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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20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Twentieth Century Anglo-American Ethics can be characterized by the following works:

First, there is the initial setting represented by G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903) and Sir David Ross's The Right and the Good (1930). Then, from the early thirties to the mid-forties, the "effect" of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, through the Vienna Circle, made itself conspicuous in the emotive theories of A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic (1935) and Stevenson's Ethics and Language (1944). A movement away from these theories occurred in Toulmin's Reason in Ethics (1948) and R.M. Hare's The Language of Morals (1952) with Kurt Baier's The Moral Point of View (1957), ushering in a new era in ethical reasoning. The sixties saw a wealth of articles devoted to further scrutiny of the issues already before it and Philippa Foot's Theories of Ethics (1967) best represents this period. Finally, the 1971 publication of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice brings analytic ethics into the context for its contemporary level of discussion.

(1) G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (1903)

    The position of utilitarianism is exemplified by Moore's Principia Ethica, though in this case the significance of the "naturalistic fallacy" has been added. Three main concerns present themselves in this work: the description of the "naturalistic fallacy," the principle of utilitarianism and a doctrine of moral intuition arising from the former two issues.

    The naturalistic fallacy is the fallacy of identifying goodness with some natural property as, for instance, when one identifies the good with the pleasurable. From this, arguments containing factual notions of pleasure in the premises could logically entail conclusions containing ethical judgments. Moore argues that in fact no description of natural properties ever logically commits one to an ethical judgment. Ethical questions remain "open questions;" i.e., to the naturalistic's statement "X is pleasurable" one can always ask, "but is it good?"

    A consequence of this for Moore is "that 'good' is a simple notion, just as 'yellow' is a simple notion." "Good" is not to be defined in terms of anything outside itself, but this does not make it impossible to grasp, any more than the color yellow. From this it follows that we can speak about the good and, indeed, say a great deal about it.

    Moore sees in the principle of utility the articulation of a manner in which one can reason ethically. It is here ethics has its relation to conduct. When raising the practical question "What ought I to do?" one must always base their decision on whether the action will be the cause of the good or bring about good effect. From this it follows "that 'right' does and can mean nothing but 'cause of a good result,' and is thus identical with 'useful.'"

    The final determination of the useful (i.e., the good) was for Moore a kind of intuition. One "sees" the intrinsic value of morally practical actions.

    See Stephen Darwall on the unanalyzability of the concept of goodness.

(2) Sir David Ross, The Right and the Good (1930)

    Ross's book arose primarily in response to the kind of utilitarianism espoused by Principia Ethica, that which says that "right means productive of the highest good." For Ross, what makes a right act right is not the principle of utility but an overriding moral duty that might sometimes conflict with Moore's "ideal utilitarianism" which says, "in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbors stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my action." In the situation of a promisee and promiser, for instance, it might be harmless or even beneficial to break a promise, but this would not necessarily make it right to do so. We have certain duties that are not based upon the consequences of their adaptation, but on the rightness of their adaptation. Now these duties are, we could say, Kantian in nature, i.e., universal and deontic. Ross calls such general principles prima facie duties in light of the fact that, "all things being equal" i.e., no other opposing circumstances present, we ought to follow the principle. For example, all things being equal, we ought to keep promises.

    But moral situations often exhibit a complexity which involves a conflict of prima facie duties. On this account Ross tells us that our actual duty will be that which is right for the particular situation. For instance, while keeping promises is a prima facie duty, there may arise a particular situation in which it is outweighed by another prima facie duty. Ross uses the example of breaking a trivial promise of meeting a friend in order to prevent a serious accident. He writes in this connection:

      ". . .besides the duty of fulfilling promises I have and recognize a duty of relieving distress, and that when I think it right to do the latter at the cost of not doing the former, it is not because I think I shall produce more good thereby but because I think it the duty which is in the circumstances more of a duty."

    In this case the latter duty is our actual duty, though both prima facie duties maintain their deontic nature. Ross gives us a position that overcomes the emphasis on "utility" in Moore's ethics. It is a position that emphasizes the notion of duty to do the right thing.

We can see from the above that the trends in the initial setting represent the classical debates between the utilitarians and the Kantians. Moore favors a notion of action based upon the consequences of bringing more good than evil into the world, Ross a notion of action based upon the morally good person's fulfillment of his sense of duty in light of what is ethically right. But those who espoused the radical dichotomy between facts and values sought to present an ethical theory most in accord with such a disjunction.

(3) A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (1935)

    The thesis, simply put, is the following: There are only two kinds of statements, the analytic (which express the necessary truths of logic and mathematics) and the synthetic (which express "matters of fact"). Regarding the latter, we must hold them to the verificationalist principle of meaning which states that any genuine proposition must at least be capable of being reduced to observation statements which depict some possible empirical situation. If propositions fail to conform to such criteria, they fail to conform to conditions under which a sentence can be literally significant. Such propositions are therefore not really propositions at all, but rather meaningless pseudo-propositions. Now, since the propositions of ethics fail to reduce to statements capable of empirical verification, they fall under the category of pseudo-propositions and are not literally significant.

    What is left, by way of a positive analysis, is the belief that ethical expressions are merely emotive in nature, adding nothing to actual situations in the world. For instance, in saying "stealing money is wrong" I have merely expressed my feelings which might have been equally expressed without the ethical term viz., "Stealing money!"

    Thus ethics is either the expression of the speaker's emotion or a phenomenon of the descriptive sciences of sociology and psychology. In neither case can one attempt to speak about ethics in any manner approaching a normative discipline, i.e., one cannot meaningfully speak about ethics.

(4) C.L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (1944)

    Stevenson sought to present, in a more systematic fashion, the nuances and consequences of the emotive theory. Basing his view on the distinction between facts and values, he attempted to unfold this distinction in ethics into a distinction between beliefs and attitudes. The former relate to the sphere of facts, the latter to the psychological states of approval or disapproval. "Moral judgments are concerned with recommending something for approval or disapproval; and this involves something more than a disinterested description."

    The richness of Stevenson's analysis lies in his constant investigations into the kind of "interplay" that occurs between beliefs and attitudes and the attempt to disclose the subtle relationships that occur between the two spheres. (For instance, the manner in which two people in ethical disagreement come to see the situation in the same way and, in adjusting their beliefs, they come to an agreement in attitude also.)

    Be this as it may, the fundamental distinction between the spheres of belief and attitude remains and the latter can never, in principle, be reducible to a "disinterested description." The ultimate ground of out ethical existence is the emotive expression of our attitudes which are neither true nor false but simply beyond the sphere of facts.

    With Steveson, the distinction between facts and values receives its expression here in the distinction between beliefs and attitudes.

The next stage in Anglo-American thought will involve a critique of this positivistic position. From hence onward the views of ethics will change direction, overcoming the fact/value distinction and attempting to restore ethics to "its own language."

(5) Stephen Toulmin, Reason in Ethics (1948)

    Hailed as another Principia Ethica, Toulmin's book brought to ethics the decisive attacks against the positivistic schools. He essentially undercut the emotive theory by undercutting the distinction between facts and values upon which it was based. This was accomplished through a questioning of the status of "factual statements."

    Most relevant for our considerations is his attempt to give ethics its own kind of reasoning, to say of ethics, if you will, that it is a language game with its own rules for intelligibility. "We must expect that every mode of reasoning, every type of sentence. . .will have its own logical criteria, to be discovered by examining its own, particular uses."

    The text attempts to show that ethics is not reducible to an objective (value as property), subjective (emotive) or imperative ground, though it contains elements of each. Rather, ethics has its own scope, and eo ipso its own reasoning, determined by the activities and forms of life that give rise to an "ethical existence." And the criteria for ethical existence is the harmoniousness of the society. From this one can make inferences regarding the kind of action of be performed. The central accomplishment, however, is the attempt to ground ethics in its own sphere of reason.

(6) R.M. Hare, The Language of Morals (1952)

    One of the best known works to explore ethical reasoning is Hare's The Language of Morals which attempts, in classic analytical procedures, to uncover the meaning of our ethical expressions. The language of morals is essentially perscriptive in nature, yielding universalizable imperatives in particular circumstance. I am perscribing, for myself and others, the command of, for example, not telling a lie. Such a perscription demands my acting in accordance with it. The very language of morals involves a commitment to conduct and our reasoning vis a vis the ethical situation refers to the principle of universality. Taken together, both moments yield the sense of the ethical sphere.

    What is of particular interest here is the attempt to think about ethics from within the sphere of ethics and not to bring in wider metaphysical or epistemological considerations. Reasoning about ethics has become, in analytic philosophy, an investigation into ethical reasoning. This is seen most clearly in the next exemplar.

(7) Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of View (1957)

    Baier's position is essentially an investigation into the conditions that make up something like a "moral point of view." Once this view has been described, the problem is just one of adopting it or rejecting it, i.e., acting from within or outside the moral point of view, and the task of the practical thinker is to show one that moral reasons are overriding reasons in cases in which a conflict with self interest arise.

    What is important for our purposes is Baier's heavy reliance upon a Hobbsian world view in which a rational person would have to assert that a moral society is to be desired over a state of nature. "The very raison d'etre of a morality is to yield reasons which overrule the reasons of self interest in cases where everyone's following self-interest would be harmful to everyone." This re-introduces the social element (already contained in Toulmin) into ethical theory and sets the stage for Rawls' society based description of ethics.

A survey of the past three theories shows an overcoming of the fact/value distinction and a movement towards discussing ethics and ethical theory on its own terms. What is significant here is the gradual re-emergence of social theory and the interconnection between society and ethics. The analytic ethics of the sixties consisted mostly of a re-working of the various points of view so far expressed. We shall take as our example of this era the articles gathered together by Philippa Foot.

(8) Theories of Ethics, ed. Philippa Foot (1967)

    Since the vehicle for analytical philosophy is the well known "article," it is not surprising to see certain eras in Anglo-American thought best expressed in a cluster of essays centering upon a single theme. Such is the case with ethics in the sixties. We have, in Philippa Foot's collection, an essential re-working of the issues put forth since the turn of the century, a close scrutiny which will act as a clearing ground for the new movement in the seventies.

    Writers like John Searle use a theory like J.L. Austin's "performative utterance" to show that in certain circumstances, when we say something we have essentially done it. This applies particularly to promise making. Once again this indicates a willingness to discuss ethical issues from within ethics and to attempt an understanding of the moral point of view (in this case, of what it means to enter into the "promising game"). The general shift that has taken place in moral philosophy is a movement towards understanding what ethics is, meaning by ethics not first order terms like "right" and "good," but rather the analysis of second order notions making up the very sense of the "moral institution." "The current endeavor is not to promote certain moral goals or principles, or to clarify only such words as 'right' and 'ought' but rather to grasp the nature of morality itself, as compared with law, religion or science."

    This attempt to understand the institution of morality is an important factor in the contemporary interest in John Rawls, whose treatise on justice has strongly influenced recent moral philosophy.

(9) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971)

    The work is not, strictly speaking, a work on ethics but rather a particular species of ethics, namely, justice. Nevertheless, the broad view and expansiveness of A Theory of Justice provides many moments of ethical reflection with issues ranging from intuitionism and utilitarianism to the ethics of Kant and Aristotle. As such, it contains the central issues of ethics from within its own interest.

    The theory of justice revolves around the adaptation of two fundamental principles of justice which would, in turn, guarantee a just and morally acceptable society:

    First Principle -- Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

    Second Principle -- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and
    • attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

    For a discussion of these two principles of justice and Rawls's contract theory, see James Sterba's commentary.

    A key problem for Rawls is to show how such principles would be universally adopted, and here the work borders on general ethical issues. He introduces a theoretical "veil of ignorance" in which all the "players" in the social game would be placed in a situation which is called the "original position." Having only a general knowledge about the facts of "life and society," each player is to make a "rationally prudential choice" concerning the kind of social institution they would enter into contract with. By denying the players any specific information about themselves it forces them to adopt a generalized point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view. "Moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint and positing a moral outlook merely by pursuing one's own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints." And with this view of "rational choice within a veil of ignorance" we have brought to a close our analysis of Rawls and the background context for contemporary discussions.

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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)