(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher's Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today's issues)

An extremely quick read with humorous cartoons on every page; this book presents ethics in a very non-threatening manner. As is the norm for the "Introducing [X]" series, a bit about the personal lives of the various philosophers is offered along with a quick slice of their beliefs.

It was nice to learn something about the private lives of these people, as I feel that helps make them a bit more memorable, and sometimes helps the reader put their writings into some understandable context.

As an example, my half-guilty liking for Marx (who is not mentioned in this book) came from learning of some of his personal beliefs, as opposed to the half-demonized, half-reified renditions which are usually taught today. That particular re-writing of history bothers me — especially since it was so immediate and annoying that the dying words of the poor man are reputed to be, "I am not a Marxist."

However, while this book does mention quite a few historical philosophers and their ethical cogitations, I found it on the whole a bit disappointing and shallow.

Admittedly, I understand this very quick over-view is going to happen of necessity in any popular culture series, let alone one titled "Introducing…" but how many folks will think that's all they need to know or learn of such enduring and complex issues? How many actually go on and do more research? I wish it were a bit clearer that these books are just suggestions on where to go to find some real studies of ethics.

All a very elitist viewpoint, I know, so to be fair I'll address the ten questions stated in the book as constants through the ages. It'll be interesting to try, and I like mental challenges. If all you're looking for is a review of this book, then that's it. If you're interested in ethics as well, please feel free to read on! ;)

The Ten Ethics Questions

  1. Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) which are always wrong? If so, what are they?

The problem I have with this is context. For example, I'd hope most people would react with horror to the deliberate infliction of pain and damage on a child. However, using that definition of torture would include circumcision. I don't think circumcision is really necessary for the majority, but I know there are folks who do. Are they unethical? By their sights, no, but by mine, yes.

Also, I know of at least one case where I didn't like the torture, but I would have condoned it. A nurse I knew spoke of a medical ethics class she took with a number of burn ward nurses. An example was brought up in the class of a child with terrible burns across most of his body, who had to undergo an extremely painful procedure on a daily basis, so he'd survive.

The nurses who had to do this to the poor child were all struggling with their own personal ethics. It was easy for them initially — they were helping the boy get better, after all. However, as the days passed and they had to deal with the horror of a child who would rather the pain stop than that he survive… it became harder for them to maintain their initial certainty, in the face of screamed demands that they stop torturing him, and that they allow him to die in peace.

In that context, I'd have to modify my initial statement somewhat. The sort of act which maliciously inflicts deliberate pain and damage — i.e. they're hurting someone else because it makes them feel good to do so, and/or they want to show their power over others — that's always wrong.

So of course, then we have to cope with the self-righteous, such as those who constantly denigrate or beat their children, "for their own good." By their own lights, they're doing it because it's the ethical, right thing to do. Where to draw the line? In these cases, I use Martin Luther King's criterion: do these actions destroy human dignity? If so, they are wrong and should be stopped.

Sniping verbally at someone (even if you somehow believe that's not malicious) until you've shattered their self-confidence isn't teaching — it's destruction. It shatters human dignity. On the other hand, the nurses mentioned above struggled with their ethics because of the combination of the injured boy's pleas, and their powerful belief in his humanity.

They did not act out of malice; to them he was worth fighting for, and saving. Their difficult efforts were required to ensure his continued life and human dignity. I was glad to hear he later thanked them (even though it took him a while to get over the experience) for his survival and recovery.

So who defines "human dignity"? After all, if a culture or religion defines children or women as not yet human, then how can they have human dignity? In these cases, I prefer to err on the side of conservatism — if it could be human, or is somewhere defined as human, then let's treat it as such.

What's the worst that happens — we find out later we should have beaten someone whom we were instead kind to? Horrors. I can live with that far easier than the alternative.

So, let's answer the question precisely: acts which deliberately inflict painful damage and denigrate human dignity are wrong.


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