Friday, 11 May 2007


Many of my philosophical colleagues around the world will look down their noses at me for saying this, but I enjoy teaching. I always have. This past semester, I taught two sections of Ethics, one with 34 students and the other with 35. It was so enjoyable that there were days when I couldn’t wait to get into the classroom. On the morning of the day in which I was scheduled to lecture on W. D. Ross’s moral theory, I woke up at 4:00, more than two hours before rising time. I was so excited about lecturing on Ross that I couldn’t get back to sleep! You probably think I’m kidding. I’m dead serious.

One reason I enjoyed my Ethics courses so much is that I used a different book. For many years, I used James Rachels’s book The Elements of Moral Philosophy (5th ed., 2007). The book—which I’ve heard is the best-selling ethics textbook in the world—is accessible to students and covers most of what I want to cover, but Rachels is spectacularly unfair to ethical egoism, divine-command theory, and natural-law theory. I finally tired of apologizing to the students for his unsympathetic and shallow discussions. This semester, I went back to a book that I used for the first time 20 years ago, when I was a graduate student: Fred Feldman’s Introductory Ethics (1978). The book is still in print—in its original edition. You might wonder how this can be, but not much changes in ethical theory. There is still a great divide between consequentialism and deontology; there are still absolute and moderate deontologists; there are still utilitarians (albeit of different stripes); and, most importantly, the methods of argumentation, analysis, and criticism that I inculcate in my students haven’t changed in the past three decades. In short, the book is as timely as ever.

When I first used Feldman, in the spring of 1987, I didn’t have a solid grounding in the history of ethics—or even in the contemporary work being done in ethics. As a result, I stayed pretty close to the text in my lectures. But now I have a much firmer grounding. I use the text as a point of departure rather than as the focal point. Students who didn’t come to class on a regular basis (attendance was not part of their grade) probably thought they could do well on the examinations merely by reading the text. Ha! They were in for a rude awakening, for the lectures were at least as important as the text this time around. I intend to continue using Feldman. I know it’s impossible, but the text seemed to get better with the passage of time. What got better, obviously, was my own understanding of the material.

I covered 10 of the book’s 15 chapters (not counting the short concluding chapter). I had hoped to get to the chapters on metaethics, but we didn’t. That was fine. It’s enough to have covered the chapters on normative ethical theory. Let me explain what this is, for those of you who don’t know. A normative ethical theory provides a criterion of rightness. Rightness is a property of actions. A criterion, in general, is a statement of necessary and sufficient conditions for something’s being the case. To put it in ordinary language, a normative ethical theory tells us what it is that makes right acts right and wrong acts wrong. It’s a sorting device. I’m sure you’ve wondered about this. You make moral judgments every day. You say, for example, that it was wrong for so and so to do X, that it would be wrong if you did Y, and so forth. What is it that makes these acts wrong? To answer that question is to begin to theorize.

I covered six normative ethical theories this semester. Here they are:

1. Act utilitarianism. An act is right if and only if it maximizes overall utility. There are different ways to understand “utility.” Some utilitarians understand it as happiness, some as pleasure, some as welfare, and some as the satisfaction of preferences. In calculating utility, everyone affected by the action counts, and counts equally. Even animals count.

2. Rule utilitarianism. An act is right if and only if it is permitted by a rule that maximizes overall utility. This is still a form of utilitarianism, but instead of evaluating actions directly, one is to evaluate rules first (such as “When you have made a promise, keep it”) and then act in accordance with utility-maximizing rules. Rule utilitarianism is sometimes called “indirect” or “restricted” utilitarianism. There is a debate about whether John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an act utilitarian or a rule utilitarian. A plausible case can be made for each view.

3. Egoism. An act is right if and only if it maximizes agent utility. This is like act utilitarianism except that only one person’s utility matters: the agent’s. You are to do what’s best for you; I’m to do what’s best for me; and so on for every other agent. This theory does not tell you to do whatever feels good. It is, in fact, an austere theory. It requires that you maximize your long-term rational self-interest. It is no more permissible for you to “short” your future selves than it is for act utilitarians to “short” strangers. Everyone counts, and counts equally. In the case of egoism, this means that every one of your selves, at all life stages, counts, and counts equally.

4. Kantianism. An act is right if and only if it is universalizable (or universally prescribable). If you can’t consistently will that everyone in your circumstances do what you’re proposing to do, then it’s wrong for you to do it. Another way to put this is that you must never treat persons as mere means to your ends. In effect, this means not forcing anyone to do anything, not coercing anyone, and not manipulating anyone. All interactions must be consensual. Since animals lack the capacity to consent, they have no moral status, according to Kant. They are perpetual children.

5. Rawls’s social-contract theory. An act is right if and only if it is permitted by the moral code that would be agreed to by individuals who are deprived of information about their morally irrelevant features, such as race, sex, intelligence, and age. Actually, there are two versions of contractarianism. In one of them, which goes back to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), individuals know what their characteristics are. In the other, they are deprived of this knowledge. The idea of the second version is to force individuals to be fair. If I don’t know whether I’m male or female, I can hardly be biased against one or the other.

6. Ross’s formalism. An act is right if and only if it is a prima facie duty and there is no alternative act that is a more stringent prima facie duty. Ross claimed that there are seven prima facie (“presumptive”) duties: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and nonmaleficence. A given act can fall under more than duty. For example, if I make a promise to murder someone (stupid me!), I have a prima facie duty to keep it, since keeping it would be a case of fidelity, but I also have a prima facie duty not to keep it, since doing so would mean harming someone (which is prohibited by the prima facie duty of nonmaleficence). Ross insisted that prima facie duties are irreducible (to utility, for example). All one can do, on any occasion, is bring all relevant duties to bear and, in cases of conflict, resolve the conflict by determining which duty is more stringent. Ross is a moderate deontologist. Kant is an absolute deontologist.

These are just thumbnail sketches, obviously. I could write a whole book about each theory. At the end of the course, I asked my students which theory best systematizes their moral judgments. I was surprised by the result:

Act utilitarianism: 15.
Rule utilitarianism: 6.
Egoism: 5.
Kantianism: 13.
Rawls’s social-contract theory: 12.
Ross’s formalism: 18.

Ross claimed that his prima facie duties are part of “our ordinary moral consciousness.” This may explain why his theory resonated with my students. Then again, maybe they chose it because, having been discussed last, it was still fresh in their minds. Which theory are you attracted to, if any?

Addendum: One shortcoming of Feldman’s book (no book is perfect) is that it doesn’t cover either the divine-command theory of morality or natural-law theory, perhaps because these theories presuppose the existence of God. Curiously, there is no mention of God in the book. This would have made it incomprehensible to most moral philosophers until very recently. In future courses, I will lecture on these theories as well as the others.

Twenty Years Ago

5-11-87 I did it! I passed preliminary exams! Wordsmith that [sic; should be “though”] I am, I cannot find words to describe the way I feel right now. There’s just a warm, satisfying feeling inside, not unlike that of being in love. I feel pride (at having done well at what I set out to do), exhilaration (at having this stage of my career behind me), relief (at having avoided failure), and awe (at what lies ahead), among other emotions. In short, this is one of the happiest days of my life, as I knew it would be. For the first time in months I was able to come home and relax, really relax—not read an article, not make or review an outline, and not worry about what lay ahead. I’m free! And I’ve finally gotten the status that I’ve wanted for so long: ABD. I’m “all but dissertation.” Now, when I put “Ph.D. Candidate” on an article that I’ve written, it means something. Before, it indicated an aspiration; now, it indicates a status, an earned status.

Let me recount some of the day’s events. I rose at the usual time after yet another fitful night’s sleep. All I did here in the apartment is reread my written answers to the major and minor questions. I expected (and got) many follow-up questions on my answers. At school, I took care of some odds and ends, such as copying and mailing my property manuscript to IHS [the Institute for Humane Studies], and reviewed some of my outlines. Frankly, my heart wasn’t in it. I just dreaded wading through [John] Austin, [H. L. A.] Hart, and [Ronald] Dworkin again, not to mention [T. M.] Scanlon on free speech, [Grant] Gilmore on contract law, and Hart on punishment. At that point, some two hours before the oral exam, I just wanted to get into that room with the committee members and get it over with. The self-doubt had finally gotten to me. At 12:30 I bought a large cup of iced tea and made my way to the departmental office. There I chatted with Jim Taylor, Lois Day, Rosalie Burkart, and others as the minutes ticked away. Shortly after one o’clock, Holly Smith came out of her office and told me to come in. Ready or not, there I went.

I had hoped for an easy question right off the bat, and that’s what I got. Holly probed my knowledge of Hart and Dworkin on hard cases. I defended what I wrote, elaborating a bit as I did so, and we moved on. Joel [Feinberg] was next. He asked additional questions about the Hart-Dworkin debate and came up with a couple of long hypothetical examples to see what Dworkin would say about them. I defended Dworkin on hard cases. Ron Milo followed with questions about property, then Holly asked me about [Charles] Fried and [Guido] Calabresi and [A. Douglas] Melamed, and then it was on to the minor area, rights. Henning [Jensen] asked questions about property rights and the relation between rights and utilitarianism, after which Julia [Annas] asked me about [R. M.] Hare’s two levels of moral thinking. Hare wasn’t on my reading list, but I spent a paragraph of my written essay suggesting that perhaps his theory can account for rights. Julia was skeptical, but I did my best to defend Hare. Before I knew it, Holly was saying “Well, anything else?” When nobody spoke up, I was asked to leave the room. By then, I was fairly certain that I had passed. I would have been surprised, not to mention crushed, if the verdict had been “failed.”

This was obviously my first (and only) oral preliminary exam, so I didn’t know quite what to expect. For one thing, I was not nervous during the exam. I know enough about myself to know that as soon as I start talking, my nervousness dissipates. And yet, I was nervous about just this until the moment I sat down. From there on out, however, I was as calm as can be. I sipped my tea throughout the discussion, smiled and laughed occasionally, and even asked questions of my own when I thought that a committee member hadn’t defended a view adequately. In short, it was a pleasant discussion with five faculty members. Incidentally, there was also a graduate representative from another department. [It was Dr Susan Nunn of the Department of Geology.] She sat through the proceedings quietly, very often smiling at me, and afterward shook my hand. That was a source of worry to me, but it turned out to be no problem at all. Finally, after a couple of minutes of standing at the counter, I heard laughter from inside the room. That was a good sign. Holly came out momentarily, smiled, and shook my hand. I then went back into the room, shook hands with everyone, and thanked them for participating [i.e., serving] on my committees. We chatted briefly about the nature of the exam and within minutes I was out of the office, the paradigm of happiness.

Going into the oral exam, I wasn’t sure whether to expect questions on my written answers, on the questions that I didn’t answer, or on other material. Talking to Jody Kraus and Jeff Hershfield, I got the impression that questions could and would be drawn from all three categories. But to my surprise, almost all of the questions stemmed directly from something that I had written. We seldom strayed to anything else. That was a relief to me, because I had weaknesses in several areas. I’m particularly glad that Julia didn’t nail me on natural law and natural rights. That’s what I worried most about this weekend. As we sat in the room after the “verdict” was announced, I confessed to the committee members that I was weak on the historical material, especially [Thomas] Hobbes and [John] Locke. “There was only one chapter of [Richard] Tuck’s book on Hobbes, so I spent part of the weekend reading secondary materials on natural rights.” Joel then chirped in with “Maybe we should reexamine him.” He was joking, of course, and everyone laughed. That’s how friendly everyone was. I had superb committees.

Tonight, as I was eating at my desk, the telephone rang. To my surprise, it was Joel Feinberg. “Listen,” he said, “in all the hustle and bustle after your exam, I’m not sure that we told you just how pleased we were with your exams, both written and oral. You did extremely well, and I wanted you to know that.” I was speechless. “Well, thank you, Joel,” I stammered. “That makes me feel good. Obviously, I was content to just ‘pass,’ but it’s nice to know that I did better than that.” Apparently, that’s all Joel wanted to say, so we said goodbye and I went back to eating. Can you believe it? Of all the people that I want or need to impress, Joel is at the top of the list. He had no obligation to call me, and certainly has no ulterior motive for doing so. He must have genuinely meant what he said. I’m just awestruck. The fact that Joel would call me to say this should tell you what kind of person he is. He’s the best.


Mitt Romney says there is no conflict between science and religion. Science describes the natural world. God, a supernatural being, created the natural world. See here.

From the Mailbag

One of your recent posts had a descriptive picture of hell: eternal excruciating pain. Well now . . .

I am reminded of the mob’s use of “protection” payments. Either make regular cash payments or your little store might have a small fire one night.

I fast forward to the church pew. Either put money into the offering plate or risk (nay, guarantee) eternal excruciating pain. Hell.

In both cases it is a way for lazy leaches [sic] (thugs?) to make a living. The church is more sanctimonious about it and pretties it up with big (expensive) buildings and robes and organ music and fine trappings, but stripped bare it is a protection racket. A scam BUILT on the premise that becoming worm food is too horrible to ponder. So this peaceful edifice with stained glass windows and hymns and flowers just softens the underlying theme: pay up or go to hell. Lovely. Tony Soprano in a shift.



Here is a New York Times story about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. I haven’t given up on Mitt; I’m just worried that his Mormonism will turn off people who would otherwise vote Republican. I dislike John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. McCain has thumbed his nose at conservatives too many times, on issues such as campaign finance and immigration, while Giuliani is soft on abortion and homosexual “marriage.” If it came down to one of them against Hillary Clinton, I’d hold my nose and vote Republican. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that either Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich enters the race. I could get fully behind either of them. My ideal candidate would be me. Will you vote for me if I run? I’m more than 35 years old, and by now you know my views and values.

Richard John Neuhaus on Religious Studies

As Paul Griffiths has explained in these pages, religious studies, now more than a century old, is an academic discipline in search of a subject. In religious-studies departments, it is assumed that there is a genus called religion of which there are many species. But it turns out again and again that this approach begins with Christianity of one sort or another and by that standard determines whether other religions are religions. Among scholars of “religious studies,” the particular is subsumed by the general, and “theology” is carefully kept at arm’s length in order to sustain the appearance of “objectivity.” The result is that the particularities of belief, practice, and connectedness that make a phenomenon what it is are sacrificed to a predetermined idea of what counts as “religion.”

(Richard John Neuhaus, “Metaphysical America,” review of A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion, by Catherine L. Albanese, First Things [March 2007]: 26-30, at 29 [parenthetical reference omitted])

Best of the Web Today


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

I am shocked to hear of people who because of reasons of acceptance or tolerance of their own children with Down syndrome would advocate that others go through the tremendous social, medical and monetary burdens that are inevitable parts of this disorder.

As a pediatric cardiologist who cares for many of these very sweet children who have heart disease (approximately 50 percent incidence in children with Down syndrome), I am aware of the tremendous time and resources that parents have to devote to their child’s care and the effect that it has on family dynamics.

While cardiac surgery has made many strides to correct most of these problems, many of these children are still left with a lifetime of significant illness. This is on top of the myriad other problems that are realized to some degree in all Down syndrome children.

Medicine is often said to be “in the business of putting itself out of business” by promoting preventive care, including prenatal testing. For those who would not choose to terminate under any circumstance, there is no need to obtain testing, but for those who would like to know and possibly terminate (90 percent, according to the article), these tests are invaluable, should be made available to all and may help individuals possibly avoid a very significant life-changing illness.

Gil Herzberg, M.D.
Larchmont, N.Y., May 10, 2007

A Year Ago