Moral Philosophy

Ethics, or moral philosophy, can be divided into three related areas: Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics.  Meta-ethics addresses questions about the nature of ethics itself. For example, ‘Is morality subjective or objective?’ is a meta-ethical question which concerns the nature of morality itself.  Normative Ethics focuses on the ethical standards (norms) on which moral conduct is based.  As such, we might ask whether the rightness and wrongness of an act determined its consequences or whether we should always act in accordance with duty.  Finally, Applied Ethics applies philosophical theory to practical issues.  It addresses questions such as ‘Is abortion permissible?’, ‘Is there a distinction between killing and letting die?’, and ‘’Are all animals equal?’.

This page aims to address some meta-ethical issues before going on to consider two of the most prevalent moral theories: Utilitarianism and Kantianism. This will provide the necessary underpinning for Applied Ethics.

In terms of meta-ethics, one of the most important questions to consider is that of whether or not ‘morality’ refers to anything really existent in the universe or not.  An interesting way to approach this issue is in terms of what has become known as the Euphyphro dilemma after Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, where it is asked: ‘Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?’

Divine Command Theory states that the latter is the case; that is, God himself determines what is right and wrong.  As such, morality is subjective (in terms of God – albeit we humans are provided with an objective moral framework).  What this means is that there is no such thing as ‘morality’ out there in the universe – rather it is a divine construct.  This, however, entails that our moral concepts of right and wrong are purely arbitrary; it could well have been the case that God forbade honouring one’s father and mother and upheld theft and adultery as virtuous acts.  However, this just doesn’t seem right – don’t we want to say that stealing is wrong independent of God’s willing it so?  The problem for the theist though, is that this means that there must be something external to and independent of God’s will; something which He didn’t create.

Another way of addressing the issue of whether morality has objective existence is to consider the thesis of Moral Relativism. Moral (or Cultural) Relativism states that there are no objective and universal moral rules; rather, notions of right and wrong are determined solely in terms of a particular culture and are, therefore, relative to that culture.  One of the earliest statements of Moral Relativism is provided in Herodotus’ Histories (c.440BCE):

When Darius was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers.  They relied that they would not do it for any money in the world.  Later, in the presence of the Greeks and through an interpreter (so they could understand what was said) he asked some Indian, of the tribe Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them [as was the Greek custom].  They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing.  One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion was right when he called it ‘king of all’.

Moral Relativism, though initially attractive, has some rather unfortunate consequences.  Firstly, if we accept that morality is merely something relative to a particular culture then we have no objective framework by which to gauge different cultures against each other. Nor are we able to criticise another culture’s morality.  Thus we cannot say that we are better, just different; and we must accept that actions which we may find abhorrent may be wrong for us, but right for others.  It may seem that acceptance of relativism would then teach us to be tolerant of other cultures, however, we could not consistently hold that all cultures should adopt a position of tolerance – for his would be to advocate the existence of a universal moral rule.

A further meta-ethical theory which denies the objective existence of morality is Emotivism.  Emotivism states that when we ascribe ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ to a particular action we are not describing anything present in the act itself but rather our emotive response to it.  As Hume states in his Treatise of Human Nature (1740):

Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance.  Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find the matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice…  You can never find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action.  Here is a matter of fact; but ‘tis the object of feeling, not reason.

For this reason, Emotivism is sometimes referred to as ‘boo-hoorah theory’.  So when we say that someone’s actions are right or wrong we are really saying ‘Hoorah! I like this’ or ‘Boo! I don’t like that’.  Hume certainly seems correct when he says that we do not see the wrongness of an act.  For example, we see the gun drawn and fired, the bullet enter the body, and the victim fall; but we don’t see something – the wrongness of the act – over and above all of these things.  That said, when we call an act wrong don’t we want to say that we mean more than simply ‘I don’t like it’?

The next view we will consider is Psychological Egoism.  Psychological Egoism states that human beings always act in their own self-interest (note that this differs from the normative theory of Ethical Egoism which states that human beings ought always to act in their own elf-interest).  As such, even supposed acts of altruism originate from self-interest.  In the Republic, Plato has Glaucon make the following speech in favour of this particular view:

Now that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges, the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian.

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he, stooping and looking in, saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the King; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outward and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result — when he turned the collet inward he became invisible, when outward he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the Queen, and with her help conspired against the King and slew him and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

This is the story of the Ring of Gyges.  The point of the tale is to ask us to consider whether it is actually the case that when people act morally, they do so only through fear of punishment.  Thus if the fear of reprisal is removed, would we all become immoral?  Take some time to think about this.  If you were able to advantage yourself to some great degree but it involved theft or murder.  And if you were given an absolute guarantee that your deed would not be discovered, would you perform the wicked act?  We will examine this further in class.

For the second half of the class we will move on to normative ethics, and will consider two of the most prevalent moral theories: Utilitarianism and Kantianism.  Utilitarianism states that what really matters in determining the rightness or wrongness of a particular act is to what extent it will maximise the amount of pleasure (or minimise the amount of suffering) in the world. On the contrary, Kantianism claims that consequences should have no bearing whatsoever on whether to perform a particular action.  Rather, given an opportunity for a moral choice, one must be guided by duty; that is, one must act in accordance with moral law, which is discoverable by reason alone.


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