On Normative Ethics

I became interested in normative ethics in my last term as a philosophy undergraduate at the University of Toronto. Influenced by a traditional conception of the discipline, I’d till then studied mostly history of philosophy, with a special interest in, of all things, Hegel. But seeing the value of a balanced philosophy program, I enrolled in an ethics seminar in the winter of 1975. I’d studied the ethics of Plato, Leibniz, Hegel, and others in my history courses, but this was my first exposure to contemporary thought on the subject. The seminar had only one other student, and since he was fairly quiet I had something close to a one-on-one tutorial with the instructor, Wayne Sumner – another contributor to this volume. I was immensely taken both by Wayne’s teaching and by the seminar’s topic, which was utilitarianism. Our study of it included both theoretical questions such as act- vs. ruleutilitarianism and applied ones such as our obligations to future generations. I found all these questions intellectually engaging and also humanly important, given their connection to live ethical issues – in short, I was hooked. I was especially impressed by two non-utilitarian texts we read. One was the last chapter of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, meant to illustrate a non- 1 utilitarian or ideal consequentialist theory. I was attracted by Moore’s general account of the good, which values states such as love and aesthetic appreciation alongside pleasure, and saw in his principle of organic unities a far clearer statement of ideas I had encountered in more pretentious form in Hegel. The second was Chapter 2 of W. D. Ross’s The Right and the Good, which defends a pluralist deontology against consequentialism. I thought Ross’s criticisms of consequentialism were right on the mark, and again clearly and precisely expressed. I had no idea these texts were largely passé in current discussions of the subject. At this time I was applying to graduate programs in philosophy, and given my new interest decided to specialize in ethics..
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