Philosophy of Ethics

From Philosophy Archive

Jump to: navigation, search
The title page of Principia Ethica

The Philosophy of Ethics is also called moral philosophy and is the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles. Meta-ethics investigates where our moral principles come from, and what they mean. Normative ethics is more practical and is concerned with finding moral principles to govern how we should act. Applied ethics considers applying our moral principles to particular real world situations.



Meta ethics considers the underlying structure of moral problems, such as the language we use to describe them and the nature of moral facts (as opposed to just beliefs). Some (for example Wittgenstein) would doubt philosophy is the best approach to ethics. Some question the usefulness of examples to determine where we should stand on ethical issues, following the old maxim that extreme cases make bad laws.

Metaphysical Issues in Metaethics: Objectivism vs Relativism

Does a moral principle apply everywhere, and at all times, or is it bounded by space and time? (See moral relativism, universalism in ethics). How are our ethical decisions influenced by our knowledge, or lack of, a situation? (epistemology and ethics, moral judgement, moral knowledge). How is the capacity of moral judgement acquired? (Moral education. Many philosophers believe that humans posess a special moral intuition (intuitionism in ethics). Scepticism about the ability of morality, however, remain a common view (see moral scepticism and Nietzsche).

Situation ethics

Situation ethics suggest that circumstances can lead to the abandonment of any moral principle, particularists arguing that this is as you cant assume that a reason that applies in one case will apply in others (moral particularism, situation ethics). Casuiistics employ moral principes, but believe there is no "super-principle" to decide conflicts of principles (see Casuistry). Some believe the opposite, that morality is underpinned by a single overarching principle, such as not to lie (see Wollaston, W.).

Psychological Issues in Metaethics

Egosim and Altruism

Some say that rational moral systems must be based on self interest. However, it can be shown that a moral system can be defined to create mutually beneficial acts (see altruism and game theory).

Morality and emotion

In recent centuries there has been a split between those who believe that morality is based solely on reason, and those who suggest that some nonrational component such as emotion is also involved (see Hume, D, morality and emotions, rationalism). Much work in the twentieth century was devoted to deciding whether moral judgements were best understood as beliefs (and so candidates for testing their truth and falsity) or as disguised expressions of emotions or commands (analytics ethics, emotivism, prescriptivism). Can we have moral experts who we look to? (existentialist ethics). Debate continues on how to justify ethical claims (constructivism in ethics, moral pluralism). Against the emotivists and others, moral realists have asserted the existence of moral values postulated in a scientific worldview. (see fact/value distinction, moral realism, naturalism in ethics).

Morality and the Self

There are many questions posed here about what sorts of motivation humans are capable of, what motivation is morally required and what sorts of justification can be given in favour of moral motivation. In particular, some suggest that it isn't possible for people to act altruisitically and that there must always be a selfish element to convince people to act morally.

A moral agent is "a being who is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong". Often philosophers consider moral systems worth from a conception of equality, though there is debate as to how impartial morality requires us to be (equality, impartiality). Another set of issues is what makes a being worthy of moral consideration (moral standing, moral agents, responsibility) and does human nature require a conception of morality (morality and identity). Moral principles are the principles of right and wrong that are accepted by an individual or a social group; "the Puritan ethic"; "a person with old-fashioned values".

Male and Female Morality

Some see the concept of moral principles such as Duty as outdated, depending on a conception of divine law with little relevance to the modern world (see Anscombe, G.E.M.; Schopenhauer, A.); while others have reacted against it as a result of a masculine overemphasis on rules at the cost of empathy and care (see Feminist ethics; Wollstonecraft, M.).


Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false (they are not truth-apt). A noncognitivist denies the cognitivist claim that "moral judgments are capable of being objectively true, because they describe some feature of the world."(see Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics by Garner and Rose). If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when we think about the question “how ought one act, morally speaking?” Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts.

The question of what makes a good life has been at the heart of ethics since Greek philosophers inquired into the nature of happiness. Just what a "good life" is subject to varying debate itself, some claim that all that is good in life is "pleasure", others that the good life consists of fulfilling many competing desires such as a quest for knowledge and power (perfectionism).

Moral philosophers have often been concerned with giving advice on how to live a morally good life. Some traditions have declined (for example Asceticism, the belief that abstaining from certain things such as alcohol and sex is central to living a good life) but some such as consequentialism directly influence the governing of countries today.


Consequentialism is the view that we are morally bound to attempt to bring about the greatest good overall people and time (teleological ethics). As stated above, what "good" is subject to debate, but the most influential theory has been that the only good is the welfare and happiness of those considered. Combining consequentialism with the idea that the good is the greatest overall happiness gives us utilitarianism, which underpins the moral decisions of most western governments.


Utilitarianism states that acts are right or wrong to the extent that they maximise pleasures or minimise suffering. Act utilitarianism states that, when faced with a choice, we must first consider the likely consequences of potential actions and, from that, choose to do what we believe will generate most pleasure. The rule utilitarian, on the other hand, begins by looking at potential rules of action. To determine whether a rule should be followed, he looks at what would happen if it were constantly followed.

Two-level utilitarianism states that one should normally use 'intuitive' moral thinking, in the form of rule utilitarianism, because it usually maximizes happiness. However there are some times when we must ascend to a higher 'critical' level of reflection in order to decide what to do, and must think as an act utilitarian would (see Richard Hare).

Most utilitarian theories deal with producing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Negative utilitarianism (NU) requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number (see Karl Popper).

Preference utilitarians believe that 'good' is described as the satisfaction of each person's individual preferences or desires, and a right action is that which leads to this satisfaction; that is they believe everyones requirements for satisfaction is unique.

Hedonistic utilitarianism holds that the only intrinsic pleasure is good, and hence we should go about attempting to bring about the maximum amount of pleasure for everyone concerned. The ideal utilitarian, however, believes there are other "goods" which should also be strived for such as beauty and knowledge (see GE Moore). Ideal and hedonistic utilitarianism.

Ethical Egoism and Social Contract Theory

Deontological ethics

Deontology states that certain acts are right or wrong in themselves, our awareness of what is right and our duty to act rightly is given by divine command or reason. Whereas consequentialst moral theories are concerned with bringing about "good" outcomes, some moral theories are concerned with performing "the right" moral actions, often regardless of outcome. These theories come under deontological ethics. Immanuel Kant, among others, was a proponent of deontological views, for example if we make a promise we should keep it even if breaking it would bring about more good (see Kantian ethics).


Moral principles have often been put in terms of what is required by Duty, but often this is now considered outdated as it requires a conception of divine law. Some see duty as a masculine overemphasis on rules at the cost of empathy (feminist ethics).

Virtue Ethics

In the last fifty years there has been a reaction against the excesses of consequentialist and deontological ethics, and a return to the ancient notion of virtues. [Virtue Ethics|Virtue theory] is an approach to ethics which emphasizes the character of the moral agent, rather than rules or consequences, as the key element of ethical thinking. This contrasts with consequentialism, which holds that the consequences of a particular act form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action, and deontology, which derives rightness or wrongness from the character of the act itself rather than the outcomes.

Applied ethics

Aristotle believed that there was no point in studying ethics without putting its conclusions into practice for positive outcomes, most philosophers agree.

Sections of applied ethics

The philosophy of ethics has always been looked to for counsel in extreme situations, such as matters of life and death in medical ethics (bioethics, medical ethics). It is also considered when looking at new ethical questions brought about by scientific advances (Scientific ethics). Also oft considered in a fast changing world are ecological ethics and the ethics of developing markets.


Philosophical questions about punishment include is it justified to perform unwelcome treatment on someone, punishment, because they "deserve" it? Is it purpose to provie a moral balance, or solely as a deterrent?

References and Further Reading

  • Peter Singer's entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica for "Ethics"
  • Anscombe,Elizabeth “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, 1958, Vol. 33, reprinted in her Ethics, Religion and Politics (Oxford: * Blackwell, 1981).
  • Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, in Barnes, Jonathan, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
  • Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1946).
  • Bernard Williams, Morality (Harper & Row, 1972)
  • Hare, R.M., The Language of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed., E. Curley, (Chicago, IL: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).
  • Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), eds. David Fate Norton, Mary J. Norton (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin, 1977)
  • J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism
  • J. Waldron (ed.) Theories of Rights (OUP, 1984)
  • Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr, James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985).
  • Locke, John, Two Treatises, ed., Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).
  • Plato, Republic, 6:510-511, in Cooper, John M., ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
  • S. Blackburn, Being Good (OUP, 2001)
  • T. Honderich Punishment: The Supposed Justification Revisited (Pluto Press 2005)
Personal tools
  Popular Philosophers
Biography of Rousseau
Biography of Epictetus
Popular Branches
Philosphy of Ethics
Philosophy of Aesthetics
Philosophy of Epistemology
Philosophy of Metaphysics
Vistaprint Coupon
Zend Coupon Expedia Coupon Code
GoToMeeting Coupon
GoToMyPc Pro GotoMeeting