Kwame Appiah

Kwame Appiah is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and has a new book Experiments in Ethics.  The book is interesting to me both because of his use of data, rather than just analysis, to think about ethics, and his emphasis on the contextual nature of morality.  NPR has an entertaining radio interview with Appiah, where he discusses his approach to “empirical philosophy.” 

There’s also a discussion of Appiah’s book in the NY Times, which presents a different take on trolleyology (discussed in our critical take on Pinker’s essay on morality).  Here’s what Paul Bloom writes in “Morality Studies“: 

[T]his book has teeth, particularly when Appiah looks hard at the emphasis on moral dilemmas like the trolley problems. These were originally developed to tap our intuitions about agency and responsibility, and are thought to bear on real-world issues like abortion and just war. But the dense trolley literature “makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes” even as its complexity fails, he argues, to capture the richness of morality in our everyday lives. Real moral problems don’t come in the form of SAT questions, and being a good person often requires figuring out for yourself just what the options are: “In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”

 Here’s a review blurb by Cass Susstein: “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.”

 And a summary from an Amazon reviewer raising a few critical points: 

1. In his chapter on “the varieties of moral experience,” the author discusses a number of “modules” that he feels characterize the human psyche: compassion, reciprocity, hierarchy, and so forth. He draws on other scholars who have posited such proclivities, and he also mentions Chomsky who, he says, has proposed a similar, presumably innate, human capacity for language. I do not find these “modules” persuasive as being human universals. There is very little in this discussion that would connect it to empirical science, for example to anthropology, not to speak of the findings of modern neuroscience. Indeed, the descriptions of modules are reminiscent of pre-scientific speculations concerning “four humors.”

2. The second chapter, “the case against character,” gives us a stimulating and challenging rundown of experiments that suggest that ethical choice is very much influenced by the immediate situation. So we learn, for example, that if you have just smelled the delicious odor of fresh-baked bread, you are more likely to be generous than you would be without such olfactory stimulus. The author seems to conclude (he does hedge this a bit) that there is no such thing as character, that everything depends on the situation.

The problem here is that in any of these situations there are minorities of subjects who don’t act as expected. Even with all that good smelling bread, some remain stingy; even without great smells, some are generous. So it would appear that these experimental situations explain some of the variance but not all.

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