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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In praise of Baron D'Holbach

As some people discovered or already knew, the quotation in the previous post came from one of the first atheist manifestoes - at least within Western modernity - Baron D'Holbach's Le Bon Sens (Good Sense) (1772). I removed some distracting capitalisation from the version linked to in this post, but that aside, the thoughts are very modern. It's also worth noting that D'Holbach pulled no punches - if you dig into it, you'll find that he was scathing about the church and doctrines of the time.

When we say that there's nothing very new in the so-called "New Atheism", we're serious. There was, indeed, a publishing phenomenon, and it continues to some extent, but many of the actual arguments can be found right there in D'Holbach, as can the forthright attitude. In fact - no offence to anybody among the current New Atheists, but purely as a compliment to D'Holbach - D'Holbach's formulations of some of the points are as good as anything in the current literature. In any event, his work is an important part of our rationalist heritage and at minimum I thought it worth drawing attention to it.

As I think is clear,  the passage I quoted does not provide a single knock-out reason that somehow makes moral rules rationally binding on us all, irrespective of whatever desires we might have. But he does offer powerful considerations that will move most of us most of the time to treat each other decently, and give us an incentive to create laws to cover the most important points where we cannot tolerate some people opting out.

Many thinkers, including some atheists, seem to want a more transcendent source for our moral codes, and for morality to be inescapably binding in reason. But I argue that we don't need anything so grandiose. The basic naturalistic basis has been available to reflective thinkers in all ages of human civilization. There's room for disagreement around the edges and for refinement as we discover more about ourselves, but similar rationales were offered by, say, the Epicureans in Hellenistic times and the Carvakas in India. Not surprisingly, David Hume said similar things to D'Holbach (so I'm not surprised that I've had suggestions that the passage might be from Hume).

It's when we look for more than these ordinary worldly reasons, which include our own responsiveness to each other, that we go wrong.

6 comments:

Derick Ovenall said...

I have just finished reading "A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of The European Enlightenment" by Philipp Blom, which is mainly an account of D'Holbach's Paris salon in which he hosted such freethinkers as Diderot, Hume, D'Alembert, and many others. Before reading this book my knowledge of The Enlightenment was limited to Voltaire and Rousseau. It's an excellent read. and I can heartily recommend it. Blom has also written a book on Diderot's Encylopedie, a copy of which I have on order.

Marshall said...

How about Psalm 14, "The fool says there is no God ... they have all turned aside". Written from the Theist side obviously, but evidently there were Atheists to be opposed to already by maybe 3000 BP, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were making the familiar arguments: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun." -Ecclesiastes 1:9

Many thinkers, including some atheists, seem to want a more transcendent source for our moral codes, and for morality to be inescapably binding in reason. But I argue that we don't need anything so grandiose. The basic naturalistic basis has been available to reflective thinkers in all ages of human civilization.

Few humans are reflective thinkers before maybe 40 years worth of maturity, and an elite liberal arts education is a big help. So my question is how do you get effective, actionable moral codes installed in adolescents and other unreflective people?

If the atheist-theist debate has been around for so long, and naturalist morality has an efficiency advantage, doesn't that suggest that religion has an adaptationist explanation? Spinoza said that if humans understood their own self-interest, including the advantage of forming communities, well enough, there would be no need for Law, but we are deceived by our own ego-greed.

That Guy Montag said...

A sentiment even this slightly pompous moral realist can get fully behind: Hear Hear.

Matti said...

Hi Russell,

first of all I've been reading the blog for a few months and enjoy it a lot, especially the (meta) ethics posts. Since I've noticed you often bring up desires and how difficult it seems to come up with a moral theory that (sufficiently) accounts for them, I'd like to know your take on desirism/desire utilitarianism (which furthermore is an objective moral theory, as opposed to error theory).

For anyone interested, a reasonably short introduction can be found here:
http://alonzofyfe.com/article_du.shtml

Sigmund said...

Nothing is new in the criticism of New Atheism either.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Atheism-Erosion-Freedom/dp/1931230234/ref=sr_1_24?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1305812625&sr=1-24

Scott Lahti said...

Jonathan Sumption just reviewed the Blom book Derick mentions:

http://www.spectator.co.uk/print/books/6915453/setting-the-world-to-rights.thtml

You may also have seen, from last month, the assault on the latest book by New Atheist Sam Harris:

http://www.thenation.com/print/article/160236/same-old-new-atheism-sam-harris

Matti's interest in desire utilitarianism is well-timed within Peter Singer's review in yesterday's TLS of the epochal new book on ethics by Derek Parfit (email me for a copy).