Blackburn on the Relevance of the Philosophical Armchair

The seat of knowledge: smart and comfortable:

    Perhaps it is too late for quibbling or wallowing in nostalgia for the philosophical armchair. When Edge, the forward-looking, up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art web forum for the crème de la crème of academia, recently decided to sum up where we are now in understanding morality, it invited four psychologists, two neurologists and but one philosopher (incidentally, all males). They issued their communique under eight banner headlines, as follows:

    • Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon

    • Many of its building blocks are innate

    • Moral judgements are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of alternatives

    • Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives

    • Moral judgements and values are often at odds with actual behaviour

    • Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no “moral centre” in the brain

    • Morality varies across individuals and cultures

    • Moral systems support human flourishing, to various degrees.

    Well, there we have it. Hide your faces, Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche, Rawls and the fuddy-duddies who still read them. True enough, by turning their pages, one might have found precursors of seven out of the eight revelations – only the sixth seems near to being news, although I would like to have been told who or what does the recruiting. And given that moral thinking often involves empirical data, ingrained habits, empathy, prediction, imagination, calculation and inference, I did find myself wondering whoever supposed that there would be a “moral centre”, whatever that might be, anywhere at all.


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