The four major areas of study within ethics are:
- Descriptive ethicsor comparative ethics
- Normative ethics
- Applied ethics
There are three theories to answer above three questions:
(A) Semantic theories
- These theories mainly put forward a position on the first of the three questions above, “What is the meaning of moral terms or judgements?” They may however imply or even entail answers to the other two questions as well.
- Meta-ethical theories are commonly categorized as Cognitivist theories or Non-Cognitivist theories.
- Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false, as opposed to non-cognitivism.
- Moral realism or Ethical Objectivism
- It holds that such propositions are not facts about any person or group’s subjective opinion, but about objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
- Ethical naturalism a definist form of moral realism, which says that moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features. Ethical naturalism suggests that inquiry into the natural world can increase our moral knowledge in just the same way it increases our scientific knowledge.
- Ethical non-naturalism is a non-definist form of moral realism, which says that moral features of the world are irreducible to any set of non-moral features. For Example: Goodness is a simple, undefinable, non-natural property. It means that goodness cannot be reduced to natural properties such as needs, wants or pleasures. Goodness cannot be defined in any other terms. This is the central claim of non-naturalism. One cannot substitute words referring to pleasure, needs or anything else in place of “good.”
- Advantages of Moral Realism: Moral realism allows the ordinary rules of logic to be applied straightforwardly to moral statements. We can say that a moral belief is false or contradictory in the same way we would about a factual belief. Another advantage of moral realism is its capacity to resolve moral disagreements: If two moral beliefs contradict one another, realism says that they cannot both be right, and therefore everyone involved ought to be seeking out the right answer to resolve the disagreement.
- Disadvantages of Moral Realism: while realism can explain how to resolve moral conflicts, it does not explain how these conflicts arose in the first place. Others are critical of moral realism because moral truths cannot be observed in the same way as material facts (which are objective), so it seems odd to count them in the same category.
- Ethical subjectivism
- It is one form of moral anti-realism. It holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of people.
- The most common forms of ethical subjectivism are also forms of moral relativism, with moral standards held to be relative to each culture or society, or even to every individual.
- Ethical subjectivism is also compatible with moral absolutism, in that the individual or society to whose attitudes moral propositions refer can hold some moral principle to apply regardless of circumstances. (That is, a moral principle can be relative to an individual, but not relative to circumstances).
- Ethical subjectivism stands in opposition to moral realism, which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of human opinion.
- Ideal observer theory holds that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer would have. An ideal observer is usually characterized as a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative, and informed, among other things. Though a subjectivist theory due to its reference to a particular subject, Ideal Observer Theory still purports to provide universal answers to moral questions.
- Error theory
- It is another form of moral anti-realism, holds that although ethical claims do express propositions, all such propositions are false. Thus, both the statement “Murder is bad” and the statement “Murder is good” are false, according to error theory.
- Since error theory denies that there are moral truths, error theory entails moral nihilism (Moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral) and, thus, moral skepticism (Moral skepticism is metaethical view that no one has any moral knowledge).
- Error theory is built by three principles:
- There are no moral features in this world; nothing is right or wrong.
- Therefore no moral judgements are true; however,
- Our sincere moral judgements try, but always fail, to describe the moral features of things.
- Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions (i.e. statements) and thus cannot be true or false. Non-cognitivism is another form of moral anti-realism.
- If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.
- One argument against non-cognitivism is that it ignores the external causes of emotional and prescriptive reactions. If someone says, “John is a good person,” something about John must have inspired that reaction. If John gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others, and these are what inspire the speaker to think well of him, it is plausible to say, “John is a good person because he gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others.”
- Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes.
- It holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. So “Killing is wrong” means something like “Boo on killing!”.
- Universal prescriptivism
- Universal prescriptivism is the meta-ethical view which claims that, rather than expressing propositions, ethical sentences function similarly to imperatives which are universalizable—whoever makes a moral judgement is committed to the same judgement in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain.
- Ex: Consider the moral sentence “Murder is wrong.” According to moral realism, such a sentence claims there to be some objective property of “wrongness” associated with the act of murder. According to emotivism, such a sentence merely expresses an attitude of the speaker; it only means something like “Boo on murder!” But according to prescriptivism, the statement “Murder is wrong” means something more like “Do not murder”—what it expresses is not primarily a description or an emotion, it is an imperative.
- Criticism: It is the matter of weakness of will. Simply knowing what is right, does not seem to motivate people to do right.
(B) Substantial theories:
- These theories attempt to answer the second of the above questions: “What is the nature of moral judgements?”
- Amongst those who believe there to be some standard of morality (as opposed to moral nihilists), there are two divisions: universalists, who hold that the same moral facts or principles apply to everyone everywhere; and relativists, who hold that different moral facts or principles apply to different people or societies.
Moral universalism (or universal morality)
- It is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is to all people regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature.
- The source or justification of this system may be thought to be, for instance, human nature, shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, etc.
- Not all forms of moral universalism are value monist; many forms of universalism may be value pluralist.
- Value monism is the common form of universalism, which holds that all goods are commensurable on a single value scale.
- Value pluralism is the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental, and yet in conflict with each other. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both a life as a nun and a life as a mother realize genuine values (in a universalist sense), yet they are incompatible (nuns may not have children), and there is no purely rational way to measure which is preferable.
- It maintains that all moral judgements have their origins either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single objective standard exists by which one can assess the truth of a moral proposition.
- Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgements across different people and cultures.
- Meta-ethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, and “wrong” do not stand subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference.
(C) Justification theories:
- These are theories that attempt to answer questions like, “How moral judgments be supported or defended?” or “Why should I be moral?”
Moral Knowledge is gained by inference:
- Most posit that moral knowledge is somehow possible, as opposed to moral skepticism. Amongst them, there are those who hold that moral knowledge is gained inferentially as opposed to ethical intuitionism.
- Empiricism is the doctrine that knowledge is gained primarily through observation and experience.
- Moral rationalism is the view according to which moral truths are knowable a priori, by reason alone. Some prominent figures who have defended moral rationalism are Plato and Immanuel Kant. Others who have rejected moral rationalism are David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Moral Knowledge is gained without inference:
- Ethical intuitionism is the view according to which some moral truths can be known without inference (i.e., known without one needing to infer them from other truths one believes).
- Ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
- Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts.
- Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. To put it another way, descriptive ethics would be concerned with determining what proportion of people believe that killing is always wrong, while normative ethics is concerned with whether it is correct to hold such a belief. Hence, normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive, rather than descriptive.
Normative ethical theories:
- There are disagreements about what precisely gives an action, rule, or disposition its ethical force.
- Broadly speaking, there are three competing views on how moral questions should be answered:
- Virtue ethics
- Deontological ethics
- Virtue ethics focuses on the character of those who are acting, while both deontological ethics and consequentialism focus on the status of the action, rule, or disposition itself. The latter two conceptions of ethics themselves come in various forms.
- For example, a consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying—though a consequentialist may allow that certain foreseeable consequences might make lying acceptable. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any potential “good” that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on lying in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or not tell a lie said about one’s character and moral behavior. As such, the morality of lying would be determined on a case-by-case basis, which would be based on factors such as personal benefit, group benefit, and intentions (as to whether they are benevolent or malevolent).
- Virtue ethics:
- Virtue ethics, advocated by Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on specific actions. Virtue ethics emphasizes the role of one’s character and the virtues that one’s character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior.
- The cardinal virtues are a set of four virtues derived initially from Plato‘s scheme, discussed in Republic. They consist of:
- Prudence: also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time.
- Justice: also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue.
- Temperance: also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition.
- Courage: also named fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.
- Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. He identified a few intellectual virtues, the most important of which was wisdom. The approximately two dozen moral virtues he identified includes above four i.e. Prudence, Justice, Fortitude (Courage), Temperance
- Aristotle argued that each of the moral virtues was a mean (called golden mean) between two corresponding vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example: courage is a virtue found between the vices of cowardliness and recklessness.
- In Chinese philosophy, a similar concept, Doctrine of the Mean, was propounded by Confucius. Buddhist philosophy likewise includes the concept of the Middle Path.
Criticism of Virtue theory:
- Regarding virtues once supposedly applicable to women, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and industrious. This conception of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies. Proponents of virtue theory sometimes respond to this objection by arguing that a central feature of a virtue is its universal applicability. In other words, any character trait defined as a virtue must reasonably be universally regarded as a virtue for all sentient beings. According to this view, it is inconsistent to claim for example servility as a female virtue, while at the same time not proposing it as a male one.
- Another objection to virtue theory is that the school does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. In other words, while some virtue theorists may not condemn, for example, murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, they may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues, such as compassion and fairness.
- Some Consequentialism theories include:
(a) State consequentialism or Mohist consequentialism
- It holds that an action is right if it leads to state welfare, through order, material wealth, and population growth.
(b) Ethical egoism
- Ethical egoism is consequentialist ethics in which moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. In ethical egoism, the consequences for the individual agent are taken to matter more than any other result. Thus, egoism will prescribe actions that may be beneficial, detrimental, or neutral to the welfare of others.
(c) Ethical altruism
- Ethical altruism can be seen as a consequentialist ethics which prescribes that an individual take actions that have the best consequences for everyone except for himself.
- Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, including as pleasure, economic well-being and the lack of suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which implies that the consequences of an action are of moral importance.
- Classical utilitarianism’s two most influential contributors are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
- Bentham, who takes happiness as the measure for utility, says, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. Bentham introduces a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which has come to be known as the hedonic calculus. [Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the primary or most important intrinsic good. A hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)]. Bentham says that the value of a pleasure or pain, considered by itself, can be measured according to its intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness. In addition, it is necessary to consider “the tendency of any act by which it is produced” . Finally, it is necessary to consider the extent, or the number of people affected by the action.
- Mill was brought up as a Benthamite with the explicit intention that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism. In Mill’s book Utilitarianism, he rejected a purely quantitative measurement of utility (unlike Bentham).
Q. What is the difference between the Theories of Mill and Bentham?
- On the one hand J.S. Mill popularised the Utilitarianism of his father James Mill and his friend Bentham and on the other hand, he continued his enquiry into truth. Mill’s theory differs from Bentham’s even though Mill has founded the school of Utilitarianism on Bentham’s principles. The theories of Mill and Bentham differ from each other in the following respects.
- Qualitative distinction in pleasures: Mill made qualitative distinctions in different pleasures. According to Bentham, all pleasures are similar if the quantity of pleasure be the same. Contrary to this, according to Mill, ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ In this way Mill clearly states that sensous pleasure originating from animal tendencies is not everything. Mental or intellectual pleasure is far superior.
- Differences in the assumptions about human nature: Actually Mill and Bentham differed in their assumptions relating to human nature. Bentham did not look upon man as anything better than animal. According to him, man is always in search of pleasure. Pleasures do not have qualitative distinctions. According to Mill, man is not, merely an animal. He is superior to animals. He has intellect and intellectual pleasure is superior to sensual pleasure. Man’s importance is due to his intellect. He does not run blind folded after pleasures. He makes qualitative distinctions in pleasures.
- Difference in ethical principles: The ethical principles of Mill and Bentham also differ. According to Bentham man should carry out activities yielding the maximum pleasure, without making qualitative distinctions. According to Mill, Man is not to become an animal. His humanity is valuable. It is creditable to be human being even by designing sensual pleasure. Man’s duty is to attain high qualities and nobler or great pleasures.