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The Wrong of Rudeness

The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese PhilosophyThe Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy by Amy Olberding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Olberding develops her argument carefully and subtly. The slow and gentle steps mimic the politeness and civility she is arguing for. The book works quietly upon you, persuading you and drawing you in. One wishes that more people will read the book, so that it might work upon the public consciousness.

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The Sovereignty of Good

The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Classics)The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read the third essay in this collection when I was a graduate student and have long admired it as one of the best things ever written in moral philosophy. I have returned to it often, including it in sermons and teaching it in Ethics class. Finally got around to reading the entire, short collection.

Murdoch is insightful, witty, and (of course) a beautiful writer. One feels better after reading her work.

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This summer I preached a sermon series inspired by the poetry of Mary Oliver.  One of the key features of the spiritual life Oliver recommends is paying attention.

So I enjoyed reading Iris Murdoch advocating attention as key to the moral life in her essay "The Idea of Perfection."  Here are some excerpts of her essay:

I have used the word 'attention,' which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.


But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is  already over.  This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not.  But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.


But I would suggest that at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge: not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one's eyes but of a certainly perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.

Williams' Social Compact

Victor Parrington gives this description of Roger Williams's idea of the social compact, a description I think is helpful in understanding the democratic idea of government:

But unlike the fiction assumed by Hobbes and Locke, this was no suppositious contract between ruler and ruled in prehistoric times, but present and actual, entered into between the several members of a free community for their common governance; nor on the other hand, like Burke's irrevocable compact, was it an unyielding constitution or fundamental law; but flexible, responsive to changing conditions, continually modified to meet present needs.  It is no other than a mutual agreement, arrived at frankly by discussion and compromise, to live together in a political union, organizing the life of the commonwealth in accordance with nature, reason, justice, and expediency.

Actually, reading that description, I think of Rorty.

The Cosmopolitan Tradition

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed IdealThe Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal by Martha C Nussbaum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A worthy addition to Nussbaum's body of work as she continues to develop her Capabilities Approach. This particular volume locates her ideas within the broad "cosmopolitan tradition." This tradition that advocates for world citizenship, arises with Diogenes and is developed by the Stoics, Cicero, Hugo Grotius, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant. She surveys the history of this tradition, identifying its strengths and weaknesses, all with a focus on what we can learn from it in order to apply to current issues such as the role of international law, the migration crisis, animal rights, etc.

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A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other WorksA Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works by Baruch Spinoza
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is joy in returning to a thinker after a quarter century. I read Spinoza in my first semester of graduate school and hadn't ever occasioned to read him again until these last few weeks. I did this time read parts of this anthology and of his masterwork, The Ethics, that I did not read the first time around.

Apparently in class in 1996 we were focused on his metaphysics, so this time I enjoyed reading some of his biblical hermeneutics, psychology, and moral and political thought. I feel as if I come away with a better grasp of Spinoza, his role in the history of ideas, and his influence upon later thinkers.

I was surprised to find some wise aphorisms in The Ethics, which reminded me of Marcus Aurelius. Here are a few examples: "He who lives according to the guidance of reason will strive, as far as he can, to bring it about that he is not troubled with affects of hate, and consequently will strive that the other also should not undergo those affects." "A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death." "A free man who lives among the ignorant strives, as far as he can, to avoid their favors." "The proud man loves the presence of parasites, or flatterers, but hates the presence of the noble."

But then there are the puzzling ones as well, such as "There are no affects of hope or fear without sadness . . . there is no hope without fear." "Humility is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason." "He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return."

Spinoza's work is an extreme expression of the life of reason. This is more fully embodied in his geometric approach to philosophy, presenting definition, axioms, and postulates that makes his masterwork awkward to read.

But as an expression of the life of reason, his philosophy possesses admirable qualities. It represents a high (yet impossible) ideal--the closing line of The Ethics is "But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

But I find him overall to be obtuse and wrongheaded, particularly in his metaphysics which undergirds everything else.

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Knowing What To Do

Knowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in EthicsKnowing What to Do: Imagination, Virtue, and Platonism in Ethics by Timothy Chappell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I must correct a Goodreads error, for they have this book's author listed under her former and incorrect name. The author is Sophie Grace Chappell.

I heard Chappell lecture at Creighton University here in Omaha a few years ago and put this book on my "list" to read because I was impressed by her creative thinking.

I had wondered if this is a book I might use as a text in teaching Ethics. I think not, as it is more technical in places than my sophomores would enjoy, but the book will definitely shape how I approach teaching ethics.

Chappell criticizes all the dominate ethical theories for getting ethics wrong, primarily by trying to be THE way of living the good life. She rather thinks that the major theories give good, but not final and conclusive advice, some working better in certain situations than others.

What she instead advocates is a cultivation of the moral imagination which is accomplished through contemplation. In this view she draws upon Plato and Iris Murdoch.

Chappell has a rich undertanding of philosophical history and contemporary debates, including drawing on important aspects of other philosophical fields such as philosophy of mind.

A number of the chapters are necessary but technical contributions to recent arguments in analytical philosophy. I hope she will in the future write a book that more fully develops her positive ideas from the latter half of the book.

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