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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst Moral ResponsibilityAgency and AnswerabilityAgency and ResponsibilityAgency, Freedom, and Moral ResponsibilityAging, 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VirtueDesire, Practical Reason, and the GoodDestructive Trends in Mental HealthDid My Neurons Make Me Do It?Difference and IdentityDigital HemlockDigital SoulDignityDisability BioethicsDisability, Difference, DiscriminationDisordered Personalities and CrimeDisorders of VolitionDisorientation and Moral LifeDivided Minds and Successive SelvesDoes Feminism Discriminate against Men?Does Torture Work?Double Standards in Medical Research in Developing CountriesDrugs and JusticeDworkin and His CriticsDying in the Twenty-First CenturyEarly WarningEconomics and Youth ViolenceEmbodied RhetoricsEmerging Conceptual, Ethical and Policy Issues in BionanotechnologyEmotional ReasonEmotions in the Moral LifeEmotions in the Moral LifeEmpathyEmpathy and Moral DevelopmentEmpathy and MoralityEmpirical Ethics in PsychiatryEncountering NatureEncountering the Sacred in PsychotherapyEngendering International HealthEnhancing EvolutionEnhancing Human CapacitiesEnoughEros and the GoodErotic InnocenceErotic 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Will And Moral ResponsibilityFree Will and Reactive AttitudesFree Will, Agency, and Meaning in LifeFree?Freedom and ValueFreedom vs. InterventionFriendshipFrom Darwin to HitlerFrom Disgust to HumanityFrom Enlightenment to ReceptivityFrom Morality to Mental HealthFrom Silence to VoiceFrontiers of JusticeGender in the MirrorGenetic PoliticsGenetic ProspectsGenetic ProspectsGenetics of Original SinGenetics of Original SinGenocide's AftermathGetting RealGluttonyGood WorkGoodness & AdviceGreedGroups in ConflictGrowing Up GirlGut FeminismHabilitation, Health, and AgencyHandbook for Health Care Ethics CommitteesHandbook of BioethicsHandbook of PsychopathyHappinessHappiness and the Good LifeHappiness Is OverratedHard FeelingsHard LuckHardwired BehaviorHarmful ThoughtsHeal & ForgiveHealing PsychiatryHealth Care Ethics for PsychologistsHeterosyncraciesHistorical and Philosophical Perspectives on Biomedical EthicsHoly WarHookedHookedHow Can I Be Trusted?How Propaganda WorksHow to Do Things with 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EdenOut of Its MindOut of the ShadowsOverdosed AmericaOxford Handbook of Psychiatric EthicsOxford Textbook of Philosophy of PsychiatryPassionate DeliberationPatient Autonomy and the Ethics of ResponsibilityPC, M.D.Perfecting VirtuePersonal AutonomyPersonal Autonomy in SocietyPersonal Identity and EthicsPersonhood and Health CarePersons, Humanity, and the Definition of DeathPerspectives On Health And Human RightsPharmacracyPharmageddonPhilosophy and This Actual WorldPhilosophy of BiologyPhilosophy of Technology: The Technological ConditionPhysician-Assisted DyingPicturing DisabilityPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying God?Playing God?Political EmotionsPornlandPowerful MedicinesPractical Autonomy and BioethicsPractical EthicsPractical Ethics for PsychologistsPractical RulesPragmatic BioethicsPragmatic BioethicsPragmatic NeuroethicsPraise and BlamePreferences and Well-BeingPrimates and PhilosophersPro-Life, Pro-ChoiceProcreation and ParenthoodProfits Before People?Progress in BioethicsProperty 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Normative EthicsReview - Normative Ethics
5 Questions
by Thomas Petersen and Jesper Ryberg (Editors)
Automatic Press, 2007
Review by Patrick Giddy
Nov 10th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 46)

This book is an example of philosophical journalism, and -- to me surprisingly -- a good read. Eighteen professionals in the field of ethics are interviewed ("Five Questions" to do with their approach to the subject), each response reading rather like an article in the New Yorker. Which makes me think of its recent comic piece, "Attention, People of Earth!" (Sept 21, 2009), the aliens announcing very clearly that they mean no harm. Although it has to be admitted that there is a faction, thankfully not in power, that would like simply to annihilate the human species ("a significant majority of us find their views abhorrent and even barbaric"). Here, in Normative Ethics, the professionals announce that there are huge ethical concerns to be faced, "millions killed by war, famine or disease" as the Preface points out, while the world has the capacity to feed everyone (and perhaps stop wars). But no conclusive arguments exist to convince that we should do so, or are morally obligated to do so, as Peter Singer points out; the debate is ongoing. Along these lines Roger Crisp notes that it is paradoxical that the philosopher J.L. Mackie thinks the death penalty is wrong, but also argues (since "wrongness" is not a property of something) that the statement, "The death penalty is wrong," is false (p.15)! Moral realism (yes, it actually is wrong) is one debated view among others.

It is not as if the writers are not unaware of this quirkiness, offshoot of the demand for strict logical consistency in the discipline. What one finds disturbing about the attitude of the aliens in the New Yorker piece is its distanced nature; likewise perhaps some of the starving millions, in the unlikely event that they read this volume. There are to be sure a few writers in this collection who entered the field because of a sense of injustice. For these (for example Onora O'Neill) one has to understand that their prime concern is not with the direct promotion of justice but with making sure that the movement for justice does not subvert its own cause by superficial or patently unsound reasoning. One can of course think of writers in the field of ethics (not as a subdivision of philosophy) who are directly concerned with justice. Bartolomeo de las Casas, for example, in the sixteenth century opened the eyes of many to the injustice of the treatment of the native inhabitants of central America. Denis Hurley, archbishop of Durban, in opposition to other bishops who felt religion should stay out of politics, addressed white South Africans on the need for consistent opposition to the Apartheid system (see Paddy Kearney's new biography, UKZN Press, 2009). Another South African, Steve Biko (d.1977) argued, against white liberals, for the central need for black self-awareness and (not his term) self-appropriation.

Are these examples of "preaching" rather than moral philosophy? What we have in the above are instances of argument, although with nothing like the systematic exactitude valued in professional philosophy. The point is that the writers in the latter field have adopted a theoretical point of view, which contrasts with my examples and also interestingly enough with Aristotle's approach. He assumed that he was addressing those who are already bent on thinking through and to some extent acting on what they understand to be the good, and shunning what is evil. Ethics is about the means to something (very unclarified, in most cases) to which one is already committed. So "founding" ethics is not necessary: we, intending good, are the foundation. David Heyd of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem comes close to this idea in his argument that "ethical discourse takes off the ground only once human beings exist, both as subjects making those valuations and as objects of these valuations" (p.48). One cannot coherently look at the human species from the outside (i.e. "neutrally"), as suggested in the cases of so-called "wrongful life".  His contribution is for me one of the best.

In his critique of the neo-Aristotelianism idea that "virtues are those traits a person needs in order to flourish or live well" (p.59) Thomas Hurka asks pertinently, But who decides what flourishing actually consist in? Any such proposed candidate as "rationality" can surely be used, says Hurka, in malicious ways as well as benevolent ones. To say rationality means or includes the idea of promoting others' happiness, is to leave that as further ungrounded. We can see now that this critique misses the point, because what is sought as foundation in the Aristotelian tradition is a clarification of that obscure but motivating end (value) assumed when one thinks or deliberates ethically. Not some of itself value-neutral fact: one is not arguing, in ethics, from a theoretical point of view but from a point of view that is practically oriented and concerned with intentions.

Two remarks are consistently made by contributors: the way that ethics used to be disregarded because of its status as a philosophical anomaly (it presupposes for example free will as something established, which is not the case, it remains very much debated); secondly, the fragmented and highly tentative if not skeptical nature of contributions to the now popular field of normative and applied ethics. The merit of the contributions here lies in the explication of these kinds of problems; its demerit lies in a too frequent complacency and self-congratulatory judgment that a mild skepticism is indeed good (morally good?).

The book supplies those who wish to enter into this field a quick guide to how major practitioners are thinking, and heralding further directions that are likely to be well received. Two texts are frequently mentioned with approval, Parfit's Reasons and Persons, and Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. There is a general disapproval of "human rights" as a foundational notion, in favour of common sense intuitions at least as starting point. Here and there one finds hints of a breakthrough to the value-orientation that founds ethical deliberation properly speaking (ethics as "guiding feelings and attitudes", and as "elucidating our self-understandings", in Elizabeth Anderson's explanation). In quite a few cases following the argument where it will lead results in ethical judgments which should probably be taken as "interesting to entertain" for purposes of further thinking through the problem, rather than as final action-guiding ideas. Isn't Wittgenstein's Tractatus, to bring in a very different field of philosophy, a bit like that?

What about someone wanting to consider in a serious and classical philosophical way the best kind of life to lead, the question I have marked above as engaged rather than "distanced"? John Skorupski should have the final word here on this matter of critically assessing our ideals and values: do not look in this field of normative ethics for help. This kind of question, found in ancient ethics, taken over by theologians and priests in the Christian era, revived by nineteenth century thinkers (existentialist and Marxist approaches come to mind), has gone into abeyance. "It is not that people in 'Western' liberal democracies show a lack of moral concern about urgent moral issues such as poverty, oppression, global warming. I am raising a different question. Are we living off certain ideals without really being willing to defend or revise them, or even scrutinize them? And if so, why should this be?" (p.141) Skorupski has no answer to this. It's heartening that he notices it.

 

© 2009 Patrick Giddy

 

Patrick Giddy, School of Philosophy and Ethics, UKZN, writes about himself: "I teach philosophy at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. My areas of research include neo-Aristotelianism, in both its Alisdair MacIntyre and Bernard Lonergan guises, and philosophy of religion. Some recent publications have to do with development ethics, character, and professionalism."


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