The Noble Sage

By Paul So

When I first encountered philosophy, I thought it involved improving one’s spiritual life by providing some insightful and useful instructions. So it is unsurprising that I imagined a philosopher to be a wise and noble sage who utters koan-like statements that will eventually amount to some life-changing insights conducive for practical living. Many people who haven’t had much exposure to professional philosophy seem to hold this view. Call this stereotype the “Noble Sage.”

For Rousseau, the “Noble Savage” is the idealization of an indigenous person, untainted and uncorrupted by civilization’s obsessions over wealth, status, and consumerism. In a similar spirit, the “Noble Sage” is the idealization of a certain type of philosophizing that provides simple, practical, and insightful instruction into living a good life. Such a form of philosophizing is uncorrupted and untainted by speculation, abstraction, and hyper-rationalization.

The Noble Sage has two key characteristics. First, it seems to assume that philosophers (at least in the past) always have played the role of the wise sage. Second, it is shot through with normative claims about how philosophers should play the role of a sage. I think both claims are wrong, which, in this case, is to say that the Noble Sage stereotype is both conceptually and empirically false.

The Noble Sage is out of touch with many living and historical philosophers. The pre-Socratics, medieval philosophers, and 18th century rationalists/empiricists didn’t fit into this stereotype and neither did specific philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Quine, Leibniz, Hume, and Hegel, all of whom delved into topics that made no contact with the pursuits identified with the Noble Sage.

Moreover, there is some empirical evidence showing that philosophers wouldn’t make good moral exemplars or sages. Moral exemplars are thought not only to teach moral precepts, but also to follow them and set an example, and there is no evidence that philosophers behave any better than anyone else. It is wrong, then, to describe Philosophers as being moral exemplars, as the Noble Sage suggests. At best, they may be more thoughtful about moral issues (as they are with all philosophical topics), even though they are not necessarily moral practitioners.

Second, I think it is wrong to make a certain type of “Noble Sage” philosophizing the standard for all philosophers. Much of what drives philosophy are purely intellectual values, like rationality and charitability. These intellectual values indicate that philosophy isn’t meant merely as a spiritual surrogate or supplement for religion, but is supposed to involve inquiry into foundational issues on reality, self, knowledge, values, and logic. It is primarily a methodical subject.

Many people who discover that philosophers don’t fit into the “Noble Sage” stereotype seem disappointed. They expected some unrealistic standard from philosophers and become disappointed when they see that philosophers sometimes do things that seem boring and mundane. Researching, specializing, editing, publishing papers, and all manner of other academic activities are somehow conceived of as killing philosophy. But in an important sense philosophers have been publishing, editing, and researching for quite some time, long before the subject was professionalized. John Stuart Mill, Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Marx, and other philosophers all did these sorts of things.

I think part of what makes actual philosophizing unappealing to those who hold the Noble Sage stereotype is that it involves a lot of hard work. It is not the hard work you associate with the self-made man, but rather the kind of hard work you associate with dweebs who spend their time learning technical concepts and jargon. More often than not, such people aren’t perceived as admirable. Perhaps that is changing due to respected nerd-kings like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m afraid Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg receive respect mostly because they fit into a variation of the self-made man stereotype: the self-made inventors. Historical figures like Thomas Edison, Nicholas Tesla, and Benjamin Franklin fit into this notion as well, and people clearly love these figures. But who cares about the geeks sitting at a table talking about abstract stuff with no intention of creating anything tangible?

You might wonder why I find it important to write this essay about the noble sage? Who cares what a bunch of people on the street think about philosophy. They’re obviously uninformed. The problem is that the Noble Sage is an extremely popular and persistent misconception. The most common response a philosophy major hears after disclosing what he is majoring in is “what is your philosophy?” or “what is the meaning of life?” Moreover, there are some philosophers who seem to fall for the Noble Sage stereotype.

For example, in Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle’s New York Times article “When Philosophy Lost Its Way” they concluded that:

“Lost is the once common-sense notion that philosophers are seeking the good life — that we ought to be (in spite of our failings) model citizens and human beings. Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.” (my emphasis)

If this isn’t an endorsement of Noble Sage stereotype, I don’t know what is. I suspect some philosophers are susceptible to this stereotype, because they wish for their role as a philosopher to have more spiritual and existential importance in human existence. So, basically, they covet the role of a priest.

I think this is a wrong way to look at the role of philosophy. I’m not saying that philosophers can’t or ought not fit the noble sage stereotype, I’m just saying we shouldn’t restrict philosophers to this role. I hope I won’t be seen as a Noble Savage of the philosophical community for saying this.

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32 Comments »

  1. Since philosophers love sophia, by definition, it would seem that the best philosophers would be found amongst the noble savages. Technicians do do important work, whether in science, linguistics, philosophy, etc, but they are not necessarily looking for eternal verities. The professionals do seem a trifle jealous of savage intruders 🙂

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  2. Liam,
    “Since philosophers love sophia, by definition, it would seem that the best philosophers would be found amongst the noble savages.”

    I don’t see how that follows. How is being a “lover of sophia” mean you’ll find the best philosophers among indigenous people? How is being disconnected from civilization make you love sophia more? More often than not, indigenous people aren’t really that different from post-industrialist people. Both give into petty squabbles, status seeking activities, superstition, and tribalistric violence (though you find more tribal violence within indigenous societies). Moreover, “lover of sophia” isn’t a very good definition of “philosopher” since it doesn’t explain what “sophia” means.

    “Technicians do do important work, whether in science, linguistics, philosophy, etc, but they are not necessarily looking for eternal verities.”

    Any discipline requires people to be technical, but it doesn’t make them merely “technicians”. I have no idea what you mean by “eternal verities.”

    Less obscurity, Liam, please.

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  3. “I’m not saying that philosophers can’t or ought not fit the noble sage stereotype, I’m just saying we shouldn’t restrict philosophers to this role.”

    Earlier in the piece you seemed to be taking a slightly stronger line…

    But the main problem/confusion here seems to be with the denotation of the word ‘philosopher’ and its cognates.

    You are calling certain past thinkers philosophers, but the concept of philosophy – as distinct from natural philosophy – is relatively recent.

    I’m with you in wanting to have a viable discipline which doesn’t involve pious moralizing.

    But, with philosophy departments often being merged with religious studies (we seem to have more schools of “Philosophy and Religion” these days), it looks like the more strictly secular and science-oriented kinds of philosophizing may not be done in the future in a general philosophical context so much as within the context of specific subject areas.

    I think you need to see all this in historical terms. In the 19th and early 20th centuries psychology and the social sciences finally established themselves as independent disciplines as physics etc. had done previously, so that nothing much was left of natural philosophy apart from logic and methodological topics. The logical empiricists tried to make this the basis of an independent discipline and under the influence of some major figures like Quine this worked for a while.

    But philosophy as we now know it has its roots not just in natural philosophy but also in natural theology. Thus the current confusion/identity crisis.

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  4. Paul,

    I was speaking very generally, but I would like to explain more specifically.

    Sophia to me simply is wisdom, as opposed to scientia (knowledge of the world). The etymology of the word indicates that philosophers should be more than knowledgeable, their fundamental goal is also to be wise. Many apparently have been called philosophers, even though they were personally unwise. Nothing is straight-forward. Maybe it is good enough just to try to be wise, or, perhaps, do research in to the question of how to be wise, etc.

    Your ‘noble’ person is untainted and uncorrupted by “obsessions over wealth, status, and consumerism”, “.. provides simple, practical, and insightful instruction into living a good life”, yet is otherwise “uncorrupted and untainted by speculation, abstraction, and hyper-rationalization.” I prefer noble persons over dweebs and geeks when it comes to taking advice or receiving inspiration. Sometimes, however, I find dweebs and geeks quite charming, I am just saying that it would be better for me if they were also noble because then I and others would be more able to understand what they are saying and perhaps profit by it. Technicians and janitors are essential for the success of many endeavors, but, unless they are also noble they probably won’t be too wise or too helpful to others. Nothing wrong with that.

    As an occasional consumer of philosophical writings, I judge philosophy by the quality of the service or product, as perceived by me, and not so much by whether the source is an amateur (savage) or professional (sage). My subjective experience so far has been that professionals and amateurs contradict each other at about the same prodigious rate.

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  5. Paul, haven’t you to some extent created a straw man that you then reasonably destroy? For example, early on in this piece you note, “Many people who haven’t had much exposure to professional philosophy seem to hold this view.” The same might be said about the naive adulation of so-called leaders in many fields, academic and non-academic. You are deflating the tendency of the well-intentioned and unsophisticated to create stereotypical notions of both leaders and movements across a broad spectrum. While granting some room for argument and noting that it’s been many years since I read “Brave New World,” I’m not convinced that Huxley’s characterization of the Rousseau-like noble savage character is not intended to be deflationary. It is a dystopian novel after all. On the other end of the spectrum is Voltaire’s satire “Candide” that addresses the exaggerated optimism of Leibniz.

    Given the simplistic mythos in popular media and the culturally inspirational narratives with which we selectively bombard our youth, the only real cure seems timeless: ruthless self-assessment of personal experience and native ability. I recognize that my comments go beyond your concerns with those embarking on careers in philosophy, but I believe your concerns here can be more broadly construed.

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  6. I think that the historicity of this article needs greater precision and stronger grasp of the themes that have developed around philosophy and its practices – professional or otherwise – over the centuries. It is not at all clear that Hobbes, Locke, Descartes – arguing for newer understandings of the world, in an era just coming out of the sectional war-fare of the Reformation with the collapse of ideological explanations implicit in that – are engaging in anything like the inquires we’ve seen in the philosophies of the 20th centuries.

    I suggest that the discussion tends to miss an important issue. The fact is, people philosophize. This is almost inevitable to being human. We can hear it in the questions that children ask – ‘what is that?’ ‘why is that?’ ‘why can’t I do this?’ – etc. The answers adults give to such questions, whether as flat statements or direct injunctions, are also somewhat philosophical in nature – they imply a certain understanding of the world and our place in it. Some spend their lives re-enforcing the understandings we receive when young; or questioning or unraveling them; of constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing understandings we feel comfortable owning – and passing these onto our own children. Those who profess philosophy (and we can include thinkers from the past since Socrates, as long as we understand that ‘to profess’ doesn’t make one a ‘professional’), who pursue philosophy for its own sake, are somewhat obsessed with finding answers to certain questions that further inquiry doesn’t threaten.

    Most people don’t have time for that. They have to live their lives in the community in which they find themselves, and so their rudimentary philosophizing generally resolves into doing what seems needed, and accepting the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the time – religion from the pulpit, openly expressed or unacknowledged prejudices, political exhortations, common truisms swapped among friends.

    But there are some not to be content with these resolutions. They get a bee in their bonnet, and seek to get it out, or perhaps find honey in the hive. This may lead them into a number of possible inquiries, some of which may lead into the Academy. Given how we’ve received philosophy in our cultural inheritance (what is said of it, the stories we tell about it), it should come as no surprise that even those outside the Academy may be hoping for something said by those publicly acknowledged as professional philosophers – something they can use in their own lives, as they wrestle with questions ‘conventional wisdom’ cannot answer.

    Are they wrong? Or do professional philosophers owe them some address to their questions?

    I don’t think the answer here is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’. I think philosophers need to recognize that people expecting more than narrow research concerns from them have a felt need for this, and are not just somehow misguided. And I think people – both in and out of professional philosophy, or the Academy per se – should also recognize that one can philosophize without needing a professional or academic stamp of approval.

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  7. From Frodeman and Briggle, quoted in the article :

    The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.”

    The way I see it, if you have made up your mind to be good, then being smart is going to help you achieve that.

    On the other hand, if you can’t make up your mind whether to be good or not, philosophy can’t help you do that.

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  8. Paul: I generally agree with Frodeman’s thesis. And I don’t think the issue is just some sort of priestly ambition. It’s that philosophy had a far greater impact on the larger society and culture, prior to its disciplinization and professionalization. While this received some pushback over at Plato’s Footnote, where this topic has come up, I don’t think it is really contestable in any serious way. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau had an effect on the historical development of governments and entire nations that the professional philosophers of our era could not even dream of having.

    Philosophers’ educations today leave them quite intellectually impoverished, as they are trained in the manner of scientists, and the venues that exist for them to publish and disseminate their work reflect this narrowness of focus. It says everything about the current discipline that an Erasmus or Montaigne would never be published in the academic journals of today or receive tenure at our top universities, despite the fact that in virtually every meaningful way, they were thinkers and writers of a quality that is orders of magnitude beyond that of our current top-tier philosophers.

    So, yes, I generally agree with Frodeman and with those that are calling for a lot more noble sages and a lot fewer narrow technicians, and I don’t really see anything in your essay that would dissuade me from that view. The example of Descartes works against your point, rather than for it, as it is quite unlikely that a work like The Meditations or the Discourse on Method would ever be published in today’s professionalized academic environment. Most of Spinoza’s likely wouldn’t either.

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  9. Many people who haven’t had much exposure to professional philosophy seem to hold this view. Call this stereotype the “Noble Sage.”

    I was a little surprised by this statement. Is it really the case? To answer that we need to separate out current stereotypes from ancient stereotypes. The earliest mention of the ‘noble sage’ can be found in the Odyssey “that noble sage at Pylos, Nestor” where the phrase is used ironically and not of a philosopher.

    To get a current view I went to Julia Annas(The Sage in Ancient Philosophy) who says this:

    In ancient ethical theories we find the notion of the sage, the ideally virtuous person, put to extensive use and also extensively discussed. . This is interesting in itself, particularly since not every kind of ethical thinking has a place for the ideal figure of the sage. If we look at contemporary ethical thought, for example, we find it all but absent

    So, in ancient times the term was associated with philosophy, but is that true today? Since the concept is all but absent from contemporary ethical thought, according to Julia Annas, it would be surprising if the current stereotype of the philosopher was that of the noble sage.

    To find out if this was the case I counted Google searches on the term ‘noble sage’. There were 20,400 results, which is not a large number. I then counted results for “noble sage” philosophy -buddhism -Buddha -hinduism -art and got 685 results. I repeated the search with “noble sage” -philosophy buddhism Buddha hinduism and got 19,100 results.

    Clearly then, the internet world hardly associates ‘noble sage’ with philosophy but does associate it with Buddhist and Hindu thought. This is what we would expect since the concept is all but absent from current ethical thought.

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  10. I think this is a wrong way to look at the role of philosophy. I’m not saying that philosophers can’t or ought not fit the noble sage stereotype, I’m just saying we shouldn’t restrict philosophers to this role.

    I don’t think anyone argues that philosophers should be restricted to this role. Instead they are arguing that the search for ‘the good life’ should be the central role of philosophy.

    Aristotle, in the very first sentence of Nichomachean Ethics, says this:

    Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.

    Fast forward to this century and the sociologist, Christian Smith(conclusion to Moral, Believing Animals), says this:

    Human culture, I have suggested, is always moral order, and human cultures are everywhere moral orders. Human persons, I have claimed, are nearly inescapably moral agents, human actions necessarily morally constituted and propelled practices, and human institutions inevitably morally infused configurations of rules and resources. Building on this model, in the foregoing pages I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which constitutes, directs, and makes significant human life itself. This book has argued that human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. The relational ties that hold human lives together, the conversations that occupy people’s mental lives, the routines and intentions that shape their actions, the institutions within which they live and work, the emotions they feel every day—I have suggested that all of these and more are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations. There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order, no way to be human except through moral order. And until we recognize this and build into our theories the recognition that to enact and sustain moral order is one of the central, fundamental motivations for human action, our understanding of human action and culture will be impoverished.

    Note that it is a sociologist that says this, and not a philosopher!

    Nothing has changed in 2,600 years. Our life is ordained by moral order and plagued by collapses in moral order. This is the central problem that must be addressed by society. But who should address it? Venal politicians, exploitive businessmen, indifferent scientists, narrowly focussed engineers or narcissist millennials? There is quite simply nobody in the academy who can address this except the philosophers but they have taken a moral vacation while they scribble nit-picking academic papers that will pass peer review by other nit-picking academics.

    I agree with Frodeman and Biggle when they say

    :”For many, science became a paycheck, and the scientist became a “de­moralized” tool enlisted in the service of power, bureaucracy and commerce.

    To their shame, philosophy has also been “de­moralized” and has made common cause with science.

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  11. Lots of talk about “moral order” which sometimes seems an ad hoc narrative used to justify drives toward political order/struggles and rationalized notions designed to make these outcomes palatable to the largest possible consensus.

    I do, in fact, find that phrases like “noble sage” have limited application in narrowly defined communities, but utterly fail as a commonly accepted aspiration when confronted with the competing ideologies of today.. Today, moral order is frequently a shallow pretense in the service of marketing and public relations.

    So, yes, labnut’s quotation of Aristotle is particularly relevant: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

    Does this not underscore a rather circuitous, almost tautological, analysis? Otherwise, I suppose its underscores what many view as humanity’s propensity for wishful thinking and self-deception. As for Dan K’s speculation about Erasmus and Montaigne, my thinking is that Erasmus would easily find a place, buried yet serviceable, in some philosophy department and be quite content with pursuing his proclivities despite those of his peers. Montaigne, on the other hand, could thrive in any number of venues and disciplines while being quite candid in his assessment of his personal accomplishments in promoting some arguable notion of the good.

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  12. Thomas Jones: I’ve chaired three search committees. I’ve been Department Head during another. I’ve served on any number of tenure and promotion committees, as well as Chair them.

    An Erasmus or Montaigne would not make it in today’s philosophy profession.

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  13. The sage is still a concept in use today but we have new terms for him, mentor, guide, counsellor, coach, etc, that reflect his diminished status. It is a commonplace that most activities require skill. Skill is the result of knowledge + guidance + practice. A skilled carpenter has acquired his skills under the guidance of a master craftsman. A skilled programmer has acquired his skills under the guidance of a senior programmer.

    What is not commonly accepted is that virtually all activities require skill. Our educational system provides knowledge but the guidance plus practice that turns that knowledge into skill is largely haphazard. We have a culture where knowledge rules supreme while skill has been relegated to third place, something to be acquired by good luck and the practice of living.

    The ancient virtue ethicists and Stoics understood the importance of skill in moral development and the role of the sage in imparting these skills, both as moral exemplar and as wise coach. That tradition was all but lost in the fall of Rome and the tumult of the Dark Ages. The professionalisation of philosophy completed that process. Philosophy has today abandoned the concept of ethics as the foundational element of philosophy and with it has died the idea of ethics as a living practice, hence there is no need for the sage as coach and mentor. Bioethics is the one and limited exception.

    The priest today fulfils that role for the faithful. But outside the ranks of the diminished faithful there is no-one to fulfill that role. Society compensates by regulating ethical behaviour with an increasingly dense thicket of laws. So we try to compensate for the ethical shortcomings of our pharmaceutical and financial industries by closely regulating their activities. They respond with legions of clever lawyers searching for ways to circumvent or short-circuit the regulations. They have become scofflaws, which is the natural reaction to over-regulation.

    There are signs of a slow awakening, but not in the philosophy profession(except that Google employs a philosopher). It is in psychology and psychiatry that we see the awakening. I know of two large multi-national companies that employ psychologists as special individual mentors and coaches to their top management teams and I am told that the companies find it of great value. I know this because I know two narrative psychologists engaged in this very lucrative field.

    Today I can find moral guidance within the Church, which is fine for me as I am a believer. But where does the non-believer find moral guidance except in the antics of celebrity entertainers and the venal adventures of our politicians?

    Philosophers could have fulfilled this role and this is what Aristotle and the ancient Stoics intended.

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  14. Thomas,
    an ad hoc narrative used to justify drives toward political order/struggles
    rationalized notions designed to make these outcomes palatable to the largest possible consensus.
    moral order is frequently a shallow pretense

    Those are dismissive phrases but where is the substance? What you have done is indicate your disagreement. That is OK since that is your opinion and you are allowed to disagree(of course), but where are the rationale and the facts? Opinions are not rebuttals of an argument. It certainly is interesting that you hold those views but a simple statement of opinion does not advance the discussion.

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  15. Dan K, I think you mistook my comment, or more likely I mistook yours. I’m not suggesting that Montaigne would *even* seek a position in a US philosophy department today. Instead, I would see him as successfully pursuing a career in politics, the law, or public relations. As for Erasmus, I’ll take your word that he would not “make it” in today’s philosophy departments.

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  16. labnut, thanks for injecting that it is OK for me to express my opinion. I’m not a professional philosopher or scientist. This, I would guess, is fairly obvious to those who read my comments on this or Massimo’s blog. Might I add that you play no role here as arbiter of whose opinions “advance” a discussion. Dan and I have bumped heads before, and I think he is more than able to play this role without your assistance. I would think what’s important is that the articles here encourage opinion and discussion. As for my opinion of this piece, read my initial comment and note my “like” of ejwinner’s comments. Might I also point out that quite obviously my opinion has its basis in my own background, observations, and experience. My apologies to you if I’ve offended your standard for discourse. Might I suggest you simply skip over mine. That’s “OK” with me since quite frankly I have taken to this practice with regard to some commentators.

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  17. Hi labnut, while your argument is eloquent I have to side with Thomas Jones regarding “moral order”. Humans certainly seek order to make their lives easier, and use moral force to obtain it, but that tends toward political concerns and not some pure aspiration (which is the ideal notion of a noble sage). You ask Thomas for substance, but where is yours? You have quoted people making statements in support of an idealized concept of morality, and maybe these individuals do try to go in that direction, but is that how it is generally manifested?

    But where does the non-believer find moral guidance except in the antics of celebrity entertainers and the venal adventures of our politicians?

    This is troublesome for me (to hear) as a nonbeliever. We can of course say that those who become proficient at moral guidance have practiced philosophy, or that it would be great if professional philosophers had attempted to fill such public roles. But this seems to argue that some officially recognized moral guides are necessary.

    As a direct answer I could say: philosophical Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and well… many non-Western systems of moral and intellectual thought. These have survived as active options for atheists, since in the west monotheist religions have demanded that they (and they alone) be the source of moral guidance.

    This gets at a problem in claiming moral order is important while dismissing Thomas’s concerns it is a veil for political power. I would think that Philosophy in the west has largely gone the way of science because of this institutionalized religious political pressure, which does not exist (except where monotheism has brushed with it) outside the west. I mean it is a matter of historical record what ended pagan-style philosophical inquiry as a method of obtaining one’s morals, right?

    But I want to give a more indirect answer in that moral guides exist outside of such large institutions. Role models can be found here and there throughout one’s life, in families and communities, as well as pursuing such knowledge and skill by oneself for oneself. After all, while monotheist religions may claim that moral rules were revealed to humans by gods, they arose (at least to my mind as an atheist) within human individuals. Certainly when I look to religious moral experts I have rarely seen better performance (despite all the institutional backing) than the celebrity entertainers and politicians you cite as available to the atheist.

    I don’t trust “industrial” stamps of approval for moral guidance, and so would not be any happier if events had been different such that a philosophy degree were viewed (by the public) as having equal gravitas as a religious title.

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  18. Thanks, Dan K. I regret the confusion. My comment unfortunately discounted your personal experience as a professional who’s devoted many years to a discipline. But I was lightly imagining what paths two such respected intellectuals might follow if transported into the 21st century. I might add that my decision in the 70’s to leave the university and not pursue my Phd in English literature was in part dictated by my distaste for the path literary criticism was beginning to follow.

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  19. Dwayne,
    This is troublesome for me (to hear) as a nonbeliever…
    As a direct answer I could say: philosophical Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

    To that you could have added Reform Judaism. These are still ethical communities and perform exactly the same function as religion. Religions are in the main ethical communities with ritual elements that create belonging and reinforce ethical behaviour by an appeal to a belief in God.

    And so my point still stands, where does the non-believer find moral guidance? By believer I mean any member of an explicitly ethical community. Such ethical communities are mostly religious in any case but I don’t exclude the non-religious.

    Thomas’s concerns it is a veil for political power.

    That is really the strangest objection I have heard. Nearly six weeks ago I was attacked by five young men with the intention of robbing me and they made a determined attempt to kill me. Happily they succeeded in neither aim but six weeks later I am still recovering from my injuries. To suggest that I should not wish for a better moral order because it provides a veil for political power is just plain, confused thinking. First, we all deserve and need a better moral order, which is what my example is intended to suggest. The 16,000 families of the 16,000 homicides per year in SA would emphatically agree with me.

    Second, the suggestion that moral order is a veil for political power is just as confused.

    The reason for the confusion in your thinking is that you are conflating three separable concepts under one term. These are moral law, civil law and criminal law. They all have this in common, that we give up some freedoms for considerable gains. Thus I am compelled to pay taxes but there is a great benefit to all. In the same way I am restricted by criminal law and that protects others from egregious moral insults. Moral law on the other hand is voluntary and works by consent. On the one side civil law and criminal law are imposed by the state. On the other side moral law is not imposed by the state but by societal consensus. So, for example, it is generally agreed, for good reasons, that I should not commit adultery but this is outside the ambit of the laws of the land. Ethical communities, it should be noted, play a vital role in maintaining agreement about moral law.

    Moral law is not under the control of the state. On the other hand civil law and criminal law are under the control of the state and thus could conceivably be used as a veil for political power. Should we then oppose civil law and criminal law because they could be a veil for political power. No, of course not since we derive great benefit from them. Instead we put in place mechanisms to limit and direct them to socially useful goals.

    I am sorry but your objection seems like confused thinking. It is confused thinking because you seem to have confused the distinctly separable concepts of moral law, civil law and criminal law, treating them as though they were the same thing, therefore under state control and liable to manipulation for political ends. And that is plainly wrong.

    Between moral law, on the one side, and civil/criminal law on the other side is a sometimes disputed boundary between what we regard as legitimate private interest and legitimate public interest. This boundary is always under tension because societal mores change. This tension plays out in the political arena, which is the proper place to decide disputed interests. A good example of a disputed boundary issue is the use and possession of Marijuana. So in the very narrow case of disputed boundary issues you could possibly be right.

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  20. Hi Labnut, I don’t think I am as confused as you think I am 🙂

    These are still ethical communities and perform exactly the same function as religion. Religions are in the main ethical communities with ritual elements that create belonging and reinforce ethical behaviour by an appeal to a belief in God.

    Whoa, that description does not fit philosophical Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism at all, especially when you include some appeal to a belief in god. Further, even if I were to discuss religious Buddhism and Taoism ( I don’t think there is a religious Confucianism) they did not deny or undercut personal or nonreligious investigations into moral issues as the monotheistic faiths have.

    But what you say is interesting and betrays the point I made. You said perform the same function as religion? You mean perform the same function (moral investigation) that monotheistic religions have exclusively performed since they chose to monopolize that function (by force) over non-religious forms of moral inquiry. In the east this did not happen, which is where you would not have to identify the study and propagation of morality as a religious function.

    That is really the strangest objection I have heard.

    While I feel terrible about your having been attacked, and wish you a speedy recovery, that did not address my “objection”. Were pagan and other non-religious schools devoted to studying morality crushed by the rising Christian church in the west or not? Were the teachings of the Greek philosophers (outside of where it tied in with Christian dogma) suppressed, or not? Was this done to found a single, universal moral order, or not?

    I apologize for having said moral order is a veil for political power. I simply meant that it can be used as a veil, and more often than not among those vying for such power that veil is worn.

    Quite the opposite of my having made the confusion you claim, it is that I have seen others exploit such confusion and to tragic effect. The ongoing drug war, the previous drug war (prohibition), the laws against prostitution, gambling, homosexuality… need I go on?

    I have known people attacked, some by those determined to kill, and faced such attacks myself, from those seeking to impose a moral order. Would it have been more tragic if the attackers had been seeking money instead, or less tragic where they came wearing badges of the state in support of some desired moral order?

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  21. Dwayne,
    Were pagan and other non-religious schools devoted to studying morality crushed by the rising Christian church in the west or not?

    Irrelevant to this discussion. We are discussing the present moral order. If you are exercised by putative past injustices you should resurrect the guilty parties and hold them to account.

    As to your other point. Ethical communities have been and continue to be the places where ethical behaviour is encouraged. Some are not religious, as you point out, or perhaps are quasi-religious, but by far the great majority are religious. Arguing about which one might or might not be religious is simply irrelevant to the argument. What alternative is there to the ethical communities? Nu-atheism looks like the very opposite of an ethical community. Massimo Pigliucci is actively involved in establishing an ethical community based on Stoicism which can be religious or non-religious, according to your tastes. My own parish church(the Mater Dei) is a vigorous and thriving ethical community. Dan-K is an active member of a strong ethical community(Reform Judaism).

    But what precisely is your point? I am arguing that we need ethical communities. Are you opposed to ethical communities? Do you think they are unnecessary?

    And finally the third point, the need for moral order. I am arguing that we need improved moral order and can give you innumerable examples why that is the case. Read your local newspaper and you will be confronted by a catalogue of examples. Why do you oppose improved moral order? Do you? Do you think all is fine and no further improvements are necessary? Are you merely sounding a cautionary note? Here your argument becomes murky. You seem to be saying that unscrupulous politicians will exploit this for political advantage and therefore we should not work for improved moral order, but your argument is unclear. I have news for you. Unscrupulous politicians exploit every conceivable issue for their advantage. That is simply the nature of politics, a dirty, messy business. So do we abandon all issues which are important to society because politicians can exploit them? The idea is faintly ludicrous. The issues must still be attended to, even if the people that attend to them have unclean hands. We don’t have a better system.

    But we have wandered far from the central point, the role of philosophy and philosophers as role models. To recap my argument. We have an imperfect moral order that needs improving. Our many ethical communities help in this respect but a great number of people fall outside these communities. What should we do about this? I am arguing that philosophy should reclaim ethics as its core business and become the advocate of improved moral order. They can then become the neutral custodian of moral values, independent of any ethical community and thus speak to people outside the ethical communities or across the ethical communities. Their informed rigour can act as a guide to those in ethical communities. A good example of that is the powerful effect that Alisdair MacIntyre has had on Catholic thinking.

    Of course some of this is already happening but we need much more. Michael Sandel and Peter Singer come to mind.

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  22. Hi Labnut, how can we evaluate and discuss the present “moral order”, without understanding how it emerged?

    To be clear, I reacted to two arguments you made, the first being your advocacy of “moral order” to which I share Thomas Jones’s wariness, and the second being your condescending stereotype of the impoverished moral environment non-believers are stuck with…

    Today I can find moral guidance within the Church, which is fine for me as I am a believer. But where does the non-believer find moral guidance except in the antics of celebrity entertainers and the venal adventures of our politicians? Philosophers could have fulfilled this role and this is what Aristotle and the ancient Stoics intended.

    That second sentence betrays a lack of understanding what moral guidance is available to non-believers, while the third betrays an lack of understanding why the ancient stoics (among other western philosophies) have not (until recently) placed philosophers in the public roles you feel we need.

    So you advocate something that we non-believers don’t need (we have guides whether you want to recognize them or not) and in the name of something that was used to wipe out the very roles (public, secular moral guides) you advocate.

    Does this not seem a bit like blaming the victim? Twice?

    Further, the history I asked about goes directly to the point of why people like Thomas and I might be wary of “moral order.” You can’t criticize him for not giving details, and then me for supplying some.

    I’ll answer your questions in another post or perhaps an essay.

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  23. Dwayne,
    why people like Thomas and I might be wary of “moral order.”

    Can you have any concept of the anger that your words arouse in people like me? Everyday I struggle with pain as I recover from my injuries. But I’m the lucky one because I will recover. My friend died in screaming, indescribable agony as he was burnt to death by a mob. They cut off both his hands, forced a tyre over his head, filled it with petrol(gas) and set it alight. He watched his own flesh bubble and boil in the intense heat as the hot melting rubber ran down his body.. The mob danced around him and rejoiced in his agony. Twenty years later his wife and two children still wear a haunted expression that will never be eradicated.

    But we are just minor footnotes in a much larger litany of horror. In my own country there were 16,000 homicides last year. In your country there were 14,196 homicides in 2013. That is 14,196 reasons why the moral order should be improved. And I’m not even counting the much, much, much larger number of other violent crimes, to say nothing of the vast multitude of petty crimes and the civil crimes. And then to that we must add the rampant exploitation by the kleptocracy.

    And all the two of you can feel is ‘wary of moral order’?

    No, I feel much more than anger, I feel disgust.

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  24. Hi Labnut, I think we may use the term ethical community differently.

    To me, basically all communities are ethical communities. Even if it is nauseating, the fraternity of borderline-sociopath, high-finance bankers promotes a certain kind of ethical code. So do brutal, thuggish street gangs.

    If we say a hedge fund manager has acted unethically, that is sort of like saying “bad”, which by itself means nothing. It still has to be unpacked. What we really mean is: they did not conform to our expectations of honesty, loyalty, and justice towards clients (or the system). But the fact of the matter is that they may have conformed to the ethics of their close-knit community, which expects ambition, greed, and cleverness… and perhaps loyalty to that specific group.

    So do we need ethical communities? Well… no, we already have them and always will.

    If I take your meaning to be communities which are specifically purposed to studying and promoting an ethic (as opposed to bankers and street gangs which have many other purposes), and in specific the kinds of ethical conduct (values) that I agree with, the answer is still no.

    That does not mean I am opposed to them (in general). Massimo’s stoicism project is actually quite interesting to me. My preferences lie toward ancient Greek virtue ethics (especially Epicureanism and Stoicism) and I’d encourage more of it!

    But that does not mean it is necessary (and admit Dan K’s concerns why such projects may not work are valid).

    By the way you seem to have missed the flipside of your question: are there ethical communities opposed to my existence? The answer is yes. Hence the wariness I spoke of in my last post.

    Along those lines, I don’t know what an objective “improved moral order” is. Is there one? I know I am against many “improvements” of “moral order” going on right now. This ranges from the infantilizing millenials to the sadistic Islamic State factions. Each with their own sort of sages. So no, my concern is not limited to politicians.

    If anything I think there is too much concern with moral order these days, and too little in common, civil order. The solution there is not sages, but mass interest in common, civic goals (like making sure the bridges stay up and a sustainable economic system is in place).

    I do agree that ethical communities (by both definitions) can be instrumental in reaching this goal. I also agree that philosophers could take a stronger role toward this end. Heck, they could also play a role in achieving a certain moral order. I am not arguing they can’t or shouldn’t. Perhaps the status of philosophers (or public interest in them) would be raised by such activity.

    But the question is necessity. I don’t think any of these are necessary, and by using Peter Singer as an example you have highlighted why they aren’t necessary for such roles and why one should be wary of calls to improved moral order.

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  25. Hi Dan K, you said it would be hard for people like Erasmus to make it in modern professional Philosophy. I was curious if this was everywhere, or just within the US? Are there any places that are more open toward a change in Philosophy as a field?

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  26. Hi Labnut, if you read my concern with potential uses of “moral order” to mean I am disinterested in promoting peace and a greater civil society then there has been a vast miscommunication.

    If you cannot understand that I have examples of people (including myself) being threatened, attacked, and killed by people citing a need for greater moral order, then you have missed what I was trying to tell you.

    I am very sorry for the pain and loss you and your friends have suffered. I certainly did not mean to cause any anger or more pain. I apologize for saying anything upsetting and will remember not to discuss such topics with you in the future.

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  27. Hi Dwayne,
    I was later a little embarrassed by the strong expression of my feelings. And thanks for your sympathy. We certainly do view the problem from opposite ends of the spectrum. Why do we have such disparate views? We both sincerely hold our own views. Understanding how two intelligent, informed parties can sincerely arrive at strongly divergent views is really important. Which ties this discussion back to Dan-K’s most recent post.

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  28. “Why do we have such disparate views?”

    The answer to that core question lies in the vicinity of the question of what is ‘human nature’. It would seem that human beings are not very good at dealing with fundamental questions.

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  29. Liam,
    that core question lies in the vicinity of the question of what is ‘human nature’

    Yes, that is certainly true, but in what respect?

    I was given an instructive example of this when I searched for a new runner’s training/tracking app for my Android phone. A runner’s needs are clear, well defined and well known. And yet there are a plethora of widely divergent solutions, mostly produced by runners, who are quite a homogenous group. If we cannot agree on this simple, well defined problem then it is no wonder we cannot agree on complex societal problems.

    Why are there so many divergent solutions(I still haven’t found my ideal training app)? The different styles of training app reveal that we all model the world differently and this has to be the most important single reason. Our conscious mind operates on an internal representation of the world. How we construct this model is highly individual. Our model is strongly influenced by history, needs, priorities and values. Our own internal representation of the world is intensely real to us, so real that we suppose it to be the truth. It touches reality at enough points that we believe reality has confirmed the truth of our model and so we become dogmatic about it. We suppose the model to be identical with the world it represents.

    But it is a deception. I was shockingly reminded of this while climbing alone when something happened that could not have happened(http://bit.ly/1Qdn1fL). What was true could not have been true. However it is not often that our models of the world are blatantly contradicted and so we hang onto them, doggedly defending them as the truth.

    What is the underlying reason for the unreliability of our models? I think it it can be traced back to how we evolved. We evolved under conditions of danger when snap judgements were the difference between survival and death. We needed to make fast assessments and act immediately on them before all the facts were in. And so we became good at quickly integrating fragmentary information. What was a strength thousands of years ago is today a liability where our snap judgements bias our analytical judgements.

    A lovely example of this is how we assess people from our first glimpse of their face.

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  30. Labnut,

    We agree! We have such disparate views because it is in our ‘nature’: it seems that in numerous ways we are different, singular and unique. This is easily demonstrated at very many levels. As we process information we are doing it in our own way.

    Yet, we are probably very similar in many ways too. The biologists talk about highly conserved regions in our genome. Love, beauty, fear, hate, etc. etc.

    Combine these two ‘facts’ and multiply by 7.4 billion and the permutations are infinite.

    A third fact is that we do not realize how special each individual is. Each one of us must synthesize ‘reality’ for them-self. Having powerful mountaintop visions, or in a cave, or at a gathering, religious or otherwise, happens with some regularity. Our history revolves around such visions.

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