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Owen Flanagan


Owen Flanagan is a professor of philosophy at Duke University. Hes also a professor of neurobiology, and his thinking and writing span the two genres with wonderful fluidity and insight. His book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, is a wonderful exploration. He works closely with Jeff Sachs at the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and serves on the Board of Advisors of the Religious Naturalist Association 

Below are some Flanagan quotes that focus on human morality in a naturalistic context.


Morality is not ‘‘something altogether new on the face of the Earth.’’ It is not an invention de novo. Homo sapiens, presumably like their extinct social ancestors, as well as certain closely related species, such as chimps and bonobos, possess instincts and emotions that are ‘‘protomoral,’’ by which I simply mean that we possess the germs, at least, of the virtues of sympathy, compassion, fidelity, and courage. There is no ‘‘skyhook” being imputed here. We didnt create the relevant instincts and emotions. Natural selection did. We are endowed with these instincts and feelings thanks to a craning operation that began with unicellular organisms.

Moral knowledge is not a kind of ‘‘divine wisdom.’’. … We are animals. This world is a material one, and there is no justification, none whatsoever, for believing in divinities or an afterlife. Morals matter, but they cant really be about or for the sake of what the non-naturalist says they are about or for. Morals are not about what God thinks is good or even what God commands, nor are morals about serving Gods purposes or doing Gods will. These ideas are out there, but they are childish ideas that are epistemically unwarranted.

We humans naturally care a lot about personal satisfaction. Hedonic well-being is firmly on our radar, and selfish, communally disruptive motives are abundant. It would make sense to be completely selfish—with self-serving strategic exceptions—if we were designed solely to achieve individual ‘‘fitness.’’ But we were not designed that way. We were designed to be fit as social animals.

And for all the talk about how Darwins theory is one of ‘‘red in tooth and claw,’’ it simply isnt. Humans are designed to care about more than individual fitness.

If ethics is about anything it must be about flourishing. … In order to flourish each person must interpenetrate the spaces of the good, the true, and the beautiful to some degree.

We ought to beware scientism, but the scientific image of persons need not make us weak in the knees. Even if I am an animal, even if at the end of the day I am dead and gone for good, I still make a difference, good or bad. Why? Because I exist. Each existing thing makes a difference to how things go – a small difference, but a difference. It would be nice, given that I care, to contribute a bit to the accumulation of good effects, or ones I hope will be positive.