I see that the Philosophy and Popular Culture series has reached, as it must, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living through Chemistry [amazon].
I haven’t watched the show. I’m sure I will love it when I get around to it. Everyone does, apparently. (One has to ration one’s commitments to spend dozens of hours on any one thing.) But I really think they should have included, as a stand-alone piece in the book, a few lines from G. A. Cohen’s “Rescuing Conservatism” (which we’ve discussed before around here and is still available online in pdf draft form – click link for a link – but which was also published last year in an unfortunately overpriced form.)
When people say: “If you had cancer …,” one can sometimes reply: “Yes, of course, that might unbalance my judgment.” Making people imagine that they are in dire straits in order to cause them to agree with something is an attractive resort for those whose arguments are not (otherwise) strong.
A couple weeks ago I was asking my colleague, Neil – you know who you are, Neil! – what he was teaching, and he said ‘normative ethics’. And I said I was teaching ‘abnormative ethics’, namely, Wittgenstein. I tell my students: when Wittgenstein says ‘here one wants to say …’ and other things like that, it’s important to keep in mind that the ‘one’ in question was once a one who thought that ethics demanded that he do logic, in a trench, while being shelled by the Russians. He’s valuable to study, yes, but not because he was normal. (Yes, I realize that ‘normative ethics’ is not, officially, the study of ‘normal’ ethics. But, insofar as it is intuition-driven, there is some tension. Also: can’t you take a joke?)
You could separate works of ethics in two piles: those that say what Cohen says. You want balance. Those that say ethics is a matter of induced imbalance. Having unusual experiences that induce very abnormative intuitions about Life. Philosophy of crisis. There’s a lot of that, of course. I think most of it is philosophy of extreme experiences. Obviously you could just say: good old rationalism vs. irrationalism. But that’s not quite it. Who are the normative ethicists, and who the abnormative ethicists? Nietzsche, obviously.
What do you think of ‘if you had cancer …’? Is it just an invitation not to think straight? As Cohen says “There are all kinds of awful things that I would not otherwise dream of doing that I might do if …” Or is ethics properly all about all those things that you would not dream of doing unless [insert dire strait that induces odd intuition]?