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Moralism. A study of a vice is book about the subtleties of moralism and can be seen as a philosophical work concerned with the implications of meta-ethical reflections for practical ethics. While being a work in meta-ethics concerning the nature and status of moral judgments and its distortions, it has practical implications for daily life events from the way we read literature to the mode in which we listen and participate in public debates.
The introduction argues that moralism is a type of vice which is created by a distortion in thought, reflection and judgment about people and events, and that moralism can be thought as an indication of certain defects of character. Most of the first chapter is relatively uncontroversial and lays down in general terms the previous reflections made about moralism pointing out how there is legal moralism, aesthetic moralism, how it is used in theology and some of the main works that have been done about moralism such as Williams's account of moralism. Distinguishing moralism from hypocrisy and self-righteousness while establish the connection between these, Craig Taylor explains that the following chapters will point out in which way specific moral judgments may be faulty independently of their truthfulness and how moral thought is tight to certain emotional responses of sympathy. Finally, pointing out how literature is highly relevant to our moral engagement because our moral life is closely tight to our identity and our understanding other people's identity.
The second chapter, "The Scarlet Letter: "a tale of human frailty and sorrow," argues that certain primitive responses to other people and situations are at the core of our moral judgments and moralistic judgments are those not informed by these primitive responses. Suggesting that these primitive responses are immediate and precede thought, Craig Taylor examines and explores pity using Nathaniel Hawthorne's novella The Scarlet Letter. In this same chapter, Taylor indicates a difference between his view and other moral cognitivist theories.
The next chapter aims to consider moralism as a sign of failure of trusting in such primitive responsiveness, and how it involves escaping from serious and genuine moral thought. Then, Taylor shows how sometimes these immediate primitive responses are not clear, nor apparent to us and exemplifies this opaqueness with the case of the exhibition by the Australian photographer Bill Henson on May 2008, which was labeled as obscene, exploitative and morally objectionable.
On Chapter 4 Taylor turns to examine how moralism is generally considered in moral theory. Taylor argues that I impartial moral theories distort our understanding of value because they do not properly account for primitive responsiveness. Pointing out how William's and other contemporary philosophers' claims are distinct from his own claims, Taylor rejects the presumption that our personal relationships and projects require justification. Showing how some moral theories trespass into areas of human life in which they should have no authority, Taylor suggests that we have to rethink the way other people's suffering make demands upon us, and consequently rethink the way we conceive morality and its place in our lives.
Chapter 5 expands and goes deeper into the ideas introduced in the second chapter and examines how certain works of literature can contribute to enrich our moral thought and help us avoid moralistic judgments and adopting moralistic postures. Also, Taylor argues in this chapter that moral thought is not only concerned with making explicit moral judgments. Reflecting upon the well-known exchange between Diamond and Onora O'Neil, Taylor argues that learning to think in moral ways is not only to learn how to judge but also how to apply the specific moral concepts correctly to people and actions in certain specific situations. The chapter concludes with an illustration of the reflection undergone with Conrad's novel Lord Jim.
Chapter 6 can be seen as an extension of chapter 5, where Taylor returns to consider what is involved in making moral judgments arguing that a certain class of moral judgments is essentially personal. The argument is a direct challenge to the claim that moral judgments are always universalizable. In contrast, Taylor argues for a broader conception of moral thought, which accepts that there is more than one conception of the moral life. At the end of the chapter Taylor states that moral reflection involves the capacity to ask oneself certain questions, in addition to the grasp of moral concepts and theories and the ability to make moral judgments showing how the fact that the world can be morally conflicted and we may lose our moral bearings as the novel Disgrace illustrates.
Finally, Chapter Seven on "Public Moralism" is concerned with the practical application of the conception of moral thought developed throughout the book. Taylor examines moralism in public debates about the actions of political leaders showing the possible disconnections between a person's moral judgments and the political reality approaching the problem through the problem of "dirty-hands" in politics.
In the Conclusion of the book, Taylor summarizes his position by looking at the tale of Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot pointing out how despite the fact that the prince is undoubtedly extremely morally thoughtful he lacks the kind of primitive emotional responsiveness he has argued is essential to understanding others. Taylor then concludes that fairness demands that we be moved by pity, sympathy, friendship and tenderness making this book an important contribution for the necessary inclusion of emotional resources for meta-ethical considerations.
© 2012 Dina Mendonça
Dina Mendonça, Ph.D. Instituto de Filosofia da Linguagem, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa
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