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October 28, 2017

The term ethics derives from Ancient Greek ἠθικός (ethikos), from ἦθος (ethos), meaning 'habit, custom'. As the name suggests, "ethics" or morality is a set of habits and customs that shape how we think about how we should live. According to Ayn Rand, 
"Ethics is a code of values which guide our choices and actions and determine the purpose and course of our lives."  thics is particularly valuable  as an area of philosophical study, as it has immediate relevance to practical areas of life.






Normative ethics, the study of issues of right and wrong, recognizes that what we ‘ought’ to do goes about the facts of human behavior. It also presupposes freedom of choice; if we are not free, we cannot be blamed.

Today we look at three broad types of moral theory — natural law, which considers a rational interpretation of nature and purpose; utilitarianism, which judges moral decisions according to their expected results, and Kantian ethics, which presents abstract, universal moral principles. 

We shall also consider moral relativity, both in terms of seeing every moral decision against its background, and also the way in which morality is shaped by the society within it develops.

Finally, we look briefly at virtue ethics, which explores the way in which the virtues enable human flouring. The important thing, in gaining an appreciation of these theories and perspectives, is to be able to apply them to practical moral situations.


Once we start to talk about morality, or about the purpose of thins, we introduce matters of values as well as those of fact. An important question for philosophy is whether it is possible to derive values from facts, or whether facts must always remain ‘neutral’. In other words:

  • Facts say what ‘is’

  • Values say what ‘ought’ to be

This leads to the question:

  • Can we ever derive a ‘ought’ from a ‘is’?

If the answer to this question is ‘no’, then how we decide issues of morality? If no facts can be used to establish decisions relative, dependent upon particular circumstances, feelings or desires?




One of the fundamental issues of philosophy is freedom and determinism. It is also related to reductionism — the reduction of complex entities to the simpler parts of which they are composed. If we are nothing than the individual cells that comprise our bodies, and if those cells are determined by physical forces and are predictable, then there seems no room for the whole human being to exercise freedom. For now, dealing with ethics, one distinction is clear:

  • If we are free to make a choice, then we can be responsible for what we do. Praise or blame are appropriate. We can act on the basis of values that we hold.

  • If we are totally conditioned, we have no choice in what we do, and it makes no sense to speak of moral action sprinting from choices and values, or actions being worthy of praise or blame.

We are all conditioned by many factors — there is no doubt of that. The difference between that and determinism is that determinism leaves no scope for human freedom and choice. Whereas those we argue against determinism claim that there remains a measure of freedom that is exercised within the prevailing conditions.



  • Descriptive ethics: What do people think is right?

  • Meta-ethics: What does "right" even mean?

  • Normative (prescriptive) ethics: How should people act?

  • Applied ethics: How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?




If we want to argue for a moral position, we need to find a rational basis for ethics. Within the history of Western philosophy there have been three principal bases offered:

natural law, utilitarianism, and the categorical imperative.



Natural law is the approach to ethics which claims that something is right if it fulfills its true purpose in life, wrong if it goes against it. Natural in the sense that it reflects the nature that humankind shares with the rest of the animal kingdom. Rather, it is nature as seen through the eyes of reason; indeed, for most of those who would use a natural law argument, it is also colored by religious views, with the world seen as the purposeful creation by God.



Utilitarianism is a moral theory associated particularly with Jeremy Bentham, and further developed by John Stuart Mill. It roots, however, are found earlier in the basic idea of hedonism.

Hedonism is the term used for a philosophy which makes the achievement of happiness the prime goal in life. This was to become the basis of utilitarian theories of ethics: that the right thing to do on any occasion is that which aims to give maximum happiness to all concerned. This may be expressed the phrase ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, and Bentham made the point that everyone should count equally in such an  assessment — a radical point of view for him to take at that time. Utilitarianism is therefore a the based on the expected results of an action, rather than any inherent sense right or wrong.

This is very much a common-sense view of ethics; to do what is right is often associated wit doing what will benefit the majority. From a philosophical point of view, however, there are certain problems associated with it:

  • You can never be certain what the total effects of an action are going to be. Thus, although utilitarianism seems to offer a straightforward way of assessing moral issues, its assessment must always remain provisional.

  • The definition of what constitutes happiness may not be objective. Other people may not want what you deem to be their happiness or in their best interests. The utilitarian argument appears to make a factual consideration of results the basis of moral choice, but in practice, in selecting the degree or type of happiness to be considered, a person is already making value judgements.

  • How do you judge between pain caused to a single individual and the resulting happiness of many others? Would global benefit actually justify the inflicting of pain on a single innocent person?


Both utilitarianism and natural law appear to give rational and objective bases for deciding between right and wrong. Both of them, however, have presuppositions which are not accounted for by the theory itself. One depends on the idea of a rational final cause, the other on the acceptance of wellbeing of all as the highest good.



The categorical imperati is the central philosophical concept in the deontological moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant's 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, it may be defined as a way of evaluating motivations for action.

Kant started with the fact that people have a sense of moral obligation — what he calls the categorical imperative. In other words, we all know that there are things we ‘should’ do, irrespective of the consequences. He contrasted this with a ‘hypothetical’ imperative, which says what you need to do in order to achieve some chosen result. Thus:

  • You should work hard (categorical imperative ).

  • You should work hard if you want to succeed (hypothetical imperative)

Kant’s aim was to express this experience of the categorical imperative in the form of universal principles of morality. These principles are generally referred to as the three forms of Kant’s categorical imperative. He expressed them using various forms of words, but they amount to this:

  1. Act only on that maxim (or principle)which you can — at the same time —will that it should become a universal law.

  2. Act in such a way as to treat people as ends and never as means.

  3. Act as though you were legislating for a kingdom of ends.




If moral rules are absolute, then a particular action my be considered wrong no matter what the circumstances. For example, ‘mercy killing’, where someone who is seriously ill and facing the prospect of a painful or lingering death is helped to die by a relative or close friend. If you take a view that there are moral absolutes, then “ Murder is always wrong.’ The next question then becomes: ‘Is mercy killing the same thing as murder?’ .

If you don’t think that there are moral absolutes, you are more likely to start with particular situations and access the intentions and consequences involved. In making such an assessment, you bring to bear your general views about life and of the implications that various actions have on society as a whole.

There is broader sense in which we need to be aware of relativity in ethics. Each society has its own particular way of life, along with the values and principles that are expressed in it. What might be considered right in one society may be thought wrong in another. A set of moral rules may be drawn up that are valid for a particular society, but cannot be applied universally.




Rather than looking at actions, and asking if they are right or wrong, one could start by asking the basic questions ‘What does it mean to be a “good” person?, and develop this to explore the qualities and virtues that make up the ‘good’ life. This approach had been taken first by Aristotle, who linked the displaying of certain qualities with the final end or purpose of life.





Today we will explore two key theories: the first is the social contract, which formed the historical basis of modern democracy; the second is the Marxist view of the material basis of society and hugely influential in shaping modern political thought.


Equally important is the concept of justice, which is fundamental to social ethics. We shall look briefly at one ancient approach (that of Plato) and two modern views (those of Rawls and Nozick). We shall also consider the balancing of freedom and the law, including Mill’s view that one should be give maximum freedom provided harm in not done to others, and consider how human rights relate to the needs of society.



With reference to my previous blog post here.




Karl Marx has been an enormously influential thinker. Indeed, one cannot start to describe the history of the twentieth century without reference to Marxism and the communist regimes that sprang from it. 

Marx argued that religion, morality, political ideas and social structures were fundamentally rooted in economies, particularly the production and distribution of goods. People have basic needs which must be fulfilled in order for them to live, and society becomes more and more sophisticated in order to produce the goods and services to meet those needs. He therefore interpreted history in economic terms, as shaped by the struggle between different social classes. The bourgeoisie confronts the proletariat; employers facing employees as once landowners faced their peasants. Individual actions are judged by the way in which they contribute to the class struggle, and the actions of a class as a whole is seen in a broader context of the movement of society.

For Marx, it is the economic conditions under which the classes live and work that produce the urge to change, as a result of which the existing economic system is overthrown through a revolution and a new system is set up; but that, in turn, leads to further class confrontation, and so the process continues. Marx looked towards the achievement of a classless society, where there would be no more confrontation, but where working people would own the means of production and distribution. This classless society would therefore be characterized by economic justice, in which each benefited from his or her own labour.

This was linked to his view of the fulfillment of the human individual. Marx argued that, in a capitalist system, an individual who works for a wage, producing something from which someone else is going to make a profit, becomes alienated from that working situation. He or she cannot exercise true creativity or humanity, but becomes an impersonal ‘thing’, a machine whose sole purpose in life is production, a means of making ‘capital’. He saw this process leading to more and more wealth being concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, the ‘bourgeoisie’, with the working proletariat sinking into poverty. This, he believed, would eventually lead to the overthrow of the capitalist system by the workers acting together. He believed that, with the advent of the classless society, each individual would be able to develop to his or her full potential.




The ideas of justice is fundamental to political philosophy. If people are to band together for mutual protection, if they are to enter into social contracts, if they are to set their own interests aside, they need to be persuaded that the society within which they lives based on principles that are just. But what constitutes political justice?

We shall look at ideas of justice presented by three philosophers, one ancient and two modern.



The question ‘What is justice?’ dominates one of the greatest works of philosophy, Plato’s Republic. In this book, various answers are proposed and rejected, as, for example, the popular but rather cynical view hat justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger. Plato recognizes that human nature can be deeply selfish, and that - given the opportunity to act with absolute impunity — people will generally seek their own benefit rather than that of others, or of society as a whole, and also explores the idea (later to be developed by the ‘social contract’ theory) that people need to be restrained for the good of all. But what is the value of justice in itself?

Socrates considers the various classes of people that make up the city, and argues that each class offers particular virtues, but that justice is found in the fact that each class performs its own task. In the same way, the individual should is divided into tree parts — mind, spirit and appetite — and that justice for the individual consists in the balance, with each part performing its own task for the benefit of that individual. 

Justice for Plato is seen neither in equality nor in section interest, but in a balance in which different people and classes, each doing what is appropriate for them, work together for the common good.



Rawls' theory of "justice as fairness" recommends equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society. Rawls's argument for these principles of social justice uses a thought experiment called the "original position", in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy. In his later work Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls turned to the question of how political power could be made legitimate given reasonable disagreement about the nature of the good life. According to Rawls, the task of society is that it should organize the fair sharing out of both material and social benefits.

In theory, this might establish a society where all are offered fair shares. But could it work like that in real world? It could be argued that there never was, and never will be an ‘original position’. from which to revise the rules of a society. All actual legal systems, and all ideas of justice, are framed within, and grow out of, an historical context.



If the purpose of society is o protect the life, liberty and property of individuals, then each person should be enabled to retain those things which are rightly theirs. A society which, in the name of establishing equality, redistributes that wealth is in fact depriving an individual of the very protection which led to the formation of society in the first place.

This approach to the question of justice is taken by Robert Nozick. In <Anarchy, State and Utopia>, he argued that it is wrong for the state to take taxes from individuals or force them to contribute to a health service that benefits others. It infringes their liberty to gain wealth and retain it. For Nozick, it is perfectly right to give what you have to another person if you so choose, but not to demand that another person give to you. On this social theory, voluntary contributions are welcomed, but enforced taxes are not. He argues that justice is a matter of the entitlement of individuals to retain their ‘holdings’ — wealth that they have gained legitimately.



Freedom in this context means something rather different from the ‘freedom/determinism’ debate outlined earlier. 

Here, the debate is about the degree of freedom that the individual has a right to exercise within society, given the impact that such freedom may have upon the freedom of others: freedom to act within certain parameters, society, through the police and the courts, can step in and impose a penalty on the ‘outlaw’.



In an ideal society, the law would always be framed on the basis of the agreement between free individuals, and every person would be equally free to enjoy basic human rights. There is, however, a difference between having a set of rights and being free to exercise those rights. In general, even though rights are given irrespective of age and capacities, it is sometimes necessary for the exercise of those rights to be curtailed:

  • On grounds of age. Children have rights, and are protected by the law from exploitation by others, but cannot, for example, buy cigarettes or alcohol, drive a car or fly a plane. These limits are imposed because, below the relevant age, the child is considered unable to take a responsible decision and parents, or society, therefore impose a restriction on the child’s freedom.

  • On grounds of insanity. Those who are insane and are liable to be a danger to themselves or to others are also restrained.

  • On grounds of lack of skill. Flying a plane or driving a car without a licence is illegal. This can be justified on utilitarian grounds, since others in the air or on the roads could be in danger. Without the public acknowledgement that a person has the required skills, many such tasks would endanger the lives or wellbeing of others.

Rights are also taken from those who break the law, for example: 

  • through prison sentences

  • through legal injunctions to stop actions being carried out or to prevent one person from approaching another or visiting a particular place. 

In all these cases, a person retains his or her fundamental rights, but cannot exercise them, on the basis that to do so would be against the interests of society as a whole. This approach is based on the idea of a social contract, where the laws of society are made by mutual agreement, and the loss of certain freedoms are exchanged for the gain of a measure of social protection. It may also therefore be justified on utilitarian grounds.


We have focused on thinkers whose ideas have helped shape modern Western democracy. Thus, we have tried the development of the social contract, through thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke; the ideas of Karl Marx, notably dialect materialism; and finally the competing notions of justice as presented by Rawls and Nozick. All of these thinkers have had a profound impact on actual development of representative democracy. Rawls on the liberal Left, and Nozick on the libertarian Right.


Even beyond the obvious area of ethics, philosophy is increasingly becoming ‘applied’. And it is therefore also becoming more obviously relevant to everyday life — it is the subject for dealing with big questions. The nature of status, or of love, of justice or of commitment, of work, or of all the elements that go to make up the art of living, all require thoughtful reflection, and philosophy provides the discipline for doing just that.


“The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophical ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilization.”

— A.N. Whitehead < In Modes of Thought >


If that is so, there is nothing more important than developing and maintaining an interest in philosophy.


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