Revision Powerpoint –
Moral –Isms in 60 Minutes
Flavours of Ethics
• Metaethics – focuses on whether moral properties really
exist and hence whether ethics itself is possible.
– Moral realism (Platonism, Naturalism, Secondary
properties, Kantianism, Mill etc)
– Vs Relativism, Emotivism, Prescriptivism
• Normative ethics – attempts to provide a general theory
that tells us how we ought to act.
– Deontology, Consequentialism, Virtue Theory
• Applied or Practical ethics – focuses on specific
instances where there is ethical debate.
– Abortion, Death Penalty etc
Cognitivist vs. Non-cognitivist
• Ethical cognitivism: a metaethical view
– ethical statements are propositions which can
– Hence moral knowledge exists and can be
known e.g. Kant, Utilitarianism
• Ethical non-cognitivism: a metaethical
– ethical statements are not propositions
– therefore are neither true nor false. e.g.
Types of Normative Ethical theory
• Acts are analysed into three parts:
– the agent, the person performing the act;
– the act itself;
– the consequences of the act.
• Virtue theory focuses on the agent’s moral
• Deontology focuses on the nature of the act
• Consequentialism (Utilitarianism) focuses on the
consequences of the act
• Key utilitarian/Kantian ethical question: “How
should I act in this specific circumstance?”
• Key Virtue Theory question “How should I live
my life?”, “What kind of person should I be?” –
and “How do I get there?”
• Not so much a guide for moral decision-making,
more a description of the moral life: a life which
• Aristotle: ethics describes Eudaimonia = ‘the
good life’, ‘Human Flourishing’, ‘happiness’
• Yet Aristotle defines the good relationally: “the
good for human beings is an activity of the soul
in accordance with arete (virtue or excellence)”
– we are actors as well as contemplators
– we have practical as well as abstract reason
– practical wisdom takes a while to develop
Sophia and Phronesis
Sophia is Aristotle’s word for our abstract, intellectual knowledge (of
Phronēsis is Aristotle’s word for our power of practical thought a.k.a.
"practical wisdom”, "prudence".
Sophia can be taught; phronesis is acquired through experience.
“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise
within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that
prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known
from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed
to produce it.” (Ethics)
It moderates between our faculties (our emotions, appetites, rationality) as
our developed executive power to act in a balanced way.
Phronesis is acquired over time, through practice:
“We acquire virtues by first doing virtuous acts. We acquire a skill by practising the activities
involved in the skill. For example, we become builders by building and we learn to play the
harp by playing the harp. In the same way, we become just by doing just acts, temperate by
doing temperate acts & courageous by doing acts of courage.” (Ethics)
• For Aristotle, we judge character, not specific actions.
– “The ethical condition is not the condition of having a certain
right theory; rather the ethical condition is having a certain
character.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue”)
• An individual who has developed excellent character
traits (virtues) is (judged as) a morally good person.
• An individual who has developed poor character traits
(vices) is (judged as) a morally bad person.
• Most of us have a mixture or virtues and vices.
• So we need to take a holistic approach to ethical
judgement – ‘One swallow does not make a summer’.
Cultivating Character: the
Doctrine of the Golden Mean
• Aretaic qualities or virtues arise from following the
middle way/’Golden Mean’ between two extremes (the
‘Goldilocks theory’ – neither too hot, nor too cold, but
• To follow the Golden Mean = using phronesis, decide
which emotions and intellectual insights to act on in a
balanced way eudaimonia
• Virtues are not absolute, but relative midpoints on a
scale between excess and deficiency: “Virtue…is a
state of deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean
that is relative to ourselves, the mean being determined
by reason, or as a prudent man would determine it.”
Virtue Theory compared
• Modern-day virtue ethicist Alastair Macintyre points out
that different positive character traits/virtues have been
prized by different societies, and at different points in
• Virtue Ethics is a non-cognitivist account of ethics, as the
virtuous person is able to act virtuously without needing
to think about it (non-cognitivist).
• But what counts as virtue might change over time, or
between societies (morally relativist).
• So, not an ethical theory in the same way that
Utilitarianism or Kantianism are: both U and K are
Some advantages of Virtue Ethics
• Emphasis on pleasure and emotion – it is good
that we should enjoy acting virtuously
• Moral education – being moral is a
• Consideration of life as a whole – “One swallow
does not make a spring” (Aristotle)
• No decision procedure to get hung up on –
moral decision making is too complicated to
have a single criterion for decision.
• Reflects social change.
And some disadvantages…
• Offers no solution to specific moral dilemmas.
• Not everyone has the equal opportunity to
develop morally – do we judge them the same?
• Many non-virtuous people live happy lives, many
virtuous people are miserable.
• Cultural relativism – whose virtues are best?
• We recognise that some non-virtuous people are
useful in our society; life would be dull without
• Morality is purely a matter of duty or
– Whether something is right or wrong doesn’t
depend on its consequences or the kind of
– Actions are right or wrong in themselves.
• We each have duties regarding our own
actions: we are all autonomous moral
Hypothetical and Categorical
• hypothetical imperative e.g. “If I want to be rich, then I
will work hard”.
– Can be ignored, although could be unwise to do so.
– Exceptions are allowed.
• categorical imperative e.g. “Do not lie”.
– Irrational and immoral not to obey.
– Exceptions are not allowed
• Morality is rationally derived and categorical.
• So our individual actions arise because we act on
universal maxims, principles of action, which are
Kant’s Categorical Imperative:
• so “Act only on that maxim through which
you can at the same time will that it should
become a universal law”.
Testing a moral maxim
• ‘contradiction in conception’: a maxim is wrong if
the situation in which everyone acted on that
maxim is somehow self-contradictory e.g.
stealing can’t be universalised, as it abolishes
• ‘contradiction in will’: a maxim is wrong if it is
logically possible to universalize the maxim but
we can’t will it consistently e.g. ‘not to help
others in need’ can’t be consistently willed,
because we might need help ourselves.
Ends not means
• ‘Act in such a way that you always treat
humanity, whether in your own person or in the
person of any other, never simply as a means,
but always at the same time as an end’
• Kant totally rejects Consequentialism, which
says that the end justifies the means.
• To treat someone’s humanity simply as a
means, and not also as an end, is to treat the
person in a way that undermines their power of
making a rational choice themselves.
• This cannot be willed universally, as it denies the
rationality of all agents.
Objections to Kant
• Any action can be justified, as long as we phrase the
– But the test is what our maxim really is.
• Conflict of duties
– Duties never really conflict, but knowing how to apply the CI
• Strange results: ‘I shall never sell, but only buy’ is
• Exceptionless duties are problematic
– cases of inhumanity/coldness – duty excludes family…
– cases where consistency should be broken - lying to a Nazi etc
• Hedonism: Only pleasure is intrinsically good,
and only pain intrinsically bad. “Pleasure, and
freedom from pain, are the only things desirable
as ends” - Mill
• The proper aim of morality is therefore to
promote happiness and diminish misery.
• Classical hedonic utilitarianism (Mill): We ought
to do whatever maximizes the balance of
pleasure over pain for everyone. Focus is on
• Rejects exceptionless rules – it’s not always
wrong to lie, steal, break your promises, or
disobey your parents.
• Human happiness and misery give a solid basis
for evaluating the norms of different cultures.
• Can be reconciled with Christianity etc; (Singer)
arguably any non-egoistic moral theory must
consider outcomes for others, so utilitarianism is
• “The principle of utility can weigh conflicting
utilities against one another.”
Utilitarianism: modern flavas
• Act vs Rule – Richard Brandt - Act-based approach
sums up likely benefits and harms for each act. Easy to
rationalize, difficult to apply, potentially erratic (Mill:
• Rule-based approach follows rules of thumb established
in advance (e.g. stealing usually doesn’t have the best
consequences) Quicker, less erratic, might not be
responsive to circumstances.
• Preference/pluralist Utilitarianism (Peter Singer) evaluate consequences in terms of various goods, not
just hedonism: virtue, knowledge, pleasure, life, and
freedom, or animal desires.
• Could have bizarre implications: would slavery/racism,
killing miserable rich and giving the money to charity be
right if they maximized the total pleasure?
• Right results, wrong reasons (= Kant’s attack).
• Bernard Williams: George and the Chemical Warfare job;
Jim and the Mexican Massacre…Isn’t it wrong in itself to
kill an innocent person, even if it had the best
• Nozick and the Experience Machine: do we choose a life
Ethical Intuitionism: G.E. Moore
• Intuition not definition, as “Good” is indefinable – see
Open Question Argument.
• an attack on Ethical Naturalism (= that moral values are
known cognitively, derived from nature – Kant, in a
way?, also Utilitarianism)
• True that some natural qualities (e.g. colour terms –
‘red’, ‘yellow’ etc) are known non-cognitively, but these
are observable and public.
• But moral terms are known non-cognitively, and
privately, though intuition.
• objective moral truths (analogous to mathematical ones)
are ‘intuitively self-evident to a mature mind’.
The Open Question Argument
• Moore – ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ – the silly idea that moral
values are natural properties of the world.
• All moral questions are open questions (i.e. ‘Is it true that
the good is X?’ is not analytic.)
• So you can’t reduce morality to a set of observable
• But we do have sound moral intuitions, particularly if we
are Cambridge Professors of Philosophy
• Advantages over Kant: gut feeling resolves moral
impasses/conflicts/exceptionless promise problems –
following instinct is easy!
• Advantages over Utilitarianism: morality without the
tedium of the hedonic calculus
Issues with Moore
• Is there sufficient agreement over what
moral principles are ‘self-evident’?
• What could be wrong with a ‘gut feel’?
• Intuitionist moral education inculcates
parental (and perhaps Nazi or terrorist)
norms – which later will seem to be “selfevident truths.”
• Surely we need some way to rationally
criticise inherited moral intuitions?
W.D. Ross – Prima Facie (“On the
face of it”) obligations
• Ross avoids instrumentalism of utilitarian approach
(some deeds are intuitively ruled out)
• But also avoids issues over exceptionless promises
• “The moral order...is just as much part of the
fundamental nature of the universe…as is the spatial or
numerical structure expressed in the axioms of geometry
• These objective features are known through intuition…
• Seven strong but not exceptionless obligations - Fidelity,
Reparation, Gratitude, Justice, Self-improvement,
• So, like Moore, an intuitionist, but these intuitions can
then be rationally assessed/weighed. So e.g. we have a
duty to keep our promises, but it isn’t exceptionless.
Advantages of Ross’s Approach
• Ross’s approach solves moral dilemmas:
– in any given situation, any number of these prima facie
obligations may apply.
– In the case of ethical dilemmas, they may even contradict one
– Nonetheless, there can never be a true ethical dilemma, Ross
would argue, because one of the prima facie obligations in a
given situation is always the weightiest, and overrules all the
– This is thus the absolute obligation, the action that the person
ought to perform.
• Ross accepts a pluralistic view of value: virtue,
knowledge, pleasure, life, and freedom (etc…) are good
in themselves – and ought to be promoted for their own
sake (sounds like preference util…)
Problems with Ross
• Why are ‘prima facie’ moral obligations any
better than Moore’s ‘moral intuitions’?
• Hence, all the problems of Moore’s intuitionism
might apply…see previous slides…
• ‘prima facie’ or ‘on the face of it’ may not carry
the kind of genuine moral weight Ross wants
– modern commentators often prefer the phrase ‘pro
tanto’ or ‘as far as it is able, as far as it will go’
– But doesn’t this sound like the kind of moral
pragmatism that lacks ultimate grounding?
A conclusion about Ross
• Might not Ross’s approach offer a middle
way between Kant and Utilitarianism?
• Or: might it not sound very like pluralistic
• Intuition could simply provide the basis for
the rules which we then systemically
Emotivism: where it fits in
• A non-cognitivist theory: morality is non-propositional,
and so can’t be known to be true or false.
• Hume’s is/ought gap: you can't go from a factual
statement (an "is") to a moral one (an "ought").
• Is/ought gap means that ‘sentiment’ or emotion is the
source of our feeling of right and wrong. It is the only
ground for our moral judgements.
• If moral judgments aren’t true or false, we can’t reason
about basic moral principles.
• “X is good” simply means “Hurrah for X!”
Ayer’s arguments for
• To be meaningful, a proposition must be empirically
verifiable or analytically true. All other statements (which
might look meaningful) are meaningless.
• ‘My favourite trousers are Lycra’ (verifiable)
• “Married people are partnered” (analytic)
• Moral opinions, being neither factually verifiable, or
reducible to tautologies, are meaningless (as are
religious, aesthetic claims)
• “There is a God.”, “Hefner are a good band”, “Terrorism
is wrong” = neither verifiable nor analytic, so
• Moral arguments are just expressions of feeling.
• Ethical statements and moral judgements are emotive
responses: they seek to arouse feelings or express pain.
• So moral judgements are persuasive, but they are not
factual – they just assert an emotion, that’s all.
• Mind! Emotivism isn’t subjectivism:
• Emotivism: “X is good” means “Hurrah for X!”
• Subjectivism: “X is good” means “I like X.” (=proposition,
hence T/F, hence meaningful…but psychological not
ethical claim (according to Ayer))
Reasons for Emotivism
• Explains strength of our ethical feelings, their shared
• Offers clear criterion for sense vs. nonsense.
• doesn’t appeal to mysterious entities (God, the
transcendental…) that make morality mysterious
• explains why we can’t define “good”, why we can’t prove
moral beliefs: we can’t reason about basic moral
• we can only reason about morality if we assume a
shared system of values.
• but we can’t establish the correctness of any system of
• Stresses importance of persuasive language and
emotion in the expression of moral sentiment.
Issues with emotivism
The logical positivist argument for emotivism is self-contradictory, as
it is not itself verifiable or tautologous…
Emotivism can’t explain unemotional moral judgments, which we
have and value
We do reason about moral judgments. The claim that they are
merely expressions of emotion seems odd (Ayer: here we are
reasoning about the meaning of our moral terminology rather that its
Our moral feelings aren’t subjective or personal, necessarily. They
are natural, and shared…common reactions to horrific crimes (e.g.
the holocaust) suggests the possibility of a reasonable basis for
moral behaviour. Atrocities like genocide, rape and murder aren’t
wrong just as matters of feeling
reduces moral discussions to a shouting match if we can’t reason
about basic moral principles.
• The belief that there is no moral truth that
applies to all peoples at all times. There are no
absolute moral standards for moral judgement.
• But ethical structures are needed for stability
and order. So, follow the norms of the culture
in which you live: “when in Rome do as the
• But we should not impose our standards on
outsiders. E.g Infanticide is wrong here, but
Advantages of Cultural Relativism
promotes tolerance/’live and let live’ attitude.
recognises differences but does not judge them
fits post-Colonial world.
avoids problems with Moral Realism, Kant etc
Issues with Cultural Relativism
• Don’t all cultures embrace similar ethical norms?
• Easy to find contradictions: what if a culture has an
intolerant world view, and rejects the relativistic view that
we must be tolerant of other cultural standards?
• How absolute is relativism?...
• Does away with idea of moral progress – we can’t judge
past societies as worse than our own…e.g. slave-owning
• Destroys possibility of discussion over human rights
• Allows intolerance that is internal to a society
• Presumes that a ‘society’ is uniform, consistent, closed.