Often one is well served by a readiness to revise one’s view of other people’s work. I have since early on had a dismissive attitude to the philosophy of Simon Blackburn, partly due to his contribution to a meta-ethical conversation that I as a student found dreary, and partly due to his negative review of Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals – a book I continue to find important. Recently, however, I came across one of his ideas in a context outside philosophy – in a popular book by the Swedish historian Sverker Sörlin – and was forced to reconsider.
Sörlin’s book is about the ideal of education/formation (German Bildung, or Swedish bildning)) that is distinctive to the Swedish workers’ movements of the 20th century, and has contributed to consolidating Swedish democracy in times of rapid industrialization, urbanization, modernization and social change. His proposition is that the bottom-up, democratic learning practices and easy access to non-formal education of this tradition provide a strong antidote to the range of contemporary phenomena that have been labeled post-truth. This potential has to do with its respectful, egalitarian atmosphere of communal learning, where ethical and epistemic strivings come together.
This is where Blackburn comes in. In the first pages of his book Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics Blackburn introduces the notion of a “moral or ethical environment”. We all live in this kind of environment and it determines what we find valuable, worthy, admirable, how we treat others and what kind of treatment we are ready to accept, our emotional responses of guilt, shame, pride, anger, gratitude and forgiveness. It should be clear from this characterization that ethical environments are various, and that they are historically conditioned. People can thrive under very different ethical conditions just as they can live well in rather different natural and physical conditions. But just like our natural environment, our ethical environment can be spoiled or destroyed through our own actions. We can cause it to change in ways that make it uninhabitable for humans or make habitation increasingly difficult.
The analogy with our natural environment is brilliant in its pedagogical simplicity, because it brings forth the malleability of ethical forms of life, as well as their limits. Just like in the case of natural environments, we can debate and disagree over the significance of specific changes. Is local deforestation destroying the natural environment or just changing it? Is aggressive internet trolling damaging our moral environment or just changing it? We can all see that there are some points where change turns into destruction, and we can come together to vent our understanding of what is going on.
Sörlin borrows the idea of an ethical environment to talk about the current polarization of Western societies and to air a familiar concern about ongoing changes in moral standards.
For my own part, I find the idea helpful for my current work on the change of communal moral frameworks, norms, virtues, and values. It helps me to tune in to the dynamic relationship between universality and change in moral life. It does this in a way that seems equally useful for me as a moral philosopher, for the historian writing to a non-academic audience, the student reading up on relativism, the teacher dealing with cultural conflict among students, or the religious community renegotiating its dogmas due to internal and externa pressures.
It has this power because it works with an analogy which is easy to understand and easy to reflect upon for anyone sharing our contemporary everyday knowledge of threats to our natural environment. It is easy to apply to a variety of local ethical environments that may seem to be going awry. It invites attention to details and context, and mobilizes both casual and more specialized knowledge about these environments: kinds of knowledge that are not the prerogative of the moral philosopher.
Thus, Blackburn appears here, not just as another philosopher who writes about ethics to the public, but also a philosopher who seeks to help people to make use of their own complex and rich ethical knowledge and contextual understanding.
Simon Blackburn. 2003. Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sverker Sörlin. 2019. Till bildningens försvar : Den svåra konsten att veta tillsammans. Stockholm: Natur och kultur.