21st-century science adds little to our understanding of moral philosophyby Jonathan Rée / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Tuschman “seeks to locate the sources of morality in imperatives of primate survival” but it ends up sounding “like a just-so-story.” ©Federico Gambarini/DPA/Corbis
Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us By Avi Tuschman (Prometheus Books, £15.40)
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them By Joshua Greene (Atlantic, £15.99)
Utilitarianism is, by common consent, the harshest and dreariest of philosophical systems, and its inventor, Jeremy Bentham, one of the biggest buffoons of all time. He seems to have imagined that misery could be eliminated by discarding old-fashioned moral notions of virtue and moral beauty and replacing them with quantitative estimates of what actually makes people happy—a perfect example, surely, of the fanatical 18th-century rationalism that gave rationality a bad name. In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times Bentham’s doctrines became “the Gradgrind philosophy”—the creed of a predatory industrialist who tramples on the “subtle essences of humanity” to make room for a calculus of lifeless facts: “nothing but facts, sir,” as Gradgrind puts it, “nothing but facts!” There was a void in his heart where the rest of us have sentiments of love and good fellowship, and anyone with a scrap of humanity would be repelled by the ruthless old box-ticker with his “utilitarian, matter-of-fact face.”
Dickens’s satire on utilitarianism was published in 1854 and has gone on reverberating ever since. It was endorsed, for example, by the literary critic FR Leavis, who taught generations of students to dismiss “Benthamism” as an “aggressive formulation of an inhumane spirit” and an insult to “our profoundest ethical sensibility.” The philosophers have piled in too, accusing Bentham, together with his disciple John Stuart Mill, of underestimating the richness of our moral language (words like piety, heroism, humility, patience or obedience) and the subtlety of our intuitions about good and evil and right and wrong.
The funny thing is that Mill produced a rebuttal of these objections several years before Dickens started dishing them out. Those who boast of an innate moral instinct, he said, are just trying to shield their judgements from critical scrutiny. When they appeal to “immutable principles,” they are dressing up hoary prejudices as unarguable truths. A glance at the record of human infamy will show that their fine phrases function not as incentives to kindness and generosity but as covers for…