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EthicsReview - Ethics
Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality
by David Wiggins
Harvard University Press , 2006
Review by Sirine Shebaya
Aug 29th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 35)

It is virtually impossible to give a summary of Ethics that does justice to the depth and breadth of topics covered in David Wiggins' new introduction to moral theory. Ethics is both highly informative, providing detailed expositions of the arguments of main figures in the history of moral philosophy, and engagingly polemical, offering an overall argument for a pluralistic, Humean conception of morality.

Wiggins begins by articulating three distinct subheadings within moral philosophy: (1) questions about the source of morality; (2) questions about moral motivation, or what reasons we have to abide by moral requirements; and (3) meta-ethical questions about the nature of moral requirements, their objectivity, and their logical status. Wiggins devotes most of the book to addressing the first two questions. Lectures 1 to 9 cover the subject of morality in general, and Lecture 10 offers a neo-Aristotelian account of justice that engages with prominent contemporary figures such as Rawls and G.A. Cohen. The final two lectures (Lectures 11 and 12) are devoted to addressing meta-ethical questions about the nature and logical status of moral requirements.

Wiggins presents the challenge posed to Socrates by Glaucon and Adeimantus, and argues that it is ultimately the wrong challenge for moral theory. This is because Glaucon and Adeimantus are not simply asking Socrates to provide a reason for being moral, but are rather asking for an indefeasible reason. This, Wiggins claims, is too strong. The fact that a moral reason may be defeated, and the fact that in extreme circumstances other types of motivation may outweigh moral motivation, is no proof that such a reason, and such motivation, does not exist. That under extreme circumstances the just man's motivation may fail him in no way shows that prior to the onset of such extreme circumstances, he was not just. It merely shows that in the particular situation in question, he did not act justly. Glaucon and Adeimantus' challenge to Socrates rides both on confusing the question of the existence of moral obligations with the question of moral motivation, and the question of the strength of moral motives with the question of their very existence.

Next Wiggins offers a reconstruction of Hume's account of morality. Hume takes morality to be grounded in human nature. The claim is roughly that there are certain initial sentiments that we have (namely, self-love and benevolence) and that these sentiments are then redirected into moral motivation by nurture. The reasonableness of the practice of morality, ''given standing concerns and natural propensities that bring the convention into being'', are what constitute the moral beauty of an observance (79). Contrary to Kant, Hume thinks that morality is indeed peculiarly human, and is not applicable to all rational beings.

Perhaps Hume cannot respond to the villain who is callous and insensitive and completely lacking in the pre-sentiments necessary for the practice of morality. But ultimately, Wiggins wants to suggest, Humean reasons can be given to the villain based on the reasonableness of the practice of morality itself and the fact that it arises inevitably out of our nature. Our propensity to engage in mutually beneficial and pleasurable enterprises together is what gives rise to morality, and the force of moral requirements lies in the fact that they are necessary to sustain the possibility of such interactions. While Wiggins' proposal may provide a qualified response to one who challenges the practice of morality as a whole, it does not provide any response to Hume's sensible knave -- that is, the person who, while not challenging the practice of morality as a whole, nonetheless chooses to take advantage of the loopholes it contains. This is because Wiggins' ultimate answer is not individualistic enough -- that is, it does not provide an answer to the famous question: ''why should I be moral?'' rather than to the more general question: ''why should morality exist and be generally abided by?'' Whether this is a shortcoming remains for the reader to decide.

Against Kant's a priori account of the source of moral requirements, Wiggins argues that we cannot understand practical reason independently of empirical instantiations of it. Kant's conviction that moral directives are ''aimed or directed universally'' (88) -- that is, to anyone who can understand them, and not conditionally upon inclination -- is one that Hume shares. The main points of disagreement between Hume and Kant are about the logical priority of the authority of morality, and about the nature of practical reason. Hume would argue that the authority of moral requirements is internal to the practice of morality and not, as Kant would have it, logically prior to it. The more general difference between Hume and Kant, as Wiggins sees it, is in their conceptions of practical reason. While Kant thinks of practical reason as perfectly general, Hume thinks of reasons (plural) as particular and contextual, and internal to the practices out of which they arise.

Moreover, Wiggins argues that Kant's account itself imports considerations that are external to practical reason: namely, teleology. This, Wiggins claims, is illustrated by Kant's understanding of what constitutes a contradiction in the will. ''The impossibility of willing the maxim [that gives rise to a contradiction in the will] rests on a teleological idea from somewhere outside the stated framework'' (102). At this point, it could be noted that if practical reason is teleological in its structure, as Kant arguably conceives it to be, then perhaps this is not something that is imported from outside an a priori examination of practical reason, but rather a necessary outcome of the very structure of practical reason itself. If this is right, we would need further reasons to think that practical reason itself is not teleological in that way, or that the teleology in question is not internal to practical reason, in order for Wiggins' claim to be fully convincing.

Against utilitarianism, Wiggins argues that there is no single, general, all-purpose good, but rather that different goods are at issue in different contexts. He distinguishes between a Humean sense of utility, which, he argues, is particularistic and signifies the good that is at issue in a given context, and the utilitarian sense of utility, which signifies a general, all-purpose good in terms of which all other goods can be understood. But, Wiggins argues, there is no such general, all-purpose good.

Against consequentialism more generally, Wiggins argues first, that we cannot reduce all moral principles and considerations to one principle. Discussions of outcomes fail to capture what it is about certain acts that we find reprehensible. Often, he claims, it is not the outcome of an action that we condemn (for in certain extreme emergencies the outcome of a reprehensible action may be desirable), but rather the intrinsic nature of the act itself. Wiggins argues that there is no good reason to think that there is a strict relation of primacy between the good and the right.

Against the claim that consequentialism does better vis--vis cases of extreme emergency, he argues that its ability to deal with such cases is no better than the ability of non-consequentialist accounts to deal with such cases. Moreover, the identification of situations as extreme emergencies presupposes ordinary morality, which, he claims, is not exclusively consequentialist in its content. The cases Wiggins has in mind are ones where an agent has to make a choice, for example, between killing one person to save one hundred, or not killing the one person though she knows this will result in the death of the other hundred. These, according to Wiggins, are cases where an agent may come to realize that there is a terrible action he must commit in order to avoid an even more terrible outcome. But such an action is not appropriately characterized as right. Some cases of extreme emergency can be handled by the principle of double effect, which is a principle that relies on the distinction between what an agent directly intends and what is a foreseeable, but not directly intended, consequent of her actions. The cases that cannot be handled by double effect are simply morally intractable, and are no more easily resolved by consequentialism than they are by alternative approaches to morality.

But here one might argue that ordinary morality itself provides a presumption for consequentialist, or a special license for exclusively consequentialist, deliberation in the type of case just outlined. This is because consequentialism is indeed unique in its ability to provide a deciding factor and thus recommend one course of action over others. Indeed, there should be a moral presumption in favor of producing better outcomes over worse ones when other things fail, and if there is such a presumption, then taking the course of action that produces the worse outcome is indeed wrong. Thus, the course of action that produces the better outcome will appropriately be characterized as right.

Drawing on Kant's idea of a kingdom of ends and on Hume's account of the natural dispositions that give rise to morality, Wiggins argues for a social pluralistic account of morality that does justice to the tight connection between the source of moral obligations and moral motivation, as well as to the claim of the universality of moral prescriptions. He argues that the sentiments of solidarity and reciprocity are the key foundations for morality. They are what give rise to and what sustain the practice of morality. Actions cannot be moral that violate solidarity and reciprocity in some fundamental way. Our moral motives and concerns are of four distinct kinds: ''(1) prohibitive aversion, (2) cooperative benevolence, (3) generalized beneficence, and (4) observance. Together, one might say, they help to make up an ordinary morality or a first-order moral sensibility -- a state of being that is beyond finite description in words and affords an endless fund of responses, verbal and non-verbal responses, to what we encounter'' (13). He argues for a piecemeal approach to morality that, starting out from a phenomenology of moral attitudes and conduct, accounts for the multiplicity of reasons and for the fact that they are not all reducible to considerations of outcome value and disvalue.

Drawing on Aristotle, Wiggins also argues for a pluralistic, and bottom-up, approach to justice. Justice, he says, is ''the keystone of the social edifice'' (282). There are three senses of the term 'just': (a) a definitional sense, (b) a personal sense, and (c) a collective sense. Justice (a) is a matter of giving to each her due. Justice (b) is the justice of a person who acts in accordance with justice (a) and seeks to maintain and promote justice (a). Justice (c) is the justice of a polis or a community that arrives at a shared understanding of, and organizes its life around, justice (a) and is made up of citizens who have ''a settled disposition'' to be just (b) (289). But the sense of justice (a) cannot be given by a perfectly general principle but is rather particularistic and continually responsive to the evolving needs and concerns of communal living.

But this approach to justice fails to acknowledge the practical force of the problem of a persisting need for a single criterion of social justice. The Rawlsian approach provides much-needed clarity and the possibility for resolving fundamental disagreements by narrowing the conversation about justice in the way that he does. This need not reflect, as Wiggins supposes, ''a deep distrust of practical reason'' (302), but rather a realistic acknowledgment of the fact that despite deep disagreement on moral matters, we must agree on a conception of justice precisely because justice is ''the keystone of the social edifice''. If we are to have a good chance of reaching such agreement, we had better come up with a criterion of social justice that is sufficiently minimal as to garner such agreement.

Finally, Wiggins argues that the objectivity of moral statements comes not from some external, a priori standard but is rather internal to, and arises out of, the practice of morality itself. ''The objectivity of the reasonable exercise of the grasp of an ethical concept is not established by reference to the product of some independent understanding of the property. (...) It is established by those who exercise it and engage fairly with fair first-order criticism” (335).

I hope it is clear to the reader that this is no more than a rough summation, in very broad brushstrokes, of some of the arguments presented in Ethics. It is a book well-worth spending time with, not only for the compelling and challenging arguments Wiggins makes on behalf of a Humean approach to morality, but also for the remarkably detailed and incisive presentation of the ground he covers. While it is meant to be an introduction to moral philosophy, it is better read after some acquaintance with the subject matter. Though some of the chapters can be read as self-standing, a proper appreciation of the force of the arguments presented requires a reading of the book as a whole.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716