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Ethical Choices
An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

with Cases


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Ethical Choices
An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

with Cases


Felician University


New York Oxford



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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s
objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a
registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries.

Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press
198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America.

© 2018 by Oxford University Press
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016

Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford
University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the
appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope
of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Burnor, Richard, author. | Raley, Yvonne, author.
Title: Ethical choices : an introduction to moral philosophy with cases /
   Richard Burnor, Felician College, Yvonne Raley, Felician College.
Description: Second [edition]. | New York : Oxford University Press, 2017.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016049781| ISBN 9780190464509 (student edition) | ISBN
   9780190464516 (instructor’s edition) | ISBN 9780190464530 (course website)
   | ISBN 9780190464547 (instructor’s manual (arc))
Subjects: LCSH: Ethics—Textbooks. | Ethical problems—Textbooks.
Classification: LCC BJ1012 .B755 2017 | DDC 170—dc23
   LC record available at

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed by LSC Communications Inc.

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To the reader, whose intrinsic moral worth has been and
continues to be our most important reason for writing this book.

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preface xv
guidelines xxiii


Chapter One Ethics and Values 5
Chapter Two Moral Relativism 25
Chapter Three Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency 46
Chapter Four Making Moral Judgments 70
Chapter Five Moral Psychology and Egoism 87


Chapter Six Consequentialist Ethics: Act Utilitarianism 111
Chapter Seven Consequentialist Ethics: Rule Utilitarianism 134
Chapter Eight Deontological Ethics 150
Chapter Nine Natural Law Theory 178
Chapter Ten Social Contracts and Rights 198
Chapter Eleven Virtue Ethics 223
Chapter Twelve Feminism and Care Ethics 249
Chapter Thirteen Ethics and Religion 276

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Chapter Fourteen Pluralism in Theoretical and Applied Ethics 301

glossary 337

index 348

viii B R I E F C O N T E N T S


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preface xv

guidelines xxiii


Chapter One Ethics and Values 5
I. Extraordinary and Ordinary Morals 5
II. The Nature of Values 8
III. Moral vs. Non-Moral Values 10
IV. Foundational and Instrumental Values 14
V. Explanation and Foundational Values 15

Chapter Assignment Questions 18
Case 1: Breastfeeding in Public 19
Case 2: The Real Price of Coffee 20
Case 3: Jurassic Kitty: Should I Clone My Cat? 22
Case 4: Sex Selection 23

Chapter Two Moral Relativism 25
I. Introduction 25
II. Three Views of Ethics 26
III. Evaluating Subjectivism 28
IV. Supporting Popular Relativism 30
V. Against Relativism 33
VI. A Matter of Tolerance 36


x C O N T E N T S

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VII. Can Relativism Supply What Objectivism Cannot? 38
Chapter Assignment Questions 39

Case 1: Arranged Marriage 40
Case 2: Female Genital Mutilation 40
Case 3: Religious Exemption and the

Death of Matthew Swan 42
Case 4: Women in the Middle East 43

Chapter Three Personal Autonomy and
Moral Agency 46

I. Introduction 46
II. Personal Autonomy 47
III. Implications of Autonomy 51
IV. Moral Agents 52
V. Other Conceptions of Autonomy 56
VI. Relational Autonomy 59

Chapter Assignment Questions 61
Case 1: The Drunk Driver 62
Case 2: Elizabeth Bouvia 62
Case 3: Should the Drinking Age Be Eighteen? 64
Case 4: The Living Will 66
Case 5: Buy Now, Pay Later:

Student Credit Card Debt 68

Chapter Four Making Moral Judgments 70
I. Introduction 70
II. Conflicts 71
III. Characterizing Moral Claims 73
IV. Moral Reasoning 74
V. Moral Reflection 78

Chapter Assignment Questions 80
Case 1: Mr. Research 81
Case 2: Who’s Not Coming to Dinner? 82
Case 3: Who’s Responsible for Obesity? 84

Chapter Five Moral Psychology and Egoism 87
I. Introduction 87
II. Moral Character 89
III. Social and Cultural Influences 93
IV. Ethical and Psychological Egoism 96
V. Egoism and Moral Psychology 99

Chapter Assignment Questions 102
Case 1: Declaring Wages 103



Contents xi

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Case 2: The Scratched Bumper 104
Case 3: Job Competition 104
Case 4: Human Trafficking 105


Chapter Six Consequentialist Ethics:
Act Utilitarianism 111

I. Introduction 111
II. Utility and Consequentialism 112
III. Utility and Mill’s Account 114
IV. Act Utilitarianism 116
V. Attractions and Problems 119
VI. Beyond Classical Utilitarianism 124

Chapter Assignment Questions 126
Case 1: Charity vs. iPad 127
Case 2: Sponsoring a Child 128
Case 3: Should Your Next Car Be a Hybrid? 129
Case 4: Factory Farming and Animal Suffering 130
Case 5: Torture Lite 132

Chapter Seven Consequentialist Ethics:
Rule Utilitarianism 134

I. Introduction 134
II. Rule Utilitarianism 135
III. Rule vs. Act Utilitarianism 137
IV. Problems with Rule Utilitarianism 139
V. Justice and Rights Again 143

Chapter Assignment Questions 144
Case 1: Transgender Students at College 145
Case 2: Curbing Grade Inflation 146
Case 3: Universal Healthcare 148

Chapter Eight Deontological Ethics 150
I. Introduction 150
II. Ross’s Ethics 152
III. Kant’s Good Will 155
IV. Kant’s Principle of Ends 157
V. Kant’s Principle of Universal Law 160
VI. The Principle of Autonomy 164
VII. Attractions and Problems 166






xii C O N T E N T S

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Chapter Assignment Questions 169
Case 1: A Demanding Honor Code 169
Case 2: The Ayala Case 171
Case 3: Internet Bride—Straight from Asia 172
Case 4: A Personal Decision 174
Case 5: Beefy Burgers and a Lean Future 175
Case 6: Suicide 177

Chapter Nine Natural Law Theory 178
I. Introduction 178
II. Natural Law Theory 179
III. Forfeiture 181
IV. Double Effect 183
V. Problems For Natural Law Theory 186

Chapter Assignment Questions 189
Case 1: Relieving Pain in a Dying Patient 190
Case 2: Birth Control 191
Case 3: Just War Theory and the

Killing of Noncombatants 193
Case 4: Permanent Vegetative State:

The Case of Terri Schiavo 195

Chapter Ten Social Contracts and Rights 198
I. Introduction 198
II. Locke 200
III. Hobbes 202
IV. Rawls 205
V. Assessing Social Contract Theory 208
VI. Assessing Rights 212
VII. Kinds of Rights 215

Chapter Assignment Questions 217
Case 1: Socrates’s Imprisonment 218
Case 2: Lord of the Flies 219
Case 3: Locke and Load: Lockean

Rights and Gun Control 220

Chapter Eleven Virtue Ethics 223
I. Introduction 223
II. The Heart of Virtue Ethics 224
III. Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 226
IV. Critiquing Principle-Based Ethics 230
V. Classifying the Virtues 233
VI. Problems With Virtue Ethics 235



Contents xiii

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Chapter Assignment Questions 239
Case 1: The Unlikely Rescue 240
Case 2: Video Games 241
Case 3: Compulsive Gambling and the Internet 243
Case 4: Moral Luck 245
Case 5: Democracy in Switzerland 247

Chapter Twelve Feminism and Care Ethics 249
I. Introduction 249
II. Feminist Ethics 251
III. The Care Perspective 253
IV. Foundations of an Ethics of Care 257
V. Care and Virtue 261
VI. A Blueprint for Reform 263
VII. Problems 264
VIII. A Concluding Reflection 269

Chapter Assignment Questions 269
Case 1: The International Gemstone Trade 270
Case 2: Parent Responsibility Toward

Their In Utero Child 271
Case 3: The Nestlé Boycott 273
Case 4: Absolute Poverty 274

Chapter Thirteen Ethics and Religion 276
I. Introduction 276
II. Kant on Autonomy and Religion 278
III. Divine Command Theory 281
IV. An Alternate Dependency Account 282
V. Objections and Elaborations 285
VI. Completeness 289

Chapter Assignment Questions 290
Case 1: By Divine Command? 291
Case 2: Religious Symbols and Public Schools 292
Case 3: A Question of Authority 294


Chapter Fourteen Pluralism in Theoretical and
Applied Ethics 301

I. Kinds of Ethical Pluralism 301
II. Medical Ethics: Futility 303
III. Environmental Ethics: Anthropocentrism

and Ecocentrism 310





xiv C O N T E N T S

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IV. Business Ethics: Whistle-Blowing 317
V. The Personal Dimension: How Can I

Make Morally Right Choices? 323
Chapter Assignment Questions 326

Case 1: Infant Medical Futility 328
Case 2: Climate Change and Oil 328
Case 3: National Parks 331
Case 4: Surfer, Sailor, Whistle-Blower 332
Case 5: The Diesel Dupe 334
Case 6: The Snowden Leak 334

Glossary 337

Index 348


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We are pleased to be able to offer the second edition of Ethical Choices to both
students and the general reader. In preparing this new edition, we have worked to
preserve and improve upon what many reviewers have considered to be the special
strengths of the book.

Many parts of ethics are not exactly easy to understand, but we haven’t wanted
to add to your difficulties by poor writing. By adopting a deliberately informal
style and conversational tone, we have sought to make this book clear, readable,
and accessible regardless of whether or not you’ve previously studied ethics or phi-
losophy. Since we don’t want you to feel that ethics is tedious, we have shortened
unduly long sentences, removed jargon, and reduced the number of technical
terms. Ideally, our hope is that when you read this book, your experience will be
something like having a pleasant conversation with an especially intriguing friend.

This book differs from most ethics introductions in several useful and ap-
pealing ways. Most of all, we intend this book to make ethics engaging for you.
Not surprisingly, we find ethics captivating; we’d very much like you to find it so
as well. Achieving this, it seems to us, requires that we relate ethical topics to your
own life, experiences, and interests. For instance, each chapter includes at least one
opening narrative or scenario meant to grab your attention, boost your interest
in what follows, and illustrate what the chapter is about. Some of these stories are
true; others are at least true to life; they often portray quite ordinary and everyday
experiences. To further engage you in your ethics reading, each chapter is also
followed by a number of practical cases. Again, many of these portray actual situ-
ations; all of them invite you to discover how ethical theory can apply directly to
moral problems. Most of these cases are not about global or national policy issues;
instead, they describe problems and issues that you can probably relate to in your
own life. It’s gratifying to us that, after examining a particular case, students have
sometimes told us that they’ve just gone through a similar experience themselves.

xvi P R E FA C E

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To aid you further in your study of ethics, we have included a number of

• Immediately following this Preface are the Guidelines for a Case Study Anal-
ysis. These propose a set of steps to follow as you analyze a case or even
work through a personal moral problem. These are also discussed more
informally in the last section of the book.

• Important terms appear throughout the book in boldface where they are
first presented and explained. These “technical” terms will often be used
again. Master these, as they are essential to your “internalizing” concepts
and ideas you need to fully understand ethics.

• Each section of each chapter is usually followed by a set of questions For
Discussion. Whether instructors select any of these as class discussion
topics, you can consider how you would answer them for yourself. This will
help you think more deeply about that section’s material; it may also reveal
how that material relates to other issues that interest you.

• Each section is also followed by a brief Summary; whenever the section
introduces important terms, there is a list of Key Terms together with their
definitions as well. Both can help you reinforce your understanding of what
you’ve just read; they can also be very useful for doing a quick review of that
section and of essential terms and concepts.

• At the end of each chapter, you will find another set of questions labeled
Chapter Assignment Questions. These are more comprehensive than the
questions For Discussion but can serve several of the same purposes.

• Every chapter includes a collection of Additional Resources. Some of these
are links to short YouTube-type presentations on parts of that chapter.
Others take you to an interesting video clip or trailer relating to that
chapter’s topics. A number are links to original works referred to in the

• Be sure to refer often to the book’s detailed Table of Contents and its Index;
both can help you find material you need to look at or want to review.

• There is a glossary near the end of the book. This can serve as your first
resource for reviewing and further clarifying the meanings of important

• A website has been set up specifically for this book. The site provides sev-
eral additional tools: (a) outlines of each chapter, (b) flashcards for learning
key terms, (c) practice quiz questions, (d) PowerPoint presentations of each
chapter’s material, and so on.

Do check out these helps for yourself. Also, thumb through the book to see
how it’s laid out, where you can find help, and how you can best use everything
it makes available to you. We think that many of these things can benefit you

Our best wishes are with you as you start your discovery of what the ancient,
fascinating, urgent, and dynamic field of ethics is about!

Preface xvii

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This book is primarily intended to serve as an introduction to ethics for college
students who don’t have much familiarity with ethics or philosophy. (It can also
serve as a handy review text for more advanced students and even for graduate stu-
dents.) It provides a survey of major ethical theories and perspectives that we think
is highly accessible even as it remains philosophically accurate and also attempts to
stay up to date. The book’s underlying theme is that of choices. It invites readers to
rationally evaluate a wide range of ethical perspectives, theories, and insights and
to decide which they find to be the most compelling. It also encourages readers to
apply what ethics has to offer to a variety of moral problems as well as to their own
moral predicaments. What particularly sets this book apart from other ethics texts
is its large number of student-relevant “real-life” cases, which can be used to help
students make the transition from theory to application. In addition, each chapter
includes at least one illustrative story or scenario (usually in its opening section) to
pique the reader’s interest and set the stage for what follows.

This book takes the approach that has worked best with our students. We
particularly aim at presenting ethics so that it will resonate with the experiences,
beliefs, and thinking of today’s post-modern-minded students. For instance, it has
become increasingly clear that teaching can be more effective when supplemented
or even largely replaced by relevant stories and narratives that have affective as
well as cognitive force.1 To use the text to best promote the reader’s engagement
and understanding, therefore, we urge you to make systematic use of the book’s
case studies. We also suggest that you draw upon the many narratives appear-
ing in most chapters—along with the accompanying For Discussion questions—to
jump-start class discussions. These will not only engage your students but also
provide valuable opportunities for you to interject comments and even “mini-
lectures” about the material. If you feel even bolder, you might try teaching pri-
marily through class discussions that afford you plenty of opportunities to correct,
reinforce, and extend what students have previously read in the text. We have pro-
vided the For Discussion questions as suggestive starting points for leading such

There are several things to mention about the book’s cases. First, a few case
discussions introduce material not presented in the main text (e.g., “Just War
Theory,” “Locke and Load”). These allow you to take your students to a deeper
level in thinking about issues raised by those particular cases. Second, cases have
been deliberately matched to particular theories, chapter by chapter. Nevertheless,
this does not preclude using one chapter’s cases with another chapter’s material.

1Joanna Szurmak and Mindy Thuna, “Tell Me a Story: The Use of Narrative as a Tool for Instruc-
tion,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries
in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 10, 2013, accessed October 2, 2016,
org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/SzurmakThuna_TellMe.pdf. Philo-
sophical pioneers in the instructional use of stories include Kieran Egan and Gareth Matthews, among
many others. Several other relevant resources are available online.

xviii P R E FA C E

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In fact, many cases may be effectively used with several different theories. The
book’s online website (see more in the following discussion) offers additional sug-
gestions for pairing cases to chapters and theories. Third, the cases following each
chapter proceed (more or less) from shorter and simpler cases to more challeng-
ing and multi-faceted ones. Next, each case is followed by a collection of Thought
Questions. Many of these provide opportunities for applying the concepts and
theory introduced in the chapter to that case. Others extend or even challenge
the theories. To encourage the comparison of different accounts, some allude to
previous theories as well. All of these questions are designed to inspire students
to think beyond their initial or “gut” reactions and to develop more carefully con-
sidered and defensible viewpoints of their own. We have made no attempt to limit
case problems to the easy or uncontroversial. As in real life, many of the prob-
lems raised by the cases pose challenging moral dilemmas that admit to having no
straightforward moral answer.

The Guidelines for a Case Study Analysis immediately follows this preface;
you may want your students to follow these guidelines in doing their case analy-
ses. If you’d rather they not take such a formal approach, you might assign just
selected parts of the guidelines to ensure some structure to student analyses,
or you might use them simply as a source of ideas when you create your own
assignments. We have found the guidelines to be helpful to our students; never-
theless, they may also be completely ignored. None of the book’s cases explicitly
requires their use.

If you have used the first edition of this book, you will find that we have
preserved and even added to its pedagogical tools. Many of these have just been
mentioned or are discussed in the part of this preface directed to the reader. In
addition, note that you can refer to each section’s Summary and Key Terms to de-
termine or remind yourself what that section covers. Further, you should know
that each section’s For Discussion questions tend to be informal and personal; the
more substantive Chapter Assignment Questions, meanwhile, can be used for as-
signments or to suggest assignment ideas. Further, you may find that some of the
Additional Resources include videos and other types of presentations that might
usefully supplement your classes.

Depending on the chapter, these might include videos or movie trailers re-
lated to the chapter’s material, short presentations of portions of that chapter’s ma-
terial, other texts that also cover the chapter’s material particularly well, or, when
available, links to relevant online primary sources in ethics (e.g., Plato’s Republic
or Hobbes’s Leviathan). You might want to use some of the primary source links
to have students do readings in the original works (without having them buy a
supplementary text). All of these resources enable readers to pursue many topics
more fully as they wish.

As many reviewers approved of the text’s organization, we have largely pre-
served that while adding some additional flexibility. On the most local level, each
chapter still divides into clearly delineated sections. You may thus assign readings

Preface xix

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by section, or you might assign students to read only certain sections rather than
an entire chapter. Sections that go beyond essential material or that are more spe-
cialized or advanced are also still marked (by ** in their headings). These may be
excluded from a course without jeopardizing student understanding of later sec-
tions or chapters.

On a more global level, the book discusses more theories and cases than most
courses can accommodate. It thus allows considerable leeway in what topics you
want to include in a course. Most chapters are fairly self-contained, though some
unavoidably must refer to preceding material. When such references are made, the
relevant chapter and section is identified. This not only helps in reviewing earlier
material but also allows you to entirely skip an earlier chapter and then assign one
of that chapter’s sections as background for a topic introduced in a later chapter.
Several chapters may simply be skipped entirely. Chapters that seem more dis-
cretionary include Chapter Five: Moral Psychology and Egoism; Chapter Seven:
Consequentialist Ethics: Rule Utilitarianism; Chapter Nine: Natural Law Theory;
Ten: Social Contracts and Rights; Twelve: Feminism and Care Ethics; and Chapter
Thirteen: Ethics and Religion. Another chapter you might elect to skip is Chapter
Three: Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency, although some of this must be cov-
ered if you wish to include Chapter Fourteen’s §II: Medical Ethics: Futility, since
the latter relies heavily on concepts of autonomy and agency. A knowledgeable
instructor can also present many of the chapters in different orders with relatively
little inconvenience.


The book has been completely overhauled stylistically in an effort to simplify and
streamline the presentation, to reduce the number of “key terms” and other tech-
nical jargon, to standardize terminology, and to achieve a friendlier conversational
tone. Occasional corrections have also been made (e.g., the discussion of Kant and
absolutism has been corrected and further elaborated). Besides these, a number of
other quite substantial changes have been made:

• Changes in organization:
º Material from the previous Chapters One, Two, and Five has been re-

arranged, simplified, and consolidated into Chapters One and Four.
Chapter One now begins with values, which we think provides a more
intuitive route to understanding morality and ethics; our characteriza-
tion of moral claims and an expanded discussion of moral thinking then
appears in Chapter Four.

º The chapter on Moral Relativism (Chapter Two) now precedes the chap-
ter on Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency (Chapter Three).

º The previous Chapter Six on egoism has been removed, though some
material from that chapter has been incorporated in the new Chapters

xx P R E FA C E

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Five and Six. This change connects egoism to related topics in moral psy-
chology rather than to consequentialist theories in general.

º The previous edition’s chapter on natural law and natural rights has been
divided into separate chapters. The new Chapter Nine is devoted exclu-
sively to natural law theory; the new Chapter Ten treats rights more com-
prehensively as part of its exposition of social contract theory.

• Additional content:
º Added to the generalist, principle-based pattern of “moral reasoning” of

the previous edition is a contrasting particularist pattern of “moral re-
flection.” See the new Chapter Four, which now presents both patterns
of moral thinking.

º A largely new Chapter Five explores major themes in moral psychology,
some of which is related to ethical and psychological egoism.

º The largely new Chapter Ten, Social Contracts and Rights, presents the
social contract theories of Locke, Hobbes, and Rawls while also expand-
ing the previous edition’s presentation of rights.

º A synopsis of feminist ethics and its development has been added to
Chapter Twelve, Feminism and Care Ethics.

º A largely new final Chapter Fourteen, Pluralism in Theoretical and Ap-
plied Ethics, has been added. This chapter revises the previous edition’s
presentation of ethical pluralism and adds three major new sections in
applied ethics: §II Medical Ethics: Futility, §III Environmental Ethics:
Anthropocentrism and Ecocentrism, §IV Business Ethics: Whistle-
Blowing. The chapter closes with a revised section that discusses the ap-
plication of ethics to one’s personal life.

• Added pedagogical tools:
º Sixteen new cases have been written for this edition, making for fifty-

seven cases total. Most of the previous cases have also been updated to re-
flect more recent developments; a few have been dropped, and a few have
been altered significantly (e.g., “Guess Who’s Not Coming for Dinner,”
“Climate Change and Oil”).

º Each chapter section is now accompanied by a set of For Discussion

º A glossary of terms is now included at the end of the book.

A Companion Website at is available. This provides
several resources for both students and instructors. Besides what is previously
mentioned in “To the Reader”, instructors will also find sets of quiz questions,
suggestions for alternate uses of the cases, and an additional applied ethics chap-
ter on moral responsibilities toward future generations. More cases may be added
from time to time.

Preface xxi

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Our special thanks go to Robert Miller, Donald Casey, Irfan Khawaja, George
Abaunza, and Vicky Burnor as well as to the many students, colleagues, and review-
ers who provided suggestions, corrections, and criticisms of the many drafts that
have ultimately culminated in this book. For their invaluable reviews, we would es-
pecially like to thank Mark Alfano, Australian Catholic University; Luke Amentas,
Kingsborough Community College, CUNY; Christopher Baker, Armstrong State
University; Kate Bednar, University of Kansas; Jason Borenstein, Georgia Institute
of Technology; Julien M. Farland, Anna Maria College; Bob Fischer, Texas State
University; Dana R. Flint, The Lincoln University; Lisa Jorgensen, Vanier College;
Shawn McKinney, Hillsborough Community College; Christian Perring, St. John’s
University; Peter Simpson, The Graduate Center, CUNY; Daniel Star, Boston Uni-
versity; Peter B. Trumbull, Madison College; Bas van der Vossen, University of
North Carolina, Greensboro; Andrea Veltman, James Madison University; and
Julius L. Wynn, St. Petersburg College. Finally, we thank Felician University for its
funding and support of this project over many years and in many ways.

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bur64509_fm_i-xxiv.indd xxiii 05/10/17 05:03 PM


A case study analysis provides a powerful tool for sorting through and resolv-ing an ethical problem, regardless of its specific subject. A complete case
analysis consists of the following five steps:

1. Summarize the main problem and its setting.
What are the essential elements of the situation, and what is the ethical problem
at issue? Summarize the case in your own words, writing as though you were ex-
plaining it to someone who is not familiar with it. Some helpful questions: Who
are the key players? Who is affected by the outcome? Are there other important
facts that are being assumed and left unstated? While your summary need not be
exhaustive, it should identify the salient facts for your reader. Be careful not to
alter the facts of the case.

2. List possible ways of responding to the problem.
What are the possible responses to the problem; that is, in what ways might a
person (or a society) act if faced with the problem? List and briefly explain those
that seem most likely (both good and bad). Include the actual responses made by
those portrayed in the case itself. While some responses may be obvious, others
may require you to think more carefully and creatively. Don’t neglect either! Also,
be certain that you include the response that you actually think is best—what you
ultimately will defend as right.

3. Identify moral principles and theories that most
directly apply to the case.

Some ethical principles may be obvious, others may not be. Be careful, however, to
include only moral principles so that you don’t confuse your analysis with legal or
other types of non-moral principles. Don’t formulate principles so that they are not
strictly true. Especially identify principles that support your responses in part 2.

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xxiv G U I D E L I N E S F O R A C A S E S T U D Y A N A LY S I S

In most cases, you will also want to show how various ethical theories relate to the
case. This can often be done simply by stating a theory’s essential idea as a funda-
mental principle (e.g., “Always act so as to maximize the resulting overall utility”
or “Never treat a person as a means only”).

4. Identify and justify the one response that you think is morally best.
Justifying your chosen response from out of the possible responses (listed in part 2)
requires you to provide moral arguments in support of your response. Use the pat-
tern of moral reasoning, or moral reflection, or both (see Chapter Four, §IV, §V).
Try to offer the most compelling arguments you can. These arguments should in-
corporate ethical theory as well.

5. Explain why the other possible responses are not as acceptable.
A person who argues for his own view is merely biased. Moral thinking requires
you to also see a problem from the perspective of others. Thus, your analysis should
also address the most important remaining responses (from part 2), explaining
why each is morally less desirable than your response in part 4. In arguing against
other responses, you don’t have to show that they are all wrong; only that your
response is better justified than any of the others.

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Theory and Practice

What use is ethics—the study of morality? If you’re hoping for ethics to increase
your paycheck, sell a product, or get a new job, you should probably look else-
where.1 Still, this hardly means that ethics has no practical value. Ethics has to
do with desperately important practical matters, including many our society
struggles with: questions about genetic engineering, drone strikes, stockpiling and
using weapons of mass destruction, fair taxation, campaign finance, and a host of
social justice issues. It’s no accident that ethical theorists have often led the van-
guard in achieving moral reforms. For instance, the nineteenth-century utilitar-
ians deliberately formulated their theory to correct abuses in the criminal justice
system of their time.

Yet ethics is not just essential for handling major social problems. The study
of morality is important because morality itself is important. Without any func-
tional morality, society would not even be possible. Imagine that no one bothered
about the moral duty of truthfulness. Business and government would collapse
since no agreement could be depended upon. Education and the news would
become useless since their accuracy could not be trusted. Science would whither
to mere “politics” and opinion. Even families and friendships would suffer since
these require that we be truthful with each other.

Morality is not only essential to the possibility of human society but also to the
quality of our lives. Imagine living in a world where morality has eroded to such

1Although businesses are increasingly discovering that morally right business practice—going
beyond just the law’s requirements—makes for successful business.

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a point that crimes have tripled, political and business abuses rock the economy
many times a year, and even everyday life is much more dangerous and violent. In
the words of the seventeenth- century philosopher, Thomas hobbes, life in such
a world would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”2 Since morality is so
important, its study and analysis—namely, ethics—is important as well.

Both morality and ethics impact our personal lives—every time we get angry
at another driver, are hurt by someone, make a commitment to a friend, or sign a
document. They have this sort of living practicality because they expose the ten-
sion between what is and what ought to be, a tension we encounter daily. Studying
ethics can aid us in dealing with this tension by helping us better understand what
distinguishes right and wrong, how to think through moral problems, and how to
address moral conflicts (among other things).

More profoundly, morality and ethics relate to the most important respon-
sibility each of us has in life: the formation of our selves. Every choice we make
contributes toward producing the moral personality that will define us in the
next moment. As the twentieth-century existentialists emphasized, this power of
choice—especially of moral choice—is an awesome responsibility.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his friends grapple with what they believe
to be a central question of our existence: Why should I try to live a moral life?
They fully recognize that moral living doesn’t always advance a person’s short-
term interests. As their discussion draws to a close, however, Socrates forcefully
summarizes a remarkable conclusion: only the morally just person can find happi-
ness in this life. only the moral woman or man can achieve fulfillment as a human
being right now. Those who neglect the moral good life will inevitably be beset
with internal and external conflicts that will lead to an incomplete, debased, and
frustrated existence.

If our fulfillment and well-being as persons depends so much upon the moral
quality of our lives, then we each have pressing work to do. We need to do all we
can to establish a satisfactory moral life for ourselves. But how do we do this? It
would certainly help if we could have some account of what makes something just,
good, or right in the first place. For that matter, it wouldn’t hurt if we could also be
assured that there even are such things as the morally good and right.

Ethics addresses these concerns, primarily by developing ethical theories—
accounts meant to explain what makes something morally good or right. These
accounts tend to agree regarding much of the practical moral guidance they offer.
They also differ and even conflict with each other in significant ways, but this
should not be viewed as a serious drawback. It’s partly because of these conflicts, in
fact, that ethics yields such a diverse set of moral perspectives and insights. These,
in turn, can contribute markedly to our moral understanding as well as to guiding
our moral choices.

2Thomas hobbes, The Leviathan (public domain, 1660), accessed August 18, 2016, http://, 78.

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The study of ethics is also deeply absorbing in itself. In pursuing this study,
however, it’s important that we keep our balance. As Aristotle warns us, many get
so caught up in the study of ethics that they forget the importance of simply living
morally. The ultimate practicality of ethics, then, is available only to those who
actually apply it. It would be hard to put this better than Aristotle himself does in
his Nicomachean Ethics:3

But most people do not do these [things], but take refuge in theory and think
they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving some-
what like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the
things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such
a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course
of philosophy. . . .

* * *

This book provides a wide-ranging introduction to ethics, including a survey
of several major ethical theories. To understand those theories, it is helpful to first
address some of the key concepts and distinctions that pertain to the moral realm.
This is done in Part I, which also provides some direction for thinking about
moral problems. Part I also explores a few important preliminary matters—about
ourselves as moral beings, about the relationship between morality and culture,
and about how people actually think and act when facing moral problems.4

3Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W. d. ross, Book II, chapter 4, accessed August 8, 2016,

4The Part I “preliminaries” belong to a field called “meta-ethics,” which addresses issues having to
do with the possibility, nature, and application of ethical theories.

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Ethics and Values


Glaucon, one of those who discusses the moral life with Socrates in Plato’s Repub-
lic (See the introduction to Part I), worries that people might often be better off
if they just did whatever they wanted rather than try to act morally. he relates a
Greek myth to explain his doubts:

Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm,
and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feed-
ing his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among
other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stoop-
ing and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than
human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the
dead and re-ascended.1

Later, while sitting among the shepherds with the ring on his finger, Gyges
happens to turn the ring inward and is amazed to find that he has become invis-
ible. Turning the ring back outward, he reappears. having confirmed that the ring
always works this way, he quickly makes his plans. he travels to the king’s court
and uses the ring to secretly find and seduce the queen. he and the queen then kill
the king. Gyges takes control of the kingdom and ends up enjoying great power
and wealth—all thanks to the ring’s magic.

For a seemingly ordinary guy, Gyges sure goes off the deep end! obviously,
he takes an actively immoral turn once he finds the ring. Glaucon relates this
story because he can see no reason to live morally other than because society
forces us to. As soon as society’s power of law and punishment is removed, “no
man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take
what he liked . . . wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he

1Plato, The Republic: Book II, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Public domain, 360 BcE), accessed August 31,

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is unjust.  .  .  .  ”2 Glaucon’s view seems supported by recent meltdowns in busi-
ness and government. Businesses usually follow the letter of the law, but some
business people still look for ways to “stretch” the law whenever they can. Since
it’s often easy to hide one’s actions, people in government have also committed
wrongs: lying, spying on allies and citizens, and discriminating against certain
groups, for instance.

Are these sorts of moral breakdowns only committed by those on the sleazier
side of humanity? After all, similar invisibility tools have appeared since Plato—
for example, the ring in the Lord of the Rings and harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
In these stories, the characters apply the power of invisibility for good. Though
none of this is reality, the comparison does reveal something about human nature.
Specifically, people use the capabilities they have—whether actual (strength, tal-
ents, knowledge) or magical (rings and cloaks)—to pursue their own goals and
values. clearly Gyges’s values were not admirable. The same may be said of some
people in business and government. others, meanwhile, want their lives and ac-
tions to achieve some lasting good. To get more personal—how about you? Would
your actions tend to be more moral or immoral if you could “get away” with doing
certain things?

We’ve been assuming that we all know what “moral” means. But the term is
used in several different ways. Morals often refer to what a person, group, or soci-
ety believes people should or should not do: “drinking goes against my morals;”
“Some countries’ morals are stricter than others.” Morals may also refer to a con-
cept of objective right and wrong (what holds independently of people’s feelings
and beliefs): “Murdering an innocent human being simply is wrong.” describing
something as moral, meanwhile, typically says that thing is good or is right: “John
is a very moral person;” “Lying is immoral.” To add to the confusion, morals and
moral are often used interchangeably with ethics and ethical. Although this book
occasionally uses these terms in each of these ways, it will most often use “moral”
and “morality” objectively, as something that holds regardless of people’s beliefs.

next, we can divide the moral realm into two major (but interconnected)
parts: that which is good or bad (discussed in ethics as value theory) and that
which is right or wrong (discussed in ethics as deontic theory). Good and bad have
to do with values—properties of things or people. A medical procedure might be
good because it can save lives; a person, meanwhile, can be honest or dishonest,
generous or selfish. Thus, Glaucon’s ultimate question is one about values: What
good is a moral life? Right and wrong, meanwhile, describe what we should do.
Gyges’s later actions, for instance, are wrong.

We should also mention a few things the moral is not. Although laws often
require us to do morally right things, the moral is not the same thing as the law.
nor does it have much to do with what may be prudent—that is, what is in our own
interest. Furthermore, while religions often have substantial moral components,
morality is distinct from religion and religious teachings.


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To further establish your intuitions about what morality involves, here are a
few illustrations of moral issues as they might arise in everyday life:

• While renewing your driver’s license, you are asked if you’d like to be desig-
nated as an organ donor. There is, in fact, a serious shortage of organs, and
many die as they wait for a needed organ to become available. do you have
a moral duty to become an organ donor?

• You like to play a “first-person shooter” computer game in your spare time.3
Lately, this has become a bit of an obsession—you even dreamed last night
about taking down sharpshooters in a dark tunnel. You also think your five-
year-old brother is playing the game on the sly. Although it has all seemed
harmless, you now are feeling a little uncomfortable with how the game is
affecting you and your brother. Should you change your pastime?

• At the store where you work, you notice Bill, one of the employees, stealing
small amounts of money from the cash register. Bill is always lots of fun—
your job would be pretty unpleasant without him. he’s also a friend—in
fact, he helped get you your job. But the store manager, having recently
noticed cash shortages now for several days, has threatened that no one will
get an end-of-month bonus if the shortages continue. Should you report
Bill to the manager?

Finally, let’s return to the notion of ethics. Ethics is concerned with both the
morally good and right and with explaining what makes things good or right
(among other things). Ethics is about the moral realm of thought, action, and ex-
perience. roughly speaking, we can describe ethics as the systemic and reasoned
study of moral right and wrong, good and bad, including the principles and claims
that employ these concepts. Just as we refer to the natural world or the natural realm
as including everything that science studies, we can usefully think of the moral
realm as including everything that ethics studies.

rest assured that we will discuss and develop these ideas much further in the
remainder of Part I (chapters one and Four).

For Discussion
1. What are your reactions to the Gyges story? How do you think people would act

(including yourself ) if they found such a ring?
2. Compare the Gyges story to the Lord of the rings or harry Potter stories. Which

story most accurately depicts human nature?
3. Consider one of the moral problems mentioned in the Part I Introduction. How do

you think we as a society should respond to that problem? Why?
4. Considering the organ donation, gaming, or stealing cases, what do you think

should be done? Why?

3In first-person shooter games, the computer portrays the player as a character under attack in an
evil world. The goal is to stay alive while shooting as many enemies as possible.

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What is really important to you? What do you live for? What guides your deci-
sions, plans, and projects? People give many different answers to these kinds of
questions. Still, certain answers surface again and again: friendship, love, family,
faith, self-determination, health, happiness.

These are called values—and we build our lives upon them. Since our values
represent what is most important to us, most of our choices attempt to promote
these values in our lives. We see this with Gyges—once he finds the ring, it im-
mediately becomes clear that Gyges’s greatly values pleasure, power, and wealth.
he doesn’t seem to place much value on honesty, loyalty, or even life. In contrast,
Frodo in the Lord of the Rings most values friendship, kindness, and responsibility
as evidenced by his closeness to Gandalf and the other hobbits, his kindnesses
toward Gollum, and his commitment to destroy the ring whatever the cost. Es-
pecially as he matures, harry’s uses of the cloak indicate his values of friendship,
loyalty, and family.

Values are normative: they belong to some standard or norm by which other
things are to be evaluated. Saying that a road is no good appeals to a standard
about what roads should be like. By describing Jeff as honest, I am saying that he
measures up to a high standard of truth-telling. In telling a patient that he has a
poor heart, the doctor compares the patient’s heart to normal, functional hearts.
Each of these value claims—statements that ascribe values (positive or negative)
to things—refers to some standard and evaluates a thing relative to that standard.

Several interesting things can be said about values. As we’ve discussed, we
usually act in keeping with our values.4 But this idea can be taken further. If

4My showing respect toward others is in keeping with my valuing persons, but my respect is an
aspect of the act itself, not a result. no commitment to consequentialism is intended here.

Ethics tries to answer questions like “Are there reasons for doing what is morally right?”
“Can we know what is morally right? How?” “What makes something good or right in
the first place?” The terms “ethical” and “moral” are often used interchangeably, but it
can be helpful to think of ethics as studying the moral. Ethics has two major branches:
one is about moral values (good/bad) and the other has to do with moral actions

Key Terms

• Ethics: the systemic and reasoned study of moral right and wrong, good and
bad, together with the claims that employ these concepts.

• Good and bad: have to do with values.

• Right and wrong: have to do with actions

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something is genuinely valuable, then you presumably ought to act to promote that
good. Thus, genuine values support—and explain—what we should do. If health
is genuinely important in itself, then you ought to do what preserves and improves
your health. If living a sedentary life is bad for you, then you should exercise—in
fact, you have a responsibility to exercise. If friendship is a genuine good, then you
should cultivate relationships by being friendly toward others, sharing interests,
and spending time with them. Values call for action.

claims or statements that tell us what we should or should not do, how we
ought or ought not to act, are also normative. Each inherits its normativity from
the value that supports it and so appeals to the standard that value belongs to.
“Should” and “ought” claims are called prescriptive claims – they prescribe or pro-
hibit specific things. “People shouldn’t lie” prohibits lying; “You ought to attend
that lecture” or simply “Attend that lecture” tells you to do something. In sum,
values are normative and are used in value claims; they also support prescrip-
tive claims, which are also normative. The two kinds of normative claims—value
and prescriptive claims—need to be carefully distinguished from mere descriptive

A descriptive claim asserts something about how the world is, not how it
should be. The distinction is quite important—for, as we are all aware, the way
things are is not always the way they should be. descriptive claims don’t appeal to
any standard and they don’t evaluate; they simply describe: “Jeff is six feet tall,” “I
used to hate broccoli,” “over a billion people will remain in desperate poverty this
coming year,” and even “If everyone did what is right, the world would be a hap-
pier place.”5 regardless of their differences, these are all descriptive claims.

next, it may seem that values are things a person either just has or doesn’t
have—and when people disagree, it’s because they have different values. however,
people tend to share most values. Where they differ is not so much in which values
they have but in the importance they assign to each. If you are asked what you
value most, you might say that personal loyalty is especially important. Another
person might say that he most respects being open and telling the truth. Both of
you almost certainly value the other’s main value as well but to a different degree.
Given that difference, you will sometimes act differently from each other—even
in very similar situations. In the cash register story, you might feel that you must
remain loyal to Bill and so should not report him—though loyalty might also re-
quire you to confront him for his own good. The other person—even if he stands
in the same relationship with Bill—would probably report him.

For Discussion
1. Given how you act, what values are most important to you?
2. Provide several additional examples of value claims, prescriptive claims, and de-

scriptive claims.

5This mentions the morally right, but merely describes (correctly or not) the result of everyone
acting rightly. This claim does not say, by itself, that everyone should act rightly.

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3. What values support the prescriptive claims you thought of for question 2?
4. Explain how the values of safety, friendship, education, income, pleasure, and love

can each support prescriptive claims.

Values are things we consider important, things we usually try to achieve and main-
tain. Our values drive most of our choices and actions. While people share most values,
people may place differing degrees of importance on those values. Values are norma-
tive: they belong to some norm or standard. Values support prescriptive claims (which
are also normative) because we usually should act in keeping with important values.
Normative claims, meanwhile, must be distinguished from descriptive claims. Roughly,
descriptive claims talk about the world as it is; normative claims about how it should be.

Key Terms

• Value claims: These ascribe values (positive or negative) to things on the basis
of some standard.

• Normative claims: Appeal to some norm or standard; must be either value
claims or prescriptive claims.

• Prescriptive claims: These say how we should act: what we should or should
not, ought or ought not do.

• Descriptive claims: These say how the world is (was or will be) and even how
the world could be but not how it should be.


So far, we have not limited our illustrations to just moral claims. Moral claims
are only one of several different kinds of normative claims. Like other normative
claims, moral claims (whether prescriptive or value) appeal to some standard. The
standard in this case is a moral standard—a comprehensive set of foundational
moral values (or sometimes, of foundational moral prescriptions) together with all
that can be derived from these. Moral value claims evaluate people in moral terms.
We might call someone a “good person,” meaning she acts in morally right ways
most of the time. We describe murderers as “bad,” emphasizing their glaring moral
failings. We can also describe people by particular moral traits (e.g., as loyal, caring,
dishonest, or selfish). Moral value claims nearly always ascribe some value, good or
bad, to persons or their personal characters. Moral prescriptive claims, meanwhile,
talk about the rightness or wrongness of actions. Some examples:

• Workers ought to accurately report their income when filling out IrS form
1040. (prescriptive)

• Gyges stopped acting decently and became an extremely vicious person.

• no one should physically injure another person. (prescriptive)

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• It’s a good thing for people to be generous. (value)
• It was right for you to tell him that. (prescriptive)

It’s worth pausing here to make a useful distinction. In our terminology, every
claim or statement (value, prescriptive, or descriptive) that is true holds for every-
one. This simply means that it’s true; it doesn’t mean that I believe it or even know
about it. unfortunately, there are many truths I don’t know and many more I don’t
believe. Even when a claim holds for me and everyone, however, it may not apply
to me. To apply, it must call for some response—often some action. Thus, true
moral claims, unless specifically addressed to just some person(s), hold for all, but
they don’t necessarily apply to everyone in every circumstance.6 For instance, the
prescriptive claim about reporting income on form 1040 holds for all u.S. citizens
but only applies to citizens who are required to file form 1040. Likewise, the pre-
scription about not injuring others holds for everyone but can’t very readily apply
to someone who is completely alone.

To make the nature of morals and morality clearer, it will help to distinguish
the moral realm from other normative “realms” that have their own standards and
give rise to their own value or prescriptive claims.7

The realm of etiquette has to do with what is acceptable social behavior. It
refers to values such as being “well-mannered” at the table, “polite” at social events,
“proper” at weddings and other formal occasions, “courteous” in driving, and even
“decent” when texting or emailing. Values like these in turn yield normative claims
of etiquette:

• Kevin shouldn’t noisily slurp his soup. (prescriptive)
• Everyone in that family is polite. (value)

Etiquette develops, in part, from practical considerations like efficiency,
safety, and hygiene. For instance, all human societies have rules about meeting
people—probably because our determining if the other is a friend or foe can be
very important. Etiquette also forbids talking with your mouth full, no doubt be-
cause of the inevitable loss of clarity and the inconveniences of food falling out.
Etiquette is also a matter of convention, and cultures often differ over what they
consider acceptable. The values of etiquette for a particular culture make up that
culture’s standard of etiquette. Being conventional, however, doesn’t diminish eti-
quette’s importance. Etiquette plays a central role in achieving smooth social inter-
action and avoiding unnecessary conflicts.

Although it is normative, etiquette doesn’t overlap a great deal with moral-
ity. I am not a moral failure because I am bad-mannered or impolite. neverthe-
less, etiquette—being impolite or discourteous, say—can have moral implications.
In such cases, the breach of etiquette itself is not usually a moral wrong but is a

6Moral claims hold for all if they are universalizable; see chapter Five, §III.
7There are other types of normative values as well, including aesthetic values (e.g., well-designed,

balanced) and certain professional values (confidentiality, dependability).

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means to committing a moral wrong (e.g., expressing an insult). Etiquette becomes
a moral issue when there is an accompanying intent to offend or demean the other
person. Without such intent, the very same act might merely be embarrassing.
Thus, the values of etiquette must be distinguished from moral values.

The realm of law: Law resembles the moral realm more closely than any
other. Both moral and legal standards prohibit murder and stealing, for example.
In fact, most moral values are mirrored by legal values; for example, justice and
equality are both moral and legal values in our society. There may also be a moral
duty to obey most (but not necessarily all) laws. despite their close relationship,
however, law and morality differ in important ways. Laws are created by civil au-
thority; without such authority, there can be no laws. Furthermore, laws only hold
in certain jurisdictions; for instance, some Texas laws don’t hold in Indiana, and
some u.S. laws don’t hold in Britain. In addition, laws come into and go out of ex-
istence at definite times; moral values and prescriptions appear much more time-
less. Even where the law normally does not hold, furthermore, moral values still
do: honesty between family members remains morally important even though the
law only rarely reaches into homes. Also, there are important legal prescriptions
that have no moral basis. For instance, in the following pairs, neither claim is mor-
ally preferable to its alternative:

• (a) All drivers should stay on the right side of the street. (b) All drivers
should stay on the left side of the street. (It depends on the laws of the par-
ticular country.)

• (a) no one may use a registered trademark that has been renewed within
the past ten years. (b) no one may use a registered trademark that has
been renewed within the past twelve years. (The number of years is partly

Most important, it is possible for laws to be immoral. Laws establishing apart-
heid or slavery, for instance, violate basic moral rights. It can even become one’s
moral duty to violate such laws. In any case, it should be clear that laws and moral-
ity differ.

The prudential realm: There is another wide range of normative values that
differ from moral values. Prudential values include what is in our self-interest
and what contributes to our well-being—what would be prudent. health, personal
safety, and a decent education are all good for us. Thus, these prudential values
support corresponding prudential prescriptions:

• Everyone should brush their teeth daily.
• People shouldn’t associate with shady characters in dark alleys.
• If Sandra wants to make it safely home in the heavy rain, she should slow

• If you want to do well in your new job, you should ask questions.

Since our interests are often too obvious to be worth mentioning, many
prudential claims are expressed as simple prescriptions as in the examples about

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brushing teeth and avoiding dark alleys. Everyone recognizes that it’s in their in-
terest to take care of their teeth and avoid getting mugged. other sorts of actions,
meanwhile, are called for only under certain circumstances. For this reason, pru-
dential claims are best expressed in an “if/then” (conditional) form: “If you want
to do well in your new job, then you should ask questions.” Stated this way, pru-
dential claims prescribe something (asking questions) that would be wise to do
if our circumstances make the corresponding value or goal (doing well in a new
job) relevant to our self-interest. For those who don’t have a new job, or any job
at all, this prescription wouldn’t apply. Likewise, if Sandra isn’t driving through a
downpour, she may not need to drive as slowly. That’s why it’s best to formulate
prudential claims as conditionals; while the complete conditionals typically hold
generally, their prescriptive parts don’t always apply to everyone. That depends on
whether or not a person shares the conditional statement’s other part—its value
or goal. of course, it’s also true that if you don’t want healthy teeth, then you
don’t have any reason to brush daily. Since nearly everyone wants healthy teeth,
we don’t normally bother adding “if you want healthy teeth”; that “goes without
saying.” Whether full expressed or not, therefore, complete prudential claims are,
strictly, conditionals.

In response to the Gyges story, Plato argues that living a moral life actually
is in a person’s best interests, just like the saying “honesty is the best policy” sug-
gests that it is prudent to practice honesty. nevertheless, specific moral acts do
sometimes work to our disadvantage. Telling the truth or protecting a threatened
child can put us at risk and even cause us personal harm. Thus, we can’t take moral
claims to be automatically prudential. Further, many prudential claims are clearly
not moral claims (e.g., while brushing my teeth tonight is certainly prudent, I’m
not acting immorally if I skip tonight’s brushing).

For Discussion
1. Think of other familiar claims that belong to the realms of etiquette, law, or the

2. Dividing into small groups, have each group work through about ten values from

the Values Exercise at the end of the chapter. Share and defend your categoriza-
tion of each value.

3. Think of other prudential claims that are stated incompletely (i.e., they just state
the prescription). Restate these claims in their complete if/then form.

Values, along with the value claims and prescriptive claims they support, make up sev-
eral distinct normative realms, including the moral, etiquette, laws, and the prudential.
The bases of law and etiquette are social and conventional; the prudential primarily
reflects human needs and interests; the moral seems to go deeper—perhaps being
rooted in human nature itself. While these realms—particularly the moral and legal—
share many claims, they differ not only in their bases but also in their functions.

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Values belong to law, morality, and other normative realms. But values can also be
distinguished in another way. We value some things for their own sake; we value
other things because they help us attain something else. Some things we value for
both reasons.

A value that is desirable in itself is a foundational value. The idea is that cer-
tain goods are intrinsically or essentially valuable: they have worth in themselves
and do not depend upon other values for their worth. Pleasure, happiness, and
love are often cited as examples of foundational values. For instance, we seem to
value pleasure for its own sake—it’s intrinsically desirable. A more controversial
example is life. It certainly seems that life has value in itself. Still, some claim that it
isn’t mere life that is worth having but only a meaningful or happy life.

other things have no real worth in themselves, although they may be exceed-
ingly useful for attaining something we do value. The clearest example of such a
purely instrumental value is paper money. Money is useful for obtaining other
things we desire, but it’s nearly worthless in itself. What good would a suitcase
of money be on a deserted island? Likewise, an academic degree is valuable as a
means to attaining recognition and employment; a driver’s license has value be-
cause it gives the holder a legal right to drive. Instrumental values are derived
values—their worth derives from the value of things they can help us obtain. By
themselves, however, purely instrumental values are largely worthless.

Some values may be both foundational and instrumental—health and knowl-
edge, for instance. Without decent health, it’s difficult to attain most other goods
in life. Although health thus has instrumental value, it arguably also has founda-
tional value—being a good thing in itself regardless of what else it makes possible.
The same may be said of knowledge, which clearly is instrumental for attaining all
kinds of goods but may also be desirable purely for its own sake.

Key Terms

• Moral standard: a comprehensive set of moral values along with the value
and prescriptive claims these values support.

• Moral realm: applying “moral” in one of its senses, this is the subject matter of
ethics. This realm includes everything that relates to people’s moral beliefs and

• Realm of etiquette: based in practical considerations and social convention,
etiquette typically varies somewhat from culture to culture.

• Realm of law: created by civil authority, laws exist and apply at definite times
and places. Many, but not all, laws reflect moral claims.

• Prudential realm: prudential claims are best expressed in an “if/then” (con-
ditional) form: if some value or goal is important and relevant to your circum-
stances, then you ought to act in a certain way. Prudential claims usually hold
for all but apply depending on one’s circumstances.

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deciding on questions about foundational value can be difficult. Although many
people consider health and knowledge foundational, others see no value to either
beyond the advantages they can enable us to obtain. Mere health or mere knowledge
may be no good whatsoever. In any case, one thing seems clear: while there are
plenty of instrumental values, there are far fewer foundational values. Foundational
values may be quite rare. In fact, some theorists say there is only one foundational
value or good, but which value that is remains a matter of sharp disagreement.

For Discussion
1. A car has instrumental value. What things is a car valuable for attaining?
2. Are health and knowledge foundational, instrumental, or both?
3. What is happiness? Is it a purely foundational value?

We can characterize values as foundational, instrumental, or both. Foundational
values have value purely in themselves; instrumental values derive their value from
what they can obtain. Some values are both foundational and instrumental. Founda-
tional values are rare, although they are particularly important.

Key Terms

• Foundational values: things that are intrinsically valuable in themselves;
foundational values are not derived.

• Instrumental values: things that are useful for attaining something else of
value. A purely instrumental value has no genuine worth in itself.


Although most values are instrumental, it is not possible for all values to be instru-
mental. Instrumental values must derive their worth from something else; if noth-
ing had foundational value, there would be nothing to give instrumental values
their worth. It follows that all instrumental values ultimately derive their worth
from foundational values. Furthermore, the worth of any instrumental value is
explained by the foundational values from which it derives. If life has foundational
value, then anything that maintains, promotes, or makes life possible also obtains
value. Food, clothing, and shelter do these things, so their instrumental value is
explained by (and derived from) the value of life. Likewise, since money is an ef-
fective means of obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, its instrumental value is
explained by its ability to serve these values, which in turn serve the foundational
value of life. Foundational values explain and support all other values.

As previously seen, values also support and explain prescriptive claims. The
reverse, meanwhile, is not generally true. It’s natural enough to say that an in-
dividual ought to study hard because she values doing well in a class. Also, it’s

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reasonable to conclude that we ought to respect persons because persons are valu-
able. But the reverse of these doesn’t seem to work. It is not very enlightening to
suggest that doing well in class has value because one ought to study hard or that
people are valuable because we should respect them. Typically, prescriptive claims
don’t do much to explain why things have value.

Foundational values can thus explain other value claims and prescriptive
claims. But since all moral claims are either value or prescriptive claims, it fol-
lows that we should be able to explain all moral claims by appealing to some set of
foundational values. Putting this another way, we should be able to consolidate the
entire moral realm by showing how its claims can all be derived from certain foun-
dational values. Since there aren’t many foundational values, this should greatly
simplify the moral realm. This is what an ethical theory usually attempts to do—to
explain every claim of morality based upon just one or a few foundational values.

The moral realm could derive from a small foundation of values in either of
two ways.

• Appealing to foundational moral values: one way would derive all moral
claims from foundational moral values. one important instance of this ap-
proach is virtue ethics, which bases the moral realm upon a small set of foun-
dational moral values called virtues. A virtue is a good character trait, like
honesty or loyalty, that persons can have. Like any values, virtues in turn sup-
port prescriptive claims: if something is a virtue, then we ought to act in keep-
ing with it. Thus, the virtue of honesty supports the prescription, “A person
should tell the truth.” Loyalty, meanwhile, supports the claim that Gyges
should not have betrayed and murdered the king. In this way, virtues serve
as the foundational moral values upon which the rest of morality is based.

other ethical theories also appeal to foundational moral values for their bases.
There is an important drawback, however: because these theories start with moral
values as their base, they cannot explain everything that belongs within the moral
realm. In particular, they cannot explain the moral good of these foundational values
themselves. Leaving certain moral values unexplained can be somewhat unsatisfying.

• Appealing to foundational non-moral values: The alternative is to base the
moral realm upon one or more foundational non-moral value(s). This opens
the door to a wider range of bases since non-moral values can include
anything we might consider desirable. Further, grounding morality to some-
thing external to it allows everything in the moral realm to be explained—
even the most basic moral values. The drawback is that we might wonder
how values unrelated to morality could shed light on the nature of morality!

Several important moral traditions have nevertheless taken this approach.
To get a better sense of how this could work, let’s examine the tradition called
hedonism, which claims that there is just one foundational value: pleasure (or hap-
piness). Everything else has value only to the degree it derives its worth from this
value. All other values are thus merely instrumental. Furthermore, since pleasure
is valuable, it is our responsibility to maintain and promote this value in our own

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lives and in the lives of everyone else. We also ought to oppose whatever leads
to suffering, since suffering diminishes pleasure. Building on these general pre-
scriptive claims, hedonists attempt to derive—and so to explain—the entire moral
realm on the basis of the one non-moral value of pleasure.

hedonism has psychological appeal, for we all seek pleasure and happiness
while we strive to avoid pain. In addition, we clearly desire many things either
because they bring us pleasure or help us avoid pain. We eat because we enjoy it
and because it can become painful not to. We also eat to stay alive, which is obvi-
ously needed to enjoy any pleasures at all. We work perhaps because we enjoy our
work but also because it provides means to a comfortable rather than unpleasant
existence. We even undergo painful experiences (e.g., various medical treatments)
to avoid greater suffering later. People doing morally right things also commonly
promote overall pleasure or happiness, while wrongdoing often causes pain. It
thus seems a small step to infer that anything that promotes pleasure must be
morally right whereas anything that leads to pain is wrong.

* * *

There are many ingenious ways of explaining and basing the moral realm upon
foundational values—moral or non-moral. While each generates important theoret-
ical problems, each also has its distinctive merits, and each furnishes valuable ethical
insights. Much of the fascination and challenge of ethics arises from the attempt to
counter the problems while still benefiting from the insights each way has to offer.

For Discussion
1. Which approach do you think is better: basing the moral realm on foundational

moral values or on foundational non-moral values? Why?
2. Do you think that hedonism could adequately serve as a basis for an ethical

theory? Explain.

Instrumental values derive from and are explained by more foundational values. Pre-
scriptive claims can also be derived from and explained by foundational values. Thus,
we may be able to explain all moral claims by showing how they can be derived from
one or more foundational values. One way to do this is to ground morality upon moral
values, as virtue ethics does, though this doesn’t explain what makes these values
morally good. Another way grounds moral claims upon non-moral values, as hedo-
nism does, using the non-moral foundational value of pleasure. But we might wonder
how a non-moral value could be the basis for morality.

Key Terms

• Ethical theories: typically attempt to explain every claim of morality by just
one or a few foundational values.

• Hedonism: an ethical tradition that maintains that there is just one founda-
tional good: pleasure (or happiness).

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Chapter Assignment Questions
1. Describe some moral problems you have found yourself in. What did you do?
2. What do you hope to gain from your study of ethics? Where do you think it will

be most useful to you?
3. Plato argues that living a moral life is in a person’s best interests. Argue both for

and against this claim. Does this force you to rethink what our “best interests”
actually are?

4. §II maintains that “If everyone did what is right, the world would be a happier
place” is a descriptive claim. Explain in your own words why it is descriptive and
not normative.

5. Can you think of a situation in which obeying the law or acting prudently appar-
ently has priority over any moral obligation(s) relevant to that situation? If so, can
this be explained by appealing to some yet deeper moral claim?

6. Do you think that health is both a foundational and an instrumental value? How
about knowledge? Explain.

7. Suppose you value earning a good grade in a course. Trace the grade’s instrumen-
tal value all the way to some foundational value (e.g., happiness).

8. Aristotle suggested that the only foundational value is happiness. Does this seem true?
9. If you were constructing an ethical theory, what value(s) would you base your

theory upon?

Additional Resources
“Plato: Ethics—The ring of Gyges.” Great Philosophers. Accessed September 2, 2016.

Pojman, Louis P. and James Fieser. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. 6th ed. Belmont,
cA: Wadsworth Publishing company, 2008, chapter 4.

Schiffman, Kelley. “Intrinsic and Instrumental Values.” Khan Academy. Accessed September
2, 2016.
intrinsic-extrinsic-value. This video discusses the distinction between instrumental
and “intrinsic” values (which we call “foundational values”).

Schiffman, Kelley. “normative and descriptive claims.” Khan Academy. Accessed Sep-
tember 2, 2016.
thinking/v/normative-and-descriptive-claims. This video explains differences between
normative and descriptive statements.

Schroeder, Mark. “Value Theory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016
Edition), edited by Edward n. Zalta. Accessed September 2, 2016. http://plato.stan-

Taylor, richard. Good and Evil. Amherst, nY: Prometheus Books, 2000. The chapters
“Good and Evil” and “The common Good” provide a nice, nontechnical presentation
that parallels much of this chapter.

Traer, robert. “right and Good.” doing Ethics. copyright © 2007. Accessed September 2,
2016. This article discusses
the right versus the good.

“ucB Phil 160: ring of Gyres Presentation,”
4qjGp6TWqe4. This video is an illustrated telling of “The ring of Gyges,” with Lord of
the Rings overtones.

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Values Exercise
1. consider the following values. (a) Which are purely foundational, which

purely instrumental, and which are both? (b) Briefly explain what each value
means and identify its one or two (if more than one seems to apply) most ap-
propriate categories:

M: moral PRU: prudential E: etiquette L: legal O: other
For any value you label (o), try to explain the category you have in mind.



2. List the three values (not necessarily moral or from the list in question 1)
that you consider most important. What prescriptive claims does each value

3. honestly assess yourself: do you truly live by the values you’ve identified as
most important to you? Why or why not?

4. have you learned anything important about yourself from this values exercise?

Case 1

Breastfeeding in Public

Jessica, twenty-six, has just started back at college. Because her college offers great
child services during class times, she brings her six-month-old with her each class
day. One afternoon, as she sits in the cafeteria studying before her class, her baby
starts crying. After a quick glance at her watch, Jessica unbuttons her shirt, exposes
her breast, and begins to feed Joseph, who gurgles happily.

Two male students are sitting nearby. One notices Jessica and starts staring.
Laughing uncomfortably, he gestures toward her to his friend. Another woman
catches their reactions. “Leave her alone,” she tells the two guys. “Breastfeeding is


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totally natural and good for the baby.” One of the guys answers in Jessica’s hear-
ing, “Maybe so, but this is public. Must I put up with some woman showing her
breast in front of me while I’m trying to eat? That’s just more than I need to see. She
shouldn’t make the rest of us uncomfortable in a public cafeteria; she ought to go
somewhere private for that. Aren’t there any rules here?”


1. In most places in the united States women may legally breast feed in public. At
work, they are also supposed to be allowed adequate time to breast feed. What
do you think of these laws? Are they morally justified?

2. does Jessica have a natural moral right to breast feed wherever she needs to?
Are there any places where women should not do this?

3. Would you be uncomfortable if a woman started breast feeding in front of you?
do you think it is too private? What values come into play in this case? do you
think breast feeding in public is bad etiquette?

4. If you witnessed the two guys’ behavior, would you interfere? If so, whose side
would you take? What would you say and why?

5. In most Islamic countries, public breast feeding would be unthinkable. how
much do you think culture and religion influence people’s thinking and values
on this?

Case 2

The Real Price of Coffee

According to the National Coffee Association, half of all Americans drink coffee
every day.8 Young adults average 3.2 cups of coffee per day. Most of this coffee is
produced in developing nations, yet less than 10% of its annual yield goes back
to the farmers.9 Much of the rest ends up in the pockets of the companies that
process, package, and sell it, such as Kraft (Maxwell House), Proctor and Gamble
(Folgers), and Nestlé (Nescafé). The low return on their investment is devastating
for farmers in developing nations like Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, and Nicaragua,
among others, where poverty is widespread and coffee plantations are a critical
source of income. In Columbia, some coffee farmers have converted their farms to
opium farms, which bring them a better income.

The coffee industry’s practices don’t just hurt the farmers. Rather than using
the traditional method of growing coffee in shade, most coffee today is grown in
full sun to increase yield. This has brought on the destruction of tropical rainfor-
ests and a tremendous loss of biodiversity. According to Equator Coffee Roasters,

8“national coffee drinking Trends,” national coffee Association, accessed August 31, 2016, http://

9Brian c. howard, “Grounds for change,” E: The Environmental Magazine (november/december
2005): 26–37. Most of following information is taken from this article.

Case 1 (Continued)


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full-sun coffee production is “the second leading cause of rainforest destruction.”10
Furthermore, trees left for shade could provide additional income for coffee farm-
ers by producing fruit, avocados, and wood; the ground underneath the coffee
plants could also be used to grow vegetables and herbs.

Full-sun plantations also lack the natural fertilizers provided by plants and
the natural pest control provided by rainforest animals. Thus, the coffee plants
require chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These plantations are also prone to
flooding and erosion, both of which could be avoided if the coffee plants were
nestled between larger trees. Runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides pol-
lute the surrounding rivers. The chemicals also harm farm workers, who often
cannot read and so cannot follow the instructions for using the chemicals. Some-
times the workers don’t even have the protective gear needed to guard them
from chemical poisoning.

Birds are another casualty of the full-sun method. More than 150 bird species
thrive in the rainforest of a traditional coffee plantation—over twenty times the
number living on full-sun farms. Some species have declined by as much as 70%.

Many of these effects could be avoided if consumers would look for “eco-
labels,” which can inform them about the coffee they buy. Consumers should
particularly look for the label “organic,” which assures them that the coffee has
been shade grown with few if any pesticides. A New York advocacy group, the
Rainforest Alliance, also certifies coffee. It prohibits certain chemicals, requires
that water and biodiversity be protected, and ensures that farmers plant new
trees. One farmer says that following the Rainforest Alliance principles is “help-
ing him farm in balance with nature, and greatly improve worker productivity
and morale.”11 Consumers can also look for the fair-trade label, which guarantees
farmers a certain minimum price for their coffee; a portion of the profits is also
reinvested into their community.

According to the National Coffee Association, younger consumers are becom-
ing both more aware and more concerned about the sustainability of coffee pro-
duction. Yet, overall awareness of the ways it affects the world remains limited.


1. Is this a moral or economic issue? could it be both? What are some of the most
important values involved here? do you consider any of this case’s non-moral
values to be more important than its moral values? Why or why not?

2. does the fact that this issue involves international trade affect this case? how?
3. u.S. workers would never be allowed exposure to the kinds of risks these

foreign workers are exposed to. nor would any u.S. worker be paid so little.
Is such exposure and low pay nevertheless morally oK for workers of other

10Ibid., 30.
11Brian c. howard, “What do All Those Labels Mean?” E: The Environmental Magazine, (no-

vember/december 2005): 37.

Case 2 (Continued)

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4. To what degree should the rest of the world take action against farming prac-
tices like these, which can harm farmers, others in the area (e.g., by chemical
poisoning), and the environment? Formulate some moral claims supporting
your view.

Case 3

Jurassic Kitty: Should I Clone My Cat?

In the past twenty years, the idea of pet cloning has moved from “rare freak show”
to a fairly lucrative business venture. For about $50,000, you can get a copy cat, and
for $100,000, a copy dog.12

Aside from being profitable, is kitty cloning ethical? Let’s first look at what clon-
ing actually is. A “clone” is a genetic copy of a living organism. We routinely clone
plants when we cut off a shoot from one to grow another. But that method doesn’t
work for animals. Instead, scientists create a genetically identical twin by transfer-
ring a cell nucleus from the body of one animal into the egg of another, a process
called “nuclear transfer.”13 The resulting embryo is implanted into the womb of a
host animal, which will, with luck, carry the clone to term. Beginning with Dolly the
sheep in 1996, sixteen different mammalian species have been cloned so far, but
science is far from even attempting to clone a human being.

The idea of cloning a departed pet should perhaps give one pause. Isn’t a pet
supposed to be irreplaceable, special, one of a kind? As it turns out, that remains
the case even when cloning is done: only 99.8% of the animal’s DNA is reproduced
in the cloning process—the rest comes from the host egg. Given that the genetic
difference between us and a chimpanzee amounts to less than 1%, the 0.2% ge-
netic difference between a cat and its copycat could still be significant. Also, the
copycat would gestate in a different kitty womb, thus introducing additional dis-
similarities; the surrogate mom’s health and nutrition can also affect the clone’s
coat pattern. Finally, the copycat would grow up in a different environment, pos-
sibly also making its personality different.

Adding it all up, the copycat and the original probably wouldn’t be so much
alike after all. Further, the cloning process is fraught with technical difficulties:
fewer than 10% of the implanted eggs result in live births, and many clones die
shortly afterward. Clones that survive can have genetic abnormalities. Mean-
while, there are thousands and thousands of animals in shelters waiting to go to
a good home.

Although there clearly are more constructive ways to spend $50,000, there’s
another and more serious implication of animal cloning. As biodiversity steadily de-
creases because of our irreverent—and sometimes downright ruthless— expansion
of our human habitat, some scientists see cloning as a way to preserve endangered
species. In line with this, the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species

12david Warmflash, “Miss Your deceased dog? Pet cloning dips Below $100,000,” Genetic
Literacy Project, August 21, 2015, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www.geneticliteracyproject.

13For further reading on the science of cloning and its difficulties, see Jose cibelli, “A decade of
cloning Mystique,” Science Magazine (May 18, 2007).


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cloned a small African wildcat called Ditteaux (faux French for “ditto”) in 2003.
Thinking on a much larger scale, Japanese scientists are working to resurrect the
long-extinct woolly mammoth—so far without success. The San Diego gene bank
has frozen samples of over 450 different animal species. One day, this “Frozen Zoo,”
as it’s sometimes called, may be the last best hope for those species’ preservation.


1. What moral and non-moral values seem relevant to this case? Which of these
are most important?

2. What moral and non-moral prescriptive claims seem relevant to this case?
Which of this case’s facts (which descriptive claims) are most relevant to decid-
ing whether pet cloning is ethical or not?

3. What moral and non-moral values apply to cloning endangered species but
not pets? how important is the value of biodiversity? Is it important enough to
make this sort of cloning morally acceptable or even our moral duty?

4. We don’t know what effects our resurrecting an extinct species would have on
existing species. For example, what might happen if we resurrected an extinct
insect species that has no natural predator today? What problems do such con-
cerns suggest for our trying to restore extinct species?

5. What issues are raised by the idea of cloning a human being?

Case 4

Sex Selection

It isn’t science fiction any longer, and it’s already practiced in the United States
and many other countries: you can now select your child’s sex. How does it work?
The most common technique is preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD in-
volves genetic screening of embryos (a technique originally developed to screen
for genetic diseases). The embryos are created via in vitro fertilization (IVF), and
only the embryos of the “desired” sex are implanted in the uterus. The remaining
embryos may then be destroyed.

Clinics that currently offer sex selection advertise it as a way of “family balanc-
ing.” If a family already has a child of one sex, they can deliberately choose to have
a child of the opposite sex to “balance” out their family. For instance, Sharla and
Shane Miller of Gillette, Wyoming, already had three boys: Anthony, Ashton, and
Alec. Both grew up in families having more boys than girls. They initially looked
into adopting a girl but then found a Web site that mentioned PGD. For $18,000, the
chances of getting a girl were almost 100%. They opted for the procedure, and in
November 2003 Sharla was implanted with two female embryos (identical twins).14
CBS News reported that twin girls were born in July of 2004. Both were healthy.

14claudia Kalb et al., “Science: Brave new Babies,” Newsweek, February 2, 2004.

Case 3 (Continued)


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One worry often raised about sex selection is that its widespread use could
create the opposite of balance: too many boys or too many girls, depending on
existing cultural preferences. The University of Illinois at Chicago released the re-
sults of a survey in 2005 that appear to counter this worry. The survey, adminis-
tered to 561 women being treated for infertility, showed that if sex selection were
free, 41% of these women would take advantage of it. More important, the study
showed that parents without children did not prefer one sex over the other.15

However, the study was carried out with a fairly small set of United States
women (presumably all from the Chicago area), so we shouldn’t generalize too
much from these results. In particular, the results are not likely to carry over to
women in countries where there is a strong cultural preference for one sex.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal says that we can expect 10% to
20% more adult males in the next twenty years in China and India due to the ex-
cessive use of sex selection.16 This bias is because a family must either provide
an expensive dowry for their daughters or provide continued support for those
who remain unmarried and stay with their families. Currently, the most prevalent
method for sex selection is the already disconcerting practice of selective abor-
tion. On the other hand, as PGD becomes more available and less expensive, it may
only add to the gender imbalance in these countries and the world.


1. List some reasons a couple might have for choosing their next child’s sex, con-
sidering parents in both the united States and in other countries (e.g., china or
India). What value and prescriptive claims seem to be most relevant to people
making such choices?

2. do you think that parents who would like to choose the gender of their child
are motivated by appropriate or inappropriate values?

3. Which of the relevant values are moral values and which are non-moral? Which
are foundational, and which are instrumental?

4. Suppose a family maintains that they can’t afford the dowry for a daughter, and
so, for their own welfare, they must select for a male child. What do you think
of this argument?

5. do you think that it was morally oK for the Millers to choose the sex of their
twins? What are your reasons?

15Among other places, this information is available at Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez, “Sex Selec-
tion Popular Among Infertile Women,” Medical News Today, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www

16“The Impact of Sex Selection in china, India and South Korea,” ScienceDaily, March 15, 2011,
accessed August 31, 2016,

Case 4 (Continued)


bur64509_ch02_025-045.indd 25 05/13/17 07:19 AM


Moral Relativism


“No, Madame may not drive this way,” explained the officer who, with the nicest
smile, had just waived them to a stop. Alison looked at her husband, Dave, sit-
ting beside her in the car, who just shrugged. They had recently arrived in this
town for the next leg of their tour of the world’s more exotic spots. “But you just
let another car go by you a minute before,” Alison said, turning back to the po-
liceman. “Don’t much speak English,” the policeman said, “but cannot drive this
road.” Dave and Alison stared at the man, who was smiling still more broadly than
before. “I cannot let drive. I sometimes only let officials.” Dave continued staring
for a moment and suddenly gave Alison a knowing look. Pulling out his passport,
he placed a five pound note on top. “Oh, then, it’s OK,” he said to the officer, “we
are visiting officials. Here, see my papers.” Reaching in front of Alison and over
to the window, he carelessly dropped the money out the window while holding
open his passport. The policeman swiftly caught the fluttering money, pocketed
it, and glanced for a moment at the passport. Then, still smiling, he stepped back
and waved. “Good, Madame. You are official. You have right this way,” he said, not
giving them a further glance. Alison drove a mile and then shot a curious look at
her husband. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” he said, forcing a little laugh.
“And just how much do you think we should act like Romans, anyhow?” Alison
retorted. “Live and let live,” Dave muttered. “Let’s just forget about it.” “But I don’t
like that sort of thing, and I hate to waste the money,” Alison said, more heatedly
than she intended. As an afterthought, she added, “You know, Dave, men in this
culture may have several wives. I wouldn’t be surprised if that policeman has a
couple. And I didn’t care for the way he looked at me. I hope you won’t tell me that
polygamy’s OK too!” Trying to laugh it off, Dave commented “Well, my dear, it has
its attractions.” “That,” Alison spat out as she floored the accelerator, “is not funny.”

* * *

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People don’t always live by the same moral principles. When we compare soci-
eties, we find a range of moral beliefs and practices. In Alison and Dave’s situation,
perhaps the officer’s action was in keeping with his society’s customs. If so, could
that make bribery morally right in his society? If bribery can be morally right in
some societies, then why do so many—like this friendly policeman—still avoid
any open acknowledgement of the practice? And what about polygamy? Although
monogamous marriage is the law in most western countries, polygamy has been
the practice of much of the world for thousands of years. But which is right—
monogamous or polygamous marriage? Does this question even make sense, or is
morality simply a matter of what most people in a society accept?

For Discussion
1. Even if this officer’s society accepts bribery, suppose Dave’s does not. Does this

make it morally right or wrong for Dave to bribe the man?
2. Which is morally better: monogamy or polygamy? Is this just your society’s view,

or can you provide reasons for your position?
3. The text asks why bribes are seldom acknowledged even in places they are widely

used. How do you answer this?


Our everyday use of moral principles (e.g., “Keep your promises,” “Do not kill”)
strongly suggests that we take them to hold for everyone—that they are universal.
In fact, the very notion of a moral principle is that it holds in general. It further
seems that the same moral standard (see Chapter One, §III)—consisting of all that
determines moral good or bad, right or wrong—must hold for everyone. Never-
theless, this view—moral objectivism—has been challenged by an influential alter-
native called moral relativism. There are two types of relativism that many people
identify with today: popular relativism and subjective relativism (more simply,
relativism and subjectivism, with both being opposed to objectivism).1 Let’s start
with some definitions of each.

• Objectivism: There is only one universal moral standard.2 That standard—
based on objective moral facts—consists of moral values and principles that
hold universally: for all people and all societies.

• (Popular) Relativism: There can be different moral standards for differ-
ent societies. Each standard—based on that society’s moral beliefs and
practices—consists of moral values and principles that hold for all mem-
bers of that particular society.

1There are much more sophisticated versions of relativism, which lie beyond the scope of this text
(but see section VII). We will limit ourselves mainly to these two popular versions.

2Objectivism in ethics, and as we will use this term, is not related to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of

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• Subjectivism: There can be different moral standards for different persons.
Each standard—based on that person’s moral beliefs and practices at a
given time—consists of the moral values and principles that hold for that
person at that time.

It’s important to understand what each of these views is about. None of them is
talking about principles from other normative realms (e.g., from law or etiquette,
which unquestionably vary across societies). Rather, each is talking exclusively
about moral principles and values. Nor are any of them concerned with the rich
diversity in the institutions, dress, religious beliefs, and non-normative values that
distinguish various cultural traditions. Next, these three views are completely dis-
tinct: each rules out the others. Finally, these views are meta-ethical: none takes
any stand on what actually is right or wrong (e.g., on the morality of lying or po-
lygamy) but are about ethics itself.3

Let’s start with objectivism, the claim that there is only one valid moral
standard that holds for all human beings. Differences between cultures make no
difference to the moral principles and values people ought to live by. Even if a
society’s moral beliefs and practices are not the same as those of other societ-
ies, the same moral values, rights, and obligations hold for them as for everyone
else. There is one universal moral standard, regardless of what anyone believes
or practices.

Objectivism does not mean that people must all act exactly the same way no
matter what the circumstances are at the time. Given objectivism, the very same
moral principles can lead to different obligations in different situations. For in-
stance, suppose that the objective moral standard entails that lying is wrong and
that human life has great moral value. It would follow that everyone normally has a
duty to tell the truth and avoid harming others. But in a situation where telling the
truth would lead to someone’s death, objectivism could require that we lie rather
than risk someone’s life. Objectivism is binding upon all but need not be morally
rigid—it can still adjust to circumstances.

Next, what is relativism? Popular moral relativism denies the universality of
moral standards. Instead, it maintains that there can be different but equally valid
moral standards for different cultures or social groups. It does insist, however, that
all who belong to a given group are bound to their group’s moral standard whether
or not they agree with its values and principles. What actually is right for everyone
in that society is what the majority of that society accepts as right.

Subjectivism, finally, takes relativism even further, maintaining that there can
be different but equally valid moral standards for different persons even within
the same society. Thus, there’s no guarantee that the moral standards for any
two people will match, nor is there any guarantee that a person’s present moral

3The choice between these three options must be made before we can do ethics, since two of these
views make much of ethics nearly impossible.

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principles will be the same a year from now. Subjectivism makes moral standards
entirely dependent on each individual (a subject) at any given time.

What do you think of these alternatives? Again, only one can be correct since
each rules out the other. Interestingly, even people who think of themselves as rela-
tivists or subjectivists still commonly adopt objectivism as their perspective when
a moral issue affects them. Our task now is to determine—on rational grounds—
which of these views is most plausible.

For Discussion
1. How much are your moral beliefs the products of your culture and society? Which

ones are?
2. Do you disagree with any particular moral belief or practice that is widely ac-

cepted by your society?

There are three important views regarding moral standards: (a) There is only one uni-
versal objective moral standard that holds for all (objectivism); (b) there can be differ-
ent moral standards for different societies, depending on each society’s moral beliefs
and practices (relativism); or (c) there can be different moral standards for different
persons, depending on each person’s own moral beliefs and practices (subjectivism).
Only one of these views can be correct, but one must be.

Key Terms

• Moral standard: consists of all moral principles and values that dictate what is
morally good or bad, right or wrong.

• Objectivism: maintains that there can only be one universal moral standard.

• Relativism: maintains that there can be different moral standards for different

• Subjectivism: maintains that there can be different moral standards for dif-
ferent persons.


People often talk as though morality is a personal matter that depends solely on
our own personal views. People often do have different beliefs and opinions about
moral issues. It may even be that a person can feel so strongly about something
being wrong that this actually makes it wrong for that person. For instance, some
are persuaded that drinking is morally wrong. Because drinking violates that per-
son’s conscience, it may be wrong for that person to drink, although it might not
be wrong for anyone else. For those with sensitive consciences, the requirements
of morality could be more stringent than for others.

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Still, it doesn’t follow that just any moral principle can vary from one person
to another. For one thing, mere differences of opinion cannot show that moral
principles themselves also vary between people. Some people’s opinions might
simply be mistaken. Further, could it really be wrong for me to lie or commit
murder but not for you?

To appreciate the implications of subjectivism, imagine that you have been
standing in line at the theater. Suddenly, a strange man steps into the line right in
front of you. How would you react? You would certainly object—telling him that
he has no right to cut in front of so many people and that he should go to the end of
the line. You might add that it’s not fair for him to cut in line when no one else has.

Note a few things about this very natural reaction. First, you are making moral
claims here about fairness, rights, and what this man ought to do. In making these
claims, you imply that the same obligations or rights hold for him no less than
for everybody else. Moreover, you seem to assume that he—along with everyone
else—already knows these things. All of this is part of the intuition that the same
moral principles hold for everyone.

The man now makes an extraordinary reply: “I’m sorry,” he says politely, “for
I see that the fairness and rights you have just appealed to must hold for you. Per-
haps they hold for other people here as well. You have my sincere sympathy, for
I can imagine how inconvenient these principles of yours must be—I bet you’ve
been standing here for some time, right? What you must understand, however, is
that these principles don’t happen to hold for me. Each of us is bound by our own
set of moral principles, you know. You have a principle of fairness; fortunately
for me, I do not. Please don’t misunderstand; I always do my best to live an up-
right and moral life, and if fairness were one of my principles, I wouldn’t dream
of cutting in front of you! However, it’s not one of my principles, and so I am per-
fectly within my rights to cut in front of you. As you probably didn’t realize this
when you started complaining, I assure you that I take no offense. I hope we’ve
now cleared up this little misunderstanding. By the way, can you step back a little?
You’re crowding me.”

This is the speech of a subjectivist. Would you stand for it? None of us really
believes for a moment that this argument has any legitimacy.

There’s a deeper reason for rejecting subjectivism. Since it insists that each
person can have a different moral standard, you can never assume that any moral
principle that holds for you also holds for others. This would work against one
of morality’s primary functions—to regulate how individuals relate to each other.
How could morality fulfill this function if different principles held for different
persons? People stand in lines because they accept the same principles of fairness.
Eliminate that shared acceptance and you will instead find mobs and fights at the
theaters! More important, without that shared acceptance, the value of fairness
itself loses meaning, just as a dollar bill could no longer stand for anything if its
value were to change from person to person. This is what subjectivism does to
moral principles. Instead of giving us a different version of morality, it gives us
something very close to no morality at all.

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What about differences in personal conscience? Many would agree that if
drinking a beer would violate someone’s conscience, then it would be wrong for
that person to drink a beer. But it’s also tempting to say that if drinking a beer isn’t
really wrong for people in general, then it isn’t really wrong even for that person.
The wrong arises, not because he drinks a beer, but because he violates his con-
science. In any case, we don’t need subjectivism to handle matters of moral con-
science. Both objectivism and relativism can also acknowledge the moral impact of
conscience. Specifically, each could include the moral principle: “When a person
feels strongly that some kind of act is morally wrong, then that person commits a
moral wrong by acting that way.” If this way of handling conscience is satisfactory,
then there’s no good reason to accept subjectivism.

For Discussion
1. Do you think that if someone strongly feels something is wrong as a matter of

conscience, then it is wrong for them? Explain.
2. Does the way you’d react to the man cutting in front of you show that you don’t

really accept subjectivism? How?

Subjectivism can create conflicts with our strongest moral intuitions (e.g., the fairness
of standing in lines). Worse, subjectivism effectively negates one of morality’s most im-
portant functions. Although differences in conscience might seem to support subjec-
tivism, these can be accommodated by both relativism and objectivism. Subjectivism
does not look like an acceptable account of morality.


Let’s now turn to relativism. The following argument captures much of what per-
suades many people to favor relativism.

1. Different societies exhibit differences in particular moral beliefs and practices.
2. The moral standard that holds for a society is determined by the moral beliefs

and practices most widely accepted in that society.
Thus: Different moral standards hold for different societies; that is, relativism
is true.

Looking at the first premise, it seems undeniable that societies sometimes be-
lieve different things to be morally right or wrong. One famous story compares the
ancient Callatian practice of cannibalizing their dead with the Greek preference
for cremation. Although both societies were comfortable with their own practices,
each found the other’s practice utterly repugnant. Within our own society, there
are vehement disagreements about abortion. We also see that while some cultures

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practice polygamy, others consider it immoral. Given these differences in what
people think is right or wrong, mustn’t we conclude that moral principles vary
across social groups?

Although societies’ particular moral beliefs and practices often differ, it’s not
so clear that they always differ over the underlying moral principles they accept.
The disagreement about funeral practices, for instance, can be explained by ap-
pealing to differing beliefs about death. The Callatians apparently believed that
ingesting the dead person’s flesh allows the deceased a continuing life in the living
person.4 Given such a belief, cannibalism certainly does serve as a powerful ex-
pression of caring for the dead. The Greeks apparently held that only cremation
could keep the body from suffering corruption; they also may have viewed “living”
fire as the most fitting way to release the spirit from the dead body. Given these
beliefs, cremation likewise appears to be a reasonable way to show respect for the
dead. While the Greeks and Callatians differed regarding the descriptive claims
they accepted about death (see Chapter One, §II), they both agreed to the same
underlying moral principle: we ought to honor the dead. Their apparent moral
disagreement thus turns out to be over their beliefs about death, not over moral

What about our society’s division over abortion? Even here, there is more agree-
ment over fundamental moral issues than first appears. Very few “ pro-choicers”
would accept the killing of an innocent human being, for instance. Nor would
many “pro-lifers” dismiss the right to control (usually) our own bodies. Given
this widespread acceptance of both principles, what’s the dividing issue? The dif-
ferences, once again, are usually over how people answer questions like “When
do human beings first come into existence?” or “Is the fetus part of the woman’s
body?” Although people’s answers have extremely important moral implications,
they are not, in themselves, actual disagreements over any moral principles.5

It is thus a mistake to conclude that different moral principles must hold
simply because societies differ in their moral practices and beliefs. Accepting dif-
ferent descriptive claims of how the world is can lead to very different moral con-
clusions about what is right, even when we start with the same moral principles.
Cultural history strongly indicates that peoples of very different races, languages,
and cultures (e.g., compare ancient China with present-day America) have still
been amazingly alike in their moral beliefs.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that sometimes there are actual differences
over moral principles. Polygamists differ from monogamists over at least one of the
moral principles defining marriage. Let’s grant Premise 1, therefore, with the un-
derstanding that differences over moral principles are not necessarily widespread.

4Joseph Rickaby, S.J., Moral Philosophy: Ethics, Deontology and Natural Law (London: Longmans,
Green & Co., 1918), accessed August 31, 2016,
moral108.htm, ch. 8, sect. 2.

5An exception is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s qualification of the principle regarding letting an in-
nocent person die, illustrated by her violin player thought experiment. See Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A
Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1.1 (Fall 1971).

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Does this make relativism true? Not yet, because so far we only have differ-
ences in what societies accept. Relativism makes the stronger claim that there can
be moral differences in what actually holds for different societies. What people
accept and what actually holds can be very different! To establish relativism, there-
fore, we must proceed to Premise 2 and show that what holds for a society is deter-
mined by the beliefs and practices of that society.

What is curious about Premise 2 is that what holds in the world normally does
not depend on what people accept or believe. In fact, what we normally want is ex-
actly the opposite—for our beliefs to depend on what holds true about the world.
Consider the following argument.6

1. Different societies have accepted different views about the earth’s shape
(e.g., that it is flat or that it is round).

2. The actual shape of the earth for a given society is determined by the view
about the earth that is most widely accepted in that society.
Thus: The earth has different shapes for different societies; its shape is relative.

This would mean that the earth actually was flat for medieval Europeans; if
they sailed too far, they would have fallen off the edge. But this is absurd; it’s ob-
vious that people’s beliefs about the earth cannot determine what actually holds
true about the earth. More generally, even widespread acceptance does not ensure
truth, and claims like Premise 2 (going back to the moral argument) are usually
not true. Unless a relativist can provide some special reason for thinking Premise 2
is true in the case of morality, we have no reason to accept moral relativism as true.

Pressing a little further, if the widespread acceptance of a moral principle
could make it true, then we’d be driven to the surprising conclusion that no soci-
ety’s majority could ever be mistaken about anything moral. Since the majority de-
termines what is moral, the majority has moral infallibility!7 But we know societies
can make mistakes about all sorts of matters, including morals. One such moral
error was America’s widespread acceptance of slavery less than two centuries ago.

We thus have reason to reject Premise 2 of the relativist argument, which in
turn undermines the argument itself. However, this only shows that we have no
compelling reasons in support of relativism. This doesn’t prove it false. Thus, we
must next turn to arguments that have been advanced against relativism.

For Discussion
1. Suppose an ideological/religious group of terrorists believe that they should kill

anyone belonging to an “inferior” ethnic group. Is this an instance of a genuine
relativistic moral principle? Why or why not?

6This comparison is also made by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Phi-
losophy, 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw–Hill Higher Education, 2009), section 2.3

7This point is made by Rachels and Rachels, Moral Philosophy.

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2. If different societies do have different moral beliefs and practices, why doesn’t it
follow that different moral standards hold for each?

3. If you don’t think the flat earth argument is a good analogy to relativism, why
not? What is the actual point being made by this analogy?

Those attracted to moral relativism often maintain that different societies have differ-
ent moral beliefs and practices. But these differences often derive from differences in
how people view the world rather than from different moral principles. Furthermore,
even if we grant that societies do accept different moral principles, it doesn’t follow
that different moral principles hold for these societies. Thus, we have no good reason
at this point for accepting relativism.


There are several arguments against relativism. Those we will examine all employ
the same strategy. Each begins with the supposition that relativism is true. Each
then shows how something unacceptable follows from that supposition. Because
relativism leads us to something unacceptable, it then concludes that the cause of
this result is relativism. In short, each argument indicates that we should reject
relativism because our accepting it would commit us to something unacceptable.
Here are four important arguments against relativism.

1. Making anything right: In keeping with the strategy just described, we look at
what would follow if relativism were true—if a society’s actual moral standard were
determined by that society’s beliefs and practices. Consider southern America in the
early nineteenth century. That society had a distinctive culture with its own char-
acteristic beliefs, values, and practices, including slavery. Now, if relativism is true,
then the widespread acceptance of slavery was morally right for that society. This
isn’t simply saying that they believed in it; it’s saying that the institution of slavery
was morally acceptable according to the moral standard that held for them. But how
can we grant that the enslavement, exploitation, abuse, and even murder of people
of one particular race could ever have been morally right? This flies in the face of our
deepest, clearest, and most widely held moral intuitions. There are matters in moral-
ity we might be mistaken about but surely not about slavery being wrong. Since this
is the case, we shouldn’t abandon such a strong moral intuition for the sake of some
theory. Rather, we should reject that theory—relativism. Since relativism allows for
slavery to have been morally right, there must be something wrong with relativism.

Tragically, there are many more examples of a similar nature. For instance,
some cultures considered it morally acceptable for families to abandon infant girls
to their deaths, since marrying a daughter was costly and a girl couldn’t help support
the family like a boy could. Then there’s the long history of genocides up through
the present day, including the Nazi murder of Jews, Gypsies, and mentally disabled.

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Assuming that we react to these examples with moral dismay, that gives us
reason to reject relativism, which must approve such practices as being morally
right for those cultures and societies. Nevertheless, the problem here is not just
that relativism must approve of certain practices that we find horrific. The bigger
problem is that relativism opens the door to any practice being morally right—
human sacrifice, torture, child prostitution, or whatever. All that’s needed is for
a practice to be widely accepted within some society. But this is something we
clearly cannot accept. If there’s a morality at all, then it cannot be that absolutely
anything could count as morally right. Thus, relativism must not be correct.

2. Moral Reformers: Of course, not everyone in these cultural groups has sup-
ported slavery, infanticide, genocide, and the like. There have always been some
who’ve actively opposed their society’s immoral practices. Abolitionists like Wil-
liam Lloyd Garrison denounced American slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr.
fought segregation. Such people are moral reformers—people who oppose, on
moral grounds, some of their society’s beliefs and practices. Rather than approv-
ing of such moral visionaries, however, relativism condemns them. For relativism,
after all, the moral right depends on the majority view of a society. Since reformers
oppose the majority view, relativism must judge them to be in the wrong. Many of
the people we most admire—Martin Luther King Jr., Confucius, Jesus, Socrates,
and others—should therefore be placed among history’s morally worst people,
given relativism. Surely this is unacceptable.

3. Moral Progress: Moral reformers call upon a society to change its beliefs
and practices—to make moral progress. “Making progress” means moving closer
toward what the relevant standard says is best. But first, the possibility of moral
progress requires that there be some objective moral standard toward which a so-
ciety can progress. This is exactly what relativism denies. Second, relativism says
that a society’s moral standard is what that society believes and practices. Thus,
changing these things can never count as progress for that would be to abandon
the very practices required by that society’s moral standard.

Relativism precludes the very idea of a society making moral progress: the
notion simply makes no sense.8 But this can’t be right: it’s not unintelligible to say
that our society has made moral progress by coming to oppose racial discrimina-
tion. Even if a KKK member, say, refuses to call this progress, she must still grant
that the claim makes sense so she can argue against it. Since it does make sense to
speak of a society making moral progress by becoming fairer, more just, or morally
better, relativism is mistaken.

4. Social Groups: Relativism says that your morality is that of the social group you
belong to. Which social group, then, determines your moral standard? If you were
an eighteenth-century Yavapai brave living in what is now Arizona, that question
would be easy to answer. But you are not, and this question is vastly more difficult to

8One could make sense of a part of society “making progress” by coming closer to what the ma-
jority of that society already accepts. But this is not what we mean in talking about a society making
moral progress

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answer in our twenty-first-century society. Although the Yavapai no doubt shared
a well-defined set of moral beliefs and practices, it’s no longer true that any single
set of beliefs or practices neatly characterizes our whole society today. Imagine an
American citizen who is a card-carrying union member as well as the child of Cath-
olic parents who came into New York twenty years ago from Mozambique. What
social group does this person belong to? Arguably, she is Catholic: does that put
her under the moral standard of the world’s Catholics? Or should it be just that of
American Catholics? Being a labor union member, she may well be a Democrat: is
that her morality-determining social group instead? Suppose this person also pre-
serves many of the values and practices of her Maravi ancestors. Does this make her
moral standard that of the Maravis? What if Maravi moral values and beliefs conflict
with those of most other twenty-first-century Americans or with Catholicism?

It’s quite common for a person today to belong to several distinct social/cul-
tural groups, each group being distinguished by different values, beliefs, and prac-
tices. Which social group defines that person’s morality? There’s no good reason to
pick one group over any of the others. Since this is true of most people in modern
societies, relativism can’t assign any definite standard to most people. Either no
moral standard holds for them or several distinct standards (which may conflict)
must all hold at once. Another possibility is that the Maravi–female–Catholic–
union member counts as a subgroup consisting of herself. But this solution turns
relativism into subjectivism, which we have already rejected. In sum, if relativism
were true, then the moral standards for many people in today’s complex world
would be undetermined. This provides yet another reason for rejecting relativism.

For Discussion
1. Name some of today’s moral reformers, or describe where you think our society is

either making moral progress or is morally regressing.
2. What practice(s) in your society would you want to reform?
3. What distinct social groups do you identify with? Do these groups differ in any

moral beliefs and practices?

There are several serious objections to relativism. First, relativism can allow any im-
moral practice—like slavery, discrimination, and genocide—to qualify as morally
right. Second, it counts history’s greatest moral reformers among the worst people who
have ever lived. Third, relativism can make no sense of moral progress. Fourth, relativ-
ism seems unable to determine what moral standard holds for most people in today’s
complex societies.

Key Terms

• Moral reformers: persons who, on moral grounds, work to change some of
their own society’s accepted beliefs and practices.

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One more argument—intended to support relativism—needs to be considered.
We will call this the argument from tolerance. This intriguing argument maintains
not merely that relativism is true, but that we are morally bound to accept it.

Again, relativism asserts that each society can have its own unique moral stan-
dard since there is no universal standard. No particular standard can be viewed
as better or worse, morally speaking, than any other. It follows that no society’s
moral standard can be judged by any other society’s standard. But this, relativists
say, is the essence of tolerance—the moral value that obligates us to respect the
moral beliefs and practices of other people regardless of how we feel about them.
Since relativism rules out the possibility of judging any moral standard, it arguably
supports tolerance. Since objectivism does not rule our judging particular moral
standards (any can be evaluated by the one objective standard), objectivism appar-
ently conflicts with tolerance. Since tolerance is so important, we ought to accept
relativism rather than objectivism:

1. The important moral value of tolerance requires that we respect the beliefs and
practices of other societies.

2. Relativism rules out the possibility of judging any particular society’s standard
to be better or worse than others; objectivism allows for this.

3. Judging a group’s moral beliefs and practices is not compatible with respecting
their beliefs and practices.
Thus: we must accept relativism and reject objectivism.

How compelling is this argument? To start, Premise 2 is made true by the mean-
ings of relativism and objectivism. We may also agree with the relativist’s claim, in
Premise 1, that tolerance is morally important. This is not to say that only toler-
ance is important or that it is the most important moral value. It simply is of great
moral importance.

Finally, Premise 3 attempts to specify the sorts of behavior tolerance requires.
It is certainly true that in respecting other peoples we must tolerate their cultures,
beliefs, and practices. We may not attempt to destroy a society or its culture simply
because it’s different. But does it follow that no one should even disagree with
another society’s views or offer them reasons for thinking that different beliefs
or practices are more defensible? No. In fact, engaging people in reasoned moral
dialogue is one important way to show respect toward them. Imagine leaving a
primitive tribesman ignorant about the dangers of drinking contaminated water.
This doesn’t show him respect; instead, it disrespects his value as a person, unnec-
essarily abandoning him to sickness or death. But the same can be said regarding
a society’s harmful moral beliefs and practices.9 Tolerance is not compatible with

9For instance, consider harms caused by a society that sees no need to help an injured child, that
finds nothing wrong with a sexual assault, or that practices discrimination.

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an effort to annihilate another society, but it is perfectly compatible with criticism
and reasoned arguments that support moral judgments. These considerations un-
dermine the argument’s claim in Premise 3. But Premise 3 is essential to the argu-
ment successfully supporting relativism.

The argument from tolerance is, therefore, unsound. But there is an even
clearer objection. We can get at it in either of two ways. First, consider how we un-
derstand the principle of tolerance. We take it for granted that tolerance extends to
all persons—that everyone should be tolerant and respectful toward others. After
all, if tolerance did not ensure equal respect for all, then there would be little point
to championing tolerance. But this amounts to treating tolerance as an objective
moral value, holding universally. Since relativism rejects objectivism, relativism
precludes exactly what we want—a universal value of tolerance.

The same point can be made another way. Given relativism, a society’s stan-
dard depends on what its people accept. Because our society widely accepts toler-
ance, we are bound to act in tolerance. But what holds for one society need not
hold for others. In fact, there’s no guarantee (given relativism) that tolerance will
be a moral obligation elsewhere. Suppose that there’s a social group whose people
are strongly committed to intolerance, who consider it their moral obligation to
do everything possible to destroy individuals or peoples with whom they disagree.
Relativism, given its own position, must then acknowledge the moral legitimacy
of these people’s intolerance no less that it acknowledges tolerance in other groups.
But this shows that relativism is just as capable of supporting intolerance as it is of
supporting tolerance.

Clearly, then, relativism is no special friend of tolerance. But what about
objectivism—doesn’t that still conflict with tolerance, as the relativist has sug-
gested? It seems not. For one thing, objectivism gives no society a license to carry
out acts of moral imperialism upon another society. In fact, given that tolerance
is objective, such acts would be forbidden by tolerance. Further, objectivism says
nothing about our particular beliefs and practices being the right ones. Objectiv-
ism offers nothing to support the moral conceit that we—or any other particular
society—have exclusive access to the true moral standard. Finally, we have seen
that we must accept objectivism if we want to treat tolerance as a universal value.
Ironically, then, the relativist’s argument from tolerance turns on its head. We
must accept objectivism to support tolerance; we must reject relativism because
it undercuts tolerance.

For Discussion
1. What does tolerance mean to you? Do you agree with the text’s discussion of toler-

ance and its limitations?
2. Suppose your neighbor often locks his young child in a closet and then leaves the

house for hours at a time. How tolerant should you be about this? Explain.
3. The Hindu practice of suttee—burning the widow to death on the funeral pyre of

her deceased husband—began to be banned by Europeans in the early nineteenth
century. Was this ban an act of intolerance by the Europeans?

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Moral relativism—at least the popular version—has a great deal against it. While
this version is unacceptable, more sophisticated versions of relativism do not so
readily fall prey to the previous objections. One such version is David Wong’s
“pluralistic relativism.”10

Wong’s view grants that while there can be different valid moral standards for
different societies, it’s still not possible for just anything to be morally right. Every
valid standard must include the same core of objective moral requirements—
requirements, for instance, that rule out torturing someone merely on a whim. Al-
though this moral core must be part of every moral standard (the objective part),
that core alone can never provide a completely adequate moral standard. Any
society’s standard must also add certain less crucial moral claims reflecting the
particular moral practices and institutions of that society (the relative part). Thus,
there can be many equally valid or legitimate moral standards, all sharing the same
objective core, but differing in other respects. How great can these differences
be? Wong thinks that although moral standards probably all share most of their
foundational moral values, they often differ in how they prioritize those values.
For instance, one society might give greater value to kindness than to honesty; a
second society might reverse these priorities. The former society would probably
treat lying with greater leniency than the latter.

Wong’s limited relativism certainly deserves consideration. Yet we might still
ask if we need even this milder form of relativism to accommodate the differences
Wong is concerned about. We have already seen how personal differences in con-
science might be brought under objectivism simply by adding an objective prin-
ciple that people should not violate their own consciences. Paralleling this, could
objectivism grant each society its own distinctive “social conscience” and then add

10David B. Wong, Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 2006); David B. Wong, Moral Relativity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

It may initially seem that relativism supports the principle of tolerance because it for-
bids one social group to judge the moral standard of another. However, the principle of
tolerance is usually understood as holding universally, which is not allowed by relativ-
ism. Further, relativism supports intolerance just as readily as tolerance. Genuine sup-
port for tolerance can be found only in objectivism.

Key Terms

• Tolerance: requires that we respect the moral beliefs and practices of others but
doesn’t preclude rational disagreement or even taking action in certain cases.

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the objective principle that no people in any given society should ever violate their
society’s social conscience? This seems a promising alternative, although those
sympathetic to Wong would no doubt reply that this strategy could never suf-
ficiently explain all the important moral differences that exist between societies.

For Discussion
1. What moral values and principles should be included in Wong’s common moral

core for all societies?
2. What sorts of things might be included in your society’s social conscience?

There are more sophisticated versions of relativism than the popular version we have
considered in most of this chapter. For instance, Wong’s limited relativism suggests
that although societies may differ regarding how they prioritize moral values, all soci-
eties share a common core of foundational values and principles. This account avoids
allowing just anything to count as morally acceptable but still allows for several differ-
ent but equally true moral standards.

Key Terms

• Pluralistic relativism: maintains that different societies can have different but
equally valid moral standards, though all share a common moral core.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. What do people mean when they say things like “That may be true for you (or that

may hold for you), but it isn’t true (or doesn’t hold) for me?”
2. In your own words, explain the four objections to relativism regarding (a) making

anything right, (b) reformers, (c) moral progress, and (d) social groups.
3. Our society has recently come to accept “gay marriage,” but even just a few de-

cades ago, this was opposed by most people in our society. Does this represent a
genuine change in morality or merely a change in belief and/or practice?

4. Explain why the principle of tolerance can be supported by objectivism but not
by relativism.

5. ** Do you agree with Wong that some mild form of relativism is necessary or do
you agree with the text’s argument that objectivism can handle Wong’s concerns?

6. ** The United States has recently used torture on suspected terrorists for the
sake of national security. Many other countries condemn this. Is the United
States simply in the wrong about this, or is this an example of Wong’s differing

Additional Resources
“All Is Not Relative.” Ethics Unwrapped. Accessed September 2, 2016. http://ethicsunwrapped. This video is a helpful discussion of relativism, with interviews,

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and so on. However, stop watching when “pluralism” is mentioned at about eight minutes;
the term is used differently than in this text and will be confusing.

Rachels, James. “Subjectivism.” In Companion to Ethics, edited by Peter Singer. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 6th ed. Boston:
McGraw–Hill Higher Education, 2009. See the chapters “The Challenge of Cultural
Relativism” and “Subjectivism in Ethics.”

Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
Wong, David. “Relativism.” In Companion to Ethics, edited by Peter Singer. Oxford: Black-

well Publishers, 1993.

Case 1

Arranged Marriage

Emma’s co-worker, Sukrita, tells Emma that she has fallen in love with an American
man. But her parents, who are strict Hindus, do not support love-matches. They
have already engaged a marriage broker in India who has found several suitable
candidates for Sukrita to meet. They are urging her to go with them to Jaipur to
meet these young men. Sukrita’s parents explain that they want what’s best for
Sukrita, and they feel that she will be better off with a man that fits her culture
and values. They make it clear that they won’t force Sukrita to choose any specific
man, but her choice must be from the Indian men the marriage broker has found.
Sukrita asks Emma for advice.


1. List some cultural principles that Sukrita would probably consider in her

2. Sukrita has adopted some American values. What are these? Do they conflict
with her parents’ values? How so? Which ought to take precedence?

3. What objective moral values seem to relate to this case?
4. If you were Emma, what would you advise Sukrita to do? Why?

Case 2

Female Genital Mutilation

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), sometimes called female circum-
cision, is still widespread in many African countries. The procedure is most com-
monly carried out on young women who are about to be married. Because the
procedure involves removing the clitoris, it greatly reduces the amount of sexual
pleasure a woman experiences during intercourse and so is thought to help ensure
the woman’s faithfulness to her husband. As may be imagined, the procedure can
be exceedingly painful. Although it may be carried out using modern surgical
techniques in a clean environment, it is also often done by a relative with knives,
razor blades, or even sharp rocks. Many women suffer infection, bleeding, and
other complications; some die as a result. It is estimated that between 100 million


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and 140 million young women have received FGM to date; in Africa about three
million girls are at potential risk for FGM each year. In January of 2008, the United
Nations issued a statement in support of abandoning the procedure.11

Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman from Togo, Africa, was one of the few
women in her society who expected to escape the ritual, called kakiya in her coun-
try.12 Fauziya’s father was a businessman who, contra to cultural norms in Togo,
thought that his daughters should choose for themselves the kind of life they
would lead. He sent them to school, and he protected them from kakiya. In 1994,
however, when Fauziya was just seventeen, her father died and his sister moved
in with them. She soon had it arranged that Fauziya would be married to a forty-
five-year-old man and undergo FGM. Because Fauziya, her sister, and her mother
objected, it was quietly arranged for Fauziya to be smuggled out of Togo to neigh-
boring Ghana. Using a false passport, she then flew to Germany and on to the
United States. Upon her arrival at Newark Airport, Fauziya applied for asylum on
the basis of her father’s death and her desire to avoid being married against her
will. At the time, she did not mention FGM because her English was limited and she
was too embarrassed. She was told that a judge’s decision would be required to
grant her asylum and that in the meantime she would have to either return to Togo
or Germany or go to prison. Fauziya chose prison. She was stripped, chained, and
taken to a detention center. Later, she was transferred to a regular prison, where
she was held for over seventeen months.

Eventually, Layli Miller Bashir, Fauziya’s lawyer, presented her case before an im-
migrations judge, who denied Fauziya asylum. At that point, the case was brought
to the attention of the international news media, and the New York Times featured
the story on its front page. Thirteen days later, Fauziya was released and granted
asylum and now resides in the United States. Fauziya was the first woman to re-
ceive asylum for FGM in the United States, thus making it possible for other women
to obtain asylum for the same reason. As a result of the international uproar over
FGM, several African countries have since ruled FGM to be illegal, including Togo,
Fauziya’s home country. There is evidence, however, that FGM continues to be qui-
etly practiced in these countries—and even (much less often) in the United States.


1. Should Fauziya have stayed in Togo and accepted her county’s cultural prac-
tices? Why or why not?

2. Do you think that there is an objective basis from which we can derive a moral
standard? If so, how could we go about convincing people in, say, Togo to apply
this standard to FGM without our improperly interfering in that society’s cul-
tural values?

3. Can you find any basis for morally justifying the practice of FGM? Are there
any objective moral values or principles that may support it?

11These facts are obtained from the World Health Organization, Fact Sheet No. 241, May 2008.
12This story is taken from the book by Fauziya Kassindja, Layli Miller Bashir, and Gini Kopecky,

Do They Hear When You Cry? (New York: Bantam Books, 1999)

Case 2 (Continued)

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4. Give some reasons against FGM. (Your reasons need not be only moral.)
5. Could a society’s cultural approval of FGM ever make such a practice morally

right or even the moral duty of women in that society? Tie your response in
with the discussions of relativism and objectivism.

Case 3

Religious Exemption and the Death of Matthew Swan13

If relativism is correct, then what is right is whatever a society or culture takes to
be right. The terms “society” and “culture” are somewhat vague, however, since
distinct social groups can include religious communities, for instance, as well as
countries or cultural communities. This makes it possible for moral standards to
vary not just from country to country but also from one religious group to another
even within a single country.

For example, according to the teachings of Church of Christ, Scientist, illness is
caused by sin and can only be healed by prayer. Ordinary physicians do not actu-
ally heal disease but merely relieve its symptoms. Seeking medical care is consid-
ered morally wrong because it amounts to a sinful rejection of faith in God. Instead,
Christian Scientists may only consult Christian Science Practitioners—people spe-
cially approved by the Church of Christ, Scientist. The only exception is that anyone
may set a broken bone, since this is not an illness. Christian Scientists are not the
only group forbidding various types of medical care. In the United States, there are
groups that oppose all medical care and only practice faith healing.

For some members of these groups, the consequences have been devastating.
Douglas and Rita Swan had been Christian Scientists all their lives and so knew little
of even basic medicine. In 1977, their only son, sixteen-month-old Matthew, devel-
oped a high fever. The Christian Science practitioners maintained that Matthew was
being made sick by the negative feelings of his parents and that prayer was needed
to cure him. When Matthew didn’t get better, Douglas and Rita considered going to
a doctor, but according to Rita Swan, they “were terrified that the doctor wouldn’t
be able to treat the disease, . . . and then we’d have no way to resume the Christian
Science healing. Thus, if we made the wrong decision, we could find ourselves bereft
of help from both medical science and God.”14 After twelve days, a practitioner sug-
gested to the Swans that Matthew had a broken bone, which allowed them to go to
a doctor. They did so immediately. In the hospital, Matthew was diagnosed with men-
ingitis, which is very serious but can be treated effectively with antibiotics if diag-
nosed early enough. Unfortunately, it was not early enough for Matthew, and he died
in the hospital after receiving intensive care for a week. The Swans left the Christian
Science church. In 1983, they founded Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty (CHILD),
an organization designed to protect children from “religion-based medical neglect.”15

The Swans are not the only ones whose religious adherence cost them the life of
their child. About 170 child deaths related to faith healing have been reported over the
past twenty-five years. More recently, Neil Beagley died in 2008 of complications from a

13Rita Swan, “When Faith Fails Children,” Humanist, (November/December 2000): 11–16. Unless
otherwise noted, information about this case is taken from this article.

14Swan, “When Faith Fails Children,” 11–16.
15CHILD, Inc., accessed August 31, 2016,


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urinary tract blockage.16 Neil died surrounded by his family and a number of members
of his church. His parents were tried and convicted for criminally negligent homicide.

Parents cannot normally be prosecuted in such cases, however, because of reli-
gious exemption laws, which, in effect, hold members of certain religious commu-
nities to different laws. Such laws provide special exemptions to child-abuse and
neglect laws, allowing parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on
religious grounds. Over forty U.S. states have some such laws. In states without reli-
gious exemptions, these kinds of cases may be treated as manslaughter or criminal
mistreatment. Even in exemption states, parents who do not practice an exempt
religion are subject to legal prosecution for failing to seek medical attention for
their seriously sick children. In effect, then, the law establishes different standards
regarding a parent’s responsibilities towards their child and when medical treat-
ment is required. These standards depend on the community one belongs to.


1. If there were no religious exemption, how would that have affected the Swans?
2. Do you think a religious community constitutes a distinct social group for

3. From a relativist perspective, could a Christian Scientist oppose the moral

values of his or her religion? Why or why not?
4. Parents have a moral responsibility to do what is best for their children, which

includes availing themselves of needed medical treatment for a sick child. Chris-
tian Scientists also seem to have a moral responsibility to follow the beliefs and
teaching of their church, which forbids their use of modern medicine. An Amer-
ican Christian Scientist belongs to both groups. When an American Christian
Science parent has a seriously sick child, which set of responsibilities applies?

5. Do you think that the Swans and the Beagleys should have sought medical attention
for their children? Do the deaths of their children raise any problems for relativism?

6. Is it morally justifiable to have religious-exemption laws, allowing parents to
refuse medical care for their children? Tie your response in with the discussion
of relativism.

Case 4

Women in the Middle East17

Many religious and cultural traditions set different standards of behavior for men
and women. For example, in many Islamic cultures women must veil themselves—
a requirement that does not apply to men. Islamic scholars say that the stricture to

17Much of the material for this case was obtained from the book by Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts

of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, (New York: Anchor Books, 1995). Amnesty Interna-
tional is also a good source of information regarding the treatment of women in the Middle East.

Case 3 (Continued)


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wear the veil comes directly from the Quran. Some Islamic scholars say that women
should cover only their heads (i.e., their hair, not their faces) whereas others claim
that only a woman’s face and hands should be visible. Only the husband, male rela-
tives, and young boys are allowed to see a woman without the veil.

In some Islamic countries (e.g., in Kuwait), these rules are not strictly observed.
In Turkey they are hardly observed at all. In Saudi Arabia, however, women must
veil even their faces. Few professions are open to Saudi women, and women may
not leave the house by themselves, or drive, or travel alone. They cannot leave
the country without written permission from their husbands. They may not com-
pete in sports, swim, read uncensored fashion magazines, or try on clothes when
shopping.18 Also, in Saudi women may not see their prospective husbands before
marriage. Saudi women can get an education, but the educational system is segre-
gated. Although divorce is permitted for both sexes, it is more common for a man
to divorce his wife (if she does not bear him children, for instance).

Many Middle Eastern countries also have strict rules about sexual conduct and
promiscuity, which apply to men and women alike. For instance, sex before mar-
riage and adultery are strictly prohibited. Unmarried offenders may receive one
hundred lashes for premarital sex. In some countries, the punishment for adultery
is house arrest for the rest of the offender’s life; in others, it is stoning (using small
stones to ensure a slow death). Nevertheless, stonings are rare. This is partly be-
cause four witnesses must testify that adultery has taken place—and it is often
difficult to procure four witnesses to a sexual act. For those who are found guilty,
however, there’s often a difference in how men and women are stoned: men are
buried to their waists in sand before stoning; women are buried to their heads
(though the Quran doesn’t make this distinction). According to Amnesty Interna-
tional, women are stoned more often than men.


1. What problems does this case raise for relativism?
2. Do you think that countries (and cultures) have a moral right to create laws and

endorse practices that impose different behaviors and requirements on differ-
ent sets of people? What difference, if any, does it make if those laws reflect that
country’s culture or religion?

3. Although women in Saudi Arabia certainly seem to enjoy fewer rights than
men, the law is harsh for both—just consider the punishment for adultery. Can
one society be morally justified in imposing more severe punishments than
other societies do for the same offense?

4. Interfering with the laws or practices of a sovereign country can have both good
and bad consequences. How serious must the injustice or the resulting harms
be for outside intervention to be justified or even necessary? (For instance, the
United Nations has occasionally sent forces into a country to halt genocide,

18“Eleven Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do,” The Week, July 28, 2015, accessed August
31, 2016,

Case 4 (Continued)

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and much of the world joined together to impose severe economic sanctions
on South Africa because of its policy of apartheid.)

5. Suppose relativism is false and that all persons have the same basic moral rights.
What do you think these most basic moral rights are? To what degree should
world powers act to ensure that all persons enjoy these same rights?

6. Your best friend has recently married, and the couple is planning to move back
to an Islamic country. Up till now, your friend—a convert to Islam—has not
worn the veil. Because of family and societal pressures, however, her husband is
now asking her to wear the veil once they move. She has come to you for advice.
What do you think she should do? How does your answer reflect on the issue
of relativism?


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Personal Autonomy and
Moral Agency


Throughout our lives, we make choices and then act on them. These choices range
from the trivial (What should I wear today? What should I have for dinner?) to
decisions that profoundly affect our lives (What career should I pursue? Whom
should I marry?). In making our choices, we take it for granted that we, along with
most others, are self-determining or autonomous individuals.

Autonomous persons are morally responsible for their choices and may be
praised or blamed for what they do. People lacking autonomy, however, are not
normally responsible for their choices. What is it, then, to be genuinely autono-
mous? Consider the following.

• An eight-year-old boy is rushed into the emergency room from a hit-and-run
accident. He is badly injured, drifting in and out of consciousness. As the doctor
surveys her patient, she ticks off the following observations: some bones are
broken, the patient is bleeding badly and needs blood, and he is rapidly going
into shock. Yet just as she starts barking orders, the boy feebly raises his hand as
if to push her away, whispering “No, please don’t.” Shortly afterward, the hos-
pital reaches the boy’s parents, who likewise refuse all treatment for religious
reasons. The hospital then contacts the authorities and within a few hours is
ordered by the court to proceed with all necessary life-saving treatments.

• JoAnn, a working mother of two, is running behind this morning because of
the kids and is going to be late for a meeting with her most important client.
Traffic is moving slowly, and she’s almost beside herself with impatience.
Disturbing thoughts of losing the client and maybe even her job flit through
her mind. She had texted the client just before leaving to say she’d be late.
Crawling along now at 25 miles an hour, her cell phone chimes, and she sees
a text from her client. Feeling that she needs to send some response imme-
diately, she picks up her phone and starts thumbing a reply. She looks up just

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a moment too late to avoid rear-ending the slowed car in front of her. Both
cars are damaged, and the other driver has suffered a whiplash neck injury.

• An Alzheimer’s patient at a nursing home is waiting in her room for lunch.
Although the nurse has worked with this patient almost daily for the past
nine months, the patient usually doesn’t recognize him and is often dis-
oriented. When he brings the patient’s lunch into her room, she suddenly
starts screaming and kicking, imagining she is being attacked by a stranger.
One particularly well-aimed kick throws the nurse and lunch onto the floor
so that his back is injured. He yells to two other nurses on the floor, who
forcibly restrain the patient.

The boy, the mom, and the Alzheimer’s patient all apparently made choices
for themselves. Still, we must ask how much autonomy each actually exercised as
these events unfolded. Since each choice had the potential to cause injury or even
death, this question has considerable moral significance. Is the patient to be held
responsible for injuring her nurse? What could justify the court ordering treat-
ment against the boy’s expressed wishes? How responsible is the driver for her
accident? To answer these questions, we need to explore the nature of autonomy.

For Discussion
1. Why doesn’t the Alzheimer’s patient have autonomy?
2. Why doesn’t the boy have autonomy?
3. Does the mother have autonomy? Is she responsible for causing the accident? Why?
4. Imagine that the boy’s parents are in an accident and refuse treatment for them-

selves, risking death. How does this differ from the boy’s case? Explain.

People constantly make choices, and many of these choices have important moral im-
plications. We take it for granted that most people are autonomous. But not everyone
is autonomous, and those lacking autonomy may not be morally responsible for their
actions. If we are to respond appropriately to the choices others make, we need to un-
derstand what makes a person autonomous.

Key Terms

• Autonomous: able to make free choices as a self-determining individual.


To be autonomous, one must satisfy several conditions. The most basic is this:

Independence condition: a person must have the capacity to make choices and
not be under the control of any external constraint or inner compulsion.

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An autonomous person must certainly be able to make choices. Infants and coma-
tose adults lack this fundamental capacity—they can’t make any choices at all. In
addition, an autonomous person must be free from the control of other things. The
key concept here is control. If you are being controlled by hypnosis or terrorized
by threats, you lack autonomy. It isn’t you who are in control; rather, these external
constraints are making you act as you do. The same holds if you are controlled by
an inner compulsion. Obsessive/compulsive behaviors, addictions, and even pho-
bias can keep you from controlling your actions in certain situations. Similarly,
overwhelming physical or emotional pain can drive someone to quit a job, leave a
spouse, or even attempt suicide without appreciating what she is doing. She is not
herself, we say—and so we shouldn’t treat her choices as if they were her own. When-
ever someone fails the independence condition, that person cannot be autonomous.

When my choice is influenced by certain considerations, however, that doesn’t
control me or remove my autonomy. If I’ve invited a friend to dinner who doesn’t
like spicy food, that may influence my choice of restaurants, but it doesn’t control
my choice. Not having much money can also influence my choice. But facts like
these don’t control my choice—they establish the nature and the parameters of my
choice; they determine what my choice is actually about. Although every choice
is affected by various influences, mere influences do not control us or take away
our autonomy.

Competency condition: a person must have the capacities necessary to deliber-
ate rationally about her choices.

Satisfying the independence condition is not enough to make a person au-
tonomous. You must also be able to deliberate appropriately. Specifically, you must
have the capacities (a) to know and understand the applicable facts and (b) each
choice’s consequences, (c) to identify your relevant values, and (d) to draw ra-
tionally supported conclusions (i.e., reason appropriately) from the available

To illustrate the role of these capacities in making a choice, imagine that you
(an autonomous person) are late for a morning appointment but want something
to eat. You have two options—grab a cold bagel and apple from the fridge or stop
at a fast-food place. To decide between these options, you must know that these
are your options, which means you must (a) be capable of determining that there’s
a bagel and apple in the fridge and where there’s a fast-food restaurant. Next, you
need to understand the consequences of each option. Thus, you must (b) be able
to grasp that even if the bagel and apple don’t sound terribly appetizing, they’ll
meet your needs, and also that while the fast food sounds appealing, it will set back
your healthy diet. You must then (c) be able to identify your relevant values—for
example, your health is more important to you than the fleeting pleasures of a fast
food fix. Finally, you must (d) be able to appropriately figure out which option’s
consequences best serves what you most value. Applying your capacities in these
ways leads you to your choice: go with the bagel and apple.

Finally, an autonomous individual should satisfy the authenticity condition.

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Authenticity condition: a person must have the capacity to discern and person-
ally evaluate his own values, goals, and commitments.

The most important part of this condition is that, as an autonomous person, you
must be able to assess your own values. This is something more than simply being
able to use or refer to your values, as competency requires. Authenticity requires
the capability of weighing or evaluating your relevant values themselves and even
of altering the degree of importance you assign to each.

Notice that to be autonomous, you don’t always have to be exercising either
this or any of the other capacities described by the three conditions. An autono-
mous person simply should have all of these capacities and so be able to exercise
them. Thus, normal adults are usually autonomous, since they commonly have all
of these capacities.

In contrast, very young children may not even satisfy the independence con-
dition. Most older children also lack autonomy, since their reasoning powers and
lack of experience leave them unable to fully satisfy the competency condition.
Until later adolescence, therefore, children are thought to lack autonomy. This is
why children are treated differently than adults in a court of law.

Returning to the authenticity condition, a child’s earliest values are simply
“given” to him—by upbringing, culture, and genes. Having little exposure to any-
thing beyond their immediate environment, even adolescents are usually not yet able
to put their values under scrutiny or compare their values to other values. For most
children (and some adults), their values decide their choices, but they cannot yet
decide on their values. This, arguably, is not autonomy.1 As we learn and grow, how-
ever, we are given more independence and our capacities increase. By accumulating
experience, we steadily broaden to the point that we can begin to evaluate our own
values. A friend, an event, or a major life change may then stimulate us to adjust our
values. In this way, people gradually make their values more authentically their own.

Our discussion so far may suggest that being autonomous is an all-or-nothing
affair: either you’re autonomous or you’re not. But there are several qualifications.
First, even normally autonomous persons can temporarily lose autonomy. Severe
pain or an illness can interfere with the capacities necessary for autonomy. It’s also
possible to lose autonomy on a more continuing basis. When a previously autono-
mous adult contracts Alzheimer’s, she slowly becomes unable to weigh options and
make choices until there’s an irreversible loss of autonomy. Of course, children start
out lacking autonomy, and this lack can continue for some into early adulthood.
(Growing older doesn’t automatically create autonomy!) People with serious mental
and emotional disabilities may lack autonomy their whole lives. Any individual
whose condition precludes autonomy on a continuing basis lacks moral capacity.

One can also be autonomous in certain situations but not others. If an intense
fear of heights makes me incapable of climbing a ladder to retrieve a cat on my roof, I

1Since our values largely guide our choices, we have little control over our choices if we don’t have
some control over our values. Thus, a robust concept of autonomy requires a capacity to assess one’s
values. Using that capacity relates to agency (see §IV).

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fail the independence condition for that situation. Yet I may still be able to choose be-
tween job offers or draw up a will with full autonomy. Powerful interpersonal forces
can also take away autonomy for certain situations. For instance, people caught in
abusive relationships can be too disempowered to break the relationship or even act
to protect themselves. They may lack autonomy in most situations connected to their
relationships. More generally, oppressive social structures can limit or remove au-
tonomy from women, the poor, and members of certain ethnic and religious groups
for a variety of social situations (e.g., for choosing certain jobs). Because autonomy
depends on what capacities one has and is able to exercise in different situations,
there will always be grey areas regarding who does and does not have autonomy.

For Discussion
1. Do you have any fears or other inner compulsions that make it impossible for you

to choose freely in certain situations?
2. Consider your choice of a college, a field of study, or a career or job. How did you

deliberate over this choice, and what values guided you the most?
3. Have you made any adjustments to your values recently? Why?
4. At what time in your life did you start rethinking some of your values?
5. Have you ever lost autonomy for a time after previously having autonomy? What

led to this?
6. What segments of our society are denied autonomy in certain situations by vari-

ous social structures (e.g., laws or practices)?

Although many factors can influence your decisions, this is true of most choices and
does not undermine autonomy. What can limit or even remove autonomy is when
a situation puts you under the control of some external constraint or inner compul-
sion. To be autonomous you must also be capable of appropriately making deliberate
choices and assessing your values for yourself. Autonomy (having capacity) doesn’t re-
quire that you always employ these capacities, but you must at least have them, as do
most normal adults in most situations. People can gain or lose autonomy; people can
also lack autonomy for just certain specific situations.

Key Terms

• Independence condition: a person must have the capacity to make choices
and not be under the control of an external constraint or inner compulsion.

• Competency condition: a person must have the capacities necessary to ratio-
nally deliberate about her choices.

• Authenticity condition: a person must have the capacity to discern and per-
sonally assess his own values.

• Moral capacity: fulfilling the three autonomy conditions; when one’s state pre-
cludes autonomy for a period of time, one lacks capacity over that time.

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Autonomy has great moral importance. For one thing, anyone having autonomy
usually has some degree of moral responsibility for her actions. If an autonomous
person acts in a selfish or criminal way, she will normally deserve blame or punish-
ment. If another acts kindly and self-sacrificially, he likewise is morally responsible
and so may deserve praise or some reward. Those lacking capacity are not usually
responsible for their actions at the time. If I’m forced to carry out some dastardly
deed under the threat of horrible torture, then the one threatening me is much more
responsible for “my” deeds than I am. Persons driven by inner compulsions likewise
have little or no moral responsibility, since “their” actions are not really their own.
They may not even realize what they are doing! This is why we don’t consider it right
to punish the criminally insane, even when they have committed heinous crimes.

Having moral responsibility goes hand in hand with the right to be shown
moral deference. Showing moral deference means respecting a person’s choices
without interfering. We almost always owe autonomous persons a fair degree of
moral deference, even when we think they are being foolish. This doesn’t mean
that we may just look the other way as they are wronging or harming someone. But
when there’s no such danger, it’s our moral duty to show deference toward other
autonomous individuals.

People lacking capacity are not necessarily owed moral deference. Still, it’s ap-
propriate to show even these persons some deference whenever possible. If the
Alzheimer patient wants carrots instead of peas for dinner, we should normally
honor her request unless there’s a good reason not to (e.g., she’s allergic to carrots).
Therefore, when we are obliged to interfere with another’s choice—whether they
have capacity or not—it’s a serious matter. To justify such interference, there
should normally be a great deal at stake, as when a person is likely to harm herself
or another. In that case, we interfere for another’s good. Interference is likewise
justified when a child decides to try a drain-cleaner milkshake, or plays on the
interstate, or (although the matter is more complex) refuses lifesaving treatment.
Overruling people’s choices for their own good is called paternalism.

For Discussion
1. As an autonomous person, how important is it for you be accorded moral respon-

sibility and deference? Why?
2. Think of some justified instances of paternalism, and some that are not.
3. It was once argued that the government was acting paternalistically by requiring

motorcyclists to wear helmets. What do you think?
4. When and how often should parents allow their children to make their own

choices? Why is this important?
5. How could you attempt to influence a friend who is making bad choices, while still

showing them full moral deference?
6. If a person is suicidal, a great deal is at stake—would this justify our interfering

with their attempting suicide?

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An autonomous person is usually morally responsible for her choices and is owed
moral deference. People lacking moral capacity cannot be held morally responsible,
nor are they owed deference to the degree autonomous persons are. Yet even with
those lacking capacity, we are not usually justified in overruling their choices except
when much is at stake. There can be times, however, when we may justifiably overrule
another’s choice for her own good.

Key Terms

• Moral responsibility: being morally accountable to others for one’s own
choices (deserving blame or praise).

• Moral deference: respecting another person’s choices without interfering.

• Paternalism: overruling people’s choices and actions for their own good.


Let’s now consider how autonomous persons actually exercise their capacities to
make moral choices. An autonomous person making a specific moral choice acts
as a moral agent by exercising her autonomy in a specific situation. One who
lacks capacity—whether permanently or temporarily—cannot act as a moral agent
while incapacitated. Likewise, someone whose capacities are undermined in spe-
cific kinds of situations (e.g., I have a compulsive fear of heights) cannot act as a
moral agent in those situations (e.g., I can’t climb very far up a ladder). Nor should
such people be accorded moral responsibility or much deference (depending on
what’s at stake) in such situations.2

Yet even autonomous persons (i.e., those who are able to act as moral agents)
don’t always exercise their autonomy to the same degree. Since autonomy involves
a person’s capacities but not what they do with those capacities, people sometimes
just “give in” to a feeling or don’t bother to think through their choices. At other
times, they may not consider a choice important enough to give it much thought,
or they may deliberate with care but not to the point of assessing their values.

Thus, autonomous persons can act as moral agents at different levels, de-
pending on how much they employ their capacities. Not surprisingly, these levels
correlate with differing degrees of moral responsibility and deference. When
someone acts as an agent at the highest level—employing the capacities of all three
autonomy conditions—they ought to be accorded the highest degree of moral re-
sponsibility and deference. A person acting at a lower level, meanwhile, should
normally be accorded less responsibility and deference.3 Since responsibility and
deference depend on the level at which a person acts as an agent, it’s important for

2Of course, we often do so anyway, not realizing the person’s actual condition.
3It’s not always so simple. For instance, the harms I cause, or the opportunities I had to think more

carefully before I acted, can also affect how responsible I am for my action.

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us to understand the three levels of moral agency. These closely match the three
conditions of autonomy.

Independent choice: to make a particular independent choice, a moral agent must
exercise his capacity to choose, while being under no constraint or compulsion.

A merely independent choice doesn’t deliberate; nor does it make an authentic as-
sessment of values. It comprises the lowest level of moral agency; it’s also the level
at which we make most of our day-to-day choices. We decide what cereal to eat or
what clothes to wear without much thought, just following a whim or habit. This
is not a bad thing. These sorts of choices tend to be pretty insignificant, and if we
were to make all of our choices with the same deliberation and care we invest in
more important decisions, we’d exhaust ourselves from the strain. Following good
habits and even whims saves time and energy for more important decisions.

Still, even merely independent choices give us some responsibility. If I un-
thinkingly say something offensive to another, the offense remains my fault and
my responsibility. After all, I still had the ability to avoid giving offense—I just
should have been more careful. More seriously, people sometimes commit crimes
because they “give in” to strong feelings they could have controlled. These people
are usually less to blame than those who deliberately plan out a crime, but they still
deserve moral censure. This difference is captured by the legal distinction between
“crimes of passion” and “premeditated crimes.”

With responsibility goes deference; thus, it isn’t usually right to interfere with
an autonomous person’s independent choices. Yet interference can be justified
and even become obligatory when the stakes are high enough. Imagine your-
self standing at a corner next to a harried looking man, waiting for the light to
change. The instant the light turns, the man steps into the street without even
noticing the taxi headed directly at him. Suddenly comprehending the situation,
you make a grab at him, throwing him sprawling back onto the sidewalk. This is
a paternalistic act toward an autonomous man who originally acted on an inde-
pendent choice. Yet your act is justified in view of the urgent need to avert great
harm. More important, you had every reason to think that by pulling the man out
of the car’s path, you accomplished what the man himself would have wanted had
he been aware of the danger. By not acting this way, in fact, you would have al-
lowed a preventable harm and thus failed to respect him as an autonomous person
of intrinsic worth.

Competent choice: To make a particular competent choice, a moral agent must
(a) make an independent choice and (b) exercise her capacities to engage in ra-
tional deliberation.

Competent choice takes moral agency to a much higher level than independent
choice. Competent choices make essential use of our reason and our values (but
still do not assess any values). We make most important decisions at this level. For
instance, Joan (an autonomous person) decides to become a teacher because she
values investing in the future and working with kids. If she is accurately assessing

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her abilities and her willingness to be with children, then she makes a good choice.
Of course, we can make poor choices at this level as well. Jerry (also autonomous)
has decided on a career in management because he values good earnings and the
excitement of the business world. Unfortunately, Jerry doesn’t realize what every-
one else around him recognizes—how easily he caves in under pressure. His weak-
ness will surely hurt his ability to succeed in management. Nevertheless, Jerry’s
mistake doesn’t eliminate his autonomy, nor does it keep him from functioning
as a moral agent at the level of competent choice. His deliberations about this are
simply flawed. This is a normal part of life: autonomous persons make choices that
may not always be best, and we all must learn from our mistakes.

We must contrast Jerry’s poor deliberations, however, with situations in which
a person has autonomy but is not allowed to draw on important, relevant facts. If
I am deliberately deceived by another or denied access to crucial facts, I cannot
make a competent choice. Although I still have the capacities to make such a
choice, I’m being barred from making my choice appropriately by including rel-
evant facts in my deliberations. As a result, I probably won’t make the choice I
would have made if these facts had been available to me. The choice I make, even
though I am autonomous, isn’t truly my mistake but one that has been forced upon
me. For instance, a doctor might not inform his patient of an alternate treatment,
society might convince a woman that she can never attain a certain high level
job, or a salesperson may falsely convince a customer that no better prices can be
found elsewhere. In such cases, the decision maker is led to choose poorly through
no failure or lack of her own. For this reason, we should not consider her to be
acting as a moral agent at the level of competent choice.

Competent choice employs our capacities much more than independent
choice and so should be accorded much greater responsibility and deference.
Except when a great deal is at stake, it is rarely justified to interfere with another
person’s competent choice.

Authentic Choice: To make a particular authentic choice, a moral agent must
make a choice that is both (a) independent and (b) competent; he must also
(c) exercise his capacity to authentically assess his values.4

This is the highest level of moral agency and so should be accorded the great-
est moral responsibility and deference. In making a competent choice, I only apply
my existing values; in authentic choice, I assess or re-evaluate my values. This
doesn’t require that I actually change any part of my value system, but it does re-
quire that I thoughtfully assess my relevant values before I apply them in my delib-
erations. Since it includes my assessing my values, an authentic choice is most fully
my own—I place more under my own control than with any other type of choice.

Suppose I’ve just previously made an authentic choice. Can the value assess-
ments I made for that choice carry over to make my next choice authentic as well?

4Strictly, this is redundant, as making a competent choice already ensures it is an independent
choice. It is stated this way to emphasize how each level includes all previous levels.

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Not usually. The values my next choice brings into play may not be the same as the
ones I assessed just previously. Also, I might have experienced something in the
meantime that would alter my system of values. Since we are constantly evolving
as persons, it probably holds that each authentic choice must itself be an occasion
for assessing the currently held values that are most relevant to that choice.

As authentic choices demand additional effort, we don’t make them as often
as we do competent choices. Still, authentic choices are not particularly rare or
difficult. Making an authentic choice might merely require you to reaffirm your
current values—to run a quick “checkup” to make sure you remain committed
to them. In other cases, the situation itself may give you reasons to assess your
values. Experiencing a tragedy, undergoing religious conversion, or addressing
some overwhelming challenge can demand much more of us as we choose our
responses and so require larger scale value adjustments. Whether accomplished
with ease or with much soul-searching, all of these sorts of assessments can satisfy
the requirements of authentic choice.

Acting as moral agents is our right and privilege as persons. But as such ac-
tions can take place at different levels, it is often morally important that we discern
at what level a person is acting as a moral agent. Only then can we know how much
responsibility and deference we should accord to that person at that time. The
moral implications of this become especially significant when much is at stake.
For instance, we normally have no right to prevent someone from driving home
when and how they wish. But that can drastically change if the driver is drunk
or is the disoriented victim of an injury. Likewise, in deciding on an appropriate
punishment, a judge needs to consider if the criminal’s act was competent (and
thus pre-meditated) or merely an independent choice (e.g., arising from a fit of
passion). Yet again, suppose a patient refuses a critical medical treatment. If the
patient is able to act as a moral agent (unlike the child) and the issue is a matter
of grave consequence, then nothing less than a competent choice seems sufficient
to earn our full deference to their choice. Although some might insist that such a
refusal requires authentic choice, that probably asks too much.

For Discussion
1. Describe some merely independent choices you often make. Contrast these with

choices you’ve made at the level of competent choice.
2. How much do you exercise your capacities of autonomy when driving a very fa-

miliar route or in your morning routine? Is this a good thing?
3. What authentic choices have you made? What choices would you only make at

this level?
4. Do you agree that in going from independent to competent to authentic choices,

responsibility and deference should roughly increase as well? Why?
5. Can advertising effectively keep you from making a competent choice about the

product? Give some examples.

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Even when a person is autonomous—and so can function as a moral agent—he
doesn’t always exercise moral agency at the same level. There are three levels of moral
agency: independent choice, competent choice, and authentic choice. The highest
level is authentic choice; though choices at this level are not common, neither are they
particularly unusual. Agents acting at higher levels should usually be accorded greater
moral deference and moral responsibility. This holds even when a person makes mis-
takes in his deliberations. However, a person who is deliberately misled into making a
poor choice cannot function as a moral agent in that situation, which greatly reduces
his responsibility and the deference owed to his choice.

Key Terms

• Moral agent: a person who satisfies the conditions of autonomy and is able to
appropriately apply these capacities to a specific choice.

• Independent Choice: a moral agent exercises his capacity to choose while
being under no constraint or compulsion.

• Competent Choice: a moral agent (a) makes an independent choice and
(b) exercises his capacities to engage in rational deliberation.

• Authentic Choice: a moral agent makes both (a) an independent choice and
(b) a competent choice and (c) exercises his capacity to authentically assess his


A nearly universal problem for exercising our autonomy is that we don’t always
know which values are truly important to us. We sometimes even deceive our-
selves about what we believe to be important. Further, we often hold conflicting
values; for instance, suppose I place great value on family life, but I also want to
be highly successful in a demanding career. I’m going to find it difficult to balance
these values and their time commitments. It even seems that we can be just plain
wrong about the importance of certain values. For example, people often pursue
a large income, luxuries, and personal comfort though studies repeatedly show
that centering one’s life on self-gratification typically leads to depression, anxiety,
and illness. In contrast, values such as strong relationships, purposeful work, and
helping others create a sense of joy, good health, and deep personal satisfaction.

These considerations suggest that our analysis of autonomy may not yet be
complete. So far, we have put a premium on self-determination, making the as-
sumption that autonomy maximizes personal freedom and independence. Indeed,
our culture’s individualism implies that ideal autonomy places as few influences
and limitations upon us as possible. But it’s worth observing that this concept of
value-neutral autonomy is purely negative.5 In particular, it leaves our choice of

5The normative standard of rationality must at least apply even to value-neutral autonomy, but
this places no restrictions on what one’s goals or values may be.

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value systems wide open by offering no guidance or boundaries for choosing our
values. It thus can make no sense of any value being better or worse than any other.
Taken to the extreme, this view makes each individual’s autonomy the only non-
negotiable value and the sole determinant of the good.6

Yet there’s doubt that a purely value-neutral autonomy is even possible. As
we’ve seen, authentic choice requires that we choose our values—but on what basis
can we make these choices? We could simply aim at the values that most appeal
to us. But this can change from moment to moment and can be strongly affected
by a friend’s comment, a recent experience, or even brainwashing. As a result,
our choices can move rapidly beyond our own control and even become largely
arbitrary—the very opposite of autonomous self-determination.

Should we instead choose values that strike us as most natural and impor-
tant? But this puts our value systems largely under the control of our upbringing
and culture. Nevertheless, suppose that I could somehow remove all such outside
influences so that my choices arise solely from my innate personal nature. Unfor-
tunately, this would take my choices even more out of my control, since my innate
personality is determined by my genetic make-up and not by anyone’s free choice.
Thus, we cannot make any value choice purely by ourselves.

Furthermore, value-neutral autonomy is not the kind of autonomy that
anyone should want. Genuine autonomy is not purely negative; it also requires that
we realize our full potential and expand our range of opportunities. No one will get
rich by simply reducing his expenses without increasing his earnings; likewise, no
one will achieve her full powers by merely escaping constraints without investing
in her overall personal development. Lacking valuable skills and knowledge, our
options and opportunities will never be all that they could be. Genuine autonomy
requires expanding our abilities and options, not just freeing ourselves from the
influence, control, and authority of others.

It thus appears that our value choices could use some guidance, for while
some choices will contribute to our potential, others will reduce our options and
thus our actual freedom. What we need is to commit ourselves to the right sorts
of values—those most consistent with human fulfillment and our own personal
flourishing. According to many thinkers, these right values include foundational
moral values, and genuine autonomy requires that we make morally right choices.7
Such a value-based autonomy—as opposed to value-neutral autonomy—is called
substantive autonomy.

There is much support for this. Most dramatically, a person who abandons
himself to masochistic desires, self-directed violence, or thrill-seeking may simply
get himself killed, which doesn’t exactly promote autonomy. Thinking a bit more
subtly, it doesn’t seem that a decision to commit suicide or sell oneself into slavery

6Sartre is particularly known for holding this view. He maintains that our freedom is so radical
that it transcends even the bounds of morality. Because our values are established solely by our own
choices, we also have a radical responsibility for what we choose.

7 This view is advocated, in one form or another, by Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Jesus, Kant, Rous-
seau, natural law theorists, care ethicists, many virtue theorists, and Dewey, among others.

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could ever be reconciled with the notion of autonomy—no matter how “authen-
tic” the choice may be. As one philosopher sees it, such choices effectively elevate
other values over the intrinsic value of oneself as an autonomous being. Given this
perspective, embracing faulty values actually undermines autonomy.8

We’ve mentioned the haunting worry that we don’t always know what’s best
for ourselves or what can enlarge our human potential. Children mistakenly see
school as denying their freedom rather than as supplying the resources they need
to become free and empowered adults. Similarly, someone who avoids relation-
ships out of fear of being “tied down” ultimately denies herself the many opportu-
nities and satisfactions relationships make possible. Yet again, some dedicate their
lives to seeking wealth, fame, or power, only to discover later that their pursuit of
these values has kept them from activities and experiences they would have much

To maximize our freedom and the range of our choices and opportunities,
we must therefore reject value-neutral autonomy and authentically embrace
those values that best promote personal and human growth and fulfillment—
moral values in particular. This is what substantive conceptions of autonomy

For Discussion
1. Do you agree that some sort of substantive autonomy is better than value-neutral

autonomy? Why or why not?
2. Suppose that autonomy is best understood as value-neutral. Can you think of any

way a person could autonomously choose her values?

People often think of autonomy in purely negative terms, as the absence of any controls
or influences. However, there are doubts about both the possibility and the desirabil-
ity of a value-neutral autonomy. In its place, we must consider substantive autonomy,
which maintains that by basing our choices especially upon moral values, we increase
autonomy by expanding our human potential and our range of choices.

Key Terms

• Value-neutral autonomy: the view that maximum autonomy amounts to
choosing our values without constraint and that any set of values can serve
equally well as the basis for a person’s choices.

• Substantive autonomy: the view that maximum autonomy requires that our
basic values be consistent with human fulfillment and flourishing, including the
foundational values of morality.

8This is Kant’s view, which we will explore further in Chapter Eight.

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A particularly important type of substantive autonomy is relational autonomy.
Deriving particularly from care ethics (see Chapter Twelve), relational autonomy
hotly rejects individualism and instead emphasizes our interdependence and con-
nectedness. In this view, autonomous individuals don’t create relationships; rather,
relationships create autonomous individuals. This is undeniably true of young
children, since a child’s earliest relationships form much of his ability to function
as a person. Yet even adults are defined to a large degree by the important relation-
ships in their lives.

Relational autonomy has been analyzed in many different ways. Here are a few
of the most compelling ideas that have emerged. First, one of the primary ways we
learn about ourselves is through our interactions with others. Other people can
tell us how they see and understand us; we can also learn much as we observe our-
selves relating to them. Second, relationships are central to how our personalities
and identities develop. We are immersed in interpersonal relationships through-
out our lives, and these naturally affect what we become as well as how we conceive
of ourselves. The latter especially influences our actions as moral agents, since our
choices usually align with our beliefs about what we are capable of. Third, our
values are strongly influenced by others and the values they consider to be impor-
tant. Does this diminish our own authenticity? According to the relational per-
spective, the only way to develop our own authentically held values is through a
constant give-and-take with others, who can bring us new perspectives, challenge
our previously held values, and introduce us to new experiences. We learn about
ourselves, establish our own identity, and develop our authentic values through

One further idea from relational autonomy has to do with the degree to which
a person develops self-trust, self-esteem, and self-respect. Having a healthy dose
of each of these self-directed attitudes enables us to make choices with assurance
and expect others to show us deference. People without these attitudes second-
guess their decisions and find themselves paralyzed when they must make even
the simplest choices. This drastically limits their various abilities to act. What does
this have to do with relationships? The recognition and respect we receive from
others, as well as the way our social environment treats us, directly affects our at-
titudes about ourselves. “Oppressive social conditions of various kinds threaten
those abilities by removing one’s sense of self-confidence required for effective

9Diana Meyers calls this “self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction” in her article “In-
tersectional Identity and the Authentic Self: Opposites Attract!” Relational Autonomy, eds. Catriona
Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 174–175. Originally quoted
in Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (New York: Oxford University Press,
2007), 48.

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agency. Social recognition and/or support for this self-trusting status is required
for the full enjoyment of . . . [autonomy].”10

As you’d expect, then, healthy relationships contribute constructively toward
one’s autonomy; oppressive, manipulative, degrading relationships diminish au-
tonomy. Thus, the moral quality of our relationships, our immediate social envi-
ronment (e.g., friends and family), and the larger social and cultural systems in
which we live all affect our development of autonomy. But the normative aspects
of relational autonomy are not limited to just the moral realm. Other aspects of
our relationships—intellectual, aesthetic, and more—affect us as well. Clearly,
then, relational autonomy cannot be value-neutral.

If the previous ideas are correct, then we have some strong reasons for accepting
some version of relational over individualistic autonomy. There are other reasons as
well. For instance, a strong individualistic concept of persons is absurdly unrealistic.
Humans are hardly more independent of each other than are different fauna in a
sealed aquarium. Such interdependence is especially pronounced in modern society,
where each person’s safety, health, and even survival are at the mercy of others within
a complex social network. Because we are essentially social beings, most of our emo-
tional and psychological needs likewise can be met only through relationships.

All of us, furthermore, live large parts of our lives in almost total dependence
upon others—as children, when we become sick, destitute, or disabled, and often
as we become elderly. As for the important relationships in our lives, we have very
little autonomous control over most of these. No child has a choice of who she will
depend upon for many years, nor can anyone cease to be their parents’ child. Even
adults seldom have the luxury of choosing their instructors, neighbors, supervisors,
or co-workers. And the social and cultural systems in which we live very much con-
trols who we can relate to, how we relate to each other, and our view of ourselves.

Developing and exercising autonomy is of great importance to each of us,
being an essential part of what it is to be a human person. Due to its many im-
plications, it’s also of central importance morally. It’s encouraging, then, that new
insights and perspectives on autonomy continue to develop. Among these, the
normative conception of relational autonomy is a particularly promising recent
contribution, and is worthy of careful consideration.

For Discussion
1. What is there about relational autonomy that you find appealing, and what do

you not find very appealing?
2. How do you understand “individualism”? Describe ways that our culture empha-

sizes individualism.
3. Does it bother you that there seem to be several strong reasons favoring relational

autonomy over value-neutral autonomy? Why?

10Christman, John, “Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy” in The Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed August 31, 2016, http://plato

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One version of substantive autonomy is relational autonomy. This rejects our culture’s
emphases on self-sufficiency and independence, maintaining instead that full auton-
omy can only be realized through healthy relationships.

Key Terms

• Relational autonomy: rejects individualism and emphasizes the role of
human interdependencies in self-discovery, establishing identity, develop-
ing authentic values, and trusting oneself.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. Courts commonly order children to undergo life-saving treatments (e.g., blood

transfusions), regardless of their own or their parents’ wishes. Courts seldom
order adults to be treated against their wishes. Applying the analysis of auton-
omy, explain why this is so.

2. What gives parents and other adults the right to order children around at home,
school, etc.?

3. How well does a five year old fulfill the three conditions for autonomy?
4. How well does a seventeen year old fulfill the three conditions for autonomy?
5. How completely do you fulfill the three conditions for personal autonomy?
6. Describe and explain some situations in which a normally autonomous adult

can temporarily lose autonomy.
7. Explain why someone who is being deliberately misled cannot make a competent

8. Identify some competent choices people commonly make. Why do they make

these choices at this level, and how do they typically proceed in their deliberation?
9. What sorts of decisions would most appropriately call for an authentic choice?

10. The United States has recently abolished the death penalty for those under the
age of eighteen. Based on our discussion of autonomy, what reasons can be given
to support this change? What could be said against it?

11. Explain the differences between value-neutral and substantive autonomy.

Additional Resources
Christman, John. “Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclo-

pedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed Sep-
tember 2, 2016.
This article provides an extensive philosophical exploration of autonomy.

Dworkin, Gerald. “Paternalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017
edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.
paternalism/. This article provides a good philosophical discussion of paternalism.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism: A Lecture Given in 1946.” In Existential-
ism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufman. New York: Meridian, 1989.

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First published by Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1956. Html mark-up by
Andy Blunden, 2005. Accessed September 2, 2016.
archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm. This presents Sartre’s atheistic existentialism and
introduces his view of radical human freedom.

Case 1

The Drunk Driver

Oliver and Charlotte are having dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant. “Did
you see the guy at the bar?” Oliver asks Charlotte? “He’s on his fifth drink, I’ve been
counting.” “Must be at least that,” Charlotte replies. “He was wobbling when he
went to the restroom.”

As they leave the restaurant a few minutes later, they notice the same man
has also left and is fumbling with his car keys. He seems unable to get his key into
the lock. “You have got to be kidding me,” Charlotte exclaims in shock. “He’s gonna
drive? He’ll kill someone.” “Maybe he lives nearby,” Oliver says. “Anyway, this is really
none of our business. We don’t even know this guy.” “Does that really matter?” Char-
lotte retorts angrily. “Someone needs to stop him.” Although Oliver doesn’t seem
too keen about this, he says, “Well, go ahead then—tell him to get a cab. But I’m
just going to wait right here and watch. I’d rather not get involved.”


1. Should Charlotte or Oliver interfere in this case? Is there anything else either of
them could do? What?

2. Do you think they have a moral duty to keep the man from driving? Or do they
instead have a duty to respect his autonomous choices to first drive to a restau-
rant and then drink too much?

3. Does Charlotte’s proposed act qualify as morally justified paternalism?
4. Is the drunk man autonomous? If not, what conditions does he fail to satisfy at

this moment?

Case 2

Elizabeth Bouvia11

Elizabeth Bouvia was born a quadriplegic resulting from cerebral palsy. For the first
few years of her life, both of her parents cared for her. When she was five, however,
her parents separated, and Elizabeth went to live with her mother. Then, when Eliz-
abeth was ten, her mother remarried, and Elizabeth was put in a home for disabled
children. One thing young Elizabeth did not lack was determination. Despite her

11Mary Johnson, “Right to Life, Right to Die: The Elizabeth Bouvia Saga,” “BroadReach Coun-
seling and Mediation (from The Ragged Edge, January/February 1997), accessed September 4, 2016, The Bouvia case is a much-quoted case
in medical ethics. Information about the case can also be found in the National Review, May 4, 1998;
on November 8, 1998, the television show 60 Minutes aired an episode about Bouvia.


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troubled start in life, Elizabeth eventually worked her way through college, earned
a bachelor’s degree (with support from the state), and married.

Unfortunately, events took a turn for the worse about the time she started
working on her master’s degree. First, Elizabeth suffered a miscarriage. Then,
being unable to deal with her disability, her husband left her. Next, Elizabeth’s
mother became ill with cancer. In the midst of these traumatic experiences,
Elizabeth’s arthritis was putting her through nearly unbearable pain. Unable to
cope any longer, she checked herself into a hospital, where she was put on a
morphine drip to control the pain. Still unable to find relief, Elizabeth decided
that she wanted to end her life. She refused to eat, so doctors inserted a feeding
tube into her stomach. Elizabeth then petitioned the court of California to have
the tube removed. When asked at a news conference whether she really wanted
to die, Elizabeth explained that she felt that she no longer had any quality of life.
The court initially denied Elizabeth’s request; upon appeal, however, the courts
reversed the earlier decision and allowed the feeding tube to be removed. Once
this was done, Elizabeth again stopped eating but soon gave up on the attempt
to starve herself to death. When another doctor offered Elizabeth an aggres-
sive program of pain management, she accepted. Elizabeth Bouvia is still alive

Although it’s certainly very difficult to judge Ms. Bouvia’s attitudes and ac-
tions, they do raise several important concerns. Most obviously, of course, Eliza-
beth’s trying to die amounted to an attempted suicide. Furthermore, a number
of disability groups have been highly critical of Elizabeth’s efforts to end her life.
As they see it, Ms. Bouvia’s actions demean persons with disabilities because
they imply that life with a disability is not worth living. These people feel that
a meaningful life is possible even for a person in Elizabeth’s situation. If a dis-
abled person were to desire to commit suicide, it would probably be because
that person is not receiving proper care—a problem common within our society.
Proper care certainly includes effective pain management but also much more.
The state of California offers home support services, for instance, which allows a
severely disabled person to live in her own home and receive all necessary care.
In addition, there are work programs designed to help the disabled find suitable

Was Elizabeth Bouvia familiar with these opportunities and open to them?
She claimed that she knew all about these options but refused to take advantage
of them. She did not like the idea of someone else taking care of her. Elizabeth
also steadfastly refused any counseling or help. Anxious over her behavior, her
ex-husband requested that she receive a psychiatric evaluation (which the court
refused). Elizabeth’s father was also upset by her actions. In response to her claim
that she had received no love, her father maintained that she had refused his help.
Was Elizabeth’s attempt to end her life simply an act of despair resulting from an
episode of deep depression, self-pity, and withdrawal?

Elizabeth insisted that it was not. In thinking about ending her life, she
claimed to have reviewed her options and that her decision was based on careful
reflection. She also strongly emphasized her right to autonomy. Elizabeth was
only twenty-six years old at this time. In representing Elizabeth, her lawyer main-
tained that Ms. Bouvia had the right to make her own choice, regardless of what
choice that was.

Case 2 (Continued)

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1. Do you think that Elizabeth’s attempt to end her life amounted to an autono-
mous, carefully reasoned decision of a fully competent adult? What evidence,
pro and con, is there to support your view? (What is necessary to make an
autonomous decision?)

2. Do you think that Elizabeth ever seriously meant to end her life?
3. Was Elizabeth making a morally right choice? Why or why not?
4. Could it ever be morally justified for a person in a situation like Elizabeth’s to

choose to end her life? If so, what level of moral agency would be necessary for
such a choice to be justified?

Case 3

Should the Drinking Age Be Eighteen?

In the majority of countries around the world, the legal drinking age is eighteen.
Germany, Ethiopia, Brazil, and China, just to name a few, all allow both the pur-
chase and the drinking of alcohol at that age. In the United States, however, the
purchase and consumption of alcohol under the age of twenty-one is prohibited,
even while the legal age for both smoking and voting is eighteen.12

The reasons for this are largely connected to drinking and driving. According
to a November 2008 press release by the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminis-
tration, a report showed that the strict drinking age laws saved 3,940 lives between
2003 and 2009.13

Younger drivers tend to be less safe. The high insurance premiums for drivers
under twenty-five attest to that. One reason for this is surely that younger drivers
are less experienced. Add alcohol to that, and the mix can be deadly. If it results in
fewer alcohol-related traffic fatalities, then surely the idea of restricting the drink-
ing age must be a good thing, right? Oddly, no one seems to consider the alterna-
tive of raising the driving age or strengthening driving requirements.

The idea that a higher drinking age lowers fatalities seems to imply that those
under the age of twenty-one are not sufficiently competent to make reasonable
decisions about drinking and driving. In short, they are not fully autonomous. Even
if they understand the risks associated with drinking and driving, they may still not
appreciate these risks sufficiently to make wise choices. Restricting those choices
protects others (i.e., passengers, pedestrians) as well as the driver.

Still, one may wonder why the rest of the world does not restrict drinking in
the same way. Of particular interest here may be the case of Germany. Because
Germany does not have a speed limit on freeways and because it is densely popu-
lated, there are many traffic fatalities. Wouldn’t the government want to prohibit
drinking under the age of twenty-one? Here’s one line of argument for why it

12There is no national law that sets the drinking age. But if a state sets a drinking age lower than
twenty-one, it forfeits 10% of its federal highway funds. Consequently, all fifty states have set the drink-
ing age at twenty-one.

13This report can be downloaded from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration. “Lives
Saved in 2009 by Restraint Use and Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws,” National Traffic Highway Safety
Administration, July 2010, accessed August 31, 2016,


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would not: autonomy is something that must be learned. If freedoms are gradu-
ally increased and if people are sufficiently educated (learning to drive in Germany
requires up to forty driving lessons with a licensed professional and a rigorous
course of study of traffic laws), then they can learn to make better choices earlier
in life. In other words, the sooner you give people responsibility, the sooner they
will learn to live up to it. It seems that the German government thinks eighteen-
year-olds are old enough to accept and deal with certain issues, including drink-
ing and driving.

A similar argument is made by a U.S. nonprofit group called Choose Responsi-
bility, which tries to get the drinking age lowered to eighteen. The group says that
if eighteen-year-olds “have the right to marry, adopt children, serve as legal guard-
ians for minors and purchase firearms from authorized dealers, and are trusted
with the vote and military responsibility,” then they can and should also be trusted
to drink responsibly.14 The group suggests that the current drinking age “infan-
tilizes adults.” It advocates a program by which young adults are educated about
alcohol and become licensed to use it, so that they can make more responsible
choices about drinking.15 Because illegal drinking in dorms has led to many deaths
on campus (students hide their binge drinking, making it hard to identify and help
a drinker in trouble), numerous college presidents have also come out in support
of a lower drinking age.16


1. Other than drinking and driving, what reasons do you think the U.S. govern-
ment has for prohibiting alcohol to those under the age of twenty-one?

2. What level of moral agency do you think is required to make well-reasoned
choices about drinking and driving?

3. Discuss the role of reasoning in decisions about drinking and driving. Why do
some people risk drinking and driving when others do not? Do they not fully
appreciate the consequences of their choices or do they just not care?

4. What different values do German lawmakers seem to be using compared to
U.S. lawmakers? Explain. Given Germany’s dense population and fewer speed
limits, are the German lawmakers taking unnecessary risks?

5. Are the U.S. drinking restrictions paternalistic? To what degree should we limit
individual freedoms to keep people from harming themselves?

6. Do you think that the drinking age in the United States should be lowered to
eighteen? Use the analyses of autonomy and agency to support your view.

14George F. Will, “Drinking Age Paradox,” Washington Post, April 19, 2007, A27.
15Choose Responsibility, accessed August 31, 2016,
16See the Amethyst Initiative Statement, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www.theamethystinitiative

.org/statement/ and the Amethyst Initiative signatories, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www.theamethyst

Case 3 (Continued)

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Case 4

The Living Will

Since the ordeal of Terri Schiavo—the woman in a permanent vegetative state who
spent more than ten years on a feeding tube (partly because she had no living
will)—the number of people preparing living wills has dramatically increased.

These documents are intended to extend the moral agency of an individual
beyond the stage at which they are competent to make informed healthcare deci-
sions. A living will allows individuals to state their medical preferences for times
when they have a terminal condition (e.g., cancer), have deteriorated mentally
(e.g., Alzheimer’s disease), or are in a permanent vegetative state. In such circum-
stances, the will would specify the individual’s choice regarding the continuation
of life-sustaining treatment or regarding resuscitation.

Filling out a living will requires a great deal of preparation and thought.
The document itself should be read very carefully. A doctor and lawyer should
be consulted to discuss one’s health concerns along with family and friends. It’s
also wise to establish a medical power of attorney for someone to be named as
a proxy—someone who can enforce the patient’s wishes as necessary. Once the
will has been completed and signed, copies should be distributed to the indi-
vidual’s doctor, health care institution, and the medical proxy. Family should also
be informed.

What does a living will look like? Here are excerpts from the New Jersey In-
struction Directive.17

GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS: . . . Initial ONE of the following two statements with
which you agree:

1. _____ I direct that all medically appropriate measures be provided to sustain my life,
regardless of my physical or mental condition

2. _____ There are circumstances in which I would not want my life to be prolonged by
further medical treatment. In these circumstances, life-sustaining measures should not
be initiated and if they have been, they should be discontinued. I recognize that this is
likely to hasten my death. In the following, I specify the circumstances in which I would
choose to forego life-sustaining measures.


Here you are asked to give specific instructions regarding two types of life-sustaining
measures-artificially provided fluids and nutrition and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

In the space provided, write in the bracketed phrase with which you agree:

1. . . . I also direct that artificially provided fluids and nutrition, such as by feeding tube or
intravenous infusion, __________

[be withheld or withdrawn and that I be allowed to die]

[be provided to the extent medically appropriate]

17Directives can differ significantly, depending on the state and its laws. “Instruction Directive,”
The New Jersey Commission on Legal and Ethical Problems in the Delivery of Health Care, accessed Sep-
tember 1, 2016, For
more on the New Jersey advanced directives, see “Advanced Directive,” State of New Jersey Department
of Health, accessed September 1, 2016,


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2. . . . if I should suffer a cardiac arrest, I also direct that cardiopulmonary resuscitation
(CPR) __________

[not be provided and that I be allowed to die]

[be provided to preserve my life, unless medically inappropriate or futile]

3. If neither of the above statements adequately expresses your wishes concern-
ing artificially provided fluids and nutrition or CPR, please explain your wishes below.
__________. . .

The directive also contains clauses addressing cases in which the patient is
severely mentally deteriorated or pregnant; additional requests can also be added
as desired.

Living wills appear to provide a desirable means for extending a person’s
moral agency to situations in which that person still has important interests but
cannot act on their own behalf. Because living wills address life-and-death issues,
however, it’s morally necessary that the person’s will be made up of competent or
even authentic choices; a lesser choice wouldn’t provide sufficient moral justifica-
tion for following a will’s instructions.

As we’ve seen, a person lacking important knowledge relevant to making
their decisions may still make a bad competent choice. But when it is a life-or-
death matter, even one’s competent choice may sometimes be justifiably ignored
(paternalism). Consider this: could a person who has never given birth really under-
stand what that experience is like? Could a person who has never fought correctly
anticipate how they would act in a battle? If you’ve never experienced anything
like that before, then can you accurately judge what will be most important to you
when that comes your way later on? People often see a situation differently once
they actually experience something like it. So imagine a healthy person, in life’s
prime and full of the pleasures and struggles of everyday life; can she adequately
anticipate the values and concerns most important to her when she is dying of an
incurable illness? Or experiencing severe, chronic pain? It’s not clear that making a
sufficiently knowledgeable choice about such things beforehand is even possible,
though it appears to be a moral necessity (see also Chapter Fourteen, §II).


1. Do you understand all the terms used in the excerpts of New Jersey Instruction
Directive? If not, what terms are not clear to you? How would you clarify these
terms for yourself ?

2. Is it morally okay for someone to sign such a document if the signer does not
understand all of the terms in the document? Why or why not?

3. Pregnancy is singled out as a condition warranting special consideration. What
moral issues are behind that?

4. What moral values come into play with the use of living wills?
5. What are the problems and advantages of setting up a living will for yourself

while you are still in good health?
6. Do you think that, at present, you can adequately imagine what medical care

you might want or not want in the kinds of situations addressed by a living

Case 4 (Continued)

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will? This is why people are now encouraged to establish medical proxies as
well. What advantages does having a carefully chosen proxy add to having a
living will?

Case 5

Buy Now, Pay Later: Student Credit Card Debt

You’ve seen it, right? Someone is sitting at a table outside the college cafeteria,
wanting eagerly to offer you a special student credit card with no annual fee! To
sweeten the deal, they may offer you a 0% interest rate for the first six months and
immediate approval as well, even if you’ve never previously held any credit. Who
could resist such a deal?

Apparently, many can’t. The average college student has $500 in credit card debt
according to NASDAQ.18 Even more unsettling is the fact that 10% of educational
debt is carried by credit cards—an extremely expensive way to attend college.19

Credit cards are valuable financial tools, but they require careful and knowl-
edgeable use. People don’t always realize, for instance, that they may be charged
hefty fees for a late payment or if they run over their credit limit.

Many companies aggressively market their credit cards to people who are a
high credit risk. Why? If they play their cards carefully enough, credit companies
can make good money off of these sorts of borrowers. Suppose you build up a
large card balance and then can’t afford to pay much more than the minimum
required monthly payment. This can easily leave you paying nothing but interest
for years while never actually freeing yourself from the debt itself (the borrowed
principal). That may be bad for you, but not for lenders who make most of their
profits on interest and fees.

Some of the worst arrangements come from stores that issue their own credit
cards. For one thing, having a particular store’s card increases the likelihood the cus-
tomer will make more purchases at that store. Second, store cards often have a higher
interest rate than regular credit cards—even 20% or more. (Ordinary cards some-
times set their rates this high for new credit holders, such as students.) So, do the
math: a $1,000 purchase stretched out over a year at 20% costs the cardholder $200
in interest, even without any other fees. Not paying can take the interest rate up as
high as 30%—even at a time when the government is lending at almost no interest.

When a lender has a good thing going, would he want you to pay down your
debt? Actually, companies call those who pay off their entire balance every month
“deadbeats” (because they avoid paying the company any fees or interest charges).
Really smart deadbeats may even earn “rewards” on their purchases so that they
make money by using their card. Naturally, credit companies much prefer more
naive borrowers who don’t manage their money well, who spend beyond their
means, and who don’t understand all the ins and outs of credit. Students are high
on their targeted list. Want to keep your card company happy about you? Just
spend and borrow in ways that will make you the loser who pays loads of interest
and maybe some fees every month.

18“Credit Card Debt Statistics,” Nasdaq, September 23, 2014, accessed October 15, 2015, http://

19 Blake Ellis, “Class of 2013 Grads Average $35,200 in Total Debt,” CNN Money, May 17, 2013,
accessed September 1,2016,

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1. Do you have your own credit card? Do you fully understand its terms and con-
ditions or at least know how to find out? Should the government require credit
companies to inform individuals about the risks of credit card debt?

2. How does the temptation to buy a new TV, iPhone, or new clothes affect a
person’s ability to make a responsible choice? Are older people likely to resist
temptations better than teens and/or college students?

3. Do you think that lenders share some of the moral responsibility when a stu-
dent gets into serious credit card debt?

4. American credit card debt is higher than anywhere else in the world. Why do so
many Americans get themselves into trouble with credit? At what level do you
think these people have acted as moral agents regarding their credit?

5. Other sorts of systems exist. For instance, a German “credit card” is more like a
debit card. There’s no interest and all charges are automatically deducted from a
specified account monthly. To extend your debt longer than a month, you must
overdraw your account at whatever interest the bank specifies. Most accounts
allow automatic overdrafts, usually limited to about one month’s pay. Is this
system paternalistic? Is it morally preferable to the American system? Why?

6. Make a self-assessment: do you pay your credit card bill each month on time?
Do you make only minimum payments? What is your favorite’ card’s inter-
est rate? What do you buy with it—only special things or everyday items like
pizza and groceries? Have you ever needed someone to bail you out with your
monthly payment? What do your answers tell you about yourself as a moral
agent regarding your use of credit cards? If there’s a problem, what is it?


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Making Moral Judgments


Although she was driving through torrential rains, Sandra Mendenez barely
noticed the weather. The chaos of water washing down her windshield seemed
like nothing compared with the turmoil swirling inside. Sandra, the director
of an adult English as a second language (ESL) program, was returning home
from teaching her regular Friday night ESL class. Her favorite student, José, had
seemed particularly nervous and distracted, and Sandra had asked him after class
if everything was okay. At that, José had broken down completely. Piecing his
story together, Sandra learned that José was an illegal immigrant from Honduras
and had lived 13 months in the United States. His troubles had started after he’d
refused to join a street gang that controlled his Honduran hometown. From that
time on, he had been repeatedly threatened, robbed, and beaten. After he some-
how managed to get out and make his way to New York, José had met Edgar, a
Guatemalan who had come to the United States two years ago from a similar
background. They had become friends, pooled their resources, and begun work-
ing to establish a better life for themselves in the United States. Just a few weeks
ago, however, Edgar had been deported back to Guatemala. Then, last night, José
had heard that Edgar had been murdered by a gang soon after his return. Grief
stricken and terrified, José felt he had nowhere to turn.1

Beside the heart-wrenching emotions this was causing Sandra, it also began
to dawn on her that she had a real dilemma on her hands. Because she received
government aid for her ESL program, she occasionally had to fill out a report
documenting her students. However, she could hardly imagine reporting José as
an illegal. That could lead to José’s deportation—which she found unthinkable.
However, her program funding could be suspended if the government were to
determine that she had harbored an illegal. Nor could she ask José to drop the

1This story is based on an Associated Press article by Jennifer Kay, “Fleeing the Gangs of Central
America; U.S. Denies Asylum to Desperate Youths,” The Star Ledger, May 25, 2006. Edgar Chocoy,
a Guatemalan teen, was killed by gang members shortly after being deported back to his homeland.

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program, for he now needed the friendship and support he found there more than
ever. But how could she submit a false report about José to the government? That
would also put her program at risk; worse, it would be lying. Despite her turmoil,
Sandra felt sure about one thing: it was extremely important that she do the right
thing. She just didn’t know what that was.

* * *
Although Sandra’s predicament includes legal matters, her professional respon-
sibilities, and her own personal feelings, what Sandra ultimately seeks is a moral
solution to the question: What should she do about José?

For Discussion
1. What different sorts of normative claims (prudential, legal, moral, etc.) come into

play in Sandra’s situation?
2. What is the morally right thing for her to do? Why?
3. What moral dilemmas from ordinary life have you faced, and how have you


Moral dilemmas and problems can develop in very ordinary, day-to-day situations.
Moral concerns can conflict with prudential, legal, and other normative concerns. They
can even pit moral claims against other moral claims.


In discussing values (see Chapter One), we saw that there are several different
normative realms, each with its own values and prescriptive claims. As Sandra’s
story shows, a single situation can bring several of these realms into conflict with
each other. A number of considerations pull Sandra in the direction of truthfully
reporting José: she has a legal duty to report him, a prudential motivation to not
jeopardize her ESL program, and a moral responsibility to tell the truth. But
other considerations push Sandra in the opposite direction: she also has pruden-
tial reasons for protecting her program by not reporting him, and she has moral
duties to remain loyal to José, to support his need for friends, and to do what she
can to protect his life—a genuine concern in this case. Whether we describe her
situation in terms of conflicting normative realms, values, or prescriptions, life
has clearly handed her a serious predicament. No wonder Sandra is torn about
what to do!

One fact about normative realms can help Sandra a little. Although claims
from any normative realm are important, moral values and prescriptions tend to
override other normative claims. Let’s explore this.

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Surely, claims of etiquette should not take precedence over moral claims. But
what about legal and prudential claims—don’t these sometimes rival moral claims
in importance? There is no tension when a claim from another realm agrees with
an applicable moral claim—for instance, Sandra is legally and morally called upon
to be honest. This sort of overlap is not unusual, since many laws derive from
moral claims. Yet doesn’t this imply a priority of the moral over law? There is also
a long-standing precedent for deferring to moral values when a law violates those
requirements. In opposing racially discriminatory laws, Martin Luther King Jr.
appealed to the moral requirements of justice, as did those nations that boycotted
South Africa’s system of apartheid. Abolitionists likewise battled slavery on moral

As for the prudential, it must be admitted that people sometimes do put their
own interests before the demands of morality. However, it’s also notable that we
usually judge such choices to be wrong. We condemn politicians who sacrifice
their constituents’ good to keep themselves in office; we admire people who lay
aside their own interests for some greater good. For instance, we commemorate
civil rights protesters who risked being attacked by dogs and clubbed by police
as they fought for equality. We also commend those soldiers, doctors, and relief
workers who risk their lives to combat genocide, rampaging diseases, and injus-
tices around the world. These observations support the priority of moral values
over other normative concerns.

Is it also possible for one moral value to override other moral values? Cases
like Sandra’s—where moral values also conflict with each other—suggest that this
must be possible. Sandra’s situation pits the moral value of truth telling against that
of loyalty. Clearly, one of these values will have to take precedence over the other
if Sandra is to resolve her dilemma.

For Discussion
1. Do you think that moral claims always override other types of claims? Why or

why not?
2. Identify several moral values and then discuss which seem most important.

When moral claims conflict with other normative claims, moral claims tend to override
other types of claims. It’s fairly obvious that the moral overrides etiquette; it also seems
to override both legal and prudential claims. It’s also possible for one moral claim to
take precedence over another moral claim.

Key Terms

• Override: to take precedence or priority over other claims.

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By now, you should be fairly clear about what moral claims are and what they are
not. But let’s try to be more precise. It seems that any moral claim—whether value
or prescriptive—must be:
1. Normative: Moral claims are not descriptive. Instead, they ultimately derive

from some moral norm or standard. A moral prescriptive claim says something
about what we should or should not do. A moral value claim usually asserts
something about a person or a character trait like honesty or dishonesty, kind-
ness or selfishness.

2. Truth claim: Moral claims are statements and so make assertions that are either
true or false. This is important, because it places moral discussions within the
range of rational consideration. Being true or false, moral claims can be sup-
ported or opposed by reasoned argument rather than, say, our mere feelings.2
Truth claims contrast with questions (“Why did you arrive early?”) and pure
expressions of emotion (“Oh no!”), neither of which can be true or false.3 Truth
claims can also be contrasted with commands (“Don’t lie”), which likewise
cannot strictly be true or false. Nevertheless, commands are easily converted
into prescriptive claims (“No one should lie”), which are either true or false.
Allowing for this, we will treat moral commands as indirectly expressing their
corresponding true or false prescriptive claims.4

3. Universalizable: Moral claims can commonly be generalized. It doesn’t seem pos-
sible for one person to have a moral right, for instance, that others could not also
have. Even when addressed to a single person, a moral claim can be extended to
other persons in similar circumstances. Since every person belongs on the same
moral footing, any moral claim should hold for everyone in the same way. Univer-
salizability distinguishes moral claims from the claims of both law and etiquette,
which vary depending on governments and social convention, respectively.

4. Overriding: Although non-moral normative claims are important for guid-
ing our behavior, moral claims tend to override or take precedence over other
kinds of normative claims. We saw this in Sandra’s case as well as in the cases
of many moral reformers who engaged in civil disobedience. Moral claims also
override claims of etiquette and even prudential claims.

For Discussion
1. Why is it important that moral claims be truth claims?
2. Would you remove or add anything to this characterization of moral claims?

2An argument is a set of statements (the premises) intended to support the truth of another state-
ment (the conclusion).

3Against this requirement, emotivism maintains that although moral claims appear to be truth
claims, they actually express nothing more than one’s emotional approval or disapproval.

4In our terminology (see Chapter One, §III), any objectively true claim holds for everyone,
though it may not apply to everyone, depending on their particular circumstances.

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3. Emotivism maintains that moral claims express nothing other than our emotional
approval or disapproval. (See footnote 3.) What do you think about this?

Moral claims have certain defining characteristics. Like claims in the other normative
realms, moral claims are normative and are truth claims. More distinctively, they also
seem to be universalizable. Moral claims may be uniquely overriding.

Key Terms

• Truth claim: asserts something true or false.

• Universalizable: can be generalized to all people, not just some.


We have seen (see Chapter One) how one or more foundational values might serve
as a basis for deriving and explaining all moral claims. Any instrumental value
(or instrumental value claim) can ultimately be derived from more foundational
values. In addition, any prescriptive claim can ultimately be derived from some
value or values. But since moral claims can only be either prescriptive or value
claims, all moral claims should ultimately be derivable from some set of founda-
tional values—whether those values are moral or non-moral. This is what most
ethical theories attempt to show.

To understand these derivations, we must understand moral reasoning. Al-
though people engage in moral thinking all the time, it will help to explicitly lay
out a reasoning pattern people follow when they do this. Understanding this pat-
tern will then equip us to understand how moral theories work.

Let’s return to Sandra and her moral dilemma concerning José. In struggling
with this problem, Sandra’s thought of several important moral values. She was par-
ticularly concerned about José’s life and about being dishonest. Laying out each step
of her reasoning with regard to the first might yield something like the following:

1. A human life is a great moral good. (principle)

My reporting José could later endanger his life. (descriptive claim)


Thus, I shouldn’t endanger José’s life by reporting him. (judgment)

Similarly for dishonesty:

2. No one should lie or deceive others. (principle)

By not reporting José on the form, I would deceive others. (descriptive claim)


Thus, I ought to report José. (judgment)

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These examples include three distinct kinds of claims—a principle, a descrip-
tive claim, and a judgment.5 In the first example, Sandra appeals to a moral value
claim about human life. This is a moral principle because it expresses a general-
ization: it holds for everyone and says nothing about any particular situation or
person. However, the principle alone can’t entail what Sandra should do in her
particular situation; it says nothing about deportation, murderous gangs, Sandra,
or José. So Sandra also needs to summarize the situation using a descriptive claim:
reporting José could later endanger his life. Remember that descriptive claims are
not normative: they say something about the world as it is and not as it should be.
By itself, the descriptive claim doesn’t tell Sandra what to do either. What it does
do is relate José’s life directly to the principle about human life. Taken together,
these claims then support the judgment that Sandra should not report José. Unlike
moral principles, a moral judgment makes a limited moral claim: it says some-
thing about specific persons and specific situations.

The same pattern is evidenced in the second example. Again, there’s a moral
principle, though this time the principle is prescriptive. Since principles are too
general to say what Sandra should do, a descriptive claim is added to relate the
principle to her situation. The combination of these (their order makes no dif-
ference) then leads her to the conclusion—a moral judgment—that she ought to
report José.

The pattern of reasoning in both examples comes to the following.

Principle + Descriptive Claim(s) → Judgment

Again, principles hold for everyone; judgments, however, apply only to particular
individuals and circumstances. Any descriptive claims (there may be more than
one) link the principle to the judgment by describing the situation being addressed
by that judgment.

We will call this standardized pattern of thinking moral reasoning. We often
employ moral reasoning to make moral judgments, and it doesn’t matter whether
the principle happens to be a value or prescriptive claim. But Sandra now has
conflicting judgments to deal with. Is there any way for her to resolve this con-
flict and so determine what she ought to do? There may be. Suppose that another
moral principle asserts that protecting human life is more important than telling
the truth. She might then reason as follows:

3. It is morally more important to protect someone’s life from danger than to tell
the truth. (principle)6

My situation forces me either to endanger José’s life by telling the truth or to
protect his life by lying. (descriptive claim)

Thus, it is right in this situation to lie about José to protect his life.


5Descriptive, prescriptive, and value claims were introduced in Chapter One, Section II.
6We do not mean to suggest that we hold this or any of the principles used in these examples.

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Even young children follow this pattern in their thinking (though people seldom
do this explicitly):

4. I know that, when asked a question, people should tell the truth. (principle)

Mom just asked me if I ate the last cookie. (descriptive claim)

I did eat the last cookie. (descriptive claim)


Thus, I should tell Mom that I was the one who ate the last cookie. (judgment)

All of these examples use the same reasoning pattern to arrive at a moral judg-
ment. It turns out that a very similar pattern can be used to derive other principles
from more fundamental moral principles. Let’s go back to the moral principles
Sandra might appeal to:

(a) Nobody should lie or deceive others.
(b) A human life has foundational moral worth.

Being principles, these two claims are already universal. However, Sandra might
also have given thought to more fundamental principles like:

(c) One should always do what promotes the greatest amount of overall happiness.
(d) We should never treat persons as mere means to achieve our own ends.
(e) We should act toward others the same way we’d like them to act toward us.

Can you see that these five principles differ in their generality? Principle
(a) talks about lying, but doesn’t say anything about capital punishment, murder,
or burglary. While (b) has implications for murder (and perhaps for capital pun-
ishment), it says nothing about breaking promises. In contrast, (c), (d), and (e)
seem relevant to just about anything we might consider doing. Let’s call these
foundational moral principles—principles from which other moral claims (in-
cluding other principles) can be derived. Because we don’t want an endless string
of derivations, we should add that foundational principles must also be truly basic:
no foundational moral principle can be derived from any yet more foundational
moral principle.

Foundational principles can support many other principles. For instance,
(c) seems to support moral principles like “People shouldn’t commit murder” and
“No one should intentionally injure an innocent person,” since violating these nor-
mally reduces overall happiness. Principle (d) supports principles against lying,
holding slaves, and bribing politicians to change their votes. Principle (e) likewise
seems to support a great many derived principles.

The pattern of reasoning for deriving principles is:

Foundational principle + Descriptive claim(s) → Derived principle

Here are some examples:
6. One should do what best promotes overall happiness. (foundational principle)

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Taking others’ things produces more pain than happiness. (descriptive claim)


No one should take what belongs to another. (derived principle)

7. Never treat people as mere means to achieve your ends. (foundational principle)

Lying treats another person as merely a means to get something we want.
(descriptive claim)


We should not lie. (derived principle)

Each of these cites a more general principle, which is then brought “down to
earth” a bit by some descriptive claim(s) to yield some less general principle. This
suggests that any non-foundational moral principle (whether a prescriptive or a
value claim) can ultimately be derived from one or more foundational principles.
If the latter consist solely of value claims, then all moral claims can be derived, as
suggested previously, from just one or a few foundational values. Much of ethics
has tried to identify a set of truly foundational moral principles or values—what
an ethical theory takes to be the basis of the moral realm.

For Discussion
1. Come up with some moral principles. Use the pattern Principle + Descriptive

Claim(s) → Judgment to infer judgments from each of these.
2. Come up with some moral judgments. In keeping with the pattern Principle +

Descriptive Claim(s) → Judgment, suggest principles from which each of these
judgments could be inferred.

3. Thoughtfully evaluate the moral principle: “It is wrong to do anything that could
harm another.” Is it true? Is it foundational?

4. Following the same pattern demonstrated with principles (c) and (d), show how
principle (e) can also be used to derive other moral principles.

Moral judgments may be inferred from moral principles using the pattern we are call-
ing moral reasoning:

Principle + Descriptive claim(s) → Judgment

Moral principles are general moral claims (whether value or prescriptive) that are not
specifically about any particular situation. In contrast, a judgment is limited and only
applies to some specific set of cases. Though we are seldom explicitly aware of it, we
often employ this pattern. Roughly the same pattern can also be used to derive more
limited moral principles from more foundational principles:

Foundational principle + Descriptive claim(s) → Derived principle

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A foundational moral principle supports all other moral principles and is also basic: it
cannot itself be derived from any more foundational moral principle. A complete set of
foundational moral principles can serve as a basis for deriving all other moral claims.
Most ethical theories attempt to identify such a basis.

Key Terms

• Moral principle: a moral generalization that holds for everyone in the same
way. Principles are not limited to particular people or situations.

• Moral judgment: a moral claim limited to specific people or situations.

• Foundational moral principle: a moral principle that can serve as the basis
for deriving other moral principles but that cannot be derived from any more
foundational moral principle.

• Moral reasoning: the reasoning pattern above that yields a moral judgment.


The previous pattern has often been considered the only way to arrive at moral
judgments. However, this view has come under fire by those who challenge the
universalizability requirement for moral claims.7 According to moral particular-
ism, many moral judgments are not inferred from moral principles but can only be
made case by case. In this view, it’s particularly important that we reflect carefully
upon the moral features and nuances of the setting before making any judgment.
(See Chapters Eleven and Twelve for theories taking this approach.)

Your eight-year old child is dying of cancer, and is very afraid. She has asked
whether or not she will survive. What should you tell her? The moral principle
about always telling the truth furnishes a clear answer, but is it that simple? Per-
haps there’s a conflicting moral principle about not harming others, and you know
she will fall into painful terror if told the truth. Given this conflict, is your problem
now just a matter of determining which principle takes precedence? In fact, it
seems that you need to reflect more deeply than this. Imagine, then, that you have
previously seen your child demonstrate an inner resolve that has enabled her to
reconcile herself to fears and disappointments. Furthermore, you know that she
trusts you implicitly and would be deeply hurt if she ever thought that you might
mislead her. You also know that she would want you close to encourage and sup-
port her attempts to understand and accept her dying. You expect that, in the end,
she will arrive at a state of moral and emotional strength that she could not achieve
any other way. You also know yourself, and that while you cringe at the thought of
her initial terror, you want to “be there” for her as a trustworthy companion, and
you want to share her struggle with sensitivity and care. Finally, you recognize that
if you did not personally tell her, you would feel compromised and guilty for the
rest of your life. In view of all these reasons, you decide that you should tell her.

7This is why we initially referred to the pattern as the “standardized” pattern, meaning to imply
that it’s not the only possible pattern for moral thinking.

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It’s hard to imagine arriving at this judgment without reflecting in this way
upon all the situation’s particulars. Although these reflections are clearly moral,
it seems too difficult and even unnatural to insist that they all be reformulated
into a set of inferences that all follow the pattern: principle, description, judgment.8
Notice that these reflections focus especially upon (a) the nature and expectations
of each person involved and (b) the nature of the relationship(s) between them.
This is no accident, for as moral particularists often maintain, the moral problems
of individuals and relationships involve too many unique but crucial details for
any universal principle to capture. If this is true, then maybe there’s another way
to think through moral judgments. This alternate pattern—moral reflection—is
still a kind of moral thinking but not one that infers judgments from principles.
Although it does include descriptive claims, these no longer serve to relate prin-
ciples to circumstances. Their role, instead, is to “frame” the entire moral setting.
They indicate what the moral judgment needs to be about and which consider-
ations are most relevant to arriving at this judgment. The pattern seems to be:

Descriptive claim(s) +

Moral considerations about the persons involved +

Moral considerations about the interpersonal relationships involved

→ Moral judgment

Here is how this might work out for the dying child story:

Your eight-year-old child is dying of cancer. (descriptive claim)

She is very afraid of dying. (descriptive claim)

She has asked you whether or not she will survive. (descriptive claim)

You and she have an ongoing and close relationship. (descriptive claim)

She has the strength to overcome her fear. (moral consideration: child)

The truth will develop her morally/emotionally. (moral consideration: child)

Not telling her would wound and compromise you. (moral consideration: you)

She trusts you and expects your honesty. (moral consideration – relationship)

She needs your support while dying. (moral consideration – relationship)

You want to caringly share her struggles. (moral consideration – relationship)


You should tell her the truth that she is dying. (moral judgment)

8Of course, just because a thing is hard doesn’t prove it can’t be done. A universalist would reply
that these considerations could be analyzed into several separate uses of moral reasoning, each having
its own principle and each describing distinct facts about the situation.

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We do seem to think through many of our moral judgments—particularly
those that center on personal characteristics and relationships—in this way. Does
this pattern genuinely differ from that of moral reasoning? Could it at least be
strengthened by adding some relevant moral principles as well? These questions
raise controversies. But in any case, moral reflection has a feel of familiarity and
reality that sometimes seems lacking in the more analytic, principle-based pattern
of moral reasoning.

For Discussion
1. What is the morally right thing for the parent to do in this situation? Why?
2. Do you think that moral reflection and moral reasoning genuinely differ?
3. Could this example of moral reflection be reformulated into a series of distinct

applications of moral reasoning that end with the same moral judgment?
4. Does your own moral thinking follow either or both of these patterns? Do you

follow one more than the other?

The standardized pattern of moral reasoning may accurately analyze much of our
moral thinking. But moral particularism has challenged this by arguing that—
especially when the case involves people and relationships—our moral thinking fol-
lows a different pattern. That pattern, called moral reflection, doesn’t explicitly appeal
to moral principles:

Descriptive Claim(s) +

Moral considerations about the persons involved +

Moral considerations about the interpersonal relationships involved

→ Moral judgment

Key Terms

• Moral particularism: many moral judgments are not inferred from moral
principles but can only be made case by case.

• Moral reflection: a pattern of moral thinking that doesn’t infer judgments
from explicit principles but instead emphasizes the individuals and relation-
ships involved in a setting framed by a set of descriptive claims.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. Consider the following moral judgments. What moral principles do these judg-

ments derive from? For each judgment, lay out a complete pattern of reasoning:
principle + descriptive claim(s) → judgment.

a. I shouldn’t shoplift a candy bar from this grocery display.

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b. I should accurately report my income on my federal tax form.
c. I shouldn’t copy test answers from my friend sitting next to me.
d. I ought to pay my friend the $10 I owe him since he needs it right now.

2. Consider the following moral principles. What judgments could be inferred from
these? For each, lay out the complete pattern of reasoning:

principle + descriptive claim(s) → judgment.

a. It is morally wrong to steal from others.
b. A morally upright person is honest.
c. Adults should respect the choices of other adults without interfering.
d. One should aid others in the world by giving to international charities.

3. Fill out the following story further and then describe how you could reach a judg-
ment regarding what to do using moral reflection:

A good friend has lost her job and has nowhere to go. She is nearly broke and cannot
afford an apartment. She has no family. Should you offer her your home and share
some of her expenses for a while?

4. Tell another story that requires making a moral judgment and show specifically
how it would be analyzed by the pattern of moral reflection.

Additional Resources
“Cultural Relativism.” Accessed September 2, 2016.

watch?v=PmvtbnXBoCQ. This YouTube video is a fairly good introduction to objec-
tivism, relativism, and subjectivism. Note: cultural or popular relativism is described
as “intersubjective” in this video.

Timmons, Mark. “Introduction to Moral Theory: The Nature and Evaluation of Moral The-
ories.” In Conduct and Character, Readings in Moral Theory. 5th ed. Edited by Mark
Timmons. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006. This provides an excellent introduction to
the nature of ethics and especially to ethical theories.

Case 1

Mr. Research

“Mr. Research” conducted his business at X University for at least ten years, starting
in the mid-1980s. Mr. Research was not his real name, of course, but this is how
most people referred to him. Mr. Research (himself an alumnus of X University)
worked mostly out of the university library. Although he was not the only one pro-
viding such services, his work had a good reputation. For a fee of around $100, he
would provide “research” on any topic to students with the full knowledge that the
students would turn this research in as their own papers.9

Were these activities legal? Mr. Research claimed that they were, because he was
providing research, not papers. Whether students turned this research in as their own

9All of this case’s material derives from an interview conducted by Yvonne Raley on April 22,
2007, with an individual who wishes to remain anonymous.


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was not his responsibility—or so he claimed. Mr. Research had consulted a lawyer,
who assured him that he was protected legally. When faculty approached him about
his “work,” he would usually refuse to talk. Although his livelihood depended on these
students, Mr. Research expressed great contempt for those who sought his services.

These days, most students can cheat from the privacy of their own homes.
Typing “term papers” into Google results in a long list of Web sites that provide
papers for a fee (sometimes they are even free). Some sites explicitly offer A-grade
papers written by experts, which betrays the assumption that these papers will
be handed in for a grade with the student’s name on it. To protect against legal
challenges, the Web sites usually also include a disclaimer saying that the services
of the site are for purposes of assistance only and that proper referencing should
be provided.10 As a result, the only one who can be penalized is the student who
turns in work that is not her own; whoever sponsors the Web site can’t be touched.

Despite the obvious risks of punishment, downloading entire papers and pla-
giarizing parts of papers from Internet sources is becoming more and more wide-
spread. Repeated large-scale studies conducted at Rutgers University have found
that approximately half of undergraduate as well as graduate students admit to
copying at least a few sentences from an Internet source without proper referenc-
ing. The numbers are even higher among high school students.

Many colleges and universities are aggressively fighting this trend. They have
toughened their punishment for plagiarism, they have instituted honor codes,
and they have taken out licenses with sites like Turnitin, which compare submit-
ted papers against content on Web sites, research databases, and archived student
papers. If a paper is plagiarized, it’s usually not hard for instructors to find that out.


1. Do you think that Mr. Research’s activities, or the activities of Web sites that
supply term papers, can be defended morally? They apparently are legal.

2. What interests conflict in this case? Which of these should take precedence?
3. Does Mr. Research share any moral responsibility for his customers’ cheating?

Provide some arguments to support your view.
4. What is your moral evaluation of the students who use these services? Give

your reasons. How might a Web site help students learn about a subject and
write better papers but not encourage dishonesty?

5. What supportable universal moral claims provide reasons for or against
Mr. Research’s conduct?

Case 2

Who’s Not Coming to Dinner?

Alice and Arlene had been going out for a while now, and things were getting
serious between them. It had started when they met each other at a meeting

10See the disclaimer at “Welcome to Essay Town, Essay Town, accessed September 1, 2016, http://

Case 1 (Continued)


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of the feminist club. Now here they were, a year later, applying to the same law
school. There was one problem, though. Whenever Arlene pressed Alice to intro-
duce her to her parents, she evaded. “They won’t understand,” was her attitude.
“They don’t discriminate, I swear, but they are overprotective. They’ll see how
much I love you, and they’ll respect that and love you too. But, like all parents,
they want me married to a boy, be taken care of, and all that. Also, they’ll worry
that others won’t approve of our relationship, that I’ll be marginalized profession-
ally, and that any kids we adopt will be teased in school. So what can I do? I don’t
want to hurt them.”

There’s mixed news about same-sex relationships. The number of same-sex
marriages has increased since they were declared a constitutional right by the Su-
preme Court in 2015 (though new census data are not yet in). Yet there’s still a
social stigma against same-sex relationships in many parts of the country and for
many groups of people.

The media has often reinforced that stigma. How often have same-sex couples
been depicted on TV or in movies? Things are changing rapidly, and there are a
few notable exceptions (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal). Still, most TV shows and
movies have stuck with portraying heterosexual relationships. In much of the rest
of the world, any portrayal of same-sex relationships is even more taboo.


1. Do you think that Alice’s concerns regarding her parents—that others will
disapprove, that Alice could be professionally marginalized, and that their
kids would be teased—are factually correct? Evaluate the social stigma at-
tached to same-sex relationships today, particularly in your own family’s
social circles.

2. If they do come to know about Arlene, would Alice’s parents be morally jus-
tified in cautioning Alice against such a marriage? Would they have a moral
responsibility to caution Alice?

3. List some moral principles relevant to this case and use them to argue for your
position regarding same-sex relationships. Apply the pattern of moral reason-
ing to support your concluding judgment.

4. Given your movie and TV experience, how do you think same-sex relation-
ships should be portrayed? Should the media take a pioneering role in this area,
should it instead portray things more as they used to be, or should it just try to
match social trends and attitudes?

5. Does the media have a moral responsibility to include more portrayals of same-
sex relationships than they have previously? If a TV network owner was morally
uncomfortable with certain kinds of relationships, would she be morally wrong
to avoid including such portrayals in her network’s programming? Apply the
pattern of moral reasoning to support your concluding judgment.

6. Alternately, answer the preceding question in terms of interracial relation-
ships or relationships between ethnic or religious groups that presently tend to
oppose each other. Apply the pattern of moral reasoning.

Case 2 (Continued)

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Case 3

Who’s Responsible for Obesity?

The recipe for combating widespread obesity in America has added a newer in-
gredient: people have been suing major corporations because of the health risks
associated with their foods. For example, Kraft was sued to stop marketing Oreo
cookies because they contain high amounts of trans fats. When Kraft offered to
change the recipe, the lawsuit was dropped.

One of the most interesting lawsuits was brought against McDonald’s in 2003:
two teens just under eighteen, Pelman and Bradley, filed a suit alleging that they
had developed serious health problems—including obesity, high blood pressure,
diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol—as a result of their consuming large
amounts of McDonald’s food (they ate there about ten times a week). They also
argued that McDonald’s advertising had misled the public by claiming that its
foods were nutritious, while not acknowledging the health risks posed by many of
its most popular products.11

The judge dismissed the lawsuit, maintaining that the plaintiffs hadn’t
adequately proven their case. First, as he explained in his court opinion, the
McDonald’s ads about its food being nutritious had been pulled from TV in the late
1980s, and the plaintiffs couldn’t establish that they had seen them. Second, it’s
well known that much of McDonald’s food contains “high levels of cholesterol, fat,
salt and sugar, and that such attributes are bad for one.” Any reasonable consumer,
therefore, could determine that some McDonald’s foods can adversely affect
health. Lastly, the judge stated that the plaintiffs failed to prove that McDonald’s
food had caused their health problems. Proving this would make it necessary to
“isolate the particular effect of McDonald’s foods on their obesity.” It would also
require information about the plaintiffs’ other dietary habits, exercise, and their
families’ relevant health history. That information had not been provided, nor was
any expert medical testimony supplied to support the plaintiffs’ claims.

The teens appealed, arguing that McDonald’s was still responsible for false
advertising. In 2005, the Appeals Court reversed the part of the case regarding
deceptive advertising and allowed the case to be reopened. To win, however, the
plaintiffs would still have to show a causal connection between McDonald’s food
and their health problems.

Since then, McDonald’s has made several positive changes. Nutritional in-
formation is now fairly easily available, and the company has also stopped using
trans fats. Perhaps because of the 2004 documentary film Super Size Me12 (which
explored the connection between obesity and widely available supersized por-
tions), it has also dropped its supersized offerings.

Meanwhile, over twenty states now have “commonsense consumption” laws
that prevent suing for damages related to obesity. These laws don’t include damages
for deceptive advertising, however. Meanwhile, 60% of Americans consider fast-food
restaurants responsible for obesity in children; 86% also hold parents responsible.13

11 The information for this case, including quotations, is taken from Pelman v McDonald’s,
Docket No. 03–0910, United States Court of Appeals (2004).

12Morgan Spurlock, dir., Super Size Me (New York: Hart Sharp Video, 2004).
13“Second Opinion in Pelman v. McDonald’s Now Finally Dismissing Case with Prejudice,” Ban-, accessed September 1, 2016, John Banzhaf represented
Pelham and Bradley in their 2003 suit.


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From a moral perspective, any company that deliberately misleads the public
about the risks of consuming their products is clearly doing wrong. In general,
businesses have a responsibility to ensure that their products are safe and measure
up to reasonable expectations. At the same time, many view lawsuits like the one
against McDonald’s to be frivolous. After all, any intelligent consumer knows that
fast food and “junk” food aren’t the healthiest things to eat. Also, isn’t each person’s
choice of how they eat and exercise their own responsibility (or, for children, their
parents’ responsibility)?


1. A recent study indicated that people significantly underestimate the amount of
calories contained in restaurant food. It stands to reason, therefore, that people
also don’t know how much cholesterol or sodium is contained in what they eat.
They also probably don’t know how much cholesterol or how much sodium
they should consume in a day. How much, in your view, does a reasonable con-
sumer need to know about such facts to be able to make a proper determination
about what foods to eat?

2. Suppose you decide to follow a healthy diet. How difficult will it be to follow
through on your decision? What factors—both internal and external—make
proper eating more difficult? What sort of information do you need to achieve
a healthy diet? Is this information readily available? If you later fail to keep to
your diet, whose fault would that be?

3. The plaintiffs failed to establish their side. What sorts of facts would have more
strongly supported their claims?

4. Consider the following statements (note: these may not all be true!):
A. McDonald’s has the right to sell whatever foods it likes.
B. It is wrong to intentionally cause harm.
C. If you don’t want to gain weight, you must eat a healthy diet.
D. Any company should make their food products’ nutritional information

available on the label.
E. You shouldn’t enter a fast-food restaurant without wearing shoes.
F. Fast-food companies shouldn’t sell any foods that are unhealthy.
G. Greasy foods taste best.
H. It’s illegal for a company to engage in false advertising.
I. Parents have a responsibility to provide a healthy diet to their children.
J. Fast-food companies have an obligation to warn about the adverse effects

of their foods in all their advertisements.
K. All consumers are equally and fully responsible for their eating habits.
L. People have a right to choose whatever they want to eat.
M. If I go out to eat, I’ll take a cheeseburger over a salad any day.
N. Older children and adults are responsible for their own food choices and

health habits.

Case 3 (Continued)

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O. Parents and schools are responsible to educate children in good eating and
good health habits.

First, categorize the preceding statements into the several categories introduced
in Chapter One (i.e., moral, legal, prudential, etc.). Are there any additional moral
principles and values that are not mentioned but that you think apply to this case?
Do any principles from your complete list of moral principles (both mentioned
and added) conflict? Are any false? Why? Which principles override the others?
5. If you think fast food restaurants share at least some responsibility for people’s

eating habits, what do you think they ought to do? Why? Apply the pattern of
moral reasoning to support your judgments.

6. Does it make a difference that these teens were under eighteen (see Chapter

7. Compare the teen’s lawsuit to those previously brought against tobacco compa-
nies regarding the health risks of cigarettes.


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Moral Psychology and Egoism


Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist in the 1960s, wondered why so many ordi-
nary Germans had participated in Nazi atrocities. Would most people have acted
similarly? To find out, Milgram advertised for male volunteers aged twenty to fifty
to participate in a “learning study.”

From a volunteer’s point of view, the study ran as follows. After the volunteer
was randomly assigned a “teacher” role, another volunteer was randomly made
a “learner.” Strapped in a chair with electrodes attached, the learner was asked to
memorize a set of word pairs. He would then be given a word and told to identify
the correct paired word from four choices. Meanwhile, the teacher sat in a nearby
room with a large control panel. Whenever the learner answered incorrectly, the
teacher was told by an experimenter to give the learner an electric shock. The
shock would increase with each mistake. The teacher selected the shock volt-
age from switches labeled in 15-volt increments from 15 volts (slight shock) to
450 (danger/severe shock). As the learner inevitably began making mistakes, the
teacher would be told to keep raising the voltage. Soon, the learner would beg for
the shocks to stop; later, the learner would shriek at each shock, screaming to be
released. If the teacher objected to an increase, the experimenter would quietly
say “please continue.” Further objections were answered more and more firmly:
continuing the experiment was “required,” then “essential,” and, finally, “there is
no choice”—though nothing forced the teacher volunteer to stay.

In reality, everyone was an actor except the “teacher”—the experiment’s actual
subject. The shocks weren’t real, and nothing was random. Nevertheless, the sub-
jects believed that they were administering increasingly painful and dangerous
shocks. The most shocking part of the experiment, however, was its results: every
one of forty subjects raised the voltage to at least 300 volts, and two-thirds of them
raised it to the full 450 volts. In one variation, the subject had the shock procedure
explained to him and was then asked to order another person to actually adminis-
ter the shocks. In this version, nearly every subject had the shock voltage taken to

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maximum—apparently because the presence of a “middleman” made subjects feel
less responsible for what they were doing.1

Despite the evidence, it’s hard to accept Milgram’s results and their implica-
tions. Apparently, most of us can be easily persuaded by authority to do terrible
things to others. After all, Milgram’s subjects could have simply refused to con-
tinue as a small number in fact did. It’s especially disconcerting to think that even
though we know it’s wrong to inflict pain and put innocent persons at risk, most
of us would do such things under little pressure. Is this because most of us lack
moral character?

Since Milgram’s experiments, thousands of psychological experiments relating
to moral behavior and attitudes have taken place, creating the field of moral psy-
chology. Primarily a combination of experimental psychology, biology, and philo-
sophical ethics, moral psychology investigates the psychological side of morality.
In its relatively short life, it has established some surprising results and intensified
some ethical controversies. What it has not done—since empirical studies cannot
usually solve philosophical problems—is decisively alter much of ethics itself. As
it does speak to a number of ethical questions in significant ways, however, moral
psychology can tell us more about ourselves as moral beings. That makes it worth
looking at before we begin our study of ethical theories in earnest (Part II).

For Discussion
1. How do you feel about the ethics of Milgram’s experiments themselves?
2. What is your reaction to Milgram’s results? How do you think you would have

acted as a “teacher” in his experiment?
3. Suppose that our brains are completely programmed morally by age five, so that

from then on our moral choices are fully determined and never actually free. How
would this affect ethics?

There is, naturally, a psychology of moral behavior, attitudes, and emotional re-
sponses. Like all psychology, moral psychology works through empirical observa-
tion and experiment. Its results can have interesting things to say to ethics. Milgram’s
experiments, for instance, raise some unsettling doubts about our moral character.
We must understand, however, that such investigations cannot directly resolve most
philosophical problems of ethics.

Key Terms

• Moral psychology: a largely empirical field that particularly brings together
ethical theory and human psychology to investigate moral phenomena.

1S.  A. McLeod, “The Milgram Experiment,” Simply Psychology, 2007, accessed September 1,

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Milgram’s experiments lead us to wonder about people’s moral character. But there
are other factors that influence our actions. A wide range of experiments sug-
gests that a problem’s decision frame can also strongly affect us. A decision frame
includes the entire setting of a problem as the agent sees it: (a) how a problem,
along with its choices and consequences, are presented and (b) the problem’s wider

(a) Presentation: A particularly striking demonstration of framing comes
from Tversky and Kahneman.3 They presented two groups with differently framed
problems, each problem offering a choice between two options:

• Problem 1: An imported disease threatens the nation. Experts expect six
hundred people to die unless countermeasures are taken. Two different
programs have been proposed. “If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be
saved. . . . If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people
will be saved and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.”

• Problem 1:

Program A Program B
100% chance: 200 saved 33% chance: 600 saved

67% chance: 0 saved
• Problem 2: Given the same disease story: “If Program C is adopted 400

people will die. If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody
will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.” (p. 453)

• Problem 2:

Program C Program D
100% chance: 400 die 33% chance: 0 die

67% chance: 600 die
Which program looks best to you for each problem?

Did you notice that the two problems are exactly the same? “The only differ-
ence is that the outcomes are described in problem 1 by the number of lives saved
and in problem 2 by the number of lives lost.”4 For Problem 1, 72% of respondents
wanted to make sure that at least some are saved (Program A) rather than risk losing

2A choice’s frame refers “to the decision-maker’s conception of the acts, outcomes, and contin-
gencies associated with a particular choice.” Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “The Framing of
Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” Science, 211.30 (January 1981), 453, including social and
cultural influences (see this chapter, §III). A decision frame relates closely to how descriptive claims
frame a moral problem in moral reflection (see Chapter Four, §IV).

3Tversky and Kahneman, “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.” This ex-
ample is also presented in John Doris and Stephen Stich, “Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches,”
in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 ed.), ed. Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.
edu/archives/fall2014/entries/moral-psych-emp/, accessed September 1, 2016.

4Tversky and Kahneman, “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.”

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all (Program B). For Problem 2, 78% found it more appealing to take a risk to save all
(Program D), rather than accept the certain loss of four hundred people (Program
C). People desired to avoid risks when considering positive outcomes (Problem 1)
but willingly took risks when faced with negative outcomes (Problem 2). People
react very differently depending on how a problem is presented.

(b) Context: Early experiments in social psychology also found the following:5

• Emotional influences: Subjects were “set up” to find a dime (in 1972; today,
this would probably take at least a dollar!). They were then placed near a
woman who dropped some papers. These subjects were twenty-two times
more likely to help the woman than those who had not previously found
any money.6

• Noise and gender: These also seem to affect people’s helping behavior—their
willingness to help someone in need. A 1975 study by Mathews and Canon7
had subjects encounter an injured man who was having trouble picking up
several dropped books. Subjects were over five times more likely to help the
man when background noise was normal compared to when it was high
(due to a lawnmower running nearby). Later studies indicate that noise and
the subject’s sex may interact in even more complex ways to affect help-
ing behavior (in part, men help others, especially women, more often than
women help others).8

These results have been given different interpretations, and there are also
many conflicting studies. Nevertheless, a few things stand out. First, there seems
to be significant support for psychological situationism: the view that various as-
pects of a person’s situation (i.e., its decision frame) influence their behavior (par-
ticularly their willingness to help others) and even how they think. These include
factors completely irrelevant to morality.

It may not be so surprising that social pressures and perceived authority can
influence us (Milgram), but it certainly is surprising that such trivial framing dif-
ferences can affect us so substantially. After all, we think of ourselves and others
as remaining fairly consistent over time—as having enduring personal charac-
ters. We thus expect people to behave much as they have previously: honest and
friendly people will stay that way, and selfish people will continue to act selfishly.
We think that people have distinctive personalities and character traits that define
them over time.

Yet this is where things get complicated. Studies of character traits (exclud-
ing mental capabilities) have failed to correlate traits with behavior. This lack of

5Much of what follows is based on Doris and Stich, “Moral Psychology.”
6Ibid., section 4.
7Doris and Stich, “Moral Psychology”, section 4.
8“The results of a field study on the streets of a major city supported the major hypothesis and

revealed that sex of the participants involved was the major predictor of helping behavior.” Daniel M.
Geller and Gregory P. Malia, “The Effect of Noise on Helping Behavior Reconsidered,” Basic and Ap-
plied Social Psychology, 2.1 (1981): 11–25.

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correlation was underscored by Walter Mischel’s 1968 bombshell, Personality and
Assessment.9 In fact, Mischel largely rejected the notion of personality itself, lead-
ing Lewis Goldberg later to sarcastically comment, “Once upon a time, we had no
personalities.”10 Since Mischel, however, Goldberg and others have argued that the
case against personality traits doesn’t rule out all types of traits; rather, it mainly
challenges our most familiar trait concepts. In place of the latter, the Big Five per-
sonality model correlates five psychologically oriented traits to behavior: extro-
version/introversion, neuroticism (stability), agreeableness, conscientiousness,
and openness (in attitude and perspective). Of these, agreeableness ties closely
to moral behavior, as it includes moral inclinations like sympathy and empathy;
it also includes altruism—a concern for the well-being of others independent of
any self-interest.

Human psychology is complex. On one side, there’s evidence that character
traits and enduring personalities do exist, as common sense has long contended.
This helps explain the consistencies we find in people’s attitudes and actions over
even long periods of time. On the other side, there remains much evidence in sup-
port of psychological situationism, which helps explain the inconsistencies we ob-
serve in people’s behavior from time to time. It seems that personality and moral
character somewhat influence our actions, though each problem’s situation or de-
cision frame can significantly influence how we think and behave as well.

Next, since situationism shows that personality and moral character are not
as influential as previously assumed, this casts doubt upon any ethical theory
(e.g., virtue theory) that assigns an important moral role to personal character
(see Chapter Eleven). Some virtue theorists have replied by suggesting that moral
character traits (e.g., honesty, courage, generosity) are often quite rare: “Virtue is
not widely instantiated, but is expected to be found in only a few extraordinary
individuals.”11 But if this is true, then virtue theory is largely irrelevant to most
people’s moral experience. Another response proposes that virtuous behavior de-
pends more upon our social environment than upon what is within ourselves. If
my society consistently rewards and approves of moral behaviors while it margin-
alizes those who fall short, then I am likely to act morally as long as I feel this social
pressure to conform.12 But this response likewise largely abandons the position
that our actions reflect our personal character.

There may be a different way to respond to the challenge of situationism. Let’s
begin by noting that our society has long emphasized laws and general principles
as essential tools for making people act rightly. Our moral thinking, therefore,
tends to refer to moral principles. Moral character, on the other hand, has not
received much attention for a century or more. As a result, parents and teachers
hand kids “the rules”—usually along with a list of threatened punishments. But

9Walter Mischel, Personality and Assessment (New York: Wiley, 1968).
10Lewis R. Goldberg, “The Structure of Phenotypic Personality Traits,” American Psychologist,

48.1 (January 1993): 26–34.
11Doris and Stich, “Moral Psychology,” section 4.

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neither seems to be aware of what Aristotle insisted upon long ago: that people can
only achieve a “firm and unchangeable moral character” through years of practice.
Moral character is established by repeatedly acting morally—by building moral
habits—and not by the imposition of rules, threats, or rewards. But if Aristotle
is right, then wouldn’t our society’s neglect of moral character make it likely that
many people, including experimental subjects, have no very well-established char-
acter? Those with the least developed characters would be most strongly influ-
enced by momentary circumstances, just as situationism has shown.13

This response essentially agrees with the suggestion that people with strong
moral characters are rare but not because character is hard to achieve. Rather, it
explains the rarity of strong moral character by the fact that our society does very
little to nurture it. Perhaps a change in our methods of moral education would lead
to more people having well-established moral characters and exhibiting greater
consistency in moral behavior. This might result in fewer people succumbing so
easily to the influence of situational factors (see Chapter Eleven, §III).

Finally, psychological situationism may tell us something about how people
think through moral questions and problems. Especially in view of the Tversky
and Kahneman findings about framing, it is doubtful that people follow the pat-
tern of moral reasoning in their spontaneous decision-making. If they did, there
would not be nearly as much influence from irrelevant external factors upon their
moral judgments (see Chapter Four, §IV). The pattern of moral reflection with its
consideration of framing, personal character, and relationships seems to fit more
naturally with situationist findings. Nevertheless, we mustn’t jump to any conclu-
sions. For a start, even if most people’s moral thinking does broadly match moral
reflection, that doesn’t show that moral reflection is better than moral reason-
ing. Both have their place. Nor does it follow that people must think this way.
Situationist studies have typically tracked people’s choices in highly spontaneous,
unreflective moments. However, when people describe how they have deliberated
at length over some choice, it often sounds as if they have followed the pattern of
moral reasoning. With practice, furthermore, one can presumably learn to apply
this pattern habitually.

For Discussion
1. What situational influences can you think of that might affect whether people help

others? Why would these influences make a difference?
2. Watch your own behavior for a few days. Does your sympathy toward others and

your willingness to help vary over time? What influences these changes?
3. Describe your own moral personality or character as you see it.
4. Do you think most people have a (more or less) enduring moral character?

13It’s very difficult for a study of people’s actions in a particular situation to “control” for the pres-
ence or absence of a well-established character, since the latter can only be confirmed indirectly and
by long-term observation.

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5. How do you think through a moral problem? Do you approach sudden momen-
tary problems differently than you do important long-term issues?

Besides Milgram’s studies on how social pressure influences moral behavior, other
studies and experiments suggest that a problem’s decision frame can also strongly
influence us. This includes how the problem is presented and aspects of the problem’s
context, both of which can influence our moral attitudes and choices. First, these
findings support psychological situationism. Second, situationism may weaken the
notion that people’s actions are primarily controlled by their enduring moral charac-
ters. However, there is also evidence that we do have enduring personality traits like
agreeableness. Is this enough to support ethical theories that treat moral character as
primary? It’s hard to say at present, since many in our society may not have developed
much of a moral character. Finally, psychological situationism may tell us something
about how people think through moral problems.

Key Terms

• Decision frame: includes how a problem is presented and the entire context
of the problem as the actor sees it: the choices, their consequences, and all sur-
rounding influences.

• Psychological situationism: maintains that various aspects of a person’s situ-
ation (their decision frame) can strongly influence how a person behaves and, in
particular, how willing they are to help others.

• Altruism: a concern for the well-being of others independent of any self-interest.


In discussing relativism (see Chapter Two), we urged that moral social and cul-
tural differences are not as great as they first appear. Often, different groups arrive
at different moral judgments because they hold different beliefs or views of the
world (e.g., about the afterlife) rather than because they hold opposing moral
principles.14 Still, genuine moral differences do exist. One outstanding moral dis-
agreement involves polygamous versus monogamous marriages and the defining
principles of marriage.

Studies in anthropology and social psychology have added to our collection
of cultural moral differences. One early study, carried out by philosopher Rich-
ard Brandt, explored cultural differences in moral attitudes and values. Brandt
found a well-defined difference between the attitudes of the Hopi people (living in
northern Arizona) towards animal suffering and the more widely held American
attitudes. Brandt reported that Hopi children would catch wild birds, which they

14These differing beliefs function as non-moral descriptive claims in moral reasoning (See Chap-
ter Four, §IV).

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then tethered by a string “to be taken out and ‘played’ with. This play is rough, and
birds seldom survive long.”15 While perfectly acceptable to the Hopis, this practice
would have bothered most Americans sixty years ago; it would be considered of-
fensively cruel today. But Brandt could find no difference between Hopi and other
Americans’ non-moral beliefs (e.g., about whether the birds could experience suf-
fering) to explain this difference in moral judgments. Rather, it simply appeared
that there was a “basic difference of [moral] attitude” between the Hopis and the
wider U.S. culture.16

A more recent set of studies explored the moral influence of a “culture of
honor”—in which personal honor is a strong controlling value—by comparing
northern and southern whites in the United States.17 The latter evince a strong
culture of honor even today. (Cultures of honor also appear in other social groups
around the world. What is particularly interesting about this case is that northern
and southern whites nevertheless share most other values from the wider “Ameri-
can” culture.) We could expect that those holding a culture of honor would be
more likely to defend their honor and reputation than those not sharing this cul-
ture. Such a culture would also be more accepting of crimes committed in defense
of one’s honor (e.g., retaliatory killings). The studies bear out these expectations:

1. Surveys found that white southerners tended to feel fully justified in responding
violently when their honor was challenged or not properly respected. Northern
whites did not hold this feeling to the same degree.

2. One experiment sent letters to employers across the United States requesting
that the sender be considered for a job. The letters described the sender as a
young Michigan man, eager to work. They also explained that he was having
trouble finding employment because he had been convicted of killing another
man in a fight the other had started by insulting, taunting, and slandering the
sender. In analyzing responses, the researchers found that southern employers
were more tolerant and sympathetic toward the writer’s plight than northern

The moral differences between U.S. northern and southern whites, as evi-
denced by these findings, again have nothing to do with these groups holding dif-
ferent non-moral beliefs. Instead, the differences seem to depend on how strongly
each group values personal honor and reputation, along with accompanying dif-
ferences in attitudes, emotions, and moral judgments.

This agrees with our claim (Chapter One, §II) that people tend to hold the
same values but can differ in how they prioritize these values. Without a doubt,
northern whites—as do all human beings—have a sense of personal honor and
reputation. But apparently this value doesn’t occupy as important a place in their
value system as it does for southern whites.

15Doris and Stich, “Moral Psychology,” section 6.

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Differences in value priorities may thus explain the difference between Amer-
ican northern and southern moral judgments about personal honor. Can it also
explain the difference between the Hopi and the wider American attitudes toward
animal cruelty? Consider the following account. The Hopis long sustained them-
selves through farming and hunting. They were thus accustomed to such agrarian
realities as animal slaughter. But those realities were very far removed from the
experiences of most 1950s American city-dwellers who got their meat at stores,
kept family pets, and were rapidly becoming immersed in an artificial techno-
logical world. For today’s Americans, experiences of animal suffering or death,
inevitable in the natural world, have become even more unfamiliar. When people
do have contact with animals, it is usually friendly and sympathetic. An interesting
evidence of this is the fact that veterinary medicine served farm animals almost
exclusively until after World War II, when this began to change significantly.18 As
Americans have befriended domesticated animals, they have become increasingly
upset by animal pain; in contrast, the Hopis continued to encounter animal suf-
fering and death as commonplace and so considered it of relatively little moral

Even if this explanation is on track, it doesn’t undermine Brandt’s conclu-
sion that he had found a cultural difference in moral attitudes. But this isn’t
surprising, for we’ve known all along that differences sometimes exist between
cultures in their moral beliefs. It’s also worth remembering that such differences
don’t imply anything against objectivism, which can be true even if there are
substantial differences between different groups’ moral beliefs and practices (See
Chapter Two, §IV).19

The important conclusion to draw here is that each of us is very much the
product of our culture. Our social environment can significantly influence our
moral beliefs, attitudes, and values. This should give us pause, for just as other
social groups have occasionally accepted grievous moral errors without ques-
tion (e.g., slavery), we may be doing the same with our own moral errors. This
disagreeable realization should encourage us to think more critically about own
society’s moral status quo. Ethics can help us with this, for ethical theories can be
valuable tools for placing our culturally embedded morality under rational scru-
tiny. With any luck, our doing this may improve our moral thinking and help us
make moral progress.

18“The change to small animals is often explained as due to increasing standards of living and
people’s desire for companion animals after World War II. A new report by Andrew Gardiner .  .  .
shows the real reason is the rise of animal charities. . . .” Andrew Gardiner, “The Surprising History
of Veterinary Medicine for Dogs and Cats,” Companion Animal Psychology, October 8, 2014, accessed
September 1, 2016,

19Differences in how groups prioritize certain moral values is also compatible with mild versions
of relativism such as that of Wong — see Chapter Two §VII. Yet that section also suggests how objectiv-
ism might handle such differences without having to allow for even a mild relativism.

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For Discussion
1. What moral changes have occurred in our society over the past fifty or so years?
2. How much do you think your social environment determines your moral values

and beliefs?
3. What moral beliefs or practices have you largely accepted without question?
4. How do you feel about being (if the studies are correct) so much a product of your

5. Are there any beliefs and practices in our society that you think may not be mor-

ally right? Do these call for moral reform?

Studies show that some genuine differences in moral beliefs and attitudes exist be-
tween different societies. They also show that people are strongly influenced by their
culture. These empirical conclusions don’t prove that objectivism is mistaken. What
they do establish is that our moral values and perspectives are not just our own but are
also affected by social and cultural influences. This should cause us to critique some of
the moral assumptions we’ve just blindly accepted. Ethical theories can help us do this.


When confronted with a difficulty, one of our first questions is usually: “How is
this going to affect me?” According to ethical egoism, this is the only question that
really matters, morally speaking. In fact, this rather curious ethical theory main-
tains the following:

Ethical Egoism: The morally right act, for any particular situation, is the act that
will most greatly benefit oneself.

Ethical egoism maintains that our moral duty is to promote our own interests
whenever we can—or at least to limit our losses. Although this may sound ab-
surdly selfish, ethical egoism doesn’t say that our actions must always be entirely
self-centered. As long as an act benefits me, it’s fine if it also happens to benefit
others. Further, ethical egoism can require that we help others or serve their inter-
ests since it often is in our best interest to help others. If earning people’s grati-
tude leads them to someday return the favor, then it’s in my interest to earn their
gratitude. Ethical egoism can also require us to sacrifice our immediate interests to
come out better in the long run. This can include investing my present time and
energy in, say, a friendship since making friends rather than enemies has great
advantages. Building a friendship, in turn, can also require that I not lie or break
my promises since losing another person’s trust makes it nearly impossible to get
anything out of them.

Naturally, ethical egoism doesn’t always yield such agreeable results. First, it
says that our sole motivation for making friends, telling the truth, and helping

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others should be for ourselves. The egoist’s rule of thumb is: “Only do good to
others so that they will do even more good for you”—not exactly what most would
call a moral motivation. Further, a truly consistent egoist would often act in ways
that are objectively wrong. If Gyges can benefit by cheating and get away with it,
egoism says he ought to cheat: his moral duty is to cheat. The same holds for skim-
ming money off financial funds or even committing murder. At least occasionally,
therefore, ethical egoism goes against our deepest and clearest moral intuitions—a
good reason for rejecting it.

Rachels provides an interesting argument against ethical egoism.20 His ar-
gument appeals to moral equality—the notion that all persons have equal moral
worth and deserve equal treatment. Rejecting equality, arguably, rejects morality
itself. Still, egoism does reject equality. According to ethical egoism, others’ inter-
ests don’t count the same as one’s own; in fact, they don’t count at all. By making
others’ interests and needs morally irrelevant, egoism violates moral equality. Yet
ethical egoism can offer no reason for treating others differently from oneself, de-
spite all of us having the same sorts of interests, needs, and desires.

Ethical egoism also runs into a practical problem. It’s undeniable that humans
need love and friendship. Since having such relationships is in our best interest,
egoists ought to pursue such relationships. Yet love and friendship require a com-
mitment to value another person to the point of sacrificing our own interests for
the other’s welfare. When there is no such commitment, there can be no genuine
love or friendship. But egoists cannot sacrificially commit themselves to the wel-
fare of others since their sole duty is to promote their own interests. Worse, egoists
can’t value others at all since egoism denies that others have moral worth. As a
result, ethical egoism cannot reconcile its principle of serving only oneself with
the sincere “heart” commitments necessary for genuine love and friendship. Even
as it demands that we have such relationships, it rules out our being able to do so.

Ethical egoism is too objectionable to keep as a working ethical theory. But
why would anyone think it true in the first place? One reason is a psychological ar-
gument. According to psychological egoism (a theory about human psychology,
not morality), we must always prefer our own interests since we are psychologi-
cally incapable of choosing anything besides what we think is best for ourselves. If
this is the only way we can think or choose, we might as well view the self-serving
demands of egoism to be morally acceptable.

Psychological egoism claims that all human choices are purely self-serving.
Why? Since all of my choices are my choices guided by my values, it seems that
they inevitably must be dictated by my interests. Even when I appear to choose
against my interests—by telling the truth to my detriment or stepping into danger
to save my friend—I cannot help making those choices for self-centered reasons.
Perhaps I want to avoid feeling guilty for not acting, or I’m hoping for a heavenly
reward, or I crave for others to think well of me.

20This discussion is based on an argument appearing in James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, The
Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw–Hill Higher Education, 2009), chapter 6.

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Are even our most morally admirable choices equally self-serving? Although
psychological egoism appears to show this, there are some problems. First, just
because I necessarily make my choices, it doesn’t follow that my choices must be
self-serving. Next, even if my personal values inevitably guide my choices, those
values don’t all have to be self-serving. If my values include honesty and other
people’s happiness, my choices might sometimes be quite selfless. And even if my
choices always seem best to me, that doesn’t mean that I think they are best for me.

It certainly seems that we occasionally choose against our own interests with
the intent of helping others or fulfilling some duty (e.g., visiting a sick friend in
the hospital when we’d rather do something else). Don’t we sometimes find these
choices particularly hard precisely because we do feel that they go against our in-
terests? People also seem to think they can recognize the difference between other-
serving and self-serving intentions. Are these sorts of judgments accurate? It often
seems so; for instance, people’s apparent intentions—self-serving or not—often
correlate with what they actually bring about by their actions.

From a common-sense point of view, then, there’s evidence against psycho-
logical egoism. Further, it’s difficult to imagine what other kinds of evidence could
be used to show that people can make unselfish choices. This leads to one final
criticism: the psychological egoist comes dangerously close to maintaining that no
matter what evidence there may be to the contrary, all human choices are selfish.
But once psychological egoists rule out the very possibility of anything counting
against their remarkable theory, it becomes empty.

For Discussion
1. Think of a few examples of acts that ethical egoism could require, depending on

the situation.
2. If ethical egoism can require helping others, how can it also make others’ interests

and needs morally irrelevant?
3. Discuss: does genuine love or friendship require a commitment to value another

person to the point of sacrificing one’s own interests for the other?
4. Consult your own thoughts and intentions: do you ever act against your own

interests for the sake of another or for some other reason?
5. Hold a debate: (a) Have one side think of situations in which people act in ways

that seem beyond doubt to be other-serving. (b) Have the other side give a psycho-
logical egoist’s evaluation of each of these.

6. Supposing psychological egoism is true, try to explain how we have managed to
develop a distinction between selfish and unselfish acts.

Ethical egoism requires that one always act to benefit oneself. This can actually require
that we help others. Still, ethical egoism can also prescribe clearly selfish and immoral
acts. It also both calls for and precludes relationships of love and friendship. Psycho-
logical egoism, which claims that we are only capable of making self-serving choices,

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So much for philosophical evaluations of ethical and psychological egoism. But
moral psychology has also investigated egoism at length.

In the literature addressing this, psychological egoism is usually contrasted
with altruism—a concern for others’ well-being regardless of any self-interest (see
the trait of agreeableness in §II). If it can be shown that people sometimes act for
purely altruistic reasons, then those actions (by definition) are not entirely self-
interested, which entails that psychological egoism is false. But this is not easy to
show. First, we must find actual examples of altruistic actions. Now we certainly
seem to have many such examples available to us; as philosophers have argued,
people sometimes act at great personal sacrifice for the sake of others. Bolstering
this, there is evidence of a psychological link between empathy— an emotional
response that identifies with another’s suffering—and helping behavior. Daniel
Batson states, “There is indeed an empathy-helping relationship; feeling empathy
for a person in need increases the likelihood of helping to relieve that need.”21 The
more fully people can be brought to empathize with the suffering of another, the
more likely it is that they will try to help (depending, of course, on a wide range of
situational factors). Since it isn’t particularly unusual for people to feel empathy,
people are often moved to do what they can to help others. When such actions
require personal inconvenience or self-sacrifice, they appear altruistic.

Unfortunately, this so far proves little. We must further establish that such
apparent acts of altruism are actuated by pure altruism. The trouble is that there
can be subtle self-interested motivations for acting in these ways. For instance, (a)
an observer may be pained at seeing another suffer and so help the sufferer simply
because he wants to escape his own emotional pain. Another possible motive for
helping may be (b1) to earn the approval of others or, on the negative side, to avoid
being blamed for not helping. A related reason may be because (b2) the helper
wants to feel good about herself or because she doesn’t want to feel guilty about
not helping. All of these possible motivations would be self-interested or egoistic
“internally,” despite their looking altruistic on the “outside.”

21Doris and Stich, “Moral Psychology,” sections 5.3–5.5.

has been offered in support of ethical egoism. However, philosophers have argued that
psychological egoism is either false or empty.

Key Terms

• Ethical egoism: the morally right act, for any particular situation, is the act
that will most benefit oneself.

• Psychological egoism: a psychological theory maintaining that, as a matter
of psychological necessity, we can only choose what we think is in our interest.

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Many studies to test these various motivations have been headed by Batson.
One set of experiments attempted to determine whether social pressures—positive
or negative—motivated subjects to help another (b1). This was done by making
subjects either believe or not believe that their actions could become known to
others. One group of people thought that no one else would ever find out what
they did; these clearly could not be motivated by any expected approval or disap-
proval from others. Another group, believing that others would find out how they
had acted, could be motivated by social pressures. Upon comparison, Batson found
no difference between the two groups’ actions. He did find, however, that both
groups were more likely to help the more they empathized with the person they
could help. These results seem to dispose of the peer pressure motivation (b1). If
the more internal motivation (b2) is stimulated primarily by the social environ-
ment, then Batson’s results may dispose of that egoistic motivation as well.

Other experiments tested motivation (a), the desire to escape the personal
discomfort of watching another person suffer. Subjects watched person X experi-
ence a set of mild electric shocks that seemed to distress X significantly (X merely
acted distressed). Subjects were told that X was unusually sensitive to even small
shocks—shocks that would barely be noticed by most people. In one set of situa-
tions, subjects were given the option of changing places with X, thereby relieving
X’s distress by undergoing the shocks themselves. In another set of situations, sub-
jects could choose between taking X’s place or simply leaving. The first situation
allowed subjects to both help X and to escape their own emotional discomfort,
the second allowed subjects to escape their discomfort by leaving. Both situations
allowed subjects to escape their personal discomfort, but if they simply chose to
leave, that would not require the self-sacrifice involved in taking X’s place.

If people are only motivated to help by the egoistic desire (a) to escape their
own discomfort, they would choose to leave whenever possible. When that option
is not available, they would choose to take X’s place as the only way to escape their
discomfort. On the other hand, if people are motivated by genuine altruism, they
would typically take X’s place regardless of what other options they had.

Overwhelmingly, people chose to take X’s place. This seems unexpected if
they simply had egoistic motivations (a) and leaving remained an option. Taking
Batson’s results together, therefore, may we now dispense with psychological
egoism? Unfortunately, even these ingenious experiments don’t entirely settle the
issue. As Doris and Stich note, Batson’s experiments assume that once a subject
leaves, he will no longer experience any discomfort over X’s suffering; also, that
the subject expects to experience no such lingering discomfort.22 If these “out of
sight, out of mind” assumptions are mistaken, however, then subjects would not
experience relief by leaving. Their best choice for fully relieving their personal
discomfort would then be to take X’s place. Thus, taking X’s place remains compat-
ible with having the egoistic motivation (a) simply to escape one’s own discomfort.

22Ibid., section 5.5.

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Although Batson’s and others’ studies clearly raise doubts about the hypothesis of
psychological egoism, it still remains a possibility.

* * *
People like to make the cynical observation that philosophy never solves any prob-
lems. But it’s clear that empirical attempts to resolve questions about egoism, or
to determine the nature of moral character, or to assess the influence of character
likewise do not easily yield definitive answers. Furthermore, since moral psychol-
ogy is descriptive, it cannot directly address the normative issues of ethics. Moral
psychology will never replace philosophical ethics, therefore, or render it obsolete.
This is not to say, however, that empirical findings cannot shed any light on moral-
ity; as we have seen, they already have.

Still, we must ask in what ways moral psychology should influence the overall
field of ethics. A few points emerge. First, by giving us a better understanding
of the psychological aspects of morality, moral psychology can indicate (to some
degree) which ethical accounts are most likely to be viable. If it someday manages
to show that certain human capabilities do not actually exist (e.g., that there is no
such thing as moral character or that people cannot be purely altruistic), then that
would undermine any account that assumes that such capabilities do exist. Thus,
moral psychology could impose certain constraints upon the presuppositions of
ethical theories. Next, findings about how we think through moral problems and
what influences our moral choices can indicate which theoretical approaches are
most psychologically realistic. Such information would be especially helpful as we
attempt to improve moral education and social policy. Finally, moral psychology
may have important things to say to applied ethics—the part of ethics that relates
ethical theories to practical problems in specific fields like medicine, business,
and environmental policy (see Chapter Fourteen). But this gets us way ahead of
ourselves; before we can even consider such implications, we must first develop an
understanding of several ethical theories. This is what we next turn to in Part II.

For Discussion
1. Which of the three options in Batson’s experiment do you think you’d choose?

Would it change things if you personally knew the distressed person X? Why?
2. How altruistic are you? Describe one of your recent altruistic acts.
3. We often ask children: “How would you feel if someone else did that to you?” How

does this encourage empathy?
4. People often want to help close family and friends more than others. How would

you explain that?
5. We are constantly exposed to terrible human suffering via the news and even

much entertainment. How might this affect our empathy toward others?
6. When you do, why do you help people you don’t even know?
7. Describe a purely altruistic act. How would you defend that example against the

claims of psychological egoism?
8. To what degree do you think moral psychology may ultimately be able to make

important contributions to ethics?

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What does moral psychology tell us concerning psychological egoism? It’s difficult
to say at present. Even apparently altruistic acts may be motivated in subtle ways by
self-interest. Batson attempted to disprove psychological egoism, but one of his most
convincing studies makes a crucial assumption that can be challenged. Like this study,
most empirical studies are open to challenge. Still, moral psychology has a few things
to offer ethics. It can help us evaluate presuppositions incorporated into ethical theo-
ries. It can press us to take more psychologically realistic approaches to ethics. It also
may help us as we carry ethical theories over to applied ethics.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. The Milgram experiments were afterwards denounced as unethical. They would

presumably not be allowed in the United States today. Why? Summarize the ex-
periment and what you think was unethical about it.

2. Compare Milgram’s experiments with Batson’s somewhat similar studies. Note
that deception alone is not normally a reason to consider a psychological experi-
ment unethical. What then is different between the two studies?

3. Summarize what makes up a decision frame and provide examples of how it can
influence moral attitudes and choices. Suppose a person has developed a strong
moral character; to what degree might that reduce the influences of a decision
frame upon that person? Discuss.

4. Do you see any way to defend ethical egoism from the text’s criticisms?
5. Explain the difference between psychological and ethical egoism. Could ethical

egoism be false even if psychological egoism were true?
6. Why can’t moral psychology directly resolve many of the problems in ethics? Dis-

cuss this in terms of descriptive versus normative claims.

Additional Resources
“Big Five Personality Test.” Psychology Today. Accessed September 2, 2016. http://psychology-
Doris, John and Stephen Stich. “Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches.” In The Stanford

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed Sep-
tember 2, 2016.
This is a detailed and lengthy article on moral psychology.

Eagly, Alice H. and Maureen Crowley. “Gender and Helping Behavior: A Meta-Analytic
Review of the Social Psychological Literature.” Psychological Bulletin, 100.3 (November
1986): 283–308.

“Experimenter Official Trailer (2015).” Accessed September 2, 2016,
.com/watch?v=O1VOZhwRvWo. The trailer and movie itself can be streamed or pur-
chased from various sources.

Isen, Alice M. “The Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making and Cognitive Orga-
nization.” In Advances in Consumer Research. Vol. 11. Edited by Thomas C. Kinnear.
Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 1984, 534–537. Accessed September 2,

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“Lewis R. Goldberg, Personality Research, Online Full-Text Archive.” Accessed Septem-
ber 2, 2016. This website is a large set of papers, largely
addressing personality traits, written Lewis Goldberg and others published on Gold-
berg’s personal webpage.

“Mike Wallace Interviews Ayn Rand.” Accessed September 2, 2016.
com/watch?v=HKd0ToQD00o. This is the famous Mike Wallace interview of Ayn
Rand about her ethical egoism.

“Milgram Obedience Study.” Accessed September 2, 2016.
watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ. This YouTube video presents Milgram’s experiment, with a
great deal of actual experimental footage.

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. “Ethical Egoism.” In The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009.

Shpancer, Noam. “Framing: Your Most Important and Least Recognized Daily Ment.”
Psychology Today. December 22, 2010. Accessed September 2, 2016. https://www
and-least-recognized-daily-ment. This article applies framing to everyday life.

Tversky, Amos and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of
Choice.” Science, 211.30 (January 1981): 453–458.

Case 1

Declaring Wages

Jenna works at the local diner as a waitress, earning minimum wage. She doesn’t
have the education to get a better job; because she has a young child, further
school right now is out of the question. The job is not bad though, since she’s pop-
ular with the customers and does pretty well in tips. At the end of her first year on
the job, she asks her friend Joe to help her with her taxes. Joe explains that Jenna
needs to declare her tips as wages. Having already spent the money on diapers,
Jenna is really upset. It’s only her tip income, she says, that is keeping her and the
baby off the streets.


1. Do you think Jenna should just keep her tips unreported? Discuss this both
legally and morally. What moral conflict does Jenna face?

2. Would egoism tell Jenna to keep her tips? How so?
3. Imagine Jenna’s real name was “Jivika; she’s called “Jenna” by her American

friends. For her culture, family always comes first because family is the ulti-
mate unit of support; the government, meanwhile, cannot be trusted since it’s
usually corrupt. Assuming she holds these beliefs, what do you think Jivika
would most likely do? Does this make any difference to what she morally
should do?

4. Suppose that Jivika’s culture is a strong culture of honor, and that by failing to
take care of her family, she dishonors herself and her family. Her first thought,
furthermore, is that she earned those tips by her own hard work, and being
forced to give up a portion of them is insulting. How do these additional facts
affect the case?

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Case 2

The Scratched Bumper

Coming out of the supermarket from running errands, you see that two cars have
parked on either side of you, leaving you pretty tightly wedged in. You can still
get out, but it’s going to be tricky. As you maneuver back and forth, you feel your-
self bumping against the car behind you. You get out and see scratches on the
other car’s bumper. Looking further, you find that it has scratches in several differ-
ent places too. You’re not sure, but you might have added one of those scratches
just now.


1. What would you do next?
2. What does the law require that you do? (Do you know?)
3. What would ethical egoism say you should do? What’s the morally right thing

for you to do? Are these different?
4. You could just drive away, or you could leave a note on the car’s windshield with

your phone number. How would psychological egoism explain either choice?
5. Think of situational (framing) differences that might make it (psychologically)

more or less likely that you would leave a note on the car. For example, suppose
(a) you just got a large raise at work or (b) that when you last parked in that
lot, you found your car with a bad scrape on its side, but no one left you a note.

Case 3

Job Competition

The local ice cream shop, Milk and Sugar, is seeking applicants for a summer job.
Two high school students, Joshua and Elias, are top in the running. As the manager,
Emma, reviews the applications, she is faced with a dilemma. Both applicants seem
to have the same grades, both go to the same high school even, both have worked
for an ice cream shop the previous summer (the same one, incidentally), and both
are highly recommended by the previous employer.


1. Emma’s interest as a manager is to hire the person who will do the best job.
How should she choose? Can egoism help her solve her dilemma?

2. Imagine Joshua and Elias are best friends. Joshua tells Emma that she should
hire Elias, and Elias tells Emma she should hire Joshua. How does this dilemma
reflect on some of the problems for egoism?

3. Imagine that the customers Emma serves are predominantly Jewish. Elias is
pretty obviously Jewish, Joshua is definitely not. Should this affect Emma’s
choice? How would egoism respond to this question?

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Case 4

Human Trafficking

The U.S. State Department defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, harbor-
ing, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through
the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary ser-
vitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”23 According to United Nations, about
21 million people are currently victims of human trafficking or forced labor. Often,
these victims are lured in by false promises of money and a better future

For an employer, human trafficking can be lucrative for business. It provides cheap
labor and so allows goods and services to be produced at a lower price. For instance,
it was recently uncovered that several shrimp processing companies in Thailand had
kept men, women, and children like slaves. The Thai shrimp were exported to the
United States at a substantial profit, where American consumers benefited from the
resulting low prices. Human trafficking is also widespread on fishing industry boats,
where it’s easy to keep workers trapped. Most people know that many cocoa farms
thrive on child slave labor. According to the Trafficking in Persons report, forced labor
and human trafficking lead to profits of over $150 billion annually in private industry.

Most human trafficking takes place outside of U.S. borders. Still, among the
800,000 people smuggled around the world each year, a good portion end up in
the United States. Because the United States presents the promise of better living
conditions and better earnings for many people, it’s easy to lure workers into the
country. Given the cost of paying legal workers in the United States, using slaves can
look very tempting to some business people. In a scheme called debt bondage, em-
ployers first charge workers ridiculously high fees for transportation into the United
States. They then require the workers to pay off this debt to obtain release. When
these employers only pay their workers very low wages or only pay them food and
lodging, they can keep the workers from every being able to buy their freedom.

A 2007 ABC news series called “Slavery in America: Living in the Shadows” cov-
ered several stories of illegal immigrants that lived under slave-like conditions in
the United States. One was José Martinez from Mexico, who was kept in a camp in
Florida. During the day he worked in tomato fields in unbearable heat. At night,
he was locked in a trailer with twenty-eight other people. The trailer had only one
stove and one bathroom. José was paid $4.00 a day, with “rent” for the trailer de-
ducted. But José was unusually lucky—he escaped after four and a half months
with $250 in his pocket.24


1. What advantages could a business owner expect to realize by engaging in
human trafficking?

23“Trafficking in Persons Report: July 2015,” U.S. State Department, accessed September 1, 2016, Peonage forces a person into servitude to
work off a debt.

24Pierre Thomas and Theresa Cook, “Sold for $350: A Slave’s Story of Toil and Fear,” ABC News.
com, accessed September 1, 2016,

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2. With a view to both short- and long-range consequences, could ethical egoism
justify a business owner using human trafficking victims? Suppose the owner
acted more benevolently toward his workers than do other traffickers—would
that make a difference?

3. According to ethical egoism, could a victim be morally justified in trying to
escape? What means could he use? What means, on the other hand, could the
trafficker use to keep the worker? What conflict does this create for egoism?

4. How do we, as consumers, benefit from widespread human trafficking? In what
ways do we preserve or promote such exploitation?

5. Leaving egoism aside, do consumers have any moral obligation to work against
human trafficking? How might we best go about doing so? Should we research
products on the Internet, learn more about human trafficking, and find out
where the products we buy come from? Discuss these questions first as a
consumer and then imagine yourself as one of the slaves. Do these framing dif-
ferences lead you to different conclusions?

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Ethical Theories and


We have by now covered most of the preliminaries needed to consider actual ethi-
cal theories. What remains? There are two questions we can ask about the origins
of moral claims. First, we can ask: “How do people form their beliefs about moral
right and wrong?” Young children obtain most of their moral convictions from
their parents—both from what they are told and from how their parents act. Reli-
gious teachings (e.g., from catechisms, the Quran, the Talmud, Jesus’ Sermon on
the Mount, etc.) can also have a formative influence. Conscience—that intuitive,
inner prodding that guides us and makes us feel guilty when we do wrong—may
contribute. For adolescents, the influence of teachers and other significant adults
may enter into the mix. Sometimes people are even influenced by an ethics course!

A very different question is: “What makes something right or wrong?” Are
moral principles just given to us—like the laws of nature? A major task of an ethi-
cal theory is to address this second question, which it attempts to do by fulfilling
two related goals. First, it should simplify the vast realm of morality down to a
few foundational principles or values. It should do this as completely as possible
without neglecting any part of morality. Second, these principles or values ought
to explain why certain things are good or bad, right or wrong. To some degree, the
first goal serves the second: if we can distill the entire realm of morality down to
just a few foundations, we will probably have located the essence of morality in
those foundations.

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To be fully adequate, an ethical theory should satisfy a couple other criteria
as well. Adding these to our previous observations, we have four key criteria for
assessing any moral theory:1

1. Completeness: does the theory encompass and support the entire range of
meaningful moral claims? If a theory neglects certain kinds of moral claims or if
it can make no sense of a moral concept, then it leaves something out that ought
to be included.

Hedonistic theories, which explain moral right as that which promotes the
greatest pleasure/happiness, have been charged with not making adequate sense
of justice. If this indeed is one of their weaknesses, then they are not sufficiently
complete. Completeness is clearly a crucial goal for any ethical theory. Please note,
however, that completeness has nothing to do with whether the theory’s claims are
true. If an ethical theory is complete, then it fully addresses its subject; whether its
account is actually true is another matter entirely.

2. Explanatory power: A theory should provide a satisfying unifying and ex-
planatory basis for the moral realm. It ought to supply us with genuine moral in-
sights that powerfully contribute to our understanding of what makes things good
or right. Ideally, it should capture the essence of morality. Hedonistic theories, for
instance, explain morally right acts as those that promote happiness. To the degree
this is true, we thus learn that morality and happiness are closely related—an in-
structive and useful discovery. Compare this to a computer program that can tell
us whether anything is morally good or bad, right or wrong. It does this with per-
fect accuracy but can tell us nothing more. Such a program would clearly satisfy
completeness, but it would lack explanatory power since it says nothing about what
makes something good or right. does fulfilling this criterion, meanwhile, make
the theory any more likely to be true? once again, no: explanatory power, like
completeness, has nothing to do with an account’s truth.

3. Practicability: Practicability measures how useful a theory can be to us
in actual practice. It includes several components. First, a theory should generate
clear and precise moral claims. If its prescriptions, say, tend to be vague, leaving
us unsure about what it is telling us to do, then it isn’t much help. For example,
consider the principle: “don’t hurt people unless they deserve it.” A little reflec-
tion quickly reveals that this prescription isn’t very practicable; in fact, it raises
more questions than it answers. How much hurt are we talking about? When does
someone deserve to be hurt? next, an ethical theory must furnish substantial
moral guidance to ordinary people, taking into account human intellectual and
physical limitations. Suppose a theory tells us that “no one should spend money
on a lottery if they are not going to win.” Since this requires godlike knowledge of
the future to determine when it would be right to buy a ticket, it isn’t much use
to those of us who are not gods. Finally, a theory’s values or prescriptions should
not generate irresolvable conflicts. For instance, a practicable theory should not

1other more technical criteria (e.g., consistency) are also important. The more practically ori-
ented criteria provided here, however, should be sufficient to satisfy our purposes.

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leave us unable to resolve Sandra’s dilemma about whether lives or lies are more

Yet again, practicability has nothing to do with an account actually being cor-
rect. none of the preceding criteria, important as each is, can tell us much of any-
thing about the truth of a theory or its claims. We thus need one more criterion:

4. Moral Confirmation: A theory is morally confirmed if we have good rea-
sons for thinking it actually gives correct answers to our moral questions. But if we
already know what is right, why do we need ethical theories? We do in fact have
pretty good ideas about what is right for at least some parts of the moral realm. To
start with, then, a moral theory’s claims should agree with what we know about
these parts. We have deep, clear, and widely shared moral intuitions about wrongs
like torturing innocent children, cold-blooded murder, and widespread dishon-
esty. How do we know we are at least right about these things? Well, we have to
start somewhere, and our strongest and clearest intuitions are the best place to
start. While we could be mistaken even about these, it doesn’t seem likely. After
all, people throughout human history have agreed that such things are wrong or at
least have gotten upset when such things have been done to them.

doing ethics resembles doing science in certain respects. In science, we begin
testing a theory’s major claims by experiments and observations. If those claims
completely fail, the theory should probably be abandoned. But if only some fail at
only certain points, we seldom simply reject the theory. Instead, we make adjust-
ments and additions to achieve a better match between theory and observation. The
revised theory may then yield new implications that can be tested. More observa-
tions may confirm parts of the theory while suggesting needed changes for other
parts. This give-and-take process—testing, adjusting, testing new things, adjusting
again, and so on—usually continues for a long time. Yet even as the process goes on,
our scientific understanding becomes increasingly more sophisticated and accurate.

The enterprise of ethics can be carried on in a roughly similar way. Although
an ethical theory can’t be tested by experiments, its claims can be “tested” by ap-
plying it to cases to see if its results match our best moral intuitions. If the theory
prescribes wholesale murder, it should be abandoned! But if its results match most
of our best intuitions—and if we can adjust it for an even better match—then we
may consider it partly confirmed. Having made further adjustments and finding
more confirmations, we may start applying our evolving theory to less clear cases.
Further extensions, confirmations, and adjustments may gradually produce an ac-
count that seems sufficiently correct to guide our moral choices. As our trust in
the theory grows, we might next start allowing it to replace our own less certain
intuitions, and so the process continues. Along the way, our moral insights and
understanding will become increasingly sophisticated and accurate.2

2This give-and-take process, involving a gradual evolution of both theory and our less clear moral
intuitions roughly resembles the process John Rawls describes for achieving “reflective equilibrium.”
The process continues until our intuitions agree with each other and with a theory-based set of prin-
ciples and values. The result, ideally, will be a satisfactory account of ethics. John Rawls, A Theory of
Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971)

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As in the sciences, an objection or disconfirmation to an ethical theory
doesn’t automatically show that the theory must be abandoned. objections and
problems can instead be useful for showing us where a theory needs adjustment.
After learning about important problems with most ethical theories, people fre-
quently conclude that ethics must be hopeless. But just as it would be foolish to
give up on science because of problems with its theories, it would be foolish to give
up on ethics because we find problems with ethical theories. We may never arrive
at perfection, but we can still make valuable progress along the way.

Ethical theories address the question of what makes something right or wrong, not
how we come to our beliefs about right and wrong. A good ethical theory should sat-
isfy at least four criteria. It must (a) be complete and (b) have significant explanatory
power; it must also (c) be practicable, and it should (d) be confirmed by our best moral

Key Terms

• Completeness: a theory should encompass and support the entire range of
meaningful moral claims and concepts, not leaving anything out.

• Explanatory power: a theory should give us insight into what makes some-
thing moral or immoral.

• Practicability: a theory should be useful in actual practice:(a) being clear and
precise, (b) furnishing understandable moral guidance,(c) not generating irre-
solvable conflicts.

• Moral confirmation: a theory should fit with our deepest, clearest, and most
widely shared moral intuitions.

For Reflection and Discussion
1. Explain in your own words the criterion of completeness.
2. Why does the computer program described in the text lack explanatory power?
3. Explain in your own words the three parts of the criterion of practicability. Can

you think of other moral claims that fail practicability?
4. How is ethical theorizing like developing and testing scientific theories? (Can you

name some scientific theories?) How do you think it may differ?


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Consequentialist Ethics: Act


A small pharmaceutical company is nearing what Ed Flourens hopes will be his com-
pany’s big break. After struggling for fifteen years, the company’s stock soared last fall
when Ed announced a new drug that effectively controls seizures. Better still, the drug
works in small doses, which appears ideal for children. one night, as Ed pores over the
first six month’s report on 2,800 human trials, a number grabs his attention. He specifi-
cally remembers more cases, but the report only mentions two patients who developed
serious gastrointestinal problems—stomach bleeding or perforations. delving into the
files, his anxiety grows as he finds records of eight . . . ten . . . and more patients show-
ing the same symptoms. Slowly the terrible truth dawns on Ed: a total of twenty such
patients was mistakenly reported as two—a simple decimal error. Yet this means that
0.7% of the subjects developed serious problems, rather than 0.07%. The difference is
substantial; in fact, with the uproar about drug risks over the past decade, Ed realizes
that this difference could block FdA approval of his product. His exasperation nearly
moves him to tears. Will this be the fatal blow to his dreams? For one fleeting moment,
he is tempted to disregard everything and just pretend that nothing is wrong.1

As reality sets in, Ed realizes that there’s more at stake than his company’s pros-
pects. Trials with 2,800 patients—including children—are still ongoing. In view of
the risks, shouldn’t he call for their immediate halt? Clearly, the answer depends on
the consequences of doing this compared to continuing the trials. What are some
likely consequences? on the one hand, if the trials are halted, the rosy prospects
for Ed’s company will collapse for at least the near future. Several more years of
research and testing may be required—if the drug’s problems can be overcome at
all. Those presently taking the drug will lose the benefit of their seizures being
controlled. This loss becomes much greater for them if the best alternatives to Ed’s
drug are less effective or cost more, particularly for those with seriously debilitating

1A fictional case. For new seizure drugs, a rate of 0.02% for life-threatening side effects can be

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or dangerous seizures. on the other hand, continued trials would produce impor-
tant additional information about the drug, contributing to better and safer drugs
that can help more people in the future. It would also help Ed’s company, although
probably only in the short run. Meanwhile, most of those taking the drug would
continue to benefit, though a few might suffer some of the drug’s worst side effects.

All actions have consequences. Whether those consequences are wide ranging
(as in Ed’s story) or limited (as when I make a thoughtless comment to someone),
consequences also have moral significance. The idea that consequences—and only
consequences—make something morally right or wrong is the foundation of con-
sequentialism, and the basis for a wide range of consequentialist moral theories.

For Discussion
1. If you were Ed, what would you do?
2. The government would probably require that Ed’s drug trials be halted. Would

that be best morally?
3. Clinical trials compare two groups: those who receive the real drug and those who

don’t. If a new treatment proves very effective early on, the trial is usually stopped
and all receive the treatment. Why?

Everything we do has consequences. Consequentialist theories define what is morally
right solely in terms of effects or consequences.

Key Terms

• Consequentialism: a general approach to ethics that maintains that only
consequences determine what is morally right or wrong.


Consequentialism focuses on consequences or effects. But how should we evaluate
consequences? Typically, this is done in terms of utility. In classical theories, utility
measures the degree to which a consequence promotes the foundational hedonis-
tic value of pleasure/happiness (see Chapter one, §5). Thus, utility is desirable;
disutility is undesirable, being associated with pain and suffering. When the con-
sequences of something happen to be mixed, the amount of disutility is subtracted
from the utility; if the utility is greater, then the resulting utility is still positive.

It’s undeniable that people pursue pleasure while they normally try to avoid
pain. In view of this, hedonists have thought that it’s only a small step from saying
that people pursue pleasure to saying that they ought to promote pleasure. never-
theless, it’s fair to ask if promoting pleasure should be our sole moral goal—the
thing we should base morality upon. After all, there are some questionable or even

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Consequentialist theories often employ a concept of utility, describing desirable conse-
quences as having utility and undesirable consequence as having disutility. Hedonists
define utility as pleasure/happiness—their only foundational (non-moral) value—
and disutility as pain. Still, we must distinguish between pleasure, a more short-lived
feeling, and happiness, a state of mind related to personal fulfillment. Treating utility
as mere pleasure creates some problems: there are morally bad pleasures, and other

immoral pleasures (e.g., enjoying child pornography and acting sadistically). Fur-
ther, aren’t there things besides pleasure that have value? The hedonist replies that
anything else (e.g., friendship or learning) is instrumental—valuable only as much
as it leads to pleasure. But this seems wrong. Although learning can be hard work
and friendship can be costly, we still pursue both as valuable in themselves. In fact,
why should we view pleasure as a foundational good in the first place? We often do
pursue pleasure, but is that reason to conclude that we ought to?

logically, this is not a small step at all. nor is it particularly compelling.
People often do things they shouldn’t. People act selfishly or eat too much, but just
because they do these things hardly shows that they ought to. Although hedonists
take it for granted that pleasure/happiness is the only foundational value, they owe
us a fairly strong argument for assigning pleasure so much importance.

Actually, this loose talk of the value of pleasure/happiness is not very satisfac-
tory, because pleasure and happiness are not the same. Pleasure can contribute to
happiness, but it is also possible to enjoy a constant stream of pleasures without
being happy, as some celebrities have demonstrated. The distinction seems to be
that a pleasure is fairly immediate and short-lived—a kind of feeling—while happi-
ness is more of an ongoing state of mind. Happiness also relates closely to personal
fulfillment or achievement. Finally, happiness must somehow be grounded in real-
ity since it’s hard to imagine achieving genuine fulfillment through mere illusions.

Since pleasure and happiness are not the same, it would be a mistake to gloss
over their differences. Further, our discussion suggests that mere pleasure (as dis-
tinguished from happiness) doesn’t look very promising as a basis for morality.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that some consequentialists have tried to shift from
pleasure to other concepts of utility, including that which better captures the spe-
cial nature of human happiness.

For Discussion
1. Would you be happy living out the rest of your life in a pleasure machine? It

suppresses all discomforts and provides virtual experiences of any pleasure you
choose; the hitch is that everything is illusory—nothing is real!

2. How do you conceive of happiness and pleasure? (Be careful about how these
words are often used.)

3. Do you think that pleasures are good, bad, or neutral?
4. Should utility be pleasure or happiness? Why?

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things appear as good as pleasure. Thus, it’s tempting to try to define utility to include
happiness rather than mere pleasure.

Key Terms

• Utility: whatever makes consequences desirable; disutility, then, is undesirable.


For consequentialism to be practicable, we must be able to accurately assess how
much utility something might produce. Hence, utility needs to be both predict-
able and measurable. Pleasures are fairly predictable; they arise in most people
in roughly similar ways and may even be measurable in terms of electrical brain
activity. Happiness, however, is much more elusive. Happiness doesn’t just happen;
it’s more the product of how one lives. nor is there any guarantee that you will be
happy in the same situation in which another person is happy. And suppose some-
one is happy: exactly how do we tell?

despite its abstract appeal, identifying utility with happiness thus has some
problems. However, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), an influential consequentialist,
thought it possible to get around these difficulties. Being sympathetic with hedo-
nism, Mill’s view is that anything pleasurable or conducive to happiness should
count as having utility. As an empiricist— believing that only observation and ex-
perience can provide a basis for human understanding—Mill also holds that utility
must be observable and even measurable.

In addition, however, Mill wants us to recognize that there are different kinds
or qualities of pleasure, where “pleasure” here includes experiences that relate to
happiness as well as to “mere” pleasures. Although Mill grants that all pleasures
are good, he observes that some pleasures are on a higher plane than others. The
pleasures of artistic creation, of helping others, or of solving a challenging prob-
lem, for instance, are “higher” and thus preferable (in some sense) to, say, getting
drunk or pigging out on junk food. likewise, the satisfactions we experience from
pursuing knowledge or cultivating a deep friendship—the kinds of things usu-
ally thought necessary for happiness—are ultimately more important to us than
the pleasures of, say, a pleasant meal. Mill associates higher-quality pleasures with
more intellectual and distinctively human experiences—ones particularly condu-
cive to human happiness. The lower-quality pleasures, meanwhile, he associates
more with bodily instincts and appetites.

Mill famously observes, “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig
satisfied.”2 In saying this, Mill means to say that we usually draw much more
satisfaction from distinctively human experiences—associated with the higher
pleasures—than from those body-pleasing pleasures that many animals can
also experience—the lower-quality pleasures. This leads Mill to propose that

2John Stuart Mill, “What Utilitarianism Is,” Utilitarianism (Public domain, 1863), chapter 2.

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we give greater weight to higher-quality experiences than to lower-quality ones
and that we also incorporate this difference directly into our evaluation of

There still remains the problem of measuring quality in some sufficiently
precise way. Mill answers that we should assign weights to different kinds of
experiences based on what most people say they prefer. Mill remains confident
that most would prefer the higher-quality pleasures when faced with a choice.
Although Mill has no desire to denigrate any pleasures, he argues that no sensi-
tive and experienced person could find satisfaction in a life that satiates only the
body. By weighting quality according to people’s preferences, Mill thus provides
a consequentialist ethics that incorporates both pleasure and happiness in a mea-
surable way.

Mill may be getting at something important here. Still, there are difficulties.
Can we be sure that most would agree to Mill’s ranking of higher- versus lower-
quality experiences? Mill grants that not all people would agree, for although
anyone can enjoy the lower pleasures, it requires training and experience to ap-
preciate many of the higher pleasures. You can’t appreciate the joys of reading
until you learn to read and even then a good course in literature might increase
your enjoyment. The drunk on the street probably can’t tell any difference be-
tween cheap wine and the connoisseur’s choice. The danger is that those lack-
ing experience with the higher pleasures will mistakenly think that they prefer
the lower pleasures, simply because they don’t know any better. To arrive at a
more accurate ranking of various experiences, therefore, Mill tells us to consult
only those who are well-equipped to appreciate both higher- and lower-quality

Even if we limit our consultations to such “experts,” can we be certain that the
resulting rankings will turn out as Mill thought they should? despite its appeal,
the idea of assigning greater weight to some pleasures over others may be wrong-
headed. After all, we value all kinds of experiences. While few would be happy
living as pigs, a life without simple sensual pleasures would be monotonous and
depressing as well. We need both “higher” and “lower” pleasures, for a life that
lacks either would be greatly diminished. We might even say, “It’s better still to be
a human fully satisfied (experiencing both kinds of pleasure) than to be Mill dis-
satisfied (experiencing only the higher pleasures).” If every kind of morally legiti-
mate experience has its place, it may not make sense to assign greater importance
to some experiences over others.

Further, it’s a mistake to assume that pleasures only differ in importance by
being higher or lower pleasures. After all, even the higher pleasures can be abused
or perverted, for example, by an artist who enjoys creating works that debase
women or a businessman who enjoys applying his intellect to take advantage of

In view of these considerations, it may be best to simply abandon the he-
donist tradition. However, this brings us back to the question of how utility
should be defined. Consequentialists have suggested a number of alternatives.

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Some suggest that we give up trying to include anything positive or desirable in
utility and simply define it in terms of avoiding the undesirable. It’s fairly un-
controversial, after all, that people usually find pain and suffering undesirable.
others propose that utility includes whatever those affected may desire at that
time. Whatever way we define utility, that definition will yield its own particular
version of consequentialism.

Although the question of defining utility is important, it’s not something we
can settle here. However, we can still explore other important features of conse-
quentialism without taking a definitive stand on utility. leaving the issue open,
therefore, we will follow common practice and simply speak of desirable conse-
quences as having utility and undesirable consequences as having disutility. With
these terms in mind, we next turn to a consideration of act utilitarianism, a conse-
quentialist theory that remains very influential today.

For Discussion
1. List several kinds of pleasures. Which would Mill call “higher” and which would

he call “lower”? Would you agree?
2. Mill said: “It’s better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” The text also

suggests: “It’s better still to be a human fully satisfied than to be Mill dissatisfied.”
What are your reactions to these slogans?

3. How would you define utility?

For utility to encompass happiness while remaining measurable, Mill introduced dif-
ferent qualities of experience, proposing that greater moral weight belongs to higher-
quality pleasures. To determine which experiences are higher, we ask those familiar
with both higher- and lower-quality experiences. But there may not be any genuine
moral difference between these. Other consequentialists have abandoned traditional
hedonism and define utility in other ways.

Key Terms

• Qualities: allow us to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures; Mill
thought the lower-quality pleasures deserve less moral weight.


Act utilitarianism treats all individuals impartially, counting every individual ex-
actly the same. It also focuses on specific situations. The situation determines what
choices of action there are, along with the likely effects of each choice. This means
that act utilitarianism can only be applied to particular situations, as what can and
should be done both depend on the situation’s circumstances. Finally, utilitarian-
ism considers the right act to be the one that produces the greatest overall utility:

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Act Utilitarianism: The morally right act, for any particular situation, is that act
that results in producing the greatest overall utility.3

It’s important to understand, first, that act utilitarianism is intended to explain
right and wrong, to answer the question: what makes an act morally right? Act
utilitarianism’s answer is that it is right to distribute the most utility we can (over-
all) to those individuals affected by an act. Achieving the greatest overall utility is
what makes an act right. That act being the right act, furthermore, is an objective
fact since it depends solely on what generates the most overall utility in that situ-
ation. opinions, desires, and even ignorance make no difference to what is right.
Furthermore, an act’s “overall” utility depends on all individuals affected. This in-
cludes not only the actor herself (who is always affected by her actions) but also
everyone else affected.

Those affected by a particular act fall within the scope of that act’s effects.
Scope is just one aspect of the overall effects. one early utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham
(1748–1832), identified seven aspects of an act’s overall effects. Setting things up a
little differently, we will be able to adequately assess an act’s overall effects by using
just the following four aspects.

1. Scope: Which individuals will be affected? How many? The greater the
number affected by an act, the greater the scope of its effects. The greater the
scope, the more that act influences overall utility. Whether Ed continues or stops
the trials, for instance, all 2,800 of the participating patients fall within the scope,
some being affected positively and some negatively. In addition, each patient’s
family and friends will be affected by Ed’s choice to the degree they care about the
patient. Thus, they too are part of the scope, as are the owners, employees, and
investors of Ed’s company and even those of rival companies. Finally, the scope
includes all who could benefit from the availability of a better drug.

2. Duration: How long will each effect last? Some effects are short-lived;
others continue a very long time. The longer an effect lasts, the more it influences
overall utility. For those whose seizures are being controlled by Ed’s drug (and for
their family and friends), the positive effects will last as long as they take the drug.
The same holds for people who take the drug in the future. on the other hand,
some will suffer the drug’s side effects. The effects of suffering a permanent injury
last for the rest of their lives, and a roughly similar time period applies to many of
their family and friends. Anyone who dies from the drug’s effects suffers up until
death; their family and friends will suffer over that time and for an indefinite time
afterward. Finally, various company owners, workers, and investors will benefit
(or suffer) for as long as their financial gains (or losses) last.

3. Intensity: Experiences can differ in their degree of strength or force. Some
desirable effects as well as some kinds of suffering can be intense; others are fairly
mild. Effects can also vary in intensity from one person to another. Thus, suppose
that some of those participating in Ed’s drug trials no longer experience small

3As mentioned at the end of the preceding (optional) section, we will hereafter understand utility
generically – as simply encompassing good or desirable consequences.

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seizures. The effect for these people is mild relief—an effect of limited intensity.
For others, the drug prevents debilitating or even fatal seizures, which is clearly a
much more intense effect. Those who suffer severely or die from the drug’s effects
experience intense disutility (though maybe not for a very long time). Their family
and friends likewise experience fairly intense disutility, depending on their close-
ness to the patient.

4. Probability: We don’t know the future so we don’t know for certain what
effects any particular action will produce. The best an act utilitarian can do, there-
fore, is to estimate the chances of each possible effect. These estimates should then
be used to assign weights to each effect (desirable or not). Ed’s information indi-
cates that less than one of every one hundred patients taking the drug will suffer
dangerous side effects, leaving 99% to enjoy the drug’s benefits. Because these
positive effects are so much more likely, they should be assigned a much higher
weight (0.99) than the negative side effects (0.01). In this case, the probabilities are
known quite precisely. The likelihood of possible financial gains and losses depend
on market conditions and so can only be roughly estimated.

Applying probability estimates as weights to each possible effect is the most
reasonable way to take into account our uncertainties about the future. Unlikely
effects shouldn’t influence our choice of acts as much as more likely effects. Ex-
tremely unlikely effects are usually negligible and so can be dropped from con-
sideration unless the low probabilities are counteracted by very large scopes,
intensities, and durations.

The morally right act cannot be determined by considering any one of the
four aspects by itself; all must be included. To do this, we first identify what choices
are available (e.g., Ed’s can either continue or halt the trials). next, we calculate the
overall utility (treating disutility as negative and utility as positive) of each choice’s
results. We do this for each choice by considering (1) the scope of its possible ef-
fects, (2) the duration of each effect upon every individual in the scope, (3) the
intensity (desirable or undesirable) of each effect for every individual, and (4) the
probability of each effect. Having determined the overall utility resulting from each
choice, we finally compare these to identify the choice that will result in the larg-
est overall utility (or the least overall disutility, if no choice can give rise to overall
positive utility). That choice is the one act utilitarianism tells us we should make.

For Discussion
1. Think of any simple choice you’ve made today. What individuals did it affect

(scope)? What are the duration and intensity of its effects? Which effects are most
likely; are any important but unlikely?

2. Given your responses to question 1, would act utilitarianism approve of your

3. What do you find most appealing about act utilitarianism? Why?
4. Faced with a moral choice, you decide what to do by comparing the overall utili-

ties of each choice’s effects. How could this lead you to choose an act that your
moral intuitions say is wrong? (If this bothers you, see §VI!)

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1. Act utilitarianism has several advantages.

• one of its main attractions is its objectivity.4 Each particular situation in-
volves a set of definite facts: what the choices are, what effects each choice
would bring about, and what amount of utility/disutility each effect would
produce. Based on these facts, the right choice—that which would produce
the greatest utility (or the least overall disutility if no choice will produce
positive overall utility)—is also an objective matter of fact.

This objectivity is no accident, for act utilitarianism was meant to be
a kind of scientific moral theory—a way of determining moral right and
wrong based upon experience. Because cause-and-effect regularities exist
in nature, our accumulated experiences (both individual and shared) enable
us to predict the most likely effects of our actions. Experience can also tell
us much about the utilities and disutilities we can expect for these effects.
As our experience and knowledge grow, our knowledge of moral right and
wrong becomes increasingly precise. Act utilitarianism thus promises to
take the aura of mystery from ethics, placing it solidly on empirical grounds.

• originally intended to help reform the British criminal justice system, act utili-
tarianism is also impartial. Since it only considers the effects of an act, it can’t be
influenced by who the actor is—whether high or low born, statesman or crimi-
nal, male or female. All individuals are counted within the scope as equals.

4Act utilitarianism is an objectivist and not a relativist theory. only the circumstances of each
situation determine the overall utilities, not opinions, beliefs, culture, or the like.

Act utilitarianism defines specific acts as morally right or wrong; the right act in a situ-
ation is the one that will produce the greatest overall utility. To determine which this
is, we consider our possible choices and the overall utility produced by each, taking
into account each effect’s scope, duration, intensity, and probability. When an effect
includes both utility and disutility, the disutility is subtracted from the utility. We then
compare the overall utility resulting from each choice; the morally right choice is the
one that will produce the most overall utility.

Key Terms

• Act utilitarianism: defines the morally right act, for a particular situation, as
that which produces the greatest overall utility.

• Scope: the individuals affected by an act; the greater the number affected, the
greater the scope.

• Duration: the time period over which an effect lasts.

• Intensity: the degree of strength or force of an experience.

• Probability: the chance or likelihood of an effect actually taking place.

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• Act utilitarianism is extremely simple: it explains all of morality by a single
principle. This principle, furthermore, is highly intuitive in at least two
ways. First, act utilitarianism is surely on the right track in treating an act’s
consequences as morally significant. Second, it resonates with human psy-
chology since we all seek desirable experiences while we try to avoid experi-
ences that we find undesirable.

• Act utilitarianism is very flexible. Although it defines right acts by a single
principle, the utility for any act depends on each situation’s particular cir-
cumstances. Since these can vary, there is considerable leeway in the moral
judgments act utilitarianism makes. The results can be surprising. For in-
stance, while act utilitarianism might require telling the truth in one situ-
ation, it might forbid it in another. This sensitivity to the circumstances is
seen as a major advantage by many.

• Finally, many see utilitarianism as attractive because it so easily extends to
include non-humans. Since many animals have both positive and negative
conscious experiences, it seems unwarranted to neglect them in utilitarian
considerations. Thus, the utilitarian evaluation of any situation involving
animals usually includes them among the individuals within its scope.

2. Act utilitarianism also encounters some imposing problems.

• Calculations: You’ve already thought of this: how accurately can we deter-
mine the scope, intensity, and duration of several actions’ consequences
as well as accurately estimate the probabilities of each? Even for Ed’s fairly
simple case with drug trials, we must weigh the drug’s benefits against its
side effects, consider the survival of Ed’s company and the larger financial
picture, evaluate the duration and intensity of every possible effect upon a
large number of people, and estimate the probabilities of each possible effect.
doing all of this adequately looks daunting. Unless this difficulty can be al-
leviated, it may be too troublesome to determine the objectively right choice
for a particular situation. This is a problem with the theory’s practicability.

Utilitarians have a response. As they point out, people have been ac-
cumulating knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships for millennia.
Thanks to this ever-increasing store of experience, we can predict the effects
of most acts with considerable success. In fact, we each do this every day. It
should not be hard, then, to formulate general rules of thumb to guide our
choices. For instance, while lying may bring certain immediate advantages,
it frequently entangles us in more complex troubles that ultimately affect
everyone involved. As the ensuing unpleasantness usually outweighs the
initial advantages, we learn that it’s best to follow the rule: “don’t lie.” By
applying similar rules of thumb to everyday situations, we can forego most
everyday utilitarian calculations. Such rules of thumb won’t always lead us
to the morally right choice, but they will with reasonable dependability.

• Moral Saints: A cluster of problems arises from the extensive moral demands
act utilitarianism places upon us. First, the theory turns everything into a

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moral issue. What clothes should I wear today? Can’t I wear whatever I want?
not necessarily. From a utilitarian perspective, I must consider what effects
my dress could have on everyone I encounter. For instance, if my clothes are
too flashy, that might make others envious or unhappy. The point is that what-
ever I do affects others and so qualifies as a moral issue I ought to consider.
But that doesn’t seem right. Aren’t most mundane choices morally neutral?

next, utilitarianism tells us that for any situation, there is always some
best choice. This entails that I ought to reject all alternatives in favor of that
best choice; choosing anything less amounts to my failing to act morally.
Suppose I give $2 to a homeless man who really needs it. Haven’t I done a
good thing? Maybe, but probably not the best thing. Wouldn’t $4, $5, or a
$100 do a lot more good? Sure, it may hurt me a bit to part with that kind
of money, but if I’m not homeless, the disutility I experience won’t compare
to the benefits I bring to that man. A contemporary act utilitarian, Peter
Singer, has argued along these very lines. His conclusion is that well-off
Americans have a moral obligation to give a large portion of their income—
potentially up to half or more—to alleviate suffering in the rest of the world.

or, think about the many health providers who risked their lives to
care for victims of the 2014 Ebola outbreaks or the doctors without Borders
who treat people in war zones. If their actions in these situations produce
more utility than they would in their usual jobs, then act utilitarianism says
that it’s their moral duty to do such things. But we view such self-sacrificial
acts as going way “beyond the call of duty.” Act utilitarianism doesn’t rec-
ognize the difference.

In these ways, act utilitarianism can make it our duty to act as moral
saints. It says that when people act in “saintly” ways, they usually have just
done what they should have, nothing more. This clashes with our intuitions
regarding what count as actual moral duties—a problem with moral con-
firmation. It’s hard to see, furthermore, how to avoid this problem without
altering the very nature of act utilitarianism.

• Promises, justice, and rights: Act utilitarianism often supports our moral in-
tuitions that lying, murder, breaking contracts, and cheating are wrong. Yet
there can be situations where even these wrongs could produce the greatest
utility, making them right instead. For instance, as executor of his estate, I
promise a dying man to pay the $20,000 debt he incurred forty years ago.
This debt is owed to one of the richest men on earth who has long since
forgotten all about it. Should I pay the debt? The money would do much
greater good invested in cancer research or given to the local soup kitchen.
Also, the dead man can’t be affected by what I do, and no one else witnessed
my promise. Thus, my breaking this particular promise would likely pro-
duce more utility than my keeping it. But would that be right? Many people
feel very uncomfortable with cases like this. “A promise is a promise,” isn’t
it? Also, note the strangeness of the utilitarian position here: it’s not merely
allowed that I break my promise; rather, it’s my moral duty to break it.

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More generally, if act utilitarianism were true, then any sort of action
could become one’s moral duty given the right sorts of circumstances. This
opens the door to all sorts of outrages. Among these are act utilitarianism’s
failures with justice and human rights, which many consider its most ob-
jectionable results. Imagine that you belong to a small group of people with
a rare genetic profile; although your organs and blood are compatible with
others in this group, none of you can receive organs or blood from anyone
else. A devastating earthquake injures countless people in California. Be-
cause you weren’t there, you remain in excellent health. It turns out that three
of the injured belong to your genetic group—a mother of four, an important
political leader, and a research scientist. You happen to visit California, and
while you are there a doctor identifies you as the only compatible donor for
these victims. Would it be morally right for the doctor to entice you into
the hospital, put you to sleep, and then remove a kidney, a couple pints of
blood, and maybe some other tissues to save these people? Wouldn’t this in-
voluntary organ “donation” grossly violate your rights? or suppose a heinous
crime has been committed, but the authorities can’t find any clues. As public
fear and outrage grow, the police realize that they need to find someone to
punish or riots will ensue. Would it be just for them to take some innocent
drifter, frame him with the crime, and punish him to head off a riot? It’s not
hard to see how utilitarianism could judge both acts to be morally “right.” All
that’s needed is for them to create more utility than any other option.

The trouble is with act utilitarianism’s aim of promoting overall utility.
This must include all of those affected, making it possible for the majority’s
interests to “swamp” or outweigh the interests of the minority when these
conflict. For act utilitarianism, “the good of the many outweighs the good
of the few, or the one,”5 and this can lead to injustices that utilitarianism
must approve. In addition, act utilitarianism can make little sense of per-
sonal moral rights. Rights apply to individuals, but utilitarianism views an
individual as only part of what in included in overall utility. Can a theory
that has such difficulties with moral confirmation—requiring rights viola-
tions, injustices, and the like—be an acceptable ethical theory? The end
(maximum overall utility) does not justify the means, critics say—especially
when the means requires a travesty of justice or rights. For these reasons,
many have concluded that act utilitarianism is morally bankrupt.

Similar problems, by the way, can appear when a situation pits human
and animal interests against each other. Most utilitarians count humans and
animals equally in determinations of scope. does this mean that utilitarian-
ism views humans as no different from animals? Utilitarians often temper
this with the following argument. Human intelligence gives us a greater ca-
pacity to anticipate suffering compared to most other animals. Therefore,

5The last words of Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, directed by nicholas Meyer,
Paramount Pictures, 1982.

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humans will often experience more suffering (disutility) than an animal in
similar situations. For instance, while a hamster may dislike the prick of a
needle, its suffering hardly compares with that of a child who experiences
dread terror when the doctor pulls out a syringe. The child suffers more in
both intensity and duration, and this makes the child’s total disutility greater
than that of his hamster counterpart. Yet even when an effect for a human has
a greater impact on overall utility than for an animal, it’s still possible for the
interests of a few humans to be swamped by the interests of many animals.

For Discussion
1. What do you view as act utilitarianism’s greatest advantages? Why?
2. Suppose two or more options yield the same amount of expected overall utility—

they tie. What would be right in that case?
3. Do you think that act utilitarianism should count animals?
4. How well do rules of thumb address act utilitarianism’s problems regarding

5. Do you think that you have a moral duty to keep your promise to the dying man

or should you use that money to help poor people instead? Why?
6. How much do you think animal and human mental capacities affect their capa-

bilities of experiencing suffering?
7. A teen is charged with petty theft in a bad neighborhood. The judge decides to

make an example of him to deter others in the neighborhood from committing
more serious crimes, so he triples the teen’s sentence. What do you think about
this? What would act utilitarianism say?

8. The argument to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki maintained that
only something drastic could drive the Japanese to surrender. Otherwise, the war
would continue much longer, causing huge losses on both sides. Does this look
right from an act utilitarian perspective?

Act utilitarianism has several advantages. It’s objective, simple, very flexible, and it easily
extends to include animals that can be aware of pleasures and pains. The theory also en-
counters several objections. It requires that we do calculations to determine what is right,
and these can be unduly difficult. It also demands that we act as moral saints, and it en-
counters all kinds of problems with promises, justice, and rights. Of these, the calculation
problem can be at least partly solved via rules of thumb, though this will sometimes lead
us to make choices that are wrong according to act utilitarianism. The most serious set of
problems go with promises, justice, and rights.

Key Terms

• Rules of thumb: rules that tell us what we should do based on what usually
promotes utility best in similar situations.

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We have mainly considered classical act utilitarianism, which clearly founders
upon several objections. Since its earliest formulation, however, theorists have
tried to improve upon classical utilitarianism—for example, Mill attempted to in-
clude each pleasure’s quality when calculating utility. Although we cannot survey
every other alternative, it’s only fair to describe some of the more important vari-
ants that have emerged from the ongoing efforts to answer the previously noted

1. Different concepts of utility: Besides Mill’s redefinition of utility, we’ve
mentioned a few other alternatives as well. Each distinct concept of utility yields
a different version of utilitarianism. These different accounts, furthermore, can
sometimes support different moral judgments. In any case, the important thing is
to avoid defining utility by appealing to any foundational moral values— something
Mill may be doing by so closely associating higher qualities with greater moral
weight. After all, if we already know what is morally good, then there is no need
for consequentialist explanations of morality in the first place.

2. Ideal and expected utility: doing utilitarian calculations remains a prob-
lem, even when we use rules of thumb. First, no matter how carefully we formulate
these rules, there’s no guarantee that they will always lead us to do what act utili-
tarianism itself says is right. This is because of a theoretical limitation regarding
rules: none can ever be specific enough to take into account every circumstance in
the way that act utilitarianism does.

More seriously, there’s a practical limitation: even our best probability esti-
mates can’t anticipate actual consequences with unfailing success. By applying
probabilities as weights to each possible effect, we can only arrive at expected
utilities—our best assessments given our human limitations. But act utilitarian-
ism defines the right act ideally, in terms of what actually will result. Inevitably,
then, even our assessing expected utilities as accurately as we can won’t always lead
us to the right act (as act utilitarianism defines it). Given classical utilitarianism’s
definition, there’s nothing we can do about this except to base our estimates on as
much information as possible.

An alternative is to replace ideal utilitarianism with an account that doesn’t
require a godlike knowledge of the future. Suppose we define morally right acts in
terms of our best probability estimates and resulting expectations. Then that which
appears best to us at the time literally becomes the right act—on the condition that
we reason correctly using all we could reasonably be expected to know at the time.
If it turns out that another choice would have produced more overall utility, then
we can acknowledge that as the ideal choice while still maintaining that we made
the morally right choice at the time. By softening utilitarianism in this way, we cut
into the more serious aspect of utilitarian calculations.

3. Characterizing the right: Act utilitarianism’s goal of maximizing overall
utility has the serious disadvantage of letting majority interests swamp those of
the few, leading to injustices and rights violations. But there are other possible

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ways to characterize right acts. For example, a right act could be described as that
which achieves the greatest overall utility as long as no individual’s harms or ben-
efits differ by more than 25% from the average for all others. This would rule out
an involuntary organ donation that costs the donor ten units of disutility when the
three recipients’ average utility is twenty:

donor: Recipient’s average: difference: 25% of average:
‒10 +20 30 5 = 25% of 20

In this case, the proposed characterization allows for a difference of up to
five units of utility (25% of the recipients’ average of twenty), but the actual dif-
ference is thirty. This is six times more than what the proposal allows, making
this forced donation morally unacceptable. As this demonstrates, the proposed
characterization works against swamping by requiring that consequences be
distributed more evenly, leaving no individual harmed or benefited much more
than anyone else.

There are countless other ways to characterize the right. These would likely
yield different moral judgments even for the very same problem and circum-
stances. By choosing with care, utilitarians can avoid some of the most serious
objections leveled against classical utilitarianism. of course, the utilitarian should
also provide very good reasons for using one characterization over others.

4. Accommodating justice: Some of the most intriguing defenses of act utili-
tarianism have been made in response to its weaknesses with justice and rights.
Utilitarians point out that when justice and rights are regularly violated, people’s
lives become filled with fear and uncertainty over when they might be required
to sacrifice their interests for the overall good. Turning the point around, it seems
that a general respect for justice and rights could surely promote utility. Why then
should we grant the criticism that act utilitarianism works against justice and

The problem is this: to achieve the desired gains in utility, a set of principles
must be established that uphold rights and justice regardless of the circumstances.
Yet act utilitarianism cannot establish such principles. Since act utilitarianism deals
only with particular acts, it cannot support general principles because there will
always be situations in which such principles must be violated to attain the greatest
utility. By its very nature, act utilitarianism can’t attain the gains in utility that jus-
tice and rights could offer. But what if it were possible to establish principles based
on the utility these principles themselves would produce? Rule utilitarianism, the
theory explored in the next chapter, attempts to do this.

For Discussion
1. Consider a rule of thumb like “Never lie.” Can you think of situations for which act

utilitarianism would require a lie?
2. What do you think of the proposal to maximize expected utility rather than actual

utility? What are some advantages and disadvantages with each option?

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3. Suppose morally right acts are defined as what will produce the greatest overall
utility given our best probability estimates and knowledge at the time. Does this
undermine act utilitarianism’s objectivity?

4. Can you think of other ways to characterize the right besides maximizing overall
utility and the text’s suggestion? What improvement would your characterization

5. Why can’t act utilitarianism support, say. the right to one’s property? Explain.

Given the many serious objections to classical act utilitarianism, we might consider
altering it. The most direct way to do this would be to redefine utility. We also might
try replacing the ideal goal of maximizing actual utility with the goal of maximizing
expected utility. More significant changes would involve recharacterizing right acts to
require a fairer distribution of utility than what we get by merely maximizing overall
utility. In the next chapter, finally, we will consider an attempt to use utility to define
right principles or rules instead of just right acts.

Key Terms

• Expected utilities: our best assessments of the utilities likely to result from
each choice’s effects given our limitations and knowledge at the time.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. How does act utilitarianism differ from ethical egoism (see Chapter Five, §IV)?
2. Discuss the pros and cons of treating pleasure/happiness as the only good value,

as Hedonism maintains.
3. How well does the proposal to use rules of thumb solve the problem of making

utilitarian calculations?
4. Can you think of any act utilitarian way to get around the problem of requiring

everyone to act as moral saints?
5. Act utilitarians respond to people’s moral intuitions against breaking promises

as follows: although breaking a promise may feel wrong, what this really shows
is that our moral intuitions are sometimes mistaken; they don’t sufficiently take
utility into account. How would you reply?

6. Explain how the act utilitarian emphasis on overall utility gives rise to the prob-
lems with justice and rights.

7. Evaluate act utilitarianism using the criteria for assessing theories (see the Intro-
duction to Part II).

8. Changing the organ donation story a little, suppose that you, the potential donor,
are told about the situation and then asked—not forced—to donate some organs.
Would you have a moral obligation to comply?

9. What do you consider to be the strongest objection(s) to act utilitarianism?

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Additional Resources
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781). Amherst,

nY: Prometheus Books. 1988. This book is also available online. Accessed August 5,
2009. See especially chap-
ter 4, “value of a lot of Pleasure or Pain, How to Be Measured,” in which Bentham
discusses his seven-part measure of utility.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Public domain, 1863. The entire text may be found online.
Accessed August 27, 2016. See chapter 5,
“on the Connection between Justice and Utility,” for Mill’s analysis of the nature of
justice and his defense of utilitarianism in reply to the objection regarding rights and

Smart, J. J. C. and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. new York: Cambridge
University Press, 1973. A classic discussion of utilitarianism in which Smart defends
his version of utilitarianism and Williams responds with his criticisms of the utilitar-
ian approach.

Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993. See section
19, “Consequentialism,” by Philip Pettit for an exploration of more contemporary ap-
proaches to utilitarianism, in contrast to classical utilitarianism.

Case 1

Charity vs. iPad

Josh has his eye on the latest iPad and has been saving up his earnings from the
tutoring job he works at his college. Although he’s been really looking forward
to getting this new toy, he’s now having second thoughts. Joe is an international
studies major and also a member of the international student club. Just last week,
his friend Samesh made a presentation to the club about Kenya students who
can’t afford to finish high school. In Kenya, attending school is mandatory, but
since it costs money, many people cannot afford it. Samesh proposed that the
club start collecting for a reputable charity that sponsors Kenyan high school stu-
dents. Both Josh and most of the club felt they really wanted to help; still, Josh
also would like that new iPad. He is torn, but realizes that by donating the iPad
money to the charity, he could do a lot more good than by just spending it for


1. What would you do if you were Josh? Provide reasons.
2. According to act utilitarianism, is Josh morally obligated to donate the money

to the charity? What are the good and the bad effects of Josh donating the
money instead of buying his new toy?

3. Who belongs to the scope of individuals affect by Josh’s decision?
4. Suppose that since Josh doesn’t really need an iPad—he’d just like it to play

games, watch movies, and listen to music—he decides to donate the money
now and keep saving to buy the iPad later. According to act utilitarianism,
would Josh’s donation today morally justify buying the iPad later?

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Case 2

Sponsoring a Child

Kazi’s father had died, and his mother was left to support him and his three siblings.
Thanks to a child sponsorship Kazi started receiving soon afterwards, he was able to
finish high school—something that otherwise would have been impossible. He did
very well at school, which qualified him to get free tuition and books for any future
schooling. Since his sponsorship also provided him with occasional career counsel-
ing, he has now decided to continue to college and become a medical doctor.6

Sponsoring a child is easy, relatively inexpensive, and tax deductible. Some
charities offer sponsorships for just $22 a month; others run about $1 a day. Many
also provide medical care and other types of support. Often, potential sponsors
can choose the child they want to help by examining photos the charity displays
on their website. The sites also usually include the personal stories of the children
in need. Once sponsors have chosen their child, they can develop a personal rela-
tionship with the child by exchanging letters and photos. Because sponsorships
offer this personal and holistic approach, many people opt for child sponsorship
over contributing to a more general child relief fund. However, a child sponsorship
can be less cost effective than simply donating to a fund since it involves more
overhead costs. After all, someone has to oversee the money and care that go di-
rectly to a particular family.7

Another approach doesn’t allow prospective sponsors to choose individual
children. SOS, for instance, establishes children’s villages instead. These villages
provide homes for children who have lost their parents (a trained “surrogate
mother” takes care of them and so replicates a sort of family life for the children).
Sponsors contribute a certain amount monthly toward the village. However, after
the sponsorship starts, sponsors start receiving personal information and pictures
of “their” child, which still allows for the sponsor to develop a personal relationship
with a particular child. SOS takes this approach because it doesn’t consider it ap-
propriate to make personal information about needy children available publicly.8


1. Many middle-class Americans don’t feel that they can spare $22 a month to
sponsor a child. do you think this is true? What do you think they use the $22
for instead?

2. do you think that many Americans ought to sponsor a child? What moral con-
siderations do you see as relevant to this question?

3. What advantages and disadvantages does each of the described approaches
have—choosing a child to sponsor, a village sponsorship, or donating to a gen-
eral relief fund? Which approach would act utilitarianism prefer? Why?

6Children International, accessed August 27, 2016,
7Some organizations, like Compassion and Catholic Charities, keep these costs to a minimum by

working in partnership with local churches.
8 Information about SoS is available at SoS Kinderdorf International, accessed August 27, 2016, A similar Christian village ministry is called Rafiki. other indi-
vidual child sponsorships are also run by Compassion, World vision, and other organizations as well.

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Case 3

Should Your Next Car Be a Hybrid?

Hybrid cars—cars powered by a small gas engine and a battery—are now con-
sidered a mainstream alternative to a regular car. Their current market share, ac-
cording to various Internet sites, is about 3.5%. The main factor driving America’s
growing interest in hybrids is probably fluctuating gas prices, although it would be
nice to think that we are also becoming more “green” conscious. Since hybrid cars
use less fuel, they also release fewer pollutants into the air. Of course, pollutants
are still created by the electric generating facilities used to charge hybrid batteries.

So, should you consider getting a hybrid? Act utilitarianism would answer this
question by comparing the main advantages and disadvantages of owning a regu-
lar car to owning a hybrid. One nice benefit to the owner is that a hybrid saves
money on fuel and so can soften the impact of future surges in gas prices. For
example, the 2014 Toyota Prius has an average fuel economy of fifty-three highway
miles per gallon, twice what most other cars can offer. In addition, many states
offer tax advantages for buying a hybrid.

One disadvantage to hybrids is that they are more expensive than regular cars,
even with the tax advantages. Also, because hybrid engines contain more electron-
ics, repairs can cost more than for conventional cars. In addition, the price of replac-
ing a hybrid battery is probably not cost effective (current estimates say the batteries
should last up to 100,000 miles). Meanwhile, some environmentalists object that the
production and disposal of lithium batteries is not environmentally friendly.

Still, there are several nonmonetary benefits to hybrid cars. Our using less gas
could reduce or maybe even eliminate our dependence on foreign oil from some
of the world’s most unstable regions. It could also reduce air pollution. Gasoline
exhaust causes respiratory problems, increases the risk of cancer and asthma, and
can harm people’s immune systems. Reducing air pollution would also help put
the brakes on climate change, since carbon dioxide, the main component of au-
tomobile exhaust, is primarily responsible for greenhouse warming. Limiting pol-
lution may become a major benefit, since there’s growing evidence that climate
change is already melting the earth’s ice caps, warming the oceans, intensifying
world weather patterns, allowing disease-carrying mosquitoes to spread north-
ward, and destroying a large number of animal and plant species.

Electric cars are another emerging option; these promise many of the same
desirable effects as hybrids. Electrics presently cost substantially more than hy-
brids, although that didn’t stop Tesla buyers in 2016 from putting down deposits
on new Tesla cars that wouldn’t even be manufactured for another year or two. In
any case, and given the many very negative effects being fueled by gasoline auto-
mobiles, our moving from conventional cars to either hybrids or electrics may soon
not merely be an option, but a moral imperative.


1. list all the effects that your next car purchase will have, both positive and nega-
tive. Comparing a hybrid to a regular car purchase, identify the scope, duration,
intensity, and probability of these effects. Given this analysis, should you, ac-
cording to act utilitarianism, buy a hybrid car?

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2. How difficult was it to make this calculation for question 1? What do you
now think about the calculation problem? How serious is this problem for act

3. Is it too much to expect of you (or anyone else) to include issues like climate
change in your deliberations about what kind of car to buy? Why or why not?
How does your answer relate to the problem of moral sainthood?

4. What main factors do you think are presently driving more people to con-
sider buying hybrids or even electric cars? Are people thinking their decisions
through? do you think that environmental concerns are playing a greater role
in people’s thinking? Should they be playing a greater role?

Case 4

Factory Farming and Animal Suffering

“Factory farming” refers to the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)
used to produce the foods most Americans like best: chicken, beef, and pork. The
practice is widespread, because about 9 billion chickens and half a billion turkeys
are raised for human consumption in the United States each year. Let’s look at
these farming practices in a little more detail.9

When raised on a CAFO, few chickens or turkeys ever catch a glimpse of the
outside world in their lifetimes (which run about six weeks for chickens and a little
longer for turkeys). To save space (and thus money), these poultry are raised in
pens that provide about half a square foot for each chicken and less than three
square feet for each turkey. When the birds are grown, they don’t have enough
room to even stretch their wings.

Perhaps because they’re so close together or because they are bored stiff,
these birds can get rather feisty. To prevent them from injuring each other, their
beaks are cut off. For turkeys, the tips of their toes are clipped as well—without
using anesthetic. To prevent infection (which can rapidly spread in such crowded
conditions), the birds are given heavy doses of antibiotics. These antibiotics are
also necessary because the pens normally remain quite unsanitary. As you can
imagine, this also produces a pretty horrible stench, mainly from bird feces.

Both chickens and turkeys have been genetically altered to grow faster and
bigger. A faster turnover in birds allows for faster profits, which helps keep the
cost of meat lower for the consumer. Fatter birds also mean fatter profits. Unfor-
tunately, some chickens grow so heavy that their legs collapse under their own
weight. Turkeys grow breasts so large (Americans prefer breast meat!) that they
can’t reproduce normally; they must be artificially inseminated. Turkeys are also
prone to falling down and may be injured by other turkeys stepping on them.

When the birds are brought to the slaughterhouse, they are dumped from
their crates onto conveyer belts, and some fall off. Because of the speed at which
workers process the birds, the fallen birds may not get picked up again; as a

9The information for this case has been gathered from the website of Farm Sanctuary, accessed
August 27, 2016,, and from the book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason,
The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (new York: Rodale, Inc., 2006); see specifically Part I,
chapter 2, “The Hidden Cost of Cheap Chicken.”


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result, they either die from exposure or from getting torn up in the machinery.
Once on the conveyer belt, the birds are hung upside down by their feet and
are first run though a bath of electrified water. This step adds a humane touch
of stunning the birds; however, it’s not legally mandated because chickens and
turkeys don’t fall under the Federal Humane Slaughter Act. In fact, the stun-
ning is done primarily to expedite the slaughtering process. However, some
birds emerge from this bath still conscious. Conscious or not, they then proceed
toward a mechanical knife that cuts their throats. Because of the high process-
ing speeds, some birds manage to survive even this step. Thus, some are still
alive as they reach their last stop—a scalding tank that submerges the birds in
boiling water.

As repulsive as some of these facts may be, there are points in favor of CAFO
processing. First, although birds are obviously capable of suffering, it is unlikely
that they have the sorts of experiences we may imagine as we think about the
slaughterhouse. We tend to anthropomorphize—to think from a human point of
view. For instance, we may picture a bird experiencing overwhelming terror as it
proceeds along the conveyer belt. Yet birds are not likely to even remotely appreci-
ate the fatal significance of the process. In addition, human beings benefit from
factory farming in many ways. For one thing, chicken farmers don’t earn much,
and factory farming helps their businesses remain profitable. Cheaper methods
also pass significant savings on to consumers. For a family living below the poverty
line, this savings could make the difference between having meat at the dinner
table or not.


1. Because utilitarianism is inclusive and as birds can clearly experience pain,
most utilitarians include them in their calculations. do you agree that animal
experiences ought to be included in the moral evaluation of factory farming?

2. one of the objections to act utilitarianism is that it turns everything into a
moral issue. do you think that this objection applies here?

3. do the important human benefits of factory farming outweigh the disutility of
the animal suffering?

4. Birds don’t anticipate much of their suffering or impending death. neverthe-
less, any human parent can fully appreciate the significance of not being able to
afford dinner for her child. How should such differences enter into our utilitar-
ian considerations? Are there other relevant differences between humans and
animals that need to be considered?

5. Are there any morally preferable alternatives to factory farming?
6. Walking down the meat isle of the grocery store, you are thinking of buying

some chicken to grill for dinner. You can buy the store brand on sale for $0.89
a pound, or you can buy some humanely raised chicken for $3.49 a pound.
do you have an act utilitarian moral obligation to buy the free-range poultry
rather than the store brand? How much does this depend on your particular

Case 4 (Continued)

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Case 5

Torture Lite

What is “torture lite”? The term, coined by the popular media, refers to sophisti-
cated interrogation techniques that do not cause visible physical harms, as do
more traditional forms of torture. Examples of torture lite include sleep depriva-
tion, isolation, standing in stress positions, noise bombardment, humiliation, mock
executions, and subjecting the prisoner to heat and cold. One notorious technique
is water boarding: the suspect’s head is dunked into water or his head is wrapped
in a wet towel to induce the sensation of drowning. In contrast to traditional forms
of torture, which inflicts pain directly, torture lite causes suffering more indirectly.
Indeed, many of these interrogation techniques do not require any physical con-
tact between the interrogator and the victim.

Such “advanced” interrogation techniques have been employed by a number
of democratic governments, including by the United States during the Bush ad-
ministration as well as by France and the United Kingdom. These methods are
mainly used for intelligence gathering. Since the Geneva Convention forbids more
classic forms of torture, these are not used by democratic governments. Torture
lite, as some argue, is thus the only legal alternative and is sometimes necessary
to prevent even greater harm. For instance, lite techniques have been used in an
attempt to prevent terrorist attacks. Since 9/11, the use of these techniques has
become more common. Torture lite has become particularly notorious due to its
use at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The primary moral defense for using these techniques is utilitarian. Support-
ers argue that by subjecting prisoners to these techniques, we can gain important
information that may prevent great harm to society. The suffering of one (or a few)
individuals is relatively minor, after all, compared to the potential suffering of a
great many. This rationale follows what’s called the “ticking bomb scenario”: imag-
ine that there’s a bomb hidden somewhere that threatens to kill millions of people;
the only way to find the bomb and prevent these deaths is to torture the individual
who knows where the bomb is hidden. Isn’t it obvious that we should torture the
individual in such a situation?

Georgetown Law Professor David Luban has offered some interesting chal-
lenges in reply. According to Luban, the scenario makes some assumptions that
are seldom if ever met in reality. For instance, it assumes that we know for sure that
the suspect has the information we want. But is that ever the case? Not knowing
what useful information the suspect might be able to reveal, could we justifiably
torture someone? How high must the odds be in our favor? Is a 50/50 chance of
obtaining important information sufficient? Could just a 20% chance of success
justify torture if enough is at stake? Should this be a game of odds in the first place?
Also, how many individuals could we justifiably torture, for how long, and to what
degree if we think we might gain some needed information?10

Philosopher Jessica Wolfendale, meanwhile, argues that the line between or-
dinary torture and torture lite is not well defined, for even the latter can cause per-
manent psychological and physical harm. Standing in stress positions can cause

10david luban, “liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb,” Virginia Law Review, 91 (2005):


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swollen ankles, blistering on the feet, and a raised heart rate. Carried far enough,
it can lead to kidney failure and heart attack. Sleep deprivation can produce delu-
sions that sometimes can remain even after deprivation has ceased. Torture lite
can also cause post-traumatic stress disorder to such severity that the victim may
never be able to function again as a normal member of society.11


1. Torture lite is less direct than traditional forms of torture. do you think that
this invites us to use it more often and for less compelling reasons? Is its use
easier to rationalize?

2. Traditional torture has not typically produced very reliable information. Those
in great physical pain will often “confess” to whatever the torturer asks of them.
Is this likely to be true for torture lite as well? How is this relevant to act utilitar-
ian arguments regarding torture lite?

3. According to act utilitarianism, using torture lite can only be justified if it
would maximize utility in that particular case. Can you think of such a case?

4. does the issue of torture lite add additional force to act utilitarianism’s prob-
lems with rights and justice?

5. Suppose that in some particular case the use of torture lite would definitely
produce greater overall utility than any alternative. Would you agree with act
utilitarianism’s approval of torture lite in that instance? Why or why not?

11Jessica Wolfendale, “The Myth of Torture lite,” Carnegie Counsel for Ethics in International Af-
fairs, 23.1 (Spring 2009): 47–61.

Case 5 (Continued)


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Consequentialist Ethics: Rule


• On the campaign trail, candidates make all kinds of promises. Once elected,
they usually fulfill some of those promises. Others they may try to fulfill but
can’t. Then there are usually several promises they don’t even try to fulfill.

• You borrowed $40 from a friend last week and agreed to pay him back
today. But you then forgot all about it. This afternoon your friend asked
you for his money. You realized that you forgot; you also discovered that
you didn’t have enough on you to pay him. You asked if you could pay him
back tomorrow instead, and he said yes.

• You just bought a car, and the salesperson said she’d have it ready for you
the next day at noon. You arrived a little before noon and found the sales-
person. She said that the car was all ready for you except that it was just then
going through their complimentary car wash. She disappeared, and at five
minutes after noon, she brought the car right to where you are standing and
handed you the keys.

• James and Eileen were deeply in love. He proposed to her and nine months
later they married. Both their vows and wedding dance song had the phrase,
“Our love is forever / and after the end of time.” Things started out pretty
well, and both were very pleased when James landed a great new job. His im-
mediate supervisor, Amber, who was also married, was strikingly beautiful,
charming, and quite smart. After working closely together for a couple of
years, James and Amber began an affair. James still cared for Eileen, and in
fact their first child was just nine months old. But James was wildly infatuated
with Amber. A few months later, James and Amber both filed for divorces,
and six months after that, they got married. James left the child with Eileen.

How often do you make promises? Think about typical promises: “I’ll be
there.” “I promise to get that done by noon.” “I pledge allegiance. . . .” “By signing

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this contract, I agree. . . .” “I take this man to be my husband. . . .” We make promises
to others, and others make promises to us. Promises are so much a part of our lives
that we seldom notice how much we depend on them. Of course, contracts still get
broken, marriages fall apart, and commitments are not always kept. Yet we keep
making promises, as the practice of promising remains fairly dependable. If more
promises and commitments were kept, the world would be a much better place.
But even as things stand, we all seem better off with promises than without them.

What would a world without promises be like? Business deals would be ex-
tremely difficult and uncertain. Financial exchanges would require immediate
payment, treaties would not exist or could not be depended upon, and friendships
and marriages would be crippled. Without the practice of promising, ours would
be an unfriendly, untrusting, and unstable world.

Widespread social rules and practices like promising generate consequences
just as individual acts generate consequences. In particular, promising generates
much more utility for us than if it didn’t exist. This and other social practices—
like respecting individual rights and enforcing justice—all promote overall utility.
These observations lead us to a different consequentialist theory, rule utilitarianism.

For Discussion
1. Describe a world that has no practice of promising. How does this world have less

overall utility than a world which includes this practice?
2. Employing the social practice of promising is mastered in childhood. What re-

quirements and qualifications define this practice? For instance, under what con-
ditions may you justifiably fail to fulfill a promise? Could some promises never be

3. Choose one or two of the broken-promise stories that open this section and mor-
ally evaluate the situation and each person’s actions.

Act utilitarianism considers individual acts and their consequences. But certain social
rules and practices (e.g., promising) can also produce consequences and affect overall
utility. Building upon this fact, rule utilitarianism offers an important alternative to act


Many give up on act utilitarianism because of its difficulties. However, it’s possible
to reject act utilitarianism without abandoning all that utilitarianism stands for. Rule
utilitarianism gives us a way to do this.1 Like act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism

1Some consider J. S. Mill to be an early rule utilitarian but the theory developed primarily in the
mid-twentieth century and was intended as a serious rival to Kantian ethics.

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maintains that positive consequences—utility—determine what is morally right.
However, it doesn’t consider the utility resulting from individual acts but from gener-
ally followed rules and practices. Rule utilitarianism has two fundamental principles:

Principle of rules: A morally right rule or practice is one that would promote
significantly greater overall utility, if widely followed, than if it did not exist.

Principle of acts: A morally right act is one that follows a morally right rule or
practice. Rules identified as morally right by the principle of rules should be fol-
lowed except when they come into direct conflict with each other.2

While act and rule utilitarianism agree that morality ought to promote overall
utility, their crucial difference is that rule utilitarianism assesses the effects of gen-
eral rules and practices, not specific acts. Put another way, rule utilitarianism tells
us what kinds of actions (e.g., keeping one’s promises) are morally right. Further-
more, it says that the morally right thing to do is (usually) to follow such rules re-
gardless of the specific situation. This also contrasts with act utilitarianism, which
says that right acts depend on the details of each particular situation.

These seemingly small changes lead to important differences in what act and
rule utilitarianism judge to be morally right. For instance, act utilitarianism must
approve of promise breaking when that would best promote overall utility. But
suppose that the principle of rules supports the rule: one should always keep one’s
promises. By the principle of acts, then, I should not break a promise—even in situ-
ations when act utilitarianism says I should.

For Discussion
1. Can you think of other situations for which rule and act utilitarianism prescribe

different acts?
2. Which theory’s prescriptions in such situations best match your strongest moral


Rule utilitarianism supports general moral rules and practices (such as the practice of
promising) that would promote utility. This contrasts with act utilitarianism’s focus on
individual acts. The right act for act utilitarianism also depends on the particular situa-
tion; for rule utilitarian, rules hold in general. Given the rules generated by rule utilitari-
anism, morally right acts are then those acts that follow those rules.

Key Terms

• Principle of rules: a morally right rule or practice would promote significantly
greater overall utility than if it did not exist.

• Principle of acts: a morally right act follows a morally right rule or practice.

2We will discuss how rule utilitarianism addresses such conflicts shortly.

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What advantages are there to rule utilitarianism? To start, it shares most of the
attractions of act utilitarianism. Specifically, it also is objective since it bases right
rules—just as act utilitarianism bases right acts—on objective, empirical conse-
quences. Rule utilitarianism is impartial, counting all individuals equally. It main-
tains an impressive simplicity. For better or worse, rule utilitarianism also readily
extends to include non-human animals. The one act utilitarian attraction not
shared by rule utilitarianism is flexibility, an issue we will take up in a moment.

Rule utilitarianism also does better with the problems act utilitarianism
struggles with. For instance, act utilitarianism often requires us to do difficult cal-
culations to identify right acts. Its solution to this problem is to rely on “rules of
thumb” in place of precise calculations. But no rule of thumb can take into account
all aspects of the different cases that fall under it. In fact, following a rule of thumb
would sometimes lead us to obtain less utility than by doing what act utilitarian-
ism itself defines as right. In contrast, if rule utilitarianism gives us a rule against
promise-breaking, then we will never violate what rule utilitarianism defines as
right by following that rule. In sum, although both kinds of rules can save us from
doing calculations, rules of thumb can lead us to violate act utilitarianism’s own
standard, whereas rule utilitarianism’s rules are its standard.

Rule utilitarianism also makes progress with the problem of moral saints. It
does this by taking into account the effects of the rule or practice itself. Consider
a rule that requires those whose wants are being met to give, say, 40% of their
income to people in greater need. Clearly, this rule would be of great help to the
poor; indeed, their resulting gain in utility would outweigh the disutility suffered
by those much better off. Thus, wouldn’t rule utilitarianism require such a rule?

Not necessarily, for the rule has a greater impact than the gain just mentioned.
Suppose that, in the actual world, you enjoy a high standard of living because you
work well and hard and so earn a very good income. Now imagine another world
where there’s a rule requiring you to give 40% of your income to others in need.
Would you exert yourself as much in this second world, knowing that you may
only keep a little more than half of all you earn? Few people would. Such a world
offers its people much less of a financial incentive to work than this world does
(assuming that this world has no such rule). As a result, those in the second world
would tend to achieve less and so would not produce as much overall utility as
people do in this world.

Next, suppose that in this world you plan to invest several years of your life
and a great deal of money to earn a medical degree. In the 40% rule world, your
medical career wouldn’t reap nearly the same benefits nearly as soon. Would you
be just as willing to invest so much of yourself in that world? The second world
offers less incentive to pursue any sort of long-term professional training and so
would produce fewer doctors, lawyers, scientists, and others who are crucial to any
society’s well-being. As a result, everyone in that world would suffer from these
shortages, and there would be less overall utility than in worlds where there are
stronger incentives for long-term personal investment.

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Finally, note that with less incentive to work, people in the second world
would work less and so earn less, leaving less money to go to the poor. Thus, even
the poor wouldn’t gain as much utility as it first seemed. Putting all of these con-
siderations together, it appears that the 40% rule world is likely to generate less
overall utility than a world without this rule. If this is so, then rule utilitarianism
would not support such a rule after all. As other “moral saint” rules would likely
have similar results, most would probably not be supported by rule utilitarianism.

Rule utilitarianism also makes substantial headway against the cluster of
problems involving promises, justice, and rights. These problems arise for act
utilitarianism because it determines the moral right for each specific set of cir-
cumstances. It thus can end up allowing anything to count as a morally right act
as long as that act in those circumstances brings about the greatest overall util-
ity. Promise- breaking, assassination, torture, the mass killing of civilians—any of
these can qualify as morally right under the “right” circumstances.

Rule utilitarianism significantly sidesteps these sorts of problems, again thanks
to its focus on the effects of general rules and practices rather than the effects of a spe-
cific act in specific circumstances. Once the theory determines the moral rightness
of a given rule, that rule remains untouched by the varying influences of most special
cases. For instance, we have seen that fulfilling the rules of promising remains a moral
duty even when greater overall utility might be gained by breaking a promise. Fur-
thermore, rule utilitarianism creates rules against lying, murder, and torture which
must likewise be followed regardless of the specific circumstances. Since the rules of
rule utilitarianism do not apply case by case, the theory is able to “rein in” many of the
cases in which act utilitarianism would tell us to do something clearly wrong.

How does rule utilitarianism handle some of act utilitarianism’s worst prob-
lems with injustice and rights violations? Let’s return to the involuntary organ do-
nation example. Could rule utilitarianism support a rule that forces individuals to
sacrifice their organs for the sake of meeting other persons’ needs? Act utilitari-
anism can allow forced organ donations in cases where the benefits to the many
outweigh the losses for the one. But things change when we consider the conse-
quences of an involuntary donation rule. Such a rule makes everyone a potential
organ donor. At any moment, therefore, your health or even your life might be
demanded of you. What would living under such conditions be like? Arguably, ev-
eryone would live under a continual fear that this demand might suddenly be im-
posed upon them. This would also affect people’s plans for their futures. A woman
wants to have a child or prepare for some profession, but she then realizes that
her plans could be seriously thwarted if she is made an organ donor. Indeed, why
would any of us invest ourselves in any long-term commitments when such life-
changing uncertainties are always looming over us? Given the disutility of wide-
spread fear and the difficulty of pursuing any long-term goals, it’s not at all clear
that rule utilitarianism could approve of a forced organ donation rule.3 Similar

3The point is not that rules imposing saintly or unjust requirements could never be supported
by rule utilitarianism. It’s only that rule utilitarianism tends to deal with these sorts of problems more
successfully than act utilitarianism.

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arguments can be brought to bear against practices that punish innocent persons
to quell riots, to deter others, and so on.

Moreover, rule utilitarianism can support many principles of justice and per-
sonal rights. It’s beyond doubt that the most basic principles of fairness, justice,
and rights extended equally to all would generate a tremendous amount of over-
all utility. Although no one would be allowed special advantages, neither would
anyone be placed at an unfair disadvantage compared with others. Since people
could expect to be treated the same way and to enjoy the same opportunities re-
gardless of their circumstances, they could plan their lives with much greater con-
fidence and much less anxiety than under act utilitarianism.

For Discussion
1. Suppose that rule utilitarianism supports a general rule against taking other peo-

ple’s property. Why can’t this rule hold for act utilitarianism?
2. Rule utilitarianism must still do calculations to determine right rules, but calcu-

lating a rule’s utility tends to be easier than calculating an act’s utility. To see why,
compare the effects of a rule about bribery with a single act of bribery. Or, com-
pare a rule about truthfully reporting the news with a single news report.

3. Copyright and patent laws are designed to ensure that writers, artists, and inven-
tors get a reasonable return from their work. In terms of incentives and overall
utility, are these laws a good thing?

4. Copyrighted works may not be freely distributed or even used without permission.
A work under “copyleft,” meanwhile, may only be used and distributed freely; it
must not be sold. Would rule utilitarianism require one, the other, or some bal-
ance of both of these?

Rule utilitarianism can reduce the force of many of the objections brought against act
utilitarianism. For instance, it largely avoids the calculation and moral saints problems;
it also seems to make significant progress in dealing with promises, justice, and rights.
These successes all result from rule utilitarianism’s shift from individual acts to rules,
which requires that we assess the overall consequences of an entire rule or practice.


Rule utilitarianism yields some encouraging results, but it also runs into some
difficulties. We will look at several of these, though our discussion won’t necessar-
ily exhaust its problems. For instance, there is still the general problem of how to
define utility (another set of problems is discussed in §V).

1. Dilemmas: One problem arises precisely because rule utilitarianism gener-
ates rules: if right kinds of acts are determined by rules, what should we do when
circumstances bring rules into mutual conflict? It’s inevitable that such moral

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dilemmas will develop. Suppose my neighbor, heading off for vacation, places his
favorite handgun in my care for the time he expects to be gone. I dutifully prom-
ise to return it to him as soon as he asks for it back. Later that evening, this same
neighbor gets into a loud argument with his father-in-law and suddenly comes
storming to my door, demanding his gun back. What should I do? I ought to
return his gun because of the rule that I keep my promises. Yet rule utilitarianism
presumably supports another rule to the effect that I should act to protect the lives
of innocent persons when I can readily do so. Under this rule, I should refuse to
return the gun for fear of a tragedy that may ensue given my neighbor’s present
state. Either way, I am forced to violate a moral rule. Rule utilitarianism has thus
placed me in a moral predicament—something act utilitarianism can never do.

Although this problem may look pretty serious, most rule utilitarians believe
that the theory can be easily patched up to handle it. The usual recommendation is
that when rules come into direct conflict, we should revert to an act utilitarian pro-
cedure to determine what should be done. In the previous example, for instance,
I should act so as to achieve the greatest overall utility (or to avoid the greatest
disutility)—keeping the gun from my neighbor until he calms down. Making this
“fix” requires adding a third principle to rule utilitarianism:

Dilemma principle: When circumstances place two or more moral rules in con-
flict, the morally right act, for those circumstances, is that act which will produce
the greatest overall utility.

The complete rule utilitarian account thus consists of three principles: (a) the
principle of rules, (b) the principle of acts, and (c) the dilemma principle.

2. Inconsistency: Possibly the most interesting criticism of rule utilitarian-
ism comes from act utilitarians. Their complaint centers on cases where the two
theories render different judgments of what is right. In particular, although act
utilitarianism may judge a specific act (e.g., breaking a promise) to be morally
right in a situation where that act achieves the greatest utility, it may be judged
morally wrong by rule utilitarianism (if it violates a rule). But this, they maintain,
makes rule utilitarianism inconsistent with utilitarianism’s foundational goal of
promoting overall utility. If achieving the greatest utility were really our purpose,
how could it ever be right to let some rule keep us from achieving that? We should
maximize utility in everything we do. But because rule utilitarianism’s rules can
require that we fail to maximize utility in certain situations, rule utilitarianism has
deserted the utilitarian concept of morality.

Rule utilitarians have two responses. First, they can argue that although we
occasionally lose utility by following the rules, rules can also establish practices
(such as promise making) that generate vastly more overall utility than could ever
be achieved by act utilitarianism. As John Rawls (1921–2002) explains, it is part of
the very concept of promising that when I make a promise, I bind myself to doing
what I have promised. For this practice even to exist, therefore, there must be a

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general moral rule that binds promise makers to their promises.4 Rule utilitari-
anism supplies rules of just this sort; in contrast, the right act for act utilitarian-
ism can vary depending on the circumstances. Although act utilitarianism might
produce the greatest utility in particular circumstances, it can never achieve the
gains in utility made possible by rules and practices. Since these gains compensate
many times over for the losses that occasionally occur if we follow the rules, rule
utilitarianism generates more utility than act utilitarianism. If our goal is truly to
maximize utility, then rule utilitarianism wins, hands down.

Second, the rule utilitarian might point out that rules don’t always have to be
such coarse and simplistic generalizations as “Never kill” or “Never torture.” Noth-
ing in rule utilitarianism keeps us from fine-tuning such rules. Instead of “Never
kill,” for instance, rule utilitarianism would probably prefer the rule “Do not kill
except when forced to in self-defense.” Similarly, instead of “Never torture,” rule
utilitarianism might add qualifications that yield the rule: “Do not torture a person
unless that’s the only way to extract information needed to save a great many
people.” By adopting more finely tuned rules, rule utilitarianism can often achieve
even more utility while reducing the number of cases in which following the rules
would diminish utility. The strategy of fine-tuning—even if it never manages to ad-
dress every case that bothers the act utilitarian—thus helps to answer the complaint
that rule utilitarianism is inconsistent with the foundational goal of utilitarianism.

3. The collapse of rule utilitarianism: However, suppose we keep fine-tuning
rules by adding more qualifications, exceptions, and adjustments to every rule.
Each rule will then become increasingly specific and more limited in its applica-
tion (e.g., “Don’t kill a terrorist unless you kill him just before he attempts to set
off a bomb that is likely to harm at least several people and there is no other way
of stopping him without endangering others. . . .”). As we continue toward increas-
ingly specific rules, many additional rules become necessary to handle those cases
no longer covered by the more finely tuned rules. Ultimately, we will have a dis-
tinct rule for each distinct situation— each rule being formulated to ensure maxi-
mal utility for that situation. But this, in essence, is equivalent to act utilitarianism,
which likewise seeks to insure the maximum utility in each distinct situation. In
short, the strategy of fine-tuning could ultimately collapse rule utilitarianism into
act utilitarianism. But if this is where rule utilitarianism ultimately takes us, why
bother with it at all?

The last two objections clearly go together, and they drive the rule utilitar-
ian into an uncomfortable dilemma. On one hand, the rule utilitarian could
indefinitely fine-tune the rules, but this would just turn rule into act utilitarian-
ism, making rule utilitarianism pointless. Alternately, rule utilitarianism could
avoid doing any fine-tuning. This would avoid the danger of collapsing into act

4Bear in mind that our practice of promise-making includes special conditions that can excuse
one from fulfilling a promise (e.g., when the other person “let’s us off ” or when we are prevented from
fulfilling a promise due to reasons beyond our control).

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utilitarianism but would still mean that, in some situations, our obeying a rule
would produce less utility than if we followed act utilitarianism.

This dilemma, and the collapse objection in particular, has been viewed by
many as fatal to rule utilitarianism. But there’s an interesting response. Rule utili-
tarianism is concerned with the utility produced by its rules; but having to deal
with a large number of very complex fine-tuned rules does not promote utility. It
follows, then, that there will be greater utility when there aren’t too many moral
rules and when these rules are kept fairly simple and straightforward. This gives
rule utilitarianism a natural stopping point for fine-tuning. Once fine-tuning starts
to generate too many complex rules, they become impracticable; from that point
on, further fine-tuning would create more disutility than utility and so should
cease. This allows rule utilitarianism to avoid collapsing into act utilitarianism,
which in turn allows it to sidestep this dilemma.

For Discussion
1. Do you agree that I should not return my neighbor’s gun at the time?
2. Would the following be rule utilitarian rules? (a) We should act to protect the lives

of innocent persons when we can readily do so. (b) People should work at their
own growth and development. (c) We should not take others’ property.

3. Act utilitarians complain that rule utilitarianism has us sometimes producing less
utility by following a rule. How serious do you think this problem really is?

4. To a reasonable degree, fine-tune some simple rules such as Never get angry,
Never hurt another, and Don’t take anything that isn’t yours.

5. Which seems to you to be the better ethical theory—act or rule utilitarianism?
Why? Apply the criteria for theory assessment from the Part II Introduction.

Rule utilitarianism fares better than act utilitarianism with several utilitarian prob-
lems. Still, it has some problems of its own. Its difficulty with dilemmas appears to be
met easily by the dilemma principle. The act utilitarian’s charge of inconsistency is at
least partly met by the argument that rule utilitarianism achieves greater overall utility
than act utilitarianism ever could; the strategy of fine-tuning may also help. However,
when taken too far, fine-tuning makes rule utilitarianism collapse into act utilitarian-
ism. A rule utilitarian argument for keeping its rules practicable (not to complicated)
may provide a way to avoid this collapse.

Key Terms

• Dilemma principle: when rule utilitarianism encounters a moral dilemma, the
morally right act for those particular circumstances is that which produces the
greatest overall utility.

• Fine-tuning: introducing qualifications to a rule or practice, allowing it to gen-
erate more utility over a more limited set of situations.

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Let’s return yet again to involuntary organ donations. As we’ve seen, rule utili-
tarianism makes important progress with this problem since a general rule re-
quiring such organ donations would arguably lose utility for society. However,
the argument for this addressed just one particular organ donation rule. Suppose
we replace that rule with the more finely tuned rule: “Healthy persons with no
family or friends and who offer little promise of contributing to society should
have their organs harvested when that can save several other persons.” Adopting
this rule might not create much disutility; it might even promote a fair amount of
utility. After all, this rule restricts potential organ donors to a much smaller group
than the entire populace, thus relieving most people from any fear of undergoing
a forced organ donation. Still, it makes replacement organs available to more of
those who need them. Thus, this more limited rule may be supported by rule utili-
tarianism, though it’s clearly as unjust as its predecessor. Does rule utilitarianism
remain open, then, to allowing serious violations of justice?

The rule utilitarian could argue that even if this rule were supported by utili-
tarian considerations, it would inevitably come into conflict with certain other
rules. In particular, it would conflict with the principles of equality, justice, and
rights that rule utilitarianism also supports. After all, a rule granting all people
the same basic rights—regardless of their circumstances—would generate greater
utility than if there were no such rule. Likewise, a society whose institutions are
in keeping with our usual conception of justice would probably enjoy greater
overall utility than a society that allowed unfair practices. Given such princi-
ples of justice and rights, the rule utilitarian might want to propose an alternate
dilemma principle that gives priority to such principles. This principle could
require that when rules conflict, the rule that generates the greatest utility must
take precedence over the others. The right act would then be to follow that rule.
Assuming that principles of justice and rights would generate greater utility than
most other rules, rule utilitarians could thereby block even a fine-tuned version
of involuntary organ donation and give much greater respect to the requirements
of justice and rights.

Unfortunately, the issue is more complex than this. For one thing, act utili-
tarians will complain that the alternate dilemma principle takes rule utilitarian-
ism even further from the ideal of maximizing utility in each situation, thereby
strengthening the inconsistency objection. Further, there remains some doubt that
rule utilitarianism can support our full conception of justice and rights. Being a
consequentialist theory, rule utilitarianism must still define justice and rights in
terms of resulting utility. But just as the utility produced by any act depends on
the act’s circumstances, utility produced by any rule will depend, to some degree,
on the circumstances of the society in which that rule is implemented. In differ-
ent social environments, the same rule might create different effects. The validity
of any rule utilitarian rule thus appears to depend on a particular social setting.
This works against our view that justice and rights hold for all in the same ways,

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regardless of any circumstances. The view that justice and rights hold universally,
independent of circumstances, is taken by most deontological theories, which we
will begin examining in the next chapter.

For Discussion
1. Carefully consider the fine-tuned involuntary organ donation rule. How does it

contribute to greater overall utility?
2. How do general principles of equality, justice, and rights contribute to greater

overall utility?
3. Which do you prefer—the original dilemma principle or the alternate dilemma

principle? Why?

Although rule utilitarianism makes progress with justice and rights, it’s unclear that
it can fully support these. Rule utilitarianism certainly supports important principles
of both and can even apply the alternate dilemma rule to give these principles prior-
ity. Still, rule utilitarianism inevitably depends upon a rule’s consequences, which can
vary across social settings. This means that rule utilitarianism’s principles of justice and
rights fall short of applying universally, and that seems at odds with a fully adequate
conception of either.

Key Terms

• Alternate dilemma principle: requires that when rule utilitarianism rules
conflict, the rule that creates the greatest overall utility takes precedence and is
the rule that should be followed.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. What utility do institutions like governments, police forces, courts, and other

social policies and practices bring into the world?
2. How does rule utilitarianism differ from act utilitarianism? What decides the

moral rightness of an act in each theory?
3. What do you think is the most important advantage of rule utilitarianism over act

utilitarianism? Explain.
4. How does rule utilitarianism create moral dilemmas, and why can’t dilemmas

arise with act utilitarianism?
5. Explain rule utilitarianism’s response to the act utilitarian complaint about not

consistently maximizing utility.
6. Why can’t act utilitarianism make sense of the practice of promising?
7. Could rule utilitarianism support a fine-tuned rule requiring the death penalty?
8. Give a couple examples of some other fine-tuned rules that would allow injustices

and rights violations. Explain each.

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Additional Resources
Brandt, Richard. A Theory of the Good and the Right. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Hooker, Brad. “Rule Consequentialism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter

2016 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed February 26 2017. http://plato. This article provides
a good overview of the rule utilitarian approach.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Public Domain, 1863. The entire text may be found online.
Accessed August 27, 2016. Mill’s theory is
considered by many to anticipate and include elements of rule utilitarianism.

Rawls, John. “Two Concepts of Rules.” The Philosophical Review, 64 (1955): 3–32. Also re-
printed in Mark Timmons, ed. Conduct and Character, 4th ed. Toronto: Wadsworth,
2003, 125–135. In this paper Rawls distinguishes between acts and practices and dis-
cusses the practice of promising in particular.

Case 1

Transgender Students at College

According to a 2013 article in Inside Higher Ed, about 150 colleges around the coun-
try now offer housing designated only for transgender students. Some student in-
surance policies also cover gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy.5

Transgender individuals, which includes individuals dressing as or living as the
opposite biological sex, drag kings or drag queens, gender queers (who identify
with both sexes), and any others whose behavior crosses gender lines, are only
recently getting attention as a distinct set of people in our society. This increased
attention has prompted new measures at colleges, among other places.

Should special allowances be made for transgender individuals, and for their
unique needs and concerns? If so, what sorts of things ought to be provided?
There are a host of issues. Most bathrooms, for instance, are designated for males
and females only. Locker rooms, housing, and medical services are likewise either
designated for either males or females. Sports and teams likewise offer no third
option. In an initial attempt to address these problems, some colleges now include
“self-identity: ____” as a third gender option for students to mark for college ad-
ministrative documents.

This gesture hardly solves the numerous dilemmas that transgender stu-
dents face. Many experience tremendous anxiety from having to use either “male”
or “female” bathrooms or locker rooms. Some have been harassed or bullied in
classes, on teams, and in dorms; not surprisingly, many more are fearful of these
things happening to them. For those struggling with such anxieties and fears, col-
leges may first and foremost need to provide counseling by trained staff.

On the other hand, could a college’s making various accommodations for
transgender students cause the rights of other students to be violated? There has
been considerable controversy over “bathroom laws;” going one way on these
is hard on transgender people; going the other way can make ordinary gender

5Allie Grasgreen, “Broadening the Transgender Agenda,” Inside Higher Ed, accessed August 27,


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people very uncomfortable. Some colleges, meanwhile, have started allow-
ing transgender students to choose between being on men’s or women’s sports
teams. But non-transgender students don’t have this choice; female athletes can’t
join the male team, and male athletes can’t join the women’s team. Arguably, then,
transgender students are being offered more choices— possibly to their athletic
advantage—than non-transgender individuals.


1. Should a biological male who wants to live as a female be allowed to attend an
all-women’s college?

2. Do you think that all colleges and universities ought to make allowances for
transgender students and their particular needs? How far should such accom-
modations be taken? What about private schools with a religious affiliation that
forbids them from knowingly admitting transgender students?

3. In your view, should transgender individuals be allowed to choose their sports
teams? Would it be unfair to allow this but not allow non-transgender students
to make similar choices?

4. Apply rule utilitarianism to these issues: does it support a rule that requires
public schools, for instance, to provide special accommodations for their trans-
gender students? Could such a rule nevertheless be unjust?

5. Do you think that student insurance should pay for gender reassignment sur-
gery? (Remember that this would force all policyholders to contribute toward
such surgeries by paying higher premiums.) If so, would this rule call for some

6. Would rule utilitarianism produce a rule that goes against act utilitarianism
judgments about accommodating particular transgender students at college?

Case 2

Curbing Grade Inflation

When you get an A grade on a paper or an exam, what does that grade really
mean? According to many college catalogues, an A indicates an “excellent” or “out-
standing” performance, which suggests that an A should be reserved for achieve-
ments above the norm, that is, above what most other people get. In contrast,
many colleges define a C as “average” or simply “satisfactory.”

Nevertheless, these definitions don’t reflect the reality of recent trends in
grading, especially at private colleges and universities. According to Professor
Stuart Rojstaczer from Duke University, the C grade represented about 25% of all
grades in 1969, whereas a mere 10% of all grades are Cs nowadays. This in effect
affirms that only 10% of all students do average work—everyone else does better!
This makes no sense. Indeed, Rojstaczer calls the C grade an “endangered species.”6

6Stuart Rojstaczer, “Where All Grades Are Above Average,” Washington Post, February 28, 2003.

Case 1 (Continued)


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Do the higher grades mean that students have improved over the past couple
decades? In the early 1990s, Princeton University used to give out As about 35% of
the time. By 2003, that number had increased to 46%. Did Princeton students get
that much better? Although the rising grades seem to say so, research shows that
college students aren’t really any better now than they used to be.7

To address its grade inflation problem, Princeton took a drastic step: in April
of 2004, the faculty voted to restrict As to just 35% of the grades assigned by a de-
partment to its undergraduate students. This would bring the number of As back
down to early 1990s levels. This ceiling was not to be applied class by class, but
only by department. Otherwise, there could not be more than three As given to a
class of, say, nine students, even if more of the students in that class did genuinely
A-level work. In a 2005 news release, Princeton reported that its number of As had
dropped 5% in the first year of the new policy.8

Was Princeton’s solution a good one? One concern with this policy is that stu-
dents who entered the university under the old system could suffer a decline in
their GPA. This would send a misleading message to future employers and gradu-
ate schools. Also, some students reported that they felt even more pressure to earn
a good grade at Princeton. Another concern was that peer institutions had not ad-
opted similar policies, making grade comparisons between schools more difficult.

Thanks to its reputation, Princeton’s students with high GPAs already had a
better chance with their job and graduate school applications. Yet the new policy
allowed their best students to stand out even when compared to other Princeton
students. This improved these students’ job and placement prospects even further.
And why shouldn’t they be given preference? Hadn’t they earned it? After all, when
most students are given honors, there’s no longer anything special about honors.
Further, when the achievements of the majority are overvalued, the achievements
of the highest-quality minority are effectively undervalued. That’s unfair to those
students who are truly gifted and work the hardest. Arguably, then, the new policy
simply gave outstanding students their due.

Many schools now pressure their professors to give out fewer As, and other
schools have implemented their own grade inflation controls. Notably, Princeton
gave up its policy after ten years. Still, the problem of grade inflation in higher
education hasn’t gone away.


1. What are some consequences of grade inflation? Discuss these for students, the
college, and employers and graduate institutions.

2. As an undergraduate at Princeton, would you have supported this policy?
Given that grade inflation can hurt nearly everyone, what would you suggest?

3. Are there other ways to deal with grade inflation besides Princeton’s strategy?

7Stuart Rojstaczer, “National Trends in Grade Inflation,” accessed August 27, 2016, http://

8Faculty Committee on Grading, “Committee Issues Message on Grading Results for 2004–05,”
Princeton University, accessed August 27, 2016,

Case 2 (Continued)

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4. Should trends in grade inflation be slowed or even reversed by establishing a
policy like Princeton’s? Apply rule utilitarianism in your argument.

Case 3

Universal Healthcare

After several days of a strep throat infection, Dana suddenly developed a high
fever and went to the emergency room. After waiting several hours, she was fi-
nally examined and given antibiotics. Twenty-four hours later, Dana had sunk into
a coma—the bacteria had entered her bloodstream. Luckily, Dana survived. After
about two weeks, she regained consciousness, was removed from life support, and
was able to begin eating on her own. But since she only had student insurance,
she was sent home from the hospital just twenty-four hours after leaving intensive
care. She received little aftercare.

Fanny, also on student insurance, needed an emergency operation on her
spleen. The cost for the operation exceeded what her insurance company was
willing to pay. It took Fanny several years to pay back the $10,000 she owed the

Dennis, a disabled Medicaid recipient, must take thyroid medication indefi-
nitely. Unfortunately, Medicaid won’t pay for the name-brand product, though the
generic product is less consistent. This means that Dennis must go to the doctor
regularly to have his medications levels checked and adjusted. Dennis is always the
last to be seen by the doctor since he’s not covered by regular insurance.9

According to Physicians for a National Health Program, the United States has
been the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee its citizens universal
access to healthcare. Ironically, the United States also spends more per person on
healthcare than most other countries, yet it has a lower life expectancy than other
nations which offer universal healthcare.10 According to philosopher Norm Daniels,
this lower U.S. life expectancy is because access to healthcare closely depends on
income. Under privatized healthcare, people with more money can afford better
care and thus tend to live healthier and longer lives. Healthcare inequities thus
match economic inequities; both, furthermore, correlate with educational inequi-
ties. Better educated people are usually healthier people. More generally, nations
with poorer educational systems tend to have fewer healthy people as well. This
inequity may be because less educated citizens tend to participate less in poli-
tics, which reduces their political impact and makes their local or national govern-
ments less responsive to their needs.11

While health tends to reflect economic and educational inequities, the reverse
also seems to hold. The unequal distribution of healthcare leads to inequalities of
education and opportunity. In short, healthcare, economic, and educational ineq-
uities feed each other in a perpetual circle.

From a utilitarian point of view, universal healthcare would seem able to add a
great deal of utility to any society. Improving people’s health would support more

9All of this case’s material derives from personal interviews, conducted by Yvonne Raley on June
15 and 22, 2009, of individuals who wish to remain anonymous.

10Physicians for a National Health Program, accessed August 27, 2016,
11Daniels, Norm, “Justice, Health, and Health Care,” American Journal of Bioethics, 1.2 (2001): 3–15.


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productive work and thus improve the economy for all. People would be happier
when they feel better. Dependable healthcare could also create more opportuni-
ties for everyone by breaking the cycle of economic inequality. For instance, the
Affordable Care Act, signed into effect in 2010, made health insurance available to
anyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions or sex. It particularly helped those
under the poverty line since it enabled many of these people to obtain health in-
surance at rates they could afford.

Universal healthcare also risks producing disutility. For one thing, the cost of
a universal healthcare system can be much higher than the cost of ensuring all
citizens a fair share of food, shelter, and education. This can place burdens upon
society as a whole. Further, higher costs may in turn impose new limitations on the
availability of certain medical services, since the country’s medical resources may
not be able to meet increasing demands as more people qualify for such services.

A related concern with universal healthcare is that it might increase taxes.
Those with higher incomes would effectively pay some for the healthcare of the
poor along with paying for their own care. In addition, healthy people would ef-
fectively shoulder part of the health costs incurred by those who smoke, drink,
and live an unhealthy lifestyle. These are not really new problems, since they al-
ready arise for any system that is designed to distribute goods to meet widespread
needs, including all insurance programs.

One special worry about universal healthcare is that it could introduce rationed
healthcare based on age. The argument is that the elderly have already enjoyed a
long lifetime and will not live much longer, so more expensive treatments should
only be made available to those who can most benefit from them. Utilitarianism
presumably supports this argument; on the other hand, it can also be argued that
denying some types of healthcare to the elderly is unjust and violates their rights.
This is another instance of utilitarianism’s problems with justice.


1. What are the important positive and negative effects of universal healthcare?
2. From a rule utilitarian perspective, do you think it is morally right for the

United States to establish some sort of Affordable Care Act?
3. Do you think it is unjust that some people in our society still have no health-

care? Would it be more unjust (in terms of taxes, rationing, etc.) to address this
problem by establishing a truly universal healthcare?

4. Does rule utilitarianism conflict with principles of justice in this case?
5. What do you think of the idea that healthcare should be rationed based on age?

Would that better promote utility? Would that be morally just?

Case 2 (Continued)


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Deontological Ethics


As “Honest Al” slouched contentedly back in his chair, he glanced out the office
window at his large and profitable used car lot. It had been a great day. Four sales
just this afternoon—that should be enough to cover his kid’s college expenses for
the whole next month! And it had sure been satisfying to chew out Fred, one of his
salesmen, for losing the Atlas account. That should keep Fred humble for a while,
and with Fred lying low, there’ll be no need to put up with his incessant pleas for a
raise until the end of summer at least. Al chuckled to himself—he had wanted to
dump Atlas anyway, so Fred’s mistake really worked out just the way Al wanted it.
Best of all, though, was the sale Al managed to pull off to Mrs. Satzoner that morn-
ing. The blue SUV with the transmission leak—yes, Al was certainly glad to get
rid of that. It had been a real pain moving it each morning so customers wouldn’t
notice the oil that collected underneath. “I wonder what was wrong with it?” Al
mused. “Oh well, I’ll find out soon enough.” The great thing about the sale was that
Satzoner had also taken Al up on his “great deal” to fix any problems that might
show up over the next six months at a discount. “With the jewelry she wears, she
can sure afford that repair more than I can; this way, I even make a profit while she
thinks I’m doing her a favor.” He shifted comfortably down in his chair. Al knew
his business. He had a right to be satisfied . . . 

Did Al do anything wrong? If we apply act utilitarianism to Al’s actions, it isn’t
at all clear that Al brought more disutility into the world than would otherwise
be there. Fred won’t get a raise right away, but he may work harder over the next
few months, and what Fred doesn’t get, Al will keep so it more or less balances out
anyway. As for Mrs. Satzoner, it’s too bad that she will soon need to repair the car she
just bought. But if this helps Al pay for his kid’s college education—a worthy cause—
then isn’t that better than Mrs. Satzoner wasting more money on her gaudy jewelry?
Further, none of this is likely to threaten Al’s business—in fact, Mrs. Satzoner will
probably rave to others about her super deals.

On the other hand, if we evaluate Al from the perspective of various de-
ontological theories, then his behavior is morally unacceptable. In contrast to

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consequentialist theories, deontological theories reject consequences as the basis
of morality. Typically, deontological theories focus on particular moral duties,
calling something right or wrong depending on the kind of act committed. What
kinds of things has Al done? He deceived others. Specifically, he tricked Fred into
thinking that losing the Atlas contract was a bad thing, he hid the SUV’s leak from
his customers, and he led Mrs. Satzoner to believe that she had just bought a de-
pendable vehicle and got a great backup deal on top of that. Deontological theories
call such deceptive practices wrong. Because the kind of act is usually related to
one’s intentions (Al intended to deceive both Fred and Mrs. Satzoner), deontologi-
cal theories also commonly consider the actor’s motives and intentions. Al doesn’t
rate very highly in this respect either: he deliberately deceived others out of purely
self-centered motives.

Deontological ethics determine right and wrong by identifying right kinds of
acts and moral duties, not by considering the consequences.1 In the next section,
we will look at the theory of the twentieth-century moral philosopher, Sir William
David Ross (1877–1971), which has important deontological aspects. Although
it’s not strictly true that Ross’s theory is purely deontological,2 it’s close enough to
give us a good feel for what a deontological theory can be like. Ross’s theory is also
simple and yet interesting in its own right.

For Discussion
1. Do a rough act utilitarian calculation to confirm that Al’s deceptions would prob-

ably be acceptable for act utilitarianism.
2. How important do you think intentions are to morality?

Whereas consequentialist theories base moral right and wrong solely upon effects, de-
ontological theories reject consequences as the basis of right and wrong and focus in-
stead on our duty to practice or avoid certain kinds of actions. Deontological theories
also often consider our motives and intentions.

Key Terms

• Deontological theories: reject consequences as a basis for morality and in-
stead focus upon duties (characterized by principles regarding specific kinds of
acts) and, often, intentions.

1Rule utilitarianism resembles a deontological theory in that its rules also identify kinds of acts or
duties (e.g., promise-keeping) that ought not to be violated regardless of the consequences. Rule utili-
tarianism would condemn Al’s dishonesty. Still, rule utilitarianism remains essentially consequentialist
in how it determines right and wrong.

2Ross’s theory doesn’t assign any real role to intentions; also, it doesn’t appear to rule out a con-
sideration of potential consequences when duties conflict (see §II).

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Ross offers us a very straightforward moral theory.3 According to Ross, there are at
least seven foundational moral duties:

• Fidelity: the duty to be truthful, pay back debts, and keep agreements.
• Reparation: the duty to set right any wrongs we have previously done to

another (e.g., to apologize, pay for damages, etc.).
• Gratitude: the duty to make some return for favors and services others have

done for us (e.g., expressing thanks, acting similarly as needed, etc.).
• Justice: the duty to ensure the fair distribution of goods according to merit.
• Beneficence: the duty to improve the condition of others.
• Self-improvement: the duty to improve oneself.
• Non-maleficence: the duty not to harm or injure others.

According to Ross, each of these constitutes a binding moral duty, and each is an
essential part of any adequate moral standard. He does not claim that this list is
complete; there may be other foundational moral duties. Are some of these duties
more important than others? Ross emphasizes that these duties are listed in no
particular order. Nevertheless, not all moral duties are equal. To the contrary, Ross
observes that the duty of non-maleficence is usually “more stringent” than that of
beneficence. Fulfilling a promise is likewise more important, in most cases, than
showing gratitude. We also need to realize that each of Ross’s duties is meant to
encompass a wide range of activities; the duty of fidelity, for instance, encompasses
implicit (unstated) commitments as well as formally made promises. Thus, fidelity
also includes commitments we make simply by keeping quiet or by acting in a way
that entails other commitments (registering for a course commits one to pay for it,
to attend its classes, to do its assignments, etc.)

What’s deontological about Ross’s theory? For one thing, each of Ross’s duties
specifies a certain way we should act—justly, for instance, or with gratitude. Each
duty thus functions as a general principle that prescribes certain kinds of acts. If
I have a choice between either speaking the truth or deliberately deceiving some-
one, I have a moral duty to tell the truth. If I don’t, I violate my duty and commit
a wrong. Doing right amounts to acting in ways that fulfill these general moral

More importantly, Ross doesn’t base his duties on their likely consequences.
Although fulfilling Ross’s duties would probably promote utility in most cases, Ross
doesn’t think that moral duties depend on what happens after we act. It is more
correct to think of each duty as resting upon something that already holds true
before we act. For instance, my duties of fidelity or reparation rest on my having
previously made a promise or having wronged someone, respectively. The same
holds true for the duties of beneficence, self-improvement, and non- maleficence.
Although these duties do aim at achieving (or avoiding) certain results, they do

3W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930).

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not depend on any consequence. Rather, these duties arise from the fact that there
already exist those whose condition can be made better or worse by our actions. In
keeping with the deontological perspective, then, Ross views moral duties in terms
of what we already owe, not in terms of what we might produce.

Suppose, however, that I encounter a situation where two duties conflict with
each other—a moral dilemma. For instance, I’ve promised to keep an appoint-
ment with someone, but along the way, I come upon an accident where my help is
urgently needed. Fidelity calls upon me to keep my promise and my appointment.
Yet if I do this and ignore the accident, I fail beneficence. Either way, I fail to fulfill
one of my duties. What should I do? Ross’s answer is that all moral duties initially
hold as merely prima facie duties. A prima facie duty is one that I ought to fulfill as
long as no more important moral duty overrides it. Yet when moral duties conflict,
one usually turns out to be more important than the others. The most important
duty then becomes my actual moral duty. In the example, I should probably help
at the accident because I can make alternate arrangements with my friend later. On
the other hand, suppose I’m a doctor rushing to the hospital to treat a heart-attack
victim. Along the way, I pass someone who needs help changing a tire. Clearly I
should continue on my way to the hospital, hoping, perhaps, that someone else
might stop to help change the tire. Beneficence and promise keeping are both
important, but the particular circumstances determine which duty becomes my
actual duty in any particular situation.

In distinguishing between prima facie and actual duties, Ross makes an im-
portant contribution. However, you may be wondering how we determine which
duty is most important in a given situation. You may also be wondering, for that
matter, what supports Ross’s moral duties in the first place. Ross answers that we
know what is right by intuition. Just as mature and thoughtful persons can just see
that two and two make four, sincere and thoughtful people can see that we ought
to keep our promises, help others and not hurt them, and so on. We simply must
carefully and honestly consult our inner selves. We don’t discover moral duties by
observing consequences or by reasoning; we just know of them intuitively. Simi-
larly, we can know which duty is the most important in a given situation.

This makes Ross’s theory intuitionist. This doesn’t make it subjectivist; since
each moral duty holds for everyone, his theory is an instance of objectivism (see
Chapter Two, §II). If someone claims that she doesn’t see herself having a duty of
beneficence—or, perhaps, of self-improvement—Ross would just say she is wrong;
perhaps she is not being sincere, or perhaps her moral intuitions have not fully

Intuitionism is somewhat unsatisfying. For one thing, even if Ross’s intu-
itionism is correct regarding how we come to know moral truths, it tells us noth-
ing about what makes things morally right or wrong: it lacks explanatory power.4
It also raises worries with practicability since there’s always going to be some

4The intuitionist’s would reply that there’s no lack of explanatory power because there’s nothing
more to explain. Foundational moral duties don’t derive from anything; they hold true in themselves.

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disagreement between each other’s moral intuitions. In fact, we aren’t always sure
even about our own intuitions. For instance, when people consult their intuitions
about Robert Latimer, who killed his quadriplegic twelve-year-old daughter Tracy
to spare her from the severe pain of her cerebral palsy, they often feel both that it
was wrong to kill her and that it would be wrong to let her continue suffering.5
Which of these conflicting intuitions is right? Further, even our most sincerely
held moral intuitions are vulnerable to social influences. For instance, many good
people have practiced polygamy, although the moral intuitions of most Americans
condemn the practice. Intuition doesn’t seem to be a very firm basis for discerning
moral truth.

For Discussion
1. Do you agree with Ross that his seven duties all describe genuine moral duties?

Would you remove or add any?
2. How would you list Ross’s duties in order of importance? Why?
3. Think of a situation in which two of Ross’s duties conflict. Which would be the

actual duty in that situation?
4. Do you think that normal people have moral consciences? Are these innate? Does

the idea of conscience support intuitionism?
5. What would Ross’s account say about the morality of Latimer killing his daughter?

Do you feel the conflict of intuitions that many others do?

W. D. Ross offers an intuitionist theory that includes seven foundational moral duties.
It resembles a deontological theory in that these duties prescribe general kinds of acts
and does not rest on consequences. Ross views these as prima facie duties; when
duties conflict, one of them overrides the others and so becomes the actual duty in
that situation. Ross’s theory is an instance of objectivism, not subjectivism. Its main
weakness is its intuitionism, which refuses to explain these duties and can’t help us
when our sincerely considered intuitions differ.

Key Terms

• Prima facie moral duty: a moral duty that I ought to fulfill as long as no more
important moral duty overrides it.

• Actual moral duty: the one prima facie duty that is more important than the
others and so is the duty that ought to be fulfilled in a particular situation.

• Intuitionism: maintains that we simply know, by intuition, what our general
moral duties are, with no further explanation.

5“ ‘Compassionate Homicide’: The Law and Robert Latimer,” CBC News, March 17, 2008, accessed
August 27, 2016, http://

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We now turn to the most influential of all deontological theories, that of the eigh-
teenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant maintains that
moral principles are based on reason. He therefore rejects any suggestion that
moral truth can be discovered through intuition. As a deontologist, he also re-
jects any suggestion that morality could depend on consequences. For Kant, moral
principles are both discovered and established through reason.

Kant particularly objects to the notion that morality could somehow depend
on consequences. To embrace any consequentialist theory, we must first decide
what values we should promote. This is not an easy matter even for consequen-
tialists. Hedonists think pleasure should be promoted; other utilitarians also in-
clude other values (e.g., knowledge or creativity). The crucial question, however,
is whether any of these values has foundational worth.

According to Kant, none do. While people may seek such things, none of
these values are good in and of themselves. A foundational good, in contrast, has
its goodness intrinsically and so will always augment the goodness of any situation
to which it is added. But none of the preceding always increases goodness. Take
pleasure, for instance. Although increasing pleasure often adds to the good, in
some cases it decidedly does not. The enjoyment Al derived from “chewing out”
Fred was mean-spirited; it certainly did not make that situation better. Or imagine
an interrogator who enjoys “breaking” his subject through pain and fear. In both
cases, the added sadistic pleasure only makes things worse, morally speaking, than
if that pleasure were not there. Similar considerations go against other values as
well. Knowledge and creativity, for instance, increase good when put to good uses.
But suppose they are used to devise a more deadly terrorist attack or to pull off a
more perfect murder. How can they be viewed as good in those circumstances?

From Kant’s perspective, the problem with all these values is that they can
either increase or decrease a situation’s goodness, depending on the actor’s mo-
tives. The same holds for anything we might try to promote among an act’s con-
sequences. None, therefore, can count as foundational values. To find something
of genuine moral worth, we must give up on consequences and look in the other
direction—at the motives and intentions of the agent. Here we will find, according
to Kant, the only thing of foundational moral worth—the Good Will. Exercising
the Good Will amounts to choosing to do something precisely because it is one’s
moral duty – because it is morally right. The Good Will is motivated solely by
moral duty. It doesn’t do something for the sake of gaining pleasure, knowledge,
satisfaction, or any other such value. Its only motivation is the rightness of an act.

To make this clearer, imagine three Boy Scouts, who each help a little old lady
across the street at different times of the day. Why do they do this? Well, each has
his reasons:

• Larry helps her because he likes her, enjoys her company, and feels good
about helping her out. Larry’s just a nice guy and wants to help people.

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• Curly helps her because that’s the right thing to do. He helps because she
needs help, and he can help her. He sees helping as his moral duty.

• Mo helps her because she’s rich, and he hopes she might take a liking to him
and either give him things or maybe write him into her will. She won’t live
much longer anyway.

One very important thing about this story is that the consequences of each scout
helping the lady are exactly the same. In each case, she gets safely across the street;
each scout may even inherit the same amount from her fortune! Despite the iden-
tical consequences, however, there certainly are moral differences among the three
boys. Kant thus seems right—at least for this case—in claiming that consequences
may not make much moral difference after all. What do make a difference are
their respective motives or intentions. Mo clearly doesn’t have Kant’s Good Will;
he helps only out of selfishness. What about Larry? While he has better intentions
than Mo, when you really think about it, Larry also acts to fulfill his own personal
desires. He helps because it makes him feel good. Would he continue to help if he
no longer experienced these good feelings? In any case, Kant doesn’t think Larry
has the Good Will since what gets Larry out on the street really comes down to
what he wants and feels, not duty. Only Curly has the Good Will. Curly, regardless
of his feelings one way or the other, acts out of a commitment to do right. He may
enjoy helping or he may dislike it, but that’s all beside the point; Curly acts purely
out of a sense of moral duty.6 This, Kant thinks, is truly praiseworthy: the Good
Will is the only genuine moral good.

This leads to an obvious question: if Curly’s Good Will consists in his freely
doing his moral duty precisely because it is his moral duty, then what determines
his moral duty? After all, morality can’t consist simply in having good intentions
and then doing whatever we please! If Curly believed it his duty to rob the Sav-
ings and Loan to provide for his destitute grandmother, that wouldn’t make his
robbing the bank okay. Kant’s reply is that the Good Will is dictated by reason
because moral duties are determined by reason. But we again need to be careful
here. Just as the Good Will doesn’t consist solely of good intentions, the use of
reason doesn’t just consist of thinking carefully about what we might do. It would
be even worse to interpret Kant as somehow inviting us to “rationalize” our doing
something wrong. Rather, Kant makes reason the foundation of all moral duty,
and because reason is the same for all, the duties of the Good Will are the same
for all.

In sum, the Good Will—what might better be called the rational Good Will—
has two essential aspects. First, it freely chooses to do its duty precisely because
that is its duty; its choice is motivated solely by moral duty. Second, that duty is
determined by reason. The Good Will is thus essentially rational: moral duty de-
pends entirely on what reason demands.

6Kant has no objection to Curly enjoying his doing his duty; indeed, Kant thinks it morally desir-
able for people to enjoy fulfilling moral duties. Still, duty must be one’s sole motivation.

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For Discussion
1. Why does Kant say that friendship, talents, and good health do not have founda-

tional moral worth?
2. Assuming that you are not impressed by Mo, who do you feel is more morally

admirable, Larry or Curly? Why? Can you see the appeal of each?

Kant’s deontological theory depends on reason. Kant argues that no consequence can
have foundational or intrinsic moral worth; the only thing that is morally good in and
of itself is the Good Will. The Good Will freely chooses to do its moral duty. That duty, in
turn, is dictated by reason. The Good Will is thus motivated purely by reason.

Key Terms

• The Good Will: the only thing of foundational moral worth, the Good Will
chooses to do something because it is one’s moral duty.


According to Kant, the Good Will freely chooses to fulfill its duty, and moral duties
are determined by reason (the Good Will is closely associated with autonomy; see
the following discussion and Chapter Three). Reason demands that every moral
act satisfy one all-encompassing principle, which Kant calls the categorical impera-
tive. This principle holds for all rational agents without exception.

An imperative is a command, something that tells us what we should do: “Shut
the door” or “Pay your taxes.” Imperatives can be either hypothetical or categorical.

• A hypothetical imperative tells us what we must do to achieve some goal:
“If you want to become a doctor, you must attend several years of medi-
cal school.” Those who don’t want to be doctors don’t have to attend med
school. Hypothetical imperatives are conditional: whether the imperative
(you must attend med school) applies to you depends on whether you ful-
fill the condition (you want to become a doctor). The condition in ques-
tion is described by the “if ” clause; the imperative makes up the rest of the

• A categorical imperative does not depend upon any conditions: it holds
unconditionally for everyone and every situation. A categorical imperative
tells us what we must do or not do, regardless of our goals or purposes
(e.g., “Tell the truth”; “Don’t commit murder”). There is no “if ” in the cat-
egorical imperative.

Although there are many instances of categorical imperatives, Kant provides
us with just one fundamental categorical imperative—what is almost universally
referred to as the categorical imperative. Although there’s only one such categorical

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imperative for Kant, he does think that it can be expressed in several equivalent
versions. The easiest version to understand is the principle of ends:

Principle of ends: Act so as to treat every person affected by your action (includ-
ing yourself ) as an end and never as a means only.

This principle tells us, roughly, that we should never simply “use” people for
our own purposes; instead, we should treat everyone as having worth in them-
selves. That is, we should always act in ways that fully respect persons—something
Mo does not do as he attempts to get his hands on the old lady’s fortune. Why is
there a duty to treat persons in this way? Remember that the Good Will has foun-
dational moral worth. Since the Good Will requires the use of both reason and
free will, the Good Will can only exist in rational moral agents (i.e., autonomous
persons). Being the only sorts of things capable of exercising the Good Will, there-
fore, persons likewise have value and so deserve respect. Furthermore, since every
person is capable of exercising the Good Will, each person has the same moral
worth and so deserves the same degree of respect.7 Since it would be irrational
to value one person more than another, we have a moral duty to respect all per-
sons, including ourselves. Reason thus requires that we obey the principle of ends
(i.e., the categorical imperative).

Kant’s principle offers us a profound moral insight. However, to appreciate its
full significance, we need to understand precisely what Kant intends in describing
people as means or ends.

Suppose you need to buy a shovel. Does it make sense to ask you what you
are buying it for? Of course. People buy shovels, for instance, to dig holes for fence
posts. Shovels are tools—means—for doing things like digging holes. A means
is used to attain an end or goal: in this case, nice deep holes for fence posts. But
clearly the shovel is not an end in itself. It is not something we value for its own
sake. People don’t usually collect shovels just to have (has anyone ever invited you
to see their shovel collection?).8 People value shovels because they are useful for
attaining other ends—ends that they value more than shovels.

What does Kant have in mind when he talks of treating persons as means and
ends? He is saying, first, that we have a moral duty to treat all persons as having
intrinsic value or worth in themselves, not as mere tools. Treating someone as
nothing more than a means or tool amounts to using or manipulating that person
to obtain something else that we value more, much like the way we treat a shovel
or like Mo treats the old lady.

Still, it is not wrong to treat persons as means as long as we also treat them
as ends at the same time. In fact, we treat others as means all the time. When you

7From a Kantian perspective, a person is a rational free agent. However, persons need not be
limited to humans—God, angels, and extraterrestrial intelligences like E.T. also qualify as persons. It’s
doubtful, however, that other animals qualify as Kantian persons.

8At a local school board meeting, one of us saw a shiny silver shovel carefully mounted in a glass
display case. The superintendent explained that the shovel symbolizes the board’s building projects.
Apparently people sometimes do collect shovels!

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attend a class, you use the instructor as a means to gaining knowledge and earning
a grade. As long as you respect that instructor, however—having a genuine inter-
est, say, in the instructor’s own views—you treat her as an end as well. Similarly,
the instructor uses her students as a means to earning a paycheck. But as long
as the instructor genuinely cares about the students’ learning (and doesn’t con-
temptuously view students as necessary evils to be put up with), this is all morally
acceptable. There would be something wrong with either the instructor or the stu-
dent treating the other solely as a means without relating to the other as a person
having intrinsic value. Classic examples of such wrongs include a master’s treat-
ment of a slave (a slave is often little more than a particularly versatile shovel) or a
man’s treatment of a prostitute. Neither slaves nor prostitutes are valued for their
own sakes; rather, they are valued for what they can provide. Another example
would be the businessman who climbs the corporate ladder on the backs of his

Kant’s categorical imperative requires that we always treat persons with re-
spect, as valuable in themselves. But, to press further, what exactly does this come
to? Since Kant’s Good Will requires that persons be thought of as rational free
agents, this suggests that respect for persons involves respecting a person’s free-
dom together with that person’s rationality—what Kant calls a person’s autonomy.9
Therefore, an act that diminishes or sidesteps a person’s autonomy fails to respect
that person; an act that acknowledges or even augments a person’s autonomy re-
spects that person.

Let’s return to Al’s treatment of Mrs. Satzoner. To encourage her purchase, Al
tells her that the SUV is in tip-top condition. How does he treat her immorally by
lying? It’s easy to see that Al is using her as a means: she is his means to dumping
the SUV, avoiding additional expenses, and making a tidy profit. But is Al treating
her as a means only? Is he failing to respect her as a person—as something valu-
able in itself ? In lying to her, Al gets her to think and act as if his falsehoods are
actually true. This causes her to think and act in keeping with these falsehoods,
which denies her the opportunity to act as she would if she knew the truth. This
defeats her efforts at rational decision-making and thus her exercise of autonomy
(see Chapter Three, §IV), which fails to respect her as a person. Al treats her as a
means only, which the categorical imperative calls morally wrong.

For Discussion
1. Give some examples of hypothetical imperatives. (Compare these to prudential

claims (see Chapter One §III.)
2. How do we treat our friends as means? Do we treat them as means only?
3. How does stealing from someone treat them as a means only?
4. Describe other ways people treat people (and themselves) as means only.

9Kant uses “autonomy” in a more technical sense than the way we used it in Chapter Three. This
will be discussed further in §VI.

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5. Does the principle of ends seem to you to be a valuable and useful way to evaluate
the morality of how we act toward others?

6. Suppose a person is so depressed and miserable that he contemplates suicide to
escape his pain. How does this violate the principle of ends?

According to Kant, the overarching principle of all morality is the categorical impera-
tive. A categorical imperative holds without exception, unlike hypothetical impera-
tives, which apply only to those who fulfill some condition. One formulation of the
categorical imperative—the principle of ends—requires that we treat persons as ends
(having worth in themselves) but never simply as a means (for obtaining something
we value more). It is morally okay to treat a person as both a means and an end. But
using a person solely to accomplish our own purposes is morally wrong.

Key Terms

• Hypothetical imperative: a conditional principle that tells us what we should
do if we satisfy some condition or hope to achieve some goal.

• Categorical imperative: a binding principle that holds unconditionally for
everyone and every situation. One of its formulations is the principle of ends.

• Principle of ends: act so as to treat every person affected by your action (in-
cluding yourself ) as an end and never as a means only.


The preceding version of Kant’s categorical imperative maintains that each person
has the same moral worth. It follows that each person deserves the same degree
of respect—for instance, being told the truth. It would be irrational to think we
have a moral duty to tell the truth to one set of persons but not to others. Gener-
alizing on this, any moral right or duty that holds for one person must extend to
all persons, without exception. This powerful idea—that reason requires moral
rights and duties to hold universally—comprises another key component in Kant’s

Kant did not invent the requirement that moral duties be universalizable; a
related idea is found in the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do
to you.” This tells us to consider an act from the point of view of others and not just
that of ourselves. For instance, lying to his customer no doubt looks like a good
idea to Al. But suppose the situation were reversed. Let Al imagine his custom-
ers and employees regularly lying to him. Would that look like a good idea to Al?
Surely not, but if Al wouldn’t like it when the tables are turned, then Al shouldn’t
act that way toward others either.

The crucial idea behind the golden rule is that of universalizability—the idea
that something can be carried over from one person to others (see Chapter Four,

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§III). Kant’s theory also appeals to universalizability, but his principle is not the
golden rule. For one thing, Kant doesn’t just imagine some people lying to Al.
Rather, Kant wants us to consider a truly universal practice of lying—in which ev-
eryone lies to everyone. Second, Kant wants to show that moral principles depend
on reason. Kant’s focus, therefore, is not with how Al would feel about being lied
to but with whether the universalized practice of lying could even make sense. If it
could not—if it would create inconsistency—then universalized lying is irrational,
and thus immoral.

To see how an immoral act can create inconsistency, let’s consider a differ-
ent example. Having been too long under Al’s influence, Al’s co-worker, Fred, has
started “picking up” valuables that he “finds” here and there. When Mrs. Satzoner
left her computer tablet in the office, Fred quietly took it for himself, conveniently
neglecting to inform Mrs. Satzoner. This is stealing—the act of taking another’s
personal property. In effect, Fred is following the maxim—a rule of conduct or
behavior: “To get something I want for myself, I’ll steal it from someone else.”
Now, suppose that Fred’s maxim were universalized, so that all of us likewise fol-
lowed this same rule of action. In such a world, would the notion of “stealing”
continue to be meaningful? It seems not; where all property is equally available to
anyone for the taking, it no longer makes sense to talk of taking someone’s personal
property. Personal property is personal—not available to just anyone. Nor does it
make sense to “get something . . . for myself ” since I can’t make it mine any more
than anyone else can. But why else would I steal? Once the practice of stealing is
universalized, the very intention people have for stealing (to make something their
own) becomes impossible to achieve. Since a world of universal theft conflicts in
this way with the intent of stealing, we get inconsistency, which shows that Fred’s
stealing is morally wrong.

Kant’s strategy is to let the morality of an act depend on whether rational
sense can be made of that act being made into a universal practice. He captures
this idea in the most important version of the categorical imperative:

Principle of universal law: Act only in accordance with a maxim that you can at
the same time (rationally) will to be a universal law or principle.

Again, a maxim is just any rule of conduct or behavior such as Fred’s personal rule
about stealing. If one of my maxims is to always wash before I eat for the sake of
my health, then I act in accordance with that maxim whenever I wash my hands
before dinner. If I filled my car’s gas tank yesterday to prepare for today’s trip, I
acted in accordance with the maxim that I should always have a full gas tank when
I’m planning to take a long trip.

Let’s work through Kant’s ideas again, using Kant’s principle of universal law
to analyze Al lying to Mrs. Satzoner:

Al decides to lie because he thinks he can turn this lie to his own advantage.

1. What maxim does Al’s act fall under? (“I may tell a lie with the intent of promot-
ing my own advantage.”)

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2. What results from universalizing this maxim? (“Anyone may lie with the intent
of promoting their own advantage.”)

3. Would the practice of this universalized maxim be consistent or inconsistent?

• If consistent, then the proposed act violates no moral principle.
• If inconsistent, then the proposed act violates a moral principle.

There are two particularly crucial parts to this analysis. First, in formulating the ini-
tial maxim, we need to describe both the proposed act and the intent one would have
in acting that way. This is because the inconsistencies arising after universalization
usually involve some inconsistency with the act’s intent, as will be seen in a moment.10
The other crucial part involves step three: determining whether our obeying this uni-
versalized maxim would be consistent. In Al’s case, our question is whether a uni-
versalized practice of lying would make rational sense. Note first that a lie can only
succeed when the person lied to does not realize that he’s being deceived. Next, sup-
pose that the universalized maxim—that anyone may lie with the intent of promot-
ing his own advantage—really does hold. Thus, everyone lies to each other. But then
everyone also expects to be lied to; this makes it nearly impossible to deceive anyone
by lying, which, in turn, makes it impossible to gain any personal advantage by lying.
Therefore, the universalized maxim “Anyone may lie with the intent of promoting their
own advantage” conflicts with its intent of gaining personal advantage by lying.

Here’s another way to think of this: suppose that I act in a way that cannot be
consistently universalized (i.e., it’s morally wrong). Under what conditions could my
act—stealing or lying, for instance—“succeed” in achieving my intended purpose?
Most often, it can only succeed as long as most others do not act in similar ways.
I can’t successfully steal something for myself if everyone continually takes things
from each other, including from me. I can’t hope to succeed at lying if everyone
lies and expects to be lied to. To personally benefit by committing a wrong, I must
remain in the minority, with most people not acting the same way. Whichever way
you look at it, one cannot rationally will that stealing or lying be made universal.
Acts of lying fail Kant’s categorical imperative, and this shows lying to be immoral.

Again, Kant’s categorical imperative is not simply a restatement of the golden
rule, which tells us that lying is wrong because we ourselves wouldn’t want to be lied
to. Nor does Kant’s theory have anything to do with the disutility that widespread
lying might bring into the world. Instead, Kant’s point is that lying is fundamen-
tally irrational: by willing to universalize the practice of lying, we set up a conflict
with the very purpose of lying, which is to deceive. The dictates of reason—not
how we feel or any consequences—are what determine moral right and wrong.

We’ve just determined if a couple acts are morally right using Kant’s categorical
imperative. But the categorical imperative can also be used to evaluate kinds of acts,

10Kant’s own examples usually focus on inconsistencies with the intent of a proposed act
(e.g., lying to benefit oneself ). In keeping with this, we interpret a fully stated Kantian maxim as de-
scribing the intent of the act as well as the act itself. This interpretation is drawn from Eric Watkins,
“Kant’s Categorical Imperative,” in Metaethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics, ed. James Fieser
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 268–276.

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thus allowing us to generate moral principles such as “No one should steal another’s
property” and “Everyone ought to always be truthful.” These principles, Kant insists,
hold without exception. But suppose that circumstances place two such principles into
conflict, presenting us with a moral dilemma. How should we handle such dilemmas?

Unfortunately, Kant’s reply is not entirely clear. On one side, Kant holds that
since they derive from reason, most moral duties or principles should not conflict
with one another, just as principles of mathematics and logic cannot conflict. Kant
calls these perfect duties—obligations that cannot be obeyed by degrees. For exam-
ple, you either steal or you don’t; you don’t “sort of ” steal. Furthermore, Kant’s prin-
ciples reflect the absolute moral worth of persons. Thus, morality should never force
us to respect one person’s moral worth over another’s or make exceptions regarding
persons’ moral worth. It can never be morally right to treat any person—even a liar,
murderer, or terrorist—with less than the full respect due to autonomous persons.

On the other side, Kant does recognize that practical situations can seemingly
pose moral dilemmas. Although perfect duties can’t conflict with each other, a situ-
ation may produce a conflict with Kant’s grounds of moral obligation. For instance,
a counselor has two unscheduled patients wanting to meet with her at the same
time. One has some questions to discuss; the other is suicidal. Although the coun-
selor can’t see both patients simultaneously, there are moral grounds—namely, the
absolute moral worth of both persons—for her helping each as much as she can.
Refusing to help either would be to act contrary to these grounds. Since the duty to
help can be fulfilled to varying degrees (making it an imperfect duty), the counselor
presumably should first help where she can help the most—the suicidal patient.11

We can draw a few reasonable conclusions. First, when a situation brings two
imperfect duties into conflict, the one that can be best fulfilled usually deserves pri-
ority. Second, when a perfect and imperfect duty conflict, the perfect duty should
presumably be given priority. As for conflicts between perfect duties, once again,
Kant does not believe that these are possible, although not everyone agrees.12

For Discussion
1. What behavioral maxims (not necessarily of a moral nature) do you regularly

follow? (e.g., you take the same route to work to save time; you check your phone
for messages every half hour because. . ., etc.)

2. Formulate maxims for each of the following acts, describing both act and intent:
hitting someone, plagiarizing something, holding a door for someone, cutting off
someone in traffic, and giving a small gift.

3. A gang leader murders a rival gang’s leader. How does this violate Kant’s prin-
ciple? (Hint: his intent is to widen his gang’s turf.)

11As no promise or scheduled appointment was made and as the situation determines both who
and how much to help, there is no perfect duty to help in this case.

12The issue of moral dilemmas in Kant is very complex. The present interpretation draws
from Jens Timmermann, Kantian Dilemmas? Moral Conflict in Kant’s Ethical Theory, accessed August 27,

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4. Business B1 spies on competing business B2’s marketing plans. How does this vio-
late Kant’s principle? (Hint: B1’s intent is to increase its profits by gaining some of
B2’s market share.)

5. You just observed someone place a suspicious package under a stairway and
then hurry away. Worried, you immediately head off to report this but run into a
friend who stops you to talk. How would Kant resolve this conflict?

6. Having now seen an alternative to utilitarian theories, how does that affect your
attitudes toward act or rule utilitarianism?

Universalizability is the key to Kant’s principle of universal law—another version of the
categorical imperative. This principle states that an act is morally wrong if it cannot be
consistently universalized. Kant does not appeal to people’s wants or to consequences.
To determine if an act is morally right, we (a) formulate the maxim which that act
falls under, (b) universalize that maxim, and (c) determine whether the universalized
maxim generates inconsistency. If there’s no inconsistency, the universalized maxim
violates no moral principle; if there is inconsistency, then the act is morally wrong.

Key Terms

• Maxim: any rule of conduct or behavior that one can act in accordance with.

• Principle of universal law: act only in accordance with a maxim that you can
at the same time (rationally) will to be a universal law or principle.

• Perfect duty: an absolute obligation that cannot be obeyed by degrees; a per-
fect duty contrasts with an imperfect duty, which can be fulfilled to varying


Autonomy lies at the core of Kant’s ethical theory. According to our usual un-
derstanding, autonomy requires that persons both be able to choose freely and
to employ reason in making their choices (see Chapter Three, §2). But Kantian
autonomy is a much richer concept than ordinary autonomy.

Again, Kant views morality as essentially rational, as dictated by reason. In
effect, reason itself determines or “makes” the moral law. Kant draws several results
from this. First, the truly autonomous individual must act in accordance with the
moral law, for acting immorally is irrational, and acting irrationally undermines
genuine autonomy. Kantian autonomy always acts rationally and thus morally.
Second, every person (by definition) has the capacity to reason. Since the moral
law is “made” by reason, the moral law is fully available to every person. Each
person, in short, is fully capable of discovering the moral law through her reason.13

13The moral law is discovered by reason, not by consulting one’s conscience.

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But reason has no existence in and of itself; it exists only in persons. Only
persons, then, can “make” the moral law, by employing the reasoning capacity that
resides in them. This means that persons don’t merely discover the moral law for
themselves—each actually “makes” the moral law for herself. In effect, each person
is a lawmaker or “legislator” of the moral law. This result is so fundamental that
Kant considers it another version of the categorical imperative:

Principle of autonomy: Every person is equally a creator of the universal moral
law; that is, each person makes the moral law for herself.

Since the moral law is autonomously made by each person, it is not imposed
upon anyone by any other authority. It is imposed solely by each autonomous
person upon himself, who then rationally “wills” or chooses to follow that self-
imposed law. This has two important implications. First, as makers of the moral
law, persons have maximal moral worth, since the makers of morality must be of
greater worth than what they make. Second, autonomous persons enjoy complete
moral freedom: although we are obligated to follow the moral law, that law is of our
own making, freely willed and imposed by ourselves upon ourselves.

We mustn’t misinterpret Kant here. Kant is not saying is that each person
can just make up their own moral standard or that my morality could differ from
yours. Kant’s account is not subjectivism; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Kant in-
sists that reason can only give rise to one set of moral principles, and, being uni-
versal, the same moral law is created or made by every person. The same moral
standard thus holds for all.

For Discussion
1. What do you think of Kant’s fundamental position that immoral acts are

2. The Good Will and Kantian autonomy can belong only to persons. According to

Kant, then, what does a person amount to?
3. How does Kant’s theory explain moral freedom? What do you think of this concept

of moral freedom?

Kantian autonomy has a special meaning. The autonomous person not only exercises
free will and employs reason; she is also able to “make” or legislate the moral law for
herself. The autonomous person is thus not under the authority of any external moral
authority but is under the authority of her own reason alone. Rationally, that person
should then follow the moral law. Someone who violates the moral law acts irratio-
nally and so cannot be acting autonomously.

Key Terms

• Principle of autonomy: every person is equally a creator of the universal moral
law; that is, each person makes the moral law for herself.

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1. Kant’s ethics has many attractions—particularly in the very areas that utilitari-
anism tends to be weakest. It has no difficulty ruling out involuntary organ do-
nations, attempts to avoid riots by framing innocent persons, or cases in which
people break promises. It lends strong support to justice since every version of
the categorical imperative maintains the equality of persons. And since it estab-
lishes general moral principles (e.g., “Do not kill innocent persons”), it makes
it easy to derive moral rights (e.g., “Innocent persons have a right to life”). Its
commitment to the foundational value of persons has considerable intuitive
appeal. And, practically speaking, Kant’s principle of ends is helpful for think-
ing through many everyday moral problems.

2. Naturally, Kant’s theory also runs into some important problems.

• Consequences: Consequentialists immediately object to Kant’s deontologi-
cal viewpoint that consequences have no moral relevance. Suppose that an
acquaintance of yours who you just have learned has become radicalized
quietly tells you of her plans to set off a bomb in a subway station and asks
you when the station is most likely to be filled with people. Kantian ethics
says you should answer her truthfully (e.g., “The station becomes most
crowded at 6 pm”) even if that enables her to cause hundreds of innocent
deaths. But surely this can’t be right. Don’t such consequences have some
moral relevance, at least, to how you answer her? Kant’s reply is “not at
all.” His argument is as follows: no matter what the situation, we can never
fully control or anticipate the future course of events. Your answering truth-
fully could lead to hundreds of deaths, but, then again, circumstances might
work out so that it saves hundreds instead (e.g., because the electricity goes
out at 5 pm, an evacuation is ordered, and the subway is completely empty
by 6 pm when the bomb explodes). Further, we normally have little control
over what others do. The terrorist might follow through on her plans, or she
might undergo a change of heart and expose her organization. Because we
have no real control over circumstances or over what others choose or do,
we cannot be morally responsible for what ultimately takes place. What we
can control—and what we are morally responsible for—is how we choose to
act. Whatever else may happen, we ought to fulfill our own moral duties, at
least, while leaving others to fulfill their moral duties as they should.

Although Kant certainly has a point, this is surely an overstatement. As
the consequentialist would observe, we often have some influence on others
and their choices. We can try to persuade them to choose differently, or, if
all else fails, we can try to interfere with their actions. Further, we usually
have considerable control over what is about to take place. We thus do not
seem as generally powerless as this suggests. And even when we have only a
little influence over events, we still have responsibility to the degree we can
exercise that influence. Since Kant seems to deny all of this, his theory has
a problem with moral confirmation.

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• Many formulations: Another difficulty arises whenever we apply the principle
of universal law to determine the moral acceptability of an act. Imagine that
Al is once again contemplating an act of lying. To evaluate the morality of his
act, we must formulate a maxim characterizing the act Al contemplates. This
is a critical step since this maxim characterizes the kind of act that is then to be
universalized. If it can’t be consistently universalized, then it will count as mor-
ally wrong. Everything thus hinges on how we formulate the maxim. But now
the problem: the very same act can often be characterized by different maxims;
even worse, some of these may consistently universalize while others may not.

For instance, Al’s contemplated lie can be characterized as an instance
of (a) telling a lie with the intent of promoting Al’s own advantage. But sup-
pose that Al also intends to lie to Fred only when Fred suspects nothing.
Does this make it a case of (b) lying to Fred only when Fred suspects nothing
and with the intent of promoting Al’s own advantage? Or what if Al tells a lie
that, for once, is not for his own advantage but is instead (c) lying with the
intent of sparing someone from painful news? Each of these characterizations
is different, but each could characterize the very same act. Which, then,
should be used to formulate the maxim?

We have already seen that lying with the intent of promoting one’s own
advantage is not universalizable. On the other hand, it’s difficult to decide
about universalizing the maxim of lying to spare someone’s feelings. This
would be self-defeating (and thus inconsistent) if people could typically
recognize bad news situations in which they should expect to be lied to.
But if people can’t usually recognize such situations, the maxim might be
consistently universalizable. What about Al lying to Fred when he doesn’t
suspect anything? This maxim cannot create the usual inconsistency upon
universalization, since it cannot even be universalized: it is limited to situa-
tions in which Al lies to Fred. Further, it is limited to just those times when
Fred suspects nothing. As long as Fred remains unsuspecting, attempts to
deceive him will typically succeed, and no inconsistency appears to arise.

Although maxim formulation poses a genuine problem, a Kantian
could respond by trying to clarify how appropriate maxims are to be ob-
tained. For instance, the Kantian could argue that a maxim concerned
solely with Al lying to Fred doesn’t qualify as a genuine maxim because it is
not sufficiently general. A maxim shouldn’t refer to specific persons, times,
locations, or situations. There’s also something “fishy” about the ploy to
avoid inconsistency by requiring that Fred suspect nothing.

The Kantian could also argue that if the categorical imperative judges
lying in general to be immoral (as Kant held), then no more qualified ver-
sions of lying (e.g., for the sake of sparing someone’s feelings) should be
allowed. Kantian moral laws cannot be fine-tuned. By making responses
like these, it may be possible to address the many-formulations problem.

• Rational agents: Kantian ethics emphasizes the personal worth of indi-
vidual persons, which impressively contrasts with utilitarianism’s tendency

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to neglect justice and rights. However, it’s important to note that Kantian
ethics only requires the just and respectful treatment of persons—of au-
tonomous (free and rational) moral agents. Kant thereby imposes no duties
directly upon us to care for animals. Nor does he bestow animals with any
moral rights. This will bother some. Still, Kant does claim that we have
indirect duties toward animals—duties that arise from our moral duties
toward other persons. Kant worries that if I act cruelly toward animals, I
might act similarly toward humans since people’s feelings toward animals
and humans often resemble each other. I shouldn’t harm animals because of
my duties not to demean myself or harm the rest of humanity. Nevertheless,
Kant’s approach will not satisfy proponents of animal rights.

Similarly, Kant’s theory does not seem to support any direct moral
duties toward human infants, young children, or those lacking autonomy
(e.g., patients with advanced Alzheimer’s). We could reply that we still have
important indirect duties toward such individuals, but this still doesn’t re-
spect such people (any more than animals) as having genuine moral worth.
Another reply might be that infants and children, at least, have a unique
capability to become autonomous, which makes them different from other
animals. Perhaps creatures capable of future autonomy (or that have had
autonomy in the past) are owed certain rights and have greater moral value
than those which can never have this capability (e.g., animals).

For Discussion
1. Which strengths of Kantian ethics do you consider most important?
2. Which problems for Kant appear to you to be most serious? Why?
3. For Kant, how would your duty to take your dog to the vet compare to taking your

sister to the hospital when both involve emergencies?
4. How would you try to solve the problem with moral duties toward, say, infants or

young children?

Kant’s deontological theory has considerable attraction, especially in how it empha-
sizes justice and rights. However, it neglects consequences, which seem to have some
moral relevance even when we can’t entirely control them. Further, the same act can
be characterized by different maxims. Since some of these might be universalizable
while others are not, an act being right or wrong may depend on how we formulate
its maxim. Finally, since Kantian persons are rational free agents, his theory may not
adequately respect human infants, children, and others.

Key Terms

• Indirect duties: duties not owed directly to an individual itself (e.g., an animal)
but arise from our moral duty to respect human beings as persons.

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Chapter Assignment Questions
1. How do the consequentialist and deontological approaches differ?
2. ** Explain each of Ross’s seven moral duties.
3. ** Explain how Ross resolves moral dilemmas using his distinction between

prima facie and actual duties. Do you find this distinction helpful?
4. Explain the Good Will.
5. In your own words, explain Kant’s principle of ends. Do you think this provides

helpful moral guidance for everyday life?
6. How does Kant’s principle of universal law differ from the golden rule?
7. In your own words, explain how the principle of universal law works with regard

to lying or stealing.
8. ** Explain Kant’s principle of autonomy. What do you think of Kant’s belief that

each person is a maker of the moral law? Why isn’t this subjectivism?
9. Explain the problem of many formulations. How serious is this for Kant’s theory?

Provide an illustration of the problem.
10. Explain the difference between direct and indirect moral duties.

Additional Resources
Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1988. First pub-

lished in 1930. Presents Ross’s theory, which includes several important distinctions
that have been influential in twentieth-century ethics.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. 3d ed. Translated by James W.
Ellington. Indianapolis, IN. Hackett Publishing, 1993. See especially sections 1 and 2.

Kant, Immanuel, “Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals.” Accessed August 27, 2016. See especially sections 1
and 2.

Watkins, Eric. “Kant’s Categorical Imperative.” In Metaethics, Normative Ethics and Applied
Ethics: Historical and Contemporary Readings, edited by James Fieser. Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth, 2000, 268–276.

Johnson, Robert and Cureton, Adam, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclo-
pedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed August
27, 2016.

Case 1

A Demanding Honor Code

After what seemed like an eternity, the exam was over. Fourteen students slowly
made their way to the front desk, turned in their papers, and filed out of the room.
As the group broke up, a few friends headed off together for lunch.

“That was unbelievable,” Sue said, looking slightly dazed.
“Yeah. . . .” Matt said, trailing off.
Cory added, “I studied all night and thought I was ready, but. . . .”
“At least Dr. B. is pretty fair about grading, so I should be okay,” Sue interrupted.
Cory glared at her: “I don’t know why I wasted my time. Maybe I should have

pulled what those two did in the back.”

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“What are you talking about?” asked Sue.
Cory paused. “You know, the two who are always talking? Johnson and

Eberhart—they cheated by texting each other the answers.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Sue observed. “Do you think Dr. B. saw anything?”
“Not a chance,” Cory replied. “You know, I’ve heard them talking and they are

both carrying like a 3.7 GPA, and one has some scholarship. What a joke! I’m kill-
ing myself going to work and studying, and they’re cheating and getting handed
scholarships! You know, this isn’t the first time they’ve done this—they’ve got it
down to a science. I’m so tempted to go back and tell Dr. B.”

“You don’t have to.” A voice came from behind them. “I did a minute ago.” Ji-
nelle was just catching up to them. “I’ve had my eye on those two for a while. They
pulled the same thing on the last test. When I saw them doing it again today, I
waited for everyone to leave and told Dr. B.”

“No way! What did he say? What’s he gonna do?” Sue asked.
“Nothing,” Jinelle said, slowly. “He thanked me, but said he couldn’t do any-

thing about it because he didn’t see them himself—unless I wanted to file a writ-
ten report to the honor council.”

“I knew it!” Cory exclaimed. “They’ll get away with it.”
“Are you gonna file something?” Sue asked.
“No way!” Jinelle said, looking upset. “Would you? I told him I’d think about it.

But no way am I getting into something that big.”
Suddenly Matt spoke. “You know, you are supposed to, like the prof said.” He con-

tinued, matter-of-factly, “The honor code says that anyone who knows about a stu-
dent cheating has to report it to faculty.”14 Looking at Jinelle, he added, “And I think
report doesn’t just mean telling the teacher—you have to file a formal complaint.”

“So you write up a complaint,” Jinelle snapped back.
“I can’t,” Matt grinned. “I didn’t see anything. I guess it’s up to just you or Cor.”
Later that afternoon, Dr. B. summarized Jinelle’s charge to the dean. He was

careful not to mention Jinelle’s name. “Those two again,” the Dean grumbled. “I’ve
heard the same story before about Johnson, and Eberhart actually did get caught
plagiarizing a paper last semester. One more documented charge, and she’s on
probation. But you know, I’ve also had my fill of students charging others with
cheating, naming names, but not being willing to back it up. So we can’t do any-
thing about it. Don’t they realize that by making an accusation like that and then
refusing to stand by it, they are violating the code themselves? They just don’t see
that the code isn’t about us enforcing honesty—it’s supposed to be a community
standard, something we are committed to together. But how can it work if the
honest students don’t carry out their duty to report the infractions they encoun-
ter? I wish these students recognized that every unfairly gained grade hurts all of
us. When an employer discovers that one of our graduates hasn’t learned what
they are supposed to have learned, the college reputation suffers, our grads find
it harder to get good jobs, and each one of those diplomas we applaud at gradua-
tion becomes worth a little bit less.”

14The Vanderbilt University Honor Code identifies the “failure to report a known or suspected vio-
lation of the Code” as itself a violation of the code. Vanderbilt University Student Handbook, “Chapter 2:
The Honor System,” Vanderbilt University, accessed August 27, 2016,

Case 1 (Continued)

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1. Did the two offending students, Johnson and Eberhart, deserve to be re-
ported and prosecuted by the Honors Council? Was Jinelle right in reporting
these students to Dr. B? Why wouldn’t she file a written complaint as well?
Would you?

2. How does it hurt everyone when cheating takes place at a college? What are the
pros and cons of a student like Jinelle or Cory taking the full responsibilities of
the Honors Code upon themselves and making a formal charge against the two

3. Which of Ross’s duties apply to each of the students involved here?
4. If you were Cory, what do you think you should do in this case? Provide a

Kantian analysis of this case using both versions of the categorical imperative.
5. Compare the Kantian moral judgment for this case with a rule utilitarian analy-

sis of the honor code being a set of rules that hold for all.

Case 2

The Ayala Case

When she was only sixteen, Anissa Ayala, the daughter of Abe and Mary Ayala, was
diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia and was given three to five years
to live. Only a bone marrow transplant could save her. Unfortunately, neither Abe
nor Mary, nor their son, Aaron, had compatible bone marrow. A search conducted
by the National Marrow Donor Program did not reveal a suitable candidate, and
neither did several other bone marrow drives. So Abe and Mary decided to con-
ceive another child in the hope that it would have compatible bone marrow that
could be used to save Anissa.

Their chance of success was very small. Abe was forty and had had a vasec-
tomy that would need to be reversed, leaving him with only a 50% chance of fa-
thering a child. At forty-two, Mary’s chances of getting pregnant were also low. In
addition, there was only a 25% chance that their offspring would have compatible
bone marrow. This reduced the odds of having a child that could save Anissa’s life
to 6.4%.

Nonetheless, Mary Ayala became pregnant and gave birth to a girl in April
1990. She was named Marissa-Eve. Miraculously, Marissa-Eve turned out to be
a suitable donor for Anissa. When Marissa-Eve was just fourteen months old,
her bone marrow was used in a transplant to save Anissa’s life. The transplant
was successful, and both sisters are alive and healthy.15 The sisters reportedly
share a close bond even today, and Anissa Ayala is now the assistant direc-
tor of donor recruitment for the National Marrow Donor Program in Southern

15For an interesting discussion of the Ayalas’s story as it relates to Kantian ethics, see Nancy
Jecker, “Conceiving a Child to Save a Child: Reproductive and Filial Ethics,” The Journal of Clinical
Ethics, 1. 2 (1990): 99–103.

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1. Because Abe had a vasectomy, we know that he and Mary had decided that they
did not want another child. Apparently, it was Anissa’s illness that changed their
minds. Was Marissa-Eve conceived solely to save her sister? If so, could this
have harmed Marissa-Eve’s future relationships with her family? In what ways?

2. Kant says that we should never treat any person simply as a means and not also
as an end. Was Marissa-Eve treated as a mere means in this case? Why or why

3. Clearly, Marissa-Eve had no input as to whether her bone marrow should be
used to save her sister. Although a bone marrow transplant poses little health
risk to the donor, it also offers no benefit to the donor and can be quite painful.
Do you think that her parents had a right to decide to use her bone marrow?

4. If it is permissible for parents to create and use one child to save another, what
else could be permissible? Where should the line be drawn? Would it be right
for parents to decide to use one child’s kidney to save another?

5. Do you think that Abe and Mary should have conceived Marissa-Eve to save
Anissa’s life? Why or why not?

Case 3

Internet Bride—Straight from Asia

Men, just visit,, or, and your very
own Asian wife might be just a few clicks away. These websites promise romance,
dating, and marriage to lonely men. Sometimes they even provide legal services to
help men import their “blossom” to their new home country. Of course, such Web
sites can charge thousands of dollars for their services (lawyer fees are extra and
can run in the tens of thousands). No wonder, then, that most of their clients are
older, well-off men from America and other affluent countries.

Why get a wife from Asia and not from your own country? The following bill-
board, seen in South Korea, suggests one answer: “Vietnamese—They Don’t Run
Away—International Marriage Specialist!”16 In many of the more affluent Asian
countries (e.g., South Korea or Japan), advertisements for brides from less devel-
oped Asian countries (such as Vietnam or Cambodia) are standard fare. Obviously,
there’s an imbalance in power between someone from an affluent country and
someone from a less affluent country. This will have an impact on the dynamics of
the marriage. Second, if the women are smuggled into their new country illegally,
they can’t run away. Without proper paperwork, they won’t be able to find a job
and might end up getting deported. So brides from poorer countries usually stay
with their new husbands.

In the United States and other Western countries, we don’t find billboards as
obviously prejudiced as the one just noted. But a certain attitude nevertheless

16Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2007,” U.S.
State Department, accessed August 27, 2016,


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prevails. According to an article on, John, a forty-three-year-old
British man, found love with a thirty-two-year-old woman from Thailand. John sees
Thai women as “more loyal” than British women. “They are not just ‘take take take.’
Also they have old-fashioned family values, which we used to have in this country.”
An American named Sullivan complained that American women “lack a certain
femininity.” By contrast, he found Thai women “less self-centered and more family
centered.” Sullivan started dating and ultimately married a young Thai woman, Yo-
shita. Yoshita seems happy. In her view, “Mr. Sullivan is a gift from God” and every
day she thanks Buddha “for giving me Mr. Sullivan.”17 Yoshita doesn’t refer to her
future husband by his first name.

What happens if the marriage doesn’t go so smoothly? After all, even though
these men and women do meet in person before getting hitched, they don’t usu-
ally know each other—or even each other’s language—very well. It isn’t surprising,
therefore, that some of these marriages don’t work out. Still, divorce or separation
presents a challenge for even the legally “imported” Internet bride. A young Viet-
namese or Thai woman may not know English well and may not have an education
or the necessary skills to find a job and make it on her own in her new country.
In the United States, if the couple divorces within the first five years of marriage,
the woman loses her green card privileges. For these reasons, the man can usually
expect that his new bride will go to great lengths to please him.

For a young import from Vietnam or Thailand, America may promise escape
from poverty and a brighter future. But this, in turn, has given rise to the com-
plaint that some Asian women are con-women. A short browse on the Internet
reveals anecdotes of women who lured their prospective husbands in under false
pretenses, only to turn out to be a devil in disguise once married and safely placed
into the household of her American victim.

This raises several interesting questions. Who is using whom in these contexts?
Are Western men looking for young woman who will be subservient to them? Are
the young women just trying to get out of a poorer country? Also, is happiness
possible with so many unknown factors? And do either the men or women fully
appreciate what they are getting themselves into?


1. What do you think of the attitudes these Western men have toward Asian
women? What do these attitudes tell you about what a Western man might
expect from marrying a young Thai woman, for example?

2. Do you think that some of these men may be treating the women only as
means to an end? If so, what does Kant’s principle say about the morality of
their actions?

3. Do you think that some Asian women may only be treating these men as mere
means to an end? If so, what does Kant’s principle say about the morality of
their actions?

17Shino Yuasa, “Disillusioned Western Men Seek to Thai the Knot,” Things Asian, accessed
August 27, 2016,

Case 3 (Continued)

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4. An American man and a Thai woman agree to a five-year marriage. The
woman promises to be a loyal wife for this time, and the man promises to get
her a green card. They agree that after the five years, they will split up if either
wants out by then. Does this arrangement violate Kant’s principle of ends? Why
or why not?

5. Do you think it’s morally wrong for a man to obtain an Asian bride along the
lines described here? What particular circumstances, if any, make it wrong?

Case 4

A Personal Decision18

Alexis was getting angry, and she didn’t mind showing it. “We’ve been here almost
two hours now,” she said to her friend Janet, “just to get my driver’s license renewed.”

“Typical bureaucratic efficiency!” Janet said under her breath. She was also
tired of waiting, but she hoped that Alexis wouldn’t make a scene. At least they
were next in line.

“Next,” said the woman behind the desk. “I need a photo ID, your social secu-
rity card, and a check for $24; and please read this card and return it to me if you
choose to sign.” Her voice sounded bored.

“Wow, the fee has really gone up!” Alexis muttered while she wrote out the
check. She then glanced down at the card the woman had given her. It read: “Organ
Donation: Upon my death I am willing to donate the following.” There were then a
set of boxes labeled “eyes,” “liver,” “heart,” “kidney,” “any organ,” and “none,” together
with a place for her signature. It also notified her that for $100, she could purchase
a personalized organ donation license plate with a rose adorning it.

Feeling that she was expected to sign the card, but not sure she wanted to,
Alexis avoided the woman’s eyes, mumbled “Okay, thanks,” and left. On the way
out, Janet suddenly said, “I didn’t want to say anything inside, but no way would I
sign that card. If you get in an accident and they see that you have agreed to organ
donation, they won’t even try to save you. There’s a real organ shortage, and the
doctors want to grab whatever they can get. My mom says those organ donation
cards are like signing your death warrant.”

Later that evening, Alexis was still thinking about whether she should agree to
organ donation. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was a bit flustered by Janet’s
comment, although she only half believed it. She decided to discuss it with her

In typical fashion, Steve exploded when she told him what Janet said. “I just
don’t get why you’re always hanging around that airhead. She’s sweet, but she’s
got the intelligence of a goldfish. She’s right about one thing, though—there’s a
serious organ shortage. I just read that in the United States, over 120,000 people
are waiting for an organ transplant right now—and some will never make it.19 Too
many people won’t let their organs be used. They are afraid like Janet, I suppose—
or maybe they worry they won’t look nice in the funeral home with their liver

18Our thanks to Stephen Thompson for helpful suggestions in writing this case study.
19For information on the current organ shortage, see the official government website on organ

donation., U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, accessed August 27,


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missing. Not that the doctors do it so anyone could even tell. They even patch up a
donated eye socket so only an expert could notice. And I know I’m not going to be
wanting any of my organs once I’m dead.”

“Oh,” Alexis gulped. “That’s repulsive.”
“I suppose,” Steve said airily. “But seriously, you ought to give it more thought.

I’m not telling you what to do. But you could really help somebody, someday. To
tell the truth, it doesn’t appeal much to me either. But I sort of feel it’s my duty, like,
to my fellow human beings. Don’t you agree that we ought to help others when
we can—especially when it can’t even cost us anything? As I said, the dead person
sure won’t care what they take out of him.”


1. From a utilitarian perspective, should Alexis agree to donate her organs?
2. From a Kantian perspective, would refusing to donate one’s organs violate a

moral duty? Evaluate this using both versions of the categorical imperative.
3. Organ donation is a very personal decision that some people find difficult to

make. Morally speaking, what level of moral agency is probably needed for a
person to sign over their organs upon their death? What level of moral agency
do you think most people actually exercise when they make this decision at the
DMV counter? Why?

4. Do you think that people ought to donate their organs (morally speaking, not
as a legal requirement)? Why or why not? Take the Kantian perspective into
account as you think through your answer.

Case 5

Beefy Burgers and a Lean Future20

According to current estimates, our planet is inhabited not only by 7.3 billion people
but also by almost 1.4 billion cows (using up 25% of space). Where is all this beef
going? Mostly into American mouths. The average American eats about two hun-
dred pounds of red meat, poultry, and fish each year, which, by the way, represents
a twenty-three-pound increase compared with 1970 levels.21 In many other nations,
people are going hungry; many developing nations consume only a fraction of the
meat we eat. Ironically, as these people starve, we Americans struggle with obesity
and other health problems related to our overconsumption of red meat.

In effect, we are slowly eating away at the well-being of those who have the
misfortune of not being affluent. In addition, the damage caused by our beef ex-
cesses may threaten the future of our own children and grandchildren.

20Anup Shah, “Beef,” Global Issues, accessed August 27, 2016,

21Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (New York: Holtz-
brinck Publishers, 2006), 42.

Case 4 (Continued)


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These things are true because our appetite for beef significantly affects the
resources of the planet. For example: to create cattle pasture, a large portion of
Central America’s rainforest has been cut down in just the past forty years. De-
forestation not only destroys many plant and animal species but also accelerates
atmospheric warming since trees are essential for removing carbon dioxide from
the air. Burning the fuel required to transport all the beef further contributes to
the problem.

Cattle are also drinking about half of the world’s supply of fresh water, deplet-
ing supplies that will be needed to quench the thirst of future generations. This
is especially serious because climate change is already causing major droughts.
Looking at the matter from the other end, there’s also concern over the amount of
waste these cows produce. This especially poses a problem when many cows are
kept together in feedlots since the resulting high concentration of waste pollutes
ground water and surrounding rivers. They also produce a great deal of methane,
a powerful greenhouse gas.

Last, cows have to eat too—and it’s almost as if they are eating right off the
plates of the hungry. Currently, most cows, in the United States at least, are grain
fed. They consume about 70% of the grain produced in the United States and
about 40% of the grain produced worldwide. That grain could feed a lot of hungry

Because it takes seven pounds of grain to create one pound of weight in a
cow, the quarter-pound burger you may eat today or tomorrow represents sev-
eral pounds of grain—grain that could have kept someone else from starving.
That “someone else” may be a hungry person living elsewhere on the planet. But it
could also be your own grandchild.


1. According to Ross’s account, do we have a responsibility to cut down on eating
beef for the sake of those going hungry in other countries? Do we have a similar
responsibility to future generations? Which of Ross’s duties might this involve?

2. From a Kantian point of view, do we have a responsibility to cut down on eating
beef for the sake of those who currently go hungry in other countries? Do we
have a similar responsibility to future generations? Why?

3. Which of our current interests would be put at risk if we cut back our present
appetite for meat? Whose future interests are being put at risk thanks to our
present appetites? Whose interests should have greater priority than the other,
and why?

4. What, if anything, do Ross’s and Kant’s theories have to say about the envi-
ronmental harms caused by our beef-eating practices? Should we change our
behavior for the sake of the environment?

5. Alternative methods of raising cattle can somewhat reduce the environmental
“hoofprint.” Keeping cows on pasture requires much less fossil fuel than does a
factory farm (which must be lit, heated, and cleaned). It also reduces the amount
of grain needed to feed the cows—leaving more to feed the hungry. When cattle

Case 5 (Continued)

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are rotated from one pasture to another, the pastures are protected from over-
grazing and are fertilized by the animal waste they absorb, which can spurt grass
growth. Outdoor grazing also helps reduce water and other pollution. In view
of these advantages, could we adequately fulfill our moral obligations by simply
switching to pasture grown beef, or should we stop eating beef altogether?

6. Explain your view as to whether we each have some degree of moral responsi-
bility to change our beef-eating habits. Include the facts mentioned in this case
(including the health risks of eating too much red meat), and apply both Ross’s
and Kant’s theories in your discussion.

Case 6


In one particularly interesting application of his principle of universal law, Kant
asks if I can consistently commit suicide as an act of self-love—that is, with the
intent of improving my own welfare. He concludes that this is not possible, making
suicide morally wrong. Why? Suicide amounts to treating oneself only as a means
to attaining relief from suffering. It also violates the principle of universal law:

Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy
life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improve-
ment of life would contradict itself . . .; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a
universal law of nature and, consequently, would be wholly inconsistent with the

supreme principle of all duty.22

Kant’s view is that one cannot consistently will to improve one’s life via suicide
because suicide destroys life. Interestingly, Kant’s thinking seems more or less
psychologically accurate: people often imagine themselves being free from their
suffering as a result of suicide.


1. What’s my mistake in imagining that suicide can free me from my suffering?
2. In your own words, fill out the Kantian test of suicide using the principle of

universal law. What is the maxim and intent? What inconsistency arises? (Note
that the inconsistency arises immediately; it doesn’t depend on suicide being

3. How does suicide violate the principle of ends? Who is the means and what is
the end?

4. Can the maxim regarding suicide be reformulated so that suicide no longer
creates an inconsistency?

5. What is your view of the morality of suicide? If it could ever be morally legiti-
mate, what conditions would make it legitimate? Why? Apply other theories to
see what positions they take on suicide as well.

22Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. T. K. Abbott (public
domain, 1797), accessed August 27, 2016,


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Natural Law Theory


A pregnant mother is found to have uterine cancer. The doctors tell her that her
uterus needs to be completely removed before the cancer metastasizes (spreads
to other parts of the body). As the cancer is aggressive, this has to be done soon
to save the mother’s life. She is a little over six and a half months pregnant, so the
fetus is quite developed, but they can’t wait until the baby is born. Having a hyster-
ectomy (an operation that removes the uterus) very soon will almost certainly kill
the fetus but has about a 75% chance of saving the mother. If the mother were to
wait just another five weeks longer, her chances of survival drop to 25%; the baby
would have a 75% chance of surviving.

We have looked at both deontological and consequentialist approaches—and
seen important advantages and difficulties with each. Can these help decide what
to do in this case? Using Kantian ethics doesn’t look very promising since this
case presents the moral dilemma of choosing between two lives, and Kantianism
isn’t well-equipped to resolve this sort of dilemma.1 Consequences also seem im-
portant to this case but are ignored by Kant. Rule utilitarianism would require a
great deal of fine-tuning to sufficiently address this situation; more general rules
would again land us in a difficult moral dilemma. Act utilitarianism can always be
applied, but the probabilities in this case make the two choices roughly equal in
expected overall utility. No theory thus provides much help. It’s tempting to think,
however, that if we could somehow combine the best of both the consequentialist
and deontological approaches, we might be able to obtain a more helpful result.

Another tact might be to try a different approach entirely. If we could come at
morality by some new angle, we might do better than either the deontological or
consequentialist approaches can. Taking a new angle might also enable us to pick
up on aspects of morality that we have not yet recognized through either of these

1Assuming that a six and a half month fetus counts as one of the lives at stake.

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Natural law theory embodies a little of both tacts. It approaches morality dif-
ferently than any of our previous theories. Natural law, for instance, aims toward
certain goods, though not in the same way as utilitarianism. Further, it gives us
principles that hold universally, but it allows for particular situations to be taken
into consideration as well. It also offers an important procedure that combines both
deontological and consequentialist considerations to resolve moral dilemmas.

For Discussion
1. What should be done in the mother’s case? Why?
2. What do you think are the greatest strengths of the utilitarian and deontological

approaches? Do you think these could be combined into a new theory?

Neither Kantian ethics nor utilitarian accounts seem ideal for addressing the hysterec-
tomy case. Given these theories’ strong opposition to each other, it is also tempting to
wonder if some combination of deontology and consequentialism could offer a desir-
able alternative. Natural law theory offers one alternative.


Natural law theory identifies several values upon which to base moral principles.
This may give natural law an edge over approaches that center on just one value
(e.g., hedonism). After all, using just one value raises the obvious question: why
should we think that there is only one foundational good to the exclusion of all
other goods? Isn’t knowledge, or love, for instance, at least as valuable as pleasure?
Natural law theory largely avoids this question by including all the values we natu-
rally seek and treat as goods.

Traditional natural law theory2 starts with the idea that everything has a natu-
ral function that serves to achieve some desirable end or goal. For instance, the heart
circulates blood, the sun feeds energy into the earth’s ecosystem, our minds equip
us to gain knowledge, our sexuality makes procreation possible, and our deep need
for human companionship creates society. Each of these functions reflects part of
the fundamental design or structure of the world. Although things do not always
function properly (e.g., hearts sometimes fibrillate, people reason mistakenly, and
criminals act antisocially), such malfunctions are clearly undesirable, while the
ends toward which nature aims are normally desirable and so have natural value.3

2Natural law theory has roots in Aristotle and the Stoics but was most fully developed by the
medieval philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas.

3Many today dismiss traditional natural law theory as outdated because evolutionary theory
denies that any natural thing has a function or purpose. Natural law ethics is still often referred to in
medical practice and in theories of war, however.

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Given such natural values, the theory then adds a fundamental moral prin-
ciple: we should maintain and promote those natural values toward which nature
aims. This creates moral obligations for us to act in support of these natural values.
For instance, living organisms have a variety of biological mechanisms and instinc-
tive behaviors that preserve life. Since part of the very nature of living things is to
preserve life, life has natural value, and we ought to cooperate with nature in main-
taining this good. Specifically, we have a moral obligation to care for the well-being
of ourselves and others but are prohibited from acting in ways that could harm
innocent persons. We also have an obligation to uphold life more generally—by
protecting the environment and not destroying other species. Similarly, since pro-
creation is a natural value, we have a moral responsibility to ensure the preservation
of our species. Anything that opposes procreation (e.g., sterilization or anything
that undermines the health or stability of a family) is morally wrong.4

The values of life, health, and procreation are shared with all living things;
other values are more characteristically human. As social beings, for instance,
we should value that which supports social interaction (e.g., trust and respect for
others), which in turn implies the moral obligations to keep promises and speak
the truth. On a more personal level, we ought to nurture relationships such as
marriage and friendship. Since they help establish and maintain social stability, the
state and its institutions are also good. It is thus morally right for us to participate
in government and even wage defensive wars to preserve the state; it is wrong to
incite a riot or commit treason. On yet another level, Catholic theorists observe
that human beings exhibit a nearly universal inclination to seek meaning in life.
While such spiritual sensitivity is good, its suppression via greedy materialism
should thus be avoided.

Finally, natural law views our reasoning abilities as distinguishing us from
other animals. Being rational by nature, we should apply and develop our reason.
Education and scientific investigations are thus good; we should also work to
sharpen our reasoning skills and extend our knowledge in all facets of life.

Natural law theory assigns particular importance to reason because it views
the cosmic or natural order as rational. For this reason, the natural order and its
laws can be discovered and understood by human reason (an assumption shared
by science). Since natural law is rational, furthermore, it is only reasonable for us
as rational beings to conform ourselves to it. By obeying natural laws, we harmo-
nize ourselves with nature and allow our complete fulfillment as human beings.

Natural law ethics is not, in itself, a religious ethics. The Stoic conception of
natural law theory, for instance, was compatible with atheism. Some contempo-
rary biologists also propose a kind of natural law theory, understanding moral-
ity as resulting from naturally selected behaviors that have helped preserve our
species. Nevertheless, natural law theory has been favored by Catholic thinkers
since Thomas Aquinas placed his natural law ethics squarely upon a religious

4More controversially, Roman Catholic natural law theorists also view birth control and homo-
sexual acts as morally wrong.

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foundation. According to Aquinas, the rationality and goodness of the natural
order are explained as the work of a rational and good God. As Creator, God as-
signed a function to each thing and ordered things to coexist in harmony. God
also endowed us with reason so that we can discover these functions and under-
stand the natural order. Since God is good, this explains the goodness of creation
as a whole as well as the goodness of those particular ends (the natural values)
which each thing attempts to bring about.

For Discussion
1. What do you think of the idea that everything has a natural function?
2. Is it possible to still hold that there are natural goods (thereby allowing us to de-

velop natural law theory) even if we reject the notion that everything has its own
natural function?

3. Do you agree that human beings are distinctive primarily because of our reason?
Are there any other unique things about humans?

Natural law theory identifies natural values as things that human beings innately
desire and need; more generally, they reflect whatever conforms to the cosmic order. It
then maintains that since these natural values are good, we have a moral obligation
to promote them. Human reason is a particularly important good and should guide
all we do. Aquinas added that the entire cosmos is the creation of a good and rational
God. This was to explain the inherent goodness of natural values as well as our ability
to discover the structure of the natural world and its laws.

Key Terms

• Natural value: some desirable end or goal toward which nature aims.


Natural law theory identifies several foundational values that we ought to pro-
mote and pronounces anything we might do against these to be wrong. These
foundational goods have most widely been thought to include life and health, pro-
creation, knowledge and the use of reason, and social interaction. By applying its
fundamental principle that we should maintain and promote these natural goods,
natural law derives additional moral values and principles. Given that we should
seek to maintain and promote life and health, for instance, we can deduce prin-
ciples such as “You should not kill another person” and “Do not act in ways that
might unnecessarily injure or harm yourself or others.” From the values of reason
and social interaction, we arrive at principles such as “Always tell the truth” and
“Do not break your promises.” Natural law theory thus generates all the commonly
held moral principles.

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Although we should maintain and promote natural values, natural law theory
doesn’t follow consequentialism by simply trying to maximize natural goods. It is
more concerned with our preserving these goods and our acting in keeping with
them. Still, when an act’s consequences undermine these goods, the theory often
judges that act to be wrong. Because it entails general moral principles, natural
law also takes on a deontological character. This extends to its concerns with our
intentions. Natural law theory thus incorporates both consequentialist and deon-
tological elements. This becomes even clearer in the ways it addresses dilemmas.

Natural law does allow for exceptions under certain conditions. While killing an-
other is normally wrong, for instance, it could be justified if one is forced to kill an at-
tacker, say, in self-defense. This sort of exception is justified by the following principle:

Principle of forfeiture: By deliberately attacking or threatening an innocent, an
individual (or nation) forfeits its own moral claim to live (or to exist).

An innocent is a person or nation that has not attacked or threatened another. By
attempting to harm another, an attacker ceases to be an innocent; that is, the attacker
forfeits or loses his moral right not to be threatened by others. The idea seems to be
that you can’t claim a moral right that you deny to another. Thus, if the victim kills
or harms the attacker in self-defense, that victim commits no moral wrong. Simi-
larly, an innocent nation may justifiably defend itself against an invading nation.
This principle can perhaps be extended even to justify capital punishment of mur-
derers (who have forfeited their right to live). Note, however, that the principle does
not require us to kill attackers and murderers; it only justifies our doing so. If an
attacker can be thwarted without being killed, that would be preferable.

For Discussion
1. Does the principle of forfeiture support capital punishment of murderers? Would

there be exceptions?
2. It was once the law that, by breaking into your home, an intruder loses innocence,

giving you a legal right to kill him. Since you can’t know his intentions—which
might be to kill you—your act is in self-defense. Discuss.

Natural law theory presents an alternative to both deontology and consequentialism.
It also attempts to combine their strengths. Consequences, intentions, and principles
all have roles in this theory. To deal with one sort of special case, it adds the principle
of forfeiture, which gives an innocent victim the right to self-defense. This extends to
states as well as individuals.

Key Terms

• An innocent: a person or nation that has a moral right not to be threatened by
others because he (it) has not attacked or threatened another.

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Another set of special cases is acknowledged by natural law theory. Inevitably,
there are situations in which an act produces both good and bad effects. These
situations pose a dilemma in which a natural value can only be supported at the
expense of another natural value (or, sometimes, that same value in some other
way). To determine what should be done in such situations, natural law theorists
have developed the Doctrine of Double Effect or DDE for short.

Although DDE is mainly used by natural law theorists, it can in fact be used
with any theory—Kantian ethics, rule utilitarianism, Ross’s ethics—that generates
moral principles. DDE decides cases by considering general moral principles, the
act’s consequences, how an act and its consequences relate, and the actor’s motives
or intentions. Intentions play a very significant role in DDE. For instance, DDE
says that we should never intend to cause some bad effect, even if we also intend
to bring about something good. The end never justifies the means! Nevertheless,
DDE does permit certain acts for the sake of some good even though that act also
results in something bad.

There are many situations in which an act produces both good and bad ef-
fects. Returning to our opening story, the doctors propose removing the mother’s
uterus (the act) to save the mother’s life. The bad effect would be a loss of life (the
fetus), and the good effect would be that the mother is saved. Or imagine a trolley
heading toward several people walking on the track just a short distance ahead.
Although the driver can’t stop the trolley in time to save these people, he could
steer onto another track, where there’s only one person. By doing so, he would
achieve the good of saving several lives, although he would kill the one person.
These cases obviously present us with tough moral choices; DDE is designed to
help guide us through such choices.

Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE): When an act will lead to both a good and a
bad effect, it is permissible to perform that action only if all four of the following
conditions are satisfied:

1. Moral principle condition: The act cannot itself be of a kind that violates a
moral principle, for that would make the act wrong. Examples of acts prohib-
ited by this condition would include purposely killing an innocent life (even if
that killing could save others), lying, and breaking promises. Violating a moral
principle is always wrong since it works against natural values (e.g., life and
truth). Acts that satisfy this condition would include administering a medicine
or carrying out an operation to remove a cancerous uterus.

2. Means–end condition: The bad effect cannot itself be the means for achieving
the good effect. We will discuss examples shortly.

3. Right intention condition: One must intend only the good effect, not the bad
effect. Even if the bad effect is foreseen and expected, it must not be intended.
For instance, a doctor must not intend to kill the fetus, for any intention to
kill innocent life is wrong. Yet if the doctor intends to remove the uterus while
foreseeing that this will kill the fetus, that satisfies this condition.

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4. The proportionality condition: The good effect must be at least as great as the
bad effect. For example, if the good effect is that a life is saved and the bad effect
is that a life is lost, then the good and the bad effect are equal, and this condition
is satisfied. If the good effect is to obtain a million dollars, while the bad effect is
that ten people will die, then the good effect is not as great as the bad effect.

We must clearly distinguish between the act itself—what someone does—the in-
tention, and the two effects. Condition 1 applies only to the act; Condition 3 to the
intention, and Conditions 2 and 4 to the effects of that act.

Applying the means–end condition can be difficult because the effects can
relate to each other in different ways. Sometimes an act simply produces two
independent effects: Aladdin’s stealing a loaf of bread may cause the baker fi-
nancial loss and feed Aladdin’s friends. But feeding the friends doesn’t require that
the baker suffer financial loss – they still get fed even if a sympathetic bystander
reimburses the baker. Nor does the baker’s financial loss cause Aladdin’s friends to
be fed (Aladdin might accidently drop the bread, depriving both the baker and his
friends of the bread). Neither of these effects depends upon the other; what they
both depend upon is Aladdin’s initial theft of the bread.

On the other hand, some effects can only be achieved through another effect,
one depending on the other. This makes them dependent effects. Suppose a ter-
rorist desires media attention for some reform (an effect—let’s even imagine it
to be a good one). He thus plots the deaths of twenty people at a bus station (an-
other effect) by blowing up a bomb (the act). Here, the media attention cannot be
achieved unless the deaths occur because it is the deaths that draw the attention.
Thus, the good effect depends upon the bad effect – the one relationship between
effects that violates the means-end condition. Finally, it is possible for a bad effect
to depend upon the good. Imagine that a drowning person is pulled into an al-
ready full lifeboat. This has the good effect of saving that person’s life at the time,
but the additional passenger’s weight might then cause the bad effect of sinking
the overloaded boat in a storm.

We cannot apply the means–end condition without first determining how the
effects relate to each other. The three possible relationships are illustrated as fol-
lows (A stands for the act, G for the good effect, and B for the bad effect):

Independent effects Dependent effects Dependent effects
Effects depend on the act,
not each other

Good depends on bad Bad depends on good

(acceptable) (unacceptable) (acceptable)
A → B → G A → G → B

Let’s now analyze some examples using all the DDE conditions. Again, we
must first identify the act along with its good and bad effects; only then can we
apply the conditions.




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Example 1: The opening story of the pregnant mother with cancer. The act is
doing the hysterectomy, removing the uterus. The good effect is that the mother
lives; the bad effect is that the fetus dies. Is the act permitted?

Condition 1 is met because the act of removing a diseased uterus violates no
moral principle and so is not bad in itself.

Condition 2 is met because the bad effect (the death of the fetus) is not the
means used to achieve the good effect (the mother survives). The death
of the fetus does not save the life of the mother. Rather, her life is saved by
removal of the uterus, which has the death of the fetus as a side effect. In
this case, the effects are independent.

Condition 3 is met as long as the doctor’s only intention is to save the mother’s
life, not to abort the fetus.

Condition 4 is met because the good effect is at least as great as the bad
effect—while it costs one life, it saves another.

Therefore, the act is morally permissible according to DDE.
Example 2: An innocent person must be tortured to get a terrorist to reveal details
about his terrorist activities. Let’s work off a scenario played out on the show 24.5 A
terrorist has hidden a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. He is captured but refuses to
reveal where the bomb is hidden and will die rather than reveal this information.
The interrogator therefore threatens to kill the terrorist’s family. On the show, the
agent set up a video feed to the terrorist’s room so the terrorist could watch; the
agent then had the terrorist’s son shot. This led the terrorist to confess to spare
the rest of his family; the bomb was then disarmed and millions were saved. It was
later revealed that the child’s murder was faked.

Let’s change the scenario. The agent has not yet had the child killed, but won-
ders whether doing this—by a real shooting this time, not faking it—is morally
permissible. The act in question is shooting the child; the bad effect is the child’s
death, and the good effect is finding the bomb and saving millions of innocent

Condition 1 is not met because the act being contemplated violates the prin-
ciple that prohibits killing an innocent person, which is morally wrong.

Condition 2 is not met because the child’s death is the very means used
to obtain the desired information from the terrorist. If the child isn’t
killed, the terrorist won’t give the information—the latter depends upon
the former.

Condition 3 is not met because the agent intends the child’s death. He also
intends to save innocent millions, of course, but he intends both of these
things. Another way to put this is to say that the agent doesn’t kill the child
accidentally. The child dies as a result of the agent’s deliberate choice, and a
deliberate choice is always intended.

5This scenario appeared in the FOX television series 24, Season 2, 2002, directed by Jon Cassar.

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Condition 4 is satisfied, because the good effect (saving many lives) is much
greater than the bad effect (the death of one child).

Although Condition 4 is overwhelmingly met, the act is not morally permissible
since all four conditions must be satisfied for an act to be permissible.

For Discussion
1. For the terrorist story (Example 2), what would act utilitarianism say instead?
2. Should the terrorist’s innocent child be killed if that’s the only way to save millions?

Why or why not? (It might help to apply both utilitarian theories as well as Kant’s
ethics to see how these theories answer this.)

3. DDE includes much more than resulting utility, though it does include that too
(Condition 4). How important are its other conditions?

4. Can we have more than one motivation at a single time? If so, can we separate these
in ourselves and determine which is directing our response in a given situation?

5. It’s not hard to think of cases in which an act causes two independently related ef-
fects. It’s harder to find cases in which the good effect depends on the bad; it’s quite
difficult to find cases in which the bad effect depends on the good. Try to come up
with an illustration of each.

DDE addresses cases where an act both promotes and works against natural values
(by its good and bad effects, respectively). To apply DDE, we must identify the act and
its intent, the good effect, the bad effect, and the relationship between these effects. To
be morally acceptable, a situation must then fulfill all four of the DDE conditions: (a)
it violates no moral principles; (b) the good effect doesn’t depend on the bad; (c) only
the good effect is intended; and (d) the good effect is at least as great as the bad effect.

Key Terms

• Independent effects: occur when neither of the effects depends upon or
causes the other.

• Dependent effect: an effect that does depend upon or causes the other.


Natural law theory has important attractions. By encompassing several natural
values, it seems more balanced than approaches based on a single value. It also
provides some motivation for being moral. Since the theory maintains that things
work best when everything is fulfilling its natural function (just as products usu-
ally work best when we follow the manufacturer’s directions), we may expect the
greatest personal satisfaction and fulfillment from following natural laws. The
theory also has appeal in the way it balances consequentialist and deontological

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elements. Yet while natural law theory was well received until the advent of utili-
tarianism, many contemporary theorists now view it as seriously deficient.

Foundations: Probably the most serious theoretical problem with natural law
theory is its first principle: We should maintain and promote as good those values
toward which nature aims. The principle attempts to establish natural goods as
the basis for the morally right. Now it’s certainly true that we desire these natural
goods—life, health, knowledge, social interaction—and that seeking them is prob-
ably also rational and prudent. But why should we think there is a moral obligation
to seek such ends? Even if the world does aim toward certain ends, that does not
entail that these ends ought to be maintained or promoted. Why think that the
natural status quo is good?6 For instance, a primary end of human sexuality is the
propagation of our species. That’s fine up to a point, but as the population soars,
is it still good to be increasing our numbers indefinitely? It’s also hard to deny that
death is the natural end to life, although few people view death as a good.

In response, natural law theorists need to show that natural goods do sup-
port moral claims. This is particularly hard for nontheistic natural law theorists
because their view doesn’t leave much room for more basic supporting facts or
principles. Aquinas’s theistic account maintains that the natural order was created
by a rational and good God. Since it reflects this good God’s purposes, we may
suppose that whatever is important to the natural order must also be good. This in
turn supports the idea that we ought to promote natural goods.

Unfortunately, Aquinas’s solution also runs into difficulties. There is, of course,
the question of God’s existence. But even if we grant that a good Creator God exists,
we must also admit that most religions—including Aquinas’s Christianity—view
the present world as corrupted. The biblical book of Genesis portrays all things,
including nature, as infected by mankind’s moral fall. But this raises additional
difficulties for natural law’s first principle. If anything could be tainted by evil, then
we cannot justifiably treat all natural processes and things as purely good. In view
of this, we need to find some means for distinguishing natural goods that remain
as God intended them from those that have taken on this general corruption. But
doing this requires that we discern God’s original intentions out of what we can
presently observe—a nearly impossible task. Even Aquinas thus seems unable to
satisfactorily support the first principle of natural law theory.7

Vagueness: Another obvious problem is determining exactly what “natural”
means. The concept is inherently vague. For instance, we might think that pure
nature is natural, while human technologies are unnatural. Yet it is natural for
human beings to think, create, build, and improve their condition and so natu-
ral law theorists do not oppose technology. But at what point does technology
cross the line from the natural to the unnatural or extraordinary? The sex organs

6The same sort of objection can be brought against hedonism: pleasure is not a moral good
just because we all desire it. What ought to be the case doesn’t follow from what simply is the case.
According to a long-standing slogan, you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”

7The Catholic tradition turns to revelation to make these distinctions.

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clearly aim at reproduction; is it unnatural then to extend our control over their
function by using birth control technologies to regulate family size? At what point
do complex medical interventions qualify as unnatural? And if procreation is a
natural good, are artificial insemination and cloning bad (as natural law theorists
usually say) just because they require highly advanced technologies? These ques-
tions present natural law theory with important challenges, especially as technol-
ogy continues to multiply our options enormously.

The natural law theorist replies that these questions are founded on a mistake:
natural relates to the ends that things serve, not their origins. It doesn’t matter
that a technology is created by humans; it is acceptable as long as it serves some
natural end. Yet even this raises questions. On one hand, why do many natural law
theorists condemn efforts by a married couple to facilitate procreation (a natu-
ral good) by artificial insemination? On the other hand, human aggression—like
competition between non-human animals—weeds out the less fit in favor of the
stronger and more adaptable. Further, humans “naturally” incline toward conflict,
as it shows up in all human cultures and first appears at an early age. Yet we don’t
exactly consider all aggression and conflict to be good. Natural law theorists have
carefully developed replies to all these questions, but, as that suggests, there is no
simple or straightforward account of the natural.

DDE: Despite its ingenuity, DDE has a problem with the criterion of moral
confirmation. Although DDE often yields intuitively correct guidance, it can also
yield intuitively implausible results. Consider, for instance, a mother who cannot
give vaginal birth to a severely hydrocephalic infant because both would die.8 Sup-
pose, in addition, that neither would survive a cesarean section. The only alterna-
tive would be to save the mother by performing a craniotomy, which crushes the
infant’s skull so its pieces along with the remaining body parts can be removed
vaginally. Carrying out a craniotomy probably violates three of the DDE condi-
tions. It directly kills the infant, violating the moral principle condition. Because
the infant’s destruction is the only means to saving the mother, furthermore, the
good effect is achieved by means of the bad effect. And since the intent is to de-
stroy the infant’s skull, even the right intention condition may be violated. DDE
thus prohibits a craniotomy in such a situation. Yet as horrific as a craniotomy
is, DDE’s rejection of it doesn’t look right, for how could it be wrong to save one
person when the only alternative is for both to die?9

Another problem for DDE is that the very same act can appear right
or wrong depending on how it is described. Consider our pregnant mother
with cancer again. In our analysis, we described the act as removing a dis-
eased uterus, which appears acceptable to the moral principle condition. But
this is also an act that destroys the developing fetus’s only means of life. On

8A hydrocephalic infant has a badly swollen skull due to fluid in the brain, which develops so
abnormally that the infant can’t survive on its own.

9The problem is raised on by C. E. Harris Jr., Applying Moral Theories, 3d ed. (Belmont, CA: Wad-
sworth, Inc., 1997), 84–85. This selection is reprinted in Mark Timmons, Conduct and Character, 4th
ed. (Toronto: Wadsworth, 2003), 76–92. It is here given a somewhat different analysis.

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that description, the act seems to amount to a killing. Can we turn a right
action into a wrong one merely by changing how we describe it (compare this
to the many-formulations problem with Kant)? This could make it very dif-
ficult to determine right from wrong in many cases—a problem with DDE’s

Evolution: One of the main reasons natural law theory has fallen into disfavor
is the acceptance of evolutionary theory with its denial of natural aims and func-
tions (see footnote 3). If we could make sense of natural goods while rejecting the
notion of natural functions, then perhaps some form of natural law theory could
survive the evolutionary objection. But as this and other responses to this objec-
tion raise a host of additional issues, any evaluation of this objection lies beyond
the scope of our discussion.10

For Discussion
1. How do you understand the concept of something being “natural?”
2. What is natural and what is unnatural about (a) artificial insemination or (b)

attempting some drastic medical intervention to save a life?
3. Can the act of switching tracks in the trolley story (see §IV) be described so that

it fails DDE?

Natural law theory has some important objections to it. First, there is the problem with
its very foundation: why think that the natural is good (a weakness in explanatory
power). Then there is vagueness in the concept of “natural” (a practicability problem).
There are also problems with DDE. One is with DDE yielding intuitively wrong results
(moral confirmation); another has to do with it leading to different judgments depend-
ing on how we describe the exact same act (practicability). Finally, evolution under-
mines the notion of natural ends.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. Derive some moral principles that you think follow from foundational natural

values like life or reason.
2. Do you think that Aquinas’s theistic basis to natural law theory is necessary or

helpful? Why or why not?
3. How well are we able to identify natural goods from studying nature and people?
4. Is it really possible for a person to forfeit and thus lose his most basic moral rights?
5. What sorts of problems is DDE intended to address?

10Most simply, the natural law theorist could redefine natural goods as whatever has been favored
by natural selection, though this makes the foundations objection even more pressing.

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6. In DDE’s Condition 1, the very same act might count as right or wrong depend-
ing on how we describe it. Compare “removing a uterus that supports a devel-
oping fetus,” to “removing a woman’s diseased uterus” or compare “shooting a
missile at a target” with “killing an enemy and his family with a missile.” How
might the natural law theorist reply to this problem?

7. Explain in your own words DDE’s means–end condition. Is there anything about
this condition that you don’t feel you understand?

8. How could someone expect a certain effect to take place but not intend it to take
place? Can you give an example from your own experience?

9. What do you think of combining both deontological and consequentialist ele-
ments together as is done in DDE?

10. How serious is natural law’s foundations problem—the question of why natural
things ought to be seen as good?

Additional Resources
Harris, C. E., Jr. “The Ethics of Natural Law.” In Conduct and Character. 5th ed. Edited by

Mark Timmons, 65–79. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006. From C. E. Harris Jr. Apply-
ing Moral Theories. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997. This reading provides a
good general discussion of natural law theory, the principle of forfeiture and double
effect, and a number of illustrative applications.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Civil Government. Public Domain, 1690. This can be
found online, Accessed August 27, 2016.
This is one of Locke’s most important works; see especially chapter 5, section 27.

Murphy, Mark, “The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Phi-
losophy (Winter 2011 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.
archives/win2011/entries/natural-law-ethics/. This article provides a more advanced
introduction to natural law theory.

McIntyre, Alison, “Doctrine of Double Effect.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Winter 2014 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.
win2014/entries/double-effect/. This article provides a more detailed discussion of
double effect, including its applications and some criticisms.

Case 1

Relieving Pain in a Dying Patient11

For some time now, Nicolas has had stomach pains. They usually appear when he’s
under stress, but lately he’s had them almost constantly. Finally, he decides to go to
the doctor to have them checked out. It turns out that Nicolas has stomach cancer
and that he must be operated on immediately. After waking up from the operation,
Nicolas receives more devastating news. The cancer has spread so far through his
system that it is considered inoperable. There is nothing more the doctors can do.

Nicolas is eighty years old, and cancer grows more slowly in the elderly. He is
thus sent home to spend his last months with his family. When the time comes,

11This case reports a true story.


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Nicolas will be able to die at home. A visiting nurse service will provide help to
the family.

In the meantime, Nicolas will often be in pain. This pain will only worsen as he
gets nearer to the end. He is therefore put on pain medication. As the months go
by, the pain grows worse, until Nicolas is mostly confined to his bed. He requests
that his doctor give him something stronger to control the pain.

The doctors tell him that a stronger pain medication will have its price. The
pain reliever given most often in these cases is morphine. This can have sig-
nificant side effects. For one, morphine is highly addictive so once he begins
to use it, there will be no turning back. In addition, the morphine will often
make him too drowsy to experience his surroundings lucidly. Most important,
the morphine could hasten Nicolas’s death. Morphine is a very strong drug
and is mostly prescribed in cases that are medically futile, since it suppresses
respiration. Nicolas is such a case, and he urgently needs pain relief. But as the
amount of morphine is raised, it will increase the chances of his dying sooner
as well.12


1. What are the likely effects of taking the morphine and of not taking it? How
morally important are these effects?

2. Do you think Nicolas or his doctors actually intend to hasten his death? Why
does this matter?

3. Are the bad effects a means to the good effects?
4. Under what conditions would the good effects outweigh the bad effects?
5. Would DDE permit Nicolas to take the morphine? What do you think would be

morally right in this kind of situation?

Case 2

Birth Control13

A controversial example of the implications of natural law theory appears in former
Pope John Paul II’s arguments against the use of birth control. Peter Simpson, in his
book about the Pope’s philosophy, explains: “Sex is not something a couple may
use as they wish. On the contrary they may only use it according to what it natu-
rally is.”14 Simpson is saying that when sex is used in a way that violates its essential
nature or function, that works against nature and so is morally wrong. But what
is the nature or function of human sexuality? The sexual act is an act of creation
that brings with it the possibility of new life. The use of birth control deliberately

12The use of morphine used to be considered quite risky; it now appears that carefully regulated
use of morphine can be administered fairly safely, although high doses still have risks.

13Peter Simpson, On Karol Wojtyla (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning Inc., 2001).
14Ibid., 65. (Emphasis added.) All quotations that follow are taken from the same text.

Case 1 (Continued)


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obstructs this natural function. As Simpson colorfully puts it, to use birth control
is effectively “to de-sex sex,” to change the sexual act into an unnatural act. This
holds true for all artificial methods of birth control, including the use of condoms,
intrauterine devices (IUDs), spermicides, and “the pill.”

An important exception is natural family planning, sometimes called the
“rhythm method” (a little misleadingly). The idea is to abstain from sexual inter-
course during the woman’s periods of fertility. If done properly (which requires
instruction by a doctor), natural family planning is held to be more than 90% ef-
fective and thus compares very favorably with artificial methods. Unlike the pill
and IUDs in particular, natural family planning also poses no risks of undesirable
medical side effects.15

Why is natural family planning acceptable for natural law theory when artifi-
cial methods are not? The answer is that natural family planning doesn’t interfere
with the sex act per se. First, Simpson explains that “[t]o use nature’s order is very
different from breaking nature’s order.” Here, the distinction is on working with
nature, rather than against it. After all, a woman’s fertility cycles are part of how
nature functions, so it’s perfectly permissible for rational agents to make use of
these cycles to achieve other natural purposes such as placing manageable time
intervals between births. By contrast, birth control pills directly interfere with this
natural cycle. Condoms, meanwhile, work against the very design of the sexual
organs by blocking the union of sperm to the egg. Thus, neither method can be
considered “using nature’s order”; rather, both directly oppose natural processes.
Simpson also observes, “It would be absurdly strict, even unnatural, to demand
that every sexual act be actually procreative, or to say that intercourse is only per-
missible if the couple hope to have a child as a result of it.” If it must always be used
exclusively to conceive a child, then sex would have to be restricted to just those
few days each month when the woman is fertile. Such a stringent limitation on
sexual activity doesn’t seem to be in accordance with nature. Indeed, it is worth
emphasizing that the sexual act need not always be intended solely for procre-
ation (i.e., it need not be reserved solely to “make babies”); its pleasurable aspects
are legitimate and natural as well. Nevertheless, never intending to have children
does conflict with a primary natural function of sexuality. Thus, it cannot be right
for a married couple to intend never to have children. Rather, the purpose of natu-
ral family planning should be to space out births and even control the number of
births – which can both reflect a couple’s financial concerns as well. Again, this all
follows from the fact that the sexual act is, by nature, an act of creation – a compo-
nent that should never be separated from it entirely.16


1. Do you agree that the artificial birth control methods interfere with the design
and natural functions of human sexuality?

15The “pill” is associated with increased blood clots, and IUDs is associated with bleeding and
potentially permanent damage to the reproductive system.

16It should also be understood that natural law can support medical uses of artificial methods like
the pill, say, to control an extremely uneven menstrual cycle or severe menstrual pain.

Case 2 (Continued)

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2. If artificial methods do interfere with natural functions, do you think this
makes the use of these methods morally wrong? Why or why not?

3. What do you think about natural family planning? Is it correct to characterize
it as a method that applies nature’s order rather than opposing it?

4. Evaluate the Pope’s natural law arguments regarding the moral permissibility of
artificial birth control methods.

5. Would natural law allow condoms to be used to prevent the spread of HIV and
other sexually transmitted diseases? Suppose a couple is already married when
they discover that one partner is HIV positive. How might DDE answer this

Case 3

Just War Theory and the Killing of Noncombatants

After the September 11 2001 attacks and multiple military interventions, there has
been a renewed interest in what qualifies as a just war. In the United States, the
debate mostly refers to principles of “just war theory,” which originated in the natu-
ral law writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Just war theory deals with when—under what conditions—war is justified (Jus
ad Bellum) as well as how a war may justly be fought (Jus in Bello). Naturally, there
are disagreements about the details of what constitutes just wars and just ways of
waging war. Nevertheless, most discussants agree on several general principles.
Let’s first examine when a war is justified. Such a war must, first, be fought for just
cause. One has just cause, for instance, when there is an imminent threat, when
one is protecting basic human rights, or when one is protecting the innocent.17 A
just war must also be declared by the right authority such as a recognized govern-
ment and not just by some small group. It must be fought with the right intention,
namely, the intention of obtaining the goal that just cause provides (e.g., eliminat-
ing the imminent threat). One must enter a war only as a last resort, once all other
options have been exhausted. There must be a sufficient probability of success. Fi-
nally, the outcome must be proportionate; that is, the good of the intended goal
must exceed the amount of damage that the war is expected to cause.

Once it has been determined that a given war is just, we must consider how
the war may be fought. The two basic principles to be considered here are the prin-
ciples of discrimination and of proportionality. The first principle requires that war
be waged only against combatants—for example, against enemy soldiers and not
against noncombatants or innocent civilians. The principle of proportionality tells
us how much force is justified in a war. One is allowed to apply only as much force as
is necessary to meet the goal of the war, which, again, is determined by the princi-
ple of just cause. To illustrate how these conditions work, most philosophers agree
that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War
II was not justified: combatants and noncombatants were killed indiscriminately,
and the deaths and injuries of millions of people appear out of proportion to the
war’s outlined goal.

17The principle of forfeiture relates to determining just cause (see §III).


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Nevertheless, the killing of innocent civilians can at times be unavoidable.
During World War II, for instance, it was difficult to hit a military target with preci-
sion. As a result, deaths occurred that were not intended. Also, many bombs de-
stroyed a much larger area than just the target itself. Of course, today’s missiles and
drones can hit targets much more precisely. However, an enemy can exploit the
presence of innocent civilians by hiding military personnel and equipment in hos-
pitals, churches, schools, and mosques. This makes it virtually impossible to attack
such targets without killing the innocent. Saddam Hussein, for instance, employed
“human shields,” as have many other regimes and armies since. Muddying things
further, it is increasingly difficult to determine who is in fact a combatant. Soldiers
may pose as civilians, and civilians may aid in fighting the war.

How can we decide whether, or when, the unintended killing of innocents is
justified (the military calls this collateral damage). The first requirement, again, is
that the war is being waged on just grounds; otherwise, no killing can be justified.
Once this is settled, DDE can be used to distinguish military actions that are per-
missible from those that are not.

First, the act must be defined as destroying a military target, for instance, and
not as the killing of innocent civilians. Otherwise, the act violates a moral principle
and so is simply wrong. Second, innocent deaths cannot be the means to achieve
one’s goal (e.g., destroying the target); rather, their deaths may only be a second-
ary effect. Third, one must not intend to kill any innocent civilians. Finally, the good
effect—destroying the target—must outweigh the bad effect—the deaths of

With this background, we can now consider some actual situations.

1. During the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the Amiriya Shel-
ter was destroyed by the United States using two “smart bomb” missiles. Many
in the U.S. military believed the building was a military command center,
basing their assessment on satellite reconnaissance and the detection of radio
signals. It also appeared that it might be being used as a military personnel
bunker. If the latter, then it could be assumed to have family members pres-
ent but not a large number of civilians. At the same time, there was also some
evidence that the building was being used as a major civil-defense shelter; it
had previously been used this way in the Iraq–Iran war. The bombing killed up
to 408 people, mainly women and children.18

2. During the initial phases of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States went
after Saddam Hussein and his regime. After Saddam was deposed, the politi-
cal situation changed. In the subsequent chaos, various terrorist organizations
and religious factions emerged. The terrorists want to rid Iraq of U.S. armed
forces. They and the several factions also fight each other in their attempts
to take political power in Iraq. To these various ends, public places have often
been bombed, killing Iraqi and American civilians indiscriminately.

3. According to the CIA website, Saddam held as many as eight hundred foreign
civilians involuntarily for use as human shields. These civilians were arrested by

18One report of these events may be found at “Amiriyah Shelter Massacre,” Wikipedia, accessed
August 27, 2016, Reports as to what happened and
what information the U.S. military actually had varied depending on which sources are consulted.

Case 3 (Continued)


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Iraqi military and then kept at strategic locations in groups of eight to ten. Al-
though the civilians were treated humanely, they suffered severe psychologi-
cal stress. Saddam also placed Iraqi military facilities near mosques, schools,
hospitals, and other places frequented by civilians.19 More recently, 2015 news
reports show Syrian rebels using captives locked in cages as human shields
against air strikes; ISIS, meanwhile, is notorious for using human shields and
killing innocents.

4. Casualty estimates say that between 2003 and 2013, several hundred thou-
sand to over a million Iraqis were killed—mostly civilians—in the Iraq conflicts.
In Afghanistan, hostilities caused more than 200,000 civilian deaths by 2015,
and the number continues to grow. Over 7,000 American troops have also died
so far in these two related conflicts. In both regions, furthermore, widespread
destruction has caused nearly a complete breakdown of food and medical
supply chains. This has led to many civilian deaths, especially among children,
due to malnutrition. Neither of these conflicts has yet come to an end.


1. Would DDE justify the Amiriya shelter bombing? What moral problems are
raised by this bombing?

2. Since the Geneva Convention forbids the use of human shields, Saddam Hus-
sein’s actions were clear violations of international law. Could this justify U.S.
attacks upon military facilities that he had surrounded by civilians?

3. In any war, the number of indirect civilian casualties is both hard to predict and
to later assess. What problem does this raise for our attempting to evaluate an
action via DDE?

4. Does the inevitability of indirect civilian casualties pose a problem for just war
theory in general?

5. In the United States, the GI Bill helps fund college educations. In light of the
world’s political unrest along with the preceding information, would you con-
sider it ethical to join the military as a way to fund your college education?
Apply just war theory and DDE to arrive at your answer.

Case 4

Permanent Vegetative State: The Case of Terri Schiavo20

In 1990, at the age of twenty-six, Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack and perma-
nently lost consciousness. After three years in a coma, she was diagnosed as being
in a permanent vegetative state (PVS). A patient is considered in a PVS when one

19“Putting Noncombatants at Risk: Saddam’s Use of ‘Human Shields,’” Central Intelligence Agency,
accessed August 27, 2016,

20This case, as well as the discussion of the diagnosis of PVS, is based on the article by Yvonne
Raley, “Wie Tot ist Tot?” Gehirn und Geist (December 2006): 30–35.

Case 3 (Continued)


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or both of the cerebral hemispheres are irreversibly damaged and the patient is
completely unaware of her surroundings. There is no hope for recovery.

It can take up to a couple of years to conclusively determine that a patient
is in a PVS. The diagnosis rests on an electroencephalogram as well as long-term
observation of the patient. PVS must be distinguished from brain death, in which
the patient’s entire brain including the brain stem has lost function. (A brain-dead
patient is considered medically and legally dead in most of the world.) PVS must
also be distinguished from a minimally conscious state, in which the patient is still
minimally aware of his or her surroundings.

In Terri Schiavo’s case, several physicians made the determination that Terri
would not wake up. In 1998, her husband, Michael, requested permission from the
courts to disconnect her feeding tube. Although Terry no longer swallowed auto-
matically, she was still breathing on her own. This is common with PVS patients
because the brain stem, which controls respiration, is still intact. In contrast, whole
brain death requires life support to keep respiratory function going (which may be
done, for instance, so the patient’s organs can be donated).

Although Terri Schiavo did not have a living will stating whether she would
want to be kept alive as a PVS patient, her husband testified that he was certain
Terri would not want to be kept alive in those circumstances.

Terri’s parents opposed Michael’s request. They thought that they had seen
Terri react to certain external stimuli (e.g., she would periodically open her eyes
and her pupils would contract in light). She would also occasionally moan or cry.
Behaviors like these are not uncommon in PVS patients, although the current med-
ical consensus is that PVS patients are not aware of anything. Since some degree
of consciousness is necessary to experience pain, PVS patients presumably cannot
feel pain either.

In court, Terri’s parents denied Michael’s claim that Terri would not want to be
kept alive. As a Roman Catholic, they said, Terri would consider it unethical to have
a feeding tube disconnected. In fact, the Catholic Church had no official position
on the matter of feeding tubes for PVS patients until 2004, when Pope John Paul
II released a statement saying that providing basic nutrition to a PVS patient is a
moral obligation. Here’s an excerpt from what he wrote:

The sick person in a vegetative state . . . still has the right to basic health care (nutrition,
hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to
his confinement to bed. . . . I should like particularly to underline how the administration
of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural
means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in
principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it
is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing
nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.21

As the pope acknowledges, feeding tubes are an artificial means of providing a
patient with nutrition. But natural law theory implies that receiving food and water
is a natural part of keeping a person alive. Keeping someone breathing by using a

21Available at the Vatican Website, Caritas in Veritate, accessed August 27, 2016, http://w2.vatican.
amc.html. Emphases are in the original.

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mechanical ventilator, on the other hand, is not a natural means of preserving life.
There is no moral obligation to keep a PVS patient alive by non-natural or “extraor-
dinary” means.

The fight over Terri Schiavo’s life lasted over seven years. During this time,
Terri’s feeding tube was disconnected three times and twice reconnected by court
order. The third time it was permanently removed because Terry’s parents lost their
battle in court. Terri Schiavo died on March 3, 2005, at the age of forty-one. An
autopsy confirmed the diagnosis of PVS.


1. What caused Terri Schiavo’s death? Can there be a moral difference between
actively killing someone and letting them die? Which occurred in this case?

2. Is there any way, in a case like this, to reasonably determine what the patient
would want for themselves? What level of agency ought to be reflected in deter-
mining the patient’s wants?

3. If a PVS patient’s living will requests continuing life support (including feed-
ing), does she have a right to that support? Does she have a right to all sup-
port being suspended if her living will requests that? Does she have any moral
rights? What moral duties do we have toward PVS patients?

4. What moral difference (if any) is there between other life-sustaining medical
support and support by a feeding tube?

5. Why did the pope view artificially administered food and water as a natu-
ral means of preserving life? Does this reflect the “vagueness” of natural law

6. Some doctors maintain that PVS can’t be distinguished with certainty from
a minimally conscious state (which has the possibility of recovery) except by
doing an autopsy afterwards. How should this uncertainty affect any decision
to disconnect a feeding tube?

7. Some think of PVS patients like Terri Schiavo as cases in which the person has
already been lost (i.e., in effect, she has already “died”). There is no moral prob-
lem with removing a dead person’s feeding tube. However, this view redefines
death as the loss of a person rather than as a bodily loss of life. What do you
think? What position would natural law take on this?

8. How would DDE analyze the act of disconnecting Terri’s feeding tube?

Case 4 (Continued)


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Social Contracts and Rights


Police officers, the IRS, and other authorities make and enforce rules the rest of
us must submit to. Where did they get their power? They started out no different
from the rest of us, so what made them the rulers and us the ruled? These ques-
tions are addressed by social contract theory, which maintains that those under
authority give that authority by agreement to their rulers. Here’s an example.

Your boss has assigned an important project to you and several colleagues,
Jan, Tom, and Alison. You must create a proposal for a new line of products. This
will require research on the market demand and on how readily your manufactur-
ing processes can be retooled. It will also require choices about product design,
quality and costs. The boss wants a carefully crafted draft in two months. If done
well, this will raise your standing with him. But you suspect that he’s also using
this project to determine if any of you should be laid off, given the recent topside
pressure to cut expenses.

You and your team meet right away. You first need to elect a project coordina-
tor to make sure the project stays on schedule and to keep the boss in the loop. You
also need a secretary to record meeting notes and relevant information gathered
along the way. The team makes you coordinator; Tom volunteers as secretary, Jan
and Alison agree to research the market, and you and Tom will start getting input
from the people in manufacturing. Together, you also set up a timeline. You close
the meeting with a little pep talk and are pleased that everyone appears on board.

You and your team have created a social contract: a pact or agreement es-
tablished by people to organize themselves and share responsibilities for their
mutual benefit. Beside project teams, social contracts can also establish a formal
civil system (i.e., a government, laws, etc.). An important example of this is the
Mayflower Compact, written by the Pilgrims to keep order and establish their new
American colony. A portion reads:

[B]y these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of
another, [we] covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body poli-
tic, for our better ordering and preservation  . . . and by virtue hereof to enact,

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constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions
and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for
the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and
obedience. . . . 1

Key ingredients to both examples are that (a) the contract is voluntarily estab-
lished by those it will govern, (b) it’s intended to be fair and good for all, (c) each
contract negotiator promises every other to fulfill their own part of the agreement,
and (d) the contract makes rules, grants authority, and places each under obliga-
tion to fulfill their assigned roles. These obligations also confer rights. Since Jan
and Alison have committed to doing the market research, you and Tom have a
right to expect their findings on the appointed due date. Similarly, the Mayflower
Compact set the stage for establishing equal laws, ordinances, and so on, which in
turn gave each person certain equal rights.

Social contracts can also be used in political and ethical theories, though theo-
retical contracts are hypothetical, not actual. Still, these theoretical contracts in-
clude (at least to an approximation) all the ingredients just mentioned. Whether
actual or theoretical, a social contract can attempt to justify an entire social system
along with a moral standard. There are two methods for doing this. One appeals
to some small set of foundational moral values (see Chapter One, §V) that guide
the creation of the contract. Such contracts are morally based. Additional rights,
principles, and authorities are then to be developed out of the contract.

Alternately, a social contract might itself serve as the basis from which a social
and moral system is created. This non-morally based method does not draw upon
any moral values. Since it must nevertheless be based on something, it appeals to
foundational non-moral values (see Chapter One, §V). We will look at instances of
each, beginning with Locke’s highly influential morally based account.

For Discussion
1. Why can’t morally justified authority be based upon having the most power?
2. Can you think of any other explanation of authority besides its being bestowed by

those to be governed?
3. What everyday social contracts have you entered into? These can be implicit—

for example, how you drive around town, how players work together on a sports
team, or how neighbors interact.

One way to explain some people’s authority over others is by a social contract—actual
or theoretical. Theoretical social contracts have been used to justify entire moral and
social systems. A social contract should be voluntary, it should be fair and for the ben-
efit of all, and everyone should consent (explicitly or implicitly) to it. It also establishes

1The entire document is available at several online sites, including, accessed August 27, 2016,

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rules, obligations, authorities, and rights. Social contracts may be morally based or
non-morally based.

Key Terms

• Social contract: an agreement established by a set of people (in actuality or
theoretically) to set up a social system that fairly benefits all.


The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) developed a morally based con-
tract theory that greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence
as well as the design of the U.S. government. Locke’s account is also famous for its
concept of a natural right, which Locke bases on natural law theory (see Chapter Ten).
A right confers upon its holder a kind of privilege to protect, utilize, or exercise con-
trol over something. It allows one person to validly make some claim upon another.
That claim in turn puts the latter under obligation to the rights-holder. While many
familiar rights are legal rights protected by law, our interest here is with natural
rights—moral rights that people have automatically. Natural rights include the most
basic moral rights and correspond to certain basic moral obligations.

Locke starts off by imagining humanity existing in a state of nature—a moral
and social condition without any government or formal civil society. This is not
a moral anarchy, for the moral “law of nature”—natural law—still holds. Locke
doesn’t say a great deal about the natural law. Nevertheless, it’s clear that even in
the state of nature, there are foundational moral values (values from natural law)
that place everyone under certain moral responsibilities.

However, it’s not possible to be responsible for an action unless you have con-
trol over that action. If an electrode in your brain makes you hit and injure another
person, you can’t be morally responsible for that. Moral responsibility requires that
there be areas in your life over which you reign supreme—where you can act as a
moral agent, free from anyone else’s authority, interference or control. You must
have a right to exercise complete and unhindered control over these areas—areas
that together make up what we might call (not Locke’s term!) your own personal
domain. Others are morally obligated to respect your rights in these areas.

Within the state of nature, everyone has the same moral rights and obligations
and so are moral equals. Since no distinctions yet exist, every person’s personal
domain includes all the same things: each must be free to act without hindrance
to his life, health, liberty, and property. These are Locke’s four basic natural rights.

The right to life is obvious, for no one can do anything without being alive. Each
person has an equal right to life—specifically, to his own life—but not to the life of
any other. Protection from injuries or harms done by others—the right to health—
is crucial for its contribution to ongoing life. Since impaired health limits choices,
health is also necessary to ensure liberty. The right to liberty gives each person full
control over their own personal domains, free from any control by others. Thus, all

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must enjoy equal liberty. Again, each holds these same rights equally, which also
gives each the same responsibility to respect these rights in others.

The right of property is especially important in Locke’s theory. Your property or
possessions include everything you can exercise control over within your domain.
Property includes whatever is properly yours, including yourself, your health, and
your liberty—things over which you have exclusive rights. While these are clearly
your own, how can something in the external world become your property? Locke
explains that, in the state of nature, all external things are initially held in common.
However, they don’t necessarily stay that way. Since anything I do is my doing, my
labor is mine. Once I expend effort to obtain or improve something, therefore, that
thing ceases to be common property and instead becomes my property. As Locke
puts it, common property becomes one’s own as soon as he “has mixed his labor
with” that thing.2 By picking a wild strawberry, I make that berry mine; by cultivat-
ing and planting, I make the resulting crop mine; by mixing words or paints, I create
my own writing or painting—things over which I then have a right of property.

Natural rights ensure that people can fully control things that are their own—
life, health, liberty, and whatever they add their labor to. Since a right is a claim
upon others, these rights obligate others to allow us full control over all that is
ours. Thus, a moral right supports several moral prescriptive principles. The
right to life, for instance, supports the principle: “No one should kill an innocent
person” as well as principles that forbid placing lives at unnecessary risk. A right
can likewise support derived rights, which expand the basic rights. For instance,
the right to liberty supports a derived right to freedom from enslavement. Addi-
tional principles and rights can be derived from more basic moral rights.

We’ve so far considered Locke’s account in the state of nature—before a social
contract and so without government and law. But remaining in the state of nature
doesn’t adequately serve people’s interests and needs. As more people lay claim to
property, legal controls become necessary to protect that property and to resolve
conflicting property claims. In living together, people also come to need military
protection, a stable economy, and community essentials such as roads and bridges.
They thus negotiate a social contract for themselves, thereby establishing a more
formal civil system or state. By placing themselves under the rule of a state, their
purpose is to improve their condition and to protect their natural rights.3

Locke insisted that a state itself remain morally bound by natural law. Still,
it’s necessary for the people to give over to the state certain rights and liberties
if they are to enjoy the advantages the state can offer. By giving these over to the
state, people leave the state of nature and so become unequal in certain ways. For
instance, Locke assigns authority to the state to collect taxes, to require military

2John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (Public Domain, 1690), chapter 5, section
27, accessed August 27, 2016,

3In this chapter (and most of the book), “state” refers to a formal civil system along with its laws
and authorities. This differs from a “state of nature.” Further, although Ohio can count as a state, we
will normally use the term to refer to the highest level of government its citizens are under (e.g., the
United States).

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service, and to imprison and even execute offenders so as to protect and serve
the general good. The state thus diminishes everyone’s rights to some degree (i.e.,
taxes take property, military service risks injury and death, imprisonment denies
liberty) and also adds certain obligations to what natural law already imposed.

For Discussion
1. Do you think that any group has ever lived (or presently live) in a state of nature?
2. What falls within your personal domain? Do Locke’s rights protect all of these things?
3. Is there anything that you think should remain common property no matter what?
4. Are there any private properties that, at some point, ought to turn into common

5. What specific rights must people give over for any state to adequately function?
6. What rights ought never to be given over to any state? Do any actual states never-

theless infringe on some of these?
7. Suppose that your society is supported by a social contract. When and how have

you voluntarily joined yourself to this contract?

According to Locke, everyone has moral responsibilities even in the state of nature
under the natural moral law. To have responsibilities, a person must have control over
her personal domain. The natural rights of life (and with that, health) together with
liberty help ensure this control. Another natural right is that of property, which includes
everything within one’s domain as well as everything that we make our own by adding
our labor. Everyone holds these rights equally in the state of nature. People leave that
and place themselves under the authority of a formal system by establishing a social
contract. The state protects and adds to our rights; it also requires our partly giving
over certain rights to the state.

Key Terms

• Right: confers upon its holder a moral privilege to protect, utilize, or exercise
control over something; it is a claim one person may validly make upon another.

• State of nature: for Locke, a moral and social condition for people in which no
government or formal civil society exists.


Locke’s theory describes a morally based social contract. But Thomas Hobbes
(1588–1679), another English philosopher who just preceded Locke, developed
a social contract account that attempts to be non-morally based.4 It thus aims to

4Presented in Thomas Hobbes’s, Leviathan (1651), accessed August 27, 2016, http://socserv2. This book preceded Locke’s account by
about forty years.

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provide a complete ethical theory in itself, and the rights it initially establishes are
foundational for the rest of the theory.5

Hobbes likewise starts with a state of nature, though Hobbes’s picture of this,
notoriously, is much more pessimistic than that of other social contract theorists.
First, there are no moral values or obligations; moral right and justice simply do
not yet exist. If two need or desire the same thing, that puts them in conflict with
each other—a common situation. This hostile competition between people makes
Hobbes’s state of nature an ongoing “time of war.” With no moral standard, people
have only their reason to direct them. Within this framework, therefore, the only
rational way for people to act is to beat down the competition. Yet even this can
gain no lasting advantage over others, since people have roughly similar physical
strength and mental abilities. Further, no one can be trusted for, by trusting me,
you simply signal your vulnerability, making it easier for me to get what I want
from you. With no real social stability or personal security, people have little mo-
tivation to pursue knowledge, to build things, or to attempt any creative achieve-
ment (unless they can gain an advantage over others by doing so). To live in this
state is to live in violence and continual fear; as Hobbes famously put it, such a life
is “solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.”6

Not a good situation! Hobbes’s solution is to negotiate a social contract and
establish a formal state that forces people to keep agreements, leave others alone,
and act justly. Hobbes’s contract does not share Locke’s goal of protecting people’s
natural rights (there aren’t any). Rather, its purpose is to allow each person to sur-
vive, which is only possible under the rule of a powerful state that can enforce its
laws with a heavy hand.7

Hobbes’s social contract provides a good that benefits all equally: escape from
the ongoing state of war. But can people voluntarily consent to this contract? This
is an important question for every social contract theory. Hobbes’s initially sug-
gests that at times there might actually be people in the state of nature who could
explicitly consent to a contract. But his real basis for consent is theoretical: rational
self-interest. That is, people in the state of nature would understand that a lasting
social peace—one that allows them to meet their needs while being protected from
injury or death—is very much in their interest. Since a contract is the only means
for achieving such peace, consent to the contract becomes a rational necessity. No
reasonable person could refuse a contract that offers this in place of living in a war.
On this basis, Hobbes assumes the hypothetical consent of all rational persons.

By now it’s clear that rationality and self-interest are the foundations of Hobbes’s
account. The demands of reason are non-moral. Hobbes’s value of “liberty”—the

5Hobbes’s basic views initially seem clear, but there is a much disagreement in the details. An
important alternative to the interpretation presented here takes Hobbes as building upon at least one
foundational moral right—liberty. We take this as a non-moral rational value rather than as a moral

6Ibid., 78.
7There is a kind of egoism in Hobbes, who argues largely on the basis of rationally promoting one’s

own interests. This is the primary purpose of everyone in the state of nature. See Chapter Five, §IV.

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right to do whatever a person chooses out of self-interest—seems best understood
as a non-moral, innate value of human nature (i.e., self- preservation). This value
is discovered by reason and can be considered a component of rationality itself. In
any case, the rational thing is for people to attain peace by establishing a state. It’s
at this point that a moral standard surfaces, for justice and rights are defined only
through the contract and enforced by the state.

In making a social contract, people give over to the state much of their initial
liberty, even as they gain justice and rights. It’s rational to do this as long as the
overall loss is less than the benefits gained by peace. But what if the state itself
turns out to be oppressive? After all, since only a very powerful civil system can
enforce peace, Hobbes requires that the monarchy or government have great
power—“absolute” authority. This makes the risk of oppression very real.

Balanced against this risk is a set of rights.8 Most controversially, Hobbes
maintains that citizens have a right to disobey and even to defend themselves
against the state when it threatens their lives. Hobbes also seems to provide for
rights to equal treatment, to impartial judgments, and to property. Although these
rights may seem at odds with the state having absolute power, they are quite con-
sistent with Hobbes’s overall standpoint. It wouldn’t be rational for those in the
state of nature (and thus of war) to exchange their existing risks for an equally
bad set of state-created risks, particularly when the state also greatly reduces their
liberty. However, if they can obtain peace, the right to protect themselves, and
certain additional rights, then they can come out ahead. Thus, Hobbes’s contract
can remain the rational choice even if it legitimizes some degree of oppression by
the state.

For Discussion
1. Do you agree with Hobbes that the state of nature would be a state of war—

solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short?” Why or why not?
2. If a state is strong enough to ensure peace, how much personal liberty could there

still be?
3. Do you think that a Hobbesian state of nature has ever actually existed? Do you

think that people living in that situation would use a social contract to establish
a state?

4. Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Hobbes agree that citizens can be morally justified
in rebelling against the state (though for different reasons). What do you think?

5. The text interprets Hobbes’s account as based on non-moral values. Do you agree?
6. Do you think that a Hobbesian contract would support moral rights? Which


8These rights are somewhat implicit except for the right of liberty that exists even in the state of
nature. But additional rights can exist even within a state. Indeed, Robert P. Kraynak credits Hobbes
with “inaugurating the natural rights principles of modern liberalism.” Thomas Hobbes: From Classical
Natural Law to Modern Natural Rights. (2011). A We the People project of the National Endowment
for the Humanities 2016 The Witherspoon Institute, accessed August 27, 2016,

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Hobbes essentially offers a non-morally based social contract that can be treated as
both a social/political and ethical theory. It starts with people in a state of nature or
“time of war”—a violent, ongoing battle for survival. There is no morality or justice in
this condition. The only rational escape from this is through a social contract that es-
tablishes a powerful state, one that can enforce peace and so benefit all. This requires
people to give up a fair amount of their liberty, but they are compensated for this by
their enjoying peace along with certain additional rights. Once the contract estab-
lishes the state, justice, duties, and certain moral rights come into existence as well.


Much more recently, the twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls provided an
ingenious version of contract theory in his Theory of Justice.9 Rawls invites us into
an imaginary situation—the original position—where completely free and ratio-
nally self-interested persons negotiate a social contract. Each contract negotiator
will want to protect her own interests so she can live a good life. Rawls then adds a
special feature: these negotiations all take place under a veil of ignorance. No one
knows anything about their actual lives—nothing about their family, economic
class, or the circumstances they will be born into. Nor does anyone know anything
about their gender, race, religion, personal attributes, career, or relationships. They
don’t even know about most of their own personal values and beliefs—moral or
non-moral. What they do know about is the general structure necessary for any
society; they also share certain essential moral commitments about fairness and

These shared commitments make Rawls’s account morally based. This is fur-
ther established by the veil of ignorance putting everyone on an equal footing,
thereby ensuring fair contract negotiations. Rawls also gives the negotiators the
non-moral value of rational self-interest. With no knowledge of their actual lives,
these rational and self-interested negotiators won’t risk favoring any particular as-
pects of life (e.g., career, race, talent, gender, etc.) over any others. Rawls argues
that, under these conditions, the resulting contract will assign everyone the same
basic liberties, rights and duties equally, thereby defining an ideally just society
along with its accompanying moral system. He calls this justice as fairness.

The only limitations are those necessary to allow others to enjoy the same
liberties and rights to the same degree. For instance, you and I both have a right to
use a national park. We may freely use it as we wish, except neither of us may use
it in ways that interfere with the other’s free use. All of these liberties, rights and
duties fall under Rawls’s equality principle.

9Rawls, A Theory of Justice.
10Rawls intends these to be limited and uncontroversial. Of course, some object even to these.

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This principle might also seem to require that everyone be given equal social
privileges and receive compensations for their work at the same rate. But these
kinds of equality would actually lead to unfairness since we are not all equal in
non-moral ways. We have different degrees of intelligence, strength, and health
as well as different personalities, talents, and abilities. Those with greater natural
endowments can make better use of opportunities than others. Each of us also
needs the services of those having capabilities we lack. To protect the less capable
and maintain true fairness, any system must take these differences into account.
Rawls handles this by his difference principle, which adds certain inequities to
the contracted system (e.g., more pay for certain jobs and more power for certain
positions of authority).

Two qualifications must be immediately emphasized. First, the difference
principle always remains secondary to the equality principle. Equality in basic
rights, opportunities, and general duties and liberties may never be suspended.
This keeps minority interests from being sacrificed to promote the overall eco-
nomic and social good (a sacrifice that utilitarianism willingly makes). Second,
any inequality must still benefit all. The difference principle can bestow benefits
to certain individuals that it denies to others but only as long as this substantially
adds to everyone’s good, especially that of the disadvantaged.

The difference principle is included to create as fair a society as possible. For
instance, any civil system must establish a hierarchy of leaders and authority, leav-
ing most of its other members with less power. But if the leaders use their power
to settle disputes, direct constructive projects, enforce duties, and ensure social
stability, then these inequalities in power will benefit all. For these inequities to
be completely fair, however, Rawls also insists that every person have an equal op-
portunity to attain any of these leadership positions.

Economic inequities can also be justified. A fair and rational system would pay
medical physicians more than, say, school janitors. Why? Physicians must invest
more time and expense in preparing for their profession. In practice, they also
incur greater health risks than most other professionals. Although these facts may
discourage many from becoming physicians, society still needs them. To motivate
people to pursue this and other demanding professions (e.g., as nurses, teachers,
police, etc.), therefore, society must promise them greater compensations. Still,
everyone should have the same opportunity to take up any of these professions. As
long as a system with such economic inequities makes everyone better off than one
without them, these inequities are morally legitimate.

Social contracts also support rights. But Rawls’s account of rights extends fur-
ther than that of most social contract theories. To keep things simple, we will dis-
cuss just two sets of Rawlsian rights. One is people’s most basic rights. Since these
are among the first things agreed to by the contract negotiators, they fall under the
equality principle and so are equally held by all. These include basic moral rights
such as a right to free thought and expression, to equal treatment, to personal
liberty, and the like. Rawls’s basic rights also include various political rights, such
as a right to vote and to run for and hold public office. These basic rights must

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not merely be confirmed by law. They must also be proactively supported by state
policies and actions so that everyone fully enjoys these rights in their everyday
lives. As with everything under the equality principle, these rights can never be
suspended or reduced for the sake of achieving other social goods.

Rawls calls his other main set of rights human rights. These rights don’t
merely hold within a state but for all members of the international community.
Every state made up of “decent” people should guarantee these rights to their citi-
zens. These include rights to property, security, and basic life necessities; they also
guarantee protections from enslavement and genocide. These rights are essential
for persons to function and participate in any civil society.

Human rights are so important that they have a special priority and urgency.
According to Rawls, any association of decent nations (e.g., the United Nations)
has a moral responsibility to ensure that all peoples have these critical rights. In
fact, one country’s egregious violation of these rights can justify intervention by
other countries to end such violations even by military force.11

Where do human rights come from? Rawls employs the same approach to
generate rights across nations as he does for individual states. First, there is a
global original position, whose negotiators each represent the interests of vari-
ous free and equal nations. These contract negotiators are also under a veil of
ignorance: none knows anything about their own nations’ resources, populations,
global influence, and so. Under this veil, negotiators will work out fair principles
that give no particular kind of state any advantage or disadvantage since they won’t
want to risk hurting their own nation’s actual interests. Thus, the needs and re-
sponsibilities of every kind of society will be addressed equally and fairly—the
global version of his equality principle. In essence, these imaginary negotiators
work out a contract between nations like his earlier contract was worked out be-
tween individuals. Once established, this contract requires each nation to follow
the same principles and to uphold the same human rights.

For Discussion
1. Hobbes’s contract negotiators know about and so can favor their own particular

interests while negotiating a contract. Instead, Rawls makes everyone equal by the
veil of ignorance. Which approach do you think is best? Why?

2. How does Rawls’s equality principle reflect Kant’s principles of ends and of uni-
versal law?

3. Have several groups imagine themselves in the original position and under the veil
of ignorance, negotiating a contract for a state. What social and moral principles

11Excellent presentations of Rawls’s human rights and the global contract can be found in §5
of Leif Wenar, “John Rawls,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), ed.
Edward N. Zalta, accessed August 27, 2016,,
and in §8 of Samuel Freeman, “Original Position,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014
Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed August 27, 2016,
entries/original-position/, accessed.

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4. Our society accepts a kind of economic “survival of the fittest” principle. It thus
has no qualms about small businesses, for example, being overwhelmed or taken
over by those more powerful. Is this good for society?

5. What social differences should be recognized by the difference principle, and how
should it treat each difference?

6. In seeking to benefit all society by encouraging further education, our system has
offered college students a temporary exemption to a military draft. This (utilitar-
ian type) exemption violates Rawls’s equality principle, which would instead allow
no exceptions to the draft. Which position do you take?

7. What principles do you think would be set out by a global social contract for en-
forcing human rights and correcting rights violations by particular nations?

Rawls offers an important theoretical and morally based social contract account. He
imagines his contract negotiators originally starting out in perfect equality as free and
rationally self-interested agents. Since these are under a veil of ignorance— knowing
nothing about their places in actual society—they will negotiate for equal duties and
rights under the equality principle. These very basic rights, which are the same for
all, include both moral and political rights. To then provide for different leadership po-
sitions and differences in ability, Rawls’s difference principle allows for inequalities
in power and financial compensation. Inequalities are justified only as long as they
serve the good of all, especially the disadvantaged. Rawls later extended his account
to contracts between nations, which create (among other things) what he calls human

Key Terms

• Original position: imagines free and rational persons as contract negotiators.

• Veil of ignorance: those in the original position are under this veil, made equal
by their lacking any knowledge about their actual lives, beliefs, advantages, and
so on.

• Equality principle: gives equal liberties, rights, and duties to all by the initial

• Difference Principle: adds certain social and economic inequities for the ben-
efit of all but never so as to suspend the equality principle.


A number of points favor social contract theory, including those theories meant to
serve as ethical accounts:

Moral objectivism. At first glance, it might seem that an actual social contract
would be an instance of relativism (see Chapter Two, §II). The resemblance ap-
pears even greater if we imagine two neighboring societies that are based on

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distinct contracts and that therefore have different laws and duties. But actual
social contracts (when they exist at all) are normally morally based and so assume
a background moral standard (Locke assumes natural law, the Puritans assumed
Christian morals). In presupposing a moral standard, furthermore, these actual
contracts only establish a state’s laws and social structures, not moral claims. Thus,
this opens no doors to moral relativism. As for theoretical social contracts, these
can serve as bases for a moral standard, but when they do, the results are meant
to hold universally—for any society and any group of people.12 This makes them
objective, not relative. Objectivity gives social contract accounts important ad-
vantages, as argued in Chapter Two (see §V and §VI). Since an objective moral
standard supports objective rights, the resulting objectivity of these rights is also
in keeping with today’s widely held view that all people, regardless of race, ethnic-
ity, religion, and other differences, have the same moral rights.

Incentives. Whether the primary purpose is to escape from war (Hobbes), ensure
natural rights (Locke), or achieve equality and fairness (Rawls), contracts are
meant to serve the interests of all and provide for the general good. As Hobbes
emphasizes, to reject the social contract is to act irrationally, to act against each
person’s own best interests. Broadly, then, there are strong incentives for people
to agree to a contract. In addition, social contracts don’t impose their require-
ments upon people externally; at least in the ideal, all who rationally consider a
well-designed contract will consent to it for the sake of protecting and promoting
their own interests. Contract theory thus includes its own motivation for people
to keep it.

Authority. Social contract theory tends to blend moral claims with legal require-
ments and duties. This gives some degree of moral status to the formal civil
system—its laws, rights, and authorities. Contract theory thus answers the ques-
tion we began with: what gives some people authority over others? It explains
this authority as being created via the consent (even if only hypothetical) of those
under authority.

These are important advantages, and there are others as well. But social con-
tract theories also encounter certain fairly general difficulties. We have touched
on some of these in our previous discussion, but a few deserve further elaboration.

Contract negotiators. Who should be included among a contract’s negotiators? The
Mayflower Compact was written and signed only by the Puritan men, excluding
women and most of the others also on the voyage. Hobbes may have intended
that women be among the negotiators, but he doesn’t emphasize that in his pre-
sentation. The United States initially excluded women, slaves, and those without
property from voting; this suggests that, if we envision the United States as a social

12A theoretical social contract would not, strictly have to yield a universal moral standard, but
there would be little point to it otherwise.

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contract, it would exclude these people from its contract negotiations as well. In
contrast, Rawls includes all persons (that is, autonomous human beings) as con-
tract negotiators, at least hypothetically. Rawls’s morally based account cannot
exclude any particular group of persons since it is explicitly designed to ensure
moral equality along with other values of a liberal society. But for social contracts
based on different values—and especially for non-morally based accounts—there’s
no guarantee that particular groups could not be excluded. The problem is that
nothing requires a social contract to either include or exclude any particular group
from its negotiations. Failing to include certain people might cause some difficulty
with moral confirmation, but this is the only consideration that seems able to affect
a particular theory’s choice of negotiators. We shall return to this issue shortly.

Consent. A related but broader issue has to do with consent. Rawls’s account guar-
antees consent by all persons. Since Locke presumes natural moral law, his negoti-
ators at least share their fundamental moral values, which should help bring them
to mutual consent. On the other hand, if we adopt Hobbes’s approach and imagine
individuals negotiating a contract with their own interests in mind, can we really
expect them to all consent to any final contract? At best, any resulting contract will
be less than satisfactory to some negotiators. At worst, it might not be possible for
the negotiators to resolve all their disagreements and reach general consent.

Next, suppose that a contract has already been established. What then places
later generations under that contract? Not having participated in any negotiations,
why should any previously agreed-upon contract hold for them? Can they con-
sent to or reject such a contract? Most social contract theorists answer that, since
the contract greatly benefits all, everyone has strong rational and self-interested
reasons to consent to a contract—whether actual or hypothetical. We may thus
assume everyone’s consent.

Another way of approaching this problem is through tacit consent. First, this
admits that being born into a contractually based civil system gives people no say
about its defining contract or its control over their lives. Thus, they still ought to be
able to decide for themselves whether they want to live under that contract. This
choice should be made once they become autonomous adults, either by their stay-
ing in that society or by their leaving it for some other system they prefer. Suppose
they stay and participate in their society by voting, paying taxes, and accepting gov-
ernmental benefits (e.g., education). Then they have tacitly consented to that civil
system’s contract. Without making any formal declarations, they imply by their be-
havior that they accept the burdens and benefits of being part of that society. In this
way, they become bound to obey and submit to its authorities and requirements.

The vulnerable. Our discussion has probably given the impression that social con-
tract accounts, and that of Rawls in particular, must promote the interests of ev-
eryone who will live under the contract. Yet even Rawls’s highly egalitarian account
limits contract negotiators to persons who are rationally self-interested and thus
autonomous. This same limitation appears necessary to any social contract if the

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resulting moral and social system is to be rational and beneficial to those who ne-
gotiate it. But where does that leave non-autonomous people like children, those
suffering from dementia, the cognitively impaired, and other especially vulnerable
people? Lacking autonomy, they can neither negotiate nor meaningfully consent
to anything. Will their interests be adequately addressed by a contract they could
have no part in? Nothing seems to require autonomous negotiators to look after
the interests of the non-autonomous. Worse, it seems unlikely that self-interested
negotiators will want to spend much of their society’s resources on protections that
do not benefit them. But this is exactly what they must do if they are to establish a
contract that upholds the interests of the non-autonomous.

Social contract theories thus may not provide much for the most vulnerable
members of society. This problem poses the greatest threat for actual social con-
tracts (since it’s so easy for the autonomous negotiators to marginalize others) and
for non-morally based contracts (since these include no moral constraints that
might impose some degree of protection for the vulnerable). How about an account
like that of Rawls? Suppose that the original position assumes the moral equality
of all human beings, autonomous or not. This would give autonomous negotiators
a moral incentive to protect the non-autonomous but no obvious self-interested
incentive (they are not among the non-autonomous). How far negotiators would
go to protect the vulnerable – at no apparent benefit to themselves – thus remains
uncertain. Could Rawls add that some negotiators might themselves turn out to be
non-autonomous once the veil of ignorance is lifted? If this were possible, then the
negotiators would have self-interested reasons to protect all people and not just the
autonomous. This might work, but there’s still the worry that autonomous negotia-
tors might not be able to empathize sufficiently with those who lack autonomy so
they can adequately champion their interests (see Chapter Fourteen, §2).13

For Discussion
1. Can you think of any way a social contract could turn out to be an instance of

moral relativism?
2. Can social contract theory adequately explain the state’s authority to punish those

violating the law?
3. Have you consented to live under your ruling state? How?
4. How much consent did Rosa Parks, say, tacitly give to the laws and authorities

that discriminated against her?
5. Should we consider the possibility that consent can be given to different degrees

ranging from full to partial to no consent?
6. Given social contract theory, could civil disobedience ever be morally acceptable?

If so, under what conditions?
7. What actual interests could someone have with advanced Alzheimer’s, with seri-

ous lifetime cognitive impairments, or who is in a permanent vegetative state?

13There also may be non-autonomous humans so deficient in capacity that they have no interests
that can be represented (e.g., someone in a permanently vegetative state; see Case 4 of Chapter Nine.

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Social contract accounts have important advantages. Although contracts that gen-
erate a moral standard may appear to be morally relative, they normally generate
an objective moral standard. Since social contracts are drawn up and agreed to by
the governed for their own welfare, they also provide incentives for obeying their re-
quirements. Furthermore, contract theory addresses the question: “What explains the
authority some people have over others?” But like any theoretical approach, social
contract theories also run into difficulties: They can exclude particular groups from
contract negotiations. There’s also the question of whether everyone would consent
to a particular contract and how those born later can give their consent. A particularly
important worry is whether social contracts can provide sufficient protections to the
non-autonomous and their interests.

Key Terms

• Tacit consent: the idea that people born into an existing contract effectively
consent to that contract by participating as adults in the state and accepting
its benefits.


Rights and social contracts are often linked together. But rights can come out of
any ethical account. If I have an obligation to keep my promise to you, you have a
right or claim upon me to keep it. Since there’s a general duty to respect another’s
property and life, there’s a right to property and a right to life. Many moral obliga-
tions give rise to rights, and moral rights place obligations upon others.

The most important feature of moral rights is their universality. People have
these rights simply because they are human and have equal moral value. This
makes rights particularly useful for defending the marginalized and victimized.
The mere mention of rights can carry the day in a moral argument, much like a
“trump” takes all in card games.14 Appeals to rights have been effective in combat-
ing discrimination, improving attitudes toward women, and even justifying mili-
tary interventions against genocide. Another important advantage with rights,
many maintain, is that they take the perspective of the oppressed rather than that
of the oppressor.15 Still, there can be too much of a good thing:

Overextending rights. Although rights have a clear place in moral discourse, some
rights appeals have stretched beyond what can reasonably be justified. In popu-
lar thinking, having a “right” has become almost indistinguishable from having a
personal interest: “I have a right to what I want.” When we accord rights too much

14A high card in a trump suit beats all other cards in play. This striking analogy was first made by
the contemporary American philosopher Ronald Dworkin.

15Brenda Almond, “Rights,” in A Companion to Ethics, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed.
Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), section 22.

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prominence, we also foster a “victim mentality”—a self-centered moral perspec-
tive that only thinks of others in terms of what they owe us. According to care
theorists (see Chapter Twelve), an overemphasis of rights feeds an exaggerated
individualism that discounts the moral significance of human interrelatedness.

The antidote is not to abandon rights but to better balance rights with moral
responsibilities. This isn’t hard. First, every right is linked to a responsibility others
have toward the rights-bearer. But any general moral right that one rights-bearer
can claim can likewise be claimed by others. It follows that every rights-bearer is
subject to the same kinds of responsibilities that others have toward her. Whether
we speak of rights or responsibilities, the difference is largely one of perspective.
In general, every rights claim can be re-expressed in terms of responsibilities. The
value of doing so would be to draw greater attention to the moral responsibilities
we all have toward each other.

Rights-Holders. The universality of rights helps underscore the moral equality of
human beings. But paralleling the social contract problem of vulnerable popula-
tions (Kantian ethics has a similar problem with rational agents; see Chapter Eight,
§7) is the difficulty over who (and even what) moral rights may be ascribed to.

The problem directly ties to the basis upon which we build the concept of
rights. In Locke’s account, natural rights are ascribed to all who can have moral
responsibilities and obligations. This means that rights-holders must be autono-
mous individuals. In other contract accounts, those deserving rights must be ca-
pable of rational self-interest, which again requires being autonomous. But there
are several important implications to rights being limited to autonomous persons.

For one thing, there can be no natural rights for non-human animals since
they lack autonomy. Of course, this result may be just what we should expect since
animals can never be held responsible for their actions either. For the same reason,
however, there seem to be no natural rights for “defective” human beings such
as the cognitively impaired or those suspended in a permanent vegetative state
(PVS). For the latter especially, it’s unsettling that they now lack rights that they
previously had. Still more problematic is the result that younger children can have
no natural rights. While not defective, young children still lack autonomy. Could
we accord natural rights to members of these various groups by arguing that they
either did or will have autonomy? Perhaps, but it’s hard to see how someone’s
having autonomy at another time could justify ascribing rights to them at a time
when they actually lack autonomy.

These problems are worrisome because those least able to defend themselves
are the ones who most need the protections that rights afford. If rights do not
protect these people—and historically, it has been children, the “defective,” and
the “subhuman” who have been most mistreated—then what good are rights? One
alternative might be to consider basing rights upon something other than auton-
omy. Those with a utilitarian bent identify rights-holders with sentient creatures—
creatures that can experience pain and suffering. This allows natural rights to
include, in varying degrees, nonhuman animals as well as children, infants, and

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fetuses after the first trimester (although it still denies rights to PVS patients). Still,
it’s not at all clear why the ability to experience pain justifies an ascription of rights.

Perhaps the best alternative would simply be to abandon talk of rights for
such cases and appeal instead to some moral theory that can ensure the needed
moral protections. For example, Locke would presumably appeal to natural law
theory, which probably already requires that we protect the fetus, the PVS patient,
and the profoundly impaired because they are instances of human life. Since life is
an end toward which other creatures also strive, there is arguably a moral obliga-
tion to protect some other animals as well.16 Other ethical theories might likewise
ensure some degree of protections for these sorts of cases—particularly if those
theories shift their moral emphasis to something other than autonomy. The next
two chapters introduce theories that make such a shift in emphasis.

For Discussion
1. Do you sometimes appeal to rights to make your own arguments more convinc-

ing? Does a rights appeal make other people’s arguments and positions more con-
vincing to you?

2. Discuss cases in which appeals to rights have helped accomplish important social

3. Describe cases where rights are overemphasized. What harms has this led to?
4. Does a four-year-old child have rights? Explain the basis of your answer.
5. Thomas has been autonomous most of his life, but the mild dementia he now has

will only increase. Does this mean that his rights will diminish and ultimately be
lost entirely?

6. What advantages and disadvantages are there to ascribing rights to all sentient

7. What is the best way to protect the interests of society’s most vulnerable members?
8. The text suggests that a non-autonomous person could now be ascribed rights on

the basis of their having autonomy at another time (before or after). How could
this be supported?

While appeals to rights can “trump” other moral arguments, many object that
rights are overemphasized. Rights appeals at least need to be balanced by appeals
to responsibilities. There’s also a problem with who (and what) rights may be as-
cribed to: are rights-holders just those people who can have moral responsibilities
and so are autonomous? That leaves out the people who may most need the protec-
tion of rights.

16Of course, natural law theory would also temper our responsibilities toward other animals and
plants in view of the roles other living things play (e.g., as sources of food) in the overall natural order.

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We have talked mainly about legal and moral rights. But there are several other
ways to differentiate rights. One way, familiar from the opening of Jefferson’s Dec-
laration of Independence, is to distinguish alienable from inalienable rights. An
inalienable right, such as a right to life or the right to liberty, cannot morally be
given up or taken away.17 But I can easily transfer my alienable right to my prop-
erty. By selling it or giving it away, for instance, I lose control over that property;
someone else now holds that right. I can also let someone out of a promise, giving
up whatever claim I had upon that person. These are alienable rights.

Rights can also be divided into positive and negative rights. Positive rights
involve things people ought to do or provide. If I am injured and lying on the side
of a busy road, I presumably have a right to expect help from others, especially
from police officers or others specifically equipped to meet my need. Other posi-
tive rights might include a right to be provided food and shelter when destitute.
Roughly, positive rights are claims we have on what others should do for us; nega-
tive rights are claims we have on what others should not do to us. My right of prop-
erty, for instance, requires that others not trespass on my land or use my things
without permission. My rights to life and liberty likewise require others to not
take my life and to not interfere with my personal freedom. Negative rights are
clearer and less controversial that positive rights. Locke’s four natural rights are all
negative rights.

Another important rights concept is human rights, a phrase Rawls uses to
refer to a special category of rights from his theory (see §IV). In the 1948 United
Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the phrase is used more widely,
encompassing several different kinds of rights.

Since the UN Declaration attempts to identify important rights that all per-
sons should hold equally, it’s not surprising that it includes natural rights and
rights that follow directly from these. For instance, Article 3 states, “Everyone has
the right to life, liberty and the security of person” (closely resembling Locke’s first
three rights); Article 17 mentions the right to property.18 The Declaration also
includes rights derived from Locke’s four rights (e.g., freedom from enslavement,
the right to marry, and the right of religious freedom).

In addition to natural rights, the UN Declaration elaborates several civil
rights. These are claims a citizen may make upon other citizens as well as upon the
government. For instance, there’s a right to equal protection from discrimination
within the social and legal system, a right against arbitrary arrest, and a right to
due process of law. Many of these match Rawls’s political rights (see §IV).

17There’s controversy over whether an inalienable right can be voluntarily transferred over to

18The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assem-
bly in 1948, can be found at “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, accessed
August 27, 2016,

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However, the UN’s collection of human rights extends even further than this.
For instance, the Declaration maintains that “everyone has the right to education”
which also ought to be free.19 In addition, it declares that “everyone has the right
to rest and leisure, including . . . periodic holidays with pay” as well as “to a stan-
dard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,
including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.”20 These statements highlight
what philosopher Joel Feinberg calls manifesto rights—“rights” that are intended
to emphasize the moral importance of certain pressing human needs.

Feinberg questions whether manifesto rights are genuine rights. First, it
doesn’t make clear sense to talk of a right or claim to something when it’s not pos-
sible for that claim to ever be fulfilled. If I’m injured in a remote region where no
medicines or facilities are available, I can’t really claim a right to receive the level
of treatment I’d get in a modern city. Similarly, the resources needed to support
universal health care, paid holidays, and free education are not universally avail-
able, particularly in economically deprived parts of the world. Second, who has the
responsibility to fulfill such rights claims? When a third-world government can’t
provide for the basic needs of its street children, is it the duty of some of its well-off
citizens to each adopt a child to make sure each child’s needs are met? If so, which
well-off citizens? As Feinberg comments, a claim cannot reflect a valid moral right
when there is no definite set of individuals to meet its demands. Manifesto rights
may be useful for declaring important ideals, but treating them as genuine rights
in any normal sense probably goes too far.

For Discussion
1. If the right to liberty cannot morally be given up or taken away, how can a social

contract legitimately give the state a right to imprison criminals who have harmed

2. What would be some additional positive rights?
3. Do you think that a right to paid work holidays is a genuine moral right? Why or

why not?
4. Is a right to adequate medical care a genuine moral right? Why or why not?
5. See the UN Declaration (a web link is included in this Chapter’s Resources). Find all

the manifesto rights that appear there. What do you think of these manifesto rights?

Rights can be described as alienable or inalienable; inalienable rights cannot morally
be given up or taken away. Rights can also be positive or negative; positive rights are
claims about what people should do, negative rights are about what they should not
do. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (which goes beyond Rawls’s human rights)
includes natural rights, derived natural rights, civil or political rights, and even some so-
called manifesto rights. We should probably not view manifesto rights as genuine rights.

19Ibid., Article 26.
20Ibid., Articles 24 and 25.

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Key Terms

• Inalienable right: a right that cannot morally be given up or taken away
(e.g., life, liberty); an alienable right can be (e.g., property).

• Positive rights: allow us to make claims on what others should do for us;
negative rights allow us to make claims on what others should not do to us.

• Human rights: the UN’s list of human rights includes natural rights, civil
rights, and manifesto rights. The UN’s human rights extend beyond Rawls’s
set of human rights.

• Manifesto rights: “rights” intended to emphasize the moral importance of
pressing human needs and concerns.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. Is there a reality show that portrays the establishment of a social contract? De-

scribe the show’s setting and how a contract arises from that.
2. Summarize the similarities and differences between Locke’s and Hobbes’s state

of nature.
3. Which is the more realistic state of nature: that of Locke or Hobbes? Support

your view.
4. Carefully explain how common resources are turned into personal property ac-

cording to Locke. Why should there be a right of property?
5. Consider the authorities, laws, taxes, and protections provided to you by the state.

Would you agree to all of this if you were negotiating its social contract now?
6. Carefully summarize all that holds for Rawls’s initial position under the veil of

7. How does Rawls’s equality and difference principles block morally questionable

utilitarian type strategies?
8. Is Rawls’s account a complete ethical theory in itself ? Why or why not?
9. Given social contract theory, could civil disobedience ever be morally accept-

able? Under what conditions?
10. Do you think the notion of rights has been abused? Where should the line be

drawn between rights and other desirable goods?
11. Summarize the problems involved in determining who can have rights.
12. ** Explain the difference between alienable and inalienable rights and between

positive and negative rights. Give examples.
13. ** Compare and contrast natural rights with UN human rights.

Additional Resources
Altman, Andrew. “Civil Rights.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013

Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed August 27, 2016, http://plato.stanford.

Feinberg, Joel. “Nature and Value of Rights.” Journal of Value Inquiry, 4 (1970): 245–257.
Reprinted in James Fieser, Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics: Histori-
cal and Contemporary Readings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000, 237–247. A more

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advanced discussion of rights, this article includes Feinberg’s evaluation of “manifesto

“The Giver, Trailer 2.” Directed by Phillip Noyce (2014). Accessed August 27, 2016, https://

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (1651). Accessed August 27, 2016.

Lloyd, Sharon A. and Sreedhar, Susanne, “Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” In The
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.
Accessed August 27, 2016.
moral/. A comprehensive presentation of Hobbes’s work.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1993. The
Giver is one of a long line of dystopian novels that involve acts of disobedience to
overthrow an unjust system.

Richey, Tom. “Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared.” Accessed
August 27, 2016, This YouTube
video compares the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
See especially chapters 13 and 14 on the social contract tradition.

United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accessed August 27, 2016. http://

Case 1

Socrates’s Imprisonment

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was well known for his critical evaluation
of highly regarded people in his society. As he publicly engaged with these people
in discourse, he would expose their intellectual and moral weaknesses. Socrates
did this to teach Athens’s youth to always seek truth and never to blindly accept
the claims made by such authority figures. The state of Athens came to regard
Socrates as a threat to its stability. He was arrested, put on trial for “corrupting the
youth,” and sentenced to death. After being imprisoned, Socrates’s friends encour-
aged him to escape. They had bribed the guards and arranged for him to flee to
another city. Socrates, however, refused. He argued that he was obligated to obey
the legal judgment against him because he had been raised, educated, and pro-
tected by the state. Although he could have previously left Athens, he had chosen
to stay, effectively confirming his social contract with the state (by tacit consent).
Thus, he should not now disobey the state. Although his treatment at the hands
of the state was unjust, Socrates argued that this didn’t make the laws themselves
unjust, nor did that annul his contract with the state. Dissent should not be ex-
pressed by breaking laws but by working to change the system within, using the
legal resources the system itself provides such as his trial itself (Athens was a de-
mocracy at the time).


1. Is Socrates’s argument consistent with social contract theory? Why or why not?
2. Do you agree that Socrates was obligated to obey the judgment against him?

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3. What do you think of Socrates’s insistence that disobedience to the state is
wrong, and that changes only may be made by working within the system?

4. Socrates arguments entail that acts of civil disobedience (e.g., those of Martin
Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement) are morally prohibited. What do
you think and why?

5. Socrates’s imprisonment and death sentence were unjust. By acting unjustly
against Socrates, it appears that the state violated its side of the social contract.
Could this fact justify Socrates violating the law in return by escaping?

6. If we view most states today as based on social contracts, the reality is that states
usually fulfill parts of their contract but fail to fulfill others. What implications
does this more complex reality have for civil disobedience?

Case 2

Lord of the Flies

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a group of children is stranded on a desert
island without adults. To survive, they establish an agreement with one another.
They choose a boy named Ralph as the chief and decide on three rules: to have fun,
to survive, and to keep a smoke signal so that a passing ship can stop and rescue
them. Over time, however, some members of the group get lazy and stop helping
the others in supplying food and shelter.

One part of the group, led by a kid named Jack, did not agree to Ralph be-
coming the leader and slowly separates from the main group. At some point, they
forget to keep up the smoke signal, and a passing ship fails to notice them. Jack
and his group eventually challenge Ralph’s leadership and tensions rise even fur-
ther when a child named Simon is mistaken for a threat and killed. A struggle also
arises with a boy named Piggy, whose glasses are their only means of starting a
fire. Piggy is killed, and Ralph runs for his life. Finally, he and the other children are
saved by soldiers that have stopped their ship because they saw the smoke on the
island. Ironically, the world is at war at this time.


1. In this story a social contract goes awry. Did this happen because the protagonists
were not adults? Would their social contract be binding given their preadolescence?

2. Do you think Jack and his followers were obligated to follow Ralph since he was
elected by the majority? Should they first have agreed that their choice must be
unanimous? If the latter, how could this rule have been established before any
contract had been established?

3. Were the boys in a state of nature before they agreed to elect Ralph and estab-
lish rules? What version of a state of nature applied?

4. To what extent and by what means, if any, should the contract have allowed for
the enforcement of its rules and Ralph’s authority?

5. Suppose the boys had selected Jack instead of Ralph and then come to realize
that Jack was a bad ruler. What would justify deposing Jack for Ralph?

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6. The social contract was explicitly established by the boys, but it was not unani-
mously supported. How does this problem, discussed in the text, affect the con-
tract’s authority?

7. What values was the boys’ social contract based upon? Were these moral values,
non-moral values, or both?

Case 3

Locke and Load: Lockean Rights and Gun Control21

Locke maintains that in their original state of nature, everyone has four basic natu-
ral rights, life, health, liberty, and property; further, he implies that a person may
defend himself against others when his rights are being violated. This fifth right is a
“right of self-defense,” which involves three “powers.” In contemporary terms, these
are the right of proximate self-defense, the right of deterrence, and the right of retribu-
tive punishment. The right of proximate self-defense gives us the authority to use
force to defend our rights against nearby rights-violators. Deterrence allows us to
wield and display force to discourage others from attempting to violate our rights.
The right of retributive punishment gives us the authority to punish those who
violate rights. Even though these rights pertain to people in the state of nature,
Locke emphasizes that they should always be exercised with restraint.

We move from the state of nature by placing ourselves within a civil society;
this relieves us from having to guard our rights individually. Another advantage
with this move is that a neutral third party (i.e., a police force, together with the
criminal courts) can be more impartial and restrained in dealing with rights-
violators than victims will usually be. We thus consent to give over the powers of
deterrence and punishment to the government to use on our behalf. Yet since it’s
not possible for government representatives to be present at all times and places
where a rights violation might take place, we still retain the right of proximate self-
defense as individuals.

Does the right of proximate self-defense imply a right to acquire and use fire-
arms? The question remains extremely controversial.

On one hand, it seems that we ought to have such a right, at least in a coun-
try where criminals are likely to possess firearms themselves. If I have a right of
self-defense and I encounter a dangerous criminal in a dark and abandoned place,
I can’t depend on police assistance for protection—there just isn’t enough time.
Thus, I need to take matters into my own hands, and having a firearm could be
indispensable. Although social scientists disagree about the numbers, between
1.3 million and 2.5 million Americans defend themselves with firearms each year.22
Here’s a typical case: “A woman shot and killed an armed man she says was trying
to carjack her van and her one-year-old daughter inside. . . . She fired after the man
pointed a revolver at her and ordered her to ‘move over,’ she told police.” Appar-
ently, the woman “offered to take her daughter and give up the van, but the man

21This case is based on a talk presented by Dr. Irfan Khawaja, who has kindly given us permission
to use his material here. Irfan Khawaja, “Locke and Load: Lockean Rights and Gun Control,” presenta-
tion at Felician College, April 29, 2009.

22Figures cited in James B. Jacobs, Can Gun Control Work? (New York: Oxford University Press,
2002), 14.


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refused.” The woman “told the police she bought the .44-caliber handgun in Sep-
tember after her home was burglarized, and said she fired several shots from the
gun, which she kept concealed in a canvas bag beside her car seat.”23

Given the right of proximate self-defense together with the strong Lockean
right to own property—presumably including firearms—then the case for citizens
having their own firearms seems strong.

However, others have argued that there is no such right. For one thing, the
right to own property surely cannot be completely unregulated because that
would lead to absurdities. Do I have a right to carry a rocket-propelled grenade
launcher in my car on the grounds that the grenades, launcher, and car are all my
property? Can I store VX nerve gas in my basement? How about an atom bomb?
These examples suggest that when certain kinds of property impose risks to other
people, the government should regulate or perhaps even claim a monopoly over
such items.24 These could include firearms. Indeed, the contemporary philosopher
Robert Nozick has argued that a legitimate Lockean government would have a mo-
nopoly on all uses of force within its territory such that “only it may decide who may
use force and under what conditions; it reserves to itself the sole right to pass on
the legitimacy and permissibility of any use of force within its boundaries; further-
more, it claims the right to punish all those who violate its claimed monopoly.”25 A
government that lacks such a monopoly could not genuinely govern those under
its jurisdiction since there is a great risk of anarchy and civil war. A vivid example of
this is the case of northwestern Pakistan, where decades of unregulated weapons
ownership have led to continuing large-scale violence and dislocation.

If a government has a monopoly on the use of force, how can it allow citizens
to decide for themselves how and when to use force, in keeping with a right of
proximate self-defense? This right seems incompatible with a governmental mo-
nopoly on force. Many prominent critics of gun ownership suggest that it would
be most sensible to ban private ownership of all weapons and restrict ownership
of weapons to the police, as is done in many Western European countries.26 One
way of doing this would be to ban the domestic manufacture and trade of firearms
for private use and then ban imports of firearms from foreign countries. Although
some weapons would still remain in private hands even after such a ban, the total
number of guns would eventually decline, along with the rate of violent crime and
violent death (which is much higher in the United States than in any other West-
ern democracy). As the older guns break down or wear out, we would ultimately
become a gun-free society, where the self-defensive use of firearms would be un-
necessary because gun violence would have become unheard of.

If firearms were banned, that might help put an end not only to “ordinary”
gun violence but also to spectacular killing sprees such as the Columbine High

23Cited in John R. Lott Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws,
2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3.

24For an argument of this sort, see Hugh LaFollette, “Gun Control,” Ethics 110 (January 2000):

25Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 23.
26Amitai Etzioni and Steven Hellend, “The Case for Domestic Disarmament: The Responsive

Communitarian Platform, November 18, 1991,” The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, ac-
cessed August 27, 2016,

Case 3 (Continued)


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School massacre in April 1999 (fifteen killed), the Virginia Tech massacre in April
2007 (thirty-two killed), the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 (twenty-
eight killed), and many others even more recently. Arguably, all these massacres
were linked to weaknesses in America’s gun laws: three of the four firearms used in
the Columbine massacre were purchased for the teenage killers at a Denver gun
show.27 Meanwhile, Cho Seung-Hui, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre,
bought firearms from a gun shop in February 2007 even “after a Virginia court
declared him to be a danger to himself in late 2005 and sent him for psychiat-
ric treatment.”28 In the Connecticut shootings, Adam Lanza, the shooter, killed his
mother and removed her guns (four!) from her house.


1. Do you think that individuals have a moral right to buy, sell, and use firearms?
If so, should this right be regulated by the government? If so, how? Or should
private ownership of firearms be abolished altogether?

2. If the right to firearms is a matter of self-defense, then what sorts of firearms are
necessary for self-defense?

3. Is there a right to possess firearms for purely recreational purposes? If so, what
sorts of firearms?

4. Locke says that in the state of nature, it is “lawful for a man to kill a thief, who
has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life” because
there is “no reason to suppose that he, who would take away my liberty, would
not when he had me in his power, take away everything else.”29 Is Locke right
about this for those living in the state of nature? What about once we leave the
state of nature?

5. Most legal systems allow for a right of self-defense but also impose a duty to
retreat. The duty to retreat requires that one use force against an attacker only
as a last resort. But opinions differ about the nature of this duty. One view holds
that a victim must try to escape from any threatening situation, using only as
much force as is necessary to escape. An opposing view holds that a victim,
when confronted with a situation that might require force, may hold his ground
and use as much force as is necessary to incapacitate a criminal. Do you agree
that there is a duty to retreat? How should it be understood?

27Jacobs, Can Gun Control Work, 129.
28Michael Luo, “U.S. Rules Made Killer Ineligible to Purchase Gun,” New York Times, April 21,

29John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690, public domain), chapter 3, paragraph 18. The

spelling and punctuation of this quotation have been modified.

Case 3 (Continued)


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Virtue Ethics


Moodily staring at her food, Ashley was sitting alone in the company lunchroom.
Lost in thought, she nearly jumped from her chair as someone shouted, “Hey
Ashley!” right behind her. She turned just as Lauren, one of those teddy bear-type
people you can’t help liking, banged her plate down on Ashley’s right. Lauren’s big
grin turned into a frown as she caught sight of Ashley’s face. “What’s up?” Lauren
asked. “Oh, nothing,” Ashley replied. “That’s a lie, lady,” Lauren shot back. “You
look sadder than the hash browns on my plate.” Ashley gave a little laugh. “Well,”
she said, “I just got that promotion I applied for, which means I can head up the
office in Durham.” “Fantastic!” Lauren boomed as she gave Ashley a hug. “You’ve
been after that for ages, and it’ll be awesome doing purchasing through you instead
of old Joe down there. The Carolinas have nice weather, too.” Lauren gave Ashley
another glance. “So what’s the problem?” she asked. “Oh, I don’t think I can take
the job.” Ashley’s words suddenly poured out. “Mike’s mom isn’t doing well, and
neither of us feels comfortable leaving her alone up here, and there’s no way she
could handle a move.” “No other family nearby?” Lauren asked. “No, we’re all she
has,” Ashley answered, “and though she insists that we go, it would be really hard
on her. If we leave the area, I think she would shrivel up and die.” “Yeah,” Lauren
said, “but isn’t your career important too?” “Sure,” Ashley replied, “but still, it’s just
a job.” “What does Mike say?” Lauren asked. “Oh, he says it’s up to me, although
I think he wants to stay near his mom. In fact, I think I’ve made up my mind to
stay. I just couldn’t let Mike’s mom down.” Lauren looked at her thoughtfully. “You
know what?” Lauren asked after a long pause, “I really respect you. Not everyone
would do what you’re doing.”

Is Ashley’s decision a moral decision? What moral principles apply in this
case?1 While it doesn’t seem that Ashley would be doing wrong either way, the
choice she does make earns Lauren’s respect—and this respect includes a strong
moral element. Yet could Ashley’s choice be universalized into a moral law

1When speaking of principles in this chapter, we have only prescriptive principles in mind.

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following Kant’s categorical imperative? That seems unlikely, although the alterna-
tive can’t be either. Will Ashley’s choice increase utility? That’s not clear; but even
if it decreased utility, it seems to deserve respect. Or better, Ashley herself deserves
respect, as Lauren says. To use an outmoded sounding term, Ashley appears to be

For Discussion
1. What makes Ashley’s decision a moral one?
2. Do you think she made the right choice? How does she appear virtuous?
3. Have you made choices that look like this, where no principles apply?

Some moral problems don’t seem to involve any moral principles; to arrive at a moral
judgment, then, we must think through such problems using the pattern of moral re-
flection (see Chapter Four, §V). There may not even be a single definite right answer. A
way to understand such cases is offered by virtue theory.


Isn’t “virtue” just an old-fashioned way to describe people who do the right things?
Doesn’t doing what moral principles say make one virtuous?

“Virtue” can actually be understood from two different perspectives. As just
described—and in keeping with the approach taken by so-called principle-based
theories—we might call people virtuous, simply meaning that they do what pre-
scriptive moral principles tell them to do. In this view, prescriptive principles are
more basic, and virtue becomes just this derived concept about keeping princi-
ples.2 The virtue theorists’ alternative perspective reverses this entirely. In their
view, personal character—virtue—is primary. Moral theory begins by describing
the kind of person one should be, not by saying what one should do. First and fore-
most, morality calls us to become virtuous persons—developing the attitudes and
skills needed to live morally. Right actions—what we should do—are then derived
from virtue; they describe what a virtuous person would do or what springs from
a virtuous character. Virtue-based theories take a very different approach to ethics
from that of principle-based theories. This reversal is virtue theory’s most distinc-
tive feature:

Primacy of character. Virtue theory maintains that our essential moral respon-
sibility is to develop a virtuous personal character, a character full of virtues.

2Kant’s theory is principle based, but he spends a great deal of time extolling moral virtue. Prin-
ciple-based theories thus can talk of virtue, but that’s not their starting point.

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Right actions are then the things a virtuous person would typically do.3 (See also
Chapter Five, §II on moral character.)

In addition, most virtue theories affirm the following.

2. Character motivation. Virtue theory attributes a person’s motivation for acting
morally directly to his character, not to any duty or principle.

Ashley’s question of what she should do is not a question of what duties are im-
posed from outside, but of what her loyalty and compassion call forth from within.
She consults no external principle, but arrives at her decision once her mind, will,
and emotions all fall into unity. Her sympathies and desires drew her to her deci-
sion, her deliberations aligned with those desires, and her will almost effortlessly
agreed. In virtue theory, virtuous actions arise from the person herself. Once
someone has established a virtuous character, it becomes relatively “easy” for her to
act virtuously. Unfortunately, this can work the other way as well: if someone has
formed a vicious character (from the word “vice,” a bad character trait), then it will
be easy to act badly but hard to do well. As experience teaches us, people tend to
do what comes most naturally to them. We quickly notice when someone is acting
“out of character”—as when the vicious person acts well or the virtuous person acts
badly. By locating moral motivation in the character of the whole person, virtue
theory largely avoids the problem of how to muster the “will power” to do right.

These two features come closest to defining virtue theory, though some share
certain additional implications. Here’s one of particular interest:

3. Several right choices: Virtue theory can allow for different choices to count as
equally right in the same situation because different virtuous people might choose

If moral principles alone cannot provide a complete ethics, then in some situa-
tions no principles will determine what the right thing to do is. Our moral thinking
will then resemble moral reflection rather than moral reasoning. You may have al-
ready noticed the similarities between Ashley’s story and the child dying of cancer
discussed in Chapter Four (see §V). Virtue theory is usually considered an instance
of moral particularism, which sees moral judgments as depending heavily on each
particular situation—especially the moral characters of those involved—rather
than on moral principles (see also Chapter Four, §V, and Chapter Twelve, §III).

Of course, this doesn’t entail that there is no right act at all. In keeping with
virtue theory’s primacy of character, the right thing to do is what a virtuous person
would do. But since different virtuous persons might act differently in, say, Ashley’s
position, virtue theory can allow for more than one morally right option for the
very same situation.

3Aristotle doesn’t follow most contemporary virtue theorists in this. For Aristotle, the right is a
kind of moral ideal that accords with reason and that can be intuitively known via reason (particularly
by the gentleman class). See Peter Simpson, “Contemporary Virtue Ethics and Aristotle,” in Virtue
Ethics: A Critical Reader, ed. Daniel Statman (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1997),

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This doesn’t turn virtue theory into a type of moral subjectivism. Although it
allows for a range of right actions, it doesn’t allow anything at all to be morally ac-
ceptable. While several options might be right, all others can still be wrong. Thus,
it’s appropriate to treat virtue theory as an objectivist theory. Nevertheless, there’s
no denying that its “several right choices” feature distinguishes virtue theory from
principle-based theories in an intriguing way.

For Discussion
1. Name some virtues and some vices.
2. What virtues do you have or have seen in others? Can you think of anyone you

would call virtuous?
3. What do you think about making personal moral character primary?
4. Have you ever found it too hard to do the right thing? Why was it so hard?
5. Should our motivations to act morally always be moral motivations? What

amoral (not immoral!) motivations impel you to act?

We may call someone “virtuous” because they obey moral principles. This makes
principles primary. Virtue theory reverses this and maintains that our primary moral
obligation is to become a virtuous person, which makes it natural for us to do what
is right. This is the primacy of character—the idea that virtuous character, not moral
principles, is the basis of morality. Virtue theories also see an established personal char-
acter as the source of moral motivation. While objectivist, virtue theory can even allow
for there being several different right choices in the same situation.

Key Terms

• Virtues: specific character traits, like honesty and courage, that are morally
good values; a virtuous person has many virtues.

• Vices: specific character traits, like dishonesty and selfishness, that are the op-
posite of virtues and thus morally bad. A vicious person has many vices.


It can be helpful to lay out the details of a particular virtue theory at some length.
Since no real consensus exists among contemporary virtue theorists, we turn to
the most famous and influential of all virtue theories, the theory of Aristotle.

According to Aristotle, human beings seek happiness—eudaimonia. Every-
thing we do, say, and think is ultimately aimed at attaining happiness. What is
happiness? It’s not mere pleasure. In Aristotle’s sense, eudaimonia relates to our
“flourishing” or fulfillment as human beings. We can find fulfillment only when
we achieve the purpose or “function”—the good—of human existence.

What is our purpose or function? Whatever it is, it must be uniquely human,
as it must set human nature apart from everything else. Aristotle concludes that

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our unique function is our ability to order and direct our lives by reason—to live in
accordance with reason. From this we can infer that to attain happiness or fulfill-
ment, we must live by reason. Of course, some obviously do this better than others.
Those who do it best achieve the highest degree of human excellence or virtue.
Virtuous persons are those most skilled at ordering all facets of life in accordance
with reason.

While a complete virtuous character includes all of the virtues, Aristotle
distinguishes two different kinds. Intellectual virtue is developed through teach-
ing. Acquiring moral virtue, meanwhile, requires practice. To develop any partic-
ular moral virtue, we must practice the very sorts of acts that the virtue typically
produces. To become courageous, for instance, we must practice acting coura-
geously; to become generous, we must practice generosity. I can act virtuously
without yet being virtuous. Developing virtue is somewhat analogous to develop-
ing skill at playing a sport or a musical instrument. To become good at tennis,
you must spend countless hours practicing forehand and backhand swings,
serves, lobs, and so on. Pianists must practice finger positions, sight reading,
scales, and countless other aspects of their art to become excellent pianists—
virtuosos. No matter how much natural ability you may have, you cannot attain
expertise without also practicing. Practice makes the necessary skills habitual,
or, as we sometimes say, second nature. As this phrase suggests, the desired skill
becomes part of one’s very nature. Yet, because developed skills aren’t inborn
or innate, they count as second nature, as having been added to one’s essential

Unfortunately, it is also possible to practice bad habits. By practicing a tennis
serve incorrectly, one becomes worse at serving; by repeatedly using the wrong
fingering, one becomes a poor pianist. As coaches and musicians know, avoiding
such mistakes requires the learner to have a right knowledge of how things are to
be done. In fact, one must fulfill several conditions to count as having attained

1. One must know what the right thing is.
2. One must intend to do the right thing because it is the right thing.
3. One’s right actions must be the products of one’s own “firm and unchangeable

character”—one’s behavioral patterns must be habitual or second nature.

To have the virtue of courage, therefore, I cannot simply have acted courageously
once or twice. I must also (a) know what courage is and (b) must intend to act
courageously because I hold courage to be a good. Finally, courage must be one
of my enduring character traits as evidenced by the fact that I typically act cou-
rageously. I cannot properly be considered courageous unless I fulfill all these

No one becomes virtuous except by years of practice; there’s no short cut.
Further, no one is born virtuous. Aristotle’s proof of this is simply that people’s
characters can change in the direction of either virtue or vice. Such changes are
possible only if virtue and vice can be acquired; what belongs to our innate nature,
after all, cannot normally be changed. Still, the potential for developing virtue is

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innate to normal human nature because virtue is living in accordance with reason,
and the ability to reason uniquely characterizes human nature.4

What exactly is virtue? Aristotle’s famous doctrine is that each virtue lies at
the golden mean between some excess and deficiency. This balance involves how a
person feels as well as how a person acts. One can face a threat, for instance, in a
variety of ways: reckless adventurers who take foolish risks are at the excess while
the cowardly fall on the side of deficiency. The courageous, however, achieve the
mean or proper balance between these extremes. This is not to say that the mean
always lies exactly halfway between extremes; true courage, for instance, probably
falls closer to the excess than the deficiency. In any case, virtue achieves balance,
while the extremes represent vices:

deficiency<——————— mean ———————> excess

cowardliness courage recklessness

For another example, consider generosity. Like courage, generosity probably
lies more on the side of excess than deficiency because a generous person’s giving
is ready and free, far removed from the stingy actions of the world’s Scrooges. Still,
the virtue of generosity does not give excessively, which harms both the giver and
the recipient. Finally, consider good temper, the virtue related to anger. Those who
fly into a rage at the slightest provocation clearly fall on the side of excess. Apa-
thetic and imperturbable individuals who remain unmoved even when they ought
to get stirred up belong on the side of deficiency. The good-tempered person finds
the proper balance between these. In this case, however, the virtue is located closer
to the deficiency than the excess.

In sum, virtue achieves the mean in how one acts (e.g., courage and generos-
ity) and in how one feels (temper) in accordance with reason. Yet virtue isn’t merely
a balance of degree. Aristotle describes a generous person as one who knows not
only how much to give but who also knows how to give to the right person, at the
right time, in the right way, and with a right purpose. Virtues involve more than a
single skill; rather, they require a multi-dimensioned “skill set” that achieves the
right balance with respect to degree, selection and timing, manner and purpose.

Aristotle cautions that the right balance won’t be exactly the same for every-
one. Just as the quantity of food needed by an athlete in training is very different
from what a sedentary sixty-year-old with a desk job requires, the amount that a
generous rich person should give will differ from what a generous poor man ought
to give. Every individual’s character and circumstances are unique, so it’s possible
for different persons in the same situation to respond differently, although both
respond with equal virtue. This is how Aristotle’s account allows for there to be
several right choices (see §II).

4Notoriously, Aristotle made one exception to this for “natural” slaves, who he thought were
innately inferior. Such people, allegedly, are incapable of developing their own virtue.

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Aristotle’s theory has a few practical implications. First, Aristotle warns us
that simply thinking and talking about virtue won’t make anyone virtuous. It’s only
by practicing virtuous behavior—and avoiding vicious behavior—that we develop
virtue. Becoming virtuous requires a transformation of character, which needs to
begin at an early age.

His theory also has things to say to us as a society, a society that may place
too much emphasis on rules and rights and not enough on individual character
and responsibility. On the one hand, Aristotle emphasizes that we will inevitably
become what our repeated choices and actions make us. We are each the product
of our accumulated past choices and practices. If I lie and deceive for most of my
life, I will become a liar, even finding it difficult to be honest or sincere. Thus,
we are not merely responsible for what we do but also for what we have made of

Yet responsibility never falls entirely upon each person alone. The social en-
vironment also exerts a powerful influence upon the development of individual
virtue and vice. A healthy society should promote virtue by creating a limited
number of good laws under virtuous leadership. Bad laws, too many laws, and
poor leadership, on the other hand, make virtue harder for anyone to develop. As
Aristotle sees it, developing virtue is both an individual and social responsibility.5

For Discussion
1. Do you seek personal happiness? What does that mean to you?
2. Do you think it’s legitimate to talk about a unique human function—something

necessary to our fulfillment as human beings?
3. How important do you think leaders and laws are for people to develop virtuous

characters (e.g., in a home, classroom, our society)?
4. Identify and describe a few virtues and then explain the corresponding vices as

excess and deficiency.

According to Aristotle, we all seek to flourish as human beings, a state Aristotle calls
eudaimonia. Happiness or flourishing requires that we fulfill our distinctive human
function, which is to live virtuously—in accordance with reason. While intellectual vir-
tues are learned from teaching, moral virtues must be developed by practice. Although
everyone has the potential to develop both vices and virtues, neither virtue nor vice is
innate. Several conditions must be fulfilled to count as having a virtue whether that
virtue relates to our feelings or our actions. A virtuous response in any situation is bal-
anced, falling at the “golden mean” between excess and deficiency.

5Aristotle lived in a direct democracy; in contrast, ours is a representative democracy (we elect
people to represent our interests). In a direct democracy, citizens are directly involved in making de-
cisions about laws, either by vote or referendum. Arguably, this requires them to be better informed
than in representative democracies. Given their active political role, Aristotle strongly felt that citizens
needed to have both intellectual and moral virtues.

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Key Terms

• Eudaimonia: Aristotle’s concept of human flourishing (happiness) that is
achieved only as we fulfill our human function of living by reason.

• Mean: a virtuous act or feeling that achieves the proper balance (“golden
mean”) between both excess and deficiency.


Virtue theory has ancient roots but has enjoyed an extraordinary resurgence in
recent decades. This is partly because contemporary virtue theorists have force-
fully criticized principle-based theories, particularly utilitarianism and Kantian
ethics.6 Here are some of the points they have made.

Principle-based ethics are incomplete. Theories in which moral principles are pri-
mary (e.g., utilitarianism, Ross’s theory, Kantian ethics, etc.) have little to say about
situations like Ashley’s. No moral principle obligates her to stay,7 nor would Ashley
morally wrong her mother-in-law by leaving. Nevertheless, Ashley’s situation
brings important moral considerations into play. Her choice evidences compas-
sion and loyalty, and these give her choice moral value. They imply, in fact, that
Ashley may be making the morally right choice.

How can there be a morally right choice with no moral principle? Moral par-
ticularism maintains that this is a common occurrence. For virtue theorists, the
answer primarily has to do with the kind of person Ashley is. Her choice to stay is
right because it is what a compassionate and loyal person would do. In saying that
she “just couldn’t let Mike’s mom down,” Ashley makes an observation about her-
self. She finds that she cannot abandon her mother-in-law since any other choice
would go against her very nature.

Ashley’s virtues of loyalty and compassion, not principles, explain why her
choice is right. Since this is an aspect of morality that principle-based ethics
doesn’t explain, principle-based theories cannot be complete. Morality consists of
more than merely following principles and fulfilling duties.

Principle-based ethics overemphasize impartiality. In general, principle-based
ethics ask us to “detach” ourselves from our feelings and to evaluate what is right
without partiality. Kant’s categorical imperative bypasses personal interests by re-
quiring that morally right acts make sense as universal practices. Thanks to utilitar-
ianism’s focus on effects, it likewise can assign only limited importance to personal
interests. While utilitarianism does include these interests in its calculation of

6Virtue theorists tend to categorize consequentialist, deontological, and rights theories as princi-
ple-based theories (even if their principles are supported by foundational value[s]).

7The principle most relevant to Ashley’s case might require people to help with family needs, but
the needs in this situation don’t seem strong enough to create an actual obligation.

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overall utility, they usually don’t make much difference once all those affected are
also taken into account.

Yet Ashley makes her choice largely because she is not impartial regarding
the situation and people involved. Because of her love and sympathy, she wants to
please and help Mike’s mother. Out of family loyalty, she feels a special interest in
her mother-in-law. She also recognizes that she would feel terrible about leaving
her mother-in-law. Her inclinations, interests, and feelings all affect her choice.
Despite her lack of impartiality, Ashley’s choice appears morally laudable. By
excluding personal feelings in the name of impartiality, therefore, principle-based
ethics can’t do justice to moral judgments for which feelings and inclinations
are primary.

Principle-based ethics distort our picture of human nature. In her influential essay,
“Moral Saints,”8 Susan Wolf argues that we don’t arrive at a very appealing picture
when we imagine someone who perfectly embodies Kantian or utilitarian moral
ideals—a moral saint. What, for instance, would someone who perfectly satis-
fies Kantian ethics look like? Going back to the Boy Scouts from our discussion
of Kant, remember that both Mo and Larry were motivated to help the old lady
by personal interests; thus neither could be said to have the Good Will. Curly, on
the other hand, was motivated purely by duty. From the Kantian perspective, only
Curly was morally praiseworthy.

Let’s take Curly, then, as a Kantian “saint.” What else could we expect of him?
On the positive side, Curly could always be relied upon to tell the truth, to keep
his promises, and to treat everyone with strict fairness. Yet in his helping the old
lady, Saint Curly is motivated by moral duty, not by affection or concern for the
lady herself. As similar motives must characterize his dealings with others as well,
Curly would strike us as aloof and unsympathetic. Curly might also go too far
in his unerring obedience to the moral law. His duty to truth could lead him to
callously tell a co-worker that he is incompetent or a friend that she is getting fat.
If Curly were a citizen of Nazi Germany, he would truthfully tell the Nazis every-
thing they ask about his Jewish neighbors. Finally, Curly would probably seem
extraordinarily naive in the way he takes no responsibility for any of the results of
what he says or does.

Turning next to the act utilitarian saint, we encounter another unappeal-
ing picture. As an impartial maximizer of utility, Hughie the utilitarian could
never afford to “waste” time relaxing with friends or pursuing a hobby if he could
“better” apply his energies to helping the poor or alleviating someone’s suffering.
Throughout his life, he would remain morally bound to choose only those courses
of action that offer the greatest opportunities for reducing the world’s miseries. As
a result, Hughie would probably eat too quickly, sleep only as necessary, and never
take a vacation. His one-track mindedness would make him a conversational bore.

8Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints,” in Virtue Ethics, ed. Robert Crisp and Michael Slote (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998), 79–98.

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Besides all this, he would not make a particularly trustworthy friend—for as a
utilitarian, he would probably not bat an eyelash over lying to you, or breaking a
promise, or even betraying you completely if greater utility could be gained.

As Wolf compellingly argues, the moral ideals of these principle-based theo-
ries all seem “strangely barren.”9 They prescribe a way of life that no real person
would want to live. Nor would any of us want others to treat us as they prescribe.
How would the mother-in-law feel if Ashley decided to stay because that maximizes
overall utility? Or how would the old lady feel if Curly told her that he helped her be-
cause it’s his duty? Just as people normally do good for others because they care for
those others, we want others doing good for us because they care for and value us.

Principle-based ethics don’t motivate. Doing the right thing can be hard. It can be
particularly hard when it isn’t in our interests, or worse, when it goes against our
interests. All of us can think of times we knew what we should do but still couldn’t
get ourselves to do it. Clearly, we all stand in need of motivators or incentives to
stir us to doing right. But where can we find this? What reservoir can we draw
from when the moral going gets tough?

Most ethical theories offer little in response. The utilitarian ideal is to promote
overall utility—isn’t more utility something everyone wants? But increasing over-
all utility doesn’t guarantee that we will derive any personal benefit. Yet it’s when
there’s no personal benefit that we most need moral strength. Kantian ethics calls
upon the person to be motivated by duty. Yet duty only tells us what we should
do—it doesn’t equip us to actually do it. Is the call of duty a sufficient inspiration
for moral living? Will duty be enough to get Curly out of bed every morning?

The trouble is that prescriptive moral principles impose their requirements
upon us from “outside,” so to speak. These principles exist independently of us
and remain separate from us. What we really need is to be motivated by something
driving us from “inside,” born in our very selves. The more fully a motivation reso-
nates in the whole person, the more likely it is that the person will act. This is what
happens in the virtue account of Ashley’s choice—it came out of her entire self, a
necessary expression of who she is.

For Discussion
1. Think about moral impartiality or objectivity. Isn’t this something a parent or

judge ought to have? Mustn’t we sometimes evaluate ourselves impartially?
2. Come up with some situations where impartiality is very important, and where it

seems inappropriate.
3. Consider the text’s descriptions of the Kantian or utilitarian saints. Are these fair

4. What would a virtuous saint look like? Is this saint more human and appealing

than the others?
5. What most effectively motivates you to do right, especially in hard situations?


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Virtue theorists advance a number of criticisms of principle-based ethics: (a) principle-
based ethics are incomplete, saying little about moral choices like Ashley’s; (b) they
place too much emphasis on impartiality, although personal feelings and inclinations
play an important role in our moral decision-making; (c) they present a distorted pic-
ture of human nature because their moral ideals appear unrealistic and inhuman; and
(d) they fail to motivate because they impose requirements upon us from “outside”
rather than arising out of the inclinations of the whole person.

Key Terms

• Moral saint: drawn from Wolf ’s essay, a moral saint is one who perfectly fulfills
the requirements of a given moral theory.

• Impartiality: the objective moral perspective prized by most principle-based
theories; it requires us to detach ourselves from our personal feelings and
bypass our personal interests.


The virtuous person has fully integrated all the virtues into an undivided and
mature character and lives by that character. While we can focus attention on spe-
cific virtues, these are not really separate parts of the virtuous person. In a sense,
virtuous people simply have virtue, and the appearance of any particular virtue
simply manifests part of their overall virtue. This is because other virtues must
always come into play when any one virtue is exercised. For instance, we may need
courage to act with great generosity or to be friendly toward strangers. Similarly,
a proper sense of honor is inevitably linked to one’s sense of honesty and justice.
This interlocking of the virtues includes the intellectual virtues as well, which have
to do with skills such as making judgments, discerning truth, and exercising prac-
tical wisdom. To exercise the moral virtue of honesty, for instance, we must be
able to discern truth; a generous person must employ practical wisdom—akin to
our notion of “common sense”—to see how, when, and to whom she should give.
Though we can distinguish virtues in the abstract, they must come into union in
the personality of any actual virtuous person.

Nevertheless, there’s philosophical interest in classifying the virtues. For
instance, Lester Hunt has suggested that they can be classified by their role or

10Lester H. Hunt, “Generosity and the Diversity of the Virtues,” in The Virtues: Contemporary
Essays on Moral Character, eds. Robert B. Kruschwitz and Robert C. Roberts, (Belmont, CA: Wad-
sworth Publishing Company, 1987), 217–228. Hunt’s choice of terms has been somewhat modified.
This discussion also incorporates Robert’s thoughts on “virtues of will power,” which are presented in
an article appearing in the same anthology. Robert C. Roberts, “Willpower and the Virtues,” 122–136.
Roberts’ article is reprinted from The Philosophical Review, 93 (April 1984): 227–247.

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• Obligation virtues—serve to fulfill our moral duties to act in certain ways
(e.g., promise keeping, justice, truthfulness).

• Good-promoting virtues—serve to promote specific values or goods
(e.g., sociability, generosity).

• Limiting virtues—serve to control or manage our inclinations and feelings
(e.g., courage, temperance [self-control], loyalty, or faithfulness).

Each of these groups reflects a different moral emphasis. Obligation virtues, for
instance, closely parallel the most established principles of deontological ethics
(see Chapter Eight). These comprise the central core of morality, and are normally
assigned the highest priority. Such obligations hold universally (or nearly so),
and typically call for the highest degree of impartiality. It hardly seems to matter,
therefore, whether we base the virtue of honesty on a principle of truth telling or
base the principle on the virtue. For obligations, virtue and principle-based ethics
appear roughly equivalent.

Good-promoting virtues seem to be of more limited moral importance. Al-
though there is certainly moral value in being generous and sociable, for instance,
one is not necessarily a moral failure for being weak in these areas. Virtues in this
category have moral value because their effects are valuable (e.g., they meet peo-
ple’s needs and advance social interactions). Because we care about such things,
furthermore, these virtues tend to engage our personal feelings more than obliga-
tion virtues. As these virtues promote effects that ultimately tie to overall utility,
they parallel aspects of consequentialist ethics.

Limiting virtues, finally—or “virtues of the will”—seem almost morally neu-
tral in themselves. Certainly, each is crucial for developing other sorts of virtues,
especially when the behaviors called for by another virtue go against our own in-
clinations. The ability to say “no” to our desires (temperance), for instance, must
constantly be exercised as we learn to give generously, and courage is usually
needed when an obligation virtue requires us to act against our own interests.
Limiting virtues can equally serve in the exercise of vice. To avoid getting caught,
for instance, a burglar must learn to move in silence and with careful deliberation,
a skill requiring much self-control. A more terrible illustration is of the terrorists
who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. In steeling themselves to face
injury and death, they certainly exercised great strength of will. Was this courage?
Since the limiting virtues can strengthen both vices and virtues, maybe they are
best viewed as amoral—having no moral value in themselves. Taking them this
way, we could describe the terrorists as having courage. Many are very uncom-
fortable with this, however, seeing courage as a positive moral virtue—as taking
risks for the good. Going this route (and not letting our everyday ways of talking
confuse us), we would refuse to describe them as courageous. Either way, the lim-
iting virtues have the fewest parallels to anything found in principle-based ethics,
falling almost exclusively within the province of virtue ethics.

These thoughts about Hunt’s categories support a couple of points made in
the previous section. One is that virtue ethics extends beyond the normal reach

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of principle-based ethics. While there is a large amount of overlap regarding the
first category’s concerns (obligation), differences begin to appear in the second
category (good-promoting), and the differences become considerable in the third
category (limiting). Because Ashley’s case centers on the latter categories (compas-
sion and loyalty), it reaches beyond principle-based theories. Hunt’s categorization
also suggests how virtue theory may help reconcile impartiality with the role of
personal feelings (see §IV). Impartiality most strongly associates with obligation
and duty—those aspects of morality where impartiality is most important. The
subjective and partial nature of personal feelings brings them more in line with
promoting good (compassion, for instance, usually acts to meet needs). Since they
relate most strongly to different aspects of morality, impartiality and feelings may
best be seen as complementing rather than conflicting with each other.

For Discussion
1. Do you think that courage is a moral or amoral character trait?
2. What about loyalty or temperance (self-control)—are these moral or amoral char-

acter traits?

Virtues can be placed into different categories. Obligation virtues reflect moral duties
like keeping promises, telling the truth, and acting justly and closely parallel basic
deontological principles. Good-promoting virtues like generosity produce desirable
effects and so relate to consequentialist ethics. Limiting virtues are virtues of the will
like courage and temperance. These can be considered moral values; alternately, these
may be considered as amoral if viewed as serving both virtue and vice.

Key Terms

• Obligation virtues: help us fulfill moral obligations to act in certain ways
(e.g., promise keeping, justice, truthfulness).

• Good-promoting virtues: help promote specific values or goods (e.g., socia-
bility, generosity).

• Limiting virtues: help us control or manage our inclinations and feelings
(e.g., courage, temperance [self-control], loyalty, or faithfulness).


While much can be said in favor of virtue theory, it also has difficulties.

Attaining virtue: Principle-based ethics asks us to do what is morally right. Al-
though this can be difficult, it at least lies within our power one act at a time.
In contrast, virtue ethics asks us to transform our very characters to be virtuous
persons. This is a much more holistic demand than just doing the next thing right.

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Is this humanly possible? In addition to the questions about character raised by
moral psychology (see Chapter Five, §II), there are two particularly interesting
challenges to virtue theory’s practicability (see Part II Introduction).

The first aims at Aristotle’s assumption that we all begin life with a more or
less neutral moral character. While many agree with this or even maintain that
people are “basically good,” others counter that human nature innately inclines
toward selfishness, violence, lust, and other vices—just look at the news.11 Add
to this the conviction of many that while we have some power over ourselves, no
amount of human ingenuity or effort can entirely overcome our undesirable ten-
dencies. As they progress toward being more honest or kind, for instance, many
report that they then find themselves becoming judgmental about the lack of hon-
esty or kindness they perceive in others. Similarly, smokers who successfully “kick
the habit” often become highly critical of other smokers. If a serious attempt to
combat a failing in one area exposes some other crack in our character, then it may
not be possibly to fully attain virtue.

A second challenge comes from Michael Slote. His argument begins with the
observation that the entire ancient world—including Aristotle—accepted slavery
as “natural and inevitable.”12 Even those who owned no slaves had no moral ob-
jection to slavery and would have had no qualms about having their own slaves if
given the opportunity. But since slavery violates fundamental human rights, it is
morally wrong. This makes its acceptance incompatible with having virtue since
genuine virtue must know the right and good. This fact, Slote argues, precludes
any of the ancients from qualifying as virtuous.

Slote then says that it is equally difficult for anyone today to attain genuine
virtue. Although we don’t accept slavery, Slote considers it overwhelmingly likely
that we—no less than the ancients—are ensnared by one or more virtue-defeating
moral errors of our own. To think otherwise, after all, would be to make the auda-
cious claim that our moral beliefs are all perfectly correct. Yet if any such errors
do grip us, then, like the ancients, we accept something that no genuinely virtuous
person could accept. Generalizing this line of thought, it seems unlikely that any
human being can ever achieve genuine virtue: virtue is unattainable.

Since these are challenges against the possibility of attaining virtue, they don’t
readily carry over as difficulties for other ethical theories. In contrast with virtue
theory, other theories don’t ask us to do what is not even possible. Yet the first
challenge raises doubts about our having the power necessary to become different

11The view that human nature has natural inclinations toward vices is shared by such diverse
perspectives as Christianity (original sin), Freudian psychology (libido), and versions of sociobiology
(inherited aggressions). The latter two assume a determinism that may largely defy human correction;
Christianity, meanwhile, insists that only God’s supernatural power can adequately transform a person
(i.e., the need to be “born anew”).

12Michael Slote, “Is Virtue Possible?” in The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character,
eds. Robert B. Kruschwitz and Robert G. Roberts, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company,
1987), 102.

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persons; the second raises doubts that we can have the moral knowledge necessary
to qualify as virtuous.

Explanatory power: The virtues are foundational moral values. But what makes
them good? It would be helpful to have some account or explanation of these
values too, since ideally an ethical account should shed some light on the nature
of morality in total. Can virtue theory satisfy the criterion of explanatory power?

The least satisfactory possibility is for virtue theory to treat its foundational
virtues as primitive, as admitting no more basic explanation. Although we might
intuitively recognize the inherent goodness of honesty, for instance, there’s nothing
more to say about why it is good. This gives us very little insight into the nature of
morality, other than that morality begins with these virtues.13

A better alternative would be for virtue theory to identify some basis for uni-
fying the virtues. For instance, Aristotle tells us that virtues reflect our living in
accordance with reason and that virtue falls at a mean between extremes. His most
tantalizing suggestion is that virtuous living is necessary for human flourishing.
But because Aristotle defines flourishing mainly in terms of exercising the virtues,
this isn’t much help in explaining virtue. Further, Aristotle is rather vague about
just how reason reveals the nature of virtue. Yet even if a virtue theorist were to
clear up these details, we would still need more explanation of what gives virtues
their moral value.

The remaining alternative would be to explain the virtues in terms of some
foundational non-moral value. For instance, we might explain virtue’s goodness in
terms of promoting human flourishing.14 However, this line of thinking seems to
present flourishing as a consequence of virtue, which makes it look like something
a utilitarian might aim at. The more virtue theory resembles utilitarianism, how-
ever, the closer we come to effectively abandoning the distinctive nature of virtue

Incompleteness: A common complaint against virtue theory is that it doesn’t tell us
enough about what we should do. Of course, if virtue theory is correct, then our
yearning to be told what to do is just another symptom of our misplaced depen-
dence upon moral principles. Take care over the kind of person you are, virtue
theory says, and what you should do will become clear by itself. Further, virtue
theory encourages us to look at outstandingly virtuous persons and, by watch-
ing how they consistently act, formulate rules of thumb to guide what we do. But
how do we determine who is virtuous? If we can only identify virtuous people as
those who do the right things, then we are stuck in a circle. This has led critics to

13The problem is similar to the lack of any explanation provided in Ross’s account for his seven
moral duties.

14Although Aristotle is often interpreted as taking this approach as well, a careful reading of
Aristotle cannot support this. In fact, as previously noted, Aristotle leaves the origins of virtue largely
unexplained except that virtue accords with reason. In treating human flourishing as the goal or basis
of virtue, therefore, contemporary virtue theorists depart significantly from Aristotle (Simpson 1992).

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conclude that virtue theory cannot be complete unless it appeals to some set of
moral principles.

Virtue theory also seems ill-equipped to address certain moral problems:

• Is it right to invade a sovereign country to stop genocide?
• Is capital punishment wrong?
• Is it morally acceptable for a multinational corporation to enter a neighbor-

hood and overwhelm the local competition?

These are clearly moral questions. Yet the kinds of acts these questions refer to
cannot be carried out by individuals, and so cannot arise from personal character
or virtue. Invasions are carried out by states, as is capital punishment. Even when
individuals (e.g., a king or a judge) do make decisions about such things, they
don’t do so on their own personal authority but only because the state has granted
them the necessary authority. Something quite similar normally holds true of cor-
porate CEOs. But since these and other acts are not possible for mere persons on
their own, they are not acts to which personal virtues pertain.

Virtue ethics even seems ill-equipped to furnish the kind of moral guidance
an individual might sometimes need:

• What sorts of conditions, if any, could justify euthanasia (i.e., “mercy kill-
ing”) or assisted suicide?

• Would having a late-term abortion be wrong?
• In what circumstances should I “blow the whistle” on my company?

These are also clearly moral issues, but what sorts of virtues are needed to deal
with them? Becoming generous requires a series of opportunities to practice gen-
erosity. But few of us can get practice in dealing with euthanasia, abortion, or
whistle blowing. The virtue theorist would reply that this is all confused—there is
no euthanasia-oriented virtue that one needs for dealing with questions involving
euthanasia. Rather, having developed ourselves into virtuous persons, we should
be equipped to respond virtuously to any moral challenges, including such ex-
traordinary ones. But which virtues do we most need to address such cases virtu-
ously? More important, is there reason to think that having the ordinary virtues
can adequately equip us to handle a truly extraordinary moral challenge?

Further, virtue theory isn’t able to provide the kinds of answers these ques-
tions are looking for. These questions seem to ask about the specific conditions
that must be fulfilled for such acts to be morally justifiable. For instance, a late-
term abortion may only be justifiable if the mother would not otherwise survive.
Whistle blowing might always be justified when it would avert great harm. As the
words “only” and “always” strongly suggest, we may need universal principles to
answer these sorts of questions. Since virtue theory doesn’t generate such princi-
ples, it probably can’t address these and other important moral questions, making
it less than a complete moral theory.

* * *

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There nevertheless remains a strong appeal in much of what virtue theory has to
offer. Above all, its exhortation for each of us to work at achieving an integrated
and morally good character speaks powerfully to the felt need of many who think
that ethics must be more than just rules and rights. Further, Aristotle does us a
valuable service in emphasizing the important moral influences of good leader-
ship and good laws within a society. The notion of inculcating virtue by practice
may also come as a revelation to parents and educators who have despaired of
rules, punishments, and rewards as tools for shaping moral sensitivity in children.
Even if virtue theory cannot stand as a complete ethical theory by itself, it’s cer-
tainly worthwhile for us to keep exploring and thinking deeply about virtue and
its moral implications.

For Discussion
1. Are people innately good? What supports your view on this?
2. In what area(s) might we be getting things seriously wrong today, like people did

with slavery?
3. Do you agree that serious moral mistakes in our beliefs can keep us from being

4. Consider some virtue like kindness or honesty. How would you explain what

makes these good? Does your explanation take you beyond virtue theory?
5. What would you say is needed to morally justify our invading another country, ig-

noring traffic laws, “blowing the whistle” where you work, or capital punishment
(assume that it can be justified so you can discuss this)?

There are several difficulties for virtue theory. On the practical side, there is the worry
that no one can actually attain genuine virtue, since it might not be possible for us
to overcome our natural inclinations toward vice. Michael Slote argues that people
of every period are susceptible to serious errors in their moral beliefs, and such errors
preclude the attainment of genuine virtue. On the theoretical side, virtue theory has
little explanatory power since it can’t explain what makes virtue good in the first place.
Finally, virtue theory itself appears incomplete with its inability to address certain types
of moral questions.

Chapter Assignment Questions
1. Virtue theorists think that our personal and emotional involvement can be mor-

ally important. Defend or criticize this.
2. Explain the difference between the principle-based and virtue-based concepts

to virtue.
3. Explain how virtue theory can lead to there being more than one right choice in

a single situation. Can you give an original example?

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4. If virtue theory allows for several right choices, why isn’t it subjectivism?
5. In your own words, what is eudaimonia? Is Aristotle right in claiming that this

is the thing we all ultimately seek?
6. How powerful are habits? What do you think of Aristotle’s idea that moral vir-

tues are habits that must be practiced?
7. How is developing virtue like improving your football throw or your guitar play-

ing? How does it differ?
8. Is being an honest person essentially the same as obeying a principle like “People

should be truthful with each other”?
9. Is being a generous person essentially the same as obeying a principle like “People

should help others out with liberal amounts of time and money when they are
in a position to”?

10. ** Thinking about either a Kantian or utilitarian saint, what do you find most
appealing and most unappealing about each?

11. Is there such a thing as “will power”? Discuss.
12. ** How well do you think virtue theory addresses moral motivation?
13. Do you think virtue is attainable? Support your position.

Additional Resources
Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics (350 BCE), translated by W.  D. Ross. Accessed August 28,

2016. See especially Books I and II for
Aristotle’s account. Books III–V offer detailed analyses of the various moral virtues.

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016
Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.
tries/aristotle-ethics/. This article provides a detailed discussion of Aristotle’s ethics
that parallels Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Kruschwitz, Robert B., and Robert G. Roberts. The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral
Character Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1987. A very good anthology
on virtue, which includes the articles mentioned in the text by Slote, Wolf, and Hunt.

Latus, Andrew. “Nagel on ‘Moral Luck.’” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008). Ac-
cessed August 8, 2009. ISSN 2161-0002. This is
a detailed discussion of moral luck, including Nagel’s article and an earlier article by
Bernard Williams. This reading applies to Case 4 of this chapter.

Wolf, Susan. “Moral Saints.” In Virtue Ethics, edited by Robert Crisp and Michael Slote,
79–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. This article was first published in
Journal of Philosophy, 79.8 (August 1982): 419–439. This article also appears in a great
many ethics anthologies.

Case 1

The Unlikely Rescue

On September 9, 1996, Daniel Santos, a twenty-one-year-old volunteer firefighter,
dove off the Tappan Zee Bridge to save the life of a young woman. According to
the New York Times, the woman just “slammed her Chevrolet Blazer into the railing,


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then got out and jumped into the Hudson River”15 in an attempt to commit sui-
cide. As soon as he saw this, Santos stopped his own car on the bridge and took a
140-foot dive over the bridge rail. According to Santos, “without thinking twice, I
just jumped and did what I had to do. I just prayed and closed my eyes.”16 A person
jumping from this height collides with the water at approximately sixty miles
per hour, so Santos was very lucky to survive the impact. Indeed, Santos suffered
from a broken rib and partially collapsed lung as a result of his dive. Nevertheless,
Santos managed to swim toward the woman. A nearby boat quickly came to their
rescue, and both Santos and the woman survived.

On first blush, it would seem that Santos behaved virtuously. He was certainly
celebrated as a hero after the incident. His story received coverage in the national
papers as well as in the evening news. But would Aristotle agree with this assess-
ment? To be sure, Aristotle considered courage a virtue. But according to Aristo-
tle, acting courageously in one instance does not show that a person is virtuous.
Second, Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean makes virtue the mean between
excess and deficiency. A genuinely courageous act lies between foolhardiness and
cowardice. Thus, not every act that people call “courageous” would qualify as virtu-
ous in Aristotle’s sense.


1. Would Aristotle see Santos’ actions as courageous or merely reckless? Why?
2. Santos wanted to become a full-time firefighter. If he were to succeed, do you

think he would be an asset to the force? In terms of Hunt’s categories, did Santos
perhaps have some kinds of virtues while lacking others?

3. Did Santos meet all the conditions for a person having virtue?

Case 2

Video Games

As Aristotle noted a couple of millennia ago, human beings are creatures of
habit. How do we learn to tie our shoes, walk, write in good English, or drive, for
instance? Repetitive experience develops habits and skills that become second
nature to us—part of our very selves. Once established, habits are hard to change,
normally remaining part of us for the rest of our lives. What fifty-year-old couldn’t
still manage to balance a bicycle—even if she hasn’t ridden for thirty years? Of
course, not all habits involve physical action—we also develop habits of mind. For
instance, how often have you found your parents (or even yourself!) falling back
into the same old ways of thinking (e.g., prejudices), even after making a serious
effort to change?

15“Even Rescuer Admits It Seemed Crazy,” New York Times, September 14, 1996, accessed August
28, 2016,


Case 1 (Continued)


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Aristotle emphasized that habits (whether mental or physical) also have im-
portant moral implications. This brings us to video and computer games. While
many games are perfectly innocent (often employing the aforementioned prin-
ciples of habit to develop some desirable skill, knowledge, etc.), some have gained
notoriety. Take, for instance, Grand Theft Auto,17 in which the player rises through
the criminal ranks by committing crimes. As one player describes it, “I can steal
cars, kill anyone in pretty much any way, have sex with hookers, take drugs, sell
drugs, sell stolen cars, etc. If you can think it, this game does it. It is a world with
no borders, which is very relaxing.” This gamer also comments, “I have had trouble
with playing hours of a driving game and then getting in my car and feeling like
I was still in the game. . . . Games today look so real, it feels like the real world to a
degree.” (Disorientation upon reentering the real world—sometimes severe—is a
documented effect of “full-immersion” virtual reality.)

So we must ask: if people indeed develop habits of thought and action—and
ultimately their moral character—through repetition and practice, what is likely to
happen to the person (especially an impressionable child) who spends day after
day thinking through, choosing, and acting out virtual crimes, murders, and sexual
encounters of immense immoral proportions? Is it possible for such continual im-
moral reinforcement to have no effect? The worry is not that playing such games
will turn good people into criminals. But are such games promoting the kind of
personal character that a morally good society values? This worry seems substanti-
ated by studies that indicate a child is more prone to violent behavior if he simply
watches a violent TV show that has characters the child relates to. If children can
be significantly influenced by violence as simply passive viewers, how much more
are they likely to be influenced by violence they participate in—as highly realis-
tic, deeply absorbing video games make possible? It’s also been shown that even
adults become more accepting of violence after spending as little as a half hour
watching a violent show on TV.

Thanks to the wonders of modern computing power, a ten-year-old, often
with 3D sound, tactile feedback, and powerful graphics, can work her way through
fifty bloody murders in an hour’s time. Some argue that this isn’t real life and that
even children don’t typically confuse the two. But as the adult gamer just quoted
says, realism is what these games are all about, and the back-and-forth transition
between such games and reality can become, at the very least, quite disorienting.
The graphic portrayal of blood, exploding bodies, and shattered faces amid groans
and shrieks may occupy a kid’s playtime—and is likely to become still more absorb-
ing and realistic as game programming progresses. Some games overflow with
gratuitous violence, offensive language, perverse values, and explicit sexual ex-
ploitation. Again, it’s important to remember that such games don’t simply expose
the player to such things (as in movies and TV)—rather, they actively engage the
participant’s mind, will, emotions, and senses. This is an entirely new phenomenon,
and although it may be too early to assess the effects of such games and activities
on individuals and society, Aristotle certainly suggests what directions these ef-
fects are likely to take.

17Grand Theft Auto (New York: Rockstar Games), creator Dave Jones, is a video game series
begun in 1997.

Case 2 (Continued)

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1. Since we use (even in schools) a variety of video games to develop and reinforce
skills in mathematics, spelling, typing, and other areas of education, is it con-
sistent to maintain that violent video games have little effect upon their users?

2. It seems that if certain video games can have a bad influence on children or
teens, they would likely have similar effects upon adults. What do you think,
and why? Would you be willing to let felons play such games to while away their
time behind bars?

3. Should children and teenagers be permitted to play violent video games? Apply
Aristotle’s account in answering that question.

Case 3

Compulsive Gambling and the Internet

According to some studies, up to 5% of American adults have a gambling prob-
lem. This problem is most prevalent among younger adults and can start as early
as high school. For adolescents and college students, the figures average around
15%.18 A survey of three thousand students in over fifty New Jersey high schools
revealed that more than 30% of the students gambled at least once a week. Some
of these students are already in serious debt to loan sharks.19 And the problem of
compulsive gambling is getting worse. Over the past twenty years, gambling has
increased by 20% in the United States. In that same period, the amount of money
spent on gambling has doubled.20

It seems safe to say that in coming years, the main contributor to the spread
of gambling, especially among the younger population, will be the Internet. Gam-
bling websites are readily available, which makes a trip to a casino unnecessary.
Although a credit card is needed to play, many eighteen-year-olds already possess
their own credit cards, and others have access to their parents’ cards. Furthermore,
it’s impossible to verify a gambler’s age over the Internet. Also, Internet gambling
takes place anonymously and in an isolated context. This makes it hard to track or
for authorities or other concerned persons to interfere. For these reasons, it’s likely
that even more people will become addicted to online gambling. This is confirmed
by another study that suggests that the percentage of problematic and compul-
sive gamblers is much higher among Internet gamblers than with other forms of

The effects of gambling on a person’s habits, character, and ultimate well-
being are often devastating. Since these effects are measurable, they give prima
facie credibility to Aristotle’s views on habits and on the formation of both virtue

18H. Shaffer, M. Hall, and J. Bilt, “Estimating the Prevalence of Disordered Gambling Behavior in the
United States and Canada: A Research Synthesis,” American Journal of Public Health, 89.9 (1999): 1369–1376.

19Ed Looney and Kevin O’Neill, “Adolescent Compulsive Gambling: The Hidden Epidemic,”
Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, accessed August 28, 2016,

20Shaffer, Hall, and Bilt, “Estimating the Prevalence of Disordered Gambling Behavior.”
21George Ladd and Nancy Petry, “Disordered Gambling Among University-Based Medical and

Dental Patients: A Focus on Internet Gambling,” Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 16.1 (2002): 76–79.


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and vice. To see this, consider the four phases of compulsive gambling described
by the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling.22 The first phase, the winning
phase, is characterized by winning more often than losing. It may start with one
big win. In this phase, the gambler gradually risks larger and larger amounts of
money and gambles more often. As he starts becoming addicted to gambling, this
decreases the amount of time he spends on other activities (e.g., time with family
or friends or on working or studying). The gambler then transitions into the losing
phase, when there are more losses than wins. This leads the gambler to need more
money, both to cover losses and to continue gambling. He also will probably want
to cover his tracks, so that others don’t discover that he is losing more and more
money and so try to stop him. This is when he begins to lie. He borrows money he
can’t pay back. Because of the time spent gambling, the steady loss of money, and
the increased lying, the gambler’s family life and friendships begin to deteriorate.
The gambler next enters the desperation phase, in which his entire life becomes
centered on gambling; depression may set in as well. At this point, the gambler has
completely lost control—gambling controls him rather than the other way around.
The addiction is now too strong to overcome. As others stop trusting the gambler,
he may then be forced to obtain money illegally, perhaps telling himself that these
are “loans” that he’ll pay back as soon as he starts winning again. The gambler is
now lying to himself in addition to lying to others. In the last phase, called the hope-
less phase, the gambler gives up. If he has committed crimes to obtain money, he
may have gotten caught. He may even commit suicide.

In rare cases, gamblers will seek help, usually because friends or family have
intervened. Nevertheless, the recovery rate for compulsive gamblers is slim and
when successful, recovery usually takes years. Once a person has become a com-
pulsive gambler, he is unlikely to ever return to the person he once was.


1. What kinds of habits (including habits of mind) are developed by a compulsive
gambler? What other vices can be associated with gambling?

2. How would Aristotle describe the process of turning into a compulsive gam-
bler? How well does the Arizona Council’s four phases agree with Aristotle’s
thinking ?

3. What particular issues/concerns does Internet gambling raise? What is there
about Internet gambling that can make it particularly dangerous?

4. Could a virtuous person make (occasional) use of Internet gambling sites? Is
this an instance of there being several right choices? In terms of Hunt’s catego-
ries of virtues, which sorts of virtues can gambling undermine?

5. Hopes for a gambler’s recovery are slim. Why do you think this is? What light,
if any, does Aristotle’s theory of virtue shed on this fact?

6. Suppose you or a friend have begun to do some online gambling—just once or
twice a week for a couple hours. Occasionally, the betting has gotten up into the

22Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling, accessed August 28, 2016,

Case 3 (Continued)

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$50–$100 range. How harmless is this activity? Take Aristotle’s arguments into
account in your response to this question.

Case 4

Moral Luck

Aristotle tells us that we develop virtues and vices by practice, by establishing be-
havioral patterns which, over time, become part of our moral character. Neverthe-
less, he also observes that it is much easier to develop into a virtuous person if
the society one lives in is just and morally healthy. Thus, our moral characters are
the products of both our own behavioral choices and our social environment. But
while we have a great deal of control over our own choices, we have little or no
control over our social environment, especially when we are young. The environ-
ment we are born into seems little more than a matter of luck.

Arbitrary factors beyond our control can also profoundly affect the success
or failure of our everyday actions. Tom Nagel, in his essay “Moral Luck,” observes,
“[w]hether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some
extent on factors beyond our control. . . . What has been done, and what is mor-
ally judged, is partly determined by external factors.”23 For example, “there is a
morally significant difference between rescuing someone from a burning build-
ing and dropping him from a twelve-story window while trying to rescue him.”24

What we do is also limited by the opportunities and choices with which we are faced, and
these are largely determined by factors beyond our control. Someone who was an army
officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had
never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Ar-
gentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany
for business reasons in 1930.25

Clearly, each of us sometimes experiences good moral luck and sometimes
bad moral luck. For most of us, do the good and the bad tend to average out? Since
we know that much of what will affect our lives lies beyond our control, do we have
a (moral) responsibility to plan ahead for such contingencies, prudently preparing,
like a defensive driver, for the worst? Consider the following situations:

1. George is on his way home from work. While heading down the freeway, he
sees a car smashed up against the guardrail. Although he first considers just
calling the police, he then decides to pull over. Walking up to the car, George
finds a woman sitting behind the wheel, unconscious. Not realizing that per-
sons with neck injuries (a common effect of traffic accidents) can be paralyzed
or even killed by movement, George pulls the woman from the car. Luckily, she
had no neck injuries and so is not harmed by George’s action. Just as he gets
her a few feet away, the car bursts into flames. In less than a minute, the fuel
tank explodes—but George and the woman are safe.

23Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck,” in Mortal Questions, ed. Thomas Nagel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 1979), 25. Note that moral luck is a problem for other ethical theories besides virtue ethics.

25Ibid., 26.


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2. Janet, brought up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood by wise and loving
parents, has enjoyed a wide range of opportunities and a good education. In
her freshman year at college, away from home for the first time, her roommate
invites her one night to try drugs. Although feeling slightly pressured—and
even a bit curious—Janet nevertheless refuses after a moment’s thought and
never considers drugs again in her entire life. Meanwhile, in another part of
town, Ed angrily heads out of the hot, smelly two-room apartment where his
drunken mom and four siblings live. His mom has been screaming at him for
the past hour, although, as usual, there doesn’t seem to be any reason. A high
school dropout because of poor grades, Ed has been working at the corner
garage, but today the owner said something about not having any more work
for him. As he walks down the hall, he encounters a sweet, acrid smell waft-
ing from a cluster of people in a corner. In passing, he recognizes one of his
street buddies, who looks up and yells, “Hey Ed—you want some? It’s on me
tonight—I just got paid.” Shaking his head slowly, Ed walks on.

3. Mark is a successful businessman who regularly donates both his time and
money to a homeless shelter in New York City. One evening, after leaving
the shelter, he goes to a restaurant with some friends and orders one of the
specials, which comes with a margarita. Although he doesn’t much care for
margaritas, he has the drink to be sociable. He also takes one of the allergy
pills his doctor just prescribed him. He doesn’t remember his doctor mention-
ing that the pills can cause drowsiness, and he doesn’t notice the warning on
the bottle to not mix them with alcohol. After dinner, Mark feels a bit light-
headed but, without thinking much about it, gets into his car and drives home.
Coming down a street with cars parked on both sides, he sees a truck on his
left suddenly swerving out of its lane toward him. The truck straightens out,
but Mark’s attention has been so riveted on the truck that he doesn’t immedi-
ately notice the child who just then darts out from the parked cars on his right.
Mark tries to stop, but doesn’t make it in time and feels the sickening thud as
his right bumper collides with the child, who is badly injured. When the police
arrive, they notice a hint of alcohol on Mark’s breath. Even though he passes a
breathalyzer test, they book him for driving under the influence.


1. What do you think of George’s moral character? Did he act virtuously? Suppose
that in moving the woman, George severed one of her nerves; as a result, his
action saved her from a fiery death but also paralyzed her for life. Would that
make any moral difference? Why or why not?

2. Think about Janet and Ed. Is either of them a more virtuous person than the
other? What reasons can you offer?

3. Even though the effects of many external factors upon us seem to be just a
matter of luck, we do have control over our thoughts and intentions. Although
their luck differed, both Mark and George presumably meant well—neither
had any evil intentions. How are a person’s habitually good intentions relevant
to their moral character?

Case 4 (Continued)

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4. Do you believe there is such a thing as moral luck? Some people think that a
person’s “luck” is often just the result of that person’s consistently prudent or
foolish choices. Maybe it was rare thing for Mark to do, but he put himself in
a position of being more vulnerable to the “bad luck” he later encountered.
Of course, George likewise made himself vulnerable to some very “bad luck,”
although he was luckier.

5. Many people talk about how things were “meant to be” and how “everything
has a purpose”—although they are often quite vague about what or who is
behind those purposes. What are your views on this, and how do they affect
your thinking about moral luck?

6. Should Mark be blamed for harming the child in the accident? Did Mark do
anything wrong? Do you think Mark could be called a “good” man? Discuss
and evaluate his case with care, commenting on how Aristotle would assess it
and the role of moral luck in the case.

Case 5

Democracy in Switzerland

The Swiss democracy is rather different from democracy in the United States (also
see footnote 5 of this chapter). Switzerland has as direct democracy, which means
that the people govern directly, not through a representative. Developed and re-
fined for over eight hundred years (and in its current form for over one hundred
years), the Swiss democracy has a long tradition. Opinion polls and referendums
determine what decisions are to be made—for instance, on a draft of a new or
amended law (the drafts are prepared by experts in the administration). In indi-
vidual cantons (member states, of which there are twenty-six), budgets are set by
referendum.26 If the majority of the electorate agrees, even the constitution can be
changed. Switzerland’s system is considered extremely stable but it also requires
more involvement from its citizens. Switzerland does have a parliament and politi-
cal parties, but constitutional changes (changes in law) cannot take place without
the expressed agreement of the people. The Swiss generally tend to vote conser-
vatively, but it’s noteworthy that they have also favored equal representation of
women in parliament and voted against payouts for managers of failing compa-
nies (golden parachutes).27


1. What kind of character would the ideal citizen have in the Swiss democracy?
Answer this question from both your own and Aristotle’s perspectives.

2. Do you think that the United States or other countries could profit from having
a more direct democracy like this? What are some pros and cons?

26“Switzerland’s Direct Democracy,” accessed August 28,2016, http://direct-democracy.geschichte-

27“Switzerland: The Ultimate Democracy,” The National Interest, September 7, 2014, accessed
August 28, 2016,

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3. In 2009 the Swiss voted against constructing any additional minarets on
mosques. In 2004 it rejected a referendum to grant citizenship to foreigners
who had grown up in Switzerland.28 Do these facts suggest that a direct democ-
racy could work in both just and unjust ways?

4. What advantages and disadvantages do you see with a direct democracy com-
pared to a representational democracy? Include some of Aristotle’s views as you
answer this.

5. After the 2016 United States presidential election, many again pushed to
remove the electoral college and allow the popular vote to determine each
state’s winner. Elections by popular vote are a long way from a direct democ-
racy, but they do remove one small group of representational middlemen from
determining election outcomes. Given the growing evidence that much of the
popular electorate can be easily swayed by targeted advertising and other forms
of manipulation, is dumping the electoral college a good idea? What would
Aristotle say?



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Feminism and Care Ethics


Jared was born at 3:09 am on December 13, 1992.1 Unfortunately, he was not
wanted—especially not by his twenty-year-old father, the on-and-off boyfriend of
Jared’s eighteen-year-old mother. Nor did Jared’s infant screams endear him to the
neighbors, to his weary mother, or to the relative who, for fifty bucks, helped with the
birthing. Why did Jared keep screaming? Probably because of the withdrawal symp-
toms he started experiencing soon after birth, the result of his mother’s drug habit.
Even after he got past that, he was always screaming. His mom had first thought it
would be fun to have a baby, but she soon tired of Jared and left him alone most of the
time after that. This neglect left Jared continually hungry, which fueled more scream-
ing. He was crying when his father stopped by about six months later. An illegal
alien, his father was often both verbally and physically abusive to Jared’s mother who
was too frightened and too dependent on his occasional financial help to move out.

On this night, his father was already on edge because, for reasons he wouldn’t
explain, he thought the police were on his trail. It didn’t take long for Jared’s scream-
ing to throw him into a rage. Grabbing Jared, he started shaking and smacking
him, yelling “Shut up, brat!” until Jared’s mom ripped him from his father’s hands.
The neurological damage was one reason Jared later had trouble in school.

Although he preferred it to hiding in the closet from his father, Jared hated
school. Learning to read took forever, and since this made him feel stupid, he
compensated by demanding attention. By third grade, his behavior had become
unusually disruptive, and he was constantly being punished. When his teachers
grew tired of him, they sent him to the principal. As the principal got tired of him,
Jared started being suspended. When he was assigned a social worker, she didn’t
like what she saw and decided he wasn’t worth her time given the forty other kids
in her caseload. This left Jared with a lot of time on the street, where he became
the local gang’s honorary ten-year-old member. Basking in this approval, Jared
gradually became more dangerous. He got away with his first few crimes. Then,
on his nineteenth birthday, he got into a screaming match with his mother, went

1This story is fictional.

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into the bathroom, lit the paper in the wastebasket, and climbed out the window.
He didn’t show any remorse at his trial, so the judge had no choice but to slap him
with twenty years—the mandatory sentence for what the prosecutor portrayed as
drug-related manslaughter. In prison, he remains pretty much a loner.

* * *

Who cares? Jared’s father didn’t seem to care much for Jared, Jared’s mom, or
even himself. Maybe his mom would have taken better care of Jared if his father
had treated her better. Growing up in such an environment, Jared experienced
very little love and care. While justice may have been served at Jared’s trial, would
his story have turned out differently if he’d been handled in early life with more
sympathy—at home, when he became difficult at school, and later as one more
“case” in the child welfare system? Jared never cared much for anyone else either,
except for one or two of his street buddies. Although most of us aren’t as bad off as
Jared, we would probably all benefit from more caring—from the friend who never
calls, the boss who couldn’t care less, or from the bureaucrat who just hit you with a
big penalty because you filed your state tax return a few hours late. There’s plenty of
opportunity for each of us to start caring more as well—for family and neighbors,
about the conditions in which people like Jared live, about child sex slaves, about
genocides around the world, about environmental disasters—and that’s just a start.

Justice is also a good thing, and the world could use more justice and caring
both. But do they go together? Jared’s punishments in school were probably well-
earned, his trial verdict just, and your tax penalty exactly in keeping with the law.
So there’s justice. If Jared’s teachers, his trial judge, or your bureaucrat had soft-
ened their responses and been more caring, would that have undermined justice?
And if we were to make it a practice of caring for others, would that erode fairness
or make us vulnerable to exploitation? On the other hand, does basing a society
upon a strong foundation of justice tend to keep people from caring?

These are very difficult questions. The problems they raise are by no means
new, however; people have struggled to balance justice with mercy and caring for
ages. The difficulty particularly surfaces, however, as we consider the experiences
of women in most societies up through to the present. How do such consider-
ations relate to ethics? An answer requires that we trace the story of feminism and
one of its most important outcomes—care ethics—over the last century.

For Discussion
1. Morally assess the various people in Jared’s story.
2. How would you describe caring?
3. Do you think Jared’s life would have turned out differently if he had experienced

more caring in his childhood? How?
4. Describe some ways the world would be different if government, businesses, and

individual lives all included much more caring.
5. How can caring (including mercy) and justice conflict with each other? Offer some


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Concerns about the condition and roles of women, both morally and socially,
have a long history. Their impact upon ethics, however, has grown considerably
since about the middle of the twentieth century, paralleling the development of
feminist thought over the same period. At present, feminist ethics is exploring a
very large range of topics, and there has been a great proliferation of viewpoints.
Although this makes feminist ethics impossible to summarize, it is at least pos-
sible to identify several of its defining themes. We begin with the broadest of its
themes here.

• The importance of women’s experience: The distinctive values, perspectives,
and practices of women need to be studied and appraised with great care.
Historically, societies have assigned women roles that have kept them from
participating in the public world. Most “women’s work” thus has taken place
in the private world, often as some type of caregiving (e.g., for young chil-
dren, the sick, and the elderly).

• The existence of gender bias: In several cases, the roles traditionally taken
by women have both originated in and preserved sexist presuppositions.
More generally, women, their work, their contributions, and their perspec-
tives have been almost universally undervalued or even completely ignored.
Women have suffered injustices and been made subordinate because of the
ways male-dominated societies are structured, including even by widely ac-
cepted ethical systems.

• The need for moral reform: Nevertheless, the activities of women, especially
in the private world, have nurtured perspectives and values that bring im-
portant new or neglected moral insights to light. These insights—especially
having to do with caring—can be profitably applied in the development of
alternate ethical viewpoints and theories. But these must not remain ab-
stract; instead, they then need to be implemented with the ultimate goal of
reforming the entire social system. Negatively, the main goal is to remove
those structures within society that ground and preserve its injustices
against women. Positively, the goal is to enrich and transform society by
incorporating valuable feminine moral insights that it presently lacks.

Let’s look at each of these themes more deeply. After millennia of neglect,
women and their unique experiences have especially received more focused study
since the “second wave” of feminism2 started in the late 1960s. Women’s studies
gained academic acceptance, which greatly increased the awareness of social ineq-

2“First wave” feminism, as characterized by Martha Lear, dealt with legal inequities, focusing
especially on voting rights and legal forms of discrimination. The “second wave” broadened feminism
to address a wide range of social inequalities as well. Martha Lear, “The Second Feminist Wave,” New
York Times Magazine, March 10, 1968, in Linda Napikoski, “The Second Feminist Wave,”,
accessed August 28, 2016,

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uities against women. As this awareness grew, more comprehensive and sophisti-
cated critiques of society began to appear.

Useful as these critiques were, they did not break a great deal of new ethical
ground; rather, they tended to apply established concepts of justice and of rights
to the fight for social equality.3 This was in keeping with the practical emphasis
of second wave feminism: social reform. As a result, a number of major changes
in both attitudes and practices—often enforced by the weight of law—began to
take place in the areas of women’s health, education, and employment. Although
all contemporary feminists still see a need for continued social reform, concerns
over justice and rights remain prominent especially among feminists who feel that
only sweeping revolutionary changes in society’s structure can give women the
freedom from domination and control that they require.

Reform can’t be accomplished solely by opposing all that is wrong; alterna-
tives must also be made available. Further, social reform usually requires more
than changes in law and even social practices. Thus, most feminists now think that
reform requires human change as well: changes in how we think and how we per-
ceive both the world and ourselves. This third wave of feminism focuses primarily
upon our understandings of personal identity and gender.4

This latest wave includes concerns for other marginalized groups within our
society and across the globe as well as with environmental issues and the larger
issues of social justice. It has also led to considerable fragmentation and disagree-
ment. For instance, feminists tend to agree about their dissatisfaction with the tra-
ditional male/female gender distinction, which they feel still fosters inequality and
social polarization. The solution, many maintain, is to transcend this distinction
and move toward a degenderized society. But other feminists embrace an opposite
tact, proposing that the two genders be replaced by a multiplicity of diverse gender
concepts. Either approach has profound implications for sexual ethics. Another
major difference pits what some take to be male-oriented conceptions of justice
against an ethics of caring. Many feminists consider caring to be both prior and
theoretically superior to justice. Others object that an emphasis on caring only
contributes further to the injustices women face. This returns us to the tension
between justice and caring and particularly to that between justice and the novel
concept of caring presented within care ethics.

For Discussion
1. How have women’s and men’s experiences differed historically, and how do they

differ even today?
2. What injustices and biases do women presently encounter in our society?
3. Are women in other parts of the world better or worse off than in our society?

3These critiques also made use of several non-ethical accounts in novel ways—most notably,
Marxism and psychoanalysis.

4The notion of “third wave feminism” originated with Rebecca Walker in her “Becoming the
Third Wave,” Ms. Magazine, 11.2 (1992): 39–41.

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4. How far has society actually progressed in making reforms that affect the standing
of women? What changes are still needed?

Feminism is not a single unified movement. Still, a few points can serve as defining
themes of feminist thought: the uniqueness of women’s experience, problems with
gender bias, and the need for moral reform in our society. In addressing these themes,
feminists first worked toward legal equality; it then broadened to address social in-
equalities. Third wave feminism focuses primarily upon our understandings of per-
sonal identity and gender and gave rise to the ongoing project of care ethics.


The origins of care ethics can be found in one corner of feminism’s story just
preceding the third wave. In her groundbreaking 1982 book, In a Different Voice,
Carol Gilligan argued that there is a feminine moral perspective distinct from
the more familiar masculine perspective. Gilligan described the masculine per-
spective as the justice perspective, in contrast to the feminine care perspective.
According to Gilligan, these perspectives reflect fundamentally different ways
people think and talk about moral problems. For instance, Gilligan reports that in
justifying a rejection of their parents’ religious beliefs, one teenage boy declared
that while he respected his parents’ views, he nevertheless had a right to his own
opinions, while a teenage girl worried about the “fear” her parents had of her new
religious beliefs. What’s interesting here is that the boy appealed to abstract prin-
ciples of fairness and respect—which belong to the justice perspective. In contrast,
the girl adopted the care perspective by empathizing with her parents’ feelings
and by taking on the moral responsibility to preserve her relationship with them.
Gilligan’s two perspectives are likewise demonstrated by two medical students
who had to decide about reporting a proctor’s violation of school drinking rules.
While one questioned the school’s authority to prohibit drinking (the justice per-
spective), the other worried that reporting the offender would not help him ad-
dress his drinking problem (the care perspective).5 Although members of either
sex can understand and employ both perspectives, women tend to focus upon care
considerations, while men focus more upon justice. In describing these perspec-
tives, Gilligan’s work clearly aligns with the third wave focus on human identity
and gender differences.

5Both examples are from Carol Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” in Women
and Moral Theory, eds. Eva F. Kittay and Diana T. Meyers (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub-
lishers, 1987), 19–36. Selections reprinted in Mark Timmons, Conduct and Character, Readings in
Moral Theory, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006), 199–200.

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Traditional moral theories—especially utilitarianism and Kantian ethics—
strongly align with the justice perspective. This perspective has dominated our
society for several hundred years, so it’s no accident that our social institutions
neglect moral considerations associated with care. Recognizing this imbalance,
care theorists have constructed a new ethics that takes the distinctive moral per-
spective of care. Given that our society usually deals with moral problems in terms
of universal principles, rights, and justice, care theorists offer a major alternative
as their basis for social reform.

Care ethics – another instance of moral particularism (see Chapter Eleven,
§II and Chapter Four, §V) – tends to resemble virtue theory much more than it
does any principle-based theories. It’s thus not surprising that it goes along with
the virtue criticisms against these theories—that principle-based theories are in-
complete, that they overemphasize impartiality, and that they present a distorted
picture of human nature. Yet care theorists also extend these criticisms in ways
more characteristic of their own perspective. According to Virginia Held, a promi-
nent writer in care ethics, care theorists particularly decry the rigid universalism,
abstract rationalism, and the exaggerated individualism of traditional theories.6
What is striking is that these perceived faults touch those very aspects of tradi-
tional theories that have usually been regarded as their strongest points.

Universalism: Traditional principle-based ethics reflect universalism and its reli-
ance upon universal moral principles. Kant’s categorical imperative requires that
any morally acceptable action falls under a maxim that is rationally universal-
izable. Rule utilitarianism likewise sees any rule that promotes overall utility as
being universal, while act utilitarianism reduces all moral duties to the single uni-
versal duty to promote overall utility.

The moral point of universalism is to combat self-centeredness—to encourage
impartiality. As we all learn through hard experience, self-centered attitudes can
greatly hinder moral action and understanding. Universalism helps combat our
thinking exclusively about ourselves. But if universalism has such great moral
value, what about it do care theorists find so objectionable?

Like virtue theorists, care theorists reject the assumption that morality can be
rigidly summarized by universal or “one-size-fits-all” principles. As particularists
like to point out, morality is too complex for any set of rules to address all moral
concerns. Unlike virtue theorists, however, care theorists are especially concerned
about our moral responsibilities within relationships—between friends, between
parents and children, and between spouses—which have been largely ignored by
traditional theories.

Next, principles cannot lead us to think about relationships in the right sorts
of ways. It’s bizarre to speak of a mother’s duty to love and cuddle her newborn or

6This set of objections reflect themes widely (but not universally) accepted by feminist ethicists.
Virginia Held, “Feminist Ethical Theory,” in Conduct and Character, Readings in Moral Theory, 4th ed.,
ed. Mark Timmons (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002), 237–243.

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of the husband’s duty to lend a sympathetic ear to his wife’s story of her day. Yes,
people should do these things. But they should just naturally do these things be-
cause they care for each other—not because their failing to do them violates some
abstract principle.

One interesting claim arising out of the care perspective is that the moral
responsibilities of particular relationships may sometimes override the ideal of
impartiality demanded by universalism. While this is more controversial, it might
be maintained, for instance, that an employer of a small business should hire a
needy relative over an equally worthy outsider. Likewise, most of us feel that we
normally ought to help our friends, relatives, and neighbors before we concern
ourselves with strangers.

For all of these reasons, care theorists reject universalism, maintaining that
the right act depends on each distinct situation, including not only the personal
character traits involved (virtue theory) but also the relationships between the per-
sons involved. More specifically, care ethics looks at particular kinds of relation-
ships (e.g., friendship, marriage, parent/child), together with particular aspects
of those relationships (e.g., a friendly acquaintance vs. a close friendship; being
the parent of a young child vs. an adult child). The latter, especially, make it pos-
sible for certain moral obligations to exist for one relationship that do not for
another. For these reasons, and because of its moral particularism, care ethics is
another account to which the thinking strategy of moral reflection applies (see
Chapter Four, §V).

Emotion: Traditional theories (even virtue theory) view morality as inherently ra-
tional. They thus have taken a dim view of emotion, which can run counter to the
dictates of reason. Yet while reason can certainly help us when our feelings clash
with morality, the rationalistic tradition has been mistaken, care ethicists main-
tain, in viewing emotions exclusively as obstructing moral action. Hate, anger, and
selfishness can indeed move us to do wrong, but “sensitivity, sympathy, empathy
and solidarity of feeling” can promote morally desirable attitudes.7 Care ethicists
thus urge us not to reject interpersonal emotions wholesale but to embrace the
“moral” emotions as essential to morally healthy relationships. In fact, some care
ethicists consider reason to be only a secondary determinant of morality. Although
nothing in care theory goes so far as to discard reason entirely, it does seem to
assign reason a more limited role than does any other theory.

Individualism: A third mark of traditional ethics—together with liberal social
thought—is the conception of persons as self-sufficient moral agents. Indi-
vidualism lies at the heart of what we have called value-neutral autonomy (see
Chapter Three, §V), the notion that autonomy is only about freedom from
everything beyond our direct personal control. This negative view encour-
ages a “take it or leave it” attitude toward relationships, which should never be

7Ibid., 240.

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allowed to affect or alter one’s autonomy. In keeping with this, individualism
conceives of interpersonal relationships as essentially contractual: as agree-
ments freely entered into by autonomous individuals for the sake of sharing
certain interests and for mutual benefit. In short, individualism portrays each
of us as largely unaffected even as we interact in various relationships, just as
billiard balls remain unaffected as they collide with or temporarily rest against
each other on the table.8

In stark contrast, care ethics emphasizes interdependence and connected-
ness, basing morality upon relationships rather than individuals. As a relational
ethic, care ethics sees us developing our personal characters, moral responsibili-
ties, and even our personal autonomy through our relationships. Care theorists
offer a host of reasons for making this shift. First, traditional individualism is
unrealistic, especially given today’s complex social networks. As essentially social
beings, furthermore, most of our needs must be met within relationships, start-
ing with often the most formative relation of all—the mother/child relationship.
Because of its importance, care theorists often view this to represent the ideal
model of care. The deep dependency that characterizes this relationship is also
something many of us occasionally return to—in serious illness, disability, and
often in old age. For these and other reasons, care theorists propose that we in-
stead adopt relational autonomy, a version of substantive autonomy (see Chapter
Three, §V).

For Discussion
1. In separate groups of men and women, consider a moral issue (e.g., capital pun-

ishment, abortion, gun control, economic injustice). Is the justice or care perspec-
tive reflected as each group explains and supports its views?

2. Does your own moral thinking emphasize one moral perspective?
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of moral particularism?
4. Which emotions seem to you to be morally helpful or harmful?
5. What are some similarities and differences between virtue ethics and care ethics?

There is evidence that two different moral perspectives exist; while men tend to take
the justice perspective, women more often adopt the care perspective. Attention to the
care perspective has led to the ethics of care. This new approach to ethics rejects the
universalism, rationalism, and individualism of traditional theories. Instead, it main-
tains that special responsibilities can arise within particular relationships (particular-
ism), that certain relation-building emotions are no less important than reason, and
that relationships rather than individuals are morally central.

8Most traditional ethics developed at the same time as mechanistic science, which treated all
natural bodies like billiard balls regulated by the laws of nature. Paralleling this, traditional ethical
theories viewed people as autonomous entities whose interactions are regulated by moral laws.

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Key Terms

• Justice perspective: a characteristically masculine moral perspective that fo-
cuses upon moral rights, principles, and justice.

• Care perspective: a characteristically feminine moral perspective that focuses
upon feelings, relationships, and individual needs.

• Universalism: a view of ethics that rejects moral particularism and insists on
the universalizability of moral claims.


Since the care perspective introduces assumptions and values quite different from
those of most other ethical theories, it has great potential for enriching our moral