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: Contractarian Theories
Section 6: Virtue Ethics
Section 7: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
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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Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories

Today we often find moral problems framed by perspectives derived from political philosophy. Issues like euthanasia, stem cell research and abortion as well as distributive justice concerns such as social security and medicare, are likely to be seen along the liberal/conservative divide. Traditional moral theories need to take these frameworks into consideration.

Will Kymlicka’s Introduction to Political Philosophy (2nd Ed) provides analyses of the philosophical ideas behind the “ideological debates” that now envelop many topics in moral philosophy. Of particular value is his discussion of liberal equality, libertarianism, and communitarianism.

Liberal equality is often associated with the work on John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. It argues that we should rationally affirm two fundamental principles of justice designed to protect our political liberties and social opportunities. It can be directly contrasted with the libertarian ideas found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick challenges Rawls’s approach to social inequalities and argues for a minimalist state. But both authors (and their followers) conceive of individuals as ‘Socratic’ in nature, capable of reasoning about their life plan and questioning, in principle, the world around them. In this sense, they are both ‘liberals’ in the tradition of John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty.” “For liberals, the question about the good life requires us to make a judgment about what sort of a person we wish to be” (Kymlicka p. 213). Thus liberals will emphasize the role of choice and freedom from government interference in private matters.

For communitarians, on the other hand, individuals are not atomistic, ‘unencumbered selves’ -- individuals are situated within a community, embedded in the received wisdom of our human culture. Communal values are ‘authoritative horizons’ wherein we take our orientation toward life  (Macintyre). The "self is not prior to, but rather constituted by, its ends -- we cannot distinguish ‘me’ from ‘my ends’ [and] our selves are at least partly constituted by ends that we do not choose, but rather discover by virtue of our being embedded in some shared social context" (Sandel, quoted by Kymlicka p. 211). Since self-determination does not occur in a vacuum, the government needs to support a social environment that is conducive to the development of what is best in all of us. For those communitarians who are 'social conservatives,' this will often take the form of a promotion 'family values' that can, for example, discourage changes in the institution of marriage.

Broadly speaking, these two positions account for the divide between ‘liberals’ and ‘social conservatives’ in dealing with matters such as abortion and euthanasia. In these situations, liberals tend to become 'pro-choice' and social conservatives tend to become 'pro-life.'


As is to be expected in a modern, pluralistic democracy, many of these issues are addressed in the political realm and through the political process (including the courts). But the kinds of 'cases' that arise within these areas should also be addressed within the framework of applied ethics as a way to get clearer about the nature of the problem and its potential for resolution. Indeed, we often see analyses found in applied ethics, such as the concept of a 'person in the morally significant sense' or the distinction between 'killing' and 'allowing to die,' embedded in the political debate itself.

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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)