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Towards the end of the chapter Appiah remarks that the greatest works in ethics exhibit a deep, irrepressible heterogeneity, heterogeneity that reflects a richness and complexity of the ethical life he believes that many moral philosophers overlook in their quest for neat (even: intricate) theories. This last chapter is certainly heterogeneous: starting with remarks on happiness and flourishing, it shifts to a brief discussion of meta-ethics and different forms of naturalism, moves on to poke fun at ‘quandary ethics’ and its contemporary successors, and ends with, well, a reminder of the irreducible complexity of the ethical life, and a plea for pluralism, both evaluative and methodological.

Well-being and the end of human life 

The discussion of well-being takes a form that will be familiar to most readers of this blog. If happiness just means subjective contentment, then happiness could not be the end of human life—could not be what we ought to seek, as suggested by our reaction to Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ or to contentment founded on deception or betrayal by others. Views according to which we set our own standards for what counts as happiness for us (roughly, desire-safisfaction theories of well-being) are similarly dismissed. Cruelty cannot make a life go well even if it is what someone wants as an end in itself, nor is a good life to be achieved simply by the adoption of very low standards. What this shows is that we want what we want for ourselves to be something worth wanting—something “consistent with human decency and connected with humanly intelligible values.” Unsurprisingly, all of this leads Appiah to Aristotle: the end of human life is flourishing. Life is a challenge to be faced, and living well is an achievement. Aristotle’s ethics, as we shall see, also informs the rest of the chapter.  I have little sympathy for hedonism and desire-satisfaction views (though rejecting these needn’t lead us to Aristotle). But there is something odd about Appiah’s discussion of well-being. His book is after all about the ways science might transform ethics. But he completely ignores the massive and fascinating empirical research into well-being—research that is not exclusively focused on subjective contentment.  

The significance of meta-ethics 

Appiah then turns to raise an interesting question about meta-ethics. Could meta-ethical questions about the nature of morality really be as dramatically important as it may sometimes seems, if first-order ethics would go on exactly as before whichever side is right? What is important is how we should live our lives, and debates in meta-ethics seem to make no difference to this question. Appiah therefore concludes that they are not morally important. Now the meta-ethicist could reply that meta-ethical questions are not meant to be morally important, in that sense. They are philosophical important—important to those who want to understand what morality is, and that kind of understanding might be extremely valuable (indeed is very likely to be if we take Aristotle’s take on human flourishing seriously). And meta-ethics would be of little moral significance only if Appiah (and many others) are right about the first-order neutrality of meta-ethics. Those (like myself) who do not think that there is such a sharp dividing line between meta-ethics and substantive ethics, may still think that meta-ethics is extremely important even from a normative standpoint. 

Appiah does briefly discuss one example where meta-ethical considerations seem to bear on substantive moral thinking—Richard Joyce’s evolutionary argument for an error-theory. Appiah points out that we do not think that such consequences follow from the evolutionary stories we tell about the origins of our capacities to understand the physical world around us (some theists would disagree). So why should the parallel evolutionary story about morality present any problem? The culprit, Appiah suggests, is the view that ethics is autonomous. Once we overcome this idea, Joyce’s radical conclusion can be easily defused. I have doubts about this diagnosis, and about the suggested solution. Richard Joyce does have an account of the asymmetry between evolutionary explanations of empirical and moral dispositions: the former need to cite the relevant empirical facts but the latter don’t need to cite any moral facts. There is much more to say on this topic but this is one of a number of points where Appiah considers what might be a genuine scientific challenge to morality yet ends up dismissing it in a way that I find unpersuasive.  

Quandaries and complications 

The book ends with gentle but forceful criticism of the kind of ethics that seeks to develop neat theories or identify general moral principles through careful investigation of sharply delineated ‘moral quandaries’ (the author of the book discussed in our previous reading group is obviously a target). Such approaches to ethics ignore ‘our particularity’, they forget that in real life moral decisions do not take a ‘multiple choice’ form, indeed that often the moral task is precisely to find the right description (or ‘framing’) of situations that rarely present themselves to us divided into several clear options. And these approaches also forget that justification is a social activity, conducted in conversation with others, not an abstract exercise of reason. There is no theory of decision procedure that will help us make sound moral decisions in such situations. If we seek moral illumination, Appiah suggests that we turn not to theories but to novels or movies. Although the word is not mentioned, the book ends with a resounding endorsement of particularism (no doubt Appiah would prefer to avoid the –ism).  

The earlier Aristotelian remarks about human flourishing are marshalled in support of all this. For surely when it comes to seeking eudaimonia it would be useless, Appiah thinks, to reflect on far-fetched thought experiments or engage in experimental philosophy. To attempt that, he says, would be like trying to find your way at night with a laser pointer. Aristotle, Appiah reminds us, does not spend his time constructing trolley problems. 

This book began by recommending philosophical openness to scientific input, but it ends with a humanistic turn. I don’t want to defend the excesses of puzzle-oriented ethics, but I do have a number of critical points. 

Consider first Appiah’s last remark. Perhaps Aristotle didn’t construct trolley problems. But it did not take long for Greek philosophers to sound not so unlike Frances Kamm – the debates between Stoics, Sceptics and Epicureans are full of intricate examples. The reason isn’t that Aristotle’s successors forgot that justification is conversation but precisely that they did engage in serious conversation. Conversation leads to disagreement, and disagreement is rarely resolved by sending someone to read your favourite novel (is disagreement about the relevance of novels to ethics to be resolved by reading the right novel?). If the conversation is not to collapse we need to be ever more clear about what is at stake—and then quandary ethics is just around the corner.  

I do not want to deny that we can find moral illumination in literature or that contemporary ethics isn’t often stale. But the idea that ethics should really be about reading Dostoevsky, that the ethical life is too complex and mysterious to be ever captured in a theory is merely a comforting fantasy. It’s also a familiar fantasy: defenders of Aristotelian physics and biology made similar points. But the fact that you can’t learn how to dance from quantum mechanics is hardly an objection to modern physics.  

Appiah presents ‘quandary ethics’ as about problem solving, deciding out to act. But the same approach can be applied to questions about how to live. Indeed Appiah himself relies on it: that’s exactly how the experience machine, or the example of the contented swine, are supposed to lead us to reject hedonism. Should we object, then, that these thought experiments are too simple or abstract, that we first need to know more about the biography of the person contemplating the experience machine? That would be absurd. But the same is true of many other problems in morality and ethics. 

Of course no theory could literally tell us how to live. But who ever claimed they should? Is this itself a straw man, a false quandary? After all, theories needn’t be decision-procedures, and decision-procedures needn’t be neat algorithms. In any case, any application of a concept to the messy world around us involves a measure of abstraction. If we wanted to do full justice to the wonderful singularity of things we would have to give up language. Particularism, taken too far, collapses into ineffability.  


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | May 17, 2008 11:01 pm

    Thanks to Appiah for a great book and to Guy Kahane for very helpful comments.

    Overall, I think “Experiments in Ethics” is an important book. I agree with most of it.

    That said, IF Appiah is suggesting that an understanding of morality is impossible to achieve, i.e., that morality (or ethics) is something that must by its nature remain forever fragmented and not well-organized, I disagree. It would take too much space to explain my reasons here, so I’ll move on to other related thoughts.

    In chapter 5, as is often the case, references to eudemonia, well-being, and flourishing are, or at least seem to be, focused on an individual’s eudemonia, well-being, or flourishing. The explicit statement, or at least the feeling, is often “my” well-being or such-and-such person’s flourishing, or the agent’s well-being or flourishing. These important concepts are often used in a way that focuses primarily (if not entirely) on an individual’s well-being or flourishing in HER/HIS life, during HER/HIS lifetime. Even when the word ‘our’ is used, as in “our flourishing”, the sense one often gets is that the word ‘our’ is used mainly because of mere numbers, i.e., because it refers to you and me and him and her as multiple individuals. In other words, even this use of ‘our’ still feels like a largely personal, individualistic thing and seems like it applies to humans currently living, disregarding generations to come and the future human enterprise.

    This raises a question, of course: How do my (or your) flourishing and my (or your) well-being relate to human flourishing and human well-being, i.e., including not only all living humans but also the ongoing human enterprise? Indeed, how does the notion of flourishing in an individual’s life relate to the notion of the ongoing, sustainable flourishing of the whole human species?

    This question or notion doesn’t seem reflected, at least not explicitly, in much of Appiah’s discussion.

    My point is this: There is an intimate and deeply-grounded linkage between morality and sustainability. Put another way, the important notion is not only, or merely, an individual’s well-being or flourishing during his particular lifetime (though that’s not unimportant, of course): Instead, the deeper aim has to do with the “sustainable flourishing” of the entire, ongoing human enterprise. (Here, I’m not getting into our interrelationships with other species or with the environment.)

  2. 2. Posted by Tony Danza | May 21, 2008 7:03 pm

    I’m not sure I want to disagree with you, Jeff, but I don’t quite see that you’ve done anything to support the claim that there is a link between morality and sustainability. It seems right that eudaimonism will have some hurdles to jump if it wants to extend concern to ‘the entire, ongoing human enterprise.’ But I’m not sure that counts against it.

  3. 3. Posted by Jeff Huggins | May 23, 2008 8:41 pm

    Tony, thanks very much for your comment.

    I haven’t laid out the argument, here, regarding the link between morality and sustainability, which is very foundational, because our focus has been on Appiah’s book. That said, Appiah’s main themes support the argument in a number of important ways.

    I’ve made a comment or two regarding each of Appiah’s chapters, as part of the reading group here on Ethics-Etc. (See earlier comments.) For more about other aspects of the argument, if you are interested, check out the following:

    On my website (www DOT ObligationsOfReason DOT com), there is a page titled “Additional Material From The Author”. On that page, you can link to several papers. Depending on where you are coming from, and your preferred style, (and if you are interested), I’d suggest the first five or ten pages of the paper “Portions of the Supporting Argument In Abbreviated Form” and the paper titled “A Framework and Paradigm Of Morality”. Also, the one called “The Nature of the Relationship Between Is and Ought” may be helpful, after reading the other two.

    I’ve presented the more complete argument, in more organized fashion, to a few folks, but I haven’t yet posted the better-organized materials on my website.

    There is an intimate relationship between all this and “eudemonia”, of course. That said, the issue isn’t really one of “either/or”. Instead, it involves the questions of what is more foundational (e.g., of ongoing survival, sustainable survival, personal eudemonia, etc. etc.), what is cake and what is icing on the cake, relative priorities, and the relationships of these things with other key aspects of social-moral life and life itself.

    Also, I can be contacted via my site, using the “Contact Author” page.

    Thanks again for your comment and question.

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