Monday, April 04, 2011

Cambridge philosopher sees shift toward the idea that values are real - Denyse O'Leary

"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.
Let me offer a reflection, based on a true incident, on the - as Cottingham thinks, fading - notion that right and wrong are mere preferences, and truth is merely propaganda. Let's see it tested:

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 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 that was actually done recently.

What I'm getting at is this: It was cool 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 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, for a number of reasons.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Thank you for stirring my mental marbles to some movement (again!). I read and appreciated Cottinghman's article.

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