Monday, May 2, 2011

On a telling blindness to the history of philosophy

I will briefly break from the normal programming on this blog to make an observation about Matthew Yglesias's recent posts on Kant, Christianity, and ethics. Yglesias believes it is a commonly accepted view that moral rules should not demand more than can realistically be expected of human conduct, and he thinks this view is a residue of Christianity transmitted through Kant.

Leaving aside whether this an accurate assessment of common contemporary belief or of Kant (I would say the first is mostly correct and the second is off the mark), I am struck by his lack of historical perspective. He assumes that, but for the existence of Christianity, ethics would never have been disturbed from a pure path of finding abstract rules which we are morally required to follow no matter how difficult this may be in practice. I struggle to see how this seemingly ad hoc potted history can be reconciled with the thought of Aristotle, a really-existing pre-Christian philosopher. Aristotle didn't propound an ethics based on abstract principles. but he certainly anchored his account of good human conduct on behavior that he saw as being realistically achievable.

This is why I wouldn't really recommend pursuing a philosophy degree at Harvard.

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