Philosophy and Ethics

This is an updated version of a lecture that I used to present at the start of my applied ethics classes. Most of my applied ethics students were non-majors who had little or no prior exposure to philosophy, so I needed to introduce them briefly to philosophy in general and to some background issues in ethics. What I say about philosophy in general here overlaps partially with what I say in my introduction to philosophy article, which you may also wish to read.

I originally included the slides that I used in my class, but I have decided to get rid of them to improve the loading time for many of my readers.

What is philosophy?

Philosophy professor Erik Wielenberg once described what he tells people when they ask him what exactly he does in his line of work:

What I do, in a nutshell, is this: I find a question or puzzle that interests me. I try to figure out a solution, usually reading what others have had to say about it along the way. If I come up with anything good, I write it down and see if anyone is interested in publishing it. (Wielenberg 2010)

What he says actually is a decent first description of the day-to-day activities of professional philosophers; however, it doesn’t tell us much about the kinds of questions and puzzles philosophers tend to work on, or about the methods (aside from reading) philosophers use to find answers.

There are as many views of the nature of philosophy as there are philosophers, if not more. Nearly everyone points out that the Greek roots of the word “philosophy” are “philo,” meaning “love,” and “sophia,” meaning “wisdom,” which would make “philosophy” translate more or less to “love of wisdom.” However, this doesn’t tell us a whole lot, since many disciplines seek wisdom. It would be more helpful if we could specify a particular subject matter that philosophers investigate, and a particular kind of method they use—in short, we want to know what kind of wisdom philosophers want, and we want to know how they go about trying to get that wisdom.

My own view (a fairly common view, as well as the view I was taught) is that philosophy simply is the attempt to answer questions currently (and perhaps forever) beyond the reach of science, by using reason and empirical evidence. When I describe the evidence that philosophers use as empirical, I mean that the evidence they offer for their views (if not derived from pure reason itself) should be based on experience or observations that are at least in principle open to any normally functioning human being. This makes philosophy an enterprise that is continuous with science: we forge on where answering a question by direct experiment no longer seems possible, but we still carefully utilize whatever evidence we  can bring to bear upon such questions.

If you have learned anything about epistemology, you probably already can see that my definition is not free of problems. However, I think it is a good first approximation, and we can take it as a working definition in this class.

The branches of philosophy

The four main branches of philosophy are logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and axiology:

Logic is the attempt to codify the rules of rational thought. Logicians explore the structure of arguments that preserve truth or allow the optimal extraction of knowledge from evidence. More formally, logic is the study of the structure of arguments.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself. Epistemologists ask, for instance, what criteria must be satisfied for something we believe to count as something we know, and even what it means for a proposition to be true.

Metaphysics is the study of the nature of things. Metaphysicians ask what kinds of things exist, and what they are like.

Axiology is an umbrella term for different studies that center upon the nature of different types of value. These different studies include aesthetics, social philosophy and political philosophy. and, most prominently, ethics, which is the main subject of this lecture.

Philosophy and theology

Since many of you probably have drawn from religion at least some of your current positions on various philosophical issues, I need to touch briefly on the distinction between philosophy and theology.

Philosophy proceeds from a secular foundation. This does not mean that philosophy is inherently hostile to religion, just that its starting point is neutral with respect to religion. As I said above, philosophy relies upon reason and empirical evidence. What you get when you start with this foundation—whether your conclusions will confirm or contradict propositions drawn from religious foundations—is a matter of dispute, but both types of results are at least in principle possible.

The important thing to understand is that philosophers do not make assumptions about religion at the outset. Philosophers who are religious—even those who believe their religious principles to be more secure than reason and empirical evidence—will, when doing philosophy, bracket those principles for the time being, and see where reason and empirical evidence alone will lead them.

To those of you who have religious commitments, I would like you to approach this course in the spirit of trying to find out whether the philosopher’s project can provide any answers, or any wisdom at all. I will not give you any guarantee that it will do either—whether or not the project succeeds is something I would like you to determine for yourself. But I will ask you to try on the philosopher’s hat while you are in this course, just as a mathematics class might require you to learn a new method to approach certain problems even if you already know a different method that seems to work.

With all of this said, let’s turn to ethics specifically.

Descriptive and normative ethics

One common mistake beginning ethics students often make to conflate descriptive ethics, which studies people’s beliefs about right and wrong and good and bad, with normative ethics, which studies right and wrong and good and bad themselves. Philosophers nearly always are concerned with the normative side of ethics. When a philosopher asks, for instance, whether euthanasia is morally right, the philosopher is not asking whether anyone approves of euthanasia, or whether euthanasia actually occurs, or what the law says about euthanasia, or anything like that—these are all descriptive matters. The philosopher is, rather, asking what our attitudes, behaviors, and laws regarding euthanasia ought to be like—a normative matter. Responding to a normative question with a descriptive answer misses the point of the question entirely. So, for instance, if a philosopher asks you whether some action is right or wrong, one of the very worst answers you can give is “Some people think it is right, and others think it is wrong”—aside from being trivial to the point of laziness, such a statement is irrelevant to the question posed since the question is normative but the offered answer is descriptive.

Positions concerning moral facts

Here, I will briefly describe six useful terms for positions that one can take on the nature and existence of normative moral facts.

The first three positions are moral nihilism, moral realism, and moral skepticism. Which of these positions you occupy depends on your answer to the question, “Are there such things as normative moral facts—facts about what actually is (not just what is believed to be) right or wrong or good or evil?” If your answer is “No,” you are a moral nihilist. If your answer is “Yes,” then you are a moral realist. If your answer is “It’s unknown,” then you are a moral skeptic.

The last three positions are moral relativism, moral subjectivism, and moral objectivism. These three positions are all varieties of moral realism. If you are a moral realist, then which of these positions you occupy depends on your answer to the question, “Do fundamental moral facts—the rock-bottom facts about what is right or wrong or good or evil—vary?” If your answer is, “Yes, by culture,” then you are a moral relativist. If your answer is, “Yes, by individual,” then you are a moral subjectivist. If your answer is, “No,” then you are a moral objectivist.

Let me emphasize again that these are positions about normative moral facts rather than descriptive moral facts. For instance, a person who merely believes that different cultures accept different moral codes is not necessarily a moral relativist: to be a moral relativist one has to believe that what is right and wrong (not merely what is believed or regarded to be right or wrong) varies from one culture to another. Likewise, even if everyone in the world accepted a single set of moral standards, that would not, in itself, show that moral objectivism is true.

The one unusual part of this schema, compared to what you are likely to see elsewhere, is that it counts subjectivism and relativism as kinds of moral realism. Most people lump relativism and subjectivism under moral nihilism—the denial of the very existence of moral facts. I need to explain here why I think this is a mistake. Although relativists and subjectivists believe that moral facts vary (across cultures if one is a relativist, across individuals if one is a subjectivist), they do believe that there are moral facts; in contrast with moral nihilists, they believe that for every action that a specific individual performs in a specific context, the question of whether or not that person is right to perform the action has a definite answer. The answer may depend on the full context and on who is involved, but there is an answers. The distinction I am trying to draw is similar to the physicist’s stance on acceleration due to gravity: just because physicists believe that acceleration due to gravity varies from one location to another (it is weaker at higher elevations), doesn’t mean that they believe there is no acceleration due to gravity anywhere at all.

What if moral realism is false?

Since this class is about applied ethics, we will not have much opportunity to try to explore the foundational issues raised in the last section; those are issues for a course on ethical theory or metaethics. But is there any reason to study applied ethics before one has determined whether or not there are such things as normative moral facts at all? What if moral nihilism is true, or there is no way out of moral skepticism? Would either of these make careful reflection about specific ethical issues useless? I want to reassure you that thinking carefully about ethical issues still would have a use.

Regardless of whether or not there are actual moral facts, each of us has basic moral attitudes that play a role in shaping our actions. Thinking carefully about ethics can help us to:

  • Ensure that there is no contradiction among our basic moral attitudes.
  • Ensure that when we try to extend our basic moral attitudes to new and unfamiliar moral problems, we do not introduce a contradiction into our views.
  • Build a moral consensus with others (if we care about this).

The interplay of moral and non-moral beliefs

Surface-level moral beliefs—our attitudes toward specific issues—tend to be generated by an interaction between more fundamental (and usually more general) moral beliefs on the one hand, and nonmoral beliefs about the world on the other hand. Because of this, surface-level moral disagreement between two parties should not always be taken to indicate a fundamental moral difference between the two parties. Sometimes, people can behave radically differently, support radically different policies, and make radically different claims about the rightness and wrongness of certain actions, all while sharing exactly the same core moral beliefs, simply because they do not have the same nonmoral beliefs about the world.

As an example, in 2013 the government of Ghana had to ban the ritual killing of infants born with disabilities, because the practice was approved of in certain rural communities. One might think that the Ghanaians supporting the ban and the Ghanaians participating in the ritual killings must have different core moral beliefs about the value of human life. However, it turns out that the supporters of the ritual killings believe that the infants in question are not even human but rather malign “spirit children” who will do harm to their families and communities if permitted to live. It is evident that the supporters of the ritual killings care just as much about human life as do the opponents—they are just driven to opposite actions by the way their very different metaphysical beliefs interact with these shared values.

Thinking about ethics

Most of us have intuitions about right and wrong and good and bad at the most abstract and general level. Most of us also have intuitions about right and wrong and good and bad in some concrete and particular cases. Part of thinking about ethics involves trying to generate a coherent theory from as many of these intuitions as one can, by formalizing one’s general intuitions and systematizing one’s particular intuitions. One is likely to find that as one develops a theory, the theory exerts an influence back on one’s intuitions, forcing one to rethink or abandon some of them. This happens because it is rare that all of one’s moral intuitions play together nicely.

Some philosophers believe that this kind of back-and-forth negotiation among one’s intuitions is all there is to ethics. To these philosophers, ethics is a human enterprise which can at most result in universal consensus among human beings about what they ought and ought not do; on this account, once everyone is on the same page—and that same page is coherent—the project of ethics is complete.

Others think that coherence, even with universal acceptance by all humans for all time, is not enough. To them, an ethical theory requires external (so to speak) justification—even if everyone is on the same page, these philosophers worry, everyone could be mistaken, just as getting everyone to believe that the Earth is flat would not make it so. For these philosophers, ethics must seek a foundation that would compel the assent of any rational and fully informed being imaginable, human or not. One might seek such a foundation in pure reason, or in an understanding of human nature, or even in divine commands, to name a few possibilities; all such candidates, of course, must themselves endure philosophical evaluation.

You do not need to choose between these two projects—as you engage in critical reflection on ethical issues, you simply should ask yourself how the arguments you offer bear upon both.

We will start this class with a unit on consequentialism and deontology to motivate you to (i) think about your general moral intuitions and (ii) try to get some very tentative sense of how those intuitions might be formalized into a theory. In the remaining units, we will be dealing with applied issues that will bring your specific moral intuitions to bear. The reason why we start out with theory is because if we just launch straight into specific issues there is a danger that you will treat them piecemeal and then forget about each issue as you move onto the next: you will ask yourself, “What do I think about this specific issue?” without keeping track of how your intuitions about each issue mesh or fail to mesh with your intuitions about other issues. As you go through this course, I want you always to have an eye toward trying to develop a coherent whole from all of your moral intuitions, general and specific. If you find that the process is difficult, don’t worry: you’re doing philosophy, and that’s rarely easy when one does justice to the questions.

Basic ethical terminology

In natural language (the language we use in everyday life), words often have vague or ambiguous meanings. Philosophers try as much as possible to get rid of this in their arguments, either by restricting the meanings of words artificially (but hopefully not too artificially) or by using additional terms or even subscripts to make distinctions. Sometimes the practice is, frankly, just an ill-considered attempt to sound as technical as the natural and physical sciences; at its best, however, the practice helps us to think and speak clearly by exposing important subtleties that are concealed by the sloppiness of natural language. The way philosophers talk about the right and the good is an example of when a little bit of technicality is useful: it does not eliminate all of the ambiguity in natural language about ethics, but it does make some very good progress.

In ethics, it is standard to make a rigid distinction between the right and the good, and then to further specify two different senses of the good.

Philosophers apply words like right and wrong, and related words like permissible, impermissible, obligatory, and supererogatory only to actions. This usage tracks natural language pretty closely.

In natural language, however, we sometimes also use words like good and bad to describe actions (we say, “That was a good thing to do” and so forth). In philosophy, we avoid this ambiguity by agreeing to use the words good and bad to describe only things other than actions. We can use the words good and bad, for instance, to describe objects (e.g. “That is a good pen”), characteristics (e.g. “Cowardice is bad, but cruelty is worse”) and states of affairs (e.g. “Being dead really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks”).

Importantly, we can also use the words good and bad to describe agents—beings which perform actions. Notice that when we describe an agent as good or bad, we typically mean something different than when we describe a non-agent as good or bad (compare “That is a good computer” to “She is a good person”): only when we speak of agents do we mean bad in the sense of evil, and good as the contrary. When philosophers need to make the distinction explicit, they refer to the kind of good and bad that can apply to agents as moral good and bad, and the kind of good and bad that applies to non-agents as nonmoral good and bad. Be aware that philosophers often will not make the distinction explicit—since it is something that is introduced early in exposure to ethical theory, most philosophers will assume that their readers are familiar with the distinction and that context will make clear whether they are referring to moral or nonmoral good and bad at a given time.

The payoff of making these distinctions is that doing so allows us to ask one of the most useful things one can ask about an ethical theory: what kind of relationship does it establish between the right and the two different types of good?

Complete ethical theories

A complete ethical theory will tells us the precise meaning of all of the terms we have just surveyed, in the sense that it will tell us:

  • What it takes for an action to be right, and what it takes for an action to be wrong.
  • What it takes for an agent to be good, and what it takes for an agent to be bad.
  • What it takes for something or than an agent to be good, and what it takes for something other than an agent to be bad.

It is important to understand that virtually none of the theories one encounters in an introductory class is complete. This shouldn’t cause you undue concern: disagreements between two theories (or two types of theories) about any of the above are interesting. When you encounter incomplete theories or deal with general types of theories that are not concerned with all three items above, you should try to think about different ways in which they might be completed. For that matter, even if you run into a complete theory, you still should try to think about alternative ways that it might be completed.


Wielenberg E. 2006. I think, therefore I am misunderstood. Newsweek. 148:22. Available from ABI/INFORM Global. Accessed January 15, 2010, Document ID: 1143733781.