About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

They need to get me to talk at TED

Seriously. Tell the TED people!

It won't happen any time soon - the way for someone like me to get such gigs is, I suppose, to write a best-selling book. That's easier said than done, as Ophelia was saying the other day. But I keep thinking that it's possible to give a better approximation to the truth on the whole "science of morality" and "is morality objective" thing. Even a 20-minute summary of the full thesis (not just part 1) of Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong would actually be worthwhile. This thesis is unknown to the general public, but very important. Mackie makes all the good points that Sam Harris makes and others besides, without falling into any serious metaethical traps. Obviously, the book could do with some slight updating, as it was published over 30 years ago. But I've been reading it (yet again) and am amazed (yet again) at how solid it still seems. It was way ahead of its time in 1977 - though in another sense long overdue, as Hume's useful ground-clearing work, which Mackie follows, was resisted by philosophers for over 200 years.

Hume and Mackie do, in fact, provide the foundation for something like a scientifically-informed practice of ethics. They also show that philosophy can make progress.


Tony Lloyd said...

There's always Youtube, Russell

DM said...
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DM said...
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Russell Blackford said...

Well, there's always the next AAP conference.

Russell Blackford said...

But there's no substitute for a high-profile event like TED.

Marshall said...

This comment thread isn't working out at all well so far, pity.

Thank you for the pointer to Mackie. Ethics is on order; in the meantime, Plato.Stanford:

Although contemporary philosophers have been divided with respect to Mackie's moral skepticism, they have mostly agreed in rejecting his extremely strong claims about what moral motivation, and the objective moral properties that figure in our moral judgments, would have to be like. They have uniformly rejected the suggestion that a grasp of morality's requirements would produce overriding motivation to act accordingly.

The point about the psychological nature of Morality... I see Mackie quoting Russell "ethical propositions should be expressed in the optative mood, not in the indicative." (New vocabulary for me!) But should we not say that ethical propositions are implicitly expressed in the cohortative (!) mood: "Let's not torture babies for fun!". Be that as it may.

Regarding "the full thesis", are you putting yourself beyond the "uniformity" of "contemporary philosophers"? Indeed, it seems to me that the whole point of Morality as opposed to Rationality is that it does produce ... rather, can be detected by ... a motivation to act accordingly (not necessarily an overriding motivation but not to be ignored). We feel a revulsion towards instances of babies being tortured. One says "instinctive"; perhaps with regard to torturing babies, but more interesting cases are clearly not innate; as, some people feel revulsion at hunting for sport, which other people think of as good clean fun. The moral principle would be something like "unnecessary taking of non-human life is wrong"; the revulsion or sportive pleasure felt is quite genuine and genuinely motivating.

So how do some moral notions get linked into a person's emotional fabric? We beg the question by pointing to "Culture"... our uniquely human psychology, which supports culture, including morality, is to the point. I think when we say someone "believes in ", we are pointing to that being linked in to the psychological underpinnings that generate our moment-to-moment emotions and activity. We "grasp the requirements" in a way that gets under the skin. Contra rationalists (such as Massimo Pigliucci), it isn't an assertion that is "empirically verifiable", aka "true", although rationality is by no means excluded from the process.

Yes? No? Maybe? Hope you will expand on your thought here. Don't wait on TED!

March Hare said...

To truly understand morality we have to do the impossible - we have to leave behind our innate instincts (evolutionary), we have to ignore our cultural bias and we have to remove any personal bias that has come from places other than culture (friends, thinking, reading etc.) Once you have done that you can evaluate morality impartially.

Unfortunately there is no known way of doing that, and if you could what would actually be left? A cold, rational calculating machine, a sociopath, or a psychopath?

Must go try to find time to read Mackie now...