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Read the book chapter 6 and write about 250 words. The specific questions are in the screenshot, apa 7 format

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Read the book chapter 6 and write about 250 words. The specific questions are in the screenshot, apa 7 format


Jonathan Wolff
Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

W. W. NOrtON & COmpaNy

New York • LoNdoN


introduction too

W. W. Norton & Company has been independent since its founding in 1923, when
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Wolff, Jonathan, author.
Title: An introduction to moral philosophy / Jonathan Wolff, Blavatnik School 
of Government, University of Oxford.
Description: First edition. | New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. | 
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017035330 | ISBN 9780393923599 (pbk.)
Subjects:  LCSH: Ethics.
Classification: LCC BJ1025 .W65 2017 | DDC 170—dc23 LC record available at

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 15 Carlisle Street, London W1D 3BS

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

To my nephews, Dan and Tom

Preface xiii

1 Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning 1

2 Cultural Relativism 21

3 Skepticism and Subjectivism 40

4 Free Will and Moral Responsibility 58

5 Religion and Natural Law 71

6 Egoism 88

7 The Social Contract 108

8 Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill 125

9 Challenges for Utilitarianism 144

10 Deontology: Kant 163

11 Challenges for Kantian Ethics 182

12 Virtue Ethics: Aristotle 200

13 Challenges for Virtue Ethics 219

14 The Ethics of Gender and Race 232

15 Developing a Moral Outlook 258

Key Thinkers K- 1
Glossary G- 1
Index I- 1

brief contents

Preface xiii
About the Author xvi

chapter 1 Moral Philosophy and Moral
Reasoning 1

The Point of Moral Philosophy 1
developing a Moral outlook 2
traditions of moral philosophy 3

The Nature of Moral Inquiry 4
meta- Ethics 5
Normative Ethics 5
applied Ethics 6

Moral Reasoning 7
Formal Logic: Validity, Soundness, equivocation, Circularity 8
analogy, Induction, argument to the Best Explanation 11
thought Experiments and moral Intuitions 13
Special moral arguments 16

The Plan of This Book 17

Chapter Review 18
Summary 18 • discussion Questions 19 • key Terms 19
key Thinkers 19 • Further reading 20



vi ■ Contents

chapter 2 Cultural Relativism 21

The Variety of Moral Practices 21

Objectivism or Cultural Relativism? 23

Relativism and Pseudo- Relativism 26
problems for relativism 31

Modest Relativism 32
Genital Cutting and Cultural relativism 34

Chapter Review 37
Summary 37 • discussion Questions 38 • key Terms 38
key Thinkers 38 • Further reading 39

chapter 3 Skepticism and Subjectivism 40

Moral Nihilism 40

Morality and Custom 42
Morality as a device to Curb the Strong 43

Individual Subjectivism 44
Expressivism 46

Objective Moral Concepts 49

Ethics, Language, Metaphysics, and Epistemology 51
The Argument From Queerness 52

Responding to Nihilism, Subjectivism, and Error Theory 54

Chapter Review 55
Summary 55 • discussion Questions 56 • key Terms 56
key Thinkers 56 • Further reading 57

chapter 4 Free Will and Moral Responsibility 58

Free Will 58
Intuitive Belief in Free Will 59
Sociological determinism 61
Psychological and Physical determinism 61

Determinism and Moral Responsibility 63

Contents ■ vii

Compatibilism 64
Law and determinism 67

Chapter Review 68
Summary 68 • discussion Questions 69 • key Terms 69
key Thinkers 69 • Further reading 69

chapter 5 Religion and Natural Law 71

Religion as a Basis for Morality 71

Divine Command and the Euthyphro Dilemma 73
responding to the dilemma 75
The Logic of the dilemma 76

Religion and Natural Law 77
Natural Law and reason 78
The Fact/Value distinction 81
Natural Law and Conscience 83

Chapter Review 84
Summary 84 • discussion Questions 85 • key Terms 85
key Thinkers 85 • Further reading 86

chapter 6 Egoism 88

Why Be Moral? 88

Psychological Egoism 89
the Evidence for psychological Egoism 91
Can psychological Egoism Be rejected? 95

Self- Interest and Evolution 96
Selfish Genes and kin Altruism 96
the mountain people 98

Ethical Egoism 100
Private Vices, Public Virtues 101
pure Ethical Egoism 102

Chapter Review 105
Summary 105 • discussion Questions 105 • key Terms 105
key Thinkers 105 • Further reading 106

chapter 7 The Social Contract 108

Morality as a Compromise Agreement 108

The Social Contract 111
The Prisoner’s dilemma 112
Cooperation and public Goods 114

Developing the Contract Argument 116
Beyond rules and regulations 118
Social Contract theory in practice 119

Chapter Review 121
Summary 121 • discussion Questions 122 • key Terms 122
key Thinkers 123 • Further reading 123

chapter 8 Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill 125

The Context of Bentham’s Moral Philosophy 125
Elimination of asceticism 128
Elimination of the principle of Sympathy and antipathy 129

Clarifying Utilitarianism 130
Bentham’s theory of the Good 131
Measuring Happiness 131

Utilitarianism and Equality for Women 134
the Subjection of Women 135

Justifying Utilitarianism 136
mill’s “proof” 138
Aggregating Happiness 141

Chapter Review 142
Summary 142 • discussion Questions 142 • key Terms 142
key Thinkers 142 • Further reading 143

chapter 9 Challenges for Utilitarianism 144

Is Happiness the Sole Ultimate Good? 144
the Narrowness Objection 144
the agency Objection 146

viii ■ Contents

the Evil pleasures Objection 147
The Quality objection 147
the Irrelevance Objection 149

Maximizing Happiness 150
Counterintuitive Consequences 151

Modifying Utilitarianism 153
act and rule Utilitarianism 153
Two- Level Utilitarianism 155

The Problem of Contingency: Gender and Race 157

Chapter Review 159
Summary 159 • discussion Questions 160 • key Terms 160
key Thinkers 160 • Further reading 161

chapter 10 Deontology: Kant 163

The Supreme Moral Principle 163
Summary of Kant’s Ethics 164

The Good Will 166
Sympathy 168

The Categorical Imperative 169
Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives 170
the maxim of an action 171

Kant’s Examples 173
Suicide 175
False Promising, Neglecting Your Talents, and Failing to Help 177

Chapter Review 179
Summary 179 • discussion Questions 180 • key Terms 180
key Thinkers 180 • Further reading 180

chapter 11 Challenges for Kantian Ethics 182

Formulations of the Supreme Principle of Morality 182
the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends 183
The Formula of Humanity 183
Autonomy and Heteronomy 186

Contents ■ ix

Using Kant’s Theory 188
once More: kant on Lying 189
kantian ethics in real Life 190

Freedom and Morality 193

Kant and Christianity 194

Moral Principles, Race, and Gender 195

Chapter Review 197
Summary 197 • discussion Questions 198 • key Terms 198
key Thinkers 198 • Further reading 198

chapter 12 Virtue Ethics: Aristotle 200

Aristotle’s Moral Methodology 200

The Good Life 202

Acquiring Virtue 205
Is Virtue Natural? 206
Can Virtue Be Learned from a Book? 206
Habituation 207

Virtue, Vice, and the Golden Mean 209
The Virtues 210
the Golden mean 212

Virtue Theory and the Mean 214

Chapter Review 216
Summary 216 • discussion Questions 217 • key Terms 217
key Thinkers 217 • Further reading 217

chapter 13 Challenges for Virtue Ethics 219

Criticisms of Virtue Ethics 219

Virtue Theory and Abortion 221

Do You Have a Character? 223

Aristotle on Gender and Race 226

Chapter Review 229
Summary 229 • discussion Questions 230 • key Terms 230
key Thinkers 230 • Further reading 230

x ■ Contents

chapter 14 The Ethics of Gender and Race 232

Gender and Race: A Review 232

The Ethics of Care 233
Jake and amy 234

Power, Privilege, Diversity 239
the Birdcage 242
Feminism and Science 244
morality and power 246
Critique of Moral Philosophy 247
Beyond the Binary divide 248

The Ethics of Race 250

Taking Action 252

Chapter Review 253
Summary 253 • key Terms 254
key Thinkers 254 • Further reading 256

chapter 15 Developing a Moral Outlook 258

Moral Theories 258

Learning from Moral Philosophy 259

Key Thinkers K-1
Glossary G-1
Index I-1

Contents ■ xi


ne of the key ideas when reflecting on a moral problem is to con-
sider how things look from the other person’s point of view. This, in
my opinion, is just as important in writing about morality as it is for
morality itself. In all my writing, including this book, I have aimed to
write what I would have wanted to read myself at the relevant stage of
my life; in this case, at the start of my study of moral philosophy. I have

been led by the dictum of the great moral philosopher Immanuel Kant in
his text “What is Enlightenment?” To be enlightened is to think for yourself,
rather than taking on other people’s ideas without reflecting for yourself
how they might be justified.

This book is aimed at helping those new to the subject to think for them-
selves about moral philosophy. I want to help you come to a better under-
standing of how you should think, feel, and act, if you are to do so with
moral confidence. I have not attempted to tell you what to think, but rather
to help you think independently about moral questions— not only about the
issues in this book, but also about other questions that may occur in your
life and in your thought. In other words, although saying this could give rise
to false expectations, the point of this book is to help set you out on the path
toward moral enlightenment (at least in Kant’s sense of the term enlight-
enment). It is not, however, a matter of knowing the answers, but rather of
having the equipment to think hard about the questions.

The main focus of this book is theoretical or conceptual. It is aimed
at introducing the reader to the main debates, theories, and concepts
that currently structure moral philosophy both as a subject studied in
the university and applied to real life. In doing so I often use examples,
but there is not enough space in just one book to examine practical ques-
tions in full depth. Accordingly, this book is accompanied by another


one, called Readings in Moral Philosophy, that provides selections from
many of the texts discussed here, as well as readings on many critical
debates in applied ethics. Together these books provide a comprehensive
introduction to moral philosophy, although each one can also be used
independently of the other.

One goal of this book is to ref lect moral philosophy in its growing diver-
sity of approaches and subject matter. Thus it includes illustrations from a
wide array of other disciplines that students might be studying, such as psy-
chology, anthropology, literature, biological sciences, and so on. In addition,
students will find an expansive and contemporary discussion of gender and
race included across much of the text. In particular, I have tried to avoid the
common trap of restricting feminist ethics to the ethics of care.

Each chapter ends with a summary, from three to five discussion
questions, separate lists of key terms and thinkers, and a further reading
section. At the end of this book is a glossary of key terms and a list of key
thinkers found in the book. The book is also supported by a full test bank
and a coursepack of assignable quizzes and discussion prompts that loads
into most learning management systems. Access these resources at digital

In writing this book I have acquired many debts. I think the first person
to suggest that I write this book for W. W. Norton was Roby Harrington.
Ken Barton broke down my resistance, and then Peter Simon was the first
Norton editor I worked with until Ken returned to take over that role. I have
worked with Ken most on this book, but Michael Moss has also played an
important role, as have Diane Cipollone, Shannon Jilek, Christianne Thil-
len, Marian Johnson, Quynh Do, Gerra Goff, Benjamin Reynolds, Ashley
Horna, Erica Wnek, Lissi Sigillo, and other colleagues in bringing it safely
to print and beyond. I am exceptionally grateful to all of these people for
their encouragement and firm advice at many points.

I have received an abundance of comments at many stages. The response
that led to the most significant rethinking was from my former PhD student,
the moral and political philosopher Rajeev Sehgal, who generously wrote up
comments on two successive drafts of the book, each time expressing a rich
variety of forms of dissatisfaction with what I had written. I learned from
all these suggestions, and adopted many of them, though I fear not enough
to dispel all of Raj’s doubts. But even if it is far from perfect, the book is

xiv ■ Preface

Preface ■ xv

greatly improved as a result. I’ve also benefited enormously from feedback
from a good number of others. Michael Klenk, Doug Reeve, Dan Guillery,
Showkat Ali, Khatiji Haneef, and Don Berry all provided comments on all
or part of the first draft.

I also greatly appreciate the excellent feedback on later drafts provided
by the following people: Paul Abela, Acadia University; Caroline T. Arruda,
University of Texas at El Paso; Luisa Benton, Richland College;
Andrew D.  Chapman, University of Colorado, Boulder; Laura T. Di Summa-
Knoop, Fairfield University; Eric Gampel, California State University– Chico;
Don Hatcher, Baker University; Carol Hay, University of Massachusetts,
Lowell; Debby Hutchins, South Texas College; Rodger Jackson, Stockton
University; Alex King, University at Buffalo, SUNY; Julie Kirsch, D’You-
ville College; Alice MacLachlan, York University; Michael McKeon, Barry
University; Timothy  J. Nulty, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth;
Andrew Pavelich, University of Houston; Arina Pismenny, Montclair State
University; Aleksandar Pjevalica, University of Texas at El Paso; Weaver
Santaniello, Penn State University; Susanne Sreedhar, Boston University;
Daniel Star, Boston University; Glenn Tiller, Texas A&M University Corpus
Christi; Lori Watson, University of San Diego; and Bryan Weaver, Ohio State

I would particularly like to thank Derek Bowman, Providence College;
Rory Kraft, York College of Pennsylvania; and Joanna Smolenski, CUNY, for
their work in preparing the test bank and coursepack.

onathan Wolff is the Blavatnik Chair in Public Policy at the Blavatnik
School of Government, University of Oxford. Previously he was Pro-
fessor of Philosophy, and Dean of Arts and Humanities, at University
College London. His books include Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and
the Minimal State (1991), An Introduction to Political Philosophy (1996,
3rd  ed. 2016), Why Read Marx Today? (2002), Disadvantage (with

Avner de- Shalit) (2007), Ethics and Public Policy (2011), and The Human
Right to Health (2012). He has been a member of the Nuffield Council of
Bioethics, and has worked on questions of the ethics of risk and the valua-
tion of life and health with regard to the railway and pharmaceutical indus-
tries in the UK, as well as the government. He writes a regular column for
The Guardian newspaper.

about the author



C H A P T E R   1

Moral Philosophy and
Moral Reasoning

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search
of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of
the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come,
or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not
yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek
wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in
good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that,
while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the
things which are to come.

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

In one sense of the word introduction, no one reading this book needs an
introduction to morality. Even before we can speak, we receive training in
morality; we are taught to share and to take turns. We are told not to bite,
pinch, or scratch or to take toys that belong to others. Once we can speak,
we are instructed not to lie, and not to make promises we don’t intend to
keep. We are shown how to be considerate of others’ feelings, and we find
it easy to detect when we have been unfairly treated. Some children take to
these rules easily; others have to be reminded again and again. Some never
learn. But morality, and moral questions, are all around us from the start.

If morality comes early, moral philosophy, which is the name for thinking
and ref lecting about morality, comes later if it comes at all. Although the
Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 bce) in the opening quote
invites everyone to take an early interest in philosophy, another view from
the earliest recorded days of philosophy was that moral philosophy is not
for the young. Aristotle (384–322 bce), whom we will look at in detail later
in this book, wrote:

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on [moral philosophy],
for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions
start from these and are about these; and further, since he tends to follow his

2 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is
not knowledge but action. (Aristotle, Ethics, Book 1, iii)

Aristotle suggests that the young man is not ready to study moral phi-
losophy for he lacks experience of life, as well as self- control. For the young
woman, Aristotle appears to assume that the question simply does not arise,
which ref lects common Ancient Greek views about women’s place in soci-
ety (again, something we will look at later). Yet, Aristotle went on to add,
youthfulness is not to be measured in years: You could be old but immature
and the value of moral philosophy pass you by (Book 1, iii). For the pur-
poses of this book I will assume that even if Aristotle is right that moral
philosophy needs life experience, then you, female or male, have reached a
level of maturity in outlook and behavior that will allow you to benefit from
thinking hard about the nature of morality— from doing moral philosophy.

Developing a Moral Outlook
But what, more exactly, is moral philosophy, and why study it? From time to
time people turn to moral philosophy because they face a serious moral dif-
ficulty in their own life that they hope will be resolved, or at least eased, by
understanding the works of the great philosophers. Those with such hopes
treat philosophers rather like some people approach religious leaders: as a
source of moral wisdom and comfort. But as things are, it is the rare moral
philosopher who is trained or equipped to help in this very direct fashion.

Nevertheless moral philosophy is a practical subject, albeit with many
significant and important theoretical elements. What moral philosophy
can do, at its best, is to help you develop your moral outlook on life. By this
I mean that it can help you come to a keener sense of what does and does
not matter from a moral point of view. It can help you form a view of what
considerations do, and do not, need to be taken seriously, and how we should
develop our reasoning, attention, and emotions. Most importantly, it can
help you think through the nature of your relationships with other people,
and with other things of value, such as the animal world and the natural
environment. It can help you think about how best to use your talents and
energy, and what your goals in life should be. It can also have implications
for how you should try to inf luence and, where appropriate, educate those
around you. Although, as we will see, many moral philosophers have offered
guidance to help in particular situations, often what the best moral phi-
losophers do is inspire you to come to a way of seeing the world and the
individuals within it.

To give examples of some of the major philosophers discussed here, from
the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (429?–347 bce) we can learn how hard

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 3

it is to reject the idea that, deep down, there are objective truths of morality.
From Aristotle, whom I have just been discussing, we can learn that moral-
ity is as much about human character as it is about action. From the German
philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), we can appreciate how important
it is to treat other people with respect. From the British philosophers Jer-
emy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–73), we can consider
whether we agree that primarily what matters is the happiness of human
beings and other sentient creatures. And from the German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), we can comprehend that genuine morality
should not be confused with what we happen to approve or disapprove of at
this time in history. All of these thinkers developed their insights in much
more depth and very often held detailed moral positions that emphasize
their own concerns to the exclusion of others. But they all have something
to teach us, not just intellectually, but practically. Their insights can help
inform and inspire your moral outlook on life, whether or not you endorse
the details of their views.

I said that these great thinkers have something to teach us not just intel-
lectually, but practically. Nevertheless many readers will want to reject some
of the ideas that I have just outlined, just as many of these philosophers
rejected the ideas of other philosophers. To take just one example, Ben-
tham and Mill insisted that human (or animal) happiness is the foundation
of all morality. Kant thought this was a fundamental error, arguing that
respecting the will of other rational creatures, rather than a concern for
their happiness, is the basis of morality. Nietzsche was even more dismis-
sive, memorably asserting that only the Englishman cares about happiness.
Yet many will side with Bentham and Mill against Kant and Nietzsche. In
this book I do not try to argue that one particular way of thinking about
moral questions is the right one, although it may become obvious where my
sympathies lie. My aim, rather, is to introduce some of the best philosophical
writing about morality, providing a sense of the options available to guide
our ref lections.

Traditions of Moral Philosophy
Even for those who want to reject some, or perhaps all, of the ideas men-
tioned above as part of their practical approach to morality, the ideas of
these thinkers are vitally important and should be studied by anyone who
wishes to think seriously about morality. First of all, it is important to gain
an understanding of a view in its subtlety and complexity before trying to
evaluate it, rather than dismissing it without proper understanding. But
equally, these views are a major part of our intellectual inheritance in the

4 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Western world, and the spread of Western ideas, for good or ill, has meant
that their influence is worldwide. We must therefore be aware of the major
traditions of Western moral philosophy if we are to understand world his-
tory, literature, or culture or even to participate in debates about war and
peace, about life and death, and much else besides.

Nevertheless, I certainly do not want anyone to get the impression that
I believe that Western theories of morality are the only ideas worth exam-
ining: Chinese, Indian, Arabic, African, and other traditions of ethics are
full of wisdom and insight and are worthy of deep study. Some of these,
especially Indian traditions, have influenced some of the thinkers discussed
here. (I have included references to introductory texts in these traditions
in “Further Reading” at the end of this chapter.) But a single book cannot
possibly cover everything in detail, and I have chosen to concentrate on
Western traditions of ethical thought rather than produce a more superficial
sample with wider scope. Although I do sometimes mention other traditions
(especially in Chapter 2, “Cultural Relativism”), they play a minor role here.

Morality is a puzzle. It’s not like science, where we make observations and
conduct experiments to gain and improve knowledge. It is not like literary
fiction, which, if we have the skill, we can conjure up out of our imagina-
tions. There seem to be moral rules, or at least moral standards. What are
they? What do they require of us? Where do they come from? How do we
know what they are? Are moral rules like the truths of basic arithmetic, true
for all times, all places, and most importantly, all people? If so, then they
would seem to have a high degree of objectivity. Or are they more like rules
of fashion, coming and going, varying in time and place, at the whim of a
few leaders in the field— in the case of fashion, by designers and journal-
ists; in the case of morality, by priests, prophets, and perhaps philosophers?
If morality is so variable, then the objectivity of morality would seem to be
threatened. Or are both comparisons misleading, and is morality nothing
like either mathematics or fashion?

Looking more carefully, we can see that it is possible to group these ques-
tions into different types. Some of them seem more deeply philosophical
in nature, by which I mean that they ask about the fundamental nature
of reality and how we can know about it: Where do moral standards come
from, and how do we know what they are? Others look more practical: What
are the rules, and what do they require of us? In fact, philosophers have
made a three- way distinction among areas of moral philosophy: meta- ethics;

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 5

normative ethics; and applied ethics. We will now explore the meaning and
significance of these terms.

Meta- Ethics
The term meta may be relatively familiar now, from information technol-
ogy and website design. We use the term meta- data as a way of picking up
the most important content on a website, which in turn will be indexed
by a search engine. This gives the sense of meta as meaning “of a higher
order.” Many philosophical questions are “ meta- questions” in this sense.
For example, while scientists want to find out the laws of nature, philoso-
phers want to understand what it means to say that something is a law of
nature. Like philosophers of science, many moral philosophers are inter-
ested in meta- questions. For moral philosophers, questions concerning the
nature of value, where the rules of ethics come from, and how we can learn
about them are questions of meta- ethics.

In fact, for many people their first meta- ethical discussion might occur
very early in life and run along the following lines:

“Be nice to your sister.”
“Who says I have to?”

Of course a tired and frustrated parent may be unlikely to have the
patience to engage in philosophical ruminations, but this snippet of
dialogue raises some fundamental meta- ethical questions. A child is
questioning the authority of a moral rule, yet at the same time is making
what might be a mistaken assumption: that the only source of authority
would be an authoritative human being (by asking “Who says?” rather
than “Why should I?”). And, of course, the child is implicitly— and
impudently— questioning the authority of whomever she is speaking
to. The child’s possible mistake is to assume that moral rules can have
authority only if some person with the right to lay down rules has done so.
But could it be that moral rules can come to be binding on us in some other
way? These are the types of questions explored in the early chapters of this
book, where we will look at questions of cultural relativism, skepticism,
and subjectivism.

Normative Ethics
The sassy child could have asked another question when told to be nice to
her sister: “Do I really have to?” And this could have been the result of gen-
uine puzzlement. Suppose that her sister has been horrible to her. Does she
still really have to be nice back? If so, why? Are there moral rules that tell
you how to behave in these and other much more serious circumstances?

6 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

The study of these more practical questions of what, morally, we ought to
do is often called normative ethics, in contrast with meta- ethics. The source
of the term normative is the word norm, which means “standard.” But the
notion of a standard is ambiguous, for in ordinary life we use the term in
two ways that are completely opposed to each other. One way that we under-
stand the idea of norm or standard is “average,” in the sense of what is normal
(think of the phrase “well within the norm”). But we can think of standards
in another way: not statistically, but ideally. For example, a health professional
might tell us that in some parts of the world 90 percent of all adults are over-
weight. In making this judgment they are not comparing individual weight to
an average derived from a statistical survey. Rather, they have a theory about
the ideal weight for people, relative to their height and other factors, and are
using that as a norm or standard in the sense of an ideal model. They are
presenting a normative view, for it says that many people are heavier than
they ought to be, rather than heavier than is statistically normal. This presup-
position of a benchmark or standard is the sense of norm that is implied by
the phrase “normative ethics.” Normative ethics, then, is the branch of ethics
that asks: What moral rules, principles, or doctrines should we accept? What
benchmarks or standards should we live by (whether or not we actually do)?

One problem we have already touched on is that if a normative view pre-
supposes an ideal standard, where does that ideal come from? In the case
of human weight, physiologists have a view about the healthy functioning of
a human body and what is needed to maintain it. We may decide, eventually,
that they are wrong; but they do have a theory to back up their judgments.
But what about morality? Where do the ideal standards come from? These
questions return us to meta- ethics. Clearly, then, questions of normative
ethics and meta- ethics can have strong connections, although meta- ethics is
seemingly the “deeper” subject for it raises the most fundamental issues of
truth and justification. In this book, we start at the deep end by considering
questions of meta- ethics first.

Applied Ethics
Many people become interested in moral philosophy because of a concern,
whether practically or theoretically, with a particular moral problem. Under
what circumstances, if any, is abortion permitted? How do you draw the
line between consensual sex and rape, especially when alcohol is involved?
Or, on a different level, was it right for the United States to drop an atomic
bomb on Japan in the Second World War? Can terrorism ever be justified?
These issues of real life cry out for moral analysis, and applied ethics is the
name for how it is done.

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 7

Applied ethics differs from normative ethics primarily in focus and
emphasis. In normative ethics we try to form a general approach to morality
that, we hope, will have wide application. In contrast, applied ethics tends to
begin with a specific problem and then looks for values, principles, or other
normative standards that can be applied to the problem to resolve it. Some
problems, it seems, can be resolved easily by applying a particular moral
theory. For example, a theory that prohibits all violence would, it would
seem, rule out dropping an atomic bomb or carrying out acts of terrorism.
But in fact that just pushes the problem one stage back, into normative
ethics: Why do you think that this is the right theory? Therefore, in applied
ethics it is common to look at a problem from various points of view to see
which arguments appear the strongest and most compelling. In this book,
although I will use many examples as illustrations and discussion points, we
will not look at any applied ethics questions in full detail. Rather, in study-
ing this book you will gain the necessary background to examine in- depth
questions of applied ethics, further study of which is possible by consulting
the selections in Readings in Moral Philosophy (Wolff, 2018).

Before moving on, one quick point about terminology. To this point I
have used the terms morality and ethics interchangeably. In ordinary life it is
not unusual to hear or read someone, often a politician or a journalist, argue
that “there is no valid moral or ethical objection to” whatever it is that he or
she proposes. It’s not clear what distinction such people intend between the
moral and the ethical, and I’m not sure they have anything in mind other
than to make their point more emphatically by using two words when they
could have used one— a bad habit that aff licts most of us. Most philosophers
use the two terms with the same meaning. Some do make a distinction,
but when they do, they explain it carefully, and different philosophers make
different distinctions between the two. Generally, unless explicitly stated
otherwise, I will use the terms ethical and moral as synonyms.

How, though, is moral philosophy to be done? What are its methods? Frus-
tratingly, there is no definitive answer to this very good question. How you
do moral philosophy is itself a question in moral philosophy, and as such
the correct answer is highly disputed. In fact, the same applies to many
disciplines of thought. As we go through the questions raised in this book
I will occasionally highlight some methodological issues and explain them
in context, but before moving on it is worth exploring some of the more
common methodologies used in moral philosophy. This should help you

8 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

develop the ability to apply some of the techniques discussed here to other
moral questions. Nevertheless, it is important not to treat any proposed
methodology as if it is a rule book. Moral philosophy, like so many other
areas of inquiry, is still developing, and that means some new methods
could be invented tomorrow, or those used for centuries might fall into
disuse. And the reverse can happen: Methodologies previously rejected are
sometimes resurrected. Remember that moral philosophy is a tradition of
thought, rather than a set of doctrines to be learned. Any of us can add to it
at any time. I will split this discussion into four areas: logical principles of
reasoning that apply to all subject matters; less formal techniques of argu-
ment that also apply to all subject areas; thought experiments and moral
intuitions; and specific methodological devices used in moral philosophy.

Formal Logic: Validity, Soundness, Equivocation, Circularity
Starting with some general logical techniques that should apply to any rig-
orous form of inquiry, whether in philosophy, science, or elsewhere, the
most basic notion to introduce is that of an argument. In ordinary language
we typically use the term argument to refer to a dispute between two or
more people that may, in fact, have little to do with calm rationality. And
we sometimes use the term logical to mean “sensible.” But in philosophy,
both terms mean something much more specific. An argument is a way of
lending support for a particular conclusion by reasoning from other claims
that function as some form of support for it. Logic is a formal method of

I will start with some basic principles of logic and then move on to other
types of argument. One common and simple form of argument moves from
two initial statements, known as premises, to a conclusion. Consider, for

Argument 1

Premise 1: Socrates is a human being.

Premise 2: All human beings are mortal.


Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

An argument is said to be logically valid when the conclusion logically fol-
lows from the premises. This is so whenever it is impossible for the conclu-
sion to be false when the premises are true. In other words, an argument
is valid when, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true too.
Consequently, a good way of testing the validity of an argument is to try

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 9

to imagine a world in which the conclusion is false and the premises are
true. We can tell that this first argument is valid because it is impossible to
imagine a world in which Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, but it
isn’t true that Socrates is mortal. That would be a contradiction, and hence

Consider now a second argument:

Argument 2

Premise 1: Socrates is mortal.

Premise 2: All human beings are mortal.


Conclusion: Socrates is a human being.

At first sight, this may appear to be a minor reordering of the first argument.
The premises are true and so is the conclusion. But in fact, by means of this
reordering we have now produced an invalid argument. From the facts that
Socrates is mortal, and all human beings are mortal, it does not at all follow
that Socrates is a human being: For all we know from the premises, he could
be any mortal creature, such as a cat. If Socrates were a cat, the two premises
could still be true. Therefore the conclusion that he is a human being does
not follow. There is no contradiction in saying that Socrates is mortal, all
human beings are mortal, but Socrates is not a human being.

Validity is obviously important. But to see that more is needed from an
argument, consider this:

Argument 3

Premise 1: Socrates is a cat.

Premise 2: All cats have ten legs.


Conclusion: Socrates has ten legs.

This is a logically valid argument (to test, once again try to imagine the
premises being true but the conclusion false). But it is hardly a compelling
basis for concluding that Socrates has ten legs. The problem, of course, is
that the premises are false, and it is impossible to establish the truth of a
conclusion based on reasoning from false premises. What we are looking
for are valid arguments from true premises: Such arguments are said to be
sound as well as valid. A sound argument is powerful, and it can act as a
type of proof. But it has to be based on true premises. Argument 1, above, is
an example of a sound argument.

10 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

We have, so far, looked at simple forms of argument. Often arguments
will be much more complicated, with multiple premises and sub- conclusions
along the way. But still, we can see the value of trying to work out what phi-
losophers call the logical form of an argument, rigorously formulating it
into a series of premises and a conclusion. We will do this at several points
in the book, for it allows a complex issue to be broken down into a series of
steps, each of which can be investigated separately. We can look at the prem-
ises one by one and also at the logical validity of the steps in the argument.
Having said that, it is not always straightforward to see how to formulate an
argument, and there are various traps and fallacies that we need to avoid.

For example, one fallacy is known as equivocation, in which the same
word has different meanings in different premises. Here is an example
typical of those used by philosophers:

Argument 4

Premise 1: Every river has two banks.

Premise 2: A bank is a financial institution.


Conclusion: Every river has two financial institutions.

The fallacy of equivocation here is particularly easy to spot. Bank can mean
“side of a river” or “financial institution” or, indeed, other things too. In this
case it means different things in the different premises, and the apparently
valid logical deduction is no such thing. But equivocation can be much
harder to see when a word has close, though different, meanings. For exam-
ple, the term man is sometimes used to mean “human being” and some-
times “male human being.” Arguments using the term man are probably
much more liable to equivocation than those using the term bank.

A different fallacy is that often called a circular argument (also known as
begging the question). A circular argument is one in which, although the
conclusion validly follows from the premises, the premises already assume
the truth of the conclusion. This can be hard to spot, especially in a long
and complex argument, and it is often a matter of dispute; but there are clear
cases. To take an example from outside ethics, suppose a friend is trying to
convince you that God exists, and offers the argument that it says that God
exists in the Bible. You ask why the Bible can be trusted, and your friend
replies that it can be trusted because it is the word of God. Now whatever
the merits of your friend’s scholarship or faith, it is easy to see that this is
a bad argument. To say that the Bible is the word of God already assumes
that God must exist, but that is what the argument was setting out to prove.

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 11

Hence, in assuming what it aims to demonstrate, the argument is circular
and proves nothing. As I said, this was an easy case. But in a more complex
argument it can be much harder to tell whether an argument is circular, as
we will see when we look at an example later in this book.

We will also, in the coming chapters, look at other logical techniques,
such as arguments by dilemma and arguments by elimination, but these
are much more easily introduced in the context of real examples, and so we
will hold off from exploring them for the moment.

Analogy, Induction, Argument to the Best Explanation
Logically sound arguments, in providing a form of proof, can be satisfy-
ing. But there are other ways in which it is possible to find support for
a conclusion through patterns of reasoning that fall short of strict proof.
For example, one type of argument that I have already briefly used is that
of analogy. Earlier, I asked whether we should think of morality as being
like mathematics or fashion. If we think that it is like mathematics, then it
seems there should be moral truths that hold for all times and all places and
are capable of rigorous demonstration. If we think it is like fashion, then
moral truths would vary over time and place. The power of an argument
from analogy is that if we can make a convincing comparison between two
fields of enquiries, we can use knowledge gained in one field to illumi-
nate another, and this can be fruitful. For example, in teaching students
about electrical circuits, it can be helpful to make a comparison with pump-
ing water around a heating system. On the other hand, the disadvantages
are clear too. If the analogy is inappropriate, it can be misleading. In any
case, as the folk wisdom has it, analogies always break down somewhere,
because any two areas are unlikely to be exactly comparable at all levels of
detail. A broken electrical circuit behaves very differently from a broken
water circuit. Looking for analogies can, nevertheless, be a useful strategy
in reasoning, provided it is done with care.

We should also ask whether scientific reasoning provides further valu-
able models for moral reasoning. Of course scientists will use logical rea-
soning as well as arguments from analogy, but there is also thought to be a
distinctive scientific method of accumulating evidence to arrive at general
principles. A simple view of science is that it is a process of accumulating
data to a point where it becomes possible to develop a general principle or
law: I see one white swan, then another, then another, and because all the
swans I see are white, I formulate the law that “all swans are white.” This
procedure is known as induction. It can be a helpful way of generating evi-
dence to support hypotheses (although you need to formulate a hypothesis

12 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

before you can even know what evidence to look for) but the problem is
obvious. However many times you see white swans, or however many times
you see the sun rise in the morning, you have no guarantee that the next
swan you see won’t be a different color, or that tomorrow morning the sun
simply doesn’t rise. Induction is never proof— but at its best it can provide
strong evidence.

But how precisely can scientific reasoning be a helpful model for moral
reasoning? As we noted, morality is a normative discipline, looking for an
understanding of how things ought to be rather than evidence of how things
are. For example, only a generation or two ago it was common for parents
to discipline their children by hitting them with a belt or cane. There was
plenty of evidence that this practice happened. But that, on its own, is hardly
enough to convince us it is right. Induction, then, does not look directly
applicable to moral philosophy in its pure form; but in an extended form,
induction has much greater use.

This extended form is another methodology commonly used in science
and elsewhere, known as inference to the best explanation, sometimes called
abduction (no connection with the practice of abduction as a crime involving
the taking of another person). Consider the important medical and scientific
example of the relation between smoking and lung cancer. Although not all
smokers developed lung cancer, and although some people suffered from
lung cancer without smoking, nevertheless it became clear, by the use of
induction (the accumulation of evidence) that there is a strong association
between lung cancer and smoking. It would be easy to jump straight to
the conclusion that smoking tends to cause lung cancer. But even though
the conclusion is correct, it would not be right to adopt it just on the basis
of the inductive evidence linking smoking and lung cancer. Induction on
its own says nothing about the causal relation, for it is consistent with the
evidence that what comes first is some sort of underlying condition that
causes you both to develop lung cancer and to smoke. In other words,
the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that being the sort of person
liable to develop lung cancer makes you smoke. And indeed this conclusion
was suggested as a possibility by those who wanted to defend the tobacco
industry. Although false, it isn’t completely crazy. It could have been, for
example, that some people had a form of extreme anxiety disorder that led
them not only to want to smoke but also to develop lung cancer.

So there are at least two competing hypotheses consistent with the data:
First, that smoking tends to cause lung cancer; and, second, there is an
underlying factor that causes both the tendency to develop lung cancer and

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 13

smoking. Today we are likely to regard the second possible hypothesis as
ridiculous, lacking any evidence, and to argue that the first, more famil-
iar claim is a much better explanation of the data. What makes it a better
explanation is related to knowledge about human physiology. Therefore, in
deciding on a theory we are asking: “What theory best explains the data?”
rather than “What theory is consistent with the data?” In practice, then, we
are much more comfortable with the idea of appealing to inference to the
best explanation, looking for an underlying causal mechanism, reason, or
theory rather than pure induction alone. And we will see this technique
used widely in moral philosophy, as I will now illustrate.

Thought Experiments and Moral Intuitions
Consider the following example, from the philosopher William Godwin

In a loose and general view I and my neighbor are both of us men; and of
consequence entitled to equal attention. But in reality it is probable that one
of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of
more worth than a beast; because, being possessed of higher faculties, he is
capable of a more refined and genuine happiness. In the same manner the
illustrious archbishop of Cambray [Fénelon (1651–1715)] was of more worth
than his chambermaid, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pro-
nounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be
preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.

Supposing the chambermaid had been my wife, my mother or my bene-
factor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fénelon
would still be more valuable than that of the chambermaid; and justice,
pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most
valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fénelon at the
expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun “my,” to overturn
the decisions of everlasting truth? My wife or my mother may be a fool or a
prostitute, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it
that they are mine? (Godwin, 1798/2013, pp. 53–54)

From the fire, should you rescue the illustrious Archbishop Fénelon, or
your mother, the chambermaid? In a later edition of the book, Godwin
changed the example from a (female) chambermaid to a (male) valet, per-
haps to avoid the apparent sexism of the example. But chambermaid or
valet, what would you do? Godwin was clearly impressed with Archbishop
Fénelon, writing:

In saving the life of Fénelon, suppose at the moment when he was conceiving
the project of his immortal Telemachus, I should be promoting the benefit of
thousands, who have been cured by the perusal of it of some error, vice and

14 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

consequent unhappiness. Nay, my benefit would extend farther than this, for
every individual thus cured has become a better member of society, and has
contributed in his turn to the happiness, the information and improvement
of others.

The Adventures of Telemachus, almost forgotten now, was one of the most
popular books of the eighteenth century, and an indirect but influential
critique of the corrupt French monarchy. It is said that it influenced the
French Revolution of 1789. Should you save such a benefactor to humanity
in preference even to your own mother?

Here is another, more recent dilemma, from the moral philosopher
Philippa Foot (1920–2010):

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a
culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their
own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real cul-
prit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed
only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this
example is placed another in which [a man is] the driver of a runaway tram
which he can only steer from one narrow track to another; five men are work-
ing on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is
bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that
in both the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five. The
question is why we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer
for the less occupied track while most of us would be appalled at the idea that
the innocent man could be framed. (Foot, 1978, p. 23)

Both of Foot’s examples involve the sacrifice of one person to save five. In
the framing case we are horrified at the prospect, but in the tram case it just
seems obvious that this is the right thing to do. What explains the difference?
Foot’s example, renamed “the trolley problem,” has been refined by others and
has generated a vast body of literature, including websites where you can test
your own responses to modified examples and tangle yourself up in knots.

Notice, though, that neither Godwin nor Foot took themselves to be
describing a situation anyone had ever encountered in real life, or would be
likely to. Rather, these cases are regarded as thought experiments in which a
situation is described in order to stimulate people to think deeply. Although
science has the luxury of performing experiments, which rarely happens
in philosophy (we will look at some examples toward the end of this book),
scientists use thought experiments, too. For example, Einstein asked what
you would see if you traveled at the speed of light. Although this experiment
could never be done in practice, it is a fascinating question that could lead
to new ideas and discoveries.

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 15

Why engage in thought experiments in moral philosophy? There are at
least two different, though related, reasons. Godwin is using his example
to illustrate his approach to moral philosophy, which is a form of utilitari-
anism (a theory we will explore in much more detail later) arguing that the
right thing to do is to bring about as much happiness as possible. Given that
saving Fénelon will, in Godwin’s view, bring about more happiness in the
world than saving your mother the chambermaid, the theory requires you
to save Fénelon.

But do you agree with Godwin? The thoughts that occur to you when
thinking about moral cases such as this are known as your moral intu-
itions. A moral theory that is in line with people’s moral intuitions is usually
regarded as having a great advantage. In the present case some people will
completely disagree with Godwin, thinking that the right thing to do is to
abandon the archbishop and save your mother. If you do, then you think that
Godwin’s theory has counterintuitive consequences. A theory with coun-
terintuitive consequences can be hard to accept because it likely requires
us to reject at least some of the moral beliefs that we have acquired. But in
any case we can see one use for thought experiments: as a way of testing
a moral theory by considering how it fares against our moral intuitions. If
it agrees with your moral intuitions, then for you it is intuitive; if not, it is

As is becoming a common theme, however, this test, while helpful, is far
from infallible. Our intuitions can be wrong. Consider our intuitions about
physics. Most people who haven’t studied the theory of gravity assume that if
you drop a cannonball and a baseball simultaneously from a high tower, the
cannonball, being so much heavier, will hit the ground first. But according
to the theory of gravity, the balls will hit the ground at the same time (or
at least they would in a vacuum). The theory of gravity therefore predicts
counterintuitive results. But that does not make it false, just rather remark-
able. Similarly, just because a moral theory has counterintuitive results, that
does not make it false either. However, in the case of morality, we cannot
conduct the type of experiments that have been used to establish the theory
of gravity. Hence, as we have noted, moral intuitions are often taken to be
a significant source of evidence for a theory. But some moral philosophers
are prepared to consider theories with counterintuitive results if the other
reasons to accept them are good enough.

William Godwin used his thought experiment to present his moral the-
ory; for the rest of us, it is more of a test than an illustration of the theory.
Philippa Foot, in comparing two different ways that an innocent person

16 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

could be sacrificed to save five others, is drawing our attention to the idea
that most of us have clearly different moral intuitions about the two cases.
Rather than using our intuitions to illustrate a theory, she is showing that
our intuitions are complex, and it is not at all clear which theory best fits our
intuitions. We can see that she is inviting us to try to produce a theory
that is consistent with our intuitions. It is in fact a proposed application of
the “inference to the best explanation” methodology. She is asking us to
try to work out what moral theory best explains the apparently conflicting
intuitions we have in these different cases. In this example, then, our intu-
itions do work rather like data in inductive arguments in science. The data,
though, is not what we observe in the world, but the moral intuitions we
have. The challenge is to work out how they fit into a theory. And sometimes
we may have to abandon some intuitions to make this task even possible.

Special Moral Arguments
We began this section by looking at some general forms of reasoning that
apply to all areas of inquiry. We then moved on to look at thought experi-
ments that, although they are related to issues of wider application, have a
specific use in the context of moral reasoning. We also looked at the related
issue of moral intuitions. It is worth finishing the discussion of methodol-
ogy by outlining two types of arguments that are commonly used within
moral philosophy but are much more specific to it.

The first is the argument from universalization. It comes in many forms
and variations, and we will consider it most thoroughly in relation to Kant’s
moral theory. But the basic idea will be familiar. Suppose you are consid-
ering some course of action that you know normally causes disapproval
from those around you. One way of testing whether it is right or wrong is to
ask, “What if everyone did that?” Suppose you live in a town that generally
disapproves of cross- racial dating, but you and a potential date are thinking
of breaking the custom. You could ask: What would happen if everyone did
that? And you might think that nothing seriously bad would happen, even
if it did surprise or upset a few people. If so, that might well give you confi-
dence that nothing is wrong with what you propose to do.

To take a different example, suppose, you don’t have the money you need
to buy your college sweatshirt, and you realize that it would be possible to
steal one without anyone ever knowing. Should you do it? Well, you can ask:
What if everyone did that? Most likely, this shop, and others too, would go
out of business; and if the example were generalized more broadly, com-
merce would break down. This is good evidence that stealing the sweat-
shirt would be wrong. This method of universalization requires a lot more

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 17

discussion, but we can already see that it can be a good general guide to
what you should do.

Finally, I want to return to an issue that has cropped up a couple of times
already— firstly in relation to the distinction between the descriptive and
the normative, and secondly when we looked at the possibility of collecting
data to try to establish a moral principle. In both cases there seemed to be an
important distinction between the type of “facts” that are involved in science
and the “values” that we deal with in moral philosophy. And indeed the fact/
value distinction is often regarded as an important line that should not be
crossed. Whether this is correct is something that we will have to come back
to, but in the meantime we should observe that it has played an important
role in the history of moral philosophy. The Scottish philosopher David
Hume (1711–76) put the point in terms of the difficulty of moving from an
“is” to an “ought.” Hume pointed out that many writers of his time would
often start by describing various practices or situations, but “imperceptibly”
they then began to moralize by using the language of what ought or ought
not to happen. Hume correctly points out that this approach introduces
something new into the discussion and needs to be explained. Hume simply
issued the challenge that in each case an explanation is needed, although he
is sometimes interpreted as setting out a hard- and- fast boundary. Whether
or not there is such a boundary, we have to be alert to the possibility that
some philosophers might try to deduce moral conclusions from factual
premises. If we do observe such a form of argument, we need to be very
careful as we try to understand how the transition is made.

Some people who come to the academic study of moral philosophy for the
first time can be perplexed upon finding that it exists as a topic to be stud-
ied in a university. Because morality is always a part of our lives, and many
people have reflected deeply on morality for themselves in sophisticated
and imaginative ways, it is possible to come to the view that the truth about
morality is clear and so there is little point in looking systematically at
moral philosophy. People who argue in this fashion often state a particular
philosophical view— for example, that all morality is subjective— as a chal-
lenge to the need for further reflection. If all morality is subjective, in the
sense that anyone is free to believe whatever they wish, what else is there
to discuss? In Chapters 2 and 3 of this book, we will discuss cultural rela-
tivism and then skepticism and subjectivism, each of which presents chal-
lenges to morality and to moral philosophy. In Chapter 4, we will also look

18 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

at a different argument that threatens to make moral philosophy redun-
dant: that we as human beings lack free will, and as a result do not have
moral responsibility for our actions. The ideas in these chapters are often
used, to different degrees, as ways of attempting to cut short philosophical
discussion of morality. Instead I will try to convince you that they are all
ways of entering into moral philosophy, and they all rely on philosophical
assumptions that need detailed analysis and examination.

We then move to three chapters that combine some skepticism about the
point or need for moral philosophy with more positive views. These chapters
discuss, in turn, religious morality (Chapter 5), egoism (Chapter 6), and the
social contract (Chapter 7). Following on, we will explore in some depth the
main moral doctrines of the great philosophers: Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart
Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Aristotle. It is hard not to notice, though, that
these philosophers are all men— indeed, dead white European men— as are
most of the philosophers we will discuss in this book. When examining these
theories, we will also pay attention to some important feminist and race- based
critiques, but I will end the book by looking in more detail at questions of
gender and race, and at the positive accounts of moral philosophy that gender
and race theorists can develop as alternatives to the philosophical mainstream.

In this chapter I have introduced the idea of moral philosophy as a reflec-
tion on the nature of morality and the moral problems we face, and sug-
gested that part of the point of studying moral philosophy is to help you
form your moral outlook on life, understanding what is important in think-
ing through the variety of life choices you and others inevitably will face.

I explained the distinction between (a) meta- ethics— questions about the
nature and existence of value; (b) normative ethics— questions about what
we should do and how we should live; and (c) applied ethics— questions
about specific moral problems. I went on to introduce some techniques of
reasoning that are commonly used in moral philosophy. I split these meth-
odological issues into four types: (a) formal methods that apply to any form
of reasoning; (b) less formal methods that also apply to all subject areas;
(c) thought experiments and moral intuitions; and (d) some special moral
arguments, including universalization and the is/ought distinction. While
none of these methodologies provide infallible rules about how to engage
in moral philosophy, they are all useful starting points. Finally, I explained
the plan of the rest of this book.

Chapter 1: Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning ■ 19

Discussion Questions

1. Explain the distinction between meta- ethics, normative ethics, and applied

2. What is the difference between a valid argument and an invalid argument?
When is a valid argument also sound?

3. What is a thought experiment? How can thought experiments be used in
moral arguments?

4. What is meant by the fact/value distinction?

Key Terms

objectivity, p. 4

meta- ethics, p. 5

normative ethics, p. 6

applied ethics, p. 6

argument, p. 8

logical validity, p. 8

contradiction, p. 9

soundness, p. 9

logical form, p. 10

equivocation, p. 10

circular argument, p. 10

begging the question, p. 10

analogy, p. 11

induction, p. 11

inference to the best explanation, p. 12

abduction, p. 12

thought experiment, p. 14

utilitarianism, p. 15

moral intuition, p. 15

counterintuitive, p. 15

universalization, p. 16

fact/value distinction, p. 17

Key Thinkers

Epicurus (341–270 bce), p. 1

Aristotle (384–322 bce), pp. 1–2,3

Plato (429?–347 bce), p. 2

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), p. 3

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), p. 3

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), p. 3

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), p. 3

William Godwin (1756–1836), pp. 13–16

Archbishop François Fénelon (1651–1715), pp. 13–14

Philippa Foot (1920–2010), pp. 14–15

David Hume (1711–76), p. 17

20 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Further Reading
■ Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus can be found online:
/en/menoeceus.html (retrieved December 23, 2016).

■ Many editions of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics are available. The text
quoted in this chapter is from the Oxford World’s Classics edition (Oxford
University, 1980, 2009).

■ Susan Moller Okin’s book Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton
University Press, 1979) is an excellent account of how women have been
marginalized in the work of some of the greatest philosophers.

■ An Introduction to World Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader (Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 2009), edited by Daniel Bonevac and Stephen Phillips, con-
tains a wide array of texts, including selections from moral philosophers in
the Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and African traditions.

■ A good introductory guide to the many methods of arguments mentioned
here, as well as numerous others, is The Philosopher’s Toolkit (2nd ed.) by
Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl ( Wiley- Blackwell, 2010).

■ William Godwin is quoted from his An Enquiry Concerning Political Jus-
tice (Oxford University Press, 2013), edited by Mark Philp. (Original work
published 1793)

■ You can test your intuitions in a variety of “trolley problems” at www

■ The quotation from Philippa Foot is from her collection of essays, Virtues
and Vices (Oxford University Press, 1978).

■ Others who have discussed trolley problems in detail include Judith Jar-
vis Thompson, “The Trolley Problem” (Yale Law Journal, 94, 1985: 1395–
1415); Frances M. Kamm, The Trolley Problem Mysteries (Oxford University
Press, 2016); and David Edmonds, Would You Kill the Fat Man? (Princeton
University Press, 2013).

■ Selections from the works of many of the philosophers mentioned in this
chapter are included in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy
(W. W. Norton, 2018).


C H A P T E R   2

Cultural Relativism

If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst
all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevita-
bly, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own
country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the
religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that
anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence
that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country. One
might recall, in particular, an account told of Darius. When he was king of Per-
sia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked
them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied
that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of
the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was
said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their
parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of
horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing.

Herodotus, Histories, Book 3

One reason that history can be so interesting, and so shocking, is its abil-
ity to lead us to compare customs from the past with our current practices.
Things taken for granted in one era are considered morally horrendous
in another. For example, in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, some
forms of slavery were regarded as morally acceptable. The great philoso-
pher Aristotle himself argued that some people were “slaves by nature.”
Over time slavery became less prominent, without ever disappearing
completely, but it was revived again on a mass scale in the plantations
of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil. The American
Civil War was fought to cement the abolition of slavery in the United
States, although the practice is still with us today, illegally, in many forms
throughout the world. Even if slavery still exists, its moral evaluation
has changed dramatically over the centuries. Or consider practices of
erotic love in the Ancient Greek world, where it was common for wealthy
middle- aged men to have sexual relations with boys in their early teenage

22 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

years. What was considered normal in Ancient Athens would lead to a
person’s being denounced as an outcast and serving a long spell behind
bars today. Similarly, until the rise of modern medicine, the profession
of nursing was sometimes considered morally equivalent to that of pros-
titution. In the theater of Shakespeare’s time, the same was thought of
actresses, which is why boy actors took female roles.

Not only do moral evaluations change over time, but different practices
exist at the same time. Even in the ancient world, travelers returned home
with outrageous tales of cultural difference. At the start of this chapter, I
quoted one such account from the ancient historian Herodotus (484–425 bce)
on the difference between funeral practices of the Greeks and the Callatiae.

Contemporary theorists have documented wide variety in cultural
practice. Here is the important American anthropologist, Ruth Benedict
(1887–1948), on the issue:

Standards, no matter in what aspect of behavior, range in different cultures
from the positive to the negative pole. We might suppose that in the matter
of taking life all peoples would agree in condemnation. On the contrary, in a
matter of homicide, it may be held that one is blameless if diplomatic relations
have been severed between neighboring countries, or that one kills by custom
his first two children, or that a husband has right of life and death over his
wife, or that it is the duty of the child to kill his parents before they are old. It
may be that those are killed who steal a fowl, or who cut their upper teeth first,
or who are born on a Wednesday. Among some peoples a person suffers tor-
ments at having caused an accidental death; among others it is a matter of no
consequence. Suicide also may be a light matter, the recourse of anyone who
has suffered a slight rebuff, an act that occurs constantly in a tribe. It may be
the highest and noblest act a wise man can perform. The very tale of it, on the
other hand, may be a matter for incredulous mirth, and the act itself impossi-
ble to conceive as a human possibility. Or it may be a crime punishable by law,
or regarded as a sin against the gods. (Benedict, 1934, p. 45)

But we don’t have to survey exotic works of anthropology to see great vari-
ety in what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Even in recent
decades, practices have changed dramatically. I’m old enough to remember
a time in the United Kingdom— the late 1960 s— when it was common prac-
tice for jobs to be advertised with two rates of pay; a higher one for men,
a lower one for women. There was no pretense that women were doing a
different job, or couldn’t do it so well. They were just paid around 15 percent
to 20 percent less. (Of course, we have yet to achieve equal pay for equal
work, but at least it is illegal to advertise different rates.) Until the last few
decades, same- sex relations between men were illegal in much of the world,
and many people— including the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 23

the mathematician, computing pioneer, and Second World War code- breaker
Alan Turing (1912–54)—were tried and found guilty.

Furthermore, even now there is a good degree of variation in ordinary
social practices. In some countries you drive on the right- hand side of the
road, in others the left. In some countries owning a handgun is an ordinary
part of life; in others it is a horrifying prospect. You could grow up thinking
there is only one correct way of driving or only one correct rule about gun
ownership; but as you become more experienced, by watching television
programs from other countries or traveling, you realize there are different
ways of doing things. And customs of personal conduct differ too. On my
first trip to the United States as a graduate student in the 1980s, I was given
a leaf let by my sponsor explaining some aspects of expected behavior in
the country. My favorite example was the suggestion that North Americans
feel uncomfortable if you stand very near to them when you are having a
conversation. Some people from Southern Europe and Latin America prefer
to come close when talking, and North Americans will tend to back away;
this kind of push- pull interaction might repeat itself indefinitely, to comical
effect. Obviously the person who wrote this leaf let noticed that conventions
of good manners or etiquette differ in different parts of the world.

Norms of personal conduct differ from culture to culture, and it seems
oddly dogmatic in the examples just cited to insist that one culture has the
right idea and another got it wrong. But if one culture permits every capable
adult to drive, and another— as in the case of contemporary Saudi Arabia—
refuses to allow women this ordinary privilege, are we really prepared to
brush this off as an idiosyncrasy of cultural difference, or is one country
making a moral error? Still, some will insist that no culture has the right
to judge what happens in another, proposing that just as rules of etiquette
vary from culture to culture, so do moral norms.

There are, then, at least two attitudes we can take— two types of moral
intuition we can have— about these facts of moral variation. One is to insist
that a certain set of practices is the true or correct moral standpoint, and all
others are in error. Or we can say that moral truth is in some way relative
to a particular culture or tradition, and there is no basis for saying that one
is the superior to others. The first view is often called objectivism and the
second cultural relativism. This is a dispute in meta- ethics, concerning
the nature of moral value. Are moral values objective, at least in the sense
that the same values are valuable for all people, in all places, at all times, or

24 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

do they vary from culture to culture? Which is correct? The facts of varia-
tion are impressive, but they are not enough to show that cultural relativism
is true, for that would commit the fallacy (discussed in Chapter 1) of deriv-
ing an “ought” (a moral conclusion) from an “is” (a statement of how things
are) without explaining how the derivation is possible.

Some philosophers have argued that objectivism is the intuitive view
built into our ordinary moral thought. Most people naturally find them-
selves making assumptions about meta- ethics without having much of a
sense that this is what they are doing. Just as our language has a gram-
mar that most of us know but couldn’t describe without extensive training,
our moral thought also makes underlying assumptions that we may not be
aware of and that we have to work hard to articulate. Here are some of the
commonly made assumptions about meta- ethics that infuse commonsense
morality, by which I mean the morality we tend to use in everyday life.

• Some things are morally wrong, such as harming an innocent child
simply for the pleasure of doing so.

• Statements such as “It is wrong to harm an innocent child simply for
the pleasure of doing so” are straightforwardly either true or false, and,
in this case, the statement is true.

• It is possible to know that some things are morally right and some
things are morally wrong.

• If someone does something he or she knows to be wrong, then it is
right to blame or criticize him or her for doing so.

• It generally would have been possible for those who have acted wrongly
to have acted in some other way.

Although these assumptions are part of our ordinary moral belief system,
some of them are challenged even in ordinary moral life. For example, some
people are often reluctant to blame others for morally bad behavior, putting
their actions down to a bad start in life or difficult circumstances. Others
may doubt whether moral beliefs really are capable of being true, preferring
the view that they are, in some sense, subjective judgments. But the idea that
there are objective truths of morality— some things are just right or wrong,
whatever people think about it— is a powerful one.

Nevertheless, even if it is common to believe that some things are right
and some things are wrong, philosophically it can be hard to understand
what this really means. Take the statement that “being kind to strangers
is good.” “Good” is a value, and objectivism in ethics seems to presuppose
that values are “real” and therefore in some sense exist in the world. The
view that values exist in the world, independently of what human beings

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 25

think of them, is also known as moral realism, and many philosophers have
defended it. But it is easy to be puzzled about what it means for values to
exist in any objective sense. Table and chairs exist “objectively.” I can see
them, or bump into them, and you can see and bump into the same ones if
you are in the same room as me. But if values exist, where are they? Can I
see them? If not, how do I know about them, or interact with them? Asking
these questions tends to lead us away from objectivism to a different, more
subjective, view that values are somehow invented by human beings and
are dependent on us for their existence. Those philosophers who believe in
objective values therefore have the difficult burden of saying what it is that
they believe in.

Plato (429?–347 bce) is probably the first recorded philosopher who
attempted to explain in detail what it would be for values to be objective. He
believed that we can discover the nature, and even the existence, of objective
values by the use of reason. But what, exactly, is it that we will discover if
we are successful? Plato uses the idea of the form of the good, which needs
to be examined carefully. As a first step, we can think of the form of the
good as what it is that all good things have in common, just as the form
of a circle is what it is that all circles have in common. A circle is the set
of points in a two- dimensional plane equidistant from a single point. To a
first approximation, then, the “form of the good” seems to be something
like a definition of good. But Plato pushes the analogy with geometry even
further. It is commonly said that it is impossible to draw a perfect circle. Any
representation of a circle will have slight bumps or imperfections in the line,
even if you need a microscope to see them. Therefore any actually existent
circle is only an approximation of a perfect circle, which is the true “form of
a circle.” Similarly Plato argues that we will never experience pure good on
earth, because any good action or person will have some imperfection. But
just as there is an ideal form of the circle, there is also an ideal form of the
good, which exists although not in the physical world.

There is certainly something very plausible in the idea that good things,
just like circles, have something in common that is not to be found in per-
fect form in anything in the world. But when we ref lect on this idea it can
seem very hard to make sense of it. What is it to exist, but not to exist in the
physical world? Plato concludes that the forms must exist in some other-
worldly realm. Plato strives throughout his work to make sense of what this
means and how we can come to have knowledge of something we cannot
directly experience. He tells a number of myths about human preexistence
in something like heaven where we become acquainted with the forms not
just of the good, but of other equally difficult philosophical concepts such as

26 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

beauty and truth. Whether he intended this literally is hard to know, but it
does show that although we can easily be drawn to the view that there must
be objective values, that idea is not straightforward.

Other philosophers have taken comfort in an analogy we have already
mentioned between values and numbers. Take the simple arithmetical truth
2 + 2 = 4. The commonsense view, of course, is that this is an objective truth,
true in all times and all places, and for all people. Its truth predated human
existence, although, of course, our knowledge of the truth could not. Yet, you
might wonder, what are the numbers two and four? Where do they exist? How
can we understand them? When we start to think about it, they are pretty
mysterious things. The mystery does not, though, undercut our belief in the
objective truth of mathematics. And so, perhaps, the mystery of what values
are need not undercut our belief that they exist in whatever sense is necessary
to make the truths of morality objective. For all these philosophical difficulties,
the objectivity of morality is for many people the highly intuitive view.

Nevertheless, the social and anthropological evidence of moral difference
we looked at in the last section puts objectivism under pressure, and cultural
relativism will, for many people, be an attractive alternative to objectivism.
Practices elsewhere and in other times sometimes differ from what we are used
to, but what basis do we have for saying that we are right and they are wrong?
How can people who follow one set of practices criticize those who follow
another? The cultural relativist argues that each of us has to see things from
the perspective of our own culture. Everyone will naturally think that their own
culture has the superior moral code. But in fact, says the relativist, there is no
ultimate right or wrong here, and it is exceptionally arrogant to think that you
and your culture have the truth, and everyone else who thought and acted in a
different way, now living or dead, is wrong. Difference is difference, and that is
all. We must respect the fact that we live in a particular point in space and time,
and we have no basis for regarding ourselves as superior to those who lived in
different times or in different places. Hence there can be great appeal in cul-
tural relativism, and many people find it to be more intuitive than objectivism.
But as we discussed in the last chapter, moral intuitions can be questioned. We
must dig deeper, especially when our moral intuitions conflict with those of
other people, or, indeed, when we find ourselves conflicted.

The central claim of cultural relativism is that the ideas of “right” and
“wrong” can be understood only within a particular cultural or social
context, and what is right in one context may well be wrong in another.

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 27

Consequently we must respect divergence in moral practice. However,
philosophers have commented on the strangeness of the argument that
because values are relative, societies must keep out of each other’s busi-
ness. Consider how we might formulate the argument with two premises
and a conclusion:

Premise 1: Right and wrong means “right for a given society” and
“wrong for a given society.”

Premise 2: What is right and wrong in one society may differ from
what is right and wrong in another society.


Conclusion: It is wrong for one society to impose its ideas of right
and wrong on another.

This may look like a valid argument, in the sense that the conclusion follows
from the premises, although strictly speaking some missing steps need to be
filled in if the argument is to be formally valid. But the oddity is that if the con-
clusion is true, then the first premise must be false. After all, the conclusion “It
is wrong for one society to impose its idea of right and wrong on another” is a
claim with universal scope, applying to all societies, not just one. Therefore it is
not relative to a particular society, and so it contradicts the claim that all ideas of
right and wrong are relative. It says that all people, of all cultures, have the right
to act according to their local customs, without the threat of interference from
outside. In the terms introduced in the last chapter when discussing fallacies
in reasoning, it seems that this argument suffers from equivocation because it
uses the same word, wrong, in more than one sense.

Perhaps what happened is that cultural relativism has been confused
with a form of liberalism, understood in the sense of calling for the tol-
eration or even encouragement of diverse ways of living. Liberals have
some views in common with cultural relativism. They accept that diverse
moral views are held in society or between societies. For example, people
follow different religions— or none. They also generally acknowledge that
unless one person or group threatens another, they should be allowed to
live according to their own values. Therefore, liberals will often argue that
cultural self- determination has value. But, and here is the important point,
acknowledging each society’s right to self- determination is a universal value,
not a local one. Let’s call this liberal, highly tolerant, universalist position
pseudo- relativism. Rather than denying the existence of universal values, it
asserts the existence of at least one universal value: that each culture has the
right to moral self- determination.

28 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Again this seems like an enlightened view; but before returning to the
discussion of relativism, it is worth considering whether pseudo- relativism
really is so attractive. Consider an analogy in international relations. In
1648 the Treaty of Westphalia was signed as a result of discussions between
many of the states of Europe. Its purpose was to recognize the principle of
state sovereignty: that each state had the right to determine its own affairs,
without outside interference. But 300 years later— in the aftermath of the
Second World War— it became clear that the Treaty of Westphalia effectively
had given too much power to states. If states have sovereignty over their
territories, what do we say when they start to turn on their own citizens?
Do we have to stand by and watch when states commit genocide as long as
it is within their own borders? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(adopted on December 10, 1948) was a response to the recognition that states
can do horrendous things to their own citizens.

In looking closer at examples of apparent moral differences, we can see
that in other times and places people often followed practices that appear
to oppress disadvantaged or powerless groups: slaves, people of unfavored
races, women, and those who engage in same- sex relations. Is the liberal
policy to be tolerant of extreme discrimination, or to stand up for the human
rights of the vulnerable? As the contemporary Ghanaian American philos-
opher Kwame Anthony Appiah (b. 1954) remarks, the two ideals of respect
for difference and concern for all can clash. The tolerant liberal position,
then, has somehow to get the balance right between leaving certain things
to societies to determine for themselves while at the same time setting down
some lines that cannot be crossed in order to protect individuals. So there is
a difference between being someone who, like the liberal, is happy to tolerate
or encourage many different ways of life and being someone who refuses to
criticize any of the practices of another society . A liberal can regard many
different ways of life as acceptable, even admirable, but at the same time can
judge some to have crossed a line.

In our own time, the practice of what has been called genital cutting in
young girls is a good example of something that most people think falls
beyond the tolerable. Some societies engage in a practice of removing part
of the genitals of young girls, or practice other surgical techniques that are
intended to ensure that a girl will remain a virgin until she is married. This
practice has, for example, been very common in parts of Africa for centu-
ries and is not associated with any particular religion. Critics point out that
because of the surgery, a girl may experience reduced sexual pleasure for
the rest of her life, often suffers considerable pain and discomfort, and also

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 29

risks infection and even possible death as postsurgical complications. Is the
tolerant position to regard genital cutting as a matter of acceptable cultural
difference? Or is the correct stance to argue that these young women are
being oppressed and dominated by obsolete, sexist practices and that we
should campaign for reform or even the criminalization of the practice, not
just in our own country but throughout the world?

You may be surprised that I have used the term genital cutting, because
you are probably much more used to referring to the practice as female
genital mutilation (FGM). But it is clear that the moral relativist, or anyone
who wished to defend the practice, could not accept that label. Naming it
a form of mutilation presupposes that it is harmful and probably morally
illegitimate. It would be equivalent, it could be said, to referring to male
circumcision as male genital mutilation. Now many will want to argue that
there is a key difference, suggesting that for boys and men circumcision is
beneficial, but for girls and women genital cutting is harmful. But not all
agree that there is such a difference; and in any case it needs to be estab-
lished by looking at the evidence, not prejudged by the use of names. Inter-
estingly, then, how we name practices can already embody assumptions
about their permissibility.

For the opposite extreme, consider the words of Jomo Kenyatta
(c. 1891–1978), the first president of Kenya (1964–78). In 1938 Kenyatta wrote
an important work of anthropology called Facing Mount Kenya. In that book,
he describes the Giyuku tradition in which he was raised. He defends male
and female circumcision by showing their centrality to Giyuku ritual and
ceremony, especially concerning initiation into adulthood and full mem-
bership of the group. At one point he refers to the practice as “trimming
the genital organs,” making it sound no more troublesome than having a
haircut. Unlike Kenyatta, or the critics, I will continue to use the term genital
cutting to avoid biasing the discussion in either direction, even though some
people will regard my doing so as an appalling example of “political correct-
ness.” But political correctness is really just the awareness that we should
not sidestep serious moral debate by using morally “loaded” language to
prejudge issues. Prejudgment, of course, is the origin of the term prejudice.

The question we have been considering, then, is whether genital
cutting crosses a moral line and thereby shows the limits to cultural
self- determination. But cultural self- determination, as we saw, is not moral
relativism proper, for it imposes a universal value: self- determination of
groups. It is actually much harder to understand what pure cultural rel-
ativism is as a thesis. It is not the same as universal tolerance for group

30 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

practices. It is also not the same as the view known as individual subjectiv-
ism (see Chapter 3), in which the truth of a moral claim depends on each
person’s preferences or judgment. Rather, cultural relativism locates the
truth of a moral claim in the traditions or judgments of a cultural group.

Consider again some of the examples from anthropologist Ruth Benedict.
Let’s take suicide. In some countries or groups, especially those strongly
inf luenced by Catholic religion, suicide is a terrible, mortal sin and an
offense against God’s purposes. In other countries, such as Japan, it is a
noble and respected way of responding by, say, a military leader or even the
head of a major corporation who has made a disastrous decision. Are we to
say that one of these societies is right and the other is wrong, or should we
say that they are both simply to be understood within the context of their
own societies, and what is right in one place can be wrong in another? But
as soon as we add “and therefore we must not intervene or criticize,” we
have superimposed a universal value and abandoned the relativist position.

The cultural relativist, it seems, has to stop short of making any universal
moral claims. Rather, being an explicit cultural relativist seems to require
adopting two standpoints on morality. On the one hand, as a member of a
culture that has its own morality, the relativist, like everyone, will perceive
the world through the values of that society. For example, those of us who
live in societies that regard suicide as morally wrong will, at least in the first
instance, condemn it as wrong not just in our society but everywhere we see
it, for that is what our morality says. It would be rare for a morality to have
relativism “built in.” Yet at the same time, the relativist must adopt another,
more abstract standpoint— that of the anthropologist or philosopher— and
say, “But that is just the way we think about it here; others in different cul-
tures may have different moral views.” This does seem to be a possible and
consistent position, allowing you to have a moral view while also achieving
a type of critical distance from it. But it is an interesting question whether
you can see that there are alternatives to your own moral view and still hold
on to your view as firmly as you did before. Consider again the Greeks who
heard about the funeral practices of the Callatiae. Their natural reaction was
to condemn eating dead bodies as morally horrendous. But Darius, the king,
had clearly adopted the abstract standpoint of the philosopher or anthro-
pologist and was able to see that practices differ in different societies. Our
question is whether, once he had understood cultural variation, he would
be able to continue endorsing the view that the Greek practice of burning
dead bodies is morally the right thing to do. Or would his moral faith be
weakened? Would he begin to see the issue as a matter of custom that can
differ from place to place rather than as moral rules?

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 31

Cultural relativism seems to require us to hold fast to our moral beliefs
while also recognizing that had we been brought up under different cir-
cumstances, we would just as firmly hold different moral beliefs. This
view is certainly possible, but at the same time it could be psychologically
difficult and might lead some to question the tradition in which they were
brought up.

Problems for Relativism
Cultural relativism is often presented as a sophisticated position, but cer-
tain arguments may make it less appealing than it seemed at first. Indeed
the contemporary African American philosopher Michele Moody- Adams
has argued that moral relativism has to make a number of very implausi-
ble assumptions. First of all, it assumes that it makes sense to assign each
person to his or her particular, hermetically sealed group. But can this be
right? Consider yourself. What is your group? You may be of a particular
religion that means a lot to you, or a citizen of a particular country with
which you strongly identify. Or alternatively, your family may mean more to
you than your religion or country. Or perhaps you identify most with people
on your sports team. Furthermore you may have left one country and find
yourself living in another, or perhaps your parents or your grandparents did
(to flee oppression in their country of birth). For many people in the mod-
ern world, it is not a straightforward matter to say which group they belong
to. And if different groups have different and conflicting practices, and you
belong to more than one group, what should you do? Which culture should
your moral beliefs be relative to?

Second, Moody- Adams points out that cultural relativism assumes that
within each group there is a single agreed- on moral standpoint. But this is
absurd. Any culture will include a wide variety of views, some of them the
direct opposite of each other. What, for example, is the agreed- on U.S. posi-
tion on gun control? On legalization of marijuana? On state- funded health
care? Those tempted to the view that every society has an agreed- on set
of values should spend some time listening to U.S. political debate. And
to return to the topic of genital cutting (which we will talk about again
shortly), the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947) points out that it is
illegal in many of the countries where it is practiced. This example, it seems,
shows a diversity of views within a single country— although the position
is complicated, especially in countries that only recently gained political
and legal independence, as is common in Africa. In these countries formal
legal frameworks are often based on international standards and sometimes
conflict with the customary law of different groups.

32 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Moody- Adams’s third point is that cultural relativism seems to assume
that any individual’s moral beliefs are a direct consequence of the values of
their group. But surely it is not always true that individuals simply absorb
and reproduce the values of their group, even if this is often the case. Free,
critical thinking can lead anywhere. People brought up in the United States
sometimes convert to Buddhism or Islam. There are Baptists in Japan.
Although cultural relativism is often presented as a refined and enlight-
ened moral theory, it seems, paradoxically, not to ref lect the complexities
of our moral lives.

For all that has been said so far, nothing rules out the possibility that
one approach to morality is correct and all conflicting practices are mis-
taken. Nevertheless, in the face of the diversity of moral practices through-
out the world and human history, it is worth thinking about how far it is
possible to acknowledge and accept at least some of this diversity. Another
approach to incorporating the possible insights of relativism is to start by
distinguishing two levels to morality: a level where there must be unity, and
a level that accepts diversity.

One way of developing this approach starts with ref lection on the general
point of morality. Many philosophers will agree that without morality life
would be intolerable, riven with conflict. One point of morality (and there
may be many) is to settle conflicts in a peaceful fashion, for the benefit of
everyone. On this account, then, morality helps us find ways of avoiding or
dealing with disputes, or, more positively, to find ways of regulating cooper-
ation for mutual benefit. Morality is a set of rules of adjudication, by which,
to use a phrase from the political philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002), we
allocate the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.

To say this much is to give an account of part of the nature of morality.
But it does not yet tell us what those rules are. This is where differences
between different cultures can enter the picture. Although all societies need
rules, it may well be that more than one set of rules could serve broadly the
same general purpose. Consider again the example of road safety. Every
country has rules about whether to drive on the right- or the left- hand side
of the road. It doesn’t seem to matter which convention is adopted, as long
as everyone in the same country drives on the same side of the road. As a
result of scientific studies, we may find out that it is safer to drive on one
side than the other (perhaps having something to do with the great majority
of humans being right- handed). Nevertheless, the correct side to drive on

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 33

is the one adopted in your country, even if it turns out that your country
has adopted the marginally more dangerous convention. And it would be
recklessly immoral for anyone to decide to drive on what is for your country
the wrong side, on the basis of scientific studies. Or consider the example
of the funeral practices of the Greeks and the Callatiae, as described by
Herodotus. You probably have observed already that although their practices
may differ, at a deeper level both sides agree that the dead must be honored
in an appropriate and dignified ceremony that also takes into account the
social need to dispose of dead bodies safely. The differences are at the level
of details, highly significant though they are.

A relatively modest form of moral relativism argues by analogy to these
examples. While the general point of morality is to avoid conflict and har-
ness cooperation, and although sets of rules are needed for this purpose, no
single, unique set of rules is always best for these purposes. The moral rules,
like the color of mailboxes— or a better example, the rules of language—
can vary from society to society, even though they serve the same general
purposes. A view of this sort has been defended by David Wong (b. 1949).
Wong is a Chinese American philosopher who, through his upbringing,
found himself exposed to two rather different value systems. The American
system pays a great deal of attention to individual autonomy, privacy, and
independence, whereas the Chinese system gives great weight to loyalty
to community and family. It is not that in America the community has no
value, or that in China the individual is ignored. Both cultures take these
values seriously. However, conflicts between these values are sometimes
resolved in different ways in the different societies. Jomo Kenyatta detected
the same difference between African and European societies, finding that
Africans give much more weight to traditional values of community and
family. Extending this example, we can see that societies might possibly
evolve different moral codes to deal with the different problems they face.
And here is a space where cultural relativism can operate.

An interesting feature of Wong’s account is that although we can recog-
nize a different society’s morality as distinct from our own, we can also, very
often, see value in it. Indeed, we might even admire another society’s values
and wish we had been brought up their way, meanwhile accepting there is
no real possibility to change what we do now. Wong’s position seems reason-
able, although some will challenge it. One opponent will be the philosopher,
or perhaps religious thinker, who believes that a single true set of detailed
moral rules apply in all times and places. Wong suggests that morality has
a type of universality, but this allows for relativism at a societal level, as we

34 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

have seen. And this does seem to ref lect the anthropological evidence of the
sort we quoted above from Herodotus and Ruth Benedict.

Some, however, will question whether this really is a form of cultural rel-
ativism as generally understood— or just another form of liberalism, which
rejects the meta- ethics of relativism but retains some of its practices. The
test, perhaps, is what it says about the more troubling type of example we
explored earlier where a group is exploited, oppressed, or harmed. How does
modest relativism judge slavery, ancient and modern, or oppressive gender
practices such as genital cutting? Are we compelled to say that the differ-
ence between those societies that accept genital cutting and those that find
it outrageous is just like the difference between those societies that drive
on the right and those that drive on the left, or those that speak French and
those that speak Portuguese? This would be a troubling result, and it is why
so many people worry about moral relativism, thinking it is tantamount to
giving up moral standards altogether.

Genital Cutting and Cultural Relativism
Wong does discuss the practice of genital cutting, in the context of how a
hospital in Seattle faced the dilemma of knowing that if it refused to offer
the procedure, then families would still go ahead with it in a far more rad-
ical and dangerous way. Hence without taking a moral stance, a hospital
might offer a “safe” and very minor, almost symbolic, version of the proce-
dure drawing a single drop of blood in hygienic conditions. Assuming that
the families involved considered this to be an acceptable form of genital
cutting, it would protect young girls against the serious harm of the very
invasive procedures that would have been pursued otherwise (Wong, 2006,
pp. 260–263). This is similar to an argument often given in support of legal-
izing abortion. In countries where abortion is illegal, the practice of danger-
ous “backstreet” abortion springs up, along with a significant proportion of
deaths or permanent damage to fertility. By this argument legalized abor-
tion is simply the lesser evil, which is why some people who morally oppose
abortion nevertheless accept its legality.

Wong’s discussion of genital cutting is not really directed to the question
of how people in one society should view practices in another society, for
he focuses his discussion on multicultural society that contains a variety of
moral practices, some of which are regarded as morally outrageous by the
majority culture. However Wong’s “modest relativism” provides a way of
discussing the more general questions of how one society should respond
to the practices of another, and it will be useful to continue to use genital
cutting as our example. We first should recall Wong’s distinction between

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 35

the two levels of morality. First is the “moral core” that all moralities share:
the value of cooperation, conflict resolution, and providing ideals of a good
life. Second are the particular practices of society, which provide detailed
rules and may vary from society to society. The question, then, is whether
genital cutting violates the moral core. And here different versions of modest
relativism may disagree, depending on how the practice is viewed, and how
exactly the distinction is drawn between the core and the particular rules.

The standard liberal discussion of genital cutting sees it as an exercise
of brutal male power over female freedom and pleasure: Male dominance
runs so deep that often women are implicit in, and even strongly approve
of, the practice. This is why it is regarded as so objectionable, but so difficult
to eradicate. Yet Wong points out that “in some communities the practice
is regarded as rendering the body fertile, as a rite of passage, and a test
of courage and endurance to pain that binds together the community of
women who practice it” (Wong, 2006, p. 263). Jomo Kenyatta makes similar
comments about the role of genital cutting in Gikuyu society. If these claims
about the practice can be taken at face value, it can be liberating rather than
oppressive, though deep anthropological work will be needed to be sure.
However, to understand the practice in the context of Wong’s theory, we
first have to understand how it may relate to the fundamental moral core
shared by all societies.

Generally, genital cutting and other similar practices are undertaken
to increase the likelihood that a woman will be a virgin on her wedding
day (or if she is not, that it can be detected easily) and will remain faithful
during marriage, for if, as a result of the procedure, a woman becomes less
capable of sexual pleasure it is thought she will be less likely to be unfaith-
ful. Opposition to sex outside marriage is hardly an eccentric value. It has
long been the teaching in the Islamic and Judeo- Christian traditions. Of
course practices have changed over time, and sex before marriage now has
little stigma in many communities, but still infidelity is generally a subject
of wide disapproval even though it is common. Consider how the revelation
of infidelity, even the suspicion of it, can ruin a politician’s career in many
countries. The high- level moral core— that a good life involves sexual fidelity
in marriage— is shared across many moral codes. The difference is how it
is enforced: in some societies by taboo, moral disapproval, and marriage
contract; in other societies by all these means but also through surgical

The question is whether surgical intervention goes too far. One worry is
that it seems so starkly unjust and oppressive that women have to undergo
a burden to ensure marital fidelity when men do not— although we should

36 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

remember that in many societies, men do have to go through their own pain-
ful and difficult rites of passage for other purposes. Nevertheless the extreme
sexism of the practice is deeply troubling. And this alone may lead us to
conclude that genital cutting violates the moral core, just as other ways of pro-
tecting fidelity seem a clear violation. Consider, for example, the practice of
stoning to death women who have been unfaithful, whether through choice
or, in the most horrendous cases, after having been raped. Most two- level
relativists will be extremely uncomfortable and say that although stoning
the unfaithful may be in accordance with one important core value (fidelity),
nevertheless it violates others of far greater importance, such as individual
autonomy and freedom from harm. Hence societies that stone unfaithful
women can be condemned, even by the two- level relativist, for ignoring part
of the core that all moralities must share if they are to be moralities at all.

A similar argument can be made with respect to genital cutting, arguing
that even though it serves the value of marital fidelity, and also, perhaps,
helps with group bonding and marking the passage to adulthood, these
values fall far short of providing a justification. For it also violates the much
more important core moral norms of autonomy and, freedom from harm,
as well as violating equality, and must be condemned. We can see, then,
that everything depends on two key issues: whether autonomy, freedom
from harm, and equality are to be regarded as core values that all moralities
must share, and the degree to which genital cutting violates these values.
Practices differ, and so the same theorist may accept some minor forms
but not others (this seems to be Wong’s position). But theorists also differ,
and so the same practices may be accepted by some modest relativists but
condemned by others. However, we need to bear in mind that the notion
of “acceptance” is not itself entirely straightforward. For example, the con-
temporary African philosopher Godfrey B. Tangwa has argued that while
genital cutting below the age of consent for both girls and boys is morally
wrong, it should not be made illegal. Although this may seem strange, in
fact many things are widely believed to be wrong but are not against the
law. Marital infidelity, an example we have already used, falls into this
category in many countries. Broadly, however, the two- level theory at least
provides a way of conceptualizing the issues, even if, on its own, it does
not solve all of them.

And we can supplement Wong’s and Tangwa’s analyses with a suggestion
from another contemporary philosopher, Miranda Fricker (b. 1966). When
we do view other cultures and want to criticize the practices, it does not
follow that we should blame the people who carry them out. For example,

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 37

we saw that although genital cutting surely exists as a consequence of male
domination, that domination runs so deep that the practice is carried out
and encouraged by women. We can certainly criticize the practice from our
point of view, but many argue that it would be wrong to criticize or blame
the particular people involved. They are following what seem to them to be
the right values. And the same is true of ancient slavery or perhaps even
more recent intolerance of same- sex relations. People can act wrongly, in
perfectly good faith.

When we observe the moral diversity we find in the world today, and even
more so when we look back through history, it is easy to believe that values
must be in some way relative to each particular culture or society. But as
we saw, many people have moral intuitions that support objectivism rather
than cultural relativism, and so it is not possible to settle the question by
appealing to intuition.

Some people who are attracted to relativism wish to argue that one
society should not interfere with the values of another society. But
to draw this conclusion is to state that there is a universal value of cul-
tural self- determination, which is a form of liberalism, or what I called
pseudo- relativism rather than relativism proper. And we must also face
up to the question of whether it is true that all moral traditions are deserv-
ing of respect— or whether, on the contrary, sometimes a moral system
is a way of camouf laging oppression and needs to be challenged from
outside. One difficulty, then, in the idea that we should respect the tradi-
tions and practices of each group is that the practices of a group may have
evolved to favor one subgroup over another, most often men over women
or one race over another. This does not mean we should abandon ideas of
“ self- determination of groups,” but it turns out to be a much more subtle
and difficult idea than we first thought.

We have also seen that stating a genuine moral relativist position requires
you to step outside your own values and adopt a more abstract perspective.
I raised the question of whether it is psychologically difficult to believe your
moral values while at the same time accepting moral relativism. Yet we also
saw that moral relativism has difficulties coping with the complexity of the
modern world, in which it is not true that individuals automatically adopt
the moral values of their culture.

38 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

The more modest two- level view of moral relativism— distinguishing a
moral core, held by all societies, and a culturally relativist element that may
vary from society to society— is a possible compromise. We can recognize
that although some hard moral constraints must be respected by all societ-
ies, how those constraints are translated into particular practices varies from
society to society, none of which has a unique claim to being correct. But
like any compromise, this position can be attacked from both sides: those
who favor cultural relativism will say that there is no shared moral core;
those who think there is a single moral truth will not be prepared to accept
social diversity. To conclude, although moral relativism presents itself as a
highly sophisticated and enlightened position that promises to explain away
apparent moral disagreement, on examination it draws us into a new range
of conceptual and moral puzzles.

Discussion Questions

1. How should the cultural relativist position be formulated?
2. What considerations support cultural relativism?
3. What considerations oppose cultural relativism?
4. What is the distinction between cultural relativism and liberalism?
5. What is two- level cultural relativism?

Key Terms

moral intuition, p. 23

objectivism, p. 23

cultural relativism, p. 23

commonsense morality, p. 24

moral realism, p. 25

form of the good, p. 25

equivocation, p. 27

liberalism, p. 27

pseudo- relativism, p. 27

individual subjectivism, p. 30

Key Thinkers

Herodotus (484–425 bce), pp. 21–22, 33

Aristotle (384–322 bce), p. 21

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), pp. 22, 30

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), p. 22

Alan Turing (1912–54), p. 23

Plato (429?–347 bce), pp. 25–26

Jomo Kenyatta (c. 1891–1978), pp. 29, 33, 35

Michele Moody- Adams, pp. 31–32

Chapter 2: Cultural Relativism ■ 39

John Rawls (1921–2002), p. 32

David Wong (b. 1949), pp. 33–35

Godfrey B. Tangwa, p. 36

Miranda Fricker (b. 1966), pp. 36–37

Further Reading
■ Herodotus’s Histories is available in many editions. I have used the Pen-
guin Classics version, revised edition, published in 2003.

■ Aristotle’s views on slavery are set out in Book 1 of his Politics. A helpful
edition, also containing some of his other political writings, is published by
Cambridge University Press (1996) edited by Stephen Everson.

■ For a detailed discussion of same- sex relations in Ancient Greece, see
Kenneth J. Dover Greek Homosexuality (Harvard University Press, 1978).

■ The quotations from Ruth Benedict are from her Patterns of Culture. I
have used the 1989 Houghton Mifflin reprint (original work published 1934).
A selection is included in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy
(W. W. Norton, 2018).

■ The argument that cultural relativism is self- defeating comes from Ber-
nard Williams in his book Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Cambridge
University Press, 1972, pp. 22–25).

■ Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya was published in an edition by Vin-
tage Books (1962). (Original work published 1938)

■ Michele Moody- Adams’s arguments are developed in her Fieldwork in
Familiar Places (Harvard University Press, 1997).

■ John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice was first published in 1971, with a revised
edition in 1999. It is published by Harvard University Press with selections
in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).

■ The discussion of David Wong is based on his Natural Moralities (Oxford
University Press, 2006).

■ Godfrey  B.  Tangwa’s arguments appear in “Circumcision: An African
Point of View.” In Male and Female Circumcision: Medical, Legal, and Eth-
ical Considerations in Pediatric Practice (Kluwer/Plenum Publishers, 1999,
pp. 183–193), edited by George Denniston et al.

■ Miranda Fricker’s discussion of blame and moral relativism is contained
in her book Epistemic Injustice (Oxford University Press, 2007).


C H A P T E R   3

Skepticism and Subjectivism

What humanity has hitherto deemed important are not even realities, but merely
illusions, more strictly speaking lies born of the bad instincts of sick natures.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

In the previous chapter we looked at the view known as cultural relativism,
which takes as its starting point the fact that there has been great moral
diversity over time, and at different places at the same time. These facts of
relativism have led some people to push the argument even further, to sug-
gest that, while there are different customs in different times and places, in a
deeper sense there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as morality. Although
people find it important to follow the traditions of their society, it has been
said that they are nothing more than traditions— in many ways, they are
arbitrary and could have been quite different. This is a very radical criticism
of morality. It contends that there is simply no such thing as morality— or,
to put it another way, nothing can be morally wrong. This view is sometimes
called moral nihilism, and the person who holds such a view is known as a
moral nihilist. Moral nihilists may nonetheless do what morality is said to
demand, either because they happen to want to do what is normally done in
their society (either generally, or in the particular case), or because acting
immorally often leads to legal or social punishment. But the nihilist’s posi-
tion is not so much about what to do or not do. Instead, the nihilist simply
denies that morality has any fundamental justification.

It could be suggested that the moral nihilist is merely someone who
follows their own self- interest, supposing that instead of obeying some sort
of code of conduct, the rational, moral, or the only possible thing to do is
pursue pleasure and avoid pain. These views are known as forms of egoism
(directed toward self- interest), and we will look at psychological egoism and
moral egoism in detail in Chapter 6, “Egoism.” And it is true the nihilist
could be an egoist of some form. Interestingly, however, the moral nihilist
need not be. If there is no valid code of behavior, why should I somehow be
forced to follow self- interest? I can do what I like, whether it is in my interest
or against it. After all, many people seem prepared to engage in behavior

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 41

that harms them (smoking, drinking too much, overeating, getting into
fights) for no one’s benefit. The nihilist just acts as he or she feels, arguing
that there is no good argument for anyone to do anything else.

If asserted on its own, though, the nihilist position seems intellectually
unsatisfying. Societies have developed complex moral codes. Was all of that
simply some sort of intellectual mistake, rather like astrology? If so, why
does it persist? (We could ask the same question about astrology.) Now, the
nihilist could refuse to answer; but if morality can be explained away some-
how, the nihilist position looks stronger.

Who, then, are the moral nihilists? Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a
trenchant critic of the morality of his day, is sometimes considered to be
a nihilist. Nietzsche is a radical figure in moral philosophy: He is one of
the most exciting, terrifying, and diversely interpreted philosophers of any
age. Consider the title of one of his most famous works: Beyond Good and
Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886). This title in itself seems to
suggest that morality is a relatively superficial phenomenon: something we
can— something we should— get beyond, as a therapist might tell you to get
beyond some of your hang- ups.

Yet what is it to get beyond good and evil? It sounds like it is to throw off
the shackles of morality, and that is how Nietzsche is often read. However,
Nietzsche is a philosopher who, while exhilarating to read, is notoriously
difficult to interpret. The nihilist reading of his works is encouraged by
Nietzsche’s description of himself not only as “The Antichrist” but also
“the first immoralist” (Ecce Homo, III UM 3). But an alternative reading is
preferred by many, though not all, scholars. In this alternative view, getting
“beyond good and evil” means that the terms good and evil are to be replaced
by good and bad— a subtle, but as we shall see, vitally important shift. In this
reading, Nietzsche’s project may not have been so much to reject morality
but to call for what he terms a revaluation of all values, generating a new
type of morality. We will look at this view further shortly.

Perhaps a clearer example of the nihilist is Thrasymachus. He is a charac-
ter in Plato’s dialogue The Republic who argues with great force at the opening
of the book that “justice is the interest of the stronger,” but his position is one
that Plato sets out to refute rather than defend. Fiction also provides exam-
ples, such as the character Meursault in L’Estranger (The Stranger, 1942), a
novel by the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus (1913–60). Meur-
sault kills another man, someone he barely knows, but feels no emotion. If
we read a news story about a modern Meursault, we would imagine that he
is a psychopath; and indeed, in cases of severe psychopathy it is common to

42 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

suppose that the sufferer lacks the type of moral response that others have.
So perhaps here we have stumbled on the real- life moral nihilist: the psy-
chopath. Understandably few, if any, philosophers have recommended the
psychopath’s position as one that captures the truth about morality.

A more reasoned position, which can lead to a form of nihilism, returns
with full force to the question of whether the rules of morality have an
independent justification or are simply customs or habits that we find hard
to break. It is a thought that must have occurred to many people. It is the
theme, for example, of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821–81) masterful novel
Crime and Punishment (1866), in which an impoverished Russian student
named Raskolnikov convinces himself that moral action is, for a certain
sort of person, essentially a form of cowardice and that the truly strong
person will, in the appropriate circumstances, rise above it. In support of
his case, he argues that it can be right to ignore conventional morality in
pursuit of higher goals:

It is my view that if the discoveries of [German astronomer Johannes] Kepler
and [English physicist Isaac] Newton could not on any account, as a result of
certain complex factors, have become known to people other than by means
of sacrificing the life of one person, the lives of ten, a hundred or even more
persons, who were trying to interfere with those discoveries or stand as an
obstacle in their path, then Newton would have had the right, and would even
have been obliged . . . to get rid of those ten or a hundred persons, in order
to make his discoveries known to all mankind. (Dostoyevsky, 1866/2003,
pp. 308–309)

Raskolnikov, however, stops short of the wish to overturn all conventional
morality. For example, he goes on directly to say it doesn’t follow that New-
ton has the right to kill anyone he wants or to steal at the market every day.
Nevertheless Raskolnikov brings himself to believe that he, Raskolnikov,
should ignore ordinary morality and is perfectly justified in robbing and
killing a wealthy old woman; though, as we can imagine, when he puts his
theory into practice it doesn’t work out so well for him. Raskolnikov’s posi-
tion, perhaps ref lecting his status as a psychologically disturbed individual
in a work of fiction, is not entirely clear; but he seems to think that conven-
tional morality is a type of conspiracy of those who are not strong or willful
enough to survive through their own efforts and so need artificial rules to
hold others in place. Morality is a device to protect the weak from the strong.
In some circumstances the truly strong person has the right, or even the

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 43

duty, to ignore the rules if the opportunity is presented. As soon, however,
as it is stated that the strong person has the “right or duty” to break conven-
tional rules, one conception of morality has been replaced with another. This
is not a form of pure nihilism after all, but rather a form of morality that
gives the strong special rights. To understand it better, it is worth looking
brief ly at Nietzsche’s more philosophical presentation of a similar position.

Morality as a Device to Curb the Strong
Raskolnikov’s view that splits society into “the herd” and “the elite” is also
associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, mentioned earlier as presenting the
thesis that we need to “revalue” our values. Nietzsche’s key idea is that
we must subject contemporary morality— the morality we currently find
ourselves with— to scrutiny and examine its nature and the justifications
we give for it. For Nietzsche, writing in nineteenth- century Germany, con-
temporary morality was the morality of the Christian church, which had
its own categories of virtues and vices, justified by human belief in God’s
will. To be a good Christian and therefore a “good person,” you need to be
humble, pious, and meek. But to be like this, says Nietzsche, is to accept
what he calls a slave morality— a term that clearly provides a clue about
how attractive he finds it. Nietzsche’s revaluation question can be put like
this: Is it good to be a good person? Or, indeed, is it a bad thing to be an evil
person, if to be evil is to be the opposite of humble, meek, and pious? The
question had been raised before, by the Scottish philosopher David Hume
(1711–76), as early as 1751:

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self- denial, humility, silence, soli-
tude and the whole train of monkish virtues . . . are rejected everywhere by
men of sense . . . because they serve no manner of purpose. . . . We justly,
therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the cate-
gory of vices. . . . A gloomy, hair- brained enthusiast, after his death, may have
a place in the calendar; but will scarcely be admitted, when alive, into inti-
macy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.
(Hume, 1751/1983, pp. 73–74)

To put it another way, we can ask whether Christian morality is “fit for
purpose.” Of course, defenders might point out that it is perfectly well suited
for Christian purposes. But then is that the right test? How would Nietzsche
have us judge? For Nietzsche the key test seems to be whether these val-
ues are “ life- promoting, life- preserving, species- preserving, perhaps even
species- cultivating” (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886/1989, part 1, section 4,
p. 11). Under the conditions of the original formation of Christianity, when
Christians were a ruthlessly persecuted minority, these virtues allowed

44 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

the survival of the religion, even at great sacrifice for individuals. But for
Nietzsche that time had passed, and it is necessary to replace one set of
obsolete values with a more positive set suitable for our time.

In sum, although in a sense Nietzsche did believe that morality is purely
a device used by the weak to curb the strong, his immediate target was
the Christian morality of his day. But in the reading we are considering,
Nietzsche’s view seems to be that despite its strong grip on modern life,
Christian morality is out of date and now does more harm than good. There
is a deeper form of morality— the morality of good and bad rather than good
and evil— that is not a device used by the weak to curb the strong. Instead, it
is a morality the strong can use to assert themselves. And that, in turn, may
be why many people find Nietzsche’s approach to morality disturbing: his
admiration for the small minority of the strong and talented at the expense
of “the herd,” the ordinary people, which includes the great majority of us.

As I have said, although Nietzsche attempts to undermine conventional
morality, by the interpretation we have been considering he is not really a
moral nihilist, because he seeks to establish a different morality. However,
other philosophers— such as the twentieth- century philosopher J. L. Mackie
(1917–81)—have argued for views that are similar to the moral nihilist posi-
tion, and we will return to Mackie’s views at the end of this chapter. But
it will be illuminating to approach it through another route, looking at a
number of other ways in which morality has been reinterpreted as not being
what it seems.

In our “commonsense” approach to morality, we tend to assume that some
moral judgments are straightforwardly true and others false. For example,
most of us will assume it is straightforwardly true that it is wrong to shoot
a man “just to watch him die,” in the words of the old Johnny Cash song
“Folsom Prison Blues.” But we have also seen our common sense about
morality challenged. For example, we looked in Chapter 2 at cultural rela-
tivism, which is the view that morality is relative to each person’s culture.
One of the difficulties we noted with cultural relativism is that even within
a culture, people often disagree deeply about morality. That thought might
push us into a more individualist direction: There is no general truth about
morality, even within a culture. Rather, in this view, each person’s code of
ethics is subjective in the sense of being unique to that person. This posi-
tion, often called individual subjectivism, is something that many people
suspect to be true about morality— especially when they meet and argue

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 45

with someone who holds a different view, and the arguments get more and
more heated. It is tempting at that stage to withdraw from the argument,
perhaps saying that “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” Of course
that is not what you would say to someone who insists that 2 + 2 = 5, or that
the earth is flat, unless you are simply being polite or want to get away as
quickly as possible. When people disagree on an objective matter of fact, at
least one of them is wrong. Some other issues are purely subjective, where
the notion of right and wrong seems out of place. The question we face is
where morality fits.

We can all agree that different people can have different views. But we
should be aware that, as so often in philosophy, the same name— in this
case, subjectivism— can cover a variety of distinct positions. Subjectivism, of
course, contrasts with objectivism; and the basic issue is whether values are
objective and there to be discovered, or subjective, meaning created in some
way by us. And if we do create them, is this something we do in the context
of humanity as a whole, or within each group or culture, or for each of us as
an individual? We discussed cultural subjectivism, better known as cultural
relativism, in the Chapter 2. In this section we will look in particular at the
last issue, individual subjectivism.

Our question is whether we should treat disagreement about morality in
the way we treat disagreement about basic matters of fact, or in some other
way. Consider another area of apparent disagreement: two children arguing
about whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is better. One says, “Chocolate
is much better than vanilla.” The other says, “You’re wrong; vanilla is so
much better than chocolate.” No doubt it looks like there is an argument
here, and it could get intense. But as an onlooker— an older brother or sister,
say— you might feel that it is possible to defuse the situation if you have the
patience. You might try to persuade the children that there is no real dis-
agreement. When the first child says, “Chocolate is better than vanilla,” you
could argue that she is talking about her own preferences rather than about
the ice creams. That is, she is really reporting, “I prefer the taste of chocolate
to vanilla.” Similarly the other child is really saying, “I prefer the taste of
vanilla to chocolate.” Once these views are restated, something remarkable
has happened. There is no disagreement any more. Both statements can be
true. Unless one of the children is misrepresenting his or her preferences
just for the sake of having an argument (which can happen, of course),
by this interpretation they are both effectively saying something true. Of
course they have different preferences, and they may find it hard to believe
that the other child really can have the preferences he or she claims, but still

46 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

there is no contradiction. It is not like one of them saying that chocolate is
made from cocoa beans and the other claiming it is made from the shells
of turtles. Unless there are two sources of chocolate, in that argument only
one child can be right. But when arguing about which is the better f lavor,
there is a sense in which both children are right and another sense in which
neither of them is.

This proposal for dissolving the disagreement suggests that statements
apparently attributing values to objects, such as “Chocolate ice cream is
lovely,” really express something about the person making the statement,
perhaps “Eating chocolate ice cream gives me great pleasure.” And it is easy
to see how to apply this to moral judgments: “Nelson Mandela was a good
person” would mean something like “I strongly approve of the character and
actions of Nelson Mandela.” In this view, moral judgments do state facts,
but different facts than we first thought: facts about the person making the
judgment rather than about Nelson Mandela. And again we can analyze
apparent moral disagreement as we did disputes about taste: One person
approves, the other person disapproves, end of story. Subjectivism has the
appeal that it dissolves moral disagreement. But this comes at a cost. Are we
ready to say that moral disputes are no more important than disputes about
the better ice cream, where both parties can state their view and simply
move on? In other words, subjectivism dissolves moral problems without
resolving them. Is that acceptable?

The view we have been considering proposes that apparent moral judg-
ments state facts about the person making the judgment: the fact that he or
she has an attitude of approval. However, some philosophers adopt a subtly
different form of individual subjectivism known as expressivism. The mod-
ified view suggests that moral judgments express attitudes without stating
that you have them. This may seem a fussy distinction: What is the differ-
ence between expressing a preference and stating you have it? Well, there is
a difference. Consider an analogy. Imagine you are watching your favorite
team take the lead, and along with the rest of the crowd instantly start to
cheer and applaud. It would be odd to say that your cheering should be ana-
lyzed as a sentence in English that really means “I am happy that my team
has gone into the lead.” Rather, we might say that your cheering expresses
your happiness rather than states that you are happy.

This analogy gives rise to a range of theories in moral philosophy which
have at their core the idea that moral statements express our attitudes or our

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 47

emotions. These views are variously known as emotivism or expressivism,
although, irritatingly, not everyone uses the terms in exactly the same way.
The heart of these views, though, is the claim that saying “Nelson Mandela
is a good person” is rather like saying “Nelson Mandela!” in a particular
tone of voice that expresses strong approval. As in the previous version of
subjectivism, this view denies that the judgment says something about Nel-
son Mandela. But in the expressivist view, it doesn’t literally say anything
about the person making the judgment either. What it does is express their
attitudes or emotions rather than stating that they have them.

In the philosophical literature the view that moral judgments express
emotions rather than state facts is known as noncognitivism. Cognitivism,
by contrast, is the view that moral propositions express “genuine” beliefs,
like the beliefs of science, that will be true or false, even if it may be diffi-
cult to tell which. (Beliefs are also known as cognitions, hence the name
noncognitivism.) Noncognitivism, naturally, denies that moral propositions
express genuine beliefs. Rather, they express something about the agent:
tastes, preferences, emotions, or something else that is subjective to the
person expressing the judgment. Like many technical terms, cognitivism
and noncognitivism mean different things in different parts of philosophy.
But in moral philosophy, they are concerned primarily with whether moral
statements express genuine beliefs.

Could the expressivist theory— ridiculed by its opponents as the “ boo-
hurrah” theory of ethics— possibly be correct? To repeat the problem for sub-
jectivism mentioned above, it is disturbing to think that moral disputes are
like children squabbling over which ice cream is better, or rival sports fans
cheering on different teams. And there are obvious disanalogies with these
cases. In moral argument we often give reasons for our views, sometimes
in elaborate and detailed fashion. And occasionally we convince another to
change his or her view, or we even change our own. How could that be if
the noncognitivist is right, and a moral judgment is a mere expression of
an attitude?

The philosopher A.  J. Ayer (1910–89), a prominent expressivist, was
fully aware of this criticism, and he pointed out that most moral disagree-
ment concerns background information rather than the judgment itself.
Suppose, for example, you are convinced that a friend is unkind, while I
strongly hold the view that he is kind. To convince me of your view, you
might tell me about episodes when he told damaging lies. Coming to know
this might lead me to change my mind because I didn’t know all the back-
ground facts. Preferences or attitudes can change. But exactly the same is

48 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

true regarding ice cream. For example, a child might come to change her
preferences about vanilla and chocolate ice cream by tasting a particularly
delicious sample of vanilla ice cream. This is a way of improving background
knowledge— that vanilla ice cream can be much tastier than previously
thought— rather than merely changing the judgment.

Ayer’s point is that apparent moral disagreement is often a result of one
person not having all the facts available and that, once there is agreement on
the facts, his or her moral judgment may change. Yet, as Ayer asks, if there
is agreement on the facts but the disagreement in moral judgment remains,
what happens next? It looks like there is nothing else to do except make your
point again and again, raising your voice and losing your temper. This, he
believes, is a consideration in favor of the expressivist view.

Still, there is another problem lurking. Moral judgments have a special
role in our lives and conversation. Moral judgments are not used merely
to vent our feelings. Rather, we use them to communicate and try to per-
suade others of our position. This recognition led the American philosopher
Charles Leslie Stevenson (1908–79) to propose a more complex theory. Ste-
venson’s view is essentially that moral judgments do not merely express our
emotions, but also include the further element that they are an invitation to
others to share in them too.

We can see why Stevenson has done this. Making a moral judgment is
not the same as cheering your team on, for normally when you make a moral
judgment you expect— or at least hope— that other people will see things the
way you do. Making the judgment can even be part of your strategy to bring
others to share your view. By contrast, when you cheer your team you are
not trying to change the allegiance of the rival supporters, to get everyone
in the stadium to cheer for your side. In fact you would be rather disturbed
if this did happen, and you would think that the opposing supporters were
being ironic or making some sort of protest against their team. It is wrong,
then, to think of moral judgments as merely expressing personal emotions,
for they are also ways of trying to persuade others to share them. Stevenson
adds this element of intended persuasion to his analysis of moral judgments:
They are an expression of your emotions, and an invitation to others to adopt
the same emotions. This extended form of expressivism fits better with
how we use moral language in real life. Between them, Ayer and Stevenson
have presented a significant challenge to an objectivist, universalist position
based on their philosophical analysis of moral language.

Can we accept some version of a subjectivist position? Clearly it has some
intuitive pull. It would explain why moral disagreement exists, and why

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 49

it is so difficult to resolve. It also explains how we can be motivated to act
morally, for we already have the attitudes that support our moral judgments
and therefore are more likely to act in what we see as the morally correct
way. But at the same time it is rather troubling, for it seems to leave morality
completely unconstrained. If we diagnose moral disagreement as in any way
like stating or expressing difference in preference or taste, then what do we
say about someone who holds moral views that most of us consider outra-
geous, such as the view that there is a moral duty to persecute members of
a different religion or race? In the subjectivist view, it seems that this person
simply has unusual emotions or preferences, like those who enjoy eating the
sort of chili peppers that burn most people’s mouths. Can we really accept
such a view?

It is tempting to say that anyone who has attitudes or emotions that lead
them to express approval for racism is simply a bad person. However, on
the expressivist view, by saying this I am simply expressing my disapproval
of people who state racist views and am encouraging others to disapprove
of them too. But this expressivist analysis of the negative moral judgment
is very frustrating. When I say that someone who expresses racist views is
acting badly and ought to stop, I take myself to be talking about the racist,
not about myself. In cases like this it is hard to resist the thought that at least
some elements of morality are more objective than the expressivist allows.
For all their appeal, subjectivism and expressivism hit an intuitive barrier;
they have many counterintuitive implications.

To understand some of our resistance to subjectivism, it is worth returning
to the discussion of objectivism in Chapter 2. There, in contrast to cultural
relativism, I suggested that the objectivist believes that a certain set of prac-
tices is the true or correct moral standpoint. It is easy to be suspicious of
such a bold and perhaps arrogant and exclusionary view, and this is why
many people look for alternatives such as cultural relativism or subjectiv-
ism. But it will be helpful to look in a bit more detail at how versions of
objectivism have been developed to make this idea sound less grandiose
and more down to earth. If more modest versions of objectivism are avail-
able, they may turn out to be an intuitively appealing alternative.

Some forms of objectivism start by paying close attention to the language
we use when we make moral judgments. So far in this book, I haven’t said
much about this. I have used the words good and bad and right and wrong,
but it is worth pausing to think about how we tend to praise and criticize

50 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

people in ordinary life. I have used examples such as “Nelson Mandela was
a good person,” but when was the last time you said of a man or woman
that he or she was good or bad? This is what we say when we are training
our dogs—“good dog,” “bad dog”—or perhaps our children, but it is less
common to apply these terms to adult human beings. It is true that we do
often wonder about what is the “right” thing to do for ourselves, but stop
to think how you praise and blame other people. We often use terms like
kind, generous, friendly, welcoming, thoughtful, considerate, open, or brave to
praise people, and we criticize them with terms like mean, cruel, two- faced,
dishonest, or thoughtless.

Let’s consider the first term in the list— kind. What is it to be kind? This
is an interesting and subtle question. It must involve taking another per-
son’s feelings or concerns into account and giving the person attention,
time, or money without making them feel that you are doing something
especially burdensome. No doubt there is more to it, but that gives us a core
understanding. If someone says that a woman who has just stubbed out her
cigarette on your bare arm is kind, something odd has gone on. Perhaps they
were being sarcastic. Perhaps there is some complicated story that puts the
action in a different light (perhaps they were helping you remove a parasitic
insect that had to be burned out). But if nothing like this applies, then it
simply seems to be untrue that this is a kind act or a kind person. In other
words, morality does seem to involve some objective truths, such as this:
Stubbing out your cigarette on someone’s bare arm is not kind.

The philosopher Bernard Williams (1929–2003) used the distinction
between what he called thin and thick ethical concepts to help make this
point (Williams, 1985). Thin concepts— such as right, wrong, good, and
bad— are called thin because they often seem to do little more than com-
municate moral approval or disapproval. But the concepts of everyday ethics,
such as kind, brave, and considerate, are much thicker than this: They also
have what is called a descriptive content, as we saw in the example of kind.
From this it follows that in some circumstances, it is simply false to call
someone kind. The key point is that the approval or disapproval seems to
be connected to the descriptive element: Unless the action meets the con-
ditions for being kind (or for some other positive ethical concept), we will
not approve of it. This is why the concept appears to be objective, after all.

Subjectivists are, of course, aware of this type of example, and they can
agree that some moral judgments have a descriptive element as well as an
evaluative side. But it may be that the descriptive and evaluative aspects
could be separated, with moral judgment remaining with the evaluative

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 51

element. The point of this attempted analysis is to be able to insist that
morality remains subjective. To test this idea, imagine an anthropologist
from Mars, where— let us suppose— there is a moral nihilist culture. This
anthropologist simply has no moral concepts. Could this visitor to earth
write an anthropological report on human practices, pointing out that
human beings have the concept “kind” that they use on certain occasions
and precisely analyzing its use? This should be possible if the descriptive
aspect is separable from the evaluative. The subjectivist needs to argue that
in the thought experiment, the Martian can use the word kind just as we
do. Objectivity, in this view, attaches to the descriptive part— the part that
the Martian grasps— but not to the subjective evaluation, which the Martian
does not share or even understand. The subjectivist claim comes down to
this: It is one thing to be able to identify kind acts, but quite another to know
that society approves of them.

Is this account plausible? Could you really identify kind acts, or brave
acts, or generous acts without approving of them? Some contemporary phi-
losophers, such as John McDowell (b. 1942), have argued that the descriptive
and evaluative elements cannot be detached. The Martian anthropologist’s
task is impossible: You could not identify acts as kind unless you knew that
they were the sort of thing that is found valuable. This would mean that at
least some of our moral concepts are objective: If you are to have the concept
“kind,” you must acknowledge that people who are kind are morally good,
in that respect at least. Others disagree, arguing that you could know what
counts as kind without holding any views that are related to morality. This
remains an area for debate.

Many of the subjectivist views we have looked at so far make an interest-
ing claim about moral language. They argue that, in a sense, it is decep-
tive. Take a simple example: “Hitler was evil.” The apparent logic of this
sentence is that it attributes a property—“evil”—to an object, the person
Hitler, just as in the sentence “Hitler had black hair” we attribute the prop-
erty “black hair” to him. As we have already seen, some subjectivists say
that this is not the real underlying logic. In reality, they say, in uttering
the sentence I am expressing my own feeling, or emotion. For example, in
the simplest expressivist analysis, which claims that moral judgments have
more in common with cheering on a sports team than stating a fact about
the world, the statement that “Hitler is evil” is equivalent to “ Hitler— boo!”

52 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

In these views, the apparent or surface logic of the statement is misleading.
Thinking that the way to understand morality is through the analysis of
language was popular in the mid- twentieth century, when much of philos-
ophy concerned itself with linguistic analysis.

But things move on, and probably the most significant strand of skep-
ticism in the current debate is known as error theory, from the philoso-
pher J. L. Mackie (1917–81). Mackie’s most important work on the topic is
Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), a book with a title giving a strong
hint about what we will find in it. Mackie does not try to reanalyze our
ordinary moral language. He accepts that our ordinary moral language
presupposes that values are objective— that in saying “Hitler was evil,” I am
attributing an objective value, albeit a strongly negative one, to an object.
But Mackie argues that all statements involving the attribution of objective
values to objects are false because, unlike black hair, objective values do
not exist. In this sense, then, Mackie’s view can be understood as a form
of moral nihilism, which we encountered at the start of this chapter. True,
Mackie writes that his view could be called subjectivism; but he is not
completely comfortable with that term, and nihilism may be closer. Error
theory is the name that has stuck. Error theory has the consequence that
strictly speaking, it is not true that Hitler was evil. But this is not to say
that he was a good man, for that would equally be false. Both claims are
false because they have a false or erroneous presupposition: that there are
objective values. Hence the name error theory.

The Argument From Queerness
Why take error theory seriously? Well, Mackie wants us to share his puz-
zlement about the “essence” of objective values, especially the thin moral
values without descriptive content, such as good, bad, right, and wrong.
Mackie, we noted, subtitles his book Inventing Right and Wrong. As we have
seen, the alternative to the view that our value system is invented is that
it is discovered: an objectivist position. Mackie puts this question to the
objectivist: “What is it that you think you can discover?” Plato, as we saw
in the last chapter, believed that there are objective values, and that these
objective values underpin the objectivity of morality. But Mackie wants us
to think hard about what these objective values are. Where are they? How
can we know about them? Plato, we noted, used the idea of the form of the
good— the perfect idea of the good— that we will never encounter in the
actual world but that exists in some otherworldly realm. If this really is
what it means for values to exist in an objective sense, it is understandable
to begin having doubts.

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 53

The difficulty of making sense of objective values is the basis of Mackie’s
argument. He claims, “If there were objective values they would be entities
or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything
else in the universe” (Mackie, 1977/1991, p. 38). This, which he calls the
argument from queerness (using queer in its old- fashioned sense, as in “odd”
or “strange”) raises a fundamental question of metaphysics, which is the
study of what there is in the world. Here, the question is essentially “What
would an objective value be?” Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Where is it?
What does it look like? And this argument also raises a question of knowl-
edge: How can we come to know these strange objects? In the philosophical
jargon, questions about how we know things are questions of epistemology.
Mackie’s argument also raises an important question of motivation. How
can any fact about the world have “ built- in to- be- doneness,” in the sense
that my recognition of its existence somehow automatically requires me to
pursue it?

When we raise these deeper philosophical questions, we understand the
advantages of the subjectivist view. The subjectivist answers the metaphys-
ical question by saying that values are ultimately preferences or emotions
that are perfectly ordinary things we encounter in the world, indeed inside
ourselves, and nothing mysterious. And we can know these things in the
way we know anything in our own minds, through introspection. Admit-
tedly introspection does raise a puzzle: How is it that I know the contents
of my mind? But the point is that in the subjectivist view, knowing that
something is bad is no more difficult to understand than knowing that
being poked with a sharp stick is painful. Finally, I am motivated to pursue
values because they are my values— my preferences or emotions— rather
than something imposed on me by an independent objective reality.

Mackie’s argument can be formulated in simple terms:

Premise 1: If objective values exist they would have to exist, but not
in physical realm, and also have “ built- in to- be- doneness.”

Premise 2: Nothing can exist, but not in physical realm, and also
have built- in to- be- doneness.


Conclusion: Objective values do not exist.

This argument is based on his reflections on the strangeness of objective
values: how odd they seem to be, and how odd it is that we can come to
know anything about them, or be motivated to follow them if they exist.
Of course, not everyone shares Mackie’s puzzlement. One response that

54 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Mackie mentions himself is to deny the second premise in the argument
above by pointing out that the universe includes many odd things: Should
we say there is no such thing as the perfect circle for the same reason? And
what about numbers, quarks, the Higgs boson, and consciousness? Values
don’t seem much stranger than these.

However, anyone responding in this way does have an important chal-
lenge to explain what objective values are. Do we have to accept Plato’s theory
of forms, as just outlined? Or is it possible to build a different form of objec-
tivism, perhaps using the idea of objective moral concepts explained above?
Mackie’s argument presupposes that if morality is objective, then values
must somehow be things in the world. But perhaps this is the wrong way
of thinking about objectivity, and we should deny the first premise in the
argument. Another alternative could be that some sort of nearly universal
agreement in judgment is a sufficient form of objectivity. But is there near
universal agreement? Probably not. This is the topic of cultural relativism,
which we explored in Chapter 2. Mackie suggests that cultural relativism
also supports his error theory about values.

In sum, Mackie’s argument does seem to be valid. But its soundness is
not so obvious. Each of the premises of the argument can be questioned. I
have not shown that they are false, but it is reasonable to say that they are
at least controversial.

We have considered a number of different ways of undercutting objectiv-
ism, each of which raises some plausible lines of argument. Subjectivism,
for example, has much to be said for it. It seems to preserve the important
human freedom of being able to form your own moral views. It also makes
the metaphysics and epistemology of morality easy. The question is whether
anyone, in their heart of hearts, really believes that subjectivism is true. Is it
really true that morality allows you to think whatever you want? When you
describe a killer as evil, are you really merely expressing your own strong
disapproval (and perhaps inviting others to share your judgment)?

But perhaps the most challenging difficulty for all of the views that ques-
tion the objectivity of morality is knowing why it is that you approve or disap-
prove of an action or person in the first place. Consider again the f lavors of
ice cream. I enjoy vanilla ice cream and prefer it to chocolate ice cream. Why
is that? It isn’t that I have just made up my mind to have these preferences,
although of course some people do make up their mind to have particular

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 55

preferences (for instance, training themselves to prefer fine wine to beer,
perhaps for snobbish reasons). But in the ordinary case, my preferences
about ice cream are based on the sensations of taste, and perhaps smell and
texture, I receive from eating the different ice creams. I simply find one
more pleasant than another, and possibly even something can be said about
my physiology that would explain my preferences.

Consider, though, the case where I approve of a kind action. Why do I
do so? It doesn’t seem that it is some sort of brute fact about my physiology.
Rather, I have noticed that someone has made a special effort to do some-
thing that improves the situation of someone else in some way. Certainly I
approve of it. But the critic of subjectivism will say, “Why should I approve
of it unless I recognize that it is good to help other people?” But if we agree
with this point, then it seems that subjectivism ultimately rests on objectiv-
ism: an understanding that some things are good and some are bad, which
is why I approve and disapprove of them. Objectivism is harder to reject than
it may have appeared. But the critics of objectivism can leave us less sure
that we know what objectivism is.

In this chapter we have looked at a number of challenges to conventional
views of morality. I began with the nihilist view that there is nothing to
morality at all, but soon moved on to Nietzsche’s idea that it is necessary
to “revalue” our values, as distinct from rejecting all values as the nihilist
argues. I then explored a number of versions of individual subjectivism,
including the view that morality can be reduced to individual preference.
I also looked at forms of expressivism, which claim that moral judgments
express attitudes of approval and disapproval, or express our emotions, and
invite others to share them.

I then outlined a form of objectivism that claims that when we use objec-
tive moral concepts, our moral judgments can be straightforwardly true or
false. Next I examined Mackie’s error theory, which states that our ordinary
moral judgments are all false because they presuppose the existence of
objective values. This seems to be a form of nihilism, as discussed earlier in
the chapter. Finally, I looked at some objections to subjectivism. Subjectivist
views may be hard to refute, but it is hard to see why we would retain any
interest in morality if subjectivism were true. It seems that the attempt to
short- circuit moral philosophy, this time by adopting a subjectivist analysis,
simply returns us to some of the deepest questions about morality.

56 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Discussion Questions

1. What is moral nihilism?
2. Does subjectivism reduce morality to individual preferences?
3. Explain the expressivist position.
4. What are objective moral concepts? Can they be used to provide a reply to

the subjectivist?
5. What is the error theory of morality?

Key Terms

cultural relativism, p. 40

moral nihilism, p. 40

psychological egoism, p. 40

moral egoism, p. 40

revaluation of all values, p. 41

virtue, p. 43

vice, p. 43

slave morality, p. 43

individual subjectivism, p. 44

objectivism, p. 45

expressivism, p. 46

emotivism, p. 47

noncognitivism, p. 47

thin and thick ethical concepts,
p. 50

error theory, p. 52

argument from queerness, p. 53

metaphysics, p. 53

epistemology, p. 53

Key Thinkers

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), pp. 40–41

Plato (429?–347 bce), pp. 41, 52

Albert Camus (1913–60), p. 41

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), pp. 42–43

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), p. 42

Isaac Newton (1643–1727), p. 42

David Hume (1711–76), p. 43

A. J. Ayer (1910–89), pp. 47–48

Charles Leslie Stevenson (1908–79), p. 48

Bernard Williams (1929–2003), p. 50

John McDowell (b. 1942), p. 51

J. L. Mackie (1917–81), pp. 52–54

Chapter 3: Skepticism and Subjectivism ■ 57

Further Reading
■ Friedrich Nietzsche’s views are set out throughout his writings, although
Beyond Good and Evil is the most important text from the viewpoint of
issues covered in this book. It is available in a 1989 edition from Vintage,
edited by Walter Kaufmann. (Original work published 1886)

■ A good selection of Nietzsche’s other writings is The Portable Nietzsche
(Penguin, 1954), edited by Walter Kaufmann. Ecce Homo, from which the
opening quote is taken, is published by Oxford University Press (Oxford
World’s Classics, 2007), translated by Duncan Large. (Original work
published 1888)

■ Plato’s The Republic is widely available, for example, in an edition
from W. W. Norton (1999).

■ Albert Camus’s The Stranger is available in an edition from Vintage
(1989). (Original work published 1942)

■ Dostoyevsky has been quoted from the Penguin Classics edition of Crime
and Punishment (2003), translated by David McDuff. (Original work published

■ The quotation from David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of
Morals is taken from the Hackett (1983) edition. (Original work published

■ A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic is available in a Dover reprint (1952).
(Original work published 1936)

■ Charles Leslie Stevenson’s Ethics and Language was published by Yale
University Press (1944).

■ Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy was published by
Fontana (1985).

■ J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong was published by Penguin
(1991). (Original work published 1977)

■ Selections from Plato, Hume, Ayer, and Mackie are included in Jonathan
Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).


C H A P T E R   4

Free Will and Moral Responsibility

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior
state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instance an intel-
ligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated, and the
respective situation of the beings who compose it— an intelligence sufficiently vast
to submit these data to analysis— it would embrace in the same formula the move-
ments of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, noth-
ing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present before its eyes.

Pierre- Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

In the previous two chapters we looked at a variety of challenges that try to
disrupt our ordinary sense of morality. In this chapter we will look at a dif-
ferent set of arguments that some have found threatening to the existence
of an important aspect of morality: the notion of moral responsibility and
the associated concepts of praise and blame.

The idea is simply this: that human beings lack free will and that all
of their behavior is predetermined in some way. In this view, known as
determinism, we are like sophisticated machines or robots. If this is so,
it is claimed, then there can be no morality, for we are not responsible for
anything we do. And if we are not responsible, then we cannot be praised or
blamed for our actions. And what is morality if it is not a system for praising
and blaming? In this chapter we will explore the determinist challenge to
moral responsibility, and consider some replies and alternative views.

The ideas just expressed amount to a simple argument that can be for-
mulated in the following way:

Premise 1: Moral appraisal requires us to be able to hold people
responsible for their actions.

Premise 2: If human beings are to be held responsible for their
actions, then they must have free will.

Premise 3: Human beings do not have free will.


Conclusion: Human beings are not subject to moral appraisal.

Chapter 4: Free Will and Moral Responsibility ■ 59

If the three premises are correct and it really does follow that human beings
cannot be assessed morally— in other words, if the argument is sound in
the technical sense introduced in Chapter 1—then, it seems, that would be
the end for human morality.

Like many apparently simple arguments, this one needs considerable
further exploration. The first two premises lead to the sub- conclusion that
without free will, human beings are not subject to moral appraisal; premise
3 states that human beings do not have free will. Let’s start with the partly
scientific question of the third premise: Do human beings have free will?

Here are some quick terminology points. First, sometimes the view that
human beings have free will is known as libertarianism because it claims
we have the liberty to make free choices. I prefer to avoid that term, for it
is also the name of a theory in political philosophy that defends individual
liberty to the point where it questions the justification of government, tax-
ation, and welfare benefits. That theory is also interesting and important,
but the two uses of the term are not connected. Second, another way of
stating that human beings have free will is to say there is such a thing as
agent causation: that human agents can cause their own actions. In contrast,
determinism suggests that actions are caused by factors outside the agent’s
control. The term agent causation is a useful reminder of what seems to be
at stake in the debate.

Intuitive Belief in Free Will
Intuitively, the premise that human beings lack free will seems absurd. You
are presently reading a paragraph of this book. A short time ago, when you
finished the last paragraph, you made the decision— most likely an uncon-
scious decision, but if you are finding the book a struggle, possibly a fully
conscious one— to carry on reading at least for a bit longer. Those seconds
ago, you could have stopped. You could have shut the book, stood up, and
gone out with friends. Yet you did not. You chose— you freely chose, even if
under a bit of pressure— to carry on reading. Every day you are faced with
hundreds if not thousands of decisions, and the actual course of your day
is one of countless millions, possibly billions, of ways it could have gone if
you had made different choices. Some of the differences put you back on
the same track— Which of my teeth should I clean first?—but others could
change the course of your day or even your life. Hence our intuitive belief
is that we have free will.

And yet there may be nagging doubts. Consider again the decision to
carry on reading. Perhaps, after all, you had no choice: The interest of the
topic and the compelling nature of my writing made it simply impossible

60 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

for you to stop. Slightly more realistically, the combination of a pressing
deadline and your well- drilled scholarly habits made it unthinkable for you
to stop, at least for the time being. Could these compulsions extend back in
time, all the way to your birth, so that your life is simply a chain of events
that couldn’t have unfolded in any other way? From the earliest days of phi-
losophy, many philosophers have been convinced that something drives our
behavior and that free will is an illusion. True, we assume that we do have
free will and can make any number of choices. But then we used to assume
that the earth was f lat, and the sun went around the earth. Perhaps, just
as our understanding of the cosmos was turned on its head by the Polish
astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), who showed that the earth
goes around the sun, our common view of free will is on the cusp of being
shown to be an illusion.

Certainly, as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) argues, our conviction
that we have free will shows nothing:

Let us think of a human being who, while standing in the street . . . might say
to himself: “It is six o’clock in the evening, the day’s work is ended. I can now
go for a walk; or I can go to the club; I can also climb the tower to see the sun
going down; I can also go to the theatre; I can also visit this friend, or again
that one; yes, I can even run out of the gate into the wide world and never
return. All of that is solely up to me, I have total freedom over it; and yet I am
doing none of that now, but am going home with just as much free will, to my
wife.” That is exactly as if water were to speak: “I can strike up high waves (yes!
in the sea and storm), I can rush down in a hurry (yes! in the bed of a stream),
I can fall down foaming and spraying (yes! in a waterfall), I can rise freely as
a jet into the air (yes! in a fountain), finally I can even boil away and disappear
(yes! at [212] degrees of heat); and yet I am doing none of all that now, but I
am staying with free will calm and clear in the mirroring pond.” Just as water
can do all of that only when the determining causes to the one thing or the
other occur, so that human being can in no way do what he imagines he can
do except under the same condition. (Schopenhauer, 1841/2009, pp. 62–63)

Schopenhauer shows that the notion of free will is highly problematic.
True, he says, to act freely is to be able to act in accordance with your will.
But, he asks, what causes your will? Do you will how you will? That would
lead to an infinite regress, in which every act of willing has to be preceded
by another act of willing. At the start of the chain, it seems, there must be
an “unwilled willing,” which, being unwilled, was not free. If the first action
was unfree, then how can anything that follows it be truly free? Something
must cause us to will the way we do, and ultimately that cause must lie out-
side of us and determine our actions.

Chapter 4: Free Will and Moral Responsibility ■ 61

Sociological Determinism
Determinism— the denial of free will— comes in many forms. Perhaps the
most common version is sociological: we are formed by our upbringing,
and there are severe limits to how much we can break free. In the earlier
discussion of cultural relativism (Chapter  2), we observed that there are
many moral systems in the world, and the values you are likely to hold will
depend in some way on the circumstances of your birth and upbringing. If
you had been adopted and brought up in a different family, especially one of
a different religion and with different political views, you would most likely
have reached adulthood with a rather different set of values. This can be an
alarming thought because it makes holding even our deepest beliefs seem
like some sort of accident.

In ordinary life when we talk about the limits of free will, we often mean
that the facts of an individual’s upbringing will strongly inf luence how he
or she will act later in life. For example, many people who abuse children, it
is said, were abused themselves as children. With a different childhood, per-
haps their adult patterns of behavior would have been quite different. And
this consideration is sometimes ref lected when some child abusers receive
punishment: Those who were brought up in unfortunate circumstances are
sometimes shown mercy and given a lighter sentence.

The thesis that we are determined by the circumstances of our upbring-
ing and other social pressures and forces has plausibility, but we need to
understand its limits. Many people seem to overcome their circumstances,
throwing off the patterns of behavior and values that were part of their
upbringing. Even those who do not fully overcome their circumstances nev-
ertheless seem to have free choice over a whole range of parts of their life.
Determination, in this case, is at best “great inf luence” rather than “full
determinism.” It does raise a challenge for free will and moral responsi-
bility in that, as we have seen, it doesn’t always seem fair to punish people
for behavior that has been caused by their upbringing; but this sociological
version of the thesis is limited in the degree to which it denies free will. In
effect it says that we have less free will than we have traditionally thought;
not that we have none. And while this realization will have moral conse-
quences, it does not write off morality entirely.

Psychological and Physical Determinism
The second challenge to free will is psychological. We will look at this theory
in greater detail in Chapter 6 when I discuss psychological egoism. The psy-
chological egoist claim in its most extreme form is that all we are constituted

62 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

to do is constantly seek pleasure and avoid pain. From this, then, it follows—
so it appears— that we have no free will. We are built to seek pleasure and
avoid pain, and that is what we must do. I will postpone discussion of this
theory until Chapter 6, for it requires detailed investigation.

A third, and perhaps most sophisticated, type of challenge to free will
comes from science; and there are several different versions. One comes
from genetics: Each of us is born with a genetic code that determines us
to act in various ways. We are therefore like preprogrammed computers,
determined to act by our genes. Again, we will look at this argument in more
detail when we discuss egoism and altruism; but the point to note here is
that no serious geneticist claims that we are fully determined by our genetic
inheritance. Rather, as with the sociological argument, the idea is that our
genes strongly inf luence our behavior. If this is true, as it surely is, then
once more we have less free will than we might have thought; but it doesn’t
follow that we have none.

An apparently more powerful scientific argument requires a sub-
argument of its own. The general idea is that ultimately, human beings
are only complex physical systems; we are nothing more than atoms and
molecules in an incredibly intricate arrangement. If we are physical systems,
then we must obey the laws of physics. And the laws of physics, so it was
claimed for a long time, are fully deterministic. The quotation at the start
of this chapter by the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre- Simon
Laplace (1749–1827) sets out the case. Laplace argues that if you knew the
current state of the universe and all the laws of physics, you could predict
all of its future states with absolute precision. Human beings are, of course,
part of the universe, and our “states” are “states of the universe.” Hence it
follows that human beings are entirely predictable, at least in theory. Even
if we can’t predict everything in practice— if the methods of making such
predictions are beyond our mental capacities— that fact doesn’t invalidate
the theoretical possibility of such predictions. And if we are predictable, then
how can we have free will? What passes for free will is simply ignorance
of the laws of physics and our inability to make predictions. But a godlike
intellect would see it all laid out to eternity.

Now anyone who knows anything about modern physics will know
that the argument just given is faulty. It is not true that everything in the
physical world is determined; rather, the consensus among physicists is
that at the smallest known level— the quantum level— there is indetermi-
nacy or randomness. So it is not true that all future states are predictable.
Of course much does remain predictable, for generally the randomness
cancels out, and the laws of physics hold at the macro level despite micro

Chapter 4: Free Will and Moral Responsibility ■ 63

indeterminism. But still there is a sliver of light, for not everything is pre-
dictable. How much comfort, however, does the believer in free will feel
on learning that not everything is determined because some things are
random? The defender of free will needs to be able explain how it is possible
that sheer acts of the human mind can, apparently, overcome the laws of
physics. Agent causation, as required by the believer in free will, does not
seem to be supplied by quantum indeterminacy. Being told that not every-
thing is determined because some things are random does not provide
support for the believer in free will.

With the development of brain scanning and experimental techniques
in recent years, neuroscience has produced further ammunition for the
defender of scientific determinism, in the form of some interesting experi-
ments. The neuroscientist Benjamin Libet (1916–2007) suggests that while
we believe that we first make a decision to act and then our brains and bodies
react to the decision, in fact— at least in the experimental situation— the
brain and the body start to act before we are conscious of having made the
decision to do so (Dennet, 2003; 2015). Just as we blink before we know, in
other cases too we “make” the decision after the physical body has already
started to act. This is a fascinating observation: The body seems to act before
the mind tells it to do so. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (b. 1963)
likens the human mind to a “rider on an elephant” (Haidt, 2012). We may be
able to do some things to nudge or cajole the elephant to move one way rather
than another, but our control is extremely limited and may not be there at all.

We cannot settle the question here of whether not human beings have
free will. Indeed, however much time we had, we would be unlikely to settle
the question. The dilemma— the philosophical puzzle— is stark. On the one
hand, it just seems obvious that we have free choice over a whole range of
decisions. On the other hand, how can we? Even if human beings are more
than physical systems, even if we have some sort of ghostly mind, or even a
soul, how could that mind or soul intervene in the physical world to change
the course of physics? The problem of free will and determinism is one of
the most fascinating and intractable problems in philosophy.

Rather than trying to resolve the question of free will, let’s move on to the
other key step in the argument: premise 2, as laid out in the argument at the
start of this chapter. It stated that without free will, there can be no moral
responsibility. In the philosophical jargon this is known as incompatibilism:
the idea that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.

64 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Incompatibilism may seem to be obviously true. If the way that I act is
determined by forces outside my control, then how can I be held respon-
sible? Suppose that you hold me down and force a gun into my hand. You
then push my finger, which presses the trigger, and the bullet kills another
person. It would seem absurd to hold me morally responsible for murder.
No aspect of the act of killing was under my control, and I would have a
complete moral and legal defense against the idea that it was in any way
my fault. Well, if determinism is true, then all our actions are like this. If
determinism is true, we must, it seems, escape moral and legal liability.

Many philosophers, however, claim to believe in compatibilism. A com-
patibilist argues that determinism is, remarkably, compatible with moral
responsibility. The relation between free will and determinism has been
particularly important in theology, and compatibilism was designed as a
solution to a deep theological puzzle; but it also has application in non-
religious discussion of free will. The theological puzzle is this. In many
religious views, God has perfect knowledge. If so, then he already knows
what I am going to do. But if God can know what I am going to do, then
my future must already be determined. And if my future is already deter-
mined, then I could not act differently. Yet if I could not act differently,
then I don’t have free will. Therefore God’s perfect knowledge seems to
rule out human freedom. In most religious views, though, human free-
dom, and with it moral praise and blame, is central to religious doctrine
and, for example, to an individual’s prospects in the afterlife. Hence it has
been important to argue that God’s perfect knowledge does not rule out
moral responsibility.

Although the problem of freedom and responsibility presses heavily for
those who believe in God’s foreknowledge, the same issue can arise for
anyone who is convinced by the arguments for determinism but does not
want to give up on moral responsibility. The compatibilist must argue that
even if we lack free will and all our behavior is determined, nevertheless
we still have moral responsibility for our actions. Now this view may be
hard to understand: It seems to suggest that even if we are not responsible
for our actions, we are still responsible for our actions— which seems an
obvious contradiction. But we can make the contradiction disappear, at
least on the surface, by realizing that two different senses of responsible are
in play. The thesis of determinism is that human beings ultimately lack
causal responsibility for their actions. But causal responsibility is not the
same as moral responsibility. Imagine someone walking along a country

Chapter 4: Free Will and Moral Responsibility ■ 65

path in a hot, dry summer, and her shoes strike up a spark that eventually
leads to a devastating forest fire. Assuming there was no way of knowing
that this could have happened, and hence no negligence, then we may well
agree that this person is causally responsible for the fire but not morally
responsible. And suppose you are walking a little behind that person, and
you notice that a small fire has started. You could easily put it out, but you
ignore it and walk on. In this case we are likely to say that you are morally
responsible for the devastation, which was a predictable consequence of the
small fire, even though you played no role at all in its causation and thus
were not causally responsible.

These examples show that causal responsibility and moral responsibility
are not the same thing, and they can come apart: It is possible to have causal
responsibility without moral responsibility, and moral responsibility without
causal responsibility. Yet ordinarily the two will go together: If I am not caus-
ally responsible for something, normally I am not morally responsible for it.
And the incompatibilist— the philosopher who believes that determinism
rules out moral responsibility— relies on this ordinary case. If determinism
is true, then there is a sense in which I am not causally responsible for
anything at all. It’s like the shooting example, where I had no control over
whether my finger pulled the trigger. Therefore, the incompatibilist argues,
if I am not causally responsible for anything I do, then I am not morally
responsible for it either. How can the opponent of this argument, the com-
patibilist, present a competing picture?

Well, consider ordinary life. If determinism is true, then it is true for us
here and now. That stands to reason. But in everyday life we hold people
morally responsible for their actions. In the worst case we send people to
prison, or even to their death, because of what they have done. But if the
determinists are right, then we have been acting with horrendous inhuman-
ity in the practices we take for granted. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Now, it is easy to tangle yourself up in knots at this point. If determinism is
true, and if as a result there is no moral responsibility, then we have neither
causal nor moral responsibility for our unfair behavior: we are determined
to act as we do. We can’t help ourselves any more than the murderer, and
we can’t be blamed. True, we send innocent people to prison, but we can’t
be blamed because determinism made us do it.

Rather than sink into this morass, the compatibilist argues that even if
determinism is true we should hold on to our ordinary practices of praise
and blame. Why should we hold on to them? One reason is that we just
can’t imagine what life would be like otherwise. Even if determinism is
true as a deep and ultimate fact, on a more superficial level we do make a

66 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

distinction between when something is someone’s fault and when it isn’t.
If someone really couldn’t help themselves on this superficial level—“I was
pushed,” “I’m a kleptomaniac,” “I was sleepwalking”—then we are prepared
to excuse them. But if none of these conditions apply, we hold them morally
responsible. In practice what we do is say that you are morally responsible if
your actions are caused in some ways, but you are not morally responsible if
they are caused in other ways. Typically we will hold you responsible if your
actions are caused by your ordinary beliefs, desires, or intentions; but we will
excuse you if your actions are caused by physical compulsion, mental coer-
cion (such as brainwashing), or psychological disorder. In these later cases,
we are likely to think there is a sense in which those “actions” were not yours
at all. We must concede, though, that the distinction is not absolutely clear.
We are prepared to blame people for negligence, or thoughtlessness, as in
the case of the person who ignored the forest fire, even though strictly these
are not actions either.

The distinctive element in the compatibilist position is the idea that even
if we have no alternative to how we act, we can still be held morally respon-
sible for our actions. The argument just given is that we find, in ordinary
life, that we cannot stop holding people responsible for their actions; and so
if determinism is true, then we are already compatibilists. But the lingering
doubt here is in this question: How can I be morally responsible for doing
something if I could not have acted otherwise?

But consider this case, introduced by the contemporary philosopher
Harry Frankfurt (b. 1929), concerning a person called Jones. Unbeknownst
to him, another person— Black— has managed to implant in Jones’s brain
a physical device that can be controlled by radio signals. Black wants Jones
to commit a particular crime, and he is ready to send radio signals to
control Jones’s brain so that he commits the crime. However, as it turns
out Jones decides to commit exactly that crime and goes ahead and does
so. Black doesn’t have to do a thing. The question now is whether Jones is
morally responsible for the crime. Most people will say, without hesitation,
that he surely is. But notice that Jones could not have acted otherwise; for
if he had tried to do something else, Black would have intervened and
set him back on his dastardly course of action. From this case it follows
that we are prepared to say that people can be morally responsible for
what they do even if they could not have acted otherwise. And that is the
compatibilist case. What matters, it seems, is the reasons that you act
and not whether you were free to act in some other way. When someone
puts a gun in your hand and then physically forces you to pull the trigger,
then you are not acting for reasons at all— you are not even acting. But in

Chapter 4: Free Will and Moral Responsibility ■ 67

the ordinary case we do act for reasons, for there are things we want our
actions to achieve. And, the compatibilist says, in many of these cases we
are morally responsible for what we do, even if we could not have acted in
a different way.

Law and Determinism
For another attempt to reconcile a form of determinism with moral respon-
sibility, it is worth briefly considering the views of Jeremy Bentham. Ben-
tham believed that we have two “sovereign masters,” pleasure and pain, and
in everything we do we seek pleasure and avoid pain (Bentham, 1789/2011,
2018). This is a version of psychological egoism, which we will discuss
shortly (Chapter 6). Yet throughout his writings, Bentham clearly assumed
that some actions are morally required and others morally prohibited. How
can he combine the two? For if “nature has constituted us” to seek pleasure
and avoid pain, then how can we respond to the demands of morality, or be
blamed if we fail? Bentham’s task is to show how we can, in fact, set up a
moral and legal system so that pleasure and pain become aligned with right
and wrong. If we suffer pain, either through legal punishment or through
the disapproval of others, in proportion to the badness of our actions, and if
we are rewarded in some way for good actions, then morality and determin-
ism will be in harmony. The trick for the legislator is to set up a system that
gives people the right incentives to act morally. The point of punishment,
for example, is not to exact retribution for past acts, but to deter future acts.
Problem solved.

This is a neat solution, at least on the surface, but it raises another
question: What are the legislator’s motivations? The legislator is, after all,
just another human being and therefore also constituted to seek pleasure.
Why should the legislator pass the right laws, rather than, perhaps, corrupt
ones that advance his or her own interests? As Bentham got older, wiser, and
more cynical, this problem troubled him more and more. There is an obvi-
ous answer and an obvious problem: The answer is that the legislator has to
be placed in a system where approving good laws leads to pleasure and bad
laws pain. But the problem repeats itself: Who can set up that system? And
this problem seems to recur ad infinitum, another case of infinite regress.

Bentham, I think, would say there is another way of looking at it. While
the legislators set laws for the people, the people also need to have a check
on the legislators, through regular democratic elections. By these means,
if all goes well, everyone is kept in check. Bad behavior, whether by the
citizens or the legislator, is punished: Citizens will be fined or go to jail,
and the legislator will not be reelected. If we are thoughtful and careful,

68 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

self- interest will bring us collectively to develop the rules that tie together
morality and self- interest.

It is also worth keeping in mind that even if we truly are determined to
seek pleasure, we might nevertheless have considerable freedom of action.
After all, very often in life we find ourselves in situations where the options
open to us are either equally pleasurable or equally unpleasant. In such
cases Bentham’s theory seems to offer nothing to stop us from choosing
directly on moral grounds, or on the basis of any other consideration that
comes to us. This is an important difference between the theory that we
are constituted to seek pleasure and avoid pain and the type of scientific
microphysical determinism in which human beings are little more than
sophisticated robots following the laws of physics.

The arguments we have considered do not prove the truth of compati-
bilism; they show us only that such a view is possible to hold. And it is an
important option for those who are convinced by one or more of the argu-
ments for determinism but are unable to give up the idea of human freedom
or moral responsibility. But it could be, of course, that being unable to shake
a view tells us not that the view is true, but that we are f lawed creatures,
condemned to dwell in a world of illusions, and not strong enough to live
with the truth.

Intuitively we believe that we have free will. But this intuitive view can
be challenged by a series of arguments— sociological, psychological, and
scientific— in favor of determinism, which is the view that our actions are
ultimately caused by factors outside our control. And it seems that if deter-
minism is true, we not only lack free will but also, as a consequence, have
no moral responsibility.

The compatibilist replies that even if determinism is true, we still should
hold people morally responsible for their actions. Causal responsibility and
moral responsibility are two different things. Of course, in some cases we
recognize that people are not morally responsible; they might suffer from
duress or compulsion, for example. But in the ordinary case— when people’s
actions align with their beliefs and desires— then, whether or not determin-
ism is true, we should continue to hold people morally responsible for their
actions. This view can be hard to accept; yet if determinism is true, then
remarkably, it describes our actual practice.

Chapter 4: Free Will and Moral Responsibility ■ 69

Discussion Questions

1. What arguments are available to challenge the intuitive view that we have
free will?

2. If determinism is true, does it follow that human beings lack moral

3. What is the difference between causal responsibility and moral

4. How should a compatibilist position be formulated?

Key Terms

free will, p. 58

determinism, p. 58

libertarianism, p. 59

agent causation, p. 59

infinite regress, p. 60

incompatibilism, p. 63

compatibilism, p. 64

Key Thinkers

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), p. 60

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), p. 60

Pierre- Simon Laplace (1749–1827), p. 62

Benjamin Libet (1916–2007), p. 63

Jonathan Haidt (b. 1963), p. 63

Harry Frankfurt (b. 1929), p. 66

Further Reading
■ The opening quotation is from Pierre- Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay
on Probabilities, in an edition by Dover (1995). (Original work published 1814)

■ Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay, “On the Freedom of the Will,” is included
in his Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Cambridge University Press,
2009). (Original work published 1841)

■ Benjamin Libet’s experiments are discussed by Daniel C. Dennett in
Freedom Evolves (Viking, 2003), which also extensively discusses the topic
of free will, as does Dennett’s Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth
Wanting, revised edition (Bradford Books, 2015).

■ Jonathan Haidt’s ideas are set out in his book The Righteous Mind: Why
Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Random House, 2012).

70 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

■ Selections from Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Mor-
als and Legislation can be found in his Selected Writings (Yale University
Press, 2011), edited by Stephen  G.  Engelmann (original work published
1789), as well as in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy
(W. W. Norton, 2018). That edition also includes Harry Frankfurt’s “Alter-
nate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” first published in The Journal
of Philosophy, 66 23(1969): 829–839.


C H A P T E R   5

Religion and Natural Law

And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there:
and I will give thee tablets of stone, and a law, and commandments which I
have written; that thou mayest teach them. And Moses rose up, and his minister
Joshua: and Moses went up into the mount of God.

Exodus 24:12–13

Consider some of the most difficult moral questions that people could face
at some point in their lives. At what point should someone decide that a
terminally ill relative should not receive further treatment? Should a couple
divorce, or remain together in an unhappy marriage for the sake of their
children? Should you take up the career that your parents have encouraged
and pressured you to follow, or should you pursue your own goals? For
many people, for much of human history, guidance on these and similar
questions would be sought from religious sources. Some people would
have consulted religious texts for themselves; but in preliterate cultures,
and probably in all cultures on the hardest questions, individuals would
turn to their religious leaders for help. For most of human history, religion
and morality have been inextricably linked, almost as if they were the same
thing. We are now moving into a secular age in which morality is discussed
as a topic apart from religion. Is that a mistake? Should I do whatever my
religion (if I have one) tells me to do? That is probably what the vast majority
of people have believed over time.

In many interpretations of the Judeo- Christian tradition, for example,
God is the source of all morality. A short statement was set out in the Hebrew
Bible in the form of what are traditionally called the Ten Commandments.
The last six, which make no direct reference to God or religion and hence
can be thought of as purely moral commandments, are as follows: (5) honor
your mother and father; (6) do not kill; (7) do not commit adultery; (8) do
not steal; (9) do not bear false witness against your neighbor; and (10) do not
covet your neighbor’s wife, servant, donkey, or other property. Many other
religions also have a summary statement of their fundamental moral views,
supplemented by much more complex and detailed rules as well, such as

72 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

the dietary rules of Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism, or the rules about sexual
morality that are found in virtually all religions. Morality, in these traditions,
stems from God’s command, as stated in the holy texts and interpreted by
religious leaders: holy men and, here and there, holy women.

Those who have a strong religious belief seem to have little option but
to follow the morality of their religion. Moral rules are part of the religious
doctrine, and following something else would seem heretical. Nevertheless
many religious people disagree with some of the moral teachings of their
church. For example, some Catholics accept that abortion can be permitted
under some difficult circumstances such as rape or incest; others approve
of, or themselves use, artificial contraception. Many religions have had strict
prohibitions against homosexuality, but today branches of some religions
now completely accept same- sex relationships and will give approval to
same- sex partnerships. Hence religious doctrine is not necessarily fixed
and can be reinterpreted over time. Still, many religious people will continue
to follow the guidance of their religion unless an official change is decreed,
even when they think it could be questioned.

From a philosophical point of view, finding a religious basis for your
morality seems to give it a firm foundation: What could be stronger than
God as a basis for ethics? It is not unusual to encounter the argument that
without belief in God, or some other religious basis for morality, there is no
morality at all. As a character in the novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), by
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), says, “If God is dead then everything is per-
mitted.” And the belief that religion and morality are intimately connected
certainly has had its influence in law and policy. For example, John Stuart
Mill (1806–73), in On Liberty (1859), complained about the policy that then
did not allow atheists to give evidence in court. To give evidence you first had
to swear an oath on the Bible that you were telling the truth. But if the Bible
meant nothing to you, then it was assumed that neither did the oath; and you
might as well tell lies. The official view, then, was that atheists were not to be
trusted because they had no fear of God’s wrath. Mill argued that this stance
was insulting both to nonbelievers and believers. The insult to nonbelievers
is obvious, but believers should feel insulted too, for they were assumed to tell
the truth only out of fear of God’s punishment. Yet even now, many people
around the world believe that religion is essential to morality. For example,
a study conducted in 2014 found that more than half of the Americans sur-
veyed agreed with the statement that belief in God is essential to morality.

Nevertheless, some religious believers wish to develop a morality that is
not based on God’s command. For example, the English moral philosopher

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 73

and theologian Bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752) suggested that the view
that God punished immorality could be, if not insulting to God, neverthe-
less “very presumptuous.” Butler asked what basis we had “to assert, that the
end of divine punishment is no other than that of civil punishment, namely,
to prevent future mischief” (Butler, 1983). As I understand this passage, But-
ler is pointing out that it is rather arrogant for religious believers to presume
to know God’s purposes. Perhaps God has another plan for human beings
and punishing people for their misdeeds on earth may be too trivial or even
counterproductive in the context of his plan. The implication of Butler’s
observation is that human beings need to sort things out for themselves.

The idea that God enforces morality through punishment and reward in
the afterlife raises an awkward point. If people obey the moral code because
they fear that God will punish them in this or a future life, then ultimately
they are acting out of self- interest, at least in the long term. If that is right,
then we have something quite paradoxical. Rather than being the only true
foundation for morality, the belief in God, and in particular God’s retribu-
tion, seems to reduce morality to self- interest. A purer religious morality
would attempt to avoid this trap, downplaying the motivation to seek rewards
and avoid punishments whether in this life or the next. One suggestion is
that we should follow God’s commands simply out of our love for God rather
than any thought of punishment or reward. We will return to the question of
the relation between morality and acting out of self- interest in Chapter 6. In
the remainder of this chapter, we will look at ways of developing a religious
morality and some of the problems that could be encountered.

So far we have been considering the view that morality is a code of behavior
set out by God, and therefore morality has its authority over us because it is
God’s command. This is commonly known as the divine command theory
of morality. There is, however, a well- known philosophical problem for the
divine command theory. Its significance can be appreciated by looking at a
more general problem for religious morality, one first set out by the Ancient
Greek philosopher Plato (429?–347 bce) in his dialogue, The Euthyphro. In
this work, Plato refers to “the gods” rather than “God,” for in the Ancient
Greek world people believed there were many gods who were often at war
with other. But the argument, known as the Euthyphro dilemma, has equal
force in the context of contemporary monotheisms, which advocate belief
in only one God. The dilemma starts with the idea that we must obey God’s
commands because they are morally correct. Well, we can ask the ques-

74 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

tion, “What makes God’s commands morally correct?” It seems there are
two possible answers. One is that God has discovered the moral truth, the
other that he has invented it (this is the divine command theory). But both
answers are problematic for a religious morality. This is the dilemma.

Consider the possibility that God has discovered the moral truth. But for
him to discover it, then it already must have existed independently of God.
If so, morality does not seem to be God’s command after all. True, God
could pass it on to human beings as a command, but the basis of morality
must have been something else. Otherwise God could not have discovered
it. Therefore, it seems, a wise human being could discover it too, at least in
principle, without God’s help. In conclusion, if God discovered morality,
then the basis of morality cannot be God’s command. This strand of the
dilemma has been developed into what has been called natural law theory.
Natural law theory has the consequence that morality is not God’s command
after all, or at least not in any straightforward sense. (We will explore natural
law theory later in this chapter.)

We seem forced to the conclusion that if God is the foundation of morality,
then he must have created or invented morality rather than discovered it. So
let’s suppose that God invented morality. From a religious point of view, this
may seem to be the right option to choose. But there is a problem lurking
here. Even though God invented morality a particular way, with the moral
rules that are familiar to us, he presumably could have invented it some other
way, with completely different commands. Suppose God had invented what
seems to us an immoral set of rules. Would we be obliged to follow them? For
example, the medieval philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) argued
that if God had ordered us to perform those acts we call “theft,” “adultery,”
or even “hatred of God,” then these would be the morally right things to so
(Adams, 2003, p. 463). In this view, then, anything God tells us to do is right.
But can the religious believer accept that God could turn morality upside
down? In fact, the eighteenth- century German philosopher Immanuel Kant
(1724–1804), though a strong religious believer, argued that it would be a
serious mistake to base morality on God’s revealed will:

The concept of [God’s] will . . . made up of the attributes of desire for glory
and dominion, combined with dreadful representations of power and venge-
fulness, would have to be the foundation for a system of morals that would be
directly opposed to morality. (Groundwork 4:443; 1998, p. 49)

Kant presumably has the idea of God as depicted in the Hebrew Bible in
mind here. Nevertheless William of Ockham would have replied that our
duty is to follow God’s will, whatever it happens to be.

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 75

The ultimate question, then, is whether God’s command could make
something morally right (or wrong) that would not have been right (or
wrong) without God’s command. Could God simply create moral rules by
saying so? But is this so difficult? Think of the dietary restrictions of many
religions. Orthodox Jews may not cook or eat milk and meat together. Pre-
sumably this is a command from God and would have been a matter of
individual choice without that command. So God, it seems, can make things
wrong just by saying so. In reply, however, it seems important to distinguish
religious and moral duty. Certainly for those Jews who believe in God, God
can create— indeed has created— religious duties. It is easy to imagine that
God could have created a completely different set of rules about dietary
restrictions, or, within limits, even about sexual morality. But could he have
created a world in which cruelty, murder, and torture are moral duties?

Responding to the Dilemma
A religious believer could of course accept the position that whatever God
commands is right, just as Abraham (in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew
Bible) after great personal struggle accepted God’s command to sacrifice
his son Isaac— though thankfully, God used the command merely as a test
of Abraham’s commitment, and Isaac was spared. Perhaps the defender of
the divine command theory of morality would say that morality is a mat-
ter of following God’s commands; and if there are commands we don’t
understand or don’t agree with, we simply have to accept that “ours is not
to reason why” and that God’s infinite intellect must know better than our
limited minds. But on reflection, this reasoning backfires. For if we assume
that God knows morality better than we do, then we seem to be assuming
there is something to know, and this pushes us back to the thought that
morality must exist, in some form, independently of God.

A similar problem arises if one instead says that although God could
command us to do anything and that would make it right, God’s goodness
means that he would not command us to do anything abhorrent. The diffi-
culty is again obvious: This view assumes that a standard of good and bad
character exists independently of God, which is exactly what the position
sets out to deny. It is also worth noticing that any constraint on what God
can command also becomes a limit on his power, which is a problem for
the Christian conception of God, which assumes that God is omnipotent
( all- powerful).

In sum, the Euthyphro dilemma is that if God discovered morality, then
there is an independent, nonreligious foundation for morality; but if God
invented morality, then nothing is stopping it from being an arbitrary set of

76 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

rules. If that is the case, why, from a moral point of view, should we follow
these rules? In either case the religious basis of morality is in trouble. Can
the religious philosopher reply? It would be surprising if religious morality
could be undermined so easily, given that for most of human history, reli-
gion and morality have been so closely related. Then again, it was surprising
to find out that the earth was not the center of the universe but in fact orbits
the sun, which itself is a rather insignificant celestial body.

The Logic of the Dilemma
It is worth reflecting on the logic of the Euthyphro argument. It is presented,
of course, as a dilemma: a forced choice between two options, neither of
which is acceptable, hence the philosophical expression “caught on the
horns of a dilemma.” However, not everything presented as a dilemma
really is one. You might, for example, be wondering about whether to go out
tonight to the movies or to stay in and have an early night. That may seem
like a dilemma, but it is not a dilemma in the logical sense we are consid-
ering. It might be possible, for example, to do both: go to an early movie
and still get to bed in good time. It is also possible to do neither: go out for
a late meal, or stay in but go to bed late. For a dilemma to be genuine, first
of all, the two options have to be truly distinct from each other (in the phil-
osophical jargon, they have to be exclusive in the sense that one excludes
the other); and second, they have to cover all the available possibilities (they
have to be exhaustive in the sense that they must exhaust all of the options).
We have seen that going to a movie and having an early night are neither
exclusive (you could do both) nor exhaustive (you could do other things). If
a supposed dilemma fails to be both exclusive and exhaustive, then it can
be called a false dilemma because it may allow a possibility of escape, either
by taking both options together or finding a third option.

Is, then, the choice between God inventing morality and God discover-
ing morality a genuine or a false dilemma? First, is it exclusive? There are
obviously clear cases of both categories of discovery and invention: Fire was
discovered in prehistoric times; the programmable computer was invented
in the mid- twentieth century. Yet can something be both an invention and a
discovery? This is a subtle question. Consider the wheel. Was that a discov-
ery or an invention? In one sense it seems obvious that it was an invention,
dreamed up by an unknown human’s ingenuity. Yet it may well have been
“invented” by many people at many different times, which makes it sound
more like a discovery. And it also seems obvious that its design was severely
limited: A triangular or square wheel never would have caught on. Hence
the wheel seems to combine elements of both invention and discovery.

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 77

Perhaps the moral laws could be like the wheel: invented by God, but
under severe constraints. Does that help solve the dilemma? Unfortunately,
it is hard to see how; as soon as we say there are constraints, we seem to be
saying there are limits to God’s commands— which seems to suggest some
sort of independence for morality and limitation of God’s omnipotence. So
let’s move on to the next question. Is the distinction exhaustive? Are the
alternatives that God invented morality or that he discovered it the only
possibilities for religious morality? Maybe not. Perhaps morality could have
a religious basis in other ways. But it is not easy to see what the candidates
are. In sum, the dilemma does appear to be genuine.

But still, how serious is this dilemma? We have said that if God discov-
ered morality, or at least part of it, then he cannot be the (only) source of
morality. On the other hand, if he created morality, then it seems that noth-
ing is stopping it from being an arbitrary code of conduct. This dilemma may
seem powerful, but a religious moralist can simply accept one of the options.
This, we saw, is what William of Ockham did in saying that we must fol-
low God’s commands whatever they are and however they absurd they may
seem. Alternatively, we could return to the first horn of the dilemma. How
problematic is it to suppose that God discovered an independently existing
morality? Does this really undermine the idea of a morality based on reli-
gion? Let’s explore this question by turning now to the theory of natural law,
which we have noted is the option of taking the first horn of the dilemma.

The term natural law is widely used in moral philosophy. Usually it refers
to a form of universal objectivism that insists morality is not merely a
human invention, but that human beings are able to come to understand
a moral law that is in some sense natural. Many versions of natural law
theory include it as part of a religious view, but it needs to be distinguished
from divine command theory. Divine command theory, as we have seen, is
the view that morality is created by God’s command. In contrast, natural
law theory pays much more attention to God’s purposes rather than mere
commands. One way of making this point is to say that the natural law
is part of a rational plan for the universe. Hence the basis of natural law
morality is God’s plan, but human beings must discover how to accomplish
that plan— the rules of morality. The theory that morality is based on some
sort of purpose or meaning in the world is sometimes called a teleological
view, based on the Greek word telos, meaning “purpose” or “end” (in the
sense in which “end” contrasts with “means”). Hence natural law theory is

78 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

a teleological morality, seeing the moral rules as the way in which we will
accomplish God’s (or some other) purposes. In its religious version, to come
to understand the natural law we have, first, to understand God’s purposes
for humankind, and then to consider the rules of behavior that would best
enable us to fulfill those purposes.

Proponents of a religious version of natural law theory sometimes sug-
gest that to assist us in this task, just as God has given us the five senses of
perception, he has implanted in us a moral sense that is based on reason
or conscience. In coming to understand what our moral duties are, we use
these capabilities. For example, it could be argued that God is concerned to
ensure that human beings achieve happiness; that they live in a harmoni-
ous society; and that they pay due respect to their maker. The natural law
theorist will add that God has given us mental capabilities so that we can, by
using our natural reason or our conscience, derive for ourselves the natural
law that is also God’s law— though not merely God’s command, because it
has a particular purpose.

There are in fact two different theories here. One is that God has given
us natural reason that allows us to discover the moral law; the other, that he
has given us a conscience. Reason and conscience are not the same things.
Reason concerns analysis, deduction, and problem solving, whereas con-
science is more about feeling or emotion. If you act against reason, you can
be accused of being irrational; if you act against conscience, you are likely to
feel guilty. Basing the natural law on reason is the more common approach,
so we will start there and then take up the topic of conscience.

Natural Law and Reason
The medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74)
was one of the great theorists of natural law. He inspired many later figures,
such as the civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), who
followed Aquinas in adopting the dictum of St. Augustine (354–430) that
“an unjust law is no law.” Aquinas believed that all of creation was ordered
by God, according to a benevolent plan, and governed by what he called
“the eternal law.” The natural law is the part of the eternal law specifically
directed toward human affairs and aimed at the common good. Because
the natural law is based on human nature, it will be the same for all human
beings, at all times and places; for Aquinas assumed that we all share the
same human nature. Hence the natural law is objective and universal. Yet
at the same time, it is unwritten, which is why reason is needed for its
discovery. The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973),
an important twentieth- century defender of natural law theory, quotes the

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 79

character Antigone, from the play of the same name by the Ancient Greek
playwright Sophocles (497/6–406/5 bce). Of the unwritten laws, Antigone
says, “But they live always and forever, and no man knows from where they
have arisen” (205). Maritain regards these words as an excellent summary
of the natural law tradition.

Natural law theory can be traced back to the Ancient Greek philosophers.
Aristotle (384–322 bce), who we will discuss in detail in Chapter 12 of this
book, has often been considered one of the founders of natural law theory,
inf luencing the later development of Christian thought. As an approach
to morality, this theory still survives today. Because of its long tradition,
it comes in many varieties. The distinctive idea of natural law theory is its
assumption that ref lection on human beings and our place in the world will
allow us to come to conclusions about the human good, from which we can
then draw particular moral conclusions. However, it is fair to ask how this is
different from other ways of thinking about morality. After all, many moral
philosophers use reasoning of some sort to derive moral conclusions. What,
then, puts some forms of moral reasoning, but not others, in the natural law
tradition? At the heart of natural law theory is what we called its teleology,
assuming that knowing the purpose of human life will allow us to use our
mental capacities to derive the rules of morality.

It is easy to see how natural law theory supports many of our core moral
beliefs. God’s purposes for human beings could not reasonably be thought
to allow us to murder or steal from each other, or to deceive or coerce for
individual advantage. It “stands to reason” that a natural moral law designed
to help us pursue God’s purposes would oppose these actions, and therefore
would classify them as immoral. And indeed the appeal to what is “natural”
will have much intuitive resonance and appeal.

Yet relying on ideas of what is “natural” has its dangers, too. Throughout
history, for example, it has been common to object to sex between people
of the same sex as “unnatural.” The natural human family, it is supposed,
consists of a husband and wife and their children, with the husband as
head of the household and, in many traditions, the wife in a subservient
role. This was the teaching of the church, and Aquinas argued that it was
the natural law ordained by God and conducive to the common good. Sex
between people of the same sex, in such a view, was a serious sin— though
not as serious, thought Aquinas, as bestiality (sex with animals); but more
serious than masturbation, which was also condemned.

Interestingly, Aquinas also considered the question of whether virginity
was a sin. After all, if human beings have been put on earth to reproduce,
as the Bible and “right reason” both suggest, how we can defend those who

80 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

choose not to do so? And this was no trivial issue, given that the Catho-
lic Church demanded celibacy for priests as well as for monks and nuns.
Aquinas’s answer starts with the claim that human beings have a higher
purpose of contemplating the divine, and bodily pleasures can distract from
calm contemplation. He supplements this view by interpreting the duty to
procreate as a collective duty falling on all human beings together rather
than a duty for each person. Therefore, so long as the human race is not in
danger of dying out, it is better to have a division of labor where some people
make the choice of “holy virginity” and contemplate the divine even at the
expense of normal family life.

An obvious problem, however, is that there can be disputes about God’s
purposes, or about the purpose of a particular activity. Consider again the
examples of homosexuality raised by Aquinas. In the Christian tradition
it is sometimes asserted that the sole purpose of sex is procreation within
the confines of marriage. On this basis a wide range of sexual practices are
deemed immoral: contraception, sex outside of marriage, masturbation, and
same- sex relations among them. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), in writings
he dared not publish in his own lifetime, took a different view. He thought
that at least one of the purposes of sex was to bring pleasure. On this basis,
as long as all parties involved are consenting, and no adverse consequences
are to be expected, virtually everything the church rules illegitimate is to
be welcomed.

Nevertheless, defenders of Aquinas will continue to insist that homo-
sexuality is “unnatural.” This raises the difficult question of how we know
what is natural. Several philosophers, including David Hume (1711–76) and
John Stuart Mill, have argued that everything that happens on earth must
be natural in some sense, and therefore it is impossible to say that some
things that happen are unnatural. This is a powerful point, yet most of us
are unable to shake the intuition that some things are “more natural” than
others; think, for example, what we say about food, or the materials used to
make our clothes.

Natural law theory, understandably, can also be criticized by those who
do not believe in God. If there is no God, there are no “God’s purposes”;
therefore, it seems, the theory cannot get off the ground. This critique may
seem devastating, but in fact many natural law theorists do not appeal to
the existence of God. Rather they say that we can work out the purposes,
or the nature, of humans from “natural reason.” Jacques Maritain, while
a believer in God, set out a form of natural law theory that was based on
human nature rather than God’s purposes. Maritain argues that just as

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 81

pianos have a function— the production of sounds— and a piano is defective
if it cannot produce the right sounds at the right time, human beings also
have a function and will be considered defective if they do not follow the
rules that allow them to achieve the function that is true to their essence.

But what is the function of human beings? Maritain argued that it is
much more complex than that of a piano, and in fact is not entirely known
to human beings. If it were known, then we could straightforwardly deduce
the natural law of morality. We do have some knowledge, and also some
theories, that we dispute among ourselves; and this explains why there is
moral disagreement. Nevertheless, in ref lecting on this disagreement and
trying to resolve it, we need to focus on our human nature and purposes
and generate those moral rules that will best help us achieve those purposes.
Understanding the purpose of human beings, and the natural law, is there-
fore a work in progress.

Although the idea that human beings have a purpose may seem plausi-
ble, some have argued that making such as assumption amounts to smug-
gling in a theological premise. Of course you and I have our individual
“purposes”: My purpose at the moment is to finish writing this chapter;
yours, presumably, to finish reading it. These small- scale purposes fit into
a broader plan of life. But these are intentions or goals we have formed for
ourselves, not something “given to us” by nature. On many contemporary
scientific views, human beings have come to exist by complete accident.
It is a matter of tiny chance that human beings evolved at all, and no pur-
pose can be read into it. Natural law theory makes much more sense if it is
based on a religious foundation, in which God has purposes for us. In such
a view, a teleological morality— a purpose- driven one— makes sense. But
the obvious cost is that it then has no appeal to those who do not share the
religious assumptions.

The Fact/Value Distinction
Another difficulty often raised for natural law theory concerns a rather tech-
nical question in moral philosophy, which I drew attention to in Chapter 1.
Many people believe there is an important fact/value distinction. In outline,
the distinction is probably a familiar one. On the one hand is a world of sci-
entific facts that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by evidence. And on the
other hand are values, such as “good” and “bad” or “beautiful” and “ugly,”
that are not assessable in the same way; no amount of scientific evidence
on its own can establish that something is good or beautiful. Indeed this
is another way of making the point introduced earlier— that “normative”

82 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

or value questions are not subject to proof or disproof by the same means
that factual claims are. Given this distinction, many people also often argue
that it is illegitimate to move from claims about facts to claims about val-
ues. Sometimes this view is put in terms of the claimed logical mistake or
fallacy of deriving an “ought” (a value judgment) from an “is” (a matter of
fact). And it is sometimes argued that natural law theory makes exactly this
mistake. Consider, for example, the argument that because the purpose of
sex is procreation, contraception is morally wrong. This appears to move
from a fact (the purpose of sex is procreation) to a value judgment (contra-
ception is wrong). Hence it would follow that natural law theory has a fatal
flaw because it is based on faulty reasoning.

The general argument against natural law theory can be set out as

Premise 1: To say that God or nature has purposes is to make a
claim about a matter of fact.

Premise 2: Natural law theory derives claims about what human
beings ought to do from God or nature’s purposes.

Premise 3: Claims about what human beings ought to do are claims
about values.


Conclusion: Natural law theory derives claims about values from
claims about facts.


Premise 4: It is a logical mistake to derive claims about values from
claims about facts.


Conclusion: Natural law theory is based on a logical mistake.

Now, we can agree that in many cases we cannot derive statements about
values from statements about facts. It is a fact, for example, that more than
300 million people live in the United States. But what is meant to follow
from that? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? If we were to try to make the
argument one way or another, we would have to say something like this:
Having such a large population leads to diversity and vibrancy, which are
valuable, and therefore having such a large population is a good thing. Or:
Such a large population leads to environmental unsustainability and social
division, which are undesirable, and therefore having such a large popu-
lation is a bad thing. But notice that in both cases, to deduce conclusions

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 83

about values, more values had to be added to the argument: that vibrancy
is good, or that social division is bad. Therefore it is commonly said that to
get a value out, you need to put a value in; but natural law theory fails to
do this. If that is right, then there is a problem right at the heart of natural
law theory.

But you might wonder if this argument is as clear- cut as it seems. The
argument, in its religious form, starts from premises about God’s purposes
for human beings. Of course there would be a problem if the argument moved
to a value judgment from an ordinary scientific fact about human beings,
such as that human beings typically have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Nothing
would follow about right or wrong from that. But facts about God’s purposes
seem rather different. It is as if God’s purposes already have a mix of fact
and value about them that could make the move arguably legitimate. Hence
this objection is not as decisive as some suggest, at least not against religious
forms of natural law theory. And even in nonreligious versions, the criticism
is not completely compelling. After all, if we base the idea of “natural” on rea-
soning about what is needed to fulfill the purposes given by human nature,
arguably we are starting with a value judgment, or perhaps a combination of
factual and value judgments. It is not, therefore, so easy to dismiss natural law
theory on the grounds that it moves from an “is” to an “ought.”

Natural Law and Conscience
I said earlier that natural law theory comes in at least two forms, based on
whether we come to know the natural law by our reason or by our conscience.
So far we have been discussing the idea that natural law is derived from
reason, which is the dominant strain in natural law thinking. We should,
though, briefly consider the conscience form, which is well expressed in
Romans 2:15, translated in the New American Standard Bible as

in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience
bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.

Here, then, the idea is that, unlike the “reason” version of natural law, which
tells you to follow your head, the “conscience” version tells you to follow
your heart. The idea is that we all have a well- developed moral sense, and
if we pay attention to it we will find, in our heart of hearts, that we already
know what to do. Often we are tempted by self- interest— or desire, as Adam
was tempted in the Garden of Eden— but just as Adam really knew he was
doing wrong, so do we.

How defensible is this theory? It is in many ways an attractive approach,
and we do often know that some proposed action is wrong by realizing that

84 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

we would feel bad about doing it. Nevertheless, we have to face the question
of how our consciences get formed. In the religious view, our conscience
reveals what God has written on our hearts. It is likely, though, that for
many people what their conscience tells them to do will simply be the result
of the accumulated moral lessons they have had since childhood. Therefore
the question arises about how we know whether what our conscience tells
us is right or wrong. If we have been brought up to believe prejudiced views,
our consciences will also be infected with prejudice. As we saw, for example,
Bentham in effect argued that throughout history many people have been
crippled by their conscience not to satisfy their same- sex desires, leading to
torment and misery.

To illustrate the point further, philosophers have been interested in a
story by Mark Twain (1835–1910) in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
In it Huck helps his friend Jim, a slave, run away from his owner Miss
Watson. However, Huck’s conscience troubles him deeply and prompts him
again and again to consider handing Jim back over to Miss Watson. In the
end Huck’s compassion for Jim overcomes his conscience, and so while
“knowing” that he acts badly, Huck resists his conscience not out of prin-
ciple but, he thinks, out of weakness. This story brilliantly illustrates an
argument made by the twentieth- century philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe
(1919–2001) concerning the views of Bishop Butler, mentioned above: “But-
ler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man’s conscience may tell
him to do the vilest things” (Anscombe, 1958, p. 2). Hence basing a moral
philosophy entirely on conscience seems highly problematic. This, of course,
relates closely to the discussion about moral intuitions in Chapter 1. Your
conscience is very likely to inform, and be informed by, your moral intu-
itions. Moral intuitions can be a good way of responding to a moral question
or dilemma, but to suppose that your intuitions are beyond question is to
lapse into dogma, not insight. And the same can be said for your conscience.

The main focus of this chapter has been the attempt to base morality on
religion, considering the view that the morally good person needs only
to follow his or her religion. Of course this argument would not appeal
to atheists, but in this chapter we have seen that it has difficulties even
for devout religious believers. The Euthyphro dilemma posed a serious
problem: If God discovers morality, then why cannot human beings dis-
cover it independently of God? If God invents morality, then it would

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 85

seem we would have equal reason to follow “immoral” rules if that is what
God decreed.

I explored the response that takes up the first horn of the dilemma, by
means of natural law theory. According to this approach, God has implanted
in us natural reason so that we can work out what is required of us if we
are to fulfill God’s purposes for human life on earth. In this and similar
views, God reveals morality to us by creating human reason so that we can
work it out for ourselves. Alternatively, God equipped us with a conscience
so that we could follow His morality for ourselves, by consulting our hearts.
It is also possible to develop a form of natural law theory that starts from
assumptions about human nature, rather than God’s purposes.

While it may be appealing to think that religion can solve our moral
problems for us, in fact natural law theory makes moral philosophy ines-
capable. It makes us ask these questions: Are human beings on earth for a
purpose? If so, what purpose, and how do we know? And finally, if we do
have a purpose, how should we treat each other— and ourselves— so that
purpose can be advanced?

Discussion Questions

1. What is the Euthyphro dilemma, and what does it show?
2. What is natural law theory?
3. Is it possible to have a nonreligious version of natural law theory?
4. Does the claim that it is not possible to derive an “ought” from an “is” pres-

ent a difficulty for natural law theory?

Key Terms

divine command, p. 73

dilemma, p. 74

natural law, p. 74

exclusive, p. 76

exhaustive, p. 76

false dilemma, p. 76

teleological view, p. 77

natural reason, p. 78

conscience, p. 78

fact/value distinction, p. 81

Key Thinkers

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), p. 72

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), pp. 72, 80

Bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752), pp. 73, 84

Plato (429?–347 bce), p. 73

86 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), pp. 74, 77

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), p. 74

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), pp. 78–80

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), p. 78

St. Augustine (354–430), p. 78

Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), pp. 78–81

Aristotle (384–322 bce), p. 79

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), pp. 80, 84

David Hume (1711–76), p. 80

Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens [1835–1910]), p. 84

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001), p. 84

Further Reading
■ Exodus, from which the opening quotation is taken, is the second book
of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. Here it is quoted from the New
American Standard version, which is also the source of the later quotation
from Romans.

■ Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is available in many edi-
tions, including Penguin (2013). (Original work published 1880)

■ The survey regarding belief in God referred to in the text is a Pew Global
Report (March 13, 2014): “Worldwide, Many See Belief in God as Essential to
Morality: Richer Nations Are Exception.” Retrieved October 22, 2016, from worldwide- many- see- belief- in-god-as

■ John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, is widely available in many editions, and is
included in a collection of his writings, The Spirit of the Age, On Liberty, and
The Subjection of Women (W. W. Norton, 1996), edited by Alan Ryan. (Orig-
inal work published 1859)

■ The passage from Bishop Joseph Butler’s Sermons is from the preface of
his Five Sermons (Hackett, 1983), edited by Stephen L. Darwall.

■ Plato’s Euthyphro is available in Plato: Complete Works (Hackett, 1997),
edited by John M. Cooper.

Chapter 5: Religion and Natural Law ■ 87

■ William of Ockham’s views are quoted in Robert Merrihew Adams, “A
Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness.” In Charles
Taliaferro and Paul Griffiths (eds.), Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology
(Blackwell Publishers, 2003).

■ The Immanuel Kant quotation is from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of
Morals, edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 49.

■ A useful selection of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas is St. Thomas Aqui-
nas on Politics and Ethics (W. W. Norton, 1987), edited by Paul E. Sigmund.

■ Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings include “Speech from Birmingham
Jail,” reprinted in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy
(W. W. Norton, 2018), which also includes selections from Plato, Kant, and
Aquinas referred to in this chapter.

■ Jeremy Bentham’s writings on sex are published in his Selected Writings
(Yale University Press, 2011), edited by Stephen G. Engelmann.

■ David Hume’s discussion of the “natural” can be found in Book Three,
Part 1, Section 2 of his Treatise on Human Nature (Oxford University Press,
2000), edited by David Fate Norton and Mary Norton. This treatise is avail-
able in many other editions. (Original work published 1751)

■ John Stuart Mill’s similar arguments can be found in his essay “On Nature.”
Retrieved October  22, 2016, from

■ Jacques Maritain’s book on natural law referenced here is The Rights of
Man and Natural Law (Scribner, 1943).

■ Many editions of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are avail-
able, including a critical edition published by W. W. Norton (1998; original
work published 1885). An important discussion of the story discussed in
the text is Jonathan Bennett’s “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn,” first
published in Philosophy, 49, 1974: 123–34.

■ Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” was published in Phi-
losophy, 33, 1958: 1–19.


C H A P T E R   6


Ask a man why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep
his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply,
because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a
reason, why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ulti-
mate end, and is never referred to any other object.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

One of the earliest systematic discussions of moral philosophy in the West-
ern philosophical tradition occurs in the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s
great masterpiece, The Republic (c. 380 bce). In that text, Plato defends his
own view of the nature of morality, part of which we briefly looked at in
Chapter 2 of this book. However, in an argumentative strategy that we all
can learn from, Plato is not content with brushing aside his opponent’s view.
Instead he sets out the opposing view in its strongest possible form. We
can understand why he does this: If he can find the strongest version of his
opponent’s view, and still refute it, then his own view is firmly defended.

Plato therefore tells us a story about someone who is able to get away with
acting immorally but with no adverse consequences. This is the mythical
story of the “Ring of Gyges.” According to the story, Gyges was a shepherd
who found a magic ring that, if twisted around, made its wearer invisible.
Suppose you had such a ring. What would you do? In Plato’s Republic, a
character named Glaucon represents the skeptical view in a dialogue with
Socrates; he suggests the following:

No man is so unyielding that he would remain obedient to justice and keep
his hands off what does not belong to him if he could steal with impunity
in the very midst of the public market itself. The same if he could enter into
houses and lie with whom he chose, or if he could slay—or release from
bondage— whom he would, behaving toward other men in these and all
other things as if he were the equal of a god. The just man would act no dif-
ferently from the unjust; both would pursue the same course.

One might argue that here is the great proof that no one is willingly just;
men will be just only if constrained. This is because every man believes that
justice is not really to his interest. If he has the power to do wrong, he will

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 89

do wrong, for every man believes in his heart that injustice will profit him
more than justice.

These are the settled convictions of all those who choose to adopt them.
They hold that anyone who acquires extraordinary power and then refuses
to do wrong and plunder others is truly to be pitied (and a great fool as well).
Publicly, however, they praise the fool’s example, convinced that they must
deny what they really think so that they will not encourage unjust acts against
themselves. (1999, p. 56)

Who could resist using the Ring of Gyges? I think a lot of people would
be tempted to use their new power to do such things as looking around the
homes of the rich and famous; snooping and listening in on conversations,
especially conversations about themselves; and doing other disreputable,
slightly thrilling, things. But how far would you go? Steal? Kill? If not, why
not? Is it because morality does have strong independent force after all? Or
is it because we have been brought up not to harm others, and these rules
are difficult to break whether or not we think they are ultimately justified?
But perhaps, once you really were convinced that you could not be caught,
you would kill if that were the only way of getting what you wanted. Or to
put a rather different question: Would it be rational to stick with the moral
rules if you knew that you could get away with breaking them?

Reflecting on this example suggests at least two different theories we
need to consider. The first is what we could call a psychological claim, one
about human behavior. This view suggests, as Glaucon presents it, that
human beings cannot help pursuing their own self- interest. This theory has
become known as psychological egoism; and if it is true, it would rule out the
possibility of acting morally unless that behavior happened to coincide with
self- interest. The second is a moral claim: Human beings have the right,
perhaps even the duty, to pursue their own self- interest to the exclusion of
the interests of others. For obvious reasons, this theory is often called eth-
ical egoism. Although closely related, these theories are not the same. For
example, some ethical egoists believe we are capable of acting altruistically,
but we would be morally wrong to do so (strange though that may sound).
Therefore, they deny psychological egoism. It is, though, possible to hold
both views; and both have serious implications for morality and for moral
philosophy. Let’s turn first to psychological egoism.

Ultimately, in the psychological egoist’s view, everything we do is aimed at
making things better for ourselves. We are destined to seek pleasure, happi-
ness, or even feelings of self- worth. Of course, we are often rather clever about

90 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

it, making it look like we care about others or would sacrifice our own interests
for the common good. But deep down, in this view it is always the same. All we
do— all we can do— is follow our self- interest. But if that is true, then it seems
that morality, properly speaking, is squeezed out from the start. For if you have
no choice but to follow your self- interest, how can you also act morally? Surely
morality, from time to time, requires genuine self- sacrifice.

This skeptical point about morality can be set out as consisting of an
argument from two premises to a conclusion:

Premise 1: Human beings are constituted by nature to pursue their
own self- interest.

Premise 2: Morality often requires self- denial (i.e., acting against
your self- interest).


Conclusion: Human beings are not capable of acting morally.

Those who are impressed by this argument sometimes draw the further con-
clusion that morality is somehow redundant or perhaps even deceptive— a
myth we tell ourselves, perhaps to feel better about our selfishness.

Let’s examine the logic of this simple argument more closely. The critic
of morality holds premise 1, the psychological egoist claim that humans are
constituted to follow our own self- interest, and premise 2—that morality often
requires self- denial— and claims it follows that human beings cannot act mor-
ally. Is the critic right? One question is whether the conclusion really does
follow from the premises. Is it a logically valid argument? If we look at it again,
can we poke holes? Being maximally critical, is it possible to think of a situ-
ation in which the premises are true but the conclusion false? As we saw in
Chapter 1, this is how philosophers normally attempt to determine whether an
argument is logically valid: They test it to the point of attempted destruction.
And in this case we can in fact question the argument. Look at the conclusion:
Human beings are not capable of acting morally. Why is that? Because, accord-
ing to the premises, we are constituted to follow our self- interest; and morality
often requires self- denial. But does morality always require self- denial? Per-
haps, but that’s not what premise 2 says. It says that morality often requires
self- denial. All that follows, then, is that often human beings are not capable of
acting morally. And so we can see that the conclusion is ambiguous between

Conclusion a (modest version): Human beings are often not capable
of acting morally.

Conclusion b (strong version): Human beings are never capable of
acting morally.

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 91

The modest version of the conclusion does seem to follow logically from
the premises, but the stronger version does not. That doesn’t mean that it
is false— it may be that human beings are never capable of acting morally.
The point is that the argument we have been given so far does not estab-
lish such a claim. The argument allows that where morality is consistent
with self- interest, we can in fact act morally. Suppose, for example, you have
promised to look after your neighbor’s dog for the day. So now you have a
moral obligation to do so. But suppose looking after this particular dog
is lots of fun and one of your favorite things to do. In this case morality
and self- interest seem to coincide. Therefore, acting self- interestedly can
be compatible with morality even if they can also clash. For example, you
might also have promised to look after your neighbor’s cat, which you view
as a nuisance.

We can, though, push the discussion to a deeper level. If you are acting
to pursue your self- interest, can it also be that you are acting morally, or is
it just a happy coincidence? Let’s take another example. Suppose you spend
a great deal of time, effort, and energy helping a friend through a difficult
time in her life simply because you miss going out with her and want to get
back to how things used to be. Have you acted morally or not? This case
relates to an important debate about moral motivation: Is an action “moral”
only if it is done for moral reasons? We will return to this in a later chapter,
for Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) claimed that an action has moral worth
only if it stems from the appropriate moral motivation. But to stay focused
on the main issue, recall that so far our central challenge is based on the
claim that human beings are constituted to pursue their own self- interest,
and nothing but their own self- interest. And we have conceded that morality
often requires self- denial. From these premises it follows that human beings
cannot always act morally. This is obviously a serious issue. So now let’s
directly evaluate the root of this argument: the psychological egoist claim
that human beings must always act out of self- interest.

The Evidence for Psychological Egoism
Is it true that human beings are constituted to pursue their own self- interest
and nothing else? Many intelligent and thoughtful people think so. And
this is a good reason to take the claim seriously. But as we know, simply
thinking something doesn’t make it true. Neither does the fact that you
(if you do), your parents, or some of your friends think it. None of us can
make something true by thinking it is true (except in very special cases).
We need reasons, in the form of evidence or arguments, to support claims
to truth. What reason is there to believe that human beings are constituted

92 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

to always follow their own self- interest? Psychological egoism is after all a
psychological theory about human beings; it is something that should be
supportable by evidence. It is a theory about human behavior. So what is
the evidence that human beings are constituted to pursue nothing but their
own interest?

Of course it is easy to find evidence of human beings acting in their own
self- interest. If we look at the world of business, just reading the newspapers
reveals breathtaking examples. But this isn’t good enough. The theory is
stated as a universal truth about all human beings and all of their actions.
Logically, the claim “all human action is self- interested” is equivalent to the
claim “no human actions are not self- interested.” That is a bold suggestion
indeed. The key issue, then, comes down not to how many positive instances
can we find, but to finding proof that no negative instances exist: in this case,
people engaging in genuinely self- sacrificing behavior. Compare the general-
ization that “all swans are white.” We can come up with no end of examples
of white swans, but nothing will prove the theory until we are somehow reas-
sured that there are no swans of other colors (and famously, black swans were
discovered in Australia eventually, thereby falsifying the previous theory).

Thus we need to turn the investigation on its head and look for examples
of self- sacrificing, or self- denying, behavior among humans. Are there any?
On the face of it, there are many. Maybe you’ve spent part of the weekend
tidying up the apartment while your roommates were out enjoying the sun.
Is this not a form of self- denying behavior?

The psychological egoist is not going to be very impressed by this
example. Maybe you detest an untidy apartment so much that you would
rather tidy it up than go out and enjoy yourself. Maybe you are tidying today
in the attempt to guilt- trip your roommates into cooking for you next week.
In either case the psychological egoist can say that you are taking a short-
term loss for longer- term gain. The example does not show that long- term
self- denying behavior exists.

But really, do we want to say that pure self- denying behavior is impos-
sible? Here is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860),
actually a defender of something close to psychological egoism, on the topic:

[There] are individual but undoubted cases where not only punishment by
law, but also discovery, and even any hint of suspicion were totally excluded,
and yet a rich man had what belonged to him given back by a poor man: e.g.,
where something lost and found, or something deposited by a third party
who had then died, was brought to its owner, or where something secretly
left with a poor man by someone fleeing the country was faithfully kept and
returned. (Schopenhauer, 1841/2009, p. 186)

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 93

True, Schopenhauer goes on to say that such people are as rare as “four-leaved
clovers,” but at this point all we need is a single example to refute the case.

Mother Teresa (1910–97), who was made a saint in September 2016, is
often mentioned as an inspiring example to us all and a refutation of the
self- interest theory. She spent much of her life tending to the sick and poor
in Calcutta, at great hardship to herself. Was this all part of a calculated plan
to advance her self- interest in the long term? What did she hope to gain? In
fact some critics have been skeptical about Mother Teresa’s achievements.
But even if the commonly believed story is correct, the particular case is easy
for the psychological egoist. There is, of course, a straightforward calculation
of self- interest. Mother Teresa was a Christian. Christian doctrine includes
belief in the afterlife. To ascend to heaven a person has to do good on earth,
and so all apparently moral behavior is really a form of hidden self- interest.
As we noted in the last chapter, there is an interesting theological question
here: Is religious belief in an afterlife, or even God’s reward on earth, a way of
reducing morality to self- interest? If moral behavior is rewarded and immoral
behavior punished, and people are motivated by the reward and punishment,
then morality is no more than enlightened self- interest after all. If Mother
Teresa’s plan was to do good simply to get into heaven, then her behavior is
consistent with the self- interest theory. Still, we have to wonder whether she
had to do so much good for others. Couldn’t she have relaxed a little?

But let’s imagine an atheist version of Mother Teresa. Admittedly, the
self- interest theorist could jump on this suggestion and reply that an imag-
ined example is irrelevant. After all, even though we can imagine a green
swan, it doesn’t show that not all swans are white: We need to find an actual,
rather than an imaginary, nonwhite swan to show that. For the moment let’s
continue with the thought experiment, accepting that on its own it doesn’t
prove anything. I introduce it not as a direct counterexample to the self-
interest theory, but as a stand- in for the many people who say they do not
believe in the afterlife and yet also take a lot of trouble to do good for others.
Let’s use the idea of “Atheist Mother Teresa” to represent these people.

Once again, though, the self- interest theorist can make short work of
Atheist Mother Teresa. True, Atheist Mother Teresa does a lot of good for
others. But, so the theory goes, at some level she is acting this way because
of the kick she gets out of it. It feels good to help, and those who help others
do it to get a “warm glow” of righteousness. What looks like an act of self-
sacrifice is an act of selfishness after all.

Well, is that right? How would Atheist Mother Teresa respond if you
put this case to her? No doubt she would feel pretty hurt and insulted; she
would vehemently deny that she has chosen a life of poverty, struggle, and

94 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

sacrifice because, like a cocaine addict, she gets a rush from it. But you
can press the point. Doesn’t it feel good to do good? “Yes,” she might say,
“but that’s not why I do it. If I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, I
wouldn’t do it. And if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, I would not
get a warm glow.” In any case, the warm glow she feels barely registers on
the scales compared to the pains suffered through a life of self- sacrifice. In
other words, even if there is a warm glow, it is a small positive reward in
comparison to the suffering she also experiences and not the main moti-
vation of the action.

Here the critics might accuse Atheist Mother Teresa of deceiving her-
self. They could claim that no one would behave like this unless the warm
glow more than compensated for the pain. But why should we believe this?
Or, to use a simpler example, consider an atheist member of a resistance
movement against a totalitarian regime who allows herself to be tortured
to death to avoid betraying the movement. No warm glow, surely, would
be enough to compensate for a prolonged and horribly painful death.
Such cases seemingly refute the claim that humans are incapable of self-
sacrificing behavior.

But the critic will be unbowed. These are fictional cases. In real- life cases,
how do we actually know what is going on in someone’s head? Perhaps the
warm glow is ecstatic. Perhaps all atheist revolutionaries have a deathbed
conversion and believe they are going to eternal bliss, or they believe the
reputation of glory is enough to compensate for the pain. The self- interest
theorist can dig in and insist: All action must be for the sake of self- interest.
Notice, though, that once this move is made, the argument has changed
significantly. Initially the critic made a psychological argument that drew
on claimed empirical evidence: Anyone who appears to be self- sacrificing
actually has, deep down, some selfish ulterior motive that we can discover.
When faced with imagined counterexamples, the critic has changed to a the-
oretical argument: Self- sacrifice is simply not possible, and there must be an
ulterior motive. But why must there be? Doesn’t this argument assume that
psychological egoism is true, rather than provide any grounds for believing
it is true?

It is hard to see, though, how it could be possible to make a definitive
argument for the self- interest theory, or indeed find a definitive refutation.
The power of argument is sometimes more limited than we would hope.
The psychological egoist, if utterly convinced of the truth of the view, can
insist that the warm glow must outweigh any pain or sacrifice, even if this
now sounds rather dogmatic. We can now appreciate, though, that the psy-
chological egoist is simply someone who holds one theory— and perhaps it is

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 95

not as plausible as it first looked. Psychological egoism needs support from
evidence or argument, and so it is not obviously true. But even if the theory
is not obviously true, that does not make it false.

Can Psychological Egoism Be Rejected?
Nevertheless, psychological egoism can be a hard view to shift. For example,
in The Republic, Plato sets himself the task of trying to show that acting
justly is not mad or foolish, even if you can get away with behaving however
you want.

In a sense, though, Plato puts himself in a difficult position in the argu-
ment. What does he have to show? He thinks he needs to demonstrate that
it is in people’s interest to act morally, even if we can profit from immorality
without fear of being caught and punished. How would you show that act-
ing morally is in your interest even when you can get away with breaking
the rules? We will not go through the details of Plato’s argument because it
depends on many other elements of Plato’s philosophical system as a whole.
Here we need to pay attention to one important claim he makes— that a
certain special type of inner harmony comes from acting morally. A mod-
ern version of this view might be that if you acted very badly, you simply
wouldn’t be able to live with yourself, perhaps through the nagging and life-
wrecking guilt or shame of having harmed others for your own benefit. If
you act immorally, it will eat away at you and make you miserable. Suppose,
for example, that you had the Ring of Gyges and went into a poor old couple’s
house— people who had only ever been kind to you— and took their last food
because they live nearer to you than anyone else, and this is the easiest way
for you to feed yourself. You know you will never be caught. Would you feel
okay about it? If not, why not?

You might feel, however, that Plato’s argument— or at least the modern
version of it— reduces morality to something like self- interest. We have just
seen the argument that the only reason people act morally is that doing so
gives them a kick of some sort, a warm glow. Here we have an argument
that is something like the opposite of the warm glow argument; what we
might call the “cold chill” argument. It says that people avoid immorality
because they don’t want to suffer the cold chill of the remorse and guilt of
having done something wrong. But then this theory also appears to reduce
morality to self- interest, simply in a different way.

How might we avoid collapsing morality into self- interest? Think about
the nice old couple whose food you stole when you had the Ring of Gyges.
How would you feel if you had acted that way? Most of us, I believe, would
feel awful and probably prefer never to think about it. Why? Is it because you

96 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

have been brought up to obey ordinary moral rules and find them impossi-
ble to shake, like someone who automatically follows the rituals of the reli-
gion of their childhood even though they no longer believe? Or is it because
the poor old couple will now find it hard to feed themselves in the coming
days and will suffer real hardship as a result, unless someone else comes to
help them? Knowing that other people can suffer, just as you would, seems
to give you a reason to treat them well if you can. If that is your reason to feel
awful when you break the rules, then the rules of morality seem to involve
something beyond self- interest.

Psychological egoists can try to find support from another quarter, evolution-
ary biology. The biologist J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964) reportedly said, “I’d lay
down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” This was a calculation based
on what is now known as the selfish gene theory, as developed in detail by
the contemporary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941). The idea
is that old- fashioned self- interest theory is too crude. Human beings aren’t
selfish, our genes are. In this view, we might well sacrifice ourselves, but only
if it is likely to lead to the greater preservation of our genes. Note, though, that
the terminology can be confusing. Dawkins is not proposing that all human
beings have a “gene for selfishness” (even if some people might have). Rather,
he suggests that we are genetically programmed to try to preserve our genes.
And we are programmed to do this whether we alone possess those genes or
whether we have them in common with other people, in which case we will
want to advance the interests of those other people.

Selfish Genes and Kin Altruism
The selfish gene hypothesis can seem powerful. When we think about the
people in our world who are most self- sacrificing, mothers, caring for their
children, are at the top of the list. A mother can be sure that her child con-
tains half the genetic material that she has. So if, at some deep level, a moth-
er’s main motivation is to ensure the continuation of her genes, then she
will do a good deal to help ensure that her children survive and reproduce.
She will also care about her own brothers and sisters, who also have half her
genes. Her nieces and nephews have a quarter of her genes, and her cousins
have an eighth. This is why Haldane said he would lay down his life for two
brothers or eight cousins; either way, the same amount of genetic mate-
rial would be preserved. And indeed this type of self- sacrificing behavior
is routinely observed in the animal kingdom, especially among what have
been called the “social insects” such as ants and bees. In some examples

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 97

sterile insects— incapable of reproduction— work tirelessly for the good of
the group, all of whom are close relatives.

The selfish gene hypothesis is connected to the theory of kin altruism
(although historically the idea of kin altruism predated the term selfish gene).
Essentially, kin altruism supposes that your selfish genes lead you to act
altruistically to those who are related to you. The more closely you are related
to these people, the more altruistic you will be; conversely, you will be less
altruistic toward people who are more distantly related.

In one way, though, the theory of kin altruism seems crazy. I do, of
course, help my relatives from time to time. But I don’t think I have ever rea-
soned that “I’d better help my brother, at some cost to myself, to make sure
that my genes survive.” We would be quite surprised, and possibly a little
worried, if we came across someone who thought things through like that.
The selfish gene hypothesis and the theory of kin altruism have to be under-
stood as some sort of indirect motivation. One possible idea is that your
genes cause you to love those who are closely related to you, and your love of
family leads you to help them. The love is real, and it explains your behavior;
but in this theory, your selfish genes strongly inf luence who you love. And
we can concede, I think, that the kin altruism theory has some plausibil-
ity. We do seem to care most about those most closely related to us, and it
would be no surprise if researchers found a genetic explanation for that
phenomenon. In fact, the real surprise would be finding out this behavior
has nothing to do with evolution or genetics.

What, though, is the scope of the theory? Is it intended to explain all
altruistic behavior? It doesn’t seem to explain why parents of adopted chil-
dren devote such care and attention to them. Or why some people care
much more for their cousins than for their brothers or sisters, or why others
care for their friends much more than anyone who is related to them. Let’s
consider a husband and wife, who, we hope, are no more closely related
than any two strangers taken at random. Kin altruism can explain why
they care for each other if they have children together: If your husband or
wife f lourishes, this is likely to be good for your children and hence the
survival of your genes. But suppose they have no children and are past
childbearing age. Kin altruism can no longer explain why the spouses
might make sacrifices for each other, although it might say that in all these
cases our emotions are somehow tricked or hijacked. That may be true;
but overall, kin altruism seems unable to directly explain a whole range of
altruistic behavior, even if it seems to get a certain amount right. Worse
still, kin altruism doesn’t seem compatible with the behavior of family
members who sometimes harm or neglect each other. Some will think

98 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

that kin altruism gets things backward. What motivates us to help family
members, they will claim, is not our genes but the love and close bonds
we develop in growing up with our family. And the development of mutual
affection will also explain why we make sacrifices for family members who
are not genetically related.

The Mountain People
Besides the selfish gene theory, the evolutionary theorist has another card
to play. We will begin discussing this next idea by looking at what was
claimed to be a real- life example— although as we will see, we should be
highly skeptical. In 1972 the anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924–94) pub-
lished a sensational book, The Mountain People, about a group called the Ik
people who live in the mountains between Uganda, the Sudan, and Kenya.
According to Turnbull, these people had virtually no compassion or feeling
for each other. Some of his examples sound like cartoon horror stories, giv-
ing accounts of mothers laughing when their children burn themselves.
Here is one of the most dramatic:

The mother goes about her business [at the water hole or in the fields] leaving
the child there, almost hoping that some predator will come and carry it off.
This happened once when I was there— once that I know of, anyway— and the
mother was delighted. She was rid of the child and no longer had to . . . feed
it, and still further this meant that a leopard was in the vicinity and would be
sleeping the child off and thus be an easy kill. (Turnbull, 1972, p. 136)

The author gives us many other examples. Old people were neglected,
abused, even killed. Food is taken from the mouths of the starving. The
situation of the tribe seems unbearably bleak. But on reading the book, a
question strikes you again and again. If this is how they behaved to each
other, how did the society survive? Turnbull’s answer is that this behavior
is relatively new to the tribe. Since being forced off their traditional hunting
grounds, which were turned into a highly protected nature reserve, the Ik
people were now starving to death although they pretended not to be. Their
egoistic behavior was an aberration; if it lasted, the tribe would not survive.
Anthropologists now completely reject the credibility of Turnbull’s account,
arguing that his study was deeply f lawed. Indeed it is said that upon hear-
ing about the way Turnbull had represented them, the Ik people considered
taking legal action against him, thus showing a level of sophistication that
does not seem to fit with Turnbull’s account. Rather than as a depiction of
fact, then, let’s treat Turnbull’s book as another example of a “thought exper-
iment.” Could a tribe like the Ik ever have existed? Could they reproduce
over the generations?

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 99

The answer is surely that such a tribe could not have survived. As Turn-
bull himself noted, he expected that the Ik tribe would soon die out. Group
survival needs a measure of altruism, of individual self- sacrifice. Hence
another evolutionary argument seems possible: Groups that don’t develop
cultures of altruism don’t survive. And so a mechanism known as group
selection has been suggested. This is Charles Darwin (1809–82) in his book,
The Descent of Man, on the matter:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the
spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always
ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good,
would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.
(Darwin, 1871/2004, p. 157)

How, though, is this meant to work? Evolutionary biologists distinguish
between three different possible moral evolutionary mechanisms. We have
already discussed kin altruism (the theory of the selfish gene). The Ik and
Darwin lead us to another possibility— group altruism: Groups die out if
they don’t develop altruism. And finally we need to look at the idea of recip-
rocal altruism: “If you’ll scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” This is a fairly
local, small- scale mechanism in which people implicitly agree to help each
other. These three ideas— kin, group, and reciprocal altruism— seem to be
closely related: Groups are likely to be made up of people who are related
and who do mutual favors for each other. Group altruism suggests that
individuals will engage in behavior that favors the group, even at a cost to
themselves. Reciprocal altruism is rather more fine- grained; it occurs when
individuals within the group cooperate with other particular individuals,
but only when they also cooperate back from time to time.

Some evolutionary biologists, however, have questioned whether there is
such a thing as pure group altruism, unless it is backed by kin or reciprocal
altruism. It is plausible that groups with moral codes will survive and out-
compete with groups without a moral code holding them together, but the
problem is that a selfish and clever individual living with a group of altruists
will have a tremendous advantage. He or she will be able to exploit others,
and if this advantage turns into more offspring, the gene for selfishness
(remember, not the same thing as the selfish gene) will be passed on and
eventually dominate the group. Accordingly, some have argued that altru-
ism within a group is not stable unless backed up with either kin altruism
or reciprocal altruism (or both) to put a brake on free riding. Others have
argued that in certain ways, group altruism can resist some level of nonco-
operative selfish behavior.

100 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Reciprocal altruism, nevertheless, seems likely to be a stronger mecha-
nism. It is the idea that I will look after you in the expectation that you will
look after me. This can explain why nongenetically related individuals such
as a husband and wife, or a group of friends, will help each other. Once
more, this theory must contain a good deal of truth. People with a reputa-
tion for being selfish tend to get left out of group activities and are worse off
for that. Therefore, we all have self- interested reasons for cooperating with
at least the people we see regularly. On the other hand, it seems that what
matters in the first instance is the reputation, not the reality. If you can be a
free rider, pretending to be cooperative but slyly getting away with what you
can when you can— as if you had the Ring of Gyges— then that’s what self-
interest says you should do. But in a small group, or a group that regularly
interacts, free- riding often is detected and punished. (This may explain why
villages are generally safer and more secure than large cities: Uncooperative
behavior is much more easily noticed and dealt with.) In Chapter 7 we will
return to the issues of free- riding.

To conclude the discussion of psychological egoism, even if it is true that
morality can be reduced to self- interest, the task of the theorist of morality is
not complete. The reason for this is that moral theory comes in many forms
and varieties, and it is not clear which form of morality would best promote
self- interest. Moral philosophy is needed even if in a somewhat different
form than we normally suppose. It leads to the question of the optimum mix
of short- term self- interest and altruism to preserve long- term self- interest.

So far we have been looking at varieties of what we called psychological ego-
ism, which as I noted, is essentially, a scientific theory about human behav-
ior. We have seen some arguments for the conclusion that human beings
are somehow constituted or genetically programmed to pursue their own
self- interest; and this, at least at first, raises the question of whether moral-
ity is possible. But we have also seen that once evolutionary arguments are
taken into account, in some ways psychological egoism can generate behav-
ior that looks very similar to ordinary morality.

But we need to explore another view, which I referred to above as ethical
egoism. It says that whether or not psychological egoism is true, following
your own self- interest is the morally right thing for you to do. Ethical egoism
comes in many different forms, for “ self- interest” can be understood in
many different ways. Normally we think of self- interest in a relatively nar-
row form— getting what you most want, satisfying your desires, or perhaps

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 101

achieving financial success and having a life of luxury. These are what we
could call your “selfish” self- interests. But we can also take a broader view
of self- interest by arguing that, for example, doing good things for others
is part of an individual’s self- interest if that is what she most wants to do.
In this view a type of harmony exists between the person’s self- interest and
the good of others; and so by acting apparently selfishly, she is automatically
acting morally. In Chapter 12 we will see that Aristotle held a view of this
sort, and we will discuss his theory in detail. For now, however, let’s restrict
ourselves to what we could call “narrow ethical egoism,” which claims that
the morally right thing to do is to pursue your selfish interest. But can this
really be right? Doesn’t morality call on us to make, say, a small sacrifice to
save a life? How could it be thought otherwise?

Private Vices, Public Virtues
Narrow ethical egoism comes in at least two versions. Consider this famous
quote from the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith
(1723–90) from his book The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that
we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address
ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self- love, and never talk to them
of our own necessities but of their advantages. (Smith, 1776/1982, p. 119)

Smith points out a remarkable fact about exchange in market economies.
Economic agents are driven by self- interest: Both sides want the best deal
they can get. But for butchers, as an example, it is in their self- interest to
give customers good value so that they come back another time. In the
longer term the butchers can get what they want— a regular profit— only by
giving customers what they want— good meat. To pursue their self- interest,
butchers have to give customers excellent service. In this way the pursuit of
individual self- interest leads to the collective common good. As the Anglo-
Dutch thinker Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) pointed out, “private vices”
lead to “public virtues” (Mandeville, 1714/1989).

This form of ethical egoism is, in a sense, conditional. It tells us to follow
our own self- interest, but only because in this way, everyone’s interest in
the common good will be advanced. Some defenders of the capitalist free
market economy have been impressed by this argument. Opponents of the
free market, such as socialists, criticize capitalism because it encourages
selfishness. But in reply, defenders say that capturing selfishness for the
public good is actually the strength of capitalism. You can make a profit only
by giving people what they want, so the greedier the capitalist, the better
it is for the customer. Prices come down and quality goes up in attempt to

102 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

capture more of the market. On this basis it is often argued that the way
to advance the collective good is to allow the capitalist economy to function
with minimal government intervention or regulation. This, it is said, will
allow individual selfishness to f low for public benefit.

Unfortunately, as Adam Smith was himself aware, his argument has
much more limited scope than some of his followers have suggested. Con-
sider, for example, a financial agent selling you a pension plan. It is in the
narrow self- interest of the agent to convince you that the right plan for you is
the one that gives him the greatest commission. But if so much commission
goes to the agent, it is rather likely that the product he is boosting will give
you a poor deal. The same is true for agents selling subprime mortgages,
product insurance, collateralized debt, or any other sophisticated financial
product. Their interest is to lead you to buy whatever gives them the highest
profit. If the product is no good, then, unlike the meat you bought from
the butcher and eat that evening, it could be years before you find out. By
that time the agent, most likely, will have moved on and be trying to sell
something else. And this is no mere theoretical issue. In the view of some
analysts, the root cause of the financial crisis of 2008 was a belief by some
financial regulators that Adam Smith had shown that the pursuit of self-
interest in an unregulated market would always work out in the common
interest. But as we learned at enormous cost, Smith himself knew he had
shown no such thing.

Pure Ethical Egoism
To recap, I said that ethical egoism comes in two forms. In the form we have
been looking at so far, it states that pursuing your own self- interest is the
best way of advancing the common good. I have given readers some reason
to believe that, although this theory has merit in limited contexts, as a gen-
eralization it is highly problematic. But in any case, when understood this
way, ethical egoism seems to fall short of being an “ultimate” moral theory:
It presupposes that we can reach an independent “common good” by acting
in our self- interest. It is a theory about how to achieve good results, under-
stood in non- egoistic terms. Therefore, strictly speaking, it is not an egoist
theory at all.

The second form of ethical egoism is uncompromising. Rather than
arguing that we have a duty to act in a self- interested way because of the
consequences, it suggests that it is right to act in our own interests, whatever
the consequences for other people. This theory, sometimes associated with
the influential Russian American thinker and novelist Ayn Rand (1905–82),
has been described as arguing for the “duty of selfishness.” This slogan

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 103

ref lects a striking and bold theory, apparently suggesting that it is your
moral duty to be as grasping and selfish as you can be. But at least in some
of her writings, Rand makes clear that her principal argument is against a
type of joyless, altruistic self- sacrifice that requires individuals to put their
own interests aside to promote the well- being of strangers. She clearly indi-
cates that she believes a good life— a selfish life— can include generous
behavior toward your family and friends, the enjoyment of which also con-
tributes to your own self- interest. In this respect, her view allows a level of
harmony between self- interest and action for the sake of others, rather than
instructing everyone to follow a narrow, calculating path. Yet there remains
a powerful element of self- concern in this view, given the strong stand Rand
takes regarding some forms of self- sacrifice. Conventional morality, thinks
Rand, is our “enemy,” for we can only lose from it. In The Virtue of Selfish-
ness, she says:

By elevating the issue of helping others into the central and primary issue of
ethics, altruism has destroyed the concept of any authentic benevolence or
good will among men. It has indoctrinated men with the idea that to value
another human being is an act of selflessness, thus implying that a man can
have no personal interest in others— that to value another means to sacrifice
oneself— that any love, respect or admiration a man may feel for others is not,
and cannot be a source of his own enjoyment, but is a threat to his existence,
a sacrificial blank check signed over to his loved ones. (Rand, 1964, pp. 49–50)

These are strong words. Yet we need to be careful. Rand is here rejecting
a view of morality that claims moral value is found only in promoting
the interests of others at your own cost. Certainly, some conceptions of
morality do require such a level of sacrifice, such as extreme religious
views. Or consider Mrs.  Jellyby, a character created by Charles Dick-
ens (1812–70) in his novel Bleak House (1853), to show how unappeal-
ing extreme altruism can be. Mrs.  Jellyby lets her children go hungry
and dirty while she devotes her time to setting up a mission in Africa.
But rather than abject self- sacrifice, most moral views seek some sort of
balance between the interests of the individual, their family, and other
people. So rejecting such an extreme form of altruism is compatible with
endorsing a wide range of approaches to morality, and not just Rand’s
own view. It would be a logical fallacy to think that rejecting extreme
altruism results in establishing a form of ethical egoism, because inter-
mediate positions do remain possible.

Nevertheless, the idea that pursuing your own selfish interests is the
morally right thing to do has been discussed since the beginnings of moral
philosophy. Ethical egoism, in this pure form, may look like the opposite

104 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

of a moral theory because it seemingly instructs you to be indifferent to
the plight of other people, especially strangers, however bad their situation
is— or, indeed, whatever damage you do to them. Pushed to the extreme,
this behavior would permit or perhaps require you to rob or even kill people
in pursuit of your interest.

Ethical egoism is thus a highly counterintuitive theory. But its appeal is
easy to see, at least in more moderate cases. It starts, most naturally, from
facts about human existence. You have your own life, your own perspective
on the world. And you will have only one life. No one else can feel your plea-
sures or pains, and you cannot feel those of anyone else. Although others
may occasionally help you, or appear to do so, in the end the only person you
can rely on is yourself. You should, then, do what you can to make your life
as fulfilling and worthwhile as possible. This is an obligation to yourself; a
moral duty to advance your own interests. Of course you can choose to help
people, but you must not neglect yourself. You were given this one life to
lead, and it is your duty to make the best of it.

Put like this, ethical egoism is not merely a type of convenient moral
screen for selfishness. Instead, it seems to ref lect a deep fact about human
existence: Each of us has our own life to lead, and we are responsible for
making our own life go well. This theory seems to respect individual
responsibility, and in some ways seems to be of great rigor and integrity.
However, its difficulties are also easy to see: First, although it is true that
I have a life to lead, so do you; and so does everyone else. Why should
my life take priority over yours? Rather than potentially crushing others
in pursuit of our own interests, it seems we need to respect everyone’s
right to pursue a meaningful and fulfilling life. From this point of view,
ethical egoism is a very one- sided position: It addresses only half of the
moral problem. The moral dilemma we often face is how to reconcile our
own interests with those of others. We ignore half the dilemma if we
simply assume that we have a moral duty to pursue our own interests.
And this point brings a second problem into focus: Even if we do have
a moral duty to pursue our own interest, we can see how badly that can
go by remembering the horror stories of the Ik. Perhaps, then, pursuing
our own interests requires significant compromise, to avoid what Thomas
Hobbes (1588–1679), in his book Leviathan, called “a warre . . . of every
man against every man” (Hobbes, 1651/1997, p. 61). We will return to
this issue in Chapter 7, where we look at forms of social contract theory
that attempt to build morality out of a type of agreement to moderate our
pursuit of self- interest.

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 105

In the first section of this chapter, I explored psychological egoism, which
argues that we are psychologically compelled to follow our own self- interest.
I considered both defenses and criticisms of the thesis. I then looked at
some approaches that tried to develop an argument for psychological ego-
ism based on evolutionary theory, and we saw that, in evolutionary terms,
self- interest may converge with some aspects of morality.

I moved on to examine two types of ethical egoism: one suggests that we
have a duty to pursue our self- interest in order to advance the common good;
the other, a purer form, contends that each of us has a duty to pursue our
own self- interest whatever the consequences are for the common good. We
saw reasons to question such a view, but we also considered what it would
mean, in fact, to follow self- interest. To avoid a damaging war of all against
all, we will have to compromise with others. Could the rules of compromise
be a moral code? We will return to that question in the next chapter.

Discussion Questions

1. Explain and assess the theory of psychological egoism.
2. What are the distinctions between kin altruism, group altruism, and recip-

rocal altruism?
3. Are there good arguments for ethical egoism?
4. Does ethical egoism reject all concern for others?

Key Terms

psychological egoism, p. 89

ethical egoism, p. 89

logical validity, p. 90

moral motivation, p. 91

dogmatism, p. 94

selfish gene, p. 96

kin altruism, p. 97

group altruism, p. 99

reciprocal altruism, p. 99

free riding, p. 99

Key Thinkers

David Hume (1711–76), p. 88

Plato (429?–347 bce), pp. 88–89, 95

Socrates (470/69–399 bce), p. 88

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), p. 91

106 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), pp. 92–93

Mother Teresa (1910–97), pp. 93–94

J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964), p. 96

Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), p. 96

Colin Turnbull (1924–94), pp. 98–99

Charles Darwin (1809–82), p. 99

Adam Smith (1723–90), pp. 101–102

Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), p. 101

Ayn Rand (1905–82), pp. 102–103

Charles Dickens (1812–70), p. 103

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), p. 104

Further Reading
■ David Hume is quoted from An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Mor-
als (Hackett, 1983). (Original work published 1751)

■ Passages from Plato’s Republic are from the edition published by
W. W. Norton (1999).

■ The passage from Arthur Schopenhauer is from his essay “On the Basis
of Morality,” which forms part of his book The Two Fundamental Problems of
Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2009), edited and translated by David E.
Cartwright and Edward E. Erdman. (Original work published 1841)

■ Peter Singer’s excellent discussion of evolutionary approaches to ethics
is included in his book The Expanding Circle, revised edition (Princeton
University Press, 2011). (Original work published 1981)

■ Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene was published by Oxford University
Press (2006). (Original work published 1976)

■ Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People was published by Touchstone

■ Charles Darwin’s observation in The Descent of Man is quoted from the
Penguin edition (2004). (Original work published 1871)

■ The passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is from the Pen-
guin edition (1982). (Original work published 1776)

■ Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees is available in a Penguin edition
(1989). (Original work published 1741)

Chapter 6: Egoism ■ 107

■ Ayn Rand is possibly best approached through her novels, such as The
Fountainhead (1943; reprinted by Signet, 1996), also made into a 1949 film.
The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet, 1964) is an introduction to her philosoph-
ical writings.

■ Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852) is widely available, including as a
Penguin edition (2003). (Original work published 1852)

■ Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan is widely available, including an edition
from W. W. Norton (1997). (Original work published 1651)

■ Selections from works by Plato, Singer, Rand, and Hobbes are included
in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).


C H A P T E R   7

The Social Contract

Most men say that to be unjust is good but to suffer injustice is bad. To this opin-
ion they add another: the measure of evil suffered by one who is wronged is gen-
erally greater than the good enjoyed by one who does wrong. Now, once they have
learned what it is to wrong others— and also what it is to be wronged— men tend
to arrive at this conclusion: justice is unattainable and injustice unavoidable.

Those so lacking in strength that they can neither inflict injustice nor defend
themselves against it find it profitable to draw up a compact with one another.
The purpose of the compact is to bind them all neither to suffer injustice nor to
commit it. From there they proceed to promulgate further contracts and cove-
nants. To all of these they attach the name of justice; indeed, they assert that the
true origin and essence of justice is located in their own legislation.

Their lawmaking is clearly a compromise, Socrates. The compromise is be-
tween what they say is best of all— to do wrong without incurring punishment—
and what is worst of all— to suffer wrong with no possibility of revenge. Hence
they conceive of justice not as something good in itself but simply as a midway
point between best and worst.

Glaucon, in Plato’s Republic

Thus far I have made several references to Plato’s Republic. In this work
the character Thrasymachus presents the view that “justice is the interest
of the stronger,” also known as the theory that “might is right.” This is a
skeptical view that ultimately morality is some sort of sham or trick— or,
to put the point more radically, a form of ideology in which naked power
cloaks itself in moral language to disguise its real nature. Naturally this is
a view that Plato (429?–347 bce), through the character Socrates, attempts
to refute. Also in The Republic, the character Glaucon presents the story of
the “Ring of Gyges,” arguing that if any of us could get away with acting
immorally, it would be irrational to resist. This is another part of the bat-
tery of attacks on morality that Plato unleashes before he settles down to
the task of defending it. A further aspect of that attack is reflected in this
chapter’s opening passage, which Plato also put into the mouth of Glaucon
(who in real life was one of Plato’s brothers).

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 109

Glaucon presents the theory that justice is a compromise. By this he
means that ideally, a person would act just as he or she liked without pun-
ishment or retaliation. But if one person could do that, then so could every-
one else, and each of us would be powerless to protect ourselves. It would be
catastrophic for all. So we all rather reluctantly agree to a system of justice
that keeps us to a set of rules, for our mutual benefit. This position can be
attributed to the Sophists, a group of philosophers who earned their living by
teaching wealthy young Athenian men how to argue. It is said that the young
aristocrats were more interested in winning the argument than getting to the
truth, and the Sophists were thereby obliged to teach them the skill of mak-
ing the weaker argument defeat the stronger, through the power of rhetoric.
We owe the term sophistry, meaning “the presentation of false or dishonest
reasoning,” to the work of these philosophers; it is not a term they would have
applied to themselves, of course. Some scholars suggest that history has been
hard on the Sophists and that they were serious philosophers who sincerely
made important arguments. Nevertheless, the term sophistry has stuck.

Whatever its origin, the account of morality as a compromise that allows
us all to get on with our lives seems very powerful. It reduces morality to
a type of implicit social contract that we have invented or evolved. If there
were no morality, you could do whatever you wanted. But unfortunately for
you, so could everyone else. You have more to lose than to gain from such a
lawless situation. Even if you managed to protect your possessions, it would
be at great cost. Life would be exhausting and full of fear. Indeed Thomas
Hobbes (1588–1679), two thousand years after Plato in his book Leviathan
gave an extremely colorful account of what life would be like in “a state of
nature” without law (and therefore, in Hobbes’s view, without morality):

In such condition there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is
uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use
of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building;
no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force;
no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Let-
ters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of
violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
(Hobbes, 1651/1996, p. 70)

In fact, this is not a bad depiction of the Ik society we discussed in Chapter 6.
Why oppose the view that morality is an external device or convention for

mutual benefit? This concept of morality presents moral behavior as a type
of agreement by which each of us indirectly pursues our self- interest. It also
has the great advantage that it seems to base morality on human agreement
and therefore does not need to raise the questions of objectivism that (as

110 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

we saw in Chapter 2) can lead to metaphysical puzzles about the nature of
value. A drawback of this position is that morality has instrumental value
only, because it is valued solely as a means to self-interest. Therefore, in this
view, morality has no intrinsic value or worth, in itself, and nothing is right
or wrong until human beings have agreed to make it so. Morality is reduced
to self- interest, or a means to an end. But then, those who could achieve the
end— self- interest— without the means, would have no need for morality. As
Glaucon puts it in Plato’s Republic: “For anyone who is a real man with power
to do as he likes would never agree to refrain from doing injustice in order
not to suffer it. He would be mad to make any such agreement” (1999, p. 55).

Understood this way, the theory of the social contract takes us back to the
Ring of Gyges (see Chapter 6), which is actually how Plato presents it. Those
who could get away with acting immorally would have no need for morality.
Indeed, as Glaucon says, they would be “mad” to follow the social contract if
they can know they never will be caught. By this reading, the social contract
looks more fragile and uncertain than many people want from an account
of the basis of morality.

Even worse, Glaucon hints that the social contract is a device of oppres-
sion. Recall the character Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and
Punishment (1866), discussed in Chapter 3. Raskolnikov, who disastrously
acts as if he has the Ring of Gyges, comes very close to the view that morality
is a type of conspiracy by the weak to hold the strong in check. And indeed
this also seems to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of Christian morality;
as we have seen, he believes that it generalizes humility, meekness, and
conformity and stif les those who have the potential to be truly great.

Other philosophers also thought that morality was a human device or an
implicit contract, although not a device used by the weak to trap the strong.
For example, the eighteenth- century Swiss French philosopher Jean- Jacques
Rousseau (1712–78) saw things in exactly the opposite way. He was beguiled
by the question of how human beings— who are broadly equal in strength,
intelligence, and power— had fallen into a form of society in which the rich
enslaved the mass. The mystery, when we think about it, is that the poor,
who overwhelmingly outnumber the rich, are somehow held in check by
the rich minority. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau
concluded that the rich must have managed to conceive “the most cunning
project that ever entered the human mind: this was to employ in his favor
the very forces of those who attacked him, to make allies of his adversar-
ies” (1754/1985, p. 121). Rules of law and morality favor the rich— think
especially of laws protecting property and wealth— but the rules bind rich
and poor alike and are enforced by recruits from the poor in their roles as

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 111

police and soldiers. Here we are not far from a view often associated with
Karl Marx (1818–83) that morality is a device by which the ruling class— the
bourgeoisie— consolidates its power and controls the other classes.

Rousseau’s critique has been extended by the contemporary British phi-
losopher Carole Pateman (b. 1940) and Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills
(b. 1951). As they convincingly point out, the “human being” of the social
contract has always been a wealthy white male. The moral rules of the social
contract devised by wealthy white men have been to the detriment not just
of the poor, as Rousseau argued, but of women and those who are not white.
Hence Pateman writes of a “sexual contract” and Mills of a “racial contract”
in which different types of oppression have been reinforced and, to put it
paradoxically, illegitimately legitimized.

Although the content of their views differs, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Marx,
Pateman, and Mills all see conventional morality as a device used by one
group or class to impose its will on everyone. And although Glaucon ini-
tially offered a “mutual advantage” theory, it soon was transformed into the
view— very similar to Nietzsche’ s— that morality is a device for suppressing
the strong. These views are in a sense critical of conventional morality; they
suggest that ordinary people do not understand its real nature, and if they
did, they might well be disgusted and rebel against it— at least if they were
members of the group controlled by morality. Part of the philosopher’s job,
in this view, is to unmask conventional morality and reveal it as it truly is.
This work is likely to be part of a deeper program in which a new morality,
one that overcomes the defects in conventional morality, can be formulated.

Those who defend the idea of the social contract may well complain that
it has not been treated fairly in the argument thus far. They might claim
that it is a much more inspiring idea than its critics have argued. True, its
defenders will say, the social contract can be misused. And perhaps they
will admit that it has been. But they also will say that the critics’ accounts
overlook another, much more compelling idea: a theory for constructing
the “true” morality that does not oppress any particular group. In this view
morality is indeed a social contract, but not one invented to trick one group
into submission. Rather it is, or at least could be, made between all people
as equals. We contract, implicitly at least, with each person to develop rules
that are in everyone’s interests— not just of the weak, or the rich, or men, or
white people, but for the benefit of all. In fact Rousseau developed a much
more positive account of what a social contract could be in his more famous
text, The Social Contract (1762). Charles Mills shares this view. Once the

112 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

racial contract has been identified, Mills thinks, it is possible to generate a
new social contract that is fair to people of all races. (In Chapter 14, we will
return to Mills’s arguments.)

How, then, can the idea of an inclusive social contract between all people
as equals be developed more fully? Recall the passage from Hobbes quoted
earlier in the chapter; he wrote that in the state of nature there would be no
industry, transport, international trade, architecture, science, art, culture,
or society. Consequently the benefits of cooperation are immeasurable, and
they enrich all of our lives whether we know and appreciate it or not. Hobbes
argued that even if the social contract is a compromise, it is a compromise
that leads to the conditions of peace and security in which all human life
can f lourish; and without it we will live in misery.

It is worth comparing the idea of the social contract with the theory of
reciprocal altruism (see Chapter 6), which was presented as the idea of “You
scratch my back, and I’ll scratch your back.” This theory, perhaps surpris-
ingly, concludes that often the best way of advancing your own interests is to
do things for others rather than for yourself. Now it is true that if this is all
there is to social contract theory, it makes morality seem fragile, calculating,
and limited in scope, and that is exactly what worries some critics. If you
stop scratching my back, I’ll stop scratching yours, and other people’s backs
are not even in the picture. If I wake up one morning to find that my back
doesn’t need to be scratched, then that day you’ll have scratch your own itch
if you can reach it. Can we provide something more substantial to ground
the social contract?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Luckily there are ways of deepening the social contract theory to make it much
more appealing. One way of developing this idea is to use some ideas from
a branch of social science in the overlapping area of economics, politics, and
social psychology, known as game theory. As its name suggests, part of the
point of game theory is to work out winning strategies in games. Its found-
ers were particularly interested in poker. But it has a more serious purpose
because many social situations can be modeled as being similar to games,
and therefore we can use game theory to analyze those social situations.

The example most commonly used to explain the idea of the social con-
tract is called the prisoner’s dilemma, after an early example. The idea is
that two people, let’s call them Bonnie and Clyde, have been arrested. I’ve
named them after the real- life gangster couple of Bonnie Parker (1910–34)
and Clyde Barrow (1900–34) because their relationship helps bring out some
interesting features of the example.

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 113

Suppose that the police have compelling evidence to convict both Bon-
nie and Clyde for a relatively minor crime, say stealing a car. But the
police also believe the pair committed a violent robbery, something much
more serious. They arrest Bonnie and Clyde and put them in separate
cells. The police question each prisoner independently of the other, offer-
ing each of them the same deal. Here is what the interrogating officer
says to Bonnie:

We know you took that car, and we can prove it. You’d normally get a year in
prison for that. But if you confess to the armed robbery and Clyde doesn’t,
we will let you off completely. On the other hand, if Clyde confesses and you
don’t, you’ll go to prison for fifteen years. If you both confess, you’ll both go
to prison for seven years.

In other words the police are telling Bonnie that if she testifies against Clyde
she will be let off, provided that Clyde doesn’t testify against her. If they
both testify against each other, they will both get a substantial sentence—
though the worst thing for Bonnie would be to keep quiet and for Clyde
to testify.

Some people can see this situation more clearly when the information
is presented in the form of a two- by- two matrix. In the cells, the numbers
represent possible prison sentences, Bonnie’s first.


Don’t confess Confess

Don’t confess 1/1 15/0

Confess 0/15 7/7

Suppose you are Bonnie, sitting in the cell. What would you do? You
would realize that if you and Clyde both keep your mouths shut, you’ll get
a year in prison each. That isn’t too bad, and collectively it is the best result.
But you also see that if Clyde doesn’t confess and you do, then you’ll get
off completely: no prison at all, which is much better than serving a year.
So, Bonnie says to herself, if Clyde doesn’t confess I’m actually better off
confessing. What if Clyde does confess? In that case I’d better confess too,
otherwise I’m going away for fifteen years. So it looks like whatever Clyde
does, I’m better off confessing. Therefore, I’d better confess. But then if
Clyde has any sense, which he does, he is going to reason the same way; so
we will both confess. As a result we will both go to prison for seven years,
when we could have got away with going to prison for only one year. How
did that happen?

114 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

So Bonnie might start thinking again. Clyde loves me. He will never
confess to put me away. Aha! Then I could confess and get away with it.
That way I’ll get away without going to prison at all! But of course exactly the
same cunning option is open to Clyde. He might assume that because I love
him, I won’t confess. He could double- cross me and confess, just like I could
betray him. How do I know he won’t reason like this and turn me in? Maybe
he doesn’t love me as much as he loves his freedom. Once again, it seems
rational for both of them to confess. Seven years in prison each, again.

Notice that even if Bonnie and Clyde had promised each other to stay
loyal, once they are in the prison cell, they are still better off confessing.
What can hold them to the promise? And if you believe the other person
will keep their promise, you now have the chance of getting away free. But,
once more, remember that the other person will reason in parallel terms.

Cooperation and Public Goods
Although of course it can happen, two people rarely face the situation of
deciding whether to confess to a crime or keep quiet. So in that sense the
prisoner’s dilemma, while a fascinating example, is not a good model for
thinking about morality. But the basic idea has wide application. In life
you often face the choice of either cooperating and or not cooperating. For
example, suppose there is a water shortage and the city government asks
us all to follow a voluntary scheme to conserve reserves. I might reason like
this: If everyone else is careful with water, then we will be fine; so I may as
well have my usual deep bath and water my garden because in a city of mil-
lions, one person’s wasteful use won’t be enough to make a difference. On
the other hand, if everyone else carries on as usual and the water runs out,
my making a sacrifice won’t solve the problem and my efforts are pointless.
So whatever everyone else does, I may as well have my usual bath and water
my flower beds. Of course if everyone reasons like this, the city will run out
of water; but if we all are more careful, we may well be able to ride out the
problem until the next rain increases the reservoir supply.

The intriguing thing about these examples is that in purely self- interested
terms, the rational thing seems to be to act selfishly because that is better
for you. But perversely, if everyone acts in their own self- interest, we all do
worse than if everyone cooperates— even though, in a sense, it is irrational
to cooperate. Once the example is explained in this way, we can see that
many situations in life have this structure, although typically large numbers
of people are involved rather than just two. This wider effect turns the game
into what is called the multiperson prisoner’s dilemma, which is broadly
equivalent to an issue known as the public goods problem.

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 115

In economic theory, what are known as public goods can create problems.
Consider, for example, the supply of streetlights. If I live on a dark street, I
might very much want streetlights, as do my neighbors. If I decide to install
and pay for the lights myself, all my neighbors will get the benefit too; this
is why they are called public goods, because you cannot restrict their supply
only to those who have paid for them. Equally, if my neighbor installs the
lights, then I’ll get the benefit free. So I might sit tight, waiting for someone
else to put them up. But likely we will all do this, and so we will have to put
up with the dark even if all of us would be happy to pay for the lights or at
least make a contribution. The problem, then, is that public goods— things
one person pays for but that benefit others— tend to be undersupplied rel-
ative to demand. Conversely, “public bads,” such as pollution, tend to be
“oversupplied” because they are ways for one person to dump his or her costs
on the population as a whole.

The obvious solution to the problems of public goods and public bads,
such as streetlights and pollution, is government action. The government
should tax us to provide streetlights, and punish us if we pollute, thereby
enforcing a level of cooperation that benefits us all. And indeed, this was
Thomas Hobbes’s argument calling for the Leviathan (as he named his
book) to be an “absolute sovereign”: in effect, a powerful dictator who would
enforce cooperation and give us the safety and security we need to bring us
out of the war of all against all in the state of nature. Now Hobbes is right
that we will need some forms of structure to solve our coordination prob-
lems, though luckily it seems he was wrong to think that only an absolute
dictator could do the job. Indeed a question arises, though: Do we need to
appeal to political action at all to solve our basic problem of how to achieve
beneficial cooperation? We might be able to do it by internalizing norms of
behavior. These norms of behavior take the form of moral laws or principles
and might work as well, or even better, than the force of law.

Accordingly, the idea of morality as a social contract ref lects the idea that
each of us, individually, will be better off if everyone is restrained and coop-
erative. For the point is that in many social situations, narrowly conceived,
the rational thing for me to do is defect and pursue my own self- interest. But
if we all do that, we find ourselves in the world of Colin Turnbull’s Ik people
(see Chapter 6) or Hobbes’s state of nature. And who would want that?

In fact we can return to the case of Bonnie and Clyde to see the point.
In the example described, Bonnie and Clyde are in a one- off situation. But
suppose this sort of thing happens to them fairly often. They would soon
learn that they are much better off cooperating rather than defecting, and so
a practice of automatic cooperation may grow up: Never confess, never rat on

116 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

anyone else. The idea of honor among thieves is exactly this. Giving evidence
against others is bad for the group, and as a result they are likely to find ways
of punishing you, somehow or other, if you do. Evolved conventions of not
ratting are a form of social contract morality among criminals.

We can see now why the idea “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch
yours” doesn’t really capture the essence of the social contract. Rather, we
need something like this: “I’ll develop the habit of scratching other people’s
backs even if there is nothing in it for me, as long as other people develop
the habit of scratching my back even if there is nothing in it for them.” In
other words, social contract morality works best when it doesn’t look like a
form of contract at all. If it looks too explicitly like a contract, people might
start to ask whether it is in their interests to stop cooperating. And then the
contract will unravel.

So far, then, it seems that we can represent morality as a type of compro-
mise agreement between self- interested people that works best if it doesn’t
look like a compromise. But does this argument really work?

Recall that we contrasted the idea of a social contract among equals with
the one- sided social contracts introduced by Glaucon (a conspiracy of the
weak against the strong) and Rousseau (a conspiracy of the rich against the
poor), as well as with Pateman’s sexual contract and Mills’s racial contract.
A social contract among equals would have to be equally appealing to all
people, whatever their characteristics. But is it really possible to imagine the
terms of a compromise agreement that would be equally acceptable to all?

Some philosophers have argued that if we accept social contract reason-
ing, we will end up with a very minimal moral code. Everyone will accept
some basic rules of security: not to be killed for arbitrary reasons, for
example. But what else? Would everyone agree that theft is wrong? What
about those people who own nothing? To take even more troubling exam-
ples, a key part of our contemporary morality holds that sexual violence
against women is a serious wrong, as is racial discrimination. But would
every man sign up to a restriction on sexual violence against women? Dis-
turbingly, as we know, some men would not wish to be bound by this restric-
tion on what they are permitted to do. And would every member of the
privileged races sign up to an agreement not to discriminate against other
races? Remember that the argument is meant to be based on what would
best advance each individual’s own self- interest in the long run, rather than
an independent appeal to moral intuitions. After all, the social contract
theory is being offered as an account of the ultimate basis of our morality.

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 117

Therefore it pre- supposes that no “deeper” morality exists to constrain the
social contract. So it is pretty unclear, given our wide and sometimes unset-
tling diversity of interests, whether we would get much if anything out of a
social contract as an agreement among literally all people. We can call this
the problem of opposed interests. If we have opposed interests, the scope for
agreement shrinks. It might come close to vanishing altogether.

For this reason, the contemporary philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002)
argued that we have to imagine the social contract taking place under very
special and unusual conditions. Rawls, who was primarily a political phi-
losopher, used the idea of the social contract to devise principles of political
justice for society in terms of theories for the just distribution of liberty,
opportunity, income, and wealth. He did not present the social contract as
primarily a theory of individual morality. But nevertheless, his ideas are
inspiring and will help us make progress in thinking through how to get
beyond the problem of opposed interests.

As we saw, if we have opposed interests, then we are unlikely to be able to
agree to very much beyond the most basic, limited security. And of course,
we do have opposed or at least different interests. But in a brilliant move,
Rawls suggested that in thinking about the contract you would make, you
should suppose that you don’t know what your interests are. Imagine you
don’t know whether you are rich or poor, male or female, black or white.
Suppose you don’t know how old you are, or what your religion is (if you
even have one), or what skills or talents you have. Rawls uses the metaphor of
the veil of ignorance to express this idea: In thinking about drawing up the
social contract, you should imagine yourself being behind the veil, knowing
nothing that differentiates you from other people. Using the device of the
veil of ignorance allows the contract to ref lect the idea of equality. Rawls also
refers to this situation as the original position.

From behind the veil of ignorance, would you approve of sexual violence
against women? Obviously not; because you have more or less a 50 percent
chance of being a woman, you would not want to accept that amount of risk
of being a victim of serious harm. Equally, you would not want to take the
risk of living in a society that accepted racial discrimination, in case you
ended up on the receiving end. And not knowing whether you were rich or
poor probably means that you would not accept a morality that permitted
theft (in case it turns out you are rich), but equally you would not accept a
society in which the poor were left starving and homeless (in case it turns
out you are poor). The advantage of this model is that it seems to be able to
derive moral rules not by relying on our moral intuitions, but by combining
concern for our own self- interest with ignorance about what our interests

118 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

are. On this basis we have to come up with rules that are in the interests
of everyone, and in that respect fair. Hence social contract theory can be a
perfect tool for people thinking about gender and race equality as well as
justice for other groups who have historically faced discrimination. Indeed it
requires us to focus on the worst off, to see things from their point of view.
And in this respect Rawls’s position is reminiscent of a view expressed by
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), leader of the movement for Indian indepen-
dence from British rule. Here is one of the last notes Gandhi wrote before
he died:

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self
becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the
poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask
yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her].
Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his
[her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for
the hungry and spiritually starving millions?

Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away. (Gandhi, 1948/1958,
p. 65)

Here is an obvious question, though: Why should, say, a privileged, rich
white man be interested in this argument? If I were behind the veil of igno-
rance, such a person might say, I might well choose rules that are fair to
everyone; but from my position of knowledge, I prefer rules that favor me.
This question shows that Rawls’s methodology presupposes a type of human
goodwill: that human beings do want to find fair terms of cooperation.
Therefore, Rawls’s contract methodology does not provide an answer to
the moral skeptic. Its purpose is to offer a procedure for turning what he
calls “a sense of justice” into an explicit moral code that is capable of taking
everyone’s interests into account.

Beyond Rules and Regulations
We have come quite a distance from the idea that the social contract pro-
vides simply a peace treaty or compromise between competing interests.
Social contract theory opens up the possibly of thinking about morality in
a much more positive way. In some respects, perhaps, morality has had rel-
atively bad press: When we think about morality, we think about rules and
regulations that hold us in check. When we use the term ethics, we often
think about codes of professional conduct: medical ethics, business ethics,
ethical investing, and so on, to keep us on the straight and narrow and stop
us from falling into temptation or laziness. In this view morality is all about
keeping us to the code, curbing our short- term selfish instincts for the sake
of long- term mutual interest.

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 119

But as we have seen, there are other ways of thinking about ethical behav-
ior. We admire people for their kindness, their friendliness, their openness,
and their generosity. These people are good to be around, for they help
create a spirit of collective enjoyment and enrich our lives. As David Hume
(1711–76) puts it, they help bring about “at proper intervals play, frolic, and
gaiety” (1751/1983, p. 79). Could morality exist not merely for mutual pro-
tection but also for mutual fulfillment? In this view, the point of morality
is to help us add to the value of other people’s lives both individually and
collectively rather than to save us from each other.

Karl Marx criticized “bourgeois” politics and morality on the grounds
that in giving us rights to protect us from each other, it encourages each of
us to see others as a threat to our own freedom. Marx wanted us to think of
a different form of society where we achieve fulfillment through our inter-
action with others. Admittedly this still represents morality as a device for
mutual interest, but in a rather different way. It encourages us to see each
other not so much as threats to our interests, but as encouragement to our
own f lourishing. And whether or not you believe, like Marx, that a radical
transformation of society is possible, Marx surely has a good point, even
about current society. How valuable and enjoyable would your life be without
the existence of other people: not just your family and friends, but artists,
actors, sportspeople, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, poets, writers; and,
dare I say it, philosophers? Could it be that part of the nature of morality is to
encourage us to take on roles and functions that enhance the lives of others
and not just to save us from each other?

Social Contract Theory in Practice
It is plausible, then, to argue that behind the veil of ignorance we would
agree to an extensive set of moral duties— both negatively, to ensure our
safety and survival, and positively, to help us achieve flourishing lives of
joy and well- being. At the same time, however, we can see some limita-
tions. Let’s consider two moral questions that a significant number of
people face in their ordinary lives. First, when, if ever, should you decide
that an elderly, very sick relative should not undergo further heroic sur-
gery but should be allowed to pass in relative comfort? Second, under what
circumstances, if any, should abortion be permitted? Can the social con-
tract help us?

In many cases, putting yourself behind the veil of ignorance can help.
Let’s start with the case of the elderly relative. Suppose it is your great aunt,
whom you love dearly, and you are her closest living relative. And suppose
she is beyond the point where she can make decisions for herself, and she

120 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

has never been very clear about what she would prefer in these situations.
Here are some thoughts that might be going through your head:

1. Life is sacred and should be preserved at all costs.
2. I love my great- aunt very much and do not want her to die.
3. Her quality of life is very low, and she is in a great deal of pain.
4. Surgery might extend her life but will add to her pain, at least at first.
5. She might die during surgery or as a result of complications.
6. Visiting her in the hospital and arranging for her care are becoming a

burden for me.
7. If she dies, I will probably inherit part of her estate.

How can you think clearly about this situation and make sure you do the
right thing? The first thing you will try to do, most likely, is banish some
thoughts from your head. The last one, that you will inherit something if
she dies, seems “unworthy” in some sense; you would hope to be able to
make a decision ignoring that factor. But what about the fact that you love
her and don’t want her to die, and that visiting her has become a burden?
Are these reasons you should take into account, or are they “too selfish”?
Perhaps, but perhaps not. Would your great- aunt be worried about becoming
too much of a burden?

To use the veil of ignorance methodology, you need to work out what you
would want in exactly this kind of case, where you don’t know whether
you were your great- aunt or yourself. This really comes down to three things.
What do you want? What does your great-aunt want? And if you disagree,
what are the most important considerations that should be decisive? The veil
of ignorance allows you to come to a view about the relative importance of
these reasons without considering the thought that the reasons may favor,
or go against, your own interests.

Quite likely, therefore, the key factors will be not only the pain and dis-
tress that your great- aunt suffers and how that might become even worse if
she has the operation but also how much she valued extending her life for its
own sake. But the issue of the burden on others is a factor too, and how her
death would affect people; although you are likely to think these are usually
minor considerations when judged against life or death for another person.
Cases will vary, leading to different outcomes, but the key idea behind veil
of ignorance reasoning is that it seems a helpful way of focusing on the
most serious issues. In effect it helps us to apply a very familiar idea about
morality: the importance of seeing things from the other person’s point of
view. What would you want if you were the other person affected? In this

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 121

case, what would you want if you were in your great- aunt’s position? This
is not to say that there will always be an easy answer, but it can move us
forward in our deliberations.

The question of abortion, though, is much harder to approach based on
contract methodology. As always we must ask which people are affected and
therefore need to be part of the contract. Obviously, the woman considering
having an abortion; and in most cases, her partner too. But what about
the unborn fetus? Is a fetus a person who should be regarded as a party to
the contract? If it is, then the social contract would presumably yield the
outcome that abortion is almost always wrong. Why would you agree to an
abortion if you were the fetus? You would be agreeing to your own death,
and how could that be rational? On the other hand, if the fetus is not a
person, at least at an early stage of pregnancy, then it cannot be a party to
the contract. Although there may still be reasons against abortion, from
a social contract point of view the question looks much less problematic.
Social contract theory, then, defers the issue of the morality of abortion
without solving it. We have to decide who or what is a party to the contract
before we can even get started.

And we can make similar observations about human relations to ani-
mals. If animals are part of the social contract, then we should give up eat-
ing animals or experimenting on them because, for all you know, according
to the methodology, you are an animal. And why, therefore, would you agree
to be experimented on or eaten? But if animals are not part of the social con-
tract, our current behavior looks much less problematic. In sum, although
the veil of ignorance can be a helpful way of thinking about some moral
problems, it cannot solve all of them. It needs to make a decision about who
“counts”; and as Rousseau, Pateman, and Mills have argued, historically it
has not been good at treating poor people, women, and people of color as
equals. Nevertheless, as long as we avoid these traps, the veil of ignorance
is an extremely valuable method to have available.

At the beginning of this chapter, Glaucon’s speech presents the view that
morality is a compromise. All people would ideally like to pursue their own
self- interest, but, know that if everyone did the same thing, life would go
very badly. Therefore we implicitly agree on a set of moral rules as a type of

122 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

compromise or peace treaty. I then introduced various theories suggesting
that the “real” social contract is one in which one group uses morality to
consolidate its oppression of another. But we saw that this does not need
to be so, and a contract of equals is also possible. The prisoner’s dilemma
was used to illustrate the reasoning involved. However, given that differ-
ent people have opposed interests, social contract morality looks minimal:
There is not all that much everyone would agree to.

One reply to this issue was to extend the idea of the social contract,
using John Rawls’s method of the veil of ignorance. If we tried to imag-
ine what we would agree to without knowing which role we would play
in the situation, then our decisions likely would converge much more,
and we would devise rules that are fair to everyone. Indeed we might well
devise rules that go beyond mutual protection to thinking about meth-
ods of advancing our interests in many positive ways. Still, we did notice
some remaining problems. Who is a party to the social contract? Unborn
children? Animals? In some of the most difficult cases, social contract
methodology needs to be supplemented by other types of arguments. Even
so, we did see that social contract reasoning can help us think our way
through some thorny ethical issues. In particular, it helps us separate the
genuinely important central issues from those that may seem important
from one point of view but have less moral weight when compared to
other reasons.

Discussion Questions

1. Is the idea of the social contract a way of advancing one group’s interests
over another?

2. How does the prisoner’s dilemma help illustrate the idea of the social

3. Explain Rawls’s idea of the veil of ignorance.
4. What are the limitations of the social contract argument?

Key Terms

Sophist, p. 109

social contract, p. 109

instrumental value, p. 110

intrinsic value, p. 110

game theory, p. 112

prisoner’s dilemma, p. 112

public goods problem, p. 114

veil of ignorance, p. 117

original position, p. 117

Chapter 7: The Social Contract ■ 123

Key Thinkers

Plato (429?–347 bce), pp. 108–110

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), pp. 109, 112, 115

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), p. 110

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), pp. 110–111

Jean- Jacques Rousseau (1712–88), pp. 110–111, 121

Karl Marx (1818–83), pp. 111, 119

Carole Pateman (b. 1940), p. 111

Charles Mills (b. 1951), pp. 111–112

John Rawls (1921–2002), pp. 117–118, 122

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), p. 118

David Hume (1711–76), p. 119

Further Reading
■ Passages from Plato’s Republic are quoted from the edition published
by W. W. Norton (1999).

■ The edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan used here is from W. W.  Norton
(1996). (Original work published 1651)

■ Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is available in a Penguin
(2003) edition. (Original work published 1866)

■ Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of Christian morality is set out in his book
Beyond Good and Evil, available in a Vintage (1989) edition. (Original work
published 1886)

■ Jean- Jacques Rousseau is quoted from A Discourse on Inequality (Pen-
guin, 1985). (Original work published 1754)

■ Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract is available in a Penguin
(1968) edition. (Original work published 1762)

■ For a brief account of the thought of Karl Marx, see Jonathan Wolff, Why
Read Marx Today? (Oxford University Press, 2002).

■ The most accessible work by Marx is The Communist Manifesto, cowritten
with Friedrich Engels. Many editions are available. It is reprinted in the
Marx- Engels Reader (2nd ed.), published by W. W. Norton (1978), edited by
Robert Tucker. (Original work published 1848)

124 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

■ For a basic introduction to game theory, including the prisoner’s dilemma,
see William Spaniel, Game Theory 101: The Complete Textbook (CreateSpace
Independent Publishing Platform, 2011).

■ John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was first published in 1971, with a revised
edition in 1999. It is published by Harvard University Press.

■ Mahatma Gandhi’s note on the “talisman” is hard to find, but can be
viewed online at (retrieved January  17,
2017). It is from Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Volume II (Nava-
jivan Publishing House, 1958; out of print). (Original note written 1948)

■ David Hume is quoted from An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Mor-
als (Hackett, 1983). (Original work published 1751)

■ Relevant selections from Plato, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Rawls are included
in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).


C H A P T E R   8

Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill

[The object of] the principle of utility . . . is to rear the fabric of felicity by the
hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds
instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.

But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral
science is to be improved.

Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to
the Principles of Morals and Legislation

In the first few chapters of this book, we explored some ways that morality,
and with it moral philosophy, has been under attack. Cultural relativism,
skepticism, subjectivism, and determinism all threaten to disrupt our ordi-
nary moral views, and therefore the merits of these challenges needed to be
assessed. We then examined several approaches to morality that, in very differ-
ent ways, attempt to produce positive moral theories. Theories of divine com-
mand, natural law, ethical egoism, and the social contract all propose accounts
of what we ought to do, morally speaking, even though several of these views
are related to positions that in many ways are critical of ordinary morality.

Beginning with Chapter 8 and continuing through Chapter 13, we will look
in greater detail at the three theories currently dominating debate in moral
philosophy: utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and virtue ethics. In  Chapter 14
we will focus on feminist ethics and also discuss the ethics of race. These
newer approaches, which are growing in importance and influence, challenge
mainstream ethical thinking and propose ways of recasting moral philosophy
to overcome those critiques. Finally, in Chapter 15, we will explore how the
theories explored here can help you develop your own moral outlook. But we
start Chapter 8 by looking closely at the theory of utilitarianism, introduced by
Jeremy Bentham and developed further by John Stuart Mill.

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is normally regarded as the founder of utili-
tarianism, the theory that takes its inspiration from the creed known as the
greatest happiness principle.

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disap-
proves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears

126 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest
is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to
oppose that happiness. (Bentham, 1789/1970, chap. 1, sec. 2, p. 12)

Bentham’s idea is that when we make a moral decision, the right action
is the one that does most to maximize what he calls utility. Utility is under-
stood first in terms of happiness and then as the balance of pleasure over
pain. In each case these terms replace a more abstract idea with a more
concrete one, thus ending up with concepts that are easy to understand and
assess. Utility is a philosopher’s abstraction, whereas pleasure and pain are
real and can be felt. Happiness, as generally understood, is not quite the
same thing as pleasure. Happiness or unhappiness seems to take place for
an extended period, whereas pleasures and pains are often much shorter
experiences. But generally happiness and pleasure are closely related, and
Bentham finds that formulating the theory in terms of pleasure and pain
makes it more precise and easier to apply.

And indeed applying the theory seems relatively straightforward. Where
only one person is involved, utilitarianism approves of whatever maximizes
the balance of pleasure over pain for that individual. When more than one
person is involved, the calculation becomes a little more complex. We will
have to compare and add together the different pleasures and pains of dif-
ferent people. Obviously this raises questions about how to measure and
compare pains and pleasures. We will return to this issue, but for now we
have the basic idea. Utilitarians have to consider the effects of an action on
the pleasure and pain of everyone who is affected by it and then pursue the
option that is expected to yield the greatest sum total of pleasure over pain.
Doing so, they believe, will generate the greatest happiness for the greatest

This simple theory needs considerable unpacking; but before we look at
the details, it is worth understanding the context in which Bentham pro-
duced his theory. Only then will we appreciate the importance and dis-
tinctive character of his approach. As with any thinker, it can be helpful to
consider the intellectual climate in which he or she wrote, and in particular
to consider who or what they opposed or felt compelled to dispute. Bentham
gives us a powerful clue in an argument for the theory of utilitarianism
early in his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Denying that it is possible to find a direct proof for utilitarianism, “for that
which is used to prove every thing else cannot itself be proved” (Bentham,
1789/1970, p. 13), Bentham offers a type of indirect proof. He lays out what
he considers to be all available moral positions, including utilitarianism, and
presents arguments to defeat the alternative theories. This is an interesting

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 127

argumentative strategy; if it succeeds, it leaves utilitarianism as the only
theory left standing and therefore the victor. We can call this an argument
by elimination because it attempts to eliminate all competitors.

In fact, though, Bentham considers only three moral positions, apparently
regarding them as the only three possibilities. One, of course, is his own utili-
tarian view. A second is what he calls the principle of sympathy and antipathy,
which approves or disapproves of actions purely on the basis of a person’s atti-
tudes. And a third is the principle of asceticism (using the term asceticism in a
somewhat unconventional sense), which is the mirror image of utilitarianism.
In considering this rather strange possibility, he supposes that we should max-
imize pain rather than pleasure. Bentham’s arguments against these views
will help us understand his position; on the surface it is curious that he chose
to discuss these unusual positions rather than the writings of the great moral
philosophers, such as Plato (429?–347 bce) and Aristotle (384–322 bce), which
he virtually ignores. But Bentham’s choice is highly revealing.

To see why, we need to look at the foundation for Bentham’s utilitarian-
ism. We can read Bentham as being driven by three fundamental convic-
tions. First, he believed that morality requires everyone to be treated as an
equal: “Everyone is to count for one, no- one for more than one.” This view,
which is implicit throughout his work, contrasts with elitist or discrimina-
tory views that presupposed men were worth more than women, people of
one race or religion more than another, or aristocrats worth more than com-
moners. In Bentham’s time, forms of discrimination ran through much of
ordinary life. For example, it was not until Bentham’s old age that it became
possible to obtain a university education in England for those who were not
both male and prepared to assent to the articles of the Church of England.
His fundamental premise of equality would have judged these restrictions
as quite unjustified.

Second, Bentham believed that ultimately the only things in the world
that matter are the pleasures and pains of sentient creatures— including
humans, of course, but also animals. Although some readers will think it
obvious that only pleasure and pain matter, in fact many common moral
views have very different implications. For example, traditional religious
moralities give value to suffering (paying penance) or rule some pleasures
immoral (eating the wrong food, dancing in the wrong way, playing games
on the Sabbath.)

Third, Bentham was convinced that morality, and good governance, has
to be based on firm principles. The alternative to principled reasoning is,
he thought, to let individual opinion dominate. Then we leave ourselves
open to, at best, uncertainty and inconsistency; and at worst, prejudice and

128 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

corruption, especially at the level of government. In his later work Bentham
devised the concept of “sinister interests,” by which he meant that those in
power will often be tempted to advance their own interests rather than fol-
low the common good. He argued that firm, reliable principles are needed
to guard against this type of corrupt use of power.

Bentham’s utilitarianism is an interpretation of the first conviction men-
tioned, that everyone is to count for one and no one for more than one. And
in summary, Bentham’s arguments against the principle of asceticism (the
theory that we should maximize pain) rely on the second of these convic-
tions, asserting the importance of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. And
his arguments against the principle of sympathy and antipathy— what he
also calls the principle of “caprice”—rely on the third conviction, asserting
the importance of firm principles.

Elimination of Asceticism
Let’s look at these alternative theories and the arguments against them in a
little more detail. For Bentham the principle of asceticism, which demands
maximizing pain over pleasure, is easily dismissed. Bentham points out,
fairly enough, that probably no one has ever held such a view— which may
make you wonder why he thinks it even worth considering. Those who
seem to advocate it, so he suggests, are really defending another view: that
mortifying your flesh on earth improves your chances of going to heaven
and enjoying a blissful afterlife. The pain is worth the pleasure. But as Ben-
tham points out, this is merely a form of the utilitarian view, albeit one held
by those who believe in a religious doctrine about life after death and what
they need to do on earth to enter heaven rather than hell. Bentham’s real
targets are the religious moralists, those who wish to suppress earthly plea-
sures based on what Bentham regards as a false and pernicious religious
doctrine. In arguing against the principle of asceticism, he was attacking
some version of severe religious puritanism.

In fact, as noted earlier, we should see utilitarianism as opposed not just
to the principle of asceticism, which is an austere and implausible moral
theory, but to a whole range of moral theories based on or influenced by reli-
gious views that see virtue in the practice of less- demanding kinds of self-
denial. Customary and religious moralities contain rules that, in Bentham’s
view, lead to the denial of pleasure or the imposition of harm for no good
reason. For example, we saw in an earlier chapter Bentham’s response to the
view that the only legitimate form of sex is that between husband and wife
for the purposes of reproduction. This belief had led, in England during the
18th and 19th centuries, to the prohibition of contraception and the official

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 129

suppression of sex in other forms. In practice this view caused people enor-
mous anxiety and guilt, not to mention unwanted pregnancies, perilous
illegal abortions, and the abandonment of newborn children. Indeed Ben-
tham’s follower John Stuart Mill (1806–73), who we will discuss shortly,
spent a night in jail as a teenager for distributing a pamphlet explaining the
principles of contraception. Mill took up that campaign after his shocking
experience of finding a dead newborn baby in a London park (Reeves, 2008).
Ignorance of contraception had led to great misery, especially for scared
young women for whom pregnancy could mean ruin. And, Bentham and
Mill would ask, what was the purpose of suppressing contraception? It was
certainly not for the sake of human happiness. Bentham considered the
principle of asceticism, and its milder forms in which customary or religious
moral rules lead to great pain, not pleasure, to be wholly irrational.

And indeed Bentham points out that the principle of asceticism is really
a personal code of conduct rather than a theory of morality:

We read of saints who, for the good of their souls, and the mortification
of their bodies, have voluntarily yielded themselves a prey to vermin: but
though many persons of this class have wielded the reins of empire, we read
of none who have set themselves to work, and made laws on purpose, with a
view of stocking the body politic with the breed of highwaymen, housebreak-
ers or incendiaries. (1789/1970, p. 20)

Elimination of the Principle of Sympathy and Antipathy
What, then, of the principle of sympathy and antipathy? What is this princi-
ple? Consider how you might ordinarily go about making a moral decision.
Your friend has asked you to help him move some furniture over the week-
end, but you are invited to a meal with a distant cousin who is on a rare visit
to town, and it isn’t possible to do both. Which should you do? Obviously
a number of questions will go through your head. Does your friend have
anyone else who could help? How critical is it for your friend to move the
furniture this weekend? When could you next see your cousin? How much
does it matter if you don’t see her? And so on. In the end, if you are lucky,
one of the options may seem clearly the correct thing to do. Alternatively
the decision may continue to be difficult, and you just find yourself almost
randomly choosing one over the other.

We are all familiar with situations like this one. When they arise, we
consider the options carefully and try to work out what is most important.
Although we might not think of our choice as explicitly a moral decision,
it does involve a moral dilemma: the duties of friendship versus the duties
of family. It may seem odd to describe friendship and family as involving

130 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

“duties” because friendship and family involve much more than that, at least
when they go well, but moral duty is at least part of the relationship. And so
we try to discern the “plus” factors and the “minus” factors and weigh them
up. But the problem is that we seem to be weighing without a scale. I can
say that morally the right thing to do is to help my friend. But equally I could
say that morally the right thing is to meet my cousin. If someone questions
me, I can give my reasoning. But within certain limits I can twist what I say
to fit my decision, whatever it is, and no one can confidently say that I have
made a mistake. There is no formula that anyone else, or even me myself,
can follow to check my reasoning.

This process, according to Bentham, is how we reason using the “prin-
ciple of sympathy and antipathy” and why it is so problematic: It is liable to
misuse, even corruption, because it has no principle or formula for deci-
sion making, no mechanism of accountability. It is hostage to the biases of
the powerful. For example, Bentham worried that such reasoning would
lead us to over- punish those who had broken the law. And this is why a
formula, like the principle of utility, is so attractive. It provides a rigorous
framework, unlike the methods used by some of Bentham’s philosoph-
ical predecessors, who were known as moral sense thinkers. Bentham
thought those philosophers wrapped up ordinary moral intuitions into a
pretend moral theory, thereby giving us no insight into morality or assis-
tance with moral reasoning. In contrast, utilitarianism offers a firm guide
and principle.

Bentham’s formulation of utilitarianism seems clear and succinct, but it is
worth spending the time to come to a fuller understanding. Later theorists
have helpfully split the theory into two parts, what they call a theory of the
good and a theory of the right. A theory of the good tells us what sort of
things in the world are good (and bad); a theory of the right focuses on our
actions, telling us which actions are right and wrong. Utilitarianism is the
theory that the right thing to do is always to bring about as much good as
possible. This may seem to be obviously true, to the point of triviality. After
all, what else should we do? Bring about less good than we could? But we
will see, especially in the following chapters, that this apparent obviousness
is deceptive: Oddly, sometimes the right thing to do might be to bring about
less good than we could have done, at least when we understand the term
good as Bentham defines it. Therefore let’s look first at Bentham’s theory of
the good in order to understand what is at stake in this debate.

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 131

Bentham’s Theory of the Good
To start, we need to investigate what sorts of things Bentham considers
good and bad. Quite clearly he regards happiness, which as we saw he
understands in terms of pleasure, as good; and he views unhappiness, or
pain, as bad. Few would disagree with Bentham that happiness or pleasure
is generally good or that unhappiness or pain is bad— although as we have
already seen, Bentham did think he had opponents even on these points.

But there are at least two points of potential controversy. First, Bentham
has a wide concept of pleasure, and he divides it into many subcategories.
His philosophical habit was to be as systematic as possible, racking his
brains to find every variety of the phenomenon he was discussing. He dis-
tinguished many varieties of pleasure: from the relatively innocent, includ-
ing the pleasures of sense (such as enjoying the fragrance of a rose) to the
much more questionable, such as the pleasures of being malevolent. Would
we agree that the world is a better place if people take pleasure in the mis-
fortune of others, for example, cheering up when hearing that someone they
dislike has been injured in a car crash?

Bentham also makes the important claim that pleasure or happiness is
the only thing that is good, and pain or displeasure the only thing that is bad.
Can this be right? John Stuart Mill made the same claim. We will postpone
discussion of this important topic until Chapter 9, where we will also look
at criticisms of the theory.

Measuring Happiness
In the meantime, let’s consider one serious question about utilitarianism.
Remember that the theory requires us to maximize the sum total of plea-
sure over pain. But can we even make sense of the idea of maximizing
pleasure? If we are to maximize the totality of pleasures over pain, first we
have to be able to measure them and put them on the same scale. How can
we even compare pains and pleasures against each other?

Bentham was keenly aware of this problem. In his book Introduction to
the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789/1970), he wrote a short chapter
attempting to explain how to measure pleasure and pain; in a footnote added
later, he includes a short verse as a type of aide-mémoire for the theory. The
verse begins:

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.

The first line picks out the six features by which, according to Bentham,
we can measure individual pleasures and pain: (1) intensity; (2) duration;

132 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

(3) certainty or uncertainty; (4) propinquity or remoteness, meaning distance
in time; (5) fecundity, explained as its likelihood of being followed by other
pleasures; and (6) purity, or its chances of not being followed by the opposite
(i.e., that a pleasure will not be followed by a pain).

Some of these ideas seem straightforward, such as that we should take
duration into account. Others, such as remoteness, are controversial. Should
we discount future pleasures and pains in the sense of giving them less
weight in our calculations? True, future anticipated pleasures or pains are
less certain to happen. But this thought should be accommodated already
under the category of certainty. This somewhat technical sounding issue is
a matter of enormous practical importance in the contemporary world. If,
for example, we do discount future pleasures and pains, then the issue of
climate change, which will affect people in the distant future, will be less
morally important. Arguably, including remoteness violates the idea that
everyone— including future people— is to count as one.

But the main question is whether Bentham has given us enough infor-
mation about measurement to be able to apply the theory. Now, some types
of comparison of pleasure and pain are easy. A pain that lasts two days
must surely be worse than one of the same intensity that lasts  two
minutes. Accordingly, we can rank one as worse than the other. This is
known as an ordinal scale: putting different items into an order of better
or worse, in the same way we can say that today was warmer than yester-
day. But this is not enough to allow us to make the necessary utilitarian
calculation. First, it seems, we need to make what are known as cardi-
nal measurements: being able to put numbers on different pleasures and
pains, just as a thermometer allows us to do for temperature or scales
for weight. For maximizing to make sense, we need numbers. And not
only that, but we need to be able to compare one person’s pleasure or pain
with another; this is known as the problem of interpersonal comparisons
of utility. The difficult question is how to measure intensity. Bentham is
clear that intensity matters: after all, it is the first thing on his list. But he
passes over the issue of intensity very quickly and gives us no real help in
working out how to measure it.

And so we can see that the information we need in order to be a util-
itarian is demanding, but also worrying, lacking. We need a “pleasure
measure”—but even with recent advances in neuroscience, we don’t have a
device like a thermometer that can measure our happiness.

But perhaps we should not exaggerate the problem. Maybe it is possible
to make intuitive judgments that are close enough. After all, a thriving body
of research is now asking what makes us happy. It also asks whether we are

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 133

happier now than people used to be in less technologically advanced times
(apparently not) and whether the people of one nation are happier than
another. In 2014, for example, a study called “The World Happiness Report”
named Denmark as the happiest country on earth, while the OECD Better
Life 2012 Index (which looks only at wealthier countries that are members
of the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development) put Swit-
zerland on top for life satisfaction, Norway in second place, and Denmark
in third.

And what innovative scientific methodology was used to derive this rank-
ing? Brain scans? Advanced computer modeling? In fact two simple meth-
ods were used. In one, people from each country were asked to rank their
satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10. Switzerland topped the scale
with an average of 7.7. Greece, in severe economic recession, was at the other
end of the scale, and the United States fell somewhere in the middle. The
other method measured happiness through positive experiences and feel-
ings such as enjoyment, feeling well- rested, smiling or laughing, together
with the absence of negative experiences and feelings such as pain, worry,
or sadness. Iceland, Japan, and New Zealand do well on this measure, with
troubled Greece again near the bottom.

In other words, it seems we can do some sort of measurement of happi-
ness just by talking to people and asking questions about how they feel. Per-
haps measuring happiness is not so hard after all. Remember that Bentham
replaced the notion of happiness and unhappiness with pleasure and pain
at least partly on the grounds that these are more precise, observable, and
scientific notions. The first of these measures, asking about life satisfaction,
seems to be concerned with happiness. The second one, in asking about pos-
itive and negative experiences, seems closer to measuring pleasure and pain.

Now, many questions could be raised. If I say that my satisfaction is
7 out of 10, and you also say the same thing, does that really mean we are
equally happy? Perhaps I am fairly miserable but have low expectations of
what is possible, while you are ecstatically happy but feel that you have not
yet reached your full potential. We must concede that, at best, these types
of methods are imprecise or rough and ready. Yet there does seem to be
something to them.

We might be able to measure pleasure and pain precisely enough to apply
utilitarian theory and then choose to act in a way that maximizes the balance
of pleasure over pain. Bentham certainly assumed so. We can be at least
moderately confident that the theory can be applied, but it does seem to
require a degree of intuitive judgment that Bentham would have regarded
as less than ideal.

134 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism became very well known in the early
part of the 19th century, attracting both devoted followers and severe
critics. In 1861, more than 70 years after Bentham first published An
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, John Stuart Mill
published Utilitarianism (1861/2001) to provide further support for the
theory and ward off what had become, in Mill’s view, serious misunder-
standings that had made many people regard the theory as narrow and

One such mistake, heard even today, concerns the word utilitarian,
which seems to have the connotation of dull efficiency. For example, long
after Mill’s death, during the Second World War, furniture produced in the
United Kingdom was stamped with something called a utility mark. This
mark showed that the furniture met a standard of making the best use
of scarce resources with no unnecessary frills, details, or ornamentation.
A utilitarian, based on this understanding, is one who is well organized
and sets out to achieve a goal but lacks style or f lair. Calling someone
utilitarian is often intended as a slight or insult, suggesting perhaps that
they are focused only on short- term financial, bureaucratic, or narrowly
practical issues and are ignoring what really matters. But for Mill a greater
misinterpretation of the theory could hardly exist. The theory of utilitar-
ianism of course seeks to achieve efficiency, but aims for efficiency in
creating happiness or joy— the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
In this sense there is nothing “utilitarian” about utilitarianism, as Mill
understands it.

It may have been Mill’s destiny to defend Bentham’s theory. Mill was
brought up to be a philosophical disciple of Jeremy Bentham, whom he
regarded as his godfather. (In turn, Mill would later be godfather to one
of the 20th century’s most important philosophers, Bertrand Russell
[1872–1970]—an odd chain of connection for three generations of antireli-
gious philosophers.) Mill had an astonishingly rigorous education. He was
taught Latin and Greek at a very early age, utterly devoting himself to his
studies and to radical politics. He did not mix with other children, or do ordi-
nary childhood activities such a riding a bike. Perhaps not surprisingly, he
suffered something like a nervous breakdown in his twenties, after which he
began to develop views that were distinct from Bentham’s. Yet he continued
to be greatly influenced by Bentham’s thought. We will look at some of those
differences later. But first, let’s look at Mill’s reasons for being so attracted
to the utilitarian approach to ethics.

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 135

The Subjection of Women
Although Mill’s text Utilitarianism is written to defend the theory, it gives
surprisingly few examples of the advantages of utilitarianism compared to
other systems of morality. In many of his other writings, however, Mill
applied Bentham’s ideas on the moral importance of individual happiness
in order to propose liberating social reform.

For example, in his important and inf luential work on women’s equal-
ity, The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill catalogues the pervasiveness of
male domination, especially within conventional marriage, and examines
its detrimental effects on human happiness. He likens the tyranny of mar-
riage to slavery: the absolute and deeply unjust power of husband over wife.
Mill comments that with the ending of legal slavery in the United States,
“Marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no
legal slaves, except the mistress of every house” (1869/1996, p. 197). Mill was
deeply inf luenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor, who had written on feminist
topics. Indeed it is sometimes argued that Mill and Taylor effectively cowrote
The Subjection of Women, even though it was published under Mill’s name
only. If so, this is a peculiar outcome for a book on this topic, although that
would, perhaps, be a sign of the times in which it was written.

Mill offered many arguments for ending the tyranny and domination of
men over women. He insisted that women had a right to equality. But he
also appealed to utilitarian arguments, and here we can pick out four. These
arguments all hold that utilitarianism demands the liberation of women
because their subjection is detrimental to human happiness. First, Mill
argues that it is bad for men to grow up falsely believing in their superiority
over women, for this “arrogance and overbearingness” (1869/1996, p. 199)
and expectation of service is likely to lead to their own misery over time.
Second, by excluding women from employment in professions such as law
and medicine, society is shunning half the potential talent pool. Therefore
emancipation would have the effect of “doubling the mass of mental facul-
ties available for the higher service of humanity” (p. 199). Third, the utter
economic dependence of wives on their husbands gave husbands a duty to
adopt safe, conventional lifestyles. In Mill’s time married women could not
own property, and from the moment of marriage a wife had to rely on her
husband. According to Mill, having such responsibility for their wives and
children led many men into quite conventional occupations. Mill claims
that men became focused on accumulating resources to support their wife
and provide an “advantageous match” (p. 207) for their daughters, rather
than taking the risk of doing work that was more personally fulfilling or

136 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

advocating unpopular causes. Mill worries that a man known for uncon-
ventional opinions would be shunned by polite society; this would then
damage his daughters’ marriage prospects. Finally, and perhaps most obvi-
ously, women in subjection lose, so argued Mill, “the most inspiriting and
elevating kind of personal enjoyment,” as well as suffering “the weariness,
disappointment, and profound dissatisfaction with life” which “dries up . . .
the principal fountain of human happiness” (p. 215).

Interestingly, there is a mix of arguments here. Arguments one and three
claim that men are worse off if women are subjugated, for they will become
arrogant and make conservative choices. Argument two claims that society
as a whole suffers if half its talent goes unused. And lastly, argument four—
finally, an argument that concentrates on women’s interests— suggests that
women will be much happier if they have a full range of opportunities and
greater freedom. And, of course, female happiness is part of the general hap-
piness. The utilitarian theory therefore encourages, even demands, liberation
from oppression. And this last point is the general theme of Mill’s important
book On Liberty (1869), which again argues that creating the conditions to
encourage and enhance individual liberty advances collective happiness.

Seeing how Mill applies the theory of utilitarianism, it is easy to under-
stand his irritation with critics who accuse utilitarianism of being a rather
dull and petty theory. For Mill, utilitarianism inspired his life’s work of
arguing for the radical reform of Victorian institutions that had narrowed
and constrained human lives into conventional and frustrating patterns.
Utilitarianism, for Mill, unlocks human potential. It creates a world in
which each person can achieve happiness in his or her own way, free from
the crushing conformity that results from uncritical adherence to what has
become traditional morality.

Let’s now take up Mill’s main task in the book Utilitarianism: to provide
philosophical foundations for the theory, which Mill explains in terms very
similar to those of Bentham:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, “utility”, or the “greatest
happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to
promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness,
pain, and the privation of pleasure. . . . [P]leasure and freedom from pain,
are the only things desirable as ends; . . . all desirable things . . . are desirable
either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion
of pleasure and the prevention of pain. (Mill, 1861/2001, p. 7)

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 137

But how, after all, is utilitarianism to be justified? Mill, like Bentham
before him, recognizes the difficulty of this question. The same method-
ological problem seems to affect any theorist putting forward what they
believe to be the most fundamental principle in any area. Normally, we show
that a theory or principle is true by deriving it from a more fundamental
principle. This is common practice in branches of mathematics or logic,
where proofs are sometimes called derivations because they are derived from
more fundamental axioms or principles. But as we go deeper and deeper,
the problem becomes stark. From what can we derive the most fundamen-
tal axioms? In his memoirs, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand
Russell (mentioned above as Mill’s godson) expresses his disappointment
as a child on finding that in the Euclidian geometry his older brother tries
to teach him, the most fundamental axioms had no proofs. They simply had
to be taken on trust if any progress was to be made. But the young Russell
wanted proof, not trust.

We can feel sympathy for the predicament of the utilitarian. If the prin-
ciple of utility is the most fundamental axiom, how can it be proven? Yet
at the same time, the attitude of not offering a proof leaves the defender of
utilitarianism vulnerable. Suppose another theorist proposes another fun-
damental axiom that differs from utilitarianism. How are we supposed to
decide between them if no form of proof is possible?

In fact we have already seen Jeremy Bentham’s ingenious approach to
this issue, using what we called an argument from elimination. Although
he says explicitly that it is not possible to find a “direct” proof of utilitari-
anism, he does seem to offer an indirect attempt at proof. Recall that he
argued against two other moral theories, the principle of asceticism and
the principle of sympathy and antipathy. In effect he is presenting an argu-
ment for utilitarianism in two stages. In the first stage he invites us to
accept that there are only three moral theories, or, at least, types of moral
theories. In the second stage he argues that two of these are faulty and need
to be rejected. From this it seems to follow that only one moral theory is
acceptable: utilitarianism. The case is made.

How good is this argument? Well, it is not difficult to find some holes.
First off, is it really true that there are only three types of moral theories?
Bentham does not explain why there are only three types; and, as we noted,
he has left out many other approaches to morality. But even putting that
question aside, there is another weakness. Let’s think about Bentham’s

He rejected the principle of asceticism on the grounds that no one could
really accept it. We also noted that weaker versions advocating some, though

138 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

not all, self- denial seem irrational because they obstruct human happiness
for no apparent good reason. Let’s accept Bentham’s criticism against the
principle of asceticism just to see where the argument leads us. Next, he
rejected the principle of sympathy and antipathy on the grounds that its
approach to morality was not rigorous. In effect, this principle lacks a for-
mula for making moral decisions. Later on we will ask whether it is too
much to expect a formula. But again, for the sake of the argument let’s
accept that this objection points to a genuine weakness. So where are we
left? Only with the conclusion that we need a formula to help us make moral
decisions, and it needs to be an approach that does not suppress pleasure
for no good reason.

Certainly utilitarianism is a candidate theory that meets these criteria.
But— and here is the critical question— is it the only theory that does this?
Do other theories provide a formula and refuse to deny happiness for no
good reason? Well, yes. One simple theory says that what matters is not
maximizing happiness, but equalizing it. In other words, we should strive
to make sure that everyone in the world is equally happy; and so we need to
pay special attention to the people who are unhappiest, even if it results in
less total happiness for society. If we believe that everyone should be equally
happy, we have a formula to solve our moral problems. And with a bit of
ingenuity, we could devise many other formulas. Bentham has not shown
that utilitarianism is our only alternative, after all.

Mill’s “Proof”
Can Mill do better? He also attempted a form of proof, and it has become
one of the most discussed passages in moral philosophy. Here is what
he says:

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people
actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it:
and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the
sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people
do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself
were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could
ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the gen-
eral happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to
be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have
not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to
require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to
that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of
all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct,
and consequently one of the criteria of morality. (Mill, 1861/2001, pp. 35–36)

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 139

Perhaps it is a little puzzling that Mill does try to prove his position even
though earlier he said that questions of “ultimate ends” were not capable
of direct proof. Presumably this argument is considered to be some sort of
indirect proof. But in any case, how is it to be understood?

The first thing to say is that the proof seems to fall into two halves. The
first half is meant to show that happiness is desirable. The second, Mill said,
attempts to show that “general happiness . . . [is] a good to the aggregate of
all persons,” a comment he seemingly intended to be another way of stating
the utilitarian principle.

Let’s now look more closely at the two arguments Mill makes in his
“proof.” The first argument begins by looking at some other questions of
proof. How do we prove something is visible? How we do prove something
is audible? As Mill suggests, the only way is from the fact that people see
it, in the case of visibility, or hear it, in the case of audibility. Now, we could
raise some questions; but for the sake of argument, let’s accept Mill’s claim
that the only proof that something is visible is that people see it.

The argument then proceeds to the next stage. Just as the only proof that
something is visible is that people see it, the only proof that something is
desirable is that people desire it. This is what we saw is called an argument
by analogy (see Chapter 1). Mill has just set out what we could call the logic
of visibility. He is suggesting that the logic of the terms visible and desirable
are similar enough that what we say about visible should, by analogy and
with suitable adjustments, apply equally to desirable. If so, then he must
next show that people actually desire happiness. But this step he takes to be
so obvious that it barely needs further elaboration. And so it would follow
that happiness is desirable, and the first stage of the argument is complete.

But does it all work out so neatly? Not according to the moral philoso-
pher G. E. Moore (1873–1958):

Well, the fallacy in this step is so obvious, that it is quite wonderful how Mill
failed to see it. The fact is that “desirable” does not mean “able to be desired”
as “visible” means “able to be seen.” The desirable means simply what ought
to be desired or deserves to be desired; just as the detestable means not what
can be but what ought to be detested and the damnable what deserves to be
damned. (Moore, 1903/1993, pp. 118–119)

This stinging criticism is that the terms visible and desirable simply are
not analogous. Visible means “capable of being seen.” If the analogy is to
hold, then desirable should mean “capable of being desired.” But it doesn’t.
Normally when we use the term desirable, we mean “ought to be desired.”
At best, when people desire something, it shows that the thing is capable of

140 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

being desired. But it does not show that it ought to be desired. For example, a
recovering alcoholic might say, “I really desire a drink of whiskey, but having
one is not at all desirable.” This is enough to show that just because someone
desires something, this does not prove that it is desirable. Therefore the
analogy between visible and desirable does not hold and the argument falls
apart, or so say the critics such as G. E. Moore.

Certainly it is possible that Mill could have made this mistake. And if he had
explained himself more clearly, that would have helped. But often in the works
of the great philosophers, more is going on than appears on the surface. It is
generally worth taking a bit of time to search for another way of understanding
their texts before concluding that they have committed an obvious fallacy. So
let’s consider the distinction between desired and desirable a little further.

Essentially, as Mill’s critics have claimed, simply desiring something is
not enough to show that it is desirable. The alcoholic desires a drink, but
having one is not desirable. Now, Mill could ask, why is it undesirable for
the alcoholic to have a drink? Well, one drink could lead to another, and
another, and to disastrous consequences. It turns out that what the alco-
holic desires is undesirable because it is likely to defeat more substantial or
important desires: to stay sober and healthy. This example, then, shows only
that desires can conflict. Something desired turns out to be undesirable only
because it conflicts with a more substantial desire. By this reading, we can
understand Mill’s position in this way: Something that is desired is desir-
able, unless its satisfaction would conflict with a weightier desire. He would
have to admit that for the alcoholic, merely desiring a drink does not show
that the drink is desirable. But he would claim that the only way we have of
assessing whether something is desirable is by looking at whether, on bal-
ance, it satisfies more, or greater, desires than it frustrates. In conclusion,
then, Mill would argue that the distinction between desired and desirable is
not as important as G. E. Moore and other critics allege.

On this account desirable, for Mill, would mean something like “desired
when taking everything, including future consequences, into account.” Does
this save the argument? Well, there are some complexities here. The view
that actions can be undesirable only if they are in some way harmful is at
the center of the utilitarian doctrine. So possibly Mill could be accused of
using the utilitarian theory itself in his argument for the utilitarian theory.
This, we saw, is known in philosophy as begging the question: an odd phrase
that really means you are assuming what you are setting out to prove. If an
argument does beg the question, then it proves nothing. Another similar
way of putting the criticism is to say that Mill has used a circular argument

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 141

(introduced in Chapter 1). An opponent of Mill could argue that an action
can be desirable in ways other than by being desired. For example, an act
that no one desires could still be judged as desirable for being in accordance
with the will of God or the ancient traditions of our society. So it seems you
do need to agree with Mill about quite a lot to find the analogy between
desirable and visible plausible. Mill’s “proof” is perhaps more of an illustration
of the utilitarian view rather than an argument for it.

Aggregating Happiness
Perhaps I have been too hard on Mill. Perhaps he has shown that something
is desirable if and only if people actually desire it (all things considered).
Even so, that was only the first step in a two- stage argument. The first tries
to show that happiness is desirable, and so if this stage of the argument
does anything at all, it establishes what we referred to earlier in the chapter
as the utilitarian theory of the good: that happiness and only happiness is
good. It is another thing to show that the correct moral theory is the one
that maximizes total or aggregate happiness, which also incorporates the
utilitarian theory of the right. This is what the second step attempts.

Mill suggests that once it is established that each person’s happiness is a
good to that person, then it follows that the general happiness is to the good
of the aggregate of all persons. But it is not completely clear what this means.
Does it mean that the general happiness is to the good of each and every per-
son? That could possibly follow if exactly the same things made us all equally
happy. But that is not how the world works. When your team plays mine and
yours wins, our happiness will go in opposite directions. Utilitarianism has to
cope with the facts of life: that sometimes to make one group happy, others will
have to suffer. Writing in 1788, almost 100 years before Mill published Utilitar-
ianism, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (who we will discuss
in detail in later chapters) pointed out that if each one of us pursues our own
happiness, the result is much more likely to be the annihilation of society
than harmony because our wills are likely to conflict. Remember from earlier
chapters the Ik people, Hobbes’s state of nature, and the prisoner’s dilemma.

It may be tempting to say that the best defense of utilitarianism is that
it just seems right. But to say this would be highly problematic. It would be
approving of utilitarianism merely on the grounds that we like it. Yet this
was exactly what Bentham found wrong with the principle of sympathy and
antipathy. What do we say to someone who says that they don’t like utilitar-
ianism? This is why the proof of utilitarianism is so important, and why
utilitarians are frustrated that it is so problematic.

142 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

This chapter began with an explanation of the theory of utilitarianism
as presented by Jeremy Bentham, setting the context in which he wrote
and showing his arguments against the views he opposed. I then clari-
fied Bentham’s theory by looking at his concepts of pleasure and pain, and
we explored the thorny issue of the measurement of happiness. We then
looked at how John Stuart Mill used the theory of utilitarianism to argue
against the subjection of women. We also explored the question of how it is
possible to argue for utilitarianism, looking at Bentham’s argument from
elimination, Mill’s notorious “proof,” and G. E. Moore’s equally notorious
reply. Utilitarianism probably remains unproven. But Bentham and Mill
have shown us the significant potential of the theory for dissolving the prej-
udices of ages and liberating human happiness.

Discussion Questions

1. How does Bentham argue for the truth of utilitarianism?
2. How serious is the problem of interpersonal comparisons of utility?
3. Why would utilitarianism lead to the end of the subjection of women?
4. How convincing is Mill’s “proof” of the principle of utility?

Key Terms

utility, p. 126

argument by elimination, p. 127

moral sense, p. 130

theory of the good, p. 130

theory of the right, p. 130

interpersonal comparisons of
utility, p. 132

analogy, p. 139

begging the question, p. 140

circular argument, p. 140

Key Thinkers

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), pp. 125–138

Plato (429?–347 bce), p. 127

Aristotle (384–322 bce), p. 127

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), pp. 134, 137

G. E. Moore (1873–1958), pp. 139–140

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), p. 141

Chapter 8: Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill ■ 143

Further Reading
■ Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
was published by Athlone Press (1970; original work published 1789). Selec-
tions from this work appear in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Phi-
losophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).

■ The story of John Stuart Mill finding a dead baby in a London park is
taken from Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (Atlantic
Books, 2008).

■ Measurements of happiness can be found online at The World Happiness
Report 2016 ( and the OECD Better Life Index (oecd- life- satisfaction/). Retrieved January 25, 2017.

■ Many editions of Mill’s Utilitarianism are available, including one pub-
lished by Hackett, edited by George Sher (2001; original work published
1861), from which the quotations used here are taken. A selection is included
in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).

■ Quotations from Mill’s The Subjection of Women (original work pub-
lished 1869) are from Mill: The Spirit of the Age, On Liberty, The Subjection of
Women (W. W. Norton, 1996).

■ Bertrand Russell’s remarks about proof are taken from his Autobiography
(Routledge, 2009), p. 25. (Original work published 1951)

■ G. E. Moore’s argument is taken from his Principia Ethica, revised edi-
tion, edited by Thomas Baldwin (1993). (Original work published 1903)

■ Immanuel Kant’s argument about self- interest and chaos is taken from
his Critique of Practical Reason ( Bobbs- Merrill, 1956), p. 27. (Original work
published 1788)


C H A P T E R   9

Challenges for Utilitarianism

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Soc-
rates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different
opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other
party to the comparison knows both sides.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

In Chapter 8 we looked at the origins of utilitarianism, how John Stuart
Mill (1806–73) applied the theory to argue for the end of the subjection of
women, and how Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and Mill attempted to prove
it. Giving a proof was difficult, but that does not mean no proof is possible.
The many positive aspects of the theory make it worth looking at it in more
detail, to see what advantages or disadvantages it may have.

We saw earlier that utilitarianism can be divided into two sub- theories:
a theory of the good, which tells us the sole ultimate good is happiness
(or pleasure and the avoidance of pain); and a theory of the right, which
says the right thing to do is always to maximize the good— happiness. By
observing that ultimately happiness is the only thing human beings seek,
either directly or indirectly, Mill thinks he has shown that happiness is the
sole good. Now let’s explore this question and see whether Mill is correct.
In particular we will look at a range of objections raised by other philos-
ophers aiming to show that Mill is wrong. Happiness, according to these
critics, is not the sole ultimate good; therefore, the utilitarian theory of the
good is incorrect.

The Narrowness Objection
Most obviously, one challenge to Mill’s theory is what we could call the
narrowness objection: that the utilitarian theory of the good is too narrow
because happiness is only one type of good. Knowledge, for example, and
great works of art can be claimed to be good independently of their effect
on happiness. Mill, however, regards this as a superficial objection. Why are
such things valued? Only, Mill thinks, because of the happiness they bring.
It is worth struggling for your art because of the pleasure it will eventually

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 145

bring, if not to you then to others— or rather, the pleasure you hope it will
bring; but you must judge the gamble worth it.

How plausible is this argument? It is hard to know how to assess it.
Certainly people can say that their actions are not aimed at pleasure. Great
artists or writers may be obsessed with their work and spend all their time
and energy on it, sometimes becoming ill or deeply miserable; but they feel
driven to produce the best work they can, even if it is never finished, even
if no one ever sees it. What should we say about such people? Suppose you
devote a great deal of time and energy to sports or even philosophy. Are you
doing this to seek happiness? If so, surely you can find easier ways to get
there, such as watching TV and eating pizza. Rather, it may seem, you are
making the effort simply to become as good as you can at sports or philos-
ophy. Or, in the words of the 19 th- century utilitarian philosopher Henry
Sidgwick (1838–1900), in his book The Methods of Ethics, you seek excellence
for its own sake. You might want to be great at sports just because you want
to be great at sports. If we accept this point, then we have to accept that some
people desire to create art, or pursue sports or philosophy, simply for the
sake of achieving excellence in these areas, rather than for the happiness
it may or may not bring. And if Mill argues, as we have seen, that the only
proof that something is desirable is that people desire it, then he would have
to concede that the creation of art and so on is desirable, and hence that the
creation of art is good. No doubt we could include many other goals as well.

Of course, for Mill this is not a decisive objection. He could continue to
insist that basically all human activity is subconsciously aimed at feeling
pleasure and avoiding pain. Nevertheless, as we saw with the defense of
psychological egoism in Chapter 6, an appeal to subconscious motivations
looks increasingly desperate and dogmatic.

Sidgwick, though, may have a better answer. Having made the point
that we seek excellence as well as happiness, he asked why we do so. Not,
so it seems, always for our own pleasure. But, he thought, ultimately— and
consciously or unconsciously— we try to achieve works of excellence for the
happiness of others. Consider great artists or musicians who suffer for their
art. Would they do this if they thought their paintings would never be seen,
or their music never heard? There are, of course, romantic stories of artists
who create works and then destroy them, but we regard those people as tee-
tering on the edge of madness. This may be why Sidgwick presents the idea
that excellence is pursued as a means to the happiness of others as a theory
of rationality rather than one of necessity. That is, although it is possible
to seek excellence entirely for its own sake, Sidgwick regards doing so as

146 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

irrational (1874/1981, p. 406). Is he right? It is hard to know how to answer;
but it is not obviously irrational to want to produce something just to see
what you are capable of doing without caring whether others appreciate it.
Maybe people who obsessively bench- press are like this.

The Agency Objection
I called the challenge we just discussed the narrowness objection because
it argues that the utilitarian identification of the good with happiness is too
narrow. A second objection is an important variant of the first: that what
matters is not just the subjective feelings of pleasure and pain we have, but
also how we act. We can call this the agency objection, which was made
strikingly in the following passage from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, written
by the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938–2002):

Suppose that there were an experience machine that would give you any
experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate
your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel,
or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would
be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug
into this machine for life, pre- programming your life’s experiences? If you
are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that
business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others.
You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such
experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years.
After two years have passed you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of
the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while
in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually hap-
pening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s
no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will
service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else
can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? (Nozick,
1974, pp. 42–43)

Nozick’s fascinating thought experiment makes us focus on the question
of what matters to us most. His suggestion, of course, is that what matters is
not so much how things feel to us, but whether we really have accomplished
the things we set out to accomplish in our lives. A life of mundane small
achievements seems preferable to a life with the intense joy of believing that
you have lived a life of great excitement, pleasure, and accomplishment if
all of that is built on an illusion. Less dramatic, but much more important
versions of this problem arise occasionally in real life, such as in medical
ethics. In earlier decades it was common not to let people know they were
suffering from a fatal disease, based on the assumption that it was better for

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 147

them to live their last few years or months in happy ignorance. These days,
deliberately withholding such important medical information— however
unhappy it would make the person— would be actionable in a court of law.
We must, I think, concede that these examples weaken the claim that plea-
sure is the sole good.

The Evil Pleasures Objection
A third challenge for utilitarianism is the argument that not all pleasures
are good: We can call this the evil pleasures objection. Does the pleasure of
a sadistic torturer deserve to be called good, and weighed against the pains
of the victim? We can find many other examples: the pleasures of the rapist,
the pedophile, or the terrorist. In Chapter 8 we considered the example of
someone who is cheered up on finding that someone they dislike has been
injured in a car crash. Knowing that some individuals take pleasure in evil
acts or other people’s misfortunes seems to make the situation worse rather
than a little bit better. It seems hard to find a plausible response to this
objection. The only thing that can be said, I think, is that the pleasure of the
torturer is good, but it is completely overwhelmed by the pain the torture
causes. Yet this idea seems quite implausible. Surely it would be a morally
better world if torturers were unhappy in their work.

The Quality Objection
Mill himself worried about a fourth challenge to utilitarianism: that in Ben-
tham’s view, all pleasures are on the same level and are to be evaluated
purely according to their intensity and length. Bentham was adamant on
this point: What matters is the pleasure, not its source. Notoriously, and
provocatively, Bentham asserted that “pushpin is as good as poetry,” or at
least this is how Mill, slightly inaccurately, quotes him. (Pushpin is a game
similar to solitaire.) Mill found this view hard to accept and argued that in
addition to the quantity of pleasure, quality matters too.

For that reason, we can call this argument the quality objection. It is,
Mill says, “quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact
that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than oth-
ers” (1861/2001, p. 8). In one sense, of course, Bentham would immediately
agree. One pleasure is better than another if it is more intense or it lasts
longer. But Mill has something else in mind— that the quality of pleasure
differs. One pleasure is “higher” than another if those who have experienced
both would not give up the higher for any amount of the “lower.” To use
Bentham’s example against him, we might reasonably suppose that those
who have fully and richly experienced both poetry and pushpin would not

148 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

give up poetry for any amount of pushpin. As Mill says (in the quotation at
the start of this chapter):

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be
Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a
different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
The other party to the comparison knows both sides. (Mill, 1861/2001, p. 10)

It is often thought that Mill split all pleasures into just two categories,
higher and lower pleasures, and that may have been his intention. But
strictly interpreted, his argument would allow several different levels of the
quality of pleasure. I might not give up poetry for any amount of pushpin;
but equally I might not give up my ambition to complete my college degree
for any amount of time spent reading poetry, even if I do find poetry highly

Once again, though, we can raise questions about Mill’s argument. First
of all, is there really such a consensus among the experienced on the view
that poetry is so much superior to pushpin? Virtually all of us studied poetry
in school, and some of us in real depth and with interest and commitment.
And yet most of us have barely opened a book of poetry since. Meanwhile,
many people spend thousands of hours of their lives on the modern equiva-
lent of pushpin: playing the latest video or smartphone game. Furthermore,
even those who would not give up poetry for pushpin might not give up
pushpin for poetry, either. Mill could be accused of confusing differences
in quality with the point that we all seek variety in our lives. Most pleasures
fade, the more often they are done. In economics this is known as the the-
ory of diminishing marginal utility: The first chocolate from the box gives
more pleasure than the second, and the second more than the third. Hence
we would not normally want to concentrate on just one type of pleasure,
whatever it is.

In passing it is worth noting how important the theory of diminishing
marginal utility has been to utilitarian theory. On this basis, for example,
the contemporary utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer (b. 1946) argues for
radical redistribution of income (Singer, 1972). A dollar in the hand of a rich
person gives him or her far less utility than a dollar in the hand of a poor
person, and therefore it would maximize total happiness to redistribute from
the rich to the poor. Therefore this is what utilitarianism generally recom-
mends, provided it is done in a calm and controlled way and the process of
redistribution does not itself cause great unhappiness.

To return to the main argument, we might accuse Mill of a certain type of
pro- human arrogance. He tells us that it is better to be Socrates unsatisfied

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 149

than a pig satisfied; and if the pig disagrees, that is only because it knows only
its side of the comparison. This may be a nice joke, but we could equally ask
how much Socrates knows about the life of a pig— rolling around in the mud
with a full stomach and not a care in the world. Perhaps, though, it isn’t so
hard to imagine. At times of stress, a pig’s life may even seem rather attractive.

Perhaps the greater problem for Mill arises if we do accept his distinction
between levels of happiness. The beauty of Bentham’s simpler utilitarianism
was that we know, in principle at least, how to apply it. All pleasures and
pains are to be put on a single scale and weighed and balanced against each
other. But once we have accepted Mill’s distinction between higher and
lower pleasures (and higher and lower pains?), the theory is enormously
complicated. Does he suggest that society must never give up a higher plea-
sure for any amount of a lower one? Should we give up everything else for
poetry? Mill certainly would not argue for that. Some lower pleasures are
needed to make higher pleasures possible. We need to eat before we can
create poetic masterpieces. So is Mill proposing that we ought to pursue
lower pleasures only to the extent that they enable our enjoyment of the
higher pleasures?

This theory is beginning to look much less like Bentham’s democratic
utilitarianism (everyone is to count for one and nobody for more than one)
and more like a highly elitist view, such as that of Friedrich Nietzsche (see
Chapter 3). If some, like Socrates, are capable of higher pleasures than the
fool, then should they be given extra weight in the utilitarian calculus? Mill
did not explain how to modify utilitarianism to accommodate differences
in quality of pleasures.

The Irrelevance Objection
Finally, we should at least touch on the possible objection that happiness
is not a good at all. Let’s call this the irrelevance objection. Bentham con-
sidered the theory, as we saw, that he called asceticism, which inverts util-
itarianism by suggesting that pleasure is bad and pain good. But there is
another view: that happiness has nothing to do with morality and in itself
is neither good nor bad. In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–
1900) contemptuously remarked that “Man does not strive for pleasure; only
the Englishman does.” (1888/1954, p. 468). Quite likely he had the utilitari-
ans in mind when he wrote this, perhaps not knowing that John Stuart Mill
was a Scotsman, at least by ancestry. In fact, an important tradition in eth-
ics suggests that it is quite wrong to base moral reasoning on ideas of hap-
piness: I will discuss it in Chapter 10, so we can postpone the issue for now.

150 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

To summarize this section, I raised the question of whether Mill is right
to view happiness as the only good, and we reviewed what I called the nar-
rowness, agency, evil pleasures, quality, and irrelevance objections. None
of these are knockdown refutations of the theory, and therefore a dedicated
advocate of utilitarianism could insist that the objections can be defeated.
Nevertheless, these challenges do make things uncomfortable. Still, only
the last objection suggests that Mill is wrong in thinking that happiness is
a central component of the human good. And many people will find that
objection hard to take seriously.

What if, after all, Mill is right that happiness is the sole ultimate good?
Does it follow that it is right to try to create as much happiness as possible?
In the attempted proof of the principle of utility that we looked at in Chap-
ter 8, Mill said, “Each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the
general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons” (Mill,
1861/2001, pp. 35–36). The difficulty, as we saw, is that what makes some
people happy sometimes makes other people unhappy. Utilitarianism tells
us to pursue the course of action that creates the greatest total of happiness
over unhappiness. The question for Mill (and Bentham) is whether this
really is always morally the right thing to do.

To broaden the discussion, though, we should note that the same issue
would arise for many other theories too. Take, for instance, a theory that
accepts some of the criticisms set out in the last section— so that, for exam-
ple, malicious pleasures such as those of the torturer no longer count as
good, while art and culture are included as good independently of their
effect on happiness. This modified view is not strictly speaking utilitarian,
because it no longer claims that happiness is the sole ultimate good. Sup-
pose, though, the theory states that we should maximize non- malicious
happiness, as well as art and culture. Thus it still defines right action in
terms of the good. As such, this view is a form of consequentialist theory; it
judges the rightness or wrongness of actions based on their consequences.
Utilitarianism is just one example of consequentialism.

Alternatives to consequentialism include deontological or duty- based the-
ories such as Kant’s theory, which we will examine in detail in Chapters 10
and 11. Deontological theories typically define right action not in terms of
maximizing the good, but rather in following a set of moral rules that set
limits to what we may do. Consider, for example, two possible justifications
for the moral prohibition of murder. A deontological theorist might say

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 151

murder is always wrong because we have a basic moral duty to respect other
people, and murder is a form of gross disrespect. A consequentialist would
have to locate the wrong of murder, ultimately, by determining that mur-
der leads to greater unhappiness than happiness. This example illustrates
the main distinction between the theories: Consequentialism diagnoses
wrongful actions as those that lead to detrimental consequences, whereas
deontological or duty- based theories state that actions are wrong if they
break a particular moral rule.

There is something greatly appealing about consequentialism. In eval-
uating the morality of actions, it looks primarily to the future rather than
the past, and thus it seems quite practically oriented. Yet a critical prob-
lem for utilitarianism is that focusing only on the consequences can lead
a utilitarian to make what appears to be the wrong judgment. This is how
utilitarianism can arrive at counterintuitive consequences, which, as we saw,
means consequences that intuitively we find hard to accept, for they seem
to run against a type of moral common sense. Another related problem is
that in some cases, its critics claim even if utilitarianism gets to the right
answer, sometimes it does so for the wrong reason. It is an accident, or a
contingent fact (it could have been otherwise) that this theory gets it right.
We can call this the problem of contingency. After further exploring the
problem of counterintuitive consequences, we will look in the next section
at how utilitarianism could respond. In the final section of this chapter, we
will turn to the problem of contingency.

Counterintuitive Consequences
One famous example of counterintuitive consequences focuses on how util-
itarian theory might treat the issue of punishment. An early version of the
criticism was set out by the philosopher E. F. Carritt (1876–1964) in his book
Ethical and Political Thinking (1947), many years after Mill’s death:

The utilitarian must hold that we are justified in inflicting pain always and
only to prevent worse pain or bring about greater happiness. This, then, is all
we need to consider in so- called punishment, which must be purely preven-
tive. But if some kind of very cruel crime becomes common, and none of the
criminals can be caught, it might be highly expedient, as an example, to hang
an innocent man, if a charge against him could be so framed that he were
universally thought guilty . . . it would be perfectly deterrent and therefore
felicific. (Carritt, 1947, p. 65)

(Felicific is a semi- technical term meaning “likely to lead to happiness.”)
Philippa Foot (1920–2010) used a similar example, the “trolley problem,”

involving the sacrifice of one innocent person to save others (see Chapter 1).

152 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

A further, much- discussed example concerns deathbed promises. Here is one
version: Suppose your grandfather always wanted you to study the great works
of philosophy. On his deathbed he asks you to promise to take at least one
philosophy course in college. Your ambition, though, is to become a marine
biologist, so taking a philosophy course would be an irrelevant nuisance. You
find philosophy hard and annoying. But to avoid upsetting your grandfather in
his dying moments, you promise— sincerely believing, at that moment— that
you will take the course and make the best of it. Soon after, sadly, he dies.
Nobody knows that you made this promise. Do you have a moral obligation
to take the course? You know that it will bring you, and perhaps your instruc-
tor, unhappiness. Happiness, it appears, will be maximized by breaking the
promise. From this it seems to follow that utilitarianism is instructing you
that you have a moral duty to break the promise. Is that right?

These examples rest on the idea that all utilitarianism seems to care
about is maximizing utility or happiness. It says nothing about how we are
to do this. In Carritt’s example the government could maximize utility by
punishing an innocent person, for that would deter others and reduce crime
to overall beneficial effect. This approach may be particularly beneficial,
from a utilitarian point of view, if anxiety is riding high— perhaps to the
point of civil unrest, which threatens violence and destruction. Under these
conditions, framing an innocent person could calm everyone down again.
In an emergency situation, desperate measures might be thought needed.
However, taking this step would be terribly unjust. The innocent man in
Carritt’s example could surely complain that no innocent individual should
be sacrificed to the common good in that way. It seems that utilitarianism
permits, maybe even requires, injustice.

The utilitarian philosopher has much to say in response. First, the uncer-
tainties of the situation mean that framing an innocent person might do no
good. After all, the crimes may well continue just as before. The real crimi-
nals are still out there; and if we think they are not, we might let our guard
down. Second, if word gets out that an innocent man has been framed, then
even bigger problems could crop up later. The legal system will be seriously
discredited, and who knows what would follow next? It seems implausible
that by framing this unfortunate person, we can maximize utility.

But nevertheless, something has been exposed here. The critic claims to
have found an example where utilitarianism requires an injustice. The util-
itarian replies that when we look at the example more carefully, it probably
doesn’t work. But that response is not enough to show that better examples
could not be devised. The point has been made: In principle utilitarian-
ism could permit gross injustice if it advances the general good. The critic

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 153

could allege that no sound theory can permit injustice, even in principle.
This criticism has been regarded as probably the most serious one faced
by the utilitarian. Accordingly, utilitarian thinkers have devised a series of
more sophisticated versions of the theory to deal with the objection. Let’s
now consider these more sophisticated forms of utilitarianism.

The most obvious response to Carritt’s “scapegoating” objection is yes,
framing an innocent person might act as a deterrent and calm things down
for a while. But if word gets out that innocent people could be punished for
crimes that they truly did not commit, the consequences will be disastrous
for happiness. Many people will be outraged at the injustice and become
highly anxious about what the future might bring for any of us— who will
be the next scapegoat? The apparent paradox is that trying to maximize util-
ity in the short term could create serious problems in the longer term. This
thought has led to a number of attempts to modify utilitarianism and sepa-
rate the immediate consequences of an act from the much broader context.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism
Perhaps the best- known attempted modification of utilitarianism makes
a distinction between two varieties: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarian-
ism. So far we have been discussing act utilitarianism, which is the view
that the morality of an action is to be determined by its anticipated conse-
quences. Rule utilitarianism, however, concentrates in the first instance not
on actions but on rules.

Rule utilitarianism is implicit in both Bentham and Mill, but it was
probably first explicitly stated by the economist Roy Harrod (1900–78). He
used the example of the utilitarian approach to truth- telling (Harrod, 1936).
Suppose I am considering whether or not to tell a lie. On the one hand, a
lie could have some positive effects: I might be sparing someone’s feelings
or getting myself out of a difficult situation. A single lie, told on a single
occasion, is unlikely to have much negative effect unless it is found out. But
imagine a world where people are permitted to lie whenever the utilitarian
calculation is favorable. Every statement uttered by every individual would
immediately come under suspicion. How can I take your word for anything
when I know you are willing to lie if lying will advance utility? The very
practice of truth- telling would collapse, and the result would be disastrous
even in utilitarian terms.

Accordingly, Harrod proposes that utilitarianism should instead be a
morality of laws or rules. He concedes that of course the utilitarian needs

154 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

to set up a morality that maximizes utility. But, he argues, the morality that
really does maximize utility is likely to contain a number of rules that should
not be broken except, perhaps, under the most unusual circumstances. The
rule of “never lie,” almost paradoxically, will do more to advance utility than
the rule of “lie whenever doing so would advance utility.”

In a similar way, rule utilitarianism also provides a reply to the scape-
goat example we considered above. Even if act utilitarianism would justify
punishing an innocent person, the rule of “punish someone, guilty or not,
whenever it would maximize utility to do so” would frighten everyone,
causing extreme anxiety. None of us would know whether we might be the
next scapegoat. This loss of confidence in the rule of law and the right to
fair trial would again lead to a collapse of overall utility. We need a better
rule; and the rule that appears to maximize utility is “never punish the

Nevertheless, some critics have said rule utilitarianism is irrational. Sup-
pose we had the rule of “never punish the innocent,” yet on a particular occa-
sion a significant utilitarian gain can be made. Suppose, to modify Carritt’s
example, the president has been assassinated, there are riots on the street,
and the country is on the verge of a civil war unless the murderer is found.
If we arrest an innocent person and keep him behind bars for a few weeks
before letting him out, we might quell the rioting and buy enough time to
catch the true culprit. There is a miscarriage of justice, but it seems small
in comparison to the good it might do. It seems, then, we should replace the
rule we had with a new rule: “Never punish the innocent unless it results in
a significant utilitarian gain.” But with this rule we have to start considering
acts one by one again, and so rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitari-
anism. Hence, eventually, we are back where we started.

The rule utilitarian has to resist the temptation to modify the rules. Or
perhaps simply make sure that ordinary citizens never know the rules have
been modified. After all, the case of mild scapegoating just discussed—
where someone is imprisoned for a few weeks rather than executed— may
seem to be justified on occasion. But as soon as the public finds out what has
happened, things may well get even worse. What sort of theory can justify
misleading the public in this way?

One way of doing this revives an older argument made by Henry Sidg-
wick in his book Methods of Ethics (1874/1981). Sidgwick points out that
calculating in utilitarian terms is a hazardous business. Consider what it
would take. First I would need to consider all the possible alternatives in
front of me. In the simple case of deciding whether to lie, the alternatives
would be either to lie or tell the truth, although cases are rarely that simple.

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 155

But even in this simple case, I would then need to ref lect on the possible
further outcomes. Will I be found out or not? If I am found out, will gos-
sip spread that I am a liar? If it does spread, will other people laugh or be
shocked? How damaging might this be to me, to my friends, or even to the
institution of truth- telling? Even a simple action can produce a whole tree of
branching possible futures. A utilitarian would need to estimate how likely
each outcome is, and what its consequences would be.

Several problems arise here. First, can I really imagine all the possible
futures? Second, even if I can, will I estimate their probabilities and con-
sequences properly? Third, when I do estimate the probabilities and conse-
quences, if I make any errors they very likely will favor my own interests. My
own problems will weigh more heavily in my calculations than the problems
of others. For all these reasons, our limited natures as human beings make
utilitarian calculations difficult and, in fact, unlikely to be right.

Two- Level Utilitarianism
What is the solution? Sidgwick considers the extraordinary and ingenious
idea that for utilitarian reasons, ordinary people have to be taught that util-
itarianism is false. Instead of reasoning in utilitarian terms, people should
be taught some simple rules: Do not lie, be kind to others, and so on. Only
the moral elite— presumably professors of moral philosophy and people of
similar standing— can be trusted with the moral truth. These people have
the job of devising and teaching others the simple rules and of teaching
them the falsity of the true view, utilitarianism.

Thus, on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recom-
mend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate
openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be
wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done
with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the
world. (Sidgwick, 1874/1981, p. 489)

For good reason, this theory has been called government house utilitari-
anism because it treats ordinary citizens in the condescending way that
colonial rulers, living in the government house, treated colonial subjects in
the days of British rule. It builds on Sidgwick’s insight that utilitarianism is
a theory to judge which outcomes are better or worse, but it is not the same
as giving individuals a motive to act. Being motivated to be honest, kind,
and obey the rules of commonsense morality may well bring about a better
utilitarian outcome than being motivated to bring about the best outcome.
And Sidgwick floats the idea that these simple rules are all that ordinary
people should be taught.

156 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

I have to admire the intellectual audacity of this view. But politically it is
hard to take. Can we really accept that the correct moral position splits soci-
ety into two groups: the tiny, intellectually privileged minority, who can be
trusted with the moral truth, and the great majority, who are in effect taught
a series of lies about morality in order to bring about the greatest happiness
without having to go through the pain and risks of elaborate calculation?

The moral philosopher Richard Hare (1919–2002) came up with a differ-
ent way of defending a form of two- level utilitarianism in his book Moral
Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (1981). Hare suggests that rather than
having two different social groups, one permitted to think in higher utilitar-
ian terms and the other following basic rules of morality, the two levels exist
in each one of us. Hare made a distinction between critical moral thinking
and ordinary, intuitive moral thinking. The intuitive moral contexts are
those of everyday life. In these situations, people should follow simple moral
rules. But there will be times when we face situations where the simple
moral rules don’t apply, or they come into conflict with each other. What
should we do in a situation that almost none of us will ever face— at least
outside conditions of war, where, for example, many lives can be saved by
killing an innocent person? In Hare’s view the simple moral rules of intui-
tive morality will leave us f loundering, and so we will need to turn to critical
thinking and reason in utilitarian terms. Utilitarianism tells us to kill the
innocent person. If we are well schooled in intuitive morality, we will find
it almost— or actually— impossible to kill an innocent person. But Hare
argues that from the utilitarian, critical point of view it is obviously the right
thing to do. Nevertheless, even though the decision is obvious, carrying it
out will not be at all easy.

Hare’s two- level theory is a sophisticated version of utilitarianism. It
combines act and rule utilitarianism, and it avoids the collapse of rule util-
itarianism into act utilitarianism by permitting act- utilitarian reasoning
only in the most extreme or difficult circumstances. Like every theory in
philosophy, this one has its critics. Some we have already encountered. As
we have seen, Hare’s utilitarianism will sometimes allow the sacrifice of the
innocent. Another objection is specific to Hare’s theory. Can we really split
ourselves into two in the way Hare suggests? Is it psychologically possible to
spend our lives primarily in intuitive mode, but switch to critical thinking
when things get awkward or difficult? Perhaps that is possible; but once in
critical mode, can we switch back to more comfortable, automatic intuitive
thinking? Or will we feel it is morally irresponsible to make decisions in
such an apparently unthinking way?

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 157

Let’s recall one of the underlying concerns with the scapegoat objection.
Suppose it turns out that, through a sophisticated utilitarian calculation,
scapegoating is not accepted by utilitarianism. There is still a worry that
even if the resulting judgment is correct, the utilitarian is right for the
wrong reason. The problem with scapegoating is not that it might lead to
diminished aggregate happiness but, some would argue, that it is simply
wrong in itself. In this view, the calculation is irrelevant.

For another example, consider again the arguments from John Stu-
art Mill that we considered earlier (see Chapter 8) in defense of women’s
emancipation— although in fairness to Mill, he had other arguments that
I haven’t mentioned. In that discussion, I picked out four utilitarian argu-
ments: (a) Keeping women in subjection led to male arrogance, which was
problematic for the men; (b) by excluding women from the workplace, we
lose half the talent in the world; (c) having to take care of a wife and daughter
pushed men into conventional lifestyles; and (d) being emancipated would
bring women greater happiness.

What I have called the problem of contingency suggests that women’s
emancipation should not be contingent on showing that it has these beneficial
outcomes. Someone making this objection would say that it is simply unjust
for women to remain in subjugation even if, amazingly, it turned out that sub-
jection maximized their happiness. Suppose, for example, detailed research
showed that men’s arrogance was actually a great source of pleasure; that we
already have, just among men, all the talent we need; that most people are
much happier living conventional lives; and that women are happier looking
after the household than entering the world of work. I agree that research is
unlikely to yield these conclusions; but as a thought experiment, let’s suppose
that it does. Would we then conclude that women should not be emancipated
after all? It seems that a utilitarian would be committed to that (hypothetical)
conclusion. If you think this is the correct result, then you are likely to be some-
one with strong utilitarian or consequentialist sympathies. But if you think
women should be emancipated, whatever the consequences (at least within
reason), then your intuitions tend much more in an anti- utilitarian direction,
at least about this issue. Mill himself probably thought that all available rational
arguments supported emancipation, so he did not have to form a view on this
question. But the critics have made their point: Even when utilitarianism gets
to the right result, we have to ask whether it gets there for the right reason.

As it turns out, this is much more than a thought experiment. We have
seen that Mill was a passionate defender of sexual equality. But what did he

158 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

think about racial equality? He did write that in the future all races would
secure equality, and he clearly thought this would benefit everyone: Euro-
peans would be learning from other races just as other races learned from
Europeans. But the story has another side. Mill, although perhaps the great-
est philosopher writing in the English language in the 19th century, never
held a university post. Instead he worked as an official for the East India
Company, a private firm administering British colonial affairs in India. His
father, James Mill (1773–1836), was a historian of “British India,” though
neither father nor son ever visited the country.

Mill, like the vast majority of 19 th- century European writers, assumed
that white Europeans were more able, industrious, and civilized than Indian,
African, and Eastern people. The great debate at that time was whether this
presumed difference was one of intrinsic nature or a consequence of social
factors. Of course this issue was of the greatest importance: If inferiority
was “natural,” then nothing could be done about it, and a type of racial hier-
archy was a permanent fact of life. Alternatively, if the difference was one
of “nurture” rather than nature, then changing the circumstances in which
non- European peoples lived could eventually bring them to the same high
level of civilization that Europeans occupied. This was Mill’s view, which at
the time was considered highly radical. For example, typically people who
opposed Mill’s position assumed that God had permanently placed differ-
ent races at different levels of superiority and inferiority. Mill did not doubt
European superiority, but he felt it was the duty, and destiny, of Europeans to
“civilize” barbarian nations to bring them up to equality. This is one reason
why he supported the colonial enterprise.

To see how this played out in Mill’s thinking, let’s look at another of his
famous texts, On Liberty (1859). In this book he argues that the government
may not legitimately interfere with your liberty unless it is to prevent you
from harming others. According to Mill, then, the government may not
intervene based on what are now known as paternalist grounds: to require
you to perform, or refrain from, actions for your own good. Notoriously, Mill
makes an exception for children and what he calls “barbarians”:

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,
provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually
effecting that end. (1859/1996, pp. 48–49)

Mill justifies this exception by saying that until people have reached a
certain level of civilization, they are not capable of what he calls “improve-
ment” through freedom of speech and thought, nor of conducting “exper-
iments in living” and learning from each other’s experience. At “lower”

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 159

levels of civilization, freedom would lead to chaos and deterioration rather
than improvement. Therefore despotism— strict government of the sort
the colonial powers imposed— is justified to bring barbarians to the level
of civilization at which they can enjoy their freedom. Despotism becomes
a form of paternalism, imposed for the good of the people. In other words,
although utilitarianism decrees freedom for the civilized, it recommends
severe restrictions for the uncivilized to bring them up to the necessary level
where they can profitably use their freedom. Hence Mill was comfortable
with his position as a colonial administrator despite being one of the great
champions of freedom and equality. Here, then, we see the contingency of
utilitarianism in practice. Whether it recommends equality depends on the
contingency of many surrounding circumstances.

Among the many possible responses to Mill, here are four that probably
have crossed your mind already. First, India was much more “civilized” than
Mill supposed. For example, its philosophical traditions go back almost
3,000 years— even before Ancient Greek philosophy. Before the British
arrived, India was the center of world trade. If anything colonialism sent
India sharply backward, not forward. Second, it could be argued that even
the “uncivilized” will be happier with freedom than with despotism. Third,
the former Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta (see Chapter 2) argued that
limiting individual rights is more likely to lead away from civilization than
toward it. Finally, it doesn’t matter if “barbarians” would use their freedom
in good or bad ways; they still have the same rights as everyone else.

Note that of these replies, the first three broadly accept the utilitarian
framework and suggest that Mill has done his calculations incorrectly.
Utilitarianism, it is argued, favors freedom— at least in the conditions of
India. The last response, however, is quite different. It says the calculations
are irrelevant, and all human beings have a right to freedom. This type of
unconditional right is something that, it seems, utilitarianism simply can-
not accommodate. And this is the reason many people think that despite its
many appeals and its underlying humanity, utilitarianism is fundamentally
f lawed as a moral theory.

We began Chapter  9 by looking at a battery of objections to the utilitar-
ian theory that happiness is the sole good. I called them the narrowness,
agency, evil pleasures, quality, and irrelevance objections. We then looked

160 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

at some problems involved with the idea of maximizing the good: essen-
tially that doing so could lead to counterintuitive consequences. We next
explored some more sophisticated versions of utilitarianism— rule utilitar-
ianism, government house utilitarianism, and two- level utilitarianism—
to see if they could avoid these consequences. Although these theories at
least superficially succeeded in showing how to get to the right answer,
they faced the more subtle objection that they got to the right answer for
the wrong reason. We saw this difficulty demonstrated by looking at Mill’s
different approaches to questions of gender and race. He seemingly was
content to defend aspects of colonialism in utilitarian terms, at least as a
means of preparing subjugated peoples for their future freedom. And this
position, despite the humane appeal of utilitarianism, shows that it is also
vulnerable to criticism.

Discussion Questions

1. What, in your view, are the strongest objections to the utilitarian view that
happiness is the sole good?

2. Explain the scapegoating objection to utilitarianism.
3. What is the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism?
4. What is the problem of contingency? Answer in reference to Mill’s ideas on

gender and race.

Key Terms

theory of the good, p. 144

theory of the right, p. 144

diminishing marginal utility,
p. 148

consequentialism, p. 150

deontology, p. 150

contingency, p. 151

act utilitarianism, p. 153

rule utilitarianism, p. 153

government house
utilitarianism, p. 155

paternalism, p. 158

Key Thinkers

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), pp. 144–145, 147–159

Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), pp. 145, 154–155

Robert Nozick (1938–2002), p. 146

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), pp. 147–149

Peter Singer (b. 1946), p. 148

Chapter 9: Challenges for Utilitarianism ■ 161

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), p. 149

E. F. Carritt (1876–1964), pp. 151–154

Philippa Foot (1920–2010), p. 151

Roy Harrod (1900–78), p. 153

Richard Hare (1919–2002), p. 156

Jomo Kenyatta (c. 1891–1978), p. 159

Further Reading
■ Many editions of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism are available, including
one from Hackett (1982; original work published 1861).

■ Quotations from The Subjection of Women (original work published 1869)
are from Mill: The Spirit of the Age, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women
(W. W. Norton, 1996).

■ Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics is available from Hackett (1981; orig-
inal work published 1874).

■ Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published by Basic Books

■ Peter Singer’s paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” was first pub-
lished in Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1, 3(1972): 229–243.

■ The quotation from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (1888) can be found in
The Portable Nietzsche (Penguin, 1954), edited by Walter Kaufmann.

■ E. F. Carritt’s criticism of utilitarianism can be found in his book Ethical
and Political Thinking (Oxford University Press, 1947).

■ For an important debate on utilitarianism, see J. J. C. Smart and Bernard
Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge University Press,

■ Roy Harrod’s discussion of rule utilitarianism appears in his paper “Util-
itarianism Revised,” Mind, 45, 1936: 137–156.

■ An extended discussion of different forms of utilitarianism appears in
David Lyons, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford University Press,

■ The term government house utilitarianism comes from Amartya Sen and
Bernard Williams, “Introduction: Utilitarianism and Beyond” in the collec-
tion they co- edited Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge University Press,

162 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

■ Richard Hare’s defense of two- level utilitarianism can be found in his
book Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (Oxford University Press,

■ The version of Mill’s On Liberty (1859) used here is from Mill: The Spirit of
the Age, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women (W. W. Norton, 1996).

■ Selections from Mill’s Utilitarianism and On Liberty, as well as the rele-
vant texts from Nozick and Singer, appear in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings
in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).


C H A P T E R   10

Deontology: Kant

[Aiming at popularity in moral thinking leads to] a disgusting hotch- potch of
patchwork observations and half- rationalized principles, in which shallow pates
[i.e., heads] revel because it is useful in everyday chit- chat.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

One powerful criticism of the utilitarian position that we discussed in the
last two chapters is that maximizing total happiness could mean inflicting
great unhappiness, or worse, on a small minority. Punishing an innocent
person to deter others was one example. Although it causes undeserved
suffering to one person, the suffering could, according to utilitarianism,
be outweighed by its total beneficial effects. If it is successful in deterring
crime, it will protect those who would otherwise be victims and reduce
everyone’s anxiety.

It is not hard to think of other cases where maximizing the sum total
of pleasures over pains could lead to results most people would regard as
abhorrent. Consider, for example, the alleged Roman spectacle of throwing
Christians to the lions. The barbaric pleasures of the large, frenzied audience
when added together could outweigh the terror and intense pain of the small
number of victims. Most of us will regard such a situation as deeply immoral,
perhaps just about as bad as things could be, and therefore certainly not as
something a moral theory can approve of, let alone promote. Many utilitar-
ians agree with this criticism and try to avoid it by proposing forms of rule
utilitarianism; but, as we noted in Chapter 9, their success is controversial.

As introduced by economist Roy Harrod (1900–78), rule utilitarianism
was in fact claimed to be inspired by an idea from a very different type of
philosopher— Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The leading idea is that we need
to look at actions not in isolation but as following from rules of conduct. In
this approach morality is rule governed, or better yet, law governed (though
not in the sense of laws of nature or of the legal system), and this is certainly
a key theme of Kant’s moral philosophy. It is important, though, to look
at Kant’s theory in detail, for he would have regarded all forms of utilitar-
ian thinking, including rule utilitarian thinking, as deeply mistaken and

164 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

probably immoral. In Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, he writes, “Morals
is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are
to be worthy of happiness” (1788/1956, p. 134).

Kant’s defense of strict rules of morality, and his rejection of the type
of consequentialist thinking that is at the heart of utilitarianism, allows us
to present him as a trenchant critique of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart
Mill’s utilitarianism. This is so even though the work we will focus on—
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (here referred to as the Ground-
work)—was published in 1785, before the first publication of Bentham’s
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789. Mill published
Utilitarianism many years later (in 1861 as a series of articles and in 1863 as
a book). Mill was keenly aware of Kant’s work; although as we shall see later,
he dismissed Kant’s contribution as at best ultimately little more than utili-
tarianism in disguise. Kant would have viewed this criticism with contempt,
regarding it as displaying an utter lack of comprehension of his views.

Kant’s writing is in stark contrast to Mill’s. While many of Mill’s works
were aimed at a general educated audience, Kant was an academic through
and through. He earned a doctorate at the University of Königsberg, in the
town where he was born and that he never left, and he spent his working
life as a highly respected professor at the university. Kant wrote in a far
more academic style than Mill, and his works are typically much harder to
understand than Mill’s, even though he did also sometimes claim to write
for a “popular” audience.

Kant was a prolific writer on philosophical topics, addressing the entire
scope of metaphysics, aesthetics, politics, and ethics as well as geography,
anthropology, and astronomy. His most important books were written in the
last 25 years of his long life (he died at age 79); they include our focus here,
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. As the elaborate title suggests, it is
a philosophically rigorous work, and its real interpretation is still contested
today. In this book, Kant raises some fundamental metaphysical questions
that relate to his entire philosophical system: questions about what exists
in the universe and about the limits of human knowledge. At its heart is a
fascinating moral theory, however, and in this chapter we will concentrate
primarily on that theory. I will also touch on some of its connections with
his deeper theories in the next chapter.

Summary of Kant’s Ethics
Every moral theory starts somewhere. We saw in previous chapters that
utilitarianism starts with a theory of the good: that happiness or pleasure
is the sole good, and unhappiness or pain the sole bad. This theory is

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 165

used in combination with a consequentialist theory of the right— that the
right action is always to maximize the good— to yield the utilitarian moral

In Kant’s presentation of his thinking in the Groundwork, his moral the-
ory appears to start in a quite different place. Kant centers his analysis on the
concept of the “good will,” which he relates immediately to ideas of duty and
the moral law, which seems a rather daunting, even off- putting approach.
But other, much more inspiring thoughts are also at the heart of his theory.
Kant insists on the idea of human beings as rational, self- governing, free
agents. Let’s start by looking at what Kant calls his supreme moral principle,
also known as the categorical imperative. We can then explore how Kant’s
moral system draws on such concepts such as law, reason, and ultimately

When Kant summarizes his moral theory in a single phrase, he often
says such things as “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by
your will a universal law of nature” (1785/1997, 4:421, p. 31). Although under-
standing the details requires much work, the basic idea is not hard to grasp.
Many of us are used to checking our actions against the slogan, “What if
everyone did that?”—or indeed, using the phrase as a way of rebuking a
person who has done something we regard as antisocial, such as dropping
litter, or never cleaning up after cooking in a shared kitchen.

Kant is offering us a more dramatic and rigorous version of a similar
idea. He is asking you to suppose that, as a result of your action, you made
it true that everyone, from now on, would do just what you did in exactly the
same circumstances. Here is one of the examples that Kant uses throughout
his ethical writings: Imagine you are in “ hard- pressed” circumstances, and
try to extricate yourself by making a promise you know you cannot keep. If
we apply Kant’s principle, you now have to suppose that simply by telling
your false promise you have generated a universal law that anyone in hard-
pressed circumstances is perfectly permitted to make a false promise. But,
Kant argues, such a world could not even exist. Promise- keeping depends
on general conventions of reliability. To work at all, a false promise has to
be exceptional. If false promises become common, no promise will ever
be accepted. So, Kant says, you could not will that giving a false promise
in hard- pressed circumstances should become a universal law. Therefore,
according to Kant, making a false promise is morally wrong not because
of the bad consequences, but because of the literal impossibility of univer-
salizing it. Kant will argue that when your action cannot be universalized,
as in the case of a false promise, you are showing another person a lack of
respect through your action.

166 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Kant says a lot about making false promises and the similar issue of
lying, and we will look some of his examples in more detail later. First,
though, we should focus on a significant difference between the slogan of
common morality, “What if everyone did that?” and Kant’s own approach.
In common morality we normally ask, “How would you like it if everyone
did that?” But Kant claims to be concerned with a different question: “Is it
even possible for you to will that everyone do that?” The most important
difference between these questions is that whether you like something is a
matter of subjective preference. Perhaps I can convince myself that I would
like it if everyone told lies all the time: It would spice things up and reduce
the predictable tedium of life. Kant is much more concerned with what,
objectively, it is possible to will. His more rigorous view connects univer-
sality with what he calls reason: what it is possible, or impossible to will,
rather than what you like or dislike, or even what the consequences would
be if everyone acted the same way. If you could not even will that the world
follows the universal law that you (hypothetically) bring into being through
your proposed action, then to act that way is immoral.

I hope this brief introduction shows some of the appeal of Kant’s theory
as an approach to moral reasoning. And we already have a first idea of how
ideas of law and reason, and perhaps justification to others, figure in his
theory. Thinking of what you are doing as a universal law is, in a way, close
to asking how you could justify your action to other people. We have also
seen how Kant seeks an objective grounding for morality in ideas of reason,
rather than in subjective notions of “liking and disliking.” How, though,
do these ideas connect with the idea of the good will, which as we noted is
Kant’s own starting point in the Groundwork? To appreciate how the pieces
fit together, we will return to the first few sections of that book.

Kant begins his approach to ethics by trying to identify something that is
unconditionally good. He accepts that in ordinary life, we believe that all
sorts of things are valuable. But, Kant claims, even in ordinary moral
thought we accept that only a good will is good without limitation. Every-
thing else— such as understanding, courage, wealth, health, and even
happiness—“can also be extremely evil and harmful if the will which is to
use these gifts of nature . . . is not good” (Kant, 1785/1997, 4:393, p. 7). Even
moderation and self- control, while conducive to a good will, can be dan-
gerous. A self- controlled criminal might well be more evil than one who
loses control easily. As Kant remarks, “The coolness of a scoundrel makes

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 167

him not only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable
in our eyes than we would have taken him to be without it” (1785/1997,
4:394, p. 8).

In stark contrast to utilitarianism, Kant argues that a good will is not
good because of what it accomplishes, but purely in itself. It has, using a
phrase we have seen before, intrinsic value, meaning that it has value in
itself, rather than having instrumental value as a device for achieving or
accomplishing other things of value. Good will would be valuable even
if it actually accomplished nothing. Kant puts the point in rather poetic

Even if . . . this will should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose— if
with its greatest efforts it should achieve nothing and only the good will were
left (not, of course, as a mere wish but as the summoning of all means insofar
as they are in our control)—then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as
something that has full worth in itself. (1785/1997, 4:394, p. 8)

A utilitarian could actually agree with some aspects of Kant’s view, mak-
ing a distinction between a morally good person and a morally good out-
come. For the utilitarian a morally good person is someone who acts to bring
about the greatest happiness, the morally good outcome. If, through circum-
stances completely and unpredictably outside the agent’s control, the attempt
fails, the person is still morally good. Yet Kant would refuse to accept this
distinction. There is no concept of a morally good outcome beyond that of
acting with a good will. Later critics, such as Karl Marx (1818–83), would
accuse Kant of reducing morality to “mere willing,” ignoring whether the
willing made any impression on the world. To this Kant may well have
replied that there is nothing “mere” about the sort of willing he has in mind.

A good will, Kant tells us, is a will that is motivated by the idea of duty.
Returning to the example from Adam Smith (see Chapter 6), suppose you
are a butcher. You would have various opportunities to cheat your custom-
ers. Perhaps you could adjust the scales so that customers think they are
purchasing more meat than they really are. Or you could pass off a cheaper
cut of meat as a more expensive one. One reason you are unlikely to do
this is that it probably will be bad for business. If the customers think they
are getting poor value— or even worse, find out they are being cheated—
then they won’t come back, and they will spread the word. Cheating your
customers is a dangerous game because it could put you out of business.
Alternatively, you might not cheat your customers because you regard doing
so as a breach of your moral duty and therefore something you simply must
not do. Kant suggests that your honesty in dealing with your customers

168 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

shows a good will and has moral worth only if it is done for this second
reason, for the sake of duty. Of course it is better to act “in accordance with
duty” than to cheat; but moral worth attaches only to the person who acts
for the sake of duty.

Kant contrasts acting for the sake of duty not only with doing the right thing
out of self- interest— a very clear point— but also with acting correctly out
of “inclination,” which is a harder idea to understand. But it may become
clearer when we read this remarkable passage from the Groundwork:

There are many souls [i.e., people] so sympathetically attuned that, without
any further motive of vanity or self- interest they find an inner satisfaction in
spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others
so far as it is their own work. But I assert that in such a case an action of this
kind, however it may conform with duty and however amiable it may be, has
nevertheless no true moral worth but is on the same footing as other inclina-
tions. (1785/1997, 4:398, p. 11)

So Kant argues that if someone enjoys spreading happiness and doing good
for others, then their actions have no genuine moral worth. Only if they act
for the sake of duty do their actions have moral virtue.

Sometimes this moral view has been taken to be extraordinarily self-
denying and counterintuitive. The poet Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) asked
whether Kant means that you first must despise people before your positive
actions toward them can count as good (see H. J. Paton 1947, p. 48). But
Schiller probably knew the answer. Kant is not saying that you should not
take pleasure in doing good, or that it is wrong to have a sympathetic temper.
Indeed, in some of his writings Kant regards sympathy as a type of “second-
ary” moral duty that ought to accompany the motive of duty. His main point,
though, is that if pleasure or immediate sympathy is your primary reason
for helping someone, then your action lacks moral worth.

To see Kant’s point, remember his comment that motives other than
duty can easily lead you astray. To extend his example, suppose that sym-
pathy leads the butcher to break the moral law, perhaps by overcharging
some wealthy customers so he can offer a better deal to those in greater
need. Sympathy can misfire. Kant thinks the motive of duty must be the
determining factor in our actions, even if other motives are present too. But
he also remarks that in life we can never be sure what anyone’s motive of
action is, perhaps not even our own, because we could be driven by some
type of “secret” impulse. For this reason, he says, an action of moral worth
may never have taken place in the history of the world.

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 169

Nevertheless, Kant believes that a philosophically profound and rigor-
ous approach to morality is necessary. If we remain at the level of popular
thought about morality, we will be left with, to revisit the quotation from the
Groundwork at the start of this chapter, “a disgusting hotch- potch of patch-
work observations and half- rationalized principles, in which the shallow
pates revel because it is useful in everyday chit- chat” (1785/1997, 4:409, p. 22).
Like Bentham, Kant wants to impose rigor and method on morality, and he
refuses to tolerate the disorder of ordinary moral thought.

How, though, do we get from the idea of the good will, which acts for the
sake of duty, to that of the supreme moral principle as introduced in the
first section of this chapter? One formulation of that principle in Kant’s
Groundwork is “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also
will that my maxim should become a universal law” (1785/1997, 4:402,
p. 15). As we have already seen, Kant emphasizes that morality cannot be
based on desire, sympathy, or inclination because they are not uncondi-
tionally good. He makes the point more generally by saying that morality
cannot be based on anything empirical, by which he means that moral-
ity, surprisingly enough, cannot be based on ordinary facts about human
beings. In philosophy the term empirical generally is used to refer to what
we can observe in experience. Science, for example, is an empirical disci-
pline insofar as it generates knowledge built on experimental data accu-
mulated by observation. Empirical, for which the Latin term a posteriori
is also used, is generally contrasted with the term a priori. The literal
meanings of these terms are not much help: a posteriori means “from
the later” and a priori means “from the earlier.” Perhaps the best way
of understanding a priori is simply in contrast to empirical; therefore, a
priori knowledge is knowledge that is acquired not through a process of
experience or observation.

It is puzzling— and a real philosophical question— to understand the
concept of a priori knowledge, for it implies that we can know things without
having to experience them. But a priori knowledge does seem to exist. Logic
and mathematics are examples. Although it may be hard to theorize how
we know that 102 + 102 = 204, we can be pretty sure we did not come to that
knowledge by combining two piles of 102 objects and counting the resulting
pile. We manage to get there by a process of calculation rather than through
experiment or observation. Mathematics and logic are generally regarded as
a priori bodies of knowledge, even if some philosophers have denied that a

170 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

priori knowledge can exist and have attempted to reduce mathematics and
logic to experience.

Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives
For Kant morality is not an empirical body of knowledge, for it is not based
on facts about humans: Morality has to be valid for all rational creatures,
whether human or not. Hence the ultimate principles of morality are, Kant
says, more like principles of logic than like scientific theories. But what is
left if we exclude facts about humans? Only what Kant regards as “formal”
features of morality. Formal is used in the sense of “relating to form” or,
perhaps, “relating to the idea,” just as we speak of “formal logic.” And so
Kant concludes that morality must be based on the form, or the idea, of the
moral law.

The key formal elements of the moral law are (a) because it is moral, it
is normative, in the sense of setting standards of behavior; and (b) because
it is a law, it is universal. Therefore the good will is demonstrated through
action in accordance with the pure idea of the normative, universal, moral
law, unmixed with anything empirical.

To understand the idea of moral law more fully, two critical notions must
be understood at this point: the distinction between the categorical impera-
tive and hypothetical imperatives; and the idea of a maxim of an action. Let’s
turn first to the discussion of imperatives.

An imperative is an instruction to behave in a particular way. To under-
stand Kant’s distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives,
it is best to start with the concept of a hypothetical imperative. Consider
the claim “If you want to gain weight, you should eat more food.” Few,
I think, would disagree. And some people do want to gain weight if, for
example, they are recovering from illness or they play a sport where being
heavy is an advantage. But these days, people rarely want to gain weight
rather than lose it, and the rest of us generally think it makes little sense
to eat more food than we currently do. Hence, we can say, the imperative
“eat more food” is hypothetical. Or perhaps it would be clearer to say it is
conditional— something you should do only to achieve something else, in
this case gain weight. Hypothetical imperatives, in Kant’s system, have no
moral content, as he illustrates:

The precepts for a physician to make his man healthy in a well- grounded way,
and for a poisoner to be sure of killing his, are of equal worth insofar as each
serves perfectly to bring about his purpose. (1785/1996, 4:415, p. 26)

Kant says that the imperatives of morality are categorical, by which
he means that they are not hypothetical. Categorical in this sense means

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 171

“absolute” or “unconditional.” “Don’t tell lies” is a categorical imperative
of morality, whereas “If you don’t want to get into trouble, don’t tell lies” is
a hypothetical imperative of prudence, and anyone who tells the truth pri-
marily to keep out of trouble is not demonstrating a good will by acting for
the sake of duty. Kant would say that their action has no moral worth, even
though it is in accordance with the moral law.

What about the statement “If you want to act for the sake of duty, don’t
tell lies”? This has the grammatical form or appearance of a hypothetical
imperative, but we can reasonably say that it is really a categorical imperative
in disguise. The conditional “If you want to act for the sake of duty” should
just fall away because all humans ought to act for the sake of duty. This con-
dition is unconditional. Indeed, as we have already noted, it falls not only on
human beings, but on all rational creatures. If there are angels, Kant thinks,
they will be just as bound by the moral law.

It is easy to understand how hypothetical imperatives can exist; in effect,
they are instructions about how to achieve a particular goal. The idea of a
categorical imperative is more puzzling because it gives instructions that
are somehow justified in themselves rather than in pursuit of an external
goal. But any particular categorical imperative, such as “Don’t tell lies,” will
be justified insofar as it is in accordance with the supreme moral principle.
Kant calls this the categorical imperative (expressed in the singular): “I
ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim
should become a universal law” (1785/1997, 4:402, p. 15).

The Maxim of an Action
The statement of the categorical imperative that we have just seen includes
reference to the idea of the “maxim” of your action. This is a critical part
of Kant’s theory, for he claims that an action has moral worth not in its
purpose but in the maxim used in deciding on the action. Kant explains
the idea of a maxim by calling it “the principle of the will,” and he distin-
guishes the “will” from preferences or emotions.

Let’s return to the butcher weighing and pricing his meat. The butcher
who acts honestly but purely out of enlightened self- interest acts from a
maxim or principle such as this: “Always treat your customers honestly
if it will advance your business and reputation.” The purely sympathetic
butcher would follow something like the maxim, “Always treat your custom-
ers honestly if it makes them happy.” But another butcher might act from
the maxim, “Always treat your customers honestly.” And only this butcher,
Kant argues, acts with true moral worth. For only this butcher, Kant seems
to suggest, would be able to will that the maxim of his action should become

172 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

a universal law. Is Kant right that only the honest butcher has a maxim that
could be willed as a universal law?

Kant does not, in fact, go through the particular details of this example.
But let us pause for a moment to ask a question: Is the test that Kant sets out
a plausible approach to morality? The essence of Kant’s view is that an act is
wrong if it would be impossible to will its universalization, as we saw in the
case of the lying promise. This is an elegant and interesting moral view. And
by impossible Kant, at least on a first reading, seems to mean “strictly, logically
impossible” rather than “very difficult, undesirable, or troublesome.” The first
test for this theory, though, is whether it works. Can we explain all immorality
as action based on a maxim that is impossible to universalize? And is every-
thing based on a maxim that is impossible to universalize immoral?

To get a sense of the challenges, let’s consider an example offered by
the philosopher Marcus Singer (1926–2016). Suppose I want to become a
carpenter. Is that morally acceptable? In normal circumstances it is hard
to see anything wrong with it. But then suppose everyone wanted to be a
carpenter. How could we live? There would be no farmers or tailors, and
thus no food or clothes. Eventually we might all die. So it is impossible to
universalize being a carpenter.

Now, a Kantian will not be impressed with this objection. First, it makes
the confusion we have already identified between the impossible conse-
quences of adopting a universal law with the (logical) impossibility of willing
its adoption. There is nothing logically impossible about willing the adoption
of the law, even though if we obey it strictly, human life would become very
difficult. Second, even putting the first objection aside, there is a question
of how to identify the maxim of my action. Is it “be a carpenter”? Or is it
“follow a valuable profession you will enjoy”? Even if universalizing the first
maxim creates difficulties, the second one seems unproblematic, assuming
natural human variation in ambition.

However, this reply brings out a question that has been raised many
times for Kant. How do we know what the “true” maxim of any action is?
Any particular action could fall under a number of different maxims: “be
a carpenter”; “follow a valuable profession you will enjoy”’ “find a way of
making money”; “exercise your talents”; and so on. With sufficient ingenuity
we could multiply these maxims without limit. Is it even clear that there is
always a single underlying maxim? Much of the time we don’t have a single
clear reason for doing something.

Why, for example, are you studying moral philosophy? Can you pinpoint
the maxim of your action? Sometimes it is suggested that the maxim of

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 173

your action is the aspect that “makes the difference.” Imagine a situation
in which the action did not have a particular characteristic; would you still
do it? If not, then it seems plausible that the characteristic needs to feature
in your maxim. Perhaps you are studying moral philosophy simply because
you have distribution requirements to fulfill. In that case you would not
have taken the course if it did not fit your plan of study. Or it might be that
for a long time, you have been intrigued with the idea of philosophy and are
also interested in morality; you thought it would be valuable to put the two
together, and this is why you are studying moral philosophy. Still, the issue
remains complicated. Even if you are studying for the intrinsic interest of
the topic, you probably would not have taken the course if you did not get
credit for it. But to say you are doing it for the credit makes your choice seem
much more cynical and calculating than it may well be.

Identifying the maxim of any action is far from straightforward, although
Kant does not seem particularly worried about that problem. Perhaps he
thinks that an honest moral agent would never try to slip through the moral
law by playing around with the formulation of the maxim of his or her action.

To help understand Kant’s position, let’s look at some other examples that
he helpfully provides to illustrate his approach. Kant runs through a series
of four examples: suicide, false promises, neglecting your talents, and
refusing aid to others. He says that all of these are morally wrong because
in each case, the maxim of the action cannot be willed to be a universal law.

Kant does not pick his four examples at random. Rather he makes two
distinctions, which crosscut so that four examples are needed. First, and
easier to understand, is a distinction between duties to yourself and duties
to others. The examples of false promising and failing to help naturally fall
under the category of duties to others. Suicide and neglect of talents concern
duties to yourself. Are there such duties? Kant certainly thought so; although
in his later work The Metaphysics of Morals, he recognizes that the notion
of a duty to yourself seems contradictory (1797/1991, p. 214). For if you had
a duty to yourself, it seems you could release yourself from it. Hence there
would be no duty if you didn’t want it, which is no duty at all. Duties would
therefore become optional, which defeats their purpose.

Kant resolves this problem by relying on the idea that human beings can
be considered under two aspects: One is the natural being— the empirical
being of experience— who, like other animals, has desires and seeks happi-
ness; the other is the being with inner freedom, who acts in accordance with

174 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

reason and, indeed, is capable of following the moral law (Kant 1797/1991,
pp. 214–215). Kant seems to suggest that a duty to yourself is a duty to sub-
jugate your desires to your rational freedom, much as an addict might try to
suppress a craving for drugs or alcohol to achieve a type of “higher freedom.”
You might try to release yourself from this duty, but it is plausible that in
doing so you are in some sense cheating yourself. Duties to yourself, then,
are duties to overcome inclination, or desire, in order to follow reason and
the moral law. Here we can see a powerful connection with self- respect: If
you follow your cravings or inclinations at the expense of your rational free-
dom, you are likely to suffer from deep regret or even self- hatred.

The other distinction that Kant draws on is between perfect and imperfect
duties. In the Groundwork, Kant goes over the distinction quickly, not really
explaining it. One way of understanding this distinction is that a perfect
duty applies in all circumstances, universally. If broken it undermines the
condition of its own possibility, as Kant puts it. As we saw, he uses the
example of lying to illustrate his meaning: You could not lie if everyone lied
whenever they wanted. The breach of an imperfect duty, by contrast, logi-
cally could become a universal law; but, Kant says, it would be against our
nature as rational creatures. This distinction may be hard to understand,
and scholars still debate Kant’s exact meaning.

Still, one natural way of understanding the point can be illustrated with
examples. By this interpretation, imperfect duties should be acted on from
time to time, but not necessarily always. Consider your duty to give to char-
ity. In ordinary morality, most people would accept that moderately wealthy
people have a duty to give to charity. But this surely cannot mean that we
have a duty to give to every charitable cause that requests money. Bankruptcy
may well follow; but even if not, giving more money to a small number of
charities may be better than spreading it thinly among all of them. In effect,
we have a duty to give to charity from time to time, perhaps to the limits
of what we can reasonably afford. But we do not have a duty to give to all
charities, or to any charity all the time, or to give away all our money. This,
then, is what is meant by an imperfect duty: something we have to do from
time to time. Doing it is not optional— it is a duty, after all— but we do have
options regarding how and when.

So given his two distinctions, Kant needs four examples. The duty not to
commit suicide is, on Kant’s reading, a perfect duty to yourself. The duty not
to make lying promises is a perfect duty to others. The duties not to neglect
your talents and to help others are both imperfect duties— the former to
yourself, the latter to others. Because they are imperfect duties, they tell

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 175

us that we should not neglect all of our talents, and we should help others
when we reasonably can.

Let’s consider Kant’s first example: an individual contemplating suicide.
This situation, Kant believes, involves a perfect duty: A person must never
commit suicide. Here Kant imagines that the person contemplating suicide
has the following the maxim of action: “From self- love I make it my principle
to shorten my life when its longer duration threatens more troubles than
it promises agreeableness” (1785/1997, 4:422, p. 32). This is a rather bland
account of the mental life of someone contemplating suicide. Kant, in fact,
discusses suicide several times in the Groundwork, and his first example
does more to capture the highly anguished state of mind of someone con-
templating suicide, supposing that “hopeless misery” has “taken away the
taste for life” and therefore a person longs for death.

Kant argues that it is not possible to universalize the maxim to shorten
your life under the circumstances described. For, he says,

a nature whose law it would be to destroy life itself by means of the same
feeling whose destination is to impel toward the furtherance of life would
contradict itself and would therefore not subsist as nature; thus that maxim
could not possibly be a law of nature and, accordingly, altogether opposes the
supreme principle of all duty. (1785/1997, 4:422, p. 32)

It is not easy to follow Kant’s argument here. He seems to suggest that we
have been given a natural instinct to further our lives, and so the resolution
to take our lives contradicts that impulse. Yet it is not clear why we cannot
will the universalization of this maxim: “End my life if the future balance
of torment and agony over pleasure is likely to be negative.” The example
is puzzling.

There are two questions we can raise for Kant. First, is he right that sui-
cide is morally wrong? Second, if suicide is wrong, can Kant’s theory explain
why? In Chapter 2 I used the example of suicide as an example of cultural
difference about morality. In some societies suicide has been regarded as
a sin— a mortal sin, consigning those who do it to eternal punishment. It
has sometimes been a crime; horrifically, those who tried and failed to kill
themselves were arrested and charged with attempted suicide, sometimes
in their hospital beds as they recovered. In other societies suicide has been
seen as an appropriate response to some sort of failure or humiliation. A
military leader responsible for the loss of a key battle might be expected
to take his own life, and the failure to do so could be criticized. Someone

176 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

responsible for the death of others may feel he or she “does not deserve to
live” and will commit suicide as a result. And still other societies have con-
sidered suicide tragic but morally neutral, at least in some circumstances;
for example, when a person faces poverty, severely failing health, and the
loss of many close friends and relatives.

Kant would consider such variation interesting anthropology but utterly
irrelevant to morality. The supreme principle of morality rises above such
merely empirical considerations, and it is true for all rational creatures, at all
times and places. The test of whether a rule falls under the supreme moral
principle depends on whether a person can will it to be universalized. And
so, for Kant, customary morality and intuition tell us nothing important.
The vital question is whether we can will the universalization of this maxim:
“Take my own life when my future life’s longer duration threatens more
troubles than it promises agreeableness.” Kant confidently says that willing
the universalizing of this maxim contains a contradiction. Yet as we have
already noted, his reason is not so clear. It does seem that a society could
live according to this maxim; perhaps some of them do. But some philoso-
phers, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, suspect that Kant is too greatly
inf luenced by his religious beliefs, and in this case is bending his theory to
make it fit his religious prohibitions on suicide

There is support for Kant’s case, though. Alongside suicide he also dis-
cusses what he calls mutilation, which we might now call self- harming.
When we hear that a friend or family member is engaging in self- harming,
usually by repeatedly and intentionally cutting the skin, we do not celebrate
their freedom of choice. Instead we find ourselves greatly concerned. Even
if they seem not to care, we feel that they ought to care. Is it a moral failure
to harm yourself, in the sense of failing in your duty to yourself? The case
is at least arguable, and this opens the door to thinking that Kant may well
be on to something: that we do have moral duties to ourselves.

Another aspect of ordinary law and morality may well provide further
support for Kant. In many aspects of life, we follow the doctrine of volenti
non fit injuria: Where there is consent, there is no injury. For example, if
you ask me to cut down your maple tree, normally you have no complaint
if I do it; on the other hand, you would be outraged if I just came over and
cut it down. But suppose you sincerely ask me to kill you, which I then do.
Most legal systems still regard my action as a serious criminal offense: You
cannot consent to your own murder. It is regarded as a “crime against soci-
ety” rather than merely against the individual, even if that person sincerely
wishes to die. And this is Kant’s moral criticism of suicide. You may not

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 177

consent to your own murder, even at your own hands, for the harm is done
to society and not just yourself. And, so he claims (whether or not we agree),
there will be a contradiction in your will if you do will to commit suicide.

False Promising, Neglecting Your Talents, and Failing to Help
Let’s continue with Kant’s four examples. We have just dealt with his dis-
cussion of suicide. Next is false promising. The failure to universalize max-
ims permitting false promises is highly plausible, although in Chapter 11
we will explore some perplexing issues Kant raised on the topic of lying.
Because we have already discussed false promising, at this point we only
need to consider the remaining two examples— neglecting your talents and
failing to help others.

How convincing is Kant’s claim that his approach rules out the cases of
neglecting your talents and failing to help others? Kant acknowledges in
both cases that it is logically possible to universalize the maxims. Is this
an admission that his argument does not work? Not quite. We need to take
another look at the formula of universal law: “Act in such a way that I can
also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” There is a subtle
point here that I need to bring out explicitly. Sometimes it is impossible to
will the universalization of a maxim because there would be some sort of
contradiction in doing so, as in the case of telling a false promise— and,
Kant thinks, in committing suicide. He suggests that where there is a per-
fect duty (one that must be adhered to in every case), there will be a logical
contradiction in willing the universalization of the maxim. This would be
an elegant theory if it worked. In the case of imperfect duties, the problem
is not so much that there is a contradiction in universalizing the maxim,
but rather that there is a contradiction in willing its universalization. And
this, Kant argues, is the problem in the case of the two remaining examples:
neglecting your talents and refusing to help people in need.

In the case of neglecting your talents and preferring to live in idleness,
Kant supposes that what he called the “South Sea Islanders” live this way.
In the 18th century many people believed that the islands of the south seas
had such a bountiful supply of natural foods, such as coconuts and pineap-
ples, that people living there would “let . . . talents rust, and . . . devote life
to idleness, indulgence, procreation and, in a word, enjoyment” (1785/1997,
4:423, p. 33). From Kant’s language it seems clear that he regards such a
life as not fit for human beings rather than as the paradise it might seem
to be for those with a different temperament. (In Chapter 11, we will look
more closely at Kant’s troubling attitudes about people of non- European

178 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

descent.) Kant accepts that there is no contradiction in a universal law that
would allow everyone to neglect their talents, but he says that willing this
mode of life to become a universal law is contrary to the nature of a rational
being that necessarily wills the development of its powers. In some ways
this argument resembles the one he developed in relation to suicide: Kant
must be presupposing a “higher” self of reason and a lower self of pleasure
to support the argument that in neglecting your talents, you are failing in
a duty to yourself and undermining your own self- respect. And again we
can ask whether an implicit religious view is being smuggled in here; is the
duty to your higher self easier to understand if it is a duty to your creator?
(In Chapter 11 we will return to this question too.)

The final example of failing to help others does not concern neglecting
or destroying yourself, but neglecting others. Thus it is a failure of a duty to
other people, according to Kant’s classification. Kant imagines a man seeing
another person in distress and thinking:

What does it matter to me? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven wills or as he
can make himself; I won’t deprive him of anything; I won’t even envy him;
only I have no wish to contribute anything to his well- being or to his support
in distress! (1785/1997, 4:423, p. 33)

This is perhaps a version of ethical egoism (see Chapter 6). Again Kant
accepts that a maxim of this sort can be universalized— it contains no logical
contradiction— but the problem is that its universalization cannot be willed.
For I might find myself needing the help of others, and would naturally will
my own preservation; but a universal law of non- contribution would allow
others to ignore me if they chose to. Therefore, Kant argues, my will would
be in conflict with itself.

One critic who found fault with this argument was the German phi-
losopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). In in his work On the Basis
of Morality (1840), Schopenhauer quotes a poem by William Wordsworth
(1770–1850)—“Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1803, XI: Rob Roy’s
Grave”—to make the point:

I can perfectly well will injustice and unkindness as a universal maxim, and
regulate the world accordingly,

upon the simple plan,
That they should take, who have the power
And they should keep, who can. (Schopenhauer, 2009, p. 158)

Furthermore we should recall that the maxim is one that gives permis-
sion to ignore the plight of others, rather than forbids us to help. If others
have the permission to pass me by if they see me in trouble, it doesn’t follow

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 179

that they will. Perhaps out of sympathy, rather than duty, they might help. If
so, the conflict is not as clear as Kant supposes. Here his argument seems
to be much closer to the “golden rule” of many religious traditions: “Do as
you would be done by,” or act in such a way as you would have others act
toward you. Thus, in this example Kant has not shown any real difficulty in
our ability to will a universal law of mutual indifference.

Indeed, in looking at Kant’s argument, it is possible to have some sym-
pathy with this criticism of Kant in Mill’s Utilitarianism:

This remarkable man, whose system of thought will long remain one of the
landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation, . . . , lay[s] down a uni-
versal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation; it is this:
“So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as
a law by all rational beings.” But when he begins to deduce from this precept
any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that
there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibil-
ity, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral
rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal
adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur. (1861/2001, p. 4)

Mill uses this point to suggest that Kant is a tacit utilitarian after all— a
suggestion Kant would have thought a monstrous distortion. Schopenhauer
makes the related criticism that in many cases, and contrary to his own
claims, Kant bases his arguments on what people would and would not
desire— they would not desire to be ignored— rather than on what is and
is not possible to will. If Mill or Schopenhauer is right, Kant has not elimi-
nated the “merely empirical” from morality after all. In Chapter 11, we will
see whether Kant has ways of responding to his critics.

In this chapter we looked at the basics of Kant’s ethical position: its ground-
ing in the idea of good will, the distinction between acting in accordance
with duty and for the sake of duty, the distinction between categorical and
hypothetical imperatives, and the idea of a maxim of an action. We also
examined Kant’s slightly problematic examples to illustrate his theory.
These examples— of suicide, false promises, neglecting your talents, and
ignoring the plight of others— also illustrate two distinctions. One is the
distinction between duties to yourself and duties to others; the other is the
distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. It should be clear that
Kant is a rigorous, highly principled thinker and moralist, laying down

180 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

what he believes to be the correct moral approach for all rational creatures.
In the next chapter we will pursue some of these themes in more detail.

Discussion Questions

1. Why does Kant regard the good will as the only unqualified good?
2. Explain the difference between categorical and hypothetical imperatives.
3. What difficulties are there in identifying the maxim of an action?
4. How well do Kant’s examples illustrate his theory?

Key Terms

consequentialism, p. 164

metaphysics, p. 164

intrinsic value, p. 167

instrumental value, p. 167

empirical, p. 169

a posteriori, p. 169

a priori, p. 169

categorical imperative, p. 170

hypothetical imperative, p. 170

maxim of action, p. 170

prudence, p. 171

perfect and imperfect duties, p. 174

Key Thinkers

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), pp. 163–179

Roy Harrod (1900–78), p. 163

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), pp. 164, 169

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), pp. 164, 179

Karl Marx (1818–83), p. 167

Adam Smith (1723–90), p. 167

Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), p. 168

Marcus Singer (1926–2016), p. 172

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), pp. 178–179

William Wordsworth (1770–1850), p. 178

Further Reading
■ Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) is avail-
able in many editions. Here I have quoted from the edition by Cambridge
University Press (1997). Selections from this work are reprinted in Jonathan
Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018), which also

Chapter 10: Deontology: Kant ■ 181

contains selections from Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of
Morals and Legislation (1789).

■ The edition I have used of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason is from
Bobbs- Merrill (1956). (Original work published 1788)

■ Schiller’s brief criticism of Kant is quoted and discussed in H. J. Paton’s
The Categorical Imperative (Hutchinson & Co., 1947).

■ I have used the Hackett (2001) edition of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.
(Original work published 1861)

■ Selections from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The German Ideology,
where they accuse Kant of resting his theory on “mere willing,” can be
found in The Marx Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (W. W. Norton, 1978), edited by
Robert Tucker.

■ I have used the Cambridge University Press (1991) edition of Kant’s The
Metaphysics of Morals. (Original work published 1797)

■ Arthur Schopenhauer’s “On the Basis of Morality” is printed in his The
Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2009),
edited by David E. Cartwright and Edward E. Erdmann. (Original work
published 1841)


C H A P T E R   1 1

Challenges for Kantian Ethics

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

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

In Chapter 10, we discussed the most fundamental elements of Kant’s the-
ory. Still we were left with a puzzle. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) illustrates
his theory with a series of four examples: suicide, false promises, neglect-
ing your talents, and not helping others. Yet it is not always clear that these
examples work as well as we might expect, given that Kant himself intro-
duces them to illustrate his theory. To overcome these difficulties and more
fully understand how the theory and the examples are best understood, let’s
look into some further aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy.

We should recall that Kant is looking for the “supreme principle of moral-
ity,” valid for all times and places and for all rational creatures. This is a
noble and highly ambitious project. In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of
Morals he suggests, as we have seen, that the demands of morality must
be “categorical.” He also proposes that the supreme principle of morality is
the categorical imperative, which is so far formulated as “act only on that
maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become
a universal law” (Kant, 1785/1997, 4:421, p. 31). Naturally enough, this is
known as the “formula of the universal law,” and other moral rules (which
should also be categorical in form) are to be tested against it. We have seen
so far that very plausibly, Kant’s theory will rule out telling a lying prom-
ise; but more problematic are Kant’s claims that his theory also rules out
suicide, neglecting your talents, or ignoring the needs of others. However,
Kant offers two other main formulations of the categorical imperative (his
text also includes many minor variations): the “formula of humanity” and
the “formula of the kingdom of ends.” Understanding these alternative for-
mulations is important not only in comprehending Kant’s theory but also
in helping us with his examples.

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 183

The formula of humanity, also cited at the start of this chapter, is this:

So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person
of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
(4:429, p. 38)

And the formula of the kingdom of ends is this:

Act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a
merely possible kingdom of ends. (4:439, p. 46)

The logic of Kant’s position is confusing because these three formulations
of the categorical imperative are supposed to be equivalent in some sense. But
they seem to use different concepts, so their similarities are not obvious. How-
ever, they may well all have the same outcomes. Scholars continue to debate
the question. Perhaps it will be easier to see that an act is wrong by measuring
it against one, rather than another, formulation of the categorical imperative.
In any case, we should take a closer look at the two new formulations.

The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends
The final formulation, that of the kingdom of ends, does seem close to the for-
mulation of universal law. Both use the concept of universal law. The concept
of the kingdom of ends may seem obscure; but Kant’s purpose is to emphasize
that each of us is one person among others and that as far as morality is con-
cerned, each of us is both ruler and ruled. Kant wants us to understand moral-
ity as a system of laws that each one of us, as a rational creature, makes; but it
is also a system that binds us. We make the laws through our own reason, but
these laws must be universal— binding everyone, including ourselves.

This is an intriguing idea. Kant is asking you to consider what moral laws
you could will if they were to be absolutely binding not just on other people
but also on you as a lawmaker. The formula of the kingdom of ends helps us
focus on this question. Nevertheless, because it is reasonably close to the first
formulation, it probably needs no further comment— other than to point out
that this aspect of Kant’s view was one of the inspirations for the version of
social contract theory due to John Rawls (see Chapter 7). Rawls wanted us to
consider how we would want to order society if we did not know our place in
it, which requires us to take up some kind of universal perspective.

The Formula of Humanity
The second formulation, the formula of humanity, does introduce some-
thing new. Probably the most famous element of Kant’s moral philosophy,
it contrasts the idea of treating other people as a means to your ends with

184 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

the idea of treating them as an “end in themselves.” On first glance this is
another obscure idea— what is an “end it itself”?—but at least at some level,
the point is obvious. The notion of using someone (merely) as a means to
your own ends is well understood, and such behavior is considered highly
questionable. It is close to the idea of exploiting or manipulating another
person, ignoring their interests as long as you get what you want, which is
common in bad or abusive friendships or relationships. Whether or not you
wish to follow other aspects of Kant’s moral philosophy, this idea stands out
as a potentially essential part of anyone’s moral code: It is wrong for you to
use someone merely as a means to your own ends.

What, though, is it to treat someone as an end in themselves? It is easier
to understand the idea of someone having ends of their own, rather than
being an end. But the two ideas actually come together, for Kant. To treat
someone as an end is to treat them as having their own interests, goals, and
ambitions— and most importantly, their own will— rather than using them
simply as a way to get what you want yourself. Treating another person as a
mere means is an attempt to subjugate their will to your own.

In ordinary life, however, we constantly seem to use people as means to
our ends. When I buy a ticket at a station counter, I’m treating the person
who sells me the ticket just as I would a ticket machine: as an object or
device that can give me what I want, and I am apparently indifferent to that
person’s own will. Of course I should treat the person with courtesy and
respect, and I should avoid being rude or dismissive; but if I am simply
businesslike in the transaction, have I really done anything wrong? The
obvious reply is that although I do use ticket sellers as means to my ends, I
don’t use them as merely a means to my ends, without regard to their own
concerns. But suppose I found that the ticket seller was chained to the desk,
or doing the job as a slave, trafficked by the railway company. Then I ought
to feel obliged to do something in my power to help. Essentially, then, under
normal circumstances, when the ticket seller has freely consented to the
job under good conditions of knowledge, I am treating him or her as more
than a means, although there may be no way of expressing my concern
through my actions. If, on the other hand, I felt that the conditions of the
ticket seller’s work were absolutely no concern of mine, then arguably I
am treating him or her as a mere means; and so I can rightly be criticized.
And this is not merely an academic example. Think of imported clothes
and other goods sometimes made under the most brutal and exploitative
labor conditions. Campaigners commonly protest the use of workers as
“mere means,” and we are often even more concerned about those— often

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 185

undocumented immigrants— who are deceived into taking jobs as sex work-
ers and find themselves trapped because they lack the legal standing to
make a complaint.

If we look again at Kant’s formula of humanity, however, we will see an
element that I have not commented on so far. It says: “So act that you use
humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always
at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (4:429, p. 38). Notice
it mentions “your own person” as well as “the person of any other.” Kant
argues, therefore, that it is wrong to treat yourself merely as a means, besides
being wrong to treat others as a means. This is another perplexing idea. If
you are treating yourself as a means, then it must be a means to an end. If
it is a means to your own ends, then you are treating yourself as a means
and an end at the same time, so it seems. How can you subjugate your will
to your own will? Perhaps you could treat yourself as a means to someone
else’s ends; but that sounds, potentially at least, like self- sacrificing, altruis-
tic action rather than an immoral action. How, then, can you treat yourself
as a means? Clearly this is an important idea for Kant because it will connect
with the idea explored above that you have duties to yourself.

In ordinary moral thought, people do have some similar ideas. For exam-
ple, we use the concept of degrading behavior. Some forms of work are
regarded as problematic from the viewpoint of human dignity, such as sex
work (mentioned above) or abusive forms of domestic service; but some
people take on these roles for the money. Arguably they are treating them-
selves as means, but the puzzle reoccurs. A means to what? A means to
make money, presumably. In the Groundwork Kant, inspiringly, says that
humanity has a dignity, not a price (4:435, p. 42). But even if we agree, why is
it degrading to take on some jobs for pay, but not others? What is the differ-
ence between a lap dancer and a railway ticket seller, or come to that, a moral
philosopher? All of the people in these roles use their talents to make money.

Kant does not directly address these questions, but we can illustrate his
ideas by looking at how he uses the formula of humanity to explain again
what is wrong with suicide. Kant says of the suicidal person:

If he destroys himself in order to escape from a trying condition he makes
use of a person merely as a means to maintain a tolerable condition up to the
end of life. (4:429, p. 38)

This phrasing is odd, because suicide doesn’t provide a tolerable condi-
tion until the end of one’s life. Rather, it brings one’s life to a close to stop
the continuation of what is likely to be an intolerable condition. In addition
the language of ends and means is awkward here; the person who commits

186 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

suicide is not using a person as a means. Yet there is clearly something
to Kant’s thinking. Possibly the person who takes his or her life could be
accused of failing to treat their life as an end in itself, or as something that
has value in and of itself, or failing in self- respect.

Once we recognize that for Kant, life has this sort of intrinsic value,
perhaps we can begin to understand his position better. Kant’s position
contrasts with an alternative view that life is essentially little more than a
container for pains and pleasures. In such a view, a valuable life is one that
contains a positive balance of pleasures over pains. People who hold this
more utilitarian view have every reason to consider committing suicide if
all they see ahead is torment or pain. But for Kant that would be to degrade
life from intrinsic value to instrumental value, for then life is regarded as
an instrument for delivering positive experiences. And in this thought we
finally see how it is possible to treat life as a means— a means to pleasure—
rather than as an end of intrinsic value. In short, a person contemplating
suicide is already regarding life in the wrong way, as a means rather than an
end in itself. This analysis may not be what Kant intended, but it is at least
one way of making sense of his position.

Autonomy and Heteronomy
At this point it will be helpful to introduce another of Kant’s key distinc-
tions, between what he calls autonomy and heteronomy. Autonomy is a
familiar term these days, normally taken to be synonymous with freedom
in the sense that to be autonomous is to be free. Kant would have no com-
plaint with this equivalence, but he would want to push the understanding
of autonomy to a deeper level. From the Ancient Greek, autonomy means
“ self- law.” And of course for Kant, the moral person is autonomous in this
sense: He or she must act as if making law that would hold for all rational
creatures. Thus for Kant, morality, reason, and freedom coincide.

The heteronomous person, in contrast, is essentially someone who acts
non- autonomously, perhaps in self- interest or even out of sympathy for oth-
ers. Suppose that you decide not to cheat your customers in order to pre-
serve your reputation, or even because you like them. Then, although you
are acting in accordance with the moral law, Kant would say your action is
heteronomous, not autonomous, and therefore not of genuine moral worth.

Let’s continue with Kant’s examples in the light of his principle of
humanity, which tells us not to treat others as a means only, but also at
the same time as ends in themselves. We can deal quickly with the second
example, the lying promise. The person who is told a lie is treated merely

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 187

as a means. Kant’s way of bringing out this point is to say that the person
I lie to could not possibly agree with my action. And there is a strict logical
impossibility here. If the person does agree, then I am no longer success-
fully lying, for my lying depends on actual deception. Kant’s commentators
have found here a powerful argument against deception as well as coercion.
Both deception and coercion, by their nature, depend on the other party not
agreeing. Therefore, if “possible agreement” is a necessary condition of a
person’s action being morally acceptable, then both deception and coercion
are easily ruled out.

Neglecting your talents was the third example. We can again regard this
example as sharing some of the characteristics of suicide: In Kant’s view,
the person engaged in this action is putting self- indulgence ahead of taking
life seriously. Kant’s discussion of this case is brief: He says that although
failing to develop your talents is compatible with treating the humanity in
yourself as an end, everyone has a duty to promote the end, and neglecting
your talents fails to promote the end. Not only, then, does Kant think that
life has intrinsic value, he thinks that we have a duty to cultivate our talents,
and failing to do so is failing to promote the value in life. This is not an
unusual view: In ordinary life we are unhappy to see those with great poten-
tial waste their talents, even if in other respects their lives go reasonably
well. Think of someone with great athletic and academic ability who spends
too much time partying, doesn’t make the team, and fails some courses.
We might observe that the choice is theirs, but we are likely to say so with
a little sadness. This ordinary attitude makes even more sense in view of
some religious assumptions. For example, if you believe that your life is a
gift from God and that in return you have a duty to develop your talents,
then not doing so is a violation of your religious duties. But even atheists
seem to share something of Kant’s attitude that is it somehow wrong to let
your talents go to waste.

The final example from Kant was indifference to the suffering of others.
Again it is hard to see how by ignoring someone, I am treating him or her
as a means. But I am clearly not treating that person as an end. Consider, for
example, how a Kantian should respond to a famine. It does not seem right
that a Kantian should say, “As long as I am not the cause of the problem, I
have no moral duties.” Rather, as contemporary philosopher Onora O’Neill
(b. 1941) has argued, a Kantian should consider not just how to address
hunger (as would be the main concern of a utilitarian) but also how to help
those who are suffering take control of their own lives again (O’Neill, in
Wolff, 2018). Only in this way do you respect their humanity. Kant argues

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that to treat another as an end, we must take seriously his or her own ends
too. This view also helps us understand Kant’s idea that we form a kingdom
of ends through our morally worthy action.

Now that we have an understanding of Kant’s position, we can consider
whether it solves the question of how, morally, we should act. To his immense
credit, Kant has provided us with a method of testing whether any proposed
action is morally acceptable. This is a philosophical breakthrough. Before
Kant, although many philosophers provided reasons for and against acting
one way or another, along with elaborate arguments, they offered little or no
formal methodology to be used in calculating an answer. Kant regarded this
deficiency as a disgrace and was determined to do better. We can represent
his solution as proceeding in several steps. To apply it to a particular moral
problem, you need to answer the following questions:

1. What action do you propose?
2. What is the maxim of your action?
3. a. Can you will that the maxim of your action should become a univer-

sal law?
b. Are you proposing to treat yourself or another person merely as a

means and not as an end in himself or herself?
c. Are you acting in accordance with the maxims of a member giving

universal laws for a kingdom of ends?

Of these questions, perhaps only the first is straightforward: What action
do you propose? Still, we could make trouble even here. Do we always know
what we want to do? Often, perhaps even most of the time, we just find
ourselves doing things rather than making a conscious decision. But let’s
leave that complication aside for now. When we are confronted with a moral
problem or dilemma, we generally do become highly aware of the options
that face us.

So let’s move to the second question: What is the maxim of your action?
In the Groundwork, Kant seems to assume this query is relatively unprob-
lematic. For each example— suicide, lying promises, neglecting talents, and
ignoring the needy— he seems to have no difficulty in going directly to its
maxim and does not raise the question of how a maxim is to be identified.
We noted in the last chapter that this is not always a straightforward matter,
using the example of someone who wants to become a carpenter. What is
their maxim? “Become a carpenter”? “Follow your vocation in life”? There

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are many maxims we can offer, and some of them could be universalized
and others not. Which maxims are genuine, and which are not? Remember
that Kant said even we ourselves do not always know the maxim of our
action, because we are all prone to self- deception.

Once More: Kant on Lying
Kant himself discusses a case that illustrates the problem of identifying
the maxim of your action. Remember that Kant’s argument seems to work
best in the example of making a false promise. A slightly different example
is telling a lie. Again the maxim of “tell a lie when telling the truth would
lead to difficulties” seems incapable of being made a universal law. We can
argue that having moral permission to tell lies would result in nobody tak-
ing anyone’s word for anything, and so telling a lie would no longer even
be possible. But might it be possible to have a principle that allows us tell
lies in some cases rather than others? Kant is at least willing to have the

One relatively lighthearted case that Kant discusses comes from his book
called The Doctrine of Virtue:

Can an untruth from mere politeness (e.g., the “your obedient servant” at the
end of a letter) be considered a lie? No one is deceived by it. An author asks one
of his readers, “How do you like my work?” One could merely seem to give an
answer, by joking about the impropriety of the question. But who has his wit
always ready? The author will take the slightest hesitation in answering as an
insult. May one, then, say what is expected of one? (1797/1991, p. 227)

Kant doesn’t answer his own question here, which is interesting. It
suggests that, contrary to common belief, he is prepared to entertain the
thought that sometimes lying can be acceptable. However, another example
of lying has attracted much more attention. In a short essay entitled “On a
Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns” (1797/1994), Kant
discusses the case of someone who is confronted at his door by a murderer
intending to kill a person who is hiding in the house. The murderer asks
whether the potential victim is there. This fictional example became a tragic
reality in Kant’s Germany around 150 years later, when the Nazis sought out
Jews sheltering in the houses of their friends and neighbors.

Kant’s principles seem to entail that you have a duty not to lie even to
save a life. And astonishingly to some readers, this is what Kant actually
says in response to the criticism of the Swiss French philosopher Benjamin
Constant (1767–1830), who had argued plausibly enough that in the case of
the potential murderer, lying is justified. Kant cites Constant’s argument
that in acting immorally, the murderer forfeits the protection of morality

190 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

and so has “no right to the truth.” We can read this argument in Kantian
terms as supposing that if a lie were told, the maxim of the action would be
as follows: “Tell a lie if it would save a life and the person to whom you are
telling the lie has no right to the truth.” Because the circumstances of this
case are so specific, it may be possible to universalize this maxim without
abandoning the practice of truth- telling. When murderers are around asking
awkward questions, and people are petrified with fear, conventions of true
communication are fairly chaotic to begin with, and so there may be no
established practice to break down. Would a murderer really expect people
to tell the truth in these circumstances anyway?

Kant does not approve of the idea that the murderer has no right to
the truth. Telling a lie harms humanity as a whole rather than only the
murderer, by weakening the practice of truth- telling. So should you tell
the murderer the truth? Some will think the correct response might be
simply refusing to say anything if you suspect that the visitor harbors evil
intent. Kant also argues that telling a lie could backfire: Suppose you tell the
murderer that the person is not there; but unknown to you, he has slipped
out of the house. If the murderer leaves and then finds the person in the
street, then through your lie “you may be justly accused as having caused
his death” (1797/1994, p. 164). This analysis does seem harsh, especially
when Kant also argues that if you tell the truth and then the murderer goes
into your house and kills the person, you are blameless— at least from the
viewpoint of “public justice,” which presumably means you should not be
punished. That argument may be right as a point about punishment, but it
is harder to agree that morally you have done no wrong by helping the mur-
derer in this way. Perhaps Kant is on stronger ground when he suggests that
we humans are very bad at calculating consequences, and we do better when
following firm principles; this was the insight, as we saw in Chapter 10,
that leads to rule utilitarianism. But it is debatable whether this is a good
argument for Kant’s position.

I introduced the example of lying to a murderer as a way of illustrating the
problem that any action can fall under more than one maxim and that it could
be universalized under one maxim but not under another. Kant, though,
refuses to take this way out, and he ends up with a rigorous theory about the
morality of lying. Is it too rigorous? We will return to this question shortly.

Kantian Ethics in Real Life
For now, let’s return to the question of how to use Kant’s theory. One of
his tests was whether you can will the universalization of the maxim of
your action, and we saw that Kant suggests two ways in which a proposed

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maxim can fail that test. For perfect duties it is impossible to universalize
the maxim, as in the case of lying or, more controversially, suicide. For
imperfect duties it is impossible to will the universalization, as in failing
to develop your talents or declining to help those in need. But we also have
the appealing formula of humanity: Never treat a person, whether yourself
or another, as purely a means to your ends; but at the same time, treat that
person as an end in himself or herself. Another the formula is the kingdom
of ends. If, as Kant claims, these are equivalent, then any action that passes
one formula should pass them all. And equally, any action that fails one
formula should fail them all. Kant does not demonstrate this argument in
detail; and if the formulas are equivalent, it is not clear that we need more
than one of them, although Kant plausibly suggests that they bring out dif-
ferent aspects of the moral law. Bearing this point in mind, in some cases it
may be easier to judge the immorality of an act under one formulation than
it is under another.

The key question for us, though, is whether Kant is right. Certainly
his formulations of the categorical imperatives are useful guides to moral
behavior. It will be significant to know whether or not a person can will
the universalization of the maxim of his or her action. For example, if I am
contemplating taking something from a shop without paying, I might ask,
“Could taking goods whenever you prefer not to pay for them be universal-
ized?” The answer, presumably, is that if theft became very widespread, then
we would lose the concept of individual property because we would have lost
the guarantee of safe possession. But without the concept of property, there
is no concept of theft. Hence this fits neatly with Kant’s account: It is impos-
sible to will the universalization of the maxim of permitting casual theft.
The institution of owning property would break down, and there would be
no such thing as theft. This shows me that theft is wrong.

Here is another example: Suppose you agree to go to a party with a friend;
but the day before the event, you get a more exciting invitation from some-
one you find more interesting and attractive. However, accepting the second
invitation means letting down your friend. What should you do? You could
do a range of things: just not turning up at the party, telling your friend you
are sick, explaining the situation and seeing if your friend knows someone
else who would equally like to go to the party, and so on. In some of these
ways of behaving, you are recognizing that your friend is equally a human
being to you— having his or her own will and goals, able to agree to and dis-
agree with courses of action. Or, put another way, treating your friend as an
end in himself or herself. In the cases of bad behavior you are not so much
using your friend as a means, but rather failing to recognize him or her as

192 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

an end— to recognize the humanity in his or her person, as Kant might put
it. You would be ignoring your friend’s interests and goals because those
interests and goals no longer fit with yours. Having some of Kant’s moral
philosophy in your head will probably help you make better moral decisions.

But has Kant solved the problem of how to act? In other words, is pass-
ing Kant’s test necessary for an act to be morally acceptable? (It cannot be
morally acceptable if it fails the test of the categorical imperative.) And is it
sufficient? (Anything that passes is morally acceptable.) We need to consider
at least three questions.

First, as we have seen, it is not always clear whether an action passes the
test. One reason this may happen is that there can be room for disagreement
about the maxim of your action; and it is possible that you can will the uni-
versalization of one maxim, but not another. But even when there is no doubt
about the maxim, it is not always clear whether you can will its universaliza-
tion, as we have seen with Kant’s own examples. Not all of these cases are
obvious. A different philosopher may have argued for different conclusions
in some of the cases Kant uses, even while using Kant’s own method. These
cases, then, turn out to be difficult matters of interpretation. I am not claim-
ing that Kant is wrong in his interpretation of his own examples; I am saying
we don’t really know how to tell. Hence, although Kant gives us a formula,
seeing how it applies is far from straightforward— at least in some cases.

The first question was about the difficulty of applying the formula. Now
we need to look at the question of whether all morally correct action will pass
the test. Consider the example of telling a lie to the murderer at the door.
What is the right thing to do here? Personally, I’m attracted to the idea that
the right thing is to tell the murderer that it is none of his business. But
realistically, that response is unlikely to settle the matter. The next thing the
murderer might do would be to take out his gun and point it at my head. At
that point, out of fear, many people may well tell the truth; but a courageous
person may tell a lie and say that the person is not in the house. Is his or her
action morally wrong? Kant thinks so, apparently.

What if we disagree with Kant and think it is right to lie to the murderer,
but we agree with Kant that the maxim of the action of lying to a murderer
cannot be willed to be a universal law? Then we disagree with Kant’s moral
theory. Using this combination of views, we do not need to pass the test in
order to act in a morally correct way. Alternatively, we might say we need to
find a more specialized maxim of the action; but then this throws us back
to the first problem of identifying the maxim.

We see, then, some reason to doubt that passing the test is a necessary
condition of performing a morally correct action. What, then, about the

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 193

third question? Is passing the test enough to show that an action is morally
correct? (Is passing the test sufficient for acting morally?) In fact the same
example shows the difficulty here. Telling the truth to the murderer passes
the test, Kant says. Yet if we think this action would be morally wrong, then
some morally wrong actions pass the test. Of course Kant would think we
have simply gone astray in our judgments of right and wrong. Some will
agree with Kant, others not. But in conclusion, we have to concede that it is
far from obvious that Kant has solved the problem of how to know whether
we have acted morally even though he has made some extremely important
contributions to the question of how to approach moral problems.

At the start of this chapter, I mentioned that one of the key motivating ideas
for Kant— and an idea that his contemporary defenders often emphasize— is
that of freedom. The distinction between freedom and some form of deter-
minism has already come up in the distinction between heteronomy and
autonomy. Heteronomy was, in essence, acting on the basis of your desires,
whereas autonomy— or freedom— involves acting on the basis of your rea-
son. For Kant the main difference between humans and other animals is
that human beings are capable of autonomous action, which is to say action
based on reason. And that trait comes down to being able to override your
desires and act according to the moral law: the law you create through your
own reason. Freedom, then, is acting in accordance with the moral law.

This view may seem surprising. To act freely, many will think, is to act
without constraint. But the moral law is a form of constraint. Therefore,
some will argue, acting in accordance with the moral law is to act unfreely
rather than freely. How can I be free if I have to follow the moral law? But
Kant would argue that this argument gets everything upside down. Kant
would pose the opposite question: How can you be free if, like the animals,
all you do is follow your own desires and inclinations? Freedom is the act
of overcoming your desires to act in accordance with reason; and reason, in
turn, requires you to act as if through your will, your maxim would become
a universal law. Reason— the exercise of freedom— yields morality.

Of course, we don’t have to agree with Kant on this point; but we must, I
think, concede that his position has some merit. Consider someone offered
a large bribe to do something they know to be wrong, perhaps to award a
scarce and undeserved university place to an applicant with poor test scores.
Who has more freedom: the person who accepts the bribe or the person
who declines it? Certainly we would say that the person refusing the bribe
has some strength of character that the other lacks. We admire people who

194 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

overcome temptation to do the right thing. Do they act with greater freedom
too? It seems that the case can be argued. In any event we see here the firm
connection for Kant between freedom, reason, and the moral law.

In the main elements of his writings on ethics, Kant made it clear that
he would not argue from religious premises or introduce any religious
elements into his theory. In an earlier chapter we read a quote from the
Groundwork that reveals Kant’s position on the problem of a religious foun-
dation for morality:

[T]he concept of [God’s] will . . . made up of the attributes of desire for glory
and dominion combined with dreadful representations of power and venge-
fulness, would have to be the foundation for a system of morals that would be
directly opposed to morality. (1785/1997, 4:443, p. 49)

Yet critics have alleged that Kant’s theory makes sense only in light of the
type of protestant Christian views that he held. And in some of his writings,
Kant does make a clear connection between morality and aspects of religion.
We will return to Kant’s explicit statements shortly, but first let’s look at the
ways in which critics have alleged that Kant’s views may have a religious
aspect. For example, we noted in Chapter 10 that Kant’s arguments against
suicide and against neglecting your talents would fit well with a religious
view that we have been put on earth by God and that we are here to serve
God’s purposes, not our own. Duties to yourself, in this interpretation, make
much more sense as duties to God, your creator. And this may be why some
atheists deny that we do have duties to ourselves.

In fact Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) alleged that Kant smuggled
in a religious conception of ethics right from the start by assuming that
morality takes the form of “law” or “command.” In On the Basis of Morality,
Schopenhauer argues that the “Mosaic Decalogue,” by which he means the
Ten Commandments, is the model and source for Kant’s “theological” mor-
als (Schopenhauer, 1840/2009, pp. 30–31). Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
makes a similar claim in Beyond Good and Evil (1886/1999), suggesting that
ultimately the basis of Kant’s system is something like religious faith in a
new form, consistent with the Lutheran Protestant tradition into which Kant
was born and raised.

Kant himself gives these criticisms a surprising degree of support in
his later work The Critique of Practical Reason (1788/1965). Recall that at
the start of this chapter, I mentioned Kant’s suggestion that the point of

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 195

morality is not to make us happy, but to make us worthy of happiness. The
highest good, Kant argues, is to be both virtuous and happy, which are
apparently quite different things. But he raises an awkward question regard-
ing someone who achieves virtue, and hence is worthy of happiness, but
does not actually manage to achieve happiness in life. Kant seems to find
this an intolerable state of affairs, and he insists that the morally virtuous
person must receive his or her reward somewhere, somehow. This, and other
arguments about the perfectibility of human beings, leads him to posit the
existence of “the author of Nature,” who will arrange matters in a more sat-
isfactory way. This idea leads him to argue for the immortality of the soul
and the existence of God.

Because of his insistence that the virtuous person acts for the sake of
duty, not for happiness, and his argument against a religious basis for moral-
ity, it may be something of a shock to see Kant so explicitly incorporate
elements of religion. Nevertheless religion enters not as the explicit foun-
dation of Kant’s moral beliefs but as a result of his moral position. However,
if Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are right, Kant’s moral philosophy is shot
through with religious belief. In any case, the non- believer still can find
great value in Kant’s main insights about the importance of universalization
of action and of not treating people as means.

We noted in Chapter 8 that John Stuart Mill (1806–73) was able to illustrate
the strengths of the utilitarian approach to morality by deducing that it
supported the liberation of women from male subjection. More problem-
atically, in Chapter 9 we saw that Mill seemed to think utilitarianism sup-
ported the colonial enterprise— at least until “barbarians” had been raised
to a level of civilization that would make them fit to receive their freedom.

In reading Kant’s moral philosophy, it is natural to think that it could
be an inspiring foundation for gender and racial equality. The idea that we
should never treat others as a means only to our own ends appears to rule
out domineering forms of marriage, slavery, abusive contracts of employ-
ment, and many social ills. The proposal that you should imagine yourself
as a legislator for the kingdom of ends suggests that, as with social contract
theory, you must take everyone’s viewpoint into account. Doing so would
seem to rule out all forms of discrimination, for why would you agree to a set
of rules that might discriminate against yourself? Contemporary theorists
seeking gender and racial equality have found much of use in Kant’s work.

196 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

However, as Kant would have been the first to remind us, appearances
can be deceptive. In looking at Kant’s own writings, we do not find him
developing his ideas in these directions. In fact, we find the opposite. Kant
appeared to believe that only white males were fully capable of the level of
rationality that made them full moral subjects. For example, he explicitly
denied that women should have the vote, on the grounds that they lack
economic self- sufficiently. Of course, this argument invites the question of
why women do lack economic self- sufficiency. Kant would have argued that
it is a matter of natural capacity rather than, as Mill insisted, unjust and
discriminatory social structures. But the fact remains that Kant refused to
take the opportunity to extend full moral equality to women. (For discussion
of Kant and gender, see Herman, 2002.)

Even worse, perhaps, is Kant’s position on race. Besides working on phi-
losophy, he wrote and lectured on geography and anthropology despite never
leaving his hometown of Königsberg in Northern Germany (an international
port with a steady stream of visitors). Kant believed in a natural hierarchy
of races with white Europeans at the top and other races ordered below. We
saw that Mill held a similar view, although he believed the situation was
temporary and full racial equality would eventually be possible. Underlying
Mill’s view of differences in achievement, there seems to be a commitment
to ultimate moral equality of everyone. Not so for Kant, who argued that
certain inherent characteristics in the various races explain what he saw as
the different levels of intelligence, talent, and capacity for hard work (recall
his comment about the “South Sea Islanders” mentioned in Chapter 10). (For
discussion of Kant and race, see Hill and Boxill, 2000).

These facts about Kant’s personal views are a shock, especially when
compared with the deep commitment to equality in his writings. At one
level, though, they appear to be relatively superficial— simply departures
from the logic of his view in order to make it consistent with the common,
though by no means universal, prejudices of the 18th century. The underly-
ing logic of his position opposes sexism and racism, despite his own views

Nevertheless, in recent decades Kant’s moral theory has come under
pressure. Objections arise especially from feminist philosophers, although
these objections could be applied equally to utilitarian theory. Kant’s view,
we have noted, emphasizes the importance of impartial reason as the foun-
dation of moral thinking. This is where the criticism starts. The American
social psychologist Carol Gilligan (b. 1936) developed the main argument,
which is obvious even in the title of her book: In a Different Voice (1982/1993).
As Gilligan argued, there is evidence that men and women reason about

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 197

moral questions in different ways. Men, she argued, look for clear moral
principles or formulas that they can apply to give answers to moral ques-
tions by using rational thought. Gilligan claims that women, however, pay
much more attention to the particularities of situations. They emphasize the
importance of relations between people, especially the “caring” emotions of
love, sympathy, and empathy.

This argument is an extremely important development in moral philoso-
phy. If Gilligan is correct, we should consider whether moral philosophy has,
throughout its history, been “gendered”: Does it ignore the ways that women
think about moral problems? If so, then perhaps we need to rethink moral
philosophy in very radical ways. But at the same time, while sympathetic
to the criticisms of Kant, many feminists worry that Gilligan’s approach
allows back in the sexist assumption that men and women have essentially
different natures that fit them for different roles in society. Many women
will resent the apparent implication that abstract thought does not come as
naturally to women as it does to men, and many men will resent the idea
that they are less capable of caring than women. Given the importance of
this issue, we will return to it in detail in Chapter 14.

In this chapter we saw that Kant offers three main formulations of the cat-
egorical imperative: the formula of universal law; the formula of humanity;
and the formula of the kingdom of ends. Although they are supposedly
equivalent, having the three formulations can help us apply Kant’s theory.
The formula of humanity, which tells us never to use others merely as a
means to our ends, has been found especially inspiring. Kant’s distinction
between autonomy and heteronomy was also explained, and we looked
again at Kant’s key examples. We noted, though, that Kant’s approach may
seem overly strict because he believes it shows that we are required to tell
the truth even to a potential murderer.

Kant’s theory is strongly linked to notions of freedom. A significant link
also exists between Kant’s ethics and his religious belief, although the pre-
cise nature of that link remains controversial. We looked brief ly at Kant’s
surprising views on race. I also pointed out that Kant’s reliance on abstract
principles of ethics at the heart of his theory has made him vulnerable to
criticism from feminist writers, who point out the absence of attention to
the “ethics of care” in his writing.

198 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Discussion Questions

1. Explain the three different formulations of the categorical imperative.
2. Discuss Kant’s views on the ethics of lying to a potential murderer.
3. How can you use Kant’s theory to decide how to act in the face of a moral

4. Is it fair to accuse Kant of smuggling religious doctrine into his moral


Key Terms

categorical imperative, p. 182

autonomy, p. 186

heteronomy, p. 186

Key Thinkers

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), pp. 182–197

John Rawls (1921–2002), p. 183

Onora O’Neill (b. 1941), p. 187

Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), pp. 189–190

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), pp. 194–195

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), pp. 194–195

Carol Gilligan (b. 1936), pp. 196–197

Further Reading
■ John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was first published in 1971. I have used
the revised edition published by Harvard University Press (1999).

■ The edition of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)
used here is from Cambridge University Press (1997). Selections from this
work are included in Jonathan Wolff (ed.) Readings in Moral Philosophy
(W. W. Norton, 2018), which also includes selections from Rawls and from
Onora O’Neill’s paper “Ending World Hunger.”

■ Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue is included in his The Metaphysics of Morals,
and is quoted here from the edition by Cambridge University Press (1991).
(Original work published 1797)

■ “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns” is available
in Kant’s Ethical Philosophy (Hackett, 1994), translated by James W.  Ellington.
(Original work published 1797)

Chapter 11: Challenges for Kantian Ethics ■ 199

■ Arthur Schopenhauer’s “On the Basis of Morality” is printed in his The
Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2009),
edited by David E. Cortwright and Edward E. Erdmann. (Original work
published 1841)

■ Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is available in an edition
from Vintage (1989) edited by Walter Kaufmann. Selections from this work
appear in Wolff, Readings in Moral Philosophy.

■ The edition I have used of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason is from
Bobbs- Merrill (1956). (Original work published 1788)

■ Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice is published in a revised edition by
Harvard University Press (1993). (Original work published 1982)

■ Barbara Herman’s excellent discussion of Kant on women “Could It Be
Worth Thinking about Kant on Sex and Marriage?” can be found in L.  Antony
and C. Witt (eds.), A Mind of One’s Own (Westview Press, 2002), 53–72.

■ Thomas Hill and Bernard Boxill’s examination of Kant’s views on race is
“Kant and Race,” printed in Bernard Boxill (ed.), Race and Racism (Oxford
University Press, 2000), 448–469.


C H A P T E R   1 2

Virtue Ethics: Aristotle

Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject- matter
admits of, for precision is not to be sought alike in all discussions, any more than
in all the products of the crafts. . . . We must be content, then, in speaking of such
subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline,
and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true, and with
premisses of the same kind, to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same
spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of
an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the
nature of the subject admits.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

As we have just seen, Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham (and by exten-
sion, utilitarians generally) sought a rigorous methodology to ground their
moral philosophies. This search led them to propose abstract formulas to
address moral problems. But almost 2,500 years earlier, the Greek philoso-
pher Aristotle suggested that we cannot always expect to find precise answers
to ethical questions because they are often messy, complicated, and ambigu-
ous. Instead, as in this chapter’s opening quotation, Aristotle proposed that
sometimes we should expect the answers that we do settle on to be tentative
or imprecise.

Aristotle, then, is trying to manage our expectations. He is not going to
offer a formula to solve ethical dilemmas, although as we shall see later, this
has not stopped some readers from trying to find one in his work. If you
try this, you will come away frustrated. Therefore, in one sense, Aristotle’s
approach is an obvious disappointment. Life presents us with moral problems.
What is moral philosophy for if not to show us how to solve those problems?

This has long been the hope of those who have turned to moral philos-
ophy. Bentham thought he could show how all moral questions could be
answered through the application of the theory of utilitarianism. Kant doesn’t
provide a formula as simple as that of the utilitarians; but he does provide a
test, a systematic way to approach our moral problems, suggesting that any

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 201

action has to match up to the categorical imperative. Aristotle, however, pro-
poses that while moral philosophy can help us to think about moral questions
and can help to guide our actions, morality cannot be reduced to a formula,
or a simple set of rules, or even a test against which to judge actions. Acting
morally requires what the Greeks called phronesis, or “practical wisdom,”
requiring judgment and experience. Unfortunately for those who crave clear
solutions, morality, in this view, does not have a user’s manual.

It may seem strange to discuss one of the earliest known moral philos-
ophers so close to the end of this book. Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 bce.
He was a pupil of Plato (429?–347 bce), and a member of Plato’s Academy in
Athens for 20 years, before going on to found his own school, the Lyceum.
What can a thinker from the Ancient Greek world tell us about the world
we live in now? Aristotle’s world was very different from ours: In it, slavery
was taken for granted, and women were not permitted to take part in politics
nor in many areas of public life. Contemporary readers will be surprised by
Aristotle’s attempts to defend these then conventional, but now indefensible,
elements of Greek life in his work The Politics (we will return to these issues
in Chapter 13). Yet Aristotle’s general approach to thinking about morality
provides a fresh perspective for people today. We can best appreciate the
appeal of a non- formulaic moral philosophy such as Aristotle’s by seeing the
difficulties of some more modern alternatives, as we have done by looking
at utilitarian and Kantian theories.

But understanding Aristotle’s theory is not a straightforward matter.
His ideas date from a world of 2,500 years ago, and what he actually wrote
down himself has been lost. The substantial body of his work that we have—
almost 3,000 pages in standard editions— most likely consists of notes taken
by his students. Sometimes they seem unfinished, obscure, or even contra-
dictory. Reading Aristotle is always a matter of construction and interpreta-
tion, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (ed. Brown, 2009), the text we will
focus on here, is an odd book by the standards of contemporary philosophy.
It has many familiar elements, which include fascinating and insightful
analysis of perennially important ethical questions such as defining when
an individual should be held morally responsible for his or her actions. But
much of the book reads almost like a self- help manual or one giving advice
on personal relations.

Indeed, Nicomachean Ethics is often taken as an account of how to lead
a good life, which after all is what many people hope for in a work of moral
philosophy. For instance, we are told that although a father can disown his
son in exceptional circumstances, a son should never disown his father

202 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

(ed. Brown, 2009, 1163b20, p. 162). There are many pages on the nature
of friendship and what friends can expect from each other. The advice is
generally wise, but it is not always obvious that a philosophical problem
is being addressed. Furthermore, it is hard to know what to make of some
fairly disconnected observations, such as “in the theatre the people who eat
sweets do so most when the acting is poor” (1175, p. 190).

Perhaps Aristotle would say that in the modern world, philosophers have
made too much of a distinction between the subject of moral philosophy
as a theoretical topic that may interest only scholars and the questions of
how people should live their lives as a practical challenge that we all face.
Much of the moral philosophy we have looked at so far in this book tells
us how we should think about morality. Popular books on moral topics,
such as business or medical ethics, might tell us how to act. Aristotle is
concerned with both thinking and acting: the theoretical and the practical.
But when we turn to the practical, Aristotle is mostly concerned about what
sorts of people we should be: what characters we should try to develop. Of
course character entails thought and action, but it also involves emotions
and responsiveness to others. Morality requires us not only to think and act
but to feel in certain ways: sympathy, guilt, pleasure, resentment, and so on.
In this way Aristotle is presenting a much more holistic theory than many
other philosophers did later.

Aristotle, then, is interested in the broad question of “How should I live?”
not just “What is the morally correct way for me to act?” In answering his
question, we will need to think about caring for others as well as ourselves.
This point is worth emphasizing. Many people believe that morality often
conflicts with self- interest; therefore, the principles of altruism and egoism
often clash. Acting morally, in such a view, requires extensive self- denial.
But for Aristotle, this idea of an intrinsic conflict between acting for yourself
and acting for others is a mistake. Essentially, Aristotle’s ambition is to show
how these two sides of life can be brought into harmony (and in this respect,
there are connections between Aristotle’s thinking and the theory of ethical
egoism we looked at in Chapter 6). With the right training and upbringing,
concern for yourself will also be concern for others, and vice versa. As we will
see, this view means that moral education will be a central topic for Aristotle.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins by discussing what human
beings want to achieve. His initial answer is no surprise: All agree— the
multitude and the refined alike— that living the good life or doing well is
the same as being happy. But what is it to be happy? Not, says Aristotle, a

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 203

life of pleasure: “The mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their
tastes, preferring the life suitable to beasts” (ed. Brown, 2009, 1095b, p. 6).
Aristotle’s view seemingly was echoed by John Stuart Mill, who claimed
that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied (see Chap-
ter 9). This view contrasts with that of Bentham; he would have dismissed
this claim as elitist prejudice, arguing that happiness is to be understood
in terms of pleasure and that pleasures will vary in intensity and duration
but not in quality.

Aristotle would reject Bentham’s position as too simplistic. For Aris-
totle, happiness is a richer notion than pleasure. Indeed the Greek term
he uses, eudaimonia, still does not have a single agreed- upon translation
into English. Sometimes it is translated as “happiness,” and sometimes
as “human f lourishing” or “fulfillment.” It is also often left untranslated.
The notion of human f lourishing is perhaps the most helpful, and it is also
similar to the term thriving and the associated problem, sometimes noted
in children or older people, of “failing to thrive.” A f lourishing, or thriv-
ing, individual is someone who is physically and mentally healthy, enjoying
life, and accomplishing a number of goals. He or she typically has friends,
family, and a supportive social circle. Some of these ideas can extend to
nonhuman animals and beyond: We know what it is for a dog or a horse to
f lourish, or even a house plant. A good human life is, for Aristotle, a life of
human f lourishing.

What, though, does happiness, or human f lourishing, or fulfillment,
involve? Not honor, says Aristotle, because that is too subjective, depending
on what people choose to value for the time being. And not virtue either (a
term we will come back to). As Aristotle says, perhaps rather oddly, “Even
[virtue] appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actu-
ally compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity” (ed. Brown,
2009, 1096a, p. 7). To answer the question of the nature of human f lourish-
ing, Aristotle suggests, we need to understand the “function” of a human
being. And this makes some sense. A f lourishing plant is one that does what
we expect a plant to do— grow taller, greener, and (in some cases) to produce
fruit or f lowers. A f lourishing human being, then, would be one who does
what we expect a human being to do:

For just as for a flute player, a sculptor, or any artist, and in general, for all
things that have a function or activity, the good and the “well” is thought to
reside in the function; so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.
(1098a, p. 11)

Is it right, though, to think that human beings have a function? Is
sensible to ask what human beings are for? We raised this question in

204 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

relation to the theory of natural law in Chapter 5, and now we can see why
Aristotle is regarded as one of the founders of natural law theory. In a reli-
gious worldview this question of whether man has a function may well
make sense, for it is reasonable to ask why God has decided to create human
beings. Indeed theologians have asked this question throughout history,
especially in the context of Christian belief that God is perfect and self-
sufficient. If so, then why create anything else? Human beings must have
been created for a purpose, in some religious views at least. Aristotle, obvi-
ously, is writing in the pre- Christian era; and the Greek gods were a colorful
and diverse group, far from perfect and with self- serving aims. Aristotle
does not relate this question to a theological concern. Rather he seems to
feel it will help make sense of the question about what happiness means for
human beings if we consider their function. And this is what he does:

Human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting virtue, and if there are
more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we
must add “in a complete life.” (ed. Brown, 2009, 1098a, p. 12)

It is important to consider that Aristotle emphasizes the “activity of soul”
exhibiting virtue; presumably, this is to get around his earlier observation
that a person can be virtuous even when asleep. What’s more, he empha-
sizes the importance of sustaining virtue over a complete lifetime. He also
gives a critical role to the “intellectual virtues,” going as far as arguing that
ref lection or contemplation leads to the highest degree of happiness because
it is more godlike than anything else we do. Unlike the lower animals, Aris-
totle says, we humans are rational animals. He regards all animals as hav-
ing a “locomotive soul” that allows them to move and a “nutritive soul” for
growth and reproduction, but only human beings have a rational soul too.
Here we have arrived at Aristotle’s conception of happiness: to live a life in
conformity with human excellence or virtue. But as we saw above, for Aris-
totle this is not a life of self- sacrifice, for the life of active virtue is pleasant.
Indeed Aristotle argues:

The man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good: since no one
would call a man just if he did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal
who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this
is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant. (ed. Brown, 2009,
1099a, p. 14)

In one way this statement contrasts with Kant’s view, in which the moral
motive was strictly detached from the motive of pleasure. Even though Kant
too thought that acting morally would often be associated with a feeling of
pleasure, he would not agree with Aristotle that you could not be a good
person unless you enjoyed acting morally. Still, even for Aristotle it would

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 205

be too much to ask for every morally required action to be pleasurable in
itself. Morality will require self- sacrifice on particular occasions. Yet for the
virtuous person, this is part of a broader pattern of life in which morality
and self- interest can be brought into harmony over life as a whole.

We now need to look in a little more detail at Aristotle’s important concept
of virtue. This term is probably not used much in ordinary language: How
often have you described someone as virtuous, and if you have, what did
you mean? Aristotelian moral philosophy is a version of what is known as
virtue ethics or, sometimes, virtue theory. Essentially, a morally admira-
ble person is someone who “possesses the virtues,” understood as a set
of valuable, firmly held character traits. For example, courage is gener-
ally regarded as a virtue; and Aristotle listed others, such as truthfulness,
modesty, and “temperance,” by which he meant restraining your appetites.
Other virtues might include kindness, thoughtfulness, or generosity. Act-
ing morally is not simply a matter of doing the right things or following
the rules, but being the right sort of person. A virtuous person is someone
who deliberates and sees things in particular ways, and has the right sort
of emotional response to situations. A virtuous person also acts on his or
her perceptions of what ought to be done. This idea is called phronesis, or
practical wisdom, as we saw above.

We can understand more about Aristotle’s concept of virtue by asking a
question that preoccupied Greek philosophy: How is virtue to be acquired?
Interestingly, many modern moral philosophers discuss only fully formed
moral agents, saying very little about children and adolescents. This makes
sense if you think of morality as essentially a body of knowledge. The truth
is one thing, and how it gets taught is quite another. But if we regard moral-
ity as a practical topic, then an important question concerns how it comes
to be acquired.

What might the answer be? Aristotle’s teacher Plato set out the most
obvious likely answers in his dialogue Meno. Meno, a wealthy visitor from
the city of Thessaly, asks:

Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the
results of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in
some other way? (trans. Grube, 1980, 70a, p. 3)

If we ignore the open- ended phrase “some other way,” three alternatives
are expressed here. One possibility is that it can be taught as a form of
theoretical knowledge, like geometry. Or it could be “a result of practice,”
like learning a language as an infant. You learn through immersion, which

206 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

involves observation, repetition, advice, and correction. Finally, it could be
a natural instinct, like breathing, and does not need to be taught at all. Are
any of these answers a suitable model for how virtue, or moral knowledge,
is to be achieved?

Is Virtue Natural?
Let’s take the last suggestion first. Aristotle thinks it is clear that acting
morally is not a natural instinct, arguing that

none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature, for nothing that exists by
nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which
by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even
if one tries to train it to by throwing it up ten thousand times. (ed. Brown,
2009, 1103a, p. 23)

Aristotle is certainly right that you cannot train a stone to move upward
by throwing it in the air, however hard you try. His argument seems to be
that if a trait is natural, then it cannot be changed in any way. But of course
we can train people to develop or even change their moral virtues. Therefore
moral virtue cannot be natural to us, so Aristotle concludes.

It is not so clear, though, that this is a good argument. Earlier, breathing
was used as an example of something that is natural to us. However, many
yoga teachers and practitioners believe that we don’t naturally breathe in
the way that is best for us. They spend a lot of time in working on how to
do it better, and in teaching and writing books on the subject. Of course,
however hard we practice, we can’t stop breathing and survive; but the way
we breathe is something that can be trained. Could the same be true of the
moral virtues? Aristotle meets the argument halfway by saying that nature
gives us the capacity to receive the virtues, but only by practice can we fully
realize them. And this is what a yoga teacher might say about breathing.
After enough practice correct breathing becomes “second nature,” a type of
instinctive habit, though at first it is not instinctive at all, of course.

Can Virtue Be Learned from a Book?
The possibility remains that we could learn morality purely as a branch of
theoretical knowledge, from either a good teacher or a book. To appreciate
Aristotle’s position here, it is helpful to understand a distinction now common
in contemporary philosophy between knowledge that and knowledge how.

When I learn the capitals of the countries of the world, I acquire knowl-
edge that: knowledge, for example, that the capital of Indonesia is Jakarta.
This is often known as propositional knowledge: knowledge of a proposition
that I can express by saying, “I know that Jakarta is the capital of Indone-
sia,” or “I know that chocolate is bad for dogs.” But there is another type of

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 207

knowledge too: knowledge how. It is perfectly good English to say, “I know
how to swim” or “I know how to ride a bicycle.” In knowing these things, I
know how to perform a range of actions. An interesting question is whether
all of this knowledge could be written down as a set of instructions, such as
“to turn to your left when swimming, twist your upper body slightly to the
left while pulling harder with your arm on that side.” There are, of course,
manuals to teach you to swim or ride a bike. But it would be astonishing
if anyone ever learned to do either of these things purely by reading the
manual. However many books you read before you get into the water, and
however hard you studied, it would be a miracle if you found yourself able to
swim right away. This example supports the idea that the type of knowledge
relevant to swimming is knowing how rather than knowing that, and such
knowledge needs to be acquired by practice in both senses of the word: in
practical terms and by practicing through repetition.

Aristotle suggests that knowledge of morality combines propositional
knowledge, knowing that— such as the propositions contained in his own
writings— with a large dose of knowing how. He illustrates this view by sup-
posing that being a virtuous person is in many respects like being a skilled
artist or craftsperson. In Nicomachean Ethics he remarks:

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing
them, e.g., men become builders by building, lyre- players by playing the lyre;
so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts,
brave by doing brave acts. (ed. Brown, 2009, 1103a, p. 23)

The importance of practice, what Aristotle calls habituation, shows that
becoming virtuous, like becoming a swimmer, is something that cannot
be learned simply by reading a book or listening to your elders, although
these will help. A person becomes virtuous by practicing being virtuous. In
Aristotle’s view, this principle ought to be better known than it is:

But most people . . . take refuge in theory and think they are being philoso-
phers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients
who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are
ordered to do. (1105b, p. 28)

We can, in fact, distinguish several aspects of full habituation. First, there
is what Aristotle calls the knowledge of the that of morality, which seems to
be a matter of understanding the general rules. This is like listening to the
doctor and thus it is inadequate on its own. Second is another form of intel-
lectual knowledge, which Aristotle calls the because— understanding why
the requirements of morality are as they are. It is not enough just to know

208 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

the rules; we also need to know the ultimate point of each rule. It is also a
form of propositional knowledge, so in that sense it counts as knowledge
that. But we could introduce a new concept: knowledge why. Knowing the
that and the because (or the why) yield fuller moral wisdom. Yet Aristotle
clearly thinks that you will not achieve an understanding of the because of
virtue without having practiced it. Only practice will give you knowledge
how, allowing you to develop and fine- tune the right moral sensibility: and
the more you practice, the better you will become. But equally important is
that the morally virtuous person finds a source of enjoyment in “noble and
just” action. If virtue is a sacrifice, then— as we saw— in Aristotle’s view it
is not properly virtue.

Thus we have to be habituated into virtue, combining four elements:
the that; the because (the why); the practice (the how); and the enjoyment
(the pleasure, perhaps). And all of this habituation, according to Aristotle,
requires the right upbringing. A young person naturally wishes to pursue
pleasure. But when brought up well, he or she will also want to act well. The
trick of a good upbringing is to link the two together, so that the mature
person increasingly takes pleasure in acting well. This goal will not be
achieved in a single step. To begin with, it will be a matter of learning
the rules of morality— in the form of following orders from parents and
teachers— perhaps not understanding entirely what should be done, and
often suffering criticism or even punishment if it goes wrong. With expe-
rience, which inevitably will have meant making shameful mistakes, the
virtuous person comes to see why the rules of morality exist. At this stage,
he or she will have understood the because as well as the that, by knowing
the point of the rules.

Importantly, this means that the virtuous person will be able to judge
when the rules are an oversimplification and it is right to do something
that, strictly speaking, appears to be prohibited. Kant’s example of lying to
a murderer is worth thinking about here. A virtuous person might reason
that the point of truth- telling is to create a world of reliable expectations for
mutual benefit. However, when someone proposes an action that so clearly
goes against the public good, the normal reasons in favor of telling the truth
are outweighed by other considerations. Slavishly following the rules may
be better than never following them, but moral wisdom requires significant
exercise of judgment, acquired through experience.

Interestingly, those who have acquired virtue typically will not use the
idea of that particular virtue in their reasoning. For example, a courageous
person does not ask, “What does courage require in this situation?” That

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 209

question normally would be asked only by someone who is trying to acquire
the virtue of courage and still needs to deliberate carefully. The truly cou-
rageous person, once habituated into virtue, simply sees what needs to be
done; and he or she may well deny that the act was courageous when praised.
It becomes second nature. Similarly, those who act out for friendship will
not frame their deliberations in terms of “This is what a friend would do.”
Anyone who thinks that way may be pretending to be a friend, or perhaps
training themselves to become a friend, rather than being a true friend. It
seems generally true for the virtues that appropriate deliberation does not
include reference to the virtue, although not without exception: In difficult
cases, perhaps it will be essential for the just person to ask, “What does
justice require?” This is what we would expect of a judge in court, however
experienced. And, when facing a dilemma, anyone may well ask, “What
would a true friend do?”

Given that moral maturity is a developmental process that needs the right
sort of upbringing, we should ask what those who received the wrong sort
of upbringing can do now to get back on the right track. Sadly, Aristotle’s
thoughts on this question do not seem to have been recorded: All those in
his audience presumably were well brought up. But perhaps he thinks it
would be almost impossible to achieve a life of virtue if you come to it late
in life, just like those who come to learn a new language in adulthood rarely
completely master it. With the wrong upbringing, you may struggle for the
rest of your life.

We have, by now, a general idea of Aristotle’s account of morality. But still,
we are left with the central question. What does Aristotle think we should
do? Perhaps the best- known aspect of Aristotle’s position is the golden
mean. The right way to act is the mean (i.e., in the middle) between excess
and deficiency, which are two forms of vice— the opposite of virtue.

I mentioned earlier that the term virtue is not used much in contempo-
rary life. We are more familiar with the word vice, although not exactly as
Aristotle intended, even though the terms are related. Today as part of the
police force, we have the “vice squad” that deals with prostitution, illegal
gambling, pornography, and so on. We also have the term vicious, derived
from vice, yet it now has a very different scope: nothing especially to do with
drugs or pornography. Vicious is most commonly used when describing
violence of extreme ferocity or in referring to malicious or spiteful gossip
or criticism. For Aristotle, or at least in the way his work is conventionally

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translated, the terms vice and vicious are broader and used as the opposite of
virtue and virtuous. If courage is a virtue, cowardice is a vice. Oddly, a coward
is a vicious person with negative character traits. Although the language
may be unfamiliar, surely the ideas are not too difficult to grasp.

Aristotle discusses a wide range of virtues and corresponding vices.
The central thought framing his entire discussion is that virtues can be
destroyed by both excess and deficiency, and so we can (almost) always go
wrong morally in either of two ways. He illustrates the point with some
interesting examples of how exercise and diet can affect bodily strength
and health. To become physically fit, you need to exercise; but if you exer-
cise too much, you will injure yourself and become weak. Therefore, too
much exercise could be as bad for you, or worse, than not exercising at all.
To be healthy you need to eat and drink; but eat and drink too much, and
you will destroy your health as surely as malnutrition does, although in a
different way. The idea is that healthy physical behavior entails finding a
mean between overextending yourself and not doing enough. These exam-
ples seem sound, but are they a good analogy for what we might call healthy
moral behavior? Aristotle is confident that this model is appropriate: Virtue
is a mean between two extremes, which are both vices.

The Virtues
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s first example of virtue is courage. The
person who runs away from everything is a coward, while the person who
fears nothing “becomes rash” (ed. Brown, 2009, 1104a, p. 25). His second
example is this:

The man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes
self- indulgent, and the man who shuns all pleasure, as boors do, becomes
in a way insensible. Temperance . . . [is] destroyed by excess and defect and
preserved by the mean. (1104a, p. 25)

Aristotle admits that he has had to make up the term insensible, for he
says, “Persons deficient with regard to the pleasures are not often found”
and hence there is no name for this vice (1107b, p. 32). Here Aristotle fails to
anticipate one important strand in Christian morality, that of advocating vol-
untary poverty and self- sacrifice. This view was inf luenced by the Ancient
Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which rose in Greece a few decades after
Aristotle’s death. On a first reading of Aristotle, it might even seem that he
is advocating something very similar by using the term temperance for the
virtue in question. But what he means by temperance is rather different
from the modern idea of the temperance movement, which campaigns to

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 211

reduce or eliminate the use of alcohol and is often depicted as rather joyless.
Aristotle, as we have seen in several cases, thinks that the good life is one of
enjoyment, though not of excess.

The difference between Aristotle’s approach to life and a philosophy of
self- sacrifice is well illustrated in his discussion of the importance of money
and external goods for virtue:

The liberal man will need money for the doing of his liberal deeds, and the
just man too will need it for the returning of services (for wishes are hard
to discern, and even people who are not just pretend to wish to act justly).
(1178a, p. 196)

Indeed, Aristotle says the external goods needed for happiness go well
beyond wealth:

And there are some things, the lack of which takes the lustre from happiness—
good birth, goodly children, and beauty; for the man who is very ugly in
appearance or ill- born, or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy,
and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children
or friends, or had lost good children or friends by death. (1099a, p. 14)

This passage is fascinating, though troubling. As a psychological
account of what makes people happy and unhappy, it is surely plausi-
ble. The question, though, is whether such misfortune in appearance,
children, or friends should affect your ability to act virtuously. Arguably,
Aristotle’s discussion implies that it will be harder to act virtuously in
these difficult circumstances. Such a position contrasts with the later
Stoic view, mentioned earlier as inf luencing Christianity, in which virtue
and happiness depend almost entirely on each person’s inner state. The
Stoics view what people own and how they look as having no bearing on
whether they are good people. They say happiness can be achieved— even
a higher grade of happiness— without external goods and regardless of
how a person appears.

The view Aristotle described above (which he regards as the common
opinion and so may not be his own) does seem to be widely held. In many
cultures, for example, it is important to show hospitality and present gifts
to others, and this practice is almost impossible without a reasonable level
of wealth. And without children or friends to help you, it can be harder to
help others. For Aristotle this aspect of ordinary life captures something
important about morality, whereas for the Stoics and some Christians, it is
a prejudice that we can and must rise above. Recall the biblical passage: “It
is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man
to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

212 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Aristotle’s view, though, may be more moderate than it appears. His
position probably is not that external goods, such as wealth and good
looks, are morally good in themselves or essential to the good life. Indeed
he argues that the pursuit of money for its own sake is morally problem-
atic. Rather he presumes that it will be easier to live a life of virtue if
you have the right resources behind you. And the morally good person
will know how to use wealth well. With all respect to the passage from
Matthew, Aristotle would probably disagree. It is easier for the rich man
to live a life of virtue, but that does not at all mean that he will; nor is it
impossible for the poor man or woman to do so. Nevertheless this view
may be regarded as unfair, for it is a matter of pure luck whether we are
born rich or poor, and those born poor will, on Aristotle’s view, struggle
to live a morally good life. Avoiding the inf luence of luck in this way was
a motivation of the Stoic view, which concentrated on inner states rather
than outward success.

Another way of looking at Aristotle’s view is to remind ourselves that
his concept of eudaimonia is not quite the same as happiness. It is closer to
human f lourishing, fulfillment, or thriving. Someone who has little money,
and is friendless and alone in the world, may be perfectly happy and living
a life of pleasure. But we would presume, at first sight, that their life is
not going as well as it might. We would want to know more before we said
that they are f lourishing. Equally, someone who doggedly seeks money and
external goods may fail to f lourish due to neglect of family, friends, and the
humble pleasures of ordinary existence. The pursuit of money, for Aristo-
tle, is not the proper function of human beings, even if money can help us
pursue forms of excellence.

The Golden Mean
Aristotle develops his view in a fairly systematic fashion. The idea that
virtue lies between deficiency and excess has some plausibility, at least
in the examples discussed so far. To be more precise, we might think of
virtue as literally a mean in the sense of an average between two extremes,
as Aristotle puts it. In another example, he compares achieving the mean
to hitting the exact center of a circle— something much easier to fail at
than succeed in. But can we really understand virtue this way? Calling
something a mean seems to suggest it can be quantified or measured.
Comparing virtuous action to the center of a circle infers that a precise
standard can be identified. Yet these attempts at specification cut against
Aristotle’s warning that we should not expect high standards of precision
in moral philosophy.

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 213

The notion of the mean needs to be taken metaphorically rather than
literally. Furthermore, Aristotle himself points out that not all moral con-
siderations can be represented as a mean:

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have
names that already imply badness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the
case of actions, adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things
imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or
deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to
them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard
to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the
right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong.
(ed. Brown, 2009, 1107a, p. 31)

Justice provides another exception: It is, itself, the limit, and an excess
of justice is not possible, says Aristotle. He could possibly have argued that
always following the rules and never showing mercy is an excess of justice,
although more likely he would regard mercy itself as part of justice. Interest-
ingly, though, as we shall see later, in another text, Aristotle does represent
justice as a mean existing between gain and loss.

Aristotle runs through a list of virtues and vices. He presents them as
if they are examples rather than a complete account. Some of the examples
may be surprising to a modern reader, even if they do fit in with Aristotle’s
overall picture that experiencing a moral life is more like being the host of
a good party than being a monk. So in addition to the examples we have
already seen of courage, temperance, and justice, Aristotle considers “pleas-
antness in the giving of amusement,” saying:

With regard to pleasantness in the giving of amusement the intermediate per-
son is ready- witted and the disposition ready- wit, the excess is buffoonery and
the person characterized by it a buffoon, while the man who falls short is a
sort of boor and his state is boorishness. . . . The man who is pleasant in the
right way is friendly and the mean is friendliness, while the man who exceeds
is an obsequious person if he has no end in view, a flatterer if he is aiming
at his own advantage, and the man who falls short and is unpleasant in all
circumstances is a quarrelsome and surly sort of person. (1108a, pp. 33–34)

These observations are amusing and insightful, and they show how little
has changed in human manners in 2,500 years. Still, we might ask how
much they have to do with morality. Certainly we enjoy the company of
witty and friendly people and try to avoid buffoons, boors, the quarrelsome,
and the surly. But is this a morally acceptable response, or should we try to
tolerate everyone? Once again we see Aristotle employing a wider concept of
morality than philosophers often do, though perhaps he is closer to ordinary

214 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

understanding in not making a sharp distinction between a good life and
a morally good life.

Nevertheless, from a slightly different perspective Aristotle is raising a
familiar idea. Knowing when a situation calls for humor and when cracking
a joke would be awful requires moral sensitivity. Joking about death at a
funeral, for example, can sometimes be the right thing; but if done in poor
judgment because of the content or timing, a joke can be terribly upsetting,
verging on unforgivable. Being unfriendly can make life difficult for other
people. If morality is largely a matter of our relations to others, then wit and
friendliness are central to our moral lives.

Aristotle nowhere offers a complete list of virtues and vices. However, in
the work The Eudemian Ethics— which partially overlaps with Nicomachean
Ethics but includes extra material— Aristotle sets out the following table,
which he says includes examples of vices and virtues (trans. Kenny, 2011,
1221a, p. 19). The oddity of some of terms shows the difficulty of translating
aspects of the Ancient Greek world into our times.

Excess Deficiency Virtue

irascibility impassivity gentleness

foolhardiness cowardice courage

shamelessness bashfulness modesty

intemperance insensibility temperance

envy [unnamed] righteous indignation

gain loss justice

prodigality illiberality liberality

boastfulness dissembling candor

flattery surliness friendliness

servility churlishness dignity

softness toughness hardihood

vanity diffidence pride

extravagance shabbiness magnificence

cunning naivety wisdom

Does Aristotle have a moral theory? I have preferred to use the term virtue
ethics to virtue theory, for using the term theory can suggest that a type of
formula or algorithm underlies morality and can be used to solve moral

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 215

dilemmas. We have already seen that Aristotle warns his readers not to
expect this sort of approach, given the complexities of what it is to live a
good human life. However, for those who are used to the moral theories of
Bentham, Mill, and Kant, it is tempting to want to read Aristotle as offering
a theory— and various readers of Aristotle have tried to do just that. Con-
sider, for example, the following excerpt from Kant. It is one of Kant’s few
discussions of Aristotle’s moral theory— not in the Groundwork, which we
discussed earlier (see Chapter 10), but in Kant’s last work of moral philoso-
phy, called The Metaphysics of Morals:

The distinction between virtue and vice can never be sought in the degree
to which one follows certain maxims; it must rather be sought only in the
specific quality of the maxims (their relation to the law). In other words, the
well- known principle (Aristotle’s) that locates virtue in the mean between
two vices is false. Let good management, for instance, consist in the mean
between two vices, prodigality and avarice: as a virtue it cannot be repre-
sented as arising either from a gradual diminution of prodigality (by saving)
or from an increase of spending on the miser’s part— as if these two vices,
moving in opposite directions, met in good management. Instead each of
them has its distinctive maxim, which necessarily contradicts the maxim of
each other. (Kant, 1797/1991, pp. 204–205) 

This passage is intriguing. Kant correctly identifies Aristotle’s view that
(most) virtues are a mean between two corresponding vices. But he inter-
prets mean as a mathematical average, which is one meaning of that term.
Aristotle did not intend anything so precise. However, Kant’s main idea is
that we should read Aristotle as supposing that virtue is a type of compro-
mise between two vices. You can get to “good management” by starting as a
miser and gradually spending more and more; or you can start by spending
too much and then gradually reducing your spending. But, Kant suggests,
moral action is a matter of acting from the right law or principle rather
than seeking a compromise between two vices. You need to start with a
firm grasp of the moral law— in Kant’s case, the categorical imperative— if
your action is to have moral worth. Hence, Kant says, Aristotle’s doctrine
is “false.”

How would Aristotle reply? To begin with, Kant has not shown that Aris-
totle is wrong to locate the virtues as a mean between two vices, in the sense
that there are (generally) two ways of failing. And Aristotle did not say that
virtue is a compromise between two vices. The most interesting point is
that you cannot act virtuously by starting at one of the vices and then either
increasing or decreasing the intensity of your action until you find yourself
at the virtue. Or rather Kant’s idea seems to be that if you did this, you

216 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

might accidentally end up “acting in accordance with duty” but not “acting
from duty.”

Now, Aristotle does not use Kant’s later idea of acting from duty, but I
think he may well have replied that Kant has not completely understood
his approach. The doctrine of the mean is not intended to be a decision
procedure for a fully moral agent. There would be something odd about a
person who said, “I want to manage my affairs well. I don’t know how to do
that but I do know how to be a miser, so I will start off in a miserly fashion
and increase my spending until I get to just the right amount.” Rather, the
moral agent who has to exercise the virtue of good management is someone
who has already received extensive training and habituation in the practice,
and by now is experienced enough to know generally what to do without
extensive reflection. Part of the earlier training may have involved reasoning
in exactly the way Kant objects to. But if a person does reason by averaging
or compromise, then although they may be on their way to moral maturity,
they have not reached it yet. But in sum, Kant misreads Aristotle in thinking
that the doctrine of the mean is a procedure for making moral decisions.
It isn’t. It is an example of philosophical ref lection on the nature of virtue
and vice, although one that can inform how students of morality may be
habituated to virtue.

So we can see that an intelligent newcomer to morality, if there could
be such a person, could not use Aristotle’s ideas to solve moral problems
without extensive training and experience. The general lesson is that if
you try to construct a simple decision procedure from Aristotle, you will be
disappointed. Either you won’t find anything or, like Kant, you will have to
push the text further than Aristotle intended. This effort could well yield a
“virtue theory,” but it likely will be one that is fairly easy to refute, as Kant
thinks he has done. If Aristotle does have a theory of moral action, it is this:
Act in the way a virtuous person would. Compare this idea to the way some
Christians approach moral questions: “What would Jesus do?”

We began this chapter by exploring Aristotle’s approach to morality, which
contrasts with the more formulaic theories of Bentham and Kant. We
looked at Aristotle’s account of the good life, taking note of the concepts
of phronesis (meaning “practical wisdom”) and eudaimonia (“flourishing”).
We explored Aristotle’s account of “habituation” into morality, making use
of the distinction between knowing that and knowing how to explain his

Chapter 12: Virtue Ethics: Aristotle ■ 217

account of possession of the virtues. We also noted the role of “external
goods” in Aristotle’s theory. We then went on to look at the idea of virtue as
a “mean” between two vices of excess and deficiency, considering a number
of examples and exceptions. We also considered Kant’s critique of Aristotle,
which appeared at least in part to be based on misunderstanding Aristotle’s
view. If someone of Kant’s stature can misread Aristotle, then the rest of us
need to be careful that we have understood Aristotle’s thinking correctly.

Discussion Questions

1. How does Aristotle think that virtue can be acquired?
2. Is virtue a mean between two vices?
3. Does Aristotle’s moral approach give too much weight to self- interest?
4. Assess Kant’s objection to Aristotle.

Key Terms

categorial imperative, p. 201

phronesis, p. 201

eudaimonia, p. 203

natural law, p. 204

virtue, p. 205

virtue ethics, p. 205

knowledge that and knowledge how,
p. 206

Stoicism, p. 210

Key Thinkers

Aristotle (384–322 bce), pp. 200–217

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), pp. 204, 208, 215–217

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), p. 203

Plato (429?–347 bce), pp. 201, 205

Further Reading
■ The edition of Aristotle’s writings used in this chapter is Nicomachean
Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2009), edited by Lesley Brown and trans-
lated by David Ross. Selections from this work are included in Jonathan
Wolff, Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).

■ The Eudemian Ethics is quoted from the edition by Oxford University
Press (2011), translated by Anthony Kenny.

■ Aristotle’s The Politics is available from Oxford University Press (2009),
edited by R. F. Stalley and translated by Ernest Barker.

218 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

■ Plato’s Meno is available in many editions. Here I have quoted from the
second edition by Hackett (1980), translated by G. M. A. Grube.

■ For an introduction to Stoic philosophy, see Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life:
Emotions, Duties, and Fate (Oxford University Press, 2005).

■ The Bible verse quoted in this chapter is from the New American Stan-
dard Bible.

■ Quotations from Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals are from the edition by
Cambridge University Press (1991). (Original work published 1797)


C H A P T E R   1 3

Challenges for Virtue Ethics

In exercising a moral right I can do something cruel, or callous, or selfish, light-
minded, self- righteous, stupid, inconsiderate, disloyal, dishonest— that is, act

Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Theory and Abortion”

In Chapter 12 we looked at the outlines of Aristotle’s account of morality.
Has he captured morality correctly? We have seen some concerns that arose
when we were trying to come to a clear understanding of his position. In
this chapter we will look more systematically at some of the strongest chal-
lenges to virtue ethics, beginning with a reminder of some of the issues
already raised.

We have already noted that Aristotle’s conception of morality is very
broad: he is unusually concerned with how much individuals enjoy their
own lives and with external factors such as possession of wealth, good looks,
and wit. One way of putting this comment is that it makes morality too much
fun. Though that description sounds more like a strength than a weakness,
it leads to the criticism that Aristotle has missed the target in his attempt
to characterize morality. Some argue that he has included factors having
nothing to do with morality. If, like many people, we understand morality
as primarily the exercise of self- restraint in order to respect or advance the
interests of others, then much of Aristotle’s thinking is irrelevant.

Aristotle’s response will be easy to predict. Who is to say that the “ self-
sacrificing” conception of morality is the correct one? Ultimately, then, the
criticism presupposes a conception of morality that Aristotle would not
share. Accordingly we see a disagreement here, not a clear objection, about
the nature of morality. It is not easy to settle, and shows how difficult moral
philosophy can be: There is not even a universally accepted definition of the
nature and scope of morality. This line of criticism leads to something of a
stalemate because it is unclear what moves are available to resolve it.

However, a more troubling follow- up leads us to a second objection. For
Aristotle the good life, including the good moral life, partially depends
on the possession of wealth, family, and other external factors. Therefore

220 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

those with bad luck will find it very hard to achieve virtue in the highest
degree. And this problem leads to the Stoic emphasis on internal states,
which is developed in the Christian tradition and reaches fuller expres-
sion in Immanuel Kant’s view that only “good will” has moral worth. Stoic,
Christian, and Kantian philosophy contrasts starkly with Aristotle’s view.

This second objection really comes down to a disagreement about
whether the possibility of living a good moral life should be so dependent
on external factors— or, put another way, on luck. Many moral philosophers
would want to adjust what is required of you morally to what is possible for
you. You might already have thought of this story from the Bible:

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And
He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly
I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of
their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that
she had to live on.” (Luke 21:4)

The widow’s sacrifice, relative to her means, was much more significant
than the lavish gifts of the rich, and many will feel it has greater moral
merit. What are your intuitions? The view that the widow’s gift is more
praiseworthy than those of the rich is very appealing. But do you have any
sympathy for the position that the rich, even if they inherited their wealth,
are actually more praiseworthy because they gave a larger gift? If you are at
all tempted by this view, then you side with Aristotle. If you disagree, then
you side with the Stoics and Christians against Aristotle.

A third objection comes from another contrast between Kant and Aristo-
tle. Kant, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, provides a test for what
we should do. Often we face moral dilemmas: Should I give a false promise
to get myself out of a difficult situation? Kant and Bentham have their own
different ways of answering the question. In Kant’s case it is the test of the
categorical imperative, and for Bentham the greatest happiness principle
(utilitarianism). Many people are frustrated when reading Aristotle because
he offers no clear guide to help us solve our moral problems. Aristotle’s
official answer is that an action is right if it is what a virtuous person would
do in the circumstances. But this is not much help if you don’t yet match up
to Aristotle’s standards of virtue. In short, you can read Aristotle’s writings
on ethics and agree with them, but still be left not knowing what to do in
difficult circumstances.

Aristotle could reply that moral philosophy aims not to tell people what
to do but rather to give them insight into the nature of morality. But this
suggestion is unsatisfactory, for of course he did regard moral philosophy

Chapter 13: Challenges for Virtue Ethics ■ 221

as a practical subject; and it is disappointing when a philosophical approach
gives no guidance. Understandably, readers might look elsewhere for inspi-
ration. Thus it is worth looking at the question of how others have tried to
apply an Aristotelian approach to moral issues, and we will do so in the next
section. Before that, let’s look brief ly at a fourth and fifth problem for Aris-
totle so we have a list of them all now. Later in this chapter, we will explore
these further objections in more detail.

The fourth issue arises from experimental work in social psychology.
The virtue ethics approach concentrates, as we have seen, on an individual’s
character. Its aim is to habituate individuals into virtue so that they come
naturally to do the right thing. This approach makes what looks like an
innocent assumption: that human beings each have a character that exerts
a great effect on how they act. But suppose this is not true, in the sense that
how we act depends on external factors rather than our own characters. If
so, as the results in social psychology might suggest, then Aristotle’s view
rests on a false assumption, for our individual character no longer deter-
mines how we act.

The fifth problem involves the important and sensitive areas of gender
and race. Just as we have touched on these issues for Kant and Mill, we will
also look at them in Aristotle’s writings. In Chapter 14 we will move on to a
fuller treatment of the ethics of gender and race.

The third objection mentioned above is that virtue ethics gives no real guide
to action. Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics both offer practical guidance on
how to make decisions in difficult moral situations, but Aristotle does not
seem to do so. Hence the virtue ethics approach has been accused of being
useless in real life. If this criticism is fair, it is a devastating blow for virtue
ethics. Perhaps the best way of assessing the issue is to look at a detailed
attempt made by a virtue ethicist to address a moral dilemma. Let’s look at
a paper called “Virtue Theory and Abortion” (1991). The author is Rosalind
Hursthouse (b. 1943), a contemporary philosopher from New Zealand.

Hursthouse rightly points out that philosophical discussions about abor-
tion tend to be framed in terms of two central concerns: first, whether a
fetus has the status of a person; and second, whether a woman has the right
to choose what happens to her body. Yet as Hursthouse points out, neither
of these considerations really gets us to the heart of the agonized decision
any woman in real life is likely to face. Suppose it is agreed that a woman
does have a right to choose whether to have an abortion. As the author

222 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

remarks, the right to choose should be enough to show that a law against
abortion would be wrong. But for a woman in torment about whether to
have an abortion, the question is not merely about her legal or moral rights.
It is about what to do, or what to decide, about her situation. Of course if we
were convinced that a woman had no moral right to have an abortion, then
it would follow that having an abortion would be wrong. But the opposite
does not follow. Remember that having the right to decide does not tell
you what your decision should be; or that your decision, whatever it is, will
therefore be beyond moral criticism. As Hursthouse puts it in the opening
quote of this chapter:

In exercising a moral right I can do something cruel, or callous, or selfish,
light- minded, self- righteous, stupid, inconsiderate, disloyal, dishonest— that
is, act viciously. (p. 235)

If the question of a woman’s right to choose does not settle the issue, it
might be thought that the second standard question of whether the fetus
has the status of a person goes deeper to the heart of the issue. After all,
if the fetus is a person, then abortion could be regarded as murder. But as
Hursthouse points out, the status of the fetus is a hugely difficult metaphys-
ical question on which philosophers throughout history have differed and
continue to disagree. She argues that it is wrong to think we have to solve
all relevant metaphysical questions before we can make moral decisions.
Situations that call for decisions rush upon us. We cannot wait for a solution
to long- standing philosophical questions, whether or not such a solution
would be relevant— which Hursthouse doubts.

In discussing the factors that surround a woman’s decision about having
an abortion, Hursthouse emphasizes the importance of pregnancy, child-
hood, parenthood, and loving family relationships in human life. She also
presents a whole host of emotional, factual, and practical issues that will
affect different women in different circumstances. As we become aware of
the complications in the individual circumstances of any woman, it becomes
increasingly difficult to believe that a formula of the sort offered by Kantians
or utilitarians could solve the question of what any woman ought to do in
her particular, unique circumstances. In the end, Hursthouse suggests, all
we can ask is that a woman has thought through all the relevant issues and
has treated her decision seriously.

Someone who thought, for example, that an abortion was equivalent
to getting a haircut or having an appendectomy— simply removing some
unwanted human tissue— has not considered the issues seriously enough.
To use Hursthouse’s unusual phrase, that would be “ light- minded.” But

Chapter 13: Challenges for Virtue Ethics ■ 223

suppose a woman has thought long and hard about all the relevant issues.
She has considered the consequences for her and for others both of having
and not having the abortion, including the emotional effect in both cases,
and has discussed it with people who will be affected or are able to offer
advice. Without doubt she has taken the decision seriously. And what more,
morally, can we ask?

Two women, in seemingly parallel situations, could make different deci-
sions based on very similar facts. But if both women have deliberated prop-
erly, it would be odd to say that one of them has made the morally right
decision and the other the wrong one. Certainly the issue is not wholly sub-
jective, for some considerations will be relevant and others not. For example,
if a woman decides to have an abortion so she can fit into her party dress,
we can surely call that a light- minded decision, or indeed much worse. But
if she sincerely believes that she will be unable to care for or provide for a
child, then her reasoning cannot be dismissed in the same way, even though
many women in comparable situations will nevertheless have the child and
manage perfectly well later. Based on this understanding, the virtue relevant
to abortion is careful and serious deliberation, which is an objective position
that makes room for subjective concerns.

Does this answer the question of how an Aristotelian theory can help
us address moral problems? Once more, for those looking for a formula to
use in approaching a question, it will continue to disappoint. But the Aris-
totelian approach suggests that expecting more is unrealistic, perhaps even
immature. According to the virtue ethics approach, no textbook, computer
program, or teacher can tell a woman whether having an abortion is the
morally right or wrong thing for her to do in the circumstances she faces.
Each person has her or his own moral thinking to do.

A very different, surprising, and powerful challenge to Aristotelian virtue
ethics in recent decades is based on experimental findings in social psy-
chology. Central to Aristotle’s theory is that throughout a lifetime, human
beings can be habituated into virtue through education, training, and
practice. We thereby develop a stable and consistent character that leads
us to act well in morally challenging circumstances. Some people develop
courage, or generosity, or kindness, and so on; and the courageous,
generous, and kind person is much more likely to perform courageous,
generous, and kind actions than those who have not developed those char-
acter traits and virtues.

224 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

This view, that different people have different characters that partially
explain their actions, seems almost too banal to be worth saying. Yet some
fascinating experiments have put it to the test. Let’s look at just two of sev-
eral comparable examples.

First, in 1973 the American social psychologists John M. Darley
and C. Daniel Batson published a paper reporting an experiment conducted
at Princeton Theological Seminary (Darley & Batson, 1973). Seminary stu-
dents who volunteered for the experiment were told they were taking part
in a study about their future careers. As part of the procedure, they were
instructed to give a short impromptu talk. Some were asked to speak on the
biblical story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a stranger who
had been robbed and beaten. Others were assigned a quite different topic.
They all were then informed that the talk was to be given in a room further
down the corridor. Some students were told they had plenty of spare time
before the lecture; others were told they were late and needed to hurry.

On making their way to give their talk, all the students passed a shab-
bily dressed actor slumped on the f loor in the hallway. He was pretending
to have suffered a collapse, and he groaned and coughed as the students
went by. Thus, the actor gave each student the opportunity to put the tale
of the Good Samaritan into practice. And because all of them were divinity
students, you would expect them to be quite morally aware and highly moti-
vated. The point of the experiment was to see which students would stop
and help and which would ignore the apparently stricken man and carry on
as normal. According to the experimenters, by far the most important fac-
tor in stopping to help was whether the student was in a hurry. Those who
thought they were late were far less likely to help than those who had time
on their hands. It did not matter whether they had prepared a talk on the
Good Samaritan or the other topic, and no “personality” factor was found
that correlated with the result.

This result is in some ways surprising and in others completely unsur-
prising. It is surprising that theology students who had just been reminded
of the story of the Good Samaritan would not stop to help. But thinking of
yourself in a comparable situation, isn’t time often the most important factor
in whether you will or will not stop to help someone? And this is true for
many people, even if they are in a hurry to do something fairly trivial. Con-
sequently, the experimenters’ hypothesis is that what matters in “ real- time”
ethical dilemmas is the situation you are in, not the type of person you are.
This view is sometimes known as situational ethics. If the experimenters
are correct, then character seems to play little or no role in explaining actual

Chapter 13: Challenges for Virtue Ethics ■ 225

behavior. And if that is so, then virtue ethics is in trouble because it is based
on the false premise that character is all important in moral action.

A second, perhaps even more surprising experiment took place in shop-
ping malls in San Francisco and Philadelphia and was reported in 1975
(Levin & Isen). The experimenters set up a telephone booth so that on some
occasions, a person using the phone would unexpectedly get a dime on
leaving. Just when the person using the phone left the booth, a woman
would walk close by and “accidentally” drop a folder of papers. The pur-
pose of the study was to see who would stop and help the woman pick up
the papers. According to the study authors, there was almost a perfect cor-
relation between receiving the unexpected dime and stopping to help. The
hypothesis is that, in this case at least, mood rather than character is the key
factor in explaining helping behavior. If you are cheerful or in a good mood,
you are much more likely to help than you would be otherwise. Again this
result will ring true for many of us.

These experiments, although small in scale, might suggest that human
beings are embarrassingly shallow creatures. We act on the basis of minor
considerations, such as whether we are in a hurry, or whether we are in
a good or bad mood, rather than whether we have been “habituated into
virtue.” But do these examples really have such dramatic implications? On
their own, probably not; but the literature contains more experiments of this
kind, showing similar results.

Some philosophers have concluded that these studies show “lack of
character” in human beings, and hence virtue ethics has to be abandoned.
Others, rather suspicious of abandoning a philosophical tradition of 2,500
years on the basis of some eye- catching experiments, have argued that the
experiments show only how difficult it is to be truly virtuous. After all, some
people did stop to pick up the papers without receiving the dime, or offered
help to the victim even when they were in a hurry. Still other philosophers
point out that many experiments like this have now been attempted, and
only a small number of them show such dramatic and surprising results.
Hence the experiments could well be anomalous, and a statistical freak,
rather than revealing something deep about human nature. Finally, even if
the experiments do show something, some critics have dismissed them as
too small in scale to show anything significant. They suggest that because
they studies look at one- off situations rather than behavior over time, it is
hard to say anything about the inf luence of character by observing only one
action. Perhaps being virtuous makes only a small difference in each situa-
tion, but it adds up to a large difference over a person’s lifetime.

226 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Ideally we would do more experiments, but unfortunately it is now hard
to conduct experiments of this type to test the issues further. The experi-
ments critically depend on deceiving the study participants about the nature
of the experiment, and modern protocols of research ethics make it difficult
to conduct deceptive experiments (perhaps influenced by Kantian concerns
about the immorality of deception). Nevertheless, the experimental results
are striking and intriguing and do merit a response from the virtue theorist.

Earlier in this chapter, I described Rosalind Hursthouse’s application of
virtue ethics to the issue of abortion. Some readers might have noticed that
it bears comparison with some aspects of the feminist ethics of care briefly
described in Chapter 11. That is, it rejects abstract principles or formulas
in favor of contextual and relational moral reasoning. Was Aristotle, then,
a feminist? Sadly not. He says in Politics: “The relation of the male to the
female is the superior to the inferior, the ruler to the ruled” (ed. Stalley,
2009, p. 16).

Now it was a great surprise to see Kant adopt sexist and racist views,
given the premise of equality that was built into his moral theory, but it may
be less surprising to see that Aristotle was prepared to advance a hierarchical
view. After all, we have seen some potentially thorny problems in this area
already. Notably, he argues that it is easier for a wealthier person to become
virtuous than it is for someone who lacks wealth. So there is already a strong
hint of an elitist element in Aristotle’s view. Aristotle’s idea that you cannot
live the highest form of good life if you are a woman— or, we should add,
a non- Greek— seems generally consistent with his elitism even though, of
course, he could have stopped before making these additional claims.

It might be tempting to explain away Aristotle’s prejudices by saying that
in Ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, nobody knew any better. Thus it is wrong
to blame Aristotle for holding what we now regard as deeply wrongheaded,
discriminatory, and ultimately immoral views. But is it true that everyone in
Ancient Greece held the same views as Aristotle? Importantly, one person
held a different view about women: Aristotle’s own teacher, Plato. Knowing
that he is defending something outrageous at that time, Plato argues that
men and women are both able to acquire the skills needed for positions of
political power. Further, he says that some women will succeed. Physically
men tend to be stronger than women, and Plato suggests that on average,
men have a better chance of success than women. Nevertheless, he claims,
there is no ultimate difference between the nature of a man and the nature

Chapter 13: Challenges for Virtue Ethics ■ 227

of a woman that would make a man naturally the ruler of a woman. Plato,
unlike Aristotle, turns out to be a type of early feminist. In the Republic, he
says that women have the same potential to rule as men do:

So, then, those men and women who display distinct aptitudes for any given
kind of work will be assigned to do that work. If a critic can do no more
than bring up the one distinction between man and woman— that the one
begets and the other bears children— we shall see that for our purposes he
has offered no proof of difference at all. We shall continue to affirm that our
guardians and their wives should perform the same tasks. (Book 5, p. 145)

It is interesting to ask, though, why Plato seemed to believe that in a free
competition a man would be more likely to win, even though occasionally
a woman would shine through. In tests of physical strength this view may
be fair enough, but what about other types of contests? What explains the
statistical fact, true for most of human history and still true in many fields
today, that men more often do better? One possibility would simply be that
men are born on average more intelligent and more talented than women,
and this would explain the statistical difference in achievement. However,
the backward inference (an “argument to the best explanation” as this strat-
egy is referred to in Chapter 1) from men’s greater achievement to men’s
greater natural ability was known to be fallacious by all serious thinkers on
women’s emancipation.

These thinkers, even while applauding Plato for overcoming the prejudice
of his day, would wish to dig deeper into the question of why women have
been less likely to succeed in competition with men. If women have been
raised in a sexist culture, they might be less successful for many reasons:
(a) They may have been denied the education and training that men have
received; (b) they may not be offered the opportunities for work or advance-
ment that are open to men; (c) they may have been taught to underestimate
their abilities and not strive to do well in competition; (d) others may under-
estimate their abilities too, and overlook them; and (e) they may face simple
discrimination. Sexist social structures and sexist attitudes certainly impede
women’s achievement in many other ways too. Although women today con-
tinue to achieve power or high office less often than men do, this tells us
nothing about men and women’s relative talents.

We will return to the issue of gender in Chapter 14, but for now let’s turn
brief ly to Aristotle’s troubling statements about slavery and non- Greeks— or,
as he calls them, “barbarians.” In Aristotle’s Politics, he says that while it is
morally wrong to enslave Greeks, some other peoples are “slaves by nature.”
Now, once more we might try to excuse Aristotle by saying that as a person

228 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

of his time, he took for granted what went unquestioned. But Aristotle him-
self acknowledges that “There are others, however, who regard the rule of
slaves by a master as contrary to nature . . . and so has no warrant in justice”
(ed. Stalley, 2009, Book 1.3, p. 13). Having raised the issue, Aristotle must
defend his view; he does so by claiming that non- Greeks have lower powers
of deliberative rationality than Greeks, and they are more likely to be ruled
by their bodily appetites. Non- Greeks are therefore not suited to the same
level of freedom and should become slaves of Greeks.

It is worth trying to put Aristotle’s argument into a more formal structure.

Premise 1: To be entitled to freedom, it is necessary to have a high
degree of power of deliberative rationality.

Premise 2: Only Greek men have a high degree of power of delibera-
tive rationality.


Conclusion 1: Non- Greeks are not entitled to freedom.


Conclusion 2: Non- Greeks should be slaves to Greeks.

We could question this argument in many ways. Let’s start by comparing
it with John Stuart Mill’s argument (see Chapter 9) justifying the use of
colonial rule over peoples who have not (yet) acquired the requisite level of
civilization. Two differences are important. First, Mill thought that everyone
was capable, eventually, of attaining the right level of rationality or civiliza-
tion; Aristotle, like Kant, thought that intellectual and cultural potential
is fixed by nature and there is no hope of development. But second, and
more important, Mill argued that colonial peoples were to be ruled benev-
olently for their own good, just as parents take care of children. Of course
the historical record shows that this did not happen, and colonial rule was
often a matter of brutal exploitation. Mill’s intellectual position was naïve,
perhaps even self- deceiving. But unlike Aristotle, he did not argue that those
who lack full rationality or civilization should be put in service to those of
higher abilities. And it is hard to see how Aristotle thought his argument
would justify the power of Greeks over non- Greeks for the benefit of Greeks.
Aristotle’s conclusion justifying slavery plainly does not follow from his
premises. Therefore the argument is invalid, even if the premises are true.
And indeed premise 2 is clearly false, and premise 1 highly controversial,
to say the least. Because Aristotle presented no justification or evidence for
premise 2, his position comes across as pure prejudice.

Chapter 13: Challenges for Virtue Ethics ■ 229

Arguably, however, Aristotle shows more honesty than many of his con-
temporaries who took slavery for granted and made no effort to justify it.
We could also consider that he has done us the great service of showing just
how weak the arguments in favor of slavery are.

Aristotle’s is not the only attempt by a major philosopher to defend slav-
ery. The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) presented another
argument. If you are the victorious side in a just war, Locke suggested, you
have the right to execute those who you capture. But if you enslave them
instead, then both sides are better off. If the slaves disagree and prefer death,
then they have that option and can take their own lives.

This is an interesting argument that could be challenged at several
points. (Do you really have the right to execute those you capture, for
example?) Locke was an influential figure in drafting early North American
constitutions, especially the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669),
which made provision for slavery in that state. Can Locke really have thought
that Africans had been captured in a just war with America? It isn’t plau-
sible, and this account discredits Locke’s integrity as a thinker, despite the
immense value of the wide range of writings he produced.

Aristotle did no better than Locke in defending slavery. He barely
attempted to do so, suggesting that some are already marked out at birth as
fit to rule and others fit to be ruled. This failure to justify slavery is a lesson
for us all: The implicit and unacknowledged protection of privilege can
significantly distort our reasoning.

In this chapter we looked at some current questions related to virtue eth-
ics. We began by reviewing some criticisms already raised in the previous
chapter, that, first, Aristotle runs morality and self- interest together, and
second, that he makes morality too dependent on external goods. Then we
explored the objection that virtue ethics does not guide our actions, by look-
ing at Rosalind Hursthouse’s application of virtue ethics to the question of
abortion. We also considered a surprising contemporary critique of virtue
ethics: that social psychology experiments demonstrate that our actions are
not explained by our characters, but by relatively trivial “situational” factors
such as mood. Next we contrasted the views of Plato and Aristotle on wom-
en’s equality with men, which led into a discussion of Aristotle’s troubling
views on women and slavery.

230 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Discussion Questions

1. How can virtue ethics be used to address the question of the morality of

2. Explain the “situationalist” critique of virtue ethics.
3. Critically examine Aristotle’s justification of slavery.

Key Terms

Stoic, p. 220

categorical imperative, p. 220

utilitarianism, p. 220

situational ethics, p. 224

ethics of care, p. 226

Key Thinkers

Aristotle (384–322 bce), pp. 219–221, 226–229

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), pp. 220–222, 226

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), p. 220

Rosalind Hursthouse (b. 1943), pp. 221–222

Plato (429?–347), pp. 226–227

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), p. 228

John Locke (1632–1704), p. 229

Further Reading
■ Rosalind Hursthouse’s “Virtue Theory and Abortion” was first published
in Philosophy & Public Affairs, 20, 1991: 223–246, and is reprinted in abridged
form in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton,

■ John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson’s study is “‘From Jerusalem to Jeri-
cho’: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behav-
ior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 1973: 100–108, and
Paula F. Levin and Alice M. Isen’s study is “Further Studies on the Effect of
Feeling Good on Helping,” Sociometry, 38, 1975: 141–147. Both experiments
are also explained in The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psy-
chology (2nd ed.) by Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett (Pinter & Martin, 2011).
An interesting philosophical assessment of this work appears in Kwame
Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (Harvard University Press, 2009);

Chapter 13: Challenges for Virtue Ethics ■ 231

for more extended treatment, read John Doris, Lack of Character (Cam-
bridge University Press, 2002).

■ The edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics used here is edited by Les-
ley Brown and translated by David Ross (Oxford University Press, 2009);
the edition of Plato’s Republic is from W. W. Norton (1996). Excerpts from
both appear in Jonathan Wolff, Readings in Moral Philosophy.

■ Aristotle’s Politics is quoted from the edition by Oxford University Press
(2009), edited by R. F. Stalley and translated by Ernest Barker.

■ John Locke’s views on slavery can be found in his Second Treatise of
Government, in many editions including one from Hackett (2011), edited
by C. B. Macpherson. (Original work published in 1689)


C H A P T E R   14

The Ethics of Gender and Race

As a woman, I feel I never understood that I was a person, that I could make
decisions and I had a right to make decisions. I always felt that that belonged to
my father or my husband in some way, or church, which was always represented
by a male clergyman. They were the three men in my life: father, husband, and
clergyman, and they had much more say about what I should or shouldn’t do.

Quoted in Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice

We finished Chapter 13 by looking at Aristotle’s views on slavery. Earlier
in that chapter we discussed Aristotle and Plato’s contrasting views on the
potential for women to achieve the highest positions in society. In the con-
text of exploring Plato’s suggestion that only a small number of women
are likely to hold elite positions— which is just starting to change in the
2,500 years since Plato wrote— we also examined how a sexist culture holds
women back.

Those were not the first discussions of topics of gender and race in this
book. Even in Chapter 2, when we explored cultural relativism, the question
of different moral traditions associated with non- Western cultures arose.
Cultural relativism has been criticized for providing no basis for objecting to
the sexist practices of another culture. Later, in Chapter 8, we looked at John
Stuart Mill’s arguments against what he called “the subjection of women” in
favor of equal freedom. While applauding Mill’s conclusion that the inequal-
ity of women has no moral justification, we noted the rather shaky founda-
tion of some of Mill’s arguments. They relied in part on the idea that ending
the subjection of women would benefit the general happiness, including
the happiness of men. Although it would be a wonderful world if ending
oppression really did benefit everyone, an alternative view is that women
have a right to equality regardless of whether it affects total happiness. And
in Chapter 9, we also noted that the utilitarian calculation led Mill astray in
his discussion of colonial rule. Whether or not temporary despotism would
improve the “civilization” of non- European peoples (a highly contestable
claim in any case), many will argue that all people have the right to freedom
and self- rule, even if it detracts from the general happiness.

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 233

We also looked at Immanuel Kant’s writings regarding women and
people of non- European descent (Chapter 11). Kant’s moral theory is based
on respect for all individuals. But it becomes apparent when taking his writ-
ings as a whole that for Kant, the scope of “all individuals” was implicitly
“all adult white males”; women and those of non- European descent were
treated as “lesser” beings. I suggested, though, that this perspective is really
an aberration for Kant rather than something that follows from the logic of
his view. Given its commitment to universal freedom and respect, Kantian
moral philosophy can be used as a liberating theory for all human beings.

Nevertheless, we saw that even an expanded, truly universal Kantian
view has come under attack from feminist writers. Provocatively, Sandra
Harding (b. 1935), the contemporary feminist philosopher of science, has
asked, “Should feminism set such a low goal as mere equality with men?”
(1986, p. 21). In other words, Harding is asking if women should aspire to
think, feel, and behave the way that men do.

One inf luential tradition has interpreted Kant, alongside utilitarianism,
as offering an ethics of justice (or perhaps more accurately, an ethics of
principle) in contrast to an ethics of care. In doing so, it is said, moral phi-
losophy continues to exclude women’s voices and concerns. Let’s now look
at this critique, and other feminist approaches, in more detail. We will then
compare the new tradition of feminist moral philosophy with the emerging
field of the ethics of race, as philosopher Naomi Zack (b. 1944) has called
it. It is worth noting that in philosophy, race has been treated much more
as a political and practical issue than one that generates its own distinc-
tive approach to moral philosophy. It is fair to say, as Jamaican philosopher
Charles Mills (b. 1951) has done, that throughout its history philosophy has
tended to exclude or marginalize issues of race. The situation is beginning
to change thanks to the work of Zack, Mills, and others. We will look at how
the ethics of race is being developed later in this chapter.

Earlier in this book we noted that utilitarian and Kantian moral philosophy
both seek a formal, abstract principle that can be applied to address moral
questions and settle moral dilemmas, such as the circumstances under
which it can be right to lie. This approach to moral philosophy contrasts
with Aristotelian ethics, which does not always expect precision, and for
which the essential core of morality concerns developing the right type of
character— one that exhibits virtues and avoids vices. For Aristotle, moral
decision-making can be messy and contextual, often drawing on many

234 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

different types of considerations, as we saw with Rosalind Hursthouse’s
discussion of abortion from the standpoint of virtue ethics.

The ethics of care (brief ly introduced in Chapter 11)—a leading, but by no
means the only, feminist approach to ethics— also takes contextual circum-
stances seriously. It attends to the details of each case rather than seeking
a general formula. It also argues that emotional engagement and personal
relations, especially the caring relations of love, sympathy, and empathy, are
essential to moral thinking. This idea contrasts with the view that emotions
and personal relations obscure the type of clear, impartial moral reasoning
prized by some Kantians and utilitarians. Many leading feminist care theo-
rists, such as Nel Noddings (b. 1929), point out the close connection between
care ethics and virtue ethics.

Noddings perceptively adds that from the perspective of care ethics, “It
is important to understand that we are not primarily interested in judging
but, rather, in heightening moral perception and sensitivity” (1984/2013,
p. 89). In other words, care ethics is not so much concerned with providing
a list of moral instructions as with helping people develop the sensitivity to
approach moral questions for themselves.

Abstract theories, especially Kant’s, also tend to be complex and difficult
to master. This issue leads feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar (b. 1942) to
note, “A method of justification that ordinary people cannot use necessarily
assigns final moral authority to those few philosophical experts who are
able to use it. In western societies, such people are generally white, male
and middle class” (ed. Fricker and Hornsby, 2000, p. 231). This type of elit-
ism seems inconsistent with the spirit of a truly universal morality, which
should be available to all. But in fairness to Kant, the principles of his theory
are not all that difficult to master, and so this criticism is debatable. The
feminist critique we are primarily considering in this section, however, is
that abstract moral philosophy, despite its pretensions, fails to be universal
in a slightly different way because it privileges male reasoning (of principle)
over female reasoning (of care).

Jake and Amy
To understand the difference between the ethics of care and the ethics of
justice or principle, let’s look now at an example used by Carol Gilligan
(b. 1936) in her book In a Different Voice (1993). One of her interviews with
Jake and Amy, who were both 11 years old at the time, is especially help-
ful. The most famous discussion concerns the fictional moral dilemma
of “Heinz,” who is contemplating stealing a drug that he cannot afford in

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 235

order to save his wife’s life (this, of course, is another example of a thought
experiment). When asked whether Heinz should steal the drug, Jake is
clear that Heinz is morally permitted to do so, because “a life is worth more
than money.” Amy, on the other hand, says:

Well, I don’t think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it,
like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really
shouldn’t steal the drug— but his wife shouldn’t die either. . . .

If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might
have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn’t
get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So, they should really just
talk it out and find some other way to make the money. (Gilligan, 1993, p. 28)

The basic distinctions between the ethics of principle and the ethics
of care are beautifully displayed here: finding a formula in contrast with
engaging in contextual and sensitive reasoning. Jake finds a principle: “A life
is worth more than money.” For her part, Amy refuses to boil the problem
down to simple terms. Gilligan considers the care perspective to be a more
typically female approach to ethics, and it has some interesting and distinc-
tive features. One is that it focuses on relations between people, including
a proposed action’s longer- term effects on these relations. Amy points out
that if Heinz goes to jail, he won’t be able to help his wife. She might also
have said that if Heinz did steal the drug, how would he feel when he next
saw the shopkeeper?

The concern with relations at the heart of the ethics of care is very import-
ant; as feminist philosopher Virginia Held (b. 1929) points out, it contrasts
with Aristotelian virtue ethics, even though the two approaches have many
similarities (Held, 2006). Aristotle says individuals cultivate the virtues in
order to have a good life. Although, of course, how we relate to others is a
key element in the virtuous life, the immediate concern for Aristotle is the
individual agent rather than the relations between that agent and others.
By contrast, caring starts from human relations. Here it is helpful to bear
in mind Noddings’s argument that the “ethics of caring” really grows out
of natural caring, such as the care a mother has for her baby. Of course a
mother normally wishes to be a good mother, but she wants to be a good
mother for her baby’s sake, rather than to satisfy a narcissistic concern to be
admired for her mothering skills.

At the same time though, when caring goes well, it is not a sacrifice. As
with virtue ethics, many of the demands of caring are not felt as demands.
They are, says Noddings, the occasions that make life worth living. Ethical
caring extends beyond the relations you have with your family, for caring

236 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

relations can arise with strangers. This action often involves learned
behavior rather than being instinctual or natural, but it bears many of
the marks of natural caring. Here we need to be careful to distinguish
caring from caregiving, which can be professionalized, as it is in homes
for the elderly— and notoriously, can be done without caring. Of course,
there is no denying that caregiving within the family can be hostile and
grudging— or that professional caregiving is often very caring or even

A further important feature of the ethics of care is that rather than
considering emotion as an impediment to clear thought, as Kant did, it
regards emotion as a key element in moral perception and thinking. In a
fascinating observation, Noddings points out that when we are engaged in
a moral dialogue with others, we want to look into their eyes and see their
changing facial expressions (Noddings, 2013). Often people communicate
more by tightening their facial muscles, or using uncomfortable body
language, than by uttering any number of articulate verbal expressions.
Anxiety, relief, pleasure, fear, and a host of other feelings are at the center
of our moral experience. They enhance our moral understanding and
can convey it to others rather than being an obstacle to experience and

We have already seen yet another feature of care ethics: It attempts to
understand moral situations in their complexity rather than reduce them to
general principles. Earlier thinkers, especially the developmental psycholo-
gist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–87), dismissed this type of unprincipled moral
thinking as a form of “immature” moral reasoning. In response, Gilligan
argues for its equal status with the ethics of principle (1993). Indeed, she
often seems to hint at its superiority, or at least its function as an important
corrective. In reading Jake and Amy’s answers, we may well agree. And
we should note that Gilligan’s criticism generalizes to all forms of moral
philosophy based on reason and abstraction, be it Kantian deontology or
the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and Mill. By supposing the only truly
rational form of moral reasoning is that undertaken in a male style, these
philosophers leave out what may be the most important aspect of our moral
lives: caring relations and emotions.

It does seem that Gilligan has pointed out something vital. Moral philos-
ophies based on the application of abstract rational principles seem to have
little room for human relations, emotion, and moral complexity. Many
feminist philosophers, including Virginia Held, have argued that we even
conceive of our own identity in terms of our relations: you are a son, or a

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 237

daughter, a brother or sister, a classmate, or roommate, a college member,
a citizen of a country, and so on. Some of these relations you brought upon
yourself, and some are temporary, but many are unchosen or permanent.
All your relations and roles can affect your moral perceptions of what you
might think important and less important, and also what you take to be
your moral obligations. In trying to boil down dilemmas to their bare bones
so that they can be solved by formula, approaches based on reason alone
seem one- sided and leave out too much that is important. Even worse,
perhaps, they imply that men are more likely than women to be “moral

At the same time, for some feminists the ethics of care has set off
alarm bells. There is a clear contrast between the ethics of principle and
the ethics of care, but is it right to identify principle with masculine rea-
soning and care with feminine reasoning? This sounds like the dismis-
sive attitude toward women all over again, except with the care element
revalued as equal or superior. Such an approach is often called essentialist,
assuming that male and female natures are essentially different, but also
inescapable. Yet essentialism of this type is itself a common target of fem-
inist critics who argue that social conditioning, not nature, may be behind
different gender attitudes and roles. To push Gilligan’s point too far is to
play back into the hands of those who say that women are not capable of
rational thought in the same way as men. As philosopher Annette Baier
(1929–2012) writes:

Some find it retrograde to hail as a special sort of moral wisdom an outlook that
may be the product of the socially enforced restriction of women to domestic
roles (and the reservation of such roles for them alone); that might seem to play
into the hands of those who still favor such restriction. (1987, p. 44)

Political philosopher Jean Hampton (1954–96) pushes the point, observ-
ing that the ethics of care can set women up for exploitation by forcing
them into caring roles inside and outside the home. Immersion in the care
perspective, Hampton and others have argued, can lead women to ignore
their own interests and sacrifice themselves to husbands, children, and
elderly parents.

Gilligan would be horrified at the idea that the ethics of care could be
detrimental to women’s interests. She, and others on her behalf, have cer-
tainly wanted to avoid essentialism. To see how this can be done, it will be
helpful to introduce a distinction now commonly made between sex, as a
biological category, and gender, which is regarded as a social phenomenon.
In the words of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), “One

238 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (1949/2011, p. 293). Her meaning
is that men and women receive extensive training in their social roles. These
run from the extremely serious jobs that determine how individuals spend
their time— such as who stays at home to cook, keep house, and look after
the children— to the apparently trivial. For example, it seems that when
drinking, women are more likely to tuck their elbows in while men stick
their elbows out. It is not “ladylike” to drink with your elbow pointed out,
and it is not “manly” to drink with it tucked in. Thus without ever realiz-
ing it, we are used to ideas of what is “masculine” and “feminine”: it’s just
what we do. But, so the argument goes, we are socialized into gender roles
rather than born into them. And indeed men can be feminine and women
masculine; gender is increasingly being recognized as f luid and nonbinary.

Gilligan did not want to argue for the extreme essentialist position that
men are by nature hardwired to adopt the ethics of principle and women
the ethics of care. She noted that when prompted the right way, men and
women do adopt both the ethics of principle and the ethics of care. However,
many will accept the crude generalization that women are more attuned and
sensitized to the ethics of care and men to the ethics of principle. Whether
this notion is actually true is an interesting question. In a subtle critique,
some have suggested that it is not even true that men and women reason
differently; but it is true that men and women think that men and women
reason differently. That is, we are partially blinded by stereotypes and do
not see things as they are.

But even if the difference in reasoning is real, it could well stem from
gendered training for social roles. In most cultures a mother, not a father,
is the primary caregiver for children and elderly parents. Women are more
likely to enter the “caring professions” such as nursing and elementary
school teaching. And women may well be more likely to approach moral
questions in the detailed contextual way exemplified by Amy, in which
problems are solved by talking them out rather than applying a formula.
Traditionally, men have been much more likely to take on managerial posi-
tions that involve directing large numbers of people or making decisions at
a distance, in which case the only practical approach may be to use abstract
principles. But according to the nonessentialist feminist, to the degree this
difference exists, it is a matter of gender socialization rather than brute
nature determined by our sex. This debate is helpful not only in making a
feminist critique of abstract morality but also in helping us develop a more
rounded approach to moral philosophy. It pushes us toward a principled
approach to morality that needs to be supplemented with more attention

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 239

to the details of the situation, the people involved in it, the relationships
between them, and their emotions.

Moral philosophy has certainly benefited from understanding the perspec-
tive of care in moral reasoning. But it is fair to ask whether the ethics of
care has done very much to overcome the subjection of women, which—
though not as marked as in the times of Aristotle, Kant, or Mill— still exists
today. Indeed, as we have seen, the ethics of care presents some dangers.
Many will argue that to achieve gender equality, women need to assert and
insist on their rights; but their doing so seems to require support from the
ethics of principle (recall that Gilligan called it the justice perspective). As
Annette Baier points out (1987), for feminists there is absolutely no doubt
that justice matters; the question is only how much other things matter too.

To make the issues clearer, a feminist moral philosopher could focus
attention on at least three areas. The most concrete target is the organization
of society, in which— to use Mill’s word again— women still face subjection
in the form of inequality and discrimination. In her book A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman (1792/2009), the pioneering 18 th- century feminist
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97), for example, wrote a withering critique of
the narrow, confined lives led by the women of her time.

Another target is not society directly, but the moral standards of the
day: what we are brought up to think is right and wrong, and how we ordi-
narily approach moral problems. This is a form of commonsense morality,
including rules such as “be kind to strangers” and “do not lie.” But more
perniciously, these rules often mirror social practices by providing apparent
rationalization of injustice. So, for example, in the 19th century, women were
not permitted to enter professions such as law and medicine. The practice
was often justified by the claim that a woman’s first duty is to her husband
and children. “A woman’s place is in the home” was part of the common-
sense morality of the day, as it still is in many cultures today. Hence social
practices, good or bad, can be supported by so- called common sense.

A third possible target for a feminist moral philosopher is philosophy itself.
Gilligan, Noddings, and other care theorists focused on this area. They have
argued that the philosophical tradition has privileged one form of moral phi-
losophy and, by ignoring another form, has devalued it. The main thrust of
their argument is aimed at reforming moral philosophy, but there will be
connections with ordinary commonsense morality and with social practice.
By accepting the reform of moral philosophy, we could strengthen and validate

240 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

the ethics of care in ordinary life. And though this could lead to the dangers
discussed earlier, it could also have the positive effect of giving women greater
attention, respect, and influence in discussions about moral issues.

Our social practices certainly affect women’s prospects for living the life
they ideally would choose. A common thread throughout history has been
an explicit set of laws that were detrimental to women, restricting their
rights to vote, hold property or political office, or work in professional roles.
In some countries these forms of direct discrimination still exist, but they
have been overturned in most developed democratic countries. Neverthe-
less, many aspects of social organization effectively conspire against women
in more subtle ways.

Just think of the different situation men and women face when they
combine raising children with achieving advancement in a high- pressure
workplace. For men, fatherhood rarely causes much of a problem, but moth-
erhood often holds women back. Although the world was not designed to
make having a career more difficult for women with children, such things
as a late- night working culture and the need for short- term f lexibility in
scheduling appointments and meetings often turn out to be more diffi-
cult for women than men. Of course these problems arise because women
still tend to take on a disproportionate amount of childcare and domestic
work. When a set of practices is detrimental to one group, even if nobody
designed it to be so, it involves indirect discrimination. And working and
social practices work badly for women in other ways, ranging from social
marginalization (being excluded from group activities) to sexual harassment
to domestic violence. Even where a practice is illegal, the authorities do not
always take violations seriously.

When ref lecting about indirect discrimination and other practices of
informal oppression, we can understand why many feminists have felt that
although the ethics of care is an important step, it is still not enough to
achieve equality. Even before the ethics of care was proposed, feminists
argued for a radical rethinking of approaches to morality. For example,
the African American poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde (1934–92)
famously remarked, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s
house” (2007, p. 110), meaning that the concepts used to support oppression
are not appropriate to end oppression. As Lorde remarks, she is writing as
a “forty-nine- year- old Black lesbian feminist socialist, mother of two” (2007,
p. 114). It is thus easy to empathize with her feeling that the theories devel-
oped by heterosexual, financially secure white men (or indeed women) will
not help her understand and overcome her own oppression.

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 241

Is it possible to contest Lorde’s claim by suggesting that the master’s
tools, especially conceptions of equality and autonomy, can in fact dismantle
the master’s house if only they are used properly? We have seen this pro-
posal from the beginnings of modern feminist theory, for example, in the
approaches of John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft. It can be summa-
rized by saying that traditional moral theories contain everything required
to argue for equal freedom and equality for women, but the problem in the
past has been failure to use the theories to their full potential.

There are several ways of developing this argument. One is to say that
sexist assumptions have meant that only men have been included in the
scope of the theory. A second is that false assumptions have been made
about women’s interests and possible sources of happiness, which has led
to diminished standing for women. And a third is that the theories contain
resources that have not yet been applied, but some imaginative thinking
can reap dividends. Some approaches probably combine all three criticisms.

Jean Hampton (1954–96) and Susan Moller Okin (1946–2004), for
example, have each developed forms of the Rawlsian social contract that
brings women into the social contract explicitly as equals to men. This may
seem an obvious move; but even John Rawls considered the contracting
parties as “heads of households.” This view not only hinted that the men
were the main contractors, but left relations within the family unexplored.
Still, we can appreciate the power of the adaptation of Rawls’s methodology
by considering Susan Moller Okin’s words:

What Moslem man is likely to take the chance of spending his life in seclu-
sion and dependency, sweltering in head- to- toe black clothing? What pre-
revolutionary Chinese man would cast his vote for the breaking of toes and
hobbling through life, if he well might be the one with the toes and the crip-
pled life? What man would endorse gross genital mutilation, not knowing
whose genitals? (Okin, 1994)

More recently feminist philosopher Carol Hay has introduced a Kantian
feminism that goes beyond simply adding women to the moral community.
Hay also argues that women have a Kantian duty to themselves to resist their
oppression out of self- respect. On this basis we can see that the master’s
tools have a lot of promise for achieving women’s equality.

Nevertheless, Lorde’s insight that new tools are needed remains import-
ant. Kantian and social contract theories are stated at a high level of abstrac-
tion; a great deal of work, in the sense of developing new concepts, is needed
to connect those theories with the lived experience of many women. Oppres-
sion must be described before it can be confronted. We can understand

242 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Lorde’s point by ref lecting on a comment from contemporary feminist phi-
losopher Alison Jaggar:

As a young woman . . . I was unable to articulate many vague and confused
feelings and perceptions because the language necessary to do so had not
yet been invented. The vocabulary I needed included such terms as: “gen-
der,”. . . “sex role,” “sexism,” “sexual harassment,” “the double day,” “sexual
objectification,” “heterosexism,” “the male gaze,” “marital, acquaintance and
date rape,” “emotional work,” “stalking,” “hostile environment,” “displaced
homemaker,” and “double standard of ageing.” (2000, p. 238)

The example of sexual harassment is particularly interesting. By one
account it was invented to help fight a court case for a woman named Car-
mita Wood, who felt compelled to leave her job because of the mental and
emotional stress caused by extreme sexualized pressure in the workplace.
She was unable to claim unemployment benefits because she had “volun-
tarily” left her job. To describe the intolerable situation she faced, Wood’s
advocates devised the term sexual harassment, which is now used so often
that it is hard to believe it did not exist before the 1970s.

The Birdcage
To dismantle the master’s house, then, perhaps we need to continue devel-
oping new tools, in the form of new concepts. But before dismantling any-
thing, we would be wise to understand what it is and how it was built.

In this case we are looking specifically at social practices of female
inequality and oppression in the sense of exclusion, discrimination, and
even violence. Ultimately we want to know what resources are needed
within moral philosophy to confront and end such inequality and oppres-
sion. First, though, we need to understand the structures that create and
perpetuate our social worlds, controlling power, privilege, and disadvan-
tage. In an inf luential early contribution to American academic feminist
thought, feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye (b. 1941) insightfully used the
metaphor of a birdcage. No single wire in the cage explains why the bird
cannot escape, but the wires of the cage together create a trap. Frye suggests
that for women and other disadvantaged groups, our world is like that. No
single factor explains women’s unequal experience of the world, but many
factors working together.

It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscop-
ically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why
the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will
require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird
is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 243

would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each
other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon. (Frye, 1983, p. 5)

This description is immensely helpful. Inspired by Frye’s observation,
many feminist moral and political theorists, finding the ethics of care prob-
lematic, have instead attempted to identify and unravel the wires in the
birdcage, one by one.

All we can do here is look at examples, so let’s start with an issue that is
often identified as one wire in the cage: pornography. The problem has been
insightfully discussed by the radical feminist lawyer and philosopher Catha-
rine MacKinnon (b. 1946), who developed her analysis in collaboration with
feminist Andrea Dworkin (1946–2005). Traditional conservative opposition
to pornography takes at least three main forms: (a) the argument that por-
nography is obscene; (b) the claim that those who use pornography are more
likely to commit sexual assaults, including rape; and (c) the assertion that
pornography harms the user, encouraging deviant sexuality and infidelity.
These arguments have been used to draw the conclusion that pornography
should be restricted or even banned.

MacKinnon has little sympathy for the first argument, that pornography
offends common standards of decency, for those standards themselves can
be questioned for suppressing and shaming women’s sexuality. She does
regard the second claim, that pornography can lead to sexual violence, as
important; and she also accepts that pornography can damage relationships
and expectations, typically to the detriment of women. We should note,
though, that she distinguishes pornography, which she defines as graphic,
sexually explicit subordination of women whether in pictures or words, from
eroticism, which treats all participants as equals. Thus she is criticizing por-
nography in the sense defined, and not eroticism. However, MacKinnon’s
distinctive contribution is to draw our attention to two other arguments
that seem much more forceful even though they have tended to be ignored
in the debate.

One of these arguments is that, through interviews and memoirs, it has
become clear that many women who take part in pornography— especially
in violent pornographic films— say they do so out of coercion. Some of these
women have become addicted to drugs (sometimes encouraged by the por-
nographers) and have no other way of feeding their addiction. These and
other women are often bullied, threatened, and manipulated by powerful
men. This is especially true for undocumented migrants. The harm to these
women is significant and cannot be ignored; yet, before MacKinnon, their
situation was rarely even mentioned in the debate.

244 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Equally important is another argument: that the existence of violent forms
of pornography helps reinforce a social environment in which women are
treated as existing to serve men’s purposes, to the great detriment of their own
life experience and prospects. In a comment about having the right concepts
and vocabulary (predating Jaggar’s, quoted above), MacKinnon remarks:

In pornography, there it is, in one place, all of the abuses that women had
to struggle so long even to begin to articulate, all the unspeakable abuse: the
rape, the battery, the sexual harassment, the prostitution, and the sexual
abuse of children. Only in the pornography it is called something else: sex,
sex, sex, sex, and sex, respectively. Pornography sexualizes rape, battery, sex-
ual harassment, prostitution, and child sexual abuse; it thereby celebrates,
promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes them. (1985, pp. 16–17)

One frequent response to this comment is that it is ridiculous to blame
pornography for the subordination of women and the hostile and discrim-
inatory environment that many women face. Advertising, the movies, TV,
the workplace, and many other aspects of ordinary social life could well
contribute just as much, so why single out pornography? But remember
the birdcage analogy. No single wire explains why the bird is trapped, and
removing just one wire probably will not allow an escape. But doing so— in
this case, by challenging pornography— is one element in a broader program
of countering structural injustices that work against women.

Feminism and Science
Pornography and other practices such as advertising are obvious targets for
feminists. But many other less obvious practices can have similar effects and
need careful examination. The birdcage that traps women is made of many
different wires. Consider science, for example. Now, the whole idea of a fem-
inist critique of science fills some people with scorn and even anger. Surely,
it is said, science is an objective, rational inquiry; thus the idea of analyzing
science from a gendered point of view is misguided, perhaps ideological. San-
dra Harding remarks that “neither God nor tradition is privileged with the
same credibility as scientific rationality in modern cultures” (1986, p. 16). But
science can certainly be analyzed from a feminist point of view.

First, and most obviously, science has been male dominated. Historically,
when women were attracted to practical activities, they were diverted to
take up cooking or dressmaking rather than technical science. As Harding
points out, many women have not seen science as a desirable occupation
for themselves or other women (1986, p. 53). Many people know about the
work of Marie Curie (1867–1934), who won two Nobel Prizes, developed the

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 245

theory of radioactivity, and discovered the elements polonium and radium.
But most people would find it difficult to name a second woman scientist, at
least not without thinking hard. We could put this down to a generally sexist
culture that would have its effects in science as in everywhere else. But even
today, women are much less represented in scientific fields than they are in,
say, law, politics, or the arts. Could there be something about how science is
conducted that makes it less appealing to women or that makes it less likely
for a woman than a man to succeed? We will return to this question.

A second issue centers on how science represents the nature of women,
especially in relation to men. Of course biological science has to demonstrate
the anatomical differences between men and women. But this effort can be
pushed further than the evidence warrants. Consider, for example, “hys-
teria,” once believed to be a medical condition. The behavior was thought
to be related to the “wandering uterus,” which broke free from its normal
position, and hence was seen exclusively in females. Of course, no physi-
cal evidence was ever found for such a view. The uterus does not wander
around. Later theories suggested that hysteria was a psychological condition,
again predominantly female. Today hysteria is not believed to be a useful
medical category.

This account of hysteria is often told as a type of historical curiosity about
the charming and bizarre old days before modern science swept away a
whole host of medical myths. But it has a much more sinister side. Many
women with genuine and legitimate points to make were diagnosed as suf-
fering from hysteria. Their impassioned arguments for justice, such as votes
for women, were explained away by a roaming uterus or overf lowing of
hormones, and so they could— and should— be ignored. Pseudoscientific
accounts describing the female nature served to justify women’s domina-
tion and exclusion. Yet these claims hardly seem objective or rational, for
they are pure speculations unsupported by what would normally count as
scientific evidence.

The story of hysteria undermines the self- image of science: that scientists
are always engaged in a curiosity- driven enterprise requiring obsessive,
hyperintelligent, but rather eccentric and unworldly individuals to spend
their lives in the lab engaged in going wherever the evidence and their exper-
iments push them. In reality, though, much of science has other motiva-
tions: military success, political advantage (for example, the space race), and
obviously, commercial gain— or, as in the case of the invention of hysteria,
to maintain existing social order. Even when these goals are not directly
discriminatory, given the ways that men and women are typically socialized,

246 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

they are closer to “male” rather than “female” values. It must be said, of
course, that many men do not accept these goals, and many women do.

In any case, the self- image of science as a realm of pure reason, logic,
argument, evidence, and objectivity should be scrutinized. Many scientists
have been known to hold on to their pet theory long after obtaining evidence
that it is wrong. Often a theory will be popular not because of the evidence,
but because of the charisma or domineering character of the person who
holds it. Some scientific views are “fashionable” and others “unfashionable.”
Some lines of research are pursued because they are more likely to lead
to fame and prizes; others are abandoned. This is hardly a pure realm of
“objectivity” or “rationality.”

Hence we have a twin attack here. First, the practice of science does not
live up to its aspirational scientific values. Second, those aspirational values
are biased toward the values that men have been socialized to prioritize:
objectivity, rationality, competition, novelty, and technology. Along with
these values we need to recognize many others such as empathy, in the form
of a concern especially for the neglected; humility, in that human powers
are limited; and democracy, allowing science to follow the values of society
rather than suppose that it has its own entirely independent logic.

We can summarize the feminist critique of science as emphasizing that
science is a social practice rather than a “special” realm of life shielded from
ordinary concerns. As a social practice, it has internal values that can be
debated and questioned. Most critically, however, social practices tend to dis-
tribute and reinforce power: Some people are insiders, others are outsiders;
some people can set the agenda, others can only follow. And once a society
acknowledges these points, it can see how women, and female values, have
been excluded from science. For all its prestige, science as it has traditionally
been practiced turns out to be a wire in the birdcage trapping women.

Morality and Power
With the model of science in mind, we can see that morality— in the sense
of our ordinary commonsense moral beliefs and attitudes— can be viewed
as a social practice too. Like science, morality has the potential to favor some
groups over others and to reflect the values of the more dominant groups.
In this book we have already seen such criticisms of morality. Friedrich
Nietzsche supposed that morality is a conspiracy of the weak against the
strong. Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau supposed it is a conspiracy
of the rich against the poor, who are kept in place by traditional morality.

The feminist critique of morality echoes the ideas of Marx and Rous-
seau, but it suggests that traditional morality is a device for enabling men to

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 247

exercise power over women. The political theorist Carole Pateman (b. 1940),
for example, has explicitly extended Rousseau’s argument in this way, argu-
ing that women are kept in their subservient place by a type of “sexual
contract” (Pateman 1988). Mary Wollstonecraft objected to an idea of “femi-
nine virtue,” saying that women were taught to be soft, pleasing, and allur-
ing, acquiring “gentleness of manners, forbearance, and long suffering”
(1792/2009, p. 42) while men were brought up to be tough, knowledgeable,
and independent.

These differences in what were considered morally appropriate virtues
sealed the different fates of men and women for the rest of their lives. And
they were cemented by a further element of traditional morality— the allo-
cation of men to the role of moral experts or leaders.

As we noted, for most of human history religious leaders have been our
moral experts, and they have been almost exclusively men. This seizure
of power by men is self- reinforcing: Women were taught that their moral
duty was to obey their husbands and fathers while men were taught that
their duty was to be head of the household and command other family

We may feel that we have come a long way in recent decades, but we
must recognize that the gender power structures of traditional morality are
still with us in many ways. In many cultures, women are still trained to be
emotional, submissive, and alluring while men are brought up to be rational,
independent, and self- confident. And these traits will affect many aspects
of later life, including career choice and advancement.

Critique of Moral Philosophy
The feminist critique of traditional morality that we are currently exam-
ining started from the idea that morality is a social practice. As such it is
potentially a wire in the birdcage of female oppression. We can deepen the
critique even further by exploring the claim that moral philosophy is also a
social practice. This means that moral philosophy itself, even when used for
liberating purposes, is “gendered” in a way that is unfair to women.

Consider, in parallel to our ref lections on science, the place of women in
moral philosophy. We have explored the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas
Hobbes, John Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Bentham, Mill, and others. All
of them are men (and curiously, most of them never married). Even in a dis-
cussion of feminism in philosophy, the central early figure is Plato, and John
Stuart Mill is a much- discussed more modern thinker. True, Mary Woll-
stonecraft is also a key figure. Many more women, some of them discussed
in this book, have contributed to both moral philosophy and feminism in the

248 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

past 100 years, and other earlier feminists are now being rediscovered. But
the example of John Stuart Mill is particularly interesting in this context. As
we noted, there is wide suspicion— even if no proof— that his central text on
women (The Subjection of Women, 1869) was cowritten with his wife, Harriet
Taylor (1807–58); but her name is left off. The standard explanation is that
prejudices of the day meant that including her name would cause the book
to be taken less seriously, even if Mill’s name remained.

Why has moral philosophy been so inhospitable to women until rela-
tively recently? One possible answer is that it is no worse in this respect
than other fields of philosophy— or, indeed, than other fields of intellectual
inquiry more generally. But nevertheless, it is surprising that, of all fields,
moral philosophy has not been more open to women. It is hard to justify
why women should have had less success in moral philosophy than in, for
example, literature. But women arguably have been “bullied out” of moral
philosophy by its emphasis on the importance of reason (in the Kantian
tradition) and calculation (in the utilitarian tradition), combined with the
sexist prejudice that only men are capable of calm, logical thought at the
highest level. Hence moral philosophy became “colonized” by male values
to the exclusion of women.

In the 20th century, with the revival of virtue ethics (partially led by
female philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Rosa-
lind Hursthouse), women finally achieved a leading role in the discipline.
This work has accelerated as attention became focused on topics in bioethics
and applied ethics. Female moral philosophers are at the forefront, from
feminist and nonfeminist perspectives, of issues such as abortion, repro-
ductive rights, surrogate motherhood, and pornography. Perhaps the field
was open because men had ignored moral issues that primarily affected
women. Hence women took the lead on these topics; and now, equally with
men, they are focused on many other topics too. Although good progress
has been made, sadly, moral philosophy has until recently been yet another
wire in the birdcage.

Beyond the Binary Divide
Carol Gilligan’s work, we saw, has been used to argue that there are distinc-
tively different female and male ways of approaching moral problems. We
have seen this claim relaxed somewhat to avoid essentialism, but neverthe-
less it seems to be based on two related assumptions: (a) The distinction
between “female” and “male” is clear (that it is exhaustive and exclusive);
and (b) all members of the same sex have enough in common that it is

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 249

reasonable to talk about a single female morality and a single male morality.
Both assumptions are problematic.

First, we are increasingly realizing that the biological categories man/
woman and the social categories male/female do not encompass the range
of human life. This has been emphasized in the work of people such as
the philosopher Judith Butler (b. 1956) in Gender Trouble (1990); the gender
studies theorist Anne Fausto- Sterling (b. 1944) in Sexing the Body (2000);
and writer Jeffrey Eugenides (b. 1960) in his novel Middlesex (2003). Some
human beings have physical characteristics of both sexes, placing them in
an intersex category, and others undergo surgery to change sex. Gender,
arguably, is even more f luid. There are many examples of men taking on a
female persona, and vice versa. Sometimes this is done secretly, sometimes
overtly. In addition, a significant number of people are uncomfortable with
being classified as either male or female. People who do not fall into conven-
tional sex or gender classifications often face forms of discrimination, which
creates a range of moral problems. Their existence causes difficulty for any
theory that supposes all human beings can be assigned to a clear gender
category regardless of whether it matches their biological sex.

An even greater challenge to the attempt to construct a single feminist
ethic is the existence of human diversity. Just as the world has been con-
structed with a bias toward financially secure, white, heterosexual, Western,
able- bodied men, some critics have argued that the feminist challenge has
been biased toward financially secure, white, heterosexual, Western, able-
bodied women. For example, a perennial concern of the feminist movement
has been the exclusion of women from the workplace and their direction
toward “refined” hobbies such as needlework and painting with watercolors.

But consider the words of Sojourner Truth (c. 1798–1883), an African
American woman born into slavery before gaining her freedom, in a speech
entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?” (delivered in 1851):

I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I
have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any
man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I
can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am
as strong as any man that is now.

Sojourner Truth, in effect, points out that the problems of her social world
are so far removed from the problems of the female white elite that what
divides them may be more important than what they have in common.

And of course gender and race are not the only salient categories. Audrey
Lorde lists sexual preference, class, and age as additional sources of different

250 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

experience, and others have had added issues of health and disability. The
term intersectionality was coined by the civil rights law academic and activ-
ist Kimberlé Crenshaw (b. 1959) to draw attention to those who belong to
more than one disadvantaged category and to highlight the complex ways in
which disadvantage interacts. To comprehend Sojourner Truth’s oppression,
it is not enough to understand female inequality and racial injustice. As a
black woman, she suffers a fate that cannot be understood by combining
the disadvantages suffered by white women and black men. The idea, then,
that a single moral approach— whether the ethics of care or the ethics of
justice— can address the situation of all women looks highly problematic.

In earlier chapters, when examining the treatment of women in the major
moral traditions, we also looked at the treatment of race. Writers of African
descent, such as the pioneering African American philosopher W. E. B. Du
Bois (1868–1963), have contributed significantly to bringing issues of racial
injustice to the fore. Du Bois showed that the abolition of slavery was only
one step toward racial equality, and to this day the journey remains far from
complete. Discrimination and oppression continue to crush black aspira-

Recently philosophers have rightly been appalled by racial discrimina-
tion. They have discussed the ethical acceptability and practical use of strat-
egies such as affirmative action, especially in the workplace and education.
They also express concern about media stereotyping directed at people of
minority races, in addition to more general instances of unconscious bias
and discrimination. The birdcage analogy is not restricted in scope to issues
of gender; it also applies to all those who suffer from racial discrimination,
because many diverse factors conspire to frustrate their goals and ambitions.

Nevertheless, nothing analogous to the ethics of care in moral philosophy
has yet been developed as a way of attempting to capture the moral think-
ing of people of non- European descent. But of course as soon as the issue
is formulated, the failings of a single theory are likely to become obvious.
Although it was possible to suppose (even if it may not be true) that all
women share something that underpins a common approach to morality, it
would be absurd— and in itself deeply racist— to suppose that all people of
non- European descent share something that could ground a moral theory
in opposition to standard moral theories. It would be equally problematic
to think that all black people, or all brown people, share some common
approach to morality.

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 251

Recent philosophers who are turning their attention to race have, there-
fore, looked for more universal moral theories to capture what they believe
an ethics of race should be. This effort parallels the move we saw in feminist
ethics, turning away from the ethics of care to more universal Kantian or
social contract theory. With regard to the ethics of race, Naomi Zack, for
example, has taken elements from theories of natural law, utilitarianism,
Kantian ethics, and virtue ethics (Zack, 2011). Charles Mills has argued
for an extension of the theory of the social contract (Mills, 1990). Both phi-
losophers point out that many moral theories have implicitly operated by
distinguishing between the “fully human” and the “less than fully human,”
thereby treating anyone who is not a white male as a second class citizen,
or even non- citizen. But of course the theories need to be fully universal to
incorporate all people of all genders and races.

Zack sets out several principles that an ethics of race would need to incor-
porate, starting from this idea: “An ethics of race would have as its units
human individuals and would assume the intrinsic value and freedom of
every human individual” (2011, p. 167). This remark may seem so obvious as
barely to need stating, but the tragedy is that although moral philosophers
have often given lip service to this idea, in developing their theories they
often failed to deliver what they promised. And this situation has a further
problematic effect. A theory that is universal on the surface, but subtly racist
or sexist at another level, can be harder to confront and oppose than one that
is explicitly discriminatory.

However, race theorists know that once we try to appeal to a universal
moral code, the risk of overlooking a specific problem or concern increases.
We could hardly have a better example than the recent “Black Lives Matter”
campaign to draw attention to the shocking number of people of African
American descent— many of them unarmed— killed by the police in the
United States. One common response to this campaign has been to reply
that “All Lives Matter,” and so it is unnecessary, deliberatively provocative,
or even borderline racist to pick out one race in this way. Therefore, it has
been said, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” should be dropped, and instead
we should reinforce the universal message that all human beings matter.
The problem with this approach, however, is that the campaign is needed
precisely because the idea that all lives matter has not been enough to stop
the disproportionate killing of black people. A universal morality provides
a type of cover for ignoring, either willfully or by neglect, the cases of spe-
cial concern. It is, says, Judith Butler in a 2015 blog interview with African
American philosopher George Yancy (b. 1961), “important to name the lives
that have not mattered.”

252 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Both Naomi Zack and Charles Mills, therefore, argue that a universal
morality has to be supplemented with a project of repair that will involve
considerable redistribution of material and social resources to put all people
on an equal footing. There is much to discuss and argue about in detail. But
if we remain content with a universal morality without taking history into
account, although we will have made some theoretical progress, in practice
we risk sliding back to where we started. Even if we adopted a fully universal
morality tomorrow, the distribution of wealth, jobs, and power would still
ref lect the racist and sexist beliefs and practices of the previous decades.

What, then, can be done? Critique is one thing; change is another. Although
we have not gone into the details, it is not hard to see that from the stand-
point of natural law theory, social contract theory, utilitarianism, Kantian
theory, or virtue ethics, existing forms of structural injustice for women,
people of color, and other disadvantaged groups cannot be morally justified.
Stated another way, all moral theories discussed in this book can be used
to object to the entrapment of people from disadvantaged groups in Frye’s
birdcage. This, in its way, is a powerful result. But recalling Audre Lorde’s
message that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”
we need to raise the question of whether existing moral philosophy is able
to end the forms of discrimination that undoubtedly still exist.

To make some headway on this issue, for purposes of illustration, we will
return to the example of science: What could be done to reform the unjust
social practices of science so that it is no longer a wire in the birdcage that
perpetuates inequality for women? The obvious point is that scientific prac-
tice will have to change. But who is responsible for making that change? No
one is in charge of science, even though it includes powerful organizations
such as universities, learned societies, and the Nobel Prize committee. But
although these groups can show leadership, their power is limited. Ulti-
mately, each scientist will need to change his or her behavior.

Yet from the viewpoint of ordinary morality, it seems tough to blame any
individual scientist for women’s lack of inclusion in science. Any given sci-
entist could personally be antisexist, even a political activist, but at the same
time find that the best people to work with all just happen to be men. Do we
want to blame this individual for perpetuating a sexist, scientific culture?
It would seem unfair to single anyone out as being especially responsible,
unless their actions are deliberate; but if we do not, then how are we to
change anything? As we can see, a characteristic of structural injustice is

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 253

that it makes responsibility very hard to locate because it is highly diffuse
and shared.

The feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (1949–2006) argued that
ordinary morality implicitly relies on what can be called a “liability” theory
of responsibility, in which an individual has to be particularly implicated
in wrongdoing before it is legitimate to blame them (Young, 2003). In this
respect, ordinary moral understanding is an obstacle to social progress
because no change will be made in the type of case we have just discussed.
Young suggests that in such circumstances, we need to move beyond the
idea of blame to what she calls the political responsibility model, where we
all bear responsibility for making whatever change is within our grasp. In
this view, we should be less interested in the backward- looking question of
who is to blame for injustice and concentrate instead on the forward- looking
question of who is in a position to make beneficial changes. Without wish-
ing to blame anyone, we can nevertheless call for everyone to review their
practices and to take seriously the possibility that they are contributing to
a set of practices that hold back women, people of color, or other disadvan-
taged groups. We cannot go into detail here about what this step would
mean; but we can see that Young is proposing, at the level of moral theory,
a change in our moral thinking that can push people into action that will
improve social practices. Hence we can see the potential power of moral phi-
losophy not just to analyze and critique, but to make the world a better place.

At the beginning of this chapter, we reviewed the discussion of gender
and race in previous chapters. We then looked in more detail at the ethics
of care. This view has been proposed as a moral philosophy that is more
faithful to the way women approach moral philosophy than is the ethics of
principle (or justice) found in utilitarian and Kantian moral theory. While
recognizing the attractions of the ethics of care in terms of making room
for relational, emotional, and contextual reasoning in contrast to abstrac-
tion, we considered the dangers of “essentializing” gender roles and values.
The distinction between sex and gender was introduced to bring out the
difference between biological and social characteristics of men and women.

Most feminist philosophers acknowledge that, while the ethics of care
makes an important contribution, on its own this approach is not enough
to combat sex inequality and discrimination. Some have revived forms of

254 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Kantian or social contract reasoning. An important step toward developing
a more comprehensive approach is to understand the social structures that
sustain and reinforce injustice. We discussed the metaphor of a birdcage
in explaining that many separate factors combine to entrap members of
disadvantaged groups. We then looked at possible examples of “wires” in
the birdcage, including pornography, science, ordinary morality, and even
moral philosophy.

We also explored the less- developed field of the ethics of race. There is
good reason to use universal moral principles in this field, provided that
they are genuinely universal in the sense of encompassing all people and
not just financially secure white males. At the same time, it is vital not to
let the special concerns of disadvantaged groups become submerged and

Many different strategies will be needed to address problems of race
and gender. These include developing a new language that will allow us to
describe and oppose discriminatory and unjust practices, and generating
new ideas of moral responsibility to motivate action. Moral philosophy can
inspire and stimulate real social change.

Key Terms

ethics of justice, p. 233

ethics of care, p. 233

natural caring, p. 235

essentialism, p. 237

sex, p. 237

gender, p. 237

direct discrimination, p. 240

indirect discrimination, p. 240

sexual harassment, p. 242

birdcage, p. 242

intersectionality, p. 250

political responsibility model, p. 253

Key Thinkers

Carol Gilligan (b. 1936), pp. 234–239, 248

Aristotle (384–322 bce), pp. 232–235

Plato (429?–347 bce), p. 232

John Stuart Mill (1806–73), pp. 232, 247–248

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), pp. 233–234

Sandra Harding (b. 1935), pp. 233, 244

Naomi Zack (b. 1944), pp. 233, 251–252

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 255

Charles Mills (b. 1951), pp. 233, 251–252

Rosalind Hursthouse (b. 1943), pp. 234, 248

Nel Noddings (b. 1929), pp. 234–236, 239

Alison Jaggar (b. 1942), pp. 234, 242

Virginia Held (b. 1929), pp. 235–236

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–87), p. 236

Annette Baier (1929–2012), pp. 237, 239

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), pp. 237–238

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97), pp. 239, 241, 247

Audre Lorde (1934–82), pp. 240–242, 249

Jean Hampton (1954–96), p. 237

John Rawls (1921–2002), p. 241

Susan Moller Okin (1946–2004), p. 241

Carol Hay, p. 241

Marilyn Frye (b. 1941), pp. 242–243

Catharine MacKinnon (b. 1946), p. 243

Andrea Dworkin (1946–2005), p. 243

Marie Curie (1867–1934), p. 245

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), pp. 246–247

Karl Marx (1818–83), p. 246

Jean- Jacques Rousseau (1712–88), p. 246–247

Carole Pateman (b. 1940), p. 247

Harriet Taylor (1807–58), p. 248

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001), p. 248

Philippa Foot (1920–2010), p. 248

Judith Butler (b. 1956), pp. 249, 251

Anne Fausto- Sterling (b. 1944), p. 249

Jeffrey Eugenides (b. 1960), p. 249

Sojourner Truth (c. 1798–1883), pp. 249–250

Kimberlé Crenshaw (b. 1959), p. 250

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), p. 250

George Yancy (b. 1961), p. 251

Iris Marion Young (1949–2006), p. 253

256 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Further Reading
■ Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice is available in a revised edition by
Harvard University Press (1993).

■ A new edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published
by Vintage (2011), translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-
Chevallier. (Original work published 1949)

■ Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism was published by
Cornell University Press (1986).

■ Naomi Zack’s The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality After the History of
Philosophy was published by Rowman & Littlefield (2011).

■ Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract was published by Cornell University
Press (1990).

■ Nel Noddings’s Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Educa-
tion (2nd ed.) is available from the University of California Press (2013).

■ Alison Jaggar’s paper “Feminism in Ethics: Moral Justification” was pub-
lished in The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy (pp. 225–244),
edited by Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby (Cambridge University
Press, 2000).

■ Virginia Held’s The Ethics of Care was published by Oxford University
Press (2006).

■ Annette Baier’s paper “The Need for More Than Justice” was published
in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 17(suppl. 1), 1987: 41–56.

■ Jean Hampton’s “Feminist Contractarianism” is included in A Mind of
One’s Own (2nd ed.), edited by Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt (Westview
Press, 2002).

■ Mary Wollstonecraft is quoted from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
(W. W. Norton, 2009). (Original work published 1792)

■ Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (2nd ed.) is published by Random House
(2007). (Original work published 1984)

■ John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (rev. ed.) was published by Harvard Uni-
versity Press (1999). (Original work published 1971)

■ Susan Moller Okin’s paper “Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences”
was published in Political Theory, 22, 1994: 5–24.

Chapter 14: The Ethics of Gender and Race ■ 257

■ Carol Hay’s feminist reworking of Kant’s moral philosophy is set out in
her Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting Oppression (Palgrave,

■ Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory was pub-
lished by Crossing Press (1983).

■ Catharine MacKinnon is quoted from “Pornography, Civil Rights, and
Speech,” Harvard Civil Rights– Civil Liberties Law Review, 20, 1985: 10–68.

■ Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract was published by Stanford Univer-
sity Press (1988).

■ Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (2nd  ed.) was published by Routledge
(2006). (Original work published 1990)

■ Anne Fausto- Sterling’s Sexing the Body was published by Basic Books

■ Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex was published by Picador (2002).

■ Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” was retrieved February 8,
2017, from
-rights-convention-speech-text/ (Original speech delivered 1851)

■ W. E. B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk is available in an edition by W. W.
Norton (1999).

■ George Yancy’s interview with Judith Butler “What’s Wrong With ‘All
Lives Matter’?” was retrieved February  8, 2017, from http://opinionator whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/?_r=0

■ Iris Marion Young’s views on political responsibility can be found in
“Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice,” the Lindley Lecture deliv-
ered at the University of Kansas (May 5, 2003). Young’s paper is included
in Jonathan Wolff (ed.), Readings in Moral Philosophy (W. W. Norton, 2018).
This volume also contains many of the readings listed above, including
those from De Beauvoir, Held, Baier, Rawls, Wollstonecraft, MacKinnon,
Lorde, Du Bois, and Yancy and Butler.

Truth, “Address at the Woman’s Rights Convention,” Speech Text

Truth, “Address at the Woman’s Rights Convention,” Speech Text


C H A P T E R   1 5

Developing a Moral Outlook

In the first chapters of this book, we looked at a number of philosophical
challenges to moral philosophy: whether morality is culturally relative;
whether we should be skeptics or subjectivists about morality; and whether
we lack free will. The point of looking at these views was, initially, to see
whether any of them stopped moral philosophy in its tracks. And on reflec-
tion we can now see that for two reasons, this was not so. Take, for example,
the claim that morality is culturally relative. First of all, we saw that this view
is not obviously true; in fact, it turns out to be remarkably difficult to formu-
late and defend. Consequently, even the attempt to short- circuit moral phi-
losophy becomes a complex exercise in moral philosophy. Secondly, though,
even if we think there is good reason to believe that morality is culturally
relative, we will still experience times when we need to know what to do in
difficult circumstances. Moral philosophy comes back in once more.

In thinking about how the moral person should act, we looked at religious
and natural law morality, at ethical egoism, and at the theory of the social
contract. We then looked in much more detail at the work of Jeremy Ben-
tham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Aristotle, four of the most
significant figures in moral philosophy. We discussed these philosophers
more or less in reverse chronological order because utilitarianism is prob-
ably the easiest of the theories to understand. It also has the greatest ambi-
tion: to provide a simple theory that can solve all our moral problems.

The difficulty that utilitarianism can apparently lead to injustice brought
us to consider Kant’s view. His theory also has the advantage of providing a
systematic way of approaching moral questions while avoiding injustices of
the sorts that utilitarianism, arguably, allows. But the Kantian approach, at
least as Kant himself interpreted it, seemed in some cases overly rigorous
and inf lexible (for example, in not permitting lying to murderers).

Aristotle provided a much more f lexible approach, concentrating on the
nature of a virtuous person rather than providing rules of action. Aristotle
helps us appreciate that the point of thinking about ethics is not simply to
help us out in tricky moral cases. Perhaps even more importantly, it helps

Chapter 15: Developing a Moral Outlook ■ 259

us understand how we should live our lives. But his failure to provide rules
will make many readers think he has not achieved what people want in a
moral philosophy. We also saw the rather problematic relationship between
the views of all these thinkers and the demand for equality for those who
fall outside the scope of the group of privileged white men.

Some readers nevertheless will think that one of the philosophers dis-
cussed here has come to the truth about ethics, perhaps because the objec-
tions are not important or because the objections can be answered. Those
readers will want to delve much further into the thinking of those who
interest them most. Others will come to the view that none of the views dis-
cussed here has arrived at the truth about morality; they will want to explore
the work of other theorists, or perhaps even develop elements of their own
original moral philosophy.

I will end this book with a few words about what I personally take from the
discussion of the great moral philosophers. It is customary now in moral
philosophy to present three “great traditions” of moral thinking: utilitari-
anism, Kantian deontology, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. It is also implied
that a serious student of moral philosophy has to make a choice between
them: Are you a utilitarian, deontologist, or virtue ethicist, in pure or per-
haps modified form? Later chapters of this book may well have encouraged
this approach, for seeing the theorists as competitors is probably the best
way of comprehending their ideas. An alternative approach, however, tries
to show that at the most fundamental level, different theories are compatible
with each other. One example we discussed was Roy Harrod’s development
of rule utilitarianism, which attempted to incorporate Kantian deontology
into utilitarianism. Arguably, John Stuart Mill attempted something simi-
lar; other writers continue to publish papers and books that attempt to show
deep underlying connections between different theories.

My own approach is somewhat different. I find it hard to believe that
any of the theories offered provides “the whole truth” about morality. At
the same time, I cannot accept that any of the authors studied in this book
are completely wrong. Their depth of thought and intelligence, and the
attention— often over decades— they gave to the topics discussed makes it
extremely unlikely that they have found nothing of importance. In my view
the most common mistake in philosophy is to have found part of the truth,
but think you have found it all. Yet this does not mean that it will be easy to

260 ■ An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

put different insights together into a single theory. Rather, we might need
to take parts of different theories to generate a general position.

So, what inspires my own moral outlook from the philosophers studied in
later chapters of this book? From Bentham and Mill, I find it helpful to keep
in mind the idea that if something cannot be shown to be bad for human
beings or other sentient creatures, then it is very hard to understand why it
should be thought wrong. Take, for example, the case of shops opening on
Sundays. In my childhood in England, it was against the law for most shops
to open on Sundays. Two different arguments were given for this policy. One
was that Sunday is “the Lord’s day” and should be observed. The second was
that opening shops on Sundays disrupted the family lives of those who found
themselves forced to work on Sundays as a condition of their employment.
Based on the ideas of Bentham and Mill, the first argument has no general
weight. Those who wish to observe Sundays can simply make that choice for
themselves and have no business imposing their view on others. However,
the second argument needs to be taken more seriously. Disruption to family
life can have significant consequences if families do not have the opportunity
to spend time together and, for example, children do not get the support they
need. There are, of course, arguments on the other side, such as the boost to
trade and tourism and general convenience that would follow from Sunday
opening. Those arguments won the day; Sunday trading became permitted,
although with some restrictions. But, as Bentham and Mill would insist, the
argument has to be conducted in light of what harms and benefits people,
rather than what is required to follow religious traditions.

Bentham and Mill, then, make us focus on the consequences of our
actions and policies: What causes people harm, and what benefits them?
The greatest difficulty for the utilitarian position, though, is that the max-
imizing doctrine can lead to injustice. The Kantian moral position can be
used as a corrective; and, as argued above, even those who reject the Kantian
approach as the basis of their moral position can, as I do, take inspiration
from at least two of Kant’s insights.

First, the formula of the universal law asks whether you can will that the
maxim of your action should become a universal law. Despite the problems in
interpretation and application, the Kantian view makes you think about how
you can justify your actions to others— and, in particular, renders problem-
atic anything that will involve coercion or deceit. We might not want to push
this all the way and say that coercion and deceit can never be allowed, but we
would need a special argument to defend such practices in particular cases.
The second of Kant’s insights is the formula of humanity, which includes the

Chapter 15: Developing a Moral Outlook ■ 261

idea of never treating others purely as a means to your ends. This formula
rules out some of the injustices that utilitarianism seems forced to accept
(those who are punished even though innocent are being treated as a means).
It helps you consider what it would be like to have morally decent relations
with those around you. It also requires you to be bound by your commit-
ments, even if later you see advantages to breaking your word, for example.
Yet at the same time, I accept much of the feminist “care” critique of Kantian
(and utilitarian) ethics: We need to pay much more attention to the nature of
relations between people, and to our emotional life, and to acknowledge the
complexity of many of the moral situations we find ourselves in.

Finally, I take from Aristotle three main points. First, the distinction
between a good life and a morally good life is more blurred than philoso-
phers sometimes make it. A morally good life should also be a pleasurable
life, as it will be for someone with the right upbringing. This leads to a
second point: Ethics is about individual character as well as action. There-
fore serious ethical questions are involved in the attitudes we have about
ourselves and other people, and in the appropriate emotions to have on
particular occasions in our dealings with others and with moral problems.
Finally, the third point I take from Aristotle is that we cannot expect pre-
cision in morality, nor can we expect to find a moral code that provides all
the answers we need. But once more, we must attend to the feminist insight
that both morality and moral philosophy are social practices that can exclude
women or even lead to their domination. We must always think about how
anything we do can exclude or marginalize people who do not have access
to the same privileges that we have.

I don’t pretend that in taking different ideas from different moral philos-
ophers, I have somehow reconciled their views. Furthermore, taking parts
from different theories is bound to generate difficult questions about what
to do on a particular occasion. What would the great moral philosophers
make of what I have said? Bentham and Mill would probably argue that
the picture I am painting is really only utilitarianism in disguise, taken in
the long term. Kant, most likely, would have dismissed it as a “disgusting
hodge- podge” of popular ideas. Aristotle would probably have been more
forgiving, thinking that I was at least on my way to moral maturity, even if
I had not achieved it yet. In particular he would have approved of using the
writings of the great philosophers as a way of developing a moral outlook
on life rather than studying them as a type of purely intellectual exercise. In
this book I hope I have avoided giving the impression that moral philosophy
is merely an academic pursuit.


key thinkers

Anscombe, Elizabeth (1919–2001). An important twentieth-century English
philosopher who wrote on many topics but especially was noted for her work in
philosophy of mind and action. Her works on moral philosophy were inf luenced
by her devout Catholic faith.

Aquinas, St. Thomas (1225–74). Probably the most important theologian and
philosopher in the Catholic tradition, notable especially for his Summa Theologica
in which ethical and religious questions are treated together. A major natural law

Aristotle (384–322 bce). One of the world’s greatest and most inf luential
philosophers. He was a pupil of Plato but disagreed sharply with many of Plato’s
doctrines. His works cover a huge variety of topics, from ethics, politics, and
rhetoric to metaphysics and even biology.

Augustine, St. (354–430). An early Christian theologian and philosopher; most
notable for his books City of God and Confessions.

Ayer, A. J. (1910–89). An English philosopher best known for his early work
Language, Truth and Logic (1936), in which he introduced the philosophical writ-
ings of the Austrian “Vienna Circle” to an English-speaking audience.

Baier, Annette (1929–2012). A moral philosopher born in New Zealand. Baier spent
her working life in the United States and produced influential works on feminism.

Beauvoir, Simone de (1908–1986). A French writer and philosopher whose book
The Second Sex (1949) is a classic of feminist philosophy.

Benedict, Ruth (1887–1948). An inf luential American anthropologist; best known
for her book Patterns of Culture (1934).

Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832). An English philosopher and legal theorist who, in
his copious writings, argued for substantial legal reform around the world based
on “the greatest happiness principle,” otherwise known as utilitarianism.

Butler, Bishop Joseph (1692–1752). A theologian and moral philosopher, Butler
published much of his work in the form of sermons. He emphasized the
importance of conscience in moral belief and action.

Butler, Judith (b. 1956). A feminist philosopher and theorist of gender; best known
for her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990).

Camus, Albert (1913–60). A French philosopher and author, partially of Algerian
descent. He was especially interested in questions of individual freedom.

Carritt, E. F. (1876–1964). A twentieth-century English philosopher; known for his
critiques of utilitarianism.

K-2 ■ Key Thinkers

Constant, Benjamin (1767–1830). A Swiss French political philosopher.

Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473–1543). A Polish astronomer and mathematician who
developed a model of the universe with the sun, rather than the earth, at the center.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (b. 1959). An African American civil rights law academic and
activist, she is known for devising the concept of intersectionality.

Curie, Marie (1867–1934). A Polish French physicist and chemist who produced
fundamental work on radioactivity. Curie was the first scientist to win two Nobel

Darwin, Charles (1809–82). An English biologist and founder of the theory of
evolution as explained in his most important book, On the Origin of Species (1859).

Dawkins, Richard (b. 1941). An English biologist who popularized the theory of the
“selfish gene”; also well-known for his opposition to religion.

Dickens, Charles (1812–70). An English novelist; widely regarded as one of the
greatest writers of the nineteenth century.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (1821–81). A Russian novelist, author of books that raise and
address deep philosophical questions, including Crime and Punishment (1866), The
Brothers Karamazov (1880), and Notes from the Underground (1864).

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1868–1963). A highly influential African American philosopher;
Du Bois is the author of many important works including The Souls of Black Folk

Dworkin, Andrea (1946–2005). An American radical feminist; known especially for
her work with Catharine MacKinnon on pornography.

Epicurus (341–270 bce). An Ancient Greek philosopher, now associated with the
term epicurean—cultivated pleasure seeking—but in fact a systematic thinker
whose ideas about the search for happiness and freedom from fear were part of a
broad vision about the nature of the world and the place of human beings within it.

Eugenides, Jeffrey (b. 1960). An American novelist and short story writer, author
of the novel Middlesex (2002), which explores themes of intersexuality.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne (b. 1944). An American biologist and gender theorist known
for extending the understanding of sex and gender beyond traditional categories.

Fénelon, Archbishop François (1651–1715). A French archbishop; best known for
his novel The Adventures of Telemachus, which was said to have inf luenced the
French Revolution.

Foot, Philippa (1920–2010). An English moral philosopher who helped bring about
the revival of virtue ethics.

Frankfurt, Harry (b. 1929). An American philosopher known for his work in
defending compatibilism as well as in political philosophy. Also known for his
best-selling short book On Bullshit (2005).

Fricker, Miranda (b. 1966). A contemporary British philosopher; best known for her
book Epistemic Injustice (2007), which draws together issues in moral philosophy
and epistemology.

Frye, Marilyn (b. 1941). An American feminist philosopher who introduced the
metaphor of the birdcage into feminist analysis.

Key Thinkers ■ K-3

Gandhi, Mahatma (1869–1948). The leader of the movement for Indian indepen-
dence from British rule, Gandhi is especially noted for his advocacy of nonviolent
civil disobedience.

Gilligan, Carol (b. 1936). An American social psychologist, Gilligan is especially
noted for her book In a Different Voice (1982), which presents evidence that men
and women approach moral questions in different ways.

Godwin, William (1756–1836). An English political philosopher known especially
for his defense of anarchism.

Haidt, Jonathan (b. 1963). An American social psychologist specializing in moral

Haldane, J. B. S. (1892–1964). An English evolutionary biologist and mathematician.

Hampton, Jean (1954–96). An American political philosopher, especially noted for
her work on Thomas Hobbes and the social contract. She made important contribu-
tions to feminist contractualist theory.

Harding, Sandra (b. 1935). An American philosopher of science and feminist theorist.

Hare, Richard (1919–2002). An English political philosopher; known for his work
on the logic of moral concepts as well as his defense of utilitarianism.

Harrod, Roy (1900–78). An English economist; best known in philosophy for for-
mulating the distinction between act and rule utilitarianism.

Hay, Carol. An American feminist political philosopher who has developed a Kan-
tian form of feminism.

Held, Virginia (b. 1929). An American moral and political philosopher who has pro-
duced important works of feminist philosophy.

Herodotus (484–425 bce). An Ancient Greek writer; said to be the first historian.

Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679). A widely discussed English political philosopher;
Hobbes argued that securing peace requires a social contract to submit to absolute

Hume, David (1711–76). A Scottish philosopher who produced extremely inf luen-
tial writings across a wide range of philosophical topics, even though in his own
age he was better known as a historian.

Hursthouse, Rosalind (b. 1943). A New Zealand philosopher; an important figure
in the revival of virtue ethics.

Jaggar, Alison (b. 1942). An English-born pioneering feminist philosopher who has
spent her working life in the United States.

Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804). An exceptionally significant and inf luential philoso-
pher who wrote on many topics. Born and lived in Königsberg, Germany. Kant is
particularly noted for his fundamental but difficult writings on metaphysics,
especially his Critique of Pure Reason, but equally renowned for his rigorous,
principled approach to moral philosophy.

Kenyatta, Jomo (c. 1891–1978). The first president of Kenya. Trained as an anthropolo-
gist, he wrote a study of the Gikuyu people of Kenya called Facing Mount Kenya (1938).

Kepler, Johannes (1571–1630). A German mathematician and astronomer who
formulated laws of planetary motion.

K-4 ■ Key Thinkers

King, Martin Luther Jr. (1929–68). An African American civil rights campaigner,
advocate of nonviolent resistance, and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1927–87). An American psychologist; he introduced a theory
of stages of moral development that was criticized by Carol Gilligan.

Laplace, Pierre-Simon (1749–1827). A French astronomer and mathematician.

Libet, Benjamin (1916–2007). An American neuroscientist who developed
experiments designed to test whether human beings have free will.

Locke, John (1632–1704). A major English philosopher; a key figure in empiricist
tradition, Locke argued that all knowledge is gained by experience. Also a highly
inf luential political philosopher who argued for the natural rights of the citizen
against the power of the sovereign.

Lorde, Audre (1934–82). An African American poet, essayist, and activist.

Mackie, J. L. (1917–81). An Australian philosopher who wrote on a wide range of
philosophical topics. He is best known for his book Ethics: Inventing Right and
Wrong (1977).

MacKinnon, Catharine (b. 1946). An American lawyer, radical feminist, and activist.
She is known especially for her work with Andrea Dworkin on pornography.

Mandeville, Bernard (1670–1733). An Anglo-Dutch philosopher and economist,
author of the satirical economic text The Fable of the Bees (1714).

Maritain, Jacques (1882–1973). A French Catholic philosopher and contributor to
natural law theory.

Marx, Karl (1818–83). A German political thinker, activist, and economist who
inspired communist revolutions around the world.

McDowell, John (b. 1942). A contemporary philosopher, born in South Africa and
now working in the United States. He is especially known for his writings on eth-
ics, Greek philosophy, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

Mill, John Stuart (1806–73). Born in England but of Scottish descent, Mill was initially
a disciple of Jeremy Bentham; he later branched out to develop his own distinctive and
highly influential moral views. He wrote on a wide range of moral, political, philo-
sophical, and economic issues, including arguing for women’s emancipation.

Mills, Charles (b. 1951). A Jamaican political philosopher and race theorist who has
spent most of his working life in the United States. Mills has written several books
on racial justice, including an analysis of the social contract from the viewpoint of
race theory.

Moody-Adams, Michele. A contemporary African American moral philosopher
who has produced a detailed critical assessment of cultural relativism.

Moore, G. E. (1873–1958). An English philosopher; in the early twentieth century,
he was a key figure in the development of English-language philosophy.

Newton, Isaac (1643–1727). An English mathematician and physicist who formu-
lated laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. Newton made many
other important discoveries.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900). A German philosopher with a brilliant literary
style, Nietzsche wrote primarily on moral philosophy, religion, and the philosophy
of art. He was extremely inf luential, even though the real meaning of his writings

Key Thinkers ■ K-5

remains highly debated. He had health problems for much of his life, and for his
final ten years was incapacitated by mental illness.

Noddings, Nel (b. 1929). An American philosopher of education, especially noted
for her book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984).

Nozick, Robert (1938–2002). An American political philosopher; especially noted
for his defense of the political philosophy of libertarianism.

Ockham, William of (c. 1287–1347). A medieval English philosopher who is most
famous for Ockham’s razor: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity (i.e., we
should prefer the simplest theory). He wrote on many theological, logical, and
philosophical topics.

Okin, Susan Moller (1946–2004). Born in New Zealand, Okin was a feminist politi-
cal philosopher who spent her working life in the United States.

O’Neill, Onora (b. 1941). Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve. Born in Northern Ireland,
O’Neill is a moral philosopher especially known for her interpretation and devel-
opment of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. She was appointed to the United
Kingdom House of Lords in 1999.

Pateman, Carole (b. 1940). A British political philosopher and feminist who has spent
most of her working life in the United States. Pateman is notable for her writings on
democracy and her criticisms of the social contract from a feminist viewpoint.

Plato (429?–347 bce). It has been said that all subsequent philosophy is “footnotes
to Plato.” Plato, an Ancient Greek philosopher, stands as perhaps the most signifi-
cant of the founders of the Western philosophical tradition. He was a pupil of
Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. He wrote in dialogue form, generally featuring
Socrates as the lead figure in the debate.

Rand, Ayn (1905–82). A Russian American novelist and philosopher; Rand was
highly inf luential in American public intellectual life as a defender of free market
economics and, relatedly, a form of individualism.

Rawls, John (1921–2002). An American philosopher, regarded as the most import-
ant political philosopher writing in English in the twentieth century. Best known
for his book A Theory of Justice (1971).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–88). A highly inf luential Swiss French philoso-
pher, known especially for his writings in political philosophy, such as The Social
Contract (1762) and his treatise on education, Emile (1762).

Russell, Bertrand (1872–1970). An English philosopher and logician. He was
famous for his academic works and for being a left-wing public intellectual.

Schiller, Friedrich (1759–1805). A German poet, playwright, and philosopher.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788–1860). A German philosopher known for his pessi-
mism about the human condition. He engaged especially with the philosophy of
Immanuel Kant and was also inf luenced by Indian philosophy.

Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900). An English moral philosopher and economist; an
important defender of utilitarianism.

Singer, Marcus (1926–2016). An American moral philosopher.

Singer, Peter (b. 1946). A contemporary Australian utilitarian philosopher; known
for his uncompromising views on many issues of contemporary morality, such as
animal liberation and the moral necessity to address global poverty.

K-6 ■ Key Thinkers

Smith, Adam (1723–90). A Scottish economist and moral philosopher; particularly
known for his book The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Socrates (470/69–399 bce). An Ancient Greek philosopher, a key founder of West-
ern philosophy, who left no written works. He is known primarily as a character in
the dialogues of Plato, his student.

Stevenson, Charles Leslie (1908–79). An American moral philosopher and a lead-
ing exponent of emotivism.

Tangwa, Godfrey B. A contemporary Cameroonian philosopher who works partic-
ularly on ethics and bioethics.

Taylor, Harriet (1807–58). A feminist writer and philosopher; Taylor married John Stuart
Mill after the death of her first husband and profoundly influenced Mill’s later work.

Teresa, Mother (1910–97). An Albanian-Indian Catholic nun who devoted much of
her life to helping the poor and sick in India. Although some have questioned the
extent of her good works, she was made a saint in 2016.

Truth, Sojourner (c. 1798–1883). An African American civil rights activist. Born
into slavery, from which she escaped. Noted for her speeches, especially “Ain’t I a
Woman?” (1851).

Turing, Alan (1912–54). An English logician and mathematician. One of the inven-
tors of the modern computer, and a vitally important code-breaker in the Second
World War. In 1952 he was tried for homosexual offenses and underwent hormone
treatment. He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, most likely suicide.

Turnbull, Colin (1924–94). A British American anthropologist; known for a highly
controversial account of the Ik people in his book The Mountain People (1972).

Twain, Mark (pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens [1835–1910]). The Ameri-
can author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn (1885).

Wilde, Oscar (1854–1900). An Irish playwright. His works include The Ballad of
Reading Gaol (1898), written after his release from two years in an English prison
at hard labor for homosexual offenses.

Williams, Bernard (1929–2003). An English philosopher best known for his work in
moral philosophy. In fact he produced influential writing on a diverse range of topics.

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–97). An English political philosopher; author of A Vin-
dication of the Rights of Men (1790), soon followed by A Vindication of the Rights of
Woman (1792), a highly inf luential early feminist work. Mother of Mary Shelley,
author of Frankenstein (1818).

Wong, David (b. 1949). A Chinese American moral philosopher particularly noted
for his work defending a form of cultural relativism.

Wordsworth, William (1770–1850). A major English poet, especially noted for his
work The Prelude.

Yancy, George (b. 1961). An African American philosopher who is working on
issues in the philosophy of race.

Young, Iris Marion (1949–2006). A feminist political philosopher who produced a
wide range of influential works, including Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990).

Zack, Naomi (b. 1944). An American philosopher noted especially for her writings
on the ethics of race.



abduction. Another term for inference
to the best explanation.

act utilitarianism. A version of utilitari-
anism that defines right action in terms
of whatever action maximizes happi-
ness or utility. Compare to rule

agent causation. The idea that if
human agents have free will, then they,
as agents, cause their own actions
rather than having the ultimate cause
of their actions lie beyond their own
will or intentions in some sense.

analogy. Making a comparison
between two areas of knowledge or
investigation in the hope that what is
known about one area will bring
insight into another area.

a posteriori. Another term for empirical.

applied ethics. The exploration of a
moral issue such as the permissibility
of abortion by means of the application
of philosophical reasoning.

a priori. Known by a method, such as
logic or pure reason, independent of
sensory evidence.

argument. The application of principles
of reasoning to prove, or provide sup-
port for, one statement on the basis of
other statements.

argument by elimination. Presenting
an exhaustive set of options (i.e., a set
including all possibilities) and provid-
ing compelling objections to all but
one, thereby leaving one as the unde-
feated option.

argument from queerness. J. L.  Mackie’s
argument that objective moral values
would be such odd and unusual entities
that they could not exist.

autonomy. Generally understood as
self- rule. In Kant’s philosophy, also
related to the idea of acting for the
sake of duty, following the categorical
imperative of morality. Compare to

begging the question. Another name
for a circular argument.

birdcage. A metaphor for oppression in
which many different practices combine
to create disadvantage, even if no spe-
cific practice is individually responsible.

categorical imperative. In Kant’s
system, the fundamental principle,
or command, of morality. Compare to
hypothetical imperative.

circular argument. An argument that
uses what is intended to be the conclu-
sion as a premise in the argument.
Because it assumes what it is attempt-
ing to prove, it does not prove anything.

commonsense morality. Ordinary
moral views, which are often used as a
test for moral theories: Do they contra-
dict commonsense morality?

compatibilism. The position that it is
possible to reconcile determinism and
free will.

conscience. An apparently intuitive
belief in right and wrong that also
affects emotion, motivations, and feel-
ings of guilt.

G-2 ■ Glossary

consequentialism. Any theory that
judges the morality of an action by its
consequences. It normally defines the
right (right action) in terms of the
good. For example, utilitarianism is a
consequentialist theory because it
defines the right in terms of maximiz-
ing the good (happiness or utility).
Compare to deontology.

contingency. A truth is contingent if,
although true, we can imagine circum-
stances in which it would have been false.

contradiction. Two (or more) state-
ments that, purely for reasons of logic,
cannot all be true.

counterintuitive. A theory that supports
actions that generate negative moral
intuitions. For example, a theory that
has the consequence that it can be right
to kill innocent people is normally said
to be counterintuitive.

cultural relativism. Also known as
moral relativism or ethical relativism.
The doctrine that morality is relative to
each culture and that there is no over-
arching theory to assess or compare the
moralities of all cultures.

deontology. Defines right action in
terms of following duties, rather than
in achieving desirable consequences.
Deontological theories generally define
the right independently of the good.
Compare to consequentialism.

determinism. The denial of free will,
arguing that our choices are ultimately
determined by factors other than our

dilemma. An apparent forced choice
between two (or more) exhaustive and
exclusive options, each of which have
compelling advantages (or disadvan-
tages) but cannot both be selected.

diminishing marginal utility. The idea
that a second unit of a good typically
yields less pleasure or happiness

(utility) than the first, and so on.
Typically used as part of an argument
that maximizing utility favors equal
distribution of goods.

direct discrimination. A policy intended
to discriminate against members of a
particular group. Compare to indirect
divine command. In moral philosophy,
the idea that moral requirements are
the commands of God.
dogmatism. Adherence to a view with-
out giving proper weight to evidence or
arguments that might cast doubt on it.
emotivism. The idea that moral judg-
ments are not strictly speaking capable
of being true or false but in fact express
our emotions.
empirical. Known through sensory
epistemology. The philosophical study
of what we can know, and how we can
know it.
equivocation. Using a word in more
than one sense in an argument. Gener-
ally, to do so renders the argument
error theory. A view associated
with J. L. Mackie. It argues that moral
judgments express genuine beliefs, but
since no objective moral values exist
they are all false, for all moral judg-
ments presuppose the existence of
objective moral values.
essentialism. In the context of femi-
nist theory, normally used as an accu-
sation that typical attributes of men
and women are treated as if they are
essential, unchanging features. Oppo-
nents of this view claim that such
traits are the result of socialization,
not essence.
ethical egoism. The theory that each
individual has a moral duty to pursue
his or her own self-interest.

Glossary ■ G-3

ethics of care. Commonly associated
with feminist approaches to ethics, this
term emphasizes the importance of
relations between people and the com-
plexities of particular situations, in
opposition to the ethics of abstract
principles that look to bring different
situations under general rules. Com-
pare to ethics of justice.

ethics of justice. A formal, abstract
approach to moral reasoning, based on
the application of general principles to
particular cases. Compare to ethics of care.

eudaimonia. Aristotle’s notion of
human well- being. Sometimes trans-
lated as “happiness,” although “f lour-
ishing” may be a more accurate

exclusive. Two or more beliefs or options,
of which only one can be selected.

exhaustive. A range of options that
cover all possibilities.

expressivism. Sometimes used as a
synonym for emotivism, although some-
times used as a broader term, suggest-
ing that moral judgments express
something other than emotions, such
as attitudes.

fact/value distinction. The claim that
there is a sharp distinction between
issues of fact and issues of values,
accompanied by the claim that it is a
logical fallacy to try to derive value con-
clusions purely from factual premises.

false dilemma. Two (or more) options
presented as a dilemma, but in truth
fail to be so, normally because the
options are not exhaustive (other
options are possible) or exclusive (more
than one option can be chosen).

form of the good. Plato’s version of
moral realism, in which perfect values
exist outside the empirical world,
whereas what we encounter in the
world are imperfect copies.

free riding. The case where an individual
relies on the cooperation of others with-
out themselves offering cooperation.
free will. The idea that human beings
are able to make free choices about
their decisions and to act on those

game theory. An area of economics
and psychology that attempts to reduce
social situations to formal structures
(or “games”). Doing this allows
researchers to model the available strat-
egies and to determine, by mathemat-
ics and probability theory, which is the
optimum “move” in each case.

gender. The social roles typically asso-
ciated with masculine and feminine
behavior. Gender is generally regarded
as far more socially contingent than
biological sex.

government house utilitarianism. The
theory that although utilitarianism is
true, happiness will be maximized if
ordinary people are taught it is false and
the truth reserved for the moral elite.

group altruism. The theory that groups
whose members display altruistic con-
cern toward each other are more likely
to survive and f lourish than groups
that do not display such concern.

heteronomy. In Kant’s system, to act
heteronomously is to act on the basis of
your desires, rather than on the basis of
the moral laws. Compare to autonomy.

hypothetical imperative. A conditional
imperative, of the form “If you want to
achieve x, then do y.” According to
Kant, the imperatives of morality are
categorical imperatives (unconditional),
not hypothetical.

incompatibilism. The idea that if deter-
minism is true, then human beings lack
free will.

indirect discrimination. A policy that
causes difficulty for members of a

G-4 ■ Glossary

group although not designed to do so.
Compare to direct discrimination.

individual subjectivism. The view that
the truth about morality is to be deter-
mined by each person for himself or
herself. There are no universal moral
standards that limit or constrain what
any individual may think on moral

induction. Providing support for a gen-
eral hypothesis by observing repeated
instances of it. For example, the
hypothesis that all swans are white can
be supported through induction by
finding many examples of white swans.
However, induction is never proof.

inference to the best explanation.
Arguing for a theory on the basis that it
provides the best explanation of some
observed phenomenon. For example,
it is generally believed that the best
explanation of the correlation between
smoking and lung cancer is that smok-
ing causes lung cancer, even though
other possible explanations are also

infinite regress. Term used to describe
cases where a proposed solution to a
problem generates exactly the same
problem it is intended to solve. Hence
the problem will repeat itself to infinity
if the same solution is applied each time.

instrumental value. Something has
instrumental value if it is valued not
purely in itself but because it is likely to
help bring about something else of
intrinsic value. It is possible for some-
thing to have both intrinsic and instru-
mental value.

interpersonal comparisons of utility.
Measuring and comparing the happi-
ness of one person with that of

intersectionality. The idea that the
experience of a person who suffers

from more than one form of
oppression— for example, a black
woman— cannot be reduced to the
combination of the oppression of the
two groups to which she belongs.

intrinsic value. Something has intrinsic
value if it is valuable in itself. It is
possible for something to have both
intrinsic and instrumental value.

kin altruism. The theory that people
who are closely related are likely to
behave altruistically toward each other.
It is highly compatible with the theory
of the selfish gene.

knowledge that and knowledge how.
“Knowing that” is a shorthand term for
knowledge of a proposition: knowing
that something is true. “Knowledge
how,” in contrast, is knowing how to do
something in a practical sense. It is
generally thought that knowledge how
can be acquired without being able to
articulate exactly what you know (e.g.,
knowing how to swim is a matter of
acquiring a skill, not learning a set of

liberalism. A family of views that gives
great weight to individual liberty and
autonomy, accepting that different indi-
viduals and groups have different val-
ues. Liberalism opposes the idea that
anyone has the right to impose their
moral ideas on anyone else.

libertarianism. An ambiguous term
in philosophy; it is sometimes used as
a name for the theory that we have
free will and sometimes as a name for
a position in political philosophy that
argues for minimal government
intervention, especially in the

logical form. An argument in ordinary
speech can often be reconstructed as a
step- by- step logical argument, thereby
revealing its logical form.

Glossary ■ G-5

logical validity. An argument in which,
if the premises are true, the conclusion
must also be true. In a logically valid
argument, negation of the conclusion
contradicts the premises, and this is
how the logical validity of an argument
can be tested.

maxim of action. In Kant’s moral phi-
losophy, every action has a “maxim”
that might be thought of as the reason
for taking the action. It is used to test
whether an action is performed for
the sake of duty. The test is whether
the maxim of the action can be
meta- ethics. The study of the nature of
moral value and our knowledge of it.
metaphysics. The philosophical study of
what, ultimately, exists in the universe.
moral egoism. The theory that the
right thing for a human being to do
is always to follow his or her own
moral intuition. A reaction to a situa-
tion, whether real or a thought experi-
ment, that expresses the opinion that
what has been described is morally
acceptable or unacceptable.
moral motivation. In normal circum-
stances any action is motivated by an
agent’s belief and desires. According to
some moral theories, such as Kant’s, an
action has moral worth only if it is done
for the right moral reasons.
moral nihilism. The idea that there is
nothing to morality at all. There are no
moral truths or standards of right or
wrong action.
moral realism. A form of objectivism
claiming that values are in some sense
real objects that exist in the world.
moral sense. The idea that human
beings are able to perceive right and
wrong through some sort of built- in

natural caring. Caring that takes place
as part of normal life, such as a moth-
er’s care for her child, or family mem-
bers for each other.

natural law. The idea that certain laws
exist independent of human action.
Such laws are often believed to be dis-
coverable by natural reason.
natural reason. The idea that human
beings naturally have particular powers
of reasoning that can deliver substan-
tive conclusions independently of expe-
rience or other sources of evidence.
noncognitivism. The view that moral
judgments do not state genuine “cogni-
tions” or beliefs, and therefore cannot
be true or false. Emotivism and expres-
sivism are examples of noncognitivist
normative ethics. The study of what
morality requires of human beings.
objectivism. In moral philosophy, the
idea that statements about morality can
have a validity that goes beyond subjec-
tive opinion, often involving the idea
that moral ideas are somehow
grounded in the nature of reality or are
valid for all people at all times.
objectivity. See objectivism.
original position. The situation of
people behind the veil of ignorance.
paternalism. Overriding an individual’s
own choices on the grounds that
another course of action would be bet-
ter for them, as a parent may do for a
perfect and imperfect duties. The dis-
tinction can be used in various ways,
but it is most commonly understood in
these terms: A perfect duty is one that
applies in all circumstances, such as
not to commit murder; an imperfect
duty is one that is required from time
to time, but not always in every case
where it might apply. The duty to give

G-6 ■ Glossary

to charity is a common example.
phronesis. In Aristotle, the idea of
“practical wisdom” or knowledge of
how to act.

political responsibility model. The
claim that responsibility for ending
injustice does not lie only with those
people who can be blamed for causing
it, but that the responsibility is more
widely shared.

prisoner’s dilemma. A two- person situ-
ation or game in which the pursuit of
each person’s self- interest leads to a
worse outcome for both of them than
they could have achieved through

prudence. The pursuit or preservation
of a person’s own rational self- interest.

pseudo- relativism. The view that each
society has the right to live according to
its own values, and no other society has
the right to interfere. It differs from
cultural relativism in accepting the uni-
versal value of noninterference.

psychological egoism. The theory that
human beings are, in some way, psy-
chologically compelled to follow their
own interests.

public goods problem. Public goods
are goods that, if supplied at all, can be
enjoyed by people who have not paid for
them— for example, street lights on a
public road. Such goods are regarded as
a problem because the apparently ratio-
nal strategy for any individual is to wait
for someone else to pay for their supply;
but if everyone does this, the goods will
never be supplied, even if they are col-
lectively beneficial. See free riding.

reciprocal altruism. The theory that
altruism can or will emerge through
mutual cooperation between individuals.

revaluation of all values. Nietzsche’s
proposal that it is necessary to reassess
all traditional values to determine

whether, in fact, they are actually

rule utilitarianism. A version of utilitar-
ianism that defines right action in
terms of acting in accordance with
rules that together would maximize
happiness of utility. Compare to act

selfish gene. A biological theory pro-
posing that genes have a built- in drive
to preserve the identical gene either
in the same individual or in other

sex. The biological and physiological
characteristics used to define the cate-
gories male and female.

sexual harassment. Unwelcome behav-
ior or speech of a sexual nature, espe-
cially in the workplace, aimed at a
particular person.

situational ethics. The idea that the
right thing to do varies with the details
of each particular situation, rather than
falling under general principles that
can be applied to different cases.

slave morality. Nietzsche’s assessment
of the traditional— largely Christian—
morality of his time: that it was fit only
for slaves.

social contract. A family of views in
moral and political philosophy in which
the authority of morality, or of the state,
is said to rest on the agreement, in
some sense, of the people.

Sophist. Initially a member of a group
of Ancient Greek philosophers who were
paid by wealthy Athenians to help them
develop their skills of reasoning. Now a
term used to describe someone who
willfully engages in fallacious reasoning
to pursue his or her own interests.

soundness. A valid argument derived
from true premises. If the premises are
not true, an argument is unsound even
if it is logically valid.

Glossary ■ G-7

Stoicism. A major school of Ancient
Greek philosophy. The Stoics had views
on a range of topics, but in moral phi-
losophy they emphasized the impor-
tance of moral reason and the rejection
of the emotions as an inf luence in
moral decision-making. They also
emphasized the importance of our
inner states rather than outward show
or achievement.

teleological view. Directed toward, or
justified in terms of, some goal or

theory of the good. An account of the
good or desirable elements in the
world. For example, the utilitarian the-
ory proposes that happiness or pleasure
is the sole good.

theory of the right. A theory of how
human beings are to act if they are to
do so in a morally correct way.

thin and thick ethical concepts. A dis-
tinction formulated by Bernard Wil-
liams. Thick ethical concepts, such as
“courageous,” have a particular descrip-
tive content as part of their meaning.
Thin concepts, such as “right,” do not.

thought experiment. Creating a fic-
tional scenario to illustrate a theory or
to test it against our intuitions.

universalization. Considering the
moral appropriateness of an action by
imagining a world in which everyone
did what you propose to do.

utilitarianism. The moral theory that the
right thing to do in any circumstance is
to bring about the greatest total balance
of happiness over unhappiness.
utility. A measure of subjective well-
being; closely related to happiness and
veil of ignorance. An idea introduced by
John Rawls to ensure that in applying
social contract theory, we are not biased
by our own interests. Accordingly,
Rawls suggests that we should make
our agreement assuming that we do not
know personal facts about ourselves,
such as our race, religion, sex, talents,
family background, values, and so on.
vice. The opposite of a virtue. A disposi-
tion of character that leads a person to
reason, feel, and act in a morally prob-
lematic fashion.
virtue. A disposition of character that
leads a person to reason, feel, and act in
a morally admirable fashion.
virtue ethics. An approach to ethics
focusing on individual character, build-
ing on the concepts of virtue and vice.



a posteriori, 169
a priori, 169
abduction, 12

Catholic position on, 72
morality of, 34
social contract theory and, 121
virtue theory and, 221–23, 229, 234

Abraham and Isaac (Bible), 75
act utilitarianism, 153, 156
acting, status of, 22
“activity of the soul,” 204
Adam and Eve (Bible), 83
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain),

84, 87
The Adventures of Telemachus (Fénelon),

affirmative action, 250
afterlife, religion and, 93
agency objection, to utilitarianism,

146–47, 159
agent causation, 59
“Ain’t I a Woman?” (Truth), 249

group altruism, 99
kin altruism, 96–98
reciprocal altruism, 99, 100, 112

analogy, 11, 139
Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Nozick), 146
ancient Greek culture

funeral practices, 21, 22, 30, 33
same- sex relations between men,

21–22, 39
animals, social contract theory and, 121
Anscombe, Elizabeth, 84, 248
Antigone (character), 79
Appiah, Kwame Anthony, 28
applied ethics, 6–7, 18
Aquinas, St. Thomas, 78, 79, 80, 87
argument, 8

analogy, 11, 139
begging the question, 10, 140

circular argument, 10–11, 140–41
contradiction, 9
equivocation, 10, 27
fallacies, 10–11
logical form, 10
logical validity, 8–9, 90
soundness of, 9
validity of, 8–9, 90

argument by elimination, 127, 137
argument from queerness, 53
Aristotle, 1–2, 3, 127, 200–217,

258, 261
“activity of the soul,” 204
golden mean, 209, 212–14, 216
good life, 202–5
on habituation, 207–9, 216, 221, 223
on happiness, 203, 211
on justice, 213
Kant on, 215–16, 217, 220
on moral philosophy, 2
on morality, 207, 211, 233–34, 261
on natural law theory, 79
on slavery, 21, 39, 227–29
on vice, 209, 210
on virtue, 204, 205–12, 213, 214
virtue ethics, 205, 219–29
virtue theory, 214–16
on women, 226, 229

artificial contraception, religious position
on, 72

asceticism, 127, 128–29, 137–38, 149
atheism, morality and, 93–94
Augustine (Saint), 78
autonomy, Kantian ethics, 186–88
Ayer, A., 47–48

Baier, Annette, 237, 239
Batson, C. Daniel, 224, 230
begging the question, 10, 140
beliefs, 47
Benedict, Ruth, 22, 30, 34
Bennett, Jonathan, 87

I-2 ■ Index

Bentham, Jeremy, 3, 67, 70, 125–30, 131,
134, 136, 137, 149, 200, 220, 260

measuring happiness, 131–33, 143
on pleasure, 147
principle of asceticism, 127, 128–29,

137–38, 149
principle of sympathy and antipathy,

127, 128–30
on purposes of sex, 80, 87
theory of the good, 130–31, 141

bestiality, natural law and, 79
Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a

Philosophy of the Future (Nietzsche),
41, 57, 194

Bible, 71, 75, 83, 86
birdcage metaphor, 242–44
“Black Lives Matter,” 251
Bleak House (Dickens), 103
Bonnie and Clyde (gangsters), 112–13, 115
Boxill, Bernard, 199
The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky), 72
Butler, Joseph, 73, 84, 86
Butler, Judith, 249, 251

Camus, Albert, 41
caregiving, caring vs., 236

ethics of care, 226, 233–39, 253
vs. caregiving, 236

Carritt, E.F., 151, 152, 153, 154, 161
categorical imperative, 169–71, 182, 191,

197, 201, 220
formula of humanity, 182, 183–86, 197,

formula of the kingdom of ends, 182,

183, 197
formula of the universal law, 182, 197, 260

celibacy, 80
character, virtue theory and, 223–26
Christian morality

Hume on, 43–44
Nietzsche on, 110, 123

Kantian ethics and, 194–95
perfection of God, 204

circular argument, 10–11, 140–41
circumcision. See genital cutting; male

cognitions, 47
cognitivism, 47
colonialism, 159, 160

commonsense morality, 24
community and family vs. individual

autonomy, 33
compatibilism, 64–67, 68
conclusion, logically validity and, 8
conflict, avoiding with morality, 32, 33
conscience, 78

natural law theory and, 83–84
“The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn”

(Bennett), 87
consequentialist theory, 150, 151, 164, 180
Constant, Benjamin, 189–90
contingency, 151, 160

in 18th and 19th century England, 128
religions on, 72

contradiction, 9
cooperation, social contract and, 114
Copernicus, Nicolaus, 60
counterintuitive consequences, 15,

151, 160
courage, 210
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, 250
Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky),

42, 110
critical moral thinking, 156
Critique of Practical Reason (Kant), 143,

164, 194
cultural practices: morality, 21–38

abortion, 34
equal pay for equal work, 22
funeral practices, 21, 22, 30, 33
genital cutting, 28–30, 31, 34–37
individual autonomy vs. community

and family, 33
infidelity, 35–36
same- sex relations between men,

21–22, 39
stoning of unfaithful women, 36
suicide and, 30

cultural relativism, 21–38, 44
about, 33
Appiah on, 28
clash of respect for difference with

concern for all, 28
confused with liberalism, 27
criticism of, 232
modest relativism, 32–37
objectivism vs., 23–24, 26, 37
problems for, 31–32
“right” and “wrong,” 26–27

Index ■ I-3

as self- defeating, 39
universal values and, 27, 37

Curie, Marie, 244–45
custom, morality and, 42–44

Darley, John M., 224, 230
Darwin, Charles, 99
Dawkins, Richard, 96
de Beauvoir, Simone, 237
dead bodies, disposal of, 21, 22, 30, 33
Dennett, Daniel C., 69
deontology, 150–51, 236, 259
The Descent of Man (Darwin), 99
despotism, Mill on, 158–59

compatibilism, 64–67, 68
defined, 61
forms of, 61
free will and, 58, 68
laws and, 67–68
moral responsibility and, 63–68
physical determinism, 62–63
scientific determinism, 63

Dickens, Charles, 103
dilemmas, 74, 76
diminishing marginal utility, 148, 160
direct discrimination, 240
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

(Rousseau), 110
displeasure, Bentham on, 131
divine command, 73–77
divine command theory, 77
divine punishment, 73
doctrine of the mean, 216

See also golden mean
The Doctrine of Virtue (Kant), 189, 198
dogmatism, 94
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 42, 72, 110
driving on the right or the left, 32–33
Du Bois, W.E.B., 250
duty, 168, 179
“duty of selfishness,” 102–3
duty to yourself, 173–74
Dworkin, Andrea, 243

Adam Smith on, 101–2
diminishing marginal utility, 148, 160

egoism, 40, 88–105
ethical egoism, 89, 100–104, 105, 178
moral egoism, 40

”narrow ethical egoism,” 101
psychological egoism, 40, 61–62, 67,

89–96, 105
pure ethical egoism, 102–4

Einstein, Albert, 14
Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will

Worth Wanting (Dennett), 69
emotivism, 47
empirical, 169
Epicurus, 1
epistemology, 53

veil of ignorance, 117, 120, 122
for women, 134–36

equivocation, 10, 27
erotic love, between men, 21, 22
error theory, 52, 55
essentialism, 237, 238
“eternal law,” 78
Ethical and Political Thinking (Carritt),

151, 161
ethical caring, 235–36
ethical egoism, 89, 100–104, 105, 178

narrow ethical egoism, 101
pure ethical egoism, 102–4

applied ethics, 6–7, 18
ethics of care, 226, 233–39, 253
feminist approaches to, 233–54
gender and, 249–50
meta- ethics, 5, 18, 23, 24
normative ethics, 6
objectivism in, 24, 26, 37
of race, 250–52
situational ethics, 224–25
use of term, 7, 118
virtue ethics, 205–12, 219–29,

248, 259
Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong

(Mackie), 52
ethics of care, 226, 233–39, 253
ethics of justice, 233
ethics of principle, 233, 235, 237
eudaimonia, 203, 212, 216
The Eudemian Ethics (Aristotle), 214
Eugenides, Jeffrey, 249
Euthyphro dilemma, 73–77, 84
The Euthyphro (Plato), 73
evil pleasures objection, to utilitarianism,

147, 159
evolution, selfish gene theory, 96

I-4 ■ Index

evolutionary theories, 105
group altruism, 99
kin altruism, 96–98
Mountain people, 98–99
reciprocal altruism, 99, 100
selfish gene theory, 96

excellence, Sidgwick on, 145
exclusive, 76
exhaustive, 76
Exodus (Book of the Bible), 71, 86
The Expanding Circle (Singer), 106
expressivism, 46–49

Facing Mount Kenya (Kenyatta), 29
fact/value distinction, 17, 81–83

begging the question, 10, 140
circular argument, 10–11, 140–41
equivocation, 10

false dilemma, 76
false promises, 165–66, 177, 179, 186,

188–89, 220
“Famine, Aff luence, and Morality”

(Singer), 161
Fausto- Sterling, Anne, 249
female genital mutilation

use of term, 29
See also genital cutting

“feminine virtue,” 247

morality and power, 246–47
science and, 244–46

“Feminism in Ethics: Moral Justification”
(Jaggar), 256

“Feminist Contractarianism”
(Hampton), 256

feminist moral philosophy, 233–54
birdcage metaphor, 242–44
ethics of care, 226, 233–39, 253
Jake and Amy, 234–35, 236, 238
Kantian feminism, 241
power, privilege, diversity, 239–44
on sexual harassment, 242

Fénelon, François, 13, 15
Foot, Philippa, 14, 15–16, 151, 248
“for the sake of duty,” 168, 179
form of the good, 25
formal logic, 8–11
Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism

(Lyons), 161
formula of humanity, 182, 183–86, 197,


formula of the kingdom of ends,
182, 183, 197

formula of the universal law, 182, 197, 260
Frankfurt, Harry, 66
free riding, 99
free will, 58–63, 68

agent causation, 59
compatibilism, 64–67, 68
incompatibilism, 63–64, 65
intuitive belief, 59–60
physical determinism, 62–63
psychological egoism, 40, 61–62, 67
Schopenhauer on, 60
science and, 62–63
sociological determinism, 61

freedom, morality and, 193–94, 197
Freedom Evolves (Dennett), 69
Fricker, Miranda, 36–37, 39
Frye, Marilyn, 242, 243
Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina

(1669), 229
funeral practices, morality of, 21, 22, 30, 33
furniture, utility mark, 134

game theory, 112, 124
Game Theory 101: The Complete Textbook

(Spaniel), 124
Gandhi, Mahatma, 118, 124

Aristotle on, 226, 229
feminist ethics, 232–50
feminist moral philosophy, 233–54
hysteria, 245–46
science and, 244–46
sex vs., 237–38, 253
as social phenomenon, 237
See also feminism; women

Gender Trouble (Butler), 249
genes, selfish gene theory, 96
genital cutting

cultural relativism and, 28–30, 31, 34–37
Wong on, 34, 35, 36

Gilligan, Carol, 196–97, 232, 234–35, 236,
237, 238, 239, 248

Glaucon (character), 88, 108–9, 110, 111, 116

divine command, 73–77
essential to morality, 72, 74
free will and, 64
inventing morality vs. God discovering

morality, 76, 84–85
perfect knowledge, 64

Index ■ I-5

perfection of, 204
punishment by, 73
retribution by, 73
as source of morality, 71–72, 86

Godwin, William, 13, 14, 15
golden mean, 209, 212–14, 216
good, in objectivity, 24
good and bad, 49–50
good and evil, 41
good life, 202–5, 261
Good Samaritan (Bible), 224
good will, Kant on, 165, 166–69, 220
government house utilitarianism, 155,

160, 161
greatest happiness principle, 125–26
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

(Gregor, ed.), 87, 164, 165, 168, 169,
174, 182, 185, 188

group altruism, 99
Gyges (character), 88

habituation, 22, 207–9, 216, 221, 223
Haidt, Jonathan, 63, 69
Haldane, J.B.S., 96
Hampton, Jean, 237, 241, 256

aggregating, 141, 144
Aristotle on, 203, 211
as foundation of morality, 4
greatest happiness principle, 125–26
happiest countries in the world, 133
Kant on, 195
maximizing, 150–53
measuring, 131–33, 143
Mill on, 141, 150
pleasure vs., 126

Harding, Sandra, 233
Hare, Richard, 156, 162
Harrod, Roy, 153–54, 161, 163, 259
Hay, Carol, 241
“Heinz” (fictional moral dilemma), 234–35
Held, Virginia, 235, 236
Herman, Barbara, 199
Herodotus, 21, 22, 34
heteronomy, Kantian ethics, 186–88, 193
Hill, Thomas, 199
Hobbes, Thomas, 104, 109, 112, 115
“holy virginity,” 80

morality of, 21–22, 39
natural law theory, 79, 80
religious position on, 72

honesty, 167–68
Huck (Twain character), 84
human potential, Mill on, 136
Hume, David, 17, 88, 119

on Christian morality, 43
natural law theory, 80, 87

Hursthouse, Rosalind, 219, 221–23, 229,
234, 248

hypothetical imperative, 170
hysteria, 245

Ik people, 98, 104, 109, 115
imperfect duties, 174, 191
In a Different Voice (Gilligan), 196–97,

232, 234
“inclination,” 168
income, racial redistribution of, 148
incompatibilism, 63–64, 65
indirect discrimination, 240
individual autonomy vs. community and

family, 33
individual subjectivism, 30, 44–49
induction, 11–12
“inference to the best explanation,”

12, 16
infidelity, morality of, 35–36
infinite regress, 60
instrumental value, 110, 167
intellectual virtues, 204
interpersonal comparisons of utility, 132
intersectionality, 250
intrinsic value, 110, 167
“Introduction: Utilitarianism and

Beyond” (Sen & Williams), 161
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals

and Legislation (Bentham), 70, 126,
131, 164

Introduction to World Philosophy: A
Multicultural Reader (Bonevac &
Phillips, eds.), 20

intuition, 15, 20
intuitive belief, 59–60
intuitive mora contexts, 156
irrelevance objection, to utilitarianism,

149–50, 159

Jaggar, Alison, 234, 242, 256
Jake and Amy (example), 234–35, 236, 238
John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand

(Reeves), 143
justice, Aristotle on, 213
justice perspective, 239

I-6 ■ Index

“Kant and Race” (Hill & Boxill), 199
Kant, Immanuel, 74, 141, 163–80, 200

about, 164
on Aristotle, 215–16, 217, 220
on freedom, 193, 197
on God’s revealed will, 74
on good will, 165, 166–69, 220
on happiness, 195
on lying, 166, 172, 174, 177, 188–89, 208
on moral motivation, 91
on morality, 74, 164, 170
Nietzsche on, 176, 194
on pleasure, 168
Schopenhauer on, 176, 178, 194
on self- interest, 143
on suicide, 174, 175–77, 179, 185–86,

187, 191
supreme moral principle, 163–66
on women, 199, 228, 233

Kantian ethics, 150, 163–80, 200, 260–61
autonomy and heteronomy, 186–88
basics of, 182–83
categorical imperative, 169–71, 182,

183–86, 191, 197, 201, 220
challenges for, 182–97
Christianity and, 194–95
example: butcher, 167, 171–72
example: failing to help others, 178–79,

182, 187
example: false promises, 165–66, 177,

179, 182, 186, 188–89, 220
example: neglecting your talents,

177–78, 179, 182, 187, 191
formula of humanity, 182, 183–86, 197,

formula of the kingdom of ends, 182,

183, 197
formula of the universal law, 182,

197, 260
gender equality and, 195, 196
good will, 165, 166–69, 220
heteronomy, 186–88, 193
Kantian feminism, 241
on life, 186
on lying, 166, 172, 174, 177, 188–89, 208
maxim of an action, 170, 171–73, 260
objections to, 172–73
perfect and imperfect duties, 174, 191
racial equality and, 195, 196, 197
summary of, 164–66
sympathy, 168–69
using in real life, 188–93

Kantian feminism, 241
Kenyatta, Jomo, 29, 33, 35, 159
kin altruism, 96–98
kindness, 50, 51
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 78, 87
knowing how, 206–7, 216–17
knowing that, 206–7, 216–17
knowledge of the that of morality, 207
Kohlberg, Lawrence, 236

LaPlace, Pierre- Simon, 58, 62
legislation, determinism and, 67–68, 70
Leviathan (character), 115
Leviathan (Hobbes), 104, 109
“liability” theory of responsibility, 253
liberalism, 27
libertarianism, 59
liberty, Mill on, 72, 136
Libet, Benjamin, 63, 69
life, Kant on, 186
life of active virtue, 204
Locke, John, 229, 231
“locomotive soul,” 204

as a priori bodies of knowledge, 169
principles of, 8–11

logical form, of an argument, 10
logical validity, of an argument, 8–9, 90
Lorde, Audre, 240, 242, 249–50
luck, 220
lying, 166, 188–89, 208
Lyons, David, 161

Mackie, J.L., 44, 52, 53
error theory, 52, 55

MacKinnon, Catharine, 243–44
male circumcision, 29
male domination, of women, 134–36
Mandeville, Bernard, 101
Maritain, Jacques, 78–79, 80–81, 87
marital infidelity, morality of, 35–36
Marx, Karl, 111, 119, 123, 246

on morality, 111, 119, 167, 246
masturbation, natural law and, 79
mathematics, as a priori bodies of

knowledge, 169
maxim, Kant on, 171
maxim of an action, 170, 171–73, 260
McDowell, John, 51
mean (term), 212
“Memorials of a Tour in Scotland”

(Wordsworth), 178

Index ■ I-7

Meno (character), 205
Meno (Plato), 205
meta- data, 5
meta- ethics, 5, 6, 18, 23, 24
metaphysics, 53, 164
The Metaphysics of Morals (Kant), 173, 215
The Methods of Ethics (Sidgwick), 145, 154
Meursault (character in Camus’ Stranger),

Middlesex (Eugenides), 249
Mill, James, 158–59
Mill, John Stuart, 3, 143, 144, 149, 164, 179,

241, 259, 260
about, 134, 149
atheists testifying in court, 72
on despotism, 158–59
on happiness, 141, 150
jailed for distributing information on

contraception, 129
natural law theory, 80, 87
on pleasure, 148–49
on racial equality, 158, 160, 228
“subjection” of women, 135–36, 157–58,

195, 232, 248
on utilitarianism, 136–41, 195

Mills, Charles, 111, 116, 121, 233, 251, 252
“modest relativism,” 32–37
Moody- Adams, Michele, 31, 32, 39
Moore, G.E., 43, 139, 142
moral arguments

fact/value distinction, 17, 81–83
universalization, 16–17

moral commandments, 71–72
“moral core,” 35
moral disagreements, 46, 47
moral egoism, 40
moral intuition, 15, 23, 37
moral judgments, 46

descriptive and evaluative aspects of,

expressivism, 46–49
persuasion and, 48
Stevenson on, 48
subjectivism and, 50–51

moral language, 51–52
moral law, formal elements of, 170
moral motivation, 91
moral nihilism, 40–42
moral philosophy

Aristotle on, 1–2
defined, 2
feminist critique of, 247–48

feminist moral philosophy, 233–54
learning from, 259–61
traditions of, 3–4
See also applied ethics; meta- ethics;

normative ethics
moral realism, 25
moral reasoning, 7–17

formal logic, 8–11
Kant on, 166
scientific reasoning and, 11

moral relativism, 33, 37
See also relativism

moral responsibility
compatibilism, 64–67, 68
determinism and, 63–68
incompatibilism, 63–64, 65

moral sense thinkers, 130
Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and

Point (Hare), 156
moral values, objectivity of, 23–24, 54

about, 109–10, 219
Aristotle on, 207, 211, 233–34, 261
atheism and, 93–94
Christian morality, 43–44
commonsense morality, 24
as compromise agreement, 108–11
conflict avoidance with, 32, 33
and custom, 42–44
as device to curb the strong, 42–44
divine command, 73–77
egoism and, 89, 90
enforced through divine punishment, 73
Euthyphro dilemma, 73–77, 84
feminist critique of, 246–48
free will and moral responsibility, 59
freedom and, 193–94, 197
God inventing vs. God discovering, 76,

happiness as foundation of, 3
individual subjectivism, 30, 44–49
instrumental value, 110
intrinsic value, 110
Kant on, 74, 164, 170
knowledge of the that of morality, 207
Marx on, 111, 119, 167, 246
moral nihilism, 40–42
nature of, 32
Nietzsche’s slave morality, 43, 44
objectivity and, 4, 23–24, 54
Plato on, 88, 95
power and, 246–47

I-8 ■ Index

morality (continued)
precision in, 261
psychological egoism, 90
in pursuit of higher goals, 42
Rand on, 103
religion as basis for, 71–73, 194
religion essential to, 72
Rousseau on, 110, 246
self- denial for, 90
self- interest and, 95, 109
as social contract, 109, 115
social contract theory, 104, 118
subjectivity of, 17
to suppress the strong, 111
teleological view, 77–78
ubiquity of, 1
universality of, 33, 35, 252
use of term, 7

Morality: An Introduction to Ethics
(Williams), 39

morally good life, 261
Mother Teresa, 93
motivation, 53

moral motivation, 91
Mountain people, 98, 104
The Mountain People (Turnbull), 98
Mrs. Jellyby (character), 103
murder, moral prohibition of, 150–51

narrow ethical egoism, 101
narrowness objection, to utilitarianism,

144–46, 159
natural being, 173
natural caring, 235
natural law, 204

defined, 77
reason and, 78–81
religion and, 71–85
religious version of, 78

natural law theory, 74, 77, 79
argument against, 82
conscience and, 83–84
distinctive idea of, 79
fact/value distinction, 17, 81–83

Natural Moralities (Wong), 39
natural reason, 78
neuroscience, free will and, 63
Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle), 201, 202,

207, 210, 214
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 3, 40, 41, 43, 57, 111,

149, 151
on Christian morality, 110, 123

on Kant, 176, 194
on slave morality, 43, 44

nihilism, 40, 55
Mackie on, 52
moral nihilism, 40–42
nihilist as egoism, 40–41
psychopath as nihilist, 41–42

Noddings, Nel, 234, 235–36, 239
noncognitivism, 47
normative ethics, 5–6, 7, 18
Nozick, Robert, 146
nursing, status of, 22
Nussbaum, Martha, 31
“nutritive soul,” 204

objective moral concepts, 49–51
objective values

argument from queerness, 53
Mackie on, 52, 53
Plato on, 52

objectivism, 23–24, 26, 37, 45
objective moral concepts, 49–51
Plato on, 25

objectivity, morality and, 4, 23–24, 54
Okin, Susan Moller, 20, 241
“On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of

Philanthropic Concerns” (Kant), 189
On Liberty (Mill), 72, 136, 158
“On Nature” (Mill), 87
On the Basis of Morality (Schopenhauer),

178, 194, 199
original position, 117

avoiding, 62, 67
Bentham on, 131
elimination of asceticism, 128
measuring, 131

Pateman, Carole, 111, 116, 121, 247
paternalism, 158
perfect duties, 174, 191
perfection, Plato on, 25
personal conduct, norms of, 23
phronesis, 201, 205, 216
physical determinism, 62–63
physics, determinism and, 58, 62–63
Plato, 2–3, 88, 102, 110, 127

about, 201–2
divine command theory, 73–74
form of the good, 25
on morality, 88, 95
on nihilism, 41

Index ■ I-9

on objective values, 52
on objectivism, 25
on perfection, 25
“Ring of Gyges,” 88–89, 95, 100,

108, 110
on women, 226, 227

pleasantness, 213

Aristotle on, 203
in art, 144–45
Bentham on, 147
diminishing marginal utility, 148, 160
elimination of asceticism, 128
evil pleasures objection to

utilitarianism, 147, 159
happiness vs., 126
Kant on, 168
maximizing, 163
measuring, 131
Mill on, 148–49
quality of, 147
seeking, 62, 67, 89–90

political responsibility model, 253, 257
Politics (Aristotle), 226, 227
pornography, 243–44
poverty, 117
prejudgment, 29
prejudice, origin of term, 29
premises, 8
Principia Ethica (Moore), 143
principle of asceticism, 127
principle of sympathy and antipathy, 127,

principle of utility, 137
prisoner’s dilemma, 112–14, 124
“private vices,” 101
problem of contingency, 151

utilitarianism, 157–59
promise- keeping, 165–66, 177, 179, 186,

188–89, 220
propositional knowledge, 207
prudence, 171
pseudo- relativism, 27–28
psychological egoism, 40, 61–62, 67,

89–96, 105
evidence for, 91–95
rejection of, 95–96

psychopath, as nihilist, 41–42
public goods problem, 114–16
“public virtues,” 101
punishment, utilitarianism on, 151, 152
pure ethical egoism, 102–4

quality objection, to utilitarianism,
147–49, 159

race, ethics of, 250–52
racial contract, 111, 112, 116
racial discrimination, 117, 250
racial equality

Kantian ethics and, 195, 196, 197, 221
Mill on, 158, 160, 228

racial redistribution of income, 148
Rand, Ayn, 102–3, 107
Raskolnikov (character in Dostoyevsky’s

Crime and Punishment), 42, 43, 110
Rawls, John, 32, 39, 117–18, 122, 124,

183, 241
reason, natural law and, 78–81

fact/value distinction, 17, 81–83
universalization, 16–17

reciprocal altruism, 99, 100, 112
Reeves, Richard, 143
relativism, 30, 37

modest relativism, 32–37
problems for, 31–32
pseudo- relativism, 27–28
at societal level, 33, 35
See also cultural relativism

afterlife, 93
as basis for morality, 71–73, 194
determinism and, 64
free will and, 64
God inventing morality vs. God

discovering morality, 76, 84–85
natural law and, 71–85

The Republic (Plato), 41, 88, 95, 110, 227
responsibility, ‘liability’ theory of, 253
revaluation of all values, 41
“right” and “wrong,” cultural relativism,

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are

Divided by Politics and Religion
(Haidt), 69

The Rights of Man and Natural Law
(Maritain), 87

“Ring of Gyges,” 88–89, 95, 100,
108, 110

Rousseau, Jean- Jacques, 110, 116,
121, 246

rule utilitarianism, 153–55, 156, 160, 163,

Russell, Bertrand, 134, 137

I-10 ■ Index

same- sex relations
morality of, 21–22, 39
natural law theory, 79
religious position on, 72

“scapegoating” objection, to
utilitarianism, 151, 157

Schiller, Friedrich, 168
Schopenhauer, Arthur, 92–93, 106

on free will, 60
on Kant, 176, 178, 179, 194

determinism and, 58, 62–63
feminism and, 244–46
free will and, 62–63

scientific determinism, 63
scientific reasoning, moral reasoning

and, 11
self- denial, 90, 92
self- interest, 83, 89, 90, 92, 94, 105

cooperation, 114
different forms of, 100–101
“duty of selfishness,” 102–3
economic agents and, 101
evolution and, 96–100
Kant on, 143
morality and, 95, 109
psychological egoism, 90
Rand on, 102–3
refutation of, 93
“selfish” self- interest, 101
social contract, 114

self- sacrifice, 92, 96
selfish gene theory, 96
“selfish” self- interest, 101

“duty of selfishness,” 102–3
Rand on, 103

Sen, Amartya, 161

in 18th and 19th century England, 128
gender vs., 237–38, 253
purposes of, 80

Sexing the Body ( Fausto- Sterling), 249
sexual contract, 111, 116, 247
sexual equality, 157
sexual fidelity, morality of, 35–36
sexual harassment, 242
sexual practices

erotic love between men and boys,
21–22, 39

in marriage, 35–36

masturbation, 79
same- sex relations, 21–22, 39, 72, 79
virginity, 79–80

Sidgwick, Henry, 145–46, 154
Singer, Marcus, 172
Singer, Peter, 106, 148, 161
situational ethics, 224–25
slave morality, 43, 44

Aristotle on, 21, 39, 227–29
Locke on, 229, 231
as morally acceptable, 21

Smith, Adam, 101, 102, 167
social contract, 108–22

about, 111
compromise agreement, 116–18
cooperation and public goods, 114–16
morality as, 109, 115
in practice, 119–21
prisoner’s dilemma, 112–14, 124
veil of ignorance, 117, 120, 122
women and, 241

The Social Contract (Mills), 111–12
social contract theory, 104, 118, 183

in practice, 119–21
social insects, 96–97
sociological determinism, 61
sophistry, 109
Sophocles, 79
soundness of an argument, 9
Spaniel, William, 124
Stevenson, Charles Leslie, 48
stoicism, 210, 211, 220
The Stranger (Camus), 41
“subjection” of women, 135–36, 157–58,

195, 232, 248
The Subjection of Women (Mill), 135, 248

advantages of, 54, 55
individual subjectivism, 30, 44–49
moral disagreements and, 46
moral judgments and, 50
moral language, 51–52
See also cultural relativism

cultural relativism and, 30
Kant on, 174, 175–77, 179, 185–86, 187, 191

Sunday observance, 260
sympathy, Kantian ethics, 168–69
sympathy and antipathy, principle of, 127,


Index ■ I-11

“talisman” (Gandhi term), 118, 124
Tangwa, Godfrey B., 36, 39
Taylor, Harriet, 135, 248
teleological view of morality, 77–78
temperance, 210–11
Ten Commandments, 71
Teresa, Mother, 93
“The World Happiness Report,” 133, 143
theology. See religion
theory, with counterintuitive

consequences, 15
A Theory of Justice (Rawls), 124
theory of natural law, 204
theory of the good, 130–31, 141, 144
theory of the right, 130, 141, 144
thin and thick ethical concepts, 50
thought experiments, 14–15
Thrasymachus (character in Plato’s

Republic), 41
Treatise on Human Nature (Hume), 87
Treaty of Westphalia (1648),

pseudorelativism and, 28
“trolley problem,” 20, 151–52
Truth, Sojourner, 249, 250
Turing, Alan, 23
Turnbull, Colin, 98, 115
Twain, Mark, 84, 87
Twilight of the Idols (Nietzsche), 149, 161
The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics

(Schopenhauer), 106
two- level utilitarianism, 155–56, 160, 162

unhappiness, 126
universal values, cultural relativism and,

27, 37
universality, of morality, 33, 35, 252
universalization, 16–17, 191
upbringing, free will and, 61
utilitarian, use of term, 134
utilitarianism, 15, 125–42, 220, 236,

258, 259
act utilitarianism, 153, 156
agency objection to, 146–47, 159
challenges for, 144–60
counterintuitive consequences,

151–53, 160
elimination of asceticism, 127, 128–29,

137–38, 149
elimination of principle of sympathy

and antipathy, 129–30
equality for women, 134–36

evil pleasures objection to, 147, 159
good person, 167
government house utilitarianism, 155,

160, 161
greatest happiness principle, 125–26
irrelevance objection to, 149–50, 159
justifying, 136–44
measuring happiness, 131–33, 143
Mill’s proof, 138–41, 142
modifying, 151–53
narrowness objection to, 144–46, 159
principles of, 126
problem of contingency, 157–59
on punishment, 151
quality objection to, 147–49, 159
rule utilitarianism, 153–55, 156, 160,

163, 259
“scapegoating” objection to, 151, 157
“subjection” of women, 135–36, 157–58,

195, 232, 248
theory of the good, 130–31, 141
theory of the right, 130, 141
two- level utilitarianism, 155–56, 160, 162

Utilitarianism (Mill), 135, 136, 141, 164, 179
utility, 126

interpersonal comparisons of utility, 132
principle of utility, 137

utility mark, 134

validity, of an argument, 8–9, 90
veil of ignorance, 117, 120, 122

Aristotle on, 209, 210
Christian morality, 43

vicious, use of term, 209
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

(Wollstonecraft), 239
virginity, sinfulness of, 79–80

Aristotle on, 204, 205–12, 213, 214
Christian morality, 43
“feminine virtue,” 247
golden mean, 209, 212–14
habituation, 207–9, 216, 221, 223
learned from a book, 206–7
as natural instinct, 206

virtue ethics, 205–12, 259
20th century revival of, 248
challenges for, 219–29
criticisms, 219–21

The Virtue of Selfishness (Rand), 103

I-12 ■ Index

virtue theory, 214–16
abortion and, 221–23, 229, 234
character, 223–26

“Virtue Theory and Abortion”
(Hursthouse), 221

The Wealth of Nations (Smith), 101
Wilde, Oscar, 22
William of Ockham, 74, 77, 86
Williams, Bernard, 39, 50, 161
Wollstonecraft, Mary, 239, 241, 247

abortion, 34, 72, 121, 221–23, 229, 234
Aristotle on gender, 226, 229
birdcage metaphor, 242–44
direct discrimination, 240
equality for women, 134–36, 196
feminist moral philosophy, 233–54
genital cutting, 28–30, 31, 34–37
hysteria, 245
indirect discrimination, 240
Kantian ethics and, 195, 196, 199, 221,

228, 233

Mill on subjection of women, 135–36,
157–58, 195, 232, 248

Plato on, 226, 227
pornography, 243–44
power, privilege, diversity, 239–44
problem of contingency, 157
right to choose, 222
social contract and, 241
stoning of unfaithful women, 36
unequal experience of the world,

Women in Western Political Thought

(Okin), 20
Wong, David, 33, 39

on genital cutting, 34, 35, 36
“modest relativism,” 34–35

Wood, Carmita, 242
Wordsworth, William, 178

Yancy, George, 251
Young, Iris Marion, 253, 257

Zack, Naomi, 233, 251, 252

Cover (An Introduction to Moral Philosophy)

Front Matter

Title Page



Brief Contents



About the Author

Chapter 1 – Moral Philosophy and Moral Reasoning

The Point of Moral Philosophy�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Nature of Moral Inquiry�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Moral Reasoning�������������������������������������������������������������

The Plan of This Book�������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 2 – Cultural Relativism

The Variety of Moral Practices����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Objectivism or Cultural Relativism?�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Relativism and Pseudo-Relativism����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Modest Relativism�������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 3 – Skepticism and Subjectivism

Moral Nihilism

Morality and Custom�������������������������������������������������������������������������

Individual Subjectivism�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Objective Moral Concepts����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Ethics, Language, Metaphysics, and Epistemology�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Responding to Nihilism, Subjectivism, and Error Theory����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 4 – Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Free Will�������������������������������������������

Determinism and Moral Responsibility����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 5 – Religion and Natural Law

Religion as a Basis for Morality����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Divine Command and the Euthyphro Dilemma����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Religion and Natural Law����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 6 – Egoism

Why Be Moral?�������������������������������������������������������

Psychological Egoism����������������������������������������������������������������������������

Self-Interest and Evolution

Ethical Egoism����������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 7 – The Social Contract

Morality as a Compromise Agreement����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Social Contract

Developing the Contract Argument����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 8 – Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill

The Context of Bentham’s Moral Philosophy�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Clarifying Utilitarianism�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Utilitarianism and Equality for Women�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Justifying Utilitarianism�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 9 – Challenges for Utilitarianism

Is Happiness the Sole Ultimate Good?

Maximizing Happiness����������������������������������������������������������������������������

Modifying Utilitarianism����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Problem of Contingency: Gender and Race�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 10 – Deontology: Kant

The Supreme Moral Principle�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Good Will

The Categorical Imperative����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Kant’s Examples�������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 11 – Challenges for Kantian Ethics

Formulations of the Supreme Principle of Morality�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Freedom and Morality����������������������������������������������������������������������������

Kant and Christianity�������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Moral Principles, Race, and Gender����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 12 – Virtue Ethics: Aristotle

Aristotle’s Moral Methodology�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Good Life�������������������������������������������������������

Acquiring Virtue����������������������������������������������������������������

Virtue, Vice, and the Golden Mean�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Virtue Theory and the Mean����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 13 – Challenges for Virtue Ethics

Criticisms of Virtue Ethics�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Virtue Theory and Abortion����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Do You Have a Character?����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Aristotle on Gender and Race����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 14 – The Ethics of Gender and Race

Gender and Race: A Review�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Ethics of Care

Power, Privilege, Diversity�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

The Ethics of Race����������������������������������������������������������������������

Taking Action�������������������������������������������������������

Chapter Review

Chapter 15 – Developing a Moral Outlook

Moral Theories����������������������������������������������������������

Learning from Moral Philosophy����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Key Thinkers




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