The Beginning of Philosophy

I had planned on writing about a Mukul Sharma piece on the nature of reality, but this Brooks piece that K.M. wrote about needs to be tackled first. Brooks writes-

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.


[Moral judgments] are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution.

He calls this “The End of Philosophy.” It may be – for him.

The piece is, like every piece of Brooks I have had the misfortune of reading, bad to the point of being nonsensical, and full of holes the size of Greenland. Two comments on the piece I sympathize with-

  • First one should appreciate that even everyone, just everyone, even the most wicked people in history, wanted: “the good for all people”. What defined their heritage is just what they meant for the words “good” and “all”.

    If one shares this argument, reflecting even Hitler pursued this objective by assuming “all” meant “all Arian” and “good” meant, quite reasonably, “work and live happily”, he should start changing the paradigm from teaching goodness into teaching wisdom. Into helping people to discover by themselves what is really “all” and what is a reasonable “good”.

  • Philosophy deals in reasons; science deals in explanations. Why be moral? is ambiguous until we make that distinction. The problem is not why am I moral, but why should I be moral?

While the first comment is a general by important one, the second identifies the major flaw in Brooks’ argument – he is assuming that “what is” = “what should be” (this is not about the famous “is-ought ‘dichotomy'”). Just because people substitute emotional responses for rational thinking in case of ethics does not mean that it is the right thing to do. And there is no evolutionary “hardwiring” which mandates such an action. Further, neither evolution nor hereditary factors give us “moral intuitions.”

(Intuition – instinct too – is one of the most misused words in the English language. When Sherlock Holmes and Watson go round to solve a case, its not that Holmes is better at “intuition” than Watson. Its just that Holmes has developed his powers of observation and reasoning to such an extent – of course Mycroft is even better – that his deductions seem “intuitive”/ instant compared to the “dim-witted” Watson.

Another example – a personal experience of mine as I was looking up an article to support my piece. I was searching for a Blanshard – he was one of the few “philosophers of reason” in the 20th century – article; one seemed a good fit, but the link was broken. I was disheartened – for a split second. Then I used my “intuition” that I have sharpened over all these years of searching and collecting information, saw that the url naming scheme of the relevant site had changed, compared the old to the new, did some intuitive voodoo, and voila – I made the 404 error disappear and the article appeared before me – like magic.

All “intuitions” are – at best – unconscious/ subconscious applications of previously learnt/ accepted principles/ ideas. In most cases they are “deliberate” decisions drawing from the sources mentioned in the previous sentence – “intuitions” are still “intellect” in action. They are not a creation of evolution – a ready made source of a priori knowledge as it were.)

Two people come to mind when reading Brooks’ article – T.H. Huxley, and Schopenhauer. The “reasoning as high-priest” with emotions in control sounds very much like Schopenhauer – reason “is like a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulders of a blind giant” – Schopenhauer’s “Will.” From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

As much as he opposes the traditional German Idealists in their metaphysical elevation of self-consciousness (which he regarded as too intellectualistic), Schopenhauer stands within the spirit of this tradition, for he believes that the ultimate principle of the universe is likewise apprehensible through introspection, and that we can philosophically understand the world as various manifestations of this general principle. For Schopenhauer, however, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he calls simply “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of the Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.

As for Huxley, he has tackled the evolution and morality relation. From Copleston’s History of Philosophy-

Those who expound an ethics of evolution, according to which man’s moral life is a continuation of the evolutionary process, are probably right in maintaining that what we call the moral sentiments have evolved like other natural phenomena. But they forget that the immoral sentiments are also a result of evolution. ‘The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.’


[T]he ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

If I were to indulge in some Freudian (or is it Jungian) analysis of what Brooks considers nice – “the first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition” – I would say that he is a collectivist. But I don’t need to indulge in psychological mumbo-jumbo to know that he is a collectivist – he has expressed that sentiment again and again and again in his many columns; just look up his archives – particularly the article on the Olympics in China – August ’08. Then, “the third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice.” He wants a moral philosophy that sanctions what people do without making them feel guilty – something that relieves him of the responsibility of thinking and acting in accordance with reality.

The only time he writes something good – the last paragraph – he massively contradicts himself-

Finally, [the evolutionary/ emotional approach to morality] should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

We come back to the whole question of what is “good?” (Brooks does not bother with such trivial questions – he has already defined what he thinks is “nice.” Its the “Hitler” commentator that raised this important question.) Is it what makes us happy? In that case, the Aristotelian “good life” is something to aim for. And Rand writes about the pursuit of happiness as an end in itself-

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it. And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for”—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself.

But then Blanshard, who subscribes to a form of utilitarian ethics (as did Mises), in “The Impasse in Ethics and a Way Out”, asks the same thing-

[“Teleological ethics”/ “Ideal utilitarianism”] was attractively simple and clear cut. Of the two chief questions of ethics, What is good? and What is right? it held the first to be primary: if you knew what kinds of experience were most worth having, you could deduce what you ought to do; you ought to do whatever was needful to produce the largest amount of good.

How were you to tell what was good? Certainly not by argument; if you did not directly see that it was better to be happy than unhappy, no further evidence would help. This did not mean that there was anything irrational or arbitrary about your insights, any more than about saying that in a parallelogram the opposite sides must be equal. You saw by an intuition which was itself an act of intelligence that happiness must have this further character.

Was happiness the only kind of experience that was thus intrinsically good? No; by almost universal agreement, hedonism was rejected. Wisdom and beauty and love, for example, had a goodness that was clearly not exhausted by the happiness they brought with them. And what was this goodness that such experiences had in common? It was nothing sensible like yellow or sweet; it was not a natural quality at all if that meant something that could be observed and measured scientifically. Furthermore, it was so simple as to be beyond all logical analysis. It was one of those fundamental notions like time and existence about which we can say extraordinarily little, in spite of being perfectly familiar with them. The position could be summed up in its rule of practice: always so act as to produce the largest amount of intrinsic goodness, goodness being a simple nonnatural quality that belonged self-evidently to experiences of various kinds.

Now I do not think that the doctrine, put in this form, will stand. Nevertheless, if there is any ethical theory toward which we can claim a convergence of abler minds from Plato and Aristotle down, I think it is this.

He goes on to refute the various attacks made on this theory by the deontologists, emotivists and naturalists, and then concludes-

Goodness is dependent on the feeling and impulse of conscious minds. It consists in the satisfaction and fulfillment of human nature. Does this destroy the objectivity of our judgments of good and evil? On the contrary, it provides a clear meaning for their objective truth and frees that truth from any dependence on individual thought or feeling. It bridges the chasm between fact and value. It enlists science, especially psychology, in the service of morals. It answers sensitively to our reflective judgments of better and worse. It naturalizes duty, and rationalizes its authority. It offers a standard responsive alike to men’s deeper identities and to the surface differences of nature and desire. In a time when skepticism about personal morality and pessimism about international morality seem to be the order of the day, it holds that to be moral is in the end to be natural and reasonable and sane.

While I have not read it, I think Blanshard’s Gifford Lectures on “Reason and Goodness” go deeper into the whole reason vs. feeling argument and that the “Impasse” lecture draws on this series. A quick excerpt from the chapter on “Human Nature and Goodness”-

It is at this point that the second way of approaching the matter may help. This is the external way. It has been employed illuminatingly by Hobhouse in Britain and in a varying manner by Parker, Dewey, Perry and Pepper in America. I do not mean the method of behaviouristic study, though Dewey and Perry dallied with that method; for a behaviouristic study of values is inept and strictly impossible. What I mean is the method of which Aristotle was the pioneer, a study of goodness that places it in its wider human and biological context. Aristotle would have regarded Moore’s attempt to make goodness of unvarying meaning, identical in a symphony, a mathematical intuition and the taste of a sandwich, as essentially misguided, for there was no suggestion in it of how deeply goodness was implicated with human nature and faculty. Looked at from the inside, goodness might easily appear to be such an abstraction. Looked at from the outside, from the point of view of an observer of the human and animal scene as a whole, this abstraction would seem singularly thin and rootless. Man is a creature of impulses, needs, and faculties; what he seems to be bent on is the fulfilment of those impulses, the satisfaction of those needs, the realization of those faculties. The suggestion of the external approach is that good is as various as they are, and that to conceive of goodness rightly, when cut off from these roots in human nature, is impossible.

Goodness may be studied either as the predicate of a judgment or as an object of pursuit. It was of course clear to Aristotle that we pursue some things merely as means to others, and it was these others in which he was interested. The intrinsically good is what is prized and pursued for its own sake. We may study such goods directly by asking ourselves what it is that above all we want. But the fact is that we do not know what we want with any clearness and definiteness. Hence we must fall back, Aristotle thought, on the consideration of what kind of beings we are. We occupy a certain place in the scale of living things; we have powers and impulses that make some ends natural for us and others impossible. It would be futile for a man to set his heart on acrobatic prowess that would be easy for a monkey, or an aquatic or aeronautic prowess that for a fish or a bird would be effortless. The main principle of the life of reason, for Aristotle as for his modern disciple Santayana, was that every ideal fulfilment had its natural basis and every natural impulse its ideal fulfilment. Neither could be understood in separation from the other. We could no more know what man essentially was without knowing what he was striving to become than we could know what an acorn was without knowing that it was in potency an oak. On the other hand, we could know the appropriate end only in the light of actual powers. The two lines of inquiry must therefore advance together, each set of results serving as a check on the other.

The external approach has been ignored by recent analytic philosophy. This I think is a mistake. Value is so fundamental in human life that its true character can be seen only against the background of human nature. If the intrinsically good is that which this nature finds in itself attractive, it is reasonable to suspect that its attractiveness has something to do with its answering that nature’s needs and demands. I am convinced that if we find certain things good, it is not merely because they fulfil needs; such fulfilment enters into the very meaning of goodness. A sound theory of value can be developed only from an understanding of the soil or setting in which value arises.

Though Blanshard has been hinting at it, Rand provides (in my opinion) the clearest definition yet-

There are, in essence, three schools of thought on the nature of the good: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. It is a theory that divorces the concept of “good” from beneficiaries, and the concept of “value” from valuer and purpose—claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself.

The subjectivist theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality, that it is the product of a man’s consciousness, created by his feelings, desires, “intuitions,” or whims, and that it is merely an “arbitrary postulate” or an “emotional commitment.”

The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man’s consciousness; the subjectivist theory holds that the good resides in man’s consciousness, independent of reality.

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man—and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man. Fundamental to an objective theory of values is the question: Of value to whom and for what? An objective theory does not permit context-dropping or “concept-stealing”; it does not permit the separation of “value” from “purpose,” of the good from beneficiaries, and of man’s actions from reason.

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: