Sunday, 31 January 2010

G.E. Moore and Intuitionism

Whilst the discussion of Sidgwick made clear a number of features of intuitionism that are important, Sidgwick himself had only a partial acceptance of intuitionist tenets. At the beginning of the 20th century, by contrast, G.E. Moore wrote a work that had a broad effect on the understanding of intuitionism as well as providing a set of methodological guidelines that proved influential within the general practice of ethics. This is Principia Ethica. Moore's book has a number of odd characteristics but key amongst its claims are the following:

1. The notion of "good" is simple and unanalysable meaning by this that it is an ultimate term that cannot be reduced to anything further.
2. The notion of "good" is something quite different from what could be meant by anyone after an enquiry into "the good" as what would fit this notion would be a complex that could be understood in this way due to combination of different types of things together in their notion.
3. The question concerning what kinds of things ought to exist for their own sake or as good in themselves are incapable of proof and this claim that they are incapable of proof is what is meant by claiming that our relationship to such things is one of "intuition".
4. Our sense of what kinds of things ought to be done is something different from any of the above though again it is a question that involves complexes and is best understood in an overall sense, with regard to things not too far distant, to be generally probable, and to involve pluralist conceptions (i.e., a number of things not reducible to each other).

The peculiarities of the combination of these positions in the work should be fairly clear but the emphasis on pluralism in connection with an epistemic thesis that denies that the ultimate question about ethics is one that can be captured by reference to ends separable from the sense of what is "good" (albeit combined with a rule-consequentialism concerning conduct) do indicate a mixed response to ethics that helps to bring out the basis for the muddle that later becomes the antithesis between "deontology" and "teleology".

Friday, 29 January 2010

Bad News At King's College London

The axe appears to be falling at the Philosophy Department at King's College London. The general reports emerging from both staff and students there are for sackings of staff members including full professors and students have already established a Facebook group to protest. Click on the headline of this posting for re-direction to Leiter Reports who has more information on the situation.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Henry Sidgwick and Intuitionism

In turning from the considerations with consequentialism in the last posting to intuitionism in this I am not sure that we are making a move that at all parallels that supposed to hold between deontological and teleological theories of ethics. If consequentialism is broadly something one can define as holding that criteria of the rightness or goodness of an action consists in the consequences it produces then, for intuitionism to be a counter to this, it would have to be premised on some other criteria than consequences. However, intuitionism does not start out, in any variant of its claim, in this way. Rather, intuitionism is set out in the first instance as a kind of claim concerning the nature of our understanding of moral principles, not, first of all, as a view concerning the way in which such principles should be understood as determining our sense of what it is that is "right" or "good". So intuitionism is motivated by quite a different type of concern to consequentialism.

However, this first point should not obscure the kind of way that the understanding of moral principles connects to a description of what kinds of principles are justifiable so this second point does link to an account of what kinds of principles we should adopt. Both these points are joined into relationship with each other by reference to what are termed "intuitions". Intuitions, in the basic normative sense, are, apparently, what underpin our normal convictions  concerning what is right or what should be done. Whilst there are arguments for holding that the notion of intuitionism was held widely amongst Scottish philosophers in the 18th century the formulation and understanding of it that seems to have first put it on the map of contemporary moral theory is the one that was set out by Henry Sidgwick in his major work The Methods of Ethics. This work is one that has received a considerable revival of interest in recent years, perhaps partly because of its importance for John Rawls (although Rawls has a very peculiar relation to Sidgwick since Sidgwick's book is intended as a sophisticated argument for utilitarianism).

Sidgwick here presents intuitionism (along with hedonistic utilitarianism and egoism) as one of the three main methods for arriving at a systematic view of morality and he presents intuitionism as integral to comprehending the morality of "common sense" (in this implying a connection to Scottish common sense philosophy although he does not draw this connection out). Sidgwick characterizes intuitionism in different ways. Initially he describes this as a view of ethics that "regards as the practically ultimate end of moral actions their conformity to certain rules or dictates of Duty unconditionally prescribed" (96) which appears to align it with the view Broad later termed "deontological". However, alongside this normative conception of it Sidgwick also puts a general conception of the claim to possess "intuitions" as some kind of moral knowledge which is related by him to the possession of certain kinds of immediate judgment (in alignment with the notion of "intuition" elaborated by Descartes). 

This epistemic sense of intuition is related in the first instance to an emphasis on particulars (as in the notion of act-deontology that Broad mentions) and can thus, in a sense, converge with a form of situation ethics as a normative theory. However, least that be thought to be sufficient to describe the relation between the normative and the epistemic items Sidgwick goes on to characterize intuitionism as inclusive of a second method that brings in general rules (like rule-deontology).  On this conception the general rules are held in implicit form in the reasonings of ordinary men and the task of the moral philosopher is to bring them to light and state them with precision. This kind of conception of intuitionism might be thought also to have some relationship with the emphasis on common morality that Kant sets out in the first part of the Groundwork. This point is not made by Sidgwick but has been suggested by some contemporary Kantians.

However there is added to these first two forms of intuitionism a third kind in which the task of the moral philosopher is expanded so that s/he does not just uncover the moral principles of common sense and state them in a newly precise form but also arrives at some general underlying basis to these principles that common sense itself would not have suspected (a bit like the move then from the first to the second parts of the Groundwork). 

However to all these points there is subsequently added a further point by Sidgwick who suggests that intuitionism is committed to pluralism concerning value since it recognises intrinsically different and not necessarily compatible notions of the "good" and hence requires some procedure for offering lexical ordering of them (as in Rawls' discussion of the priority of the right over the good and his many other lexical orderings like that of liberty over equality).  When we bring all these features together it becomes clearer that what has been discussed as "deontology" by contemporary moral philosophers has quite a background in intuitionism. Given this surprising congruence I propose to examine in more depth in further postings the position(s) that have been proclaimed as intuitionist in 20th and 21st century moral theory in order to see whether the developments in its understanding can be of further help in clarifying the status of the claims made by those who assert that there is some sense to describing Kantian ethics as deontological. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


The previous postings have indicated some difficulties with the discussion of the ethical positions that are often (not entirely consistently) classified under the headings of deontology and the priority of the right and indicated that the notion of teleology, as used in moral philosophy, is less clear-cut than many would lead us to believe. In turning to consequentialism as the next topic it would appear that at last we are on safe ground, both in terms of the general view, and in terms of its relationship to Kantian positions in moral philosophy. 

The reason why this appears so is that the general position of consequentialism is not as difficult to state as some of the previous views considered. It consists, as pretty much anyone agrees, in the claim that the rightness or wrongness/goodness or badness of an action consists in its consequences and not in any other attribute of the action in question. This much is, indeed, generally granted. But we only need to look at the general article on consequentialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see that things quickly become complicated when you try to unpick what is meant by "consequences". The author of this piece, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, quickly makes clear that the ability to pick out such consequences is less than evident since a number of different things can be meant by "consequences". After all the consequences could be what actually follows from some action (as opposed to what was foreseen to follow from it), only on the "value" of the consequences (however these are determined), only on pleasures and pains as specific consequences (hedonistic version), only on the best consequences (so that a procedure of maximization is required), on either the total or average net good produced or on the effect on all affected (as opposed to only counting some). Other complications, not noted by Sinnott-Armstrong, concern whether the results should be assessed in terms of total benefits produced or in total harm reduced (positive and negative versions).

What is clear from looking at this array of questions is that the term "consequentialism" is a very broad-brush way of characterising a very varied family of views. This accords with the point made by C. D. Broad when he argued that the notions of teleological and deontological ethical theories should be seen only as ideal limits and not as characterisations of actual theories. What is evident from assessing the variety of types of things that could be meant by "consequences" is that the nature of what it is that is meant to be measured by this reference can vary very widely. Since it can so vary the question arises of the general point of this classification as a way of looking at a type of moral theory. The general point is, clearly, to characterise this type of theory by contrast to a different type. On these grounds consequentialism is the prime notion (or, rather, as is now apparent, set of notions) taken to be linked to teleological theories of ethics. It should be far from evident, however, why we should see consequentialist theories as teleological at all. If teleological theories involve taking an end as crucial for ethical evaluation and if this end could even be understood as self-sufficient (as in the idea of an end-in-itself) then such a prioritization of "ends" may well not lead to a concentration on consequences.

The second question this posting is meant to address is whether the family of views known as "consequentialism" have to be seen as intrinsically alien to Kantian ethics. Well, they certainly are so generally seen as the main position in moral theory seems to be that whatever we mean by "consequentialism" this position is widely at variance with Kant's view. However this view has been challenged, in a book-length work, simply called Kantian Consequentialism by David Cummiskey. Cummiskey points out that the position that Kant consistently defends as being his own is what is based on formal rather than material considerations (i.e., Kant begins from certain formal characteristics that describe the nature of a law and then arrives from these at a description of how we should approach any given matter). But this is not sufficient in itself to show that "consequences" (in the general sense) are of no relevance to Kant. And it is surely the case that Kant's view is one that will require some attention to consequence sensitivity and thus in one of the many senses of "consequentialism" could relate more or less closely to a view of ethics that would have some meaningful connection to one or another of the views listed under that title.

It is perhaps needless to add that Cummiskey's own view of Kantian ethics is somewhat controversial and nor am I suggesting that it should be endorsed. However, the fact that it is possible to advance it at all as a respectable notion that can be taken to have some sense should give pause to the general consensus that Kant and "consequentialists" are clearly and easily at polar opposites in ethical theory. In the next posting I will look at intuitionism.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Ethics and Teleology

In the previous two postings I have looked at the notions of deontology and the alleged priority of the "right" over the "good" and whilst the former notion has proved trickier than the latter there would appear to have been a certain message emerging from consideration of these notions with regard to the nature of Kant's ethics. However, when turning to the views alleged to be held by those who think of ethics in a teleological way, we will discover some areas of substantial confusion.

Samuel Freeman, as noted in the earlier posting on deontology, views deontological theories as involving pluralism with regard to value whilst, by contrast, he presents teleological views of ethics as having a monistic conception of value. This position of Freeman's is, however, not sustained when we look back in the history of ethics. One of the first works to present a broad characterisation of teleological conceptions of ethics and, in the process, to distinguish such a view from the deontological conception, is by C. D. Broad. Broad's classic text Five Types of Ethical Theory agrees with contemporary usage in that it opens by treating teleological conceptions of ethics as primarily concerned with consequences as certain types of consequences are viewed as intrinsically good or bad. However, whilst this equation of teleological conceptions of ethics with consequentialism might seem to confirm certain contemporary views of teleological ethics there are further complications in Broad's account which converge rather less with contemporary usage. So Broad is, for example, unconvinced that there are any ethical theories are either purely deontological or purely teleological and he presents these conceptions as instead ideal limits of theory rather than characterising any ethical view as such. Secondly, and an important corrective to the claim of Freeman, Broad is quite clear that there can be pluralist forms of teleological conceptions of ethics in which several distinguishable views of the good can be held in tandem. So there is, for Broad, nothing intrinsic to teleological views that requires them to be classed as monistic.

William Frankena, as mentioned in the earlier posting on deontology, presents teleological theories of ethics in a different way to Broad. On Frankena's view, the distinctive point about teleological theories is that they assess the moral qualities of actions and persons in relation to certain non-moral values which are held to be important. So, for Frankena, what is important is the claim concerning value that is held by teleologists though, like Freeman, he does tend to view teleological theories as monistic in nature. 

If we move from these general conceptions of teleological accounts of ethics to attempts to view Kant's ethics in terms that are either resistant to deontology or embracing of teleology we will note that the problems already inherent in the accounts of teleological ethics considered will multiply. The two most prominent dissenters from the view that Kant should be considered to embrace a kind of (rule)-deontology are Barbara Herman and Paul Guyer. The reasons why Herman and Guyer resist the deontological characterisation are different but they lead both to views that require a revision of the simple conception that Kant asserts a priority for the right over the good. Barbara Herman focuses on the opening section of Kant's Groundwork where the "good will" is taken to have absolute value and she uses this to resist attributing a deontological conception of ethics to Kant where she means by "deontology" a thesis concerning value (a claimed independence of moral considerations from value). Herman claims that Kant has a view of the good "both as the formal final end and as the ultimate internal condition of rational agency". 

The problem with deontological conceptions of ethics, according to Herman, is that they do not provide us with an understanding of how it is that moral rules have any kind of claim upon us. To account for this is to give what she calls "a grounding conception of value" and we need this in order to make intelligible moral requirements. So the key for Herman is to provide an account of Kant's ethics that enables us to see it as giving us a motivational view of practical reason that provides a conception of principles that allows for a notion of value. The interesting point about these claims is that they aim less at providing a strictly teleological conception of ethics than one that does not rest so evidently as the previous posting might have led one to think on an assumed priority of the right over the good.

Paul Guyer brings together teleology with a view about the relation between the right and the good as he views teleological ethics as consisting in an assertion of an antecedent good prior to principles of right being established but whilst the notion of the good tends to be assimilated with some notion of consequences it is not so understood by Guyer for whom the intrinsic value of freedom could be grasped as such a "good". Since, though, somewhat unsurprisingly, Guyer views Kantian freedom as autonomy (or freedom governed by law) it would follow that such freedom incorporates a sense of duty, though, on his view, it also includes the value that is so important to Herman. On these grounds, however, Guyer asserts a surprising preference for the argument of the Groundwork over that of the Critique of Practical Reason and dismisses Kant's claim for the "fact of reason" in the latter as indicative of a view that abandons finding reasons for why we would adopt the moral law (hence effectively finding in the Second Critique the view that Herman rejects). Like Herman, Guyer views the good will as something that is antecedently valuable and indicative on Kant's part of an understanding of a substantive conception of the good with the second part of the Groundwork amplifying this into the notion of rational being as an end-in-itself.

Guyer's view hence includes elements not present in Herman's and allows for at least one point not congruent with Herman's. This is that Guyer allows that the intrinsic value of freedom is not itself demonstrable, something that seems to ensure that it does not meet Herman's demand for a rational construction of Kantian ethics.

What we have noted in this posting is that the view of what teleological views of ethics consists in is less settled than many think.  Further, at least some prominent contemporary Kantians are less than happy with the effect of characterising Kant's ethics in a way that does not make room for considerations that have often been thought to belong only with teleological views. In the next posting we will consider consequentialism.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Priority of the Right Over the Good

Following the discussion in the last posting of the sense(s) that can be given to the characterisation of a view as deontological I will, in this posting, look at the ways the assertion of the priority of the right over the good has been understood. The first thing that is obvious about the assertion of the priority of the right over the good is that it asserts a lexical ordering. According to Samuel Freeman, the point of asserting the priority of the right over the good is to make a claim concerning "the desires and interests moral agents can take into account".

On this conception of the claim for the priority of the right it is a principle that limits what we should include in our practical reasoning. This point is also made explicit by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice which states that the principles of right "put limits on which satisfactions have value; they impose restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of one's good" (TJ 27 rev/31 original). So to assert the priority of the right is to have some standards by which we can determine what things would be "good" for us though here the point seems to be a more limited one than Freeman has suggested as in this citation it is clear that the limit is placed on satisfactions. However, although the formulation from Rawls is in this respect more limited than that from Freeman, it is, in another sense, more inclusive. After all, on the Rawls conception given, the assertion of the priority of the right does involve a thesis concerning value (whilst, on at least some construals, deontology, by contrast, seems not to be concerned with value).

Similarly, in Political Liberalism, Rawls suggests that the priority of the right "characterizes the structure and content" of his view such that it indicates what can count as a good reason. If it so determines what counts as good reasons then in a sense the assertion of the priority of the right indicates what kind of place things that might be deemed to be "good" can have in the view in question. The connection of this claim to Kant involves an appeal to the view Kant presents in the Critique of Practical Reason as a "paradox" of method where he claims that the concepts of good and evil "must be defined after and by means of the law" (Ak. 5: 63). This is more fully set out when Kant effectively articulates something like a "Copernican turn" in ethics by discerning the error of philosophers when previously discussing the supreme principle of morals:

"they sought an object of the will in order to make it into the material and the foundation of a law (which would then not be the directly determining ground of the will, but would be the determining ground of the will indirectly, only by means of that object referred to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure); instead, they should have first looked for a law that a priori and directly determined the will, and only then determined the object conformable to it." (Ak. 5: 64)

This second passage makes clearer the type of change involved. Kant is indicating that we should not begin by finding something we take to have "value" and then base our notion of moral law upon it but rather articulate the moral law that is a priori and then comprehend what can be said to have value in terms of what fits with it. If this is the kind of consideration that is at work in the notion of the assertion of the priority of the right over the good then it will be necessary next to turning to what it is that is involved in viewing an ethical position as teleological.

Sunday, 24 January 2010


It's a commonplace in discussions of Kant's moral philosophy to characterise it as "deontological" where the term "deontological" is meant to indicate that Kant places a priority of the right over the good. However, I have long been troubled by the assumption that in terming Kant's moral philosophy "deontological" that there is a basic and simple rationale for describing him as not allowing teleological considerations into his ethics when it has seemed to me that there are a lot of pretty good reasons for seeing his ethics as being teleological. In fact the suggestion to the effect that Kant's ethics are teleological was a prime motive when I wrote my book Kant's Practical Philosophy: From Critique to Doctrine. However, when this work was reviewed in Mind by Oliver Sensen the objection to this argument followed the lines I have suggested, namely, it pitted against the book's line concerning teleology the view that Kant asserts the priority of the right over the good and is hence committed to a form of deontological ethics. Sensen's review in Mind was very fair (unlike some that appear there) and took a considerable amount of time to make a lot of my argument explicit so I am far from complaining about it. But in making this stock response to the work he reiterated a distinction which I had been trying to unsettle. It has recently struck me that, in responding to the view that Sensen was orthodoxly presenting, it is necessary to attempt a very nuanced set of distinctions and I'm going to use a few postings to attempt to draw them out. After doing so, I will then return to the question of the view that I was attributing to Kant in my book when I presented an argument for understanding his ethics as teleological.

So: I think the following distinctions need to be made. First of all, the difference between "deontology" and the priority of the right over the good. Secondly, the difference between a teleological view of ethics and a consequentialist one. Thirdly, the prospects for constructing a picture of Kant's ethics that views it as teleological whilst also allowing for the point that Kant does articulate a reason for viewing the right as prior to the good. In order to arrive at the picture suggested here though it will first be necessary, for these three points to be convincingly made, to articulate what, in any event, the real meaning is of such expressions as "deontology", "teleology", "the priority of the right over the good" and "consequentialism", each of which are more challenging than is often thought.

In this post I will begin with a focus on "deontology" looking at what is specific to it. The problem with doing with this is that those who specifically try to focus on it in order to discuss the nature of it, by contradistinction to any other view, hold very conflicting and contrary views as to what it consists in. So, Barbara Herman, for example, in a piece articulating a reason why Kantians should bid farewell to deontology, views it as primarily a thesis about value where deontology is understood to be asserting that, in some sense, ethics is "independent" of value. By contrast, Samuel Freeman articulates what is distinctive to deontology by asserting that on such a view there is not a single rational good or, put positively, that there is a plurality of rational goods. So, on one of these views deontology is a thesis concerning value, whilst on the other, it is a pluralist theory of what is good.

These quite different views of the nature of deontology indicate a reason to look more carefully at how it has been characterised in previous works, works that may well be at the back of contemporary definitions but whose implications may have been forgotten or only remotely remembered, hence indicating a basis for the divergent conceptions of deontology. So, if we look back at William Frankena's 1963 volume Ethics we will find ways in which the divergent characterisations of Herman and Freeman can be brought together. In relation to Herman's conception, to begin with, we should note that Frankena describes the deontological view as concerned with "certain features of the act itself other than the value it brings into existence" and in making this point Frankena suggests that taking account of the "value" in moral considerations is to bring in reference to something that is, in some way, distinct from the moral nature of the act, something, that is, that has non-moral force. Since the deontologist is committed to understanding acts in this way it would appear that there is an independence from "value" thus understood in their considerations.

However, Frankena makes a further set of claims concerning deontology that appear to make more sense of the view of it proclaimed by Freeman. So, on further examination of deontology, Frankena claims that it can be distinguished into two separate forms, one that is termed act-deontology and another that he labels rule-deontology. Starting with act-deontology we get quickly moved towards a view of ethics very similar to situation ethics though this is slightly complicated by Frankena's suggestions of a distinction between moderate and extreme views of act-deontology. On the moderate view of act-deontology, Frankena claims, general rules can be built up on the basis of particular cases but a general rule cannot ever supersede a particular judgment concerning what should be done. By contrast, extreme act-deontologists assert "we can and must see in or somehow decide separately in each particular situation what is the right or obligatory thing to do" in a way that is independent of general rules which gives us a form of particularism that effectively converges with situation ethics. Either form of act-deontology clearly amounts to a suspicion of general principles with attention focusing on specifics of situations and does imply, as Freeman suggested, a form of pluralism.

Frankena subsequently distinguishes both forms of act-deontology from the view that he calls rule-deontology. The latter does embrace some sense of rules where these rules establish the nature of what is right or wrong and do so independently of considerations of production of the type of non-moral "value" that Frankena had earlier mentioned. So it would appear that there are grounds for accepting that both Herman and Freeman have captured part of the point of a deontological view though both are also partially misleading. In the next posting I'll set out how, by contrast, the question of the claim of the priority of the right over the good should be understood.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Google and China

Recently Google made an official statement concerning its policy with regard to China. The basis of the policy change announced in this statement concerned the detection in mid-December last year of a series of attacks on the company that led to theft of intellectual property. The attack was apparently not made on Google alone but with specific regard to Google concerned an attempt to break the encryption codes that enable private messages to be sent by means of Gmail. In addition to the attacks on Gmail last month general assaults on the accounts of human rights activists within China have been logged for some time. 

All of these points are clear matters for concern but the up-shot of them is the key element of the announcement Google has made. This is to the effect that Google is no longer prepared to submit to censorship in China so Google is preparing, should this be necessary, to exit the Chinese market entirely. Google has linked to further discussion of such matters through the blog of Nart Villeneuve. Since the statement from Google, the Chinese authorities have, somewhat oddly, claimed that the internet is open in China and that such attacks as Google have reported are a world problem, statements made available on Xinhua. The denial of censorship is certainly risible as is manifest from the very way the Google story is reported which doesn't include any suggestion of surveillance, free speech or intellectual property.

The point that attacks on internet security are a world problem are, however, correct and in making them the Chinese authorities are following Google's own key, in terms of not making clear why this issue is part of the question. The reason it is part of the discussion is because of the implication, not voiced directly by Google, that the attacks were orchestrated by the Chinese state itself. Research carried out by internet security consultants backs up this claim.

Its not suggested that Google alone has been targeted as a host of other companies are reporting similar stories. Further, Google's own presence in China has not been as great as in most places since it has only a third of the search market in China with nearly two thirds taken by Baidu which is effectively state-run and censors merrily away. 

Since China has, quite apart from its apparent attacks on Google, also banned YouTube recently, it is becoming pretty clear that there are major issues with the development of the internet there. As mentioned last year, the defeat of the Green Dam software was only partial and the Chinese authorities are clearly committed to censorship and violation of rights as the key to management of the internet. Given these unpalatable facts the decision of Google to withdraw from China is surely the right one. Indeed, the wrong decision may well have been to go into the market there in the first place given that the property Google owns is intellectual, the kind of property that it is most important should be free.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Philosophy and Clarity (II)

Some time ago I wrote a posting on this subject in response to some musings of Nigel Warburton who tops his web-site with the citation from John Searle, "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself". The question I addressed there was not one of arguing in some sense "in favour" of obscurity, whatever that would mean. It was rather one of positing the question of what is meant by appeals to the value of "clarity" in philosophical disputes between variant traditions. Generally speaking, the appeal to it is made by analytic philosophers arguing that some European thinker who they refer to is simply not worth reading or engaging with (and the appeal to Searle is particularly interesting in this connection given the "exchange" between him and Jacques Derrida).

For an interesting review that makes this point at some length and with some amusing moments see this piece by Mark Champagne over at Philosophy's Other.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Twitter and Triviality

In the latest issue of Times Higher Education there is an opinion piece that, in a way, is almost too silly to respond to. I'm going to do so in any case because it raises a general complaint concerning the trivialisation of public discourse in a way that strikes me as instructively wrong-headed. 

The piece is by Professor Kevin Sharpe of Queen Mary, University of London, someone who clearly knows a lot about the Renaissance but whose grip on the problems of contemporary public discourse is somewhat less sure. Professor Sharpe opens his opinion piece by noting that it is "widely accepted" that our public discourse has declined in quantity and quality. This opening observation doesn't refer to who accepts this comment or the grounds they accept it on. The relationship between "quality and quantity" would also bear some comment. Evidence concerning the opening assertion is subsequently provided in the second sentence. Now we are told that our documentaries (presumably the best form of presentation of evidence) are "sensationalised", a statement that itself is somewhat sensational. This point is followed by references to the fact that weekly news covers the winner of what must, we are told, be an ironically titled show, no other than Britain's Got Talent. On top of this clearly decisive piece of evidence we have next the point that water-cooler discussions revolve around I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here and that "review pages" (of what?) are dominated by the life story of Jordan.

This opening paragraph apparently bemoaning a "fall in standards" is itself excellent evidence of one since all it does is juxtapose dislike of entertainment television with a knowing reference to the way tabloid newspapers flaunt stories of women who are apparently well-endowed with attributes presumed to appeal to heterosexual males. Such phenomena are themselves hardly new, nor is the disapproval of the middle aged for enthusiasms of "popular culture". However, our good Professor tells us that there was a time when self-education and improvement defined the activities of, who, no less than "the working class" in their friendly societies, unions, adult education and workers' reading groups. Such places had well-informed discussions apparently.

The prejudices displayed here are instructive in referring back to a period of at least 30 years ago and possibly longer, again with purely anecdotal evidence that can itself be replied to. What was it that went on in Working Men's Clubs after all, most of the time? Wasn't it playing billiards, snooker and pool whilst discussing Coronation Street and agreeing in solemn voices that all politicians were in it in order to "line their own pockets"? However, the real meat of the article's argument has yet to come when the good Professor turns his attention away from the working class and on to the "educated classes" around whom he feels, unlike the "working" classes, he has to put quote marks. Such classes apparently only inhabit the universities and it is to them that our man now turns.

The problem he poses is whether the universities have any real relation to the ideal of a place for "open-minded debate". This is a good question but again posed in nostalgic fashion with references back to the good old days back when Professor Sharpe first started teaching at which there were long coffees and lunches at which people discussed such esoteric and apparently now unheard of topics as "novels, exhibitions, travel and other cultures, news". Since it appears people still talk about all these things one wonders what is coming. Well, first of all the managerialised culture, the research assessment exercise, quality assurance and so on are melded together to form an image of a corporate undertaking being formed in universities. This part of Professor Sharpe's account is at least partially true and certainly these phenomena all pose risks and there are good reasons to tackle them. Apparently however they are all so bad, at least at Queen Mary, that it is only out of work time that one has any opportunity to talk about anything that doesn't fit this model. Perhaps there are no research seminars at Queen Mary? If so, perhaps Professor Sharpe could set one up!

Having begun on the university the real area of complaint finally emerges which is not with Professor Sharpe's colleagues but with his students. Students, like colleagues (at least at Queen Mary), don't want to talk and don't have the excuse of having to deal with the culture of public accountability. Again, back in the old days, students were radical but, of course, never participated in anything as large as the demonstrations against the war in Iraq, which, whatever one might have thought about them, did embrace a wider spectrum of political agitation amongst students than ever happened in Professor Sharpe's day. But this isn't the way the Professor sees it. Instead, there was then broad and lively debate and now there is instead only trivia.

What is the real basis of this trivialisation of the students? Apparently it is the way in which Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, I'm glad to see, blogs, fill many hours of the average student's week! This must, naturally, be the basis of the problem! What else, after all, could possibly have moved students away from the active involvement in the past that made them think about ideas? Of course, Professor Sharpe makes no reference to the enormous number of things that have changed since the heady days of the late sixties and early seventies when ideas were, apparently, the meat of every respectable student. 

Let's look at some of those things: a huge increase in the student base (undertaken since 1990); a corresponding shift in the nature of that base; the removal of state support for students forcing a large number to take paid employment that can take up a rather larger proportion of their week than they devote to any of the terrible pleasures that Professor Sharpe lists. In addition to these changes in the composition of the student body and its circumstances let's also look at the other changes that have occurred that might well shape student's lives and their means of responding to the university and society generally. 

Professor Sharpe's model of past student activism does belong to the same world as his idealised references to a working class concerned with apparently "informed" debate. It is the world, now completely past, of post-war social democracy, a world that met its savage Waterloo in 1979 and has never returned. It was a world that was destroyed by the political defeat of its model, a model that led to Britain being labelled "the sick man of Europe" as it lost more days in strikes than anywhere else, the "winter of discontent" in which bodies went unburied and the "social contract" in which government imposed wage constraint was universally rejected by the thinking leaders of the trade union movement. Somewhat amazingly, this phenomena is also related to large world changes, the ones we generally term "globalization", a process that has ensured that single nation solutions are long gone, something that the activists of the old student movement were in some way heralds of. It is also true as Professor Sharpe suggests that there have been profound changes in information technology, changes carefully analyzed long before Twitter was launched by Lyotard in The Post Modern Condition.

None of this is referenced in Professor Sharpe's article which instead returns to the conversations he has overheard on buses and in cafes at which he finds no reference to politics but instead to Jedward and parties. Amazingly, back in the old days, no one referred to the Rolling Stones and parties, they just talked all the time about politics and did this particularly, back then, when on buses and sitting together having casual chats in cafes. Not only is the topic today bad but the language itself is hardly coherent as the youth of today (unlike that of Professor Sharpe) has, apparently, its own argot that make it difficult for him to see how anything serious can be said. How different it must have seemed to Professor Sharpe's parents generation who were, by contrast, constantly impressed by the articulate and mannered conversation of his generation and found them surprisingly well-informed, or, as we say today, NOT. 

With this reference to language Professor Sharpe reaches his key point which is that there is a vicious circle since the young, God help us, won't be so for long and will soon run serious political weeklies, TV current affairs programmes and the media generally. Clearly some are already doing so, producing documentaries that are so sensational that, on occasion, they even appeal to evidence that is not anecdotal, doesn't depend on referencing "conversations" as a serious claim and perhaps even says something serious using such tools as Twitter and blogs. Could this be?

No surely not and the reason why is that our educated elite is hostile to "intellectualism", a statement again not referenced by any evidence. The really fascinating thing about this jeremiad that Professor Sharpe has written is how uncontaminated it is by any appeal to anything other than general observations that can be sagely nodded to by those who already agree. In this respect his performance is well below those I remember in my youth and is itself a perfect model of what used to be the case in Working Men's Clubs back in the days before people could be informed should they so wish by 24 hour news, Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

International Justice and Beneficence

One of the peculiarities of much attention paid to questions of international scope by philosophers is the way it is often presented through the prism of ethics, principally by means of a discussion of beneficence. This type of agenda has a natural home in utilitarian theory and much of the general discussion of global problems, particularly questions concerned with the global poor, has emerged from the utilitarian tradition of thinking. Without going deeply into the question of the various reasons for wishing for a different approach to such problems than can be provided by the utilitarian tradition it is worth noting that there is little scope within utilitarianism for a specific theory of politics. Without such a theory then questions that concern justice tend to be reduced to questions of a merely ethical level.

By contrast, Kantians should certainly not primarily respond to questions that are global in scope by means of a view that begins by asking questions about the scope of beneficence though this is not to assert that some self-declared "Kantians" do not do just this. Perhaps one of the reasons for this reflex is due to the correct intuition that there needs to be some appeal made to specific actors for the problems at issue to be addressed. It is, however, noticeable, that the majority of actions that can be requested from individuals in relation to matters of global concern tend only to revolve within the area of charity, an area that can hardly, alone, address the questions at issue with the desired throughness or coherence.

Rather than thinking of questions of global concern in such terms it is useful instead to attend to the question of such concerns as a matter of justice, that is, as requiring reflections on the kinds of institutions that can be developed such that a response to global inequities has some kind of chance of being resolved in ways that reflectively mirror those that can shape the reasons for forming a state. Kant himself does this in various ways in the different texts that are concerned with international matters and it is notable that these texts do not address international questions through the prism of the virtue of beneficence.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Reflections on Philosophy

I was prompted today to think about philosophy in a general way, partly after browse reading the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement. There wasn't anything specific in this issue that struck me as stating anything concerning philosophy in particular though there is the perennial suggestion in the periodical that there is something basically wrong with contemporary academic prose. This general attitude is one that always strikes me as odd from standard newspaper columnists and reviewers who are themselves rarely especially good writers and this was one of the sources of this posting, the consideration of philosophy as a mode of writing and specifically as a mode of academic writing. Connected to this question was a general one about the notion of philosophy as an academic discipline and its relation to the university. Finally, I have been thinking, on and off, for some days about the specific nature of practical philosophy and its relationship to political considerations in a more general sense. So this posting is going to provide some reflections on each of these topics.

Starting with the state of philosophy as a form of academic writing, I am struck here by the way in which academic writing generally has fallen into disrepute in the broader culture. I don't think is a phenomena specific to the UK, since general coverage of academia in the US also appears to bear it out. It may be, though I doubt it, that this phenomena has no wider resonance. The reasons for the disrepute into which academic writing appears to have fallen are due not to some general cause such as the alleged "decline of deference" but more, I think, due to the sense that such writing is, in its specialized character, often devoid of clear insight to those outside its specific mode of address. In other words, academic writing is deemed generally to be remote from general concerns and at risk of irrelevance. This generic verdict appears to bear heaviest on humanities and social science works since the natural sciences are thought to bear within themselves the means of their own application. This contrast is problematic in many respects, not least in that it remains true that scientific research, scientific theories and the possibilities of application of scientific results all call for skills that are not, to put it mildly, exclusively learned within the sciences themselves.

Leaving such caveats aside the general sense that the social sciences and humanities have "gone astray" is certainly due to a difficulty with their mode of address compared to the general culture's demand for accessibility and a clear form of "relevance". Applied to philosophy in particular this general temper cuts as much against analytical philosophy with its patient attention to very specific claims as it does against European philosophy with its alleged "obscurity". Effectively it cuts against philosophical reflection that does not concern itself directly with questions of "application" although anyone who reads works of social, moral or political philosophy might well feel that even these areas are not ready for any simple model of "application". So it might well be that academic philosophy as such is written in a way that does not match contemporary demands (and this may indeed be part of what fuels the demand for "impact assessment").

Once the challenge is put on this level it becomes a question about the place of philosophy within the university and a problem about how the university shapes philosophy in a way that renders it not evidently "relevant". Put like this the challenge to academic philosophy has antecedents within the history of philosophy itself, in, for example, Schopenhauer's attack on university philosophy. Schopenhauer was certainly not an advocate of a clear model of applicability of philosophy though he does relentlessly pose as a champion of clarity in the same dubious way later philosophers often have done. The real charge Schopenhauer made however was that philosophy had failed in a way due to its assimilation to the university. The problem with such assimilation is that the university is really the home of bureaucrats who are acting on behalf of the state. In making this charge, however, Schopenhauer is attacking philosophy for attempting to present itself at the service of the state's general view of the common good whilst contemporary charges seem to be of the reverse order, namely, that it is precisely not concerned with the general problems that have been identified as of great concern by politicians!

How is that philosophy can be attacked in two such divergent ways and what is really at issue in its relationship with the university? Schopenhauer is right that the place of philosophy in the university is one that is uncomfortable and does leave it susceptible to being requested to proceed in a manner and a style that arise externally to it. This much is something that is evident both from Schopenhauer's attacks on university philosophy and from the present trends to request philosophy submit to a mode of accounting that has itself arisen from models that have not been subjected to philosophical questioning. If the problem is thus one in which philosophers as recipients of public funding can be called to account by those who disburse such funding does this lead to the conclusion that the culture would be better served if philosophy was not, as an endeavour, so completely assimilated to the university?

In one respect this seems the right answer and surely if a multiplicity of forms of philosophical practice would arise then this would be a good thing. There have been, in some respects, for some time, moves in this direction. There is, for example, the model of philosophical counselling, in which philosophy is turned to as a guide for life which acts as an alternative to psychology, which even has its own society of practitioners. Similarly, there are philosophical ventures such as the attempt to address a broad general public by such medium as the Philosopher's Magazine and the proliferation of philosophy webcasts, podcasts and, indeed, blogs!

Such general proliferation of modes of address does, to an extent, succeed in freeing the practice of philosophy from the models of writing demanded by academic publishers and journals and does, to some degree, inaugurate a practice that is not solely determined by the needs of research exercises on the one hand or the direct needs of pedagogy on the other. So, to an extent, philosophers have been responding to the fix that the relationship between academic conditions and a general culture that operates in a manner apparently antithetical to its mode of operation appears to have created. However, whilst this is a matter for some interest and a certain amount of applause there is still the problem that philosophical writing, should it be of any sustained and serious kind, does require a pace and mode of operation that does not readily fit modern media or its demands.

Moving on from this point I'd like to look next at the particular situation of practical philosophy, philosophy, that is, that is concerned with social, political and ethical matters. Such a mode of philosophy is one to which there would appear good reason to request insight into matters of general relevance and hence such philosophy should help to orient judgment in relation to, for example, international affairs and the structure of institutions. Again there is much that points in this direction. The explosion of interest in practical ethics and professional ethics is a case in point. The former engages with clear matters of contemporary concerns including the environment, the status of animals and life/death issues that have been given extra sharpness by contemporary technology. The latter, by contrast, concerns itself with medical practice, business ethics and questions that arise in specific professional settings, again addressing matters of evident import.

There is still lacking, however, a generic framework for practical philosophy such that the move from tackling such evidently philosophical questions as the relationship between the right and the good or the status of formalism in ethics to the nature of human rights and the implementation of policies that have some claim to be just often appears somewhat tenuous. Perhaps the sharpening of such connections and the formulation of ways to bring them together would be one activity that philosophers in general could adopt as a project of some importance for the future.