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Clarified Butter

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Mary Agnes’s funeral is tomorrow, and I’m  having one of those odd and floaty days.

When I get like this, I tend to wander around reading the kind of stuff I usually see no point to–this history of the Mediterranean through food, for instance.

Okay, that book is actually a good one, even if a lot of the recipes require a boatload of lard and salt pork.

But I do want to say a couple of things.

The first is that I’m not sure I agree with a lot of Rand–in fact, I am sure that I disagree with a fair amount of it.

I do think she made a credible attempt at a humanist morality with an objective foundation that is not merely a matter of saying “this is the behavior I like, so I’m going to call it moral.”

She did it, however, in a way that hasn’t been done before, or at least not really.

She did it by rejecting out of hand what most of us would consider “morality” to be. 

Instead, she identified as moral issues aspects of human behavior that common moral codes tend to ignore altogether–productivity and rationality, for instance–and to have no particular use for some ideas common moral codes simply assume (like charity).

What most moral philosophers try to do instead is to take common moral opinions–charity is a good idea, for instance–and provide them with a foundation from non-religious sources. 

And by and large, it hasn’t worked.

The most ambitious–and most honest–of these attempts has got to be John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which also has the virtue of being reasonably well-focussed.  What most of the attempts to write secular moral philosophy have done over the last 40 years–from Paul Kurtz to Peter Singer and back again–is to chase around trying to include everything they’ve decided is a good idea this week.

That way, you get the spectacle of Kurtz’s Eupraxia and Forbidden Fruit,  which start out declaring that we ought to look to those moral precepts held by all societies everywhere across time–and then trying to somehow make the emancipation of women and the right to abortion “fit” in a history that wants nothing to do with them.

For all Kurtz’s unrigorous silliness, however, he at least makes an attempt to be analytically rigorous.  His failures have mostly to do with the fact that he assumes his conclusions.  He begins by “knowing’ what belongs in a moral code and then goes casting about for some foundation that will fit it.

If there is a way to secularly ground an objective basis for a moral code, it can’t be done this way.  Whether you like Rand’s conclusions or not, the approach to discovering such a ground must be to do what she seems to have done–first investigate, then explicate, and if what you end up with is not the same as what we now call “morality,” so be it. 

It is possible that, if we investigate honestly, we will find that what it really means to be moral is very different from what we’ve been taught to expect it means.  The movement of the heavenly bodies turned out to be very different from what Copernicus had been taught to expect it would be, too.

What Peter Singer and his disciple Peter Unger do is far worse than anything Kurtz has managed, and it’s worse in Unger than in Singer.  Or maybe I should say that Unger hides it less well.

In fact, I’d say that what Unger does, at least in the book Living High and Letting Die, isn’t technically philosophy at all.   It’s closer to that great–and greatly embarrassing–fad of the 90s, “values clarification.”

As I pointed out here before, Unger does not try to provide any ground for his moral philosophy.  He rejects both logic and truth as being irrelevant to moral enquiry,  and then tells us he’ll give us a series of examples that will help us idenity our “Basic Values.”

If all this sounds hopelessly muddled, it is, but it was that when I first mentioned it days ago.

What’s been getting to me as I read through the book is Unger’s reports of the responses given to him by people to whom he’s given his hypothetical scenarios.

And just to make sure that it wasn’t just me–being a rather unusual sort of person for that sort of exercise–I read a few of the hypotheticals to Greg and Matt, and they didn’t respond as “most people” either.

Actually, I should have known that Greg wouldn’t respond to these the way Unger’s respondents did, because he’s never responded to this thing as  you’d expect.  Once, when he was much younger–around three or four–I gave him the Lifeboat exercise. 

He listened to the whole thing from start to finish, growing more and more exasperated, and when I was done he went, “Isn’t one of those people a carpenter?  Fine then.  He can build more lifeboat.”

It’s possible that Unger simply invented the respondents he reports on–he mentions, at one point, trying to get a sociologist interested in his project, and failing, so he’s the only one who knows–but maybe not, and if not, those responses bring us to some very interesting places.

The big one, for right now, is this:  that there are a significant number of people in this country (or on this country’s college campuses) for whom the very idea that somebody, somewhere might be hurting in some way brings them to such a degree of emotional panic that they’re no longer able to think their way out of a paper bag.

And it’s that panic I want to get to next, that hyperemotionalism that’s perfectly willing to throw out bath water, baby and just about anything else in the face of the possibility –well, I’m not sure of the possibility of what, yet.

Maybe I’ll get to that later.

Written by janeh

July 21st, 2010 at 6:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Clarified Butter'

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  1. Oh, yes, it does sound like Rand made an interesting and original attempt to solve the problem of developing a moral system without either gods or an ideal human or human as an exemplar of a particular role to base it on. I don’t think she succeeds, but I suppose she hasn’t done much worse than contemporary philosophers of the Singer type. Maybe she’s done better. But I still think it’s impossible to base a moral code on our studies of ourselves. It’s circular, like pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

    There’s something more like a chasm than a thin line between using responses from others as illustrative examples and using them as evidence of their (or their group’s) beliefs and attitudes. Maybe Unger is confusing the two.

    I think the tendency to get wildly upset over distant suffering is partly an inability to accept that suffering is inescapable in life connected to a belief in the perfectibility of human nature and human societies; partly a quite genuine desire to help the unfortunate which can’t be slaked at home by helping people who, after all, not as desperate as the ones are away. And partly, in my more cynical moments, because it’s a lot easier and a lot more pleasant to send money and lobby your own government about distant wrongs than actually go out there with some charity or volunteer group, or for that matter, trying to help out, face-to-face, some dirty, suspicious street kid in your own city who is possibly mentally ill and quite likely on drugs as well. Another version of tourists at the revolution, perhaps?

    Some people seem to think that they don’t really feel anything unless they make a big show of it, and phrasing it that way, I suspect, shows my own prejudices in the matter. It’s partly personality, partly cultural. A friend of mine who recently attended the funeral of an elderly relative, is of the classic stoic eastern type, male version – you don’t make a public display of your feelings under any circumstances. The widow came from the other extreme of personality and a different culture. It’s extremely difficult for people who are so radically different to deal with each other, particularly under such painful circumstances. I tend not to take emotional pleas about the starving children in China very seriously – those who are hyper-emotional tend to think people like me don’t care if children starve. That’s the way things work.

    I hope you find some comfort in the funeral.


    21 Jul 10 at 7:11 am

  2. Hasten to get hold of Theodore Dalrymple’s “Spoilt Rotten” that deals neatly with the excess of sentimentality that is, he believes, at the root of most if not all of our current problems. He comprehensively eviscerates Brother Singer in passing in half a dozen or so succinct but devastating paragraphs.


    21 Jul 10 at 7:34 am

  3. Jane, is the book you’re reading the one by Clifford Wright? It sounds interesting.

    And I hope the funeral isn’t too difficult for you.


    21 Jul 10 at 1:16 pm

  4. The book I’m reading is called Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, by Peter Unger.

    And it’s not so much interesting as mind-numbingly idiotic.

    But, you know, I’ve got blog posts coming…


    21 Jul 10 at 1:27 pm

  5. I truly hate to say something in Unger’s defense, but I would think falsified responses less likely than sampling error. Remember Pauline Kael’s “Nixon couldn’t have won! No one I know voted for him.” It’s even easier today. Live in the right neighborhood, belong to the right faculty and find a suitable publisher, and you can go a very long time without being disagreed with, let alone having anyone ask you difficult questions.

    But I’d discard the “emotional panic” theory out of hand. Forget rhetoric and watch behavior. There’s probably a jacket photo. Is Unger eating the minimum necessary for survival? Is his wife cutting his hair and he himself buying his clothes at Goodwill so every dime can be spent sending food to the Third World? The people who really can’t ignore some tragedy behave differently. They are rare, while people unable to think their way out of a paper bag seem quite common, even on campus.

    Wait five or ten years. Unger will be equally hysterical over something else.


    21 Jul 10 at 4:01 pm

  6. Sorry, Jane, I was unclear – I meant the Mediterranean food one.


    21 Jul 10 at 6:43 pm

  7. I thought Mediterranean food was supposed to be very healthy in spite of being full of olive oil and wine. Where do the lard and salt pork come in?


    21 Jul 10 at 6:58 pm

  8. Aha! I knew the name Clifford Wright rung a bell–yes, that’s the one.

    And Cheryl, the modern day Mediterranean diet may well be healthy, but this is a history of food in the Mediterranean and it starts around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.

    They used a lot of lard and an INCREDIBLE amounnt of sweet stuff.


    21 Jul 10 at 7:17 pm

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