Schoales hopes to increase readers’ understanding of their own motivations and make them better able to make decisions and cooperate with others. Schoales includes some diagrams which relate these various motivations to each other – some of which are enlightening but others of which fail to shed light on his point. His thinking is fairly original, though he makes good use of the thinking of classic ethicists such as Rawls, Hobbes, and Mill among others. Considering the sweep of the book’s title, though, readers may wonder how his analysis relates to the work of more modern and contemporary ethicists.
While some may find fault with elements of his analysis, his dispassionate view of human behavior gives food for thought as we make the innumerable ethical decisions we each face every day. With thought toward motives, as Schoales argues, we can consider the actions of others more impartially and without bias in order to better understand them rather than simply bless our ethical instincts with “legitimacy and objectivity.” Through this brief introduction to ethics, the reader can learn a flexible yet powerful system of moral motivations to understand decision-making.
Takeaway: Students of ethics and human behavior will find this brief guide to ethical motives thought provoking.
Great for fans of: Russ Shafer-Landau’s A Concise Introduction to Ethics, Simon Blackburn’s Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics.
Design and typography: C
Marketing copy: A-
In the course of our thinking about justice, ethics, and related topics, we might occasionally fall into simplistic formulae, such as "all humans are selfish," or "morality is relative," or we might be inclined to say ethics is just one more trick the brain has evolved to perform on itself to ensure the survival of the species. The recent book by John Schoales, What is Ethics?, stands in sharp contrast to such simplistic formulae. The book is concise and accessible, informed by some of the greatest thinkers of modern Western philosophy. Schoales's clear style helps us develop an appreciation for the complexity and multi-dimensionality of ethics and its relation with the changing conditions of human life.
Human life comprises, not of one single domain, but of multiple domains. We belong to families, societies, cultures, and nations. We are also individuals, who can at least occasionally achieve a degree of independence and critical distance, in our thought and action, from the collective norms. Moreover, we are not driven by a single need, but by multiple needs. Our self-interest, for instance, can be opposed to our interest in knowing the world as it truly is. Our interest in what is beneficial for ourselves and our group can be similarly opposed to our interest in recognizing and acting in accordance with justice for its own sake. Schoales recognizes and navigates through these varying--and potentially conflicting--parts of human life and shows their relevance to ethics. He proposes a hierarchy of motives, which we could use to analyze, and recognize the reason for, a particular decision. The same hierarchy of motives can be helpful in discovering alternative ways of responding to the same situation, and in discovering a relatively more impartial way of engaging with a situation.
John Stuart Mill is a major inspiration for the present book, and Schoales shows the continuing relevance of this great thinker for a careful examination of contemporary questions. In addition to Mill, we encounter David Hume, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, and a few other thinkers from modern Western philosophy. Rather than a superficial treatment of many references, Schoales shows the effect of a careful and in-depth reading of a few important sources. This is an aspect of his work that I particularly enjoyed.
The aim of What is Ethics? is not to close the discussion by offering once-and-for-all answers. The aim is, instead, to show the openness of the question and the demand for our on-going participation. This is, indeed, how Schoales thinks about the very subject of ethics:
It is not the goal of ethics to determine specific rules of conduct. Governance is a perpetual collaborative endeavor; all rules must be continually open to question and subject to revision to gain acceptance and, therefore, to have any legitimacy in governing individuals’ actions.
The only limitation of the book, in my view, is the exceedingly abstract character of its presentation. Detailed and concrete examples could have helped flesh out the argument. Careful and committed readers will, therefore, have to supplement the material with examples of their own (Section 2 of the book offers a starting point). Doing so will render the reading experience more engaging and will connect to material to the life of the reader. Nevertheless, the book is very much worth reading, especially if you are interested in a brief, accessible, and balanced philosophical introduction to ethics and its relation to the wider context of human social life.