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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Condensed version of my Moral Landscape review

A condensed and slightly rejigged version of my Journal of Evolution and Technology review of The Moral Landscape has now appeared as a featured article at the ABC's Religion and Ethics Portal (yes, I wish this had a different name, such as "Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion", but I suppose "Religion and Ethics" attracts more viewers) under the title "Moral Scepticism versus Sam Harris's Moral Realism".

This is only a third of the length of the original, so some arguments and nuances are inevitably lost. It did, however, also give me a chance to sharpen up some points (and certainly some phrasing). Do have a look and feel free to involve yourself in any debate that arises over there.


Nathan said...

Have you seen the pap that their in-house writers put out? I had high hopes for the abc's newest portal when it was created during the rise of atheism, but quickly found it to be the fuzzy spiritually "balance" to the rest of the secular abc. It's a wonder it's not called the "religion and ethics-can-only-come from-the-magical-sky-fairy portal".

When they allow reason in momentarily, it's only so they can demolish the article with a wrecking ball suspended magically from the heavens.

Good article though.

Jamie Uren said...

Speaking of people attempting to develop an objective non-god based ethics have you read Clive Hamilton's (an Australian philosopher) The Freedom Paradox? What did you think of his attempt? He certainly comes from a different perspective compared to Harris. I would recommend Hamilton to others.

GTChristie said...

I think your article in that venue is better focused and stated more clearly than the original version. It's a very tight and potent piece of work.

But you've referred many times to your own "moral scepticism" in the article and in the Metamagician blog. I can see from those references that yours is a limited version of such a skepticism -- which comes in many flavors -- but I still cannot detect exactly which flavor that is, except by inferring several features from the general tone. Maybe you have spelled it out somewhere I haven't seen. Still, it would be useful for me to understand in what sense you are a moral skeptic and what sense(s) you are not (if any), lest I read more into it than you intend (or miss anything). What does "moral skepticism" mean to you?

As I've said above, I agree with a limited skepticism that holds "there are no moral facts." I'm just curious whether you go beyond that, and how far.

Russell Blackford said...

GT, I put a version of this comment on the other thread - by mistake I think, or maybe something similar came up there as well.

Anyway, on moral scepticism, first I am sceptical as to whether people actually know what they mean when they say "Xing is morally wrong".

I am sceptical about the claim that moral judgments are ever objectively binding in the sense often discussed on this blog; in fact, I'm convinced that they're not. I suppose that's the gist of what I mean when I call myself a moral sceptic.

Beyond this I am suspicious that people are (always or often) implicitly claiming that their judgments are objectively binding when they make certain kinds of moral judgments (such as "Xing is morally wrong") and that their judgments are, to that extent, false. That is standard moral error theory, and I think it's probably correct, or very close to being correct (the quibble being that the folk may not be saying something quite so strong, partly because they are confused as to what they are really saying).

The moral scepticism I'm talking about is pretty much the same kind of moral scepticism that JL Mackie talks about. The only live question in my mind is what people really mean by first-order thin moral claims, or what those claims really mean. On what reading all such claims are literally false. On another, that isn't quite right; it's more that this sort of language is full of confusion. It's a question of exactly what moral semantics you want to combine with the denial that these claims are objectively binding. But whatever, exactly, the truth is on moral semantics, the claim that these first-order thin judgments are not objectively binding is the essence of what I have in mind by moral scepticism. And as I said on the other thread it's an unpalatable idea for most people.