Guide The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics

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Peter is well known as a utilitarian we covered him briefly back in our ep. Don't play favorites. While there are certainly utilitarian advantages of everyone being responsible first and foremost for their own children, the lives of two stranger children will still outweigh the life of your single child, and certainly and this is the conflict we actually face fulfilling your child's taste for luxury is much less important than saving the lives of many stranger children.

Buy the book or read the original essay online. You may also enjoy hearing Peter on the Rationally Speaking podcast or watching his TED Talk on effective altruism , or watch this longer talk on effective altruism from the Chicago Humanities Festival. For more about Peter, see www. Peter Singer picture by Solomon Grundy. Maybe the money spent on helping a poor child would be better spent on paying mercenaries to overthrow the corrupt government whose policies are stopping people from getting richer? To be grateful and respectful? Please support […]. Your email address will not be published.

Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. Log In. Curiously thin.

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The role of reason in leading us to act more ethically is a major theme of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, a study of the factors that have, over the course of human history, reduced violence and cruelty. Pinker assembles an impressive body of evidence to show that, although the 20 th century saw two terrible world wars and the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others, anyone born in that century had a lower chance of meeting a violent death at the hands of another human being than people born in any previous century.

Pinker regards our ability to reason as one of the key factors in this ethical improvement, which has been taking place over many centuries and even millennia.


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Perhaps Sidgwick would find this ground for optimism, if one can imagine him recovering from the shock of the twentieth century. But it seems that even in his day, he hedged his bets, and brought considerable suspicion to bear on sweeping claims about the direction of history, which after all could change tomorrow. Bringing the mass of humanity around to "The Point of View of the Universe" was never an issue he could treat with much optimism, much less sanguinity, which was why he devoted so much of his life to parapsychological research in the hope of finding evidence to support a more rational, theistic form of religion.

Oddly enough, Sidgwick could sound a note of cosmic pessimism that might speak even to today's sophisticated nihilists, who have plenty to be nihilistic about.

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Even if he backed into it from a loss of his childhood Anglicanism, Sidgwick could at least entertain the thought that nothing actually matters, which is why his life and work may be an even richer and more complex philosophical resource than de Lazari-Radek and Singer allow. Also, it must be admitted that at times Sidgwick seemed to want it all, the best of rational egoism and the best of rational benevolence or perhaps utilitarianism with a distribution requirement satisfying the demands of egoism.

In an earlier edition of the Methods, he observed that there can be "a disinterested aversion to a universe so fundamentally irrational that 'Good for the Individual' is not ultimately identified with 'Universal Good. Alluding to a poem by Tennyson, he lamented how the "wages of virtue" could be "dust. For all that, their book is full of riches, and there are brilliant critical treatments of a great raft of philosophical positions, from those of W.


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Ross, G. Anscombe, and R. And of course, Rawls, Scanlon, and above all, Parfit. But it does seem safe to say that of all the arguments and assays, the chief claim they are concerned to make good on is the one about overcoming Sidgwick's Dualism, on their construction of it. After all, this is, in the end, nothing less than the vindication of the utilitarian moral point of view as rational, the only rational option.

Could they really have succeeded in this? There are some questions about how they set up the problem to begin with. The treatment of the distilled core of Sidgwick's "self evident" axioms in chapter 5 "The Axioms of Ethics" is acute and pivotal; there is much to be said for their simplified account of Sidgwick's axioms as three in number: an Axiom of Justice what is right for oneself must be right for all who are similarly circumstanced , an Axiom of Prudence smaller present good should not be preferred to larger future good , and an Axiom of Benevolence the good of others is just as important as one's own good.

Still, it is also true that, as the authors detail, Sidgwick's more careful and refined treatment of these raises many questions about just what the self-evident element is supposed to be -- avoiding mere arbitrary time but not person preference does not automatically translate into rational egoism, and rational benevolence appears to need two distinct insights:.

There remains some distance, a puzzling distance, between the more exact statements of the axioms and the Dualism as it is usually framed, even by Sidgwick. And, of course, the axioms invoke only "Good," leaving the hedonistic interpretation of it as an additional and perhaps less than self-evident step. Now, the taming of the interpretation of these axioms, such that the Dualism of the Practical Reason is overcome, takes place with the help of a revised account of the criteria of philosophical intuitionism. For de Lazari-Radek and Singer,.

There are thus three elements in the process of establishing that an intuition has the highest possible degree of reliability:. The absence of a plausible explanation of the intuition as a non-truth-tracking psychological process.

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If the third requirement were not met -- if the intuition could be explained as the outcome of a non-truth-tracking process -- that would not show the intuition to be false, but it would cast some doubt on its reliability. This too is somewhat revisionary.

Sidgwick had argued that apparently self-evident claims had to be clear and precise, able to withstand critical reflection, consistent with one another, and able to win a consensus of experts, though in other writings he collapsed the first two into just one condition. De Lazari-Radek and Singer seem less concerned to reject any element of Sidgwick's account than to add to it, such that the significance of evolutionary "debunking" arguments is recognized.

This is, however, a crucial move, the very thing that leads them to reject Sidgwick's Dualism. The key move is evident in this passage:.

That can be said about some complicated truths of mathematics or physics. It can also, as Parfit has suggested, be the case with some of our normative epistemic beliefs; for instance, the belief that when some argument is valid and has true premises, so that this argument's conclusion must be true, these facts give us a decisive reason to believe this conclusion. Parfit argues that this normative claim about what we have decisive reason to believe is not itself evolutionarily advantageous, since to gain that advantage, it would have been sufficient to have the non-normative beliefs that the argument is valid, and has true premises, and that the conclusion must be true.

Hence this and other normative epistemic beliefs are not open to a debunking argument. This may also hold for some of our moral beliefs. One such moral truth could be Sidgwick's axiom of universal benevolence: "each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him" ME Thus, if, with Sharon Street, one holds that in many cases "it is more scientifically plausible to explain human evaluative attitudes as having evolved because they help us to survive and to have surviving offspring, than because they are true" , one can debunk many of the beliefs competing with the Axiom of Universal Benevolence, such as those purportedly justifying partial or personal reasons for action.

If Benevolence is not debunked, and if it can in fact be accounted for straightforwardly as a result of reason coming as a unity or package, such that either. If reason is a unity of this kind, having the package would have been more conducive to survival and reproduction than not having it. Street, for her part, "does not directly confront the idea that the capacity to grasp moral truths is simply an application of our capacity to reason, which enables us to grasp a priori truths in general, including both the truths of mathematics and moral truths.

This way of overcoming Sidgwick's Dualism is certainly ingenious and sophisticated, turning what has so often been the Darwinian critique of normative ethics into a vindication of it.

But as the authors allow, it is somewhat hostage to the fortunes of evolutionary psychology:. We acknowledge that there are grounds for questioning whether our ability to reason is likely to have evolved as a package, rather than in the more piecemeal fashion in which evolution tends to proceed, resulting in the evolution of distinct modes of reasoning, which would not have included the capacity to grasp moral truths, if that were disadvantageous in evolutionary terms.

The fact that mathematical reasoning takes place in a different part of the brain from deductive reasoning and so may have had a separate evolutionary origin would also lead one to expect moral reasoning to be at least as distinct. It is possible that further research will eventually clarify this question, and if it can be shown that there is no 'package' of the kind we have postulated, that would undermine the argument we are making here. My guess is that the authors will concede that this is a somewhat more mitigated solution to the crisis of ethics than finding firm evidence of an afterlife serving the cause of Cosmic justice, which is the space where Sidgwick's optimism could take him when he was not busy being more soberly pessimistic.

But one can only hope that their option will prove inspiring enough to help turn humanity around, to help nudge it onto a course less likely to demonstrate that the advance of reason turned out to be of no evolutionary advantage to people at all. Their effort certainly calls for praise.

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Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction - Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, Peter Singer - Google книги

I am most grateful to Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer for their very helpful feedback on a draft of this review. The authors, one a rising star and one the North Star of philosophical utilitarianism, are as clear as can be that progress in philosophical ethics involves a return to Sidgwick, the late Victorian-era Cambridge University academic and author of The Methods of Ethics : we have followed the main lines of Sidgwick's thinking about ethics, and tested his views both against our own reasoning and against the best of the vast body of recent and current philosophical writing on the topics he addresses.

Moreover, to hold that my future desires give me present reasons would be to import a concept of prudential rationality -- indeed. In fact, the defense of esoteric morality comes in handy in defending the argument that it may well be that advocating too high a standard is less effective in motivating people to give than advocating a lower standard. Like Sidgwick, the authors allow that there is something paradoxical here: Arguably, we should not even have written this chapter; yet in a book on Sidgwick, to fail to discuss the topic of esoteric morality would be to leave the impression that on this issue Sidgwick's stance -- and therefore utilitarianism in general -- is indefensible.

After canvassing the field, the authors conclude, somewhat meekly, that Sidgwick's suggestion that we should maximize total utility remains a straightforward and consistent way of handling these questions, even if it has a deeply counter-intuitive consequence. But in place of Sidgwick's occasional and always highly qualified expressions of faith in the direction of civilized thought, the authors would insert the work of Steven Pinker: The role of reason in leading us to act more ethically is a major theme of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, a study of the factors that have, over the course of human history, reduced violence and cruelty.

Still, it is also true that, as the authors detail, Sidgwick's more careful and refined treatment of these raises many questions about just what the self-evident element is supposed to be -- avoiding mere arbitrary time but not person preference does not automatically translate into rational egoism, and rational benevolence appears to need two distinct insights: the first that from the point of view of the universe, the good of one individual is of no more importance than the good of any other unless there are special reasons for thinking that more good is likely to be realized [in] one case rather than in the other , and the second that 'as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally' rather than at just a part of it.

For de Lazari-Radek and Singer, There are thus three elements in the process of establishing that an intuition has the highest possible degree of reliability: 1. Careful reflection leading to a conviction of self-evidence; 2. Independent agreement of other careful thinkers; and 3.

The key move is evident in this passage: we might have become reasoning beings because that enabled us to solve a variety of problems that would otherwise have hampered our survival, but once we are capable of reasoning, we may be unable to avoid recognizing and discovering some truths that do not aid our survival. If Benevolence is not debunked, and if it can in fact be accounted for straightforwardly as a result of reason coming as a unity or package, such that either we have a capacity to reason that includes the capacity to do advanced physics and mathematics and to grasp objective moral truths, or we have a much more limited capacity to reason that lacks not only these abilities, but others that confer an overriding evolutionary advantage.