It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, …we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
With these words Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities, rebuking all those “noisy authorities” who would claim for their age some priority over others. No age is without some experts to declare it the best of times and others to declare it the worst. Yet, Dickens would not, I think, deny that times change. His rebuke must, then, be directed at those who, without good evidence, declare that their age differs in some important way from others. The age in which one lives always looks different from those of which one knows little or nothing.
I have, I admit, a personal stake in this reading of Dickens. I want to claim that our present concern with “ethics” distinguishes this age from others. I am therefore a candidate for Dickens' rebuke. To avoid it, I shall proceed in this way. I shall begin this chapter by considering what the “ethics boom” is supposed to be; then examine the evidence for the boom; and, having shown the boom to be real, explain why we are having it. The boom's novelty, its connection with academic philosophy, is a corollary of that explanation and an appropriate way to introduce our subject; ethics and the university.