College Quarterly
Winter 2009 - Volume 12 Number 1
Reviews Experiments in Ethics
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The last millennium wasn’t a good one for human self-respect, at least insofar as it was framed in the West. First, Galileo and his forebears discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun, making it clear that the old Ptolemaic system did not work, and that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe after all. Second, Darwin put a methodological cap on the theory of evolution and revealed that, even on a slightly reduced planet, our species was not specially created. We emerged from the primeval ooze not by design but by contingency. So, we put the best possible face on that bad news, and contented ourselves with the knowledge that we were at least quintessentially rational, and that kept at least one step up on our brother beasts. Then, along came Sigmund Freud to explain that, in fact, our subconscious desires, our pulsing libidos and all the irrational urges of our frail minds rendered us the prisoners of our primal passions. Despite rear-guard protests by various literalist religions and the encouragement of an occasional existentialist, our self-congratulatory biological exceptionalism was pretty much toast.

But wait!

Did we not have the insight, the self-awareness and the cognitive capacity to realize these limitations on our cosmic narcissism? Had our science not shown that we could stretch our brains and discover not only the nature of the universe, our proper place in the biosphere and the real dynamics of our minds? That, at least, should be something. As, indeed, it is.

Our task now, as St. Paul was happy to tell us, seems to be to come to grips with our new, if incomplete, maturity and to put away childish things. But we should also be careful to ensure the safety of infants even as we empty their comfortable tubs. As Christopher Hitchens, in one of his more cogent moments, advised: We should care more about how we think than about what we think. And the job of philosophers must be to guide us into a state of comfort with our new grown-up perceptions, observations and tentative truths by showing us not what is true (for the concept of truth itself is undergoing some major repair in this plucky age of relativism), but how we might best approximate it.

In the domain of wisdom itself, we must pay more attention to studying epistemology (how we can know anything) than ontology (speculating about ultimate being). In the fields of governance and the law, we must more scrupulously attend to due process (was it a fair trial?) rather than the outcome (was the defendant guilty?). In decisions about right and wrong, we must focus on ethics (how do we decide?) rather than morality (was evil done?). In sum, our incipient modesty should set us on the path to discovering appropriate procedures for decision making, and paying less attention to carving commandments in stone.

Many of us are reluctant to do any of this, of course. Deeply held and sincere convictions about right and wrong are hard to abandon. For example, a perfectly pleasant and apparently intelligent student recently told me that God exists.

“Don’t you mean,” I asked, “that you believe that God exists?”
“No,” she emphasized, “I know that God exists!”
Thus endeth the conversation.

People, of course, believe all sorts of things that they commonly, but not necessarily, derive from religious doctrine. Thus, all manner of thoughts and actions are likely to run afoul of someone’s morality. The list is almost endless, but includes under various categories of sin and abomination everything from illicit sex, prohibited utterances and wicked food choices to permissive child-rearing practices, suicides and misconceptions of the deity. While diversity in customs and traditions is of great interest to anthropologists and world travellers, the tendency of people to put great stock in the inviolability of their own particular habits of behaviour and belief is all too familiar.

At the same time, nativism, xenophobia and bigotry are not everywhere and always in evidence. Given the plenitude of competing and often contradictory ideas about right and wrong, and taking into account the fact that all but the willfully ignorant and the congenitally contumacious are prepared to react to exotic understandings with a measure of tolerance and sometimes even respect, we have some reason to think that at least some human beings can put aside prejudice and live congenially in multicultural societies and face the world with ecumenical hope for universal regard and decency.

So, the degree to which our species can agree to disagree, accept others’ cultural variations and sheath the swords of arrogant insularity may be the chief determining factor in deciding the fate of nations in this century.

Elaborating on this theme, it can be argued that any ethical standard worthy of the name would surely prefer acceptance to aggression, reciprocity to rejection and the discovery of common ground to disputes over difference.

Yet, are there not limits to appeals to tolerance? Is there not a time when acceptance becomes appeasement, especially when we are made aware of practices that offend our most basic sense of human rights and freedoms? Is there anything we can do about niggling questions of propriety other than shrug, “to each their own”? Forbearance is fine when the only thing at stake is which song to sing at a festival, but it becomes a little more dubious when the festival involves burning someone at the stake.

Faced with evidence of a putative evil, can we use our clever little gray cells to discern what, if anything, can be learned scientifically about the matter of procedural ethics and substantive morality, and thus elicit some justification for our judgment of others that is more compelling than the simple fact that our values are different from theirs? Is there not, at some fundamental level, a universal standard of right and wrong to which we can appeal when cruelty appears on a vast scale, indifference to suffering persists and grotesque violations of individual or collective rights to life, liberty and dignity endure? And, if we say “No” to these questions, what is the value of such documents as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights other than to reveal our moral conceit and advertise our own (and everyone else’s) hypocrisy.

Kwame Anthony Appiah thinks he can contribute to this conversation. He is right to do so.

Dr. Appiah has an enviable résumé. He is a Ghanaian philosopher with a scholarly interest in social and political theory, the philosophy of language and African culture. He is politically well connected and academically successful. He has written or edited over thirty books, including three novels. He has taught at Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and other prestigious institutions of very high learning. He is also a very funny fellow.

Readers regularly say that they wish all philosophers could write like Dr. Appiah. He expresses himself lucidly (but not simplistically). He speaks with charm, humility, imagination and with unfailing good humour. He is widely read and, more importantly, he plainly understands what he reads so well that he can explain it to us.

What does he write about that can help us in our current muddles about morality?

For a start, he tries to negotiate the tension between idealism (iconically, the Platonic primacy of ideas) and materialism (the scientific effort to explain ideas through biological and physical processes).

Moralists of an idealist bent tend to believe in a moral order that exists objectively whether or not particular people or peoples happen to accept it. They try to locate notions of goodness and virtue in transcendental realms which somehow underlie and help to define the world and the people in it. In the alternative, scientific materialists and empiricists are inclined to regard morality as the “explanandum” (that which is to be explained) and seek out the “explanans” (that which does the explaining) in domains of observable and measurable phenomena. So, psychologists, sociologists and cultural anthropologists endeavour to explain why people behave as they do and how people are able to persuade themselves that their morals are correct by digging into their personalities, their mores and their socialization. Likewise, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists physical anthropologists seek answers to the same questions by examining human behaviour in experimental settings where possible and by exploring, among things, the physiology of the brain.

The struggle between moral philosophers on the one hand and social or natural scientists on the other has been long and sometimes ferocious. Zealots on both sides have been known to exchange harsh epithets, and to launch rancorous attacks on the others’ professional views and personal character. Something of major importance is obviously in the balance.

Dr. Appiah is happy to step into the breach. He says that trying to separate psychology from philosophy, science from reason, or evolution from intuition is “like trying to peel a raspberry.” He brings a generous (but not slipshod) interdisciplinarity to his work. He is someone for whom all valid inquiries are invitations to expand our understanding, not to prop up defensive walls around our specialties. He is an intensely curious and a commendably open-minded scholar.

In Experiments in Ethics, he brings his considerable discernment to a wide range of contemporary approaches to problems of good and evil. This does not mean that he engages in a completely freewheeling study of comparative religion or cultural mores in the search for some common denominator. The quest for such a “holy” grail is far beyond the ambitions of this solid but informal book. Instead, Dr. Appiah is content to set the framework for future, more expansive and, perhaps, even more open-ended study. The aim of that additional work might well be to offer a universal description or explanation of why human beings have created for themselves a conscience, a moral code, an abstract set of rules. It could revisit the endlessly uncertain nature-nurture controversy and try quixotically to nail down whether our notions of right and wrong are innate and the consequence of evolutionary adaptation or learned, perhaps through nothing more elaborate than trial-and-error over millennia with the most efficacious “memes” becoming part of each culture’s heritage.

Dr. Appiah does, however, explore recent experimental psychological studies and makes at least passing references to older accounts (e.g., the Milgram adventures) as well as to new work in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology which has the purpose of linking “virtue” to antecedent causal or explanatory variables.

Such now familiar questions as these arise: Do people do good things because of their inherent goodness, or because of circumstances? Do our concepts of good and evil reflect some enduring moral standard, or are they better understood as cultural adaptations maintained in the interest of the survival of the species? Is morality autonomous, transcendental and, perhaps, supernaturally inspired—a manifestation of God’s will—or is it fully explainable in material terms?

I say that he explores rather than that he fully engages with psychological inquiry and its implications. A number of the studies he cites (are people more likely to be kind to strangers after having had some good fortune?) are interesting enough, but fall short of investigating what many would regard as serious moral issues. He rehearses the famous “trolley problem” (if a trolley is about to run down five people, but could be switched to another rail where it would kill only one, would you pull the switch and therefore take the life of an innocent person who would otherwise have been safe?) to good effect. Still, these and similar studies may yield fascinating information on one or another sub-field (e.g., moral judgment, moral reasoning, moral responsibility, moral development and that most elusive of all, moral character); but, none of them nor all together do more than shine a light on a small tile in an incredibly complex mosaic.

This may, however, not be cause for anxiety, much less alarm. “Virtue” critics, usually following Aristotle, suggest that the psychological approach fails because it treats “traits of character as though they are reducible to a set of behaviours that can be counted by a psychologist with a clipboard” have a point; however, efforts to articulate and standardize precisely what counts as a “virtue” have generally wound up setting out a list of cookie-cutter character traits that merely portray a social conformist, a compliant consumer and an accomodating citizen who smiles cheerfully, perseveres through adversity, and works honestly and diligently without complaint, while demonstrating punctuality and wearing a Wal-Mart happy face and urging everyone to “have a great day!” (Either that, or they appear in an army training manual suitable only for “boot camp.”) The former pre-packaged traits are the kind of qualities touted by “character communities” that have sprung up all over North America, and are now insinuating themselves into corporate offices, public libraries, schools and curricula. (After all, who could be opposed to virtue?) In such a charged atmosphere, anyone who can be comfortable with ambiguity is to be valued.

Scientific approaches, more generally, are also attacked because they are perceived to be deterministic, relativistic, reductionistic, or all three, and are therefore blamed for eviscerating the whole idea of morals which, they believe, involves the conscious choice to do good or ill. While such matters do not concern me much, I do worry about the implications of a pseudoscientific standard for proper behaviour, especially if it is generated on inappropriate or insufficient evidence in the manner that once led to every sort of foolishness from phrenology to eugenics.

The fact is, therefore, that I am somewhat reassured by Dr. Appiah’s retiscence. Recipes for moral “best practices,” whether coming from preachers, politicians or moral pathologists have something of the stink of rigidity and authoritarianism. I am therefore content to let a light-hearted voyeur (in the best sense of the term) like Dr. Appiah sample and serve up some of the tastier bits from the somewhat messy smorgasbord of disconnected human knowledge about human behaviour and belief without insisting that we stuff ourselves to overflowing and also without demanding that we pick his personal favourites from an expansive menu.

In the end, Dr. Appiah’s conclusions are temperate and anything but final; but, on the journey, he provides lots to think about. That is good enough for now and, I am sure, it will be good enough for some time to come.

While only saints and demons would denigrate the admonition to “live well and prosper” only adding, perhaps, the suggestion to give a helping hand to those in need, anything more systematic should surely recall the approaches of the doctrinaire and the dogmatic who are only too happy to put to the sword infidels and heretics of all sorts.

Personally, I would like to make room for lovable rogues, uncommitted travelers, trial lawyers, dewy-eyed idealists, occasional anarchists and even a corporate CEO or two. Moral formulae, whether authored by the God of Genesis, the Boy Scouts of America or whatever college committee or bureaucratic overseer has been put in charge of coming up with a college faculty code of ethics, have done us no permanent good. In the alternative, I suggest the words that my old mentor Henry S. Kariel (1924-2004) used to open his last book, The Desperate Politics of Postmodernism, in 1989:

“Artists maneuvering in a postmodern manner, actors treating all the world as stage, espionage agents prevailing in no-man’s land, children playing with reality are at one in enacting their lives in the darkest times. Unheroic, amoral, and composed, they are our last best hope.”

Disdainful of patterns prematurely embraced, Kariel sought insight everywhere, but final solutions nowhere. I choose to think that Dr. Appiah would give both him and me a smile of recognition, a wink and a nod and at least provisional agreement with the proposition that we are obliged to take both philosophical and psychological studies seriously, but that we must also keep our distance allowing each of us to find provisional answers to immediate problems as we may and, at our best, to remain balanced, lucid and composed in the maelstrom.

p>Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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