Philosophical Notes: He who `puts his hands over his ears'

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The Independent Culture
SURPRISINGLY LARGE numbers of people seem able to proclaim, counsel, insist on, various forms of lofty indifference to the refugee situation in Albania. But then, others are able, not merely to turn their backs on such a spectacle, but, on the contrary, to revel in it. It is the many, the "ordinary" people, who are there watching and celebrating as the militias carry out their grim ritual of "cleansing" the towns and villages.

Amongst the ranks of the cheering crowds, alongside the ignorant, the easily led and the uneducated, you will find the intellectuals. Academic philosophers were midwives at the rebirth of Serbian nationalism and eager supporters of the Bosnian war. It is now the detailed strategies of the late Professor Cubrilovic of Belgrade University, of "brute force" and deniable atrocity, that are the hidden hand guiding the destruction.

For, although it is true you will never find a philosopher with their hands stained with blood, you will find many on the sidelines puffing vigorously with the bellows of philosophical theory at the flames, decrying other people's notions of pity and compassion in favour of some abstraction or other. So it is now with the philosophers of Serbia. So it was with the early Fascists, reared not just on promises of power and position, but also on Giovanni Gentile's "neo-Hegelian" metaphysical notions of "identity".

Take Nietzsche, for example. Amongst philosophers, Nietzsche is celebrated for ridiculing the notion of "the good", seeing in it common cause made with "everything weak, sick, ill-constituted, suffering from itself, all that which ought to perish" - the "law of selection" crossed. Nietzsche's intention, declaring himself the "first immoralist", was to "revalue" all values, starting with the unmasking of Christianity and literally making "good" "bad". His task, although never completed, offered a picture the Superman, or "Ubermensch", who "transcends" history. Untrammelled by notions of "justice" or "pity", he is bound by no law other than that of his own desire.

So, in the radio programme The Moral Maze the other week, the hired sophists harangued their audience with arguments purporting to prove that any distinction between "good" and "evil" was at most subjective and unreliable, and, at worst, plain nonsense.

But let us accept, for a moment, that some people are evil, or at least do evil things. Then, either people are inherently evil, or they are basically good but something in the world is corrupting them. Mencius, the idealistic Confucian philosopher, held the latter view, as did Plato, who therefore made education the keystone of his philosophy.

Saintly experts, such as Augustine, saw human life as essentially a rather unpleasant sort of moral trial, with the unpleasantness a necessary part of achieving saintliness. Augustine even believed, rather negatively for modern taste, that mankind was a "mass of corruption and sin proceeding inevitably towards death". And, to make matters worse, when we reach our inevitable destination, most of us are predestined to rot in hell rather than go to heaven.

At least, for the French romantics, in the untutored heart of "l'homme sauvage" is already the central humanising characteristic: pity, and concern for others. It is there because it is there in the animals too. Rousseau notes that horses avoid trampling living creatures for similar reasons, and that no animal ever passes "the corpse of a creature of its own species without distress". Rousseau tells us that, even if it were true that pity is "no more than a feeling that puts us in the place of the sufferer", it is still the natural sentiment that ultimately allows the preservation of the species.

It is only the philosopher, who "puts his hands over his ears and argues a little with himself" whilst another is murdered outside their window.

Martin Cohen is the editor of `The Philosopher'