How should we live? What do we owe to other people? In Goodness and Advice, the eminent philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson explores how we should go about answering such fundamental questions. In doing so, she makes major advances in moral philosophy, pointing to some deep problems for influential moral theories and describing the structure of a new and much more promising theory.
Thomson begins by lamenting the prevalence of the idea that there is an unbridgeable gap between fact and value--that to say something is good, for example, is not to state a fact, but to do something more like expressing an attitude or feeling. She sets out to challenge this view, first by assessing the apparently powerful claims of Consequentialism. Thomson makes the striking argument that this familiar theory must ultimately fail because its basic requirement--that people should act to bring about the "most good"--is meaningless. It rests on an incoherent conception of goodness, and supplies, not mistaken advice, but no advice at all.
Thomson then outlines the theory that she thinks we should opt for instead. This theory says that no acts are, simply, good: an act can at most be good in one or another way--as, for example, good for Smith or for Jones. What we ought to do is, most importantly, to avoid injustice; and whether an act is unjust is a function both of the rights of those affected, including the agent, and of how good or bad the act is for them. The book, which originated in the Tanner lectures that Thomson delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 1999, includes two chapters by Thomson ("Goodness" and "Advice"), provocative comments by four prominent scholars--Martha Nussbaum, Jerome Schneewind, Philip Fisher, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith--and replies by Thomson to those comments.
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Princeton University Press
January 05, 2003
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Excerpt from Goodness and Advice by Judith Jarvis Thomson
INTRODUCTION by Amy Gutmann
HOW SHOULD we live? What do we owe to other people? How, if at all, do ethical demands and prudential ones differ? Is there any moral difference between our actions (such as killing) and inactions (such as letting die) when each has the same consequences (the loss of a life)? Judith Jarvis Thomson is a contemporary moral philosopher who has not avoided such big questions. At one time or another in her distinguished career, she has addressed each of these questions, and she continues to do so in her 1999-2000 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
This book consists of Thomson's revised Tanner Lectures, with commentaries by Philip Fisher, Martha Nussbaum, Jerome Schneewind, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, along with a reply by Thomson to her commentators. Thomson's arguments show the value--as well as the limits, which all modes of intellectual inquiry have--of trying to answer big moral questions by a scrupulous mode of philosophical inquiry. The commentaries give prominent voice to recurrent claims about the limits of such philosophical inquiry, which Thomson then addresses in her reply to commentators.
Some kinds of philosophical reasoning about questions such as "What ought I to do?" seem peculiar, even wrongheaded, to many people. Fisher and Herrnstein Smith give voice to such criticism. Instead of using real-world examples in all their empirical complexity and ambiguity, Thomson tends to offer seemingly simple, hypothetical examples, taken out of context. Why? By using hypothetical examples, she tries to determine whether some widely held philosophical generalizations are--as they claim--generally defensible.
In Part I, on "goodness," she tests the popular and intuitively appealing moral claim: "Act always to bring about the most good in the world." To test this moral generalization, she employs some simple examples that are presented (at first) totally out of context. "Alfred presses the doorbell." Should he do so? In light of such examples, she asks, can we coherently and credibly stand by the claim "Act always to bring about the most good in the world"? Ironically, Thomson uses such simple examples, taken out of context, to arrive at a conclusion with which she is in heated agreement with those who challenge her use of such examples. All agree--although for different reasons and by employing very different methods and styles of argument--that it is a mistake to generalize about what actions are good apart from a context that raises the questions "Good in what way?" "For whom?" "Under what circumstances?" Some contemporary moral philosophers not only address big questions about the nature of ethical action, but also try to come to conclusions about controversial ethical issues in their writings. They move beyond hypothetical problems to actual ones. They do not shy away from some of the most controversial ethical problems of our time, such as abortion, affirmative action, and physician-assisted suicide. Thomson is also one of these philosophers. She has dared to defend the morality of abortion, affirmative action, and physician-assisted suicide, with important qualifications that come out of her careful analysis of examples, both hypothetical and actual. While some philosophers have opened themselves to criticism for using seemingly trivial or bizarre hypotheticals, and other philosophers have opened themselves to criticism for stepping beyond the bounds of "value-free" inquiry for taking morally controversial positions on actual issues, Thomson has repeatedly done both. She has demonstrated the courage of her philosophical and moral convictions. In this volume, she defends the idea that the two kinds of convictions--philosophical and moral--go hand in hand. In the realm of moral philosophy, she argues, philosophical claims are not one thing and moral claims another, and never the twain shall meet.
The aim of Thomson's inquiry--an aim that she shares even with many who disagree with the conclusions that she reaches--is to examine what it takes to answer the question: "What should I do in this situation?" Thomson asks, "Should I act always to bring about the best consequences?" The attraction of answering "yes" is a single simple principle that tells us what we should do in any given situation: Always act in a way to bring about the best consequences! People who subscribe to this principle are called Consequentialists. Thomson then reminds us: To know how one should act as a good Consequentialist, one needs to be able to answer the question "What are the best consequences?"