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The Best Philosophy Books of 2017

recommended by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy
by Nigel Warburton


How should we live our lives? How can we best help others? What is the meaning of religious belief? The philosopher Nigel Warburton introduces us to some of the best philosophy books published in 2017.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy
by Nigel Warburton


How has 2017 been as a year for philosophy books?

2016 was a good year, but in 2017 there have been even more excellent books published in philosophy—or books that I would consider philosophy—and many of them are accessible to the general reader. There’s an interesting question about where you draw the line between philosophy and other subjects, which will come out in some of the choices I’ve made.

So I’ve agonised a bit. I realise I missed some books last year when I did this. I was probably unaware of just how much had been published. For instance, there was one book that came out in 2016 that I read this year by John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story. It’s a beautiful book about discovering a library of pragmatist philosophers by chance in New Hampshire. It’s partly autobiographical, but it’s also about some of the great pragmatist thinkers. It’s very nicely done, and I wish I’d known about that, but I somehow missed it.

It would have been on your 2016 list?

It would have been a major contender for the list. And I suspect there are others this year that I’ve missed that are excellent books. There is no way I could read all the philosophy books that come out, so this is only my personal choice, focussed on books accessible to a general reader.

So diving straight into your 2017 selections. First on your list you’ve got a historical book, The Infidel and the Professor, about David Hume and Adam Smith. Why are you excited about this book?

I love Hume as a writer. He had a fascinating life that is pretty well documented considering he lived in the 18th century—probably because he was a prolific letter writer and many of his letters have survived. The odd thing about this book is that it’s about the friendship between Hume and Adam Smith of which there isn’t that much surviving evidence, in terms of letters. Smith was keen to destroy lots of personal writing, unfinished drafts and all kinds of manuscripts—and it was done pretty efficiently.

So this book is largely a speculative reconstruction based on published books and the little that is known about their friendship, which lasted for 25 years. Hume was 12 years older than Adam Smith, and something of a hero of his.

Apparently, Smith first read David Hume’s Treatise when he was a student at Balliol in Oxford. The authorities confiscated it, because it was too seditious. The reason was Hume’s ‘irreligion,’ his antipathy towards religion—what we would probably now call his atheism.

Some people claim that Hume was merely an agnostic, to be consistent with his philosophy: he was a mitigated sceptic. He didn’t think that there was absolute proof that God didn’t exist, though the balance of evidence was clearly against it. But, actually, in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he tears apart most of the classic arguments for God’s existence, so it’s pretty clear that Hume, if he wasn’t an atheist, was so close to it that we would probably call him one.

Interestingly Adam Smith, as he emerges from this book, probably shared many of Hume’s anti-religious beliefs, but kept much, much quieter about it. As a result, he was able to become a professor at Glasgow University—a professor of logic. Hume survived much of his life as a professional writer—of essays and history as well as philosophy, although he did have some ambassadorial posts too. He couldn’t get an academic position because of his known antipathy to religion.

This book is a really interesting, highly readable discussion of the friendship between the two. They met from time to time and read each other’s work. Glasgow and Edinburgh seem close together now, but it was a 13-hour journey in the 18th century. One of the places they met was at the Select Society in Edinburgh, which was a discussion group that attracted many of the great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.

“Adam Smith, as he emerges from this book, probably shared many of Hume’s anti-religious beliefs, but kept much, much quieter about it”

One period that was particularly significant in their friendship was the period when Hume was obviously dying. There was a lot of interest in how Hume would exit. James Boswell visited him on his deathbed as well—and tried to convert him to Christianity.

Apparently Hume, although in pain, was not worried at all about his own death, not fearing damnation or anything like that, and even cracked jokes about it. Adam Smith wrote a letter in which he said, “Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour, and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things than any whining Christian ever died with pretended resignation to the will of God.”

Hume actually wrote a very short autobiography, quite a big puff for his own life, called My Own Life, which is also reprinted in the book. That was printed and circulated, and it was accompanied by a short letter from Smith, which ends with:

“Upon the whole, I have always considered him [David Hume], both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” Adam Smith coming out publicly and very strongly in defence of Hume’s virtuous character was a very provocative act in the context of the religious orthodoxy of the day.

The other thing that’s really important to realise is that although today Hume is thought of as a philosopher and Smith as an economist, Hume’s economical thinking had a big influence on Adam Smith, and Adam Smith’s first book—The Theory of the Moral Sentiments—is largely what we would consider moral and political philosophy. Hume also became very well known as a historian.

The categories weren’t as clearly delineated. There wasn’t a concept of an economist, and so they were really in the same business, these two.

I always find that a bit confusing. Early economists are philosophers and then there are natural philosophers as well, who are looking at what we would call science…

Who were also an influence on Hume through Locke, particularly, but also through Robert Boyle. As a philosopher, Hume was an empiricist—so he’s very sympathetic to the idea that the way to find out about things is to do the experiments, and the way to understand things is through observation and the senses.

So it was an era when philosophy encompassed science and economics as well. Philosophy was a broader subject, basically?

In the 18th century, that was certainly true. But there is a parallel broadening out of intellectual activity in the 21st century. These days you can’t be a serious philosopher of mind without knowing quite a lot about contemporary neuroscience. There is also a big blur between philosophy, economics and psychology in the area of behavioural economics. And there are many other areas where there are overlaps. The lines aren’t so clearly drawn anymore.

The second of my choices is a book about religion. There’s a theological interest in religion and arguments for the existence of God that’s traditionally been part of philosophy, but anthropology and psychology also come into it. You can’t be too protectionist about a subject like philosophy. It thrives on interesting input from science, from literature, from the arts, from sociology and anthropology, from neuroscience. It’s not a pure subject.

So let’s talk about that book next. It’s Tim Crane’s The Meaning of Belief. As a non-philosopher, this is what I imagine philosophy to be. It’s not about revealing interesting facts or new information—but a thoughtful analysis of an existing body of knowledge. From that point of view alone, I found it very interesting.

Tim Crane is best known for his writing on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. In this book, he’s using his philosophical skills in an area that he’s not written on before. It partly came out of a talk he gave a few years ago in which he was unsympathetic to New Atheism. In the book he’s arguing against what people like Richard Dawkins in particular—but also Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens— have written about religion. He’s saying that they have mischaracterized religion and set up a kind of straw man.

In Crane’s view, the target of most New Atheism is religion as cosmology plus morality—saying stuff about the nature of the universe and where it all came from and telling you what you should do. The morality is supposed to derive from the cosmology: there is an all-powerful God, who did various things at various points depending on the religion, and that led to certain sorts of often very prescriptive rules about how you should live.

Tim says that although those elements are present within many religions, the New Atheists’ description misses the core of what religion is usually about. For him, the religious impulse is a combination of a sense of community—a joining up with other people in religious practice, performing certain rituals, treating certain places and ideas as sacred, in a tradition with a long history—combined with a notion of the transcendent, a sense that there are things beyond what’s visible or discoverable through science. Added to that is the possibility that we can’t understand exactly what’s going on: religion recognises the limits of the human mind in relation to the mind of God. So, if you’re looking for absolute proof that certain things have happened, or will happen, many religious people don’t believe those proofs are out there in a straightforward way.

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As a result, the dialogue that’s gone on between hardline New Atheists and those who practise religion has often been at cross-purposes. They’re not really discussing the same thing.

So what Tim’s trying to do, as an atheist himself—he doesn’t believe that God exists, or that this is the best explanation of how things are—is to give a sympathetic understanding of what the New Atheists have missed about religion.

He points out a couple of times, I think, that the world population is around seven billion, of which six billion subscribe to one religion or other. So even if you’re a committed atheist, from a practical point of view, you’ll have to find a way of living with religious people.

He’s very interesting on toleration, and what that might entail. He gives the example of another philosopher, Simon Blackburn, agonising about whether he should cover his head at a Jewish ceremony or not. Tim clearly thinks, as a matter of politeness, that he should. There’s an interesting question about whether, by not doing it you are undermining the possibility of demonstrating sympathy towards other people, regardless of their religion. It’s a respect for other people’s autonomy. It’s difficult, because there is a prescriptive element when you are in the presence of people who are highly religious. Tim is grappling with that.

What I like about the book is that he’s not dogmatic. He’s thinking things through and allows the possibility of you disagreeing. I do disagree with him about lots of things in the book. I think, for instance, that he’s overplayed the practical and performative elements of religion: there are certainly a large number of religious people who go hammer and tongs on the cosmological story and really believe there is scientific proof for it and that moral conclusions about, for example, abortion and suicide, can be derived from this. I am also more swayed than Tim is by the argument that religions are directly or indirectly responsible for much suffering in the world.

But the book is stimulating, it’s a nice, short, easy read and it’s something new. This is the kind of philosophy that makes you think again. Whether or not you agree with him, he’s saying, ‘Here’s another way of looking at this.’ And it’s informed by sociology and anthropology in a way that David Hume’s writing was. It’s a good book about a topic that affects us all, religious, agnostic and atheist alike.

I like his description of himself as a ‘pessimistic atheist.’ I do sympathize. We really wish we believed in God and it was all that simple but, unfortunately, we can’t. I also noticed that he dedicated the book to his parents, and, reading between the lines, decided his parents must be religious, while he’s not—which must be very painful.

Sometimes the autobiographical elements that fuel a book can intrude too much, but I think he’s got a nice balance. He’s using what he knows from having been a religious believer around believers to stimulate him to think more deeply about what the nature of religion is and what matters about it to the people who practise it.

I’m afraid, though, that I’m more with the New Atheists. I think we’re still at the stage where polemicism is needed.

It depends what you want the outcome to be. There are lots of debates set up in completely antagonistic ways where the people on the stage are completely polarised and there are two clear factions in the audience. No argument, nothing that could possibly come up in those debates is going to change anybody’s opinion. This book is an attempt to help such people understand each other differently.

While I am sympathetic to many of the arguments of New Atheism, I do think some of its spokespeople can be incredibly rude. They stand up and speak as if the people they’re saying it to will suddenly see the light and renounce their religion. I suspect that’s comparatively rare, that very few people convert to atheism suddenly after hearing an argument from a New Atheist. This book is more subtle than that, and I think it allows for a different kind of debate.

OK, we’re now onto two books which may offer some tips on how to live our lives on a daily basis. Number three on your list is Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright.

Robert Wright is probably best known for a book called The Moral Animal. He’s an excellent writer—sceptical, very intelligent and with a background in evolutionary psychology as well as the history of religion. He looks at Buddhism from his own western, secular perspective and from his practical experience of meditating, going on retreats, and so on.

He’s written this book—which is a combination of evolutionary psychology, philosophy, regular psychology, anecdotes and autobiography—defending the view that a non-religious and naturalised Buddhism captures something essential about the human condition.

‘Naturalised Buddhism’ is removing from Buddhism the idea that we will be reincarnated and some of the metaphysics about the ultimate nature of the universe. He’s arguing that there is something that is profound that remains when you subtract some of these more exotic elements. You can also remove the tendency, within some practising schools of Buddhism, to treat the Buddha as quasi-divine, or even divine. Instead, you can look at Buddhism as a philosophy of life.

“You don’t want to be relaxed about a noise you hear and then find there is a sabre-toothed tiger jumping on you”

Buddhism is a philosophy which has, at its heart, the notion that life involves all kinds of suffering. That’s the starting point. What Robert Wright has added is an evolutionary biologist’s take on that, which is that human beings evolved genetically in a very different kind of environment.

If you’re living in a forest, hunting for food and running around without much protection, it makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, to be trigger-happy about rustles-in-the-dark. You don’t want to be relaxed about a noise you hear and then find there is a sabre-toothed tiger jumping on you. It’s better to have the fight-or-flight mechanisms kicking in and having false positives from time to time. That will maximise your chances of survival.

Nowadays we don’t live in such a dangerous environment, and yet we have evolved as these anxious animals who are constantly looking for the worst that’s about to happen to us. That’s just one example of how we’ve got the wrong kind of apparatus for living in the current world.

That’s the biological evolution—but cultural evolution is also possible, where we can come to realise this. Buddhism is one way that allows us to become aware of this and live differently. And the core technique for him in Buddhism—which I think is true for Buddhism as a religion as well—is meditation. This is a mindfulness meditation where, at its simplest, you stop and close your eyes, concentrate on your breath and observe the passing thoughts and feelings that you’re having.

You create a kind of distance between yourself and what he calls the CEO—the controlling part of your mind. You realise that you’re not in control of where thoughts are coming from, of what floats into your mind. Some of them are repetitive and obsessive. It’s not as if you’re simply the director of all this. So that’s moving towards this Buddhist notion of no self, that there isn’t this master self that’s controlling everything.

He ties that in with some neuropsychology and neuroscience which suggests, similarly, that most of what we are operates beneath the surface—and that we confabulate about our degree of control of our lives.

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He’s suggesting, first of all, that this version of Buddhism is true in the sense that it gives an accurate picture of the nature of what it is to be human. But he’s also got a moral twist on this—which is harder to defend probably, but not implausible—that the practice of meditation, if it’s widespread, would allow people to get a distance on the widespread tribalism, the worst excesses of self-interest, antagonistic, anger-based reactions to things, and so on. You can delay and observe what’s happening, rather than just going along with it. More Buddhist meditation in the world would not only make individuals happy, he thinks, but also make society better.

We’d become less obsessive about our own particular idiosyncrasies, we’d recognise them as things which, although they are us, are not things that we’re choosing. We can observe them without being completely controlled by them. As he puts it there’s a paradox here that the philosophy of ‘no self,’ once you come to realise it as an accurate picture of what you are, leads you to have more control.

Have you tried it?

From time to time I have tried meditation, and it’s interesting. It is certainly scientifically corroborated that the practice of mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects on many people’s health and eliminates certain kinds of obsessive worries for some people.

Wright has a degree of evangelism about him, but he’s not saying this is the only way to achieve a better life. He says it’s a way of eliminating suffering from many people’s lives, and it worked for him. The book is given more authority by the autobiographical elements, which are quite funny as well. He’s a really great writer. This is a book that’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for a number of weeks, because it’s so accessible as well as interesting. He’s a really clever, intellectually sound thinker, but he wears his learning lightly and he explains things as he goes along. He carries you along with his anecdotes and self-deprecating humour.

Living in a Christian culture here in the UK, if I were going to adopt a religion without the religious element, I suppose I’d find Christianity more appealing. I like the emphasis on non-materialism, being compassionate to others.

Even turning the other cheek? That’s quite an extreme philosophy that, when somebody abuses you, you should turn the other cheek to get an even worse form of abuse…

Would you say Buddhism is better than Christianity for atheists potentially seeking a religion without the metaphysics?

At the level of moral teaching, I don’t think they’re incompatible. If you’re talking about Christian ethics—treating people with respect, loving your neighbour, compassion, treating the poor well—great. Being brought up in a Western society, these are the values that we learn at school, or from other people, as being admirable (though they’re overlaid with other things).

It’s what’s supposed to underpin Christianity—belief in eternity and a Day of Judgment and an afterlife—that is harder to stomach. Buddhism is more easily cleansed of what I see as supernatural beliefs than Christianity. For Buddhism, there isn’t the starting point where you think that God did this and God did that, so it starts off without being a God-based religion. That makes it a lot easier to remove those bits. Christianity is so tied up with the beliefs about an afterlife and the consequences of misdemeanour and thrives on making people feel guilty.

Some people might wonder why I’m choosing Why Buddhism is True as a philosophy book, because it sounds like it’s not quite that. Universities may construct certain little pigeonholes that philosophers have to sit in, but that is a constraint on thinking in many ways. If you believe some university philosophers, you can’t go outside your pigeonhole and connect with other bits of the world—you have to do your own little thing inside it.

Robert Wright is somebody who is not tied down at all by other people’s conceptions of what it is legitimate to think about, and, as a result, he’s a really interesting thinker with a huge readership.

So for Robert Wright Buddhism was a solution. We now move on to Massimo Pigliucci, whose book is entitled How to Be a Stoic. He is a philosophy professor at CUNY and has found Stoicism a useful way of running his life better.

They’re not so different in some respects. Both are concerned with reflecting on the nature of what it is to be human and recognise that emotions can cloud our judgments in various ways and make us act irrationally. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously thought that anger was a form of temporary madness.

Like Buddhism as described by Robert Wright, Stoicism in its modern form, as described by Massimo Pigliucci, is a philosophy for living. It allows us to step back from the moment, and, as a result of a higher awareness of what’s happening to us, act better and live a more fulfilled and, hopefully, happier life as a result. That’s the theory anyway.

So what Massimo has done is immersed himself in ancient Stoicism, the philosophy that came out of Greece and was very dominant in Ancient Rome.

He’s particularly keen on Epictetus.

Epictetus was a freed slave who was a very influential early Stoic philosopher. He starts with this fundamental belief, known as the ‘dichotomy of control’—that there is stuff which you can control and stuff that you can’t, and that the rational approach to life is just to focus on the stuff that you can control. You can’t do anything about the other stuff anyway, so don’t worry about it.

If you put into practice that simple focus on what you have control over, your life will go much better. Much of the anxiety that people have about how they’re living or what they’ve done stems from worrying about things which they can’t affect.

There’s a caricature of Stoicism as the philosophy that advocates a lack of emotion in our daily life. But the way Massimo characterises it—which he claims is based on the ancient Stoicism—is that it’s not that you don’t have emotions, but that you recognise the source of the emotions and reflect on them.

Massimo is actually a Roman, he was brought up in Rome and learnt about Stoicism in school. He lives in New York now, but on a visit to Rome not long ago he had his wallet stolen on the subway there. He said that in his earlier life, he would have been livid. He was on his way out to a meal and he’d lost all his credit cards and all his cash through a moment of negligence. But, as somebody who’d committed to living as a Stoic, he used his Stoic powers to deal with the immediate feeling of anger and asked himself, ‘Well, what can I do, practically? Getting annoyed is not going to be of much use to me. I can control that. Inform the police, then go and have a nice meal with my friends.’ On a personal level, Stoicism allowed him to have a much better reaction to something that was outside his control.

I should say that Massimo originally trained as a biologist, then converted to philosophy. I think he did completed PhDs, which is quite a feat. Academically, he is better known as a philosopher of science, but since he discovered Stoicism as a life philosophy, as something to live by, he has acquired a very large following online.

At the beginning of the book, he quotes what I think of as a Christian prayer—about accepting the things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can and the wisdom to know the difference.

It is Christian, but based on Stoic wisdom.

I find that ‘wisdom to know the difference’ a bit hard to take on board, particularly in the modern world. If you put your mind to it, there is a lot you can change. It’s not that you can’t change it, it’s more about how much energy you want to expend or risks you want to take to change it. And maybe you would have a happier, more balanced life if you didn’t bother. But I think that this striving that is difficult for us as humans to manage emotionally also enables us to achieve great things. I suppose I find Stoicism a little bit passive.

It’s true that, as a practising Stoic, you may say, ‘Well, that’s completely outside my control,’ —and cut off an avenue that turned out to be fruitful.

I suppose the question is whether you’re an optimistic Stoic and think, ‘I’ve got lots of control,’ or a pessimistic Stoic who thinks, ‘I’ve got very little control. We fantasise that we’re in control, but, often, things that happen turn out to be just luck that we attribute to our own agency. I think I’ve got control over my education, my work, and so on, but actually that’s largely determined by social factors way beyond my control, so I should just go wherever the wind blows me.’ So if you take that extreme pessimistic position, and then focus on the things you can control, that’s almost nothing, and you end up being very passive, as you say.

But it could go the other way—if you think, ‘I’ve got lots of control, I can act Stoically towards everything, because it’s all part of my life’—then you might become something like an existentialist. The existentialists famously thought that we are responsible for almost everything that we are. It’s very hard to square with contemporary neuroscience, but Sartre famously said that you’re responsible for your own emotions. If you feel depressed, that is actually your choice, even though it doesn’t necessarily feel like a choice.

So, yes, this kind of reasoning about the things we can control sounds simple, but it requires an accurate perception of the limits of human agency. So I agree, it’s not as simple as it sounds at first.

But where Stoicism and new Stoicism has some practical benefits is it does give you plenty of psychological strategies for dealing with situations you are likely to encounter, many of them drawn from classical sources. Massimo is very good at communicating the insights of ancient thinkers about how to avoid anger, or how to deal with insults, or other such hazards of life.

“The Roman Stoic Seneca famously thought that anger was a form of temporary madness”

Perhaps the best example of someone using Stoic thought practically was James B Stockdale, who was an American fighter pilot, shot down over North Vietnam and put in the Hanoi Hilton. He was tortured and in solitary confinement for long periods, but he had studied Stoicism briefly earlier, and decided to put it into practice. He used it as a way of surviving, psychologically, absolutely brutal physical and mental torture. And it worked for him. He managed to come through and always attributed his resilience to his Stoicism. I can see that there is a range of psychological ploys that might well work for people faced with such extreme circumstances.

What Massimo is claiming is larger than that, though. It’s that this is a good way of living, that we still have much to learn from ancient Stoicism. You can adopt a range of practices, a range of meditation techniques as well, derived from ancient thinking, and apply them to the completely different context of contemporary life now.

I like the way he has these little conversations with Epictetus, who is advising him on what to do.

The book is written in a very accessible way. It’s towards the self-help end of philosophy for sure, which is something I’m somewhat sceptical of.

Pigliucci and Wright share a certain kind of optimism about the possibility of improving our lives individually and, by improving them individually, improving the world. They’ve even joked about forming a religion together.

So on Five Books we’re going to explore some other philosophies too. We’ve covered existentialism, Stoicism, you’re finding someone at the moment to talk to about Epicureanism. I think it’s important to find a philosophy that suits us individually, because we all have different issues. Say the example of getting your wallet stolen, which did happen to me the other day, in Oxford. It’s a pain, but it doesn’t cause me any anger or emotional distress. On the other hand, especially since becoming a mother, I’m deeply anxious. It’s anxiety that I struggle with.

Robert Wright talks about how we feel about young children—that familiar scenario of a parent dropping a young child off at a nursery, and how anxiety-provoking that can be. That’s because we weren’t designed for that from an evolutionary perspective. As a mother or father, you feel that you should be with your young child. That’s exactly the kind of thing that getting a distance on through meditation should improve, he believes.

I don’t like being away from my children, even going as far as London—and overseas is almost unbearable. It’s an instinct somewhere deep inside me that just kicks in. I don’t think I can get away from it…I mean, I’ve never tried meditation.

Wright’s line would be that it is deep inside you, but you observe it from a point where you’re seeing it happening to you, but are not completely at one with it, as it were. It’s just something that’s coming from some part of you, and you don’t have to act on it.

Well I don’t act on it anyway, but it’s just unpleasant.

Maybe the degree of unpleasantness might dissolve. He gives the example of when he had a painful toothache, but meditation allowed him to reflect on the feelings, rather than simply be one with them.

Let’s move onto your next book, Utilitarianism, by the Polish utilitarian philosopher Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, who we’ve discussed at length before. Why do we need to know about utilitarianism?

In contrast with the last two approaches to life we’ve been discussing, the theory of utilitarianism is, to some degree, impersonal. Its main focus is not self-cultivation. It’s about maximising happiness—or preference satisfaction in some versions—for the greatest number of people (or sometimes the greatest aggregate happiness).

Now, Robert Wright’s book suggests that by making the individual better, through losing some attachment to self and self-interest, you make the world better and I think there’s a similar argument in Massimo Pigliucci’s book. Utilitarianism is a philosophical approach that is very much concerned with making the world better, but not necessarily by self-development of the individual—and potentially at the expense of that. It’s about producing the best overall effects that you can.

It’s a philosophical approach with a long history, but it’s particularly associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, and following on from them, Henry Sidgwick, who is less well-known, generally.

Yes, they make a case for Sidgwick’s importance, don’t they?

He was a very brilliant thinker, though a philosopher’s philosopher; the other two crossed over into the wider reading public.

Then, in the late 20th and early 21st century, utilitarianism has been particularly associated with Peter Singer and other thinkers who have emphasised the application of this style of thinking to issues in the contemporary world—such as how we treat non-human animals. Many animals are capable of levels of suffering that we could reduce, but how do we balance that with how useful they are for food, clothing, all kinds of other things? Similarly, how do we deal with the distribution of goods across the world? How do we, individually, contribute to the overall balance of happiness over unhappiness in the world?

The effective altruism movement has grown out of utilitarian thinking. This is grounded in the idea that if you’re sincere about making the world better, you should do the best that you possibly can in terms of producing outcomes. As a highly educated person, you could go to Africa as a teacher and you might think that’s the best thing you could do. But, actually, if you went to work on Wall Street, or in the City of London, and earned lots of money and then distributed that in highly rational ways, you could produce a much better effect. You might be able to buy huge amounts of prophylactic medicines to stop children getting worms, or amoebic dysentery, or mosquito nets that reduce the risk of malaria, and then, by those actions, produce a much better outcome than if you’d become a teacher.

So is this the best ethical system, in your view, for leading our lives or running the world? Is utilitarianism the answer?

I don’t think that it’s the best system, no. I think there should be an element in our thinking where we analyse outcomes. But, at the extreme level, utilitarians would forego concerns about those immediately in front of them, who are in need, when there are needier people further afield. The needier people further afield should get our full attention first. That seems very rational.

But I have a question about what kind of a person you would be—some kind of calculating machine that loses something essential to humanity; something that I value even if it doesn’t happen to produce identifiably better outcomes. There are issues about what kind of people we might become if that’s all we’re concerned with. I worry about that.

But, if you’re talking about the distribution of scarce resources generally, utilitarian thinking does seem to be a good way to go about things, at least in broad terms.

I do find it helpful to use ‘suffering’ as a matrix in how you respond to things. I know a few Syrian refugees who have very little in terms of material goods, but I also know one or two very rich people who are suffering. It sounds ridiculous, but they also need help.

But if you were a completely rigorous utilitarian, you’d think, ‘I shouldn’t be swayed by the individual sufferer in front of me who I happen to know when there are things that I could do impersonally at a distance for much more needy complete strangers.’ There’s an opportunity cost when you give your time to console your sad millionaire friend, because you could have been generating income, which could then have been used impersonally to transform the lives of people who are ill, or starving, or would otherwise be on the brink of death.

Small amounts of money from the wealthy West could have a huge impact in the developing world, so, as a rational utilitarian, I shouldn’t stop and help with that individual, because I could have earned so much money in the next hour that I could have saved perhaps ten strangers’ lives.

Unfortunately, I’m not a big earner so probably I should cheer up a billionaire and get him to give his money to Africa.

That’s the kind of thing that Peter Singer does. I think it’s fair to say he targets multi millionaires with what some might call the propaganda of effective altruism. It’s a very rigorous and somewhat austere way of thinking. He has, for example, criticised philanthropists for donating to art museums rather than to people in need in the developing world.

We should probably also mention that the book is part of OUP’s excellent Very Short Introduction (VSI) series.

I’m biased as I wrote the VSI on Free Speech, but I do agree it’s an excellent series—and the books live up to their series name in terms of being very short. It’s surprising how much ground a good writer can cover in about 35,000 words or so.

This book is quite brilliantly done. It’s a very concise book, but it’s intelligible and precise in the way it describes the varieties of utilitarianism. It’s very readable and it covers a lot of ground. It covers what you would cover in a university undergraduate course on utilitarianism, but you can read and take it in in four or five hours or so.

Because Peter Singer is a co-author, it has a certain authority in its description of thinkers and positions. It’s got a bias, obviously, because it’s written by people who are extremely sympathetic to utilitarianism. But when, for instance, the book discusses Henry Sidgwick—a very difficult writer to read—I feel confident that Peter Singer, who’s immersed himself in Sidgwick’s writing and is part of the ongoing debates that Sidgwick started, is portraying Sidgwick in a way that will save me from having to plough through pages and pages of very densely written prose or, at the very least, give me a map so that when I go to Sidgwick I have an angle on his writing.

Generally, this is the best introduction to utilitarianism that I’ve seen, with the possible exception of a very old book, which was Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, which was presented as a debate between two sides, and benefited greatly from that .

Looking back historically, they talk about how utilitarianism helped push the boundaries against common sense morality. Utilitarianism made people change their views, it was a force for social change. But they then take that into the present, and question whether, in an age of contraception, incest should be allowed. They’re really pushing the boundaries, aren’t they?

Yes. Once you’re committed to utilitarian principles, there may be a lot of counter-intuitive conclusions that you draw logically from them, and many of them do come right up against social mores and the way things have been done.

If you go back to Jeremy Bentham, he was writing about homosexuality from a utilitarian perspective, and argued, ‘Well, look, it maximises pleasure, why is this a crime? There’s no real reason for it being a crime.’ This is at a time when an act of male homosexuality was a very serious offence. Now, he didn’t publish that in his lifetime, but his utilitarian thinking allowed him that clarity of thought. Whether people will come to see some forms of incest in the same light as homosexuality is an interesting question.

Who knows?

The fact that it’s counter-intuitive doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. There might, however, be other social reasons why you might want your morality to coincide with taboo feelings that are very widely shared. Maybe because the consequences of contraception failing would be potentially far more serious than in non-sibling accidental pregnancies—there could be a consequentialist or utilitarian account of why there should be a law against incest, even where the risk of pregnancy is very low.

OK, lastly, our site is called Five Books, and there’s only room for five at the top of the interview, but there are in, fact, at least five more books you wanted to include in your best of 2017 list.

I’ve really struggled this year narrowing my choices down to five books. There are more that I would have liked to include if the format had allowed.

Bryan van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto hasn’t been published in the UK yet, though I have read parts of it in draft. Van Norden argues that Western philosophy has been systematically biased against non-Western philosophy and that there is no excuse for present day philosophers to carry on the post-Enlightenment tradition of ignoring or denigrating the other. This is a lively polemic informed by Van Norden’s deep knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy. It should ruffle a few feathers in university philosophy departments.

Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny has only just been published in the UK, so I haven’t had time to read it as closely as I’d have liked, though it is clearly excellent. It’s a closely-argued book about misogyny, particularly in public life, focusing on the ways that women who choose not to conform to patterns of male dominance continue to be treated, contrasting that with what she calls ‘himpathy’, an inappropriate level of sympathy often shown towards male perpetrators of violence or abuse. For Manne, misogyny is best understood not so much in terms of the psychology of individuals, but rather through the social environments that control women’s behaviour.

Three other books that could easily have made it on to my list are Tom Chatfield’s Critical Thinking, a post-Kahneman textbook for better thinking, Carrie Jenkins’s What Love Is and What it Could Be, which is a critical analysis of some forms of romantic love, and David Papineau’s Knowing The Score: How Sport Teaches us About Philosophy (and Philosophy About Sport), written by a first-rate philosopher who is passionate about many sports, both as a fan and a player.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

April 13, 2018

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Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher, writer and host of the podcast Philosophy Bites. Featuring short interviews with the world's best philosophers on bite-size topics, the podcast has been downloaded more than 40 million times. He is also our philosophy editor here at Five Books, where he has been interviewing other philosophers about the best books on a range of philosophy topics since 2013 (you can read all the interviews he's done here: not all are about philosophy). In addition, he's recommended books for us on the best introductions to philosophy, the best critical thinking books, as well as some of the key texts to read in the Western canon. His annual recommendations of the best philosophy books of the year are among our most popular interviews on Five Books. As an author, he is best known for his introductory philosophy books, listed below:

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher, writer and host of the podcast Philosophy Bites. Featuring short interviews with the world's best philosophers on bite-size topics, the podcast has been downloaded more than 40 million times. He is also our philosophy editor here at Five Books, where he has been interviewing other philosophers about the best books on a range of philosophy topics since 2013 (you can read all the interviews he's done here: not all are about philosophy). In addition, he's recommended books for us on the best introductions to philosophy, the best critical thinking books, as well as some of the key texts to read in the Western canon. His annual recommendations of the best philosophy books of the year are among our most popular interviews on Five Books. As an author, he is best known for his introductory philosophy books, listed below: