No escape from the utilitarian

Ethics - Ethics. First Edition - Contemporary Ethics
May 28, 1999

If your primary requirement is crisp, fairly comprehensive accounts of standard problems, I would recommend Harry Gensler among these three authors. In Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction , Gensler makes sure of balance in his presentation by adopting successively the personae of believers in various theories, called "Ima Subjectivist", "Ima Intuitionist" and so on. He then challenges each "Ima" in his own voice. Gensler gives great attention to layout on the printed page and suggests, not forgetting the possibilities of the internet, useful study questions. The style is crisp but not dry.

If your primary requirement is a survey of certain salient theories, I would recommend Piers Benn's Ethics . Benn concentrates on the theories of the utilitarians, Kant and Aristotle. At times he attributes both advantages and disadvantages to all these theories, but his treatment of utilitarianism becomes increasingly scathing, his treatment of the Aristotelian tradition increasingly favourable. He gives his Aristotle a Burkean twist, claiming to "accommodate some of the insights" of moral conservatives who warn that we tamper with tried and trusted institutions at our great peril. He seems to endorse these conservative ideas with no clear reservation, yet to ambiguous and politically dangerous effect: which institutions would he really defend against apparently convincing rationalist critique?

William Shaw does not really offer an introduction to all commonly held moral theories. Instead, his Contemporary Ethics offers a sustained defence of utilitarianism against all the fashionable, preposterous objection, such as the claim that utilitarianism ignores the separateness of person, which have nearly overwhelmed this most sensible and humane of moral theories. Shaw points out how much philosophers have misled by vague, unrealistic, undeveloped examples. He develops his utilitarianism in a left-wing direction rooted in Mill's partial sympathy with socialism but which is, to my mind, too brusque towards Locke's mighty argument for private property. I would have welcomed a fuller explanation of why modern consumer society embodies, as Shaw evidently believes, a perversion or betrayal of utilitarian ideas. But lengthy and consistent argument from one controversial viewpoint has many advantages.

Martin Hughes is lecturer in philosophy, University of Durham.

Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction. First Edition

Author - Harry J. Gensler
ISBN - 0 415 15624 6 and 15625 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £11.99
Pages - 211

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