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Ethics made Easy

Rick’s handy tear-out’n’keep guide to the main positions in moral philosophy.

For two millennia the West has been dominated by Christianity, and the ethical systems associated with it have shaped (and been shaped by?) our commonsense ideas of what is right and wrong. Christian ethics derives from the ideas of the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ, modified to some extent (the exact extent being a matter of fierce dispute) by St Paul. The major tenets of Christian ethics are to love God, and “love thy neighbour”.

Secular Ethics

For a long time, moral philosophers mainly developed variations on the Christian theme. However, with the Enlightenment, the view became popular that our behaviour towards others should be based on other, non-religious grounds.

Over the time since then, three approaches to ethics have become very popular with philosophers. In fact most systems of philosophical ethics fall within one or other. They are duty ethics, consequentialism and virtue ethics.

Duty Ethics

(Also known as deontology, from the Greek word for duty.) Duty ethics says that some acts are just inherently right or wrong. We therefore have a duty to do (or refrain from doing) certain things (eg no stealing, no killing) The Old Testament, with the Ten Commandments, of course is a type of duty ethics. By far the most important modern system of duty ethics is that developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant said that (i) we should act so that we could will our actions to be a universal law; (ii) treat other people as ends in themselves, not merely as means to our own ends.

Among moral philosophers today the Kant approach remains very popular. Modern Kantians include Roger Scruton and Onora O’Neill.

Consequentialist ethics

(Also called teleology, from the Greek word telos, which was the marker-post that chariots used to head for during races.) Consequentialism says that when choosing whether to do something we should consider not the nature of the act itself but whether it will produce desirable consequences. The main system of consequentialist ethics is Utilitarianism (“act so as to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people”) This ethical system was devised by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century and John Stuart Mill in the 19th. Major living Utilitarians include Richard Hare (whose version says that we should maximise not happiness but the satisfaction of people’s preferences) and his former pupil, the ever-controversial Peter Singer.

Virtue Ethics

Aristotle in his book the Nicomachean Ethics advocated that certain habits (ethos in Greek) should be cultivated. Today we would call these ‘good habits’ virtues. The idea that we should strive to become better people by cultivating virtues such as courage, temperance, kindness etc, was also a persistent theme for many other ancient philosophers. Virtue ethics, which focuses not on how we act but on the kinds of people we should be, saying that we should strive to be good people and that good behaviour will follow. Virtue ethics has recently been enjoying renewed popularity, with major modern exponents such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum.

Ethics in the 20th Century

David Hume in the 18th century argued that it wasn’t logically possible to derive knowledge about what ought to be done (or presumably about what kind of people we ought to be) from any sort of observations about the world, because statements about what ‘ought’ to be the case are different in kind from statements about what ‘is’ the case. If Hume was right then trying to base any sort of ethical system on objective facts may just be impossible in principle. And this might lead us to conclude that ethics is all a matter of opinion (see Bob’s Harrison’s article on page18 for more on this).

After a longish period of being decently ignored, this argument returned to the fore early in the 20th century, largely due to G.E. Moore reinventing it in his book Principia Ethica (1903). It has been argued about on and off ever since, and undoubtedly contributed to some of the main themes in 20th century moral philosophy – such as moral scepticism (there are no really true things we can say about ethics) and moral relativism (statements about ethics are only true, if at all, relative to a particular cultural or time). In France the Existentialists claimed that philosophy cannot tell us how to live, and that we must embrace the freedom which this implies. Then came the postmodernists, who are moral relativists par excellence. Everywhere there has been a loss of faith in the confidently-constructed ethical systems of the past. This ‘revolt against theory’, and the search for alternatives, is described by Abdelkader Aoudjit on page 24.

Rick Lewis

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