From Moral Issues that Divide Us


James Fieser


Revised: 6/1/2021





Metaphysics and Morality

Moral Objectivism and Relativism

God and Morality

Moral Psychology

Egoism and Altruism

Reason and Emotion

Gender and Morality

Moral Principles

Virtue Theory

Duty Theory


Moral Foundations of Government

Social Contract Theory

Rights Theory

Governmental Coercion

Moral Principles and Moral Controversies

Study Questions




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

             A critical step in debating any moral controversy is to uncover the underlying moral principles that shape our convictions on one side or another of the issue. Without these principles, our moral judgments could become arbitrary, and our whole effort at creating consistent moral expectations within society would fall flat. If we think that the parents were morally obligated to pursue surgery for Baby Doe, then we need to say where that moral obligation comes from, and what the principles are upon which that obligation is based. So too if we think that the parents had no such moral obligation: we still need to show what the values are that underlie that position. For thousands of years, philosophers have attempted to explain the fundamental principles of morality that guide the ethical decisions that we make on a daily basis. In this chapter, we will explore some of the leading contributions to that effort.

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


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


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

             Philosophical discussions of ethics fall into two main categories: theoretical ethics and applied ethics. Theoretical ethics, or ethical theory, is the systematic effort to understand moral concepts and justify moral principles and theories. By contrast, applied ethics deals with controversial moral problems, such as questions about the morality of abortion, premarital sex, capital punishment, euthanasia, and animal rights. This chapter covers some of the most important themes in theoretical ethics, which will serve as a backdrop to the remaining chapters, each of which focuses on a particular issue in applied ethics.


What People Think

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


"Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?"

                                     Should promote           Should not       Unsure

6/3-7/2011                   46                                50                    4

10/20-22/2006             51                                 43                     6


"Next, I am going to read some aspects of life in America today. For each one, please say whether you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. How about the moral and ethical climate?"

                         Very                 somewhat        somewhat        very                 unsure

                         satisfied           satisfied           dissatisfied      dissatisfied

1/7-9/2011      5                       25                     32                     37                    2

1/10-14/2001  5                       31                     32                     30                    2


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

                         Excellent         Good               Only Fair         Poor                Unsure

5/7-10/2009    2                       15                     37                     45                    1

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


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

                         Getting Better Getting Worse             Same              Unsure

5/7-10/09        21                                 71                                 6                      1

5/6-9/2002      24                                 67                                 7                      2


(Gallup Poll)


Overall, people are dissatisfied with the current moral climate and think that society’s moral values are getting worse. When we look back at how people answered the same question a decade earlier, the results are the same: the moral climate of the time was bad and getting worse. It is possible that things really have gotten morally worse over the past ten years, and will continue to get even worse over the next decade. But it is more likely that the moral climate is essentially the same, and we have a natural pessimism about other people’s behavior. Perhaps our entire moral outlook is tainted by a dislike of how other people behave, and this could help explain why we clash with others over virtually every moral issue that comes along. As one of the polls above suggests, it is so bad that about half of us want the government to step in and impose a traditional standard of morals on everyone. The other half seems willing to put up with the opposition, though begrudgingly.

             The ethical theories that we will explore here are in four groups: (1) the metaphysics of morality, (2) moral psychology, (3) moral principles, and (4) the moral foundations of government.




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


Moral Objectivism and Relativism

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

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

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

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

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

             When moral relativists maintain that values are human inventions, they may mean one of two things. First, they sometimes mean that individual people create their own morality, which is a position called individual relativism. That is, I, in my best moments, create my own world, envision my own preferences and invent my own values. A second approach, called cultural relativism, maintains that human societies, and not individual people, create morality. On this view, we are all products of our cultural surroundings, and it is naive to say that I or any other individual person can create a unique set of values. There are indeed some moral visionaries, such as Gandhi who fought for equality through peaceful protest. But even these crusaders did not appear in a vacuum, and were molded by social forces around them.

             Just as moral objectivism has its appealing features, so too does moral relativism. According to the relativist, it is frustrating to place our hopes in a moral realm that we cannot see, or leaders who claim to have special access to that hidden realm. Rather, we know exactly where to look for moral truth: we find it right here in the tangible realm of human beings and the societies in which we live. It makes no difference that these human-created values are always shifting, for, we just adapt to them like we do with changing musical tastes or clothing styles. It is thus better that morality be investigated by social scientists, not by metaphysical soothsayers. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), a defender of cultural relativism, devoted her career to studying the values of indigenous societies throughout the world, and she argues that moral values differ from one society to another and are simply cultural habits:


We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, “It is morally good,” rather than “It is habitual,” and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phases are synonymous. ["Anthropology and the Abnormal", 1934]


According to Benedict, cultural relativism comes along with its own values, particularly a greater tolerance for equally valid cultural patterns of life, which might otherwise conflict with objectivist approaches to morality.

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


God and Morality

A second metaphysical issue about morality concerns whether moral values are created by God. A religious family from Arizona became fed up with government-controlled religion and decided to leave the U.S. and travel on their small boat to a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The mother stated that the family did not believe in “abortion, homosexuality, in the state-controlled church,” and took a leap of faith to see where God might lead them. Without sufficient navigation skills, they became stranded for many weeks, eventually being rescued by a passing fishing boat. Religious believers like this family frequently tie moral principles to the existence of God, particularly principles found in religious scriptures that they believe are inspired by God. There is some rationale for this approach. At least some moral principles seem to be absolute and eternal, and to gain this status it seems that they must rest on the nature of God, which is also absolute and eternal. Also, moral behavior is required of everyone, and one way of reinforcing the importance of such conduct is to maintain that God mandates moral principles. But Plato pointed out a dilemma associated with attempts to link morality with God. He writes,


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


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

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

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

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




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


Egoism and Altruism

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reason and Emotion

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

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

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


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


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

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


Gender and Morality

A third area of moral psychology involves the issue of gender, and whether there are distinctly male and female conceptions of morality. Stereotypes abound regarding the differences between men and women. We regularly hear that, compared to men, women tend to be more emotional, less competitive, less violent, more sociable, better at multitasking, and have better language skills. Even if some of these generalizations turn out to be true, there is yet no scientifically decisive way to determine whether gender characteristics are the result of genetics or social conditioning. For now, the issue of male-female difference is very much a mystery. But that has not stopped us from speculating on the subject. Today our gender stereotypes are more favorable to women than men, as the above list of female qualities displays.

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


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


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

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

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


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


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




A third group of issues in theoretical ethics concerns the moral principles that we should follow. The Golden Rule is a classic example that we find in societies worldwide: we should behave towards others in the same way that we would want others to behave towards us. Because I do not want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Because I would want people to feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people. Using this same reasoning, I can theoretically determine whether any possible action is right or wrong. The Golden Rule is just one of many efforts to articulate an ideal standard of morality, and we will look at three distinct strategies that dominate philosophical discussions of ethics: virtue theory, duty theory, and consequentialism.


Virtue Theory

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

             Virtue theory tells us that our moral behavior is also directed by habits, and that the foundation of morality is the development of good character traits. Such character traits we call "virtues". A person is good, then, if she has virtues and lacks vices. Some virtue theorists mention as many as 100 virtuous character traits which contribute to making someone a good person. Other theories, though, emphasize a short list of virtues that include courage, temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude, liberality, and truthfulness. Virtue theory places special emphasis on moral education since virtuous character traits are developed in one's youth. This means that adults and society at large have a special responsibility to instill virtues in the young. The failure to properly develop virtuous character traits will result in the person acquiring vices, or bad character traits instead. Common vices are cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity.

             One of the most influential accounts of virtue theory is that by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who proposed what is called the doctrine of the virtuous mean. He argues that moral virtues regulate our desires and urges by standing midway between two extreme character traits that are vices. Suppose, for example, that you are a soldier about to go onto the battlefield, and are naturally fearful of the dangers before you. If you don't restrain your fear at all, you will be too petrified to even defend yourself. This is a vice of deficiency that we call cowardice. At the other extreme, if you restrain your fear too much and behave like you are invincible, you'll just get yourself killed. This would be a vice of excess that we call rashness. The virtue of courage, then, lies at the mean between the deficient extreme of cowardice and the excessive extreme of rashness. According to Aristotle, most moral virtues, and not just courage, fall at the mean between two accompanying vices. He presents a catalog of twelve such virtues and here is a chart of some especially interesting ones:


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


Fear of danger || Cowardice                Courage                       Rashness

Anger               || Spiritlessness            Good Temper              Ill-temper

Pleasure           || Insensibility             Temperance                 Intemperance

Give money    || Stinginess                 Generosity                   Extravagance

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


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


I have sufficiently stated that moral virtue is a mean and in what sense it is so. It is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions. It is no easy task to be good, since in everything it is no easy task to find the middle. For example, not everyone can find the middle of a circle, but only those who know how. Similarly, anyone can get angry, which is easy, or give or spend money. But is not for everyone, nor is it easy to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way. For this reason, goodness is rare, praiseworthy and noble. [Nicomachean Ethics, 2.9]


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


Duty Theory

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

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

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

             The point of the categorical imperative is this: we should always treat people with dignity (as ends in themselves), and never use them as mere instruments. For Kant, we treat people as an end whenever our actions toward someone reflect the inherent value of that person. Donating to charity, for example, is morally correct since this acknowledges the inherent value of the recipient. By contrast, we treat someone as a means to an end whenever we treat that person as a tool to achieve something else. It is wrong, for example, for me to steal my neighbor's car since I would be treating her as a means to my own happiness. Kant explains here how theft violates the categorical imperative:


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


The categorical imperative also regulates the morality of actions that affect us individually. Suicide, for example, would be wrong since I would be treating my life as a means to the alleviation of my misery. Kant believes that the morality of all actions can be determined by appealing to this single principle of duty.

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


Fidelity: the duty to keep promises

Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them

Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us

Justice: the duty to recognize merit

Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others

Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence

Non-harm: the duty to not injure others


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



The third approach to moral standards is consequentialism, the view that an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable. It is common for us to determine our moral responsibility by weighing the consequences of our actions. Donating to charity is the right thing to do because of all the good that it does. Stealing is morally wrong because of the harm that it causes. According to consequentialism, correct moral conduct is determined solely by this type of cost-benefit analysis. Consequentialism requires that we first tally both the good and bad consequences of an action. Second, we then determine whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. But if the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. Consequentialist theories are sometimes called teleological theories, from the Greek word telos, which means end or goal.

             Consequentialist theories became popular in the 18th century by philosophers who wanted a quick way to morally assess an action by appealing to experience, rather than by appealing to gut intuitions or long lists of questionable duties. In fact, the most attractive feature of consequentialism is that it appeals to publicly observable consequences of actions. There are three main types of consequentialist theories:


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


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


Utilitarianism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone.


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

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


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


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

             The second feature of Bentham’s theory is that he proposed that we tally the consequences of each action we perform and thereby determine on a case by case basis whether an action is morally right or wrong. Is it right for me specifically to donate $10 to the Red Cross this morning? Is it right for me specifically to cheat on my calculus exam this afternoon? This aspect of Bentham's theory is known as act-utilitiarianism because of its focus on the consequences of the specific actions that we perform. Some later utilitarians felt that this aspect of Bentham’s theory also had problems.  One criticism is that, based on act-utilitarianism, it would be morally wrong for me to waste my time on leisure activities such as watching television, since my time could be spent in ways that produced a greater social benefit, such as charity work. There’s always a more socially productive way that I could spend my time. However, according to the critic, prohibiting leisure activities does not seem reasonable, and virtually no other moral theory condemns us for at least occasionally being leisurely. Also, the critic argues, based on act-utilitarianism, we could morally justify actions that we ordinarily find reprehensible, such as torturing a specific captured enemy to get information from him, or enslaving a small group of people to help make life easier for a larger group of people. It just depends on whether the total pleasure outweighs the total pain as we tally the consequences of the specific action. However, according to the critic, we commonly believe that all acts of torture are morally wrong, regardless of the benefit that may result. Thus, act-utilitarianism has some serious flaws as a moral theory.

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




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


Social Contract Theory

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


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


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

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

             After Hobbes proposed his theory, critics challenged several of its major assumptions. Are humans in the natural condition really as selfish and nasty as Hobbes claims? If not, then the rationale for making a social contract falls apart. Also, very few societies were historically founded on any kind of social contract: most were done through military force with no agreement from its citizens. Further, even if a government was founded through a contractual agreement, why would that contract be binding on future generations of citizens? Defenders of social contract theory have responded to these and other criticisms, and the theory continues to be an important moral justification for governmental authority.

             Debates today about social contract theory focus on whether governments are justified in going beyond their basic job as protectors of peace. Should the government tax us to pay for space exploration, public television, or even public school? These are all excellent programs that deserve funding, but is it the government’s job to do this? The conservative position on this issue, called “libertarianism,” answers no and maintains that governments should be as minimal as possible, doing little more than running the police and the military. Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) writes,


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


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

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


Rights Theory

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


Principles of Governmental Coercion

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

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

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

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


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


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




So far we have considered a range of theories relating to (1) the metaphysics of morality, (2) moral psychology, (3) moral principles, and (4) the moral foundations of government. Some of these theories are compatible with each other, whereas others are at odds with each other, but all of them are relevant to ongoing debates about moral controversies such as abortion, euthanasia, sexual activity, recreational drugs, capital punishment, environmental responsibility, and so on. When debating these controversial issues, we are not likely to resolve them by appealing to a single moral theory, such as arguing on utilitarian grounds that abortion is permissible since it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Complex moral controversies often require arguments that draw on many aspects of moral theory. Even if we are not familiar with the names of Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant or Mill, we often employ the moral notions that they developed. To conclude this chapter, it will be helpful to list moral principles that are frequently used when debating moral controversies, which connect directly with the moral theories that we have examined so far. All these principles are worded below in a diluted way, suggesting that each may be one of many relevant factors in a moral debate, but not necessarily the decisive principle. They are presented in the order that they first appeared in this chapter.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




Aquinas, Thomas. 1259-1265. Summa Contra Gentiles.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics.

Ayer, Alfred Jules. 1936. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover Publications.

Baumeister, Roy. 2007. “Is there Anything Good about Men?” American Psychological Association, Invited Address.

Benedict, Ruth. 1934. "Anthropology and the Abnormal." The Journal of General Psychology 10(1).

Bentham, Jeremy. 1789. Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Butler, Joseph. 1726. Fifteen Sermons.

Gilligan, Carol. 1977. “In a Different Voice.” Harvard Educational Review 47(4).

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan.

Hume, David. 1739-1740. Treatise of Human Nature.

Kant, Immanuel. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. A recent translation is by Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Locke, John. 1689-1690. Two Treatises of Government.

Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell.

Plato, Euthyphro.

Plato. The Republic.

Ross, William D. 1930. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. 1762. Émile, or On Education.

Scotus, Duns. 1300. Ordinatio. Translated by Allan B. Wolter in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality. Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press of America.

United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.




Please answer all of the following questions.


1. Define theoretical ethics and applied ethics.

2. What are the three features of moral objectivism and three features of moral relativism?

3. What are the two options in the Euthyphro problem?

4. What are divine command theory and natural law theory?

5. Define psychological egoism and psychological altruism.

6. What is Hobbes’s explanation of pity and charity, and Butler’s explanation of selfless actions?

7. Define kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

8. What are the two principles of moral reason and Hume’s criticism of them?

9. What is Ayer’s view of emotivism?

10. What are the views of female morality proposed by Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and Gilligan?

11. Define virtue and vice.

12. Explain Aristotle’s view of the virtue of courage.

13. What is Kant’s categorical imperative?

14. List Ross’s seven prima facie duties.

15. What is Bentham’s utilitarian calculus?

16. Define hedonistic utilitarianism, act-utilitarianism, and rule utilitarianism.

17. Define social contract theory, libertarianism, and welfare liberalism.

18. Define legal rights and natural rights.

19. What are the three features of natural rights?

20. What are the four principles of coercion and which of these might apply to Crazy John’s behavior?

[Short Essay]

21. Short essay: pick any one of the following views in this chapter and criticize it in a minimum of 150 words. Moral objectivism, moral relativism, divine command theory, natural law theory, Hobbes’s psychological egoism, Butler’s psychological altruism, care ethics, Aristotle’s virtue theory, Kant’s categorical imperative, Ross’s prima facie duties, Bentham’s utilitarian calculus, Hobbes’s social contract theory, libertarianism, welfare liberalism, natural rights, four grounds of governmental coercion.