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Springer, Elise. Communicating Moral Concern: An Ethics of Critical Responsiveness.

SPRINGER, Elise. Communicating Moral Concern: An Ethics of Critical Responsiveness. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013. 328 pp. Cloth, $41.00--This is a book everyone interested in ethics should read. At its heart stands a two-part claim about moral life, namely that moral responses to another's actions are both a pervasive part of our lives, and they are not well understood by philosophers engaged in the ethical profession. Springer argues that when we do respond morally to another person's action, we engage in what might be called a critical response. The aim for this kind of response, its morally ideal goal, is to communicate moral concern, which is nearly the title of the work. Most importantly, success in this kind of endeavor may be called aptness. Understood in this way, she argues that aptness is to be considered a third category for moral reflection along with the categories already well-established: goodness and rightness. The stakes of the book for anyone engaged in ethical reflection, then, are high, since they suggest that the way in which modern moral philosophy has been carried out is significantly tmncated. Should she prove right, much of the existing field will have to change. Should she prove wrong in her account, then it seems clear at least that a great deal of amplification for existing moral categories will be required. These points, in brief, outline just why anyone interested in ethics should read the book.

Springer understands herself to be developing the implications of (an especially Peircean) pragmatism. As a result of this philosophical heritage and its style, the thread of her argument is at points difficult to follow. Before presenting the course of the argument, then, I begin then with a clarifying case she produces in chapter three of the work. Suppose that you have been attending a raucous party. The enthusiasm is high and rapport among party-goers well established. During an exchange, an acquaintance makes a boorish joke, drawing on offensive ethnic stereotypes in what appears to be an ill-conceived attempt at humor. How should you respond? Springer's purpose with this scenario is not to provide an answer, but to tease out the main theses of her work. She argues, first, that philosophers have fared poorly in characterizing this sort of situation. One should not understand one's choices along the typical Strawsonian dichotomy, that is, either expressing a response or attempting to regulate the other's behavior. Rather one needs to understand that the rapport in the group constitutes its own sort of continuous action--she calls these "gestures." One's response is part of a larger coordination of actions, which cannot be analyzed into smaller discrete units. Because this is a different sort of action, the typical approaches to right action are misplaced. Rather than look to action assessment, one should seek to respond aptly. In a similar vein, apt responses, while embedded in one's larger life course, are evaluated in a way different from one's considerations of the good life. Aptness, then, is a third category of moral reflection not reducible to considerations about the good and the right.

The course of argument in the book, after the first chapter, which sets aim and the key distinctions to be pursued through the rest of the book, divides into two parts. Chapters two through four develop in a modular, or ecumenical, way notions critical for the elaboration of moral concern. It is here that Springer establishes the categories of critical responsiveness, moral concern, aptness, and gesture. She also does so by taking aim at several targets, including contemporary moral psychology (chapter two), Strawson (chapter three), and Austin and Searle (chapter four). In the second half of the book, she develops a transformative account with notions that change rather than expand existing moral theories, including inarticulate concern, the moral status of contingent convictions, economic and ecological standpoints, and the virtue of critical responsiveness. Here she engages with Grice (chapter five), social scientific explanations of moral conviction (chapter six), standpoint theory (chapter seven), and virtue ethics (chapter eight).

My only reservation about the work concerns what appears to me to be a missed opportunity. In her final chapter, where she engages with virtue ethics, she takes up and significantly develops Christine Swanton's Nietzschean conception of virtue ethics. She does not think that Aristotelian virtue ethics is up to the task for a number of reasons, including her argument that Aristotle's account of the mean betrays a "naive formalism," and that his account of the virtuous person envisages such an ideal person that he would have no need for the very human considerations of critical responsiveness. I do not recognize Aristotle in these reproaches. Moreover, many of the concerns Springer raises could have been, to my mind, more systematically addressed from an Aristotelian approach. Nevertheless, these points are, as I noted, an opportunity for continued discussion among virtue ethicists, rather than a simple criticism of a book that deserves a very wide readership.--Sebastian Purcell, State University of New York, Cortland.
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Author:Purcell, Sebastian
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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