What is ethics?
Ethics is approximately about the questions to do with the nature, content, and application of morality, and so is the study of morality in general.
Questions of moral language, psychology, phenomonenology, epistemology, and ontology typically fall under metaethics.
Questions of theoretical content, what makes something right, wrong, good, bad, obligatory, or supererogatory typically fall under normative ethics.
Questions of conduct related to specific issues in the real world to do with business, professional, social, environmental, bioethics, and personhood typically fall under applied ethics. These can be things like abortion, euthanasia, treatment of non-human animals, marketing, and charity.
Ethics has been divided traditionally into three areas concerning how we ought to conduct ourselves.
Metaethics is occasionally referred to as a “second-order” discipline to make a distinction between itself and areas that are less about questions regarding what morality itself is. Questions about the most plausible metaphysical report of moral facts or the link between moral judgment, motivation, and knowledge are questions can be described as such, and so are metaethical questions. There are several rough divisions that have been created to introduce metaethics adequately. Either of these distinctions should be sufficient for getting a distant sense of what metaethics is.
In Andrew Fisher’s Metaethics: An Introduction, an intro book Fisher at one point playfully thought of as “An Introduction to An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics,” we get this:
Looking at ethics we can see that it involves what people say: moral language. So one strand of metaethics considers what is going on when people talk moral talk. For example, what do people mean when they say something is “wrong”? What links moral language to the world? Can we define moral terms?
Obviously ethics also involves people, so metaethicists consider and analyse what’s going on in peoples’ minds. For example, when people make moral judgements are they expressing beliefs or expressing desires? What’s the link between making moral judgements and motivation?
Finally, there are questions about what exists (ontology). Thus meta-ethicists ask questions about whether moral properties are real. What is it for something to be real? Could moral facts exist independently of people? Could moral properties be causal?
Metaethics, then, is the systematic analysis of:
(a) moral language;
(b) moral psychology;
(c) moral ontology.
This classification is rough and does not explicitly capture a number of issues that are often discussed in metaethics, such as truth and phenomenology. However, for our purposes we can think of such issues as falling under these broad headings.
In Alex Miller’s Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction (the book Fisher playfully compared his own introduction to), Miller provides us with perhaps the most succinct description of the three:
[Metaethics is] concerned with questions about the following:
(a) Meaning: what is the semantic function of moral discourse? Is the function of moral discourse to state facts, or does it have some other non-fact-stating role?
(b) Metaphysics: do moral facts (or properties) exist? If so, what are they like? Are they identical or reducible to natural facts (or properties) or are they irreducible and sui generis?
(c) Epistemology and justification: is there such a thing as moral knowledge? How can we know whether our moral judgements are true or false? How can we ever justify our claims to moral knowledge?
(d) Phenomenology: how are moral qualities represented in the experience of an agent making a moral judgement? Do they appear to be ‘out there’ in the world?
(e) Moral psychology: what can we say about the motivational state of someone making a moral judgement? What sort of connection is there between making a moral judgement and being motivated to act as that judgement prescribes?
(f) Objectivity: can moral judgements really be correct or incorrect? Can we work towards finding out the moral truth?
Obviously, this list is not intended to be exhaustive, and the various questions are not all independent (for example, a positive answer to (f) looks, on the face of it, to presuppose that the function of moral discourse is to state facts). But it is worth noting that the list is much wider than many philosophers forty or fifty years ago would have thought. For example, one such philosopher writes:
[Metaethics] is not about what people ought to do. It is about what they are doing when they talk about what they ought to do. (Hudson 1970)
The idea that metaethics is exclusively about language was no doubt due to the once prevalent idea that philosophy as a whole has no function other than the study of ordinary language and that ‘philosophical problems’ only arise from the application of words out of the contexts in which they are ordinarily used. Fortunately, this ‘ordinary language’ conception of philosophy has long since ceased to hold sway, and the list of metaethical concerns – in metaphysics, epistemology, phenomenology, moral psychology, as well as in semantics and the theory of meaning – bears this out.
Two small notes that might be made are:
“Objectivity” is standardly taken to mean mind-independence. Here, it almost seems as if it’s cognitivism that the author is describing, but it’s made clear by the author noting that (f) presupposes facts that when Miller says “correct,” Miller means “objectively true.” This is a somewhat unorthodox usage, but careful reading makes it clear what Miller is trying to say.
“Moral phenomenology” is often categorized as falling under normative ethics as well, but this has little impact on the veracity of this description of metaethics.
Applied ethics is concerned with what is permissible in particular practices. In Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, Singer provides some examples of what sorts of things this field might address.
Practical ethics covers a wide area. We can find ethical ramifications in most of our choices, if we look hard enough. This book does not attempt to cover this whole area. The problems it deals with have been selected on two grounds: their relevance, and the extent to which philosophical reasoning can contribute to a discussion of them.
I regard an ethical issue as relevant if it is one that any thinking person must face. Some of the issues discussed in this book confront us daily: what are our personal responsibilities towards the poor? Are we justified in treating animals as nothing more than machines- producing flesh for us to eat? Should we be using paper that is not recycled? And why should we bother about acting in accordance with moral principles anyway? Other problems, like abortion and euthanasia, fortunately are not everyday decisions for most of us; but they are issues that can arise at some time in our lives. They are also issues of current concern about which any active participant in our society’s decision-making process needs to reflect.
This book is about practical ethics, that is, the application of ethics or morality — I shall use the words interchangeably — to practical issues like the treatment of ethnic minorities, equality for women, the use of animals for food and research, the preservation of the natural environment, abortion, euthanasia, and the obligation of the wealthy to help the poor.
So what does the application of ethics to practical issues look like?
We can take a look at two of the issues that Singer brings up — abortion and animal rights — to get a sense of what sort of evidence might be taken into consideration with these matters. Keep in mind that this is written with the intention of providing a sense of how discussions in applied ethics develop rather than a comprehensive survey of views in each topic.
In Rosalind Hursthouse’s Virtue Theory and Abortion, Hursthouse gives a summary of the discussion on abortion as to do with the struggle between facts about the moral status of the fetus and women’s rights.
As everyone knows, the morality of abortion is commonly discussed in relation to just two considerations: first, and predominantly, the status of the fetus and whether or not it is the sort of thing that may or may not be innocuously or justifiably killed; and second, and less predominantly (when, that is, the discussion concerns the morality of abortion rather than the question of permissible legislation in a just society), women’s rights.
Judith Jarvis Thomson, in A Defense of Abortion, Thomson addresses a common version of the former consideration, refuting the slippery slope argument.
Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is, or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes called “slippery slope arguments”–the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory–and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.
Nonetheless, Thomson is willing to grant the premise, addressing instead whether or not we can make the case that abortion is impermissible given that the fetus is, indeed, a person. Thomson thinks that the argument that fetuses have the right to life and that right outweighs the right for the individual carrying the fetus to do as they wish with their body is faulty, but notes a limitation.
But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree, but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
In this case, of course, you were kidnapped, you didn’t volunteer for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys.
Thomson goes on to address this limitation and goes back and forth between the issue of the fetus’s and carrier’s rights, but Hursthouse (see above) rejects this framework, noting in more detail that we can suppose that women have a right to abortion in a legal sense and still have to wrestle with whether or not abortion is permissible. On the status of fetuses, Hursthouse claims this too can be bypassed with virtue theory.
What about the consideration of the status of the fetus-what can virtue theory say about that? One might say that this issue is not in the province of any moral theory; it is a metaphysical question, and an extremely difficult one at that. Must virtue theory then wait upon metaphysics to come up with the answer?
But the sort of wisdom that the fully virtuous person has is not supposed to be recondite; it does not call for fancy philosophical sophistication, and it does not depend upon, let alone wait upon, the discoveries of academic philosophers. And this entails the following, rather startling, conclusion: that the status of the fetus-that issue over which so much ink has been spilt-is, according to virtue theory, simply not relevant to the rightness or wrongness of abortion (within, that is, a secular morality).
Or rather, since that is clearly too radical a conclusion, it is in a sense relevant, but only in the sense that the familiar biological facts are relevant. By “the familiar biological facts” I mean the facts that most human societies are and have been familiar with-that, standardly (but not invariably), pregnancy occurs as the result of sexual intercourse, that it lasts about nine months, during which time the fetus grows and develops, that standardly it terminates in the birth of a living baby, and that this is how we all come to be.
It is worth noting that Hursthouse’s argument more centrally gives her conception of what virtue ethics ought to look like rather than how we should go about abortion, and so to avoid it clouding her paper, she never takes any stance on whether one should think abortion is or is not permissible.
Thomson’s argument appears to be rather theory-agnostic whereas Hursthouse is committed to a certain theory of ethics. A third approach is intertheoretical, an example of which can be found in Tomasz Żuradzki’s Meta-Reasoning in Making Moral Decisions under Normative Uncertainty. Here, Żuradzki discusses how we might deal with uncertainty over which theory is correct.
For example, we have to act in the face of uncertainty about the facts, the consequences of our decisions, the identity of people involved, people’s preferences, moral doctrines, specific moral duties, or the ontological status of some entities (belonging to some ontological class usually has serious implications for moral status). I want to analyze whether these kinds of uncertainties should have practical consequences for actions and whether there are reliable methods of reasoning that deal with the possibility that we understand some crucial moral issues wrong.
Żuradzki at one point considers the seemingly obvious “My Favorite Theory” approach, but concludes that the approach is problematic.
Probably the most obvious proposition how to act under normative uncertainty is My Favorite Theory approach. It says that “a morally conscientious agent chooses an option that is permitted by the most credible moral theory”
Although this approach looks very intuitive, there are interesting counter-examples.
Żuradzki also addresses a few different approaches, some of which seem to make abortion impermissible so long as there is uncertainty, but perhaps this gives a good idea of three approaches in applied ethics.
In the abortion section, the status of the fetus falls into the background. Thomson says even given a certain status, the case against abortion must do more, Hursthouse says the metaphysical question can be bypassed altogether, and Żuradzki considers how to take multiple theories about an action into account. But it seems this strategy of moving beyond the status of the patient in question cannot be done when it comes to the question of how we ought to treat non-human animals, for there’s no obvious competing right that might give us pause when we decide not to treat a non-human animal cruelly. In dealing with animal rights, then, it appears we are forced to address the status of the non-human animal, and there seem to be many ways to address this.
In Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, Regan, who agrees with Kant that those who are worthy of moral consideration are ends-in-themselves, thinks what grounds that worthiness in humans is also what grounds that in non-human animals.
We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death – all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.
Christine Korsgaard, who also agrees with a Kantian view, argues against Regan’s view and thinks non-human animals are not like humans. In Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals, Korsgaard makes the case that humans are rational in a sense that non-human animals are not, and that rationality is what grounds our moral obligations.
an animal who acts from instinct is conscious of the object of its fear or desire, and conscious of it as fearful or desirable, and so as to-be-avoided or to-be-sought. That is the ground of its action. But a rational animal is, in addition, conscious that she fears or desires the object, and that she is inclined to act in a certain way as a result.
We cannot expect the other animals to regulate their conduct in accordance with an assessment of their principles, because they are not conscious of their principles. They therefore have no moral obligations.
Korsgaard, however, still thinks this difference that makes the sense in which humans and non-human animals should be considered fundamentally distinct still leaves room for animals to be worthy of moral consideration.
Because we are animals, we have a natural good in this sense, and it is to this that our incentives are directed. Our natural good, like the other forms of natural good which I have just described, is not, in and of itself, normative. But it is on our natural good, in this sense, that we confer normative value when we value ourselves as ends-in-ourselves. It is therefore our animal nature, not just our autonomous nature, that we take to be an end-in-itself.
In taking ourselves to be ends-in-ourselves we legislate that the natural good of a creature who matters to itself is the source of normative claims. Animal nature is an end-in-itself, because our own legislation makes it so. And that is why we have duties to the other animals.
So Regan thinks that we can elevate the status of non-human animals up to something like the status of humans, but Korsgaard thinks there is a vast difference between the two categories. Before we consider which view is more credible, we should consider an additional, non-Kantian view which seems to bypass the issue of status once more.
Rosalind Hursthouse (again!), in Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals, argues that status need not be relevant for roughly the same reasons as the case of abortion.
In the abortion debate, the question that almost everyone began with was “What is the moral status of the fetus?”
The consequentialist and deontological approaches to the rights and wrongs of the ways we treat the other animals (and also the environment) are structured in exactly the same way. Here too, the question that must be answered first is “What is the moral status of the other animals…?” And here too, virtue ethicists have no need to answer the question.
So Hursthouse once again reframes the argument and grounds her argument in terms of virtue.
So I take the leaves on which [Singer describes factory farming] and think about them in terms of, for example, compassion, temperance, callousness, cruelty, greed, self-indulgence—and honesty.
Can I, in all honesty, deny the ongoing existence of this suffering? No, I can’t. I know perfectly well that althrough there have been some improvements in the regulation of factory farming, what is going on is still terrible. Can I think it is anything but callous to shrug this off and say it doesn’t matter? No, I can’t. Can I deny that the practices are cruel? No, I can’t.
The practices that bring cheap meat to our tables are cruel, so we shouldn’t be party to them.
Żuradzki’s argument in Meta-Reasoning in Making Moral Decisions under Normative Uncertainty becomes relevant once more as well. In it, he argues that if between the competing theories, one says something is wrong and one says nothing of the matter, it would be rational to act as if it were wrong.
Comparativism in its weak form can be applied only to very specific kinds of situations in which an agent’s credences are not divided between two different moral doctrines, but between only one moral doctrine and some doctrine (or doctrines) that does not give any moral reasons. Its conclusion says that if some theories in which you have credence give you subjective reason to choose action A over action B, and no theories in which you have credence give you subjective reason to choose action B over action A, then you should (because of the requirements of rationality) choose A over B.
Once again, we see a variety of approaches that help give us a sense of the type of strategies that applied ethicists might use. Here, we have arguments that accept and reject a central premise of the debate, an argument that bypasses it, and an argument that considers both views. Some approaches are theory-specific, some are intertheoretical, and while it was not discussed here, Singer’s argument from marginal cases is theory-neutral.
Other issues will differ wildly, they will rely on different central premises, have arguments such that intertheoretical approaches are impossible, or have any number of other variations on the similarities and differences between the discussions on the two topics just discussed. However, this gives some idea, hopefully enough to build on if one chooses to look deeper into the literature, of how discussions in the area of applied ethics go about.
Normative ethics deals very directly with the question of conduct. Much of the discipline is dedicated to discovering ethical theories capable of describing what we ought to do. But what does ought mean? In different contexts, while ought tends to deal with normativity and value, it does not always deal with ethics. The oughts that link aesthetics and normativity are not obviously the same as the oughts that we’re dealing with here. The questions of what oughts exist in normative ethics have a great deal to do with concepts like what is “permissible” or “impermissible,” what is “right” or “wrong,” or what is “good” and “bad.” It should be contrasted with how people do act, as well as the moral code of some person or group. These are not what normative ethics is about, but rather what genuinely is correct when it comes to how we ought to live our lives. For now, we can roughly divide the main theories of this area into three categories, though these are not the only categories: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. As noted, there are other theories, and there are even other problems in normative ethics as well, but these three types of theories will be detailed below as well as what we should take from an understanding of the three categories.
Ethics as grounded in outcomes: Consequentialism
Consequentialism is a family of theories that are centrally concerned with consequences. Consequentialism, in ordinary practice, is used to refer to theories rooted in classical utilitarianism (even when the theory is not utilitarianism itself), ignoring certain theories that also seem grounded solely in consequences such as egoism. The aforementioned classical utilitarianism that serves as the historical and conceptual root of this discussion entailed a great deal of claims, laid out in Shelly Kagan’s Normative Ethics:
that goodness of outcomes is the only morally relevant factor in determining the status of a given act.
the agent is morally required to perform the act with the best consequences. It is not sufficient that an act have “pretty good” consequences, that it produce more good than harm, or that it be better than average. Rather, the agent is required to perform the act with the very best outcome (compared to alternatives); she is required to perform the optimal act, as it is sometimes called.
the agent is morally required to performed the act with the best consequences. The optimal act is the only act that is morally permissible; no other act is morally right. Thus the consequentialist is not making the considerably more modest claim that performing the act with the best consequences is—although generally not obligatory—the nicest or the most praiseworthy thing to do. Rather, performing the optimal act is morally required: anything else is morally forbidden.
the right act is the act that leads to the greatest total amount of happiness overall.
the consequences [are evaluated] in terms of how they affect everyone’s well-being…
And of course, these can be divided even further, but what’s salient is there appear to be a great many more claims entailed in this classical form of utilitarianism than one might think first glance: classical utilitarianism is an agent-neutral theory in which acts that actually result in the optimal amount of happiness for everyone is obligatory. By understanding all of these points, we can understand how consequentialism differs from this classical utilitarianism and thus what it means to be consequentialist.
The limits of contemporary consequentialism
Many of these claims don’t seem necessary to the label “consequentialism” and give us an unnecessarily narrow sense of what the word could mean.
It seems desirable to want to broaden the scope of the term then, and in fact, this hasn’t only been done simply to help understand consequentialism, but to defend against criticisms of consequentialism. In Campbell Brown’s Consequentialize This, we get a brief description of one motivation behind radical consequentializing:
You—a nonconsequentialist, let’s assume—begin with your favorite counterexample. You describe some action…[that] would clearly have the best consequences, yet equally clearly would be greatly immoral. So consequentialism is false, you conclude; sometimes a person ought not to do what would have best consequences. “Not so fast,” comes the consequentialist’s reply. “Your story presupposes a certain account of what makes consequences better or worse, a certain ‘theory of the good,’ as we consequentialists like to say. Consequentialism, however, is not wedded to any such theory…In order to reconcile consequentialism with the view that this action you’ve described is wrong, we need only to find an appropriate theory of the good, one according to which the consequences of this action would not be best. You say you’re concerned about the guy’s rights? No worries; we’ll just build that into your theory of the good. Then you can be a consequentialist too.”
So, Brown says, this is what has just occurred:
Instead of showing that your nonconsequentialism is mistaken, the consequentialist shows that it’s not really nonconsequentialism; instead of refuting your view, she ‘consequentializes’ it. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Better still, make ’em join you.
Is this a good strategy? Brown thinks not, for it weakens the consequentialist’s claim.
It might succeed in immunizing consequentialism against counterexamples only at the cost of severely weakening it, perhaps to the point of utter triviality. So effortlessly is the strategy deployed that some are led to speculate that it is without theoretical limits: every moral view may be dressed up in consequentialist clothing…But then, it seems, consequentialism would be empty—trivial, vacuous, without substantive content, a mere tautology. The statement that an action is right if and only if (iff) it maximizes the good would entail nothing more substantive than the statement that an action is right iff it is right; true perhaps, but not of much use.
So not too broad, not too narrow, and not too shifty. We want some sort of solid and only sufficiently broad meaning to jump from. Brown goes on to define what he thinks consequentialism minimally is and three limits must be placed upon it.
whatever is meant by ‘consequentialism’, it must be intelligible as an elaboration of the familiar consequentialist slogan “Maximize the good.” The non-negotiable core of consequentialism, I shall assume, is the claim that an action is right, or permissible, iff it maximizes the good.
My strategy is to decompose consequentialism into three conditions, which I call ‘agent neutrality’, ‘no moral dilemmas’, and ‘dominance’
As usually defined, a theory is agent-relative iff it gives different aims to different agents; otherwise it’s agent-neutral.
By a moral dilemma, I mean a situation in which a person cannot avoid acting wrongly…Consider, for example, a theory which holds that violations of rights are absolutely morally forbidden; it is always wrong in any possible situation to violate a right. Suppose, further, that the catalog of rights endorsed by this theory is such that sometimes a person cannot help but violate at least one right. Then this theory cannot be represented by a rightness function which satisfies NMD, and so it cannot be consequentialized.
[Dominance] may be the least intuitive of the three. It requires the following. Suppose that in a given choice situation, two worlds x and y are among the alternatives. And suppose in this situation, x is right and y wrong. Then x dominates y in the following sense: y cannot be right in any situation where x is an alternative; the presence of x is always sufficient to make y wrong.
And there we have it, a definition of consequentialism. Not only that, but this definition is formalized in the paper as well. Can we safely say, then, that this is the definition of consequentialism? The most comprehensive, elucidating, uncontroversial in the field? Certainly not! In fact, it leaves out several significant forms of consequentialism, but this formulation of consequentialism captures many concepts important consequentialism, sufficient for further discussion over the three families. This disagreement over the definition might bring a new set of worries to the mind of any reader. The problem of disagreement will be discussed in another section.
Ethics as grounded in moral law: Deontology
Deontology is another family of theories whose definition can wiggle through our grasp (there’s a pattern here to recognize that will become important in a later section). Once more, Shelly Kagan’s Normative Ethics offers us a definition of deontology as it is used in contemporary discourse: a theory that places value on additional factors that would forbid certain actions independently of whether or not they result in the best outcomes.
In defining deontology, I have appealed to the concept of a constraint: deontologists, unlike consequentialists, believe in the existence of constraints, which erect moral barriers to the promotion of the good…it won’t quite do to label as deontologists all those who accept additional normative factors, beyond that of goodness of results: we must add further stipulation that in at least some cases the effect of these additional factors is to make certain acts morally forbidden, even though these acts may lead to the best possible results overall. In short, we must say that deontologists are those who believe in additional normative factors that generate constraints.
Kagan goes on to explain why of the various definitions, this one is best. That explanation will not be detailed here, but let’s keep this tenuously in mind as we dive into one of the deontological theories to give us a sense of what deontology entails. It would be absurd if these constraints were arbitrary, nothing more than consequentialism combined with “also, don’t do these specific things because they seem icky and I don’t like them,” so we will take a look at one of the prominent deontological theories: Kantianism.
Kant’s First Formula
In Julia Driver’s Ethics: The Fundamentals, Driver introduces us to deontology through Kant’s moral theory, saying this of the theory:
Immanuel Kant’s theory is perhaps the most well-known exemplar of the deontological approach…whether or not a contemplated course of action is morally permissible will depend on whether or not it conforms to what he terms the moral law, the categorical imperative.
There’s a tone here that seems noticeably different from consequentialist talk. Permissibility as conforming to moral law could still be consequentialist if that law is something like “maximize the good,” but this description seems to indicate something else. To figure this out, we need an explanation of what “the categorical imperative” means. In Christine Korsgaard’s Creating the Kingdom of Ends:
Hypothetical imperatives [are] principles which instruct us to do certain actions if we want certain ends…
Willing something is determining yourself to be the cause of that thing, which means determining yourself to use the available causal connections — the means — to it. “Willing the end” is already posited as the hypothesis, and we need only analyze it to arrive at willing the means. If you will to be able to play the piano, then you already will to practice, as that is the “indispensably necessary means to it” that “lie in your power.” But the moral ought is not expressed by a hypothetical imperative. Our duties hold for us regardless of what we want. A moral rule does not say “do this if you want that” but simply “do this.” It is expressed in a categorical imperative. For instance, the moral law says that you must respect the rights of others. Nothing is already posited, which can then be analyzed.
We now have a fairly detailed description of what the distinction between a hypothetical and categorical imperative is, with fine examples to boot. Note that already, it’s clear this theory can’t be consequentialized according to Brown, but we must go further to remove any doubt as a result of controversy over Brown’s formulation. Korsgaard goes on to explain what is necessarily entailed as a part of the categorical imperative in her description of Kant’s first formula.
If we remove all purposes — all material — from the will, what is left is the formal principle of the will. The formal principle of duty is just that it is duty — that it is law. The essentially character of law is universality. Therefore, the person who acts from duty attends to the universality of his/her principle. He or she only acts on a maxim that he or she could will to be universal law (G 402).
But how can you tell whether you are able to will your maxim as a universal law? On Kant’s view, it is a matter of what you can will without contradiction…you envision trying to will your maxim in a world in which the maxim is universalized — in which it is a law of nature. You are to “Ask yourself whether, if the action which you propose should take place by a law of nature of which you yourself were a part, you could regard it as possible through your will” (C2 69)
Already, upon encountering this first formulation of the categorical imperative, we have now well established that any limit on consequentialization would leave Kant’s moral theory able to resist it. For one, the rightness or wrongness of actions is conforming to moral law such that the outcomes are no longer centrally a point of consideration. This does not mean we have deprived ethics of consequences, as Kagan points out in Normative Ethics:
[the goodness of outcomes]
is a factor I think virtually everyone recognizes as morally relevant. It may not be the only factor that is important for determining the moral status of an act, but it is certainly one relevant factor.
Kantianism is notwithstanding deciding the status of actions not on the sole basis of outcomes. As well, it fails Brown’s dominance formulation.
The two other formulas are not within the scope of this section, nor is evidence for Kant’s theory. The purpose of detailing Kantianism at all was to demonstrate deontology as conforming to moral law in a manner distinct from consequentialism. As well, it is sufficient to remind ourselves that there is a massive amount of evidence for each of these types of theories without having to detail it in this section for this theory in particular. As well, there are other types of deontological theories, also with a great deal of evidence. Scanlon’s moral theory and Ross’s moral theory are other prominent examples of deontology.
We are now left with a fairly strong sense of what deontological theories look like. There is some imprecision in that sense, this will be discussed in another section. For now, we must move on to address virtue ethics.
Ethics as grounded in character: Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics, the final family of theories described in the section on normative ethics, is predictably concerned primarily with virtue and practical intelligence.
A virtue is described as lasting, reliable, and characteristic in Julia Annas’s Intelligent Virtue:
A virtue is a lasting feature of a person, a tendency for the person to be a certain way. It is not merely a lasting feature, however, one that just sits there undisturbed. It is active: to have it is to be disposed to act in certain ways. And it develops through selective response to circumstances. Given these points, I shall use the term persisting rather than merely lasting. Jane’s generosity, supposing her to be generous, persists through challenges and difficulties, and is strengthened or weakened by her generous or ungenerous responses respectively. Thus, although it is natural for us to think of a virtue as a disposition, we should be careful not to confuse this with the scientific notion of disposition, which just is a static lasting tendency…
A virtue is also a reliable disposition. If Jane is generous, it is no accident that she does the generous action and has generous feelings. We would have been surprised, and shocked, if she had failed to act generously, and looked for some kind of explanation. Our friends’ virtues and vices enable us to rely on their responses and behaviour—to a certain extent, of course, since none of us is virtuous enough to be completely reliable in virtuous response and action.
Further, a virtue is a disposition which is characteristic—that is, the virtuous (or vicious) person is acting in and from character when acting in a kindly, brave or restrained way. This is another way of putting the point that a virtue is a deep feature of the person. A virtue is a disposition which is central to the person, to whom he or she is, a way we standardly think of character. I might discover that I have an unsuspected talent for Sudoku, but this, although it enlarges my talents, does not alter my character. But someone who discovers in himself an unsuspected capacity to feel and act on compassion, and who develops this capacity, does come to change as a person, not just in some isolated feature; he comes to have a changed character.
Virtue ethics, then, is centered around something that is roughly this concept. Note that any plausible theory is going to incorporate all of the concepts we’ve gone over on normative ethics. We can go back to Kagan’s Normative Ethics from above, where he notes the relevancy of consequences in every theory.
all plausible theories agree that goodness of consequences is at least one factor relevant to the moral status of acts. (No plausible theory would hold, for example, that it was irrelevant whether an act would lead to disaster!)
Similarly, other theories will have an account of virtue, as Jason Kawall’s In Defense of the Primacy of the Virtues briefly describes:
Consequentialists will treat the virtues as character traits that serve to maximize (or produce sufficient quantities of) the good, where the good is taken as explanatorily basic. Deontologists will understand the virtues in terms of dispositions to respect and act in accordance with moral rules, or to perform morally right actions, where these moral rules or right actions are fundamental. Furthermore, the virtues will be considered valuable just insofar as they involve such tendencies to maximize the good or to perform right actions.
So it is important to stress then that virtue is the central concept for virtue ethics, and is no more simply a theory that makes relevant an account of virtue any more than consequentialism is any theory that makes relevant an account of consequences. One way we can come to understand virtue ethics better is by understanding a specific kind of virtue ethics, theories which satisfying four conditions laid out by Kawall:
(i) The concepts of rightness and goodness would be explained in terms of virtue concepts (or the concept of a virtuous agent).
(ii) Rightness and goodness would be explained in terms of the virtues or virtuous agents.
(iii) The explanatory primacy of the virtues or virtuous agents (and virtue concepts) would reflect a metaphysical dependence of rightness and goodness upon the virtues or virtuous agents.
(iv) The virtues or virtuous agents themselves – as well as their value – could (but need not) be explained in terms of further states, such as health, eudaimonia, etc., but where these further states do not require an appeal to rightness or goodness.
It should be emphasized again that this describes only some theories in this family, but they are good theories to focus on because much of the discussion around these theories would be representative of discussion around virtue ethics in general.
It is worth stressing that not all theories that could plausibly be understood as forms of virtue ethics would satisfy the above conditions; the current goal is not to defend all possible virtue ethics. Rather, we are examining what might be taken to be among the more radical possible forms of virtue ethics, particularly in treating the virtues as explanatorily prior both to rightness and to goodness tout court. Why focus on these more radical forms? First, several prominent virtue ethics can be understood as satisfying the above conditions, including those of Michael Slote, Linda Zagzebski, and, perhaps (if controversially), Aristotle’s paradigmatic virtue ethics. Beyond this, many of the arguments presented here could be taken on board by those defending more moderate forms of virtue ethics, such as Rosalind Hursthouse or Christine Swanton (against those who would attempt to argue for the explanatory primacy of the right or of the good, for example). Thus the range of interest for most of these arguments will extend beyond those focusing on the more radical approaches.
Practical intelligence can be described much more briefly to get a sense of its meaning across. In Rosalind Hursthouse’s Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals, we get a brief description of the role of practical intelligence.
Of course, applying the virtue and vice terms correctly may be difficult; one may need much practical wisdom to determine whether, in a particular case, telling a hurtful truth is cruel or not, for example…
Julia Annas elaborates to greater detail in “Intelligent Virtue”:
The way our characters develop is to some extent a matter of natural endowment; some of us have traits ‘by nature’—we will tend to act bravely or generously without having to learn to do so, or to think about it. This is ‘natural virtue’, which we have already encountered. Different people will have different natural virtues, and one person may be naturally endowed in one area of life but not others—naturally brave, for example, but not naturally generous. However, claims Aristotle, this can’t be the whole story about virtue. For one thing, children and animals can have some of these traits, but in them they are not virtues. Further, these natural traits are harmful if not guided by ‘the intellect’, which in this context is specified as practical wisdom or practical intelligence (phronesis). Just as a powerfully built person will stumble and fall if he cannot see, so a natural tendency to bravery can stumble unseeingly into ethical disaster because the person has not learned to look out for crucial factors in the situation. Our natural practical traits need to be formed and educated in an intelligent way for them to develop as virtues; a natural trait may just proceed blindly on where virtue would respond selectively and in a way open to novel information and contexts.
Ethics as maximizing happiness: Utilitarianism
In the famous Trolley problem philosopher Philippa Foot introduced in the 1960s, you have the ability to pull a lever to divert a train from running over five tied-up people lying on the tracks. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track.
According to classical utilitarianism, pulling the lever would be permissible and more moral. English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill introduced utilitarianism as the sole moral obligation to maximize happiness. As an alternative to divine, religious theories of ethics. Utilitarianism suffers from the idea of “utility monsters,” individuals who would have much more happiness (and therefore utility) than average. This would cause actions to skew towards and exploit maximizing the monster’s happiness in such a way that others would suffer. Since philosopher Robert Nozick introduced the “utility monster” idea in 1974, it has been discussed in politics as driving the ideas of special interest groups and free speech – as though securing these interests would serve the interests of the few experiencing much more happiness than the general population.
Are these taxonomic imperfections bad? How do we get over vague definitions?
It might be tempting to read all of this and think there’s some sort of difficulty in discussing normative ethics. In general, academic discourse does not hinge on definitions, and so definitions are not a very large concern. And yet, it might appear upon reading this that ethics is some sort of exception. When philosophers talk about adaptationism in evolution or causation in metaphysics, the definitions they provide seem a lot more precise, so why is ethics an exception?
The answer is uninterestingly that ethics is not an exception. It is important to avoid confusing what has been read here as some sort of fundamental ambiguity in these theories. Consider Brown’s motive for resisting consequentialization as a response to Dreir’s motive for consequentialization.
I’ll close by drawing out another moral of my conclusion, related to something Dreier says. Dreier’s motivation for consequentializing is that he wants to overcome a certain “stigma” which he says afflicts defenders of “common sense morality” when they try to deny consequentialism. To deny consequentialism, he says, they must claim that we are sometimes required to do less good than we might, but that claim has a “paradoxical air.” So defenders of commonsense morality, who deny consequentialism, are stigmatized as having a seemingly paradoxical position.
Dreier thinks the way to avoid the stigma is to avoid denying consequentialism. If we consequentialize commonsense morality, then defenders of commonsense morality need not deny consequentialism. If I’m right, however, this way of avoiding the stigma doesn’t work…
Note that this is entirely orthogonal to the plausibility of any particular theory. Whatever stigmas exist makes no difference on whether or not some particular theory happens to be correct. It may prove useful to helping beginners gain a sense of what they’re talking about, but beyond pedagogical utility, it’s disputed that this distinction actually tells us, at a very fundamental level, what these theories are all about.
In Michael Ridge’s Reasons for Action: Agent-Neutral vs. Agent-Relative, Ridge points out one of the alternative distinctions that might have a more prominent role in describing what fundamentally distinguishes these theories.
The agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction is widely and rightly regarded as a philosophically important one.
The distinction has played a very useful role in framing certain interesting and important debates in normative philosophy.
For a start, the distinction helps frame a challenge to the traditional assumption that what separates so-called consequentialists and deontologists is that the former but not the latter are committed to the idea that all reasons for action are teleological. A deontological restriction forbids a certain sort of action (e.g., stealing) even when stealing here is the only way to prevent even more stealing in the long run. Consequentialists charge that such a restriction must be irrational, on the grounds that if stealing is forbidden then it must be bad but if it is bad then surely less stealing is better than more. The deontologist can respond in one of two ways. First, they could hold that deontological restrictions correspond to non-teleological reasons. The reason not to steal, on this account, is not that stealing is bad in the sense that it should be minimized but rather simply that stealing is forbidden no matter what the consequences (this is admittedly a stark form of deontology, but there are less stern versions as well). This is indeed one way of understanding the divide between consequentialists and deontologists, but the agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction, and in particular the idea of agent-relative reasons, brings to the fore an alternative conception. For arguably, we could instead understand deontological restrictions as corresponding to a species of reasons which are teleological after all so long as those reasons are agent-relative. If my reason not to steal is that I should minimize my stealing then the fact that my stealing here would prevent five other people from committing similar acts of theft does nothing to suggest that I ought to steal.
If Dreier is right [that in effect we can consequentialize deontology] then the agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction may be more important than the distinction between consequentialist theories and non-consequentialist theories.
The section goes on to detail several ways we can look at this issue so we can understand the importance of this distinction and what it can tell us about the structure and plausibility of certain theories. So while the typical division between consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethical theories can be superficially valuable to those getting into ethics, it is important to not overstate the significance of these families and their implications.
Includes a minimal definition of normative ethics as a whole.
In this entry, Ridge lays out another way of categorizing theories in normative ethics in an accessible manner.
Issues in normative ethics
- Christopher Heathwood Welfare. 2010.
- Roger Crisp Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Well-being. 2017.
- Michael Zimmerman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value. 2014.
- Dana Nelkin Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Moral Luck. 2013.
- Stephen Stich, John Doris, and Erica Roedder Altruism. 2008.
- Robert Shaver Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Egoism. 2014.
- Joshua May Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Psychological Egoism. 2011.
About the best introduction that one can find to one of the consequentialist theories: utilitarianism.
An introduction to the debate over utilitarianism.
An influential work that lays out a decent strategy for keeping consequentialist theories of ethics distinct from other theories.
- Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Consequentialism. 2015. A
- William Haines Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Consequentialism. 2006.
- Chapter 3 and 4 of Driver (see above). 2006.
A good introduction to and strong defense of Kantianism.
Rawls’s revolutionary work in both ethics and political philosophy in which he describes justice as fairness, a view he would continue to develop later on.
A significant improvement and defense of one of the most influential deontological alternatives to Kantianism: Rossian deontology.
Scanlon, one of the most notable contributors to political and ethical philosophy among his contemporaries, provides an updated and comprehensive account of his formulation of contractualism.
- Larry Alexander and Michael Moore Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Deontological Ethics. 2016.
- Chapter 5 and 6 of Driver (see above). 2006.
Hursthouse’s groundbreaking and accessible work on virtue theory.
This is probably a more difficult read than the others, but it is incredibly comprehensive and helpful. There are many things in this handbook that I’ve been reading about for a long time that I didn’t feel confident about until reading this. Certainly worth the cost.
A must read for those who want to engage with issues in moral judgment, functioning both as a work popularly considered the most important in the topic as well as a great introduction.
- Chapter 3 of Miller (see above). 2013.
- Connie S. Rosati Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Moral Motivation. 2016.
Moral realism and irrealism
A very popular Philosophy Compass paper that lays out very simply what moral realism is without arguing for or against any position.
An obligatory text laying out the popular companions in guilt argument for moral realisms.
- Smith (see above). 1998.
- Enoch (see above). 2011.
- Chapter 8, 9, and 10 of Miller (see above). 2013.
- Shafer-Landau (see above). 2005.
- Katia Vavova Debunking Evolutionary Debunking. 2013.
Here, Vavova provides a very influential, comprehensive, and easy to read overview of evolutionary debunking arguments, in which she also takes the liberty of pointing out their flaws.
Korsgaard’s brilliant description, as well as her defense, of a form of Kantian constructivism.
National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE) – https://www.nationalethicscenter.org/
National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General – http://www.nsf.gov/oig/index.jsp
Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) – http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/
Office of Research Integrity (ORI) – http://ori.dhhs.gov/
Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research – http://onlineethics.org/
Project for Scholarly Integrity – http://www.scholarlyintegrity.org/
Resources for Research Ethics Education – http://research-ethics.net/
RCR-Instruction, Office of Research Integrity – send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe
Accountability in Research – http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/08989621.asp
Ethics and Behavior – http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/10508422.asp
Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics – http://www.ucpressjournals.com/journal.asp?j=jer
Science and Engineering Ethics – http://www.springer.com/philosophy/ethics/journal/11948#8085218705268172855
The Chronicle of Higher Education – http://www.chronicle.com/
Nature – http://www.nature.com/
Science – http://www.sciencemag.org/
The Scientist – http://www.thescientist.com
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