Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene; we need an ethical code that transcends each particular one.
And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad.
Can we agree on that?
Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?
As for me, I must say, I am convinced. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now. To explain, I have always admired the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whom I named my son after. Kant has a strict, rule based, "no exceptions" morality (never life, never cheat, never steal); in other words, your basic religious morality with a rational spin. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. Now, finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. Which, for me, means a lot (check out my personal blog for more). In fact, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.