Review – Ethical Life
Its Natural and Social Histories
by Webb Keane
Princeton University Press, 2016
Review by Bob Lane
Mar 22nd 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 12)
Often moral philosophy classes begin with an attempt to say precisely just what the subject matter of the course will be. Definitions, like this, “Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason — that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing — while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct.” (James Rachels) or, this “The ground of obligation here must be sought not in the nature of the human being or in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in concepts of pure reason.” Or following Hume, we might argue that reason can never provide the basis for morality and that at best it can serve the desires and impulses, moral or otherwise, that arise in us for non-rational reasons. On this view, as Hume put it, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”
And then an attempt to say what counts as a moral act — usually a distinction is offered at this point between acts that are conventional and acts that are moral. Driving on the right side of the road in North America is obviously (adverbs begin to appear) conventional while intentionally driving your vehicle into an innocent pedestrian to see how far the body will fly is more than conventional — it is wrong. A moral vocabulary emerges: wrong, right, permissible, prohibited, good, evil. Questions arise: Where does obligation come from? What is the role of religion in morality? Is an act good because God says so or does God say so because it is good? What about the influence of my tribe? Does one’s culture dictate what is good and what is bad?
Read the review here.