Thursday, 10 December 2009

Guest Lecture II: Is there anything that could not count as a moral issue?

Trevor Curnow, Reader in Philosophy from University of Cumbria came along to NTU on 9th Dec as part of the Philosophy and Everyday Life guest lecture series. In contrast to Neal Curtis’s session, Trevor offered us a technology free overview of moral philosophy in general and Ancient Philosophy in particular.

He delivered his lecture in traditional philosophical style by standing and delivering an entertaining, fluent, and at times digressive talk without recourse to technology of any kind (not even a pen!). By drawing upon, amongst other things, biographical details concerning his early philosophical training in analytical philosophy, (in particular what passed for moral philosophy in the 1970s), and contemporary philosophy’s issue based approach to ethics, Trevor demonstrated his overall thesis: that contemporary moral philosophy has been impoverished by its refusal to incorporate all aspects of everyday life as the Ancient Greeks did.

Moreover, Trevor suggested that this state of affairs has been exacerbated by the academicisation of philosophy and the consequent lack of philosophical role models, deploring a society which appears to be in thrall to celebrity culture and hysterically mourns a princess who had little relevance to most people’s lives.

In contrast, the Ancient Greek Schools offered philosophers as role models. For them, how one comports oneself in everyday life, whether alone or with others, constitutes the bedrock of one’s character. In this way, we constitute ourselves. It is only on death that a person can be judged to have lived a moral life or otherwise, when all of one’s actions can finally be accounted for.

In Trevor’s view, it is pointless to corral off “moral issues” when everyday existence itself is an ongoing ethical project. We are responsible for what we are and what we may become.

This approach to moral philosophy has practical consequences on the most mundane level. Ethical decisions pertain to the micro as well as macro levels. What one chooses to eat for breakfast, how long one spends in bed, for example, these are moral issues just as much as whether to commit suicide since, viewed in terms of the seven Deadly sins, gorging oneself on breakfast constitutes gluttony, while staying in bed all day becomes sloth.

Trevor is clearly a convert to the ethical ways of the Ancient Greeks, and his talk reflected this, managing to be simultaneously provocative and laconic. No ranting to be had here and all the better for it.

After all, if we accept that we are the sum total of our actions in everyday life, then that is a thought that has the potential to change the way we live. And philosophy doesn’t get much more relevant, or radical, than that.

Ruth Griffin

1 comment:

  1. I really liked Trevor's talk. He seemed to be saying that analytic philosophy, in making a distinction between 'moralising' and 'moral philosophy', has asked the wrong questions. Over time, he pointed out, the questions change in philosophy - and now the philosophical question of the nature of morality has returned to the classical philosophical pre-occupation with living a good life.

    This kind of move in philosophy is important, because it begins the much needed process of undermining the modern philosophical idea that only 'facts' possess intellectual content and significance.

    Neil Turnbull