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  • Der gute Weg des Handelns: Versuch einer Ethik für die heutige Zeit by Iso Kern
  • Philippe Brunozzi (bio)
Der gute Weg des Handelns: Versuch einer Ethik für die heutige Zeit. By Iso Kern. Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2020. Pp. 630. Paperback 98€, isbn 978-3-7965-4074-5.

As the subtitle of Iso Kern’s newest monograph Der gute Weg des Handelns (“The Good Way of Acting”) indicates, the author attempts to develop an “ethics for the present time” (Ethik für die heutige Zeit). For Kern, such a project implies more than just addressing today’s most pressing ethical problems. An “ethics for the present time” that deserves the name concurrently has to take seriously a trend that is noticeably gaining momentum. In the last decade or so, mainstream Anglo-European philosophy has increasingly come under the pressure to diversify and integrate hitherto neglected philosophical resources from other traditions into its fields of inquiry. Within this movement towards deparochializing philosophy, Kern’s book stands out as a particularly mature achievement. Not only are the book’s major themes of compassion and conscience inspired by the Chinese philosophers Mengzi and Wang Yangming (on the latter Kern has already published a monograph), the author moreover navigates most naturally between philosophers as diverse as Adam Smith, Philip Pettit, Thomas Aquinas, Wladimir Solowjew, and the two Chinese philosophers just mentioned. The impressive scope of the book does not disturb the reading flow, however. The main arguments can be followed without being familiar with those authors, and Kern wisely added an appendix which briefly introduces them to the reader.

It is a further merit of the book that, while shifting the boundaries between different philosophical discourses, Kern took care to give his inquiry a unifying framework. As a renowned expert in the field, he adopts a phenomenological perspective. According to Kern, the phenomenological stance requires that any philosophical investigation takes its lead from “the subjective standpoint of the experiencing, thinking, evaluating, willing, judging, acting I” (p. 16; see also pp. 110, 116). It therefore comes as no surprise that the book abounds with first-and third-personal experiences and observations, which serve Kern as a basis for developing and defending his ethical theory.

Overall Kern’s work is rich and rewarding, and it sketches a view that fits coherently together. After a lengthy introduction that outlines the main argument, Kern divides the inquiry into two parts. His whole project builds on the assumption that any ethical theory has to be grounded on a philosophical account [End Page 1] of the human life form. Only a prior understanding of how we humans are wired allows us, according to Kern, to get a grasp on what it means to act in an ethically good way and to articulate an adequate ethical outlook (p. 107). Elaborating such an understanding is the aim of the first part, entitled “Fundamentals of Ethics.” It sets the basis for the ethical outlook he fleshes out in the second part. I will follow the order of his argument and first give a summary of what he also calls his philosophical anthropology.

Kern’s analysis of the human life form heavily draws on Mengzi. Like Mengzi, he assumes that, contrary to other creatures, we spontaneously react to our surroundings in ways that display ethically good tendencies (pp. 118–120), such as when we instantaneously react with compassion to a particular situation, experience the impulse to be brave, or feel grateful (pp. 124–132). Though Kern does not get to it until later (pp. 160–190), the mighty capacity to love has to be included among those tendencies. In contrast to Mengzi, however, Kern thinks that our spontaneous reactions are too frail a basis to guarantee an adequate ethical life. In their brute form, they do not give us reliable orientation. We therefore ought to “bring” the reactions that well up in us “to our mind” (vergegenwärtigen) and reflect on them in order to gauge whether the emerging possibilities of action can be sustained as being good for others and ourselves (pp. 121–124).

This brings Kern to highlight a second feature of our life form. We humans can stand...


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