Winter Break Books: Experiments in Ethics, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The book: Princeton professor Appiah mounts a defense of the titular “experiments”. Those who claim that other disciplines and ordinary people play no part in determining what is moral are wrong; simplistic moral theories are almost always wrong; we can improve our lives in an ethical way by working with what we know about ourselves as animals and as thinking beings. Appiah joins forces with a variety of cognitive scientists (for lack of a better term) to argue for altering the environments which inspire our moral instincts, rather than attempting to reverse those instincts we find unseemly.

The good: For a psychology nerd, this book is satisfying proof that social science has recognized utility even in the clouds of moral philosophy. Lots of great experiments and fun hypothetical situations, including a few tweaks to the Trolley Problem I hadn’t encountered before. Literary allusions throughout make for a more flavorful meal. The last chapter is a great summary of a lot of different big, important problems in modern ethical theory and provides a springboard for thoughtful scribbling (if you like to take notes with your books). The footnotes are the best part, in a good way; Experiments in Ethics could serve as the gateway to a philosophy major in all but name (and diploma).

The bad: The author was invited to deliver the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr. This book makes sense if you think of it as a collection of lectures, but reading rather than hearing it feels disjointed; Appiah leaps from point to point and rarely offers a definitive argument of his own (his work seems to have been done for him by Aristotle and a host of other long-dead luminaries). The book’s length, at barely 200 pages, prevents the author from entertaining many objections or backing up certain of his points, especially with regards to what stops a happy life from being “good”. A few of the interdisciplinary anecdotes seem to have been inserted mainly because Appiah loves them, rather than for their application to his arguments, which would have been less of a problem had the book been longer.

The verdict: Read it if you have some grounding in philosophy (an undergraduate or high-school introductory class would be fine) and don’t mind skipping ahead a page if Appiah starts to confuse you. Eventually, you’ll latch onto something interesting and memorable. Very much a book to take notes on.

The best things I learned: People tend to be nicer in quiet than in loud rooms. Lydia Davis writes killer short stories. Children and the Amish will accept that breaking certain rules (chewing gum, working on the Sabbath) is fine if an authority doesn’t regulate them, but insist that hitting would be wrong even if teachers/God permitted hitting. Philosophers tend to take sides on moral dilemmas in the same proportions as regular people, for basically the same reasons; in other words, our moral intuitions are very powerful, though they are not always right. Happy people are more likely than unhappy people to push a fat man off a footbridge if his body will stop a train from killing five hikers.


Note: Like many books of philosophy, Experiments in Ethics has a fine collection of Amazon reviews that delve deeper into the arguments than I can without boring some readers. I recommend checking them out if you are so inclined.

Leave a Reply