MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
31. This paper is certainly an abortion, as Gareth Stedman Jones has said. The paper in fact has very little to do with moral and political philosophy, and only provides the student with a second dose of indoctrination in linguistic philosophy on top of the draught he has been given in the misnamed ‘General’ Philosophy paper.
32. A closer acquaintance with texts has been expected in this paper in recent years, though no authors are so well established as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. The 1968 Finals examinations had three of thirteen questions on authors, demanding acquaintance with Butler, Hume, Kant and Mill (no prizes for guessing what they have in common!) The other ten questions all ‘look’ linguistic, and demand to be answered as they would be in the pages of Mind (i.e. mindlessly – this opinion would have the support of no less a person that Wittgenstein himself. ) Two of them (Numbers 6 and 8) promiscuously imply by their wording that an acquaintance with the work of R. M. Hare (presently White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford) is looked for.
33. In his early book, The Language of Morals (1951) Hare writes, “Ethics, as I conceive it, is the logical study of the language of morals” (p.iii) – a view which, as Mary Warnock quite rightly says, “leads to the increasing triviality of the subject”. The triviality arises from divorcing ethical questions from their social context, and by the refusal explicitly to argue for an ethical principle – the universalisability rule. Unfortunately, he argues for this moral position without realising he is making a moral judgment rather than a logical distinction! Elsewhere, the offerings of moral philosophers in the analytic tradition express a complete moral abdication in the face of the immense moral problems facing the world. The Language of Morals is full of painstaking analysis of what constitutes a good car, a good egg, even good sewage-effluent. J. O. Urmson has graded apples for us; the late Professor J. L. Austin confessed to total moral bankruptcy: “I am very partial to ice cream, and a bombe is served divided into segments corresponding one to one with the persons at High Table: I am tempted to help myself to two segments and do so, thus succumbing to temptation … But do I lose control of myself? … Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” [NOTE: From the Presidential Address to the Aristotelian Society, 1956.]
34. What is needed instead of the forced digestion of the after-dinner concoctions of the declining gentry is a study of those writers who have put forward worked out ethical ideals, and who have discussed ethical questions of the sort which actually arise in the world, as opposed to at the High Table of an Oxford college, and in the context in which they arise. Sartre is essential reading for students in this respect, so are many novelists and theologians – e.g. Brecht and Kierkegaard.
35. If students were to read these authors who are deeply interested in moral questions, they would find the artificial division between moral and political philosophy collapsing. There have been critics of the linguistic technique as applied to politics, but five of the seven questions in the political philosophy section of the Moral and Political Philosophy paper in 1968 ‘look’ linguistic. Only two demand knowledge – of Hume and Mill (both bourgeois thinkers). For some time an attempt appears to have been made to distinguish political philosophy and political theory. The only difference appears to be provided by the strange idea that political philosophy is about theories of punishment. There is always a question on this, and most students are told to skip the political section in the paper, just doing some work on punishment to provide them with the necessary material for the one question which must be answered in this section. What a striking contrast to the idea that questions of political values should be central to PPE! It would be better (though not much) to replace this paper with the present Political Theory optional paper broadened to take into account writers more especially concerned with ethics, though ultimately I believe there is no hard distinction between ethical and political questions.
36. When confronted by something as grotesque as the paper just discussed, one’s first reaction is not to look for alternatives but to ask, with some amazement: what has gone wrong with a society which produces a University which produces such a course? Ernest Gellner, Herbert Marcuse and Perry Anderson are among those who have begun the search for the answer which we have a right to demand.