Philosophy for a Better World

Philosophy for a Better World

by Floris Van Den Berg

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You won’t see the world in the same light after reading this urgent and inspiring call to action.
In this thought-provoking book, Dutch philosopher Floris van den Berg proposes a new perspective, called universal subjectivism, which can be adopted by anyone regardless of religious or philosophical orientation. It takes into


You won’t see the world in the same light after reading this urgent and inspiring call to action.
In this thought-provoking book, Dutch philosopher Floris van den Berg proposes a new perspective, called universal subjectivism, which can be adopted by anyone regardless of religious or philosophical orientation. It takes into consideration the universal capacity for suffering and, through raising awareness, seeks to diminish that suffering and increase happiness. With consistent and compelling moral reasoning, van den Berg shows that the world can be organized to ensure more pleasure, beauty, justice, happiness, health, freedom, animal welfare, and sustainability.

The author emphasizes that today the near-term future is our greatest challenge: our affluent western lifestyle will soon exceed the limits of the earth’s sustainable capacity and must soon change drastically to ward off a worldwide environmental collapse.       

Knowing this, we should all reevaluate the daily routines we take for granted:  taking the car to work, boarding a plane to a business or vacation destination, eating meat, or using plastic bags in stores. There are ethical and ecological objections to each of these examples. In fact, if we applied a strict ethical analysis to our lifestyle, almost nothing we do would pass muster. A lot of avoidable suffering attaches to our way of life. After reading this book, the world won’t look the same.

Concluding with an eco-humanist manifesto, this book not only offers much food for thought but, more importantly, an urgent and inspiring call to action.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this primarily political guidebook, Van Den Berg introduces what he calls the philosophy of universal subjectivism. It becomes evident, though, that this is not a unitary system emergent from fleshed-out premises as much as it is a long-practiced mental exercise. Reminiscent of spontaneous childhood introspection, Van Den Berg's philosophy—presented as the sum of John Rawls's and Peter Singer's—charges individuals to reimagine society from the position of one at the political and ethical control board. The express purpose of this thought experiment is to "diminish suffering and promote happiness." While ensuing chapters emphasize Van Den Berg's prioritization of suffering, the topic of happiness is directly addressed only to be essentially dismissed. This is not surprising given an early statement in which the author exonerates his philosophy from going into exhaustive detail on the fundamentals, asserting that all basic questions of philosophy play second fiddle to ecological crisis. This stance manifests itself repeatedly as statements that result from philosophical rumination are presented without qualification. Neither the philosophical basis for governmental involvement nor the reason for privileging suffering are satisfactorily substantiated. The author takes a dim view of humankind while calling for dramatic behavioral changes meant to accomplish a goal never integrated into a comprehensive philosophy. (June)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Floris van den Berg
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ISBN: 978-1-61614-504-0




On the whole, we don't take the ethical and ecological consequences of our daily activities into account: taking the car to work, eating meat, flying to our holiday destination, wearing cotton shirts, buying strawberries in winter, acquiring hardwood garden furniture, eating fish, using plastic bags in stores. There are ethical and ecological objections to each of these examples. Without our being aware of it, our lifestyle does an immeasurable amount of damage to human beings, animals, and nature. Everyday actions therefore have to be assessed on the basis of their moral acceptability. Alas, the conclusion is that almost nothing we do can stand up to an ethical analysis. And that is frustrating. A lot of (unnecessary) suffering attaches to our way of life. The ethical investigation of your own lifestyle can lead to a disturbing experience, an ethical gestalt switch. Suddenly you're no longer the hero of your own life story but the villain.

The job of philosophers is searching for blind spots in our knowledge and epistemological methods on the one hand, and for blind spots in our ethics on the other. Philosophers are explorers in the realm of ideas. During the last few decades their explorations have turned up many new ethical blind spots. That has led to emancipation movements and action groups on behalf of homosexuals, women, unbelievers, animals, the environment, and future generations. But how do you find such blind spots? After all, you can't perceive your own. By searching actively, with the help of guidelines and theoretical insight, you can succeed in finding new moral blind spots. When such a blind spot has been located, it is important to solve the problem. For example, in his book Animal Liberation in the early 1970s, the philosopher Peter Singer focused attention on the suffering of animals in intensive factory farming.


This book explains the theory of what I call universal subjectivism. This is an ethical theory that everyone can apply quite simply to the search for blind spots and to finding the ways of making them disappear. The point of departure is the capacity for suffering. The issue is to diminish suffering and promote happiness.

The summit of 2500 years of philosophical writing is a three-word sentence in a footnote in a book by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832): "Can they suffer?" These three words are the most profound and important words in all of the history of philosophy. Bentham points to the essential issue in ethics, that is, the capacity for suffering. What matters is not the possession of certain faculties, such as thinking or speaking, but the capacity of being able to suffer.

Bentham concludes that, from this perspective, the way human beings treat animals is unethical: "The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity [hairiness] of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum [the large heavy bone at the base of the spine], are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?"

Human society could be arranged a good deal better than it is. This book investigates how the world could be made more pleasing, better, more just, more beautiful, happier, healthier, freer, more prosperous, more peaceful, and more sustainable than it is now. How could there be less suffering and more happiness? For this purpose, I have designed a politico-philosophical theory called universal subjectivism. This theory is a stepping-stone toward looking at the world and exposing problems. Contemporary philosophers such as John Rawls, Peter Singer, A. C. Grayling, Paul Cliteur, and Paul Kurtz are an important source of inspiration. This theory is not a panacea for every problem. It can make many problems visible and it can also be used to solve them. That there will be problems left over is yet another reason to keep looking for solutions. My concern is to decrease suffering and to promote happiness. Universal subjectivism offers a guiding principle for ethical action.

The need for a theory is urgent, but the need for action is even more pressing. There is an unbelievable amount of suffering in the world, and a great deal of that suffering is easily preventable provided there is a collective will to do so. One of the greatest moral problems in the United States, as in other western countries—factory farming—could be solved simply by immediately passing a law prohibiting factory farming while simultaneously stimulating and subsidizing small-scale and environmentally friendly raising of cattle and other animals. Every day people die of starvation, although there is enough food to feed the population of today's world; everyday people die because of a lack of medication, although the medication could have been supplied easily. A huge problem is the future: humans are ruining the earth on an unprecedented scale, and the limits of the earth's capacity will soon be reached. It is five minutes to twelve. The time has come for action and for establishing priorities. The human lifestyle has to change drastically. How and why—that is what I will examine in this book. This is an urgent ethical appeal. If, after reading this book, the reader continues with business as usual, it means the message hasn't registered. Come on: wake up! Do something!


Aided by ethical reflection, I want to show that the basic intuitions that people have with respect to ethics and the good life are untenable in the light of reason. By means of thought experiments, striving for moral consistency, and looking beyond one's own culture and traditions, it will become apparent that the average person's behavior is deeply immoral. Does this grave accusation frighten the reader off from reading further? Galileo claimed that Earth circles around the Sun and not the other way around. Galileo was right, but no one saw it or dared to see it. That is partly because it was counterintuitive: it seems as if the sun is circling us; it rises in the east and goes down in the west.

Is it not absurd to say that almost everybody behaves unethically? The ancient Greeks with their democracy, whom we admire, were deeply immoral because their culture was based on slavery. Even the great philosophers did not discuss the matter. It was a huge blind spot. Looking back, therefore, it is clear that all Greek democrats behaved unethically. In today's society the blind spots are well known: the environment, animals, future generations, low-income countries. And yet we continue to ignore them. This book is a re-evaluation of every value. That is, after all, the risk of thought: you can end up with conclusions you had not expected or even ones that are not in your own interests. Philosophy is a quest for the true, the good, and the beautiful. Along the way I have thoroughly adjusted my ideas and my lifestyle, re-examining my opinions and behavior in the light of reason.

The Enlightenment Project

Thinking for ourselves about how together we can make the best of things in the here and now is the essence of the Enlightenment. This intellectual current flowered in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a movement in which thinkers reacted against church and civil authorities and tried to study the world autonomously and to rearrange society. The term Enlightenment—Aufklärung in German, Lumières in French—points to the light of reason that shone after the darkness of the Middle Ages. In 1784 the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) wrote an essay in which he investigated what the Enlightenment consisted of. He concluded that the Enlightenment meant that people, with the help of reason, needed to drag themselves out of the ignorance they had imposed on themselves, and that courage was needed to apply reason. Kant spurred people on to a further Enlightenment with the Latin saying: sapere aude (dare to think for yourself). The Enlightenment was a process of secularization: to varying degrees, religion was placed outside the domain of ethics, politics, and science. In the areas of morality and science, the role of religion was pushed back. Criticism of religion was one of the pillars of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment had a critical and a constructive side. The critical side criticized institutionalized belief and irrationality. The constructive side involved the search for new knowledge (science) and new social structures whose objectives were justice, democracy, and human rights. Tolerance for ideas, the struggle against oppression, individual autonomy, and self-determination were core values of the Enlightenment. These elements are prominent in the magnum opus of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie (1751–73) edited by Denis Diderot and Jean D'Alembert.

It is customary to differentiate between the early, radical Enlighten ment, of which Baruch Spinoza was the most important representative—an irreligious and antireligious, atheistic current—and a more moderate version in which religion, having been modernized and watered down, isn't seen as an obstacle to progress. The Enlightenment cleared the way for the scientific revolution and the explosive growth of knowledge. The modern Western world, supported by science and technology, is directly descended from the traditions of the Enlightenment. And yet religious people sometimes deny the influence of the Enlightenment and ascribe wars in general, and the horrors of the Second World War in particular, to the decline of religion in society. The contemporary philosopher A. C. Grayling sees the Enlightenment as one of several movements in Western history in which reason and humankind had a leading role in the here and now. In his book What Is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live, Grayling sees the ancient world, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and finally the human-rights discourse of today as shoots of the same humanistic trunk, wherein the individual and reason take a central place. Freethinkers and secular humanists (for example, Paul Kurtz in Toward a New Enlightenment) locate themselves explicitly and emphatically in the tradition of the radical Enlightenment. Historian of ideas Jonathan Israel sums up what the Radical Enlightenment entails:

democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being as the whole secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. The universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally.

Organized humanism seems to be somewhat more in the tradition of the moderate Enlightenment, that is, it expresses some support for critical review of religion and intolerant cultural practices and institutions, but in other parts seeking reform and accommodation.


The fundamental question of political philosophy is: what is a good society? This general question can be split into four specific questions, the four basic questions of political philosophy, namely:

1. For whom?

2. By whom?

3. What for?

4. By what means?

1. For whom does a political order actually exist? A common answer is: "For the people who live in a certain nation." A glance into a historical atlas reveals that national boundaries are historically unstable and contingent. Nations come and go. The present border between the United States and Mexico dates only from 1853, after all, and who knows how long it will last? Besides, there is also the question of for whom the laws of the nation exist. How are the interests of ethnic minorities dealt with? Turkey, for example, has Kurdish inhabitants who don't have a state of their own and whose interests are not optimally looked after by the Turkish state. Is the political order focused on the interests of adult, non-handicapped, heterosexual, non-dissident, conservative males, or on the interests of all inhabitants? What is the situation for the interests of the physically or mentally handicapped, fetuses, future generations, dissidents, animals, the environment, and so on? The democratic answer is: a state is of the people, by the people, for the people. And "the people" means all inhabitants. All adult, mentally capable inhabitants are allowed to make their voices heard and represent also those who cannot or cannot yet make their voices heard, such as children and the mentally handicapped.

2. By whom are the rules of society made? The simplest model is a dictatorship: the dictator's will is law. As Louis XIV is supposed to have said: "L'état, c'est moi!" ("I am the state!") Rules and laws exist to serve the tyrant's interests. Everything and everyone is subordinated to the whims of the sole ruler. A party (as in communism), or a small group, as in an oligarchy, can also exercise dictatorial rule. In a democracy the rules are generally made indirectly by means of elected representatives of the people. The trias politica, the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, is intended to guarantee that the rights of the individual are not violated and that democracy does not slide toward a dictatorship by the majority. In a democracy the very first concern is with the people who happen to have been born in the country and who have its nationality. Future generations, foreigners, and animals count for little if anything, or do so to a lesser degree. Since 2006 two members (out of 150) of the Dutch Parliament represent the Party of the Animals. This is unique in the world and in history.

3. Why do states exist anyway? Aren't they simply a pain? All those rules and those damned taxes.


Suppose an airplane makes a crash landing in the Pacific Ocean. The passengers survive the crash and wash up on an uninhabited, hitherto undiscovered island whose chances of ever being discovered are small (after all, this is a thought experiment). The airplane carries, in separate compartments, Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs, Muslim Indians, Hindu Indians, Tibetans, Chinese, Americans, and Iranians. In short, people who have a lot of difficulty accepting each other's convictions. All of them wash up on that one small, undiscovered, uninhabited island. What now? They can make life hard for each other, or they can try to split the island up into compartments (just as in the real world, where the compartments are called countries), or they can try to make the best of the situation together. One way of doing that is to sit in a circle on the beach and to establish minimal rules for living and divide tasks fairly so that in the end everybody is better off and living in peace with the others. After five years the island is discovered. To the great astonishment of the media, the island dwellers are living together peacefully and have made the most of the modest means available to them. "An example to the world," the newspaper headlines shout.

Excerpted from PHILOSOPHY FOR A BETTER WORLD by FLORIS VAN DEN BERG. Copyright © 2013 by Floris van den Berg. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Floris van den Berg is a lecturer on environmental philosophy at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. He is also the executive director of the Center for Inquiry Low Countries and vice president of the freethought association De Vrije Gedachte. He is the author of four books in Dutch.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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