Friday, 14 September 2007

Midgley on rights and social ethics

Here is my current author-crush, the moral philosopher Mary Midgley, writing in 1989, near the end of her book Wisdom, information, and wonder: What is knowledge for? (which I've recently been re-reading):
For instance, questions such as euthanasia and abortion are often made unmanageable by being treated in arbitrary isolation, as if they were the only moral issues in sight. They cannot be effectively thought about apart from wider issues. To name just one, they lead us into questions about the emphasis on brute, unreasoning competition that arises from arguing always in terms of absolute, competing `rights', rights which are not brought into intelligible relations within any wider system. They also bring in question the general unrealistic attitude to the inevitability of death which has long prevailed in our society ... But, besides this lack of a proper background, much-litigated questions like these are bedevilled by the disputants' refusal to admit that they are dealing with a genuine conflict, a real choice of evils. Out of the welter of previous argumentation, argumentative people have constantly picked in advance some set of concepts which favours their own attitude, and refused to extend it so as to make recognition of opposing arguments possible ...

The trouble wrought by mere disputatiousness is one of her themes in this book (and indeed throughout her writings), and is a standing challenge to all of us with strong opinions: one must ask, does a boofhead cease to be a boofhead, simply because he/she is an intellectual, or --- even worse --- an activist?

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