Summary of The Point of View of the Universe, by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer

My university library has an electronic version of The Point of View of the Universe, by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, which includes summaries of each of the book’s chapters. (These summaries are not included in the print or the Kindle versions.) Collated, they provide a good summary of the book as a whole. So here they are.

1. What is Ethics?

By ‘a method of ethics’ Sidgwick means a rational procedure for deciding what we ought to do. He groups these rational procedures into three different types: egoism, intuitionism, and utilitarianism. We examine Sidgwick’s conception of the task of the philosopher investigating ethics, and consider whether Sidgwick has, by limiting his ‘methods of ethics’ to just three, pre-empted any viable ethical theories from receiving a proper hearing in his work

2. Reason and Action

This chapter asks what rationality amounts to, when it comes to practical reasoning, and what reasons for actions we can have. Philosophical accounts of reasons for action can be divided according to whether the reasons provided are subjective or objective. Drawing on arguments advanced by Sidgwick and Parfit, we argue, against Hume and his followers, that normative reasons for actions are objective. One objection to this view is that it is unclear how reason can motivate action. Another is that psychopaths appear to be able to reason adequately, but do not act morally. Both of these objections are discussed and answered.

3. Intuition and the Morality of Common Sense

Sidgwick distinguished three different stages of intuitionism: perceptional intuitionism, common sense morality, and philosophical intuitionism. His examination of the morality of common sense is especially noteworthy and is here discussed using the examples of benevolence and truth-telling. Sidgwick concluded that only philosophical intuitionism constitutes a sufficiently precise method of ethics. This chapter considers all three forms of intuitionism and their contemporary or recent exponents. Particularism, as espoused by Dancy, is today the leading form of perceptional intuitionism, while Ross, Gert, and Bok are taken as defenders of the morality of common sense. The chapter defends Sidgwick’s view that neither perceptional intuitionism nor the morality of common sense is philosophically adequate.

4. Justification in Ethics

Sidgwick grounds his own theory, not on our commonsense moral judgments, but on our intuitive knowledge of the truth of some self-evident axioms. For this reason, his approach raises an important question of methodology in ethics. Contemporary ethics often assumes that normative ethical theories can only be justified by reaching what Rawls called a ‘reflective equilibrium’ between theory and considered moral judgments. Sidgwick, by contrast, seeks a self-evident foundation on which to build a normative theory. We investigate whether Sidgwickian foundationalism is a viable alternative to the coherentism of reflective equilibrium.

5. The Axioms of Ethics

Sidgwick thought that some axions of ethics are self-evident. These include: an axiom of justice—‘whatever action any of us judges to be right for himself, he implicitly judges to be right for all similar persons in similar circumstances’, an axiom of prudence—‘a smaller present good is not to be preferred to a greater future good’, and an axiom of benevolence—‘each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him’. This chapter discusses these axioms in the light of the work of more recent thinkers including R. M. Hare and John Mackie on universalizability, Bernard Williams, Michael Slote, and Larry Temkin on time preference and finally Williams again as well as Rawls on utilitarianism and maximization.

6. The Profoundest Problem of Ethics

The ‘profoundest problem of ethics’ according to Sidgwick, arises from the apparent rationality of both egoism and utilitarianism. Sidgwick called this the ‘dualism of practical reason’ and he held that it showed that reason cannot, after all, be a complete guide to what we ought to do. Moreover if we always have sufficient reason to do what is in our own interests—so that acting in our own interests would always be rational, but not rationally required—then that seems to sharply diminish the importance of an ethical theory like utilitarianism, based as it is on the idea of acting with impartial concern for others. We discuss the ways in which Gauthier, Brink, and Parfit have sought to overcome or reduce the scope of the problem, and suggest why their proposals fail to resolve it.

7. The Origins of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason

Darwin’s The Descent of Man appeared three years before The Methods of Ethics and Sidgwick understood that evolutionary accounts of the origins of human morality raise a question about the truth of our moral judgments. We draw on Sidgwick’s arguments against this kind of external attack to respond to Street’s recent evolutionary critique of moral realism. Surprisingly, the way in which we defend objectivity against this evolutionary critique puts us in a position to support a bold claim: the dualism of practical reason can be resolved in favour of impartiality.

8. Ultimate Good, Part I: Perfectionism and Desire Based Theory

The axiom of universal benevolence tells us to maximize the good, impartially, but does not tell us what this good is. Theories of the good can be divided into internalist and externalist theories, depending on whether the theory holds that what is good for someone must in some way be attractive to, or resonate with, that person. This chapter investigates several different versions of the leading internalist view, that what is good for someone is based on what she desires, as well as externalist theories, including perfectionism.

9. Ultimate Good, Part II: Hedonism

Sidgwick’s version of hedonism sees happiness as consisting of intrinsically desirable states of consciousness and therefore combines elements of both internalism and externalism. We compare this with Feldman’s and Haybron’s accounts of happiness. In the end, what matters is what is judged to be of intrinsic value, whether or not that corresponds to the common meaning of the word ‘happiness’. We also assess the relevance of survey data on happiness, and of psychological research on happiness, especially Kahneman’s work on duration neglect.

10. Rules

Consequentialists have different attitudes to rules. We distinguish the question of what is the correct criterion for deciding whether an act ought to be done (which may be that it leads to the best consequences) from the question of what is the best decision procedure for people to follow (which may be to obey a set of not-too-complicated rules). This distinction—and the possibility that sometimes an act may be right only if it does not set a bad example that will lead others astray—leads to a discussion of esoteric morality—that is, whether it can be right to do in secret what would be wrong if done openly. We argue, against Kant, Hooker, and Rawls, that Sidgwick was right to defend the possibility of esoteric morality.

11. Demandingness

It is often claimed that utilitarianism is too demanding, because it gives us obligations that virtually no one meets. This chapter considers Sidgwick’s response to the demandingness objection, especially his important distinction between whether an act is right or wrong, and whether it is appropriate to praise or blame the agent for that act. Parfit’s concept of ‘blameless wrongdoing’ fits within this framework. We argue that Sidgwick’s response to the objection is sound, although in today’s world—given the contrast between affluence and extreme poverty—his view leads to consequences that are different from those he drew. Norcross’s has suggested a shift to ’scalar utilitarianism’ as a solution to the problem of demandingness; the proposal has some merit, but its radical nature suggests a utilitarian ground for not adopting it.

12. Distribution

If happiness is the good, how should it be distributed? Should we take into account only the happiness of human beings, or of all those capable of experiencing pleasure and pain? Should we favour an egalitarian distribution, or prioritarianism (i.e. giving priority to those who are worse off), or should we simply aim at increasing happiness as much as possible, irrespective of how it is distributed? Is it permissible to discount the future, as economists like Von Mises have proposed? Finally, there is a question first raised by Sidgwick, but probed more deeply by Parfit: should we, in maximizing happiness, be concerned only about those who already exist, or who will exist independently of what we do, or should we also be concerned about merely possible beings, whose very existence depends on the choices we make?

13. Conclusion

The conclusion focuses on the role that reason plays in ethics, and on whether there are grounds for hoping that by making progress in moral philosophy, we can contribute towards progress towards a better world. Drawing on work by Pinker and the ‘Flynn effect’ we argue that there is hope for such progress.