Home » Ethics » Cambridge philosopher sees shift toward the idea that values are real

Cambridge philosopher sees shift toward the idea that values are real

“Philosophers are finding fresh meanings in truth, beauty and goodness”, John Cottingham tells us (The Times, June 17, 2006):

ARE VALUES (for example moral values) grounded in something real and objective or are they just a way of talking about whatever we may personally happen to approve of? There has been a remarkable shift in philosophical views about this since I was an undergraduate. Back in the Sixties, when we were all still under the shadow of logical positivism, moral beliefs (“value judgments”, as we often pejoratively called them) were dismissed as subjective — mere expressions of emotion, mere grunts of approval or disapproval. Notions such as goodness were no more than pseudo-properties, masking our personal desires and preferences. Later on, with the rise of postmodernism, even truth became suspect, and was downgraded to no more than an honorific label that a given culture bestows on its favoured assertions.

But it is very striking how the popularity of these subjectivist creeds has faded in more recent times. Relativistic views of truth turned out to be self- defeating; while in ethics, subjectivism ran into a host of logical difficulties and is now on the wane, eclipsed by a growing number of neo-objectivist theories. To everyone’s surprise, the increasing consensus among philosophers today is that some kind of objectivism of truth and of value is correct.

I won’t belabour the way in which this will help design; rather I offer a reflection, based on a true incident, on the – as Cottingham thinks, fading – notion that right and wrong are mere preferences, and that truth is merely propaganda:

My very aged father was trying to understand modern warfare recently, as a result of watching the news while meditating on World War II.

I tried to explain: What handicaps the Canadian forces fighting in Afghanistan is that they are often dealing with people who want to die. In the history of warfare, the general rule has been that the other guys wants you to die, but he himself wants to live. So we go from there. But the rules are different now.

Suppose – I struggled to put this delicately – someone were to use a live baby, wired to blow up, as a weapon?

He was aghast. Well, he said, if anyone had suggested that back at the Regina Rifle Regiment 60 years ago, they would have been thought insane.

But some people actually did that recently.

What I’m getting at is this: It was hot and fashionable to talk that post-modern deconstruction rot back when my father’s reaction would be typical, if not nearly universal. It’s quite different to still be drivelling on that way now, when one must assert that there is no difference, within the human frame, between those who create a baby bomb and those who run the local Healthiest Babies Possible program at the community centre. I sure hope Cottingham is right, and for a number of reasons.

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2 Responses to Cambridge philosopher sees shift toward the idea that values are real

  1. Very interesting post. Thanks Denyse.

  2. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before: the decline of pomo and the rise of the New Atheism is directly connected to 9/11. 9/11 rejiggered the narratives of the left/progressive movement/intellectual mainstream. The natives-versus-colonisers narrative, which had enjoyed great prominence since the ’60s, went on the back burner and the science’n'reason-versus-bigotry’n'superstition narrative took a pre-eminent place again. This probably also helps to explain, for example, why fear of genetically-modified food went out of fashion in the past decade while climate change hit the big time. Worrying about global warming involves putting your trust in the word of the scientific establishment, while worrying about GMO involves skepticism towards it, and after 9/11 most politically-aware people in the West felt the urge to renew their loyalty to “the science” , our candle against the darkness of &etc. One can only smile at Sokal’s belief that the right suddenly made itself the stand-out enemy of science in the past decade when it’s evident that the real change took place in the eye of the beholder. Latour’s explanation http://criticalinquiry.uchicag.....atour.html is a little more self-aware. (It’s not completely unlike the contrast between the naïve true believer (and physicist) Sagan and the more perceptive and cynical Lewontin.)

    Of course these renewed feelings of zeal for reason and objective truth haven’t benefited ID, since Darwinian evolution is a talisman of “the science” and all things enlightened, even aside from its importance for keeping God (and thus suicide bombers) away. ID supporters can point to the problems of reconciling belief in strictly materialistic evolution with faith in the ability of humans to achieve knowledge of objective truths – especially about morals. But the mainstream is (even more than usual) not in the mood to pay attention to those problems, just as it’s (still, largely) not in the mood to worry about cloud albedos.

    (Finally, I don’t mean to overstate my case. French-style “critique” was always a controversial minority taste, and probably it was largely played out before 2001 anyway. (And of course it and positivism are different beasts.) Likewise atheism, materialism and Gardner/CSICOP-style “movement skepticism” were not invented on 9/11. But if one wants to explain why science warriors like Latour publicly recanted, or why good old Jacobin atheism suddenly became such a packed and noisy bandwagon, one has to look at 9/11.)

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