How Mengzi came up with something better than the Golden Rule

family-training

Family Training, unknown artist, Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York

Eric Schwitzgebel | Aeon Ideas

There’s something I don’t like about the ‘Golden Rule’, the admonition to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Consider this passage from the ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius):

That which people are capable of without learning is their genuine capability. That which they know without pondering is their genuine knowledge. Among babes in arms there are none that do not know to love their parents. When they grow older, there are none that do not know to revere their elder brothers. Treating one’s parents as parents is benevolence. Revering one’s elders is righteousness. There is nothing else to do but extend these to the world.

One thing I like about the passage is that it assumes love and reverence for one’s family as a given, rather than as a special achievement. It portrays moral development simply as a matter of extending that natural love and reverence more widely.

In another passage, Mengzi notes the kindness that the vicious tyrant King Xuan exhibits in saving a frightened ox from slaughter, and he urges the king to extend similar kindness to the people of his kingdom. Such extension, Mengzi says, is a matter of ‘weighing’ things correctly – a matter of treating similar things similarly, and not overvaluing what merely happens to be nearby. If you have pity for an innocent ox being led to slaughter, you ought to have similar pity for the innocent people dying in your streets and on your battlefields, despite their invisibility beyond your beautiful palace walls.

Mengzian extension starts from the assumption that you are already concerned about nearby others, and takes the challenge to be extending that concern beyond a narrow circle. The Golden Rule works differently – and so too the common advice to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. In contrast with Mengzian extension, Golden Rule/others’ shoes advice assumes self-interest as the starting point, and implicitly treats overcoming egoistic selfishness as the main cognitive and moral challenge.

Maybe we can model Golden Rule/others’ shoes thinking like this:

  1. If I were in the situation of person x, I would want to be treated according to principle p.
  2. Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
  3. Thus, I will treat person x according to principle p.

And maybe we can model Mengzian extension like this:

  1. I care about person y and want to treat that person according to principle p.
  2. Person x, though perhaps more distant, is relevantly similar.
  3. Thus, I will treat person x according to principle p.

There will be other more careful and detailed formulations, but this sketch captures the central difference between these two approaches to moral cognition. Mengzian extension models general moral concern on the natural concern we already have for people close to us, while the Golden Rule models general moral concern on concern for oneself.

I like Mengzian extension better for three reasons. First, Mengzian extension is more psychologically plausible as a model of moral development. People do, naturally, have concern and compassion for others around them. Explicit exhortations aren’t needed to produce this natural concern and compassion, and these natural reactions are likely to be the main seed from which mature moral cognition grows. Our moral reactions to vivid, nearby cases become the bases for more general principles and policies. If you need to reason or analogise your way into concern even for close family members, you’re already in deep moral trouble.

Second, Mengzian extension is less ambitious – in a good way. The Golden Rule imagines a leap from self-interest to generalised good treatment of others. This might be excellent and helpful advice, perhaps especially for people who are already concerned about others and thinking about how to implement that concern. But Mengzian extension has the advantage of starting the cognitive project much nearer the target, requiring less of a leap. Self-to-other is a huge moral and ontological divide. Family-to-neighbour, neighbour-to-fellow citizen – that’s much less of a divide.

Third, you can turn Mengzian extension back on yourself, if you are one of those people who has trouble standing up for your own interests – if you’re the type of person who is excessively hard on yourself or who tends to defer a bit too much to others. You would want to stand up for your loved ones and help them flourish. Apply Mengzian extension, and offer the same kindness to yourself. If you’d want your father to be able to take a vacation, realise that you probably deserve a vacation too. If you wouldn’t want your sister to be insulted by her spouse in public, realise that you too shouldn’t have to suffer that indignity.

Although Mengzi and the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau both endorse mottoes standardly translated as ‘human nature is good’ and have views that are similar in important ways, this is one difference between them. In both Emile (1762) and Discourse on Inequality (1755), Rousseau emphasises self-concern as the root of moral development, making pity and compassion for others secondary and derivative. He endorses the foundational importance of the Golden Rule, concluding that ‘love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice’.

This difference between Mengzi and Rousseau is not a general difference between East and West. Confucius, for example, endorses something like the Golden Rule in the Analects: ‘Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’ Mozi and Xunzi, also writing in China in the period, imagine people acting mostly or entirely selfishly until society artificially imposes its regulations, and so they see the enforcement of rules rather than Mengzian extension as the foundation of moral development. Moral extension is thus specifically Mengzian rather than generally Chinese.

Care about me not because you can imagine what you would selfishly want if you were me. Care about me because you see how I am not really so different from others you already love.


This is an edited extract from ‘A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures’ © 2019 by Eric Schwitzgebel, published by MIT Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Eric Schwitzgebel is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. He blogs at The Splintered Mind and is the author of Perplexities of Consciousness (2011) and A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

The Meaning to Life? A Darwinian Existentialist has his Answers

human-lifespan

Michael Ruse | Aeon Ideas

I was raised as a Quaker, but around the age of 20 my faith faded. It would be easiest to say that this was because I took up philosophy – my lifelong occupation as a teacher and scholar. This is not true. More accurately, I joke that having had one headmaster in this life, I’ll be damned if I want another in the next. I was convinced back then that, by the age of 70, I would be getting back onside with the Powers That Be. But faith did not then return and, as I approach 80, is nowhere on the horizon. I feel more at peace with myself than ever before. It’s not that I don’t care about the meaning or purpose of life – I am a philosopher! Nor does my sense of peace mean that I am complacent or that I have delusions about my achievements and successes. Rather, I feel that deep contentment that religious people tell us is the gift or reward for proper living.

I come to my present state for two separate reasons. As a student of Charles Darwin, I am totally convinced – God or no God – that we are (as the 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley used to say) modified monkeys rather than modified mud. Culture is hugely important, but to ignore our biology is just wrong. Second, I am drawn, philosophically, to existentialism. A century after Darwin, Jean-Paul Sartre said that we are condemned to freedom, and I think he is right. Even if God does exist, He or She is irrelevant. The choices are ours.

Sartre denied such a thing as human nature. From this quintessential Frenchman, I take that with a pinch of salt: we are free, within the context of our Darwinian-created human nature. What am I talking about? A lot of philosophers today are uncomfortable even raising the idea of ‘human nature’. They feel that, too quickly, it is used against minorities – gay people, the disabled, and others – to suggest that they are not really human. This is a challenge not a refutation. If a definition of human nature cannot take account of the fact that up to 10 per cent of us have same-sex orientation, then the problem is not with human nature but with the definition.

What, then, is human nature? In the middle of the 20th century, it was popular to suggest that we are killer apes: we can and do make weapons, and we use them. But modern primatologists have little time for this. Their findings suggest that most apes would far rather fornicate than fight. In making war we are really not doing what comes naturally. I don’t deny that humans are violent, however our essence goes the other way. It is one of sociability. We are not that fast, we are not that strong, we are hopeless in bad weather; but we succeed because we work together. Indeed, our lack of natural weapons points that way. We cannot get all we want through violence. We must cooperate.

Darwinians did not discover this fact about our nature. Listen to the metaphysical poet John Donne in 1624:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Darwinian evolutionary theory shows how this all came about, historically, through the forces of nature. It suggests that there is no eternal future or, if there is, it is not relevant for the here and now. Rather, we must live life to the full, within the context of – liberated by – our Darwinian-created human nature. I see three basic ways in which this occurs.

First, family. Humans are not like male orangutans whose home life is made up mainly of one-night stands. A male turns up, does his business, and then, sexually sated, vanishes. The impregnated female births and raises the children by herself. This is possible simply because she can. If she couldn’t then, biologically it would be in the interests of the males to lend a hand. Male birds help at the nest because, exposed as they are up trees, the chicks need to grow as quickly as possible. Humans face different challenges, but with the same end. We have big brains that need time to develop. Our young cannot fend for themselves within weeks or days. Therefore humans need lots of parental care, and our biology fits us for home life, as it were: spouses, offspring, parents, and more. Men don’t push the pram just by chance. Nor boast to their co-workers about their kid getting into Harvard.

Second, society. Co-workers, shop attendants, teachers, doctors, hotel clerks – the list is endless. Our evolutionary strength is that we work together, helping and expecting help. I am a teacher, not just of my children, but of yours (and others) too. You are a doctor: you give medical care not just to your children, but to mine (and others) too. In this way, we all benefit. As Adam Smith pointed out in 1776, none of this happens by chance or because nature has suddenly become soft: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.’ Smith invoked the ‘invisible hand’. The Darwinian puts it down to evolution through natural selection.

Though life can be a drag sometimes, biology ensures that we generally get on with the job, and do it as part of our fulfilled lives. John Stuart Mill had it exactly right in 1863: ‘When people who are fairly fortunate in their material circumstances don’t find sufficient enjoyment to make life valuable to them, this is usually because they care for nobody but themselves.’

Third, culture. Works of art and entertainment, TV, movies, plays, novels, paintings and sport. Note how social it all is. Romeo and Juliet, about two kids in ill-fated love. The Sopranos, about a mob family. A Roy Lichtenstein faux-comic painting; a girl on the phone: ‘Oh, Jeff… I love you, too… but…’ England beating Australia at cricket. There are evolutionists who doubt that culture is so tightly bound to biology, and who are inclined to see it as a side-product of evolution, what Stephen Jay Gould in 1982 called an ‘exaptation’. This is surely true in part. But probably only in part. Darwin thought that culture might have something to do with sexual selection: protohumans using songs and melodies, say, to attract mates. Sherlock Holmes agreed; in A Study in Scarlet (1887), he tells Watson that musical ability predates speech, according to Darwin: ‘Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.’

Draw it together. I have had a full family life, a loving spouse and children. I even liked teenagers. I have been a college professor for 55 years. I have not always done the job as well as I could, but I am not lying when I say that Monday morning is my favourite time of the week. I’m not much of a creative artist, and I’m hopeless at sports. But I have done my scholarship and shared with others. Why else am I writing this? And I have enjoyed the work of fellow humans. A great performance of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro is heaven. I speak literally.

This is my meaning to life. When I meet my nonexistent God, I shall say to Him: ‘God, you gave me talents and it’s been a hell of a lot of fun using them. Thank you.’ I need no more. As George Meredith wrote in his poem ‘In the Woods’ (1870):

The lover of life knows his labour divine,
And therein is at peace.


A Meaning to Life (2019) by Michael Ruse is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and director of the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than 50 books, including most recently On Purpose (2017), Darwinism as Religion (2016), The Problem of War (2018) and A Meaning to Life (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

To Avoid Moral Failure, Don’t See People as Sherlock Does

sherlock-holmes

Suspicious minds; William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes (right) and Bruce McRae as Dr John Watson in the play Sherlock Holmes (c1900). Courtesy Wikimedia

Rima Basu | Aeon Ideas

If we’re the kind of people who care both about not being racist, and also about basing our beliefs on the evidence that we have, then the world presents us with a challenge. The world is pretty racist. It shouldn’t be surprising then that sometimes it seems as if the evidence is stacked in favour of some racist belief. For example, it’s racist to assume that someone’s a staff member on the basis of his skin colour. But what if it’s the case that, because of historical patterns of discrimination, the members of staff with whom you interact are predominantly of one race? When the late John Hope Franklin, professor of history at Duke University in North Carolina, hosted a dinner party at his private club in Washington, DC in 1995, he was mistaken as a member of staff. Did the woman who did so do something wrong? Yes. It was indeed racist of her, even though Franklin was, since 1962, that club’s first black member.

To begin with, we don’t relate to people in the same way that we relate to objects. Human beings are different in an important way. In the world, there are things – tables, chairs, desks and other objects that aren’t furniture – and we try our best to understand how this world works. We ask why plants grow when watered, why dogs give birth to dogs and never to cats, and so on. But when it comes to people, ‘we have a different way of going on, though it is hard to capture just what that is’, as Rae Langton, now professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, put it so nicely in 1991.

Once you accept this general intuition, you might begin to wonder how can we capture that different way in which we ought to relate to others. To do this, first we must recognise that, as Langton goes on to write, ‘we don’t simply observe people as we might observe planets, we don’t simply treat them as things to be sought out when they can be of use to us, and avoid when they are a nuisance. We are, as [the British philosopher P F] Strawson says, involved.’

This way of being involved has been played out in many different ways, but here’s the basic thought: being involved is thinking that others’ attitudes and intentions towards us are important in a special way, and that our treatment of others should reflect that importance. We are, each of us, in virtue of being social beings, vulnerable. We depend upon others for our self-esteem and self-respect.

For example, we each think of ourselves as having a variety of more or less stable characteristics, from marginal ones such as being born on a Friday to central ones such as being a philosopher or a spouse. The more central self-descriptions are important to our sense of self-worth, to our self-understanding, and they constitute our sense of identity. When these central self-descriptions are ignored by others in favour of expectations on the basis of our race, gender or sexual orientation, we’re wronged. Perhaps our self-worth shouldn’t be based on something so fragile, but not only are we all-too-human, these self-descriptions also allow us to understand who we are and where we stand in the world.

This thought is echoed in the American sociologist and civil rights activist W E B DuBois’s concept of double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois notes a common feeling: ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’.

When you believe that John Hope Franklin must be a staff member rather than a club member, you’ve made predictions of him and observed him in the same way that one might observe the planets. Our private thoughts can wrong other people. When someone forms beliefs about you in this predictive way, they fail to see you, they fail to interact with you as a person. This is not only upsetting. It is a moral failing.

The English philosopher W K Clifford argued in 1877 that we were morally criticisable if our beliefs weren’t formed in the right way. He warned that we have a duty to humanity to never believe on the basis of insufficient evidence because to do so would be to put society at risk. As we look at the world around us and the epistemic crisis in which we find ourselves, we see what happens when Clifford’s imperative is ignored. And if we combine Clifford’s warning with DuBois’s and Langton’s observations, it becomes clear that, for our belief-forming practices, the stakes aren’t just high because we depend on one another for knowledge – the stakes are also high because we depend on one another for respect and dignity.

Consider how upset Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters get with Sherlock Holmes for the beliefs this fictional detective forms about them. Without fail, the people whom Holmes encounters find the way he forms beliefs about others to be insulting. Sometimes it’s because it is a negative belief. Often, however, the belief is mundane: eg, what they ate on the train or which shoe they put on first in the morning. There’s something improper about the way that Holmes relates to other human beings. Holmes’s failure to relate is not just a matter of his actions or his words (though sometimes it is also that), but what really rubs us up the wrong way is that Holmes observes us all as objects to be studied, predicted and managed. He doesn’t relate to us as human beings.

Maybe in an ideal world, what goes on inside our heads wouldn’t matter. But just as the personal is the political, our private thoughts aren’t really only our own. If a man believes of every woman he meets: ‘She’s someone I can sleep with,’ it’s no excuse that he never acts on the belief or reveals the belief to others. He has objectified her and failed to relate to her as a human being, and he has done so in a world in which women are routinely objectified and made to feel less-than.

This kind of indifference to the effect one has on others is morally criticisable. It has always struck me as odd that everyone grants that our actions and words are apt for moral critique, but once we enter the realm of thought we’re off the hook. Our beliefs about others matter. We care what others think of us.

When we mistake a person of colour for a staff member, that challenges this person’s central self-descriptions, the descriptions from which he draws his sense of self-worth. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a staff member, but if your reason for thinking that someone is staff is tied not only to something he has no control over (his skin colour) but also to a history of oppression (being denied access to more prestigious forms of employment), then that should give you pause.

The facts might not be racist, but the facts that we often rely on can be the result of racism, including racist institutions and policies. So when forming beliefs using evidence that is a result of racist history, we are accountable for failing to show more care and for believing so easily that someone is a staff member. Precisely what is owed can vary along a number of dimensions, but nonetheless we can recognise that some extra care with our beliefs is owed along these lines. We owe each other not only better actions and better words, but also better thoughts.Aeon counter – do not remove


Rima Basu is an assistant professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. Her work has been published in Philosophical Studies, among others.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

How do we Pry Apart the True and Compelling from the False and Toxic?

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Stack of CPU’s. Shawn Stutzman, Pexels

David V Johnson | Aeon Ideas

When false and malicious speech roils the body politic, when racism and violence surge, the right and role of freedom of speech in society comes into crisis. People rightly begin to wonder what are the limits, what should be the rules. It is a complicated issue, and resolving it requires care about the exact problems targeted and solutions proposed. Otherwise the risk to free speech is real.

Propaganda from Russian-funded troll farms (boosted by Facebook data breaches) might have contributed to the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union and aided the United States’ election of Donald Trump as president. Conspiracy theories spread by alternative news outlets or over social media sometimes lead to outbreaks of violence. Politicians exploit the mainstream news media’s commitment to balance, to covering newsworthy public statements and their need for viewers or readers by making baseless, sensational claims.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill offers the most compelling defence of freedom of speech, conscience and autonomy ever written. Mill argues that the only reason to restrict speech is to prevent harm to others, such as with hate speech and incitement to violence. Otherwise, all speech must be protected. Even if we know a view is false, Mill says, it is wrong to suppress it. We avoid prejudice and dogmatism, and achieve understanding, through freely discussing and defending what we believe against contrary claims.

Today, a growing number of people see these views as naive. Mill’s arguments are better suited to those who still believe in the open marketplace of ideas, where free and rational debate is the best way to settle all disputes about truth and falsity. Who could possibly believe we live in such a world anymore? Instead, what we have is a Wild West of partisanship and manipulation, where social media gurus exploit research in behavioural psychology to compel users to affirm and echo absurd claims. We have a world where people live in cognitive bubbles of the like-minded and share one another’s biases and prejudices. According to this savvy view, our brave new world is too prone to propaganda and conspiracy-mongering to rely on Mill’s optimism about free speech. To do so is to risk abetting the rise of fascist and absolutist tendencies.

In his book How Fascism Works (2018), the American philosopher Jason Stanley cites the Russian television network RT, which presents all sorts of misleading and slanted views. If Mill is right, claims Stanley, then RT and such propaganda outfits ‘should be the paradigm of knowledge production’ because they force us to scrutinise their claims. But this is a reductio ad absurdum of Mill’s argument. Similarly, Alexis Papazoglou in The New Republic questions whether Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister turned Facebook’s new vice president of global affairs and communication, will be led astray by his appreciation of Mill’s On Liberty. ‘Mill seemed to believe that an open, free debate meant the truth would usually prevail, whereas under censorship, truth could end up being accidentally suppressed, along with falsehood,’ writes Papazoglou. ‘It’s a view that seems a bit archaic in the age of an online marketplace of memes and clickbait, where false stories tend to spread faster and wider than their true counterpoints.’

When important and false beliefs and theories gain traction in public conversation, Mill’s protection of speech can be frustrating. But there is nothing new about ‘fake news’, whether in Mill’s age of sensationalist newspapers or in our age of digital media. Nonetheless to seek a solution in restricting speech is foolish and counterproductive – it lends credibility to the illiberal forces you, paradoxically, seek to silence. It also betrays an elitism about engaging with those of different opinions and a cynicism about affording your fellow citizens the freedom to muddle through the morass on their own. If we want to live in a liberal democratic society, rational engagement is the only solution on offer. Rather than restricting speech, we should look to supplement Mill’s view with effective tools for dealing with bad actors and with beliefs that, although false, seem compelling to some.

Fake news and propaganda are certainly problems, as they were in Mill’s day, but the problems they raise are more serious than the falsity of their claims. After all, they are not unique in saying false things, as the latest newspaper corrections will tell you. More importantly, they involve bad actors: people and organisations who intentionally pass off false views as the truth, and hide their nature and motives. (Think Russian troll farms.) Anyone who knows that they are dealing with bad actors – people trying to mislead – ignores them, and justifiably so. It’s not worth your time to consider the claim of someone you know is trying to deceive you.

There is nothing in Mill that demands that we engage any and all false views. After all, there are too many out there and so people have to be selective. Transparency is key, helping people know with whom, or what, they are dealing. Transparency helps filter out noise and fosters accountability, so that bad actors – those who hide their identity for the purpose of misleading others – are eliminated.

Mill’s critics fail to see the truth that is mixed in with the false views that they wish to restrict, and that makes those views compelling. RT, for instance, has covered many issues, such as the US financial crisis, economic inequality and imperialism more accurately than mainstream news channels. RT also includes informed sources who are ignored by other outlets. The channel might be biased toward demeaning the US and fomenting division, but it often pursues this agenda by speaking truths that are not covered in mainstream US media. Informed news-watchers know to view RT and all news sources with skepticism, and there is no reason not to extend the same respect to the entire viewing public, unless you presume you are a better judge of what to believe than your fellow citizens.

Mill rightly thought that the typical case wasn’t one of views that are false, but views that have a mixture of true and false. It would be far more effective to try to engage with the truth in views we despise than to try to ban them for their alleged falsity. The Canadian psychologist and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson, for example, says things that are false, misogynistic and illiberal, but one possible reason for his following is that he recognises and speaks to a deficit of meaning and values in many young men’s lives. Here, the right approach is to pry apart the true and compelling from the false and toxic, through reasoned consideration. This way, following Mill’s path, presents a better chance of winning over those who are lost to views we despise. It also helps us improve our own understanding, as Mill wisely suggests.Aeon counter – do not remove

David V Johnson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

African Art in Western Museums: It’s Patrimony not Heritage

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Detail from a 16th-century bronze plaque from Benin, West Africa, held at the British Museum, London. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Charlotte Joy | Aeon Ideas

Museums with colonial-era collections have always known about the brutal parts of their biographies. But, through acts of purification via historical distance, they have chosen to ignore them. Museum directors now have to re-think their position as defenders of their collections in light of a different political agenda that locates people and their patrimony in a precolonial, yet radically altered, landscape.

When learning about cultural heritage, you will be directed to the etymology of the words ‘heritage’ and ‘patrimony’. Whereas ‘heritage’ invokes inheritance, ‘patrimony’ leads us to patriarchy. In French, patrie refers to the homeland, the fatherland, and during colonialism vast swathes of West Africa were brought under this French conceptual model in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Objects taken from West Africa (the periphery) and brought back to the centre/metropole were therefore conceptualised as part of the coloniser’s national identity. They were used in a series of Great Exhibitions and expos to gain support for the colonial project before entering national and private collections throughout Europe.

The immediate paradox here is that, whereas objects from the periphery were welcome in the centre, people were very much not. Since the independence of West African countries throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, the retention of objects and the simultaneous rejection of people has become ever more fraught. Young undocumented migrants from former French colonies stand metres away from the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a museum in Paris full of their inaccessible patrimony. The migrants are treated with contempt while the objects from their homelands are cared for in museums and treated with great reverence. The migrants will be deported but the objects will not be repatriated. The homeland is therefore only home to objects, not people.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a unique demographic profile. By 2050, it is projected that the region will be home to the 10 countries with the youngest populations in the world. Most Western leaders would like to see strong and stable states in West Africa, states that can provide their citizens with jobs, cultural pride and a reason for staying in their countries and building new futures. The return of objects from museums could become central to this nation-building, undoing some of the harm of the colonial project and supporting emerging creative economies.

The objects taken from West Africa during the colonial period indexed many things, most of them problematic and racist. Some objects acted as a catalyst for the creative work of Western artists, and consequently entered the artistic canon as prompts and props (seen in the background of artists’ studios such as that of Pablo Picasso). The objects that Picasso encountered at the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris were the impetus for his ‘African period’ at the beginning of the 20th century, which produced one of his most famous works, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

Beyond the influence that non-European art had on many Western artists, some objects, such as the Benin Bronzes (looted by the British in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, in current-day Nigeria) entered global art history on their own merit, as unrivalled technological and artistic accomplishments. This recognition came about only after a difficult period of skepticism, when art historians expressed doubt that African artists could produce work of such sophistication.

Thus, the way in which African objects are held and displayed in Western museums can tell us a lot about the legacy of colonialism and the West’s ambivalent relationship towards its former colonies. But it cannot be said to provide generations of young people in sub-Saharan Africa with a rich cultural repository from which to draw.

Regardless of the politics of return, over the next few decades people born in sub-Saharan Africa will be brought up within a vibrant cultural milieu of art, photography, music and film. However, as colonialism was a humiliating experience for many formerly colonised people, it is not hard to see why regaining control over their patrimony would be a step towards the beginning of healing. The return of cultural objects would allow meaningful access to art and cultural knowledge that could fuel the creative economies of these young nations.

The acts of return in themselves are a symbol of strong contrition, re-opening the dialogue on past wrongs to better establish relationships for the future. It seems that behind proclamations of the complicated nature of the process of return lies this more difficult truth. Human remains have been returned from museums to be reburied with dignity. Nazi-looted art has been seized from unsuspecting collectors and returned to Jewish families. Now is the time for colonial patrimony to be reckoned with because patrimony indexes the biographies of those who made and acquired the objects, drawing their descendants into moral relationships in the present. It is now not a matter of if but when objects will be returned, and whether this happens with good grace or through a fractious period of resistance.

The museums’ ‘cosmopolitan’ defence, made for example by Tiffany Jenkins in Keeping Their Marbles (2016), is that only by juxtaposition in global centres can we truly make sense of global art and the experience of being human. This might be true to some extent but the juxtapositions in themselves are problematic: for example, the British Museum houses its Africa collections in the basement. Museums are also bursting at the seams, and what isn’t displayed is housed in vast stores. To date, the logic of the museum is not one of access and display but of acquisition and retention. The defenders of the museum’s patrimony, the trustees, are appointed on the understanding that their primary role is to protect collections for future generations, narrowly defined within the model of nation states. Perhaps if trustees of museums could rethink their role to include descendants of the colonised, as well as the colonisers, they could help reshape a heritage ethic that is alive to the challenges of global demographics.Aeon counter – do not remove

Charlotte Joy

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Introduction to Deontology: Kantian Ethics

One popular moral theory that denies that morality is solely about the consequences of our actions is known as Deontology. The most influential and widely adhered to version of Deontology was extensively laid out by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant’s ethics, as well as the overall philosophical system in which it is embedded, is vast and incredibly difficult. However, one relatively simple concept lies at the center of his ethical system: The Categorical Imperative.

via Introduction to Deontology: Kantian Ethics (1000-Word Philosophy)

Author: Andrew Chapman
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers…

Read the rest at Vividness.

Schopenhauer

“In India our religions will never take root. The ancient wisdom of the human race will not be displaced by what happened in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian philosophy streams back to Europe, and will produce a fundamental change in our knowledge and thought.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer

the-world-as-will-and-representation

Full Book (PDF): The World as Will and Representation – Volume IVolume II

Full Book (PDF): On the Basis of Morality

Schopenhauer’s Thought

A key focus of Schopenhauer was his investigation of individual motivation. Before Schopenhauer, Hegel had popularized the concept of Zeitgeist, the idea that society consisted of a collective consciousness that moved in a distinct direction, dictating the actions of its members. Schopenhauer, a reader of both Kant and Hegel, criticized their logical optimism and the belief that individual morality could be determined by society and reason. Schopenhauer believed that humans were motivated by only their own basic desires, or Wille zum Leben (“Will to Live”), which directed all of mankind.

For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. Einstein paraphrased his views as follows: “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants.” In this sense, he adhered to the Fichtean principle of idealism: “The world is for a subject.” This idealism so presented, immediately commits it to an ethical attitude, unlike the purely epistemological concerns of Descartes and Berkeley. To Schopenhauer, the Will is a blind force that controls not only the actions of individual, intelligent agents, but ultimately all observable phenomena—an evil to be terminated via mankind’s duties: asceticism and chastity. He is credited with one of the most famous opening lines of philosophy: “The world is my representation.” Will, for Schopenhauer, is what Kant called the “thing-in-itself”. Friedrich Nietzsche was greatly influenced by this idea of Will, although he eventually rejected it.

For Schopenhauer, human desiring, “willing”, and craving cause suffering or pain. A temporary way to escape this pain is through aesthetic contemplation (a method comparable to Zapffe’s “Sublimation“). Aesthetic contemplation allows one to escape this pain—albeit temporarily—because it stops one perceiving the world as mere presentation. Instead, one no longer perceives the world as an object of perception (therefore as subject to the Principle of Sufficient Grounds; time, space and causality) from which one is separated; rather one becomes one with that perception: “one can thus no longer separate the perceiver from the perception” (The World as Will and Representation, section 34). From this immersion with the world one no longer views oneself as an individual who suffers in the world due to one’s individual will but, rather, becomes a “subject of cognition” to a perception that is “Pure, will-less, timeless” (section 34) where the essence, “ideas”, of the world are shown. Art is the practical consequence of this brief aesthetic contemplation as it attempts to depict one’s immersion with the world, thus tries to depict the essence/pure ideas of the world. Music, for Schopenhauer, was the purest form of art because it was the one that depicted the will itself without it appearing as subject to the Principle of Sufficient Grounds, therefore as an individual object. According to Daniel Albright, “Schopenhauer thought that music was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself”.

He deemed music a timeless, universal language comprehended everywhere, that can imbue global enthusiasm, if in possession of a significant melody.

Will as Noumenon

Schopenhauer accepted Kant’s double-aspect of the universe—the phenomenal (world of experience) and the noumenal (the true world, independent of experience). Some commentators suggest that Schopenhauer claimed that the noumenon, or thing-in-itself, was the basis for Schopenhauer’s concept of the will. Other commentators suggest that Schopenhauer considered will to be only a subset of the “thing-in-itself” class, namely that which we can most directly experience.

Schopenhauer’s identification of the Kantian noumenon (i.e., the actually existing entity) with what he termed “will” deserves some explanation. The noumenon was what Kant called the Ding an sich (the Thing in Itself), the reality that is the foundation of our sensory and mental representations of an external world. In Kantian terms, those sensory and mental representations are mere phenomena. Schopenhauer departed from Kant in his description of the relationship between the phenomenon and the noumenon. According to Kant, things-in-themselves ground the phenomenal representations in our minds; Schopenhauer, on the other hand, believed that phenomena and noumena are two different sides of the same coin. Noumena do not cause phenomena, but rather phenomena are simply the way by which our minds perceive the noumena, according to the principle of sufficient reason.

Schopenhauer’s second major departure from Kant’s epistemology concerns the body. Kant’s philosophy was formulated as a response to the radical philosophical skepticism of David Hume, who claimed that causality could not be observed empirically. Schopenhauer begins by arguing that Kant’s demarcation between external objects, knowable only as phenomena, and the Thing in Itself of noumenon, contains a significant omission. There is, in fact, one physical object we know more intimately than we know any object of sense perception: our own body.

We know our human bodies have boundaries and occupy space, the same way other objects known only through our named senses do. Though we seldom think of our body as a physical object, we know even before reflection that it shares some of an object’s properties. We understand that a watermelon cannot successfully occupy the same space as an oncoming truck; we know that if we tried to repeat the experiment with our own body, we would obtain similar results—we know this even if we do not understand the physics involved.

We know that our consciousness inhabits a physical body, similar to other physical objects only known as phenomena. Yet our consciousness is not commensurate with our body. Most of us possess the power of voluntary motion. We usually are not aware of the breathing of our lungs or the beating of our heart unless somehow our attention is called to them. Our ability to control either is limited. Our kidneys command our attention on their schedule rather than one we choose. Few of us have any idea what our liver is doing right now, though this organ is as needful as lungs, heart, or kidneys. The conscious mind is the servant, not the master, of these and other organs. These organs have an agenda the conscious mind did not choose, and over which it has limited power.

When Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with the desires, needs, and impulses in us that we name “will”, what he is saying is that we participate in the reality of an otherwise unachievable world outside the mind through will. We cannot prove that our mental picture of an outside world corresponds with a reality by reasoning; through will, we know—without thinking—that the world can stimulate us. We suffer fear, or desire: these states arise involuntarily; they arise prior to reflection; they arise even when the conscious mind would prefer to hold them at bay. The rational mind is, for Schopenhauer, a leaf borne along in a stream of pre-reflective and largely unconscious emotion. That stream is will, and through will, if not through logic, we can participate in the underlying reality beyond mere phenomena. It is for this reason that Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with what we call our will.

In his criticism of Kant, Schopenhauer claimed that sensation and understanding are separate and distinct abilities. Yet, for Kant, an object is known through each of them. Kant wrote: “[T]here are two stems of human knowledge … namely, sensibility and understanding, objects being given by the former [sensibility] and thought by the latter [understanding].” Schopenhauer disagreed. He asserted that mere sense impressions, not objects, are given by sensibility. According to Schopenhauer, objects are intuitively perceived by understanding and are discursively thought by reason (Kant had claimed that (1) the understanding thinks objects through concepts and that (2) reason seeks the unconditioned or ultimate answer to “why?”). Schopenhauer said that Kant’s mistake regarding perception resulted in all of the obscurity and difficult confusion that is exhibited in the Transcendental Analytic section of his critique.

Lastly, Schopenhauer departed from Kant in how he interpreted the Platonic ideas. In The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer explicitly stated:

…Kant used the word [Idea] wrongly as well as illegitimately, although Plato had already taken possession of it, and used it most appropriately.

Instead Schopenhauer relied upon the Neoplatonist interpretation of the biographer Diogenes Laërtius from Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. In reference to Plato’s Ideas, Schopenhauer quotes Laërtius verbatim in an explanatory footnote.

Diogenes Laërtius (III, 12): Plato teaches that the Ideas exist in nature, so to speak, as patterns or prototypes, and that the remainder of things only resemble them, and exist as their copies.

schopenhauer_statue

Moral Theory

Schopenhauer’s moral theory proposed that only compassion can drive moral acts. According to Schopenhauer, compassion alone is the good of the object of the acts, that is, they cannot be inspired by either the prospect of personal utility or the feeling of duty. Mankind can also be guided by egoism and malice. Egotistic acts are those guided by self-interest, desire for pleasure or happiness. Schopenhauer believed most of our deeds belong to this class. Acts of malice are different from egotistic acts. As in the case of acts of compassion, these do not target personal utility. Their aim is to cause damage to others, independently of personal gains. He believed, like Swami Vivekananda in the unity of all with one-self and also believed that ego is the origin of pain and conflicts, that reduction of ego frames the moral principles.

Even though Schopenhauer ended his treatise on the freedom of human will with the postulate of everyone’s responsibility for their character and, consequently, acts—the responsibility following from one’s being the Will as noumenon (from which also all the characters and creations come)—he considered his views incompatible with theism, on grounds of fatalism and, more generally, responsibility for evil. In Schopenhauer’s philosophy the dogmas of Christianity lose their significance, and the “Last Judgment” is no longer preceded by anything—”The world is itself the Last Judgment on it.” Whereas God, if he existed, would be evil.

He named a force within man that he felt took invariable precedence over reason: the Will to Live or Will to Life (Wille zum Leben), defined as an inherent drive within human beings, and indeed all creatures, to stay alive; a force that inveigles us into reproducing.

Schopenhauer refused to conceive of love as either trifling or accidental, but rather understood it as an immensely powerful force that lay unseen within man’s psyche and dramatically shaped the world:

The ultimate aim of all love affairs … is more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation.

young_schopenhauer

Influence of Eastern Thought

Schopenhauer read the Latin translation of the ancient Hindu texts, The Upanishads, which French writer Anquetil du Perron had translated from the Persian translation of Prince Dara Shikoh entitled Sirre-Akbar (“The Great Secret”). He was so impressed by their philosophy that he called them “the production of the highest human wisdom”, and believed they contained superhuman concepts. The Upanishads was a great source of inspiration to Schopenhauer. Writing about them, he said:

It is the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.

It is well known that the book Oupnekhat (Upanishad) always lay open on his table, and he invariably studied it before sleeping at night. He called the opening up of Sanskrit literature “the greatest gift of our century”, and predicted that the philosophy and knowledge of the Upanishads would become the cherished faith of the West.

Schopenhauer was first introduced to the 1802 Latin Upanishad translation through Friedrich Majer. They met during the winter of 1813–1814 in Weimar at the home of Schopenhauer’s mother according to the biographer Safranski. Majer was a follower of Herder, and an early Indologist. Schopenhauer did not begin a serious study of the Indic texts, however, until the summer of 1814. Sansfranski maintains that between 1815 and 1817, Schopenhauer had another important cross-pollination with Indian thought in Dresden. This was through his neighbor of two years, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause. Krause was then a minor and rather unorthodox philosopher who attempted to mix his own ideas with that of ancient Indian wisdom. Krause had also mastered Sanskrit, unlike Schopenhauer, and the two developed a professional relationship. It was from Krause that Schopenhauer learned meditation and received the closest thing to expert advice concerning Indian thought.

Most noticeable, in the case of Schopenhauer’s work, was the significance of the Chandogya Upanishad, whose Mahavakya, Tat Tvam Asi is mentioned throughout The World as Will and Representation.

Schopenhauer noted a correspondence between his doctrines and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Similarities centered on the principles that life involves suffering, that suffering is caused by desire (taṇhā), and that the extinction of desire leads to liberation. Thus three of the four “truths of the Buddha” correspond to Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will. In Buddhism, however, while greed and lust are always unskillful, desire is ethically variable – it can be skillful, unskillful, or neutral.

For Schopenhauer, Will had ontological primacy over the intellect; in other words, desire is understood to be prior to thought. Schopenhauer felt this was similar to notions of puruṣārtha or goals of life in Vedānta Hinduism.

In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, denial of the will is attained by either:

  • personal experience of an extremely great suffering that leads to loss of the will to live; or
  • knowledge of the essential nature of life in the world through observation of the suffering of other people.

However, Buddhist nirvāṇa is not equivalent to the condition that Schopenhauer described as denial of the will. Nirvāṇa is not the extinguishing of the person as some Western scholars have thought, but only the “extinguishing” (the literal meaning of nirvana) of the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion that assail a person’s character. Occult historian Joscelyn Godwin (1945– ) stated, “It was Buddhism that inspired the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, and, through him, attracted Richard Wagner. This Orientalism reflected the struggle of the German Romantics, in the words of Leon Poliakov, to “free themselves from Judeo-Christian fetters”. In contradistinction to Godwin’s claim that Buddhism inspired Schopenhauer, the philosopher himself made the following statement in his discussion of religions:

If I wished to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I should have to concede to Buddhism pre-eminence over the others. In any case, it must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own, for this numbers far more followers than any other. And this agreement must be yet the more pleasing to me, inasmuch as in my philosophizing I have certainly not been under its influence. For up till 1818, when my work appeared, there was to be found in Europe only a very few accounts of Buddhism.

Buddhist philosopher Nishitani Keiji, however, sought to distance Buddhism from Schopenhauer. While Schopenhauer’s philosophy may sound rather mystical in such a summary, his methodology was resolutely empirical, rather than speculative or transcendental:

Philosophy … is a science, and as such has no articles of faith; accordingly, in it nothing can be assumed as existing except what is either positively given empirically, or demonstrated through indubitable conclusions.

Also note:

This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration.

The argument that Buddhism affected Schopenhauer’s philosophy more than any other Dharmic faith loses more credence when viewed in light of the fact that Schopenhauer did not begin a serious study of Buddhism until after the publication of The World as Will and Representation in 1818. Scholars have started to revise earlier views about Schopenhauer’s discovery of Buddhism. Proof of early interest and influence, however, appears in Schopenhauer’s 1815/16 notes (transcribed and translated by Urs App) about Buddhism. They are included in a recent case study that traces Schopenhauer’s interest in Buddhism and documents its influence. Other scholarly work questions how similar Schopenhauer’s philosophy actually is to Buddhism.

Schopenhauer said he was influenced by the Upanishads, Immanuel Kant and Plato. References to Eastern philosophy and religion appear frequently in his writing. As noted above, he appreciated the teachings of the Buddha and even called himself a Buddhist. He said that his philosophy could not have been conceived before these teachings were available.

Concerning the Upanishads and Vedas, he writes in The World as Will and Representation:

If the reader has also received the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries, if then the reader, I say, has received his initiation in primeval Indian wisdom, and received it with an open heart, he will be prepared in the very best way for hearing what I have to tell him. It will not sound to him strange, as to many others, much less disagreeable; for I might, if it did not sound conceited, contend that every one of the detached statements which constitute the Upanishads, may be deduced as a necessary result from the fundamental thoughts which I have to enunciate, though those deductions themselves are by no means to be found there.

Among Schopenhauer’s other influences were: Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Thomas Reid, Baruch Spinoza, Matthias Claudius, George Berkeley, David Hume, and René Descartes.

schopenhauer

Schopenhauer’s Influence

Schopenhauer has had a massive influence upon later thinkers, though more so in the arts (especially literature and music) and psychology than in philosophy. His popularity peaked in the early twentieth century, especially during the Modernist era, and waned somewhat thereafter. Nevertheless, a number of recent publications have reinterpreted and modernised the study of Schopenhauer. His theory is also being explored by some modern philosophers as a precursor to evolutionary theory and modern evolutionary psychology.

Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer. After reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Tolstoy gradually became converted to the ascetic morality upheld in that work as the proper spiritual path for the upper classes: “Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I’ve never experienced before. … no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer”

Richard Wagner, writing in his autobiography, remembered his first impression that Schopenhauer left on him (when he read The World as Will and Representation):

Schopenhauer’s book was never completely out of my mind, and by the following summer I had studied it from cover to cover four times. It had a radical influence on my whole life.

Wagner also commented on that “serious mood, which was trying to find ecstatic expression” created by Schopenhauer inspired the conception of Tristan und Isolde.

Friedrich Nietzsche owed the awakening of his philosophical interest to reading The World as Will and Representation and admitted that he was one of the few philosophers that he respected, dedicating to him his essay Schopenhauer als Erzieher one of his Untimely Meditations.

Jorge Luis Borges remarked that the reason he had never attempted to write a systematic account of his world view, despite his penchant for philosophy and metaphysics in particular, was because Schopenhauer had already written it for him.

As a teenager, Ludwig Wittgenstein adopted Schopenhauer’s epistemological idealism. However, after his study of the philosophy of mathematics, he rejected epistemological idealism for Gottlob Frege’s conceptual realism. In later years, Wittgenstein was highly dismissive of Schopenhauer, describing him as an ultimately shallow thinker: “Schopenhauer has quite a crude mind… where real depth starts, his comes to an end.”

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle read Schopenhauer’s works as a student, but later largely forgot them, only to unwittingly recycle ideas from Schopenhauer in his The Concept of Mind (1949).


Further Study

Arthur Schopenhauer (SEP)

Arthur Schopenhauer (IEP)

Schopenhauer’s Works (Project Gutenberg)

Schopenhauer’s Works (Wikisource)

Meta-ethics

Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful – but the sense for custom (morality) applies, not to these experiences as such, but to the age, the sanctity, the indiscussability of the custom. And so this feeling is a hindrance to the acquisition of new experiences and the correction of customs: that is to say, morality is a hindrance to the development of new and better customs: it makes stupid.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

ethics-word-cloud

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God? When you think about morality, what comes to mind? Is it a list of sins to avoid in order to make it into heaven and avoid hellfire? Or perhaps a duty to be fulfilled? A list of virtues to practice in order to develop character? Does it consist of a social contract between men in order to preserve peace and society? Is it as simple as listening to your own conscience? Or maybe it could be a bit of one and the other?

For Kierkegaard, a large part of sin is not wanting to be who you, in fact, are. For Kant, reason alone dictates what is moral: always to treat others as an end and never as a means. For Hume, a descriptive statement about ethics can never lead to a normative statement about ethics. The more I read and the more I think about it, morality seems to me to be nothing more than a social construct. It is the agreed upon correct way of living for a given society, handed down from society at large to parents and their children ad nauseam. Nowadays, the media (including social media) also plays a large role in constructing our ideas about morality. But times change, and so also must morality.

Proceeding from reason alone, I see that any normative moral imperative must by definition be a conditional and teleological statement with regard to consequences, be they physical or mental. That is to say, hypothetical imperatives are meaningful, while categorical imperatives must, at best, be idealistic. In other words, one must place a conditional “if…” at the end of any moral proposition. The logical construction would be as follows:

“Thou shalt (or shalt not) X… if one does (or does not) desire the consequence Y.”

For example, “Thou shalt not [murder, rape, steal, etc.]… if one does desire to live in a peaceful society (or if one does not desire to face the potential consequences).” Any duty to be fulfilled, or any virtue to be developed, or any social contract to be followed must be subject to this type of conditional statement.

To take the ethical ideals of one man and apply them to any other, or to humanity as a whole, is an error (unless we are speaking in the most general sense about laws of nature itself, which Kant thought he was). Morality can be both subjective and intersubjective, but by no means universal (my aversion to the idealization of reason should be clear at this point). That is to say, there are as many moral codes as there are men, and it is not the right of one to judge the other, unless we are assuming some type of social contract.

To be sure, this line of thinking is in direct opposition to “absolute morality” and “divine command theory,” in which “Thou shalt (or shalt not) X” because it is morally right- or wrong-in-itself, or because it is commanded by God. Unless, of course, the statement is formulated as something like, “Thou shalt X, if you wish to enter the kingdom of heaven,” or if one attempts to equate the concepts of God and Good. But this type of moral proposition only serves to raise questions about the value of the consequences (e.g. entering the kingdom of heaven or avoiding hellfire) or the value of the Good itself (cf. Plato). Any notion of an objective right- and wrong-in-itself must be dismissed as meaningless, or at most be taken as a statement of some personal viewpoint attempting to apply itself universally. It is worth mentioning that this opposition includes contemporary secular (atheist) as well as religious moralists.

I realize that I may be oversimplifying such a nuanced topic as ethics, but at a bare-bones (meta-ethical) level I think that this formula (i.e. hypothetical imperatives) must apply to any possible ethical proposition. Yet I still feel in my own heart, quite distinct from reason alone, that certain actions are morally reprehensible and others praiseworthy – and I cannot avoid feeling this way.

Furthermore, I find no evidence of the “equality of men” in nature, neither in value nor in physical or mental ability. But this does not mean that we cannot still pursue an ideal of equality, if such an ideal is our goal. The similarity of men in nature would be enough to get us going toward such an ideal – and perhaps living in an idealized world would not be so bad.

The social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality that nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau

See Also

Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response

Beyond Right and Wrong

Irrefutable Ethics

Metaethics (IEP)

Metaethics (SEP)