Experiments in Ethics

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In the past few decades, scientists of human nature—including experimental and cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, evolutionary theorists, and behavioral economists—have explored the way we arrive at moral judgments. They have called into question commonplaces about character and offered troubling explanations for various moral intuitions. Research like this may help explain what, in fact, we do and feel. But can it tell us what we ought to do or feel? In Experiments in Ethics, the philosopher Kwame Anthony...

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Overview

In the past few decades, scientists of human nature—including experimental and cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, evolutionary theorists, and behavioral economists—have explored the way we arrive at moral judgments. They have called into question commonplaces about character and offered troubling explanations for various moral intuitions. Research like this may help explain what, in fact, we do and feel. But can it tell us what we ought to do or feel? In Experiments in Ethics, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores how the new empirical moral psychology relates to the age-old project of philosophical ethics.

Some moral theorists hold that the realm of morality must be autonomous of the sciences; others maintain that science undermines the authority of moral reasons. Appiah elaborates a vision of naturalism that resists both temptations. He traces an intellectual genealogy of the burgeoning discipline of "experimental philosophy," provides a balanced, lucid account of the work being done in this controversial and increasingly influential field, and offers a fresh way of thinking about ethics in the classical tradition.

Appiah urges that the relation between empirical research and morality, now so often antagonistic, should be seen in terms of dialogue, not contest. And he shows how experimental philosophy, far from being something new, is actually as old as philosophy itself. Beyond illuminating debates about the connection between psychology and ethics, intuition and theory, his book helps us to rethink the very nature of the philosophical enterprise.

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Editorial Reviews

Paul Bloom
…short and brilliant…I wish every philosopher wrote like Appiah. Experiments in Ethics is clear and accessible (and often very funny), and Appiah is generous when it comes to discussing the work of those he disagrees with. But this book has teeth, particularly when Appiah looks hard at the emphasis on moral dilemmas like the trolley problems.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Appiah (philosophy, Princeton) argues that experimental philosophy-i.e., using the sciences to investigate philosophical issues-does not undermine moral philosophy. Some studies appear to show that few people display constant character traits, and while philosophers like John Doris and Gilbert Harman think these studies greatly weaken virtue ethics, Appiah does not agree. He believes that virtues are best taken as ideals rather than as formulas to generate decisions in particular situations. In like fashion, he does not think that scientific studies empty moral intuitions of all their force. He surveys the research showing some of these intuitions to be irrational, but he errs in thinking we can use these results to revise our views; we cannot dispense with moral intuitions entirely. Appiah favors a pluralistic position that takes full account of science but rejects reductionism. Ethics, he suggests, should not be confined to analyzing quandaries. Instead, the pursuit of eudaemonia, or human flourishing, is the central issue. As readers of his previous book, The Ethics of Identity, might anticipate, this book is illuminating and erudite; highly recommended for philosophy collections.
—David Gordon

New York Times Book Review

Brilliant...I wish every philosopher wrote like Appiah. Experiments in Ethics is clear and accessible (and often very funny), and Appiah is generous when it comes to discussing the work of those he disagrees with. But this book has teeth, particularly when Appiah looks hard at the emphasis on moral dilemmas.
— Paul Bloom

The Guardian

The main theme of [Appiah's] beautifully written book...is that ethicists should take account of empirical data about people's moral intuitions. Indeed, he takes that to be the mainstream current of the history of philosophy from Aristotle onwards, regretting the recent hiving off of the discipline from empirical investigation. Appiah packs a chewy heft of scholarly nuance away in the footnotes, and the text sparkles with jokes.
— Steven Poole

Montreal Gazette

Concisely written and clearly argued...Humans have a tendency to pass the moral buck by blaming ethical failings on everything from supernatural forces to genetics. Appiah's proposals return the wellspring of human ethics to its proper place: human beings themselves...This is a stimulating and highly enjoyable book. With Appiah as our guide, readers can look forward to a fascinating journey toward the rediscovery of the ancient goal of a life of decency and virtue.
— Lorenzo DiTommaso

New York Sun

Concise yet erudite and engagingly written...Because he sees the quest for scientific knowledge as very much part of the philosophical tradition, Mr. Appiah warns not only against "baseless fears" of the damage that experiments in ethics will do to ethics, but also against "exaggerated hopes" that the rediscovery of such an approach will answer all our puzzles about ethics.
— Peter Singer

London Review of Books
What can experimentation in the human and natural sciences contribute to moral philosophy? Appiah's answer in this concise and balanced book is effectively "something but not everything." Reconnecting the empirical with moral theory may, he argues, have productive consequences for both areas of thought.
Sydney Morning Herald

In writing this inspiring book, Appiah has done a good thing.
— Sacha Molitorisz

Globe and Mail

Sensible, informed and highly readable...Illuminating and important. The book is a model for how to do empirically informed moral philosophy.
— Anthony Skelton

Nature

Experiments in Ethics is erudite, concise and engagingly written. Appiah assesses that experimental science is relevant to the enterprise of normative ethics, and that the relation between the two, although complex, need not be antagonistic.
— Nick Bostrom

Choice

Appiah has produced an elegant and well-written volume at the intersection of psychology and moral philosophy. Appiah presents a reasonable case that philosophy traditionally has been informed by scientific inquiry, and should continue to welcome it; but at the same time he is clear that the questions of moral philosophy are not themselves scientific questions.
— S. Satris

Times Literary Supplement

This engaging book surveys influential recent attempts to bring empirical studies to bear specifically on moral philosophy, in a style that is accessible to non-specialists yet philosophically nuanced. Professor Appiah is sympathetic to the idea that moral philosophy has a good deal to learn from experimental work, but skeptical of the suggestion that this approach constitutes a radical departure from the philosophical tradition. He begins with a fascinating and erudite characterization of philosophy as a discipline that only "calved off" from psychology around the beginning of the twentieth century. Until then, experimental works and empirical investigation ("natural philosophy") were interwoven with metaphysical theorizing and deductive argumentation, and psychology was only just becoming a distinct academic discipline in its own right. Trying to distinguish metaphysical from psychological elements in the work of such canonical figures of European philosophy as Plato and Aristotle, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume and J. S. Mill, Appiah claims, is like "trying to peel a raspberry."
— Justin D'Arms

New York Review of Books

One of our most imaginative writers on topics like culture, values, and individual identity...[Appiah] is a philosopher but one not bound by any disciplinary straitjacket; he succeeds in what he does by inviting his readers to stand back with him from the preoccupations of any particular style of theorizing...The lightness of his style...together with his determination to make analytic moral philosophy the topic rather than the method of his study, has given us a wry and engaging account of the challenge that psychology poses to ethics.
— Jeremy Waldron

Cass Sunstein
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.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Experiments in Ethics is wonderful: concise but not breezy, clear but not simplistic, wide-ranging but focused, filled with wit and learning. It is an accessible, lively, and balanced introduction to empirical moral psychology that I recommend happily to philosophers and non-philosophers.
New York Times Book Review - Paul Bloom
Brilliant...I wish every philosopher wrote like Appiah. Experiments in Ethics is clear and accessible (and often very funny), and Appiah is generous when it comes to discussing the work of those he disagrees with. But this book has teeth, particularly when Appiah looks hard at the emphasis on moral dilemmas.
The Guardian - Steven Poole
The main theme of [Appiah's] beautifully written book...is that ethicists should take account of empirical data about people's moral intuitions. Indeed, he takes that to be the mainstream current of the history of philosophy from Aristotle onwards, regretting the recent hiving off of the discipline from empirical investigation. Appiah packs a chewy heft of scholarly nuance away in the footnotes, and the text sparkles with jokes.
Montreal Gazette - Lorenzo Ditommaso
Concisely written and clearly argued...Humans have a tendency to pass the moral buck by blaming ethical failings on everything from supernatural forces to genetics. Appiah's proposals return the wellspring of human ethics to its proper place: human beings themselves...This is a stimulating and highly enjoyable book. With Appiah as our guide, readers can look forward to a fascinating journey toward the rediscovery of the ancient goal of a life of decency and virtue.
New York Sun - Peter Singer
Concise yet erudite and engagingly written...Because he sees the quest for scientific knowledge as very much part of the philosophical tradition, Mr. Appiah warns not only against "baseless fears" of the damage that experiments in ethics will do to ethics, but also against "exaggerated hopes" that the rediscovery of such an approach will answer all our puzzles about ethics.
Sydney Morning Herald - Sacha Molitorisz
In writing this inspiring book, Appiah has done a good thing.
Globe and Mail - Anthony Skelton
Sensible, informed and highly readable...Illuminating and important. The book is a model for how to do empirically informed moral philosophy.
Nature - Nick Bostrom
Experiments in Ethics is erudite, concise and engagingly written. Appiah assesses that experimental science is relevant to the enterprise of normative ethics, and that the relation between the two, although complex, need not be antagonistic.
Choice - S. Satris
Appiah has produced an elegant and well-written volume at the intersection of psychology and moral philosophy. Appiah presents a reasonable case that philosophy traditionally has been informed by scientific inquiry, and should continue to welcome it; but at the same time he is clear that the questions of moral philosophy are not themselves scientific questions.
Times Literary Supplement - Justin D'arms
This engaging book surveys influential recent attempts to bring empirical studies to bear specifically on moral philosophy, in a style that is accessible to non-specialists yet philosophically nuanced. Professor Appiah is sympathetic to the idea that moral philosophy has a good deal to learn from experimental work, but skeptical of the suggestion that this approach constitutes a radical departure from the philosophical tradition. He begins with a fascinating and erudite characterization of philosophy as a discipline that only "calved off" from psychology around the beginning of the twentieth century. Until then, experimental works and empirical investigation ("natural philosophy") were interwoven with metaphysical theorizing and deductive argumentation, and psychology was only just becoming a distinct academic discipline in its own right. Trying to distinguish metaphysical from psychological elements in the work of such canonical figures of European philosophy as Plato and Aristotle, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume and J. S. Mill, Appiah claims, is like "trying to peel a raspberry."
New York Review of Books - Jeremy Waldron
One of our most imaginative writers on topics like culture, values, and individual identity...[Appiah] is a philosopher but one not bound by any disciplinary straitjacket; he succeeds in what he does by inviting his readers to stand back with him from the preoccupations of any particular style of theorizing...The lightness of his style...together with his determination to make analytic moral philosophy the topic rather than the method of his study, has given us a wry and engaging account of the challenge that psychology poses to ethics.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
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Table of Contents

Prologue

1. Introduction: The Waterless Moat

2. The Case against Character

3. The Case against Intuition

4. The Varieties of Moral Experience

5. The Ends of Ethics

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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