humani nil a me alienum puto

random rants about news, the law, healthcare law, economics and anything I find amusing

Op-Ed Columnist – The End of Philosophy –

In his op-ed peice in the April 6, 2009 NYT, David Brooks takes on a discussion of moral philosophy.   He believes that recent movement in theory behind why we have it has moved from the older, Socratic, notion of rationally based morality to one based upon the evolutionary development of human emotion and humans as a social, collaborative creature.  In it he writes:

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators. *** The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

I’m not so sure about the line about the “new atheists”.  It seems that the biological and evolutionary research that is shedding so much light on how we’ve developed our morality is coming from thoughtful scientific method, rather than an introspective rational philosopher waxing over long dead texts.

But, in any event, for some reason, this also reminded me of a passage from one of my recent favorite authors, Terry Pratchett.  From Hogfather:

Susan: “All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.”
Death: “No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: “But Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”
Death: “Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.”
Susan: “So we can believe the big ones?”
Death: “Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.”
Susan: “They’re not the same at all!”
Death: “Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through with the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act as if there were some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
Susan: “Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point—”
Death: “My point exactly.”


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