Narrow Channels and Navigators

Tuesday October 12, 2010

Those of you who have read my philosophy book, may be interested to read the following couple of contrasting reviews online. The first is by David Chapman, on his Approaching Aro blog – which I should have linked to ages ago – and the second by my old friend Robert Ellis on his website moralobjectivity.net. Both Robert and David will be familiar to regular visitors over here on thinkBuddha.org.

It would take a long time to respond to many of the questions raised by these two reviews. But let me point to what I think is a central question that arises in both of them, and that is the question of whether ethics can, ultimately, be made fully coherent (one of Robert’s objections to the book is that the thinking in it does not entirely cohere, which is probably true, although which I’m not sure this worries me nearly as much as it worries Robert). For those who haven’t read Sea-Legs – and if you haven’t, now is the time to – the argument hinges around three things – questions of ethical certainty, the nature of experience, and storytelling – and I use stories of a vast and shoreless sea as a way of thinking through what it may be to live without ever reaching such certainty or such complete coherence.

As a counterbalance to some of the stories I tell, at the end of his review Robert provides a nicely honed counter-fable, in which three characters with the names of Siddhartha, Christopher (Hitchens, one imagines – although I’m not sure what he is doing on board) and Benedict (the Pope? There are some might strange navigators in this part of the ocean…), all afloat on their own little ships, seem – contrary to the stories that I tell in the book, and perhaps contrary to their own expectations – to come across dry land. Poor old Christopher and Benedict end up dashed on the rocks, although for rather different reasons. “Siddhartha rejected both the naïve faith of Benedict and the negative scepticism of Christopher,” Robert writes, “thinking them both narrow-minded.” The story proceeds in the following fashion,

Siddhartha, on the other hand, concluded that although he was not certain of the real existence of the land after all this time, he should provisionally assume its existence, and avoid the dangers that his senses informed him of. The only way he could find out more about the land was to make landfall, and the only way to do this was to dare the narrow channel. Carefully navigating his way through and avoiding the rocks on either side, he seemed to get closer to the safe landing place.
 
However, at that point Siddhartha vanished from the ocean of stories. Nobody knows for sure if he ever safely reached the land, for no confirmed reports have reached us.

In his review, Robert suggests that I should be open to the possibility of finding dry land, the possibility that we might be able to secure this ethical certainty. Although I’m not sure that this story – which ends with this plaintive “no confirmed reports” – really gives me confidence in this possibility, nor am I sure that the only alternative to narrow-mindedness is the navigation of an even narrower channel, fringed with dangers on all sides, nevertheless, it is a fair point that we cannot be sure that there is no dry land. But one of the curious things about Robert’s fable is that it seems to depend, as far as I can see, on the implicit idea that the dry land is really there, even though it claims to be open to the possibility that it is not there.

My aim in the book was not to entirely rule out dry land, but to say that even if we never attain to the certainty that we often seem to crave (or, more dangerously, to claim for ourselves), we might do well to find ways of navigating, or of getting along. Making landfall, in other words, is not a requirement for agreement, if we are aware of the provisionality of the ways that we think and talk about ethics. So I’m not nearly as sceptical of provisional kinds of moral agreement as Robert suggests. And whilst we can’t wait for the philosophers to fully agree before we attempt to tackle the daily ethical perplexities with which we are faced, even whilst disagreeing, the philosophers may be able to help us out to our benefit, if we carry out our discussions in the right kind of spirit.

In his review David writes as follows, “there are multiple ethical systems built into our brains, and they are only loosely coordinated. Ethics is not a single thing, and therefore cannot be made entirely coherent.” I tend to agree. But I don’t think that this means that we are without hope – and certainly this is not what David is saying. We are, very often (and unlike Benedict, Christopher and Siddhartha), all in the same boat, and a crew needs some degree of unity and agreement to be able to steer at all. Only we don’t need quite as much agreement as the philosophers have sometimes claimed. Narrow channel or no narrow channel, if I had to choose between Robert’s three boats, in the interests of a smooth passage and self-preserveration, I know which one I’d decide to go for.

 
# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will,
Thanks for this response to my review. The main thing I’d want to take up here is this sentence:

“But one of the curious things about Robert’s fable is that it seems to depend, as far as I can see, on the implicit idea that the dry land is really there, even though it claims to be open to the possibility that it is not there.”

I don’t see why my fable depends on the idea that the dry land is really there. It depends on the idea that the dry land seems to be there, and on the idea that we should respond urgently to what seems to be there, with as much provisionality as is compatible with the situation. However, there is an important distinction between that and the idea that the dry land is really there (or that it is not there). This may seem subtle and or/quibbling, but it seems very important to me, because the implications of a provisional belief based on experience involve less certainty, less reliance on faith, and less dogmatism than a metaphysical belief either way.

However, as I’m sure you’ll be aware, fables have their limits as means of conveying philosophical points. The Middle Way in the fable seems to be between two pieces of dangerous dry land, but it might be more accurate to depict it as lying between dry land on the one hand, and the equally dangerous absence of dry land on the other.

# · Will

I can see what you are saying Robert – it is certainly not quibbling – but I’m not sure about two things. Firstly, as I read it, the story does seem to suggest a kind of leaning towards the idea that there is some kind of dry land there; but secondly, even if it only suggests that there seems to be such a thing, I’m not sure about this ‘seeming’. Is this seeming simply rooted in the force of long habit?

I like your idea of a middle way between dry land and liquidity and think that this is also a fair point. But it does conjure up images of swampiness. Here, of course, we reach one of those limits where perhaps the kind of story that we are telling doesn’t really help. Who, after all, wants to spend their life in a swamp…?

# · Robert Ellis

Will wrote
“Firstly, as I read it, the story does seem to suggest a kind of leaning towards the idea that there is some kind of dry land there”

What I’m consciously trying to do is find a point of balance. It may be that from your over-oceanic position (as I see it) that such a point looks over-landish.

“secondly, even if it only suggests that there seems to be such a thing, I’m not sure about this ‘seeming’. Is this seeming simply rooted in the force of long habit?”

I would say experience rather than habit. I may be in the habit of thinking about moral objectivity, but it also continues to surprise me. From your book my impression is that it surprises you too – like the man in Darjeeling. There seems to be a moral demand in such situations, even if we are not in the habit of facing up to it, or we’re not sure precisely what it is. I’m suggesting that we should regard such experiences as a glass half-full, pointing us in the direction of a non-metaphysical moral objectivity, rather than as a glass half-empty which merely reminds us of a lack of ultimate certainty about it.

# · anonymouse

I think the idea/s behind you book are excellent. In my experience needing/desiring closure/certainty is a intellectual trap. Who cares if there is dry land that we will dock our vessel to? Free floating in the universe is much more interesting than coming to false conclusions, of which all conclusions are of course. :) If one were to practice the Buddhist way of living with an open and therefore free and uncluttered mind, there would be no need for endings/closure/dry land/certainty. There is just life. It is and will remain a complete unsolvable grand mystery. I applaud your courage to to drift on the high seas with no hope of reaching land!

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