ETHICS

Last Updated 21/07/05

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  1. The Paper
  2. Basic Reading
  3. Central Historical Texts
  4. Contemporary Problems

1. The Paper

Ethics is the study of theories of how we ought to live, and what is of value or concern in life. These theories form a tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle leading up to the (in some ways very different) concerns of recent philosophy. It is important to realise that the general form that these theories have taken has varied greatly over the last 2,000 years, so one cannot approach the general questions posed within ethics without an appreciation of that history.

Amongst the problems considered are the relation between the happiness of the individual and concern for others or the common good; the relation between rationality and the claims of morality; to what extent morality requires impartiality of us, and what form that impartiality should take; what is the nature of the good, and what is the relation between the good and the right; whether there are ethical truths, and whether facts of value obtain independently of us and our feelings.

To what extent do ethical theories do justice to, or provide convincing critiques of, our natural moral thinking? These questions have arisen for ethical theories throughout history, and sometimes past ethical theories may appear to do more justice to common sense practical thinking than any contemporary school of thought.

In this area of philosophy there is a particular concern with its practical application or consequences. In recent years, issues in applied or practical ethics have come more to the fore, including the issues of abortion, euthanasia, concern for other animals and for the environment.

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2. Basic Reading

Introductory Texts

Reading a few introductory texts, particularly towards the beginning of the course, will greatly help you in getting a view of the areas of concern and in orienting yourself in relation to more central material. Here are some suggestions

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3. Central Historical Texts

Ancient

Greek philosophy looks at the problems of ethics in terms of how one can lead a happy life, or living well. Questions that arise include, ‘What role do the virtues play in an admirable life?', ‘How far is a good life subject to luck?', ‘What role does reason play in living well?', and particularly in Stoicism, ‘Does living well involve conforming to some form of law?'

Plato

Euthyphro, Gorgias, Republic.
Republic
, I, II, X. Use the new translation of Republic by Robin Waterfield, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); otherwise Clarendon Plato for canonical edition of Gorgias , translated by Terence Irwin, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

Commentaries

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Aristotle

Nicomachean Ethics (& Eudaemian Ethics ). N 1, 3, 5, 6; for the Nicomachean translation by Irwin, Hackett with useful glossary; also Ross Oxford translation; for Eudaemian Clarendon Aristotle trans. with commentary Woods.

Commentaries

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Hellenistic Ethics

Long, A. A. 1974. Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. London: Duckworth. (2 nd ed. 1986). See section 1 on Stoic and Epicurean ethics.

Commentaries

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Medieval Ethics

Medieval ethics combines elements of Pagan thought from antiquity with the particular concerns of the three monotheistic traditions of the West: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Central themes in Medieval thought concern: the role of free choice in ethical life; how this individual freedom is best to be understood; the connection between free choice and rationality. Medieval ethics strives to adapt models of ethical life as involving the practice of the virtues, which they derive from Greek thought, to the ideas central to Western monotheism, in particular that we arrive at moral worth and salvation through obedience to the law that comes from God.

Commentaries

On Augustine
On Abelard
On Aquinas
On Ockham
On Scotus

Other Themes

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Modern Moral Philosophy

Modern moral philosophy has gradually detached ethical thought from specifically religious traditions, giving increasing attention to the role played in ethical life of rationality or, by reaction to this, human sentiments. In this period we see formed, though not always very clearly, the outlines of many of the general positions examined by contemporary moral philosophers, such as: in Hobbes, an ethics developed out of rational self-interest; in the Utilitarian movement, consequentialism; in Hume, non-cognitivism concerning moral judgement; and in Kant, a reason-based non-consequentialist ethics. Despite the continuities in these traditions, it is important to realise, nevertheless, that many of these philosophers had interests very different from those of their self-proclaimed modern disciples.

Collections

General Commentaries

Thomas Hobbes

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David Hume

Commentaries

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Immanuel Kant

All three can also to be found in:

Commentaries

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J. S. Mill & J. Bentham

Commentaries

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Late Nineteenth & Early Twentieth Century Ethics

In these writers we see the development of a recognisably academic form of ethics—Sidgwick and Moore were both professors in Cambridge, Bradley was a life fellow at Merton College, Oxford, Ross professor in Oxford. Like us, they had an interest in the existence of competing ethical theories, and consequently in the relation between ethical theory and everyday ethical thinking.

Commentaries

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Recent Approaches to Ethics—Overviews

Various authors have been inspired, often in a critical frame of mind, to attempt to frame an historical overview of recent developments within ethics.

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4. Contemporary Problems

Central Themes

Egoism & Altruism

Can ethical action be justified in terms of the rational pursuit of one's own interests, and does it need to be? Do we have special reason to be concerned with our own interests as opposed to those of others?

Further Reading

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The Golden Rule

‘Do unto others only what you would have them do unto you.' In this form the principle is closely associated with Christian ethics, although equivalent formulations of the principle can be found in Confucius. What does this principle really involve? Can it be used to provide a rational basis for ethics?

Essential Reading

Further Reading

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Theories of Normativity & Impartiality

It is often claimed that morality involves impartiality. There are two main competing conceptions of impartiality. One says that impartiality involves showing all persons the same respect, treating them, in some sense, as ends in themselves. The other tradition says that impartiality involves maximising good—whether conceived of as happiness or in other terms—over a whole population, the happiness of each person to count equally with the happiness of any other.

Respect & Dignity

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Maximisation & the Good

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Act vs. Rule

If impartiality does involve maximising good, how do we maximise it? In the performance of particular actions, as act-utilitarians recommend? Or, as rule-utilitarians claim, in the moral rules or principles that we adopt or seek to follow?

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Integrity & the Demands of Morality

The demand to maximise good, or similarly impersonal moral demands can conflict with the projects and principles and feelings to which individuals are deeply committed. What are the implications of such conflict?

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Theories of the Good

The nature of goodness is a central concern in most ethical theories, but such theories differ both in what they conceive goodness to be, and how they take goodness to be related to notions such as duty and right. Is goodness to be explained prior to the notions of duty and virtue, and then to be used in their explanation; or is its explanation to be derived from an account of them? Is goodness an irreducible and ‘non-natural' property; or is it to be identified with properties naturally possessed by good things? Can we explain goodness by reference to the desires of people? Is there an irreducible variety of kinds of good, or is there only one kind of good?

Essential Reading

Further Reading

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Morality & Truth

Is morality a matter of belief or feeling? If it is a matter of belief, are there moral properties in the world entirely independent of our sentiments; or do values depend on the feelings and responses of particular individuals or groups. Subjectivists claim that there is such a dependency, while moral objectivists deny this.
How does this issue connect with questions about the nature and function of moral judgement and moral language? Cognitivists claim that such judgements are apt for assessment as true or false, non-cognitivists deny this. Ethical nihilists or ‘error theorists' are cognitivists who claim that because there are no moral properties, all moral claims are false. Some theorists maintain cognitivism by endorsing only a minimal conception of truth or truth-aptness. (For further reading about issues concerning truth and realism in general see the relevant sections under Logic & Metaphysics.)

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Further Themes

Authority & Excellence

Moral Law & Duty

How far does morality involve obeying laws and fulfilling duties? And what is the source of these laws and duties?

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Virtue & Well-Being

Is the point of a worthwhile life that the individual achieves virtue or moral goodness?

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Action & Accountability

Moral Responsibility

Does participating in ethical life involve a special moral responsibility for one's actions and if it does what does this responsibility come to: does it involve a capacity for rationality; for self-determination; or an independence from external determination?

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Act, Motive & Consequence

Does the rightness of an action depend solely on its consequences, or on the way those consequences are produced: whether by doing or allowing (killing or letting die); whether as intended or as merely foreseen?

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Deliberation & Decision

Reason, Desire & Decision

How, if at all, does reason govern our actions? Are there rational justifications for performing one action rather than another? And, if so, where do these justifications come from? Do they take the form of codifiable rules? Do they depend on our desires and motivations, or are they quite independent of what we might happen to want? What form does deliberation about how to act take? Is it merely concerned with means or also with ends?

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Moral Dilemmas

Can there be situations in which one must act, but whichever way in which one acts, one acts wrongly? If so, what is the significance of this—e.g. for the nature of good or for moral truth?

Weakness of Will

Can our capacity to apply reason in action go wrong because of internal weakness affecting either a.) our capacity to act as we think we ought (in which case we deliberately perform an action despite thinking that we shouldn't) or b.) our capacity to stick to our decisions and carry them out over time (in which case our own desires lead us to abandon deliberately a decision for no good reason).

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Standards and Agreement in Values

There are moral conflicts about what is valuable and what ought to be done which appear to be irresoluble. These conflicts can occur between whole societies and between individuals within a given society (indeed, even within a single individual, see ‘Moral Dilemmas'). Are such conflicts really irresoluble, and if so what explains this? Moral relativists claim that moral judgements are relative to an individual or society. Note that there are different ways of developing the idea of relativism, both the manner in which judgements may be relative and to what they relate. Value pluralists explain the conflict in terms of there being a variety of incommensurable and conflicting goods that societies or individuals can respond or aspire to.

Moral Relativism

Essential Reading
Further Reading

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Plurality of Values

Essential Reading

Further Reading

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Incommensurability

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Practical Ethics

Anthologies

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Killing and Letting Die

Does the rightness of an action ever depend on whether it counts as a doing or as an allowing? What bearing does this question have on the permissibility of various kinds of euthanasia?

Essential Reading

Further Reading

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The Sacredness of Life

How in general should we conceive of the debate about the rights and wrongs of abortion? Does the issue depend on the moral status of the foetus, and how is that status to be determined? What role do the rights and interests of the woman bearing the foetus have in settling this issue?

Essential Reading

Further Reading

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Humans and Other Animals

Do we have duty of care towards other animals? Do non-human animals have rights? Do humans have a special moral status simply as humans?

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Environmental Ethics

What responsibility do we have to care for the environment? Does the environment have a value independent of human interests and concerns?

Essential Reading

Further Reading

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