From Moral Issues that Divide Us and Applied Ethics: A Sourcebook


James Fieser


Copyright 2008

Updated: 1/15/2012




#1. Overview of Ethical theory

#2. Classic Perspectives on Moral Principles — Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill

#3. Classic Perspectives on the Moral Foundations of Government — Hobbes, Locke, Mill, United Nations









Some years ago, a couple from Indiana gave birth to a baby with Downs syndrome. Among other complications, the infant, known as Baby Doe, had its stomach disconnected from its throat and was unable to take food or water as normal infants do. Although the stomach deformity was correctable through surgery, the baby’s quality of life would have been poor in any event. Caring for a Downs syndrome infant would have also placed a great emotional and financial burden on the parents. The parents chose to deny surgery for the infant. After a contentious public debate, local courts supported their decision, and six days later Baby Doe died. Should corrective surgery have been performed for Baby Doe? For many controversial ethical decisions that society faces on a daily basis like this one, there is unfortunately no simple litmus test that will instantly reveal the right answer. We do our best to get all the facts and then debate with each other about the resolution. The debates are sometimes civil, but often they become hostile when neither side budges from their positions.

            A critical step in debating any moral controversy is to uncover the underlying moral principles that shape our convictions on one side or another of the issue. If we think that the parents were morally obligated to pursue surgery for Baby Doe, then we need to say where that moral obligation comes from—the principles upon which that obligation is based. So too if we think that the parents had no such moral obligation: we still need to show what the values are that underlie that position. For thousands of years philosophers have been trying to explain the fundamental principles of morality that guide the ethical decisions that we make on a daily basis. In this chapter we will explore some of the leading contributions to that effort.

            The definition of “ethics” is a good place to begin an investigation into the philosophical subject of moral values. Consider this standard dictionary entry:


Ethics: A theory or system dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.


The central point in this definition is that ethics, as a field of study, is an organized analysis of values. It is not merely a survey of the values that society holds – although sometimes the study of ethics includes this element. It is also not merely a set of commands like “Don’t murder people” – although it often includes this element as well. Rather, it is an attempt to analyze value judgments in a systematic way. A close cousin to the term “ethics” is “morality” (“ethics” comes from the word Greek “ethos” and “morality” comes from the Latin mores). While some writers draw a subtle distinction between the two notions of ethics and morality, they are typically used interchangeably, which will be the case throughout this work.

            Philosophical discussions of ethics fall into two main categories: theoretical ethics and applied ethics. Theoretical ethics—or ethical theory—is the systematic effort to understand moral concepts and justify moral principles and theories. Applied ethics deals with controversial moral problems, such as questions about the morality of abortion, premarital sex, capital punishment, euthanasia, and animal rights.


What People Think

One of the more unusual aspects of the systematic study of ethics is that it matters what the ordinary person on the street thinks about moral issues. This is something that you can’t say about the subjects of math, biology, accounting, or history: experts in these areas don’t often ask non-experts for their opinions. With ethics, though, we all have our convictions about what’s right and wrong, and what specifically makes actions like murder wrong. The systematic study of ethics can never disregard this, and much of the effort of moral philosophers is to help explain, organize and justify our ordinary moral convictions. Opinion polls are regularly conducted on the most heated controversies of the day, such as abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage. The following two polls inquire into people’s general attitudes about ethical conduct in modern society. Is our culture on the whole a moral one? Are some professions more ethically respectable than others? The results are not particularly encouraging.


“Thinking for a moment about moral values: How would you rate the overall state of moral values in this country today -- as excellent, good, only fair, or poor?”

                        Excellent         Good              Only Fair         Poor                Unsure

5/8-11/2006    1                      13                    43                    42                    2

5/6-9/2002      1                      17                    41                    40                    1


“Right now, do you think the state of moral values in the country as a whole is getting better or getting worse?”

                        Getting Better             Getting Worse             Same              Unsure

5/8-11/2006    11                                81                                6                      3

5/6-9/2002      24                                67                                7                      2


(Gallup Poll. May 8-11, 2006. N=1,002 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.)


“Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields: very high, high, average, low, or very low? . . . .”


Very high/High   %

Nurses 84

Druggists, pharmacists 73

Veterinarians 71

Medical doctors 69

Dentists 62

Engineers 61

Clergy 58

College teachers 58

Policemen 54

Psychiatrists 38

Bankers 37

Chiropractors 36

Journalists 26

State governors 22

Business executives 18

Lawyers 18

Stockbrokers 17

Senators 15

Congressmen 14

Insurance salesmen 13

HMO managers 12

Advertising practitioners 11

Car salesmen 7

Low/very low

(Gallup Poll. Dec. 8-10, 2006. N=1,009 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.)


On the whole, people think that society’s moral values are getting worse. And among those vocations that we are most suspicious of, people in business and government receive the lowest marks. One probable reason is that people in these groups are driven by self-interest in their daily occupations, and we typically assume that they will put their own best interests above those of the larger community. At the other end of the list, though, we place our greatest moral confidence in people from the medical profession: their careers are devoted to helping others, especially when people are most vulnerable. In a nutshell, this survey suggests that morality is intimately linked with helping others, and, by contrast, being immoral involves putting one’s selfish interests above those of society.

            We turn now to the moral theories of history’s great philosophers, which fall into four groupings: (1) the metaphysics of morality, (2) moral psychology, (3) moral principles, and (4) the moral foundations of government.



A first group of issues in ethical theory are metaphysical in nature. The term metaphysics means that which is “above” or “beyond” the physical, and, historically, metaphysical issues within philosophy have dealt with higher realms of existence beyond the physical realm of things that we see around us. That is, in the physical realm we see rocks, plants, animals, human bodies, and works of human ingenuity like cars and houses. But is there anything more to the world than this? Many philosophers have said yes: there is a higher non-physical realm that contains spirits, such as God, or some other non-physical entities, such as abstract objects. The existence of such a realm is the subject of metaphysics. So now the question arises: are moral values merely the product of the physical world – the behavioral practices of physical human organisms – or are they grounded in some non-physical thing on a higher metaphysical level? There are two main issues here: (1) whether moral values are objective or, instead, merely human creations, and (2) whether moral values originate from God.


Moral Objectivism and Relativism

Are there any fixed and objective moral standards, or are all moral values simply the result of changing human preferences? The question is not a new one, and in fact is among the first philosophical puzzles on record. Over the centuries, competing philosophical traditions have emerged concerning this issue, one side arguing for the objective nature of morality, the other for moral relativism. There are many subtle issues at stake in this philosophical dispute, but each side commonly adopts a cluster of views.

            The objectivist holds to three main positions. First, moral values are objective in the sense that they are not created by humans and are independent of subjective human thought processes. Objectivists have often argued that moral values exist in a higher nonphysical realm. Second, moral values are unchanging in the sense that they do not vary over time and from place to place. No matter how far back in time you go, or where on this planet you might travel, the same unchanging moral values will apply in those places. Third, moral values are universal in that they apply to everyone who exists. No one is privileged enough to escape from these norms and, instead, they umbrella over every living person.

            The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE) developed one of the most influential theories of moral objectivism. For Plato, moral values exist in a higher spirit-realm that he refers to as the realm of the Forms. The Forms are absolute truths that are the ultimate standards for what goes on down here on earth. Take mathematics, for example, as when I apply basic mathematical principles to calculate my taxes. My efforts at doing math are faulty and I can easily get them wrong. In the realm of the Forms, though, there exist perfect mathematical principles, and it is really those that I am trying to grasp when I do numerical calculations. So too with morality: in the realm of the Forms, there exist the perfect standards of goodness, justice, charity and all other values. Down here on earth, I try to look up towards the higher realm and grasp these moral Forms as the standards that guide my conduct. Plato’s moral objectivism is an extreme position of moral objectivism, but it nonetheless was very popular for around 2000 years. Its great appeal is that it gives us a sense of constancy in a troublesome world of chaos. Often we want to know exactly how we should behave, and exactly what we can expect from other people. When someone mugs me, for example, it is comforting to say that my attacker has violated a universal and unchanging moral rule – and has not simply obstructed my preferences here and now.

            As appealing as moral objectivism is, skeptically-minded relativists reject all three of its main positions. First, relativists deny that moral values are objective: it doesn’t make much sense to speak of “values” existing independently of human thought processes. We have no experience of higher nonphysical realms; we live down here in the physical world, and it is here that we must look for the foundation of morality. And, as we look down here in the human realm, we must see that morality is a human invention. We create morality; we don’t adopt it by inspecting some mysterious objective realm. While moral objectivism may offer us some comfort, it is nevertheless an illusion that we should abandon. Morality, then, is relative in the sense that it is relative to our human needs and preferences. Second, moral values are far from the unchanging things that objectivists allege. Our value system is continually shifting in dramatic ways. In past centuries people commonly approved of slavery and torture, and we now reject these as moral atrocities. In past centuries people disapproved of premarital sex, and today many people deem it to be morally acceptable. Not only do we see these dramatic changes in moral attitudes through time, but we can see it today when comparing one culture’s moral values with another. This is particularly evident with issues such as abortion, euthanasia, alcohol consumption, recreational drug use, public nudity.

            Third, according to the relativist, moral values are not as universal as objectivists claim: they don’t apply to all people in the same way. Fundamental moral values clash with each other, and we’d be hard pressed to find many that apply to everyone in all cultures. Think about the beliefs held by the various world religions – the most visible institutions of moral values. Religions come and go with the emergence of new civilizations, they quite literally war with each other, and most religions hold principles which are irreconcilable with those of other religions. And all this goes on while each religion stubbornly maintains its claim to absolute truth. This is how it goes with morality in general: we feel very strongly about our own moral convictions, but so too do people who disagree with us. I might be tempted to say that everyone is bound by the same universal moral standards that I hold to, but it is more reasonable to say instead that moral values apply more particularly to those who adopt those specific ones.

            When moral relativists maintain that values are human inventions, they may mean one of two things. First, they sometimes mean that individual people create their own morality – a position called individual relativism. That is, I, in my best moments, create my own world, envision my own preferences and invent my own values. A second approach, called cultural relativism, maintains that human societies – and not individual people – create morality. On this view, we are all products of our cultural surroundings, and it is naive to say that I or any other individual person can create a unique set of values. There are indeed some moral visionaries, such as Gandhi who fought for equality through peaceful protest. But even these crusaders did not appear in a vacuum, and were molded by social forces around them. Just as moral objectivism has its appealing features, so too does moral relativism. Specifically, the relativist argues, it is frustrating to place our hopes in a moral realm that we cannot see, or leaders who claim to have special access to that hidden realm. We know exactly where to look for moral truth, even though it is always shifting. It is thus better that morality be investigated by social scientists, not by metaphysical soothsayers. American anthropologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), a defender of cultural relativism, devoted his career to studying the values of indigenous societies throughout the world, and he argues that moral values are purely the inventions society:


The “right” way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to them to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore con­tain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis. [Folkways, 31]


According to Sumner, our society’s traditions define the right and wrong ways of doing everything. Even our most sophisticated moral philosophers “are all products of the folkways” (ibid).

            While the battle between objectivism and relativism is often bitter, there is room for some middle ground. We might, for example, acknowledge that some moral values seem to be universal and unchanging, such as prohibitions against murder and stealing. At the same time, though, we might acknowledge that some other values seem to be relative to cultural preferences, such as permissive sexual practices, use of recreational drugs, euthanasia, capital punishment, and censorship. It is precisely with applied ethics issues such as these that the objectivism-relativism debate plays an important role in our moral dialogue.


God and Morality

A second metaphysical issue about morality concerns whether moral values are created by God. Countless philosophers and theologians have tied moral principles to the existence of God, particularly as found in religious scriptures that are believed to have been inspired by God. There is some rationale for this approach. At least some moral principles seem to be absolute and eternal, and to gain this status it seems that they must rest on the nature of God, which is also absolute and eternal. Also, moral behavior is required of everyone, and one way of reinforcing the importance of such conduct is to maintain that God mandates moral principles. But Plato pointed out a dilemma associated with attempts to link morality with God. He writes,


The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods. [Euthyphro]


The two options in question are whether (1) God endorses a previously existing standard of morality that is external to him, or (2) God independently creates the standards of morality. The two options appear to be mutually exclusive, and both present problems for religiously-grounded morality. With the first option, there is no special connection between God and morality. Moral values exist independently of God—perhaps in a higher non-physical realm—and God simply decides to adopt these principles since they seem reasonable. This, though, is no different than you or I adopting these principles since we too find them reasonable. Thus, with this first option, there is no divine foundation to morality.

            The second option, commonly called the divine command theory, is the more crucial one for religious morality: moral values are creations of God's will. According to this view, charity is good because God has willed it so, and murder is wrong because God has willed it so. One problem with this view, though, is that if God has the power to create moral values as he sees fit (unconstrained by any external moral standards), then he could fashion moral values in any way that he chose. For example, he could make murder and stealing morally permissible, or make charity morally impermissible. The values that we currently have, then, are arbitrary since God could have made them otherwise, or even change them mid course if that’s what he wanted to do. Medieval theologian Duns Scotus (1265-1308) argued that, under special circumstances in the past, God has indeed suspended the normal rules of morality to make murder, stealing and prostitution the right thing to do. Thus, with divine command theory, there is a divine foundation for morality, but God’s specific choices of moral principles are arbitrary.

            Even if the believer can accept this implication of divine command theory, there is still another problem: how do we know what moral values God wants us to follow? The common answer is that God speaks to us directly, or gives us special signs, or reveals moral truths in scripture. These approaches, though, have limitations even for the most devout believers: we are suspicious of people who claim that God speaks to them, and scriptural passages lend themselves to countless interpretations. In extreme cases, people have used these rationales to justify horrendous actions, such as genocide. In less extreme cases, claims to be morally guided by God often appear to be thinly veiled attempts to justify one’s private moral biases, such as claiming that interracial marriages are against the will of God. In either case, we typically evaluate the moral validity of such claims by appealing to non-religious standards of morality.

            Divine command theory, though, is not the only way to connect God and morality, and an alternative view called natural law theory avoids some of its problems. According to natural law theory, God endorses specific moral standards and fixes them in human nature, which we then discover through rational intuition. In its most general form, the theory is neutral about whether God creates moral values or merely adopts an external standard. What is relevant here is that, for whatever reason, God endorses these values and, as creator of human beings, he embeds these values into our nature. The most famous version of this theory was championed by medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who argued that we discover these values by investigating our natural purpose as a human and, more specifically, by analyzing our human inclinations. For example, we have a natural inclination towards self-preservation, and we infer from this that we should protect human life. Natural law, then, does not settle the question of where moral values ultimately come from: it just says that God is a moral being and he has fashioned us so that we can grasp fundamental moral values by examining our own human nature. It thus offers a way to make human morality compatible with divine morality, but not necessarily dependent upon divine morality. Natural law theory plays a major role in applied ethics discussions, particularly ones concerning sexual practices such as homosexuality and premarital sex. According to defenders of natural law theory, we can morally assess these behaviors by considering whether they conform to the natural purpose of our sex drive.



A second group of issues in theoretical ethics are psychological in nature. In many ways our ability to understand and fulfill our moral duty hinges on our mental and emotional makeup as human beings. We are psychologically designed to think and behave in certain ways, and this shapes how we conceive of our moral obligations and our ability to act properly. Three issues are important here: (1) whether moral actions are fundamentally egoistic or altruistic, (2) whether moral judgments are fundamentally rational or emotional, and (3) whether gender influences our moral outlook.


Egoism and Altruism

Imagine that a house next door to you is on fire and you know that someone is still inside. The fire trucks have not yet arrived and a crowd gathers around to watch. Then a man in the crowd rushes into the house and, a few minutes later, heroically emerges with the trapped person. You then wonder what motivated the hero when he chose to put his life at risk: was he acting purely for the benefit of the trapped person without consideration of his own life? A first issue in moral psychology concerns whether humans are capable of performing truly altruistic (that is, selfless) actions that are not selfishly motivated. The two extreme stands on this question are those of psychological egoism and psychological altruism. Psychological egoism is the view that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions. On this view, even if I perform an action that seems selfless, such as heroically rescuing someone from a burning building, on a deeper psychological level I am still motivated by selfish causes, such as the desire for people to like me or respect me. The opposing view is psychological altruism, which maintains that at least some of our actions are motivated by instinctive benevolence. On this view, if I donate to charity, I am capable of doing so out of genuine kindness for the needy person, and not out of any selfish sense of personal gain that I might get from it.

            One of the more famous defenses of psychological egoism was given by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes had an especially cynical view of human nature and felt that self-interest was the driving force behind all human conduct. In his words, “of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself” (Leviathan, 14.8). To make his point, he takes two types of human conduct that we ordinarily think are selfless: acts of pity and acts of charity. For example, if I have feelings of pity for a poor person, it appears as though I am looking beyond myself and am experiencing genuine and selfless concern for him. And, if I am further motivated by charity to help him out, it appears as though at that moment I am selflessly sacrificing my time and money to better his condition. Not so, Hobbes argues. When I feel pity for a poor person, I am merely imagining myself in a similar situation of financial destitution, and really am just feeling sorry for myself. And when I act charitably towards a poor person I am enjoying the control I have over that person’s life. In spite of first appearances, according to Hobbes, both pity and charity are driven by selfish inclinations.

            Hobbes’s larger point is that all allegedly selfless actions in fact result from the single underlying motive of self-interest. We are machines that are programmed to act from selfish inclinations, in spite of how altruistic our actions might appear on the surface. Hobbes’s bold attack on altruism was soon answered by another English philosopher, Joseph Butler (1692-1752). Butler agreed with Hobbes that a large portion of our behavior was in fact driven by selfishness. We are often greedy, pleasure-seeking, and power-hungry. However, he argues, human nature is more complex than Hobbes envisioned, and we can’t adequately reduce all of our behaviors to a single motivation of selfishness. What about acts of friendship, compassion, love, and parental affection? It’s stretching things too far to reduce these to selfishness. Instead, he argues, these are better explained by a natural instinct of benevolence. The best proof of this is that we repeatedly recognize genuinely benevolent conduct in our own lives and others, which we feel cannot be reduced to mere selfish motivation. While it doesn’t happen all the time, according to Butler, it does so with enough frequency that we can clearly identify it when it does (Fifteen Sermons, 1).

            The dispute between egoism and altruism is a difficult one to resolve, since it requires that we investigate human motives that are buried deep within our psychological framework. What we see are visible actions of pity, charity, friendship, and love; what we can’t see are the hidden motivations behind these actions, which leave too much room for guesswork. In more recent times, the question of egoism vs. altruism has been taken on by biologists who have attempted to address this issue by examining our evolutionary history. Humans at least appear to occasionally act with kindness towards each other; even Hobbes and Butler agree with this. Biologists too recognize that we appear to act altruistically, even if it’s not the purest and most unselfish kind of altruism that Butler envisioned. The challenge for the biologist, then, is to discover the evolutionary mechanism that produced this human instinct towards apparent altruism. One possible explanation is that apparent altruism is hard-wired into human nature, just as it is with some animals, such as ants. Individual ants are programmed to act for the greater good of their colony, irrespective of the hardships and dangers that they personally experience. This, though, is not a particularly good explanation of human altruism, since we are far more individualistic than animals like ants, and our behavior does not seem to be programmed for the greater good of our societies.

            A second and more promising evolutionary explanation, though, is to connect apparent altruism to my personal drive to perpetuate my genes. That is, I am not biologically programmed to pursue every selfish whim that I have; rather, I’m programmed to make sure that my genetic legacy is successfully carried on through future generations. Part of this will instantly incline me to behave with apparent altruism towards my children: I will make major personal sacrifices for them since they will be the perpetuators of my genes. This is sometimes called kin selection. But kin selection will also prompt me to behave with apparent altruism towards members of my community: in very subtle ways, the perpetuation of my genes depends on forming alliances with friends, neighbors, and even strangers. The more we all get along, the better chances I have of passing on my genetic legacy to future generations. This is sometimes called reciprocal altruism. When kin selection and reciprocal altruism are combined, my apparent altruistic actions are still driven by the urge to have my personal genes survive. Nevertheless, I am still prepared to make major sacrifices for my family and community, even to the point of sacrificing my own life.

            The egoism-altruism debate has important implications for many applied ethics controversies. Issues such as euthanasia, welfare programs, business ethics, and environmental responsibility all involve compassion for people that we personally don’t know. Why should I care if someone is suffering from the end stages of cancer, or if the product that I manufacture is inherently unsafe, or people I never come in contact with are living in poverty? Altruists would argue that I have a natural sense of selflessness that motivates me to act compassionately towards others. But if the egoist is right, then whatever compassion I have towards others must first be tied to my own self-interest. Perhaps I need to envision myself living in poverty, as Hobbes suggests. Perhaps I may need to consider whether environmental responsibility might make the world a better place for my descendents, as evolutionary biologists suggest. The point is that when making a case for any type of moral responsibility, it is best to begin with a modest view of human nature, one that’s not overly optimistic about the human capacity to be selfless.


Reason and Emotion

Imagine that you are debating the issue of abortion. You and your opponent begin calmly by offering your best reasons for your respective positions. After a few minutes, though, the discussion becomes heated, and you shout at your opponent “Baby killer!”, and your opponent shouts back “Woman hater!” A second area of moral psychology involves the role of reason and emotion in moral decision making. The standard view throughout the history of philosophy has been that reason plays two central roles in moral matters. First, reason assists us in discovering moral standards, and, second, reason motivates us to do the morally right thing. Plato, for example, held that through reason we grasp the essence of moral forms in their higher realm, such as the form of justice. Once we have this knowledge, reason then influences us to behave justly. Aquinas argued that God implanted in us a rational capacity to know the principles of morality embedded in human nature, and then to properly act upon them. More generally, these philosophers held that we have rational intuitions about moral truths, and these intuitions direct our conduct. The assumptions here are that moral principles like “behave justly” are facts that are the objects of rational investigation, and merely having knowledge of moral facts is enough to have us behave properly.

            Both of these assumptions about moral reasoning were challenged by Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). First, Hume argues, moral assessments are not rational judgments about any facts. When I make the moral assessment that “Bob acted justly,” I’m not using my reason at all, but am feeling a sense of pleasure about Bob’s conduct. In Hume’s words, “morality. . .  is more properly felt than judged of” (Treatise, 3.1.2). There is no moral fact to be rationally discovered, or no mysterious moral Forms to be grasped through reason. Moral assessment is only a emotional reaction, and it has nothing to do with our rational faculty. Second, according to Hume, reason is incapable of motivating us to act in any way whatsoever—moral or otherwise. I eat because I feel like eating, not because I rationally assess facts about my food needs. I go to work each morning because I feel like making an honest living, not because I rationally judge it to be the best course of action. I act justly because a feeling of justice motivates me to do so, not because my reason instructs me to do so. By itself, “reason is perfectly inert, and can never either prevent or produce any action or affection” (ibid, 3.1.1). Hume’s general position on morality is summarized in the statement that “ought cannot be derived from is”; that is, moral assessments (“ought”) cannot be rationally deduced from statements of mere fact (“is”).

            In more recent times, British philosopher Alfred Ayer (1910-1989) pushed the matter further with a theory called emotivism. On this view, not only are moral assessments emotional reactions, but they are merely expressions of feelings that report no fact whatsoever, not even about my own mental state. According to Ayer, there are two kinds of verbal utterances that we make. Some are factual reports, which convey true or false statements about the world. For example, “The bread is moldy” reports a fact about the bread. “I’m a fan of Elvis” reports a fact about my feelings towards Elvis. Other utterances, however, are non-factual expressions: they only vent feelings, and do not even report facts. “Moldy bread, gag!” expresses my negative feelings about moldy bread. “Hooray for Elvis!” expresses my positive feelings for Elvis. Take, now, a moral utterance like “Bob acted justly.” Is this a factual report or a non-factual expression? It certainly looks like a factual report about some state of affairs in the world. However, according to Ayer, it is not: it is really a non-factual expression in disguise that does nothing more than vent feelings. When I say “Bob acted justly,” I’m merely expressing my positive feelings about Bob’s conduct, and I may as well be uttering the phrase “Hooray for Bob’s conduct!” Ayer writes,


[If I] say, “Stealing money is wrong,” I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!” -- where the shape and thickness of the exclamation marks show, by a suitable convention, that a special sort of moral disapproval is the feeling which is being expressed. It is clear that there is nothing said here which can be true or false. [Language, Truth and Logic, 6]


Ayer’s larger point is that moral utterances have nothing to do with factual reports at all: they don’t even report our feelings, but merely vent them in the way that a dog might vent its feelings by growling or barking.

            Ayer’s view is radical since he insists that all moral utterances are non-factual expressions of feelings; a less extreme view would recognize that facts and reason play a role in at least some moral discussions. Still, Ayer’s point is an important warning: heated moral debate such as those over abortion can quickly reduce to mere expressions of feeling that aim to sway people’s emotions, without appealing to their reason. As a rule of thumb, by being cool-headed and impartial when debating controversial moral issues, we can avoid having our moral dialogues reduce to the level of dogs growling at each other.


Gender and Morality

A third area of moral psychology involves the issue of gender, and whether there are distinctly male and female conceptions of morality. Stereotypes abound regarding the differences between men and women. For example, we regularly hear that, compared to their male counterparts, women tend to be more emotional, less competitive, less violent, more sociable, better at multitasking, and have better language skills. But while these gender typecasts are plentiful, there is currently little reliable scientific research to back them up. And even if some of these generalizations turn out to be true, there is yet no scientifically decisive way to determine whether gender characteristics are the result of genetics or social conditioning. For now, the issue of male-female difference is very much a mystery. But that hasn’t stopped us from speculating on the subject. Today our gender stereotypes are more favorable to women than men, as the above list of female qualities displays.

            In the past, though, women were considered to be more psychologically inferior to men: more childlike, more superficial, and on the whole less intelligent. Not only were women considered to be intellectually inferior to men, but morally inferior as well. As we have seen, throughout much of history, morality had been intimately connected with human rationality. Presumably, it is our capacity to reason that enables us to grasp moral truths and motivate us to behave morally. But if women’s rational abilities are inferior to men’s, then so too are their natural moral abilities. French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) famously held this view and argued that women have affectionate natures and inferior intellectual capacities. Women are, by nature, coquettish, cunning and passionate. Consequently, he argued, women should play merely a secondary role in society that serves the interests of men, and a young girl’s education should be structured around that function:


A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what she should be taught while she is young. [Émile, 5]


By today’s standards, it seems outrageous to suggest that women are naturally inferior to men, either intellectually or morally. Yet in Rousseau’s time this view was taken seriously, and it required a serious refutation. British writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) provided just such a critique. Wollstonecraft agreed with the traditional view that it is the human capacity for rationality that makes us moral. However, she argued that women have the same rational abilities that men do, and, thus have the same capacity for moral virtue as men. If women behave superficially and immorally, Wollstonecraft says, it is only because of their lack of education. But all of this will change if women are empowered and given the opportunity to cultivate their reason: “Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 13.6).

            While Wollstonecraft’s vision of moral equality is an improvement over what went before it, perhaps it is not enough. What if there are genuine differences between the way that men and women think? It’s not that either is inferior to the other, but maybe the goals and processes of female thinking are different from men’s. In that case, might men and women have different ways of thinking about morality? One recent suggestion is that morality for women has a nurturing and caring component which is typically absent from men’s ethical conceptions. The male approach of morality is largely one that emphasizes rules: moral laws, abstract notions of justice, lists of dos and don’ts, ideal standards of right and wrong. We are morally right when we follow these standards, and morally wrong when we don’t. Perhaps this is grounded in a male preoccupation with rules in general, and the need to postulate scientific laws, legal statutes, and social policies. Moral rules may just be another manifestation of this male tendency. By contrast, women have a more nurturing capacity which is evident in their dominant roles as caregivers for their children and elderly parents. Many occupations that focus on close nurturing relationships are also dominated by women, such as education, counseling, and nursing. Thus, there is a female counterpart to male conceptions of morality, and that is the ethics of care: women see morality as the need to care for people who are in situations of vulnerability and dependency. Carol Gilligan (b. 1936), a champion of female care ethics, argued that it is precisely this more intimate focus on care that has blocked women from conceiving of morality the way men do as abstract moral laws: “The infusion of feeling into their judgments keeps them from developing a more independent and abstract ethical conception in which concern for others derives from principles of justice rather than from compassion and care” (“In a Different Voice,” Harvard Educational Review, 1977).

            It may be tempting to see the difference between male and female moral thinking as an irreconcilable conflict, where one side holds the correct perspective of morality, while the other is a distortion. However, there is room for compatibility: male morality focuses on maintaining order within larger groups of people, and female morality focuses on our conduct in one-on-one relationships. Among the various studies that explore male-female differences, observations of how children interact on playgrounds are particularly revealing. Girls will select a specific playmate and play as a pair throughout an entire hour, whereas boys will jump from one playmate to another or play in larger groups. Psychologist Roy Baumeister draws the following conclusions about this fundamental difference between male and female sociability:


The conclusion is that men and women are both social but in different ways. Women specialize in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships. Men specialize in the larger group. If you make a list of activities that are done in large groups, you are likely to have a list of things that men do and enjoy more than women: team sports, politics, large corporations, economic networks, and so forth. [“Is there Anything Good about Men?” American Psychological Association, Invited Address, 2007]


Both types of sociability that Baumeister describes are important for the proper functioning of society. Corresponding to these male-female approaches to sociability, there are similar male-female conceptions of morality, and each plays a critical role in a balanced approach to ethics. The male side gives us general rules that are important for crowd control, while the female side guides us when relating to individuals. Regardless of my particular gender, I have the capacity to internalize both the male and female moral perspectives. These male-female differences are only tendencies: men might be a bit more abstract about morality, and women a bit more nurturing. But we can—and frequently do—assume both postures. When we don’t, the other gender will be there to take up the slack.



A second group of issues in theoretical ethics concern the moral principles that we should follow. The Golden Rule is a classic example that we find in societies worldwide: we should behave towards others in the same way that we would want others to behave towards us. Because I do not want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Because 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. The Golden Rule is just one of many efforts to articulate an ideal standard of morality, and we will look at three distinct strategies that dominate philosophical discussions of ethics: virtue theory, duty theory, and consequentialism.


Virtue Theory

Many philosophers believe that morality consists of following precisely defined rules of conduct, such as “Don’t kill,” “Don’t steal,” or the Golden Rule. Virtue theory, though, places less emphasis on learning rules, and instead stresses the importance of developing good habits of character, such as benevolence. Once I’ve acquired the virtue of charity, for example, I will then habitually act charitably towards others. The ability to acquire habits is critical to our very survival as humans. When you drive a car, for example, you do so by habit, with almost no thought about what you’re doing. But remember how challenging it was the first time you drove, and you had to concentrate on every move you made with your hands and feet. Virtually every task we perform has some habit behind it – walking, eating, writing, speaking – and without these habits our lives would grind to a halt.

            Virtue theory tells us that our moral behavior is also directed by habits, and that the foundation of morality is the development of good character traits, that is, virtues. A person is good, then, if he has virtues and lacks vices. Typical virtues include courage, temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude, liberality, and truthfulness. Some virtue theorists mention as many as 100 virtuous character traits which contribute to making someone a good person. Virtue theory places special emphasis on moral education since virtuous character traits are developed in one's youth; adults, therefore, are responsible for instilling virtues in the young. The failure to properly develop virtuous character traits will result in the agent acquiring vices, or bad character traits instead. Vices include cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity.

            One of the most influential accounts of virtue theory is that by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Aristotle argues that moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits which are at a mean between more extreme character traits (or vices). For example, in response to the natural emotion of fear, we should develop the virtuous character trait of courage. If we develop an excessive character trait by curbing fear too much, then we are said to be rash, which is a vice. If, on the other extreme, we develop a deficient character trait by curbing fear too little, then we are said to be cowardly, which is also a vice. The virtue of courage, then, lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness, and the deficient extreme of cowardice. Most moral virtues, and not just courage, are to be understood as falling at the mean between two accompanying vices. Aristotle presents a catalog of twelve virtues that are means between two extreme vices; here is a chart of some especially interesting ones:


Natural Urge || Vice of Deficiency | Virtuous Mean | Vice of Excess


Anger              || Spiritlessness            Good Temper              Ill-temper

Fear of danger || Cowardice                Courage                       Rashness

Pleasure          || Insensibility Temperance                 Intemperance

Give money     || Stinginess                  Generosity                   Extravagance

Self-worth       || Self-loathing Self-respect                 Arrogance


Aristotle warns that the virtuous mean is not a strict mathematical mean between two extremes. For example, if eating 100 apples is too many, and eating zero apples is too little, this does not imply that we should eat 50 apples, which is the mathematical mean. Instead, the mean is rationally determined, based on the relative merits of the situation. He writes,


I have sufficiently stated that moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g., to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows; so, too, anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money. But to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. [Nicomachean Ethics, 2.9]


Thus, according to Aristotle, it is difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because it is often difficult to find the proper mean between the extremes.


Duty Theory

A second approach to moral principles is duty theory, the view that moral standards are grounded in intuitive obligations—or duties—that we have. A duty is a moral obligation that someone has towards another person, such as my duty not to lie to you. Duty theories of ethics emphasize the need to follow moral rules that we know instinctively and discover through human reasoning. Duty theories of ethics are also called deontological theories, from the Greek word deon, for duty. There have been many versions of duty theory, but we will look at two representative ones.

            The most influential duty theory in recent centuries is that by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argues that there is a single, foundational principle of moral duty that encompasses all of our specific moral obligations and this principle is revealed to everyone through rational intuition. He calls this principle the “categorical imperative”, a phase that simply means “absolute command.” Before looking at precise wording of the categorical imperative, Kant tells us how the categorical imperative is fundamentally different from less urgent behavioral rules that hinge on some personal desire that we might have. Suppose, for example, that I say to you “If you want to get a good job, then you ought to go to college.” I’m telling you here that you should follow the behavioral rule “go to college.” However, whether you accept this rule depends entirely on whether you want to get a good job. So too with the rules “you ought to eat a balanced meal” or “you ought to get a good night sleep” or “you ought to call a plumber”. The obligatory force of each of these depends entirely on whether you have a particular desire that you are trying to fulfill. None of these are genuine moral rules and are more like words of advice. Kant calls these less urgent behavioral rules “hypothetical imperatives,” all of which take the general form “If you desire Y, then you ought to do Z.”

            Genuine moral rules like “don’t kill” are different from these hypothetical imperatives. If an action is morally right, you are obligated to perform that action, regardless of what your private desires are. This is so with other basic moral rules like “You ought to avoid harming others” or “You ought to keep your promises” or “you ought to donate to charity.” In these cases, the form of true moral commands is simply “You ought to do Z.” Philosophers before Kant listed dozens of moral rules that followed this basic form of “You ought to do Z.” He believed, however, that there was a single highest moral principle from which all specific moral rules followed, and that is what he called the “categorical imperative.” Kant gives a few different wordings of this principle, but the clearest of these is this: You ought to treat people as an end, and never merely as a means to an end. This principle rests on a common distinction in moral theory between intrinsic value and instrumental value. Things like car keys, credit cards, and lawn mowers have merely instrumental value since they’re important to us only because they perform some function that’s important to us, such as starting our cars, allowing us to purchase things, or mowing our lawns. These things are good only as a means to some further end. Things that have intrinsic value, however, are good in and of themselves, irrespective of any function that they perform. For Kant, human dignity is the best example of something that is intrinsically valuable: its value is independent of any function that it performs.

            The point, then, of the categorical imperative is this: we should always treat people with dignity (as ends in themselves), 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, for me to steal my neighbor's car since I would be treating her as a means to my own happiness. Kant explains here how theft violates the categorical imperative:


He who transgresses the [property] rights of men intends to use the person of others merely as a means, without considering that as rational beings they ought always to be esteemed also as ends, that is, as beings who must be capable of containing in themselves the end of the very same action. [Foundation of the Principles of Morals]


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.

            Kant’s duty theory is particularly unique since he proposes a single moral principle as our highest duty. However, a second example of duty theory, put forward by British philosopher William D. Ross (1877–1971), sets forth a collection of several intuitive moral rules that we must follow, rather than just a single one. For Ross, there are seven such fundamental moral duties:


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

Nonharm: the duty to not injure others


Ross recognizes that there may be others to add to this list, but these are ones that we all know self-evidently. He refers to these as prima facie duties (Latin for “first appearance”), which means that each one is morally binding unless a different duty emerges that overrides the first one. Suppose, for example, that my Aunt Martha asks me what I think about her new hat. My first duty is to be truthful (“fidelity” on the above list). But my personal opinion is that her hat is ugly, and if I tell her the truth I risk unnecessarily hurting her feelings (which goes against the duty of “nonharm” on the above list). This creates a conflict between my two duties of fidelity and nonharm. Which should I follow? In this situation, my greater obligation is to avoid hurting her feelings. Thus, my duties of fidelity and non harm are both initially prima facie duties, but, in the end, it is only the duty of nonharm that emerges as my actual duty. According to Ross, there is no way to rank order the priority of our duties before hand, and so we cannot know ahead of time which will be the stronger duty. We must wait until a conflict arises in a particular situation, and we must use our own insight in that situation to determine which of our conflicting duties is our actual duty.



The third approach to moral standards is consequentialism, the view that an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable. It is common for us to determine our moral responsibility by weighing the consequences of our actions. Donating to charity is the right thing to do because of all the good that it does. Stealing is morally wrong because of the harm that it causes. According to consequentialism, correct moral conduct is determined solely by this type of cost-benefit analysis. Consequentialism requires 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, which means end or goal.

            Consequentialist theories became popular in the 18th 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. There are three main types of consequentialist theories:


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 approaches focus on the consequences of actions for different groups of people, and often they will produce different moral conclusions. Here is an example. An American 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 country's 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 herself would be affected. 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.

            Of the three consequentialist theories, utilitarianism is the most accepted one among philosophers, and it is often summarized with the expression “the greatest good for the greatest number.” British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) presented one of the earliest systematic accounts of utilitarianism. According to Bentham, we should determine whether an action is right or wrong by calculating the total amount of pleasure and pain resulting from the action as everyone is affected. Two features of his theory are important. First, he proposed that we tally only the pleasure and pain which results from our actions since, he argued, pleasure and pain are the guiding forces of human nature:


Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. [Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1.1]


This aspect of Bentham's theory is called hedonistic utilitarianism (from the Greek word hedon for “pleasure”). Some later utilitiarian philosophers felt that Bentham’s hedonistic approach was too restrictive since it ignored other important consequences of our actions that are not necessarily pleasing or painful. For example, we value acts of loyalty and friendship, yet they are not always pleasing. Rather than focusing on pleasure and pain, they argued, we should instead tally more generally the good-bad that results, or the benefit-disbenefit.

            The second feature of Bentham’s theory is that he 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. Is it right for me specifically to donate $10 to the Red Cross this morning? Is it right for me specifically to cheat on my calculus exam this afternoon? This aspect of Bentham's theory is known as act-utilitiarianism because of its focus on the consequences of the specific actions that we perform. Some later utilitarians felt that this aspect of Bentham’s theory also had problems.  One problem is that, based on act-utilitarianism, it would be morally wrong for me to waste my time on leisure activities such as watching television, since my time could be spent in ways that produced a greater social benefit, such as charity work. There’s always a more socially productive way that I could spend my time. But, the critic argued, prohibiting leisure activities doesn't seem reasonable, and virtually no other moral theory condemns us for at least occasionally being leisurely. Similarly, based on act-utilitarianism, we could morally justify actions that we ordinarily find reprehensible, such as torturing a specific captured enemy to get information from him, or enslaving a small group of people to help make life easier for a larger group of people. It just depends on whether the total pleasure outweighs the total pain as we tally the consequences of the specific action.

            A revised version of utilitarianism called rule-utilitarianism addresses the above problems with act-utilitarianism. Rather than focusing on the consequences of each particular action that we perform, we should instead examine the consequences of more general behavioral rules that we adopt. Thus, according to rule-utilitarianism, a behavioral rule is morally right if the consequences of adopting that rule are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone. Take, for example, the rule that “we should spend all of our time advancing society, and no time on leisure activities.” On balance this would produce more pain than pleasure, since most people need at least some leisure activity. There are similar problems with the rule “we can torture captured prisoners for information”: generally speaking, the limited amount of good that results from extracting information through torture is counterbalanced by the larger amount of pain that the tortured prisoners suffer. Rule-utilitarianism offers a similar strategy for judging the legitimacy of any moral rule, such as the rule that “we should not steal” or “we should not kill.” A particular action, such as stealing my neighbor's car, is judged wrong since it violates a moral rule against stealing. In turn, the rule against stealing is morally binding because adopting this rule produces favorable consequences for everyone.



The moral issues that we’ve looked at so far focused primarily on the moral obligations that one person has to another person, such as the moral obligation that I have to not steal from you. Another aspect of ethical theory concerns the moral obligations that societies and governments have to its citizens. Where do governments get their governing authority to begin with? What is their primary responsibility to their citizens? Are there moral limits to the demands that governments can make upon their citizens? There is a moral underpinning to the role that governments play, which is often crucial in determining the moral values that society endorses. We will look at three issues: social contract theory, natural rights theory, and principles of governmental coercion.


Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is a bold answer to the question “Where do governments get their authority?” The theory states that, to preserve our lives, we mutually agree to set aside our hostilities and set up a government to secure peace. The mechanism by which we make these agreements is a “social contract”. Social contract theory was championed by Thomas Hobbes, and his theory has two parts: the state of war that naturally exists between people, and the social contract that enables us to rise out of that state of war. As to the state of war, Hobbes argues that in our natural condition—prior to the creation of any government—each person attempts to survive by any means possible. We are fundamentally selfish creatures that look out for our own best interests, and there is a scarcity of natural resources that we need to survive. The result is a war of all against all, and even when we’re not actually combating with each other, we are prepared to do so at the slightest provocation. As long as we’re in this warring condition, civilized society is not possible and even basic efforts to till the soil and build homes will be futile. Hobbes writes,


[In the natural state of war] there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan, 13]


Life is so bad in the state of nature that we will accomplish very little in the miserable and short lives that we have.

            Just as human selfishness creates this mess to begin with, it is also human selfishness that offers us a way out: life in the state of nature is so miserable that we’re willing to make compromise to bring about a state of peace. That compromise is the social contract. We agree to set aside our hostilities towards each other in exchange for the peace that a civilized society offers. Merely agreeing to give up aggression is not good enough since I’ll never completely trust you, and you’ll never completely trust me. What we need is a governing power to monitor our conduct and punish us when we break the rules of peace. While none of us likes the government breathing down our backs, it’s one more critical sacrifice that we need to make to secure a state of peace. The social contract that we arrive at must include the creating of a ruling government since, Hobbes argues, strong governmental authority is the only way to ensure that we follow the rules of law.

            After Hobbes proposed his theory, critics challenged several of its major assumptions. Are humans in the natural condition really as selfish and nasty as Hobbes claims? If not, then the rationale for making a social contract falls apart. Also, very few societies were historically founded on any kind of social contract: most were done through military force with no agreement from its citizens. And even if a government was founded through a contractual agreement, why would that contract be binding on future generations of citizens? In spite of these criticisms, social contract theory became an important moral justification for governmental authority. It also establishes that the primary function of governments is to protect law abiding citizens from aggressors.

            Debates today about social contract theory focus on whether governments are justified in going beyond their basic job as protectors of peace. The conservative position on this issue, called “libertarianism,” maintains that governments should be as minimal as possible, and not do much more than run the police and the military. Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) writes,


The minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified. Any state more extensive violates people’s rights. Yet many persons have put forth reasons purporting to justify a more extensive state. [Anarchy, State and Utopia, 7]


According to libertarians, we put governments in power through the social contract to keep the peace, every extra thing the government does unnecessarily infringes on our liberties. This includes public funding of education, welfare programs, highway construction, you name it. As nice as these things are, the government is not justified in forcing us to pay for them through taxation. If we want them, we should voluntarily pay for them through a user fee.

            The liberal position regarding the scope of governments is called “welfare liberalism,” and maintains that governments should address issues of unfairness and social inequality, and not merely protect the peace. Governments have a duty to elevate the status of underprivileged citizens through education and welfare programs, and taxation to support these programs is justified. The key point of dispute between libertarianism and welfare liberalism is the social contract itself: when forming a social contract, what kinds of conditions would a reasonable negotiator agree to? Libertarians argue that negotiators would want to retain as much freedom as possible and reject most government programs. Welfare libertarians argue that negotiators would want to make sure that society is as fair and equal as possible, and this will embrace a wider set of government programs. Many applied ethics controversies come right down this debate between libertarianism and welfare liberalism, such as government funding of health care, higher education, and efforts to reduce poverty.


Rights Theory

One of the most important moral notions connected to the functioning of governments is that of rights. Most generally, a “right” is a justified claim against another person's behavior—such as my right to not be harmed by you. There are, though, two distinct types of rights: natural rights are those that we are born with, and legal rights are those that are created by governments. Natural rights have three features traditionally associated with them. First, they are natural in the sense that we have them as part of our natural human identity, and they were not conferred on us by any governments. While governments might endorse moral rights, such as the right to freedom of thought, they do not create those rights. Second, they are universal insofar as they do not change from country to country. The right not to be enslaved, for example, is valid anywhere in the world, and not restricted to certain regions. Third, they are equal in the sense that rights are the same for all people, irrespective of wealth, gender, race, or any other factor that might sociologically distinguish one person from another.

            Legal rights, by contrast, are purely created by government bodies, such as my right to drive when I reach age 16. They may change from country to country—and even city to city, and the rights of some citizens may differ from those of others, depending on how laws are written. Moral controversies within society draw on the concepts of both natural and legal rights. For example, one of the fundamental questions in the abortion debate is whether a fetus has a right to life. This partly asks whether fetuses by their very nature have a natural right to life. But this also asks whether a particular government has created laws that grant to a fetus a legal right to life. When societies vigorously debate controversial issues, consideration of natural rights and legal rights are often of equal importance.

            The most influential early account of natural rights theory is that of 17th century British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who argued that by nature everyone has the basic rights to life, health, liberty and possessions:


The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions [Second Treatise of Government, 6]


Locke argued further that, through a social contract, people establish governments for the purpose of protecting those fundamental rights. When governments fail to adequately perform that task, Locke says, they can be justly overthrown and replaced with a new government that can do the job better. Locke’s view of natural rights and his justification for political revolution inspired 18th century political reformers such as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), as is evident in the opening of the Declaration of Independence:


We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


Jefferson’s list of natural rights differs from Locke’s mainly in that it replaces the right to possessions with the right to pursue happiness. For Jefferson, property is only one of many means to happiness, which makes the pursuit of happiness the more fundamental right. Like Locke, Jefferson held that citizens are justified in overthrowing a government when it fails to protect their rights.

            Since the Eighteenth Century, governments around the world have incorporated the notion of natural rights in their political documents, thus making natural rights an indispensible part of our moral and political vocabulary. The most important example of this from recent decades is the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which lists dozens of rights to which all people world-wide are entitled. Some listed at the outset of the document echo Locke: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.” Others go well beyond Locke and in include very specific ones such as the rights to free choice of employment, to periodic paid vacations, to child care, and health care. The Universal Declaration makes no mention of rights being “natural” but instead designates them as “human rights” which all people have irrespective of “the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs.”


Principles of Governmental Coercion

For the sake of discussion, let’s grant that a government can legitimately exist through a social contract agreement. Let’s also grant that a major task of a government is to protect the rights of its citizens. The next question concerns how intrusive a government can be in its efforts to keep citizens in line. Consider the behavior of a guy named Crazy John. All day long he walks around wearing only a jock strap, smoking marijuana, and screaming out “Jesus is Satan!” He urinates openly in public parks, eats out of dumpsters, and gives people the middle finger if they make eye contact with him. Can the government restrict Crazy John’s behavior in any way it wants, or are there moral limits to how coercive it can be with him? There are four common justifications for governmental coercion that we will consider—some, perhaps, more compelling than others.

            The first and most important of these is the harm principle: governments may restrict our conduct when it harms other people. Actions like assault, rape and murder clearly qualify as harmful acts that the government can prohibit. Harm to property would also count. In any of these cases, the type of injury must be serious, and not trivial. If I accidentally bump your shoulder in a crowded street or spill my soda on your car, these are inconsequential actions that don’t rise to the level of a serious injury. When we consider Crazy John’s behavior, nothing he does counts as a harm that the government might restrict. Second is the offense principle: governments may keep us from offending others. It is here where Crazy John is at his best: his lack of clothing, incessant screaming, public and obscene gestures are all offensive. But not every offensive action should be legally prohibited, and the ones that should are those that spectators can’t easily avoid and ignite feelings of outrage. Mere nuisances don’t qualify. In John’s case, perhaps only his public urination counts as truly offensive. His other conduct is either merely annoying, or can be avoided by looking away from him.

            Next is the legal paternalism principle: governments should prevent people from harming themselves. The term “paternalism” comes from the Latin pater, for “father”, and implies that governments are like our parents insofar as they protect us from dangerous things that we might do to ourselves. The government makes us wear seatbelts, follow strict building codes for our homes, and take countless other precautions for our own protection. In John’s case, his eating out of the dumpster and perhaps his smoking marijuana are the actions that might cause harm to himself. Finally, there is the legal moralism principle: governments may restrict conduct that is especially sinful or immoral, such as religious blasphemy and some sex acts. Crazy John might qualify for this when shouting “Jesus is Satan!”

            Societies today typically outlaw behavior on the basis of each of the above four principles. But are all of these principles equally valid? British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) thought not, and argued that individual liberty should only be restricted when our actions harm others, but not when they simply harm ourselves, or are deemed offensive or immoral. Mill writes,


the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. [On Liberty, 1]


Mill would probably say that the government is not justified in restricting any of Crazy John’s behavior since he’s not harming anyone. We can criticize him and try reasoning with him, but we can’t force him to change his conduct. Mill justifies his broad conception of liberty on utilitarian grounds: society as a whole is happiest when we have a wide sphere of personal liberty that enables us to experiment with different lifestyles, some of which might suit us better than others. It is for me to determine which lifestyle makes me the happiest, not the government.



So far we have considered a range of theories relating to the metaphysics of morality, moral psychology, moral principles, and the moral foundations of government. Some of these theories are compatible with each other, others are at odds with each other, but all of them are relevant to ongoing debates about moral controversies such as abortion, euthanasia, sexual activity, recreational drugs, capital punishment, environmental responsibility, and so on. When debating these issues, we are not likely to resolve them by appealing to a single moral theory, such as arguing that abortion is permissible since it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Complex moral controversies often require arguments that draw on many aspects of moral theory. Even if we’re not familiar with the names of Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant or Mill, we often employ the moral notions that they developed. To conclude this chapter, it will be helpful to list moral principles that are frequently used when debating moral controversies, which connect directly with the moral theories that we’ve examined so far. All of these principles are worded below in a diluted way, suggesting that each may be one of many relevant factors in a moral debate, but not necessarily the decisive principle. They are presented in the order that they first appeared in this chapter.


·       Objectivism principle: some moral values might be universal and unchanging.

·       Relativism principle: some moral values might be relative and created by human society.

·       Natural law principle: some moral values might reflect the underlying purpose of our natural inclinations.

·       Selfishness principle: while people might occasionally act selflessly, it may be best to assume that all human actions are selfishly motivated.

·       Gender principle: men might be more inclined to devise moral rules, and women more inclined to morally care.

·       Reason principle: the best moral discussions include factual statements that we can rationally assess, and do not reduce to mere expressions of feelings.

·       Virtue principle: we should develop morally good habits since this will predispose us to morally right conduct.

·       Dignity principle: people should be treated with dignity, and not be treated as mere instruments.

·       Prima facie principle: stronger moral obligations may sometimes override weaker moral obligations.

·       Egoism principle: we should value actions that produce beneficial consequences for the individual performing the action.

·       Altruism principle: we should value actions that produce beneficial consequences for others, irrespective of ourselves.

·       Utilitarian principle: we should value actions that produce beneficial consequences for society as a whole.

·       Social contract principle: governmental authority rests on a contract among citizens.

·       Libertarian principle: the primary role of governments is to keep the peace.

·       Welfare liberalism principle: governments should address issues of unfairness and social inequality.

·       Rights principle: we should value a person’s fundamental natural/human rights.

·       Harm principle: governments may sometimes restrict us from conduct that harms others.

·       Offence principle: governments may sometimes restrict us from conduct that offends others.

·       Legal Paternalism principle: governments may sometimes restrict you from conduct that harms yourself.

·       Legal moralism principle: governments may sometimes restrict us from conduct that is especially immoral.

·       Liberty principle: we should value a person’s freedom over his/her actions or physical body.


At the outset of this Chapter we looked at the story of Baby Doe, and whether the parents made the correct decision when denying corrective surgery for the infant. Drawing on the above list of general moral principles, we can now see what the main ones are that underlie the Baby Doe debate. Arguments in favor of corrective surgery derive from the infant’s right to life (rights principle), its inherent dignity (dignity principle), the government’s role in protecting against unfairness (welfare liberalism principle), and the role of the government in preventing harm to others (harm principle). Arguments against corrective surgery derive from the personal and social disadvantage that would result (egoism and utilitarian principles). While there are legitimate moral concerns on both sides of the issue, one set of concerns ultimately outweighs the other (prima facie principle), and it is perhaps this last principle that is the most important one of all. A moral controversy is not resolved by merely recognizing that one side of a moral debate can be backed by moral principles such as the ones above. It’s very likely that the other side can also be backed by a different set of moral principles. The critical is which side has the  weightier considerations.

            When proposing the notion of prima facie duties, Ross argued that there is no purely mechanical procedure for determining which of our competing moral principles wins in the end, and we must rely on rational intuition to guide that decision. Aristotle made a similar point about our efforts to find the virtuous mean between extreme vices: reason will guide us, not some formula. Thus, resolving moral controversies such as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment is no easy task, but our chances of doing so are much better if we understand the underlying moral principles on both sides of the debate.







Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill


Below are short selections from classic works on ethical theory by Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which discuss the fundamental standards of morality that should guide our moral conduct.




The most influential book on virtue theory is Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (384-322 BCE), named after his son Nicomachus who may have assembled the text from Aristotle’s lecture notes. The core of Aristotle’s account of moral virtue is his doctrine of the mean: moral virtues are emotion-regulating character traits that are at a mean between more extreme character traits, that is, vices. In the selection below from this work, he discusses the doctrine of the mean with twelve specific virtues.


2.6 . . . Moral virtue is concerned with emotions and actions, and it is these which admit of excess and deficiency and the mean. Thus it is possible to go too far, or not to go far enough, in respect of fear, courage, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, and the excess and the deficiency are alike wrong; but to experience these emotions at the right times and on the right occasions and towards the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner is the mean or the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue. Similarly there may be excess, deficiency, or the mean, in regard to actions. But virtue is concerned with emotions and actions, and here excess is an error and deficiency a fault, whereas the mean is successful and praiseworthy, and success and merit are both characteristics of virtue. It appears then that virtue is a mean state, so far at least as it aims at the mean. . . .

            2.7. But it is not enough to lay down this as a general rule; it is necessary to apply it to particular cases, as in reasonings upon actions general statements, although they are broader, are less exact than particular statements. For all action refers to particulars, and it is essential that our theories should harmonize with the particular cases to which they apply. We must take particular virtues then from the catalogue of [twelve specific] virtues.

            (1) In regard to feelings of fear and confidence courage is a mean state. On the side of excess, he whose fearlessness is excessive has no name, as often happens, but he whose confidence is excessive is rash, while he whose timidity is excessive and whose confidence is deficient is a coward.

            (2) In respect of pleasures and pains (although not indeed of all pleasures and pains, and to a less extent in respect of pains than of pleasures) the mean state is temperance, the excess is overindulgence. We never find people who are deficient in regard to pleasures; accordingly such people again have not received a name, but we may call them insensible.

            (3) As regards the giving and taking of money, the mean state is liberality, the excess and deficiency are prodigality and illiberality. Here the excess and deficiency take opposite forms; for while the prodigal person is excessive in spending and deficient in taking, the illiberal person is excessive in taking and deficient in spending.

            (4) In respect of money there are other dispositions as well. There is the mean state which is magnificence; for the magnificent person, as having to do with large sums of money, differs from the liberal person who has to do only with small sums; and the excess corresponding to it is bad taste or vulgarity, the deficiency is meanness. These are different from the excess and deficiency of liberality; what the difference is will be explained hereafter.

            (5) In respect of honor and dishonor the mean state is high-mindedness, the excess is what is called vanity, the deficiency little-mindedness.

            (6) Corresponding to liberality, which, as we said, differs from magnificence as having to do not with great but with small sums of money, there is a moral state which has to do with petty honor and is related to high-mindedness which has to do with great honor; for it is possible to aspire to honor in the right way, or in a way which is excessive or insufficient, and if a person’s aspirations are excessive, he is called ambitious, if they are deficient, he is called unambitious, while if they are between the two, he has no name. The dispositions too are nameless, except that the disposition of the ambitious person is called ambition. The consequence is that the extremes lay claim to the mean or intermediate place. We ourselves speak of one who observes the mean sometimes as ambitious, and at other times as unambitious; we sometimes praise an ambitious, and at other times an unambitious person. The reason for our doing so will be stated in due course, but let us now discuss the other virtues in accordance with the method which we have followed hitherto.

            (7) Anger, like other emotions, has its excess, its deficiency, and its mean state. It may be said that they have no names, but as we call one who observes the mean gentle, we will call the mean state gentleness. Among the extremes, if a person errs on the side of excess, he may be called passionate and his vice passionateness, if on that of deficiency, he may be called impassive and his deficiency impassivity. . . .

            (8) In the matter of truth-telling, then, he who observes the mean may be called truthful, and the mean state truthfulness. Pretence, if it takes the form of exaggeration, is boastfulness, and one who is guilty of pretence is a boaster; but if it takes the form of depreciation it is irony, and he who is guilty of it is ironical.

            (9) As regards pleasantness in amusement, he who observes the mean is witty, and his disposition wittiness; the excess is buffoonery, and he who is guilty of it a buffoon, whereas he who is deficient in wit may be called a boor and his moral state boorishness.

            (10) As to the other kind of pleasantness, namely, pleasantness in life, he who is pleasant in a proper way is friendly, and his mean state friendliness. But he who goes too far, if he has no hidden motive in view, is obsequious, while if his object is self-interest, he is a flatterer, and he who does not go far enough and always makes himself unpleasant is a quarrelsome and morose sort of person.

            (11) There are also mean states in the emotions and in the expression of the emotions. For although modesty is not a virtue, yet a modest person is praised as if he were virtuous. For here too one person is said to observe the mean and another to exceed it, as for example, the bashful person who is never anything but modest, whereas a person who has insufficient modesty or no modesty at all is called shameless, and one who observes the mean modest.

            (12) Righteous indignation, again, is a mean state between envy and malice. They are all concerned with the pain and pleasure which we feel at the fortunes of our neighbors. A person who is righteously indignant is pained at the prosperity of the undeserving; but the envious person goes further and is pained at anybody’s prosperity, and the malicious person is so far from being pained that he actually rejoices at misfortunes. …


Source: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by J.E.C. Welldon, Book 2.




The most influential work in deontological ethics in recent centuries is The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The selection below discusses the Categorical Imperative formula of the end itself: we should treat people as ends in themselves, and never merely as a means to an end. Kant illustrates this principle with four examples that cover the range of morally significant situations that arise. These include committing suicide, making false promises, failing to develop one’s abilities, and refusing to be charitable. In each case performing the action would involve treating a person as a means, and not an end.


Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end. All objects of the inclinations have only a conditional worth, for if the inclinations and the wants founded on them did not exist, then their object would be without value. But the inclinations, themselves being sources of want, are so far from having an absolute worth for which they should be desired that on the contrary it must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free from them. Thus the worth of any object which is to be acquired by our action is always conditional. Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature’s, have nevertheless, if they are irrational beings, only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things. Rational beings, on the contrary, are called persons, because their very nature points them out as ends in themselves, that is as something which must not be used merely as means, and so far therefore restricts freedom of action (and is an object of respect). These, therefore, are not merely subjective ends whose existence has a worth for us as an effect of our action, but objective ends, that is, things whose existence is an end in itself. Moreover, it is an end for which no other can be substituted, which they should serve merely as means, for otherwise nothing whatever would possess absolute worth; but if all worth were conditioned and therefore contingent, then there would be no supreme practical principle of reason whatever.

            If then there is a supreme practical principle or, in respect of the human will, a categorical imperative, it must be one which, being drawn from the conception of that which is necessarily an end for everyone because it is an end in itself, constitutes an objective principle of will, and can therefore serve as a universal practical law. The foundation of this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being so; so far then this is a subjective principle of human actions.

            But every other rational being regards its existence similarly, just on the same rational principle that holds for me: so that it is at the same time an objective principle, from which as a supreme practical law all laws of the will must be capable of being deduced. Accordingly the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end and never as merely a means.

To follow the previous examples:

            First, under the heading of necessary duty to oneself: He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a means to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my own person so as to mutilate him, to damage or kill him. (It belongs to ethics proper to define this principle more precisely, so as to avoid all misunderstanding, for example, as to the amputation of the limbs in order to preserve myself, as to exposing my life to danger with a view to preserve it, etc. This question is therefore omitted here.)

            Second, as regards necessary duties, or those of strict obligation, towards others: He who is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another man merely as a means, without the latter containing at the same time the end in himself. For he whom I propose by such a promise to use for my own purposes cannot possibly assent to my mode of acting towards him and, therefore, cannot himself contain the end of this action. This violation of the principle of humanity in other men is more obvious if we take in examples of attacks on the freedom and property of others. For then it is clear that he who transgresses the rights of men intends to use the person of others merely as a means, without considering that as rational beings they ought always to be esteemed also as ends, that is, as beings who must be capable of containing in themselves the end of the very same action.

            Third, as regards contingent (meritorious) duties to oneself: It is not enough that the action does not violate humanity in our own person as an end in itself, it must also harmonize with it. Now there are in humanity capacities of greater perfection, which belong to the end that nature has in view in regard to humanity in ourselves as the subject: to neglect these might perhaps be consistent with the maintenance of humanity as an end in itself, but not with the advancement of this end.

            Fourth, as regards meritorious duties towards others: The natural end which all men have is their own happiness. Now humanity might indeed subsist, although no one should contribute anything to the happiness of others, provided he did not intentionally withdraw anything from it. But after all this would only harmonize negatively not positively with humanity as an end in itself, if everyone does not also endeavor, as far as in him lies, to forward the ends of others. For the ends of any subject which is an end in himself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if that conception is to have its full effect with me.


Source: Immanuel Kant, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Section 2, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.




In his book, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) proposed what is popularly known as the utilitarian calculus. When determining whether any given action is right or wrong, we must calculate the total pleasure and pain produced by the action. In conducting the utilitarian calculus, we weigh seven specific factors: (1) intensity of the pleasures and pains, (2) duration of the pleasures and pains, (3) certainty of the pleasures and pains, (4) remoteness, that is, how immediately the pleasures and pains will arise, (5) fecundity, that is, whether similar pleasures or pains will follow, (6) purity, that is, whether the pleasure is mixed with pain, (7) extent, that is, whether other pleasures and pains are experienced by other people.


            4.1. Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends which the legislator has in view: it behooves him therefore to understand their value. Pleasures and pains are the instruments he has to work with: it behooves him therefore to understand their force, which is again, in other words, their value.

            4.2. To a person considered by himself, the value of a pleasure or pain considered by itself, will be greater or less, according to the four following circumstances:


(1) Its intensity.

(2) Its duration.

(3) Its certainty or uncertainty.

(4) Its propinquity or remoteness.


            4.3. These are the circumstances which are to be considered in estimating a pleasure or a pain considered each of the m by itself. But when the value of any pleasure or pain is considered for the purpose of estimating the tendency of any act by which it is produced, there are two other circumstances to be taken into the account; these are,


(5) Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by, sensations of the same kind: that is, pleasures, if it be a pleasure: pains, if it be a pain.

(6) Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by, sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be a pleasure: pleasures, if it be a pain.


            These two last, however, are in strictness scarcely to be deemed properties of the pleasure or the pain itself; they are not, therefore, in strictness to be taken into the account of the value of that pleasure or that pain. They are in strictness to be deemed properties only of the act, or other event, by which such pleasure or pain has been produced; and accordingly are only to be taken into the account of the tendency of such act or such event.

            4.4. To a number of persons, with reference to each of whom the value of a pleasure or a pain is considered, it will be greater or less, according to seven circumstances: to wit, the six preceding ones; viz.


(1) Its intensity.

(2) Its duration.

(3) Its certainty or uncertainty.

(4) Its propinquity or remoteness.

(5) Its fecundity.

(6) Its purity.


And one other; to wit:


(7) Its extent; that is, the number of persons to whom it extends; or (in other words) who are affected by it.


            4.5. To take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act, by which the interests of a community are affected, proceed as follows. Begin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by it: and take an account,

            1. Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.

            2. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.

            3. Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain.

            4. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the first pleasure.

            5. Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.

            6. Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of the degrees of good tendency, which the act has, with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community.

            4.6. It is not to be expected that this process should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgment, or to every legislative or judicial operation. It may, however, be always kept in view: and as near as the process actually pursued on these occasions approaches to it, so near will such process approach to the character of an exact one.

            4.7. The same process is alike applicable to pleasure and pain, in whatever shape they appear: and by whatever denomination they are distinguished: to pleasure, whether it be called good (which is properly the cause or instrument of pleasure) or profit (which is distant pleasure, or the cause or instrument o distant pleasure,) or convenience, or advantage, benefit, emolument, happiness, and so forth: to pain, whether it be called evil, (which corresponds to good) or mischief, or inconvenience, or disadvantage, or loss, or unhappiness, and so forth.

            4.8. Nor is this a novel and unwarranted, any more than it is a useless theory. In all this there is nothing but what the practice of humankind, wheresoever they have a clear view of their own interest, is perfectly conformable to. An article of property, an estate in land, for instance, is valuable, on what account? On account of the pleasures of all kinds which it enables a man to produce, and what comes to the same thing the pains of all kinds which it enables him to avert. But the value of such an article of property is universally understood to rise or fall according to the length or shortness of the time which a man has in it: the certainty or uncertainty of its coming into possession: and the nearness or remoteness of the time at which, if at all, it is to come into possession. As to the intensity of the pleasures which a man may derive from it, this is never thought of, because it depends upon the use which each particular person may come to make of it; which cannot be estimated till the particular pleasures he may come to derive from it, or the particular pains he may come to exclude by means of it, are brought to view. For the same reason, neither does he think of the fecundity or purity of those pleasures.


Source: Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Chapter 4. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.




One of the most famous defenses of the utilitarian moral theory was given by British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), a student of Jeremy Bentham. In the selection below from his book Utilitarianism (1861), Mill gives a precise formulation of the utilitarian principle of morality: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” He then explains that “happiness” means pleasure, and this includes both intellectual and physical pleasures. But the intellectual ones, he argues, are qualitatively better than the physical ones, and we should prefer them because of our natural sense of human dignity. Utilitarianism has been criticized on the grounds that it requires us to cumbersomely evaluate the pleasure and pain resulting from each of our actions. In response, Mill argues that we should not inspect each of our actions for their utility; instead, we should follow general (or “secondary”) moral principles such as “don’t steal” which we already know will maximize general happiness when followed as a rule. We should only assess the utility of specific actions when we’re caught between two conflicting secondary moral principles.


The creed which accepts, as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded—namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

            Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds (and among them in some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose) inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened. And modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.

            When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light, since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for, if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites; and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. . . . It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that (while in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity) the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

            If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity, as to render it, in comparison, of small account.

            Again: defenders of Utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this—that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time; namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions, on which experience all the prudence as well as all the morality of life are dependent. People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human happiness. . . . Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by; the impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular; but gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had, and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life, is as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy. We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved; and if only one, there can seldom be any real doubt which one it is, in the mind of any person by whom the principle itself is recognized.


Source: John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861), Chapter 2. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.







Hobbes, Locke, Mill, United Nations


Below are short selections from classic works on political philosophy by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and the United Nations, which discuss the moral foundation of governmental authority and the limits of governmental coercion.




In his book The Leviathan (1651), British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) presents the first systematic version of social contract theory, the view that, to preserve our lives, we mutually agree to set aside our hostilities and live in peace, and create a government to punish offenders. In the selections below, Hobbes argues that the natural condition of humans is a state of perpetual war of all against all, in which no morality exists and everyone lives in constant fear. To end this state of war, we agree to several fundamental laws of nature. The first is we should seek peace, and, if we cannot attain peace, then defend ourselves in any way that we can. The second is that we should agree to mutually divest ourselves of certain rights so that we can achieve peace more easily. For example, I agree to give up my right to steal from you, if you give up your right to steal from me. This mutual transferring of rights is a contract. To assure that we keep our agreements, we establish a political sovereign who will punish us if we attack others.


Hereby it is manifest, that during the time [when] men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but [also] in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lies not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together; so the nature of war consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

            Whatever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. . . .

            To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the [instinctive] faculties, neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in; though with a possibility to come out of it consisting partly in the passions [and] partly in his reason.

            The passions that incline men to peace are fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggests convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called the laws of nature, whereof I shall speak more particularly in the two following Chapters. . . .

            And because the condition of man (as has been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of everyone against everyone, in which case everyone is governed by his own reason (and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help to him in preserving his life against his enemies), it follows that in such a condition, every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to everything endures, there can be no security to any man (how strong or wise soever he be) of living out the time which nature ordinarily allows men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason, That every man ought to endeavor peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war; the first branch of which rule contains the first and fundamental Law of Nature, which is, To seek peace and follow it; the second, the sum of the right of nature, which is, By all means we can, to defend ourselves.  

            From this fundamental Law of Nature, by which men are commanded to endeavor peace, is derived this second Law, That a man be willing, when others are so too (as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary), to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. For so long as every man holds this right of doing anything he likes, [then] so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his. For that were to expose himself to prey (which no man is bound to) rather than to dispose himself to peace. This is that law or the gospel: Whatever you require that others should do to you, that do you to them. And that law of all men: Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.

            To lay down a man’s right to anything, is to divest himself of the liberty of hindering another of the benefit of his own right to the same. . . .

            The final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants, and observation of those laws of nature ([which I have] set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters).

            For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.


Source: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Chapters 13-14. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.




John Locke (1632-1704) was one of Britain’s most influential philosophers during the 18th century, and his Two Treatises on Government (1690) develops a notion of natural rights that has impacted political institutions throughout the world. Below are some of the most famous sections of that work. Locke argues here that in the state of nature God created people free and equal, and the fundamental law of nature is that no one should harm another person’s life, health, liberty or possessions. To reduce conflicts and rights violations within the state of nature, we make contracts with each other, thereby creating a civil society; but in exchange for this we give up some of our liberty. Governments, however, do not have absolute authority over us and we may dissolve them through revolution, if necessary, when, through their ineffectiveness, they violate laws and threaten the life, liberty and property of the citizens.


            4. To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

            A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. . . .

            6. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Everyone, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another. . . .

            95. Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest. . . .

            222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God has provided for all men, against force and violence. Whenever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.


Source: John Locke, Two Treatises of Civil Government, Treatise 2, sections 4, 6, 95, 222. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.




British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was the author of Utilitarianism (1763), excerpted earlier in this Chapter. In his book On Liberty (1859) he expresses one of the boldest defenses of personal freedom: governments cannot restrict our actions except to prevent harm to others. Coercion is not justified when it aims to prevent harm to oneself, to prevent offense to others, or to morally better us. As a utilitarian, Mill aims that the justification for his view of liberty is general utility—the greatest good for the greatest number—and not any abstract notion of rights. The selection below is the most famous portion of that work, taken from the opening chapter.


Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant -- society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it -- its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

            ... The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. ...

            It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. ...

            ...This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

            No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest. ...


Source: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), Chapter 1.




One of the most important political documents in recent decades is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. Many elements of the Universal Declaration draw on familiar classic concepts, such as its acknowledgment of the general rights to “life, liberty and the security of person.” It goes further, though, by listing dozens of very specific rights, such as to marry, to divorce, to participate in “genuine elections,” to paid holidays, to health care, and to free education. Although few if any countries today adequately endorse all of these rights, the Universal Declaration sees these as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” The main portion of the Universal Declaration appears in the selection below.


            Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

            Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

            Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

            Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.

            Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

            Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

            Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

            Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

            Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

            Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

            Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair, and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

            Article 11. 1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense. 2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

            Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

            Article 13. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. 2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

            Article 14. 1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. 2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

            Article 15. 1. Everyone has the right to a nationality. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

            Article 16. 1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. 2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. 3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

            Article 17. 1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

            Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

            Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

            Article 20. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. 2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

            Article 21. 1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. 2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. 3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

            Article 22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

            Article 23. 1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. 2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. 3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. 4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

            Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

            Article 25. 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

            Article 26. 1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

            Article 27. 1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. 2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.


Source: General Assembly of the United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).



Please answer all of the following questions for review.


[Overview of Ethical theory]

1. Define moral relativism, individual relativism, and cultural relativism.

2. Define divine command theory and natural law theory.

3. Define psychological egoism and psychological altruism.

4. What is Hobbes’s explanation of the selfish motivations behind pity and charity?

5. Explain Ayer’s view that moral utterances are only expressions of feelings.

6. According to feminists, what is the key distinctive feature of male-oriented theories of morality?

7. What is "virtue theory"?

8. Explain Aristotle’s view of the virtue and vices that are related to our natural inclination to get angry.

 9. What is Kant's categorical imperative, and how does it show that it is wrong to steal?

10. Define "consequentialism," "ethical egoism," "ethical altruism," and "utilitarianism."

11. Explain the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism.

12. Describe Hobbes’s state of nature and social contract.

13. Describe Locke’s account of natural rights and how it may justify revolution.

14. Explain the four grounds of governmental coercion.

15. What is Mill’s view of liberty, and what is his “happy society” argument?


[Classic Perspectives on Moral Principles]

16. According to Aristotle’s account of the virtue of temperance, what is the emotion to be regulated, and what are the two vices associated with temperance?

17. According to Kant’s categorical imperative (specifically, the formula of the end itself), why is suicide wrong?

18. What does Bentham mean by “fecundity” and “purity” in his utilitarian calculus?

19. What is Mill’s test for determining the qualitative difference between a higher and a lower pleasure?

20. According to Mill, what are the only circumstances under which we should directly evaluate the morality of an action using the principle of utility?


[Classic Perspectives on the Moral Foundations of Government]

21. According to Hobbes, in the state of nature “nothing can be unjust.” What reason does he give for this?

22. According to Locke, why do we agree to “put on the bonds of civil society”, that is, create a government?

23. What does Mill mean by “tyranny of the majority”?

24. According to Mill, what are the three components of human liberty?

25. List five human rights that appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



Please select only one question for analysis from those below and answer it.


[Overview of Ethical theory]

1. Try to defend the theory of moral objectivism, without relying on a spiritual realm of the forms or the will of God.

2. Evolutionary biologists typically think that genuine altruism to others would not be conducive to an organism’s survival. Defend the notion of altruism against this criticism.

3. Think of a solution to the controversy between reason and emotion that incorporates both sides.

4. Critics of feminist ethics argue that morality is gender neutral, and thus there is no special kind of morality that is specifically female in its orientation. Defend feminist ethics against this charge.

5. Duty theorists and utilitarians typically argue that morality is based upon a set of rules that we should follow, such as the categorical imperative or the principle of utility. Many virtue theorists, though, argue that morality is not based on rules, but instead upon virtuous character traits that we develop and incorporate into habitual ways of acting. Which of these two approaches seems most right to you (i.e., rule-based or virtue-based), and explain why.

6. Defend the principle of legal paternalism against Mill’s view of liberty.


[Classic Perspectives on Moral Principles]

7. Think of a virtue that Aristotle did not mention, and analyze it according to the doctrine of the mean (list the emotion, the virtuous mean, the vice of deficiency, and the vice of excess).

8. Think of your own example of an immoral action and explain why, according to Kant’s categorical imperative (specifically the formula of the end itself) that the action is wrong.

9. Use Bentham’s utilitarian calculus to explain why it would be wrong for you to steal a can of soda from a convenient store.

10. Mill makes a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Think of an example of each and explain why, according to Mill, the higher pleasure is more valuable than the lower one.


[Classic Perspectives on the Moral Foundations of Government]

11. Criticize Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature.

12. Locke argues that when we form political societies for the benefit of protection, we must give up some of our liberty. List the kinds of freedoms that you think we might give up.

13. Criticize Locke’s defense of political revolution.

14. Contrary to Mill’s principle of liberty, are there any actions that are so offensive that they should be suppressed, even though they don’t technically harm anyone?

15. Are there any rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that you think aren’t truly universal and thus don’t belong on the list? Explain.