Sunday, February 10, 2008

Whewell Revived

I was interested in the following, seen at Bede's Journal:

In an excellent recent article for the New York Times, Steven Pinker outlined current research into the evolutionary origin of morality. He explains how researchers have shown that morality can been categorised into five universal headings: fairness, purity, authority, harm and community. Translated into language that we all understand, these five categories mean: do unto others as you would have done to you; do not commit adultery; honour your father and mother; do no murder; and do not covet your neighbour’s ox. Although there are huge variations in morals in different societies, Pinker is convincing that all fit into these categories.


One of the things that struck me was that this is actually fairly similar to Whewell's view of moral order. Whewell holds that all our moral tendencies and conceptions tend to converge on an 'ideal center', the character of the good man, which is characterized by what he calls the five cardinal virtues: benevolence, justice, truth, purity, and order. And there seems to be at least a rough correspondence between the moral universals described by Whewell and those described by Pinker as the result of recent research:

Fairness : Justice
Purity : Purity
Authority : Order
Harm(lessness) : Benevolence
Community : Truth

The last correspondence may not be immediately obvious, but it becomes more clear from Whewell's discussions of the Virtue of Truth, in which Truth is always a social and communal virtue, necessary because it makes community possible (it establishes a "Common Understanding" without which community relations are impossible) and allows the development of law and social interaction.

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