Blindness and the moral life

In Stoic Pragmatism John Lachs mentions my two favorite William James essays: “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” Both were included in part 2 of Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals [Gberg] (1899). Can’t let pass the opportunity to remark on them.

If you don’t agree with me, don’t see the world just as I see it, you must be blind.

That’s the ancestral blindness we all inherit and must struggle to resist, according to William James in his 1898 essay On a Certain Blindness in Human BeingsHe said it was his favorite too. Our myopia stems in large part from our literal neglect of the visible and natural world. “We grow stone-blind and insensible…”

We of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

Is there a cure? Yes: simplify.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level… The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and, could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life.

The “savage” practitioners of native wisdom have much to teach us (as we learned in “Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom” last year).

Another great James essay is “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891). I’ve been quoting it recently, in connection with the “Atheism & Philosophy” course I’ll be doing again next year, and in connection with the recent TPA keynote by Robert Kane. It says it takes only two of us to constitute a moral republic. Our desires make a presumptive claim on the world of our peers, as nothing else can.

…we have learned what the words “good,” “bad,” and “obligation” severally mean. They mean no absolute natures, independent of personal support. They are objects of feeling and desire, which have no foothold or anchorage in Being, apart from the existence of actually living minds.

MPML concludes:

The ethical philosopher, therefore, whenever he ventures to say which course of action is the best, is on no essentially different level from the common man.  ”See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; therefore choose life that thou and thy seed may live”–

James’s language may have taken a turn for the scriptural here, but his ultimate message in this essay is solidly secular, earth-bound, and common-sensical. This is not from the Good Book, or any good book, but from real life itself.

When this challenge comes to us, it is simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial… and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life.  From this unsparing practical ordeal no professor’s lectures and no array of books can save us.

This is James’s anti-intellectualism rearing its tangible head. “Dumb” is not stupid:

The solving word, for the learned and the unlearned man alike, lies in the last resort in the dumb willingnesses and unwillingnesses of their interior characters, and nowhere else.  It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy hear, that thou mayest do it.

In other words: no one is coming, from heaven or abroad, to relieve any of us of our personal responsibility to choose as wisely and generously as we can. We need to be kind and compassionate and good, and to act accordingly, because that’s the right thing to do. We need to open our eyes and see the real people, with their real desires and real lives, with whom we share this real world.

Addendum. And what about the real animals, and all the other forms of life who live here too? Neither James  nor Lachs nor I would deny that sentient beings of every species merit kindness and compassion. All would also probably agree with Sara, who said in her final presentation yesterday that so-called “animal whisperers” may be extraordinarily good at interpreting non-verbal signals but they’re no telepaths. My dogs are plenty clever (though not so clever as Hans), they react predictably to words like “treat” and “walk,” but they and their kind have not crashed the communications barrier that separates symbolic and purposive thought from mere conditioned behavior. But, that’s no excuse for humans ever to be blind to their needs or to abuse their trust. Peter Singer was right about that.


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