WILLIAM SWEET, ed. The Bases of Ethics

Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. Pp. 250.

(Paper: ISBN 0-87462-622-6)

Review by E.P. Brandon, to appear in Philosophy in Review

For those whose dealings in moral and political philosophy revolve around the work of Rawls, Nagel, Bernard Williams, Mackie and their ilk, it is salutary to be reminded that in the English-speaking world there are philosophers for whom these authors are marginal at best, and for whom their place is taken by Aquinas, Wojtyla (alias Pope John Paul II), Ladrière, and assorted others. Salutary but depressing, at least on the evidence of this collected volume, since these other dialogues yield little clarity or insight.

One might be the more disheartened because an unusually large proportion of the authors are professors emeriti, presumably no longer goaded to publish or perish but able to offer us their wisdom straight. And ethics is an area where it is plausible to think that one's views will change and deepen with the passing years.

But what do we find in these eleven essays plus an introduction?

Roger Sullivan offers peaceful coexistence to the four classical moral traditions he reviews: Biblical, Greek, Kantian, and Utilitarian. We are to see them as providing answers, not to our moral problems en masse but within circumscribed areas of concern: for the private sphere, Biblical when you want to save your soul, Greek when concerned for your moral character; for the public, Kant when you are thinking of banning things, Utilitarianism when focussed on contributing positively (33).

Lawrence Dewan provides a lengthy (40 page) 'presentation of the mind' of Thomas Aquinas. One hesitates to ask for more, but his concluding lines claim that 'ethics is of secondary importance ... [w]e must assert the primacy of contemplation' (63); if this could be supported without the antiquated teleology and other bizarre notions Dewan has mustered earlier it would be of some interest.

Leslie Armour offers a historically informed discussion of Descartes and the ethics of generosity.

Timothy Sprigge provides a clear commentary on objections to Schopenhauer's view that compassion is the sole source of moral value, focussing on Nietzsche's trenchant denunciations. Sprigge opposes the more unconventional views of his protagonists mostly with appeals to common sense, but one feels that he has not properly connected with them. Nor does his claim that suffering is obviously a prescriptive fact about the universe, and thus a refutation of any error theory of morality, seem more than sheer assertion, untempered by the philosophical motivations leading to such theories.

Kenneth Schmitz compares Maritain and Wojtyla on 'modernity.'

Hugo Meynell gives us quick reassurance that doubts about the foundations of ethics are the result of erroneous philosophy, though he also admits that there are some irresolvable dilemmas of a kind one does not expect to persist in science.

Thomas de Koninck, with copious quotations from Whitehead and others, preaches on the theme of education and 'our present crisis,' deploring our fragmented reductivism. Despite the pedagogical piety, I endorse his wish for ordinary schooling to bring our scientific perplexities to the fore, and to confront young minds with the greatest achievements of our various cultures. But even then education on its own will not much improve the lot of the disadvantaged.

Elizabeth Trott diagnoses another modern ill: the lack of a 'public identity.' This loss is related to the abandonment of a 'part-whole metaphysic.' Thankfully she does not offer any ways of re-enchanting the world.

Considering what is needed to 'pass through' patriarchy, Monique Dumais engages in etymologising, as if this could support the lunatic recommendations of Mary Daly to move 'in planetary communion with the farthest stars' (190). She also offers more sensible ideas from Braidotti and Legge that reveal different aspects of the critique of patriarchy that is to be undertaken. Indeed Legge seems to endorse solidarity with the oppressed and a rejection of the dualistic hang-ups typical of most religious and philosophical systems, views that are not specifically feminist.

Louis Perron aims to present the mind of Jean Ladrière on the matter of foundations. He seems to want to unite a recognition of the historicity or variability of actual ethical thought and practice with 'the radicality of the ethical call.' He tries to do this by invoking an analogy with Christian eschatology: A Kantian kingdom of ends somehow beckons, 'at once visible in so far as it is an inspiring force of effective initiatives, and enigmatic in so far as it declares itself always only in a directive appeal and never with a predetermined content' (a quotation from the master himself, 215). Mackie and Hare once debated whether anyone actually believes in objectively prescriptive values: in so far as I can understand Perron at all, he does.

William Sweet rounds off the book with a refreshingly clear discussion of MacIntyre and the importance of moral practices. He offers a kind of coherentist approach, not uncongenial to those who would like to fit morality into a straightforwardly natural world.

The book qua physical object did not stand up well to the tropical sun on the dashboard of my car, no more than it does qua philosophy.

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HTML version prepared September 3rd, 2002, last revised 3rd September 2002.