Voltaire implored his contemporaries to eschew their deference to the past; perhaps it is time historians and theorists of the Enlightenment do the same. Pagden thinks the cosmopolitan Enlightenment that he has identified is so important that he has unquestioningly adopted its secular worldview, which sees global history marching in one direction, towards a future that was imagined in Europe over 200 years ago. In making his Enlightenment about sympathetic cosmopolitanism, he believes he has successfully broken free from the interminable debate about the legacy of the Age of Reason, in which the charges laid against the philosophes include technocratic scientism and the atomisation of society. But one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist, nor a postcolonial activist, to take exception to Pagden’s European triumphalism.
…While globalisation has encouraged historians to explore the spatial scope of Enlightenment ideas, another 21st century concern of planetary significance—the threat of climate change and global warming—has sent scholars in another fruitful direction. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted, the Enlightenment coincided with the period in which human beings switched from wood and other renewable fuels to the large-scale use of fossil fuels; the origins of ideological and material modernity, in other words, coincided with humankind becoming capable of causing lasting change to the planet. As Chakrabarty puts it, “the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” The not entirely unrealistic possibility that mankind might not in the future exist on this planet, that there might be a world without us, therefore calls into question the notions of freedom and of civilisation progressing endlessly into the future which began in the 18th century, along with mankind’s first significant intervention into its planetary environment.
The book is framed as the search for a solution to a global problem that cannot be solved by the kinds of moral standards that command intuitive assent and work well within particular communities. Greene calls this problem the “tragedy of commonsense morality.” In a nutshell, it is the tragedy that moralities that help members of particular communities to cooperate peacefully do not foster a comparable harmony among members of different communities.
Morality evolved to enable cooperation, but this conclusion comes with an important caveat. Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).
…To solve this problem Greene thinks we need what he calls a “metamorality,” based on a common currency of value that all human beings can acknowledge, even if it conflicts with some of the promptings of the intuitive moralities of common sense. Like others who have based their doubts about commonsense morality on diagnoses of its evolutionary pedigree, Greene thinks that this higher-level moral outlook is to be found in utilitarianism, which he proposes to re-name “deep pragmatism” (lots of luck). Utilitarianism, as propounded by Bentham and Mill, is the principle that we should aim to maximize happiness impartially, and it conflicts with the instinctive commonsense morality of individual rights, and special heightened obligations to those to whom one is related by blood or community. Those intuitive values have their uses as rough guides to action in many ordinary circumstances, but they cannot, in Greene’s view, provide the basis for universally valid standards of conduct.
No, they can’t. But so what? Why should we feel obligated to seek a “universally valid standard” of conduct anyway? Why should the abstract category of species membership trump other considerations, not least of which Dunbar’s number? What’s wrong with a fatalist acceptance of a certain, irreducible amount of tragedy in the human condition? And thus we’re back to metaphysics after all, where your answers, whatever they may be, are a product of those intuitive gut feelings, not a product of objective reason from a God’s-eye perspective.
Alain de Botton, before he devoted himself full-time to his new, self-appointed position as secular existential shepherd to lost souls, offered a concise, illuminating summary of one particular philosopher’s objection to utilitarianism:
Nietzsche’s antipathy to alcohol explains simultaneously his antipathy to what had been the dominant British school of moral philosophy: Utilitarianism, and its greatest proponent, John Stuart Mill. The Utilitarians had argued that in a world beset by moral ambiguities, the way to judge whether an action was right or wrong was to measure the amount of pleasure and pain it gave rise to. The thought of Utilitarianism, and even the nation from which it had sprung, enraged Nietzsche:
European vulgarity, the plebianism of modern ideas [is the work and invention of] England. Man does not strive for happiness; only the English do that.
He was, of course, also striving for happiness; he simply believed that it could not be attained as painlessly as the Utilitarians appeared to be suggesting:
All these modes of thought which assess the value of things according to pleasure and pain, that is to say according to attendant and secondary phenomena, are foreground modes of thought and naïveties which anyone conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down on with derision.
An artist’s conscience because artistic creation offers a most explicit example of an activity which may deliver immense fulfillment but always demands immense suffering. Had Stendahl assessed the value of his art according to the ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ it had at once brought him, there would have been no advance from L’Homme qui craint d’être gouverné to the summit of his powers. Instead of drinking beer in the lowlands, Nietzsche asked us to accept the pain of the climb.
What is the counterfeiting aspect of morality? It pretends to know something, namely what “good and evil” is. That means wanting to know why mankind is here; its goal, its destiny. That means wanting to know that mankind has a goal, a destiny.
It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).
So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view.
So, I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book. It seems to this layman that the reviews can’t be dismissed so breezily. As to whether or not they refute the book’s central thesis, or whether it’s possible to even do so, well, when there are this many qualifiers and hedged bets in the introduction alone —
I am not suggesting that we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. Differences of opinion will remain — but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts.
…I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery.
…While this leaves the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open, there is every reason to think that this question has a finite range of answers. Given that change in the well-being of conscious creatures is bound to be a product of natural laws, we must expect that this space of possibilities — the moral landscape — will increasingly be illuminated by science.
— it’s hard for me to determine just what it is we’re arguing against or disproving. That all sounds definitively vague enough for my taste, carry on! Was anyone literally claiming an infinite range of answers to the question of well-being? The only strong impression I’ve gotten from the book is that he’s really impressed by fMRI studies, and he really, really hates extreme relativists.
Christianity was a reaction against corrosive doubt, a condition that took hold partly as a result of the habit of sceptical inquiry inculcated by philosophy: “What was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion.” This new illusion came in the form of a claim to truth that all the world had to accept: an inordinate demand that with the rise of the Enlightenment shifted to science, which has become a project aiming to dissolve the dreams in which humanity has hitherto lived. The result is modern nihilism – the perception that human beings are an insignificant accident in a scheme of things that cares nothing for them or their values – and a host of rackety creeds promising some kind of secular salvation.
Leopardi’s account of the paradoxical process whereby a Christian will to truth gave birth to nihilism has much in common with Nietzsche’s – an affinity that the fiery German thinker recognised. Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche was following a path opened up by Schopenhauer, who wrote that it was a tragedy that the world’s three great pessimists – “Byron, Leopardi and myself” –were in Italy at the same time but never met. (I’m not sure that a meeting between Leopardi and Schopenhauer would have been a success. Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter.)
What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science.
Innnnteresting. Again, I’m intrigued by this Leopardi fellow.
Popper’s dissection of the open’s society’s enemies was insightful, but his defense was far too rationalist and embedded in Platonic traditions itself. As a philosopher, he put far too much emphasis on the articulated conversation within open societies, and not enough on the unarticulated, practical knowledge which can only survive when left alone.
…Popper understood that adopting rationalism was not itself a rationally-founded choice, but a moral one. He justified this adoption on the grounds that rationalism offered the only path to non-arbitrary decision making. In Popper’s world, it’s either rational debate or chaos, reason-driven decisions or knee-jerk emotional appeals. The reality, as we now know, is that it’s always much closer to the latter. To the extent that there is such a thing as “reason”, it operates very narrowly within the context provided by the people around us and the culture and traditions we are embedded within.
Interesting. Reminds me of an illuminating article by Razib Khan. I’ll have to keep that in mind whenever I get around to reading Popper (both volumes of The Open Society and its Enemies are in my Amazon wish list, but of course, there’s still a long way to go from that point).
I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by “instinct.” Not only is his overtendency like mine—namely to make all knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the difference in time, culture, and science. In summa: my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness. Strange!
Among the boldest elements of Spinoza’s philosophy is his conception of God. Spinoza’s God, as presented in the Ethics, is a far cry from the traditional God of the Abrahamic religions. What Spinoza calls “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) lacks all of the psychological and ethical attributes of a providential deity. His God is not some personal agent endowed with will and understanding and even emotions, capable of having preferences and making informed choices. Spinoza’s God does not formulate plans, issue commands, have expectations, or make judgments. Neither does Spinoza’s God possess anything like moral character. His God is neither good nor wise nor just. It is a category mistake to think of God in normative or value terms. What God is, for Spinoza, is Nature itself—the infinite, eternal, and necessarily existing substance of the universe. God or Nature just is; and whatever else is, is “in” or a part of God or Nature. Put another way, there is only Nature and its power; and everything that happens, happens in and by Nature. There is no transcendent or even immanent supernatural deity; there is nothing whatsoever outside of or distinct from Nature and independent of its processes.
…Perhaps the most deleterious superstition of all is the belief in the immortality of the soul. Like the notion of a providential God, the idea that a person will experience a postmortem existence in some world-to-come is a part of all three Abrahamic religions. While there is, of course, much diversity among the major faiths about what exactly happens to a person when he dies, and while Judaism, at least, generally does not make the belief in immortality a necessary tenet of the faith, the eternal fate of the soul was of the utmost importance to the great majority of Spinoza’s contemporaries, and this is what he found so troubling. In his view, a robust doctrine of personal immortality, like the eschatology that accompanies it, only strengthens those harmful passions that undermine the life of reason. He devotes a good deal of the final part of his Ethics to showing that while there is, in a sense, an eternal part of the human mind that remains after a person’s death—namely, the knowledge and ideas that she has acquired in this lifetime—there is nothing personal about it. When you are dead, Spinoza is saying, you are dead.
For we are all insulted by
The mere suggestion that we die
Each moment and that each great I
Is but a process in a process
Within a field that never closes…
— W.H. Auden
The wisdom part consists of the recognition that everything is impermanent (annica), that I am among the impermanent things (anatman or no-self; annata, Pali), that everything that happens is caused to happen by prior events and processes and will yield other events and processes (dependent origination), and that if you try to find where things bottom out, you will be led, Zen-like, to find that they don’t bottom out, analytic deconstruction never comes to an end (sunyata, emptiness). Buddhist wisdom says that everything is becoming. What there is, and all there is, are events and processes. Things and substances insofar as they exist at all are simply slow-moving events and processes. Compare: many scientists think that glass is a slow-moving liquid.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, the telling reference to liquid betrays the panta rheist origins of this so-called Buddhist wisdom. You see this a lot in other derivative philosophies as well.
At the same time, however, it was perfectly clear that Nietzsche looked to art, religion and philosophy — and not to race — to elevate man above the beasts, and some men above the mass of mankind.
Though Nietzsche may shock us with his elitist and warrior language, the Übermenschen near to his heart are his aesthetic comrades, “philosophers, saints, and artists.” The unspoken but always present thesis is this: It is in the romantic practice of artistic creativity that modern excellence can be achieved and in an exquisite sense of personal taste and experience that it is realized.
A profound contradiction, of which he was well aware, informs Leopardi’s philosophy. Although he saw in the will-to-truth the primary cause of the nihilism that he believed was drawing modern civilisation into its vortex, Leopardi fully embraced reason, logic, science and this will-to-truth. He followed the truth wherever it led him, refusing to shy away from its conclusions or to seek refuge in mystifications and self-deceiving consolations.
Leopardi’s open-eyed, disabused thinking led him ultimately to a monistic view of reality. All that exists is matter, he concluded, and whatever the tradition calls mind, soul or spirit is only in effect matter. Yet Leopardi’s concept of matter was so original, heterogeneous and self-expansive as to have little in common with the inert matter of the dualists who believe that mind is one thing, matter another. Late in the Zibaldone he declares that everything points to the conclusion “that matter can think, that matter thinks and feels”. Like many of the other thoughts that make the Zibaldone an ongoing conversation with the future, Leopardi’s inspirited concept of matter is one that calls on us to take it up and give it new life in our own time.
I’d never heard of Leopardi before reading this fascinating review, and while I hate to think of having missed out on something I might have enjoyed, there’s also a childlike delight to be had in the continued existence of hidden surprises. How many similar intellectual companions do I have yet to encounter?
We learn about it from Plutarch, who tells us that Epicurus was famous for the maxim “live unnoticed”…To “live unnoticed” means to live a completely private life, with no involvement, beyond what might be obligatory for all citizens, in the public life of one’s community or country, and also with no ambitions for making a mark in any other public realm — in any of the arts or professions, for example.
…It seems obvious that the more exposed one’s life is to the attentions of the public, and, in general, to those of any wide circle of nonintimates, the more one risks one runs of potential harmful interference from them. The general run of people are more inclined to envy and ingratitude than honoring honest good service, or simply reciprocating favors…
Thus for Epicurus the default position is to live a life of devotion to one’s private affairs, letting public and political interests take care of themselves, or rather letting them get taken care of by those foolish enough to go in for such things. The hope is that by keeping out of the limelight one can live happily, in peace and quiet, surrounded, and both protected and advanced in one’s pursuit of pleasure, by one’s family, and by a circle of intimate, like-minded friends.