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Reviewed by:
  • Ethics by Dietrich von Hildebrand
  • D. T. Sheffler
HILDEBRAND, Dietrich von. Ethics. Steubenville, Ohio: Hildebrand Press, 2020. liv + 500 pp. Paper, $26.99

This new edition of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Ethics will be of interest both to students of Catholic moral philosophy and to students of realist phenomenology. Perhaps the most valuable portion of the book is the brief prolegomena on philosophical method that justifies the realist phenomenological approach to ethics. In it, Hildebrand argues that we must begin from that which is given in moral experience without trying to debunk it or reduce it to something else. For example, he argues that we have a basic experience of justice. We may be mistaken when we think that a particular situation is just, but we could not be mistaken that there is something to be described by the word “justice” or so mistaken about its nature that justice turns out to be reducible to something altogether different, such as mere pleasure or power. The task of the moral philosopher is, therefore, to begin from the basic intuition of values, take them seriously as originating in the nature of objective reality, and elucidate their natures and interrelations.

This prolegomena helps the reader to understand a couple aspects of Hildebrand’s work that may otherwise be puzzling. First, Hildebrand clearly approaches ethics from a Catholic perspective, but someone accustomed to the traditional, scholastic terminology might find his work foreign. At certain points there may be a substantive difference between Hildebrand’s position and the scholastic approach, but for the most part, the difference is merely apparent and comes from the method of beginning with basic moral intuitions rather than taking for granted a particular metaphysical framework. Hildebrand, therefore, begins where the scholastic approach often ends, and works his way backwards, so to speak, to similar metaphysical foundations.

Second, the reader who is new to Hildebrand may be struck by how much of his writing consists of cataloging, distinguishing, and developing taxonomies. At times, he reads like Aristotle. One rarely finds, for instance, in-depth arguments about controversial moral dilemmas or detailed thought experiments. Again, this follows from his philosophical method since throughout he is trying to be faithful to the data of moral intuition by enumerating, elucidating, and distinguishing the various ideal types that we find in moral consciousness.

A word must be said about values and value-response since this is the cornerstone of Hildebrand’s ethics. He distinguishes between that which is capable of motivating our will, which he calls “importance,” and that [End Page 379] which appears to us as neutral. For example, even if we are unmoved by someone’s kindness, we recognize a qualitative difference between this datum and the neutral information that Lake Tahoe is 1,644 feet deep. The former is capable of moving us in a way that the latter is not.

Within the realm of importance, he argues that we must distinguish between three categories: (1) that which is important in itself, or “value,” (2) that which is merely subjectively satisfying, and (3) the objective good for the person. While these categories appear to us on the object side, various kinds of response are engendered within us on the subject side. The greatest conflict arises between the first two categories, while the third is necessary for understanding such things as love and gratitude. For example, we may take an interest in the value of justice even though we derive no subjective satisfaction from it, and conversely, we may take an interest in a game of bridge even though by doing so we neglect an important moral duty. Contra his friend Max Scheler and much of the philosophical tradition, Hildebrand argues that these two kinds of importance are fundamentally heterogeneous and appeal to different centers within our psyche.

Recognizing the irreducibility of these categories to each other enables Hildebrand to approach several classic problems in an illuminating way. For example, akrasia is frequently understood to occur when an agent mistakenly prefers a lower good to a higher one where these two goods are understood to exist within the same domain or hierarchy. This may be construed as a purely intellectual error...

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