Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy
Catherine Wilson, University of York
Copyright Year: 2016
ISBN 13: 9781783742004
Publisher: Open Book Publishers
Conditions of Use
Wilson's book provides a solid introduction to key questions which surface in metaethics. Creatively, she models Descartes' own hyberbolic doubt by exploring from a first person perspective whether morality is just made up nonsense. She strikes... read more
Wilson's book provides a solid introduction to key questions which surface in metaethics. Creatively, she models Descartes' own hyberbolic doubt by exploring from a first person perspective whether morality is just made up nonsense. She strikes out by assuming moral neutrality and then exposing how such a stance fails to operate in the real world. Her key thesis in the book: there are moral truths and without some degree of moral evaluation and decision making, we could jeopardize our own well-being and even the very survival of the human species. Challenging both dogmatism and nihilism, Wilson sets out to show that there are some moral truths which exist. Moreover, we need to have a good sense of such moral truths before choosing, say, utilitarian, Kantian or virtue ethics. She wields everyday moral examples ranging from abortion, to cheating on exams to infidelity. Wilson sets out to convince readers that evolutionary biology renders morality an imperative tool kit for species survival. But she does so in a fashion which is fresh and without jargon. Plus, she effectively illustrates the importance of metaethics to everyday life decisions which is no small feat.
Wilson presents the material in a clear and concise fashion. She does have a position to defend which is sophisticated (i.e she argues that moral truths exist but no human being is infallible, thus allowing for some contingency which thwarts dogmatism). But it is controversial to argue that moral truths exist and so some are bound to challenge her central thesis (especially since some thinkers interpret morality as a social construction which admits of no broader universal application). Noting this, many might find this book a good antidote to crude versions of relativism and nihilism.
Wilson taps into hot button issues like abortion, infidelity, animal welfare which are not going to disappear anytime in the near future. Also she avoids direct cultural references which renders her book useful over time without becoming obsolete. I would have liked to see Wilson tackle some of the applied issues like abortion in more depth, showing how they tie into her broader vision but this would perhaps make the book too controversial and go beyond what metaethics is focused upon. Some of her chosen examples could resonate with some student readers (for instance, whether to use recreation drugs, whether it is okay to lie about sleeping with someone else while in a committed relationship).
Wilson's book is clearly written and down to earth. I found it accessible in its approach and it avoids jargon (which is refreshing; sometimes in philosophy; too much jargon confuses novice readers and/or frightens them). Wilson still tackles serious broader issues without language bewildering to a novice reader. For instance, she briefly explores the problem of evil (why would an All Perfect God allow evil to transpire for God's creatures?) in a concise, compelling fashion.
Wilson's key position (namely there are moral truths which are crucial to ponder and live by for our ongoing well-being) is held consistently throughout her book. She borrows the framework of Descartes, wielding the tools of the skeptic against them to show that certain moral truths exist. Ambitiously, she calls for a different approach to ethics by asking the broader question about whether moral truths exist, especially since introducing students to a slew of different moral theories could lead to nihilism, dogmatism or just sheer plain confusion. Wilson seems to present a version of soft universalism in digestible format throughout much of the book.
The flow of the 9 chapters called Enquiries are readable, designed in short chunks, especially since they are not filled with jargon. There are no sub-headings but this is understandable given that it is meant to be read in an informal vein, akin to the speculations of a first person's diary. The different Enquiries build on each other and are not readable as separate investigations.
Wilson's organization of the book is solid. She has nine chapters which flow well from one another. She begins Enquiry One with doubts about whether there are any moral truths and then moves on to argue that there are indeed some moral truths. (including what she dubs as the "Norms of Morality"). I like how she briefly ties in traditional moral theories at the close, namely utilitarianism, Kant, and virtue theory. Her driving argument maintains that such theories should not be held absolutely and to stick with the broader moral truths. Thus it makes sense that Wilson leaves the traditional theories for the very close.
The book is easy to navigate, with 9 clearly laid out Enquires. Each inquiry summarizes what is discussed in the particular Enquiry. Wilson also divides up some of the examples and arguments into 1. 2. 3 (etc) so that there is greater clarity rather than reading chunks of text alone. And her Introduction and Summary at the close offer solid roadmaps of the main lines of argument presented in the body of the book. It offers good reinforcement. The repeated structure of each Enquiry helps with navigation.
The grammar is solid and the sentences are easy to read. No grammatical errors were detected.
Given Wilson's central thesis, she tends to avoid specific cultural references. Focusing upon a range of different cultural practices and norms could muddy the waters for arguing for a universal umbrella of moral truths. There are no culturally insensitive or offensive remarks. But there could be more non-Western examples made which bolster her thesis. (i.e ahimsa, say, in India could show the importance of mutual aid, avoiding harm etc). The Confucian virtue of Jen/Ren (humaneness/compassion etc) illustrates the importance of mutual aid/respect, overriding the notion of petty minded selfishness. The theories she mentions at the close reveal her Western colors but alas this is quite common in metaethics.
Wilson's book is an interesting, accessible gateway into the often all too abstract and bloodless terrain of metaethics. It takes an earthy approach while employing a creative slant (For instance, Wilson conjures up "The Destroyers" to stand in as skeptics). And her suggestions for further study section at the close of her book offers solid reading sources, running from Hume, to Kant and many others besides. It is non-traditional in its style yet covers a lot of broader ground, including how to choose between one's own self interests vs. societal ones. But for those who like a grounding traditional theory, you might want to supplement her book with primary source material. How this could be done in a seamless way would be challenging.
The book provides a unique and thorough consideration of some of the key questions of metaethics, such as whether moral claims (this is good/right, that is bad/wrong) describe something real or are rather expressions of our likes or feelings, how... read more
The book provides a unique and thorough consideration of some of the key questions of metaethics, such as whether moral claims (this is good/right, that is bad/wrong) describe something real or are rather expressions of our likes or feelings, how we can know what is good, and whether we have obligations to others, including strangers. This book is not a traditional overview of ethical theories such as Kantianism, utilitarianism, natural law theory, etc., but instead considers the philosophical questions that must be answered before these theories can be evaluated. The book considers Kantianism, utilitarianism, and virtue theory in the final chapter, evaluating how they might fit with the reflections in the previous chapter. The book also includes a very helpful list of suggested readings, both primary and secondary sources, that could be paired with each chapter.
The book provides very crisp and clear reflections on complex philosophical questions in a down to earth, understandable style. One of the pleasures of the book is that someone well-versed in philosophical ethics can hear the voices of major figures in the tradition in the background of the first-person Enquirer's reflections. The book provides a very accurate and accessible introduction to these ongoing discussions while leaving the door open for an instructor to introduce students to these major figures through further readings.
The book covers relatively timeless questions of philosophical ethics and therefore runs no risks of becoming quickly outdated. Similarly, because the book is written in the form of a first-person monologue rather than as a traditional textbook covering major figures and schools of thought, there would be less need to revise the book in light of new developments in the field of ethics.
The book is exceptionally clear and down to earth. As already mentioned, it presents complex philosophical discussions in a way that is accessible and understandable. The book makes the editorial choice to avoid philosophical jargon and historical references to authors and schools of thought, leaving it to an instructor to supplement this text with others if needed. But this text stands alone as a well-crafted text that could be used in an introductory ethics course or in an introductory course on critical reasoning or inquiry.
The book is very consistent, maintaining a coherent line of thought from beginning to end and maintaining the same accessible yet reflective tone throughout.
The book is divided into nine different chapters or "enquiries," each covering different topics or questions that arise over the course of the first-person narrator's reflections. Each chapter is relatively short and manageable. The book could easily be divided up and used over the course of a term and paired with other readings. On the other hand, each chapter would be difficult to use as a stand-alone text, since each is part of the larger monologue. Instructors would be advised that if they adopt this text, they will likely need to use it in its entirety.
The text has a logical and clear organization. The questions covered in later chapters clearly follow from the reflections in earlier chapters.
The book has a clear and simple interface.
I noted no grammatical or spelling errors in the text.
The text is not culturally insensitive or offensive. The text only has a single character, the "Enquirer" engaged in a reflective monologue on the nature of morality. The Enquirer reflects a vaguely Western culture, although the author's own apparent British background sometimes comes through. The text quite explicitly takes on the question of whether we should take for granted that the cultural beliefs and norms we inherit from our own culture are true, or whether we should turn to some other standard of determining what is right and wrong. The fact that the first-person narrator reflects a particular culture should therefore not be considered a flaw of the text, but rather a necessary part of the ethical reflections presented in the text.
A fabulous read. Metaethics has never been so entertaining. read more
A fabulous read. Metaethics has never been so entertaining.
Metaethics is not easy to teach, and this book is a wonderful addition to available texts.
The book weaves contemporary topics in applied ethics into the story line through the main character's though process, from the use of drugs and eating anymals to physician assisted death and suicide--entertaining and up to date. Author shows up-to-date understanding of ethics across the board, but perhaps more importantly, an understanding contemporary students.
Extremely well written.
I found no inconsistencies.
The book would benefit from more subheadings, but it is also easy to see why the author has presented the book as it is presented., since it is the musings of a character.
Clear and sensible--outlined in the intro.
no interface problems.
I found no errors.
This is my favorite part of the book--a female philosopher offering a decidedly fresh and different version of metaethics that is sensitive to contemporary issues such as genders and anymal ethics. The character she features is female, the kitten mentioned is female, the author uses "they" and "them" as a matter of gender-identity sensitivity, and the main character owns being an anymal, and ponders vegetarianism--author does an excellent job of writing to today's students. My only request would have been to add more in-depth visions from other cultures, perhaps to exemplify cultural relativity. How about contrasting ahimsa or wuwei with Greco-diaspora moral norms? Still, a very fresh, up-to-date, comprehensive text that feels different from conventional philosophical writings in important ways. Would love to try this text if i get to teach metaethics anytime soon.
Creative, bold, sensitive, interesting, engaging--a great way for students to learn metaethics.
Table of Contents
- Introduction and Acknowledgements
- Enquiry I
- Enquiry II
- Enquiry III
- Enquiry IV
- Enquiry V
- Enquiry VI
- Enquiry VII
- Enquiry VIII
- Enquiry IX
About the Book
Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint addresses in a novel format the major topics and themes of contemporary metaethics, the study of the analysis of moral thought and judgement. Metathetics is less concerned with what practices are right or wrong than with what we mean by ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Looking at a wide spectrum of topics including moral language, realism and anti-realism, reasons and motives, relativism, and moral progress, this book engages students and general readers in order to enhance their understanding of morality and moral discourse as cultural practices. Catherine Wilson innovatively employs a first-person narrator to report step-by-step an individual’s reflections, beginning from a position of radical scepticism, on the possibility of objective moral knowledge. The reader is invited to follow along with this reasoning, and to challenge or agree with each major point. Incrementally, the narrator is led to certain definite conclusions about ‘oughts’ and norms in connection with self-interest, prudence, social norms, and finally morality. Scepticism is overcome, and the narrator arrives at a good understanding of how moral knowledge and moral progress are possible, though frequently long in coming.Accessibly written, Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint presupposes no prior training in philosophy and is a must-read for philosophers, students and general readers interested in gaining a better understanding of morality as a personal philosophical quest.
About the Contributors
Catherine Wilson is the Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York. Catherine has worked in the history of philosophy, moral theory and aesthetics and has taught and published extensively in these fields. Her publications include A Very Short Introduction to Epicureanism, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (2008 and 2010), Moral Animals: Ideals and Constraints in Moral Theory (2004 and 2007) and (with C. Wilson and D. Clarke), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Early Modern Europe (2011).