The Routledge Handbook of Moral Epistemology

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Aaron Zimmerman, Karen Jones, Mark Timmons
Routledge Handbooks in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     578 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What are “right” and “wrong”? Where did these concepts come from? And how do people come to know these concepts?

These are essentially the questions behind the new Routledge Handbook of Moral Epistemology, edited by Aaron Zimmerman, Karen Jones, and Mark Timmons.This miniature encyclopedia of over two-dozen authors and thirty chapters provides incisive research into “moral epistemology,” which is “the study of moral knowledge” (xiv), from almost every perspective imaginable. 

Divided into three sections, the first begins with morality and “science.” These articles look at the biological, socio-evolutionary, and developmental origins of moral knowledge. Other chapters in the section cover learning, heuristics, intuitions, and emotion—all of which contribute to our construction of moral understanding. The second section is on “normative theory,” which examines all the ways in which moral knowledge becomes normative (regular/binding) for people and societies. The last section is “applications,” which explores how ethics can or might be applied in life situations, how articulated moral standards come to be written, and the complexities of moral decision making in various spheres of society. 

Few stones are left unturned in this highly concise and academic compilation of articles. Though some chapters are easier to read than others, as a whole, it is not for the light-hearted. In fact, it is hard to imagine reading this book without considerable knowledge of philosophy and ethics. A graduate-level readership appears appropriate. But for those who have such background training, the book is sure to stretch and challenge one’s perspective on a subject that—as the authors point out—has become “diminished” in recent times (xiv-xv; 21). 

One of my favorite chapters was the “Normative Practices of Other Animals” (chapter 3 by Sarah Vincent, Rebecca Ring, and Kristin Andrews). The article contains a five-page table of all the extant research on the subject of animal ethics, and divides them up according to the following categories: 1) “obedience norms” (e.g., authority, punishment, teaching); 2) ”reciprocity norms” (fairness/cheating, cooperation, mutualism, preference/discrimination); 3) “care norms” (caring/consolation, targeted helping, response to grief, emotion recognition); 4) “social responsibility norms” (e.g., loyalty/betrayal, distribution of labor based on skill, aversion to protesting, cooperation for group benefit); and 5) “solidarity norms” (e.g., sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression, group identity, self-sacrifice). Each category has the research cited, and provides examples from the animal kingdom (dolphin and orca life, etc.). The discussion addresses the idea of human-projection of ethics onto to animal kingdom, and similar concerns about the human/animal divide. The article obviously raises significant questions about the substance of any and all ethical norms. Whatever the case, one is left with the startling insight that, before humanity, all of our basic ethical norms can be found amongst animals—at least an embryonic form for some, and more developed for others.

Similar chapters are just as eye-opening for the uninitiated reader, though all are astute as one would expect from a volume of this type. One includes Meda Cosmides, Ricardo Guzman, and John Tooby’s “Evolution of Moral Cognition (ch 9). Although—like similar writings on this topic—it is somewhat reductionistic to causes (e.g., natural selection), the article looks at how multiple moral systems evolved and why, the role of “kin detection systems,” altruism, cooperation and game theory, behavioral economics, fairness, and other topics in a wide constellation related to the field of evolutionary psychology. Along the way, readers learn such things as the distinction between reproductive costs and benefits over time. “We don’t like ice cream more than oat bran because this preference promotes reproduction in the present; we like it now because design features causing preferences for fats and sugars promoted reproduction in the past” (187). So when evolutionary psychologists look at current computation systems and their role in forming morals, they are looking at their past functionality as much (or more) than current functionality. 

Readers will pay dearly for the book at a whopping $220 retail for the current hardcover print. In the end, one has the editors and contributors to thank for a magnificent collection of scholarly articles on a subject that has relevance to everyone—and will undoubtedly be a standard reference work for decades to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A Hübner is Professor and Research Fellow at several institutions in both the Humanities and Social Sciences and resides in Rapid City, SD.

Date of Review: 
April 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron Zimmerman is Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of two books: Moral Epistemology (2010) and Belief: A Pragmatic Picture (2018).

Karen Jones is Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She has written extensively about trust, what it is, and when it is justified. She is the coeditor, with Francois Schroeter, of The Many Moral Rationalisms (2018). Much of her work is from a feminist perspective.

Mark Timmons is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona. He specializes in Kant’s ethics and metaethics. A collection of his essays on Kant, Significance and System: Essays on Kant’s Ethics was published in 2017.


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