Monday, September 24, 2012

Finished reading: The Elements of Moral Philosophy

This evening I finished reading, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James Rachels (McGraw-Hill College, 3rd edition 1999; previous editions 1986, 1993).

I have read a number of books on Ethics; it’s quite different from all others. Though written for the students, it retains the philosophical tenor well. Not only Rachels discusses important arguments put forward by the important schools of moral philosophy, he contributes towards devising a new Moral Theory also.

Distinctively, he equates Morality with Reason. “It is an offense against morality because it is first an offense against reason.”

Have a look at the scheme of the book, not the contents of the chapters. Rachels starts each chapter with a relevant quotation which is enlightening. Copied are these quotations also along with the title of the chapters:

1. What is morality?

We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.
[Socrates, as reported by Plato in the Republic (CA. 390 B.C.)] 

2. The challenge of cultural relativism

Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.
[Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (1934)]

3. Subjectivism in ethics

Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice . . . You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ‘tis the object of feeling, not reason.
[David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740)]

4. Does morality depend on religion?

The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment.
[Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative (1947)]

I respect deities. I do not rely upon them.
[Musashi Miyamoto, At Ichijqji Temple (1608)]

5. Psychological egoism

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded.
[Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)]

6. Ethical egoism

The achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.
[Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (1961)]

7. The utilitarian approach

Given our present perspective, it is amazing that Christian ethics down through the centuries could have accepted almost unanimously the sententious doctrine that “the end does not justify the means.” We have to ask now, “If the end does not justify the means, what does?” The answer is, obviously, “Nothing!”
[Joseph Fletcher, Moral Responsibility (1967)]

8. The debate over utilitarianism

The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being desirable as means to that end.
[John Stuart Mills, Utilitarianism (1861)]

Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.
[Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1889)]

9. Are there absolute moral rules?

For many who have never heard of philosophy, let alone of Kant, morality is roughly what Kant said it was.
[Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (1966)]

10. Kant and respect for persons

Are there any who would not admire man?
[Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486)]

11. The idea of a social contract

The passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles, are they, which otherwise are called the Laws of Nature.
[Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)]

12. Feminism and the ethics of care

But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail.
[Virginian Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)]

13. The ethics of virtue

The concepts of obligation, and duty – moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say – and what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of “ought,” to be jettisoned . . . It would be a great improvement if, instead of “morally wrong,” one always named a genus such as “untruthful,” “unjust.”
[G. E. M. Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy (1958)]

14. What would a satisfactory moral theory be like?

Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has already been said . . . I believe the opposite . . . Compared with the other sciences, Non-Religious Ethics is the youngest and least advanced.
[Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (1984)]

All in all, it’s a worth-reading book (232 pages).

And here are the last lines by Rachels:

“As the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit has observed, the earth will remain habitable for another billion years, and civilization is now only a few thousand years old. If we do not destroy ourselves, moral philosophy, along with all the other human inquiries, may yet have a long way to go.”
Rachels has published another book: The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy (1999).

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