Spurred by his lifelong interest in and study of philosophy, BA member Josiah Van Vliet recently committed himself to the work of developing a secular ethics toolkit, in the form of workshops, essays, heuristics, and mnemonics devised for adult and youth audiences. On Thursday, October 4th, he accepted an invitation from the Humanists of Boston University to present his first workshop dealing with these subjects.
Speaking to an audience of about twenty participants, Josiah began by referencing a noteworthy principle that Enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot found in the writings of Horace: "Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulce," 'Supreme merit to him who combines the agreeable with the useful'. Josiah's challenge to us was to figure out how the two concepts of "agreeable" (or, pleasurable) and "useful" can substitute for the somewhat more problematic concept of "ethical" when dealing with questions of moral goodness. In other words, when we're asked why we think it is true that something is morally good, we might answer by explaining that something is morally good if it brings about an increase in both pleasure and usefulness. A neat sleight-of-hand, this trick, since it changes the terms of moral consideration from "good vs. bad" (which as concepts are opaque, subjective, and private) to "useful vs. impeding" and "pleasurable vs. painful" -- terms that much more transparent, and negotiable, than the usual vocabulary of ethical value.
Josiah spent 20 minutes laying out his rubric (see the video of his talk appears above), and then broke the audience into groups that were assigned the task of figuring out whether his example scenarios -- e.g., a mother who for the sake of his son's health denies him candy, though it makes him miserable to go without! -- would fall into one of four quadrants: useful and pleasant, useful and painful, impeding and pleasant, and impeding and painful. The conversation in our group (and for all I could tell, in each of the groups) was probing, engaged, and fun.
If last night's workshop is representative of what we can expect in the other two sessions to take place this year, and of the ambition of Josiah's larger project, we have a lot to look forward to.
To learn more about his work with secular ethics, visit Josiah's blog at metabelief.blogspot.com.