Actual Ethics: Book Review

Actual Ethics

By James Otteson

Read December 2009

This book seemed to be inspired by a popular book by Peter Singer, Practical Ethics. Otteson sets out to counter Singer. Otteson affirms the classical liberal approach. He favors libertarianism. He relies on utilitarianism and disagrees with Kantian pure reason. He accepts natural law but only to a point.

Most of the book comported with my views though I kept thinking of some of Sandel’s and Robert George’s teachings as I read. Mostly, Otteson confirmed my beliefs. He favors the General Liberty principle. He accepts a narrow scope for justice: harms against others boil down to takings of property, physical assault and a few other things. He denies the “cosmic justice” claims of socialists, where everything is a harm against an aggrieved party or class, to be corrected by a busy-body state apparatus. He discounts competition as a harm, as does Epstein.  He seems to like Epstein. He adores Hume and Locke.

This book covered a lot of ground. He dealt with a concept that could take several lectures and readings to flesh-out, in a matter of paragraphs. I was glad to have some background.

The tone of the book was pleasing, challenging but not pedantic, aimed at college readers. His goal is to be accessible, but humor and the “aw shucks” approach was sparing. He could have had a few more jokes to truly reach his stated tone.

Otteson’s many applications of principles to particular cases were as I would have them. However, his discussion of homosexual marriage didn’t work. He said for people to do what they want. Cool. But that leaves the state out. Should the state have no role in defining and controlling marriage? I think he stopped short of what his logic demanded, which is an untenable position, to me.

Giving offense and excluding people is stupid, crass and reprehensible, but should not be punishable by law. That’s Otteson. Discrimination in hiring will harm the employer so it will happen rarely. Social constraints should be more relied upon than codifying everything under law. I agree with him.

This book’s many references to other books are one of its strengths. I was enticed to probe his many sources. Time allowing, I will. Perhaps I should buy my own copy so I have the bibliography to guide future reading choices.

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