About Me

My photo
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).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Interviews on moral theory

I did my two interviews last night - both long ones, and both about the Sam Harris book, David Hume, moral realism, moral scepticism, and related ideas. The first was with Common Sense Atheism, at 7 pm my time. Then at 2 am my time I did one with the Minnesota Atheists. The latter was live to air and is already, I gather, available in podcast form (I'll dig out a link later on). The Common Sense Atheism one will be podcast at a later date.

I'll have a bit more to say about the individual interviews later on. More generally, it was an unusual experience for me doing all this media work in one night - it doesn't happen that often, and it was just a coincidence that the same day turned out to suit both organisations. I also don't do this sort of thing often enough to feel especially polished at it, and I look on it as a learning experience. On the other hand, I enjoyed the interviews and thought that both went pretty well. I was a bit tired for the second one, and we had some problems with the line dropping out a couple of times. All in all, I thought I was a bit sharper in the first one.

In both cases, I spent quite a lot of time defending Sam Harris/explaining what I agree about with him. Basically this comes down to the important point that religion doesn't provide an authoritative source of guidance in how we should lead our lives, and neither does the local culture. We shouldn't be accepting a practice merely because it is accepted in the culture where it happens. I emphasised that when we evaluate cultural traditions, moral norms, laws and legal systems, customs, and so on, we should look at their consequences for the people they affect.

I didn't manage to say anything quite this cogent, but I suppose I could have put it that consequences are salient to evaluation of these things - not their source in tradition, or a holy book, or a priestly class. I did try to convey that insofar as Harris is saying these sorts of things there's an important message that I agree with.

This was worth making a bit of fuss about, I think, because my review of The Moral Landscape stresses that the most interesting things I could say were about where and why I disagree with the book. That's true if we mean "philosophically interesting", but there's also a take-home message that I can get behind, and these interviews provided an opportunity to spell it out in a bit of detail.

At the same time, both interviews provided opportunities to defend David Hume, and to point out that science cannot determine our deepest values or the totality of our values, even if we otherwise accept the Harris analysis, since that analysis presumes a value of "the well-being of conscious creatures" rather than showing how this is an empirical finding. Thus, TML leaves Hume's point about the is/ought distinction unscathed: Hume never denied that you could derive an "ought" conclusion if you include in your argument an "ought" premise, such as "we ought to value/pursue/maximise the well-being of conscious creatures". His point was that you cannot derive a conclusion containing the relation "ought" solely from premises that do not contain it, but only the relation "is". So, he said, some explanation is required as to where the "ought" relation comes from or how propositions containing it are justified.

There was also an opportunity in each interview to stress that I am not proposing to stamp out talk of "well-being", which can be perfectly useful, but that I don't think it can be pressed beyond a certain point. I explained how well-being may not be just one thing but a mixture of things that we do in fact value - though some of us may weight some of these things differently from others, with no further truth as to who is "correct" to do so. This alone leaves some room for legitimate disagreements, unless all the aspects of what we call "well-being" are lined up in the same direction, as they will be in extreme cases.

The interviews got really interesting - and into the deepest philosophical water - when they turned to questions about moral scepticism, error theory, and so on (all the core metaethical stuff). Unfortunately, we ran out of time in the Minnesota Atheists interview, and had to cut it short at an interesting point where I was about to discuss the example of my disagreement with Peter Singer about radical life extension proposals. That was just a bit frustrating. It was, however, partly because my answers were a longer and more diffuse than I'd have ideally liked.

Still, these were two good opportunities to talk about my philosophical ideas to a popular audience, which is rather different from delivering them to academic colleagues or putting them in written form. The change in forum can make you look at your ideas in a different way, as you wonder how well you're explaining them to such an audience and how they'll come across. Philosophers should do more of this.

More on that later - I'm planning to reflect a bit more about each experience in separate posts. All in all, once again, an interesting night for me last night, and I just hope it went well from the point of view of others involved.

Back soon with more reflections.


Mike Haubrich said...

The podcast for the Minnesota Atheists is here.

I do regret that we had to cut you off at the end. That is one of the tricks of live radio.

Russell Blackford said...

No worries, Mike. I hadn't managed to get back here until now, so also thanks for including the link in your comment.

josef johann said...

You should stop by Common Sense Atheism when the podcast is out and respond to comments at his blog.

drdave said...

Russell, genetics tells us that a defective individual is the result of reproduction between siblings. Therefore, ought we not to engage in reproduction between siblings?