Dr. C. George Boeree

Ethics is the philosophical study of good and bad, right and wrong.  It is commonly used interchangeably with the word morality.  It differs from other aspects of philosophy in being more concerned with what should be than with what actually is.  This makes it a good deal more slippery as well!

Theological Theories

There are three broad categories of ethical philosophies.  The first is the theological theories.  As the name tells you, these are moral philosophies that begin with the idea that what is right and wrong derive from God or some other higher power.

The simplest theological theory is the divine command theory.  This theory says that God has revealed his will in the form of commands that are made available to us through oral tradition, holy scripture, or church law.  All we need to do to be good is to follow those commands.  Most of the church fathers held such a belief, as do most religious people today.  Its major advantage is its simplicity and solidity.

A more complex theological theory is called natural law.  This goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas, and is a part of traditional Catholic philosophy.  St. Thomas felt that God would not give us one set of rules through scripture and the church only to have them contradicted by our experiences and reason.  Nature, as God’s creation, is in complete agreement with his moral commands.  People who believe in natural law would point out that there are people from other cultures, not exposed to our traditions of morality, who nonetheless reason their way to the very same conclusions as to what is right and wrong!

The difficulty with natural law has become obvious:  Science does occasionally produce theories that are blatantly contradictory with scripture, and the church does occasionally produce events (religious wars and burning heretics spring to mind) that are blatantly contradictory with our “common sense” sort of morality.

The difficulty with both divine command theory and natural law is that, as society becomes more pluralistic, we come into more and more contact with a greater and greater variety of religious traditions, each with their own scriptures and traditions, and not all of them agreeing all the time.  The majority of religious people are good-hearted souls, who are reluctant to believe that God would condemn entire nations for not having been lucky enough to hear the right message!  This feeling is especially poignant when people gain experiences with very decent people with different religions or even no religion at all.  As long as we remain generous and humble, there is no real problem.

But some people find themselves retreating to what some consider a defensive position called absolutism.  Absolutism is divine command theory, but without the generous and humble spirit.  In other words, it’s my way or else.  We have had many examples of absolutism in history, and we have many examples still today.

Moral Relativism

Diametrically opposed to the theological theories are various forms of moral relativism.  Moral relativism says that there are no universal moral principles.  Morality is a matter of customs or opinions or habits or emotions.  There is a range of opinions here:  Relativism is sometimes considered a kind of moral skepticism, which would say that we never truly know what is good or bad.  Others see it as a moral nihilism, which says that there simply is no such thing as good and bad, that those words are just misleading labels for other, simpler, things.

One brand of relativism is called conventionalism.  This says that what we call morality is really a matter of our cultural or social norms.  What our traditions say is right and wrong (for whatever reason) is right and wrong.  Often, along with that, comes the idea that cultures and societies should not interfere with each other ("when in Rome..."), but that is not necessary.

Another brand is called prescriptivism (or imperativism), which looks at morality more in terms of power within a society.  What we call right and wrong are essentially prescriptions as to what we want others to do, which we then enforce with the powers at our command.  So call theft “bad” so that we have a justification to put people who take our stuff in jail!

Of course it is inevitable that we come across other societies who believe that what they want is their “right” regardless of what we want.  Or we come across situations where there are two subcultures or societal groups whose moral beliefs come into conflict.  One of the difficulties of conventionalism is defining what constitutes a society or culture and what, if any, are the rules of interaction between or among them.

One “solution” is to reduce the culture or society to a culture or society of one -- that is, the individual.  This is called subjectivism.  Here, each person has his or her own morality.  It may be a matter of individual beliefs, or a matter of habit, but each person makes their own choices.  That does take care of the problem of what is a culture, but it only makes the problem of rules of interaction worse!

Another brand of  relativism goes even further:  emotivism says that what we call good and bad are just labels for certain emotional responses we have to certain acts.  If the idea of eating puppies makes you sick, you call it bad.  If it makes you salivate, you call it good.  If having sex with teenagers makes your day, you call it good.  If it gets you all upset, you call it bad.

Among my students, I find that freshmen often bring with them their home town religious beliefs.  They tend to like the divine command theory, with a few absolutists thrown in for spice.  But by the time they are juniors, most of them have become relativists.  The home town crowd often blames this change on professors, but it is more a matter of exposure to the pluralistic mini-society of college.

The freshmen see that there are many people who disagree about one detail or another of their childhood moral codes, yet appear to be decent people, or at least have not been struck down by thunderbolts.  So, being decent folk, they begin to emphasize tolerance for the variety of moralities they see, and relativism seems to be the best format for this tolerance.  For example, if you were raised to believe that homosexuality is wrong, yet you find many people who believe that it is okay (and some who think it’s the only thing to be), you may develop a live-and-let-live attitude that says “to each his own.”

But not everything is as innocuous as sexual preferences.  There are people whose moral codes say we must sacrifice chickens to the Gods, or we must convert the non-believers, or we must burn witches at the stake, or we must destroy the infidel....  What do we do then with our kind tolerance?  Let them be because “to each his own?”  What if we had done that when Adolf Hitler had his time at bat?  Or what if Jeffrey Daumer’s neighbors decided that, well, if he wants to kill and eat his lovers, what business is it of ours?

A sophisticated relativist would respond, however, by pointing out that this tolerance business really has no place in a relativistic moral theory -- that tolerance is itself a moral value that one may or may not adhere to!  So, if it is Hitler’s moral code to exterminate innocent people and invade neighboring countries, it’s our moral code to make him stop it!  No logical problems here.

As you can see, though, relativism does take a risk.  Relativism can become moral nihilism in the same way that divine command can become absolutism.  Nevertheless, relativism is the moral theory followed by the majority of people in the hard sciences, including the more experimental, physiological side of psychology.

Moral realism

The third main category of moral theory is moral realism.  Moral realism says that good and bad, right and wrong, exist in some fashion in this world, and independently of things like social customs, beliefs, or opinions.  On the other hand, moral realism does not propose something as simple as a list of commandments delivered directly from God!  Moral realism is the middle ground between the theological theories and moral relativism, and is the most common approach of philosophers.

But, as is usually the case with the middle ground, that is not an easy position to take.  The big question that moral realists have to answer is “how do we know good and bad?  how do we recognize right and wrong?”  Because of the difficulty of this question, there are quite a few forms of moral realism.

Rationalist morality theories

The first group of theories I’d like to look at the rationalist moral theories.  As the name indicates, these theories view morality as coming out of our capacity to think. Just like rationalist epistemology, the most basic form of rational moral truth is the one that is self-evident.  This is the theory of intuitionism, which is best exemplified by the modern British philosopher G. E. Moore.

Just like rationalistic epistemology, we can deduce from intuitions with formal logic.  In other words, we can think our way to various moral principles.  Kant promotes such an approach in what is known as formalism.

A particularly popular form of rationalist morality is called contractarianism.  It is associated with several influential philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau is responsible for the title and the basic idea:  He suggested that, once upon a time, humanity was in a state of savage anarchy.  Each person felt free to do whatever they needed to do to get what they wanted.  However, the fact that everyone else was doing the same meant that no-one was really free at all.  Whatever time they weren’t spending on getting what they needed would be spent protecting themselves from each other!

So, says Rousseau, our ancestors got together, sat down, and thought this through -- at least metaphorically.  More literally, certain ways of dealing with anarchy evolved over thousands of years.  But the principle is the same:  We each agree to give up some of our freedom to take whatever we want, in order that we all can get what we need.  The Social Contract, it’s called.

This idea was very influential in its time, especially on the American and French Revolutions.  Our founding fathers quite literally outlined the processes of our government and the rights and obligations of the citizenry in a social contract known as the Constitution.  We call our system democracy, of course, but the Constitution limits our democratic freedom -- the freedom of the majority -- in order to protect the minority.  And since you never know when it’ll be your turn to be the minority, it has worked out quite well!

Naturalistic moral theories

The next group of theories, as you might suspect, are founded on ideas of a more empirical nature.  Here, morality is something you experience in some fashion.  These theories are called naturalistic.  The simplest suggests that we perceive good and bad quite directly, with a “sixth sense,” a moral sense.  This is the brain child of the Earl of Shaftesbury.  We often say to each other “that doesn’t look right,” and “can’t you see that that's wrong?”

Egoism says that right and wrong can be perceived in terms of certain special feelings we call happiness.  The term egoism is unfortunate here, because we tend to think in terms of selfishness and hedonism, which would be more appropriately placed under the subjectivist or emotivist form of relativism.  The epicureans are examples of egoism:  Things like friendship, honor, and even altruism give us certain positive emotions by which we recognize that they are good.  Other things make us feel guilty or ashamed.

Analogous to contractarianism in the rational view, there is utilitarianism in the natural view.  Invented by Jeremy Bentham and developed by the Mills, utilitarianism is best known for the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Like egoism, happiness is seen as the way in which we perceive good and bad.  This time, however, it is not our own happiness alone, but the happiness of those around us as well.

Intuitively, it is hard to disagree with the notion.  But it is in fact a difficult one.  How do you know if others are happy?  We’re often not even certain if we ourselves are happy!  What makes others happy may not be the same as what makes us happy.  How are we to add up the various kinds of happiness?  Is every person equal in the equation, or are some people’s happiness more important than others?  What about the poor minority in this case:  Is it okay for them to be unhappy, as long as the majority is happy?  Bentham thought that we could develop a “hedonistic calculus” to figure these things out -- others are far from certain about that.

Again, our founding fathers were influenced by utilitarianism as well as the social contract, and the Declaration of Independence is loaded with utilitarian concepts (and contractarian ones!)  Thomas Jefferson in particular was very interested in these issues.

There are many additional details to utilitarianism, and to many of these moral theories.  But you will have to go to your local philosophy professor for those.

One of the things you may have spotted as you read the preceding paragraphs is that these rationalist and naturalist theories are not terribly exclusive:  In fact, we could combine them all without stretching them too far out of shape.  Just like the US has the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and just like science is a blend of rationalism and empiricism, we can use all six of the theories under moral realism at once!

Virtue ethics

There is one more branch of moral realism to talk about.  This one is called virtue ethics.  Instead of looking at good and bad as something impersonal that we need to recognize via reason or a moral sense, virtue theory sees good and bad as a quality of the person him or herself.  It is a virtuous person that creates good acts, not good acts that add up to a virtuous person!  This is also often called perfectionism.

It is found in a variety of interesting places:  Aristotle proposed a virtue ethics in his famous Nicomachean Ethics;  Buddha outlined a virtue ethics in his sutras;  Plato has a virtue ethics, as do the stoics;  and Friederic Nietzsche promotes a virtue ethics in Thus Spake Zarathustra, the book introduced "Superman" to the world!  The idea is simple:  Follow certain practices and you will become a virtuous man or woman.  Then do what you will, and the results will be good.

I like virtue ethics a lot, but I have to admit there’s a danger in it.  Who decides what constitutes a virtuous person?  The Nazis read Nietzsche and decided that they were the master race and could do no wrong.  Nevermind that Nietzsche would never recognize his Superman in boot-stomping blackshirts -- Nietzsche was dead by then!  Even the gentle Buddhists have had to face the problem:  If a certified enlightened master decides it might be a good idea to sleep with his students or take all their money, does that make these things moral?  To respond by saying we were mistaken about his enlightenment is too easy a way out of the dilemma!

Another version of virtue ethics, called situational ethics, was developed recently by a Christian theologian named Joseph Fletcher.  Uncomfortable with the “follow these rules or burn in hell” theology of some Christians, he said that Jesus had a quite different idea of morality (one quite like Buddha, actually).  If you cultivate a loving attitude, you will naturally begin to do more good and less bad.  In fact, whatever is done with love is by definition a good act.  You could point out that some people do pretty awful things in the name of love, but we could consider these mistaken examples of love.  But you could also argue that this is an example of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy:  If something good comes out of love, fine; If something bad comes out of love, then, well, that wasn't real love!

Another aspect of his theory is that morality is always situational.  He means that morality is always a matter of a real person in a real situation, and we can’t really judge them from outside that situation.  Hypothetical moral situations, he says, are never real.  There are always more details to be taken into account!  This sounded way too much like moral relativism to conservative Christians, and so today many people misunderstand poor Fletcher and assume he was some kind of nasty nihilist!

© Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree.  All rights reserved.