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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst MarriageAgainst Moral 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Taking NamesDebating ProcreationDebating Same-Sex MarriageDecision Making, Personhood and DementiaDecoding the Ethics CodeDefining DifferenceDefining Right and Wrong in Brain ScienceDefining the Beginning and End of LifeDelusions of GenderDementiaDemocracy in What State?Demons of the Modern WorldDescriptions and PrescriptionsDesert and VirtueDesire, Practical Reason, and the GoodDestructive Trends in Mental HealthDeveloping the VirtuesDid My Neurons Make Me Do It?Difference and IdentityDigital HemlockDigital SoulDignityDignityDisability BioethicsDisability, Difference, DiscriminationDiscrimination against the Mentally IllDisordered Personalities and CrimeDisorders of VolitionDisorientation and Moral LifeDivided Minds and Successive SelvesDoes Feminism Discriminate against Men?Does Torture Work?Double Standards in Medical Research in Developing CountriesDown GirlDrugs and JusticeDworkin and His CriticsDying in the Twenty-First CenturyEarly WarningEconomics and Youth ViolenceEmbodied 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UnconsciousEthics and the Metaphysics of MedicineEthics at the CinemaEthics at the End of LifeEthics Case Book of the American Psychoanalytic AssociationEthics Done RightEthics ExpertiseEthics for EveryoneEthics for PsychologistsEthics for the New MillenniumEthics in CyberspaceEthics in Everyday PlacesEthics in Health CareEthics In Health Services ManagementEthics in Mental Health ResearchEthics in PracticeEthics in PsychiatryEthics in PsychologyEthics in Psychotherapy and CounselingEthics of PsychiatryEthics without OntologyEthics, Culture, and PsychiatryEthics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about ChildrenEvaluating the Science and Ethics of Research on HumansEvilEvil GenesEvil in Modern ThoughtEvil in Modern ThoughtEvolution, Gender, and RapeEvolutionary Ethics and Contemporary BiologyEvolutionary Psychology and ViolenceEvolved MoralityExperiments in EthicsExploding the Gene MythExploiting ChildhoodFacing Human SufferingFact and ValueFacts and ValuesFaking ItFalse-Memory Creation in Children and AdultsFat ShameFatal FreedomFellow-Feeling and the Moral LifeFeminism and Its DiscontentsFeminist Ethics and Social and Political PhilosophyFeminist TheoryFinal ExamFirst Do No HarmFirst, Do No HarmFlashpointFlesh WoundsForced to CareForgivenessForgivenessForgiveness and LoveForgiveness and ReconciliationForgiveness and RetributionForgiveness is Really StrangeFoucault and the Government of DisabilityFoundational Issues in Human Brain MappingFoundations of Forensic Mental Health AssessmentFree WillFree Will And Moral ResponsibilityFree Will and Reactive AttitudesFree Will, Agency, and Meaning in LifeFree?Freedom and ValueFreedom vs. InterventionFriendshipFrom Darwin to HitlerFrom Disgust to HumanityFrom Enlightenment to ReceptivityFrom Morality to Mental HealthFrom Silence to VoiceFrom Valuing to ValueFrontiers of JusticeGender in the MirrorGenetic PoliticsGenetic ProspectsGenetic ProspectsGenetics of Original SinGenetics of Original SinGenocide's AftermathGetting 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ResponsibilityPC, M.D.Perfecting VirtuePersonal AutonomyPersonal Autonomy in SocietyPersonal Identity and EthicsPersonalities on the PlatePersonhood and Health CarePersons, Humanity, and the Definition of DeathPerspectives On Health And Human RightsPharmaceutical FreedomPharmacracyPharmageddonPhilosophy and This Actual WorldPhilosophy of BiologyPhilosophy of Technology: The Technological ConditionPhysician-Assisted DyingPicturing DisabilityPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying God?Playing God?Political EmotionsPornlandPowerful MedicinesPractical Autonomy and BioethicsPractical EthicsPractical Ethics for PsychologistsPractical RulesPragmatic BioethicsPragmatic BioethicsPragmatic NeuroethicsPraise and BlamePreferences and Well-BeingPrimates and PhilosophersPro-Life, Pro-ChoiceProcreation and ParenthoodProfits Before People?Progress in BioethicsProperty in the BodyProzac As a Way of LifeProzac on the CouchPsychiatric Aspects of Justification, Excuse and Mitigation in Anglo-American Criminal Law 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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
George Harris looks at the problem of the value of tragedy instrumentally, in terms of how an understanding of the tragic can improve our thought about the twenty-first century cultural, moral, political and religious horizon. That makes Reason's Grief a rather ambitious book. It spreads out in various directions. Reflections about A.C.Bradley, Schopenhauer and Hegel give way to deliberation about the education system, security and the 'war on terror'. In this respect, Reason's Grief is or at least tries to be, a bit like MacIntyre's After Virtue and Fukuyama's End of History. A divided readership may accordingly be anticipated. Those who lack a fondness for the open range may not make it from cover to cover.
The central thesis is fairly straightforward. We need a tragic sense of how things stand in the world, a sense of the unavoidability and finality of loss. Harris uses this as an adequacy condition to show that various viewpoints fail to give us what we need. The kind of viewpoint that we do need turns out to be (in important respects) familiar. We need an appreciation that values are plural (that there is no single ultimate good), that values can and often do conflict, that they can be incomparable (incommensurable) and may leave us with no criteria to resolve conflicts one way rather than another, and that nothing is of unqualified value.
Harris wants a paradigm shift to this standpoint. But, with the possible exception of the last claim, most of what he argues for could be found in almost any book on virtue ethics. What does give Harris some additional edge is the (important, deep) claim that we are not just vulnerable to loss, but rather that it is inseparable from human valuing. But again, this isn't at all a new claim (it sounds a bit like Schopenhauer) although I suspect that the author would classify the latter as responding with despair and not grief. For Harris the inescapability of harm is part of the sense in which life is to be understood in tragic terms. Everybody loses in the end. But this does not mean that the bad hopelessly outweighs the good. We must grieve for loss but not despair at the triumph of that which is bad.
This theme of accepting vulnerability and loss while avoiding despair is hardly new but Harris works with it quite well. (It is one of the strongest features of this book, along with the emphasis upon the finitude of humanity as a whole.) However, this is a work with some significant problems. There is something of a tension between Harris's denial that anything is of unqualified value and his stress upon the irredeemable loss that life involves. After all, if nothing is all that important then the significance of its loss must thereby be diminished. If we are nothing much to begin with, then grief (of whatever sort) seems uncalled for.
Here, I suspect that Harris's terminology is a little misleading. By claiming that nothing is of unqualified value, he may means that there is nothing that cannot be traded off for something else. But these two claims don't strike me as being at all the same. To say that nothing is beyond sacrifice is only to say that nothing is absolutely sacred. And this is a commitment that any secular culture may have to accept. (Harris is big on the need for a paradigm shift to a secular culture.)
His conception of what is valuable is also understood in terms that strike me as very un-tragic, unless one has conception of tragedy which focuses upon the importance of dilemmas, or occasions of tragic choice. This is a very modern appreciation of the tragic, more to do with Sartre's Flies and Anhouil's Antigone than it is to do with Sophocles or Aeschylus. Given that there is such a thing as fate in ancient tragedy, there is a clear sense in which tragic agents deliberate are torn and causally involved in outcomes but they are not in any modern sense free choosers. (And this is the kind of appreciation of the limits of choice that we find in other, comparable, works on the significance of the tragic, for example Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity.)
Be that as it may, tragic choice is linked by Harris to grief of a particular sort, the sort that is a response to loss that we cannot rationalize and give rational justification for. 'Where incomparability obtains between options of great importance that are in conflict but where choice must be made, there arises a new tragic thought: that what is lost, no matter what we do, cannot be compared to what is gained in any of the options. This is reason's grief, the outer limit of rational choice.'
Here, I wonder about a core intuition that is at work in Harris: if we have to choose between x and y and we happen to value both in terms that cannot be compared then I am inclined to think that either choice is just as rational, and not reason in some way looses its way or that it is suddenly unable to console us. Our rational consolation here is precisely that we have not sacrificed something of comparable and greater value but have shouldered the burden of decision making. (And that is clearly a rational consolation of sorts.) What Harris seems to grieve about is, more narrowly, the absence of any rational decision procedure that will always yield the same results in identical situations and that we can use to look back on decisions and reflect that we have not only chosen but have made the right choice.
Why we should want such a retrospectively-consoling procedure is never made clear. That Harris does seem to want one might be used to argue that his talk of a paradigm shift to a new standpoint is misplaced. That is to say, the predicament that he views as tragic may only strike the reader as genuinely tragic if they share some fairly traditional expectations about what rational justification can and cannot deliver.
© 2007 Tony Milligan
Tony Milligan is a Teaching Fellow with the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. His doctoral research focused upon Iris Murdoch and his current research interests are in ethics and the emotions.
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