April 6, 2011


Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York & London: Oxford U. Press, 1996) (From the bookjacket: "By sending a few hundred dollars to a group like UNICEF, any well-off person can ensure that fewer poor children die, and that more live reasonably long, worthwhile lives. But even when knowing this, almost all of us send nothing and, among the contributors, most send precious little. What's the moral status of this behavior? To such common cases of letting die, our untutored response is that, while it's not good, neither is the conduct wrong. How can we best explain this lenient intuitive assessment? In this hard-hitting . . . book, philosopher Peter Unger argues that, all too often, our moral intuitions about cases are generated not by the basic moral values we hold, but by psychological dispositions that prevent us from reacting in accord with our deep moral commitments. Through a detailed look at how these disorienting tendencies operate, Unger reveals that, on the good morality we already accept, our fatally unhelpful behavior is monstrously wrong." "The heart of the book details the way that, contrary to many appearances, or basic moral values actually correspond quite closely to what philosophers now call act-consequentialism. But for the confounding effects of the interfering mental dynamics Unger pinpoints, we could not abide so passive a stance in the face of such readily preventable, severe worldwide suffering. Near the book's end, Unger advances a complex and original metaethics, suggesting that, while each of us can generate either a lenient or an exacting context for moral assessment, we overwhelmingly generate the lenient contexts, allowing us grossly permissive, if technically correct, judgements of our ordinary behavior." "Confronting us with both arresting facts and easily followed instructions for lessening the suffering of youngsters in moral danger, Living High and Letting Die can help us live the morally decent lives that agree with our wonderfully deep, and deeply wonderful, true moral values.").