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Ethical TheoryReview - Ethical Theory
by Russ Shafer-Landau (Editor)
Blackwell, 2007
Review by Matthew Pianalto
Nov 13th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 46)

Any anthology on a topic as broad as moral philosophy risks committing sins of omission. In lieu of what Shafer-Landau calls the "point-counterpoint" approach usually taken in ethics readers, in which the audience is presented with positive accounts of particular views and critical responses, Shafer-Landau has chosen, particularly the sections on distinctive moral theories (such as consequentialism and deontological ethics), to focus on various defenses and articulations of the moral theories under consideration. Thus, "Readers will not have criticisms of the theories presented and ready to hand. As a compensation, however, they will have a more nuanced target to aim at when seeking to identify for themselves the vulnerabilities (and the strengths) of the views they are exploring" (xi-xii). As Shafer-Landau promises, Ethical Theory: An Anthology is impressive in its depth, as well as in the breadth of topics in moral philosophy which it contains.

The seventy-six readings of this volume are distributed into twelve parts. Each part begins with an introduction, in which Shafer-Landau lays out the basic issue to be addressed and provides brief summaries of the positions and particular arguments presented in each essay. These introductions are helpful in that they suggest how the readings in each section are related, prepare the reader to identify the key arguments, and suggest points of comparison between various essays, both within individual sections and in other parts of the collection.

Part I, "The Status of Morality," contains important essays and excerpts which address the realism/anti-realism debate concerning whether moral values are objective features of the world and whether there are moral facts which exist independently of the perspectives (or beliefs) of particular individuals or cultures. On the anti-realist side of this debate, David Hume argues that moral values are feelings rather than properties of things. A.J. Ayer extends the Humean analysis of values to its extreme, holding that moral claims are not statements at all, but rather exhortations. J.L. Mackie argues against the existence of moral values, noting that it is "queer" to believe such things exist, and holding that any time we make a value judgment, it is false because it appeals to a property which doesn't exist. Lastly, Gilbert Harman denies that moral properties are needed to explain the moral judgments we make. On the realist side, G.E. Moore argues that good cannot be defined naturalistically and is therefore a "non-natural"--but real--property. Mary Midgley critiques moral relativism (which a second selection by Harman defends), and papers by Michael Smith and Shafer-Landau both defend forms of moral realism.

How and whether moral beliefs are justified gets taken up in Part II, "Moral Knowledge." In particular, the readings in this section address the question of whether the existence of moral disagreement poses an insurmountable problem for our own moral beliefs, as well as the question about what beliefs, if any, serve as the foundation for the rest of our moral views. Renford Bambrough and George Sher both address the problem of disagreement. The selections from Shelley Kagan and Robert Audi defend the idea that the basis of our moral views are grounded in intuitions about particular cases--Kagan's paper defending these intuitions as the basis of moral knowledge and Audi's paper providing a general defense of ethical intuitionism, by trying to show that not all moral beliefs require justification from other moral beliefs. Against this, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord argues against the idea that any beliefs (including moral beliefs) are self-evident, and defends a coherentist view of moral justification.

The selections in Part III, "Why Be Moral?" address the question of what reason we have to act and live morally. This section contains excerpts from Plato's Republic, in which it is suggested that we have reason to appear moral but no reason to actually be moral. Arguably, this is the first expression of what is now regarded as ethical egoism--that one ought to do whatever serves one's own interests. This idea gets refined in various ways in the selections by Gregory Kavka (who takes a Hobbesian approach to showing that self-interest actually provides grounds for being moral), Philippa Foot (who thinks one can rationally reject morality), and Lester Hunt (who attempts to connect self-interest to the (less selfish-sounding) notion of flourishing, arguing that living morally allows us to flourish, which is itself in our interest). Ethical Egoism is criticized by James Rachels as indefensibly arbitrary (in a way comparable to racism or sexism). Joel Feinberg provides a critique of psychological egoism, which many have thought, if true, would imply that the only psychologically possible sorts of moral systems would have to be rooted in an appeal to our own self-interest. Shafer-Landau defends moral Rationalism, and thus rejects the views offered by both Foot and Kavka. Finally, Susan Wolf's "Moral Saints" suggests that while morality is important, other things matter, too, and we should not feel too compelled to strive for moral sainthood, since we would miss out on other goods and endeavors.

Part IV, "Ethics and Religion," contains discussions of the relationship between God (or religion) and morality. Plato's Euthyphro provides the classic challenge to the idea that things are good (or right) because God issues the relevant commands. If God is not using moral criteria to distinguish good and bad (right and wrong), then these commands seem arbitrary. Robert Adams seeks to diffuse the Euthyphro problem by suggesting that moral commands can be issued (or invented) by a loving God. Moral arguments for the existence of God (or the afterlife)--that there can be no eternal justice or reason to be moral without a God (or afterlife)--are explored in readings from Kant and Stephen Layman. Eric Wielenberg's essay criticizes the idea that there is an essential connection between religion and morality. This section also features excerpts of a debate on this topic between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

Questions about the nature of value--particularly, whether there is one or many kinds of value--get taken up in Part V. This section begins with John Stuart Mill's espousal of hedonism--that happiness (or pleasure) is the ultimate, and only value. This is followed by Robert Nozick's well-known "Experience Machine" thought-experiment which seeks to show that there are other values besides that acknowledged by hedonists. Fred Feldman offers a more recent defense of hedonism, and James Griffin argues that the satisfaction of informed desires is the basis of value. Richard Kraut criticizes the desire-satisfaction view and, like Derek Parfit and W.D. Ross (both also featured in this section), opts for value pluralism, which claims that there are many intrinsic values which cannot be reduced to a single factor.

Part VI, "Moral Responsibility," connects the (metaphysical) free will problem to the issue of moral responsibility. Richard Taylor argues that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism, and thus that moral responsibility requires some degree of indeterminism in the world. Galen Strawson, however, argues that even if determinism were false, we still could not be responsible for our actions since a lack of determinism would simply imply that our actions are arbitrary. A.J. Ayer rejects the idea that determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible, and presents a classic version of compatibilism, which says that we can be held morally responsible for our actions as long as it is possible that we could have done something else (if we had wanted to do something else). Thomas Nagel explores the puzzle of "moral luck," in which he notes that we often hold people morally responsible even when significant aspects of their actions are not in their control, and thus seems to suggest either that moral judgment is irrational (although we can't help doing it) or that we have to live with the fact that luck figures into the moral status of our actions. Susan Wolf tries to work out a view about when we can attribute the quality of being under the will's control to a person's action, and argues that we are responsible for actions that are expressions of our "deeper self." This section concludes with Peter Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment," in which Strawson argues that our moral concepts (including those which presuppose responsibility) are autonomous with respect to the issue of determinism, and that the truth of determinism (if it is true) should not make a bit of difference to our moral discourse.

Moral Standing, the topic of Part VII, is concerned with the question of who deserves moral consideration. Kant restricts this quality to humans, arguing that only human lives have intrinsic value, and that animals have only relative value. (That said he does not think it good to mistreat animals.) On this view, moral standing is afforded to those with rationality and autonomy. Peter Singer finds such a view far too restrictive, even prejudicial, and argues that sentience (the ability to have experiences, including those of pleasure and pain) is the ground of moral standing, and thus, that (non-human) animals, too, deserve the same amount of moral consideration as humans. Joel Fienberg agrees with Singer, but attempts to cast moral standing as a matter of having interests rather than of being sentient. Kenneth Goodpaster takes up Feinberg's idea, and argues that the blanket of moral standing needs to be further extended to all living things (including plants and paramecium), since anything with a life has interests. This section also features two papers on the moral standing of fetuses, by Michael Tooley and Don Marquis, who both explore the concept of personhood (and how this notion loads into questions about abortion and infanticide).

Part VIII, "Consequentialism," offers several different defenses of consquentialist theories (generally, utilitarian) of moral rightness: in general, that the moral status of an action is determined by the consequences (or anticipated effect) of performing that action. Defenses of act-utilitarianism (that the rightness of an act is determined by its anticipated consequences) are provided in readings from John Stuart Mill and William Shaw. J.J.C. Smart's essay includes an important criticism of rule-utilitarianism (that right actions are those which are enactments of rules which, if everyone followed them, would have the best consequences): that if rule-utilitarianism is different from act-utilitarianism, this is because rule-utilitarians think that following rules is more important than expected outcome in particular cases. Essentially, this is "rule-worship" rather than true consequentialism, since sometimes following a rule which is generally a good one can have disastrous results. Brad Hooker attempts to defend rule-consequentialism while rejecting utilitarianism (i.e. rejecting that happiness or pleasure is the value towards which our consequentialist calculations must aim). Papers by R.M. Hare, Peter Singer, and John Harris apply consequentialist thinking to particular moral issues, with the results--in some cases, counterintuitive--that slavery might sometimes be moral, that we should contribute much more than we do to famine relief, and that we should all be willing to enlist in a survival lottery which would ensure longer lives for more people, at the occasional sacrifice of a healthy person's transplantable organs.

The main normative rival to consequentialism, deontological ethics, gets taken up in Part IX. The crux of deontology is that some acts are, by their very nature and regardless of the effects such actions have in particular cases, wrong (and others right). This section begins with the classic exposition of a deontological theory by Kant. Selections by Christine Korsgaard and Onora O'Neill attempt to clarify particular aspects of Kant's theory, particularly how to understand and apply the two best known formulations of his categorical imperative: that we should only act on maxims we at the same time can will to be universal laws, and that we should always treat all of humanity as an end in itself rather than a means to our own ends. Robert Nozick offers a puzzle for the deontologist: that there may be cases where doing a morally prohibited act (like lying or killing) would prevent the occurrence several instances of this act. If the value of truth or life is the basis for our prohibitions of such acts, then it seems strange that we should condemn an act which seeks to minimize the occurrence of these moral transgressions. Alan Gewirth provides a sophisticated defense of the Golden Rule (which is similar to the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative) which is meant to show why the duty to respect other persons makes egoism (see Part III) irrational. Selections by Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson explore how and whether the doctrine of double effect may allow the Kantian to avoid Nozick's puzzle (and similar consequentialist criticisms). The doctrine of double effect holds that one is not violating deontological rules as long as one does not directly intend, for example, that the death of an innocent person occurs. (For example, I may permissibly avert a trolley about to kill five people onto a track where it will kill one, as long as I don't intend to kill the one person, even though this is an expected outcome.) However, as the reader will see, the doctrine of double effect is not without its problems, since it would also seem to license killing a person in order to give her organs to other people who need them.

Part X, "Contractarianism," offers four readings on social contract theory which, while generally an issue taken up under the blanket of social and political philosophy, is concerned with basic moral questions about why we should obey rules (or, be moral) and how we should go about living with each other in a way that prevents life from being "nasty, brutish, and short." The section opens with excerpts from Hobbes' Leviathan, in which, in order to avoid a nasty "state of nature," we all agree to give up some of our rights (to take whatever we want), and to transfer these rights to a sovereign, who enforces rules that guarantee that everyone will play fair and get what they deserve, or pay the price for not so doing. David Gautier offers a contemporary articulation and defense of a Hobbesian social contract theory. We then see a different account of the origins of social rules in John Rawls' theory of "justice as fairness," which suggests that just rules are those that would be developed by lawmakers who legislate from behind a "veil of ignorance" (so that they cannot legislate in ways that would be self-serving). Finally, Thomas Scanlon proposes a contractarian system (in which he claims to be preserving what is good in utilitarianism, while rejecting utilitarianism itself), which is rooted in the idea that right actions are those which no one could reasonably reject (or criticize); moral actions are those which reasonable people can agree should be done, since those actions will preserve, protect, or otherwise speak to the interests of all reasonable persons.

Various articulations of a virtue-based approach to moral living are offered in Part XI, "Virtue Ethics." The section begins with excerpts from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, in which we are told that ethics is an "inexact science," that the aim of human life is happiness (by which Aristotle means human flourishing), and that we flourish by living virtuously. Martha Nussbaum's essay tackles the problem that since various cultures have had different ideas about what virtue is, an Aristotelian approach to ethics results in a relativistic conception of morality. Nussbaum challenges this idea, and argues that Aristotle is concerned to identify core values and ideals that are of value for everyone. Rosalind Hursthouse argues in her essay against the claim that a virtue-based ethic fails to offer sufficient moral guidance. This issue is also taken up in the last paper of this section by Julia Annas, who is concerned to work out a view about how moral education should be done. She endorses Aristotle's view that moral virtue requires practice, and argues that becoming moral involves developing a skill, rather than a lot of book-learning. This section also features work by Michael Slote and Christine Swanton, both of whom address the question of how to characterize a virtuous action.

The final section of this anthology, "Prima Facie Duties and Particularism," features several essays concerned with the question of whether there is any tidy way to catalogue our various duties, as well as whether there are any absolute moral rules. W.D. Ross suggests that we have several "prima facie duties"--duties which, if nothing else conflicts with them, we ought to honor--but that when these duties conflict, we simply have to use our intuition to see which duty has more weight; he does not think any sort of consequentialism will solve this problem. David McNaughton offers a contemporary defense of a Rossian view of our duties. Jonathan Dancy, the best-known advocate of moral particularism, argues that there simply are not any general moral rules (and so not even any prima facie duties), because what counts as a reason for doing something in one context can be a reason not to do the same action in a different context. We can only decide what ought to be done, in any given case, by considering the particular features of that case. Margaret Little attempts a less extreme form of particularism, arguing that while there are no moral absolutes, our moral rules are "defeasible generalizations," which capture the general moral rule of thumb; however, there are always going to be cases when the rules should be broken. Finally, Gerald Dworkin defends particularism on the grounds that it captures what we ordinarily do when reasoning about our duties--we typically appeal to details of the particular cases, rather than invoking general principles, and if we can get on in this way, then moral rules or generalizations may not be as necessary as say, Kant or the utilitarians, each in their different ways, thought they were.

All things considered, the readings Shafer-Landau brings together in this collection provide an excellent introduction to ethical theory. The layout of the volume is simple and elegant, and Shafer-Landau's introductions to each section are quite helpful. Anyone in search of a compendium of key readings in ethical theory should consider adding Shafer-Landau's collection to his or her bookshelf. A professor searching for a new book for an ethical theory course could do no better (although he or she, like Shafer-Landau, will struggle in deciding what to include and what to omit in course readings).

© 2007 Matthew Pianalto

Matthew Pianalto is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arkansas. His personal webpage is:

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