Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Transcendental Ethics

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Since the last chapter was so interesting, I’ve decided to delve straight into chapter 2 of the Routledge Companion. This one’s by Stephen Clark, who has written some excellent scholarly work on animal rights and retired a couple of years ago. Sometimes it seems like Stephen contributes almost all of the entries on the Philos-L philosophy mailing list – he’s provides a great service to the philosophy community.

Stephen’s chapter is on Ethical Thought in India – an ambitious thing to attempt in so small a space. Although very interesting, the first section, which is largely concerned with religious practices relating to purity, and an attendant caste system, doesn’t contain much that I can relate to familiar ethical practice. Religious views on right and wrong don’t interest me in anything other than a sociological sense.

The second section of the chapter deals with what Stephen identifies as ‘four broad human goals’ common to Indian doctrine: ‘sensual pleasure, public success, morality – and “freedom” ‘1 Unfortunately, it’s not clear where these goals are supposed to arise from – I get the impression that they are simply prescriptive rules of Hinduism. In fact, pretty much all of the ethical practice described appears to have faith as its foundation.

Call me a narrow-minded secular atheist, but if you tell me the reason we should all Φ is ‘magic’ then I’m going to lose interest sharpish. In ‘The Idea of Equality’ Bernard Williams gave short shrift to the Kantian idea that transcendental characteristics should form the basis of moral judgements, i.e. characteristics that people are assumed to have and not in virtue of any empirical reality – Kant thought we should respect humans as rational beings regardless of whether any particular human is actually rational. Similarly, I found little to hold my attention in any moral or ethical sense in this chapter, although it did provide interesting insights.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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