Intro to Humanism, Winter 2012
November 20, 2012 12:50 AM   Subscribe

If you think human rationality, and efforts to ‘predict and control’ are, together, shaky ground for ethics, what’s left?

Please forgive my naiveté here, the last time I thought about this with any sort of precision was too long ago. (I’ve forgotten the main arguments and their authors, and the terms I’m using are pretty basic, and I’m going to make some probably silly leaps unbecoming of a person my age.)

As a younger person, I had a lot of faith in the potential of the institutions of government, law, medicine, education, and psychology to improve the human condition. From what I can understand, many humanists/naturalists have settled on these as the tools and rationale for ethical action (re the big things), in a generally modernist program. (The proposed or implicit ethics seem to be normative, organized around a notion of universal rights, & informed by Western psychological conceptions around health and flourishing.)

Re just sort of living, there’s an emphasis on cultivating empathy, respecting life, do-unto-others, etc. Which is a bit perplexing, given that most atheists, I think, assume metaphysical determinism, if they don’t like randomness. (Sorry, yes I said I’d be crude, I know I'm collapsing a lot here.)

But none of those institutions can contain chaos and tragedy. I've lived long enough to see that people are irrational and self-interested and unlikely to change. Most organizations are inert (or corrupt). Expressions of vitality are fragile. Luck/happenstance matters more than anything, for individuals as much as policies, and those individuals or institutions able to overcome circumstance to embrace action are again a function of luck (of personality, situation, timing). We just suffer, and always will. Which is one thing, there are always little pleasures to soften things, worthy in themselves, but the science that humanists use to frame hope is always mitigated by politics, which is always mitigated by stupidity. Apart from that, there's simple error. Pretensions to morality/hope/action that don't account for all that are misguided.

Who in philosophy’s good, then, for that, from where I’m at? More clearly (I hope): if we're irrational, & constrained by the limitations alluded to above, and for practical purposes, unpredictable, in what do we ground ethics and sort of daily life, barring things supernatural?
posted by nelljie to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"Existence precedes essence", from Existentialism Is A Humanism may be good reading, if you're unfamiliar with it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:05 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm doing my best to parse your question, so I'm sorry if my response is a little clumsy:

but the science that humanists use to frame hope is always mitigated by politics, which is always mitigated by stupidity.

Well this is a debate within philosophy itself. Can philosophy, for example, rise to the challenge and call itself a science. Why do we teach philosophy in colleges and universities as something separate from say, english or comparative literature.

in what do we ground ethics and sort of daily life, barring things supernatural?

This is a variation of pretty much the only important question we've been asking since Descartes, which is the epistemological once - "how do we know" anything. The Ancient Greeks, for example, did not focus so much on this. Although if you were to dive into the classics, I'd venture to say you would find Aristotle very interesting. And politically incorrect, on some level.

As far as contemporary work goes, I would suggest picking something up by Richard Rorty, whom I happen to be a huge fan of, most probably because he defends the postmodernist viewpoint without collapsing into moral relativism. Keep in mind he's not exactly embraced by the Western "analytic" philosophical tradition. His seminal work is sort of hard to read for the uninitiated, but a couple of works I would suggest are Consequences of Pragmatism and Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. I don't think he shares in your outright pessimism regarding the human condition, but if you're looking for a philosopher who basically calls every other philosopher out on their epistemological bullshit, I think he's your man.

Also, Nietzsche sprang to my mind, notably, the book On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, or Kaufmann's The Portable Nietzsche, which you can read up on if you scroll down a little bit on this page.
posted by phaedon at 2:11 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Hey, folks, answers here need to be recommending authors, philosophers, and/or reading or other material for OP; if you would like to pursue a more general discussion, or offer your own thoughts or theories, that would be better for mefi mail or email. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:32 AM on November 20, 2012

As the man of twists and turns says, Existentialism might be what you're looking for.

I'm quite into stoic philosophy, but not sure it quite fits, because it has a strong emphasis on rationality.

However, Stoics don't believe that most people are perfectly rational, they just believe that an individual can choose to be rational.

In stoic philosophy, only things in your power are truly good or truly bad. Anything outside your power is morally indifferent.

Your own individual virtue/excellence are all that's truly necessary for you to be happy.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite] what do we ground ethics and sort of daily life, barring things supernatural?

I think you might find a generalized Buddhist approach to ethics, the intersection of inner values and outer behavior, interesting, if for no other reason than to contrast it to the Analytical or Continental authors mentioned above.

There is a very good askme about Buddhism for westerners from a practical point of view that has a lot of good links to additional reading in it.

Also, third-ing Stoicism and adding the suggestion of Epicureanism.
posted by digitalprimate at 6:49 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would say: Greek Tragedy.

After all, per Martha Nussbaum's famous The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Socratic empirical rationalism arose in the context of and as a optimistic response to the fatalism of the Greek tragic outlook.
posted by goethean at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Immanuel Kant. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is a good start for introduction to the categorical imperative.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:28 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: in what do we ground ethics and sort of daily life, barring things supernatural?

Felix Adler, founder of Ethical Culture and influenced by Kant and Emerson, suggests that our grounding should be the striving for ethical behavior itself. At times there are elements of the transcendent and inevitable dialectical progression in Adler's writings, but I prefer to emphasize his insight about the importance of the striving to do better and to understand/debate with others what it means to "do better."

From Life and Destiny:
So far as the forward movement of the human race is concerned, it is the effort that counts, and not the attainment; the real of time and space can never be the scene of complete realisation.
From Our Part In This World:
For the moral progress of mankind is ever achieved by beating out those questions in regard to which, at the time, right and wrong is still obscure, those practical questions of the relation of class to class, of State to State, which at first resist the bridle of moral formulation, but which at last submit and in the subjugation of which to moral ideas all moral progress really consists.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:56 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for your recommendations! (And too, for being patient enough with my late-night rambling.)

I’d be a jerk if I didn’t admit to having run into a few of the thinkers mentioned, in the context of a couple of philosophy classes taken many, many years ago. (Nietzsche, through I think the Kauffman compilation mentioned. Bits of the Stoics, from an introduction to an epistemology reader. I read excerpts of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (which I think almost gets at what I’m after), and parts of the Martha Nussbaum book. I have not encountered Rorty outside of a short piece related to epistemology. Kant and Buddhism, not at all.)

‘Run into’ and ‘barely recall’, of course, are a far cry from ‘really properly understanding’, and I will certainly go back to the suggested texts with which I’m acquainted, and explore those that are new to me.

Am I wrongly remembering things/guessing, though, when I think that nihilism, acceptance, or, ultimately, a (normative) reliance on rationality are the main ways out of the predicament? Who are the grittiest realists out there (that aren't Hobbes)?

I don’t know if it’s ok, given the way I formulated my question, but I’m open to arguments/personal theories as well as published work, by mail if not here. (I did see the deleted response before cashing out last night, and the logic and hope in it made my heart leap. Is there any way of recovering it? I’d summarize it here, because others might benefit, except it was so elegant and beautifully phrased I’d be embarrassed to try.)

On preview: I think I might need a good dose of this Adler fellow, as well. Thank you for pointing me in his direction.
posted by nelljie at 9:36 AM on November 20, 2012

Best answer: I've read a lot of philosophy looking for the answer to your questions, both on my own and in university in the course of two degree programs. I think you're more or less right that those are the options. In the Western tradition, I've found Aristotle and Nietzsche most helpful in coming to my own views. At the end of the day, though, my ethics comes from my conscience, which is informed by what I've read, but not determined by it. That's good enough for me. Metaphysically, Taoism best captures what I believe. Laozi's Tao Te Ching is the classic text. But I've found the mathematician/logician Raymond Smullyan's writing on the subject equally interesting.
posted by smorange at 11:44 AM on November 20, 2012

Best answer: Check out Alasdair MacIntyre's A Short History of Ethics. Tremendously readable, and at least for me studying how moral reasoning has changed over time has been helpful in evaluating broad-reaching statements about morality, and in imagining what alternatives to modernism would look like.

You don't have to accept his solution to find the rest interesting, but briefly, he thinks that ethical behavior can't be separated from having a place in society with a specific role and concept of the good. Therefore humans should live in communities of practice that provide a ground for morality. He's now a Catholic and a follower of Aquinas, and he fully sets out his argument in After Virtue.

I can't follow him as far as religious belief but it's not essential to reading him. I think he's worth reading for pointing out the assumptions contained in skeptical takes on morality.
posted by lbergstr at 12:47 PM on November 20, 2012

In the Western tradition, I've found Aristotle and Nietzsche most helpful in coming to my own views.

Serendipitously, in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre boils the contemporary meta-ethical choices down to Aristotle or Nietzsche.
posted by goethean at 1:42 PM on November 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, all.
posted by nelljie at 11:15 PM on November 25, 2012

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