Can the convergence of skepticism and vision provide a response to the ‘anarchy of our moral and political practice and the spiritual disunity of our culture’? (Scialabba 1982)

In his astute comparison of publications by Kolakowski (1982), MacIntyre (1981) and Rorty (1982), George Scialabba (1982) finally conceded that the two weapons of criticism and vision may provide us with some crepuscular hope in spite of the ‘fragmentation of theoretical discourse’ which is mirrored in the ‘anarchy of our moral and political practice and the spiritual disunity of our culture’. Scialabba argued that both Kolakowski and MacIntyre, distinguished academic philosophers, although beleaguered and disillusioned, “remained determined to outface the end [. . .] with a valiant, quixotic faithfulness to professorial norms of civility and rationality. Let us go reasoning into that good night (Scialabba 1982).”

Modernity may be considered the joint accomplishment of skeptics and visionaries. The skeptics can be seen as clearing a space for the utopian imagination, for prophecies of a demystified community, of a solidarity without illusions. The skeptics weed, the visionaries water. Where the seed of generous, humane sympathy comes from is as obscure as where genius comes from. “We can’t make life,” wrote Lawrence. “We can but fight for the life that grows in us (Scialabba 1982).”

Reason cannot adequately prove or disprove the notions of God, freedom or immortality (Kant 1788 [2002]). The dilemma of modern moral philosophy resides in complex, conflicting points of view. The only way we could ground norms, values, or virtues in an external authority like God would be through individual investigation and free choice. Even those most devoted believers in God admit that He is unknowable and that He has given us the faculty of free will to choose to believe in Him or not. If norms, values, and virtues were entirely man-made, how can we escape relativism? Does knowledge or a belief in a worldview (deist, humanist, atheist, etc) make us behave in a more moral way? See also Johansson (1999).

Pragmatist Richard Rorty asks instead what we should do about such conflicting intuitions as those of Buddha, Lavoisier and Derrida? “To treat his opponent properly, the pragmatist must begin by admitting that the realistic intuitions in question are as deep and compelling as the realist says they are. [. . .] Should we extirpate them, or “find a vocabulary which does justice to them”, to transcend the differences in the East and West by “an attempt at commensuration, at a common vocabulary which isolates the common human essence?” (Rorty 1982b).”

Key words: Kant, Hume, moral philosophy, cognoscendi, essendi, Rorty, pragmaticism, Derrida, Alasdair MacIntyre, virtue, Plato,


1. “It would certainly be more satisfactory to our speculative reason if it could solve these problems for itself without this circuit and preserve the solution for practical use as a thing to be referred to, but in fact our faculty of speculation is not so well provided. Those who boast of such high knowledge ought not to keep it back, but to exhibit it publicly that it may be tested and appreciated. They want to prove: very good, let them prove; and the critical philosophy lays its arms at their feet as the victors. Quid statis? Nolint. Atqui licet esse beatis. As they then do not in fact choose to do so, probably because they cannot, we must take up these arms again in order to seek in the mortal use of reason, and to base on this, the notions of God, freedom, and immortality, the possibility of which speculation cannot adequately prove (Kant 1788 [2002]).”

“[…] To avoid having anyone imagine that there is an inconsistency when I say that freedom is the condition of the moral law and later assert that the moral law is the only condition under which freedom can be known, I will only remind the reader that, though freedom is certainly the ratio essendi of the moral law, the latter is the ratio cognoscendi of freedom. For had not the moral law already been distinctly thought in our reason, we would never have been justified in assuming anything like freedom, even though it is not self-contradictory. But if there were no freedom, the moral law would never have been encountered in us (Kant 1788 [2002]).” See also Johansson (1999) and Rorty (1982b) for differing interpretations of Kant.

Webliography and Bibliography

Johansson, Ingvar. 1999. “Hume, Kant and the Search for a Modern Moral Philosophy.” >> Ingvar Johansson Philosophy Home Site.

Johansson, Ingvar. 1999. “Hume, Kant and the Search for a Modern Moral Philosophy.” Danish journal Philosophia 27:3-4:5-43.

Kant, Immanuel. 1788 [2002]. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Abbott, Thomas Kingsmill. The Project Gutenberg EBook.

Kolakowski, Leszek. 1982. Religion: If there is No God. Oxford.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1981. After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame.

Rorty, Richard. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980. University of Minnesota Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1982b. “Introduction: Platonists, Positivists, and Pragmatists.” Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980. University of Minnesota Press.

Scialabba, George. 1982. Review of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A study in Moral Theory. Village Voice. March 19. >> GeorgeScialabba.Net

©© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Convergence of skepticism and vision.” >> Speechless. June 12.

©© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Convergence of skepticism and vision.” >> Google docs. June 12. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_278dbr99r

Le Devoir has invited authors to use the tools of philosophy to examine contentious current events. Montreal philosophy professor, Jean Laberge (2007), tackles missionary ecologists in the wake of UN report by invoking the work of the Scottish empiricist and Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1716-1776). Laberge based his argument on Hume’s meta-ethics, his is-ought problem.

Laberge (2007) questions the way in which Al Gore, the Pope in this fight against climate change, has turned the issue into a moral imperative. Laberge claims that according to Hume, the statement that global warming is bad is erroneous. It is a confusion between descriptive (is) and prescriptive (ought) statements. The planet is getting warmer. We cannot logically deduce from that, that humans ought to modify behaviour to diminish the impact of climate change. According to Hume’s anthropocentrism, the human faculty of reason serves human interest exclusively, not the environment. “For what does reason discover, when it pronounces any action vicious? Does it discover a relation or a matter of fact? (Hume 1739-40). Facts in themselves are value neutral. Logically, in order to decide whether something is good or bad, there must be a moral sensitivity upon which a judgment could be made. The ‘environment’ is not endowed with a moral sensitivity as humans are.

Logiquement, pour juger qu’une chose est bonne ou mauvaise, il doit y avoir une sensibilité morale à partir de laquelle un jugement de valeur peut être rendu. Or, au contraire de l’humain, l’«environnement» ne dispose pas d’une telle sensibilité morale (Laberge 2007).

In the socio-historical context in which Hume was writing he was concerned with distinguishing vulgar reasoning from true philosophy. He argued that there were four sciences: logic, morals, criticism, and politics. He claimed that morals do not result from logical reason and judgment but from tastes, sentiments, feelings and passions.

Hume distinguishes also between a vulgar [thinker who uses only common language] who proposes a system of morality and a true philosopher, between the thinking of a peasant and a true artisan. Vulgar reasoning shifts from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ imperceptibly without giving a proper explanation or producing evidence.

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time
that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason (Hume).”

Is Laberge suggesting that Gore is a vulgar thinker who has not provided enough evidence for his case? In the case of climate change the science is overwhelmingly clear.

And humans do have the moral sensitivities which are the basis for making ethical decisions. We also have reason and scientific tools that provide us with experience-based evidence that informs our moral choices. Even Hume describes a political will, a social covenant in which citizens consult and agree upon a common ‘moral’ action.  We are not conscious of most of our mundane, everyday moral choices. Failing to protect forests or watersheds is a moral choice. A couple of decades ago most of us were insensitive to the moral nature of our actions that were destructive to ecosystems. In complex ecological issues where so many political, economics, geography, social and cultural interests converge, we consider ethical dimensions. Science can provide tools for measuring forest regeneration and efficient technologies for implementation. But science itself is not invested with moral sensitivity. It is only through human moral sensitivities that value judgments can be made in regards to unintended risks or side effects. Once science has provided evidence of shared, heightened risks we move from mere truth claims to moral justification for action or inaction.


Keywords: Hume, philosophy, epistemology, ecology, is-ought, meta-ethics,


Markie, Peter. 2004. “Rationalism vs. Empiricism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hume, David. 1739-40. “Footnote 13.”Treatise of Human Nature.

Laberge, Jean. 2007. “Le devoir de philo: le scepticisme de Hume contre les écolos.” Le Devoir. 19 mai.