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A Practical Companion to Ethics

by Anthony Weston


Checking in at 107 five by eight pages, Practical Companion is the skimpiest introduction to ethics I have seen. Steeped in pragmatism, it delivers an outstanding emphasis on problem solving, problem prevention, and problem selection. It describes methods of finding more and better solutions.


Anthony Weston reframes the famous Heinz dilemma—should you steal from a druggist when you can not afford a life-saving drug—and suggests alternatives: Bartering, seeking charity, getting a loan, volunteering for a clinical trial or shaming the druggist with bad publicity.


Keep moving forward in better ways pragmatists argue. We make mistakes. We can see problems as challenges or curses.


Other suggestions: Keep brain storming better problems and solutions. Continue experimenting, even blundering. Avoid false dichotomies. (Buying a plane ticket, for example, is not merely a matter of buying from an airline or travel agent. Online sellers and courier services are plausible alternatives.)


Learn from important events whether results were beneficial or harmful. Preventing a problem is sometimes the best way to solve a problem. For example, making life a thrilling adventure prevents drug addiction problems. Avoid a life of merely reacting to problems. Choose a better class of problems, including problems that prevent problems.


Do not treat others merely as objects, Weston reminds us. Sympathize. Inspire compassion. Avoid seeing others as merely the quickest label we can attach. Relate to others as individuals. Avoid confusing important everyday truths with trivial truths. Love and pain, thrills and caring all matter.


Weston recommends tolerating uncertainty, especially when alternatives are hasty conclusions. Beliefs often set like concrete. Take wild, active steps to improve events, no matter how uncomfortable it initially feels. Know when to whole-heartedly commit and when to look elsewhere. Avoiding polarization is big in the Weston scheme--too big. We should not compromise when the costs of compromises outweigh the benefits.


The strength of Practical Companion is not epistemic (sloppy arguments abound). Weston finds the Golden Rule commendable. But there is something wrong with the Golden Rule. Others may not benefit from being treated the same way you would treat yourself. And others often do not deserve similar treatment. Weston’s work is better than much recent pragmatism. Try reading a journal of pragmatism: frigging atrocious. Pragmatism too often becomes a yogi philosophy. Intended for ethics teachers, this work is better suited for an introductory audience. Children might find Weston's ideas helpful, better than didactic juvenile fiction.

1997 (H)

book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 21, 2009


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