Beyond Paralysis: Radical Hope for Morality in a Cynical Age
Professor Emeritus English UBC
Wednesday, March 13 at 4 pm,
UBC Mathematics Building, Room 100
Three quarters of a century after the publication of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, moral relativism remains the approach to ethics that dominates the public square. The reductionist (even nihilist) approach to morality and other things that give meaning to human life also continues to shape what our children are taught in school. In the face of this ongoing dominance, it’s imperative that we reassert a case for moral realism and cultivate hope for an ethics transcending a mere exercise of power.
Dennis Danielson (PhD Stanford) is Professor Emeritus and former Head of English at the University of British Columbia. His interests have ranged across literature, religion, the history of science, and ethics. He is a past recipient of UBC’s Killam Prize for research in the humanities, and of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Konrad Adenauer Research Award. His articles have appeared in Mind, Milton Studies, Nature, American Journal of Physics, Journal for the History of Astronomy, and Scientific American. His books include Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy(1982), The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking(2000), The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution(2006),Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution(2014), and, most recently, The Tao of Right and Wrong: Rediscovering Humanity’s Moral Foundations(2018).
On his recent book, The Tao of Right and Wrong:
“Dennis Danielson’s message in The Tao of Right and Wrong needs to be urgently heeded. … This book should be on every teacher’s reading list.”
—Margaret Somerville, Professor of Bioethics, University of Notre Dame Australia
“The Tao of Right and Wrongis a remarkably compressed and equally lucid exposition of the truths that really count. … The debate in which this book engages is, in the full sense of the term, a fundamental one.”
—Rex Murphy, Commentator for The National Post and formerly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
“Dennis Danielson marks the 75thanniversary of C.S. Lewis’s classic work The Abolition of Manby updating it for our present situation and applying it to current concerns in a skilful and thought-provoking way. Timely, deft, impressive.”
—Michael Ward, University of Oxford, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis; author, Planet Narnia.
Written in the tradition of The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis’s classic work on moral philosophy celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2018, The Tao of Right and Wrong addresses questions such as what is just? What is right? What is wrong? What purposes, and what virtues, are worth pursuing? And most importantly, how can we weigh answers to these questions without lapsing into, “That’s only your opinion”?
In The Tao of Right and Wrong, Dennis Danielson offers a vigorous primer on moral realism, asserting that humans can and should exercise ethical judgments—and that these judgments are not reducible to subjective opinion, animal instinct, or cultural “construction.” The book is a twenty-first century call for the virtuous cultivation of “humans with hearts,” for a rejection of moral nihilism, and for a life-affirming embrace of moral realism founded in the Tao—the transcultural fund of ultimate postulates that form the very ground of moral judgment, codes of ethics, and standards of right and wrong.
The point is not that animal behaviours have no relevance to our understanding of human nature, but rather that we require a standard of judgment above and beyond that offered by bare biology as a guide to what is morally permissible, advantageous, or obligatory. (39)
The very fabric of our lives is teleological–purpose-driven–in ways that far transcend the disseminating of our genes (though perhaps that is part of it). Therefore, a failure to account for that strong sense and experience of purpose, of goal-directedness, of moral worthwhileness, is a serious failure indeed. It points decisively to a limitation of science as naturalistically conceived and practical….So the inability of naturalistic science to account for the “goods and shoulds” of human moral life might accordingly be treated less as a failure than as blameless omission–a mere innocent incapacity to achieve something that was never part of its competence or job description in the first place. (58, 59)
[Human rights codes] embody, or should embody, or at least reflect, a vision of what it means for human beings to flourish, to fulfill their potential, to cultivate their gifts, to pursue good purposes, to live lives of meaning and justice….Rights codes by themselves, however, are inadequate as a moral foundation….They are no substitute for the cultivation of virtue. (63, 75)
What assumptions are you making about the nature and purpose of human beings, about what constitutes the good life? How does your moral framework promote virtues of beneficence and magnanimity? How does it cultivate human happiness? (76)
Other Scholarship on Moral Realism
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self; A Secular Age; The Language Animal.
Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue; Three Versions of Moral Inquiry
R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge.
Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: a Defense.
Miraslov Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.
Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good.
Dennis Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World..
David Brooks, The Road to Character.
Glenn Tinder Atlantic Monthly 1989 article “Can We Be Good Without God?” which morphed into his book The Political Meaning of Christianity.