[Paleopsych] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ethics

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Ethics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

    The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves
    systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong
    behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into
    three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied
    ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come
    from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they
    involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical
    answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths,
    the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the
    meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more
    practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate
    right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits
    that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the
    consequences of our behavior on others. Finally, applied ethics
    involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion,
    infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality,
    capital punishment, or nuclear war. By using the conceptual tools of
    metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to
    resolve these controversial issues. The lines of distinction between
    metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For
    example, the issue of abortion is an applied ethical topic since it
    involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also
    depends on more general normative principles, such as the right of
    self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for
    determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on
    metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what
    kind of beings have rights?"

      Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to
      that part of this article)

      * [2]Metaethics

      * [3]Metaphysical Issues: Objectivism and Relativism

      * [4]Psychological Issues in Metaethics

      * [5]Egoism and Altruism

      * [6]Emotion and Reason

      * [7]Male and Female Morality

      [8]Normative Ethics
      * [9]Virtue Theories

      * [10]Duty Theories

      * [11]Consequentialist Theories

      * [12]Types of Utilitarianism

      * [13]Ethical Egoism and Social Contract Theory

      [14]Applied Ethics
      * [15]Normative Principles in Applied Ethics

      * [16]Issues in Applied Ethics

      [17]References and Further Reading


    The term "meta" means after or beyond, and, consequently, the notion
    of metaethics involves a removed, or bird's eye view of the entire
    project of ethics. We may define metaethics as the study of the origin
    and meaning of ethical concepts. When compared to normative ethics and
    applied ethics, the field of metaethics is the least precisely defined
    area of moral philosophy. Two issues, though, are prominent: (1)
    metaphysical issues concerning whether morality exists independently
    of humans, and (2) psychological issues concerning the underlying
    mental basis of our moral judgments and conduct.

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    Metaphysical Issues: Objectivism and Relativism

    "Metaphysics" is the study of the kinds of things that exist in the
    universe. Some things in the universe are made of physical stuff, such
    as rocks; and perhaps other things are nonphysical in nature, such as
    thoughts, spirits, and gods. The metaphysical component of metaethics
    involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal
    truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions.
    There are two general directions that discussions of this topic take,
    one other-worldly and one this-worldly. Proponents of the
    other-worldly view typically hold that moral values are objective in
    the sense that they exist in a spirit-like realm beyond subjective
    human conventions. They also hold that they are absolute, or eternal,
    in that they never change, and also that they are universal insofar as
    they apply to all rational creatures around the world and throughout
    time. The most dramatic example of this view is Plato, who was
    inspired by the field of mathematics. When we look at numbers and
    mathematical relations, such as 1+1=2, they seem to be timeless
    concepts that never change, and apply everywhere in the universe.
    Humans do not invent numbers, and humans cannot alter them. Plato
    explained the eternal character of mathematics by stating that they
    are abstract entities that exist in a spirit-like realm. He noted that
    moral values also are absolute truths and thus are also abstract,
    spirit-like entities. In this sense, for Plato, moral values are
    spiritual objects. Medieval philosophers commonly grouped all moral
    principles together under the heading of "eternal law" which were also
    frequently seen as spirit-like objects. 17^th century British
    philosopher Samuel Clarke described them as spirit-like relationships
    rather than spirit-like objects. In either case, though, they exist in
    a sprit-like realm. A different other-worldly approach to the
    metaphysical status of morality is divine commands issuing from God's
    will. Sometimes called voluntarism, this view was inspired by the
    notion of an all-powerful God who is in control of everything. God
    simply wills things, and they become reality. He wills the physical
    world into existence, he wills human life into existence and,
    similarly, he wills all moral values into existence. Proponents of
    this view, such as medieval philosopher William of Ockham, believe
    that God wills moral principles, such as "murder is wrong," and these
    exist in God's mind as commands. God informs humans of these commands
    by implanting us with moral intuitions or revealing these commands in

    The second and more this-worldly approach to the metaphysical status
    of morality follows in the skeptical philosophical tradition, such as
    that articulated by Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus, and denies the
    objective status of moral values. Technically skeptics did not reject
    moral values themselves, but only denied that values exist as
    spirit-like objects, or as divine commands in the mind of God. Moral
    values, they argued, are strictly human inventions, a position that
    has since been called moral relativism. There are two distinct forms
    of moral relativism. The first is individual relativism, which holds
    that individual people create their own moral standards. Friedrich
    Nietzsche, for example, argued that the superhuman creates his or her
    morality distinct from and in reaction to the slave-like value system
    of the masses. The second is cultural relativism which maintains that
    morality is grounded in the approval of ones society and not simply in
    the preferences of individual people. This view was advocated by
    Sextus, and in more recent centuries by Michel Montaigne and William
    Graham Sumner. In addition to espousing skepticism and relativism,
    this-worldly approaches to the metaphysical status of morality deny
    the absolute and universal nature of morality and hold instead that
    moral values in fact change from society to society throughout time
    and throughout the world. They frequently attempt to defend their
    position by citing examples of values that differ dramatically from
    one culture to another, such as attitudes about polygamy,
    homosexuality and human sacrifice.

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    Psychological Issues in Metaethics

    A second area of metaethics involves the psychological basis of our
    moral judgments and conduct, particularly understanding what motivates
    us to be moral. We might explore this subject by asking the simple
    question, "Why be moral?" Even if I am aware of basic moral standards,
    such as dont kill and dont steal, this does not necessarily mean that
    I will be psychologically compelled to act on them. Some answers to
    the question Why be moral? are to avoid punishment, to gain praise, to
    attain happiness, to be dignified, or to fit in with society.

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    Egoism and Altruism

    One important area of moral psychology concerns the inherent
    selfishness of humans. 17^th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes
    held that many, if not all, of our actions are prompted by selfish
    desires. Even if an action seems selfless, such as donating to
    charity, there are still selfish causes for this, such as experiencing
    power over other people. This view is called psychological egoism and
    maintains that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human
    actions. Closely related to psychological egoism is a view called
    psychological hedonism which is the view that pleasure is the specific
    driving force behind all of our actions. 18^th century British
    philosopher Joseph Butler agreed that instinctive selfishness and
    pleasure prompt much of our conduct. However, Butler argued that we
    also have an inherent psychological capacity to show benevolence to
    others. This view is called psychological altruism and maintains that
    at least some of our actions are motivated by instinctive benevolence.

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    Emotion and Reason

    A second area of moral psychology involves a dispute concerning the
    role of reason in motivating moral actions. If, for example, I make
    the statement abortion is morally wrong, am I making a rational
    assessment or only expressing my feelings? On the one side of the
    dispute, 18^th century British philosopher David Hume argued that
    moral assessments involve our emotions, and not our reason. We can
    amass all the reasons we want, but that alone will not constitute a
    moral assessment. We need a distinctly emotional reaction in order to
    make a moral pronouncement. Reason might be of service in giving us
    the relevant data, but, in Hume's words, "reason is, and ought to be,
    the slave of the passions." Inspired by Humes anti-rationalist views,
    some 20th century philosophers, most notably A.J. Ayer, similarly
    denied that moral assessments are factual descriptions. For example,
    although the statement it is good to donate to charity may on the
    surface look as though it is a factual description about charity, it
    is not. Instead, a moral utterance like this involves two things.
    First, I (the speaker) I am expressing my personal feelings of
    approval about charitable donations and I am in essence saying "Hooray
    for charity!" This is called the emotive element insofar as I am
    expressing my emotions about some specific behavior.
    . Second, I (the speaker) am trying to get you to donate to charity
    and am essentially giving the command, "Donate to charity!" This is
    called the prescriptive element in the sense that I am prescribing
    some specific behavior.

    From Humes day forward, more rationally-minded philosophers have
    opposed these emotive theories of ethics and instead argued that moral
    assessments are indeed acts of reason. 18^th century German
    philosopher Immanuel Kant is a case in point. Although emotional
    factors often do influence our conduct, he argued, we should
    nevertheless resist that kind of sway. Instead, true moral action is
    motivated only by reason when it is free from emotions and desires. A
    recent rationalist approach, offered by Kurt Baier, was proposed in
    direct opposition to the emotivist and prescriptivist theories of Ayer
    and others. Baier focuses more broadly on the reasoning and
    argumentation process that takes place when making moral choices. All
    of our moral choices are, or at least can be, backed by some reason or
    justification. If I claim that it is wrong to steal someone's car,
    then I should be able to justify my claim with some kind of argument.
    For example, I could argue that stealing Smith's car is wrong since
    this would upset her, violate her ownership rights, or put the thief
    at risk of getting caught. According to Baier, then, proper moral
    decision making involves giving the best reasons in support of one
    course of action versus another.

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    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 on two claims: (1) traditional morality is male-centered,
    and (2) there is a unique female perspective of the world which can be
    shaped into a value theory. According to many feminist philosophers,
    traditional morality is male-centered since it is modeled after
    practices that have been traditionally male-dominated, such as
    acquiring property, engaging in business contracts, and governing
    societies. The rigid systems of rules required for trade and
    government were then taken as models for the creation of equally rigid
    systems of moral rules, such as lists of rights and duties. Women, by
    contrast, have traditionally had a nurturing role by raising children
    and overseeing domestic life. These tasks require less rule following,
    and more spontaneous and creative action. Using the woman's experience
    as a model for moral theory, then, the basis of morality would be
    spontaneously caring for others as would be appropriate in each unique
    circumstance. On this model, the agent becomes part of the situation
    and acts caringly within that context. This stands in contrast with
    male-modeled morality where the agent is a mechanical actor who
    performs his required duty, but can remain distanced from and
    unaffected by the situation. A care-based approach to morality, as it
    is sometimes called, is offered by feminist ethicists as either a
    replacement for or a supplement to traditional male-modeled moral

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    Normative Ethics

    Normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate
    right and wrong conduct. In a sense, it is a search for an ideal
    litmus test of proper behavior. The Golden Rule is a classic example
    of a normative principle: We should do to others what we would want
    others to do to us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my car,
    then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Since I would want people to
    feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people.
    Using this same reasoning, I can theoretically determine whether any
    possible action is right or wrong. So, based on the Golden Rule, it
    would also be wrong for me to lie to, harass, victimize, assault, or
    kill others. The Golden Rule is an example of a normative theory that
    establishes a single principle against which we judge all actions.
    Other normative theories focus on a set of foundational principles, or
    a set of good character traits.

    The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one
    ultimate criterion of moral conduct, whether it is a single rule or a
    set of principles. Three strategies will be noted here: (1) virtue
    theories, (2) duty theories, and (3) consequentialist theories.

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    Virtue Theories

    Many philosophers believe that morality consists of following
    precisely defined rules of conduct, such as "don't kill," or "don't
    steal." Presumably, I must learn these rules, and then make sure each
    of my actions live up to the rules. Virtue theorists, however, place
    less emphasis on learning rules, and instead stress the importance of
    developing good habits of character, such as benevolence. Once I've
    acquired benevolence, for example, I will then habitually act in a
    benevolent manner. Historically, virtue theory is one of the oldest
    normative traditions in Western philosophy, having its roots in
    ancient Greek civilization. Plato emphasized four virtues in
    particular, which were later called cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage,
    temperance and justice. Other important virtues are fortitude,
    generosity, self-respect, good temper, and sincerity. In addition to
    advocating good habits of character, virtue theorists hold that we
    should avoid acquiring bad character traits, or vices, such as
    cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. Virtue theory
    emphasizes moral education since virtuous character traits are
    developed in one's youth. Adults, therefore, are responsible for
    instilling virtues in the young.

    Aristotle argued that virtues are good habits that we acquire, which
    regulate our emotions. For example, in response to my natural feelings
    of fear, I should develop the virtue of courage which allows me to be
    firm when facing danger. Analyzing 11 specific virtues, Aristotle
    argued that most virtues fall at a mean between more extreme character
    traits. With courage, for example, if I do not have enough courage, I
    develop the disposition of cowardice, which is a vice. If I have too
    much courage I develop the disposition of rashness which is also a
    vice. According to Aristotle, it is not an easy task to find the
    perfect mean between extreme character traits. In fact, we need
    assistance from our reason to do this. After Aristotle, medieval
    theologians supplemented Greek lists of virtues with three Christian
    ones, or theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Interest in
    virtue theory continued through the middle ages and declined in the
    19^th century with the rise of alternative moral theories below. In
    the mid 20^th century virtue theory received special attention from
    philosophers who believed that more recent approaches ethical theories
    were misguided for focusing too heavily on rules and actions, rather
    than on virtuous character traits. Alasdaire MacIntyre defended the
    central role of virtues in moral theory and argued that virtues are
    grounded in and emerge from within social traditions.

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    Duty Theories

    Many of us feel that there are clear obligations we have as human
    beings, such as to care for our children, and to not commit murder.
    Duty theories base morality on specific, foundational principles of
    obligation. These theories are sometimes called deontological, from
    the Greek word deon, or duty, in view of the foundational nature of
    our duty or obligation. They are also sometimes called
    nonconsequentialist since these principles are obligatory,
    irrespective of the consequences that might follow from our actions.
    For example, it is wrong to not care for our children even if it
    results in some great benefit, such as financial savings. There are
    four central duty theories.

    The first is that championed by 17th century German philosopher Samuel
    Pufendorf, who classified dozens of duties under three headings:
    duties to God, duties to oneself, and duties to others. Concerning our
    duties towards God, he argued that there are two kinds: (1) a
    theoretical duty to know the existence and nature of God, and (2) a
    practical duty to both inwardly and outwardly worship God. Concerning
    our duties towards oneself, these are also of two sorts: (1) duties of
    the soul, which involve developing ones skills and talents, and (2)
    duties of the body, which involve not harming our bodies, as we might
    through gluttony or drunkenness, and not killing oneself. Concerning
    our duties towards others, Pufendorf divides these between absolute
    duties, which are universally binding on people, and conditional
    duties, which are the result of contracts between people. Absolute
    duties are of three sorts: (1) avoid wronging others; (2) treat people
    as equals, and (3) promote the good of others. Conditional duties
    involve various types of agreements, the principal one of which is the
    duty is to keep ones promises.

    A second duty-based approach to ethics is rights theory. Most
    generally, a right is a justified claim against another persons
    behavior such as my right to not be harmed by you. Rights and duties
    are related in such a way that the rights of one person implies the
    duties of another person. For example, if I have a right to payment of
    $10 by Smith, then Smith has a duty to pay me $10. This is called the
    correlativity of rights and duties. The most influential early account
    of rights theory is that of 17^th century British philosopher John
    Locke, who argued that the laws of nature mandate that we should not
    harm anyone's life, health, liberty or possessions. For Locke, these
    are our natural rights, given to us by God. Following Locke, the
    United States Declaration of Independence authored by Thomas Jefferson
    recognizes three foundational rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit
    of happiness. Jefferson and others rights theorists maintained that we
    deduce other more specific rights from these, including the rights of
    property, movement, speech, and religious expression. There are four
    features traditionally associated with moral rights. First, rights are
    natural insofar as they are not invented or created by governments.
    Second, they are universal insofar as they do not change from country
    to country. Third, they are equal in the sense that rights are the
    same for all people, irrespective of gender, race, or handicap.
    Fourth, they are inalienable which means that I ca not hand over my
    rights to another person, such as by selling myself into slavery.

    A third duty-based theory is that by Kant, which emphasizes a single
    principle of duty. Influenced by Pufendorf, Kant agreed that we have
    moral duties to oneself and others, such as developing one's talents,
    and keeping our promises to others. However, Kant argued that there is
    a more foundational principle of duty that encompasses our particular
    duties. It is a single, self-evident principle of reason that he calls
    the "categorical imperative." A categorical imperative, he argued, is
    fundamentally different from hypothetical imperatives that hinge on
    some personal desire that we have, for example, "If you want to get a
    good job, then you ought to go to college." By contrast, a categorical
    imperative simply mandates an action, irrespective of one's personal
    desires, such as "You ought to do X." Kant gives at least four
    versions of the categorical imperative, but one is especially direct:
    Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end. That is, we
    should always treat people with dignity, and never use them as mere
    instruments. For Kant, we treat people as an end whenever our actions
    toward someone reflect the inherent value of that person. Donating to
    charity, for example, is morally correct since this acknowledges the
    inherent value of the recipient. By contrast, we treat someone as a
    means to an end whenever we treat that person as a tool to achieve
    something else. It is wrong, for example, to steal my neighbor's car
    since I would be treating her as a means to my own happiness. The
    categorical imperative also regulates the morality of actions that
    affect us individually. Suicide, for example, would be wrong since I
    would be treating my life as a means to the alleviation of my misery.
    Kant believes that the morality of all actions can be determined by
    appealing to this single principle of duty.

    A fourth and more recent duty-based theory is that by British
    philosopher W.D. Ross, which emphasizes prima facie duties. Like his
    17th and 18th century counterparts, Ross argues that our duties are
    "part of the fundamental nature of the universe." However, Ross's list
    of duties is much shorter, which he believes reflects our actual moral

      * Fidelity: the duty to keep promises
      * Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them
      * Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us
      * Justice: the duty to recognize merit
      * Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others
      * Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence
      * Nonmaleficence: the duty to not injure others

    Ross recognizes that situations will arise when we must choose between
    two conflicting duties. In a classic example, suppose I borrow my
    neighbor's gun and promise to return it when he asks for it. One day,
    in a fit of rage, my neighbor pounds on my door and asks for the gun
    so that he can take vengeance on someone. On the one hand, the duty of
    fidelity obligates me to return the gun; on the other hand, the duty
    of nonmaleficence obligates me to avoid injuring others and thus not
    return the gun. According to Ross, I will intuitively know which of
    these duties is my actual duty, and which is my apparent or prima
    facie duty. In this case, my duty of nonmaleficence emerges as my
    actual duty and I should not return the gun.

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    Consequentialist Theories

    It is common for us to determine our moral responsibility by weighing
    the consequences of our actions. According to consequentialist
    normative theories, correct moral conduct is determined solely by a
    cost-benefit analysis of an action's consequences:

      Consequentialism: An action is morally right if the consequences of
        that action are more favorable than unfavorable.

    Consequentialist normative principles require that we first tally both
    the good and bad consequences of an action. Second, we then determine
    whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad
    consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is
    morally proper. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action
    is morally improper. Consequentialist theories are sometimes called
    teleological theories, from the Greek word telos, or end, since the
    end result of the action is the sole determining factor of its

    Consequentialist theories became popular in the 18^th century by
    philosophers who wanted a quick way to morally assess an action by
    appealing to experience, rather than by appealing to gut intuitions or
    long lists of questionable duties. In fact, the most attractive
    feature of consequentialism is that it appeals to publicly observable
    consequences of actions. Most versions of consequentialism are more
    precisely formulated than the general principle above. In particular,
    competing consequentialist theories specify which consequences for
    affected groups of people are relevant. Three subdivisions of
    consequentialism emerge:

      Ethical Egoism:an action is morally right if the consequences of
        that action are more favorable than unfavorable only to the agent
        performing the action.
      Ethical Altruism: an action is morally right if the consequences of
        that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except
        the agent.
        Utilitarianism: an action is morally right if the consequences of
        that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone.

    All three of these theories focus on the consequences of actions for
    different groups of people. But, like all normative theories, the
    above three theories are rivals of each other. They also yield
    different conclusions. Consider the following example. A woman was
    traveling through a developing country when she witnessed a car in
    front of her run off the road and roll over several times. She asked
    the hired driver to pull over to assist, but, to her surprise, the
    driver accelerated nervously past the scene. A few miles down the road
    the driver explained that in his country if someone assists an
    accident victim, then the police often hold the assisting person
    responsible for the accident itself. If the victim dies, then the
    assisting person could be held responsible for the death. The driver
    continued explaining that road accident victims are therefore usually
    left unattended and often die from exposure to the countrys harsh
    desert conditions. On the principle of ethical egoism, the woman in
    this illustration would only be concerned with the consequences of her
    attempted assistance as she would be affected. Clearly, the decision
    to drive on would be the morally proper choice. On the principle of
    ethical altruism, she would be concerned only with the consequences of
    her action as others are affected, particularly the accident victim.
    Tallying only those consequences reveals that assisting the victim
    would be the morally correct choice, irrespective of the negative
    consequences that result for her. On the principle of utilitarianism,
    she must consider the consequences for both herself and the victim.
    The outcome here is less clear, and the woman would need to precisely
    calculate the overall benefit versus disbenefit of her action.

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    Types of Utilitarianism

    Jeremy Bentham presented one of the earliest fully developed systems
    of utilitarianism. Two features of his theory are noteworty. First,
    Bentham proposed that we tally the consequences of each action we
    perform and thereby determine on a case by case basis whether an
    action is morally right or wrong. This aspect of Benthams theory is
    known as act-utilitiarianism. Second, Bentham also proposed that we
    tally the pleasure and pain which results from our actions. For
    Bentham, pleasure and pain are the only consequences that matter in
    determining whether our conduct is moral. This aspect of Benthams
    theory is known as hedonistic utilitarianism. Critics point out
    limitations in both of these aspects.

    First, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be morally wrong to
    waste time on leisure activities such as watching television, since
    our time could be spent in ways that produced a greater social
    benefit, such as charity work. But prohibiting leisure activities
    doesnt seem reasonable. More significantly, according to
    act-utilitarianism, specific acts of torture or slavery would be
    morally permissible if the social benefit of these actions outweighed
    the disbenefit. A revised version of utilitarianism called
    rule-utilitarianism addresses these problems. According to
    rule-utilitarianism, a behavioral code or rule is morally right if the
    consequences of adopting that rule are more favorable than unfavorable
    to everyone. Unlike act utilitarianism, which weighs the consequences
    of each particular action, rule-utilitarianism offers a litmus test
    only for the morality of moral rules, such as stealing is wrong.
    Adopting a rule against theft clearly has more favorable consequences
    than unfavorable consequences for everyone. The same is true for moral
    rules against lying or murdering. Rule-utilitarianism, then, offers a
    three-tiered method for judging conduct. A particular action, such as
    stealing my neighbors car, is judged wrong since it violates a moral
    rule against theft. In turn, the rule against theft is morally binding
    because adopting this rule produces favorable consequences for
    everyone. John Stuart Mills version of utilitarianism is

    Second, according to hedonistic utilitarianism, pleasurable
    consequences are the only factors that matter, morally speaking. This,
    though, seems too restrictive since it ignores other morally
    significant consequences that are not necessarily pleasing or painful.
    For example, acts which foster loyalty and friendship are valued, yet
    they are not always pleasing. In response to this problem, G.E. Moore
    proposed ideal utilitarianism, which involves tallying any consequence
    that we intuitively recognize as good or bad (and not simply as
    pleasurable or painful). Also, R.M. Hare proposed preference
    utilitarianism, which involves tallying any consequence that fulfills
    our preferences.

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    Ethical Egoism and Social Contract Theory

    We have seen that Thomas Hobbes was an advocate of the methaethical
    theory of psychological egoism the view that all of our actions are
    selfishly motivated. Upon that foundation, Hobbes developed a
    normative theory known as social contract theory, which is a type of
    rule-ethical-egoism. According to Hobbes, for purely selfish reasons,
    the agent is better off living in a world with moral rules than one
    without moral rules. For without moral rules, we are subject to the
    whims of other people's selfish interests. Our property, our families,
    and even our lives are at continual risk. Selfishness alone will
    therefore motivate each agent to adopt a basic set of rules which will
    allow for a civilized community. Not surprisingly, these rules would
    include prohibitions against lying, stealing and killing. However,
    these rules will ensure safety for each agent only if the rules are
    enforced. As selfish creatures, each of us would plunder our
    neighbors' property once their guards were down. Each agent would then
    be at risk from his neighbor. Therefore, for selfish reasons alone, we
    devise a means of enforcing these rules: we create a policing agency
    which punishes us if we violate these rules.

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    Applied Ethics

    Applied ethics is the branch of ethics which consists of the analysis
    of specific, controversial moral issues such as abortion, animal
    rights, or euthanasia. In recent years applied ethical issues have
    been subdivided into convenient groups such as medical ethics,
    business ethics, environmental ethics, and sexual ethics. Generally
    speaking, two features are necessary for an issue to be considered an
    "applied ethical issue." First, the issue needs to be controversial in
    the sense that there are significant groups of people both for and
    against the issue at hand. The issue of drive-by shooting, for
    example, is not an applied ethical issue, since everyone agrees that
    this practice is grossly immoral. By contrast, the issue of gun
    control would be an applied ethical issue since there are significant
    groups of people both for and against gun control.

    The second requirement for in issue to be an applied ethical issue is
    that it must be a distinctly moral issue. On any given day, the media
    presents us with an array of sensitive issues such as affirmative
    action policies, gays in the military, involuntary commitment of the
    mentally impaired, capitalistic vs. socialistic business practices,
    public vs. private health care systems, or energy conservation.
    Although all of these issues are controversial and have an important
    impact on society, they are not all moral issues. Some are only issues
    of social policy. The aim of social policy is to help make a given
    society run efficiently by devising conventions, such as traffic laws,
    tax laws, and zoning codes. Moral issues, by contrast, concern more
    universally obligatory practices, such as our duty to avoid lying, and
    are not confined to individual societies. Frequently, issues of social
    policy and morality overlap, as with murder which is both socially
    prohibited and immoral. However, the two groups of issues are often
    distinct. For example, many people would argue that sexual promiscuity
    is immoral, but may not feel that there should be social policies
    regulating sexual conduct, or laws punishing us for promiscuity.
    Similarly, some social policies forbid residents in certain
    neighborhoods from having yard sales. But, so long as the neighbors
    are not offended, there is nothing immoral in itself about a resident
    having a yard sale in one of these neighborhoods. Thus, to qualify as
    an applied ethical issue, the issue must be more than one of mere
    social policy: it must be morally relevant as well.

    In theory, resolving particular applied ethical issues should be easy.
    With the issue of abortion, for example, we would simply determine its
    morality by consulting our normative principle of choice, such as
    act-utilitarianism. If a given abortion produces greater benefit than
    disbenefit, then, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be morally
    acceptable to have the abortion. Unfortunately, there are perhaps
    hundreds of rival normative principles from which to choose, many of
    which yield opposite conclusions. Thus, the stalemate in normative
    ethics between conflicting theories prevents us from using a single
    decisive procedure for determining the morality of a specific issue.
    The usual solution today to this stalemate is to consult several
    representative normative principles on a given issue and see where the
    weight of the evidence lies.

                                             [30]Back to Table of Contents

    Normative Principles in Applied Ethics

    Arriving at a short list of representative normative principles is
    itself a challenging task. The principles selected must not be too
    narrowly focused, such as a version of act-egoism that might focus
    only on an action's short-term benefit. The principles must also be
    seen as having merit by people on both sides of an applied ethical
    issue. For this reason, principles that appeal to duty to God are not
    usually cited since this would have no impact on a nonbeliever engaged
    in the debate. The following principles are the ones most commonly
    appealed to in applied ethical discussions:

      * Personal benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action
        produces beneficial consequences for the individual in question.
      * Social benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces
        beneficial consequences for society.
      * Principle of benevolence: help those in need.
      * Principle of paternalism: assist others in pursuing their best
        interests when they cannot do so themselves.
      * Principle of harm: do not harm others.
      * Principle of honesty: do not deceive others.
      * Principle of lawfulness: do not violate the law.
      * Principle of autonomy: acknowledge a person's freedom over his/her
        actions or physical body.
      * Principle of justice: acknowledge a person's right to due process,
        fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of
      * Rights: acknowledge a person's rights to life, information,
        privacy, free expression, and safety.

    The above principles represent a spectrum of traditional normative
    principles and are derived from both consequentialist and duty-based
    approaches. The first two principles, personal benefit and social
    benefit, are consequentialist since they appeal to the consequences of
    an action as it affects the individual or society. The remaining
    principles are duty-based. The principles of benevolence, paternalism,
    harm, honesty, and lawfulness are based on duties we have toward
    others. The principles of autonomy, justice, and the various rights
    are based on moral rights.

    An example will help illustrate the function of these principles in an
    applied ethical discussion. In 1982 a couple from Bloomington, Indiana
    gave birth to a severely retarded baby. The infant, known as Baby Doe,
    also had its stomach disconnected from its throat and was thus unable
    to receive nourishment. Although this stomach deformity was
    correctable through surgery, the couple did not want to raise a
    severely retarded child and therefore chose to deny surgery, food, and
    water for the infant. Local courts supported the parents' decision,
    and six days later Baby Doe died. Should corrective surgery have been
    performed for Baby Doe? Arguments in favor of corrective surgery
    derive from the infant's right to life and the principle of
    paternalism which stipulates that we should pursue the best interests
    of others when they are incapable of doing so themselves. Arguments
    against corrective surgery derive from the personal and social
    disbenefit which would result from such surgery. If Baby Doe survived,
    its quality of life would have been poor and in any case it probably
    would have died at an early age. Also, from the parent's perspective,
    Baby Doe's survival would have been a significant emotional and
    financial burden. When examining both sides of the issue, the parents
    and the courts concluded that the arguments against surgery were
    stronger than the arguments for surgery. First, foregoing surgery
    appeared to be in the best interests of the infant, given the poor
    quality of life it would endure. Second, the status of Baby Doe's
    right to life was not clear given the severity of the infant's mental
    impairment. For, to possess moral rights, it takes more than merely
    having a human body: certain cognitive functions must also be present.
    The issue here involves what is often referred to as moral personhood,
    and is central to many applied ethical discussions.

                                             [31]Back to Table of Contents

    Issues in Applied Ethics

    As noted, there are many controversial issues discussed by ethicists
    today, some of which will be briefly mentioned here. Biomedical ethics
    focuses on a range of issues which arise in clinical settings. Health
    care workers are in an unusual position of continually dealing with
    life and death situations. It is not surprising, then, that medical
    ethics issues are more extreme and diverse than other areas of applied
    ethics. Prenatal issues arise about the morality of surrogate
    mothering, genetic manipulation of fetuses, the status of unused
    frozen embryos, and abortion. Other issues arise about patient rights
    and physician's responsibilities, such as the confidentiality of the
    patient's records and the physician's responsibility to tell the truth
    to dying patients. The AIDS crisis has raised the specific issues of
    the mandatory screening of all patients for AIDS, and whether
    physicians can refuse to treat AIDS patients. Additional issues
    concern medical experimentation on humans, the morality of involuntary
    commitment, and the rights of the mentally retarded. Finally, end of
    life issues arise about the morality of suicide, the justifiability of
    suicide intervention, physician assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

    The field of business ethics examines moral controversies relating to
    the social responsibilities of capitalist business practices, the
    moral status of corporate entities, deceptive advertising, insider
    trading, basic employee rights, job discrimination, affirmative
    action, drug testing, and whistle blowing. Issues in environmental
    ethics often overlaps with business and medical issues. These include
    the rights of animals, the morality of animal experimentation,
    preserving endangered species, pollution control, management of
    environmental resources, whether eco-systems are entitled to direct
    moral consideration, and our obligation to future generations.
    Controversial issues of sexual morality include monogamy vs. polygamy,
    sexual relations without love, homosexual relations, and extramarital
    affairs. Finally, there are issues of social morality which examine
    capital punishment, nuclear war, gun control, the recreational use of
    drugs, welfare rights, and racism.

                                             [32]Back to Table of Contents

    References and Further Reading

    Anscombe,Elizabeth Modern Moral Philosophy (1958), Philosophy, 1958,
    Vol. 33, reprinted in her Ethics, Religion and Politics (Oxford:
    Blackwell, 1981).

    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, in Barnes, Jonathan, ed., The Complete
    Works of Aristotle (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,

    Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover Publications,

    Bentham, Jeremy, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and
    Legislation (1789), in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John
    Bowring (London: 1838-1843).

    Hare, R.M., Moral Thinking, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

    Hare, R.M., The Language of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

    Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed., E. Curley, (Chicago, IL: Hackett
    Publishing Company, 1994).

    Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), eds. David Fate
    Norton, Mary J. Norton (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press,

    Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr, James W.
    Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985).

    Locke, John, Two Treatises, ed., Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge
    University Press, 1963).

    MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, second edition, (Notre Dame: Notre
    Dame University Press, 1984).

    Mackie, John L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, (New York: Penguin
    Books, 1977).

    Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, in Collected Works of John Stuart
    Mill, ed., J.M. Robson (London: Routledge and Toronto, Ont.:
    University of Toronto Press, 1991).

    Moore, G.E., Principia Ethica, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

    Noddings, Nel, Ethics from the Stand Point Of Women, in
    Deborah L. Rhode, ed., Theoretical Perspectives on Sexual Difference
    (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

    Ockham, William of, Fourth Book of the Sentences, tr. Lucan Freppert,
    The Basis of Morality According to William Ockham (Chicago: Franciscan
    Herald Press, 1988).

    Plato, Republic, 6:510-511, in Cooper, John M., ed., Plato: Complete
    Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

    Samuel Pufendorf, De Jure Naturae et Gentium (1762), tr. Of the Law of
    Nature and Nations.

    Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem
    (1673), tr., The Whole Duty of Man according to the Law of Nature
    (London, 1691).

    Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trs. J. Annas and J. Barnes,
    Outlines of Scepticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

    Stevenson, Charles L., The Ethics of Language, (New Haven: Yale
    University Press, 1944).

    Sumner, William Graham, Folkways (Boston: Guinn, 1906).

                                             [33]Back to Table of Contents

     Author Information:

    James Fieser
    Email: [34]jfieser at utm.edu
    HomePage: [35]http://www.utm.edu/~jfieser/


    1. http://www.iep.utm.edu/
    2. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Metaethics
    3. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Metaphysical Issues: 
Objectivism and Relativism
    4. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Psychological Issues in 
    5. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Egoism and Altruism
    6. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Emotion and Reason
    7. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Male and Female Morality
    8. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Normative Ethics
    9. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Virtue Theories
   10. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Duty Theories
   11. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Consequentialist Theories
   12. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Types of Utilitarianism
   13. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Ethical Egoism and Social 
Contract Theory
   14. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Applied Ethics
   15. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Normative Principles in 
Applied Ethics
   16. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#Issues in Applied Ethics
   17. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#References and Further 
   18. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   19. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
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   21. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   22. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
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   25. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   26. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   27. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   28. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   29. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   30. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   31. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   32. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   33. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm#top
   34. mailto:jfieser at utm.edu?subject=Loved%20Your%20Ethics%20Article!
   35. http://www.utm.edu/~jfieser/

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