An Ethics Primer

Many readers will find this section unnecessary, but for many others the range and variety of ethical theories extant may be new to them. It is my objective here to show that a significant number of questions and assumptions in dialogue around ethics are open for discussion. Ethics is by no means a complete or closed discipline; it is a living study that has been shaped and formed by thinkers from the ancient world through to the modern era.

Virtue and Character

Ethics is in the first instance the study of virtue in a person, in a person’s actions, or in a society. But what is a virtue? The SEP says, “A virtue is an excellent trait of character. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor—something that, as we say, goes all the way down, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways.” (SEP, 2017)

While we typically characterize virtue by means of various traits - honesty, frugality, piety, humility, caring, courage, generosity, moderation - the concept of virtue is not defined by those traits. It might be derived from some sense of ideals or perfection, as Plato might say, or it might be derived from the Greek notion of arete (ἀρετή) - “be all that you can be”.

The achievement of virtue is essentially tied up with the development of character. As Aristotle says, the achievement of virtue might be a lifetime task. Virtue is the opposite of what might be termed the “weakness of the will” - our succumbing to the temptation to indulge, to become intemperate, dishonest, or violent. (Aristotle, 1959)

Simply developing one’s own character, though, might seem selfish to some. It’s self-indulgent, at the very least. And one might question whether the cultivation of virtue constitutes a basis for ethical action. We need a sense of normative virtue ethics, such that the virtues not only describe good character, but prescribe right actions. (Hursthouse, 1998)

We see this perspective reflected in modern ethics by writers such as Michael Foucault (1985). In The Use of Pleasure he talks of morality as “self-formation as an ‘ethical subject,’ a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal.”

Ethical Rules

To prescribe right behaviour, one might appeal to a set of rules describing the virtues. A classic example of this is the Ten Commandments, which requires that adherents be honest, to not covet, to not kill, and the like. (Bible: Exodus 20)

With rules one encounters almost immediately what has come to be known as ‘the conflict problem’. In a case where the application of different rules produces different conclusions, which rule takes priority? Additionally, we encounter what might be called ‘the exception problem’ - the rule may say, for example, that you must not kill - but what if this is the only possible result of defending oneself?

But more significantly, morality doesn’t seem to simply be a matter of following the rules. “If right action were determined by rules that any clever adolescent could apply correctly, how
could this be so? Why are there not moral whiz-kids, the way there are mathematical (or quasi-mathematical) whiz-kids?” (Hursthouse, 1998)

Categorical Imperative

For Kant, morality poses the question of what would constitute a duty to act. This is found in the bases of Kantian morality autonomy and freedom. It is only through autonomy and freedom that we have the possibility of making moral choices. As we would say today, “ought implies can”. The morality of making a choice entails the possibility of making a choice. (Kant, 1956)

So morality applies to any rational being, and the nature of morality can be known through reason (indeed, it is this very fact that makes morality possible at all). There are several elements to Kantian ethics; one of the most significant is the categorical imperative.

In a nutshell, this is the principle that we must act in a way that we would imagine the action being a universal law. This is not the principle your mother appeals to when she says “what if everybody did that?” Rather, it’s the idea that you would will people to act in such a way because such actions are inherently good. (Kant, 1998)

What sort of actions could be universalized in such a way. Many typical actions, those based merely in our own pleasures, where we use other people as a means to an end, would not qualify. The only consistent universal principle of morality imposes on us the duty to treat people as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to an end.


Utilitarianism is sometimes known as ‘the happiness principle’. The simplest statement of utilitarianism is that something is morally good according to whether it produces pleasure and avoids pain. In a society, a morally good action is that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number. (J.,S.Mill, 1957) Utilitarianism is therefore an important statement of ethical consequentialism, that is, the idea that the effect of one’s actions are relevant to ethical appraisal. It is worth noting that utilitarianism is concerned with the goodness of an act, as opposed to the Kantian concept of duty to act.

With utilitarianism come several immediate objections. (Smart & Williams, 1973) For one, there is the concern that utilitarianism caters to our lowest desires; for example, in hedonism we find the ethic of personal pleasure. Another is there is the question of how consequences may be measured (the unit of measurement sometimes derisively called a ‘hedon’). Indeed, we might not be able to know, or to calculate in time, the ‘unintended consequences’ of an action.

Many of these objections are answered by John Stuart Mill. The cultivation of taste, he writes, leads one to enjoy the ‘higher pleasures’. Better to be a discontented man than a contented sheep. As well, we need not evaluate each act individually. We may distinguish between ‘act utilitarianism’, which looks at the consequences of individual acts, and ‘rule utilitarianism’, which looks at the consequences of types of behaviour generally.

But a final critique of utilitarianism is that it is cold and unfeeling. Do the needs of the many genuinely outweigh the needs of the few? If seven billion people could be made to feel slightly better by the life-long torture of one person, is this act morally permissible? Intuitively this seems wrong, though a utilitarian calculation might say otherwise.


Another form of consequentialism, Egoism is the philosophy that one is required only to act in their own self-interest. This is the philosophy often associated with Ayn Rand under the heading of ‘objectivism’ (Rand, 1970), and though Rand’s arguments in favour are incoherent, reasoned argumentation for egoism is not rare.

Egoism can be expressed in different ways. “Psychological egoism asserts that it is impossible for anyone to do anything other than seek his own good. Ethical egoism tells us that a person ought to promote his own interests.” (Mcconnell, 1978) Both of these suggest that whatever the status of ethical theory, it is not really possible for a person to adopt any ethics other than personal self-interest.

Egoism forms the foundation of modern economics. As Adam Smith Writes, "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, 1937, I.ii.2).

Social Contract

While we usually associate consequentialist theories with the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, consequentialist theories can identify other goods, for example, justice, fairness, and equality. However these are even more difficult to define and measure than pleasure and plain. An alternative mechanism is required; historically this has been the social contract.

The social contract appears first with any significance in modern philosophy, and in particular the work of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

Hobbes argues that we willingly cede power to the monarch in order to escape the state of nature in which no rules exist and where, as he says, there are "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." (Hobbes, 1986)

John Locke depicts the contract as a mechanism to defend the rights of citizens against the sovereign, and in particular, to protect their right of property, which they acquire by removing goods from the state of nature and adding their own labour to them. Failing this, writes Locke, the recourse is either legitimate revolution to overthrow the sovereign, or emigration to unoccupied land. (Locke, 1821)

“Man is born free,” writes Rousseau at the beginning of the Social Contract, “yet everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau depicts a ‘state of nature’ quite opposite to Hobbes, where people lived in peace and plenty, and the net effect of society was to constrain this freedom and enslave people to serve the individual will of the master. The objective of the social contract is to ascertain ‘the general will’ expressed by the unanimity of citizens. (Rousseau, 1950)

A significant and influential modern version of social contract theory emerges with John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. Rather than postulate an ethically dubious ‘state of nature’, Rawls proposes that we imagine what sort of contract we would negotiate with each other if we were not aware of where we would be in society. What results, he argues, is a theory of “justice as fairness” (which doesn’t sound remarkably different than Plato’s version, “to everyone his due.” (Rawls, 1971)


The study of meta-ethics is the study of what grounds an ethical argument. To some degree this discussion is already present in the range of ethical theories described above (and many writers place the discussion of meta-ethics prior to the list of ethical theories). I have chosen to place it here because, after reflection on the different theories, it is relevant to ask about the bases or grounds for one approach or another.

For example, as we consider these different theories, we see that even what counts as ethical can vary from one viewpoint to another. Some see it as a form of excellence in individuals, others see it as defined in terms of duties and responsibilities, still others characterize ethics in terms of good and bad or right and wrong, while others see ethics expressed in terms of value and worth.

Does Might Make Right?

Suppose Gyges has a ring, says Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, where this ring makes him invisible and hence essentially free of retribution for any act. He can take whatever he wants, lie with anyone he wants, even murder anyone he wants, and there will be no retaliation. Why then would he act in a moral manner at all, no matter how we define morality? (Plato, 2000)

Friedrich Nietzsche makes a compelling modern case for this argument. He argues that if a man becomes ‘Superman’ (ubermensch), then whatever he does is by that fact moral. (Nietzsche, 1900)  We see echoes of this today in the proclamations of Donald Trump when he observes that the President can’t be in a conflict of interest. (Voskuhl & Melby, 2016)

Conversely, if a person must behave ethically because of the power of an authority (whether it is the will of God or the dictates of a King) and is unable to do otherwise, on what grounds would we cann behaving in this manner moral at all? If I am falling, and will kill someone when I land on him, I am powerless to stop or to change direction. Am I still responsible for the man’s death?

The relation between power and morality is a complex one. If morality is based on subservience to power, this takes away the element of choice, which seems essential to morality. But if the element of power is removed, what them makes an act moral or immoral?


There is a long tradition in ethics, often depicted as a variation of rationalism, to the effect that right and wrong are defined by natural law. This can be expressed in different ways. For example, there is the argument that human rights are based in natural law, as evidenced in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” (Stoner, 2017)

There is also an interpretation of naturalism and natural law to the effect that we should behave according to our nature, or (variously) according to our best nature. Thomas Aquinas, for example, places the creation of our nature in the hands of God, which therefore makes behaving according to that nature. (Magee, 1996)  Flavours of naturalism can also be found in Taoist and Confucian thought. (Nelson, 2009)

But can we deduce moral facts from nature, or even from human nature? David Hume argued famously that one cannot deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. If it’s the nature of something to do something, there is no right or wrong about it. (Hume, 2003) G.E. Moore called such an inference “The Naturalistic Fallacy.” Specifically, the fallacy is “the assumption that because some quality or combination of qualities invariably and necessarily accompanies the quality of goodness, or is invariably and necessarily accompanied by it, or both, this quality or combination of qualities is identical with goodness.” (Moore, 1903)

There is, after all, no means of determining which natural properties are identical (or opposite to) goodness. If flight is not natural, is flight a sin? If violence is natural, is violence ethically acceptable?

Moral Sentiment

Perhaps moral judgement isn’t based on rationality and reason at all. Perhaps it is based on how we feel. This argument as most famously advanced by David Hume against rationalist accounts of morality. For one thing, reason alone cannot persuade us to act - “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions,” he writes. (Hume, 1739, II.3.3) “Truth is disputable; not taste: What exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgment; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment.” (Hume, 1751, 1.5)

The nature of ethical dilemmas arises from the subjective experiences of moral disagreement we have in ordinary life, writes C.L. Stevenson. (1937) These can be differences of belief or disagreements of attitude. In the case of the latter, people agree on the state of affairs in question, but interpret them very differently. Take ‘desire’, for example: we might agree objectively that something is ‘capable’ of being desired, ‘worthy’ of being desired, but then there is the entirely separate matter of whether in individual actually does desire it.

Consequently, argues Stevenson, moral persuasion may often be non-rational. “It depends on the sheer, direct emotional impact of words—on emotive meaning, rhetorical cadence, apt metaphor, stentorian, stimulating, or pleading tones of voice, dramatic gestures, care in establishing rapport with the hearer or audience, and so on.” Consider, for example, how the impact of some of today’s most significant moral statements is obtained - the repetition of words in King’s “I have a dream” speech, for example. (Boisvert, 2011)


Kant argues that morality is based on the categorical imperative, the duty that arises out of universal moral precepts. But what if morality exists only in relation to some purpose, goal or outcome. Then they become hypothetical imperatives. In her paper of the same name, Philippa Foot asks what we are to say to the man who does not care about the ends we would ascribe to the moral man - justice, liberty, etc. (Foot, 1972) If he does care about them, it is because he values them as an end, not because he must (in absolute sense) ought to care.

Care ethics is a type of morality that can be understood as a hypothetical imperative. Drawn from feminist theory, which stresses nurturing and relationships, “care ethics affirms the importance of caring motivation, emotion and the body in moral deliberation, as well as reasoning from particulars.” (IEP, 2017) What’s significant about care ethics is that it addresses not only motivations and actions, but also attitudes and motivations. (Held, 2006)

A final question concerning relativism is whether it is feasible. While some argue there can be no compromise on ethical principle, relativists will generally hold that different perspectives can (to a certain degree) be compatible with each other. For example, in a society some people may subscribe to care ethics, but it does not follow that all people must entertain the same attitudes and motivations.In economics we have the concept of “incentive compatibility”, which expresses a similar idea, where people may have different interests, provided they are consistent with the principles of exchange adopted by the group. (Myerson, 2009)

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  1. This is a very helpful post Stephen - thank you. You haven't explicitly mentioned ethical responsibility. I'm wondering whether you think this implicit in some of what you have written, or whether you think this a separate issue.

  2. In the discussion above responsibility would be covered under the term and concept of 'duty'. Beyond that, the concept of obligation is found more in a legal and political context, as opposed to an ethical context.

    More recently within the context of professional ethics a wider sense of responsibility does exist. I am working on a second part to this text which addresses that, and the scope and limits of ethical obligations generally.


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