Monday, September 26, 2011

Catherine Macaulay on sympathy, reason and virtue

To: Connie T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Catharine Macaulay on sympathy, reason and virtue
Date: 11 February 2005 11:47

Dear Connie,

Thank you for your two emails of 3 February, with your latest essays on Catharine Macaulay, 'Sympathy, Reason and the Public Voice: Catharine Macaulay's Concept of Virtue', and 'An Education To Achieve Virtue'.

I read the two pieces with great pleasure. You have put a lot of work into these and it shows. This time I really feel that I know what Macaulay was about. I can appreciate the philosophical significance of her ideas on moral education.

However, you are looking for criticism, not praise. Yes, there is still room for improvement. I don't mean further polishing up, but rather thinking through the idea of an innate capacity for 'reason' which can be used well or misused; a capacity which can be cultivated with appropriate education, destroyed by inappropriate education.

I very much liked your treatment of benevolence and sympathy in the first essay. Then when you went on to discuss reason, I felt I was beginning to get a bit lost. Something seemed to be missing.

Again, in the second essay, there was a lot of talk about reason but its role seemed to be more negative than positive, enabling the student to resist the public voice and think and feel for themselves. Then, right at the end, you quote from Iris Murdoch (the word 'little' is not a word most moral philosophers would use about this important work), as if in recognition of the missing element - the vision of the Good.

For Macaulay, reason has nothing to do with a Kantian 'categorical imperative' as you note in your first essay. It is reason in service of the emotions, or, perhaps better, 'rational feeling' or 'intelligent feeling'. There is a philosophical point to be made here about the false split between reason and emotion in the tradition from Plato through Kant. A lot has been written about this: I don't have a particular reference in mind, but this is something you can follow up for yourself. (I am not saying that you need to add a philosophical discussion of reason and emotion to either of your essays: but maybe a footnote to show that you are aware of the issue.)

As you yourself seem to be aware, education for Macaulay seems to be very much along the lines of Humean association of ideas, countering the false, morally harmful associations with true and morally beneficent ones. The objection is not just that this process depends upon finding good teachers (which you acknowledge) but also that the whole notion seems in danger of circularity. One could imagine an 'anti-Macaulay' from twin earth putting exactly the same argument for training young people to resist the public voice which teaches the false doctrine of equality of the sexes!

What is missing? Not just the capacity to think clearly and rationally. If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it has shown just what havoc can be wrought by human beings and their capacity for 'reason'.

For Macaulay (reading between the lines of your essays) reason and rationality is not just the ability to avoid fallacies of follow an argument. (Assume the Germans are the master race and everything follows.) On the contrary, enlightened reason IS the capacity for moral vision.

It is moral vision which is suppressed by the public voice; the ability to *see what is there for what it is* - the suffering of the fox, for example.

Iris Murdoch, in the bit that you quote, is talking about our ability to be moved by exemplars of the Good - for example, the actions of a Mother Theresa or a Ghandi (but also 'great' works of art, literature, philosophy).

The idea here is Platonic. In Plato, the more we are aware of, able to 'recollect' the Good, the Beautiful, the True, the greater our capacity to recognize, and realize these concepts in the world of material things - the greater our capacity for moral vision.

Moral vision takes many forms. An example of moral vision would be the ability to 'read' a complex situation like a book and realize what has to be done. Or the ability to notice the small things, the tell-tale sign. Or the unwavering belief in an ideal which inspires the saint or the hero.

I would not be at all surprised if you found references to these ideas in Macaulay's writings. At any rate, the idea of moral vision seems to be the missing link which ties everything together.

As they stand, I like both pieces of work very much. Both are publishable (which is, I am sure, your intention). I would be very happy for versions (possibly a little shorter) of either of these to appear in the Philosophy Pathways e-journal, provided of course that this doesn't prevent you from getting them accepted elsewhere.

All the best,

Geoffrey