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Comprehensive and original,
This review is from: The Moral Problem (Philosophical Theory) (Paperback)
The Moral Problem has two very unique qualities: original argument and a comprehensive survey of the field. It is on a all-encompassing but rather subtle theme on moral philosophy: meta-ethics. This seeks to analyse the nature of moral judgements, rather than the judgements themselves. To make this point a little clearer: whether murder is wrong is considered ethics, but what we mean but 'wrong' is meta- ethics. To use Smith's example, whether one should give to famine relief is about ethics, but would we mean by 'should' is meta-ethics.
Smith's introduction is an explanation of the moral problem (from now on, the problem) and why it is so significant. The problem is amongst the most difficult concepts in the book to understand; not because it is poorly explained but because it draws on (seemingly) disparate branches of moral philosophy. Nonetheless, it makes for an exciting and highly informative start.
Ultimately, it is about reconciling the conflicting dynamic between moral objectivity and practicality on the one hand and Humean psychology on the other.
The objective feature of moral judgements (there are moral facts such as right/wrong/good/bad) implies that moral judgements express beliefs. So the utterance 'X is wrong' is a belief about a matter-of-fact: that X is wrong. This nicely fits into our intuition that in the case of moral disagreement, someone is wrong.
However, the practical feature of moral judgements implies that moral judgements express desires. This is a two stage process: Uttering 'X is right' motivates one to do X. And the second step: Being motivated to do X implies a desire to do X.
The problem? On the first account moral judgements (eg X is wrong) are beliefs and on the second account they are desires, which according to the Humean picture of human psychology, are two entirely distinct mental states. Why are they distinct? Simple: beliefs are about the way the world is, and desires about how you want the world to be.
There are two ways to deal with this problem: reject the objective feature or reject a step in the formation of the practical feature. The remaining chapters of the book propose a candidate solution, before delving into objections and replies to that solution.
Expressivism is first to show his hand, with the chapter aptly entitled The Expressivist Challenge. Expressivists deny the objective feature of moral judgements, claiming instead that moral judgements express attitudes of approval or disapproval, not beliefs. So when one says, 'X is wrong', they are actually expressing a disapproving attitude towards X. Key proponents of this view include the great British philosopher AJ Ayer and contemporary Cambridge academic Simon Blackburn. The ensuing chapter is a difficult but highly rewarding one: going into naturalism (moral judgements can be assessed in a scientific way), non-naturalism (the opposite) and how Moore's Open Question Argument attacks the former. Whilst certainly challenging Smith keeps the debate lively enough and continuously summaries his position to ensure that the reader has the best chance of successfully navigating through the twists and turns of the debate.
The next chapter The Externalist Challenge, is to call into question the first step of the practicality of moral judgements. It does so by rejecting the connection between moral judgements and motivation. Quite a complicated chapter ensues, starting off with the Mackie's distinction of rationality types, absorbing Foot and Brink's famous challenges.
The following two chapters go into Humean theories of motivation in significant detail. These are probably the best chapter's of the book, and Smith's formulates the Humean theory of motivation with surprising and refreshing clarity. The standard format ensues: outline the argument, objections and replies to these objections. Smith makes a great decision to summarise the argument twice, to ensure the reader is kept abreast of the theory.
Finally, Smith's concluding chapter is a proposed solution to the Moral Problem. In short, Smith attempts to bridge the gap between the objective and practical features of moral judgements, arguing that we should split reasons up into 'motivating' and 'normative' and thereby ultimately criticising Hume's notion that desires are beyond the realm of what can be criticised. I think Smith is somewhat convincing, and his solution is certainly a novel one.
The Moral Problem's ability to combine originality and subject overview are two factors that render this book an essential text for anyone enrolled on an intermediate level moral philosophy course and above. With a certain level of guidance, the book's powerful clarity and explanatory style could also be harnessed at the introductory level. Overall, I strong recommend this text and believe the non-philosopher would also learn a great deal about how moral philosophy works.