Simon Blackburn’s Message on Virtues for Humanists

Listening to Simon Blackburn last night at Conway Hall, indeed mulling over the title of his talk before listening to him, it is transparently obvious that he has an important agenda when it comes to his close association with humanism and the BHA.

Now Blackburn is probably “the” greatest living British philosopher active and teaching in the field, so even an amateur enthusiast such as myself can’t fail to have noticed his work over several years already. My noticing switched to paying attention the first time I heard him speak in person (at Hay on Wye “How The Light Gets In” festival) only last year. He, in his own words last night, has that appearance of the “fuddy-duddy” white-haired old-guard, so last year, so two and a half millennia “out of date”, and a very patient, gentle, wry delivery to boot. He hardly screams “listen to me” in our times of attention-grabbing, social media headlines with everything.

But listen we should; the man talks sense. Once listening, it’s clear he has a very important message that humanists generally, and the BHA in particular, need to hear.

On a previous occasion, giving the Bentham Memorial Lecture on 26th November 2014 at UCL, hosted by Joe Wolf  (UCL Philosophy Professor) and Peter Cave (Humanist Philosophy Group chair) presented in association with the BHA, Blackburn’s title was:

“Was Hume The First Humanist?”

Hum(e)an wordplay aside, the answer to the explicit question is clearly no, not the first by a long way, but the rhetorical point for his captive audience is that Hume is the model humanist for modern humanism.

Last night, 27th January 2015, Blackburn delivered the belated 2014 George Ross memorial lecture at Conway Hall, hosted by Anja Steinbauer of Philosophy Now and Philosophy For All London. His title:

“Faith, Hope & Charity for Humanists”

Bringing the three cardinal Christian virtues into the house of rational and humanist ethics, elicited the “how dare he?” knee jerk from a thankfully small minority of the audience and questioners, but his message was clear to those humanists who listened.

Explicit in his first title, immediately apparent in the content of the second talk, and front and centre right from his first major book publication “Spreading The Word”; Blackburn is a scholar of Hume, all the better he says, for being read in the Edinburgh accent that Blackburn doesn’t have.

So what makes Hume the model humanist?

  • Concern for humans, obviously; for humanity, individuals and populations in the world in general, but also so for “kith and kin”, nearest and dearest, family and friends, those with social associations and practical dependencies in the day to day world we inhabit here and now.
  • But more importantly in this context; modesty and economy of argument, despite vaulting ambition. Not the bull-headed agendas of the “new atheists”, campaigners with clenched-fists and all guns blazing, concerned primarily with winning and being “right”. Valuing the virtues in others.

And in that earlier Bentham lecture, he proceeded to develop strategies and exemplars of argumentation – based on the above values – for humanists arguing with the religious. Much nodding in the direction of Andrew Copson sitting in the gods. (I’ll say more on this in a later post, but coincidentally, earlier the same week as the Bentham event was the Common Ground event “How can Humanists and Muslims live and work together in London?” – my brief notes included in this earlier post.)

Last night he first introduced the three terms of his title. Seeing the cardinal (but no doubt non-exclusive) virtues of Christianity as imports from “the other camp”, meant it could be easy to give them short shrift, but we’d be wrong to do so.

Faith, contrasted with other forms of belief and knowing, formed the bulk of the evening’s discourse and the Q&A, and had the biggest problem with negative connotations, given its popularly mis-understood substitution by enlightenment “reason”. Part of the received wisdom of the humanist “creed” is to see faith in opposition to reason. But for Hume, reason is seen as the slave to the passions as the basis of belief and action – reason as a servant(*), a tool, not a substitute for belief. The very existence of Kant’s own “critique” of “pure” reason stands to show the real enlightenment gap between reason and existing “habit”.

Hope, seen as effectively redundant once you have faith, was not given much time at all by Blackburn. Hope implies some fear of risk associated with opposite to whatever you have faith in.

Charity, easy to see as “a good thing” but needs more careful analysis to understand its fit with human values. Always possible to have too much of a good thing too; charity at the expense of other immediate and local needs of kith and kin. And easy to develop a cynical take if you focus on the feelgood and self-interest value of donation resourced charity institutions. But being charitable, has a deeper and well established place as “altruism” in moral philosophy.

Here we are talking about human nature, and if you’re so inclined, the science of human nature. But, let’s not confuse science with the ideology of science. Kant’s anthropology was developed from a purely pragmatic point of view, so wrong to infer scientific fundamentals.

There are scary “totally competitive” takes on the Darwinian place of altrusim, say from Ghiselin: “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”. This is an important mistake of the Darwinist creed. Spencer “red in tooth and claw”, Dawkins “selfish you name it”, Pinker, Wilson (on Marx) to name a few names. Beware, distinguished scientists don’t always speak distinguished science.

The Darwinist scientific creed is a kind of triumphalism of new knowledge over “out of date” views. By contrast philosophers happily re-read contributions centuries and millennia old. Historical context is lost if viewed only with hindsight. Altruism is closely related to the ability to identify and empathise with others, including historical, literary, fictional, even “tv-soap-opera” others, experienced in real (imagined) time.

At this point Blackburn proceeded to illustrate evidence and myths addressed by other thinkers in altrusim.

  • Canine pack behaviour examples show absolutely no need to take either extreme view of benign cooperation nor lethal competition with game-theoretic options of cheating and freeloading. Reality is subtle, complex, learned, effective social behaviours. Taking the same thinking to the human case, these organic, learned trust effects can be shown to be more effective even than formal promises and contracts. These are not rationally calculated quid-pro-quo benefits of mutual back-scratching, but intuitively developed social regularities. Habits. Good habits.
  • The depressingly reductive views of the Dawkinsian Darwinists was misguided. Even the “selfish” attributes of “genes” was redundant from the arguments, the genes themselves too. Peter Godfrey-Smith’s work, describing the necessary conditions for heritable evolution of species (of anything) to occur, supports populations of anything, transmission of anything advantageous by any means, even groups of anythings. (“Group selection” is supported whilst not essential to the still raging controversies.)
  • The Phineas Gage example (a much overused meme) illustrates – eg in the great book with the lousy title “Descarte’s Error” by Antonio Damasio – the reality of loss of socially acceptable and socially predictable behaviour eventually screwed up his otherwise normal life, when specific mental capability was physically destroyed.
  • Trolleyology or the “Trolley Problem” is a poster child of ethical theory and is another example of where accepted simplistic views of “emotions” getting in the way of “rationality” get it badly wrong. eg conclusions of the Josh Green and Peter Singer variants of the problem are ideological against the emotions, the passions, the virtues. (Michael Sandel’s effort to turn as many knobs as possible to vary the basic problem helps illustrate just how subtle the human value judgements in the trade-off really are in finding “the right thing” to do. Every situation is different, not simply a different example of some common fundamental situation. To judge is human.)

So – Charity! Believe it or not on the limited unscientific “evidence” presented here, charity (altrusim and empathy) are demonstrable and testable by science, and quite counter to science dogma.

The Q&A session kept returning to the know / believe distinction inherent in the faith that “the sun will rise tomorrow” example which – given the nature of the Philosophy Now audience – tended to come down to technical philosophical arguments about induction et al. However it remained clear the real targets of this distinction where the scientific heroes of humanism named earlier – claiming contingency in science itself, yet somehow certain, with dogmatic faith in their misguided and impoverished view of rationality itself.

Humanism needs to re-appropriate the virtues of faith, hope and charity and rehabilitate them in the otherwise science dominated realm of rationality. There can be good and bad examples of any of these so careful understanding of their real functioning was infinitely preferable to dismissing them as “used goods” from the other camp.



(*) First noted at this point, but also arising in the Q&A, there is so much other material on this topic. Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast & Slow”. Plato’s “rational human” charioteer in control of the “passionate animal” horses or the Buddhist “elephant and its driver” version. Nietzsche, Einstein and Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and Emissary” take on the proper relation between the immediately intuitively general feel and the considered rational specific reasoning.

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