Book review showing that Moral Geography is still an academically respectable term


 David M. Smith, Moral Geographies: Ethics in a World of Difference (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U. Press, 2000)

from Post-Structuralism & Radical Politics Newsletter, no. 3, Feb 2001   P. 12, Book Reviews

 David M. Smith’s concern in Moral Geographies is to extend the influence of geographical thought into the field of contemporary moral and political philosophy. According to Smith, little or no work has been done in the spheres of moral and political philosophy that utilises a developed geographical vocabulary, especially of a moral geography. Contemporary human geography, however, has begun to think through the ethical dimensions of its discipline, a task that is part of a general opening up of the intellectual boundaries of academic geography. Smith claims that his book is the first textbook to try to fully integrate geography and ethics and thus, despite some sections where the integration is less than successful, the book represents an important advance in transgressing traditional disciplinary boundaries. Like Harvey, Smith’s book has a number of examples of how a geographical imagination can bring a fresh perspective to bear upon some difficult political issues, such as the nature of social justice, respect for the other, questions of economic development, and the limitations of community perspectives upon ethics. After an overview of the historical geography of ethics, Smith offers chapters on moral readings of landscape, location and place; a consideration of the moral significance of proximity and distance; the difficulties attached to the occupation and division of space; the moral issues surrounding territorial social justice, and the impact of environmental ethics.

Moral Geographies is a clearly written account that is comprehensive in its survey of contemporary ethical debates, covering figures such as Walzer, O’Neill, Etzioni, Kymlicka and Baumann. Sometimes the discussion is necessarily schematic, given the format of an advanced textbook. Perhaps its deepest intellectual debt is to MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue that morality is ‘always to some degree tied to the socially local and particular’. For Smith this points the way to how geography, with its explicit attention to the sensitivities of location and place, might interact with ethical notions. As Smith suggests, it is in supplying a fuller picture of context that the geographer can intervene in ethical debates since all ethical theories and moral practices ‘are embedded within specific sets of social and physical relationships manifest in geographical space, reflecting the particularity of place as well as time’. Some of the most interesting sections of the book are where Smith examines the moral implications of particular places, trying to demonstrate how landscape can be interpreted through a moral lens. One example is the construction of the ‘Polish Manchester’, Lodz, with its deeply industrial landscape and its absent presence of the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe, liquidated in the Second World War. Another chapter explores conflict in the city space of Jerusalem between liberal and orthodox Jewish communities, while a later chapter looks at postapartheid South Africa’s attempt to link an African community-based morality to general economic questions of development.

Although not conceived on such a grand scale as Harvey’s book, Moral Geographies does clearly indicate how any postmodern/poststructuralist/radical politics cannot afford to ignore geographical questions of space and place. As Smith concludes his book, a ‘geographically sensitive ethics’ will stress the importance of context ‘of understanding the particular situation; how things are, here and there. If the human capacity of putting one’s self in the place of others is to be an effective wellspring of morality, this requires understanding that place, as well as those others.’

Andrew Thacker

University of Ulster at Jordanstown