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New Books at Biddle: “Experiments in Ethics”

October 28, 2008

ethics.jpgIn addition to teaching and serving as a reference librarian for the law school, my outside interests includeethics and religion. So, when Experiments in Ethics (Harvard University Press, 2008) appeared on the library’s “New Book Truck,” it lept into my hands as I decided to bring it to the attention of our interdisciplinary legal community.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is the Lawrance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. This book is an outgrowth of his 2005 Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College.

Appiah’s field is experimental philosophy, which attempts to link classical philosophy (“What is the good life?” “How should we live?”) with the burgeoning moral sciences: experimental and cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, evolutionary anthropology and sociology (“Why do we feel and act as we do?”). Frequently the two areas are in conflict: ethicists claiming that moral judgments should be independent of the sciences and scientists claiming that science undermines the authority of moral reasons. Appiah claims that dialogue, not antagonism, should be the basis for productive discussions between both camps. He argues that experimental philosophy is as old as philosophy itself and has always embraced the sciences.

Experiments in Ethics is deceptively breezy in its appeal to the general public as well as to the specialist. It has inviting chapters like “Introduction: The Waterless Moat,” “The Case Against Character,” “The Case Against Intuition,” “The Varieties of Moral Experience,” and “The Ends of Ethics.” While the amateur is tempted to enter into the debate and to question his own common sense, the specialist can see at once that Appiah is at home with the whole history of philosophy and the latest developments in science.

What has all this to do with law? Cass Sunstein, the well known law professor at the University of Chicago, has written about Experiments in Ethics: “This dazzlingly written book argues for reconnecting moral philosophy with the sciences, both natural and social–and demonstrates that the reconnection, while in a sense overdue, reconnects philosophy with its ancient interest in empirical issues. Appiah’s important argument promises to transform more than one field. It is not only wise and subtle: it is also inspiring.”