Experiments in Ethics

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1778

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...

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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 a part in doing this.

In the end, the conclusion is that human flourishing, eudaimonia, comes from doing what is right rather than being virtuous. Flourishing is not simply a matter of getting what one wants. Virtue and happiness are connected, and human flourishing is more apt to occur in situations that do not compromise the person’s values.

In the next chapter, the author makes “The Case Against Intuition.” He tackles what he dubs the “intuition problem.” Affirming that moral behavior is a matter of intuition has its difficulties. On examination one finds peopleeven philosophersdiffer as to what conclusions they intuit about morality. There is a suspicion, says Appiah, “that our common sense may be littered with perishable and parochial prejudice,” cultural and personal biases that color what behaviors are considered moral. In an age of slavery, for example, it would be difficult to view keeping human beings in bondage as morally wrong. Living in the home of the Artful Dodger of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1839) might make it difficult to view stealing as an immoral act.

Sometimes the way questions are framed changes how individuals think about them. Sometimes how individuals feel in a given circumstance can alter their behavior. Appiah concludes that feelings, emotions, biological realitiesall of which contribute to “intuition”must be supplemented by normative demands. While a situation may color how people come to moral choice, the author asserts that moral behavior is more than the sum of the situational parts.

Perhaps a more adequate answer to what comprises a good ethical system is found in examining the chapter “The Varieties of Moral Experience.” The premise, well illustrated, is that for human beings culture and nature cannot be separated. Each person is born into a certain language and into a set of cultural mores that externalize “nature” in a concrete fashion. Stabilization of genetically inscribed behavioral dispositions (nature) occurs culturally. The force of any contemporary values environmentbeing a Muslim is good; being a Democrat is bad; women are superior to menwill shape what is seen at a particular historical time byte as “good.” Without a particular language of behavior (which culture provides), human beings do not conceive of moral possibilities. On the other hand, one can demonstrate that certain values seem to transcend culture. All people seem to have a sense of compassion, fairness, purity, and other values that are not culturally specific. What is culturally specific, though, is how these values, which appear to be hard-wired in human nature, are expressed in the here and now. Language is particular to culture. Language holds norms and values. Stories demonstrate values as perceived in a particular culture. Bottom line: Persons bent on shaping their lives ethically are bound within the cultural, institutional, and linguistic reality of their time.

The final chapter summarizes the major arguments of the author. He examines the claims of individual relativism, which sees happiness as a matter of satisfying one’s personally felt desires. Standards for happiness are not the product of individual whim but rather are supported by objective criteria. This idea floats through the whole book and is not unique here. Values are objective, even when one is faced in the concrete with choices among values that can be realized in the here and now. When a person must break a promise to have dinner with a friend in the face of another competing value judged more urgent, it is not that the person does not recognize the value of keeping his word to a friend. Regret at not realizing a value is not the same as moral blame. Still, which values rise to the surface in making a choice may be dictated to some extent by one’s place in history or in the particular culture.

The author tackles the difficult debate about the place of nature in the moral equation. Among philosophers, much debunking of the connection between what “is” and what “ought” to be has occurred. Appiah takes a middle-road approach, as he rejects both a sanitary autonomous ethics, which sees moral conclusions completely divorced from human existential reality, and a total reliance on science to come to moral conclusions. He quotes British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who notes that “ physicists may one day have found the answer to all physical questions, but not all questions are physical questions.”

Human beings hold values, and they hold many in common. Nevertheless, morality is not simply a matter of people voting as to which values will be held collectively. Morality is not a democratic process. A show of hands does not dictate the hegemony of certain values nor how they are to be applied in moral decision making. As the author says, “Normative theories, if they are sensible, do not offer algorithms for action.” Even wonderful cases, often designed to teach method in ethics (the author speaks of “quandary ethics”), are abstract realities. They cannot with certitude predict the best moral judgment in a real moral dilemma. As Appiah notes, with characteristic humor, such “scenarios, relentlessly abstract, [are] rendered with all the sfumato of an Etch-a-Sketch drawing.” While the author does use many excellent and classic moral cases in his treatment, even the reader discovers that discomfort accompanies the choices that are presented. Perhaps it is the reader’s intuition that affirms the author’s premise: There is no real answer for a moral dilemma that is itself not real.

The author does examine the intersecting elements between traditional philosophical ethics and modern social research, but he does not consider the stages of moral development considered by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg or the feminist studies of Carol Gilligan. Such considerations may have thrown additional light on differences of similar cohorts with different individual reactions to scenarios. This addition would have added another chapter to the book, however.

This book is a rigorous read. Those who venture in should be cautioned that the author assumes an understanding of standard philosophical moral method. A novice in philosophical ethics will have a hard plow through the text. The author assumes at least a passing knowledge of various approaches to ethics as he makes his case for an integrated moral landscape. This is a provocative book, questioning assumptions about the efficacy of various moral theories and doing so with reasonable arguments. Nevertheless, its ideas are fresh and comprehensive. This makes the book well worth the plod. It should have a place in the secondary bibliography of a fundamental morals course as well as in graduate studies.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18

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.

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