When I write a longish review, I put most of my work into having the piece work well as reader's guide, keeping my own views to myself as much as possible until the end. But since I've signed up for an e-mail subscription to the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (just go here to get it), I've noticed that this practice is by no means uniform. Consider the beginning of Bruce Russell's recent review of James Sterba's From Rationality to Equality:
In this book James Sterba sets out to answer two central questions in moral philosophy: (1) Why be moral? and (2) What does morality require? (see Sterba's Preface and Introduction, esp., pp. 1-2). He understands (1) to be the question (1a): Are we always rationally required to do what we are morally required to do? However, I think the fundamental question is (1b): Is there always most reason to do what we are morally required to do? I may be rationally required to take a pill that I have overwhelming epistemic reason to believe will save my life when I am really not dying and the pill will actually kill me (imagine some doctor wants me dead and has presented me with conclusive evidence to make me believe that I am dying and that the pill is my only hope for survival). But in this case what there is most reason to do is to refrain from taking the pill even though the rational thing to do is to take the pill. I think what we want to know when we ask, "Why be moral?" is whether there is always most reason to do what is morally required. We want to know whether it is necessarily true that there ismost reason to do what is morally obligatory, not whether it's necessarily true that we are justified in believing that there is most reason to be moral.
I worked hard to try to figure out what Russell meant here, and then was frustrated to find that the phrase "most reason" doesn't occur in the review itself.
I don't know if that's a stupid reaction. I mean, one does understand Sterba better when one understands the weak spots and how they might be patched. I think with respect to Russell's review, the saving grace is that it is on the whole sympathetic to Sterba's broader project. His criticisms are always tied in with friendly amendments. But my intuition is that the level of intrusiveness would have been a disaster if the piece had been even just a little bit more critical, and I'm still a little bit uncomfortable with it.
Am I off base here?
The blitheness of the level of intrusion gets the better of Russell by the end of the piece. The ultimate paragraph begins with the following assertion (which is immediately dropped):
So what should we do? As a practical matter, we should do all we can to increase the amount of renewable resources and to limit the size of the world's population so that there is enough to go around for everyone to lead a decent human life even on the highest interpretation of that notion.
Do I really have to do all I can to lower the birth rate in countries with a vastly different ethnic makeup than my own? Isn't there something sinister about that? Aren't countries with declining populations doing most of the polluting and destroying of resources anyhow? Who is going to be in charge of doing the limiting? Why end a piece with a bald assertion about something that in itself presents so many problems?
I think Russell is aware that this comes out of left field, because the final footnote ends by laying this dead mouse squarely on Sterba's doorstep, i.e. " in conversation Jim suggested the importance of limiting, perhaps even reducing, total population to insure that everyone now and in the future can lead a decent human life." I'm not a libertarian (having been convinced years ago by Sterba's own critique of the cult of negative liberty), but I can't help but to find this kind of thing way too problematic to suggest in an offhand way. Moreover, it would have been avoided had Russell felt bound by norms prohibiting quite so much intrusiveness in a review.
*During the interregnum caused by Eric's absence , we're going to try to continue Eric Schliesser's Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews ReviewsTM, though it's not clear how successful we can be. None of us can do this as well as he did. Please be charitable, the rest of us are new at this. If the posts end up uniformly stinking, we won't try to fill his shoes in this manner.
One thing we'd really like to do is have more people respond to their own reviewed books in NDPR and elsewhere (Michael Strevens' piece was a pretty great proof of concept), but we haven't quite worked the mechanics of this out. When we do we'll do a post on that. In the interim please contact us (our e-mails are on the author's page) if you want to pitch a guest post along the lines of Strevens''.
I realize I'm hereby jacking my own thread, but I had two youtuby reactions to Eric's announcement of the interregnum. First, and without irony:
Second, also without irony:
Even though my initial reaction was that of Lord Vader's , I know that Eric's going to keep rocking out even if he has to go to Greenland to do so, and if/when he comes back to Newapps he'll have quite a story to tell.]