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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 most of the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force. (It only applied in India after the 1843 Indian Slavery Act.)

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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28 Jul

George Berkeley Summer School, Thomastown, August 15th & 16th 2014

schedule berkeley 2014

The George Berkeley Summer School will be held on the 15th and 16th of August, 2014 in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. George Berkeley was born at Dysart Castle, Thomastown.

Cost: 10 euro (per adult)/8 euro (senior citizens,students,unwaged), includes all events and picnic. Come along on the 15th/16th of August or to register in advance please email georgeberkeleysummerschool@gmail.com Payment can be made on the day by cash or cheque.

Find out more on the George Berkeley Summer School Facebook page.

26 Jul

Hutcheson’s Dublin: Who was Francis Hutcheson?

Francis Hutcheson has been called “the Father of the Scottish Enlightenment”. He influenced Adam Smith (a pupil of his) and David Hume. He is credited with being the first to denounce slavery from a human rights perspective. His thought has been linked to the American Founding Fathers and to the United Irishmen. But who was he?

Francis Hutcheson was born on the 8th of August 1694, probably in Saintfield, Co. Down, in his grandfather’s manse. Both his father and grandfather (who originally came from Scotland) were Presbyterian ministers.

As a Dissenter (a protestant who was not a member of the Church of Ireland), Francis Hutcheson could not attend Trinity College Dublin. Instead he attended a dissenting academy in Killyleagh, which provided a basic third level education. From there he went to Glasgow in 1710, taking a course of study aimed at fitting him to become a minister. He left the university in 1717, received a licence to become a minister in 1718 and got offered a post in Co. Armagh.

But he didn’t take it. Instead he took a post offered in Dublin by the Wood St meeting house to open a dissenting academy there. The law had only just been changed, the position would be precarious, but in the end his Dublin years proved Hutcheson’s most fruitful.
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25 Jul

Fairy Field of Fiction

[Passions] borrow the language of reason to seduce us from her maxims. Our sex is more particularly exposed to this illusion. Our whole course of education is, in general, calculated to give additional force to the power of imagination, and to weaken, in a correspondent degree, the influence of judgment. You, my Harriet have in this respect an advantage over many of your sex. […] Your mind has not been suffered to run wild in the fairy field of fiction; it has been turned to subjects of real and permanent utility.

From Elizabeth Hamilton’s novel Memoirs of Modern Philosophers.

Elizabeth Hamilton (1756?–1816) was born in Belfast, probably on 25th July 1756, but lived much of her life in Scotland. Like her friend Maria Edgeworth she wrote novels and also philosophical pieces, mostly on education.

The primary aims of Modern Philosophers was to explore the role of women and to argue against “Jacobinism” or New Philosophy, that philosophy espoused by William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. However, she also shared some of the concerns of that radical group. This passage, a letter written by Mrs Martha to her niece Harriet, criticises the education given to women; a topic that equally concerned Hamilton, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The first sentence is part of a larger quote from Rousseau.

22 Jul

Symposium: Educating the Irish Genius. Kilkenny, 25th – 27th July

This “International Symposium and Cultural Weekend bills itself as “an accessible, world-class enquiry into the shaping of the Irish mind during the Enlightenment, also known as the long Eighteenth Century.”

The introduction says (before mentioning the likes of Francis Hutcheson, George Berkeley, Jonathan Swift and others) that:

Our international symposium explores the proposition that we can, and we should, identify a discrete Irish Enlightenment, just as we do a distinctive Scottish Enlightenment. The greater Enlightenment emphasized experimentation in pursuit of evidence-based knowledge—what, broadly, we call the scientific method. In many ways, Ireland from the Tudors to well beyond Oliver Cromwell constituted a large, complex, and often messy social experiment, with new ideas about settlement, new methods of agriculture, and more being tried out.

The Symposium is held at the Newpark Hotel Kilkenny and hosted by Kilkenny College, “one of Ireland’s oldest, most respected schools and the alma mater of Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, and other great philosophes”.

Click here for the programme brochure.

21 Jul

Is Consuming Always a Vice?

It is ridiculous to say, ‘That using any thing above the bare Necessaries of Life is Intemperance, Pride or Luxury; and that no other universal Boundaries can be fixed; because what in one Station or Fortune is bare Study of Decency, or Conveniency, would be Extravagance in another.’ As if Temperance, Frugality, or Moderation, denoted fixed Weights or Measures or Sums that all were to observe, and not a proportion to to Mens Circumstances. Great and Little are relative to a Species or Kind. Those Dimensions are great in a Deer which are small in a Horse: What is great in a Horse would be small in a Mountain. Will any one thence argue, that there can be no adapting one Form to another, so it shall neither be too big not little? Cannot a Coat suit a middle Stature, because the dimensions would be too great for a Dwarf, and too little for a Giant? If […] a man of good sense may know how far he may go in Eating and Drinking, or any other Expenses, without impairing his Health or Fortune, or Hindering any Offices of Religion or Humanity, he has found the Bounds of Temperance, Frugality, and Moderation for himself. “

Francis Hutcheson writing in Dublin Weekly Journal (1727), later printed in “Hibernicus’ Letters”, on the topic of “The Fable of The Bees” by Bernard Mandeville.

Hutcheson goes on to argue that even if true over-consumption was stamped out, the money would be spent elsewhere – on goods to improve the person’s circumstances or that of his family or friends (“Dress, Habitation or Studies”) or indeed keep people alive longer to consume more in the long run!

(Inspired by “The Good Consumer”, which mentions Mandeville but leaves out Hutcheson.)

15 Jul

Happiness and Self

Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self.

Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good, (1968), chapter 22.

04 Jul

Beckett at the Back: World Cup Philosophy

Panel from "World Cup Philosophy: Germany vs France" (c) Existential Comics

Panel from “World Cup Philosophy: Germany vs France”
(c) Existential Comics

Beckett playing (in some sense of the term) for the French team in a parallel universe version of the World Cup 2014 quarter-final game against Germany in Rio de Janeiro. See Existential Comics for more.

23 Jun

Berkeley’s Foray into Experimental Philosophy

Curiosity leading [Berkeley] one day to see an execution, he returned home pensive and melancholy and could not forbear reflecting on what he had seen. He desired to know what were the pains and symptoms a malefactor felt […] in short he resolved to tuck himself up for a trial; at the same time desiring his companion to take him down at a signal agreed upon […]
Berkeley was, therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and our enquirer had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor.

From Memoirs of the late Dr. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, as it appeared in Volume 6 of the Annual Register for the Year 1763. It was originally printed in the Weekly Magazine (1759/60) and reprinted/pirated in The British Plutarch in 1762.
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