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  • The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory
  • Derek Allen (bio)
Wilfrid J. Waluchow . The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory Broadview 2003. 256. $26.95

Wilfrid J. Waluchow takes ethical theory to be a branch of philosophy that aims 'to understand, interpret and to some extent guide, the practice of morality.' So understood, ethical theory covers meta-ethics (the topic of part 1) and normative ethics (the topic of part 2). Rather than argue for particular answers to questions in ethical theory, the book explores, 'with a critical eye,' a range of answers to such questions that have been offered by philosophers in the history of Western thought.

In a chapter on basic terminology commonly employed in ethical theory, Waluchow differentiates among kinds of moral judgments, theories of obligation, and theories of value. He also explores the language of rights and explains two approaches to the interpretation of moral utterances (cognitivism and non-cognitivism).

In the following chapter, he presents three arguments for moral relativism, and finds them to have 'only limited force.' Though he does not claim to settle the question of whether moral relativism is true or false, he does think that his discussion undermines the view that in morality everything is a matter of opinion and the view that moral relativism leaves no room for moral disagreement or moral reformers.

The best possible argument against moral relativism, he suggests, would perhaps be the articulation of a theory purporting to establish an objective basis for morality. In a chapter on morality and religion, he examines two such theories: the divine command theory and natural law theory as developed by Aquinas.

An important non-theistic attempt to provide an objective basis for morality lies in social contract theory, which Waluchow believes capable of finding a 'suitable mid-point' between moral relativism and a moral objectivism of the sort represented by Aquinas's natural law theory. His account of modern social contract theories of morality is largely an exposition of the theory developed by David Gauthier; the novice will find it challenging.

In the second part of the book (normative ethical theories), Waluchow examines utilitarianism, the ethical theories of Kant, W.D. Ross, and Aristotle, and feminist ethics.

His discussion of utilitarianism covers utilitarian theories of value and the two main utilitarian theories of obligation, act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Both of the latter theories, he argues, face the same difficulty: even if they get the right results in most cases, it may be that they do so for the wrong reasons. [End Page 158]

Turning to Kantian ethics, he claims that Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative highlights two requirements of 'valid moral thinking accepted by most moral agents,' namely logical consistency and impartiality. A shortcoming of Kant's theory, however, is that it locates the source of the intrinsic worth of human beings exclusively in their rationality. But Kant should perhaps be applauded for encouraging us to consider 'whether there is more to moral judgments than an assessment of consequences.'

For W.D. Ross there is, though for him consequences 'do count sometimes and to some extent.' Ross proposes a theory of obligation with a plurality of ultimate principles, each specifying a prima facie duty. The chief strength of the theory, Waluchow holds, is that it recognizes the complexity of the moral life. But it lacks 'a means of adjudicating among conflicting prima facie duties,' and this is a 'serious gap.'

For Aristotle, the fundamental ethical question was not 'what should I do?,' as it was for the utilitarians, Kant, and Ross, but 'what should I be?' When it comes to deciding what we should do, there is an 'indeterminacy' in Aristotle's ethics. On balance, in Waluchow's view, this is a weakness of the theory. The solution, he thinks, may be 'to supplement Aristotle' s account of moral virtue with a theory of right action.'

Many strands of feminist ethics (the topic of the final chapter) criticize traditional ethical theory for being too concerned with universal principles. But, Waluchow argues, the feminist objection isn't really to universal principles but to a tendency to abstract from context. Moreover...


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