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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Moral scepticism

Moral scepticism is the philosophical position that will most frequently be defended on this blog.

As a moral sceptic should I believe that there is nothing wrong with murder, rape, dishonesty, cruelty, and mayhem ... and ...?

Well, actually no. I certainly don't believe any of those things, and nor should I. I believe there are very good reasons to prefer kindness to cruelty, loyalty to treachery, non-violent resolutions of conflict to violent ones. In fact, I probably share most (though perhaps not all) of the same core moral attitudes as you.

I can't speak for everyone who has ever claimed to be a moral sceptic, but all I mean by the expression is this. A great deal of ordinary commonsense thinking about morality, as well as a great deal of philosophical thinking about it, asserts, or simply assumes, something that is not true, as far as I can see. It asserts - or assumes - that morality is "objective" in a sense that transcends the desires, interests, values, and fears that human beings actually have.

By contrast, I see the moral norms that prevail in particular societies as arising historically from just those sorts of desires, interests, values and fears. Moral norms ("don't murder or lie"; "be kind") can very often be justified, but the justification will need to appeal to actual human desires, etc. Beyond a certain core, morality may be somewhat underdetermined, its detailed content a product of ongoing bargaining and compromise.

This way of thinking about morality may not make a lot of difference for many important purposes, but it does seem, to me at least, to entail some far-reaching changes to the way we think about morality in the abstract. It also affects how we should consider some of the practical moral decisions that arise socially. It can affect what substantive positions in moral philosophy are intellectually supportable. In particular, I think it implies that many of the more peripheral or unusual examples of whether such and such would be the "right" or "wrong" thing to do may not have clear or determinate answers. Again, some conventional moral wisdom may be without plausible justification.

All that said, most of our core commonsense morality can be justified quite easily. For example, it is not going to be terribly hard to justify having a rule that forbids killing people who fear dying, though there is a great deal more to be said about the detail of this - and I doubtless will say more in future blog posts.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Is Korea really boot-shaped?



You can decide for yourself whether a reunited Koreas would really be boot-shaped, like Italy. Whether the claim is convincing or not, it's a nice reminder of problems with arguments about universalisation in ethics. As my colleague Simon Burgess reminded us at a seminar this evening, even an absurd political maxim such as "Advance the interests of boot-shaped countries!" is universalisable.

Simon quoted from one of my favourite books, Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Mackie points out that patriots in the past have been known to praise their countries for equally bizarre characteristics. Why shouldn't a patriotic Italian advance a claim for his/her country on this basis, as long as he or she is prepared to universalise it to other countries with the same characteristic, such as a unified Korea?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Felix in on the act


Felix will soon be as big as Jenny, at this rate - here she is introducing him to our guests last weekend. And he's still a kitten!

Catching up with family



My sister Bev (Allen) and her husband Ross were in town last weekend for the Commonwealth Games, which gave me a chance to catch up. The Games themselves provided a small break from hard philosophising for a few days.

But I'm now back to the truth mines. I'm reading Digital People by Sidney Perkowitz, a breezy run through the state of artificial intelligence and robotics, and working through Will Kymlicka's massive Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction - this being the considerably expanded second edition, dated 2002, which I haven't read before, though a lot of it is familiar from the original version.

Sinning Against Nature



I spoke to the Adam Smith Society in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago on the subject of "Sinning Against Nature: Morality and Politics". The idea was to discuss claims that we must "follow nature" as a matter of morality, and that this should somehow influence the development of public policy.



Astonishingly enough, from my viewpoint at least, there are still attempts to condemn various practices and technologies on the ground that they supposedly defy or violate the natural order. My aim was to offer a thorough philosophical critique of such claims.

In this case, the audience was quite receptive. We had a stimulating after-dinner discussion. I expect that I'd still encounter objections to cosmic hubris in some other forums.

A more elaborate paper on this subject has been accepted by the Journal of Medical Ethics - hopefully appearing fairly soon.

I'm attaching a couple of pics from the night, one with Anna Blainey, historian and libertarian thinker extraordinaire. (But why do I always end up with alcohol in my hand, or nearby, whenever my photo is taken?)

Getting started

This first post is just a test run. Let's see how this works. Meanwhile, welcome aboard to my friends.

I guarantee it will get more interesting than this. :)