Uncovering Our Blind Spots

Bill Cooke

Philosophy for a Better World, by Floris van den Berg (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61614-503-3) 293 pp. Paperback, $23.00.

Floris van den Berg is a man to watch. He’s from a new generation of humanist thinkers and activists; he’s someone who can help attract younger people to secular humanism. He has been associated with the Center for Inquiry for about ten years, serving until recently as head of the Center for Inquiry–Low Countries. He’s a lecturer in environmental philosophy at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

An established author in Dutch, this is Van den Berg’s first major publishing venture in Eng­lish. In many ways, Philosophy for a Better World is not an ideal title for this work, which is much more urgent and practical than this rather sanguine title suggests. The subtitle is much more informative. It announces the work as a “new approach to practical ethics that can diminish suffering, improve our lives, and increase happiness, health and sustainability.”

Much as there is to admire in this book, I stumbled a bit at the start because of some claims that seemed to run up against each other. Early on, for instance, Van den Berg calls himself an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” while later on he concedes that talking about Enlightenment fundamentalism makes no sense. Even if one ignores this problem, labelling oneself in such an unpleasant way is a gift to our detractors. It also helps explain why the book has, in Van den Berg’s own words, a “preachy tone.”

Elsewhere, Van den Berg declares that the traditional preoccupations of philosophy count for little in the face of the environmental challenges we are presented with. But that doesn’t stop him from using a lot of these traditional philosophical categories and methods to make his case—a case he insists is driven solely by the logic of his argument. One nostrum central to his argument is the question: Can animals suffer? Originally asked by Jeremy Bentham and expanded on by Peter Singer, Van den Berg sets this question as the foundation stone for an aggressive eco-humanism and veganism. Given how central this idea is to the rest of his book, it would have been better if Van den Berg had supported it a bit more. As it is, he is content simply to assume its moral priority. But he seems to conflate the capacity to feel pain with the capacity to suffer. All living things can feel pain, but suffering is a higher-order response to that pain that requires some capacity for reflection, recall, and comparison. On this scale, some animals—chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, and elephants come to mind—can suffer. But it is unclear to me how much further that list could be extended.

The main philosophical tool that Van den Berg employs is what he calls “universal subjectivism”—a device he’s adapted from John Rawls and Singer. Imagine a scenario in which you can devise a society of the future; the only catch is that you cannot know in advance what place in this society you will have. So, given that you may well end up at the low end of the social hierarchy, how then would you want society to be constructed? Using this device, Van den Berg argues for a humanist, liberal, inclusive society, one that gives us the best chance of surviving the daunting challenges the twenty-first century is going to throw at us. In fact, his great contribution comes at this point. As a passionate vegan, he wants to alert us to a massive blind spot most of us have. What grounds do we have to treat animals as we do when we expound so eloquently about human rights? Why should our concerns end with the human species? Van den Berg is unforgiving. As omnivores, he accuses us of behaving unethically. That’s a difficult place to find oneself. The book ends with an eco-humanist manifesto and a series of practical steps we can take to change our lives for the better.

Whether or not one agrees with all of his premises or follows him all the way through his arguments, Philosophy for a Better World is very much the sort of book we all need to be reading right now. So many books claim to challenge us in some way or other. This one actually does. I felt quite uncomfortable about aspects of how I live my life after reading this book, and I was forced to reflect on my practices and priorities. This is a good place for humanists to be if we are to take our humanism seriously. No, I didn’t agree with all of it, and some of the premises seemed shaky. But I am glad I read Philosophy for a Better World and feel more deeply committed to the humanist outlook, while at the same time I am more aware of its moral blind spots.

Bill Cooke is director of international programs for the Center for Inquiry and author of A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought Since the Enlightenment (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011).

Bill Cooke

Bill Cooke is a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a historian of atheism and humanism. He holds a PhD in religious studies and teaches philosophy and religious studies in Warrington, United Kingdom.

A review of Philosophy for a Better World, by Floris van den Berg.

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