When Doing the Right Thing Is Impossible (Philosophy in Action)

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9780190657581: When Doing the Right Thing Is Impossible (Philosophy in Action)
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Suppose that in an emergency evacuation of a hospital after a flood, not all of the patients can make it out alive. You are the doctor faced with the choice between abandoning these patients to die alone and in pain, or injecting them with a lethal dose of drugs, without consent, so that they die peacefully. Perhaps no one will be able to blame you whatever you decide, but, whichever action you choose, you will remain burdened by guilt.

What happens, in cases like this, when, no matter what you do, you are destined for moral failure? What happens when there is no available means of doing the right thing?

Human life is filled with such impossible moral decisions. These choices and case studies that demonstrate them form the focus of Lisa Tessman's arresting and provocative work. Many philosophers believe that there are simply no situations in which what you morally ought to do is something that you can't do, because they think that you can't be required to do something unless it's actually in your power to do it. Despite this, real life presents us daily with situations in which we feel that we have failed morally even when no right action would have been possible. Lisa Tessman boldly argues that sometimes we feel this way because we have encountered an 'impossible moral requirement.' Drawing on philosophy, empirical psychology, and evolutionary theory, When Doing the RightThing Is Impossible explores how and why human beings have constructed moral requirements to be binding even when they are impossible to fulfill.

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Review:

Lisa Tessman reaches an even more challenging conclusion which she gives away in the title of her lucid and thoughtful new book, When Doing the Right Thing Is Impossible. (Julian Baggini, Times Literary Supplement)

This clearly written book brings to a broad audience Lisa Tessman's humane, probing, and provocative thought about our shared moral condition and the multiple ways that we will struggle with moral failure. Using concrete and relevant examples, Tessman explores the pervasive and universal ways morality poses challenges none of us is likely to meet fully or successfully. A rich platform for real conversations and debates about what we expect of ourselves and the role of morality in our lives―a great choice for ethics courses and for nonphilosophers. (Margaret Urban Walker, Professor and Donald J. Schuenke Chair in Philosophy, Marquette University)

Professor Lisa Tessman has written a thought-provoking defense of a demanding position we should take seriously, that for any of us moral wrongdoing may sometimes be unavoidable. Through compelling examples, careful argument and responses to important objections, Tessman has made a strong case for thinking there may be circumstances when we are forced to violate values we rightly hold to be inviolable. (Christopher Gowans, Professor of Philosophy, Fordham University)

In this engaging and clear-sighted book, Tessman illustrates her thesis, that 'ought' implies 'can' in some but not all cases, with vivid examples of moral conflicts drawn from everyday life. Tessman shows and explains the various ways in which 'ought' may or may not hold only for what is possible with clear and persuasive arguments and examples, and by incorporating themes from some of the most interesting works in the psychology of thinking and judging. Introducing students, especially beginning students, to these works and showing their importance for philosophy generally and ethics in particular is yet another signal achievement of Tessman's excellent book. (Michael Stocker, Professor Emeritus, Syracuse)

Well written and accessible to all audiences... (Library Journal)

Provocative, tightly argued, and thoroughly original, this is a wonderful resource for everyone interested in the subject of morality. (Choice)

Tessman uses many real and engaging examples throughout this book, which is aimed at a general audience with little or no background in philosophy. This book is not overtly a feminist book; rather, it is about normative ethics and its demands. Crucially, it is mainly about what does and should motivate moral action, which of course has implications for feminists, especially given the feminist debates about whether moral action should be motivated by reason or care. (Hypatia)

About the Author:

Lisa Tessman is Professor of Philosophy at Binghamton University. She teaches and does research in ethics, moral psychology, feminist philosophy, and related areas. Her work focuses on understanding how real human beings construct morality and experience moral demands, especially under difficult conditions. She is the author of Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles (OUP, 2005), and Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality (OUP, 2015).

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