In the past few decades, scientists of human nature--including experimental and cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, evolutionary theorists, and behavioral economists--have explored the way we arrive at moral judgments. They have called into question commonplaces about character and offered troubling explanations for various moral intuitions. Research like this may help explain what, in fact, we do and feel. But can it tell us what we ought to do or feel?
In Experiments in Ethics, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores how the new empirical moral psychology relates to the age-old project of philosophical ethics. Some moral theorists hold that the realm of morality must be autonomous of the sciences others maintain that science undermines the authority of moral reasons. Appiah elaborates a vision of naturalism that resists both temptations. He traces an intellectual genealogy of the burgeoning discipline of 'experimental philosophy,' provides a balanced, lucid account of the work being done in this controversial and increasingly influential field, and offers a fresh way of thinking about ethics in the classical tradition. Appiah urges that the relation between empirical research and morality, now so often antagonistic, should be seen in terms of dialogue, not contest. And he shows how experimental philosophy, far from being something new, is actually as old as philosophy itself. Beyond illuminating debates about the connection between psychology and ethics, intuition and theory, his book helps us to rethink the very nature of the philosophical enterprise.
©2008 Kwame Anthony Appiah (P)2008 Caravan
Some people may be put off by the academic language and many references to history (which a widely-read person will recognize), especially early in the book. For me, my patience was pretty quickly rewarded. Listening to the sample will give a good sense of this. This author is digging through (and mapping out) something absolutely vital: what we see as good, right, wrong, by ourselves and in groups, and then, how we really act in situations that challenge us in these ways. The author takes us through history and all kinds of ways of thought from ancient times through the present (spanning philosophy, various branches of science, folkways and religions, tracing right up into the recent cognitive psychology) showing the sort of grab-bag we use, in arriving at who to be, what to do, and how to react. I find the language to be crackling English prose with an ideally English narrator, but I admit I do have a high verbal IQ and lots of education. If you like to take apart what you and others feel and do, and you like a bigger context in history and various ways of thought, it's ideal.
catholic majoring in classics and religious studies, student of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, world religions, psychology, philosophy.
Appiah, Ghanian-born philosopher at Princeton, has written a dense but insightful book on the connections between moral philosophy and the moral sciences. He examines key notions underlying Western moral theories – character, intuition, and moral modules – and complicated them with findings from the current moral sciences. The term “moral sciences” reflects an old usage, a remnant of a time when disciplines studying human behavior were studied in philosophy departments. Appiah wants to bring back that unity.
Character, the underlying concept of virtue ethics, is the idea that certain habits or tendencies can be cultivated to make for a good moral life. For Aristotle, happiness requires virtue, so living virtuously is a component of one’s own flourishing. Appiah complicates this concept by pointing to current research on the situational changes in human behavior. Things as petty as finding a dime or being in a hurry affect whether or not one will be generous to others. This situationalism contrasts with the globalism of Aristotle’s approach, in which character is stable in all situations. It’s not comforting to think how many faces we present to the world.
Intuition, that other great bulwark of moral philosophy, is also up for grabs. Every moral theory, no matter how logic, involves a certain amount of “it just seems this way!” Hence the intractability of philosophy. But ‘experimental philosophy’ surveys examining laypeoples’ moral intuitions show that layfolk are just as divided on their intuitions as philosophers are, and philosophical debates reflect differences in moral intuition in the broader population. For example, take the famous trolley problem where an out-of-control trolley is heading toward a group of four people. If you flip the switch, it will go on another track and kill only one person. Most people agree flipping the switch is okay. But if you can only stop the trolley by pushing a fat man onto the tracks, killing him but stopping the trolley, people are more divided on their intuitions. The underlying intuition is that “directly” harming someone is wrong, but indirectly doing it is kosher. But the outcome is the same. Is this intuition something we should heed, or is it a moral illusion, akin to a visual illusion? How could we know?
The same goes for the alleged moral modules. Far from being cross-cultural, Appiah demonstrates that cultures vary widely in how concepts like purity and cleanliness, honor and shame approached. Cultures with strong purity codes, such as ancient Israel, see things such as menstruation and homosexual acts as unclean. Modern American society is more likely to see this concern with purity as silliness, as “impurity” does not actually harm anyone. (Young boys consider cooties unclean, but there is no real harm in touching a girl.) How do we deal with the empirical diversity of moral behavior and intuition?
Appiah ends with a call for moral sciences that encapsulate the complexity of human life, neither reducing moral philosophy to a series of algorithms (utilitarianism) nor a series of moral conundrums (intuition pumps).
I agree with much of what Appiah says. However, at heart I am still a virtue ethicist. Studies showing the variability of character only point to a problem for virtue ethics, not a defeater. Spiritual practices such as Buddhist mindfulness and Ignatian self-reflection serve to unify the self and make us aware of little ways, unseen ways, in which we act. Appiah didn’t address this, but I suspect empirical findings would show that people who engage in systematic practices of self-reflection are less fickle in their behaviors.
The narration was good too.
The choices people make in certain circumstances were very interesting, but the book dove into the circumstances to deep. Also throughout the entire book the author used big and complex words, where the point could have been made better with common language. Finally, the narrator had an accent which was very hard to understand.
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