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What Should I Do?Review - What Should I Do?
Philosophers on the Good, the Bad, and the Puzzling
by Alexander George
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Aline Medeiros Ramos
Oct 4th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 40)

Can you imagine if there were a highbrow version of "Ask Amy", where you could mail/e-mail all of your most puzzling questions concerning what to do when you encounter a philosophical dilemma?  Alas, some philosophers have already thought about that, of course!  After What Would Socrates Say?, published in 2007, comes What Should I Do?, the second book to be published based on the website askphilosophers.org, where people can post questions and professional (i.e. academic) philosophers reply, somewhat in a similar style as "Ask Amy", but with more of an intellectual content.

What Should I Do?, which is aimed at a general audience, is divided into four main chapters, entitled the personal, the public, the political, and the nature of morality, and each chapter is divided into sub-sections.  Each of these sections features questions which have been posted on the website, and select responses -- sometimes more than one -- follow accordingly. The book (like the website) has contributions by many philosophers from different parts of the world, most of whom are really well-regarded in the academic world, such as Thomas Pogge, Peter Lipton, and Marc Lange.  

Now, although all contributors are academics, the language of the book is very accessible.  The questions being asked relate to concerns of (the examined) everyday life, and are not strictly philosophical in content.  The responses, in turn, are written to match the intentions of the questions, having an equally broad reach, and, despite hinting at some philosophical theories and concepts, remain simple enough for the general public to understand -- but are not dumbed down to the point of looking like mere self-help.

Topics include an array of potentially controversial themes, such as death, suicide, character, cheating, parenting, euthanasia, abortion, punishment, and religion, to name just a few.  Of course, these are certainly too many issues for a book of only about 200 pages to cover in a thoroughly satisfying manner, so do not expect exhaustive commentaries or in-depth philosophical analysis of each of them, but rather introductory remarks and some majorly relevant philosophical notes.  As the editor makes clear in the book's introduction, the aim of the contributors is to provide responses, not answers, and to foster further reflection.  In other words, What Sould I Do? provides training wheels for people who do not have a formal philosophical education and gives them some background to think things through (or look for more resources) on their own, rather than simply telling people what to do.

Those with more of a philosophical curiosity -- or those wanting to expand on one (or all) of those themes -- can find at the end of the book bibliography lists for suggested readings in ethics (including books by well-known authors such as Simon Blackburn, Michael Sandel, and Bernard Williams), some foundational texts (by Aristotle, Kant, and Mill), collections of classical and modern readings, and suggested introductions to philosophy.  It must be highlighted that the suggested bibliography, unlike that of many other allegedly accessible philosophy books, is not at all overwhelming: it is concise and the books have been carefully chosen.

Despite a few of the book sections seeming a little less formally philosophical in content (e.g. the first section of the book, on children), What Sould I Do? is overall a very good window for people with no philosophical training to find some answers to their philosophical concerns -- or directions on how to go about looking for such answers -- as well as for them to understand a little bit more of what philosophy is about, and bring philosophy closer together to the concerns of our everyday lives by helping non-philosophers figure out not simply what the right thing to do is, but instead how to think about it.

 

© 2011 Aline Medeiros Ramos

 

Aline Medeiros Ramos, PhD candidate in philosophy, Université du Québec à Montréal.  medeiros_ramos.aline@courrier.uqam.ca


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