Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Morality in the 21st Century

The latest guest on Philosophy Bites is American moral philosopher Susan Neiman. In this short podcast she discusses morality in the 21st century.

Neiman suggests that fundamentalism may well be a reaction to this period's unbridled consumerism, that in effect those yearning for a return to the fundamentals reject that the end-all and be-all of life is to amass as many consumer goods as possible. How then can one search for a meaningful life other than what advanced global capitalism permits? Neiman suggests a re-examination of the Enlightment period and the values it has to offer. The other choices would be to settle for a nostalgia in pre-modernity or the cyncisim of the postmodern where nothing is of value, which implies nothing is worth doing. Neiman says the the most crucial element of the Enlightment project is the idea of progress, that is, it allows one to be self-critical, to build from those critiques and move forward.

Neiman then enumerates four crucial values of the Enlightenment worth defending.

First, everyone has the right to happiness. The American constitution could not be more explicit. This idea, Neiman claims, is nothing short of revolutionary because it implies that limits set by nature (illnesses, calamities etc.) or social circumstances (poverty, injustice) can be overcome to achieve happiness. This then means that humans can intervene to better their lives, that happiness is not only achieved in death, i.e. in the afterlife.

Second, Reason. And Neiman does not mean the popular caricature of juxtaposing instrumental/logical/ mathematical Reason versus Passion. The enlightenment, she claims, was as concerned with passion as reason. What that project was opposed to were supersition and blind obedience to authority.

Third, Reverence. What the Enlightment criticised was how religion was politicised and used as an instrument of oppression. If you look at the Bible, she says, the need for one to think for oneself and to think ethically for oneself is in the book of Genesis. The enlightenment wanted to do away with established religion. At the time among thinkers, the belief was that the more you understood nature, the more you felt in awe of and grateful to a Creator. For her, it is not important what form this Creator takes. Neiman thinks what is important is to retain the sense of gratitude for the world and a realisation that wherever the world came from, it wasn't us who made it. This can unite secular and religious people. She says Reverence gives us a sense of humility and gratitude.

Fourth, Hope. Which was not necessarily optimism. Hope is more active. Hope is a belief that we can improve the world. Progress then is a matter of human action. Its not inevitable. It can regress.

And let me end this little summary with Neiman's last comments:
Pessismism is an attitude that may look brave...but its actually a very cowardly way of dealing with the world. Because if you think that things can only get worse then you can do nothing else but lie back and shake your head. Whereas if you think there's some chance that human action can make the world slightly're actually responsible then for doing a little something in your lifetime.


Anonymous said...

Glad someone else is listening to philosophy bites. My favorite recent ep is "Jesus as Philosopher", where the guest (I forget his name and am too lazy to look it up:P) suggests that Jesus was the first radical secular humanist, and a far cry from the messiah that hundreds of years of accumulated christianity has made him out to be.

R.O. said...

hirap naman basahin. pakibalik old template pls. :(

sparks said...


Yeah the site is a great find! I heard that one about Jesus, yeah. I've read something similar to this argument, but not one from a theologian! I also like the one where they interview Michael Sandel.


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