The problem I see with utilitarianism, or any form of consequentialism, is not that it gets the wrong answers to moral questions. I think just about any moral theory, worked out intelligently, and applied with good judgment, would get just about the same results as any other. Mill developed utilitarianism with great humanity and insight. Perhaps that is why many utilitarians (those with less humanity, insight and judgment) say he is not a true utilitarian. I have said to two of my friends: David Lyons and John Skorupski — both excellent philosophers, who have made a deep study of utilitarianism — that they are my favorite utilitarians. The reaction of both was the same: “But I am not a utilitarian!” To this my reply was: “Ah, so that explains it.”Two
Consequentialist theories begin with a very simple and undoubtedly valid point: Every action aims at a future end, and is seen as a means to it. (This is precisely Kant’s conception of action.) So one rational standard of action is how well it promotes the end it seeks. Another standard is whether it aims at ends which are good. Both of these, but especially the former, depend on judgments of fact. Utilitarians are usually empiricists who think they can solve every problem by accumulating enough empirical facts. They do not realize that thinking as well as experience is necessary to know anything or get anything right. ["Thinking" means "thinking with great humanity and insight"?] Philosophy is about getting the facts right, but it is also about thinking rightly about them. ["Humanity and judgement" and "rightly": the contradiction between humility and moralism] Philosophy is more about the latter than the former. That’s why empiricist philosophy always tends to be anti-philosophy (and is often proud of it) [in favor of "science"or opposed to it? (see Hume, below)]. People are often most proud of precisely those things of which they should most be ashamed. (The rightward side of American politics illustrates this very well.) [And academic pedantry is leftist?]
The big problem for consequentialism is that facts of this last form are hard to obtain except for a few determinate ends in the fairly short run. Consequentialist theories pretend that we can set some great big ends (the general happiness, human flourishing), provide ourselves with definite enough conceptions of them to make them the objects of instrumental reasoning, [was Hume an intrumentalist?] and then obtain enough reliable information about what actions will best promote them that we could regulate our conduct by these considerations alone. In fact people do not know enough about themselves and what is good for them to form a sufficiently definite conception of the general happiness (or whatever the end is) to establish definite rules for its pursuit. [Well there goes a truckload of academic literature out the window]
Further, we cannot predict the effects of our actions, [click the fucking links] especially our collective actions over generations or centuries, to use instrumental reasoning toward these big final ends to tell us what we ought to do. As a result, it is possible to use the simple point that it is rational to choose the right means to your ends to develop very elegant abstract formal theories of rational choice, and then turn these into what look like moral theories. Philosophers tend to be ravished by the formal beauty of such theories, and they don’t pay much attention to the fact that our human limitations make them pretty useless in practice, while the simple point about instrumental reasoning is too shallow to be of much real moral interest. [Lazy rationalism. Hume was an empiricist, right?]
When consequentialist theories are developed in terms of an equally shallow psychology of the good — such as a crude form of hedonism — the results can sometimes strike sensible people as revolting and inhuman. People can be reduced to simple repositories of positive or negative sensory states, and their humanity is lost sight of entirely. When people think that moral problems can be solved by some simple strategy of calculation, that sets them up for ghastly overreaching. They think they can turn everything into a “science” the way mechanics was turned into a science in the seventeeth century. [rationalists rationalize] They want to turn everything over to technocrats and social engineers. They become shortsighted or simplistic about their ends, and they disastrously overestimate their ability to acquire the information they need to make the needed calculations. Utilitarians of the caliber of Mill and Sidgwick do not do these things, at least on particular moral issues about which they reflect as human beings. [yes another fucking link]
...Marx is thought of as an implacable foe of capitalism. But go back and read the first section of the Communist Manifesto. Notice how it contains a paean of praise for the way capitalism and the bourgeoisie have both enriched the human powers of production and also enabled us to see with clear vision the nature of human society and human history. It has taken me a long time to realize where I most disagree with Marx. His assessment of capitalism is far too favorable. He took its instability, inhumanity and irrationality to be signs that it was a merely transitional form, which had delivered into humanity’s hands the means to a much better way of life than any that have ever existed on earth. Marx could not bring himself to believe that our species is so benighted, irrational and slavish that it would put up with such a monstrous way of life. He thought that it was inevitable that people would find a better way. We now see that this was not so. Capitalism has not proven to be a transitional form, a gateway to a higher human future. Capitalism now seems more likely a swamp, a bog, a quicksand in which humanity is presently flailing about, unable to extricate itself, perhaps doomed to perish within a few generations from the long term effects of the technology which seemed to Marx its greatest gift to humanity. Capitalism has proven to be a far more terrible system than Marx could ever bring himself to imagine. Those who are so deluded as to find something good in it, or even feel loyalty toward it, are its most pitiful victims. [moralizing fatalism]
David Hume, who died in his native Edinburgh in 1776, has become something of a hero to academic philosophers. In 2009, he won first place in a large international poll of professors and graduate students who were asked to name the dead thinker with whom they most identified. The runners-up in this peculiar race were Aristotle and Kant. Hume beat them by a comfortable margin. Socrates only just made the top twenty.
This is quite a reversal of fortune for Hume, who failed in both of his attempts to get an academic job. In his own day, and into the nineteenth century, his philosophical writings were generally seen as perverse and destructive. Their goal was “to produce in the reader a complete distrust in his own faculties,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1815–1817. The best that could be said for Hume as a philosopher was that he provoked wiser thinkers to refute him in interesting ways. As a historian and essayist, though, Hume enjoyed almost immediate success. When James Boswell called him “the greatest Writer in Brittain”—this was in 1762, before Boswell transferred his allegiance to Dr. Johnson—he was thinking mainly of Hume’s History of England, which remained popular for much of the nineteenth century. “HUME (David), the Historian” is how the British Library rather conservatively still catalogued him in the 1980s.
["History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind, but it does not deepen it."]"Still, it is probably the rise of so-called “naturalism” in philosophy that best explains Hume’s newfound appeal." The return of the descriptive naturalism of literature and history and the fading of prescriptive pseudoscience. Philosophers are coming to terms with the fact that Modernism is dead. The Enlightenment is dead. Hume's humanism was the humane pessimism of the Renaissance, not the optimism of pedants.
...Still, it is probably the rise of so-called “naturalism” in philosophy that best explains Hume’s newfound appeal. [Contemporary naturalism is just the sort of pedantry Hume mocked. Is Santayana popular again?] Naturalism has several components, all of which were prominent in his work. Hume stressed the similarities between people and other animals: a century before Darwin’s Descent of Man, he argued that there is no great difference between the minds of humans and the minds of some creatures in zoos. (Hume also anticipated Darwin in implying that certain mental traits function to aid reproduction.) He treated religion as a natural phenomenon, to be explained in psychological and historical terms—which tended to annoy the pious—and he argued that the study of the mind and of morals should be pursued by the same empirical methods that were starting to cast new light on the rest of nature. Philosophy, for Hume, was thus not fundamentally different from science. This outlook is much more common in our time than it was in his.
Hume’s response to the allegation of universal skepticism was that the author of the Treatise—who, he pretended, was someone else—had meant only “to abate the Pride of mere human Reasoners.” He advocated “Modesty…and Humility, [back to Montaigne and Erasmus, and Humanism, not the anti-Humanism of pedants. Humanism is not optimism. Look it up] with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties.” As for the foundations of morality, Hume anonymously protested that the author of the Treatise had merely denied that “the Propositions of Morality were of the same Nature with the Truths of Mathematicks and the abstract Sciences.” The book did not dispute the fact that there was a difference between right and wrong; rather it maintained that this difference reflects humanity’s “internal Tastes and Sentiments”—which, according to Hume’s pamphlet, ought not to be received as a shocking idea.
Allen Wood (first link): "I think it is already clear that Rawls is the greatest moral philosopher of the twentieth century." Rawls was to philosophy what Tolkien was to literature. But Tolkien will last longer.
Another one that I'm not going to go on about.
"Holy Wars: Secularism and the invention of religion"
Relativism and Religion: Why Democratic Societies Do Not Need Moral Absolutes"Accetti’s singular insight is that Catholic and secular theorists of democracy, for all their differences, agree on one fundamental assertion: ethical relativism is a problem for democracies."
Carlo Invernizzi Accetti
Columbia University Press, $65 (cloth) 65 fucking dollars.
The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions
Yale University Press, $18 (paper)
Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report
Princeton University Press, $24.95 (paper)
blasts from the past
I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: "I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men." Toqueville's point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says "considered" not "really". So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?Relativism is foundational to democracies. Democracy is strictly formal as to process and relativist as to absolutes. That's the fucking point.
I shut down an absurd debate about the roots of secularization once with the simple comment that secularization is the simple result of coexistence: once a Catholic girl fucks a Jewish boy it's the beginning of the end for religion qua religion."The Tunisian “success story,” then, is not that all sides wanted democracy, but rather that all sides had no choice but to settle for democracy."
To put it in terms of law: modern democratic justice is a Muslim judge hearing the case of a Christian accused by a Buddhist of robbery, defended by a Jew, with the state represented by a Hindu, before a jury of Animists and Jains. In order to function in such an environment you need to engage it in its entirely; you must answer not to one interest or another but to all.
Necessity is the mother of secularism. Philosophy does not invent; it codifies. Practice precedes theory.
And Michael Walzer is a Zionist. The data is not on his side.
"History is bunk". I do all this on autopilot. That's my only excuse.