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By Kourosh Ziabari
The humankind has always been busy with answering the questions on what is morally good and what is morally unacceptable since he wanted to adhere to what the members of the society admire and appreciate. People have always been after finding the codes of ethics and the behaviors which are morally justifiable. Although the citizens of liberal societies are less concerned with the issues of morality as they believe that what does not violate the freedom of others and does not molest them is socially acceptable, the fact that morality has historically occupied the mind of human being as a major question of life is undeniable, especially given that moral issues have always had religious implications, as well.
Roger Crisp is a Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford's St. Anne's College. His fields of expertise are metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. In addition, he is Chairman of the Management Committee of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
Prof. Crisp is the author of several articles and books on various issues pertaining to morality and ethics.
What follows is the full text of my interview with Prof. Crisp in which we explored some fundamental questions in ethics, morality and religion.
Kourosh Ziabari: Your field of expertise is ethics and you're of course familiar with the ethical teachings and principles of different religions. Why do some ethicists such as Nietzsche refute and disprove religion altogether while all of the existing religions in the world in general, and the monotheistic religions in particular, emphasize on morality and ethics as their theoretical basis and invite their followers to think and behave morally and ethically?
Roger Crisp: The reasons for this depend on the particular thinker. So some atheists will not be persuaded by the arguments for the existence of God (the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and so on), and will assume therefore that it is more parsimonious not to assert the existence of God. Nietzsche of course didn't accept these arguments. But he also had an account, based on human nature and the history of humanity, to explain or debunk belief in God. There's also a philosophical reason for not basing ethics on religion, which Plato expressed very clearly in his dialogue "Euthyphro". Consider some moral principle, such as that it is wrong to cause undeserved suffering for amusement. If one believes in God, one has to answer the question: are such actions wrong because God says they are wrong, or does God say they are wrong because they are wrong. Linking morality to religion to the first option here seems to make morality highly contingent. So if God had said that walking clockwise around a tree is wrong, it would be.
KZ: How much do the mass media affect people's moral and ethical attitudes and behaviors? Can we say that the expansion of new media and the acquaintance of people with other cultures may undermine their moral values? At least in a developing nation such as Iran, parents are extremely worried that the access of their children to internet or foreign TV channels may influence their sense of morality. What's your viewpoint?
RC: This is a very big question! Think about the invention of printing, which is perhaps the only event analogous in human history to what is now happening with the internet. That changed life hugely; both in the West, with the Reformation, and of course the East in a lot of ways too. What must make the difference is what is available on the internet, and also other sources of ethical education. If children are receiving poor education from their parents or their school, and then watch many violent videos on the internet, we should not be surprised if they turn out to be villains. Myself, I think that it is moral education rather than censorship other than of extreme images, which is important. We should educate our children properly so that they find boring violence and pornography what it is -- boring.
KZ: Do you see any relationship between ethics and culture? Can we say that certain cultures are more inclined to moral and ethical values than others? Do the globalization and integration of cultures influence people's moral behaviors?
RC: A link here is undeniable, but I think the bases of ethics are probably pre-cultural and to some extent genetically transmitted. So as human beings we are predisposed to co-operate and to sympathize with others -- to some extent. But the specifics of any particular morality will be determined by culture. And some cultures are certainly more 'moral' than others. Consider the famous case of the tribe called 'the Ik', discussed by Colin Turnbull. Sure, some of his data is thought dubious. But it seems undeniable that life in that society was much more brutal than in many other societies. My hope would be that globalization might enable greater sympathy of human beings for one another, so that politicians who try to persuade populations to engage in e.g. imperialistic wars might be prevented from doing so by sympathies which in the past could not be engaged. And of course I have the same sort of hope for global poverty, climate change, and so on.
KZ: Some thinkers with a liberal mindset believe that moral and ethical behavior does not exist at all because it cannot be distinguished that what is morally good or bad. As long as a social behavior does not violate the freedom of the other members of the society, it would be acceptable and permissible. As a professor of moral philosophy, what's your viewpoint about such notions?
RC: My own view is that there are right and wrong ways to act, and that we can determine this using our reason. The position you describe (a kind of relativism) also sounds self-contradictory, since it seems to place a universal value on freedom. Now it is true of course that there is much disagreement about right and wrong. I think the best way to approach the truth here is to discuss these questions as calmly and rationally is possible. They won't be decided properly by the use of political or military power.
KZ: One of the main questions discussed in the area of meta-ethics is that "what the meaning of moral judgment is." How is it possible to issue a defensible and strong moral verdict? Is moral judgment contrary to logical judgment? Can we persuade people to accept moral judgments only because they are morally guaranteed? In this turbulent era which we live in, people are less willing to accept a statement or judgment that stems from morality, because they believe that morality is devoid of logic and reason. What's your take on that?
RC: Moral judgments certainly can be illogical - your previous question seemed to mention one that contradicted itself. But they needn't be. I believe that many people will converge on certain moral truths -- such as the example I gave above. Consider a case in which some sadist inflicts horrible suffering on some child over a long period, just for the sake of his own enjoyment. Surely most people will agree that this is wrong? So there is some basic core for morality, and we have then to engage in discussion to find out what other moral principles there are.
KZ: G. E. Moore once said that goodness is a simple, indefinable, non-natural property. It's said that the indefinableness of goodness is the central claim of non-naturalism. Can we accept such an explanation of goodness? Does it mean that goodness is intuitive and can not be taught to others? If goodness is indefinable, then how is it possible to convince people to accept it?
RC: Goodness isn't indefinable, and Moore himself didn't think it was, though of course you're right that he "said" this. His real point is that it can be defined only in other evaluative terms such as "valuable". But this is just to say that evaluative properties are not the same kind of properties as those discussed by natural scientists. Natural science, then, cannot tell us what is good. But return to my previous example. Is it not easy to see that this kind of action is bad?
KZ: Have you personally arrived at a categorical definition for moral goodness? Is it plausible to identify what is morally good? Some say that whatever gives pleasure is morally good, but it's not always the case and pleasure does not always underpin morality. What's your explanation?
RC: Actually I do think that pleasure and pain are fundamental to ethics -- see my book "Reasons and the Good".
KZ: One of your fields of study is applied ethics in which different subjects such as bioethics, environmental ethics and business ethics are studied and discussed. Some ethicists, however, hold viewpoints which seem to be structurally contrary to the principles of applied ethics. The renowned bio-ethicist Peter Singer, for example, is an ardent proponent of abortion and euthanasia and doesn't consider these actions immoral. What's your viewpoint about Singer and his views? Does he, in your view, violate the rules of applied ethics through his statements and viewpoints?
RC: Certainly not. Singer is the most influential analytic philosopher alive today, and he is not only an excellent philosopher but has also done a great deal of good in the world e.g. for non-human animals, and the global poor. Some people don't agree with his conclusions, and indeed I disagree with some of them. But that is common throughout philosophy.
KZ: And finally, in one of your interviews, you had stated that the relationship between morality and well-being is central to ancient ethics. Does the contemporary philosophy still adhere to such a standpoint? Can we say that morality is a shortcut to well-being? What is the definition of well-being in this context? Does it refer to peace of mind, material prosperity or other similar concepts?
RC: As I see it, the holy grail of ancient moral philosophy -- by which I mean ancient western philosophy, but it may well be true of eastern too -- was to show that living the virtuous life would be best for the individual. I think analytic philosophy has pretty much given up on that project now, which is a pity (though myself I think it wouldn't succeed). What can be shown, I think, is that those who live lives in which they are genuinely concerned for the well-being of others - strangers as well as friends and family - are more contented with their lives (on the whole). The results of 'positive psychology' in this area are very hard to deny. So one important task is for us to educate people that if they want happiness it will not come through acquiring many possessions, though of course some material possessions are required for happiness, but through human relationships.
- Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian freelance journalist. He has interviewed political commentator and linguist Noam Chomsky, member of New Zealand parliament Keith Locke, Australian politician Ian Cohen, member of German Parliament Ruprecht Polenz, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former U.S. National Security Council advisor Peter D. Feaver, Nobel Prize laureate in Physics Wolfgang Ketterle, Nobel Prize laureate in Chemistry Kurt Wüthrich, Nobel Prize laureate in biology Robin Warren, famous German political prisoner Ernst Zündel, Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff, American author Stephen Kinzer, syndicated journalist Eric Margolis, former aSiddiqiistant of the U.S. Department of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts, American-Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud, former President of the American Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Sid Ganis, American international relations scholar Stephen Zunes, American singer and songwriter David Rovics, American political scientist and anthropologist William Beeman, British journalist Andy Worthington, Australian author and blogger Antony Loewenstein, Iranian geopolitics expert Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, American historian and author Michael A. Hoffman II and Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon.
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