Friday 30 January 2009

The poverty of moral philosophy

Can philosophers rejuvenate ethical debate in the public sphere?

In 1988, Alain Badiou unsympathetically described the outcome when philosophy attempted to apply its own truths to Art, Love, Politics or Science. He termed it a ‘disaster’. Instead, he endorsed a distance between philosophical truth and the specific forms of truth we might mistakenly think philosophy is coming up with: truths about Art, Love, Politics and Science. There is perhaps a case for adding Ethics to the list, but such is the confusion surrounding that subject today that is tempting to look to moral philosophy for guidance.

Brendan O’Neill and others argue on spiked that reaction in the West to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas revealed a dearth of moral direction. The West, it seems, has lost a sense of moral purpose, and when presented with a situation of such moral complexity, is reduced to hyperbole and empty ethical posturing. And the ethical somnambulating of the West is not restricted to its commentary on the conflicts of others. In his book Media, War and Postmodernity, Philip Hammond argues that it is an absence of moral direction that has shaped Western international relations since the end of the cold war. He claims that wars fought by the West in the Balkans and Middle East were essentially narcissistic exercises, designed to rejuvenate public belief in Western moral purpose. The political elite seeks out moral causes to engage the public imagination, and then pursues them in the most public way possible. Rather than intervening out of any genuine ‘ethical responsibility’, Hammond argues that Western states take military action in search of ethical meaning itself.

This set of circumstances puts moral philosophy in a difficult position. After all, shouldn’t it be the responsibility of philosophers to rejuvenate ethical debate? In fact it seems that our most popular moral philosophers are happier to follow much the same pattern than inspire alternative moral perspectives. Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, but has been most vocal in recent weeks on the bombings in Gaza. He has also written a book on the subject, on which he gave a talk at the University of Sussex in 2005. I was there, and remember being struck by how ordinary his moral perspective on the conflict was. At time of publication, the book caused controversy for claiming that: ‘the Palestinian people have a substantial moral right to their terrorism’. Yet to me it seemed that this was a controversy borne only out of Honderich’s willingness to make explicit anti-Israeli arguments in a language perhaps stronger than many other academic philosophers would think to; not out of the radicalism of the position itself. Returning to Honderich’s work on Gaza now affirms my undergraduate suspicions. In a recent posting on his website, Honderich remarks:

The neo-Zionist government of Israel says that in attacking the democracy of Gaza it is doing no more than engaging in self-defense. It is saving lives of its own citizens from rocket attacks. That is not its aim. If that were its aim, Israel would achieve it immediately by embracing the solution to the Palestinian problem, in no way complex. It would give up neo-Zionism

By declaring that the ‘solution to the Palestinian problem [is] in no way complex’, Honderich articulates a Western disengagement from ethical debate that has become depressingly mainstream. Honderich is one moral philosopher who for all intents and purposes appears to have given up the fight.

The journalist Christopher Hitchens (who is no philosopher, but has built a career out of calling things ‘evil’) also articulates this ethical disengagement, in his criticisms of Hamas. In an article for Slate magazine, Hitchens covers three considerations regarding the timing of the conflict, before getting on to what he really wants to talk about: religion. According to Hitchens, Hamas has created in Palestine: ‘a place of repression for its inhabitants and aggression for its neighbors’, and once again: ‘the party of god has the whip hand’. In his devotion to atheism, Hitchens bypasses the complexities of Hamas’ position in Gaza, in favor of preaching the ‘evils’ of organised religion. Once again a popular thinker sidelines the ethical debate in favour of brash alliances to constructed moral causes. Once again we take a step further away from a genuine ethical discussion in the public sphere.

Yet despite this disengagement, the language of the West in dealing with conflict is couched in ethical rhetoric. Words such as ‘disproportionality’ and broader notions of a ‘just war’ all hint at a more nuanced ethical position that is capable of arising out of complex ethical crises. It is unfortunate that all too frequently, these concepts are suffixed with terms that destroy any space for philosophical scrutiny, terms like ‘holocaust’ and rallying cries of ‘we are all Gazans now’. Perhaps a suitable role for the philosophical community is to engage with our response to ethical crises in a way that allows the more considered arguments to win through, bringing the more complex ethical arguments into the public sphere, and creating the space for discussions that do justice to the situations we are presented with. In this way, the moral philosophers of our universities should be able to compensate for the ethical void left by our political elites.

Unfortunately moral philosophy is a peculiar beast, which does not seem to translate well into the public sphere. Firstly the development of the politics of multiculturalism has created an intuitive rejection to one of moral philosophy’s starting points: that there are ethical truths that exist both independently of the knower and irrespective of time and place. This proposition does not sit well with a public arguably more in tune with moral relativism, and conditioned to view alternative ethical practices as culturally, rather than philosophically, different from Western morality. Secondly philosophy is more broadly perceived as existing in an academic environment that is too disconnected with modern ethical issues to deliver judgements. This perception of philosophy perhaps affects philosophers themselves, who feel disqualified to talk academically about situations that appear to belong in the sphere of international relations, or politics.

In answer to the title of Colin J Beckley’s and Elspeth Waters’ recent book Who Holds the Moral High Ground?, it is tempting to say, ‘not the philosophers’. Although it is futile to pin blame on a neutering of ethical debate anywhere in particular, it is a shame that philosophers seem to have failed to respond. The book skirts over a history of moral philosophy in a way that makes it seem as though the authors themselves were bored by writing it, but it has its virtue in marking a call to arms for the philosophical community. If this is the state of moral philosophy in the public sphere, what are you going to do about it?

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