In pleasanter news than most of what I’ve shared today, Rebecca Goldstein talks to The Humanist about Plato at the Googleplex.
The Humanist: Can you say more about how philosophy benefits humanity?
Goldstein: We’re adept at masking inconsistencies from ourselves, most especially moral inconsistencies, since they make it easier for us to act in ways that we want to. At its best, philosophy exposes presumptions that we’re not aware we harbor—presumptions that nonetheless influence our judgments and actions. It examines whether these presumptions are justifiable and consistent with other beliefs and attitudes we’ve committed ourselves to.
The Humanist: Unmasking moral inconsistencies: this is where your notion of “mattering” comes in, correct?
Goldstein: Yes. At the heart of our moral inconsistencies lie attitudes and judgments about mattering: about what matters and, even more importantly, about who matters. We are unthinkingly committed to our own lives mattering, as well as the lives of those we care about. But the egoistic privileging of “me” and the tribal privileging of “us” both lead to moral incoherence. The very notion of a person entails certain facts about mattering. Philosophy, in insisting that attitudes and beliefs be grounded, forces the recognition that any reason I can give for why I must be treated as mattering is also a reason others can give for why they must be treated as mattering. The facts about mattering apply not just to me but also to you, not just to us but also to them, not just to affluent, straight, white, adult males but also to women, children, the poor, the enslaved, the colonized, the imprisoned, the LGBT community, and so on.
I love that.
And then they get to that thing I’ve been harping on lately – the fact that we need feeling as well as reason to discuss issues in moral philosophy properly. It’s not just logic; it’s not just facts. You need both feeling and reason; both reason and feeling.
The Humanist: So philosophy imparts a kind of impartiality. But reasoning, identifying inconsistencies, revising our judgments—how does any of this touch our moral sensibilities? Aren’t our attitudes and behaviors driven by feeling rather than thinking? Both the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the contemporary psychologist Jonathan Haidt have argued that reason does little to moralize us.
Goldstein: What Hume said is that reason in itself is perfectly inert; and he was right. Without such moral emotions as empathy, sympathy, indignation, and outrage, reason couldn’t gain any purchase on us. But that doesn’t mean reason is irrelevant. This isn’t an either/or situation. Here’s an analogy: Kant famously said that concepts without percepts [the object of perception] are empty, and percepts without concepts are blind. Adapting the adage, I’d say moral reasoning without moral emotions are empty, and moral emotions without moral reasoning are blind. Moral emotions can’t make progress on their own. They aren’t self-correcting. The mere fact of moral progress reveals the hidden hand of reason. A view like Haidt’s denies the possibility of progress; it collapses into a relativism inconsistent with humanism.
Indeed, which is what I’ve always objected to about Haidt. He feels sympathy with the men in the front room eating with him, and he forgets about the women in the back.