James Fieser

1. Protagoras and Plato: Moral Skepticism vs. Moral Realism
2. Aristotleís Virtue Theory
3. Natural Law: Aquinasís Intellectualism vs. Ockhamís Voluntarism
4. Hobbesís Social Contract Theory
5. Pufendorf and Locke: Duties and Rights
6. Clarke and Hume: Moral Reason vs. Moral Feeling
7. Kantís Categorical Imperative
8. Mill and the Utilitarian Tradition
9. Spencer and Moore: Evolutionary Ethics and the Naturalistic Fallacy
10. Emotivism and Prescriptivism
11. Baierís Best Reasons Ethics and Applied Ethics
12. Moral Personhood
13. Conclusion

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The subject of moral philosophy involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. The subject is filled with paradoxes. On the one hand, it is among the most interesting areas of inquiry, touching on controversial issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and homosexuality. On the other hand, many of the conceptual distinctions drawn in ethical theories are so tedious that studying them is a chore. Moral philosophy also seems to be one of the more important subjects that we can investigate since the survival of society depends on our ability to recognize each otherís moral boundaries. On the other hand, moral behavior becomes second nature to us by the time weíre adults, and it doesnít matter much whether we study ethical theories or not. The die has already been cast, our moral attitudes are fixed, and reading detailed theories about morality will probably not change the moral views weíve already acquired. So, we might be inclined to just set aside a formal study of ethics and rely on our gut feelings.

But, then, situations arise that challenge our moral conceptions and force us to carefully think through the issues. I might consider removing life support from a terminally ill relative. I might look at the hamburger on my plate and wonder what the difference is between eating the hamburger and eating the family pet. When reflecting on these situations, I am only one or two follow up questions away from needing moral theories. Is it morally relevant whether caring for a sick relative is a hardship on the family? What features must a living organism possess to have a right to life? To what extent are my moral beliefs about eating cows a matter of cultural upbringing? Life doesnít require us to ask and answer these more philosophical ethical questions, but we often canít help it. We are sometimes curious, or intellectually restless, or simply dissatisfied with stock explanations that people give us for why we must behave in specific ways. So, we think more philosophically about moral issues and we find insight in classic philosophical writings on the subject. As far back in civilization as we find writing, we also find people struggling with ethical questions. At one point in Western civilization -- about 600 BCE -- philosophers began offering theories that clarified the source and content of our moral obligations. This book traces some of the major themes that have emerged in the history of Western moral philosophy, from the earliest days to the present.

General books in ethics are either structured topically, focusing on major themes and issues, or they are structured historically, presenting a chronological sequence of theories by the great moral philosophers of the past. In the last 100 years, though, most have been topical. There are a few reasons for the scarcity of historical approaches. First, historical approaches are challenging to write since an author must research and accurately interpret a wide range of historical texts. What an author writes about Aristotle and Kant, for example, must pass the inspection of scholars who specialize in Aristotle and Kant. With topical approaches, by contrast, there is more leeway in presenting, for example, a revised Aristotelian virtue theory, or a Kantian inspired duty theory. Second, historical approaches are often more tedious to read since they involve fine points of textual analysis and specialized definitions. In topical approaches, much of the picky details of a philosopherís theory can be set aside. Third, because historical discussions devote so much space to explaining the details of classic texts, historical discussions frequently have less lasting impact on oneís larger understanding of moral philosophy.

Nevertheless, there are several drawbacks to the alternative topically arranged ethics texts. First, by de-emphasizing textual analysis, topically arranged ethics books often present theories that no philosopher actually ever proposed, such as standard accounts of moral relativism, psychological egoism and moral skepticism. Second, throughout topically arranged texts, authors invariably refer to historical periods in which specific philosophers wrote. Although it is clear the historical sequence of ideas is important, it is difficult to reconstruct that sequence from the topical information presented. Finally, topical discussions are themselves historically formed and reflect the dominant ethical theories during a given time slice. For example, if we compared John Bruceís Elements of the Science of Ethics (1786) with James Rachelís Elements of Moral Philosophy (1986), we might see them as being about almost completely different subjects. Although there are also differences between older and more recent historical surveys of ethics, we can recognize more points of agreement since they at least discuss many of the same classic authors.

This book takes a middle ground between the historical and topical approaches. Although historically sequenced, each chapter covers a specific topic in ethics, such as virtue theory or social contract theory, which dominated ethical discussions at a specific point in history. Although the book includes textual analysis of classic writings, it also places emphasis on the themes in those writings that we find most interesting today. Much of this book includes criticisms of the classic theories. In keeping with an historical orientation, many of the criticisms are those offered by contemporaries of the original theorists. In keeping with a topical slant, current criticisms and revisions are also included in the chapters.

The chapters in this book are conceptually self-contained, which allows them to be read in any order. To achieve the full benefit of their historical sequence, though, they should be read in the order presented. When possible, the sections and subsections of the chapters are also unified discussions. So, a reader who skips some sections will not necessarily be at a loss to understand the remaining sections.



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In the early 20th century journalist Robert L. Ripley traveled around the world gathering stories of strange rituals, which he published in his popular column "Believe it or Not." Our fascination with bizarre practices of other cultures is no less prominent today. Some foreign practices amuse us, such as that of Japanese men who tattoo their entire bodies. Others make us squeamish, such as the Latin American culinary practices of eating handfuls of live bugs in tortillas. However, other foreign cultural practices make us morally indignant. One such practice is female genital mutilation, which is common in east African countries and parts of the Near East. This practice involves removing portions of a young girl's genitals, including here clitoris and labia. Social scientists estimate that over 100 million women alive today have had this operation performed. An article published by UNICEF describes the situation for one six-year-old girl and her sympathetic aunt:


The lights are dim and the voices quiet. Tension fills the room where Nafisa, a six-year-old Sudanese girl lies on a bed in the corner. Her aunt, 25-year-old Zeinab, watches protectively as her niece undergoes the procedure now known as female genital mutilation (FGM), formerly called female circumcision. In this procedure, performed without anaesthesia, a girl's external sexual organs are partially or totally cut away. Zeinab does not approve. For the past year she has been trying to persuade her mother and sister to spare Nafisa from the procedure. She lost the battle with her family, but she will stay at her niece's side. She watches Nafisa lying quietly, brave and confused, and remembers her own experience. Zeinab underwent the procedure twice. At six years old she had the more moderate form of FGM, called Sunni, in which the covering of the clitoris is removed. When she was 15 the older women of her family insisted she have the Pharaonic form, which involves removal of the entire clitoris and the labia and stitching together of the vulva, leaving just a small hole for elimination of urine and menstrual blood. Zeinab still remembers the pain, the face of the women performing the procedure, the sound of her flesh being cut. She also remembers bleeding and being sick for weeks.


More extreme cases of female genital mutilation involve sewing closed the vagina, leaving only a small opening for passing urine and blood. The purpose of this procedure is to reduce sexual drive and thus assure a woman's virginity prior to marriage and her fidelity after marriage. The procedure is performed as a rite of passage, sometimes involuntarily, in unsterile conditions and without the aid of painkillers and antibiotics. Most significantly, older women of the community perform the procedure, who themselves underwent it in their youth. Although this practice is cultural rather than religions, it predominates in Muslim countries.

Another shocking practice is that of female infanticide which involves systematically killing female infants through neglect, poisoning or other means. In many countries such as India female children are valued less than male children, and female infanticide is common because of the great expenses involved in arranging a daughterís marriage. In some cases debts from a young womanís marriage dowry would be passed from generation to generation until finally paid in full by the womanís grandchildren. For this reason, the birth of a son is cause for celebration, and that of a daughter is cause for sorrow. The widespread nature of female infanticide in India was first noted in the early 19th century when population surveys showed that some tribes had four times as many infant boys than girls within a given age range. Although the Indian government outlawed the practice and Hindu religious officials condemned it, the practice continues even today. A related practice involves selectively aborting female fetuses after prenatal gender tests. Indian population surveys show that for every 1000 males that are born, only 922 females are born. Over 80% of abortions in Bombay involved females.

In the United States, we find the practices of female genital mutilation and female infanticide grossly immoral. They are not only illegal, but there is widespread public outcry against other cultures that endorse them. However, while we attack the practice of female genital mutilation, for example, east African defenders of this practice charge that American culture has degenerated to the point that promiscuity, infidelity, and childbirth outside of marriage are acceptable behaviors. By guarding against such sexual misconduct, their culture, so they claim, is on morally higher ground. From a philosophical perspective, these foreign practices directly challenge our traditionally held moral views and they make us wonder whether their morality/immorality reduces to mere social convention.


Moral Skepticism and Moral Realism. For centuries, moral philosophers have reflected on the philosophical problems raised by clashing social values. The principal question raised is whether moral values exist independently of human social creations. Moral skepticism is the view that moral principles have no objective foundation independent of human society. Instead, the moral grounding of a particular cultural practice rests within that culture itself. Societies create their own traditions, pass them along from one generation to another, and continually reinforce them through rewards and punishments. It makes no sense to look for a foundation of morality outside oneís societal context. This is so for the east African practice of female genital mutilation as well as the American condemnation of this practice.

By contrast, moral realism is the position that moral principles have an objective or real foundation, and are not subjectively based on human convention and traditions advocated by a particular culture. Moral realists distinguish between de facto values and ideal morality. De facto values concern the way people in fact behave, and the values that are actually in place in a given culture. Ideal morality, on the other hand, concerns the way people should behave, irrespective of their actual behavior. For moral realists, genuine morality is a question of ideal morality. For example, even if female genital mutilation was unanimously endorsed by a given culture for hundreds of years, the question still remains as to whether this de facto value is a proper one. The same can also be said of even the most basic values in our own society, such as prohibitions against lying, stealing and murder. Appealing to social norms is no indicator of whether a practice is in fact moral or immoral.

The debate between moral skepticism and moral realism is one of the first discussions in Western moral philosophy. Originating in ancient Greece, Protagoras advanced the skeptical view, and Plato defended the realist view.


PROTAGORAS AND MORAL SKEPTICISM. A special need for education arose throughout the Greek city-states in the 5th century BCE. More government administrators were needed and, to fill the void, aristocratic parents hired freelance philosophers to educate their sons for this task. Although not members of any particular philosophical school of thought, these teachers were collectively known as Sophists, a term which means "one who professes to make people wise." Although many Sophists claimed the ability to teach any subject, their specialization was rhetorical skills, particularly the kind of arguing and persuasive speaking techniques needed in public debates. Unlike previous philosophers, they charged a fee for their services and wandered around the Greek city-states looking for clients. In spite of their much-needed contribution to Greek societies, Sophists were not held in high regard. One reason is that the quick fix they provided for education ran contrary to previous expectations about proper education. Whether the skill was stone cutting, engineering, or government administration, a child was expected to be a long-term apprentice to a seasoned master. The personal integrity of the master was a key factor, and he was usually an active member of the community as well as a friend of the parents. By contrast, the Sophists wandered into town offering to teach the technical skills of various disciplines for a fee, and without the personal and community involvement of the usual masters.

The Sophists had a skeptical attitude toward the pursuit of truth and, by and large, maintained that in many areas of inquiry, truth is only a matter of persuasive argumentation. The true position in a debate is the winning position. To this end, they offered an argument strategy called "antilogic" which involved learning to argue both sides of a case as strongly as possible. Using this technique, students could make the weaker argument become the stronger. With their flexible attitudes toward truth, the Sophists participated in a larger intellectual debate among Greek writers concerning whether the gods, society, and morality exist as a matter of social custom (nomos) or as a matter of nature (phusis). The more skeptically minded Sophists placed emphasis on custom as the source of moral values and political stability.


Protagorasís Theory. One of the more skeptical Sophists was Protagoras (490-410 BCE) who encapsulated the attitude of the Sophists in his famous statement, "People are the measure of all things." Scholars debate about the exact meaning of this sentence, but many hold that "people" refers to individual humans, rather than humanity as a collection. In its longer and less familiar form, Protagorasís claim is this:

A human being is the measure of all things Ė of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.
Literally speaking, Protagoras holds that individual people create truth, even to the extent that something exists or doesnít exist. All truth, then, is relative to the person. With many things, Protagorasís relativism presents no serious problem. For example, if I taste some honey and find it sweet, then my judgment that it is sweet makes it true. Suppose, however, that you are sick and donít find honey sweet when you taste it. It seems, then, that we have conflicting truths about the sweetness of honey. In response, Protagoras argues that some these judgments are more beneficial than others, but they are all true. In this case, my judgment that honey is sweet is more beneficial than yours is, since mine allows for a wider range of practical experiences.

For Protagoras, this same relativism applies to morality. We all have our own perceptions about what things are good, evil, just and unjust. We can also defend our views with arguments. In this sense, each of our respective moral views is true. However, these views are not all equally beneficial. If I say that stealing is morally permissible, this may be a true perception on my part, but it isnít particularly beneficial if it places me in jail or undermines social order. In view of the importance that Protagoras places on practical benefit, his notion of moral truth is all but useless. Protagoras claimed that he could teach moral virtue (arete), just as he could other skills. The moral virtue he taught, then, involved those values that contained the most practical benefit.

Only fragments of Protagorasís original writings survive and we are left to speculate about why he abandons objective moral truth in favor of practical moral benefit. We may find one explanation in his views on religious skepticism:

Concerning the gods, I am unable to know either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what their appearance is like. For, there are many things that hinder knowledge, such as the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of human life.
He argues here that our limited human construction seems unable to penetrate religious reality. Because of this, Protagoras pleads ignorance on the subject. Using parallel reasoning, he might also hold that we are unable to penetrate any ultimate moral reality and thus must plead ignorance on this matter as well. In the absence of our knowledge of a moral reality, the alternative is to emphasize the practical benefit that we gain by advancing one view of morality over another.

What, though, determines whether one moral view has more practical benefit than another? For Protagoras, as well as other Sophists, the two contending possibilities are (1) nature (phusis), or (2) social custom (nomos). Using an allegory, Protagoras explains that social custom reinforces some moral values over others, thereby giving them a greater practical benefit. According to Protagoras, when humans were first formed, the god Prometheus gave us the skills of fire so that we could feed and clothe ourselves. Although we succeeded in these things, we ran around as isolated individuals without any ability to form social units and protect ourselves from wild animals. Observing this, the god Zeus then gave each of us a sense of shame (aidos) and justice (dike), which prompted us to form friendships and thereby live in communities. Protagoras continues that to keep the communities intact, the communities themselves must create social customs (nomos) that reinforce specific moral values through education and punishment. The practical benefit of one moral value versus another, then, is linked with social custom.

In summary, these are the main points of Protagorasís moral skepticism:


The Argument from Cultural Variation. Historians of philosophy speculate that Sophists such as Protagoras were moral skeptics since they traveled widely throughout the Greek world and observed a variety of cultural practices that varied from city-state to city-state. Presumably, the easiest explanation for this variation was that each city-state created its own set of values that served its own particular needs. This seemed more intuitive than the alternative view that there is an objective basis of morality that directs our cultural practices. This intuition can be expressed more formally in the argument here:

(1) Many morally significant values vary from culture to culture.
(2) Morally significant values are either grounded in objective reality or they are grounded only social customs.
(3) It is difficult to explain how differing cultural values are grounded in an objective reality.
(4) Therefore, differing cultural values are grounded only in social custom.
Contemporary moral skeptic J.L. Mackie defends this line of reasoning. According to Mackie, the moral realist claims that our objectively grounded moral beliefs shape our cultural practices. However, it appears instead that our culture shapes our particular moral beliefs. Suppose that I believe that polygamy is immoral whereas my friend from Saudi Arabia believes that polygamy is moral. In both of these cases it is more reasonable to think that our respective cultures influenced our individual beliefs rather than the realist alternative that objectively informed beliefs influenced our cultures. Moral subjectivism, then, is the most reasonable explanation for why our moral beliefs mimic our culture.

Critics of moral skepticism point out two main flaws with this argument. First, some critics challenge premise (1) above, maintaining that there is less variation than there first seems. Although it is true that many values do vary from culture to culture, many of these values are not truly moral in nature and would be better classified as rules of prudence. Examples include rules requiring women to cover their breasts in public and rules about tattooing and body piercing. By contrast, there are in fact several genuine moral values that are cross-cultural. According to contemporary philosopher James Rachels, three such values are caring for children, truth telling, and prohibitions against murder. For Rachels, these are all necessary conditions for the survival of a society. If a society consistently violated any one of these it would disintegrate.

A second criticism of the argument from cultural variation is to challenge premise (3) by offering a cogent explanation as to how differing cultural values might be grounded in an objective reality. Even if values do vary throughout time and from place to place, there still might be an underlying ideal morality that all these cultures simply ignore. The whole lot of these cultures might simply be corrupt. According to critics, our particular moral beliefs might become distorted as we try to perceive objective value through our diverse cultures. So, if I believe that polygamy is immoral and my friend from Saudi Arabia believes polygamy is moral, then at least one of us, and perhaps both, might have a distorted understanding of objective morality.

Even if the argument from variation fails as a proof for moral skepticism, this is no great loss. The issue of variability isnít the core issue behind the dispute. For, even if all cultures throughout time endorsed a particular value, such as "murder is wrong," skeptics could still argue that this value is grounded in societal traditions and is not based on an ideal morality. There may be common factors that prompt societies to create similar values, such as prohibitions against murder. But this doesnít make these values any less social creations.


PLATO AND MORAL REALISM. One of the earliest and strongest theories of moral realism was offered by the great philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE). Plato was well aware of the skeptical arguments of the Sophists, and in fact Plato provides the most detailed surviving account of Protagorasís views. Nevertheless Plato felt that Protagoras was profoundly mistaken about the nature of truth and moral values.


Platoís Theory of the Forms. Platoís moral theory is an extension of his larger philosophical position, which is called the theory of the forms. In his book the Republic Plato explains that the universe is divided into two realms. First there is a visible world of appearances, which contains physical objects such as rocks, chairs, cars, and people. Second, there is an intelligible world of the forms, which contains universal abstract objects, such as mathematical principles, the universal color of blue, and the universal shape of roundness. These abstract objects have a spirit-like existence and are completely distinct from the imperfect realm of physical things. Moral values also belong to the realm of the forms and thus exist in a spirit-like state. To put Platoís theory in its best light, imagine that we took a tour of heaven Ė assuming that such a place exists. We first see that heaven itself is a spiritual realm that consists of purely spiritual beings. There are no beings with physical bodies, and, perhaps not even any three-dimensional beings. Looking around, we encounter the spirits of dead humans, spirits of saints and heroes, angelic spirits, and even God himself who is purely spiritual. Suppose that we further look around heaven and find a room filled with mathematical relations such as 1+1=2. Although these arenít conscious spirits, they are nevertheless spiritual substances and they are unchanging and permanent. We might think of these as eternal mathematical laws. For Plato, these are mathematical forms. Looking further, we find another room containing other spiritual substances, such as the spiritual essence of chairs, the spiritual essence of wooden things, and the spiritual essence of the color brown. For Plato, these are the pure forms of physical things; they are almost infinite in number and include the forms of chairness, woodenness, brownness, dogness and even dirtness. Finally we stumble on a room that contains the spiritual essence of moral concepts such as charity, honesty, beauty, and justice. For Plato, these are the pure forms of moral traits that people have.

Returning to the physical world, we look around and see particular objects, such as the brown wooden chair on which I am sitting. For Plato, these physical things are all imperfectly molded from the forms of the perfect spiritual entities that reside in the heavenly realm. In Platoís terminology, the particular wooden chair that Iím sitting on participates (methexis) in several abstract forms, such as brownness, woodenness and chairness. For Plato, the particular chairs are merely appearances, and the forms are reality. In pursuing truth and knowledge, we should reject the distorted world of appearances and look to the realm of the forms. On earth, we can only access these forms through thought, and not through sense perception. Plato describes this as a recollecting process (anamnesis): in a previous heavenly life we were directly acquainted with all the forms but the trauma of physical birth suppressed our knowledge of them.

For Plato, we come to understand moral truths the same way that we understand any other truth: we rationally recollect the moral forms. Morality, then, isnít at all a matter of social custom as Protagoras argued, since social custom is a byproduct of the changing world of appearances. Instead, for Plato, morality is grounded in the objective and unchanging moral forms such as charity, honesty, beauty, and justice. The charitable person, for example, participates in -- or molds himself after -- the form of charity. Briefly, these are the key points of Platoís moral theory:



With some modification in terminology, Platoís account of morality became the blueprint for many, if not most, succeeding versions of moral realism. The clumsy language of the "forms" and "recollection" was abandoned for more intuitive notions. For example, 18th century British philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) argued that moral values are eternal and unchanging relations, similar to mathematical relations. Like mathematics, moral values were not created by God and canít even be changed by God. Also like mathematics, we understand these moral values intuitively by use of our rational faculty.


Criticisms of Platoís Theory. From Platoís own day to the present, critics have exposed problems with various aspects of his theory. Shortly after his death, Platoís pupil Aristotle launched a series of attacks against the Platonic theory of the forms in general, and Platoís moral theory in particular. Letís look at two of Aristotleís criticisms. First, Aristotle argues that participation is the key notion of the theory of the forms, but nowhere does Plato explain participation. With charity, for example, I am a charitable person to the degree that I participate in the form of charity. But Plato neither defines participation, nor offers a procedure according to which things in the world of appearances can mimic this form. Second, Aristotle argues that introducing the idea of the forms doesnít clarify the nature of an object, but simply confuses things by introducing more concepts. Suppose that I want to better understand the notion of charity and I read in Plato that the true nature of charity rests in the form of charity. Not only does this fail to advance my understanding of charity, it clutters my discussion with unneeded metaphysical entities. The medieval philosopher William of Ockham (d. 1347) recommended that we should avoid multiplying entities beyond what we actually need. Known more popularly as "Ockhamís Razor," Ockham recommends that we stick with our most metaphysically simple explanation. Aristotle anticipates Ockhamís recommendation by pointing out that Platoís account of the forms merely adds metaphysical baggage.

Mackie presents a third important criticism of Platoís moral realism. For Mackie, there is some "queer," or counterintuitive aspect of any description one might give of an objective moral realm, such as the realm of the forms. There are three distinct points to Mackieís argument. First, there is a metaphysical problem, or a problem based on the strange spirit-like realm that Plato advocates. Where is this realm? How many dimensions does it have? Mackie argues that the strangeness of this realm alone is an argument against its existence. Second, there is a relational problem since it isnít clear how this peculiar, non-natural realm has any connection with natural objects and human actions. Using Plato's terminology, it isnít clear how a spirit-like realm of the forms could affect the natural world of appearances: the two realms are too distinct. Third, there is an epistemological problem, that is, a problem with how we gain knowledge of these spirit-like things. We gain knowledge of the physical world through our five senses. But by what faculty do we gain knowledge of this spirit-like realm? Plato says that it involves a faculty of rational recollection, similar to our memory faculty. However, few of us would acknowledge the existence of this type of recollective faculty. Even if we say that it is some kind of rational faculty, this presumes that it is like a mental eyeball that peers into another realm. It doesnít seem as though we have this kind of mental faculty either.

A fourth and final argument offered by Mackie is based on a psychological explanation for why people actually believe there are objective values of any kind. According to Mackie, people have a natural tendency to objectify values that are actually subjective in origin. For example, if I smell a rotten orange and it disgusts me, I automatically think that the rotten orange itself is disgusting in nature. Clearly, though, the element of disgust is a subjective quality pertaining to my reaction, and isnít really a feature of the orange itself. I erroneously project the quality of disgust onto the orange. One reason that we make this mistake is because something is in fact external, namely, the orange itself. We then mistakenly think that everything pertaining to the orange is also external. The same psychological projection takes place with moral values. Society places external constraints on me to behave morally, such as society's demand that I shouldnít run around naked. This societal demand itself is actually external to me; that is, I did not invent this myself. Since this societal demand is external, I then erroneously think that everything about the demand is external, including the moral value in question, such as "it is wrong to run around naked in public." Mackie concludes that it is more reasonable to adopt this psychological projection theory rather than the alternative view that moral values have a genuine external existence in a form-like realm.


MORAL SKEPTICISM AT ITS BEST. As a rule of thumb, a position of skepticism is philosophically more safe and justifiable than alternative theories that assert the existence of something beyond our immediate perception. This rule applies to the present dispute between Plato, who believed in objective moral principles, and Protagoras, who denied this. The cautious philosopher, then, will follow Protagoras rather than Plato. However, the term "skepticism" has a negative connotation and people might reject skepticism on the basis of the name alone. To offset this stigma, letís say more in defense of moral skepticism.


Shifting Moral Paradigms. As recently as the 18th century, moral philosophers actively endorsed Platoís moral realism. Samuel Clarke, mentioned above, is one example. Another is Catherine Macaulay who describes Platonic moral realism here:


Ö [It is] a necessary and essential difference of things, a fitness and unfitness, a proportion and disproportion, a moral beauty and a moral deformity, an immutable right and wrong, necessarily independent of the will of every being created and uncreated, explained by the philosopher Plato under the form of everlasting, intelligent ideas, or moral entities, coeval with eternity....
Macaulay continues describing this moral realism as the "Catholic opinion in the creed of the moralist." That is, from Macaulayís perspective, Platoís account of objective moral reality was the accepted view. Today, Platoís moral realism doesnít have nearly the appeal that it did even 200 years ago in Macaulayís day. This lack of appeal may have less to do with philosophical criticisms of his theory and more to do with shifting ways of looking at the world. Contemporary philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn coined the term "paradigm" in reference to scientific mindsets that change throughout the ages. For example, scientists of the Renaissance moved away from the earth-centered paradigm of the universe to a sun-centered paradigm of the solar system. Physicists in this century moved away from a Newtonian conception of the universe, with fixed notions of space and time, to an Einsteinian conception of the relativity of space and time. Kuhn argues that scientist donít formally disprove previous paradigms as they move on to new ones. Instead, scientific communities simply adopt new rules as to what counts as good science. In time, scientists of the new paradigm have a difficult time even comprehending the appeal of the old paradigm.

Platonic moral realism appears to be the victim of a paradigm shift. Although philosophers regularly read and admire Plato, it is difficult for us to actually believe in his theory of the forms. Similarly, we have an equally hard time believing in the 18th century version of Platonic moral realism held by Clarke and Macaulay. To the extent that in our time we have moved away from Platonic versions of moral realism, we are more akin to the moral skepticís mindset than we may initially think.


Clarifying Misconceptions about Moral Skepticism. Even if Platoís account of objective morality doesnít have a hold on our minds today as it did in the past, many philosophers still find aspects of moral skepticism unsettling. Some of these reservations, though, are based on misconceptions about moral skepticism itself.

First, critics of moral skepticism sometimes argue that denying an objective basis of morality amounts to rejecting all moral values. In response, this criticism confuses the moral skepticís position with that of the moral nihilist who holds that there are no moral values at all, but simply repressive social conventions which a truly free person will reject. The moral skeptic, on the other hand, recognizes societyís moral values, and even endorses them; he only denies that they are grounded in an objective realm. To clarify the skepticís point, it is helpful to distinguish between the issues of metaethics and issues of normative ethics. One of the key issues of metaethics concerns whether moral values exist in an eternal spiritual realm which is external to human society. The skeptic denies moral values exist in this. Normative ethics, by contrast, involves a quest for the best values and guiding principles of human conduct. Some leading normative values are the Ten Commandments of Judaism, the Confucian principle of reciprocity that we should avoid treating others in ways we wouldnít want to be treated ourselves, and the utilitarian position that we should pursue the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The moral skeptic will acknowledge the binding nature of some set of moral values such as these. Like everyone, the skeptic too lives in societies, raises children, is appalled by crime, and hopes for a better future. There are many practical and emotional reasons to adopt and perpetuate normative moral standards. In short, it is only the more abstract metaethical issue of objectively existing values that the skeptic questions. The skeptic would argue that it is the normative question that really matters in life and makes us good citizens. The metaethical question is a matter of armchair speculation for philosophical hobbyists, and the stand one takes on the metaethical issue has no necessary impact on the normative values that one endorses.

Second, critics of moral skepticism argue that, without the grounding of objective moral principles, societies will create many arbitrary and perhaps horrible values and simply give them the rubber stamp of "morality." By grounding values in fixed external principles, though, our values will be good ones. The moral skeptic has three replies to this challenge. (a) Even if we grant that there are objective moral principles, Plato and other moral realists simply assume that these principles are fixed and unchanging. However, this is a position that must be argued for, rather than merely assumed. The 19th century German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) believed that the universe was a giant spirit that was continually evolving. As the absolute spirit evolves through time, so too do human social values evolve on earth. Hegel may not have gotten the story of the universe right either, but the moral skeptic will argue that even if moral principles are objective, they are not necessarily unchanging, nonarbitrary, or even good. (b) For the sake of argument, letís grant that there are objective moral principles that are unchanging. If we have no clear way of accessing them, as Aristotle argues above, then, in point of practice, we will create our value system independently of them. So, the mere existence of objective moral principles alone doesnít guarantee how we will formulate our social value systems. Finally, and most importantly, (c) even the most extreme moral skeptics donít believe that moral values are completely arbitrary creations of human society. Instead, morality is based on a mixture of human nature and social contrivance. Protagoras recognized that, mythically speaking, Zeus implanted in humans a sense of guilt and justice which, in turn, is shaped by and perpetuated through social custom. 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that we devise social conventions because of our natural sense of self-preservation, fear of death, and desire to live in peace. 17th century British philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued that we create artificial notions of justice, which we approve of by means of natural moral feelings. Mackie argues that we "create" morality in response to our natural drive to improve our well being as active social beings. To the extent that the elements of human nature noted by these philosophers are fixed from person to person, the moral values we devise will be at least somewhat fixed and nonarbitrary.


A Moral Skepticís Reaction to Immoral Customs. Perhaps the strongest resistance to moral skepticism comes from our negative reactions to horrible customs such as female genital mutilation. Regardless of how defenders of these practices view them in their homelands, we feel strongly that they are wrong. It isnít simply that they are wrong here in the United States, but they are wrong anywhere, even in the cultures in which they are practiced the most. The moral skeptic doesnít seem justified in making this universal pronouncement if he denies the existence of an independent and objective moral realm.

In response, imagine that morality is a game we play which involves following specific rules. Some of the rules have us arrive at a normative list of dos and doníts. Other rules involve punishments and rewards for those that break or abide by these dos and doníts. Finally, other rules govern the vocabulary that we use when playing the morality game. For example, Iím allowed to call you a "good person" if you consistently perform the "dos". I am allowed to call you a "bad person" if you consistently violate the "doníts." The rules also allow me to make universal pronouncements, such as "female genital mutilation is wrong everywhere." Not only can I say this, but, according to the rules, I can also mean it, argue for it, feel anger toward those who perform this practice, and maintain that defenders of this practice are simply wrong. All of these rules are consistent with the moral skepticís view that morality is grounded in a combination of human nature and social convention.

The moral realist wonít be satisfied with this game-based notion of "universal pronouncement." Instead, a follower of Plato will still argue that we need objective moral principles to give full force to universal pronouncements. The skeptic will agree that there is in fact a greater metaethical strength to Platoís notion of universal pronouncement. However, assuming that the above problems with moral realism can be adequately addressed, the skeptic will argue that nothing is gained with Platoís view from the standpoint of universal pronouncements. The rules of the morality game remain the same for both Plato and the moral skeptic, and both are entitled to make universal pronouncements according to the rules.



Quotation on female genital mutilation is from "Combatting genital mutilation in Sudan," Sara Mansavage, UNICEF Feature No. 00109.SUD

The Sophists are discussed in Richard McKirahanís Philosophy Before Socrates (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994).

Protagorasís views are sympathetically described in Platoís Theaetetus 166d-167c.

Protagorasís statement about the existence of the gods is from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, ix. 52.

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

James Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," Elements of Moral Philosophy, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993).

Aristotleís criticisms of Platoís theory of the forms are found in Metaphysics 1.9.

Catherine Macaulay, A Treatise on the Immutability of Moral Truth (1783)


Suggestions for Further Reading Moral Skepticism C.L. Carter, ed., Skepticism and Moral Principles, (New University Press, 1973).

James Fieser, "Is Hume a Moral Skeptic?" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1989, Vol. 50.

Frederik Kaufman, "Moral Realism and Moral Judgments, in Erkenntnis, 1992, Vol. 36.

James Rachels, "Moral Skepticism," in The Right Thing to Do, ed. James Rachels (McGraw Hill, 1989).

Bruce Waller, "Moral Conversion without Moral Realism," in Southern Journal of Philosophy, 1992, Vol. 30.


* * * *


The media has recently focused on a phenomenon called road rage in which drivers become enraged at offending motorists and confront them. In Durham, North Carolina a driverís education teacher was enraged when his car was cut off by another vehicle:


[David] Cline was teaching two female students how to drive when the other car cut them off, according to police. Cline instructed the student driver to chase down the car, police said. They caught up to [Jon David] Macklin, and Cline got out and punched him, police said. Macklin then took off, and the instructor allegedly had the student chase him again.


The teacher was charged with simple assault and was suspended from his job. He later resigned from his middle school position. Although this particular situation has an element of irony, many other stories of road rage are nothing but tragic. On Virginiaís George Washington Parkway, two motorists confronted each other when changing lanes, and the dispute erupted in a high-speed battle. Both drivers lost control, passed over the centerline, and killed two innocent motorists. Studies by the AAA suggest that about 30 deaths in a one-year period are directly attributable to road rage. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated that in a one-year period, two thirds of 41,000 total highway deaths are at least partly attributable to road rage. In either case, most of the deaths occur from assailants using their vehicle as a weapon or by using guns they have with them.

The circumstances that spark road rage are mostly trivial. A motorist might brake abruptly, swerve into another lane or honk the horn. This prompts shouting, tailgating, obscene gestures, high-speed chases, and direct physical confrontations. There are several psychological explanations for the road rage phenomenon. Traffic is continually becoming heavier and thereby causing sensory overload. Many assailants are in large sports utility vehicles, which perhaps gives them a false sense of invulnerability. The root of the problem, however, is that the assailant experiences a strong emotion of anger and seemingly loses ability to control it. Many relatively minor events in our daily lives have the potential to make us angry. The cat might knock over a plant, the new stereo might malfunction, a store clerk might be rude, or the neighbors might be too noisy. We learn to combat our angry urges, though, and react in a civilized manner.

Anger is just one strong feeling that we must keep in check. Others are sexual appetite, hunger, envy, malice, hatred, resentment, fear, pride, and desire. Imagine what people would be like if we never kept any of these emotions in check. We would constantly be at war with others and ultimately have no society. Controlling strong emotions is a matter of training. Our parents and teachers begin training us when we are young. As we get older, we continue the training process on our own. Eventually we develop habits that become second nature to us. In short, we acquire what moral philosophers call virtues. A virtue is a good habit that we develop that regulates emotions and urges. Typical virtues include courage, temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude, liberality, and truthfulness. Vices, by contrast, are bad habits that we automatically develop in reaction to the same emotions and urges when we fail to acquire virtues. Vices include cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. As a fully developed moral theory, virtue theory is the view that the foundation of morality is the development of good character traits, or virtues. A person is good if he has virtues and lacks vices.


Early Greek View of Virtues. Historically, virtue theory is one of the oldest moral theory in Western philosophy, having its roots in ancient Greek civilization. The Greek term for virtue is arete, which means "excellence." Greek epic poets and playwrights, such as Homer and Sophocles, described the morality of their heroes and antiheroes in terms of their respective virtues and vices. Their charactersí successes and failures hinged on their virtuous or vicious character traits. For example, in Sophoclesís tragic play Oedipus Rex, king Oedipusís life crumbles after he unknowingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother. These tragic acts themselves, though, are a consequence of his character flaws, particularly pride and overconfidence.

Discussions of the virtues become more formalized by Plato who stressed four particular virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Early Christian theologians dubbed these cardinal virtues, given their central role for Plato, especially regarding Platoís description of the human psyche. According to Plato, the human psyche has three distinct parts: one that reasons, one that wills, and one that has appetites. The job of our reason is to bring our wills and appetites under control. We have wisdom when our reason is informed by general knowledge of how to live. We have courage when our reason governs our capacity to be wrathful. We have temperance when our reason governs our appetites. We have justice when each of the three parts of our psyche performs their proper task with informed reason in control. Plato believed that these virtues were unified insofar as all four require a properly developed reason. So, for Plato, if I have one of these virtues, I will necessarily have them all. Although Platoís vision of reasonís involvement in virtues influenced later theorists, the details of his four cardinal virtues had limited impact given their somewhat forced reliance on his specialized theory of the psyche. The definitive analysis of virtues was left to his student, Aristotle (384-322 BCE.).


ARISTOTLEíS THEORY. Aristotleís account of virtue is found in his work The Nichomachean Ethics, which he named in honor of his son Nichomachus. The work is long, at around 200 pages, and only the highlights of his theory can be presented here.


Appetite-Regulating Habits. There are three main steps in Aristotleís discussion of virtues. The first step involves establishing the fact that humans strive after an ultimate good that defines who we are. The subject of ethics is an attempt to discover this goal. For Aristotle, our ultimate good is an end that we seek in and of itself, and not merely for the sake of something else. In general, we call this ultimate end "happiness" (eudimonea), although this term is used in so many ways that we need to specify more precisely what it involves. Human happiness is different than dog happiness, for example, and is unique to our human construction and function. The second step in Aristotleís discussion involves discovering our uniquely human function by analyzing our uniquely human psyche. He offers this division of the human psyche:



According to Aristotle, the psyche has an irrational element that is similar to that of lower animals, and a rational element that is distinctly human. The highest aspect of the rational part is calculative in nature, and is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. This is a uniquely human ability. At the other extreme, the most primitive and irrational element of our psyche is the vegetative faculty that is responsible for our physical nutrition and growth. This is a factor present in all life forms, and not just in humans. Between the two extremes there is an additional faculty that is partly rational and partly irrational. This is the appetitive faculty and is responsible for our emotions and desires. The appetitive faculty is irrational since even lower animals experience desires. However, it is also rational since humans have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of ethics.

The third and last step in Aristotleís discussion involves a description of the moral virtues themselves. Aristotle makes three general observations about the nature of moral virtues. First, he argues that the ability to regulate our desires isnít instinctive, but learned and is the outcome of both teaching and practice. Second, he argues that desire-regulating virtues are character traits, or habitual dispositions, and shouldnít be seen as either emotions or mental faculties. Third, moral virtues are desire regulating character traits that are at a mean between more extreme character traits. If we regulate our desires either too much or too little, then we create problems. For example, in response to our natural emotion of fear when facing danger, 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. Aristotle notes that this is similar to how "excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength."

Most moral virtues, and not just courage, fall at the mean between two accompanying vices. Aristotle describes 11 virtues in particular that follow this model. Each virtue and vice arises in reaction to some specific appetite or desire we have. His analysis is summarized in this table:



Of these 11 virtues, the pinnacle of these for Aristotle is self-respect, which is also translated as "pride" or "high-mindedness." It involves having a respectful attitude about our self-worth in everything that we do. For example, it is unbecoming for a self-respecting person to be cowardly when facing danger, or to be insensible with pleasure, or to be stingy about giving money.

Aristotle notes that that there werenít enough terms in his language to adequately name all the virtues and corresponding vices. This is also the case with the English language, and it may be difficult at first to grasp the relation between the various virtues and vices on the above list. Aristotle also notes that not all virtues fall at a mean between two more extreme dispositions. One such virtue is that of justice, which simply has injustice as its contrary. The virtue of justice involves being lawful and fair. The unjust person, by contrast, is unlawful, unfair, and greedily grasps at things.


Practical Wisdom. Although Aristotleís analysis of the above 11 virtues fits into a nicely organized scheme, in common life situations it is in fact hard to pinpoint the mean between two extreme dispositions. Suppose that I am a soldier and I know in theory that if my fear gets the best of me I will be a coward, and if I completely ignore my fear I will be rash. Somewhere in the middle lies courage. However, how many bullets need to fly above my head before I can courageously crawl back into my foxhole for safety? Suppose I am a college student and I understand that temperance involves knowing how to regulate my desire for pleasure. Am I insensible if I completely avoid going to fraternity parties? And, if I do go, how many beers can I have before I am intemperate? Finally, suppose that, in my drive for success at my job, I understand that lack of ambition will get me fired, but too much ambition will destroy my home life. How much devotion should I show at my job?

Aristotle confesses that it is indeed difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because of the challenges presented in finding the mean between the extremes. He notes that calculating the mean isnít simply a matter of taking an average. For example, if eating 100 apples is too many, and eating zero apples is too little, this doesnít imply that I should eat 50 apples, which is the mathematical mean. However, the problem isnít insurmountable. Aristotle explains that an aspect of our calculative reasoning called practical wisdom (phronesis) helps us find the virtuous mean. There are two components to practical wisdom. First, it intuitively grasps our ultimate function and purpose in life. In a nutshell, our ultimate function is to be community-oriented rational creatures. Each properly formed virtue contributes to fulfilling this ultimate purpose. Second, practical wisdom involves deliberating about and planning the best way of attaining this ultimate purpose. So, with each of the above dilemmas, our practical wisdom will help us chisel out the appropriate conduct that will facilitate our ultimate purpose.

In spite of the assistance we receive from practical wisdom, we shouldnít see it as a small voice within us that tells us for each action whether that action hits the mean or one of the extremes. First, when we are in the process of developing virtuous habits, practical wisdom doesnít pronounce judgment on each of our actions. Instead, through our life experiences, we gradually develop a sense of our ultimate function and just as gradually we cultivate virtuous habits. Second, once our virtuous habits are developed, we act spontaneously without step by step rational prompting. For example, once I learn how to be a safe automobile driver, my highway manners become second nature and I slow down before approaching a stop sign without consciously thinking about it.

If I successfully acquire virtues, then I attain the status of a good person. As a good person, each of my actions will be a reflection of the virtuous character traits that I developed. However, Aristotle argues, each action must be freely chosen. That is, the action must have its causal origin within me, and canít be mechanically imposed on me by other people. Further, for my choice to be truly free, I must know all of the important details pertaining to the action in question. He argues that freedom of the will is a factor with both virtuous choices and vicious choices.

These are the main points of Aristotleís virtue theory:



Aristotle himself summarizes his notion of moral virtue here:


Virtues are means between extremes; they are states of character; by their own nature they tend to the doing of acts by which they are produced; they are in our power and voluntary; they act as prescribed by right governance [i.e., practical wisdom]. [Nicomachean Ethics, 1114b 25]


Good Temper. In view of our opening illustration of road rage, let's look at Aristotleís discussion of the virtue of good temper, which is the seventh virtue listed on the above chart. Good temper properly curbs oneís appetite for anger. If I curb my anger too much I have the vice of spiritlessness, and if I donít curb it enough I have the vice of ill temper. For Aristotle, there are five factors involved in our appropriate response to anger. We should only become angry (1) at the appropriate person, (2) for an appropriate offense, (3) to an appropriate degree, (4) with appropriate quickness, and (5) for an appropriate length of time. He concedes that it is difficult to precisely define what counts as "appropriate" in these five circumstances, but maintains that the good tempered person wonít allow himself to be dragged around by his passions, and will be guided by practical wisdom. An example of an appropriate offense is being insulted. However, the good-tempered person isnít vengeful, and to a degree he accepts his situation.

As for the vice of spiritlessness, there are several reasons why it is bad for us to completely lack expressions of anger. If we never react in anger even when there is a proper cause, then it will appear to others that we arenít pained by things that should pain us. People will think that we wonít defend ourselves and, for example, we will sit back and put up with insult after insult against our loved ones and ourselves. In a word, people will see us as fools. In spite of how bad it is to be completely unaffected by anger, Aristotle believes that it is better to err on the side of spiritlessness than on the side of ill-temper since spiritless people are easier to live with.

On the other extreme, ill-tempered people respond inappropriately to anger with at least one of the above five factors. In fact, Aristotle notes that we have different names for ill-tempered people based on the combination of factors in which they fail. Hotheaded people get angry too quickly, with the wrong people, for the wrong reason, and to the wrong degree (factors 1-4). However, they get over their anger quickly (factor 5), which is the best thing about them. Choleric people get angry quickly at everything on every occasion (factors 1, 2 and 4). Brooding people fail mainly with the fifth factor and carry out their anger far too long. Bad-tempered people get angry at the wrong things for a long period of time (factors 2 and 5) and wonít be satisfied until they inflict punishment on the offender. How would Aristotle view the person who exhibits road rage? The enraged drive has perhaps picked out the appropriate person for an appropriate offense, and maybe is angry for an appropriate length of time. But the degree of his reaction is far too extreme and his angry reaction is far too quick. His principal failure, then, is with factors (3) and (4).


THE DEVELOPMENT AND DECLINE OF VIRTUE THEORY. For almost 2000 years Greek notions of virtue -- and Aristotleís theory in particular -- were central to Western conceptions of morality. The details were sometimes different, but moral philosophers consistently emphasized the need to acquire good character traits that guide our actions and thereby make us "good people."


The Golden Age of Virtue Theory. Immediately after Aristotle, the rival philosophical schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism offered competing views of morality and the virtues. Epicurus identified the virtuous life with a life of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. By contrast, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, emphasized the importance of resigning oneself to fate and suppressing our desires for things beyond our control. For Zeno, virtue is intimately connected with our knowledge of the physical world and, to this end, the virtuous person develops four knowledge-oriented virtues. Through intelligence she knows what is good and bad. Through bravery she knows what to fear and what not to fear. Through justice she knows how to give what is deserved. Through self-control she knows what passions to extinguish.

With the arrival of Christianity, the Apostle Paul endorsed the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which were later dubbed the "theological virtues" in contrast to Platoís four "cardinal virtues." Medieval theologians sometimes referred to the "seven virtues," combining the three theological virtues with the four cardinal virtues. Medieval theologians such as Aquinas held Aristotle in especially high regard and wrote commentaries on the Nichomachean Ethics that perpetuated Aristotleís analysis of the virtues.

By the Renaissance, philosophical discussions of virtue were essentially analyses of Aristotleís theory, such as Henry Moreís Account of Virtue (1667). During the 18th century interest in Aristotleís version of virtue ethics declined. Historians of philosophy typically say that virtue theory was simply neglected or ignored. A more accurate description, though, is that Aristotleís theory was critiqued and revised, and, in modified form, incorporated into newer accounts of moral obligation. During this transitional period, Aristotleís virtue theory met its greatest challenge with the rise of natural law theory, particularly as put forward by 17th century Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius. For Grotius, morality involves conforming one's actions to moral laws that are fixed in nature, which even God canít change. Grotius rejected the role of virtue assigned by Aristotle, and directly criticized Aristotle's theory on three accounts. First, Aristotle's doctrine of the mean fails to adequately explain basic moral concepts such as truthfulness and justice. Second, in the case of justice, the agent's particular virtuous disposition doesnít matter. All that matters is following proper reason with respect to the rights of others. Third, contrary to Aristotle, the moral agent doesnít have special moral insight simply because she is virtuous, or a good person. Instead, morality is fixed in natural laws that can be rationally perceived by all.


Virtue-Based Morality vs. Action/Rule-Based Morality. Grotius started a trend in ethics that de-emphasized the character traits of the moral agent and instead focused on the rightness and wrongness of the agentís actions. Letís call these two views virtue-based morality and action/rule-based morality. According to virtue-based morality, (1) greater importance is placed on developing good character traits, rather than acting in accord with moral rules; (2) good actions are those that flow from our virtuous character traits; and (3) morality is a matter of being a good person, which involves having virtuous character traits. By contrast, according to action/rule-based morality, (1) emphasis is placed on proper actions, which conform to moral rules; (2) although good character traits might help us perform good actions, they donít define good actions; and (3) people are judged based on their actions, not on whether they are good people.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the rift between virtue-based and action/rule-based morality widened as inventive philosophers tried to reduce all moral obligations to a small handful of moral rules, or even a single supreme rule if possible. Morality, then, was seen as a matter of acting in accordance with moral rules. One such supreme rule was that of utilitarianism, which John Stuart Mill formulated as this: "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse." In defense of this supreme rule of utility, Mill dismissed virtue-based morality as being irrelevant since moral judgments should be made impartially of the agent's character. For Mill, an action isnít right when merely done by a virtuous person. By the beginning of the 20th century, the action/rule emphasis of moral theories such as utilitarianism supplanted the character trait emphasis of virtue theory.


CONTEMPORARY ISSUES. Within the past few decades interest in virtue theory has revived owing partly to seminal writings by Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre. Anscombe argues that modern moral theories such as utilitarianism inconsistently advance rules without any notion of a rule giver. For Anscombe, the entire action/rule-based approach to ethics needs to be abandoned in favor of the virtue-based approach offered by Aristotle, which avoids this inconsistency. MacIntyre argues that today we have only fragments of conflicting moral traditions:


Ö we continue to use many of the key expressions [of morality]. But we have Ė very largely, if not entirely Ė lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.


According to MacIntyre, we need to follow Aristotle and re-establish the goal or purpose of human existence. We achieve this purpose by developing virtuous character traits within the context of an ongoing social tradition.


Feminist Defense of Virtue Theory. Virtue-based morality received an extra boost from recent feminist philosophers who argue that action/rule-based morality is male-centered. Contemporary feminist writers express a wide range of ideas, and it is a mistake to associate any particular moral theory with the entire group. However, a theme in many feminist writers is that, historically, the creation of strict moral rules is modeled after practices that were traditionally male-dominated, such as acquiring property, engaging in business contracts, and governing societies. The rigid systems of rules required for trade and government set a pattern for creating equally rigid systems of moral rules, such as lists of moral rights and duties. Some of this may be the result of a male instinct to organize and pigeonhole things. It may also be the result self-serving male interests, which involved creating moral rules that subverted the interests of women, such as requiring women to be obedient, industrious, servile, and silent. Men not only created the rules of morality itself, but they also created the rules that govern proper discussion of morality, so input from women became almost impossible.

Women, by contrast, traditionally had a nurturing role by raising children and overseeing domestic life. These tasks require less rule-following, and more spontaneous and creative interaction. Using the woman's experience as a model for moral theory, then, the basis of morality should be spontaneously caring for others as would be appropriate in each unique circumstance. This involves acquiring nurturing character traits and having our actions flow from these. This stands in sharp contrast with male-modeled morality in which the agent mechanically performs his duty as moral laws require. Radical feminist philosophers sometimes argue that a morality based on female virtues should replace male-modeled moral systems that emphasize rules. More moderate feminist writers argue that it should only be a supplement.

Although feminists endorse virtue-based approaches to ethics in general, Philosopher Nel Noddings argues that Aristotleís specific account needs modification. Aristotleís list of specific virtues comes from an elite social class, as opposed to social classes of slaves and women who had more subservient roles in society. For Noddings, feminist morality is a quest for new virtues based on traditional women's practices that we see in everyday experiences. For example, accepted womenís occupations today are cooking, cleaning, nursing, secretarial services, and childhood education. Although these are roles that women should rise above, they nevertheless reflect a caring mentality, which Noddings believes is instinctive to women.


Virtues With or Without Rules? A prominent issue in contemporary discussions of virtue-based morality is whether a virtue theory can be completely independent of moral rules. One side of the dispute, which we will call strong virtue theory, maintains that rules must be eliminated from all notions of virtue. That is, morality is founded entirely on virtuous character traits such as courage, and these virtues are independent of ideal principles. The other side of the dispute, which we will call weak virtue theory, maintains that there is either a single rule or a core set of rules which establishes when a character trait is good or bad. Some of the appeal of strong virtue theory undoubtedly stems from a frustration with the inadequacies of various action/rule-based approaches to morality such as utilitarianism. As some feminists argue, rigid rules seem so contrary to the nurturing dispositions needed for genuine morality that we should simply reject them. However, in spite of the appeal of strong virtue theory, it isnít clear that classical writers held to this strong notion when devising their theories. Three aspects of Aristotleís theory in particular suggest that rules are at least part of virtue-based morality.

First, the formation of virtues themselves involves some conception of rules. We develop virtues progressively as practical wisdom directs our particular actions. Aristotle even uses the phrases "right governance" and "rational principle" synonymously with practical wisdom. Although practical wisdom isnít a set of precisely formulated principles, it is an intuitive standard of guidance. Through this intuitive standard of guidance, we develop virtuous character traits that are deemed good, as opposed to vicious character traits that are deemed bad. Second, once virtues are developed, the virtues themselves become rules by which we assess the correctness of our own actions as well as those other people. This is clear in Aristotleís discussion of the virtue of good-temper noted above. We praise people who abide by the virtuous mean of good temper, and blame those who donít. He also advises us as individuals to "cling to the middle state" of good temper so that we become praiseworthy. Similarly, the virtues of courage, temperance, generosity, self-respect all become standards by which we praise and blame actions.

A final "rule" aspect of Aristotleís theory involves the intimate connection he establishes between ethics and politics. Ethics involves the discovery of our ultimate human purpose as developed in virtuous character traits. Politics extends directly from this and involves legislating "what we are to do and what we are to abstain from" (Nichomachean Ethics, 1.2). Part of this is establishing just actions and just punishments (Politics, 7:13). Virtues, then, are only the starting point; the next step is to create governing bodies, social classes, and the obligations of both rulers and citizens, all of which is rule-oriented.

In view of these "rule" aspects of Aristotleís theory, he is best seen as a weak virtue theorist as defined above. Of course, contemporary virtue theorists are not required to follow Aristotle in all particulars of his theory. In fact, from a contemporary perspective, there is much about Aristotleís theory that might call for revision. In contemporary physiology, there is no place for Aristotleís division of the human psyche between vegetative, appetitive, and rational parts. In contemporary psychology, there is no place for Aristotleís notion of practical wisdom faculty that gradually illuminates our ultimate purpose to us. In contemporary social thought, feminist critics such as Noddings correctly point out that Aristotleís specific list of virtues reflects an aristocratic bias that we should reject. But, as we update these components of Aristotleís theory, we must find alternative explanations to the above three "rule" aspects of Aristotleís account. First, we must explain what makes any given character trait virtuous as opposed to vicious. Second, we must explain how we find some actions praiseworthy, and others blameworthy. Finally, we must explain how any ethically based political system can govern properly. No current strong virtue theory adequately meets these challenges and, given the importance of rules in almost all areas of our social lives, it isnít likely that any can.


Contemporary Critiques. In spite of the recent strong support for virtue-based morality, defenders of rival action/rule-based approaches point out several limitations with virtue theory. However, most of these target strong virtue theory which, we have already conceded, is untenable. Because of the popularity of such criticisms, it is important to see how defenders of weak virtue theory can quickly answer these charges. First, critics charge that there is a problem with determining precisely who is virtuous. It doesnít help to look for some external criterion, such as visible indications in the personís action, since outward actions are no guarantee that the person's inner self is virtuous. It also doesnít help to look for an inner criterion, such as the agent's self-respect or integrity, since we donít have the ability to read peopleís minds. In response, weak virtue theorists say that we look at peopleís actions as indicators of their character traits. For example, we spot whether a given action appears ill tempered. We then praise or blame the action based on whether it approaches the virtuous mean.

Second, critics argue that some acts are so intolerable, such as murder, that we must devise a special list of prohibited offenses. Virtue theory doesnít provide such a list. In response, it is easy for the weak virtue theorist to construct a list of such prohibited actions. When we assess how well a personís actions conform to the virtuous mean, it becomes evident that some actions are more blameworthy than others are. We then make a list of these actions. Although Aristotle doesnít provide a definitive list, he does note that certain vices are worse than others are. For example, in the above discussion of good-temper, he argues that the vice of ill temper is worse than the vice of spiritlessness. Also, other virtue theorists do provide short lists of prohibited actions that stem from serious vices, the most famous of which is the medieval list of seven deadly sins.

Finally, critics argue that virtue theory permits us to occasionally act badly, as long as the virtue in question remains intact. For example, virtue theory emphasizes long-term character traits, such as honesty or generosity. Because of this long-term emphasis, we might overlook particular lies or particular acts of selfishness on the grounds that they are only temporary departures from our overall dispositions. The weak virtue theorist has two responses to this charge. First, once we set virtues up as standards of praise and blame, we are in a position to judge every particular action that departs from a given virtuous standard. The occasional lie, for example, will stand out and call for judgment. Second, it may be a mistake to think that occasional departures such as white lies donít compromise virtuous character traits. With many virtues, to be virtuous means to always have exemplary conduct. For example, even a single act of marital infidelity sufficiently signals a lack of virtue. A politician who publicly lies even once loses the trust of the people. It may sometimes seem as though we can still be virtuous while occasionally acting unvirtuously, but this may only be a reflection of the morally challenged era in which we currently live.


The Best Teacher of Morality. Imagine that, as a parent, you want to teach your child that it is wrong to become inappropriately enraged. When your child is older, you donít want him to give in to road rage, beat his wife, or perform any other action that is the consequence of inappropriate anger. Imagine further that you had two teaching methods available. The first method established meticulous rules for what counts as inappropriate anger in virtually every circumstance. It also included rules describing the kinds of punishments that were justified for each type of violation. According to this first teaching method, your child would memorize all these rules so that, for each situation that arises, your child immediately knows the right thing to do. The second method doesnít focus on memorizing specific rules, but, instead, focuses on instilling good habits. Using various techniques, such as behavior modification, you teach your child to avoid inappropriate action and become habituated towards appropriate action. You also give him techniques so he can properly modify his behavior on his own, without your constant monitoring. All other factors being equal, which of these two methods would work best in preventing inappropriate anger? The habit-instilling method appears to be the winner.

Virtue theorists capitalize on the benefits of teaching morality through creating virtuous habits. They argue that the most important thing about studying ethics is its impact on conduct. Aristotle himself said that he wrote the Nichomachean Ethics "not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good." Detailed lists of rules in and of themselves donít make us better people, but instilling good habits does. In 1993, attorney William J. Bennett edited an anthology titled The Book of Virtues, which quickly became a best seller. The work contains classic stories and folk tales highlighting 10 virtues, including self-discipline, compassion, responsibility and friendship. Bennett says that the work is meant to assist in the "time-honored task of the moral education of the young." Among the essential elements of moral training, he notes that "Moral education must provide training in good habits. Aristotle wrote that good habits formed at youth make all the difference."

To a degree, the stark contrast between act/rule-based approaches to ethics and virtue-based approaches is artificial. Even staunch act/rule advocates, such as Bentham and Mill, recognize the importance of virtues in creating a personís inner sense of morality. Weak virtue theorists recognize that virtues are intimately related to moral rules. Also, the two methods of teaching morality noted above would probably overlap when carried out in practice. However, the almost complete disinterest in virtue theory among moral philosophers in the first half of the 20th century was a mistake. Society needs all the help it can get in improving its moral climate. To that end moral philosophers of all traditions should welcome the renewed contributions of virtue theory.



Quotation on road rage is from The Washington Post, Thursday, October 16, 1997.

Platoís discussion of the divisions of the soul is in the Republic Book 4.435, and his account of the unity of the virtues is in the Protagoras 349b.

The portions of Aristotleís theory presented here are from Nichomachean Ethics, Books 1-5.

John M. Cooper defends the interpretation that one function of practical wisdom is that it grasps our purpose; Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).

J.B. Schneewind describes the post-Renaissance decline of virtue theory as a matter of continual revision, rather than a matter of complete rejection; "The Misfortunes of Virtue" in Ethics, 1990, Vol. 101.

G.E.M. Anscombeís contemporary defense of virtue theory is in "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958), Philosophy, 1958, Vol. 33

Alasdair MacIntyreís contemporary defense of virtue theory is in After Virtue, second edition, (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984).

Nel Noddings discussion of feminist ethics and virtue theory is in "Ethics From the Stand Point of Women" in Woman and Vaules, ed. Marilyn Pearsall (Wadsworth)

Some of the contemporary criticisms of virtue theory are taken from Robert Louden "On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics" (1984), American Philosophical Quarterly, 1984, Vol. 21


Suggestions for Further Reading Aristotleís Ethics W. Hardie, Aristotle's Ethical Theory (Oxford University Press, 1980).

H.H. Joachim, Aristotle: The Nichomachean Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1954).

Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Amelie Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California Press, 1980).

W.D. Ross, Aristotle (Methuen, 1923).

Peter Simpson, "Contemporary Virtue theory and Aristotle," in The Review of Metaphysics, 1992, Vol. 45.

Virtue Theory Thomas Aquinas, "Treatise on Habits," in Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Questions 49-89

Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices, (University of California Press, 1978)

William Frankena, Ethics (Prentice-Hall, 1963), Chapter four

Peter French, ed., Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 13 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988)

R. Kruschwitz, ed., The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character (Wadsworth, 1987)

Greg Pence, "Recent Work on the Virtues," in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1984, Vol. 21


* * * *




Richard Cooper, an artist from Pennsylvania, often put images of himself in his paintings. In one work he painted a woman on the left side of the canvas, a man on the right side, and himself between the two. He depicted himself pivoting away from the woman and reaching toward the man. The painting represents a moment in Cooperís life when he resolved an ongoing struggle with his gender orientation. Although attracted to men even in his youth, he followed societyís expectations and dated women. Eventually the inner tension became too great and he acknowledged his homosexual leaning. Social attitudes about homosexuality have varied greatly throughout time. Ancient Greek literature, such as Platoís Symposium, describes homosexual relations between a master and his apprentice as commonplace. In a recent controversial work, John Boswell argues that during the early middle ages, the Catholic Church endorsed same-sex unions, which may have been a cover for homosexual activity. On the other hand, passages in the Jewish Old Testament take strong stands against homosexuality, stating that "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable" (Leviticus 18:22). A medieval Eastern religious text states in even stronger terms that it wouldnít be murder if anyone sees two men having sex with each other and, in a fit of rage, smashes their skulls with a rock.

American society today is somewhere in between these two extremes. We appreciate the social contributions of our overtly gay friends and acquaintances. Reflecting the value system of political correctness, several recent television situation comedies teach gay toleration and gay rights as a running theme. Yet, at the same time, most Americans resist the idea of officially endorsing homosexual marriages and some even publicly express revulsion at homosexual behavior. How we deal with homosexual family members is also revealing. One third of American teenagers who inform their parents of their homosexuality are thrown out of their houses. The most common criticism against homosexual behavior is that it is unnatural or abnormal for properly functioning people. But in what sense is homosexuality "unnatural" or "abnormal"? It canít merely mean that homosexual behavior falls outside the statistical mean of human behavior. Recent studies do show that regular homosexual activity is found in only about one percent of the population. However, many practices that we find morally acceptable are also statistical aberrations. Stamp collecting, deep-sea fishing, hang gliding, and thousands of other past times, are all practiced by only a small segment of the population. Similarly, we still condemn many behavioral practices even when they are practiced by a statistical majority of the people, such as marital infidelity. So, if homosexuality is wrong because it is "unnatural," it must be for reasons other than mere statistics. The natural law theory of morality offers a detailed account of what it means for an action to be natural or unnatural, and discussions of natural law frequently focus on homosexuality as an example of unnatural conduct.


Natural Law Theory. It is difficult to succinctly define natural law theory. It isnít a single theory, per se, but a system of several smaller theories. Further, over the years, natural law philosophers proposed different systems and it is hard to find features common to them all. Here, though, are some recurring points:



The notion of moral deduction is central to natural law theory. For example, suppose that God plants within me the intuition that "people ought to be sociable." I recognize that there are many kinds of actions that run contrary to this, such as murder, stealing and lying. I then deduce that these actions are wrong since they are not sociable. Deducing the immorality of even more specific actions is a greater challenge. For example, I might argue that it is immoral to own handguns since this creates an environment that leads to wrongful killings during domestic disputes, and this is contrary to the mandate to be sociable. However, if there are other ways that we can reduce these wrongful killings without banning handguns, then banning handguns isnít backed by natural law as much as is a simple prohibition against murder.

Natural law theory has its roots in ancient Greek thought, particularly Stoicism, which maintained that the world is governed by a rational principle, the logos; for Stoics, we are obligated to live according to this principle. The term "natural law" (ius naturale) appears sporadically in discussions of Roman law, in which it is a category of law distinct from civil and human law. However, the term "natural law" becomes prominent in early Christian thought and gains its fullest medieval expression in the writings of Italian Christian monk Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).


AQUINAS NATURAL LAW THEORY. Aquinasí account of natural law appears in his "Treatise on Law," a section of his several thousand page Summa Theologica (1a2ae q. 90-144). His discussion of natural law hinges on a distinction between four types of law: eternal law, natural law, human law and divine law. Eternal law is like a master database of all unchanging laws that God endorses when governing everyoneís actions. It includes general moral rules of conduct, such as "murder is wrong," and more particular rules, such as, "postal workers shouldnít gun down their supervisors." Only God, and not humans, has access to this complete master database. Natural law is a subset of eternal law and includes only general rules of conduct, such as "murder is wrong." Through rational intuition, all humans have access to these general rules. Human law is our attempt to deduce more specific rules, such as "postal workers shouldnít gun down their supervisors" from general rules of natural law, such as "murder is wrong." This is mainly the job of legislators. As long as governing bodies carefully and rationally deduce their laws from natural law, then these laws will also be part of eternal law. However, even the slightest error of reasoning may result in an improper human law. Finally, divine law is a divinely revealed subset of the eternal law that is meant to correct possible errors in our attempts to both obtain general principles of natural law and rationally deduce more particular human laws. We find principles of divine law, such as the Ten Commandments, in the Bible. All moral laws, whether discovered through intuition, deduced by legislators, or found in the scriptures, are ultimately grounded in the unchanging eternal law.


The Synderesis Principle. For Aquinas, we access the general principles of natural law through an intuitive faculty called synderesis. We donít need to believe in God for the synderesis faculty to give us knowledge of the natural law. It is an instinctive aspect of our reason with which everyone is created. Aquinas describes it as a weak instinctive habit, similar to religious faith, and he contrasts it with strong habits such as acquiring language (Q. 94, 1). The synderesis faculty feeds us a single general principle of natural law, which commentators conveniently call the synderesis principle. Aquinas explicitly states the synderesis principle here:


...every agent acts on account of an end, and to be an end carries the meaning of to be good. Consequently the first principle for the practical reason is based on the meaning of good, namely that it is what all things seek after. And so this is the first command of law, "that good is to be sought and done, evil to be avoided." All other commands of natural law are based on this. Accordingly, then, the commands of natural law extend to all doing or avoiding of things recognized by the practical reason of itself as being human goods. ... As converging on one common primary precept these various precepts of natural law all take on the nature of one natural law. [Q. 94, 2]


The synderesis principle, then, is that "good is to be sought and done, and evil to be avoided." At first, we might think that the synderesis principle is so general that it is almost useless. For, it seems true by definition that we should do good and avoid evil. To be meaningful, we need to know more precisely what counts as "good" and "evil." Fortunately, Aquinas helps us out by defining "good" as that which conforms to our proper human end:


...the good or evil of an action, as of other things, depends on its fullness of being or its lack of that fullness. Now the first thing that belongs to the fullness of being seems to be that which gives a thing its species. [Q. 18, 2]


Stated more simply, the synderesis principle is that we should do those things which are conducive to our proper end, and avoid those things that are not conducive to our proper end. The synderesis principle contains two distinct parts:


(1) If X is for a proper human end, then X ought to be done.

(2) If X is not for a proper human end, then X ought not to be done.


From these two parts we get two separate lists: actions that we should perform and actions that we should avoid. For simplicity, letís refer to these as the "pursue good" and "avoid evil" clauses respectively.


Primary, Secondary and Super-added Principles. The litmus test for our good pursuits is the extent to which an action is in accord with our proper human end. For Aquinas, we discover our proper human end by considering our most basic human natural inclinations. He lists these inclinations according to the three Aristotelian faculties of the human psyche: the vegetative, appetitive, and rational faculties. Corresponding to the vegetative faculty, we have an inclination for self-preservation. From our appetitive faculty, we have an inclination toward heterosexual activities, and an inclination to educate our offspring. Finally, according to our rational faculty, we have inclinations to be rational, know God, and live in society. For Thomas, these six inclinations comprise what is most proper for humans. Just as God implanted the synderesis principle within us, he also implanted these six inclinations within us. At this point, Godís task in implanting natural law is done, and it is up to us to draw out the implications of the synderesis principle combined with our natural inclinations.

From these six natural inclinations, six primary principles of natural law emerge: (1) preserve human life, (2) have heterosexual (as opposed to homosexual) intercourse, (3) educate your children, (4) shun ignorance, (5) worship God, and (6) avoid harming others. Aquinas notes specifically that divine law corroborates the last two of these: "you should love the Lord your God," and "you should love your neighbor" (Q. 100, 3 and 11). For Aquinas, this procedure of arriving at primary principles through natural inclinations involves logical deduction, specifically syllogistic deduction. The following illustrates this logical connection with the primary principle of avoiding harmful acts:


1. All acts that are unsuitable for human ends are acts that we should not do. ["avoid evil" clause of the synderesis principle]

2. All acts that harm others are acts that are unsuitable for human ends. [based on the observation that humans instinctively live in society]

3. Therefore, all acts that harm others are acts that we should not do. [primary principle]


From primary principles of natural law, such as "all acts that harm others are acts we should not do," we continue by deducing more specific secondary principles. At this stage, we enter the domain of human law. The deduction here is,


1. All acts that harm others are acts that we should not do. [primary principle]

2. All acts of unjustified killing are acts that harm others. [careful reflection]

3. Therefore, All acts of unjustified killing are acts that we should not do. [secondary principle]


When deducing secondary principles of human law, any point of departure makes a perversion in its connection with natural law. For this reason, unlike the primary principles, which can be deduced by everyone, secondary principles of human law require "careful reflection of wise people". To guard against corruption on this level, divine law has confirmed the most general precepts of human law in the 10 commandments.

The deductions from natural law continue with even more specific principles, which Aquinas calls super-added principles (praecepta moralia superaddita). These are derived directly from secondary moral principles. For example, from the secondary prohibition against theft, experts in law may deduce a super-added principle prohibiting fraud, which is a specific kind of theft. The force of natural law diminishes as we move to more and more particular principles. The reason is that specific cultures have their own views as to what counts as harm or theft. Plagiarism, for example, might not be considered stealing in some cultures, but would in ours.

Beginning with the "avoid evil" clause of the synderesis principle, the deduction of primary, secondary, and super-added principles is this:


1. All acts that are unsuitable for human ends are acts that we should not do. ["avoid evil" clause of the synderesis principle]

2. All acts that harm others are acts that are unsuitable for human ends. [based on the inclination of humans to live in society]

3. Therefore, all acts that harm others are acts we should not do. [primary principle of natural law]

4. All acts of stealing are harmful acts. [carefully reflected observation of wise people]

5. Therefore, all acts of stealing are acts we should not do. [secondary principle of human law]

6. All acts of fraud are acts of stealing. [observation by legal experts]

7. Therefore, All acts of fraud are acts we should not do. [super-added principle]


LIMITATIONS OF AQUINASíS THEORY. The lower half of Aquinasís deduction presents no serious problem. Once we start with established primary principles of morality, we easily understand how to make deductions to more specific cases until we arrive at a rule that applies to a case in point. Legal reasoning frequently follows this method of starting with general laws, and slowly moving down to more particular considerations. US Constitutional law, for example, begins with broad laws, such as the right of free speech in the Bill of Rights, and slowly derives from these more specific rules that apply to limited situations, such as flag burning. This notion of legal deduction is also important in Islamic law: general laws are taken from the Koran and Muslim tradition, and scholars derive more specific laws from these. The key problems with Aquinasís theory of natural law concern the first three steps in the deductive process. Letís look at three areas of difficulty related to these steps.


Our Proper End. The first area of difficulty is with the synderesis principle itself, namely, we should do those things that are conducive to our proper end, and avoid those things that are not conducive to our proper end. This assumes (1) that we have a "proper end," and (2) through rational intuition we recognize an obligation to pursue this end. Both of these are problematic. The concept of a "proper end" (telos) is borrowed from Aristotleís view of metaphysics. All natural objects, including human beings, have a built-in natural purpose. Understanding the world at large amounts to understanding that purpose. Aristotleís notion of "purpose" greatly influenced medieval philosophers such as Aquinas. However, beginning in the 16th century scientists challenged this view of the world by describing natural things in terms of physical and biological mechanisms that merely follow strict laws of nature. We understand natural things by uncovering physical laws, not by investigating the purpose of a thing.

During the 19th century, evolutionary theory dealt the deathblow to any lingering notions of natural purpose. According to evolutionary theory, biological organisms evolve over time based on environmental factors that weed out organisms less suited to survive in those specific conditions. For evolutionary theorists, there are no biological organisms that have fixed purposes. Species metamorphosize into other species and their characteristics are shaped by external environmental factors. Concerning assumption (2), the 19th century also saw the birth of the field of psychology, which provided more detailed study of human mental processes. Theorists at this time rejected the idea of a synderesis faculty that supposedly gives us a rational intuition of our proper end. These new theories of mechanics, evolution, and psychology donít refute the Aristotelian notion of purpose by exposing logical flaws in his theory. However, they offer alternative explanations of natural phenomena which we find more acceptable, and thereby incline us to reject the purpose-oriented explanations of Aristotle and Aquinas.


List of Natural Inclinations. A second area of difficulty with Aquinasís theory involves the list of natural inclinations that presumably define our proper end. Again, Aquinas emphasizes six specific natural inclinations: (1) self-preservation, (2) heterosexual activity, (3) educate oneís offspring, (4) rationality, (5) know God, and (6) and live in society. There are three specific problems linked with Aquinasís emphasis on natural inclinations. First, assuming that we have a proper end, why must we look to our natural inclinations to find this end? Aquinas again follows Aristotle on this point by linking our purpose (telos) with our natural function (ergon). Aristotle believes our human function is found specifically in the three divisions of our human psyche. However, there are other ways that we can understand our purpose, and perhaps it has nothing to do with natural function. Instead, according to many religious groups, our purpose may involve a special mission we are on for God, which is occasionally revealed through divinely inspired prophecies. Alternatively, according to science fiction fans, our purpose may involve simply being a stepping stone to the creation of a more perfect computer life form that will ultimately replace us. In short, there are alternative accounts of human purpose that we should explore before adopting Aristotleís view of purpose-as-function.

Second, Aquinasís list of functions is too selective. A genuine list of human inclinations would be much longer. If our list includes the inclination for sexual intercourse, then we should also include our inclination to eat food, to excrete waste outside of our sleeping area, to get angry, to laugh, to cry, or any other behavior that is linked with the natural release of hormones. By pre-selecting only these six, Aquinas reveals a special moral agenda he wishes to impose on the subject of our natural inclinations. If we adopt his restricted list, then we follow Aquinasís moral hunch, rather than genuine human inclination. Third, it is difficult to see how some of these count as "natural inclinations" or are "natural" for everyone. Modern psychology would question the natural basis of the inclination to "know God" which, instead, is a culturally shaped inclination based on varying conceptions of divine reality and religious institutions. The natural inclination toward heterosexual activity also presents problems. Researchers today believe that sexual orientation is largely a matter of genetic predisposition. Most humans are indeed genetically predisposed to heterosexual orientation. However, around 1 percent is predisposed to homosexual orientation and for them this is a natural inclination. Consequently, it is too simplistic to state as a rule that humans are naturally inclined toward heterosexual activity. Again, Aquinas advances a special moral agenda and doesnít present an objective list human inclinations.


Deducing Principles from Natural Inclinations. A third area of difficulty with Aquinasís natural law theory involves how we deduce moral principles from our six natural inclinations. He believes that these deductions are so easy that any human can make the inferences, and not just wise people or legal experts. However, many of these inferences are not particularly self-evident. For example, from the natural inclination toward self-preservation Aquinas infers that we should always preserve our lives and never resort to suicide, even when terminally ill. Similarly, from the natural inclination toward heterosexual activity, Aquinas infers that none of us should ever engage in homosexual activity. However, there are more modest inferences that we could make. For example, from the natural inclination toward self-preservation we might infer that we are justified in preserving our lives when attacked, as in cases of self-defense; however, other more pressing circumstances might override self-preservation, such as terminal illness. Similarly, for those who have the natural inclination toward heterosexual activity, we might infer that for them heterosexual intercourse is a justified form of human activity. It thus seems arbitrary for Aquinas to prefer his more extreme inferences to these more moderate ones. Aquinas would argue that our mental faculty of practical reason prompts us to make the more extreme inference. For a contemporary perspective, though, we can just as easily see this prompting as the result of personal and cultural bias.

In view of these three problem areas, since the Renaissance, mainstream philosophers ultimately abandoned Aquinasís account of natural law. Today his theory is principally defended by theologians in the Roman Catholic tradition, who still hold to Aristotelian notions of purpose, natural inclinations, and practical reason.


OCKHAMíS VOLUNTARISM. Medieval philosophers after Aquinas adopted several aspects of his natural law theory, but they raised questions about the ultimate source of moral values. Aquinas believed that, although God endorses the moral principles of natural law, God doesnít literally author these principles. Instead, moral principles are rational laws that exist independently of God. God simply adopts moral principles because (a) moral principles are rational, and (b) God is a rational being. Since God created humans as rational creatures, then we too can rationally intuit morality. This position is called intellectualism since it holds to the independent rational status of moral principles. Other medieval philosophers took an opposing view called voluntarism, which is that moral principles of natural law are not independent rational principles. Instead, they are creations of Godís will. The difference in opinion between intellectualism and voluntarism is encapsulated in a riddle posed by Plato in his dialog The Euthyphro. In the dialog, Socrates debates with a young religious fanatic named Euthyphro on the nature of religious obedience and poses this question to Euthyphro:


Are good things good because the gods approve of them, or do the gods approve of them because they are good?


In this riddle, Socrates presents two options regarding the relation between God and morality. The first option is that of voluntarism: something becomes good when God wills that it is good. The second option is that of intellectualism: good things are objectively good, and God merely recognizes them as such. The genus of Platoís riddle is that, assuming that God has an interest in morality, these are the only two choices available for explaining the connection between God and morality. Further, since we canít endorse both voluntarism and intellectualism at the same time, we are locked into choosing one or the other.

The most extreme medieval advocate of voluntarism was William of Ockham (1285-1349). According to Ockham, God has absolute power and a totally free will. Virtually unconstrained, God first freely wills a specific conception of morality, and then institutes these values through his absolute power. Our conduct is moral or immoral to the extent that we violate Godís will as instituted through his creative power. For Ockham, we know Godís commands through a natural intuitive faculty that informs us of God creative activity.


Argument from Revoking Established Moral Standards. Ockhamís voluntarism creates a paradox: if morality is a creation of Godís will, then God could will whatever moral values he wants, even the exact opposite of present moral values. For example, although God in fact mandates that stealing is wrong, God could have made stealing morally permissible. So too for killing, lying, marital infidelity and even disrespect towards God himself. So, Godís moral commands seem arbitrary. Ockham is willing to accept this paradox and all of its strange implications. For example, Ockham argues that, although God will in fact punish us for being immoral, nothing requires him to do so. And, supposing that we didnít repent, God could still grant us forgiveness and not punish us, if thatís what God wanted to do. Ockham takes this line of reasoning a step further and suggests that on at least one occasion, God in fact did change the moral rules for someone. According to Ockham, God willed for humankind to be in a condition of original sin, that is, a condition in which we are naturally unable to be righteous. However, at the same time God willed that Mary the mother of Jesus should have the natural ability to be righteous and be totally exempt from original sin. Mary, then, was immaculately conceived in a state of perfection.

Other defenders of voluntarism give illustrations from the Hebrew Bible in which several of the Hebrew patriarchs commit seemingly immoral acts at God's command. Before leaving Egypt, the Israelites are command by God to steal vessels from the Egyptians. Hosea is commanded by God to have sex with an adulteress. The most dramatic of these is when God commands Abraham offer his son as a human sacrifice. At the last minute, as Abrahamís knife is raised in the air, God provides an animal as a substitute. Nevertheless, Abrahamís intent is already fixed and he attempts to carry out the act in accord with Godís will. Stories like these show how God temporarily revokes previously established moral standards for special purposes. The implication, then, is that moral standards are creations of God. Put more formally, the argument is this:


    1. If God has the ability to temporarily revoke a moral standard, then he has the power to freely create moral standards.
    2. Some divinely inspired texts depict God as temporarily revoking a previously established moral standard.
    3. Therefore, God has the power to freely create moral standards.

The greatest limitation of this argument is that it carries weight only for believers within a religious tradition who recognize the authority of specific scriptures. In the case of Old Testament stories from the Bible, there is a sizable number of believers in the authority of these texts, and these people might be compelled by the above argument. Still, since this argument rests on a faith commitment to the authority of Biblical texts, we can say little more about its philosophical merits.


The Argument from Sovereignty. The most compelling philosophical reason to accept Ockhamís voluntarism is rooted in the notion of divine sovereignty, that is, the belief that God has absolute control over the universe. For traditional believers, the idea of a God with limited power doesnít make much sense. Who would want to believe in a puny God with limited powers? Instead, believers will want to ascribe to God as much power as possible, including creative power over moral principles. There are two components to this argument, one psychological, and the other logical. From the psychological standpoint, a dedicated believer motivated by a sense of devotion should want to attribute as much sovereignty to God as possible, including power over moral principles. From a logical standpoint, the argument from sovereignty is this:


    1. If a being is absolutely sovereign, then all things depend on the free will and creative power of that being, including moral principles.
    2. An absolutely sovereign God exists.
    3. Therefore, moral principles depend on the free will and creative power of God.

Assuming that an absolutely sovereign God exists, the success of this argument depends on the definition of absolute sovereignty in premise (1). As presently worded, absolute sovereignty means that God has creative control over all things. However, determining the exact parameters of "absolute sovereignty" is more difficult than it first seems. Consider four kinds of laws:



Should the believer maintain that God has the power to freely create all four kinds of these laws? Concerning physical laws, most theologians quickly grant that God has creative control over the structure of the physical world and the rules that govern it. However, mathematical and logical laws involve a greater problem. If we say that God has the power to make 2+2=4, then God would also have the power to make 2+2=5. And this seems absurd. Similarly, if we say that God has the power to create logical laws such as the law of contradiction above, then he also has the power to institute the opposite law. So, for example, he could do contradictory things like make the Empire State Building exist and not exist at the same time, or, for that matter, God could make himself exist and not exist at the same time.

Most philosophers who address this issue reject the view that God has power over mathematics and logic. Both Aquinas and Ockham held that God canít perform logically contradictory tasks, such as creating married bachelors or a round squares. However, such philosophers donít see this as a restriction on Godís sovereignty, since no possible being can perform logically contradictory tasks. The big issue, then, is determining whether moral laws are more like physical laws, which God has control over, or more like mathematical and logical laws, which God doesnít have control over. For Aquinas, moral laws are more like mathematics and logic, which God has no control over. Ockham, though, sees moral laws as more like physical laws, which God does have control over. Barring logical and mathematical contradictions, God simply wills things as he pleases, and this includes moral laws.


Criticisms of Voluntarism. Defenders of voluntarism have noble motives. They wish to acknowledge as much of Godís power as possible, and acknowledge the authority of scriptures in which God temporarily revokes a previously established standard of morality. However, their religious zeal exposes them to a series of criticisms from both nonbelievers and more moderate believers. Letís note three problems. First, Kai Nielsen, a contemporary critic of voluntarism, argues that the burden of proof is on the voluntarist to show that there can be no morality if God doesnít exist. However, the believer canít do this. The believer may argue that a world without God is lonely, full of despair, without purpose, and without hope of immortality. But, Nielsen argues, life would still have particular purposes, such as the joys of music, family, and friendship. These are sufficient to establish a meaningful notion of morality.

Second, even though voluntarism holds that morality foundationally rests on the will of God, accepting voluntarism actually requires a prior standard of moral judgment that is independent of Godís will. For example, suppose that the voluntarist stipulates that we find God's moral commands either in scripture or through a natural intuition. This, however, requires a prior conception of morality to judge that a specific text or a specific natural intuition is indeed a manifestation of Godís moral command. This prior conception of morality, then, must be independent of God and God's revelation. Further, the believer's choice to worship God shows that the believer is using an independent standard of goodness by which she deems God worthy of worship. Even if the believer claims that through faith alone she believes God is worthy of worship, her actual behavior shows that she is in fact appealing to an independent standard of goodness.

Finally, critics argue that if God does create moral goodness, then we canít meaningfully say about God himself that "God is morally good." According to voluntarism, "moral goodness" simply means "that which God ordains." Translated, then, the statement "God is morally good" simply means, "God ordains that which he ordains." The notion of moral goodness is now completely lost. This is especially a problem for traditional believers who emphasize Godís moral goodness; for them, God wouldnít be much better than an absolutely powerful bully if he lacked moral goodness. Voluntarists have sometimes responded by claiming that the statement "God is morally good" is true by definition, in the same way that the statement "wives are women" is true by definition. In response, Nielsen argues that this strategy doesnít help. For, the terms "God" and "morally good" are not identical, and to understand that statement "God is morally good" we need a prior understanding of moral goodness that is independent of God.


GOD AND MORALITY. Both Aquinas and Ockham held that God is an important component in morality and for centuries most moral philosophers agreed. Virtually no one publicly questioned the existence of God until the 18th century, and philosophers commonly held that no true atheists either did exist or could exist. So, the climate was well suited for mixing morality and religious belief. Since then, however, the tables have turned regarding the connection between religion and morality. Scientifically minded philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries attempted to create a science of ethics, which, like the physical sciences, stood independently of religious doctrines. Several philosophers and scientists publicly affirmed atheism or agnosticism and this further established a secular agenda for moral philosophy, which we have inherited. An academic book on ethics published today might not contain the word "God" even once. In fact, the tables have turned so much that contemporary moral philosophers hold with suspicion, simply dismiss, or even ridicule those who vocalize religious ethics.

What, though, is so bad about linking morality with God? On one level, the religious ethics of Aquinas and Ockham is a purely academic issue with little immediate practical implication. For Aquinas, God simply endorses the same rational moral standard that any other rational being would also endorse, including humans. Aquinas would argue that we donít even need to believe in God for our reason to properly uncover natural law. To a degree, this is also the case for Ockham. Even though God freely creates moral standards as he pleases, Ockham argues that we gain knowledge of these divinely created moral standards through a natural intuitive faculty. Since I have this faculty regardless of whether I personally believe in God, then, just like the believer, I too will intuit these proper moral standards. It is true that Aquinas and Ockham both believe that God encourages us to be moral, and will punish us for immoral conduct. This, they believe, has an impact on our motivation to be moral. However, as long as the believer rationally justifies a moral view, then the component of divine punishment simply adds an exclamation point to his view. It is like saying, "Stealing is wrong and, by the way, God will punish you if you steal." This, though, isnít much different than saying "Stealing is wrong and, by the way, the cops will get you if you steal."


Common Criticisms of Religious Ethics. Critics donít seem upset about the above aspects of religious ethics as found in Aquinasís and Ockhamís theories. The criticís main concern arises when the believer merely stipulates something like "homosexuality is detestable to God." When pressed, the believer might justify his statement by appealing to the Bible, his religious tradition, or his religious conscience. Again, though, we must ask, what is so bad about this? There are three criticisms that the opponent of religious ethics might give. First, appealing to religious intuitions on moral issues is a conversation stopper. We would like to at least dialog on an issue, but we canít since the believer quickly appeals to his foundational and non-negotiable religious assumption. In response, the believer maintains that there is room for dialog within his religious tradition, but that the critic stops the conversation with his secular viewpoint. In one sweep, the critic shuts off an entire range of religious-based discourse because of his own foundational and non-negotiable secular assumptions. If there is a stoppage of conversation, much of the fault rests with the critic.

Second, the critic might argue that the believerís chain of reasoning is not long enough, and rests too quickly on his foundational religious assumption. Proper ethical decisions involve detailed reasoning such as we find in Aquinasís moral deduction of natural law. The typical believer, on the other hand, has a one-step reasoning process: homosexuality, for example, is wrong because the believerís religious intuitions tell him so. In response, other nonreligious moral theories also have a one-step reasoning process. An act utilitarian, for example, might argue that it is wrong to torture animals since this increases the quantity of pain in the world. A rights theorist might argue that stealing my car is wrong since it violates my property rights. What is relevant in these cases is (a) the strength of the initial moral standard, such as the importance of reducing pain, and (b) the applicability of the moral standard to a given issue, such as torturing animals. So, if we dismiss religious ethics because it involves a one-step reasoning process, then we must also dismiss many secular theories.

Finally, the critic might argue that the believer blindly perpetuates bigotry when pronouncing, for example, that "homosexuality is detestable to God." Bigotry is certainly bad, and homosexuals have sadly been the recipients of more than their fair share of bigotry. But if there is a link between bigotry and religious ethics it is at most a sociological connection, and not a logical one. Religious intuitions donít logically entail that one must single out and unjustly condemn specific groups of people. And even from a sociological perspective, it is not immediately clear that believers in religious ethics tend more towards bigotry than does the population as a whole. Unless such a connection can be established through responsible sociological studies, then it is bigotry itself to dismiss proponents of religious ethics for being bigots, simply on the basis of a hunch.

Critics of religious ethics may be bothered by appeals to religious intuitions for additional reasons. However, critics are not justified in declaring a monopoly on the field of ethics by restricting it to only nonreligious approaches which, historically, are relatively recent, and, geographically, are confined mostly to Western culture. In todayís secular environment, the believer undoubtedly limits his audience by appealing to religious intuitions in moral matters. For example, if I debate the issue of womenís rights with a Muslim and he appeals to the Koran for his perspective, his appeal will carry little weight for me. However, we must distinguish between arguing to win a debate, and arguing to justify a moral view. We can only expect the latter of anyone making ethical choices and, in their own contexts, at least some religious appeals are legitimate justifications. There are, though, limits to religious appeals. First, religious appeals wonít be morally binding for nonbelievers who question fundamental points about religion, such as the existence of God. Second, believers should consider that there are limits to the authority of religious appeals even for themselves. Interpretations of scripture change, religious organizations redefine their doctrines, and an individualís religious conscience often shifts over the years. So, even for the believer, religious assessments of moral matters should be viewed in light of this changing backdrop.



John Boswellís account of medieval church attitudes towards homosexuality is in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, (New York: Villard, 1994).

A more detailed account of Aquinasís theory is in James Fieserís "The Logic of Natural Law in Aquinas' 'Treatise on Law,'" Journal of Philosophical Research, 1992, Vol. 17, pp. 147-164.

Ockhamís view of Godís freedom and morality is found in his Commentary on the Sentences, Book 3, Questions 8 and 12.

Philip Quinn presents contemporary version of the argument from revoking established moral standards and the argument from sovereignty; "The primacy of God's Will in Christian Ethics" in Philosophical Perspectives, 1992, Vol. 6, pp. 493-513.

Although most theological philosophers appear to reject the view that God can do contradictory things, two noted exceptions are 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes and contemporary philosopher Michael Loux.

Kai Nielsen attack on voluntarism is in "God and the Basis of Morality" The Joumal of Religious Ethics, 1982, Vol. 10, pp. 333-350.


Suggestions for Further Reading Aquinas R.A. Armstrong, Primary and Secondary Precepts in Thomistic Natural Law Teaching (Martinus Nijhoff, l966).

Vernon J. Bourke, "Is Aquinas a Natural Law Ethicist?," in The Monist, 1974, Vol. 58.

F.C. Copleston, Aquinas, (Penguin Books, 1955).

James Fieser, "The Logic of Natural Law in Aquinas' 'Treatise on Law,'" in Journal of Philosophical Research, 1992, Vol. 17.

D.J. O'Connor, Aquinas and Natural Law, (London: MacMillan, 1968).

Voluntarism (Divine Command Theory) Robert M. Adams, "A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness," in The Virtue of Faith (Oxford, 1987).

Janine M. Idziak, "In Search of 'Good Positive Reasons' for an Ethics of Divine Commands: a Catalogue of Arguments," in Faith and Philosophy, 1989, Vol. 6.

Michael Levin, "Understanding the Euthyphro Problem, in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 1989, Vol. 25.

Richard J. Mouw, The God who Commands (University of Notre Dame, 1990).

Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Pemberton, 1973).

Philip L. Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Clarendon, 1978).


* * * *




INTRODUCTION. On April 19, 1995 a terrorist car bomb exploded outside of a nine story federal office building in Oklahoma City. The explosion was so powerful that people in buildings several blocks away were thrown from their chairs and others 30 miles away could feel the blastís vibration. About 550 people were inside the federal building at the time, and 168 of those people were crushed to death by the collapsed structure, making the explosion the worst terrorist activity on US soil. The FBI immediately distributed composite drawings of two bombing suspects and within days the bombers were identified as 27 year old Timothy McVeigh, a former Army mechanic, and 39 year old Terry Nichols. Both McVeigh and Nichols had ties with anti-government paramilitary organizations. These organizations opposed government gun control efforts and were hostile to any freedom-restricting activities of the federal government. McVeigh and Nichols intended the bombing as a message: the federal government canít take away our freedom.

The Oklahoma City bombing is among the saddest events in recent US history, and the bombersí callous disregard for human life violates everything we know about morality. One troubling aspect about this tragedy is its underlying ideological message, part of which we accept as freedom-lovers, and part of which we reject for its extremism. According to many anti-government groups, we establish governments to perform only a limited range of tasks, principally protection from outside invasion. However, the US government pushes its authority beyond its established purpose by unjustly restricting peopleís freedoms. This justifies resistance, which even the US Declaration of Independence endorses: "Ö whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends [i.e., rights to life, liberty and happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new governmentÖ."

The underlying philosophy here is that of social contract theory. In its less extreme form, social contract theory is both a legitimate and historically important account of political and moral obligation. Briefly, social contract theory describes a disease, and then proposes a cure. The disease is that humans have unsociable tendencies and are unable to construct and live in cooperative societies. The cure is that we contractually agree to be civil to each other under threat of punishment from a governing body that we establish for this purpose. This mutual contract then becomes the backbone for our moral obligations to each other. Philosophers proposed many versions of this theory over the centuries. Plato hints at a social contract theory in his great dialog The Republic. A skeptical character in that dialog named Glaucon argues that people are naturally inclined to exploit each other. Since I donít like being exploited, then I agree not to exploit others on the condition that others donít exploit me. This, for Glaucon, becomes the basis of the rules of justice. The first detailed account of social contract theory appeared years later in the writings of British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).


HOBBESíS THEORY. Hobbes presents his social contract theory in a series of works, the most famous of which is The Leviathan (1651). The term "Leviathan" refers to a large mythological sea creature as depicted in the Hebrew Old Testament and earlier Canaanite mythology. For Hobbes, the powerful governing body that we establish for protection is like the giant Leviathan. The Old Testament describes the great sea creature as the "king over all the children of pride." Similarly, Hobbes sees that the government is the king over prideful people insofar as our human pride forces us to create a government for own protection.


State of Nature. A common story line in science fiction movies is that modern society crumbles because of a nuclear world war or a colossal ecological disaster. A few isolated surviving humans forage through the ruins of destroyed cities, hoping to find a stray can of food, a container of gasoline, or a box of bullets. Every contact with another human is a life or death struggle to acquire the other personís goods. Rather than looking into the future to describe a post-apocalyptic world, Hobbes instead looks to the distant past and asks us to imagine what life might have been like before there were any governing bodies. The condition that Hobbes describes is as selfish and brutal as any science fiction story. Hobbes calls this primitive condition "the state of nature." Hobbes isnít describing an actual time in human history, but offers this thought experiment only to highlight the limits of our human nature and how our unsocial inclinations affect our interaction with others.

Hobbes argues that, in this state of nature, we are roughly equal to each other in both intellectual cunning and physical strength. Intellectually, we all gain knowledge through experience and, given enough time and effort, we can all rise to a decent intellectual level. Physically, although someone might be able to beat me in an arm wrestling contest, I can easily overpower him when he is asleep. Although intellectual and physical equality might seem to be good things, in the state of nature they only perpetuate struggle. If someone stood out with superhuman physical abilities, such as Superman, then he could simply take control and force people to cooperate. Perhaps the same thing could happen if someone stood out with superhuman intellectual abilities. But since weíre all equal in the state of nature, no one will naturally emerge who can take charge.

In view of our equality, Hobbes notes three factors that immediately cause us to quarrel. First, we equally desire things that are in limited supply. All of us seek after the basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. If all of my physical needs in life could be met by simple reaching up and picking things off a tree, then there would be no need to engage in conflict with anyone. The reality of the situation, though, is otherwise. Necessities are in limited supply, which makes us attack each other in a competition for survival. Through violence, then, we seek to subdue "menís persons, wives, children, and cattle." The second cause of quarrel is that, once we acquire some goods, we are immediately distrustful of people who come near us and thus we will attack them. This isnít merely paranoia, but a necessary means of protecting things that weíve acquired. When people win large amounts of money in a lottery, they are often inundated with scam artists who try to defraud them of their winnings with shady investment opportunities. The more distrustful I am of outsiders, the better Iíll be able to retain what Iíve acquired. In the state of nature, this distrust translates into violence. The third cause of quarrel is that I will attack someone simply to preserve my reputation as a tough guy that people shouldnít mess around with. If my reputation diminishes, then others will see me as easy prey.

The consequence of all this is a state of war of all against all. It includes actual wars as well as anticipated wars that, similar to the cold war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, involve constant military posturing. Hobbes's description of this state of war is one of the most famous passages in philosophy:


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. [Leviathan, Ch. 13].


What kind of morality is there in this state of nature? In a word, none! Hobbes argues that in this condition the "notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place." It is a moral free-for-all in which we have rights to do whatever we want. It is a condition in which "every person has a right to everything, even to one another's body." Hobbes offers several examples from ordinary life situations to prove his gloomy description of human nature. When we go on trips we take guns with us for protection against robbers. When we go to bed at night we lock our cabinets to keep our housekeepers and even our own children from stealing from us. And we do this even with the protection of the police and the court systems. Also, when we consider that individual countries around the world are like independent people, we see that countries are always poised for war to defend themselves against invaders who would plunder their resources.


The Laws of Nature. The state of nature that Hobbes describes is so gloomy that we have good reasons to rise above that condition if possible. None of us wants to die violently; we all want decent living conditions; we also carry hopes that we can improve our living condition through work. We canít fulfill any of these desires until we achieve peace, and Hobbes next describes what we need to do to secure such peace. This part of his discussion is influenced by natural law theory, particularly the version developed by Dutch politician Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). In his work The Law of War and Peace (1625), Grotius explains that (1) there are fixed moral laws of nature that are binding on everyone world wide; (2) we can rationally deduce these laws of nature by reflecting on our human nature; and (3) we set up governing bodies to ensure that we follow these moral mandates of natural law and thus live peacefully. Hobbes not only follows Grotiusís basic solution to securing peace, but he also adopts the language of natural law theory. For Hobbes, then, we get out of the state of nature by following laws of nature. Hobbes lists 15 distinct laws of nature that facilitate ending conflict and securing peace, the first three of which are the most important.

Hobbes describes the first law of nature as this:


Öevery person 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.


This first law of nature tells us that we should seek peace, and defend ourselves if we canít achieve peace. The binding nature of this law is clear: we all wish to survive, and peace is the best way to survive. When peace fails, we need to defend ourselves.

The second law of nature describes more precisely how we achieve peace with each other. We saw that in the state of nature "every person has a right to everything, even to one another's body." Imagine that each of us carried around a bag with slips of paper that listed all of our respective rights in the state of nature. The rights that I have in the state of nature are almost infinite in number and allow me complete liberty. For example, I might pull one slip out of my bag that says that I have a right to hop around on one foot. I might pull another slip out that says that I have the right to kill you. The second of these rights surely worries you. However, in your rights bag, you have a similar slip of paper that says that you have the right to kill me, and that worries me. As long as we both hold onto our rights to kill each other, we can never achieve peace. The second law of nature says that you and I should agree to give up those specific rights that threaten each of us respectively. We should do this with all rights that breed hostility, such as my rights to kill you, steal from you, to lie to you, or assault you. We should also do this with any person that is willing to cooperate with us. In short, the second law of nature tells us "Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself." Why should I be willing to give up any of my personal rights? Because my survival depends on it. However, Hobbes implies that we should only mutually give up those rights that are necessary for securing peace. For example, my right to hop around on one foot has no bearing on the peace process, so I shouldnít give up that right.

The third law of nature is that "people perform their covenants made, without which, covenants are in vain, and but empty words." That is, even if you and I have the best of intentions and we plan on giving up our hostile rights forever, we must actually abstain from those hostilities, otherwise we are still in the state of nature. Assuring that we abide by our agreements is tricky. I will always be looking for ways to cheat the system, and I can only assume that you will to. Our verbal agreement alone isnít enough, and we both need some extra motivation to follow through on our agreements. The solution is that we both agree to give unlimited power to a political authority that will punish us if we break our agreements. This means that you and I must give up a few more of our rights and hand them over to this political authority. But it is worth it if this is the only way to guarantee our contractual arrangement, which in turn ends the state of nature.

The remaining 12 laws of nature are principally rules of diplomacy that preserve peaceful coexistence once it gets going. The fourth law tells us that we should show gratitude toward others who comply with contracts. If we donít, then others might regret participating in the contract. The fifth law is that we should compromise on minor issues that serve the larger interests of society. If we debate every little issue, then the peace process grinds to a halt.


Political Theory and Moral Theory. Hobbesís theory serves double duty as both a political theory that justifies the existence of a government, and also a moral theory that tells us specifically about our moral obligations. As a political theory, Hobbesís social contract theory maintains that governments are the creations of people, and not the creations of God. The complete justification of a governmentís existence is its role as preserver of the peace. This implies that, if a government substantially fails at its peace-keeping role, then citizens may justly overthrow the government. In its role as peace preserver, governments are not entitled to restrict its citizensí rights beyond what citizens have given up in the social contract. The governments that we establish can be monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies, although Hobbes believes that monarchies will be the most effective in preserving peace.

As a moral theory, scholars debate about the precise details of Hobbesís view. Two features, though, seem prominent. First, morality isnít a permanent feature of the nature of things but is only a creation of the social contract. We saw that in the state of nature "notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place." The notions of morality that emerge through the laws of nature are contractual agreements. In this regard, Hobbes is a moral skeptic insofar as he holds that moral principles have no objective foundation independent of human society.

The second feature of Hobbesís moral theory is that our specific moral obligations are intimately linked with the 15 laws of nature. For example, the third law of nature maintains that we should keep our contracts. When we do this, we have the moral virtue of justice, and when we fail to do this we have the moral vice of injustice. Similarly, the fourth law of nature is that we should show gratitude towards those who keep their contracts. When we follow this fourth law, we have the virtue of gratitude and when we fail to do so we have the vice of ingratitude. Other virtues that Hobbes lists are sociability, modesty, equity, and mercy, each linked directly with one of the 15 laws of nature. Hobbes also notes that his theory recognizes the same virtues as traditional virtue theories, such as Aristotleís, which includes courage and fortitude. So, Hobbes writes that "the science of virtue and vice is moral philosophy, and therefore the true doctrine of the Laws of Nature is the true moral philosophy." There are two important implications to Hobbesís virtue account of morality. First, the job of moral philosophy is to find out specifically which virtuous character traits facilitate adherence to the various laws of nature. Second, our job as morally responsible people is to cultivate virtuous character traits since, if we donít, we place the peace of society at risk.

Here are the main points of Hobbesís theory:



CRITICISMS OF HOBBES. Shortly after Hobbesís writings appeared, dozens of negative reactions were published that criticized almost every point of his theory. Theologically minded critics attacked Hobbes for eliminating Godís role in authoring laws of nature and in motivating humans to be mutually cooperative. Charges of atheism and irreligion were so strong that several bishops reportedly discussed burning Hobbes to death. Fortunately for Hobbes, threats of this nature never materialized. For decades after his death, Hobbes was the principal target of criticism among moral and political philosophers. Several critics focused on the conceptual problems underlying the notion of a "contract," such as we see in the following from British political philosopher William Godwin (1736-1836):


Upon the first statement of the system of a social contract various difficulties present themselves. Who are the parties to this contract? For whom did they consent, for themselves only, or for others? For how long a time is this contract to be considered as binding? If the consent of every individual be necessary, in what manner is that consent to be given? Is it to be tacit, or declared in express terms? [Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book 3, Ch. 2]


We will look at four criticisms that are directed at central moral features of Hobbesís theory.


Hydeís Criticism: Morality is Immutable and Eternal. We saw that, for Hobbes, traditional moral values are nonexistent in the state of nature and that morality is a creation of the social contract. Although Hobbes is bold in denying morality in the state of nature, he fudges the issue a little when describing the invented status of morality within the social contract. In fact, he goes so far as to say that "The Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal." Traditionally, when philosophers such as Grotius claimed that morality is "eternal" and "immutable" they meant that moral values are universal and unchanging, and are not creations of human convention. Hobbesís choice of the words "immutable" and "eternal" was probably politically motivated, in an attempt to avoid condemnation from conservative critics. If so, Hobbesís ruse was not successful. Edward Hyde (1609-1674), a British politician and contemporary acquaintance of Hobbes, criticizes that Hobbesís laws of nature are not at all "immutable" and "eternal" in the usual philosophical understanding of those terms:


If nature has thus providently provided for the peace and tranquillity of her children, by laws immutable and eternal that are written in their hearts, how come they to fall into that condition of war, as to be every one against every one, and to be without any other cardinal virtues, but of force and fraud?


According to Hyde, even the content of Hobbesís laws of nature reveal that they are not immutable and eternal in the traditional sense:


But where are those maxims to be found -- which Mr. Hobbes declares and publishes to be the laws of nature -- in any other author before him? That is only properly called "the law of nature" [when] that is dictated to the whole speciesÖ.


Hyde has two complaints against Hobbes. First, Hobbes in reality denies the immutable and eternal nature of morality, as seen in Hobbesís depiction of the state of nature. Second, Hobbes tries to flimflam us by describing the laws of nature as immutable and eternal, when Hobbes clearly doesnít mean it. Hobbes must plead guilty on both of these charges. However, from todayís perspective, neither of these charges are as bad as Hyde makes them to be. As to Hydeís first charge, philosophers today typically donít describe moral principles as "immutable" and "eternal." To do so requires that we postulate some eternal realm in which moral principles permanently exist Ė a realm completely outside of human society. This requires more metaphysical speculation than philosophers today are comfortable with.

As to Hydeís second complaint, even flimflamming on key terminology is defensible. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, philosophers, theologians, and scientists could be imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for publishing controversial ideas. The most famous example of this is the case of Italian astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) in which, under threat of torture, Galileo retracted his sun-centered views of the heavens. Sometimes controversial authors could appease religious and political authorities by simply being diplomatic in their choice of words. Hobbes was concerned about negative reactions from authorities, and it is reasonable to see his choice of the terms "immutable" and "eternal" as an act of diplomacy.

We can also see Hobbesís choice of these words as an attempt to scientifically redefine traditional moral vocabulary. Like astronomers and other scientists of his time, Hobbes hoped to break from medieval traditions and set his area of inquiry on a new and more scientifically rigorous course. The context of Hobbesís comments about the immutable and eternal nature of morality show how he tried to redirect discussions on the nature of morality:


The Laws of Nature are immutable and eternal. For injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, iniquity, acception of persons, and the rest, can never be made lawful. For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.


The laws of nature are "immutable and eternal" to the extent that they are required for making peace, and, as a matter of human nature, we all want peace. Hobbes, then, shifts the discussion of moral truths from a mysterious eternal realm of things to the observable realm of human nature. In the end, the history of philosophy shows that the terms "immutable" and "eternal" did not take to redefining and, instead, simply dropped out of use.


Butler's First Criticism: Self-love is not the Only Motive. A running theme in Hobbesís theory is that humans are inherently selfish. First, in the state of nature, we will take what we need to survive, with no thought of othersí needs. Second, in negotiating a state of peace with others, we wonít voluntarily give up our rights to hurt others unless others do the same for us. Third, even if we etch out a peaceful agreement with others, we canít rely on the agreement unless the threat of punishment hangs over us. Finally, all laws of nature and moral virtues are driven by our desire to survive. Hobbes also makes direct statements that show our inherently selfish side:


"... of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself" (Leviathan, 14:8).

"All society therefore is either for gain, or for glory; that is, not so much for love of our fellows, as for the love of ourselves" (Citizen, 1:2)


In addition to general statements about human selfishness such as these, Hobbes argues further that our seemingly selfless feelings actually reduce to selfishness. Suppose, for example, that I see a cancer victim and feel pity for him. For Hobbes, that feeling of pity actually arises from me imagining how I would feel if I had cancer. In Hobbesís words, "Pity is imagination or fiction of future calamity to ourselves proceeding from the sense of another manís calamity."

The issue here involves a theory of human motivation that philosophers call psychological egoism. Most generally, psychological egoism is the view that all human actions are selfishly motivated. Philosophers after Hobbes were troubled by his insistence that humans are fundamentally selfishly motivated. In a series of famous sermons, British philosopher and theologian Joseph Butler (1692-1752) presented the classic attack on this aspect of Hobbesís theory. According to Butler, the heart of the issue is whether we are motivated only by self-love. Butler argues that humans are motivated by a variety of inclinations, and self-love is only one of many. Some human inclinations might superficially appear to be the same as self-love, such as hunger and esteem, but they are indeed different inclinations. Suppose, for example, that I am hungry and I eat a sandwich. Suppose that I even enjoy the experience of eating the sandwich. My motivation here is simply hunger and not self-love, since even if I hate myself I would still be motivated to eat and enjoy the sandwich. Similarly, with esteem, even if I hate myself, I could still desire to be valued by other people. According to Butler, Hobbesís mistake was to reduce all motives to the single theme of self-love.

Butler is correct that the issue of human motivation becomes tangled when we fail to properly distinguish between self-love and other inclinations, such as hunger and esteem. However, Hobbes did not do this. In fact, Hobbes meticulously analyzes a range of human desires, highlighting their unique characteristics. At most, Hobbes appears to say that all actions arise from a large set of self-oriented motives, but not that they all arise from a single foundational motive such as self-love. Our self-oriented motives include pleasure, pride, vanity, glory, fear, self-love, and a variety of desires that incline us to survive and make the best of our lives.

Even though Hobbes didnít claim that all actions are motivated only by self-love, what he does say is still egoistic. By and large, our public actions are driven by some self-oriented motive, and this is enough to throw us into a warring state of nature.


Butlerís Second Criticism: Some Actions are Benevolently Motivated. In the same set of sermons, Butler offers another line of attack against Hobbesís view of selfish motivation. Specifically, according to Butler, Hobbes fails to recognize that we are sometimes motivated by pure benevolence. Benevolence is the inclination to act on behalf of others, and, for Butler, it seems clear that actions such as charity are motivated by benevolence, and not by self-love -- or any other self-oriented motive for that matter. In fact Butler argues that all moral virtues are motivated by benevolence, and not by selfish survival interests as Hobbes believes. Butlerís point about benevolent motives becomes clearer when we examine our motives towards friends vs. complete strangers. Butler says that we act with true benevolence towards both friends and strangers. This view is sometimes called psychological altruism:



According to Butler, Hobbes holds the extreme opposite view, which is this:



There is some basis for interpreting Hobbes as a strong psychological egoist. For example, Hobbes argues in an early work that feelings of charity towards friends reduce to a desire to publicly demonstrate our power to assist them. This has little to do with benevolent motivations. However, we can also find in Hobbes a more moderate position that spits the issue between how we act towards friends vs. how we act towards strangers. We can express this more moderate view as this:



Although scholars debate about whether Hobbes advocates strong or weak psychological egoism, letís give Hobbes the benefit of the doubt and interpret him more moderately as a weak psychological egoist. Butler, then, has overstated his case against Hobbes since Hobbes recognizes at least a limited range of benevolent actions.

Given the key role of egoism in Hobbesís social contract theory, we may ask whether weak psychological egoism undermines his theory. If I am able to show true benevolence towards my family and close friends, wonít this keep things peaceful in the state of nature? Probably not. The bulk of the people that I compete with in life are strangers. If I am in competition with a stranger to pick the last apple growing on a tree, our respective selfish inclinations will prompt each take that last apple. It might not even occur to me to give the competitor the apple simply out of benevolence. So, even if I show benevolence to friends, my selfishness towards strangers will push us into a state of war.


Reganís Criticism: Social Contract Excludes Animals. The social contract is like a moral club. Those who join are entitled to moral consideration and are under the umbrella of governmental protection. Those who donít join are essentially in the state of nature and have no moral consideration. One requirement for joining the club is that implicit signers of the contract must be rational and understand the terms of the contract. Unfortunately, animals donít pass this requirement:


To make covenants with brute beasts is impossible, because not understanding our speech, they understand not, nor accept of any translation of right, nor can translate any right to another. And without mutual acceptation, there is no covenant. (Leviathan, Ch. 14)


Contemporary philosopher Tom Regan sees this as a big problem with Hobbesís version of social contract theory. Although many animals experience pain, are aware of their surroundings, and are even aware of their own identities, the narrow requirements of the social contract exclude them from direct consideration. As members of the moral club we might agree to some set of rules that addresses the issue of animals. For example, we can agree that if I own a dog, you canít harm my dog any more than you can damage my car. Both my dog and my car are my property and my property is protected under the social contract. Similarly, we may also decide to prohibit torturing even stray or wild animals. If Iím allowed to torture stray animals just for fun, then I may be more inclined to torture people just for fun. To keep me from developing hostile tendencies toward humans who are club members, we may be willing to adopt a rule against torturing stray animals.

However, neither of these rules about animals take animalsí interests into account directly. Animals count only to the extent that human club members have a vested interest them. This exclusivity problem with social contract theory involves more than just animals. Even nonrational human members Ė such as infants and the mentally impaired -- wonít get direct consideration. It seems, then, that there are two levels of morality in social contract theory: (1) a primary level in which rationally consenting members have direct moral consideration, and (2) a secondary level in which nonrational beings get only indirect consideration.

In response, the situation for nonrational beings such as animals and infants isnít as discriminatory as Regan maintains. Even rationally consenting club members get only indirect moral consideration. I donít show you moral consideration because you directly deserve it as a valuable person; I give you moral consideration only so that I myself can survive. Your moral well being, then, is secondary and dependent upon the value that I place in my own survival. To be precise, social contract theory implies that there are three distinct levels of moral consideration: (1) a primary level of consideration that I give myself, (2) a secondary level that I give to signers of the contract, and (3) a tertiary level that we agree to for animals and babies. If we are willing to accept the secondary moral status of fellow humans, it isnít much more of a stretch to accept the tertiary moral status of nonrational beings. It might still seem unfair that nonrational beings must rely on the preferences of rational club members in order to gain even tertiary moral consideration. However, animals and infants are not the kinds of beings that can speak on their own behalf. In any moral theory they require proxy spokespeople to assert their rights, and in any moral theory this will depend on how the spokespeople prefer to value animals and infants.


SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY AFTER HOBBES. In spite of the harsh criticisms against Hobbes, for a century and a half social contract theory was a dominant theme among political philosophers. Social contract theories after Hobbes modified features of his account to make it less skeptical, but they all followed the basic pattern of an original state of nature, followed by a social contract that addresses limitations of our natural state.


Social Contract Theory in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Shortly after Hobbesís account appeared, German historian Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) devised his own version of social contract theory. Inspired by both Grotius and Hobbes, Pufendorf argued that, in the state of nature, many of our human characteristics make us unsociable, such as lust and competition, and this prevents us from living in large communities. Since our survival depends on living in large societies, God creates moral principles of natural law mandating that we be sociable. To carry out the requirements of natural law, we contract with others to form large communities and we then establish political authorities to punish us when we are unsociable.

For British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), the state of nature is a moral society in which humans are bound by divinely commanded natural law. To prevent people from occasionally violating natural law, we form a social contract that institutes government authority to keep peace. According to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the state of nature isnít a condition of mutual conflict, but a condition of individual freedom in which creativity flourishes. Interaction with other people is inevitable, and a fully mature person needs to be social. To regulate social interaction, we establish a social contract between citizens. Through the contract we set up an absolute democracy which is ruled by the general will of the people, or what is best for all people.

In addition to these leading proponents of social contract theory, many political philosophers incorporated elements of the theory into their views. For example, Italian political philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) argued against capital punishment on the grounds that we donít give up our right to life in the social contract. Serious interest in social contract theory declined during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In recent years, though, there has been a boom in discussions of social contract theory, inspired specifically by Hobbes's account.


The Prisonersí Dilemma. Recent Hobbes-inspired social contract theories involve three key components. (1) There is a description of a hypothetical environment in which we interact. This involves an account of the limits of our human rationality, the levels of risk that we take in making decisions, how we balance our short term vs. long term interests, how self-regarding vs. other regarding we are, and the degree to which we are physically and mentally equal. (2) In view of this hypothetical environment, there is a description of conflicts that inevitably arise. According to one explanation, our emotions drive us to act selfishly in ways that conflict with others. According to another explanation, conflict arises based on how we rationally calculate what is in our respective best interests. (3) In view of the inevitable conflicts with others, there is a description of the type of political authority that is reasonable for us to create.

Perhaps the best known of these contemporary discussions is the prisonerís dilemma, which develops the second component above. Specifically, the prisonerís dilemma clarifies how our rational calculations lead to conflict. Imagine that you and I are caught robbing a bank, and the District Attorney offers a plea bargain based on various confessions that we might make. Putting each of us in separate rooms, the District Attorney offers us both this deal:



If you and I could communicate, then the best arrangement would be for both of us to not confess, since then weíd each only get a 1 year sentence. Since we canít communicate, though, I need to calculate what the best deal is for me, regardless of what you do. So, regardless of what you do, Iíll clearly be better off by confessing since it is better to serve either 3 months or even 8 years than it is to serve 10 years.

The point of this illustration is that, although mutual cooperation is the best mutual deal, I will still be rationally motivated to pursue the best deal for me individually. In Hobbesís terminology, since I canít trust my opponents in the state of nature, then my most rational course of action is to make an offensive attack against opponents. By eliminating my opponents, my interests are better served than if I sat around passively. Consequently, cooperation in the state of nature isnít reasonable and we will always be poised for war. The original prisonerís dilemma scenario rests on the assumption that I canít communicate with you about devising the best mutual strategy to shorten our stays in jail. The parallel in Hobbesís state of nature is the assumption that I canít trust you when you say that you wonít attack me. Is this distrust justified? My reasons for distrust in the state of nature rest on a variety of intricate questions about human nature, specifically whether we can be naturally benevolent to strangers. This brings us back to the question of strong psychological egoism, and, consequently, the success of the prisonerís dilemma scenario hinges on that question.


Rawls and Social Contract Theory. The most influential contemporary proponent of social contract theory is John Rawls, as he develops it in his book A Theory of Justice (1971). Paralleling Hobbesís state of nature, Rawls describes a hypothetical original position. In the original position, we are neither at war with each other nor trying to actually start a government. Instead, we are merely a group of rational, equal, and self-interested people who want to devise a mutually beneficial moral guideline for reforming our social system. To help us arrive at the most impartial moral guideline, we temporarily ignore our actual status in society, such as the size of our bank accounts and the amount of property that we own. Metaphorically, it is as though we voluntarily stand behind a veil of ignorance. This assures that I wonít try to rig the system and create a moral guideline that benefits me the most Ė whether I am rich or poor.

According to Rawls, after some back and forth discussion, we will eventually arrive at two rules of justice. We will then use these two rules to generate a longer and more specific list of obligations. The two rules of justice are these:


(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

The first rule here tells us that we should give each other as much freedom as we can. This includes moral liberties such as free speech and free movement. It also includes economic liberties, such as acquiring property and getting high paying jobs. Finally, it includes political liberties of voting and holding public office. So far none of this is controversial from the standpoint of American society, which was founded on broad notions of liberty.

Sometimes, though, we need to place limits on the wealth and power that we individually accumulate from our various liberties. Economic liberty is nice, but when we look at the vast fortunes accumulated by billionaires like Bill Gates, we might feel that enough is enough. The second rule above is a guideline for regulating the accumulation of wealth and power. According to the above rule, Bill Gates can have an unequal amount of money only if it is to everyoneís advantage Ė including poor people. This aspect of Rawlsís theory is controversial. The default economic arrangement is that Bill Gates should only get an equal share of wealth. The burden of proof, then, is on the capitalist businessperson to show that even poor people benefit when an entrepreneur can pursue his economic dreams unimpeded. This, though, is a tough case to make, which makes socialism the default economic policy.

We learn from Rawls that there is great flexibility to the rules that we come up with when negotiating the social contract. The rules that Rawls envisions tend to be more socialistic than those envisioned by Hobbes and other classic social contract theorists. For Rawls, adopting one set of rules over another will be a question of matching various proposals with our common moral intuitions on what is fair.


CONCLUSION. From Hobbesís initial theory and onwards, social contract theories wove together issues of political authority and moral obligation. From one perspective, this is an advantage of social contract theory since it reduces the conceptual clutter of having two separate theories. Moral theories and political theories both talk about the behavioral obligations that we have to fellow human beings, and it makes sense to connect these obligations. From another perspective, though, the close relationship between political theory and moral theory is a liability of social contract theory, particularly Hobbesís version. Issues of political authority and political obligations are important in all of our lives, and if we ignore these issues then we create legal problems for ourselves. However, political issues are not the only important issues in our lives, and for many of us, they are not even among our most important issues.

Moral issues, by contrast, permeate our lives. Every encounter I have with other people involves a proper and improper way of acting towards them. Different levels of obligation emerge with how we treat people who are as close to us as our family and friends, and as distant to us as strangers on the other side of the world. Although some of these obligations have direct ties to political institutions, many have only a very remote connection. More importantly, if political arrangements are the only foundation of morality, then morality rises or falls with the soundness of political institutions. Terrorist tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing show how someone could invalidate all rules of morality because he questions the legitimacy of the ruling political authority. In short, morality doesnít begin and end with politics and we should resist the urge to make morality an offshoot of politics.

Letís assume, then, that moral and political obligations are different animals. How can we tell the two sets of obligations apart? It seems especially difficult when some actions pertain to both groups, such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the hate crimes of burning Afro-American churches. Obligations are typically political in nature when we think legally or politically when acting. Obligations are typically moral in nature when we think or feel for another personís value, dignity, or well being when acting. The political tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing was its naïve presumption that the US government substantially overstepped its contractual authority. The moral tragedy was that the bombers did not feel for the value of the victimsí lives. In this case, the moral tragedy is clearly the worse of the two.



Plato hints at social contract theory in both the The Republic, Book 2 and in The Crito. Both dialogs are available in several modern editions.

Hobbesís Leviathan is available in several modern editions. Hobbes also wrote a trilogy of works covering the similar issues in On the Citizen (1642), On the Body (1655), and On Man (1658). Early drafts of Hobbesís thoughts were published without his permission in On Human Nature and On the Political Body (1650). Spelling and punctuation in the quotations have been modernized for clarity.

Edward Hydeís criticism of Hobbes is in A Survey of Mr. Hobbes (1676), in Leviathan: Contemporary Responses, ed. G.A.J. Rogers (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1994), pp. 201-202. Spelling and punctuation in the quotations have been modernized for clarity.

Hobbesís analysis of pity is from On Human Nature Ch. 9, section 10, and Leviathan Book I, Chapter 7.

Joseph Butlerís analysis of self-love and benevolence is in Sermons 1, 11 and 12 of his Fifteen Sermons (1726), which is available in several modern editions.

Hobbesís seemingly strong psychological egoistic views concerning charity towards friends appears in On Human Nature Ch. 9, section 17.

Tom Reganís animal rights criticism against Hobbes is in his book The Case for Animal Rights (University of California Press, 1985).

Social contract theories after Hobbes include Samuel Von Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations (De Jure Naturae et Gentium, 1762); The Duty of Man and Citizen according to Natural Law (De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem, 1673); John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge University Press, 1960); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762), tr. Maurice Cranston (Penguin, 1968) and Benedict Spinoza, Political Treatise (1677), in The Political Works of Spinoza, tr., A.G. Wernham (Oxford, 1958).

Jody S. Kraus discusses the prisonerís dilemma and other contemporary contractarian issues in The Limits of Hobbesian Contractarianism (Cambridge University Press, 1993)


Suggestions for Further Reading Hobbes David Boonin-Vail, Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 1994)


Arnold W. Green, Hobbes and Human Nature (Transaction Publishers, 1993)

A.P. Martinich, Thomas Hobbes (St. Martinís Press, 1997)

Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan (Thoemmes Press, 1996)

George Shelton, Morality and Sovereignty in the Philosophy of Hobbes (St. Martinís Press, 1992)

Tom Sorell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Rawls Chandran Kukathas, Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics (Stanford University Press, 1990).

R. Martin, Rawls and Rights (University of Kansas Press, 1985).

Thomas W. Pogge, Realizing Rawls (Cornell University Press, 1989).


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Approximately 12 million children die each year from disease and hunger-related illnesses, most of which are from developing countries that lack adequate social and economic structures. Charitable organizations in the U.S. and other industrial countries try to reduce this number by providing food and health supplies to needy families. The Save the Children organization is recognized as one or the most effective charities of this kind in America. Part of their success owes to the heart wrenching descriptions they provide of needy and abused children around the world, such as this:


Daniel was born in a small village in Mozambique and spent his first ten years there. ... One summer night seven years ago, a band of armed rebels burst into their family compound, then kidnapped Daniel ... at gun point. All night long he marched. He arrived at the rebel camp the next morning ... his bare feet badly cut and swollen ... his body shaking with fear. ... Daniel was held captive for five years. He didn't see his parents or anyone he knew. Beatings were common. At first he took care of the cattle and served the soldiers. Later, he was given a gun, taught to use it and forced to kill.


The story continues that, after a peace treaty, Save the Children helped reunite Daniel with his family. Celebrity spokespeople for this organization, such as Sally Struthers, Brook Shields and David Bowie, make public appeals and tell us that for only a few dollars a month we can help these children. The appeals are convincing and our hearts go out to the young victims. If we feel enough compassion for them, then we might even give money to the organization to support their efforts.

The appeals made by such charitable organizations are blatantly emotional. On one level, they tug on our heartstrings to prompt us into action, specifically to get us to make a financial commitment. On another level, they imply that there is an intimate connection between our sympathetic feelings and our sense of moral obligation. We can feel that it is our duty to assist these needy children. However, some philosophers believe that emotional appeals are manipulative and have nothing to do with morality. True morality, they argue, is purely rational and must be free from all emotional considerations. Although we naturally feel pangs of sympathy for people in need, true morality requires that we set these feelings aside and base our judgments on the cool and impartial dictates of reason. Other philosophers, though, disagree and argue that moral judgments have little to do with human reason. We are morally motivated by emotions and our moral assessments of other people are nothing but emotional reactions.

During the 18th century, British moral philosophers hotly debated the role of reason vs. the role of emotions in moral matters. Several philosophers of the early 18th century took the hard line position that morality is strictly a matter of rational judgment. Perhaps the most famous advocate of this view is Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). Clarkeís chief opponent was David Hume (1711-1776) who argued that moral approval is not a rational judgment, but a pleasing emotion that we experience when we observe someone's conduct.


CLARKE'S MORAL RATIONALISM. In a nutshell, Clarke argued that moral truths are like mathematical truths, which are eternal. Just as we access mathematical truths through reason alone, we also access moral truths through reason alone.


Eternal Moral Relations. Clarke argues for his view by first examining mathematical relations, such as "greater than," "less than" and "equal to." These notions have fixed and eternal meanings, which even God canít change. We rationally grasp these notions and use them in our ordinary lives. For example, I might make the statement that "the money in my bank account is less than the money in my attorneyís bank account." This statement will be true if it lives up to the ideal mathematical meaning of "less than." In Clarke's words, my statement will be fit or proportioned with respect to the mathematical notion of "less than." Clarke continues that there are also eternal relations that are nonmathematical. Some of these are religious in nature, such as the notion of "infinite greatness," which we associate with God. Just like mathematical relations, we also apply religious relations in our ordinary lives. For example, if we worship God, then our actions are fit or proportioned with respect to the religious notion of "infinite greatness."

Finally, Clarke argues that there are eternal moral relations, such as a standard of equality that exists between finite creatures. As with the other eternal relations, we also apply this in our daily lives. If I enslave someone, then my conduct is unfit or unproportioned with respect to the moral notion of "equality." Two other eternal moral relations that Clarke mentions are the promotion of universal good, and helping others from danger. If I help save someone's life, then my action is fit or proportioned to the moral notion that I should help others from danger. Just as even God canít alter mathematical relations, Clarke argues that God canít alter eternal moral relations either.

According to Clarke, our knowledge of moral relations is self-evident and purely rational, just as with our knowledge of mathematical relations. He feels that our knowledge of moral relations is so self-evident that he even ridicules those who would deny knowledge of these eternal truths:


These things are so notoriously plain and self-evident, that nothing but the extremist stupidity of mind, corruption of manners, or perverseness of spirit can possibly make any person entertain the least doubt concerning them. For a person endued with reason, to deny the truth of these things, is the very same thing, as if a person that has the use of his sight, should at the same time that he beholds the sun, deny that there is any such thing as light in the world. Or [it is] as if a person that understands geometry or arithmetic, should deny the most obvious and known proportions of lines or numbers, and perversely contend that the whole isnít equal to all its parts, or that a square isnít double to a triangle of equal base and height.


Clarke argues that moral relations are binding on all beings that can rationally intuit them. Since God is a supremely rational being, then he can flawlessly intuit these moral relations and will carry them out in practice. Humans are rational and, thus, we too perceive moral relations and are bound by them. However, our reason is limited and we are distracted by our human emotions. So, unlike God, we are morally fallible.

Here are the main points of Clarke's theory:



Hume's Criticisms of Clarke. In two of his writings, Hume launches a series of attacks against moral rationalism in general, and Clarkeís theory in particular. In one of these arguments, Hume maintains that moral assessments canít be judgments about relations since we find exactly the same abstract relations in both moral and nonmoral situations. Hume's argument is this, complete with illustrations:


(1) Anything that exhibits a given moral relation would be judged good or bad accordingly. [rationalist's target supposition]

(2) A young tree overgrowing and killing its parent exhibits the same relation as Nero killing his mother.

(3) Since Nero's act is morally bad, then so too is that of the young tree.

(4) Clearly, this is absurd, hence, moral approval isnít a judgment about relations.


On the face of it, Humeís argument appears weak, particularly regarding premise two. There is a big difference between Nero killing his mother and a young tree overgrowing and killing its parent. Nero acted with a motive whereas young trees are not the kind of things that can have motives. In response to Humeís attack, then, Clarke would simply reject premise two in the above argument. Hume anticipates this problem, though, and challenges the rationalist to specify exactly the kind of relation exhibited between Nero and his mother. Suppose that Clarke says that the relation involves ill will in Neroís motive toward his mother; young trees clearly donít have motives of ill will. According to Hume, that particular relation wonít work since we would all be guilty of a moral crime anytime we felt ill will towards another person, even when we never actually acted on our ill will. To avoid this conclusion, suppose that, instead, Clarke says that the relation involves Neroís action towards his mother, and not Neroís motive. For Hume, that relation wonít work either since it would apply to non-human things that donít have motives, such as trees, and we are back where we started.

However, there is a third option that Hume doesnít consider. Instead of looking at either motives or actions, suppose that we look at what philosophers call intentional actions. Some of our actions are nonintentional, such as seizures, sneezes, and coughs. They just happen without any planning or purpose on our part. Other actions, though, are intimately connected with some intended goal, such as me brushing my teeth, or Nero killing his mother. Although trees might exhibit nonintentional movements, such as swaying in the wind or growing towards the sun, they certainly donít exhibit intentional action. Based on this understanding, Clarke could say that Neroís act is wrong since it displays the relation of an intentional act of killing an innocent person. This relation wonít apply to people who simply have bad thoughts, nor will it apply to young trees.

Although Humeís young tree argument above is not especially successful in refuting Clarke, Hume offers two additional arguments that are more compelling. First, Hume argues that when we closely examine the contents of any morally significant action, such as a murder, we will never locate a special moral fact or moral relation about which we can make a rational judgment. All we will find is our own feeling. Second, Hume asks us to compare whether moral assessments are more like rational judgments, such as "4 is greater than 3," or more like aesthetic pronouncements, such as "this painting is beautiful." Hume believes that moral assessments are clearly more like aesthetic pronouncements, and these are feelings and not rational judgments. Humeís point in both of these arguments is that we can easily see the emotional component of moral assessments, but we canít so easily articulate the rational component. Although a diehard rationalist like Clarke might still insist that the rational component is obvious, most of us will probably agree that the emotional component is more obvious.

Hume summarizes his attack on moral rationalism in what has become one of the most famous passages in Western moral philosophy:


In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs. When [all] of a sudden I am surprised to find that, instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and isnít, I meet with no proposition that isnít connected with an ought or an ought not. The change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last [and greatest] consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained. And at the same time, [it is necessary] that a reason should be given for (what seems altogether inconceivable) how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1, Section 1.]


Hume's point is that rationalistic discussions of morality all begin with statements of fact, such as "Daniel is starving," and then conclude with a statement of obligation, such as "We should help feed Daniel." According to Hume, we canít simply rationally deduce statements of obligation from statements of fact. Even if it is a fact that Daniel is starving, we need our emotions to make the assessment that we should help feed Daniel. Contemporary moral philosophers encapsulate Hume's point with the slogan that, "We cannot derive ought from is." That is, we canít rationally deduce statements of obligation from statements of fact.


HUME'S MORAL THEORY. Once Hume dispenses with Clarke's notion of moral rationalism, he then explains in more detail how emotion is involved in moral assessments. Hume was inspired by several earlier British moral philosophers who proposed that we have a moral sense that enables us to perceive and assess right and wrong conduct.


Early Moral Sense Theories. The first British writer to use the term "moral sense" was Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), better known as the Earl of Shaftesbury. In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit (1699), Shaftesbury maintains that our moral sense perceives moral qualities in much the same way as our eyes perceive colors:


The case is the same in mental or moral subjects, as in [our sense perceptions of] ordinary bodies, or the common subjects of sense. The shapes, motions, colors, and proportions of these latter being presented to our eye, there necessarily results a beauty or deformity, according to the different measure, arrangement and disposition of their several parts. So in behavior and actions, when presented to our understanding, there must be found, of necessity, an apparent difference, according to the regularity or irregularity of the subjects.


Although Shafesbury doesnít go into much detail about the nature of our moral sense, it appears that he takes the notion of "sense" literally and would be willing to classify it as a sixth sense. Such a literal understanding of the moral sense is in part based on John Lockeís broad definition of "sense perception" in his influential Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke writes, "when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external Objects convey into the mind what produces there those Perceptions" (Essay, 2.1.3). Based on Lockeís definition, any mental faculty that can convey external qualities may be called a "sense".

Shaftesburyís suggestion took hold, and other moral philosophers developed the notion of the moral sense in greater detail. The most influential of these was Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747). Hutcheson made it clear that he took the notion of moral sense literally:


[The] power of receiving these [moral] perceptions may be called a moral sense, since the definition [of "sense"] agrees to it, viz. a determination of the mind, to receive any idea from the presence on an object which occurs to us, independent on our will. [Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil, 1:1]


According to Hutcheson, all of our senses involve (a) an object that we perceive, and (b) a mental perception that we form in response. For example, with my sense of sight I am presented with a physical object, such as a chair, and I form a visual perception of that object in my mind. Similarly, the objects of my moral sense are benevolent actions that people perform. The mental perception that I form is a feeling of pleasure. For Hutcheson, then, my moral sense enables me to detect benevolence in an action and my subsequent feeling of pleasure constitutes my approval of that benevolent action.

Hume not only read Hutchesonís description of the moral sense, but Hume knew Hutcheson personally and corresponded with him. In his own moral theory, Hume downplays the literal notion of "moral sense" proposed by Hutcheson, but nevertheless agrees with Hutchesonís main point: moral approval is a pleasing feeling, and not a rational judgment.


The Moral Spectator's Sympathetic Feelings. Most simply, Hume's theory is that moral approval is only a pleasing feeling that we experience when we observe conduct. When I see someone donate to charity, I sympathetically feel pleasure for the recipient of that donation. On the other hand, if I see someone steal a car, I sympathetically feel pain for the car owner. The experience of pleasure is my moral approval, and the experience of pain is my moral disapproval. Hume's account of morality involves a complex chain of events involving three players: a moral agent, a recipient, and a moral spectator. The moral agent is a person who performs an action, such as donating to charity or stealing a car. The recipient is the person directly affected by the agent's action, such as a person who receives charity, or a victim who gets his car stolen. The moral spectator is a person who observes the recipient, and makes a moral assessment about the agent. All moral assessments start with an agent's motivated action, extend through the consequences on a recipient, and end with sympathetic feelings of pleasure or pain in the mind of a spectator:


AGENT            |    RECIPIENT        | SPECTATOR

  character trait    |  useful or agreeable   |     sympathetic
leading to action  |  consequences           |     pleasure/pain


To illustrate these various components, suppose that you (the agent) donate to Save the Children to specifically help improve the life of Daniel (the recipient). I (the spectator) assess that your act of charity is morally good. According to Hume, my feelings of moral approval are in response to your character trait as reflected in your action. Hume also argues that your character trait is the motive behind your action, and your trait will either be instinctive, or it will have been acquired through social conditioning. In this case, your act of charity is motivated by benevolence, which, according to Hume, is largely an instinctive character trait.

If we suppose that Save the Children does their job properly, then your act of charity will have a direct impact on Daniel's life. Specifically, you will make him happier than he would otherwise be. According to Hume, there are two types of effects stemming from morally approvable actions. First, the action will be immediately agreeable to the recipient, and thereby give him pleasure. Second, the action will be useful to the recipient and indirectly give him pleasure. In Daniel's case, he will be immediately pleased by your simple act of charity in and of itself, and he will also be pleased by the use that his family can make of the donated money, such as providing him with more food. In both cases, Daniel experiences pleasure from your charitable act.

As a spectator, I can personally witness or at least imagine the pleasure that Daniel experiences through your act of charity. Once I observe Daniel's pleasure, I too will experience pleasure for him vicariously or, in Hume's words, sympathetically. Hume uses the term "sympathy" in a literal sense and he sees it as a human instinct by which the recipientís emotions are transferred to a spectator. An illustration from physics will help explain this literal notion of sympathy. Imagine that I have two acoustic guitars side by side. If I pluck the low E string on one guitar, then, the low E string on the second guitar will automatically vibrate, without me even touching it. Physicists refer to this phenomenon as the "sympathetic vibration of strings." Analogously, Hume describes what we may call a "sympathetic transference of emotion." If Daniel experiences pleasure because of your donation, then that pleasure will be transferred to me and I myself will be pleased. My sense of pleasure, then, constitutes my moral approval toward your benevolent motive. That is, my feeling of pleasure is my moral approval of you. I then deem that your initial character trait is a virtue, as opposed to a vice.

According to Hume, all moral assessments follow the above formula, even when we assess that a person is morally bad. Suppose that you steal your neighbor's car. You, again, are the agent, but this time you are motivated to steal because you have an unjust character trait concerning property rights. Your unjust act of stealing has negative consequences on your neighbor's life. First, your neighbor will be immediately outraged because you violated his property rights. Second, he will be inconvenienced. For both of these reasons he will experience emotional pain. When I, as the spectator, see your neighbor's pain, I too experience his pain sympathetically. My pain, then, constitutes my moral condemnation of your unjust character trait, which I thereby deem to be a vice.


Summary and Implications. Here are the main points of Hume's theory:



Humeís moral theory appears to be the first account of ethics since ancient Greece and Rome that doesnít involve the existence of God. Many philosophers during the modern period, such as Grotius and Hobbes, tried to minimize Godís involvement in moral matters. However, these philosophers still maintained that God endorses the same moral values that we do, and that God also urges us to be moral. Hume, though, is more extreme in his rejection of Godís connection with morality: even if God exists, we have no way of knowing if God morally approves of the same character traits that we do. A spectatorís moral assessment depends on human psychology and physiology, which, obviously, God lacks. Hume makes his case most clearly in one of his letters to Hutcheson:

If morality were determined by reason, that [determination] is the same to all rational beings. But nothing but experience can assure us that the sentiments are the same. What experience have we with regard to superior beings? How can we ascribe to them any sentiments at all? They have implanted those sentiments in us for the conduct of life like our bodily sensations, which they possess not themselves. [Hume to Hutcheson, March 16, 1740]


Hume, then, sees morality as a purely human phenomenon that has no relation to God.

With all of the above details of Humeís theory, we do not want to lose sight of Humeís simple point. Moral approval is not a rational judgment, as Clarke believed; it is only a pleasing feeling that spectators experience when observing conduct. There is another component of Humeís theory that also emphasizes emotion over reason. Not only is the spectatorís approval purely a matter of emotion, but the agentís motivation for action is prompted only by emotion, and not by reason. What is it that motivates you as the agent to donate to Save the Children or to do any other moral action? According to Clarke, your reason tells you that it is the right thing to do, and, thus, your reason motivates you to act. For Hume, though, for any action that you perform, you are only ever motivated to act from emotion, and never from reason. Hume dramatically makes his point by saying, "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." Although a little extreme, Humeís basic observation is correct. Something must motivate us to prefer one thing over another; for Hume, that something is emotion. Without emotion, there is nothing to keep me from preferring the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. Reason alone won't do the trick. In Humeís words, "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."


REID'S CRITICISMS OF HUME. Philosophers of Humeís time were receptive to many aspects of his moral theory. Some moral philosophers, such as Adam Smith, agreed with Hume that the central component of moral assessment involves the sympathetic feelings of the moral spectator. Others, however, insisted that reason and God play a crucial role in morality. Shortly after Humeís death, 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796) published a detailed critique of Humeís moral theory. Reid agreed with Hume that the moral spectator in fact does have an emotional response to the agentís action. However, for Reid, the emotional reaction is only of secondary importance. Like Clarke, Reid held that true moral assessment is a rational judgment; our emotional reaction is almost like an afterthought. For Reid, then, Humeís theory fails because it blurs the distinction between the spectatorís rational assessment and the spectatorís emotional response. Reid makes his point with two distinct arguments.


Abusing Common Moral Language. Reidís first argument is straightforward: our common use of moral language shows that moral assessments are really rational judgments, and Hume "abuses language" by linking moral terms with the spectatorís feelings. According to Reid, we all can clearly distinguish between a spectatorís reports of feelings, and a spectatorís rational judgment about an agentís action. Our understanding of key moral terms should be grounded in our common use of those words, and not in deceptive philosophical theories, such as Humeís. But if common language is so clear about moral assessment, as Reid maintains, how did Hume manage to even get his theory published? According to Reid, Hume plays a trick with language by carefully selecting specific terms, such as "approval," which in English commonly involve both a rational judgment and an emotional reaction. So, if Hume says, "moral assessment only involves a spectatorís approval," then we initially agree with Hume, since our common notion of approval has a rational component. However, Hume then pulls the wool over our eyes by explaining that "approval" means only that a spectator feels pleasure. We then agree with this too, since our common notion of "approval" also has an emotional component. As logicians say, Hume equivocates on the term "approval" by secretly playing off of two meanings of a single word.

For the sake of argument, letís grant Reidís point that Hume equivocates on key moral terms such as "approval" when concluding that moral assessments are only reports of feelings. However, we can accuse Reid and other moral rationalists of doing the same thing. As Reid himself notes, the common meaning of the word "approval" includes both a rational and an emotional component. When Reid and others emphasize the rational component of moral approval, they ignore the built-in emotional component of this term. Even the term "judgment" has an emotional component in common language. For example, if I "judge" that a hamburger doesnít taste as good as a cheeseburger, or that the blue curtains donít look as nice as the green curtains, these clearly involve emotional reactions. Almost any similar term that we use for moral assessment will include an emotional component. Similarly, in our common moral discourse, we rarely use purely rational terms such as "deduce" as in, for example, "I deduce that it is wrong for Smith to kill Jones." Instead, we select terms that have both an emotional and a rational component. At best, Reid only shows that there is a rational component to morality along with an emotive component.


Reporting Feelings vs. Approving. Reidís second argument against Hume is that reporting my feelings about an agentís conduct isnít logically equivalent to my approval of an agentís conduct. To make his case, Reid asks us to compare two statements such as these:


(1) I (the spectator) approve of an agentís conduct

(2) An agentís conduct gave me (the spectator) an agreeable feeling


According to Humeís theory, the two statements are essentially the same since my approval of an agentís conduct is identical to a specific agreeable feeling that I experience. However, Reid argues that the two statements are not at all the same. The first expresses an assessment about the agent, whereas the second merely testifies that the spectator had a feeling. This difference becomes more apparent when we examine the logical relation between the two statements. Suppose, Reid suggests, that we negated the first sentence, yet at the same time asserted the second:


(1í) it is not the case that I approve of an agentís conduct, and

(2) an agentís conduct gave me an agreeable feeling


If Humeís theory is correct, we would contradict ourselves if we asserted the above to statements at the same time. For Reid, however, it is totally plausible that I could disapprove of your conduct, yet at the same time have an agreeable feeling about your conduct. Take Robin Hood, for example, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I may disapprove of the fact that he stole, but I may still feel good about Robin Hoodís actions if I sympathize with the plight of the poor. Clearly, statements (1) and (2) canít be identical, as Hume believes, since we can meaningfully deny the first while asserting the second at the same time.

How might Hume respond? Reid poses a genuine problem that pushes Humeís theory to its limits. If we analyze the Robin Hood case in more detail, we can see more precisely how the problem arises. In this situation, Robin Hood is the agent who steals from the rich with the intention of giving to the poor. I am the spectator who feels either pleasure or pain in sympathy with the recipients. Who, though, are the recipients? In this case there are two groups of recipients: the rich and the poor. The rich are victims of Robin Hoodís thievery, and the poor are beneficiaries of his benevolence. This explains why I can disapprove of Robin Hoodís conduct (on behalf of the rich) yet also feel good about it (on behalf of the poor). However, this explanation doesnít completely rescue Hume. To be consistent in our explanation, we must say that (a) I approve of (i.e., feel good about) Robin Hoodís conduct on behalf of the poor, and (b) I disapprove of (i.e., feel bad about) Robin Hoodís conduct on behalf of the rich. The same action, then, produces competing feelings. Strictly speaking, this doesnít present a logical problem, since the laws of logic donít prevent me from having mixed and competing feelings about something. However, this does present a practical problem since I must make some definitive moral pronouncement about Robin Hoodís conduct: do approve of it or disapprove of it?

Four options suggest themselves in cases like Robin Hoodís, in which a single action has good consequences for one recipient, yet bad consequences for another recipient:


(1) We should always side with our feeling of approval.

(2) We should always side with the feeling of disapproval.

(3) We should balance the approval against the disapproval, and side with the strongest one.

(4) We should both approve and disapprove of his conduct at the same time.


Hume simply did not address this issue. However, philosophers after Hume did. The direct successors of Humeís theory were proponents of utilitarianism. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill maintained that moral actions are those that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Bentham and Mill, then, went with the third option above. That is, we should, first, balance all the positive and negative consequences of the agentís action as all recipients are affected and, second, endorse the action if it produces more positive consequences, but condemn the action if it produces more negative consequences. In assessing Robin Hoodís conduct, for example, we need to balance total negative consequences of his action on the rich against the total positive consequences on the poor.


THE FATE OF THE AGENT AND SPECTATOR. Although Bentham and Mill helped solve the problem of competing positive and negative consequences, this resolution came at a high price. As weíve seen, Humeís moral theory involves interplay between (1) the agentís character trait, (2) the consequences of the agentís action on the recipient, and (3) the spectatorís sympathetic feeling of approval/disapproval. For Bentham and Mill, the only things that matter in morality are the consequences of an agentís action on the recipient. The agentís character traits are not particularly relevant, and neither are the spectatorís feelings. In essence, utilitarians snipped off both the agent and the spectator parts of Humeís system, leaving only the pleasing and painful consequences as affect recipients. Mill makes a clear argument for rejecting any consideration of the agentís character trait: an action isnít made right simply because it is done by someone who has a noble character trait. Instead, it is only the consequences of an action that make it right or wrong. Against the relevance of the spectatorís role, Bentham argues that if you (as a spectator) appeal to your feelings as a way of determining morality, then you make right and wrong "just what you please to make them." That is, your feelings are too whimsical, and relying on them would make you "despotic" or dictatorial.

Bentham and Mill believed that it was important to make moral judgments as scientific and objective as possible. Emphasis on the mental states of agents and spectators muddled the process, and the most objective procedure is to simply inspect the balance of pleasure and pain as affects all recipients. The outcome of this inspection then will constitute our moral judgement. This involves only a little observation and a little calculation, which anyone can do objectively. It is roughly the same kind of empirical assessment that I make when I say, for example, that "Smith has more hair on his head than Jones has on his head."

Time, though, has vindicated Hume against utilitarian efforts to eliminate the roles of the agent and spectator from moral theories. The recent revival of virtue theory shows the importance of the agentís character trait in moral assessment. When we judge peopleís actions, we in fact make pronouncements against their habitual traits, along with all the social history that contributed in forming those traits. Similarly, 20th century philosophers of language maintain that the role of the spectator is central to understanding the meaning of moral assessments. Some philosophers go as far as to say that ethics involves only a consideration of the spectatorís emotional response to a given situation. The genius of Humeís theory is that it links together the views of the virtue theorist, the utilitarian, and the language philosopher. The downfall of this eclectic approach is that we end up with a comparatively complex theory with many components and sub-components. Hume insisted that behaving morally was a natural and easy thing to do. This ease, however, isnít reflected in the details of his theory.


Sources Samuel Clarke, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion (1706). This text is available in reprints of Clarkeís collected Works and in British Moralists, ed. D.D. Raphael (Hackett).

Francis Hutcheson, Inquiry Concerning Moral Good And Evil (1725)

David Humeís moral theory is found in A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3 (1740), and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Both of these texts are available in several modern editions.

A more detailed account of the roles of the agent and spectator in Humeís moral theory is in James Fieser, "Is Hume A Moral Skeptic?" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1989, Vol. 50, pp. 89-106.

Thomas Reidís critique of Hume is found in his Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Essay 5 (1788). Reidís text is available in several modern editions.




On February 3, 1998, 38 year old Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in the state of Texas in over 130 years. Formerly a drug addict and prostitute, in 1983 Tucker and a friend ended a three day drug binge by attempting to steal a young manís motorcycle. They broke into the manís apartment, and hacked him and a visiting woman friend to death with a pickax. After the episode, Tucker bragged that she got a sexual thrill from the murders. She and her accomplice were caught a month later, and ultimately sentenced to death. Because of her unique situation as a woman on death row, her newly found religious conviction, and her paradoxically warm personality, Tucker gained worldwide notoriety as her execution day approached. Pope John Paul II made a public appeal for clemency. Tucker herself believed that her life should be spared since she reformed to the point that she was no longer part of societyís crime problem, but part of the cure. In an interview two weeks before her execution Tucker explained,


I can witness to people who have been on drugs or into prostitution or into all of that, and they'll listen to me because they know I understand and can relate to them. And I can keep them from going down that road, because I can let them know. I changed. You can too.


Clemency was not granted, and the execution took place as planned.

Tucker argued that her life should be spared since remaining alive would serve the greater social good. Her reasoning strategy was utilitarian in nature. Most generally, utilitarianism is the moral theory that an action is morally right if it serves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. To determine whether Tucker should be executed, the utilitarian compares the total good resulting from her execution with the total good resulting from her remaining alive. Tucker believed that more good would result if she remained alive. However, defenders of capital punishment also use utilitarian reasoning and argue that the greater social good is served by executing some criminals. After her execution, a relative of one of Tuckerís victims said in utilitarian fashion that "The world's [now] a better place." Presumably, executing criminals such as Tucker sends a strong signal to other would-be criminals and deters them. It also assists in the psychological healing process of victims and their families.

Utilitarians believe that the sole factor in determining an actionís morality is the balance of social good vs. social evil. Appeals to moral intuitions, social traditions or Godís wishes are not relevant. Perhaps the most famous version of utilitarianism is that given by 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill offers a type of utilitarianism known as hedonistic utilitarianism. The word "hedonism" means pleasure, and Mill argues that morality is determined according to how much pleasure or pain is produced from a course of action. For example, on the issue of capital punishment, Mill would argue that this practice is justified only if it produces a greater amount of happiness vs. unhappiness. Mill wrote that utilitarianism isnít the invention of any single philosopher and the general theory is as old as ancient Greece. A brief look at the history of utilitarianism will help highlight Mill's particular contribution.


HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF UTILITARIANISM. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (342-270 BCE.) gives a clear statement of the role of pleasure in moral judgments:


We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good. [Letter to Menoeceus]


Pleasure is clearly an important motivator in our lives, and most moral philosophers find at least some place for pleasure within their theories. What is distinct about Epicurus's view, though, is that pleasure is the single standard by which we judge an action. Ultimately, Epicurusís theory did not take hold and, in the centuries following Epicurus, moral philosophers emphasized the roles of virtue, natural law, and the will of God. Humanist philosophers of the Renaissance revived Epicurusís theory, and by 18th century, several philosophers defended the pleasure criterion of morality.


18TH Century Contributions. Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson offered this systematic formula linking morality with happiness:


That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery. [An Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil]


Here and in his other ethical writings, we find most of the key elements of utilitarianism. First, in Hutchesons words, we are to compute the consequences of our actions. Second, the standard of moral evaluation is the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure that results, as all people are affected. Third, Hutcheson provides details about the range of consequences that count: long-term, short-term, direct, and indirect consequences all enter into the computation. Finally, he provides details about what counts as happiness or pleasure: higher intellectual pleasures and lower sensual pleasures are relevant, both with varying degrees of intensity and duration.

Influenced by Hutcheson, David Hume further developed this intuition in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). Hume argues that when we survey what people commonly consider to be moral conduct, we must conclude that morally right actions are those that produce useful or immediately pleasing consequences for oneself or others. Two features are unique to Hume's theory. First, as criteria of moral evaluation, the useful consequences of actions are as important as the immediately pleasing consequences of actions. Sexual chastity, for example, is morally proper primarily because it has useful consequences in holding together the family unit. Hume uses the term utility in reference to these useful consequences, and it is from Hume's expression that later commentators coined the term utilitarianism. The second unique feature of Hume's theory is that some actions are useful only when followed as a rule. Again, with sexual chastity, isolated instances of sexual fidelity wonít have the consequence of holding together family units. Hume believes that, to have useful consequences, chastity needs to be followed as a rule, even by single women who are past childbearing age. Hume's reasoning here is the foundation of what has later been called rule-utilitarianism.

Shortly after the appearance of Hume's account, several prominent moral theorists proposed similar views. For example, French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvetius argued that general happiness is the sole criterion of morality, and this involves producing the maximum amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain in a given society. Inspired by Helvetius, a young Italian political philosopher named Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) argued on utilitarian grounds that the criminal justice system of his time was greatly in need of reform. Beccaria condemns one practice after another, including the death penalty. Using utilitarian reasoning, Beccaria argues that long term imprisonment is a far better deterrent on crime than the death penalty: criminals confined for the long term are permanent reminders, whereas executed criminals are quickly forgotten.


Ö the ideas of morality are stamped on our minds by repeated impressions. The death of a criminal is a terrible but momentary spectacle, and therefore a less effective method of deterring others, than the continued example of a person deprived of his liberty and condemned (as a beast of burden) to repair by his labor the injury he has done to society. [On Crimes and Punishments, Ch. 28]


Other philosophers soon applied utilitarian reasoning to public policy. Joseph Priestley argued that political governments are put in place solely to act for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. William Godwin went so far as to say that if we are forced to choose between saving the life of a socially important person vs. the life of an ordinary relative, general happiness dictates that we must choose the important person.


Bentham's Utilitarian Calculus. British political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is considered the father of classic utilitarianism. Bentham endorsed social contract theory in his youth, but he explains that after reading Hume's account of utility, "I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes." In 1789 Bentham's own theory of utility appeared in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, a work that went almost unnoticed when first published. Two features of Bentham's theory are especially unique. First, Bentham offers a bare-bones moral theory, which consists of only one factor: the pleasing or painful consequences of actions. Although the above theorists put forward the basic elements of utilitarianism, they also incorporated non-utilitarian doctrines into their moral theories. Some of these extraneous doctrines are that morality is ultimately founded on the will of God, that sympathy is needed to counterbalance human selfishness, that virtues underlie our moral actions, that we rationally intuit our duty, and that we judge conduct through a moral sense. For Bentham, some of these doctrines are nonsensical, and the rest are irrelevant. His rejection of these more traditional elements of moral theory gave utilitarianism the reputation of being Godless, impersonal, skeptical, and relativistic.

The second and most important feature of Bentham's theory is his method for precisely quantifying pleasures and pains, better known as the utilitarian calculus. Bentham argues that the complete range of pleasing and painful consequences of actions can be quantified according to seven criteria: (1) intensity; (2) duration; (3) certainty; (4) remoteness, that is, the immediacy of the pleasure or pain; (5) fecundity, that is, whether similar pleasures or pains will follow; (6) purity, that is, whether the pleasure is mixed with pain; and (7) extent, that is the number of people affected. In footnote to a later edition of the Principles, Bentham summarizes these criteria in a rhyme, which he says might assist us in "lodging more effectually, in the memory, these points":


Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure --

Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.

Such pleasures seek if private by thy end:

If it be public, wide let them extend.

Such pains avoid, whichever by they view:

If pains must come, let them extend to few.


Bentham is very explicit about how the calculus works. For example, if we wanted to determine the morality of executing Karla Faye Tucker, we would begin by calculating all of the pleasure and pain that she personally would receive from the execution. One such pleasure/pain would involve her contemplating her own death. We begin by constructing a pleasure-pain chart that takes into account the first four factors above. We next assign numerical values to these factors, perhaps on a scale of one to ten:


Pleasure Pain


Intensity: 0 10

Duration: 0 2

Certainty: 0 10

Immediacy: 0 10


Concerning the intensity of her pleasure/pain, we may presume that Tucker would derive no pleasure from the events immediately surrounding her death, and she would experience very intense emotional pain at the prospect of losing her life. The duration of the emotional pain would be relatively brief, but it would be certain and immediate.

After we chart out the first four factors, we then consider the other three factors separately. Bentham's purity factor involves whether an act produces both pain and pleasure. Weíve already taken this into account in the above chart by noting that she will experience only pain and no pleasure. The fecundity factor involves any similar long term residual pleasures and pains that might result from an action. Since Tuckerís execution was carried out successfully, then there is no residual pleasures and pains for her. On the other hand, if her execution was botched on its first attempt and she had to go through the process again a month later, then we would need to devise another pleasure-pain chart for the new execution. The above chart quantifies only the psychological anguish that Tucker would experience when contemplating her own death. However, there are other distinct pleasures and pains that she would experience regarding her execution. For example, she would be distressed by being permanently separated from her family, and she would be frustrated with the criminal justice system. For each of these additional pains or pleasures, we need additional pleasure-pain charts.

Finally, Benthamís extent factor involves all the pleasures and pains experienced by other people. So, once we fully account for Tuckerís pleasures and pains, we then construct similar pleasure-pain charts for each pleasure and pain experienced by each person affected by Tuckerís execution. This includes each surviving relative of the victims, all those who would commiserate with the victimsí families, and people who oppose capital punishment and are pained by another execution. At this stage, thousands and perhaps millions of pleasure-pain charts would be involved. We then take the combined pleasure score from all charts and compare it to the combined pain score from all charts. If the pleasure column has the higher score, then executing Tucker would be moral. If the pain column has the higher score, then the execution is immoral.


Limitations of Benthamís Theory. There are two fundamental problems with Benthamís utilitarianism. First, Bentham imposes a precision on a subject that doesnít allow for such close detail. Walking through even a single illustration of Bentham's calculus shows its inherent absurdity, and constitutes the strongest argument against it. When the Principles first appeared, two book reviewers attacked Bentham for the excessive precision that appears throughout his entire discussion. The Analytical Review charged that "perhaps the love of discrimination has been sometimes carried too far, and been productive of divisions and subdivisions of little use to a legislator". The Critical Review commented more strongly that "Long and intricate discussions end in trifling conclusions; affected refinement sometimes stands in the place of useful distinctions, and the parade of system is so highly labored as frequently to disgust...." Bentham was well aware of this overall problem with the Principles, and for that reason he delayed its publication for nine years.

The second problem with Benthamís theory is that every conceivable human action becomes a moral issue that should be submitted to the utilitarian test. Even a simple act such as selecting toothpaste may involve a pleasure/pain calculus of purchasing one toothpaste brand vs. another. Also, when pushed to its extreme, I couldnít justify spending my time on any simple leisure activities, such as watching TV. Instead, I presumably should spend my time on actively increasing general pleasure, such as doing volunteer work for Meals on Wheels. The root of the problem is that Bentham endorses what commentators call act-utilitarianism, rather than the rule-utilitarian view hinted at by Hume. The two approaches may be defined here:


Act-Utilitarianism: in determining morality, we should calculate the pleasurable and painful consequences of our individual actions.

Rule-Utilitarianism: in determining morality, we should calculate the pleasurable and painful consequences of the moral rules that we adopt.


Act-utilitarianism involves a two-tiered system of moral evaluation: (1) right actions are determined by appealing to (2) the criterion of general happiness. For example, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be wrong for me to steal my neighborís car since this act would produce more general unhappiness. Rule-utilitarianism, though, involves an intermediary step and is a three-tiered system of moral evaluation: (1) right actions are determined by appealing to (2) moral rules, which are determined by appealing to (3) the criterion of general happiness. For example, according to rule-utilitarianism, it would be wrong to steal my neighborís car since this act violates the rule against stealing, and we endorse this rule since it promotes general happiness. Although act-utilitarianism has the problem that every conceivable action becomes a moral issue, this isnít a problem with rule-utilitarianism. For example, we wouldnít be promoting general happiness by making hard and fast rules about choosing toothpastes or watching TV.

In spite of the problems with Benthamís theory, his view of utilitarianism gained a following. By the mid 19th century Benthamís name was so strongly linked with utilitarianism that one commentator of the time felt compelled to remind people that Bentham did not invent the doctrine.


MILLíS UTILITARIANISM. Bentham was Mill's Godfather and teacher, and the young Mill followed his mentorís account of utilitarianism. In early adulthood, Mill suffered an emotional breakdown, which he attributed to his heavily analytic education. Bentham died shortly after, and Mill felt free to reevaluate the ideas of his upbringing. Mill's early writings show a growing discontentment Bentham's overly technical utilitarian calculus. In his fifties, Mill finally took the opportunity to write a popular defense of utilitarianism in view of the excessively scientific and skeptical reputation that the doctrine obtained through Bentham. This appeared in three installments in Fraser's Magazine in 1861, and was published in book form in 1863 under the title Utilitarianism.


Elements of Millís Theory. Commentators argue that there is little in Mill's theory that is completely original. In fact, we can outline many features of Mill's theory by simply listing its similarities with previous theories. First, like Bentham, Mill believes that the sole criterion of morality is general happiness, that is, the maximum pleasures and the minimum pains that a society of people can experience. Second, like Bentham, Mill believes this criterion can be expressed somewhat scientifically in the form of a single principle:


Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote [general] happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of [general] happiness.


Third, like Hutcheson, Mill argues that happiness consists of both higher intellectual pleasures, and lower sensual pleasures. Finally, like Hume, Mill focuses on the good or bad consequences that emerge from rules of conduct and, as such, Mill is classified as a rule-utilitarian. According to Mill, we normally appeal to the utilitarian principle only to establish moral rules. On rare occasions, though, I may be caught in a moral dilemma between two conflicting rules. Suppose that I borrow your gun and promise to return it when you ask for it. The next day, you have a dispute with your boss and in a fit of rage you ask for the gun back. I am now caught in a dilemma between two conflicting moral rules: I should keep my promises, yet I shouldnít contribute to the harm of others. In such rare cases, I can determine the proper course of action by appealing directly to the utilitarian principle. In this case, I bring about more happiness by holding onto your gun.

As noted, Bentham presents a bare bones account of utilitarianism by not incorporating traditional moral concepts such as the will of God, virtues, a moral sense, rational intuition, and sympathetic feelings. Mill also rejects most of these traditional notions, although he does find a place in his theory for socially oriented moral feelings such as sympathy, the feeling of duty, and the feeling of unity. For Mill, these feelings are necessary to give people the motivation to pursue general happiness. Without such motivation, utilitarianism would be a sterile principle without any practical value. Mill also emphasizes the importance of proving the utilitarian principle experientially, that is, on the basis of experience and observation alone. He argues that our experience tells us that the only thing we desire is to maximize the pleasures of all people in a given society. Since this is the only thing we in fact desire, then, Mill concludes, it is the only thing we ought to desire.

These are the main points of Millís utilitarianism:



General Happiness and Higher Pleasures. The most characteristic feature of Mill's utilitarianism is his distinction between higher intellectual pleasures and lower sensual pleasures. Although Hutcheson made this general distinction, Mill develops the notion and makes it central to his theory. Mill introduces the topic as a response to a specific criticism: utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy only of swine since swine too pursue pleasure. Mill responds that the concept of pleasure includes intellectual as well as sensual pleasures, and pigs clearly canít experience intellectual pleasures. Lower pleasures traditionally include those from food, sex, self-gratification, and other base instincts. By contrast, higher pleasures are those derived from music, art, and other intellectual accomplishments. According to Mill, higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower pleasures insofar as they are more highly valued even when limited in number. For Mill, Bentham erred by attempting to determine total happiness only through assigning numerical values to pleasures and pains, with no regard for their qualitative differences. An early commentator wrote that Millís emphasis on higher pleasures established a "new utilitarianism" since higher pleasures are subjective, and thus canít lend themselves to objective quantification.

Mill offers a test for determining whether one pleasure is qualitatively superior to another. Take, for example, the pleasures we may experience from visiting an art museum verses attending a monster truck rally. Assume first that an impartial judge is acquainted with both events. The pleasure from the museum visit will be qualitatively superior if (a) the judge prefers the museum visit over the truck rally, (b) the museum visit is accompanied by some pain (such as a two hour drive), and (c) the truck rally is quantitatively superior (such as a four night truck-a-rama). Mill believes that an impartial judge will prefer the higher pleasure to the lower because we all have a sense of dignity, at least initially. People sometimes choose the lower pleasure since it is easy to kill our more noble feelings, and we often donít have the opportunity to keep our intellectual tastes alive.

In short, according to Mill, higher pleasures are (1) the main ingredients of general happiness, (2) grounded in our intellectual abilities, (3) qualitatively superior to lower pleasures, (4) spawned by our sense of dignity, and (5) vulnerable to neglect.


TRADITIONAL CRITICISMS OF MILL. Because Utilitarianism was written in a popular format, one early commentator noted that he expected Mill to follow up with a "longer and more elaborate" book on the subject. But Mill never did. Within a decade several studies appeared attacking virtually every aspect of Mill's theory, and, by the turn of the century, Millís book became, as one commentator said, "more universally familiar than any other book in the whole literature of English Utilitarianism." Criticisms of Millís work continue to this day, many of which attempt to refine his theory and bring it in line with our common moral intuitions. Letís look at three classic criticisms of Millís theory.


Bradley's Criticism: Exploiting Individuals for the Greater Good. One of the earliest arguments against Mill, launched by British philosopher F.H. Bradley, is that utilitarian moral judgments often conflict with our actual moral obligations. Specifically, Bradley criticizes that there are things that "we should choose even if no pleasure came from them". Among other things, this means that we shouldnít unfairly exploit someone even if doing so produces general happiness. For example, suppose that a town hero is brutally murdered, the police have no suspects, and the city is on the verge of rioting in protest. In response, the police trump up charges against some insignificant person, in full knowledge that this person is innocent. The town is satisfied, and life returns to normal. To use another illustration, suppose that a society arbitrarily singles out a handful of people to become their slaves. The slaves surely suffer, but we might argue that the greater good of that society is served through the slave's services. So, on Bradleyís reasoning, utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory since it can be used to justify these kinds of exploitation in the name of general happiness.

Because of the severity of this criticism, defenders of utilitarianism made great efforts to show how their system wonít exploit individuals. First, utilitarians argue that long term consequences are a factor in the morality of any action. The possibility of exposing police conspiracies, or the emergence of slave rebellions are long term negative consequences of the above two cases. In fact, the long term negative consequences of slavery in the U.S. are still unfolding. Utilitarians are correct that attention to long term consequences will show the disutility of exploiting individuals in some circumstances. However, the problem remains that, with careful planning and an eye to the future, we can successfully exploit individuals without the penalty of long term negative consequences. For example, if the police are careful to contain their conspiracy, or slave owners successfully address the problem of slave uprisings, then, perhaps, their acts wonít have long term negative consequences.

A second line of defense against this problem is open to proponents of rule-utilitarianism such as Mill. According to rule-utilitarianism, we donít typically calculate the consequences of each action, such as enslaving Jones in particular; instead, we calculate the consequences of each rule we adopt, such as "slavery ought to be permitted." When we focus on these exploitive rules, it becomes clear that adopting them will produce more unhappiness than happiness. But critics have countered that, although this may block the adoption of many exploitive rules, some carefully worded exploitive rules may still produce more happiness than unhappiness. For example, it may serve general happiness to adopt the rule that "we may torture terrorist prisoners to extract terrorist plots from them." But rule-utilitarians have a solution to even this problem. Letís take this rule: "We may never exploit individuals, even for an alleged greater good." Adopting this blanket policy would clearly cover all exploitive situations, including both exploitive actions, and exploitive rules. Further, utiltarians would argue that adopting this blanket rule will promote more general happiness than would be the case if it was not adopted. For, even if some instances of exploitation (either acts or rules) do serve general happiness, most exploitation will result in unhappiness. The tendency of exploitation in general, then, is toward unhappiness. So, a rule prohibiting all exploitation will be one that, on balance, serves general happiness.


Groteís Criticism: Utilitarianism only Perpetuates the Status Quo. Suppose that we wanted to determine whether capital punishment was morally proper. According to Mill, we find this out by looking at how much pleasure and pain results from allowing capital punishment. This involves an experiential inspection of the various consequences, and, in essence, this approach grounds morality in our factual observations. In his Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870), John Grote criticizes this purely experiential approach to determining our moral obligations. For Grote, appeals to experience will only perpetuate the status quo, and wonít include an ideal moral goal towards which we should aim. In Groteís words, Mill bases morality only on what is the case, rather than what ought to be the case. Morality should include guidelines for moral improvement, but we will never get such guidelines by appealing to only what is the case. Grote argues that, to get ideal guidelines, we need an intuitive knowledge of morality, which is beyond mere experience.

Mill has a solution to this problem. The notion of general happiness is very elastic insofar as it includes "many and various pleasures," with "few and transitory pains." In his Systematic Logic, Mill argues that the notion of pleasure is broad and includes all pleasing conscious states. Among these various pleasures, certainly there is room for the pleasure we derive from attempts at moral reform and social improvement. In fact, a key theme throughout Utilitarianism is that, over time, the status quo of general happiness will improve through education and science. This prospect is something that we can take pleasure in right now. Therefore, although the criterion of general happiness is based on experiential observation, general happiness is elastic enough to include the pleasure of establishing ideal moral goals.

Unfortunately, elasticity in the notion of general happiness has negative implications as well. To illustrate, Beccaria describes a situation in which a cruel government inflicts pain on its citizens to keep them in fear. However, over time, the government will be de-sensitized to the suffering it inflicts, and the citizens themselves will increase their toleration for the suffering they can endure. So, over time, the government must become more cruel and unjust to maintain the same level of fear that was previously achieved with less cruelty. If Beccaria is accurate in his description of our ability to adjust to cruelty, then Grote's criticism re-emerges. For, our perception of happiness at any given moment may not be sufficient to either recognize or condemn cruel conduct. An independent standard of ideal morality is required to assure that cruelty is correctly identified, and then condemned. From this perspective, the experiential basis of Mill's utilitarianism appears inadequate.


Abeeís Criticism: Higher Pleasures are Inconsistent with Hedonism. We saw that the most distinctive feature of Mill's utilitarianism is his view that happiness consists of both higher and lower pleasures, and that higher pleasures are qualitatively superior to lower pleasures. It is also this aspect of Mill's theory that has generated the most criticism. The problem is that Mill appears to offer two separate standards of general happiness: (1) pleasure, and (2) dignity. If we see pleasure as the sole criterion, then we must de-emphasize dignity. However, if we see dignity as the principal criterion, then we must de-emphasize pleasure. Critics of Mill, both past and present, see this as a big problem. Ernest Albee concisely stated in the central problem in 1902:


The inconsistency, in truth, may be expressed in a word: If all good things are good in proportion as they bring pleasure to oneself or others, one cannot add to this statement that pleasure itself, the assumed criterion, is more or less desirable in terms of something else (e.g., human dignity) which is not pleasure. (A History of English Utilitarianism, 1902)


Contemporary Mill scholarship presents the problem in terms of a dilemma: if the superiority of higher pleasures is quantitative, then the higher/lower distinction is superfluous and Mill contradicts himself; if the superiority of higher pleasures isnít quantitative, then Mill's hedonism is compromised.

Contemporary commentator Roderick T. Long recently defended Mill against this dilemma. According to Long, Mill believes that pleasure is the sole criterion of moral superiority. So-called "higher pleasures" are actually quantitatively superior, and not qualitatively superior. For Mill, the higher/lower distinction is really a distinction about lifestyles, and not a distinction about particular pleasures. The lifestyle of an art lover contains a greater quantity of pleasure than the lifestyle of a monster truck lover. Although individual higher pleasures may be quantitatively inferior to lower pleasures, the higher lifestyle is always quantitatively superior. According to Long, the greater quantity of pleasure is supplied by an extra boost to one's self-image when following the higher lifestyle. For example,


Wallowing in the mud would bring Socrates 3 units of pleasure (utils), while discussing piety with Euthyphron would yield only 1 util.... But the knowledge of having retained his self-image would bring Socrates 10 utils, while the knowledge of having betrayed it would cost him 10 utils.


As evidence for this interpretation, Long argues that in many of his writings Mill emphasizes the importance of character development and higher lifestyles. Further, when Mill mentions higher pleasures, it is almost always in the context of lifestyles.

If Long's interpretation is correct, then he successfully resolves the above dilemma. That is, Mill's hedonism is preserved, the higher/lower distinction is ultimately quantitative, and the higher/lower distinction is meaningful insofar as it contrasts lifestyles, and not particular pleasures. However, there are two problems with Long's interpretation. First, from a purely exegetical standpoint, Long's interpretation is inconsistent with Mill's text. Mill encapsulates the higher/lower distinction in this well known motto: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." In the context of this passage, the fool has lower expectations for happiness, which can be easily satisfied. Socrates, though, has higher expectations for happiness which life canít satisfy. So, on balance, Socrates will be dissatisfied, and the fool will be satisfied. But, if Socrates is unsatisfied and the fool is satisfied, then Socrates' lifestyle canít possibly have a higher quantity of pleasure (minus pain) than the fool's lifestyle. To be dissatisfied means to be less happy. Mill's point is that, in spite of Socrates' overall unhappiness, the small amount of higher happiness he does experience will qualitatively elevate him above the fool.

Perhaps Long isnít interested in exegetical purity and, instead, is more interested in revising Mill to make his basic position more consistent. There is still, though, a second problem with Longís solution: is it true that higher lifestyles will produce a greater quantity of pleasure than lower lifestyles? Studies appear regularly attempting to link happiness with education level. It isnít clear that more educated people are more happy or less stressed than their less educated counterparts. Long, then, rescues Mill from inconsistency by saddling Mill with an experientially questionable hypothesis.


REVISIONS OF UTLITARIANISM. Bentham and Millís hedonistic utilitarianism is a mixed bag. On the plus side, by focusing exclusively on the pleasure that results from a course of action, morality stands up to experiential and even scientific judgment. Hedonistic utilitarians argue that we can record experiences of pleasure, quantify degrees of pleasure, and use this as the basis of our moral judgments. Moral assessment, then, isnít a matter of wishy-washy feelings or personal intuitions; instead hedonistic utilitarianism places the issue of morality squarely in the arena of public observation. Even today many philosophers and social scientists defend hedonistic utilitarianism because of its objectivity. On the minus side, critics point out that pleasure isnít the only thing in life that is morally significant. Religious and political martyrs are vivid illustrations of this. Many people throughout history felt morally compelled to defend their religious or political ideals knowing full well that they would be tortured and ultimately killed for their actions. Their lives would have been more pleasurable Ė or at least far less painful -- if they simply conformed to social expectations. It seems, then, that an important part of our moral assessments go beyond mere pleasure.

Mill himself acknowledged that mere pleasure isnít the only thing that counts and, as weíve seen, he addressed this problem with the notion of higher pleasures. Perhaps Mill would say that martyrs experience higher pleasures that counterbalance their pains. Weíve also seen, though, that Millís conception of higher pleasures is unsatisfactory. To more successfully address this problem, some contemporary defenders of utilitarianism abandon pleasure altogether as the ultimate criterion, and propose a standard that is broad enough to include cases like religious and political martyrs. The two most popular alternatives are ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism.


Ideal Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism. Ideal utilitarianism is the view that the morally right course of action is the one that brings about the greatest amount of goodness, regardless of what we specifically identify as good. Many things in life are intrinsically good, such as aesthetic beauty, integrity, friendship, fulfillment of desires, fairness, or freedom. We shouldnít single out any one of these qualities as definitive, which is exactly what Bentham and Mill did by focusing on pleasure. Instead, any consequence that counts as good should be entered into the utilitarian tally. Suppose that I live in a repressive country and am considering voicing my unpopular political opinions. I not only tally the pain I will experience from being tortured, which is clearly bad, but I also tally the assertion of my freedom and the integrity of my convictions, which are good things. How do we recognize the various things that count as good? According to British philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958), we can sketch out an ideal standard or conglomerate package of good qualities, even if we canít pinpoint any specific quality. We can start by pointing out the flaws in popular standards of goodness that leave out important goods. Moore believes that the ideal standard that we arrive at will emphasize a mixture of aesthetic enjoyments, such as beauty, and admirable mental qualities such as sociability. Ultimately, we must rely on intuition to recognize the various goods.

Preference utilitarianism is the view that the morally right course of action is the one that maximizes our preferences. Again, if I live in a repressive country and am considering expressing my unpopular political opinions, I would tally my preference of free expression in addition to the pain I would experience from being tortured. Preference utilitarianism is most associated with British philosopher R.M. Hare. There are three key aspects to Hareís account. First, to say that I "prefer" something simply means that I would choose that thing if the appropriate situation arose. For example, to say, "I prefer that Karla Faye Tucker should be executed," means that I would choose for her execution if I had the chance. Second, my preferences include a combination of both immediate preferences and long-term preferences. Among other combinations, it includes (a) what I prefer right now to attain right now; (b) what I prefer right now to attain in the future, and (c) what I will prefer in the future to attain in the future. Third, my preferences are not merely restricted to myself, but also include preferences for other people. That is, some of my preferences must be impartial and universal, and I must imagine what my preferences would be if I was in someone elseís shoes. For example, I would not prefer that, if I were I Tucker, I should be executed. But I would prefer that, if I were a relative of the victim, Tucker should be executed. According to Hare, I need to tally my own preferences for myself, and weigh them against what Iíd prefer if I were other parties involved. If my preferences focused only on myself, then I would be an egoist, and not a utilitarian.

Both ideal utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism allow us to tally a broad range of possible consequences in our utilitarian calculus. Contrary to hedonism, they recognize that pleasure isnít the only thing that counts. However, ideal and preference utilitarians pay a price for being so inclusive, namely, that they lose objectivity. As mentioned earlier, according to hedonistic utilitarians, pleasure can be experientially measured. However, ideal goodness and personal preferences cannot be experientially measured. These are founded in gut feelings and private intuitions, which donít lend themselves to public inspection. Consequently, many utilitarians stick with the old hedonistic version in spite of its narrowness.


The Bare Bones Utilitarian Formula. Utilitarians from Bentham and onward are united in the view that morality is a matter of weighing the positive vs. the negative consequences of a course of action. We described this earlier as a bare bones concept of morality, which doesnít involve other considerations such as virtues, Godís will, natural law, or natural rights. Utilitarian writers present different claims about the purpose of the bare bones utilitarian formula. They sometimes see it as (1) a description of how we actually make moral decisions; or (2) a description of how we should make moral decisions; or (3) a quick and easy test to use in making moral decisions. But no version of utilitarianism is successful in any of these claims. First, utilitarianism doesnít accurately describe how we always make moral decisions, as we can see from the Tucker story. Although both sides of the dispute at some point offered utilitarian reasoning for their views, they also appealed to a variety of non-utilitarian reasons. Tucker herself believed that, as a matter of simple mercy, society should forgive criminals who reform. Her critics argued that she should be executed based on an "eye for an eye" notion of justice. Appeals to simple mercy or "eye for an eye" justice do not involve utilitarian tallies of good or bad consequences. Also, utilitarianism involves a type of arithmetic by which we subtract the weight of the negative consequences from the weight of the positive consequences. Those calling for Tuckerís execution appear to have simply dismissed the positive consequences of her staying alive. That is, they did not subtract the positive consequences from the negative ones, as a true utilitarian would.

Second, it isnít clear that we should adopt the utilitarian formula when making all of our moral decisions. Immanuel Kant made this point specifically with regard to capital punishment. Although Kant himself defended the death penalty, he argued that if we execute a criminal because of its positive value on society, such as crime deterrence, then we are using the criminal as a tool for our own purposes. For Kant, it is always bad to use someone as a tool, even if the person in question is a criminal. Finally, in many if not most cases, the utilitarian formula is neither a quick nor an easy way of making moral decisions. It is difficult to see how many people might be affected by a given course of action. It is also difficult to know how to assign weight to the various good or bad consequences that emerge. Although hedonistic utilitarians brag that pleasure can be experientially quantified, the fact remains that scientists have not yet invented pleasure meter. Assigning weight to pleasures and pains will still involve some level of subjective judgment.

Perhaps the problem with utilitarianism is its bare bones claim that morality depends entirely on calculating consequences. Philosophers today are drawn to simple formulas and to simple explanations to complex philosophical puzzles. But moral decision making appears to be one area that we canít account for with a simple and unified formula. Our actual moral decision making process depends on a patchwork of various theories and explanations that canít be reduced to a single theme. At times we do rely on utilitarian reasoning and, to that extent, it is an important part of moral decision making. Utilitarians just need to abdicate their claim to sole authority.



The interview with Karla Faye Tucker is from Larry King Live, January 31, 1998.

18th century writings that adopt utilitarian-type reasoning include Claude-Adrien Helvetiusís Essays on the Mind (1758), Cesare Beccariaís On Crimes and Punishments (1764), Joseph Priestleyís Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768), and William Godwinís Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).

The review of Benthamís Principles in the Analytical Review is from Vol. 5, 1789, pp. 306-310.

The review of Benthamís Principles in the Critical Review is from Vol. 68, 1789, pp. 333-340.

Simon Laurieís comment on the popularity of Benthamís theory is from On the Philosophy of Ethics (1866).

The early comment about Mill establishing a "new utilitarianism" is from Simon Laurieís Notes Expository and Critical on Certain British Theories of Morals (1868) p. 114.

In An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870), John Grote writes that he expected Mill to follow up with a longer book.

Ernest Albee, in A History of English Utilitarianism (1902), describes the universal familiarity of Millís book.

F.H. Bradley criticizes Mill in Ethical Studies (1876) p. 81.

Groteís criticism of Mill appears in his Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870).

Beccariaís point about mental adjustment to cruelty appears in On Crimes and Punishments (1764), Ch. 27.

Roderick T. Long, "Mill's Higher Pleasures and the Choice of Character," Utilitas, 1992, Vol. 4, pp.279-297.

G.E. Mooreís version of ideal utilitarianism appears in the closing chapter of Principia Ethica, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903).

R.M. Hareís version of preference utilitarianism is in his book Moral Thinking, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).


Suggestions for Further Reading





For decades science fiction writers and futurists have forecasted the bizarre possibilities of genetic engineering. We might stockpile human clones for spare body parts. With some genetic cutting and pasting, we might create human drones for menial labor and more brainy people for leadership positions. We might also select from a menu of genetic options and design superhumans who are stronger, healthier, smarter, and who live longer. Although these science fiction scenarios grab our attention, until recently their scientific reality seemed too remote to take seriously. In 1997, though, Scottish scientists at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute announced that they successfully cloned a sheep from the cell of another sheepís utter. The new sheep, named Dolly, was the first cloned mammal in scientific history, and the announcement of Dolly brought science fiction much closer to reality. This event sparked an array of heated ethical discussions and, in a knee-jerk reaction, scientists and politicians around the world declared that cloning humans was immoral and should be banned. Some explained that the procedure was too risky at current stages of research. Perhaps at best only 1 in 10 attempted human clones would be viable, and the remaining 9 couldnít simply be treated as human waste. Others argued that, even if the odds of viability were substantially improved, it would still be inherently immoral to clone humans in view of the potential abuses of this technology, such as creating specialized races. While these critics voiced their cautionary views, scientists continued to announce the creation of even more cloned and genetically altered animals.

It was only a matter of time before other scientists and politicians put a different spin on the ethics of human cloning. Scientists in Britain held public debates on the issue, and one scientist commented that "I think what we probably want is to stop the wild and irresponsible notion of cloning whole human beings Ö. But we would like the scientific analogues, the procedures that might in five years' time lead to curing of diseases, to continue." More dramatically, a Chicago physicist publicly announced that, in spite of current opposition, he would begin work on cloning a human: "I've said many times that you can't stop science Ö God made man in his own image. God intended for man to become one with God. ... Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God." In a controversial book, Princeton University biologist Lee M. Silver argued that ethical debates on bioengineering are all but irrelevant. Regardless of the cautious positions taken by some legislators and scientists, research into these areas will continue at full speed. In our human drive for better health, longer life and even perfection, we wonít be hampered by ethical questions.

The genetic engineering debate today attempts to determine the morality of intentionally altering and improving human DNA. In the second half of the 19th century, philosophers asked a related ethical question about the evolutionary development of humans. Although 19th century philosophers couldnít foresee the possibility of altering human DNA through gene splicing techniques, they understood the evolutionary forces at work that might more naturally alter our human nature. Evolutionary theorists noted three such mechanisms. First, human biology is the product of millions of years of natural evolutionary development, and we have every reason to believe that human biological evolution will continue. Second, through selective breading techniques, we may speed up the natural evolutionary process of human development. Third, evolutionary development doesnít end with biology, but also extends to social and ethical behavior: value systems themselves are shaped by human survival.

From an ethical perspective, the first of these evolutionary mechanisms isnít particularly noteworthy since hundreds of thousands of years might pass before evolution by itself could produce noticeable changes in human physiology. The second of these mechanisms -- selective breeding -- can no longer be viewed as a serious option in view of the effects of forced sterilization policies in the U.S., as well as Nazi efforts at creating a master race in World War II Germany. At their best, selective breeding practices violate reproductive rights of individuals, and, at their worst, they may too easily lead to genocide. The more mainstream evolutionary ethicists of the 19th century focused on the third of these evolutionary mechanisms, namely, that human social behavior is an extended development of biological evolution. In this context, the phrase "evolutionary ethics" refers to the view that moral behavior is that which tends to aid in human survival.


EVOLUTION AND ETHICS. Theories of evolutionary ethics hinge directly on more general accounts of biological evolution. Biologists of the 18th and early 19th century offered a variety of explanations for how animals evolve over time. However, in his landmark book, The Origin of the Species (1859), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) championed the explanation of evolution that weíve come to accept.


Darwin and the Evolution of Moral Faculties. Darwinís account of evolution, which he calls "natural selection," has three main elements. First, Darwin argues that living beings undergo random mutations that are passed on to offspring. Second, most creatures are doomed to early death either because there isnít enough food to go around or because other animals eat them. Third, animals that have the most beneficial mutations will survive and pass that attribute on to their offspring. For example, suppose that two animals were born of the same parents, but one of the newborns had longer legs because of a random mutation. The longer legs enable this animal to run faster than its sibling, and, so, it is faster at catching food and also at escaping from predators. The normal sibling, then, dies while the mutated animal survives, reproduces, and passes the attribute of long legs on to its children. Eventually all of the short-legged members of the species die out in the struggle for survival, and the long legged members live on. In this manner, attributes of a species change slowly over time, and eventually a new species emerges. For Darwin, species are mutable and each group of organisms represents only the present status of its species. The apparent development of species over time, from less complex to more complex, is completely unguided and shouldnít be attributed to a built-in natural purpose of things.

Darwinís Origin of the Species focuses only on the evolutionary development of nonhuman animals. Privately, though, Darwin believed that humans were just one more type of animal and thereby subject to the same evolutionary mechanisms as other animals. In his Descent of Man (1871), published 12 years after the Origin, Darwin openly takes on the issue of human evolution and devotes almost 30 pages of this work to the evolutionary development of morality. His explanation has two parts, one psycho-physiological, and the other social. From the psycho-physiological perspective, our moral faculties develop directly from our social instincts, such as the inclination to care for children and live in groups. Darwin argues that any animal that developed social instincts "would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience" as soon as that animal reached a high level of intelligence. In point of fact, though, only humans have attained that level. The social instincts of ordinary animals enable them to sympathize with members of their social units and to respond to praise and blame, such as the ability we find in dogs. Humans, however, move beyond this and are, in Darwinís words, moral beings. For Darwin, "a moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them." In this regard, humans developed a moral sense and also a conscience, both of which aid in our survival, just as social instincts aid in the survival of some animals. The job of the moral sense is to tell us what we ought to do, and the job of the conscience is to give us the appropriate motivation to do the right thing.

The second part of Darwinís evolutionary explanation of morality is social. As we move from a primitive to a moderate state of civilization, we adopt moral principles and attitudes that assist in the survival of our small social unit. We put aside individual interests for the good of the group and advocate patriotism, loyalty, obedience, and self-sacrifice. As societies become larger and more advanced, we can trace the consequences of our actions to wider groups of people and our sympathies become more diffused to all races. Ironically, once we reach an advanced level of a civilization, many moral rules we adopt are less related to the preservation of our social group. For example, we care for physically weak and mentally impaired people, which, according to Darwin, is "highly injurious to the race of man." We do this mainly as a byproduct of our enlarged moral sympathies. We also harm the human race when we send our strongest young men to fight in wars, thereby leaving procreation to weaker men who stay at home. Darwin also notes that the practice of inheriting wealth from our parents is damaging since it makes us "useless drones." However, always looking to our survival, we create other moral rules that restrict the damage done by these practices.

Although Darwinís account of evolutionary ethics is suggestive, it doesnít systematically explore the subject of ethics. Darwinís defenders took on this task, most notably British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).


Spencerís Evolutionary Ethics. In his book The Data of Ethics (1879) Spencer offered what is probably the most detailed 19th century account of evolutionary ethics. Like Darwin, Spencer distinguishes between a sociological and a biological component of evolution. In fact Spencer sees three interrelated areas of evolution in animals: (1) the animalís species, (2) the animalís bodily functions, and (3) the animalís conduct:


... three [evolutionary] subjects are to be definitely distinguished... the subject of conduct lies outside the subject of functions [movement of limbs, bodily actions], if not as far as this lies outside the subject of structures [types of animals, organisms] still far enough to make it substantially different. [The Date of Ethics, p. 8]


Ethics involves the third of these three aspects of evolution, namely, the development of the animalís conduct. Spencer argues that more biologically complex organisms have more complex conduct. Insects, for example, have a very low level of biological complexity and thus have comparatively less complex conduct. Humans, on the other hand, have the most biological complexity, and thus have the most complex conduct, and ethics is final stage in the development of that conduct:


Ö Ethics has for its subject-matter, that form which universal conduct assumes during the last stages of its evolution. We have also concluded that these last stages in the evolution of conduct are these displayed by the highest type of being, when he is forced, by increase of numbers, to live more and more in presence of his fellows. And there has followed the corollary that conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as the activities, becoming less and less militant and more and more industrial, are such as do not necessitate mutual injury or hindrance, but consist with, and are furthered by, co-operation and mutual aid. [The Date of Ethics, p. 20]


During this final stage of behavioral development, our conduct is more complex principally because it involves such a high degree of mutual cooperation. Think of the mutual cooperation involved in making a city run efficiently. Utility companies, factories, truckers, retail stores, and consumers all must carefully cooperate with each other. When enough people fail to cooperate, such as in work strikes or criminal activities, then society breaks down.

So, if we ask Spencer where morality comes from in the larger scheme of things, his answer is that ethics is the highest evolutionary development of human conduct, namely, mutual cooperation. Suppose that we press Spencer further and ask him what is so morally significant about mutual cooperation. His answer is that mutual cooperation brings about the greatest amount of universal pleasure. Ultimately, then, highly evolved conduct is good because it facilitates universal pleasure. Drawing on both Bentham and Mill, Spencer proposes a version of hedonistic utilitarianism: ethical conduct is that which maximizes both our selfish and selfless motivations. There are several steps to Spencerís theory of hedonism. First, Spencer argues that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain motivate all of our actions, and, consequently, moral good must be associated with pleasures. Second, we have both self-regarding and other-regarding impulses, each of which gives us pleasure when fulfilled. Third, the playoff between our selfish and selfless impulses in larger social groups results in a compromise. My other-regarding inclinations prompt me to give up my selfish interests. However, because you also have also other-regarding inclinations, you wonít let me completely abandon my selfish interests. As a result, proper conduct is that which produces the greatest satisfaction, as regards both others and myself.

Fourth, and finally, to apply this compromise in practice, we devise principles of equity. At our present and early stage of morality, we advocate the principle that "each [person] claims no more than his equitable share." In time, however, we will evolve beyond this. We will be more other-regarding, and our principle of equity will be that "each [person] restrains himself from taking an undue share of altruistic satisfactions." Ultimately, Spencer believes, we will evolve beyond even this and we will adopt the principle that "each [person] takes care that others shall have their opportunities for altruistic satisfaction." Right now these altruistic tendencies within us are "occasional and feeble." With further evolution, though, they will become habitual and strong.

Here are the main points of Spencerís theory:



MOOREíS CRITICISM OF SPENCER. In 1903, British philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) published a work titled Principia Ethica, which in many ways set a new direction for ethical theory in the 20th century. Moore analyzed the most influential ethical theories of his time Ė including those of Kant, Mill, and Spencer Ė and noted a fundamental mistake that they all make. In each case, they fail because they wrongly equate moral goodness with some natural or metaphysical property. Spencer, for example, identifies moral goodness with advanced evolutionary development. According to Moore, these philosophers commit what he calls the naturalistic fallacy.


The Naturalistic Fallacy. Moore's explanation of the naturalistic fallacy appears in the opening chapter of Principia. His discussion rests on a distinction between simple properties and complex properties. Compare these two statements: (1) "the new banana is yellow," and (2) "the old banana is speckled." The attributed "speckled" is a complex property since it involves splotches of several colors. By contrast, the attribute "yellow" is a simple property since it canít be broken down into any constituent part. According to Moore, although we can define complex properties such as "speckled" in terms of their constituent parts, we canít define simple properties such as "yellow". Moore argues that the term "good", like the term "yellow", is a simple property, and thus canít be reduced to any constituent parts. Therefore, "good" canít be defined as "pleasure," "highly evolved conduct" or any other property. If we try to define "good" by identifying it with another property, then we commit the naturalistic fallacy. To illustrate the naturalistic fallacy, assume that commendable actions such as charity have these attributes: (1) they constitute the most highly evolved conduct, (2) they promote universal pleasure, and (3) they are morally good. We would commit the naturalistic fallacy if we identified the third attribute with either of the first two attributes. This would happen, for example, if we claimed that "moral goodness" and "the promotion of universal pleasure" were the same attributes.

The name "naturalistic fallacy" implies that it is a fallacy to define "good" in terms of properties that we find in nature, such as pleasure or evolved conduct. Moore writes that if someone "confused 'good'... with any natural object whatever, then there is reason for calling that the naturalistic fallacy." However, there is more to the naturalistic fallacy than simply identifying "good" with a natural object. In Chapter Four of Principia, Moore argues further that it is improper to define "good" in reference to any non-natural or metaphysical quality as well as natural quality. For instance, it is also a fallacy to define goodness as doing the will of God, which is a nonnatural quality. Scholars now suggest that Moore is actually describing a definist fallacy, which has as subsets the naturalistic fallacy and the metaphysical fallacy. Moore defends his notion of the naturalistic fallacy with what has been called the open question argument. For any property that we attempt to identify with "goodness," we can ask, "Is that property itself good?" For example, if I claim that universal pleasure is goodness, the question can be asked, "But, is universal pleasure itself good?" The fact that this question makes sense shows that "universal pleasure" and "goodness" are not identical. Moore believes that no proposed natural or metaphysical property can pass the test of the open question argument.

Even though it is a fallacy to define moral goodness, it isnít a fallacy to claim that qualities such as universal pleasure always accompany goodness. For example, it is no fallacy to say that every time I find an action that is "morally good," I also see that the action produces "universal pleasure." I am simply correlating the presence of two qualities, and not identifying them. Moore writes that "it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good" (Principia Ethica, p. 10). Moore himself believes that we can intuitively recognize a group of such accompanying qualities. He argues that they include aesthetic enjoyments, such as beauty, and admirable mental qualities such as sociability.

Here are the main points of Mooreís notion of the naturalistic fallacy:



Identifying "Goodness" with "More Evolved". Moore believes that Spencerís evolutionary ethics commits the naturalistic fallacy in several respects. In each case, Spencer supposedly identifies moral goodness with some aspect of the evolutionary process. First, in the following passage, Moore accuses Spencer of committing the naturalistic fallacy for identifying "being more evolved" with "gaining ethical sanction":

All that the evolution-hypothesis tells us is that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved than others; and this is, in fact, all that Mr. Spencer has attempted to prove in the two chapters concerned. Yet he tells us that one of the things he has proved is that conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as it displays certain characteristics. What he has tried to prove is only that in proportion as it displays those characteristics, it is more evolved, it is plain, then, that Mr. Spencer identifies the gaining of ethical sanction with the being more evolved. [Principia Ethica, pp. 48-49]
The above phrase, "gains ethical sanction," means that some conduct is ethically commendable. In this sense, Moore complains that Spencer identifies more evolved (a natural property) with ethically commendable (goodness), and thereby commits the naturalistic fallacy. In response, Moore is attacking a straw man since Spencer has in mind a weaker claim than the identification of ethically commendable with more evolved. Look at these two statements:


(1) ethical commendability is identical with more evolved conduct

(2) ethical commendability is always accompanied by more evolved conduct


The first statement above clearly commits the naturalistic fallacy, but the second statement doesnít. As we have seen, we commit the naturalistic fallacy when we identify some property with goodness, not merely when we note that a property always accompanies goodness. Which of these two statements best expresses Spencerís point? The second one. For Spencer, the most evolved form of conduct is mutual cooperation in a society. The result of this conduct is that more pleasure is produced than would be the case if mutual cooperation did not take place. So, ethical commendability is a feature that always accompanies the most evolved conduct since such conduct produces the most pleasure.

Mooreís second criticism is that Spencer equates the natural term "more evolved" with the moral terms "higher" and "better" and thereby commits the naturalistic fallacy again. "[W]hat a very different thing is being 'more evolved' from being 'higher' or 'better'.... But Mr. Spencer does not seem aware that to assent the one is not to assent the other." In response, Moore is correct that Spencer identifies more evolved conduct with higher conduct. However, we must distinguish Spencerís use of the phrase "higher conduct" from "superior conduct." For Spencer, conduct is higher when it is ethically significant -- that is, when conduct may be deemed either good or bad. By contrast, ethically superior conduct is conduct that is actually deemed good. Now look at these two statements:


(1) more evolved conduct is ethically significant

(2) more evolved conduct is ethically superior


Spencer does endorse the first statement above, but, technically speaking, this doesnít commit the naturalistic fallacy since it doesnít identify more evolved conduct with goodness itself. The second statement above does commit the naturalistic fallacy since it specifically identifies more evolved conduct with goodness. However, Spencer nowhere endorses this second statement. Instead, as a utilitarian, Spencer holds that,


(3) universally pleasing conduct is ethically superior


It is true that this third statement, endorsed by Spencer, commits the naturalistic fallacy. However, this statement by itself is utilitarian, and not evolutionary in nature. At worst, then, Spencer commits the naturalistic fallacy for being a utilitarian, and not for being an evolutionary ethicist.


Identifying "Goodness" with "Universal Pleasure". Not surprisingly, Moore recognized that Spencer identified goodness with universal pleasure, and he accused Spencer of committing the naturalistic fallacy for this as well. However, Moore and Spencer have in mind different conceptions of goodness, and this difference may protect Spencer from committing the naturalistic fallacy. Spencer clarifies his notion of goodness here:

The characters here predicated by the words good and bad, are not intrinsic characters, for apart from human wants, such things have neither merits nor demerits. We call these articles good or bad according as they are well or ill adapted to achieve prescribed ends. [Data of Ethics, p. 21]
The difference between these two notions of goodness can be expressed here:


Intrinsic goodness: wisdom is good because it contains within itself a foundational property of goodness

Extrinsic goodness: wisdom is good because it brings about a specific external consequence (such as pleasure) that we call "good"


Moore holds to a notion intrinsic goodness, which entails that there exists a unique and concrete property of goodness. Similar to the way that the property of yellowness covers a banana, Moore believes that the unique property of goodness permeates good things. Spencer, by contrast, makes no such assumption, but instead merely stipulates that the word "good" refers to some external or extrinsic quality, such as pleasure. We can see this difference in how both Spencer's and Moore describe good things. Spencer uses phrases such as "acts we call good", "we ascribe goodness," and "we apply them [i.e. 'good' and 'bad']". Moore, by contrast, speaks in terms of something being good.

Given their differing notions of the term "good", we may argue that Spencer doesnít commit the naturalistic fallacy. We may argue that "good" for Moore is indefinable only because Moore sees goodness as an intrinsic property. Since Spencer rejects the idea that things are intrinsically good, and instead assumes that the term "good" is by itself an empty placeholder, then it would be no fallacy for Spencer to define "good" as pleasure. The issue is no longer one of fallaciously identifying two properties (i.e., pleasure and intrinsic goodness), but one of denying the notion of intrinsic goodness altogether. The dispute isnít definitional, but metaphysical and concerns the question of moral realism. Moral realism is the view that goodness is an independent and objective quality of the world, which right actions possess intrinsically, and wrong actions lack. Whereas Moore endorses moral realism, Spencer doesnít and argues instead that there is no objective quality of goodness that is intrinsic to right actions.

It was neither Moore's intention, nor is it in the spirit of Moore, to reduce the issue of the naturalistic fallacy to merely a denial of moral realism. Perhaps, then, we should place some parameters on the naturalistic fallacy to separate it from the moral realism question:


We commit the naturalistic fallacy only when (1) we assert intrinsic goodness, and (2) we identify goodness with a second property, such as pleasure, which always accompanies a morally commendable action.


Since Spencer's theory falls outside the first parameter above, then he canít be accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy.


LIMITATIONS OF EVOLUTIONARY ETHICS. Evolutionary ethics was a short-lived phase in the history of moral philosophy. One reason for its limited appeal was that the most sophisticated accounts of evolutionary ethics, such as Spencerís, were simply versions of hedonistic utilitarianism. The evolutionary component provides an interesting causal explanation for why we value various pleasures, but, in the end, our recommended moral duty is simply to maximize universal pleasure. A second reason for its quick decline is that moral philosophers of the early 20th century rejected fact-oriented theories of morality, such as hedonistic utilitarianism, and instead analyzed moral statements as nonfactual utterances. Philosophers of language took statements like "Charity is good" and interpreted them as simply commands (such as "Donate to charity!") and expressions of feelings (such as "Three cheers for charity!"). In this regard, theories of evolutionary ethics were irrelevant to understanding moral discourse.


Additional Criticisms. Aside from these historical reasons for its limited appeal, there are also more philosophical problems with evolutionary ethics, three of which we will mention here. First, it seems that there is a standard of morality that lies outside of the evolutionary process. This point is made most clearly by British evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895). Near the end of his life, Huxley reconsidered the relation between evolution and morality and parted company with Darwin and Spencer. According to Huxley, evolutionary forces generate a war of all against all, just as Hobbes described. The only way to rise above our warring tendencies is to rely on ethical intuitions that are distinct from evolution. To make his case, Huxley argues that if we assume that evolution explains the origin of our social behavior, then we must also accept that evolution explains the origin of our antisocial behavior:


The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. [Evolution and Ethics, p. 80]


Huxley believes that it is a mistake to think that just because survival of the fittest is the source of our organic development, then it is also the source of our ethical standards. The two forces are in fact at odds with each other, and there is a point at which the organic process of human evolution ends and is replaced by ethical development.

Huxley is correct that there are clear limits to how the notion of survival of the fittest applies to proper behavior. The following is a good illustration of this:

...were woman of the same sex as man, that is, were she simply another kind of man, she would soon be eliminated from the earth under the operation of the ordinary law of the survival of the fittest.... It is self-evident then that any system which looks to a career for women independent of man, such as man pursues, is abnormal, and injurious to her interests. [E.D. Cope, "On the Material Relations of Sex," 1890]


The 19th century author of this passage argues that women shouldnít have independent careers since their evolutionary survival hinged on protection by men. For the sake of argument, letís grant his initial point -- unfounded as it is -- that a race of humans constituted like women might have become extinct in the struggle for survival. However, the subsequent inference of a rule against independent careers for women is far from obvious. There is a point at which evolutionary considerations are simply irrelevant and we base our moral rules on other factors. Although Huxley himself isnít clear about what these other factors are, the history of philosophy offers us a variety of possible moral theories from which to choose.

A second problem with theories of evolutionary ethics concerns how we distinguish less evolved conduct from more evolved conduct when comparing one society to another. Many evolutionary writers, including Spencer, believed that primal human cultures had less evolved conduct, and industrialized societies had more evolved conduct. Presumably, moral development paralleled this social development. Similarly, British anthropologist Edward Tylor (1832-1917) sketched an evolutionary development of religious beliefs from primitive to advanced societies. According to Tylor, the most primitive societies were animistic, believing in spirits that inhabited natural objects. This evolved into polytheistic belief in a multiplicity of deities, which in turn gave rise to monotheistic belief in a single God. Finally, the most advanced societies abandon religious belief entirely and evolve a metaphysical perspective that explains natural phenomena in terms of science and ethics. The chief problem with this approach is that we lack objective criteria for distinguishing less evolved conduct from more evolved conduct. Little suggests that behavioral interaction in primal cultures is socially less evolved than behavioral interaction in technological societies. Without a clearly defined evolutionary spectrum of social behavior, no correlation can be drawn between such behavior and varying degrees of moral development.

Finally, 19th century theories of evolutionary ethics were unjustifiably optimistic about our ultimate moral destiny. Virtually all evolutionary writers believed that, although we are more ethically evolved than primal societies, weíve not yet achieved moral perfection. They believed, though, that it is simply a question of time before we get it right. Spencer, for example, maintained that we will become more altruistic through further evolutionary development. This optimistic attitude of moral improvement was part of the spirit of the times and carried over into the early 20th century. Social theorists dubbed World War I "the war to end all wars" since they saw it as the final hurdle to jump in achieving a condition of social harmony. However, this optimism proved unfounded by the brutality of World War I and the succession of devastating wars that followed. Our current vision of our future moral development appears to be mixed, as we can infer from science fiction stories. For example, the Star Trek series depicts humans in an advanced state of moral altruism. Personal greed is all but absent, and each battle brings humans a step closer to peace throughout the galaxy. By contrast, the Alien movie series shows humanity at its worst. People slaughter each other and place entire civilizations at risk simply to achieve some short term personal gain. Paradoxically, as viewers we relate to both the optimistic and pessimistic visions in these science fiction sagas. We can foresee the future as a much more ethical place, yet we can also envision the future as an extension of present human urges at their worst. Our views concerning our future moral evolution are caught in the middle.


Natural Selection as an Analogy. Theories of evolutionary ethics such as Spencerís are not necessarily false, but they raise questions that are largely unanswerable. Perhaps in time social scientists will find a definitive way of correlating social complexity with moral progress. Perhaps in time we will have the proper vantage from which to say that we are in fact improving ethically. Until then, the jury is still out. However, if we set aside the notions of biological development and evolutionary progress, natural selection is still an effective analogy for understanding how we endorse specific behaviors. Taken literally, 19th century theories of evolutionary ethics maintained that moral behavior is that which tends to aid in human survival. Taken analogically, though, we might say that moral behavior is that behavior which itself tends to survive in social environments. People perform a variety of actions, some of which are suitable to current social environments, others of which are not. People who behave unsuitably are denounced, punished or even executed. The unsuitable behavior dies out and the suitable behavior survives. For example, in past social environments it was unsuitable for women to pursue independent careers, and women who attempted to do so faced virtually insurmountable obstacles. In current social environments, it is suitable for women to seek careers and women who remain homemakers often feel compelled to defend their decision.

We canít deny that there is kind of social selection that weeds out unacceptable behavior within a given social environment. Today, political correctness is a dominant social factor, and society doesnít tolerate actions that are politically incorrect. Does morality simply reduce to the systematic social selection of acceptable behavior? Certainly not in the short-term, but maybe in the long-term. The short-term climate that endorsed anti-Semitism in World War II Germany can only be described as evil. We can also say this about the short-term climates that endorsed institutionalized slavery and racism in the United States. However, if we look at social trends that survive in the long-term, after perhaps a hundred or so years of conflict, these trends become more recognizable as "moral." Surviving trends over the past century include those that denounce sexism and racism. Perhaps the failure of communism after a century means that something is inherently wrong with completely eliminating free market enterprise. Perhaps the long-term tendency toward socialism in all countries, including the United States, means that something is inherently good about distributing part of our wealth based on the needs of others.

Assessing long-term social trends is difficult, especially the most recent ones. The recent disputes about the ethics of bioengineering are uniquely new, and in the future we can expect various short-term trends in reaction. Some reactions will be cautious, prohibiting the application of cloning and other techniques to humans. Other short-term trends will more aggressively apply bioengineering techniques to humans. The surviving long-term trend, though, is so far off that we canít predict the outcome. In the mean time, we must remain content with scenarios and warnings from science fiction.



The public statement by Chicago physicist Richard Seed was made in January 1998.

The public statement by Colin Campbell, British chairman of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, was made in January 1998.

Lee M. Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (Avon Books, 1997).

Charles Darwinís The Descent of Man, originally published in 1781, is available in several editions.

Herbert Spencerís The Data of Ethics, originally published in 1895, is available in several editions, including volume one of his Principles of Ethics. Quotations are from The Data of Ethics, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1903).

The distinction between the definist fallacy and the naturalistic fallacy is in William Frankenaís "The Naturalistic Fallacy," Mind, 1939, Vol. 48, pp. 464-477.

For a more detailed discussion of Mooreís criticism of Spencer see James Fieser, "Spencer, Moore, and the Naturalistic Fallacy," History of Philosophy Quarterly, 1993, Vol. 10, pp. 271-277.

Thomas Huxleyís book, Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, originally delivered in a 1893 lecture series, is available in several editions. The quotation is from Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (New York: AMS Press, 1970; reprint of the 1896 authorized edition).

E.D. Cope, "On the Material Relations of Sex," Monist, 1890, Volume 1, pp. 39-40.


Suggestions for Further Reading

Antony Flew, Evolutionary Ethics, (London: MacMillan, 1967).

John C. Greene, Darwin and the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961).

John Hill, The Ethics of G. E. Moore: A New Interpretation, (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1976).

Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer and J. Martinear (London; MacMillan and Co., 1901).





Some things in life are so obviously immoral that there is nothing about their ethical status to dispute. In World War II, German Nazi soldiers exterminated six million Jews. In the Vietnam war American soldiers massacred hundreds of civilian women and children in the village of My Lai. In South Africa, the former Apartheid government instituted racist policies that approached the level of slavery. In Jonestown Guyana, nearly 1,000 people committed suicide at the prompting of their religious cult leader Jim Jones. Recently, a new atrocity has been added to the list, namely, the use of chemical weapons by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi city of Halabja inhabited by Kurdish ethnic minorities. This is the first time in history that a government used such weapons against its own people. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Kurds from this city supported the rival country of Iran. At the close of the war, Saddam Hussein punished the unarmed city by bombarding it with mustard gas and other nerve agents. 5,000 villagers were killed and another 10,000 were injured. Bodies lined the streets, fallen in the spots in which they previously stood. Dead infants were still held in the arms of their now dead mothers. Survivors of the attack suffered from nerve damage, brain damage, cancer, and infertility.

Although use of chemical weapons was virtually outlawed after World War I, countries continued stockpiling the weapons. Sometimes called "the poor man's atom bomb," chemical weapons were appealing to poorer countries because of their comparatively low cost. Wealthier countries stockpiled chemical weapons to deter use by poorer countries in armed conflict. Strong international efforts are now underway to support a Chemical Weapons Convention that will ban the production, stockpiling and use of all chemical weapons.

The more horrible the offense, the more resolute we are about our moral assessment, and in the worst cases we describe the offense with the word "evil," a term that we reserve for only the most immoral actions. In spite of how vivid and self-evident some immoralities are, there is still a vagueness in our moral judgments that needs clarification. What exactly do I mean when I say "It is wrong to use chemical weapons"? Most moral philosophers of the past assumed that our moral judgments were simply about the presence or absence of some moral quality. The phrase "It is wrong to use chemical weapons" could be variously interpreted according to these theories:


Ockham's theory: "Use of chemical weapons is contrary to God's commands"

Locke's theory: "Use of chemical weapons violates our natural rights"

Clarke's theory: "use of chemical weapons is contrary to eternal moral relation"


Beginning in the early 20th century, though, many philosophers questioned this approach. When I make the statement, "It is wrong to use chemical weapons" I am not making a factual statement about the presence or absence of a moral quality. Instead, I am merely expressing my personal attitudes, feelings, and recommendations about the use of chemical weapons. It makes no difference how obviously immoral or evil the conduct is; the actual meaning of my moral assessment is simply a reflection of my individual attitude. This view was developed in two related theories. According to the theory of emotivism, the fundamental meaning of moral utterances is that they express our feelings. According to prescriptivism, the fundamental meaning of moral utterances is that they prescribe or prompt others to adopt some specific behavior. When first proposed, both of these theories were sharply criticized. It seems that my moral condemnation against the use of chemical weapons, for example, is much more than a reflection of personal emotions and urgings. There is something factually wrong about using such weapons. We will look at the emotivist and prescriptivist theories and see if they are as off the mark as critics argue.


AYER'S THEORY. One of the founders and most radical defenders of emotivism and presciptivism was British philosopher A.J. Ayer (1910-1989). Ayer's ethical views are presented in his influential his book Language, Truth and Logic (1936), a work that defends a skeptical philosophical position known as logical positivism. Since Ayer's view of moral judgments is largely an offshoot of logical positivism, letís briefly look at that theory.


Logical Positivism and the Verification Principle. Philosophers from centuries back commonly distinguished between two kinds of statements, such as these:


(1) All bachelors are unmarried men

(2) The door is brown


The first statement is true by definition and doesnít rely for its truth on sense perception or observation. If we know that the word "bachelor" by definition includes the notion of a single male, then it is clearly true that "all bachelors are unmarried men." Philosophers commonly call this kind of sentence an analytic statement, which also include mathematical truths such as "three times five is equal to the half of thirty." By contrast, the truth of the second statement above canít be established merely through definitions but instead relies on sense perception and observation. We must visually observe the color of the door to establish that it is brown. Philosophers call these empirical statements.

Scottish skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) pushed the distinction further and argued that analytic and empirical statements were the only legitimate types of knowledge that we have. Commentators refer to this view as Hume's fork since, according to Hume, all legitimate quests for knowledge "fork" or divide between these two types of statements. Hume ruthlessly applied this principle to traditional philosophical discussions and rejected any philosophical theory if it involved neither analytic nor empirical truths. Hume dramatically expresses this method of assessment here:


When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles [i.e., Hume's fork], what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, "Does it contain any [analytic] abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?" No. "Does it contain any [empirical] experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?" No. Commit it then to the flames. For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.


Inspired by Hume, philosophers of the logical positivist movement in the 1930s adopted a similar method of assessing the truth and meaning of knowledge claims. They proposed what they called the verification principle and, like Hume, they used it to test the meaning of various assertions.

Ayer's account of logical positivism and the verification principle is perhaps the best known. According to Ayer,


The principle of verification is supposed to furnish a criterion by which it can be determined whether or not a sentence is literally meaningful. A simple way to formulate it would be to say that a sentence had literal meaning if and only if the proposition it expressed was either analytic or empirically verifiable.


Ayer took great pains to show precisely what is involved in both analyticity and empirical verifiability. Most simply, a statement is analytic if it is either explicitly true by definition, or reducible to statements that are true by definition. A statement is empirically verifiable if some possible experience will either confirm or disconfirm it. To illustrate Ayer's verifiability principle, consider these statements:


(1) Triangles have three angles.

(2) The White House is in Washington D.C.

(3) There are flowers growing on the planet Neptune.

(4) Every two minutes, everything in the universe doubles in size.


The first of these statements is meaningful since it is analytically true by definition that triangles have three angles. The second statement is meaningful since we can empirically verify the location of the White House by going to Washington and seeing it. The third of these statements is also meaningful since at least in theory it is possible to construct a spaceship and fly to Neptune to confirm or disconfirm this statement. Finally, the fourth of these statements is meaningless since it is neither analytically true by definition nor empirically verifiable. Specifically, it isnít empirically verifiable since any theoretical measuring device I might use will itself also double in size.

Using the verification principle, Ayer rejects as meaningless various assertions about metaphysics, religion, and ethics. For example, Ayer considers the following metaphysical statement by British idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley: "the Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress." For Ayer, this statement is meaningless since it is neither analytically true nor empirically verifiable. Take, now, an ethical statement such as "it is morally wrong to use chemical weapons." This statement is also meaningless since it too is neither analytically true nor empirically verifiable. Although moral utterances are factually "meaningless" in Ayer's strict sense of that term, they are not complete gibberish. That is, they are not on the same level as the nonsensical utterance, "The time now is green." When I make moral utterances, people know how to respond appropriately to me in their actions and in their words. Ayer concedes this much and recognizes that moral utterances perform some practical function in our lives, even though they are factually meaningless.


Descriptive Utterances vs. Performativism Utterances. To better understand the nonfactual practical function of ethical utterances, we need to distinguish between two types of utterances: (1) factually descriptive utterances, and (2) implicitly performative utterances. Although Ayer himself didnít use this precise terminology, he relied on the underlying concepts. Factually descriptive utterances are those that pass the test of the verification principle, such as these:


Triangles have three angles

The door is brown

Jones claims to have seen Elvis

Smith is wearing his leisure suit again


More generally, each of these utterances is an either true or false statement about the world. To test, for example, whether "the door is brown" is factually descriptive, we need only to ask, "Is it true or false that 'the door is brown?'" Since this question is intelligible, then the statement, "the door is brown" is factually descriptive.

By contrast, implicitly performative utterances are a special class of statements that technically fail the test of the verification principle, and are not factually descriptive. Examples of these are,


Shut the door!

Keep your dog out of my yard!

Oh, my aching back!

Three cheers for Old Glory!


The first two statements above are commands, and the second two are expressions of feelings. Although we understand what is being said by each of these utterances, they donít literally express truths or falsehoods. Using the above test, it makes no sense to ask, "Is it true or false that 'Shut the door'?" In addition to being nonfactual, they are implicitly performative in the sense that they verbally accomplish some task. As such, they can be reasonably translated into statements that begin with the phrase "I hereby...." For example, I can rephrase each of the above utterances as these:


I hereby ask you to shut the door.

I hereby ask you to keep your dog out of my yard.

I hereby express my feelings concerning my aching back.

I hereby express my feelings for Old Glory.


Now examine this list of moral utterances:


It is wrong to use chemical weapons

Donating to charity is good

Murdering people is wrong

Mother Teresa was a good woman


Are these utterances factually descriptive, or are they implicitly performative? The traditional view of moral utterances is that they are factually descriptive, since it seems intelligible to ask, "is it true or false that 'Donating to charity is good'?" This traditional view is sometimes called cognitivism since it holds that the truth-value of moral utterances can be known or subject to cognition. A clearer name for this view, though, is descriptivism since we are providing factual descriptions in our moral utterances.

Ayer challenges the descriptivist interpretation of moral utterances and argues that, although they may appear to be true or false statements about the world, they are not really factual descriptions. Instead, they are implicitly performative utterances, which are disguised as factual descriptions. In Ayer's terminology, they are "pseudo-propositions." This view is sometimes called noncognitivism since it holds that the truth-value of moral utterances cannot be known, or subject to cognition. Letís use the name performativism in reference to this view, given its emphasis on performing something rather than describing something.


Emotivism and Prescriptivism. According to Ayer, we perform two distinct tasks with our moral utterances. First, moral utterances express our feelings, similar to the way we express our feelings with the statement "Three cheers for Old Glory!" This aspect of Ayer's theory is commonly called emotivism. To illustrate, the statement "Mother Teresa is a good woman" simply expresses our approval of her, and could be reworded more accurately as "Three cheers for Mother Teresa!" Alternatively, we can state it as "I hereby express my feelings of approval for Mother Teresa." On Ayer's interpretation, expressing my feelings about Mother Teresa isnít the same thing as reporting my feeling about her. Compare these two statements:


(1) "Three cheers for Mother Teresa!"

(2) "I approve of Mother Teresa."


The first of these statements expresses my feeling of approval of Mother Teresa and isnít factual. However, the second of these reports my feelings and is factual since it is either true or false that "I approve of Mother Teresa." At an initial glance, the difference between expressing feelings and reporting feelings seems trivial. For Ayer, though, the difference is enormous. When I make moral assessments, my expression of feelings doesnít even rise to the level of a report. When I morally approve of something, I am merely being like a cheerleader. When I morally disapprove of something, I am being like a heckler. Ayer doesnít claim to have invented this theory but explains that Hume hinted at it 200 years earlier:


... if we did insist on extracting from Hume a reformulation of our moral statements, we should come nearer the mark by crediting him with the modern "emotive" theory that they serve to express our moral sentiments rather than with the theory that they are statements of fact [that report] about one's own or other people's mental condition. [Hume, p. 85]


According to Ayer, the second thing that we perform with our moral utterances is that we make commands, similar to the way we make a command in the statement "Keep your dog out of my yard!" This aspect of Ayer's theory is commonly called prescriptivism, in the sense that we prescribe, or urge others to adopt specific behavior. For example, the statement, "Murdering people is wrong," is primarily a command urging people to not murder. This statement could be more accurately reworded as, "Don't murder!" or "I hereby ask you to not murder."

British philosopher R.M. Hare (b. 1919) helped clarify this prescriptive component of moral utterances. According to Hare, although when I make moral utterances I intend for you to do something, technically I don't use moral utterances to persuade you to do something. Moral prescriptions are not just another means of inducing someone to act, such as propaganda, bribery, or torture. Instead, prescriptive language presupposes that someone asks us "what shall I do?" The answer to this question is the prescriptive command that "you should do X". This is similar to what is implied by ordinary commands, such as "Shut the door". When I utter this command, I am not coaxing you to shut the door. I assume that you are already predisposed to respond to my request to do something. I am merely signaling you to respond in that way.

Here are the main points of Ayer's theory:


· Statements are factually meaningful only if they are either analytically true by definition, or empirically verifiable.

· Moral utterances are not factually meaningful, but only implicitly perform something.

· The emotive performance of moral utterances is that they express our personal feelings.

· The prescriptive performance of moral utterances is that they urge others to adopt specific behavior.


CRITICISMS OF AYER. When Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic first appeared, many readers were horrified at his bold attempt to reduce traditional areas of philosophical discourse to meaningless utterances. One such response is this:


Under the pretence of ultimate wisdom it [Ayer's book] guillotines religion, ethics and aesthetics, self, persons, free will, responsibility and everything worth while. I thank Mr. Ayer for having shown us how modern philosophers can fiddle and play tricks while the world burns.


Ten years after the publication of his book, Ayer noted that his treatment of morality in particular "provoked a fair amount of criticism." Letís look at two main criticisms, each of which Ayer responded to.


Ross's Criticism: Performativism Based on Faulty Verification Principle. British philosopher W.D. Ross (1877-1971) charged that Ayer's performative account of moral utterances rests on the verification principle. Since, according to Ross, the verification principle has problems, then the performative theory inherits those faults. What is wrong with the verification principle? Letís note two commonly mentioned problems. First, logical positivists have difficulties when arriving an acceptable formulation of "empirical verifiability." Suppose that I define empirical verifiability as this:


A statement is empirically verifiable if it is possible to have some direct experience that will confirm its truth.


Unfortunately, this criterion wonít apply to obviously factual statements such as "all humans are mortal." The problem here is that no direct experiences can fully verify universal statements. Although logical positivists continually attempted to refine the notion of "empirical verifiability," no revision appears to be immune from similar counterexamples.

A second problem with the verification principle is that it fails its own test. Suppose that I uttered this sentence:


A statement is factually meaningful only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable.


My utterance itself is neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, hence my statement isnít factually meaningful. If I insist that my utterance really is factually meaningful, then I must conclude that the verification principle is too restrictive. On the other hand, if I accept that my statement of the verification principle is factually meaningless, then I don't have a good reason to advise you to accept the verification principle. For these and other reasons, there are genuine problems with the verification principle.

To the extent that Ayer's performative theory of moral utterances is based on the verification principle, then Ross seems correct that Ayer's performativism also has problems. In response to Ross's criticism, Ayer argued that his performative theory of moral utterances is "valid on its own account," irrespective of its initial association with the verification principle. When someone makes a moral utterance, such as "Mother Teresa is a good woman," we are entitled to ask whether that statement is factually descriptive or implicitly performative. Ayer believes that we wonít find any descriptive content in it and so we must see it as implicitly performative.

However, Ayer's response isnít satisfactory. It doesn't seem possible to brand moral utterances as purely performative without appealing to either the verification principle or a similar principle that is just as restrictive. Here is Ayerís principal argument for performativism:


(1) Moral utterances are either factually descriptive or implicitly performative.

(2) Moral utterances are not factually descriptive.

(3) Hence, moral utterances are implicitly performative.


The key premise is the second one. What reason do we have to maintain that moral utterances are not factually descriptive? Our only answer is to show that they donít live up to a specific standard of factualness. At minimum this requires that we consider conservative litmus tests for factualness, such as whether an utterance is true by definition, and whether an utterance is empirically verifiable. If we stop at these two litmus tests, then we thereby rely on the verification principle. Suppose instead that we considered additional litmus tests that are more inclusive, such as whether an utterance has practical value in our lives. These, though, will render moral utterances factually descriptive, and wonít give Ayer the result that he wants. So, the above argument locks us into a litmus test that is at least as restrictive as the verification principle, if not the verification principle itself.


Moore's Criticism: Performativism does not Account for Moral Arguments. British philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) argued that performativism is an inadequate theory of moral utterances since it doesnít recognize that we use facts in arguing for our moral views. More precisely, his criticism of performativism is this:


(1) If performativism is true, then we cannot argue about questions of moral value.

(2) In point of fact, we can engage in genuine arguments about questions of moral value.

(3) Therefore, performativism is false.


In defense of premise two, Moore argues that an important and obvious feature of morality is that we can argue about questions of moral value. For example, I may argue that donating to charity is morally obligatory, and you may argue that donating to charity is optional. We may argue back and forth on the issue, examining factual evidence and drawing factual conclusions. However, if performativism is true, then moral arguments of this sort are not possible. For, according to Ayer, moral assessments are not factually descriptive statements, but are merely performative expressions of feelings and commands. For Ayer, what appears to be a moral argument is in reality more like two snakes hissing at each other. Moore, by contrast, thinks that moral disputes are not just hissing matches, but instead have a genuine argumentative component.

Ayer was aware of Moore's criticism, but was not convinced. According to Ayer, if we closely look at moral disputes, we see that we never use arguments to show our opponent that he has the wrong ethical feeling or the wrong value system. The most that we do is show that our opponent is mistaken about some facts about the case, such as a person's true motive, or the actual consequences of a person's action. If our opponent isnít persuaded by these facts, then we give up reasoning with him and start insulting him for having an inferior sense of morality. For Ayer, this shows that the most central part of moral assessment isnít a question of facts or argumentation, but rather a question of a presupposed value system. Again, at this crucial level, so-called moral disputes are just hissing matches. American philosopher Charles L. Stevenson (1908-1979) helps clarify this point. According to Stevenson, when we engage in moral discussions we principally dispute with each other about our respective attitudes, rather than about facts. To illustrate this difference, if I say "Bob's car is a Ford" and you say "Bob's car is a Chevy", then we are disputing about facts. On the other hand, if I say that "Bob's car is cool" and you say "Bob's car is uncool" then we no longer have a dispute about facts, but instead have a despite about attitudes. Unlike factual disputes, attitude disputes canít be resolved by simply appealing to facts. For Ayer, then, ethical statements such as "this is good" are disputes of attitude.

Does Ayer's response to Moore succeed? Ayer is correct that we often resort to insults when our quick and ready factual observations fail to win our opponents over to our side. However, resorting to insults doesnít necessarily mean that we've reached a performative level in the discussion at which all reasoning fails. Instead, we may just be displaying our frustration that we don't have enough time to overturn the huge body of beliefs that comprise our opponents value system. Each of our value systems is the result of years of education, indoctrination, and reinforcement. The individual beliefs are woven together into a larger fabric that collectively reinforces each strand. But, with enough new facts and enough time, we can unweave the old fabric and replace it with a new one. For example, after four years of science classes in college, a student might revise or reject his literal understanding of Biblical view that God created the world in six days. We resort to insults when we see that we canít duplicate the cognitive experiences of four years of college within five minutes of conversation.


DESCRIPTIVE AND PERFORMATIVE ELEMENTS. The above criticisms suggest that Ayer's principal mistake was restricting moral assessments to only performative components. There is little doubt that part of our moral assessments involve performative expressions of feelings and commands. However, at least some of the time our assessments also involve a factually descriptive component. Moral philosophers after Ayer recognized this and offered theories combining the descriptive and performative elements. The two leading contributors to the discussion are Stevenson and Hare, both mentioned earlier.


Stevenson and Hare. Near the end of his life, Ayer commented that his account of ethical judgments was "much more adequately developed by the American philosopher Charles Stevenson in his book Ethics and Language." In his 1944 book, Stevenson explains how moral utterances involve both performative and descriptive elements. He observes that our use of moral language in every day life is very vague and there is no single way of analyzing all moral utterances. Sometimes the purpose of my moral assessment is mainly to reflect my personal attitudes, and other times I aim to making more objective judgments. To simplify matters, Stevenson proposes two distinct patterns that cover the various ways that we naturally make moral judgments. The first pattern for analyzing moral utterances is as this:


"This is good" means (1) I approve of this and (2) I want you to do so as well


The above pattern contains both descriptive and performative elements. The first phrase "I approve of this" literally describes my feelings, but it also expresses my feelings, particularly when accompanied with specific gestures and tones of voice. The second phrase "I want you to do so as well" is literally a description of my desire to influence you. However, it too has a performative component and involves my attempt to urge you to change your attitude. In this first pattern, the descriptive parts of my utterances are completely limited to my own attitude.

The second pattern for analyzing moral utterances extends the descriptive element beyond my personal attitude:


"X is good" means (1) X has various morally relevant qualities (e.g., X is universally pleasing), and (2) hooray for X, and (3) you should approve of X as well.


Compared to the first pattern, this second pattern emphasizes more objective descriptive qualities, such as, for example, that charity is "universally pleasing." This pattern also downplays the descriptive references to the speaker's attitude, specifically the speaker's reports of his feelings. According to Stevenson, this emphasis on more objective descriptions allows "descriptive references of the ethical terms to become as complicated as any occasion or context may require." However, just because this second pattern allows one to include a string of objective qualities, such as universal pleasure, it isnít necessarily any more ethically rich than the first pattern. Any quality that we link with X in this second pattern we can indirectly squeeze into what we say about X in the first pattern, particularly when we offer reasons for why we approve of something.

In his book, The Language of Morals (1952), Hare offers a different account of the relation between the descriptive and performative elements of moral utterances. Hare's theory focuses principally on the prescriptive component of moral assessments, rather than the emotive component. According to Hare, the descriptive component of moral utterances changes from judgment to judgment, although the prescriptive component stays the same. Take, for example, the utterance that "Using chemical weapons is wrong." The descriptive meaning of this may widely vary depending on who makes the utterance and what moral theory they ascribe to. For example, it can mean "using chemical weapons is contrary to God's will," or "using chemical weapons violates human rights" and dozens of other meanings. However, regardless of who makes the utterance and what theory they follow, the prescriptive meaning is precisely the same: "Don't use chemical weapons." Because the prescriptive meaning of moral utterances is constant, Hare concludes that the prescriptive meaning is primary and the descriptive meaning is secondary.


Asserting Moral Truths. We learn from Ayer that moral utterances are performative insofar as they express our emotions and prompt others to behave in certain ways. However, we don't want to follow Ayer's zealousness and say that moral utterances are only performative, and never descriptive. We learn from Stevenson that there are many types of moral utterances and that we canít impose a single interpretation on them all. Finally, we learn from Hare that the factually descriptive components of moral utterances vary in different contexts. When we include both performative and descriptive elements in our analysis of moral utterances, then the usual attacks against emotivism and prescriptivism are no longer appropriate. We have only produced a fuller and more psychologically accurate depiction of moral utterances. For example, when I make the moral assessment that "The use of chemical weapons is immoral" my assessment may mean all of the following at the same time:


Performative I hereby express my feelings of disapproval concerning chemical weapons (emotive)

I hereby urge you to adopt my attitude (prescriptive)


Descriptive I disapprove of the use of chemical weapons (report of feelings)

The use of chemical weapons contributes to general unhappiness (natural description)

The use of chemical weapons violates our human rights (metaphysical description)


But the analysis of our moral statements shouldn't end here. The odds are that we will continually discover additional nuances of meaning in our moral judgments and add them to the list started by Ayer, Stevenson, and Hare. For example, an additional meaning of at least some moral utterances is that we are asserting the truth of our moral judgment. This is most evident when we are disputing with someone and we want to underscore that our moral judgment is true, or perhaps even absolutely and universally true. Explicit examples might include, "it is true that the use of chemical weapons is immoral," "it is an absolute truth that we have duties toward our fellow humans," or "it is a universal truth that we forfeit our rights when we violate the rights of others." I can also implicitly make truth assertions in moral judgments, without using the actual words "it is true that." Suppose that you say, "I don't believe that the use of chemical weapons is wrong." In response I may say, "But chemical weapons use is wrong." My point here is to assert that something is actually true, which you believe to be false.

Strangely, asserting truth in our moral judgments appears to be another performative element, and not a descriptive element. We donít add descriptive content to our judgment by underscoring its truth component. It is more like adding a special exclamation point to the end of a sentence. As such, if I implicitly or explicitly state "it is true that the use of chemical weapons is immoral," my utterance means,


I hereby assert the truth of the statement "the use of chemical weapons is immoral"


We may call this the assertive function of moral utterances. Again, though, this is one of a number of possible performative elements that might be included in our moral utterances.


Sources A.J. Ayer's Language Truth and Logic first appeared in 1936, and in 1946 Ayer added a lengthy introduction clarifying and revising some of his points. The text of the 1946 edition is available in recent facimile reprints by Dover Publications.

Ayer's emotivist interpretation of Hume is in Hume (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980).

W.D. Ross's attack on Ayer is in The Foundations of Ethics (1939), pp. 30-41.

G.E. Moore's attack Ayer is in Philosophical Studies, "The Nature of Moral Philosophy".

Ayer's comment about Stevenson is from Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 139.

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

R.M. Hare's distinction between descriptive and prescriptive meanings of ethical terms is found in The Language of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), and in his article "Ethics" in A Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. J.O. Urmson.


Suggestions for Further Reading





1. Protagoras and Plato: Moral Skepticism vs. Moral Realism


(1) Describe the practice of female genital mutilation.

(2) Why is female infanticide practiced in countries such as India?

(3) What is selective abortion?

(4) Define "moral skepticism," "moral realism," "de facto values," and "ideal morality."

Protagoras and Moral Skepticism (5) Who were the Sophists and what was their function in Greek society?

(6) Why did many people of the time not like the Sophists?

(7) Describe the Sophistís technique of "antilogic".

(8) What issues were at stake in the debate between social custom (nomos) and nature (phusis)?

(9) What is Protagorasís famous saying?

(10) Why was Protagoras a religious skeptic?

(11) What are the four summary points of Protagorasís theory?

(12) Summarize the argument for moral skepticism from cultural variation.

(13) What are the two main criticisms of the argument from cultural variation?

Plato and Moral Realism (14) Briefly describe Platoís theory of the forms.

(15) According to Plato, where do moral values exist?

(16) What are the four summary points of Platoís theory of moral realism?

(17) For Samuel Clarke, what are moral values?

(18) What are Aristotleís two criticisms of Platoís theory of the forms?

(19) What is the principle of Ockhamís Razor?

(20) According to Mackie, what are the "queer" aspects of Platoís theory of the forms?

(21) According to Mackie, why do people tend to objectify values?

Moral Skepticism at its Best (22) According to Thomas Kuhn, what "paradigm shift"?

(23) What is moral nihilism, and how does it differ from moral skepticism?

(24) Moral realists argue that, without objective morality, society will create arbitrary and perhaps horrible values. How does the skeptic respond?

(25) How does the moral skeptic explain our tendency to make universal moral condemnations?


2. Aristotleís Virtue Theory


(1) What are some of the reasons for road rage?

(2) Define "virtue," "vice," and "virtue theory."

(3) List the four cardinal virtues in Platoís theory

Aristotleís theory (4) What are the three faculties of the psyche?

(5) How is the appetitive faculty both rational and irrational?

(6) What is a "moral virtue" and what are Aristotleís three general observations about them?

(7) What are the two vices associated with the virtue of courage?

(8) List the remaining 10 virtues which Aristotle covers.

(9) For Aristotle, what are the two contributions of practical wisdom in the development of virtues?

(10) What are the four summary points of Aristotleís theory?

(11) In Aristotleís discussion of good temper, what are the five factors involved in our appropriate response to anger?

Development and Decline of Virtue Theory (12) What are the three theological virtues?

(13) What are Grotiusís three criticisms of Aristotleís virtue theory?

(14) What are the key differences between action/rule-based morality and virtue-based morality?

(15) What is J.S. Millís criticism of virtue-based morality?

Contemporary Issues (16) In defending virtue theory, what is Anscombeís criticism of action/rule-based morality?

(17) What does MacIntyre say about the moral vocabulary that we use today?

(18) According to many feminists, what are some key features of male ways of thinking and female ways of thinking?

(19) According to many feminist moral philosophers, what will morality consist of when it is modeled after womenís experiences?

(20) What is Noddingsís criticism of Aristotleís list of virtues?

(21) What is the difference between strong and weak virtue theory?

(22) What are three the "rule" aspects of Aristotleís theory?

(23) What are the three contemporary criticisms of virtue theory?

(24) According to contemporary author William J. Bennett, what must moral education provide?


3. Natural Law: Aquinasís Intellectualism vs. Ockhamís Voluntarism


(1) What are contemporary attitudes about homosexuality?

(2) What is wrong with morally condemning homosexuality as "unnatural" simply because homosexual behavior is statistically small?

(3) What are the four summary points of natural law theory?

Aquinasís Natural Law Theory (4) Describe Aquinasís distinctions between eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law.

(5) What are the two parts of Aquinasís synderesis principle?

(6) List the six human inclinations and their corresponding six primary precepts of morality.

(7) Give an example of how we deduce secondary moral principles from primary principles.

(8) What is a "super-added principle" of morality?

Limitations of Aquinasís Theory (9) Concerning Aquinasís claim that we have a proper human end, how does evolutionary theory run counter to this claim?

(10) What are the three problems concerning Aquinasís list of six natural inclinations?

(11) Concerning Aquinasís attempt to deduce moral principles from natural inclinations, give an example showing why this is difficult.

Ockhamís Voluntarism (12) What define "intellectualism" and "voluntarism."

(13) What is the riddle of religious morality that Plato presents in the Euthyphro?

(14) What is Ockhamís view about the origin of moral values?

(15) Some voluntarists, such as Ockham, maintain that God temporarily revoked established moral standards. What are some examples of this?

(16) What is one limitation of the argument from revoking established moral standards?

(17) What is the argument from voluntarism from sovereignty?

(18) According to both Aquinas and Ockham, what is the limit to Godís sovereignty?

(19) For Ockham, what kinds of laws are moral laws most similar to?

(20) What are the three main criticisms of voluntarism?

(21) Some voluntarists try to preserve the notion of Godís moral goodness by saying that, by definition, God is good. What is Nielsenís response to this?

God and Morality (22) In what respect are Aquinasís and Ockhamís views on religious ethics purely an academic question with little immediate practical implication?

(23) What are the three main criticisms that the opponent of religious ethics might give?

(24) In matters of morality, what are some limitations on the authority of religious appeals as pertains to the religious believer himself?


4. Hobbes and Social Contract Theory


(1) According to some anti-government groups, what is the principle reason that we establish governments?

(2) What is the "disease" and what is the "cure" as described by social contract theory?

(3) According to Glaucon in Platoís dialog, under what conditions do I agree not to exploit you?

Hobbesís Theory (4) Why does Hobbes refer to the government as a leviathan?

(5) According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, why does he think that we are equal both physically and intellectually?

(6) What are the three causes of quarrel in the state of nature?

(7) What examples does Hobbes give to prove his gloomy description of human nature?

(8) What are the first three laws of nature?

(9) What are the two implications of Hobbesís virtue account of morality?

(10) What are the main points of Hobbesís theory?

Criticisms of Hobbes (11) What are some of Godwinís criticisms concerning the nature of the "contract" in social contract theory?

(12) What are Hydeís two main complaints against Hobbes?

(13) In Hobbesís attempt to scientifically redefine traditional moral vocabulary, what does Hobbes mean when he says that the laws of nature are "immutable and eternal"?

(14) According to Butlerís first criticism, Hobbes errs by reducing all human motivations to the single motive of self-love. What is wrong with Butlerís criticism?

(15) Define psychological altruism, strong psychological egoism, and weak psychological egoism.

(16) According to Regan, why does the social contract theory give animals and infants only a secondary and indirect consideration?

Social Contract Theory After Hobbes (17) What is the state of nature like according to Pufendorf, Locke, and Rousseau respectively?

(18) What is the point of the prisonerís dilemma?

(19) What is the "original position" for Rawls?

(20) What does Rawlsís first rule of justice tell us?

(21) According to Rawlsís second rule of justice, what is the main rule by which we regulate the unequal accumulation of wealth and power?

Conclusion (22) Social contract theories tend to make morality dependent on political institutions. What is a problem with this?

(23) How do we recognize when an obligation is political vs. moral?


6. Clarke and Hume: Moral Reason vs. Moral Feelings


(1) What do some critics say about emotional appeals in moral matters, such as those used by Save the Children? Clarkeís Moral Rationalism (2) What is an example of a mathematical relation as Clarke understands the notion?

(3) What is an example of a moral relation as Clarke understands the notion?

(4) What are the four main points of Clarkeís theory?

(5) Humeís first argument against Clarke is that moral assessments cannot be judgments about relations relations since we find exactly the same abstract relations in both moral and nonmoral situations. What is Humeís argument comparing Nero and the young tree?

(6) How does the notion of an "intentional action" refute Humeís argument comparing Nero and the young tree?

(7) What are Humeís two additional arguments against Clarke?

(8) What is meant by the statement "We cannot derive ought from is"?

Humeís Moral Theory (9) What is Lockeís definition of a sense perception?

(10) According to Hutcheson, what are the objects and mental perceptions the moral sense?

(11) Briefly describe the roles of the agent, recipient, and spectator in Humeís moral theory.

(12) Explain what happens when I (as the spectator) morally approve of your charitable action (as an agent).

(13) According to Hume, why is morality a purely human phenomenon that has no relation to God?

(14) What are the four main points of Humeís moral theory?

Reidís Criticisms of Hume (15) What is Reidís main criticism of Humeís account of moral assessments?

(16) As to Reidís first criticism, how does Hume "abuse" common moral language?

(17) According to the author, how does Reid himself equivocate on moral terms?

(18) As to Reidís second criticism, how does the Robin Hood story illustrate the difference between reporting oneís feelings about an agent, and approving the agentís conduct?

(19) How do utilitarians resolve the problem passing moral judgment on a single action that has both good and bad consequences for different recipients?

The Fate of the Agent and Spectator (20) What reason does Mill give for completely rejecting the role of the agentís character traits in moral assessments?

(21) What reason does Bentham give for completely rejecting the role of the spectator in moral assessments?

(22) What do the recent virtue theory and language philosophy movements say about the roles of the agent and spectator?


8. Mill and the Utilitarian Tradition


(1) What was Tuckerís utilitarian argument for why she should not have been executed?

(2) In its general form, what is the utilitarian moral theory?

(3) What is hedonism, and what is hedonistic utilitarianism?

Historical Development of Utilitarianism (4) What was Epicurusís view about pleasure?

(5) What are the four key elements of utilitarianism found in Hutchesonís writings?

(6) What are Humeís two contributions to utilitarianism?

(7) What was Beccariaís utilitarian argument against capital punishment?

(8) What are the seven criteria of Benthamís utilitarian calculus?

(9) What are the two problems with Benthamís theory?

(10) Define "act utilitarian" and "rule utilitarian"

Millís Utilitarianism (10) What are the main points of Millís utilitarianism?

(11) Mill distinguishes between quantitative vs. qualitative differences between pleasures. What is Millís distinction?

(12) What are the key aspects of Millís notion of "higher pleasures"

(13) Briefly, what is Millís test for determining whether one pleasure is qualitatively superior to another?

Traditional Criticisms of Mill (14) What is Bradleyís criticism of Mill?

(15) What are the two defenses that utilitarians can give to Bradleyís criticism?

(16) What is Groteís criticism of Mill?

(17) What is Millís solution to Groteís criticism?

(18) What is Albeeís criticism of Mill?

(19) What is Longís solution to Albeeís criticism?

Revisions of Utilitarianism (20) What is the key advantage of hedonistic utilitarianism?

(21) What is ideal utilitarianism?

(22) What is preference utilitarianism?

(23) What is the key problem that ideal and preference utilitarianism seek to overcome?

(24) What are the three problems with any bare bones notion of utilitarianism?

(25) According to the author, what is the best way to understand the role of utilitarianism in moral decision making?


9: Spencer and Moore: Evolutionary Ethics and the Naturalistic Fallacy


(1) What are some of the feared abuses of bioengineering?

(2) What is Lee Silverís view about ethical discussions concerning bioethics?

(3) What are the three mechanisms of evolution noted by 19th century evolutionists?

(4) What is the definition of "evolutionary ethics?"

Evolution and Ethics (5) What are the three main elements of Darwinís account of natural selection?

(6) According to Darwin, what are the jobs of the moral sense and the conscience respectively?

(7) For Darwin, what is the "social" component of moral evolution?

(8) According to Darwin, what are some moral rules that we develop in our higher stages that are not related to the preservation of our social group?

(9) According to Spencer, what are the three areas of evolution and which involves morality?

(10) Explain the hedonistic element of Spencerís evolutionary ethics.

(11) What are the four main points of Spencerís account of evolutionary ethics?

Mooreís Criticism of Spencer (12) What is the difference between a simple vs. a complex property?

(13) Give an example of the naturalistic fallacy.

(14) Explain the difference between the "definist fallacy," the "naturalistic fallacy" and the "metaphysical fallacy."

(15) Give an example a statement which notes that a property always accompanies moral goodness.

(16) What are the four main points of Mooreís account of the naturalistic fallacy?

(17) Concerning Mooreís first criticism of Spencer, what wrong with Mooreís accusation that Spencer identifies "being more evolved" with "gaining ethical sanction"?

(18) Concerning Mooreís second criticism of Spencer, what is wrong with Mooreís accusation that Spencer identifies "more evolved conduct" with "higher conduct"?

(19) What is the difference between intrinsic goodness and extrinsic goodness, and which do Spencer and Moore hold to respectively?

(20) To avoid having the naturalistic fallacy collapse into a dispute about moral realism, what are the two parameters we may place on the naturalistic fallacy?

Limitations of Evolutionary Ethics (21) What are two of the reasons why evolutionary ethics was a short-lived ethical movement?

(22) What is Huxleyís criticism of evolutionary ethics?

(23) What is the problem attempts by evolutionary ethicists to correlate moral development with social development?

(24) What is the problem with the optimistic view taken by evolutionary ethicists concerning our future attainment of moral perfection?

(25) Describe the literal and analogical notions of natural selection in evolutionary ethics.

(26) Give an example of a social trend that survived in the long-term.


10. Emotivism and Prescriptivism


(1) What are some examples of the most grossly immoral conduct in recent years?

(2) Define emotivism and prescriptivism.

Ayer's Theory (3) Give examples of analytic statements and empirical statements

(4) What does Hume recommend that we do with books that do not contain analytic or empirical statements?

(5) What is Ayer's verification principle?

(6) Based on Ayer's verification principle, why is the following statement meaningless: "Every two minutes, everthing in the universe doubles in size."

(7) What is a factually descriptive statement?

(8) What is an implicitly performative statement?

(9) Give an example of an implicitly performative statement that is an expression of feelings.

(10) According to emotivism, how may we reword the statement "Mother Teresa is a good woman"?

(11) According to prescriptivism, how may we reword the statement "Mother Teresa is a good woman"?

(12) According to R.M. Hare, what is the most accurate way of understanding prescriptive commands?

(13) What are the four main points of Ayer's view of morality?

Criticisms of Ayer (14) What is W.D. Ross's criticism against Ayer's performativism?

(15) What are the two common criticisms against logical positivism?

(16) What is Ayer's response to Ross's criticism?

(17) According to G.E. Moore, performativism cannot adequately account for moral arguments. What is Moore's main argument?

(18) What is Ayer's reply to Moore?

(19) What is Stevenson's distinction between disputes of attitude and disputes of fact?

Descriptive and Performative Elements (20) What was Ayer's principal mistake in his moral theory?

(21) What was Stevenson's general view about how we should analyze moral utterances?

(22) According to Hare, what is a key feature that distinguishes the prescriptive meaning from the descriptive meaning of moral utterances?

(23) What is the assertive function of moral utterances?