Try, but not too hard, to be happy

The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. - The Moral Life
May 26, 2000

The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is a collection in which most views of ethical theory acceptable in the United States are represented. All contributions are substantial and well written. Interest focuses on the synthesis that the book tentatively seeks, mainly through James Sterba's comparative essay commenting on other contributors. The aim is to reconcile libertarianism, utilitarianism and feminism with certain rival ideas. This way has been prepared by the interest in current affairs that many contributors show: this is ethical theory seeking to advance with the aid of politics.

The upshot is that liberty, happiness and equality (particularly between the sexes; the subject of race is avoided) are valuable ideals, but should not be pursued too dogmatically. At one level this message simply endorses our existing political system, at another it draws attention to the doubts that beset that system. An ethical theory, formed by reconciliation among rivals would be very useful. The inherent problem with reconciliation is that it depends on a critique of each existing rival: the critique causes more argument and reconciliation slips away.

The cover shows two small figures walking in a dark grove, with the sun low in the sky, an image of limited optimism. Are other, more threatening figures lurking among the trees? John D. Caputo, among contributors, offers a reconciling, Christian welcome to anyone who is "other". But it is hard to see how the ideology of the Taleban, for example, could be a source of guidance - as mentioned by Simon Blackburn with extreme distaste.

The cover of Louis Pojman's anthology, The Moral Life , shows a woman counting her treasures. The picture symbolises ethical theory seeking advance with the aid of literature. The book celebrates the "magnificent" cooperation between literature and philosophy that occurs in the West Point Military Academy, where Pojman teaches. Most of the contents are extracts from much longer works, ranging from Sophocles and Hobbes to Martin Luther King.

Pojman's own comment on the relationship between Lord of the Flies and Leviathan is interesting, yet no other bridging essays, explaining the embodiment of philosophical idea in drama or poetry appear - less than magnificent cooperation, surely? Students probably need more help if they are not to be misled by, say, the outwardly confident comment of Sophocles's chorus on human power, where almost every word conveys ambiguity and pain. It is not magnificent, but quite disturbing, that in some sections of the book literature falls silent and philosophy does all the talking: it seems acceptable to discuss homosexuality, adultery and abortion abstractly but not to conceive of these matters dramatically or poetically.

Some of the philosophy is naive, notably a passionate statement of religious faith under the significant pseudonym of "Lois Hope Walker". I found the simplicity and passion refreshing, though I felt an uneasy sense of the limitations of what is acceptable in polite discussion. Pojman might just have published a passionate statement of atheism, but surely neither he nor the Blackwell editors would have published a statement on religion and morality that was strongly sectarian, unless condemnation were confined to forms of religion like that of the Taleban, which is safely exotic. Still, the reminder that philosophy appears in all sorts of places outside philosophical treatises is well worth having.

Martin Hughes is lecturer in philosophy, University of Durham.

The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory.

Editor - Hugh LaFollette
ISBN - 0 631 20118 1 and 20119 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £15.99
Pages - 446

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