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November 14, 2004

Man's Moral Predicament: Pope's Essay on Man, Posner on Liberal Education

Continuing my series of quotes from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (here and here and here and there) is the first lines of Epistle 2:

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

I certainly feel that way. The last two lines might be appropriate for my project on God concealing Himself. They also remind me of a conversation at Lily's First Birthday Party last night. We were discussing whether finding utilitarian reasons for ethical behavior was a worthwhile project, or whether it was better to take our gut moral feelings as reliable signs of what is moral and give up on explaining them more basically (all in the context of natural law rather than divine). One point I raised was a reason that someone-- I think Richard Posner-- gave for why we should not expect a liberal education to make people behave better. The uneducated person knows of no moral code expect what his parents taught him, and hence often faces a choice between behaving morally or behaving immorally. The educated person can pick and choose among moral theories, and has learned to rationalize and argue to himself very well, and so can always find a moral reason for whatever foul thing it is he wishes to do.

Posted by erasmuse at November 14, 2004 07:28 PM

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