RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my career as an economist I frequently borrowed analysis and conclusions from other fields, such psychology, sociology, and history. The more widely I read, the more obvious it became that different fields approach similar questions differently, use different terminology for the same issues, and not necessarily aware of findings outside their specialty. Problem is especially prevalent among practitioners not familiar to scholarly research techniques.


In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. Here In part two of my review, I will organize my comments about his more important arguments in parts one and two. In Part three of this review, I will finish RSL’s parts two and three.

The Good Life

RSL begins his discussion of the good life by talking about welfare and what improves. He defines “instrumental goods”that are“valuable because of the good things they bring about.” Those things are“intrinsically valuable” or“valuable in their own right.” Instrumental goods help us acquire things that are intrinsically valuable. (23)

RSL goes on to define hedonism, which is a philosophy focused almost exclusively on what makes us happy—the only thing that is intrinsically good. Hedonists distinguish physical pleasure from attitudinal pleasure. Hedonism in the West began with the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BC; 24-25).

RSL offers a wide range of criticism of hedonism in the form of arguments why pursuing happiness is not logical.  An example is the “Paradox of Hedonism Argument:

  1. If happiness is the only that directly makes us better off, then it is rational to single-mindedly pursue it.
  2. It isn’t ration to do that.
  3. Therefore, happiness isn’t the only thing that directly make us better off.”(33)

RSL sees both premises (1, 2) are true, therefore the conclusion (3) must be true. He gives the example of a professional golfer who wants to improve her swing, but focusing on it makes it harder to do so. (33)

Other arguments against hedonism include the problem of people who enjoy doing evil things to other people and of people are equally happy but one person’s happiness is based on false beliefs (I will win the lottery tomorrow) while another is based on true beliefs (I just got my paycheck; 36-37). In like manner, RSL handicaps self-interest as a goal and other desires.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing

 Part two of the books is by far the longest involving 13 chapters and roughly 260 pages. Several arguments are worth highlighting.

Morality and Morality

In chapter 5, RSL highlights divine command theory citing a dialogue between Plato and a fellow by the name of Euthyphro who says that “piety is whatever the gods love.” To this, Plato asks:“Do the gods love actions because they are pious, or are actions pious because the gods love them?” (67) If the former, then the pious reasons are sufficient; if the latter, then the gods are acting arbitrarily.

As Christians, we believe that God is a god of truth, not arbitrary fiat, so we mostly argue the reasons rather than divine command. Still, we normally believe that the Bible summarizes truth making the search for reasons a secondary concern.

Natural Law

In chapter 6, RSL introduces natural law theory which:

“tells us that actions are right just because they are natural, and wrong just because they are unnatural. And people are good or bad to the extent that they fulfill their true nature—the more they fulfill their true nature, the better they are.”(77)

This argument is frequently cited to oppose suicide, contraception, and homosexual activity as immoral. (86) RSL finds this argument unconvincing in the case of abortion (a fetus is a human being, killing humans is immoral, therefore abortion is immoral) and homosexuality (marriage is for procreation, procreation requires a man and woman, therefore other sex is immoral) because the morality argument is primarily based on an arbitrary definition (86-89).


In Chapter 9, RSL describes consequentialism as “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” (122) Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. (123) This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (120) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice—RSL cites the cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (151)

Social Contract Theory

In chapter 13, RSL outlines social contract theory that argues that moral rules are objective and based on the benefits of cooperation, given free choice and rational behavior. The alternative is a state of nature where everyone is at war with everyone else (199). Given the horrors of war, cooperation enforced by an impartial, professional police force is worth the limits placed on individual freedom.

What rules would evolve from such a social contract? RSL writes:

“prohibitions of killing, rape, battery, theft, and fraud, and rules require keeping one’s word, returning what one owes, and being respectful of others.”(201)

The laws would reflect the rules that a free and equal people would accept. (205) Protests against particular unfair laws would be accepted provided that protestors could demonstrate that they tried to change the law and worked primarily within in the system (206).

Problems with social contract theory arise when some people refuse to pay their fair share (free rider problem; 209) or when fundamental values are in conflict, such as in decisions of war and peace and the care to be given to the poor (215). The scope of the moral community—who has rights?—is also a hot button issue. (216) The current discussion over allowing felony criminals the right to vote is such a hot button issue.


In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.



RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

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