Alain de Botton Replies

Posted on 2012/03/15


Feature Image - de Botton Replies

After a few pre-release talks, Alain de Botton has now started a fervent US book tour to promote his most recent work, ‘Religion for Atheists‘.

A few days ago, a friend told me that the website ‘Big Think‘ were advertising a short interview with de Botton, asking for viewer questions via their Facebook page.

Based on my recent criticism of his work, I replied with two candidates:

  • In your TED talk you said there’s nothing wrong with ‘propaganda’ in moral education. Specifically, you say (I quote), ’propaganda is a manner of being didactic in honour of something. And if that thing is good there’s no problem with it at all.’ Do you think it is ethical to teach morality with rhetorical persuasion? Indeed, is that not exactly what religions do, based on a similar presumption that they are correct? Is it not the case that the majority of atheists not only reject the scientific and moral claims of religions, but also the methods they use to to impart them?
  • You said in your Standpoint magazine article of 2008, and have said many times since, ‘The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole this is “true”.’ Do you find the suffering and intellectual stultification caused by widespread religious belief to be ‘boring’?

During Monday’s short interview, I was glad to see that my first question was asked. Another example of the immediate feedback that the internet facilitates.

Here’s the whole interview:

And here’s a transcript:

Interviewer: James Sheils writes to us, “In your TED talk you said there’s nothing wrong with ‘propaganda’ in moral education. Specifically, you say (I quote), ’propaganda is a manner of being didactic in honour of something. And if that thing is good there’s no problem with it at all.’ Do you think it is ethical to teach morality with rhetorical persuasion?”

de Botton: Again, I think it just depends on what you’re trying to teach. If there’s something that we all buy into and believe… let’s say we all signed up to idea that we believe in being kind to other people. Yet, all of us are not that kind all the time, because we forget.

But nevertheless, imagine if we said, ‘okay, we’re going to sign up to a system which will try to remind us to be kind’. And that is not some extra authority imposing a mission of kindness. We’re signing up to this, but we’d just like to be reminded of this.

And that’s the way to see a lot of religious ethical practice. It’s not some outsider telling you do this thing that you don’t want to do. It an outside authority reminding your own deepest impulses. In other words, what the external authority is doing is trying to bring out the best of your self as you yourself would agree you are in your most rational, sane and calm moments.

This was a much more vapid reply than I was hoping for. As mentioned in a previous article, I had thought de Botton was advocating the use of rhetorical methods teach morality. That was the tone of his TED talk, at least.

Instead, he presents altogether weaker, less interesting idea, and one that is far easier to criticize.


Firstly, we already are constantly reminded that we should be kind, and have no need or want for religiously inspired social engineering.

Humans, in a free society at least, rather make a habit of telling other people when they feel wronged. From the old woman who admonishes a man that fails to keep a door open for her, all the way up to a political street protests – we are frequently reminded of each other’s grievances.

Yet, sometimes, the demands of others seem unreasonable. How are we to tell when someones is asking too much of us? How obliged are we to devote our thoughts to the well-being of others, and away from ourselves? What exactly is ‘being kind‘ supposed to mean?

In brief, de Botton has answered the insipid question “how can we remind people to be moral?”, leaving the more interesting and difficult questions of normative ethics (“what should one do?”) and meta-ethical ethics (“what is goodness?”) as given.

All the while, ridiculing those writers from ‘north Oxford’ (yes, he said it again) who offer criticisms of religions’ answers to these vital questions.

Perhaps this is motivated from a personal need.

Although fully aware that this is a stark ad hominem, I can’t help but recall a moment from de Botton’s past where he would have benefited from a reminder to be kind. In 2009, after reading a savage review in the New York Times of his last book, “Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, de Botton replied on critics’s personal blog with:

I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.[1]

Admitting in a later interview that he was unaware that the comment would appear on the blog, rather than as a person email, I think most people will still agree that de Botton’s words were anything but kind.

If he, a calm and thoughtful philosopher, seems to go off his onion at the slightest provocation, who knows what dark contemplations haunt the regular public?!


Then there is art.

Let’s take an example that, for some, might stretch the meaning of ‘art’: prime-time television soap operas. They are ripe with, as religious education teachers like to say, ‘contemporary moral issues’, tragedy most of all. These shows often depict suffering inflicted upon people by other people. With greater vigour around festive holidays, it would seem.

As the philosopher Susan L Feagin has analyzed, fictional tragedy has the curious effect of eliciting pleasure in the viewer. And this is surely one of the reasons why soap operas attract such large audiences.

Is this simply a form of schadenfreude? Or a comparative recognition that ours lives might be worse? No, I think there is more to it than that.

Feagin suggests that these responses to tragedy are actually meta-responses. The pleasure isn’t a reaction to the drama, but a reaction to our feelings about the drama.[2]

In noticing how we sympathize with the suffering of others, we get a pleasurable, self-affirming sense that we are moral. Unlike real suffering, where we feel a duty to focus on the situation, a fictional tragedy allows us to dwell on our own reactions, without feeling guilty for doing so.

Tragedy then reinforces sympathetic thoughts, providing an example of the sort of didactic ’kindness-reminders’ that de Botton seems to think is lacking from secular society.


Yet, despite the abundance of social interactions where we contemplate being kind, or feel that we are moral, none of this necessarily implies that we really are being moral.

Even those who think they have the correct answer to “what is goodness?” still don’t have certain knowledge of what to do in every situation. “When, if ever, is it kind to lie?” for example. We are all morally fallible, even if we never ‘forget to be kind’.

Anyway, most people don’t even agree on the meta-ethical questions. This is no more obvious than when we look at religious ethical practice. Anyone who’s argued with a religionist will know the frustration in realizing that all discussions eventually reduce to a difference in understanding of what it is to be moral.

So, it is quite transparently absurd for de Botton to suggest that religions are mostly about ‘being kind’.

Here’s a short list of religious activities that are either very unkind (to use the famous British understatement), or morally irrelevant:

  • Cutting the foreskin off a baby boy’s penis
  • Forbidding the eating pork
  • Enforcing women to cover their bodies in public.
  • Practicing abstinence before marriage (including ‘lust in your heart’ – Matthew 5:27-28)
  • Outlawing homosexual relationships
  • Outlawing blasphemy (speech crime) and apostasy (thought crime)
  • Condemning the use of contraception
I’m sure you have thought of several more to add to this list.

Then there are all the irrelevant rituals that have nothing to do with kindness or morality. ‘Bells and smells’ is the mnemonic insult for such Catholic activities. What does travelling to Mecca have to do with human kindness?  What have Christenings ever done that wasn’t a total waste of time?

Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh offers a refreshing reminder that ritual pieties should not be mixed up with moral claims. As an example, he writes:

I may abjure pork, because my religion holds it to be ritually unclean, but I cannot justify that claim morally, except on grounds that have nothing to do with pigs. We might argue that if I have committed myself to a religious system that requires me to promise not to eat pork and I do eat it, I have committed a wrong act; but the wrong lies in breaking the promise because, while eating pork is demonstrably harmless, breaking promises is demonstrably harmful.[3]

Notice how Holloway frames these rituals as separate from the ‘will of God’. These practices aren’t moral because they are what God wants to be moral or has decided is moral; they are arbitrary promises that establish club-membership to a religion. Viewed like this, imposing these rituals upon non-members of a faith seems unjustifiable. And separated from these promises, religious rituals can only be moral by accident, and are often quite clearly immoral.

If these our are deepest impulses, we are better off without them, and must strive to supress them. Humanist ethics (or, if you must, ‘kindness‘) demands it.


I’ll end with an excerpt from Charlie Brooker’s 2005 review of de Botton’s travel show, which still serves as an accurate assessment of de Botton’s work.

[A] pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane – yet if you pick up one of his books and read it cover to cover, you’ll come away with less insight into the human condition than if you’d worked your way through a copy of Mr Tickle instead.[4]



[2] Susan L. Feagin (Jan., 1983) ’The Pleasures of Tragedy’ American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 1, pp 95-104

[3] Holloway, Richard (1999) ‘Godless Morality‘ p 13

[4] Brooker, Charlie (2005) ‘The Art of Drivel‘ [for The Guardian]