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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 177-180

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Book Review

How to Defend Humane Ideals: Substitutes for Objectivity

How to Defend Humane Ideals: Substitutes for Objectivity, by James R. Flynn; ix & 212 pp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, $40.00.

James Flynn's search for non-objective grounds for humane ideals opens with an admission that the author spent decades searching for an "ethical truth-test" by which to measure ideals. This truth-test would constitute a "higher court of appeals," a nonpartisan judgment of right and wrong that would grant objectivity to the winning belief. This is the stance of Socrates and Kant. What Flynn came to realize was that the truth-tests he sampled proved to be contradictory, easily exploited, and ineffectual in convincing people of the tests' warrant. For many this collapse of ethical truth leads to relativism, and a concomitant tolerance of the values of others, however repellant one finds them. This is the stance of the postmodernists, those dedicated to "building bonfires to celebrate the demise of the Enlightenment" (p. 181). But Flynn deems the anti-truth position just as contradictory and exploitable as the truth-test position. Instead, he proposes an intermediate stance, short of objective truth but more than relativist assertion, an outlook that takes the best of truth, beauty, diversity, perfectibility, utilitarianism, and justice and casts them in a relation of trade-off and compromise.

To reach this negotiation model of humaneness, Flynn must dispense with [End Page 177] three faulty beliefs. The first mistake is the objective one, that is, the reliance on ethical truth-tests (chapters 2-4). The problem lies in their grounding in "a theory of being that posits something beyond the physical universe . . . or that asserts that the physical universe contains something not revealed by science, such as the purposes of nature" (pp. 47-48). Plato has his Forms, Rousseau his nature, Moore his "moral goodness." The difficulty with these criteria is that, granted their existence, we know not how to apply them to human affairs. We may appeal to God to justify our actions, but in doing so "we tend to assume that God's overriding criterion of moral rectitude is similar to our own. The humane posit a benevolent God, the not so humane a stern God" (p. 72). In other words, such criteria beg the question of their use. Their transcendence of the world renders them eminently adaptable to various worldly designs, for example, when Kant reads into nature "whatever content he needs to get decisions in favor of his own principles" (p. 77).

When ethical truth-tests fail in their implementation, the temptation is to reject ethical grounds altogether. Flynn terms this the "nihilist fallacy," the notion that if there is no extra-human ground for ethics, no ethical truth-test, then no ethic is justified. Flynn counters that "Even in the absence of a truth-test, people may internalize ideals and be deeply committed to them" (p. 9). They believe in those ideals not because they think they are true, but because they think they are right. Only those who believe that ethical beliefs are an epistemological matter assume that ideals must be shored up by evidence and proven to be correct. It is ironic, Flynn notes, that it is anti-epistemologists like Nietzsche who make this argument, claiming that ethical believers fail a truth-test when in fact those believers are not interested in truth-testing at all.

The flip side of this nihilism is postmodernism, another ethical outlook Flynn rejects. Nihilists and postmodernists share an epistemological skepticism, treating putatively objective ideals as disguised power plays concocted to promote certain interests. They differ in how they direct that skepticism. For the Nietzschean nihilist, the interests are those of the herd and its institutions (like the Church), and so he counsels great geniuses to use lesser persons as means to their ends (pp. 127-33). For the postmodernist, the interests are those of the Western male, the naive empiricist, the imperialist, and so he counsels those privileged individuals to examine themselves...


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