October 30, 2008
By S. Matthew Liao
Professor David Wiggins, the Wykeham Professor of Logic, Emeritus, at Oxford University gave a fantastic talk yesterday at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar on “The Solidarity at the Root of the Ethical.”
With his permission, a podcast of his talk can be found here:
UPDATE: Here is a handout to go along with the talk.
An electronic version of the paper will be published as the Lindley Lecture and an abstract of the talk is as follows:
The paper first recapitulates certain points from Chapters Eight and Nine of Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (Penguin 2006), and then seeks to advance from there, presupposing the adverse critique these chapters offer of all known arguments for Consequentialism.
Like ‘altruism’ (a thing sometimes confused with the entirety of morality), benevolence or the concern for another, when it is practised unmixed and in the absence of all other concerns except means-ends “rationality”, is a highly dangerous virtue. Generalized in the pursuit of the greater good, unmixed benevolence all too easily finds itself constrained – in the words of Philippa Foot – to ‘sanction the automatic sacrifice of the one for the good of the many’.
What then can or ought to curb or direct benevolence? Scarcely sympathy, which is only the catalyst for benevolence and open to the same perversion of the originary source as is benevolence. Hardly fraternity either (or so the paper contends). Against benevolence and beyond benevolence, Philippa Foot herself appeals to ‘a kind of solidarity between human beings — as if there is some sense in which no-one is to come out against one of his fellow men’. In a refinement and further development of Foot’s proposal, but pressing into service (1) Simone Weil’s conception of human recognition of the human, (2) David Hume’s conception of ‘the party of humankind’, and (3) the resources of the Roman law relating to agreements in solido (agreements concerning liability in respect of the entirety of something), the paper seeks to show what explanatory power and precision will be added to the genealogy of morals by the acknowledgement of a primitive response of solidarity keyed to the human recognition of the human. In identifying the all-important negative thing that each and every one of us owes each and everyone else, namely the solidum that is presupposed to all ordinary interchange between human beings, such an acknowledgement places constraints upon the claims which may be entered on behalf of aggregative reasoning. It assists in the demarcation of the proper province and operation of Humean ‘humanity, benevolence, friendship, public spirit and other social virtues of that stamp’. It makes space for a category (passed over by Hume) of the forbidden and it grounds the defences of the solidum at the root of the ethical. In a further refinement of these ideas, the same acknowledgement explains the sacredness that Hume himself attaches to consent. It vindicates in neo-Humean terms the profound misgivings we are occasioned by the ordinary workings of consequentialist practical thinking, by its impoverished ideas of agency and responsibility, and by the actuality of the domestic policies and international development policies with which consequentialist thinking has been so closely associated.
“Always there will be winners and losers”, the saying goes. But let us distinguish here between a truism and a shameless disavowal of responsibility for acts or policies which, in assailing the solidum, menace the inmost core of morality. The paper distinguishes sharply between the exceptionless and universal demands of solidarity which arise from that core and all other however persuasive demands. Finally, echoing Nietzsche’s commentary upon the mentality of globalism yet respecting the claims of true internationalism, the paper seeks to restore the claims of the local and the personal.
Do feel free to discuss the talk here.