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The words “moral” and “ethics” (and cognates) are often used interchangeably. However, it is useful to make the following distinction: Morality is the system through which we determine right and wrong conduct — i.e., the guide to good or right conduct. Ethics is the philosophical study of Morality.
What, then, is a moral theory? A theory is a structured set of statements used to explain (or predict) a set of facts or concepts.Ý A moral theory, then, explains why a certain action is wrong — or why we ought to act in certain ways.ÝÝ In short, it is a theory of how we determine right and wrong conduct.Ý Also, moral theories provide the framework upon which we think and discuss in a reasoned way, and so evaluate, specific moral issues. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that we cannot draw a sharp divide between moral theory and applied ethics (e.g., medical or business ethics).
For instance, in order to critically evaluate the moral issue of affirmative action, we must not attempt to evaluate what actions or policies are right (or wrong) independent of what we take to determine right and wrong conduct. You will see, as we proceed, that we do not do ethics without at least some moral theory.Ý When evaluating the merits of some decision regarding a case, we will always (or at least ought to always) find ourselves thinking about how right and wrong is determined in general, and then apply that to the case at hand.Ý Note, though, that sound moral thinking does not simply involve going one way — from theory to applied issue.Ý Sometimes a case may suggest that we need to change or adjust our thinking about what moral theory we think is the best, or perhaps it might lead us to think that a preferred theory needs modification. Another important distinction:
Are moral theories descriptive or prescriptive ? In presenting a moral theory, are we merely describing how people, in their everyday ‘doings’ and ‘thinkings,’ form a judgement about what is right and wrong, or are we prescribing how people ought to make these judgements? Most take moral theories to be prescriptive. The descriptive accounts of what people do is left to sociologists and anthropologists.Ý Philosophers, then, when they study morality, want to know what is the proper way of determining right and wrong. There have been many different proposals.Ý Here is a brief summary.
Theories of Morality (1) Moral Subjectivism Right and wrong is determined by what you — the subject — just happens to think (or ‘feel’) is right or wrong. In its common form, Moral Subjectivism amounts to the denial of moral principles of any significant kind, and the possibility of moral criticism and argumentation.Ý In essence, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lose their meaning because so long as someone thinks or feels that some action is ‘right’, there are no grounds for criticism.Ý If you are a moral subjectivist, you cannot object to anyone’s behaviour (assuming people are in fact acting in accordance with what they think or feel is right).Ý This shows the key flaw in moral subjectivism — probably nearly everyone thinks that it is legitimate to object, on moral grounds, to at least some peoples’ actions.Ý That is, it is possible to disagree about moral issues. Ý
(2) Cultural Relativism Right and wrong is determined by the particular set of principles or rules the relevant culture just happens to hold at the time. Cultural Relativism is closely linked to Moral Subjectivism.Ý It implies that we cannot criticize the actions of those in cultures other than our own.Ý And again, it amounts to the denial of universal moral principles.Ý Also, it implies that a culture cannot be mistaken about what is right and wrong (which seems not to be true), and so it denies the possibility of moral advancement (which also seems not to be true). Ý
(3) Ethical Egoism Right and wrong is determined by what is in your self-interest.Ý Or, it is immoral to act contrary to your self-interest. Ethical Egoism is usually based upon Psychological Egoism — that we, by nature, act selfishly.Ý Ethical egoism does not imply hedonism or that we ought to aim for at least some ‘higher’ goods (e.g., wisdom, political success), but rather that we will (ideally) act so as to maximize our self interest.Ý This may require that we forgo some immediate pleasures for the sake of achieving some long term goals.Ý Also, ethical egoism does not exclude helping others.Ý
However, egoists will help others only if this will further their own interests.Ý An ethical egoist will claim that the altruist helps others only because they want to (perhaps because they derive pleasure out of helping others) or because they think there will be some personal advantage in doing so.Ý That is, they deny the possibility of genuine altruism (because they think we are all by nature selfish).Ý This leads us to the key implausibility of Ethical Egoism — that the person who helps others at the expense of their self-interest is actually acting immorally.Ý Many think that the ethical egoist has misunderstood the concept of morality — i.e., morality is the system of practical reasoning through which we are guided to constrain our self-interest, not further it.Ý Also, thatÝ genuine altruism is indeed possible, and relatively commonly exhibited. Ý
(4) Divine Command Theory Many claim that there is a necessary connection between morality and religion, such that, without religion (in particular, without God or gods) there is no morality, i.e., no right and wrong behaviour.Ý Although there are related claims that religion is necessary to motivate and guide people to behave in morally good way, most take the claim of the necessary connection between morality and religion to mean that right and wrong come from the commands of God (or the gods).Ý This view of morality is known as Divine Command Theory.Ý The upshot is that an action is right — or obligatory — if God command we do it, wrong if God commands we refrain from doing it, and morally permissible if God does not command that it not be done. Divine Command Theory is widely held to have several serious flaws.Ý
First, it presupposes that God or gods exist.Ý Second, even if we assume that God does exist, it presupposes that we can know what God commandsÝ But even if we accept theism, it looks like even theists should reject the theory.Ý Plato raised the relevant objection 2500 years ago.Ý He asked: Is something right (or wrong) because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right? If the latter, then right and wrong are independent of the gods’ commands — Divine Command Theory is false.Ý
If the former, then right and wrong are just a matter of the arbitrary will of the gods (i.e., they might have willed some other, contradictory commands). Most think that right and wrong are not arbitrary — that is, some action is wrong, say, for a reason.Ý Moreover, that if God commands us not to do an action, He does so because of this reason, not simply because He arbitrarily commands it.Ý What makes the action wrong, then, is not God’s commanding it, but the reason.Ý Divine Command Theory is false again. Ý
(5) Virtue Ethics Right and wrong are characterized in terms of acting in accordance with the traditional virtues — making the good person. The most widely discussed is Aristotle’s account.Ý For Aristotle, the central concern is “Ethica” = things to do with character.Ý Of particular concern are excellences of character — i.e., the moral virtues. Aristotle, and most of the ancient Greeks really had nothing to say about moral duty, i.e., modern day moral concepts.Ý Rather, they were concerned with what makes human beings truly ‘happy’.Ý True ‘happiness’ is calledEudaimonia (flourishing / well- being / fulfilment / self- actualization).Ý Like Plato, Aristotle wants to show that there are objective reasons for living in accordance with the traditional virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and temperance).Ý For Aristotle, this comes from a particular account of human nature — i.e., the virtuous life is the ‘happiest’ (most fulfilling) life.