Not Real Enough

Real American Ethics

Taking Responsibility for Our Country

Albert Borgmann

University of Chicago Press, $25, 232 pp.

Albert Borgmann’s Real American Ethics is a work of public philosophy aimed at the general reader. Borgmann is a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana. He wants to shine a light on existing American habits and values and then suggest a reasonable course of personal and civic self-improvement. We desperately need a renewed ethics of citizenship in America right now, but not quite the one Borgmann provides. It is too reasonable for our unreasonable times.

His book divides into sections on theoretical, practical, and “real” ethics. Theoretical ethics (largely Kantian, for Borgmann) tells us what we must do: respect the autonomy, dignity, and equality of all. Practical ethics tells us what we should do: cultivate the good life, which is the life of personal and political virtue. Real ethics, the third division, is the ethics of the material environment-“the visible, tangible stuff that engages and surrounds us.” Real ethics tells us how we should live in the world we have made. Both the title of the book and its structure indicate that it is real ethics that Borgmann cares most about.

According to Borgmann, himself a political liberal, Americans share a “decent,” centrist consensus about such vexing political issues as abortion, environmental protection, corporate power, gun control, and universal health care. He passes over these issues rather quickly, as he does with questions about the...

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About the Author

William D. Wood is the tutorial fellow in theology at Oriel College, Oxford.