Add your own egg

In “Bringing Philosophy to Life,” Nakul Krishna reflects on his introduction to philosophy by way of reading Bernard Williams. Along the way, there are many interesting points about ethics in general, utilitarianism in particular, other areas of philosophy, and what attracts people to philosophy at all. Williams brought “depth” to philosophy.

Williams never disdained rational argument, but he never thought it was enough by itself: “Analytic argument, the philosopher’s specialty, can certainly play a part in sharpening perception. But the aim is to sharpen perception, to make one more acutely and honestly aware of what one is saying, thinking and feeling.” Unhedged with cautious qualifications, his work goads you to distinguish what you actually think from what you think that you think. If his prose, compressed and epigrammatic, stands up to rereading today, as analytic philosophy seldom does, it’s because it leaves room for its readers to add something of themselves to it. A reader’s thought, Williams said, “cannot simply be dominated … his work in making something of this writing is also that of making something for himself.” For every reader comes to philosophy with “thoughts of his own, ways of understanding which will make something out of the writing different from anything the writer thought of putting into it. As it used to say on packets of cake mix, he will add his own egg.”

Disease and self-identity

When does the deterioration of your brain rob you of your identity, and when doesn’t it? Is it when you lose your memories, or is it the loss of something else that robs you of your self? In “Your Brain, Your Disease, Your Self,” philosopher Shaun Nichols and psychologist Nina Strohminger say it is your morality more than your memory that makes you you. “It is only when our grip on the moral universe loosens that our identity slips away with it.”

Is there any way to settle moral disagreements?

When people disagree about moral issues, is there any rational way to resolve those disputes? Some think there are moral principles that any rational person must accept. But in “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolves?” Alex Rosenberg says there aren’t any such principles. The problem, according to Rosenberg, is that moral judgments are not true or false statements based on applying moral principles to particular circumstances. They are instead expressions of our responses to conduct. “Many people will not find this a satisfactory outcome. They will hope to show that even if moral judgments are expressions of our emotions, nevertheless at least some among these attitudes are objective, right, correct, well justified. But if we can’t find objective grounds for our emotional response to honor killing, our condemnation of it might turn out to just be cultural prejudice.”

Empathy … it’s your choice

Some think empathy is not a very good guide to moral decisions. Psychologists Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham disagree. They think we can choose to feel empathy when we want to. “Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.”

Imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes

Is imagining what it is like to be someone else a good way to make moral decisions? Paul Bloom says no in  “Imagining the Lives of Others.” For one thing, we’re not very good at imagining the lives of other persons. We are better off using general moral principles to make moral decisions at what we owe others.