Acting on Principle

O'Neill, Onora, Acting on Principle. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1975.


“It is now hard to imagine how one promising the lines of thought in this book seemed to most people with an interest in philosophical ethics when I 1st worked on them in the late 1960s. Many were then still drawn to more or less positivist claims that reasoned approaches to ethical or political claims were impossible, while those who favored a reasoned approach usually proposed some version of ethical naturalism, mostly of the utilitarian or Aristotelian variety. There was general agreement that Kant’s claim that practical reason can guide ethical action was wholly implausible.

Although Kant’s  ethical and political philosophy had enjoyed considerable residence in the wider world during the postwar decades, as is evident in the drafting of the Universal declaration of human rights and the European convention on human rights, and of the West German and other constitutions, it had few admirers in Anglophone philosophy departments. This was not because philosophers at that time had no interest in or respect for Kant’s wider philosophy.  Many admired both his metaphysical caution and the sweep of his arguments about human knowledge and its limits. But the consensus was that he neither showed how principals could guide action nor offered adequate reasons for any specific ethical or political principles, so that both his metaethics and his normative ethics were defective.”