The Book Club

Being Good

 Dear Debra,

The title of Simon Blackburn’s book is Being Good, but a more apt title might be Being Better. Blackburn just wants us to think about a sort of moral ozone depletion that comes from being too cynical or self-conscious to engage on ethical issues. He thinks our goal should be making progress toward “small, hard-won, fragile, but undeniable sources of pride.”

 My favorite part of the book was his response to reasons that people have for dismissing discussions of ethics, especially the discussion of relativism. I loved his story of the religious leaders who listened politely to each other’s views and responded to each of them, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you, that’s great.” When the Catholic priest pounded the table and said, “It’s not a question if it works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it, you’re all damned to hell!” the others all said, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.”

“If that works for you, that’s great” only goes so far. Clearly, Blackburn is right that “there must be a course between the soggy stands of relativism and the cold rocks of dogmatism.” We constantly struggle to determine the line between tolerating choices different from ours and allowing activities that violate our fundamental notions of fairness or collide with other priorities.  A founding principle of America is freedom of religion. Yet our courts uphold limits on religious practices like polygamy, sacramental marijuana, and animal sacrifice. Our government may limit trade with countries who commit what we consider to be human rights abuses and then rescind the limits for political and economic reasons though the abuses continue. Even the most tolerant relativists find it difficult to deal with those who are happy being intolerant of women, minorities, or views they find heretical.

This reminds me of a story about the first meeting of the leaders of a diverse group of advocacy organizations many years ago. One of them began by saying that what connected them was far more important than what divided them, and all nodded approvingly. He went on, “We’ve all been marginalized by the establishment!” Applause. “We’ve all been harassed by the police!” More applause. “We’ve all been spied on by J. Edgar Hoover, that fat little faggot!” That was the last attempt to build a coalition for a while.

Blackburn provides no new answers to those questions, but I suspect that people who read this book will be less interested in finding answers than in justifying what they have already decided is the ethical choice. As Blackburn says in speaking of slavery in pre-Civil War America, people “always have to tell themselves a story that justifies their system.” That is not just true of those who violate ethical standards. Even those who are by our standards the most exemplary of characters create a story to show that their choices are tied to some consistent and credible system of priorities. Those on both sides of the debates over abortion, stem cell research, Elian Gonzales, and the fatwa on Salman Rushdie would be glad to tell you how their views best serve the requirements of ethics.

Last week, the Washington Post reported on a new phenomenon, philosophy discussion groups in pubs and cafés. A Dupont Circle bar got 150 people to pay $195 for a seven-week lecture series called “Philosophy on Tap.” A professor who is writing about these groups noted, however, that participants rarely change their minds. “They really stick to what they believed originally and they try to maintain their point.” When asked what it is for, if philosophy debates do not lead people to new ideas, the “Philosophy on Tap” lecturer responded, “You can’t blame philosophy for that. That’s the province of human psychology.” That may be a bigger threat to the discussion of ethics than relativism or any of the other arguments Blackburn describes. With that in mind, I look forward to seeing what you have to say and promise to do my best to be persuadable!

Nell