@H= 20th century reaped fruits of basic ideas sown earlier: Nick Bostrom

May 31, 2010

TEHRAN -- Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, says the 20th century “reaped the fruits of basic ideas that had been sown earlier.”

Nick Bostrom made the remarks in an interview with the Mehr News Agency conducted by Hossein Kaji and Javad Heirannia.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What are the most important questions about the relationship between ethics and politics?
A: One important question is how we can make political struggles more responsive to ethical concerns, without losing touch with practical realities and without descending into interminable ideological feuds between different bigoted factions.
Q: Some thinkers have focused on the point that Kantian ethics is for personal spheres and utilitarian ethics for public spheres such as political environment. Do you agree with this viewpoint?
A: I don't quite see why that should be the case. Oversimplifying, we may associate Kantian ethics with simple rules (""Don't lie!"", ""Don't steal!"" etc.) and utilitarianism with the idea that one should try to figure out what will have the best consequences.
Now, setting aside the question of which of these moral systems is closest to being ultimately correct, we can make the observation that it is usually easier to check whether somebody has broken a simple rule than whether somebody has tried hard enough to do what will have the overall best consequences. From a practical point of view, it is important that we can hold people to account. Since humans often pretend that they are acting morally even when they aren't, we need criteria that are unambiguous and hard to fake. This is an argument for using a morality that includes some simple rules.
But it is not only in the personal sphere that people are prone to self-serving and immoral behavior. Government officials frequently abuse their power and pretend that they are good even when they are corrupt or evil. Brutal dictators always claim that their actions are for the common good. It therefore seems helpful to have some simple rules - such as internationally recognized human rights - such that we can more easily see when they are violated and hold our political leaders to account.
Q: Is 20th century the best century in the history of philosophy? Why?
A: I think the 20th century has been a very good one for philosophy. It has, in particular, brought some refinement of the techniques of analytic philosophy, and achieved a precision and attention to detail that the works of previous centuries lacked. There are of course also vastly more professional philosophers active in the world now than at any earlier time. But whether it is the 20th century was overall the best one in the history of philosophy is difficult to say. To some extent, the century reaped the fruits of basic ideas that had been sown earlier.
Nick Bostrom is professor in the faculty of philosophy and director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He has some 170 publications to his name, including three books: Anthropic Bias (Routledge, 2002), Global Catastrophic Risks (ed., OUP, 2008), and Enhancing Humans (ed., OUP, 2009)