Some non-moral examples of what’s objective, subjectively relative, and culturally relative:
Objective: the law of gravity, the laws of genetic inheritance
Subjectively (individually) relative: your sense of humor, your taste in music
Culturally relative: what legal/illegal, what’s polite/impolite.
What about the following truths: “it’s wrong for professors to grade unfairly,” and “its wrong to
steal from your children.” Are these objectively true, or true relative to an individual or culture?
Objectivism says that moral truths are part of reality itself, much like the law of gravity and the
laws of genetic inheritance. They apply to everyone whether they know it or not, and people can
be right or wrong about them.
Three problems for objectivism:
1. “Where” are the moral truths? The laws of science are built into matter and energy, real
things we can see and feel and study, but the moral truths are not part of matter or energy.
Some philosophers think that the world is just matter and energy – that’s all there is. So
what are the moral truths “made out of?”
2. The laws of science have an effect on the world. Its because of gravity that you go down
instead of up when you jump out of a plane. Its because of genetics that you look sort of
like your mom and sort of like your dad. But the “laws” of morality don’t seem to have
an effect on the world. Nothing happens to you if you break a moral rule (unless a human
punishes you) – the world itself does not force you to be moral like it forces you to obey
gravity. So if there are moral rules they aren’t exactly like the laws of science.
3. There is widespread agreement about morality on the “easy” topics (murder is bad,
charity is good), but there is also plenty of disagreement about the more difficult topics
(euthanasia, drugs, animal rights, affirmative action…). Were morality objective, we’d
probably expect there to be more agreement, like there is in science.
Nevertheless, many philosophers endorse objectivism about ethics, and your author writes most
of your textbook in an objective framework. Different objective theories of ethics will be the
topic of module 2.
Subjective Relativism says that the only moral principles that determine what is right or wrong
for a person to do are the principles that make up that person’s personal moral code.
This does not necessarily mean that you can just choose what’s right or wrong, because
you might not have total control over your personal moral code (just like you can’t just
choose what to want or not want). It also doesn’t mean that doing the right thing will
always be easy, because your moral code might demand that you sacrifice a lot of your
But it does mean that the only place you need to look to differentiate right from wrong is
inside yourself. It also means that what’s morally right or wrong for one person to do can
be radically different from what’s right or wrong for someone else, if their personalUtilitarianism
John Stuart Mill
Intrinsic and Instrumental
Instrumental value is the value something has in
virtue of its consequences, or its effectiveness at
causing something else that’s valuable to happen.
The instrumental value of a hammer is its
effectiveness at securely putting nails through
Practice is instrumentally valuable because it
Intrinsic value is the value something has simply
because of what it is, and not because of what it
The feeling of Morality in
Every society has to solve a variety of economic and social
problems. Two universal problems are:
1. Producing enough of the right material goods in the right
2. Getting along with each other.
Tradition-based societies solve these problems with traditions. For
• Family-based education in a craft or trade solves the problem of
production by ensuring society has a stable proportion of people
doing each requisite job.
• Monogamy, and to a more extreme extent, matchmaking, solves
the problem of spouse-partnering.
The feeling of Morality in
Traditions evolve to solve social
problems without our conscious
choice or awareness that this is
what the tradition is doing.
In traditional societies, people
don’t consciously accept
monogamy or family-education
because they solve a social
problem. Traditional practices
and beliefs are felt to be
intrinsically right on their own.
Utilitarians and Moral
The first utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham
and John Stuart Mill, lived in Britain
during the industrial revolution, a
time when their culture was still
dominated by tradition. They
advocated for sweeping social
change on utilitarian grounds.
• Equality for women.
• De-stigmatizing sex, legalizing
• Eliminating censorship and state-
• Eliminating corporal punishment.
Utilitarians disagree with traditional morality.
They are hedonists, which means they think
the only things with intrinsic value are “good
feelings” and the absence “bad feelings”.
The Principle of Utility, aka
The Greatest Happiness Principle
“Actions are right in proportion as they tend
to promote happiness; wrong as they tend
to produce the reverse of happiness.”
In other words, the principle of utility says:
“The best thing to do in any situation is the
action that does the most to increase net
global happiness, and any other action is
the wrong thing to do.”
Egoism is the view that only your own pleasure is
But this has many weird consequences, including the
consequence that nothing that doesn’t effect you is
Utilitarianism assumes that everyone’s pleasure is
equally intrinsically valuable. It’s pleasure simpliciter
that matters, no matter who it “attaches” to.
Net Global Happiness
The classic trolley problem.
This chapter has the chicken-or-the-egg problem. We’re going to talk about how to evaluate
moral theories, but we haven’t learned any moral theories yet so its going to be kind of
confusing. But if we learned the moral theories before learning how to evaluate them, then they
would be confusing. So we have to start somewhere, and your textbook starts here.
A moral theory is a set of ideas that tries to explain why good actions are good and why bad
actions are bad. If somebody asks “why shouldn’t I cheat on my exams” your answer comes
from a moral theory, even if its vague or incomplete (“cheating is dishonest to your professor,”
“cheating is unfair to your other students,” “cheating only harms you in the long run”). Part of
the purpose of this class is to help you turn your vague and incomplete moral theories into
precise and more complete moral theories.
Different philosophers have proposed different moral theories which we will be discussing in
module two. Different theories often agree on what is right and what is wrong, but sometimes
they disagree. Many students assume that the ultimately best theory must be some combination
of all the other theories. Be careful about this! This is not necessarily true. For some of the
theories, there simply is no way off combining them, since they give opposite advice. There is no
guarantee that the best theory is “in the middle.” There’s no guarantee that it isn’t in the middle
either. The point is that you have to think critically about all the theories and wait until the end of
the semester to make your final judgment about which theory is best.
How should we think critically about moral theories? This is tough, because thinking critically
about moral theories involves not just thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong, it involves
thinking about how to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. In other words, since theories
try to explain what’s right and what’s wrong, we need a way of judging the explanation of
what’s right and what’s wrong.
There are two criteria for judging how good a moral theories is:
1. Consistency with common moral sense (i.e. “considered moral judgments”): Some
moral facts are just obviously true, and a good moral theory should fit with these facts. If
a moral theory says that something which is obviously a good thing to do is actually a
bad thing to do, then that counts as a strike against the theory. Here’s some common
a. Slavery is immoral.
b. Its heroic to save someone from a burning building.
c. Murder is really really bad.
d. Its good to wish your grandmother a happy birthday.
e. Democracy is more just than dictatorship.
f. People should be free to worship (or not worship) God in their own way, so long
as it doesn’t hurt others (no sacrificing people).
Sometimes our common moral sense is wrong, and if a moral theory violates just one or
two pieces of our common moral sense, t
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