Carter on Humean Ethics*

I just read a good article by Alan Carter on Humean Ethics. For a lot of students reading I guess that might seem a little bit of a juxtaposition as I know a lot of students leave A-Level or IB Philosophy thinking that Hume ‘didn’t think morality was rational or real’.
Carter’s exposition is particularly clear in explaining the ‘second tier’ of Hume’s account of morality. The first, as many students do know, deals with the way Hume claims that seeing suffering can cause an emotional response. Impressions are like sense perceptions and Hume call thinking about them having Ideas. What is remarkable about the human animal is that we seem to be able to move not only from impressions to ideas about them, but to go in the other direction too! Ideas, says Hume, can gather momentum, so to speak, until they give rise to things that might better be described as impressions.
When I think deeply about a previous experience and worry that it might happen again, say, then I can ‘feel’ various impressions as a result of this chain of causation.
Hume thinks that when I see someone torturing another, for example, I think about pain and how I dislike it and that leads me to feel some sort of repulsion to the act. This is projection. I am not accessing some metaphysical realm of right and wrong, and it is not a given that others will see or feel as I do. But what happens next is important.
Hume explains that groups of people, where a majority of people do agree, speak as though access has been gained to some objective order. Of course the feelings and perceptions are really unrelated, but when I learn my friend doesn’t like torture too we make the move to speaking as if we are seeing something ‘out there’ rather than projecting. This move, and those following like working out laws are rational not emotional. And it is this rational stage that Carter thinks is of great promise to environmentalists for it promises a potential consistency that is greater than any other normative theory.
I’ll leave exactly why for class but here are your questions:
*Carter, Alan ‘Hume and Nature’ in LaFollette (Ed.) Ethics in Practice (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002) 664-673.

John Nolt on Moral Arguments

For those of you studying IB Philosophy, or taking Higher but interested in going beyond the simplicities of the course, John Nolt’s Environmental Ethics for the Long Term has an excellent section on philosophical arguments in ethics.

Section 2.2.1 has one of the best explanations of the “is/ought” fallacy I have ever read. Using the terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ to refer to premises that respectively contain or do not contain a sentiment of something being right or wrong, he uses the phrase ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to refer to an argument where (at least) one premise and the conclusion include some sort of moral valuing.

Of course an argument can be valid and sound if it contains no moral sentiments (1), and one which has ‘moral’ or ‘ought’ premises might lead to a valid and ‘ought’ type conclusion (2).

Example 1:

all volvo cars have a steering wheel

my car is a volvo

therefore my car has a steering wheel

Example 2:

one should intervene when one person is abusing another against the latter’s will

‘abusing another against their will’ is what happens in sex-trafficking

therefore you should be acting against sex-trafficking

Of course one might object to the ‘truth’ of each of the premises here, but if one did agree with both then it would commit you to the conclusion. This is an example of what Nolt calls ‘prescriptive reasoning’. The problem is when someone tries to move from purely ‘descriptive’ premises to a prescriptive conclusion. This is the is/ought fallacy. The example used by Nolt is the use of Social Darwinism by the Nazis, simply because the ‘strong’ or ‘fittest’ survive it certainly does not follow that one should act in a way to make this happen.

Allowing this ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to stand is not the same as believing it to be sound. In fact it can be particularly difficult to spot problematic premises. Consider the following:

We ought to eliminate suffering.

The only feasible way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate all sentient beings.

Therefore we ought to eliminate all sentient beings.*

*Nolt, J Environmental Ethics for the Long Term (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015) 39.

Nietzsche and Feminist Philosophy

In class this week I alluded to the belief that to take Nietzsche’s comments about women (in the GM or indeed any other text) as merely the expressions of a ‘man of his time’ was a mistake. In fact this (mistaken) view is exactly the one attributed to Walter Kaufmann by Kelly Oliver and Marilyn Pearsall in the introduction to their Feminist Interpretations of Nietzsche.
In addition to this, Nietzsche’s popular ‘bumper sticker’ reputation is that of a misogynist and of course it is not hard to find passages that, at a first glance, might support this reading. At the same time there a feminist philosophers that herald the famous German as an ally in their project, so things cannot be quite so obvious.In fact the more one reads Nietzsche, the less obvious this reputation’s deservedness becomes. It does certainly seem strange that a writer who put an unreasonable amount of thought into his metaphors elsewhere would use and celebrate feminine ‘birthing’ metaphors so readily.
Oliver and Pearsall helpfully separate two distinct, but not unrelated, areas of feminist Nietzsche studies. The first is concerning Nietzsche’s actual view of women, whether he is being ironic, hateful or something else in his comments about women, and the second investigates whether Nietzsche promises feminists helpful philosophical tools. At first glance, of course, there are a number of promising or fruitful considerations. In his denial that reason is faultless, objective and absolute or that ‘Truths’ (and even language) are something to do with power or even oppression Nietzsche must at the very least be interesting to feminist philosophy. The genealogical method itself is worth mentioning here. Further, as one credited with the ‘return to the body’ in Western Philosophy, the intrigue and promise of Nietzsche can surely only grow.
This book only arrived on my desk this week, and I look forward to reading it. For now it may be most beneficial as students to hear a little about the various view expounded, so you might think about them as we read the texts.
At the more ‘postmodern’ end of the scale in terms of reading Nietzsche, O&P describe Kofman as finding Nietzsche significant as she see him as denying the category of women ‘as such’. Likewise they interpret Derrida as finding Nietzsche refusing to understand sex (or perhaps gender) as something involving two polar opposites, whilst Higgins finds Nietzsche’s view of women “enabling” (10).
On the other hand, some readers find a thinly veiled parallel between male/female and master/slave morality respectively. Singer even sees that all women are ‘good for’ is mothering overmen and are even understood as “embodiments of ressentiment” due to their lack of manliness.
Tirrel reads Nietzsche as foreshadowing de Beauvoir in thinking it legitimate to talk of ‘woman’ not due to some ontological (natural) difference but because of the way cultures ‘create’ them. Wininger considers an ethical response to Nietzsche and adjudicates that feminist ethics must reject both slave and master moralities wherever it finds them.
This looks to be a brilliant collection of essays and could give rise to a very good IA or EE.

Cambridge Companion to Levinas on Issuu

One of the philosophers I would love to talk about more in IB Philosophy is Emmanuel Levinas. I always feel a bit like I’ve ‘sold short’ my students when we get to revising and haven’t talked about this profound thinker who sees a potentially exciting and all-changing link between phenomenology and ethics.

The above is on Issuu and you can read the entire introduction…




God and right and wrong…

This is a wonderful clip for thinking about religion and ethics. For those not familiar with The West Wing the bald gentleman plays Toby Ziegler, a senior aide to the President. In this episode, President Bartlett is face with a decision on whether to pardon a criminal due to be executed.

Non-religious people tend to think that religious people suppose they have some sort of ‘monopoly’ on truth when it comes to ethics, but this clip shows the ‘uncomfortableness‘ of religious ethics.

A long long time ago Plato recorded Socrates posing a difficulty for all those who believe right and wrong are what the god(s) say they are. This was the position held by the young and ‘upright’ Euthyphro.

American Beauty

To my shame I only watched this recently and it was, in my humble opinion, a quite brilliant picture. Each of the main characters would be more than sufficient for an Internal Assessment or even an Extended Essay in IB philosophy.

Where to start though…? Again, this is the sort of film that will draw one’s own philosophical persuasions to the surface, but I would expect that most philosophically literate members of the audience will be prodded into reflecting upon existentialism. Perhaps because of my own areas of particular interest, I found myself thinking about the relationship between Sartre and Kierkegaard. Kevin Spacey’s character undergoes a change. He realises he is free to do what he chooses and he begins a journey towards living authentically. Despite initial impressions, there is also an ethical dimension to this change; this is most noticable when he decides not to sleep with his daughter’s friend. This authenticity is placed in stark contrast with the Colonel, who moves in across the street. He is clearly deeply unhappy and (partly due to his belief in the Divine) is an emblem of the inauthentic life – lying to himself about even his own sexuality.

There are also a number of characters living by systems, or what Kiekegaaard would have called ‘ethical frameworks’. These people spend every part of their energy trying to realise a self-created goal. This, as the Dane points out, is a project doomed to failure: either one realises the goals and find this unsatisfactory (causing despair) or spends a whole life struggling and never reaching (equally as bad). Anyway before I feel myself being drawn into my own essay I will stop. Watch it.