Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).
Jeremy Stangroom poses a number of questions in this book which will make you think about morality, rights and responsibilities, crime and punishment, society and politics. The cat question is just one of his 25 ‘ethical conundrums’ all of which are designed to “illuminate various issues in moral philosophy” and to help you to “shed some light on your own moral commitments”. That may sound like hard going, but the conundrums themselves are presented in a humorous and light -hearted manner, and possible responses are discussed in a separate section at the back of the book.
This is philosophy for everyone and the conundrums would make for lively discussion around the dinner table or over coffee with a friend. Many are very relevant to all our lives, dealing, for example, with such things as civil liberties: “Should the policeman stop the climber from climbing Ben Nevis?”; crime and punishment: “Is it right to torture Goldtooth in the hope that he reveals the location of the [world destroying] bomb”; If “the effect that any particular individual has on global warming is negligible” can no individual be held responsible for contributing to climate change?
Stangroom begins the book with a brief introduction which moves from a question about the Internet and virtual marital infidelity to a brief outline of three traditional ways of viewing ethical issues: Utilitarianism, Deontological Ethics, and Virtue Ethics. These three names may sound formidable but Stangroom’s outlines of these positions on morality are admirably clear and brief. Whether or not they help you to answer the conundrums, they do offer some clear guidance in thinking about your own responses.
For philosophers, of course, there is never one clear answer to any moral dilemma, nor are there only three cut-and-dried ways of approaching it. So, simple as this book seems, the questions it poses are often more complex than they appear at first glance.
To take the example of eating your cat. In his response to this question Stangroom suggests that those who think it is not wrong to do so (which is a moral judgment) value intuition more than feeling, put no moral value on private behaviour, and reject rational arguments about moral issues. On the other hand, those who think it is wrong to eat your cat think emotion makes a poor base for moral judgments,or, he admits, they may be put off by the ‘Yuck!” factor. He also notes that it is not clear that there is a moral issue involved: the cat is dead and died of natural causes, no-one is harmed by your eating it, and it is an issue which affects only you.
He offers no further suggestions for further debate, maybe because he hopes you will consider the issue seriously and ponder the implications of your choice. You may think, for example that there is nothing wrong with eating your dead cat. After all, unless you are vegetarian, you eat pigs, lambs, chickens etc. So, would you also consider eating your deceased, human, best friend? Some societies might see nothing morally wrong in doing this. The more you think about it the more complicated the issue can get, unless, perhaps, you just follow some strictures set down by religion or the law.
Moral philosophy is all about trying to think clearly about our own value judgments and about moral issues which affect our lives. This small book offers and enjoyable and stimulating way of examining our own values and the basis on which we make moral decisions. It is an easily digestible aid to clear thinking.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/