Why philosophers should rule

Some grumpy days, I think that Plato was right. In The Republic, Plato argued that philosophers were the only people who could truly perceive the Good, so they should be the kings. Interestingly, he thought that women could be philosopher kings too, ‘though it would be an exaggeration to claim that he had a high opinion of women in general. It was more that he thought that anyone who displayed the requisite qualities could be a king, and he was sufficiently intellectually honest to admit that these qualities could be manifested in women as well as in men.

I get grumpy when I read wittery little pieces like this one, by the soon-to-be dean of the Anglican cathedral in Parnell. First of all, I get annoyed when someone says that their belief in god gives them a special right to speak on ethical issues. There’s a whole set of untested assumptions in there: that some god exists; that if some god exists, it is a particular kind of god; that the particular kind of god that the person is claiming as a moral authority is in fact the particular kind of god that exists; that the person making the claim knows what this god thinks. The Dean-elect doesn’t even attempt to establish any of those claims.

That’s probably fair enough in a newspaper column. But unlike Sundays when he commands a pulpit, he is not preaching to the converted, and it might be good form to acknowledge that believing in ghosties isn’t much of a basis on which to make ethical claims.

Then he states his base position.

The gift of life is a sacred thing. Our laws reflect that. They seek to protect human life above all else. That’s why our society does not allow euthanasia. We believe there are limits to our right to interfere in the natural course of life.

Where to start?

We don’t believe that the gift of life is sacred. In fact, we are quite happy to kill non-human animals, and human animals too, when it suits us.

Our laws don’t seek to protect human life above all else. Most of the time, they seek to protect property. In any case, we let plenty of people get away with terrible crimes, especially if they are committed against children.

We do allow euthanasia, in practice if not in law. Doctors routinely give people who are in extremis extra morphine for pain, with the ‘side effect’ of ending life.

We don’t believe that there are limits to our right to interfere in the natural course of life. We routinely use medicine and surgery to prolong life, and we keep people alive beyond reasonable limits.

It’s all flakey, twittering stuff, that might go down well with people who believe in the same god as the putative Dean, but it’s just so much wishful thinking otherwise.

But then the Dean-to-be goes on to talk about various ethical dilemmas, as though these are hard and difficult questions that no one has addressed. Do parents have a right to choose children’s physical characteristics? Is it better to prevent a person who would be disabled from being born at all? Should the spiritual beliefs of particular groups of people be given greater weight in ethical discussions?

Mr Dean talks about these questions as though no one has done the hard thinking. But I have some news for him. Some people have. Moral philosophers, bio-ethicists, and applied ethicists have spent years and years debating these issues, trying out arguments, aligning them with facts, being rigorous in their thinking.

It’s easy to tell that the Parnell Dean hasn’t studied any philosophy, or if he has, it has simply washed over him. His conclusion is that because the church regards human life as sacred, then each human life has value, and that gives the church a role to play in ethical debates.

But each human life is valuable because each human life is sacred. Sounds like a tautology to me. And if the church has already pre-judged its position in ethical debates, then it has nothing to contribute, other than saying, “Hurrah for this view”, or “Sucks to that view”.

The Dean needs to take a deep breath, and dare to engage in some hard core, logical thinking. I suggest Phil 101 as a starting point.

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One response to “Why philosophers should rule

  1. This is a really excellent blog post and I don’t normally comment unless I have something extra to add but I just wanted to say how unusual and pleasing it is to see someone advocating for the voices of philosophers. (It’s especially nice because the more people care about what trained philosophers think the more likely I am to have a job when I graduate next year ;)) Anyway, kudos for a thoughtful post.