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Introductory ethics textbooks often take one of two forms – they either provide a historical summary of ethical positions, often involving excerpts and textual interpretation of key passages, or they develop a thematic summary of contemporary views, and possibly their historical origins.
John Deigh's An Introduction to Ethics follows the latter approach. Deigh offers a thorough summary and analysis of ethical egoism, Platonic and Aristotelian eudaimonism, Utilitarianism, Divine Command theory, Kantian deontology, and existential ethics. He concludes with a chapter on metaethics and practical reason, focusing on the objectivity of value and moral motivation.
Beginning with the introductory chapter, Deigh focuses heavily on motivational questions which prompt ethical inquiry and practice. His has two starting points: One begins with our basic intuitions based on a case study about what it is moral to do when one finds a lost purse with a considerable amount of money. Would it be honest and just to keep the money, to look for and return it to the owner, or to donate it to charity? Deigh uses these basic intuitions concerning justice and honesty in this particular case study to critique and expand upon various ethical theories under discussion.
Deigh's second starting point is Thrasymachus' challenge from Plato's The Republic –and Glaucon and Adeimantus' revised defense – of the value of the moral or just life. Deigh spends considerable time in the introductory chapter and the chapters on Egoism and Eudaimonism with Plato's ethical questions and answers, perhaps more than is usually found in introductory works. Deigh develops Plato's views from to personally engage the reader in ethical inquiry and the practical aspects of the discipline. This coincides with Deigh's position that like agriculture, rather than botany, ethics is primarily a practical discipline of determining what is right and wrong and how one should act in a situation and throughout their life. While this allows him to raise a powerful objection to sophisticated versions of act-Utilitarianism in a later chapter, this conception of ethics is hardly controversial and, for Deigh's audience and purpose, it is absolutely essential.
Overall, Deigh's prose is clean and his arguments tight and convincing. He conveys a significant amount of information in a concise and well-organized format. Most chapters begin with Deigh's interpretation of an ethical position as well as key terms and distinctions necessary to fully understand the position. This is followed by critiques and revisions of the theory in light of said critiques, lending the text suitable for readers of any philosophical background. However, the arguments, especially Deigh's critiques, are not always so simple or intuitive. Though Deigh's presentation style and engaging prose put this on a par with other introductory ethical textbooks, Deigh's arguments and criticisms might be beyond the scope of many undergraduates, especially those with little philosophical background. This is somewhat compounded by the length and complexity of the chapters, which weave together a number of issues and concerns. Generally, Deigh manages this well and his focus on the motivational and practical issues make the questions and issues real and accessible.
Deigh's chapter on "Moral Law" and his final chapter, "Practical Reason" are less clear. While he attempts to weave a common theme between a number of theories that all rely on the moral law such as Divine Command Theory, Rationalism Intuitionism, Kantian deontology, and hints of Natural Law Theory, these theories really share less in common than he suggests. This is especially problematic for beginners, who are simply trying to group ethical theories by the criteria Deigh provides, and may end up overlooking Deigh's distinctions, such as the one he quickly draws between deontological and teleological forms of Natural Law. While it is interesting that he develops the oft-neglected positions of Grotius and Locke, the Thomistic position is the most familiar form of Natural Law and the one that holds the most sway, particularly in the abortion debates. Deigh does not develop this view at all, and the main reason for this appears to be his choice in grouping such diverse theories together in one chapter.
The final chapter, "Practical Reason," possesses the same potential flaws as the earlier chapter, but the consequences are far less problematic. Deigh makes clear that this final chapter is only a brief foray into other, previously ignored, ethical issues. At the same time, the chapter does not feel extraneous because he connects these issues with the overriding practical and motivational theme throughout the work. Thus, while incorporating a number of different topics, the thematic focus is never lost and each section is clearly connected to issues of agency and moral action.
Perhaps the best way to describe An Introduction to Ethics is that it is original and personal. This is no small compliment considering the number of ethics textbooks on the market. Deigh's arguments and criticisms are often unique and different from those presented in most textbooks and taught in introductory courses. So is the way that Deigh organizes the material.
This is an advantage and a weakness. The advantage is that Deigh is able to truly bring ethics alive to the reader, even to those who have never studied ethics before. The text is lively, engaging, and existentially real. The disadvantage is that it might be difficult to incorporate into courses that wish to engage heavily in the primary texts themselves, since the material presented here and that in the primary material and traditional criticisms might vary significantly.
This should not deter anyone from buying and using Deigh's book. Because of its accessible style and focus on the motivational questions of ethics and ethical inquiry, Deigh's work is an innovative and thorough addition to the field.
© 2011 Scott O'Leary
Scott O'Leary, Fordham University
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