Philip Kitcher
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as the discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years, as members of our species have worked out how to live together and prosper. Here, Kitcher elaborates his radical vision of this millennia-long ethical project.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06307-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Ethics pervades every human society and almost every human life. People deliberate about what they should do on specific occasions, about what is worthwhile, about the kinds of lives they should aspire to lead. In subtle ways, their everyday actions presuppose habits of conduct, roles and institutions current in their societies, endorsed sometimes after serious reflection, often accepted without much thought. With the exception of those afflicted with psychological disruptions that profoundly limit their cognitive capacities or that cut them off from their fellows, we are all embedded in the ethical project.

    Yet for ordinary people, and for philosophers too,...

  4. I. An Analytical History
    • CHAPTER 1 The Springs of Sympathy
      (pp. 17-66)

      At some point in our evolutionary past, before the hominid line split off from the branch that leads to contemporary chimpanzees and bonobos (possibly quite a long time before), our ancestors acquired an ability to live together in small groups mixed in terms of sex and age. That achievement required a capacity for altruism. It also prepared the way for unprecedented forms of cooperation, and ultimately for the enunciation of socially shared norms and the beginnings of ethical practice. Altruism is not the whole story about ethics, but it is an important part of it.¹

      My analytical history of the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Normative Guidance
      (pp. 67-103)

      Imagine a population of organisms with altruistic dispositions. For each of these organisms, there is a variety of contexts and a range of other members of the population such that the psychological states of the focal organism—specifically the desires and the emotions—will adjust to reflect that organism’s perceptions of the wants, needs, and feelings of the others. These dispositions enable the organisms to function as a population, to live in the same place at the same time and to encounter one another daily without too high an incidence of social friction and violence. But the dispositions are limited:...

    • CHAPTER 3 Experiments of Living
      (pp. 104-137)

      At the dawn of the ethical project, our ancestors lived in bands small enough so that all adult members could participate in discussions in which each could speak and all could be heard. Around the campfire, in the “cool hour,” they sought ways of remedying the altruism failures from which their social lives had suffered. What kinds of problems did they discuss?

      Scarcity of resources is a likely candidate. Perhaps times have been hard, and they have often wrangled about the few food items garnered. Suppose today has been a good day; for once each member of the band has...

    • CHAPTER 4 One Thing after Another?
      (pp. 138-170)

      Pragmatic naturalism aims to understand the character of the ethical project by exposing major features of its evolution. Probing the deeper past is difficult, for clues are fragmentary. The invention of writing, however, enhances the opportunities to investigate the evolution of ethics: the records of the past five thousand years might reveal how contemporary societies have come to their present practices. More specifically, historical investigation promises to address challenging questions, issues of immediate concern.

      Is the evolution of ethics a matter of mere change? Is it analogous to a Darwinian picture of the history of life, revealing only local adaptations...

  5. II. A Metaethical Perspective
    • CHAPTER 5 Troubles with Truth
      (pp. 173-208)

      The history of Part I aims to provide considerations for freeing us from unsatisfactory conceptions. We turn now to metaethical liberation, focused on questions about the possibility of truth and knowledge in ethics. The first goal is to show how standard accounts of possibilities of ethical truth and knowledge, explanations put forward to resist the “mere-change view” and its kin, fit the history poorly. Recognizing that will prepare for a positive proposal in Chapter 6.

      The examples of the last chapter show apparent ethical progress. A handful of instances do not, however, portray the historical unfolding of ethical practice as...

    • CHAPTER 6 Possibilities of Progress
      (pp. 209-252)

      It is tempting to think resisting the mere-change view requires making sense of the concept of ethical truth. Confronted with the deviant practices of others, including people who came before us, we want to distinguish our ethical principles from theirs: so we must claim ours are true, theirs false. Hence the troubles elaborated in the last chapter appear to leave no options: even though the mere-change view conflicts with spontaneous judgments about historical episodes (Chapter 4), we have to acquiesce in it.

      Truth is readily seen as prior to other notions used to explain the objectivity of our practices, concepts...

    • CHAPTER 7 Naturalistic Fallacies?
      (pp. 253-282)

      Naturalists, so the story goes, inevitably commit “the naturalistic fallacy.” There is, however, no such thing as the naturalistic fallacy. While critics agree that naturalistic ventures are inevitably embroiled in some error to which they attach this name, they offer very different diagnoses of what mistake is made.¹ This chapter considers several distinct objections, attempting to show that, whatever their merits against other naturalistic accounts, they hold no terrors for pragmatic naturalism. Yet as we shall discover (§§43, 56), substantive ethical work is needed to absolve pragmatic naturalism completely.

      The most venerable challenge derives, ironically enough, from one of the...

  6. III. A Normative Stance
    • CHAPTER 8 Progress, Equality, and the Good
      (pp. 285-329)

      In the classical conception of normative ethics, espoused by religious traditions and philosophers alike, normative ethics aims to offer a set of resources to help people live as they should. Prominent among these resources are sets of prescriptions for guiding action, but there are often also vivid stories depicting what is admirable and what is not. Religious thinkers usually suppose all the fundamental resources have been provided, in an act of revelation, so the task remaining for the normative ethicist is to articulate the principles clearly and precisely, showing how they bear on the circumstances of contemporary life. Philosophers, by...

    • CHAPTER 9 Method in Ethics
      (pp. 330-369)

      Although each of us acquires, early in youth, an ethical code from older members of our society, our ethical convictions and attitudes do not remain constant throughout our lives. There have been societies (most probably in the distant past) in which members were forbidden to add or subtract from what they had been taught, and others, more common, in which only additions, articulations of the group lore, were allowed. That is not the way we live now, nor is it the way in which our species has lived throughout most of recorded history. In recent millennia, societies have equipped their...

    • CHAPTER 10 Renewing the Project
      (pp. 370-408)

      How does the normative stance developed in the last two chapters, the egalitarian conception of the good, and the method for ethical decision that aims to simulate wide-ranging deliberation under conditions of mutual engagement, apply to our contemporary predicament? To recapitulate: it is not for any single author to answer. Philosophers can make proposals, attempting to facilitate the conversation that would deliver answers. Call the work of facilitation philosophical midwifery. The most obvious forms of philosophical midwifery consist in proposing topics for consideration (places on our common vessel where planks might deserve attention) and suggestions about those topics (specific ways...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 409-410)

    Tens of thousands of years ago, our remote ancestors began the ethical project. They introduced socially embedded normative guidance in response to the tensions and difficulties of life together in small groups. They were equipped with dispositions to psychological altruism that enabled them to live together, but the limits of those dispositions prevented them from living together smoothly and easily. Out of their normative ventures have emerged some precepts we are not likely ever to abandon, so long, at least, as we make ethical progress, the vague generalizations that embody ethical truths. Besides those core themes, we have also inherited...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 411-416)
  9. Index
    (pp. 417-422)