Introduction to Ethics 01/13/2014
Philosophy: the love of wisdom from the greek philo=love Sophos=wisdom
Philosophy is the discipline which tries to improve our understanding of certain fundamental intellectual
problems that resist solution
Ethics asks: How should we live?
What is the standard or criterion of right action?
What do we mean when we say that something is morally good or right?
Cultural institutions (state/church/social group) make claims about what is right or wrong, permissible or
Philosophers are asking for rational grounds for these claims
Political Philosophy asks: What social and political institutions are best?
What type of community should we strive for?
What is a good society and what roles do justice, fairness, and equality play?
What is the relationship between human rights and government power?
How will we approach these questions?
• Philosophy= the activity of radically reflective theoretical thinking
• Radical= questions all beliefs; takes nothing for granted (assume nothing)
Other disciplines ask questions within a framework of assumptions that are never questioned
• E.g. The historian doesn’t question whether the past is real. She assumes that the world has
existed for a long time, and that its events are discoverable.
The philosopher challenges background assumptions
Asks: does the past really exist? What proof do we have? How do we know?
Reflective: an open minded, dispassionate search for Truth
Emotions are an important part of human life, but they are not helpful in the search for truth Philosophy attempts to avoid bias and forms beliefs purely on the basis of reason
The point of doing philosophy isn’t to prove some prior belief. Rather, it is to discover the most rationally
Doing philosophy requires a constant willingness to change one’s mind in light of new evidence or reasons.
Why should we do Philosophy?
Socrates: ”The unexamined life is not worth living”
Aristotle: For the love of rationality, the highest human ideal
Man= the rational animal. When we are reflecting, reasoning, doing philosophy, we are at our most human
Humans are unique in another way?
We fight and die over philosophical issues. E.g. Religion, Ethics, Politics
How do we do philosophy?
Proceeds dialectically: Dialogue, discussion, debate. We analyze and evaluate arguments on all sides.
Logic: The art of correct reasoning (most important tool for the philosopher)
Argument: a group of statements one of which (conclusion) is said to follow from the others (premises)
A set of reasons that are supposed to support a conclusion
We examine arguments for two features: Is the argument valid? Is the argument sound?
An argument is deductively valid iff: It is not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be
If the premises are true then the conclusion must be true.
The truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion
The premises entail the conclusion.
Validity describes the relation between premises and conclusion.
Actual truth values are irrelevant to validity Consider possible truth values
If the premises were true, would it be possible for the conclusion to be false?
Can you imagine a world in which the premises were all true but the conclusion was false?
If so you’ve constructed a counterexample, and the argument is not valid.
A sound argument: has 2 features: argument is valid and it has true premises.
Validity and rationality: if an argument is valid, rationality requires:
If you accept the premises you have to accept the conclusion
To reject the conclusion of a valid argument, you must reject a premise
An argument is Sound iff:
It is a valid argument; and
It has True premises Justifying an Ethical Standard 01/13/2014
Ethics: = the study of right action and the study of objective values
What ought I to do ? What is the right thing to do ?
Different senses of should
Practical should, legal should, moral/ethical should
We usually justify claims about the rightness or wrongness of an action by appeal to some rule or standard
But we can only show that an action is right/wrong by appeal to the correct standard
In order to know what we ought to do, we must first justify an ethical standard
One standard to which we might appeal when answering “What Should I Do” is Religion
Problem: Not everyone is religious or has a religion. Not everyone shares the same religion.
Problem with Religion as the Ethical Standard:
We want to be able to say why e.g. murder is wrong without appeal to religion
We want to be able to convince anyone (including an atheist) that murder is wrong
We want basic ethical rules that don’t rely solely on religious belief, such that any rational person can
Early Socratic dialogue on the nature of morality
Interlocutors: Socrates and Euthyphro
Euthyphro claims to be an expert on morality
Socrates asks for clarification
What is morally good?
Euthyphro’s answer: The good is what is loved by all of the Gods
The Euthyphro Question: Justifying an Ethical Standard 01/13/2014
Does God command X because it is morally good?
Or, is X morally good because God commands it? (Does God command a certain action because its
morally good or is that action morally good because God commands it ?)
Divine Command Theory ( Goes with the first option)
The moral is moral because God commands it.
God commands are the source of morality
If X is morally good because God wills it, then moral truths are fixed by whatever God happens to prefer
God could command anything and it would therefore be good.
If God commands slavery, then slavery is good.
If God commands torturing babies, then torturing babies is good
God renders as moral whatever he chooses.
It makes moral values arbitrary and purely subjective
It makes ‘good’ a vacuous term
What is morally good whatever god commands
What God commands = what God commands
If it is possible to question the goodness of God’s commands, then God’s commands cannot be the ground
for what is morally good.
The heavens open up and God commands….
Steal neighbors goods, lie when you benefit, sleep with neighbors wife, kill eachother
Wouldn’t we say that this is obviously not God… because these are immoral commandments?
We can perceive the moral goodness or evil of something without regards to our knowledge of God’s
commandments Justifying an Ethical Standard 01/13/2014
Does God command X because its morally good? Or is X morally good because God commands it?
The second option is problematic so let’s look at the first…
God commands X because X is morally good
Then, moral standard exists independently of God
There are OBJECTIVE moral standards
It is still true that whatever God commands is good
God’s commands may be one source of our knowledge of what is morally right/wrong
Bod God’s command is not the ultimate source of morality
The Euthyphro Dilemma:
An objection to Theistic Ethics
A refutation of God as thsource of morality
If God exists, God does not function as tfoundation of ethics
God may tell us what is good, but does NOTdetermine or establish what is Good.
We can’t use religion to justify a moral standard
The only way to evaluate conflicting claims about what God wills is by assessing which are accordance with
what is moral
We use ethical claims to justify religious claims, rather than the other way around
So our task is to discover the independent moral standard
Next time…. Is there such a thing? Moral Relativism 01/13/2014
One response to the search for an objective moral principle or standard=relativism
There is no objective moral standard
Morality is relative (to persons, cultures, etc)
There is no universal moral truth
What’s true for me is not always true for you
Question: What does this really mean?
The right action for you is not always the right action for me
TRUE but this doesn’t imply ethical relativism
Ex: one person can swim, other person doesn’t know how to… sees drowning kid
What each of us ought to do in the same situation differs (person who cant swim shouldn’t try to jump in,
call for help instead)
But it is still true that both people should help the child
What you believe is right is not always what I believe is right
Example: One guy thinks there are nine planets, one lady thinks there are only 6
The fact that we sometimes disagree about what is right does not show that there is no correct standard.
One or both of them could be wrong.
The standard you are justified in accepting as correct is not always the standard I am justified in accepting.
TRUE but doesn’t imply ethical relativism
Someone can be justified in accepting something as correct even when it is not correct
We can both be justified in our beliefs, yet one of us could still be wrong.
Ethical relativism: The correct/true ethical standard for you is not always the correct/true ethical
standard for me
Different ethical standards are correct for different people
Implies an ethical standard is true/correct relative to some situations and incorrect relative to others Moral Relativism 01/13/2014
Some sub types: cultural relativism, class relativism, historical relativism
Reasons to believe ethical relativism is true?
1. the fact that different people have different beliefs
It doesn’t follow that both beliefs are true
2. Claim that there’s no way to prove an ethical theory or belief
Whether we can prove it doesn’t speak to whether it is true
We use empirical evidence to justify ethical claims
E.g. slavery was justified by appeal to empirical claims about inferiority
We use arguments and reasoning to motivate ethical theories
3. Belief that ethical relativism promotes tolerance
In fact the two views are inconsistent
To say everyone has a right to an opinion is NOT to say that every opinion is right
The claim that everyone has a right to an opinion is itself a value, not thought to be relative
Reasons to think that ethical relativism is false:
1. Seems contrary to our ordinary conception of morality
When we say murder is wrong, we don’t usually mean that this applies only to some people, or only to
those who believe it is true
2. Accepting relativism removes the ability to debate these issues
no point in arguing if the truth is relative to persons
3. Cant evaluate the practices of other cultures or our own culture as it changes over time
Before it was abolished, Apartheid was morally correct for South Africa
Before it was abolished, slavery was morally correct for us
4. Cant make sense of moral progress or moral reformers
E.g. Dr. King, Nelson Mandela
5. Seems to remove our justification for punishment
if murder is not in fact wrong for everyone, are we justified in punishing murderers who don’t view their
actions as wrong
It is true for them that murder is okay. Why should we punish them?
Conclusion: We should continue our search for a universal moral standard there is no reason to think there
But we should be careful not to assume that what seems right to us is really right Utilitarianism 01/13/2014
What’s the right thing to do? Utilitarianism 01/13/2014
Right and wrong are normative terms
A normative term denote how things ought to be
Descriptive terms say how things are
Three secular attempts to define right and wrong:
Secular because they:
Recognize the existence of deep religious differences
Try to define moral rightness such that anyone would agree, regardless of their religious background
1. Utilitarianism (Mill)
Right action=produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people
2. Deontology, or Duty Ethics (Kant)
Right Actions= those done out of duty
Wrong Actions= those that violate moral duty
3. Virtue Ethics (Aristotle)
Right and wrong are stable features of character
Right actions= those performed out of virtue
1. Utilitarianism: The principle of utility is the fundamental moral principle
Mill’s aim is to justify the principle of utility as the correct moral standard
Utility: happiness, pleasure
Happiness: pleasure and the absence of pain Utilitarianism 01/13/2014
Unhappiness: pain and the privation of pleasure
Principle of Utility: principle of Greatest Happiness
Principle of Utility: The right action is that which produces the greatest balance happiness for
the greatest number of people
Principle of Utility is based on a theory of life:
Hedonism: Happiness is the only thing desirable as an end in itself
An END IN ITSELF is valuable for its own sake
According to Hedonism : the Highest Good is Happiness
According to Utilitarianism : The right thing to do is to promote the Highest Good
Utilitarian Rule: Always do that which will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of
Each persons happiness counts as the same
We don’t get to give greater weight to our OWN happiness, or that of e.g. our friends
Objections to Utilitarianism:
The “Philosophy of Swine” Objection: Utilitarianism is an “animal morality”
There are higher ends and nobler desires than pleasure
Mill’s Reply: Consider not just tquantity but thequality of pleasure
Pleasures of the intellect, imagination, moral sentiments
To determine the values of pleasure, ask a competent judge
Higher Pleasures stimulate higher thought, better to be a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig
Lower pleasures: physical pleasure can create an occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment but not a
permanent and steady flame. Utilitarianism 01/13/2014
The Unattainable Objection: Happiness cannot be the purpose of human life/ action because it is
Mill’s Reply: Happiness is attainable (not necessarily sustainable)
Happiness is a predominance of pleasure over pain. Just means sum of all the positives in a situation is
greater than the sum of all the negatives.
The Renunciation Objection: Virtue lies in threnunciation of one’s own happiness, not the pursuit
Reply: The martyr foregoes his own happiness for the sake of something he prizes more the happiness of
Selfsacrifice is undertaken for some end it is not an end in itself
The Coldness Objection: Utilitarianism chills the moral feelings
Requires disinterested examination of consequences vs. consideration of the qualities of character of those
who act (removes emotion from decision making)
It also removes the emotion from my assessment of your actions
Reply: The fact that a bad action is done by an otherwise good person doesn’t change the fact that the
action is bad
Right and wrong actions are only one important feature of persons
The Godless Objection: Utilitarianism is a Godless doctrine
Mill’s reply: Yes. This is true of most theories, and it should be seen as an advantage. Want a secular
The Shortage of Time Objection: Utilitarianism is impractical there is no time to calculate the utility
of every action
Reply: We’ve had the whole of human history to understand how actions affect happiness
This understanding has been codified into utilitarian rules Utilitarianism 01/13/2014
Review terms utilitarianism, principle of utility, utilitarian rule from last lecture
Mill’s “proof” of utilitarianism: Foundation principles are not susceptible to direct proof. Proof requires
deduction from something more fundamental
There is nothing more fundamental than a found’l principle
BUT we don’t accept fundamental principles arbitrarily
There are rational grounds for believing
Recall that utilitarianism is based on Hedonism
Happiness is the highest goof
Happiness is the only thing desired as an end in itself
If happiness is the highest good, then the right thing to do is to promote that good.
Proof that Happiness is desirable?
To show that happiness is desirable, we must show that it is in fact desired.
This is an empirical claim, testable by observation
Look aroundeach person does desire happiness
Proof that happiness is the only desirable thing: People desire other things (e.g. fame, fortune, money,
These things are desired because they make you happy. These are parts/ingredients of happiness. Valued
first because they are means to the end of happiness. Over time, they may become part of the individual’s
very conception of what it means to be happy.
Whether happiness is the only thing desirable as an end in itself is an EMPIRICAL QUESTION
Consult the evidence
Observe yourself and others
Mill thinks that the evidence supports hedonism Utilitarianism 01/13/2014
What is the source of our obligation to follow the principle of utility?
If not God’s command then…what?
By the light of our reason, we will recognize:
External sanctions: Social and religious, want approval and fear disapproval of our fellows (and God)
Internal sanctions: one’s own conscience. Internal sanctions won’t bind those who lack the moral feelings
sympathy, love, fear, selfesteem, desire of esteem from othersbut neither will any other principle of
Ring of Gyges: PLATO you can turn the ring if you’re wearing it and it makes you invisible even to the
Gods. You can do anything no one would ever know. What would you do? There’s something about internal
monitor… looking yourself in the mirror… prevents you from going on a rampage just because you had the
ring… then you don’t necessarily need God’s command to recognize the moral principle.
Conclusions: Fundamental moral rule=the principle of utility
Based on hedonism
Proof: empirical evidence about the highest good
Motivation: internal and external forces
Always do that which will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of
Some examples: Utilitarianism and Justice 01/13/2014
The Trolley Problem: Trolley has no breaks. If you do nothing, train will carry on and hit 5 workers. Or you
can pull the lever and divert the train and it will hit 1 worker instead. What should you do? Situation of
actually killing one vs. letting 5 die▯ if you pull it you would be affecting what was going to happen anyway.
You’ll be making the decision to kill someone vs letting fate take its course. BUT then again, you are saving