The Roots of Morality

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"This book argues the case for a foundationalist ethics centrally based on an empirical understanding of human nature. For Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, "an ethics formulated on the foundations of anything other than human nature, hence on anything other than an identification of pan-cultural human realities, lacks solid empirical moorings. It easily loses itself in isolated hypotheticals, reductionist scenarios, or theoretical abstractions - in the prisoner's dilemma, selfish genes, dedicated brain modules, evolutionary altruism, or psychological egoism, for example - or it easily becomes itself an ethical system over and above the ethics it formulates," such as the deontological ethics of Kantian categorical imperatives, the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, or the ethics of care." Taking her cue from Hume, especially his Treatise on Human Nature, where he grounds "the moral sense" in human nature seen as always in tension between the natural tendencies of selfish acquisitiveness and sympathy for others, Sheets-Johnstone pursues her phenomenological investigation of the natural basis of human morality by directing her attention, first to what is traditionally considered the dark side of human nature, and then to the positive side. The tension between the two calls for an interdisciplinary therapeutic resolution, which she offers in the epilogue by arguing for the value of a moral education that enlightens humans about their own human nature, highlighting both the socialization of fear and the importance of play and creativity.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Roots of Morality is the crowning glory of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s career-long three-volume survey of the sources of human thinking, power, and morals in the operations of human nature. With her trademark erudition and comprehensiveness of thought, drawing dramatically from disciplines as diverse as biology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and literature, she traces the origins of morality in patterns of human behavior that shape our troubled journey from birth to death. Sheets-Johnstone gives a breathtaking tour of the deep tensions between our aggressive self-interest and our counterbalancing concern for the welfare of others. Along the way, she guides us into the depths of male-male competition, the cultural origins of war, our reliance on ideologies of immortality to flee from death, and the empathic strands of our nature that make possible our capacities for care, nurturance, and trust.”
—Mark Johnson, University of Oregon

The Roots of Morality is a powerful examination of the origins of basic moral character from the interplay of human nature and social affective bodily experiences. Sheets-Johnstone offers ample evidence that moral education must be based not in formulation of moral principles, but rather firmly rooted in understandings of the nature of human nature. This carefully argued, well-documented text offers a compelling challenge to traditional approaches to moral theorizing.”
—Nancy Tuana, Pennsylvania State University

“This innovative and clearly written book is a significant contribution to the philosophy of the body, to ethics, and to phenomenology.”
—Robert P. Crease, SUNY, Stony Brook

“Maxine Sheets-Johnstone handles weighty philosophy like a dancer: she writes gracefully of the body, movement, creativity, the smile, and vital aspects of play, not just cerebral matter.”
—E. James Lieberman, ForeWord

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271033938
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 10/8/2012
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is an independent scholar affiliated with the Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon. This volume is the third in a series of studies about “roots.” The previous volumes are The Roots of Thinking (1990) and The Roots of Power (1994).

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Table of Contents

Prologue - Human Nature and Human Morality: The Challenge of Grounding the Moral Sense 1

Ch. 1 Size, Power, and Death: Constituents in the Making of Human Morality 35

Ch. 2 Death and Immortality Ideologies in Western Philosophy 63

Ch. 3 Real Male-Male Competition 93

Ch. 4 On the Pan-Cultural Origins of Evil 127

Ch. 5 Empathy 193

Ch. 6 Child's Play: A Multidisciplinary Perspective 241

Ch. 7 On the Nature of Trust 265

Ch. 8 The Rationality of Caring: Forging a Genuine Evolutionary Ethics 285

Epilogue - Re-Naturing the De-Natured Species: An Interdisciplinary Perspective 341

References 412

Index of Names 436

Index of Terms 442

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