book review article


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews


Virtue and Vice in Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics by Christina Hoff-Summers and Fred Summers

     Many essays herein resemble weak, elaborate justifications for the bad pop moralities many individuals believe. To wit: (1) National and international policies matter little, at least not until someone we care about dies; (2) emotion and reason exist on some spectrum with the former trumping the latter; (3) status quo and tradition are best; (4) morality is about etiquette or direct life and death matters.


This work contains some highlights, however.


      Mary Midgely’s astonishing “Trying Out One’s New Sword” discusses the Samurai practice of slicing wayfarers in half. A Samurai did this to test his sword and practice his skill. When a victim was not severed, they believed something was technically wrong with the sword or Samurai, but they believed nothing was morally wrong with the Samurai. Along the way, Midgeley chops moral isolationism to pieces. She writes, "Immoralists like Nietzsche are actually just a rather specialized sect of moralist, They can no more afford to put moralizing out of business than smugglers can afford to abolish customs regulations. The power of moral judgment is, in fact, not a luxury, not a perverse indulgence of the self-righteous. It is a necessity." Much of what individuals call moral education fails to emphasize passion and imperatives, instead encouraging moral equivalency.


     Phillip Hallie argues for human dignity and individual action, blasting Nazis who attacked the dignity of Jews by forcing them on marches while soiled by their own frozen excrement. A chasm exists between humans and shit: “We must respect ourselves as beings higher than our feces.”


     Hallie contrasts that with the village of Le Chambrom, which acted to save 6,000 individuals from the Holocaust. His essay excels, except when he calls Nazi killers “murderers.” A Nazi killer is just as good as a shelterer.


Too bad no one killed Hitler during World War I.


     Jonathan Bennett delivers a weak sermon in favor of “sympathies.” Taking Jonathan Bennet’s argument to new lows, Richard Taylor alleges that compassion is more important than rules, reasons and consequences. Perhaps he wants us to believe the women who wrote love letters to Hitler are better than John Stuart Mill.


     The section ostensibly devoted to good and evil consists primarily of writings on moral intuition and moral psychology. Good is asserted to be equivalent to nice, intuitive motives. Bad is asserted to be equivalent to concerns for truth and justice, reasoning and consequences. Much of this section exists in a Forrest Gump fantasy world.


     The section on moral “theory” includes, as Bernard Gert would say elsewhere, the commandment to give your slave a day off. Hmm… anyone care to come up with a theoretical justification for that?


     William Bennett is cookoo for moral stories, exhortations and following orders, apparently based on his will to believe common nonsense. (One study suggests seminary students who just read the parable of the Good Samaritan were no more likely to help a hurt pedestrian than other students. The factor that mattered most for helping: How much of a hurry students were in. Bennett is opposed to moral reasoning so I doubt the Bad Samaritan research or the other evidence such as the research criticizing D.A.R.E. and Scared Straight will change his mind.)


     Many essays herein are well-known essays that appear in a variety of sources. The writings of Mill, Kant, Peter Singer and Judith Jarvis Thomson are common in other, better collections. Linda Bird Francke shares her jarring experience with abortion. Joan Didion, in an essay more literary than philosophical, eloquently describes her vision of self-respect. Another essay on lifeboat ethics suffers from a paucity of better alternatives.


     Peter Singer argues that by helping others you often solve some of your own problems. Singer writes elsewhere that: “The problem is that most people have only the vaguest idea of what it might be to lead an ethical life. They understand ethics as a system of rules forbidding us to do things. They do not grasp it as a basis for thinking about how we are to live. They live largely self-interested lives, not because they were born selfish, but because the alternatives seem awkward, embarrassing, or just plain pointless. They cannot see any way of making an impact on the world, and if they could, why should they bother?” Many essays in this collection do not help in that regard.


Some of these essays are worth reading, however, including the Singer essay on the paradox of hedonism.

944p (H) 1996            


Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 7, 2009


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews