Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Here we go

After missing the second scheduled class due to last week's snow day, my two courses this semester hit the road properly today. In "Aboriginal Australia..." we watched "Ten Canoes," and started our discussion of it. Studying the film and the process of its making should serve as a perfect introduction to that course - I'll let you know how it goes!

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" we discussed Susan Wolf's essay "Moral Saints" (Journal of Philosophy 79/8 [1982]; 419-39). It's our only piece of standard - that is, secular - moral philosophy. I use it because it provides a nice summary of analytic moral philosophy, and shows one way in which it is flawed: modern moral theories imply that we should aspire to ideals of "moral perfection" which most people don't actually consider admirable. "Moral saints," as she calls them, instead strike us as humorless and bland. She thinks the real problem goes much deeper, as a quotation from George Orwell's great essay on Gandhi shows (436n):
Is there something inhuman, even antihuman, in too "moral" a life?

I use her essay for another, related reason. As for many secular moral philosophers, religious ethics is to Wolf inconceivable as a species of ethics, and when she most ringingly excoriates the "moral saints" she channels common secular caricatures of religious people with remarkable clarity. She's distinguished two kinds of "moral saint," the "Loving Saint" who loves others more than self and is always only too happy to give up her own concerns for those of others, and the "Rational Saint" who subordinates her self-concern for other-concerns endorsed by moral reason. But both of these are really pathological freaks (424):
Just replace "morality" with "religion" and you get Dawkins or Hitchens!

I'm assuming that at least some of my students will have similar suspicions of "moralism" as they do of "religion"; the Wolf essay should help bring those out in the open right from the start. I use her essay also because, in the end, what she offers as a counterweight to unhealthy moralism - the "identifiable, personal self" which modern moral philosophy seems to many of us to undervalue if not indeed to reject - is a perfect point of departure for inquiry. Not because morality is at war with selfishness; the altruism/egoism problem is staler than stale. In a course on Buddhist and Christian ethics we can ask deeper questions about that "self" (is it complete? is it autonomous? does it even exist?) and so reground or reorient the "ethics" thought to be in tension with it.

We start on religious understandings of the self, shooting the moon: with Kierkegaard.

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