Review of Jenny Teichman Social Ethics: A Student’s Guide (1997)
Teichman, Jenny: Social Ethics, A Student’s Guide, Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford 0X4 1JF, UK, and 238 Main Street, Cambridge, Mass. 02142, USA, paperback, 193 pp., glossary, bibliography, index.
In the preface of this book Jenny Teichman, a philosopher and a Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge, claims that the book gives a reasoned defence of the humanistic ethical codes which the twentieth century has inherited from a number of different sources (p. vii). For Teichman humanism is not simply atheism. For her humanism in the wider sense is based on a fundamental respect for human life. … It is compatible with religious belief and also with unbelief. Its sources include the great monotheistic religions, the ideas and idealism generated by the American and French revolutions, the aspiration made manifest at the founding of the League of Nations and the United Nations Organization, and the teachings of great thinkers such as Locke, Condorcet. Kant, M. K. Gandhi and E. F. Schumacher (p. vii).
The book is divided into four parts. In the first part Teichman discusses, and rejects, three theories about the nature of moral judgement and defends the premise that human life is sacred in a secular sense. The second part argues that all reasonable moral judgements and any reasonable moral philosophy must value human life and accept the importance of universal human rights. The third part examines controversial issues about life and death. The fourth part is concerned with the ideological issues of feminism and anti-feminism, freedom of thought and expression, economic liberty, and ecology (pp. vii-viii).
In the first part Teichman rejects egoism, relativism, and consequentialism and explains her ethical bedrock’ which comprises two principles. First, human life is intrinsically valuable, that is it is sacred in either a religious or a secular sense (or both). And secondly, human beings have natural rights (p. 18). Having explained her ethical bedrock, Teichman goes on to the second part of her book which is entitled A Defence of Humanism (pp. 29-61).
A part of Teichman’s book has a polemical content. Teichman argues with philosophers like Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, Ronald Dworkin and Jonathan Glover. Teichman calls these philosophers personists, and personists claim that human life as such is not worthy of respect. In other words, personist philosophy says that the wrongness of killing beings has nothing to do with their being human Briefly, personists believe that foetuses and young infants are not persons and can be destroyed if no one wants them (p. 31). It may be noticed that there is a tremendous amount of philosophical literature dealing with persons or individuals. A classical book in this field is by the English philosopher P. F. Strawson: Individuals, An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, Methuen, London 1959 (many reprints). Teichman does not refer to Strawson.
In her defence of humanism Teichman discusses humanism and religion, the philosophy of Locke, concepts of person, personism and justice, human beings and the other animals, speciesism, respect for the living and the dead, innate preferences. whether there is anything special about human beings, cruelty and compassion, human beings and machines, reductive philosophy and Occam’s razor, consciousness and information-processing, language and language rules, varieties of thought, and other topics.
In the remainder of the book Teichman analyzes euthanasia, abortion, professional ethics. feminism, masculism. freedom of thought and expression, and the right, the left and the green. A number of the topics which are discussed have more to do with politics in general, rather than with ethics. The title of the book, Social Ethics, is not defined or explained, but the preceding list of topics which Teichman discusses indicates to some extent what she means by social ethics.
It is somewhat curious that an author who clearly wants to defend humanism knows so little about humanism. On the whole authors of books on ethics rarely pay much attention to the writings of self-styled humanists. To some extent this may be excused, because there are not many humanists who have written extensively on ethical theory, at least not under the name of humanism. An important exception is, however, Paul Kurtz who with his book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1988, has given a very good contribution to ethical theory. Still, this book is ignored by most contributors to ethical theory, including Jenny Teichman. It is perhaps almost unnecessary to say that Teichman does not mention writers on humanism like H. J. Blackham, Paul Cliteur, Wim van Dooren, Jim Herrick, 0. J. van Houten, Anton L. Constandse, Fons Elders, Edward L. Ericson, Antony G. N. Flew, Julian S. Huxley, Jacques Maritain, J. P. van Praag, Howard B. Radest, M. N. Roy, Ferdinand C. S. Schiller, and Barbara Smoker.
Teichman, of course, does not claim to write an introduction to humanism. But, also considered as an introduction to ethics, Teichman’s book omits much, perhaps too much. On the other side, her style is clear and matter-of-fact, and it is easy to find one’s way in her book, Teichman has also an interesting approach to ethics and I have experienced the study of her book as rewarding. So her book can certainly be recommended. And the reader who wants to learn more, can use her bibliography as a good point of departure for further studies. But not for the study of atheism or humanism.
Finngeir Hiorth 14 March 1997
Finngeir Hiorth has published widely in the fields of philosophy and Indonesian studies. He is also the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 850/8A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$18.- post free and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248 pp.’ US$ 15.- post free. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his Atheism in India. Another recent publication by Hiorth is Secularism in Sweden, Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-0166 Oslo, Norway, 1995, 64 pp.
“Review of Jenny Teichman SOCIAL ETHICS: A STUDENT’S GUIDE” is copyright © 1997 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.