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Moral Clarity

A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists 
Susan Neiman 

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This is largely a readable and interesting book which examines the question of “is and ought” through the lens of a discussion of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment philosophy, especially Kant and Rousseau. The authorial voice is a refreshing antidote to the smarty pants books such as The Moral Animal. Unfortunately, beyond an inspiring call to revive the spirit of the Enlightenment program, this book has little new to offer. Hardly any evidence has been admitted that was not available to Kant.

Her proposal of the way forward is to study heroes. Though she does not make this connection, this suggests a return to Virtue Ethics as a more useful guide to behavior than the academic “dilemma ethics.” Yet despite her demand that we find hope, and seek for something better, she chooses heroes such as Homer's Odysseus and Abraham from the old testament. These characters do indeed capture something that is human, but the choice of such ancient exemplars seems somewhat at odds with hope.

And yet we do applaud her audacity to hope, and also strongly support her effort to reclaim the language of morality from cultural conservatives.

Though the author has nothing good to say about evolutionary psychology, there is one place where she finds agreement with observers such as Jared Diamond. She notices something that has been fairly well supported by anthropological evidence, which is that social change since prehistory (such as the rule of law) has created a kinder human environment. She says (and we heartily agree) that we should apply our minds to continued improvement of the human condition.

As she sees it, the heart of the Enlightenment was a rejection of superstition and mindless adherence to tradition, and a demand that there must be sufficient reason for what we do. We will no longer believe because everyone has always believed, we no longer do because everyone has always done so. Convince us! Explanations that do not appeal to reason need not apply.

We see the project as a continuation of these Enlightenment ideals, and unlike the author do not reject evidence from Evolutionary Psychology. The idea of Darwinian social/biologic co-evolution is a powerful tool for understanding the human condition, a tool which has generated the beginnings of the first scientific explanation of how we came to have our moral sense and aspirations. This grand evolutionary synthesis is a new product of the ongoing Enlightenment program.

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books/moral_clarity.txt · Last modified: 2010/09/07 12:47 by ram