Sunday, May 9, 2010


I know this is going to sound silly, but I'll say it all the same. Ever since my youth, I've been intrigued by the philosophy of morals. A child's first introduction to the notions of right and wrong is based largely upon punishment. It's wrong to poke your tongue out at an old man, even though he looks like a scarecrow. So, if the child does so, it's normal that he's likely to be spanked by his mother or father. It's also wrong to play with safety matches, but the punishment is of a different kind. Instead of a spanking, your fingers get burned. Although both actions—making fun of old folk, and playing with dangerous devices—are things that a child "should not do", the child soon starts to feel that there's a difference between these two categories of bad deeds. In the first case, the wrongness consists, as it were, of doing unto another something that you maybe wouldn't wish to be done unto yourself. In the second case, it's simply a matter of not accepting sound advice from experienced oldies who've already made those same mistakes and paid the price in pain.

Within the territory of right and wrong, good and bad, there are a striking number of loopholes, or rather patches of no-man's-land, particularly when other partners step into the picture: social customs, the influence of peer groups, the law of the land and, above all, religions. The territory is transformed into a vast muddy field, where youthful adventurers soon get bogged down… particularly when sex raises its naughty head. For example, young people generally feel that fornicating is good stuff, even when they haven't yet reached the so-called 'legal age" for acts that were referred to, in Australian law, by a delightfully exotic and erotic expression capable of giving a young man an erection: carnal knowledge. Screwing was not explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments (except in the form of adultery). Admittedly, if the partners in such a timid crime happened to forget about contraception (often because they didn't know what it was all about), then it could resemble the case of innocent children playing with safety matches.

For all these reasons (and many more), I signed up for a course in moral philosophy at the University of Sydney, in the context of my science studies. There, the naive 16-year-old country boy from Grafton was confronted immediately and inspired immensely by a wise old man from the past named Socrates.

After asserting that "the unexamined life is not worth living", he was put to death for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens. Clearly, there were diabolical dimensions in the quest for the truth about morals… if such a truth existed. This became more and more obvious to me when I finally had a chance of looking at what had happened in Auschwitz… which had never been a noteworthy event, curiously, back in my hometown circles.

The classes of an obscure professor of moral philosophy named Alain Ker Stout [1900-1983] were an intellectual catastrophe, because he didn't have much to say, and his way of saying it was sadly comical. Funnily, though, I've retained, not only most of the little he told us, but also three of the books upon which his teachings were based.

They still carry my antiseptic ex libris, which looks as if it were written by a lad fresh out of Sunday school… which was in fact the case.

The philosophy of so-called utilitarianism is even dumber than the term used to designate it. Apparently, we should strive to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of good people. (I'm simplifying.) What does that have to do with utility? Today, only somebody with a mind like that of George W Bush, say, would find this idea "philosophical". To be truthful, I don't know whether or not Bush ever studied John Stuart Mill [1806-1873].

G E Moore [1873-1958] was a brighter analyst… whom I respect for his associations with my two greatest philosophical heroes: Bertrand Russell [1872-1970] and Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951]. But he, too, seems to end up telling us that he doesn't really have anything more profound than common sense to tell us about right and wrong, good and evil, and that stuff.

The well-written little book by Patrick Nowell-Smith [1914-2006] has been a primer for countless readers (Penguin sold more than 100,000 copies) who were intrigued by the idea of a logic-based approach to the philosophy of morals. (It would be more correct to speak of logical positivism rather than logic in a broad traditional sense.) But the interest of this book, today, is mainly historical.

So, what are we left with? Well, unfortunately, we're left with a widespread opinion that, somehow, you need to believe in religion before you even have the right to talk about morals. The antiquated enemies of secular thinking attempt to spread the notion that society would disintegrate into a vast anarchic cesspool of savage depravity if ever the little gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were to be removed from the current scene. It goes without saying that these rumormongers are stupid liars, who seek to bully innocent folk into accepting religion in order to save society from barbarian turmoil. But it's the evil liars who are the New Barbarians.

Basically, thinkers such as Richard Dawkins remind us constantly that human nature is what it is, for the better and for the worse, and that the alleged existence of a deity is a totally irrelevant speculation. It's not because the god Jupiter went out of fashion that assassination attempts upon mothers-in-law, say, suddenly spiked. On the contrary, people are starting to believe, these days, that if the gods were finally stacked away in wardrobes with all the other skeletons of human history, there would surely be a drop in crime statistics ranging from raped schoolkids up to kamikaze operations.

In this general context, the brilliant US atheist Sam Harris has succeeded in surprising many of his friends by suggesting that there might indeed be objective links between science and morals. In February 2010, he spoke on this subject at the prestigious conference known as TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design].

In the face of many reactions, Sam Harris has just clarified his thinking in an article entitled Toward a Science of Morality [display]. I like to think that Harris might be onto a good goal: the idea that, somewhere deep down inside our inherited structure of thought, there are inbuilt neuronal circuits (or something like that) that work nonstop at promoting the principle that Auschwitz and countless other barbarian acts were wrong, and that helping little old ladies to cross the busy street in bad weather is a morally good act, for which you deserve to win brownie points. [Remind me to tell you the joke about a pub artist who plays a miniature piano.] For the moment, I would conclude that Harris is not necessarily wrong, but that he nevertheless doesn't need to be right in order for societies to evolve morally in a "well-behaved" fashion.

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