance towards alternative positions. I've sat in on lectures to undergraduates which were more like emotional rants about moral and political issues than intellectual analyses, and I've seen undergraduates who dared to question the lecturer's line humiliated in a way that would have been unthinkable when I was an undergraduate.

      And, just for the record, I am happy to assert that right does not reduce to might (even if I have a rather less clearly defined idea of what is right and what right is than my wispy friend seemed to have).

    2. In my experience the disciplines that sold their souls for a mess of postmodernism and other isms were English and history. Philosophy stood firm in defence of its tradition of debate. But I don't doubt that what you describe is also true in some, maybe many, places.