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An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will

by Heidi M. Ravven

Pub Date: May 28th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59558-537-0
Publisher: New Press

Why do some people behave honorably and others badly? This has been a core question since the dawn of philosophy, and Ravven (Religious Studies/Hamilton Coll.; co-editor: Jewish Themes in Spinoza’s Philosophy, 2002) discusses the possibilities.

The popular answer, especially among nonphilosophers, is that we simply think matters over and behave. We have free will. Despite our upbringings, educations, hardships, group pressures and the limitations of our human brains, we choose our actions and must be held morally responsible for them. This turns out to be a remarkably parochial view that began with early Latin Christianity and quickly spread throughout the West but never caught on in other areas of the world, where fate, karma and other outside influences trump individual choice. No fan of free will, Ravven writes 10 densely argued but sometimes-accessible chapters that explore why humans act and how they justify themselves. It is often not a pretty picture. The mass shooting of Jews in Nazi-occupied Russia was carried out by ordinary German soldiers, not SS fanatics. All were told they could opt out with no penalties. A few did. Others could not stomach the killing and withdrew, but most carried on. They did not think, “what terrible things I am doing,” but rather, “this is a miserable job!” These men clearly chose their actions, but it’s a stretch to claim that they exercised free will.

Scholarly essays packed with closely reasoned arguments from the author and fellow academics, plus extensive historical analyses of thinkers from Aristotle to Spinoza to Malcolm Gladwell. Patient readers with a taste for philosophy will find that reading this book is a stimulating experience.