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Unger contends that our institutions about ethical cases are generated not by basic moral values, but by certain distracting moral mechanisms that encourage deceptive reactions. In the first part of the book, he argues that, appearances to the contrary, our basic moral values are quite close to what philosophers now call act consequentialism. He details the nature of the most potent of the mechanisms that cause us to have false intuitions, and explains how, by blinding us to our basic moral values, they generate those reactions. In the second part of the book Unger proposes a complex and novel metaethics, arguing that each of us can easily generate either a lenient or tough context for our ethical assessments. In Unger's view we almost always generate lenient contexts, in which we can correctly make permissive judgments about our behaviour. If we generate tough contexts, however, we will judge our ordinary behaviour to be morally wrong. Even while we can allow that most of our moral judgements to date have been correct, we can still assert that our basic moral values, and so most likely ethical reality itself, are actively compassionate and very demanding of us.
Unger's conclusions - that many of our moral judgements are in error, and accordingly much of our behaviour is grossly immoral - will be controversial and have a strong impact on the field of ethics.
Peter Unger is Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of Ignorance (OUP 1975, 2002), Philosophical Relativity (1984, OUP 2002), and Identity, Consciousness, and Value (OUP 1990).