The title is a phrase I liked from Simon Blackburn's cracking good read on Richard Rorty (here). Rorty is one of those chaps whom, you may recall, Zadie Smith blames for global warming, i.e. people very keen on relativism. To be fair to Smith, when it comes to Rorty, some measure of blame seems entirely appropriate: his 'ironic liberalism' doesn't sound like the best thing for cutting carbon emissions. This bit from Blackburn gives a flavour of it:
"In this volume [Rorty] enthusiastically endorses a very different view advocated by Robert Brandom. This holds that “mere mammalian pain” - a phrase, I should have thought, that only trips off the tongue of people largely unacquainted with what it describes - does not matter in itself. Brandom holds that “pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation” have only a “second-hand” moral and political significance. They are important only because they distract people from the activity that really matters_the pragmatist activity variously described as “vocabulary-mongering”, or “contributing to the Conversation”, or indulging in “sprightly repartee and the production of fruitful novel utterances”. Pain matters because it incapacitates us for sprightly repartee! It turns out that cruelty is not the worst thing that we perpetrate. The worst thing is distraction.
There are very few really original ideas in moral philosophy, but this must surely be one of them. Its excuse, I suppose, is the fear of a Brave New World, in which comfortable zombies live their satisfied porcine lives. And similar ideas do have a philosophical pedigree, right back to Plato and to the last book of the Nichomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle extols the virtues of the life of intellectual contemplation, which to most contemporary philosophers simply means conversation with the cork in. But even in his paean to contemplation Aristotle does not hold that beautifully beguiling the leisure of the theory class is the only measure of value, and distracting us from it the only measure of evil."
I'm sure Smith would like the "leisure of the theory class" too - if it is not the title of at least a chapter in a campus novel then something should be done about it.