I was reading from the pile of books stacked nearby earlier this morning, John Harris’ How to Be Good: The Possibility of Moral Enhancement (Oxford University Press, 2016) It’s a philosophical treatise that I bumped into on the new book shelf a few weeks back.
As I was reading it, I kept reflecting on, “why am I drawn to read books like this?” What is it in me, that draws me to such questions, when I see few others with such interest? Where did that magnetism originate? Why do I pursue philosophical questions even though the intellectual rigor that is required to fully digest the arguments is lacking in me?
Harris, (FMedSci., FRSA., B.A., D.Phil., Hon. D.Litt. Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics and Director, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, School of Law.) has written extensively on issues of moral questions, and has numerous quotable passages from within the first 40+ pages I’ve nibbled on thus far.
George Orwell, as I fondly recall, referred to this reliance on intuition or emotion as the use of “moral nose”; as if one could simply sniff a situation and smell or feel the rightness or wrongness. The problem is that nasal reasoning is notoriously unreliable and difficult to assess objectively, and olfactory ethics, despite being widely practiced, has never really taken off as an academic discipline. Despite this lack of a theoretical base, so to speak, olfactory moral philosophy has many contemporary adherents.” (p.29)
...As I have argued elsewhere, someone who cares about doing the right thing, someone for whom the difference between right and wrong is important, will always want to ask him or herself if what feels right is right. They will want to assure themselves insofar as it is in their power, they really are acting well or for the best all things considered, that seems right is right. They will, in short, be interested in a critical distinction, emphasized by no less a reflective thinking being than Hamlet himself, in this famous riposte to his mother: “Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’.” The difference between what seems and what is in ethics can only be delivered by reasoning. (p.30)
Like his Shakespeare quote, Harris is exceptionally well-read, pulling quotes from many authors of various disciplines. One of which caught my eye enough to track it down and read this morning , Philip Pullman’s “Writing is Despotism, but Reading is Democracy.” It is a gem of a piece for anyone who appreciates reading and it reminds me somewhat of why I am drawn to books like How to be Good.