Unit Overview

Before proceeding, we need more clarity about what moral philosophy is. Sometimes the best way to understand something is understanding what it is not. The philosophical approach to understanding morality is different from various other approaches one might take to explain morality. The most obvious approach to understanding morality is a scientific one in which moral behavior is explained through psychology and specifically evolutionary social psychology. Alternatively, we can talk about morality in terms of culture or religion, but all these approaches fail to capture what is unique about the philosophical approach to studying morality.


In the Darwin reading he argues that humanity’s highest faculty, it’s moral sense, is present, in rudimentary form, in other social species. The “common themes in primate ethics” reading gives you a brief overview of some of the moral capabilities that we share with primates. The evolutionary social psychology reading is not required but just provided if your curious to learn more about the topic, although you may find it helpful.

Moral Emotions

David Hume (1711-1776) was the first philosopher to really focus on the role of emotions in moral judgements. He argued that abstract reasons don’t motivate action. And that since moral beliefs are very motivating they must not be abstract reasons but rather emotions. I, his book A Treatise on Human Nature, he famously said that reason was “the slave of the passions.”

Approximately a hundred years later Charles Darwin would publish his book The Origin of Species (1859) in which he would explain his theory of evolution. Part of what he would seek to explain with his theory of evolution was social and moral behavior.

The basic idea is that since the beginning of our species we have lived in social groups. These social groups are made possible by our ability to cooperate together and to care for others, most importantly our children but also other members of our tribe or family. Our sense of empathy and our concern for fairness or justice are necessary for us to cooperate and live together. Since the dawn of humanity, humans have been governed by rules that dictate what is morally permissible. As these groups got bigger the rules become laws. Legal and criminal justice systems arose to enforce the laws. Societies across the globe in countries like Greece, Rome, China, India, Mesopotamia and many other places all had such systems. These large societies required people to be able to live together. Our best scientific evidence makes it clear that humanity’s ability to live together, to care for each other, to cooperate comes from our ancestors and distant relatives in various species. Without the cognitive and emotional capacity for moral behavior, social interaction and society itself would not be possible.

Below is a short video explaining the very basics of how evolution works. The key to understanding morality, from an evolutionary perspective, is that to understand that morality, like every other trait all animals possess, helped those animals survive and reproduce.

Frans De Waal on Moral Behavior in Animals

In this video De Waal gives us an overview of some of the moral capacities that animals possess and use to cooperate and solve tasks. The view of animals he presents here, being social and cooperative, is in contrast to the traditional view of animals and humans as being entirely selfish, vicious, and power hungry. He specifically identifies two features of animal behavior as the foundation, or the precursor, of moral behavior in human beings.

Culture, Religion, and Morality

About 10,000 or so years ago human morality enters a new phase of development. Our moral emotions carried us quite far in our journey but it was culture that really set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It was around this time that humans developed agriculture which enabled the development of large cities and more complex social and cultural structures. And over this period religion co-evolved with human culture. It is tempting to think of moral rules as simply the rules that a particular group of people, based on their culture or religion, follow. This view makes sense when you think about the differences between cultures and religions in terms of their moral beliefs and practices.

A simple argument along these lines is what James Rachels calls the cultural differences argument. The argument is as follows:

  1. Different cultures have different moral values.
  2. So, There are no objective moral values.

However, this argument is not valid. The first premise is true but the conclusion of the argument does not follow from the first premise. There is no logical connection between the premise and the conclusion. You can see the problem with this argument when thinking about a similar argument:

  1. Different cultures have different beliefs about the origin of life on Earth.
  2. So, there is no objective fact about the origin of life on Earth.

The above argument is clearly ridiculous, but the first is just as bad. We can describe various cultures and different religious beliefs about morality but those descriptions do not provide us with any information about what we ought to do or believe about moral issues.

In many cultures throughout history slavery has been practiced, but talking about slavery from a cultural perspective doesn’t allow us to say what we need to say about slavery, that it is horribly wrong and should never be practiced. The same goes for any number of issues. We can describe various cultures moral beliefs and practices but there have been thousands of cultures and sub-cultures throughout history all with somewhat different beliefs. Thinking about morality as simply the rules of a certain culture doesn’t allow us to determine which cultures beliefs are true and false. Are the cultures that claim slavery is okay correct or the ones that claim it is wrong correct? Some cultures deny women the rights they currently have. Are these cultures correct? How can we tell?

The same line of reasoning applies to religious morality as well. There are numerous religions all with different rules, so religion doesn’t really provide moral guidance. Some people identify with and believe a certain religion is true but when doing moral philosophy we can’t do that. Moral philosophy is independent of religious beliefs and based simply rational considerations.

Philosophy is the process of trying to figure out which actions are right and wrong. In philosophy we use reasons to argue why some actions right and some are wrong. And it is only philosophy that we can do this. Studying human evolution, human psychology, human history and culture can tell us about how humans have acted in the past and why they act the way they do. However, only philosophy can tell us how humans ought to act.

And that is what this course is about, trying to figure out how humans ought to act, which actions are right and which are wrong.

Philosophers refer to this distinction between how or why people act and how they should act as the “is-ought” gap, or the “fact-value distinction.” Normative ethics is the area of philosophy in which we seek to determine what the fundamental principle of how we ought to act is.

Normative ethics is the discipline of ethics in which we are seek to find some principle or set of principles that can be used to determine what actions are right and what actions are wrong. Often philosophers have sought one ultimate or fundamental principle of ethics that clearly defines which actions are right and wrong. Well over two thousand years ago Plato in his dialog The Euthyphro has Socrates seeking an answer to this very question.

In the dialog Socrates has been summoned to court and is being accused by Meletus of corrupting the youth and “not believing in the gods” and on his way to the court Socrates runs into Euthyphro. Socrates and Euthyphro begin making small talk and Socrates learns that Euthyphro is on his way to court to charge his own father with murdering a slave. Socrates thinks to himself that Euthyphro must really know what makes an action wrong if he is so sure of himself that he is willing to accuse his father of murder for accidentally killing a slave who was a criminal. To our modern ears this might not sound that shocking but for Plato’s audience, it would have seemed quite preposterous to accuse one’s father of murder for killing a slave, as slaves did have legal rights and a very important duty is to respect one’s father. And on top of that the slave had acted criminally and the killing was accidental. So, Socrates, claiming total ignorance on the subject, begins to inquire from Euthyphro about the nature of right and wrong and what makes an action right or wrong. Euthyphro begins are listing various actions that are right and various actions that are wrong to give an answer to Socrates by various examples. But this sort of answer is not the answer that Socrates is looking for. Socrates wants to know why the actions that are right are right and why the actions are wrong are wrong. We may all agree that murder is wrong but that doesn’t tell us why murder is wrong. Socrates, being the philosopher that he is, wants to know a principle by which we could actually determine which actions are right and wrong. Socrates was attempting to engage Euthyphro in philosophical discussion of what is now called normative ethics.

What does “normative” mean? It may help you to remember this if you think about the more commonly used word “norm” or “social norm.” A social norm is how one ought to behave socially and similarly an ethical norm is how one ought to behave ethically. In philosophy normative theories are often contrasted with descriptive theories. Descriptive theories are theories that describe something about the world as it is. Scientific theories are descriptive. Scientific theories describe how something behaves, whether atoms or humans. Normative theories are theories about how we ought to behave. A descriptive theory of human nature might tell us that we are not very altruistic beyond a limited group of friends and family however a moral theory might tell us that we ought to be altruistic beyond a limited group of friends and family.

Another way this distinction between normative and descriptive theories is discussed as is the fact-value distinction.  When doing ethics there are certain facts that we work with, facts about intentions and motivations and facts about happiness or suffering caused by actions. And in ordinary thinking we often times move from an action causing some harm or suffering to that action be morally wrong. However, one cannot determine whether an action is right or wrong simply based on scientific or empirical facts. There must also be a normative principle involved at some stage of the argument. Generally we consider murder to be wrong, however the following argument is a non-sequitur:

  1. Murder causes needless suffering.
  2. So, murder is wrong.

To get the conclusion to follow we need an additional premise that states that an action being described in the first premise violates some normative ethical principle. Such an argument would look like this:

  1. Murder causes needless suffering. (Empirical fact)
  2. It wrong to cause needless suffering. (Normative Principle)
  3. So, murder is wrong. (Specific Conclusion)

This divide between facts and moral judgments was first noted by David Hume and is also often times referred to as “the is-ought gap.” Hume noted that often times people move from one fact to another, is statements, and then suddenly make an entirely different kind of statement, an ought statement. Nothing ethical follows from a fact. Or said another way, to get an “ought” in the conclusion of your argument you need an “ought” in the premises of the argument (See the above examples for illustrations of this.) To make an ethical argument one needs both to describe the facts (empirical) and then invoke some principle that states that the facts are morally problematic (normative).

There are a number of normative ethical traditions and competing normative ethical theories. Some of more common are virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, social contract theories (contractarianism and contractualism), Utilitarianism, care ethics, and feminist Ethics. In this course we will limit our attention to three types of normative ethical theories: consequentialism, contractarianism, and contractualism.

Our discussion of these theories will be far from exhaustive. We will not cover all the various objections to the theories or all the variations of each type of theory, but it will be enough for you to be able to draw upon them when thinking about the issues in various disciplines of applied ethics as well as everyday life. In your course you will probably move from discussion of our three normative ethical theories to issues in applied ethics and will then have an opportunity to go back, reassess, and reconsider the normative ethical theories we covered. This process is what John Rawls called reflective equilibrium, whereby we bring our considered judgments about certain issues to bear on ethical theory and vice versa until we feel that our ethical theory most closely captures our considered judgments on all the possible issues.

The way this works is that we have an approximate idea of our intuitions on a range of issues (murder, rape, torture, civil liberties, distributive justice, abortion, animal rights, etc.) and we try to come up with a principle that matches with our intuitions. And then we attempt to specify our theory as precisely as possible. Then we set out to test our theory by coming up with various examples, ideally examples that are likely to falsify the theory. This process is similar to the way scientific theories are tested in that the scientist looks for evidence that will either falsify the theory or confirm it to a greater degree. The ethicist, rather than conducting experiments in a lab, conducts thought experiments by considering the ethical implications of various actions. A famous thought experiment is the trolley problem. It goes like this:

You see a trolley that is out of control and is about to run over and kill five people. You have the option to pull a switch and move the trolley onto another track where there is only one person who will be killed.

Most people think we have a moral obligation to pull the switch, however it is not as easy to explain why exactly that is. Through a process of trial and error and considering and reconsidering our views of what makes actions right and wrong we can hopefully come up with well thought out answers to the various moral questions we are interested in.


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