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Moral Literacy: or How To Do The Right Thing by Colin McGinn

A review by Nicholas Everitt.

Colin McGinn is best known for his demanding texts in the philosophy of mind, so to see his name on this work is a double surprise, both of topic and of level. For this is very much a beginner’s guide, a guide not so much to moral philosophy as to moralising. McGinn, that is to say, does not engage in a discussion of the principles that underlie moral judgments, or of the network of concepts which we use in making moral judgements. Rather what he aims to do is to arrive at particular moral judgements in six main areas of moral dispute (the treatment of animals, abortion, violence, sex, drugs and censorship). The position that emerges is a fairly orthodox form of late twentieth century Western liberalism: animals matter a good deal more than most people acknowledge; abortion, although permissible in early pregnancy, is an increasingly serious matter as the foetus develops, and can be justified only by weighty reasons in late pregnancy; violence is an evil that is necessary on occasion, but one should never be the first to resort to it; sexual practices and drug-taking should both be largely left to consenting individuals, though there is something morally suspect both about certain forms of sexual perversion and about drug addiction; censorship is a bad thing, and should be countenanced only in the most extreme situations.

McGinn tells us that the book’s ideal reader is someone who is “young and open-minded, and not yet hardened into the dogmas that so often beset the later years” (p.7), and the aim of the book is to inculcate ‘a rational morality’ as opposed to ‘taboo morality’. “Taboo morality tells you what to do and what not to do as a matter of decree … [while] rational morality, by contrast, seeks to give reasons for its judgements and prohibitions; nothing has to be taken on faith as simply so” (p.11)

As regards the intended audience, the topics seem well-chosen, and the style is clear, though gratingly patronising in places. But of more interest is the idea of rational morality, a morality that seeks to give reasons for its judgements. One cluster of issues that this idea at once raises is “What counts as a good reason for a moral judgement? How can we recognise a good reason when we see one? What determines which is the stronger of two conflicting reasons?”. McGinn is very reticent about these issues, describing them (correctly) as moral philosophy with which he is not primarily concerned. But his lack of discussion of them has important and damaging consequences for his handling of the specific issues which he examines.

One example of this concerns his discussion of pacifism. What does a rational moralist have to tell us about the merits, morally speaking, of pacifism? “Absolute pacifism”, McGinn tell us “is really not a tenable moral position” (p.43). But what reasons can a rational moralist provide in support of this judgement? What McGinn does is to describe an imaginary case in which some great evil can be averted only if you kill someone – in other words, he envisages precisely the sort of situation in which clear-headed pacifists have always said it is wrong to kill – and he simply says that in such cases it is right (“clearly right” are his actual words) to kill. Not much argument there – simply counter-assertion.

Consider, too, what he says about speaking with “contempt or provocative levity” of a religion in the presence of adherents of that religion. All that McGinn can tell us that this “wrong”, “bad”, “nasty and deplorable” and “immoral”(p.88). One cannot help feeling that if this is the best that socalled rationality can provide in the way of reasons for moral judgements, we might as well stick with taboo morality: at least that does not raise in us false hopes that reason might be our guide. McGinn clearly thinks that some beliefs are worthy of contempt, as is made clear by the judgements he makes elsewhere in the book. How could such beliefs cease to be contemptible merely by being incorporated into a religion? Is it really “a nasty and deplorable thing” to express to a believer one’s contempt for e.g. the sexism or racism which he (or she) claims is an integral part of their religion? McGinn’s rational moralist may have an answer to these obvious questions. But if he does, McGinn does not tell us what it is.

Part of the problem here is that since McGinn takes himself to be moralising rather than doing moral philosophy, there is no extended explicit discussion of what makes something a good reason morally speaking. By the end of the book a conflict seems to have emerged in his position, a conflict of some interest because it is (I suspect) one to be found in many people’s moral thinking. We start off (p.7) with the claim that “freedom is a good thing”; and by p.53 this has become consolidated into the claim that “a basic moral axiom is that people should have the freedom to do what they want to do so long as this doesn’t interfere with other people’s freedom to do what they want”. It is supposed to be part of this view that morality is “basically a set of rules for harmonising what I want to do with what is good for others” (pp.14-5). This makes it sound as if freedom is the supreme moral value, so that one person’s freedom can be legitimately limited only if that is the only way of preserving the freedom of another person. It sounds, in other words like a standard libertarian position of the the kind defended by, say, J.S.Mill in On Liberty or by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia.

But it gradually becomes clear that there is another moral programme being pursued alongside the libertarian one, and finally overcoming it. According to this second programme, freedom is not a good in itself, it is a good only as means to happiness. We are told that the reason that it is wrong to deprive people of their freedom is that “their happiness largely resides in the extent of their freedom” (p.54); and later that “after all, it is human happiness with which we are ultimately concerned” (p.79, my emphasis). In other words, the alternative moral programme is some form of utilitarianism.

In addition to this conflict, other moral traditions make more or less fleeting appearances. One of these involves the concept of rights. It is a familiar thought that utilitarianism does not have very much use for the notion of rights; and it is entirely of a piece with the ultimately utilitarian tenor of McGinn’s discussion that rights do not appear for most of the book. The chapter on the treatment of animals is not put in terms of animal rights; the chapter on abortion makes no mention of a supposed right to life of the foetus. It therefore comes as a surprise to find in the chapter on censorship that rights are invoked, and indeed bear the main weight of the discussion. “I believe strongly” says McGinn, “that freedom of expression is a basic and deeply important right” (p.84), and later in the chapter, it emerges that there is also a right to privacy. If what we are engaged in is rational morality, we then need to told what reasons there are for accepting these claims. How does McGinn know that there is a right to freedom of expression and to privacy? Since it would be surprising if we had these two rights and yet had (for example) no right to life, why is the right to life not even mentioned in the discussion of violence and of abortion? And how is the existence of these two rights meant to fit into a moral framework which says that “it is human happiness with which we are ultimately concerned”? If people’s rights can be overridden when observing them does not maximise happiness (as McGinn appears to countenance), what does it mean to call these rights ‘basic’?

It is not just the morality of rights that makes a late and surprising appearance. The final chapter is entitled ‘Virtue’, and this again denotes a concept which, from a utilitarian perspective, calls for no special discussion. According to utilitarianism, a good or virtuous person will be one who generally acts from good motives; and good motives will those motives which generally lead to right actions (right actions being those that maximise happiness). McGinn’s discussion does not follow quite those lines. He asks instead why a person should be virtuous; and this at once raises our hopes that so-called rational morality will finally be able to say at least something to vindicate its claim to that title. But these hopes are quickly disappointed. We are told that reasongiving in morality, as elsewhere, comes to an end eventually, and that unhappily it ends just before the question “Why should I be good?” arises. The only answer that can be given to that question is the unhelpful tautology “Because goodness is good; because virtue is virtue”. Again, one feels that if this is the best that rational morality can do, it is taboo morality which has really triumphed.

My own suspicion is that McGinn has set himself an impossible task. One can write a nonphilosophical text which moralises about various issues without offering any substantial rational justification for the moral positions adopted. Or one can write a text of moral philosophy in which a rational justification is offered for various recipes which are then applied to specific issues. What cannot be done is to provide a rational justification in the complete absence of any moral philosophy. It may be that this is a truth intrinsic to the relations between morality and moral philosophy; but if it is not that, it is at least a truth about those relations as they obtain in late twentieth century Western societies. We live in an age and a region of the world where the idea that morality is subjective (in some sense of that multiply ambiguous word) is all-pervasive. There is simply no consensus about moral issues – not just no agreement about whether abortion or drug-taking or animal experimentation etc. is permissible, but no agreement about what kind of considerations are relevant to settling such issues, and no agreement about what counts as a good reason for or against any moral position. Against such a background, to engage in moralising without any consideration of what if anything its rational base is, and then to claim for one’s moralising that it is ‘rational’, that it gives “reasons for its judgements and prohibitions”, that nothing it says “has to be taken on on faith”, is to attempt the impossible.

© Nicholas Everitt 1993

Moral Literacy: Or How To Do The Right Thing by Colin McGinn. Published by Duckworth. £6.99 in paperback.

Nicholas Everitt lectures in philosophy at the University of East Anglia.


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