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Review of "Ethics for Everyone"

By Arthur Dobrin
John Wiley & Sons, 2002
Review by Constantine Sandis on Jan 10th 2003
Ethics for Everyone

Ethics for Everyone guides the reader through a healthy mix of twenty-one real-life and fictitious situations demanding difficult ethical choices. From big questions such as ‘Is it moral for me to help someone commit suicide?’ to smaller everyday ones like ‘Should I confront people about their habits or what they wear?’ Arthur Dobrin’s approach to the issues at hand remains thoughtful, genuine, modest, helpful, and unpretentious throughout.

  The book divides into four parts beginning with a general introduction where a number of useful distinctions, terminologies, and approaches to ethical theory (normative ethics) are laid out. A brief ethical quiz follows, to be revisited after the reader has been through the third and fourth parts of the book, which, constituting its core, divide evenly into ethics with family & friends, and ethics in the world.

  Although Dobrin makes a point of relating the situations he presents to general ethical matters it is refreshing to see that the focus of the book remains on the particular practical questions at hand. Examples include a woman who keeps a rush of quarters which spew out of a pay phone once her call is finished, a couple who decide to move the wife’s eighty-five year old mother into a spare room rather than into a nursing home, and a coach who turns down one of the best players he tries out for his all-boy basketball team, simply because the boys refuse to play with a girl.       

  These stories, often taken from Dobrin’s own life (sometimes even the names are real) are set out at the start of every chapter, and are followed by a number of questions, such as, in the case of the pay phone money, ‘does it matter how much is found?’ The specific examples serve as a guide to more general themes and questions, with much of what was introduced in the first part of the book intermingled with various relevant facts. Yet they somehow also remain the focus of each chapter, illustrating both that any full understanding of the issues at hand involves our asking all sorts of questions, and that any serious mastering of abstract moral questions requires a certain familiarity with particular cases.

   Dobrin always ends each chapter with his own opinions on whether or not the individuals acted rightly. He is, nevertheless, keen to point out that often, there is no right or wrong answer to these dilemmas, and that where there is, it is not something that can be proven through either reason or empirical investigation. Consequently his view is often presented as clashing with those of his friends, peers, family and even of the various interviewee experts which include philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer, sports columnist George Vesey, psychotherapists Sherry Hartwell and Carol Targum, and West Point Military Academy graduate Stephen Arata.. The fact that Dobrin manages to do all this without falling into the traps of relativism (indeed without entering meta-ethics at all) bears testament to his determination to show, in the simplest way possible, just how complicated moral thinking can be. It also sets him aside from similarly Socratic writers such as Lou Marinoff, who feel more comfortable assuming a role of authority.

  This brings us to the hardest question Dobrin has to answer: ‘just who is this book intended for ?’. The title of course, tells us ‘everyone’, but clearly this isn’t a book for academics, or even first-year philosophy students (though it could serve as a nice dipping pot of examples). Rather, it is aimed at those who have always wondered about ethics, or been puzzled by it, but are after something more real or perhaps just less boring than a mere history of thinkers related to the subject, hence the intentionally low level throughout. Skeptics may wonder whether such readers would not profit more by from certain plays, films or novels. But the hope is, I think, that a book like this can aid the reader to get the most of such material, by helping her to structure any thoughts it may give rise to. This task would have been facilitated by had Dobrin distinguished further between rational, ethical and moral areas of inquiry, but one cannot have it all.


© 2003 Constantine Sandis


Constantine Sandis is currently completing his Ph.D. on The things we do and why we do them at the University of Reading. He also teaches in the Philosophy Department there, as well as at Campbell Harris, London.