Introduction to Ethics
Handout 1 - What is Ethics?
Ethics (also called 'Moral Philosophy') is the branch of philosophy that contains the following areas:
A. Core Areas of Ethics
1. Normative Ethics of Behavior -- the attempt to discover a criterion of morally right behavior.
A criterion of morally right behavior (also called a theory of right and wrong) is a statement of this form:
An act is morally right if and only if ___________________ .
- in the Normative Ethics of Behavior we evaluate actions.
2. Axiology (also called 'Value Theory') -- the attempt to discover what things are good in themselves and what things are bad in themselves, as well as what things are good or bad for someone.
Said another way: axiology is the attempt to discover (i) what features of situations make one situation better than another, and (ii) what features of individual lives one life better than another for the person who lives it.
- in Axiology we evaluate situations and lives.
3. Virtue-Vice Theory -- the attempt to discover what traits of character make a person a good person and what traits of character make a person a bad person.
- in Virtue-Vice Theory, we evaluate people.
Some sample theories in the Normative Ethics of Behavior (in other words: some sample criteria of moral rightness):
GHP: an act is morally right if and only if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
10C: an act is morally right if and only if it does not violate any of the Ten Commandments.
An Argument Against 10C
1. If 10C is true, then it is never morally wrong for a parent to beat up his or her children (so long as it is done without violating any of the Ten Commandments).
2. But sometimes it is morally wrong for a parent to beat up his or her children (even if it is done without violating any of the Ten Commandments).
3. Therefore, 10C is not true.
GR: an act is morally right if and only if the agent of the act, in performing the act, treats others as he or she would want to be treated.
(see if you can come up with your own valid and sound argument against GR, the theory based on "the Golden Rule.")
Some sample moral principles (they do not qualify as theories because they are not fully general):
PGP: it is always morally wrong to "play God."
To play God is to influence the time or manner of the birth or death of a human being.
BP: it is always morally permissible to benefit someone when it can be done without harming anyone else. (from p. 3)
WKS: it is always morally wrong to kill one person to save another. (from pp. 4-5)
WKS': it is always morally wrong to kill an innocent person to save another.
SHL: it is always morally wrong to take an innocent human life. (from p. 7)
Notice that SHL entails WKS' (that is, if SHL is true, then WKS' also has be true.) Thus, any argument that shows that WKS' is false will also show that SHL is false.
Extreme Pacifism: it morally wrong to perform any act of violence.
Notice that Extreme Pacifism entails SHL (and therefore also entails WKS').
An Argument Against WKS': The Nuclear Threat Argument
Story: Suppose some "evil regime" has a large number of nuclear missiles at a military base. The regime plans to fire the missiles at a large number of major cities around the world. If the regime does this, hundreds of millions of innocent people would be killed. Suppose the only way the regime can be stopped is if some powerful nation bombs the military base where the nuclear missiles are kept. Suppose, unfortunately, a few dozen innocent people live near the military base. These innocent people would be killed in such a bombing.
1. If WKS' is true, then it is morally wrong for the powerful nation to destroy the regime's nuclear weapons.
2. It is not morally wrong for the powerful nation to destroy the regime's nuclear weapons.
3. Therefore, WKS' is true.
(If The Nuclear Threat Argument is sound, then the same argument can be used to refute SHL and Extreme Pacifism.)
B. Other Areas of Ethics
1. Meta-Ethics -- the attempt to discover the meanings of the central concepts of the core areas of ethics.
2. The Logic of Ethics -- the attempt to discover the logic of the central concepts of normative ethics and axiology.
3. Moral Epistemology -- the attempt to discover if and how we can have knowledge of moral facts.
4. Moral Psychology -- the attempt to answer certain morally relevant questions about human psychology.
5. Applied Ethics -- the attempt to put forth and critically assess views and arguments pertaining to particular moral issues, such as abortion, human cloning, world poverty, euthanasia, animal rights, war, capital punishment, etc.
6. History of ethics -- the attempt to understand and evaluate the doctrines and arguments contained in historically important texts of moral philosophy.
7. Moralizing -- the attempt to get people to behave in better ways, to become better people, to adopt your moral views.
(parts of this handout are from Fred Feldman's Phil 160 course)