“The majority of philosophers will tell you that, if you are concerned with moral thought, you must begin by reading and rereading the great texts in the history of ideas, in order to have “firm foundations.” But it is not obvious that the best means of inviting readers to undertake ethical reflection is to give them the feeling that they can calmly rest upon the doctrines elaborated by the giants of thought.” — Ruwen Ogien
This week our featured book is Human Kindness and the Smell of Warm Croissants: An Introduction to Ethics, by Ruwen Ogien, translated by Martin Thom. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Ruwen Ogien in which he explains what he hopes his book will provide to entrants into the study of ethics.
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An Intellectual Toolbox
By Ruwen Ogien
Human Kindness and the Smell of Warm Croissants is a general introduction to ethics. But it has neither the pretension to instruct anyone how to live, nor the mission to teach the history of moral ideas from their origins to our own time, in chronological order. Its ambition is far more modest: to put at the disposal of those who might be interested a sort of intellectual toolbox enabling them to brave the moral debate without allowing themselves to be intimidated by the big words (“Dignity”, “Virtue”, “Duty”, etc.) and the grand declarations of principle (“You must never treat anyone simply as a means”, etc.). If these titles had not already become registered trademarks, I might have called it Anti-Manual of Ethics or Little Course of Intellectual Self-Defense Against Moralism.
The majority of philosophers will tell you that, if you are concerned with moral thought, you must begin by reading and rereading the great texts in the history of ideas, in order to have “firm foundations.” But it is not obvious that the best means of inviting readers to undertake ethical reflection is to give them the feeling that they can calmly rest upon the doctrines elaborated by the giants of thought. This is why it seems to me that it would be more logical for readers to be directly confronted with the difficulties of moral thought, by submitting to their perspicacity a certain number of problems, dilemmas and paradoxes, and by exposing them to the results of scientific studies that run counter to certain received ideas within the philosophical tradition.
These materials now form the “corpus” of experimental moral philosophy, a set of works that associate philosophical reflections and empirical researches, such that we obviously do not know in advance where they will take us.
It seemed to me, at the outset, that we should not decide in advance that these works absolutely could not clarify questions of moral philosophy, under the pretext that they are concerned with facts and not with norms or values, and that there exists an impassable abyss between the two kinds of investigation. A deeper examination of these works has shown, I believe, that this initial stance was not unjustified. Thus, experimental moral philosophy has already helped us to understand that:
– virtue ethics rests upon a confused notion, that of the “moral personality”;
– the existence of a moral instinct is far from having been proved;
– the boundaries between the moral, the social and the religious are not obvious;
– the standard method used to justify moral theories by appealing to moral intuitions is not reliable.
What experimental moral philosophy can allow us to recognize is the fact that nothing in the concepts and methods of moral philosophy is immune from challenge and revision. This is a result that cannot leave those concerned with the possibility of an authentic research in moral philosophy indifferent. It allows us to think that moral debate is not completely irrational, and that it can advance through conceptual critique, the questioning of prejudices and the exchange of arguments that are logical and that respect the facts.