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Experiments in Ethics (Flexner Lectures) Hardcover – January 15, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0674026094 ISBN-10: 0674026098

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Product Details

  • Series: Flexner Lectures
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026094
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,373,194 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


This dazzlingly written book argues for reconnecting moral philosophy with the sciences, both natural and social--and demonstrates that the reconnection, while in a sense overdue, reconnects philosophy with its ancient interest in empirical issues. Appiah's important argument promises to transform more than one field. It is not only wise and subtle; it is also inspiring.
--Cass Sunstein, Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago and author of Worst-Case Scenarios

Experiments in Ethics is wonderful: concise but not breezy, clear but not simplistic, wide-ranging but focused, filled with wit and learning. It is an accessible, lively, and balanced introduction to empirical moral psychology that I recommend happily to philosophers and non-philosophers.
--Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,Professor of Philosophy and Hardy Professor of Legal Studies at Dartmouth College

Brilliant...I wish every philosopher wrote like Appiah. Experiments in Ethics is clear and accessible (and often very funny), and Appiah is generous when it comes to discussing the work of those he disagrees with. But this book has teeth, particularly when Appiah looks hard at the emphasis on moral dilemmas.
--Paul Bloom (New York Times Book Review 2008-02-03)

The main theme of [Appiah's] beautifully written book...is that ethicists should take account of empirical data about people's moral intuitions. Indeed, he takes that to be the mainstream current of the history of philosophy from Aristotle onwards, regretting the recent hiving off of the discipline from empirical investigation. Appiah packs a chewy heft of scholarly nuance away in the footnotes, and the text sparkles with jokes.
--Steven Poole (The Guardian 2008-02-02)

Concisely written and clearly argued...Humans have a tendency to pass the moral buck by blaming ethical failings on everything from supernatural forces to genetics. Appiah's proposals return the wellspring of human ethics to its proper place: human beings themselves...This is a stimulating and highly enjoyable book. With Appiah as our guide, readers can look forward to a fascinating journey toward the rediscovery of the ancient goal of a life of decency and virtue.
--Lorenzo DiTommaso (Montreal Gazette 2008-02-02)

Concise yet erudite and engagingly written...Because he sees the quest for scientific knowledge as very much part of the philosophical tradition, Mr. Appiah warns not only against "baseless fears" of the damage that experiments in ethics will do to ethics, but also against "exaggerated hopes" that the rediscovery of such an approach will answer all our puzzles about ethics.
--Peter Singer (New York Sun 2008-01-16)

What can experimentation in the human and natural sciences contribute to moral philosophy? Appiah's answer in this concise and balanced book is effectively "something but not everything." Reconnecting the empirical with moral theory may, he argues, have productive consequences for both areas of thought. (London Review of Books 2008-02-21)

In writing this inspiring book, Appiah has done a good thing.
--Sacha Molitorisz (Sydney Morning Herald 2008-02-22)

Sensible, informed and highly readable...Illuminating and important. The book is a model for how to do empirically informed moral philosophy.
--Anthony Skelton (Globe and Mail 2008-03-01)

Experiments in Ethics is erudite, concise and engagingly written. Appiah assesses that experimental science is relevant to the enterprise of normative ethics, and that the relation between the two, although complex, need not be antagonistic.
--Nick Bostrom (Nature 2008-05-29)

Appiah has produced an elegant and well-written volume at the intersection of psychology and moral philosophy. Appiah presents a reasonable case that philosophy traditionally has been informed by scientific inquiry, and should continue to welcome it; but at the same time he is clear that the questions of moral philosophy are not themselves scientific questions.
--S. Satris (Choice 2008-08-01)

This engaging book surveys influential recent attempts to bring empirical studies to bear specifically on moral philosophy, in a style that is accessible to non-specialists yet philosophically nuanced. Professor Appiah is sympathetic to the idea that moral philosophy has a good deal to learn from experimental work, but skeptical of the suggestion that this approach constitutes a radical departure from the philosophical tradition. He begins with a fascinating and erudite characterization of philosophy as a discipline that only "calved off" from psychology around the beginning of the twentieth century. Until then, experimental works and empirical investigation ("natural philosophy") were interwoven with metaphysical theorizing and deductive argumentation, and psychology was only just becoming a distinct academic discipline in its own right. Trying to distinguish metaphysical from psychological elements in the work of such canonical figures of European philosophy as Plato and Aristotle, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume and J. S. Mill, Appiah claims, is like "trying to peel a raspberry."
--Justin D'Arms (Times Literary Supplement 2009-03-06)

One of our most imaginative writers on topics like culture, values, and individual identity...[Appiah] is a philosopher but one not bound by any disciplinary straitjacket; he succeeds in what he does by inviting his readers to stand back with him from the preoccupations of any particular style of theorizing...The lightness of his style...together with his determination to make analytic moral philosophy the topic rather than the method of his study, has given us a wry and engaging account of the challenge that psychology poses to ethics.
--Jeremy Waldron (New York Review of Books 2009-10-08)

About the Author

Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Werner Cohn on February 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Kwame Appiah is a distinguished Princeton philosopher, and the publisher of this book, Harvard University Press, is one of the most distinguished scholarly publishers in the world. This combination must command respect even before the book is as much as opened.

The volume is one of a series of "lectures" addressed to the general public. The author poses the following problem: how can our understanding of ethics be informed by the findings of empirical social psychology ? He gives us a very useful rundown on the best-known experiments and reflects on their significance.

With so much in this volume to be appreciated, it may be churlish to complain about some of the details. Nevertheless, as someone with little background in philosophy (but a lifelong attention to the social sciences), I must raise at least two of my dissatisfactions:

1. In his chapter on "the varieties of moral experience," the author discusses a number of "modules" that he feels characterize the human psyche: compassion, reciprocity, hierarchy, and so forth. He draws on other scholars who have posited such proclivities, and he also mentions Chomsky who, he says, has proposed a similar, presumably innate, human capacity for language. I do not find these "modules" persuasive as being human universals. There is very little in this discussion that would connect it to empirical science, for example to anthropology, not to speak of the findings of modern neuroscience. Indeed, the descriptions of modules are reminiscent of pre-scientific speculations concerning "four humors."

2. The second chapter, "the case against character," gives us a stimulating and challenging rundown of experiments that suggest that ethical choice is very much influenced by the immediate situation.
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37 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on February 9, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Contributions to moral philosophy, from Aristotle to Emmanuel Kant to John Stuart Mill and to John Rawls, are among the peak achievements of human intellect. Experiments in Ethics addresses The Question: how does moral philosophy relate to the effort in experimental psychology and behavioral game theory to model the contribution of moral values to individual choice and strategic interaction?

This engaging book does not fully settle the issue (does a philosopher ever fully settle the issue?), but it is packed with mordant insights and suggestive ideas for the behavioral scientist.

I start from the understanding that moral reasoning and moral behavior are an intimate part of the human behavioral repertoire. Unlike mathematics or video games, moral behavior is a part of even the simplest hunter-gatherer societies known to us, and the complexity of moral reasoning appears to be a feature of human society everywhere. Humans produce morality the same way spiders weave webs.

This understanding suggests a very simple answer to The Question: just as physics moved from Natural Philosophy to Natural Science in a previous era, and more recently just as the study of human speech moved from the Philosophy of Language to Linguistics, so now does ethics move from Moral Philosophy to Behavioral Science in the current era. If this were correct, moral philosophy in the current era would be relegated to the position of the interpretation of behavioral science, just as the philosophy of science has become the study of the practice of scientists and the interpretation of their intellectual products.
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20 of 28 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on February 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The "experiments" from which the book derives its name are on page 41: You are far more likely to be courteously helped by someone emerging from a phone booth if that person has just found abandoned money in the coin return slot...ambient noise levels of 85 decibels rather than 65 decibels decreased offers of aid to someone in minor distress...seminary students who had just been discussing the "Good Samaritan" story were much less likely to stop and aid someone in moderate to major distress if they were under time constraints...you are much more likely to get change for a dollar in front of fragrant bakery shop than in front of a dry-goods store.

This author contrasts virtue ethics with situational, contextual ethics. Over and over, experiments show that ethical behavior depends on the situation. It's easier to be virtuous when you're feeling good otherwise, but the act is almost always attributed to a rock-solid trait of one's character. Ben Franklin saw it otherwise. His famous personal virtue experiment revealed that when you managed to be virtuous in one way, you're likely to expose a vice somewhere else. His "list of virtues" comprised 13 traits, each to be practiced for a week at a time. At the end of thirteen weeks, they would all have been practiced once; after a year, four weeks each. One of his famous statement concerned "humility" week - during this week, he found himself becoming vain for having achieved so much humbleness (or something like that).

I try to like philosophy, I really do. But this book is like other philosophy books where logical arguments abound, splitting hairs where I didn't know hairs grew. That being said, I liked Appiah's approach. If you just take one virtue, like honesty, things are simple.
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More About the Author

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the president of the PEN American Center, is the author of The Ethics of Identity, Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, The Honor Code and the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism. Raised in Ghana and educated in England, he has taught philosophy on three continents and is currently a professor at Princeton University. He maintains a website at www.appiah.net.

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