30 May 2007

Awe-Inspiring Meticulousness

It's not common that Brian Leiter draws attention to a book review. I too found Jeffrey Brand-Ballard's review of F.M. Kamm's Intricate Ethics noteworthy, although not quite for the same reasons as Leiter, who praises the review for being "generous and gracious in its praise for Kamm's work, but also perceptive and efficient in criticisms of a certain kind of approach to moral philosophy".

I noticed the criticisms (conveniently distinguished and lettered A through I), but I was unclear about what was being praised, and on what grounds.

Nearly all of my concerns show themselves in the first paragraph of the review:

Reading F.M. Kamm's latest book is like watching a brilliant astronomer map an uncharted galaxy. The details are often difficult to follow, but the meticulousness and the display of mental stamina must inspire awe. There is a kind of beauty in the performance alone. Intricate Ethics is a major event in normative ethical theory by a living master of the subject. Its innovations may not receive as much attention as they deserve.
I was lost by the comparison, myself never having watched a brilliant astronomer map an uncharted galaxy. What exactly would that be like? Brand-Ballard has evidently seen this many times, because it's only often that he has found the details difficult to follow: presumably on some occasions the brilliant astronomers he has watched are perfectly clear in their mappings.

I also wondered why mere "meticulousness" and "display of mental stamina" must inspire awe? What if the supposed galaxy does not exist? And what if it is not a galaxy but something less awe-inspiring that is being mapped (such as, say, the contours of one moral philosopher's hunches)? Consider: do the meticulousness and mental stamina even of a clever attorney, accountant, or engineer inspire awe? Must they?

In the next sentence: a book becomes an event. (He meant its publication, of course. Not awe-inspiring writing.)

Then: a declaration that someone is a living master over a "subject" the existence of which the review later tends to call into question.

Then: a final sentence which is a non sequitur relative to the paragraph, and which never gets substantiated in the review, because we are never told what the important innovations of the book are, or why they deserve attention.

(By this point in the review, admittedly, I would have found mere meticulousness at least a welcome relief.)

What does the reviewer praise about the book? Almost exclusively that it is "theoretically intensive", "dense", and shows a "formidable imagination". As for substantive theses, only two are pulled out for attention. First, that:
...one who denies that distance matters must reject a whole range of common intuitions according to which an agent has relatively greater responsibility to rescue victims or neutralize threats that are physically near to him, or to instrumentalities that he controls
(that is, if you deny that distance matters, then you deny that distance matters); and, second, the Doctrine of Productive Purity, which, whatever can be said for it, certainly lacks the beauty and simplicity of the astronomical theories that a brilliant astronomer would likely be relying upon:

(1) If an evil* cannot be at least initially sufficiently justified, it cannot be justified by the greater good that it is necessary (given our act) to causally produce. However, such an evil* can be justified by the greater good whose component(s) cause it, even if the evil* is causally necessary to help sustain the greater good or its components.

(2) In order for an act to be permissible, it should be possible for any evil* side effect (except possibly indirect side effects) of what we do, or evil* causal means that we must use (given our act) to bring about the greater good, to be at least the effect of a [greater good that] is working itself out (or the effect of means that are noncausally related to that greater good that is working itself out). (p. 164)

Something to live by, that.