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Moral Literacy: Or How to Do the Right Thing Paperback – Jan 1993
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A great resource for beginning ethics courses. The book is short and yet it richly embodies the methods of ethical thinking about practical moral problems that are hard for students to learn unless they see them in action. McGinn perspicuously sets out a small set of basic principles and then attacks the problems of our treatment of animals, abortion, sex, censorship, and so on, with a masterful blend of attention to real-life cases and imaginary thought experiments. McGinn hardly claims to have the last word on the complex issues he discusses, and students will find many exciting problems and points to take up.--Owen Flanagan, Duke University
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The book, however, did come across as more than a little preachy. Not that I mind this, I often preach myself. The difference is that McGinn the author is not a preacher, but a philosopher, and his role was to facilitate dialogue and not simply assert a position. McGinn the preacher (that's me, and I bear no relationship with the philosopher that I have been able to trace) bases his assertions on an accepted religious text and normally in a context where that text is accepted. All this personal jibberish now expressed, the book has a sermonic feel to it and a very sloppy logic.
For instance, McGinn early on indicates that he is an atheist, yet he refers to a place he reserves in hell for a particular kind of person. The ability to make such allusions is possible because of the ubiquitous nature of basic Christian values in society. McGinn's alludes to them without making any kind of commitment to them, which is fine. However, many of the positions he takes, while clearly at odds with more fundamentalist or conservative Christian ideals, really are dependent upon Christian social values and not any foundation he has demonstrated from a philosophical point of view.
I think in particular of his arguments for sexual deviance. While he admits that the biological purpose for sexual activity is basic to determining what is normative he expands this to allow for sexual expression that is non-reproductive on a basis that is relational.Read more ›
That's not to say that a philosophically-minded person has no reason to read this book. McGinn's perspectives on abortion, sex, drugs, etc. are certainly worth reading and will stimulate thought in any reader.
McGinn's thinking is heavily influenced by virtue ethics, which disappointed me, but I hear that a lot of people go for that sort of thing.
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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.