Experiments in Ethics

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

In 1973 the noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger asked in his book the question Whatever Became of Sin? In a new century, the questions posed to moral philosophy by work in the social sciences have not gone away. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher, takes another look at competing conclusions drawn about human behavior in philosophy and in modern experimental science. He brings together data from other sciences to form a vision of what makes the good human life. An interesting pursuit for a philosopher, the book is put forth as an experiment of sorts.

Appiah asks pertinent questions. Are the traditional ahistorical categories and methodologies of ethics moot in an age of science? Have the conclusions of experimental science overridden the conclusions of philosophy? Empirical studies either have called into question existing terms and categories of ethics or they have reinforced them. The author assumes a teleology to human existence, taking up Aristotle’s belief that ethics has to do with the ultimate aim or end of human life.

The book begins with a chapter that considers the history of ethical theory, noting the wide interests beyond philosophy that some past philosophical giants pursued. It is not totally new to examine ethics from the existential perspectives of history or of real life. Nevertheless, in many periods of history, considerations of moral philosophy were lifted out of the more mundane and messy world of real life. An ahistorical perspective tends to postulate unchanging universal conclusions about right and wrong; historical reality is deemed unrelated to moral conclusions. Questions of the connection between the “is” of reality and the “ought” of morality are often framed as a chasm between the irrelevant findings of empirical science and the “unnatural” world of philosophy. Over centuries bridges between the two have either been built with enthusiasm or blown up with vigor and intent.

The author asks further questions: Do individuals set the standards for their own ultimacy, for their own sense of happiness? Is happiness merely a warm and fuzzy feeling deep within individuals that has no referent elsewhere? Siding more with moralists who believe in some universal components to moral judgments, Appiah debunks the theory that individual relativism is a sufficient criterion for human contentment. A person is not happy just because he or she has a subjective experience of same.

Chapter 2 considers “The Case Against Character.” Recent times have seen a turn to so-called virtue ethics, which holds that a virtuous person will perform virtuous acts. This conclusion makes the central task of ethics the development of character in the individual person. Moral focus is not so much what the person does as who the person is. The assumption is that, if one is a person of virtue, “good” actions will follow. Further, a virtuous person will have a good life, as virtues are in themselves worth having. On the contrary, contemporary studies by social psychologists find that people do not seem to possess any sort of unified “virtue” package. Real-life decisions may pose choices among or between values. All values cannot be actualized in every concrete situation. Perhaps the only way to save a spy from discovery and execution (value: protecting human life) is to lie to the evil authorities (disvalue: dishonesty in speech).

Likewise, researchers suggest that behavior is driven by nonmoral contextual elements rather than by the character of the agent. Not virtue but circumstances are the determinants of moral action. Helping a passerby with change, for example, is more apt to occur if the helper is brought into a good mood by the smell of croissants from the bakery in front of which he stands.

The author does not want to jettison completely the notion of virtue, although he takes a much more nuanced view than either the virtue ethicists or the antivirtue ethicists. While virtue ethics concentrates on an inward model of self-development, Appiah would place more emphasis on social contexts that favor good action. If a situation does not force choices among competing values, a person can more easily choose one good without compromising another. Creating contexts that do not pose the moral agent the hard choice between or among values is desirable. Culture plays...

(The entire section is 1778 words.)

Experiments in Ethics Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 7 (December 1, 2007): 6.

Library Journal 132, no. 18 (November 1, 2007): 70.

Nature 453 (May 29, 2008): 593-594.

The New York Times Book Review, February 3, 2008, p. 22.