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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Excerpts from Onoral O'Neill's entry on "Universalism in Ethics" and David McNaughton's entry on "W. D. Ross" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)

Universalism in Ethics

One distinctive understanding of universalism in ethics is that ethical principles are principles for everybody. They prescribe obligations for everybody, define rights for everybody, list virtues for everybody. The most minimal version of ethical universalism is a claim about the form of ethical principles or standards. It is the claim that ethical principles hold for all and not merely for some, that is, for everybody without exception.


A second conception of universalism in ethics emphasizes the content as well as the form and scope of principles. Principles which hold for everybody will prescribe or recommend the same for everybody (same obligations, same rights, same virtues and so on). Advocates of universal principles see this as a merit: they see equality of requirement and entitlement as ethically important. For example, discussions of universal human rights emphasize not only that all humans have rights, but that they all have the same rights.


The charge that ethical principles which prescribe the same for all abstract from differences between cases is true, but not damaging. No principle of action - whether of universal or non-universal form, whether of cosmopolitan or lesser scope - can prescribe with total specificity; even very explicit principles abstract from many circumstances. It follows that principles of action can always be satisfied in varied ways. A principle such as "Tell the truth" does not prescribe what we must say to whom or when; a principle such as "Pay your debts" does not determine the means or manner of repayment. Principles of action, including ethical principles, constrain action or entitlements, rather than picking out a single, wholly determinate line of action. Abstract principles can therefore guide action yet allow for flexible interpretation or application that takes account of differences between cases. So an ethics of universal principles can readily avoid both barren formalism and doctrinaire rigorism.


[Some] conceptions of universalism in ethics combine views of the form, scope and sameness of content principles with ambitious claims that a single fundamental principle provides the basis for all derivative ehticsal principles and ultimatley for ethical judgment of particular cases.

Often the proposed fundamental principle is a version of a "golden rule."Variously formulated golden rules are found in Hindu and Confusion sacred texts, and in many other traditions....One well known golden rule is Christian with Jewish antecedents" "Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you". Others are prohibitions rahter than injunctions, such as "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you."

These would-be foundational principles have been criticized for linking ethics too closely to angents' desires or consent. Why should willingness to be on the receiving end of like action make it permissible? If masochists are willing to suffer others' sadism, would that make sadism right? More generally, can acceptance of being on the receiving end of like action legitimate anything?


Fundamental principles: Kantian universalizability

An alternative conception of universalism in ethics rejects golden rules and seeks to anchor all ethical justification in a more formal fundamental universal principle, which does not refer to desires or consent to fix the content of ethics. The most famous and most ambitious attempt to go further is Kantās Īcategorical imperativeā, of which the best known version runs: ĪAct only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal lawā ([1785] 1903: 421). Kant claims to show that Īall imperatives of duty can be derived from this one imperative as their principleā (421). He insists that in such derivations no reference be made either to anyoneās happiness or desires, consent or agreement, and that the categorical imperative is not a version of a golden rule (which he dismisses as trivial, 430, footnote). Kant's views have been influential: a German scholar recently commented that "Kant succeeded with his objection almost in invalidating the golden rule and disqualifying it from future discussion in ethics" (Reiner 1983: 274).

English language philosophy has been less convinced that Kant undermined golden rule approaches. J.S. Mill was neither the first nor the last to think that Kantās claim to derive all principles of duty from the categorical imperative was complete nonsense. He wrote of Kant

when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur. (1861: 207; original emphasis)

There has been widespread scepticism about Kant's supposed claim to show that 'immoral rules of conduct' are self-contradictory. However, he in fact makes the more circumspect modal claim that we should not act on principles which we cannot simultaneously "will as universal laws". An example of such a principle is that of false promising. Kant holds that false promisers who try (incoherently) to will false promising as a universal law thereby will the destruction of the very trust on which their own attempts to promise falsely must rely. Hence when we try to act on such principles Kant holds that

we in fact do not will that our maxim (principle) should become a universal law - since this is impossible for us - but rather that its opposite should remain a law universally: we only take the liberty of making an exception to it for ourselves (or even just for this once). ([1785] 1903: 424; original emphasis)

In "deriving" an "actual principle of duty" from the categorical imperative, Kant takes it that agents not only seek principles of universal form and cosmopolitan scope which prescribe the same for all, but shun any principles which cannot be "willed for all". Kantian justifications of such principles, unlike golden rule justifications, do not appeal to either the desires, the happiness or the acceptance of those on the receiving end, nor indeed to actual or hypothetical desires of any or of all agents. The distinctive modal character of Kantian universalizability is its appeal to what can be willed for all (rather than to what actually is or hypothetically would be willed by all). It remains a matter of considerable controversy whether a strictly Kantian approach can be used to construct an account of specific principles of duty, virtue or entitlement, or whether it is indeed too formal and minimal to sustain these derivations.


William David Ross (1877-1971)

W.D. Ross was a British ancient and moral philosopher. In terms of his moral thinking, he was a pluralist, who held that there are several distinct moral considerations which bear on the rightness of an action. Among the things we need to take into account are promises we have made, the need to avoid harming others, gratitude to benefactors, and the amount of good our action will produce. That these considerations are morally relevant is something we can know, but which action is the right one is a matter of fallible judgment, because that will depend upon how these considerations are to be weighed against each other in the particular case. Ross' contributions to the study of ancient philosophy mainly concerned Aristotle.


In his two major ethical works, The Right and the Good (1930) and The Foundations of Ethics (1939), Ross offers the clearest and most ably defended account of a pluralist deontology in the twentieth century (see Deontological ethics; Moral pluralism). One of Ross' main targets is the consequentialism of G.E. Moore (1903), which held that, in determining whether an action is right, there is just one consideration that is relevant, namely the amount of good that will result from doing that action. Ross held, by contrast, that a number of features of actions are morally significant, and that which action is right will depend on which of these features carries the most weight in a particular case.

Deontology thus distinguishes itself from consequentialism in claiming that the right is independent of the good; the right action is not necessarily the one that produces the most good. Ross defends this claim by arguing that being productive of the most good is neither what it is for an action to be right, nor what makes an action right. The right action is also distinct from the morally good action; the latter depends on the agentās motives, whereas the former does not. His method throughout is to appeal to our ordinary reflective consciousness, which for Ross is the final arbiter on all ethical issues. He is confident that reflection on attempts to define Īrightā will reveal that it is an irreducible notion. It cannot be analysed, but it can be elucidated: Ross suggests that rightness is a species of the relational property of fittingness or suitability. Just as a telling word or phrase may be called for at a particular juncture in a poem, so a particular moral response may be called for by various features of a situation, and the right action will be the act which constitutes the most suitable response to all the factors in that situation, taken as a whole.

Which features of an action are relevant to its rightness? Ross offers a list of what he terms Īprima facie dutiesā, each of which may have a bearing on the rightness of an action. These are duties of fidelity (promise-keeping), reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement and nonmaleficence (not injuring others)......

Ross' list is not an arbitrary one. He offers it as a list of the most basic morally relevant features. He does not claim that it is final - he is perfectly prepared to consider the possibility, for example, that one of the general features on the list might turn out not to be basic, or to be genuinely distinct from the others - but he does hold that what should be on the list is a subject for reasoned debate, drawing again on careful reflection on our moral beliefs.

That certain features of actions are right-making features is self-evident, according to Ross, in much the way that a mathematical axiom or the validity of a form of inference is self-evident. It is not that they are immediately obvious, but that, since they are basic, we cannot appeal to anything more fundamental to justify them. What we ought to do in any particular case is, by contrast, something of which we can never be certain, according to Ross, but only have a better or worse founded opinion. This pessimism about the possibility of moral knowledge in the particular case is perhaps over-stated, but it rests on a structural difference between knowledge of a general moral principle and appreciation of the particular case. Ross holds that, in all but the most trivial cases, whether an action is right will depend on the way that conflicting moral considerations bear on the particular case. There is no mechanical method, no algorithm, for calculating which of these considerations is the weightiest in some specific case. In most cases, there will be just one action that is the right one, but deciding which that is calls for judgment and practical wisdom...

-- David McNaughton (on William David Ross)

Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge
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