Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What am I to do?

Well, my experimental attempt to produce a complete paper in one semester has resulted in a revise and resubmit, which isn't bad. So I've got that to do. I'm also trying to work on a paper on Wittgenstein. But more longterm I have a couple of book-length projects that I'm not sure about.

Before I started on the Anscombe book I was in the very early stages of what I thought of as a book on the death of God, which I might or might not return to some day. Otherwise, though, I'm thinking about an applied ethics textbook based on the idea of seeing various contemporary moral issues in terms of four competing values (life, liberty, happiness, and "a more perfect union," which is a sort of catch-all category that mostly covers justice). This provides four points of a moral compass with which to navigate the seas of ethics (although that way of putting it sounds a little too corny). So abortion pits the value of life against that of liberty (aka choice). Capital punishment pits the value of life against that of justice. And so on.

Except, of course, that it isn't as simple as this suggests. Some people oppose capital punishment because it ends a human life, but others support it precisely because they see it as affirming the value of the life that was taken by the to-be-executed murderer. Which brings out how there are different ways that one might value life. And one can value liberty in a leave-me-alone, libertarian kind of way or in a Kantian, autonomy kind of way. The former view might support legalizing drugs, while the latter might well not. Similarly, Dworkin argues that disagreements about the ethics of abortion and euthanasia are really about different ways of valuing life.

Then there are also calculative ways of thinking about values and more intuitive ways. On the question of the moral status of animals, Peter Singer might be a good example of the former way of thinking, while Cora Diamond might exemplify the latter.

So it can all get a bit complicated, but in a way that's the point. It's not that this moral compass will solve your problems for you. Rather, looking at various controversial issues in these terms can help (I think) to clarify the issues themselves and the values that both unite and separate us. Next time I teach applied ethics I'll use this approach, and then maybe work it up into a book if I ever get a sabbatical. Students don't seem to either like it or dislike more than other approaches I've tried, but they certainly don't mind it, and I think it beats the usual kind of liberal versus conservative approach.       

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