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Ethics for A-Level 

Mark Dimmock and Andrew Fisher 

Publishers WJ 

© 2017 Mark Dimmock and Andrew Fisher 


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1. Exam Specification Details 
2. Book Structure 
1. Philosophy, Ethics and Thinking 

ao F WwW N 

. Respecting Ethics 

. The A-Level Student 

. Doing Ethics Well: Legality versus Morality 

. Doing Ethics Well: Prudential Reasons versus 

Moral Reasons 

. Doing Ethics Well: Prescriptive versus Descriptive 


. Doing Ethics Well: Thought-Experiments 


Doing Ethics Well: Understanding Disagreement 

Questions and Tasks 





. Hedonism 

Utilitarianism: An Introduction 

. Nozick’s Experience Machine 

. The Foundations of Bentham’s Utilitarianism 
. The Structure of Bentham’s Utilitarianism 

. Hedonic Calculus 

. Problems with Bentham’s Utilitarianism 

. Mill’s Utilitarian Proof 


fo» a» e® Ww W Ww 




9. Mill’s Qualitative Utilitarianism 

10. Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism versus Bentham’s Act 

11. Strong versus Weak Rule Utilitarianism 
12. Comparing the Classical Utilitarians 

13. Non-Hedonistic Contemporary Utilitarianism: 
Peter Singer and Preference Utilitarianism 


Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 

1. An Introduction to Kantian Ethics 
2. Some Key Ideas 

3. Acting for the Sake of Duty and Acting in 
Accordance with Duty 

4. Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives 

5. The First Formulation of the Categorical 

6. Perfect and Imperfect Duties 
7. Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative 

8. The Third Formulation of the Categorical 
Imperative and Summary 

9. Kant on Suicide 
10. Problems and Responses: Conflicting Duties 
11. Problems and Responses: The Role of Intuitions 

12. Problem and Responses: Categorical Imperatives 
and Etiquette 

13. Problems and Responses: The Domain of Morality 

Common Student Mistakes 

Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 













. Aristotelian Virtue Ethics Introduction 
. The Function Argument 

. Aristotelian Goodness 

. Eudaimonia and Virtue 

. Developing the Virtues 

. Practical Wisdom (Phronesis) 


. Voluntary Actions, Involuntary Actions and Moral 
8. Objection: Unclear Guidance 
9. Objection: Clashing Virtues 
10. Objection: Circularity 
11. Objection: Contribution to Eudaimonia 
12. Moral Good and Individual Good 
Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 
Key Terminology 

1. Introduction to Aquinas 

2. Motivating Natural Law Theory: The Euthyphro 
Dilemma and Divine Command Theory 

3. Natural Law Theory 
4. Summary of Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory 

5. Putting this into Practice: The Doctrine of Double 
Effect (DDE) 

6. Some Thoughts about Natural Law Theory 

Common Student Mistakes 

Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 










Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 

Situation Ethics Introduction 

2. Fletcher’s Overall Framework 
4. How to Work out What to Do: Conscience as a 

The Four Working Principles of Situationism 

Verb not a Noun 
The Six Propositions of Situation Ethics 
Problems with Fletcher’s Situationism 

Key Terminology 






. Metaethics: Introduction 

. The Value of Metaethics 

. Cognitivism versus Non-Cognitivism 
. Realism versus Anti-Realism 

. The Metaethical Map 

. Cognitivist and Realist Theory One: Naturalism 
. Objections to Naturalism 

. Cognitivist and Realist Theory Two: 


. Objections to Intuitionism 

10. Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory One: Moral 

Error Theory 

. Objections to Moral Error Theory 
. Non-Cognitivism 
. Non-Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory One: 


. Objections to Emotivism 
. Non-Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory Two: 


Objections to Prescriptivism 











Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 




. Key Terms 


- © 

Euthanasia Introduction 

. Case One: Persistent Vegetative State 

. Case Two: Incurable and Terminal Illness 
. Pro-Euthanasia: Argument One 

. Pro-Euthanasia: Argument Two 

. Pro-Euthanasia: Argument Three 

. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument One 

. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument Two 

. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument Three 
. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument Four 

Allowing versus Doing 


Common Student Mistakes 

Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 



. Employers and Employees 

oa fF W NY 

Introduction to Business Ethics 

. Businesses and Customers 
. A Business and the Environment 

. Business and Globalization 

Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 









. Introduction 

. The History of Conscience 
. Aquinas on Conscience 

. Freud and the Conscience 

oF WN 

. Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory 

Common Student Mistakes 

Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 


1. Philosophy of Sex Introduction 
. What Is It to “Have Sex”? 
. Natural Law and Sex 
. Kant and Sex 

. Sex and Utilitarianism 


. Sex and the Virtue Theory 

Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 


1. Stealing: Introduction 
. Defining Stealing 
. Kantian Ethics on Stealing 
. Act and Preference Utilitarianism on Stealing 
. Rule Utilitarianism on Stealing 

. Virtue Ethics on Stealing 


. Metaethics and Stealing 
Common Student Mistakes 




Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 



oF WwW N 

. Utilitarianism and Simulated Killing 

. The Kantian and the Virtue Ethics Approach 
. Films and Plays 


. The Paradox of Tragedy (or More Correctly the 

Paradox of “Negative Emotions”) 


Common Student Mistakes 
Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 


oF W NY 

. What Is It to Lie? 

. Utilitarianism 


. The Kantian and Lying 

. Some Final Thoughts about the Political Context 

Common Student Mistakes 

Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 




. Justifying Meat Eating 

Eating Animals Introduction 

. Act Utilitarianism 
. Challenges to Bentham 
. Utilitarian Reasons for Eating Animals 

. Kantian Ethics and Eating Animals 







7. Virtue Ethics and Eating Animals 
8. Cora Diamond 


Common Student Mistakes 

Issues to Consider 

Key Terminology 





1. Exam Specification Details 

This book deals with the Ethics components of AQA Philosophy and OCR 
Religious Studies. It has been written in line with these specifications, covering 
the material necessary ina way that, we hope, is engaging for students, teachers 
and anyone interested in understanding ethical study. 

Some chapters are, therefore, directly relevant only to one of these two 
courses. Students studying Ethics as part of OCR Religious Studies do not 
need to read about the ethics of simulated killing, while students studying 
AQA Philosophy do not need to consider Natural Law or Situation Ethics. This 
is not to say that there is not, we hope, some independent value in engaging 
with these chapters as part of your wider reading. 

However, the split is not always so clear. Both OCR and AQA require 
students to engage with the theory of Utilitarianism, for example. However, 
the specifications differ slightly and so not all of the content is relevant to 
all students; relevance will depend on the course being sat. We suggest two 
options in dealing with this: 

e Early on in your course — engage with the content in the chapter 
regardless of your specification. This should give you a full and 
informed context in which to evaluate the theory. 

e Later in your course and nearer exams — use your specification to 
focus on the exact content that may figure in your exam. Your teacher 
is best placed to advise you on this. 

2. Book Structure 

In writing this book we followed Andrew Fisher’s approach of focusing on the 
judgement of the student in evaluating when they are being taught effectively.’ 
We take the student as authoritative on this matter; we want to create an 
“engaged” student. To this end we include ways that students can check their 
judgements on whether the material has taught them anything or not. For 
example, we include sections on “Common Student Mistakes”, “Issues to 
Consider” and “Key Terminology” within every chapter. 

1 This approach can also be found in: Fisher and Tallant, How to Get Philosophy Students Talking. 

Following the specification requirements of AQA and OCR, the book deals 
with Normative Ethics, then Metaethics and finally Applied Ethics. What is the 

Consider an analogy put forward by Andrew Fisher (2011).” Imagine that 
ethics is like football. 

e The normative ethicist is like a referee interested in the rules governing 
play. What interests him is the general theories that govern our moral 
behaviour; how do we work out what is right and what is wrong? 

° The metaethicist is like a football commentator. What interests her is 
how the very practice of ethics works. For example, the metaethicist 
might discuss how people use moral language; or comment on the 
psychology of immoral people; or ask whether moral properties exist. 

e The Applied Ethicists are like the players. They “get their hands [or 
feet] dirty”. They take the general rules of normative ethics and “play” 
under them. What interests them is how we should act in specific 
areas. For example, how should we deal with issues like meat-eating, 
euthanasia or stealing? 

So guided by the AQA and OCR exam specifications, you will find various 
normative theories explained. You will then find those theories applied to real 
life examples. Sandwiched between these is the Metaethics chapter which asks: 
“But what is ethical practice?” 

With all three types of ethics covered we hope to provide a good grounding 
in ethics, both in terms of content and a general philosophical approach. Where 
possible we give as many examples as possible and avoid technical jargon, 
although sometimes we need to use specific philosophical terms. With this in 
mind we have included an extensive Glossary at the end of the volume. Our 
hope is that you will feel able to pick up this book dip into it, or read it from 
cover to cover. Whatever you choose we hope you'll gain confidence with the 
content needed for your exams, that you practice and strengthen your ability 
to think with clear reasoning and with justification about the topics covered, 
and get as excited and fascinated by ethics as we are. 


Fisher, Andrew, Metaethics: An Introduction (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), https:// 

—, and Tallant, Jonathan, How to Get Students Talking: An Instructors Toolkit 
(Oxford: Routledge, 2015), 

2 Fisher, Metaethics, pp. 1-4. 


1. Philosophy, Ethics and Thinking 

Philosophy is hard. Part of the reason it can feel so annoying is because it seems 
like it should not be hard. After all, philosophy just involves thinking, and we 
all think — thinking is easy! We do it without...well, thinking. Yet philosophy 
involves not just thinking, but thinking well. Of course it is true that we all think. 
But thinking, like football, maths, baking and singing is something we can get 
better at. Unfortunately, people rarely ask how. If you do not believe us, then 
just open your eyes. Society might be a whole lot better off if we thought well, 
more often. 

Admittedly, doing A-Level Philosophy will not give you the ability to 
solve the problems of the world; we are not that naive! But if you engage with 
philosophy, then you will be developing yourself as a thinker who thinks well. 
This is why A-Level Philosophy is useful not merely to would-be philosophers, 
but also to any would be thinkers, perhaps heading off to make decisions in 
law, medicine, structural engineering — just about anything that requires you 
to think effectively and clearly. 

However, if Philosophy is hard, then Ethics is really hard. This might 
seem unlikely at first glance. After all, Ethics deals with issues of right and 
wrong, and we have been discussing “what is right” and “what is wrong” 
since we were children. Philosophy of Mind, on the other hand, deals with 
topics like the nature of consciousness, while Metaphysics deals with the 
nature of existence itself. Indeed, compared to understanding a lecture in 
the Philosophy of Physics, arguing about the ethics of killing in video games 
might seem something of a walk in the park. This is misleading, not because 
other areas of philosophy are easy, but because the complexity of ethics is well 

2. Respecting Ethics 

When you study A-Level Ethics, and you evaluate what is right and wrong, it 
can be tempting and comforting to spend time simply defending your initial 
views; few people would come to a debate about vegetarianism, or abortion, 
without some pre-existing belief. If you are open-minded in your ethical 
approach then you need not reject everything you currently believe, but you 


should see these beliefs as starting points, or base camps, from which your 
enquiry commences. 

For example, why do you think that eating animals is OK, or that abortion 
is wrong? If you think that giving to charity is good, what does “good” mean? 
For true success, ethics requires intellectual respect. If you might think that a 
particular position is obviously false, perhaps take this reaction as a red flag, as 
it may suggest that you have missed some important step of an argument — ask 
yourself why someone, presumably just as intellectually proficient as yourself, 
might have once accepted that position. 

If you are thinking well as an ethicist, then you are likely to have good 
reasons for your views, and be prepared to rethink those views where you 
cannot find such good reasons. In virtue of this, you are providing justification 
for the beliefs you have. It is the philosopher’s job, whatever beliefs you have, 
to ask why you hold those beliefs. What reasons might you have for those 

For example, imagine the reason that you believe it is OK to eat meat is that 
it tastes nice. As philosophers we can say that this is not a particularly good 
reason. Presumably it might taste nice to eat your pet cat, or your neighbour, 
or your dead aunt; but in these cases the “taste justification” seems totally 
unimportant! The details of this debate are not relevant here (for more on this 
topic see Chapter 14). The point is that there are good and bad reasons for our 
beliefs and it is the philosopher’s job to reveal and analyse them. 

3. The A-Level Student 

Philosophy is more than just fact-learning, or a “history of ideas”. It is different 
from chemistry, mathematics, languages, theology etc. It is unique. Sure, it is 
important to learn some facts, and learn what others believed, but a successful 
A-Level student needs to do more than simply regurgitate information in order 
to both maneuverer past the exam hurdles and to become a better ethicist. 

One aim of this book is to aid you in engaging with a living discipline. 
Philosophy, and in particular Ethics, is a live and evolving subject. When 
you study philosophy you are entering a dialogue with those that have gone 
before you. Learning about what various philosophers think will enable you 
to become clearer about what you think and add to that evolving dialogue. 

You will notice that in this book we have not included “hints and tips 
boxes”, or statements of biography concerning the scholars. Although these 
things have their place, we did not want the reader to think that they have 
learnt philosophy if they know what is in the boxes. 

1 For an excellent introduction to good and bad ways of thinking we recommend John Hospers, ‘An 
Introduction to Philosophical Analysis’. 

In reality, university Philosophy departments often work with first year 
students to lose some of their less academically successful habits. Why? Well, 
one of the authors has taught ethics at university for many years. Philosophy 
students often say something like this: “I thought we’d do hard stuff at 
University! I did Utilitarianism at A-Level, can I have something different to 
study, please?” 

This statement reveals a whole host of things. Most important is the view 
that to “do” ethics is to remember information. That is why a student can 
say they have “done Utilitarianism”. They have learnt some key facts and 
arguments. But philosophy is not like this. In order to understand philosophy 
you need to be authentic with yourself and to ask what you think, using this 
as a guide to critically analyse the ideas learned and lead yourself to your 
own justifiable conclusion. Philosophy is a living and dynamic subject that we 
cannot reduce to a few key facts, or a simplistic noting of what other people 
have said. 

Some people distinguish between “ethics” and “morality”. We do not. For 
us, nothing hangs on the difference between them. In this book you will see us 
switching between the terms, so do not get hung up on this distinction. 

4. Doing Ethics Well: Legality versus Morality 

Moral questions are distinct from legal questions, although, of course, moral 
issues might have some implications for the law. That child labour is morally 
unacceptable might mean that we have a law against it. But it is unhelpful to 
answer whether something is morally right or wrong by looking to the laws of 
the land. It is quite easy to see why. Imagine a country which has a set of actions 
which are legally acceptable, but morally unacceptable or vice versa — the well- 
used example of Nazi Germany brings to mind this distinction. Therefore, in 
discussions about ethics do be wary of talking about legal issues. Much more 
often than not, such points will be irrelevant. 

5. Doing Ethics Well: Prudential Reasons versus Moral 

Something to keep separate are moral reasons and prudential reasons. 
Prudential reasons relate to our personal reasons for doing things. 

Consider some examples. When defending slavery, people used to cite 
the fact that it supported the economy as a reason to keep it. It is true, of 
course, that this is a reason; it is a prudential reason, particularly for those who 
benefited from slavery such as traders or plantation owners. Yet, such a reason 
does not help us with the moral question of slavery. We would say “OK, but 
so what if it helps the economy! Is it right or wrong?” 



6. Doing Ethics Well: Prescriptive versus Descriptive Claims 

Another important distinction is between descriptive and prescriptive claims. 
This is sometimes referred to as the “is/ought” gap. We return to this in later 
chapters, especially Chapter 6. But it is such a common mistake made in 
general ethical chat that we felt the need to underline it. 

Consider some examples. Imagine the headline: “Scientists discover a gene 
explaining why we want to punch people wearing red trousers”. The article includes 
lots of science showing the genes and the statistical proof. Yet, none of this 
will tells us whether acting violently towards people wearing red trousers is 
morally acceptable. The explanation of why people feel and act in certain ways 
leaves it open as to how people morally ought to act. 

Consider a more serious example, relating to the ethics of eating meat. 
Supporters of meat-eating often point to our incisor teeth. This shows that it is 
natural for us to eat meat, a fact used as a reason for thinking that it is morally 
acceptable to do so. But this is a bad argument. Just because we have incisors 
does not tell us how we morally ought to behave. It might explain why we 
find it easy to eat meat, and it might even explain why we like eating meat. 
But this is not relevant to the moral question. Don’t you believe us? Imagine 
that dentists discover that our teeth are “designed” to eat other humans alive. 
What does this tell us about whether it is right or wrong to eat humans alive? 

7. Doing Ethics Well: Thought-Experiments 

You will also be aware, especially in reading this book, of the philosophical 
device known as a “thought experiment”. These are hypothetical, sometimes 
fanciful, examples that are designed to aid our thinking about an issue. 

For example, imagine that you could travel back in time. You are pointing 
a gun at your grandfather when he was a child. Would it be possible for you 
to pull the trigger? Or, imagine that there is a tram running down a track. You 
could stop it, thereby saving five people, by throwing a fat man under the 
tracks. Is this the morally right thing to do? 

The details here are unimportant. What is important, is that it is inadequate 
to respond: “yes, but that could never happen!” Thought experiments are 
devices to help us to think about certain issues. Whether they are possible in 
real life does not stop us doing that thinking. Indeed, it is not just philosophy 
that uses thought experiments. When Einstein asked what would happen if he 
looked at his watch near a black hole, this was a thought experiment. In fact, 
most other subjects use thought experiments. It is just that philosophy uses 
them more frequently, and they are often a bit more bizarre. 

8. Doing Ethics Well: Understanding Disagreement 

Finally, we want to draw your attention to a common bad argument as we 
want you to be aware of the mistake it leads to. Imagine that a group of friends 
are arguing about which country has won the most Olympic gold medals. 
Max says China, Alastair says the US, Dinh says the UK. There is general 
ignorance and disagreement; but does this mean that there is not an answer to 
the question of “which country has won the most Olympic gold medals?” No! 
We cannot move from the fact that people disagree to the conclusion that there 
is no answer. Now consider a parallel argument that we hear far too often. 

Imagine that you and your friends are discussing whether euthanasia is 
morally acceptable. Some say yes, the others say no. Each of you cite how 
different cultures have different views on euthanasia. Does this fact — that 
there is disagreement — mean that there is no answer to the question of whether 
euthanasia is morally acceptable? Again, the answer is no. That answer did not 
follow in the Olympic case, and it does not follow in the moral one either. So 
just because different cultures have different moral views, this does not show, 
by itself, that there is no moral truth and no answer to the question. 

If you are interested in the idea that there is a lack of moral truth in ethics, 
then Moral Error Theorists defend exactly this position in the chapter on 


You will not be assessed, by either AQA or OCR, on the core 
content of this chapter. If any of the content is specifically relevant 
to assessment, it is discussed in proper detail in the following 

Still, we hope that we have signposted some errors to avoid 
when it comes to thinking about ethics, and some strategies to 
consider instead. It may be worth occasionally revisiting the 
ideas discussed here during your studies, to test your own lines 
of argument and evaluate how “thinking well” is progressing for 
you. This would not be a weakness! Both the authors, and any 
honest philosopher, can reassure you — philosophy is hard! We 
hope you find this textbook useful and rewarding in helping you 
on your own journey through Ethics. 



How would you explain what philosophy is to someone? 

Do you think philosophy is important? If yes, why? If no, why? 


3. List some ethical questions. 

Can you figure out if your questions are Normative, Applied, or 

5. Is there a link be between Applied, Normative and Metaethics? Which 
type of ethics do you think it would be best to study first, and which 

What is the difference between prudential and moral reasons? 

What is meant by the “is/ought” gap? Why is it important to remember 
when discussing ethical questions? 

What role, if any, does science have in ethical arguments? 
9. What are thought experiments? Why might they be useful to 

10. “Because there are so many different views on moral issues there cannot 
be any moral truth”. What do you think of this line of argument? 


Hospers, John, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 4th ed. (New York 
and London: Routledge, 1997), 



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Music snobbery is the worst kind of snobbery. It forces people who like something a bit mainstream, 
a bit of pop like Girls Aloud or Take That! or ABBA to say “It’s my guilty pleasure!” I hate that 
phrase. It is an insult to top quality pop. It is also an insult to guilt. 

Dara O Briain (comedian) 

1. Utilitarianism: An Introduction 

Some things appear to be straightforwardly good for people. Winning the 
lottery, marrying your true love or securing a desired set of qualifications all 
seem to be examples of events that improve a person’s life. As a normative 
ethical theory, Utilitarianism suggests that we can decide what is morally 
right or morally wrong by weighing up which of our future possible actions 
promotes such goodness in our lives and the lives of people more generally. 

2. Hedonism 

Hedonism is a theory of well-being — a theory of how well a life is going 
for the person living that life. What separates Hedonism from other theories 
of well-being is that the hedonist believes that what defines a successful life 
is directly related to the amount of pleasure in that life; no other factors are 
relevant at all. Therefore, the more pleasure that a person experiences in their 
life then the better their life goes, and vice versa. Whereas other theories might 
focus on fulfilling desires people have, or an objective list of things such as 
friendship and health. 

The roots of Hedonism can be traced back at least as far as Epicurus (341-270 
BC) and Ancient Greece. Epicurus held the hedonistic view that the primary 
intrinsic good for a person is pleasure; meaning that pleasure is always good 
for a person in and of itself, irrespective of the cause or context of the pleasure. 
According to this theory pleasure is always intrinsically good for a person and 
less pleasure is always intrinsically bad. 

Hedonism is a relatively simple theory of what makes your life better. If you 
feel that your life would be better if you won the lottery, married your true 


love or achieved your desired qualifications, then the hedonistic explanation of 
these judgments is that these things are good for you only if they provide you 
with pleasure. Many pleasures may be physical, but Fred Feldman (1941-) is a 
defender of a theory known as Attitudinal Hedonism. According to this theory, 
psychological pleasures can themselves count as intrinsically good for a person. 
So, while reading a book would not seem to produce pleasure in a physical 
way, a hedonist may value the psychological pleasure associated with that 
act of reading and thus accept that it can improve a person’s well-being. This 
understanding of hedonistic pleasure may help to explain why, for example, 
one person can gain so much pleasure from a Lady Gaga album while another 
gains nothing at all; the psychological responses to the music differ. 

3. Nozick’s Experience Machine 

One important problem for Hedonism is that our well-being seems to be 
affected by more than just the total pleasure in our lives. It may be the case 
that you enjoy gaining a new qualification, but there seems to be more to the 
value of this event than merely the pleasure produced. Many people agree 
that success in gaining a meaningful qualification improves your life even if 
no pleasure is obtained from it. Certainly, many believe that the relationship 
between what improves your life and what gives pleasure is not directly 
proportional, as the hedonist would claim. 

Robert Nozick (1938-2002) attacked the hedonistic idea that pleasure is 
the only good by testing our intuitions via a now famous thought-experiment. 
Nozick asks: 

Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super- 
duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were 
writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would 
be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine 
for life, pre-programming your life experiences? [...] Of course, while in the tank you won't know 
that you're there; you'll think that it’s all actually happening [...] would you plug in?! 

Nozick’s challenge to Hedonism is based on the thought that most people who 
consider this possible situation would opt not to plug in. Indeed, if you ask 
yourself if you would actually choose to leave behind your real friends, family 
and life in favour of a pre-programmed existence you also might conclude 
that plugging into the experience machine would not be desirable. However, 
if Hedonism is correct and our well-being is determined entirely by the 
amount of pleasure that we experience, then Nozick wonders “what else can 
matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”* The experience 

1 R. Nozick, ‘The Experience Machine’, p. 292. 
2 ~~ Ibid. 

machine guarantees us pleasure yet we find it unappealing compared to a real 
life where pleasure is far from assured. This may suggest that our well-being 
is determined by other factors in addition to how much pleasure we secure, 
perhaps knowledge or friendships. 

The hedonists need not give way entirely on this point, of course, as they 
may feel that the experience machine is desirable just because it guarantees 
experiences of pleasure. Or, you might believe that our suspicions about 
the machine are misplaced. After all, once inside the machine we would not 
suspect that things were not real. You may feel that the hedonist could bite-the- 
bullet (accept the apparently awkward conclusion as a non-fatal implication 
of the theory) and say that any reticence to enter the machine is irrational. 
Perhaps the lives of those choosing to be plugged in to the machine would go 
extraordinary well! 

4. The Foundations of Bentham’s Utilitarianism 

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the first of the “classical utilitarians”. Driven 
by a genuine desire for social reform, Bentham wanted to be as much involved 
in law, politics and economics as abstract philosophising. 

Bentham developed his moral theory of Utilitarianism on the foundation 
of the type of hedonistic thinking described in section two. For Bentham, the 
only thing that determines the value of a life, or indeed the value of an event 
or action, is the amount of pleasure contained in that life, or the amount of 
pleasure produced as a result of that event or action. Bentham is a hedonistic 
utilitarian. This belief in Hedonism, however, was not something that Bentham 
took to be unjustified or arbitrary; for him Hedonism could be empirically 
justified by evidence in the world in its favour. According to Bentham: 

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.* 

Bentham moves from this empirical claim about the factors that guide our 
behaviour to a normative claim about how we ought to live. He creates a moral 
theory based on the bringing about of more pleasure and less pain. 

When first understanding Utilitarianism, it is also crucial to understand 
what is meant by the term “utility”. Bentham defined it as “[...] that property 
in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, 
or happiness [...] or [...] to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or 
unhappiness” .* Utility is thus promoted when pleasure is promoted and when 

3 J. Bentham, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’, in Utilitarianism and Other 
Essays, p. 65. 
4 Ibid., p. 66. 



unhappiness is avoided. Bentham’s commitment to Hedonism means for him 
that goodness is just an increase in pleasure, and evil or unhappiness is just an 
increase in pain or decrease in pleasure. With this understanding of utility in 
mind, Bentham commits himself to the Principle of Utility: 

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action 
whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the 
happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to 
promote or to oppose that happiness.° 

In effect, this principle simply says that promoting utility, defined in terms of 
pleasure, is to be approved of and reducing utility is to be disapproved of. 

The Principle of Utility, backed by a commitment to Hedonism, underpins 
the central utilitarian claim made by Bentham. Based on a phrase that he 
wrongly attributed to Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Bentham suggests that 
the measure of right and wrong is the extent to which an action produces the 
greatest good for the greatest number of people. Of course, what counts as 
good, for Bentham, is pleasure. We can then rephrase what Bentham himself 
call his fundamental axiom as a requirement to promote the greatest pleasure for 
the greatest number of people, in order to act morally. 

5. The Structure of Bentham’s Utilitarianism 

In addition to being hedonistic, Bentham’s Utilitarianism is also: 
1. Consequentialist/Teleological 
2. Relativist 
3. Maximising 
4. Impartial 

Bentham’s Utilitarianism is consequentialist because the moral value of an action 
or event is determined entirely by the consequences of that event. The theory is 
also described as teleological for the same reason, based on the Greek word telos 
that means “end” or “purpose”. If more pleasure follows as a consequence of 
“Action A” rather than “Action B”, then according to the fundamental axiom of 
Utilitarianism “Action A” should be undertaken and is morally right; choosing 
“Action B” would be morally wrong. 

In addition, Bentham’s Utilitarianism is Relativistic rather than Absolutist. 
Absolutist moral views hold that certain actions will always be morally wrong 
irrespective of context or consequences. For example, many campaigning 
groups suggest that torture is always morally unacceptable whether it is 

5 Ibid., p. 65. 

carried out by vindictive dictators seeking to instil fear in a population or 
whether it is authorised by democratically elected governments seeking to 
obtain information in order to stop a terrorist attack. For absolutists then, the 
act of torture is absolutely wrong in all cases and situations. 

Clearly, Bentham cannot hold this type of view because sometimes the 
pain involved in torture may lead to the promotion of greater pleasure (or less 
intense pain) overall, such as in the case where torture stops a terrorist atrocity. 
On this basis, the Benthamite utilitarian must believe that whether a certain 
action is right or wrong is always relative to the situation in which the action 
takes place. 

Bentham’s Utilitarianism is maximising because it does not merely require 
that pleasure is promoted, but that the greatest pleasure for the greatest number 
is secured. This means that some actions that lead to pleasure will still not 
be morally good acts if another action that could have produced even more 
pleasure in that setting was rejected. Thus, for example, if you gain some 
pleasure from spending money on a new book, but that money could have 
produced more pleasure had it been donated to a local charity for the homeless, 
then buying a new book would be morally wrong even though it led to some 
pleasure because it did not maximise the total amount of pleasure that was 
possible in that circumstance. 

Finally, Bentham’s Utilitarianism is also impartial in the sense that what 
matters is simply securing the maximum amount of pleasure for the maximum 
number of people; the theory does not give special preference regarding 
which people are supposed to have access to, or share in, that total pleasure. 
Bentham’s utilitarian theory is associated with the idea of equal consideration of 
interests; as long as total pleasure is maximised then it does not matter if that 
pleasure is experienced by royalty, presidents, siblings, children, friends or 
enemies. In the total calculation of pleasure, we are all equal regardless of our 
status, behaviour or any other social factor. 

6. Hedonic Calculus 

Hopefully it is now clear that for Bentham the consequences in terms of 
pleasure production of any action are what determine the morality of that 
action, and that no other factors are relevant. However, it is not clear how 
exactly we should go about working out what to do in specific cases. For 

You are a military airman flying a fighter jet that is about to intercept a passenger airliner that 
seems to have been hijacked by an as yet unknown figure. The plane appears to be on a path 
that could take it either to an airport or, potentially, directly to a major and highly populated 
city. You are tasked with deciding how to act and must, therefore, choose whether or not to 



fire a missile at the plane. Firing at the plane would kill the passengers but save all lives on 
the ground, yet not firing may save the passengers, or it may give the passengers only a few 
more minutes before the plane is flown into a city full of innocents and they are killed in any 
case. Suggesting that the pilot weigh up the options and choose the action that secures the 
greatest pleasure for the greatest number is not obviously helpful in making such a difficult 
decision with so many variables. 

Bentham recognised that such Problems of Calculation relating to the pleasure 
associated with future actions needed addressing in order for Utilitarianism to 
be a workable moral theory. Bentham therefore created the Hedonic Calculus 
(sometimes known as the Felicific Calculus) in order to help an individual 
work out how much pleasure would be created by differing possible actions. 
The Hedonic Calculus, as suggested by Bentham, is based on assessing possible 
pleasures according to their: 

1. Intensity 

Remoteness (i.e. how far into the future the pleasure is) 

7 Ff 2 N 

Fecundity (i.e. how likely it is that pleasure will generate other related 

6. Purity (i.e. if any pain will be felt alongside that pleasure) 

7. Extent (i.e. how many people might be able to share in that pleasure)° 

The Hedonic Calculus is therefore supposed to provide a decision-procedure 
for a utilitarian who is confused as to how to act in a morally tricky situation. 
Thus, our fighter-pilot might consider the intensity of the pleasure of surviving 
versus the duration of the pain of death, while also needing to balance these 
factors against the relative certainty of the possible pains or pleasures. No 
doubt, the fighter pilot would still face an agonising moral choice but it 
seems that he would at least have some methodology for working out what 
Utilitarianism morally requires of him. 

7. Problems with Bentham’s Utilitarianism 

However, whether or not measuring possible actions in terms of “units of 
pleasure” associated with them is actually plausible is very much an open 
question and so the problem of calculation is not necessarily solved simply 
by the existence of the Hedonic Calculus. Consider the most recent highly 
pleasurable experience that you enjoyed and compare it to a highly pleasurable 
experience from earlier in your life. It may be that you cannot say confidently 

6 Ibid., p. 87. 

that one provided more pleasure than the other, especially if the experiences 
were extremely varied; perhaps winning a sporting trophy versus going on 
your first holiday. Pleasures that are so fundamentally different in nature may 
simply be incommensurable — they may be incapable of being measured by a 
common standard such as the Hedonic Calculus. 

In addition, the problem of calculation can be extended beyond the issues 
raised above. Remember that Bentham’s Utilitarianism is impartial in the sense 
that all individuals who gain pleasure as a result of a certain action count 
towards the total amount of pleasure. However, the following case raises the 
Problem of Relevant Beings: 

You are considering whether or not to approve a new housing development on a piece of 
unoccupied land outside the current boundary of your town. You are clear that, if approved, 
the development will create a great deal of pleasure for both new residents and construction 
workers without any pain being experienced by others. You are aware, however, that 
the development will require the culling of several badgers and the removal of a habitat 
currently supporting many birds, stray cats and rodents of various types. 

On the surface, this case should be obvious for the utilitarian without any 
special problem of calculation; the greatest good for the greatest number 
would be secured if the development were permitted to go ahead. However, 
this assumes that non-human animals are not relevant to the calculation of 
pleasures and pains. Yet, if pleasure is all that matters for how well a life goes 
then it is not clear why animals, that may be able to experience some form of 
pleasure and can almost certainly experience pain, should be excluded from 
the calculation process. 

Indeed, Bentham, when referring to the moral value of animals, noted that: 

“The question (for deciding moral relevance) is not ‘Can they reason?’, nor 
‘Can they talk?’, but ‘Can they suffer?” If the suffering and pain of humans is 
relevant to moral calculations then surely it is at least plausible that so should 
the suffering and pain of non-human animals. (There is more on the issue of 
the moral status of animals in Chapter 14 when the morality of eating animals 
is investigated.) 

Being a maximising ethical theory, Utilitarianism is also open to a 
Demandingness Objection. If it is not the case that pleasure needs to be merely 
promoted but actually maximised at all opportunities, then the standard for 
acting morally appears to be set extremely high. For example, did you buy a 
doughnut at some point this year or treat yourself to a magazine? Live the life 
of a high-roller and treat yourself to a taxi ride rather than walking to your 
destination? While your actions certainly brought about differing degrees of 
pleasure to both yourself and to those who gained economic benefit from your 

7 J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 



decision, it seems that you could have created much more pleasure by saving 
up your money and ensuring it reached those suffering extreme financial 
hardships or residing in poverty around the world. As a result of being a 
maximising moral theory, Utilitarianism seems to make immorality very hard 
to avoid as it is so utterly demanding on our behaviour. 

A further problem for Utilitarianism relates to the Tyranny of the Majority. 
Remember that as a relativistic moral theory, Utilitarianism does not allow for 
any moral absolutes — such as the absolute right to democracy, or absolute 
legal or basic human rights. Indeed, Bentham himself dismissed the idea of 
‘natural rights” as a nonsensical concept masqueraded as a meaningful one. 
However, if we accept that absolute rights are simply “nonsense upon stilts” 


as Bentham put it, then Utilitarianism seems to be open to cases where the 
majority are morally required to exploit the minority for the greater good of 
maximising total pleasure. For example, imagine that total pleasure would 
be maximised if the resources of a small country were forcibly taken from 
them to be used freely and exploited by the people of a much larger country 
(this is hardly unrealistic). However, such forceful theft — only justified by 
the fact that a greater majority of people would gain pleasure — does not 
seem to be morally justifiable. Yet, according to Utilitarianism’s commitment 
to maximising pleasure, such an action would not only be morally acceptable 
but it would be morally required. 

As a consequentialist/teleological moral theory Utilitarianism is also 
open to the Problem of Wrong Intentions. This problem can be highlighted by 
considering the cases of Dominic and Callum. 

Dominic is seating in a coffee shop when a masked intruder bursts in threatening to rob the 
shop. Dominic, with the intention of saving lives, attempts to stop the intruder but sadly, in 
the ensuing struggle, the intruder’s gun is accidentally fired and an innocent person is killed. 
Now, consider a second case where an intruder bursts in with a gun but Callum, rather 
than trying to intervene, immediately ducks for cover with the intention of saving himself 
and leaving the rest of the customers to fend for themselves. Luckily for Callum, when he 
ducks for cover he accidentally trips into the would-be thief, knocking him unconscious 
thus allowing his peaceful detention until police arrive. 

According to the utilitarian calculation, Callum acted in a way that maximised 
pleasure while Dominic acted wrongly because the consequence of his act was 
tragic pain. However, it seems unfair and wrong to suggest that Callum acted 
rightly when he had just intended to save himself, although he had a lucky 
outcome, while Dominic acted wrongly when his intention was to save others 
but was unlucky in his outcome. Utilitarianism, as a consequentialist theory, 
ignores intentions and focuses only on consequences. 

Utilitarianism also faces the Problem of Partiality. This is clear if we consider 
the familiar moral dilemma of being stuck on a life raft with three other people 
but with only enough supplies for two people. On the raft with you is a doctor 

who is confident that he can pass on a cure for cancer if he survives, a world 
class violinist who brings pleasure to millions each year, and one of your 
parents or siblings. I am afraid to report that, for the purposes of this example, 
your parent or sibling is nothing special in comparison to other individuals 
on the raft. In this circumstance, Utilitarianism would seem to require you 
not only to give up your own space on the raft but ensure that your parent or 
sibling joins you in the freezing water with no hope of survival; this is the way 
of maximising total pleasure in such a scenario. Yet, even if you believe that the 
morality might call for your own self-sacrifice, it seems extremely unfair not to 
allow you to give extra moral weight to the life of a loved one. Unfortunately for 
the utilitarian, perhaps, the status as a beloved family member should make 
no special difference to your judgment regarding how to act. This seems to be 
not only over-demanding but also overly cold and calculating. Utilitarianism 
requires Agent-Neutrality — you must look at the situation as any neutral 
observer would and not give special preference to anyone irrespective of your 
emotional attachments, because each individual must count for one and no 
more than one. 

Finally, Bentham’s Utilitarianism also comes under attack from the related 
Integrity Objection, framed most prominently by Bernard Williams (1929- 
2003). As an agent-neutral theory, no person can give up impartiality when it 
comes to judgements about the impact of a potential action upon their family 
or loved ones. In addition, no person can give up impartiality when it comes 
to the impact of an action upon their own feelings, character and general sense 
of integrity. In order to make clear the potential worry associated with this, 
Williams describes the fictional case of Jim and the Indians.® 

Jim is an explorer who stumbles upon an Indian leader who is about to execute twenty 
people. Jim knows nothing of their possible crimes or any other factors involved, but he is 
offered a difficult choice by the Indian chief who is eager to impress his foreign traveller. 
Jim can either shoot one of the prisoners himself and then the rest will be set free as a mark 
of celebration, or he can refuse the offer in which case all twenty prisoners will be executed 
as was planned. It is key to note that Jim does not have control of the situation in the sense 
that he is powerless to bargain or negotiate with anyone, and nor can he use a weapon to 
successfully free any prisoners. He has only the two options laid out. 

The point of this example is not to establish what the right action is. You may 
find yourself in agreement with utilitarians who suggest Jim must shoot 
one prisoner in order to save the lives of the rest. Rather, the purpose of the 
example is to show that Utilitarianism forces us to reach this conclusion too 
quickly. Given the commitment to Agent-Neutrality, Jim must treat himself as 
a neutral observer working out which action will produce the greatest good 

8B. Williams, ‘Jim and the Indians’, 



for the greatest number. Morally, he is not entitled to give more weight to his 
own feelings than he would give to the feelings of any other and therefore 
it does not matter whether Jim is a pacifist and has been a lifelong advocate 
for prisoner reform and rehabilitation. If the utilitarian calculation suggests 
that he must shoot one of the prisoners then he must shoot with no regard to 
any compromising of his integrity and self-identity. You may accept this as an 
unfortunate consequence of a terrible situation, but it may be a problem for 
a moral theory if it fails to recognise or respect a person’s most sincere and 
deepest convictions. 

8. Mill’s Utilitarian Proof 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was concerned by many of the problems 
facing the utilitarian theory put forward by Bentham, but as a hedonist he 
did not wish to see the theory rejected. Mill sought to refine and improve 
the Benthamite utilitarian theory in order to create a successful version of 
Hedonistic Utilitarianism. 

Mill was so confident about the prospects for a version of Hedonistic 
Utilitarianism because he believed that there was an empirically backed proof 
available to support the principle that the greatest happiness/pleasure should 
always be secured for the greatest number.’ Mill’s proof, much like Bentham’s 
empirical defence of Hedonism, relies on the evidence from observation that 
people desire their own happiness. This observation of fact supports Mill’s 
claim that since people desire their own happiness, this is evidence that such 
happiness is desirable. Mill says “...each person’s happiness is a good to that 
person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all 
persons”.'° Since our happiness is good for us, and general happiness is just 
the total of the happiness of all persons, then general happiness is also good. 
To put it another way, if individual happiness is a good worth pursuing then 
happiness in general must be worth pursuing. 

In order to justify Hedonism, Mill sought to justify the claim that the good 
of happiness is the only thing that makes our lives go better. Mill defends this 
claim by suggesting that knowledge, health and freedom etc. (as other plausible 
goods that might make a life go better) are only valuable in so far as they bring 
about happiness. Knowledge is desired only because it provides happiness when 
acquired, not because it, by itself and in isolation, makes life go better. 

Mill’s proof of Utilitarianism in terms of the general desirability of 
maximising total happiness is, however, open to criticism. For one thing, 

9 This slippage from talk of “pleasure” to talk of “happiness” is explained in section eight of this 
10 J. S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’, in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, p. 308. 

the fact that something is desired does not seem to justify the claim that it is 
desirable. G. E. Moore (1873-1958) points out that Mill moves from the factual 
sense that something is desirable if it is desired to the normative sense that it 
should be desired without any justification. It is possible, for example, to desire 
to kill another person. This is desirable in the sense people could and do desire 
it (it is possible to do so — it is an action that is desire-able), but not in the sense 
that we would want them to desire it. 

In addition, the idea that other apparent goods, such as knowledge and 
health, are only valuable in so far as they promote happiness/pleasure is 
extremely controversial; can you imagine a situation in which you gained 
value from knowledge without any associated pleasure or happiness? If so, 
you may have a counter example to Mill’s claim. 

9. Mill’s Qualitative Utilitarianism 

In attempting to redraw Bentham’s Utilitarianism, Mill’s most substantial 
thought was to move away from Bentham’s idea that all that mattered was 
the quantity of total pleasure. Instead, Mill thought that quality of pleasure was 
also crucial to deciding what is moral. 

Bentham’s Utilitarianism is quantitative in the sense that all Bentham 
focusses on is the maximisation of hedonically calculated quantities of total 
pleasure. Thus, he says that “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal 
value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry”."' All that matters for 
Bentham is producing pleasure and the way this is achieved is unimportant. 
If playing on a console affords you more pleasure than reading Shakespeare, 
then Bentham would view your life as going better if you play the console. 
However, Mill introduces a quality criterion for pleasure. Mill says that: 

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied 
than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only 
know their own side of the question.’ 

Bentham could not admit that the unhappy Socrates would be living a life 
with more value than the happier fool. Mill, on the other hand, believes that 
quality, not merely quantity, of pleasure matters and can therefore defend the 
claim that Socrates has the better life even by hedonistic standards. 
According to Mill, higher pleasures are worth more than lower pleasures. 
Higher pleasures are those pleasures of the intellect brought about via 
activities like poetry, reading or attending the theatre. Lower pleasures are 
animalistic and base; pleasures associated with drinking beer, having sex or 

11 J. Bentham, The Rationale of Reward, p. 206, 
12 J. S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’, p. 281. 



lazing on a sun-lounger. What we should seek to maximise are the higher 
quality pleasures even if the total pleasure (hedonically calculated via 
Bentham’s calculus) turns out to be quantitatively lower as a result. Justifying 
this distinction between higher and lower quality pleasures as non-arbitrary 
and not just an expression of his own tastes, Mill says that competent judges, 
those people who have experienced both types of pleasure, are best placed 
to select which pleasures are higher and lower. Such competent judges, says 
Mill, would and do favour pleasures of the intellect over the base pleasures 
of the body. On this basis, Mill is open to the criticism that many people have 
both read books and drunk beer and that if given the choice would choose 
the latter. Whether or not Mill’s defence of his supposedly non-prejudiced 
distinction of higher and lower pleasures is successful is an open question for 
your evaluation and analysis. 

10. Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism versus Bentham’s Act 

In addition to a difference in views regarding the importance of the quality of 
a pleasure, Mill and Bentham are also separated by reference to Act and Rule 
Utilitarianism and although such terms emerged only after Mill’s death, Mill 
is typically considered a rule utilitarian and Bentham an act utilitarian. 

An act utilitarian, such as Bentham, focuses only on the consequences of 
individual actions when making moral judgments. However, this focus on 
the outcome of individual acts can sometimes lead to odd and objection- 
raising examples. Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-) raised the problem of the 
“transplant surgeon”. 

Imagine a case where a doctor had five patients requiring new organs to stop their death 
and one healthy patient undergoing a routine check. In this case, it would seem that total 
pleasure is best promoted by killing the one healthy patient, harvesting his organs and 
saving the other five lives; their pleasure outweighs the cost to the formerly healthy patient. 

While Bentham does suggest that we should have “rules of thumb” against 
such actions, for typically they will lead to unforeseen painful consequences, 
in the case as simply described the act utilitarian appears powerless to deny 
that such a killing is required in order to maximise total pleasure (just add 
your own details to secure this conclusion for the act utilitarian). 

Rule utilitarians, in whose camp we can place Mill, adopt a different moral 
decision-procedure. Their view is that we should create a set of rules that, 
if followed, would produce the greatest amount of total happiness. In the 
transplant case, killing the healthy man would not seem to be part of the best set 

13 J.J. Thomson, ‘The Trolley Problem’, p. 1396. 

of utilitarian-justified rules since a rule allowing the killing of healthy patients 
would not seem to promote total happiness; one outcome, for example, would 
be that people would very likely stop coming to hospitals for fear for their life! 
Therefore, if a rule permitting killing was allowed then the maximisation of 
total happiness would not be promoted overall. 

It is through Rule Utilitarianism that we can make sense of Mill’s “harm 
principle”. According to Mill, there is: very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the 
individual in the way of compulsion and control.“ 

That principle is: 

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.’ 

Even if a particular act of harming another person might bring about an 
increase in total pleasure on a single occasion, that act may not be condoned 
by the set of rules that best promotes total pleasure overall. As such, the action 
would not be morally permitted. 

11. Strong versus Weak Rule Utilitarianism 

Rule utilitarians may seem to avoid troubling cases like the transplant surgeon 
and be able to support and uphold individual human and legal rights based on 
rules that reflect the harm principle. This fact would also help rule utilitarians 
overcome objections based on the treatment of minorities because exploitation 
of minority groups would, perhaps, fail to be supported by the best utilitarian- 
justified set of rules. Yet, rule utilitarians face a troubling dilemma: 

1. Strong Rule Utilitarianism: Guidance from the set of rules that, if 
followed, would promote the greatest amount of total happiness must 
always be followed. 

2. Weak Rule Utilitarianism: Guidance from the set of rules that, if followed, 
would promote the greatest amount of total happiness can be ignored 
in circumstances where more happiness would be produced by 
breaking the rule. 

The strong rule utilitarian appears to suffer from what J. J. C. Smart (1920- 
2012) described as “Rule Worship”. No longer focussing on the consequences 
of the action before them, the strong rule utilitarian appears to ignore the 

14 J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 
15 Ibid. 



option to maximise total happiness in favour of following a general and non- 
relative rule regarding how to act. The strong rule utilitarian may be able to 
avoid problems based on treatment of minorities or a lack of absolute legal 
and human rights, but it is not clear that they survive these problems holding 
on to a teleological, relativistic utilitarian theory. Utilitarianism seems to be 
saved from troubling implications only by denying core features. 

On the other hand, while Weak Rule Utilitarianism retains a teleological 
nature it appears to collapse into Act Utilitarianism. The rules provide 
guidelines that can be broken, and given that the act utilitarian can also offer 

“rules of thumb” against actions that tend not to produce maximum goodness 

or utility in general, such as killing healthy patients, it is not clear where this 
version of Rule Utilitarianism gains a unique identity. In what cases would 
Act Utilitarianism and Weak Rule Utilitarianism actually provide different 
moral guidance? This is something you should consider in the light of your 
own examples or previous examples in this chapter. 

12. Comparing the Classical Utilitarians 

°¢ Hedonist 
e All pleasure equally valuable 
¢ Act Utilitarian 

¢  Teleological, impartial, relativistic, maximising 

° Hedonist 

° Quality of pleasure matters: intellectual versus animalistic 

° Viewed as rule utilitarian 

° — If strong rule utilitarian, not clear if teleological or relativistic 

e Impartial, maximising theory 

13. Non-Hedonistic Contemporary Utilitarianism: 
Peter Singer and Preference Utilitarianism 

Utilitarianism is not a dead theory and it did not end with Mill. Henry 
Sidgwick (1838-1900) is considered to have taken over the baton after Mill, 
and R. M. Hare (1919-2002) was perhaps chief advocate in the mid twentieth 
century. However, few contemporary philosophers can claim as much 

influence in public life outside philosophy as can the preference utilitarian, 
Peter Singer (1946-). 

Singer advocates a non-hedonistic version of Utilitarianism. His utilitarian 
theory is teleological, maximising, impartial and relativistic but he does not 
claim that the greatest good for the greatest number can be reduced to pleasure 
in either raw or higher forms. Instead, Singer believes that what improves 
a person’s life is entirely determined by the satisfaction of their preferences. 
If you satisfy your preference to achieve a good qualification your life goes 
better in virtue of satisfying that preference. If someone else desires to get a job 
rather than continue in education, their life goes better for them if they secure 
their preference and gain employment. Individuals, according to Singer, must 
be at the core of moral thinking: 

There would be something incoherent about living a life where the conclusions you came to in 
ethics did not make any difference to your life. It would make it an academic exercise. The whole 
point about doing ethics is to think about the way to live. My life has a kind of harmony between 
my ideas and the way I live. It would be highly discordant if that was not the case.'® 

On this basis, when making moral decisions we should consider how best to 
ensure the maximisation of total preference satisfaction — it does not matter 
if our preference satisfaction fails to provide pleasure for us. Continuing to 
follow Bentham’s commitment to impartiality, Singer also supports equal 
weighing of preferences when deciding which action better promotes greater 
preference satisfaction; all preferences are to weigh equally. This potentially 
leaves Singer open to the same issues that plagued Bentham. Namely, 
regarding circumstances where partiality seems desirable, or when the 
preferences of the majority seem to threaten a minority group, or require us 
to sacrifice our integrity. Further, the problem of calculation also seems to be 
relevant, because it is not obvious how you could work out the preferences 
of others in at least some difficult moral cases (let alone the preferences of 
animals, if they are also relevant). 

In response to a concern regarding the moral relevance of satisfying 
bloodthirsty or apparently immoral preferences, and counting such satisfaction 
as a moral achievement (consider the preferences of a nation of paedophiles, 
for example), we might look to the ideas of Richard Brandt (1910-1997). 
Brandt, writing about the rationality of certain preferences, suggested that 
rational preferences were those that might survive cognitive psychotherapy.” 
However, there is a question as to how arbitrary this requirement is and 
whether or not some unnerving preferences might form the core of certain 
individual characters therefore being sustained even after such therapy. 

16 K. Toolis, ‘The Most Dangerous Man in the World’, 
17 R. Brandt, Ethical Theory. 




Utilitarianism remains a living theory and retains hedonistic and 
non-hedonistic advocates, as well as supporters of both act and 
rule formulations. The core insight that consequences matter 
gives the theory some intuitive support even in the light of 
hypothetical cases that pose serious problems for utilitarians. The 
extent to which the different versions of Utilitarianism survive 
their objections is very much up to you as a critically-minded 
philosopher to decide. 


Not reflecting the attitudinal aspect of pleasure that Bentham’s theory 
may account for. 

Minimising the long-term impact of actions when it comes to pleasure/ 
pain production. 

Imprecise understanding of the hedonic/non-hedonic split in 

Imprecision in use of examples to defend/challenge Utilitarianism. 

Suggesting that “Jim and the Indians” is not a counterexample to 
Utilitarianism simply because you judge killing the fewer number of 
people is ultimately the morally right thing to do. 



Is there anything that would improve your life that cannot be reduced 
to either pleasure or preference satisfaction? 

Would you enter Nozick’s experience machine if you knew you 
would not come out? Would you put someone you care about into the 
machine while they were asleep, so that they never had to make the 

Can pleasure be measured? Does Bentham go about this task correctly? 

4. Which is the most serious problem facing Bentham’s Act 
Utilitarianism? Can it be overcome? 

5. Does Mill successfully improve Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism in any 


6. Are you ever told to stop watching television and do something else? Is 
this good for you? Why? 

7. Look at the quote at the start of the chapter by Dara O Briain — is it 
possible that some pleasures are inferior in value to others? 

8. Do you have convictions or beliefs you would not want to sacrifice for 
the greater good, should you ever be forced to? 

9. Why do utilitarians not give up on the idea of maximising pleasure and 
just talk in terms of promoting sufficient pleasure? Would this solve or 
raise problems? 

10. Is Weak Rule Utilitarianism merely Act Utilitarianism by another 

11. Does Strong Rule Utilitarianism deserve to be labelled as a utilitarian 

12. If your preferences change after psychotherapy, did the original 
preferences ever matter? 


Normative Agent-Neutrality 
Relativistic Hedonic Calculus 
Teleological Utility 
Consequentialist Intrinsic 

Principle of Utility 



Bentham, Jeremy, The Rationale of Reward (London: Robert Heward, 1830), 
freely available at 

—, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’, in 
Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. by Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Books, 

—, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, freely available at 

Brandt, Richard, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics 
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1959). 

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty (London: Longman, Roberts, Green & Co., 1869), 
freely available at 

—, ‘Utilitarianism’, in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. by Alan Ryan 
(London: Penguin Books, 2004). 

—, Utilitarianism, freely available at 

Nozick, Robert, ‘The Experience Machine’, in Ethical Theory, ed. by Russ 
Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007). 

Thomson, Judith Jarvis, ‘The Trolley Problem’, The Yale Law Journal, 94.6 
(1985): 1395-415, 

Toolis, Kevin, ‘The Most Dangerous Man in the World’, the Guardian (6 
November 1999), freely available at 

Williams, Bernard, ‘Jim and the Indians’, in his A Critique of Utilitarianism, 
freely available at 


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Kantian Ethics 

In spite of its horrifying title Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is one of 
the small books which are truly great; it has exercised on human thought an influence almost 
ludicrously disproportionate to its size.' 

1. An Introduction to Kantian Ethics 

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Konigsberg in East Prussia, where he 
died in 1804. Kant is famous for revolutionising how we think about just about 
every aspect of the world — including science, art, ethics, religion, the self 
and reality. He is one of the most important thinkers of all time, which is even 
more remarkable by the fact that Kant is a truly awful writer. His sentences are 
full of technical language, are very long, and are incredibly dense. You have 
been warned! 

Kant is a rationalist writing during the Enlightenment (1685-1815). He 
thinks that we can gain knowledge from our senses and through our rational 
capacities. This means his general philosophical approach starts by asking 
what we can know a priori. 

This is key to understanding his work but also makes his writing on ethics 
seem a bit odd. We think the study of ethics — unlike say maths — ought to 
direct our eye to what is going on around us in the world. Yet Kant starts by 
turning his eyes “inward” to thinking about ethical ideas. 

Kant believes that in doing this people will come to recognise that certain 
actions are right and wrong irrespective of how we might feel and irrespective 
of any consequences. For Kant, actions are right if they respect what he 
calls the Categorical Imperative. For example, because lying fails to respect 
the Categorical Imperative it is wrong and is wrong irrespective of how we 
might feel about lying or what might happen if we did lie; it is actions that are 
right and wrong rather than consequences. This means that Kant’s theory is 
deontological rather than teleological. It focuses on our duties rather than our 

1 HJ. Paton, ‘Preface’ in I. Kant, Moral Law, p. 7. 


There is, however, something intuitive about the idea that morality is based 
on reason rather than feelings or consequences. Consider my pet cat Spartan. 
He performs certain actions like scrabbling under bed covers, meowing at 
birds and chasing his tail. Now consider my daughter Beth, she performs 
certain actions like caring for her sister and helping the homeless. 

Spartan’s actions are not moral whereas Beth’s actions are. Spartan’s 
thinking and actions are driven by his desires and inclination. He eats and 
plays and sleeps when he desires to do so, there is no reasoning on his part. 
Beth, in contrast, can reflect on the various reasons she has, reasons to care for 
her sister and the homeless. 

We might think then that humans are moral beings not because we have 
certain desires but precisely because we are rational. We have an ability to 

“stand back” and consider what we are doing and why. Kant certainly thought 
so and he takes this insight as his starting point. 

2. Some Key Ideas 

Kant’s main works in ethics are his Metaphysics of Morals (1797) and the 
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). Neither give practical advice 
about particular situations but rather through rational reflection, Kant seeks 
to establish the supreme principle of morality. 

He starts from the notion of “duty” and although this is a rather old- 
fashioned term, the idea behind it should sound familiar. Imagine, your friend 
has told you that she is pregnant but asks you to promise to keep her secret. 
Through the coming weeks this juicy bit of gossip is on the tip of your tongue 
but you do not tell anyone because of your promise. There are things we 
recognise as being required of us irrespective of what we (really) desire to do. 
This is what Kant means by duty. 

But this raises the question. If it is not desires that move us to do what is 
right (even really strong desires), what does? In our example, why is it that we 
keep our promise despite the strong desire to gossip? Kant’s answer is “the 
good will”. 

Good Will 

Kant gives the following characterization of the good will. It is something that 
is good irrespective of effects: 

A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes — because of its fitness for 
attaining some proposed end: it is good through its willing alone — that is, good in itself.* 

2 I. Kant, Moral Law, p. 40. 

It is also good without qualification. 

It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as 
good without qualification, except a good will.° 

What does Kant mean? Well, pick anything you like which you think might 
make an action good — for example, happiness, pleasure, courage, and then 
ask yourself if there are any situations you can think of where an action having 
those features makes those actions worse? 

It seems there are. Imagine someone who is happy when kicking a cat; or 
someone taking pleasure in torture; or a serial killer whose courage allows her 
to abduct children in broad daylight. In such cases the happiness, pleasure 
and courage make the actions worse. Kant thinks we can repeat this line of 
thinking for anything and everything, except one thing — the good will. 

The good will unlike anything else is good unconditionally and what makes 
a good will good is willing alone; not other attitudes, or consequences, or 
characteristics of the agent. Even Kant thinks this sounds like a rather strange 
idea. So how can he (and we) be confident that the good will even exists? 

Consider Mahatma Gandhi’s (1869-1948) non-violent protest for Indian 
independence. He stood peacefully whilst the British police beat him. Here 
is a case where there must have been an overwhelming desire to fight back. 
But he did not. In this type of action Kant would claim that we “see” the good 
will — as he says — “shining like a jewel”.* Seeing such resilience in the face 
of such awful violence we are humbled and can recognize, what Kant calls, its 
moral worth. Obviously not all actions are as significant as Gandhi’s! However, 
Kant thinks that any acts like this, which are performed despite conflicting desires, 
are due to the good will. Considering such actions (can you think of any?) 
means we can recognize that the good will exists. 

3. Acting for the Sake of Duty and Acting in Accordance 
with Duty 

From what we have said above about the nature of duty and good will we can 
see why Kant says that to act from good will is acting for the sake of duty. We 
act despite our desires to do otherwise. For Kant this means that acting for the 
sake of duty is the only way that an action can have moral worth. We will see 
below what we have to do for our actions to be carried out for the sake of duty. 
However, before we do this, we need to be really clear on this point about 
moral worth. 

3 Ibid., p.39. 
4 Ibid., p. 40. 



Imagine that you are walking with a friend. You pass someone begging 
on the street. Your friend starts to weep, fumbles in his wallet and gives the 
beggar some money and tells you that he feels such an empathy with the poor 
man that he just has to help him. 

For Kant, your friend’s action has no moral worth because what is moving 
him to give money is empathy rather than duty! He is acting in accordance with 
duty. However, Kant does think your friend should be applauded as such an 
action is something that is of value although it wouldn’t be correct to call it a 
moral action. 

To make this point clearer, Kant asks us to consider someone who has no 
sympathy for the suffering of others and no inclination to help them. But 
despite this: 

.. .he nevertheless tears himself from his deadly insensibility and performs the action without any 
inclination at all, but solely from duty then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth.° 

In contrast to our friend, this person is acting for the sake of duty and hence 
their action is moral. We must be careful though. Kant is not telling us to become 
emotionally barren robots! He is not saying that before we can act morally we 
need to get rid of sympathy, empathy, desires, love, and inclinations. This 
would make Kant’s moral philosophy an absurd non-starter. 

Let us see why Kant is not saying this. Consider an action such as giving to 
others. We should ask whether an action of giving to others would have been 
performed even if the agent lacked the desire to do so. If the answer is “yes’ 
then the act has moral worth. This though is consistent with the agent actually 
having those desires. The question for Kant is not whether an agent has desires but 
what moved the agent to act. If they acted because of those desires they acted in 
accordance with duty and their action had no moral worth. If they acted for 
the sake of duty, and just happened to have those desires, then their action has 
moral worth. 


4, Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives 

If we agree with Kant and want to act for the sake of duty what should we 
do? His answer is that we have to act out of respect for the moral law. He has 
two examples of how this works in practice: lying and suicide. We look at the 
former in Chapter 13, we will consider Kant’s example of suicide at the end of 
this chapter. However, before doing this we need to get a sense of what Kant 
has in mind when he talks about acting out of respect for the moral law. 

The moral law is what he calls the “Categorical Imperative”. He thinks 
there are three formulations of this. 

5 Ibid., p. 43. 

CI-1: ...act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it 
become a universal law.° 

CI-2: So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, 
always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” 

CIL-3: ...every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a lawmaking 
member in the universal kingdom of ends.* 

We will consider these in turn, showing how they are linked. Consider then, 

Kant’s idea is that we use this “test” to see what maxims are morally 
permissible. If we act in accordance with those then we are acting from duty 
and our actions have moral worth. Let us look at what this means. 

Initially it is worth considering what “categorical” and “imperative” mean. 
An imperative is just a command. “Clean your room!” is an imperative I 
give my daughter every Saturday. “Do not park in front of these gates!” is a 
command on my neighbour’s gate. “Love your God with all your heart, mind 
and soul” is a command from the Bible. 

What about the “categorical” part? If a command is categorical then people 
ought to follow it irrespective of how they feel about following it, irrespective 
of what consequences might follow, or who may or may not have told them 
to follow it. For example, the command “do not peel the skin of babies” is 
categorical. You ought not to do this and the fact that this might be your life’s 
ambition, or that you really want to do it, or that your teacher has told you to 
do it, is completely irrelevant. 

Contrast this with Hypothetical Imperatives. If I tell my daughter to clean 
her room, this is hypothetical. This is because whether she ought to clean her 
room is dependent on conditions about her and me. If she does not care about 
a clean room and about what her dad thinks, then it is not true that she ought 
to clean her room. Most commands are hypothetical. For example, “study!” 
You ought to study only if certain things are true about you; for example, that 
you care about doing well, that you want to succeed in the test etc. 

Kant thinks that moral “oughts” — for example, “you ought not lie” — are 
categorical. They apply to people irrespective of how they feel about them. 

The next thing we need is the idea of a “maxim”. This is relatively simple 
and is best seen through the following examples. Imagine I’m considering 
whether to make a false promise. Perhaps I think that by falsely promising 
you that | will pay you back I will be more likely to get a loan from you. In 

6 Ibid. p. 15. 
7 — Ibid., p. 66. 
8 Ibid. p. 21. 







that case my maxim is something like “whenever I can benefit from making a false 
promise I should do so”. 

Imagine I decide to exercise because I feel depressed, then I may be said 
to be acting on the maxim “Whenever I feel depressed I will exercise”. A maxim 
is a general principle or rule upon which we act. We do not decide on a set of 
maxims, perhaps writing them down, and then try to live by them but rather a 
maxim is the principle or rule that can make sense of an action whether or not we have 
thought about it in these terms. 

5. The First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative 

Let’s put these bits together in relation to CI-1 

...act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a 
universal law.? 

The “test” that CI-1 prescribes is the following. Consider the maxim on which 
you are thinking about acting, and ask whether you can either (i) conceive 
that it become a universal law, or (ii) will that it become a universal law. If a 
maxim fails on either (i) or (ii) then there is no good reason for you to act on 
that maxim and it is morally impermissible to do so. If it passes the CI test, 
then it is morally permissible. 

Kant is not saying that the CI-1 test is a way of working out what is and 
what is not moral. Presumably we can think of lots of maxims, which are 
non-moral, which pass the test, for example, “whenever I am bored I will 
watch TV”. 

Equally he is not saying that if a maxim cannot be universalized then it 
is morally impermissible. Some maxims are just mathematically impossible. 
For example, “whenever I am going to exercise I will do it for an above the 
average amount of time”. This maxim cannot be universalized because we 
cannot conceive that everyone does something above “average”. 

Finally, it is worth remembering that the maxim must be able to be willed as 
a universal law. This is important because maxims such as “if your name is Jill 
and you are 5ft 11, you can lie” will fail to be universalized because you cannot 
will that your name is Jill or that your height is 5ft11. It has to be possible to 
will as a universal law and for this to be true it must be at least possible for 
it actually to come about. This shows that the common concern that we can 
get any maxim to pass the CI-1 test by simply adding more and more specific 
details, such as names, heights or locations, fails. This is very abstract (what 
did we tell you about Kant’s work!). Let us consider an example. 

9 Ibid. 

6. Perfect and Imperfect Duties 

Recall the example of making a false promise to secure a loan. The maxim is 
“whenever I can benefit from doing so, I should make a false promise”. The question 
is whether I could conceive or will that this become a universal law. 

I could not. If everyone followed this maxim then we would all believe 
everyone else could make a false promise if it would benefit them to do 
so. Kant thinks such a situation is not conceivable because the very idea of 
making a promise relies on trust. But if “whenever it is of benefit to you, you 
can make false promises” was to become a universal law then there would 
be no trust and hence no promising. So by simply thinking about the idea 
of promising and lying we see the maxim will fail the test and, because we 
cannot universalize the maxim, then making a false promise becomes morally 
impermissible. This is true universally for all people in all circumstances for 
anyone can, in principle, go through the same line of reasoning. 

A maxim failing at (i) is what Kant calls a contradiction in conception, and 
failing at (i) means we are dealing with what Kant calls a perfect duty. In our 
example we have shown we have a perfect duty not to make false promises. 

Consider another example. Imagine that someone in need asks us for 
money but we decide not to help them. In this case our maxim is “whenever 
someone is in need and asks for money do not give them money”. Does this 
pass the CI-1 test? 

No it fails the CI-1 test. Although it is true that the maxim passes (i) not 
giving to the needy does not threaten the very idea of giving money away. Kant 
thinks that anyone thinking about this will see that that maxim will fail at (ii) 
and hence it is morally impermissible. Here is why. 

You cannot know if you will be in need in the future and presumably you 
would want to be helped if you were in need. In which case you are being 
inconsistent if you willed that “people should not help those in need” should 
become a universal law. For you might want people to help those in need in 
the future, namely, you. 

So we cannot will the maxim “whenever someone is in need do not help 
them” to become a universal moral law. Again this is a thought process that 
anyone can go through and it means that this moral claim is true universally for 
all people in all circumstances. Failing at (ii) is what Kant calls a contradiction in 
will, and failing at (ii) means we are dealing with what Kant calls an imperfect 

It is absolutely key to recognize that CI-1 is not simply asking “what if 
everyone did that?” CI-1 is not a form of Utilitarianism (see Chapter 1). Kant is 
not saying that it is wrong to make false promises because if people did then 
the world would be a horrible place. Rather Kant is asking about whether we 
can conceive or will the maxim to become a universal law. 







7. Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative 

The second formulation (CI-2) is the following: 

So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at 
the same time as an end, never merely as a means." 

Kant thinks that CI-1 and CI-2 are two sides of the same coin, though precisely 
how they are related is a matter of scholarly debate. Put very simply CI-2 says 
you should not use people, because if you do, you are failing to treat them as 
a rational agent and this is morally wrong. 

For example, if I use your essay without your knowledge then I have not 
treated you as a rational agent. I would have done had I asked you for your 
essay and you had freely chosen to let me have it. But given that I did not ask 
you, I was in a sense making choices on your behalf and thus did not treat you as 
a rational agent. So according to Kant I should always treat you as an end not 
a means. I should always treat you as a free rational agent. 

Kant’s theory then has a way of respecting the dignity of people. We should 
treat people with respect and with dignity purely on the basis that they are 
rational agents, and not because of their race, gender, education, upbringing 
etc. From this you can also see that Kant’s theory allows us to speak about 
“rights”. If someone has a right then they have this right irrespective of gender, 
education, upbringing etc. For example, Jill has a right to free speech because 
she is a person, consequently that right will not disappear if she changes her 
location, personal circumstances, relationship status, political viewpoint etc. 
After all she does not stop being a person. 

Importantly, CI-2 does not say that you either treat someone as a means or 
an end. I could treat someone as an end by treating them as a means. Suppose 
that you have freely decided to become a taxi driver. If I use you as a means 
by asking you to take me to the airport I am also treating you as an end. But 
Kant does not believe this to be morally wrong because I am respecting you as 
a rational agent; after all, you chose to be a taxi driver. Of course, if I get into 
your car and point a gun at your head and ask to be taken to the airport then 
I am not treating you as an end but rather solely as a means, which is wrong. 

8. The Third Formulation of the Categorical Imperative 
and Summary 
The final formulation of the Categorical Imperative is a combination of Cl-1 

and CI-2. It asks us to imagine a kingdom which consists of only those people 
who act on CI-1. They never act on a maxim which cannot become a universal 

10 Ibid., p. 66. 

law. Insucha kingdom people would treat people as ends, because CI-2 passes 
CI-1. This is why CI-3 is often called the “Kingdom of Ends” formulation: 

...every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a lawmaking member 
in the universal kingdom of ends." 

In summary, we have seen that Kant thinks that acts have moral worth only 
if they are carried out for the sake of duty. Agents act for the sake of duty 
if they act out of respect for the moral law, which they do by following the 
Categorical Imperative in one of its formulations. 

Consequently, Kant thinks that acts are wrong and right universally, 
irrespective of consequences and desires. If lying is wrong then it is wrong in 
all instances. From all this, it follows that we cannot be taught a set of moral 
rules for each and every situation and Kant believes that it is up to us to work 
it out for ourselves by thinking rationally. 

There have been, and continue to be, many books and journal articles 
written about Kant’s ethics. He has a profound and deep insight into the 
nature of morality and he raises some fundamental questions about what it is 
to be human. Kant’s moral theory is radically Egalitarian as his theory is blind 
to individual personal circumstances, race, gender and ethnicity. Everyone is 
equal before the moral law! 

Related to this, his theory respects the rights of individuals and, relatedly, 
their dignity. Any theory that is to have a hope of capturing our notion of 
rights needs to be able to respect the thought that a right is not something that 
disappears if circumstances change. Jill has a right to life, period; we do not say 
Jill has a right to life “if...” and then have to fill in the blanks. This is precisely 
something that Kant’s theory can give us. CI-1 generates maxims which do not 
have exceptions and CI-2 tells us that we should always treat everyone as an 
end in themselves and never solely as a means to an end. It tells us, for example, 
that we ought not to kill Jill, and this holds true in all circumstances. 

There are, though, a number of tough questions that Kant’s work raises. 
We consider some of these below. However, as with all the philosophical 
ideas we discuss in this book, Kant’s work is still very much alive and has 
defenders across the world. Before we turn to these worries, we work through 
an example that Kant gives regarding suicide. 

9. Kant on Suicide 

Kant is notoriously stingy with examples. One he does mention is suicide 
(another is lying see Chapter 13). This is an emotive topic and linked to 
questions about mental health and religion. An attraction of Kant’s view is 

11 Ibid., p.21. 







the ability to apply his Categorical Imperatives in a dispassionate way. His 
framework should allow us to “plug in” the issue and “get out” an answer. 
Let’s see how this might work. 

Kant thinks that suicide is always wrong and has very harsh words for 
someone who attempts suicide 

He who so behaves, who has no respect for human nature and makes a thing of himself, becomes 
for everyone an Object of freewill. We are free to treat him as a beast, as a thing, and to use him 
for our sport as we do a horse or a dog, for he is no longer a human being; he has made a thing of 
himself, and, having himself discarded his humanity, he cannot expect that others should respect 
humanity in him.” 

But why does he think this? How does this fit with Kant’s Categorical 
Imperatives? We will look at the first two formulations. 

Fundamental to remember is that for Kant the motive that drives all suicide 
is “avoid evil”. By which he means avoiding suffering, pain, and other negative 
outcomes in one’s life. All suicide attempts are due to the fact that we love 
ourselves and thus want to “avoid evils” that may befall us. 

Imagine then that I decide to commit suicide. Given what we have just said 
about my motives this means I will be acting on this maxim: “From self-love I 
make as my principle to shorten my life when its continued duration threatens 
more evil than it promises satisfaction”. 

Following CI-1 the question then is whether it is possible to universalise 
this maxim? Kant thinks not. For him it is unclear how we could will it that 
all rational agents as the result of self-love can destroy themselves when their 
continued existence threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction. For 
Kant self-love leading to the destruction of the self is a contradiction. Thus he 
thinks that we have a perfect (rather than an imperfect) duty to ourselves not to 
commit suicide. To do so is morally wrong. This is how Kant puts it: 

One sees at once a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would destroy life [suicide] by 
means of the very same feeling that acts so as to stimulate the furtherance of life [self-love], and 
hence there could be no existence as a system of nature. Therefore, such a maxim cannot possibly 
hold as a universal law of nature and is, consequently, wholly opposed to the supreme principle 
of all duty. 

Notice a few odd things here in relation to CI-1. The point about universalisation 
seems irrelevant. Kant could have just said it is a contradiction to will from 
self-love the destruction of oneself. It seems that there is nothing added by 
asking us to consider this point universalised. It does not add weight to the 
claim that it is a contradiction. 

12 I. Kant, Lectures on Ethics, 27; 373. 
13 I. Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak IV, 422 

Second, it is not really a “contradiction” at all! It is different to the lying 
promise example. In this it seems that the very concept of a promise relies 
on trust, which lying would destroy. In contrast in the suicide case the 
“contradiction” seems more like a by-product of Kant’s assumption regarding 
the motivation of suicidal people. So we can avoid the “contradiction” if we 
allow for the possibility that suicide need not be driven by self-love. If this 
were true then there would be no “contradiction”. Hence, it seems wrong to 
call the duty not to kill oneself — if such a duty exists — a “perfect” duty. So 
the first formulation does not give Kant the conclusion that suicide is morally 

Moving to the second formulation. This helps us understand Kant’s harsh 
assessment of people attempting suicide. Remember he calls such people 
“objects” or “beasts” or “things”. So, what is the difference between beasts or 
objects or things, and humans? The answer is that we are rational. Recall, that 
for Kant our rationality is of fundamental value. If anyone’s actions do not 
recognize someone else’s rationality then they have done something morally 
wrong. This amounts to treating them as merely means to our own end. Given 
all this you can see what Kant is getting at. For him committing suicide is 
treating yourself as a mere means to some end — namely the end of avoiding 
pain and suffering etc. — and not an end in itself. You are treating yourself as 

a “beast” a “thing” an “object”, not as a human being with the gift of reason. 

This is morally wrong. 

Moreover, if you do this, then others treating you with respect as a rational 
person can conclude that you also want others to treat you in this way. Because 
if you are rational then you must think that it is OK to universalise the maxim 
that we can treat others as objects, beast and thing. They can thus treat you as 
a beast, object, and thing and still be treating you with respect as a rationale 
agent. With regard to attempting suicide your action is wrong because you 
have ignored your own rationality. You have treated yourself as a mere means 
to an end. 

But, like the first formulation this is very weak. Itis unclear why in attempting 
suicide you are treating yourself as a mere means to an end. You might think 
you are respecting your rationality by considering suicide. Recall, Kant says 

that it is sometimes fine to treat people as a means to an end, e.g. a taxi driver. 

It is fine where people have given consent for you to treat them that way. In 
that case, suicide might be like the taxi driver case. We have freely decided 
to treat ourselves as a means to an end. We are, then, treating ourselves as a 

rational agent and not doing something morally wrong by committing suicide. 

There are some other things that Kant says about the wrongness of suicide 
that do not link to the Categorical Imperatives. For example, he talks about 







humans being the property of God and hence our lives not being something 
we can choose to extinguish. However, we need not discuss this here. 

There is a consensus between Kant scholars that, as it stands, Kant’s 
argument against suicide fails. There are some though who use Kant’s ideas as 
a starting point for a more convincing argument against suicide. For example, 
see J. David Velleman (1999) and Michael Cholbi (2000). 

10. Problems and Responses: Conflicting Duties 

If moral duties apply in all circumstances, then what happens when we have 
duties which conflict? Imagine that you have hidden some Jewish people in 
your basement in Nazi Germany. Imagine then that an SS officer knocks at 
your door and asks if you are hiding Jews? What might Kant’s theory tell 
us to do? Our duty is to refrain from lying so does this mean we are morally 
required to tell the SS officer our secret? If this is the conclusion then it makes 
Kant’s theory morally repugnant. 

However, there is no requirement in Kant’s theory to tell the truth, there is just 
a requirement not to lie. Lying is about intentional deceit, so maybe in this 
example there is a way not to lie. For example, if we simply stayed silent (see 
Chapter 13). 

Even if we respond in this sort of way in this example, presumably we 
can engineer an example that would not allow for this. For example, perhaps 
we are in a law court and the SS officer asks us under oath. In that example, 
silence would not be an option. This certainly would seem to count against 
Kant’s theory for it does seem morally wrong to reveal the location of the 
Jewish people. 

The main point though is that Kant thinks we need to take the features of 
each individual situation into account. He does not just want us to mindlessly 
apply generic rules whilst paying no attention to what is before us. So Peter 
Rickman writes regarding these types of cases: 

...dt should be plain that more than one imperative/moral principle is relevant to the situation. 
Certainly we should tell the truth; but do we not also have a duty to protect an innocent man 
from harm? Further, do we not have an obligation to fight evil? We are confronted with a conflict 
of values here. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no explicit discussion of this issue in 
Kant. One could assume, however, that his general approach of distinguishing the lesser from the 
greater evil should be applied. I think Kant might say that although lying is never right, it might 
be the lesser evil in some cases.“ 

So the point is not that these sorts of examples are “knock down” criticisms of 
Kant’s theory but rather that Kant’s theory is underspecified and fails to give 

14 P. Rickman, ‘Having Trouble with Kant?’, 

guidance with these specific sorts of cases. In fact, we might think that this is 
an advantage of his theory that has given us the supreme principle of morality 
and the general way of proceeding but has left it up to us to work out what to 
do in each situation. We will leave the reader to see if this can be done and in 
particular, whether it can be done in a way consistent with the other aspects 
of his moral theory. 

11. Problems and Responses: The Role of Intuitions 

One of the most common criticisms levelled at Kant’s theory is that it is simply 
counter intuitive. For example, lying, for him, is morally impermissible in all 
instances irrespective of the consequences. Yet we seem to be able to generate 
thought experiments that show that this is a morally repugnant position. 

However, in Kant’s defence we might ask why we should use our intuitions 
as any form of test for a moral theory. Intuitions are notoriously fickle and 
unreliable. Even if you pick the oddest view you can think of, you would 
probably find some people at some point in time that would find this view 
“intuitive”. So how worried should we be if Kant’s theory leads to counter 
intuitive consequences? This then raises a more general methodological 
question to keep at the forefront of your mind when reading this book. What 
role, if any, should intuitions have in the formation and the testing of moral 

12. Problem and Responses: Categorical Imperatives and 

Kant argues that what we are morally required to do is a matter of reason. If 
people reason in the right way then they will recognise, for example, that lying 
is wrong. However, some philosophers, for example Philippa Foot (1920-2010), 
have worried about this link to reason. The strength of Foot’s challenge is that 
she agrees that morality is a system of Categorical Imperatives but says that 
this need not be due to reason. 

Foot uses the example of etiquette to motivate her argument.” Rules of 
etiquette seem to be Categorical Imperatives but are not grounded in reason. 
Consider an example. I had a friend at university who was a sportsman. He 
was in many teams, his degree was in sports and exercise and if there were ever 
a spare minute he would be running, on his bike or in the pool. Unsurprisingly 
he wore a tracksuit and trainers all the time! 

15 P. Foot, ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’. 







During our second year at university a mutual friend died. There was a 
big formal funeral arranged. My friend decided to go to this funeral in his 
tracksuit and trainers. I asked him about this and his response was that it was 
what he liked wearing. However, to my mind at least, this reason, which was 
based on his desire, did not change the fact that he really ought not have worn 
a tracksuit. Foot would agree and thinks that rules of etiquette are categorical 
because they are not dependent on any particular desires someone would 

However, even if they are categorical, Foot thinks that rules of etiquette are 
not rules of reason. We do not think that if we reasoned correctly we would 
recognise that we ought not to wear tracksuits to funerals, or (to think of some 
other rules of etiquette) we ought not to reply to a letter written in the third 
person in the first person, or we ought not to put our feet on the dinner table 
during a meal etc. It is not simply a matter of thinking in the right way but 
rather to recognise these “oughts” as part of a shared cultural practice. 

So although this does not show that Kant is wrong, it does throw down 
a challenge to him. That is, we need independent reasons to think that the 
categorical nature of moral “oughts” are based on reason and not just part of a 
shared cultural practice. To respond to this challenge, the Kantian would have 
to put forward the argument that in the particular case of moral “oughts”, we 
have a good argument to ground the categorical nature in reason rather than 
institutional practices. 

13. Problems and Responses: The Domain of Morality 

Kant thinks that the domain of morality is merely the domain of reasons and 
as far as we are agents who can reason then we have duties and rights and 
people ought to treat us with dignity. The flip side of this is that non-rational 
agents, such as non-human animals, do not have rights and we can, according 
to Kant, treat them as we like! 

The challenge to Kant’s theory is that the scope of morality seems bigger 
than the scope of reasons. People do think that we have moral obligations 
toward non-rational agents. Consider someone kicking a cat. We might think 
that morally they ought not to do this. However, Kant’s theory does not back 
this up because, as far as we know, cats are not rational agents. Despite it not 
being wrong to treat animals in this way, Kant still thinks that we should not, 
because if we did, then we would be more likely to treat humans in this way. 



Confusing acting in accordance with duty and acting for the sake of duty. 

Thinking that Kant’s theory has no room for emotions. 

Thinking that Kant’s Categorical Imperative can be summed up in the 
question: “how would you like it if everyone did that’? 

Thinking that the Categorical Imperative is a form of Utilitarianism. 

Thinking Kant believes you can never treat someone as a means to an 


1. Think about your life. Do you think there are things you “ought to do”? 
2. Do you think that there are things you ought to do irrespective of your 

desires and inclinations? 


3. What are Categorical and Hypothetical Imperatives? Do you think that 
rules of etiquette are categorical or hypothetical? 

4. How might Kant respond to the SS officer example? 

Can you think of some examples where you might be treating someone 
solely as means-to-an-end? 

Would capital punishment pass the CI-2 test? 

How might CI-2 relate to prostitution? Do you think that Kant would 
say that it is morally permissible? (See also Chapter 10). 


8. Why might Kant’s theory be well placed to respect people’s rights? 

Do you think we have any moral obligations towards animals? What 
would Kant say? 

10. What role do you think intuitions should have in assessing moral 


Cholbi, Michael J., ‘Kant and the Irrationality of Suicide’, History of Philosophy 
Quarterly, 17.2 (2000): 159-76. 

Foot, Philippa, ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, The 
Philosophical Review, 81.3 (1972): 305-16, 

Kant, Immanuel, Moral Law: The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 
Translated and analysed by H. J. Paton (Oxford: Routledge, 2013). 

—, Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). 

Rickman, Peter, ‘Having Trouble with Kant?’, Philosophy Now, freely available 

Velleman, J. David, ‘A Right of Self-termination?’, Ethics, 109.3 (1999): 606-28, 

—, Beyond Price: Essays on Birth and Death (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 
2015),; freely available at https://www. 


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Aristotelian Virtue Ethics 

To seek virtue for the sake of reward is to dig for iron with a spade of gold.’ 

1. Aristotelian Virtue Ethics Introduction 

Aristotle (884-322 BC) was a scholar in disciplines such as ethics, metaphysics, 
biology and botany, amongst others. It is fitting, therefore, that his moral 
philosophy is based around assessing the broad characters of human beings 
rather than assessing singular acts in isolation. Indeed, this is what separates 
Aristotelian Virtue Ethics from both Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics. 

2. The Function Argument 

Aristotle was a feleologist, a term related to, but not to be confused with, 
the label “teleological” as applied to normative ethical theories such as 
Utilitarianism. Aristotle was a teleologist because he believed that every 
object has what he referred to as a final cause. The Greek term telos refers to 
what we might call a purpose, goal, end or true final function of an object. 
Indeed, those of you studying Aristotle in units related to the Philosophy 
of Religion may recognise the link between Aristotle’s general teleological 
worldview and his study of ethics. 

Aristotle claims that “...for all things that have a function or activity, the 
good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function”.’ Aristotle’s claim is 
essentially that in achieving its function, goal or end, an object achieves its own 
good. Every object has this type of a true function and so every object has a 
way of achieving goodness. The telos of a chair, for example, may be to provide 
a seat and a chair is a good chair when it supports the curvature of the human 
bottom without collapsing under the strain. Equally, says Aristotle, what 
makes good sculptors, artists and flautists is the successful and appropriate 
performance of their functions as sculptors, artists and flautists. 

1 I. Panin, Thoughts, p. 92, 
2 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 


This teleological (function and purpose) based worldview is the necessary 
backdrop to understanding Aristotle’s ethical reasoning. For, just as a chair has 
a true function or end, so Aristotle believes human beings have a telos. Aristotle 
identifies what the good for a human being is in virtue of working out what 
the function of a human being is, as per his Function Argument. 

Function Argument 
1. All objects have a telos. 

2. An object is good when it properly secures its telos. 

Given the above, hopefully these steps of the argument are clear so far. At this 
point, Aristotle directs his thinking towards human beings specifically. 

3. The telos of a human being is to reason. 

4. The good for a human being is, therefore, acting in accordance with 

In working out our true function, Aristotle looks to that feature that separates 
man from other living animals. According to Aristotle, what separates mankind 
from the rest of the world is our ability not only to reason but to act on 
reasons. Thus, just as the function of a chair can be derived from its uniquely 
differentiating characteristic, so the function of a human being is related to our 
uniquely differentiating characteristic and we achieve the good when we act 
in accordance with this true function or telos. 

The notion that man has a true function may sound odd, particularly if you 
do not have a religious worldview of your own. However, to you especially 
Aristotle wrote that “ eye, hand, foot and in general each of the parts 
evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function 
apart from all these?”* 

On the basis that we would ascribe a function to our constituent parts — we 
know what makes a good kidney for example — so too Aristotle thinks it 
far from unreasonable that we have a function as a whole. Indeed, this may 
be plausible if we consider other objects. The component parts of a car, for 
example, have individual functions but a car itself, as a whole, has its own 
function that determines whether or not it is a good car. 

3. Aristotelian Goodness 

On the basis of the previous argument, the good life for a human being is 
achieved when we act in accordance with our telos. However, rather than 

3 Ibid. 

leaving the concept of goodness as general and abstract we can say more 
specifically what the good for a human involves. Aristotle uses the Greek 
term eudaimonia to capture the state that we experience if we fully achieve a 
good life. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is the state that all humans should 
aim for as it is the aim and end of human existence. To reach this state, we 
must ourselves act in accordance with reason. Properly understanding what 
Aristotle means by eudaimonia is crucial to understanding his Virtue Ethical 
moral position. 

Eudaimonia has been variously translated and no perfect translation has 
yet been identified. While all translations have their own issues, eudaimonia 
understood as flourishing is perhaps the most helpful translation and improves 
upon a simple translation of happiness. The following example may make this 

Naomi is an extremely talented pianist. Some days, she plays music that simply makes 
her happy, perhaps the tune from the television soap opera “Neighbours” or a rendition 
of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. On other days, she plays complex music such as the 
supremely difficult Chopin-Godowsky Etudes. These performances may also make Naomi 
happy, but she seems to be flourishing as a pianist only with the latter performances rather 
than the former. If we use the language of function, both performances make Naomi happy 
but she fulfils her function as a pianist (and is a good pianist) only when she flourishes with 
the works of greater complexity. 

Flourishing in life may make us happy but happiness itself is not necessarily 
well aligned with acting in accordance with our telos. Perhaps, if we prefer the 
term happiness as a translation for eudaimonia we mean really or truly happy, 
but it may be easier to stay with the understanding of eudaimonia as flourishing 
when describing the state of acting in accordance with our true function. 

Aristotle concludes that a life is eudaimon (adjective of eudaimonia) when it 
involves “...the active exercise of the mind in conformity with perfect goodness 
or virtue”.* Eudaimonia is secured not as the result exercising of our physical 
or animalistic qualities but as the result of the exercise of our distinctly human 
rational and cognitive aspects. 

4. Eudaimonia and Virtue 

The quotation provided at the end of section three was the first direct reference 
to virtue in the explanatory sections of this chapter. With Aristotle’s theoretical 
presuppositions now laid out, we can begin to properly explain and evaluate 
his conception of the virtues and their link to moral thinking. 

4 Ibid. 



According to Aristotle, virtues are character dispositions or personality traits. 
This focus on our dispositions and our character, rather than our actions in 
isolation, is what earns Aristotelian Virtue Ethics the label of being an agent- 
centred moral theory rather than an act-centred moral theory. 

Act-Centred Moral Theories 

Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics are two different examples of act-centred 
moral theories due to their focus on actions when it comes to making moral 
assessments and judgments. Act-centred moral theories may be teleological 
or deontological, absolutist or relativist, but they share a common worldview 
in that particular actions are bearers of moral value — either being right or 

Agent-Centred Moral Theories 

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is an agent-centred theory in virtue of a primary 
focus on people and their characters rather than singular actions. For Aristotle, 
morality has more to do with the question “how should I be?” rather than 
“what should I do?” If we answer the first question then, as we see later in this 
chapter, the second question may begin to take care of itself. When explaining 
and evaluating Aristotelian Virtue Ethics you must keep in mind this focus on 
character rather than specific comments on the morality of actions. 

Aristotle refers to virtues as character traits or psychological dispositions. 
Virtues are those particular dispositions that are appropriately related to 
the situation and, to link back to our function, encourage actions that are in 
accordance with reason. Again, a more concrete example will make clear how 
Aristotle identifies virtues in practice. 

All of us, at one time or another, experience feelings of anger. For example, 
I may become angry when my step-son thoughtlessly eats through the 
remaining crisps without saving any for others, or he may feel anger when he 
has to wait an extra minute or two to be picked up at work because his step- 
father is juggling twenty-six different tasks and momentarily loses track of 
time (how totally unfair of him...). Anyway, as I was saying, back to Aristotle, 
“Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right 
person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the 
right way — that is not easy”.° 

For Aristotle, virtue is not a feeling itself but an appropriate psychological 
disposition in response to that feeling; the proper response. The correct 

5 Ibid. 

response to a feeling is described as acting on the basis of the Golden Mean, a 
response that is neither excessive nor deficient. The table below makes this 
more apparent. 

: : Vice of Virtuous Disposition : 
Feeling/Emotion Delicioney (Golden Ns Vice of Excess 
Anger Lack of spirit Patience Irascibility 
Shame Shyness Modesty Shamefulness 
Fear Cowardice Courage Rashness 
Indignation Spitefulness Righteousness Envy 

Anger is a feeling and therefore is neither a virtue nor a vice. However, the 
correct response to anger — the Golden Mean between two extremes — is 
patience, rather than a lack of spirit or irascibility. Virtues are not feelings, but 
characteristic dispositional responses that, when viewed holistically, define 
our characters and who we are. 

The Golden Mean ought not to be viewed as suggesting that a virtuous 
disposition is always one that gives rise to a “middling” action. If someone 
puts their life on the line, when unarmed, in an attempt to stop a would-be 
terrorist attack, then their action may be rash rather than courageous. 
However, if armed with a heavy, blunt instrument their life-risking action 
may be courageously virtuous rather than rash. The Golden Mean is not to be 
understood as suggesting that we always act somewhere between complete 
inaction and breathless exuberance, but as suggesting that we act between the 
vices of excess and deficiency; such action may well involve extreme courage 
or exceptional patience. 

In addition to feelings, Aristotle also suggests that we may virtuously 
respond to situations. He suggests the following examples. 

Situation Vice of Deficiency by oo Vice of Excess 
Social conduct |Cantankerousness | Friendliness Self-serving flattery 
Conversation __| Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery 

Giving money __| Stinginess Generosity Profligacy 

We must keep in mind the agent-centred nature of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics 
when considering these examples. A person does not cease to have a witty 
disposition in virtue of a single joke that might err on the side of buffoonery, 
or cease to be generous because they fail to donate to charity on one occasion. 
Our psychological dispositions, virtuous or not, are only to be assessed by 

a = 


judgment of a person’s general character and observation over more than 
single-act situations. If we act in accordance with reason and fulfil our function 
as human beings, our behaviour will generally reflect our virtuous personality 
traits and dispositions. 

5. Developing the Virtues 

In a quote widely attributed to Aristotle, Will Durrant (1885-1981) sums 
up the Aristotelian view by saying that ”...we are what we repeatedly do. 
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”.° It is fairly obvious that we cannot 
become excellent at something overnight. Making progress in any endeavour 
is always a journey that requires both effort and practice over time. Aristotle 
holds that the same is true for human beings attempting to develop their 
virtuous character traits in attempt to live the good life. You may feel yourself 
coming to an Aristotelian Virtue Ethical view after reading this chapter and 
therefore be moved to become wittier, more courageous and more generous 
but you cannot simply acquire these traits by decision; rather, you must live 
these traits in order to develop them. 

Cultivating a virtuous character is something that happens by practice. 
Aristotle compares the development of the skill of virtue to the development 
of other skills. He says that “ become builders by building” and ”... 
we become just by doing just acts’.? We might know that a brick must go 
into a particular place but we are good builders only when we know how 
to place that brick properly. Building requires practical skill and not merely 
intellectual knowledge and the same applies to developing virtuous character 
traits. Ethical characters are developed by practical learning and habitual 
action and not merely by intellectual teaching. 

In the end, the virtuous individual will become comfortable in responding 
to feelings/situations virtuously just as the good builder becomes comfortable 
responding to the sight of various tools and a set of plans. A skilled builder 
will not need abstract reflection when it comes to knowing how to build a 
wall properly, and nor will a skilled cyclist need abstract reflection on how to 
balance his speed correctly as he goes around a corner. 

Analogously, a person skilled in the virtues will not need abstract reflection 
when faced with a situation in which friendliness and generosity are 
possibilities; they will simply know ona more intuitive level how to act. This is 
not to say that builders, cyclists and virtuous people will not sometimes need 

6  W. Durant, The Story of Philosophy, p. 76. 
7 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 

to reflect specifically on what to do in abnormal or difficult situations (e.g. 
moral dilemmas, in the case of ethics) but in normal situations appropriate 
responses will be natural for those who are properly skilled. 

It is the need to become skilled when developing virtuous character traits 
that leads Aristotle to suggest that becoming virtuous will require a lifetime of 
work. Putting up a single bookshelf does not make you a skilled builder any 
more than a single act of courage makes you a courageous and virtuous person. 
It is the repetition of skill that determines your status and the development of 
virtuous characters requires a lifetime of work rather than a single week at a 
Virtue Ethics Bootcamp. 

6. Practical Wisdom (Phronesis) 

Aristotle does offer some specifics regarding how exactly we might, to use 
a depressingly modern phrase, “upskill” in order to become more virtuous. 
Aristotle suggests that the aim of an action will be made clear by the relevant 
virtuous characteristic as revealed by the Golden Mean; for example, our aim in 
a situation may be to respond courageously or generously. It is by developing 
our skill of practical wisdom (translation of “phronesis”) that we become better 
at ascertaining what exactly courage or generosity amounts to in a specific 
situation and how exactly we might achieve it. 

By developing the skill of practical wisdom, we can properly put our 
virtuous character traits into practice. For the Aristotelian, practical wisdom 
may actually be the most important virtuous disposition or character trait to 
develop as without the skill of practical wisdom it may be difficult to actually 
practice actions that are witty rather than boorish, or courageous rather than 
cowardly. Imagine trying to be a philosopher without an acute sense of logical 
reasoning; you would struggle because this seems to be a foundational good 
on which other philosophical skills rely. So too it may be with the virtues, 
practical wisdom supports our instinctive knowledge of how to respond 
virtuously to various feelings, emotions and situations. 

If this still seems to be somewhat opaque, then we may develop our sense 
of practical wisdom by looking at the actions of others who we do take to be 
virtuous. A child, for example, will most certainly need to learn how to be 
virtuous by following examples of others. If we are unsure in our own ability 
to discern what a courageous response in a given situation is, then we may 
be guided by the behaviour of Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela or King, as 
examples. If we learn from the wisdom and virtue of others, then just as a 
building apprentice learns from a master so too virtue apprentices can learn 
from those more skilled than they in practising virtue. Hopefully, such virtue 



apprentices will eventually reach a point where they can stand on their own 
two feet, with their personally developed sense of practical wisdom. 

7. Voluntary Actions, Involuntary Actions and Moral 

Despite the focus on agents and not actions, Aristotle does have something 
to contribute when it comes to discussions of potential moral responsibility as 
associated with particular actions. We can separate actions into two obvious 

1. Voluntary actions 

2. Involuntary actions 

Very broadly, an action is voluntary when it is freely chosen and involuntary 
when it is not — these terms are more precisely defined next, in line with 
Aristotle’s ideas. These distinctions matter in ethics because a person might 
be held to be morally responsible for their voluntary actions but not for their 
involuntary actions. According to Aristotle, an action is voluntary unless it is 
affected by force or ignorance, as understood in the following ways. 

Physical Force 

Imagine that Reuben is driving his car on his way home from work. Out of the 
blue, his passenger grabs his hand and forces him to turn the steering wheel, 
sending the car into oncoming traffic. Without this physical force, Reuben 
would not have turned the wheel and he very much regrets the damage that is 
caused. According to Aristotle, Reuben’s action is involuntary because of this 
external physical force and so he is not morally responsible for the crash. 

Psychological Force 

Think of David, working at a bank when a group of thieves break in armed 
with guns. David is told that if he does not open the safe then he will be 
killed. Under this extreme psychological pressure, Aristotle would accept that 
David’s opening of the safe is involuntary, because David would not have 
opened the safe otherwise and he very much regrets doing so. On this basis, 
David is not morally responsible in any way for the theft. 

In addition to force, ignorance of a certain type can also support an action 
being labelled as involuntary. 

Action from Ignorance 

Rhys, a talented musician, wishes to perform a surprise concert for a friend and 
has been practicing songs from the Barry Manilow back catalogue for weeks. 
However, in the days before the surprise concert his friend, unbeknown to Rhys, 
develops an intense and very personal dislike for Manilow. Thus, when Rhys 
takes to the stage and blasts out his rendition of the classic tune “Copacabana” 
his friend storms off in much distress. In this situation, Aristotle would accept 
that Rhys acted involuntarily when causing offence because he was unaware 
of the changed circumstances; he acted from ignorance when performing the 
song rather than from malice. Without this epistemic (or knowledge-related) 
barrier, Rhys would not have acted as he did and he very much regrets the 
distress caused. For these reasons, Rhys bears no moral responsibility for the 
upset resulting from his song choice. 

Crucially, Aristotle does not allow that all action that involves ignorance 
can be classed as involuntary, thereby blocking associated claims of moral 

Action in Ignorance 

Laurence has had too much to drink and chooses to climb a traffic light with 
a traffic cone on his head. Laurence’s alcohol consumption has made him 
ignorant, at least temporarily, of the consequences of this action in terms of 
social relationships, employment and police action. However, for Aristotle 
this would not mean that his action was involuntary because Laurence 
acts in ignorance rather than from ignorance due to an external epistemic 
(or knowledge-based) barrier. Laurence does not, therefore, escape moral 
responsibility as a result of his self-created ignorance. 

Finally, Aristotle also identifies a third form of action — non-voluntary 
action — that is also related to ignorant action. 

Action from Ignorance with No Regret 

Return to the case of Rhys and his Manilow performance but remove any 
sense of regret on Rhys’ part for the distress caused. If, at the moment that 
the epistemic gap is bridged and Rhys learns of his friend’s newly acquired 
musical views, he feels no regret for his action, then Aristotle would class it as 
anon-voluntary rather than involuntary action. The action cannot be voluntary 
as Rhys acted from ignorance, but it is not obviously involuntary as, without a 
sense of regret, it may have been that Rhys would have performed the action 
even if he knew what was going to happen. 



The detail above is important and your own examples will help your 
understanding and explanations. The summary, however, is refreshingly 
simple. If an action is voluntary, then it is completed free from force and ignorance 
and we can hold the actor morally responsible. However, if the action is involuntary 
then the actor is not morally responsible as they act on the basis of force or from 

8. Objection: Unclear Guidance 

Consider yourself caught in the middle of a moral dilemma. Wanting to know 
what to do you may consult the guidance offered by Utilitarianism or Kantian 
Ethics and discover that various specific actions you could undertake are 
morally right or morally wrong. Moving to seek the advice of Aristotelian 
Virtue Ethics, you may find cold comfort from suggestions that you act 
generously, patiently and modestly whilst avoiding self-serving flattery and 
envy. Rather than knowing how to live in general, you may seek knowledge 
of what to actually do in this case. Virtue Ethics may therefore be accused 
of being a theory, not of helpful moral guidance, but of unhelpful and non- 
specific moral platitudes. 

In response, the virtue ethicist may remind us that we can learn how to act 
from considering how truly virtuous people might respond in this situation, 
but this response raises its own worry — how can we identify who is virtuous, 
or apply their actions to a potentially novel situation? Although a defender 
of Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse (1943-) gives a voice to this common 
objection, putting forward the worry directly by saying that “Virtue Ethics 
does not, because it cannot, tell us what we should do... It gives us no 
guidance whatsoever. Who are the virtuous agents [that we should look to for 
guidance]?”® If all the virtue ethicist can offer to a person wondering how to 
act — perhaps wondering whether or not to report a friend to the police, or 
whether or not to change careers to work in the charity sector — is “look to 
the moral exemplars of Socrates and Gandhi and how they would act in this 
situation”, then we might well sympathise with the objector since very often 
our moral dilemmas are new situations, not merely old ones repeated. Asking 
“what would Jesus do”, if we deem Jesus to be a morally virtuous role model, 
might not seem very helpful for an MP trying to determine whether or not to 
vote for an increase in subsidies for renewable energy technologies at huge 

8 R. Hursthouse, ‘Normative Virtue Ethics’, pp. 701-03. 

expense, and potential financial risk, to the tax-payer (to take a deliberately 
specific example). 

Despite her statement of the objection, Hursthouse thinks that this is an 
unfair characterisation of Virtue Ethics. Hursthouse suggests that Virtue 
Ethics provides guidance in the form of “v-rules”. These are guiding rules of 
the form “do what is honest” or “avoid what is envious”.’ These rules may 
not be specific, but they do stand as guidance across lots of different moral 
situations. Whether or not you believe that this level of guidance is suitable 
for anormative moral theory is a judgment that you should make yourself and 
then defend. 

9. Objection: Clashing Virtues 

Related to the general objection from lack of guidance, a developed objection 
may question how we are supposed to cope with situations in which virtues 
seem to clash. Courageous behaviour may, in certain cases, mean a lack 
of friendliness; generosity may threaten modesty. In these situations, the 
suggestion to “be virtuous” may again seem to be unhelpfully vague. 

To this particular objection, the Aristotelian virtue ethicist can invoke the 
concept of practical wisdom and suggest that the skilled and virtuous person 
will appropriately respond to complex moral situations. A Formula One car, 
for example, will be good when it has both raw speed and delicate handling 
and it is up to the skilled engineer to steer a path between these two virtues. 
So too a person with practical wisdom can steer a path between apparently 
clashing virtues in any given situation. Virtue ethicists have no interest in the 
creation of a codified moral rule book covering all situations and instead put 
the onus on the skill of the virtuous person when deciding how to act. Again, 
whether this is a strength or weakness is for you to decide and defend. 

10. Objection: Circularity 

An entirely different objection to Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is based on a 
concern regarding logical circularity. According to Aristotle, the following 
statements seem to be correct: 

1. An act is virtuous if it is an act that a virtuous person would commit in 
that circumstance. 

2. A person is virtuous when they act in virtuous ways. 

9 Ibid. 



This, however, looks to be circular reasoning. If virtuous actions are understood 
in terms of virtuous people, but virtuous people are understood in terms of 
virtuous actions, then we have unhelpfully circular reasoning. 

Julia Annas (1946-) responds to this apparent problem by arguing that 
there is nothing dangerously circular in this reasoning because it is simply 
a reflection of how we learn to develop our virtuous dispositions.'° Annas 
suggests the analogy of piano-playing: 

1. Great piano playing is what great pianists do. 

2. A pianist is great when he “does” great piano playing. 

In this case, there does not seem to be any troubling circularity in reasoning. 
It is not the case that whatever a great pianist plays will be great, but rather 
that great pianists have the skills to make great music. So too it is with virtues, 
for virtuous people are not virtuous just because of their actual actions but 
because of who they are and how their actions are motivated. It is their 
skills and character traits that mean that, in practice, they provide a clear 
guide as to which actions are properly aligned with virtues. Thus, if we wish 
to decide whether or not an act is virtuous we can assess what a virtuous 
person would do in that circumstance, but this does not mean that what is 
virtuous is determined by the actions of a specifically virtuous individual. The 
issue is whether or not a person, with virtuous characteristics in the abstract, 
would actually carry that action out. Virtuous people are living and breathing 
concrete guides, helping us to understand the actions associated with abstract 
virtuous character dispositions. 

11. Objection: Contribution to Eudaimonia 

The final distinct objection to Aristotelian Virtue Ethics considered in this 
chapter stems from the Aristotelian claim that living virtuously will contribute 
to our ability to secure a eudaimon life. A challenge to this view may be based 
on the fact that certain dispositions may seem to be virtuous but may not 
actually seem to contribute to our flourishing or securing the good life. 

As an example of this possible objection in practice, consider the following. 
Shelley is often described as generous to a fault and regularly dedicates large 
amounts of her time to helping others to solve problems at considerable cost, 
in terms of both time and effort, to herself. Working beyond the limits that can 
reasonably be expected of her, we may wish to describe Shelley as virtuous 
given her generous personality. However, by working herself so hard for 
others, we may wonder if Shelley is unduly limiting her own ability to flourish. 

10 J. Annas, Intelligent Virtue. 

Responses to this initial statement of the objection are not hard to imagine. 
We may say that Shelley has either succumbed to a vice of excess and is 
profligate with her time rather than generous, or we may accept that she is 
generous rather than profligate and accept the uncomfortable conclusion and 
say that this virtuous character trait is helping her to flourish. This second 
claim may seem more plausible if we ruled out a description of Shelley wasting 
her time. 

Still, this objection may stand up if you can envisage a situation in which 
someone could be properly described as rash rather than courageous 
or wasteful rather than generous and, because of these traits, actually be 
contributing to their own flourishing. You should consider your own possible 
cases if you seek to support this general objection. 

12. Moral Good and Individual Good 

For Aristotle, moral goodness and individual goodness may seem to be 
intimately linked. After all, a virtuous person will be charitable and friendly etc. 
and as a result of these characteristics and dispositions will both advance their 
own journey towards eudaimonia and make life better for others. Hedonism 
(which claims that pleasure is the only source of well-being — see Chapter 1), 
as a rival theory attempting to outline what is required for well-being, might 
be thought to fail because it downplays the importance of acting in accordance 
with reason, so hedonists do not therefore live according to their telos or true 

Aristotle says of his ideally virtuous person that they will have a unified 
psychology — that their rational and non-rational psychologies will speak with 
one voice. On the contrary, the non-virtuous person will have a psychology 
in conflict between their rational and non-rational elements. In considering 
who has the better life from their own individual perspectives — the happy 
Hedonist or the Aristotelian virtuous person — you should again form your 
own reasoned judgment. 

It is important to note, as we conclude this chapter, that Aristotle does not 
suggest that living a virtuous life is sufficient to guarantee a state of eudaimonia 
for a person. External factors such as poverty, disease or untimely death 
may scupper a person’s advance towards eudaimonia. However, for Aristotle, 
being virtuous is necessary for the achievement of eudaimonia; without the 
development of virtues it is impossible for a person to flourish even if they 
avoid poverty, disease, loneliness etc. 

a = 



Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is very different in nature to the other 
act-centred normative moral theories considered in this book. 
Whether this, in itself, is a virtue or a vice is an issue for your 
own judgment. The lack of a codified and fixed moral rule book is 
something many view as a flaw, while others perceive it as the key 
strength of the theory. Some, meanwhile, will feel uncomfortable 
with Aristotle’s teleological claims, differing from those who 
are happy to accept that there is an objectively good life that is 
possible for human beings. Regardless, there is little doubt that 
Aristotelian Virtue Ethics offers a distinct normative moral picture 
and that it is a theory worthy of your reflections. 


Understanding virtues as feelings. 
Misunderstanding the function of a human being (eudaimonia). 

Thinking that the Golden Mean always suggests “neutral” or 
“middling” actions. 

Incorrect differentiation between voluntary, involuntary and non- 
voluntary actions. 

Claiming that Virtue Ethics offers no guidance whatsoever in moral 

Claiming that Virtue Ethics is uninterested in actions. 




Who has the better life — the happy hedonist or the virtuous 

Are the virtues fixed and absolute? Or can virtues be relative to culture 
and time? 

Is becoming moral a skill? Is morality based on “knowing that” or 
“knowing how”? 

Can Virtue Ethics offer useful guidance? 

5. Is the Golden Mean a useful way of working out virtuous 

Are some virtues more important than others? Why? 
Can you think of a virtue that does not contribute to eudaimonia? 

8. Can you think of something that contributes to eudaimonia that is not a 

9. If there is no purpose to life, is there any point in subscribing to 
Aristotelian Virtue Ethics? 


10. What should you do if virtues seem to clash when faced with different 
possible actions? 

11. Who might count as virtuous role models and why? 

12. Do human beings have a felos or proper function? 


Act-centred Phronesis 

Agent-centred Virtue 

Dispositions Telos 

Eudaimonia Golden mean 

Annas, Julia, Intelligent Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). 

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, translated by William David Ross (Oxford: 
Clarendon Press, 1908), freely available at 

Hursthouse, Rosalind, ‘Normative Virtue Ethics’, in Ethical Theory, ed. by 
Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 701-09. 

Panin, Ivan, Thoughts (Grafton: Ivan Panin, 1887), freely available at https://ia6 

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Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory 

Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. 

They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also 
bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending 

1. Introduction to Aquinas 

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was an intellectual and religious revolutionary, 
living at a time of great philosophical, theological and scientific development. 
He was a member of the Dominican Friars, which at that time was considered 
to be a cult, and was taught by one of the greatest intellects of the age, Albert 
the Great (1208-1280). In a nutshell Aquinas wanted to move away from Plato’s 
thinking, which was hugely influential at the time, and instead introduce 
Aristotelian ideas to science, nature and theology. 

Aquinas wrote an incredible amount — in fact one of the miracles accredited 
to him was the amount he wrote! His most famous work is Summa Theologica 
and this runs to some three and half thousand pages and contains many 
fascinating and profound insights, such as proofs for God’s existence. The 
book remained a fundamental basis for Catholic thinking right up to the 1960s! 
But do not worry we will only be focusing on a few key ideas! Specifically 
books I-II, questions 93-95. 

2. Motivating Natural Law Theory: The Euthyphro 
Dilemma and Divine Command Theory 

The likely answer from a religious person as to why we should not steal, or 
commit adultery is: “because God forbids us”; or if we ask why we should love 
our neighbour or give money to charity then the answer is likely to be “because 
God commands it”. Drawing this link between what is right and wrong and 

1 T. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 1:8, 
2 T. Aquinas, Romans, 2:15. 


what God commands and forbids is what is called the Divine Command Theory 

There is a powerful and influential challenge to such an account called 
the Euthyphro dilemma after the challenge was first raised in Plato’s Euthyphro. 
The dilemma runs as follows: 

Either God commands something is right because it is, or it is right because 
God commands it. If God commands something because it is right, then 
God’s commands do not make it right, His commands only tell us what is 
right. This means God simply drops out of the picture in terms of explaining 
why something is right. 

If on the other hand something is right because God commands it then 
anything at all could be right; killing children or setting fire to churches could 
be morally acceptable. But if a moral theory says this then that looks as if the 
theory is wrong. 

Most theists reject the first option and opt for this second option — that 
God’s commands make something right. But they then have to face the 
problem that it make morality haphazard. This “arbitrariness problem” as it is 
sometimes called, is the reason that many, including Aquinas, give up on the 
Divine Command Theory. 

So for Aquinas what role, if any at all, does God have when it comes to 
morality? For him, God’s commands are there to help us to come to see what, 
as a matter of fact, is right and wrong rather than determine what is right and 
wrong. That is, Aquinas opts for the first option in the Euthyphro dilemma 
as stated above. But then this raises the obvious question: if it is not God’s 
commands that make something right and wrong, then what does? Does not 
God just fall out of the picture? This is where his Natural Law Theory comes in. 

3. Natural Law Theory 

Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory contains four different types of law: Eternal 
Law, Natural Law, Human Law and Divine Law. The way to understand these 
four laws and how they relate to one another is via the Eternal Law, so we’d 
better start there... 

By “Eternal Law” Aquinas means God’s rational purpose and plan for all 
things. And because the Eternal Law is part of God’s mind then it has always, 
and will always, exist. The Eternal Law is not simply something that God 
decided at some point to write. 

Aquinas thinks that everything has a purpose and follows a plan. He, like 
Aristotle, is a teleologist (the Greek term “telos” refers to what we might call 
a purpose, goal, end/or the true final function of an object) (see Chapter 3; 


not to be confused with a telelogical ethical theory such as Utilitarianism) and 
believes that every object has a telos; the acorn has the telos of growing into an 
oak; the eye a telos of seeing; a rat of eating and reproducing etc. (notice this 
links to his view on sex, see Chapter 10). If something fulfils its purpose/plan 
then it is following the Eternal Law. 

Aquinas thinks that something is good in as far as it fulfils its purpose/plan. 
This fits with common sense. A “good” eye is one which sees well, an acorn is 
a good if it grows into a strong oak tree. 

But what about humans? Just as a good eye is to see, and a good acorn is to 
grow then a good human is to...? Is to what? How are we going to finish this 
sentence? What do you think? 

Aquinas thinks that the answer is reason and that it is this that makes us 
distinct from rats and rocks. What is right for me and you as humans is to act 
according to reason. If we act according to reason then we are partaking in the 
Natural Law. 

If we all act according to reason, then we will all agree to some overarching 
general rules (what Aquinas calls primary precepts). These are absolute and 
binding on all rational agents and because of this Aquinas rejects relativism. 

The first primary precept is that good is to be pursued and done and evil avoided. 
He thinks that this is the guiding principle for all our decision making. 

Before unpacking this, it is worth clarifying something about what “law” 
means. Imagine that we are playing Cluedo and we are trying to work out the 
identity of the murderer. There are certain rules about how to move around 
the board, how to deal out cards, how to reveal the murderer etc. These rules 
are all written down and can be consulted. 

However, in playing the game there are other rules that operate which are 
so obvious that they are neither written down nor spoken. One such rule is 
that a claim made in the game cannot both be true and false; if it is Professor 
Plum who is the murderer then it cannot be true that it is not Professor Plum 
who is the murderer. These are internal rules which any rational person can 
come to recognize by simply thinking and are not external like the other 
rules — such as you can only have one guess as to the identity of the murderer. 
When Aquinas talks of Natural Laws, he means internal rules and not external 

Natural Law does not generate an external set of rules that are written 
down for us to consult but rather it generates general rules that any rational 
agent can come to recognize simply in virtue of being rational. For example, 
for Aquinas it is not as if we need to check whether we should pursue good 
and avoid evil, as it is just part of how we already think about things. Aquinas 
gives some more examples of primary precepts: 



1. Protect and preserve human life. 
2. Reproduce and educate one’s offspring. 
3. Know and worship God. 

4. Live ina society. 

These precepts are primary because they are true for all people in all instances 
and are consistent with Natural Law. 

Aquinas also introduces what he calls the Human Law which gives rise 
to what he calls “Secondary Precepts”. These might include such things as 
do not drive above 70mph on a motorway, do not kidnap people, always 
wear a helmet when riding a bike, do not hack into someone’s bank account. 
Secondary precepts are not generated by our reason but rather they are imposed 
by governments, groups, clubs, societies etc. 

It is not always morally acceptable to follow secondary precepts. It is only 
morally acceptable if they are consistent with the Natural Law. If they are, 
then we ought to follow them, if they are not, then we ought not. To see why 
think through an example. 

Consider the secondary precept that “if you are a woman and you live in 
Saudi Arabia then you are not allowed to drive”. Aquinas would argue that this 
secondary precept is practically irrational because it treats people differently 
based on an arbitrary difference (gender). He would reason that if the men in 
power in Saudi actually really thought hard then they too would recognize 
that this law is morally wrong. This in turn means that Aquinas would think 
that this human law does not fit with the Natural Law. Hence, it is morally 
wrong to follow a law that says that men can, and women cannot, drive. So 
although it is presented as a secondary precept, because it is not in accordance 
with Natural Law, it is what Aquinas calls an apparent good. This is in contrast 
with those secondary precepts which are in accordance with the Natural Law 
and which he calls the real goods. 

Unlike primary precepts, Aquinas is not committed to there being only one 
set of secondary precepts for all people in all situations. It is consistent with 
Aquinas’s thinking to have a law to drive on the right in the US and on the left 
in the UK as there is no practical reason to think that there is one correct side 
of the road on which to drive. 

It is clear that on our own we are not very good at discovering primary 
precepts and consequently Aquinas thinks that what we ought to do is 
talk and interact with people. To discover our real goods — our secondary 
precepts which accord with Natural Law — we need to be part of a society. 
For example, we might think that “treat Christians as secondary citizens” is a 

good secondary precept until we talk and live with Christians. The more we 
can think and talk with others in society the better and it is for this reason that 
“live in society” is itself a primary precept. 

But looking at what we have said already about Natural Laws and primary 
and secondary precepts, we might think that there is no need for God. If we 
can learn these primary precepts by rational reflection then God simply drops 
out of the story (recall the Euthyphro dilemma above). 

Just to recap as there a lots of moving parts to the story. We now have 
Eternal Law (God’s plans/purpose for all things), Natural Laws (our partaking 
in the Eternal Law which leads to primary precepts), Human Laws (humans 
making specific laws to capture the truths of the Natural Laws which lead to 
secondary precepts) and now finally Aquinas introduces the Divine Law. 

The Divine Law, which is discovered through revelation, should be thought 
of as the Divine equivalent of the Human Law (those discovered through 
rational reflection and created by people). Divine laws are those that God has, 
in His grace, seen fit to give us and are those “mysteries”, those rules given by 
God which we find in scripture; for example, the ten commandments. But why 
introduce the Divine Law at all? It certainly feels we have enough Laws. Here 
is a story to illustrate Aquinas’s answer. 

A number of years ago I was talking to a minister of a church. He told me 
about an instance where a married man came to ask his advice about whether 
to finish an affair he was having. The man’s reasoning went as follows — “I 
am having an affair which just feels so right, we are both very much in love 
and surely God would want what is best for me! How could it be wrong if we 
are so happy?” 

In response, the minister opened the Bible to the Ten Commandments and 
pointed out the commandment that it says that it is wrong to commit adultery. 
Case closed. The point of this story is simple. We can be confused and mistaken 
about what we think we have most reason to do and because of this we need 
someone who actually knows the mind of God to guide us, and who better 
to know this than God Himself. This then is precisely what is revealed in the 
Divine Law. 

Or consider another example. We recognize that we find it hard to forgive 
our friends and nearly always impossible to forgive our enemies. We tell 
ourselves we have the right to be angry, to bear grudges, etc. Isn’t this just 
human? However, these human reasons are distortions of the Eternal Law. We 
need some guidance when it comes to forgiveness and it is where the Divine 
Law which tells us that we should forgive others — including our enemies. 
Following the Human Laws and the Divine Laws will help us to fulfil our 
purposes and plans and be truly happy. 



4, Summary of Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory 

For Aquinas everything has a function (a telos) and the good thing(s) to do are 
those acts that fulfil that function. Some things such as acorns, and eyes, just 
do that naturally. However, humans are free and hence need guidance to find 
the right path. That right path is found through reasoning and generates the 
“internal” Natural Law. By following the Natural Law we participate in God’s 
purpose for us in the Eternal Law. 

However, the primary precepts that derive from the Natural Law are quite 
general, such as, pursue good and shun evil. So we need to create secondary 
precepts which can actually guide our day-to-day behaviour. But we are 
fallible so sometimes we get these secondary precepts wrong, sometimes we 
get them right. When they are wrong they only reflect our apparent goods. 
When they are right they reflect our real goods. 

Finally, however good we are because we are finite and sinful, we can only 
get so far with rational reflection. We need some revealed guidance and this 
comes in the form of Divine Law. So to return to the Euthyphro dilemma. 
God’s commands through the Divine Law are ways of illuminating what is 
in fact morally acceptable and not what determines what is morally acceptable. 
Aquinas rejects the Divine Command Theory. 

5. Putting this into Practice: The Doctrine of Double Effect 

Let’s consider some examples to show that what we have said so far might 
actually work. Imagine someone considering suicide. Is this morally acceptable 
or not? Recall, it is part of the Natural Law to preserve and protect human 
life. Clearly suicide is not preserving and protecting human life. It is therefore 
irrational to kill oneself and cannot be part of God’s plan for our life; hence it 
is morally unacceptable. 

Imagine that someone is considering having an abortion after becoming 
pregnant due to rape. The same reasoning is going to apply. We ought to 
preserve and protect human life and hence an abortion in this case is morally 

However, as we will see, Aquinas thinks that there are some instances where 
it is morally acceptable to kill an innocent person and therefore there may be 
occasions when it is morally acceptable to kill a foetus. But how can this be 
correct? Will this not violate the primary precept about preserving life? The 
answer is to understand that for Aquinas, an action is not just about what we do 
externally but is also about what we do internally (i.e. our motivations). With this 

distinction he can show that, for example, killing an innocent can be morally 

To make this clear, Aquinas introduces one of his most famous ideas: the 
“Doctrine of Double Effect”. Let’s see how this works. 

Imagine a child brought up in a physically, sexually and emotionally abusive family. He is 
frequently scared for his life and is locked in the house for days at a time. One day when his 
father is drunk and ready to abuse him again he quickly grabs a kitchen knife and slashes 
his father’s artery. His father bleeds out and dies in a matter of minutes. Do you think the 
son did anything wrong? 

Many people would say that he did nothing morally wrong and in fact, some 
might even go as far as to say that he should get a pat on the back for his 
actions. What about Aquinas? What would he say? 

We might think that given the Natural Law to “preserve and protect life’ 
he would say that this action is morally wrong. But, in fact, he would say the 


son’s action was not morally wrong (Aquinas discusses self-defence in the 
Summa Theologica (II-II, Qu. 64)). 

So why is the son killing the father not in direct contradiction with the 
primary precept? Aquinas asks us to consider the difference between the 
external act — the fact that the father was killed, and the internal act — the 

In our example, the action is one of self-defence because of the son’s internal 
action and because of this, Aquinas would think the killing is morally 
acceptable. This distinction and conclusion is possible because of Aquinas’s 
Doctrine of Double Effect which states that if an act fulfils four conditions then 
it is morally acceptable. If not, then it is not. 

1. The first principle is that the act must be a good one. 

2. The second principle is that the act must come about before the 

3. The third is that the intention must be good. 

4. The fourth, it must be for serious reasons. 

This is abstract so let’s go back to our example. The act of the son was performed 
to save his own life so that is good — we can tick (1). Moreover, the act to save 
his life came about first — we can tick (2). The son did not first act to kill his 
father in order to save his own life. That would be doing evil to bring about 
good and that is never morally acceptable. The intention of the son was to 
preserve and protect his life, so the intention was good — tick (3). Finally, the 
reasons were serious as it was his life or his father’s life — tick (4). 

CF | 


So given that the act meets all four principles, it is in line with the DDE and 
hence the action is morally acceptable, even though it caused someone to die and 
hence seems contrary to the primary precept of preserving life. 

We can draw a contrasting case. Imagine that instead of slashing his father 
in self-defence, the son plans the killing. He works out the best time, the best 
day and then sets up a trip wire causing his father to fall from his flat window 
to his death. Does this action meet the four criteria of the DDE? Well, no, 
because the son’s intention is to kill the father rather than save his own life — we 
must put a cross at (3). 

We have already seen that suicide is morally impermissible for Aquinas, 
so does that mean that any action you take that leads knowingly to your own 
death is morally wrong? No. Because even though the external act of your 
own death is the same, the internal act — the intention — might be different. 
An action is judged via the Natural Law both externally and internally. 

Imagine a case where a soldier sees a grenade thrown into her barracks. 
Knowing that she does not have time to defuse it or throw it away, she throws 
herself on the grenade. It blows up, killing her but saving other soldiers in her 
barracks. Is this wrong or right? Aquinas says this is morally acceptable given 
DDE. If we judge this act both internally and externally we'll see why. 

The intention — the internal act — was not to kill herself even though she 
could foresee that this was certainly what was going to happen. The act itself is 
good, to save her fellow soldiers (1). The order is right, she is not doing evil so 
good will happen (2). The intention is good, it is to save her fellow soldiers (3). 
The reason is serious, it concerns people’s lives (4). 

Contrast this with a soldier who decides to kill herself by blowing herself 
up. The intention is not good and hence the DDE does not permit this suicidal 

Finally, imagine that a woman is pregnant and also has inoperable uterine 
cancer. The doctors have two choices; to take out the uterus and save the mother, 
but the foetus will die; or leave the foetus to develop and be born healthy, but 
the woman will die. What would Aquinas say in this instance? Well using the 
DDE he would say that it is morally acceptable to remove the cancer. 

The action is to remove the cancer; it has the foreseeable consequences of 
the foetus dying but that is not what is intended. The action — to remove the 
cancer — is good (1). The act of removing the cancer comes before the death of 
the foetus (2). The intention to save the woman’s life is also good (3). Finally, 
the reasons are serious as they are about the life and death of the woman and 
the foetus (4). 

So even though this is a case where the doctor’s actions bring about the 
death of the foetus it would be acceptable for Aquinas through his Natural 
Law Theory, as is shown via the DDE. 

6. Some Thoughts about Natural Law Theory 

There are many things we might consider when thinking through Aquinas’s 
Natural Law Theory. There are some obvious problems we could raise, such 
as the problem about whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then the 
Eternal Law does not exist and therefore the whole theory comes tumbling 
down. However, as good philosophers we ought always to operate with a 
principle of charity and grant our opponent is rational and give the strongest 
possible interpretation of their argument. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument 
that God exists. How plausible is Aquinas’s theory? There are a number of 
things that we can pick up on. 

Aquinas’s theory works on the idea that if something is “natural”, that is, 
if it fulfils its function, then it is morally acceptable, but there are a number of 
unanswered questions relating to natural. 

We might ask, why does “natural” matter? We can think of things that are 
not “natural” but which are perfectly acceptable, and things which are natural 
which are not. For example, wearing clothes, taking medication and body 
piercing certainly are not natural, but we would not want to say such things 
are morally wrong. 

On the other hand we might consider that violence is a natural response to 
an unfaithful partner, but also think that such violence is morally unacceptable. 
So it is not true that we can discover what is morally acceptable or not simply 
by discovering what is natural and what is not. 

Put this worry aside. Recall, Aquinas thinks that reproduction is natural 
and hence reproduction is morally acceptable. This means that sex that does 
not lead to reproduction is morally unacceptable. Notice that Aquinas is not 
saying that if sex does not lead to pregnancy it is wrong. After all, sometimes 
the timing is not right. His claim is rather that if there is no potential for sex to 
lead to pregnancy then it is wrong. However, even with this qualification this 
would mean a whole host of things such as homosexuality and contraception 
are morally wrong. We might take this as a reason to rethink Aquinas’s moral 
framework (we discuss these apparent problems in more detail in Chapter 10). 

There is, though, a more fundamental worry at the heart of this approach 
(and Aristotle’s) to ethics. Namely, they think that everything has a goal (telos). 
Now, with some things this might be plausible. Things such as the eye or an 
acorn have a clear function — to grow, to see — but what about humans? This 
seems a bit less obvious! Do humans (rather than our individual parts) really 
have a telos? There are certainly some philosophers — such as the existentialists, 
for example Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) — who think that there is no 
such thing as human nature and no such thing as a human function or goal. 
But if we are unconvinced that humans have a goal, then this whole approach 
to ethics seems flawed. 



Next we might raise questions about DDE. Go back to our example about 
abortion. For Aquinas it is morally acceptable to remove the uterus even if we 
know that in doing so the foetus will die. What is not morally acceptable is to 
intend to kill the foetus by removing the uterus. On first reading this seems 
to makes sense; we have an intuitive feel for what DDE is getting at. However, 
when we consider it in more detail it is far from clear. 

Imagine two doctors who (apparently) do exactly the same thing, they 
both remove the uterus and the foetus dies. The one intends to take out the 
uterus — in full knowledge that the foetus will die — the other intends to kill 
the foetus. For the DDE to work in the way that Aquinas understands it, this 
difference in intention makes the moral difference between the two doctors. 
However, is there really a moral difference? To put pressure on the answer 
that there is, ask yourself what you think it means to intend to do something. 
If the first doctor says “I did not intend to kill the foetus” can we make sense 
of this? After all, if you asked her “did you know that in taking out the uterus 
the foetus would die?” she would say “yes, of course”. But if she did this and 
the foetus died, did not she intend (in some sense) to kill the foetus? So this 
issue raises some complex question about the nature of the mind, and how we 
might understand intentions. 

Finally, we might wonder how easy it is to work out what actually to do 
using the Natural Law. We would hope our moral theory gives us direction in 
living our lives. That, we might think, is precisely the role of a moral theory. 
But how might it work in this case? 

For Aquinas, if we rationally reflect then we arrive at the right way of 
proceeding. If this is in line with the Natural Law and the Divine Law then 
it is morally acceptable. If it is out of line, then it is not. The assumption is 
that the more we think, the more rational we become, the more convergence 
there will be. We'll all start to have similar views on what is right and wrong. 
But is this too optimistic? Very often, even after extensive reflection and cool 
deliberation with friends and colleagues, it is not obvious to us what we as 
rational agents should do. We all know people we take to be rational, but we 
disagree with them on moral issues. And even in obviously rational areas such 
as mathematics, the best mathematicians are not able to agree. We might then 
be sceptical that as rational agents we will come to be in line with the Natural 
and Divine Laws. 


Aquinas is an intellectual giant. He wrote an incredible amount 
covering a vast array of topics. His influence has been immense. 
His central idea is that humans are created by God to reason — that 
is our function. Humans do the morally right thing if we act in 
accordance with reason, and the morally wrong thing if we don’t. 

Aquinas is an incredibly subtle and complex thinker. For 
example, his Doctrine of Double Effect makes us to reflect on what 
we actually mean by “actions”, “intentions” and “consequences” . 
His work remains much discussed and researched and typically 
still plays a central role in a Christian Ethics that rejects Divine 
Command Theory. 

Oo | 

¢ Thinking that Aquinas is a Divine Command Theorist. 
° Thinking that Eternal Law is something that God decided to write. 

° Thinking that Natural Laws are laws of science — e.g. law of 

° Thinking that all the “laws” are absolute. 

e Thinking that it is always morally required of us to follow secondary 

° Thinking that Aquinas is committed to there being only one set of 
secondary precepts for all people in all situations. 


1. If God exists then what — if anything — do you think that has to do 
with what is right and wrong? 

2. We might answer the “arbitrariness” dilemma by citing God’s nature. 
Why might this answer be problematic? 

What is the Eternal Law? 
What are Natural Laws and primary precepts? 
What are Human Laws and secondary precepts? 

What are Divine Laws? 

WS: or oe © 

Just as a good eye is to see, and a good acorn is to grow then a good 
human is to...? Is to what? How are we going to finish this sentence? 


8. People often talk about what is “natural”? What do you think they 
mean by this? How useful is the notion of “natural” in a moral theory? 

9. Think of a descriptive claim. Think of a prescriptive claim. Why might 
it be problematic moving from one to the other? 

10. If people thought long enough, do you think there would be 
convergence on what is morally right and wrong? 

11. What is the Doctrine of Double Effect? 

12. What is the difference — if anything — between intending to bring 

about some end and acting where you know your action will bring 
about that end? 


Apparent goods Primary precepts 

A priori Real goods 

A posteriori Secondary precepts 
Eternal Law Internal acts 

External acts Doctrine of Double Effect 

Natural Law 


Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, freely available at http://www. 

—, Romans (Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans) 

Plato, Euthyphro, translated by Benjamin Jowett, freely available at http:// 


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Fletcher’s Situation Ethics 

Every man must decide for himself according to his own estimate of conditions and consequences..." 

People like to wallow or cower in the security of the law. 

1. Situation Ethics Introduction 

In the introduction to The Situation Ethics: The New Morality Joseph Fletcher 
(1905-1991) develops what he calls an ethical non-system. His book caused 
a “fire storm” amongst the public because it legitimised the general post-war 
dissatisfaction with authority. At the time it was written it seemed to make 
some radical claims such as that it is not wrong to have extramarital sex, to 
be homosexual, or to have an abortion. All that said, Fletcher’s work is not 
widely discussed nor respected in philosophical circles. It is badly argued, 
idiosyncratic and rehashes old ideas. 

Although there is the clothing of religion in the book — Fletcher uses 
religious terms such as “agape” and cites famous theologians such as Rudolf 
Bultmann (1884-1976) — the central ideas do not rely on the truth of any 
particular religion. As he says his argument has “...nothing special to do with’? 

Fletcher calls this ethical “non-system” Situationism and a Bible story will 
illustrate the general point of the book. In Mark 3:1-6 we are told that Jesus 
healed a man with a withered hand in the Jewish Temple; an act which we 
would consider to demonstrate Jesus’s love for all. However, the Pharisees tell 
him off because he has performed this healing on the Sabbath day and the 
Jewish law says that no one can work on the Sabbath. 

Fletcher's work is an attempt to show how acts can be morally acceptable 
even if they go against so-called moral laws (if you’ve read Chapter 3 on 
Aristotle you might already have an answer to this). Fletcher says that Jesus’ 
act is morally acceptable — despite going against the Jewish law — because he 
acted to bring about the most love. 

1 K.E. Kirk, Conscience and its Problems, p. 331. 
2 ‘J. F. Fletcher, Situation Ethics. 
3 Ibid., p. 15. 


2. Fletcher’s Overall Framework 

Fletcher says there are two unattractive views in ethics: “Legalism” and 
“Antinomianism”, and one attractive view which sits in between them: 


Someone who is following the system of Legalism is someone who “blindly” 
observes moral rules without being sensitive to the situation. Fletcher has in 
mind a simple minded deontologist who holds that actions are right and wrong 
irrespective of the consequences. For example, we ought to tell the truth in all 
situations, even if this means that, say, millions of people die. 

Various Christian sects are legalistic; for instance, some might refuse medical 
help — such as blood transfusions — when someone in their community is ill 
because they think it is against God’s commands. Or consider an example of 
Islamic Legalism (obviously, just as in the Christian sect, these are not wholly 
representative of either religion). In 2002 the religious police of Saudi Arabia 
refused to let a group of girls escape from a burning building because they 
were wearing “inappropriate” clothing, which was against the will of Allah. 
One witness said he saw three policemen “beating young girls to prevent them 
from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya” .* Fifteen 
girls died. 



The other extreme is Antinomianism (“anti” meaning against; “nominalism’ 
meaning law). This is the view that says that an agent can do whatever he or 
she wants in a situation. Fletcher calls this an “existential” view because it is one 
that says that people are always free to choose what they want. Any supposed 
laws and rules limiting the actions of people are simply a way of trying to 
comfort them because they are scared of absolute freedom. If Antinomianism is 
right and if an agent believes that something is right, then it is. Antinomianism 
means the moral agent is erratic and random, is unpredictable, and any 
decisions taken are ad hoc. There are no laws nor guiding principles, just agents 
and their conscience and the institutions in which they find themselves. 

A Middle Ethics: Situationism 

We might think that Legalism and Antinomianism exhaust the possibilities. 
If we reject moral laws then are not we forced into lawless moral anarchy? 
Fletcher thinks not. 

4 ‘Saudi Police “Stopped” Fire Rescue’, BBC News, 

Fletcher says that there is a moral law, and hence he rejects Antinomianism. 
But there is only one moral law, so he rejects Legalism. Fletcher’s one moral law 
is that we ought to always act so as to bring about the most love for the most 
people (“Agapé Calculus”). Fletcher’s Situationism is then a teleological theory. 
It is directed at the consequences that will determine whether an action is right 
or wrong. 

Of course, any teleological theory will ask us to look at the details of 
the situation; consider Chapter 1 where we talk about Bentham and Mill’s 
Utilitarianism. So, Fletcher’s view is not unique. What makes his view different 
is the centrality of “love”, or as he calls it agape. 

Fletcher thinks that there can be moral principles but that these differ from 
laws. Principles are generalizations which are context-sensitive and which 
derive from the one law regarding maximizing love. For example, we might 
have a moral principle that we ought not to murder. This is a principle because 
we might think in that in general murder is wrong because it does not bring 
about the most love. However, it is not a Jaw because for Fletcher, murder 
is not wrong in all situations. This then is similar to the discussion of Rule- 
Utilitarianism in Chapter 1. 

For example, a situation might arise where the child of a terrorist would 
have to be murdered in order to get information to stop a nuclear attack. 
Fletcher would say that here is a situation where we ought not to follow the 
principle do not murder but rather do the most loving thing, which in this case 
turns out to be murder. From the universal law we can only derive principles, 
not other universal laws. As Fletcher puts it: “we cannot milk a universal from 
a universal”.° 

This mean that for Fletcher it might, on occasions, be morally acceptable 
to break the Ten Commandments. In fact, he says something stronger, that in 
some situations it is our duty to break these commandments. He thinks that 
there are four working principles of Situationism. 

3. The Four Working Principles of Situationism 

Principle 1. Pragmatism 

The situationalist follows a strategy which is pragmatic. What does that mean? 
Well it does not mean that Fletcher is a pragmatist. “Pragmatism” is a very 
specific and well worked-out philosophical position adopted by the likes of 
John Dewey (1859-1952), Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and William James 
(1842-1910). Fletcher does not want his theory associated with these views 
and rejects all the implications of this type of “Pragmatism”. 

5 J. F. Fletcher, Situation Ethics, p. 27. 



What makes his view pragmatic is very simple. It is just his attraction to 
moral views which do not try to work out what to do in the abstract (e.g. 
Kant’s Categorical Imperative (see Chapter 2)), but rather explores how moral 
views might play out in each real life situations. 

Principle 2: Relativism 

Even with his rejection of Antinomianism and his acceptance of one supreme 
principle of morality, Fletcher, surprisingly, still calls himself a relativist. 
This does not mean he is a relativist in the sense that we can simply choose 
what is right and wrong rather it is just an appeal for people to stop trying 
to “lay down the law” for all people in all contexts. If situations vary then 
consequences vary and what we ought to do will change accordingly. This 
is a very simple, unsophisticated idea, like his ideas on pragmatism, and 
Fletcher just means that what is right or wrong is related to the situation we 
are in. 

Principle 3: Positivism 
His use of “positivism” is not the philosophical idea with the same name but 
rather is where: 

Any moral or value judgment in ethics, like a theologian’s faith propositions, is a decision — not 
a conclusion. It is a choice, not a result reached by force of logic...° 

So when challenged as to how he can justify that the only law is to maximize 
love, Fletcher will say that he cannot. It is not a result of logic or reasoning, 
rather it is a decision we take, it is like the “theologian’s faith”. 

Principle 4: Personalism 

Love is something that is experienced by people. So Personalism is the view that 
if we are to maximize love we need to consider the person in a situation — the 
“who” of a situation. Summing up this Fletcher says: 

Love is of people, by people, and for people. Things are to be used; people are to be loved... Loving 
actions are the only conduct permissible.’ 

These then are his “four working principles”: pragmatism, relativism, 
positivism and personalism. 

6 Ibid., p. 47. 
7 Ibid., p.51. 

4. How to Work out What to Do: Conscience as a Verb not 
a Noun 

For Fletcher “conscience” plays a role in working out what to do. He says 
“conscience” is a verb and not a noun. This sounds complicated but it really is 
not (for complex and sophisticated discussions of conscience see Chapter 9). 

First consider what he means when he says conscience “is not a noun”. 
Conscience is not the name of an internal faculty nor is it a sort of internal 
“moral compass”. This is how people typically think of conscience and it 
is often portrayed in cartoons with a devil and angel sitting on someone’s 
shoulder whispering into her ears. 

Rather for Fletcher conscience is a verb. Imagine we have heard some 
bullies laughing because they have sent our friend some offensive texts and 
we are trying to decide whether or not to check his phone to delete the texts 
before he does. The old “noun” view of conscience would get us to think about 
this in the abstract, perhaps reason about it, or ask for guidance from the Holy 
Spirit, a guardian angel etc. 

According to Fletcher this is wrong. Instead, we need to be in the situation, 
and experience the situation, we need to be doing (hence “verb”) the 
experiencing. Maybe, we might conclude that it is right to go into our friend’s 
phone, maybe we will not but whatever happens the outcome could not have 
been known beforehand. What our conscience would have us do is revealed 
when we live in the world and not through armchair reflection. 

5. The Six Propositions of Situation Ethics 

Fletcher gives six propositions (features) of his theory. 

1: Only one ‘thing’ is intrinsically good; namely, love, nothing else at all 

There is one thing which is intrinsically good, that is good irrespective of 
context, namely love. If love is what is good, then an action is right or wrong in 
as far as it brings about the most amount of love. Echoing Bentham’s Hedonic 
Calculus (see Chapter 1) Fletcher defends what he calls the: 

agapeic calculus, the greatest amount of neighbor welfare for the largest number of neighbors 

Notice that here he talks about “welfare” rather than “love”. Fletcher does this 
because of how he understands love which, importantly, is not about having 
feelings and desires. We discuss this below. 

8  Ibid., p. 95. 



2: The ruling norm of Christian decision is love, nothing else 

As we have seen in the first proposition, the only way to decide what we ought 
to do (the ruling norm) is to bring about love. We need to be careful though 
because for Fletcher “love” has a technical meaning. 

By love Fletcher means “agape” — from ancient Greek. Agapé has a very 
particular meaning. Initially it is easier to see what it is not. It is not the feeling 
we might have towards friends or family member which is better described as 
brotherly love (philéo). Nor is it the erotic desire we might feel towards others 

Rather agapé is an attitude and not a feeling at all, one which does not expect 
anything in return and does not give any special considerations to anyone. 
Agape regards the enemy in the same way as the friend, brother, spouse, 
lover. Given our modern context and how people typically talk of “love” it is 
probably unhelpful to even call it “love”. 

Typically people write and think about love as experiencing an intense 
feeling. In cartoons when a character is in love their hearts jump out of their 
chest, or people “in love” are portrayed as not being able to concentrate on 
things because they “cannot stop thinking” about someone. 

This is not what love means for Fletcher. In the Christian context agape is the 
type of love which is manifest in how God relates to us. Consider Christ’s love 
in saying that he forgave those carrying out his execution or consider a more 
modern example. In February 1993, Mrs Johnson’s son, Laramiun Byrd, 20, 
was shot in the head by 16-year-old Oshea Israel after an argument at a party 
in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mrs Johnson subsequently forgave her son’s killer 
and after he had served a 17 year sentence for the crime, asked him to move in 
next door to her. She was not condoning his actions, nor will she ever forget 
the horror of those actions, but she does love her son’s killer. That love is agape. 

3: Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else 

For Fletcher, practically all moral problems we encounter can be boiled down 
to an apparent tension between “justice” on the one hand and “love” on the 
other. Consider a recent story: 

Trevell Coleman, better known as the rapper G Dep, was a rising star on the New York 
hip-hop scene and had been signed to P Diddy’s Bad Boy record label. He also had a wife, 
Crystal, and twin boys. 

Yet Trevell, who was brought up a Catholic and always retained his faith, had a terrible 
secret, as an 18-year-old, he had mugged and shot a man. He never knew what happened 
to his victim, yet 17 years later, in 2010, he could no longer bear the guilt and went to the 
police — a step almost unimaginable for someone from the Hip Hop world. 

A police search of their cold case files revealed the case of John Henkel — shot and killed 
in 1993 at exactly the same street corner in Harlem where Trevell says he committed his 

crime. He is now serving a jail sentence of 15 years to life for Henkel’s murder. Yet he has no 
regrets; “I wanted to get right with God”, he says. 

Trevell’s choice was perhaps hardest to bear for his wife Crystal, who now has to bring up 
their teenage boys on her own. 

This could be expressed as a supposed tension between “love” of family 
and doing the right thing — “justice”. Fletcher thinks that most other moral 
problems can be thought of in this way. Imagine we are trying to decide what 
is the best way to distribute food given to a charity, or how a triage nurse 
might work in a war zone. In these cases we might put the problem like this. 
We want to distribute fairly, but how should we do this? 

Fletcher says the answer is simple. To act justly or fairly is precisely to act 

in love. “Love is justice, justice is love”.’ 

4: Love wills the neighbor's good when we like him or not 

This is self-explanatory. As we noted above, agapé is in the business of loving 
the unlovable. So related to our enemies: 

Christian love does not ask us to lose or abandon our sense of good and evil, or even of superior 
and inferior; it simply insists that however we rate them, and whether we like them nor not, they 
are our neighbors and are to be loved.’ 

5: Only the ends justify the means, nothing else 

In direct rejection of the deontological approaches Fletcher says that any action 
we take, as considered as an action independent of its consequences is literally, 
“meaningless and pointless”. An action, such as telling the truth, only acquires 
its status as a means by virtue of an end beyond itself. 

6: Love's decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively 

Ethical decisions are not cut and dried most of the time and they exist in a 
grey area. No decision can be taken before considering the situation. Fletcher 
gives the example of a women in Arizona who learned that she might “bear a 
defective baby because she had taken thalidomide”. What should she do? The 
loving decision was not one given by the law which stated that all abortions 
are wrong. However, she travelled to Sweden where she had an abortion. 
Even if the embryo had not been defective according to Fletcher her actions 
were “brave and responsible and right” because she was acting in light of the 
particulars of the situation so as to bring about the most love. 

9 Ibid., p. 89. 
10 Ibid., p. 107. 



6. Problems with Fletcher’s Situationism 

Fletcher’s Situationism is a hopelessly confused and confusing moral theory. 
Fletcher’s work has the annoying tendency to present trivially true claims as if 
they are profound philosophical insights. 

At the most general level, Fletcher commits the fallacy of appealing to authority. 
This is simply the mistake of thinking that an argument is strengthened by 
saying that someone else — normally someone in “authority”, holds it. 

Fletcher uses many quotations from famous theologians and mentions 
famous philosophers, such as Aristotle, as a substitute for argument. 
Unfortunately simply appealing to others is not an argument. To see how 
useless this approach is consider the following: “Walker’s crisps are healthy 
because Gary Lineker says so”. 

The other concern throughout Fletcher’s work is that he is simply unclear 
and inaccurate, especially when dealing with the two central ideas: “love” and 

In some places he talks about love being an “attitude”. In other places he 
says it is what we ought to bring about as an end point. Which is it? Is it a loving 
“attitude” in virtue of which we act? Or is it about bringing about certain 

To see why this might be problematic, consider a case where we act out of 
the attitude of agape but the consequence is one of great death and destruction. 
Suppose we act in good “conscience” as Fletcher calls it but our act brings 
about horrendously dire consequences. According to Fletcher have we done 
right or wrong? It is not clear. 

If he does say that what we did is “wrong” then fine, agapé should not be 
thought of as an attitude, but rather some feature of consequences. This reading 
is of course in line with his agapé calculus. Ok, so then imagine the devil acting 
out of hatred and malice but — due to his lack of knowledge — happens to 
bring about a vast amount of love in the world. Has the devil acted in the 
morally right way? If the “agape calculus” is used then “yes”. So, according to 
Fletcher has the devil done the right thing? It is not clear. 

Notice it is no good saying “well we cannot decide because it depends on 
the situation!” Because we have just given you the details of the situation. If 
you need more information, just make some up and then reframe the question. 
So what Fletcher means by “love” is not clear. Nor is what he means by 

If you were writing a book on Situationism you would expect a clear and 
extended discussion of these concepts. However, there is no discussion of it 
in his key text and this is an important omission. To see how thorny the issue 

actually is consider the following. A politician stands up and says “given the 
current situation we need to raise taxes”. Our first response is probably going 
to be “what situation?” The point, simply put, is that there is no obvious way 
of knowing what is meant by “situation”. What we will choose to consider in 
any situation will depend on what is motivating us, what our dispositions are, 
what agendas we have. 

Consider a moral example. A terminally ill patient wants to die; given the 
situation what ought we to do? The point is what does, and does not, get 
considered in “the situation”, will be dependent on what we already think is 
important. Do we consider his religious views, the fact that he has three cats 
which depend on him? What about the type of illness, the type of death, who 
he leaves behind, the effect it might have on the judicial system, the effect on 
the medical profession etc. 

So then, as a way of actually working out what we ought to do, Fletcher's 
prescription that we should “ask what will bring about the most love in the 
situation” is singularly unhelpful. It seems perfectly plausible that one person 
might see the situation in one way and someone else see it in another, and 
hence we get two different claims about what we ought to do. You might 
think this is OK, on Fletcher’s account. But recall he rejects Antinomianism 

It is in fact quite easy to generate lots and lots of worries about Fletcher’s 
account. This is because his theory is based on a very crude form of 
Utilitarianism. Have a look at Chapter 1 where we suggest some problems 
and simply replace “happiness” with agape. Here is one example. 

Utilitarianism is accused of being counter intuitive. If we could only save 
our dad or five strangers from drowning, the utilitarian would argue we 
should save the strangers because five lots of happiness is better than one. But 
is not it admirable and understandable to save a loved one over strangers? 

The situationalist will have exactly the same problem. We might imagine 
that saving five strangers would bring about more “love” than saving your 
dad. In which case we ought to save the strangers over your dad. But is not it 
admirable and understandable to save a loved one over strangers? 

You can simply repeat this substitution for most of the problems we cited 
regarding Utilitarianism, e.g. it being “too demanding” and hence generate a 
whole host of problems for Fletcher. 

We leave you with the following quotation from Graham Dunstan writing 
in the Guardian, regarding Fletcher’s book: 

It is possible, though not easy, to forgive Professor Fletcher for writing his book, for he is a 
generous and lovable man. It is harder to forgive the SCM Press for publishing it. 


Fletcher’s Situational Ethics gained a popular following as it 
allowed the religious believer to fit their views into the rapidly 
changing and nuanced moral and political landscape of the 
1960s. Fletcher's position has a central commitment to God’s 
love — agape. It is this central focus on agapé as the moral guide 
for behaviour that allows Fletcher to claim that an action might be 
right in one context, but wrong ina different context — depending 
on the level of agapé brought about. In fact, Fletcher thinks that 
sometimes what might be morally required of us is to break the 
Ten Commandments. 

Despite how popular the theory was it is not philosophically 
sophisticated, and we soon run into problems in trying to 
understand it. His position is worth studying though (not 
just because it is on the curriculum!) because it opens up the 
conceptual possibility that a committed Christian/Jew/Muslim 
etc. may consider the answers to moral questions to depend on 
the diverse situations we find ourselves in. 

Mixing up Fletcher's use of “Positivism” with Ayer’s use of 

Thinking that Fletcher’s is a “pragmatist”. 

Think that situation ethics allows you do to anything you want. 
Think that love is about feelings. 

Think that by “conscience” Fletcher means a “moral compass”. 

Why do you think Fletcher’s book was so popular at the time of 

If an alien visited earth and asked “What is love?” how would you 
answer them? 

How does Situationism differ from “Utilitarianism” if at all? 
4. If we act from love, does that mean we can do anything? 

What does it mean to say that conscience is a verb rather than a noun? 
Do you think we have a conscience? If you do, should we think of it as 
a verb or a noun? 

6. Why does Fletcher say that his theory is: “fact-based, empirical-based, 
data-conscious and inquiring”? 

What do you think a Christian would make of Fletcher’s theory? 

Dd cal 

What do you think “situation” means? 
What does Fletcher mean by “positivism”? 

10. What is the “fallacy of appealing to authority”? Can you give your own 

11. Pick one challenge to Utilitarianism, and reform the challenge as one 
towards Situationism. 


Fletcher, Joseph F., Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Louisville and London: 
Westminster John Knox Press, 1966). 

Kirk, Kenneth E., Conscience and Its Problems: An Introduction to Casuistry 
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). 

‘Saudi Police “Stopped” Fire Rescue’, BBC News (15 March 2002), freely 
available at 


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Metaethical Theories 

But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the 
function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive’. It is used to express feeling about certain 
objects, but not to make any assertion about them." 


In purely length terms, this is a longer chapter than any other in this textbook. 
In addition, it contains lots of key terminology that will be unique to this 
chapter. Thus, we don’t advise that this chapter should be read/considered/ 
crammed in merely one sitting. 

Rather, we suggest that you choose specific sections of the chapter, perhaps 
informed by your course specifications or our suggested tasks at the end of 
the chapter, and engage with those sections in any one sitting. In addition, the 
first “Issue to Consider” at the conclusion of this chapter should be especially 
useful in guiding your journey through Metaethics. The ideas herein are no 
more complex, fundamentally, than elsewhere in the book; the breadth should 
not be daunting if properly managed. 

1. Metaethics: Introduction 

The prefix “meta” is derived from the Greek for “beyond”. Metaethics is 
therefore a form of study that is beyond the topics considered in normative or 
applied ethics. Recall as we stated in the introduction, the differences between 
these forms of ethical study are helpfully captured in an analogy put forward 
by Fisher (2011) involving different participants in a game of football. 

° Applied Ethics is the study of how we should act in specific areas of our 
lives; how we should deal with issues like meat-eating, euthanasia or 
stealing (to use examples familiar to this textbook). To use the football 
analogy, the applied ethicist kicks the philosophical football around 
just as a footballer kicks the ball on the field. A good applied ethicist 

1 A.J. Ayer, ‘A Critique of Ethics’, p. 21. 


might score goals and be successful by offering specific arguments that 
convince us to change our moral views in a particular corner of our 

° Normative Ethics is focussed on the creation of theories that provide 
general moral rules governing our behaviour, such as Utilitarianism 
or Kantian Ethics. The normative ethicist, rather than being a football 
player, is more like a referee who sets up the rules governing how 
the game is played. Peter Singer, for example, focuses on advancing 
applied ethical arguments within the normative framework of his 
Preference Utilitarianism (discussed in Chapter 1). 

e  Metaethics is the study of how we engage in ethics. Thus, the 
metaethicist has a role more similar to a football commentator rather 
than to a referee or player. The metaethicist judges and comments on 
how the ethical game is being played rather than advancing practical 
arguments, or kicking the football, themselves. For example, the 
metaethicist might comment on the meaning and appropriateness of 
ethical language, just as the football commentator might remark on the 
appropriateness of particular tactics or set-piece routines. 

Nobody is perfect, and it is therefore possible that some of you are not 
avid football fans. To respect this possibility, here is a non-football based 
explanation of what Metaethics amounts to. Metaethical conclusions do not tell 
us how we should morally act or which type of decision is morally correct in 
any one particular circumstance. Instead, Metaethics is focussed on questions 
regarding how ethical study — at both normative and applied levels — works. 
Some typical metaethical questions are: 

e | When we say something is “morally good”, what do we mean? 

° — Ifthe claim that “euthanasia is morally wrong” is true, what makes it 

° If moral claims are sometimes true, what methods do we use to access 

these moral truths? 

You should not expect a metaethical argument to provide specific guidance 
regarding how to act, but you should expect a metaethical argument to critique 
the foundations of normative or applied action-guiding moral theories. 

2. The Value of Metaethics 

A former colleague once suggested that Metaethics was entirely and 
frustratingly pointless — academia for academia’s sake, she thought. There 

are, however, good reasons for thinking that metaethical arguments can be 
just as worthy and valuable as their normative and applied counterparts. 

One such factor in favour of Metaethicsis as follows. Ifethics is fundamentally 
concerned with good behaviour or, as per Aristotle (his theory is detailed in 
Chapter 3), good characters, then it would seem to be desirable to properly 
understand what exactly “good” amounts to. 

Analogously, we would not consider attempting applied mathematics 
without first understanding what was meant by fundamental concepts like 
addition or subtraction. Nor would we consider attempting surgery on a 
person without being sure of the meanings of terms like blood, heart or liver. 
Understanding goodness — what it is and how we might access it — seems 
like a fundamental presupposition of successful ethical study, rather than a 
merely abstract topic of philosophical debate. 

3. Cognitivism versus Non-Cognitivism 

Key to the successful study of Metaethics is understanding the various key 
terminological distinctions that make up the “metaethical map”. Metaethical 
theories can be categorised, at least for our purposes, in respect of where they 
fall in the debates between Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism, and Realism 
and Anti-Realism. Thus, it is a prerequisite for understanding and evaluating 
metaethical theories that you understand these two debates. In this section, we 
deal with the debate between cognitivists and non-cognitivists. 

If you are a Moral Cognitivist (the “moral” prefix is assumed from hereon) 
then you have a particular view about the meaning of moral terms and a 
particular view about the psychology behind moral utterances. The former 
version of Cognitivism, concerned with meaning, is captured in the discussion 
of Semantic Cognitivism while the latter version of Cognitivism, concerned 
with psychology, is captured in the discussion of Psychological Cognitivism. 
Cognitivism, as discussed in the remainder of this chapter, is a combination of 
these two positions. 

Semantic Cognitivism 

Semantic Cognitivism (not to be confused with Realism) suggests that when we 
make moral claims of the form “murder is wrong” or “helping others is right” 
our claims can be true or false (what philosophers call truth-apt). According 
to the semantic cognitivist, what makes our moral statements true or false is 
whether or not they accurately pick out, or refer to, specifically moral aspects of 
the world. Thus, the semantic cognitivist views our moral language as essentially 
descriptive in nature; we try to describe genuinely moral features of the world 



and our moral claims are true when our descriptions are accurate and false 
when they are inaccurate. 

This position really is as simple as it sounds, even though it is by no 
means uncontroversial. Consider a semantic cognitivist about the meaning 
of statements in a news report. When the reporter says that “the defendant 
stepped into the courthouse and gave his name and his date of birth”, then 
this statement will be truth-apt — it will be the kind of statement that can be 
described as true or false. Whether it is true or false will be determined by 
the accuracy of this statement as a description of features of the world; if the 
statement correctly refers to the features of the world identified then it will 
be true, if it does not then it will be false. The situation is the same for the 
semantic moral cognitivist, if the utterance “murder is wrong” really does pick 
out a moral property of wrongness associated with murder then it will be true, 
and false otherwise. 

Crucially, keep in mind that Semantic Cognitivism only goes as far as 
suggesting that moral claims are truth-apt — capable of being true or false. 
Semantic Cognitivism, by itself, does not suggest anything about moral claims 
ever actually being true. To put it in another way Cognitivism has nothing to do 
with what actually exists in the world (that is Realism versus Anti-Realism — see 
below). Instead, it is purely a theory explaining the meaning of moral 

Psychological Cognitivism 

Psychological Cognitivism (not to be confused with Realism) is the view that 
when we utter a moral statement we give voice to a belief, rather than any 
other type of non-belief attitude. So, when I utter the statement “Leicester City 
won the Premier League in 2015-2016”, I express my belief that this happened. 
According to the psychological cognitivist, I also express a belief when I make 
claims such as “murder is wrong” or “helping others is right”. 

From here, Semantic and Psychological Cognitivism will be assumed to go 
together to form the cognitivist position. This is reasonable because it is most 
natural to think of a truth-apt utterance as being the expression of a belief, for 
we assume that a belief is the kind of thing that can be true or false and refers 
to the world. In ethics then, cognitivists claim that moral statements express 
truth-apt beliefs that are made true or false according to how accurately they 
describe the world. Moral language and moral psychology, according to 
the cognitivist, are not especially different to the language and psychology 
common to many other disciplines such as science, news journalism or non- 
fiction history books. 

You might be wondering what all the fuss is about so far; it is probably fair 
to say that Cognitivism is the common sense position when it comes to moral 
language and our associated psychology. Of course, you might think, ethical 
claims are truth-apt and that we express ethical beliefs, for what else could 
we be doing when we engage in normative or applied ethics? Richard Joyce 
(1966-) is of this view when it comes to Cognitivism and our moral utterances, 
suggesting that “...if something walks and talks like a bunch of [truth-apt, 
belief-state] assertions it’s highly likely that it is a bunch of [truth-apt, belief- 
state] assertions” .” 

Semantic Non-Cognitivism 

Semantic Non-Cognitivism might, given the plausibility of its cognitivist rival, 
seem to be an undesirable position. According to the semantic non-cognitivist 
when we utter sentences such as “murder is wrong” we are not attempting 
to describe any moral features of the world but we are simply expressing an 
attitude or feeling — perhaps disgust, or anger, in this case. Attitudes are not 
the types of things that can be true or false because they are not truth-apt; they 
do not aim at truth and do not attempt to describe or refer to any feature of the 
world. Consider what happens when you get frustrated with your work, for 
example, and exclaim “Ahhhhh!” This is an expression of an attitude, it is not 
something which describes the world and it is not truth apt. The semantic non- 
cognitivist thus argues that our moral utterances are more like “Ahhhhh!” than 
they are like “the defendant entered the courthouse”; they are non-descriptive, 
non-truth-apt expressions. 

Psychological Non-Cognitivism 

Psychological Non-Cognitivism is a view that is described by (though 
not defended by) Ralph Wedgwood (1964—-). According to Wedgwood, 
psychological non-cognitivists hold that the psychology behind our non-truth- 
apt moral expressions is not to be understood as based on “belief”, but rather 
based on “...desires, preferences, emotions, intentions or the like”.® 

Your cry of “Ahhhhh!” in frustration does not express a belief that your 
work is annoying — even though people might take you to be annoyed — but, 
most likely, a desire or preference for your work to be over. Such mental states 
are fairly common and unremarkable; it is just that they are different to belief 

2  R.Joyce, The Myth of Morality, p. 14. 
3. R. Wedgwood, The Nature of Normativity, p. 37. 



When discussing Non-Cognitivism from this point, it should be understood 
as a position combining both the semantic and psychological elements. 
According to the non-cognitivist our moral utterances are not capable of being 
true or false and are expressions of attitudes/preferences/desires/emotions 
etc. rather than expressions of belief. Responding to a moral utterance by 
saying “true” or “false” would be to fail to properly comprehend the meaning 
of that moral statement just as it would be a mistake to respond to a cry of 
“Ahhhhh!” by saying “false”. The non-cognitivist thus suggests a fairly radical 
understanding of our common views regarding what moral utterances mean 
and how moral discourse works. Later, specific non-cognitivist views will be 
explained and evaluated and you can judge the desirability of this revision of 
our normal understanding for yourself. 

4. Realism versus Anti-Realism 

The second key fork in the road that separates metaethical theories is the choice 
between Moral Realism and Moral Anti-Realism (as with Cognitivism, the 
“Moral” prefix is assumed from hereon). As before, understanding these broad 
positions is crucial to understanding and critiquing the specific metaethical 
theories outlined later in this chapter. 


Realism is a view about what exists. It is the view that moral properties exists 
independently of human beings and can be located in the world. Just as 
an action can possess properties such as being “Salika’s action”, “a violent 
action”, or a “depressing action” so too it might possess the property of being 
a “morally wrong action”. Peter Railton (1950-) describes himself as in favour 
of a position that might be called “stark, raving Moral Realism” in virtue of 
believing that mind-independent moral truth exists in the world.* 

Realism in ethics is somewhat controversial, but Realism in geography is 
far less controversial and might be a helpful guide to the realist view in ethics. 
When a geographer speaks of the water in Lake Ontario, the “Geography 
realist” believes that such water exists and has various properties and qualities 
(temperature, depth etc.) that exist independently and objectively; the water 
would have a particular temperature irrespective of any human belief about 
that temperature. Analogously, in ethics, realists hold that certain moral properties 
or facts exist and that they exist objectively and independently of the minds or beliefs 
of individual people (or at least, realists relevant for our discussion, such as 
Railton, believe this). Importantly, realists thus believe in the possibility of 

4 P. Railton, ‘Moral Realism’, p. 165. 

error — believing that “murder is wrong” does not make murder wrong. What 
would make murder wrong would be the presence of an actual moral property 
of wrongness (objective and mind-independent) associated with the act of 


Anti-Realism is simply the denial of Realism. Anti-realists deny the existence 
of any mind-independent, objective, moral properties. The moral anti-realist is 
thus akin to the anti-realist about dragons or leprechauns in that they simply 
deny their existence. 

Anti-realists tend to be (though need not be) non-cognitivists, a fact that 
should not be surprising given that non-cognitivists do not believe that our 
moral utterances aim of truth. However, the next section paints the metaethical 
map more specifically in respect of how Cognitivism, Non-Cognitivism, 
Realism and Anti-Realism might be combined to form specific metaethical 

5. The Metaethical Map 

The broad explanations of Cognitivism, Non-Cognitivism, Realism and Anti- 
Realism have been crucial because they allow the following categorisation of 
specific metaethical views to make sense. You really need to learn what these 
terms mean if any of the following is going to make sense. Drawing out the 
metaethical map might be very helpful, to this end. 

Example theories which are both cognitivist and realist 
Moral Naturalism 
Moral Non-Naturalism (e.g. intuitionist realist accounts) 

Theories both cognitivist and anti-realist 
Moral Error Theory 

Theories both non-cognitivist and realist 
We only know of one person holding this view: Kahane.° 

Theories both non-cognitivist and anti-realist 

The natural bedfellows between the broad positions outlined are thus 
Cognitivism and Realism, and Non-Cognitivism and Anti-Realism. If we 

5 G. Kahane, ‘Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim?’ 



aim for truth in our moral utterances, it makes sense to think that there are 
properties existing that we are trying to refer to and accurately describe. 

However, if our moral utterances do not aim for truth then this may neatly 
sit with the view that no such moral properties exist (otherwise, why would 
we not try to describe them?). 

The outlying theory is Moral Error Theory, which combines the cognitivist 
view that our moral utterances are expressions of truth-apt beliefs with the 
view that there are no realist objective moral properties in the world. Thus, 
moral error theorists believe that our moral utterances are always, in every 
circumstance, false. This is a controversial view and is explored in more depth 
in sections ten and eleven. 

6. Cognitivist and Realist Theory One: Naturalism 

Naturalists hold that there are moral properties in the world that make true 
at least some of our ordinary moral beliefs. Unsurprisingly, naturalists also 
hold that these moral properties are perfectly natural properties rather than 
being non-natural. To understand this claim, we need a better grip of what the 
philosophical and ethical naturalist actually means by the term “natural”. 

Naturalists in ethics hold that moral properties are as natural as those 
properties discussed and examined in the sciences, for example. So, the property 
of being “wet” is a perfectly natural property as is the more complex property 
of “being magnetic”. These properties can be investigated by scientists and are 
not supernatural or beyond the study of natural sciences. 

Gilbert Harman (1938-) suggests that “...we must concentrate on finding 
the place of value and obligation [morality] in the world of facts as revealed 
by science”.° If murder has the property of being morally wrong, then this 
property is natural if it fits into the world of facts as revealed by science. 

Simon Blackburn (1944-) (though not a realist himself) outlines the 
desirability and purpose of this commitment to Naturalism when he says that: 
“The problem is one of finding room for ethics, or placing ethics within the 
disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part”.” 

Moral Naturalism thus speaks to those who wish to defend Realism and 
truth in ethics, without resorting to non-natural justifications based on Gods, 
Platonic Forms and the like. The naturalist seeks to fit moral properties into 
the non-mystical world of ordinary science. 

Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that is underpinned by a 
metaethical Naturalism. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, if you recall 

6  G. Harman, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, p. 79. 
7 §. Blackburn, Ruling Passions, p. 49. 

from Chapter 1, defined moral goodness in terms of the act (or set of rules) that 
promoted the greatest amount of pleasure/happiness for the greatest number 
of people. Utilitarians thus view good as an entirely natural properties for there 
is nothing mystical, enchanted or supernatural about pleasure; scientists can 
perfectly well understand pleasure in terms of neural firings or psychological 

In addition, both Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse have sought to 
place Virtue Ethics (as discussed in its Aristotelian form in Chapter 3) within a 
naturalist metaethical framework. 

According to Hursthouse, human beings function well if they meet four 
particular ends — survival, reproduction, enjoyment/freedom from pain, and 
possession of an appropriate functional role within a group. As rational beings, 
we can determine the character traits and dispositions that can help us to meet 
these aims and such character traits and dispositions will then be virtuous. 
Virtue Ethics, thus defined, would therefore be a normative theory based 
on Naturalism because what makes something good or virtuous is entirely 
determined by natural factors to do with our psychology, behaviour, biology 
and social dynamics. As with Utilitarianism, no mystical or supernatural stuff 
is required to explain the virtues and associated moral goodness. 

Does Naturalism lead to Relativism? Harman claimed that, if correct, 
Naturalism would naturally lead us to Moral Relativism and away from 
Moral Absolutism (these theories are more specifically discussed in Chapter 
1). Harman suggests that if ethical guidelines and rules were absolute in 
nature then they would need to apply irrespective of contingent situations or 
contingent lifestyles; murder, for example, would be wrong irrespective of any 
specific situational factors if the claim that “murder is wrong” were absolutely 
true. However, if moral properties are natural properties, then Relativism 
may make more sense in virtue of the fact that natural properties can vary in 
presence from case to case. 

For example, it is not absolutely true that “London is north of Paris” because 
at some point continental plates will shift and these cities could move in 
relative location to each other. Nor is it absolutely true that “sections of the 
Australian coast have coral reefs”, since human activity and climate change 
might change this natural fact. Equally then, if a natural property is what 
makes true the claim that “murder is wrong” then this natural property might 
seem to depend upon the amount of pleasure produced, or else on some 
other changeable natural factor. If moral properties are natural properties, then 
actions might not be absolutely wrong but might instead be wrong relative to 
the changeable presence of those natural properties. 

Michael Smith (1954—) rejects Harman’s claim and suggests that Naturalism 
is, in and of itself, irrelevant to the debate between moral relativists and 



moral absolutists. Smith argues that absolutists and relativists will differ on 
questions regarding the rationality or reasonableness of human behaviour and 
that these questions cannot be settled by taking a stance on Naturalism or 
Non-Naturalism in ethics. 

For Smith, important questions relevant to the absolutist and relativist 
debate are a priori rather than a posteriori — meaning that these debates must 
be analysed and investigated by methods that do not involve testing the world. 
Thus, testing the world in order to determine the natural or non-natural status 
of moral properties cannot settle the a priori differences between relativists and 

7. Objections to Naturalism 

G. E. Moore was a supporter of Cognitivism and Realism. However, Moore 
was not a naturalist — he was a non-naturalist — and objected to the idea 
that moral properties were natural properties. Moore’s objection to identifying 
moral properties as natural properties was two-fold. Firstly, he thought that 
moral properties were fundamentally simple and secondly he thought the 
identification of the moral with the natural failed what he termed the Open 
Question Argument. 

Moore’s first objection to Naturalism, from simplicity, is based on an analogy 
between moral properties and colour properties. According to Moore, the 
concept of the colour yellow is a fundamentally simple concept in so far as it 
cannot be explained in terms of any other concept or property. Consider, as an 
example of a complex property, the idea of a horse. A horse can be explained 
to someone who has never come into contact with the animal because the 
concept of a horse can be reduced to simpler part. As a mammal of a typically 
brown colour, with certain organs and certain dimensions. In an obvious way, 
the concept of a horse can be broken down to simpler components. 

Moore denies that the same is true for the concept of yellow. Yellow cannot 
be explained to someone who has not come into visual contact with it, because 
yellow is a simple concept that cannot be broken down into simpler component 
parts. Yellow is just yellow, and we can say nothing else about it that will 
explain it in simpler terms. The same, says Moore, is true for moral properties. 
According to Moore: 

If I am asked, ‘What is good?’ my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the 

matter. Or if lam asked ‘How is good to be defined?’ my answer is that it cannot be defined, and 
that is all I have to say about it.§ 

8 G.E. Moore, ‘The Open-Question Argument: The Subject Matter of Ethics’, p. 35. 

On this basis, Moore cannot accept that moral properties can be reduced 
to natural properties as this would imply that moral properties are not 
fundamentally simple. The utilitarian, for example, defines goodness in terms 
of pleasure and so reduces goodness to pleasure. Moore suggests that moral 
naturalists make a mistake in trying to ground simple moral properties in 
terms of other natural properties. 

As it stands, Moore’s analogy between goodness and yellow has some 
argumentative pull but lacks sufficient robustness. However, Moore’s Open 
Question Argument more formally drives home his point. 

Moore suggests that we take some putative moral claim such as “giving to 
charity is good”. For goodness, Moore suggests we follow the naturalist’s lead 
and insert some natural property such as “pleasure”. Now, we have the claim 
that “giving to charity is pleasurable”. This identification between goodness 
and pleasure is the type of identification a naturalist about goodness might 
have in mind. 

However, according to Moore it remains an open question as to whether 
or not something creating pleasure is actually good. The question remains 
meaningful in a way that it should not remain meaningful if goodness is 
actually reducible to pleasure. After all, it is not possible to meaningfully ask 
whether or not a bachelor is an unmarried man as the concept of a bachelor 
can be reduced to the concept of an unmarried man. Thus, if this utilitarian- 
style naturalist is correct about the identification of goodness and pleasure, it 
should not be a meaningful question — an open question — to ask whether 
a pleasurable act is a morally good act. Yet, it seems to remain open as to 
whether Action A is good, even if Iam told that Action A is pleasurable. 

Moore suggests that any attempted reduction of a moral property to a 
natural property will leave a meaningful open question of the form “this act 
possesses the natural property suggested” but “is it a good act”? Julia Tanner 
provides a modern example of the Open Question Argument in action: 

Some people talk as if they think that that which has evolved is the same thing as being good. Thus, 
for instance, capitalism may be justified on the basis that it is merely an expression of ‘the survival 
of the fittest’ and ‘the survival of the [fittest]’ is good. To make such an argument is, according to 
Moore, to commit the naturalistic fallacy because good has been defined as something other than 
itself, as ‘the survival of the fittest’. 

Tanner refers to the Naturalistic Fallacy, which is Moore’s own terminology for 
the mistake of attempting to reduce the moral property to the natural property. 
All such attempted reductions will fail because it will always be possible to 
meaningful ask whether the suggested natural property is actually good; if 
this question is open then goodness does not equal the suggested natural 

9 J. Tanner, ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy’, 



property. Think of the Open Question Argument as the searchlight seeking 
out those who commit the naturalistic fallacy. 

It is worth noting that Moore’s arguments, although directed against 
naturalistic reductions of goodness, are just as powerful against non-natural 
reductions of goodness. Any attempt to reduce the concept of goodness to, 
for example, “what God wills” will also fail because the question of “this is 
what God wills, but is it good?” appears to remain open. Self-evidently, this 
non-natural reduction is not an example of a naturalistic fallacy, but it can be 
no more acceptable if, like Moore, you believe that good is a fundamentally 
simple concept. 

8. Cognitivist and Realist Theory Two: Non-Naturalism 

Moore’s critique of Naturalism sets the scene for his own metaethical view. 
According to Moore, moral properties do exist but they are fundamentally 
simple non-natural properties. The best way to understand what non-natural 
means is as follows. If Goodness is non-natural then it is not the kind of 
property that is discoverable through the kind of empirical means that help 
us to identify natural properties, such as in the sciences. How we might 
come to know non-natural properties depend on the particular theory under 
consideration. However, typically non-naturalists think that we intuit the 
presence of these simple non-natural properties via a moral sense. So although 
intuitions are about how we discover moral properties rather than what moral 
properties are like, typically non-naturalists are also intuitionists. 

Richard Price (1723-1791) suggested that truths are intuited when they 
are acquired “without making any use of any process of reasoning”.'° More 
contemporarily, W. D. Ross (1877-1971) suggested that we intuit self-evident 
moral truths “without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself”.!! An 
example should make this method of intuiting non-natural moral properties 
much clearer. 

Becky is watching a BBC news report on a woman who has been helped 
to hear for the first time in her life via the use of new medical technology. 
Having been so helped, the news report points out that this person has made a 
documentary which involves her passing on this technology to poor children 
who are living with deafness in Bangladesh. While watching the report and 
the associated interview, Becky intuits the fact that the doctors have acted in a 
morally good way in researching and implementing the cure for this woman’s 
deafness and that she too is acting morally well in helping others to hear. The 

10_ R. Price, ‘A Review of the Principle Questions in Morals’, p. 159. 
11 W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 29. 

moral goodness is self-evident in the situation and does not require Becky to 
use her faculties of reason to identify it; the property of goodness is picked up 
via her moral sense. 

W. D. Ross specifically suggests that there are various self-evident prima 
facie duties that we can intuit (prima facie meaning, in this sense, apparent on 
first glance); duties that should guide our behaviour but that sometimes can 
be overridden by other competing duties. Ross outlines duties such as not 
harming others, not lying, and keeping promises. Ross suggests that no formal 
empirical or logical defence of these duties is appropriate because they are 
self-evident. We cannot argue to the claim we should not lie, only from it in 
terms of how to act in specific situations. 

If you are an intuitionist and a realist this might offer a route to surviving 
both the Open Question Argument and the Naturalistic Fallacy. Intuitionists 
claim that moral properties are fundamentally simple and non-natural, open 
to apprehension via our moral sense. When we utter moral sentences we 
seek to describe the presence of such properties accurately and, sometimes, 
we will correctly and appropriately refer to the presence of these non-natural 
properties in the world. When we so appropriately refer, we make true moral 

9. Objections to Intuitionism 

Intuitionism offers a way around the Open Question Argument and the 
Naturalistic Fallacy, consequently it has a number of modern proponents 
(e.g. Ralph Wedgewood). However, objections to a basic Intuitionism are not 
particularly difficult to conceive of. 

Firstly, Intuitionism might be thought to struggle when explaining moral 
disagreement. If moral truths are self-evident and can be intuited, then why 
do even self-professed intuitionists such as Moore and Ross have radically 
different ethical views (Moore is a teleologist, whereas Ross intuits proto- 
Kantian moral truths). 

In response, Ross has suggested that we need a certain moral maturity to 
our intuitive sense, just as our other faculties require maturity and tuning to 
properly pick up on features of the world. Indeed, Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) 
suggested that, amongst other things, stupidity may lead to our intuitions 
going astray and this may explain continuing moral disagreement. If only we 
were less daft, our intuitive moral sense might be more reliable! 

In addition, on a related note, we may wonder how such intuitive 
moral judgments might be properly verified. If you support the Verification 
Principle — which you may be lucky enough to come across in a unit on 
Religious Language — then you believe that statements that cannot be 



empirically verified (tested against the world to determine their truth or 
falsity) or are true by definition are meaningless. 

If moral judgments are intuitively supported judgments about non-natural 
properties, then it is not clear how we could verify whether it is Moore or Ross, 
to use two examples, who intuits goodness correctly. Certainly, we could 
not use empirical means to test for the presence of non-natural properties 
in the world. Thus, verificationists may suggest that moral statements — if 
Intuitionism is correct — would be meaningless in virtue of our inability to 
verify such statements. 

Finally, returning to the theme of disagreement, we might posit evidence 
that our intuitions are so unreliable that they are better understood as irrational 
moral judgments expressing our own feelings or personal beliefs, rather than 
judgments giving voice to the existence of mind-independent, objective, non- 
natural moral properties. 

Consider responses to the standard ethical dilemma of a trolley case. In 
one version, you can redirect a train to save five people tied to the track, but 
doing so will kill one person tied in the path of the redirected train. In a second 
case, you can save five people tied to the track by pushing one rather portly 
gentleman to his death in front of the train to stop its progress. Most responders 
favour saving five over one in the first case, but favour saving one over five 
in the second case. If our intuitions point so divergently when we make moral 
judgments, might we be better to assume our pre-rational intuitive responses 
are expressions of feelings or initial beliefs, rather than a reflection of objective 

Perhaps responses based on moral maturity or stupidity will apply here also, 
but this may be harder to hold when explaining one person’s own personal 
divergent intuitions about such cases rather than disagreement across a group 
of different people. 

J. L. Mackie (1917-1981) also offers criticisms of Intuitionism, but these are 
explored in the next section as they feed into explanation of Mackie’s own 
Moral Error Theory. It is, as ever, for you to judge whether the intuitionist has 
any plausible defence of their theory against the criticisms suggested thus far. 

10. Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory One: Moral Error 

Thus far, we have seen that Cognitivism tends to be associated with Realism. 
Mackie breaks with this trend with his Moral Error Theory. Mackie accepts that 
our moral utterances are expressions of truth-apt beliefs, but denies Realism. 
In so doing, Mackie denies that possibility that our truth-apt beliefs are ever 

true, because a moral description of the world can never accurately describe a 
world without any moral properties in it. 

In Mackie’s own words, “Although most people in making moral judgments 
implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively 
prescriptive, these claims are all false”. By prescriptive, Mackie means 
action-guiding and Mackie denies that any objective guides to action (moral 
properties, in our terms) actually exist. 

Mackie’s view is startling and raises loads of questions about how we should 
live if morality is entirely false. Although interesting, these discussions are not 
for this chapter. Instead, we must explain and evaluate Mackie’s theory as it 
stands rather than consider its implications if true. A theory having depressing 
or liberating implications does not make that theory any more or less likely to 
be accurate (though it is surprising how often even the best philosophers are 
prone to such mistaken thinking). 

Mackie’s Anti-Realism is supported by the following two arguments. It 
should be made clear that Mackie’s arguments are directed against both 
Naturalistic and Non-Naturalistic Realism. 

Argument from Relativity 

Mackie’s first objection to Realism is built out of his appreciation of the depth 
of moral disagreement, and so shares something with one of the objections 
to Intuitionism offered in the previous section. Mackie suggests that in other 
plausible realist disciplines, such as the sciences or history views begin 
to coalesce around the truth over time and disagreement is, at least in part, 

Disagreement occurs in these disciplines because there is a barrier to true 
knowledge and scientists and historians will sometimes, through no fault of 
their own, be blind to the facts. However, sometimes the facts become clear 
and disagreement thereby reduces. 

Yet, in ethics, philosophers still disagree over the same issues that they were 
arguing over 2000+ years ago, questions such as “when is war acceptable” and 
“when can promises be broken”. If moral truths really did exist and Realism 
was correct, should we not have expected to find some of these truths by now? 
Thus, Mackie views disagreement in ethics — deep disagreement that seems 
impervious to solution through rational means — as evidence that Realism 
is incorrect; there are no moral facts to settle the debates or at least some of 
those debates would have been settled by now! Of course, if you think that 
some moral debates have been settled, then you could use this to criticise this 
Mackian argument. 

12 J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, p. 35. 


Argument Queerness 

Mackie’s second anti-realist argumentis his most famous. Moral properties — be 
they natural or non-natural — are supposed to be action-guiding. If it is true that 
murder is wrong, then we should not murder, even if we might want to. Equally, 
if it is true that giving to charity is right, then we should give to charity, even if 
we might not want to At its core, morality is supposed to offer reasons for action 
that we cannot simply ignore even if we like murdering or hate charitable 
giving. This aspect of morality, however, raises issues at the metaethical level. 

David Hume (1711-1776) recognised the potential problem with the action- 
guiding quality of morality when he spoke of the “is-ought” gap. According 
to Hume: 


In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met, I have always [remarked], that the author 
proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or 
makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am [surprised] to find, that 
instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is 
not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is however, of 
the last consequence.’ 

Hume wonders why and how we move from statements about what is the case, 
to statements about how we ought to act. We do not make such a link between 
‘is” and “ought” in areas other than morality — the fact that a horse is running 
at Goodwood does not, of itself, give you an “ought” regarding how to act in 
response. The fact that a moral property is, on the other hand, does seem to 
give rise to such an “ought” regarding behaviour. How can this be explained? 

Hume has his own suggestion for explanation, and this is outlined in section 
twelve. Mackie, however, takes this Humean worry in his own direction. 
Mackie suggests that properties themselves that carry such an action-guiding 
quality, that offer an “ought” just because they are, would be extremely queer 
properties. He says that “[if] there were objective values [moral properties], 
then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, 
utterly different from anything else in the universe” .'* 

Mackie suggests that if we can explain moral thinking without resorting 
to positing the existence of such queer and utterly unique entities then we 


would be better off. The simpler explanation is not to grant existence to weird 
properties, but just to suggest that there are no properties and that our moral 
beliefs reflect cultural and personal beliefs. Just as we do not tend to suggest 
that aliens or ghosts exist on the basis of first-hand testimony (competing 
explanations based on drunkenness or tiredness, for example, seem more 

13. D. Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, 
14 ‘J. L. Mackie, Ethics, p. 38. 

plausible) so we perhaps ought not to grant that moral properties exist just 
because we happen to talk about them. 

Indeed, support for Anti-Realism through a complaint about the queerness 
of moral properties is further supported via consideration of Hume’s fork. 

Hume divided knowledge into two camps — knowledge gained from 
relations of ideas and knowledge gained from matters of fact. Knowledge claims 
like “2+2=4”, or various geometric claims like “triangles have three sides”, 
are established in the former way whereas knowledge claims like “Alastair is 
wearing a blue shirt today” are established in the latter way. 

This split of types of knowledge is referred to as Hume’s fork, yet claims to 
moral knowledge do not seem to fit either side of the fork. Moral knowledge 
is not derivable simply from relations of ideas (it is not supposed to be like 
geometric or mathematical truth and cannot be deduced a priori without any 
testing the world through our senses). 

Nor, however, is it derivable simply from matters of fact, given the “is-ought 
gap referred to above (a posteriori, sense-based, worldly and scientific empirical 
observations reveal what is, not what ought to be). If moral knowledge does 
not fit into either side of Hume’s fork, then it will be the case that either moral 
knowledge is a completely unique type of knowledge accessed in a completely 
unique way or, more plausibly perhaps, moral knowledge does not actually 


exist. But if we cannot know that moral properties exist then we should not be 

Hume, certainly, would have rejected the idea that moral properties 
existed based on the application of his famous fork. Remember, however, that 
Hume favoured Non-Cognitivism and Anti-Realism rather than (like Mackie) 
Cognitivism and Anti-Realism. 

On a similar theme, Mackie strengthens the argument from queerness by 
referring to the queer method of understanding that we would need in order 
to come into contact with queer moral properties. Mackie suggests that we 
would need a special moral faculty in order to access queer moral properties. 
Although Mackie admires the honesty of the intuitionist in admitting the 
existence of such a queer moral sense, he does not think that it is credible to 
believe in the existence of such a radically different faculty for accessing realist 
moral properties in the world. 

As before, if we can explain our moral beliefs without needing to admit 
the existence of queer properties, then why admit to the existence of a 
queer method for grasping queer properties? Moral Realism, according to 
Mackie, thus requires an unnecessarily queer metaphysics (what exists) and 
an unnecessarily queer epistemology (how we know what exists). For these 
reasons, Mackie is an anti-realist. 



11. Objections to Moral Error Theory 

Realists have various responses to Mackie. Firstly, realists might just agree 
and accept the conclusion that moral properties would be queer in virtue of 
bridging the “is-ought” gap; they may simply deny that such queerness is a 
problem. Indeed, intuitionists may be very happy to accept the uniqueness 
of moral properties in virtue of their fundamental simplicity and their 
irreducibility to other properties. Naturalists, meanwhile, may simply wonder 
why something being different to other things should be seen as a problem; is 
it not the case that everything is different to everything else, in at least some 
sense? In addition, Mackie’s views regarding the importance and depth of 
moral disagreement can be criticised. 

A. J. Ayer (1910-1989), for example, felt that moral disagreements existed 
only where there were disagreements over the non-moral facts. On this view, 
Max and Ethan disagree over the morality of meat-eating only because they 
disagree over the non-moral fact of how much pain is endured by animals sent 
for slaughter. If all the non-moral facts were clear, then their disagreement 
would no longer persist. Thus, Ayer would have felt that moral disagreement 
is not as deep and pervasive as Mackie suggests. 

A different response to moral disagreement is to defend the idea of moral 
progress. It may be tempting to argue that moral disagreement has actually 
reduced over time because we have come into contact with truths regarding 
the badness of slavery, sexism and racism etc. Moral Error Theory denies the 
possibility of moral progress in virtue of denying any moral truth; progress 
requires correct answers. If you believe that progress has been made in ethics, 
perhaps in the form of human rights being identified, then you have a reason 
to disagree with Moral Error Theory. 

Moral Error Theory is also highly counterintuitive. It says that all of your 
moral beliefs are false and that they could never be true because no moral truth 
making properties exist in the world. It suggests that murder is not morally 
wrong (but it is not morally right either!) and that giving to charity is not 
morally right (but it is not morally wrong either!). Given there is no truth to be 
found in ethics, it might be thought that we should abandon our faulty moral 
language entirely — a rather extreme metaethical conclusion! 

However, if you do accept Cognitivism as an accurate explanation of moral 
language and psychology, but find it hard to grant that objective, mind- 
independent moral facts or properties actually exist in the world, then Moral 
may be worth these seeming costs. 

12. Non-Cognitivism 

Prior to an explanation and evaluation of the specific theoretical options for 
the non-cognitivist, it is worthwhile just providing a few words in favour of 
Non-Cognitivism more generally. 

If you are impressed by anti-realist arguments but do not wish to end 
up an error theorist, then it may be worth denying Cognitivism rather than 
following Mackie. Indeed, this is what the majority of anti-realists tend to do. 
Thus, non-cognitivists will be unconcerned by the lack of moral properties in 
the world because they deny that our moral utterances are attempts to pick 
such properties out. 

As well as supporting Anti-Realism, Hume’s identification of the “is-ought” 
gap might be taken as helpful evidence for Non-Cognitivism. If moral 
utterances carry with them an action-guiding force, this may be because moral 
utterances are not descriptive beliefs but are instead expressions of attitudes, 
feelings or emotions. This picture is certainly what Hume had in mind given 
his Humean Theory of Motivation. Hume claimed that beliefs alone cannot 
motivate behaviour because beliefs are motivationally inert. The function of a 
belief as a psychological state is to offer a motivationally neutral description 
of the world; beliefs say what we believe “is” and do not by themselves lead to 
us to action. To be motivated to actually act, according to Hume, a belief must 
be coupled with a desire in our heads. The following case should make Hume’s 
claim clearer. 

Liz believes that her friends will soon be arriving for a barbecue. However, 
Liz lacks any desire to cater for her friends and so does not act. Liz’s belief, 
by itself, does not and cannot motivate action on her part. Now, if we change 
the situation and add to Liz’s psychology a desire to feed and cater for her 
friends, then Liz would come to be motivated to act and prepare a delightfully 
sumptuous feast. Thus, Hume argues, desires are required in the explanation 
of our actions. 

So why is this relevant to a defence of Non-Cognitivism? Well, when a 
person utters a moral phrase, if the phrase is sincerely uttered, then they'll be 
motivated. For example, if I utter the words “giving to charity, for those who 
can afford to do so, is morally required”, then you would expect me to be 
motivated to give charity if I were able to do so; if I chose not to give to charity 
in that circumstance you might question the sincerity of my moral utterance. 

Moral utterances, and relevant moral motivations, seem to be remarkably 
well tied to each other. Now, if moral utterances were expressions of moral 
beliefs we would need to, in addition to the moral belief, grant the existence 



of a continuous desire to do what we believe is moral. However, if moral 
utterances were themselves moral desires then we need not add the extra belief 
into our psychology. If the phrase “giving to charity is morally right” is simply 
an expression of my desire that everyone should give to charity, then it is 
exceedingly simple to explain why our moral utterances and our motivations 
tend to track each other so well — our moral utterances are just expressions 
of our moral desires! But the claim that our moral judgements are simply an 
expression of our desires just is Non-Cognitivism. 

13. Non-Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory One: Emotivism 

A. J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson (1908-1979) were defenders of Emotivism, a 
metaethical view that held considerable sway for a time in the early parts of the 
twentieth century. According to Emotivism, the moral statement that murder 
is wrong is simply an expression of emotion against the act of murdering. It 
gives formal linguistic voice to what is essentially a negative “boo” to murder. 
Indeed, Emotivism is referred to as the “boo/hurrah” metaethical theory; 
when we claim that something is morally wrong we boo that action and when 
we claim that something is morally right we hurrah that action. This explains 
the connection between morality and motivation; we express motivationally- 
relevant emotional distaste or emotional approval when we use moral words 
rather than expressing motivationally inert moral beliefs. 

Although a verificationist about language himself, Ayer did not wish to deny 
that moral utterances had a meaning even though, as a non-cognitivist and 
anti-realist, he plainly could not suggest that moral utterances were empirically 
verifiable or open to real-world testing in order to determine their truth value 
(moral utterances, on this view, are not truth-apt beliefs attempting to describe 
the world). Thus, Ayer suggested that moral utterances had an emotive meaning. 
Ayer, speaking of the claim that “stealing money is wrong” says this is simply 
an act of “...evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, “You 
stole that money’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition 
of some special exclamation marks”.'° Thus, the moral judgment meaningfully 
reveals an emotion, even if not a description of the world. Emotivism does not, 
therefore, straightforwardly lead to nihilism as some meaning for moral values 
and moral judgments is preserved. On this basis, there is no pull to the idea 
that we should stop using moral language. 

Stevenson, in addition, suggested of moral terms like “right”, “wrong”, 

“good” and “bad” that they have only emotive meanings in the sense of 
approval and disapproval. Therefore, just as we cannot say that a “boo” is 
false, for it is not truth-apt so too we cannot say that a linguistic boo of the 

15 A.J. Ayer, ‘The Emotive Theory of Ethics’, p. 106. 

form “stealing is wrong” is either true or false. Stevenson thus argued that 
Emotivism captured the “magnetism” of morality — our moral utterances 
track our motivations because our moral utterances are expressions of the 
emotions that underpin our motivations. 

14. Objections to Emotivism 

Despite early popularity, Emotivism is not a popular position today and it is 
widely considered to be an unduly and unhelpfully simplistic form of Non- 
Cognitivism. We consider three objections here. 

Firstly, on a psychological level, Emotivism is unlikely to feel correct. When 
I suggest that a certain action is right or wrong, I take myself to be making a 
claim that is true and making a claim that reflects how I take the world to be 
(reflecting a moral belief in my head). I do not consider myself to be booing 
an action in a rather academic and indirect way. We might question whether 
abstract philosophising about the meaning of words should ever trump our 
own psychological reflections when it comes to what we mean when we utter 
moral sentences. Can it be the case that Ayer or Stevenson knew better than I 
what I meant when I said that “terrorism is morally wrong”? Can they know 
better than you, if you take yourself to be making truth-apt and descriptive 
moral judgments? 

Secondly, some of our moral utterances do not seem to be in the least part 
emotional. For example, Charlotte may feel that “it is wrong to avoid paying 
tax” but be quite depressed about this judgment. If we were cognitivists, this 
emotional divorce could be easily explained; Charlotte believes there to be 
a moral fact that is independent of her mind and her desires and this fact 
depresses her. However, it is not immediately obvious how Emotivism might 
explain Charlotte’s “boo to avoiding tax” when she harbours a desire to avoid 
tax herself. Perhaps we can have second-order emotions about our emotions 
(Charlotte is sad that she feels negatively towards tax avoiding), or perhaps 
Charlotte feels that others should not avoid tax — boo them — while she is 
happy act in this way — hurrah for her own tax avoidance. However, both of 
these responses require careful statement and defence if you seek to pursue 

Finally, we can return to moral disagreement. Consider a sincere moral 
disagreement between William and Wendy over the issue of euthanasia. Wendy 
says that euthanasia is morally right in at least some cases, whilst William says 
that euthanasia is morally wrong in all circumstances. William and Wendy 
may seem to be disagreeing via utilising logic and reason just as scientists, 
or economists, or computer technicians, disagree over a substantively correct 
answer that is independent of their own minds. 



However, once the facts of matter are agreed upon the emotivist must 
reduce this disagreement to a series of emotional boo’s and hurrah’s regarding 
euthanasia, where truth is never the aim of the moral utterances. Suggesting 
that moral debates are always emotive rather than factual, and so are swayed 
only by emotional rather than rational means, is a controversial claim given that 
moral reasons seem to be deployed very carefully in just such debates. Indeed, 
the emotivist explanation of moral debate seems to suggest moral arguments 
have more in common with arguments over which ice-cream flavour is best 
(boo for chocolate, hurrah for vanilla) than with truth-based disagreements in 
other academic disciplines. If this is not how we believe moral debates should 
be described, then Emotivism has a problem. As Richard Brandt suggests 
“Ethical statements do not look like the kind of thing the emotive theory says 
they are”’.’° Brandt, as per the above discussion, feels that moral utterances 
are things we take to be truth-apt, contra the emotivist interpretation of those 
moral utterances. 

The previous objection to Emotivism may seem to highlight possible links 
between Emotivism and moral relativism. But do not be deceived. Recall from 
Chapter 1 that relativists, as opposed to absolutists, hold that no moral claim 
is ever absolutely true in all circumstances. As a specific type of relativist, the 
cultural relativist may suggest that the claim “murder is wrong” can be true in 
some cultural settings and false in others depending on the different cultural 
standards for behaviour. Thus, there may be some suggestion that Cultural 
Relativism and Emotivism have the same set of grounding beliefs — no 
absolute moral truths exist and moral expressions reflect the culturally backed 
emotions of particular speakers, rather than anything more absolutely and 
mind-independently true. 

However, this is a mistake. Contra Emotivism, cultural relativists do tend 
to believe in a form of realist moral truth, even if such relativists do not hold 
that absolute moral truths exist. Whilst the cultural relativist may admit that 
ethical judgments often reflect personal and culturally supported emotions, 
they define goodness as a genuine property that is determined or fixed in 
nature by the cultural standards of a given society. 

Thus, if “murder is wrong” is a true relative to my culture, then it is still true. 
I am, therefore, mistaken if I claim that “murder is acceptable”, at least within 
the boundaries of my society even if not in the societies of others. This truth is 
non-absolute and relative to culture, but the cultural relativist accepts that it 
exists and that our moral statements attempt to describe such truths. On the 
other hand, the emotivist, obviously, does not accept that our moral statements 
are such attempted descriptions of realist, albeit relativistic, moral truths. 

16 R. Brandt, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics, p. 226. 

15. Non-Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory Two: 

R. M. Hare was a committed non-cognitivist and anti-realist but he was not 
a defender of a simple emotivist position. Instead, Hare was a metaethical 

As a prescriptivist, Hare felt that our moral utterances express more than 
just emotional approval and disapproval. Instead, our moral utterances 
express a subjective prescription for others to act in accordance with our 
moral judgments. So, for example, if William claimed that “euthanasia is 
morally wrong” then this utterance means that William wants others to cease 
supporting or deciding in favour of euthanasia. Prescriptivism thus attempts 
to capture the action-guiding nature of moral utterances without resorting to 
claims of moral truth. 

Prescriptivism also seems to better account for moral disagreement than 
does Emotivism, because Prescriptivism suggests that the action-guiding 
normative edge of moral utterances is fundamentally built into the meaning of 
amoral statement. In addition, perhaps crucially, Prescriptivism also allows us 
to legitimately criticise another person for their moral views without needing 
to invoke claims of realist moral truth or realist moral falsehood. Consider the 
following example. 

Cristina claims that “murder is universally and absolutely morally wrong”. 
According to the prescriptivist, this is not a descriptive belief but is a reflection 
of Cristina’s non-cognitive attitude that no one should ever murder. However, 
if Cristina later utters the words “murdering this terrible dictator is morally 
acceptable”, then we can criticise Cristina’s inconsistency. On the one hand, 
she wants no one to ever murder whilst on the other hand also wanting the 
murder of a terrible dictator. It is not that Cristina had made a false moral 
claim that justifies criticism of her, according to the prescriptivist, but it is her 
inconsistency in the actions she prescribes for others that justifies criticism. Thus, 
we cannot cry “false!” against Cristina, but we can cry “inconsistent”. This, at 
least, may give some genuine meaning back to moral disagreement and provide 
a method for legitimately and rationally criticising the moral claims of others. 
Prescriptivism is, on this basis, often viewed as a step-up on Emotivism when 
it comes to non-cognitivist and anti-realist metaethical theories. 

16. Objections to Prescriptivism 

Many of the challenges to Prescriptivism carry over from the challenges 
suggested regarding Emotivism. The prescriptivist must also explain why 
they know better the meaning of our moral statements than we do, at least if 



we take ourselves to be making truth-apt and descriptive claims about moral 
properties in the world. 

In addition, we might accept that Prescriptivism captures the qualities 
of moral disagreement better than Emotivism, but deny that the picture of 
moral disagreement offered by the prescriptivist is good enough. After all, 
is inconsistency the most serious objection we can make to someone with 
whom we disagree morally? Prescriptivism does not allow us to suggest 
that a racist who believes “it is morally acceptable to kill those of a different 
racial background” utters something false. Indeed, so long as the racist holds 
morally consistent views then we have no grounds to criticise his position at 
all. If we feel that retaining the ability to cry “false!” — with proper, rational 
and realist justification — is important when confronting the moral views of 
racists, sexists and other morally deplorable individuals, then Prescriptivism 
does not offer the tools that we need. Of course, the prescriptivist may reply 
that we cannot claim that Realism is correct just because we wish it to be so 
and that Prescriptivism, like it or not, is actually the proper understanding of 
the meaning of our moral judgments. Again, this is a judgment you should 
make for yourself. 


There is much more that could be said in this chapter. Metaethical 
theories are as varied and nuanced as their normative rivals, 
and it is impossible to give a fair hearing to all of them in a 
single chapter. Catherine Wilson has authored an enquiry into 
Metaethics that reflects the challenge of coming to your own, 
first-person, view on these issues.'” However, we have tried as 
far as possible on this whistle-stop tour to outline these theories 
clearly and to give them such a fair hearing. It is for you to decide 
where you sit in the debate between Cognitivism and Non- 
Cognitivism, Realism and Anti-Realism, and, more generally, 
to decide how much importance Metaethics has relative to the 
normative and applied camps of ethical study. 

17 C. Wilson, Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint, 


° Not breaking down the chapter so as to be firmly in grasp of the 
meanings of key terms, and then the nature of the theories, before 
trying to engage in evaluation. 

° Confusing Cognitivism, Non-Cognitivism, Realism and Anti-Realism. 

°  Misunderstanding the queerness complaint. 


° Forgetting the importance of asking a meaningful question when 
explaining the mechanism of the Open Question Argument. 

° Not using analogies appropriately — think of other realist/naturalist/ 
cognitivist/non-cognitivist disciplines and examples, then compare 
these to ethics. 

° Ignoring the explanations of disagreement offered by intuitionists. 

° Not linking criticisms of one position to support for another position; 
e.g. Moore’s attack on Naturalism explains his intuitionist views and 
Mackie’s attack on Realism justifies his anti-realist position. 

° Not using examples to aid explanation because not directly dealing 
with obviously normative or applied issues. 


1. Can you create your own Metaethical Map? Try drawing out a flow- 
chart style diagram that separates Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism, 
followed by the associated theories. If feeling confident, then try to add 
weaknesses and strengths to your map. We recommend this as an excellent 
study aide!'® 

Does Emotivism lend support to Relativism? 
Does Naturalism lend support to Absolutism? 

4. Does something being queer (in Mackie’s sense of the term) make it 
less likely that it exists? 

5. Does moral disagreement lend support to Anti-Realism? 

6. Cana philosopher ever know what you mean better than you know? 

18 For an excellent Metaethical map see A. Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, p. 8. 

Is Metaethics as important as normative or applied ethics? 

Are moral judgments meaningless if they are about non-natural 
properties? If they are non-cognitive? 

Do we just know what is right or wrong based on common sense? Does 
this support Intuitionism? 

Can you give another example of an Open Question Argument, with a 
different candidate natural moral property? 

Is there such a thing as moral progress? What does this suggest in 
terms of Metaethics? 

Can a non-cognitivist properly explain moral disagreement? 

What is the Humean account of motivation? Why does it support 

A priori Prescriptivism 
A posteriori Prima facie 
Anti-Realism Queer 
Cognitivism Realism 
Empirical Relativism 
Naturalistic Fallacy Semantic 
Non-Cognitivism Truth-apt 

Normative Verificationism 


Ayer, A. J., ‘A Critique of Ethics’, in Ethical Theory, ed. by Russ Shafer-Landau 
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2007). 

—, ‘The Emotive Theory of Ethics’, in Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Theory, 
ed. by George Sher (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 103-10. 

Blackburn, Simon, Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). 

Brandt, Richard, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics 
(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1959). 

Fisher, Andrew, Metaethics: An Introduction (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), https:// 

Harman, Gilbert, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000). 

Hume, David, A Treatise on Human Nature (London: John Noon, 1739), freely 
available at 

Joyce, Richard, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 

Kahane, G., ‘Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim?’, 
Journal of Moral Philosophy, 10.2 (2013): 148-78, https://doi. 

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

Miller, A., An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics (Cambridge: Polity, 

Moore, G. E., ‘The Open-Question Argument: The Subject Matter of Ethics’, 
in Arguing About Metaethics, ed. by Andrew Fisher and Simon Kirchin 
(London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 31-47. 

Price, Richard, ‘A Review of the Principle Questions in Morals’, in The British 
Moralists 1650-1800, ed. by D. D. Raphael (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 
pp. 131-98. 

Railton, Peter, ‘Moral Realism’, The Philosophical Review, 95.2 (1986): 163-207, 

Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), 



Tanner, Julia, “The Naturalistic Fallacy’, The Richmond Journal of Philosophy, 
13 (2006), freely available at 

Wedgwood, Ralph, The Nature of Normativity (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 2007), 

Wilson, Catherine, Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint (Cambridge: Open 
Book Publishers, 2016),; freely available 


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His enemies put it bluntly. Singer says it’s OK to kill disabled babies. Singer says seriously 
damaged human beings are on a par with apes. Singer says it would have been OK to kill his own 
mother. These charges are spat out of the sides of their mouths. One theologian I spoke to said 
contemptuously, ‘Peter Singer takes the most basic human instincts and tries to reason them out 
of existence. What does he expect us to do, hug him?” 

1. Euthanasia Introduction 

There is an old adage that only two things in life are certain — death and 
taxes. While the morality of the latter would be an interesting topic itself 
(and you may look to issues discussed in Chapter 8 for some inspiration), it is 
the morality of an issue connected to the former that draws the focus of this 
chapter. Specifically, we consider the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia 
(sometimes labelled as “mercy killing”). 

2. Key Terms 

The etymology of euthanasia helps to reveal the meaning of the term. Like 
most upstanding and respectable philosophical terms, euthanasia has its 
roots in Ancient Greek language; it is based on a combination of the terms eu 
meaning “well” and thanatos meaning “death”. Euthanasia is thus the act of 
seeking to provide a good death for a person who otherwise might be faced 
with a much more unpleasant death — hence the term “mercy killing”. 

There are different ways to categorise the various types of euthanasia and it 
is critical to be confident and familiar with these categorisations. 

Voluntary Euthanasia 

Voluntary euthanasia occurs when a person makes their own choice to have 
their life terminated in order to avoid future suffering. 

1 ‘J. Hari, ‘Peter Singer: Some People are More Equal than Others’, 


Non-Voluntary Euthanasia 

Non-voluntary euthanasia occurs when a decision regarding premature 
and merciful death is made by another person, because the individual to be 
euthanised is unable to make a decision for themselves. This form of euthanasia 
is most commonly associated with young infants or patients in a coma who 
cannot, due to the nature of their age or condition, make any decision for 

The above offers a differentiation of types of euthanasia in terms of the 
person making the decision. In addition, we can differentiate between types of 
euthanasia based on the method involved in ending a life. 

Active Euthanasia 

If a person is actively euthanised it means that their death was caused by 
external intervention rather than natural causes, most likely through a lethal 
injection or the voluntary swallowing of a deadly cocktail of drugs. 

Passive Euthanasia 

Passive euthanasia occurs when a person is allowed to die due to the deliberate 
withdrawal of treatment that might keep them alive. Thus, a person who is 
passively euthanised is allowed to die via natural causes even though methods 
to keep them alive might be available. A person who has a life-support machine 
switched off, for example, dies via natural causes but only as a result of a 
decision to allow natural causes to take effect. 

Although euthanasia that is both voluntary and passive is not particularly 
common, euthanasia could come in any combination of methods and decision- 
makers as laid out. Legality of the forms of euthanasia varies from nation to 
nation; Belgium allows for voluntary and active euthanasia, the UK does not. 

In the next two sections, we outline two different forms of medical afflictions 
that will ground discussion of arguments in favour and against the varying 
forms of euthanasia. As an applied ethical issue, it is important to make ethical 
claims in the light of practical and real-world factors. 

3. Case One: Persistent Vegetative State 

A person is in a Persistent Vegetative State (hereafter PVS) when they are 
biologically able to support their own continued existence, but they have no 
meaningful psychological interaction with the world around them. A patient 
ina PVS, according to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, can 
neither follow an object with their eyes nor respond to the sounds of voices 

and will show no discernible sign of emotion. The vegetative state is defined 
as persistent when the condition is in place for up to a year and doctors 
view no prospect of recovery as plausible. The PVS label may seem crude or 
upsetting, but the message about the difference between the physical and the 
psychological state of the patient is stark. 

Inthe US, Terri Schiavo fell into a PVS when she suffered oxygen deprivation 
to her brain as a result of a heart attack. Although she survived the heart-attack, 
her husband ultimately came to the view that her continued existence was not 
desirable and that she would be better off being allowed to die. 

In the United Kingdom, the parents of Tony Bland — a victim of the 
Hillsborough football disaster in 1989 — made a similar decision regarding 
the life of their son after he fell into a PVS. Tony Bland’s parents campaigned 
for their son to be allowed to “die with dignity” rather than continue existing 
in his emaciated state. One can only attempt to imagine the emotional turmoil 
for the relatives in such cases and it is worth mentioning that Terri Schiavo’s 
parents ultimately fought a legal battle against their son-in-law in attempt to 
ensure that Terri was not allowed to die. 

When considering the morality of euthanasia for patients in a PVS, it is 
clear that we should be considering only non-voluntary euthanasia, due to 
the fact that such patients are clearly unable to make any kind of voluntary 
decision regarding their future interests. For the sake of simplicity, we will 
assume there are no relevant letter of intent from such patients, written in case 
they should lose their faculties, describing their desires should they fall into 
such a condition. However, you may find it rewarding to consider the moral 
implications of such a letter. Would the letter provide a voluntary decision 
that morally ought to be respected even when the patient is in a PVS? 

4. Case Two: Incurable and Terminal Illness 

Imagine a patient who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease that will 
ultimately bring about their death. As the condition progresses over time, the 
patient knows that their ability to live a normal life will decrease and that their 
physical suffering will increase. You can imagine for yourselves the range of 
diseases and conditions that may have such unfortunate effects upon a person. 

Unlike the patient in a PVS, the patient in this example retains the ability 
to ask for euthanasia themselves and so these cases can highlight moral issues 
surrounding voluntary euthanasia. Again, for simplicity in our discussion, we 
do not consider where the line can be drawn regarding patients in fit or unfit 
psychological states when it comes to an ability to make a voluntary decision 
to be euthanised, although this is also an issue that would reward further 
moral thought. 



5. Pro-Euthanasia: Argument One 

In this section, we consider the first of the arguments in favour of the moral 
acceptability of euthanasia. This argument is a general argument and would 
apply to both non-voluntary and voluntary forms of euthanasia. However, the 
argument, if sound, would also seem to suggest that active euthanasia is more 
morally acceptable than passive euthanasia for reasons discussed at the end 
of this section. 

This initial argument can be labelled as the argument from quality of 
life. According to this relatively simple idea, sometimes life is actually less 
preferable than death. On such occasions, when quality of life is so dreadful 
that a person would be “better off” dead, then euthanasia would be morally 
justifiable. Evidently, much turns on what counts as a worthwhile life. Recalling 
the section on well-being from Chapter 1, there are various philosophical 
positions that might seek to provide a criterion to measure the quality of a 
person’s life. A hedonist, for example, would suggest that the quality of a life 
depends on how much happiness/pleasure a person experiences; a supporter 
of a desire-satisfaction theory would suggest the quality of a life depends on 
how many of a person’s desires are satisfied; an objective-list theorist would 
suggest that the quality of a life depends on how many objectively valuable 
goods a person possesses — goods including, but not limited to, knowledge 
and love, for example. 

Whichever one of these views a person supports, or even if they understand 
other factors as being determinants of the quality of a life, there can little 
doubt that a person in a PVS has, at best, a non-existent quality of life in 
virtue of their extreme psychological limitations. Suggesting that some form 
of consciousness is necessary to having any kind of quality of life, Jonathan 
Glover (1941-) says: 

I have no way of refuting someone who holds that being alive, even though unconscious, is 
intrinsically valuable [valuable irrespective of the form of being alive]. But it is a view that will 
seem unattractive to those of us who, in our own case, see a life of permanent coma as in no way 
preferable to death. From the subjective point of view, there is nothing to choose between the two.” 

Deprived of happiness and other capabilities, the life of a patient in a PVS 
seems to be at best utterly neutral and at worst negative in respect of quality of 
life, perhaps depending on any experience of physical pain. Patients in a PVS 
are not merely bed-ridden like some who might have suffered severe strokes 
or other such afflictions; they are biological entities lacking the distinguishing 
psychological qualities of typical human beings. This may go some way to 

2 J. Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives, p. 45. 

explain why some (but by no means all) partners and parents of people in 
PVS’s are willing to favour an end to the patient's life. 

The case of Diane Pretty is informative when considering the quality of 
life of a person with a terminal illness who is nearing the end of their life. 
Diane Pretty suffered from motor-neurone disease and although she remained 
mentally proficient, the worsening of her condition over time led her to request 
to be allowed to die quickly and without undue suffering. Although the point 
in time cannot be sharply labelled, it seems extremely plausible that many of 
those with worsening terminal illnesses will reach a point in time where their 
quality of life is non-existent or negative in virtue of their physical suffering 
and their inability to enjoy life, satisfy desires or acquire objectively valuable 
goods. I recall, as a young teenager, listening to Diane Pretty express her desire 
to be allowed to die and wondering how anyone could reach a point where 
they would not want to see one more sunrise or live one more day — these 
questions, I suggest, reflected more of my inability to empathise with her daily 
existence than they did with undue depression on her part. 

Thus, if we focus on the quality of life for patients in a PVS, or for those 
nearing the final stages of a terminal illness, we may well grant that there is 
a time when quality of life either becomes negative or ceases to be relevant. If 
we suggest that a life with no discernible quality of life is not worthwhile, then 
euthanasia may appear morally justifiable. 

If you find the argument from quality of life convincing, then you may judge 
that active euthanasia is far more morally defensible than passive euthanasia; 
after all the judgment that euthanasia is morally acceptable may seem to be the 
load-bearing judgment, with the choice of method more of a practical than a 
moral issue. Indeed, in this context, passive euthanasia might seem to be the 
worst of all worlds. 

According to Peter Singer, “Having chosen death [as a morally acceptable 
course of action] we should ensure that it comes in the best possible way”.° 
The best possible way, if we remain interested in quality of life, might seem 
to be a lethal injection designed to send a patient painlessly to sleep before 
shutting down their organs, or a selection of drinkable liquids that have the 
same effect. The best possible way might not seem to involve turning off a life 
support machine or withdrawing proactive treatment in order to allow nature 
to take its course, when the course of nature may be directed by starvation, 
dehydration or secondary infections. Although these passively viewed death- 
causing effects may be managed with pain killers, Singer’s relatively simple 
thought is that if death is deemed morally desirable, then why not simply 
provide death actively rather than passively? 

3. P. Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 186. 



In addition, if we recall the ideas of Situation Ethicist Joseph Fletcher 
(as outlined in Chapter 5) then we may wonder whether or not (assuming 
death is morally desirable) passively allowing death to occur is actually less 
loving than actively bringing death about. As a relativistic normative ethical 
theory, Situation Ethics provides no absolute guidance regarding the moral 
acceptability of euthanasia in any of its forms; situation-specific, practical 
and pragmatic judgments will need to form the basis of moral judgments 
in individual cases. However, it is important to consider how loving active 
euthanasia might actually be in the circumstance where the death of the 
patient is actually our ambition. 

6. Pro-Euthanasia: Argument Two 

The second argument we can offer in support of euthanasia — both in voluntary 
and non-voluntary forms — can be labelled the argument from resource use. 
Whereas the former argument attempted to defend the moral acceptability 
of euthanasia by utilising the perspective of the patient and their associated 
quality of life, this argument may seem a little more detached and you may or 
may not view this as a strength or weakness. 

According to Peter Singer, the non-voluntary euthanising of a severely 
disabled and suffering young infant child (who cannot express any wishes 
regarding their future) may be justifiable on the following grounds: 

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of 
a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.* 

Singer’s suggestion may sound callous, and if you view killing an innocent 
life as an absolute moral wrong then you may view his claim as immediately 
morally out of bounds (this kind of objection to euthanasia is considered in a 
later section). For now, however, let us take Singer’s claim at face value. Being 
a preference utilitarian (further detail on this theory is available in Chapter 1), 
Singer makes his judgment regarding how to act in such a case based on the 
quality of life of the individuals involved. So, on his view, the disabled infant 
may have a lower quality of life than a healthy child who might be born in 
their stead because the latter, and not the former, can secure greater preference 
satisfaction. Thus, we morally ought to bring about the situation in which the 
healthy child is born. 

If we assume that those who are in a PVS, or those suffering near the end 
of a terminal condition, have a low quality of life then we might think that 
spending our limited medical resources on maintaining their existence, rather 

4 Ibid., p. 163. 

than spending those resources elsewhere, is not morally desirable. This kind of 
argument will appeal to a teleologist rather than a deontologist, for it ascribes 
moral values to actions based on consequences rather than duties. In this setting, 
the consequences of spending resources on PVS patients may be less positive 
than spending those same resources on effectively treating other diseases or 
funding medical research to benefit future generations. 

Some financial figures may put this possible argument into context. 
According to the Madison County Record, Christina McCray (a patient in a 
PVS) had medical bills that average out to $250,000 per year.’ If we consider 
the years of life that a patient in a PVS may have, along with the number 
of PVS patients that exist, then the cost of keeping such individuals alive 
becomes clearer. If medicine is sometimes about making difficult decisions, 
then it may become clear why non-voluntary euthanasia of such patients 
might be considered desirable (at least with the support of the family). In 
addition, if a patient with a poor quality of life, who is facing future suffering 
with associated expensive care, voluntarily requests euthanasia then it may be 
that their death will allow resources to be better directed to other patients who 
might have their suffering reduced more significantly. 

It is worth noting, for those uncomfortable with this kind of resource 
allocation planning when it comes to treating ill, suffering and frail patients 
that decisions in the National Health Service are already being made in the 
light of teleological and quality-of-life based reasoning. The NHS utilises 
QALYs when making financial planning and treatment costing decisions. 
QALY is shorthand for Quality Adjusted Life Year, a measurement designed 
to consider the benefits of different treatment costs in respect of their pay- 
offs to the patients involved. If a potential treatment will lead to a patient 
being free from pain and able to perform daily activities (this is a somewhat 
rough definition, but enough for our purposes) then the year in which this 
outcome is expected can be given a value of 1. Each following year can then 
be given a value between 0 and 1 according to the expected lasting impacts of 
the treatment. Thus, allocating spending to different forms of treatment for 
different patients can be objectively calculated against a common standard 
in order to inform those spending decisions in terms of where the better 
consequences might be secured. 

The argument from resource use is, therefore, an extension of the use of 
a QALY to inform medical decision-making. If the positive consequences of 
spending money on treating patients who might be cured or helped to have 
a higher quality of life are greater than spending money to keep people alive 

5 Madison-St. Clair Record, 



who either wish to die and have a diminishing quality of life or who are ina 
PVS, then spending on the former is morally defensible rather than spending 
on the latter. Again, you might consider how loving it is to spend money 
keeping a patient in a PVS alive versus investing in research for cures and 
treatments that could improve the quality of life for other patients in a world 
where resources are finite. 

7. Pro-Euthanasia: Argument Three 

The final argument we will offer in favour of euthanasia is an argument 
often viewed as the most powerful in this applied ethical area, the argument 
from personal autonomy. This argument proceeds from the fairly plausible 
assumption that people should have the right to make their own decisions 
and should be able to decide the paths of their own lives. If the right to choose 
our own path applies in life, then why would this not apply in respect of our 
choice of how and when to die? 

Perhaps the most famous philosophical proponent of a right to personal 
autonomy and decision-making was John Stuart Mill. As discussed in Chapter 
1, Mill elucidated the harm principle, which suggested that the only legitimate 
government interference in a person’s life is to stop that person from 
harming others; all other interference is not to be justified. If you subscribe 
to this principle, then you seemingly must believe that a person voluntarily 
requesting euthanasia should not be denied the right to die, unless their 
dying would cause harm to another person. If we discount emotional harm 
(because many normal things that we do seem to cause emotional harm to 
other people — getting a job over another candidate, for example) then it is not 
easy to envisage a circumstance in which a terminally ill patient, requesting 
a merciful death before their suffering becomes too extreme, would have a 
death that causes physical harm to another person. Therefore, if we believe in 
the power and moral right of the individual to act in the way that they deem 
correct, unless physically harming another, then we must seemingly allow 
that voluntary euthanasia is morally justifiable. Singer sums up the position: 

...the principle of respect for autonomy tells us to allow rational agents to live their own lives 
according to their own autonomous decisions, free from coercion or interference; but if rational 
agents should autonomously choose to die, then respect for autonomy will lead us to assist them 
to do as they choose.® 

6 P. Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 195. 

We have spoken above of voluntary euthanasia specifically, for the patient ina 
PVS obviously cannot choose how to die. If we return to the earlier mentioned 
possibility of a letter of intent, written prior to the condition taking hold, then 
in certain instances non-voluntary euthanasia may also be justified on this 
basis — though of course, such cases seem to a species of voluntary euthanasia. 

However, if we would trust loved ones to make other important medical 
decisions for us if we were incapacitated, then perhaps the same should apply 
in this context and non-voluntary euthanasia might be justifiable in virtue of 
properly respecting the choices made by one relative on behalf of another. It 
is for you to consider if a theory of personal autonomy can be extended to 
familial autonomy in such a way. 

8. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument One 

Thus far we have only outlined pro-euthanasia arguments. In fact, we have 
really only provided pro-active euthanasia arguments in virtue of Singer’s 
suggestions regarding the undesirability of passive euthanasia. It is now 
time to give anti-euthanasia, and anti-active euthanasia, arguments their fair 

The first objection to euthanasia may be termed the objection from Sanctity of 
Life. The Sanctity of Life ethic is usually founded on religious, and specifically 
Christian, thinking. Essentially, a belief that life is sacred suggests an absolute 
value to life, of atype that means itis worthwhile in all circumstances; in Glover's 
earlier words it is the view that life has an intrinsic value that supersedes any 
qualitative aspect. For Sanctity of Life theorists and supporters as described in 
this section, problems with the quality of a life never undermine the ultimate 
value and worth of a life. 

It is not necessary to be religious to hold the view that all lives are worth 
preserving, irrespective of quality. A non-religious person may prefer to speak 
of an absolute right to life that cannot be taken away through non-voluntary 
euthanasia, and cannot be revoked by personal decree in the context of 
voluntary euthanasia. However, more often, the view is supported by Biblical 
reference. In the Bible, we are told that God said: “Let us make mankind in our 
image, in our likeness”.” 

In addition, our bodies are described as sacred and as containing God’s 
Holy Spirit: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that 
God's Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will 
destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that 

7 Genesis 1:26, 



temple” .* These quotes not only reveal the sanctity of our bodies and the cause 
of that sanctity — our creation in the image of God and the presence of God’s 
spirit within us — they also reveal the punishment for those who might take 
life; might this relate to doctors who administer euthanasia? 

Whilst the arguments from quality of life and use of resources were 
avowedly teleological in nature, considering the painful and potentially 
costly consequences of continued life, the argument from Sanctity of Life is 
deontological in nature since it relates to a duty to avoid killing. Linking the 
Sanctity of Life view to both abortion and euthanasia, Mother Teresa gave a 
statement of the appeal of this ethical stance: 

For me, life is the most beautiful gift of God to mankind, therefore people and nations who destroy 
life by abortion and euthanasia are the poorest. I do not say legal or illegal, but I think that no 
human hand should be raised to kill life, since life is God’s life us in us.? 

All human life, whether in the womb or in a PVS, is of sacred and God-given 
worth such that killing (including euthanising, as a form of killing) is morally 

The notion of a sacred life lays behind Catholic teaching on the issue of 
euthanasia. A 1980 Catholic Declaration of Faith is clear and absolute in nature: one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person 
entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly, nor 
can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the 
violation of the divine law, an offence against the dignity of the human person, a crime against 
life, and an attack on humanity."° 

The language is somewhat complex but the key points are given in our 
previous discussions in this chapter — life is sacred and so euthanasia, 
whether voluntarily requested or non-voluntarily encouraged for someone 
else, is morally impermissible. No legislator, guided by moral ideals, can ever 
morally recommend this type of killing, whether motivated by a mistaken 
sense of mercy or not. 

9. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument Two 

A related objection to euthanasia, premised on a commitment to Christianity, 
is the objection from valuable suffering (keep in mind that not all Christians, by 
any stretch, would defend an objection of this type). Let us return to the 1980 
Catholic Declaration of Faith. The document states that: 

8 1 Corinthians 3:16-18, Corinthians+3&version= 

9 J. Chaliha and E. Le Joly, The Joy in Loving, p. 174. 

10 Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Declaration on Euthanasia’, http://www.vatican. 

According to Christian teaching, however, suffering, especially suffering during the last moments 
of life, has a special place in God's saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ's passion and a 
union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father’s will.’ 

Thus, even if someone requests euthanasia in order to avoid pain, that 
request should not be granted because it deprives a person of an element 
of God’s plan for them; the experience of suffering at the end of life brings 
that person closer to sharing in the experience of Christ. This does not mean 
that Christians oppose palliative care (a type of care that does not attempt to 
extend life, so much as make an individual as comfortable as possible as they 
face the end of their life). However, it does explain why a life should be seen 
through to its natural end and why it might therefore be viewed as morally 
wrong to shorten it. 

10. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument Three 

The third anti-euthanasia argument to consider can be labelled the slippery 
slope objection (sometimes called the Wedge argument). This objection does not 
require any view regarding the Sanctity of Life or a deontological duty not 
to kill; indeed, the slippery slope objection is both teleological in nature and 
does not even require a denial that euthanasia might be desirable in certain 
instances when viewed in the abstract or in isolation. 

The slippery slope objection is that ifeuthanasia were to become legal in some 
situations, then it would lead to euthanasia becoming legal and acceptable in 
situations where it is actually morally undesirable. To see the strength of such 
an objection, consider earlier pro-euthanasia arguments couched in terms of 
resource allocation and personal autonomy. 

If euthanasia can be justified on teleological grounds when resources would 
be better deployed elsewhere, then what is to stop us justifying not merely 
voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, but involuntary euthanasia also? 
If euthanasia is justified on the basis of money and time being better spent 
on some patients rather than others, then why would permission be required 
from the patient or the patient’s family? 

If morality is determined by consequences, and consequences justify 
euthanasia, then we seem to be slipping down a dangerous slope to euthanising 
people without their consent. After all, if you are a teleologist (perhaps, an act 
utilitarian) you have already given up ideas concerning absolute rules against 
certain actions. It therefore may be objected that either life is sacred, or it is 
not, and if it is not then we may end up in a situation we find utterly morally 
indefensible even if we start from apparently moral motivations. 

11 Ibid. 



In addition, if personal autonomy is respected to the degree that someone 
can choose when to end their life, then what is to stop a seriously depressed 
person who is otherwise physically healthy from opting for voluntary 
euthanasia? Most people might view such enabling of suicide for patients with 
mental health needs as being very different from euthanasia for PVS patients 
or the terminally ill, but if personal autonomy justifies euthanasia then how 
can we justifiably draw a strong enough line so as to allow some people to 
choose death, but not others? Again, it may be objected that either personal 
autonomy matters or it does not. If we enable a person to have their life ended, 
then it is obvious they can never come to a different view on the value of their 
life at a later stage, as they might have had they still been alive. On this issue, 
it may be worthwhile revisiting the discussion from Chapter 1 regarding a 
person’s preferences and whether they are only morally relevant if they stand 
up to some sort of psychological testing and counselling; the relevant idea is 
due to Richard Brandt. 

In addition, opponents of euthanasia often suggest that if one group of 
people are euthanised, others may begin to feel pressure to take up that same 
option. If non-voluntary euthanasia is granted, and a legal, moral and cultural 
line in the sand is thereby crossed, may not elderly patients feel pressured to 
not be a burden to their families? May not the financially well-off elderly feel 
pressure to allow their children to inherit any accumulated wealth rather than 
see that wealth spent on their own care? Granting non-voluntary euthanasia 
in even a small number of cases may, over time, send us down a slippery slope 
to the non-morally defensible euthanising of many other types of patients who, 
as things stand, are quite content to remain alive since they have no reason to 
consider other options. 

Of course, an easy response to any slippery slope objection is simply to deny 
that a change in one fact must lead to a suggested negative change elsewhere. 
Why think of negative consequences from a change in the law, when these 
consequences might not happen? Indeed, some slippery slope arguments 
are logical fallacies if they are premised on the idea that a possible negative 
outcome must, of necessity, follow from some change in policy. However, we 
should not “straw-man” the objection in this way (i.e. phrase it in such a weak 
way that it is easy to argue against). The slippery slope objection suggests 
that the negative outcomes might be probable, rather than be certain. Thus, 
a response should deal with the issue of probable negative consequences, 
rather than cheapening a plausibly reasonable objection through wilful 
misrepresentation of its structure. Researching the situation in Belgium, where 
the law regarding euthanasia is perhaps the most liberal in the world, should 

provide a good grounding to either support or oppose this line of thought, as 
would considering the application of Rule Utilitarianism.” 

11. Anti-Euthanasia: Argument Four 

A fourth anti-euthanasia objection is the objection from modern treatment. This 
objection brings together two distinct, but relevantly similar, lines of thought. 
Firstly, it might be suggested that to euthanise those who are terminally ill, 
or those in a PVS, is to kill people earlier than would otherwise happen and 
thereby to artificially eliminate their chances of living to experience a cure 
to their condition. At the very least, if not a cure, euthanised people are not 
around to benefit from any step-forward in treatment that might alleviate 
their suffering. 

In addition, given the modern advances in palliative care it might also 
be argued that end of life care is now so advanced that euthanasia is not 
necessary in order to avoid suffering and so cannot be justified even on quality 
of life grounds. It might be thought plausible that a person with a severe and 
worsening disease who is not euthanised could have their condition and pain 
carefully managed by skilled healthcare professionals so as to greatly diminish 
any suffering. 

In response to these types of objections, Singer grants that were euthanasia 
legalised then some deaths may occur for people who could have been treated 
had they been kept alive. However, he urges that: 

Against a very small number of unnecessary deaths that might occur if euthanasia is legalised we 
must place the very large amount of pain and distress that will be suffered if euthanasia is not 
legalised, by patients who really are terminally ill. 

On balance, Singer suggests, euthanasia would cause more pain to cease than 
pleasure missed by those who die early. Whether or not palliative care is able 
to reduce suffering to the extent suggested by the objection is something you 
may wish to consider and further research, as it would seem to be an empirical 
claim requiring contemporary evidence to further the discussion. 

12 The following article highlights the use of the law in Belgium: ‘Belgian Convicted Killer with 
“Incurable” Psychiatric Condition Granted Right to Die’, 
13 P. Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 197. 



12. Allowing versus Doing 

James Rachels (1941-2003) sums up the supposed moral importance of the 
distinction between allowing and doing in the euthanasia debate: 

The distinction between active and passive euthanasia is thought to be crucial for medical ethics. 
The idea is that it is permissible, at least in some cases, to withhold treatment and allow a patient 
to die, but it is never permissible to take any direct action designed to kill the patient. This doctrine 
seems to be accepted by most doctors.“ 

Thus, according to Rachels, most doctors at the time of his paper — and 
not much seems to have changed in the UK context since — would think it 
permissible to allow a patient to die (passive euthanasia, on our definitions) 
but think it impermissible to kill a patient even if they request it or if it is 
deemed to be in their interests (active euthanasia). 

The plausibility of this distinction is supported by consideration of the 
Doctrine of Double Effect, as drawn from the normative Natural Law moral 
theory discussed in Chapter 4. Recall from the chapter on Natural Law ethics 
that one of the primary precepts for human beings is the preservation of 
life. No moral prescription, we might think, could speak more strongly and 
absolutely against euthanasia — especially given the Catholic background of 
Aquinas’s Natural Law stance and the earlier reference to Catholic views in 
the context of the Sanctity of Life ethic. A secondary precept, derived from 
this primary precept, would certainly seem to deny the moral acceptability of 
artificial shortening of life. However, Natural Law theorists are able to to have 
a nuanced stance in the euthanasia debate. 

A Natural Law theorist, via the Doctrine of Double Effect, can describe an 
action as moral even if it results in an outcome that might not be considered 
morally permissible in the abstract. If an act is directed by a desire to do moral 
good, yet has a foreseeable but unintended consequence of a bad effect, then 
this action may be moral so long as the bad effect was not aimed at, does not 
outweigh the good effect and is not directly the cause of the bad itself. If this 
brief comment is unclear, it is critical to look back to the relevant discussion of 
the Doctrine of Double Effect in the chapter on Natural Law. 

Now, let us apply this doctrine directly to the context of euthanasia. A doctor 
may be aware that a patient has not long to live and is suffering immensely. The 
doctor may prescribe a multitude of painkillers to treat the pain, even though 
this will have the foreseeable but unintended effect of killing the patient as 
a result of the side-effects of the drugs. Indeed, a doctor may simply refrain 

14 J. Rachels, ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’, p. 511. 

from offering painful treatment methods in order to avoid causing suffering, 
with the unintended but foreseeable consequence that the patient will die as 
a result of the non-intervention. These actions are not morally wrong, says 
the Natural Law theorist, because death is not intended directly but rather 
the morally good end of pain reduction is intended directly. Thus, the doctor 
who engages in active euthanasia by provision of a lethal cocktail of drugs in 
order to artificially kill a patient so that their suffering is reduced is morally 
wrong (for the good of “suffering reduction” is directly achieved by the bad 
of killing), while the doctor who withdraws treatment in order to relieve 
suffering, with the unintended but foreseeable outcome of death, acts morally 
justly (for the good of “suffering reduction” is achieved by not administering 
painful treatment, death is just a proportionately acceptable side-effect). 

Both Rachels and Singer have little time for the distinction between allowing 
and doing, and the Doctrine of Double Effect, in this debate. Rachels says that: 

If a doctor lets a patient die, for humane reasons, he is in the same position as if he had given 
the patient a lethal injection for humane reasons...if the doctor’s decision was the right (to not 
intervene on the patient's death) one, the method used is not itself important.’ 

Meanwhile, Singer comments that “We cannot avoid responsibility simply by 
directing our intention to one effect rather than another. If we foresee both 
effects, we must take responsibility for the foreseen effects of what we do”.'® 
Singer gives the example of a business seeking to save money in order to hire 
more workers. This outcome is good and motivates bosses to act to save money 
on their recycling bill, with the foreseeable but unintended consequence of 
polluting a local river. If we would not excuse the company for ignoring a 
foreseeable consequence, says Singer, then we do not really believe we escape 
responsibility for allowing death in the euthanasia context. 

The application of the Doctrine of Double Effect, and Natural Law ethics 
in general, to the euthanasia debate should be considered carefully and in the 
light of the earlier chapter outlining the normative theory itself. Despite both 
Singer’s and Rachel’s attack, Natural Law and the Doctrine of Double Effect 
retain many proponents. If one views moral outcomes as based on more than 
consequences alone, then this approach may seem to have more merit than a 
preference utilitarian like Singer might grant it; this is for you to judge. 

15 Ibid.. 
16 P. Singer, Practical Ethics, p. 183. 



Euthanasia is an applied moral topic that has profound 
implications; successful moral arguments may lead to legislative 
changes that quite literally shorten or extend lifespans. There 
are a host of subtleties in the debate to which we can only pay 
lip-service — such as the acceptability of active euthanasia 
of depressed patients, the importance of pre-injury requests 
for treatment or for death; the best way of allocating medical 
resources; the powers of people over both their bodies and the 
bodies of incapacitated family members. Further issues are 
discussed in works such as that by J. David Velleman, and we 
suggest the references below as a guide to useful and enquiring 
texts.'” However, we hope that you now feel confident to explain 
and evaluate the key arguments both in favour and against the 
various methods of euthanasia and the various contexts in which 
those methods may be employed. 



e Making the slippery slope objection simpler than it is — it focuses on 
likelihood of future consequences, not certainty of future consequences. 

e  Dismissively suggesting that not being religious is enough to oppose 
Sanctity of Life claims out of hand. Life might have absolute value for 
non-religious reasons and this is an idea one should engage with. 

° Dismissing the quality of life argument just because of a religious faith 
without proper engagement — the idea that a life should be prolonged 
even in the face of suffering needs suitable defence. 

° Misrepresenting the Doctrine of Double Effect in application to 
euthanasia — keep in mind the more detailed knowledge gained from 
the chapter on Natural Law ethics. 

¢ Thinking that pro-euthanasia views must be secular and that anti- 
euthanasia views must be religious. All options remain open. 

17 J. D. Velleman, Beyond Price: Essays on Birth and Death, 


1. What makes a life worth living? Is a life ever without value? 

2. Should the Doctrine of Double Effect be ethically relevant? Is there a 
moral difference between allowing and doing? 


What is assisted suicide? Is it different from Euthanasia? 

4. If euthanasia is morally acceptable, should passive euthanasia ever be 
viewed as an acceptable method? 

5. Can the slippery slope objection be blocked in this context? Answer 
with reference to the development of euthanasia laws in Belgium. 

6. Is Rule Utilitarianism the only teleological theory that survives the 
slippery slope objection? 

7. Is there something morally uncomfortable about the argument from 
resource allocation? If so, what? 

8. Ifyou were designing euthanasia laws, what would they look like? 

9. Should a Sanctity of Life ethic have any role in twenty-first century 

10. Is the morality of euthanasia determined by empirical factors such as 
levels of palliative care available? 

11. Should a depressed patient ever be allowed euthanasia? Is personal 
autonomy something we must always respect? If not, when should it 
not be respected? 

12. Could involuntary euthanasia (euthanasia against a person’s wishes) 
ever be justified in any circumstance? 


Doctrine of double effect Well-being 
Palliative care Sanctity of Life 

Persistent Vegetative State Straw-man 



‘Belgian Convicted Killer with “Incurable” Psychiatric Condition Granted 
Right to Die’, the Guardian (16 September 2014), freely available at https:// 

Bible, New International Version, freely available at https://www. 

Chaliha, Jaya, and Le Joly, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Life with Mother 
Teresa (London: Penguin, 1996). 

Glover, Jonathan, Causing Death and Saving Lives (London: Penguin, 1990). 

Madison-St. Clair Record, freely available at 

Hari, J., ‘Peter Singer: Some People are More Equal than Others’, freely 
available at 

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Declaration on 
Euthanasia’, freely available at 

Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 

Rachels, James, ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’, Biomedical Ethics and the Law, 5 
(1979): 511-16, 

Velleman, J. David, Beyond Price: Essays on Birth and Death (Cambridge, Open 
Book Publishers, 2015),; freely available 

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Business Ethics 

There is no such thing as business ethics. 

John Maxwell 

A business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business. 

Henry Ford 

1. Introduction to Business Ethics 

What is a business? Is Christian Aid a business? Is McDonalds? What about 
a university? This is a difficult and complicated question to answer but let us 
start from the claim that a business is an organization that buys and sells goods or 
services for profit. 

If I buy some books from a shop, they are goods and the business makes a 
profit. If I pay the taxi driver to take me to the airport then that is a service and 
I increase the taxi company’s profit. 

Maybe then Christian Aid is not a business? Arguably there is no “customer” 
purchasing a good or a service, whereas McDonalds clearly is a business. But 
what about a university? Well that is a much harder and more controversial 
question, and one that we have posed below for you to consider. For any 
business, whatever its size, the key feature will be that it sells goods or services 
for profit. 

Ethics arises because relationships exist. That is, if there is a relationship then 
there is a legitimate question of how ought we to behave in that relationship? In 
a business there are many different relationships and hence we can ask ethical 
questions regarding each of these relationships. Here are a few examples. 

(a) A business has a relationship with its shareholders — the people who 
own a share of the company. However, if the shareholders want to reduce the 
wages of the workers so they can get a larger dividend, would they be doing 
something morally wrong? After all, they might arguably be said in some 
sense to “own” the business and can do what they want with it. 

(b) A business has a relationship with its customers — the people who are 
buying the goods and services. For instance, if a business knowingly reduces 

the amount of health advice it provides on its labels in order to increase profits, 
has it done something morally wrong? 

(c) A business has a relationship with its employees. If a business realises that 
it can increase productivity by scrapping paternity leave would it be morally 
wrong to do so? Conversely, if an employee is privy to some questionable 
practices and becomes a “whistle-blower” then has she done anything morally 

(d) There are also ethical questions that arise regarding the business’s 
relationship with the environment. If a business opens a new factory, giving a 
much needed boost to the local economy, but can only do so by building on a 
nature reserve, has it done something morally wrong? 

(e) Also there are others who are affected by the business’s activity. For example, 
if a mobile phone company constructs a new phone mast which causes a low 
hum to be heard by the local community, has the company done something 
morally wrong? 

Of course, businesses have always made ethical decisions. The working 
conditions in factories before the 1847 Factory Act were certainly morally 
wrong, even if this was not recognised at the time. 

This is in stark contrast to nowadays, when you find “value and ethic” 
statements in full view on the promotional material of any business. Not to be 
talking in terms of “values and ethics” is very bad business practice. The phrase 
that is often used in this context is a business’s “Corporate Social Responsibility” 
(CSR). We can take CSR to mean: “[...] a business approach that contributes 
to sustainable development by delivering economic, social and environmental 
benefits for all stakeholders”.' A great example of a company with a clear CSR 
is The Body Shop, who in 1988 became the founding member of the Ethical 
Trading Initiative.’ 

There is now a plethora of ethical rankings that tell the customer which 
businesses are best in terms of CSR, and which is the most ethical (e.g. Forbes, 
‘The World’s Most Ethical Companies’).° 

Although it is now the norm for a business to have “ethics” statements, it 
is arguably irrational for companies to be ethical. Why might this be? Consider 
this basic argument. 

1. A business’s aim is to make a profit. 

2. A business will make a profit if it can attract customers. 

q ‘’, Financial Time, 

2 Tosee details of the Ethical Trading Initiative see 

3 See K. Strauss, ‘The World’s Most Ethical Companies 2016’, 

3. Inthe present context (at least in the West) a business will attract most 
customers if it appears to be ethical. 

4. It will make more profit if it appears ethical rather than actually being 
ethical because it actually costs more to be ethical rather than simply 
appearing ethical. 

Therefore, given (1)-(4) it seems more reasonable for a business simply to 
appear to be ethical, rather than actually being ethical. 

Of course, there are many questions that arise from the above argument. 
For instance, we might think that the potential costs of being found out (i.e. 

appearing but not being ethical) far outweigh the costs of actually being ethical 
in the first place — hence (4) might be rejected. However, there remains a great 
attraction only to appear ethical and not go through a long, often expensive 
process to become ethical. It is of course then an open empirical question 
whether businesses are ethical or whether it is window dressing and simply a 
cynical marketing device. 

In this chapter we are going to look at a few areas of business ethics and 
do so through the lens of the normative theories of Utilitarianism and Kantian 

2. Employers and Employees 

In 1992 Mike Ashley started the company Sports Direct; it grew rapidly to become the 
biggest sports retailer in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. However, in 2016 the lid 
was lifted on what seemed to be draconian working practices for its employees and it was 
revealed that workers were not paid the minimum wage. One employee claimed that, “if we 
went to the toilet more than once every four hours we were called into the manager's office 
and questioned”. “I lasted six days before I quit”.* Employees were often searched when 
leaving the store after work — sometimes having to strip to their underwear. Employees 
were docked fifteen minutes’ pay for being one minute late. “Sometimes on my zero-hours 
contract, I would end up working for ten days in a row, for ten hours a day. On other weeks 
I would get given only one three-hour shift the whole week. There was no routine”.° 

Did Sports Direct do something morally wrong? To make this a little more 
manageable, let us put aside the illegality of their behaviour. Let’s assume that 
they did nothing illegal in their practice. 

Given this we might think that they did not do anything morally wrong. 
After all, the employees were not press-ganged into working for the company. 

They were not chained to their desks nor denied access to exits. Employees 
were not prisoners or slaves but were rational human beings who chose to 

4D. Avis, ‘Sports Direct: Former Employees Speak Out’, 
5 Ibid. 


work for this company. It is plausible that the employees simply failed to read 
the “small print” in their contracts. In this case why think that the business did 
anything wrong? 

Remember that for an “act utilitarian” (see Chapter 1) an act is morally 
right if, and only if, it brings about more happiness than any other act, so 
maybe then Sports Direct did not do anything morally wrong. 

In the case of Sports Direct, it might be that the millions of people who gained 
happiness from owning the cheap sports products outweighed the misery and 
unhappiness of approximately 27,000 employees. In which case it was morally 
acceptable for Sports Direct to treat its employees in the way that it did. 

Moreover, the act utilitarian has no time for “rights” in general and an 
“employee’s rights” in particular. However, we suspect most people would 
believe that what Sports Direct did was morally wrong and even if it were legal, 
people would judge that the company ought not to have acted in the way that 
it did. 

That said perhaps we do not need to draw this conclusion even if we are 
act utilitarians. This is because Mill said it would be better to be a human 
dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. He thought that there were “higher” and 
“lower” pleasures. Only humans can experience higher pleasure, non-human 
animals cannot. 

Mill argues that pleasure should not just be weighed on the qualitative 
“hedonic” calculus. If we introduce higher and lower pleasures, then we can 
respect the intuition that what Sports Direct did was morally wrong. Mill 
thought that higher and lower pleasures were qualitatively distinct. If this is true 
then we might think that the lower pleasures of, say, a million people having 
a new tennis racket or owning the latest trendy trainers, is outweighed by the 
higher pleasure of the three quarter of a million employees being treated fairly. 

Furthermore, Consequentialist Theories also spell out the “utility” not in 
terms of happiness or pleasure but in other terms such as welfare and preferences. 
A preference or welfare consequentialist might then conclude that what Sports 
Direct did was morally wrong because its actions did not maximize welfare 
and/or preferences. Investigating this claim, though, would take us well 
beyond the scope of this chapter. 

Moving away from Act Utilitarianism, we might think that the rule utilitarian 
would claim that the actions of Sports Direct was morally wrong because the 
rule “treat your employees fairly” is justifiable on utilitarian grounds. That is, 
people will typically be happier if this rule is followed than if it is not. Hence, a 
rule-utilitarian might conclude that what Sports Direct did was morally wrong 
as arguably Sports Direct did not treat its employees fairly. 

What is important then is to realize that it is not as clear-cut as saying that 
a utilitarian would believe that a certain business practice is morally right 

or wrong. Rather it will depend on the specifics of the situation and how, 
according to the position, we should maximize pleasure, happiness, wellbeing, 
preferences etc. 

So much for the utilitarians, what about the Kantians? (See Chapter 2.) Well, 
the Kantian talks in terms of duty and Categorical Imperatives; for the Kantian 
it is always morally wrong to treat someone as solely a means to an end. 

On first look, we might think that this is precisely what Sports Direct did 
in treating its employees as a means to an end (profit). But it cannot be that 
simple. For if this were true then all businesses would be doing something 
morally wrong because all businesses use their employees to make a profit. 

We need to think a bit harder about what Kant is saying. Kant is not saying 
that businesses cannot use people as a means to an end but that the key is 
whether the business is treating people as rational and free. 

Using a taxi is not morally wrong even though we are using the taxi 
driver for our own end. This is because we pay the taxi driver and they are 
voluntarily entering into this means-end relationship. The same then could 
be said for the employees in a business. Sure, it is true that McDonalds, or 
Ford, or Body Shop are using their employees as a means to an end but this is 
acceptable because they pay their employees and their employees are entering 
the contract of work freely. 

Perhaps though the Kantian would say that Sports Direct is different because 
it practised a form of exploitation. The people working for Sports Direct are 
very often from the poorest group of society. This means they do not have lots 
of jobs to pick from so it is not as if they could leave the job and quickly find 
another. Moreover, we might suppose that in leaving the job they might end 
up in a situation which is far worse, perhaps not being able to pay their rent, 
being on the street, having relationships break down. 

In this case, we might wonder if the employees really are freely choosing 
to work for Sports Direct. If they are not, then Sports Direct is treating its 
employees as means-to-an-end even though it is paying them. In which case 
the Kantians would say that what was happening is morally wrong. We'll look 
at other features of the Kantian position when we consider other issues below. 

3. Businesses and Customers 

It is clear that businesses can directly affect how a customer thinks about 
goods or services, the world around them, and themselves. If they could not 
then they would not spend millions of pounds on advertising each year! But 
given this then they occupy a position of trust. With this trust comes a question 


regarding how much information a company should provide to the customer 
and in what form. 

In 2011 a court decision meant that banks had to compensate millions of people after they 
had been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) which was judged to be “ineffective 
and inefficient”. It is beyond doubt that banks knew that PPI was a con, yet it was not in their 
interest to stop selling PPI because it was “a cash cow”. In order to sell PPI banks tapped 
into the insecurity of customers by promising a “safety net”. PPI promised to repay people’s 
borrowings if their income fell due to illness or job loss. 

We might think that here is a case where a business’s actions towards the 
customer is morally wrong. But how might we explain this? Well, one obvious 
way of explaining it is via trust. As Doug Taylor, who works for “Which?”, 
stated: “We’ve always known that people were being mis-sold PPI, but we 
were still amazed to discover the scale of it. It appears that salespeople are 
chasing their commissions, their bosses are chasing profits — where’s the sense 
of responsibility to the customer?”® 

But how far does this “responsibility” reach? It is of course not ina business’s 
interest — that of making a profit — to give the customer a balanced and 
“honest” viewpoint. An advert for a computer that says: “this is very expensive; 
you are probably just buying the label. You do realize that the statistics say 
you'll use approximately 5% of its capacity, probably for games, a bit of word 
processing and surfing the web” will probably not get the company very far 
in terms of sales. So it seems unfair to compel businesses to be honest and 
balanced in this way. 

But on the other hand a company cannot lie. This of course is why the 
“horsemeat” scandal and other “food fraud” cases have been so controversial.” 
It may be that people would choose to eat horsemeat but the trouble arises 
when they are deceived into eating it. These were cases where food companies 
deliberately lied, or deceived the customer for profit. 

But what is lying? Well, it is not when someone fails to tell the truth but 
rather it involves intentional deception. But why ought companies refrain from 

Looking at Act Utilitarianism account it is quite hard to say why it would 
always be wrong to do so. Presumably, for the act utilitarian, it is not always 
morally wrong for a business to lie and to exploit the trust of the customer. 

6G. Wearden, ‘How the PPI Scandal Unfolded’, 

7  ‘Horsemeat Scandal: Where Did the 29% Horse in your Tesco Burger Come From?”’, the Guardian, 

If, by lying, a business produces more happiness than by not lying, then it is 
morally acceptable for the business to lie. 

We might not think that we would get the same result for the rule utilitarian. 
A plausible rule might be “do not lie in a position of trust where there are 
reasonable grounds that you'll be found out”. If this were justifiable through 
utilitarian grounds, then it would be unacceptable for businesses to lie to the 
customer. Yet, even on the rule utilitarian account it is true that it is sometimes 
morally acceptable for a business to lie. 

This contrasts with the Kantian approach. If you recall, for the Kantian it is 
always morally wrong to lie. It is true in all instances that one ought not to lie. 
Kant uses the Categorical Imperative to show this. Let us reconsider the PPI 
case. It would be irrational for the head of a bank to want the maxim “lie to the 
customer if it means making a profit” to become a universal law. It is irrational 
because if this is a universal law then there would be no trust in businesses at 
all and therefore there could be no profit and no businesses. It is self-defeating 
and irrational. So it seems that on Kantian grounds the way that PPI was sold 
was morally wrong. 

4. A Business and the Environment 

As we discussed above it is common parlance amongst businesses to talk 
about Corporate Social Responsibility; in other words, a business works with the 
goal not just of profit but to be in step with the issues of society as a whole. 
Typically, though not exhaustively, this amounts to the business being ethically 
responsible towards the environment; this might include things such as not 
testing its cosmetics on animals or reducing the amount of non-recyclable 
plastic bags that the company uses. 

But why should a business have any obligation to the environment? If a 
business is working within the law but using, say, environmentally unfriendly 
cement in the construction of its factories, why does this matter? Why should 
a business use a potentially more expensive product, thus reducing its profits, 
simply because it is more environmentally friendly? 

It is true that the environment is one of the biggest concerns for businesses 
and is often an area where they are heavily criticized. This, like many of 
the other ethical issues, is only a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, 
in the name of profit, businesses could do what they wanted regarding the 
environment. There was a view that the world is such a massive place that 
a business polluting a pond, or mining on a green space did not really, in 
the grand scheme of things, matter. But the increase in globalization, the 
advancement of science, and the fact we live in connected communities has 

made people realize that businesses can, and do, affect the environment; 
climate change and the hole in the ozone layer are prime examples of this slow 

We can bring some of the issues into focus through an example: 

In 2000 heavy snow caused the collapse of a dam in Romania. The dam was holding back 
100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-contaminated water. The water spilled over some farmland 
and then into the Somes river. Although no humans were killed the spill caused the death 
of a huge amount of aquatic life and the accident has been called the biggest environmental 
disaster in Europe since Chernobyl. The cyanide water was a by-product of the mining of 
gold by the Aurul mining company. 

Did the company do something morally wrong? It might have done something 
illegal; perhaps it omitted to perform the appropriate load tests, or perhaps 
it forged safety documentation. But even if it did nothing illegal, did it do 
something morally wrong? 

I suspect in the twenty-first century our answer will be “obviously yes 
But can we give any substance to this thought? What really is wrong? After all, 
we intentionally kill billions of fish and aquatic life for food every year. 

What would we say if we are utilitarians? Well we cannot talk about 
environmental rights, for there are no rights and again we might find it hard 
to show why this was morally wrong if we are utilitarians. We might think 
that the gold produced might cause a lot of happiness, not least because it 
is used in jewellery, computers, electronics, dentistry, medicine etc. The fish, 
plants, and other aquatic life do not have a comparably high level of pleasure 
or happiness compared to humans so all things being equal it might not be 
morally wrong. Of course, as with the other cases this will depend on how 
we spell out the details of the case but Utilitarianism does not appear to be as 
clear-cut as we perhaps might have hoped. 

For the Kantian, we only have moral obligations towards rational agents 
and thus there is no such thing as a business’s moral obligation towards the 
environment, as the environment is not a rational agent. Now this does not 
mean that Kant believes a business can do whatever it wants towards the 



If a business treats the environment as a means to an end (profit) then 
they are modelling a certain type of behaviour and this behaviour could then 
lead to businesses treating humans as a means to an end, which is wrong. So 
although the exploitation of the environment is not morally wrong for the 
Kantian, it legitimises and hence increases the possibility of exploitation of 
people, which is. 

5. Business and Globalization 

The world is getting smaller and it is increasingly easy to contact and work 
with people across the world. Whereas in the past a UK business might set 
its sights on reaching a few cities in the UK, businesses now have greater 
international opportunities. This brings a whole host of new ethical issues but 
rather than apply our moral theories to these issues, we will leave this to the 
reader. The aim in this section is to start you thinking about some of the issues. 

Nike, Gap, M&S, H&M, Walmart, Nestlé and many more companies have 
been exposed as using child labour. Although this may not be illegal in the 
country where the children were used, people think it is very wrong. But is 
it? Consider this quotation from a Cameroonian father who is also a farmer: 
“{child labour] is considered as part of the household chores children do to 
help their parents. I do not consider this child abuse because we are making 
money that is used to pay their school fees” .® 

We can understand then that a local rural economy may well be wholly 
dependent on the use of child labour and therefore a blanket ban on child labour 
would have a directly negative effect on the livelihoods of a large number of 
people. But how much then are “western ideals” simply idiosyncratic? Should 
there be a complete ban or is it the case that: 

A global ban [...] shows disrespect for other cultures by imposing a western mindset as to the 
economic role of children. A more sensible policy would be to apply some basic rules of humane 
working conditions in conjunction with a targeted, evolving approach that duly considers the 
actual outcomes of implemented measures.? 

Or consider another issue. As we said, it was not until quite recently that 
there has been a move to make businesses more environmentally friendly. 
During the industrial revolution in the UK there was no such requirement. 
Now consider businesses in “developing” countries. They are often trying to 
start from scratch with very poor infrastructure and a poor understanding 
of the environmental impact of their work. In fact, the West imposing their 
environmental standards on businesses would effectively stop such businesses 
developing and may lead to their collapse. If a farmer in Kenya has not only 
got to produce crops, but has to do so in a more expensive “environmentally 
friendly” way then that famer might struggle to survive. What right then do 

8 F. Wijen, ‘Banning Child Labour Imposes Naive Western Ideals on Complex Problems’, https:// 

9 Ibid. Here and hereafter the emphasis is ours unless otherwise stated. 


businesses in the West have to impose these environmental standards on 
businesses in other less affluent countries? 

There are many other examples of the ethical issues that come with the 
increase in globalization. In general, these arise when there is a clash of 
cultures. For example, some cultures operate by using bribes; what then should 
businesses do within that culture? What about when a Western business is 
located in a culture which treats women as second class citizens; how should 
the business treat their female employees and successfully operate? The 
general question then is how far can we impose — if at all — Western business 
ethics in non-Western contexts? 


The label “business ethics” is relatively new. The customer is 
now very sensitive to how “ethical” a business is and thus any 
signs of moral wrongdoing by a business will lead to a slump 
in profits. This leads to a general question whether there is any 
incentive to be — rather than simply appearing to be — ethical. 

One question that we have not yet addressed is whether 
capitalism — the environment needed for businesses to 
exist — is itself immoral? Marx, and many others, certainly 
thought that a system that leads us to seek after more money 
and more material goods will crush and stunt human flourishing. 

If our function as humans involves devoting time to being 
healthy, being with friends and family, developing hobbies and 
skills, educating ourselves etc., then the “for profit” mentality 
of capitalism could be seen as not allowing us to fulfil this role. 

The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities 
into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with 
luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many. The glittering 
mansion overlooks a vast sprawl of shanty towns, wherein a desperate, 
demoralized humanity is kept in line with drugs, television, and armed force." 

Perhaps then the most ethical response to business is to refuse 
to play the capitalist game of business in the first place and 
to rethink what “business” might mean and how a “business” 
should act. 

10 M. Parenti, Against Empire. 


Confusing the legal questions and the moral questions. 
Thinking that Kant says we can never use people as means. 
Assuming that equal opportunity means treating everyone the same. 

Assuming that some from a culture can speak on behalf of all that 


1. Do you think that a university is a business? 

2. What do you think the difference is between a business and a 

3. Find some examples of a business’s ethics and/or values statement. 
What are they saying? What do you think of them? 

4. Write an ethics/value statement for your school. 

5. What do you think of the argument that it is irrational for a business to 
be ethical? 

6. Find a few examples of adverts. Explain in your own words what they 
are telling the customer. Is this intentional deception? Is it lying? 

7. Imagine that as an employee you are offered a bribe. How would the 
utilitarian tell us to act? What about the Kantian? Is it always wrong to 
take bribes in business? 

8. Some workplace rules seem true in every culture — e.g. do not use 
violence. Others, perhaps concerning dress code, do not. How then are 
we going to decide between those values that should be part of ethical 
business practice and those that are merely idiosyncratic features of 
Western business practice? 

9. Why should business care about the world they leave for future 
generations? After all, future generations do not exist. 

10. How far do you think capitalism is immoral? 

11. If you do think that capitalism is immoral then what alternative is 
there? Why is the proposed alternative more morally acceptable? 

12. What do you think about the final quotation from Parenti? What 

do you think the utilitarian and the Kantian would say about this 




Goods Corporate Social Responsibility 
Services Whistleblowing 
Stakeholders Capitalism 


Avis, D., ‘Sports Direct: Former Employees Speak Out’, BBC News (22 July 
2016), freely available at 

‘’, Financial Time, freely available at 

‘Horsemeat Scandal: Where Did the 29% Horse in your Tesco Burger Come 
From?’, freely available at 

Parenti, Michael, Against Empire (Saint Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995). 

Strauss, K., ‘The World’s Most Ethical Companies 2016’, Forbes, freely 
available at http://www. 

Wearden, G., “How the PPI Scandal Unfolded’, the Guardian (5 May 2011), 
freely available at 

Wijen, F., ‘Banning Child Labour Imposes Naive Western Ideals on Complex 
Problems’, the Guardian (26 August 2015), freely available at https://www. 

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The bite of conscience, like the bite of a dog into stone, is a stupidity. 

Friedrich Nietzsche 

1. Introduction 

Each of us has, at one time or another, talked about our conscience. We might 
have been “pricked by our conscience” or our conscience might have “butted 
in” when it was not wanted. We might be going on quite happily telling a lie 
to a friend, or might have accidentally walked out of a shop without paying 
for something and it is our conscience that makes us confess or stops us in our 
tracks spins us on our heels and takes us back into the shop. 

People from different walks of life talk of the “conscience”, from the 
religious believer, the politician, the celebrity, to every day folk; we might hear 
someone berate their conscience for nagging them to do something they do 
not want to. People might be labelled “conscientious objectors” because they 
feel their conscience is telling them to object to certain political actions, e.g. 
war. A protester might lament the erosion of their “freedom of conscience”. 
And we can find concepts very similar to “conscience” in many non-Christian 
religious traditions both Eastern and Western throughout history and from 
around the globe.' 

However, the nature of conscience is obscure and consequently the 
philosophical discussion of conscience is complex and has a long history. 
It draws on issues in philosophical psychology, philosophy of religion, 
epistemology, philosophy of mind, applied ethics, normative ethics and 

In this chapter we'll give a general overview of two theories of conscience. 
One draws on Aquinas’s account; the other Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939). 
Although Freud is not typically seen as a philosopher (he’s a psychologist) 
his account will provide us with some insights which allows us to think 
philosophically about this thing we call “the conscience”. 

1 See P. Strohm, Conscience, p. 18, for a good overview of this. 


2. The History of Conscience 

In the twenty-first century conscience is not thought of as solely a religious 
idea. However talk of “conscience” was popularised, at least in “the West”, 
due to its adoption by both Protestant and Catholic traditions. In this section 
we'll look how “conscience” is, and has been, used in order to draw out some 
general features. 

“Conscience” played a role in one of the most famous speeches in the 
protestant reformation. Martin Luther (1483-1546), being charged with heresy 
and being forced to recant by Charles V, stands his grounds and says “Here 
I stand, I can do no other” and “I cannot nor will I retract anything, since 
it is never safe nor virtuous to go against conscience”. Luther believed that 
his God-given conscience was not allowing him to recant, not even under the 
considerable pressure by the powerful people before him. Or consider a more 
recent example. 

In the midst of political turmoil of the civil rights movement Martin Luther 
King Jr., who was under threat and constant pressure to change his views said: 

But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a 
position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right? 

Conscience is, then, powerful. It seems that it can move a person to put 
themselves in mortal danger, to “stand up and be counted”, to act contrary to 

But it is not just saints and heroes that talk of conscience, conscience has 
been cited by the most repugnant and morally abhorrent people who have 
ever lived, racists, murderers, tyrants, dictators. For example as Bettina 
Stangneth’s states in Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass 
Murderer,? a discussion of the inner life of one of the Nazi’s most notorious 
officers: “Conscience was simply the ‘morality of the Fatherland that dwells 
within’ a person, which Eichmann also termed ‘the voice of the blood”. 

Conscience can be male or female or both or neither, it can be one voice 
or many, it can echo religious ideas, social ideas, racist ideas, lofty ideas or 
ideas found in the filth of human corruption. Conscience can develop at any 
particular age and dissipates at any age. It does not “speak”, and it does 
“speak”, and does not have a language of choice. All of these observations then 
leave a number of observations and questions. 

2 M.L. King Jr., ‘A Proper Sense of Priorities’, 

3. S.Benhabib, ‘Who’s on Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?’, 

There seem to be (at least) three related functions that we think the conscience 
plays. First, it tells us what we ought to do as a guide for our lives. Second, it is 
a source of moral knowledge. That is, we might say “I know that stealing a pen 
is wrong because my conscience told me”. Third it might be thought of as a 
motivation. That is, it might be the thing that actually gets us up out of our seat 
to act in certain ways, even when things are difficult or even life threatening. 

Just to clarify, we can see the difference in the first two of these functions if 
we think of a tyrant who says for example: “my conscience tells me I have to 
kill all mentally ill people to help the country”. Clearly this is a case where her 
conscience is telling her how she ought to behave. But, given that we think that 
killing the mentally ill is morally wrong, we do not want to say that in this case 
her conscience gives her knowledge of what is right and wrong. So it might be 
true that the conscience gives us guidance but not knowledge. 

Equally the opposite seems true, that we might know what is right and 
wrong yet fail to be guided to do it. This predicament is what Shakespeare 
captured in this famous quotation: “conscience doth make cowards of us all” 
(Hamlet 3.1.78-82). 

Consider another point. Conscience is subjective in that it is about one 
reflecting inwards on oneself, on how one might “feel” about certain things. It 
is not about looking out into the world, at a set of rules or laws. We experience 
the conscience differently than we would if a friend, priest, politician or Imam 
was telling us what to do. Of course, although conscience is “inward looking”, 
that is not the same as saying that we just make up what the conscience 
allegedly tells us. For instance, we might think that what is right and wrong 
is dependent on God but also think that we come to know what is right and 
wrong through our conscience. 

Finally it is worth noting that the term “conscience” was only formalized 
in its modern moral meaning in the mid eighteenth century (e.g. neither Plato 
nor Aristotle talk of conscience). However, note that just because a term is 
modern, or just because there is disagreement with how a term is used, that 
does not mean that the ideas themselves are new. 

Consider the point that the terms “molecules” and “atoms” were recent 
inventions, and that in their development they might be used to talk about 
different things, and they engendered disagreement within the scientific 
community. This in itself does not lead us to the conclusion that there are no 
molecules and no atoms. So the lack of term “conscience”, and disagreement 
about what “conscience” means does not mean that conscience is merely an 

“invention”. With all these points in mind let’s consider one of the key thinkers 
in relation to conscience, Aquinas. 



3. Aquinas on Conscience 

If you recall from Chapter 4, Aquinas developed a Natural Law theology. The 
basic idea is that through reason (what he calls ratio) we can come to recognize 
certain precepts that we ought to live by. Aquinas thinks that this reliance on 
thinking and reflection is revealed in the Bible: 

They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also 
bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending 

Notice then that for Paul — and Aquinas — the “conscience” bears witness 
sometimes accusing the person, sometimes defending them. For Aquinas 
conscience is morally neutral, it simply “bears witness”, it is a “sign-post” and 
after all signposts do not opinions on things (see Aquinas, Summa, Part 1, 
Question 79, Article 13). 

To be clear then Aquinas did not take conscience to be a source of moral knowledge 
but as a guide. This means that Aquinas, unlike Luther and post-reformation 
thinkers, took conscience to be fallible. For Aquinas we may be wrong in 
following our conscience as it can move us in the wrong direction/mislead us 

For Aquinas the conscience is the act of applying the universal principles 
(the Eternal/Divine law) to actual real life situations. 

Aquinas explicitly defines “conscience” as the “application of knowledge 
to activity” (Summa Theologica, I-II, I). So, if conscience for Aquinas is about 
the application of knowledge to activity, this raises the question how we get 
this knowledge? This is where another key technical term is introduced. The 
synderesis. Synderesis is not the same as conscience but is the innate ability of 
the mind — what he calls a habit of the mind — to apprehend the eternal/divine 
laws. The role of conscience is to apply the primary precepts discovered as the 
content of synderesis. 

To get a better understanding of synderesis consider someone trying to work 
out the quickest way to get between two points. Through rational reflection 
they will see that it is the straight line. This “coming to recognize through 
reflection” is what Aquinas has in mind when he talks about synderesis. For 
Aquinas, unlike conscience, synderesis is never mistaken. Humans do wrong, 
thinks Aquinas, when conscience (and not synderesis) makes a mistake. This 
means that a failure of conscience needs to be clearly thought through on 
Aquinas’s account. 

4 T. Aquinas, Romans, 2:15. 

For Aquinas, conscience errs because of ignorance about how to apply 
the eternal/divine laws, of which there are two types. Ignorance that can be 
overcome by using one’s reason (vincible ignorance), and ignorance that cannot 
be overcome by using one’s reason (invincible ignorance). Invincible ignorance 
is doing something wrong when one could not have known better; vincible 
ignorance is doing wrong when one ought to have known better. But how 
might this relate to conscience? 

Imagine two people going into a gun shop. The first person has no criminal 
record, has never been in trouble with the police nor at school and they have 
no record of mental illness. He is, for all intents and purposes, a model citizen. 
This person buys a gun and goes on a killing rampage. The owner of the shop, 
by following her conscience, has not done something morally wrong because 
her ignorance is invincible; there was no indication that this would have been a 
likely outcome. 

This contrasts to the person who is sold a gun even though he has a violent 
criminal record which would have shown up on a basic background check. 
In this case, the owner of the gun shop following her conscience has done 
something morally wrong because in this case her ignorance is vincible. 

To conclude, Aquinas thinks all of us can know infallibly what is right and 
wrong through synderesis. However, even though we are infallible about 
this, we can, and do, make mistakes in applying this knowledge. It is our 
conscience (conscientia) which tells us how to apply this knowledge and moves 
us to act. It can go wrong through ignorance. Ignorance which could have 
been avoided (vincible) means our action is morally wrong. Mistakes deriving 
from ignorance we could not have avoided (invincible) means our action is not 
morally wrong. 

In the next section, we will consider what Freud has to say about conscience, 
and explain how he reconceptualises it as a psychological and not theological 
concept, and in doing so argues we should not accept it as an inherently good 

4. Freud and the Conscience 

Freud is best known as a psychologist and the architect of psychoanalysis. He 
is controversial and most philosophers and psychologists reject the ideas he 
presents. However, his ideas have been incredibly influential, and indeed his 
name has entered our everyday talk in the form of a “Freudian slip”. Among 
Freud’s many ideas his conceptualization of the structure of the mind is key to 
his views on conscience. He thinks the mind can be thought of as containing 



three parts: the id, the ego and the super-ego. Freud’s account of conscience is 
understood as the relation between these. 

For Freud the id is the collection of our primal drives, e.g. the basic desires 
for food, sex, drink and is the oldest part of the mind. The id cannot be 
properly formalized or understood and Freud likens it to chaos. It is instinctive, 
emotional and illogical. We cannot list all the drives that make up the id as they 
are inaccessible to us. Freud has a nice way of describing the id; he calls it: “...a 
cauldron full of seething excitations...”. (SE, XXII.73). Although we can say 
very little about the content of the id, Freud did think that there was a general 
principle to help us understand the drives in the id, what he calls the “pleasure 
principle”. This is the claim that what identifies and unifies the drives of the id 
is the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure. 

Now, as a very young child it may be OK to be driven by the pleasure 
principle; they crawl single-mindedly after the chocolate buttons to put 
in their mouth, they crave their mother’s milk irrespective of anything else. 
However, as we develop we soon realize that we cannot simply act on the 
primal instincts of the id as we have to navigate ourselves in the social spaces 
we inhabit! We have to understand boundaries, sanctions and consequences. 
To successfully operate in the world, we need to consciously reflect and reason 
and ultimately, we have to delay instinctive behaviour and “weigh-up” the 
situation. Put bluntly someone whose id is unchecked would cease to be 
acceptable in society and find themselves physically, socially and emotionally 
isolated. It is what Freud calls the “ego” which plays this policing role. 

But if we only have the id and the ego then it is unclear why we would 
not simply follow the pleasure principle. That is, although the ego rationally 
reflects, it needs something to weigh-up against the id. We need some authority 
that monitors what the ego is doing. This authority is what Freud calls the 

Early in our life our parents (as well as society, religious leaders etc.) tell 
us what we can and cannot do and chastise us for breaking rules, and as we 
grow older we internalize these things and “hear them” as a voice of authority. 
Imagine that your mum has always told you not to sit with your elbows on 
the table then you internalize this rule. So when you are much older and not 
living with your mum any longer the voice of your “super-ego” speaks with 
authority — “take your elbows off the table!” These are the very basics of 
Freud structure of the mind. Our ego balances the primal drives of the id with 
the voice of authority from the super-ego. 

Where does the conscience come in? For Freud the conscience is the form that 
the super-ego takes in addressing the ego. When the internalized authority derived 
from parental (social/religious) rules and regulations controls the ego is it is 

understood as “the conscience”. In our last example it is our “conscience” that 
tells us to remove our elbows from the table. 

Notice then that our conscience often requires certain things from us which 
we fail to achieve and this gives rise to guilt. For Freud, the conscience can be 
thought of as synonymous with the “guilty conscience”. Our ego is punished 
through guilt by the form of the super-ego we call conscience. Furthermore, 
Freud says that when the super-ego fails to deal properly with the id — when 
the pleasure principle is repressed — this forms what he calls neurosis. 

You can also hopefully see the differences between Aquinas and Freud. 
First, the obvious point is that for Freud the conscience is not the voice of 
God. Second, unlike Aquinas, Freud thinks that the conscience could be bad, 
destructive and unhelpful. The conscience is the way the ego experiences 
the authority of the super-ego. But the super-ego is arrived at through the 
experiences we have. And, of course, we might have had really bad experiences 
growing up where parents are stifling, overly authoritarian, distant, cold, hard, 
violent, abusive etc. In these sorts of cases the conscience would be stifling, 
overly authoritarian, distant, etc. This means that although Freud does not 
think we can, or should, get rid of the conscience he does think we should treat 
it with a healthy dose of scepticism and hence not be kowtowed by the “guilt” 
that is our ego’s punishment for falling short of the super-ego; conscience is 
the product of our often non-ideal upbringing rather than a divinely-inspired 
force for good. 

5. Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory 

Psychosexual Development Theory is a theory of sexual development from 
birth to death. Freud was the first thinker to look at the entire lifespan in terms 
of development. Freud thought that as we develop we move through different 
stages. At each stage our libido (sex drive) is focused towards different things. 
If we fail to move through a stage completely, or return to a stage, then 
problems arise and we might become fixated with the area associated with 
that stage. This can be a serious problem for our relationships and could be an 
underlying cause of mental illness. 

The first stage is the oral stage from birth to about one and a half. This stage 
is where babies get pleasure through putting things in their mouth, pleasure 
in biting, chewing and sucking. For example, babies soon after they are born 
are breastfeeding and as the baby develops they navigate and explore the 
world through putting things in their mouth. Notice that during this phase 
babies are very dependent on others. According to Freud at this stage not 
only do we get information about the world, but we also fulfil the id. Babies 



who can bite, chew and such as much as they want are being guided by the 
id. Freud explains behaviours like smoking, chewing gum, overeating, with 
failure to move properly through this stage which prevented the successful 
development of the id. 

The next stage, from about one and a half to three years, is the anal stage. 
Here pleasure is gained through controlling going to the toilet. This stage is about 
gaining control of one’s body, and it starts with controlling the bladder and 
bowels (being potty trained). It is around this time that the ego develops. This 
control of their bodies is a source of pride and pleasure for children. Agents 
who fail to properly move through this stage are what are sometimes called 
“anally retentive”. That is, someone who is overly controlling or out of control 
and messy, because — according to Freud — they do not want to let go of their 
waste, or do not care where or when they let go of their waste. 

The next phase of development, from about three to six years, is the phallic 
stage in which a child discovers one’s genitals, and importantly that they are 
different in men and women. This stage is where Freud thinks we develop 
the Oedipus and the Electra complex. A problematic phallic stage will cause 
problems with intimacy in later life. 

The next stage, the latency stage, is from six years to the onset of puberty. This 
stage is not about pleasure in the body as the libido is “latent” or hidden — this 
is the stage where sexual desire is repressed and no new sexual desires emerge. 
At this stage girls play with girls in order to learn the role of a girl and boys 
play with boys in order to learn about the role of boys.. The child learns how to 
navigate the social world. A difficult latency stage leads to relational problems 
and understanding one’s gender. 

The libido then reappears in the final stage which lasts to our death and 
which Freud calls the mature genital stage. This is where the individual not only 
recognises the difference between men and women but also shows a desire to 
engage in a sexual relationship and, more generally, a pursuit of pleasure and 
happiness. People become sexually active, fall in love and get married. This is 
the stage where we acquire a fully developed conscience. 


The notion of “conscience” has appeared for thousands of years 
in different cultures, even though it has not always been called 
“conscience”. Modern Christian orthodoxy popularised it and 
characterised it in relation to God’s voice, and guidance. Aquinas 
thought that conscience is the way we understand how to apply 
what we know. In Aquinas’s view, our conscience is fallible and 
might guide us wrongly. When our conscience “gets it wrong” 
we can be either culpable — through vincible ignorance — or not 
culpable — through invincible ignorance. 

Freud is less convinced that conscience is a force for good, and 
he is certain that it has not got anything to do with God. For Freud 
conscience can be either a good or bad. We can think of our mind 
as having three parts, the id, ego and super-ego. The conscience for 
Freud is the form the super-ego takes when it is trying to keep the 
ego in line. It is internalized as the voice of authority. The super- 
ego is about following rules but those rules do not come from 

“on high”, they derive from the upbringing we have had. So if we 
have had a repressive upbringing then the super-ego — the voice 
of conscience — will be repressive. How we develop these three 
features of the mind is through what Freud calls Psychosexual 
Development; if we do not develop correctly then we become 
fixated and repressive, form a neurosis and ultimately become 
mentally ill. Freud thought that this could be avoided by working 
through the Psychosexual Stages in the normal way, and can be 
treated through psychosexual counselling. 


° Writing conscious when meaning conscience. 
° Confuse synderesis and conscience. 

° Confusing conscience as guidance with conscience as the source of 

e Believe Freud thinks the conscience is always bad. 

e Thinking that for Aquinas conscience is way of knowing what is right 
and wrong. 

° Thinking that because the term conscience is new, conscience itself is a 
modern invention. 

1. Do you think you have a conscience? What does it tell you? 
2. What is the difference between synderesis and conscience? 

3. Do you think that everyone ultimately knows — if they reason 
correctly — what is right and wrong? 


4, What is the difference between vincible and invincible? Is not most of 
the supposedly invincible knowledge, really vincible? We just need to 
try harder? 

5. What are the possible different roles for the conscience? 
Could the conscience be a morally bad thing? 

Why does Freud think we need to be cautious about listening to our 

8. How does Freud’s account of conscience relate to his Psychosexual 
Development Theory? 

9. What do you think about Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory? 

10. Draw up a table of the key stages and accompanying characteristics of 
Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory. 

11. Could it ever make sense to talk about animals/robots having a 
conscience? If not, why not? 

12. Do you think conscience will still shape our lives in one thousand 


Pleasure principle Vincible ignorance 
Id Invincible ignorance 
Ego Psychosexual Development 

Theory (oral, anal, phallic, 
latency and mature genital 
Synderesis phases) 



Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, freely available at http://www. 

—, Romans (Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans). 

Benhabib, Seyla, ‘Who’s on Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?’, The New York Times 
(21 September 2014), freely available at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes. 

Freud S. and Freud A., Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (New 
York: Random House, 2001). 

Giubilini, Alberto, ‘Conscience’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 
Winter 2016 ed., edited by Edward N. Zalta, freely available at https:// 

King, Martin Luther, ‘A Proper Sense of Priorities’, 6 February 1968, 
Washington, D.C., freely available at 

Strohm, Paul, Conscience: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 2011), vol. 273, 





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Sexual Ethics 

Only when you [have sex] [...] are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. [...] Sex 
isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever 
forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. [...] But tell me, what power is greater?! 

There is no morality intrinsic to sex, although general moral rules apply to the treatment of others 
in sex acts as they apply to all human relationships.? 

1. Philosophy of Sex Introduction 

While we write this chapter, a court in the United Arab Emirates have detained 
a foreign couple in their twenties for having sex outside marriage and if found 
guilty they will both face a lengthy jail sentence.’ Shortly after the 2017 General 
Synod vote in the UK on whether same sex couples could be “blessed” in 
church, the eminent theologian and academic Professor John Milbank tweeted: 
“There is no need to demand “celibacy” in gay relationships. That wrongly 
equates same sex physical affection with full (heterosexual) sex”.* Now there 
might have been a subtle and sophisticated theological point here. Or there 
might not. Whatever the right response to Milbank is, what it makes clear, 
and what probably does not need pointing out, is that “sex” is, has been, and 
always will be an issue of great importance to people. Moreover, it makes clear 
that the very notion of “sex” is a philosophically interesting one. What, after 
all, is “sex”? What does it mean to talk about heterosexual sex as “full” sex 
in such a context? Was Monica Lewinsky correct to say that she did not have 
sex with Bill Clinton, the then president of the US, because it was “only” oral 
sex? What is the role of sexual pleasure in defining sex? What is consent? Is 
pornography wrong? What is sexual perversion? Of course, we can only deal 
here with a very small fraction of some of these issues (for an excellent survey 

1 P. Roth, The Dying Animal, p. 69. 

Alan H. Goldman, ‘Plain Sex’, p. 49. 

3 ‘Couple “Detained in UAE for Sex Outside Marriage”’, BBC News, 

4 _ 



of articles see Sobel 2008) and our focus will be on some of the ethical issues to 
do with sex. 

We start this chapter by discussing the very definition of “sex”; we then 
move onto discussing some of the things that different moral philosophers 
might say about sex. Hopefully you can see why this is the right order. For, 
we suggest, a lot of the ethical discussions about sex already presuppose what 
sex is, but that presupposition is controversial. Thus we need to be clear about 
the different ways to understand sex and this will enable us to explore more 
usefully the various moral issues associated with sex. 

2. What Is It to “Have Sex”? 

This question is not the same as what is “sexual orientation”, or, what is one’s 
sex — as opposed to one’s gender. There might be some that would be bemused 
when faced with the question “what is it to have sex?” Typical (frustrated) 
philosophers! Is the answer not obvious? Sex is penis-in-vagina penetrative 
intercourse (coitus) — end of story. Well maybe...but consider some other 
questions. How essential is orgasm in the definition of sex? Imagine that two 
people engage in coitus but there is no orgasm: is this “having sex”? What 
about if one person has an orgasm where the other does not? Or imagine that 
people are involved in manual genital stimulation to orgasm, is this sex? What 
about people engaged in oral sex, can this count as “having sex”? What about 
rape? If someone is raped is it correct to say they have “had sex”? And things 
get even more confusing.... 

Given the definition of sex as coitus, then this obviously means that by 
definition homosexual sex is conceptually impossible. This might seem false 
and simply offensive. Sex as coitus also gives rise to some odd situations. 
Imagine a women asked her partner if he was a virgin and got the following 
response: “yes I am...I’ve only been involved in homosexual penis-in-anus 
penetrative intercourse”. The women might be perplexed (to say the least). 
She might sensibly think he is deluded in calling himself a “virgin”. Anal sex 
is sex, and consequently our initial definition of “sex” as coitus is incomplete. 

Notice that things are also complicated by the fact that people who are 
involved in sexual activity sometimes themselves report uncertainty about 
whether they have actually had sex. We can imagine someone being asked: 
“did you have sex with her?” and receiving the answer: “well it depends...” It 
seems then that “having sex” is a more complex notion that we might have 
first thought. These points are worth keeping in mind when we talk about the 
ethical questions that are involved in “having sex”. In particular, the reader 

should ask themselves if a particular account of “having sex” is being used 
and importantly what if that definition were changed. 

3. Natural Law and Sex 

If you recall when we discussed Natural Law Theory (NLT) in Chapter 4, 
something is good if that thing fulfils its function. A good knife is one that 
cuts well, a good guitar is one that plays well, etc. Therefore, in order to work 
out what “good” sex is we need to ask what sex is for. What is its function? In 
answering this question, we should then be able to work out what is morally 
acceptable sexual activity. 

St. Aquinas and other Natural Law theorists would say that our sexual 
faculties have one true end — procreation. True, sex is pleasurable but it is 
pleasurable in order to fulfil this end. If this is correct then sexual activity is good 
if, and only if, it is consistent with procreation and bad in so far as it frustrates 
that end. It is important to understand that the outcome is independent of 
desires, wants, reasons, hopes, fears etc. and that for the Natural Law Theorist 
(NLT) it is simply an objective fact whether a sexual act is wrong or right, 
something which is not affected by culture, religion, etc. This means that for 
the NLT there are objective moral truths regarding how we ought, and ought 
not, to behave sexually. 

We can say then that, for the traditional NLT, premarital sex, masturbation, 
bestiality, contraception, homosexual acts, pornography and adultery are 
all wrong. Premarital sex is wrong because children would be brought into 
the world outside the safe confines of marriage. Homosexual acts have no 
tendency towards procreation at all; contraception frustrates procreative 
ends; masturbation and pornography focus the sexual acts inwards towards 
oneself, frustrating procreative ends. However, it is vital to make a number of 
clarifications as people often misunderstand NLT. 

The NLT is not claiming that anything that frustrates natural ends is wrong 
but rather only human acts. So, according to the NLT, the fact that, for instance, 
the Bonobo monkeys engage in “rape”, “masturbation” and “homosexual” 
acts does not mean that they are doing something morally wrong. 

Furthermore there is a difference between using something wrongly and 
not using it at all. We use a knife wrongly if we try to use it as a violin bow but 
not by leaving it in the knife drawer. So, not using sexual faculties (celibacy) is 
morally acceptable for the NLT. 

However, on the face of it NLT does seem to have a lot of counter examples; 
there are lots of things that we agree are not wrong but do seem to frustrate 



natural ends. For example, imagine I regularly walk on my hands, or I am fed 
through a tube rather than using my perfectly good mouth, both these seem to 
be frustrating the natural ends of my hands and mouth, but surely such things 
are not morally wrong? 

But, an NLT would agree because these sorts of examples are not cases of 
the faculty being used to “frustrate” the natural end of the hands or mouth. If 
on the other hand we wired someone’s jaw shut so they could not eat through 
the mouth, or if someone always walked on their hands even though they had 
perfectly good legs, then this might be different. But as it stands simply using 
a faculty for something other than what it is for is not the same as using that 
faculty to frustrate its end. 

Furthermore, the claim is not that if you use a faculty with the knowledge 
that it will be frustrated then it is wrong; it is that if you intend to use it to be 
frustrated. So, for example, sex between a man and women when the woman 
is pregnant is not wrong for the NLT. 

Also, the claim is not that if something is “unnatural” it is wrong. Deciding 
whether something is right or wrong is not the same as asking whether 
something is “man-made or not”. If this was the case, wearing glasses and 
taking medication would be wrong and the NLT is not committed to this. So 
the use of sex toys, or various medications such as Viagra is not wrong even 
though they are unnatural. 

We might think that linking sex to procreation in this way would take all 
the fun out of sex but this is not the case. Just as one can eat a dish in many 
different ways whilst always fulfilling the natural function of eating, one can 
be involved in different forms of sexual act, fantasy, etc. as long as it is part 
of the long term function of the sexual organs (so, for example, oral sex is not 
necessarily ruled out as long as it is, overall, part of a sex act that is intended 
for procreation). 

As noted, the NLT does, though, rule out homosexual sex and all forms 
of contraception because having sex whilst using contraception is to use the 
sexual faculties whilst intending to frustrate their end. 

The plausibility of this theory need not turn on how religious you are. We 
could give an atheistic evolutionary biological account that also talks about the 

“function” of our sexual faculties. 

There are many things which we could ask regarding this overall NLT 
approach to the ethics of sex. However, the main question to ask turns on 
why we might think that just because something is the case; namely, it is the 
function of sexual faculties to reproduce, that this is how things ought to be. 

5 These examples are cited by Edward Feser here: 

This “is/‘ought” gap plagues many moral theories but seems particularly 
pressing here. Put simply, it does not seem problematic for someone using 
contraception to say: “true, I am intending to frustrate the natural function of 
my sexual faculties but why does that mean I ought not do it?” 

Summary of Natural Law Theory’s view on sex 

= Morally Morally 
1 Act/A 
scence Acceptable Unacceptable 

Celibacy Xx 
Oral sex Xx 
Homosexual sex 

Premarital sex 
Sex toys X 
Sadomasochism xX 
Viagra X 
Anal sex 

It Depends... 

| ><] ><] >< | >< 

x |< | >< 

4. Kant and Sex 

Kant thinks that sex is morally permissible within the context of a 
heterosexual, lifelong, and monogamous marriage. Any sexual act outside 
these contexts — homosexuality, masturbation, adultery, premarital sex — is 
morally wrong. His reasons for thinking this are very complex, not least because 
his writing on the subject, like just about all of his writing, is incredibly dense, 
but broadly speaking, his views on sex are based on his Second Formulation of 
the Categorical Imperative (see Chapter 2): act in such a way that you always treat 
humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as 
a means, but always at the same time as an end. 

Kant, like St. Augustine (354-430) and sometimes Freud, is what Alan Soble 
(1947-) calls a sexual pessimist (Plato and many modern philosophers would 
be counted as sexual optimists). The broad feeling amongst the pessimists is 
that our sexual desires and impulses, and acting upon those impulses, are 
undignified. The sexual part of our nature is unbefitting to how humans 
should behave and threatens our proper moral life. 

For Kant, sexual desire is the only impulse in us that takes the body of 
another human as the object of indulgence. Kant says regarding sexual appetite: 



Far from there being any concern for the happiness of the loved one, the lover, in order to satisfy 
his [sexual] desire and still his [sexual] appetite, may even plunge the loved one into the depths 
of misery [...] [and after having sex] the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has 
been sucked dry.° 

If you recall from Chapter 2, Kant believes that treating others as whole persons 
is key to being moral, but for him, this is precisely what is missing in sexual 
desires. That is, in sex we are treating others as objects and not treating them 
as whole persons and hence we are acting immorally. In the language of 
his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: in having sex we are 
treating people merely as a means to an end. Consider this full expression of 
Kant’s sexual pessimism: 

Because sexuality is not an inclination which one human being has for another as such, but is an 
inclination for the sex of another, it is a principle of the degradation of human nature, in that 
it gives rise to the preference of one sex to the other, and to the dishonouring of that sex through 
the satisfaction of desire.’ 

So if this is his general pessimistic view of sex how does that relate to a view on 
ethics? As it stands it looks like any sexual desire or act is going to be morally 
wrong, but if that is the case, then that means that for Kant the continued 
existence of the human race is evidence of immoral behaviour! That is surely 
wrong. Well, for Kant, the only reason it is not wrong is the role of marriage. 

In the context of marriage, and only in marriage, Kant thinks that sex and 
sexual desire is more than simply treating another merely as a means to an 
end. But why? 

First we must understand what Kant means by marriage: 

[Marriage] is an agreement between two persons by which they grant each other equal 
reciprocal rights, each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other 
with a complete right of disposal over it.8 

So we can avoid the charge of objectifying and using a sexual partner merely 
as ameans to an end because in sex within marriage you are treating each other as a 
whole person and thus there is reciprocity. Sex within marriage is about the whole 
person and not simply the genitals, sexual desire and pleasure. How does this 
work? This is how Soble starts to approach this question: 

But because the acquisition [of another through sex] in marriage is reciprocal, each person 
regains his or her personhood (and hence does not lose it, after all). When I “surrender” myself to 
you, and you thereby acquire me, but you also “surrender” yourself to me, and I thereby acquire 

6 I. Kant, Lectures on Ethics, cited in A. Soble, The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings, p. 200. 
7 Cited in ibid., p. 260. 
8 Ibid., p. 202. 

you, which “you” includes the “me” that you have acquired, we each surrender but then reacquire 

This reciprocity though is not present in non-marital sexual relationships. This 
is very hard to understand on many levels and we urge the reader not to get 
too caught up on this. 

We wanted to show you that Kant is complex and that the answers are not 
simple. The greatest Kant scholars are still not sure how to understand his ideas 
on sex. The thing to remember though is that via the second formulation of the 
Categorical Imperative Kant thinks that sex outside heterosexual marriage is 
wrong. Within marriage it is acceptable. 

5. Sex and Utilitarianism 

As you will recall from Chapter 1 Utilitarianism does not rule out an act on 
the basis of it being a particular act. This means that if Utilitarianism is correct 
we cannot say that any particular sex act is always wrong. Premarital sex, or 
homosexual sex, or masturbation, or oral sex can be morally acceptable. The 
matter is decided by whether or not performing that act brings about more 
pleasure overall than not doing so. This leaves a few questions and qualifications 
that need to be made. 

First, although sex will typically lead to pleasure that does not mean that 
Utilitarianism is committed to the claim that the act of having sex is always 
good. Utilitarianism does leave space for us to show that rape and paedophilia 
are morally wrong. For even though the rapist or paedophile might get pleasure 
from their act, it does not take much to see that the overall unhappiness, the 
mental and physical suffering of the victim, the distress of relatives and loved 
ones etc. is much greater because the act has taken place. 

Second, just because sex is typically pleasurable it does not mean 
Utilitarianism is committed to the claim that we have a duty to have as much 
sex as possible. For there are things we can do that bring about more overall 
happiness. Or we might suppose that having sex all the time might have 
detrimental effects on relationships and one’s mental and physical health. 

Third, for Utilitarianism, heterosexual sex within a marriage might be 
morally wrong if there has been coercion or threats, or just a general unhappiness 
with perfunctory sex, where almost any other activity would bring about more 
happiness. (Notice then the contrast with the Kantian and the NLT accounts). 

Fourth, adultery or having multiple sexual partners can be morally 
acceptable. We can imagine a case where, for example, the overall happiness is 

9 Ibid., p. 278. 



increased if a married couple agree to have sex with other people to keep their 
own marriage fun and interesting. Or we might think that someone who is 
generally not interested in, or does not have time for, a long-term relationship 
is happier with mutually consenting multiple sexual partners (or prostitutes). 

Fifth, Mill gives a different answer to Bentham to questions regarding what 
we ought to do when considering various sex acts because of his distinction 
between higher and lower pleasures. In general Mill did not value sex and he 
took the pleasures that arose from it to be fleeting and of lower value. This 
is because Mill thought that some pleasures are qualitatively distinct from 
others and thus outweigh other, lower, pleasures. Bentham however would 
not make this distinction (see Chapter 1 section 9). 

So if we keep this distinction in mind we might be able to distinguish 
between types of sex acts. Perhaps some sex acts are lower and some higher 
than others? We'll leave the reader to think through some of the implications 
of this. 

6. Sex and the Virtue Theory 

Although virtue theorists do write about many applied ethical issues, they 
typically do not write about sex. Those that do (e.g. Elizabeth Anscombe 
(1919-2001), Peter Geach (1916-2013) and Roger Scruton (1944-)) often 
support a more conservative sexual ethic. However, there are a few (e.g. Raja 
Halwani (1967-)) who do not defend traditional accounts of sexual ethics and 
consequently, it is unhelpful to try and work out “the” virtue theory view on 
sexual conduct. So we will give the reader a framework to think through some 
issues that arise when you think about sexual ethics through the lens of virtue 

If you recall, virtue theory is not a theory devised to help us make decisions. 
We cannot ask a virtue theorist: “how should we calculate what to do in this or 
that situation”? When faced with this sort of question, the virtue theorist will 
answer that you should do whatever a virtuous agent would do. But what is it 
to be virtuous? Well, the general idea is that to be virtuous is to develop certain 
dispositions or habits so that we respond to things in the world in the right way, 
at the right time, with the right reasons, to the right extent. 

To get a sense of this, recall the “Doctrine of the Golden Mean” from 
Aristotle (see Chapter 3 section 4). The idea here is that by acting between 
excess and deficiency regarding certain feelings we are acting rationally, that is, 
virtuously. If we keep doing this then we will develop a habit or disposition 
for this sort of action, and we will just get better at “seeing” what is required 

of us and responding in the right way in any particular situations. For instance, 
take “fear”. 

To have an excess of fear is to be cowardly whereas the lack of fear is to be 
rash or headstrong. To act rationally with regard to fear is to have the virtue 
of courage. The more we act courageously then the better we will be at having 
courage and thus will need less help from others in order to see what is 
courageous. We can repeat this for other virtues, e.g. the virtue of “generosity” 
would be the mean between stinginess and wastefulness. 

When discussing sexual ethics a number of different virtues might be 
relevant. In terms of an Aristotelian approach the virtue that is relevant is 
temperance (the vice being intemperance). This virtue is to do with our desires 
or appetites — this includes the desire for food, drink, and importantly for us, 
sex. A rough modern interpretation of this virtue would be “moderation”. 
The person who has the virtue of temperance will not either be a drunk or a 
glutton or be someone who is teetotal or who starves himself. In relation to 
sex, the agent who has the virtue of temperance will not simply be driven by 
unchecked sexual desires nor will he deny natural sexual desires completely 
but rather he will have sex at the right time, with the right people for the right 

One way of seeing if our action is intemperate is if our actions conflict 
with our other goals and virtues. One example is health. Someone who is 
intemperate with regard to sex (e.g. promiscuous) would potentially become 
unhealthy — perhaps physically and emotionally. Or consider other things we 
might value such as friendship or education: in these too we can imagine how 
intemperance might make these ends hard to achieve — e.g. just consider how 
a friendship would be wrecked or made impossible with constant unwanted 
sexual advances. There are some other things that the virtue theorist might say 
about sex. 

First, the virtue theorist would say that rape is always wrong because it 
violates the other person’s sexual autonomy which is the choice of when and 
how to have sex and with whom. Second, paedophilia is also always wrong for 
similar reasons. Adultery might be wrong because an intemperate person would 
break the marriage vows because of their sexual desire. 

So, like Utilitarianism, the answer to whether a virtue theorist would think 
a certain sexual activity is right or wrong will depend on whether a virtuous 
agent would do that act, and that would depend on whether the activity fitted 
within the Golden Mean. 



Philosophers since at least Plato have discussed sex as it raises 
a number of interesting philosophical questions. Sex is about 
relationships and interactions between people and consequently 
it seems to be a moral issue. Anyone that believes that sex is not 
a moral issue should ask themselves whether they think rape or 
paedophilia is morally wrong. However, when we move past 
such clear-cut cases, the issues become more subtle and complex. 

We considered a number of philosophical theories which give 
very different views. The Natural Law Theorist uses the idea of 
function and goal to ground a “conservative” view of sex. The 
Kantian also uses the idea of autonomy and respect for a person 
to ground a conservative view of sex, with a splash of pessimism 
about the unbefitting nature of sexual desire thrown in for good 
measure. Utilitarianism and Virtue Theory are less pessimistic 
and, as with their views on the other issues we have looked at 
in this book, more open to see what arises in different situations. 

The two questions we leave you with are these. Having read 
this chapter, what do you think sex is? And how should moral 
theory guide our sexual practice? 



° Believing that Aquinas thinks that if sex doesn’t lead to pregnancy it is 

° Believing that for Aquinas sex has to be perfunctory and boring. 
° Thinking that the Utilitarian must think we should be promiscuous. 
° Not realizing that it isn’t clear what “sex” means. 

° Not realizing that how one defines “sex” will change how one answers 
moral questions. 





Imagine you were visited by an alien. The alien says “I’ve heard lot 
about ‘having sex’. What do you humans mean by this?” How would 
you respond? 

Do you think that sex is a moral issue? If so, what sorts of questions 
should moral philosophers consider in this area? 

Would the NLT think that using ear plugs or riding a bike were wrong? 
After all, they seem to frustrate the natural faculties of the ears and the 

Could you be an atheist and be a NLT? 

In some countries same sex marriage is permissible. Do you think that 
in these countries Kant would say that homosexual sex is morally 

Why does Kant think having multiple wives or husbands is morally 

Would you count Mill as a sexual optimist or pessimist? 
For Utilitarianism could bestiality be morally acceptable? 

What might Rule Utilitarianism (Chapter 1) say about some of these 
issues, e.g. whether adultery is morally right or wrong? 

How might Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures be 
relevant in this context? 

What virtues and vices might be associated with sex? 

Use the Doctrine of the Golden Mean to think through the morality of a 
sexual activity. 





Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908), freely 
available at 

‘Couple “Detained in UAE for Sex Outside Marriage”’, BBC News, freely 
available at 

Goldman, A. H., ‘Plain Sex’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 6.3 (1977): 267-87. 

Halwani, R., The Philosophy of Love, Sex and Marriage: An Introduction (Oxford: 
Routledge, 2010), 

Mill, J. S., ‘Utilitarianism’, in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. by Alan Ryan 
(London: Penguin Books, 2004). 

Milbank, John [@johnmilbank3], ‘There is no Need to Demand “Celibacy” in 
Gay Relationships. That Wrongly Equates Same Sex Physical Affection 
with Full (Heterosexual) Sex’, 

Bentham, Jeremy, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and 

Legislation’, in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. by Alan Ryan (London: 
Penguin Books, 2004). 

—, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, freely available at 

Roth, Philip, The Dying Animal (London: Random House, 2010). 

Soble, Alan, The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings (Plymouth: Rowman 
& Littlefield, 2002). 

—, The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Introduction (Paragon House, 1998). 

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1. Stealing: Introduction 

The Bible reference above is absolutist in nature. It does not say that you should 
not steal so long as you have enough resources available to you, or that you 
should not steal if your neighbour has been good to you. Rather, it simply 
says that you should not steal full stop. Partly as a result of this particular 
commandment and the impact of Christianity upon social custom in many 
parts of the world, the message that stealing is a moral wrong is pervasive 
and fairly uncontroversial, at least prima facie. For example, if you hear that 
someone has been sent to prison for stealing, it would likely take something 
atypical for you to question whether or not the person deserved punishment 
for his or her crime. In this chapter, we apply the key normative theories of 
Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics to the issue of stealing. 

2. Defining Stealing 

Beginning a chapter on the ethics of stealing, it is important to make clear 
exactly what “stealing” amounts to. At first, this may seem like a fairly simple 
task; stealing is just the taking of another person’s property without their 
consent. Indeed, if reality television programmes following British Traffic 
Police are anything to go by, this definition is of use not merely for philosophy 
classes, but for the real world also; theft of vehicles is often categorised as an 
example of TWOC — “taking without owners’ consent”. 

Yet, it is not always clear that stealing comfortably fits this definition. For 
example, we might wonder if it is possible to steal an item even though the 
owner has given you consent to take it. The original definition would rule 
this out as a conceptual impossibility, but consider someone who, whilst 
inebriated (perhaps even drugged against their will), gives you permission 

1 Exodus 20:15, 


to take an item of value from their house. Even though you have their explicit 
permission, acting on this verbal instruction and stealing their television still 
might seem to be an act of theft. 

As a second counterexample to the original definition, imagine that you 
are better at cards than someone else, although you hide this fact from them. 
If you play a game for real money, and beat them in hand after hand after 
hand, might it be suggested that you have stolen their money even though 
they freely entered into the game? 

There are responses to these two examples, of course. We might deny that 
either is an act of stealing, or deny that proper consent was ever given — this 
seems particularly compelling in the first example. However, we can also 
cast doubt on the definition by focussing not on the issue of consent, but on 
the idea of property. For example, if a person is being paid by the hour, but 
spends an undue amount of time on social media or checking sports scores, 
have they stolen money or time from their employer? Or, as a second possible 
example, if I make up a joke that is then retold by someone else, have they 
stolen “property” without my consent? This is a genuinely important issue 
in the field of comedy, for example. Again, the original definition might be 
defensible as a mechanism for capturing such instances of stealing. However, 
if it is defensible, it is only because of a broad reading of the idea of property, 
taking the concept far beyond the physical. 

Finally, consider the example of someone who fails to pay their legally due 
portion of tax to the government. Again, we might wonder if this person has 
“stolen” money just by refusing to hand over their financial property. If so, our 
reading of the original definition of stealing would again need to be rather 

All of this has hopefully opened your minds to the variety of acts that may 
or may not be labelled as stealing. We will proceed in this chapter with the 
rough understanding of stealing provided at the start of this section, but with 
a broad and liberal interpretation of both “property” and “consent”. 

3. Kantian Ethics on Stealing 

In Chapter 2, we outlined the structure of Kantian Ethics, named after its 
creator Immanuel Kant. It would be best to engage with Chapter 2 before 
considering the application of Kantian thinking to the issue of stealing in this 
section. Background knowledge of this theory is therefore assumed in what 

To determine whether an act is morally permissible (acceptable) or not, we 
can utilise two formulations of the Kantian Categorical Imperative. According 
to the first formulation, if we consider the maxim behind an action (the general 

principle that supports the action in the mind of the person acting), then 
we should consider whether or not that maxim could be willed to become 
a universal law. According to the second formulation, we should consider 
whether or not the action involves treating another person merely as a means 
to an end, rather than an end in themselves. 

To consider what guidance Kantian Ethics would provide regarding stealing, 
let us first take an example of stealing where the question of whether it seems 
possible that it might be morally acceptable can apparently be answered 
uncontroversially with a “no”. Consider a person who steals a toy from a child 
when their parent’s back is turned. The thief, in this case, seems to act on the 
maxim “take the property of others whenever you please”. It seems that we 
could not will this maxim to become a universal law, because if everyone took 
the property of others whenever they pleased, then whole concept of property 
would break down. Thus, such a maxim could not be universalised without 
contradiction (much like the example of breaking promises). The reason for 
the breakdown of the concept of “property” in this case is clear if we think 
about the idea of “ownership”. If anyone can take any object whenever they 
want, then no one can truly be said to own anything. For example, if I could 
(without moral condemnation) take the pen out of your hand on the basis 
of the universalised maxim as described above, then there is a clear sense in 
which you might have been holding the pen without ever owning the pen. 

Indeed, not only does the act of theft as described fail against the first 
formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, it also fails against the second 
formulation. If you steal from the child, then you are quite clearly not treating 
the child (or the person caring for the child) as a free and rational agent with 
their own dignity; on the contrary you are using them merely as a means to 
your own end of securing property that you desire. 

That Kantian Ethics speaks against the moral permissibility of stealing 
toys from children should be no surprise — any theory that did not speak 
against such actions would likely be in trouble. However, the structure of 
the Kantian response to this case is what really matters, for it is a structure 
that we can apply to other cases. Take an example of stealing that is plausibly 
moral defensible, perhaps involving stealing from a financially powerful and 
internationally influential supermarket chain in order to feed your hungry 
family. The Kantian view regarding this case will be informative as to the 
wider response of Kantian Ethics to stealing. 

In this new example, the maxim behind the action might be thought to be 
“take the property of others only when it is necessary for survival” (putting 
this example into the most extreme and therefore plausibly morally defensible 
form that we can). Can this maxim be willed to be a universal law? Well, even 
as it stands, there are reasons for thinking that such a maxim could not be 




universalised. For one, food is always strictly necessary for our survival, along 
with water, medical treatment and, in the modern age, some financial resource. 
Indeed, even someone who burgles a house to steal a television might act on 
such a maxim if they plan on selling that television in order to pay a debt to 
a potentially violent individual. The breadth of such a universalised maxim 
thus brings us back to the issue that afflicted the previous maxim, and the 
concept of property may not survive universalisation of such a maxim. 

Still, even in referring to the maxim in the more specific form of “take 
the property of others only when it is necessary for survival”, it might be 
suggested that we are venturing away from the approach with which Kant 
would be happy. Alasdair MacIntyre (1929-) has suggested that when it 
comes to applying the test of universalisation the system can be manipulated 
by being overly specific with the maxim. He says: 

All I need to do is to characterise the proposed action in such a way that the maxim will permit 
me to do what I want while prohibiting others from doing what would nullify the action if 

Thus, on this view, I apparently could universalise the maxim “take bread 
from a financially powerful supermarket only when you or immediate family 
members are at the point of starvation”. Indeed, less desirably, I seemingly 
could universalise the maxim “People with my fingerprint can steal from a 
shop whenever they feel hungry”, since there would be nothing contradictory 
in this becoming a universal law; the concept of property would not break 
down if only I could steal things I desired. However, there is a question — as 
referred to in Chapter 2 when this formulation of the Categorical Imperative 
was explained in more detail — as to whether or not a maxim of this type 
could be understood as a universal law. This is because its application would 
clearly not be universal in the sense that it would apply only to me or, in the 
case of the first maxim of this paragraph, to a limited number of desperate 
people. This, therefore, forms the basis of a response that the Kantian can offer 
to the MacIntyre-style worry. 

Indeed, the maxim universalised must also be the maxim acted upon, so, 
just because it might be the case that we could attempt to universalise a maxim 
of the form “take bread from a financially powerful supermarket only when 
you or your immediate family members are at the point of starvation” (as per 
the MacIntyre approach), this would not help someone who actually acts on 
the maxim “steal food when hungry”, but tries to cover this maxim up with 
more dramatic language. Thus, even if the MacIntyre criticism has some bite 
to it, this will still cover only a very small number of instances of possible 

2  A.MaclIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, p. 126. 

theft; moral assessment must be of actual maxims motivating behaviour, not 
reinterpreted maxims described as favourably as possible. 

What is more complex in this example of stealing from the internationally 
owned and financially powerful supermarket is the question as to whether 
or not it involves the use of another person merely as a means to an end, 
thereby denying them their fundamental human dignity as a rational agent. 
In this case of stealing from a supermarket — an act sometimes referred to as 
a “victimless crime” — it is not immediately clear who might be being used 
merely as a means to an end. Is it the management of the supermarket? Is 
it the shareholders? Is it the shelf-stacking staff? Is it the security personnel 
on site? If stealing from a sole trader, this issue would not arise. However, it 
is far more complex in the modern context of large supermarkets. Working 
through specific instances of stealing, perhaps with real case studies, and 
seeing if those examples could escape falling foul of the second formulation of 
the Categorical Imperative, would be useful for you to consider for yourselves. 

4, Act and Preference Utilitarianism on Stealing 

Chapter 1 is the location of the full discussion of the broad normative moral 
theory of Utilitarianism. Utilitarian theories — Act, Rule, and Preference — are 
linked by their commitment to the view that it is consequence that determines 
the morality of actions, although the three theories have slightly different 
views on how this central claim should be interpreted in practice. Rule 
Utilitarianism and the ideas of John Stuart Mill will be discussed in section 
five of this chapter; for now our attention is focused upon the ideas of Jeremy 
Bentham and Peter Singer as defenders of Act Utilitarianism and Preference 
Utilitarianism respectively. 

The teleological, consequentialist and relativistic nature of Utilitarianism 
may seem to make it more open to the idea that examples of stealing will 
sometimes be morally acceptable. This is because all that needs to be the case 
for an example of stealing to be morally right is for the good consequences to 
outweigh the bad consequences. Indeed, this very much seems to be the case in 
the example of a person stealing bread from a multinational supermarket chain 
in order to survive. Thus, the key issue for Act and Preference Utilitarianism 
when it comes to stealing is not “can stealing ever be justified” (this was the 
key question facing Kantian Ethics) but rather “does Utilitarianism justify 
stealing in too many cases”. 

Consider the following situations: 

1. James has two children who are desperate for a particular Christmas 
present. If he steals the present, which he cannot afford to buy, from a 



major international retailer then this action would very likely lead to far 
more pleasure for his children than pain for the company. 

2. Matthew can illegally download a music album that he would greatly 
enjoy, saving himself money in doing so. Or, he can pay full price for the 
music and allow his money to line the pockets of an international pop 
star, her record label and a financially powerful music retailer. In this 
case, more pleasure would seem to be produced by an illegal download 
rather than a paid-for download. 

3. A gang of thieves has the ability to steal 1p from every bank account in 
the world. The pain of losing 1p, even when multiplied an extremely 
large number of times, is minimal. However, the theft would make the 
thieves rich beyond their wildest dreams, filling their lives with extreme 

4, A football club requires a large donation in order to keep running its 
youth teams and providing pleasure for hundreds of children in the local 
area. Imogen, a fan of the club, breaks into the mansion of a millionaire 
and steals £10,000 worth of property to sell in order to raise the necessary 
funds to save the youth programme. If the goods stolen were of trivial 
importance to the millionaire, the balance of pleasure versus pain may 
favour the theft. 

5. Bryony and Robert are going to miss a concert that they have been looking 
forward to for a very long time because their car has broken down. By 
chance, they notice an unlocked car parked on a driveway near them. 
If they steal the car, attend the concert, refill it with petrol and park it 
back on the driveway — all without the owner’s knowledge — then their 
action appears to provide them with a great deal of pleasure and no pain 
at all to the actual owner of the car. 

Inall five cases as described (and we should not cheat and change the examples!) 
the Benthamite, hedonistic act utilitarian would seem to be forced to suggest 
that stealing would be morally right; indeed, not stealing may well be morally 
wrong in all of these cases because not stealing would fail to create the greatest 
pleasure for the greatest number. If we replace “pleasure” with “preference 
satisfaction” in the five cases, the situations do not seem to be different in any 
key respects, and so the preference utilitarian would seem to face the same 

In response, we should pay attention to Bentham’s suggestion that act 
utilitarians would have “rules of thumb” that provide general guidance 
against stealing. We are better off being disposed not to steal, for example, 
because we cannot be sure of the consequences. 

If James, for example, was caught then far more pain would result from his 
action than pleasure might have been generated if successful. Indeed, in the 
real world, thieves often have no idea what pain their victims suffer as stolen 
items can often have hidden sentimental value beyond any that a thief could 
recognise in the abstract (this seems most relevant to cases four and five). The 
thief who stole an iPad in Colorado Springs, for example, probably did not 
factor in the pain of an eight-year-old boy losing photos of himself with his 
recently deceased father.*? Thus, even when we might think an individual act 
of stealing will produce the maximum amount of pleasure in a given situation, 
we should be wary of over-confidence in our analysis, and not downplay the 
painful consequences associated with that possible action. 

As an objection, it can be asked whether or not such “rules of thumb” 
are enough to save the utilitarian from being overly promiscuous in terms 
of allowing morally justified stealing. There is good reason for thinking 
that Utilitarianism does not offer enough in respect of cautioning against 
stealing in general. Although stealing may be viewed as undesirable in some 
of the previous situations (and similar such cases) for the reason alluded to 
in the previous paragraph pertaining to rules of thumb, there are plenty of 
situations where the consequences obviously point to stealing if total pleasure 
or preference satisfaction is all that determines morality. We are sure that 
you can imagine many such situations yourselves where consequences are 
relatively easy to predict. There may be a difference between wanting to be 
less than absolutist about the wrongness of stealing, and being so liberal that 
stealing turns out to be morally required in a potentially enormous number of 

Act and preference utilitarians may make their final stand on this issue by 
suggesting that greater attention should be paid to the psychological costs 
associated with stealing. The pain of a victim will not be fully accounted for 
if we only think of immediate pains to do with finance and anger. In addition, 
we must recognise the psychological pain often resulting from the fear of 
having property stolen or a house burgled. This psychological distress may 
be so severe that it outweighs even large-scale pleasures resulting from the 
theft. In addition, it might be the case that engaging in an act of stealing in 
one potentially morally justifiable situation would make someone more prone 
to stealing in a second, or third or fourth situation where moral legitimacy is 
either more questionable or obviously not present. 

Perhaps if one becomes comfortable with stealing and therefore less 
empathetic as a result, then the long-term costs of stealing — as they pertain 

3. K.Leon, ‘Family Seeks Stolen iPad with Photos of Deceased Father’, 




to the character and future actions of the perpetrator — may be far higher 
than originally thought. This idea has much in common with Kant’s indirect 
concern for animals, as discussed in Chapter 14. 

Whatever your views on Act and Preference Utilitarianism as they impact 
the issue of stealing, it will be well worth your while coming up with your own 
examples and then applying the theories to those cases in order to make clear 
that you understand, and can defend, the scope of cases in which utilitarians 
would morally criticise or morally support stealing. 

5. Rule Utilitarianism on Stealing 

If you find yourself wishing to defend Utilitarianism, but are left uninspired 
by the extent to which Act Utilitarianism and Preference Utilitarianism can 
speak against instances of stealing, then Rule Utilitarianism may provide you 
with reason for optimism. As a reminder, the rule utilitarian suggests that 
moral action is action that would be recommended by the set of rules that, if 
followed, would promote the greatest good for the greatest number. On initial 
viewing, it might seem that a rule banning stealing would be a good candidate 
to be included in the set of rules that would produce the greatest good for the 
greatest number, especially given the potential psychological costs associated 
with stealing as described above. 

Indeed, if we think more broadly about the “best set of rules”, then it 
might seem likely that there would be a rule requiring adequate provision 
of food for those hungry or lacking resources, and a similar rule regarding 
provision of medical treatment and housing etc. Such provision would not be 
free, of course, but the best set of rules would very likely include provision for 
collecting adequate taxation, given that a pound spent on someone in distress 
is likely to facilitate greater future happiness than a pound spent by someone 
economically comfortable (though we encourage you to consider this idea in 
more depth, perhaps with your own examples). 

Despite the previous ideas, it may be suggested that the best set of rules 

would allow for stealing “when necessary” and thus discriminate between 
“sood” stealing and “bad” stealing in a way that satisfies the non-absolutist. 
How easy it would be to write such a rule that is consistent with promoting 
the greatest happiness for the greatest number, yet does not “get it wrong’ 
with individual instances of stealing and their moral status, is something that 
you again should find it useful to consider. Here, it will be worth revisiting the 
distinction between Strong Rule Utilitarianism and Weak Ruse Utilitarianism 
as discussed in Chapter 1. 


Finally, it is worth considering the impact of a style of “demandingness” 
objection as it pertains to applying Rule Utilitarianism in the context of stealing. 
Recall from Chapter 1, Mill’s harm principle: 

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.’ 

If the harm principle informs rules in the set that promotes the greatest 
happiness for the greatest number, then there would be no rule allowing people 
to take assets from private individuals in order to redistribute resources for 
the purpose of promoting happiness. A useful example to have in mind would 
be of jewels stored in a safety deposit box in perpetuity, when those jewels 
could be used in ways that would promote greater levels of happiness if stolen 
and sold. Such action — which seems to have the appearance of stealing from 
private individuals for the greater good in the style of Robin Hood — would 
not appear to sit neatly with Mill’s own harm principle. At the very least, in 
would need a particularly interesting interpretation of the notion of preventing 
harm to others. 

This entire issue in itself highlights the difficulty of actually fixing the rules 
by which the rule utilitarian wants us to judge specific actions in our minds, 
and this also raises another problem for the rule utilitarian in respect of the 
difficulty of practically applying the theory to stealing. It might be useful 
to return to cases 1-5 as outlined in section four and ask yourself what the 
rule utilitarian would suggest in those cases — does the answer of the rule 
utilitarian put them in a more or less attractive position than the answers of 
the act and preference utilitarians? 

6. Virtue Ethics on Stealing 

As anormative moral theory, Aristotelian Virtue Ethics was explored in Chapter 
3 and, as with all of the theories discussed in this chapter, it is important to 
read everything here in the light of issues raised there. 

The virtue ethicist is not interested in the moral status of individual actions, 
but rather is interested in the character traits and dispositions of the person 
performing those actions. Using reason to work out the virtuous Golden Mean 
in the different spheres of life, Aristotle suggested the following as virtuous 
and non-virtuous (vice) character traits. 

4 J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 



; ‘ , di Virtuous Disposition |,,. 
Feeling/Emotion | Vice of Deficiency (Golde Mean) Vice of Excess 
Anger Lack of spirit Patience Irascibility 
Shame Shyness Modesty Shamefulness 
Fear Cowardice Courage Rashness 
Indignation Spitefulness Righteousness Envy 
Social conduct Cantankerousness_| Friendliness Self-serving flattery 
Conversation Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery 
Giving money Stinginess Generosity Profligacy 

Thus, those who engage in the act of stealing on the basis of righteousness, 
courage and virtuous patience may be considered moral, whereas those 
who engage in the act of stealing on the basis of rashness, shamefulness and 
irascibility will not be considered moral. This reveals something interesting 
about the application of Virtue Ethics to stealing. According to Virtue Ethics, 
the very same act, performed by two different people, can be viewed differently 
from a moral perspective. 

Take the act of stealing a loaf of bread from a supermarket, and then passing 
that loaf to a hungry and homeless woman on the street nearby. If a person 
commits this act out of self-serving flattery, then they act in accordance with 
a vice of excess. Yet, if someone else commits the very same act of stealing, 
but does so on the basis of righteousness and generosity, then they act in a 
virtuous way. This example is over-simplified, but the point is hopefully clear. 

One of the bigger worries regarding Virtue Ethics is its lack of specific 
guidance, and this worry would seem to be at its most acute when it comes to 
seeking advice from Virtue Ethics over an applied ethical issue such as stealing. 
After all, how are we to determine if our stealing a loaf of bread would be 
based on righteous and generous character dispositions, or reflect rashness 
and self-serving flattery? How can we ascertain what the virtuous course of 
action would be in a specific situation? 

One possibility is to look to the actions of virtuous people for guidance, 
but this raises the troubling issue of subjectivity. For example, if I view St. 
Augustine as virtuous, then I may view his complete aversion to stealing as 
representative of the Golden Mean. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) says of 
Augustine that: 

It appears that, with some companions of his own age, he despoiled a neighbour's pear tree, 

although he was not hungry, and his parents had better pears at home. He continued throughout 
his life to consider this an act of almost incredible wickedness. It would not have been so bad if he 

had been hungry, or had no other means of getting pears; but, as it was, the act was one of pure 
mischief, inspired by the love of wickedness for its own sake.° 

Stealing for petty reasons looks to be the height of non-virtuous behaviour. 
However, if I view the fictional character Robin Hood as the paradigm of a 
virtuous person because of his willingness to steal from the rich in order to 
give to the poor, then I may have a different view as to which actions the 
virtuous character trait of generosity would give rise to. Or, more extremely, 
if I view a famous fictional pirate of the high seas as representing a virtuous 
individual, my views would once more be different; how do we decide which 
of these people are the right people to seek virtuous guidance from when it 
comes to stealing? Aristotle can refer to practical reason (phronesis) and human 
flourishing, but this may be a serious weakness. 

In addition, we might wonder how to act when virtues themselves seem 
to clash, as well as when the advice of possible virtuous people also seems to 
clash. An act of stealing might seem to be both courageous and self-serving, or 
both brave and rash. Resolving how to act requires use of practical reason, but 
again this language might be thought unhelpful by the critic of Virtue Ethics 
as it is still being unhelpfully vague. 

7. Metaethics and Stealing 

AQA require you to understand how the various metaethical theories as 
discussed in Chapter 7 might be applied to the applied ethical issues on 
the specification, of which stealing is the first we have considered. Below, 
assuming some grasp of the theories from Chapter 7, we offer guidance as to 
how metaethical theories might relate to this issue. Much of the guidance below 
is easily applicable to the other applied ethical issues also discussed in the remaining 
three chapters. 

Cognitivism and Realism 

The combination of Cognitivism and Realism in this area would entail that 
moral claims about stealing are truth-apt propositions, expressing beliefs 
that will be made true by genuinely existing moral properties at least 
some of the time. For the utilitarian, moral claims regarding the ethical 
acceptability of individual actions will be made true by natural properties 
such as pleasure, happiness or preference satisfaction. For the intuitionist, 

5B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 364, 




the non-natural property of goodness will make some of our moral claims 
regarding stealing true. 

Cognitivism and Anti-Realism 

The moral error theorist believes that our moral claims regarding the ethics of 
stealing are intended to be true, but can never achieve truth because no moral 
properties exist as truth-makers for those moral claims. Importantly, just 
because the moral error theorist cannot endorse the claim that “stealing can be 
morally wrong at least sometimes”, this does not entail a love of stealing on 
their part. The moral error theorist may have a non-moral reason for opposing 
stealing on many occasions, or indeed supporting stealing on other occasions. 
Moral reasons are not the only reasons not to engage in stealing, as legal and 
social/personal reasons will also be a factor as they often speak against the 
wisdom of theft. Moral error theorists who care about the property rights of 
others, for example, may well strongly oppose stealing. 

Non-Cognitivism and Anti-Realism 

According to the simple non-cognitivist considered in this book, our moral 
utterances regarding stealing are not truth-apt because they are not expressions 
of belief; they are expressions of emotion or other non-truth-apt attitudes such 
as approval or disapproval. Thus, according to theories such as Emotivism 
and Prescriptivism, a phrase such as “stealing is wrong” expresses a negative 
emotional attitude towards stealing (Emotivism) or makes it clear that we do 
not want people to steal (Prescriptivism). 

Whichever non-cognitivist theory you prefer, the non-cognitivist position 
is defined by the commitment to the idea that the moral utterances do not 
reveal something true about the world and do not even try to describe features 
of the world. 

Therefore, we cannot criticise a thief as morally wrong when using this 
argument (something akin to the claim of the moral error theorist). However, 
if we adopt Prescriptivism, we might at least be able to criticise the thief 
for inconsistency if she speaks of the general wrongness of stealing whilst 
defending the rightness of stealing in her case. Despite this, one big worry 
for those interested in adopting a view like Emotivism or Prescriptivism is 
that it cheapens and eliminates the value of moral debate over the moral 
rightness of stealing, since we cannot defend our ethical claims as being 
genuinely true or false in the way that realist seeks to do and in the way that 
most people would wish to. 




Many will want to avoid an absolute moral view regarding the 
unacceptability of stealing, the kind of view that Kant might 
be thought to defend. Neither Utilitarianism nor Virtue Ethics 
offer an absolute prohibition against stealing, but each has their 
own problems. In terms of showing your understanding of these 
issues, applying normative theories to your own variety of cases 
is a tactic that may best enable you to write with confidence about 
the various nuanced issues afflicting each theory. 


Not applying the strengths and weaknesses of the various moral 
theories as discussed in theory-specific chapters. 

Having too narrow an understanding of stealing. It is advisable to 
discuss a range of cases (real and fictional). 

Assuming too much when explaining how a theory might be applied to 
an issue of stealing — give a full explanation, showing understanding, 
and using key terms. 


1. Is keeping due tax from the government an example of stealing? 

2. Can you create your own satisfactory definition of stealing? 

3. How does the definition you arrived at in (2) fit with the idea of 
stealing ideas? 

4. Does stealing once make you more likely to steal again? 
Is it possible to measure the psychological pains associated with 
Is an absolute prohibition against stealing defensible? Why or why not? 

7. Do people you consider virtuous have any history of stealing? 


8. Would the best set of rules for promoting the greatest good for the 
greatest number contain a rule absolutely prohibiting stealing? 

9. Is it worth debating the ethics of stealing if you are an emotivist or a 

10. What would the error-theorist say about the morality of stealing? 


Categorical Imperative Truth-apt 



Bible, New International Version, freely available at https://www. 

Leon, K., ‘Family Seeks Stolen iPad with Photos of Deceased Father’, 
Fox21 News (3 October 2014), freely available at http://fox21news. 

MacIntyre, Alasdair, A Short History of Ethics (London: Routledge, 2002), 

Mill, J. S., On Liberty (London: Longman, Roberts, Green & Co., 1869), freely 
available at freely available at 

Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (Woking: Unwin 
Brothers, 1947), freely available at 

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Simulated Killing 

Can you avoid knowledge? You cannot! Can you avoid technology? You cannot! Things are going 
to go ahead in spite of ethics, in spite of your personal beliefs, in spite of everything.’ 

Technology: the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it. 

1. Introduction 

Ethics is about how we live in the world and how we interact with one another. 
Given that “simulated” killing is, well, “simulated”, we might think that it falls 
outside ethical consideration. However, this chapter will challenge this claim. 
Simply granting that a scenario is not “real” does not mean that it should not 
be thought of as ethical. We think through how the various ethical theories 
we have looked at in this book might have something to say about simulated 
killing. The chapter relies on the work of Michael Lacewing (1971-) and Garry 

Simulated killing can mean anumber of things and at first itis perhaps easier 
to say what it is not. Obviously simulated killing is not actual killing, nor is it 
a description or representation of killing. So J. K. Rowling’s description of the 
death of Voldemort will not count as simulated killing nor would Caravaggio’s 
painting depicting John the Baptist’s decapitation. However, acting in a film 
involving killing — Schindler’s List for example, or acting Romeo killing Tybalt 
on stage, would. Furthermore, with the advent of computer games and virtual 
reality there are interesting, and arguably morally different, dimensions to 
simulated killing. Specifically, modern technology helps us all be part of the 

Of course, one reaction to supposed ethical worries surrounding this 
topic might be simply — “grow up”! There are many horrific things — real 
things — going on in the world, poverty, torture, crippling debt. They are the 

1 J. Delgado, quoted in John Horgan, ‘The Forgotten Era of Brain Chips’. 

M. Frisch. Homo Faber: A Report. 

3 M. Lacewing, ‘Simulated Killing’, 
9781138793934/A22014/ethical_theories/Simulated killing.pdf. See in particular Garry Young’s Ethics 
in the Virtual World: The Morality and Psychology of Gaming. 



things that as ethicists we ought to be concerning ourselves with. In contrast 
these simulated things are just entertainment. After a killing scene in a film the 
actors will go home; the actors in Romeo and Juliet will dust themselves off 
and go out for a drink, and the pixels will be altered on the computer monitor 
and reformed due to electrical charges. No one is actually hurt! 

However, to counter this more dismissive attitude, consider a few examples. 
The thing to keep in mind when reading them is whether this “who cares, it’s 

not real!” attitude seems right? And if it is not, why? 

1. A local high security prison has a large number of child killers. They 
often riot which causes massive destruction and suffering. However, the 
prison warden proposes a way of stopping the rioting. At little cost, each 
inmate can be given his or her own virtual reality headset that gives 
each prisoner the ability to engage virtually in his or her favourite child 
killing fantasy. Experiments have shown that the immersive nature of 
this seems to act like a safety valve and prisoners become quiet and 
helpful and are willing to get involved in educational and community 
programs. Should they be given the headsets? 

2. It is common for armies to use very realistic computer gaming to train 
their soldiers. Imagine that soldiers are currently fighting in Syria and 
their Syrian training simulator — along with realistic Russian and US 
soldiers, realistic maps, civilian sites such as mosques etc. — is released 
for sale. Is there anything wrong with this? 

3. As part of one level of the video game Call of Duty — Modern Warfare 
2 you are expected to participate in a mass shooting of civilians at a 
Moscow airport in order to pass yourself off as a Russian terrorist. If you 
play this level are you doing something morally wrong? 

4. InJune 2015 a video game called “Hatred” was released. The aim of the 
game is simple, to kill as many civilians as possible. The gamer controls 
the character through a town, shooting, burning, running over, blowing 
up, and executing random innocent people. (Equally controversial is 
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Where players can play Eric Harris and 
Dylan Klebold and re-enact the Columbine High School Massacre). Is it 
morally wrong to play such games? 

What is interesting is that we suspect that many of you reading this chapter 
would find some or all of (1)-(4) objectionable. Even, perhaps, morally 

In this chapter we will start by looking at different moral theories and how 
they might capture this intuition. We will then consider the type of cases, one’s 

in which we are observing the simulated killing. We end by highlighting a famous 
philosophical problem that might relate to these issues, the Paradox of Tragedy. 

2. Utilitarianism and Simulated Killing 

For Utilitarianism no act, qua act, is right or wrong. So we cannot say that 
playing at killing others is wrong. What we have to focus on is how much 
happiness is created in particular examples of simulated killing. 

In asking this question regarding the amount of happiness we might 
conclude that there is nothing wrong with (1)-(4). After all, the inmates, the 
players of Call of Duty or Hatred get enjoyment and there is a lot of happiness, 
no one is hurt, and there is no unhappiness. In fact, we can imagine that there 
might be more unhappiness if someone stops playing these games. Perhaps 
people who are stopped from playing their video games might turn to making 
life miserable for those around them or slump into depression. In fact, then, 
according to Utilitarianism it might be that playing a killer in a computer 
game is something that some people morally ought to do. In some situations, it 
might even be their duty to play such games. 

This said, notice that the question is an empirical one (i.e. it is a question 
answered a posteriori rather than a priori). If playing the killer in simulated 
killing leads to more unhappiness than not doing so, then playing the killer is 
wrong. But why might such simulated killing bring about unhappiness? 

Perhaps playing a killer makes people more inclined to violent behaviour? 
Perhaps it makes the player less able to empathise and trust, each of which might 
lead to the player being more likely to harm others (what McCormick calls 
“risk increasing acts”*). Or perhaps playing simulated killing desensitises the 
players to violence in ways which might be harmful to both themselves and 

As Young (2014) reports the evidence relevant to these sorts of claims is 
mixed. In some cases, where a gamer perhaps already has a predisposition to 
violence, playing the killer will lead her to violence and harm. So the utilitarian 
would say it is morally wrong for this person to play such games. Whereas in 
other cases, where the player has a “normal” disposition, playing a killer in 
a video game may have no negative effects; in which case, it is not morally 

So, for Utilitarianism if there is a clear link between risk-increasing acts 
and playing the killer in games then we might be able to say that such game 
playing is morally wrong. But the evidence does not support this claim. There 
is though, a further consideration to be made when thinking about playing the 

4  M. McCormick, ‘Is it Wrong to Play Violent Video Games?”, p. 279. 



killer. If you recall from Chapter 1 Bentham and Mill differ in their approaches 
to “happiness”. Bentham famously claims: 

Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and science of music and 
poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either... If poetry 
and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated 
to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.° 

Because “push pin is as good as poetry” Bentham would treat playing the 
killer in a video game in the same way as any other pleasure. However, you'll 
also recall that Mill thought that this was not quite right, and that push-pin (or, 
in our case, playing the killer in Call of Duty/Hatred etc.) is perhaps not of equal 
value as the pleasure we get from other activities such as poetry. 

Maybe then when doing a utilitarian calculation regarding the pleasure 
involved in playing at killing we need to consider — not just the empirical 
questions highlighted above, but also whether such pleasure is higher or 
lower? We might reasonable conclude (though this is debatable) that it is a 
lower pleasure. Mill might argue that the inmate gaining pleasure from enacting 
virtue kill fantasies is not just of less quantity, but is of less quality than joining 
a drawing class or, say, visiting an Art Gallery. 

Of course, introducing the distinction between higher and lower pleasure 
will not necessarily lead to the conclusion that playing the killer in video 
games is morally wrong. We might argue (can you?) that playing such games 
as Call of Duty can in fact lead to higher pleasure. Or we might agree that it is 
correct to think of such activities as a lower pleasure but still maintain that in 
some instances it would be right to play the killer in these games. 

There are further things that Utilitarianism would have to take into 
account in each case. For instance, what is going to be important is not only 
the type of person playing the simulated killing — do they have a violent 
disposition? — but the type of killing that is simulated. Maybe the way that 
the killing is simulated: the age, race and gender of the person killed and the 
method of death are important. Perhaps, for example, a simulated killing 
which is highly sexualized is much more likely to bring about harm in the 
gamer. Or in contrast maybe the simulated killing of uniformed soldiers in 
a video game does not change people’s outlook and behaviour. The simple 
point is that the utilitarian questions about “simulated killing” can only be 
answered if we first pin down the precise details of the situation. 

Young is a good place to end this section: 

We have a very good idea of the benefits of video games. Their economic impact is quantifiable as is 
the number of hours of entertainment they bring to gamers. GTA [Grand Theft Auto] alone sold 

5 J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, pp. 206-07, http://www.econlib. 

over 66 million games by 2008, evidence that at least this many people derive entertainment from 
game violence. Other heavily criticized violent games are likewise usually among the top sellers. 
There are also a number of educational benefits. The improvements in visual perception, hand-eye 
coordination, and other motor skills from gaming are also well documented. The difficulty only 
lies in deciding how much these benefits should weigh against any harm that games do, but this is 
a problem intrinsic to utilitarian theory and should not be counted against violent games.° 

3. The Kantian and the Virtue Ethics Approach 

We have placed these two theories together because in the end what they 
have to say about playing the killer in video games is going to be similar. 
Specifically, whether they think playing the killer is right or wrong is going 
to depend directly on the empirical data about how doing so will change the 
person playing the game. 

Recall from Chapter 2 that Kant said that we have no moral duty towards 
animals because they are non-rational. But, he argues, that this does not mean 
we can treat animals cruelly. This is because if we did treat them cruelly we 
might become less able to act rationally and discharge our duties in areas where 
we do have a moral duty towards other. Put simply it makes us worse at being 
moral beings. An Aristotelian would say a similar thing. Namely, although it 
is not wrong to harm animals because of animals “rights”, it is wrong because 
it does not help us develop the right types of virtues, e.g. sensitivity, empathy, 
compassion (see Chapter 14 for a discussion of this). 

The point of this diversion into animal ethics is that the morality of playing 
the killer in video games will be dealt with in the same way. If playing the 
killer makes us less able to reason and hence discern our duty towards others, 
then Kant would say that we should avoid them. But, as stated above, this is 
an open question as the empirical evidence is inconclusive. 

Shifting to virtue theory, if playing the killer makes us less virtuous — e.g. 
less courageous, empathetic, sensitive etc. — then the virtue theorist will 
claim this will make us less able to do the right thing at the right time to the 
right proportion. This means that playing the killer is to be avoided. So to 
the question “would the Aristotelian or Kantian think it is wrong to play the 
killer in video games?” the answer is: “Not directly, it just depends on the link 
between doing so and its effects on us as moral agents”. 

4. Films and Plays 

Recall, we started this chapter by pointing out that simulated killing takes 
place in films and plays. Notice that this might include watching simulated 

6 G. Young, Ethics in the Virtual World: The Morality and Psychology of Gaming, p. 131. 



killing, or acting out the killing. Playing such characters is — we guess — of 
less direct relevance to our readers. Anyway, we suggest that we could treat 
playing the killer in films and plays in a similar way as we have in video 
games. Of course, there might be further complications when asking how 
playing a killer on stage or in a film differs psychologically from playing one 
in a video game. However, we suggest the issues are still fundamentally the 
same, it is just how we extract the empirical data — what sort of empirical 
questions we need to ask — which will be different. For example, perhaps 
physically holding a (fake) knife or gun makes us more — or less — likely to 
hold a real knife or gun. Or perhaps watching people being (virtually) shot 
and (virtually) bleeding makes us less — or more — sensitive to real blood 
and death. And perhaps this is fundamentally different to how playing a 
knife-wielding killer in a video game affects us. But again, this is an empirical 
and not a philosophical question. (It is interesting to note that because of the 
increase in the sophistication of virtual reality, the gap between playing video 
games and acting in films/plays might be closing.) 

What then about simply watching simulated killing? Well, we do not need 
to rehearse again the general approaches discussed above. Does the utilitarian 
think that watching killing is wrong? Well it depends on the consequences. 
Does the Kantian or the Aristotelian? Well it depends on how it affects us as 
moral agents. And the answer to these questions is, again, an empirical matter. 

We end with an ancient philosophical problem which has come to be known 
as the Paradox of Tragedy. Although it is not directly about ethics, it brings to 
the fore issues to do with authenticity and character which might have a direct 
link to other issues we have discussed. 

5. The Paradox of Tragedy (or More Correctly the Paradox 
of “Negative Emotions”) 

Imagine that we go into a hotel room and we see bloody hand marks on the 
wall and in the shower. We feel disgusted, anxious and scared. We quickly 
turn around and get out of there as quickly as possible. Such emotions are 
unwelcome and make us uncomfortable. However, consider all the time and 
money spent on watching and making films which have upsetting scenarios. 
Watching films (of course it does not have to be a film — the same reasoning 
applies to plays or video games) generate in us disgust, anxiety and fear but we 
flock in our droves to such films. In fact, the more scary/disgusting/disturbing 
the film is, the more attractive it seem to audiences. Consider Hitchcock’s 
groundbreaking Psycho for example. Here then is the “paradox”. On the one 
hand negative emotions are not desired, whereas in other context they are. 

Although it is not a genuine paradox it is certainly a tension — an odd 
thing that needs to be explained. We will not go into the possible explanations 
here. What is interesting to us is that this paradox seems to be particularly 
pertinent when we refer to simulated killing. Presumably we would find it 
particularly horrific if we witnessed real life killing, but if it is “simulated” 
perhaps these emotions — horror, fear, etc. are qualitatively different. Call 
them *fear*, *horror*, *disgust*. 

This in turn might mean that we need to be less worried about the changes 
in our character that might come about through simulated killing because they 
are to do with *fear* not fear, *horror* not horror, *disgust* not disgust etc. 
Again, we do not need to go into the details of this. It is though just another 
dimension to simulated killing which may have moral significance and 
consequently deserve consideration. 

“Simulated killing” covers a number of different areas; it could 
involve playing the killer, or watching someone play the killer. In 
the first category it could be an actor on film or stage, or it could 
be someone playing a video game. 

Initially we might think that because it is “simulated” this 
topic is outside ethics. But using Utilitarianism, Kantian and 
Virtue Ethical lenses we have shown that this is not the case. For 
Utilitarianism whether it is simulated or not is not important, the 
question is how much happiness each of these activities generates 
compared to doing something else. If it is more, then we ought to 
do them, if not, we ought not. For the Kantian and virtue ethicist 
the question is how being involved in simulated killing changes 
us as a person. If it makes us less able to be a moral agent — e.g. 
less rational or virtuous — then we ought not to be involved in 
simulated killing. 

However, the main lesson from this chapter is this. Issues 
surrounding simulated killing are going to be addressed via 
psychology. Which is thus far inconclusive. So it seems the best 
we can Say is that “yes simulated killing is a moral issue”, but the 
decision of whether a particular activity is morally right or wrong 
will be advanced via experimentation. 



Thinking that the Utilitarian would say there is nothing wrong with 
simulated killing. 

Missing how important the psychological data is to the ethical question. 

Thinking that we can answer the Paradox of Tragedy by simply 
pointing out that sometimes we like bad things. 

Assuming that bad taste just means morally wrong. 



Watch the 2015 film Gamechangers starring Daniel Radcliffe. This film 

looks at the court case between the creators of Grand Theft Auto and Jack 
Thompson. How do you think the film deals with the ethical issues? Do 
you think that a particular ethical theory comes out as more favourable? 

What is “simulated killing”? 

Reading (1)-(4) do you think that simulated killing generates a genuine 
moral issue? 

How might you consider (a) the simulated killing of animals? Should 
it be treated any differently from the simulated killing of humans? (b) 
young children playing games that involve killing, e.g. a playground 

game of soldiers. 

Should we treat “simulated killing” differently from other “simulated” 
actions, such as stealing or rape? 


Do you think that the pleasure gained by the inmates in (1) is a “lower’ 

What would the Kantian/virtue ethicist say about (1)? 

Imagine a case in the future where one can buy ultra-life like Al 
robots. These robots can be “killed”. They will “bleed”, they have been 
programmed to beg for mercy, to whimper, etc. Once they have been 
“killed” they can be reset and “killed again”. Should we treat this case 
differently? What happens if the robots are so lifelike that people no 
longer know the difference between them and real humans? Does that 
change things? 

Governments have censored video games, such as Call of Duty, and 
Hatred. Are they right to do so? That is, even if we find them immoral, 
how might this relate to laws governing “simulated killing”? 

10. What is the “Paradox of Tragedy”? Do you think it has any relevance 
when discussing the morality of simulated killing? 

11. Use Google Scholar to find the most up-to-date research on the 
psychological effects of “simulated killing” (any version you want). 
What does the current psychological research tell us about the ethical 
issues raised in this chapter? 



Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 
freely available at 

Frisch, Max, Homo Faber: A Report (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1959). 

Horgan, John, ‘The Forgotten Era of Brain Chips’, Scientific American, 293.4 
(October 2005): 66-73, 

Lacewing, Michael, ‘Simulated Killing’, freely available at http://documents. 
theories/Simulated killing.pdf 

McCormick, Matt, ‘Is It Wrong to Play Violent Video Games?’, 
Ethics and Information Technology, 3.4 (2001): 277-87, https://doi. 

Young, Garry, Ethics in the Virtual World: The Morality and Psychology 
of Gaming (Abington: Routledge, 2014), 


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Telling Lies 

I’m not upset that you lied to me; I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you. 

Friedrich Nietzsche 

1. Introduction 

What is it to tell a lie? Is it always wrong to tell lies? Is it sometimes acceptable 
to lie, and if so, what are the conditions that make it OK? Humans have dealt 
with these types of questions, regarding lies and truth, ever since they began to 
interact with one another. Truth and trust are key to the working of our society, 
in fact people who are caught in a lie are sanctioned, blamed and punished. 
We have many examples of politicians being brought down by lies; Nixon and 
the ensuing Watergate is a good one (although see the final section regarding 
Politicians). Children are told “not to lie”, religious leaders and religious texts 
condemn lying, relationship guidance talks about the importance of not lying 
to your partner etc. We will start to consider some of these questions and apply 
some of the thinking thus far discussed in the book to lying. 

2. What Is It to Lie? 

Let’s consider some examples; when you read them you should ask yourself 
whether there is a lie involved. 

1. A friend asks you where you went on holiday last year. You say 
“Cambridge”, which they understand to be Cambridge, UK, but you 
really mean Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

2. You are teaching chemistry to primary school children and you hold up 
a football and say “Atoms are just like this...” 

3. You are having a really bad day: your partner has split up with you, you 
have lost your house keys, and your friend just shouted at you. You meet 
an acquaintance in the corridor; they say, “how are you?” You say, “fine 
thanks, and you?”. 


4. Your gran has saved up her pension, bought some wool, and knitted 
you ajumper. You hate it. She is visiting you and you put it on. She asks, 
smiling, “so, do you really like it?” You reply, “of course Gran, thanks so 
much for thinking about me”. 

5. You are taking a maths test and one question asks the solution to sinx*+ 
cosx? You write “10” [the answer is “1’]. 

6. A recent divorcee keeps wearing his wedding ring. 

7. You are smuggling Bibles into China. At the border, the guards ask you 
what you have in your truck. As it happens, you have hundreds of Bibles, 
so you say “oh, hundreds of Bibles”. The guards think this is a joke and 
wave you through. 

So what do you think? Are these cases of lying or not? Let’s take them in turn. 

(1) This does not fall into the category of lying as there was no intent on 
your part to mislead your friend. 

(2) Is harder. Strictly speaking atoms are nothing like footballs; they are, for 
example, mostly space. And as Kirsten Walsh and Adrian Currie’ state “the 
truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is no teacher’s maxim”. This 
is because it is simply impossible to go into all the details of science or history, 
or chemistry etc. But does this mean that you are lying to the class? We think 
the answer is “yes” and in fact all teaching involves lying. Of course, whether 
this is right or wrong is something that we'll return to below. 

(3) Arguably this would not be categorised as lying as the reply given is 
generally considered to be a standard answer to a standard question; the 
questioner would be expecting this reply in most circumstances. 

(4) This does seem as if it is a clear case of lying. Having been asked a direct 
question by your gran, you look her in the eye and lie. Now whether this is 
wrong is something we consider below; it would seem that it is precisely for 
cases such as this that we have the phrase “little white lie”. 

(5) This does not seem to be a case of lying, rather just bad maths. It is 
certainly false but there is no lie involved. 

(6) This could be a case of lying. If the social context is one in which we 
understand that wearing a wedding ring indicates that someone is married, 
then wearing a wedding ring when you are not married seems like a case of 

(7) This does not seem like a case of lying as you were completely honest 
in your reply to the guard. However, if there was an intention to deceive then 
this may not be the case. But as it stands (7) is not a case of lying. 

1K. Walsh and A. Currie, ‘Caricatures, Myths, and White Lies’, p. 424. 

What then can we take from these quick examples? 

Lying does not simply involve saying something false. That is what (5), the 
maths case, shows us. 

Lying can involve things other than speaking; it can involve writing, signs 
and symbols; that is what (6) — the wedding ring — shows us. 

In cases such as (3), even if we say something we know to be false, it is not 
necessarily thought to be a lie as the intention to deceive is missing. 

That is why “yes I like the jumper Gran” in (4) is a lie. You intend that your 
Gran adopt the false belief that you do like the jumper. 

Notice finally that in the Bible smuggling case if the person knew that by 
telling the truth — “yes there are Bibles in the truck” — then the guards would 
form the false belief that there were no Bibles in the truck, then this might 
count as lying. So for something to be a lie, what is important is the intention to 
deceive — but it need not be the case that what is being said is false. 

Of course, all these claims are controversial but they at least give us some 
starting points for thinking about the moral question. 

Finally, as an aside, it is a controversial and philosophically interesting 
question whether we can lie to ourselves. We do not discuss this here but “not 
lying to oneself” is a common phrase used by psychologists, self-help books, 
counsellors etc. It is then a genuinely interesting question which deserves 
consideration at some point — just not here. 

We can now frame the moral question like this. When, if ever, is it morally 
acceptable to intend for someone to adopt a belief which you know to be false? 

Let’s consider this question through the lens of some of the theories already 
discussed in this book. 

3. Utilitarianism 

If you recall (Chapter 1) Consequentialism has two features. First is the 
definition of “good” (happiness, pleasure, well-being, preferences etc.) and 
then the consideration of right and wrong actions in relation to good. In 
particular, an action is right if, and only if, it brings about the greatest amount 
of happiness, pleasure, well-being, preference satisfaction etc. 

The second feature is that everyone counts as equal in the calculations. That 
is, your good is as important as my good, which is as important as anyone 
else’s good. 

It follows from these two claims that no action is morally right or wrong 
irrespective of context. So we cannot say that lying is wrong because the action 
of lying will only be wrong if it brings about less good than not doing so. If 
I intend that you adopt a belief which I believe to be false but in so doing I 
generate more good than if I had not, then I have done something right. 



Utilitarianism seems to be intuitive in some cases. Imagine, for example, 
a soldier captured and tortured but who still continues to lie and say that 
she does not know how to break the allies’ codes, and in so doing she saves 
hundreds of thousands of lives. In this case people believe that she was 
right to have lied; given the horrific consequences of telling the truth she is 
morally required to lie. However, the intuitions work both ways and there 
are cases where we think that sometimes it is morally counterintuitive to be 
required to lie. 

Consider a famous example from H. J. McCloskey known as “McCloskey’s 

Imagine a scenario where there has been a serious crime in a town and the Sheriff is trying 
to prevent serious rioting. He knows that this rioting is likely to bring about destruction, 
injury and maybe even death. The problem is that he has no leads; he has not the slightest 
idea who committed the crime. However, he can prevent these riots by lying to the town 
and framing an innocent man. No one will miss the man and he is hated in the town. 
If he frames and jails this innocent man, convincing people to believe that it was this 
man that committed the crime, then the town will be placated and people will not riot. 
The consequentialist will judge in this case that it is morally required that the Sheriff lies 
even if this means that an innocent man is jailed. This then shows that the fact that the 
consequentialist says it is sometimes morally required to lie can lead to counterintuitive 

Let’s consider a mundane case. If lying to your gran brings about the best 
consequences — i.e. she is happy, you are happy, and she continues to 
knit which makes her happy etc., then it is morally acceptable to lie. Notice, 
however, that the consequentialist would say that we ought to lie; not just that 
it is acceptable to lie but that we have a moral obligation to lie. 

Of course, the utilitarian should try and think harder about the possible 
consequences and outcomes in order to try and prevent some new problems 
arising. Consider the sheriff example; it could be that the real criminal 
confesses resulting in worse consequences than if the truth had been told at 
the outset. Now, not only will there be riots but there will also be no trust in the 
law enforcement. So, in fact, lying would bring about worse consequences, which 
means it would be wrong to lie. 

Or consider the gran example. If your brother tells his gran that you lied, 
then we can imagine that this might mean she would not be able ever to trust 
her grandchildren again, may give up knitting, and thus make her unhappier 
than if she had originally been told the truth about the jumper. 

However, because no action is right or wrong qua action in Utilitarianism, it 
follows that the action of lying is neither wrong nor right. So to the question 

“does the utilitarian think that lying is wrong?” the answer is “it just depends”. 

2 McCloskey, ‘A Non-Utilitarian Approach to Punishment’. 

4, The Kantian and Lying 

In contrast the Kantian (see Chapter 2) claims that actions are wrong or right, 
qua actions. So rather than first defining good and then defining the right 
and wrong actions they first define right and wrong. How they might do this 
will depend on what type of deontologist they are. The Kantians ground the 
rightness and wrongness on reason. In particular, we introduced one version 
of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. We can show, using this, that Kant — and 
in fact all deontologists — think that the action of lying is wrong in all cases. 
Even if the consequence is saving a billion people, your own mother or an 
orphanage of children. 

It is worth noting that in the other Kantian formula that we introduced, 
lying also comes out as wrong. Kant said that we should always treat others as 
an end in themselves, and never solely as a means to an end. We can see that 
this makes lying wrong. For if we lie to someone then we are not treating them 
as an end in themselves but are controlling what they can do by taking certain 
decisions out of their hands; we are basically saying we should be allowed to 
deceive them for our own ends. We are not treating them as rational agents 
and for the Kantian this is always morally wrong. 

This might seem counterintuitive, and it is. However, it is perhaps less 
so if we revisit our definition of lying. Go back to the soldier case. Imagine 
she is being tortured for military codes. It seems that one way to stop the 
consequence that hundreds of thousands of people die would be simply to say 
nothing. And, given our definition, saying nothing would not be lying. So the 
Kantian may not be committed to the implausible conclusion that she has to 
reveal the secrets. Keeping silent is not the same as lying. 

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that there are different ways of telling 
the truth! Saying to your gran: “I really appreciate all the work you’ve put in 
to my jumper, and my friend thinks it is an amazing jumper, but it really is not 
my style, I’m really sorry”, seem less objectionable than “No, I do not like it”. 

So there are — maybe — ways of making Kant’s theory less objectionable 
when considering lying by thinking harder about what it actually means to 
lie. Even so, it seems undeniable that there are some cases where we think it is 
morally acceptable to lie but for the Kantian there are no such cases. 

Notice that it is not just the Kantian that would say this. Other deontological 
theories would as well. For example, the Divine Command Theory, the 
theory that says that actions are right or wrong depending on whether God 
commands or prohibits them. If God says lying is wrong — and at least in the 
main monotheistic religions He does — then it is, full stop. Or consider the 
Catholic theologian Aquinas. 



5. Some Final Thoughts about the Political Context 

As we write, Donald Trump has just been elected as US president. Whether you 
agree with his policies or not, what has been interesting is how the presidential 
campaign has been run; in particular, it has put under serious doubt our initial 
claim above, namely, that lying in public office is something to be avoided at 
all costs. However, Trump seems unaware and uninterested in truth — hence 
some people have suggested that he has ushered in a “post-truth” era.* This 
era seems to be created in part because of the propagation of false news stories 
on social media sites — so much so that Facebook and other social media 
groups have been working on ways to alert people to “fake news”. 

Thus, the questions we leave you with are whether you think that it makes 
sense to talk about lying in the political “post-truth” era. When Trump says “I 
won the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally” is this a lie? 
We do not mean is it true, because it is patently false. We mean do you think 
the concept of a lie has changed throughout time? Has the political landscape 
changed so dramatically that the concept of lie has no currency? Related, what 
is the moral status of lying? If politicians and constituents do not care about 
the truth, then does this affect the moral status of lying (at least in the political 
arena)? We do not attempt to answer these questions here but they show, as if 
we need reminding, that the moral status of lying is of vital importance at the 
local, national and international levels. 


Philosophers, in many issues, like to start by asking what we 
mean by the key term. Once we ask the question “what is it to 
lie?” it becomes quickly apparent that the issues are complex and 
unclear. To lie does not just mean to say something false, rather it 
has something to do with trying to get another person to believe 
what you claim to be true, when you in fact think it is false. 
Different theories we have looked at so far in this book have 
different responses to the question “is it wrong to lie’? The 
utilitarian says “it depends”. That is, if the consequences of lying 
are better than telling the truth then we are morally required to 
lie. The deontologist — the Kantian or Divine Command Theorist 

3. See for 101 of his lies. 


Thinking that Kant says that we should always tell the truth. Whereas 
in fact he says it is wrong to lie. 

Thinking that the utilitarian says that if a lie leads to pleasure then it is 
morally acceptable to lie. 

Mistaking being nasty with being immoral. 

Thinking that you require words to lie. 


1. Read (1)-(7) at the start of this chapter. Do you think these are cases of 
lying or not? Give reasons for your answers. 

2. Do you ever think it is morally acceptable to lie? When? 
Could a robot lie? 

4. In the local town there is a sign at the roundabout — “Happy birthday 
Keith, 40 today!” It has been there about a year. Is this lying? 

5. Do you think it makes sense to talk about “lying to oneself’? If it does, 

how might this change our definition? 


6. Reflecting on your answers so far would you agree with our definition 
of “lying”? Or do you think it needs modifying? 

7. Give an example where the consequentialist would say we are morally 
required to lie. 

8. How might the rule and the act utilitarian differ in their response to the 
question whether it is morally wrong to lie? 


9. Give an example where the deontologist would say we ought not to lie. 

10. If you had to go for either a deontological approach to lying or a 
consequentialist approach, which would it be? 

11. Do you think that we are living in a “post-truth” era? If so, how does 
this change (if at all) how we think of lying? 



McCloskey, H. J., ‘A Non-Utilitarian Approach to Punishment’, in 
Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment, ed. by Gertrude Ezorsky (Albany: 
State University of New York Press, 1972), 119-34. 

Walsh, Kirsten and Adrian Currie, ‘Caricatures, Myths, and White Lies’, 
Metaphilosophy, 46.3 (2015): 414-35. 

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Eating Animals 

A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he 
participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.' 

1. Eating Animals Introduction 

The British, and many other nations, have something of an odd relationship 
with animals. I have, for example, just returned to begin typing up this 
chapter after adding extra straw for my chickens — chickens that I care for on 
a daily basis and chickens in whose well-being I am invested. This, however, 
followed on from my enjoyable consumption of a chicken dinner last night, 
a fact that would seem to suggest I am far less invested in the well-being of 
chickens more generally. This oddness in terms of the relationship between 
myself and my chickens is not, however, peculiar to me. Few people in the 
UK are vegetarians — the data has consistently suggested between 2% and 
3% in recent years — yet many more would claim to identify as animal lovers.” 
In this chapter, the applied ethical issue of the moral acceptability of eating 
animals is considered; it remains to be seen what conclusions might be drawn 
to be either justify or condemn some aspects of our multi-faceted behaviour 
and attitude towards animals. 

2. Justifying Meat Eating 

It seems sensible to begin by considering on what grounds the eating of 
meat might be morally justified. To this end, two possible justifications are 
considered below. 

Comparative Justification 

Itis hard to give a proper name to this oft-cited justification for the consumption 
of animal meat. When questioned as to why meat-eating is morally acceptable, 

1 _L. Tolstoy, Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence. 
2 Data available at 

a fairly common reply relates to the comparison between humans as meat- 
eaters and other animals as meat-eaters. So, just as lions eat gazelles, bears eat 
salmon and foxes eat chickens (if they can get their paws on them), so humans 
eat pigs/cows/sheep etc. Given that it would be odd, even for the most ardent 
vegetarian, for us to morally criticise the lion, the bear or the fox, then it might 
seem to follow that there is a moral equivalence between the actions of these 
different species that extends to the actions of non-vegetarian human beings, 
such that we too should be free from moral criticism in our consumption of 

However, possible weaknesses in the above response should not be too 
challenging to identify. For one, we do not often base our moral judgments 
regarding the acceptability of certain actions on the behaviours of lions, bears 
and foxes etc. Indeed, the fact that lions sometimes eat human beings does not 
suggest to us that eating other humans may be morally acceptable. In addition, 
those who find eating some types of meat more acceptable than eating other 
types of meat (chicken as more acceptable than gorilla, for example) will find 
limited resource in this type of justification. If there is some merit in this blunt 
argument for meat-eating, it will very likely need to be brought out more 
precisely and sharply, perhaps within the context of a wider normative ethical 

Dominion-Based Justification 

The second justification we will consider for meat-eating may have slightly 
more going for it, depending on your wider outlook on the world. According 
to the Bible, “[...] the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground 
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living 
being”.’ This verse is often interpreted as God providing man with a soul, and 
thus differentiating mankind from the rest of animal creation. In addition, after 
“the Flood”, God says that “[everything] that lives and moves about will be 
food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything”.* 
It is therefore apparently quite clear that God has no objection to the eating of 
animals, although a number of Christians do opt for a vegetarian lifestyle for 
a variety of other factors (the fact that something is allowable does not make it 
necessarily desirable). 

In the remainder of this chapter, however, we consider the ethical issues 
surrounding meat-eating from the perspective of Utilitarianism, Kantian 

3. Genesis 2:7, New International Version, 

4 Genesis 9:3, New International Version, 

Ethics and Aristotelian Virtue Ethics; theories in which Biblical references 
are not central for deciding how to act. Thus, although a religious ethic 
focussing on Biblical teaching may seem to provide a clear answer on the 
justification of eating animals, students studying for the AQA exam must be 
familiar with the application of the three theories mentioned above in order 
to be well prepared for the exam. In the next section, we begin this process of 
applying the normative theories as previously outlined in Chapters 1, 2 and 
3. The application of metaethical theories to this applied ethical topic can be 
understood from Chapter 6, and the discussion of Metaethics in an applied 
context in Chapter 11. 

3. Act Utilitarianism 

Utilitarianism, as explained in Chapter 1, comes in a variety of different 
forms — Act, Rule and Preference Utilitarianism as suggested by Jeremy 
Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer respectively. It might seem that 
the views of Jeremy Bentham and other act utilitarians, when it comes to the 
acceptability of eating animals, would be fairly simple to ascertain. The act 
utilitarian of a Benthamite variety simply seeks to secure the greatest amount 
of pleasure for the greatest number of people. Although Bentham holds to 
the idea of equal consideration of interests — the pleasures of a queen should 
count no more than the pleasures of a peasant, irrespective of their social 
standing and societal power — this notion of equality might be thought of as 
applying to human beings only. If understood in this way, the view of the act 
utilitarian would be clear, as the pleasure of a human being when eating a beef 
burger would outweigh any morally relevant pain. After all, on this version of 
the equal consideration of interests, any pain that might be suffered by the cow 

would not have any moral weight in deciding how to maximise total pleasure. 

However, Bentham did not adopt this anthropocentric (human-centred) 
approach to the principle of equal consideration. In one of his most famous 
passages, he states that: 

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never 
could have been [withheld] from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already 
discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without 
redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of 
the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the [pelvic bone] are reasons equally 
insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate [...]. The question is not, ‘Can they 
reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’ 

5 J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 




In this passage, Bentham makes it clear that animals cannot be excluded from 
the calculation of total pains and total pleasures associated with a particular 
act just because of their inability to talk or their deficient rational capacities 
in comparison to human beings. On the contrary, so long as an animal does 
experience some suffering or pain, then this suffering or pain must be factored 
into the calculation determining which act will produce the greatest pleasure 
for the greatest number; simply put, all suffering creatures — human or 
not — are part of the group of morally relevant beings. 

This idea of equality of consideration for animals is justified by Bentham 
in the initial section of the passage, where a comparison to the ethical failing 
of racism is drawn. Bentham says that skin colour is deemed to be a morally 
irrelevant feature of an individual and affords no reason to ignore their pains 
or pleasures. So, just as denying moral relevance based on skin colour or race 
is arbitrary, and just as we in the contemporary world believe that denying 
moral relevance based on gender is arbitrary, denying moral relevance based 
on species alone is also arbitrary. If what matters is pain and pleasure, then the 
species that acts as host to that pain and pleasure would seem to be irrelevant. 

Bentham’s openness to weighing the pains and pleasures of animals in 
utilitarian decision-making has made him a heroic figure in animal rights 
and animal welfare movements. Whether you agree with Bentham or not, his 
views were certainly somewhat out of kilter with many of his philosophical 
contemporaries. For example, just a little over a century earlier, one of the 
most respected philosophers of all-time — René Descartes — was, according to 
some accounts, cutting open his wife’s pet dog after nailing the poor creature 
to the wall in order to study its mechanistic movements. For Descartes, there 
was no moral issue in this type of action, since a soulless animal such as a 
dog could not feel pain and only mimicked the appearance of genuine pain. 
Bentham, had he known of Descartes actions, would have likely recoiled at the 
inability to recognise the morally relevant pains of the dog. 

By putting the individual pieces of his theorising together, we can come 
to the view that Bentham would count the pains and pleasures of animals as 
morally relevant when considering the acceptability of eating animals, and he 
would seemingly count those pains and pleasures as just as valuable as the 
pains and pleasures of human beings given his commitment to a principle of 
equality when counting pains and pleasures. Thus, if the total pain (including 
pain suffered by animals) associated with acts of meat-eating were to outweigh 
the total pleasure associated with such acts, then Bentham and Benthamite 
philosophers would be forced to conclude that those instances of meat-eating 
were morally wrong. 

Before moving on, it is worth noting that the language used in the paragraph 
above is important. Neither Bentham nor any other relativistic utilitarian 

would ever comment that eating animals is absolutely right or absolutely 
wrong. The ideas of relativism and absolutism are explored in more detail in 
Chapter 1, but for now it is worth reminding ourselves that the act utilitarian is 
interested only in working out how to bring about the good in each individual 
situation. Thus, meat-eating may be morally acceptable on this view if a 
research scientist, close to curing cancer, needs to eat a healthy dog in order to 
survive long enough to pass his research on. On the other hand, eating a turkey 
burger produced cheaply and with much suffering to the animal may not be 
justifiable because the pleasure associated with consumption is so minimal. 
These are, of course, “cardboard cut-out” cases, some distance from real-world 
ethical decision making in the context of Act Utilitarianism and eating animals. 
However, it will be of far greater benefit for you to consider the range of cases 
in which Act Utilitarianism may speak against eating animals, and the range 
of cases in which Act Utilitarianism will speak in favour of eating animals, in 
order for you to form either a robust critique or defence of the application of 
this theory in this applied context. Does Act Utilitarianism seem to provide the 
right sort of decision procedure, with the right sorts of conclusions? 

4, Challenges to Bentham 

One challenge to Bentham’s act utilitarian view may be based upon the idea 
that the making of a moral distinction between animals and human beings 
is far from arbitrary and that there is a difference between such a “speciesist” 
(Peter Singer made this term famous) distinction and discriminatory thought- 
processes such as racism and sexism. Perhaps it is the case that the pleasures 
and pains of human beings are worth more, in virtue of our intellect or our 
capacity for higher-order thinking and experience. 

However, we should be cautious when responding to Bentham in this way. 
Consider an elderly human being who is suffering from dementia, or a two- 
month-old baby, or a patient in a Persistent Vegetative State (as discussed in 
Chapter 7). All three of these individuals would seem to be lacking in rational 
capacity to fairly serious levels. To this end, in the portion of text removed 
from original Bentham quote, Bentham says that a “full-grown horse or dog 
is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, 
than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old”.® Thus, those who 
seek to draw a line in the sand in terms of rationality, a line that separates 
human beings from animals, a line that might justify eating those below the 
line but not those above the line, are faced with a seemingly insurmountable 
dilemma — either rationality is morally relevant and so some humans lack 

6 Ibid. 


moral standing, or rationality is not morally relevant and this attempt to 
separate humans from animals is a failure. 

In order to overcome this problem, a potentiality argument may be put 
forward. Since babies of two months have the potential to become more rational 
than they currently are, and since this applies to dementia patients and PVS 
patients also if successful treatment could be discovered and administered, 
then the morally relevant line in the sand between humans and animals may 
be redrawn on the basis that all humans have potentially higher rational skills 
that any non-human animal has. 

However, Singer has a clever response to this potentiality suggestion, which 
is clear if we consider the powers of Prince Charles. Whilst he is a potential 
king, Prince Charles is currently only a prince. This means that, at the moment, 
he has only the rights of a prince, not a king. He will not earn kingly rights 
until he actually becomes a king. Analogously, although a two-month-old is 
potentially more rational than a dog or a horse, they should not acquire any 
extra moral consideration until that potential is actualised. Therefore, any 
attempt to morally separate animals and humans on grounds of rationality 
or intellect is again seemingly confronted by the dilemma as stated in the 
previous paragraph. 

5. Utilitarian Reasons for Eating Animals 

The previous two sections should make clear that for utilitarians such as 
Bentham and Singer, there will be times when it is morally wrong to eat animals; 
when the pain associated with eating animals outweighs any corresponding 
pleasure. It is worth noting, however, that Singer is very clear that eating 
animals can be entirely morally justifiable, and not just in extremely unlikely 
situations. It is true that Singer is scornful of the moral acceptability of eating 
factory-farmed foods, as the following quote suggests: 

These arguments [relating to the moral relevance of pains afflicting animals] apply to 
animals who have been reared in factory farms — which means that we should not eat chicken, 
pork or veal, unless we know that the meat we are eating was not produced by factory farm 

Singer also objects to the consumption of eggs that are not sourced from free- 
range chickens; the same would presumably apply to the eating of the chicken 
itself. However, this type of objection to the eating of particular animals, in 
particular conditions, does point us towards the situations in which meat- 
eating may be morally acceptable to a preference utilitarian such as Singer. 

7  P. Singer, ‘Equality for Animals?’, p. 174. 

If chickens, for example, are allowed to roam freely, before being painlessly 
killed (something that seems entirely possible, even if this is not what is 
always achieved in reality), then the balance of preference satisfaction may 
swing in favour of the hungry family seeking a healthy diet and away from the 
continued existence of the chicken itself — chickens, as those who deal with 
them will know, are unlikely to have the mental capacity to have long running 
future preferences that will go unfulfilled if their lives are cut short. 

Indeed, even Bentham himself supported the idea of eating animals, despite 
all that was suggested earlier. Animals farmed and killed, thought Bentham, 
may suffer far less pain than animals left to die in the harsh reality of the 
unmanaged wilderness. Well-managed and quickly administered slaughter 
may lead to less pain than starvation, disease or violent death after the attack 
of a predator. 

In an ever changing world, where the practices associated with animal 
slaughter vary from company to company and culture to culture, the 
utilitarian cannot provide a clear-cut answer on the general acceptability of 
eating animals. Singer sums this up when he says that: 

[...] the important question is not whether animal flesh could be produced without suffering, but 
whether the flesh we are considering buying was produced without suffering. Unless we can be 
confident that it was, the principle of equal consideration of interests implies that it was wrong to 
sacrifice important interests of the animal in order to satisfy less important interests of our own; 
consequently we should boycott the end result of this process.§ 

The various criticisms applied to Utilitarianism in Chapter 1 — objections 
based on demandingness, or based on issues of calculation of pleasures or 
preferences, for example — are not irrelevant in this chapter. However, for 
the sake of avoiding repetition, you should consider the application of these 
criticisms yourself when coming to your view regarding the potential success 
of utilitarian (act and preference) responses to eating animals. 

Given the previous comments, it may be suggested that the lack of 
discussion of Mill and Rule Utilitarianism, as well as a discussion of higher 
and lower pleasures, is a critical omission from this chapter. In a sense, we 
agree. However, once the issues regarding the application of Utilitarianism 
to the act of eating animals have been set out as above, then applying rule- 
utilitarian-style thinking should be a far easier task. For now, the following 
issues are suggested for consideration. 

1. Is meat-eating a higher or lower pleasure? Does it make a difference 
if lamb is consumed in a greasy-spoon café, or if it is prepared by a 

8  Ibid., p. 175. 


world-renowned chef? Should the moral acceptability of eating an 
animal turn on the way in which an animal is prepared for consumption? 

2. Are animals worth less than humans because they cannot access higher 

3. Would an outright ban on factory farming be a rule that, if universalised, 
would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number? What other 
rules might be advocated by a rule utilitarian in this applied ethical 

Answering these questions, in the light of the discussion in both this chapter 
and Chapter 1, should provide a solid grasp of utilitarian thinking in this area. 

6. Kantian Ethics and Eating Animals 

According to Immanuel Kant, a human being is “[...] a being altogether 
different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with 
which one may deal and dispose at one’s discretion”.’ Of course, the idea 
that humans have no responsibility to animals, and therefore may seemingly 
consume them at will, is open to the same objections as outlined in section 
4. However, putting those concerns to one side, it may then seem as though 
Kant has given us a usefully clear statement of his ethical thinking as it may be 
applied in this context. 

Kant is clear that we have no Direct Duties towards animals because the 
eating of animals does not fall foul of the two formulations of the Categorical 
Imperative as explored in Chapter 2. The eating of animals can become a 
universal law, as there is no issue with either conceiving this action as being 
universalised or willing the universalising of this action. In addition, eating 
animals does not itself entail the treating of another person merely as a means 
to an end (and Kant is clear that animals exist themselves only as a mean to an 
end’°). Of course, we may treat a person merely as a means to an end in seeking 
to secure food, but there is nothing necessary about this taking place when 
animals are consumed. Thus, eating animals will generally be permissible 
and will only be impermissible when we act wrongly towards a fellow human 
being in securing our food — the animal itself is not relevant to the assessment 
of our duty. 

Yet, for all of the above, Kant does encourage us to treat animals with care 
and concern rather than with no consideration at all, despite our lack of a 
direct duty to care for them. Kant says of a person that “[if] he is not to stifle 

9 I. Kant, Lectures on Anthropology. 
10 I. Kant, ‘We Have no Duties to Animals’, p. 395. 

his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who 
is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men”.'' Those who 
are needlessly cruel to animals, who kill wantonly or who treat animals with 
scant regard for their suffering, become familiar with this approach to life and 
will be, as a result, less likely to act in accordance with duty in their dealings 
with other human beings. Our duty to animals, says Kant, is therefore indirect 
rather than direct — it exists only in so far as it pays out in our dealings with 
our fellow humans. 

In terms of applying this line of thought to eating animals, Kant would have 
no objection so long as we were not cruel or unkind in our approach. Perhaps 
it is the case that the eating of factory-farmed foods could be considered an 
act, or an endorsement of, cruelty. In any case, it seems that, rather ironically, 
Singer and Kant end up in much the same position when it comes to advice 
regarding how to act in the sphere of eating animals. 

It is worthwhile noting, finally, that contemporary Kantians such as 
Christine Korsgaard (1952-) have objected to Kant’s own disregarding of the 
notion of Direct Duties towards animals. Korsgaard does not accept that it 
is permissible or acceptable to treat a pain-experiencing creature merely as a 
means to an end, since “[...] it is a pain to be in pain. And that is not a trivial 
fact”.’* It therefore may be an open question whether Kantians should allow 
for Direct Duties to animals, even if Kant himself did not. 

7. Virtue Ethics and Eating Animals 

Being an agent-centred moral theory, it would be a misunderstanding of Virtue 
Ethics to expect absolute moral answers on the ethical acceptability of eating 
animals. Rather than attempting to make ethical judgments on the morality of 
specific instances of eating animals, Virtue Ethics instead opts to discuss the 
dispositions and character traits associated with virtuous people, who then 
may provide guidance when it comes to whether or not the virtuous person 
would eat no animals at all, just some animals, or all animals on offer. 

From the explanation of Virtue Ethics offered in Chapter 3, we should 
draw the following important lesson from the outset. It is not possible that 
vegetarianism could be a virtue in and of itself, since vegetarianism is a way 
of life rather than a character trait or a disposition. Rather, if we are to follow 
virtue-ethical thinking, we should ask in what circumstances and at what 
times would a disposition to refrain from eating meat be virtuous, and when 
such a disposition might be labelled as a vice of excess or deficiency. 

11 Ibid. 
12. C. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, p. 154. 

Rosalind Hursthouse draws interesting comparisons between the 
arguments of Singer in this area and the approach of the virtue ethicist.’* 
Hursthouse suggests that Singer, in arguing against cruelty to animals from 
his preference utilitarian perspective, provides evidence in favour of the 
view that the eating of animals will often reflect a vice-like character trait 
rather than a virtuous character trait. Given that many of us are aware, when 
we purchase our meat, that the animal in question may have led a rather 
unpleasant existence, our willingness to ignore this information hardly coheres 
neatly with exercising the virtuous mean of compassion in the sphere of life 
of shopping or making dietary decisions; wilful ignorance may be viewed as 
vice of deficiency. 

The example above of shopping in the value aisle for our food puts the 
issue of eating animals into a particular setting, perhaps the choice of cheap 
chicken for dinner rather than a more expensive and less attractive vegetarian 
alternative. However, it is not difficult to conceive of a situation in which 
meat-eating might be considered to be the result of a virtuous characteristic, 
such as the eating of an animal in order to promote the health of your children 
when other options are unavailable (perhaps through economic factors). In 
this setting, a stubborn commitment to vegetarianism over and above a clear- 
headed recognition of the needs of your children may represent an action 
based on a vice of excess. (Roger Scruton is one virtue ethicist who speaks of 
the virtue of meat-eating; his ideas are worth exploring for a slightly different 
virtue-ethical response to this issue)."* 

Of course, rather than the specific study of virtuous responses in two 
outlined cases, it would be useful to have more general guidance. Again, 
focussing on promoting compassionate rather than cruel decision-making 
when it comes to choosing whether or not to eat animals, Hursthouse says: 

[...] we need a substantial change in our outlook to get any further — in virtue ethicists’ terms, 
a clearly seen and effective recognition of the fact that human beings, and thereby human lives, 
are not only interwoven with each other but with the rest of nature. Then, and only then, will we 
apply virtue ethics correctly to what we are doing.’° 

Aristotle was more concerned with the application of the virtues as they pertained 
to human conduct, but human flourishing is supposed to be a whole-life process 
and it is therefore not without motivation to focus on our dispositions towards 
animals as Hursthouse does. Whether this guidance is an accurate interpretation 

13 R. Hursthouse, ‘Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals’, http://www. 

14 R. Scruton, ‘Eat Animals! It’s for Their Own Good’, 

15 R. Hursthouse, ‘Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other Animals’, p. 154, http://www. 

of Aristotelian ideas, or whether it is an independently advantageous extension 
of Aristotelian ideas, is something that is worth reflecting on in the context of 
the virtues as actually outlined by Aristotle, and provided in Chapter 3. A key 
question to answer is whether or not Hursthouse’s reasoning is in line with core 
Aristotelian thinking, or has she created a rival version of Virtue Ethics? 

Of the criticisms that might be applied to Virtue Ethics, the objection from 
unclear guidance may seem highly troubling, even in spite of the ideas above. 
Considering the following three issues may help you to clarify your thoughts 
as to the practical usefulness of Virtue Ethics for deciding how to act in this 

1. Who are the virtuous role models from whom we can learn when it 
comes to eating animals? TV chefs, who speak of “doing justice to the 
animal” when cooking it? Vegetarian campaigners? Peter Singer? 

2. TV presenters such as Bear Grylls and Ed Stafford are often dropped 
into inhospitable locations for our entertainment, and can only survive 
by killing animals for food. Does their killing reflect a virtue, or a vice? 

3. Angela is a vegetarian who is eating with a friend at a highly expensive 
restaurant. Angela’s friend has paid for dinner, and has chosen the 
courses to eat. One dish involves the eating of carefully prepared duck. 
Would it be virtuous for Angela to eat the duck, or to stand by her 
beliefs even in an extreme situation? (It is worth researching Singer’s 
idea of the “Paris Exemption” to develop your answer.) 

If you can answer these questions, you should feel more confident in terms of 
your ability to apply virtue ethical thinking to the issue of eating animals. 

8. Cora Diamond 

To conclude this chapter, we will briefly reflect on the ideas of Cora Diamond, 
who offers a perspective on the ethical acceptability of eating animals that 
stands apart from the normative ethical theory-based views hitherto discussed 
(AQA also recommend reading Diamond’s article).’° Much of the focus in this 
chapter has been on the question of whether animals are morally relevant, or 
whether they have rights to the same degree as humans when it comes to 
considering the ethical acceptability of consuming them. Diamond objects 
to this approach entirely and does not seek to criticise the morality of eating 
animals via talk of moral rights; she has a different kind of criticism altogether. 

16 C.Diamond, ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’, 

For Diamond, the notion of “moral rights” for animals is irrelevant when it 
comes to explaining the moral acceptability of eating animals, because we make 
decisions in other spheres of life that eating certain entities is unacceptable 
without any associated talk of rights. Specifically, Diamond suggests that our 
aversion to eating the human dead is not based on the moral right of the dead 
body not to be eaten, but because we feel uncomfortable at the very mention of 
the possibility of consuming human dead bodies, or amputated human limbs. 
This uncomfortableness is explained not by talk of rights, but by the idea that 

“a person is not something to eat”. This is a thought that comes about because 
of the nature of our interactions with human beings and human body parts in 
our lives.'” 

Extending this line of thinking to the issue of eating animals, Diamond 
takes issue with the following line of argument: 


You would not eat human beings 


You would not eat your pets 


You should not eat other animals (at least higher primates, perhaps) because there is no 
meaningful difference between such animals and things that you would not eat. 

For Diamond, such an argument is extremely unpersuasive. This is because it 
misses, in its cold and logical form, the fact that pets, like dead human bodies 
and amputated human limbs, are also not things to be eaten. As Diamond 
says, pets are given names, we let them into our houses and we interact with 
them in ways that we do not with wild animals. Wild animals may be things 
to eat, just as a chicken on display in a supermarket is something for me to eat 
whereas my own chickens in the garden are not. 

This approach may be appealing to a non-cognitivist, anti-realist 
interpretation of moral thought and moral talk (these theories are explained 
in Chapter 6). We might wonder if the cries of the campaigner regarding the 
moral status of certain animals as “things not to eat” are designed to pick 
up on genuinely existing moral properties in the world as the cognitivist or 
realist would like, or whether these calls reflect a non-cognitivist, perhaps an 
emotivist-style, attitude. 

However, Diamond herself holds a vegetarian position that she thinks can 
be advanced, not by cold and logical arguments as previously identified, and 
not by talk of moral rights, but by reshaping our relationship with animals 
to add to the list of things not to be eaten. To this end, Diamond offers a Jane 

17 _ Ibid., p. 468. 

Legge poem, Learning to be a Dutiful Carnivore, as an exemplar of tactics that 
may be far more effective for securing movements towards vegetarianism: 

Dogs and cats and goats and cows, 
Ducks and chickens, sheep and sows 
Woven into tales for tots, 

Pictured on their walls and pots. 
Time for dinner! Come and eat 
All your lovely, juicy meat. 

One day ham from Percy Porker 
(In the comics he’s a corker), 

Then the breast from Mrs Cluck 
Or the wing from Donald Duck. 
Liver next from Clara Cow 

(No, it doesn’t hurt her now). 

Yes, that leg’s from Peter Rabbit 
Chew it well; make that a habit. 
Eat the creatures killed for sale, 
But never pull the pussy’s tail. 

Eat the flesh from “filthy hogs” 
But never be unkind to dogs. 
Grow up into double-think 

Kiss the hamster; skin the mink. 
Never think of slaughter, dear, 
That’s why animals are here. 

They only come on earth to die, 

So eat your meat, and don’t ask why." 

This poem, says Diamond, does not preach a form of behaviour, but instead 
challenges assumed beliefs regarding which animals are acceptable sources 
of food and which are not. If we view animals as fellow creatures rather than 
as objects for consumption, then we may change our relationship with them 
such that killing and eating them will seem as out of bounds as consuming a 
dead human being. Cannibalism is not always viewed as being morally wrong, 
of course, as difficult situations will change our perspective; most of the time, 
however, we recoil at this possible act without the need for formal utilitarian 
or Kantian justifications. 

Diamond’s paper is worth your careful attention, and she responds to a 
challenge that her line of argument opposing unethical treatment of animals 
might create unfortunate analogies with ways in which we should oppose 
sexism and racism. In cases of sexism and racism, we might hope that moral 
rights justify fair and equal treatment, rather than the mere fact that we might 
happen to see people as fellow creatures (a fact that appears to depend on us, 

18 Ibid., pp. 472-73. 


and not the person who should have the moral right). We might suggest that 
our recoiling at racial discrimination follows from the moral right a person 
has, not that our recoiling is what makes such discrimination morally wrong. 
Whether you find Diamond’s approach compelling or not matters more, in 
all likelihood, than whether you agree with her conclusions; if her method is 
sound, then does this show a weakness in the approaches of the normative 
theories based on reference to rights or duties? 



Few moral theorists will claim that eating animals is absolutely 
and completely acceptable in all circumstances and at all times. 
Even Kant recoiled at the idea of cruelty to animals in spite of 
his expressed denial that humans possess any duty towards 
animals. This fact suggests that conclusions regarding the ethical 
acceptability of eating animals may often be determined by 
empirical and real-world data regarding the preferences, pains 
or pleasures of animals and the impact of the processes of rearing 
and then slaughtering animals for human consumption. The 
real-world situation is constantly in flux, but this chapter should 
provide you with the moral framework into which real-world 
research can be plugged, in order to explain the different key 
theories, as well as coming to your own viewpoint. 


*  Over-simplifying Kant’s position on animals — no Direct Duties does 
not mean no duties at all towards animals. 

* Completely avoiding metaethical issues that may be relevant to 
criticising moral positions — such as the Open Question Argument 
against a naturalistic utilitarian who associates goodness with pleasure 
(see Chapter 6). 

* Claiming that the issue of eating animals must turn on the issue of 
equal consideration of interests and the rights of animals, without 
considering the argument of Diamond. 

° Failing to give due consideration to Emotivism and/or Prescriptivism 
as non-cognitive ways of interpreting this debate. 

° Falling into the total vegetarianism versus total meat-eating narrative 
without drawing deeper distinctions as to when meat-eating might be 
acceptable and when it might not be. 



Some questions are provided at the ends of sections 5 and 7. 

1. Moral statements regarding the acceptability of eating animals are 
often emotional. Does this mean the emotivist explanation is the best 

2. Do all animals deserve equal consideration of interests? Do only some 
animals? Which ones? 

3. Should we expect clear moral answers when it comes to the 
acceptability of eating animals? 

4. Does moral disagreement in this applied ethical area lend support to 

5. How much of this moral issue turns on empirical data regarding the 
treatment of animals before slaughter? 

6. Should you apply your favoured normative moral theory in order to 
find the correct conclusion in this ethical area, or should you check 
your favoured normative moral theory to see if it gets it right in this 
ethical area? 


Speciesism Direct Duties 

Equal consideration of Indirect Duties 



Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 
freely available at 

Bible, New International Version, freely available at https://www. 

Diamond, Cora, ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’, Philosophy, 53.206 (1978): 
465-79,;, freely available at 

Hursthouse, Rosalind, ‘Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of the Other 
Animals’, in The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings in 
Virtue Ethics, ed. by Jennifer Welchman (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 
2006), pp. 136-55, freely available at 

Kant, Immanuel, ‘We Have No Duties to Animals’, in Ethical Theory, ed. by 
Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 395-96. 

—, Lectures on Anthropology, ed. by Allen Wood and Robert Loudon 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 

Korsgaard, Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1996), 

Scruton, Roger, ‘Eat Animals! It’s for Their Own Good’, Los Angeles Times (25 
July 1991), freely available at 

Singer, Peter, ‘Equality for Animals?’, in Ethics, Humans and Other Animals: 
An Introduction with Readings, ed. by Rosalind Hursthouse (London: 
Routledge, 2000), pp. 169-79. 

Tolstoy, Leo, Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence (Philadelphia: 
New Society Publishers, 1988). 


Absolutist: A normative moral theory is absolutist, rather than relativistic, 
when it suggests that an action is wrong (or right) in all circumstances, without 
exception. For example, murder might be thought to be absolutely wrong, 
irrespective of any circumstances. 

Act-centred: A normative moral theory that associates moral rightness/ 
wrongness with actions (e.g. Utilitarianism). 

Active euthanasia: If a person is actively euthanised it means that their death 
was caused by external intervention rather than natural causes, most likely 
through a lethal injection or the voluntary swallowing of a deadly cocktail of 

Act Utilitarianism: See Consequentialism. 

Agape: Greek word meaning “love”. Refers to the love of God for humans and 
humans for God. The “highest” form of love. Agdpé, as discussed by Fletcher, is 
an attitude and not a feeling, one which does not expect anything in return and 
does not give any special considerations to anyone. 

Agape calculus: Introduced by Fletcher. The claim that we ought to always act 
so as to bring about the most love for the most people. 

Agent-centred: A normative moral theory that associates moral rightness/ 
wrongness with people (e.g. Virtue Ethics). 

Agent-Neutrality: The view that moral decisions should be made without 
special weighting being given to personal feelings. 

Anal stage: The second stage of Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory 
roughly from one and a half to three years old. Pleasure is gained through 
controlling going to the toilet. This stage is about gaining control of one’s body, 
and it starts with controlling the bladder and bowels (being potty trained). 

Antinomianism: The term introduced by Fletcher which says that morally an 
agent can do whatever he or she wants in a situation. 

Anti-Realism: Simply the denial of Realism. Anti-realists deny the existence 
of any mind-independent, objective, moral properties. 





Apparent good: Introduced by Aquinas when discussing his Natural Law 
Theory. An apparent good is when a secondary precept is out of line with the 
Natural Law so we are not morally required to follow it. 

A priori: Knowledge gained through reason alone, without needing to test/ 
experience the world. 

A posteriori: Knowledge gained as a result of experience of the world. 

Attitudinal Hedonism: The theory of well-being which holds that what 
makes a life go well is entirely determined by the amount of pleasure a person 
experiences where pleasure is understood as an attitudinal state (ie. taking 
pleasure in something) rather than a sensation. Fred Feldman is a defender of 
this view. 

Belief: A psychological state. If you believe something, then you take that 
something to be true. 

Biting-the-bullet: The argumentative strategy of simply accepting an 
apparently awkward conclusion as a non-fatal implication of a theory. 

“Boo/hurrah” theory: See Emotivism. 

Categorical Imperative: Kant’s supreme principle of morality. Using this we 
can work out how we ought to behave. It is a command (imperative) which 
should be followed irrespective of the consequences (categorical). 


Categorical Imperative 1: Universalization: “...act only according to that 
maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal 

Categorical Imperative 2: Means and ends: “So act that you use humanity, in 
your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time 
as an end, never merely as a means” .* 


Categorical Imperative 3: Kingdom of ends: “...every rational being must 
so act as if he were through his maxim always a lawmaking member in the 
universal kingdom of ends”.° 

Cognitivism, Psychological: Not to be confused with Realism. It suggests 
that when we make moral claims of the form “murder is wrong” or “helping 
others is right” we are giving voice to our beliefs, rather than our non-belief 
states such as emotions. 

1 I. Kant, Moral Law, p. 15. 
2 Ibid., p. 66. 
3 Ibid., p. 21. 

Cognitivism, Semantic: Not to be confused with Realism. It suggests that 
when we make moral claims of the form “murder is wrong” or “helping others 
is right” our claims can be true or false (what philosophers call truth-apt). 

Conscience (Aquinas): For Aquinas conscience is morally neutral, it simply 
“bears witness”, and it is a “sign-post” to what is right and wrong. It is not a 
source of moral knowledge. This means that for Aquinas conscience is fallible. 
He calls it the “application of knowledge to activity”. 

Conscience (Freud): For Freud the conscience is the form that the super- 
ego takes in addressing the ego. This understanding of “conscience” can be 
thought of as synonymous with the “guilty conscience”. 

Consequentialism: A normative moral theory that states that the moral value 
of an action is determined wholly by the consequences of that action (e.g. Act 

Demandingness objection: A challenge to Utilitarianism. If it is not the 
case that pleasure needs to be merely promoted but actually maximised at all 
opportunities, then an extremely high bar is set. 

Deontological: A normative moral theory that focuses on duty rather than 

Direct Duties: Used in discussion of Kantian ethics. Direct Duties are those 
duties arrived at via a formulation of the Categorical Imperative. 

Dispositions: In respect of Virtue Ethics, dispositions are tendencies in our 
psychology. For example, I may have the disposition to be angry if someone 
steals from me, or the disposition to be forgiving if someone steals from me. 

Divine Command Theory: The metaethical view that what is right/wrong is 
what is commanded/forbidden by God. 

Divine Law: Introduced by Aquinas as part of his Natural Law Theory. The 
Divine Law is discovered through revelation. Divine laws are those that God 
has, in His grace, seen fit to give us and are those “mysteries”, those rules 
given by God which we find in scripture; for example, the ten commandments. 

Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE): Introduced by Aquinas in Summa Theologica. 
If an act fulfils four conditions then it is morally acceptable. If not, then it is not. 
The first is that the act must be a good one; the second is that the act must come 
about before the consequences; the third is that the intention must be good; the 
fourth, it must be for serious reasons. 





Ego: On of the three parts of the mind according to Freud. The “ego” polices 
the id to allow a person’s social interaction in the world. 

Electra omplex: In Jungian psychoanalysis, the name given to the unconscious 
desire experienced by girls to have a sexual relationship with their fathers, and 
consequently being in competition with their mothers. 

Emotivism: A metaethical theory. A form of Psychological Non-Cognitivism 
that holds that moral judgements are expressions of the speaker’s emotions 
rather than a description of anything. This is not to be confused with 
subjectivism or relativism (sometimes referred to as the “boo/hurrah” theory). 

Empirical: A method for gaining knowledge that requires sense-experience 
and interaction with the world as studied by science. 

Epistemology: The philosophical study of knowledge. Questions might 
include, “What is knowledge?”; “Can we know something a priori”? “What 
can we know?” 

Eternal Law: Introduced by Aquinas when discussing his Natural Law Theory. 
God’s rational purpose and plan for all things. The Eternal Law is part of 
God’s mind it has always, and will always, exist. The Eternal Law is not simply 
something that God decided at some point to write. 

Eudaimonia: The Aristotelian idea of “the good life”; best translated as 

Euthanasia: The act of seeking to provide a good death for a person who 
otherwise might be faced with a much more unpleasant death (see also 
voluntary/non-voluntary and passive/active euthanasia). 

Euthyphro dilemma: A challenge to Divine Command Theory (DCT). 
Introduced by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro, it suggests there are two 
questions you can ask about DCT, but each answer that can be given is 
problematic. The questions: (i) is something good because God commands it. 
Or (ii) does God command it because it is Good. 

Felicific Calculus: See Hedonic Calculus. 

Guilt: Freud uses this term to refer to the feeling that arises when our conscience 
requires certain things from us which we fail to achieve. 

Golden Mean: In Virtue Ethics, the morally virtuous middle way between the 
vices of excess and deficiency. 

Good will: The Kantian idea of our specific will which is good through its 
willing alone rather than what it effects or accomplishes. 

Harm principle: John Stuart Mill’s principle that: “The only purpose for which 
power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, 
against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or 
moral, is not a sufficient warrant” .* 

Hedonic Calculus: Jeremy Bentham’s way of calculating the pleasure/pain 
associated with a possible future action. 

Hedonism: A theory of well-being which hold that improves a person/s life 
is entirely determined by the amount of pleasure that person experiences; no 
other factors are relevant at all. 

Higher and lower pleasures: Distinction made by Mill between the quality of 
pleasure. Higher pleasures are those pleasures of the intellect brought about 
via activities like poetry, reading or attending the theatre. Lower pleasures are 
animalistic and base; pleasures associated with drinking beer, having sex or 
lazing on a sun-lounger. 

Humean Theory of Motivation: The view that motivation only arises when 
a belief combines with an appropriately related desire — where desire takes 
the lead role. Further it is the view that beliefs and desires are distinct mental 
states such that a belief cannot entail a desire. 

Hume’s fork: Hume divided knowledge into two camps — knowledge gained 
from relations of ideas and knowledge gained from matters of fact. 

Hypothetical Imperative: A command that applies to someone only because 
of the desires/wants of the agent, e.g. you ought to go for a run if you want to 
get fit. 

Id: One of the three parts of the mind according to Freud. Id is the collection 
of our primal drives, e.g. the basic desires for food, sex, drink and is the oldest 
part of the mind. The id cannot be properly formalized or understood and 
Freud likens it to chaos. 

Indirect Duties: Discussed in relation to Kantian ethics. A duty we owe to X 
(for example, animals, the environment) is in fact a duty we owe to humans. 
E.g. we have an indirect duty towards animals because if we treat animals 
badly then we will not uphold our duties towards humans. 

4 J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 





Intrinsic: Something is intrinsically good if it is essentially or necessarily good, 
just in and of itself; it does not rely on anything else for it to be good. 

Intuitionism: A view in moral Epistemology that holds that there is at least 
one moral belief, and possibly many, that are self-evidently justifiable. This 
does not rule out other ways of justifying moral claims, nor does it mean that 
intuitionists believe judges to be infallible. 

Invincible ignorance: From Aquinas. Ignorance that cannot be overcome 
through the use of reason. Doing something wrong when they could not have 
known better. 

“Is/ought” gap: The supposed problem of deriving an “ought” (prescriptive) 
claim from a (descriptive) claim. 

Latency stage: The fourth stage in Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual 
Development, roughly from six to the onset of puberty. At this stage sexual 
desire is repressed. There are no new sexual desires formed. Girls plays with 
girls in order to learn the role of a girl and boys play with boys in order to 
learn about the role of boys. 

Legalism: Term used by Fletcher to refer to a system of ethics such that someone 
in that system “blindly” observes moral rules without being sensitive to the 

Maxim: A general principle or rule upon which we act. 

Mature genital stage: Fifth and final stage of Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual 

Moral Error Theory: Combination of Semantic Non-Cognitivism, Anti- 
Realism and the Truth-maker Theory of Truth. The conclusion is that all 
moral claims that we make are systematically and uniformly false. 

Natural Law: Introduced by Aquinas when discussing his Natural Law Theory. 
When humans act in accordance with their purpose/function of reason then 
they act according to the Natural Law (see primary precepts and secondary 

Naturalism, Realism: The view that moral properties exist and are as natural 
as those properties discussed and examined in the sciences. 

Naturalistic Fallacy: According to G. E. Moore, the idea that moral properties 
can be reduced to natural properties. Moore believes that one commits the 
naturalistic fallacy by claiming that goodness = pleasure/happiness/preference 

Nihilism: Associated with theories that try to eliminate values. For example, 
Moral Error Theory can be labelled nihilistic because it denies the existence of 
any moral values in the world. 

Non-belief state: A psychological state that is not related to taking something 
to be true. It is typically thought to be anon-descriptive or non-representational 
state. For example, an emotional state such as joy, or anger. 

Non-Cognitivism, Psychological: When we make moral claims of the form 
“murder is wrong” or “helping others is right” we are not giving voice to our 
beliefs, we are rather expressing our non-belief states such as emotions. 

Non-Cognitivism, Semantic: When we make moral claims of the form 
“murder is wrong” or “helping others is right” our claims are neither true nor 
false. They are not truth-apt. 

Non-Naturalism: The view that if moral properties exist they could not show 
up on the scientific picture of what exists. 

Non-voluntary euthanasia: Non-voluntary euthanasia occurs when a decision 
regarding premature and merciful death is made for one person by another 
person, because the person to be euthanised is unable to make a decision for 

Normative: A normative moral theory is a theory designed to provide guidance 
for how to behave/live. 

Neurosis: Term used by Freud to refer to when the super-ego fails to deal 
correctly with the id. In particular, when the pleasure principle is repressed. 

Objective List Theory: A theory of well-being which hold that what makes a 
life go well is determined by a list of items (e.g. loving relationships, meaningful 
knowledge, autonomy). 

Oedipus complex: In psychoanalysis, the name given to the unconscious 
desire of a child to have a sexual relationship with a parent of the opposite sex; 
most likely this is expressed as a boy’s sexual attraction to his mother. 

Open Question Argument: Put forward by G. E. Moore. It attacks naturalist 
realist positions in Metaethics. It holds that if moral properties (e.g. goodness) 
are natural properties (e.g. pleasure) then moral terms (e.g. “goodness”) must 
be synonymous with natural terms (e.g. “pleasure”). However, it is always an 
open question — the answer is not obvious to us — to ask whether a moral 
term means the same as a natural term. This means that moral terms are not 
synonymous with natural terms. This means that moral properties cannot be 
identical with natural properties. 





Oral stage: First stage in Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development, from 
birth to about one and a half. This stage is where babies get pleasure through 
putting things in their mouth, pleasure in biting, chewing and sucking. 

Palliative care: “If you have an illness that can’t be cured, palliative care makes 
you as comfortable as possible, by managing your pain and other distressing 
symptoms. It also involves psychological, social and spiritual support for you 
and your family or carers. This is called a holistic approach, because it deals 
with you as a “whole” person”.” 

Paradox of Tragedy: Also known as the paradox of negative emotions. Not a 
genuine paradox. The oddity that in real life negative emotions are not desired 
whereas in other contexts, such as horror films, roller-coasters, dramas they 
are desired. 

Passive euthanasia: Passive euthanasia occurs when a person is allowed to 
die due to the deliberate withdrawal of treatment that might keep them alive. 

Persistent Vegetative State (PVS): A state of being in which a person is 
biologically alive, but shows no sign of psychological interaction with the 
world. The state is labelled persistent when it is unlikely this condition will 
alter through any treatment. 

Phallic stage: Freud’s third stage in his Theory of Psychosexual Development; 
roughly from three to six years. It is about discovering one’s genitals, and 
importantly that they are different in men and women. This stage is where 
Freud thinks we develop the Oedipus, and the Electra complex. A problem 
moving through this stage will cause problems with intimacy in later life. 

Phronesis: From Aristotelian ethics referring to “practical wisdom”. Arguably 
the most important virtuous disposition or character trait. 

Pleasure Principle: Idea put forward by Freud. This is the claim that what 
identifies and unifies the drives of the id is the avoidance of pain and pursuit 
of pleasure. 

Preference Utilitarianism: A non-hedonistic version of Utilitarianism. The 
greatest good for the greatest number cannot be reduced to pleasure in either 
raw or higher forms. Instead, what makes a life go better for a person is entirely 
determined by the satisfaction of their preferences (e.g. defended by Peter Singer). 

5 NHS definition, 

Prescriptivism: A metaethical theory claiming that our moral utterances 
express more than just emotional approval and disapproval. Instead, our moral 
utterances express a subjective prescription for others to act in accordance 
with our moral judgments (e.g. Hare). 

Prima Facie: “On first impression/look” or “At first glance/appearance’”. 

Primary Precepts: Introduced as part of Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory. They 
are overarching general rules. They are absolute and binding on all rational 
agents. His examples are: protect and preserve human life; reproduce and 
educate one’s offspring; know and worship God; live in a society. 

Principle of Charity: An argumentative strategy of granting one’s opponent 
to be rational and giving the strongest interpretation of their argument. 

Principle of Utility: The principle that an action is moral if and only if it leads 
to the greatest good for the greatest number. Associated with Utilitarianism. 

Problem of Parity: A challenge to Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism does not allow 
you to give extra moral weight to the life of a loved one (see Agent-Neutrality). 

Queer: The idea of J. L. Mackie, associated with Moral Error Theory. Something 
is queer if it is utterly unlike any other existing property/entity. 

Ratio: Aquinas’s term for the reason that helps discover the Natural Laws. 

Realism: The view that moral properties exists independently of human 
beings and can be located in the world. 

Relativistic: A normative moral theory is relativistic, rather than absolutist, 
when it allows that an action can be moral in one situation but immoral in 
another situation. For example, the morality of stealing might be thought to be 
relative to the situation in which stealing takes place. 

Real Good: Introduced by Aquinas when discussing his Natural Law Theory. 
A real good is when a secondary precept is accordance with the Natural Law 
and consequently we are morally required to follow it. 

Rule-Utilitarianism: The view that should create a set of rules that, if followed, 
would produce the greatest amount of total happiness (e.g. defended by John 
Stuart Mill). See also, Strong and Weak Rule Utilitarianism. 

Sanctity of Life: The idea that life holds absolute value, very likely justified by 
the idea that life is God-given. 





Secondary Precepts: Introduced by Aquinas when discussing the Natural 
Law Theory. Secondary precepts are not generated by our reason but rather they 
are imposed by governments, groups, clubs, societies etc. Examples, might 
include: do not drive above 70mph on a motorway; do not kidnap people; 
always wear a helmet when riding a bike; do not hack into someone’s bank 

Semantic: Semantic concerns are concerns about words and their meanings; it 
relates to a focus on language and meaning. 

Speciesism: Term introduced by Peter Singer. The claim that treating non- 
human animals differently from humans based purely on the arbitrary fact 
that they are from one species rather than another is morally wrong. Singer 
takes it to be morally equivalent to treating another person differently based 
on a difference in gender (sexism) or in race (racism). 

Straw-man: A straw-man argument is an argument phrased deliberately in its 
weakest form, so that it is easy to defeat. Straw-men arguments allow a person 
to avoid arguing with a difficult objection on “level ground”. 

Strong Rule Utilitarianism: Guidance from the set of rules that, if followed, 
would promote the greatest amount of total happiness must always be followed. 

Super-ego: One of the three parts of the mind according to Freud. The super- 
ego is the voice of authority issuing prohibitions, inhibitions and moral 

Synderesis: Term introduced by Aquinas. Synderesis is not the same as 
conscience but is the innate ability of the mind (a habit of the mind) to apprehend 
the eternal/Divine laws. 

Teleological: A teleological normative theory is one concerned with 
consequences (e.g. Utilitarianism). 

Teleologist: Someone who holds that every object has a final cause/goal/end/ 

Telos: For Aristotle, telos is the purpose of something. 

Theory of Psychosexual Development: Developed by Freud. A theory of 
sexual development from birth to death: includes the oral, anal, phallic, latency 
and mature genital stage. 

Thought-experiment: A hypothetical situation — often fantastical — used to 
highlight and challenge the intuitions we have on various topic. E.g. Judith 
Thomson’s “the transplant surgeon” (see Chapter 1). 

Truth-apt: If a claim is truth-apt then it is capable of being true or false. N.B. the 
claim may never be true but it could still be capable of being true or false. This 
above explanation of the meaning of the phrase “truth-apt” is itself truth-apt, 
for example. 

Truth-maker Theory of Truth: A claim is true if and only if some feature of the 
world, such as properties, makes it true. 

Tyranny of the Majority: A challenge to Utilitarianism. It seems that 
Utilitarianism is open to cases where the majority are morally required to 
exploit the minority for the greater good of maximising total pleasure. 

Utility: A term used by utilitarians to refer to the pleasure/pain/preference 
satisfaction associated with of a particular action. 

Utilitarianism: See Consequentialism. 

Verification principle: The principle that states that if a sentence is not analytic 
or potentially empirically verifiable then it is meaningless. 

V-rules: Introduced by Rosalind Hursthouse. She suggests that Virtue Ethics 
provides guidance in the form of “v-rules”. These are guiding rules of the 
form “do what is honest” or “avoid what is envious”. 

Vincible ignorance: From Aquinas. Ignorance that can be overcome through 
the use of reason. Doing something wrong when one ought to have known 

Virtue: A morally correct character disposition or trait, as opposed to a 
character disposition or trait that represents a moral vice. 

Voluntary euthanasia: Voluntary euthanasia occurs when a person chooses 
someone to terminate their life in order to avoid future suffering. 

Weak Rule Utilitarianism: Guidance from the set of rules that, if followed, 
would promote the greatest amount of total happiness can be ignored in 
circumstances where more happiness would be produced by breaking the rule. 

Well-being: The measure of how well a life is going, for the person whose life 
it is. 


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