Book Precis: Understanding Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory

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The work under consideration in this essay, Understanding Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory by Torbjorn Tannsjo, is a relatively succinct philosophical text in comparison to the expounded tomes of his colleagues. With preface, nine chapters and an index; all told the book totals a mere 145 pages. Yet, within this seemingly insignificant essay-like volume are assertions and observations so profound they bear closer examination if not reflection via a second read-through. For the purposes of this assignment we will summarize the contents of each chapter and follow this with a perusal of the book’s review. Finally, we will draw several comparisons to the content found in the additional recommended texts. 

The general trajectory of Tannsjo’s expose is the presentation of seven markedly different moral themes; fleshing each out with historical and descriptive dressing. The uniqueness of his work is his willingness to proffer commentary that advises the reader of how to respond to the ethical dilemmas that are the ‘stuff’ of modern-day life. In the first chapter we are treated to an explanation of ‘practical and normative ethics. 

At this point the reader is reminded that when discussing ethics and moral theory, we are stepping into the playground for the advanced thinker. One simply cannot comprehend the notions (nearly too fanciful a word for this explanation - but apropos nonetheless) or conceptualizations of philosophy on a cursory level. This is meant as a forewarning to those who would attempt to wade into the milieu of the type of higher-level thinking - as required by a text of this nature - to comprehend the essence of ethics. Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. Mastery of the subject demands that the learner grasps the meaning of moral behavior both the underlying theory and its applications in the real world. Practical ethics is linking discipline, seeking to bridge theory and practice; however, it is not synonymous with applied ethics; and perhaps might better be understood as ‘realistic ethics’ or the overlay of ethical action in real-world situations. And so, in words crystal and direct, Tannsjo quotes a colleague “at the end of the (20th) century it is hard to be confident either about the moral law or about moral progress” (p.1). He notes that there has been an endless parade of trusted leaders who have been found to be nothing more than common criminals; or, worse, have perpetuated staggering atrocities against humanity. But the common man bears equal blame for their moral blindness. Tannsjo then examines the adage ‘one truth, many truths, or no truth at all?’ through the lens of applied ethics almost as if he is challenging the reader to move from their lumbering moral stance into a state of action.

He seems to use this type of verbal challenging throughout the remainder of the book; deliberately attempting to evoke a response from the reader in a call to action about the many challenges facing humanity (and our seeming backslide away from what is moral and correct). In the following two chapters the author explains Utilitarianism and Egoism & Contractualism in successive order. For those who have any philosophical schooling whatsoever, Tannsjo’s elucidation reads somewhat like yesterday’s leftovers. It is not earth—shattering; or newly instructive; its greatest use may be in providing insight into the passions of the author himself. 

In fact, Tannsjo himself states “The reason that I start with Utilitarianism is not because it is the oldest or most respected moral theory. Rather it is the most extensively discussed theory” (p. 15). That statement almost leads the reader to skip this portion of the text; for it sounds quite clearly to be a promised rehash of previous discussions and targeting, for the most part, the failures of said moral theory. Yet he does offer some mildly interesting mathematical models and even pokes the reader’s emotions with such questions as ‘Does utilitarianism threaten close relationships and friendships?’ (p. 29). 

Regarding ethical egoism; it is a moral theory that purports ‘every individual ought to satisfy his or her own best interests’ (p.40). Tannsjo spends no small amount of time in explanation of the ethical egoist. His most thought-provoking revelation might come in this comment. “The ethical egoism might find pleasure in helping other people; he or she might have all types of altruistic interests. But; faced with a conflict of interest; the egoist will ensure that his or her own welfare is maximized” (p. 47).  

In the next three chapters Tannsjo examines ‘deontological ethics’ – or the morality of obligation and duty; moral rights and virtue ethics at length. Here I will interject that the use of an ‘abstract thought’ model, devised by the philosophers Foot and Thomson, are revisited in light of the different takes on ethics as presented in the duty, rights and virtue chapters. Dubbed ‘the trolley example’, it examines a simple philosophical construct against the facets of varying ethical considerations – much like turning a diamond shape prism to catch differing reflections of light. In multiple scenarios a trolley, train track and the lives of people lie in the balance and the reader is asked to make a decision about how he or she would respond – knowing that not all characters will survive. Duty, rights, virtue, egoism – all have an impact on the ultimate choice. Tannsjo (and the creators of these morality models) believe that these are excellent exercises to promote philosophical musing. Real world situations are much too complex and with infinite solutions; making them unmanageable as a means of teaching how to consider a problem from an ethical standpoint. 

Chapters seven and eight address feminist and environmental ethics and the challenges of each to the subject of morality and human action; and in this second edition there is an additional chapter 9, which pays homage to the anti-theory and particularistic themes. This final chapter seemed ‘forced’ and a bit misplaced with Tannsjo attempting to correlate authentic science with moral intuition. Too, Tannsjo filters his normative ethics; making it the basis for modeling resolutions to practical problems. As mentioned elsewhere in this essay; Tannsjo’s bias for this theoretical application is evident from the beginning to end. 

For those who rely to some extent on the opinions of others regarding the suitableness and quality of a book you will be disappointed because there are scant reviews of this text (read: one); despite its satisfactory nature and the void it fills in training the philosophical neophyte. The only one of import and available through the university database was eloquently written by a professor at the University of Toronto. “The elements of normative theories are simplified in the interests of comprehensibility by the beginning student. It is laid out in a logical and orderly way; however, certain components are a little out of place in the book (my feeling as well)” (Sumner 2009).

In some cases, the best way to assimilate information and ‘make it one’s own’ is to find similar content in academic texts of the same academic area. Utilizing the list of recommended readers supplied for this assignment we shall quickly refer to two books in which the content supports Tannsjo’s writing. In the first, it is easy to draw a comparison because both authors reveal the underlying lament in both works is the alarming moral state of the world today. “There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture today” (MacIntyre 2007). And, in the interest of further complicating the issue a religious text offers this insight. “In our modern climate, the tendency is to imagine that choices are made by something called free will. But this is not always sensible, and overlooks the power of religion as a guide for determining moral truth” (Gill 2001). However, there is plenty of argument over whether you can live a moral life without religion. The ultimate use of Tannsjo’s book may be twofold. First, it is a passable resource for introducing ethics to the uneducated; and; secondly, it serves to confirm and challenge the writings of his philosophical colleagues. 


Gill, R. (2001).  The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University; 325 pp.

MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame; 288 pp. 

Sumner, L. (2009). Torbjörn Tännsjö, Understanding Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory; a review. Theoria; Volume 72, Issue 1, pages 87–90.

Tännsjö, T. (2009). Understanding Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 145 pp.