Book Review: Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics

This is the second edition of Steve Wilkens’s introductory survey of ethical theories. Wilkens, who teaches at Azusa Pacific University in southern California, devotes chapters to cultural relativism, ethical egoism, utilitarianism, behaviorism, evolutionary ethics, situation ethics, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, narrative ethics, natural law ethics and divine command theory. The chapters on evolutionary ethics and narrative ethics are new in this edition.

The idea behind this book is that various ethical theories can be summarized in short slogans, or “bumper stickers.” Even people who do not think about ethical systems organize their lives around one or more of these slogans, and Wilkens wants to bring the theories behind the bumper stickers out into the open so they can be evaluated. Wilkens writes from a Christian perspective, and places the ethical theories in the book into three categories: first he looks at ethical theories that contradict aspects of the Christian worldview, then theories that can be compatible with, but do not require, a Christian worldview, and finally theories that begin from a Christian standpoint.

In each chapter, Wilkens introduces the reader to an ethical theory, primarily interacting with one or two proponents of that theory. For example, in his chapter on ethical egoism he interacts with Ayn Rand, in his chapter on evolutionary ethics he interacts with E.O. Wilson, and in his chapter on narrative ethics he interacts with Stanley Hauerwas. Then he gives the positive aspects of each theory—he believes that all of them have some truth; otherwise they would not be so attractive to so many people—and potential weaknesses.

One potential weakness of the book is that dealing with just one or two proponents of an ethical theory can lead to oversimplification. Wilkens is conscious of that risk, but believes that it is a risk that must be taken in an introductory survey (217). Also, in the chapter on natural law, Wilkens talks about the U.S. Constitution setting forth the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He means the Declaration of Independence (185).

In spite of small weaknesses, I highly recommend this book. All people organize their lives according to some ethical system, and relatively few people take time to reflect on where their ethical system came from and what its implications are. After reading this book, some Christians may realize that the ethical system they have adopted is not as rooted in a Christian worldview as it ought to be. This is a book that is especially well suited as a textbook for an introductory ethics class in a Christian high school or university.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics

  1. matichuk December 29, 2011 / 10:58 pm

    I’ve been curious about this book for awhile. I know Carey used to use it in their pastoral ethics class (first edition, obviously). Looks interesting. How does it stock up against other general approaches to Christian ethics (i.e. Kingdom Ethics, Choosing the Good, etc.)?

    • elliot December 30, 2011 / 7:17 am

      I haven’t read Choosing the Good or Kingdom Ethics (though I do have a copy of the latter that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet). I think that both of them argue for a particular way of viewing ethics. At the end of this book, Wilkens doesn’t commend one approach over the others. That’s what I think the main difference would be, though I’m sure both of the others deal with different views.

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