Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 528-530
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
Review of Robin Attfield, Ethics: An Overview, London and
New York, Continuum (Now Bloomsbury), 2012
John Clutterbuck
Freelance Tutor in EFL, Piraeus, Greece
Received October 11th, 2013; r evised November 11th, 2013; accepted November 18th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 John Clutterbuck. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Attfield’s ethics textbook is a key resource for students of ethics, and covers history of ethics, value-the-
ory, normative ethics, applied ethics, meta-ethics and free-will. Historical sections are used to explain
how stances like virtue ethics and consequentialism came to unfold, and issues of human responsibility to
be debated. Theories of value as supplying reasons for action inform the study of both normative ethics
and meta-ethics. Normative theories are applied to sustainability, medicine, treatment of animals and the
environment, development, and the ethics of war. The companion website will assist instructors and stu-
dents alike, particularly with more challenging topics such as meta-ethics.
Keywords: Ethics; Robin Attfield; Value; Responsibility; Rightness; Virtue; Future Generations; Free
This book (Attfield, 2012) covers the whole field of ethics in
outline and six specific areas in particular: history of ethics,
value-theory, normative ethics, applied ethics, meta-ethics, and
issues surrounding responsibility and free-will. It has been
carefully designed for the teachers and students of all countries
where English is spoken, particularly for students of second and
third year undergraduate and magistral levels at university, and
if used together with the accompanying “companion website”
(see below) it will prove invaluable, whether in the role of
textbook or in ancillary reading. It does not claim to be a com-
prehensive treatment of ethics, or an undertaking that would in
any case be out of the question for a work that would fit into
your pocket or handbag, and it explicitly omits important tracts
of the history of ethics and of moral psychology. Besides, it
pays more attention to the analytical tradition in all its varieties
than to the approaches of continental ethicists, but this probably
enhances its clarity and accessibility. (Attfield has previously
written weightier and more comprehensive works on ethics,
including Value, Obligation and Meta-Ethics (Attfield, 1995),
to which frequent cross-references are made in this book for
readers seeking greater breadth or depth of coverage; and that
book remains available from its original publishers, Rodopi of
Amsterdam.) Instead of claiming encyclopedia-like coverage,
Ethics: An Overview focuses on stimulating and ongoing de-
bates, especially ones in applied ethics (ranging from medical
ethics to the ethics of war and peace), and at the same time
provides a good grounding in normative ethical principles and
virtues, and in their status and basis. There again, it also offers
suggestions for ways of taking study further, for example
through the useful study questions and reading lists with which
each of the twenty-eight sections is equipped. In other words, it
encourages students to become their own philosophers.
How the Arguments Unfold
Although the first chapter is entitled “History of Ethics”, it
does not pretend to give a continuous history, but focuses on
the significant contributions of five leading historical fig-
ures—Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant and John Stuart Mill—to
clarify key themes related to contemporary ethical thinking. A
lifetime’s study and teaching experience has enabled Attfield to
focus on key themes, explain and analyse them in some depth,
and trace lines of development towards contemporary thinking.
For example, the section on Aristotle is used to supply the his-
torical context of virtue ethics, discussed in the chapter on
normative ethics, where the consequentialism of Mill, already
introduced in the opening historical chapter, is further devel-
oped and defended in a manner that takes seriously the good of
nonhuman creatures as well as human well-being.
The second chapter takes three of the key longstan ding themes
of ethics—pleasure, happiness and eudaemonia, or “flourish-
ing”—and discusses them as possible answers to questions of
value-theory and as the bases of theories about the Good Life.
The third chapter on Normative Ethics applies what has
emerged in the second chapter about value to issues of moral
standing, right action and rights. This is where we find discus-
sions of deontology, contractarianism and, as already men-
tioned, consequentialism, and where the strengths and weak-
nesses of virtue ethics also emerge. Recent work on ethics has
given rise to a potentially bewildering proliferation of varieties
of consequentialism—no less than six forms need to be ex-
plained—and Attfield’s book is a reliable guide through the
labyrinth. This allows him to uphold a consequentialism of
practices (social practices such as promise-keeping and truth-
telling), or “practice-consequentialism”, on a basis that is not
confined to human good alone, but which, in line with chapter
two, rests on the good of all living creatures (“biocentrism”: see
LaFollette (2013)). This approach is likely to resonate with
many readers, particularly those concerned to embrace a theory
sensitive to a broader and ampler environmentalism than one
grounded in the good of our own species and nothing else be-
In “Moral Sciences”, as the study of modern philosophy has
long been called at Cambridge University, where I found my-
self studying during the 1960s, the field of ethics plays a
prominent role, as this name would suggest. At that time, the
study of practical applications of ethics was in abeyance, at
least in the Anglo-Saxon world, but, as Attfield explains, events
like the Vietnam War and concerns such as those of Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring (Carson, 1962) restored applied ethics to
the kind of centrality in ethics that it used to enjoy in the days
of Kant and of Mill. The ordinary general reader, through
looking at the interesting fourth chapter of this book on “Ap-
plied Ethics”, would discover a brief outline of how and why
ethics has again come to be understood as a practical as well as
a theoretical undertaking across the last four decades of the
twentieth century and the early decades of the twenty-first, and
in some measure as the kind of aid to practical decision-making
conjured up by phrases such as “Moral Sciences”. The chapter
covers six major areas: intergenerational and population ethics,
medical ethics, animal ethics, development ethics, environ-
mental ethics (see also Attfield, 2003), and the ethics of war.
(Business ethics is sadly omitted, although Attfield has written
on the ethics of work and employment elsewhere (Attfield,
2001)). This chapter in particular is accessible and easy for the
general reader to grasp and benefit from, even for those not
taking degrees in philosophy or ethics. However, a rather
greater commitment to the serious study of philosophy proper is
needed to deal with the detailed and rigorous analysis of con-
cepts and theories present in some of the other sections. But
nothing less is to be expected of students who have chosen to
study philosophy and for whose needs this book is designed.
Since the days of Socrates, philosophy has never been an easy
option, and this book reflects the challenges implicit in its study,
as well as a helping hand along the road to addressing those
After treating Applied Ethics the focus moves on to Meta-
Ethics, and to cognitivism, realism and competing theories.
Some teachers and courses may prefer to skip this more chal-
lenging chapter. But in doing so they will miss much of the fun
of doing moral philosophy. For example, does language about
what ought to be done collapse when it fails to motivate, and
should it be replaced with ought-language which is less de-
manding? The section on “internalism” and “externalism” guide s
the reader past numerous pitfalls and man-traps and towards
some tenable answers, adopting elements of both of these op-
posed stances or positions, despite their apparently intractable
opposition. And this approach turns out to cohere with the ac-
count given in this chapter of what there is reason to do, and
why we ought to do what morality commends. Even meta-
ethics, it turns out, can prove rewarding.
The final chapter, which concerns issues surrounding Free
Will and Responsibility, is given a historical structure, enabling
the reader to discover how awareness of the problem of human
freedom first dawned, and later developed in recognizable ways
with a clear continuity from this ancient awareness right
through to the present. The first section returns us to Aristotle,
with his admirable analysis of deliberation and of choice, and
then to the Hellenistic philosophers Epicurus, who noticed the
problem just mentioned and attempted to solve it, and the Sto-
ics, who struggled against all-comers in their efforts to recon-
cile their ethics and their determinism. Subsequent sections
concern early modern debates involving Hobbes, Hume, Kant
and Thomas Reid, all seeking to understand how human free-
dom can co-habit with laws of nature, and then the debates of
the more recent period, when Darwinian evolution came on the
scene, and later quantum indeterminacy as well, and depict the
attempts of Patrick Nowell-Smith, to give a compatibilist inter-
pretation to “could have done otherwise”, well-rebutted, as
Attfield argues, by the counter-analysis of J.L. Austin. Com-
patibilism claims that belief in human freedom and determinism
are compatible, but is itself found to generate insuperable prob-
lems. The final section indicates implications of even more
recent thought, including Mary Midgley’s exposition (Midgley,
1994) of how mammalian evolution prepares the way for the
kind of contextually constrained freedom necessary for ethical
decision-making, and thus for the presuppositions of ethical
What the Companion Website Adds
The book’s “companion website”
( includes en-
dorsements from leading philosophers, and resources for stu-
dents and their teachers. It is here in particular that students are
encouraged to do ethics for themselves. For every section there
are bullet-point summaries, sets of learning objectives and es-
say titles, together with related lists of reading. There are also
powerpoint presentations consisting of slides for the use of
instructors, once again one display for every section. (It would
be quite easy for a bilingual teacher to translate one or more of
these powerpoint displays into their other language; one lec-
turer in a Spanish-speaking country is currently using some of
these materials in this way. It is of course even easier for teach-
ers of English-speaking students to download and use the
powerpoints, if equipped with copies of the book for the sake of
the continuity that it offers and of the availability of the com-
plete argument therein.) For some chapters there are case stud-
ies, charts and, for the section on Aristotle, Multiple Choice
Questions. The various sections of the book and the website
could be used either separately or as part of longer courses, and
could be taken in various orders of succession, according to
local needs and syllabuses. Other books by Attfield, especially
Value, Obligation and Meta-Ethics, used in combination with
the same companion website, could be used to clarify issues
further (including challenging issues such as those of meta-
ethics), and to assist study and written work.
As I have contended above, some sections of this book are
perforce challenging ones. However, instructors who deploy the
resources of the companion website in their teaching, and in
particular its powerpoint displays, will discover how the book’s
themes can be encapsulated in nuggets of illuminating prose,
capable of grabbing the attention of students and inspiring them
to studying the text and some of the suggested further reading.
Taught in this way, even meta-ethics can come alive, and its
importance be recognized.
This book certainly includes some challenging sections, such
as those on meta-ethics, but its various chapters interlock well
into a textbook, eminently usable for a variety of academic
Open Access 529
Open Access
courses on ethics. Besides its uses as a textbook, and it throws
new light on ethics in at least three ways. Firstly, the historical
sections (found in the first and last chapters), illuminate the
origin and development of crucial ideas, and give a much-
needed perspective to the central chapters with their thematic
expositions and arguments. Secondly, the study of moral stand-
ing and of intrinsic value in the second chapter allows the
reader to grasp how normative ethics need not be confined to
the interests of contemporary human beings, but can take into
account the impacts of our actions, our omissions and our poli-
cies on future generations and on non-human species. Thirdly,
the chapter on applied ethics shows how ethicists in six differ-
ent fields have advanced the application of ethical theory to key
fields of practice, and in places itself contributes to that appli-
cation. While the section on medical ethics is a paradigm of
exposition and shows how the theories of the rest of the book
can be related to clinical practice of an ethical kind, the sections
on development ethics and on environmental ethics (perhaps
the fields for which Attfield is best known) bring to the reader’s
attention contributions of his own, buried away in learned
journals or in earlier and longer books.
I am certain that all this excellent material would have been
an enormous help to me as a studen t at Cambridge, and later at
London University, when I was under pressure to understand
ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and their continu-
ing influence, and to deal with complex ideas in later modern
philosophy, such as those of Hume, Kant and Mill. Many of the
debates discussed in this book had not then taken place, but
many of both the historical and the thematic sections of this
book could enlighten students of any decade. Students new to
philosophy, or with limited experience of studying this subject,
often need the kind of assistance available in this volume, espe-
cially when they face deadlines, or are puzzled by perplexing
concepts, theories or arguments. Moreover, even forty years on
from my first forays into philosophy at Cambridge, the material
presented in this book opens up new vistas into this often diffi-
cult and controversial subject. Attfield’s book has been enthu-
siastically received by Mary Midgley and other leading phi-
losophers, such as Dieter Birnbacher (Düsseldorf) and Vittorio
Hösle (Notre Dame, Indiana). In my view it fully dese rves their
enthusiastic welcome.
Attfield, R. (1995). Value, obligation and meta-ethics. Amsterdam and
Atlanta, GA: Rodopi.
Attfield, R. (2001). Meaningful work and full employment. Reason in
Practice (now Philosophy of Management), 1, 41-48.
Attfield, R. (2003). Environmental ethics. Cambridge: Polity; Malden,
MA: Blackwell.
Attfield, R. (2012). Ethics: An overview. London and New York: Con-
Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. London: Hamish Hamilton.
LaFollette, H. (2013). In t e r n a t i o na l e n c y c l op e d i a o f et h i c s. Indianapolis
and Bognor Regis: Wil ey-Blackwell.
Midgley, M. (1994). The ethical primate: Humans, freedom and moral-
ity. London and New York: Routledge.