Roger Scruton, Roger Crisp, Pollution, and Modernity in Moral Philosophy (I)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/04/2020 - 11:31pm in

When considering Greek tragedy we observe two striking facts: first, that the tragic fault is seen as a pollution, by which others might be contaminated should it not be purged or purified; second, that the situations portrayed arouse the deepest feelings in us, without our really knowing why. Those facts did not escape the notice of Freud, of course, and he gave a contentious explanation of them. In the Greek tragedy we witness the residue of an older form of moral thinking, an archaeological stratum beneath the realm of personal choice. This older form of thinking, which anthropologists, following Mary Douglas, have called the “ethic of pollution and taboo,” sees moral faults as arising as much by contagion as by deed. It emphasizes purity and purification in sexual and familial relations; and it punishes people not by holding them liable for their actions and opening a path to contrition and forgiveness but by casting them out from the community and readmitting them only if some act of purification has changed their status. One might say that the tragic theater takes us into the hunter-gatherer cave, where things long hidden in darkness are briefly revealed, as though by a flash of lightning. The play is an exorcism, arousing fearful spirits, making them briefly visible, and then expelling them in a mystic act of purification. This revisiting of ancient terrors is a part of overcoming them, and it has its equivalent in our own tragic art, as well as our religious rituals.--Roger Scruton (2017) On Human Nature, Chapter 3, 87-88.

In my blogging, I have been unrelentingly critical of Scruton qua public philosopher. But I had never engaged with any of his books, so I figured a Pandemic would be as good a time as any to survey them independently. But a certain weariness made me opt for the shortest one I could find in my local bookshop. On Human Nature offers plenty of grounds of more criticism (not least its insidious way -- because allowing plausible deniability -- of sneaking in homophobia on p. 119), but today's post will bracket polemics. Rather, I want to use Scruton as a kind of useful exemplar of a philosophical mindset that presupposes successful moral progress associated with modernity. I use him because (i) in many ways he is a critic of modernity -- there is a reason conservatives of various stripes eulogized him so favorably --, and (ii) he is willing to use the language of pollution in his own theorizing (see, especially, chapter 4 of On Human Nature). But my diagnosis of Scruton also applies in crucial ways to philosophers that, at first blush, share very little in common with him (such as Roger Crisp). If you are the kind of philosopher whose response to experiencing Oedipus Rex is, 'I don't get the fuss, he was innocent,' I am probably also talking of you. 

Scruton treats examples of the 'ethic of pollution' even when displayed on the for us ancient, Athenian stage as a kind of prehistoric relic, "an archaeological stratum beneath the realm of personal choice." If I were a scholar of Scruton, I would be tempted to explore how Nietzschean Scruton's reading here is, with a society characterized by  law-governed, Apollonian sensibilities, being made to confront and then jointly excise a collective unconscious rooted in our breeding evolutionary history.

I am going to leave that aside. I  stipulate, by contrast, that modernity (and its cognates) itself presupposes a contrast between (a) the extended present, which is characterized by disenchantment and law-governed practices of moral accountability based on choice and (b) a distant past that involves ethic/practices centered on purity/pollution by way of contagion; (c) in which (a) has largely overcome or displaced (b). My account of modernity decouples it from a particular epoch although often people who understand themselves in light of a conception of modernity often think of it as having occurred once.  

In the sense that I am using 'modernity' here, Scruton is unabashedly modern, although unlike most moderns his views are compatible with the thought that different historical epochs instantiate modernity and that modernity may need or require elements of the pre-moderns to be worth endorsing. The more frequent position is that signs of pre-modern thought are disqualifying or grounds of debunking. Here's Roger Crisp commenting (also in 2017) on the piacular form of agent regret:

Could it really be that the nature of our current sentiments depends on the content of moralities far in the past? In fact, it is hard to see how it could not. Patterns of sentiment once established are, as Williams himself notes, hard, perhaps impossible, to uproot, and this certainly appears to have been the case with those in the western tradition involving pollution. As Mary Douglas pointed out long ago, St Paul’s attempt to characterize the Mosaic law as part of the  ‘old dispensation’ and similar moves within the early Church were unable to override the view, strongly supported by sentiment, that bodily states were relevant to ritual. Douglas focuses in particular on the idea of pollution by blood, noting that even the current Roman ritual for purification of a mother probably derives from the kind of Judaic practice outlined above (Douglas 2002, pp. 75–6).
   [Adam] Smith’s view, then, is that the apologies and assistance offered to the family of a person one has unintentionally and non-negligently killed are the modern analogue of an animal sacrifice....The special relation in question [of agent-regret] is most plausibly seen as involving a secularized version of the notion of ritual uncleanliness and pollution. And if we accept this account of the origin of our sense of the piacular in such cases, I take it that many would see it as providing the basis for a debunking argument credible enough at least to put the onus of justification on the defenders of the result-sensitive sentiments in these cases. Roger Crisp, (2017) "Moral Luck and Equality of Moral Opportunity," Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, Volume 91, p. 13

I happen to disagree with Crisp's analysis of moral luck (he cites one of my papers somewhat dismissively in a note). And, full disclosure, this post is in some sense motivated by a desire to give a kind of counter-diagnosis to his attempt to burden shift. Here I just want to call attention to the way characteristic features of modernity are on display (leaving aside the grip of Mary Douglas and Bernard Williams on Scruton and Crisp). But rather than treating the ethic of pollution as shaped by earlier stage of civilization (hunter-gathering) as Scruton does, it is now treated as a remnant of the Mosaic law. To put this with the aim of being clever: in Crisp's hands, St. Paul and the early Church try to be modern but fail, whereas the "many" today are confident in their modernity.

Now, people who exhibit modernity in the way I have diagnosed always take its existence for granted, as something obvious. They never treat it as a hypothesis worth establishing. (By contrast, I think modernity in this sense is a kind of ideology.) That's peculiar because it is possible that the ethics of pollution/purity track genuine moral phenomena or features of moral phenomenology.  

As an aside, and to signal what I am claiming, from a metaphysical point of view moral pollution/purity is less weird than, say, a personal god or  property dualism, and on par with (more controversially) the existence of persons and human rights. While, perhaps, a personal god has not survived modernity, the others have flourished just fine. Moral pollution/purity track genuine relations between people and their effects (and the causes on people) and the way people relate to the norms of the community they inhabit. 

The claim of the previous paragraph needs to be established by argument. That's for another time. But modernity would be wrong (or an ideology) if the elimination of purity/pollution means not tracking real relations. And then if modernity were true, it would be impoverished. 

That modernity, while true, is impoverished is, in fact, Scruton's position (but not Crisp's). He wants to claim that inter alia "piety, pollution, and the sacred are necessary to us." He goes on to say, "Without transgressing the ontological assumptions of liberal contractarianism, I want to restore the complete picture of the embodied moral agent, as we know this from the literature, art, and religion of our civilization." (133; one wonders who is included in 'our' here.)

Now, this post is quite long already. So, let me take stock. One can reject modernity either by denying (a), (b) or (c). Or one can show that modernity has a function in practice and thought that is, in a sense, not truth conducive (because, say, being ideological). So, in a series of pandemic-era posts, I am going to argue that we, who are reminded of the significance of contagion,  may never be modern.