Modern philosophy, untethered from morality, is just nihilism in fancy dress

Talking to college students brought home that modern philosophy is a nihilistic numbers game intended to support a given philosopher’s preferred goals.

PhilosophyWith colleges winding down for the year, young adults are returning to my community. This has yielded some interesting conversations, and given me a first person insight into the nihilism that passes for deep thinking and philosophy at American universities.

It all began when one of the young adults mentioned enjoying a philosophy class at school. As best as I can tell, most of the class was discussion, with students trying to figure out the philosophical or moral path in response to a series of hypotheticals. One hypothetical envisioned a car with no brakes that was heading for five people, with the only alternative being a hard swerve to the left, that would hit one person. The student said that one of today’s modern philosophers holds that the driver should sit there, unmoving, as the car heads towards five people because it’s wrong to take any affirmative action that might kill even one person.

The way the student described the course reminded me strongly of my Tort class, back when I was a first year law student. The teacher would pose a hypothetical and pick a student to answer that hypothetical. As soon as the student answered, the teacher would throw in a factual twist and, subject to that twist, again ask the student to answer.

For example, in a civil liability case for an assault that left the plaintiff with a broken jaw, the teacher would begin by saying that the defendant hit the plaintiff. Then the scenario would repeatedly change with the defendant intentionally hitting the plaintiff, but not meaning to hurt him; with the defendant intentionally moving his arm, but not meaning either to hit or hurt the plaintiff; with the defendant carelessly moving that same arm; etc. The hypotheticals might also address the plaintiff’s conduct (was he attacking the defendant? did he carelessly put himself in the line of fire? did he have an unexpected glass jaw?).

At the time, I found these professorial interrogations terrifying because I actually believed there was one right and moral answer. In fact, there is no moral answer. As in law school, so it is in the actual practice of law: There is only a constantly shifting legal battle, with each side advancing those facts and legal theories that most benefit its case.

Indeed, there should be no doubt about the fact that the law is completely unrelated to morality. I figured that out in my third year, when all but one person from my graduating class sacrificed a Saturday to attend an all-day review class on “professional ethics.”

The only student who didn’t attend, a very dear man who had grown up in Latin America, the son of Christian missionaries, explained that the Bible was the only book he needed to study to prepare for the test. He was also the only student in the school’s history to fail that exam.

In the context of law, “professional ethics” are merely a set of rules intended to ensure that attorneys do not engage in professional behavior that can harm past or present clients. There is no morality involved.

Just as law is unrelated to morality, it seems as if modern philosophy is too. In pre-modern, as opposed to post-modern, times, philosophy existed within the confines of Judeo-Christian morality. You could certainly debate nuances to death, but you were still constrained by the big ten — that is, by the Ten Commandments. From the rabbis to Thomas Aquinas, the Bible was the starting point for abstract discussions or for concrete debates about issues affecting people in daily life.

Back then, nobody needed to debate, as modern university students do, whether it’s “ethical” to kill a healthy person to provide organ transplants for five sick people. For the students in the philosophy class, the debate was a numbers game. That is, they struggled, in the abstract, with whether all five transplants would go well, justifying one death, or whether a healthy person was worth more than a sick one. They were actuaries, not philosophers.

For old-fashioned philosophers operating within Biblical parameters, however, the starting and stopping point for such a debate would be “thou shalt not murder.” That is a fixed moral principle that must be the foundation for the discussion the students had. The debate that occupied them for an hour took me a minute: My morals are clear that we don’t murder. That Judeo-Christian backdrop is why the Chinese harvest organs from prisoners and we don’t.

I am happy to report, incidentally, that the college student said that his classmates ultimately concluded that murder was not the answer in response to the proposed scenario. Even in a nihilistic academic environment, there is hope.

The reality is that, without a moral construct, philosophy is simply a way to intellectualize whatever outcomes one prefers. That’s why Peter Singer, an endowed philosophy chair at Princeton University, can argue that parents should have a 30 days period after their baby is born to decide whether or not to kill the baby, a position even more extreme than that espoused by the average abortion-obsessed Leftist.

Wikipedia offers as good a summary as any of Singer’s “philosophical” views on life and death:

Singer holds that the right to life is essentially tied to a being’s capacity to hold preferences, which in turn is essentially tied to a being’s capacity to feel pain and pleasure.

In Practical Ethics, Singer argues in favour of abortion rights on the grounds that fetuses are neither rational nor self-aware, and can therefore hold no preferences. As a result, he argues that the preference of a mother to have an abortion automatically takes precedence. In sum, Singer argues that a fetus lacks personhood.

Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood—”rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”[41]—and therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living”.[42]

Singer classifies euthanasia as voluntary, involuntary, or non-voluntary. Voluntary euthanasia is that to which the subject consents. He argues in favour of voluntary euthanasia and some forms of non-voluntary euthanasia, including infanticide in certain instances, but opposes involuntary euthanasia.

Religious critics have argued that Singer’s ethic ignores and undermines the traditional notion of the sanctity of life. Singer agrees and believes the notion of the sanctity of life ought to be discarded as outdated, unscientific, and irrelevant to understanding problems in contemporary bioethics. Bioethicists associated with the Disability Rights and Disability Studies communities have argued that his epistemology is based on ableist conceptions of disability.[43]

Singer has experienced the complexities of some of these questions in his own life. His mother had Alzheimer’s disease. He said, “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult”.[44] In an interview with Ronald Bailey, published in December 2000, he explained that his sister shares the responsibility of making decisions about his mother. He did say that, if he were solely responsible, his mother might not continue to live.[45]

When I raised Singer as an example of the selfish, morality-free nihilism that passes for modern philosophy, the other people involved in the conversation were quite sure that I was making things up in order to justify my arcane, impractical conservative views. Then, when I offered to send them links proving Singer’s viewpoints, they hastily declined that offer. They did not want to know.

The second topic that impressed itself on me was also moral in nature, but arose in an anthropological context. I don’t remember the genesis, but the issue that arose was whether to interfere in observed cultures  — that is, should the anthropologist attempt to change his subjects’ minds on things the anthropologist finds morally objectionable? The student said “Never!”

Okay, as an observer, perhaps not. But what about the situation in which you have government control over a culture engaging in reprehensible acts? The answer was still “Never!” And the reason for that answer was that we lack the moral authority to impose our values on others.

Rather than getting into a fight about modern Islam (with all its genital mutilation, honor killings, gay murders, etc.) how Western countries should address Muslim practices within Western borders, I retreated to the past. My choice of subject was the British response to suttee in India. Suttee (or sati), for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the old Indian practice of requiring a widow to climb onto her husband’s funeral pyre and be burned alive.

Suttee can be traced back to the 1st century BC, so it was deeply embedded in certain parts of Indian culture when the British started colonizing India in the early 17th century. The British, while disapproving of the practice, nevertheless let suttee continue unhindered for the better part of two centuries so as not to upset the Indian population and interfere with trade. That changed in the early 19th century.

In the late 1820s, William Bentinck, Governor-General of the East India company, refused to bow either to laissez faire trade principles or to the 19th century’s version of cultural relativism, which was to state explicitly what modern relativists believe implicitly: One cannot expect high standards of behavior from primitive, non-white peoples.  Instead, Bentinck insisted that, under British rule, suttee end.

The following passage may be written in the ornate, verbose, polysyllabic style of the 19th century, but the meaning is clear — Indians are people too and it is every moral person’s obligation to steer them away from barbarism:

The first and primary object of my heart is the benefit of the Hindus. I know nothing so important to the improvement of their future condition as the establishment of a purer morality, whatever their belief, and a more just conception of the will of God. The first step to this better understanding will be dissociation of religious belief and practice from blood and murder. They will then, when no longer under this brutalizing excitement, view with more calmness acknowledged truths. They will see that there can be no inconsistency in the ways of Providence, that to the command received as divine by all races of` men, “No innocent blood shall be spilt,” there can be no exception; and when they shall have been convinced of the error of this first and most criminal of their customs, may it not be hoped that others, which stand in the way of their improvement, may likewise pass away, and that, thus emancipated from those chains and shackles upon their minds and actions, they may no longer continue, as they have done, the slaves of every foreign conqueror, but that they may assume their first places among the great families of mankind? I disown in these remarks, or in this measure, any view whatever to conversion to our own faith. I write and feel as a legislator for the Hindus, and as I believe many enlightened Hindus think and feel.

Descending from these higher considerations, it cannot be a dishonest ambition that the Government of which I form a part should have the credit of an act which is to wash out a foul stain upon British rule, and to stay the sacrifice of humanity and justice to a doubtful expediency; and finally, as a branch of the general administration of the Empire, I may be permitted to feel deeply anxious that our course shall be in accordance with the noble example set to us by the British Government at home, and that the adaptation, when practicable to the circumstances of this vast Indian population, of the same enlightened principles, may promote here as well as there the general prosperity, and may exalt the character of our nation.

Call Bentinck’s reasoning “enlightened colonialism,” if you want.  In practice, it meant that Bentinck recognized the Indians’ humanity, and demanded that they elevate their conduct consistent with that humanity.

The college-educated young people in front of me simply could not acknowledge that it was more respectful of Indian culture to save the lives of millions of women than to allow social pressure to force them into painful and terminal self-immolation. The most that the students would concede is that one ought to “educate” the Indians not to burn their wives.

The fact that two-hundred years of British pressure had failed to change the dynamic was irrelevant. The fact that the practice was profoundly misogynistic didn’t matter. And the fact that millions of women died in agony could not stand up against their bedrock principle, which is that we our Western morality is weak, if not bad, and should never be imposed from above on other people.

These nice young students and I were at an impasse. I believe that the combination of Judeo-Christian morality and the Western Enlightenment produced the best possible set of moral rules. We have certainly failed always to abide by them, but that has nothing to do with their intrinsic virtue. As a guide for conducting our own lives and dealing with others, both at the individual and the state level, there is nothing better, more humane, or more respectful of each individual’s worth.

But that’s not what they’re teaching at college. Instead, the professors contend that we have nothing to offer the world and that our morality is no better than anybody else’s. In that context, philosophy is little more than a numbers game, aimed at figuring out how best to achieve a stated goal. I left the conversation quite depressed.

Photo creditPhilosophy, by dakine kane. Creative commons license; some rights reserved.