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Introduction to Ethics

We are all told, and we (probably) all believe, that there are some things we ought to do and others
that we ought not. Ethics is an examination of these oughts or norms of behaviour. What it seeks to
provide are justifications for the oughts that we use to guide us through life. To help you appreciate
that this justification can have a range from the obvious to the very difficult, consider the following
statements concerning diet:

You ought to eat more sensibly because otherwise you will get sick.

You ought to eat more chocolate because otherwise the workers who pick the beans in under-

developed countries will encounter hardship.

You ought to eat the sheeps eye presented to you by your Arab host because otherwise he

will be very offended.

You ought to steal food from the plate of a rich person and give it to the starving because just

allowing people to starve to death is inhuman.

You ought to stop eating meat because it causes animal suffering.

You ought to stop eating pork as it is against Gods will and you could go to Hell.

Some terms
Before going further, it is a good idea to try to get clear a few of the terms used in this area of
philosophy, particularly morals and ethics. Broadly speaking, ethics relates to the theory of what is
right and wrong, morals with the practice. (Though be warned that these are often interchanged in
everyday usage and sometimes even by philosophers.) Thus, we have medical ethics (but not
medical morals) which seeks to guide doctors and, for instance, moral medical practices (such as,
perhaps, the alleviation of pain) or immoral ones (perhaps circumcision without consent) which
doctors might actually carry out. From this distinction you can see why we have moral
philosophy (and not ethical philosophy) since it is the practice of reflecting on morality. Moral
acts are







theory,immoral ones




theories. Amoral acts have no moral dimension. Thus, the act of a tiny baby dropping its rattle out of
the pram is amoral but smacking the baby for it might be seen as moral or immoral depending on the
ethical principle appealed to.
Principles for Moral Actions Normative Ethics
Jumping in at the deep end, the first thing to consider is whether ethical principles even exist.
Of course, it seems like they exist we all seem to behave as if there is a set of guiding principles to
help us decide what is the right thing to do in a certain situation. But what are we to say to
the determinist who maintains that all our reactions are out of our control, that we are incapable of
making real choices about how we behave? And what are we to say to the solipsist who maintains
that their mind is the only real thing in the world? If there is nothing else besides this solipsists mind,
then there is nothing to judge it against. So, a solipsist would not have standards of behaviour or
ethical principles at all: they would not exist.
Fortunately, neither of these positions, though possible, is philosophically acceptable. Determinism
because it disallows reasoning to a conclusion which, arguably, is at the heart of philosophy [see

more on this in the section on egoism]; solipsism for its sheer implausibility as a theory
(notwithstanding its logical impregnability).
So, having acknowledged the existence of ethical principles as an acceptable standpoint, the next big
question is this: are our ethical principles universal or merely relative? In other words, is something
like you ought not to murder always going to be a principle or might it only be a principle for one
individual, or one culture, or at one particular time? Well look at the latter idea first since it is currently
quite a popular position to adopt.
Ethical Relativism
Basically, the idea here is that there is no single set of ethical principles which apply universally.
Rather, we make up ethical principles to suit ourselves: there is nothing to say which set of principles
is better than any other.
This position has a dual attraction. Firstly (and perhaps less worthily) it allows us quickly and easily
and painlessly to arrive at an ethical standpoint on an issue. Taking slavery as an example we can
now say that it is wrong to enslave people in Britain; that it was right for the Ancient Greeks to enslave
people; that it is right for certain Amazonian tribes to enslave people. What makes slavery right or
wrong is whether it fits with the ethical principles of the culture at the time. This can be quite a
comfort: no-one can criticize our own ethical principles from outside our culture. And, of course,
neither can we criticize other cultures which, for example, allow the old to starve to death or routinely
mutilate the genitalia of girls. This saves us a lot of worrying.
Secondly (more worthily) it probably stems from the principle of toleration: who are we to praise or
condemn other groups of people for what they do? Ethical relativism can be seen as part of this live
and let live attitude.
Though attractive and popular ethical relativism is not viewed highly by moral philosophers. One
reason for this is that it does not allow us to condemn actions which, one would guess, most people
would want (even ought?) to condemn. Thus, ethical relativism insists we must maintain a neutral
stance over the Third Reichs Final Solution (elimination of the Jewish people); Saddam Husseins
gassing of the Kurds; the practice of crushing and binding infant Chinese girls feet; torturing political
prisoners in Turkey; Japanese whaling fleets; Brazilian logging companies burning swathes of
rainforest; and so on.
So, though it might first appear to be a cosy solution to the question of how one ought to behave, if it
means that we have to say things like Who are we to judge those who perpetrated the Holocaust?
We cannot condemn them for being in the wrong since it was the right thing for the Germans to do
given their culture at the time then most of us would feel there is something going wrong. Relativism
smacks of the cop-out.
Another reason to view it with suspicion is that it condemns reformers since they are, by definition,
questioning and attempting to change the ethical principles of their culture principles which the
relativist must insist are the right ones for that culture including the reformer. Thus, when Wilberforce
began agitating for the banning of slavery, when Martin Luther King began agitating for black

emancipation in America, when the Raj opposed suttee, even when Jesus healed people on the
Sabbath, their actions are all to be condemned because they are immoral since they contravene the
ethical principles of the culture. Again, for most of us, this is not a comfortable position to try and
Looking at such examples leads us to another criticism of ethical relativism: it is far too vague to be of
any real use in the practical question of how one should live ones life. What is a culture? Take, for
instance, a Roman Catholic in Britain: which culture is one to appeal to if one is a raped teenage girl
who is pregnant but does not want a child: the Roman Catholic culture which says you must have the
baby, or the British culture which says that you need not have the baby? Also, since cultural practices
change with time, how are we to know whether we should adopt the old or the new cultural practice?
For example, if you lived in Britain in the 1950s should you condemn homosexuality (as the culture in
the recent past did) or tolerate it (as some people were urging)? Cultural relativism gives no guidance
on such questions.
Finally, as the considerations above indicate, how are we to resist sliding from cultural relativism to
subjective relativism, from the idea that the ethical principles of the culture is the arbiter of what is
right or wrong to the ethical principles of theindividual being the arbiter of what is right or wrong? A
subjective relativist is like a character in Hemingways Death in the Afternoon: I know only that what
is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. In short, you can
do what you like and that will be morally good too. If you find anything attractive in this philosophical
position, you would have to call a person torturing you for the fun of it a good person if he, the torturer
felt good about it. Which, perhaps, would be what you deserved.
Turning now to the second attraction of ethical relativism, its link with toleration, we can quickly see
that this is not going to be of much comfort after all. This is because toleration is itself an ethical
principle: you ought to be tolerant of the behaviour of others. As such, it may be an ethical principle in
one culture but not in another (and, of course, the relativist can neither praise nor blame either culture
for the principles presence or absence). Consider this exchange between a cultural relativist (CR)
and a member of an intolerant culture (G):
CR: The ethical principles of every culture in the world are equally right and good.
G: On the contrary, only my cultures ethical principles are right and good, the rest are wrong and
It is clear that, since the two statements are contradictory, they cannot both be true. The only other
possibilities are that both statements are untrue, or that only one of the statements is true.
If Gs were true and CRs untrue that would eliminate the contradiction but would knock out cultural
relativism as a tenable philosophical position.
But what if CRs were true and Gs untrue? Well, if what CR says is true, then this means that what G
says is true since Gs culture is one of every culture in the world. And, as weve seen, if Gs is true
this makes CRs untrue again, knocking out cultural relativism.
This analysis therefore also undermines the initial cosiness of cultural relativism as a philosophical
position. To answer the question of Why ought we to be tolerant of all things except intolerance? is
an ethical question to which cultural relativism has no reasonable answer. Since tolerance was the
key element of the attraction of relativism then this is potentially fatal to the idea.

This being the case, we need to step beyond the limits of culture and look to see if there are any
justifications for universal ethical principles.
This philosophical position seeks to set out ethical principles which hold for all people, in all situations,
for all time. A tall order, perhaps, but one which may be necessary if we are to avoid sinking into the
bog of relativism.
The primary place to look is towards God. Since God is the Author of all things, He knows what is
good and what is bad so all we need do is ask Him and we will then know exactly what we ought, or
ought not, to do. Though straight-forward, this is not quite as simple as it sounds.
Firstly, there are different varieties of God out there which seem to have different views on how things
should be done (as small examples: one seems to demand that deference to Him should be shown by
covering the head and exposing the feet whereas another requires exactly the opposite; one requires
us to have just one wife at a time, another enjoins us to have several; one indicates we should stone
adulterers, another says forgive them). Hence, how can we know that we have got the right God
before following the right set of ethical principles? The only way seems to be to have the One and
Only God speak to us direct and then we can know for sure. However, this is not really acceptable
since some people claim to have acted on Gods direct spoken word and most people find their
actions reprehensible an example is The Yorkshire Ripper who mutilated and killed prostitutes after
(he claimed) hearing the voice of God telling him to do this.
Even if we discover the One and Only God there is a further point to be made: is what God says is
good merely arbitrary? For example, is the statement You ought to obey your parents something that
God has just made up because he was in that frame of mind? Or is it a good thing to do in itself?
Believers would like to say that their Gods ethical principles are not arbitrary that it is good to be
compassionate, charitable and loving not just because God has decided this, but because He
wouldnt have decided it any other way. But this, of course, acknowledges that there are ethical
principles which are not just made up, that even God has to latch on to such principles in the same
way that we do.
Further, we might question whether a believer who acts simply in accordance with commandments is
really behaving morally at all. If someone obeys instructions just in order to avoid punishment, or in
order to enjoy some reward, we might justifiably see them as less morally good. You ought to behave
kindly because behaving kindly is right, not behave kindly because you might get a reward or might
otherwise be punished. In short, the question of obedience to Gods commandments is secondary to
doing what is ethically right.
Finally, another difficulty with God as setter of ethical principles is that non-believers in God cannot
possibly behave morally. However, this seems wholly wrong: any reasonable Christian would agree
that Buddha was a good person even though he didnt believe in the Christians God; any nonbeliever who tortured children for fun could not claim their actions were morally neutral since they
were faithless. Again, we are appealing to ethical principles that are above and beyond the concept
or actuality of God.

Given these considerations, God is, at best, unnecessary with respect to the question of ethical
principles. The question of whether there are alternative possibilities that might justify such principles
can be explored by considering the notions of virtue,duty and the consequences of actions. We will
look at each of these in turn.

Deontological Ethics
Theories in this category address the question of what makes one action right and another one wrong
irrespective of the consequences of the action. It emphasizes what is the right thing to do rather than
what is the good thing to do. The termdeontological derives from the Ancient Greek word for duty
which neatly encapsulates this approach. Thus, theories of this type seek to justify our duty to behave
in some ways, not behave in other ways. This is in direct contrast withconsequentialist theories. In the
latter whether we are violent or not would be judged right or wrong depending on the consequences.
But in deontological theories the violence would be considered in isolation: is violent behaviour right or
wrong in itself and why?
Again, we might start traditionally and consider the individual: is there anything I can do by myself to
determine what my duty is in a given situation? Are there rules which spell out my duty?
The problem with having rules for anything is that they are supposed to work in all situations at all
times (otherwise there is not much point in having rules). Even a fairly narrow acquaintance with life
shows us that there always seem to be exceptions to rules particularly when it comes to complex
things like human behaviour. So, can we do without rules (which deal in generalising about behaviour)
and just decide what to do in the one situation we find ourselves in at the time? Some have thought
that this can be the case. This looks attractive in that it gets us out of the problem of having rules
which cant always be made to apply. The trouble is, even a cursory examination makes the
proposition look inadequate.
Somehow, you are supposed to arrive at how to behave without any reference to a guiding rule or
without regard to the consequences of your actions. How do you do this? Well, you listen to your
heart or something equivalent. A Believer might justify this approach by saying that their God will
guide their behaviour in this way but, as we have seen, this begs the question of how God knows
what is the right thing to do is He following rules Himself or is it His whim that a certain behaviour is
right? The latter is unacceptable to most Believers and the former puts us squarely back with the
problem of making rules for ethics. A nonbeliever might appeal to something intuitive (such as search
your conscience for what do to now) but I think that many of us would not feel all that happy about our
fellow-citizens deciding on what is the right thing to do by doing what feels right. We would want a
rather better justification than this.
Apart from these rather opinionated objections, we could appeal to real life. The way that people
behave is of a piece with the way that we learn anything: we generalize from particulars. In learning to

walk we discover that putting a foot in front as we lean forward saves us from falling. From this
particular event we can generalize it wont just work in the kitchen, in the morning, on a Monday,
when Mummys watching, etc., but will work generally on (nearly) any surface, at (nearly) any time,
(nearly) irrespective of others present, etc. (The brackets are there because, as we know, there can
be sneaky exceptions that life can surprise us with. But even these can be generalized from once
experienced: the icy surface can make us fall but from it we can generalize to all icy surfaces need to
be walked on with more care than usual). A similar pattern holds for our ethical behaviour. Perhaps
one or two attempts at lying will be enough to generalize that lying doesnt pay, or only pays given
certain conditions which, if repeated in the future, will encourage us to lie again. In short, everything
we do as we learn is governed by the generation of principles to guide us in the future. We are
incorrigible generalisers and so, to be the best guide, we should seek the best set of guiding
principles that we can including guiding principles for moral activities: rules, in other words.
The philosopher who sought to establish ethical rules on the firmest possible foundation
was Immanuel Kant. He thought that he could set out rules for our behaviour which, if we did not
follow them, would be because we were irrational. This is probably the most persuasive grounds for
anyone since it trumps everything if you admit to being irrational then you are beyond argument,
beyond help, probably beyond belief. What spurred Kant into thinking about this was the view of other
philosophers (most notably David Hume) that reasoning was useless when it came to our behaviour.
Famously, Hume taught that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never
pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. Kant thought this inadequate and
championed reason as the sole guiding principle for rational beings like ourselves. Here is why.
Kants deontological ethics
A good place to start is with the What if everyone did that? question. We usually ask this when we
think that someone is doing something wrong but perhaps have no really persuasive argument that
we can level at them. It is generally referred to as the universalisation test and it sounds a lot like the
Golden Rule for ethics: Do as you would be done by, a rule that is found in nearly all ethical traditions
reaching back to Confucius (551479BC). Kant thought that his argument, though apparently the
same as the Golden Rule, was much better. For one thing, as he pointed out, the Golden Rule can be
misapplied in some circumstances. Trying to persuade a rich man to give to charity by appealing to
the Rule is unlikely to work: he doesnt need people giving him their money, so he neednt give others
Kant starts his argument by getting to what he sees as the heart of ethics. He strips it down to
something he calls good will. This, he maintains, is the only thing that is good in itself, something
which shines like a jewel for its own sake. On the way to this conclusion he dismisses other sorts of
thing which might be considered good in themselves (like courage, happiness, understanding) by
saying that these are always capable of being channeled into bad acts: it takes courage to murder; a
thief can be happy to thieve; understanding can be used to pervert the thinking of others.
But what is this good will? Kant gives us the answer through considering examples. Imagine you are
visiting a foreign country and are unfamiliar with the coins. You buy something at a shop, cannot really

understand the shopkeepers language, and proffer a handful of coins. The shopkeeper helps himself
to a few of them and hands you the purchase. In this situation the shopkeeper could have taken more
money than he should have but let us assume that he didnt. Now, was his behaviour good (i.e. not
taking advantage of you)? Kant says it depends. If he took the right money because he thought you
more likely to come back to buy more, or tell your friends to go there, then Kant says he is not doing
good. Yes, he is honest but his motive is not good. The good will is acting from a good motive, acting
from a sense of law or duty. As Kant puts it: When moral worth is at issue, what counts is not actions,
which one sees, but those inner principles of action that one does not see.
So far, however, we seem to just have got as far as the person searching their conscience that we
looked at right at the beginning of this section. Kants telling us to act from a sense of duty leads us
to ask what this duty is. His reply that our one and only duty is to act from a sense of duty seems to
just lead us around in a circle. He himself acknowledges this apparent stalemate but then produces a
move of utter brilliance:
But what kind of law can that be, the representation of which must determine the will, even without
regard for the effect expected from it, in order for the will to be called good absolutely and without
limitation? Since I have deprived the will of every impulse that could arise for it obeying some law,
nothing is left but the conformity of actions as such with universal law, which alone is to serve the will
as its principle, that is, I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim
should become a universal law.
This is Kants famous Categorical Imperative and is supposed to establish our moral principle (to act
out of a sense of duty) as being proved by reason alone (which, uniquely, provides us with grounds for
our thought). His argument seeks to show that the structure of the Categorical Imperative gives it
universal authority: you cannot flout it and, at the same time, defend yourself against the accusation of
being irrational.
Let us see it in action. Why should we not break a promise? Well, if I were to universalize my breaking
a promise, then all promises will become worthless. In other words, the institution of making and
keeping promises would disappear which is counter to what I as a rational person would want. And it
is irrational to wish to do something which will result in what I do not wish to happen.
A first weakness is the assumption that I think promise-keeping worthwhile in the first place. What if I
dont? Remember that Kant has rejected other things like trust and integrity, happiness and courage,
as being good in themselves, resting his ethics on the good will alone. If I dont value trust, say, then
this example about promises isnt going to win me over. I might wish to undermine trust and a good
way a very rational way to do that would be to give false promises.
A second weakness is that, in the real world, giving a false promise in a certain circumstance is
desirable and rational. If I promise a madman that I will carry out the executions he wants me to
perform (in order that he doesnt execute me on the spot) this is universalisable but goes against the
principle of it being a duty not to break a promise. So long as it is only in similar circumstances that
promises get broken, the institution of promise-keeping will continue as robustly as ever.

A third one is that it doesnt cover all the cases we want. Consider the rich man who doesnt give to
charity mentioned above, who argued in accordance with the Golden Rule that he neednt give to
others and they neednt give to him. Kant has only one argument to persuade the man that he fails the
Categorical Imperative test: he might get into a moneyless situation in the future and then he will need
the assistance of others. Of course, this simply invites the reply that, then again, he might not lose his
money and why not take the risk? Thus he can will that nobody is charitable to anyone else and hope
that he stays rich.
It seems that the great philosopher was aware of such limitations and, though never explicitly
admitting it, produced more persuasive versions of his principle of founding ethics on reason.
(Whether his alternative versions are equivalent to his version above is debatable but Kant thought
they were.) In practical terms, he held that humans have the capacity to act in accordance with the
Categorical Imperative, and that this capacity is the thing of value. True, we can never be certain that
our motives are pure when we decide to do the right thing, but we can at least try. It is this effort that is
the important thing and wins us both the respect of others and our own self-respect. The fact that we
reason through our motives, that we reason through the motives of others, is what counts. This
combination of reasoning and respect produces, for Kant, the version of his Imperative which runs:
So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person of in the person of any other, always at the
same time as an end, never merely as a means.
In other words, it is the respect for other humans as reasoning beings, capable of being appealed to
through reasoning, understood through reasoning, that lies at the foundation of ethics. This has an
enormous appeal and, though wanting in several ways (some of which have been outlined above),
seems to be have within it the truth about how we ought to behave.
It is only fair that a further major criticism of this approach is pointed out before we turn to an
alternative. This is the lack of practical guidance which stems from there being just the one
underlying good will rather than a variety of guiding virtues (such as happiness, courage, honesty,
etc). Since there is just the one good will, it cannot help us sort out what to do in certain
circumstances when there is an apparent conflict of duties. Further, since our motives may not always
be trusted, examining the consequences of our actions is also not allowed to figure in the reasoning
process (except with respect to universalisability). So, when a psychopath with an axe asks me where
you are hidden so that they can chop you to bits, what do I say? I must not lie (since this is not
universalisable), I must not tell the truth (not protecting the innocent from the demented is not
universalisable). Thus, according to Kants system, I will be paralysed since I can do neither of these
without condemning myself as irrational. This hardly recommends it as a system to help decide what
to do in life.
The example of the mad axe-man points us towards an alternative ethical system which seems to
help in situations like this: the choice between lying and protecting the innocent is not best addressed
through consideration of duty alone, what helps is to consider the outcome of doing either and then
judging which outcome is preferable. Such systems are called consequentialist and we will turn to
them later.

Before doing this we can have a look at a more modern deontological system which focuses on our
rights and duties and attempts to incorporate the Kantian emphasis on reason as being at the heart of
ethics. This is generally referred to ascontractarianism and, basically, is the idea that people should
adopt norms of behaviour because it is reasonable for them to do so given the contractual nature of
human society. Thus, you should not steal because you are under a type of contractual obligation not
to steal by being a member of society where stealing is morally wrong.
An immediate objection to this approach might be to point out that this is all very well but who decided
in the first place that stealing was wrong? In other words, what is the basis for the various contractual
obligations that we are signed up for? It seems that for a group to sit down and decide whether
stealing is right or wrong they will have to appeal to something other than a contract if no such
contract currently exists.
A sort of answer to this where do the values come from? question was given by John Rawls in 1971.
He proposed a famous thought-experiment in which a group of humans come together and have to
devise a set of principles for their society to work by. The imaginary part of this is that the individuals
doing the deciding are told that there will be some people of greater and lesser intelligence, greater
and lesser degrees of health, greater and lesser pigment in their skin, ability to lead, to follow, to carve
wood, to care for babies, etc etc in other words, these people would represent a reasonable crosssection of the types found in human society. However, the deciding individuals did not know which
attributes they themselves possessed. One might be black, female, intelligent and a leader; another
might be yellow, male, dim and artistic; and so on. This veil of ignorance Rawls thought would ensure
a just distribution of rights and duties in his hypothetical society just as if you were in charge of
cutting up a pizza to share and only knowing that you would get the last piece: you would do your best
to cut it equally.
Rawls said that the individuals setting up the contractual principles would agree to such things as
freedom of expression for all; the limiting of powers of Governments; an equitable distribution of
wealth that is consistent with continued wealth creation in short, something close to a democratic
socialist state where a well-educated population approves of reasonable institutions. No individual, for
example, would say that the poor should not be able to vote, or that yellow people should be the
wood-carvers since, behind the veil of ignorance, you might be the poor yellow person and you would
not want to be disenfranchised and might not want to be forced into being a wood-carver. Being
reasonable, you would then see that this should not be forced on anyone in the group so you agree to
the contract allowing everyone to vote, everyone to choose a job within their capabilities. And so on.
This idea of ethics emerging from the reasonable view of the common man has a great appeal but
doubt has been cast on whether, in fact, Rawls is really describing a contract or just what most people
seem to prefer at this stage in our history. One can imagine some non-risk-averse people being willing
to agree to a principle where the poorest 10% are annually culled to leave the richer ones better off
through not having to pay extra taxes to look after them. I dare say that few of us would agree that if
this principle were to become part of a contract that it would then become ethically acceptable.

There is something attractive about the reasonable common man as being close to the heart of an
acceptable ethical system. We will come back to this notion when we consider the Virtue Ethics
section later.

Ethical Egoism

Egoism is a position where the prime consideration is the effects of ones actions on oneself. This sort
of analysis can be seen to stem from the traditional philosophical dichotomy between ones self (the
subject) and the rest of the world (the object). It is argued that, since one is inevitably bound up with
ones own interests, happiness, desires, hopes, etc., then how one ought to behave will, also
inevitably, be centred on the effects that make a difference to us directly.
The ethical egoists approach, broadly speaking, says that the good action is the one which is best for
me as an individual. Thus, if I am hungry but have no food and take your chips to eat, this is good for
me and hence good to do.
This approach, perhaps surprisingly at first glance, has some respectable philosophical roots. Thomas
Hobbes (15881679) observed that human nature is fundamentally self-interested, that it is natural
that I as an individual am most concerned with what is best for me. From this observation he argued
that we cannot expect an individual to do things which promote the interests of others above the
interest of that individual since this goes against human nature. So, it should be no surprise that I help
myself to your chips when Im hungry. Of course, Hobbes thought this through and realized that if
everyone freely helped themselves to what is not theirs we would all end up worse off which wouldnt
be good for anyone. His conclusion was that we all agree to rules (such as property rights) where our
immediate self-interest (my taking your chips) is replaced by a longer-term self-interest (by observing
the rule about property rights I can rest assured that someone wont steal my jacket, say). The theory
that develops out of this analysis is that obeying the rules is what is good because this is what is best
for all the individuals self-interests.
This seems persuasive but if we dont like the conclusion about simply being obedient, we have to
start picking it apart. One place to start is what precisely Hobbes observation about human nature
really amounts to.
Imagine you see that I am hungry and you offer me your chips to eat (even though you are quite
hungry yourself). Is it that we cannot help ourselves acting out of self-interest? Is what you do as
inevitable as growing a fingernail or digesting your food? If your answer to this is yes (i.e. in a
strongly deterministic way) then the consequence is that no-one is responsible for what they do since
they have no choice in the matter, just as we cannot decide against growing a fingernail or digesting a
meal. And from this we cannot praise or blame people for what they do, just as we dont praise people
for their ability to grow their nails or blame them for being unable to digest fibre. This interpretation of
human behaviour is consistent with that set out in the biologist Richard Dawkins book The Selfish
Gene: social animals share food because they are genetically programmed to do so since this
optimizes the chances of survival of each individual in the group. What reinforces the right thing to do

is a feeling of satisfaction that comes with the optimal survival-strategy action. Thus, you give me
chips now in the expectation that I will behave like you at some future time when I have the chips and
you dont. This interpretation seems unpromising to say the least since ethics disappears altogether
leaving behind a mere psychological theory about human nature.
Further, even if it is initially proposed as a psychological theory, it threatens to be unscientific in that it
is untestable and hence merely a dogma:

You offered me your chips because it gives you a feeling of satisfaction.

No, its because I thought it was the right thing to do.

It was the thought that it was the right thing to do that gave you the satisfaction then.

But I didnt think that!

No, but your subconscious made you do something that would give you a feeling of

But Freddie was here at the same time and also has chips. Why didnt he offer you any of

His subconscious made him do something that gave him a feeling of satisfaction by keeping

his chips for himself

So whatever someone does is caused by their subconscious desire for a feeling of

Youve got it.

So if I offer you chips the explanation for that action is the same as if I dontoffer you chips?!

Er... yes.

But thats preposterous!

Live with it thats the way it is.

All that is is an assertion. You have no evidence and no way of getting evidence to prove
it. I prefer to be more thoughtful and look for reasonable explanations for things. And you wont
get any more of my chips.

People only do what makes them satisfied argument

The exchange above is an example of a very common way of arguing about our behaviour, ethical or
otherwise. I hope that it illustrates that doing the satisfying thing isnt really an argument at all it
only looks as if an explanation is being offered. In reality, all we are being offered is an assertion about
how we are perhaps on a par with we behave this way as a result of an internal feud between a
devilish entity and an angelic one. Oh, and by the way, these angels and devils are entirely
undetectable except by the results which show up in a persons behaviour. The latter argument
means that we can refer any behaviour to undetectable entities (e.g. He behaved badly because the
devil gained the upper hand). The former argument about doing what satisfies you is equally
inadequate. What if a person gave up all the pleasant trappings of life to live in great hardship, pain
and ill-health to work among the poor who, in return, abused and despised them? Such a person
could justifiably claim to be dissatisfied. But by this argument we would have to say that they are
doing it because they are satisfied by being dissatisfied! This absurdity really points up the
weakness of the explanation.

A philosopher, committed to reasoned explanations for things, will want to consider alternatives to this
thoughtless approach. Perhaps we are not just lumbering robots behaving in a strictly programmed
fashion, perhaps it is more complicated (and more interesting) than that.
A candidate a step forward would be to claim that what is good is what is good for me as an individual.
This is usually referred to as individual ethical egoism. However, it is not much of a step forward
once you consider the implications. Lets take Tony Stuart as an example. Since the Holocaust had no
discernible effect on him then the moral rightness or wrongness of the killing of millions of Jews is
morally irrelevant. Similarly, morality only came into being when he was born and will disappear when
he dies. Apart from this idea appearing to be just plain wrong (and rather silly), it is also of no help to
anyone other than Tony Stuart in a guide to moral behaviour. And whats so special about him, we
might ask.
A more promising advance is universal ethical egoism which is the idea that whateveryone ought to
do is what is best for them as individuals even if this harms other people. The reason why this is
more promising is that seems to call on individuals to weigh up options about their behaviour so as to
optimize what is best for them. Weighing in the balance might be things like cooperation with others to
achieve this; considerations of long-term as well as short-term interests; toleration; charity;
compassion... Suddenly we find ourselves in the thick of heavyweight ethical notions. The first one to
address, however, is whether it is feasible to rest these weighty notions on the fulcrum of self-interest.
The point worth emphasizing here is that, in ethical egoism, the individual need make no effort to give
any considerations to what might be best for others, or what might be best for society. The idea is
that, simply by doing what is in their own interest will lead directly to what is best for all. (There is a
parallel theory in Economics: having a free market which allows all individuals to act out their selfish
interests will necessarily lead to the best outcome including, through greater competition, cheaper
goods and better products.)
However, there are several criticisms leveled at ethical egoism. Some of these appeal
to intuitions about the consequences that would follow rather than pointing out flaws in the theory
itself. So, for example, there is the posterity argument. To an egoist, it would make no difference if,
as a result of their actions, all life on Earth were ended in 100 years time. This appeals to an intuition
that we should find this position appalling: we ought to care about the future even though we wont
be in it and wont benefit from it. But if the egoist shrugs and says that, in fact, they do not find this
appalling, then other grounds are needed to argue them out of their position. Another is the helpful
neighbour argument. If someone helped you (the egoist) out, then you would have to say that what
they did was morally wrong. This is another intuitive appeal: we ought not to feel this way about
charitable people. The egoist might give another shrug and point out that they (the egoist) are not a
neighbour to rely on for help and they are never going to rely on neighbours being there to help out
A more philosophical tack to try is the friendship argument which aims to expose an absurdity at the
heart of egoism. Obviously (the argument goes) a deep friendship brings great satisfaction so an
egoist should make friends since this will be better for them. But wait, a deep friendship is only
possible if both parties in it suspend or sacrifice their self-interest from time to time. But this is
impossible for the thorough-going egoist they cannot give up egoism to achieve egoism! Again, the
egoist can reply to this that, on the contrary, deep friendship is not more desirable than satisfying selfinterest; that time spent developing friendships is wasted time; that friendships are possible where

one of the parties (the egoist) never sacrifices self-interest so long as the other party does. These are
all empirical replies and so are open to testing to see if they are true or not. Surveys of how people
respond to the egoist position nearly always undermine it.
To sum up, ethical egoism has some appeal in that it appears to be consistent with a very plausible
interpretation of human nature and that there are few, if any, powerful arguments that point to flaws in
it as a theory. On the other hand, it also appears not to be a wholly satisfactory account of the full
complexity of human behaviour which would include the notions of compassion, charity, love and
friendship all of which require us to consider the interests of other people as well as our own. Such
things seem to cry out for a more comprehensive account of how humans ought to behave than
egoism offers.

Theories of this type are called consequentialist because they look at what happens (or will happen)
following an action which has a moral dimension what the outcome or consequences will be.
Typically, ones actions may then begood if the outcome is desirable. Of course, predicting what will
happen if we take a particular course of action is not all that the theories are about. They are ethical in
that they prescribe what sorts of consequences are good ones we ought to do; and what sorts are
bad ones we ought not do.
We have already encountered one consequentialist system: individual ethical egoism. You will
remember that the right thing to do here was to do what turned out best for you as an individual. This
turned out not to be especially attractive so now let us consider consequences that look more
There are some different candidates for gauging whether an action is right or wrong in terms of the
consequences that result (or would result) from it. We might say that an action is right if it leads to
greater concordance with Gods wishes for the world. One can read this interpretation from
Kierkegaards analysis of the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Christian Bible. Here, God tells
Abraham, the father, to kill (sacrifice) his son Isaac. Despite the commandment Thou shalt not kill
and his duty as a parent to care for his son, Abraham prepares to obey because he knows that it is
right and good to obey God notwithstanding any other consideration (like disobeying one of Gods
laws or killing an innocent person whom he loves).
As we have seen, even if God exists, it is still necessary for us to discover the best ethical system
available to us and this is true a fortiori if we are non-believers.
Another consequentialist candidate is to do whichever action leads to the greatest happiness of the
greatest number of people. Thus, if action A leads to X amount of happiness whereas B only leads to
95% of X, A is the good thing to do and B is not. There are two important things to notice here. The
first is that the intentions behind the action do not count. So, if lying in a particular situation leads to

greater happiness than not lying, it is good to lie in those circumstances: the liar is good (in those
circumstances) and the truth-teller bad. The second thing is that, in principle, this system can give an
answer to any circumstances in which a person finds themselves there is no dilemma, no situation
where the good thing is impossible simply calculate the various amount(s) of happiness which would
result then do the one that leads to the greatest.
Happiness, however, despite it seeming to be a prime candidate for the basis of an ethical system
(after all, who does not want happiness?), needs to be examined a little more closely before we are
ready to go on. To show people that happiness is not the sole state that is important, there is the
pleasure-machine thought-experiment. Imagine there is a pleasure-machine into which you can climb.
Once in it, your brain is connected up to a simulator which fulfils perfectly your every desire: you want
champagne and strawberries? The taste, feel, and so on of this experience are conjured up and fed
into your brain and you, in the machine, can tell no difference between this and the real thing. The
same goes for any other experience you can wish for. In other words, the machine can make you
perfectly happy, all of the time, for the rest of your life. The one possible drawback is that, once inside,
you can never get out. Would you get in? Most people would like to try it out for a while, but few
people actually say that this (happiness) is all that they want in their life. The thought-experiment is
used to demonstrate that, in fact, the sort of life an individual wants is not just optimal happiness.
Thus, basing an ethical system solely on happiness is not going to be satisfactory.
Similarly, we can look at mass happiness. If the World Government (assuming there were such a
thing) decided to go for the greatest happiness of the greatest number by putting a drug in everyones
water so that we were all in a state of bliss all day long all our lives long, would we say that they would
be doing good? Again this is a rhetorical question we are expecting everyone to see that this would
not be good at all.
We might also note here a difficulty with the formulation of the greatest happiness of the greatest
number. Notice that it contains two greatests and this means that there are two variables involved.
This introduces a problem because which of the two greatests are we supposed to be aiming for?
Suppose that we have a 100 people and a large sum of money. Which should we do: give the same
amount of money to each person which increases everyones happiness by a certain amount (the
greatest number)? Or do we give different amounts to different people to maximize happiness since
some people are made much, much happier with a lot of money than others (the greatest
happiness)? This quandary can set Utilitarians apart. Peter Singer, for example, insists that in
developed countries people should have a third of their income taken and redistributed to the nondeveloped countries of the world. This wealth redistribution would presumably diminish the happiness
of the few rich, enhance the happiness of the many poor so, overall, produce happiness for the
greatest number. However, other Utilitarians argue that the few rich will be much, much less happy
and the many poor only a little bit happier after such a wealth distribution and so this would not give
the greatest happiness.
Considerations about the limitations of happiness such as those above led John Stuart Mill to a
different definition of what was foundational to ethical behaviour. Mill was a Utilitarian and he put utility
at the base of behaviour: you should act to increase utility in society. For Mill utility is not simply

happiness. Otherwise, given that ignorance is bliss, ignorance is good and knowledge bad. Mills
definition of utility is the permanent interests of man as a progressive being which is something far
more complex. This makes it far less easy to agree on what, exactly, utility is. How permanent does it
have to be? What sorts of things can be classed as interests? What counts as progressive?
Perhaps these difficulties make the whole idea unattractive but nearly everyone would agree that
there is something about the consequences of actions that really do matter and thus we need to pay
attention: intending to hit someone is treated quite differently from actually hitting someone. This
treatment recognizes that consequences count so unless we can show that the outcome of our
actions need not be considered at all (see the deontological sectionfor this approach), then we ought
to entertain it as a serious possibility for a while longer at least.
There are two basic types of utilitarianism. The first focuses on the specific act and its specific
consequences (usually referred to as act-utilitarianism). The merit of this is its simplicity: in any
circumstances choose to do what maximizes utility and you will have done what is right. The problem
with it is its simplicity. How can we check out the consequences of every possible action before we
act? It is impractical. Further, it ignores what seem to be fundamental intuitions about right and wrong.
If I kill and dismember a healthy orphan and use their body parts to save the lives of lots of people (2
kidney transplants, a heart transplant, bone marrow, blood, skin grafts, etc.) then, if the utility
generated is greater (as it might well be in this case) then I will have done a good thing. To most
people, the ethical system which permits this is itself immoral.
The second type focuses on rules of conduct which lead to greater utility so-calledruleutilitarianism. This seems to be more respectable and more sophisticated than act-utilitarianism but,
as we shall see later, there is still a place for simply considering an act on its own merits despite the
difficulties outlined in the previous paragraph. Rule-utilitarians say that it is possible to devise rules
which, if followed, will lead to maximizing utility.
The appeal of this is immediate it gets us out of the problem of having to consider all consequences
of all alternative actions before doing something (which act-utilitarianism demands) and allows us to
adopt the rule. So, for instance, if there is a rule that non-lying leads to greater utility, in a situation
where I might lie or tell the truth, all I need do is not lie: that will be the good thing to have done. It also
acknowledges (as put in more detail in the ethical egoism section) that we are rule-following creatures
we are constantly seeking and applying general principles by which to live. Finally, it rests ethical
behaviour squarely on the outcome for society (local or global depending on the scope of the action)
as a whole, treating others as we would wish them to treat us. Again, this last has a strong intuitive
appeal and perhaps brings us some relief to see it incorporated into an ethical system.
That said, rule-utilitarianism faces some formidable objections. The first is that it cannot even call itself
utilitarian which threatens to blow it right out of the water before it even gets going. The objection here
is that devising the rules refers us to deontological principles for justification so the not lying rule is
justified not because we know that this will maximise utility (this we cannot know without the evidence)
but because it is not rational to have a society in which lying is commonplace (see the section
on Kants deontological system).

If rule-utilitarianism tries to avoid this accusation, then it seems to fall back into act-utilitarianism. For
example, it is not hard to imagine a situation where an act which breaks the rule will lead to greater
utility lying to someone about their abilities may well produce greater utility than obey the not lying
rule and telling them they are inept. In this case, we use act-utilitarianism to produce greater utility
than rule-utilitarianism: therefore, act-utilitarianism trumps rule-utilitarianism and so is the one to rely
on if you want to be a thorough-going utilitarian.
The rule-utilitarian has a way of resisting this analysis. What can be done is to adopt different levels of
thinking when deciding what to do. The general, everyday, level is to behave in a rule-utilitarian sort of
way obey the rules that are likely to lead to greatest utility. However, given that we sometimes find
there is a conflict between such rules, then we can adopt act-utilitarianism and do what we judge will
lead to the greatest utility. This seems to accommodate problems like the white lying one we have
been talking about. The utilitarian will generally not lie since this rule, if broken, leads to less utility.
However, when this conflicts with another rule like increasing another individuals happiness a good
deal (which involves telling them a lie) then it is right to lie in those circumstances.
You will not be surprised that this still doesnt satisfy many moral philosophers. A major objection is
one that we have already outlined. What does the act-utilitarian (thinking on the non-everyday level)
refer to when judging whether to follow one rule rather than another? Since the consequences of any
act cannot be known in anything like sufficient detail, then it looks suspiciously like they must simply
follow their intuitions. Following your intuitions, as we have seen in the ethical egoism section, has
few attractions.
Another strong objection to the utilitarian approach stems from Bernard Williams example of Jim and
Pedro. Jim is a botanist working deep in a jungle in a South American country when he gets
separated from the rest of his group. Fortunately for him, he happens upon a village. Unfortunately, he
also happens on an execution about to be carried out by a captain, Pedro, and a group of soldiers.
Pedro sees Jim and soon discovers that he is a famous botanist working alongside the South
American countrys government to discover plant medicines to help the ill people of that country. Jim
in turn discovers that Pedro has orders to execute 20 people from the village as a reprisal for the
shooting of a soldier in the village the previous day. Pedro explains that he chose the 20 by getting all
200 people in the village to line up in any order they liked. He then simply picked out every 10th
person. And now these 20 are to be shot. Jim is appalled and argues that, in his country, this is not
just perhaps it might be fair for one life to be taken to compensate for the lost life of the soldier, but
not an innocent life, and certainly not 20 lives. Pedro replies that this is how things are done in his
country. But wait, he has a solution. Since Jim is an honoured guest and helping his country, Pedro
says that he can persuade his superiors that, in this case, he can avoid killing all 20 people by saying
that he is honouring Jim by adopting his (Jims) countrys type of justice. But, in return, Jim must adopt
a bit of the South American countrys justice: Jim must choose one of the 20 people for execution and
then shoot that person himself. The other 19 will then go free. Jim is in a moral dilemma.
The utilitarian approach (with its appealing simplicity) to this dilemma is that Jim chooses the one of
the 20 potential victims with least utility (perhaps the oldest, the least healthy, the baby?) and then
shoots him/her. The utilitarian approach (with its appalling simplicity) is then to say that Jim has done

a good thing. What this example demonstrates more than anything else is that utilitarianism is not
enough to fully cope with human behaviour. What we would like to say is that Jim may have done
what was best in the circumstances, but we would not call the killing of an innocent individual good as
utilitarianism insists.
Examples like this remind us that there is more to human behaviour than a simple calculus involving
quantities of happiness. What seems to be missing from the utilitarian approach, as well as the
deontological approach, is a full incorporation of another human attribute: the way we feel about
certain types of behaviour. The ethical system which has emerged as a rival to these other two
systems, and which seeks to help us to a deeper understanding of how to behave, is both very old
and very new: it is called Virtue Ethics and we will look at it next.

Virtue Ethics

This ethical system emphasizes a persons character. The right thing to do in a given situation is what
a virtuous person would do in the circumstances. Of course, we now need to say what a virtuous
person is: someone who has, and exercises, character traits called virtues. And virtues? These are
character traits which lead to the flourishing of a human being (termed eudaimonia by the first virtue
ethicist, Aristotle).
At the outset it is worth pointing out that virtue ethics, despite what looks like a long pedigree (going
back to Aristotle), has only attracted serious notice relatively recently. Perhaps the main reason for
this is that the other two major players (thedeontological and the utilitarian), after dominating the field
for a couple of centuries, have not provided wholly satisfactory accounts of how it is that one should
best behave.
A second thing to bear in mind is that virtue ethics can be rather airily dismissed or passed over as not
really worth bothering with particularly by some moral philosophers. The guidance to always do
what a virtuous person would do seems pretty unhelpful at first blush. However, you should stand
back and consider whether this is fair. As we have seen, always do your duty and always do what
increases happiness might also be regarded with the same sort of dubious glance. But both of these
guides to moral behaviour have good arguments in their favour, good justifications for being followed.
At least as a credible possible alternative to help us sort out how to act in a good way it is worth
dwelling on the possibilities that virtue ethics has to offer.
There are a couple of very important concepts which need exploring at the outset:eudaimonia and
This is the word that Aristotle used for the state which humans should aim for in their lives. It has
different translations, the most common being happiness, flourishing and well-being. Each of them
captures something of what Aristotle meant but we should be clear about their limitations.

Happiness is certainly a part of it but it is not what we might call simple happiness. The trouble with
happiness is that someone will always know what it is that makes them happy it has a strong
subjective element to it. What Aristotle would include in the concept of eudaimonia is the idea of what
we might call real happiness or the sort of happiness worth having. This has a more objective
quality to it I might think I am happy guzzling beer and watching soaps all the time but, we might
argue, this is a waste of my potential and though I think Im happy Im not really happy because I am
not achieving worthwhile fulfilment. (This may well be compared to Mills definition of utility.)
Well-being and flourishing are, for this reason, often preferred as a translation. The aim of humans
should be to act in such a way that ones character develops towards the goal of greatest possible
fulfillment or contentment with ones life. Flourishing is probably the better term of the two largely on
the grounds that it is commoner and that well-being has no convenient adjective which makes its use
rather clumsy.
Again, this is a larger concept than a quick translation conveys. If we take as an example the virtue of
honesty this does not simply mean always telling the truth or not committing crimes. Certainly, if
someone has the virtue of honesty we would expect them to be reliable in their honest actions, but
there is more to it than that. The honest person behaves honestly for the right reason not simply
because it will get them admired, or win them some praise, or make them feel good about themselves
they are honest because this is part of the way to eudaimonia. Thus, the honest person we can
expect to condemn others who perform acts of dishonesty and to praise those who behave honestly.
Further, we would expect their emotions to be involved too to be distressed by dishonesty, pleased
by witnessing acts of honesty. Finally, honest people are particularly attuned to circumstances in
which honesty is at issue: they care about it.
Thus, virtues are deeply entrenched in a persons character, not merely called up on the spur of the
moment to help decide what to do. A change in such character traits is profound and usually takes
years to effect. If the change is more sudden, then it calls for special explanation (such as religious
conversion, brain damage or drug-use). You cannot decide to be honest in the same way as you
decide to stop smoking, for instance.
To return to the idea of the right reason I mentioned in the paragraph before the last one, Aristotle
linked the exercise of a virtue with what he called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Thus, an honest
person will not have his honesty called into question if he is dishonest when circumstances are such
that this is the wisest option. Lying to the mad axeman (a problem for the deontologist, you
remember) is sensible and does not undermine the honest persons character. That said, the honest
person will regret having to lie, will not feel good about the lie, will point out that they have justification
for lying. This is in contrast to the other ethical systems where you can feel good either about not lying
(and thus helping the axe-man to their victim) or about telling a lie (and protecting their victim). Virtue
ethics, because of its emphasis on character rather than actions, is thus more attractive in that it does
allow for something more complex to be involved in our behaviour than a simple analysis of a single
act as being right or wrong according to whether it is obeying a duty or makes more happiness.
Having indicated that honesty is sometimes not desirable, how can we still call it a virtue? This
indicates that, perhaps like deontology where, on occasion, we are required to choose between
conflicting duties, there might be a limitation to the concept of virtue which means that it is not always

something which makes the person good. Perhaps the only virtue that might fit this bill is wisdom,
and maybe being just. That said, we do have ways of qualifying characteristics to indicate that the
underlying virtue is being overstretched such as being brutally honest when telling someone that
they are too ugly to be a model, or being too generous when giving a wastrel all ones disposable
A last thing to consider in this exploration of concepts is what impels us to behave in a particular way.
The virtue ethicist never forgets that we were once all children and the way that children act is not the
same as how (most) adults act. Typically, children act without reasoning things out in the mature way
that adults do (or can do); and they act much more out of immediate desires or passions rather than
the rational desires that adults have. Again, we can recognize that the transition from child to adult in
the degree of reasoning about things that happens is a slow one: how our characters develop
depends on what happens in our formative years. This observation (and incorporation into the virtue
ethicists view of how to behave) then helps us address the question of motivation when considering
whether something is right or wrong. For both deontology and utilitarianism this is a difficult question
to answer since they rely on a rational account being provided for each act as it comes. The virtue
ethicist does not face the problem in the same way since how one acts is a function of how much
training/experience one has had in developing a particular character-trait. Thus, if you develop
honesty as a characteristic your motivation to tell the truth in a given situation is deeply entrenched in
you and does not have to be referred immediately to reason or motivation.
Practical Guidance
One criticism often levelled at Virtue Ethics is that it is deficient when it comes to decision making. It
does seem to be the case that do what a virtuous person would do is a little inadequate. However,
the premises can be set out so that, as a system it is certainly no less deficient than either ruleutilitarianism or deontology:
1.An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the
2.A virtuous agent is one who has, and exercises, certain characteristic traits, namely the
3.A virtue is a character trait that...
We have suspension marks here because different people will have different aims is useful or
agreeable to its possessor and others (Hume), or is needed foreudaimonia (Aristotle), or we might
complete it by saying the trait is on the following list. Again, lists of what counts as a virtue can vary
(Hume, for example, excludes humility, Aristotle modesty, Nietzsche compassion and these three
often find their way onto other ethicists lists).
Just like other systems, the virtue ethicist must then provide justifications for why particular virtues
should be practised and, just as importantly, why particular vices should be avoided.
Following up the criticism about decision making, we might ask the virtue ethicist what they would do
in the situation where there is a conflict between virtues. This would appear to put them in the same
quandary as the deontologist where a conflict of duties arises. Using our mad axeman example again,

is the virtue of truthfulness to have priority over the virtue of compassion? And if so, what makes us
decide in favour of one virtue rather than another?
To the virtue ethicist, this is much less of a problem. They would point out that, even if the deontologist
can justify sorting out such problems of hierarchy of duties, then when that action is performed what
the deontologist has done is the right, the good, thing. This, they say, is unsatisfactory and results
from an overly-simplistic emphasis on action rather than on character.
Let us consider another difficult moral dilemma to illustrate what the virtue ethicist sees as
advantageous about their approach. A young girl is raped and made pregnant: in this case, should
abortion be allowed? For the deontologist there is a conflict of duties here the duty not to take the
life of an innocent (the developing baby), and the duty to allow freedom of choice to the individual (the
raped girl). But let us imagine that this is resolved in favour of abortion. For the deontologist there is
then no residue or remainder after acting by deciding on what to do: they are right. The virtue
ethicist, on the other hand, will say that there is a remainder. A virtuous person in such a dilemma will
be emotionally involved during the decision making (will not airily find the solution but will worry about
it, be sympathetic to all sides of the problem, and so on) and, once the decision is made, will still have
something to address morally: the feeling of regret about having to decide one way rather than the
other, perhaps the necessity to apologise in some way for the decision being forced on them.
As mentioned before, it is this extra dimension of the involvement of ones character in such decisions
that virtue ethicists see as better because it allows for an account of ethical behaviour which more
adequately captures what is the right thing to do than the simple (simplistic?) concentration on just the
act itself. It contains within it the quality of action assessment as well as action guidance. It is through
the consideration of difficult moral dilemmas that the virtue ethicist claims that we can recognise that,
in fact, no hierarchy of virtues can be drawn up: circumstances will dictate which virtue a morally wise
person will give a particular weight to, which virtue is to count for less.
Another criticism that is aimed at virtue ethics is its inadequacy on the grounds that it is empty. If I am
to do what a virtuous person would do in given circumstances, then if I am a virtuous person myself I
dont need to think; and if I am not a virtuous person I wont know what to do and thinking wont help.
Thus, it is empty because in neither case does it act as a guide. Their reply here is twofold. In the first
place, character traits are slowly developed and even a virtuous person will constantly be reflecting on
their characteristics and behaviour as their person and environment develops/changes. Secondly, the
non-virtuous can seek the counsel of those people whose character they respect they can ask
virtuous people what they would do in given circumstances. Hence, non-virtuous people can also
develop from a state of less to greater virtue thanks to our capacity for interaction with people
(perhaps even fictional people) and our capacity for learning through reasoning about behaviour.

Existentialist Ethics
Although existentialism does not offer a full and systematic account of ethical value, there are several
common threads that recur in the works of the main existentialist philosophers which suggest what
that account might, in theory, look like. Certain concepts, like engagement and authenticity, have

emerged in their own right as significant ethical terms; some thinkers, including Nietzsche and Sartre,
have explicitly addressed morality, albeit from unusual perspectives; and thesubjectivist bias of
existentialism allows us to draw some broad conclusions of our own.
Since the individual is the primary concern of existentialists, personal morality and ethics supersede
social morality and popular ethics. For this reason, some thinkers have chosen to present moral
questions in literary rather than philosophical works, using the novel or theatre to explore the




include Kierkegaards monumental Either/Or; Notes




Underground by Dostoevsky;

Sartres Roads to Freedom trilogy; and the novels and plays of Albert Camus. This approach dovetails
neatly with the phenomenological method, and is in stark contrast to more traditional ethical treatises
like those ofKant or Spinoza.
Subjectivity is Truth
When Nietzsche announced in 1882 that God is dead he was laying down a challenge. Without any
external source of value and meaning particularly moral value then we are free to create value
and meaning ourselves. The challenge is to embrace this freedom and create meaningful, aspirational
values for which we are wholly responsible, rather than lapse into nihilism and the apathy of mass
For Nietzsche, morality is not rooted in any external or objective system of values. Moral codes are
merely reflections of existing social structures that serve to deaden the impulses of the individual and
maintain the interests of the powerful classes.
Morality is herd-instinct in the individual.The Gay Science 116
Once these structures become internalised what we might call, in Freuds term, the Super-ego the
herd-instinct is reinforced and individuals suppress or deny their own passions and desires through
fear of isolation from the community: any impulse to behave differently creates guilt or a sense of sin.
To be moral, in this sense, is to deny ones individuality.
Forty years earlier Kierkegaard had come to a similar conclusion via a different route. We cannot
make moral choices, he argued, without an appeal to an existing set of standards (the aim to
maximise happiness, to seek our own advantage, to please God, and so on). But those prior criteria
could not have been chosen without an even earlier set of standards to appeal to and we could not
have chosen those standards without prior standards and so on ad infinitum. This regress can only
be halted by an individual choice, a leap of faith for which we alone are responsible.
For Kierkegaard, subjectivity is truth: truth emerges from being rather thanknowing, from the
commitment to ones choices and the measure of passion with which a belief is adopted or
appropriated. In other words, an existentialist does not measure ethical choices by what you do (like a
utilitarian) or even by who you are (like a virtue ethicist), but by how you choose, by the pathos of the

choice itself. To throw oneself fully into a decision and to commit ones very being to that choice and
all that follows from it that, for the existentialists, is the essence of moral decision-making.
This absence of absolute moral standards (the death of God) and the focus upon the individuals
commitment, are both captured in Sartres famous dilemma described inExistentialism is a
... a pupil of mine... at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French
Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live... I had but one reply to make. You are
free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought
to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.
In the end, you must invent your own values and commit yourself to the life that follows from them.
This insistence upon personal commitment gives rise to the most strongly evaluative term in the
existentialists vocabulary: authenticity. The choices an individual makes will inevitably clash
sometimes with the world outside: the expectations of others, social conformity, a desire to please,
unjust laws, self-doubt all put pressure upon the individual to betray their values. An authentic
response is to stay true to yourself: not just out of stubbornness, but as a measure of your
commitment to your choices. Acting inauthentically, or in bad faith as Sartre liked to put it, is therefore
a moral failing and comes in many guises, although it usually involves blaming somebody or
something else for what happens, or pretending to be something that you are not. Maintaining
commitment to your choices, on the other hand, is morally praiseworthy and the sign of an authentic
individual who is taking responsibility for their freedom.
The notion of authenticity gives rise to a common distinction in existentialist thinking between the
individual and the herd, or the masses. For Kierkegaard, the crowd is untruth and standing apart and
alone is a necessary condition of authenticity. For many people the normative just is the normal: ideas
are inherited and repeated without thought or personal commitment and the values they hold seem far
from their own choosing. It takes courage to challenge these unquestioned assumptions: to oppose
the herd, in Nietzsches terms, one must overcome oneself. Whereas the mass of people act in bad
faith and do not acknowledge their freedom, the authentic individual shows their commitment through
their concrete actions.
It is through concrete action, as an expression of authentic commitment, that a human life achieves
meaning for existentialists. Life is about doing, not thinking: in this sense, the existentialists are
opposed to certain types of rationalism and locate value and meaning not in logical or conceptual
relations, but in authentic action, in following through on ones choices and making a practical
difference to the world. Action is a measure of authenticity: not surprising, perhaps, as it is the only
visible sign of an otherwise internal and invisible affect. The authentic individual may not, at first
glance, appear any different from the masses around them: but a close inspection of their actions will
reveal a pattern of commitment and responsibility that marks them out. Sartre called this

pattern engagement: an engaged individual acts in the world and makes a difference to the world, a
notion that accounts for the close historical connection between existentialism and revolutionary
Freedom and Responsibility
In Existentialism is a Humanism Sartre tried to defend his philosophy against the accusation of radical
... as soon as there is a commitment, I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as my
own. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim.
Once the sphere of human action is located within a community of equally free, equally responsible
individuals, then a persons actions take on a universalised quality. We act for all humanity when we
bring values into being. This notion of universalising ones values sounds very like Kant; but unlike
Kants categorical imperative, it does not derive from reason but from the very conditions of existing in
the world.
These conditions are centred upon freedom and responsibility, two notions that are central to
existentialist thinking and are in fact closely bound up with any ethical system. Existentialists do not
ask if we are free and therefore responsible for ourselves the very experience of our freedom is a
guarantee of that. Instead, responsibility for living becomes another feature of the authentic, ethically
praiseworthy life and the price of engagement with the world.
There are many difficulties with this account of existentialist ethics as the picture is unfortunately
incomplete (it is worth noting that Sartres aim of publishing a complete description of ethical value
was not realised at the time of his death). Nevertheless, the elements of an ethical system are in
place: an emphasis upon individual commitment; the evaluative concept of authenticity; a theory of
responsibility; and an attempt to universalise moral values. Whether these elements constitute a full
and satisfactory account of ethical behaviour is unclear.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. CUP, 2001 (trans. Josefine Nauckhoff)

Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism

[in Kaufmann, Walter ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Meridian, 1989]


In this section we will be probing a more rarified set of questions. In the previous sections (on
normative ethics) we have been looking at questions of what persuades us to act in ways that are
right or wrong, good or bad. Here we will be looking at whether there is such a thing as truth in ethics;
what is meant by moral sense; the meaning or significance of calling something right or wrong, good
or bad; whether only humans can be called moral agents.
The origin and nature of moral values
Perhaps the most pressing meta-ethical question is whether we can talk about truth in the context of
our moral behaviour. To highlight this as a difficulty, consider the following two sentences:
1.The boy is on the chair.
2.He is a morally good boy.
We can test the first statement for its truth-value: if there is a boy, a chair and he is on it, then it is true,
if not, it is false. Given the facts of the case, not only to we get to the truth, everyone with the same
facts will get to the same truth about the truth or falsity of the statement. Further, the statement must
either be true or false and not some mix of the two. The second sentence is quite different: we would
agree about the fact of his being a boy or not, but we might disagree quite profoundly about whether
he is good: a Believer might say yes, because he has done Gods will; a utilitarian say yes, because
he has increased happiness; a deontologist say yes, because he has done his duty; a virtue ethicist
yes, because he has behaved virtuously.
What allows us to establish truth in the first statement is that it involves entities (boy, chair) and
relations (on) that can be verified using our senses. This is the case for facts such as this which
occupy the physical world. However, it is a much more open question as to whether values (such as
judgements about the boy being good or not) can be verified in anything like the same way do we
have a moral sense analogous to our visual sense so that we can perceive goodness as we
analogously perceive boys and chairs?
It was the philosopher David Hume (171176) who first set out the problem. He observed that ethical
systems tell us what we ought to do. They base these instructions on the facts of the world how
something is. A simple example would be:

Andrew is starving so you ought to give him your spare sandwich.

What Hume argued was that it was wrong to derive statements containing ought from statements
containing is because they are different sorts of statement altogether: there is no logical connection
between them. We might feel that we can fill out the sentence above (say from a utilitarian

Andrew is starving.

Starving lessens happiness.

Happiness is the goal of humans.

You have a spare sandwich.

Giving away the sandwich will not decrease your happiness but will increase his.

You ought to increase happiness.

Therefore, you ought to give Andrew your spare sandwich.

Although this looks a bit more convincing, Hume would point at the claim you ought to increase
happiness and say that this is not derived from anything in the rest of the argument. Hence, you are
not justified in the conclusion drawn. The conclusion that Hume did draw was ethics (which includes
all ethical statements) cannot rest on the empirical facts of the world: there is a gap between them.
At this point, before dealing with Humes analysis directly, we might consider where in the world
ethical statements might be. A first possibility is that Hume is wrong and that the ethical world of
claims about how humans ought to behave meshes perfectly with the physical world. There are two
standpoints within this position:supernaturalism which identifies our knowledge of what is right and
wrong with a God-given moral sense together with God-given norms; naturalism which claims there
is substantial objective knowledge to be discovered in ethics just as we have discovered objective
knowledge about the physical world.
A second possibility is that there are objective facts about ethics but they are not a straight-forward
part of the physical world. We get at these facts in the same way as we get at facts about numbers
and geometry, for instance through intuition. This is called intuitionism (or sometimes nonnaturalism).
The third possibility is that there is no such world: ethics is an invention of humans for their
convenience alone. Within this position are the standpoints of emotivismand prescriptivism.
All these -isms are, certainly for me, a bit off-putting so lets see if we can quickly sort out and
eliminate a few of them.
This is the claim that there is nothing factual about ethical statements. When I say something like he
is a good boy what I am really saying is that I feel positive about him. The feeling (or emotion) is
separate from any of the facts about the boy: if both you and I know all the facts we might feel
differently (you might say he cant be good because hes an atheist whereas I might say he cant be
good unless hes an atheist, for instance). Emotivists stress that some of our claims about the world
are based on beliefs (such as those about boys, chairs and so on), whereas others are based on
our attitudes (feelings or emotions). Our attitudes are neither right nor wrong, they are just the way
things are inside us at the time.
You will see that this means that ethics is wholly subjective only I know how I feel about things in the
world and that knowledge is denied to anyone else. And the same goes for everyone else: objective
knowledge is impossible to obtain about ethical claims. From this, it is a very short step to say that
ethical claims add nothing to our knowledge at all they are meaningless.
To many people, this is a very nave position (one which we have already alluded to critically in the
section on Ethical Egoism). The first objection is that our attitudes towards situations which have an
ethical dimension can be changed by objective reasoning. I might say that, in a certain situation, it is
right to do one thing, you might say it would be wrong. What we can then do is give our reasons for
our respective claims and these reasons can be weighed and judged objectively. Not only that, our
reasons can be universalized which, again, argues for objectivity. If objectivity is possible then ethics
cannot be wholly subjective as emotivism demands.

This position accepts that there are no moral facts, no moral knowledge, but develops the notion
mentioned in the last paragraph about the universalisability of moral judgements. Though this position
is most often associated with R.M.Hare (1919), you can see that it derives from Kants deontological
system which deals with imperatives in a very similar way. What Hare emphasises is that moral
judgements prescribe behaviour of a certain sort: they tell us to do things. There are other prescriptive
statements (Shut up! for instance) but ethical prescriptions differ in that they involve reasoning and
because we can reason about them this means that they must involve some sort of logical relations. It
is this logical aspect of the reasoning which makes them universalisable.
Prescriptivism is more attractive than emotivism because it introduces a greater subtlety which ethics
seems to demand (it is not simple). What it points out is that when we make value judgements there is
something over and above mere descriptive claims. So, for example, if I say this is a good book we
might agree on any number of descriptive characteristics (the books structure, plot, characterization,
length, etc.) but still disagree about whether it is good. This over and above characteristic of value
judgements is sometimes called supervenience. What this extra does (or what it seeks to do) is
influence the choice we make once we have seen or heard it.
A further attraction is that moral judgements demand commitment (due to this aspect of their
universalisability): once we have judged we must commit to that judgement. This commitment to
observe the universal principles of moral judgements fits in nicely with the way that humans seem to
learn: we generalize from principles so that we can perform specific acts in the right circumstances.
This seems to confirm that there are principles to be had.
Hare starts with Kant but does go further. You will recall that a difficulty with Kant was what to do when
duties conflict (in moral dilemmas). Hares solution is anexistential one: there is no true answer
(remember that prescriptivism rejects the possibility of moral facts and moral knowledge) but, once
you have made your choice, you must commit yourself to the principle which provides the justification
for universalizing it.
Prescriptivism was given short shrift in 1958 by Philippa Foot (19202010) through its inadequacy on
four fronts. She said that a) it was too broad and would allow claims like All Jews should be killed to
count as morally right; b) it was too trivial, allowing such things as Everyone should stick out their
tongue on Monday mornings as moral judgements; c) that it misses the point of ethics since it could
miss out moral principles that most people feel are important such as torturing for fun is wrong; and
d) that it is endlessly revisable (since there are no objective facts) and so denies the stability that
ethical systems require for social stability.
There are very few emotivists or prescriptivists lurking about the place nowadays.
Intuitionism (or non-naturalism)
You will remember that Hume insisted that you cannot derive an ought from an is; ie he said there is
a logical gap between factual statements and moral statements.G E Moore (18731958) thought that
he put his finger on just where the gap can be found when he turned to an analysis of what the terms
used in ethics mean.
The term that Moore focused on was good. We all use this term in a variety of ways a good film, a
good road, a good idea, a good boy and all know what the term means when it is used in this
way. What Moore criticized was the notion that this term (and, by implication, all such ethical terms)

was connected to the natural world: he thought this naturalism was making a mistake, was committing
what he called the naturalistic fallacy.
Using utilitarianism as an example (though we could easily substitute any other system of normative
ethics), here is how his argument goes.
Naturalism claims that ethics is a part of the natural world and, as such, can be observed and
measured in some way. Happiness is a part of the natural world.
So far, nothing obviously wrong.
Being morally good (for the utilitarian) means doing whatever increases happiness.
Again, this is a fair summary. But having set this up, he then points out what he sees as the fallacy.
The following claim is trivially obvious: It is good because it is good. But if being good means
increasing happiness then the following should be equally trivially obvious: It is good because it
increases happiness. This is not the case because when we are faced with the second sort of claim
we might agree that, yes, some action or other increases happiness but still ask is it good? In other
words, good refers to something other than (or as well as) the natural property of happiness.
Claiming that good is a natural term is a fallacy.
Well come back to this in a moment, but first lets see how this argument led Moore into his intuitionist
position. His argument (along with Humes observation) establishes that ethical terms cannot be
defined in a naturalistic way since they are not empirical properties. Nonetheless, the term must refer
to something in our minds otherwise we would not be able to appreciate what it means.
Now, he goes on, there are other terms that we know in our minds but which are not natural properties
of things out there in the natural world. Prime examples of this come from the world of arithmetic and
geometry. Once we have appreciated the proof, for instance, we know that all plane triangles have
internal angles whose sum is 180. We do not know such things through our senses it is a part of
ourintuitive knowledge.
Moore then points out that our knowledge of ethical terms, since it is intuitive like our knowledge of
geometrical relations, can be either right or wrong: ethical statements, like geometrical statements,
can be checked for their truth-value: we can use our intuitive knowledge to establish whether
behaviour is right or wrong. Thus, for the intuitionist, objective knowledge of ethics is possible, but
such knowledge is not to be found in the natural world. Our moral sense consists in the intuitive
grasp that we have of ethical concepts and the relations between them.
Moores view was tremendously influential in the early part of the twentieth century, leading (for many
philosophers) to a re-routing of ethics. The way to develop a knowledge of ethics was thus to develop
a knowledge of the meaning of ethical terms an emphasis on the language we employ rather than
anything else.
For other philosophers, this was a mistake. One thing they particularly didnt like was Moores world
of the intuition, a ghostly sort of place where things have a different metaphysical status and where
(as in Platos real world) reside numbers, shapes, knowledge of the Good. If this world is allowed,
then it ushers in the problem of how we can know this intuitive world the traditional answer of the
soul or spirit does not fit comfortably with hard-headed naturalism. Had Moore gone wrong with

good being a non-natural term? Was Hume up the creek in claiming there was a logical gap between
ought and is?
Naturalism (or neo-naturalism)
This ethical position insists that morality is as much a part of the natural world as boys, chairs,
colours, language and mathematics. Ethical terms are natural terms in that they can be meaningfully
examined and agreed upon rationally. Morality has a content and this, for the naturalist, is anchored in
the human predicament which, naturally, we do not wish to see deteriorate.
So, for example, naturalists claim that goodness is a natural property. It might be happiness,
eudaimonia, or whatever, but that any of these natural things (which, of course are observable and
measurable things in our natural world) include within them (as a whole or a part) the notion of good.
They point out that Hume and Moore are mistaken in their analysis and that there is no naturalistic
fallacy. Let us look at some of the example statements we have already been considering to see why
they point this out:
1.It is good to increase happiness so you ought to do it.
2.Good means to increase happiness.
3.Plane three-sided figures have internal angles adding up to 180.
Hume said there is a logical gap in a). Moore says there a mistake in b). Both Hume and Moore
would agree that c) is true. Naturalists say that statements a) and b) are not substantially different
from statement c) and this is why Moore and Hume are wrong.
Take statement c). What we have here is a statement of a relationship between plane three-sided
figures (p) and internal angles adding up to 180 (q): p = q. The reason why we know this is true is
because we have had it demonstrated to us by a series of reasoned steps in a geometrical proof.
There is no reason to suppose that statements such as a) and b) cannot have their p and q elements
linked in just the same way all it needs is a series of reasoned steps. Of course, it may be difficult to
discover this series, but there is nothing in either Moore or Hume which demonstrates that this is
logically impossible.
A further objection to Moore is that he treats ethical terms as if they are things in themselves rather
than properties that might emerge from (or be supervenient on) things in the world which is why he
sees them as non-natural. Just as smoothness is a property of a table-top but not of the atoms in
the table, so good can be a property of the boy but not of his atoms.
One attraction of naturalism is that it allows for objective knowledge of ethics and, like scientific
knowledge, can be discovered (and is definitely not simply invented to suit current tastes). If we allow
that moral facts are mere inventions then we are inexorably led to moral nihilism (as advocated by
the contemporary philosopher Gilbert Harman, for example) where moral knowledge is an illusion and
anything goes. We can take a little detour here to see how naturalists resist the claims of moral antirealists who say that there are no moral facts, truths or knowledge.
Like the relativists we considered in the normative ethics section, anti-realists point out that there is no
universal moral code different cultures and different ages have different moral codes and this shows

that such codes are invented for our convenience. In reply, realists (including naturalists here, of
course) say that simply pointing out that variation is a fact does not imply there is no moral truth. The
differences in norms may be due to ignorance, immaturity, superstition or irrational authority in just the
same way as beliefs about the world may differ due to these things. If another society believes
sacrificing a goat will make it rain it doesnt mean we have to abandon truths about meteorological
physics. If another society routinely tolerates rape we are not thereby forced to accept that it is not
true that rape is wrong. In addition, there actually does seem to be a consensus about moral
behaviour amongst peoples: not torturing for fun, not lying and cheating, being compassionate (at
least to friends and family), being just.
Another attraction of naturalism is that it provides a natural basis for our learning of ethical principles
and their application to situations in the world as we encounter them as first mentioned in the section
on prescriptivism above. A natural basis is one that is open to revision and development which, of
course, holds out hope for an improved moral education for humanity.
However, unlike (natural) scientific knowledge, ethical knowledge is not simply a matter of checking
how the world is. Naturalists submit that ethical and scientific knowledge are different aspects of the
natural world. The difference lies in what is called direction-of-fit. In science, we make a claim in
words and see if the world fits the claim if it does our claim is true, if not it is false. If our words turn
out to be false, we must change them to fit the world as it is. On the other hand, an ethical claim in
words seeks to fit the world to its truth. If it is right to reduce suffering is our ethical claim and we
found that it is a fact that there is increasing suffering in the world, we seek to change the world and
not our ethical claim. What ties the two aspects together is reasoning where justifications are provided
for establishing how the world is as well as for how the world ought to be. These justifications have to
be anchored in the world and in our nature if they are to coincide with the truth.
Before leaving this section it should be emphasized that this area of philosophy is currently very lively
with disputes over moral realism, anti-realism, (even quasi-realism), naturalism and the rest, all being
picked over fruitfully. Thus, do remember that this is a mere brush with the issues and you shouldnt
see it as in any way definitive.
Is our species uniquely moral?
In the Core section we have looked at the idea of one of the distinguishing characteristics of humans
being moral agency. What we will briefly explore in this section is where we might have derived this
moral nature and whether it might belong to us uniquely.
As before, we can look to God first. Believers think that humans are not the only moral beings. God
(and his angels? And/or other gods?) are moral beings too. General accounts for our morality then link
our nature with Gods which shows where it came from. Also generally, this sharing of nature with God
is denied to other beings we are unique as the only natural (rather than supernatural) moral beings.
This approach sweeps in a host of fascinating theological questions including how we can know that
our nature and Gods nature are similar in this regard; what justifications God might have for His
apportioning of morality to only a small part of his Creation; why God has not made his presence or
intentions clearer (why are many of us so ignorant of Him that we worship another God or none? Why

do we interpret what we ought to do differently even within the same religion?); why have Evil in his
Creation in the first place? All of these questions (and many more) are beyond our scope here which
is limited to mere philosophy where we seek reasons which are open and acceptable (in principle)
to all human beings rather than a subset of humanity who Believe. Thus, reluctantly, we turn from God
and see if we can find other possible sources for our moral values.
In the preceding section we have already looked at the possibility that our values are all simply
invented for our own convenience which changes with age and culture. Since this position has been
fairly unconvincing, we will now look at the possibility that values are a natural part of us derived in a
natural way (without any supernatural intervention).
As you will appreciate, we have been emphasizing reason as a human characteristic that is central to
matters of ethics. If reason is supreme in ethics, or of greatest importance, then if we are the only
species capable of reasoning we are indeed unique. This approach is typical of, say, Kantian ethics
where any other human attribute is marginalized.
It is interesting to note that Kant was prompted (at least in part) into developing his moral philosophy
by reacting to Humes insistence that reason has nothing to do with ethics. Hume (in his Treatise of
Human Nature) observed that when we consider any action for virtue or vice there is never anything
to discover in the action itself. If we see a bully beating up a small child there is nothing observable
that is wrong: what makes it wrong is our feeling of outrage. Hume insists that not only does ethics
reside in the subject rather than out there in the actions, but that ourinitial reaction is a sentiment (an
emotion, or feeling, or, as Hume says, a passion). Far from reason driving us to an ethical position, it
is sentiment that provides the ethical position. Reason comes afterwards in justifying the initial
sentiment from which our sense of virtue and vice derives. Hence his slogan: reason is, and should
be, the slave of the passions. (From this you can understand Kants reaction since Kant puts reason
above all.) For Hume, what motivates our actions in the world are our sentiments reason has no
motivational force. This is demonstrated by the smoker who cannot give up: they reason perfectly that
it is physically harmful, repulsive, expensive, and so on, but reason doesnt work they still feel like a
cigarette and are driven to smoke.
At first glance, Humes moral philosophy is rather chilling and pessimistic, especially if we link it to
another aspect of human nature our overwhelming self-interest. No wonder Kant sought to put
reason in a supreme position since this insists that other humans matter. However, Hume was rather
more optimistic than the first glance might have revealed. He indicated that although it is the case that
self-interest is never far from our actions, there is another aspect of our nature which influences what
we do: sympathy for others. It is sympathy which enjoins us to discount (at least to some extent) our
own selfishness and to do things which benefit others perhaps even at our loss.
What we need to address here is whether we can link sympathy and good behaviour. First, it seems
to be a brute fact that we are sympathetic. We can appreciate the plight of other humans (and even
other animals) and share their grief, or pain, or joy and so on. Empirical facts such as tears during a
romantic film, wincing on seeing someone struck in the face are evidence of our sympathetic nature.
That said, the question still remains that, if it is my self-interest to punch you in the face to get more
food for myself, why dont I over-ride my sympathy for your pain and go right ahead? We are still back
at the question why be moral?

A clue to how this can be answered goes back to the virtue ethics of Aristotle. We cannot simply be
sympathetic individuals. For sympathy to work we need at least two of us. This obvious observation
derives from the fact that the self is not simply wrapped up in the individual: there is a social nature to
the self. This is naturalistic because, of course, humans belong to a natural social group. It is through
our interactions that ethical behaviour might emerge.
An illustration of how this works stems from David Gauthiers observations on the theme of what is
known as the prisoners dilemma. This famous thought-experiment to investigate the basis for
morality goes like this. Imagine that two spies, Andy and Bill, are caught and put in prison. If both
admit to nothing, they will both be kept in prison for 1 year. However, if they both spill the beans about
the other being a spy, both will get 5 years in prison. But, if one spills the beans while the other keeps
silent then the spiller gets to go free immediately as a reward, the non-spiller gets 10 years a) for
being a spy and b) for not owning up.
The dilemma is to think what you would do in their position. We can take either since they are both in
the same position. Andy will think to himself that Bill can do one of two things: stay silent or spill the
beans. If Bill stays silent then what is best for Andy is to spill the beans (since he gets 0 years in
prison). If Bill spills the beans then what is best for Andy is to spill the beans too (otherwise he gets 10
years in jail rather than 5). So, whichever Bill does, Andy should, in his own interests, spill the beans.
Of course, Bill will reason in exactly the same way and so they both end up in jail for 5 years rather
than the 1 year that they would have been in prison if they had both kept silent.
The prisoners dilemma shows that self-interest will not necessarily guarantee the best outcome for
the individual. This is reinforced in social situations where you are likely to re-encounter people with
whom you have interacted before. This (more natural) pitching of self-interest against sympathy is
illustrated in a game devised by Axelrod. Two players are given two cards each, one labeled cheat,
the othercooperate. The banker tells them that they must choose one card and lay it out
simultaneously with the other player. If both players put down cooperate the banker gives each 5. If
both players put down cheat, both are fined 1. If one player puts down cheat and the
other cooperate, then the cheater gets 10 and the cooperator is fined 5. The game will continue
until the banker says quits.
Lets assume that there are 100 games and you are playing me. Obviously, you could get maximum
returns by always playing cheat so long as I am sucker enough to keep playing cooperate: you would
get 1000 while I would be short 500 (and vice versa). If we both played cheat a lot of the time, we
would end up with less money than if we both played cooperate more often.
Now, the obvious objection to this is that it is all very artificial: in life we dont have clear and obvious
rewards for cooperating with others (giving up a little self-interest to maximize returns) rather than
cheating (going all-out for number one which may result in our being worse off in the long run). That
said, Axelrods game is extremely robust in that there is one clear strategy that maximizes results so
long as the rewards and fines are within reasonable bounds and this is found whether played on
computer-devised trials of strategies, or when actually playing the game with humans irrespective of
their age, colour, creed, etc. This optimal strategy is to play cooperate first and then, after the second
game, play the same card as your opponent last played. Thus, if they played cheat in game 2, you
would play cheat in game 3. This tit-for-tat strategy means that cheating is not rewarded whereas
cooperation is.

This analysis provides support for the mutual cooperation that is seen in natural groups of animals. If
grooming the fur of others in the group is common, obviously one animals best strategy is to allow
another one to groom and then refuse to groom them back (the sucker!). However, these suckers will
then become reluctant to groom the cheats and will just groom other suckers. Cheats will get lousy
and be worse off than if they had cooperated. This gives us a justification for the evolution of the
attribute of sympathy that is a part of human nature: it helps the group as a whole to maximize the
happiness (health, well-being, success, lack of suffering, such notions) of every individual.
This brings us back to human uniqueness. Clearly, we are not the only intelligent social animal on the
planet. When we look at chimps, for example, we see similar attributes with respect to cooperation
and sympathy. Can we call their activity moral?
This is resisted for one main reason. This lies in the wider scope of our moral behaviour than that
found in the rest of the animal kingdom. Sympathy only really makes sense for the well-being of a
group if it is confined to just the members of that group there is no point being kind to someone or
something that you will never encounter again. Humans typically sympathise with people they havent
met, will never meet again, will never ever meet (such as future generations). This sort of sympathy is,
perhaps, an extension of our capacity to reason from the individual to the universal. If so, then, as the
only species capable of reason, we are unique in our morality.
Finally, if our morality is part of our nature, can we identify a difference in another part of our nature,
our gender? Carol Gilligan (in 1982) pointed out that when presented with the same moral problem,
girls and boys generally differed in their responses. Boys tended to seek and defend principles and
rules whereas girls looked for more relational solutions. Thus, when presented with the dilemma of
whether a poor man should steal a drug from the chemist to save his dying wife, boys argue that lifes
worth more than money or he has a greater duty to his wife than to the chemist. Girls answers are
generally such as his wife wont respect him if she finds out he steals or they should discuss what to
do first. This observation has led some to posit a feminist ethics. However, it has not really caught
on. This is largely due to the fact that this separation is only a generalization some males look for
relational solutions, some girls for principles and that most of us agree that both aspects of ethical
problems need to be taken into account when deciding moral questions.

The Distribution of Wealth

The facts about world poverty are easy to come by and continually shocking. Over a billion people live
in extreme poverty (that is, on less than 70p per day). Extreme poverty implies hunger, malnutrition,
disease and high infant mortality. One third of all human deaths are the result of extreme poverty and
over 25,000 children die of poverty-related causes every day. There are, in contrast, many wealthy
governments and individualsthe richest 2% in the world own over half of all household wealthwho
are in a position to give money and resources to reduce this poverty and alleviate this suffering.
In the light of such facts, our instinctive compassion may tell us that the wealthy have a moral
obligation to act, and we may even count ourselves among the fortunate; but in practice our own

priorities, or the nearer concerns of our own society, begin to override that compassion and few of us
give or do as much as we could. So how and where, if at all, should we direct our actions? What
obligation are we under to help? There are a number of issues that need to be approached
philosophically before we can be sure of the answers to these questions.
Charity and Justice
One word that occurs in this connection is charity, but this may not be the most appropriate term to













something supererogatory, and tends to be applied only at the individual level. For instance, giving
money to a homeless person is a morally positive act of charity but is not required of us. The scope
and urgency of global poverty demand a different and more far-reaching moral description.
A better approach is to consider the notion of justice and the demands of a just society. Justice is, of
course, a central ethical concept: it has the status of a duty in most deontological systems like Kants;
it is regularly on any list of virtues; and few would disagree that a just society will increase overall
happiness. It also implies consideration of society as a whole and the general structures of
distribution. Definitions of justice, however, vary significantly from thinker to thinker. One way of
establishing the basic principles of a just society was suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory
of Justice. In an attempt to detach the notion of justice from personal concerns, Rawls imagined that
the future members of a society are allowed to choose the structures and values of that society before
they enter it. But there is a catch: one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his
fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall
even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological
propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.A Theory of Justice 11
Under such conditions (what Rawls calls the original position) it seems unlikely that anyone would
advocate slavery, for example, in case they were cast as a slave in this society. Similarly, no one
would wish for extreme poverty to exist in case they themselves were to become a victim of such
povertyor, at least, they would ensure that there was some mechanism to alleviate that poverty,
perhaps through aid, progressive taxation or another principle of distributive justice. Therefore any
moral obligation to be just leads to an obligation to act to reduce that poverty by changing our present
practices (exploitation of workers, unfair taxation, allocation of aid etc) to ensure a fairer distribution of
One straightforward means of redistributing wealth more justly is the giving of financial aidan act
which is accessible to the individual as well as governments. Since aid is a means to an end
(ultimately, the reduction or abolition of poverty), it is worth asking what form that end should take.
Familiar economic development on the Western model may not, in the long run, be the right solution:
such economic prosperity rarely benefits the very poor and it may well be Western economies who
have the most to gain from an increased international market. Furthermore, economic growth for the
very poor does not necessarily require a more general growth. We may also state the desired end in

terms that are not financial: increased opportunities, quality of life, ecologically sustainable
development, and so on; and even raise questions about the process of distribution itself. Should
resources be allocated equally? or according to individual characteristics such as need or merit? or
according to free market transactions?
Although it seems clear that we have a duty to ensure a more just distribution of wealth and to help
the extremely poor, several objections are often voiced against this. People sometimes say that they
will not donate because the aid does not reach the people who need it most but ends up in the
pockets of corrupt officials. While there is undoubtedly some truth in this, clearly some aid does reach
the poor; and a duty to help cannot be disregarded in the face of practical difficulties. A person should
perhaps choose a different charity or lobby for change to allow them to donate successfully. This is
mostly a dispute over facts: the claim that aid neverreaches the poor is factually untrue. Similar factual
disputes include the objections that development aid will lead to unwelcome population growth or that
encouraging development will cause greater environmental damage. In both cases the facts are
debatable: developed countries tend to have lower birth rates, for example, and it is overdeveloped
nations that are responsible for most ecological damage. These are not strong objections, therefore,
to our general duty to ensure a just distribution of wealth.
A more telling objection is often expressed in the commonplace charity begins at home. Stated more
formally, our moral duty derives to some extent from the closeness of other people: we owe a greater
duty, for example, to our family and friends than to strangers. Our duty to help the poor on our own
doorstep overrides our duty to help the poor on the other side of the worldwe should therefore only
concern ourselves with our own society. This position however implies an assumption about what a
society is, and arbitrarily restricts our moral concerns to that society. But why should our moral
concern be limited in this way? Surely we should take into account all those individuals who are or will
be affected by our actionsincluding, in the case of future generations, individuals who do not yet
exist. Moreover it is hard to deny that our actions do affect remote nations: the society in which we
operate now is the whole world, and this global society has come to define the scope of our moral
duty. This is particularly true, of course, for moral agents like multinational companies and state
Another interesting objection is that we do not, in fact, have a general duty to help others; only a duty
not to harm them. This distinction between moral acts and moral omissions is a subtle one and is
certainly important. However, the distinction is also somewhat blurry: serious harm often arises
unintentionally from the acts of individuals (think of environmental damage, or the consequences of
free trade), and in these cases we can be held responsible and obliged to help repair that harm.
Furthermore, our failure to help alleviate poverty can be seen as part of the causal chain that leads to
poverty: if we are able to prevent an evil, then we should be held responsible if that evil occurs. This
helps to explain why we feel guilty when we spend extravagantly on ourselves: although we may feel
no prior obligation to give that money to others, we become aware that in doing so we would have
made a difference. Our failure to do otherwise feels more like a responsible act than a mere omission.

Peter Singer has argued from utilitarian principles that we should recognise the moral claim that
extreme poverty makes on us. He uses a powerful analogy to emphasise his point:
If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child
out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child
would presumably be a very bad thing.
Clearly it is unacceptable not to help the child. By the same reasoning, whenever we see someone
dying of malnutrition or a preventable disease on the news, we have an obligation to help them.
Saving a life will always carry more utility than whatever small sacrifice we have to make to save that
Choosing to Act
The shocking facts of extreme poverty generate a sense of moral urgency that is less keenly felt with
regard to other issues. The threats to life, freedom, self-determination and dignity create a very real
need for action. This moral urgency is also felt at an individual level: while we may have to decide
between competing obligationsto our family, for instance, or to more local emergencieswe are
failing in our duty if we do not choose to act globally.
We can use normative theories to help us decide between these competing obligations. A utilitarian
might argue that to donate 10 to an overseas charity will generate more utility than donating the
same amount to a domestic cause; a duty of beneficence, or a duty to alleviate suffering, might inspire
in us the same behaviour; and an ethics of virtue will place emphasis upon the virtues of compassion
or generosity. In each case, the rational demand is that we give as much as possible to make the
most significant improvement to the situation. Of course, our obligations to ourselves and those
aspects of our lives to which we are committededucation, job, familyare also legitimate and will
therefore place some limits on our obligation to alleviate poverty. It is not easy to determine how this
balance should be achieved, but it seems clear that a balance is, at least, possible.
Whatever normative theory we adopt, we can recognise that global poverty has a special moral
seriousness that places a direct claim on our behaviour. It is within our power to make an appreciable
difference to the lives of others, and that in itself is enough to demand our moral engagement.

Dower, Nigel. World Poverty [in Singer, Peter ed. A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell, 1993]

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. OUP, 1999

Singer, Peter. A Life in Philosophy. Guardian, 2009

Bio-medical Ethics
Several interesting philosophical questions arise in this area of human activity but they generally
centre on how to deal with the life of a person. They include the questions of when human life begins

and when it ends; whether certain lives have greater value than others; whether demands for full good
health are justifiable; how to decide on the distribution of medical resources. They are usually of
immediate general interest since questions of whether such things as contraception, abortion,
infanticide, euthanasia, cloning, genetic engineering, IVF treatment, spending of money on smokers
versus a cure for malaria, affect us all and, given that we cannot all agree about them, attract a lot of
Perhaps the most fruitful question to ask at the outset is why it is wrong to kill someone? Some will
claim that it is always wrong to kill someone, no matter what. Often, this will be articulated as
everyone having a right to life. Notice that this is claimed as a moral right (not a legal one if a
government decided to change the law and allow some group of its citizens to be killed this would not
make killing them right). However, it is not good enough just to say that every person has a right to
life and leave it at that. It must be justified in some way otherwise there is no answer to someone who
says that no-one has a right to life.
Taking the absolutist stance and saying that it is always wrong to kill is quite a hard position to sustain
if someone is pointing a gun at you and you have a gun which will shoot them dead. Given your
views, you must not shoot but, in that case, you will die. (And being dead you will not even have the
satisfaction of knowing you were right and your killer was wrong.) Another example would be of a
dictator who has hideous tortures inflicted on hundreds of people every day and who can only be
stopped by assassination: is the dictators right to life worth respecting? If you say yes then we can
crank up the thought-experiment until the dictator has world-power and the means to torture everyone
in the world except himself (or herself, of course) for all of their lives and for all future people. At this
point, perhaps everyone will concede that such a monster could be killed which then concedes the
point that absolutism on the killing question is unsustainable.
In such cases of self-defence, in wars, vile torturers, perhaps even when it comes to capital
punishment, most of us will allow that killing is acceptable. We might go so far as to permit the killing
of a patient with irreparable brain damage, in a coma and suffering pain, by thinking that the death is
preferable to the life of that patient. In other words, apart from extreme pacifists, there is nothing
sacred about human life to the majority of people. What really counts is not so much having a life, but
having a worthwhile life.
That, however, is usually not quite the end of the matter. At first glance we might think, yes, we ought
not to kill (or to allow to die) someone who has a worthwhile life all other things being equal (this rules
out circumstances like the horrible torturer etc.). But what if the cost of keeping one person with a
worthwhile life alive means that we have to sacrifice the well-being of masses of other people? If it
meant that the money spent on non-essential things like, say, anaesthetics had to be diverted to keep
alive one person would we think this the right thing to do? Most of us would probably say that this is
going too far that having a worthwhile life is not anabsolute proscription against killing (or allowing to
die). In other words, in some circumstances, a life can be sacrificed. (Again, some people do not
concede this. They are usually Believers who maintain that only God has the right to end a life no
matter what the circumstances. We will look at this standpoint later on.)

We can now turn to the question of who is to decide what a worthwhile life is. Imagine that a familyless, friendless, life-sentenced prisoner has incurable cancer from which he will die in 12 months. You
know that the pain from the cancer will get unbearable. In short, let us say that you know that he will
not have a life worth living. The prisoner, however, says that he wants to carry on living right to the
very end. Should the prisoner be killed? On the one hand, this would be an act of mercy we would
have nothing to gain from it, it is done in the persons best interests. On the other hand, we are going
against the individuals wishes. I guess that, like me, you will want to say that the prisoner is the best
person to decide and that he should be allowed to live out his life. You reject the paternalist approach
(that some authority knows best) and emphasise the autonomy of the individual.
Nothing is ever easy, however. What if the prisoner is mentally unstable and incapable of reasoning?
What if he is capable of reasoning but is (and will remain until death) in a permanent coma? In these
cases we might decide that we could ignore the wishes of the individual.
Although there will be some room for argument at the margins, from the above we can isolate two
principles which should be taken into account with regard to killing. The first is that it is wrong to take
a worthwhile life. The second is that the autonomy of the individual is to be taken into consideration.
When these two principles clash (as in the case of the deranged cancerous prisoner) one principle will
not necessarily trump the other.
At this point it might be worth pointing out that these principles appear to stem from two different
ethical systems. The worthwhile life one seems to be utilitarian with its analysis of greatest good; the
autonomy one has a duty-based derivation a respect for individuals. A virtue ethicist would beg to
differ and indicate that questions of killing involve the exercise of justice, prudence, courage,
compassion, and so on (and the avoidance of callousness, indifference, self-interest, cruelty, and so
on). That said, we can now turn to some specific medical questions to see how moral philosophy can
be applied to help us towards solutions. We will look at the first one at some length to get a fuller
appreciation of the philosophical method in this regard.
Having examined why it is wrong to kill, we discovered two major principles. In looking at abortion,
one of them doesnt come into play: the fetus has no say in the matter and so cannot establish
autonomy. The other principle (having a worthwhile life) is one that is open to question: is a fetus an
entity to which this concept even applies?
So, is it wrong to kill a fetus? A lot of people will say that it is and we will look at some of their
justifications for saying it.
One argument is that the fetus is a human being and given that all human beings have moral status,
then it is as wrong to kill a fetus as kill any other human being. This is not a strong argument. It
consists of a major assertion which needs further justification. Who is to say what is, or is not, a
human being? I might say that the fetus is not a human being and then the argument has to shift.
Where it has to shift will be explored later.

A second argument which seems more promising is to say that the fetus is apotential person and that
it is wrong to intervene and stop potential persons from becoming persons. Persons are more than
simply members of the species Homo sapiens. A person is conscious, capable of a degree of
reflective thought, capable of forming relationships, has some kind of emotional responses, has a
sense of their own identity, and perhaps other attributes. Persons are to be respected and valued.
Therefore, potential persons also are to be respected and valued.
This argument is unsatisfactory on two counts. The first is that we are not valuing the fetus for what it
is in itself but what it will become. This seems to miss the mark. Imagine a mother who loves her baby
simply because she knows she will be a successful pop star in the future rather than loving her for
what she is now. We would not see her as a good mother. In the same way, a fetus ought to be
valued as a fetus rather than valuing it for what it will become.
The second count is that the argument can be extended to include contraception as being wrong. Any
(reproductively healthy) male and female could produce more persons. One can imagine a vast
number of potential people who are denied the actuality of life by various contraceptive methods. If
killing a fetus is wrong because it could become an actual person, then using contraception is equally
wrong. This seems absurd even to those people (such as Roman Catholics) who claim that
contraception is wrong. Killing a fetus is seen as more wrong than wearing a condom to prevent an
egg being fertilized. If it is more wrong, then it must involve something more than the prevention of
potential argument.
A reply to this is to say that it is because a fetus is closer to becoming a person than sperm and egg
being kept separate and this makes up the difference. But again, this will not do. This still misses the
valuing of the fetus in itself, and it seems too weak as a justification. If you have ordered a birthday
cake for 3 oclock and the bakery rings up to tell you that you are not going to get one, then it makes
no difference if it were the ingredients for the cake that were stolen at 10 oclock, or the cake itself
were stolen as it was taken out of the oven at 12 oclock, or the finished, iced cake stolen at 2 oclock.
In short, it does not matter how close the cake is to becoming what you want (your cake) if that is all
you value. In the same way, if what you value is the person, when it is prevented from becoming one,
whether preconception (the mere ingredients), as a zygote, an embryo, or as a fetus, cannot make a
difference. And yet it ought. Thus, we need something better than the prevention of potential
What we want is an argument that confers moral status on the fetus as a person in its own right (and
not a human being or a potential person).
A straightforward solution is to say that personhood begins at conception because it is at this point
that the genetic ingredients are brought together to produce a distinct individual entity. Though a
simple solution, for most people it is overly simplistic. Calling a zygote a person is stretching the limits
of what counts as a person too far. We would not call an acorn an oak tree, or a caterpillar a butterfly,
or a collection of the right ingredients a cake, although all of them, like a zygote, in the right
conditions, will one day become an oak, a butterfly, a cake or a person.

A second straightforward solution is to say that personhood begins at birth when the baby is named,
welcomed, appreciated by other human beings. This seems a good boundary line for demarcation.
But is it a clear distinction between the unborn baby and the baby? Imagine if it were the case that
women had transparent wombs and abdomens and that it were possible to see the fetus growing
inside the mother-to-be. Here it is easy to imagine the fetus/unborn baby being appreciated in pretty
much exactly the same way that a newborn baby would be. Thus, this apparent boundary line could
easily be blurred.
A third straightforward solution is to claim that personhood begins when the fetus becomes capable of
surviving independently from its mother. This runs into two difficulties. The first is that, for
completeness, we would have to say that a human plugged in to another person who, say, cleaned
their blood for them while a donor liver was waited for, was not a person. On these grounds the
argument runs into absurd consequences. The second is that the capacity to survive independently is
a moving boundary: earlier and earlier premature babies are surviving. Again, absurdity raises its
head if we have to say that becoming a person depends on whether the hospital has the latest
incubator or not. We might also consider a third difficulty. In the future it may become possible to not
only fuse sperm and egg outside the body, but to grow the zygote in an artificial womb until ready for
delivery to the parents. Here the dependency on the mother is nil and so the argument collapses back
to the conception position above.
As we have seen, trying to identify an exact point at which personhood begins, and hence when killing
becomes an issue, is doomed to failure. There are two reasons for this. The first is that personhood is
itself not a clearly defined thing. Rather, it is a cluster of characteristics each of which can vary in
extent. The second is that human life is not a series of abrupt transitions. Even though stages are
identifiable, there are no sharp boundaries that can be drawn: embryo fetus baby are identifiable
stages but so are child youth middle aged old aged. No-one can confidently point to a moment
when one stage becomes the next.
This leaves us with the view that personhood has to be regarded as a variable, that a fertilized egg is
less of a person than a fetus which is less of a person than a baby. With this it follows that it is less
wrong to kill a fetus than a baby, less wrong to kill a fertilized egg than a fetus.
This has got us a little further forward, perhaps, but by focusing on the personhood of the fetus we
have been totally discounting the personhood of the mother.
One view might be that this should be discounted, that what is at issue is the life of the unborn child
irrespective of the mother-to-bes views. Certainly, one can care for the mother but she should have
no privileged say about whether the fetus lives or is killed. Are there any good arguments for saying
that this is wrong and that the mother does have the privilege?
One such argument is that a woman has a right to what goes on with her own body and therefore the
right to decide whether to allow a fetus to grow in it or not. In this argument there is one of two
assumptions. One is that the fetus is not a person in any way (a position which we have already

rejected). The other is that the moral status of the fetus as a person is less than that of the mother. In
what circumstances might one justify putting one life ahead of another?
What if the birth of the baby would certainly cause the death of the mother? Surely the mother can
abort the baby to save her own life? This seems to be a simple matter of self-defence and most
people would see it as justifiable to kill another person who was about to kill them. (This needs some
qualification to be wholly palatable. It would not be justifiable to kill an attacker if lesser measures
were possible knocking them unconscious, say, rather than knocking their head off. Nor would it be
justifiable to pre-empt the killer if you knew a contract killer was planning to shoot you tomorrow, you
should not poison him today. For the pregnant woman these sorts of considerations dont apply.) This
gives an adequate justification for killing a fetus if the mothers life is at stake, but not otherwise. If
abortion in circumstances other than these is to be defended, another argument is required.
The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has argued that a woman does not have a moral duty to the
fetus to keep it alive. She has an ingenious analogy to illustrate her case. You are under general
anaesthetic having a minor operation. A man is brought into the hospital with two collapsed kidneys.
There are no dialysis machines available and he is on the point of death due to blood poisoning.
Coincidentally, you and he are compatible such that he can be plugged in to you so that you clean
his blood for him. There is no time to lose so the doctors go ahead and plug you in. When you come
round, they explain what has happened to you and ask you to go on being connected to the man until
a machine or a new kidney is available: a matter of months. Do you have a moral duty to stay
connected to the man or can you opt for freedom from the connection and leave him unplugged and
dead? Thomson says that you do not have a moral duty, that consenting to being plugged in is an act
of charity rather than duty: we only have moral duties towards those to whom we have a special
responsibility. The parallel is obvious: the pregnant woman does not have a moral duty to the fetus
and can, if she wishes, be uncharitable and have an abortion without doing wrong to the fetus, just
as you do no wrong by choosing not to give money to a beggar.
What is attractive about this argument is that charitableness is on a sliding scale rather like the
circumstances for abortion are on a sliding scale whereas our moral duty does not have the same
elasticity. Most of us would say that of course it is right that a raped and traumatised 12-year-old who
is three-months pregnant should be allowed to have an abortion should she wish, and that of course it
is wrong for a career woman who is six-months pregnant and has just been invited on a fantastic
skiing trip to have an abortion because the bump gets in the way. Circumstances make the difference
here just as circumstances make the difference when it comes to being charitable. Of course it is right
to give food to the starving if you have more than you need; of course it is wrong to give money to the
rich while allowing your own children to go without.
The problem with Thomsons argument is with her assumption that we can readily distinguish
between those to whom we have moral duties and those to whom we are charitable. If the man with
collapsed kidneys were your father you should stay plugged in. But what if he were an uncle, or a
second cousin, or a tenth cousin? A fetus might well be regarded as something more than a stranger,
something which a mother may well have a moral duty towards rather than charity.

Having considered the fetus and the mother, it is worth pointing out that there are many side-effects
which also matter. Calling them side-effects is not to minimize their importance, it merely addresses
the fact that they are not central to the issue of killing we could eliminate all side-effects and the
killing would still matter. In the case of abortion the side-effects would include the psychological,
physiological, sociological effects which will all have an influence on the final decision. Thus, for
instance, a mother will be more affected psychologically by a late rather than an early abortion; the
effect of a long pregnancy on her body will be greater the longer it progresses; would abortion on
demand weaken our social structure, would unwanted babies be better off adopted? Should doctors
and nurses not have to suffer the distress of assisting with late abortions? All of these side-effects to
the question of killing a fetus are weighty. Indeed, if we adopt the utilitarian position, they must be
taken into consideration when deciding whether an abortion will lead to the greatest good.
Before leaving this issue, we ought to consider the opposite case: is it ever wrongnot to have an
abortion? There are some distressing syndromes which result in the death of a fetus at some stage
before it will be born, or the baby is born but will only have a very short life and one that is painful.
Here one could appeal to the principle of a worthwhile life and conclude that, just like the older person
incapacitated and in pain on a life-support machine with no prospect of improvement, death is
Inadequate though it is, perhaps the best approach is to try to imagine ourselves in the position of the
fetus (or the person on the life-support machine) and then decide between life and death. When such
syndromes are identified, it may well be wrong not to have an abortion. What might make a difference
are the side-effects. So, for example, if the mother believes abortion is a mortal sin and believes her
soul will be forever damned if she consents to it, then this may be justification enough to let the baby
suffer such a life.
Conclusions to be drawn from this discussion on abortion are that what is in question is: what is the
status of personhood of the fetus rather than when human life begins? What grounds can justify the
setting of one persons worthwhile life above another? By isolating these problems we can at least
move the debate away from the often-emotional responses to the problem of abortion and onto
ground where reasoned examination is called for. The latter has proved more fruitful in the past in
terms of uncovering what is best.
Although we have spent a good deal of time on the question on abortion, it is easy to see how the
same principles and method apply to other ethical questions in the field of medicine especially those
involving the life or death of persons such as in euthanasia, infanticide and suicide. Hence we can
turn from any more specifics and look at a couple of other philosophical principles that attract
attention: acts and omissions; and playing God.
Acts and omissions
In America a few years ago a passer-by was put in an appalling moral dilemma. A truck had been in
an accident and was on fire. The driver was hopelessly trapped with both legs pinned. The fire was

spreading in the cab. The driver handed the passer-by a gun and pleaded with him to shoot him in the
head to spare him the agony of being burnt to death. The passer-by shot him dead. Would you have?
A very similar moral dilemma is one which faces doctors routinely: which is worse,acting to shorten
the life of a terminally-ill patient by administering a painless overdose, or omitting to act and leaving
the patient to die in agony?
The utilitarian has a simple solution: it doesnt matter what you do whether you act or omit to act
all that needs concern you is whether the outcome is better in terms of greater happiness or lesser
suffering. However, this does not square with what is regarded as a doctors duty: to intervene to save
life rather than hasten its end.
There certainly seems to be a big difference between failing to act knowing that this will result in death
and acting such that death will result even though the outcome is the same in both cases. Failing to
send money to the starving in Africa such that ten of them die is not the same as sending them ten
poisoned meals.
Many philosophers, however, reject what seems to be a clear distinction between acting and omitting
to act. They say that acting or not acting both depend on a decision that a person makes. Since the
decision is mental, the action (or lack of it) which follows is merely the implementation of that decision:
the agent is still responsible for the decision that has been made. Thus, in the example above, if I
know full well that the money I fail to give will certainly result in ten deaths, then this is just as bad as
sending ten poisoned meals. On this analysis, the reasons for the decision are crucial rather than the
outcome. In this way, a duty-based ethics will differ from the utilitarian one.
It might be worth noting here that, in Britain at least, doctors are not allowed by law to act to kill
patients. This includes those patients which the courts have decided can be allowed to die (such as
those in a persistent vegetative state whose next of kin have expressed a wish for the death). In such
cases the patient has feeding tubes removed such that they die of dehydration/starvation usually over
a period of several days. Doctors are not allowed to administer an overdose to bring about a speedy,
painless death instead. The reasoning is that allowing to die in this way is not the same as acting to
kill. Many find this distinction unreasonable. It is often puzzling to consider the apparent inconsistency
in this respect when one considers animals in pain with no chance of recovery. Here the law demands
that they be given a quick and painless death rather than just standing by and waiting for their death
by letting them starve.
Playing God
One reason for this reluctance to allow doctors to kill their patients (when the patient wishes this to be
done and is incapable of suicide) is the very understandable one that any of us would feel of not
wishing to be the arbiter of the moment of another persons death. In the past, the moment of the
creation of a life, as well as the decision about when it would end, was seen as being in Gods hands
and hence the reluctance is often expressed as not wishing to play God.

This is not a coherent argument for some people. In the case of the creation of a human life, many of
us are content to circumvent Gods natural processes by practising contraception. In life we are
generally also content to go against Gods will we put up umbrellas thus going against his will that
our heads get wet from the rain; we are vaccinated against getting diseases; we take medicines, have
operations, to extend our lives; we jump out of the way of falling rocks. In many ways, we choose a
lifestyle that will determine our longevity taking more or less exercise, eating more or less of certain
types of food, and so on. In all of these ways, we are exercising autonomy: it is our decision about
how long our life extends and, nowadays, we are free to end it (by suicide) if we wish.
All that said, there still remains a very human reluctance to choose between, say, which of two
patients is going to get the kidney machine and live, and which is not and will die. Even if we adopt a
simple utilitarian approach, who are we to judge which of the two patients will have greater utility than
the other? This very human reluctance may just be a lack of courage, or it may reflect a deep
sympathy with human life. In any event pure reasoning does not seem adequate to eliminate it from
the minds of most of us, doctors or otherwise.

Bell, J M & Mendus, S. Philosophy and Medical Welfare. CUP, 1988

Ellos, W J. Ethical Practice in Clinical Medicine. Routledge, 1990

Glover, J. Causing Death and Saving Lives. Penguin, 1977

Singer, Peter ed. Applied Ethics. OUP, 1986

Thomson, Judith. A Defense of Abortion. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1971

Environmental Ethics
This is a relatively new area of ethical consideration. At its heart is the question of whether things
other than other humans (and some sorts of animals) have a moral status that is independent of
human beings. This would include plants, groups such as species, habitats, ecosystems, mountains,
oceans, buildings, the Earth, the Universe amongst other things. So, for example, if I were considering
razing a mountain considerations such as it would upset the owner or it would rob people of a nice
view do not count here (since they refer to duties I have to people). Rather, do I have a duty to the
mountain as an object not to obliterate it? What is needed is some sort of criterion (or set of criteria)
which confers independent moral status on objects such as mountains but not, say, on a wormcast or
a piece of litter. Finding such criteria is fundamental to environmental ethics.
Initially, we might address is what environment is. Clearly, it is the physical surroundings of an
organism but there is more to it than that. It also includes other organisms in the surroundings. Both of
these surroundings can range from the immediate to the distant. There is also a relationship between
an organism and its surroundings such that changes in one elicit changes in the other. To illustrate
these points, take a dog. Its physical surroundings may be the house and garden in which it lives,
perhaps the village or town. It will also be influenced by the presence/absence of other dogs, cats,
humans and the like. The behaviour of our dog will vary depending on the number of lamp-posts

and the visits of other dogs, our dogs pattern of urinating will vary. And the places in which our dog
urinates alters the environment of other dogs.
Having given this brief outline a second point to make is that we should always be clear whose
environment we are considering. Increasing the lighting in a town to reduce road accidents or burglary
may have a negative outcome on those people in the area who want a good view of the stars. This
environmental focus is human-centred: it ignores the effects the lighting will have on the environments
of dogs, moths, hedgehogs and so on.
A final introductory note is that, though of course humans are part of the environment, our interactions
with them are not taken as a part of environmental ethics (otherwise it becomes indistinguishable from
ethics). What is of concern, however, is the effect of environments in which humans live on ourselves
as well as on other organisms. Humans affect the environment much more rapidly, radically and
purposefully than any other organism or natural activity and it is generally the investigation of this
human activity and its consequences that most preoccupy the environmental ethicist.
Independent moral status
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, is it possible to find a justification that confers independent
moral status on a broader range of things than humans (normal ethics), sentient animals or animals
which are the subject of a life? Some environmental ethicists think that this is not possible and so
utilize arguments that are common to ones used which are human-centred. Others disagree and think
that it is possible to show that ethical consideration should extend well beyond such groups. In his
original paper on this sort of distinction, the Norwegian philosopherArne Nss referred to shallow
and deep but since the former carries negative overtones, the more popular distinction is to
acknowledge a spectrum of positions from light green (acknowledging only humans as having
independent moral status) through mid-green (some non-human animals also have such status) to
deep green (all natural beings have independent moral status). It is the justification of the deep
green position that will occupy us here.
One such justification comes from the Routleys. They maintain that a core principle of our ethical
system is that humans should be able to do whatever they wish without doing harm to others. They
point out that this is a useful principle to recruit for some environmental concerns a farmer shouldnt
pollute a stream because it might harm people who drink it, or wish to fish in it, and so on. However, it
is not useful to a deep green ethicist since if there were no people to drink, or fish, etc. then the
pollution would be permissible. They say another core principle is that only objects or concern or use
to humans (or are the product of human labour or ingenuity) are of value and value is taken into
account when considering ethical behaviour. Again, this is inadequate for the deep green ethicist who
wishes to claim value for other categories of things.
Their justification stems from the introduction of a range of examples but from which we can use the
best-known: the last man. Here, they ask us to consider the case where all other humans have been
wiped out. The last man then systematically sets about killing all other species, polluting oceans,
razing mountains, and so on. What the Routleys expect is that we will intuitively agree that the last

man is behaving badly, and that the last man is destroying things of value. From this intuitive
appreciation we can move to a demonstration that the core principles (of harm and value) are
inadequate and so force us to concede that we need a new ethic to support our position. The
demonstration is fairly straight-forward the last man harms no human, destroys no object of value
to humans and therefore has done no wrong. Since this contradicts our intuition that he has done
wrong then the premises (our core principles) are inadequate.
Unfortunately for the deep green ethicist a simple rebuttal is to say that, in fact, the last man has not
done wrong and has not destroyed anything of value. In other words, the intuitive agreement about
the behaviour of the last man may not be universal.
A light green line which can be taken to resist this is to try to piece together an argument which says
that, in fact, the last man is harming a human, is destroying something of value to a human being:
himself. Indeed, since there is currently no really persuasive deep green argument (and given that
humans are threatening the environment now), we should press this argument to prevent further
environmental degradation until a persuasive one comes up. Such an argument draws on the
enrichment of a persons life that comes from a deeper appreciation of the lives of other species and
the understanding of our natural environment. From this sort of consideration we can argue that
wanton destruction of species and natural objects impoverishes us (and other humans too including
those in the future).
The argument begins with a look at value. We can distinguish between instrumentaland noninstrumental value. The former sort of value will include things which fulfil human requirements.
Environmentally, we use this notion of value when we argue that nature can (or might in the future)
provide us with new medicines, food or raw materials; that affecting organisms might negatively affect
us because the complexity of inter-relationships between organisms and the environment means we
cannot predict effects; that knowledge of a full biodiversity helps us understand ourselves and our
place in nature. The latter sort of value, the non-instrumental one, says that we have a deep
emotional need for things in the natural world.
Unlike things with instrumental value, things with a non-instrumental value cannot be substituted
there is something about them that has a special quality. To take a non-environmental example first, a
painting by Monet may have instrumental value (if you are using it to hide a safe or prop open a door)
but its main attraction is a non-instrumental value. Even if the Monet were copied perfectly and then
substituted, the owner would have lost some value over and above any other value that the painting
has they would feel wronged if they found out. Even if the owner is unaware of the substitution,
there is still a deprivation of value we feel for them. This example leads us to another. You might
have a love letter which you have lovingly treasured for years. Suppose this were copied exactly and
then substituted. Again, you will have lost something of value. Here we can use the word cherished.
There are objects which gain (non-instrumental) value through being cherished: they have a
sentimental value. In other words, our emotions can be tied up with non-instrumental value and it is
this appeal to emotion which can support the argument for valuing objects other than those with just
instrumental value (including, of course, objects of concern to environmental ethicists).
Take an oak tree. This might have an instrumental value (casting a pleasant shade, for example) but
its non-instrumental value lies in the fact that it cannot be adequately substituted. An ash or beech

tree is inadequate. Planting another oak if the first were destroyed would go some way towards
fulfilling the value but not all the way (the oaks on the Vine planted to replace those which blew down
in the 87 gale will never do so fully). This sense of loss of something cherished is an argument for not
allowing the harm of environmental objects.
Notice that this feeling of experiencing a loss is not adequately addressed by merely having the
feeling. A parallel argument is Nozicks pleasure machine that we have already met with as a
thought-experiment in the Consequentialism section you can plug yourself into the machine and
experience everything you desire but without knowing that it is not real. Nozick thinks (probably
justifiably) that most of us wouldnt plug ourselves in because reality is something we value in itself.
Similarly, environmental objects such as other species, stars and sunsets have a greater value if they
are real rather than just hypothetical. Thus, it matters that there are, say, 1001 species of bat living
rather than 1000 with our causing the extinction of one of them: even though most of us will never
experience all those bats, we can feel the value of having the (real) biodiversity of the bat order.
Having argued that the environment has a value, we can now turn to the question of how we might go
about assigning weight to conflicting values. Clearing a bit of rainforest might have the value of
providing employment and material well-being to some humans but entail the extinction of a species
of beetle by destroying its habitat thus losing some non-instrumental value. Which value wins and
A straight-forward reply is to apply a utilitarian approach and do a cost-benefit analysis. We can put a
monetary value on the various values in conflict including non-instrumental ones by, for example,
asking how much would you pay for the non-extinction of a beetle or the non-clearing of a bit of rainforest. Then it is a simple matter of doing the sums before doing the clearing or not.
The objections to this approach are threefold. Firstly, that it assumes money is an appropriate
measure of the value of environmental objects (remember that things with non-instrumental values
cannot be readily substituted whereas, of course, things with monetary value can be). Secondly, it
assumes that people can make accurate valuations of what is good for them (and we are often
spectacularly bad at making such valuations). Thirdly, it assumes that the value of environmental
objects is directly linked to their being desired (whereas they have a value independent of human likes
and dislikes).
A different approach is to point to the virtues that arise from a consideration of natural, environmental,
objects. One salient virtue might be wonder. Here, there is an element of disinterestedness we get
out of ourselves when swept up in a sense of wonder at, say the beauty of a sunset, the intricacies of
biochemistry in a cell, the life of a flea. It is this appreciation of non-instrumental values that constitute
the virtue and, since practising the virtues leads to a good life, we should preserve nature to allow us
to achieve this goal. We might also consider other things to be virtues such as respect including a
proper respect for all things and the exercise of capacities to understand the natural world. Thus,
the virtue ethicist can be called on to support ideas in environmental ethics.
Deep Green

It is worth noting that many deeply-committed environmentalists are unconvinced that the arguments
laid out above are at all adequate. These people cannot be dismissed because their views are often
underpinned by a commitment to a radically different approach which is necessarily at odds with the
sort of treatment we have been considering. This can only be touched on here but there are two main
things to say. The first is that their approach is holistic rather than analytical they see nature as a
whole, comprehensive and, as such, not amenable to reduction. Thus, they are much more taken with
the how should I live? question rather than technical, piecemeal arguments of the type above. They
have more in common with a religious system in this respect nothing makes sense without the belief
in the oneness (of nature or God). The second is that this belief rests on a metaphysical theory
about the ultimate nature of reality. Often, seeing things the deep green way is described as
revelatory or inspirational. To properly address such questions is well beyond the scope of this small
sub-section of this small section of this small option.

Benson, J. Environments, Ethics and Human Concern. OUP, 1999
Singer, Peter ed. Applied Ethics. OUP, 1986