I’ve always thought I should love the discipline of philosophy. After all, it studies (my Apple dictionary tells me) “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence” — topics that are at the heart of my quest for goodness. Once again, though, I find that I’m underwhelmed by the reality of the discipline as opposed to its ideal. The whole thing appears, at least at first glance, to be so untethered from real life that it’s of no use to us struggling humans who are trying to live moral and good lives. Witness Peter Railton’s essay on morality in Sunday’s New York Times.
The Perrin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Railton goes on at length about morality and natural selection. This piece is so disconnected from any aspect of everyday life that “irrelevant” is the kindest term that can be used to describe it. This is an essay that only a mother — or another philosopher — might love.
Railton does much better in a bloggingheads.tv conversation with Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God. Much of that talk is only suitable for academia, but it gets interesting in the 27th minute as they finally consider real-world examples.
I apologize for posting with so much snark in my fingertips. I try not to do that. I also suppose this post also shows my lack of philosophical education. The only excuse I can give is that the first place I searched in my quest for goodness was the philosophy section of the University of Kansas Library.
While the topics and titles seemed relevant, the contents of the books were a complete turnoff. They appeared to be written by men (and they were largely men) who had the odd idea that human beings aren’t, well, human. To these learned folk, the psychology and physiology of the human mind don’t exist, and all we have to do is think our way to goodness. If only that were true.
In Railton’s case, he does admit to our “monkey” nature, but expends all his energy contemplating the impact of our genes and natural selection. OK. I’ll bite. Why the heck should I care?
And to all you lovers of philosophy: Bring it on! What am I missing? What do I not understand?