Friday, October 14, 2011

Philip Kitcher's "The Ethical Project"

Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Ethical Project, and reported the following:
The Ethical Project attempts to offer a novel understanding of ethics, one that questions the idea of ethical expertise and proposes that ethics is something people have worked out, and continue to work out, together. The book begins with a history of how we could have come to the ethical practices we have, uses that history to consider the possibility of ethical progress, and concludes by reflecting on how we might go on from where we are. Because many different sorts of discussions are involved, no page, not even page 99, can be typical.

Page 99 discusses an important moment in our ethical history. Our remote hominid ancestors lived like contemporary chimpanzees, in small groups mixed by age and sex. To do that required a capacity for identifying and responding to the needs and goals of others. But, as our evolutionary cousins show us so clearly, that capacity was limited. The result was trouble. The social fabric was constantly ripped by anti-social actions, and time-consuming efforts at peacemaking were required to mend it.

Human beings transcended that dismal condition by acquiring a capacity to give themselves rules and to be able (sometimes) to control their behavior according to those rules. Page 99 is focused on the social shaping of this capacity, on the ways our ancestors, the ethical pioneers, worked out the answers to their conflicts together. Limited altruism made us social. If we had not escaped from the limitations, human life as we know it would be impossible. Conversations about the rules for our conduct were part of a social technology for liberating us from the dismal predicament of breaking up and making up.

That was just the start. After page 99, it’s important to understand how we got from conversations in a small group to the ethical complications of today, how some (but not necessarily many) of the steps we took made ethical progress, and how, if we put our minds to it, we might take further progressive steps. That’s quite a lot to do – which is why there are 300+ more pages.
Read more about The Ethical Project at the Harvard University Press website.

The Page 69 Test: Philip Kitcher's Living With Darwin.

Writers Read: Philip Kitcher.

--Marshal Zeringue