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Kenan Malik - A BOOK IN PROGRESS [PART 17]: SCIENCE, NIHILISM & MORALITY | Pandaemonium - June 2012
This extract is from the section that unpacks Alex Rosenberg’s arguments about morality in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. -- For Mackie, cultural variations in moral norms provided evidence for the truth of nihilism. Rosenberg, on the other hand, finds that evidence in the lack of cultural variation in the most important values, in the existence of a core, shared morality. Leaving aside the question of whether nihilism itself is a plausible account of moral life, it is possible that both Mackie and Rosenberg are right about moral norms. It is not implausible that humans posses a small number of evolved, shared moral beliefs, surrounded by an ocean of culturally variable norms. -- The debate about the degree to which moral norms are shared across cultures and the extent to which they vary remains unresolved. A century ago the argument for cultural variation held sway. More recently the idea of an evolved set of cultural and moral universals found favour. There are signs now of a swing back in the pendulum; recent research has plausibly, if controversially, claimed that even traits that had seemed unquestionably evolved and universal – such as facial expressions, for instance, or language – may be far more culturally varied than once thought. Given this debate, Rosenberg is not giving a scientific account of how natural selection may have shaped our moral norms, but is rather telling a story, a story of the kind he is so dismissive about in histories, biographies, the humanities and literature, but one that is often less persuasive because he seems so cavalier with both fact and observation.
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