Making ethics practical for persons, nations; Rights and Goods: Justifying Social Action, by Virginia Held. New York: The Free Press. 327 pp. $22.95.
Early in ''Rights and Goods'' Virginia Held illustrates her thesis with a story about a soldier named Carl, who undergoes a change of mind during a military action, ''not because the situation is different from what he anticipated, but because his judgment of what to do is different.'' He had come to understand himself in a new way in relation to a network of moral commitments which had hitherto served him well; now he must revise his network of beliefs in light of his experience.
Professor of philosophy at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and Hunter College, Virginia Held criticizes her colleagues for creating ethical systems that are closed to experience. Ideal observers abound in academic discussions; stories like that of the soldier do not. She believes ''moral theories must be subject to refutation by moral experience.'' It is commonly believed, on the contrary, that experience and morality are relative: What we believe is always borne out by experience. The story of Carl shows how this is not true. Real people do learn from their experience, sometimes even to the point of rejecting or altering old values.
Moral theory is so undeveloped that most of us think in simplistic pairs, e.g., egoism/altruism. Held rejects the extremes in favor of a model of mutual respect; the relevant story is, of course, a love story. In egoistic love the pleasure is all mine; in altruistic love, it is all hers. But individual satisfaction in ''an extended relation of mutual caring'' may, in fact, become subordinate to the relation of mutuality itself.
In politics, the extremes are libertarianism - minimum restraint on individual will - and totalitarianism. Held's model of mutual caring leads her to believe that government should secure decent jobs, minimum incomes, medical care, affordable housing, and child care for anyone who cannot supply it for himself (or, as Held is in the habit of saying, herself). But she is aware of the tension between big government and ''the growth of individual responsibility.'' She also argues persuasively that, under representative democracy, minorities with good representatives are apt to fare better than they would under pure democracy (majority rule).
As for relations between sovereign states, Held argues the case of applied ethics, not utopian politics. Philosophers must work with individuals who have experience of actual problems as well as with the general principles of morality. The lack of adequate and applicable moral theories becomes painfully apparent in episodes such as the recent bombing of the United States Embassy in Beirut. The US is widely perceived as having no policy; before a policy can be developed, of course, we must know where we stand morally.
In what was for me the most exciting chapter of this remarkable book, Held works out a theory of moral experience and the ethics of inquiry. Differentiating between empirical experience (the object of science) and moral experience, she salvages moral theory from the relativists by pointing out that we test moral theory by choosing to act upon it or to avoid doing so. Moral inquiry is action. All moral points of view may be relative to passive onlookers , but once we act on one we discover its value relation to the absolute of our own experience.
''Rights and Goods'' is required reading for all those who would understand modern politics. In this election year, it should sharpen our sense of just how committed our candidates are to freedom and justice for all.