short philosophy


One way of looking at what I have done, both here and in my books, is to say that I am asking about what we can trust. I am certainly not unusual in that nowadays, but I decided many years ago that it was worth talking explicitly about why many people don’t trust our actual moral or ethical culture (politics being only the most obvious symptom of distrust). If it is true that we talk most about the things we don’t have or can’t find, then we should not be surprised about trust getting more attention lately in areas ranging from business economics to sex relationships. After all, whom do we trust? Even scientists are suspect as careerists or even stooges of big business and political pressures. Religious bodies are trusted in many parts of the world, but just in those communities where faith is strongest religion confronts the challenge to make a message of peace and justice other than a demonic joke. Thanks to such terrors as climate change, genetic engineering, or cosmic catastrophe science is taking over the role of prophecy – in the old Biblical sense of that term which includes warning us of the error of our ways – along with the challenge of finding prophets that the people can actually trust.

In these conditions, should we wonder why so much energy in twentieth century philosophy went on trying to deal with questions of meaning? Still less why writers in the sociobiological current such as Pinker (1993, 1998) have not only developed explanations of why language competence has been such an evolutionary success story, but also devoted much attention to the role of deception in communication. (Characteristically, evolution of deception’s mirror image; that is, efforts to expose and counteract deception, receives less attention). No doubt this line of thought does help us to understand our past – with some limited support from physiological evidence like facial bone structures that we evolved a lower voice box capable of making a wider range of sound, it may tell us why Neanderthals, for instance, did not fare so well as homo sapiens. But like analytic philosophy and public relations it fits a present where we are both trying to communicate to people whose first belief is that we are all ‘economical with the truth’, and trying to sort out just what we can accept as true amid a welter pleadings, pledges, and half-truths! The more outrageous rock stars and icons have a different method: Tell them you’re trash and then they’ll believe you!

In the 1940s Orwell had tried to combat totalitarian propaganda with advocacy of the clarity of ‘standard English’ – only to fall foul of the various polemical ‘class’ associations of standard English itself. That proved to be only one particular example of the problem that we do not even trust the languages we speak and write; in desperation we join with advertisers and sloganisers in debasing the language and its resources in search of something we can believe in. I guess the sloganisers will ensure that’s a futile quest. If we want something we can trust, we must concentrate on what we say, not how we say it. If that turns out to sound posh, then so be it!

All this leaves the plight of those with any moral viewpoint, no matter what about, with a huge problem. In the world of polemics between sundry pressure groups and then the various religious and political campaign themes, we find leaders making fools of themselves by ‘taking the moral high ground’ only to find themselves blasted as hypocrites if they (or their colleagues) don’t match up to standard, or blasted as puritans telling us what to do if they do, or else suspect as potential fanatic tyrants. No wonder some prefer to keep their mouths shut, or take the moral low ground instead! Such is the driving force behind the current which goes by the horrible name ‘neoliberalism’, which basically seeks to escape the problem by leaving every issue to markets and the price mechanism. Unfortunately, this often merely replaces one kind of mistrust by another, illustrated by apartment blocks with different entrances for rich and poor.

Hence my interest in direct democracy. Why not confine leadership to organising the rest of us to settle our values, by direct vote if need be? After all, we’re gaining experience on tackling loaded questions and vote rigging all the time, are we not? For all its hazards direct democratic decision leaves the partisans free to spout their polemics to their hearts’ content, and if we then make crass decisions, that’s our lookout.

Disagreement, decision and Scanlon

From just talking to people I feel there is a profound change in attitudes to religion (at least Christianity) and atheism from any time 50 or more years ago. Religion often came over as a gloomy matter of sin, and redemption if you were lucky enough to be saved, whereas the secularist held out a bright future of progress by getting rid of the evils of poverty and superstition. Now things look rather different. I have actually met people who feel that if the promises held out by either religion or politics cannot be met, then the universe is a hostile and evil place. But more common is my own mother’s feeling that, whatever the truth of philosophy or theology, religious people are more hopeful than others and some of them show a compassion or peace you don’t find elsewhere. It is still the case that places of worship give you a feeling of peace when you go inside and I find that myself. Yet, sadly, as soon as religion moves out into those public fields of moral issues, ethnic identities, historical claims, or education the peace and compassion seem to evaporate. The current troubles of the Irish church even find the idea of consecration, and consecrated ground, denying the peace and compassion they are supposed to stand for. At the same time the label ‘progressive’ appears to have turned into one for someone fighting to keep a residual dream of secular progress alive regardless of whether any progress actually happens out there. In many instances ‘progressive’ just means scared of the alternative!

That sort of change, surely related to our lack of trust, makes it all the more urgent to sort out moral dilemmas which neither religion nor secularism has resolved, leaving only narrow partisan groups (despised and feared by others) to claim they can offer solutions alone. When questions of ethics arise we have to deal with the mistake, common in secular thinking as well as religious, of supposing that unless our ethics/morals can be derived from some eternal truth (the will of God being an obvious illustration, but others like mathematics, history, or reason in general have each been tried) they must be purely a matter of opinion. It is that error which led Leo Strauss, mentor of America’s ‘neo-conservatives’, to imagine that if values cannot be derived from facts of the universe in that kind of proof, nihilism and chaos must ensue. Now, if we had to insist that ethics must be proved true on metaphysical grounds or else they do not apply, then something like that would follow. But if we say ethics derive from practicalities of living, then it is not necessarily the case ethics is just a matter of ‘opinion’, with chaos and barbarism ensuing if the opinion is not accepted. In each case, there is a decision to be made. A decision is quite distinct from an opinion, which may or may not be acted upon at all. Choosing to make a decision on something, whether for an individual in her own life or for a wider society, does not state any abstract or certain truth, but it does mean a commitment going beyond an opinion into action. In a public or official sphere overlooking that simple fact leads quite naturally to the dubious notion apparent in recent legislation that allocating ‘social value’ can be left to markets, especially if the scope of shared values in local or national communities is narrower than we are willing to admit.

Of contemporary responses to these circumstances, as well as to the abstract vagueness of such notions as ‘happiness’ or ‘utility’, I reckon Thomas Scanlon’s version of ‘contract’ is the best I know of. Of course, there’s no actual contracts involved (there never are in social contract theories); what Scanlon has in mind is each person making judgements about what moral principles or standards she thinks other people could not reasonably refuse, or, put another way, making judgements about whether she can justify her principle(s) to other people in any argument.1 I very much doubt that many people consciously work out their morals in that sort of way, but as a way of looking at the general case it has a good deal to recommend it. In particular, Scanlon keeps the basic equality of each person counting for one and not more for ethical purposes, without the same difficulties over respect for minorities which can arise with adding up ‘utilities’. Further, the notion of ‘reasonable’ acceptance or rejection avoids the ambiguities which apply with rationality; especially the interminable argument over whether ‘rational’ is just about effective organisation and economical ways to achieve your goals, or whether, as Immanuel Kant would have it, it is also about assessing your goals and the moral principles behind them, in themselves. It helps that people are accustomed to thinking in terms of reasonable behaviour and that for judicial purposes decisions are made about what people can be reasonably expected to do or to accept. Scanlon’s approach can be a good way of recognising that ethics and morality – and law in specific cases – deal with minimum standards of conduct which everyone in a society can expect from anybody else, even if they are complete strangers they have never known before.

In an abstract explanation it might seem good enough just to say that from the point of view of each person the last point makes clear that she owes a basic respect, which might include specific rights and obligations, to anyone else, but within that her personal friendships, loves, commitments, and goals are her own affair. But, as the social issues around education, nepotism, inheritance, and many other matters show, the boundary between ethics and moral obligation to strangers (not to mention foreign nationals) and personal commitments remains highly controversial. This highlights where Scanlon is apt to find a problem. Although he discards Kant’s conception of freedom, he still wants to keep the idea of moral community he thinks Kant has. Even if it is true that people have reason to care about their relation to others in all times and places, the sectarian character of contemporary society which is well illustrated by the issues referred to above, and the difficulty of persuading members of groups with differing ideologies or moral causes that opposing views of other groups deserve to be taken seriously are apt to render the moral community a chimera. In matters ranging from expression of identity to inequality of rewards in a market situation, it is, to say the least, unclear that those with one viewpoint recognise that others might reasonably object to their position. This is one reason why I believe that, for all the problems with judging the moral worth or otherwise of actions with regard to their (foreseeable) consequences, it will still be necessary to invoke consequences of action as a backstop principle in cases where moral communities, or sub-communities, are rigidly opposed and cannot simply be left to go their separate ways.

Even if ethical theorising, sometimes called moral philosophy, can work successfully with the 21st century world, that still seems to leave the universe as a tough place. Modern cosmology and ecology imply we’re extremely lucky to be here at all, around a peaceable star in a relatively quiet neighbourhood of the galaxy. Even our planet is a quiet affair without any very recent supervolcano eruptions. (When Sirius gives up the ghost in a supernova, or if we can’t sort out a diversion for any awkwardly placed asteroids or black holes, we’d better be elsewhere.) The latest discoveries suggest the prospects are for the universe to go on expanding indefinitely, so it just ends up cold, dark, and dead. But to talk of ‘evil’ or ‘hostile’ we have to have some sort of conscious deliberation which is vicious, rather than just the unconscious – i.e., lacking in the sort of awareness, intention, or deliberation we associate with ‘consciousness’ – processes which scientific ‘laws’ (i.e., theories which appear to fit out there) describe. Ethics or morality, and therefore conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong, etc., deal with something quite different. These relate to intentions leading to actions, and contact with other people who may be affected by how we act.2

Science extends the scope of moral questions

That is exactly why development of science and expansion of scientific knowledge has the reverse effect on moral culture or ethical debates from the one positivists typically expected. As every successful science generates technologies in its wake, it extends the range of possible (deliberate) actions which can then be subjects of ethical choice and controversy. We need only look at medical or military technologies to see this working in practice. In point of fact a technology such as making magnets or breeding plants or animals may be employed before it could be understood through scientific theory, but that makes no difference to the general principle.

Once technology applies a science, ethical or moral choices, and therefore questions as to appropriate decisions, move into the new space created for them. The neo-Darwinists are as fond as the old Freudians ever were of pointing out that the processes which influence our behaviour, including moral behaviour, are largely unconscious – our ancestors’ survival and breeding depended on them and (until recently) we don’t think about them. But once we have both a scientific understanding of these things and growing technologies which can interfere with them, the processes are no longer wholly unconscious and we start making decisions about them. Once that happens, new issues appear which are moral, not scientific. Some scientists themselves, notably the physicist and environmentalist Michio Kaku, are appealing to the rest of us to start debating possibilities like conscious direction of our evolution, redesigned children as a fashion accessory for the rich, or machine intelligence, right now. In particular I would like to see serious moral philosophers getting involved in debating such issues, and the (probably) resulting obsolescence of the Nature/Nurture argument, rather than leaving them to assorted cranks and bigots.

Some of us may recall that the Human Genome Project already claimed to have mapped the entire set of human genes in 2000. In light of the sudden and perplexing revision in the estimated number of these genes from 100,000-140,000 down to 26,000-40,000 (a reduction of around 70%!), we must remain unsure what that signifies. In any event, we will still not understand what all the genes do, or how they work together. Still less do we understand the part played by other ‘junk’ DNA in each chromosome. But we have already been disputing for decades about the moral legitimacy of ‘germline therapy’ for heritable diseases.3 That argument became practical when scientists investigating HIV infection wanted authorisation to do germline therapy. The issue at stake here was not whether they could do it, but whether they should be allowed to do it. That is an ethical, not a scientific (or technical) question. But crucially, whichever decision is made by whatever authority might be deemed appropriate (say political or judicial authority), the outcome is an ethical decision on what is permissible and not a scientific one. That applies just as much to prohibiting germline therapy as to permitting it. Other biological factors we are learning more about, such as foetal development in the womb, will similarly come under the scope of ethics and moral choice where matters ranging from the mothers’ diet to pollution are concerned. Once again it needs to be recognised just how outdated and misleading that notion of the biological being unalterable turns out to be.

When, earlier in the last century, Einstein agonised over the way his very abstruse science could be applied in practical terms through nuclear technology, the connection between science and ethics, with the latter having to deal with applications of the former (through technology), emerged in sharp relief. But we also saw the nature of ethics or moral values as being not about truths of the universe, but rather about the choices which these truths may leave open to us. It becomes quite natural that far from squeezing out philosophy (including ethics and morality) as some have imagined, science gives it far more to do.


1. Scanlon’s foremost work is What we owe to each other, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1998) although his contract theory was first outlined during the 1980s.

2. It is an ancient notion,present for instance in Christian thought, and embodied in laws of criminal responsibility or contract that moral action, together with responsibility and guilt, depends upon conscious intention. Unconscious behaviour cannot be morally right or wrong, which used to be an argument for saying other animals don’t have ‘souls’. However, many modern observers believe other animals do have a degree of consciousness.

3. Germline therapy, which means introduction (or removal) of genetic material to the patient making a change that can be passed on to the patient’s descendants, is distinct from somatic therapy, used now in treating genetic disease and permitted under the international agreement, which does not make heritable changes.



Very often, the most helpful approach if you’re interested in ethics or morality, or philosophies around them, is to try three things: 1) Look into some general work on the subject like Mary Warnock Ethics since 1900, (Oxford University Press, 3rd edn., 1978); 2) Look at some of the classics in the field: anything you can find from ethical teachings of the world religions or ancient writers like Plato or St. Thomas Aquinas to more modern stuff such as Mill and utilitarianism (Mill put forward the principle that we can do as we wish provided we don’t harm other people) or Ayer and ’emotivism’ (roughly, our moral values come from our emotional responses to things as being good or bad). Immanuel Kant tries to tackle all the problems, whilst Friedrich Nietzsche seems especially in touch with the modern world. You may or may not agree with what any of these people have to say, but they can all be illuminating. 3) Just think about any live ethical issue you may feel important: might it be restricting health care to people who can afford the insurance; abortion; treatment of children or whatever else? Any issue has its own specialist literature, and you can often follow it in the media. Do ethical ideas put forward by classical writers lead to a sensible, or acceptable, solution in such particular cases?

The recent developments in social science have encouraged some people to think they are on the track of why we have the moral values we do. Notice that 20-30 years ago a Marxist explanation in terms of ruling class ideologies was accepted by a considerable number of people, whereas now Darwinian explanations in terms of our evolved emotional responses are more fashionable. Which do you favour? Again, you can move from ethics to sociology or even biology to find out more.