NDPR review of Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics


NDPR has just published a review, written by John M. Doris (Washington University in St. Louis) and Jesse J. Prinz (City University of New York Graduate Center), of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics (which we first mentioned in this post about experimental philosophy). To access the review, click here.

Here is how it begins:

The past decade has witnessed a remarkable expansion of work at the intersection of philosophical ethics and the human sciences. As evinced by the recent profusion of surveys and anthologies treating the new — or newly revitalized — fields going under such names as experimental philosophy, empirically informed ethics, and moral psychology, there is now a large and thriving literature, covering an extensive range of topics: responsibility, free will, moral judgment, rationality, motivation, character, innateness, evaluative diversity, altruism, well-being, intentionality, intuitions, and emotion (Andreou 2007; Doris and Stich 2005, 2006; Doris et al. forthcoming; Knobe and Nichols 2008; Nahmias et al. forthcoming; Sinnott-Armstrong 2007 a, b, c).

With the publication of Anthony Appiah’s shrewdly argued and beautifully written Experiments in Ethics, those wondering over what the fuss is about have an engaging entree to the issues. Appiah’s goal is not so much to advance a new theory, but rather to demonstrate that the recent empirical turn demands attention. In some circles, empirically infused approaches to ethics have been regarded as irrelevant or confused, but Appiah’s study makes such recalcitrance look seriously underinformed. However, Appiah does not mean to discredit conventional philosophical practice. Instead, he advocates a kind of methodological pluralism, where ethical reflection draws on both the conceptual tools long familiar in analytic philosophy and the empirical insights provided by experimentalists working within and without philosophy departments.

Experiments in Ethics consists of one introductory chapter and a final methodological chapter, bookending three substantive chapters on issues where the empirical turn has been highly visible: character, intuition, and diversity. It would be unreasonable to expect from what Appiah modestly calls his “little book” a comprehensive survey of the field, or even a comprehensive treatment of the topics included, but Appiah’s sensitive examination of the material he does discuss both advances our thinking on the issues and gives a sense of why the wider field is worth thinking about (1).

In the philosophical tradition of celebration-by-criticism, we’ll now offer a very selective critique, focusing on two issues where one of us has a personal investment, character (Doris 1998, 2002, 2005) and the role of emotions (Prinz 2006, 2007). Our first complaint is a charge of commission: we contend that Appiah undersells the implications of experimental psychology for folk and philosophical conceptions of character (cf. Machery forthcoming). Our second complaint is a charge of omission: we contend that a maximally rich understanding of moral psychology requires more detailed attention to the emotions than Appiah is able to give. After some remarks on these topics, we’ll close with some more general speculations on the import of the empirical turn.

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