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“Conservative” philosophy.

“Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions”.

David Hume.

“Reason is the slave of the passions” might be interpreted as a cry of despair – a position that human beings could not control themselves, and are the slaves of urges (either instinctive from our biological evolution, or from environmental experiences – the pointless “nature v nurture” debate,  pointless because there is no room for real human choices, for humans to actually be “beings”, either way). Just because something is a cry of despair does not mean it is not true – human agency (free will) might be an “illusion” (although who is having the illusion if there are no agents, no beings, no “reasoning I”, no MINDS to have the illusion?).

But reason OUGHT to be the slave of the passions?

So if, for example, a man has a passion to rape and murder women (before there is a comeback – I fully accept that David Hume was personally the mildest of men), not only will he be unable to resist this passion, but that he OUGHT not to resist it? That the thing he OUGHT to do is to use his reason (reason defined as no more than a problem solving ability – no different from a computer) to work out the best way to rape and murder women without getting caught.


“Because it is inevitable Paul – because reason is the slave of the passions…..”.

But is that not an “ought from an is” – of which David Hume is not supposed to approve?

Whatever this Humeian doctrine is, it is not “conservative”, it does not represent either the mainstream of Judiao-Christian tradition or the tradition of the mainstream classical world (including the athiest parts of that tradition that are athiest – such as the philosphy of Epicurus).

Yet David Hume is often called a “conservative” inspite of the intense radicalism of the above. This would have astonished even friends of his – such as Edmund Burke (an example of how two people can be friends without either one accepting the other’s philosophy).

The conservative position in philosophy was (then as now) represented by Artistotelianism (please not “Aristotelianism” does not mean “everything Aristotle said”) – although also by the “Scottish” or “Common Sense” School.

What was that?

Well it was the following positions…

That the material universe is real – that it exists independently of our mind’s perception of it.

That the mind also exists, that is not an “illusion” (who is having the illusion if the mind does not exist?).

And that right and wrong, good and evil (I am not going to go into the technical differences between “the right” and “the good” here) exist – they are not just whatever we want them to be. NOT just “boo and cheer words” as the “Logical Positivists” (great admirers of David Hume) were later to put it.

Sound familar at all?

It should – because these three things are also the foundations of Aristelianism (in all its forms – from Thomistic Christian to Randian athiest). It could be argued that the “Scottish School” simply stripped these concepts of Scholastic language (and thus with associations with the Roman Catholic Church).

However, strict Calivinists were quick to claim that the Common Sense school “sat man in judgment of God” so that if (for example) God ordered people to rape, rob and murder this was NOT automatically right just because God ordered it (like mainstream Islam, strict Calvinism DEFINES good and evil by what God orders and forbids – there is no room for reason in fundemental judgement).

Be that as it may, the Common Sense “Scottish Philosophy” School (basically Artistotelianism presented in a Protestant form) contiuned in the United States till very late 19th century (with such people as Noah Porter of Yale and especially James McCosh of Princeton) then the “Pragmatists” (more on them later) and others took over.

Under different names the essential position of both Artistotelianism and the Common Sense school continued. For example, in England with the “Oxford Realists” – Cook Wilson, Harold Prichard (a favourate of mine) and Sir William David Ross (it is no accident that Ross was also a leading scholar of Aristotle – and there were many other students of Aristotelianism at Oxford in the period).

Such people had no great need of the Scottish School – after all they could look back to the Aristotelian tradition of Oxford itself (thanks to the Church of England never falling fully into the hand of strict Calivinists). Or, if they wished, the independent (but fundementally akin) philosophy of Ralph Cudworth of Cambridge (the great foe of Thomas Hobbes).

Cudworth being the chaplin of Parliament during the Civil War. A man who rather confuses historians (a problem they get round by ignoring him) by being chaplin to the side that often claimed to be “The Elect” (a term meaning the saved, the people who have been chosen by God to go to heaven – the term has a strong Calvinist-Augustinian implication that they were chosen before they were born, indeed at the begining of time) whilst also being the strongest FOE of the doctrine of predestination (the doctrine that people are chosen to go to be saved before they were born – and it is naught to do with that they CHOOSE to do) in the 17th century English speaking world. Of course some people of a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland – not Cumberland Presbyterian) background deny that predestination, even so called “double predestination”, implies determinism (the denial of human agency – i.e. that humans are “beings”), indeed James McCosh denied it (to do otherwise would have meant he had to break with the Presbyterian Church). But I have no intention of examining such a position – for the brutal reason that I hold it is not worth examining.

Anyway…. Certainly even in the 18th century English thinkers such as Josiah Tucker (Dean of Gloucester) did not need to run up to Scotland to find out what to think about theology, philosophy, or even economics (for true economics must be based upon the concept of the reasoning, the choosing, “I” – this Tucker understood just as Ludwig Von Mises understood it). They were perfectly capable of working these things out from first principles that are common to human mind – regardless of nationality, “race”, “class” or “historical period”. Kant (greatly influnenced by Hume of course) may have been wrong about many things – but he was not wrong about the universal nature of the human mind (as Ernst Cassirer showed in the 20th century – even a modern German philosopher does not have to submit to irationalism and absurdity, not if he CHOOSES not do so).

Of course there are pressures upon human beings. Biological pressures (for example it is difficult to think clearly if one is in terrible pain – or if one is born with brain damage) and environmental pressures.

For example, it would be difficult for a German philsopher (in certain periods) to come to nonabsurd conculsions – when their education carefully excluded nonabsurd writers (neither the various schools of Aritstotelianism or the “Scottish” Philosophy of Common Sense were much taught in Protestant Germany) – difficult but NOT impossible, as the already mentioned example of Ernst Cassirer shows. Cassirer was given the same education in Kantian philosophy as Shopenhauer or Nietzsche, but did not come to the same conclusions. Of course Nietzsche may be a tragedy – as, it is CLAIMED, we will never know how much the physical damage to his brain impared his thinking, much the same excuse is given to explain the rantings of Martin Luther in old age, his physical illness, it is claimed, may have disordered his mind.

EFFORTLESS agency is not given to human beings. We must make an effort (sometimes a very great effort) to overcome both our bilogical passions and environmental conditioning (even if it is not formal brainwashing – which in the case of much modern “education” it actually is). And sometimes, the effort is simply too great, but that does not mean it always is – that humans are always just flesh robots (not beings) with no choice in what they do and, therefore, no moral responsbility for what they do. The human mind (the reasoning “I”) does exist (contrary to Shopenhauer – our very self awareness PROVES it exists) – and we can free ourselves (to some extent) so that we can think and work out alternatives – and choose between them.

Now the “Pragmatists”.

William James was not the first of this school (that was Charles Pierce) nor was he the longest lived of its major figures (that was John Dewey – warning on him, he lived long and changed his opinions a lot), but William James was in his time the most influential Pragmatist.

And William James is often cited as a “conservative” philosopher – after all he “saved religion”, he was the most cited modern thinker in American pulpits (other than both Catholic and “fundementalist” Protestant pulpits -by the way the first “Fundementalists” did NOT reject biological evolution, it was only later when natural science became fused, in culture,  with false theology and philosophy, that many “fundementalists” made the tragic error of rejecting BOTH false philosphy/theology AND rejecting natural science).

But errrr…. .how did William James “save religion”?

When one cuts away all the double talk and evasion he “saved” relgion by denying the existance of objective truth.

If there is no such thing as objective true and false, then religion can not be objectively wrong (because nothing is), or (a slightly different dodge) there may be objectively right and wrong things in some matters (such as natural science), but not in matters of opinion (this is the position of the Logical Positivists – see above for them, or see CEM Joad “A Critique of Logical Positivism”, 1950, for why the doctrines of A.J. Ayer and co do not make sense – even in terms of natural science). This sort of thinking leads such modern philosphers such as John Gray (not a logical positivist, in case you are getting confused at the back there – or are you too busy looking out the window…) to mock the very idea that religion is about “truth claims” – how silly says this BBC “A Point of View” thinker – as William James showed……

Wiliam James neither believed in objective truth or objective right – as he put it “the right is just the expendient in our way of thinking”. So if people WANTED to believe in religion – that was fine.

Better, a thousand times better, honest athiesm than this sort of dishonest (and utterly vile) “defence” of religion.

The honest athiest tries to refute religion. But the William Jamesite (or the Logical Positivist for that matter) does not even take its claims seriously (no more than Shopenhauer did – or his “enemies” the Hegelians did).

How “simple minded” to treat a religion as making truth (objective truth) claims. As “intellectuals” we do not bother with such sillyness…. If religion is “true” it is “true” in a different sense……

A pox on all of this.

Anyway this way of thinking is treat religion (and athiest philosophical truth claims also) as “myths” – things to live by, but which have no objective truth.

This is to be seen in Sorel (directly influenced by William James) who invented “myths” in order to justify violence – as his belief (which is as valid, according to this way of thinking, as any other belief) was that violence was the only way that people could live worthwhile lives – so myths had to be invented to justify violence.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Mussolini loved the work of Sorel (as well as aspects of Nietzsche – and of Karl Marx when the bearded one responded to vast amounts of logical argument and empirical evidence against his theories, by attacking the very CONCEPTS of BOTH logical reasoning and empirical evidence).

What mattered was to give people a reason to live – and to expand and take POWER. It did not matter if the reason was true or not – because nothing was really true.

But it is not “just” the above.

Those useless “Christian theologians” (in America as much as Germany) who so disgusted Dietrich Bonhoeffer (leading him to use savage language against “the Church” – langague which is gleefully used by the very “modernists” who were, in fact, the target of it).

These people did not care that the National Socialists told lies about the Jews, because they (the “theologians”) no longer believed in objective truth anyway (and where there is no truth – there can be no lies). Besides the “religion” of the “theologians” (and the great bulk of people who followed them) had become (following Hegel and others) just philosophy – and false and empty philosophy at that. They no longer believed they were making objective truth claims – claims that were nothing to do with “race” or “class” or “historical period”.

Who is going to be prepared to die for the truth – if they do not believe there is any such thing as (real) “truth” anyway?

Risking one’s life was for suckers – people who believed the various “myths” created for them. Most of the ministers of religion in Germany would not even risk their incomes (for their pay came from the state) let alone their lives – and nothing in the “philosophy” or the “theology” they were taught told them they were doing anything wrong.

Of course there were the “saving remnant” who managed to free their minds from what they had been taught, and worked out (from first principles) what was right and what was wrong – how they must stand with the truth. But a small minority of good people (no matter how brave – even smashing into the heart of the enemy like Paladins of old) are unlikely to defeat a great majority of the wicked, or the INDIFFERENT. That is why education is important – not because it invents truth and right (it does neither), but because good education can help people (at least some people) stand with what is true and right, and false education can corrupt people (no apology for the use of the word “corrupt”).

This is not to say that the wicked are not responsible for their actions. Even some of the most wicked had moments when they understood what they doing (for example when a helpess child appealed for mercy just before they murdered the child), but they hardened their hearts with the aid of what they had been taught (false philosphy and relativist “myths”) and continued.

“This is all old news Paul”.

Is it?

The favourate philosopher of the Oslo mass murderer (I will not use his name – because he wished for his name to be famous) was William James, and for good reason.

If there is no objective truth than his claim that he was fighting a war (not killing the unarmed and helpless) can not be a false (because nothing is objectively true or false).

Also what he did can not be wrong (because there is no objective right and wrong) – so if it floats his boat, it is both “true” and “right” in the terms that William James and the Pragmatists (and so many others).

And, if David Hume is correct, then not only could the Oslo mass murderer not have done other than he did (because “reason is the slave of the passions” and he had a passion to kill people), but he OUGHT not to have done as he did – because reason OUGHT to be the slave of the passions.

If one has a passion to kill people the only role for reason (as with a computer rather than a human BEING) is to work out the best way to kill as many people as possible. And this is exactly what the Oslo mass murderer did.

Thus, from the point of view of modern philosophy (that revolt against Aristotelianism – against Common Sense) the Oslo murderer is on solid ground. No real point against him can be made.

However, if this revolt against old the traditions of human (of human agency) thought is what passes for “conservatism” then I want nothing to do with “conservatism”.

Just as if William James style religion is religion – then BUGGER RELIGION, better it perish from the Earth than be “defended” in such a vile way.

Human affairs are subject to certain laws – laws that do not deny human freedom (agency), but in fact include it.

Humans can not do anything they want to – we are constrained by the laws of the objective physical universe (if you deny this – try jumping to Mars, right now, just with the use of your physical body not with the aid of tools).

However, neither are humans just flesh robots whose every action is determined by genetics and/or environment. We do NOT have effortless agency (we are not Gods – we are subject to both biological and environmental pressures), but we do (to some extent) have agency (if we make the effort – sometimes a very great effort, and even with a very great effort we may still fail) – we are agents (beings), with some capacity to reason (truly reason) and to CHOOSE. Thus such words as “right and wrong” and “moral responsbility for your actions” are NOT empty and meaningless. Nor just a matter of “race”, “class” or “historical stage”.


My friend Antony Flew (sadly no longer with us) is often talked of in terms of religion – his opposition to it most of his life, and his move towards it in his last years.

However, this misses the point. The Antony Flew when he was an athiest was the same man as when he accepted God.

Antony Flew understood that the physical world was real – independent of our perceptions of it.

Antony Flew understood that our minds are real also – that the reasoning “I” actually exists (that agency is not an “illusion” – for, if the mind does not exist, who is having the “illusion”).

And Antony Flew understood that there really are such things as right and wrong, good and evil (again I am not going to get in a techical account of the differences between the right and the good – so if you demand such a technical account, please jump into the nearest lake).

Antony Flew is an example of how LITTLE difference religion makes in these three (fundementally connected) matters.

Religion, in the sense of Christianity, is a series of truth claims (notebly about the existance of God and who Jesus was – “but John G. says….” you know what you can do with that tosspot) it does NOT determine our response to the above.


  1. eb says:

    Good stuff Paul, tons of people I have never heard off but gives me some ideas of what to follow up.

    Regarding good and evil; I have thought for some time that there may not really be such things as “good” and “evil”. Two examples:- 1) honour killing, taboo in today’s western culture but still practiced in many parts of the world, and regarded as necessary in those parts. 2) A man kills his step-child through reckless abuse – evil; a lion takes over another lion’s pride and kills the cubs of his deposed predecessor, not good or evil, just natures way.

    It seems “good” and “evil” are just constructs within a society to enable it to function as best it can given its evolutionary predispositions and environmental imperatives. Can you give me some guidance here?

  2. Paul Marks says:

    “Honour” killing is evil.

    Indeed that is obvious from the name. If a person feels they have done something that is dishonourable (but is not a crime) they may feel that they have brought shame on themsleves and their family – and so kill themselves.

    But what you are talking about is when someone else kills them – for example a man (or, more normally, several males) killing a helpless female. That is not honourable, that is the work of COWARDS. The female is not even given a weapon to defend herself.

    There is no honour here. Just wickedness and cruelty.

    As for cultural relativism. Oh dear, how sad, never mind.

    As for a lion – are you saying a lion is a agent? Is there no distinction between being and non being?

    Good and evil “constructes within a society” – NO. They exist outside of any society – if two people (from different socieites) meet out in the wastelands what they do may be good (help each other), bad (aggress against each other) or neutral (pass by each other neither coperating or attacking). “Ah, but they have fomed a new society by meeting” (if you like – but it makes no difference).

    “to enable it to function as best it can” – NO. Sometimes doing the right thing may make society function less “smoothly” – but it makes no difference.

    When Joshua said to the Hebrews, God has commanded us to take Jericho and kill all the people there – bar the women who helped our spies.

    The just man must not do this deed – indeed he must stand against it, even if to do so means his own death.

    How does this help the “function” of his “society” – what the fuck has right and wrong got to do with the “function” of his “society”?

    The “cultural relativist” is a pig. The sort of person who will stand by while a women (who has done nothing) is dragged screaming to be burned alive – saying (if asked) “well, old boy, that is what they do in this part of the world – when a women’s husband dies”.

    Such a pig should not be given the respect they do not deserve.

    Whatever excuses a person gives themselves (“we have always done this” or whatvever) in the end they are just that – EXCUSES.

    It is like the absurdity of “utilitarianism” (the classic calculate the greatest happniess of the greatest number stuff – considering “utility” is not always the same thing as “utilitarianianism” but I am just going to deal with utilitarianism).

    When one considers a rape or a gang rape one does not “calculate” the pleasure of the rapist or of the rapists and compare them to the pain of the women.

    Such “plessure/pain calculation” has got nothing to do with the matter.

    Nor is the “functioning of society” relevant.

    A society may be based upon capturing women (and material plunder) raping them and selling them (to be raped more).

    That does not make rape not evil – because the “functioning of society” has not got anything to do with the matter (unless one means CIVIL society – for, of course, such actions are not civil).

    Lastly on “different parts of the world” or “different historical periods”.

    “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house”.

    Even a child can understand right and wrong – as this line from a “children’s story” shows (it is certainly not “above the heads” of the children who read it).

    I will not play games with an ADULT who is PRETENDING he can not tell right from wrong (good from evil) in order to play some silly relativist game.

  3. NickM says:

    Oh dear! Things can be cultural constructs and “honour” killings certainly are that but that doesn’t mean they are not utterly vile and wrong. The best comment on sutee I ever heard came from a British Army commander in India. He said you got your culture and we’ve got ours so build your fire and we’ll build our gibbet because that’s what we do with murderers. It worked. It outrages me that there are rape victims in Afghan prisons not least because not only are our troops dying and being maimed out there to keep the Khazi of Kabul on a nice little earner (and his nephew, and his brother-in-law, and presumably even Bungdit Din) but it emerged just recently at the Bonn conference that NATO pays 90% of the Afghan government’s bills. That will include a twelve year sentence for a woman who was raped (the Khazi has now pardoned her – how nice) but she may still be expected to marry her rapist. I travel quite a bit and I enjoy the cultural differences but… You know there is a hell of a difference between taking your shoes off to visit a mosque in Istanbul or the Spaniards having weird festivals or even the Maltese driving like slumming demons and that kind of scumbaggery.

    As to the lion eb. Well, living in Cheshire I don’t see many but I have a cat. A right sort he is too. He leaves presents in the bedroom. A dead vole – how thoughtful Timmy! Now try this. If I were to take small mammals into our bedroom and kill them for fun I think my wife would have words – probably via a solicitor – because that is grounds for divorce (unreasonable behaviour) but Timmy the cat does it because he’s a cat and that is what cats do. There is a difference. Of course there are societies without any reasonable levels or expectations of civilized behaviour but I am assuming eb you have no particular desire to move to Somalia any time soon.

    Or Afghanistan… You know what the straw that broke the camel’s back was there? This was the final act of warlordism that enabled the Taliban to rise to power (a frying pan / fire thing if ever there was). It was a duel between two warlords. Both wanted to bugger the same young boy so fought it out in Downtown Kabul with tanks! I suppose it’s their kultcha innit! But it isn’t even that. That’s certainly not a Muslim approach, or a socialist or libertarian or communist, Jain or Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Mormon or anything. It’s the morality of the Mad Max movies or absolutely none whatsoever.

    I have a thought experiment. Imagine we had a TARDIS and a bucket of icy water and we ambushed Schopenhauer on one of his strolls and drenched him. He might not believe in free-will but he’d be bloody annoyed as we ran off back to the time machine giggling like schoolgirls! I rest the case for agency. Schopenhauer would certainly feel peeved (and rightly so) and unlike my vague annoyance at the cat for doing what cats do he would, despite his philosophy, feel specifically angry at specific individuals who chose to do that to him. I mean this singular act of Tom and Jerryism is not exactly a high priority for me if I had a functional TARDIS. I honestly can’t say where and when I’d take a TARDIS first but that’s the point – choice. But given my taste I suspect Kill Devil Hills, NC, December 17th 1903 might just figure. Although that might be cruel. I mean Orv and Will had spent years and what little money they had on The Flyer and I’d be turning-up in a TARDIS – might look like boasting.

  4. Paul Marks says:


    Schopenhauer (as you know) was wonderful at resentment. He really worked at it.

    Somehow (I do not know how – but he would find a way) he would either invent or find a time machine – just so he could track us down and throw an even bigger bucket of icy water over us.

    And he would choose a cold day.

    Actually he is an interesting case.

    We have no free will – because our actions are determined by our characters.

    BUT we can choose what sort of characters we want (and develop them over time).

    Interesting position. Perhaps barmy – but interesting.

    Ditto there is no “moral law” – because Schopenhauer defined “law” as an instruction from someone (human or not) in power.

    But right and wrong (according to Schopenhauer) are not just whatever we say they are.

    You be cruel to Timmy and Schopenhauer would not be pleased (rather hostile to animal cruelty was our Arthur) and he would not say “in my opinion” either.

    So no “free will” – but we choose our characters (so we still have moral responsbility for our actions).

    And no “moral law” (but there is morality – not just “boo and cheer” stuff as the L.P.s were to claim).

    Crafty rascal.

  5. eb says:

    Thanks for the responses Paul and Nick.

    Constraints of job, and being on the other side of world make quick and detailed exchanges on this difficult for me.

    I’m no cultural relativist, some societies are clearly superior to others. My values are very similar to yours, that’s why I keep coming to this site.

    Paul said that even a child can understand right from wrong. Then how come some societies can still practice honour killing, if it is so obvious. From whence comes this understanding of good and evil? If we are atheists and have rejected the holy books, and “they (good and evil) exist outside of society”, where exactly?

    If I am alone on a desert island can I practice good or commit evil? Good and evil are things that only have a meaning in relationship to society or at least other individuals in that society, therefore they must be a societal construct. Granted, some formulations are better than others.

    Both of you distinguished the animals on the basis that humans have free will that the animals lack, even though on the face of it both acts are the same. The freedom to act is important, societies that constrain that freedom to act, not surprisingly, also seem to commit more acts of evil.

    Must go now. Thanks again for your indulgence.

  6. Paul Marks says:

    My aplologies for harshness in my previous comment.

    Why are some societies evil? Really that is the “problem of evil” (one of the big ones) and it is the same for individuals.

    Nor is our own society imune.

    When I was young there was still (more or less – with a few exceptions) freedom of speech in Britain – and now there is not.

    Why do I not stand up for free speech – far more than I do?

    Out of FEAR of course.

    Fear of being called a “racist” (and so on).

    There you have your answer to why people in other societies do not (for example) help a helpless girl – perhaps even kill her themsleves.

    Fear of not following the line – going with the flow.

    Deep down people in other cultures are no different from ourselves.

    I wish I could claim to be superior (to stand up for what is right against what “society”, i.e. the people with the prisons and big sticks, order as “right”), but I can not.

    So (on a fundemental level) I am no different from the person in the “third world” village (or whatever) who looks the other way when he sees a father (or brother) dragging a girl off to murder her.

    Remember that is all based on fear also – fear of what the village elders might do (or rather their young henchmen might do) and so on.

    “Where is morality”.

    Look in the mirror.

    Whether God exists or not – the knowledge of what is right and wrong is there right in you. Perhaps God put it there – or perhaps it is there without Him existing, but it is there.

    The question is do you (do I) have the courage to do what is right.

    Not rage (anyone can generate rage – for good or ill), but quite courage – to help the helpless, to do justice. It does not take much (much profound reasoning) to work out who is the aggressor and who is the victim in most situations.

    In fact it is normally “bleeding obvious” who is the violator and who is the victim – who is being robbed, raped or murdered. Or threatened.

    The question is will one stand with the victim – even if one does not like them?

    Even if one risks being called nasty things (and punished for being declared nasty things). Or being killed.

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