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28 Aug

Hutcheson Redux? Against Empathy.

Cartons labelled "empathy" stacked on shelves.

Empathy in a carton
(c) Geoff Jones/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the current Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a discussion piece, Against Empathy. He opens by referencing Adam Smith…

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.

Paul Bloom identifies issues with empathy – that we are more likely to feel empathetic towards people like us or people who are attractive; that empathy leads us to focus on individual cases but ignore mass suffering. He argues that empathy is not the only thing that can motivate helping, compassion can too. Read More

21 Aug

‘Archives and afterlife’ – The 7th Annual Iris Murdoch Conference, 12th-13th September

Celebrating ten years since the opening of the Iris Murdoch Archives and the inauguration of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies, the Seventh International Conference on Iris Murdoch will showcase published and on-going research that has been informed by material in our archives.

Venue: John Galsworthy building, Penrhyn Road campus, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 2EE

Price: £65-£150

Click here for more information and to book.

21 Aug

Sense and Sensibilia

I have found these sense-data and sensibilia. I have not made them. I do not know how to make them. I have not brought them together. […]
What holds them together? Why not ask first, “What separated them? What broke them up?” And the answer is, of course, “My analysis separated them and broke them up.” What holds them together? Why, they are together.[…]
What holds them together? Why, nothing. What holds them together? Why, everything. Canst thou lose the bonds of Orion? What holds together the sense-data of the apple? They are together. That is the way the apple is made; that is the way God made it grow.

From Sense without Matter (1954), pp 62-3.

This book outlines Luce’s version of Berkeley’s thought, which is similar but not identical, and uses the terms current rather than those used by Berkeley. As with Berkeley, Luce is attacking the philosophical (rather than common sense) view of matter. In this section he deals with the objection that sense-data such as the taste, smell, feel and appearance of an apple always appear together, so must be linked by matter.

11 Aug

Robert Boyle’s To-Do List for Future Scientists

Boyle wish 1

Boyle Papers 8, fol. 208, The Royal Society. Via Anna Marie Roos, © The Royal Society (with permission).

Boyle wish 2

Boyle Papers 8, fol. 209, The Royal Society. Via Anna Marie Roos, © The Royal Society (with permission).

The two pictures above are a to-do list for future scientists written by Robert Boyle in his own beautiful hand. Click to see the originals on Anna Marie Roos’ blog post, together with a list of to-dos for future scientists compiled by scientists of today. She notes that, “As part of a charter granted by King Charles II, the Society charged itself, in that delightfully immodest manner characteristic of the Restoration, to ‘extend not only the boundaries of the Empire, but also the very arts and sciences.’ So, the list Boyle left us was all about boundary breaking, and a successful list it was.”

The “desiderata” are:

The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

10 Aug

Hutcheson Day 2014: links


Here is a selection of links tweeted under the hashtag #HutchesonDay, on 8th August 2014.

Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times talked to historian at the University of Aberdeen and author of Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719-1730: The Crucible of his Thought for the Unthinkable slot. A good introduction for those unaware of the philosopher.

“Hutcheson’s big idea was what he called ‘the moral sense’. At the time, most philosophers agreed with John Locke that human beings had no innate ideas: the mind was a clean slate when a human was born. Although Hutcheson agreed, he disagreed that this meant humans had no inherent moral character. Instead he argued that human beings were born with a natural capacity to approve or disapprove of people’s behaviour. Human beings are effectively judgment-makers.
“Importantly, Hutcheson thought that this moral sense was pre-rational, meaning that deciding whether something was right or wrong did not involve a calculation of your self-interest. In this he disagreed with Thomas Hobbes, who thought humans were motivated by personal interest and material gain.”

Edward O. Wilson (1998) writes in The Atlantic on the modern search for a “natural capacity” to judge morality, mentioning Hutcheson along the way. (For the take of Hutcheson’s contemporaries on the “moral sense”, see the SEP on Sentimentalism).

“Hutcheson influenced most of the Scottish philosophers who succeeded him, perhaps all of them, whether because he helped to set their agenda or because they appropriated, in a form suitable to their needs, certain of his doctrines.” From the SEP article on 18th century Scottish philosophy.
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06 Aug

Onora O’Neill: Acting on Principle

O’Neill explains that she was both attracted and repelled by utilitarianism. On the one hand, she shared with utilitarianism the view that moral theory should be something precise and determinate that guides actions – that one should look for (as Rawls put it in the title of his very first published article) “a decision procedure for ethics”. Yet utilitarianism’s own decision procedure is one of ruthless aggregation. Kant’s moral theory, by contrast, looks to be a way of defending the individual from instrumental subordination to collective ends. It is, to use the Rawlsian technical term, deontological. Finally, Rawls and his students took for granted that a Kantian ethical theory must be as thoroughly secular and compatible with natural science as its utilitarian rival seemed to be. Hence they focused on Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative as a “moral law” and not his – avowedly metaphysical – ideas about how human beings’ moral agency ties them to a “noumenal” realm of freedom.

From a review by Michael Rosen in The Times Literary Supplement of Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics (second edition), an updated version of the book written by Onora O’Neill in 1975.

A description, table of contents and introduction to the second edition is available on the Cambridge University Press website.

01 Aug

“Against the doctrine of Aristotle”: Hutcheson on slavery

Monument depicting chained slaves in a pit, located in Zanzibar

On 1st August 1834 slavery was abolished in the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force.

There were many rationales used to support slavery. One common one was Aristotle’s theory of the “natural slave”. In the Politics, Aristotle said:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In other words, it was right that some people were slaves and others their masters. Such natural slaves were lacking certain qualities which would enable them to rule themselves. This justified “chattel” slavery, where the person and all their descendants were property in perpetuity.

This theory, though criticised by some, was widely accepted. Even those who did not accept it argued for slavery on other grounds. Locke, despite asserting that “every Man has a Property in his own person” (in his Second Treatise, §27), and calling slavery “vile and miserable” such that he cannot believe an Englishman would argue for it (Second Treatise, Introduction), justifies some forms of slavery. Locke defined slaves as (§85) “Captives taken in a just War […] by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters” and as such cut off from civil society. Moreover despite his theoretical requirement for a just war, in practice Locke tolerates chattel slavery. In Constitutions for Carolina Locke writes: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever” (see Sypher, 1939 and a discussion on Locke’s attitude to slavery in the notes of the SEP article about him).

The view of slavery as “vile” slowly started to spread in the early 18th century. Steel portrayed slaves sympathetically in the Spectator, though he falls short of attacking the institution, unsurprisingly since he owned a plantation in the West Indies through his wife. Hans Sloane’s account of harsh punishments for slaves also had an effect. However here too we should not read too much into Sloane’s accounts: he also derived income from sugar plantations and says nothing to suggest chattel slavery should be abolished (see more here.)

Also writing in the early 18th century, Hutcheson’s theory of morality (following the lead of Shaftesbury) was based on the idea of a moral sense, which allowed us to approve of moral actions and disapprove of immoral ones. Moral actions are rooted in benevolence – a feeling of goodwill towards others. Unlike Locke (and like Hume), for Hutcheson emotion is our guide for moral behaviour, not reason.
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