“Morality Is the Adjustment of Matter to Its Environment” — H.P. Lovecraft

Books, Literature, Writers

Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.

– From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).

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J.M. Coetzee and Ethics — Anton Lesit & Peter Singer

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

In their introduction to J.M. Coetzee and Ethics, editors Anton Lesit and Peter Singer make the claim that the essays in the new collection “show the folly of Plato’s idea that literature has nothing to contribute to philosophical discussion. Instead they are an invitation to a dialogue that can sharpen the issues that literature raises while making philosophy more imaginative.” Lesit and Singer briefly review the philosophical tradition, from the time of Plato’s call to banish the poets to the current wars between pragmatists and postmodernists, specifically foregrounding the case for Coetzee’s literature as a legitimate source of philosophical inquiry. They identify three specific features of his works — reflectivity, truth seeking, and an exploration of social ethics — that merit critical attention. The essays in the volume address “the psychological and moral phenomenology of personal relationships; the consequences of human suffering, evildoing, and death for human rationality and reason; and the literary methods invoked to open areas of experience beyond the abstract language of philosophers.” The editors also point out that “Unsurprisingly, the ethics of animals looms large in this collection,” a concern that might attract animal ethicists and others interested in animal-human relationships who might not immediately turn to literature for answers (or questions). On the whole, J.M. Coetzee and Ethics, while obviously a specialty volume, strives to appeal to a wider audience, eschewing much of the acadamese that plagues (and obfuscates the arguments of) so many critical volumes. Fans of Coetzee will wish to take note. J.M. Coetzee and Ethics is new in hardback from Columbia University Press.

Moral Relativism — Steven Lukes

Books, Reviews

Moral relativism is the belief that ideals of right and wrong and good and bad are contextually determined by one’s local culture, as opposed to a theory of morality that holds that good and bad exist as absolute, metaphysical values existing cross-culturally, values intrinsic to one’s humanness. At the same time, individuals, even those (sometimes especially those) who see moral relativism as the overwhelmingly rational, sensical position, nonetheless are inextricably tied to their own sense of right and wrong, and this sense often leads them into a position of judgment–and perhaps action–against, over, and/or in reaction to the perceived wrongs of other cultures and societies.

In his new book Moral Relativism, NYU sociology professor Steven Lukes employs an interdisciplinary approach to tackle one of the biggest sticking points of contemporary thought. Using a variety of methods including philosophy, anthropology, history, and literature, Lukes addresses the fundamental conflict of moral relativism: that what’s right and good in one’s own culture may not be right and good in another’s culture, yet a will remains to believe in ideals of universal human rights. Lukes uses a number of timely concrete examples, including female genital circumcision, Islamic fundamentalism, and mass immigration, to assess the costs and payoffs of holding a view that says that no absolute morality exists. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Moral Relativism is Lukes’s negotiation of Western (or globally Northern, as he saliently points out) human rights actions as an extension of colonialism, with the one-time colonists imposing their values–again–upon the one-time colonized.

Lukes concludes that “the question Who are we to judge other cultures? is a bad question.” Arguing that the “postcolonial and multicultural contexts of our time do not require us to see the discourse and practice of human rights as ethnocentric,” Lukes takes up a position–well-argued–that a moral fundamentalist might claim is simply a liberal humanist wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Which, of course, is the problem with the book. It’s a fantastic argument for moral relativism, one that points out that no one–no one–is absolutely relativist, and that, in fact, being a moral relativist entails recognizing that within cultures certain perceived absolutes exist. The idea that right and wrong are relative doesn’t mean that right and wrong are arbitrary or don’t exist–it simply means that ideals of right and wrong have to be reconstituted within different systems of social and cultural order. Yet Lukes’s book isn’t going to convince the types that need convincing. Still, those of us who think that moral relativism is simple common sense will find plenty of concrete, contemporary, real world ammunition here in case we feel like arguing with a–gasp–moral fundamentalist.

Moral Relativism, available now, is part of the new BIG IDEAS // small books series from Picador Books.