Monday, February 14, 2005


I have been reading Jonathan Glover's book, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Its epigraph is from Collingwood:
The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.
It is certainly my experience that non-philosophers are surprised by how little moral philosophers (at least: the ones I mainly read) have had to say about the moral tragedies of the last hundred years. Glover wants to set this right; and especially for those who share my shameful ignorance of the facts of our recent history, he has written a very useful and instructive book.

But is it philosophy?

Glover begins by writing of the post-Nietzschean demise of belief in a "moral law external to us". In its place, we must put what he calls "the moral resources": sympathy, respect, and moral identity. In his telling, the history of moral catastrophe is one in which sympathy is destroyed by isolation and mutual fear, respect by degradation and cold humour, and moral identity by the division of labour and the narrowing of attention (think of Eichmann).

Even as it draws on real psychological evidence (like Milgram on obedience to authority, and the Stanford prison experiment), Glover's theory of human nature is constructed from the armchair. In that respect it is like philosophy. And the book is a work of synthesis that a philosopher might be suited to write. But the actual engagement with philosophical ideas is slight. The idea of an "external moral law" is not explained. It is loosely connected by Glover with religious belief ("God is dead"); but this notoriously difficult connection receives no scrutiny at all. (Nor is there much argument that belief in God is in decline.) The opening chapters on the moral law seem mainly an excuse to switch gears, from philosophy to something else — the empirical psychology of morals. And so I am afraid the book argues against its own thesis: philosophy is not good for much in responding to the traumas of the last century. We need psychology instead.

This is not a criticism of the book. If you wanted to "teach ethics" (as opposed to moral philosophy) in, for instance, a high school classroom, you could do a lot worse than Humanity. (Glover makes the simple but hopeful suggestion that knowledge of moral risk — for instance, of the kinds of conformity and obedience his psychologists describe — will be helpful in fighting it.)

But the aspirations of philosophy are at stake. Iris Murdoch wrote (in The Sovereignty of Good):
How can we make ourselves better? is a question moral philosophers should attempt to answer.
I take it she means, as well, that they should answer it by doing moral philosophy. (Glover doesn't count.) My problem is: I am not sure that I have a conception of philosophy on which they might succeed.


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