Tucker's Reviews > Moral Value and Human Diversity

Moral Value and Human Diversity by Robert Audi
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Jan 16, 12

bookshelves: finished, less-relativist
Read in January, 2012, read count: 1

This is a clearly written brief overview of ethics for someone with a little background in philosophy and some interest in the subject of ethics. It is wide-ranging in scope and could provoke introspection in many directions. Audi writes in the preface, "Ethics has always been taken to concern both the good and the bad (the realm of value) and the right and the wrong (the realm of obligation). A well-developed ethical view should indicate how these two realms are related." In the first chapter he explains that normative ethics is concerned with character, conduct, and value.

Just as "if we believe what is not true" we have a "cognitive failure," he says that "if we value, for its own sake, what is not intrinsically good--money, domination, weapons--we are in error." A few pages later, he says that one may enjoy religious experiences even if God does not exist. I agree, but wonder how this fits into his understanding of error.

He eloquently makes a case for the possibility of goodness without God: "It seems at best unlikely that a perfectly good God would create a world in which some good people conscientiously try to find God or evidences of divine sovereignty and fail, yet there is no way for them to discover basic moral truths and other normative standards essential for civilized life. To create such a world would be to compound the incalculable loss of failing to recognize one's creator with the tragedy of lacking an adequate guide in conducting one's secular life in a way appropriate to creatures of God." (pp. 76-77) In the public square, he suggests a principle of secular rationale whereby people should not move to restrict each other's behavior without giving secular justifications. (p. 97)

I was less impressed by his brief dismissal of the ethical permissibility of human cloning by what sounded something like disapproval of single parenthood.

Audi neatly disposes of relativism, the traditional adversary of most ethicists, although I personally would have preferred more of a fight. He distinguishes between the uncontroversial observation that general rules may admit exceptions and that what one ought to do depends partly on the circumstances, e.g. that one may be permitted to slap someone to wake them from a faint (what he calls "circumstantial relativism") and the far more controversial claim, which he quickly and outright rejects, that entire moral principles may be invalidated if a particular culture does not accept them ("status relativism"). He correctly points out that the former does not entail the latter. However, I would have pointed out how the former can cast doubt upon "absolutist" moral theories by highlighting gray areas and slippery slopes that make it difficult to formulate workable principles and comprehensive lists of exceptions; in this way, circumstantial relativism can contribute to a kind of status relativism where it is acknowledged that not everyone recognizes the same principles and perhaps they need not.
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