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MatterWhy I Burned My Book and Other Essays on DisabilityWhy Not Kill Them All?Why Punish? 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!
This book consists of an introduction, ten sections each containing two chapters, and an index. Each chapter is new, at least in its present form. In sections one, two, four and five, the second chapter responds to the first. In the third section, the first chapter is the response. In sections six, seven and eight, neither chapter is a response. The introduction, which contains some bad writing and makes rather artificial links between the sections, makes none of that easily apparent (nor, incidentally, does the book number the sections). Moreover, the introduction says little on the nature of social philosophy, a notion which, according to Philip Pettit in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, lacks 'a fixed meaning in current philosophical circles.' In fact, Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy consists almost entirely of political philosophy and/or practical ethics. While the work's intended audience is not specified, it would consists of those, working in ('Analytical') political theory and practical ethics, who are either 'advanced' undergraduates, or postgraduates, or professionals. I comment upon each section of the book in turn. I embolden section titles.
The opening section on equality begins with a chapter by G. A. Cohen, a prominent political philosopher. Cohen's stylistically difficult piece argues for a simple thesis. To wit: if one holds that freedom is compromised by interference and liability to interference, one must accept that poverty reduces freedom. Cohen's wider aim is to contest an argument he calls 'right-wing'. That argument summarizes as follows. (1) The promotion of freedom is a primary governmental task. (2) Freedom is as construed by the interference view. Therefore (3) poverty does not reduce freedom. Hence (4) alleviating poverty is not a primary governmental task. Cohen's novel business is to show that, even if one grants 1 and 2, 3 and 4 do not follow. In his chapter responding to Cohen, Leif Wenar charges that, by identifying lack of interference as (Cohen's expression) 'freedom itself', Cohen grossly simplifies the idea of freedom. This is triply disingenuous. Cohen's piece is concerned, not with the truth of premise 2, but with its failure to support 3 and 4. Two-thirds of the way through his chapter (p. 48), Wenar unreservedly accepts the first point. And Cohen uses 'freedom itself' only in this sense: if one accepts the interference view, one must accept that poverty reduces, not just the ability to use freedom so construed, but that freedom itself. But Wenar has another, and better, objection. To wit: on the political right, 'there is a strong tendency to use what Cohen calls the "rights-definition" of freedom' -- 'to speak of freedom as having the opportunity to do what one has the right to do' such as vote, or speak freely, or practice one's religion (all p. 49). That may be correct; but Wenar goes further. '[I]t will be uncommon to find a significant right-wing figure making a statement about freedom that is not interpretable in such a moralized sense (idem). Wenar himself at least somewhat exempts Friedrich Hayek -- but what of Hobbes? What too of much of the normal discourse of right-wing political parties? While Wenar might deem much of that discourse insufficiently insignificant, it is unclear that it is helpful to do so. One may worry, too, that some ostensible rightist commitment to the 'rights-definition' is sham -- especially given how Wenar opens his article. He does so by relating President Bush writing, 'Let Freedom Reign!' upon a note that told him Iraq had become an independent democracy. This 'contrived' response, Wenar admits, tried 'to frame American perceptions of [. . .] events' (p. 43). Others, albeit controversially, allege more: that Bush's Republicans care little for democracy.
Rosalind Hursthouse, a well known 'virtue ethicist', opens the section on the family. She proposes a minimal conception of the good family, according to which, roughly, a good family is one whose members love and support one another (and especially any children). More: philosophers should use the conception develop 'practicable proposals' (p. 67) about how to support families that meet the minimal criterion and about how to help families that do not ('dysfunctional families'). Such proposals, Hursthouse thinks, would not involve much politics (or ethics). Thus she believes that here one has a task for a philosophy that is properly social as against political (or moral). The response to Hursthouse by Elizabeth Cohen reveals the minimal conception and the accompanying proposals to be less neutral than Hursthouse realizes.
The sexual rights section is largely about homosexuality. While the first chapter responds to the second, each author also attacks the other's previous publications. Some of John Corvino's arguments tell against Christopher Wolfe's opposition to homosexuality. Yet the chapters talk past one another considerably.
The chapters on abortion and the limits of freedom are lamentable. The first, which invokes Schopenhauer to no discernible effect, is confusing and confused. Witness the following. 'Now, even if one accepts the notion that that which is human is, both individually and collectively, more precious than all the rest, it does not thereby follow that all that is human is precious' (p. 113; sic). The second chapter, by the editor, at best simply repeats the idea, drawn from J. J. Thomson's much better paper on abortion, that permissibility is compatible with blameworthiness.
The chapters on privacy are reasonable. The strangely overlapping chapters on religious tolerance amount to one decent piece.
The chapters on diversity are by Lawrence Blum and David Benatar. Blum's chapter surveys proposals about how states and institutions should treat group identities claimed by women and by members of races/ethnicities and cultures. Benatar does two things. First, he denies that benefits of (mainly sexual and racial) diversity justify affirmative action in universities. Second, he argues that some elements of non-dominant cultures are valuable and to be celebrated, whereas others, at best and for the sake of avoiding greater evils, are merely to be tolerated. Worryingly, one gets the sense that Benatar would place a very great deal on the toleration side of the line.
Racial integration. Elizabeth Anderson argues that various kinds of racial segregation do various serious harms, and that the resulting obligation to promote integration should issue in various policies including affirmative action in schools and workplaces. Carl Cohen's (independent) chapter is an attack on the idea that past injustice justifies affirmative action. Both chapters are good.
F. M. Kamm's chapter on scarce resources is a careful and largely neutral analysis of moral issues of rationing. A chapter by B. R. Boxill reaches two conclusions via a close reading of Locke. (1) The rich should support the education of members of those groups that, the law be as it may, will be discriminated against. (2) Apropos 'scarce resources of places in colleges and universities as well as in professional schools', Lockean principles 'may require preferential treatment for such groups, both to prevent their justified and destabilizing resentment and to put the wasted and potentially useful talents they possess in the service of preserving mankind' (p. 295).
The final section is entitled 'Violence'. The title is curious (as is that of the 'sexual rights' section). For the section's principal subject is failure to act against 'subtle forms of racism in institutional settings' (p. 303). Such racism may involve something describable as psychological violence. Yet this section little considers even that particular form of violence. I do not find those chapters particularly illuminating.
So: some chapters are good, some mediocre, and some bad. The book houses some starkly opposing views, but wastes opportunities by putting its contributors into debate only sporadically. The volume combines practical ethics and political philosophy in a somewhat unusual way; and it has quite a lot of reasonable material on race and affirmative action. On other topics, especially abortion, other collections do better.
© 2008 Nicholas Joll
Nicholas Joll, Ph.D., Junior Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Essex, Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire