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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Contractarian Theories

Moral Contractualism

In the 1970s, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice revived an approach to ethics that sought to yield substantive, normative action guides. Following the 'social contract' tradition in political philosophy, Rawls suggested a strategy for formulating key principles for personal and social duties:

Imagine a hypothetical original position where individuals, through a veil of ignorance, have no knowledge of themselves or their place in a potential society. These individuals do have, however, a wide knowledge of the general facts of psychology, economics, politics, and sociology.

Rawls supposed that in this position, these 'contractors,' as rationally self-interested, would adopt a maximim strategy whereby they would opt for the less risky egalitarian, deontological principles of justice and moral fairness. Writes the commentator Robert Paul Wolf "...moral conclusions can be reached, without abandoning the prudential standpoint and positing a moral outlook, merely by pursuing one's prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints" (Understanding Rawls p. 63). In fact, for Rawls, placing rationally self-interested individuals behind a veil of ignorance provides a tool for justifying our liberal democracy and the Moral Point of View.

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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)