I ended the last post with the question of how to put together the insights I have found from Western philosophies like Hegel’s, on one hand, and Buddhism on the other. That question is the twenty-year project that animated my dissertation, though it could not be the dissertation. There it was Martha Nussbaum rather than Hegel whom I juxtaposed with Buddhist thought, because she had engaged with key Buddhist ethical questions and taken opposed answers. (Engaging with Hegel at any length, on the other hand, would have required a whole ‘nother dissertation.)
In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.
More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. Continue reading
Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”
Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.
But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. Continue reading
Aeon magazine recently published an excellent popularized version of Eric Schwitzgebel’s reflections on his research indicating that professional ethicists are no more ethical than anybody else. I’ve already blogged here both about the research and about the reflections. Betsy (Elizabeth) Barre shared the Aeon piece on her Facebook feed, leading to a lively conversation on Facebook which provoked me to think further about deeper issues around it.
In that conversation I shared my earlier reflection on the topic. In response, among other thoughts, Barre noted she was surprised that Schwitzgebel hadn’t presented the reflection in terms of the standard distinction between “what is moral?” and “why be moral?” And she asked me: “I take it that you think the latter question is not as problematic as some philosophers and ethicists do?”
That question came as a surprise. Continue reading
My friend Stephen Harris recently posted an interesting article on the question of whether Śāntideva’s ethics is “overdemanding”. I appreciate the article’s methodological approach. It engages Śāntideva’s ethics with the categories of analytical moral philosophy while moving beyond the relatively fruitless attempt to classify it: not “is Śāntideva’s ethics consequentialist?” but “is Śāntideva’s ethics vulnerable to the charges made against consequentialism?” The latter approach is more important because it allows engagement with Śāntideva’s ideas: asking the question “to what extent is Śāntideva right?” Continue reading
We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.
Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.
This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.
On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.
But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? Continue reading
Is the concept of (human) rights a modern conceit, as Alasdair MacIntyre thinks? To answer that question, it helps to look at the premodern roots of the concept of rights in some detail. The French legal historian Michel Villey has probably done more than any other to help us understand the historicity of the concept of rights – to recognize that the idea of a right as we understand it today is not a human universal, but has a specific history. (Unfortunately, few if any of Villey’s works have been translated into English; even the Wikipedia link above is French only.) Something like Villey’s work probably underlies MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of rights. Still, if we examine the similarly pioneering work of Cornell historian Brian Tierney, we will see that Villey’s claims are at least somewhat overstated, and MacIntyre’s even more so.
The etymology of the English word “right(s)” goes back very far – it is shared not only with German and Dutch Recht but with the word ṛta from the Sanskrit Vedas, denoting the cosmic order underlying the world. But what’s most important in the history of “rights” and related words is not the words themselves but the underlying concept, the one that comes to be expressed in modern European languages as droit, derecho, Recht, rights. That concept begins as a word which is not etymologically related to the modern European words, but which those words all translate and which is the root of modern European thinking about them: Continue reading
Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? Continue reading
The image of a drowning child is a vivid one – enough to make it a key example in two very different traditions of moral philosophy. In ancient China, Mencius used the image to illustrate humans’ natural inborn moral benevolence: we would all “have a feeling of alarm and compassion” at such a sight, and not out of any form of self-interest. Thousands of years later, in the early 1970s – when Chinese philosophy was known to the West but it would rarely have occurred to a Western philosopher that he should study it – the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer used the same image. In his famous article “Famine, affluence and morality”, written in 1971 and published 1972, Singer says this:
if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
But Singer puts the image to a very different use than Mencius. Continue reading
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a groundbreaking work that changed the way the world thinks about natural science. Kuhn claims that science works not as a steady, additive accretion of knowledge, but as through periods of specialized knowledge accumulation within one paradigm that (every so often) is displaced by a genuinely novel revolution that overthrows the existing paradigm.
It has sometimes been noted that social scientists and philosophers are much more likely to read Kuhn than natural scientists are. I don’t think this is necessarily because natural scientists are less likely to believe Kuhn’s historical account, but because they are less likely to see the history of their discipline as relevant to their current activity. For my part, I do not (yet) know the history of natural science well enough to know how accurately Kuhn’s description fits it. But it’s worth thinking about how Kuhn’s description applies outside the natural sciences he studied, to the humanities and social sciences. Continue reading