The Ethical Project

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Overview

Principles of right and wrong guide the lives of almost all human beings, but we often see them as external to ourselves, outside our own control. In a revolutionary approach to the problems of moral philosophy, Philip Kitcher makes a provocative proposal: Instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as the discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years, as members of our species have worked out how to live together and prosper. Elaborating this radical new vision, Kitcher shows how the limited altruistic tendencies of our ancestors enabled a fragile social life, how our forebears learned to regulate their interactions with one another, and how human societies eventually grew into forms of previously unimaginable complexity. The most successful of the many millennia-old experiments in how to live, he contends, survive in our values today.

Drawing on natural science, social science, and philosophy to develop an approach he calls "pragmatic naturalism," Kitcher reveals the power of an evolving ethics built around a few core principles-including justice and cooperation-but leaving room for a diversity of communities and modes of self-expression. Ethics emerges as a beautifully human phenomenon-permanently unfinished, collectively refined and distorted generation by generation. Our human values, Kitcher shows, can be understood not as a final system but as a project-the ethical project-in which our species has engaged for most of its history, and which has been central to who we are.

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Editorial Reviews

New Yorker

[A] valuable contribution to contemporary theological thought. I recommend [it].
— James Wood

Choice

Kitcher elaborates a comprehensive vision of the evolution of human morality...For serious students of ethics, this is the indispensable book.
— H. C. Byerly

Richard Joyce
This magnificent book promises to be a heavyweight contribution to the field of moral philosophy. Kitcher is one of the most elegant writers in the business; his thinking is subtle and profound.
Frans De Waal
Few philosophers bridge the natural sciences and moral philosophy as easily and elegantly as Kitcher, navigating around both the naturalistic fallacy and the "norm" of normative ethics. His account of how and why humans evolved into a moral species is both refreshing and respectful towards other approaches.
Alex Rosenberg
Morality challenges us with three tasks: setting out the evolutionary genealogy of morals, developing the metaethics of obligation and value, and providing guidance in moral choice. It has become increasingly clear that answering the genealogical question is indispensable to the other two tasks. But it is not sufficient. Metaethics cannot dodge Hume's problem, and the most powerful solution to it would be one that gives us an accurate moral compass. In The Ethical Project, Kitcher does all three of these things, bringing together the understanding of the relevant science, the analytical rigor required to refute the skeptic, and the humanity needed to deal with the last and hardest of three tasks.
J. B. Schneewind
Kitcher offers bold suggestions, with illustrations, for making improvements in the methods we use in moral deliberation and in established morality itself. But, he holds, no final results are possible. We must be falliblists about morality as we are about science. Kitcher's reading of an evolutionary understanding of morality, far from undercutting it, shows more clearly than any other approach why it has been and remains essential. This is by far the best treatment to date of morality as a product of evolution.
Patrick Bateson
Kitcher has created a wonderfully nuanced picture of how ethical standards arise and what they are like in small, stable communities. Taking the best of biology and philosophy, he points to the ways in which, even on a global scale, humans could generate explicit rules to regulate conduct. This is a brilliant and profoundly humane book.
Kim Sterelny
Humans live in a world of norms as well as facts, and most recent attempts to understand why that is so have been deeply skeptical. Kitcher combines a historical, naturalist understanding of the origin and dynamism of norms with the idea that objective improvement of normative thought is possible. Kitcher takes seriously the metaphor that norms are a tool, a collective technology for self-management, and like other technologies, we can have better technologies and worse ones. Whether Kitcher's ethical project succeeds or not, it is certainly the most challenging, original, and reconstructive attempt of recent years.
Michael D. Gordin
In a stunning synthesis of evolutionary biology, ethical philosophy, and contemporary life, and the histories of each of those domains, Kitcher offers not only an account of how we humans came to be ethical animals, but how the past of the ethical project could help guide the future. Every page is insightful and thought-provoking.
New Yorker - James Wood
[A] valuable contribution to contemporary theological thought. I recommend [it].
Choice - H. C. Byerly
Kitcher elaborates a comprehensive vision of the evolution of human morality...For serious students of ethics, this is the indispensable book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674061446
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/7/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,331,597
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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