Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

October 8, 2009

There is a shortage of books on applied ethics, if not moral philosophy, and this one helps to fill that gap. Its style is that of a chatty lecture, with regular pauses to take notes, deal with possible "other viewpoints" and so on. There are even "dialogues" in the style of the Ancient Master himself, in which characters argue through certain ethical points.

Over the course of the book, the reader will acquire a large vocabulary of ethical terms. Whether they will also, as promised, "think philosophically", I'm not so sure.

The books starts by attempting to debunk "ethical relativism", with a conversation between Bev and Anna, which degenerates rather into a lecture by Bev on the evils of relativism: "It's like being in a restaurant, and the waiter asks me what I'd like. I tell him, 'The tomato soup looks good,' and he, interpreting this purely as a psychological comment about my personal taste in soup, goes back into the kitchen and gets me nothing ... The whole thing ends with me soupless and him well informed; yet this is what your theory reduces morality to."

Indeed, one of the strengths of this text - the three parts of which cover normative ethics, practical ethics and metaethics - is its frequent use of examples to wash down the large doses of jargon. One of its weaknesses, however, is its chatty style, which occasionally misleads and introduces errors.

One small example: Noel Stewart suggests that giving £100 to charity is better than giving 10p, in the same sense that a straight line is better for being truly straight rather than wobbly, whereas the moral worth of a gift need not have anything to do with its cash value.

Or take another unusual example, this time of urinating on graves. This, we are assured, illustrates the weakness of both utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant's kind of deontology, which, by allowing such a disgraceful act, become "ridiculous".

"Both theories go badly astray here because they ignore the man's character," adds Stewart, who is, after all, a schoolteacher, and expected to be concerned about such things.

Elsewhere, the line between the author's own views (indeed feelings) on a matter and the philosophical arguments becomes blurred.

In a discussion of the limits of Kant's categorical imperative in application to abortion, Stewart roundly condemns Kant for ignoring "the intimate and raw feelings of love and the instincts of protective care mothers have for their babies", concluding the discussion tendentiously: "This is her baby we're talking about, not just some abstract source of future categorical imperatives."

It is a book in which the reader is invited to disagree, and there is much to disagree with here.

Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

By Noel Stewart. Polity. 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745640679 and 40686. Published 12 December 2008

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