The book offers an interpretative argument for the relational approach. Specifically, it highlights neglected advantages of this way of understanding the moral domain; explores important theoretical and practical presuppositions of relational moral duties; and considers the normative implications of understanding morality in relational terms.
The book features a novel defense of the relational approach to morality, which emphasizes the special significance that moral requirements have, both for agents who are deliberating about what to do and for those who stand to be affected by their actions. The book argues that relational moral requirements can be understood to link us to all individuals whose interests render them vulnerable to our agency, regardless of whether they stand in any prior relationship to us. It also offers fresh accounts of some of the moral phenomena that have seemed to resist treatment in relational terms, showing that the relational interpretation is a viable framework for understanding our specific moral obligations to other people.
Death threatens our sense of the importance of goodness. The threat can be met if there is, as Socrates said, "something in death that is better for the good than for the bad." Yet, as Johnston shows, all existing theological conceptions of the afterlife are either incoherent or at odds with the workings of nature. These supernaturalist pictures of the rewards for goodness also obscure a striking consilience between the philosophical study of the self and an account of goodness common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism: the good person is one who has undergone a kind of death of the self and who lives a life transformed by entering imaginatively into the lives of others, anticipating their needs and true interests. As a caretaker of humanity who finds his or her own death comparatively unimportant, the good person can see through death.
But this is not all. Johnston's closely argued claims that there is no persisting self and that our identities are in a particular way "Protean" imply that the good survive death. Given the future-directed concern that defines true goodness, the good quite literally live on in the onward rush of humankind. Every time a baby is born a good person acquires a new face.
Some philosophers have hypothesized a realm of individual essences that stand as proxies for all merely possible beings. Others have argued that we are committed to the necessary existence of everything that does or might exist. In contrast, Mere Possibilities shows how we can make sense of ordinary beliefs about what might and must exist without making counterintuitive metaphysical commitments. The book also sheds new light on the nature of metaphysical theorizing by exploring the interaction of semantic and metaphysical issues, the connections between different metaphysical issues, and the nature of ontological commitment.
Drawing on legal as well as philosophical arguments, the book defends a series of notable claims—that you may not lie about everything to the "murderer at the door," that you have reasons to keep promises offered under duress, that lies are not protected by free speech, that police subvert their mission when they lie to suspects, and that scholars undermine their goals when they lie to research subjects.
Many philosophers start to craft moral exceptions to demands for sincerity and fidelity when they confront wrongdoers, the pressures of non-ideal circumstances, or the achievement of morally substantial ends. But Shiffrin consistently resists this sort of exceptionalism, arguing that maintaining a strong basis for trust and reliable communication through practices of sincerity, fidelity, and respecting free speech is an essential aspect of ensuring the conditions for moral progress, including our rehabilitation of and moral reconciliation with wrongdoers.