Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Philosophy: A New Beginning

Except for the title, this article on ethics and emotions by David Brooks is dead-on. The reason the title, "The End of Philosophy" is dead wrong is that just because we now know we have a moral instinct (or set of instincts), that does not mean that moral reasoning or -- better -- moral training is not still necessary. Quite the contrary, if you understand how instincts work.

Lions have an instinct to hunt. However, lion cubs play to learn how to hunt, and learn even more through observing adults hunt. The fact that they have to learn how to hunt does not negate the existence of a hunting instinct (as Stephen Pinker points out in regards to language in 'The Language Instinct"). Rather, the instinct makes learning occur much more quickly than if the instinct were not there. We learn how to speak a language with a complex grammar and syntax and a vocabulary well into the thousands, but have a hard time learning math, which has far, far fewer variables and transformations to learn. This is because we have a language instinct, but not a math instinct (beyond the ability to give rough approximations).

Likewise, the fact that we have an ethics instinct does not mean that we don't still have to learn ethics. Quite the contrary. It simply means that ethics will be learned quickly once taught. It also implies that certain ethical rules are more natural than others. It may also imply that certain aspects of human belief and behavior that are not so nice are also there and will need to be wound down. Our instinct for altruism is the source of our best and worst (such as racism) behaviors.

An end to philosophy? Hardly. More like a new beginning.
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