The Magazine

In Shallow Waters

A mismatched academic responds to Aristotle.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By MARK BLITZ
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Pigliucci’s failure to engage in such an effort is connected to the excessive split he fashions between science and philosophy. He reduces philosophy to conceptual clarification (which seems to mean clarifying what other people have said) and views about morality. Philosophy is apparently not allowed any factual discussion of love, politics, thought, or other phenomena. And with morality, he does not distinguish what he views as philosophy’s territory from its obvious political and familial competition in securing meaning and ethical direction. All that matters are philosophy professors, or individuals constructing “handy-dandy” moralities from tools professors provide.

This split between science and morality would seem to vitiate Pigliucci’s project of seeking moral help or guidance from science. One issue that worries him explicitly is the familiar difficulty of deriving values from facts. Yet, Pigliucci’s project seems precisely to be finding guidance for values in the facts that science (apparently) discovers. Pigliucci waves his hands at his dilemma but remains trapped in it: He is forced to pick and choose arbitrarily the natural facts he likes and those he does not, those that can or should be changed or ignored, and those that should not be.

It would have served him better to have first truly examined the grounds and limits of the difference between is and ought. The salient issue is not one of deductive consistency but, rather, the substance of what is good, right, and beautiful, and why much that is imperfect belongs to how things are.

One virtue of Answers for Aristotle’s discussion of morality is to add what today’s academics call virtue ethics (Aristotle) to what they call deontology (Immanuel Kant) and consequentialism (Jeremy Bentham). But Pigliucci vitiates this improvement by not saying enough about the concrete virtues that Aristotle recommends, or about his view of justice and politics. That every man and woman should create his or her own handy-dandy morality is not Aristotle. In general, Pigliucci underplays social and political facts so that partial laboratory evidence of, say, altruism is not well balanced with what we see around us, or with the different virtues advanced by different political regimes.

He honestly confesses his standard left-of-center political preferences, but also tendentiously skews things in this political direction. From the myriad examples of people’s uncertain grasps of political affairs, he chooses what he himself indicates is a flawed study of the Iraq war (whose result is to make the war’s supporters seem stupid) and describes it confusingly.

Pigliucci also has an odd or undeveloped view of equality. He suggests that moral reason requires that we should treat everyone equally no matter how close to or far away from us they are. He pays no attention to unequal qualities, to what allows our talents to flourish, and to how we can develop them for ourselves while benefiting others. He ignores equal rights. He acts as if John Rawls’s views have never been seriously challenged, and as if justice means only fairness (equal to equals) but not also unequal to unequals, law-abidingness, proper punishment, serving the common good, or doing what is fitting.

This, despite his references to Aristotle and his discussion of elements of Plato’s Republic. Perhaps Pigliucci’s narrowness is based on his claim that “no philosopher today would be so naïve as to espouse any of [the three moral] ideas in anything like their original form, because discussions in the field have led to more sophisticated versions of them.” 

One place Pigliucci shows intellectual energy is in his discussion of religion. He thinks that religious belief is rooted in superstition, and argues that Plato has proved in the Euthyphro that we do not need gods to be moral. Although his discussions raise important questions, he ignores the place of belief in securing obedience to law, in advancing ethical action, and in elevating our understanding of ourselves and others. A more subtle understanding would enrich his arguments.

I wish he had proceeded differently. A useful book could be written that carefully weighs whatever evidence science brings to bear on the topics he examines, and others. The examination would discuss studies in enough detail that we would know on whom they were conducted, how they understood the phenomena that compose their research question, how reliable and long-lasting their results are, and whether they have been replicated.