Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Introduction to Ethics:

Many of the key problems and concepts of ethics go back to the time of the Greeks and the origins of Western Philosophy.

In the 5th Century BC, the City-State of Athens was the center of the world's intellectual life. And during this century, the "Golden Age of Pericles" came to epitomize the height of Athenian culture and democracy. The plays of Sophocles and Euripides were being written and performed, the Parthenon was being built and Greek citizens enjoyed political freedom.

Into this world came Socrates, who could often be found in the Marketplace (agora ) -- talking to all who came by.

Socrates (469 - 399 BC)

Socrates was the first philosopher to focus specifically on the area of VALUES (the problems of God, the Good and the Beautiful). He did not claim an interest in "things beneath the earth and in the skies" (i.e., a knowledge of nature).

See excerpts from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Socrates.

Some good examples of Socrates' activity can be found in Plato's dialogue, theEuthyphro. For the purposes of this Preface, the key points involve (1) distinguishing 'philosophy' from the sphere of the natural sciences (roughly, facts from values) and (2) distinguishing 'philosophy' from the sphere of religion.

1. On the distinction between empirical science and philosophy

Soc. And what sort of difference creates enmity and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my good friend, differ about a number; do differences of this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and put an end to them by a sum?

Euth. True.

Soc. Or suppose that we differ about magnitudes, do we not quickly end the differences by measuring?

Euth. Very true.

Soc. And we end a controversy about heavy and light by resorting to a weighing machine?

Euth. To be sure.

Soc. But what differences are there which cannot be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare say the answer does not occur to you at the moment, and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

[As Aristotle might say, we should not expect of ethical problems the same kind of rigorous solutions that we should expect of geometric problems...they are of a different kind.]

2. Regarding the relation of religion to ethics:

Euthyphro, a pious young man, has made the difficult decision to take his father to trial because of his father's involvement with the death of a slave. When questioned by Socrates about the appropriateness of this action, Euthyphro claims absolute certainty. He feels his action is "right" because, among other things, "the gods would agree." But, Socrates might counter --

Consequences of I and II:

    IF something is right BECAUSE God says so, THEN "the Good" is DEPENDENT upon the will of God.

    IF God says something is right because it IS right, THEN "the Good" is INDEPENDENT of the will of God.

Further Consequences

    If SOMETHING IS RIGHT BECAUSE GOD SAYS SO, then God could, logically, will ANYTHING and, because God wills it, IT WOULD BE RIGHT. (This is the position of THEOLOGICAL VOLUNTARISM.)

    How would this apply to the stories of Zeus' rape of maidens? How would it apply to the story of Abraham?

Under the first interpretation, 'ethics' dissolves into a form of obedience (to the Will of God). Under the second interpretation, ethics -- as an inquiry into the nature of right and wrong -- can exist as a sphere separate and distinct from the shpere of theology.

These kinds of conversations made many citizens angry -- and when Athens had suffered a political and spiritual decline as the result of a disastrous war with Sparta, people began to look at Socrates as one of the causes of their troubles...In 399 BC he was brought to trial on charges of Impiety and Corruption of the Youth. In the course of his trial (see the Apology), Socrates expressed an essential belief of philosophers: "The unexamined life is not worth living..."

Religion and The Problem of Knowledge

Is religion a matter of Faith or a matter of Knowledge? For many, these are mixed, and 'believers' claim a 'knowledge' of God's existence. In the realm of ethics, for example, the believer KNOWS that Moral Rules come from God.

But there are as many "Divine Commands" as there are "gods" (Zeus, Allah, Yahweh, etc.). Here moral norms appear relative to the particular religion that one adopts. And different religions can have different, even conflicting, moral norms.

Yet a believer might respond that his or her God is the only true God. The other religions are false or misguided, even heretical. Question: How would someone "know" that his or her religion is "true" while others are "false"?

Appeal to Authority

    One way of claiming knowledge in this sphere is to refer to the sayings in a religious text like the Bible or the Koran. But to simply point to a book as the ground for a belief is to commit the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority.

    Even in science, something is not right because it is found in a book by a famous chemist or written as a mathematical formula by Einstein -- rather, it is "the things themselves" that determine the truth or falsity of the expert's opinion.

Begging the Question

    One might, however, go "inside" a book to find a justification for one's belief. One could argue as follows:

    The precepts of the Koran are correct because they are the word of Allah. We know that the Koran is the word of Allah because Mohammed tells us so. We can believe Mohammed because he is Allah's prophet. And we know that Mohammed is Allah's prophet because it is written in the Koran.

    [The precepts of the Bible are correct because they are the word of God. We know that the Bible is the word of God because Jesus tells us so. We can believe Jesus because he is God's prophet. And we know that Jesus is God's prophet because it is written in the Bible.]

    An argument "begs the question" when it ASSUMES what it sets out to prove. If we use a text to establish the truth of what is written in the text, we beg the question by a "circular argument."

In essence, this preface seeks to provide one justification for seeking reasons for ethical behavior and to do so independently of any theological beliefs.

Plato's dialogue, the Crito, exemplifies this approach to moral reasoning. [Note: My links to HyperText versions of the Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, and the death scene in the Phaedo all point to The Last Days of Socrates by Andersen and Freund, Clarke College.]

In the Crito, Socrates tried to offer both an explanation for his actions (he wanted to do 'the right thing') and a justification for his actions (in the arguments that he put forth).

Can our reasons for answering 'the Practical Question' (viz., "What ought I do?") be grounded in something 'objective' like Human Nature or are they merely 'subjective opinions'? Kant, in the Foundations for a Metaphysics of Morals (1781), argued that the rightness or wrongness of our actions can be ascertained through Human Reason alone. (In doing so, he moved the foundation of morality from 'the sayings of the gods' to the Enlightenment's faith in reason.)

Regardless of one's philosophical opinions about the nature of reasons, we do seem to rely on explanations and justifications in our ordinary discourse about right and wrong, and we do seem to draw distinctions between 'good reasons for doing x' and 'poor reasons for doing x'. An example of the former might be "I would want to be helped if I were in that situation" -- an example of the latter might be "I'm a Scorpio and the Moon was in Jupiter."

John Rawls suggested a way in which these distinctions might lead to a deeper understanding of our moral belief system. A considered moral judgment is a judgment that a person makes under conditions that render errors of judgment less likely (e.g., slavery in the 19th century was unjust). Seeking principles that underlie these beliefs consistently (e.g., it is unjust to take away an innocent person's liberty) is a movement toward reflective equilibrium -- a unified, coherent body of beliefs.

Narrow reflective equilibrium represents a consistent set of moral positions based upon what we now know (it is another form of 'opinion'). Wide reflective equilibrium represents what we would attain if our moral positions not only formed a consistent, integrated body, but also resulted from reflection on all of the possible theories and arguments that could affect our positions one way or the other. The closer we come to this, the more justified our opinions become.

Such a movement towards reflective equilibrium requires an openness to new facts and reasons as well as the use of our imagination to explore other perspectives. It emphasizes the way information can bear on our moral views and is open to the on-going challenge of human conversation.

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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)