A divided creature wrestles with its competing desires

Ruling Passions
February 19, 1999

Western thought has tended to see humanity as a divided creature, half-man, half-beast, striving to rise above his material existence to fulfil his higher nature. One of the main expressions of this view is a cluster of beliefs about morality: founded in man's reason and exercised in his freedom the moral contains a universal truth about how we should live.

This position came into its own with Kant and has become dominant in moral philosophy. But as the assertion of man's "higher nature" depended on the denigration of our emotions, desires and needs, it posed a difficulty: how then to understand the relation between our natural and ethical selves? Simon Blackburn addresses this problem. Ruling Passions makes the case for what Blackburn acknowledges to be an unfashionable view: feeling and virtue co-exist without tragic implications in a single human nature. He argues that a sympathy with common humanity is the foundation for a socially constructed moral order whereby the praise and blame of others is internalised. While it is right to try to achieve an impartial rather than a tribal ethic, its contingency on a certain kind of society must be recognised.

Blackburn uses the term expressivism to denote the state in which having values is distinctive and the natural way in which humans live. It thus has more to do with practice than concept and does not involve the assumption of a supernatural order. In a series of arguments against psychological egoism and sociobiology, Blackburn challenges the notion that desire is always bound up with the pursuit of our own good. His strategy is to expose the falsity of traditional oppositions: the rational requires an emotional framework for it to be meaningful (contra Kant), while (with Hume) adjudicating between competing passions involves rational deliberation.

This approach engenders a nuanced conception that sees human nature and motivation in holistic terms. Being ethical is a matter of human disposition, not something to be painfully wrought out of a titanic struggle between the two sides of a divided nature. Ruling Passions gives us our humanity, providing some answers to those sceptics who find Kantian morality devoid of psychological realism.

For Blackburn, the implications of the Kantian conception are far-reaching. For if, he claims, such an unrealistic self-understanding is the basis of our expectations of each other, we are likely to be unforgiving when disappointment kicks in. A social and political order that expresses such a view will be ineffective and oppressive. In contrast, the expressivist account of the moral self would lead to "an alternative politics" that focuses on developing a certain kind of culture rather than blaming individuals.

Alex Klaushofer is lecturer in philosophy, Regent's College, London.

Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning

Author - Simon Blackburn
ISBN - 0 19 824785 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 334

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