Good reasons to be in two minds

September 8, 2006

How do we arrive at a moral stance, and what are the motives for ethical behaviour? Simon Blackburn cogitates

A cheering aspect of the contemporary world, at least to some of us, is the resurgence of philosophy. I do not mean the resurgence of an academic pursuit, which has always clung on, but the resurgence of public interest in the questions that prompt that pursuit. The Confederation of British Industry may not understand it or like it, but philosophy thrives in schools; numbers of applications to universities are up; literary events on philosophy are sold out; websites and books gain an audience. There is evidently a new need to reflect.

Those of us who have tried to address this need find a gratifying response where a generation ago we would have found stony silence. There is, however, a melancholy side to this change, if we believe that it is when things are going well and matters seems straightforward that philosophical reflection is slighted, and conversely it is only at times of stress and uncertainty that it intrudes itself on public consciousness. Perhaps it is when we are jittery about who we are and where we are going, about what we know and how to live that we need to sit and reflect. Otherwise we just jog along.

Ethics provides many people's first brush with philosophy, and David Wiggins is well known in Britain as one of the most subtle writers on moral philosophy of the present time. The present work will consolidate that reputation. It is divided into 12 lectures, falling into a big part, a very little one, and a fairly little one. The first, which contains nine lectures, presents a way of looking at morality and our motives for it, and favourably compares a "Humean" approach to those of Kant and of classical utilitarianism. The second, with just one lecture, concerns justice, and talks of John Rawls and some of his critics. The third consists of two lectures on the theory of ethics, or "metaethics".

Doctrinally, it is natural to compare Wiggins to the late Bernard Williams, and in spite of disagreements he shares much with the older philosopher.

But whereas Williams displayed a legendary dash and flair, an epigrammatic ability to cut to the heart of a subject with a few words, Wiggins handles matters more fastidiously, and perhaps more reverently.

If we compare Williams to Oscar Wilde, then Wiggins is the later Henry James. As with James's work, there is the constant sense that language is on the point of springing a leak under the unbearable pressure of getting something almost inexpressibly complex exactly right. Positions are formulated, but the formulations attract qualifications, qualifications attract others, and the others attract footnotes explaining how they are to be read or not to be read. The exact word is everything, and it is often a very arcane word indeed; in one footnote Wiggins expresses the hope that his readers, like himself, have access to the "larger and better dictionaries" of the English language, and they may well need them. He unashamedly demands much, including confidence that the matters in question cannot, in fact, be broached without traversing such dense terrain, and this makes it especially laudable of Penguin to be bringing his work out as a large and imposing paperback.

The Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin thought that moral philosophers spent too much time with the good and the beautiful, and too little with the dainty and the dumpy. A whole generation of them took this advice to heart.

They interpreted it in terms of a mistrust of remote or abstract characterisations of ethics, and particularly a mistrust of the simple dichotomies about which philosophers like to cluster, such as fact versus value, reason versus passion, egoism versus altruism, or relativism versus absolutism. Instead, as Wittgenstein also taught, they favoured close attention to the actual textures of everyday argument and imputations of motive and reason as they infuse the lives of ordinary people. The fear is that we ignore those textures if we give only abstract general characterisations of human practical living, as if we are thereby seeing ethics through the wrong end of a telescope. Human practice is apt to outstrip theoreticians' dry attempts to describe it.

Allied to this mistrust there arose suspicion of abstract principles of ethics, such as those structuring classical utilitarianism or simple Kantianism. The alternative hero was usually Aristotle, shorn of the things about which we now know better. Wiggins rightly and generously puts Hume alongside Aristotle on the pedestal. In this context, that is a fairly radical thing to do. Williams, for example, quite consistently ignored or patronised Hume, yet Hume provides a much more impressive example of a "genealogy" of morals, a reconstruction of its adaptive history, than the debunking stories that Nietzsche invented under that title and that commanded Williams's admiration. Wiggins, by contrast, rightly understands that Hume's portrait of the evolution of human benevolence, co-operation, reciprocity and solidarity sees these qualities as adaptations, as things to be proud of rather than things to be undermined or exposed.

It is indeed hard to understand why Hume's extraordinary gift for describing the textures of human motivation and practical reasoning were so largely ignored by the generation that followed Wittgenstein or Austin.

Perhaps they were misled by the labels that somehow attached themselves to him, such as sceptic, naturalist or consequentialist, often utterly in the face of things he actually wrote. But there is little excuse for this, since back in 1941 Norman Kemp Smith had definitively cleared Hume of the implied charges. Since then, there have been many books placing Hume, along with Darwin, at the centre of moral philosophy, but for those who have a just estimation of Hume's distinction as a moral philosopher it is useful to add Wiggins's work to the list.

What then of the poor student who pleads for the answer to questions framed in abstract terms? Such questions are whether ethics admits of truth, knowledge, objectivity and rationality, or whether it is more a matter of contingent and historically variable passions and conventions, psychological and sometimes political forces managed only by induction and imitation, for children, and persuasion or force, for adults.

Wiggins warns us to beware of these apparently simple questions. He sees the terms in which they are posed as shoddy, shop-worn labels fit at best for suggesting a multitude of more precise and manageable issues. For example, "persuasion", as it occurs in the student's plea, covers a multitude of activities, from those involving manipulation or deceit to those showing the most delicate awareness of the feelings of the audience, and it will be important to know which part of this spectrum, and others, the student has in mind. In the final lecture of the book (donnishly titled "Miscellanea Metaethica"), Wiggins shows his method in operation, especially in connection with relativism and with objectivity and the convergence of judgment upon single answers.

In the same final lecture, Wiggins explains how, in his view, Hume's "passions", such as disinterested love or aversion, horror, pride or shame, may themselves be assimilated to perceptions of truths. This is a surprising view, although characteristic of ancient Stoicism. Talking of the late 18th-century reform of the slave trade, Wiggins holds that although it required "passions" - or in other words reactions of horror and revulsion at depictions or thoughts of life under slavery - to bring us to make them, the judgments themselves are capable of truth, and can indeed be described as objectively true. A proper Humeanism does not have to labour under the disadvantage of denying moral knowledge and truth. I applaud this conclusion, although Wiggins gets to it by moving fairly briskly from describing such reactions as passions, to seeing them (when they are appropriate) as exercises of receptivity or as responses to something that "really is so". The italics are ones he tends to employ when expounding this move, and I suspect they betray an anxiety that some of the audience may jib at it. For, on this account, what are responded to or received are not just the empirical realities of the business, the vile things that go on, but the instancing of fully fledged moral properties, or in other words the vileness of what is going on, or the fact of its being impermissible.

Wiggins also insists that once the moral question that reformers were raising is on the table, then even for would-be defenders of the trade there is really "nothing else to think" than that the institution was inhumane and degrading. This is surprising, too. It is of course difficult for us to imagine or understand sincere defences of slavery, by persons to whom the moral question had occurred, and that fact about ourselves should be a matter of pride. But the undoubted existence of such defences - starting with the uneasy first chapter of Aristotle's Politics - certainly jeopardises the optimistic suggestion that, on this issue at other times, "there was nothing else to think".

Among other things, it might have been thought that even if the institution is inhumane and degrading, those suffering under it were not fully human, and were therefore degraded only in the neutral sense in which treatment of animals can be degrading, and hence that no good case for abolition was implicit in those terms. In general, interesting ethics inhabit exactly the ground where it has been possible to be in two minds about what to think.

There are few moral philosophers who will not learn something by studying this book and giving it the concentration it demands. Whether he is talking about Kant or John Stuart Mill, Rawls or John Mackie, Wiggins has subtle and interesting things to say. It is good that such a book could be supposed to have a wide audience, although it is a pity that neither Penguin nor Harvard University Press, which publishes it in the US, could find the space to put in a bibliography.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy, Cambridge University.

Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality

Author - David Wiggins
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 393
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 140 25288 6

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