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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
Jeanette Kennett has written a
nicely balanced, informative and well-argued book on contemporary thought about
agency and responsibility. She begins
by setting a standard by which her own theory will be tested: namely, an
ability to account for the common sense observation of weakness, compulsion and
recklessness. These failings of moral agency will be explicated later in the
book, but they are introduced early to set the stage for Kennetts theme of
moral reasoning as public domain rather than private deliberation.
she takes the reader through a tour of both classical (Socrates, Aristotle and
Hume) and contemporary (Davidson, Frankfurt and Strawson) conceptualizations of
the process of moral decision- making (and therefore agency and
responsibility). Her problem with all
these schools is that in their dependence upon reason alone they do not explain
how reason reconciles with desire in the common cases when they are at odds
(Kennett considers the case of alignment of reason and desire to be
fortuitous). Although this is a
critical review it is edifying and illustrates the various problems with
explaining moral action.
The second issue derived from the above-mentioned
review by Kennett is the lack of any suitable account of a relationship between
moral conclusions and action. This deficit provides Kennett with the last point
of departure (self-control) she needs to construct her own theory.
The essential outline of her project is to provide a
structure for both evaluative thinking about moral problems (which would draw
from practical reason, desire and other factors such as appreciation for the
feelings of others) and for action (or restraint). Kennetts taxonomy of self-control (the structure for
action/restraint) is so clearly done that some difficult issues yield under the
pressure of its reasonableness.
It is the former, the basis for evaluations, which
gives rise to my only complaint about the book. One can sense early on that there is a Kantian solution to
Kennetts problem with rationalistic schemas for moral evaluations. So, midway
in the book, she concludes that if we are rational, we are motivated in
accordance with evaluative judgments (the Kantian view, extremely
abbreviated). There are other areas in
the book where I wished that Kennett had shined the beam of her highly informed
and reasonable mind (such as the origins of common sense views of agency and
responsibility, and the ultimate source of correct reasoning), but I understand
her wise reluctance to digress. Her
final reliance on Kant though stands virtually naked among the other adequately
clothed theories. This reads as inconsistent
and deprives the reader of a richer understanding of this crucial point (an
understanding that I believe Kennett can deliver).
Ultimately her thesis is that agency, and thus
responsibility, is to be judged based upon an individuals ability to evaluate
all relevant circumstances and to act accordingly (a theory, which unlike those
reviewed by the author, can embrace both legal and psychological thought on the
same subject). Here Kennett returns to
the weak-willed, the compulsive and the reckless to give her theory the acid
test of common experience.
The final part of the book is perhaps the most
interesting. In A Rogues Gallery
Kennett takes up the cases of dumbfoundingly evil people and their
actions. She is successful in testing
her own system of moral reasoning (and thus agency and judgment) against some
big-hitters. The most convincing part
of this exercise is her demonstration that we need not be overly concerned with
the content of evil action to pass a judgment of responsibility (a common stumbling block when heinous acts
force us to categorize the perpetrators as fundamentally different from us and
There are several other pearls in this slim volume,
such as Kennetts discussion of moral luck (e.g. the good fortune not to have
to decide about things like complicity with a treacherous government). It is also worth mentioning that Kennett
provides real life examples, rather than bizarre thought experiments or
abstract logic to illuminate her points.
Her approach is as democratic as are her claims about moral reasoning.
several points where the authors warmth and commitment to a moral life come
through while she manages the rigors of analytic philosophy. It is this final point that I find most
appealing in this book. If one reads
between the lines, you get the feeling that Kennett believes that moral health,
mental health and the proper use of agency are, if not the same, intimately
entwined. This book can be seen as both
a primer on the subject as well as an explication of Kennetts theory. My feelingand hopeis that it is a first
chapter of an exploration of values and agency within the larger context of
modern, secular psychology.
2002 Mark D. Rego
Mark D. Rego,
M.D., Psychiatry, Milford, Connecticut
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