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Philosophy 219

Introduction to Moral Theory


Social and Political Philosophy

Our subject matter this semester has traditionally been associated with practical philosophy.

There are clearly theoretical elements involved (the nature of power, the sources of authority) but the aim of inquiring into these matters is ultimately to make choices about our life together.

What is the best way to organize our social existence?

It is the ‘practical’ character of social and political philosophy that explains why it satisfies the moral values general education requirement.


From Politics to Ethics

Politics and ethics are both concerned about the good life. The difference is in the focus.

Politics directs our attention to our social existence while ethics focuses on individual choice or character.

In some important sense, they must obviously be done together.

Though we can’t do them both in one semester, we should spend a little time thinking about the nature and subject matter of philosophical ethics.


What is a Moral Theory?

The primary form that philosophical reflection on morality had taken is what is known as moral theory.

So, what is moral theory?

Answering this question requires we ask some subsidiary ones.

What concepts do moral theories rely on?

What do moral theories aim to provide?

How and why do moral theories employ moral principles?

How are moral theories structured?


The Right And The Good

All moral theories employ and deploy these two main concepts.




and it


s inverse




are typically used to evaluate actions.




and it


s inverse




typically assess the value of agents, experiences, things, or states of affairs.


Right/Wrong Action

The concept




has both a narrow and a broad meaning.

Narrowly, right actions are those we are morally obligated to do.

Broadly, right actions are all actions that are not wrong.

The concept




has only one meaning.


Moral Value

When we identify something or someone as good or bad, we are speaking to its character, and particularly of the moral value that it has.

Things can have or be valuable in one of two ways.

Intrinsic value

refers to a character or feature inherent in the thing.

Extrinsic value

refers to how a thing is related to some other valuable thing (ultimately one with intrinsic value.

Intrinsic value is what philosophers are typically concerned with.


A Theory of the Right and the Good

Given these accounts of the Right and the Good, we can identify three tasks that a moral theory must accomplish.

MT must identify the right-making features of actions.

MT must provide an account of intrinsic moral value.

MT must specify how these accounts can serve as the basis for the justification of specific moral conclusions.


Two Main Aims of Moral Theory

These three tasks of moral theory provide us with the means of distinguishing two main aims.


theoretical aim

(corresponding to the first two tasks) is to identify the underlying features of actions, persons and other morally relevant elements that make them right or wrong, good or bad. In other words, MTs have to explain what makes something morally relevant.


practical aim

(corresponding to the third task) is to be action-guiding. In other words, MTs must provide us with resources with which to respond to the moral issues that confront us.


Taking Aim with Moral Principles

One tool that philosophers use to satisfy these aims is the moral principle.


moral principle

is a general statement of the right-making characteristics of actions or of the specification of intrinsic value.

Principles that focus on actions are called


Principles of Right Conduct



Principles that focus on intrinsic value are called


Principles of Value


Philosophers articulate moral principles to facilitate the application of the theoretical elements of their theory to specific moral issues.


A Plurality of Theories

Given that different moral theories emphasize different principles, you shouldn’t be surprised that when we start looking at specific theories, we will find that they highlight different features of our moral lives.

In many cases, these differences mask an essential continuity in moral evaluations, but on occasion there will be important evaluative differences.

We need to consider how we should evaluate the differing claims of the moral theories we will discuss.


Evaluating Moral Theories

In addition to a consideration of the adequacy of the arguments offered in support of a particular theory, there are a number of features which a successful ethical theory must exhibit.

The two central features correspond to the two main aims of moral theory.

Corresponding to the theoretical aim is the

principle of explanatory power

: a theory should help us understand our moral evaluations. The better the explanation, the better the theory.

You know murder is wrong. Now ask yourself why? That


s a harder question to answer than it might at first seem, and moral theory can fill in the explanatory gap.

Corresponding to the practical aim is the

principle of practical guidance

: a theory should help us make the morally correct choices. The better the guidance, the better the theory.

If you are faced with the challenge of having to help a friend decide whether or not to have an abortion, you need a theory that provides determinate, consistent, and actionable verdicts.


The Example of Ethics By Authority

We can begin to appreciate the value of these evaluative principles by putting them to work in a consideration of a popular, but not necessarily successful, approach to moral theory.


Ethics by Authority


refers to a family of approaches to moral justification which share the insistence that all the moral explanation and guidance we need can be located in some





Divine Command Theory

DCT is one example of an authority based moral theory.

The key claim of DCT is that, an action is right if and only if [


] (and because) God does not command that we not do that action.

One of the virtues of this approach is that it does satisfy MT


s practical aim.

The 10 commandments don


t leave a lot of wiggle room.

However, it does nothing to satisfy the explanatory aim.

Why should we honor our parents?

To say that


it pleases God


just pushes the question back a level. Why does/should it please God? God


s willing it is no explanation of why it is the right thing to will. Insisting that God is good doesn’t help. After all, goodness is a moral quality which still needs an explanation.


Ethical Relativism

ER is another example.



s key claim is that an action (performed by a member of Group G) is right


the moral norms accepted by G permit the performance of the action.

Like with DCT, ER seems appropriately action-guiding, but it doesn’t do any better job with the theoretical aim.

Why should the fact that a majority of some members of a group believe that the death penalty is morally acceptable make it so?

Most Europeans used to believe that the earth was flat, but that didn’t make it so.


What have we seen?

Our consideration of DCT and ER has revealed that these two very common modes of justification of moral decisions do not satisfy the evaluative constraints which moral theories should satisfy.

At the very least, this fact calls into question the ability of these two ways of thinking about morality to do the work we ask of moral theories.

Next time, as part of our review of a range of specific moral theories, we will consider whether they do a better job of satisfying these constraints.

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Social and Political Philosophy Our subject matter this semester has traditionally been associated with practical philosophy There are clearly theoretical elements involved the nature of power the sources of authority but the aim of inquiring into these matters is ultimately to make choices ab ID: 782444 Download

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