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Summary of Classes on Ethical Theory
PHL406, Paul Raymont (Jan. 16, 2011)
I distinguished between descriptive and prescriptive statements. Descriptive statements
(sometimes called ‘is’ statements) purport to tell us what is the case, or how things are in the
world. By contrast, the point of prescriptive claims (or ‘ought’ statements) is to tell us what
ought to be the case, or how things really ought to be in our world. In ethics, our main focus is
on prescriptive statements that tell us how we should (or ought to) act.
Some prescriptive claims are not really ethical in nature but are, rather, merely prudential; that is,
their aim is to tell someone how to act if she is to advance her own interests. Merely prudential
claims are generally explicitly or implicitly hypothetical. That is, they are ‘if…, then…’
statements which tell someone what he should do if he wants to achieve a given goal (an
example is ‘If you want to pass the test, then you should study for it’). Such claims are different
from truly ethical statements, in which the focus is not so much on oneself (one’s own goals) but
is, instead, on the needs, rights, interests, etc. of others. When I make an ethical claim, I tell
someone how she should (or should not) act, where this claim is based on respect for others.
Before getting to the two main ethical theories, we considered two anti-ethical theories,
theories that aim to dismiss ethics by denying that we’re subject to any objective moral
(i.e., ethical) principles.
The first anti-ethical theory is egoism. It begins with the (descriptive) claim that human nature is
inescapably selfish. That is, it is our nature always to pursue our own interests. We are (says the
egoist) simply incapable of acting ultimately for the sake of others rather than for our own sake.
Egoism seems to be false, for it’s plausible that there is a perfectly natural disposition to behave
altruistically (for the sake of others at some cost to oneself) in many species, including our own.
For example, it’s natural to produce and care for offspring, even though doing so diverts one’s
time and resources away from purely self-promoting activities.
The second anti-ethical theory is cultural relativism, according to which ethical claims are true or
false only relative to a culture. On this view, ethical standards are cultural constructions – they
are invented, not discovered, by a cultural group. They are not objectively true; that is, their truth
is not independent of what people in a given culture think about them.
This theory faces numerous objections. First, note that one important argument for relativism is
that different cultures have disagreed about what is right and wrong. However, this doesn’t show
that there’s no objective fact of the matter about right and wrong. After all, different cultures
have disagreed about whether the Earth is flat, or about how many deities there are, but it doesn’t
follow that there is no objective truth about those issues.
Secondly, notice that if relativism were true, we would have no way to accommodate the idea of
moral progress – that is, the idea that some changes in the history of our own culture (such as the
repudiation of sexism) were changes for the better, and thus constituted moral progress. But the
relativist has to deny that it was progress, for on the relativist’s theory, the reformers (e.g., early
feminists) who first criticized our sexist culture would have been wrong by definition. This is
because on the relativist’s view, what’s right for those reformers would just be whatever their
culture told them was right; so it must have been wrong for those reformers to have rejected their
Clearly, though, the reformers were right to challenge their culture’s sexist norms. It follows that
there must be a ‘higher law’ or, at least, a more objective set of moral standards in the light of
which we can recognize and criticize defects in our culture’s standards. Unfortunately for the
cultural relativists, they cannot allow for this fact.
After these two anti-ethical theories, we looked at two of the most influential ethical theories in
western history. These theories are utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant’s version of deontology.
According to utilitarianism, the good determines the right. That is, in order to ascertain what the
right action is, figure out which action produces the most good (or best) consequence. That
action will be the morally right, or obligatory, action. In short, the end justifies the means.
How do we know which consequence is the best one? According to utilitarians (such as Jeremy
Bentham and John Stuart Mill), the best consequence is the one in which there is the most
happiness and the least suffering. So the utilitarian says we should always act in order to
maximize happiness and minimize suffering. This is not a selfish (or self-centred) view, since
Bentham and Mill believe that we should strive to maximize happiness and minimize suffering
not just for ourselves but across the whole population (producing ‘the greatest good for the
I illustrated the utilitarian view by means of the trolley examples (which are summarized on
YouTube). Imagine that you’re poised at a junction on a trolley (or streetcar) line. The track
splits into two branches – branch A, where five people are tied to the track, and branch B, where
one guy (Joe) is tied to the track. You stand at the split in the tracks. You see an unoccupied
trolley car speeding out of control towards you. The switch is set to send the car down branch A,
where it will surely kill all five people on that branch. Should you throw the switch and send the
car down track B, where it will kill Joe, or should you refrain from throwing the switch, thereby
allowing the car to kill the five people on track A? In class, most of us said it’s morally better to
throw the switch, which is just what utilitarians recommend as the moral thing to do.
Interestingly, most of us reacted differently to the second version of the trolley case. In this
second version, suppose, again, that five people are tied to the trolley track and that an
unoccupied car is speeding towards them. This time, though, the track does not split. Instead, you
are standing next to a very fat man on a bridge over the track. You realize that the only way in
which you can stop the trolley and save those five lives is by pushing the fat man into the
trolley’s path. Should you push him, or should you do nothing and allow the car to kill the five
people? Most people in class rejected this approach, saying instead that it would be wrong to kill
the fat man.