Almost every thoughtful person wonders at some time why morality says what it says and how, if at all, it speaks to us. David Wiggins surveys the answers most commonly proposed for such questions--and does so in a way that the thinking reader, increasingly perplexed by the everyday problem of moral philosophy, can follow. His work is thus an introduction to ethics that presupposes nothing more than the reader's willingness to read philosophical proposals closely and literally.
Gathering insights from Hume, Kant, the utilitarians, and a twentieth-century assortment of post-utilitarian thinkers, and drawing on sources as diverse as Aristotle, Simone Weil, and Philippa Foot, Wiggins points to the special role of the sentiments of solidarity and reciprocity that human beings will find within themselves. After examining the part such sentiments play in sustaining our ordinary ideas of agency and responsibility, he searches the political sphere for a neo-Aristotelian account of justice that will cohere with such an account of morality. Finally, Wiggins turns to the standing of morality and the question of the objectivity or reality of ethical demands. As the need arises at various points in the book, he pursues a variety of related issues and engages additional thinkers--Plato, C. S. Peirce, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, John Rawls, Montaigne and others--always emphasizing the words of the philosophers under discussion, and giving readers the resources to arrive at their own viewpoint of why and how ethics matters.
This is an unusually pleasing introductory (but neither elementary nor trite) work in ethics. Time spent in David Wiggins's company is time well and pleasantly spent. This book is accessible to educated and thoughtful readers of all sorts. In a time when much work in ethics is so laden with one (usually unattractive) philosophical theory or another, it is refreshing to find a work by a major philosopher who wishes his audience to rely only on a grasp of moral notions 'preferably undisturbed by theory.' I know of no other recent (or nonrecent) book that occupies quite the philosophical territory that this one does, and certainly none that does so with such quiet effectiveness and graciousness.
Wiggins has a distinctive take on the subject that aims to draw important insights from contending traditions and canonical figures. His guiding line is not to stint on morality's demandingness or categoricality, related to an appropriate conception of reciprocity and human dignity (Kantian themes), but always to insist on finding a place for ethical ideas within human psychology as we find it, taking the full measure of our psychic resources (a Humean theme), never to overreach in the degree of precision the subject admits of, and always to be firmly rooted in practical life as we experience it (an Aristotelian theme). In a slogan: Moral theory with a human face.
It is virtually impossible to give a summary of Ethics that does justice to the depth and breadth of topics covered in David Wiggins' new introduction to moral theory. Ethics is both highly informative, providing detailed expositions of the arguments of main figures in the history of moral philosophy, and engagingly polemical, offering an overall argument for a pluralistic, Humean conception of morality...It is a book well-worth spending time with, not only for the compelling and challenging arguments Wiggins makes on behalf of a Humean approach to morality, but also for the remarkably detailed and incisive presentation of the ground he covers.
There are few moral philosophers who will not learn something by studying this book and giving it the concentration it demands. Whether he is talking about Kant or John Stuart Mill, Rawls or John Mackie, Wiggins has subtle and interesting things to say.
- 408 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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