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Who Holds the Moral High Ground?

This book is an overview of Ethical Theory

Topics covered –

  • Misconceptions over Ethics
  • Early and Religious Ethics
  • The Ancient Greeks
  • Kant and Hume
  • Utilitarianism and Negative Utilitarianism
  • Virtue Ethics and Particularism
  • Ethics and the Kin Selection Fallacy
  • Ethics and Gender

Are there any universal moral principles? Or is what counts as ‘good’ simply a matter of personal opinion? Are morals the product of a particular society or culture? To what ethical criteria should modern secular societies defer? Can religion be considered a reliable authority? Are women any more virtuous than men? Men have traditionally taken responsibility for moral authority, often to the detriment of women. Would a reversal of that gender dominance give rise to a more harmonious society?
 From Buddhism and Christianity to Particularism, this book presents a history of morality and approaches to ethical problem solving. By demonstrating where each approach falls short in presenting an objective philosophy, it asks where that leaves us in the search for moral guidance. Are we facing moral nihilism?  Or, can we create a new ethical consciousness from strands of what has come before?


This is an excellent introduction to moral philosophy, and will sharpen the thinking of general readers interested in working out a more systematic philosophy. Scientific and Medical Network

This excellent book asks if there are universal moral principles, or if what counts as ‘good' is simply a matter of personal opinion; if morals are the product of a particular society or culture; to what ethical criteria modern secular societies should defer; if religion can be considered a reliable authority; and if women are more virtuous than men.
Brief but good summaries of common misconceptions, criteria, the religious legacy, ethical diversity in religion, their interpreters and syncretic religions are followed by equally admirable discussions of Kant, Hume, Utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism and the psychological evidence, attitudes to other species, relativism, virtue ethics (with a revisit to Aristotle), the gender issue and the ethical stew, and key essentials, ending with a concise chronology of major ethical perspectives and a very useful glossary The fissiparousness of religions is well brought out.
One striking sentence deserving quotation is: ‘Being obedient is not necessarily being moral; as individuals, we must take responsibility for our own actions and decisions' - bringing to mind the ‘I was just obeying orders' plea which was deemed unacceptable for war criminals.
To someone of my age (63), who has seen apparently enormous changes in attitudes to sex roles, the chapter on gender is particularly interesting - if only to show that things are different elsewhere: 67% of illiterate adults are women; 1% of the titled land in the world is owned by women; worldwide, 85 million girls and 45 million boys are unable to attend school; and a woman dies in childbirth every minute. The index could be better - despite the attention paid to the subject, there is no entry under Gender, or under Women, Men, Girls or Boys. This book is nowhere near the final word on the subject, nor do the authors claim so, but it is a most interesting and articulate concise discussion which can be recommended.
Ray Ward,Skeptical Adversaria


By putting forward this pertinent question, Colin Beckley and Elspeth Waters express what occupies many a mind in this age of moral pluralism. Confronted with our daily need to make moral judgments, the challenge to arrive at the right ones is hard to meet indeed. With so many clashing moral view-points, traditions, and theories, the right answer to the above question seems close to unattainable. Yet, in this book, the authors bravely take on the challenge, resulting in a brief but interesting read, accessible to a broad audience.
Reviewing the history of moral thought from the major religious traditions, through the emergence of secular morality, to recent moral theories, the authors come to the conclusion that no single doctrine or theory is without profound difficulties and therefore susceptible to substantial criticism. However, almost every one of them holds some important positive principles or ideas that link up with widely shared moral experience and rational insight. The problem is that most often these principles and ideas seem to be conflicting with one another. How then should these principles and ideas be weighed off against each other? Which 'mysterious criteria' should be used to arrive at a balanced or wise moral judgment?
Throughout the book, Beckley and Waters, maintain a critical stance towards tradition, pointing to the dangers of what they call 'obedience ethics', often supported by nationalist and religious leaders and their followers. In this respect, special attention is paid to the role of gender issues in today's society. Indeed, the authors admit that one of the purposes of the book is to provide a moral theory at the individual level, which is free from gender bias.
This sensitivity to the suffering and discrimination of women is part of a broader one, namely the suffering of all humans (and even animals). If there would be one salient fact that should above all count in our moral considerations, it should be that "moral decisions must relate to the reduction of suffering, since this is central to the human condition." (112)
This being said, we may summarize that this book offers a brief introductory read to all who may be critically interested in ethical theory and practice. However, for those seeking a more thorough discussion of the issues touched upon, further reading is advised. The most important lesson that the reader should learn from this book is that there are no unproblematic answers to the question of who holds the moral high ground. It might even be said that realizing this already is a first step towards it.
Sven Braspenning is preparing a doctoral dissertation in philosophy at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). His interests range from epistemology (especially the problem of scepticism) to moral and political philosophy (particularly the foundations of liberalism).

Available from-




Paperback. Published by Imprint Academic 2008 2nd Impression

First Edition- 2007

Kindle edition