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New Waves in EthicsReview - New Waves in Ethics
by Thom Brooks (Editor)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Review by ChloŽ FitzGerald, Ph.D.
Apr 3rd 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 14)

The stimulating collection of papers assembled by Thom Brooks in New Waves in Ethics spans an impressively wide range of ethical areas and trends within the contemporary analytic philosophy scene.  Brooks has captured a representative sample of young philosophers working in ethics today with diverse approaches and preoccupations.  Of particular note is the focus of many of the papers on psychology, whether this involves discussion of actual empirical psychology or merely an emphasis on constructing a realistic psychological basis for normative theories.  On the whole, the papers are not suitable for a general audience with little or no knowledge of current academic debates; they are geared towards the academic philosophy community and would be appropriate for advanced philosophy undergraduates.  Consequently, the editor does not quite achieve his declared aim of providing a collection accessible to those who are 'coming to the study of ethics for the first time' (p. 1).  The collection would be intimidating to those unfamiliar with the technicality of the debates of contemporary analytic philosophers and I would not recommend it as a general introduction to ethics.

The first two papers have a historical theme. Leonard Khan suggests how modern moral philosophies, such as Kantianism, can respond to Bernard Williams' famous challenge that they do not allow a place for moral conflict and rational moral regret.  Kahn takes Williams' challenge seriously and crafts a careful solution that involves an appeal to contributory moral reasons.  The historical theme of the second paper is its inspiration in the work of the British Idealists; Thom Brooks provides us with a fresh approach to the role of punishment through examining this movement of philosophers, inspired by Hegel and Kant.  He convincingly argues that they have much to teach contemporary theorists about the possibility of creating a unified theory of punishment.

The following four papers discuss aspects of choice and motivation from widely differing perspectives.  Chrisoula Andreou's insightful paper is a great example of how a common-sense approach to our psychology and rationality can make a philosophical puzzle disappear.  She points out that the problem of how to choose rationally among incomparable options dissolves if we step back from consideration of an isolated decision made at one point in time and look at the rationality involved in a person's patterns of choice and habits.  Danielle Bromwich's paper thoughtfully examines the merits of variations of motivational internalism - the meta-ethical thesis that moral judgements necessarily motivate - and argues that the internalist should insist on a non-defeasible connection between first-person moral belief and motivation.  This position has not been much defended in the literature and opens up a new avenue for the internalist brave enough to reject the Humean theory of motivation.  In his fascinating paper on distributive justice, Iwao Hirose defends a new version of telic egalitarianism -- weighted egalitarianism -- that he claims is preferable to prioritarianism and does not suffer from the 'levelling down objection' raised by Derek Parfit.  Weighted egalitarianism is attractive because, like prioritarianism, it gives priority to the worse off in society, while defining who is 'worse off' in a more plausible manner: weighted egalitarianism defines the worse off in terms of their rank position in society, while prioritarianism defines them in terms of their absolute level of well-being.  The last of the papers in this group examines the psychologist Jonathan Haidt's influential theory of moral judgement, thus exemplifying the recent trend of moral philosophers actively engaging with empirical psychology.  S. Matthew Liao argues against Haidt's claim that our moral reasoning is biased because we are motivated to 1) agree with our friends, and 2) stick to a coherent world view; Liao clarifies the relevant notion of bias at work and makes the important point that these tendencies may not always be biased because 1) we can have epistemically rational reasons for trusting our friends' judgements and 2) our justified background beliefs can determine how we respond to new evidence.

The next two papers in the collection focus on character and personhood.  Mari Mikkola proposes a definition of dehumanisation that is of vital importance to explain the wrongness of violations such as rape.  She argues persuasively for a humanist feminism, claiming that feminists are better off appealing to a thin biological conception of the human being, rather than relying on highly contested conceptions of sex and gender.  Christian Miller's paper tackles the challenges of situationist social psychology to our conception of character traits.  He discusses interesting empirical research that shows that the emotions of guilt and embarrassment make people more likely to help others, and argues for the intermediate position that we do possess what he calls 'global helping traits', but that these traits are not like the trait of compassion as conceived in Aristotelian virtue ethics.

The last four papers in the collection address issues in applied ethics and political philosophy.  Gerhard Øverland uses a version of hypothetical contractualism -- which says it is permissible to distribute harms and benefits in a hypothetical situation of uncertainty in a way that would have been accepted by each person before knowing exactly who would receive the harms and benefits -  to work out the conditions under which it might be permissible to let someone die so that others benefit.  He claims that the counterexamples proposed to hypothetical contractualism are not as problematic as they seem.  Lisa Fuller tackles a highly relevant issue in global ethics, arguing that we should listen more to what the global poor say they want from humanitarian programs rather than taking the paternalistic attitude that we know best what will help them.  Nicole Hassoun also discusses global ethics, addressing the area of Fair Trade and subsidies.  She notes that there is little work in ethics on this area and defends the view, using empirical evidence, that some export subsidies and the purchase of Fair Trade products can sometimes be morally required.  Turning to reasoning in deliberative democracy, Ian O'Flynn critically examines a conception of 'the public interest', claiming that it is still relevant and important as a goal despite the pluralism of our societies.  Last but not least, Jonathan Webber injects a welcome dose of optimism into the debate over how to convince the public that climate change matters.  He argues that we need to take into account how people's psychology works and which values they already have when convincing them of the importance of the environment and how to change their behavior. 

The difficulty with assembling a collection of papers in 'ethics' is that ethics can be taken to include many (sub)fields, such as applied ethics, normative ethics, meta-ethics, moral psychology, and even political philosophy.  Given that there are already volumes in the New Waves series on applied ethics, on meta-ethics and on political philosophy, I expected this volume to concentrate on normative ethics, or at least on the areas of ethics that did not fit easily under any of these other (sub)fields.  However, some of the papers in the volume could be classified as political philosophy, others as applied ethics, yet others as meta-ethics.  Of course, all these areas of ethics are heavily intertwined and some would argue that aspects of the current divisions can be unhelpful (as does Jonathan Webber in his paper in this collection).  Brooks states that the volume should cover 'the area of ethics, broadly construed' and he achieves this, providing a rich overview of the array of subjects being studied.

 

© 2012 Chloë FitzGerald

 

Chloë FitzGerald has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Manchester, UK.  Her thesis was supervised by Prof. Peter Goldie and was on the topic of moral intuitions; she works on issues at the intersection of moral psychology, normative ethics and bioethics.  She is currently postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy, the University of Western Ontario, Canada, working on the CIHR funded project 'Let conscience be their guide? Conscientious refusals in reproductive health care'.


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