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Philosophy Glossary

This glossary contains just a few of the more popular terms from moral philosophy.

Ethics: enquiry into the principles of how we should behave, especially towards other people.

Utilitarianism: a popular ethical system which says that the right decisions are those which lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Act Utilitarians say you should examine each action individually to see whether it is the best in this way. Rule Utilitarians say that this is far too complicated and impractical, and the best you can do is to say that as a general rule certain types of action tend to lead to the greatest happiness and let these general rules guide you in particular cases. For example, killing people usually isn’t conducive to the general happiness, so a rule utilitarian might be against killing in any circumstances. An act utilitarian would say that killing could occasionally increase the general happiness (eg somebody assassinating Stalin), so each case should be considered on its merits.

Kantian ethics: Immanuel Kant said that we should treat other people as being ends in themselves, and not just use them to achieve our own aims.

Consequentialism: the view that an action is good if it will have good results (eg killing Stalin...).

Teleological ethics: any system of ethics (such as utilitarianism) in which actions are judged by whether they will take you towards a goal of some sort (for example, increasing the general happiness, or advancing the cause of communism, or whatever). The word comes from telos which was the name of a little marker post that Greek charioteers used to gallop towards when they were racing in the arena.

Deontological ethics: any system of ethics in which the stress is on people’s duties. You might have a duty never to kill, even if it would in a particular case have desirable results. A deontologist would never say that the ends justify the means.

Rights-based ethics: says people have inalienable rights that must not be violated, however much good it might do other people.

Intuitionist ethics: the theory that we instinctively know what is morally the right thing to do, and that ethics should be merely a question of making a coherent system out of our moral intuitions.

Moral realism: the theory that some statements about ethics are true, and that ethics is not ‘just a matter of opinion’. Moral scepticism is the opposite view.

Suggested further reading for beginners: Moral Philosophy by D.D. Raphael (Oxford Paperbacks).

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