As Sam Harris recently pointed out, "One of the biggest problems we're facing is in creating a global civilization based on shared values". To face that problem, we need to be giving similar answers to our most pressing problems, not ignore, ridicule, or vilify those who hold different views. Professor McGinn attempts to do that in his easy-to-read but hard-to-dismiss 108-page guide to moral literacy.
As McGinn states in his intro, using informed and thoughtful moral judgments to solve moral problems shouldn't be left to "priests and pundits and politicians." In the best case, these would-be moral guides give people bad reasons to be good when good reasons are actually available. In the worst case, they separate moral thinking from the details of human and animal suffering.
McGinn addresses leading moral issues, including our treatment of nonhuman animals, abortion, violence, sex, non-medical and mind-altering drugs, censorship and virtue. In the rare instances where my knee-jerk biases and vested interests kept me from agreeing with him, I was quickly persuaded of the logic and moral coherence of his argument.
Perhaps the best gem of the book is his shortlist of basic virtues: kindness, honesty, justice and independence, and how they must interact to form a virtuous world. Independence, or the capacity to make up one's own mind and not be swayed by peer pressure or threats, is crucial, but as he notes, "comparatively rare".
While more thorough treatments on the subject exist, you will be hard-pressed to find a more condensed, yet intellectually satisfying approach to moral literacy. I purchased Marvin Brown's The Ethical Process: An Approach to Disagreements and Controversial Issues (3rd Edition) and found it far less satisfying. Brown's work is more of a cookbook approach, while McGinn's work teaches you how to think about solving problems. As McGinn concludes the book, "It is important to be able to read and write. It is also important to have some mathematical proficiency. But more important than either of these is the ability to arrive at informed and thoughtful moral judgments."
An overstatement? Consider this: Founding Father James Madison said, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." In this post-Cold-War era, more than half our federal budget goes to so-called "defense" spending, but we don't allocate a cent to a "Department of Peace". There are no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better obtained by plant-based foods, yet 50 billion animals live horrific lives until slaughter because they committed the crime of being born nonhuman. The Catholic Church more strongly opposes gay marriage than it does genocide. It is time we all learn to make informed and thoughtful moral judgments.
We can all use this guide to moral literacy.