Feb 19, 2011

Re-writing 20th Century Ethics

The ethics chapter in the Columbia Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophies is one of the worst pieces on the history of philosophy I've ever read.

It is undoubtedly difficult to capture a century of ethical thought in a short chapter, but Jan Narveson has done an awful job. There is no mention of virtue ethics, only a brief mention of ethical naturalism. Only one female philosopher, Philippa Foot, is mentioned by name. One would have thought her teacher, Elizabeth Anscombe, would also merit inclusion.

The section on feminist ethical theory was written without reference to a single feminist author-- though Narveson sarcastically remarks that they're "almost always" women-- and is utterly disparaging. The complaint? That feminist ethics fails to abstract away from particular social roles and relationships, which is precisely a goal that many feminist philosophers reject! Besides that, it ignores the feminist critique that the "impartial" perspective has often historically been the male perspective.

Narveson assigns an important strand of 20th (and 21st!) century ethics zero philosophical value on wholly question-beggging grounds, though he fails to cite a single work on feminist ethics. Quite remarkable, really.