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Lippmann’s Core of Morality

I’m currently reading Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions. It’s extremely interesting so far. Sowell’s thesis (that many of the major conflicts in modern politics are conflicts regarding human nature) is interesting and well-articulated. So far, though, the single most interesting bit of the book has been the quote that Sowell uses to lead off the second chapter:

“At the core of every moral code, there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of human history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.”  – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

Setting aside for a moment some of the metaphysical questions raised about morality-as-such by Lippmann’s assertion, I think that his model of morality is a pretty accurate one, at least in so far as it applies to moral reasoning by individuals. People’s views of people, the world at large, and the story of history do seem to be the three pillars on which their moralities rest.  I think there are a few other pieces of the puzzle, but all of the ones that I can think of can pretty easily be reduced to a special case of one or more of Lippmann’s three points.  (E.g. I think you could say that hopes for and predictions of the future feature heavily into moral reasoning.  But that could easily be framed as just trying to predict or direct the next act in the story that history has told us thus far.)

It’s an interesting formulation, and one that I’m not totally done mulling over. I just wanted to throw it up here, largely to see if any of my (brilliant, erudite, charming) readers have commentary or objections to the idea. Any thoughts or comments?

Posted in Philosophy.


One Response

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  1. Citizen Jane says

    The passage you share goes right to the heart of the issue of morality: Does it depend on circumstances, or is there some universal basis for morality?

    My reason and experience lead me to believe the latter: that with the advent of sentient beings, an evolution of sorts occurred that includes what we call “morality”: the issue of whether our actions add to or subtract from the fear and misery–or, conversely, the growth, comfort, and joy–inherent in living.

    The philosopher and paleontologist Teillard de Chardin had a word for this new dimension of reality, which includes consciousness and responsibility: the “noosphere.” (Teillardian that I am, I often wonder what he would have had to say about cyberspace!)