JSB175 Reading Week Two Notes
Overview of Ethics
The field of ethics involves systemising, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong.
Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general areas: metaethics, normative ethics and
Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from and what they mean. Are they merely social
inventions? Do they involve more than just expressions of our individual emotions?
Metaethical answers to these questions focus on issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of
reason in ethical judgements, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves.
Two issues are prominent within metaethics:
o Metaphysical issues concern whether morality exists independently of humans.
o Psychological issues concern the underlying mental basis of our moral judgements and conduct.
Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to ascertain the moral standards which regulate
right or wrong conduct. This could involve identifying the ‘good’ habits that we should acquire and practice,
the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behaviour on others.
Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues such as abortion, animal rights,
environment issues, homosexuality or capitol punishment.
Applied ethics uses the conceptual tools of both metaethics and normative ethics to resolve these
The lines between the three general areas are often blurred, and all three areas can apply to many ethical dilemmas.
Metaphysics is the study of all things that exist in the universe. Some of these are physical such as animals and
plants. Others can be non-physical such as thought, gods and spirits. In terms of metaethics, metaphysics is
concerned with investigating whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or if they are
simply human conventions. There are therefore generally two directions that this topic can take – other-worldly and
The Other-Worldly view typically believes that moral values are objective and exist in a spirit realm
regardless of human conventions and subjectivity. They also believe that moral values are absolute. This
means that they exist without change or variation across all rational creatures in the world and across time.
Possibly the most dramatic example of this view is Plato who was inspired by mathematics. Plato explained
that numbers were not invented by humans, and we cannot change them. He maintained that numbers exist
as abstract entities in another realm. He continued to note that moral values are absolute truths and
therefore also exist abstractly in another realm. In this sense, for Plato, moral values are spiritual objects. Medieval philosophers often grouped all moral principles together under the title of ‘eternal law’ which
werthalso seen frequently as spiritual objects.
17 century philosopher Samuel Clarke described them as spirit-like relationships as opposed to objects,
however they nevertheless exist in a spirit-like realm.
Another other-worldly approach to moral values is divine commands, or the will of God. This view is
sometimes called voluntarism or divine command theory. This view is inspired by the notion of an all-
powerful God who is in total control. Here, God’s will quite simply becomes reality – he wills existence of the
world, of human life and of moral values into existence. Certain medieval philosophers such as William of
Ockham believed that moral principles exist in God’s mind and are transferred to us humans as commands
via moral intuition or scriptures.
The This-Worldly approach to metaphysics and morality follows in the sceptical philosophical traditions, such
as that expressed by Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus. This view rejects the objective status of moral
values. This does not mean that sceptics rejected the idea of moral values, it instead means that they
rejected the idea that moral values existed in another realm, or as the divine commands of God.
Sceptics argued that moral values are strictly human inventions, a position that is known as moral relativism.
There are two distinct forms of moral relativism – individual relativism and cultural relativism:
o Individual relativism holds that individual people create their own moral standards. Friedrich
Nietzsche, for example, argued that the superhuman creates his or her moral values distinct from
and in reaction to the slave-like values of the masses.
o Cultural relativism holds that morality is grounded in the approval of one’s society and not simply in
preference to the individual. This value has been held by Sextus Empiricus (mentioned earlier) and
more recently, by Michel Montaigne and William Graham Summer.
The This-Worldly approach also denies the absolute and universal nature of morality, and instead claims that
morality changes from person to person, society to society throughout time and across the world.
Advocates of this view frequently argue and defend their position by citing real-world examples of this, such
as the differing attitudes towards issues such as polygamy and human sacrifice across both time and
The second area of metaethics involves the psychological basis of our moral conduct and judgement, and particularly
what motivates us to be moral. We could begin to explore this by asking the simple question – ‘why be moral?’
Because even if an individual is aware of moral standards, this does not mean they are psychologically compelled to
follow them. Some common answers to the question of ‘why be moral?’ include to avoid punishment, gain praise,
attain happiness, and uphold dignity or to fit in with society.
Egoism and Altruism
One important area of moral psychology concerns the inherent selfishness of human beings. 17 century
British philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that many if not all of our actions are prompted by selfish
desires. Even when an action seems selfless – such as donating to society – it is still in part prompted by
selfishness, for example having power over others or feeling fulfilled.
This view is called psychological egoism and asserts that all actions are ultimately propelled by selfish
A closely related view to this is psychological hedonism which holds that all actions are propelled by the
desire for pleasure.
18 century British philosopher Joseph Butler agreed that instinctive selfishness and pleasure drive much of
our conduct, however he argued that we also have an inherent psychological capacity to show benevolence
– or kindness – to others. This view is called psychological altruism and maintains that at least some of our
behaviour is motivated by instinctive benevolence.
Emotion and Reason
The second area of moral psychology involves a dispute concerning the role of reason in motivating actions. 18 century British philosopher David Hume argued that moral assessments involve our emotions and not
reason. He maintained that we can have all of the reasons in the world to support a specific action but that
alone cannot constitute a moral assessment without emotion. He stated that we need a distinctly emotional
reaction to form a moral statement.
20 century philosophers such as AJ Ayer similarly denied that moral assessments are factual descriptions.
While at first the phrase ‘It is good to donate to charity’ seems like a factual
description of donating to charity, it is actually an expression of personal feelings
towards charity. It is essentially saying ‘hooray for charity’ and this is called an
emotive element because it expresses emotion about a particular topic. Secondly,
there is a prescriptive element present because the speaker is essentially
commanding or prescribing that others should give to charity because it is ‘good’.
From Hume’s time forward, more rational-minded philosophers have argued against the
emotive theory of ethics and instead maintained that moral assessments are indeed acts of
18 century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that whilst emotional factors
undoubtedly influence our judgement, we should not let them get in the way of rational
thought. Instead, he maintained, true moral action should be motivated only by reason and
without influence of emotions and desires.
A recent rationalist approach was offered by Kurt Baier (1958). Baier focused more
specifically on the reasoning process that takes place within oneself when making moral
choices. He argued that all of our moral choices are, or can be, backed by some reason or
Thus, according to Baier, the proper moral decision making process would involve providing
the best reasons to support a course of action versus another.
Male and Female Morality
A third area of moral psychology focuses on whether there is a distinctly female approach
to ethics that is grounded in the psychological differences between men and women.
Discussions of this issue focus primarily on two claims:
o Traditional morality is male-centred
o There is a unique female perspective of the world which can be shaped into a value
According to many feminist philosophers, morality is traditionally male-centred because it
is based on practices which were traditionally male-dominated (such as acquiring land and
engaging in business). These practices were typically rigid and required following a specific
set of rules.
Women by contrast, have traditionally been engaged in nurturing roles such as watching
after children, raising them and being in charge of household duties. These practices
generally required a less strict set of rules and provided more room for creativity.
Therefore, using the woman’s experience as a model for moral theory, the basis of her
morality would be more spontaneous, would focus on caring for others and would likely be
appropriated to each unique circumstance.
In this sense, the woman becomes the agent who acts caringly within the context. The man,
in contrast, would be likely to follow a set of mechanical roles where he is required to
perform his duty but can remain distanced from and unaffected by the situation.
A care-based modal of morality – as it is sometimes called – is offered by feminists as an
alternative to the traditional male-modelled moral systems.
Normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. In essence, it is a search
of an ideal test of proper behaviour. The Golden Rule is a classic example of normative principle: we should do unto others what we want others to do to us. Since we do not want to be murdered, we should not murder. Using this