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What’s New in… Ethics (part 1!)

Our overview articles reveal what’s going on now in different areas of philosophy. There is just too much happening in ethics for a single overview, so we asked Abdelkader Aoudjit to describe and comment on one strong tendency which is a major feature of the current ethics scene – the rebellion against theories.

The leading theories of modern ethics are deontology (‘duty ethics’) and utilitarianism. The first is best represented by Immanuel Kant for whom an action is moral only if it can be willed to be a universal law for everyone and is done out of respect for duty, regardless of the consequences and what one happens to desire. The second is usually associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who argue that a moral action is the one that results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, everyone given equal consideration. Despite their differences – deontology focuses on rules and is rooted in reason while utilitarianism focuses on results and is rooted in psychology – both theories express the Enlightenment quest for universal laws that govern everything and the desire to make morality secular, scientific, objective, and rational. Modern moral theories combine a variety of moral considerations into systematic frameworks centred around a major idea derived from reflection on the nature of the right or the good, ideal conditions of choice, human nature, or agency. In addition, for modern moral theorists, moral reasoning consists of applying theoretically-derived principles to particular cases in a deductive manner.

Recent years have seen a growing dissatisfaction with this approach. A number of philosophers and practitioners of applied ethics contend that moral theory is neither necessary nor desirable. These ‘antitheorists’ argue that moral theories not only do not help to resolve moral issues but distort our understanding of moral experience. Theories, explains the philosopher Edmund Pincoffs, “are more threats to moral sanity and balance than instruments for their attainment.” As a consequence, antitheorists argue that philosophers should break with tradition and look for an alternative. Some of them have extended their condemnation of modern moral theory to all forms of moral philosophy and to all kinds of principles, rules and norms. Yet, critics of utilitarianism and deontology really object only to one kind of theory. Moreover, in objecting to this kind of theory they have different things in mind. Is it possible, as they claim, to do without theory?

My purpose in this article is to clarify what antitheorists mean by ‘theory’, to sketch their arguments against it, to summarize some of their alternatives, and to show that these alternatives can’t work without the kind of philosophical ideas and principles antitheorists find unacceptable in modern moral theories. Finally I’ll argue that in emphasizing the limits of modern theories we need not reject them and need not reject general standards of right and wrong and the traditional concerns of moral philosophy.

The Antitheorist Concept of Theory

Antitheorists take moral theory to be built on the following assumptions:

1. The purpose of moral philosophy is to articulate a variety of moral considerations around a major idea and to identify timeless, universal principles by which we can tell right from wrong.

2. Moral philosophers can gain access to these fundamental ideas and principles mainly by nonempirical means, i.e., conceptual analysis and investigation of logical relations.

3. Ethical knowledge must be impersonal. Everything that is specific to particular individuals such as their preferences, desires, and personal goals is excluded.

4. There is no place in morality for judgment because judgment is based on individual opinion and is incapable of intersubjective evaluation.

5. Morality is essentially knowledge. Emotions are something to be brought under control because they introduce into rational moral deliberation various idiosyncrasies that undermine the possibility of shared morality and destroy its universal character.

6. Ethical judgments must be impartial. In deciding what is a moral action, the interests and concerns of all individuals must be given equal consideration. Nobody ought to be granted any special privilege.

7. The moral agent is a solitary subject whose connection to society is a secondary characteristic.

8. Moral reasoning consists of applying principles to particular cases in a deductive manner indicated by the theory.

9. Moral values can be compared on a common scale which is also provided by the theory.

10. All moral disagreements and conflicts are rationally resolvable. There are procedures to identify what is right and what is wrong in any particular situation.

11. Moral problems are best solved by experts who possess the correct theory and are skilled in deductive reasoning.

12. Action rather than character is the proper focus of moral philosophy.

The Antitheorist Critique of Theory

Antitheorists don’t always agree on what is wrong with theory. The only thing that seems to unite them is their rejection of the view that there is a single fundamental moral truth and of the belief that one can ground morality in reason alone.

The most widespread objection to modern moral theories is perhaps their impracticality. Antitheorists claim that broad ethical principles such as “do not harm” are so abstract and remote as to be useless to guide action. What counts as harm? Is it ever permitted to cause harm for the sake of some good? In what case? There is no ready answer to these questions.

Another serious objection to moral theories has to do with their reductionism. Some antitheorists such as Bernard Williams argue that morality is much too complex to be reduced to the concepts, methods, and principles used by philosophers. Morality as actually lived contains, in addition to duty and utility, all sorts of values that can’t be compared on a common scale: gratitude, friendship, commitments, the sense of personal responsibility, and the aspiration to become a certain kind of person. Other philosophers who accuse theorists of reductionism are Annette Baier and Martha Nussbaum. They fault modern moral theories for their neglect of emotions. They argue that morality also involves emotions such as hope, fear, guilt, pride, and remorse which all resist translation into principles.

Another, closely related, objection is that modern moral theories’ exclusive concentration on moral principles and rules prevents people from leading full lives. Williams argues that traditional moral theories focus on a person’s capacity to respond to universal principles of conduct, rules, duties, and rights rather than on his or her particular attachments and conception of the good life. As a consequence, adopting a moral theory limits a person’s ability to lead a valuable life by alienating him from his projects and by pushing aside prudence, friendship, and personal commitments. In the same vein, Mark Johnson argues that an exclusive concern with moral rules impedes the cultivation of imagination that is necessary to be sensitive and responsible to other people.

Another challenge to modern theories is directed at their neglect of the social and historical context of morality. For Stuart Hampshire and Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, what theorists take to be human nature, reason, and morality are always conditioned by social and cultural factors.

On similar lines, a serious accusation levelled against moral theories concerns their individualism. MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor contend that moral theories presuppose that the people making moral choices are individuals fully constituted independently of society. They argue that individuals exist within a network of personal and social relationships and these relationships are an important feature of their identity. Another philosopher critical of the modern conception of the individual was Michel Foucault (1926-84). He wrote that the idea that the self is fully transparent and in total control of itself is an illusion.

However, Foucault and other postmodernists such as Jean-Francois Lyotard were mainly concerned with the political implications and ideological assumptions of theories. They argued that no theory is innocent. For Foucault, any ethical or political approach that places itself beyond the play of power and which claims to adjudicate conflicts is nothing but an insidious ruse of power itself. Lyotard distrusts any idea that is passed off as a moral truth. He claims that it is impossible to produce an ethical theory that does not eliminate difference and silence some voice or other.

Some antitheorists focus on yet another aspect of ethical theories, namely their incompatibility with the way people actually experience morality and decide what is right and what is wrong. Williams, for example, claims that the ‘thick’ concepts that guide moral life, such as ‘courageous’, ‘cruel’, ‘kind’, ‘brutal’, ‘honest’, defy classification under traditional theories and unlike ‘thin’ theoretical concepts such as ‘right and ‘wrong’, have both normative (‘ought’) and descriptive (‘is’) contents. MacDowell and Hampshire reject the belief that all moral convictions have the form of allegiance to explicit and precise principles of conduct. They argue that most of the time people cannot put into words why they believe that an action is right or wrong, let alone what principles it obeys or disobeys.

In addition to criticizing modern theories for distorting human experience, Hampshire refuses the idea that they can provide unambiguous solutions to all moral problems. He claims that morality is essentially conflictual. Conflicts of ideals, obligations, and interests are pervasive and often irresolvable.

Finally, a number of antitheorists object to the idea that moral decision-making consists of deriving particular judgments from principles and theories in a deductive manner. They believe that morality is a matter of practical wisdom. It is the ability, based on experience and good character, to perceive what is unique to a particular situation and to make a good decision about it in the absence of correct procedures.

Post-Enlightenment Ethics

The antitheorists’ distrust of modern moral theories and their doubt about the possibility of solving moral problems by deductively applying general principles to particular cases have given rise to a variety of alternative approaches to morality. Primary among them are principlism, particularism, casuistry, communitarianism, and virtue ethics.


According to principlists Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, theories such as deontology and utilitarianism do not make a significant difference to the resolution of ethical problems. They claim that it is possible to deal effectively with moral problems like those encountered in bioethics by relying on four basic principles: autonomy (allowing others to make their own decisions according to their own personal life plans), nonmaleficence (not doing harm), beneficence (promoting good), and justice (treating others fairly) without appealing to theoretical considerations about their nature and their justification.


Particularists such as Jonathan Dancy and John MacDowell are more radical than principlists; they reject not only theories but principles, rules and norms as well. They maintain that no two situations are alike in all aspects; every situation is unique and needs to be considered on its own merits. Although some consideration could be a reason to perform a particular action in one situation, it may not be a good reason to perform that action in a second situation, and may even be a reason not to perform that action in a third situation. For example, usually the fact that a person borrowed a book from another is a good reason to return it. But if the book happens to be stolen from the library, then the fact that one borrowed the book is no reason to return it to the person he borrowed it from, in fact it seems to counts against doing so. For particularists, therefore, moral competence comes in the form of the possession of a fine sensitivity to the complex features that make a case unique and not an instance of a general principle or rule. While some particularists describe judgment as analogous to vision, others compare it to a craft skill.


Joining principlists and particularists in rejecting theory are casuists. Stephen Toulmin, one of the leading proponents of casuistry, says that appealing to general principles in dealing with moral problems is often an obstacle to their resolution. He points out that the members of the National Commission for the Protection of the Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, of which he is a member, always agree about particular cases as long as they put aside their personal religious, philosophical, and general moral principles. For casuists, moral certainty concerns particular cases. Moral reasoning requires a consideration of particular cases and the will to treat like cases alike. Casuists claim that, to solve an ethical problem, we should start with the identification of uncontroversial and unambiguous cases, cases that are “too clear and simple, too nearly paradigmatic to be in any way problematic or open to doubt.” Then, we should identify the salient features of the problematic case and see which of these paradigm cases it resembles most. Finally, we should carry over the procedure used to resolve the paradigm case to the problematic case. For example, if we are faced with a problem case in which we cannot decide whether it is autonomy or beneficence that ought to take precedence, we should describe a situation in which autonomy clearly takes precedence and another in which beneficence takes precedence, then compare the problem case to the two paradigm cases to see which it resembles most.


Another antitheoretical position that is gaining in favour is communitarianism, represented by Sandel, Taylor, and MacIntyre. For MacIntyre, the moral principles and rules that are the object of moral theories do not have a life of their own. Instead, they are part of the ethos of society, along with its foundational historical narratives, traditions, virtues, manners, standards of taste, attitudes, and experiences that guide action and constitute people’s identities. As a result, in place of the top-down model of moral reasoning a person has to adopt a particular tradition and focus on its foundational stories and practices for determining how to live and how to solve important moral problems.

Virtue ethics

A number of antitheorists also advocate some kind of virtue ethics and are indebted to Aristotle’s emphasis on practical wisdom and his idea that morality has to do less with principles and rules than with those traits of character that make a person a good person. One should cultivate virtues such as courage, kindnessm temperance and so on. This makes good moral judgments the result of a good character rather than of mere intuition. Among the advocates of virtue ethics are MacDowell, Williams, Nussbaum and Baier.


Finally, postmodernists such as Lyotard state that when someone claims to know what is right or good, it is inevitable that opposition and difference are silenced. Philosophers should stop dreaming up theories and should restrict themselves to a constant disruption of all ideas about morality, truth, and justice.

Critique of Antitheorists

Have the antitheorists succeeded in showing that ethical theory is neither necessary nor desirable? The answer depends on what we mean by ‘theory’. In one sense, moral theories are fairly comprehensive views, philosophical or not, on how to understand morality and come to conclusion about actions, motives, character, or institutions. Theories can be classified depending on whether, based on philosophical reflection, they offer a general principle for the correctness of moral judgments or merely clarify moral thinking and leave open the question of normative standards. Theories that seek to arrive at acceptable principles of obligation in order to determine what is morally right or wrong are called ‘normative theories’. Theories that address metaphysical, epistemological, and linguistic questions about morality and do not propose moral guides to action, except perhaps by implication, are called ‘metaethical theories’.

If we take ‘theory’ in the broad sense, even antitheorists are theorists of sorts. They all refer to ideas in terms of which we ought to understand morality. Some of them suggest procedures for solving moral problems and others, such as the communitarians, want to promote specific ways of life. It seems, therefore, that the real targets of the antitheorists is the systematic kind of normative theories which claim to have a keystone from which all judgments of right and wrong must derive.

Antitheorists have a good point: modern, Enlightenmentderived moral theories have their limitations. However, some of them reject these modern theories altogether; indeed, some of them reject any general criteria for determining what is right and what is wrong as well as all metaethical reflection. The problem, therefore, is whether we can avoid principles and rules for deciding what is right and avoid addressing metaethical questions.

The old metaethical problems don’t disappear just because the antitheorists have decided to ignore them. All ‘antitheory’ approaches presuppose ideas about moral knowledge, the scope and limitations of our capacities for deliberation, whether there are such things as moral facts, etc. They also appeal to just the kind of normative standards they find unacceptable in theories.

To start with, the principles on which principlists rely aren’t fixed. There are many versions of justice and autonomy depending on what theory one adopts. Furthermore, everyone is against harm, but people disagree seriously on what constitutes harm in particular circumstances. Finally, principlists need ethical theory to resolve disputes about priorities among principles as well as about their scope and limits.

The second alternative to theories, particularism, improves on principlism in drawing attention to the complexity and the resistance to rational formulation of moral experience. Still, particularists have not been successful in showing that we can do without principles and rules. One major problem of particularism is the lack of a criterion of truth. The best a particularist can say in support of a judgment is that he is confident that it is intuitively correct. However, given its tendency to be distorted by ignorance and prejudice, intuition does not make a decision correct. In addition, even if particularism is appropriate to individual morality, it may not be appropriate to public morality. Public morality requires that one be able to give reasons for one’s decision and there are reasons only where there are rules. Finally, one can recognize an action as moral, immoral, cruel or generous only if he understands the relevant concept and its place in human life.

Casuists are no more successful than particularists in showing that we can do without theory. First, there are few cases that are as uncontroversial and unambiguous as ‘willful cruelty’. Second, since the circumstances that surround the problematic case and the paradigmatic case form a mesh of similarities and differences, ethicists need criteria to choose what features are salient and what features are not.

As to communitarianism, the idea that culture provides the substance of morality is open to serious objections. Cultures contain different and often contradictory elements. How to articulate these elements and how to determine what is essential and what is peripheral depend on the kind of philosophy to which a person subscribes. But even if we concede that the norms the communitarians supposedly uncover in the culture are indeed there, why should we grant them a special justificatory privilege? Finally, pretheoretical agreements in morals have their limits. People who subscribe to the same tradition often disagree on important moral issues such as capital punishment and euthanasia.

Finally, by refusing to appeal to any kind of positive theory of morality, postmodernists make it difficult to carry out their critical project. It is only with the introduction of normative standards of some kind that one can challenge the dominant ideologies and current forms of oppression. Without norms it is difficult to defend any political commitment as being more than an arbitrary decision.

In Defence of Theory

There is no escape from theory. No moral judgment and no claim about morality can be made without theoretical assumptions, implicit or explicit. As Ludwig Wittgenstein explained, the person who doubted everything would not be able to think at all. It is only in the context of assuming, at least provisionally, certain beliefs that we can question other beliefs. We need theory to make explicit our assumptions concerning motivation, the self, what is right and what is wrong and to determine whether we are clear about them and whether we are still justified to hold them in light of reflection. We also need theories to perceive a problem as a moral problem. Unless one already has an idea of what makes a matter a moral as opposed to an amoral one, at least in some rough and preliminary way, he would not know what to look for. Furthermore, theories – including antitheory theories – reveal aspects of moral problems that we would not otherwise perceive and make us aware of important considerations for which we should be on guard. For example duty ethics draws attention to the claims of individuals to respect, utilitarianism reminds us of the importance of the results of our actions for everyone, and postmodernism helps keep in mind the pervasiveness of power. Finally, we need theory to impose order on our judgments, intuitions, and beliefs and relate them to larger ideas about the world and our place in it.


However, since no theory or approach to morality is indisputably superior, none is equally appropriate to all kinds of moral problems, and none can anticipate all the complexities of particular situations, ethicists should keep theories as heuristic devices only. Their role is to guide thinking not to provide ready-made answers. Thus, instead of adhering dogmatically to one theory, ethicists should, at first, be responsive to all of them to reveal as many morally relevant features of a case as possible and then either give priority to one of them or combine or correct them to accommodate the complexity of experience. This kind of theorizing implies adopting a critical attitude towards morality; recognize that most moral decisions are contingent and contestable.

Morality requires both knowledge of theories and sensitivity to the nuances of particular situations. To paraphrase Kant, theories without intuitions are empty and intuitions without theories are blind.

© Dr Abdelkader Aoudjit 2000

Abdelkader Aoudjit studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and at Georgetown University. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Finding out more

If you want to know more about the ethical approaches (not theories!!) described in this article, then you could do a whole lot worse than reading the books below:

  • Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 1994
  • Stanley G. Clarke and Evan Simpson, eds., Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism, State University of New York Press, 1989. (This anthology contains selections from the writings of MacIntyre, Williams, Baier, MacDowell, Taylor, Nussbaum, and Hampshire.)
  • Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination, Chicago University Press, 1993
  • Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry, University of California Press, 1988
  • Robert Louden, Morality and Moral Theory, Oxford Univ Press, 1992
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, University of Minnesota Press, 1984

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