Thursday, July 27, 2017

Further musings about philosophical foundations

A reader sent these reflections in response to my recent Ethical Musings post, Why we cannot return to our Western heritage:
I think your key point is that those who purport western values fail to engage the philosophical and theological depth of that which is foundational to the western European/Anglo-North American heritage. The philosophical and theological traditions that carried the “founders” of the nascent North American republic were shaped by classical studies (conditioned by their own time and context) as well their contemporaries (in the UK and France). I read a study of the philosophy/political theory of John Adams that connected him to a “natural law” tradition mediated through Locke and Hooker. Modern American Christian fundamentalism has lost theological/philosophical moorings — but that is not unlike our political environment that is post philosophical (a la Ayn Rand). In the era of Trump, we live into a myth of accumulation and self-promotion. There is really is no “heritage” in the philosophical/ theological sense, but a manufactured myth of power (largely white and male) that trades on fear and alienation. In international relations, we therefore have abandoned the notion of a community of nations (based in the 20th century on some notion of "natural law" and ideal of objective “justice”) for an absolutist notion of spheres of influence devoid of morality and accountability. It is true that we cannot return to our Western heritage exclusively, but 21st century America has abandoned that heritage for an illusion. How can we truly engage the other without a starting point ourselves? We must be self-aware to engage the other. So, yes, I have been rereading Aristotle, Aquinas, Hooker, Maritain and Arendt this summer. I am doing so while engaging some Chinese philosophy. I must read Womanist theology from some conscious place.
Those reflections prompted the musings that follow.
Your description of a manufactured myth of power (male and white), I think, is on target. In teaching ethics to MA/MS students at the Naval Postgraduate School, one of about ten texts that I used in the course was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Her ethics, embedded in the novel, exemplify the ethical egoism by which many live, perhaps none more (in)famously today than Trump. Ethical egoism includes, I think, the myth of accumulation and self-promotion that you mention. Sadly, my one student who found Rand unshakably sound also self-identified as a fundamentalist Christian.
My reading tends more toward ethics than philosophy more broadly. Only in the last couple of months have I had the mental energy to resume much serious reading, at present mostly in politics.
In many ways, contemporary philosophy (dominated by the analytical school), and philosophical ethics more narrowly, struggle for relevance. As a pragmatist, I find the most promising path ahead for philosophical ethics to be in dialogue with science. Ethical egoism, illustratively, coheres well with the work of, among others, Richard Dawkins (cf. his The Selfish Gene). Conversely, evolutionary biologists such as Frans de Waal argue that Dawkins and his compatriots are wrong; reciprocal altruism rather than ethical egoism best describes the path of human evolution. If that is correct, then the question becomes which ethical approach (e.g., utilitarianism, deontology, relativism, etc.) best coheres with science and optimizes human experience/life, which inherently includes caring for all creation.
Another factor that has pushed me to integrate science and philosophy (as well as theology) is that the more biology I read, the more I realize that any attempt to dissect humans into some constellation of body, mind, and spirit is futile. A human is her/his body. All of the research that I have read emphasizes that when a human thinks s/he has made a decision, the body has made and already is acting upon that decision. The delay between the unconscious/subconscious (these terms are inadequate, but perhaps the best available) decision and the conscious choice is probably less than a second. However, the delay suggests the futility of seeking a priori reasoning or conclusions and may explain why contemporary philosophy seems stalled to outsiders who are disinterested in its parochial academic disputes.

Perhaps the widespread disconnect between much theology and science is also a partial explanation of why so many well-educated people find traditional theological formulations dissatisfying. Chardin got into trouble with the Roman Catholic Church for his efforts to engage in theological-scientific dialogues. I think that some of the process theologians (including Suchocki, Cobb, and Griffin) build on earlier efforts, as well as that of Whitehead and his subsequent interpreters (e.g., Hartshorne), to offer a more promising, suggestive framework.

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