Parfit's On What Matters

The Age of Recrimination

Finger We live at a time in which almost everyone has allegations and insinuations to direct against others – politicians, co-workers, neighbours – yet almost no-one thinks ethics is an interesting subject. How can this be?

I fear the bad reputation that ethics has acquired is a result both of the dull tone that academic moral philosophy has fallen into sustaining, and the odd belief that the only thing ethics has to teach is what we shouldn’t do – as if ethics was merely the formal counterpart of law. The idea that ethics could still be, as the Greeks believed, about how we should live, has taken upon a negative context: any possible basis for ‘should’ is either discredited or simply disbelieved. Yet ethics is, and always has been, about our mutual happiness. Somehow, we lost sight of this.

We constantly make moral judgements against others, rarely against ourselves, and thus live within poisonous half-ethical mythologies that make no reference to virtue (except to note its absence), have no mention of duty (except when criticising others for not doing theirs), and have absolute certainty about the consequences of other people not sharing our beliefs, while discounting outright the idea that anyone else has any beliefs worth holding. Recrimination has replaced reflection in our moral world – never mind what I do or don’t do, what you did is so much worse.

The consequences of this corruption of our moral perspectives are deeper than are often credited. The belligerent stalemates in politics, the incremental devastation of the natural world, the return of international imperialism all stem from the same withered tree. In this respect, Alain Badiou has it right when he condemns traditional ethics as being built on an image of evil; we know what is wrong, and it isn’t ourselves but always others:

Ethics is conceived here both as an a priori ability to discern Evil (for according to the modern usage of ethics, Evil – or the negative – is primary: we presume a consensus regarding what is barbarian), and as the ultimate principle of judgement, in particular political judgement: good is what intervenes visibly against an Evil that is identifiable a priori. Law itself is first of all law ‘against’ Evil.

Thus the liberal blames the conservative for their traditional beliefs because this fails to live up to the standards of tolerance liberality demands – despite the fact that this demand (as Badiou also notes) becomes self-defeating. The liberal is hopeless at tolerance; they can only tolerate those people who share their specific liberal values. Thus too the conservative blames the liberal for their “godless” or “progressive” values, yet fails to live up to the demands of the religious traditions they claim to extol and bring about the kind of destructive ‘progress’ they abhor by an unholy alliance between tradition and ever-greedy capitalism. Always, the fault lies elsewhere.

We go awry when we think of ethics solely in the form of moral law because then it seems unachievable, and all that is left is to vilify, persecute and ultimately murder the worst excesses that lie outside this unattainable ideal. Instead, we can recognise our imperfection and uphold moral ideals from within, instead of reflecting them as hostility without. We can praise virtues when we find them, we can be dutiful for its own rewards, we can discuss consequences in the light of the uncertainty that inevitable obscures the future. In short, we can practice ethics personally instead of solely pursuing the persecution of the unethical nationally and internationally. We can return to the original ethical question – how should we live? – and answer it for ourselves by living well.


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Strangely enough, I have just ordered The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion from Amazon, which addresses this problem.

Chairman: I'm a big fan of Haidt's work and I had no idea he had a new book out. I wonder if it covers more than the papers...? Damn, something else to add to my gigantic reading list... >:)

Hopefully it will be delivered tomorrow. I might find out why I'm a bigot... although I think I know why - because I'm right....

I picked up a copy myself and I'm shocked at how big it is - the font size is gigantic. Did they strive to make this look bigger than it actually is? Am I the only person who would rather a compact edition of a book that I can comfortably carry around without throwing out my shoulder... *grumble mutter*

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