Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Wilfrid J. Waluchow: The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory and S. Jack Odell: On Consequentialist Ethics

This review originally appeared in Philosophy in Review 24:2:136-140 April 2004.

These two books cover much of the same ground, but achieve quite different degrees of success.

Waluchow has produced a very useful textbook. Within the brief compass of less than 250 moderately-sized pages of uncrowded text, it covers just about all of the major concepts, theories, and arguments that a student should be exposed to in an introductory ethics course. These are organized and explained with great care, in order to make the material as digestible as possible for undergraduates lacking any background in philosophy. By combining brevity with clarity of exposition, Waluchow has written a textbook which even reluctant young scholars will be likely to actually read.

The book is comprised of two large sections; the first five chapters deal with meta-ethics, the latter five with normative ethical theories. Chapter one opens with a discussion of the meaning of ethics, distinguishing it from aesthetics and prudence. It continues with a broad outline of the book’s concerns, and describes the issues which ethical theories are expected to address.

Chapter two sets out the main themes of meta-ethics, and manages to introduce the reader to a large assortment of ideas and theories. These include: the difference between judgments of obligation, value, and virtue, supererogation, consequentialism, deontology, theories of value, moral rights, emotivism, and prescriptivism. My only complaint regarding this chapter is that Waluchow may have gone into too much detail in his taxonomy of different kinds of rights. For a few pages he loses the fine balance between comprehensiveness and conciseness, making a number of passages read like lists of definitions.

Chapter three crisply describes the major arguments for and against moral relativism. Anyone who has taught introductory ethics has had to deal with the notion that relativism makes it pointless to debate moral issues. Waluchow effectively inoculates the reader against such moves by carefully explaining how moral judgments made in the context of relativistic ethics remain open to criticism on the basis of factual disagreements, disagreements over the correct application of socially endorsed rules, and demands for internal consistency.

Chapter three examines the relationship between ethics and religious belief. It opens with an explanation of the difference between divine command theories which claim that God’s will establishes the difference between right and wrong, as against those theories which view God’s commands as offering the only reliable guide for distinguishing between right and wrong, and offers a Leibnizian argument for preferring the latter. It is further pointed out that all divine command theorists must face up to the limited capacity of humans to correctly identify and interpret ostensible divine commands. The rest of the chapter is devoted to an overview of Aquinas’ theory of natural law, ending with an explanation of how questions regarding natural law invite its substitution with social contract theories, which are the subject of the next chapter.

In chapter five, Waluchow takes David Gauthier and Thomas Hobbes as his primary representatives of social contract theory. This is fine for getting across the basic notion of the social contract, but Locke, Rousseau and Rawls (in a footnote) are barely even mentioned in passing. It would have been in better keeping with the book’s general level of comprehensiveness if some indication had been given of their unique contributions.

Chapter six opens the ‘Normative Ethical Theories’ section, and it deals with utilitarianism. Here again we find Waluchow painlessly imparting the core material of his subject including act vs. rule utilitarianism, the value theories of Bentham, Mill and Moore, etc. It would have been worthwhile mentioning Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ in the discussion of hedonism, but that is a minor quibble.

By this point, the reader should be well aware of the deficiencies of utilitarianism and is prepared for chapter seven, which introduces Kantian ethics. The chapter is built around the three different versions of the categorical imperative. Waluchow does an admirable job of bringing the reader to appreciate the value of Kant’s formulations without trying to sweep any of their difficulties under the rug.

Chapter eight deals with W. D. Ross’s ethical theory, which arrives as a kind of synthetic solution to the tensions between utilitarianism and deontological ethics. Besides setting out Ross’s views, the chapter also offers the reader a good illustration of how theories become messy when they try to satisfy all of out basic intuitions regarding moral obligations.

Chapter nine is devoted to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. It not only explains the central ideas of the Nichomacean ethics, but also discusses the relative advantages and disadvantages of virtue ethics as against theories of obligation. Waluchow concludes this discussion with the suggestion that virtue ethics might be symbiotically combined with a utilitarian or deontological theory of obligation.

The book ends with a chapter on feminist ethics, which, like virtue ethics, has largely developed in reaction to the perceived weaknesses of consequentialism and deontology. Again, Waluchow manages to touch upon all of the essential points (the notion of patriarchy, ethics of care, Carol Gilligan’s feminist moral psychology, etc.) with which a novice philosophy student should be acquainted. Beyond its more strictly feminist interest, this chapter also serves as an introduction to contemporary ‘anti-theory’ in ethics.

According to the publisher’s website, On Consequentialist Ethics is supposed to present ‘a general overview of Consequentialist Ethics,’ and ‘enable students to achieve quick familiarity with this philosophical topic as they prepare for in-class discussions or for reading relevant original sources.’ The book’s failure to fulfill these functions can be demonstrated in objective, even quantifiable terms. In reality, only two of the book’s seven chapters are devoted to an overview of consequentialism. The first three attempt to give a general account of ethical theory, while the last two are devoted to Odell’s own personal philosophical contribution, ‘Folk based practice consequentialism.’ The two chapters that actually do present ‘a general review of consequentialist ethics’ go into deeper detail than does Waluchow, but they are not written in a particularly clear fashion, and each suffers from fundamental deficiencies in the choice of material covered. Chapter four, entitled ‘Act, Rule and General Utilitarianism,’ devotes ten pages to the views of Bentham, Mill, and Moore, and another ten to the ethical writings of Bertrand Russell, making for a quite idiosyncratic account of the classical utilitarian literature. Chapter five, ‘Standard and Recent Criticisms and Recent Defenses of Utilitarianism,’ mentions no work published after 1984.

Some sections of the introductory chapters offer relatively straight-forward expositions of meta-ethics, deontology, and egoism, going into deeper detail than does Waluchow. However, they are often marred by confusing use of technical vocabulary, irrelevant side-discussions, and writing that simply cries out for an editor’s red pencil. A typical example of the latter: ‘David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher who is recognized by nearly every contemporary philosopher to be one of the most important philosophers in the history of western philosophy’ (36). Generally speaking, much of the book is written in a careless, flippant style that does not read like a final draft.

One section from the second chapter seriously compromises the book’s usefulness as a text for undergraduate courses in a more specific way. Odell’s gratuitous, uncharitable, and ill-informed discussion of divine command ethics is likely to undermine his scholarly authority and neutrality On Consequentialist Ethics in the eyes of religious students. We know that he is in trouble as soon as we find him telling us that, ‘nothing better captures this version of DCT’ than the hackneyed joke about the Ten Commandments whose punch line reads, ‘The good news is, according to Moses, “I got him down to ten!” The bad news is, “Adultery is still on the list!”’ (24). Later we are treated to a 19th century-style description of Judaism, based on a fragmented and literal reading of the Old Testament. Catholic students will discover that, ‘Sexual prohibitions of the kind institutionalized by the Catholic Church exemplify religion’s distortion of the folk ethic’ (32). The philosophical content of the section is almost completely restricted to a whirlwind critical presentation of traditional arguments for God’s existence.
The final two chapters treat Odell’s own pet theory, which, he repeatedly promises us throughout the book, overcomes the deficiencies of all previous doctrines. Chapter six explains that ‘Folk Based Practice Consequentialism’ urges us to behave in ways that everyone already believes will promote social harmony, inasmuch as everyone is correct in their assessment of what will promote social harmony. Odell’s moral program is reminiscent of Karl Popper’s call for ‘piece-meal social engineering.’ Changes in the actual list of prescriptions supported by this theory must pass the test of practical experience. If an existing moral principle is found to disrupt social harmony, it must be discarded, while new moral principles must be shown to improve social harmony. It is not clear why Odell believes that social harmony is the only desirable consequence worthy of serving as the goal of his ethics.

Chapter seven applies Odell’s new theory to the issues of euthanasia, the death penalty, abortion, cloning, and stem-cell research. In each instance, Odell first reviews and criticizes how various ethical theories approach the problem at hand, and then tries to demonstrate the superiority of his own views. The preliminary discussions hardly do justice to the efforts of other ethicists to confront these issues. The discussion of capital punishment does not consider the problem of false convictions, while the discussion of abortion makes no mention of even the best known work on the subject, such as that of Judith Jarvis Thomson and Don Marquis. Odell’s own solutions to these dilemmas are tautological. Whatever policy best serves social harmony will eventually be discovered by an historical process of trial and error, and that policy will be, by definition, identified with ‘Folk Based Practice Consequentialism.’

Given the criticisms cataloged above, I cannot recommend On Consequentialist Ethics for classroom use. Advanced students who are already acquainted with the material it covers may find parts of the book of some interest, especially its discussion of Kantian ethics (40-50). Of course, anyone interested in Odell’s own ethical theory must read his book.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee Academic College, Israel

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