assesment 6

Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues
Lewis Vaughn
W . W . N O R T O N & C O M P A N Y , I N C .
N E W Y O R K • L O N D O N

W. W. Norton & Company has been independent since its founding in 1923, when William Warder
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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

P r e f a c e x i x
P A R T 1 : F U N D A M E N T A L S
C H A P T E R 1 Ethics and the Examined Life 3
The Ethical Landscape 5
The Elements of Ethics 6
The Preeminence of Reason 6
Quick Review 7
The Universal Perspective 7
The Principle of Impartiality 7
The Dominance of Moral Norms 8
Religion and Morality 8
Believers Need Moral Reasoning 9
When Conflicts Arise, Ethics Steps In 9
Moral Philosophy Enables Productive Discourse 9
Critical Thought—Ethics, Religion,
And Tough Moral Issues 1 0
What Is the Socratic Method? by Christopher Phillips 1 4
The Euthyphro by Plato 1 6

C H A P T E R 2 Subjectivism, Relativism, and Emotivism 2 0
Subjective Relativism 2 1
Quick Review 2 1
Judge Not? 2 2
Cultural Relativism 2 3
Critical Thought—“Female Circumcision”
And Cultural Relativism 2 4
Emotivism 2 8
Anthropology and the Abnormal by Ruth Benedict 3 3
Trying Out One’s New Sword by Mary Midgley 3 5
P A R T 2 : M O R A L R E A S O N I N G
C H A P T E R 3 Evaluating Moral Arguments 4 1
Claims and Arguments 4 1
Arguments Good and Bad 4 3
Critical Thought—The Moralit y
Of Critical Thinking 4 4
Implied Premises 4 7
Quick Review 4 7
Deconstructing Arguments 48
Moral Statements and Arguments 5 1
Testing Moral Premises 5 4
Assessing Nonmoral Premises 5 5
Quick Review 5 5

Avoiding Bad Arguments 5 6
Begging the Question 5 6
Equivocation 5 7
Appeal to Authority 5 7
Appeal To Emotion 5 7
Slippery Slope 5 8
Faulty Analogy 5 8
Appeal to Ignorance 5 8
Straw Man 5 9
Appeal to the Person 5 9
Hasty Generalization 5 9
Quick Review 6 0
Writing and Speaking about Moral Issues 6 0
C H A P T E R 4 The Power of Moral Theories 6 5
Theories of Right and Wrong 6 5
Moral Theories Versus Moral Codes 6 6
Major Theories 6 7
Consequentialist Theories 6 7
Nonconsequentialist Theories 6 8
Quick Review 6 9
Evaluating Theories 7 0
Criterion 1: Consistency with Considered Moral Judgments 7 1
Considered Moral Judgment s 7 2
Criterion 2: Consistency with Our Moral Experiences 7 2
Critical Thought—A 100 Percent All-Natural Theory 7 3
Criterion 3: Usefulness in Moral Problem Solving 7 3

Quick Review 7 4
Devising a Coherent Moral Theory 7 4
Moral Common Sense 7 4
Building a Moral Theory 7 5
Prima Facie Principles 7 6
Three Rules 7 7
Self-Evidence 8 0
P A R T 3 : T H E O R I E S O F M O R A L I T Y
C H A P T E R 5 Consequentialist Theories: Maximize the Good 8 5
Ethical Egoism 8 5
Applying the Theory 8 6
Evaluating the Theory 8 7
Can Ethical Egoism Be Advocated? 8 9
Quick Review 9 1
Utilitarianism 9 1
Applying the Theory 9 4
Peter Singer, Utilitarian 9 5
Quick Review 9 6
Evaluating the Theory 9 6
Learning from Utilitarianism 1 0 0
Social Contract Theory 1 0 0
Critical Thought—Cross-Species Transplant s: What Would A
Utilitarian Do? 1 0 1
Hobbes’s Theory 1 0 1
Evaluating the Theory 1 0 2

Egoism and Altruism by Louis P. Pojman 1 0 7
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill 1 1 1
A Theory of Justice by John Rawls 1 1 5
The Entitlement Theory of Justice by Robert Nozick 1 2 2
C H A P T E R 6 Nonconsequentialist Theories: Do Your Duty 1 3 2
Kant’s Ethics 1 3 2
Critical Thought—Sizing Up The Golden Rule 1 3 4
Applying the Theory 1 3 5
Evaluating the Theory 1 3 6
Kant, Respect, And Personal Right s 1 3 7
Learning from Kant’s Theory 1 3 8
Natural Law Theory 1 3 9
Applying the Theory 1 4 1
Quick Review 1 4 1
Critical Thought—Double Effect
And The “Trolley Problem” 1 4 2
Evaluating the Theory 1 4 2
Learning from Natural Law 1 4 3

Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
by Immanuel Kant 1 4 6
Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas 1 5 5
Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives by Philippa Foot 1 6 5
C H A P T E R 7 Virtue Ethics: Be a Good Person 1 7 2
The Ethics of Virtue 1 7 2
Critical Thought—Learning Virtues
In The Classroom 1 7 3
Virtue in Action 1 7 4
Evaluating Virtue Ethics 1 7 4
Critical Thought—Warrior Virtues And Moral
Disagreement s 1 7 6
Quick Review 1 7 7
Learning from Virtue Ethics 1 7 7
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle 1 7 9
The Need for More Than Justice by Annette C. Baier 1 8 8

C H A P T E R 8 Feminist Ethics and the Ethics of Care 1 9 6
Feminist Ethics 1 9 7
Critical Thought—Feminist Ethics In History 1 9 7
The Ethics of Care 1 9 8
Quick Review 1 9 9
Feminist Ethics by Alison M. Jaggar 2 0 1
The Ethics of Care as Moral Theory by Virginia Held 2 0 9
P A R T 4 : E T H I C A L I S S U E S
C H A P T E R 9 Abortion 2 2 1
Issue File: Background 2 2 1
Abortion In The United States: Fact s And Figures 2 2 3
Moral Theories 2 2 4
Majorit y Opinion In Ro e V. Wa d e 2 2 5
Abortion And The Scriptures 2 2 6
Moral Arguments 2 2 7
Quick Review 2 2 7
State Abortion Laws 2 2 9
Critical Thought—Fact-Checking Abortion Claims 2 3 1

A Defense of Abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomson 2 3 7
On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion by Mary Anne Warren 2 4 7
Why Abortion Is Immoral by Don Marquis 2 5 6
Virtue Theory and Abortion by Rosalind Hursthouse 2 6 8
Abortion Through a Feminist Ethics Lens by Susan Sherwin 2 7 4
C H A P T E R 1 0 Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide 2 8 5
The Death Of K aren Ann Quinlan 2 8 6
Issue File: Background 2 8 6
Landmark Court Rulings 2 8 8
Quick Review 2 8 9
Moral Theories 2 8 9
Critical Thought—Dr. Kevorkian
And Physician-Assisted Suicide 2 9 1
Moral Arguments 2 9 1
Public Opinion And Euthanasia 2 9 3

Active and Passive Euthanasia by James Rachels 3 0 0
The Wrongfulness of Euthanasia by J. Gay-Williams 3 0 4
Voluntary Active Euthanasia by Dan W. Brock 3 0 7
Euthanasia by Philippa Foot 3 1 5
Killing and Allowing to Die by Daniel Callahan 3 2 9
Euthanasia for Disabled People? by Liz Carr 3 3 2
C H A P T E R 1 1 Delivering Health Care 3 3 4
Issue File: Background 3 3 4
Health Care By Country 3 3 6
Critical Thought—Comparing Health Care Systems 3 3 7
Moral Theories 3 3 8
Moral Arguments 3 3 9
Quick Review 3 4 0
Autonomy, Equality and a Just Health Care System by Kai Nielsen 3 4 4
The Right to a Decent Minimum of Health Care by Allen E. Buchanan 3 5 0
Is There a Right to Health Care and, If So, What Does It Encompass?
by Norman Daniels 3 6 3

C H A P T E R 1 2 Animal Welfare 3 7 1
Issue File: Background 3 7 2
Critical Thought—Using Animals To Test Consumer
Product s 3 7 4
Moral Theories 3 7 5
Critical Thought—Should We Experiment
On Orphaned Babies? 3 7 7
Quick Review 3 7 8
Moral Arguments 3 7 8
All Animals Are Equal by Peter Singer 3 8 4
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan 3 9 4
Difficulties with the Strong Animal Rights Position
by Mary Anne Warren 4 0 1
The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research by Carl Cohen 4 0 7
How to Argue for (and Against) Ethical Veganism by Tristram McPherson 4 1 4
C H A P T E R 1 3 Environmental Ethics 4 2 9
Issue File: Background 4 3 0
Climate Change—How We Know It’s Real 4 3 2
Moral Theories 4 3 4
Quick Review 4 3 5
Moral Arguments 4 3 5
Critical Thought—Should Pandas Pay The Price? 4 3 6

People or Penguins by William F. Baxter 4 4 2
It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations by Walter
Sinnott-Armstrong 4 4 6
Are All Species Equal? by David Schmidtz 4 5 8
The Land Ethic by Aldo Leopold 4 6 5
C H A P T E R 1 4 Racism, Equality, and Discrimination 4 7 0
Issue File: Background 4 7 1
Critical Thought—White Privilege 4 7 4
Critical Thought—Are Legacy Admissions R acist? 4 7 9
Moral Theories 4 8 0
Critical Thought—Are Whites-Only Scholarships Unjust? 4 8 1
Quick Review 4 8 2
Moral Arguments 482
Racisms by Kwame Anthony Appiah 4 8 9
Racism: What It Is and What It Isn’t by Lawrence Blum 4 9 9
Dear White America by George Yancy 5 0 8
Uses and Abuses of the Discourse of White Privilege by Naomi Zack 5 1 1
The Case Against Affirmative Action by Louis P. Pojman 5 1 4
In Defense of Affirmative Action by Tom L. Beauchamp 5 2 6

C H A P T E R 1 5 Sexual Morality 5 3 6
Issue File: Background 5 3 6
Sexual Behavior 5 3 6
Vital Stat s—Sexual Behavior 5 3 7
Campus Sexual Assault 5 3 8
Critical Thought—Proving Sexual Assault 5 4 0
Moral Theories 5 4 1
Moral Arguments 5 4 2
Quick Review 5 4 4
Plain Sex by Alan H. Goldman 5 4 8
Sexual Morality by Roger Scruton 5 5 7
Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex? A Defense of Homosexuality
by John Corvino 5 6 4
Seduction, Rape, and Coercion by Sarah Conly 5 7 1
Sex under Pressure: Jerks, Boorish Behavior, and Gender Hierarchy
by Scott A. Anderson 5 8 2
C H A P T E R 1 6 Free Speech on Campus 5 8 9
Issue File: Background 5 9 0
Critical Thought—Who Can Say The N-Word? 5 9 1
Microaggressions 5 9 3
Moral Theories 5 9 4
Critical Thought—Is Hate Speech Violence? 5 9 5
College Student s And Free Speech 5 9 6
Quick Review 5 9 7

Moral Arguments 5 9 7
Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence
by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff 6 0 1
Restoring Free Speech on Campus by Geoffrey R. Stone and Will Creeley 6 0 5
Speech Codes and Expressive Harm by Andrew Altman 6 0 6
What “Snowflakes” Get Right About Free Speech by Ulrich Baer 6 1 5
The Progressive Ideas behind the Lack of Free Speech on Campus
by Wendy Kaminer 6 1 8
C H A P T E R 1 7 Drugs, Guns, and Personal Liberty 6 2 1
Issue File: Background 6 2 1
Drugs: Social Harms versus Personal Freedom 6 2 1
Critical Thought—Does Legalizing Medical Marijuana
Encourage Use Among Teenagers? 6 2 2
Diverse Views On Legalizing Marijuana 6 2 3
Gun Ownership: Security versus Individual Rights 6 2 4
Vital Stat s—Guns In The United States 6 2 5
Survey—Views Of U.S. Adult s On Gun Policy 6 2 6
Moral Theories 6 2 6
Moral Arguments 6 2 8
Quick Review 6 3 0

The Ethics of Addiction by Thomas Szasz 6 3 4
Against the Legalization of Drugs by James Q. Wilson 6 4 3
Gun Control by Hugh LaFollette 6 5 2
Political Philosophy and the Gun Control Debate: What Would Bentham,
Mills, and Nozick Have to Say? by Stacey Nguyen 6 6 3
C H A P T E R 1 8 Capital Punishment 6 6 6
Issue File: Background 6 6 6
Moral Theories 6 6 8
Critical Thought—The Moralit y Of Botched
Executions 6 7 0
Quick Review 6 7 2
Moral Arguments 6 7 3
Critical Thought—Different Cases,
Same Punishment 6 7 4
The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense by Ernest van den Haag 6 7 9
Justice, Civilization, and the Death Penalty: Answering van den Haag
by Jeffrey H. Reiman 6 8 4
The Case Against the Death Penalty by Hugo Adam Bedau 6 9 0
A Life for a Life by Igor Primoratz 6 9 8

C H A P T E R 1 9 Political Violence: War, Terrorism, and Torture 7 0 5
Issue File: Background 7 0 5
Critical Thought—Preemptive War On Iraq 7 0 8
Moral Theories 7 1 5
Moral Arguments 7 1 7
Quick Review 7 2 1
Reconciling Pacifists and Just War Theorists by James P. Sterba 7 2 6
Drones, Ethics, and the Armchair Soldier by John Kaag 7 3 5
Can Terrorism Be Morally Justified? by Stephen Nathanson 7 3 7
The Case for Torturing the Ticking Bomb Terrorist by Alan M. Dershowitz 7 4 5
My Tortured Decision by Ali Soufan 7 5 4
C H A P T E R 2 0 The Ethics of Immigration 7 5 6
Issue File: Background 7 5 6
Critical Thought—Deporting Children 7 6 0
Quick Review 7 6 0
Moral Theories 7 6 1
Critical Thought—Accepting Or Rejecting Refugees 7 6 1
Moral Arguments 7 6 2

The Morality of Migration by Seyla Benhabib 7 6 6
The Moral Dilemma of U.S. Immigration Policy Revisted: Open Borders vs. Social
Justice? by Stephen Macedo 7 6 8
Selecting Immigrants by David Miller 7 8 1
Immigration and Freedom of Association by Christopher Heath Wellman 7 8 7
Freedom of Association Is Not the Answer by Sarah Fine 8 0 8
C H A P T E R 2 1 Global Economic Justice 8 2 0
Issue File: Background 8 2 0
Moral Theories 8 2 2
Vital Stat s—The Planet’s Poor And Hungry 8 2 2
Moral Arguments 8 2 3
Quick Review 8 2 5
Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer 8 2 9
Lifeboat Ethics by Garrett Hardin 8 3 5
A Critique of Lifeboat Ethics by William W. Murdoch and Allan Oaten 8 4 1
The Case for Aid by Jeffrey Sachs 8 5 0
G L O S S A R Y G – 1
A N S W E R S T O A R G U M E N T E X E R C I S E S A – 1
N O T E S N – 1
I N D E X I – 1

This fifth edition of Doing Ethics contains the most
extensive additions, updates, and improvements
of any previous version. The aims that have shaped
this text from the beginning have not changed: to
help students (1) see why ethics matters to society
and to themselves; (2) understand core concepts
(theories, principles, values, virtues, and the like);
(3) become familiar with the background (scientific,
legal, and otherwise) of contemporary moral prob-
lems; and (4) know how to apply critical reasoning
to those problems— to assess moral judgments and
principles, construct and evaluate moral arguments,
and apply and critique moral theories. This book,
then, tries hard to provide the strongest possible
support to teachers of applied ethics who want stu-
dents, above all, to think for themselves and compe-
tently do what is often required of morally mature
persons— that is, to do ethics.
These goals are reflected in the book’s extensive
introductions to concepts, cases, and issues; its
large collection of readings and exercises; and its
chapter- by- chapter coverage of moral reasoning—
perhaps the most thorough introduction to these
skills available in an applied ethics text. This latter
theme gets systematic treatment in five chapters,
threads prominently throughout all the others,
and is reinforced everywhere by “Critical Thought”
text boxes prompting students to apply critical
thinking to real debates and cases. The point of all
this is to help students not just study ethics but to
become fully involved in the ethical enterprise and
the moral life.
• A new chapter on campus free speech, hate
speech, speech codes, speech and violence,
and news- making conflicts: Chapter 16—Free
Speech on Campus. It includes five readings by
notable free speech theorists and commentators.
• A new stand- alone chapter on an increasingly
influential approach to ethics: Chapter 8—
Feminist Ethics and the Ethics of Care. It
includes two new readings by important
theorists in the field.
• A new chapter on the justice of health care—
who should get it, who should supply it, and
who should pay for it: Chapter 11—Delivering
Health Care.
• A new chapter on immigration, immigration
policy, and contemporary conflicts over the
treatment of immigrants: Chapter 20—The Eth-
ics of Immigration. It includes recent research
on some widely believed but erroneous ideas
about U.S. immigration, as well as five readings
that represent contrasting perspectives on the
• A substantially revised chapter on social
equality, now covering race, racism, racial
prejudice, discrimination, white privilege,
and affirmative action: Chapter 14—Racism,
Equality, and Discrimination. It includes
four new readings on racism and inequality
by prominent participants in the ongoing

• A revised chapter on sexuality, now including
examinations not only of sexual behavior but
also of campus sexual assault, rape, harass-
ment, and hookup culture: Chapter 15— Sexual
• A greatly expanded chapter on personal liberty,
now including discussions and readings on
using drugs and owning guns: Chapter 17—
Drugs, Guns, and Personal Liberty.
• New sections in Chapter 4—The Power of
Moral Theories, on social contract theory and
one called “Devising a Coherent Moral Theory”
that shows by example how one might develop
a plausible theory of morality.
• A new focus on climate change in the envi-
ronmental ethics chapter and more emphasis
on torture and drone warfare in the political
violence chapter.
• Eleven new readings by women writers.
• Thirty- seven new readings in all to supplement
the already extensive collection of essays.
• New pedagogical elements: the inclusion of key
terms at the end of each chapter; the addition
of end- of- chapter review and discussion ques-
tions; and several new “Cases for Analysis”—
now called “Ethical Dilemmas.”
Part 1 (Fundamentals) prepares students for the tasks
enumerated above. Chapter 1 explains why ethics is
important and why thinking critically about ethical
issues is essential to the examined life. It introduces
the field of moral philosophy, defines and illustrates
basic terminology, clarifies the connection between
religion and morality, and explains why moral rea-
soning is crucial to moral maturity and personal
freedom. Chapter 2 investigates a favorite doctrine
of undergraduates— ethical relativism— and exam-
ines its distant cousin, emotivism.
Part 2 (Moral Reasoning) consists of Chapters 3
and 4. Chapter 3 starts by reassuring students that
moral reasoning is neither alien nor difficult but
is simply ordinary critical reasoning applied to
ethics. They’ve seen this kind of reasoning before
and done it before. Thus, the chapter focuses on
identifying, devising, diagramming, and evaluat-
ing moral arguments and encourages practice and
competence in finding implied premises, testing
moral premises, assessing nonmoral premises, and
dealing with common argument fallacies.
Chapter 4 explains how moral theories work
and how they relate to other important elements
in moral experience: considered judgments, moral
arguments, moral principles and rules, and cases
and issues. It reviews major theories and shows how
students can evaluate them using plausible criteria.
Part 3 (Theories of Morality, Chapters 5–8) cov-
ers key theories in depth— utilitarianism, ethical
egoism, social contract theory, Kant’s theory, nat-
ural law theory, virtue ethics, feminist ethics, and
the ethics of care. Students see how each theory is
applied to moral issues and how their strengths and
weaknesses are revealed by applying the criteria of
In Part 4 (Ethical Issues), each of thirteen chap-
ters explores a timely moral issue through discus-
sion and relevant readings: abortion, euthanasia
and physician- assisted suicide, health care, animal
welfare, environmental ethics, racism and equality,
sexual morality, free speech on campus, drug use,
gun ownership, capital punishment, political vio-
lence, terrorism, torture, immigration, and global
economic justice. Every chapter supplies legal,
scientific, and other background information on
the issue; discusses how major theories have been
applied to the problem; examines arguments that
have been used in the debate; and includes addi-
tional cases for analysis with questions. The read-
ings are a mix of well- known essays and surprising
new voices, both classic and contemporary.

In addition to “Critical Thought” boxes and “Ethi-
cal Dilemmas,” the end- of- chapter questions, and
the key terms, there are other pedagogical devices:
• “Quick Review” boxes that reiterate key points
or terms mentioned in previous pages
• Text boxes that discuss additional topics or
issues related to main chapter material
• Chapter summaries
• Suggestions for further reading for each issues
• Glossary
This Fifth Edition is accompanied by InQuizi-
tive, Norton’s award- winning formative, adaptive
online quizzing program. InQuizitive activities,
written by Dan Lowe of University of Colorado
Boulder, motivate students to learn the core con-
cepts and theories of moral reasoning so that they’re
prepared to think critically about ethical issues.
The text is also supported by a full test bank, lecture
slides, and a coursepack of assignable quizzes and
discussion prompts that loads into most learning
management systems. Access these resources at
Norton Ebooks give students and instructors an
enhanced reading experience at a fraction of the
cost of a print textbook. Students are able to have
an active reading experience and can take notes,
bookmark, search, highlight, and even read offline.
As an instructor, you can even add your own notes
for students to see as they read the text. Norton
Ebooks can be viewed on— and synced among— all
computers and mobile devices. Access the ebook
for Doing Ethics at
The silent partners in this venture are the many
reviewers who helped in countless ways to make
the book better. They include Marshall Abrams
(University of Alabama at Birmingham), Harry
Adams (Prairie View A&M University), Alex Aguado
(University of North Alabama), Edwin Aiman
(University of Houston), Daniel Alvarez (Colorado
State University), Peter Amato (Drexel Univer-
sity), Robert Bass (Coastal Carolina University),
Ken Beals (Mary Baldwin College), Helen Becker
(Shepherd University), Paul Bloomfield (Univer-
sity of Connecticut), Robyn Bluhm (Old Dominion
University), Vanda Bozicevic (Bergen Community
College), Brent Braga (Northland Community and
Technical College), Joy Branch (Southern Union
State Community College), Barbara A. Brown
(Community College of Allegheny County),
Mark Raymond Brown (University of Ottawa),
David C. Burris (Arizona Western College), Mat-
thew Burstein (Washington and Lee University),
Gabriel R. Camacho (El Paso Community College),
Jay Campbell (St. Louis Community College at Mer-
amec), Kenneth Carlson (Northwest Iowa Commu-
nity College), Jeffrey Carr (Illinois State University),
Alan Clark (Del Mar College), Andrew J. Cohen
(Georgia State University), Elliot D. Cohen (Indian
River State College), Robert Colter (Centre Col-
lege), Timothy Conn (Sierra College), Guy Crain
(University of Oklahoma), Sharon Crasnow (Norco
College), Kelso Cratsley (University of Massachu-
setts, Boston), George Cronk (Bergen Community
College), Kevin DeCoux (Minnesota West Com-
munity and Technical College), Lara Denis (Agnes
Scott College), Steve Dickerson (South Puget Sound
Community College), Nicholas Diehl (Sacramento
City College), Robin S. Dillon (Lehigh University),
Peter Dlugos (Bergen Community College), Matt
Drabek (University of Iowa), David Drebushenko
(University of Southern Indiana), Clint Dunagan
(Northwest Vista College), Paul Eckstein (Bergen
Community College), Andrew Fiala (California

State University, Fresno), Stephen Finlay (Univer-
sity of Southern California), Matthew Fitzsimmons
(University of North Alabama), Tammie Foltz (Des
Moines Area Community College), Tim Fout (Uni-
versity of Louisville), Dimitria Gatzia (University
of Akron), Candace Gauthier (University of North
Carolina, Wilmington), Mark Greene (University
of Delaware), Kevin Guilfoy (Carroll University),
Katherine Guin (The College at Brockport: SUNY),
Meredith Gunning (University of Massachusetts,
Boston), Don Habibi (University of North Carolina,
Wilmington), Barbara M. Hands (University of
North Carolina, Greensboro), Craig Hanks (Texas
State University), Jane Haproff (Sierra College), Ed
Harris (Texas A&M University), Carol Hay (Univer-
sity of Massachusetts Lowell), Blake Heffner (Rari-
tan Valley Community College), Marko Hilgersom
(Lethbridge Community College), Andrew J. Hill
(St. Philip’s College), John Holder III (Pensacola
Junior College), Mark Hollifield (Clayton College
and State University), Margaret Houck (University
of South Carolina), Michael Howard (University of
Maine, Orono), Frances Howard- Snyder (Western
Washington University), Kenneth Howarth (Mer-
cer County Community College), Louis F. Howe, Jr.
(Naugatuck Valley Community College), Kyle Hub-
bard (Saint Anselm College), Robert Hull (Western
Virginia Wesleyan College), Amy Jeffers (Owens
Community College), Vicki Jenkins (Ivy Tech
Community College, Timothy Jessen (Ivy Tech
Community College, Bloomington), John John-
ston (College of the Redwoods), Marc Jolley (Mer-
cer University), Frederik Kaufman (Ithaca College),
Thomas D. Kennedy (Berry College), W. Glenn
Kirkconnell (Santa Fe College), Donald Knud-
sen (Montgomery County Community College),
Gilbert Kohler (Shawnee Community College),
Thomas Larson (Saint Anselm College), Matt
Lawrence (Long Beach City College), Clayton
Littlejohn (Southern Methodist University), Jes-
sica Logue (University of Portland), Ian D. MacK-
innon (The University of Akron), Tim Madigan
(St. John Fisher College), Ernâni Magalhães (West
Virginia University), Daniel Malotky (Greens-
boro College), Luke Manning (Auburn Univer-
sity), Ron Martin (Lynchburg College), Michael
McKeon (Barry University), Katherine Mendis
(Hunter College, CUNY), Joshua Mills- Knutsen
(Indiana University Southeast), Michael Monge
(Long Beach City College), Louisa Lee Moon (Mira
Costa College), Eric Moore (Longwood Univer-
sity), Jon S. Moran (Southwest Missouri State Uni-
versity), Dale Murray (Virginia Commonwealth
University), Elizabeth Murray (Loyola Marymount
University), Richard Musselwhite (North Carolina
Central University), Thomas Nadelhoffer (Dick-
inson College), Jay Newhard (East Carolina Uni-
versity), Marcella Norling (Orange Coast College),
Charles L. North (Southern New Hampshire Uni-
versity), Robert F. O’Connor (Texas State Univer-
sity), Jeffrey P. Ogle (Metropolitan State University
of Denver), Don Olive (Roane State Community
College), Leonard Olson (California State Univer-
sity, Fresno), Jessica Payson (Bryn Mawr College),
Gregory E. Pence (University of Alabama), Donald
Petkus (Indiana University School of Public and
Environmental Affairs), Trisha Philips (Mississippi
State University), Thomas M. Powers (University of
Delaware), Marjorie Price (University of Alabama),
Netty Provost (Indiana University, Kokomo), Elisa
Rapaport (Molloy College), Michael Redmond
(Bergen Community College), Daniel Regan (Vil-
lanova University), Joseph J. Rogers (University of
Texas, San Antonio), John Returra (Lackawanna
College), Robert M. Seltzer (Western Illinois Uni-
versity), Edward Sherline (University of Wyoming),
Aeon J. Skoble (Bridgewater Community College),
Eric Snider (Lansing Community College), Eric Sot-
nak (University of Akron), Susanne Sreedhar (Bos-
ton University), Piers H.G. Stephens (University of
Georgia), Grant Sterling (Eastern Illinois Univer-
sity), John Stilwell (University of Texas at Dallas),
Tyler Suggs (Virginia Tech), Michele Svatos (East-
field College), David Svolba (Fitchburg State Univer-
sity), Allen Thompson (Virginia Commonwealth
University), Peter B. Trumbull (Madison College),

Donald Turner (Nashville State Community Col-
lege), Julie C. Van Camp (California State Univer-
sity, Long Beach), Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda
(Tallahassee Community College), Kris Vigneron
(Columbus State Community College), Christine
Vitrano (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Mark Vopat
(Youngstown State University), Matt Waldschla-
gel (University of North Carolina, Wilmington),
Steve Wall (Hillsborough Community College), Bill
Warnken (Granite State College), Jamie Carlin Wat-
son (Young Harris College), Rivka Weinberg (Scripps
College), Cheryl Wertheimer (Butler Community
College), Monique Whitaker (Hunter College,
CUNY), Phillip Wiebe (Trinity Western University),
Jonathan Wight (University of Richmond), John
Yanovitch (Molloy College), Steven Zusman (Wau-
bonsee Community College), and Matt Zwolinski
(University of San Diego). Thank you all.


C H A P T E R 1
Ethics and the Examined Life
all ethical concepts are irrelevant or empty, you
assume a particular view— a theory, in the broadest
sense—about morality and its place in your life. If
at some point you are intellectually brave enough
to wonder whether your moral beliefs rest on some
coherent supporting considerations, you will see
that you cannot even begin to sort out such con-
siderations without— again— doing ethics. In any
case, in your life you must deal with the rest of the
world, which turns on moral conflict and resolu-
tion, moral decision and debate.
What is at stake when we do ethics? In an
important sense, the answer is everything we hold
dear. Ethics is concerned with values— specifically,
moral values. Through the sifting and weighing of
moral values we determine what the most impor-
tant things are in our lives, what is worth living for,
and what is worth dying for. We decide what is the
greatest good, what goals we should pursue in life,
what virtues we should cultivate, what duties we
should or should not fulfill, what value we should
put on human life, and what pain and perils we
should be willing to endure for notions such as the
common good, justice, and rights.
Does it matter whether the state executes a
criminal who has the mental capacity of a ten-
year- old? Does it matter who actually writes the
term paper you turn in and represent as your own?
Does it matter whether we can easily save a drown-
ing child but casually decide not to? Does it matter
whether young girls in Africa undergo painful geni-
tal mutilation for reasons of custom or religion? Do
these actions and a million others just as contro-
versial matter at all? Most of us— regardless of our
Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the philosophi-
cal study of morality. Morality refers to beliefs
concerning right and wrong, good and bad—
beliefs that can include judgments, values, rules,
principles, and theories. These beliefs help guide
our actions, define our values, and give us reasons
for being the persons we are. (Ethical and moral,
the adjective forms, are often used to mean
simply “having to do with morality,” and ethics
and morality are sometimes used to refer to the
moral norms of a specific group or individual, as
in “Greek ethics” or “Russell’s morality.”) Eth-
ics, then, addresses the powerful question that
Socrates formulated twenty- four hundred years
ago: how ought we to live?
The scope and continued relevance of this
query suggest something compelling about ethics:
you cannot escape it. You cannot run away from all
the choices, feelings, and actions that accompany
ideas about right and wrong, good and bad— ideas
that persist in your culture and in your mind. After
all, for much of your life, you have been assimilat-
ing, modifying, or rejecting the ethical norms you
inherited from your family, community, and soci-
ety. Unless you are very unusual, from time to time
you deliberate about the rightness or wrongness of
actions, embrace or reject particular moral prin-
ciples or codes, judge the goodness of your char-
acter or intentions (or someone else’s), perhaps
even question (and agonize over) the soundness
of your own moral outlook when it conflicts with
that of others. In other words, you are involved
in ethics— you do ethics. Even if you try to remove
yourself from the ethical realm by insisting that

opinion on these issues— would say that they mat-
ter a great deal. If they matter, then ethics matters,
because these are ethical concerns requiring careful
reflection using concepts and reasoning peculiar to
But even though ethics is inescapable and
important, you are still free to take the easy way
out, and many people do. You are free not to think
too deeply or too systematically about ethical con-
cerns. You can simply embrace the moral beliefs
and norms given to you by your family and your
society. You can accept them without question
or serious examination. In other words, you can
try not to do ethics. This approach can be simple
and painless— at least for a while— but it has some
First, it undermines your personal freedom. If
you accept and never question the moral beliefs
handed to you by your culture, then those beliefs are
not really yours— and they, not you, control the path
you take in life. Only if you critically examine these
beliefs yourself and decide for yourself whether they
have merit will they be truly yours. Only then will
you be in charge of your own choices and actions.
Second, the no-questions-asked approach inc-
reases the chances that your responses to moral
dilemmas or contradictions will be incomplete,
confused, or mistaken. Sometimes in real life moral
codes or rules do not fit the situations at hand,
or moral principles conflict with one another, or
entirely new circumstances are not covered by any
moral policy at all. Solving these problems requires
something that a hand- me- down morality does not
include: the intellectual tools to critically evaluate
(and reevaluate) existing moral beliefs.
Third, if there is such a thing as intellectual
moral growth, you are unlikely to find it on the safe
route. To not do ethics is to stay locked in a kind of
intellectual limbo, where exploration in ethics and
personal moral progress are barely possible.
The philosopher Paul Taylor suggests that there
is yet another risk in taking the easy road. If some-
one blindly embraces the morality bequeathed
to him by his society, he may very well be a fine
embodiment of the rules of his culture and accept
them with certainty. But he will lack the ability to
defend his beliefs by rational argument against crit-
icism. What happens when he encounters others
who also have very strong beliefs that contradict
his? “He will feel lost and bewildered,” Taylor says,
and his confusion might leave him disillusioned
about morality. “Unable to give an objective, rea-
soned justification for his own convictions, he may
turn from dogmatic certainty to total skepticism.
And from total skepticism it is but a short step to
an ‘amoral’ life. . . . Thus the person who begins by
accepting moral beliefs blindly can end up denying
all morality.”1
There are other easy roads— roads that also
bypass critical and thoughtful scrutiny of morality.
We can describe most of them as various forms of
subjectivism, a topic that we examine closely in the
next chapter. You may decide, for example, that
you can establish all your moral beliefs by simply
consulting your feelings. In situations calling for
moral judgments, you let your emotions be your
guide. If it feels right, it is right. Alternatively, you
may come to believe that moral realities are relative
to each person, a view known as subjective relativ-
ism (also covered in the next chapter). That is, you
think that what a person believes or approves of
determines the rightness or wrongness of actions. If
you believe that abortion is wrong, then it is wrong.
If you believe it is right, then it is right.
But these facile roads through ethical terrain are
no better than blindly accepting existing norms.
Even if you want to take the subjectivist route,
you still need to examine it critically to see if there
are good reasons for choosing it— otherwise your
choice is arbitrary and therefore not really yours.
And unless you thoughtfully consider the mer-
its of moral beliefs (including subjectivist beliefs),
your chances of being wrong about them are
Ethics does not give us a royal road to moral
truth. Instead, it shows us how to ask critical

questions about morality and systematically seek
answers supported by good reasons. This is a tall
order because, as we have seen, many of the ques-
tions in ethics are among the toughest we can ever
ask— and among the most important in life.
The domain of ethics is large, divided into sev-
eral areas of investigation and cordoned off from
related subjects. So let us map the territory care-
fully. As the term moral philosophy suggests, ethics
is a branch of philosophy. A very rough character-
ization of philosophy is the systematic use of critical
reasoning to answer the most fundamental ques-
tions in life. Moral philosophy, obviously, tries to
answer the fundamental questions of morality. The
other major branches of philosophy address other
basic questions; these branches are logic (the study
of correct reasoning), metaphysics (the study of the
fundamental nature of reality), and epistemology
(the study of knowledge). As a division of philoso-
phy, ethics does its work primarily through criti-
cal reasoning: the careful, systematic evaluation of
statements, or claims. Critical reasoning is a process
used in all fields of study, not just in ethics. The main
components of this process are the evaluation of log-
ical arguments and the careful analysis of concepts.
Science also studies morality, but not in the
way that moral philosophy does. Its approach is
known as descriptive ethics— the scientific study
of moral beliefs and practices. Its aim is to describe
and explain how people actually behave and think
when dealing with moral issues and concepts. This
kind of empirical research is usually conducted
by sociologists, anthropologists, and psycholo-
gists. In contrast, the focus of moral philosophy is
not what people actually believe and do, but what
they should believe and do. The point of moral phi-
losophy is to determine what actions are right (or
wrong) and what things are good (or bad).
Philosophers distinguish three major divisions
in ethics, each one representing a different way
to approach the subject. The first division is
normative ethics— the study of the principles,
rules, or theories that guide our actions and judg-
ments. (The word normative refers to norms, or
standards, of judgment— in this case, norms for
judging rightness and goodness.) The ultimate pur-
pose of doing normative ethics is to try to establish
the soundness of moral norms, especially the norms
embodied in a comprehensive moral system, or
moral theory. We do normative ethics when we use
critical reasoning to demonstrate that a moral prin-
ciple is justified, or that a professional code of con-
duct is contradictory, or that one proposed moral
theory is better than another, or that a person’s
motive is good. Should the rightness of actions be
judged by their consequences? Is happiness the
greatest good in life? Is utilitarianism a good moral
theory? Such questions are the preoccupation of
normative ethics.
Another major division of ethics is
metaethics— the study of the meaning and logi-
cal structure of moral beliefs. It asks not whether
an action is right or whether a person’s character is
good. It takes a step back from these concerns and
asks more fundamental questions about them: What
does it mean for an action to be right? Is good the
same thing as desirable? How can a moral principle
be justified? Is there such a thing as moral truth? To
do normative ethics, we must assume certain things
about the meaning of moral terms and the logical
relationships among them. But the job of metaeth-
ics is to question all these assumptions, to see if they
really make sense.
Finally, there is applied ethics— the applica-
tion of moral norms to specific moral issues or cases,
particularly those in a profession such as medicine
or law. Applied ethics in these fields goes under
names such as medical ethics, journalistic ethics,
and business ethics. In applied ethics we study the
results derived from applying a moral principle or
theory to specific circumstances. The purpose of
the exercise is to learn something important about
either the moral characteristics of the situation or

the adequacy of the moral norms. Did the doctor
do right in performing that abortion? Is it morally
permissible for scientists to perform experiments
on people without their consent? Was it right for
the journalist to distort her reporting to aid a par-
ticular side in the war? Questions like these drive
the search for answers in applied ethics.
In every division of ethics, we must be careful to
distinguish between values and obligations. Some-
times we may be interested in concepts or judg-
ments of value— that is, about what is morally good,
bad, blameworthy, or praiseworthy. We properly
use these kinds of terms to refer mostly to persons,
character traits, motives, and intentions. We may
say “She is a good person” or “He is to blame for
that tragedy.” At other times, we may be inter-
ested in concepts or judgments of obligation— that
is, about what is obligatory, or a duty, or what we
should or ought to do. We use these terms to refer
to actions. We may say “She has a duty to tell the
truth” or “What he did was wrong.”
When we talk about value in the sense just
described, we mean moral value. If she is a good per-
son, she is good in the moral sense. But we can also
talk about nonmoral value. We can say that things
such as televisions, rockets, experiences, and works
of art (things other than persons, intentions, and
so forth) are good, but we mean “good” only in a
nonmoral way. It makes no sense to assert that tele-
visions or rockets in themselves are morally good
or bad. Perhaps a rocket could be used to perform
an action that is morally wrong. In that case, the
action would be immoral, while the rocket itself
would still have only nonmoral value.
Many things in life have value for us, but they
are not necessarily valuable in the same way. Some
things are valuable because they are a means to
something else. We might say that gasoline is
good because it is a means to make a gas- powered
vehicle work, or that a pen is good because it can
be used to write a letter. Such things are said to be
instrumentally, or extrinsically, valuable—
they are valuable as a means to something else.
Some things, however, are valuable for their own
sakes. They are valuable simply because they are
what they are, without being a means to something
else. Things that have been regarded as valuable in
themselves include happiness, pleasure, virtue, and
beauty. These things are said to be intrinsically
valuable— they are valuable in themselves.
We all do ethics, and we all have a general sense of
what is involved. But we can still ask, What are the
elements of ethics that make it the peculiar enter-
prise that it is? We can include at least the follow-
ing factors:
The Preeminence of Reason
Doing ethics typically involves grappling with our
feelings, taking into account the facts of the situa-
tion (including our own observations and relevant
knowledge), and trying to understand the ideas
that bear on the case. But above all, it involves, even
requires, critical reasoning— the consideration of
reasons for whatever statements (moral or other-
wise) are in question. Whatever our view on moral
issues and whatever moral outlook we subscribe to,
our commonsense moral experience suggests that
if a moral judgment is to be worthy of acceptance, it
must be supported by good reasons, and our delib-
erations on the issue must include a consideration
of those reasons.
The backbone of critical reasoning generally, and
moral reasoning in particular, is logical argument.
This kind of argument— not the angry- exchange
type— consists of a statement to be supported (the
assertion to be proved, the conclusion) and the
statements that do the supporting (the reasons
for believing the statement, the premises). With
such arguments, we try to show that a moral judg-
ment is or is not justified, that a moral principle
is or is not sound, that an action is or is not mor-
ally permissible, or that a moral theory is or is not

that applies in one situation must apply in all other
situations that are relevantly similar. If you say, for
example, that lying is wrong in a particular situa-
tion, then you implicitly agree that lying is wrong
for anyone in relevantly similar situations. If you
say that killing in self- defense is morally permis-
sible, then you say in effect that killing in self-
defense is permissible for everyone in relevantly
similar situations. It cannot be the case that an
action performed by A is wrong while the same
action performed by B in relevantly similar cir-
cumstances is right. It cannot be the case that the
moral judgments formed in these two situations
must differ just because two different people are
This point about universalizability also applies
to reasons used to support moral judgments. If rea-
sons apply in a specific case, then those reasons also
apply in all relevantly similar cases. It cannot be
true that reasons that apply in a specific case do not
apply to other cases that are similar in all relevant
The Principle of Impartiality
From the moral point of view, all persons are consid-
ered equal and should be treated accordingly. This
sense of impartiality is implied in all moral state-
ments. It means that the welfare and interests of
each individual should be given the same weight as
the welfare and interests of all others. Unless there
is a morally relevant difference between people, we
should treat them the same: we must treat equals
equally. We would think it outrageous for a moral
rule to say something like “Everyone must refrain
from stealing food in grocery stores— except for
Mr. X, who may steal all he wants.” Imagine that
there is no morally relevant reason for making
this exception for stealing food; Mr. X is exempted
merely because, say, he is a celebrity known for
outrageous behavior. We not only would object to
this rule but might even begin to wonder if it was
a genuine moral rule at all, because it lacks impar-
tiality. Similarly, we would reject a moral rule that
Our use of critical reasoning and argument helps
us keep our feelings about moral issues in perspective.
Feelings are an important part of our moral experience.
They make empathy possible, which gives us a deeper
understanding of the human impact of moral norms.
They can also serve as internal alarm bells, warning us
of the possibility of injustice, suffering, and wrongdo-
ing. But they are unreliable guides to moral truth. They
may simply reflect our own emotional needs, preju-
dices, upbringing, culture, and self- interests. Careful
reasoning, however, can inform our feelings and help
us decide moral questions on their merits.
The Universal Perspective
Logic requires that moral norms and judgments fol-
low the principle of universalizability— the idea that
a moral statement (a principle, rule, or judgment)
ethics (or moral philosophy)—The philosophical
study of morality.
morality— Beliefs concerning right and wrong,
good and bad; they can include judgments,
values, rules, principles, and theories.
descriptive ethics— The scientific study of moral
beliefs and practices.
normative ethics— The study of the principles,
rules, or theories that guide our actions and
metaethics— The study of the meaning and logi-
cal structure of moral beliefs.
applied ethics— The application of moral norms
to specific moral issues or cases, particularly
those in a profession such as medicine or law.
instrumentally (or extrinsically) valuable—
Valuable as a means to something else.
intrinsically valuable— Valuable in itself, for its
own sake.

says something like “Everyone is entitled to basic
human rights— except Native Americans.” Such
a rule would be a prime example of discrimina-
tion based on race. We can see this blatant partial-
ity best if we ask what morally relevant difference
there is between Native Americans and everyone
else. Differences in income, social status, skin color,
ancestry, and the like are not morally relevant.
Apparently there are no morally relevant differ-
ences. Because there are none, we must conclude
that the rule sanctions unfair discrimination.
We must keep in mind, however, that some-
times there are good reasons for treating someone
differently. Imagine a hospital that generally gives
equal care to patients, treating equals equally. But
suppose a patient comes to the hospital in an ambu-
lance because she has had a heart attack and will die
without immediate care. The hospital staff responds
quickly, giving her faster and more sophisticated
care than other patients receive. The situation is
a matter of life and death— a good reason for not
treating everyone the same and for providing the
heart attack patient with special consideration. This
instance of discrimination is justified.
The Dominance of Moral Norms
Not all norms are moral norms. There are legal
norms (laws, statutes), aesthetic norms (for judging
artistic creations), prudential norms (practical con-
siderations of self- interest), and others. Moral norms
seem to stand out from all these in an interesting
way: they dominate. Whenever moral principles
or values conflict in some way with nonmoral prin-
ciples or values, the moral considerations usually
override the others. Moral considerations seem more
important, more critical, or more weighty. A princi-
ple of prudence such as “Never help a stranger” may
be well justified, but it must yield to any moral prin-
ciple that contradicts it, such as “Help a stranger in
an emergency if you can do so without endanger-
ing yourself.” An aesthetic norm that somehow
involved violating a moral principle would have to
take a backseat to the moral considerations. A law
that conflicted with a moral principle would be
suspect, and the latter would have to prevail over
the former. Ultimately the justification for civil dis-
obedience is that specific laws conflict with moral
norms and are therefore invalid. If we judge a law to
be bad, we usually do so on moral grounds.
Many people believe that morality and religion are
inseparable— that religion is the source or basis of
morality and that moral precepts are simply what
God says should be done. This view is not at all sur-
prising, because all religions imply or assert a per-
spective on morality. The three great religions in
the Western tradition— Christianity, Judaism, and
Islam— provide their believers with commandments
or principles of conduct that are thought to constitute
the moral law, the essence of morality. For their mil-
lions of adherents, the moral law is the will of God,
and the will of God is the moral law. In the West, at
least, the powerful imprint of religion is evident in
secular laws and in the private morality of believers
and unbelievers alike. Secular systems of morality—
for example, those of the ancient Greek philosophers,
Immanuel Kant, the utilitarians, and others— have
of course left their mark on Western ethics. But they
have not moved the millions who think that moral-
ity is a product exclusively of religion.
So what is the relationship between religion and
morality? For our purposes, we should break this
question into two parts: (1) What is the relation-
ship between religion and ethics (the philosophical
study of morality)? and (2) What is the relationship
between religion and morality (beliefs about right
and wrong)? The first question asks about how reli-
gion relates to the kind of investigation we conduct
in this book— the use of experience and critical
reasoning to study morality. The key point about
the relationship is that whatever your views on
religion and morality, an open- minded expedition
into ethics is more useful and empowering than
you may realize, especially now, at the beginning

of your journey into moral philosophy. You may
believe, for example, that God determines what is
right and wrong, so there is no need to apply critical
reasoning to morality— you just need to know what
God says. But this judgment— and similar dismiss-
als of ethics— would be premature, as we will see.
Believers Need Moral Reasoning
It is difficult— perhaps impossible— for most people
to avoid using moral reasoning. Religious people
are no exception. One reason is that religious
moral codes (such as the Ten Commandments)
and other major religious rules of conduct are usu-
ally vague, laying out general principles that may
be difficult to apply to specific cases. (Secular moral
codes have the same disadvantage.) For example,
we may be commanded to love our neighbor, but
what neighbors are included— people of a differ-
ent religion? people who denounce our religion?
the gay or lesbian couple? those who steal from us?
the convicted child molester next door? the drug
dealers on the corner? the woman who got an abor-
tion? Also, what does loving our neighbor demand
of us? How does love require us to behave toward
the drug dealers, the gay couple, or the person who
denounces our religion? If our terminally ill neigh-
bor asks us in the name of love to help him kill
himself, what should we do? Does love require us
to kill him— or to refrain from killing him? And, of
course, commandments can conflict— as when, for
example, the only way to avoid killing an innocent
person is to tell a lie, or the only way to save the life
of one person is to kill another. All these situations
force the believer to interpret religious directives,
to try to apply general rules to specific cases, to
draw out the implications of particular views— in
other words, to do ethics.
When Conflicts Arise, Ethics Steps In
Very often moral contradictions or inconsistencies
confront the religious believer, and only moral rea-
soning can help resolve them. Believers sometimes
disagree with their religious leaders on moral issues.
Adherents of one religious tradition may disagree
with those from another tradition on whether an
act is right or wrong. Sincere devotees in a religious
tradition may wonder if its moral teachings make
sense. In all such cases, intelligent resolution of the
conflict of moral claims can be achieved only by
applying a neutral standard that helps sort out the
competing viewpoints. Moral philosophy supplies
the neutral standard in the form of critical think-
ing, well- made arguments, and careful analysis. No
wonder then that many great religious minds—
Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant, Maimonides,
Averroës, and others— have relied on reason to
examine the nature of morality. In fact, countless
theists have regarded reason as a gift from God that
enables human beings to grasp the truths of sci-
ence, life, and morality.
Moral Philosophy Enables Productive
Any fruitful discussions about morality undertaken
between people from different religious traditions
or between believers and nonbelievers will require
a common set of ethical concepts and a shared pro-
cedure for deciding issues and making judgments.
Ethics provides these tools. Without them, conver-
sations will resolve nothing, and participants will
learn little. Without them, people will talk past
each other, appealing only to their own religious
views. Furthermore, in a pluralistic society, most
of the public discussions about important moral
issues take place in a context of shared values such
as justice, fairness, equality, and tolerance. Just as
important, they also occur according to an unwrit-
ten understanding that (1) moral positions should
be explained, (2) claims should be supported by
reasons, and (3) reasoning should be judged by
common rational standards. These skills, of course,
are at the heart of ethics.
Now consider the second question introduced
above: What is the relationship between religion
and morality? For many people, the most interest-
ing query about the relationship between religion

and morality is this: Is God the maker of morality?
That is, is God the author of the moral law? Those
who answer yes are endorsing a theory of morality
known as the divine command theory. It says that
right actions are those that are willed by God, that
God literally defines right and wrong. Something
is right or good only because God makes it so. In
the simplest version of the theory, God can deter-
mine right and wrong because he is omnipotent.
He is all- powerful— powerful enough even to create
moral norms. In this view, God is a divine lawgiver,
and his laws constitute morality.
In general, believers are divided on whether the
divine command theory gives an accurate account
of the source of morality. Notable among the the-
ory’s detractors are the great theistic philosophers
Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) and Thomas Aqui-
nas (1225–1274). And conversely, as odd as it may
sound, some nonbelievers have subscribed to it. In
The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880), the charac-
ter Ivan Karamazov declares, “If God doesn’t exist,
everything is permissible.” This very sentiment
was espoused by, among others, the famous atheist
philosopher Jean- Paul Sartre.
Both religious and secular critics of the divine
command theory believe that it poses a serious
dilemma, one first articulated by Socrates two and
a half millennia ago. In the dialogue Euthyphro,
Socrates asks, Is an action morally right because God
wills it to be so, or does God will it to be so because
it is morally right? Critics say that if an action is
right only because God wills it (that is, if right and
wrong are dependent on God), then many heinous
crimes and evil actions would be right if God willed
them. If God willed murder, theft, or torture, these
deeds would be morally right. If God has unlimited
power, he could easily will such actions. If the right-
ness of an action depended on God’s will alone, he
How can we hope to grapple with complex moral
issues that have emerged only in recent years? Can
religion alone handle the job? Consider the follow-
ing case:
According to a report by CNN, Jack and Lisa Nash
made history when they used genetic testing to
save the life of their six- year- old daughter, Molly,
by having another child. Molly had a rare genetic
disorder known as Fanconi anemia, which prevents
the generation of bone marrow and produces a
fatal leukemia. Molly’s best chance to live was to
get a transplant of stem cells from the umbilical
cord of a sibling, and Molly’s parents were deter-
mined to give her that sibling, brother Adam.
Through genetic testing (and in vitro fertilization),
Jack and Lisa were able to select a child who would
not only be born without a particular disease (Fan-
coni anemia, in this case) but also would help a sib-
ling combat the disease by being the optimal tissue
match for a transplant— a historic combination. As
Lisa Nash said, “I was going to save Molly no matter
what, and I wanted Molly to have siblings.”*
Is it right to produce a child to save the life or
health of someone else? More to the point, do
the scriptures of the three major Western religions
provide any guidance on this question? Do any
of these traditions offer useful methods for pro-
ductively discussing or debating such issues with
people of different faiths? How might ethics help
with these challenges? Is it possible to formulate a
reasonable opinion on this case without doing eth-
ics? Why or why not?
*“Genetic Selection Gives Girl a Brother and a Second
Chance,”, October 3, 2000, http://archives.cnn
(December 8, 2005).
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Ethics, Religion, and Tough Moral Issues’

could not have reasons for willing what he wills. No
reasons would be available or required. Therefore,
if God commanded an action, the command would
be without reason, completely arbitrary. Neither
the believer nor the nonbeliever would think this
state of affairs plausible. On the other hand, if God
wills an action because it is morally right (if moral
norms are independent of God), then the divine
command theory must be false. God does not create
rightness; he simply knows what is right and wrong
and is subject to the moral law just as humans are.
For some theists, this charge of arbitrariness is
especially worrisome. Leibniz, for example, rejects
the divine command theory, declaring that it
implies that God is unworthy of worship:
In saying, therefore, that things are not good accord-
ing to any standard of goodness, but simply by
the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys,
without realizing it, all the love of God and all his
glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if
he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the con-
trary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he
has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will
takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord
with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in
that which is pleasing to the most powerful?2
Defenders of the divine command theory may
reply to the arbitrariness argument by contend-
ing that God would never command us to commit
heinous acts, because God is all- good. Because of
his supreme goodness, he would will only what is
good. Some thinkers, however, believe that such
reasoning renders the very idea of God’s goodness
meaningless. As one philosopher says,
[O]n this view, the doctrine of the goodness of God is
reduced to nonsense. It is important to religious believ-
ers that God is not only all- powerful and all- knowing,
but that he is also good; yet if we accept the idea that
good and bad are defined by reference to God’s will,
this notion is deprived of any meaning. What could it
mean to say that God’s commands are good? If “X is
good” means “X is commanded by God,” then “God’s
commands are good” would mean only “God’s com-
mands are commanded by God,” an empty truism.3
In any case, it seems that through critical rea-
soning we can indeed learn much about morality
and the moral life. After all, there are complete
moral systems (some of which are examined in
this book) that are not based on religion, that con-
tain genuine moral norms indistinguishable from
those embraced by religion, and that are justified
not by reference to religious precepts but by care-
ful thinking and moral arguments. As the philoso-
pher Jonathan Berg says, “Those who would refuse
to recognize as adequately justified any moral
beliefs not derived from knowledge of or about
God, would have to refute the whole vast range
of arguments put by Kant and all others who ever
proposed a rational basis for ethics!”4 Moreover, if
we can do ethics— if we can use critical reasoning
to discern moral norms certified by the best reasons
and evidence— then critical reasoning is sufficient
to guide us to moral standards and values. We
obviously can do ethics (as the following chapters
demonstrate), so morality is both accessible and
meaningful to us whether we are religious or not.
Ethics is the philosophical study of morality, and
morality consists of beliefs concerning right and
wrong, good and bad. These beliefs can include judg-
ments, principles, and theories. Participating in the
exploration of morality— that is, doing ethics— is ines-
capable. We all must make moral judgments, assess
moral norms, judge people’s character, and question
the soundness of our moral outlooks. A great deal is
at stake when we do ethics, including countless deci-
sions that determine the quality of our lives.
You can decide to forgo any ethical delibera-
tions and simply embrace the moral beliefs and
norms you inherited from your family and culture.

But this approach undermines your freedom, for if
you accept without question whatever moral beliefs
come your way, they are not really yours. Only if
you critically examine them for yourself are they
truly yours.
The three main divisions of ethics proper are nor-
mative ethics (the study of the moral norms that guide
our actions and judgments), metaethics (the study of
the meaning and logical structure of moral beliefs),
and applied ethics (the application of moral norms to
specific moral issues or cases).
Ethics involves a distinctive set of elements. These
include the preeminence of reason, the universal per-
spective, the principle of impartiality, and the domi-
nance of moral norms.
Some people claim that morality depends on God,
a view known as the divine command theory. Both
theists and nontheists have raised doubts about this
doctrine. The larger point is that doing ethics— using
critical reasoning to examine the moral life— can be a
useful and productive enterprise for believer and non-
believer alike.
ethics or moral philosophy (p. 3)
morality (p. 3)
descriptive ethics (p. 5)
normative ethics (p. 5)
metaethics (p. 5)
applied ethics (p. 5)
instrumentally or extrinsically valuable (p. 6)
intrinsically valuable (p. 6)
Review Questions
1. When can it be said that your moral beliefs are
not really yours? (p. 3)
2. In what ways are we forced to do ethics? What
is at stake in these deliberations? (pp. 3–4)
3. What is the unfortunate result of accepting moral
beliefs without questioning them? (pp. 4–5)
4. Can our feelings be our sole guide to morality?
Why or why not? (pp. 4–5)
5. What are some questions asked in normative
ethics? (p. 5)
6. What is the difference between normative ethics
and metaethics? (p. 5)
7. What is the dilemma about God and morality
that Socrates posed in Euthyphro? (pp. 10–11)
8. What kinds of moral contradictions or
inconsistencies confront religious believers?
(pp. 8–9)
9. What are the premises in the arbitrariness
argument against the divine command theory?
(p. 10)
10. Does the principle of impartiality imply that we
must always treat equals equally? Why or why
not? (pp. 7–8)
Discussion Questions
1. Do you think that morality ultimately depends
on God (that God is the author of the moral
law)? Why or why not?
2. Do you believe that you have absorbed or
adopted without question most of your moral
beliefs? Why or why not?
3. Formulate an argument against the divine
command theory, then formulate one for it.
4. Give an example of how you or someone you
know has used reasons to support a moral
5. Identify at least two normative ethical
questions that you have wondered about in the
past year.
6. Name two things (such as persons, objects,
experiences) in your life that you consider
intrinsically valuable. Name three that are
instrumentally valuable.
7. How do your feelings affect the moral
judgments you make? Do they determine your
judgments? Do they inform them? If so, how?
8. What is the logic behind the principle of
universalizability? Cite an example of how
the principle has entered into your moral
9. How does racial discrimination violate the
principle of impartiality?

10. What is the “dominance of moral norms”? Does
it strike you as reasonable? Or do you believe
that sometimes nonmoral norms can outweigh
moral ones? If the latter, provide an example.
1. You are the mayor of a major city, and you want
to keep the streets as clean as possible. You send
the city’s street sweepers to the more affluent
neighborhoods, but you ignore the poorer
neighborhoods because the poor residents pay
less in taxes than the rich people do. Is this
practice a violation of the impartiality principle?
Why or why not?
2. You try to live strictly by the moral rules
contained in your religion’s moral code. The
two most important rules are “Be merciful”
(don’t give people what they deserve) and
“Be just” (give people exactly what they
deserve). Now suppose a man is arrested
for stealing food from your house, and the
police leave it up to you whether he should
be prosecuted for his crime or set free. Should
you be merciful and set him free, or be just and
make sure he is appropriately punished? How
do you resolve this conflict of rules? Can your
moral code resolve it? To what moral principles
or theories do you appeal?
3. Suppose you are an engineer building a road
across a mountain. From a prudential point of
view, it would be easier and cheaper to build
it through a family’s farm. This option would
require compelling the family to move, which
would be an extreme hardship for them. From
a moral point of view, the family should be
allowed to stay on their farm. Which view
should take precedence?
Anita L. Allen, New Ethics: A Guided Tour of the Twenty-
First- Century Moral Landscape (New York: Miramax,
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book 2, parts 1 and 4.
Simon Blackburn, Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Donald M. Borchert and David Stewart, Exploring Ethics
(New York: Macmillan, 1986).
Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber, eds., Twentieth Cen-
tury Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
William K. Frankena, Ethics, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973).
Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998).
Brooke Noel Moore and Robert Michael Stewart, Moral
Philosophy: A Comprehensive Introduction (Belmont, CA:
Mayfield, 1994).
Dave Robinson and Chris Garrett, Introducing Ethics, ed.
Richard Appignanesi (New York: Totem Books, 2005).
Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics, corr. ed. (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1993).
Paul Taylor, Principles of Ethics: An Introduction (Encino,
CA: Dickenson, 1975).
Jacques P. Thiroux, Ethics: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed.
(New York: Macmillan, 1986).
Thomas F. Wall, Thinking Critically about Moral Problems
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).
G. J. Warnock, The Object of Morality (London: Methuen,

R E A D i N G S
From What Is the Socratic Method?
Christopher Phillips
The Socratic method is a way to seek truths by your
own lights.
It is a system, a spirit, a method, a type of philosophi-
cal inquiry, an intellectual technique, all rolled into one.
Socrates himself never spelled out a “method.”
However, the Socratic method is named after him
because Socrates, more than any other before or since,
models for us philosophy practiced— philosophy as deed,
as way of living, as something that any of us can do. It is
an open system of philosophical inquiry that allows one
to interrogate from many vantage points.
Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and profes-
sor of philosophy at Princeton, described Socrates’
method of inquiry as “among the greatest achieve-
ments of humanity.” Why? Because, he says, it makes
philosophical inquiry “a common human enterprise,
open to every man.” Instead of requiring allegiance
to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic tech-
nique or specialized vocabulary, the Socratic method
“calls for common sense and common speech.” And
this, he says, “is as it should be, for how many should
live is every man’s business.”
I think, however, that the Socratic method goes
beyond Vlastos’ description. It does not merely call
for common sense but examines what common
sense is. The Socratic method asks: Does the common
sense of our day offer us the greatest potential for self-
understanding and human excellence? Or is the pre-
vailing common sense in fact a roadblock to realizing
this potential?
Vlastos goes on to say that Socratic inquiry is by
no means simple, and “calls not only for the highest
degree of mental alertness of which anyone is capable”
but also for “moral qualities of a high order: sincerity,
humility, courage.” Such qualities “protect against the
possibility” that Socratic dialogue, no matter how rig-
orous, “would merely grind out . . . wild conclusions
with irresponsible premises.” I agree, though I would
replace the quality of sincerity with honesty, since one
can hold a conviction sincerely without examining it,
while honesty would require that one subject one’s
convictions to frequent scrutiny.
A Socratic dialogue reveals how different our out-
looks can be on concepts we use every day. It reveals how
different our philosophies are, and often how tenable—
or untenable, as the case may be— a range of philosophies
can be. Moreover, even the most universally recognized
and used concept, when subjected to Socratic scrutiny,
might reveal not only that there is not universal agree-
ment, after all, on the meaning of any given concept, but
that every single person has a somewhat different take
on each and every concept under the sun.
What’s more, there seems to be no such thing as
a concept so abstract, or question so off base, that it
can’t be fruitfully explored [using the Socratic method].
In the course of Socratizing, it often turns out to be the
case that some of the most so- called abstract concepts
are intimately related to the most profoundly relevant
human experiences. In fact, it’s been my experience
that virtually any question can be plumbed Socrati-
cally. Sometimes you don’t know what question will
have the most lasting and significant impact until you
take a risk and delve into it for a while.
What distinguishes the Socratic method from mere
nonsystematic inquiry is the sustained attempt to
explore the ramifications of certain opinions and then
offer compelling objections and alternatives. This scru-
pulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways
Christopher Phillips, from Socrates Café. Copyright © 2001 by Chris-
topher Phillips. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company,
Inc. Although not specifically concerned with ethics, this short
piece by Christopher Phillips makes a persuasive case for using the
“Socratic method” to think through difficult philosophical issues.
To see the Socratic method applied to ethics, read the excerpt from
Plato’s Euthyphro that follows on p. 16.

resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic
inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe
that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated.
This “belief” fails to address such paramount human
concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.
Instead of focusing on the outer cosmos, Socrates
focused primarily on human beings and their cosmos
within, utilizing his method to open up new realms
of self- knowledge while at the same time exposing a
great deal of error, superstition, and dogmatic non-
sense. The Spanish- born American philosopher and
poet George Santayana said that Socrates knew that
“the foreground of human life is necessarily moral and
practical” and that “it is so even so for artists”—and
even for scientists, try as some might to divorce their
work from these dimensions of human existence.
Scholars call Socrates’ method the elenchus, which is
Hellenistic Greek for inquiry or cross- examination. But it
is not just any type of inquiry or examination. It is a type
that reveals people to themselves, that makes them see
what their opinions really amount to. C. D. C. Reeve,
professor of philosophy at Reed College, gives the stan-
dard explanation of an elenchus in saying that its aim
“is not simply to reach adequate definitions” of such
things as virtues; rather, it also has a “moral reforma-
tory purpose, for Socrates believes that regular elenctic
philosophizing makes people happier and more virtu-
ous than anything else. . . . Indeed philosophizing is so
important for human welfare, on his view, that he is
willing to accept execution rather than give it up.”
Socrates’ method of examination can indeed be a
vital part of existence, but I would not go so far as to
say that it should be. And I do not think that Socrates
felt that habitual use of this method “makes people
happier.” The fulfillment that comes from Socratizing
comes only at a price— it could well make us unhap-
pier, more uncertain, more troubled, as well as more
fulfilled. It can leave us with a sense that we don’t know
the answers after all, that we are much further from
knowing the answers than we’d ever realized before
engaging in Socratic discourse. And this is fulfilling—
and exhilarating and humbling and perplexing.
* * *
There is no neat divide between one’s views of phi-
losophy and of life. They are overlapping and kindred
views. It is virtually impossible in many instances to
know what we believe in daily life until we engage oth-
ers in dialogue. Likewise, to discover our philosophical
views, we must engage with ourselves, with the lives
we already lead. Our views form, change, evolve, as
we participate in this dialogue. It is the only way truly
to discover what philosophical colors we sail under.
Everyone at some point preaches to himself and oth-
ers what he does not yet practice; everyone acts in or
on the world in ways that are in some way contradic-
tory or inconsistent with the views he or she confesses
or professes to hold. For instance, the Danish philoso-
pher Søren Kierkegaard, the influential founder of
existentialism, put Socratic principles to use in writing
his dissertation on the concept of irony in Socrates,
often using pseudonyms so he could argue his own
positions with himself. In addition, the sixteenth-
century essayist Michel de Montaigne, who was called
“the French Socrates” and was known as the father of
skepticism in modern Europe, would write and add
conflicting and even contradictory passages in the
same work. And like Socrates, he believed the search
for truth was worth dying for.
The Socratic method forces people “to confront
their own dogmatism,” according to Leonard Nelson,
a German philosopher who wrote on such subjects as
ethics and theory of knowledge until he was forced by
the rise of Nazism to quit. By doing so, participants in
Socratic dialogue are, in effect, “forcing themselves to be
free,” Nelson maintains. But they’re not just confronted
with their own dogmatism. In the course of a [Socratic
dialogue], they may be confronted with an array of
hypotheses, convictions, conjectures and theories
offered by the other participants, and themselves— all
of which subscribe to some sort of dogma. The Socratic
method requires that— honestly and openly, rationally
and imaginatively— they confront the dogma by asking
such questions as: What does this mean? What speaks
for and against it? Are there alternative ways of consid-
ering it that are even more plausible and tenable?
At certain junctures of a Socratic dialogue, the
“forcing” that this confrontation entails— the insis-
tence that each participant carefully articulate her

From The Euthyphro
Euthyphro. True.
Socrates. Or suppose that we differ about mag-
nitudes, do we not quickly end the differences by
Euthyphro. Very true.
Socrates. And we end a controversy about heavy and
light by resorting to a weighing machine?
Euthyphro. To be sure.
Socrates. But what differences are there which can-
not be thus decided, and which therefore make us
angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare
say the answer does not occur to you at the moment,
and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise
when the matters of difference are the just and unjust,
good and evil, honourable and dishonourable. Are not
these the points about which men differ, and about
which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our
differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we
do quarrel?
Euthyphro. Yes, Socrates, the nature of the differ-
ences about which we quarrel is such as you describe.
Socrates. And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthy-
phro, when they occur, are of a like nature?
Euthyphro. Certainly they are.
Socrates. They have differences of opinion, as you
say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honourable
and dishonourable: there would have been no quarrels
* * *
Euthyphro. Piety . . . is that which is dear to the gods,
and impiety is that which is not dear to them.
Socrates. Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given
me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what
you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make
no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.
Euthyphro. Of course.
Socrates. Come, then, and let us examine what we
are saying. That thing or person which is dear to the
gods is pious, and that thing or person which is hate-
ful to the gods is impious, these two being the extreme
opposites of one another. Was not that said?
Euthyphro. It was.
Socrates. And well said?
Euthyphro. Yes, Socrates, I thought so; it was cer-
tainly said.
Socrates. And further, Euthyphro, the gods were
admitted to have enmities and hatreds and differences?
Euthyphro. Yes, that was also said.
Socrates. And what sort of difference creates enmity
and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my
good friend, differ about a number; do differences of
this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with
one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and
put an end to them by a sum?
Plato, The Euthyphro, translated by Benjamin Jowett.
singular philosophical perspective— can be upset-
ting. But that is all to the good. If it never touches
any nerves, if it doesn’t upset, if it doesn’t mentally
and spiritually challenge and perplex, in a won-
derful and exhilarating way, it is not Socratic dia-
logue. This “forcing” opens us up to the varieties of
experiences of others— whether through direct dia-
logue, or through other means, like drama or books,
or through a work of art or a dance. It compels us to
explore alternative perspectives, asking what might
be said for or against each.
* * *

among them, if there had been no such differences—
would there now?
Euthyphro. You are quite right.
Socrates. Does not every man love that which he
deems noble and good, and hate the opposite of them?
Euthyphro. Very true.
Socrates. But, as you say, people regard the same
things, some as just and others as unjust,—about
these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fight-
ings among them.
Euthyphro. Very true.
Socrates. Then the same things are hated by the gods
and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear
to them?
Euthyphro. True.
Socrates. And upon this view the same things, Euthy-
phro, will be pious and also impious?
Euthyphro. So I should suppose.
Socrates. Then, my friend, I remark with surprise
that you have not answered the question which I
asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what
action is both pious and impious: but now it would
seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by
them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising
your father you may very likely be doing what is agree-
able to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and
what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to
Hera, and there may be other gods who have similar
differences of opinion.
Euthyphro. But I believe, Socrates, that all the gods
would be agreed as to the propriety of punishing a
murderer: there would be no difference of opinion
about that.
Socrates. Well, but speaking of men, Euthyphro, did
you ever hear any one arguing that a murderer or any
sort of evil- doer ought to be let off?
Euthyphro. I should rather say that these are the
questions which they are always arguing, especially
in courts of law: they commit all sorts of crimes, and
there is nothing which they will not do or say in their
own defence.
Socrates. But do they admit their guilt, Euthyphro,
and yet say that they ought not to be punished?
Euthyphro. No; they do not.
Socrates. Then there are some things which they do
not venture to say and do: for they do not venture to
argue that the guilty are to be unpunished, but they
deny their guilt, do they not?
Euthyphro. Yes.
Socrates. Then they do not argue that the evil- doer
should not be punished, but they argue about the fact
of who the evil- doer is, and what he did and when?
Euthyphro. True.
Socrates. And the gods are in the same case, if as you
assert they quarrel about just and unjust, and some
of them say while others deny that injustice is done
among them. For surely neither God nor man will
ever venture to say that the doer of injustice is not to
be punished?
Euthyphro. That is true, Socrates, in the main.
Socrates. But they join issue about the particulars—
gods and men alike; and, if they dispute at all, they
dispute about some act which is called in question,
and which by some is affirmed to be just, by others to
be unjust. Is not that true?
Euthyphro. Quite true.
Socrates. Well then, my dear friend Euthyphro, do
tell me, for my better instruction and information,
what proof have you that in the opinion of all the gods
a servant who is guilty of murder, and is put in chains
by the master of the dead man, and dies because he is
put in chains before he who bound him can learn from
the interpreters of the gods what he ought to do with
him, dies unjustly; and that on behalf of such an one
a son ought to proceed against his father and accuse
him of murder. How would you show that all the gods
absolutely agree in approving of his act? Prove to me
that they do, and I will applaud your wisdom as long
as I live.
Euthyphro. It will be a difficult task; but I could
make the matter very clear indeed to you.
Socrates. I understand; you mean to say that I am not
so quick of apprehension as the judges: for to them

you will be sure to prove that the act is unjust, and
hateful to the gods.
Euthyphro. Yes indeed, Socrates; at least if they will
listen to me.
Socrates. But they will be sure to listen if they find
that you are a good speaker. There was a notion that
came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to
myself: “Well, and what if Euthyphro does prove to
me that all the gods regarded the death of the serf as
unjust, how do I know anything more of the nature of
piety and impiety? for granting that this action may be
hateful to the gods, still piety and impiety are not ade-
quately defined by these distinctions, for that which is
hateful to the gods has been shown to be also pleasing
and dear to them.” And therefore, Euthyphro, I do not
ask you to prove this; I will suppose, if you like, that all
the gods condemn and abominate such an action. But
I will amend the definition so far as to say that what
all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious
or holy; and what some of them love and others hate
is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety
and impiety?
Euthyphro. Why not, Socrates?
Socrates. Why not! Certainly, as far as I am con-
cerned, Euthyphro, there is no reason why not. But
whether this admission will greatly assist you in the
task of instructing me as you promised, is a matter for
you to consider.
Euthyphro. Yes, I should say that what all the gods
love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all
hate, impious.
Socrates. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this,
Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on
our own authority and that of others? What do you say?
Euthyphro. We should enquire; and I believe that
the statement will stand the test of enquiry.
Socrates. We shall know better, my good friend, in
a little while. The point which I should first wish to
understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by
the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved
of the gods.
Euthyphro. I do not understand your meaning,
Socrates. I will endeavour to explain: we speak of
carrying and we speak of being carried, of leading and
being led, seeing and being seen. You know that in all
such cases there is a difference, and you know also in
what the difference lies?
Euthyphro. I think that I understand.
Socrates. And is not that which is beloved distinct
from that which loves?
Euthyphro. Certainly.
Socrates. Well; and now tell me, is that which is car-
ried in this state of carrying because it is carried, or for
some other reason?
Euthyphro. No; that is the reason.
Socrates. And the same is true of what is led and of
what is seen?
Euthyphro. True.
Socrates. And a thing is not seen because it is visible,
but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led
because it is in the state of being led, or carried because
it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this.
And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be
intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action
or passion implies previous action or passion. It does
not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state
of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer
because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of
suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?
Euthyphro. Yes.
Socrates. Is not that which is loved in some state
either of becoming or suffering?
Euthyphro. Yes.
Socrates. And the same holds as in the previous
instances; the state of being loved follows the act of
being loved, and not the act the state.
Euthyphro. Certainly.
Socrates. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro;
is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all
the gods?
Euthyphro. Yes.
Socrates. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other

Euthyphro. No, that is the reason.
Socrates. It is loved because it is holy, not holy
because it is loved?
Euthyphro. Yes.
Socrates. And that which is dear to the gods is loved
by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because
it is loved of them?
Euthyphro. Certainly.
Socrates. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthy-
phro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of
God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.
Euthyphro. How do you mean, Socrates?
Socrates. I mean to say that the holy has been
acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is
holy, not to be holy because it is loved.
Euthyphro. Yes.
Socrates. But that which is dear to the gods is dear to
them because it is loved by them, not loved by them
because it is dear to them.
Euthyphro. True.
Socrates. But, friend Euthyphro, if that which is
holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and
is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to
God would have been loved as being dear to God; but
if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved
by him, then that which is holy would have been holy
because loved by him. But now you see that the reverse
is the case, and that they are quite different from one
another. For one (Ueofilès) is of a kind to be loved
because it is loved, and the other (o9sion) is loved
because it is of a kind to be loved. Thus you appear to
me, Euthyphro, when I ask you what is the essence
of holiness, to offer an attribute only, and not the
essence— the attribute of being loved by all the gods.
But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holi-
ness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to
hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holi-
ness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not
(for that is a matter about which we will not quarrel)
and what is impiety?
Euthyphro. I really do not know, Socrates, how to
express what I mean. For somehow or other our argu-
ments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn
around and walk away from us.
* * *

principles are rigid rules that have no exceptions
(a view known as absolutism) or that they must be
applied in exactly the same way in every situation
and culture.
On the other hand, let us say that you assess the
case like this: “In societies that approve of honor
killing, the practice is morally right; in those that
do not approve, it is morally wrong. My society
approves of honor killing, so it is morally right.” If
you believe what you say, then you are a cultural
relativist. Cultural relativism is the view that an
action is morally right if one’s culture approves of
it. Moral rightness and wrongness are therefore rel-
ative to cultures. So in one culture, an action may
be morally right; in another culture, it may be mor-
ally wrong.
Perhaps you prefer an even narrower view of
morality, and so you say, “Honor killing may be
right for you, but it is most certainly not right for
me.” If you mean this literally, then you are com-
mitted to another kind of relativism called sub-
jective relativism— the view that an action is
morally right if one approves of it. Moral rightness
and wrongness are relative not to cultures but to
individuals. An action, then, can be right for you
but wrong for someone else. Your approving of an
action makes it right. There is therefore no objec-
tive morality, and cultural norms do not make right
or wrong— individuals make right or wrong.
Finally, imagine that you wish to take a differ-
ent tack regarding the subject of honor killing. You
say, “I abhor the practice of honor killing”—but
you believe that in uttering these words you are
saying nothing that is true or false. You believe that
Consider the following: Abdulla Yones killed his
sixteen- year- old daughter Heshu in their apart-
ment in west London. The murder was an example
of an “honor killing,” an ancient tradition still
practiced in many parts of the world. Using a
kitchen knife, Yones stabbed Heshu eleven times
and slit her throat. He later declared that he had to
kill her to expunge a stain from his family, a stain
that Heshu had caused by her outrageous behavior.
What was outrageous behavior to Yones, however,
would seem to many Westerners to be typical teen-
age antics, annoying but benign. Heshu’s precise
offense against her family’s honor is unclear, but
the possibilities include wearing makeup, having
a boyfriend, and showing an independent streak
that would be thought perfectly normal through-
out the West. In some countries, honor killings are
sometimes endorsed by the local community or
even given the tacit blessing of the state.
What do you think of this time- honored way
of dealing with family conflicts? Specifically, what
is your opinion regarding the morality of honor
killing? Your response to this question is likely to
reveal not only your view of honor killing but your
overall approach to morality as well. Suppose your
response is something like this: “Honor killing is
morally wrong— wrong no matter where it’s done
or who does it.” With this statement, you implic-
itly embrace moral objectivism— the theory that
moral truths exist and that they do so indepen-
dently of what individuals or societies think of
them. In other words, there are moral facts, and
they are not human inventions, fictions, or prefer-
ences. However, you need not hold that objective
C H A P T E R 2
Subjectivism, Relativism, and Emotivism

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  21
despite what your statement seems to mean, you
are simply expressing your emotions. You there-
fore hold to emotivism— the view that moral
utterances are neither true nor false but are instead
expressions of emotions or attitudes. So in your
sentence about honor killing, you are not stating a
fact— you are merely emoting and possibly trying
to influence someone’s behavior. Even when emo-
tivists express a more specific preference regarding
other people’s behavior— by saying, for instance,
“No one should commit an honor killing”—they
are still not making a factual claim. They are simply
expressing a preference, and perhaps hoping to per-
suade other people to see things their way.
These four replies represent four distinct per-
spectives (though certainly not the only per-
spectives) on the meaning and import of moral
judgments. Moreover, they are not purely theoreti-
cal, but real and relevant. People actually live their
lives (or try to) as moral objectivists, or relativists,
or emotivists, or some strange and inconsistent
mixture of these. (There is an excellent chance, for
example, that you were raised as an objectivist but
now accept some form of relativism— or even try to
hold to objectivism in some instances and relativ-
ism in others.)
In any case, the question that you should ask
(and that ethics can help you answer) is not whether
you in fact accept any of these views, but whether you
are justified in doing so. Let us see, then, where an
examination of reasons for and against them will
What view of morality could be more tempting (and
convenient) than the notion that an action is right
if someone approves of it? Subjective relativism
says that action X is right for Ann if she approves
of it yet wrong for Greg if he disapproves of it. Thus
action X can be both right and wrong— right for
Ann but wrong for Greg. A person’s approval of an
action makes it right for that person. Action X is not
objectively right (or wrong). It is right (or wrong)
relative to individuals. In this way, moral rightness
becomes a matter of personal taste. If to Ann straw-
berry ice cream tastes good, then it is good (for her).
If to Greg strawberry ice cream tastes bad, then it
is bad (for him). There is no such thing as straw-
berry ice cream tasting good objectively or gener-
ally. Likewise, the morality of an action depends on
Ann’s and Greg’s moral tastes.
Many people claim they are subjective relativists—
until they realize the implications of the doctrine
objectivism— The theory that moral truths exist
and that they do so independently of what
individuals or societies think of them.
cultural relativism— The view that an action is
morally right if one’s culture approves of it.
Implications: that cultures are morally infallible,
that social reformers can never be morally right,
that moral disagreements between individuals
in the same culture amount to arguments over
whether someone disagrees with her culture,
that other cultures cannot be legitimately criti-
cized, and that moral progress is impossible.
subjective relativism— The view that an action is
morally right if one approves of it. Implications:
that individuals are morally infallible and that
genuine moral disagreement between individ-
uals is nearly impossible.
emotivism— The view that moral utterances are
neither true nor false but are expressions of
emotions or attitudes. Implications: that people
cannot disagree over the moral facts because
there are no moral facts, that presenting reasons
in support of a moral utterance is a matter of
offering nonmoral facts that can influence some-
one’s attitude, and that nothing is actually good
or bad.

22 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
that are at odds with our commonsense moral expe-
rience. First, subjective relativism implies that in
the rendering of any moral opinion, each person is
incapable of being in error. Each of us is morally infal-
lible. If we approve of an action— and we are sincere
in our approval— then that action is morally right.
We literally cannot be mistaken about this, because
our approval makes the action right. If we say that
inflicting pain on an innocent child for no reason is
right (that is, we approve of such an action), then the
action is right. Our moral judgment is correct, and it
cannot be otherwise. Yet if anything is obvious about
our moral experience, it is that we are not infallible.
We sometimes are mistaken in our moral judgments.
We are, after all, not gods.
By all accounts, Adolf Hitler approved of (and
ordered) the extermination of vast numbers of
innocent people, including six million Jews. If so,
by the lights of subjective relativism, his facilitat-
ing those deaths was morally right. It seems that
the totalitarian leader Pol Pot approved of his
murdering more than a million innocent people
in Cambodia. If so, it was right for him to mur-
der those people. But it seems obvious that what
these men did was wrong and that their approv-
ing of their actions did not make the actions right.
Because subjective relativism suggests otherwise, it
is a dubious doctrine.
Another obvious feature of our commonsense
moral experience is that from time to time we have
moral disagreements. Maria says that capital pun-
ishment is right, but Carlos says that it is wrong. This
seems like a perfectly clear case of two people dis-
agreeing about the morality of capital punishment.

Jesus said “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Some
have taken this to mean that we should not make
moral judgments about others, and many who
have never heard those words are convinced that
to judge others is to be insensitive, intolerant, or
absolutist. Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain exam-
ines this attitude and finds it both mistaken and
I have also found helpful the discussion of the
lively British philosopher, Mary Midgley. In her
book Can’t We Make Moral Judgments? Midgley
notes our contemporary search for a nonjudgmen-
tal politics and quotes all those people who cry, in
effect, “But surely it’s always wrong to make moral
judgments.” We are not permitted to make anyone
uncomfortable, to be “insensitive.” Yet moral judg-
ment of “some kind,” says Midgley, “is a necessary
element to our thinking.” Judging involves our
whole nature— it isn’t just icing on the cake of self-
identity. Judging makes it possible for us to “find
our way through a whole forest of possibilities.”
Midgley argues that Jesus was taking aim at
sweeping condemnations and vindictiveness:
he was not trashing the “whole faculty of judg-
ment.” Indeed, Jesus is making the “subtle point
that while we cannot possibly avoid judging, we
can see to it that we judge fairly, as we would
expect others to do to us.” This is part and par-
cel, then, of justice as fairness, as a discernment
about a particular case and person and deed. Sub-
jectivism in such matters— of the “I’m okay, you’re
okay,” variety— is a cop- out, a way to stop form-
ing and expressing moral judgments altogether.
This strange suspension of specific moments of
judgment goes hand- in- glove, of course, with an
often violent rhetoric of condemnation of whole
categories of persons, past and present— that all-
purpose villain, the Dead White European Male,
comes to mind.*
*Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Judge Not?” First Things,
no. 46, pp. 36–40, October 1994. Reprinted by permis-
sion of the publisher.
Judge Not?

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  23
Subjective relativism, however, implies that such
disagreements cannot happen. Subjective relativ-
ism says that when Maria states that capital punish-
ment is right, she is just saying that she approves of
it. And when Carlos states that capital punishment
is wrong, he is just saying that he disapproves of it.
But they are not really disagreeing, because they
are merely describing their attitudes toward capital
punishment. In effect, Maria is saying “This is my
attitude on the subject,” and Carlos is saying “Here
is my attitude on the subject.” But these two claims
are not opposed to each other. They are about dif-
ferent subjects, so both statements could be true.
Maria and Carlos might as well be discussing how
strawberry ice cream tastes to each of them, for
nothing that Maria says could contradict what Car-
los says. Because genuine disagreement is a fact of
our moral life, and subjective relativism is inconsis-
tent with this fact, the doctrine is implausible.
In practice, subjective relativism is a difficult
view to hold consistently. At times, of course, you
can insist that an action is right for you but wrong
for someone else. But you may also find yourself
saying something like “Pol Pot committed abso-
lutely heinous acts; he was evil,” or “What Hitler
did was wrong”—and what you mean is that what
Pol Pot and Hitler did was objectively wrong, not
just wrong relative to you. Such slides from sub-
jective relativism to objectivism suggest a conflict
between these two perspectives and the need to
resolve it through critical reasoning.
To many people, the idea that morality is relative
to culture is obvious. It seems obvious primarily
because modern sociology has left no doubt that
people’s moral judgments differ from culture to
culture. The moral judgments of people in other
cultures are often shockingly different from our
own. In some societies, it is morally permissible
to kill infants at birth, burn widows alive with the
bodies of their husbands, steal and commit acts of
treachery, surgically remove the clitorises of young
girls for no medical reason, kill one’s elderly par-
ents, have multiple husbands or wives, and make
up for someone’s death by murdering others.
Among some people, it has been considered mor-
ally acceptable to kill those of a different sexual
orientation, lynch persons with a different skin
color, and allow children to die by refusing to give
them available medical treatment. (These latter acts
have all been practiced in subcultures within the
United States, so not all such cultural differences
happen far from home.) It is only a small step from
acknowledging this moral diversity among cultures
to the conclusion that cultures determine moral
rightness and that objective morality is a myth.
The philosopher Walter T. Stace (1886–1967)
illustrates how easily this conclusion has come to
many in Western societies:
It was easy enough to believe in a single absolute
morality in older times when there was no anthro-
pology, when all humanity was divided clearly into
two groups, Christian peoples and the “heathen.”
Christian peoples knew and possessed the one true
morality. The rest were savages whose moral ideas
could be ignored. But all this changed. Greater
knowledge has brought greater tolerance. We can
no longer exalt our own moralities as alone true,
while dismissing all other moralities as false or
inferior. The investigations of anthropologists have
shown that there exist side by side in the world a
bewildering variety of moral codes. On this topic
endless volumes have been written, masses of evi-
dence piled up. Anthropologists have ransacked the
Melanesian Islands, the jungles of New Guinea, the
steppes of Siberia, the deserts of Australia, the for-
ests of central Africa, and have brought back with
them countless examples of weird, extravagant,
and fantastic “moral” customs with which to con-
found us. We learn that all kinds of horrible prac-
tices are, in this, that, or the other place, regarded
as essential to virtue. We find that there is nothing,
or next to nothing, which has always and every-
where been regarded as morally good by all men.
Where then is our universal morality? Can we, in
face of all this evidence, deny that it is nothing but
an empty dream?1

24 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
Here, Stace spells out in rough form the most
common argument for cultural relativism, an infer-
ence from differences in the moral beliefs of cul-
tures to the conclusion that cultures make morality.
Before we conclude that objectivism is in fact an
empty dream, we should state the argument more
precisely and examine it closely. We can lay out the
argument like this:
1. People’s judgments about right and wrong
differ from culture to culture.
2. If people’s judgments about right and wrong
differ from culture to culture, then right and
wrong are relative to culture, and there are no
objective moral principles.
3. Therefore, right and wrong are relative to culture,
and there are no objective moral principles.
A good argument gives us good reason to
accept its conclusion, and an argument is good if
its logic is solid (the conclusion follows logically
from the premises) and the premises are true. So
is the foregoing argument a good one? We can
see right away that the logic is in fact solid. That
is, the argument is valid: the conclusion does
indeed follow from the premises. The question
then becomes whether the premises are true. As
we have seen, Premise 1 is most certainly true.
People’s judgments about right and wrong do
vary from culture to culture. But what of Prem-
ise 2? Does the diversity of views about right and
wrong among cultures show that right and wrong
are determined by culture, that there are no uni-
versal moral truths? There are good reasons to
think this premise false.

In recent years many conflicts have flared between
those who espouse universal human rights and those
who embrace cultural relativism. One issue that has
been a flash point in these contentious debates is a
practice called female genital cutting (FGC). Other
names include female circumcision and female
genital mutilation.
In FGC, all or part of the female genitals are
removed. The procedure, used mostly in Africa
and the Middle East, is usually performed on girls
between the ages of four and eight, but sometimes
on young women. A report in the Yale Journal of
Public Health states that in Sudan, 89 percent of
girls receive FGC and that the cutting tools used
“include knives, scissors, razors, and broken glass.
The operation is typically performed by elderly
women or traditional birth attendants, though
increasing numbers of doctors are taking over
these roles.”* The practice occurs for various rea-
sons, including religious and sociological ones, and
is defended by some who say that it prepares girls
for their role in society and marriage and discour-
ages illicit sex.
Public health officials regard FGC as a serious
health problem. It can cause reproductive tract
infections, pain during intercourse, painful men-
struation, complications during childbirth, greater
risk of HIV infection, bleeding, and even death.
International health agencies denounce FGC, but
many say that no one outside a culture using FGC
has a right to criticize the practice.
Do you think that FGC is morally permissible? If
you judge the practice wrong, are you appealing to
some notion of objective morality? If you judge it
permissible, are you doing so because you are a cul-
tural relativist? In either case, explain your reasoning.
*Sarah Cannon and Daniel Berman, “Cut Off: The
Female Genital- Cutting Controversy,” Yale Journal of
Public Health 1, no. 2 (2004).
CRITICAL THOUGHT: “Female Circumcision” and Cultural Relativism

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  25
Premise 2 says that because there are disagree-
ments among cultures about right and wrong,
there must not be any universal standards of right
and wrong. But even if the moral judgments of
people in various cultures do differ, such differ-
ences in themselves do not show that morality is
relative to culture. Just because people in different
cultures have different views about morality, their
disagreement does not prove that no view can be
objectively correct— no more than people’s disagree-
ments about the size of a house show that no one’s
opinion about it can be objectively true. Suppose
Culture 1 endorses infanticide, but Culture 2 does
not. Such a disagreement does not demonstrate
that both cultures are equally correct or that there is
no objectively correct answer. After all, it is possible
that infanticide is objectively right (or wrong) and
that the relevant moral beliefs of either Culture 1 or
Culture 2 are false.
Another reason to doubt the truth of Premise
2 comes from questioning how deep the disagree-
ments among cultures really are. Judgments about
the rightness of actions obviously do vary across
cultures. But people can differ in their moral judg-
ments not just because they accept different moral
principles, but also because they have divergent
nonmoral beliefs. They may actually embrace the
same moral principles, but their moral judgments
conflict because their nonmoral beliefs lead them
to apply those principles in very different ways. If
so, the diversity of moral judgments across cultures
does not necessarily indicate deep disagreements
over fundamental moral principles or standards.
Here is a classic example:
[T]he story is told of a culture in which a son is
regarded as obligated to kill his father when the lat-
ter reaches age sixty. Given just this much informa-
tion about the culture and the practice in question
it is tempting to conclude that the members of that
culture differ radically from members of our cul-
ture in their moral beliefs and attitudes. We, after
all, believe it is immoral to take a human life, and
regard patricide as especially wrong. But suppose
that in the culture we are considering, those who
belong to it believe (a) that at the moment of death
one enters heaven; (b) one’s physical and mental
condition in the afterlife is exactly what it is at the
moment of death; and (c) men are at the peak of
their physical and mental powers when they are
sixty. Then what appeared at first to be peculiari-
ties in moral outlook on the part of the cultural
group in question regarding the sanctity of life and
respect for parents, turn out to be located rather in
a nonmoral outlook of the group. A man in that
culture who kills his father is doing so out of con-
cern for the latter’s well- being— to prevent him, for
example, from spending eternity blind or senile.
It is not at all clear that, if we shared the relevant
nonmoral beliefs of this other culture, we would
not believe with them that sons should kill their
fathers at the appropriate time.2
To find similar examples, we need not search for
the exotic. In Western cultures we have the famil-
iar case of abortion, an issue hotly debated among
those who at first glance appear to be disagreeing
about moral principles. But in fact the disputants
agree about the moral principle involved: that mur-
der (unjustly killing a person) is morally wrong.
What they do disagree about is a nonmoral factual
matter— whether the fetus is an entity that can be
murdered (that is, whether it is a person). Disagree-
ment over the nonmoral facts masks substantial
agreement on fundamental moral standards.
The work of several anthropologists provides
some evidence for these kinds of disagreements
as well as for the existence of cross- cultural moral
agreement in general. The social psychologist Solo-
mon Asch, for instance, maintains that differ-
ing moral judgments among societies often arise
when the same moral principles are operating but
the particulars of cultural situations vary.3 Other
observers claim that across numerous diverse cul-
tures we can find many common moral elements
such as prohibitions against murder, lying, incest,
and adultery and obligations of fairness, reciproc-
ity, and consideration toward parents and chil-
dren.4 Some philosophers argue that a core set of

26 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
moral values— including, for example, truth telling
and prohibitions against murder— must be univer-
sal, otherwise cultures would not survive.
These points demonstrate that Premise 2 of the
argument for cultural relativism is false. The argu-
ment therefore gives us no good reasons to believe
that an action is right simply because one’s culture
approves of it.
For many people, however, the failure of the
argument for cultural relativism may be beside the
point. They find the doctrine appealing mainly
because it seems to promote the humane and
enlightened attitude of tolerance toward other cul-
tures. Broad expanses of history are drenched with
blood and marked by cruelty because of the evil of
intolerance— religious, racial, political, and social.
Tolerance therefore seems a supreme virtue, and
cultural relativism appears to provide a justifica-
tion and vehicle for it. After all, if all cultures are
morally equal, does not cultural relativism both
entail and promote tolerance?
We should hope that tolerance does reign in a
pluralistic world, but there is no necessary connec-
tion between tolerance and cultural relativism. For
one thing, cultural relativists cannot consistently
advocate tolerance. To advocate tolerance is to
advocate an objective moral value. But if tolerance
is an objective moral value, then cultural relativism
must be false, because it says that there are no objec-
tive moral values. So instead of justifying tolerance
toward all, cultural relativism actually undercuts
universal tolerance. Moreover, according to cul-
tural relativism, intolerance can be justified just
as easily as tolerance can. If a culture approves of
intolerance, then intolerance is right for that cul-
ture. If a culture approves of tolerance, then toler-
ance is right for that culture. Cultural relativists are
thus committed to the view that intolerance can
in fact be justified, and they cannot consistently
claim that tolerance is morally right everywhere.
At this point we are left with no good reasons
to believe that cultural relativism is true. But the
problems for the doctrine are deeper than that. Like
subjective relativism, it has several implications
that render it highly implausible.
First, like subjective relativism, cultural relativ-
ism implies moral infallibility— that a culture sim-
ply cannot be mistaken about a moral issue. If it
approves of an action, then that action is morally
right, and there is no possibility of error as long as
the culture’s approval is genuine. But, of course,
cultural infallibility in moral matters is flagrantly
implausible, just as individual infallibility is. At one
time or another, cultures have sanctioned witch
burning, slavery, genocide, racism, rape, human
sacrifice, and religious persecution. Does it make
any sense to say that they could not have been
mistaken about the morality of these actions?
Cultural relativism also has the peculiar con-
sequence that social reformers of every sort would
always be wrong. Their culture would be the ultimate
authority on moral matters, so if they disagreed
with their culture, they could not possibly be right.
If their culture approved of genocide, genocide
would be right, and antigenocide reformers would
be wrong to oppose the practice. In this upside-
down world, the antigenocide reformers would
be immoral, and the genocidal culture would be
the real paragon of righteousness. Reformers such
as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mary
Wollstonecraft (champion of women’s rights), and
Frederick Douglass (American abolitionist) would
be great crusaders— for immorality. Our moral
experience, however, suggests that cultural relativ-
ism has matters exactly backward. Social reform-
ers have often been right when they claimed their
cultures were wrong, and this fact suggests that cul-
tural relativism is wrong about morality.
Where cultural relativism holds, if you have a
disagreement with your culture about the right-
ness of an action, you automatically lose. You are
in error by definition. But what about a disagree-
ment among members of the same society? What
does such a disagreement amount to? It amounts
to something very strange, according to cultural
relativism. When two people in the same culture

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  27
disagree on a moral issue, what they are really dis-
agreeing about— the only thing they can rationally
disagree about— is whether their society endorses a
particular view. After all, society makes actions right
by approving or disapproving of them. According
to cultural relativism, if René and Michel (both
members of society X) are disagreeing about capital
punishment, their disagreement must actually be
about whether society X approves of capital pun-
ishment. Because right and wrong are determined
by one’s culture, René and Michel are disagreeing
about what society X says. But this view of moral
disagreement is dubious, to say the least. When we
have a moral disagreement, we do not think that
the crux of it is whether our society approves of an
action. We do not think that deciding a moral issue
is simply a matter of polling the public to see which
way opinion leans. We do not think that René and
Michel will ever find out whether capital punish-
ment is morally permissible by consulting public
opinion. Determining whether an action is right is
a very different thing from determining what most
people think. This odd consequence of cultural
relativism suggests that the doctrine is flawed.
One of the more disturbing implications of
cultural relativism is that cultures cannot be legiti-
mately criticized from the outside. If a culture
approves of the actions that it performs, then those
actions are morally right, regardless of what other
cultures have to say about the matter. One society’s
practices are as morally justified as any other’s, as
long as the practices are socially sanctioned. This
consequence of cultural relativism may not seem
too worrisome when the societies in question are
long dead. But it takes on a different tone when
the societies are closer to us in time. Consider the
1994 genocide committed in Rwanda in which a
million people died. Suppose the killers’ society
(their tribe) approved of the murders. Then the
genocide was morally justified. And what of Hitler’s
“final solution”—the murder of millions of Jews in
World War II? Say that German society approved
of Hitler’s actions (and those of the men who
carried out his orders). Then Hitler’s final solution
was morally right; engineering the Holocaust was
morally permissible. If you are a cultural relativist,
you cannot legitimately condemn these monstrous
deeds. Because they were approved by their respec-
tive societies, they were morally justified. They
were just as morally justified as the socially sanc-
tioned activities of Albert Schweitzer, Jonas Salk, or
Florence Nightingale. But all this seems implausi-
ble. We do in fact sometimes criticize other cultures
and believe that it is legitimate to do so.
Contrary to the popular view, rejecting cultural
relativism (embracing moral objectivism) does not
entail intolerance. In fact, it provides a plausible
starting point for tolerance. A moral objectivist
realizes that she can legitimately criticize other
cultures— and that people of other cultures can
legitimately criticize her culture. A recognition of
this fact together with an objectivist’s sense of falli-
bility can lead her to an openness to criticism of her
own culture and to acceptance of everyone’s right
to disagree.
We not only criticize other cultures but also
compare the past with the present. We compare
the actions of the past with those of the present
and judge whether moral progress has been made.
We see that slavery has been abolished, that we no
longer burn witches, that we recognize racism as
evil— then we judge that these changes represent
moral progress. For moral relativists, however,
there is no objective standard by which to com-
pare the ways of the past with the ways of the pres-
ent. Societies of the past approved or disapproved
of certain practices, and contemporary societies
approve or disapprove of them, and no transcul-
tural moral assessments can be made. But if there
is such a thing as moral progress, then there must
be some cross- cultural moral yardstick by which we
can evaluate actions. There must be objective stan-
dards by which we can judge that actions of the
present are better than those of the past. If there are
no objective moral standards, our judging that we
are in fact making moral progress is hard to explain.

28 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
Finally, there is a fundamental difficulty con-
cerning the application of cultural relativism to
moral questions: the doctrine is nearly impossi-
ble to use. The problem is that cultural relativism
applies to societies (or social groups), but we all
belong to several societies, and there is no way to
choose which one is the proper one. What soci-
ety do you belong to if you are an Italian Ameri-
can Buddhist living in Atlanta, Georgia, who is a
member of the National Organization for Women
and a breast cancer support group? The hope of
cultural relativists is that they can use the doc-
trine to make better, more enlightened moral
decisions. But this society- identification problem
seems to preclude any moral decisions, let alone
enlightened ones.
What, then, can we conclude from our exami-
nation of cultural relativism? We have found that
the basic argument for the view fails; we therefore
have no good reasons to believe that the doctrine
is true. Beyond that, we have good grounds for
thinking the doctrine false. Its surprising implica-
tions regarding moral infallibility, moral reformers,
moral progress, the nature of moral disagreements
within societies, and the possibility of cross- cultural
criticism show it to be highly implausible. The crux
of the matter is that cultural relativism does a poor
job of explaining some important features of our
moral experience. A far better explanation of these
features is that some form of moral objectivism is
The commonsense view of moral judgments is
that they ascribe moral properties to such things
as actions and people and that they are therefore
statements that can be true or false. This view of
moral judgments is known as cognitivism. The
opposing view, called noncognitivism, denies that
moral judgments are statements that can be true
or false; it holds that they do not ascribe prop-
erties to anything. Probably the most famous
noncognitivist view is emotivism, which says that
moral judgments cannot be true or false because
they do not make any claims— they merely express
emotions or attitudes. For the emotivist, moral
utterances are something akin to exclamations that
simply express approving or disapproving feel-
ings: “Violence against women— disgusting!” or
“ Shoplifting— love it!”
The English philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910–1989),
an early champion of emotivism, is clear and blunt
about what a moral utterance such as “Stealing
money is wrong” signifies. This sentence, he says,
expresses no proposition which can be either true
or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!”—
where the shape and thickness of the exclamation
marks show, by a suitable convention, that a spe-
cial sort of moral disapproval is the feeling which
is being expressed. It is clear that there is nothing
said here which can be true or false. . . . For in saying
that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am
not making any factual statement, not even a state-
ment about my own state of mind.5
If moral judgments are about feelings and not
the truth or falsity of moral assertions, then ethics
is a very different sort of inquiry than most people
imagine. As Ayer says,
[A]s ethical judgements are mere expressions of
feeling, there can be no way of determining the
validity of any ethical system, and, indeed, no
sense in asking whether any such system is true. All
that one may legitimately enquire in this connec-
tion is, What are the moral habits of a given per-
son or group of people, and what causes them to
have precisely those habits and feelings? And this
enquiry falls wholly within the scope of the exist-
ing social sciences.6
The emotivist points out that in addition to
expressing feelings and attitudes, moral utter-
ances also function to influence people’s attitudes
and behavior. So the sentence “Stealing money is
wrong” not only expresses feelings of disapproval
but can also influence others to have similar feel-
ings and act accordingly.

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  29
Emotivists also take an unusual position on
moral disagreements. They maintain that moral
disagreements are not conflicts of beliefs, as is the
case when one person asserts that something is
true and another person asserts that it is not true.
Instead, moral disagreements are disagreements in
attitude. Jane has positive feelings or a favorable
attitude toward abortion, but Ellen has negative
feelings or an unfavorable attitude toward abor-
tion. The disagreement is emotive, not cognitive.
Jane may say “Abortion is right,” and Ellen may
say “Abortion is wrong,” but they are not really
disagreeing over the facts. They are expressing
conflicting attitudes and trying to influence each
other’s attitude and behavior.
Philosophers have criticized emotivism on
several grounds, and this emotivist analysis of dis-
agreement has been a prime target. As you might
suspect, their concern is that this notion of disagree-
ment is radically different from our ordinary view.
Like subjective relativism, emotivism implies that
disagreements in the usual sense are impossible.
People cannot disagree over the moral facts, because
there are no moral facts. But we tend to think that
when we disagree with someone on a moral issue,
there really is a conflict of statements about what
is the case. Of course, when we are involved in a
conflict of beliefs, we may also experience conflict-
ing attitudes. But we do not think that we are only
experiencing a disagreement in attitudes.
Emotivism also provides a curious account of
how reasons function in moral discourse. Our com-
monsense view is that a moral judgment is the kind
of thing that makes a claim about moral properties
and that such a claim can be supported by reasons.
If someone asserts “Euthanasia is wrong,” we may
sensibly ask her what reasons she has for believing
that claim. If she replies that there are no reasons
to back up her claim or that moral utterances are
not the kinds of things that can be supported by
reasons, we would probably think that she mis-
understood the question or the nature of moral-
ity. For the emotivist, “moral” reasons have a very
different function. Here reasons are intended not
to support statements (because there are no moral
statements) but to influence the emotions or atti-
tudes of others. Because moral utterances express
emotions or attitudes, “presenting reasons” is a
matter of offering nonmoral facts that can influ-
ence those emotions and attitudes. Suppose A has
a favorable attitude toward abortion, and B has an
unfavorable one (that is, A and B are having a dis-
agreement in attitude). For A, to present reasons is
to provide information that might cause B to have a
more favorable attitude toward abortion.
This conception of the function of reasons,
however, implies that good reasons encompass any
nonmoral facts that can alter someone’s attitude.
On this view, the relevance of these facts to the
judgment at hand is beside the point. The essen-
tial criterion is whether the adduced facts are suffi-
ciently influential. They need not have any logical
or cognitive connection to the moral judgment
to be changed. They may, for example, appeal to
someone’s ignorance, arrogance, racism, or fear.
But we ordinarily suppose that reasons should be
relevant to the cognitive content of moral judg-
ments. Moreover, we normally make a clear dis-
tinction between influencing someone’s attitudes
and showing (by providing reasons) that a claim is
true— a distinction that emotivism cannot make.
The final implication of emotivism is also prob-
lematic: there is no such thing as goodness or bad-
ness. We cannot legitimately claim that anything
is good or bad, because these properties do not
exist. To declare that something is good is simply
to express positive emotions or a favorable attitude
toward it. We may say that pain is bad, but badness
(or goodness) is not a feature of pain. Our saying
that pain is bad is just an expression of our unfavor-
able attitude toward pain.
Suppose a six- year- old girl is living in a small vil-
lage in Syria during the civil war between President
Bashar al- Assad’s Baathist government and rebel
forces. Assad’s henchmen firebomb the village,
destroying it and incinerating everyone except the

30 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
girl, who is burned from head to toe and endures
excruciating pain for three days before she dies.
Suppose that we are deeply moved by this tragedy
as we consider her unimaginable suffering and we
remark, “How horrible. The little girl’s suffering
was a very bad thing.”7 When we say something
like this, we ordinarily mean that the girl’s suffering
had a certain moral property: that the suffering was
bad. But according to emotivism, her suffering had
no moral properties at all. When we comment on
the girl’s suffering, we are simply expressing our
feelings; the suffering itself was neither good nor
bad. But this view of things seems implausible. Our
moral experience suggests that some things in fact
are bad and some are good.
The philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892–1987)
makes the point in the following way:
[T]he emotivist is cut off by his theory from admit-
ting that there has been anything good or evil in
the past, either animal or human. There have been
Black Deaths, to be sure, and wars and rumours
of war; there have been the burning of countless
women as witches, and the massacre in the Katyn
forest, and Oswiecim, and Dachau, and an unbear-
able procession of horrors; but one cannot mean-
ingfully say that anything evil has ever happened.
The people who suffered from these things did
indeed take up attitudes of revulsion toward them;
we can now judge that they took them; but in such
judgments we are not saying that anything evil
occurred. . . . [Emotivism], when first presented, has
some plausibility. But when this is balanced against
the implied unplausibility of setting down as mean-
ingless every suggestion that good or evil events
have ever occurred, it is outweighed enormously.8
Obviously, emotivism does not fare well when
examined in light of our commonsense moral
experience. We must keep in mind, though, that
common sense is fallible. On the other hand, we
should not jettison common sense in favor of
another view unless we have good reasons to do so.
In the case of emotivism, we have no good reasons
to prefer it over common sense— and we have good
grounds for rejecting it.
Subjective relativism is the view that an action is mor-
ally right if one approves of it. A person’s approval
makes the action right. This doctrine (as well as cul-
tural relativism) is in stark contrast to moral objectiv-
ism, the view that moral truths exist and that they
do so independently of what individuals or societ-
ies think of them. Subjective relativism, though, has
some troubling implications. It implies that each per-
son is morally infallible and that individuals can never
have a genuine moral disagreement.
Cultural relativism is the view that an action is mor-
ally right if one’s culture approves of it. The argument
for this doctrine is based on the diversity of moral judg-
ments among cultures: because people’s judgments
about right and wrong differ from culture to culture,
right and wrong must be relative to culture, and there
are no objective moral principles. This argument is
defective, however, because the diversity of moral views
does not imply that morality is relative to cultures. In
addition, the alleged diversity of basic moral standards
among cultures may be only apparent, not real. Societ-
ies whose moral judgments conflict may be differing
not over moral principles but over nonmoral facts.
Some think that tolerance is entailed by cultural
relativism. But there is no necessary connection
between tolerance and the doctrine. Indeed, the cul-
tural relativist cannot consistently advocate tolerance
while maintaining his relativist standpoint. To advo-
cate tolerance is to advocate an objective moral value.
But if tolerance is an objective moral value, then cul-
tural relativism must be false, because it says that there
are no objective moral values.
Like subjective relativism, cultural relativism has
some disturbing consequences. It implies that cultures
are morally infallible, that social reformers can never
be morally right, that moral disagreements between
individuals in the same culture amount to arguments
over whether they disagree with their culture, that
other cultures cannot be legitimately criticized, and
that moral progress is impossible.

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  31
Emotivism is the view that moral utterances are
neither true nor false but are expressions of emotions
or attitudes. It leads to the conclusion that people can
disagree only in attitude, not in beliefs. People can-
not disagree over the moral facts, because there are no
moral facts. Emotivism also implies that presenting
reasons in support of a moral utterance is a matter of
offering nonmoral facts that can influence someone’s
attitude. It seems that any nonmoral facts will do, as
long as they affect attitudes. Perhaps the most far-
reaching implication of emotivism is that nothing is
actually good or bad. There simply are no properties of
goodness and badness. There is only the expression of
favorable or unfavorable emotions or attitudes toward
objectivism (p. 20)
cultural relativism (p. 20)
subjective relativism (p. 20)
emotivism (p. 21)
Review Questions
1. Does objectivism entail intolerance? Why or
why not? (p. 20)
2. Does objectivism require absolutism? Why or
why not? (p. 20)
3. How does subjective relativism differ from
cultural relativism? (p. 20)
4. What is emotivism? How does emotivism differ
from objectivism? (p. 21)
5. How does subjective relativism imply moral
infallibility? (p. 22)
6. According to moral subjectivism, are moral
disagreements possible? Why or why not?
(pp. 22–23)
7. What is the argument for cultural relativism?
Is the argument sound? Why or why not?
(pp. 23–26)
8. Does the diversity of moral outlooks in cultures
show that right and wrong are determined by
culture? Why or why not? (pp. 24–26)
9. According to the text, how is it possible for
people in different cultures to disagree about
moral judgments and still embrace the same
fundamental moral principles? (pp. 25–26)
10. Is there a necessary connection between cultural
relativism and tolerance? Why or why not?
(p. 26)
11. What does cultural relativism imply about the
moral status of social reformers? (p. 26)
12. What is the emotivist view of moral
disagreements? (p. 29)
13. According to emotivism, how do reasons
function in moral discourse? (p. 29)
Discussion Questions
1. Are you a subjective relativist? If so, how did
you come to adopt this view? If not, what is
your explanation for not accepting it?
2. Suppose a serial killer approves of his murderous
actions. According to subjective relativism, are
the killer’s actions therefore justified? Do you
believe a serial killer’s murders are justified? If not,
is your judgment based on a subjective relativist’s
perspective or an objectivist perspective?
3. Are you a cultural relativist? Why or why not?
4. Suppose a majority of the German people
approved of Hitler’s murdering six million Jews
in World War II. Would this approval make
Hitler’s actions morally justified? If so, why? If
not, why not— and what moral outlook are you
using to make such a determination?
5. When cultural relativists say that every culture
should embrace a policy of tolerance, are they
contradicting themselves? If so, how? If cultural
relativism were true, would this fact make wars
between societies less or more likely? Explain
your answer.
6. If you traveled the world and saw that cultures
differ dramatically in their moral judgments,
would you conclude from this evidence that
cultural relativism was true? Why or why not?
7. According to a cultural relativist, would the
civil rights reforms that Martin Luther King Jr.
sought be morally right or wrong? Do you think

32 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
that his efforts at reform were morally wrong?
What are your reasons for your decision?
8. Do you believe that there has been moral
progress in the past thousand years of human
history? Why or why not?
9. Suppose a deer that had been shot by a hunter
writhed in agony for days before dying. You
exclaim, “How she must have suffered! Her
horrendous pain was a bad thing.” In this
situation, does the word bad refer to any moral
properties? Is there really something bad about
the deer’s suffering— or is your use of the word
just a way to express your horror without
making any moral statement at all? Explain
your answers.
1. In Western societies, some cultural subgroups
believe it is morally permissible to kill anyone
who criticizes their religion. Do you agree or
disagree with this view? On what grounds? Is
your position relativist or objectivist?
2. Suppose you are a social reformer campaigning
against your culture’s practice of systematically
discriminating against the poorest people
in your society. Do you think your stance is
morally right— or is your culture right while you
are wrong? Why?
3. Suppose you accept (approve of) premarital
sex. Is it possible for you to be mistaken
about this issue? Why or why not? Does
your answer suggest that you are a subjective
A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (1936; reprint,
New York: Dover, 1952).
Brand Blanshard, “Emotivism,” in Reason and Goodness
(1961; reprint, New York: G. Allen and Unwin, 1978).
Donald M. Borchert and David Stewart, “Ethical Emotiv-
ism,” in Exploring Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1986).
Richard B. Brandt, chapter 11 in Ethical Theory: The Prob-
lems of Normative and Critical Ethics (Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1959).
Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Judge Not?” First Things, no. 46
(October 1994): 36–40.
Fred Feldman, chapter 11 in Introductory Ethics (Engle-
wood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978).
Chris Gowans, “Moral Relativism,” in Stanford Encyclope-
dia of Philosophy, Spring 2004 ed., ed. Edward N. Zalta,
/moral-relativism (March 1, 2015).
Melville Herskovits, Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cul-
tural Pluralism, ed. Frances Herskovits (New York: Ran-
dom House, 1972).
J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmond-
sworth: Penguin, 1977).
James Rachels, “Subjectivism,” in A Companion to Ethics,
ed. Peter Singer, corr. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993),
Theodore Schick Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, chapter 5 in Doing
Philosophy: An Introduction through Thought Experiments,
2nd ed. (Boston: McGraw- Hill, 2003).
Walter T. Stace, “Ethical Relativism,” in The Concept of
Morals (1937; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1965).
Paul Taylor, chapter 2 in Principles of Ethics: An Introduc-
tion (Encino, CA: Dickenson, 1975).
David Wong, “Relativism,” in A Companion to Ethics,
ed. Peter Singer, corr. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993),

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  33
R E A d i n G S
From Anthropology and the Abnormal
Ruth Benedict
Modern social anthropology has become more and
more a study of the varieties and common elements of
cultural environment and the consequences of these
in human behavior. For such a study of diverse social
orders primitive peoples fortunately provide a labora-
tory not yet entirely vitiated by the spread of a standard-
ized worldwide civilization. Dyaks and Hopis, Fijians
and Yakuts are significant for psychological and socio-
logical study because only among these simpler peoples
has there been sufficient isolation to give opportunity
for the development of localized social forms. In the
higher cultures the standardization of custom and
belief over a couple of continents has given a false sense
of the inevitability of the particular forms that have
gained currency, and we need to turn to a wider sur-
vey in order to check the conclusions we hastily base
upon this near- universality of familiar customs. Most
of the simpler cultures did not gain the wide currency
of the one which, out of our experience, we identify
with human nature, but this was for various historical
reasons, and certainly not for any that gives us as its car-
riers a monopoly of social good or of social sanity. Mod-
ern civilization, from this point of view, becomes not
a necessary pinnacle of human achievement but one
entry in a long series of possible adjustments.
These adjustments, whether they are in manner-
isms like the ways of showing anger, or joy, or grief
in any society, or in major human drives like those of
sex, prove to be far more variable than experience in
any one culture would suggest. In certain fields, such
as that of religion or of formal marriage arrangements,
these wide limits of variability are well known and can
be fairly described. In others it is not yet possible to give
a generalized account, but that does not absolve us of
the task of indicating the significance of the work that
has been done and of the problems that have arisen.
One of these problems relates to the customary
modern normal- abnormal categories and our conclu-
sions regarding them. In how far are such categories
culturally determined, or in how far can we with assur-
ance regard them as absolute? In how far can we regard
inability to function socially as diagnostic of abnor-
mality, or in how far is it necessary to regard this as a
function of the culture?
As a matter of fact, one of the most striking facts
that emerge from a study of widely varying cultures is
the ease with which our abnormals function in other
cultures. It does not matter what kind of “abnormal-
ity” we choose for illustration, those which indicate
extreme instability, or those which are more in the
nature of character traits like sadism or delusions of
grandeur or of persecution, there are well- described
cultures in which these abnormals function at ease
and with honor, and apparently without danger or
difficulty to the society.
The most notorious of these is trance and cata-
lepsy. Even a very mild mystic is aberrant in our cul-
ture. But most peoples have regarded even extreme
psychic manifestations not only as normal and desir-
able, but even as characteristic of highly valued and
gifted individuals. This was true even in our own cul-
tural background in that period when Catholicism
made the ecstatic experience the mark of sainthood.
It is hard for us, born and brought up in a culture that
makes no use of the experience, to realize how impor-
tant a role it may play and how many individuals are
capable of it, once it has been given an honorable
place in any society.
* * *
Cataleptic and trance phenomena are, of course,
only one illustration of the fact that those whom we
regard as abnormals may function adequately in other
Ruth Benedict, excerpts from “Anthropology and the Abnormal,”
Journal of General Psychology 10 (1934), pp. 59–82. © 1934 Rout-
ledge. Reprinted by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis
Ltd., http://www.tand

34 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
cultures. Many of our culturally discarded traits are
selected for elaboration in different societies. Homosex-
uality is an excellent example, for in this case our atten-
tion is not constantly diverted, as in the consideration
of trance, to the interruption of routine activity which
it implies. Homosexuality poses the problem very sim-
ply. A tendency toward this trait in our culture exposes
an individual to all the conflicts to which all aberrants
are always exposed, and we tend to identify the conse-
quences of this conflict with homosexuality. But these
consequences are obviously local and cultural. Homo-
sexuals in many societies are not incompetent, but they
may be such if the culture asks adjustments of them that
would strain any man’s vitality. Wherever homosexu-
ality has been given an honorable place in any society,
those to whom it is congenial have filled adequately the
honorable roles society assigns to them. Plato’s Republic
is, of course, the most convincing statement of such a
reading of homosexuality. It is presented as one of the
major means to the good life, and it was generally so
regarded in Greece at that time.
The cultural attitude toward homosexuals has not
always been on such a high ethical plane, but it has
been varied. Among many American Indian tribes
there exists the institution of the berdache, as the
French called them. These men- women were men who
at puberty or thereafter took the dress and the occupa-
tions of women. Sometimes they married other men
and lived with them. Sometimes they were men with
no inversion, persons of weak sexual endowment who
chose this role to avoid the jeers of the women. The
berdaches were never regarded as of first- rate super-
natural power, as similar men- women were in Siberia,
but rather as leaders in women’s occupations, good
healers in certain diseases, or, among certain tribes, as
the genial organizers of social affairs. In any case, they
were socially placed. They were not left exposed to the
conflicts that visit the deviant who is excluded from
participation in the recognized patterns of his society.
* * *
No one civilization can possibly utilize in its mores
the whole potential range of human behavior. Just as
there are great numbers of possible phonetic articula-
tions, and the possibility of language depends on a
selection and standardization of a few of these in order
that speech communication may be possible at all, so
the possibility of organized behavior of every sort, from
the fashions of local dress and houses to the dicta of a
people’s ethics and religion, depends upon a similar
selection among the possible behavior traits. In the field
of recognized economic obligations or sex tabus this
selection is as nonrational and subconscious a process as
it is in the field of phonetics. It is a process which goes on
in the group for long periods of time and is historically
conditioned by innumerable accidents of isolation or of
contact of peoples. In any comprehensive study of psy-
chology, the selection that different cultures have made
in the course of history within the great circumference
of potential behavior is of great significance.
Every society, beginning with some slight inclina-
tion in one direction or another, carries its preference
farther and farther, integrating itself more and more
completely upon its chosen basis, and discarding
those types of behavior that are uncongenial. Most
of these organizations of personality that seem to us
most incontrovertibly abnormal have been used by
different civilizations in the very foundations of their
institutional life. Conversely the most valued traits of
our normal individuals have been looked on in dif-
ferently organized cultures as aberrant. Normality, in
short, within a very wide range, is culturally defined. It
is primarily a term for the socially elaborated segment
of human behavior in any culture; and abnormality,
a term for the segment that that particular civiliza-
tion does not use. The very eyes with which we see the
problem are conditioned by the long traditional hab-
its of our own society.
It is a point that has been made more often in
relation to ethics than in relation to psychiatry. We
do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the
morality of our own locality and decade directly from
the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do
not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We
recognize that morality differs in every society, and is
a convenient term for socially approved habits. Man-
kind has always preferred to say, “It is a morally good,”
rather than “It is habitual,” and the fact of this prefer-
ence is matter enough for a critical science of ethics.
But historically the two phrases are synonymous.
The concept of the normal is properly a variant
of the concept of the good. It is that which society

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  35
has approved. A normal action is one which falls well
within the limits of expected behavior for a particu-
lar society. Its variability among different peoples is
essentially a function of the variability of the behavior
patterns that different societies have created for them-
selves, and can never be wholly divorced from a consid-
eration of culturally institutionalized types of behavior.
Each culture is a more or less elaborate working-
out of the potentialities of the segment it has chosen.
In so far as a civilization is well integrated and consis-
tent within itself, it will tend to carry farther and far-
ther, according to its nature, its initial impulse toward
a particular type of action, and from the point of view
of any other culture those elaborations will include
more and more extreme and aberrant traits.
Each of these traits, in proportion as it reinforces
the chosen behavior patterns of that culture, is for that
culture normal. Those individuals to whom it is conge-
nial either congenitally, or as the result of childhood
sets, are accorded to prestige in that culture, and are not
visited with the social contempt or disapproval which
their traits would call down upon them in a society that
was differently organized. On the other hand, those
individuals whose characteristics are not congenial to
the selected type of human behavior in that commu-
nity are the deviants, no matter how valued their per-
sonality traits may be in a contrasted civilization.
* * *
I have spoken of individuals as having sets toward
certain types of behavior, and of these sets as running
sometimes counter to the types of behavior which are
institutionalized in the culture to which they belong.
From all that we know of contrasting cultures it seems
clear that differences of temperament occur in every
society. The matter has never been made the subject of
investigation, but from the available material it would
appear that these temperament types are very likely of
universal recurrence. That is, there is an ascertainable
range of human behavior that is found wherever a suffi-
ciently large series of individuals is observed. But the pro-
portion in which behavior types stand to one another in
different societies is not universal. The vast majority of
the individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion of
that culture. In other words, most individuals are plastic
to the moulding force of the society into which they are
born. In a society that values trance, as in India, they will
have supernormal experience. In a society that institu-
tionalizes homosexuality, they will be homosexual. In
a society that sets the gathering of possessions as the
chief human objective, they will amass property. The
deviants, whatever the type of behavior the culture has
institutionalized, will remain few in number, and there
seems no more difficulty in moulding the vast mal-
leable majority to the “normality” of what we consider
an aberrant trait, such as delusions of reference, than
to the normality of such accepted behavior patterns as
acquisitiveness. The small proportion of the number of
the deviants in any culture is not a function of the sure
instinct with which that society has built itself upon
the fundamental sanities, but of the universal fact that,
happily, the majority of mankind quite readily take any
shape that is presented to them.
* * *
Trying Out One’s New Sword
Mary Midgley
lifetime which would have astonished our parents.
I want to discuss here one very short way of dealing
with this difficulty, a drastic way which many people
now theoretically favour. It consists in simply denying
that we can ever understand any culture except our
own well enough to make judgements about it. Those
who recommend this hold that the world is sharply
All of us are, more or less, in trouble today about try-
ing to understand cultures strange to us. We hear
constantly of alien customs. We see changes in our
Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” in Heart and Mind:
The Varieties of Moral Experience (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press,
1981), pp. 69–75. Reprinted by permission of David Higham

36 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
divided into separate societies, sealed units, each with
its own system of thought. They feel that the respect
and tolerance due from one system to another forbids
us ever to take up a critical position to any other cul-
ture. Moral judgment, they suggest, is a kind of coin-
age valid only in its country of origin.
I shall call this position ‘moral isolationism’.
I shall suggest that it is certainly not forced upon us,
and indeed that it makes no sense at all. People usually
take it up because they think it is a respectful attitude
to other cultures. In fact, however, it is not respectful.
Nobody can respect what is entirely unintelligible to
them. To respect someone, we have to know enough
about him to make a favourable judgement, however
general and tentative. And we do understand people
in other cultures to this extent. Otherwise a great mass
of our most valuable thinking would be paralysed.
To show this, I shall take a remote example,
because we shall probably find it easier to think calmly
about it than we should with a contemporary one,
such as female circumcision in Africa or the Chinese
Cultural Revolution. The principles involved will still
be the same. My example is this. There is, it seems,
a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out
one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer’. (The word is
tsujigiri, literally ‘ crossroads- cut’.) A samurai sword
had to be tried out because, if it was to work prop-
erly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow,
from the shoulder to the opposite flank. Otherwise,
the warrior bungled his stroke. This could injure his
honour, offend his ancestors, and even let down his
emperor. So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to
be expended. Any wayfarer would do— provided, of
course, that he was not another Samurai. Scientists
will recognize a familiar problem about the rights of
experimental subjects.
Now when we hear of a custom like this, we may
well reflect that we simply do not understand it; and
therefore are not qualified to criticize it at all, because
we are not members of that culture. But we are not
members of any other culture either, except our own.
So we extend the principle to cover all extraneous cul-
tures, and we seem therefore to be moral isolationists.
But this is, as we shall see, an impossible position. Let
us ask what it would involve.
We must ask first: Does the isolating barrier work
both ways? Are people in other cultures equally
unable to criticize us? This question struck me sharply
when I read a remark in The Guardian by an anthro-
pologist about a South American Indian who had
been taken into a Brazilian town for an operation,
which saved his life. When he came back to his vil-
lage, he made several highly critical remarks about
the white Brazilians’ way of life. They may very well
have been justified. But the interesting point was that
the anthropologist called these remarks ‘a damning
indictment of Western civilization’. Now the Indian
had been in that town about two weeks. Was he in a
position to deliver a damning indictment? Would we
ourselves be qualified to deliver such an indictment
on the Samurai, provided we could spend two weeks
in ancient Japan? What do we really think about this?
My own impression is that we believe that outsiders
can, in principle, deliver perfectly good indictments—
only, it usually takes more than two weeks to make
them damning. Understanding has degrees. It is not
a slapdash yes- or- no matter. Intelligent outsiders can
progress in it, and in some ways will be at an advan-
tage over the locals. But if this is so, it must clearly
apply to ourselves as much as anybody else.
Our next question is this: Does the isolating bar-
rier between cultures block praise as well as blame? If
I want to say that the Samurai culture has many vir-
tues, or to praise the South American Indians, am I
prevented from doing that by my outside status? Now,
we certainly do need to praise other societies in this
way. But it is hardly possible that we could praise them
effectively if we could not, in principle, criticize them.
Our praise would be worthless if it rested on no defi-
nite grounds, if it did not flow from some understand-
ing. Certainly we may need to praise things which we
do not fully understand. We say ‘there’s something
very good here, but I can’t quite make out what it is
yet’. This happens when we want to learn from strang-
ers. And we can learn from strangers. But to do this we
have to distinguish between those strangers who are
worth learning from and those who are not. Can we
then judge which is which?
This brings us to our third question: What is
involved in judging? Now plainly there is no question

CHAPTER 2: SubjECTiviSm, RElATiviSm, And EmoTiviSm Á  37
here of sitting on a bench in a red robe and sentencing
people. Judging simply means forming an opinion,
and expressing it if it is called for. Is there anything
wrong about this? Naturally, we ought to avoid
forming— and expressing— crude opinions, like that of
a simple- minded missionary, who might dismiss the
whole Samurai culture as entirely bad, because non-
Christian. But this is a different objection. The trouble
with crude opinions is that they are crude, whoever
forms them, not that they are formed by the wrong
people. Anthropologists, after all, are outsiders quite
as much as missionaries. Moral isolationism forbids
us to form any opinions on these matters. Its ground
for doing so is that we don’t understand them. But
there is much that we don’t understand in our own
culture too. This brings us to our last question: If we
can’t judge other cultures, can we really judge our
own? Our efforts to do so will be much damaged if we
are really deprived of our opinions about other soci-
eties, because these provide the range of comparison,
the spectrum of alternatives against which we set what
we want to understand. We would have to stop using
the mirror which anthropology so helpfully holds
up to us.
In short, moral isolationism would lay down a
general ban on moral reasoning. Essentially, this is the
programme of immoralism, and it carries a distressing
logical difficulty. Immoralists like Nietzsche are actu-
ally just a rather specialized sect of moralists. They
can no more afford to put moralizing out of business
than smugglers can afford to abolish customs regula-
tions. The power of moral judgement is, in fact, not a
luxury, not a perverse indulgence of the self- righteous.
It is a necessity. When we judge something to be bad
or good, better or worse than something else, we are
taking it as an example to aim at or avoid. Without
opinions of this sort, we would have no framework of
comparison for our own policy, no chance of profiting
by other people’s insights or mistakes. In this vacuum,
we could form no judgements on our own actions.
Now it would be odd if Homo sapiens had really
got himself into a position as bad as this— a position
where his main evolutionary asset, his brain, was so
little use to him. None of us is going to accept this
sceptical diagnosis. We cannot do so, because our
involvement in moral isolationism does not flow
from apathy, but from a rather acute concern about
human hypocrisy and other forms of wickedness. But
we polarize that concern around a few selected moral
truths. We are rightly angry with those who despise,
oppress or steamroll other cultures. We think that
doing these things is actually wrong. But this is itself a
moral judgement. We could not condemn oppression
and insolence if we thought that all our condemna-
tions were just a trivial local quirk of our own culture.
We could still less do it if we tried to stop judging
Real moral scepticism, in fact, could lead only to
inaction, to our losing all interest in moral questions,
most of all in those which concern other societies.
When we discuss these things, it becomes instantly
clear how far we are from doing this. Suppose, for
instance, that I criticize the bisecting Samurai, that I
say his behaviour is brutal. What will usually happen
next is that someone will protest, will say that I have
no right to make criticisms like that of another culture.
But it is most unlikely that he will use this move to
end the discussion of the subject. Instead, he will jus-
tify the Samurai. He will try to fill in the background,
to make me understand the custom, by explaining
the exalted ideals of discipline and devotion which
produced it. He will probably talk of the lower value
which the ancient Japanese placed on individual life
generally. He may well suggest that this is a healthier
attitude than our own obsession with security. He may
add, too, that the wayfarers did not seriously mind
being bisected, that in principle they accepted the
whole arrangement.
Now an objector who talks like this is implying
that it is possible to understand alien customs. That is
just what he is trying to make me do. And he implies,
too, that if I do succeed in understanding them, I shall
do something better than giving up judging them.
He expects me to change my present judgement to a
truer one— namely, one that is favourable. And the
standards I must use to do this cannot just be Samu-
rai standards. They have to be ones current in my
own culture. Ideals like discipline and devotion will
not move anybody unless he himself accepts them.
As it happens, neither discipline nor devotion is very

38 Á  PART 1: FundAmEnTAlS
popular in the West at present. Anyone who appeals to
them may well have to do some more arguing to make
them acceptable, before he can use them to explain
the Samurai. But if he does succeed here, he will have
persuaded us, not just that there was something to be
said for them in ancient Japan, but that there would
be here as well.
Isolating barriers simply cannot arise here. If we
accept something as a serious moral truth about one
culture, we can’t refuse to apply it— in however differ-
ent an outward form— to other cultures as well, wher-
ever circumstance admit it. If we refuse to do this, we
just are not taking the other culture seriously. This
becomes clear if we look at the last argument used by
my objector— that of justification by consent of the
victim. It is suggested that sudden bisection is quite in
order, provided that it takes place between consenting
adults. I cannot now discuss how conclusive this justi-
fication is. What I am pointing out is simply that it can
only work if we believe that consent can make such a
transaction respectable— and this is a thoroughly mod-
ern and Western idea. It would probably never occur to
a Samurai; if it did, it would surprise him very much.
It is our standard. In applying it, too, we are likely to
make another typically Western demand. We shall ask
for good factual evidence that the wayfarers actually do
have this rather surprising taste— that they are really
willing to be bisected. In applying Western standards
in this way, we are not being confused or irrelevant.
We are asking the questions which arise from where
we stand, questions which we can see the sense of. We
do this because asking questions which you can’t see
the sense of is humbug. Certainly we can extend our
questioning by imaginative effort. We can come to
understand other societies better. By doing so, we may
make their questions our own, or we may see that they
are really forms of the questions which we are asking
already. This is not impossible. It is just very hard work.
The obstacles which often prevent it are simply those
of ordinary ignorance, laziness and prejudice.
If there were really an isolating barrier, of course,
our own culture could never have been formed. It is no
scaled box, but a fertile jungle of different influences—
Greek, Jewish, Roman, Norse, Celtic and so forth, into
which further influences are still pouring— American,
Indian, Japanese, Jamaican, you name it. The moral
isolationist’s picture of separate, unmixable cultures
is quite unreal. People who talk about British history
usually stress the value of this fertilizing mix, no doubt
rightly. But this is not just an odd fact about Britain.
Except for the very smallest and most remote, all cul-
tures are formed out of many streams. All have the
problem of digesting and assimilating things which, at
the start, they do not understand. All have the choice
of learning something from this challenge, or, alterna-
tively, of refusing to learn, and fighting it mindlessly
This universal predicament has been obscured
by the fact that anthropologists used to concentrate
largely on very small and remote cultures, which did
not seem to have this problem. These tiny societies,
which had often forgotten their own history, made
neat, self- contained subjects for study. No doubt it
was valuable to emphasize their remoteness, their
extreme strangeness, their independence of our
cultural tradition. This emphasis was, I think, the
root of moral isolationism. But, as the tribal stud-
ies themselves showed, even there the anthropolo-
gists were able to interpret what they saw and make
judgements— often favourable— about the tribesmen.
And the tribesmen, too, were quite equal to making
judgements about the anthropologists— and about
the tourists and Coca- Cola salesmen who followed
them. Both sets of judgements, no doubt, were some-
what hasty, both have been refined in the light of
further experience. A similar transaction between us
and the Samurai might take even longer. But that is
no reason at all for deeming it impossible. Morally as
well as physically, there is only one world, and we all
have to live in it.

Moral Reasoning

C H A P T E R 3
Evaluating Moral Arguments
We therefore begin this chapter with the basics
of critical reasoning. The focus is on the skills that
are at the heart of this kind of thinking—the formu-
lation and evaluation of logical arguments. The rest
of the chapter is about applying critical reasoning
to the claims and arguments of ethics.
When you use critical reasoning, your ultimate
aim is usually to figure out whether to accept, or
believe, a statement—either someone else’s state-
ment or one of your own. A statement, or claim,
is an assertion that something is or is not the case; it
is either true or false. These are statements:
• The ship sailed on the wind-tossed sea.
• I feel tired and listless.
• Murder is wrong.
• 5 + 5 = 10.
• A circle is not a square.
These statements assert that something is or is
not the case. Whether you accept them, reject them,
or neither, they are still statements because they are
assertions that can be either true or false.
The following, however, are not statements;
they do not assert that something is or is not the
• Why is Anna laughing?
• Is abortion immoral?
This much is clear: we cannot escape the ethical
facts of life. We often must make moral judgments,
assess moral principles or rules, contend with moral
theories, and argue the pros and cons of moral
issues. Typically we do all of these things believing
that in one way or another they really matter.
Because we think that ethics (that is, moral
philosophy) matters, it follows that moral reasoning
matters, for we could make little headway in these
difficult waters without the use of reasons and argu-
ments. Along the way we may take into account
our feelings, desires, beliefs, and other factors, but
getting to our destination depends mostly on the
quality of our moral reasoning. Through moral rea-
soning we assess what is right and wrong, good and
bad, virtuous and vicious. We make and dismantle
arguments for this view and for that. In our fin-
est moments, we follow the lead of reason in the
search for answers, trying to rise above subjectiv-
ism, prejudice, and confusion.
In this chapter you will discover (if you haven’t
already) that you are no stranger to moral reason-
ing. Moral reasoning is ordinary critical reason-
ing applied to ethics. Critical reasoning (or critical
thinking) is the careful, systematic evalu ation of
statements or claims. We use critical reasoning
every day to determine whether a statement is wor-
thy of acceptance—that is, whether it is true. We
harness critical reasoning to assess the truth of all
sorts of claims in all kinds of contexts—personal,
professional, academic, philosophical, scientific,
political, and ethical. Moral reasoning, then, is not
a type of reasoning that you have never seen before.

• Hand me the screwdriver.
• Don’t speak to me.
• Hello, Webster.
• For heaven’s sake!
A fundamental principle of critical reasoning is
that we should not accept a statement as true with-
out good reasons. If a statement is supported by
good reasons, we are entitled to believe it. The bet-
ter the reasons supporting a statement, the more
likely it is to be true. Our acceptance of a statement,
then, can vary in strength. If a statement is sup-
ported by strong reasons, we are entitled to believe
it strongly. If it is supported by weaker reasons, our
belief should likewise be weaker. If the reasons are
equivocal—if they do not help us decide one way
or another—we should suspend judgment until the
evidence is more definitive.
Reasons supporting a statement are themselves
statements. To lend credence to another claim,
these supporting statements may assert something
about scientific evidence, expert opinion, relevant
examples, or other considerations. In this way they
provide reasons for believing that a statement is true,
that what is asserted is actual. When this state of
affairs exists—when at least one statement attempts
to provide reasons for believing another statement—
we have an argument. An argument is a group of
statements, one of which is supposed to be supported
by the rest. An argument in this sense, of course, has
nothing to do with the common notion of argu-
ments as shouting matches or vehement quarrels.
In an argument, the supporting statements
are known as premises; the statement being sup-
ported is known as a conclusion. Consider these
Argument 1. Capital punishment is morally permis-
sible because it helps to deter crime.
Argument 2. If John killed Bill in self-defense, he did
not commit murder. He did act in self-defense.
Therefore, he did not commit murder.
Argument 3. Telling a white lie is morally permissible.
We should judge the rightness of an act by its
impact on human well-being. If an act increases
human well-being, then it is right. Without ques-
tion, telling a white lie increases human well-
being, because it spares people’s feelings; that’s
what white lies are for.
These arguments are fairly simple. In Argu-
ment 1, a single premise (“because it helps to deter
crime”) supports a straightforward conclusion—
“Capital pun ishment is morally permissible.”
Argument 2 has two premises: “If John killed Bill
in self-defense, he did not commit murder” and
“He did act in self-defense.” And the conclusion is
“Therefore, he did not commit murder.” Argument
3 has three premises: “We should judge the rightness
of an act by its impact on human well-being,” “If an
act increases human well-being, then it is right,”
and “Without question, telling a white lie increases
human well-being, because it spares people’s feel-
ings.” Its conclusion is “Telling a white lie is morally
As you can see, these three arguments have
different structures. Argument 1, for example, has
just one premise, but Arguments 2 and 3 have two
and three premises. In Arguments 1 and 3, the con-
clusion is stated first; in Argument 2, last. Obviously,
arguments can vary dramatically in their number of
premises, in the placement of premises and conclu-
sion, and in the wording of each of these parts. But
all arguments share a common pattern: at least one
premise is intended to support a conclusion. This
pattern is what makes an argument an argument.
Despite the simplicity of this premise-con-
clusion arrangement, though, arguments are not
always easy to identify. They can be embedded
in long passages of nonargumentative prose, and
nonargumentative prose can often look like argu-
ments. Consider:
The number of abortions performed in this state is
increasing. More and more women say that they
favor greater access to abortion. This is an outrage.

Do you see an argument in this passage? You
shouldn’t, because there is none. The first two sen-
tences are meant to be assertions of fact, and the
last one is an expression of indignation. There is no
premise providing reasons to accept a conclusion.
But what if we altered the passage to make it an
argument? Look:
The number of abortions performed in this state
is increasing, and more and more women say that
they favor greater access to abortion. Therefore, in
this state the trend among women is toward greater
acceptance of abortion.
This is now an argument. There is a conclusion
(“Therefore, in this state the trend among women
is toward greater acceptance of abortion”) sup-
ported by two premises (“The number of abortions
performed in this state is increasing, and more and
more women say that they favor greater access to
abortion”). We are given reasons for accepting a
Notice how easy it would be to elaborate on the
nonargumentative version, adding other unsup-
ported claims and more expressions of the writer’s
attitude toward the subject matter. We would end
up with a much longer passage piled high with more
assertions—but with no argument in sight. Often
those who write such passages believe that because
they have stated their opinion, they have presented
an argument. But a bundle of unsupported claims—
however clearly stated—does not an argument make.
Only when reasons are given for believing one of
these claims is an argument made.
Learning to distinguish arguments from non-
argumentative material takes practice. The job gets
easier, however, if you pay attention to indicator
words. Indicator words are terms that often appear
in arguments and signal that a premise or conclu-
sion may be nearby. Notice that in the argument
about abortion, the word therefore indicates that the
conclusion follows, and in Argument 1 the word
because signals the beginning of a premise. In addi-
tion to therefore, common conclusion indicators
include consequently, hence, it follows that, thus, so,
it must be that, and as a result. Besides because, some
common premise indicators are since, for, given that,
due to the fact that, for the reason that, the reason being,
assuming that, and as indicated by.
Understand that indicator words are not fool-
proof evidence that a premise or conclusion is near.
Sometimes words that often function as indicators
appear when no argument at all is present. Indica-
tor words are simply hints that an argument may
be close by.
Probably the most reliable way to identify
arguments is to look for the conclusion first. When
you know what claim is being supported, you can
more easily see what statements are doing the sup-
porting. A true argument always has something
to prove. If there is no statement that the writer is
trying to convince you to accept, no argument is
Finally, understand that argumentation (the pre-
sentation of an argument) is not the same thing as
persuasion. To offer a good argument is to present
reasons why a particular assertion is true. To per-
suade someone of something is to influence her
opinion by any number of means, including emo-
tional appeals, linguistic or rhetorical tricks, decep-
tion, threats, propaganda, and more. Reasoned
argument does not necessarily play any part at all.
You may be able to use some of these ploys to per-
suade people to believe a claim. But if you do, you
will not have established that the claim is worth
believing. On the other hand, if you articulate a
good argument, then you prove something—and
others just might be persuaded by your reasoning.
A good argument shows that its conclusion is wor-
thy of belief or acceptance; a bad argument fails to
show this. A good argument gives you good reasons
to accept a claim; a bad argument proves nothing.
So the crucial question is, How can you tell which is
which? To start, you can learn more about different

kinds of arguments and what makes them good
or bad.
There are two basic types of arguments: deduc-
tive and inductive. Deductive arguments are
supposed to give logically conclusive support to
their conclusions. Inductive arguments, on the
other hand, are supposed to offer only probable
support for their conclusions.
Consider this classic deductive argument:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
It is deductive because the support offered for the
conclusion is meant to be absolutely unshakable.
When a deductive argument actually achieves this
kind of conclusive support, it is said to be valid.
In a valid argument, if the premises are true, then
the conclusion absolutely has to be true. In the
Socrates argument, if the premises are true, the
conclusion must be true. The conclusion follows
inexorably from the premises. The argument is
therefore valid. When a deductive argument does

not offer conclusive support for the conclusion, it
is said to be invalid. In an invalid argument, it is
not the case that if the premises are true, the con-
clusion must be true. Suppose the first premise of
the Socrates argument was changed to “All ducks
are mortal.” Then the argument would be invalid
because even if the premises were true, the conclu-
sion would not necessarily be true. The conclusion
would not follow inexorably from the premises.
Notice that the validity or invalidity of an argu-
ment is a matter of its form, not its content. The
structure of a deductive argument renders it either
valid or invalid, and validity is a separate mat-
ter from the truth of the argument’s statements.
Its statements (premises and conclusion) may be
either true or false, but that has nothing to do with
validity. Saying that an argument is valid means
that it has a particular form that ensures that if the
premises are true, the conclusion can be nothing
but true. There is no way that the premises can be
true and the conclusion false.
Recall that there are indicator words that point
to the presence of premises and conclusions. There
are also indicator words that suggest (but do not
You might be surprised to learn that some philoso-
phers consider reasoning itself a moral issue. That
is, they think that believing a claim without good
reasons (an unsupported statement) is immoral.
Probably the most famous exposition of this point
comes from the philosopher and mathematician
W. K. Clifford (1845–79). He has this to say on the
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone,
to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught
in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps
down and pushes away any doubts which arise
about it in his mind . . . and regards as impious
those questions which cannot easily be asked
without disturbing it—the life of that man is one
long sin against mankind.*
Do you agree with Clifford? Can you think of a
counterexample to his argument—that is, instances
in which believing without evidence would be mor-
ally permissible? Suppose the power of reason is a
gift from God to be used to help you live a good
life. If so, would believing without evidence (fail-
ing to use critical thinking) be immoral?
*W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in The Rational-
ity of Belief in God, ed. George I. Mavrodes (Engle-
wood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), 159–60.
CRITICAL THOUGHT: The Morality of Critical Thinking

prove) that an argument is deductive. Some of the
more common are it necessarily follows that, it must
be the case that, it logically follows that, conclusively,
and necessarily.
Now let us turn to inductive arguments.
Examine this one:
Almost all the men at this college have high SAT
Therefore, Julio (a male student at the college)
probably has high SAT scores.
This argument is inductive because it is intended
to provide probable, not decisive, support to the
conclusion. That is, the argument is intended to
show only that, at best, the conclusion is probably
true. With any inductive argument, it is possible for
the premises to be true and the conclusion false. An
inductive argument that manages to actually give
probable support to the conclusion is said to be
strong. In a strong argument, if the premises are
true, the conclusion is probably true (more likely to
be true than not). The SAT argument is strong. An
inductive argument that does not give probable sup-
port to the conclusion is said to be weak. In a weak
argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion
is not probable (not more likely to be true than not
true). If we change the first premise in the SAT argu-
ment to “Twenty percent of the men at this college
have high SAT scores,” the argument would be weak.
Like deductive arguments, inductive ones are
often accompanied by indicator words. These terms
include probably, likely, in all probability, it is reason­
able to suppose that, odds are, and chances are.
Good arguments provide you with good reasons
for believing their conclusions. You now know that
good arguments must be valid or strong. But they
must also have true premises. Good arguments
must both have the right form (be valid or strong)
and have reliable content (have true premises). Any
argument that fails in either of these respects is a
bad argument. A valid argument with true premises
is said to be sound; a strong argument with true
premises is said to be cogent.
To evaluate an argument is to determine whether
it is good or not, and establishing that requires
you to check the argument’s form and the truth
of its premises. You can check the truth of prem-
ises in many different ways. Sometimes you can
see immediately that a premise is true (or false). At
other times you may need to examine a premise
more closely or even do some research. Assessing
an argument’s form is also usually a straightfor-
ward process. With inductive arguments, common
sense may be all that’s required to see whether they
are strong or weak (whether the conclusions follow
from the premises). With deductive arguments, just
thinking about how the premises are related to the
conclusion is often sufficient. In all cases, the key to
correctly and efficiently determining the validity or
strength of arguments is practice.
Fortunately, there are some techniques that can
improve your ability to check the validity of deduc-
tive arguments. Some deductive forms are so com-
mon that just being familiar with them can give
you a big advantage. Let’s look at some of them.
To begin, understand that you can easily indi-
cate an argument’s form by using a kind of standard
shorthand, with letters standing for statements.
Consider, for example, this argument:
If Maria walks to work, then she will be late.
She is walking to work.
Therefore, she will be late.
Here’s how we symbolize this argument’s form:
If p, then q.
Therefore, q.
We represent each statement with a letter,
thereby laying bare the argument’s skeletal form.
The first premise is a compound statement, con-
sisting of two constituent statements, p and q. This
particular argument form is known as a conditional.
A conditional argument has at least one condi-
tional premise—a premise in an if-then pattern

(If p, then q). The two parts of a conditional premise
are known as the antecedent (which begins with if)
and the consequent (which follows then).
This argument form happens to be very
common—so common that it has a name, modus
ponens, or affirming the antecedent. The first prem-
ise is conditional (“If Maria walks to work, then she
will be late”), and the second premise affirms the
antecedent of that conditional (“She is walking to
work”). This form is always valid: if the premises are
true, the conclusion has to be true. Any argument
that has this form will be valid regardless of the
subject matter.
Another frequently occurring form is known as
modus tollens, or denying the consequent:
If Maria walks to work, then she will be late.
She will not be late.
Therefore, she will not walk to work.
Symbolized, modus tollens looks like this:
If p, then q.
Not q.
Therefore, not p.
Modus tollens is always valid, no matter what
statements you plug into the formula.
Here are two more common argument forms.
These, however, are always invalid.
Denying the antecedent:
If Maria walks to work, then she will be late.
She will not walk to work.
Therefore, she will not be late.
If p, then q.
Not p.
Therefore, not q.
Affirming the consequent:
If Maria walks to work, then she will be late.
She will be late.
Therefore, she will walk to work.
If p, then q.
Therefore, p.
Do you see the problem with these two? In
the first one (denying the antecedent), even a
false antecedent (if Maria will not walk to work)
doesn’t mean that she will not be late. Maybe she
will sit at home and be late, or be late for some other
reason. When the antecedent is denied, the prem-
ises can be true and the conclusion false—clearly
an invalid argument. In the second argument
(affirming the consequent), even a true conse-
quent (if Maria will be late) doesn’t mean that
she will walk to work. Some other factor besides
her walking could cause Maria to be late. Again,
the premises can be true while the conclusion is
false—definitely invalid.
Consider one last form, the hypothetical syllo-
gism (hypothetical means conditional; a syllogism is a
three-statement deductive argument):
If Maria walks to work, then she will be late.
If she is late, she will be fired.
Therefore, if Maria walks to work, she will be fired.
If p, then q.
If q, then r.
Therefore, if p, then r.
The hypothetical syllogism is a valid argument
form. If the premises are true, the conclusion must
be true.
Obviously, if modus ponens, modus tollens, and
the hypothetical syllogism are always valid, then
any arguments you encounter that have the same
form will also be valid. And if denying the ante-
cedent and affirming the consequent are always
invalid, any arguments you come across that have
the same form will also be invalid. The best way to
make use of these facts is to memorize each argu-
ment form so you can tell right away when an
argument matches one of them—and thereby see
immediately that it is valid (or invalid).

But what if you bump into a deductive argu-
ment that does not match one of these common
forms? You can try the counterexample method. This
approach is based on a fundamental fact that you
already know: it is impossible for a valid argument to
have true premises and a false conclusion. So to test
the validity of an argument, you first invent a twin
argument that has exactly the same form as the
argument you are examining—but you try to give
this new argument true premises and a false conclu-
sion. If you can construct such an argument, you
have proven that your original argument is invalid.
Suppose you want to test this argument for
If capital punishment deters crime, then the num-
ber of death row inmates will decrease over time.
But capital punishment does not deter crime.
Therefore, the number of death row inmates will
not decrease over time.
You can probably see right away that this argu-
ment is an example of denying the antecedent, an
invalid form. But for the sake of example, let’s use
the counterexample method in this case. Suppose
we come up with this twin argument:
If lizards are mammals, then they have legs.
But they are not mammals.
Therefore, they do not have legs.
We have invented a twin argument that has
true premises and a false conclusion, so we know
that the original argument is invalid.
Most of the arguments that we encounter in every-
day life are embedded in larger tracts of nonargu-
mentative prose—in essays, reports, letters to the
editor, editorials, and the like. The challenge is to
pick out the premises and conclusions and evaluate
the assembled arguments. In many cases, though,
there is an additional obstacle: some premises may
statement—An assertion that something is or is
not the case.
argument—A group of statements, one of which
is supposed to be supported by the rest.
premise—A supporting statement in an argument.
conclusion—The statement supported in an
indicator words—Terms that often appear in
arguments to signal the presence of a premise
or conclusion, or to indicate that an argument
is deductive or inductive.
deductive argument—An argument that is sup-
posed to give logically conclusive support to its
inductive argument—An argument that is sup-
posed to offer probable support to its conclusion.
valid argument—A deductive argument that
does in fact provide logically conclusive sup-
port for its conclusion.
invalid argument—A deductive argument that
does not offer logically conclusive support for
the conclusion.
strong argument—An inductive argument that
does in fact provide probable support for its
weak argument—An inductive argument that does
not give probable support to the conclusion.
sound argument—A valid argument with true
cogent argument—A strong argument with true
be implied instead of stated. Sometimes the prem-
ises are implicit because they are too obvious to
mention; readers mentally fill in the blanks. But
in most cases, implicit premises should not be left
unstated. It is often unclear what premises have

been assumed, and unless these are spelled out,
argument evaluation becomes difficult or impos-
sible. More to the point, unstated premises are
often the most dubious parts of an argument. This
problem is especially common in moral arguments,
in which the implicit premises are frequently the
most controversial and the most in need of close
Here is a typical argument with an unstated
The use of condoms is completely unnatural. They
have been manufactured for the explicit purpose
of interfering with the natural process of procre-
ation. Therefore, the use of condoms should be
In this argument, the first two sentences con-
stitute a single premise, the gist of which is that
using condoms is unnatural. The conclusion is
that the use of condoms should be banned. This
conclusion, however, does not follow from the
stated premise. There is a logical gap between
premise and conclusion. The argument will work
only if the missing premise is supplied. Here’s a
good possibility: “Anything that interferes with a
natural process should not be allowed.” The argu-
ment then becomes:
The use of condoms is completely unnatural. They
have been manufactured for the explicit purpose of
interfering with the natural process of procreation.
Anything that interferes with a natural process
should not be allowed. Therefore, the use of con-
doms should be banned.
By adding the implicit premise, we have filled
out the argument, making it valid and a little less
mysterious. But now that the missing premise has
been brought out into the open, we can see that it
is dubious or, at least, controversial. Should every-
thing that interferes with a natural process be
banned? If so, we would have to ban antibiotics,
anticancer drugs, deodorants, and automobiles.
(Later in this chapter, ways to judge the truth of
moral premises are discussed.)
When you evaluate an argument, you should
try to explicitly state any implied premise (or
premises) when (1) there seems to be a logical gap
between premises or between premises and the
conclusion and (2) the missing material is not a
commonsense assumption. In general, the supplied
premise should make the argument valid (when the
argument is supposed to be deductive) or strong
(when the argument is supposed to be inductive). It
should also be plausible (as close to the truth as pos-
sible) and fitting (coinciding with what you think
is the author’s intent). The point of these stipula-
tions is that when you supply a missing premise,
you should be fair and honest, expressing it in
such a way that the argument is as solid as possible
and in keeping with the author’s purpose. Adding
a premise that renders an argument ridiculous is
easy, and so is distorting the author’s intent—and
with neither tack are you likely to learn anything
or uncover the truth.
Be aware, though, that some arguments are
irredeemably bad, and no supplied premise that
is properly made can save them. They cannot be
turned into good arguments without altering them
beyond recognition or original intent. You need
not take these arguments seriously, and the respon-
sibility of recasting them lies with those who offer
In the real world, arguments do not come neatly
labeled, their parts identified and their relation-
ships laid bare. So you have to do the labeling and
connecting yourself, and that can be hard work.
Where are the premises and the conclusion?
Are there implied premises? What statements
are irrelevant to the argument, just background
or window dressing? How are all these pieces
related? Fortunately there is a tool that can help
you penetrate all the verbiage to uncover the
essential argument (or arguments) within: argu­
ment diagramming.

So let’s try to diagram the argument in this
In 2003 the United States attacked Iraq and thereby
started a war. President Bush justified his decision
to go to war by saying that the action was necessary
to preempt Iraq from launching a military strike
against the United States. But the obvious question
about the war has hardly been addressed and rarely
answered: Was the United States morally justified
in going to war against Iraq? I think just war theory
gives us an answer. The theory says a preemptive
attack against a state is justified only if that state
presents a substantial danger that is “immediate
and imminent.” That is, to meet this criterion, an
attack by an aggressor nation must be in the final
planning stages—an attack must not be merely
feared, but about to happen. If invading Iraq were
justified, there would have been clear indications
of Iraq’s final preparations to attack the United
States. But there were no such indications. There
was only a fantasy about Iraq’s having weapons of
mass destruction, and in the Bush administration,
there was only the fear that the Iraqis were up to
no good. In addition, because there was no serious
attempt by the United States to try to find a peace-
ful solution, the war was premature and therefore
unjust. Most news accounts at the time reveal that
steps by the United States to head off war were half-
hearted at best. Finally, the war was unjustified
because it violated the moral standard that must be
met by any war: the cause of the war must be just.
Consequently we are forced to conclude that the
war in Iraq was not morally justified.
The first step is to number all the statements
for identification and underline any premise or
conclusion indicator words. (Note: We count an if-
then, or conditional, statement as one statement,
and we count multiple statements in a compound
sentence separately.) Next we search for the con-
clusion and draw a double line under it. Locating
the conclusion can then help us find the premises,
which we tag by underlining them. The marked-up
passage should then look like this:
(1) In 2003 the United States attacked Iraq and thereby
started a war. (2) President Bush justified his decision
to go to war by saying that the action was neces-
sary to preempt Iraq from launching a military strike
against the United States. (3) But the obvious question
about the war has hardly been addressed and rarely
answered: Was the United States morally justified in
going to war against Iraq? (4) I think just war theory
gives us an answer. (5) The theory says a preemptive
attack against a state is justified only if that state pres-
ents a substantial danger that is “immediate and immi-
nent.” (6) That is, to meet this criterion, an attack by an
aggressor nation must be in the final planning stages—
an attack must not be merely feared, but about to hap-
pen. (7) If invading Iraq were justified, there would
have been clear indications of Iraq’s final preparations
to attack the United States. (8) But there were no such
indications. (9) There was only a fantasy about Iraq’s
having weapons of mass destruction, (10) and in the
Bush administration, there was only the fear that the
Iraqis were up to no good. (11) In addition, because
there was no serious attempt by the United States to
try to find a peaceful solution, the war was premature
and therefore unjust. (12) Most news accounts at the
time reveal that steps by the United States to head off
war were halfhearted at best. (13) Finally, the war was
unjustified because it violated the moral standard that
must be met by any war: the cause of the war must be
just. (14) Consequently we are forced to conclude that
the war in Iraq was not morally justified.
A key reason for diagramming is to distinguish
the premises and conclusions from everything
else: background information, redundancies, asides,
clar ifications, illustrations, and any other material
that is logically irrelevant to the argument (or argu-
ments). So the next step is to cross out these irrel-
evancies, like this:
(1) In 2003 the United States attacked Iraq and
thereby started a war that continues to this day. (2)
President Bush justified his decision to go to war by
saying that the action was necessary to preempt Iraq
from launching a military strike against the United
States. (3) But the obvious question about the war
has hardly been addressed and rarely answered:
Was the United States morally justified in going to
war against Iraq? (4) I think just war theory gives us
an answer. (5) The theory says a preemptive attack
against a state is justified only if that state pres-
ents a substantial danger that is “immediate and

imminent.” (6) That is, to meet this criterion, an
attack by an aggressor nation must be in the final
planning stages—an attack must not be merely
feared, but about to happen. (7) If invading Iraq were
justified, there would have been clear indications of
Iraq’s final preparations to attack the United States.
(8) But there were no such indications. (9) There was
only a fantasy about Iraq’s having weapons of mass
destruction, (10) and in the Bush administration,
there was only the fear that the Iraqis were up to no
good. (11) In addition, because there was no serious
attempt by the United States to try to find a peace-
ful solution, the war was premature and therefore
unjust. (12) Most news accounts at the time reveal
that steps by the United States to head off war were
halfhearted at best. (13) Finally, the war was unjusti-
fied because it violated the moral standard that must
be met by any war: the cause of the war must be just.
(14) Consequently we are forced to conclude that
the war in Iraq was not morally justified.
We now can see that most of this passage is logi-
cally extraneous material. Statements 1 through
6 are background information and introductory
remarks. Statement 3, for example, is an assertion of
the issue to be addressed in the passage. Statements
9 and 10 are embellishments of Statement 8.
The premises and conclusion are asserted in
Statements 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, and 14:
(7) If invading Iraq were justified, there would have
been clear indications of Iraq’s final preparations to
attack the United States.
(8) But there were no such indications.
(11) In addition, because there was no serious attempt
by the United States to try to find a peaceful solution,
the war was premature and therefore unjust.
(12) Most news accounts at the time reveal that
steps by the United States to head off war were half-
hearted at best.
(13) Finally, the war was unjustified because it vio-
lated the moral standard that must be met by any
war: the cause of the war must be just.
(14) Consequently we are forced to conclude that
the war in Iraq was not morally justified.
But how are these statements related? To find
out, we draw a diagram. Using the numbers to
represent the premises and conclusion, we write
down the number for the conclusion and place the
numbers for the premises above it. Then, to show
how the premises support the conclusion, we draw
arrows from the premises to the conclusion. Each
arrow indicates the logical connection between
premise and conclusion, representing such expres-
sions as “Premise 11 supports the Conclusion (14)”
or “the Conclusion (14) is supported by Premise 11.”
Here’s the completed diagram:
7 + 8
In the simplest relationship depicted here, Prem-
ise 13 provides direct support to the conclusion (14).
Premise 11 also supplies direct support to the con-
clusion, and this premise in turn is backed up by
Premise 12. (See how an arrow goes from 11 to 14,
and then from 12 to 11.) Premises 7 and 8 are linked
to the conclusion in a different way, reflecting the
fact that some premises are dependent and some are
independent. An independent premise (such as Prem-
ise 13) supports a conclusion without relying on any
other premises; a dependent premise gives little or
no support on its own and requires the assistance
of at least one other premise. Premises 7 and 8 are
dependent premises and are joined by a plus sign
to represent this fact. Together, Premises 7 and 8
provide support to the conclusion; they give a rea-
son for accepting it. But if either premise is deleted,
the remaining premise can provide no substantial

As you work through the diagramming exercises
at the end of this chapter, you will come to under-
stand why diagramming arguments can be so use-
ful. You will learn a great deal about the structure of
arguments—which is a prerequisite for being able
to devise, deconstruct, and evaluate them.
When we deliberate about the rightness of our
actions, make careful moral judgments about the
character or behavior of others, or strive to resolve
complex ethical issues, we are usually making or
critiquing moral arguments—or trying to. And
rightly so. To a remarkable degree, moral argu-
ments are the vehicles that move ethical thinking
and discourse along. The rest of this chapter should
give you a demonstration of how far skill in devis-
ing and evaluating moral arguments can take you.
Arguments, as you will recall, are made up of
statements (premises and conclusions), and thus
moral arguments are too. What makes an argument
a moral argument is that its conclusion is always a
moral statement. A moral statement is a state-
ment affirming that an action is right or wrong or
that a person (or one’s motive or character) is good
or bad. These are moral statements:
• Capital punishment is wrong.
• Jena should not have lied.
• You ought to treat him as he treated you.
• Tania is a good person.
• Cruelty to animals is immoral.
Notice the use of the terms wrong, should, ought,
good, and immoral. Such words are the mainstays of
moral discourse, though some of them (for exam-
ple, good and wrong) are also used in nonmoral
Nonmoral statements are very different.
They do not affirm that an action is right or wrong
or that a person is good or bad. They assert that a
state of affairs is actual (true or false) but do not
assign a moral value to it. Most of the statements
that we encounter every day are nonmoral. Of
course, nonmoral statements may assert nonmoral
normative judgments, such as “This is a good
library” or “Jack ought to invest in stocks,” but
they are clearly not moral statements. They may
also describe a state of affairs that touches on moral
concerns—without being moral statements. For
• Many people think that capital punishment is
• Jena did not lie.
• You treated him as he treated you.
• Tania tries to be a good person.
• Animals are treated cruelly.
Now we can be more specific about the struc-
ture of moral arguments. A typical moral argu-
ment consists of premises and a conclusion, just
as any other kind of argument does, with the con-
clusion being a moral statement, or judgment.
The premises, however, are a combination of the
moral and nonmoral. At least one premise must
be a moral statement affirming a moral principle
or rule (a general moral standard), and at least
one premise must be a nonmoral statement about
a state of affairs, usually a specific type of action.
Beyond these simple requirements, the structure
of moral arguments can vary in standard ways:
there may be many premises or few; premises may
be implicit or overt; and extraneous material may
be present or absent. Take a look at this moral
1. Committing a violent act to defend yourself
against physical attack is morally permissible.
2. Assaulting someone who is attacking you is a
violent act of self-defense.
3. Therefore, assaulting someone who is attacking
you is morally permissible.

Premise 1 is a moral statement asserting a
general moral principle about the rightness of a
category of actions (violent acts in self-defense).
Premise 2 is a nonmoral statement about the char-
acteristics of a specific kind of action (violent acts
against someone who is attacking you). It asserts
that a specific kind of action falls under the general
moral principle expressed in Premise 1. Premise
3, the conclusion, is a moral judgment about the
rightness of the specific kind of action in light of
the general moral principle.
Why must we have at least one premise that is
a moral statement? Without a moral premise, the
argument would not get off the ground. We can-
not infer a moral statement (conclusion) from a
nonmoral statement (premise). That is, we cannot
reason that a moral statement must be true because
a nonmoral state of affairs is actual. Or as philoso-
phers say, we cannot establish what ought to be or
should be solely on the basis of on what is. What
if our self-defense argument contained no moral
premise? Look:
2. Assaulting a person who is attacking you is a
violent act of self-defense.
3. Therefore, assaulting a person who is attacking
you is morally permissible.
The conclusion no longer follows. It says
something about the rightness of an action, but
the premise asserts nothing about rightness—it
just characterizes the nonmoral aspects of an
action. Perhaps the action described is morally
permissible, or perhaps it is not—Premise 2 does
not say.
Another example:
1. Not using every medical means available to keep
a seriously ill newborn infant alive is allowing
the infant to die.
3. Therefore, not using every medical means avail-
able to keep a seriously ill newborn infant alive
is wrong.
As it stands, this argument is flawed. The con-
clusion (a moral statement) does not follow from
the nonmoral premise. Even if we know that “not
using every medical means” is equivalent to allow-
ing a seriously ill newborn to die, we cannot then
conclude that the action is wrong. We need a prem-
ise making that assertion:
2. Allowing seriously ill newborn infants to die is
Here’s the complete argument:
1. Not using every medical means available to keep
a seriously ill newborn infant alive is allowing
the infant to die.
2. Allowing seriously ill newborn infants to die is
3. Therefore, not using every medical means avail-
able to keep a seriously ill newborn infant alive
is wrong.
A nonmoral premise is also necessary in a moral
argument. Why exactly? Recall that the conclusion
of a typical moral argument is a moral judgment, or
claim, about a particular kind of action. The moral
premise is a general moral principle, or standard,
concerning a wider category of actions. But we can-
not infer a statement (conclusion) about a particu­
lar kind of action from a moral statement (premise)
about a broad category of actions—unless we have
a nonmoral premise to link the two. We saw, for
example, that we cannot infer from the general
principle that “committing a violent act to defend
yourself . . . is morally permissible” the conclusion
that “assaulting a person who is attacking you is
morally permissible” unless a nonmoral premise
tells us that assaulting a person who is attacking
you is an instance of self-defense. (The nonmoral
premise may seem obvious here, but not everyone
would agree that violence against a person who is
attacking you is an example of self-defense. Some
might claim that such violence is an unnecessary act

of retaliation or revenge.) The role of the nonmoral
premise, then, is to affirm that the general moral
principle does indeed apply to the particular case.
Unfortunately, both moral and nonmoral pre-
mises are often left unstated in moral arguments. As
we noted earlier, making implicit premises explicit
is always a good idea, but in moral arguments it is
critical. The unseen premises (of which an argu-
ment may have several) are the ones most likely to
be dubious or unfounded, a problem that can arise
whether an argument is yours or someone else’s.
Too many times, unstated premises are assump-
tions that you may be barely aware of; they might
be the true, unacknowledged source of disagree-
ment between you and others. No premise should
be left unexamined. (We’ll learn more about assess-
ing the truth of premises in the next section.)
The general guidelines for uncovering unst-
ated premises discussed earlier apply to moral
arguments—but we need to add a proviso. Remem-
ber, in a moral argument, as in any other kind of
argument, you have good reason to look for implicit
premises if there is a logical gap between premises
and the missing premise is not simply common
sense. And any premise you supply should be both
plausible and fitting. But note: The easiest way to
identify implied premises in a moral argument is to
treat it as deductive. Approaching moral arguments
this way helps you not only to find implied prem-
ises but also to assess the worth of all the premises.
Consider this example:
1. The use of capital punishment does not deter
2. Therefore, the use of capital punishment is
This is an invalid argument. Even if the prem-
ise is true, the conclusion does not follow from
it. The argument needs a premise that can bridge
the gap between the current premise and the con-
clusion. So we should ask, “What premise can we
add that will be plausible and fitting and make the
argument valid?” This premise will do: “Admin-
istering a punishment to criminals that does
not deter crime is immoral.” The argument then
1. Administering a punishment to criminals that
does not deter crime is immoral.
2. The use of capital punishment does not deter
3. Therefore, the use of capital punishment is
Now the argument is valid, and trying to
make it valid has helped us find at least one prem-
ise that might work. Moreover, if we know that
the argument is valid, we can focus our inquiry
on the truth of the premises. After all, if there is
something wrong with a valid argument (that is,
if the argument is not sound), we know that the
trouble is in the premises—specifically, that at
least one premise must be false. To put it another
way, whether or not such an argument is a good
argument depends entirely on the truth of the
As it turns out, our added premise is a general
moral principle. And like many implied premises,
it is questionable. Deterrence is not necessarily the
only reason for administering punishment. Some
would say that justice is a better reason; others,
that rehabilitation is. (The second premise is also
dubious, but we won’t worry about that now.)
In any case, if the supplied premise renders the
argument valid, and the premise is plausible and
fitting, we can then conclude that we have filled
out the argument properly. We can then examine
the resulting argument and either accept or reject
it. And if we wish to explore the issue at greater
depth, we can overhaul the argument altogether to
see what we can learn. We can radically change or
add premises until we have a sound argument or at
least a valid one with plausible premises.

But how can we evaluate moral premises? After all,
we cannot check them by consulting a scientific
study or opinion poll as we might when examining
nonmoral premises. Usually the best approach is to
use counterexamples.
If we want to test a universal generalization
such as “All dogs have tails,” we can look for
counterexamples—instances that prove the gen-
eralization false. All we have to do to show that
the statement “All dogs have tails” is false is to
find one tailless dog. And a thorough search for
tailless dogs is a way to check the generalization.
Likewise, if we want to test a moral premise (a vari-
ety of universal generalization), we can look for
Examine this valid moral argument:
1. Causing a person’s death is wrong.
2. Individuals in a deep, irreversible coma are
incapacitated persons.
3. “Pulling the plug” on someone in a deep, irre-
versible coma is causing a person to die.
4. Therefore, “pulling the plug” on someone in a
deep, irreversible coma is wrong.
Premise 1 is the moral premise, a general moral
principle about killing. Premises 2 and 3 are non-
moral premises. (Premise 2 is entailed by Premise
3, but we separate the two to emphasize the impor-
tance to this argument of the concept of person-
hood.) Statement 4, of course, is the conclusion,
the verdict that causing someone in a deep coma to
die is immoral.
Is Premise 1 true? It is at least dubious, because
counterexamples abound in which the principle
seems false. Is it wrong to kill one person to save a
hundred? Is it wrong to kill a person in self-defense?
Is it wrong to kill a person in wartime? As it stands,
Premise 1 seems implausible.
To salvage the argument, we can revise Premise 1
(as well as Premise 3) to try to make it impervious
to counterexamples. We can change it like this:
1. Causing the death of a person who is incapac-
itated is wrong.
2. Individuals in a deep, irreversible coma are
incapac itated persons.
3. “Pulling the plug” on someone in a deep, irre-
versible coma is causing an incapacitated per-
son to die.
4. Therefore, “pulling the plug” on someone in a
deep, irreversible coma is wrong.
Premise 1 now seems a bit more reasonable. In
its current form, it rules out the counterexamples
involving self-defense and war. But it does not
escape the killing-to-save-lives counterexample. In
some circumstances it may be morally permissible
to kill someone to save many others, even if the
person is incapacitated. To get around this prob-
lem, we can amend Premise 1 so the counterexam-
ple is no longer a threat (and make a corresponding
change in the conclusion). For example:
1. Causing the death of a person who is incapac-
itated is wrong, except to save lives.
2. Individuals in a deep, irreversible coma are
incapac itated persons.
3. “Pulling the plug” on someone in a deep, irre-
versible coma is causing an incapacitated per-
son to die.
4. Therefore, “pulling the plug” on someone in a
deep, irreversible coma is wrong, except to save
Premise 1 now seems much closer to being cor-
rect than before. It may not be flawless, but it is
much improved. By considering counterexamples,
we have made the whole argument better.
Checking a moral premise against possible
counterexamples is a way to consult our consid-
ered moral judgments, a topic we broached in
Chapter 1 and take up again in Part 3 (Theories of
Morality). If our considered moral judgments are at

odds with a moral premise that is based on a cher-
ished moral principle or moral theory, we may have
a prima facie (at first sight) reason to doubt not only
the premise but also the principle or theory from
which it is derived. We may then need to reexam-
ine the claims involved and how they are related.
If we do, we may find that our judgments are on
solid ground and the premise, principle, or theory
needs to be adjusted—or vice versa. If our purpose
is solely to evaluate a moral premise in an argu-
ment, we need not carry our investigation this far.
But we should understand that widening our inves-
tigation may sometimes be appropriate and that
our moral beliefs are often more interconnected
than we might realize. Our ultimate goal should be
to ensure that all our moral beliefs are as logically
consistent as we can make them.
Sometimes the sticking point in a moral argument
is not a moral premise but a nonmoral one—a claim
about a nonmoral state of affairs. Often people on
both sides of a dispute may agree on a moral prin-
ciple but differ dramatically on the nonmoral facts.
Usually these facts concern the consequences of an
action or the characteristics of the parties involved.
Does pornography cause people to commit sex
crimes? Does capital punishment deter crime? Is a
depressed person competent to decide whether to
commit suicide? When does a fetus become viable?
Are African Americans underrepresented among
executives in corporate America? Does gay mar-
riage undermine the institution of heterosexual
marriage? These and countless other questions
arise—and must be answered—as we try to develop
and analyze moral arguments.
The most important principle to remember is
that nonmoral premises, like all premises, must be
supported by good reasons. As we have already seen,
simply believing or asserting a claim does not make
it so. We should insist that our own nonmoral
premises and those of others be backed by reliable
scientific research, the opinions of trustworthy
experts, pertinent examples and analogies, his-
torical records, or our own background knowledge
(claims that we have excellent reasons to believe).
Ensuring that nonmoral premises are supported
by good reasons is sometimes difficult but always
worth the effort. The process begins by simply ask-
ing, “Is this statement true?” and “What reasons do
I have for believing this?”
In your search for answers, keep the following
in mind:
1. Use reliable sources. If you have reason to doubt
the accuracy of a source, do not use it. Doubt it if it
produces statements you know to be false, ignores
reliable data (such as the latest scientific research),
or has a track record of presenting inaccurate infor-
mation or dubious arguments. Make sure that any
• Look for an implicit premise when (1) there
seems to be a logical gap between premises
or between premises and the conclusion and
(2) the missing material is not a commonsense
• Any supplied unstated premise should be valid
or strong, plausible, and fitting.
• A typical moral argument has at least one moral
premise and at least one nonmoral premise.
• The easiest way to identify implied premises in
a moral argument is to treat it as deductive.
• Test moral premises with counterexamples.
moral statement—A statement affirming that an
action is right or wrong or that a person (or
one’s motive or character) is good or bad.
nonmoral statement—A statement that does not
affirm that an action is right or wrong or that
a person (or one’s motive or character) is good
or bad.

experts you rely on are in fact experts in their cho-
sen field. In general, true experts have the requisite
education and training, the relevant experience in
making reliable judgments, and a good reputation
among peers.
Probably every major moral issue discussed in
this book is associated with numerous advocacy
groups, each one devoted to promoting its par-
ticular view of things. Too often the information
coming from many of these groups is unreliable.
Do not automatically assume otherwise. Double-
check any information you get from them with
sources you know are reliable and see if it is sup-
ported by scientific studies, expert opinion, or
other evidence.
2. Beware when evidence conflicts. You have good
reason to doubt a statement if it conflicts with other
statements you think are well supported. If your
nonmoral premise is inconsistent with another
claim you believe is true, you cannot simply choose
the one you like best. To resolve the conflict, you
must evaluate them both by weighing the evidence
for each one.
3. Let reason rule. Deliberating on moral issues
is serious business, often involving the question-
ing of cherished views and the stirring of strong
feelings. Many times the temptation to dispense
with reason and blindly embrace a favorite outlook
is enormous. This common—and very human—
predicament can lead us to veer far from the
relevant evidence and true nonmoral premises.
Specifically, we may reject or disregard evidence
that conflicts with what we most want to believe.
We may even try to pretend that the conflicting
evidence actually supports our preconceptions. Yet
resisting the relevant evidence is just one side of
the coin. We may also look for and find only evi-
dence that supports what we want to believe, going
around the world to confirm our prejudices.
Our best chance to avert these tendencies is
to try hard to be both critical and fair—to make a
deliberate effort to examine all the relevant evi-
dence, both for and against our preferred beliefs.
After all, the point of assessing a moral argument is
to discover the truth. We must be brave enough to
let the evidence point where it will.
Recall that a good argument has true premises plus
a conclusion that follows from those premises.
A bad argument fails at least one of these condi-
tions—it has a false premise or a conclusion that
does not follow. This failure, however, can appear
in many different argument forms, some of which
are extremely common. These common bad argu-
ments are known as fallacies. They are so distinc-
tive and are used so often that they have been
given names and are usually covered in courses
on critical reasoning. Though flawed, fallacies
are often persuasive and are frequently employed
to mislead the unwary—even in (or especially in)
moral reasoning. The best way to avoid using
fallacies—or being taken in by them—is to study
them so you know how they work and can eas-
ily identify them. The following is a brief review
of the fallacies that are most prevalent in moral
Begging the Question
Begging the question is the fallacy of arguing in
a circle—that is, trying to use a statement as both
a premise in an argument and the conclusion of
that argument. Such an argument says, in effect, p
is true because p is true. That kind of reasoning, of
course, proves nothing.
For example:
1. Women in Muslim countries, regardless of their
social status and economic limitations, are enti-
tled to certain rights, including but not neces-
sarily limited to suffrage.
2. Therefore, all women in Muslim countries have
the right to vote in political elections.
This argument is equivalent to saying “Women
in Muslim countries have a right to vote because

women in Muslim countries have a right to vote.”
The conclusion merely repeats the premise but in
different words. The best protection against circu-
lar reasoning is a close reading of the argument.
The fallacy of equivocation assigns two different
meanings to the same term in an argument. Here’s
an example that, in one form or another, is com-
monplace in the abortion debate:
1. A fetus is an individual that is indisputably
2. A human is endowed with rights that cannot be
invalidated, including a right to life.
3. Therefore, a fetus has a right to life.
This argument equivocates on the word human.
In Premise 1, the term means physiologically
human, as in having human DNA. This claim, of
course, is indeed indisputable. But in Premise 2,
human is used in the sense of person—that is, an
individual having full moral rights. Since the prem-
ises refer to two different things, the conclusion
does not follow. If you are not paying close atten-
tion, though, you might not detect the equivoca-
tion and accept the argument as it is.
Appeal to Authority
This fallacy consists of relying on the opinion
of someone thought to be an expert who is not.
An expert, of course, can be a source of reliable
information—but only if he really is an authority in
the designated subject area. A true expert is some-
one who is both knowledgeable about the facts and
able to make reliable judgments about them. Ulti-
mately, experts are experts because they carefully
base their opinions on the available evidence.
We make a fallacious appeal to authority
when we (1) cite experts who are not experts in
the field under discussion (though they may be
experts in some other field) or (2) cite nonexperts
as experts. Expertise in one field does not automati-
cally carry over to another, and even non experts
who are prestigious and famous are still nonex-
perts. In general, on subjects outside an expert’s
area of expertise, her opinions are no more reliable
than those of nonexperts.
Two rules of thumb should guide your use of
expert opinion. First, if a claim conflicts with the
consensus of opinion among experts, you have
good reason to doubt the claim. Second, if experts
disagree about a claim, you again have good reason
to doubt it.

Emotions have a role to play in the moral life. In
moral arguments, however, the use of emotions
alone as substitutes for premises is a fallacy. We
commit this fallacy when we try to convince some-
one to accept a conclusion not by providing them
with relevant reasons but by appealing only to
fear, guilt, anger, hate, compassion, and the like.
For example:
The defendant is obviously guilty of murder in
this case. Look at him in the courtroom—he’s
terrifying and menacing. And no one can ignore
the way he stabbed that girl and mutilated her
body. And her poor parents. . . .
The question here is whether the defendant com-
mitted the crime, and the feelings of fear and
pity that he evokes are not relevant to it. But if
the question were about the anguish or torment
inflicted on the victim or her parents, then our feel-
ings of empathy would indeed be relevant—and so
would any pertinent moral principles or theories.
Appeal to Emotion

Slippery Slope
The slippery slope fallacy is the use of dubious
premises to argue that doing a particular action will
inevitably lead to other actions that will result in
disaster, so that first action should not be done. This
way of arguing is perfectly legitimate if the premises
are solid—that is, if there are good reasons to believe
that the first step really will lead to ruin. Consider:
1. Rampant proliferation of pornography on the
Internet leads to obsession with pornographic
2. Obsession with pornographic materials dis-
rupts relationships, and that disruption leads
to divorce.
3. Therefore, we should ban pornography on the
Perhaps the chain of events laid out here could
actually occur, but we have been given no reason
to believe that it would. (You can see that this argu-
ment is also missing a moral premise.) Scientific
evidence showing that this sequence of cause and
effect does occur as described would constitute
good reason to accept Premises 1 and 2.
Faulty Analogy
The use of an analogy to argue for a conclusion is
known, not surprisingly, as argument by analogy.
It is a type of inductive argument that says because
two things are alike in some ways, they must be
alike in some additional way. For example:
1. Humans feel pain, care for their young, live in
social groups, and understand nuclear physics.
2. Apes also feel pain, care for their young, and live
in social groups.
3. Therefore, apes can understand nuclear physics.
In argument by analogy, the probability that
the conclusion is true depends on the relevant sim-
ilarities between the two things being compared.
The greater the relevant similarities, the more likely
it is that the conclusion is true. Humans and apes
are relevantly similar in several ways, but the ques-
tion is, Are they relevantly similar enough to ren-
der the conclusion probable? In this case, though
humans and apes are similar in some ways, they
are not relevantly similar enough to adequately
support the conclusion. Humans and apes have
many differences—the most relevant of which for
this argument is probably in the physiology of their
brains and in their capacity for advanced learning.
Arguments by analogy are common in moral
reasoning. For example:
1. When a neighbor needs your help (as when he
needs to borrow your garden hose to put out a
fire in his house), it is morally permissible to
lend the neighbor what he needs.
2. Britain is a neighbor of the United States, and
it is in dire need of help to win the war against
3. Therefore, it is morally permissible for the
United States to lend Britain the material and
equipment it needs to defeat Germany.
This is roughly the moral argument that Presi-
dent Franklin Roosevelt made during World War II
to convince Americans to aid Britain in its strug-
gle. The strength of the argument depends on the
degree of similarity between the two situations
described. At the time, many Americans thought
the argument strong.
The fallacy of faulty analogy is argument
by an analogy that is weak. In strong arguments
by analogy, not only must the degree of similarity
be great, but the similarities must also be relevant.
This means that the similarities must relate specifi-
cally to the conclusion. Irrelevant similarities can-
not strengthen an argument.
Appeal to Ignorance
This fallacy consists of arguing that the absence
of evidence entitles us to believe a claim. Consider
these two arguments:
• No one has proven that the fetus is not a per-
son, so it is in fact a person.

• It is obviously false that a fetus is a person,
because science has not proven that it is a
Both of these arguments are appeals to igno-
rance. The first one says that because a statement
has not been proven false, it must be true. The sec-
ond one has things the other way around: because
a statement has not been proven true, it must be
false. The problem in both of these cases is that a
lack of evidence cannot be evidence for anything.
A dearth of evidence simply indicates that we are
ignorant of the facts. If having no evidence could
prove something, we could prove all sorts of outra-
geous claims. We could argue that because no one
has proven that there are no space aliens control-
ling all our moral decisions, there are in fact space
aliens controlling all our moral decisions.
Straw Man
Unfortunately, the straw man fallacy is rampant
in debates about moral issues. It amounts to mis-
representing someone’s claim or argument so it can
be more easily refuted. For example, suppose you
are trying to argue that a code of ethics for your pro-
fessional group should be secular so that it can be
appreciated and used by as many people as possi-
ble, regardless of their religious views. Suppose fur-
ther that your opponent argues against your claim
in this fashion:
X obviously wants to strip religious faith away
from every member of our profession and to ban-
ish religion from the realm of ethics. We should not
let this happen. We should not let X have his way.
Vote against the secular code of ethics.
This argument misrepresents your view, distort-
ing it so that it seems outrageous and unacceptable.
Your opponent argues against the distorted version
and then concludes that your (original) position
should be rejected.
The straw man fallacy is not just a bad
argument— it flies in the face of the spirit of moral
reasoning, which is about seeking understanding
through critical thinking and honest and fair explo-
ration of issues. If you agree with this approach,
then you should not use the straw man fallacy—
and you should beware of its use by others.
Appeal to the Person
Appeal to the person (also known as ad homi­
nem) is the fallacy of arguing that a claim should be
rejected solely because of the characteristics of the
person who makes it. Look at these:
• We should reject Alice’s assertion that cheat-
ing on your taxes is wrong. She’s a political
• Jerome argues that we should all give a portion
of our income to feed the hungry people of the
world. But that’s just what you’d expect a rich
guy like him to say. Ignore him.
• Maria says that animals have rights and that
we shouldn’t use animal products on moral
grounds. Don’t believe a word of it. She owns a
fur coat—she’s a big hypocrite.
In each of these arguments, a claim is rejected
on the grounds that the person making it has a par-
ticular character, political affiliation, or motive.
Such personal characteristics, however, are irrel-
evant to the truth of a claim. A claim must stand or
fall on its own merits. Whether a statement is true
or false, it must be judged according to the quality
of the reasoning and evidence behind it. Bad peo-
ple can construct good arguments; good people can
construct bad arguments.
Hasty Generalization
Hasty generalization is a fallacy of inductive
reasoning. It is the mistake of drawing a conclusion
about an entire group of people or things based on
an undersized sample of the group.
• In this town three pro-life demonstrators have
been arrested for trespassing or assault. I’m
telling you, pro-lifers are lawbreakers.

• In the past thirty years, at least two people on
death row in this state have been executed and
later found to be innocent by DNA evidence.
Why is the state constantly executing innocent
begging the question—The fallacy of arguing in
a circle—that is, trying to use a statement as
both a premise in an argument and the conclu-
sion of that argument. Such an argument says,
in effect, p is true because p is true.
equivocation—The fallacy of assigning two
different meanings to the same term in an
appeal to authority—The fallacy of relying on the
opinion of someone thought to be an expert
who is not.
slippery slope—The fallacy of using dubious
premises to argue that doing a particular
action will inevitably lead to other actions that
will result in disaster, so that first action should
not be done.
faulty analogy—The use of a flawed analogy to
argue for a conclusion.
appeal to ignorance—The fallacy of arguing that
the absence of evidence entitles us to believe
a claim.
straw man—The fallacy of misrepresenting some-
one’s claim or argument so it can be more eas-
ily refuted.
appeal to the person—The fallacy (also known as
ad hominem) of arguing that a claim should be
rejected solely because of the characteristics of
the person who makes it.
hasty generalization—The fallacy of drawing a con-
clusion about an entire group of people or things
based on an undersized sample of the group.
In the first argument, a conclusion is drawn
about all people with pro-life views from a sample
of just three people. When it is spelled out plainly,
the leap in logic is clearly preposterous. Yet such
preposterous leaps are extremely common. In the
second argument, the conclusion is that wrong-
ful executions in the state happen frequently. This
conclusion, though, is not justified by the tiny
sample of cases.
A common view about ethics is that arguing about
morality is unproductive, unenlightening, frustrat-
ing, unsatisfying—and therefore pointless. A typi-
cal moral disagreement can go like this:
“The university should ban alcohol everywhere
on campus,” says X. “Drinking is immoral,
whether on campus or off.”
“You sound like the administration hacks. They’re
all idiots!” says Y.
X: “They’re not all idiots. Some are nice.”
Y: “Wrong. They’re idiots, and they drink plenty
of alcohol every day. Alcohol helps them forget
they’re idiots.”
X: “What about Professor Jones? She doesn’t
Y: “Yeah, but she’s boring. And for a college pro-
fessor, being boring is the worst moral failing
This exchange really is pointless; it’s going
nowhere. It’s the kind of conversation that gives
moral discourse a bad name. As we’ve seen, proper
discussions about moral issues—whether in writ-
ten or oral form—are not at all pointless. They
are often productive, thought-provoking, even
enlightening. You may not always like where
the conversation ends up (what conclusions are
arrived at), but you will probably think the trip is

Good moral essays or conversations have sev-
eral essential elements, without which no progress
could be made in resolving the issue at hand.
1. A claim to be proved. Almost always, the point
of writing or speaking about a moral issue is to
resolve it—that is, to determine whether the central
moral claim or statement (a judgment, principle, or
theory) is true. Is it the case that same-sex marriage
is wrong (or right)? Is it true that Maria’s action is
morally permissible (or impermissible)? Should
actions always be judged right or wrong according
to the consequences they produce? To answer such
questions is to resolve the issue at hand, and resolv-
ing the issue at hand is the point of the written or
spoken discourse. Without a clear idea of the claim
in question, the essay or conversation will mean-
der, as it does in the previous example.
In an essay, the claim should be spelled out (or
sometimes implied) in the first one or two para-
graphs. In a conversation, it is most often men-
tioned (or understood) at the beginning. In either
case, it is by grasping the claim that we come to
understand the point of it all and to follow the
thread of the discussion.
In the most productive moral essays or con-
versations, something else is made apparent early
on: the reason the claim is worth discussing in
the first place. This means making sure that the
meaning of the claim is clear and that its implica-
tions are apparent. Sometimes this step requires
only a sentence or two, but usually much more
explaining is necessary. Just as essential is ensur-
ing that readers or listeners understand why any-
one would want to address the issue—why the
issue is deemed important enough to warrant
an essay or serious conversation. Often all that’s
required is a brief explanation of how the issue
directly affects people’s lives. How, for example,
might attitudes and lives change if everyone agreed
that same-sex marriage was morally permissible?
Or how differently might we view the world if all
moral judgments were based on the cons equences
of actions?
Many times, the best reason for dealing with a
particular moral issue is that others have addressed it
and we want to disagree or agree with their response.
So we might say, “Juan argues that using illicit drugs
is morally right, but I think he’s wrong on several
counts.” Or, “In the debates over abortion, many
commentators have asserted that a human fetus is
a person with moral standing. But there are at least
three reasons for rejecting this view.” Or, “Does sci-
ence prove that persons do not have free will? Some
philosophers think so. But I, along with many astute
commentators, beg to differ.”
2. An argument for or against the claim. By now,
you know that the essence of moral reasoning, the
means for resolving (or trying to resolve) a moral
issue, and the overall shape of an essay or conver-
sation about a moral claim is the moral argument.
The common pattern in an essay is to follow the
introduction (where the moral claim is stated) with
a moral argument. Likewise, in a truly rewarding
conversation on a moral issue, the main event is
the presentation of a moral argument and the ensu-
ing discussion about the quality of that argument
(whether the premises are true and whether the
conclusion logically follows from them).
Setting forth the argument involves explain-
ing and amplifying each premise and supporting it
with evidence (expert opinion, studies, statistics),
examples, or analogies. The aim is to demonstrate
clearly and carefully that the conclusion follows
from the premises and that the premises are true.
In a worthwhile oral debate, the elements are
much the same. Enough time and attention must
be allowed for giving and explaining an argument
and for thoughtful responses to that argument.
3. Consideration of alternative views. In any good
essay or conversation about moral issues, present-
ing an argument is not enough. There must be space
or time to consider alternative views on the subject.
Specifically, there should be an honest and thor-
ough assessment of objections to your argument
and its conclusion. Students are often reluctant to
take this step because they think it will weaken their

case. But the opposite is true. When you carefully
consider contrary opinions, you gain credibility,
because you show that you are fair-minded and care-
ful. You demonstrate to readers or listeners that you
are aware of possible objections and that you have
good replies to them. Would you trust the assertions
of someone who dogmatically pushes his own view
and ignores or dismisses out of hand anyone who
disagrees? Remember that a logical argument is not
a quarrel or spat and that a truly productive debate
is not a competition or shouting match. In ethics,
written and oral approaches to moral issues are hon-
est searches for truth and sincere exchanges of ideas.
In an essay, an assessment of objections can
come early or late but usually appears after the pre-
sentation of the argument. In conversation, objec-
tions may be taken up throughout and be addressed
as interlocutors raise them. Mutual respect and fair-
ness is a necessity in oral debate. Speakers must be
given a chance to have their say—to present argu-
ments, raise objections, or respond to objections.
Handling objections properly involves both
summarizing and examining them. We should
always avoid the fallacies mentioned earlier, of
course, but in considering alternative views, we
need to be especially alert to the straw man. Because
the essence of the straw man fallacy is the misrep-
resenting of someone’s claim or argument so it can
be more easily refuted, inserting the fallacy into
discussions is both dishonest and counterproduc-
tive. And by using it, you miss an opportunity to
spot weaknesses in your case, which means you
also miss a chance to strengthen it.
An argument is a group of statements, one of which
is supposed to be supported by the rest. To be more
precise, an argument consists of one or more premises
and a conclusion. In a good argument, the conclusion
must follow from the premises, and the premises must
be true.
Arguments come in two basic types: deductive
and inductive. Deductive arguments are meant to give
logically conclusive support for their conclusions. A
deductive argument that actually provides this kind of
support is said to be valid. If it also has true premises, it
is said to be sound. An inductive argument is meant to
provide probable support for its conclusion. An induc-
tive argument that actually provides this kind of sup-
port is said to be strong. If it also has true premises, it is
said to be cogent.
Deductive arguments come in different forms.
Some of these forms are known to be valid; some,
invalid. Knowing these patterns helps you determine
the validity of deductive arguments. Using the coun-
terexample method can also aid your analysis.
The typical moral argument consists of at least one
moral premise and at least one nonmoral premise. The
best approach to evaluating moral arguments is to treat
them as deductive. This tack enables you to uncover
implicit premises. Implicit premises are often moral
premises, which may be controversial or dubious. They
can be tested through the use of counterexamples.
In moral reasoning, you frequently encounter
fallacies—forms of bad arguments that arise repeat-
edly. Some of those you are most likely to come across
are begging the question, equivocation, appeal to
authority, slippery slope, faulty analogy, appeal to
ignorance, straw man, appeal to the person, and hasty
statement (p. 41)
argument (p. 42)
premise (p. 42)
conclusion (p. 42)
indicator words (p. 43)
deductive argument (p. 44)
inductive argument (p. 44)
valid argument (p. 44)
invalid argument (p. 44)
strong argument (p. 45)

weak argument (p. 45)
sound argument (p. 45)
cogent argument (p. 45)
moral statement (p. 51)
nonmoral statement (p. 51)
begging the question (p. 56)
equivocation (p. 57)
appeal to authority (p. 57)
slippery slope (p. 58)
faulty analogy (p. 58)
appeal to ignorance (p. 59)
straw man (p. 59)
appeal to the person (p. 59)
hasty generalization (p. 59)
Review Questions
1. Are all persuasive arguments valid? Recount
a situation in which you tried to persuade
someone of a view by using an argument.
(p. 44)
2. Can a valid deductive argument ever have false
premises? Why or why not? (p. 44)
3. Are the premises of a cogent argument always
true? Is the conclusion always true? Explain.
(p. 45)
4. What is the term designating a valid argument
with true premises? a strong argument with true
premises? (p. 45)
5. Is the following argument form valid or invalid?
Why or why not? (p. 45)
If p, then q.
Therefore, q.
6. Is the following argument form valid or invalid?
Why or why not? (p. 46)
If p, then q.
If q, then r.
Therefore, if p, then r.
7. What is the counterexample method? (p. 47)
8. What kinds of premises must a moral argument
have? (p. 57)
9. What is the best method for evaluating moral
premises? (pp. 54–55)
10. Explain the method for locating implied
premises. (pp. 47–48)
Discussion Questions
1. Is it immoral to believe a claim without
evidence? Why or why not?
2. If moral reasoning is largely about providing
good reasons for moral claims, where do feelings
enter the picture? Is it possible to present a good
argument that you feel strongly about? If so,
provide an example of such an argument.
3. Which of the following passages are arguments
(in the sense of displaying critical reasoning)?
Explain your answers.
• If you harm someone, they will harm you.
• Racial profiling is wrong. It discriminates
against racial groups, and discrimination is
• If you say something that offends me,
I have the right to prevent you from saying
it again. After all, words are weapons, and
I have a right to prevent the use of weapons
against me.
4. What is the difference between persuading
someone to believe a claim and giving them
reasons to accept it? Can a good argument be
persuasive? Why or why not?
5. Why do you think people are tempted to use
the straw man fallacy in disagreements on
moral issues? How do you feel when someone
uses this fallacy against you?
Argument Exercises
Diagram the following arguments. Exercises marked
with an asterisk (*) have answers in Answers to Argu-
ment Exercises at the end of the text.
*1. If John works out at the gym daily, he will be
healthier. He is working out at the gym daily. So
he will be healthier.
2. If when you are in a coma you are no longer a
person, then giving you a drug to kill you would
not be murder. In a coma, you are in fact not
a person. Therefore, giving you the drug is not

*3. Ghosts do not exist. There is no reliable
evidence showing that any disembodied persons
exist anywhere.
4. If you smoke, your heart will be damaged. If
your heart is damaged, your risk of dying due
to heart problems will increase. Therefore,
smoking can increase your risk of dying due to
heart problems.
*5. The mayor is soft on crime. He cut back on
misdemeanor enforcement and told the police
department to be more lenient with traffic
6. Grow accustomed to the belief that death is
nothing to us, since every good and evil lie in
sensation. However, death is the deprivation of
sensation. Therefore, death is nothing to us.
*7. The president is either dishonest or
incompetent. He’s not incompetent, though,
because he’s an expert at getting self-serving
legislation through Congress. I guess he’s just
8. Most Republicans are conservatives, and Kurt
is a Republican. Therefore, Kurt is probably
a conservative. Therefore Kurt is probably
opposed to increases in welfare benefits, because
most conservatives are opposed to increased
welfare benefits.
*9. Can people without strong religious beliefs
be moral? Countless people have been
nonbelievers or nontheists and still behaved
according to lofty moral principles; for
example, the Buddhists of Asia and the
Confucianists of China. Consider also the
great secular philosophers, from the ancient
Greeks to the likes of David Hume and
Bertrand Russell. So it’s not true that those
without strong religious beliefs cannot be
10. Jan is a student at Harvard. No student at
Harvard has won a Pulitzer prize. Therefore, Jan
has not won a Pulitzer.
*11. We shouldn’t pay the lawnmower guy so much
money because he never completes the work,
and he will probably just gamble the money
away because he has no self-control.
12. Either Manny, Mo, or Jack crashed the car.
Manny couldn’t have done it, because he
was sleeping in his room and was observed
the whole time. Mo couldn’t have done it,
because he was out of town at the time and has
witnesses to prove it. So the guy who crashed
the car had to be Jack.
Richard Feldman, Reason and Argument, 2nd ed. (Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999).
Richard M. Fox and Joseph P. DeMarco, Moral Reasoning:
A Philosophic Approach to Applied Ethics, 2nd ed. (Fort
Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001).
Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking,
7th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004).
Lewis Vaughn, The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Rea­
soning about Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims, 5th ed.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

C H A P T E R 4
The Power of Moral Theories
such considerations and ask ourselves if a trusted
moral principle is truly sound, whether a conflict
of principles can be resolved, or if a new principle
can handle cases that we have never had to address
before. When we puzzle over such things, we enter
the realm of moral theory. We theorize— trying to
use, make, or revise a moral theory or a piece of one.
A moral theory is an explanation of what
makes an action right or what makes a person or
thing good. Its focus is not the rightness or good-
ness of specific actions or persons but the very
nature of rightness or goodness itself. Moral theo-
ries concerned with the goodness of persons or
things are known as theories of value. Moral theo-
ries concerned with the rightness or wrongness of
actions are called theories of obligation. In this text,
we focus mostly on theories of obligation and,
unless otherwise indicated, will use the more gen-
eral term moral theories to refer to them. A moral
theory in this sense, then, is an explanation of what
makes an action right or wrong. It says, in effect,
that a particular action is right (or wrong) because
it has this property or characteristic.
Moral theories and theorizing are hard to avoid.
To wonder what makes an action right is to theo-
rize. To try not to think much about morality but
to rely on your default moral theory— the one you
inherited from your family or culture— is of course
to live by the lights of a moral theory. To reject all
moral theories, to deny the possibility of objective
morality, or to embrace a subjectivist view of right
and wrong is to have a particular overarching view
of morality, a view that in the broadest sense con-
stitutes a moral theory or part of one.
Recall that Part 1 (Fundamentals) gave you a broad
view of our subject, outlining the major concerns of
moral philosophy, the function of moral judgments
and principles, the nature of moral problems, the
elements of our common moral experience, and
the challenges of moral relativism and emotiv-
ism. Part 2 (Moral Reasoning) covered ethics at the
ground level— the fundamentals of critical reason-
ing as applied to everyday moral claims, arguments,
and conflicts. Here in Part 3 (Chapters 4–7) we touch
again on a great deal of this previous material as we
explore a central concern of contemporary ethics:
moral theory.
Whatever else the moral life entails, it surely has
moral reasoning at its core. We act, we feel, we
choose, and in our best moments, we are guided
by the sifting of reasons and the weighing of argu-
ments. Much of the time, we expect— and want—
this process to yield plausible moral judgments.
We confront the cases that unsettle us and hope to
respond to them with credible assessments of the
right and the good. In making these judgments, we
may appeal to moral standards— principles or rules
that help us sort out right and wrong, good and bad.
Our deliberations may even work the other way
around: moral judgments may help us mold moral
principles. If we think carefully about our own delib-
erations, however, we will probably come to under-
stand that this interplay between moral judgments
and principles cannot be the whole story of moral
reasoning. From time to time we step back from

Moral theories and moral arguments often work
together. A statement expressing a moral theory
may itself act as the moral premise in an argument.
More often, an argument’s moral premise is ulti-
mately backed by a moral theory from which the
moral premise (principle or rule) is derived. Testing
the premise may require examining one or more
supporting principles or perhaps the most general
norm (the theory) itself.
Classic utilitarianism (covered in the next chap-
ter) is an example of a simple moral theory, one
based on a single, all- encompassing standard: right
actions are those that directly produce the greatest
overall happiness, everyone considered. What mat-
ters most are the consequences of actions. Thus, in
a particular situation, if there are only two possible
actions, and action X produces, say, 100 units of
overall happiness for everyone involved (early util-
itarians were the first to use this strange- sounding
notion of units of happiness), while action Y pro-
duces only 50 units, action X is the morally right
action to perform. The theory therefore identifies
what is thought to be the most important factor
in the moral life (happiness) and provides a proce-
dure for making judgments about right and wrong
Should we therefore conclude that a moral
theory is the final authority in moral reasoning?
Not at all. A moral theory is not like a mathemati-
cal axiom. From a moral theory we cannot derive in
strict logical fashion principles or judgments that
will solve all the problems of our real- world cases.
Because moral theories are by definition general
and theoretical, they cannot by themselves give
us precisely tailored right answers. But neither can
we dispense with moral theories and rely solely on
judgments about particular cases and issues. In the
field of ethics, most philosophers agree that care-
fully made moral judgments about cases and issues
are generally reliable data that we should take very
seriously. Such opinions are called considered
moral judgments, because they are formed after
careful deliberation that is as free of bias as possible.
’Moral Theories versus Moral Codes
A moral theory explains what makes an action
right; a moral code is simply a set of rules. We
value a moral theory because it identifies for us
the essence of rightness and thereby helps us
make moral judgments, derive moral principles,
and resolve conflicts between moral statements.
A moral code is much less useful than a moral the-
ory. The rules in a moral code inevitably conflict
but provide no means for resolving their incon-
sistencies. Rules saying “Do not kill” and “Protect
human life,” for example, will clash when the
only way to protect human life is to kill. Also,
rules are always general— usually too general
to cover many specific situations that call for a
moral decision— yet not general enough (in the
way that theories are) to help us deal with such
an array of specifics. How does a rule insisting
“Children must obey their parents” apply when
the parents are criminally insane or under the
influence of drugs, or when there are no parents,
just legal guardians? To make the rule apply, we
would have to interpret it— and that gets us back
into the realm of moral theory.
The point is that moral codes may have their
place in the moral life, but they are no substitute
for a plausible moral theory. Rules are rules, but
a moral theory can help us see beyond the rules.
A moral theory provides us with very general
norms, or standards, that can help us make sense of
our moral experiences, judgments, and principles.
(Some moral theories feature only one overarch-
ing standard.) The standards are meant to be gen-
eral enough and substantial enough to inform our
moral reasoning— to help us assess the worth of less
general principles, to shed light on our moral judg-
ments, to corroborate or challenge aspects of our
moral experience, and even to generate new lower-
level principles if need be.

(or deontological). In general, consequentialist
theories say that what makes an action right is its
consequences. Specifically, the rightness of an action
depends on the amount of good it produces. A con-
sequentialist theory may define the good in dif-
ferent ways— as, for example, pleasure, happiness,
well- being, flourishing, or knowledge. But however
good is defined, the morally right action is the one
that results in the most favorable balance of good
over bad.
Nonconsequentialist theories say that the
rightness of an action does not depend entirely on
its consequences. It depends primarily, or com-
pletely, on the nature of the action itself. To a non-
consequentialist, the balance of good over bad that
results from an action may matter little or not at all.
What is of primary concern is the kind of action in
question. To a consequentialist, telling a lie may be
considered wrong because it leads to more unhap-
piness than other actions do. To a nonconsequen-
tialist, telling a lie may be considered wrong simply
because it violates an exceptionless rule. Thus, by
nonconsequentialist lights, an action could be
morally right even though it produces less good
than any alternative action.
Consequentialist Theories
There are several consequentialist theories, each
differing from the others on who is to benefit from
goods or what kinds of goods are to be pursued.
But two theories have received the most attention
from moral philosophers: utilitarianism and ethi-
cal egoism.
Utilitarianism says that the morally right
action is the one that produces the most favorable
balance of good over evil, everyone considered.
That is, the right action maximizes the good (how-
ever good is defined) better than any alternative
action, everyone considered. Utilitarianism insists
that everyone affected by an action must be included
in any proper calculation of overall consequences.
The crucial factor is how much net good is produced
when everyone involved is counted.
Our considered moral judgments (including the
principles or rules sanctioned by those judgments)
by themselves, however, are sometimes of limited
use. They may conflict. They may lack sufficient
justification. A moral theory provides standards
that can help overcome these limitations.
So where does theory fit in our moral delibera-
tions? Theory plays a role along with judgments
and principles or rules. In trying to determine the
morally right thing to do in a specific case, we
may find ourselves reflecting on just one of these
elements or on all of them at once. We may, for
example, begin by considering the insights embod-
ied in our moral theory, which give some justifica-
tion to several relevant principles. In light of these
principles, we may decide to perform a particular
action. But we may also discover that our consid-
ered moral judgment in the case conflicts with the
deliverances of the relevant principles or even with
the overarching theory. Depending on the weight
we give to the particular judgment, we may decide
to adjust the principles or the theory so that it is
compatible with the judgment. A moral theory
can crystallize important insights in morality and
thereby give us general guidance as we make judg-
ments about cases and issues. But the judgments—
if they are indeed trustworthy— can compel us to
reconsider the theory.
The ultimate goal in this give- and- take of the-
ory and judgment (or principle) is a kind of close
coherence between the two— what has come to
be known as reflective equilibrium.1 They should
fit together as closely as possible, with maximum
agreement between them. This process is similar
to the one used in science to reconcile theory and
experimental data, a topic we address in more
detail later in this chapter.
Moral philosophers have traditionally grouped the-
ories of morality into two major categories: conse-
quentialist (or teleological) and nonconsequentialist

the egoist. This approach to morality seems to radi-
cally conflict with commonsense moral experience
as well as with the basic principles of most other
moral theories.
Nonconsequentialist Theories
Nonconsequentialist (deontological) theories also
take various forms. They differ on, among other
things, the number of foundational principles or
basic rules used and the ultimate basis of those
By far the most influential nonconsequentialist
theory is that of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant
wants to establish as the foundation of his theory a
single principle from which all additional maxims
can be derived, a principle he calls the categori-
cal imperative. One way that he states his prin-
ciple is “Act only on that maxim through which
you can at the same time will that it should become
a universal law.”2 (Kant insists that he formulates
just one principle but expresses it in several differ-
ent forms; the forms, however, seem to be separate
principles.) The categorical imperative, Kant says,
is self- evident— and therefore founded on reason.
The principle and the maxims derived from it are
also universal (applying to all persons) and absolut-
ist, meaning that they are moral laws that have no
exceptions. Kant’s theory, then, is the view that
the morally right action is the one done in accor-
dance with the categorical imperative.
For Kant, every action implies a rule or maxim
that says, in effect, always do this in these circum-
stances. An action is right, he says, if and only if
you could rationally will the rule to be universal—
to have everyone in a similar situation always act
according to the same rule. Breaking promises is
wrong because if the implied rule (something like
“Break promises whenever you want”) were uni-
versalized (if everyone followed the rule), then
no promise anywhere could be trusted, and the
whole convention of promise making would be
obliterated— and no one would be willing to live
in such a world. In other words, universalizing the
Moral philosophers distinguish two major types
of utilitarianism according to whether judgments
of rightness focus on individual acts (without ref-
erence to rules) or on rules that cover various cat-
egories of acts. Act- utilitarianism says that right
actions are those that directly produce the greatest
overall good, everyone considered. The conse-
quences that flow directly from a particular act are
all that matter; rules are irrelevant to this calcula-
tion. In act- utilitarianism, each situation calling
for a moral judgment is unique and demands a new
calculation of the balance of good over evil. Thus,
breaking a promise may be right in one situation and
wrong in another, depending on the consequences.
Rule- utilitarianism, on the other hand, says
that the morally right action is the one covered by
a rule that if generally followed would produce the
most favorable balance of good over evil, every-
one considered. The consequences of generally
following a rule are of supreme importance— not
the direct consequences of performing a particular
action. Specific rules are justified because if people
follow them all the time (or most of the time), the
result will be a general maximization of good over
evil. We are to follow such rules consistently, even if
doing so in a particular circumstance results in bad
Ethical egoism says that the morally right
action is the one that produces the most favorable
balance of good over evil for oneself. That is, in every
situation the right action is the one that advances
one’s own best interests. In each circumstance, the
ethical egoist must ask, “Which action, among all
possible actions, will result in the most good for
me?” Ironically, it may be possible for an ethical
egoist to consistently practice this creed without
appearing to be selfish or committing many self-
ishly unkind acts. The egoist may think that com-
pletely disregarding the welfare of others is not in
his or her best interests. After all, people tend to
resent such behavior and may respond accordingly.
Nevertheless, the bottom line in all moral delibera-
tions is whether an action maximizes the good for

breaking of promises would result in a logically
contradictory state of affairs, a situation that makes
no moral sense.
Notice again the stark contrast between utili-
tarianism and Kant’s theory. For the former, the
rightness of an action depends solely on its conse-
quences, on what results the action produces for
everyone involved. For the latter, the consequences
of actions for particular individuals never enter
into the equation. An action is right if and only if
it possesses a particular property— the property of
according with the categorical imperative, of not
involving a logical contradiction.
Another notable nonconsequentialist view is
the theory of natural law. Natural law theory
says that the morally right action is the one that fol-
lows the dictates of nature. What does nature have
to do with ethics? According to the most influential
form of this theory (traditional natural law theory),
the natural world, including humankind, exhibits
a rational order in which everything has its proper
place and purpose, with each thing given a spe-
cific role to play by God. In this grand order, natu-
ral laws reflect how the world is as well as how it
should be. People are supposed to live according to
natural law— that is, they are to fulfill their rightful,
natural purpose. To act morally, they must act natu-
rally; they must do what they were designed to do
by God. They must obey the absolutist moral rules
that anyone can read in the natural order.
A natural law theorist might reason like this:
Lying is immoral because it goes against human
nature. Truth telling is natural for humans because
they are social creatures with an inborn tendency to
care about the welfare of others. Truth telling helps
humans get along, maintain viable societies, and
show respect for others. Lying is therefore unnat-
ural and wrong. Another example: Some natural
law theorists claim that “unnatural” sexual activ-
ity is immoral. They argue that because the natural
purpose of sex is procreation, and such practices
as homosexual sex or anal sex have nothing to do
with procreation, these practices are immoral.
moral theory— An explanation of what makes an
action right or what makes a person or thing
considered moral judgment— A moral assessment
that is as free from bias and distorting passions
as possible. We generally trust such a judgment
unless there is a reason to doubt it.
consequentialist theory— A theory asserting that
what makes an action right is its consequences.
nonconsequentialist theory— A theory assert-
ing that the rightness of an action does not
depend on its consequences.
utilitarianism— A theory asserting that the mor-
ally right action is the one that produces the
most favorable balance of good over evil,
everyone considered.
act- utilitarianism— A utilitarian theory asserting
that the morally right action is the one that
directly produces the most favorable balance
of good over evil, everyone considered.
rule- utilitarianism— A utilitarian theory asserting
that the morally right action is the one covered
by a rule that, if generally followed, would pro-
duce the most favorable balance of good over
evil, everyone considered.
ethical egoism— A theory asserting that the mor-
ally right action is the one that produces the
most favorable balance of good over evil for
categorical imperative— An imperative that we
should follow regardless of our particular wants
and needs; also, the principle that defines Kant’s
Kant’s theory— A theory asserting that the mor-
ally right action is the one done in accordance
with the categorical imperative.

incorporate one principle only (the core principle
that God makes rightness) or the core principle plus
several subordinate rules, as is the case with divine
command views that designate the Ten Command-
ments as a God- made moral code.
We come now to the question that moral philoso-
phers have been asking in one way or another for
centuries: Is this moral theory a good theory? That
is, is it true? Does it reliably explain what makes an
action right? As we have seen, not all moral theo-
ries are created equal. Some are better than oth-
ers; some are seriously flawed; and some, though
imperfect, have taught the world important lessons
about the moral life.
The next question, of course, is, How do we go
about answering the first question? At first glance,
it seems that impartially judging the worth of a
moral theory is impossible, because we all look at
the world through our own tainted lens, our own
moral theory or theory fragments. However, our
review of subjectivism and relativism (see Chap-
ter 2) suggests that this worry is overblown. More
to the point, there are plausible criteria that we can
use to evaluate the adequacy of moral theories (our
own and those of others), standards that moral phi-
losophers and others have used to appraise even
the most complex theories of morality. These are
what we may call the moral criteria of adequacy.
The first step in assessing any theory (before
using these criteria) is to ensure that the theory
meets the minimum requirement of coherence. A
moral theory that is coherent is eligible to be evalu-
ated using the criteria of adequacy. A coherent
theory is internally consistent, which means that
its central claims are consistent with one another—
they are not contradictory. An internally consistent
theory would not assert, for example, both that (1)
actions are right if and only if they are natural and
that (2) it is morally right to use unnatural means
to save a life. Contradictory claims assert both that
natural law theory— A theory asserting that the
morally right action is the one that follows the
dictates of nature.
divine command theory— A theory asserting that
the morally right action is the one that God
prima facie principle— A principle that applies in
a situation unless exceptions are justified.
negative right— A person’s right that obligates oth-
ers not to interfere with that person’s obtaining
positive right— A person’s right that obligates
others to help that person obtain something.
retributive justice— The fair use of punishment
for wrongdoing.
distributive justice— The fair distribution of soci-
ety’s benefits and costs (such as income, taxes,
jobs, and public service).
self- evident statement— An assertion that a per-
son is justified in believing merely by under-
standing it, such as “No bachelors are married.”
Another critical aspect of the traditional theory
is that it insists that humans can discover what is
natural, and thus moral, through reason. God has
created a natural order and given humans the gift
of rationality to correctly apprehend this order.
This means that any rational person— whether
religious or not— can discern the moral rules and
live a moral life.
One of the simplest nonconsequentialist theo-
ries is the divine command theory, a view dis-
cussed in Chapter 1. It says that the morally right
action is the one that God commands. An action
is right if and only if God says it is. The rightness
of an action does not depend in any way on its
consequences. According to the divine command
theory, an action may be deemed right even
though it does not maximize the good, or deemed
wrong even if it does maximize the good. It may

Now consider the following criteria of adequacy
for moral theories:
Criterion 1: Consistency with Considered
Moral Judgments
To be worth evaluating, a plausible scientific theory
must be consistent with the data it was introduced
to explain. A theory meant to explain an epidemic,
for example, must account for the nature of the
disease and the method of transmission. Other-
wise it is a very poor theory. A moral theory must
also be consistent with the data it was introduced
to explain. A moral theory is supposed to explain
what makes an action right, and the data relevant
to that issue are our considered moral judgments.
Recall that considered moral judgments are
views that we form after careful deliberation
under conditions that minimize bias and error.
They are therefore thought to have considerable
weight as reasons or evidence in moral matters,
even though they can be mistaken and other con-
siderations (such as an established moral prin-
ciple or a well- supported theory) can sometimes
overrule them.
A moral theory that is inconsistent with trust-
worthy judgments is at least dubious and likely to
be false and in need of drastic overhaul or rejection.
There is something seriously wrong, for example,
with a theory that approves of the murder of inno-
cent people, the wanton torture of children, or the
enslavement of millions of men and women. As
we will see in the next chapter, inconsistency with
considered moral judgments can be the undoing
of even the most influential and attractive moral
Consider Theory 1. It says that right actions are
those that enhance the harmonious functioning of
a community. On the face of it, this theory appears
to be a wise policy. But it seems to imply that cer-
tain heinous acts are right. It suggests, for example,
that if killing an innocent person would enhance
a community’s harmonious functioning, killing
that person would be right. This view conflicts
something is and is not the case; one statement says
X and another says not- X. When claims conflict in
this way, we know that at least one of them is false.
So if two substantial claims in a theory are contra-
dictory, one of the claims must be false— and the
theory is refuted. This kind of inconsistency is such
a serious shortcoming in a moral theory that fur-
ther evaluation of it would be unnecessary. It is, in
fact, not eligible for evaluation. Ineligible theories
would get low marks on each criterion of adequacy.
Eligible moral theories are a different matter.
Unlike ineligible theories, they are not guaranteed
to fare poorly when evaluated, and testing their
mettle with the moral criteria of adequacy is almost
always revealing. But how do we use these criteria?
The answer is that we apply them in much the same
way and for a few of the same reasons that scientists
apply their criteria to scientific theories.
Scientific theories are introduced to explain
data concerning the causes of events— why some-
thing happens as it does or why it is the way it is.
Usually scientists devise several theories (explana-
tions) of a phenomenon, ensuring that each one is
minimally adequate for evaluation. Then they try
to determine which of these is best, which offers
the best explanation for the data in question, for
they know that the best theory is the one most
likely to be true. To discover which is the best, they
must judge each theory according to some gener-
ally accepted standards— the scientific criteria of
adequacy. One criterion, for example, is conser-
vatism: how well a theory fits with what scientists
already know. A scientific theory that conflicts
with existing knowledge ( well- established facts,
scientific laws, or extensively confirmed theories)
is not likely to be true. On the other hand, the more
conservative a theory is (that is, the less it conflicts
with existing knowledge), the more likely it is to be
true. All things being equal, a conservative theory
is better than one that is not conservative. Another
criterion is fruitfulness: how many successful novel
predictions the theory makes. The more such pre-
dictions, the more plausible the theory is.


The philosopher John Rawls devised the notion of
reflective equilibrium and put heavy emphasis on
the quality of moral judgments in his own moral
theory. This is what he has to say about the nature
of considered moral judgments:
Now, as already suggested, [considered judg-
ments] enter as those judgments in which our
moral capacities are most likely to be displayed
without distortion. Thus in deciding which of our
judgments to take into account we may reason-
ably select some and exclude others. For exam-
ple, we may discard those judgments made with
hesitation, or in which we have little confidence.
Similarly, those given when we are upset or fright-
ened, or when we stand to gain one way or the
other can be left aside. All these judgments are
likely to be erroneous or to be influenced by an
excessive attention to our own interests. Consid-
ered judgments are simply those rendered under
conditions favorable to the exercise of the sense
of justice, and therefore in circumstances where
the more common excuses and explanations for
making a mistake do not obtain. The person mak-
ing the judgment is presumed, then, to have the
ability, the opportunity, and the desire to reach a
correct decision (or at least, not the desire not to).
Moreover, the criteria that identify these judg-
ments are not arbitrary. They are, in fact, similar
to those that single out considered judgments of
any kind.*
*John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1999), 42.
Considered Moral Judgments
dramatically with our considered moral judgment
that murdering an innocent person just to make
a community happy is wrong. Theory 1 should be
Criterion 2: Consistency with Our
Moral Experiences
As we saw earlier, a good scientific theory should be
conservative. It should, in other words, be consistent
with scientific background knowledge— with the
many beliefs that science has already firmly estab-
lished. Likewise, a plausible moral theory should
be consistent with moral background knowledge—
with what we take to be the fundamental facts of our
moral experience. Whatever our views on morality,
few of us would deny that we do in fact have these
• We sometimes make moral judgments.
• We often give reasons for particular moral
• We are sometimes mistaken in our moral beliefs.
• We occasionally have moral disagreements.
• We occasionally commit wrongful acts.
As is the case with theories that conflict with
considered moral judgments, a theory in conflict
with these experiences is at least dubious and prob-
ably false. A moral theory is inconsistent with the
moral life if it implies that we do not have one or
more of these basic moral experiences.
Suppose Theory 2 says that our feelings alone
determine whether actions are right—that if our
feelings lead us to believe that an action is right,
then it is right. But this theory suggests that we are
never mistaken in our moral beliefs, for if our feel-
ings determine what is right, we cannot be wrong.
Whatever we happen to feel tells us what actions
are right. Our moral experience, however, is good
evidence that we are not morally infallible. Theory
2 therefore is problematic, to say the least.
Could we possibly be mistaken about our moral
experience? Yes. It is possible that our experience
of the moral life is illusory. Perhaps we are mor-
ally infallible after all, or maybe we do not actually


Imagine that you come across a theory based on
this moral standard: Only actions that are “natural”
are morally right; “unnatural” actions are wrong.
We can call it the all- natural theory. It defines nat-
ural actions as (1) those done in accordance with
the normal biological urges and needs of human
beings, (2) those that reflect typical human psy-
chological tendencies and patterns, and (3) those
that help ensure the survival of the human spe-
cies. (This approach should not be confused with
the more sophisticated and historically important
natural law theory.) An all- natural theorist might
view these actions as morally permissible: walking,
talking, eating, having sex, cooperating with oth-
ers, caring for loved ones, teaching children, creat-
ing art, growing food, building shelters, going to
war, solving problems, and protecting the environ-
ment. Impermissible actions might include building
spaceships, using birth control, using performance-
enhancing drugs, being a loner or a hermit, and
intervening in reproductive processes (as in clon-
ing, abortion, fertility treatments, in vitro fertiliza-
tion, and stem cell research).
Is this a good theory? Is it internally inconsis-
tent? (For example, do the three definitions of
natural actions conflict? Would applying Defini-
tion 3 contradict the results of applying Definitions
1 and 2?) Is the all- natural theory consistent with
our considered moral judgments? (Hint: Would it
condone murder? Would it conflict with our usual
concepts of justice?) If it is not consistent, supply
an example (a counterexample). Is the theory con-
sistent with our moral experience? Give reasons for
your answer. Is the theory useful? If not, why not?
CRITICAL THOUGHT: A 100 Percent All- Natural Theory
make moral judgments. But like our considered
moral judgments, our commonsense moral expe-
riences carry weight as evidence— good evidence
that the moral life is, for the most part, as we think
it is. We are therefore entitled to accept this evi-
dence as trustworthy unless we have good reason
to think otherwise.
Criterion 3: Usefulness in
Moral Problem Solving
Good scientific theories increase our understand-
ing of the world, and greater understanding leads
to greater usefulness— the capacity to solve prob-
lems and answer questions. The more useful a sci-
entific theory is, the more credibility it acquires. A
good moral theory is also useful— it helps us solve
moral problems in real- life situations. It helps us
make reliable judgments about moral principles
and actions and resolve conflicts among conflicting
judgments and principles and within the theory
itself. A major reason for devising a moral theory is
to obtain this kind of practical guidance.
Usefulness is a necessary, though not sufficient,
characteristic of a good moral theory. This means
that all good theories are useful, but usefulness
alone does not make a moral theory good. It is pos-
sible for a bad theory to be useful as well (to be use-
ful but fail some other criterion of adequacy). But
any moral theory that lacks usefulness is a dubious
Now we can be more specific about the similari-
ties between science and ethics in handling theory
and data. In science, the interaction between a the-
ory and the relevant data is dynamic. The theory is
designed to explain the data, so the data help shape
the theory. But a plausible theory can give scien-
tists good reasons to accept or reject specific data
or to reinterpret them. Both the theory and the
data contribute to the process of searching for the
truth. Scientists work to get the balance between

for example, also believe that it makes a valuable
point that any theory should take into account:
the consequences of actions do matter. Judiciously
applying the criteria of adequacy to a theory can
help us see a theory’s strengths as well as its weak-
nesses. Such insights can inspire us to improve any
moral theory— or perhaps create a new one.
You will get a chance to see firsthand how
theory evaluation is done. In Chapters 5 and 6, we
will apply the moral criteria of adequacy to several
major moral theories.
By now you know that we are all chronic moral
theorizers. We can’t help ourselves. We usually
operate on the ground level of ethics, making judg-
ments about the rightness or wrongness of particu-
lar actions or the moral worth of particular people
or motives, trying to align our lives with moral
norms that we think rest on a solid footing. But
sometimes we must take a bird’ s- eye view of moral-
ity to see how these particulars are related, whether
they reveal a pattern that informs the moral life,
and whether the moral principles we embrace are
really worth embracing. In other words, we theorize.
In the next few pages, I show you how I do some
of this big- picture theorizing. I try to work out a
plausible moral theory of obligation— an explana-
tion of what makes an action right or wrong. I base
this theory on what I consider the best aspects of
the moral theories discussed earlier and on the ele-
ments of the moral life in which we have the great-
est confidence.
Moral Common Sense
As we have seen, some of the more influential
theories of the past— utilitarianism, Kant’s theory,
and natural law theory— offer invaluable moral
insights. But each one overlooks at least one feature
that seems vital to morality and to any adequate
moral theory. Some leave out the consequences of
these two just right. They try to ensure a very close
fit between them— so close that there is no need for
major alterations in either the theory or the data.
In ethics, the link between theory and data (consid-
ered moral judgments) is similar. Considered moral
judgments help shape theory (and its principles or
rules), and a good theory sheds light on judgments
and helps adjudicate conflicts between judgments
and other moral statements. As in science, we
should strive for a strong logical harmony between
theory, data, and subordinate principles.
Remember, though, that theory evaluation is
not a mechanical process, and neither is the appli-
cation of theories to moral problems. There is no
formula or set of instructions for applying our three
criteria to a theory. Neither is there a calculating
machine for determining how much weight to give
each criterion in particular situations. We must
make an informed judgment about the importance
of particular criteria in each new instance. Never-
theless, applying the criteria is not a subjective,
arbitrary affair. It is rational and objective— like, for
example, the diagnosis of an illness, which is based
on the educated judgment of a physician using
appropriate guidelines.
Now suppose you apply the moral criteria of
adequacy and reach a verdict on the worth of a the-
ory: you reject it. Should this verdict be the end of
your inquiry? In general, no. There is often much
to be learned from even seriously defective theo-
ries. Many philosophers who reject utilitarianism,
The Moral Criteria of Adequacy
Criterion 1: Consistency with considered judg ments.
Criterion 2: Consistency with our moral experi ences.
Criterion 3: Usefulness in moral problem solving.

is the starting point of our theorizing as well as the
corroboration of what we learn.
Building a Moral Theory
Here is one way a moral theory is built: Suppose we
begin with our data— our considered moral judg-
ments rendered about specific cases. We judge that
the actions in these cases are morally wrong, and
then we look for what these wrong actions have
in common. Suppose we notice that all of them
share the property of being instances in which
people are prevented from exercising their auton-
omy (their capacity for self- governance). Perhaps a
doctor operates on them without their consent, or
they are denied their right to live and work where
they choose, or they are forced to practice a reli-
gion they despise. After much reflection, we think
we see a moral principle threading through these
cases: people have a right of self- determination.
But to avoid jumping to conclusions, we examine
many similar cases, and this forces us to modify
our principle, perhaps a little bit or perhaps a lot.
And our modified principle sheds new light on our
cases, perhaps revealing that some of them are not
really instances of wrongdoing after all. We gather
more considered moral judgments, and we think
they suggest other principles. Ultimately we may
conclude that all our principles can be summed up
in one dominant principle (as is the case with utili-
tarianism). Or perhaps we are left with an appar-
ently irreducible set of principles that seem to cover
all our moral duties (as in natural law theory). In
either situation, we continually test the principles
to determine if they lead to reasonable judgments,
and we check the plausibility of the judgments by
comparing them with the principles. The idea is to
eliminate conflicts between the two and to achieve
the closest possible agreement between them.
Thus, common sense shapes theory, and theory
informs common sense.
So in developing a moral theory, we begin with
what we know or think we know. And through much
critical reflection on our data and the generalizations
actions, some the claims of autonomy and rights,
and some the demands of justice. I think the
absence of these elements constitutes a disabling
flaw for these theories. But if this assessment is
correct— if our best theories to date are not entirely
adequate to the task of providing moral guidance
and ethical understanding— how can we expect to
devise something better? What are our prospects
for improving on what we have?
I think our prospects are good. Recall that we
are all capable of forming considered moral judg-
ments, the assessments we make about cases and
principles after careful reflection that is as clear
and unbiased as possible. These judgments— what
some call our moral common sense— are fallible
and revisable, but they can constitute credible
evidence in favor of particular judgments or prin-
ciples. They are used regularly by philosophers not
only to formulate principles and theories but also
to test them for soundness. When a judgment or
principle or theory or value seems questionable, we
usually fall back on our most trusted data: our con-
sidered moral judgments.
Our considered moral judgments tell us that
wantonly killing people is wrong, that slavery is
a moral abomination, that equals must be treated
equally, that respecting the rights of innocent peo-
ple is morally required, and that inflicting unde-
served and unnecessary suffering on others is evil.
We are rightly suspicious of any theory that says
otherwise. We should have more confidence in our
considered moral judgment that abusing babies
is wrong than in any theory that condones it. Of
course, our moral common sense can be in error;
we can be wrong about what at first seems obvious;
and a good moral theory can show us that a con-
sidered moral judgment should be revised. But we
are entitled to trust the urgings of common sense
unless we have good reasons to doubt them. Utili-
tarianism, Kant’s theory, and natural law theory
have all been found wanting, in large part because
they conflict in some way with our considered
moral judgments. Our moral common sense, then,

high enough— if obeying an absolute rule would
cause, say, death and destruction— violating the
rule would appear to be the right thing to do.
Our moral common sense also tells us, I think,
that there must be more than one basic moral rule
that defines our duties. More than one primary
rule must be necessary, because we obviously have
many basic duties, and we cannot derive them all
from one another or from one overarching prin-
ciple. Our duty to benefit others is distinct from our
duty to respect their rights; if anything, these are
competing duties. Utilitarianism and Kant’s theory,
which boast just one ultimate rule, have trouble
accounting for these disparate obligations.
Any theory that consists of two or more funda-
mental rules must explain how those rules relate to
one another. For the absolutist, multiple rules lead
to a serious problem: they will inevitably produce
irresolvable contradictions. Honoring one rule may
force the violation of another. Suppose an absolut-
ist theory consists of just two rules: “Care for loved
ones in dire need” and “Keep your promises.”
Suppose you promise to take your mother to see
a Broadway show, something she has looked for-
ward to for years, but on that same night your son
becomes seriously ill and will suffer horribly if you
do not tend to him. If you keep your promise and
take your mother to the show, your son will suf-
fer; if you take care of your son, you will break your
promise to your mother. You cannot obey one rule
without violating the other. In absolutist theories
consisting of two or more basic rules, such contra-
dictions are common, and they render the theories
implausible. Various attempts have been made by
absolutists to answer this kind of criticism, but in
my opinion none of these efforts has succeeded or
ever will succeed.
I think nonabsolutist, multiple- rule theories
have a much better way of dealing with conflict-
ing rules. Their approach hinges on the concept of
prima facie principles— principles that apply
in a situation unless exceptions are justified. Excep-
tions are justified when two rules conflict (when
arising from them, we can formulate a theory— a
work in progress— and a more or less useful guide to
the moral life.
Prima Facie Principles
But what shape would an adequate moral theory
take? The overall structure of a moral theory of
obligation depends largely on the number of fun-
damental principles it has and whether those prin-
ciples are absolute— that is, whether they are rigid
rules that allow no exceptions. Utilitarianism has
a single ultimate rule (the principle of utility), and
so does Kant’s theory (the categorical imperative).
For these theories, no principles are more basic.
Each basic principle is also absolute; the rule must
always be followed in every circumstance. There is
no clause that says the rule must be strictly adhered
to except in circumstance X or Y. Other theories,
however, feature not one but several fundamental
principles, which may or may not be absolute. Nat-
ural law theory, for example, is based on a handful
of absolute rules. But some theories that also con-
tain more than one basic rule reject absolutism.
Of these possible theory configurations, I think
only the latter type is plausible. Deep down, we
may all want moral principles to be reassuringly
sturdy and absolute, but I think this is a false hope.
It seems that for any absolute moral principle, we
can always find counter- examples in which adher-
ing strictly to the rule can lead to immoral actions
and unpalatable results. Kant offers the example
of the poor unfortunate who runs from an insane
murderer and hides in a friend’s house. When the
friend is asked for the whereabouts of the mur-
derer’s prey, he has a choice: he can lie and save
his friend’s life, or he can tell the truth and doom
her. Kant thinks he must tell the truth, even if the
result is a tragic loss of life. According to Kant, we
must do right though the heavens fall. His absolut-
ism compels him to obey the letter of the law. But
our considered moral judgments seem to suggest
that in situations like this, saving a life is far more
important than telling the truth. If the stakes are

but the job is actually simpler than it might ini-
tially appear. First, principles that may seem funda-
mental can often be subsumed under fewer, more
basic principles, with the highest- level principles
supporting subordinate ones. Second, the flawed
theories of the past have helped us see that the
moral life is defined by a relatively small number
of general norms or core values. We have learned
from utilitarianism and other consequentialist theo-
ries that any plausible moral theory must take into
account the effects of actions and the demands of
beneficence and non- maleficence, and we have seen
in Kant’s theory and other nonconsequentialist views
the supreme importance of autonomy, rights, and
justice. For most theorists, these concerns define the
full spectrum of moral norms that inform the moral
life. Although philosophers have parsed these general
norms in different ways, there is plenty of agreement
about what they are.
If all of these assumptions are correct, then a sat-
isfactory moral theory that reflects the facts of the
moral life should comprise a small number of prima
facie principles covering all the duties endorsed by
our considered moral judgments. Absolute rules
and a structure dominated by a single sovereign
principle cannot be features of this theory.
With these requirements in mind, I want to
argue for a theory that rests on three prima facie
principles: respect, justice, and beneficence. These
three, I think, can cover all our basic moral duties
while simplifying the process of identifying and
weighing obligations. For particular cases, we would
have to specify how, and to what, the principles
should be applied, but this process is a necessity for
any theory of general norms. As is the case with all
theories consisting of more than one moral norm,
the principles will often conflict. As suggested ear-
lier, the tension is resolved by weighing and balanc-
ing the prima facie principles to ascertain actual
duties— our “all things considered” obligations.
Respect refers to respect for persons, the guiding
value of Kant’s theory and other nonconsequen-
tialist theories. Respect is owed all persons equally,
both rules apply, but it is not possible to obey both)
and one is considered weightier than the other.
Viewing the duties in the mother- son case as prima
facie would require us to decide which duty was
more important and therefore which should be
performed. The two rules represent apparent duties,
but after weighting the duties appropriately, only
one constitutes our actual duty. This approach to
conflicting rules aligns better with our moral com-
mon sense: we know that our duties sometimes col-
lide, that a duty can be overridden by a weightier
one, and that occasionally we must break the rules
in order to do the right thing. We also seem to have
a sense that prima facie duties remain fundamen-
tally important even when they are overridden.
So I think that an adequate moral theory, how-
ever it is fleshed out, must be based on more than
one principle, and the principles should be prima
facie (nonabsolute) and irreducible (they cannot be
derived from one another).
Three Rules
The next issue to consider is what these principles
are and how they function in the theory. On this
point, theories of prima facie principles can differ
substantially in both the content of the principles
and their number. W.D. Ross (1877–1967), the
first philosopher to devise a theory of prima facie
duties, thought there were at least seven prima
facie duties: duties of fidelity (keeping promises,
telling the truth); reparation (making amends for
a wrongful act); gratitude (acknowledging services
done for us by others); justice (distributing benefits
and burdens fairly); beneficence (benefiting oth-
ers); self- improvement (enhancing our own virtue
or intelligence); and non- maleficence (not injur-
ing others).3 More recently, philosophers have
tended to argue for a smaller set of prima facie
principles— for example, four (autonomy, justice,
beneficence, and non- maleficence), or two (justice
and beneficence).
These variations may seem to make the task of
developing an acceptable theory fairly complex,

thousand people, we would most likely favor jail-
ing the person. From a moral standpoint, the loss
of so many lives seems far more important than the
injustice of false imprisonment.
The principle of justice requires that persons be
treated fairly and that they get what is due them.
Retributive justice concerns the fair use of pun-
ishment for wrongdoing. Distributive justice
(what I will focus on here) is about the fair distribu-
tion of society’s benefits and costs (such as income,
privileges, taxes, health care, jobs, and public ser-
vice). The essence of this principle is that equals
must be treated equally. A rule that applies to some-
one in a particular situation must apply to anyone
else in a relevantly similar situation. Justice, then,
reflects a central fact about the moral life: morality
requires impartiality. Racial discrimination is con-
trary to justice because it treats one group differ-
ently than it does another, even though no morally
relevant differences exist between them.
Like the principle of respect, the justice prin-
ciple generally overrides concerns about conse-
quences. In fact, one of the strongest criticisms
of utilitarianism is that its emphasis on maximiz-
ing happiness or welfare is often at odds with our
considered moral judgments about justice. Justice
demands equal treatment of persons, but utilitari-
anism seeks to produce the best balance of good
over evil, which may or may not amount to the
equal treatment of equals.
I think the proper way to take consequences
into account is through the prima facie principle
of beneficence. This principle is about the good and
bad effects of actions, the nonmoral consequences
of what we do or don’t do. It says we have a quali-
fied duty to benefit others and to avoid causing
them harm. This obligation has three different
dimensions: (1) we should not deliberately harm
others (should not kill, hurt, disable, rob, or terror-
ize them, for example); (2) we should act to benefit
others (to prevent harm or evil, remove harm or
evil, and promote good); and (3) we should strive
to produce the most favorable balance of good over
because they have intrinsic worth and dignity
due to their autonomy— that is, to their capacity
for rational decisions, autonomous action, and
moral choices. Kant made this point by insisting
that we must always treat persons as ends in them-
selves, never merely as a means to an end (a tool
to be used for someone else’s purposes). Another
way to express this is to say that, as persons, we
have rights— specifically, negative rights, which
obligate others not to interfere with our obtain-
ing something. (In my theoretical scheme, posi-
tive rights— the rights that obligate others to
help us obtain something— fall under the prin-
ciple of beneficence.) Persons have the right not
to be treated in certain ways: not to be used or
regarded as if they were mere instruments, and not
to have their autonomous actions and free choices
thwarted or constrained. The principle of respect
therefore would prohibit, among other things,
lying to persons, cheating them, coercing them,
falsely imprisoning them, and manipulating them.
This principle of respect can accommodate
most of Ross’s prima facie duties. It supports what
he calls duties of fidelity, reparation, gratitude, and
self- improvement. We can view this latter duty as
an obligation to respect ourselves, to more fully
develop those capacities that make us persons.
Duties of respect can override the moral weight
of an action’s consequences. In general, we may not
violate the rights of persons, even if the violation
would benefit them or others. We would probably
condemn a policy that mandated discrimination
against a minority just so the majority could be
happy. We would not countenance medical experi-
ments on people without their knowledge and
consent— even if the experiments were needed to
search for a cancer cure.
Respect, however, does not always trump util-
ity. It is, after all, a prima facie duty. In some cases
we might be justified in flouting the principle of
respect, but we would need very strong reasons to
do so. For example, if by jailing an innocent person
we could thwart a terrorist attack that would kill a

obligation to promote the welfare of our family,
friends, and others we are close to, but we do not
have an equally strong duty to help the rest of the
world. Treating everyone with such beneficence
would not be the fulfillment of a duty but the per-
formance of a supererogatory act (above the call
of duty). We might have a duty to help those in
the rest of the world, but that duty cannot be as
weighty as the one we have to our loved ones.
We are also not obliged to make extreme sacri-
fices to help those with whom we have no relation-
ship. The principle of beneficence, for example,
does not insist that we risk our lives and our health
to aid a stranger. Nevertheless I think we may have
at least a limited obligation to help those with
whom we have no connection. We surely must
sometimes have a “duty of rescue”—an obligation
to try to save a stranger in serious peril when we
have the wherewithal to do so without extreme risk
or cost to ourselves. If we can easily save a drown-
ing man without too much risk or trouble to our-
selves, we may be obligated to do so. And if we have
such a duty of rescue, we may have other duties of
beneficence in morally equivalent circumstances.
Because my proposed theory consists of princi-
ples that are prima facie, conflicts between them are
less of a problem than they are in absolutist views.
Much of the time, weighing and balancing prin-
ciples to determine our actual duties is straightfor-
ward, though sometimes difficult. In each situation
that calls for a moral judgment, the basic pattern of
our deliberations is something like this: (1) we dis-
cern which principles (respect, justice, and benefi-
cence) apply; (2) we weigh them according to their
importance in the case; (3) we determine which
principle dominates; and (4) we decide what action
best fits with this analysis.
The most challenging part of this process is
determining the weight of the basic principles.
Even if we know what those principles are, we
still have to figure out their relative importance in
context. But there is no formula or algorithm to
help us with this. Even a rough but firm ranking
evil effects, everyone considered (the utilitarian
standard). It is possible to view these three options
as separate principles in their own right, but I think
that approach would muddle the essential differ-
ence between our first two principles (respect and
justice) and beneficence, because the former are
not primarily concerned with the consequences of
actions, but the latter is.
In some cases we may see that only one ele-
ment of beneficence is relevant—either Option 1
or Option 2. But often both of these options apply,
and when considering whether to benefit or not
to harm persons, we must decide which duty is
weightier. Either consideration may override any
obligation to maximize utility. Suppose a physician
wants to try an experimental treatment that might
cure a patient’s disease but will also cause perma-
nent damage to her lungs. The overriding principle
would be not to cause such harm, even if the ben-
efit to be gained is substantial. A third possibility
is that both principles apply and that each duty
comes with costs and benefits. We then must make
a utilitarian calculation (Option 3) to determine
the best solution.
The prohibition against deliberately harming
others is a common feature in moral theories: inten-
tionally harming people is always deemed prima
facie wrong. Our duty calls not for some action but
for not performing an action. In most interactions
with others, we have an implicit duty not to harm
them, but not necessarily a duty to benefit them or
to maximize their welfare. If we are driving a heavy
truck on a busy highway, for example, our strongest
duty is likely to be to refrain from intentionally or
carelessly harming other drivers and pedestrains,
but we may not have an obligation to benefit them
(by, say, continually yielding the right of way to
them). And we would not ordinarily have a duty to
maximize their good.
It seems that our duty to benefit others (pre-
vent harm, remove harm, and promote good) does
not demand that we help all persons. Our consid-
ered moral judgments tell us that we may have an

principle of utility itself founded on common
sense, because the principle is not supported by a
more basic principle?”
But I think a more serious defense of moral com-
mon sense and our fundamental moral principles is
possible. I want to argue, as several contemporary
moral theorists do, that many of our basic moral
principles are self- evident.4 I don’t have the space
here to fully defend this claim, but I can point out a
few considerations that support it.
A self- evident statement is one that you are
justified in believing merely by understanding it.
Here are some self- evident assertions: “Whatever
has a shape has a size”; “No bachelors are married”;
and “If A is larger than B, and B is larger than C,
then A is larger than C.” If you understand what
these statements mean, then you are justified in
believing them, and you need no special faculty
to discern their truth. You don’t need to gather
evidence or conduct experiments to know them;
you know them as soon as you grasp their mean-
ing, whether you understand them immediately
or after long reflection. If someone insists that the
statement “No bachelors are married” is not true,
it is up to him to provide a counterexample— to
cite a circumstance in which the statement would
not be true. If he cannot, then he has no reasons
supporting his assertion that the statement is false;
his assertion is groundless. This is the only kind of
response we can make to those who reject beliefs
that we consider to be self- evidently true.
I take it that the following are self- evident
moral beliefs (which are also prima facie moral
• Equals should be treated equally.
• It is wrong to punish the innocent.
• It is wrong to inflict unnecessary and unde-
served suffering.
• It is wrong to torture people for fun.
I have come to know these statements in the
same way that I come to know nonmoral truths—
of principles— in which, say, respect would always
outweigh justice, and justice would always out-
weigh beneficence— would be a tremendous help.
But there is no such formula or ranking, and there
cannot be one, because the relative importance of
the principles fluctuates depending on the details
of the case. Sometimes justice may carry the most
moral weight, sometimes respect or beneficence.
Our only option is to rely on our reason and
experience— that is, our considered moral judg-
ments and the theory that provides the perspec-
tive and insight to these judgments. We must work
without a net while trying to grasp at answers,
and we will occasionally fail. But this difficulty of
assigning weight to principles without detailed
instructions is also a feature of other moral theo-
ries. And as discussed earlier, in their search for the
best theory to explain a set of data, scientists must
also decide the importance of divergent criteria—
and do it without a precise decision- making for-
mula. These judgments are like the ones that a
physician makes when diagnosing a disease in a
particular patient. There are usually rules of thumb
to follow, but in the end, the physician must use
her best judgment to arrive at an answer. Such
judgments are not formulaic, but they are rational
and far from arbitrary.
Self- Evidence
As you can see, my proposed theory appeals at
every turn to our moral common sense. But some
people might ask, “Who says our considered judg-
ments are reliable guides to moral truth? Why
should we trust common sense to identify the true
moral principles, especially given that we know
it to be fallible and sometimes unreliable?” For
example, in response to the claim that utilitarian-
ism conflicts with our moral common sense, some
utilitarians have said, in effect, “That’s too bad for
common sense.”
One facile response to this disparagement of
common sense is to ask, “Doesn’t every theory ulti-
mately rely on common sense? Isn’t the utilitarian’s

theories say that what makes an action right is its
consequences. Nonconsequentialist theories say that
the rightness of an action does not depend entirely on its
consequences. Consequentialist theories include utili-
tarianism (both act- and rule- utilitarianism) and ethical
egoism; nonconsequentialist theories include Kant’s
theory, natural law theory, and divine command theory.
Because not all theories are of equal worth, we
must try to discover which one is best— a task that we
can perform by applying the moral criteria of adequacy
to theories. The three criteria are (1) consistency with
considered moral judgments, (2) consistency with our
moral experiences, and (3) usefulness in moral prob-
lem solving.
moral theory (p. 65)
considered moral judgment (p. 66)
consequentialist theory (p. 67)
nonconsequentialist theory (p. 67)
utilitarianism (p. 67)
act- utilitarianism (p. 68)
rule- utilitarianism (p. 68)
ethical egoism (p. 68)
categorical imperative (p. 68)
Kant’s theory (p. 68)
natural law theory (p. 69)
divine command theory (p. 70)
prima facie principle (p. 76)
negative right (p. 78)
positive right (p. 78)
retributive justice (p. 78)
distributive justice (p. 78)
self- evident statement (p. 80)
Review Questions
1. Is a moral theory the final authority in moral
reasoning? Why or why not? (p. 66)
2. What is the difference between a moral theory
and a moral code? (p. 66)
3. How can a moral theory be used in a moral
argument? (p. 66)
through reason and reflection, not by any extraordi-
nary faculties or irrational process.
As in the case of nonmoral statements, if some-
one thinks that “It is wrong to inflict unnecessary
and undeserved suffering” is not true, it is up to
her to cite circumstances in which the statement
would be false. If she cannot, then her rejection of
the principle is unwarranted.
If there are self- evident moral truths, it is rea-
sonable to expect that some of our prima facie
principles arising from our considered moral judg-
ments are in fact self- evident. Their self- evidence
would explain why we have such confidence in
some moral principles— so much confidence that
we would sooner give up a theory that denied those
principles than the principles themselves. If at least
some of my proposed theory’s prima facie princi-
ples are self- evident, then the theory (and theories
like it) is on firmer ground than some might think.
The hard truth about moral theorizing is that it
never seems to result in a widely accepted, complete,
or unblemished theory. My proposal is no exception
to the rule. But it does have the advantage of incor-
porating what I regard as the most manifest and least
questionable elements of the moral life.
A moral theory is an explanation of what makes an
action right or what makes a person or thing good.
Theories concerned with the rightness or wrongness
of actions are known as theories of obligation (or, in this
text, simply moral theories). A moral theory is intercon-
nected with considered moral judgments and principles.
Considered moral judgments can shape a theory, and a
theory can shed light on judgments and principles.
The two major types of moral theories are conse-
quentialist and nonconsequentialist. Consequentialist

strong views to the contrary, and you know
she is a member of an anti- abortion group
that advocates violence. In light of these facts,
should you dismiss her arguments out of hand?
Why or why not? What would constitute a good
reason for rejecting her arguments?
2. You believe that all illegal immigrants should
be deported. You have no reasons for believing
this; you were simply taught to believe it by
your parents. Is it morally right for you to
adhere to such a view without good reasons?
Do you have a moral duty to apply critical
reasoning to your belief? Why or why not?
3. Your grandmother is near death in the hospital,
barely conscious but in great pain. She has
terminal cancer, and her medical team assures
you that she may linger in this state for a week
at most but will never recover. A year ago she
made you promise that no matter how much
she suffers, you are not to allow anyone to
shorten her life by removing her ventilator or
by letting her doctors administer “terminal
sedation”—medication that relieves pain while
slowly ending life (a legal form of euthanasia).
You can hardly bear to see her in such agony.
Should you keep your promise to her and ensure
that she lingers in horrible suffering, or should
you break your promise and request terminal
sedation or removal of all life support?
John D. Arras and Nancy K. Rhoden, “The Need for Ethi-
cal Theory,” in Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine, 3rd ed.
(Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1989).
Richard B. Brandt, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Norma-
tive and Critical Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Hall, 1959).
C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930; reprint,
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956).
John Hospers, Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics, shorter
ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).
John Rawls, “Some Remarks about Moral Theory,” in A
Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, Belknap Press, 1999).
4. What is a considered moral judgment? (p. 66)
5. What are the two main categories of moral
theories? (p. 67)
6. What is utilitarianism? ethical egoism?
(pp. 67–68)
7. According to Kant’s moral theory, what makes
an action right? (pp. 68–69)
8. What are the three moral criteria of adequacy?
(pp. 71–74)
Discussion Questions
1. Do you try to guide your moral choices with a
moral code or a moral theory, or both? If so, how?
2. Suppose you try to use the Ten Commandments
as a moral code to help you make moral decisions.
How would you resolve conflicts between
commandments? Does your approach to resolving
the conflicts imply a moral theory? If so, can you
explain the main idea behind the theory?
3. What considered moral judgments have you
made or appealed to in the past month? Do
you think that these judgments reflect a moral
principle or moral theory you implicitly appeal
to? If so, what is it?
4. Would you describe your approach to morality
as consequentialist, nonconsequentialist, or
some combination of both? What reasons do
you have for adopting this particular approach?
5. Give an example of a possible conflict between
a consequentialist theory and a considered
moral judgment. (Show how these two may be
6. Provide an example of a conflict between a
nonconsequentialist theory and a moral judgment
based on the consequences of an action.
7. Using the moral criteria of adequacy, evaluate
act- utilitarianism.
8. Using the moral criteria of adequacy, evaluate
natural law theory.
1. Suppose your friend puts forth several
arguments in an effort to convince you that all
abortions are morally wrong. You already have

Theories of Morality

C H A P T E R 5
Consequentialist Theories: Maximize the Good
advance one’s own interests regardless of how oth-
ers are affected. Self- interested acts promote one’s
own interests but not necessarily to the detriment
of others. To further your own interests you may
actually find yourself helping others. To gain some
advantage, you may perform actions that are decid-
edly unselfish.
Just as we cannot equate ethical egoism with
selfishness, neither can we assume it is synony-
mous with self- indulgence or recklessness. An ethi-
cal egoist does not necessarily do whatever she
desires to do or whatever gives her the most imme-
diate pleasure. She does what is in her best interests,
and instant gratification may not be in her best
interests. She may want to spend all her money at
the casino or work eighteen hours a day, but over
the long haul doing so may be disastrous for her.
Even ethical egoists have to consider the long- term
effects of their actions. They also have to take into
account their interactions with others. At least
most of the time, egoists are probably better off
if they cooperate with others, develop reciprocal
relationships, and avoid actions that antagonize
people in their community or society.
Ethical egoism comes in two forms— one apply-
ing the doctrine to individual acts and one to rele-
vant rules. Act- egoism says that to determine right
action, you must apply the egoistic principle to
individual acts. Act A is preferable to act B because
it promotes your self- interest better. Rule- egoism
says that to determine right action, you must see
if an act falls under a rule that if consistently fol-
lowed would maximize your self- interest. Act A is
preferable to act B because it falls under a rule that
There is something in consequentialist moral theo-
ries that we find appealing, something simple and
commonsensical that jibes with everyday moral
experience. This attractive core is the notion that
right actions must produce the best balance of good
over evil. Never mind (for now) how good and evil
are defined. The essential concern is how much
good can result from actions performed. In this
chapter, we examine the plausibility of this conse-
quentialist maxim and explore how it is worked out
in its two most influential theories: ethical egoism
and utilitarianism.
Ethical egoism is the theory that the right action is
the one that advances one’s own best interests. It
is a provocative doctrine, in part because it forces
us to consider two opposing attitudes in ourselves.
On the one hand, we tend to view selfish or fla-
grantly self- interested behavior as wicked, or at
least troubling. Self- love is bad love. We frown on
people who trample others in life to get to the head
of the line. On the other hand, sometimes we want
to look out for number one, to give priority to our
own needs and desires. We think, If we do not help
ourselves, who will? Self- love is good love.
Ethical egoism says that one’s only moral duty
is to promote the most favorable balance of good
over evil for oneself. Each person must put his or
her own welfare first. Advancing the interests of
others is part of this moral equation only if it helps
promote one’s own good. Yet this extreme self-
interest is not necessarily selfishness. Selfish acts

maximizes your self- interest better than any other
relevant rule applying to act B. An ethical egoist can
define self- interest in various ways. The Greek phi-
losopher Epicurus (341–270 b.c.e.), a famous ethi-
cal egoist from whose name we derive the words
epicure and epicurean, gave a hedonist answer: The
greatest good is pleasure, and the greatest evil,
pain. The duty of a good ethical egoist is to maxi-
mize pleasure for oneself. (Contrary to legend, Epi-
curus thought that wanton overindulgence in the
delights of the senses was not in one’s best inter-
ests. He insisted that the best pleasures were those
of the contemplative life and that extravagant plea-
sures such as drunkenness and gluttony eventually
lead to misery.) Other egoistic notions of the great-
est good include self- actualization (fulfilling one’s
potential), security and material success, satisfac-
tion of desires, acquisition of power, and the expe-
rience of happiness.
To many people, ethical egoism may sound
alien, especially if they have heard all their lives
about the noble virtue of altruism and the evils of
self- centeredness. But consider that self- interest is
a pillar on which the economic system of capital-
ism is built. In a capitalist system, self- interest is
supposed to drive people to seek advantages for
themselves in the marketplace, compelling them
to compete against one another to build a better
mousetrap at a lower price. Economists argue that
the result of this clash of self- interests is a better,
more prosperous society.
Applying the Theory
Suppose Rosa is a successful executive at a large
media corporation, and she has her eye on a vice
president’s position, which has just become vacant.
Vincent, another successful executive in the com-
pany, also wants the VP job. Management wants
to fill the vacancy as soon as possible, and they are
trying to decide between the two most qualified
candidates— Rosa and Vincent. One day Rosa dis-
covers some documents left near a photocopier and
quickly realizes that they belong to Vincent. One of
them is an old memo from the president of a com-
pany where Vincent used to work. In it, the presi-
dent lambastes Vincent for botching an important
company project. Rosa knows that despite what she
reads in the memo, Vincent has had an exemplary
professional career in which he has managed most
of his projects extremely well. In fact, she believes
that the two of them are about equal in professional
skills and accomplishments. She also knows that
if management sees the memo, they will almost
certainly choose her over Vincent for the VP posi-
tion. She figures that Vincent has probably left the
documents there by mistake and will soon return to
retrieve them. Impulsively, she makes a copy of the
memo for herself.
Now she is confronted with a moral choice. Let
us suppose that she has only three options. First, she
can destroy her copy of the memo and forget about
the whole incident. Second, she can discredit Vin-
cent by showing it to management, thereby secur-
ing the VP slot for herself. Third, she can achieve
the same result by discrediting Vincent surrepti-
tiously: she can simply leave a copy where manage-
ment is sure to discover it. Let us also assume that
she is an act- egoist who defines her self- interest as
self- actualization. Self- actualization for her means
developing into the most powerful, most highly
respected executive in her profession while maxi-
mizing the virtues of loyalty and honesty.
So, by the lights of her act- egoism, what should
Rosa do? Which choice is in her best interests?
Option 1 is neutral regarding her self- interest. If
she destroys her copy of the memo, she will neither
gain nor lose an advantage for herself. Option 2
is more complicated. If she overtly discredits Vin-
cent, she will probably land the VP spot— a feat
that fits nicely with her desire to become a powerful
executive. But such a barefaced sabotaging of some-
one else’s career will probably trouble manage-
ment, and their loss of some respect for Rosa will
impede future advancement in her career. They
may also come to distrust her. Rosa’s backstabbing
will also probably erode the trust and respect of her

subordinates (those who report to her). If so, their
performance may suffer, and any deficiencies in
Rosa’s subordinates will reflect on her leadership
skills. Over time, she may be able to regain the
respect of management through dazzling successes
in her field, but the respect and trust of others may
be much harder to regain. Option 2 involves the
unauthorized, deceitful use of personal informa-
tion against another person— not an action that
encourages the virtue of honesty in Rosa. In fact,
her dishonesty may weaken her moral resolve
and make similar acts of deceit more probable.
Like Option 2, Option 3 will probably secure the
VP job for Rosa. But because the deed is surrepti-
tious, it will probably not diminish the respect and
trust of others. There is a low probability, however,
that Rosa’s secret will eventually be uncovered—
especially if Vincent suspects Rosa, which is likely.
If she is found out, the damage done to her reputa-
tion (and possibly her career) may be greater than
that caused by the more up- front tactic of Option 2.
Also like Option 2, Option 3 may weaken the virtue
of honesty in Rosa’s character.
Given this situation and Rosa’s brand of act-
egoism, she should probably go with Option 3—
but only if the risk of being found out is extremely
low. Option 3 promotes her self- interest dramati-
cally by securing the coveted job at a relatively low
cost (a possible erosion of virtue). Option 2 also
lands the job but at a very high cost— a loss of other
people’s trust and respect, a possible decrease in
her chances for career advancement, damage to her
professional reputation, and a likely lessening of a
virtue critical to Rosa’s self- actualization (honesty).
If Rosa believes that the risks to her career and
character involved in Options 2 and 3 are too high,
she should probably choose Option 1. This choice
will not promote her best interests, but it will not
diminish them either.
Would Rosa’s action be any different if judged
from the perspective of rule- egoism? Suppose Rosa,
like many other ethical egoists, thinks that her
actions should be guided by this rule (or something
like it): People should be honest in their dealings
with others— that is, except in insignificant matters
(white lies), they should not lie to others or mislead
them. She believes that adhering to this prohibi-
tion against dishonesty is in her best interests. The
rule, however, disallows Options 2 and 3, for they
involve significant deception. Only Option 1 is left.
But if obeying the rule will lead to a major setback
for her interests, Rosa may decide to ignore it in this
case (or reject it altogether as contrary to the spirit
of ethical egoism). If so, she may have to fall back to
act- egoism and decide in favor of Option 3.
Evaluating the Theory
Is ethical egoism a plausible moral theory? Let us
find out by examining arguments in its favor and
applying the moral criteria of adequacy.
The primary argument for ethical egoism
depends heavily on a scientific theory known as
psychological egoism, the view that the motive
for all our actions is self- interest. Whatever we do,
we do because we want to promote our own wel-
fare. Psychological egoism, we are told, is simply a
description of the true nature of our motivations.
We are, in short, born to look out for number one.
Putting psychological egoism to good use, the
ethical egoist reasons as follows: We can never be
morally obligated to perform an action that we can-
not possibly do. This is just an obvious fact about
morality. Because we are not able to prevent a hur-
ricane from blasting across a coastal city, we are not
morally obligated to prevent it. Likewise, because we
are not able to perform an action except out of self-
interest (the claim of psychological egoism), we are
not morally obligated to perform an action unless
motivated by self- interest. That is, we are morally
obligated to do only what our self- interest motivates
us to do. Here is the argument stated more formally:
1. We are not able to perform an action except out
of self- interest (psychological egoism).
2. We are not morally obligated to perform an
action unless motivated by self- interest.

3. Therefore, we are morally obligated to do only
what our self- interest motivates us to do.
Notice that even if psychological egoism is true,
this argument does not establish that an action is
right if and only if it promotes one’s self- interest
(the claim of ethical egoism). But it does demon-
strate that an action cannot be right unless it at
least promotes one’s self- interest. To put it another
way, an action that does not advance one’s own
welfare cannot be right.
Is psychological egoism true? Many people
think it is, and they offer several arguments in its
favor. One line of reasoning is that psychological
egoism is true because experience shows that all
our actions are in fact motivated by self- interest. In
other words, all our actions— including seemingly
altruistic ones— are performed to gain some benefit
for ourselves. This argument, however, is far from
conclusive. Sometimes people do perform altruistic
acts because doing so is in their best interests. Smith
may contribute to charity because such generos-
ity furthers his political ambitions. Jones may do
volunteer work for the Red Cross because it looks
good on her résumé. But people also seem to do
things that are not motivated by self- interest. They
sometimes risk their lives by rushing into a burning
building to rescue a complete stranger. They may
impair their health by donating a kidney to prevent
one of their children from dying. Explanations that
appeal to self- interest in such cases seem implau-
sible. Moreover, people often have self- destructive
habits (for example, drinking excessively and driv-
ing recklessly)—habits that are unlikely to be in
anyone’s best interests.
Some ethical egoists may argue in a slightly dif-
ferent vein: People get satisfaction (or happiness
or pleasure) from what they do, including their
so- called unselfish or altruistic acts. Therefore,
they perform unselfish or altruistic actions because
doing so gives them satisfaction. A man saves a
child from a burning building because he wants
the emotional satisfaction that comes from saving
a life. Our actions, no matter how we characterize
them, are all about self- interest.
This argument is based on a conceptual confu-
sion. It says that we perform selfless acts to achieve
satisfaction. Satisfaction is the object of the whole
exercise. But if we experience satisfaction in per-
forming an action, that does not show that our
goal in performing the action is satisfaction. A
much more plausible account is that we desire
something other than satisfaction and then expe-
rience satisfaction as a result of getting what we
desired. Consider, for example, our man who saves
the child from a fire. He rescues the child and feels
satisfaction— but he could not have experienced
that satisfaction unless he already had a desire to
save the child or cared what happened to her. If he
did not have such a desire or care about her, how
could he have derived any satisfaction from his
actions? To experience satisfaction he had to have
a desire for something other than his own satisfac-
tion. The moral of the story is that satisfaction is
the result of getting what we want— not the object
of our desires.
This view fits well with our own experience.
Most often when we act according to some pur-
pose, we are not focused on, or aware of, our sat-
isfaction. We concentrate on obtaining the real
object of our efforts, and when we succeed, we then
feel satisfaction.
The philosopher Joel Feinberg makes a similar
point about the pursuit of happiness. He asks us
to imagine a person, Jones, who has no desire for
much of anything— except happiness. Jones has no
interest in knowledge for its own sake, the beauty of
nature, art and literature, sports, crafts, or business.
But Jones does have “an overwhelming passion for,
a complete preoccupation with, his own happiness.
The one desire of his life is to be happy.”1 The irony
is that using this approach, Jones will not find hap-
piness. He cannot pursue happiness directly and
expect to find it. To achieve happiness, he must
pursue other aims whose pursuit yields happiness
as a by- product. We must conclude that it is not the

against it, and therefore it does not tell us anything
about self- interested actions. Anything we say
about such actions would be consistent with the
theory. Any theory that is so uninformative could
not be used to support another theory— including
ethical egoism.
So far we have found the arguments for ethi-
cal egoism ineffective. Now we can ask another
question: Are there any good arguments against
ethical egoism? This is where the moral criteria of
adequacy come in.
Recall that an important first step in evaluating a
moral theory (or any other kind of theory) is to deter-
mine if it meets the minimum requirement of coher-
ence, or internal consistency. As it turns out, some
critics of ethical egoism have brought the charge of
logical or practical inconsistency against the theory.
But in general these criticisms seem to fall short of a
knockout blow to ethical egoism. Devising counter-
arguments that can undercut the criticisms seems to
be a straightforward business. Let us assume, then,
that ethical egoism is in fact eligible for evaluation
using the moral criteria of adequacy.

case that our only motivation for our actions is the
desire for happiness (or satisfaction or pleasure).
These reflections show that psychological ego-
ism is a dubious theory, and if we construe self-
interest as satisfaction, pleasure, or happiness, the
theory seems false. Still, some may not give up the
argument from experience (mentioned earlier),
insisting that when properly interpreted, all our
actions (including those that seem purely altruis-
tic or unselfish) can be shown to be motivated by
self- interest. All the counterexamples that seem to
suggest that psychological egoism is false actually
are evidence that it is true. Smith’s contributing to
charity may look altruistic, but he is really trying to
impress a woman he would like to date. Jones’s vol-
unteer work at the Red Cross may seem unselfish,
but she is just trying to cultivate some business con-
tacts. Every counterexample can be reinterpreted to
support the theory.
Critics have been quick to charge that this
way of defending psychological egoism is a mis-
take. It renders the theory untestable and useless.
It ensures that no evidence could possibly count
Some critics of ethical egoism say that it is a very
strange theory because its adherents cannot urge
others to become ethical egoists! The philosopher
Theodore Schick Jr. makes the point:
Even if ethical egoism did provide necessary and
sufficient conditions for an action’s being right, it
would be a peculiar sort of ethical theory, for its
adherents couldn’t consistently advocate it. Sup-
pose that someone came to an ethical egoist for
moral advice. If the ethical egoist wanted to do
what is in his best interest, he would not tell his
client to do what is in her best interest because
her interests might conflict with his. Rather, he
would tell her to do what is in his best interest.
Such advice has been satirized on national TV. Al
Franken, a former writer for Saturday Night Live
and author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot
and Other Observations, proclaimed on a number
of Saturday Night Live shows in the early 1980s
that whereas the 1970s were known as the “me”
decade, the 1980s were going to be known as the
“Al Franken” decade. So whenever anyone was
faced with a difficult decision, the individual should
ask herself, “How can I most benefit Al Franken?”*
*Theodore Schick Jr., in Doing Philosophy: An
Intro duction through Thought Experiments, by The-
odore Schick Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, 2nd ed. (Boston:
McGraw- Hill, 2003), 327.
Can Ethical Egoism Be Advocated?

We begin with Criterion 1, consistency with
considered moral judgments. A major criticism of
ethical egoism is that it is not consistent with many
of our considered moral judgments— judgments
that seem highly plausible and commonsensi-
cal. Specifically, ethical egoism seems to sanction
actions that we would surely regard as abominable.
Suppose a young man visits his elderly, bedridden
father. When he sees that no one else is around, he
uses a pillow to smother the old man in order to
collect on his life insurance. Suppose, too, that the
action is in the son’s best interests; it will not cause
the least bit of unpleasant feeling in him, and the
crime will remain his own terrible secret. According
to ethical egoism, this heinous act is morally right.
The son has done his duty.
An ethical egoist might object to this line by
saying that refraining from committing evil acts is
actually endorsed by ethical egoism— one’s best
interests are served by refraining. You should not
murder or steal, for example, because it might
encourage others to do the same to you, or it might
undermine trust, security, or cooperation in society,
which would not be in your best interests. For these
reasons, you should obey the law or the rules of con-
ventional morality (as the rule- egoist might do).
But following the rules is clearly not always
in one’s best interests. Sometimes committing a
wicked act really does promote one’s own welfare.
In the case of the murdering son, no one will seek
revenge for the secret murder, cooperation and
trust in society will not be affected, and the mur-
derer will suffer no psychological torments. There
seems to be no downside here— but the son’s
rewards for committing the deed will be great. Con-
sistently looking out for one’s own welfare some-
times requires rule violations and exceptions. In
fact, some argue that the interests of ethical egoists
may be best served when they urge everyone else to
obey the rules while they themselves secretly break
If ethical egoism does conflict with our consid-
ered moral judgments, it is questionable at best.
But it has been accused of another defect as well:
it fails Criterion 2, consistency with our moral
One aspect of morality is so fundamental that
we may plausibly view it as a basic fact of the moral
life: moral impartiality, or treating equals equally.
We know that in our dealings with the world, we
are supposed to take into account the treatment of
others as well as that of ourselves. The moral life is
lived with the wider world in mind. We must give
all persons their due and treat all equals equally,
for in the moral sense we are all equals. Each per-
son is presumed to have the same rights as— and
to have interests that are just as important as those
of— everyone else, unless we have good reason for
thinking otherwise. If one person is qualified for
a job, and another person is equally qualified, we
would be guilty of discrimination if we hired one
and not the other based solely on race, sex, skin
color, or ancestry. These factors are not morally
relevant. People who do treat equals unequally in
such ways are known as racists, sexists, bigots, and
the like. Probably the most serious charge against
ethical egoism is that it discriminates against people
in the same fashion. It arbitrarily treats the interests
of some people (oneself) as more important than
the interests of all others (the rest of the world)—
even though there is no morally relevant difference
between the two.
The failure of ethical egoism to treat equals
equally seems a serious defect in the theory. It con-
flicts with a major component of our moral exis-
tence. For many critics, this single defect is enough
reason to reject the theory.
Recall that Criterion 3 is usefulness in moral
problem solving. Some philosophers argue that
ethical egoism fails this standard because the the-
ory seems to lead to contradictory advice or con-
flicting actions. If real, this problem constitutes a
significant failing of the theory. But this criticism
depends on controversial assumptions about ethi-
cal egoism or morality in general, so we will not
dwell on it here. Our analysis of ethical egoism’s

man with no living relatives and no friends—
some one who would not be missed. Through some
elaborate subterfuge she manages to secretly do
what needs to be done, killing the man and suc-
cessfully performing the operation. She formulates
the cure and saves countless lives. No one ever dis-
covers how she obtained the last bit of information
she needed to devise the cure, and she feels not the
slightest guilt for her actions.
Did Dr. X do right? If you think so, then you
may be a utilitarian. A utilitarian is more likely
to believe that Dr. X’s action was right because of
its consequences: it brought about consequences
that were more good than bad. One man died,
but countless others were saved. If you think that
Dr. X did wrong, you may be a nonconsequentialist.
A nonconsequentialist is likely to believe that Dr. X
did wrong because of the nature of her action: it was
murder. The consequences are beside the point.
In this example, we get a hint of some of the
elements that have made utilitarianism so attrac-
tive (and often controversial) to so many. First,
whether or not we agree with the utilitarian view
in this case, we can see that it has some plausibil-
ity. We tend to think it entirely natural to judge
the morality of an action by the effects that it has
on the people involved. To decide if we do right or
wrong, we want to know whether the consequences
of our actions are good or bad, whether they bring
pleasure or pain, whether they enhance or dimin-
ish the welfare of ourselves and others. Second,
the utilitarian formula for distinguishing right and
wrong actions seems exceptionally straightforward.
We simply calculate which action among several
possible actions has the best balance of good over
evil, everyone considered— and act accordingly.
Moral choice is apparently reduced to a single
moral principle and simple math. Third, at least
sometimes, we all seem to be utilitarians. We may
tell a white lie because the truth would hurt some-
one’s feelings. We may break a promise because
keeping it causes more harm than good. We may
want a criminal punished not because he broke
problems using the first two criteria should be suf-
ficient to raise serious doubts about the theory.
Are you a utilitarian? To find out, consider the fol-
lowing scenario: After years of research, a medical
scientist— Dr. X— realizes that she is just one step
away from developing a cure for all known forms of
heart disease. Such a breakthrough would save hun-
dreds of thousands of lives— perhaps millions. The
world could finally be rid of heart attacks, strokes,
heart failure, and the like, a feat as monumental as
the eradication of deadly smallpox. That one last
step in her research, however, is technologically
feasible but morally problematic. It involves the
killing of a single healthy human being to examine
the person’s heart tissue under a microscope just
seconds after the heart stops beating. The crucial
piece of information needed to perfect the cure
can be acquired only as just described; it cannot be
extracted from the heart of a cadaver, an accident
victim, someone suffering from a disease, or a per-
son who has been dead for more than sixty seconds.
Dr. X decides that the benefits to humanity from
the cure are just too great to ignore. She locates a
suitable candidate for the operation: a homeless
act- egoism— The theory that to determine right
action, you must apply the egoistic principle to
individual acts.
rule- egoism— The theory that to determine right
action, you must see if an act falls under a rule
that, if consistently followed, would maximize
your self- interest.
psychological egoism— The view that the motive
for all our actions is self- interest.

happiness of the party whose interest is in ques-
tion: or, what is the same thing in other words, to
promote or to oppose that happiness. . . .
By utility is meant that property in any object,
whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage,
pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the pres-
ent case comes to the same thing) or (what comes
again to the same thing) to prevent the happening
of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party
whose interest is considered[.]2
The principle of utility, of course, makes the
theory consequentialist. The emphasis on happi-
ness or pleasure makes it hedonistic, for happiness
is the only intrinsic good.
As you can see, there is a world of difference
between the moral focus of utilitarianism (in all
its forms) and that of ethical egoism. The point
of ethical egoism is to promote one’s own good.
An underlying tenet of utilitarianism is that you
should promote the good of everyone concerned
and that everyone counts equally. When deliberat-
ing about which action to perform, you must take
into account the happiness of everyone who will be
affected by your decision as well as your own— and
no one is to be given privileged status. Such even-
handedness requires a large measure of impartial-
ity, a quality that plays a role in every plausible
moral theory. Mill says it best:
[T]he happiness which forms the utilitarian stan-
dard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s
own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between
his own happiness and that of others, utilitarian-
ism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a
disinterested and benevolent spectator.3
In classic act- utilitarianism, knowing how to
total the amount of utility, or happiness, gener-
ated by various actions is essential. Bentham’s
answer to this requirement is the hedonic calcu-
lus, which quantifies happiness and handles the
necessary calculations. His approach is straight-
forward in conception but complicated in the
details: For each possible action in a particular sit-
uation, determine the total amount of happiness
the law but because the punishment may deter
him from future crimes. We justify such departures
from conventional morality on the grounds that
they produce better consequences.
Utilitarianism is one of the most influential
moral theories in history. The English philosopher
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was the first to fill
out the theory in detail, and the English philoso-
pher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
developed it further. In their hands utilitarianism
became a powerful instrument of social reform. It
provided a rationale for promoting women’s rights,
improving the treatment of prisoners, advocating
animal rights, and aiding the poor— all radical ideas
in Bentham’s and Mill’s day. In the twenty- first
century, the theory still has a strong effect on moral
and policy decision making in many areas, includ-
ing health care, criminal justice, and government.
Classic utilitarianism— the kind of act- utili-
tarianism formulated by Bentham— is the simplest
form of the theory. It affirms the principle that the
right action is the one that directly produces the
best balance of happiness over unhappiness for all
concerned. Happiness is an intrinsic good— the only
intrinsic good. What matters most is how much
net happiness comes directly from performing an
action (as opposed to following a rule that applies
to such actions). To determine the right action, we
need only compute the amount of happiness that
each possible action generates and choose the one
that generates the most. There are no rules to take
into account— just the single, simple utilitarian
principle. Each set of circumstances calling for a
moral choice is unique, requiring a new calculation
of the varying consequences of possible actions.
Bentham called the utilitarian principle the
principle of utility and asserted that all our
actions can be judged by it. (Mill called it the great-
est happiness principle.) As Bentham says,
By the principle of utility is meant that principle
which approves or disapproves of every action
whatsoever, according to the tendency which
it appears to have to augment or diminish the

that happiness can vary in quantity and quality.
There are lower pleasures, such as eating, drink-
ing, and having sex, and there are higher pleasures,
such as pursuing knowledge, appreciating beauty,
and creating art. The higher pleasures are superior
to the lower ones. The lower ones can be intense
and enjoyable, but the higher ones are qualitatively
better and more fulfilling. In this scheme, a person
enjoying a mere taste of a higher pleasure may be
closer to the moral ideal than a hedonistic glutton
who gorges on lower pleasures. Thus Mill declared,
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a
pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than
a fool satisfied.”5 In Bentham’s view, the glutton—
who acquires a larger quantity of pleasure— would
be closer to the ideal.
The problem for Mill is to justify his hierarchi-
cal ranking of the various pleasures. He tries to do
so by appealing to what the majority prefers— that
is, the majority of people who have experienced
both the lower and higher pleasures. But this
approach probably will not help, because people
can differ drastically in how they rank pleasures. It
is possible, for example, that a majority of people
who have experienced a range of pleasures would
actually disagree with Mill’s rankings. In fact, any
effort to devise such rankings using the principle of
utility seems unlikely to succeed.
Many critics have argued that the idea of
defining right action in terms of some intrinsic
nonmoral good (whether pleasure, happiness, or
anything else) is seriously problematic. Attempts
to devise such a definition have been fraught with
complications— a major one being that people
have different ideas about what things are intrin-
sically valuable. Some utilitarians have tried to
sidestep these difficulties by insisting that maxi-
mizing utility means maximizing people’s prefer-
ences, whatever they are. This formulation seems
to avoid some of the difficulties just mentioned
but falls prey to another: some people’s prefer-
ences may be clearly objectionable when judged by
almost any moral standard, whether utilitarian or
or unhappiness produced by it for one individual
(that is, the net happiness— happiness minus
unhappiness). Gauge the level of happiness with
seven basic characteristics such as intensity, dura-
tion, and fecundity (how likely the pleasure or
pain is to be followed by more pleasure or pain).
Repeat this process for all individuals involved
and sum their happiness or unhappiness to arrive
at an overall net happiness for that particular
action. Repeat for each possible action. The action
with the best score (the most happiness or least
unhappiness) is the morally right one.
Notice that in this arrangement, only the total
amount of net happiness for each action matters.
How the happiness is distributed among the per-
sons involved does not figure into the calculations.
This means that an action that affects ten people
and produces 100 units of happiness is to be pre-
ferred over an action that affects those same ten
people but generates only 50 units of happiness—
even if most of the 100 units go to just one individ-
ual, and the 50 units divide equally among the ten.
The aggregate of happiness is decisive; its distri-
bution is not. Classic utilitarianism, though, does
ask that any given amount of happiness be spread
among as many people as possible— thus the utili-
tarian slogan “The greatest happiness for the great-
est number.”
Both Bentham and Mill define happiness as
pleasure. In Mill’s words,
The creed which accepts as the foundation of mor-
als utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that
actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote
happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse
of happiness. By “happiness” is intended pleasure, and
the absence of pain; by “unhappiness,” pain, and the
privation of pleasure.4
They differ, though, on the nature of happiness
and on how it should be measured. Bentham thinks
that happiness varies only in quantity— different
actions produce different amounts of happiness.
To judge the intensity, duration, or fecundity of
happiness is to calculate its quantity. Mill contends

nonconsequentialist. Some people, after all, have
ghastly preferences— preferences, say, for torturing
children or killing innocent people for fun. Some
critics say that repairing this preference utilitari-
anism to avoid sanctioning objectionable actions
seems unlikely without introducing some nonutili-
tarian moral principles such as justice, rights, and
Like act- utilitarianism, rule- utilitarianism aims
at the greatest good for all affected individuals,
but it maintains that we travel an indirect route to
that goal. In rule- utilitarianism, the morally right
action is not the one that directly brings about the
greatest good, but the one covered by a rule that,
if followed consistently, produces the greatest good
for all. In act- utilitarianism, we must examine each
action to see how much good (or evil) it generates.
Rule- utilitarianism would have us first determine
what rule an action falls under, then see if that rule
would be likely to maximize utility if everyone fol-
lowed it. In effect, the rule- utilitarian asks, “What if
everyone followed this rule?”
An act- utilitarian tries to judge the rightness of
actions by the consequences they produce, occa-
sionally relying on “rules of thumb” (such as “Usu-
ally we should not harm innocents”) merely to save
time. A rule- utilitarian, however, tries to follow
every valid rule— even if doing so may not maxi-
mize utility in a specific situation.
In our example featuring Dr. X and the cure
for heart disease, an act- utilitarian might compare
the net happiness produced by performing the
lethal operation and by not performing it, opting
finally for the former because it maximizes happi-
ness. A rule- utilitarian, on the other hand, would
consider what moral rules seem to apply to the situ-
ation. One rule might be “It is permissible to con-
duct medical procedures or experiments on people
without their full knowledge and consent in order
to substantially advance medical science.” Another
one might say “Do not conduct medical procedures
or experiments on people without their full knowl-
edge and consent.” If the first rule is generally
followed, happiness is not likely to be maximized
in the long run. Widespread adherence to this rule
would encourage medical scientists and physicians
to murder patients for the good of science. Such
practices would outrage people and cause them to
fear and distrust science and the medical profes-
sion, leading to the breakdown of the entire health
care system and most medical research. But if the
second rule is consistently adhered to, happiness is
likely to be maximized over the long haul. Trust in
physicians and medical scientists would be main-
tained, and promising research could continue as
long as it was conducted with the patient’s consent.
The right action, then, is for Dr. X not to perform
the gruesome operation.
Applying the Theory
Let us apply utilitarianism to another type of case.
Imagine that for more than a year a terrorist has
been carrying out devastating attacks in a devel-
oping country, killing hundreds of innocent men,
women, and children. He seems unstoppable. He
always manages to elude capture. In fact, because
of his stealth, the expert assistance of a few accom-
plices, and his support among the general popula-
tion, he will most likely never be captured or killed.
The authorities have no idea where he hides or
where he will strike next. But they are sure that he
will go on killing indefinitely. They have tried every
tactic they know to put an end to the slaughter, but
it goes on and on. Finally, as a last resort, the chief
of the nation’s antiterrorist police orders the arrest
of the terrorist’s family— a wife and seven children.
The chief intends to kill the wife and three of the
children right away (to show that he is serious),
then threaten to kill the remaining four unless the
terrorist turns himself in. There is no doubt that
the chief will make good on his intentions, and
there is excellent reason to believe that the terror-
ist will indeed turn himself in rather than allow his
remaining children to be executed.
Suppose that the chief has only two options:
(1) refrain from murdering the terrorist’s family

would guarantee that four innocent people (and
perhaps eight) would lose their lives, and the terror-
ist (whose welfare must also be included in the cal-
culations) would be imprisoned for life or executed.
In addition, many citizens would be disturbed by
the killing of innocent people and the flouting of
the law by the police, believing that these actions
are wrong and likely to set a dangerous precedent.
Over time, though, these misgivings might dimin-
ish. All things considered, then, Action 2 would
probably produce more happiness than unhappi-
ness. Action 1, on the other hand, maintains the
status quo. It would allow the terrorist to continue
murdering innocent people and spreading fear
throughout the land— a decidedly unhappy result.
It clearly would produce more unhappiness than
and continue with the usual antiterrorist tactics
(which have only a tiny chance of being success-
ful); or (2) kill the wife and three of the children
and threaten to kill the rest (a strategy with a very
high chance of success). According to utilitarian-
ism, which action is right?
As an act- utilitarian, the chief might reason like
this: Action 2 would probably result in a net gain of
happiness, everyone considered. Forcing the terror-
ist to turn himself in would save hundreds of lives.
His killing spree would be over. The general level
of fear and apprehension in the country might sub-
side, and even the economy— which has slowed
because of terrorism— might improve. The pres-
tige of the antiterrorism chief and his agents might
increase. On the downside, performing Action 2

The distinguished philosopher Peter Singer is argu-
ably the most famous (and controversial) utilitarian
of recent years. Many newspaper and magazine
articles have been written about him, and many
people have declared their agreement with, or
vociferous opposition to, his views. This is how one
magazine characterizes Singer and his ideas:
The New Yorker calls him “the most influential
living philosopher.” His critics call him “the most
dangerous man in the world.” Peter Singer, the
De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton Uni-
versity’s Center for Human Values, is most widely
and controversially known for his view that ani-
mals have the same moral status as humans. . . .
Singer is perhaps the most thoroughgoing
philosophical utilitarian since Jeremy Bentham.
As such, he believes animals have rights because
the relevant moral consideration is not whether a
being can reason or talk but whether it can suffer.
Jettisoning the traditional distinction between
humans and nonhumans, Singer distinguishes
instead between persons and non- persons. Persons
are beings that feel, reason, have self- awareness,
and look forward to a future. Thus, fetuses and
some very impaired human beings are not persons
in his view and have a lesser moral status than,
say, adult gorillas and chimpanzees.
Given such views, it was no surprise that anti-
abortion activists and disability rights advo-
cates loudly decried the Australian- born Singer’s
appointment at Princeton last year. Indeed, his
language regarding the treatment of disabled
human beings is at times appallingly similar to the
eugenic arguments used by Nazi theorists con-
cerning “life unworthy of life.” Singer, however,
believes that only parents, not the state, should
have the power to make decisions about the fates
of disabled infants.*
*Peter Singer, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Peter Singer
Interviewed by Ronald Bailey,” Reason Magazine,
December 2000. Reprinted with permission from Rea-
son Magazine and
Peter Singer, Utilitarian

undermine the very foundations of a free society.
In a particular case, killing innocent people to fight
terror could possibly have more utility than not
killing them. But whether such a strategy would be
advantageous to society over the long haul is not
at all certain. Consistently following Rule 1 would
have none of these unfortunate consequences. If
so, a society living according to Rule 1 would be
better off than one adhering to Rule 2, and there-
fore the innocent should not be killed to stop the
Evaluating the Theory
Bentham and Mill do not offer ironclad arguments
demonstrating that utilitarianism is the best moral
theory. Mill, however, does try to show that the
principle of utility is at least a plausible basis for
the theory. After all, he says, humans by nature
desire happiness and nothing but happiness. If so,
then happiness is the standard by which we should
judge human conduct, and therefore the principle
of utility is the heart of morality. But this kind of
moral argument is controversial because it rea-
sons from what is to what should be. In addition, as
pointed out in the discussion of psychological ego-
ism, the notion that happiness is our sole motiva-
tion is dubious.
What can we learn about utilitarianism by
applying the moral criteria of adequacy? Let us
begin with classic act- utilitarianism and deal with
rule- utilitarianism later. We can also postpone
discussion of the minimum requirement of coher-
ence, because critics have been more inclined to
charge rule- utilitarianism than act- utilitarianism
with having significant internal inconsistencies.
If we begin with Criterion 1 (consistency with
considered moral judgments), we run into what
some have called act- utilitarianism’s most serious
problem: it conflicts with commonsense views
about justice. Justice requires equal treatment of
persons. It demands, for example, that goods such
as happiness be distributed fairly— that we not
harm one person to make several other persons
principle of utility— Bentham’s “principle which
approves or disapproves of every action what-
soever, according to the tendency which it
appears to have to augment or diminish the
happiness of the party whose interest is in
greatest happiness principle— Mill’s principle that
“holds that actions are right in proportion as
they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they
tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
social contract theory—The doctrine that moral-
ity arises from a social contract that self-
interested and rational people would abide by
in order to secure a degree of peace, prosper-
ity, and safety.
happiness. Action 2, therefore, would produce the
most happiness and would therefore be the morally
right option.
As a rule- utilitarian, the chief might make a dif-
ferent choice. He would have to decide what rules
would apply to the situation, then determine which
one, if consistently followed, would yield the most
utility. Suppose he must decide between Rule 1 and
Rule 2. Rule 1 says, “Do not kill innocent people in
order to prevent terrorists from killing other inno-
cent people.” Rule 2 says, “Killing innocent people
is permissible if it helps to stop terrorist attacks.”
The chief might deliberate as follows: We can be
confident that consistently following Rule 2 would
have some dire consequences for society. Innocent
people would be subject to arbitrary execution,
civil rights would be regularly violated, the rule
of law would be severely compromised, and trust
in government would be degraded. In fact, adher-
ing to Rule 2 might make people more fearful and
less secure than terrorist attacks would; it would

young man who has just come into your clinic for
his yearly check- up has exactly the right blood type
and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible
donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute
his parts among the five who need them. You ask,
but he says, “Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no.”
Would it be morally permissible for you to operate
This scenario involves the possible killing of an
innocent person for the good of others. There seems
little doubt that carrying out the murder and trans-
planting the victim’s organs into five other people
(and thus saving their lives) would maximize util-
ity (assuming, of course, that the surgeon’s deed
would not become public and he would suffer no
untoward psychological effects). Compared with
the happiness produced by doing the transplants,
the unhappiness of the one unlucky donor seems
minor. Therefore, according to act- utilitarianism,
you (the surgeon) should commit the murder
and do the transplants. But this choice appears to
conflict with our considered moral judgments.
Killing the healthy young man to benefit the five
unhealthy patients seems unjust.
Look at one final case. Suppose a tsunami dev-
astates a coastal area of Singapore. Relief agencies
arrive on the scene to distribute food, shelter, and
medical care to 100 tsunami victims— disaster aid
that amounts to, say, 1,000 units of happiness.
There are only two options for the distribution
of the 1,000 units. Option 1 is to divide the 1,000
units equally among all 100 victims, supplying
10 units to each person. Option 2 is to give 901
units to one victim (who happens to be the rich-
est man in the area) and 99 units to the remaining
victims, providing 1 unit per person. Both options
distribute the same amount of happiness to the
victims— 1,000 units. Following the dictates of
act- utilitarianism, we would have to say that the
two actions (options) have equal utility and so are
equally right. But this conclusion seems wrong. It
seems unjust to distribute the units of happiness
so unevenly when all recipients are equals in all
happy. Utilitarianism says that everyone should
be included in utility calculations, but it does
not require that everyone get an equal share.
Consider this famous scenario from the philoso-
pher H. J. McCloskey:
While a utilitarian is visiting an area plagued by
racial tension, a black man rapes a white woman.
Race riots ensue, and white mobs roam the streets,
beating and lynching black people as the police
secretly condone the violence and do nothing to
stop it. The utilitarian realizes that by giving false
testimony, he could bring about the quick arrest
and conviction of a black man whom he picks at
random. As a result of this lie, the riots and the
lynchings would stop, and innocent lives would be
spared. As a utilitarian, he believes he has a duty to
bear false witness to punish an innocent person.
If right actions are those that maximize hap-
piness, then it seems that the utilitarian would
be doing right by framing the innocent person.
The innocent person, of course, would experience
unhappiness (he might be sent to prison or even
executed), but framing him would halt the riots
and prevent many other innocent people from
being killed, resulting in a net gain in overall happi-
ness. Framing the innocent is unjust, though, and
our considered moral judgments would be at odds
with such an action. Here the commonsense idea
of justice and the principle of utility collide. The
conflict raises doubts about act- utilitarianism as a
moral theory.
Here is another famous example:
This time you are to imagine yourself to be a sur-
geon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things
you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a
great surgeon that the organs you transplant always
take. At the moment you have five patients who
need organs. Two need one lung each, two need
a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they
do not get those organs today, they will all die; if
you find organs for them today, you can transplant
the organs and they will all live. But where to find
the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is
almost up when a report is brought to you that a

try to keep our promises even when we know that
doing so will result in a decrease in utility. Some
say that if our obligations to others sometimes out-
weigh considerations of overall happiness, then
act- utilitarianism must be problematic.7
What can an act- utilitarian say to rebut these
charges? One frequent response goes like this: The
scenarios put forth by critics (such as the cases just
cited) are misleading and implausible. They are
always set up so that actions regarded as immoral
produce the greatest happiness, leading us to
conclude that utilitarianism conflicts with com-
monsense morality and therefore cannot be an
adequate moral theory. But in real life these kinds
of actions almost never maximize happiness. In
the case of Dr. X, her crime would almost certainly
be discovered by physicians or other scientists,
and she would be exposed as a murderer. This rev-
elation would surely destroy her career, undermine
patient- physician trust, tarnish the reputation
of the scientific community, dry up funding for
legitimate research, and prompt countless law-
suits. Scientists might even refuse to use the data
from Dr. X’s research because she obtained them
through a heinous act. As one philosopher put it,
“Given a clearheaded view of the world as it is and a
realistic understanding of man’s nature, it becomes
more and more evident that injustice will never
have, in the long run, greater utility than justice. . . .
Thus injustice becomes, in actual practice, a source
of great social disutility.”8
The usual response to this defense is that the
act- utilitarian is probably correct that most viola-
tions of commonsense morality do not maximize
happiness— but at least some violations do. At
least sometimes, actions that have the best conse-
quences do conflict with our credible moral princi-
ples or considered moral judgments. The charge is
that the act- utilitarian cannot plausibly dismiss all
counterexamples, and only one counterexample is
required to show that maximizing utility is not a
necessary and sufficient condition for right action.9
Unlike ethical egoism, act- utilitarianism (as
well as rule- utilitarianism) does not fail Criterion
morally relevant respects. Like the other examples,
this one suggests that act- utilitarianism may be an
inadequate theory.
Detractors make parallel arguments against the
theory in many cases besides those involving injus-
tice. A familiar charge is that act- utilitarianism con-
flicts with our commonsense judgments both about
people’s rights and about their obligations to one
another. Consider first this scenario about rights:
Mr. Y is a nurse in a care facility for the elderly. He
tends to many bedridden patients who are in pain
most of the time, are financial and emotional bur-
dens to their families, and are not expected to live
more than a few weeks. Despite their misery, they
do not wish for death; they want only to be free of
pain. Mr. Y, an act- utilitarian, sees that there would
be a lot more happiness in the world and less pain
if these patients died sooner rather than later. He
decides to take matters into his own hands, so he
secretly gives them a drug that kills them quietly
and painlessly. Their families and the facility staff
feel enormous relief. No one will ever know what
Mr. Y has done, and no one suspects foul play. He
feels no guilt— only immense satisfaction knowing
that he has helped make the world a better place.
If Mr. Y does indeed maximize happiness in this
situation, then his action is right, according to act-
utilitarianism. Yet most people would probably say
that he violated the rights of his patients. The com-
monsense view is that people have certain rights
that should not be violated merely to create a better
balance of happiness over unhappiness.
Another typical criticism of act- utilitarianism is
that it appears to fly in the face of our considered
moral judgments about our obligations to other
people. Suppose Ms. Z must decide between two
actions: Action 1 will produce 1,001 units of hap-
piness; Action 2, 1,000 units. The only other sig-
nificant difference between them is that Action 1
entails the breaking of a promise. By act- utilitarian
lights, Ms. Z should choose Action 1 because it
yields more happiness than Action 2 does. But
we tend to think that keeping a promise is more
important than a tiny gain in happiness. We often

consciousness, but I tended to take the view “so
much the worse for the common moral conscious-
ness.” That is, I was inclined to reject the common
methodology of testing general ethical principles
by seeing how they square with our feelings in par-
ticular instances.10
These utilitarians would ask, Isn’t it possible
that in dire circumstances, saving a hundred inno-
cent lives by allowing one to die would be the best
thing to do even though allowing that one death
would be a tragedy? Aren’t there times when the
norms of justice and duty should be ignored for the
greater good of society?
To avoid the problems that act- utilitarianism
is alleged to have, some utilitarians have turned to
rule- utilitarianism. By positing rules that should be
consistently followed, rule- utilitarianism seems to
align its moral judgments closer to those of com-
mon sense. And the theory itself is based on ideas
about morality that seem perfectly sensible:
In general, rule utilitarianism seems to involve two
rather plausible intuitions. In the first place, rule
utilitarians want to emphasize that moral rules are
important. Individual acts are justified by being
shown to be in accordance with correct moral rules.
In the second place, utility is important. Moral rules
are shown to be correct by being shown to lead,
somehow, to the maximization of utility. . . . Rule
utilitarianism, in its various forms, tries to combine
these intuitions into a single, coherent criterion of
But some philosophers have accused the theory
of being internally inconsistent. They say, in other
words, that it fails the minimum requirement of
coherence. (If so, we can forgo discussion of our
three moral criteria of adequacy.) They argue as
follows: Rule- utilitarianism says that actions are
right if they conform to rules devised to maximize
utility. Rules with exceptions or qualifications,
however, maximize utility better than rules with-
out them. For example, a rule like “Do not steal
except in these circumstances” maximizes utility
better than the rule “Do not steal.” It seems, then,
that the best rules are those with amendments
that make them as specific as possible to particular
2 (consistency with our moral experiences), so we
can move on to Criterion 3 (usefulness in moral
problem solving). On this score, some scholars
argue that act- utilitarianism deserves bad marks.
Probably their most common complaint is what
has been called the no- rest problem. Utilitarianism
(in all its forms) requires that in our actions we
always try to maximize utility, everyone consid-
ered. Say you are watching television. Utilitarian-
ism would have you ask yourself, “Is this the best
way to maximize happiness for everyone?” Proba-
bly not. You could be giving to charity or working
as a volunteer for the local hospital or giving your
coat to a homeless person or selling everything
you own to buy food for hungry children. What-
ever you are doing, there is usually something else
you could do that would better maximize net hap-
piness for everyone.
If act- utilitarianism does demand too much of
us, then its usefulness as a guide to the moral life is
suspect. One possible reply to this criticism is that
the utilitarian burden can be lightened by devising
rules that place limits on supererogatory actions.
Another reply is that our moral common sense is
simply wrong on this issue— we should be willing
to perform, as our duty, many actions that are usu-
ally considered supererogatory. If necessary, we
should be willing to give up our personal ambitions
for the good of everyone. We should be willing,
for example, to sacrifice a very large portion of our
resources to help the poor.
To some, this reply seems questionable pre-
cisely because it challenges our commonsense
moral intuitions— the very intuitions that we use
to measure the plausibility of our moral judgments
and principles. Moral common sense, they say, can
be mistaken, and our intuitions can be tenuous or
distorted— but we should cast them aside only for
good reasons.
But a few utilitarians directly reject this appeal
to common sense, declaring that relying so heavily
on such intuitions is a mistake:
Admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences
which are incompatible with the common moral

is right regardless of the good (or evil) it does. And
sometimes they may say that the good it does
matters a great deal.
Second, utilitarianism— perhaps more than any
other moral theory— incorporates the principle of
impartiality, a fundamental pillar of morality itself.
Everyone concerned counts equally in every moral
decision. As Mill says, when we judge the rightness
of our actions, utilitarianism requires us to be “as
strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent
spectator.” Discrimination is forbidden, and equal-
ity reigns. We would expect no less from a plausible
moral theory.
Third, utilitarianism is through and through
a moral theory for promoting human welfare. At
its core is the moral principle of beneficence— the
obligation to act for the well- being of others. Benef-
icence is not the whole of morality, but to most
people it is at least close to its heart.
So far we have examined several moral theories and
observed that each is based on, and justified by,
some distinctive fundamental feature. For utilitari-
anism, that feature is utility; for the divine com-
mand theory, God’s will; for Kant’s theory, the
categorical imperative. But suppose you don’t
believe in any of these justifying principles. You
think the universe is entirely physical— just atoms
in motion, devoid of divinity and purpose. You
believe reason can never yield an authoritative
rational principle like the categorical imperative,
and you are sure that utilitarianism is hopelessly
unrealistic because people can never be trusted to
promote the common good. At their core, people
are egoistic and self- interested. And in service to
their own needs and desires, they will, given the
chance, commit all manner of horrific cruelties
and vile wrongs. In such a world, on what founda-
tion can morality rest? In such a perilous and cor-
rosive environment, how can morality ever find a
cases. But if the rules were changed in this way to
maximize utility, they would end up mandating
the same actions that act- utilitarianism does. They
all would say, in effect, “Do not do this except to
maximize utility.” Rule- utilitarianism would lapse
into act- utilitarianism.
Some rule- utilitarians respond to this criti-
cism by denying that rules with a lot of excep-
tions would maximize utility. They say that people
might fear for their own well- being when others
make multiple exceptions to rules. You might be
reassured by a rule such as “Do not harm others,”
but feel uneasy about the rule “Do not harm others
except in this situation.” What if you end up in that
particular situation?
Those who criticize the theory admit that it is
indeed possible for an exception- laden rule to pro-
duce more unhappiness than happiness because
of the anxiety it causes. But, they say, it is also
possible for such a rule to generate a very large mea-
sure of happiness— large enough to more than off-
set any ill effects spawned by rule exceptions. If so,
then rule- utilitarianism could easily slip into act-
utilitarianism, thus exhibiting all the conflicts with
commonsense morality that act- utilitarianism is
supposed to have.
Regardless of how much credence we give to the
arguments for and against utilitarianism, we must
admit that the theory seems to embody a large part
of the truth about morality. First, utilitarianism
begs us to consider that the consequences of our
actions do indeed make a difference in our moral
deliberations. Whatever factors work to make an
action right (or wrong), surely the consequences of
what we do must somehow be among them. Even
if lying is morally wrong primarily because of the
kind of act it is, we cannot plausibly think that a
lie that saves a thousand lives is morally equivalent
to one that changes nothing. Sometimes our con-
sidered moral judgments may tell us that an action

freedom and giving up the option to kill, wound,
and cheat our neighbors at will, but it also ensures
a better life and a measure of protection from the
ravages of continual conflict and fear. From this
social contract comes morality, for the rules consti-
tute morality. Morality comprises the social rules
that are in everyone’s best interests to heed. In a
well- ordered society, the rules are embodied in
laws and policies, enforced by the state and recog-
nized by most citizens as necessary and legitimate.
They are deemed legitimate because they are the
result of an agreement among rational equals who
understand that the contract, however restrictive,
is for the best.
Hobbes’s Theory
The first well- developed social contract theory in
modern times was devised by the British philoso-
pher and linguist Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679).
He argues for the necessity of a social contract by
first giving us a glimpse of a world without one.
For some, the answer is social contract
theory (or contractarianism). This doctrine says
that morality arises from a social contract that
self- interested and rational people abide by in
order to secure a degree of peace, prosperity, and
safety. Without such an agreement, life would be
nearly unlivable, with each person competing with
everyone else to promote his or her own interests,
to grab as much wealth and power as possible, and
to defend his or her person and property against
all comers. Humanity, as the saying goes, would
be red in tooth and claw. But such a dog- eat- dog
world is in no one’s interests. Only in a world
where people restrain their greed and try to coop-
erate with one another can they achieve a mod-
estly satisfying and secure life. And this kind of
restraint and cooperation, says the social contract
theorist, is possible only through a social contract
in which people agree to obey practical, benefi-
cial rules as long as everyone else does the same.
Obedience means relinquishing some personal

Like any adequate moral theory, utilitarianism
should be able to help us resolve moral problems,
including new moral issues arising from advances
in science and medicine. A striking example of one
such issue is cross- species transplantation, the trans-
planting of organs from one species to another,
usually from nonhuman animals to humans. Scien-
tists are already bioengineering pigs so that their
organs will not provoke tissue rejection in human
recipients. Pigs are thought to be promising organ
donors because of the similarities between pig and
human organs. Many people are in favor of such
research because it could open up new sources
of transplantable organs, which are now in short
supply and desperately needed by thousands of
people whose organs are failing.
Would an act- utilitarian be likely to condone
cross- species transplants of organs? If so, on what
grounds? Would the unprecedented, “unnatu-
ral” character of these operations bother a utili-
tarian? Why or why not? Would you expect an
act- utilitarian to approve of cross- species organ
transplants if they involved the killing of one hun-
dred pigs for every successful transplant? If only a
very limited number of transplants could be done
successfully each year, how do you think an act-
utilitarian would decide who gets the operations?
Would she choose randomly? Would she ever be
justified (by utilitarian considerations) in, say,
deciding to save a rich philanthropist while letting
a poor person die for lack of a transplant?
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Cross- Species Transplants: What Would a Utilitarian Do?

as well as harming, threatening, and defrauding
others, because such behavior threatens the peace
and prosperity that the social contract makes
But people are people, and they will renege on
the deal if given half a chance. So what’s needed is
a fearsome, powerful person or persons to enforce
the rules, to threaten punishment, and to deliver it
swiftly to rule breakers. Specifically, what’s required
is an absolute sovereign, what Hobbes refers to as
the Leviathan (the name of a terrifying monster
mentioned in the Bible). The Leviathan’s job is
to ensure that the social contract is honored and
that agreements are kept. His subjects agree to
cede to him much of their freedom and right of
self- determination in exchange for an orderly and
secure society.
Before the Leviathan rules society, Hobbes says,
there is no right and wrong:
[In the state of nature] nothing can be unjust. The
notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice
have there no place. . . . It is consequent also to
the same condition, that there be no propriety, no
dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only
that to be every man’s, that he can get; and for so
long, as he can keep it.13
Morality comes into existence only when the Levi-
athan takes control and guarantees the strength
and stability of the social contract.
Evaluating the Theory
Many thinkers have tried to improve on Hobbes’s
theory or offer alternatives, and as a result, several
types of social contract theory have been put forth.
But let’s limit our discussion to Hobbes’s theory
(and those like it). Like every major moral theory,
Hobbesian social contract theory has both appeal-
ing and questionable features, so let’s examine
On the positive side, the theory provides an
answer to skeptics and relativists who question
whether morality is objective or consists of a set
In his masterpiece Leviathan, he presents a pessi-
mistic picture of human beings in their natural,
unfettered, lawless state. They are, he says, greedy,
selfish, violent, self- destructive, and desperate.
Their cutthroat struggle for advantage and sur-
vival rages on and on because they are roughly
equal in strength and ability, ensuring that no
one can win. So conflict, chaos, death, and loss
reign— and humankind is reduced to living in a
horrifying and gruesome “state of nature.” This
state is not merely a Hobbesian construct: it arises
in the real world when there is a breakdown in the
forces that preserve law and order— in times of
revolution, war, natural disaster, famine, and civil
unrest. According to Hobbes,
Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men
live without a common power to keep them all in
awe, they are in that condition which is called war;
and such a war, as is of every man, against every
man. . . .
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time
of war, where every man is enemy to every man;
the same is consequent to the time; wherein men
live without other security, than what their own
strength, and their own invention shall furnish
them withal. In such condition, there is no place
for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncer-
tain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no
navigation, nor use of the commodities that may
be imported by sea; no commodious building; no
instruments of moving, and removing such things
as require much force; no knowledge of the face of
the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters;
no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear,
and danger of violent death; and the life of man,
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.12
As long as people continue to trample others
on the way to steal the biggest piece of pie, life will
remain a “war of every man against every man.”
The only rational alternative, says Hobbes, is to
accept a social contract that mandates coopera-
tion and restraint. By following the rules, everyone
wins. The agreement prohibits contract breaking

allegiance or signed on the dotted line? Most
people have not.
Some defenders of social contract theory reply
that people may not have given their explicit
consent, but they surely have given their implicit
consent. By enjoying the social and material advan-
tages that the social contract makes possible, these
advocates say, people implicitly agree to abide by
its rules. If they accept the benefits, they tacitly
agree to shoulder the obligations.
But this notion of implicit consent will not do.
There are many who benefit from living in a well-
ordered society, but we cannot plausibly say they
consented to be bound by any social contract.
People are born into a particular society without
their consent; they have no choice in the matter.
They do not agree to be part of the social order.
And as adults, many may hate the society they find
themselves in but cannot leave it because the polit-
ical, financial, and social costs of trying to emigrate
may be prohibitive. In any case, it is hard to see
how such citizens could be said to implicitly accept
a social contract.
At this point the contractarian might say that
we can be duty- bound to obey the moral tenets of a
social contract even if we don’t consent to it, either
explicitly or implicitly. Our moral duties are estab-
lished not because we accept the social contract
from which they come, but because the contract is
one that we would embrace if we were rational indi-
viduals searching for rules that would best serve
everyone’s interests. The social contract, in other
words, is hypothetical but nevertheless binding.
This is how most contemporary contractarians view
social contracts: they see them as fictions— but very
useful fictions. For example, today’s most influen-
tial social contract theory comes from the philos-
opher John Rawls (1921–2002). He attempted to
determine what moral principles a society would
accept if they were arrived at through a hypotheti-
cal give- and- take that was as fair and impartial as
possible. According to Rawls, such principles are
of beliefs we merely happen to accept. It says that
morality is objective because it consists of the
rules— the standards of right and wrong— that
rational members of society have determined to
be most beneficial for all. The source of moral-
ity is therefore apparent. We need not ask— as
we would with many other theories— whether it
is based on God’s will, nature, or pure reason. Its
rules make peaceful coexistence and productive
cooperation possible, and they are the very rules
that would be enacted by rational people of equal
status whose goal is to see that the rules benefit
These attributes ensure that, at least in one
respect, Hobbes’s theory scores high on the moral
criterion of usefulness: there is no mystery about
how to find out if an action is morally right or
wrong. The social rules are those that promote
social harmony. It is clear that theft, murder, fraud,
promise breaking, exploitation, intolerance, and
other malicious acts are contrary to social order, so
they are immoral.
But why should we be moral in the first place?
Or to put it another way, What is the purpose of
morality? This is a difficult question for any moral
theory. The social contract answer is straightfor-
ward: We should be moral in a society where the
rules are generally followed because we are better
off doing so. In addition, breaking the rules would
bring punishment from the Leviathan, and trying
to avoid the pain of such punishment is rational.
Philosophers have faulted Hobbes’s theory on
several counts. Among the most important of these
is the charge that few people have ever actually
consented to the terms of a social contract. (Critics
make this point against other forms of the theory,
not just Hobbes’s.) The essence of a contract is
that people freely agree to abide by its terms. Pre-
sumably, if they don’t give their consent, they are
not obliged to obey the contract’s rules. But who
has explicitly agreed to be bound by a social con-
tract? Who has raised their right hand and sworn

what “free and rational persons concerned to fur-
ther their own interests would accept in an initial
position of equality as defining the fundamental
terms of their association.”14
There is a stronger objection that has been
made against Hobbes’s theory and contractarian
theories generally: the category of individuals
that we normally think should have moral status
is restricted. Living beings have moral status if
they are suitable candidates for moral concern or
respect. This means we cannot treat them just any
way we want; we have direct moral duties to them.
We know that normal, rational, adult human
beings have full moral status— they deserve our
highest level of respect and consideration no
matter their social situation. And we typically
think that vulnerable individuals— for example, the
severely disabled, the very poor, nonhuman ani-
mals, children, and infants— also have moral sta-
tus: they also deserve a measure of our respect and
consideration. But critics charge that social con-
tract theories conflict with these intuitions. The
theories generally hold that the only ones who
have moral status are those who can legitimately
be party to a social contract (the contractors), and
that the only ones who can participate in a social
contract are those for whom participation would
be mutually beneficial. The vulnerable individu-
als who cannot take part in this give- and- take for
mutual benefit may have no moral status and no
Modern contractarians have responded to these
complaints in several ways. Their general conten-
tion is that although vulnerable individuals may
not be contractors, it does not follow that they
can be mistreated or left unprotected. They point
out, for example, that it may be mutually advan-
tageous for society to care for disabled children
because some contractors (namely, parents) care
about such children, and this concern makes the
benevolent treatment of disabled children a mat-
ter of the parents’ self- interest. Also, it may be
in everyone’s interests for society to care for the
elderly, the chronically ill, and victims of acci-
dents, because in the future we all may find our-
selves in one of these situations. Or benefiting
the vulnerable could be viewed as a psychological
need of contractors, so fulfilling this need by help-
ing the vulnerable may be in every contractor’s
best interests.
Ethical egoism is the theory that the right action is
the one that advances one’s own best interests. It pro-
motes self- interested behavior but not necessarily self-
ish acts. The ethical egoist may define his self- interest
in various ways— as pleasure, self- actualization,
power, happiness, or other goods. The most impor-
tant argument for ethical egoism relies on the theory
known as psychological egoism, the view that the
motive for all our actions is self- interest. Psychologi-
cal egoism, however, seems to ignore the fact that
people sometimes do things that are not in their best
interests. It also seems to misconstrue the relationship
between our actions and the satisfaction that often
follows from them. We seem to desire something
other than satisfaction and then experience satisfac-
tion as a result of getting what we desire.
Utilitarianism is the view that the morally right
action is the one that produces the most favorable
balance of good over evil, everyone considered. Act-
utilitarianism says that right actions are those that
directly produce the greatest overall happiness, every-
one considered. Rule- utilitarianism says that the mor-
ally right action is the one covered by a rule that if
generally followed would produce the most favorable
balance of good over evil, everyone considered.
Critics argue that act- utilitarianism is not con-
sistent with our considered moral judgments about
justice. In many possible scenarios, the action that

3. What is the psychological egoist argument for
ethical egoism? (pp. 87–88)
4. Is psychological egoism true? Why or why not?
(pp. 88–89)
5. In what way is ethical egoism not consistent
with our considered moral judgments? (p. 90)
6. What is the principle of utility? (p. 92)
7. According to Hobbes, where does morality come
from? (p. 102)
8. What is the difference between act- and rule-
utilitarianism? (p. 94)
9. How do act- and rule- utilitarians differ in their
views on rules? (p. 94)
10. Is act- utilitarianism consistent with our
considered moral judgments regarding justice?
Why or why not? (pp. 96–98)
Discussion Questions
1. Is psychological egoism based on a conceptual
confusion? Why or why not?
2. Why do critics regard ethical egoism as an
inadequate moral theory? Are the critics right?
Why or why not?
3. How would your life change if you became a
consistent act- utilitarian?
4. How would your life change if you became a
consistent rule- utilitarian?
5. To what was Mill referring when he said, “It is
better to be a human being dissatisfied than a
pig satisfied”? Do you agree with this statement?
Why or why not?
6. If you were on trial for your life (because of an
alleged murder), would you want the judge
to be an act- utilitarian, a rule- utilitarian, or
neither? Why?
7. Do you agree with Hobbes’s view of human
nature? Why or why not?
8. Does act- utilitarianism conflict with
commonsense judgments about rights? Why or
why not?
9. Is there such a thing as a supererogatory
act— or are all right actions simply our duty?
What would an act- utilitarian say about
supererogatory acts?
maximizes utility in a situation also seems blatantly
unjust. Likewise, the theory seems to collide with
our notions of rights and obligations. Again, it seems
relatively easy to imagine scenarios in which utility
is maximized while rights or obligations are short-
changed. An act- utilitarian might respond to these
points by saying that such examples are unrealistic—
that in real life, actions thought to be immoral almost
never maximize happiness.
Rule- utilitarianism has been accused of being
internally inconsistent— of easily collapsing into act-
utilitarianism. The charge is that the rules that maxi-
mize happiness best are specific to particular cases, but
such rules would sanction the same actions that act-
utilitarianism does.
Regardless of criticisms lodged against it, utilitaria-
nism offers important insights into the nature of moral-
ity: The consequences of our actions surely do matter in
our moral deliberations and in our lives. The principle
of impartiality is an essential part of moral decision
making. And any plausible moral theory must some-
how take into account the principle of beneficence.
Social contract theory is the view that morality
arises from a social contract that self- interested and
rational people would abide by to secure a degree of
security and prosperity. Restraint and cooperation
are possible only through a social contract in which
people agree to obey practical, beneficial rules as long
as everyone else does the same.
act- egoism (p. 85)
rule- egoism (p. 85)
psychological egoism (p. 87)
principle of utility (p. 92)
greatest happiness principle (p. 92)
social contract theory (p. 101)
Review Questions
1. What is ethical egoism? What is the difference
between act- and rule- egoism? (p. 85)
2. What is psychological egoism? (p. 87)

Jeremy Bentham, “Of the Principle of Utility,” in An Intro-
duction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789;
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C. D. Broad, “Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives,” in
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and Joram G. Haber (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
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Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber, eds., Twentieth
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Fred Feldman, “Act Utilitarianism: Pro and Con,” in
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William Frankena, “Utilitarianism, Justice, and Love,”
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Robert Nozick, “The Experience Machine,” in Anarchy,
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John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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10. Suppose you had to decide which one of a
dozen dying patients should receive a lifesaving
drug, knowing that there was only enough of
the medicine for one person. Would you feel
comfortable making the decision as an act-
utilitarian would? Why or why not?
1. Suppose you are an act- utilitarian, and you
must choose between two courses of action. In
the first action, you could make a stranger very
happy by giving her $100. In the second action,
you could make another stranger even happier
by giving him the same amount of money— but
this action would involve breaking a promise to
a friend. According to act- utilitarianism, which
action is the morally right one? Do you agree
with this choice? Why or why not?
2. Imagine that your preferred moral theory
implies that racial discrimination is morally
permissible— an implication that is in
direct conflict with your considered moral
judgments. Would such a conflict suggest to
you that the theory must be defective? Why or
why not?
3. Suppose your preferred moral theory is based
entirely on love— that is, you believe that right
actions are those that issue from a feeling of
empathy, compassion, or mercy. Now imagine
that a homeless man assaults you and steals
your wallet, and then you see him do the same
thing to two other people. How would your
love theory apply to this case? Would there be
a conflict between love and the principle of
justice or the community’s moral standards?
Would your theory lead you to go against your
considered moral judgments? Assess the worth
of the love theory.

R E A d I n G S
Egoism and Altruism
Louis P. Pojman
Universal ethical egoism is the theory that everyone
ought always to serve his or her own self- interest. That
is, everyone ought to do what will maximize one’s
own expected utility or bring about one’s own greatest
happiness, even if it requires harming others. Ethical
egoism is utilitarianism reduced to the pinpoint of the
single individual ego. Instead of advocating the great-
est happiness for the greatest number, as utilitarianism
does, it advocates the greatest happiness for myself,
whoever I may be. It is a self- preoccupied prudence,
urging one to postpone enjoyment today for long- term
benefits. In its more sophisticated form, it compares life
to a competitive game, perhaps a war- game, and urges
each person to try to win in the game of life.
In her books The Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas
Shrugged, Ayn Rand argues that selfishness is a virtue
and altruism a vice, a totally destructive idea that leads
to the undermining of individual worth. She defines
altruism as the view that
any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and
any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus, the
beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral
value— and so long as the beneficiary is anybody other
than oneself, anything goes.1
As such, altruism is suicidal:
If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, his first concern
is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it. . . .
Altruism erodes men’s capacity to grasp the value of an
individual life; it reveals a mind from which the reality
of a human being has been wiped out.
Since finding happiness is the highest goal and good in
life, altruism, which calls on us to sacrifice our happiness
for the good of others, is contrary to our highest good.
Her argument seems to go like this:
1. The perfection of one’s abilities in a state of hap-
piness is the highest goal for humans. We have a
moral duty to attempt to reach this goal.
2. The ethics of altruism prescribes that we sacrifice
our interests and lives for the good of others.
3. Therefore, the ethics of altruism is incompatible
with the goal of happiness.
4. Ethical egoism prescribes that we seek our own
happiness exclusively, and as such it is consistent
with the happiness goal.
5. Therefore ethical egoism is the correct moral theory.
Ayn Rand’s argument for the virtue of selfish-
ness is flawed by the fallacy of a false dilemma. It
simplistically assumes that absolute altruism and
absolute egoism are the only alternatives. But this
is an extreme view of the matter. There are plenty
of options between these two positions. Even a pre-
dominant egoist would admit that (analogous to
the paradox of hedonism) sometimes the best way
to reach self- fulfillment is for us to forget about our-
selves and strive to live for goals, causes, or other
persons. Even if altruism is not required (as a duty),
it may be permissible in many cases. Furthermore,
self- interest may not be incompatible with other-
regarding motivation. Even the Second Great Com-
mandment set forth by Moses and Jesus states not
that you must always sacrifice yourself for the other
person, but that you ought to love your neighbor as
yourself (Lev. 19:19; Matt. 23). Self- interest and self-
love are morally good things, but not at the expense
of other people’s legitimate interests. When there is
moral conflict of interests, a fair process of adjudica-
tion needs to take place.
But Rand’s version of egoism is only one of many.
We need to go to the heart of ethical egoism: the thesis
that our highest moral duty is always to promote our
From Louis P. Pojman, “Egoism and Altruism: A Critique of Ayn
Rand,” Philosophy: The Quest for Truth, 10th ed., 461–65. © 2016 by
Oxford University Press, Inc. By permission of Oxford University
Press, USA.

ethical egoism worth the price of letting the cat out of
the bag?)
Thus it would be self- defeating for the egoist to
argue for her position, and even worse that she should
convince others of it. But it is perfectly possible to
have a private morality that does not resolve conflicts
of interest. So the egoist should publicly advocate
standard principles of traditional morality— so that
society doesn’t break down— while adhering to a pri-
vate, nonstandard, solely self- regarding morality. So,
if you’re willing to pay the price, you can accept the
solipsistic- directed norms of egoism.
If the egoist is prepared to pay the price, egoism
could be a consistent system that has some limita-
tions. Although the egoist can cooperate with others
in limited ways and perhaps even have friends— so
long as their interests don’t conflict with his— he has
to be very careful about preserving his isolation. The
egoist can’t give advice or argue about his position—
not sincerely at least. He must act alone, atomistically
or solipsistically in moral isolation, for to announce
his adherence to the principle of egoism would be
dangerous to his project. He can’t teach his children
the true morality or justify himself to others or forgive
The Paradox of Egoism
The situation may be even worse than the sophisti-
cated, self- conscious egoist supposes. Could the ego-
ist have friends? And if limited friendship is possible,
could he or she ever be in love or experience deep
friendship? Suppose the egoist discovers that in the
pursuit of the happiness goal, deep friendship is
in his best interest. Can he become a friend? What
is necessary to deep friendship? A true friend is one
who is not always preoccupied about his own inter-
est in the relationship but who forgets about himself
altogether, at least sometimes, in order to serve or
enhance the other person’s interest. “Love seeketh
not its own.” It is an altruistic disposition, the very
opposite of egoism. So the paradox of egoism is that
in order to reach the goal of egoism one must give up
egoism and become (to some extent) an altruist, the
very antithesis of egoism.
individual interests. Let us focus on the alleged prob-
lems of this thesis.
The Inconsistent Outcomes Argument
Brian Medlin argues that ethical egoism cannot be
true because it fails to meet a necessary condition of
morality, that of being a guide to action. He claims
that it will be like advising people to do inconsistent
things based on incompatible desires.2 His argument
goes like this:
1. Moral principles must be universal and categorical.
2. I must universalize my egoist desire to come out
on top over Tom, Dick, and Harry.
3. But I must also prescribe Tom’s egoist desire to come
out on top over Dick, Harry, and me (and so on).
4. Therefore I have prescribed incompatible outcomes
and have not provided a way of adjudicating con-
flicts of desire. In effect, I have said nothing.
The proper response to this is that of Jesse Kalin, who
argues that we can separate our beliefs about ethical
situations from our desires.3 He likens the situation
to a competitive sports event, in which you believe
that your opponent has a right to try to win as much
as you, but you desire that you, not he, will in fact
win. An even better example is that of the chess game
in which you recognize that your opponent ought to
move her bishop to prepare for checkmate, but you
hope she won’t see the move. Belief that A ought to do
Y does not commit you to wanting A to do Y.
The Publicity Argument
On the one hand, in order for something to be a moral
theory it seems necessary that its moral principles be
publicized. Unless principles are put forth as univer-
sal prescriptions that are accessible to the public, they
cannot serve as guides to action or as aids in resolving
conflicts of interest. But on the other hand, it is not
in the egoist’s self- interest to publicize them. Egoists
would rather that the rest of us be altruists. (Why did
Nietzsche and Rand write books announcing their
positions? Were the royalties taken in by announcing

In the past, linking ethics to evolution meant
justifying exploitation. Social Darwinism justified
imperialism and the principle that “Might makes right”
by saying that survival of the fittest is a law of nature.
This philosophy lent itself to a promotion of ruthless
egoism. This is nature’s law, “nature red in tooth and
claw.” Against this view ethologists such as Robert
Ardrcy and Konrad Lorenz argued for a more benign
view of the animal kingdom— one reminiscent of Rud-
yard Kipling’s, in which the animal kingdom survives
by cooperation, which is at least as important as com-
petition. On Ardrey’s and Lorenz’s view it is the group
or the species, not the individual, that is of primary
With the development of sociobiology— in the
work of E. O. Wilson but particularly the work of Rob-
ert Trivers, J. Maynard Smith, and Richard Dawkins—
a theory has come to the fore that combines radical
individualism with limited altruism. It is not the
group or the species that is of evolutionary impor-
tance but the gene, or, more precisely, the gene type.
Genes— the parts of the chromosomes that carry the
blueprints for all our natural traits (e.g., height, hair
color, skin color, intelligence)—copy themselves as
they divide and multiply. At conception they com-
bine with the genes of a member of the opposite sex to
form a new individual.
In his fascinating sociobiological study, Richard
Dawkins describes human behavior as determined
evolutionarily by stable strategies set to replicate the
gene.4 This is not done consciously, of course, but by
the invisible hand that drives consciousness. We are
essentially gene machines.
Morality— that is, successful morality— can be seen
as an evolutionary strategy for gene replication. Here’s
an example: Birds are afflicted with life- endangering
parasites. Because they lack limbs to enable them to
pick the parasites off their heads, they— like much of
the animal kingdom— depend on the ritual of mutual
grooming. It turns out that nature has evolved two
basic types of birds in this regard: those who are dis-
posed to groom anyone (the non- prejudiced type?),
and those who refuse to groom anyone but who pres-
ent themselves for grooming. The former type of bird
Dawkins calls “Suckers” and the latter “Cheaters.”
The Argument from Counterintuitive
The final argument against ethical egoism is that it is an
absolute ethics that not only permits egoistic behavior
but demands it. Helping others at one’s own expense is
not only not required, it is morally wrong. Whenever I
do not have good evidence that my helping you will end
up to my advantage, I must refrain from helping you. If
I can save the whole of Europe and Africa from destruc-
tion by pressing a button, then so long as there is noth-
ing for me to gain by it, it is wrong for me to press that
button. The Good Samaritan was, by this logic, morally
wrong in helping the injured victim and not collect-
ing payment for his troubles. It is certainly hard to see
why the egoist should be concerned about environ-
mental matters if he or she is profiting from polluting
the environment. (For example, if the egoist gains 40
hedons in producing P, which produces pollution that
in turn causes others 1,000 dolors— units of suffering—
but suffers only 10 of those dolors himself, then by an
agent- maximizing calculus he is morally obligated to
produce P.) There is certainly no obligation to preserve
scarce natural resources for future generations. “Why
should I do anything for posterity?” the egoist asks
“What has posterity ever done for me?”
In conclusion, we see that ethical egoism has a
number of serious problems. It cannot consistently
publicize itself, nor often argue its case. It tends
towards solipsism and the exclusion of many of the
deepest human values, such as love and deep friend-
ship. It violates the principle of fairness, and, most
of all, it entails an absolute prohibition on altruis-
tic behavior, which we intuitively sense as morally
required (or, at least, permissible).
If sheer unadulterated egoism is an inadequate moral
theory, does that mean we ought to aim at complete
altruism, total self- effacement for the sake of others? What
is the role of self- love in morality? An interesting place
to start answering these queries is with the new field
of sociobiology, which theorizes that social structures
and behavioral patterns, including morality, have a
biological base, explained by evolutionary theory.

someone who is willing to share with those willing to
Mackie may caricature the position of the religious
altruist, but he misses the subtleties of wisdom involved
(Jesus said, “Be as wise as serpents but as harmless as
doves”). Nevertheless, he does remind us that there is
a difference between core morality and complete altru-
ism. We have duties to cooperate and reciprocate, but
no duty to serve those who manipulate us nor an obvi-
ous duty to sacrifice ourselves for people outside our
domain of special responsibility. We have a special duty
of high altruism toward those in the close circle of our
concern, namely, our family and friends.
Martin Luther once said that humanity is like a man
who, when mounting a horse, always falls off on the
opposite side, especially when he tries to overcom-
pensate for his previous exaggerations. So it is with
ethical egoism. Trying to compensate for an irra-
tional, guilt- ridden, Sucker altruism of the morality
of self- effacement, it falls off the horse on the other
side, embracing a Cheater’s preoccupation with self-
exaltation that robs the self of the deepest joys in life.
Only the person who mounts properly, avoiding both
extremes, is likely to ride the horse of happiness to its
1. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New American Library,
1964), pp. vii and 27–32; 80ff.
2. Brian Medlin, “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Ego-
ism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1957), pp. 111–118;
reprinted in Louis Pojman, Ethical Theory, pp. 91–95.
3. See Jesse Kalin, “In Defense of Egoism,” in Ethical Theory,
4th ed., ed. Louis Pojman (Wadsworth, 2002), p. 95f.
4. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press,
1976), Ch. 10.
5. J. L. Mackie, “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and
Principles of Evolution,” Philosophy 53 (1978).
In a geographical area containing harmful para-
sites and where there are only Suckers or Cheaters,
Suckers will do fairly well, but Cheaters will not sur-
vive, for want of cooperation. However, in a Sucker
population in which a mutant Cheater arises, the
Cheater will prosper, and the Cheater gene- type will
multiply. As the Suckers are exploited, they will gradu-
ally die out. But if and when they become too few to
groom the Cheaters, the Cheaters will start to die off
too and eventually become extinct.
Why don’t birds all die off, then? Well, somehow
nature has come up with a third type, call them “Grudg-
ers.” Grudgers groom all and only those who reciprocate
in grooming them. They groom each other and Suck-
ers, but not Cheaters. In fact, once caught, a Cheater is
marked forever. There is no forgiveness. It turns out then
that unless there are a lot of Suckers around, Cheaters
have a hard time of it— harder even than Suckers. How-
ever, it is the Grudgers that prosper. Unlike Suckers, they
don’t waste time messing with unappreciative Cheat-
ers, so they are not exploited and have ample energy to
gather food and build better nests for their loved ones.
J. L. Mackie argues that the real name for Suckers
is “Christian,” one who believes in complete altru-
ism, even turning the other cheek to one’s assailant
and loving one’s enemy. Cheaters are ruthless egoists
who can survive only if there are enough naive altru-
ists around. Whereas Grudgers are reciprocal altruists
who have a rational morality based on cooperative
self- interest, Suckers, such as Socrates and Jesus, advo-
cate “turning the other cheek and repaying evil with
good.”5 Instead of a Rule of Reciprocity, “I’ll scratch
your back if you’ll scratch mine,” the extreme altruist
substitutes the Golden Rule, “If you want the other fel-
low to scratch your back, you scratch his— even if he
won’t reciprocate.”
The moral of the story is this: Altruist morality (so
interpreted) is only rational given the payoff of eternal
life (with a scorekeeper as Woody Allen says). Take that
away, and it looks like a Sucker system. What replaces
the “Christian” vision of submission and saintliness
is the reciprocal altruist with a tit- for- tat morality,

From Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill
* * *
The creed which accepts, as the foundation of morals,
Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that
actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote
happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse
of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and
the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the
privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral
standard set up by the theory, much more requires to
be said; in particular, what things it includes in the
ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is
left an open question. But these supplementary expla-
nations do not affect the theory of life on which this
theory of morality is grounded— namely, that plea-
sure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desir-
able as ends; and that all desirable things (which are
as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme)
are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in them-
selves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and
the prevention of pain.
Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds,
and among them in some of the most estimable in feel-
ing and purpose, inveterate dislike. To suppose that life
has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—
no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit— they
designate as utterly mean and grovelling; as a doc-
trine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of
Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously
likened; and modern holders of the doctrine are occa-
sionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons
by its German, French, and English assailants.
When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always
answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who
represent human nature in a degrading light; since the
accusation supposes human beings to be capable of
no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.
If this supposition were true, the charge could not be
gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation;
for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same
to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which
is good enough for the one would be good enough for
the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that
of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s
pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions
of happiness. Human beings have faculties more
elevated than the animal appetites, and when once
made conscious of them, do not regard anything as
happiness which does not include their gratification.
I do not, indeed, consider the Epicureans to have been
by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme
of consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do
this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic, as well as
Christian elements require to be included. But there
is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not
assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feel-
ings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a
much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere
sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utili-
tarian writers in general have placed the superiority
of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater
permanency, safety, uncostliness, &c., of the former—
that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than
in their intrinsic nature. And on all these points utili-
tarians have fully proved their case; but they might
have taken the other, and, as it may be called, higher
ground, with entire consistency. It is quite compatible
with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that
some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more
valuable than others. It would be absurd that while,
in estimating all other things, quality is considered as
well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be
supposed to depend on quantity alone.
If I am asked, what I mean by difference of qual-
ity in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more
valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except
its being greater in amount, there is but one possible
answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2 (edited).

contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is
a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in
one form or other, and in some, though by no means in
exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which
is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom
it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could
be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire
to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes
place at a sacrifice of happiness— that the superior
being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not hap-
pier than the inferior— confounds the two very differ-
ent ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable
that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low,
has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied;
and a highly- endowed being will always feel that any
happiness which he can look for, as the world is consti-
tute, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfec-
tions, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make
him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the
imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the
good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to
be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; bet-
ter to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if
the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because
they only know their own side of the question. The
other party to the comparison knows both sides.
It may be objected, that many who are capable of
the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influ-
ence of temptation, postpone them to the lower.
But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation
of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often,
from infirmity of character, make their election for
the nearer good, though they know it to be the less
valuable; and this no less when the choice is between
two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily
and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the
injury of health, though perfectly aware that health
is the greater good. It may be further objected, that
many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for every-
thing noble, as they advance in years sink into indo-
lence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those
who undergo this very common change, voluntarily
choose the lower description of pleasures in prefer-
ence to the higher. I believe that before they devote
themselves exclusively to the one, they have already
all or almost all who have experience of both give
a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of
moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable
pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are compe-
tently acquainted with both, placed so far above the
other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to
be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and
would not resign it for any quantity of the other plea-
sure which their nature is capable of, we are justified
in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority
in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it,
in comparison, of small account.
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are
equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appre-
ciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked
preference to the manner of existence which employs
their higher faculties. Few human creatures would con-
sent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a
promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures;
no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool,
no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no per-
son of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base,
even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the
dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than
they are with theirs. They would not resign what they
possess more than he, for the most complete satisfac-
tion of all the desires which they have in common with
him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases
of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they
would exchange their lot for almost any other, how-
ever, undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher
faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable
probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly
accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior
type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really
wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of
existence. We may give what explanation we please of
this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name
which is given indiscriminately to some of the most
and to some of the least estimable feelings of which
mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of lib-
erty and personal independence, an appeal to which
was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for
the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or the love
of excitement, both of which do really enter into and

I have dwelt on this point, as being a necessary
part of a perfectly just conception of Utility or Happi-
ness, considered as the directive rule of human con-
duct. But it is by no means an indispensable condition
to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard; for that
standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but
the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it
may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is
always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no
doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the
world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitari-
anism, therefore, could only attain its end by the gen-
eral cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each
individual were only benefited by the nobleness of
others, and his own, so far as happiness is concerned,
were a sheer deduction from the benefit. But the bare
enunciation of such an absurdity as this last, renders
refutation superfluous.
According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as
above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to
and for the sake of which all other things are desirable
(whether we are considering our own good or that of
other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible
from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both
in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality,
and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being
the preference felt by those who, in their opportu-
nities of experience, to which must be added their
habits of self- consciousness and self- observation, are
best furnished with the means of comparison. This
being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end
of human action, is necessarily also the standard of
morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules
and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of
which an existence such as has been described might
be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all man-
kind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of
things admits, to the whole sentient creation.
* * *
I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitari-
anism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that
the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of
what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own hap-
piness, but that of all concerned. As between his own
become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler
feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily
killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want
of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it
speedily dies away if the occupations to which their
position in life has devoted them, and the society into
which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keep-
ing that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their
high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes,
because they have not time or opportunity for indulg-
ing them; and they addict themselves to inferior plea-
sures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but
because they are either the only ones to which they
have access, or the only ones which they are any lon-
ger capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether
any one who has remained equally susceptible to both
classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly pre-
ferred the lower; though many, in all ages, have bro-
ken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.
From this verdict of the only competent judges,
I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a question
which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or
which of two modes of existence is the most grate-
ful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and
from its consequences, the judgment of those who
are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ,
that of the majority among them, must be admitted as
final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept
this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures,
since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even
on the question of quantity. What means are there of
determining which is the acutest of two pairs, or the
intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the
general suffrage of those who are familiar with both?
Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and
pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure. What is
there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth
purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the
feelings and judgment of the experienced? When,
therefore, those feelings and judgment declare the
pleasures derived from the higher faculties to be pref-
erable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to
those of which the animal nature, disjoined from the
higher faculties, is susceptible, they are entitled on
this subject to the same regard.

any opinion against which they entertain a prejudice,
and men are in general so little conscious of this vol-
untary ignorance as a defect, that the vulgarest mis-
understandings of ethical doctrines are continually
met with in the deliberate writings of persons of the
greatest pretensions both to high principle and to
philosophy. We not uncommonly hear the doctrine
of utility inveighed against as a godless doctrine. If it
be necessary to say anything at all against so mere an
assumption, we may say that the question depends
upon what idea we have formed of the moral charac-
ter of the Deity. If it be a true belief that God desires,
above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and
that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is
not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly
religious than any other. If it be meant that utilitari-
anism does not recognise the revealed will of God as
the supreme law of morals, I answer, that an utilitar-
ian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom
of God, necessarily believes that whatever God has
thought fit to reveal on the subject of morals, must ful-
fil the requirements of utility in a supreme degree. But
others besides utilitarians have been of opinion that
the Christian revelation was intended, and is fitted, to
inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit
which should enable them to find for themselves what
is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather
than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it
is: and that we need a doctrine of ethics, carefully fol-
lowed out, to interpret to us the will of God. Whether
this opinion is correct or not, it is superfluous here to
discuss; since whatever aid religion, either natural or
revealed, can afford to ethical investigation, is as open
to the utilitarian moralist as to any other. He can use
it as the testimony of God to the usefulness or hurtful-
ness of any given course of action, by as good a right as
others can use it for the indication of a transcenden-
tal law, having no connexion with usefulness or with
Again, Utility is often summarily stigmatized as
an immoral doctrine by giving it the name of Expedi-
ency, and taking advantage of the popular use of that
term to contrast it with Principle. But the Expedient,
in the sense in which it is opposed to the Right, gener-
ally means that which is expedient for the particular
happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires
him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and
benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of
Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of
utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love
one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal per-
fection of utilitarian morality. As the means of mak-
ing the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would
enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should
place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may
be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as
possible in harmony with the interest of the whole;
and secondly, that education and opinion, which
have so vast a power over human character, should
so use that power as to establish in the mind of every
individual an indissoluble association between his
own happiness and the good of the whole; especially
between his own happiness and the practice of such
modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for
the universal happiness prescribes: so that not only he
may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness
to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the
general good, but also that a direct impulse to pro-
mote the general good may be in every individual one
of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments
connected therewith may fill a large and prominent
place in every human being’s sentient existence. If the
impugners of the utilitarian morality represented it
to their own minds in this its true character, I know
not what recommendation possessed by any other
morality they could possibly affirm to be wanting to
it: what more beautiful or more exalted developments
of human nature any other ethical system can be sup-
posed to foster, or what springs of action, not acces-
sible to the utilitarian, such systems rely on for giving
effect to their mandates.
* * *
It may not be superfluous to notice a few more
of the common misapprehensions of utilitarian eth-
ics, even those which are so obvious and gross that it
might appear impossible for any person of candour
and intelligence to fall into them: since persons, even
of considerable mental endowments, often give them-
selves so little trouble to understand the bearings of

that the violation, for a present advantage, of a rule of
such transcendent expediency, is not expedient, and
that he who, for the sake of a convenience to himself or
to some other individual, does what depends on him to
deprive mankind of the good, and inflict upon them the
evil, involved in the greater or less reliance which they
can place in each other’s word, acts the part of one of
their worst enemies. Yet that even this rule, sacred as it
is, admits of possible exceptions, is acknowledged by all
moralists; the chief of which is when the withholding
of some fact (as of information from a malefactor, or
of bad news from a person dangerously ill) would pre-
serve some one (especially a person other than oneself)
from great and unmerited evil, and when the withhold-
ing can only be effected by denial. But in order that the
exception may not extend itself beyond the need, and
may have the least possible effect in weakening reliance
on veracity, it ought to be recognized, and, if possible, its
limits defined; and if the principle of utility is good for
anything, it must be good for weighing these conflict-
ing utilities against one another, and marking out the
region within which one or the other preponderates.
* * *
interest of the agent himself: as when a minister sacri-
fices the interest of his country to keep himself in place.
When it means anything better than this, it means that
which is expedient for some immediate object, some
temporary purpose, but which violates a rule whose
observance is expedient in a much higher degree. The
Expedient, in this sense, instead of being the same
thing with the useful, is a branch of the hurtful. Thus,
it would often be expedient, for the purpose of getting
over some momentary embarrassment, or attaining
some object immediately useful to ourselves or others,
to tell a lie. But inasmuch as the cultivation in ourselves
of a sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity, is one
of the most useful, and the enfeeblement of that feel-
ing one of the most hurtful, things to which our con-
duct can be instrumental; and inasmuch as any, even
unintentional, deviation from truth, does that much
towards weakening the trustworthiness of human
assertion, which is not only the principal support of
all present social well- being, but the insufficiency of
which does more than any one thing that can be named
to keep back civilisation, virtue, everything on which
human happiness on the largest scale depends; we feel
From A Theory of Justice
John Rawls
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth
is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and
economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue;
likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient
and well- arranged must be reformed or abolished if
they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability
founded on justice that even the welfare of society as
a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies
that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a
greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the
sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger
sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just
society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as
settled, the rights secured by justice are not subject to
political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.
The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erro-
neous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an
injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid
an even greater injustice. Being first virtues of human
activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.
These propositions seem to express our intuitive
conviction of the primacy of justice. No doubt they are
From John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999) 3–6, 10–15, 52–54. Copyright © 1971,
1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted
by permission of the publisher.

expressed too strongly. In any event I wish to inquire
whether these contentions or others similar to them
are sound, and if so how they can be accounted for. To
this end it is necessary to work out a theory of justice in
the light of which these assertions can be interpreted
and assessed. I shall begin by considering the role of
the principles of justice. Let us assume, to fix ideas,
that a society is a more or less self- sufficient associa-
tion of persons who in their relations to one another
recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who
for the most part act in accordance with them. Sup-
pose further that these rules specify a system of coop-
eration designed to advance the good of those taking
part in it. Then, although a society is a cooperative
venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked
by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There
is an identity of interests since social cooperation
makes possible a better life for all than any would have
if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a
conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent
as to how the greater benefits produced by their col-
laboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their
ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. A set
of principles is required for choosing among the vari-
ous social arrangements which determine this divi-
sion of advantages and for underwriting an agreement
on the proper distributive shares. These principles are
the principles of social justice: they provide a way of
assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions
of society and they define the appropriate distribution
of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.
Now let us say that a society is well- ordered when
it is not only designed to advance the good of its
members but when it is also effectively regulated by a
public conception of justice. That is, it is a society in
which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the oth-
ers accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the
basic social institutions generally satisfy and are gen-
erally known to satisfy these principles. In this case
while men may put forth excessive demands on one
another, they nevertheless acknowledge a common
point of view from which their claims may be adjudi-
cated. If men’s inclination to self- interest makes their
vigilance against one another necessary, their public
sense of justice makes their secure association together
possible. Among individuals with disparate aims and
purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the
bonds of civic friendship; the general desire for justice
limits the pursuit of other ends. One may think of a
public conception of justice as constituting the funda-
mental charter of a well- ordered human association.
Existing societies are of course seldom well- ordered
in this sense, for what is just and unjust is usually in
dispute. Men disagree about which principles should
define the basic terms of their association. Yet we may
still say, despite this disagreement, that they each
have a conception of justice. That is, they understand
the need for, and they are prepared to affirm, a char-
acteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights
and duties and for determining what they take to be
the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of
social cooperation. Thus it seems natural to think of
the concept of justice as distinct from the various con-
ceptions of justice and as being specified by the role
which these different sets of principles, these different
conceptions, have in common.1 Those who hold dif-
ferent conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that
institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are
made between persons in the assigning of basic rights
and duties and when the rules determine a proper bal-
ance between competing claims to the advantages of
social life. Men can agree to this description of just
institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinc-
tion and of a proper balance, which are included in the
concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret
according to the principles of justice that he accepts.
These principles single out which similarities and
differences among persons are relevant in determin-
ing rights and duties and they specify which division
of advantages is appropriate. Clearly this distinction
between the concept and the various conceptions of
justice settles no important questions. It simply helps
to identify the role of the principles of social justice.
Some measure of agreement in conceptions of jus-
tice is, however, not the only prerequisite for a viable
human community. There are other fundamental
social problems, in particular those of coordination,
efficiency, and stability. Thus the plans of individu-
als need to be fitted together so that their activities
are compatible with one another and they can all be

principles that free and rational persons concerned
to further their own interests would accept in an ini-
tial position of equality as defining the fundamental
terms of their association. These principles are to regu-
late all further agreements; they specify the kinds of
social cooperation that can be entered into and the
forms of government that can be established. This way
of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice
as fairness.
Thus we are to imagine that those who engage in
social cooperation choose together, in one joint act,
the principles which are to assign basic rights and
duties and to determine the division of social benefits.
Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate
their claims against one another and what is to be the
foundation charter of their society. Just as each person
must decide by rational reflection what constitutes his
good, that is, the system of ends which it is rational for
him to pursue, so a group of persons must decide once
and for all what is to count among them as just and
unjust. The choice which rational men would make in
this hypothetical situation of equal liberty assuming
for the present that this choice problem has a solution,
determines the principles of justice.
In justice as fairness the original position of equal-
ity corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional
theory of the social contract. This original position is
not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state
of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of cul-
ture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situa-
tion characterized so as to lead to a certain conception
of justice.3 Among the essential features of this situa-
tion is that no one knows his place in society, his class
position or social status, nor does any one know his
fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abili-
ties, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even
assume that the parties do not know their conceptions
of the good or their special psychological propensities.
The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of
ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or
disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the out-
come of natural chance or the contingency of social
circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no
one is able to design principles to favor his particular
condition, the principles of justice are the result of a
carried through without anyone’s legitimate expecta-
tions being severely disappointed. Moreover, the exe-
cution of these plans should lead to the achievement
of social ends in ways that are efficient and consistent
with justice. And finally, the scheme of social coopera-
tion must be stable: it must be more or less regularly
complied with and its basic rules willingly acted upon;
and when infractions occur, stabilizing forces should
exist that prevent further violations and tend to
restore the arrangement. Now it is evident that these
three problems are connected with that of justice. In
the absence of a certain measure of agreement on what
is just and unjust, it is clearly more difficult for indi-
viduals to coordinate their plans efficiently in order
to insure that mutually beneficial arrangements are
maintained. Distrust and resentment corrode the ties
of civility, and suspicion and hostility tempt men to
act in ways they would otherwise avoid. So while the
distinctive role of conceptions of justice is to specify
basic rights and duties and to determine the appropri-
ate distributive shares, the way in which a conception
does this is bound to affect the problems of efficiency,
coordination, and stability. We cannot, in general,
assess a conception of justice by its distributive role
alone, however useful this role may be in identify-
ing the concept of justice. We must take into account
its wider connections; for even though justice has a
certain priority, being the most important virtue of
institutions, it is still true that, other things equal, one
conception of justice is preferable to another when its
broader consequences are more desirable.
* * *
My aim is to present a conception of justice which
generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction
the familiar theory of the social contract as found,
say, in Locke. Rousseau, and Kant.2 In order to do this
we are not to think of the original contract as one to
enter a particular society or to set up a particular form
of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the
principles of justice for the basic structure of society
are the object of the original agreement. They are the

some particular society, and the nature of this posi-
tion materially affects his life prospects. Yet a society
satisfying the principles of justice as fairness comes as
close as a society can to being a voluntary scheme, for
it meets the principles which free and equal persons
would assent to under circumstances that are fair. In
this sense its members are autonomous and the obli-
gations they recognize self- imposed.
One feature of justice as fairness is to think of the
parties in the initial situation as rational and mutu-
ally disinterested. This does not mean that the par-
ties are egoists, that is, individuals with only certain
kinds of interests, say in wealth, prestige, and domina-
tion. But they are conceived as not taking an interest
in one another’s interests. They are to presume that
even their spiritual aims may be opposed, in the way
that the aims of those of different religions may be
opposed. Moreover, the concept of rationality must
be interpreted as far as possible in the narrow sense,
standard in economic theory, of taking the most effec-
tive means to given ends. I shall modify this concept
to some extent, as explained later, but one must try to
avoid introducing into it any controversial ethical ele-
ments. The initial situation must be characterized by
stipulations that are widely accepted.
In working out the conception of justice as fair-
ness one main task clearly is to determine which
principles of justice would be chosen in the original
position. To do this we must describe this situation
in some detail and formulate with care the problem
of choice which it presents. These matters I shall take
up in the immediately succeeding chapters. It may be
observed, however, that once the principles of justice
are thought of as arising from an original agreement in
a situation of equality, it is an open question whether
the principle of utility would be acknowledged. Off-
hand it hardly seems likely that persons who view
themselves as equals, entitled to press their claims
upon one another, would agree to a principle which
may require lesser life prospects for some simply for
the sake of a greater sum of advantages enjoyed by
others. Since each desires to protect his interests, his
capacity to advance his conception of the good, no
one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for
himself in order to bring about a greater net balance
fair agreement or bargain. For given the circumstances
of the original position, the symmetry of everyone’s
relations to each other, this initial situation is fair
between individuals as moral persons, that is, as ratio-
nal beings with their own ends and capable, I shall
assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is,
one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and
thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are
fair. This explains the propriety of the name “justice
as fairness”: it conveys the idea that the principles of
justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair.
The name does not mean that the concepts of justice
and fairness are the same, any more than the phrase
“poetry as metaphor” means that the concepts of
poetry and metaphor are the same.
Justice as fairness begins, as I have said, with
one of the most general of all choices which persons
might make together, namely, with the choice of the
first principles of a conception of justice which is to
regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of insti-
tutions. Then, having chosen a conception of justice,
we can suppose that they are to choose a constitu-
tion and a legislature to enact laws, and so on, all in
accordance with the principles of justice initially
agreed upon. Our social situation is just if it is such
that by this sequence of hypothetical agreements we
would have contracted into the general system of
rules which defines it. Moreover, assuming that the
original position does determine a set of principles
(that is, that a particular conception of justice would
be chosen), it will then be true that whenever social
institutions satisfy these principles those engaged in
them can say to one another that they are cooperat-
ing on terms to which they would agree if they were
free and equal persons whose relations with respect
to one another were fair. They could all view their
arrangements as meeting the stipulations which they
would acknowledge in an initial situation that embod-
ies widely accepted and reasonable constraints on the
choice of principles. The general recognition of this
fact would provide the basis for a public acceptance
of the corresponding principles of justice. No society
can, of course, be a scheme of cooperation which men
enter voluntarily in a literal sense; each person finds
himself placed at birth in some particular position in

suggest to be convincing to everyone. It is, therefore,
worth noting from the outset that justice as fairness,
like other contract views, consists of two parts: (1) an
interpretation of the initial situation and of the prob-
lem of choice posed there, and (2) a set of principles
which, it is argued, would be agreed to. One may
accept the first part of the theory (or some variant
thereof), but not the other, and conversely. The con-
cept of the initial contractual situation may seem rea-
sonable although the particular principles proposed
are rejected. To be sure, I want to maintain that the
most appropriate conception of this situation does
lead to principles of justice contrary to utilitarianism
and perfectionism, and therefore that the contract
doctrine provides an alternative to these views. Still,
one may dispute this contention even though one
grants that the contractarian method is a useful way
of studying ethical theories and of setting forth their
underlying assumptions.
Justice as fairness is an example of what I have
called a contract theory. Now there may be an objec-
tion to the term “contract” and related expressions,
but I think it will serve reasonably well. Many words
have misleading connotations which at first are likely
to confuse. The terms “utility” and “utilitarianism”
are surely no exception. They too have unfortunate
suggestions which hostile critics have been willing to
exploit; yet they are clear enough for those prepared
to study utilitarian doctrine. The same should be true
of the term “contract” applied to moral theories. As
I have mentioned, to understand it one has to keep
in mind that it implies a certain level of abstraction.
In particular, the content of the relevant agreement is
not to enter a given society or to adopt a given form
of government, but to accept certain moral prin-
ciples. Moreover, the undertakings referred to are
purely hypothetical: a contract view holds that certain
principles would be accepted in a well- defined initial
The merit of the contract terminology is that it
conveys the idea that principles of justice may be
conceived as principles that would be chosen by
rational persons, and that in this way conceptions
of justice may be explained and justified. The theory
of justice is a part, perhaps the most significant part,
of satisfaction. In the absence of strong and lasting
benevolent impulses, a rational man would not accept
a basic structure merely because it maximized the alge-
braic sum of advantages irrespective of its permanent
effects on his own basic rights and interests. Thus it
seems that the principle of utility is incompatible with
the conception of social cooperation among equals for
mutual advantage. It appears to be inconsistent with
the idea of reciprocity implicit in the notion of a well-
ordered society. Or, at any rate, so I shall argue.
I shall maintain instead that the persons in the ini-
tial situation would choose two rather different prin-
ciples: the first requires equality in the assignment
of basic rights and duties, while the second holds
that social and economic inequalities, for example
inequalities of wealth and authority are just only if
they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and
in particular for the least advantaged members of soci-
ety. These principles rule out justifying institutions on
the grounds mat the hardships of some are offset by a
greater good in the aggregate. It may be expedient but
it is not just that some should have less in order that
others may prosper. But there is no injustice in the
greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situ-
ation of persons not so fortunate is thereby improved.
The intuitive idea is that since everyone’s well- being
depends upon a scheme of cooperation without which
no one could have a satisfactory life, the division of
advantages should be such as to draw forth the willing
cooperation of everyone taking part in it, including
those less well situated. The two principles mentioned
seem to be a fair basis on which those better endowed,
or more fortunate in their social position, neither of
which we can be said to deserve, could expect the
willing cooperation of others when some workable
scheme is a necessary condition of the welfare of all.4
Once we decide to look for a conception of justice that
prevents the use of the accidents of natural endow-
ment and the contingencies of social circumstance as
counters in a quest for political and economic advan-
tage, we are led to these principles. They express the
result of leaving aside those aspects of the social world
that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view.
The problem of the choice of principles, however,
is extremely difficult. I do not expect the answer I shall

I shall now state in a provisional form the two prin-
ciples of justice that I believe would be agreed to in
the original position The first formulation of these
principles is tentative. As we go on I shall consider
several formulations and approximate step by step
the final statement to be given much later. I believe
that doing this allows the exposition to proceed in a
natural way.
The first statement of the two principles reads as
First: each person is to have an equal right to the
most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties com-
patible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.
Second: social and economic inequalities are to
be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably
expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b)
attached to positions and offices open to all.
* * *
These principles primarily apply, as I have said, to
the basic structure of society and govern the assign-
ment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution
of social and economic advantages. Their formula-
tion presupposes that, for the purposes of a theory
of justice, the social structure may be viewed as hav-
ing two more or less distinct parts, the first principle
applying to the one, the second principle to the other.
Thus we distinguish between the aspects of the social
system that define and secure the equal basic liberties
and the aspects that specify and establish social and
economic inequalities. Now it is essential to observe
that the basic liberties are given by a list of such liber-
ties. Important among these are political liberty (the
right to vote and to hold public office) and freedom
of speech and assembly: liberty of conscience and
freedom of thought: freedom of the person, which
includes freedom from psychological oppression and
physical assault and dismemberment (integrity of the
person); the right to hold personal property and free-
dom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by
the concept of the rule of law. These liberties are to be
equal by the first principle.
of the theory of rational choice. Furthermore, prin-
ciples of justice deal with conflicting claims upon the
advantages won by social cooperation; they apply to
the relations among several persons or groups. The
word “contract” suggests this plurality as well as the
condition that the appropriate division of advantages
must be in accordance with principles acceptable to
all parties. The condition of publicity for principles
of justice is also connoted by the contract phraseol-
ogy. Thus, if these principles are the outcome of an
agreement, citizens have a knowledge of the prin-
ciples that others follow. It is characteristic of con-
tract theories to stress the public nature of political
principles. Finally there is the long tradition of the
contract doctrine. Expressing the tie with this line of
thought helps to define ideas and accords with natu-
ral piety. There are then several advantages in the use
of the term “contract.” With due precautions taken,
it should not be misleading.
A final remark. Justice as fairness is not a com-
plete contract theory. For it is clear that the contrac-
tarian idea can be extended to the choice of more
or less an entire ethical system, that is, to a system
including principles for all the virtues and not only
for justice. Now for the most part I shall consider
only principles of justice and others closely related
to them; I make no attempt to discuss the virtues in
a systematic way. Obviously if justice as fairness suc-
ceeds reasonably well, a next step would be to study
the more general view suggested by the name “right-
ness as fairness.” But even this wider theory fails to
embrace all moral relationships, since it would seem
to include only our relations with other persons and
to leave out of account how we are to conduct our-
selves toward animals and the rest of nature. I do
not contend that the contract notion offers a way
to approach these questions which are certainly of
the first importance; and I shall have to put them
aside. We must recognize the limited scope of jus-
tice as fairness and of the general type of view that it
exemplifies. How far its conclusions must be revised
once these other matters are understood cannot be
decided in advance.
* * *

assumptions that I must eventually try to explain
and justify. For the present, it should be observed
that these principle are a special case of a more gen-
eral conception of justice that can be expressed as
All social values— liberty and opportunity, income
and wealth, and the social bases of self- respect— are
to be distributed equally unless an unequal distri-
bution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s
Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not
to the benefit of all. Of course, this conception is
extremely vague and requires interpretation.
1. Here I follow H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law (Oxford, The
Clarendon Press, 1961), pp. 155–159.
2. As the text suggests, I shall regard Locke’s Second Treatise of
Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Kant’s ethical
works beginning with The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Mor-
als as definitive of the contract tradition. For all of its greatness,
Hobbes’s Leviathan raises special problems. A general historical
survey is provided by J. W. Gough, The Social Contract, 2nd ed.
(Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1957), and Otto Gierke, Natural
Law and the Theory of Society. trans. with an introduction by
Ernest Barker (Cambridge, The University Press, 1934). A pre-
sentation of the contract view as primarily an ethical theory is
to be found in G. R. Grice, The Grounds of Moral Judgment (Cam-
bridge, The University Press, 1967). See also §19, note 30.
3. Kant is clear that the original agreement is hypothetical. See
The Metaphysics of Morals, pt. I (Rechtslehre), especially §§47, 52;
and pt. II of the essay “Concerning the Common Saying: This
May Be True in Theory but It Does Not Apply in Practice,” in
Kant’s Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss and trans. by H. B. Nisbet
(Cambridge, The University Press, 1970), pp. 73–87. See Georges
Vlachos, La Pensée politique de Kant (Paris, Presses Universitaires
de France, 1962), pp. 326–335; and J. G. Murphy, Kant: The
Philosophy of Right (London, Macmillan, 1970), pp. 109–112,
133–136, for a further discussion.
4. For the formulation of this intuitive idea I am indebted to
Allan Gibbard.
The second principle applies, in the first approxi-
mation, to the distribution of income and wealth and
to the design of organizations that make use of dif-
ferences in authority and responsibility. While the
distribution of wealth and income need not be equal,
it must be to everyone’s advantage and at the same
time, positions of authority and responsibility must
be accessible to all. One applies the second principle
by holding positions open, and then, subject to this
constraint, arranges social and economic inequalities
so that everyone benefits.
These principles are to be arranged in a serial
order with the first principle prior to the second. This
ordering means that infringements of the basic equal
liberties protected by the first principle cannot be
justified, or compensated for, by greater social and
economic advantages. These liberties have a central
range of application within which they can be lim-
ited and compromised only when they conflict with
other basic liberties. Since they may be limited when
they clash with one another, none of these liberties
is absolute; but however they are adjusted to form
one system, this system is to be the same for all. It is
difficult, and perhaps impossible, to give a complete
specification of these liberties independently from
the particular circumstances— social, economic, and
technological— of a given society. The hypothesis is
that the general form of such a list could be devised
with sufficient exactness to sustain this conception
of justice. Of course, liberties not on the list, for
example, the right to own certain kinds of property
(e.g., means of production) and freedom of contract
as understood by the doctrine of laissez- faire are not
basic; and so they are not protected by the priority
of the first principle. Finally, in regard to the second
principle, the distribution of wealth and income, and
positions of authority and responsibility, are to be
consistent with both the basic liberties and equality
of opportunity.
The two principles are rather specific in their
content, and their acceptance rests on certain

The Entitlement Theory of Justice
Robert Nozick
holdings, the appropriation of unheld things. This
includes the issues of how unheld things may come
to be held, the process, or processes, by which unheld
things may come to be held, the things that may come
to be held by these processes, the extent of what comes
to be held by a particular process, and so on. We shall
refer to the complicated truth about this topic, which
we shall not formulate here, as the principle of justice
in acquisition. The second topic concerns the transfer
of holdings from one person to another. By what pro-
cesses may a person transfer holdings to another? How
may a person acquire a holding from another who
holds it? Under this topic come general descriptions of
voluntary exchange, and gift and (on the other hand)
fraud, as well as reference to particular conventional
details fixed upon in a given society. The complicated
truth about this subject (with placeholders for con-
ventional details) we shall call the principle of justice
in transfer. (And we shall suppose it also includes prin-
ciples governing how a person may divest himself of a
holding, passing it into an unheld state.)
If the world were wholly just, the following induc-
tive definition would exhaustively cover the subject of
justice in holdings.
1. A person who acquires a holding in accordance
with the principle of justice in acquisition is enti-
tled to that holding.
2. A person who acquires a holding in accordance
with the principle of justice in transfer, from
someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to
the holding.
3. No one is entitled to a holding except by
(repeated) applications of 1 and 2.
The complete principle of distributive justice would say
simply that a distribution is just if everyone is entitled
to the holdings they possess under the distribution.
A distribution is just if it arises from another just dis-
tribution by legitimate means. The legitimate means of
The term “distributive justice” is not a neutral one.
Hearing the term “distribution,” most people presume
that some thing or mechanism uses some principle or
criterion to give out a supply of things. Into this process
of distributing shares some error may have crept. So it
is an open question, at least, whether redistribution
should take place; whether we should do again what
has already been done once, though poorly. However,
we are not in the position of children who have been
given portions of pie by someone who now makes last
minute adjustments to rectify careless cutting. There is
no central distribution, no person or group entitled to
control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are
to be doled out. What each person gets, he gets from
others who give to him in exchange for something, or as
a gift. In a free society, diverse persons control different
resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary
exchanges and actions of persons. There is no more a
distributing or distribution of shares than there is a dis-
tributing of mates in a society in which persons choose
whom they shall marry. The total result is the product
of many individual decisions which the different indi-
viduals involved are entitled to make. Some uses of the
term “distribution,” it is true, do not imply a previous
distributing appropriately judged by some criterion (for
example, “probability distribution”); nevertheless, . . .
it would be best to use a terminology that clearly is
neutral. We shall speak of people’s holdings; a principle
of justice in holdings describes (part of) what justice tells
us (requires) about holdings. I shall state first what I take
to be the correct view about justice in holdings, and
then turn to the discussion of alternate views.
The subject of justice in holdings consists of three
major topics. The first is the original acquisition of
From Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia ( New York: Basic
Books, 1994), 149–57, 160–63, 167–74. Copyright © 1974.
Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette
Book Group, Inc.

principles of justice and rights against interference),
and information about the actual course of events that
flowed from these injustices, until the present, and it
yields a description (or descriptions) of holdings in the
society. The principle of rectification presumably will
make use of its best estimate of subjunctive informa-
tion about what would have occurred (or a probability
distribution over what might have occurred, using the
expected value) if the injustice had not taken place. If
the actual description of holdings turns out not to be
one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then
one of the descriptions yielded must be realized.2
The general outlines of the theory of justice in
holdings are that the holdings of a person are just if he
is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acqui-
sition and transfer, or by the principle of rectification
of injustice (as specified by the first two principles).
If each person’s holdings are just, then the total set
(distribution) of holdings is just.
* * *
The general outlines of the entitlement theory illu-
minate the nature and defects of other conceptions
of distributive justice. The entitlement theory of
justice in distribution is historical; whether a distri-
bution is just depends upon how it came about. In
contrast, current time- slice principles of justice hold
that the justice of a distribution is determined by
how things are distributed (who has what) as judged
by some structural principle(s) of just distribution.
A utilitarian who judges between any two distribu-
tions by seeing which has the greater sum of util-
ity and, if the sums tie, applies some fixed equality
criterion to choose the more equal distribution,
would hold a current time- slice principle of justice.
As would someone who had a fixed schedule of
trade- offs between the sum of happiness and equal-
ity. According to a current time- slice principle, all
that needs to be looked at, in judging the justice of
a distribution, is who ends up with what; in com-
paring any two distributions one need look only at
moving from one distribution to another are specified
by the principle of justice in transfer. The legitimate
first “moves” are specified by the principle of justice in
acquisition.1 Whatever arises from a just situation by
just steps is itself just. The means of change specified by
the principle of justice in transfer preserve justice.
* * *
Not all actual situations are generated in accor-
dance with the two principles of justice in holdings:
the principle of justice in acquisition and the princi-
ple of justice in transfer. Some people steal from oth-
ers, or defraud them, or enslave them, seizing their
product and preventing them from living as they
choose, or forcibly exclude others from competing
in exchanges. None of these are permissible modes of
transition from one situation to another. And some
persons acquire holdings by means not sanctioned by
the principle of justice in acquisition. The existence
of past injustice (previous violations of the first two
principles of justice in holdings) raises the third major
topic under justice in holdings: the rectification of
injustice in holdings. If past injustice has shaped pres-
ent holdings in various ways, some identifiable and
some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to
rectify these injustices? What obligations do the per-
formers of injustice have toward those whose position
is worse than it would have been had the injustice not
been done? Or, than it would have been had compen-
sation been paid promptly? How, if at all, do things
change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off
are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but,
for example, their descendants? Is an injustice done
to someone whose holding was itself based upon an
unrectified injustice? How far back must one go in
wiping clean the historical slate of injustices? What
may victims of injustice permissibly do in order to rec-
tify the injustices being done to them, including the
many injustices done by persons acting through their
government? I do not know of a thorough or theoreti-
cally sophisticated treatment of such issues. Idealizing
greatly, let us suppose theoretical investigation will
produce a principle of rectification. This principle uses
historical information about previous situations and
injustices done in them (as defined by the first two

entitled to under D, namely very little. This socialist
rightly, in my view, holds onto the notions of earning,
producing, entitlement, desert, and so forth, and he
rejects current time- slice principles that look only to
the structure of the resulting set of holdings. (The set
of holdings resulting from what? Isn’t it implausible
that how holdings are produced and come to exist has
no effect at all on who should hold what?) His mistake
lies in his view of what entitlements arise out of what
sorts of productive processes.
We construe the position we discuss too narrowly
by speaking of current time- slice principles. Nothing
is changed if structural principles operate upon a
time sequence of current time- slice profiles and, for
example, give someone more now to counterbalance
the less he has had earlier. A utilitarian or an egalitar-
ian or any mixture of the two over time will inherit
the difficulties of his more myopic comrades. He is
not helped by the fact that some of the information
others consider relevant in assessing a distribution
is reflected, unrecoverably, in past matrices. Hence-
forth, we shall refer to such unhistorical principles
of distributive justice, including the current time-
slice principles, as end- result principles or end- state
In contrast to end- result principles of justice, his-
torical principles of justice hold that past circumstances
or actions of people can create differential entitle-
ments or differential deserts to things. An injustice
can be worked by moving from one distribution to
another structurally identical one, for the second, in
profile the same, may violate people’s entitlements or
deserts; it may not fit the actual history.
The entitlement principles of justice in holdings that
we have sketched are historical principles of justice. To
better understand their precise character, we shall dis-
tinguish them from another subclass of the historical
principles. Consider, as an example, the principle of
distribution according to moral merit. This principle
requires that total distributive shares vary directly
with moral merit; no person should have a greater share
than anyone whose moral merit is greater. (If moral
the matrix presenting the distributions. No further
information need be fed into a principle of justice.
It is a consequence of such principles of justice
that any two structurally identical distributions
are equally just. (Two distributions are structurally
identical if they present the same profile, but per-
haps have different persons occupying the particu-
lar slots. My having ten and your having five, and
my having five and your having ten are structurally
identical distributions.) Welfare economics is the
theory of current time- slice principles of justice.
The subject is conceived as operating on matrices
representing only current information about dis-
tribution. This, as well as some of the usual con-
ditions (for example, the choice of distribution is
invariant under relabeling of columns), guarantees
that welfare economics will be a current time- slice
theory, with all of its inadequacies.
Most persons do not accept current time- slice
principles as constituting the whole story about dis-
tributive shares. They think it relevant in assessing the
justice of a situation to consider not only the distribu-
tion it embodies, but also how that distribution came
about. If some persons are in prison for murder or war
crimes, we do not say that to assess the justice of the
distribution in the society we must look only at what
this person has, and that person has, and that person
has, . . . at the current time. We think it relevant to ask
whether someone did something so that he deserved
to be punished, deserved to have a lower share. Most
will agree to the relevance of further information with
regard to punishments and penalties. Consider also
desired things. One traditional socialist view is that
workers are entitled to the product and full fruits of
their labor; they have earned it; a distribution is unjust
if it does not give the workers what they are entitled
to. Such entitlements are based upon some past his-
tory. No socialist holding this view would find it com-
forting to be told that because the actual distribution
A happens to coincide structurally with the one he
desires D, A therefore is no less just than D; it differs
only in that the “parasitic” owners of capital receive
under A what the workers are entitled to under D,
and the workers receive under A what the owners are

natural dimensions that yields the distributions gener-
ated in accordance with the principle of entitlement.
The set of holdings that results when some persons
receive their marginal products, others win at gam-
bling, others receive a share of their mate’s income,
others receive gifts from foundations, others receive
interest on loans, others receive gifts from admirers,
others receive returns on investment, others make
for themselves much of what they have, others find
things, and so on, will not be patterned.
* * *
It is not clear how those holding alternative con-
ceptions of distributive justice can reject the enti-
tlement conception of justice in holdings. For
suppose a distribution favored by one of these non-
entitlement conceptions is realized. Let us suppose
it is your favorite one and let us call this distribution
D1; perhaps everyone has an equal share, perhaps
shares vary in accordance with some dimension
you treasure. Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is
greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great
gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only
for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs
the following sort of contract with a team: In each
home game, twenty- five cents from the price of each
ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the ques-
tion of whether he is “gouging” the owners, letting
them look out for themselves.) The season starts, and
people cheerfully attend his team’s games; they buy
their tickets, each time dropping a separate twenty-
five cents of their admission price into a special box
with Chamberlain’s name on it. They are excited
about seeing him play; it is worth the total admis-
sion price to them. Let us suppose that in one sea-
son one million persons attend his home games, and
Wilt Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, a much
larger sum than the average income and larger even
than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income?
Is this new distribution D2, unjust? If so, why? There
is no question about whether each of the people was
entitled to the control over the resources they held in
D1; because that was the distribution (your favorite)
merit could be not merely ordered but measured on
an interval or ratio scale, stronger principles could be
formulated.) Or consider the principle that results by
substituting “usefulness to society” for “moral merit”
in the previous principle. Or instead of “distribute
according to moral merit,” or “distribute according
to usefulness to society,” we might consider “distrib-
ute according to the weighted sum of moral merit,
usefulness to society, and need,” with the weights of
the different dimensions equal. Let us call a principle
of distribution patterned if it specifies that a distribu-
tion is to vary along with some natural dimension,
weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic
ordering of natural dimensions. And let us say a distri-
bution is patterned if it accords with some patterned
principle. (I speak of natural dimensions, admittedly
without a general criterion for them, because for any
set of holdings some artificial dimensions can be gim-
micked up to vary along with the distribution of the
set.) The principle of distribution in accordance with
moral merit is a patterned historical principle, which
specifies a patterned distribution. “Distribute accord-
ing to I.Q.” is a patterned principle that looks to infor-
mation not contained in distributional matrices. It
is not historical, however, in that it does not look to
any past actions creating differential entitlements to
evaluate a distribution; it requires only distributional
matrices whose columns are labeled by I.Q. scores. The
distribution in a society, however, may be composed
of such simple patterned distributions, without itself
being simply patterned. Different sectors may operate
different patterns, or some combination of patterns
may operate in different proportions across a society.
A distribution composed in this manner, from a small
number of patterned distributions, we also shall term
“patterned.” And we extend the use of “pattern” to
include the overall designs put forth by combinations
of end- state principles.
Almost every suggested principle of distributive
justice is patterned: to each according to his moral
merit, or needs, or marginal product, or how hard he
tries, or the weighted sum of the foregoing, and so
on. The principle of entitlement we have sketched is
not patterned.3 There is no one natural dimension or
weighted sum or combination of a small number of

D1). Thus, persons either must do without some extra
things that they want, or be allowed to do something
extra to get some of these things. On what basis could
the inequalities that would eventuate be forbidden?
Notice also that small factories would spring up in a
socialist society, unless forbidden. I melt down some
of my personal possessions (under D1) and build a
machine out of the material. I offer you, and others, a
philosophy lecture once a week in exchange for your
cranking the handle on my machine, whose prod-
ucts I exchange for yet other things, and so on. (The
raw materials used by the machine are given to me
by others who possess them under D1, in exchange
for hearing lectures.) Each person might participate
to gain things over and above their allotment under
D1. Some persons even might want to leave their job
in socialist industry and work full time in this private
sector. I shall say something more about these issues
in the next chapter. Here I wish merely to note how
private property even in means of production would
occur in a socialist society that did not forbid people
to use as they wished some of the resources they are
given under the socialist distribution D1. The socialist
society would have to forbid capitalist acts between
consenting adults.
The general point illustrated by the Wilt Cham-
berlain example and the example of the entrepreneur
in a socialist society is that no end- state principle or
distributional patterned principle of justice can be
continuously realized without continuous interfer-
ence with people’s lives. Any favored pattern would
be transformed into one unfavored by the prin-
ciple, by people choosing to act in various ways; for
example, by people exchanging goods and services
with other people, or giving things to other people,
things the transferrers are entitled to under the
favored distributional pattern. To maintain a pattern
one must either continually interfere to stop people
from transferring resources as they wish to, or con-
tinually (or periodically) interfere to take from some
persons resources that others for some reason chose
to transfer to them.
* * *
that (for the purposes of argument) we assumed
was acceptable. Each of these persons chose to give
twenty- five cents of their money to Chamberlain.
They could have spent it on going to the movies, or
on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or
of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million
of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamber-
lain in exchange for watching him play basketball.
If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily
moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares
they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to
do something with?), isn’t D2 also just? If the people
were entitled to dispose of the resources to which
they were entitled (under D1), didn’t this include
their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with,
Wilt Chamberlain? Can anyone else complain on
grounds of justice? Each other person already has his
legitimate share under D1. Under D1, there is noth-
ing that anyone has that anyone else has a claim of
justice against. After someone transfers something
to Wilt Chamberlain, third parties still have their
legitimate shares; their shares are not changed. By
what process could such a transfer among two per-
sons give rise to a legitimate claim of distributive jus-
tice on a portion of what was transferred, by a third
party who had no claim of justice on any holding of
the others before the transfer?4 To cut off objections
irrelevant here, we might imagine the exchanges
occurring in a socialist society, after hours. After play-
ing whatever basketball he does in his daily work, or
doing whatever other daily work he does, Wilt Cham-
berlain decides to put in overtime to earn additional
money. (First his work quota is set; he works time over
that.) Or imagine it is a skilled juggler people like to
see, who puts on shows after hours.
Why might someone work overtime in a society in
which it is assumed their needs are satisfied? Perhaps
because they care about things other than needs. I like
to write in books that I read, and to have easy access
to books for browsing at odd hours. It would be very
pleasant and convenient to have the resources of Wid-
ener Library in my back yard. No society, I assume,
will provide such resources close to each person who
would like them as part of his regular allotment (under

this way and not to characteristics, is an interesting
and puzzling question.
Proponents of patterned principles of distribu-
tive justice focus upon criteria for determining
who is to receive holdings; they consider the rea-
sons for which someone should have something,
and also the total picture of holdings. Whether or
not it is better to give than to receive, proponents
of patterned principles ignore giving altogether.
In considering the distribution of goods, income,
and so forth, their theories are theories of recipient
justice; they completely ignore any right a person
might have to give something to someone. Even
in exchanges where each party is simultaneously
giver and recipient, patterned principles of justice
focus only upon the recipient role and its supposed
rights. Thus discussions tend to focus on whether
people (should) have a right to inherit, rather
than on whether people (should) have a right to
bequeath or on whether persons who have a right
to hold also have a right to choose that others hold
in their place. I lack a good explanation of why the
usual theories of distributive justice are so recipient
oriented; ignoring givers and transferrers and their
rights is of a piece with ignoring producers and their
entitlements. But why is it all ignored?
Patterned principles of distributive justice neces-
sitate redistributive activities. The likelihood is small
that any actual freely- arrived- at set of holdings fits a
given pattern; and the likelihood is nil that it will con-
tinue to fit the pattern as people exchange and give.
From the point of view of an entitlement theory, redis-
tribution is a serious matter indeed, involving, as it
does, the violation of people’s rights. (An exception is
those takings that fall under the principle of the recti-
fication of injustices.) From other points of view, also,
it is serious.
Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with
forced labor.6 Some persons find this claim obvi-
ously true: taking the earnings of n hours labor is
like taking n hours from the person; it is like forc-
ing the person to work n hours for another’s pur-
pose. Others find the claim absurd. But even these,
if they object to forced labor, would oppose forcing
Apparently, patterned principles allow people to
choose to expend upon themselves, but not upon
others, those resources they are entitled to (or rather,
receive) under some favored distributional pattern
D1. For if each of several persons chooses to expend
some of his D1 resources upon one other person, then
that other person will receive more than his D1 share,
disturbing the favored distributional pattern. Main-
taining a distributional pattern is individualism with
a vengeance! Patterned distributional principles do
not give people what entitlement principles do, only
better distributed. For they do not give the right to
choose what to do with what one has; they do not
give the right to choose to pursue an end involv-
ing (intrinsically, or as a means) the enhancement
of another’s position. To such views, families are
disturbing; for within a family occur transfers that
upset the favored distributional pattern. Either fami-
lies themselves become units to which distribution
takes place, the column occupiers (on what ratio-
nale?), or loving behavior is forbidden. We should
note in passing the ambivalent position of radicals
toward the family. Its loving relationships are seen
as a model to be emulated and extended across the
whole society, at the same time that it is denounced
as a suffocating institution to be broken and con-
demned as a focus of parochial concerns that inter-
fere with achieving radical goals. Need we say that it
is not appropriate to enforce across the wider society
the relationships of love and care appropriate within
a family, relationships which are voluntarily under-
taken?5 Incidentally, love is an interesting instance
of another relationship that is historical, in that (like
justice) it depends upon what actually occurred.
An adult may come to love another because of the
other’s characteristics; but it is the other person,
and not the characteristics, that is loved. The love
is not transferrable to someone else with the same
characteristics, even to one who “scores” higher for
these characteristics. And the love endures through
changes of the characteristics that gave rise to it.
One loves the particular person one actually encoun-
tered. Why love is historical, attaching to persons in

goods or services differently from the man whose
preferences and desires make such goods unneces-
sary for his happiness? Why should the man who
prefers seeing a movie (and who has to earn money
for a ticket) be open to the required call to aid the
needy, while the person who prefers looking at a
sunset (and hence need earn no extra money) is
not? Indeed, isn’t it surprising that redistribution-
ists choose to ignore the man whose pleasures are
so easily attainable without extra labor, while add-
ing yet another burden to the poor unfortunate who
must work for his pleasures? If anything, one would
have expected the reverse. Why is the person with
the nonmaterial or nonconsumption desire allowed
to proceed unimpeded to his most favored feasible
alternative, whereas the man whose pleasures or
desires involve material things and who must work
for extra money (thereby serving whomever con-
siders his activities valuable enough to pay him) is
constrained in what he can realize? Perhaps there is
no difference in principle. And perhaps some think
the answer concerns merely administrative con-
venience. (These questions and issues will not dis-
turb those who think that forced labor to serve the
needy or to realize some favored end- state pattern
is acceptable.) In a fuller discussion we would have
(and want) to extend our argument to include inter-
est, entrepreneurial profits, and so on. Those who
doubt that this extension can be carried through,
and who draw the line here at taxation of income
from labor, will have to state rather complicated
patterned historical principles of distributive justice,
since end- state principles would not distinguish
sources of income in any way. It is enough for now
to get away from end- state principles and to make
clear how various patterned principles are depen-
dent upon particular views about the sources or the
ille gitimacy or the lesser legitimacy of profits, inter-
est, and so on; which particular views may well be
What sort of right over others does a legally
institutionalized end- state pattern give one? The
central core of the notion of a property right in X,
unemployed hippies to work for the benefit of the
needy.7 And they would also object to forcing each
person to work five extra hours each week for the
benefit of the needy. But a system that takes five
hours’ wages in taxes does not seem to them like one
that forces someone to work five hours, since it offers
the person forced a wider range of choice in activi-
ties than does taxation in kind with the particular
labor specified. (But we can imagine a gradation of
systems of forced labor, from one that specifies a
particular activity, to one that gives a choice among
two activities, to . . . ; and so on up.) Furthermore,
people envisage a system with something like a pro-
portional tax on everything above the amount nec-
essary for basic needs. Some think this does not force
someone to work extra hours, since there is no fixed
number of extra hours he is forced to work, and since
he can avoid the tax entirely by earning only enough
to cover his basic needs. This is a very uncharacter-
istic view of forcing for those who also think people
are forced to do something whenever the alternatives
they face are considerably worse. However, neither
view is correct. The fact that others intentionally
intervene, in violation of a side constraint against
aggression, to threaten force to limit the alterna-
tives, in this case to paying taxes or (presumably the
worse alternative) bare subsistence, makes the taxa-
tion system one of forced labor and distinguishes it
from other cases of limited choices which are not
The man who chooses to work longer to gain an
income more than sufficient for his basic needs pre-
fers some extra goods or services to the leisure and
activities he could perform during the possible non-
working hours; whereas the man who chooses not to
work the extra time prefers the leisure activities to
the extra goods or services he could acquire by work-
ing more. Given this, if it would be illegitimate for
a tax system to seize some of a man’s leisure (forced
labor) for the purpose of serving the needy, how can
it be legitimate for a tax system to seize some of a
man’s goods for that purpose? Why should we treat
the man whose happiness requires certain material

and what’s going where, patterned principles of dis-
tributive justice involve appropriating the actions of
other persons. Seizing the results of someone’s labor
is equivalent to seizing hours from him and direct-
ing him to carry on various activities. If people force
you to do certain work, or unrewarded work, for a cer-
tain period of time, they decide what you are to do
and what purposes your work is to serve apart from
your decisions. This process whereby they take this
decision from you makes them a part- owner of you;
it gives them a property right in you. Just as having
such partial control and power of decision, by right,
over an animal or inanimate object would be to have
a property right in it.
End- state and most patterned principles of dis-
tributive justice institute (partial) ownership by others
of people and their actions and labor. These principles
involve a shift from the classical liberals’ notion of
self- ownership to a notion of (partial) property rights
in other people.
* * *
May a person emigrate from a nation that has
institutionalized some end- state or patterned distri-
butional principle? For some principles (for example,
Hayek’s) emigration presents no theoretical prob-
lem. But for others it is a tricky matter. Consider a
nation having a compulsory scheme of minimal
social provision to aid the neediest (or one orga-
nized so as to maximize the position of the worst- off
group); no one may opt out of participating in it.
(None may say, “Don’t compel me to contribute to
others and don’t provide for me via this compulsory
mechanism if I am in need.”) Everyone above a cer-
tain level is forced to contribute to aid the needy. But
if emigration from the country were allowed, any-
one could choose to move to another country that
did not have compulsory social provision but oth-
erwise was (as much as possible) identical. In such a
case, the person’s only motive for leaving would be
to avoid participating in the compulsory scheme of
social provision. And if he does leave, the needy in
his initial country will receive no (compelled) help
relative to which other parts of the notion are to be
explained, is the right to determine what shall be
done with X; the right to choose which of the con-
strained set of options concerning X shall be realized
or attempted. The constraints are set by other prin-
ciples or laws operating in the society; in our theory,
by the Lockean rights people possess (under the min-
imal state). My property rights in my knife allow me
to leave it where I will, but not in your chest. I may
choose which of the acceptable options involving
the knife is to be realized. This notion of property
helps us to understand why earlier theorists spoke
of people as having property in themselves and their
labor. They viewed each person as having a right to
decide what would become of himself and what he
would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits
of what he did.
* * *
When end- result principles of distributive justice
are built into the legal structure of a society, they (as
do most patterned principles) give each citizen an
enforceable claim to some portion of the total social
product; that is, to some portion of the sum total of
the individually and jointly made products. This total
product is produced by individuals laboring, using
means of production others have saved to bring into
existence, by people organizing production or creat-
ing means to produce new things or things in a new
way. It is on this batch of individual activities that pat-
terned distributional principles give each individual
an enforceable claim. Each person has a claim to the
activities and the products of other persons, indepen-
dently of whether the other persons enter into par-
ticular relationships that give rise to these claims, and
independently of whether they voluntarily take these
claims upon themselves, in charity or in exchange for
Whether it is done through taxation on wages
or on wages over a certain amount, or through sei-
zure of profits, or through there being a big social
pot so that it’s not clear what’s coming from where

of transfer” that would lead to the pattern. For example, the
principle that if one has more than the mean income one
must transfer everything one holds above the mean to per-
sons below the mean so as to bring them up to (but not over)
the mean. We can formulate a criterion for a “principle of
transfer” to rule out such obligatory transfers, or we can say
that no correct principle of transfer, no principle of transfer
in a free society will be like this. The former is probably the
better course, though the latter also is true.
Alternatively, one might think to make the entitlement
conception instantiate a pattern, by using matrix entries that
express the relative strength of a person’s entitlements as
measured by some real- valued function. But even if the limi-
tation to natural dimensions failed to exclude this function,
the resulting edifice would not capture our system of entitle-
ments to particular things.
4. Might not a transfer have instrumental effects on a third
party, changing his feasible options? (But what if the two par-
ties to the transfer independently had used their holdings in
this fashion?) I discuss this question below, but note here that
this question concedes the point for distributions of ultimate
intrinsic non instrumental goods (pure utility experiences, so
to speak) that are transferable. It also might be objected that
the transfer might make a third party more envious because it
worsens his position relative to someone else. I find it incom-
prehensible how this can be thought to involve a claim of
justice. . . .
Here and elsewhere in this chapter, a theory which incor-
porates elements of pure procedural justice might find what
I say acceptable, if kept in its proper place; that is, if back-
ground institutions exist to ensure the satisfaction of certain
conditions on distributive shares. But if these institutions
are not themselves the sum or invisible- hand result of
people’s voluntary (nonaggressive) actions, the constraints
they impose require justification. At no point does our argu-
ment assume any background institutions more extensive
than those of the minimal night- watchman state, a state
limited to protecting persons against murder, assault, theft,
fraud, and so forth.
5. One indication of the stringency of Rawls’ difference prin-
ciple, which we attend to in the second part of this chap-
ter, is its inappropriateness as a governing principle even
within a family of individuals who love one another. Should
a family devote its resources to maximizing the position of
its least well off and least talented child, holding back the
other children or using resources for their education and
from him. What rationale yields the result that the
person be permitted to emigrate, yet forbidden to
stay and opt out of the compulsory scheme of social
provision? If providing for the needy is of overrid-
ing importance, this does militate against allowing
internal opting out; but it also speaks against allow-
ing external emigration. (Would it also support, to
some extent, the kidnapping of persons living in a
place without compulsory social provision, who
could be forced to make a contribution to the needy
in your community?) Perhaps the crucial compo-
nent of the position that allows emigration solely
to avoid certain arrangements, while not allowing
anyone internally to opt out of them, is a concern
for fraternal feelings within the country. “We don’t
want anyone here who doesn’t contribute, who
doesn’t care enough about the others to contribute.”
That concern, in this case, would have to be tied to
the view that forced aiding tends to produce fra-
ternal feelings between the aided and the aider (or
perhaps merely to the view that the knowledge that
someone or other voluntarily is not aiding produces
unfraternal feelings).
1. Applications of the principle of justice in acquisition
may also occur as part of the move from one distribution to
another. You may find an unheld thing now and appropriate
it. Acquisitions also are to be understood as included when, to
simplify, I speak only of transitions by transfers.
2. If the principle of rectification of violations of the first two
principles yields more than one description of holdings, then
some choice must be made as to which of these is to be real-
ized. Perhaps the sort of considerations about distributive jus-
tice and equality that I argue against play a legitimate role in
this subsidiary choice. Similarly, there may be room for such
considerations in deciding which otherwise arbitrary fea-
tures a statute will embody, when such features are unavoid-
able because other considerations do not specify a precise
line; yet a line must be drawn.
3. One might try to squeeze a patterned conception of dis-
tributive justice into the framework of the entitlement con-
ception, by formulating a gimmicky obligatory “principle

plausible and illuminating to view such taxation in the
light of forced labor. This latter approach would remind
one of how John Wisdom conceives of the claims of meta-
7. Nothing hangs on the fact that here and elsewhere I speak
loosely of needs, since I go on, each time, to reject the cri-
terion of justice which includes it. If, however, something
did depend upon the notion, one would want to examine it
more carefully. For a skeptical view, see Kenneth Minogue,
The Liberal Mind, (New York: Random House, 1963),
pp. 103–112.
development only if they will follow a policy through their
lifetimes of maximizing the position of their least fortunate
sibling? Surely not. How then can this even be considered
as the appropriate policy for enforcement in the wider soci-
ety? (I discuss below what I think would be Rawls’ reply: that
some principles apply at the macro level which do not apply
to micro- situations.)
6. I am unsure as to whether the arguments I present below
show that such taxation merely is forced labor; so that “is
on a par with” means “is one kind of.” Or alternatively,
whether the arguments emphasize the great similari-
ties between such taxation and forced labor, to show it is

C H A P T E R 6
Nonconsequentialist Theories: Do Your Duty
For the consequentialist, the rightness of an action
depends entirely on the effects of that action (or
of following the rule that governs it). Good effects
make the deed right; bad effects make the deed
wrong. But for the nonconsequentialist (otherwise
known as a deontologist), the rightness of an action
can never be measured by such a variable, contin-
gent standard as the quantity of goodness brought
into the world. Rightness derives not from the
consequences of an action but from its nature, its
right- making characteristics. An action is right (or
wrong) not because of what it produces but because
of what it is. Yet for all their differences, both conse-
quentialist and deontological theories contain ele-
ments that seem to go to the heart of morality and
our moral experience. So in this chapter, we look at
ethics through a deontological lens and explore the
two deontological theories that historically have
offered the strongest challenges to consequentialist
views: Kant’s moral theory and natural law theory.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–
1804) is considered one of the greatest moral phi-
losophers of the modern era. Many scholars would
go further and say that he is the greatest moral
philosopher of the modern era. As a distinguished
thinker of the Enlightenment, he sought to make
reason the foundation of morality. For him, reason
alone leads us to the right and the good. There-
fore, to discover the true path we need not appeal
to utility, religion, tradition, authority, happiness,
desires, or intuition. We need only heed the dictates
of reason, for reason informs us of the moral law
just as surely as it reveals the truths of mathemat-
ics. Because of each person’s capacity for reason, he
or she is a sovereign in the moral realm, a supreme
judge of what morality demands. What morality
demands (in other words, our duty) is enshrined in
the moral law— the changeless, necessary, univer-
sal body of moral rules.
In Kant’s ethics, right actions have moral value
only if they are done with a “good will”—that is,
a will to do your duty for duty’s sake. To act with
a good will is to act with a desire to do your duty
simply because it is your duty, to act out of pure rev-
erence for the moral law. Without a good will,
your actions have no moral worth— even if they
accord with the moral law, even if they are done
out of sympathy or love, even if they produce good
results. Only a good will is unconditionally good,
and only an accompanying good will can give your
talents, virtues, and actions moral worth. As Kant
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world,
or even out of it, which can be called good with-
out qualification, except a good will. Intelligence,
wit, judgement, and the other talents of the mind,
however they may be named, or courage, resolu-
tion, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are
undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects;
but these gifts of nature may also become extremely
bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use
of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is
called character, is not good. It is the same with the
gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health,
and the general well- being and contentment with
one’s condition which is called happiness, inspire

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  133
maxim. If you steal a car, then your action implies
a maxim such as “In this situation, steal a car if you
want one.” So the first version of the categorical
imperative says that an action is right if you could
will the maxim of an action to become a moral law
applying to all persons. That is, an action is permissi-
ble if (1) its maxim can be universalized (if everyone
can consistently act on the maxim in similar situa-
tions) and (2) you would be willing to let that hap-
pen. If you can so will the maxim, then the action
is right (permissible). If you cannot, the action is
wrong (prohibited). Right actions pass the test of the
categorical imperative; wrong actions do not.
Some of the duties derived from the categorical
imperative are, in Kant’s words, perfect duties and
some, imperfect duties. Perfect duties are those
that absolutely must be followed without fail; they
have no exceptions. Some perfect duties cited by
Kant include duties not to break a promise, not to
lie, and not to commit suicide. Imperfect duties
are not always to be followed; they do have excep-
tions. As examples of imperfect duties, Kant men-
tions duties to develop your talents and to help
others in need.
Kant demonstrates how to apply the first ver-
sion of the categorical imperative to several cases,
the most famous of which involves a lying prom-
ise. Imagine that you want to borrow money from
someone, and you know you will not be able to
repay the debt. You also know that you will get
the loan if you falsely promise to pay the money
back. Is such deceptive borrowing morally permis-
sible? To find out, you have to devise a maxim for
the action and ask whether you could consistently
will it to become a universal law. Could you con-
sistently will everyone to act on the maxim, “If
you need money, make a lying promise to borrow
some”? Kant’s emphatic answer is no. If all per-
sons adopted this rule, then they would make lying
promises to obtain loans. But then everyone would
know that such promises are false, and the prac-
tice of giving loans based on a promise would no
longer exist, because no promises could be trusted.
pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good
will to correct the influence of these on the mind. . . .
A good will is good not because of what it performs
or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of
some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the
volition— that is, it is good in itself, and considered
by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that
can be brought about by it in favour of any inclina-
tion, nay, even of the sum- total of all inclinations.1
So to do right, we must do it for duty’s sake,
motivated solely by respect for the moral law. But
how do we know what the moral law is? Kant sees
the moral law as a set of principles, or rules, stated
in the form of imperatives, or commands. Impera-
tives can be hypothetical or categorical. A hypo-
thetical imperative tells us what we should do
if we have certain desires: for example, “If you need
money, work for it” or “If you want orange juice,
ask for it.” We should obey such imperatives only
if we desire the outcomes specified. A categorical
imperative, however, is not so iffy. It tells us that
we should do something in all situations regardless of
our wants and needs. A moral categorical imperative
expresses a command such as “Do not steal” or “Do
not commit suicide.” Such imperatives are universal
and unconditional, containing no stipulations con-
tingent on human desires or preferences. Kant says
that the moral law consists entirely of categorical
imperatives. They are the authoritative expression
of our moral duties. Because they are the products
of rational insight and we are rational agents, we
can straightforwardly access, understand, and know
them as the great truths that they are.
Kant says that all our duties, all the moral cate-
gorical imperatives, can be logically derived from a
principle that he calls the categorical imperative. It
tells us to “act only on that maxim through which
you can at the same time will that it should become
a universal law.”2 (Kant actually devised three state-
ments, or versions, of the principle, the one given
here and two others; in the next few pages we will
examine only the two most important ones.) Kant
believes that every action implies a general rule, or

134 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
action is permissible if everyone can consistently
act on it in similar situations and you would be
willing to let that happen.) Kant asks us to con-
sider a maxim that mandates not contributing
anything to the welfare of others or aiding them
when they are in distress. If you willed this maxim
to become a universal moral law (if everyone fol-
lowed it), no self- defeating state of affairs would
obtain. Everyone could conceivably follow this
rule. But you probably would not want people
to act on this maxim, because one day you might
need their help and sympathy. Right now you
might will the maxim to become universal law, but
later, when the tables are turned, you might regret
that policy. The inconsistency lies in wanting the
rule to be universalized and not wanting it to be
The maxim, if acted on by everyone, would defeat
itself. As Kant says, the “maxim would necessar-
ily destroy itself as soon as it was made a univer-
sal law.”3 Therefore, you cannot consistently will
the maxim to become a universal law. The action,
then, is not morally permissible.
Kant believes that besides the rule forbidding
the breaking of promises, the categorical impera-
tive generates several other duties. Among these he
includes prohibitions against committing suicide,
lying, and killing innocent people.
Some universalized maxims may fail the test
of the categorical imperative (first version) not by
being self- defeating (as in the case of a lying prom-
ise) but by constituting rules that you would not
want everyone else to act on. (Remember that an
The Golden Rule—”Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you”—has some resemblance
to Kant’s ethics and has been, in one form or
another, implicit in many religious traditions and
moral systems. Moral philosophers generally think
that it touches on a significant truth about moral-
ity. But some have argued that taken by itself,
without the aid of any other moral principles or
theory, the Golden Rule can lead to implausible
conclusions and absurd results. Here is part of a
famous critique by Richard Whately (1787–1863):
Supposing any one should regard this golden rule
as designed to answer the purpose of a complete
system of morality, and to teach us the difference
of right and wrong; then, if he had let his land
to a farmer, he might consider that the farmer
would be glad to be excused paying any rent for
it, since he would himself, if he were the farmer,
prefer having the land rent- free; and that, there-
fore, the rule of doing as he would be done by
requires him to give up all his property. So also
the shopkeeper might, on the same principle,
think that the rule required him to part with his
goods under prime cost, or to give them away,
and thus to ruin himself. Now such a procedure
would be absurd. . . .
You have seen, then, that the golden rule was
far from being designed to impart to men the first
notions of justice. On the contrary, it presupposes
that knowledge; and if we had no such notions,
we could not properly apply the rule. But the real
design of it is to put us on our guard against the
danger of being blinded by self- interest.*
How does the Golden Rule resemble Kant’s theory?
How does it differ? Do you agree with Whately’s criti-
cism? Why or why not? How could the Golden Rule
be qualified or supplemented to blunt Whate ly’s
critique? John Stuart Mill said that the Golden Rule
was the essence of utilitarianism. What do you think
he meant by this?
*Richard Whately, quoted in Louis P. Pojman and Lewis
Vaughn, The Moral Life (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2007), 353–54.
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Sizing Up the Golden Rule’

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  135
universalized. Kant says that this alternative kind
of inconsistency shows that the action embodied
in the maxim is not permissible.
Kant’s second version of the categorical impera-
tive is probably more famous and influential than
the first. (Kant believed the two versions to be vir-
tually synonymous, but they seem to be distinct
principles.) He declares, “So act as to treat human-
ity, whether in thine own person or in that of any
other, in every case as an end withal, never as means
only.”4 This rule— the means- ends principle—
says that we must always treat people (including
ourselves) as ends in themselves, as creatures of
great intrinsic worth, never merely as things of
instrumental value, never merely as tools to be used
for someone else’s purpose.
This statement of the categorical imperative
reflects Kant’s view of the status of rational beings,
or persons. Persons have intrinsic value and dignity
because they, unlike the rest of creation, are ratio-
nal agents who are free to choose their own ends,
legislate their own moral laws, and assign value to
things in the world. Persons are the givers of value,
so they must have ultimate value. They therefore
must always be treated as ultimate ends and never
merely as means.
Kant’s idea is that people not only have intrinsic
worth— they also have equal intrinsic worth. Each
rational being has the same inherent value as every
other rational being. This equality of value cannot
be altered by, and has no connection to, social and
economic status, racial and ethnic considerations,
or the possession of prestige or power. Any two per-
sons are entitled to the same moral rights, even if
one is rich, wise, powerful, and famous— and the
other is not.
To treat people merely as a means rather than
as an end is to fail to recognize the true nature and
status of persons. Because people are by nature
free, rational, autonomous, and equal, we treat
them merely as a means if we do not respect these
attributes— if we, for example, interfere with their
right to make informed choices by lying to them,
inhibit their free and autonomous actions by
enslaving or coercing them, or violate their equal-
ity by discriminating against them. For Kant, lying
or breaking a promise is wrong because to do so is to
use people merely as a means to an end rather than
as an end in themselves.
Sometimes we use people to achieve some end,
yet our actions are not wrong. To see why, we must
understand that there is a moral difference between
treating people as a means and treating them merely,
or only, as a means. We may treat a mechanic as a
means to repair our cars, but we do not treat him
merely as a means if we also respect his status as a
person. We do not treat him only as a means if we
neither restrict his freedom nor ignore his rights.
As noted earlier, Kant insists that the two ver-
sions of the categorical imperative are two ways
of stating the same idea. But the two principles
seem to be distinct, occasionally leading to differ-
ent conclusions about the rightness of an action.
The maxim of an action, for example, may pass the
first version (be permissible) by being universaliz-
able but fail the second by not treating persons as
ends. A more plausible approach is to view the two
versions not as alternative tests but as a single two-
part test that an action must pass to be judged mor-
ally permissible. So before we can declare a maxim
a bona fide categorical imperative, we must be able
to consistently will it to become a universal law and
know that it would have us treat persons not only
as means but as ends.
Applying the Theory
How might a Kantian decide the case of the anti-
terrorist chief of police, discussed in Chapter 5,
who considers killing a terrorist’s wife and chil-
dren? Recall that the terrorist is murdering hun-
dreds of innocent people each year and that the
chief has good reasons to believe that killing the
wife and children (who are also innocent) will
end the terrorist’s attacks. Recall also the ver-
dicts on this case rendered from the act- and rule-
utilitarian perspectives. By act- utilitarian lights,

136 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
Evaluating the Theory
Kant’s moral theory meets the minimum require-
ment of coherence and is generally consistent with
our moral experience (Criterion 2). In some trou-
bling ways, however, it seems to conflict with our
commonsense moral judgments (Criterion 1) and
appears to have some flaws that restrict its useful-
ness in moral problem solving (Criterion 3).
As we saw earlier, some duties generated by
the categorical imperative are absolute— they are,
as Kant says, perfect duties, allowing no excep-
tions whatsoever. We have, for example, a perfect
(exceptionless) duty not to lie— ever. But what
should we do if lying is the only way to prevent a
terrible tragedy? Suppose a friend of yours comes
to your house in a panic and begs you to hide her
from an insane man intent on murdering her. No
sooner do you hide her in the cellar than the insane
man appears at your door with a bloody knife in his
hand and asks where your friend is. You have no
doubt that the man is serious and that your friend
will in fact be brutally murdered if the man finds
her. Imagine that you have only two choices (and
saying “I don’t know” is not one of them): either
you lie to the man and thereby save your friend’s
life, or you tell the man where she is hiding and
guarantee her murder. Kant actually considers such
a case and renders this verdict on it: you should
tell the truth though the heavens fall. He says, as
he must, that the consequences of your action here
are irrelevant. Yet Kant’s answer seems contrary to
our considered moral judgments. Moral common
sense seems to suggest that in a case like this, saving
a life would be much more important than telling
the truth.
Another classic example involves promise keep-
ing, which is also a perfect duty. Suppose you
promise to meet a friend for lunch, and on your
way to the restaurant you are called on to help
someone injured in a car crash. No one else can
help her, and she will die unless you render aid.
But if you help her, you will break your promise
to meet your friend. What should you do? Kant
the chief should kill some of the terrorist’s inno-
cent relatives (and threaten to kill others). The
rule- utilitarian view, however, is that the chief
should not kill them.
Suppose the maxim in question is “When the
usual antiterrorist tactics fail to stop terrorists
from killing many innocent people, the authori-
ties should kill (and threaten to kill) the terrorists’
relatives.” Can we consistently will this maxim to
become a universal law? Does this maxim involve
treating persons merely as a means to an end rather
than as an end in themselves? To answer the first
question, we should try to imagine what would
happen if everyone in the position of the relevant
authorities followed this maxim. Would any incon-
sistencies or self- defeating states of affairs arise? We
can see that the consequences of universalizing
the maxim would not be pleasant. The authorities
would kill the innocent— actions that could be as
gruesome and frightening as terrorist attacks. But
our willing that everyone act on the maxim would
not be self- defeating or otherwise contradictory.
Would we nevertheless be willing to live in a world
where the maxim was universally followed? Again,
there seems to be no good reason why we could
not. The maxim therefore passes the first test of the
categorical imperative.
To answer the second ( means- ends) question,
we must inquire whether following the maxim
would involve treating someone merely as a
means. The obvious answer is yes. This antiter-
rorism policy would use the innocent relatives of
terrorists as a means to stop terrorist acts. Their
freedom and their rights as persons would be vio-
lated. The maxim therefore fails the second test,
and the acts sanctioned by the maxim would not be
permissible. From the Kantian perspective, using
the innocent relatives would be wrong no mat-
ter what— regardless of how many lives the policy
would save or how much safer the world would
be. So in this case, the Kantian verdict would coin-
cide with that of rule- utilitarianism but not that of
act- utilitarianism.

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  137
would say that come what may, your duty is to
keep your promise to meet your friend. Under
these circumstances, however, keeping the prom-
ise just seems wrong.
These scenarios are significant because, con-
trary to Kant’s view, they suggest that we have no
absolute, or exceptionless, moral duties. We can
easily imagine many cases like those just men-
tioned. Moreover, we can also envision situations
in which we must choose between two allegedly
perfect duties, each one prohibiting some action.
We cannot fulfill both duties at once, and we must
make a choice. Such conflicts provide plausible evi-
dence against the notion that there are exception-
less moral rules.5
Conflicts of duties, of course, are not just defi-
ciencies under Criterion 1. They also indicate diffi-
culties with Criterion 3. Like many moral theories,
Kant’s system fails to provide an effective means of
resolving major conflicts of duties.
Some additional inconsistencies with our con-
sidered moral judgments seem to arise from
applications of the first version of the categori-
cal imperative. Remember that the first version
says that an action is permissible if everyone can
consistently act on it and if you would be willing
to have that happen. At first glance, it seems to
guarantee that moral rules are universally fair. But
it makes the acceptability of a moral rule depend
largely on whether you personally are willing to live
in a world that conforms to the rule. If you are not
willing to live in such a world, then the rule fails the
first version of the categorical imperative, and your
conforming to the rule is wrong. But if you are the
sort of person who would prefer such a world, then
conforming to the rule would be morally permis-
sible. This subjectivity in Kant’s theory could lead
to the sanctioning of heinous acts of all kinds. Sup-
pose the rule is “Kill everyone with dark skin” or
“Murder all Jews.” Neither rule would be contradic-
tory if universalized; everyone could consistently
act on it. Moreover, if you were willing to have
everyone act on it— even willing to be killed if you
have dark skin or are a Jew— then acts endorsed by
the rule would be permissible. Thus the first version
seems to bless acts that are clearly immoral.
Critics say that another difficulty with Kant’s
theory concerns the phrasing of the maxims to be
universalized. Oddly enough, Kant does not pro-
vide any guidance for how we should state a rule

Respect is the guiding value of Kantian ethics.
Respect is owed all persons equally, Kant says,
because they have intrinsic worth and dignity
due to their autonomy— that is, their capacity for
rational decisions, autonomous action, and moral
choices. Kant made this point by insisting that we
must always treat persons as ends in themselves,
never merely as a means to an end (as tools to be
used for someone else’s purposes). Another way
to express this is to say that, as persons, we have
rights— specifically, negative rights, which obli-
gate others not to interfere with our obtaining
something. (Positive rights are rights that obli-
gate others to help us obtain something.) Persons
have the right not to be treated in certain ways:
not to be used or regarded as if they were mere
instruments, and not to have their autonomous
actions and free choices thwarted or constrained.
The principle of respect therefore would prohibit,
among other things, lying to persons, cheating
them, coercing them, falsely imprisoning them,
discriminating against them, and manipulating
them. Their negative rights can be violated or
overridden only for very strong reasons.
Kant, Respect, and Personal Rights

138 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
treating him merely as a cause of infection to others.
But, if we refuse to isolate him, we are treating other
people merely as means to his comfort and culture.6
Kant’s means- ends principle captures an impor-
tant truth about the intrinsic value of persons. But
apparently we cannot fully implement it, because
sometimes we are forced to treat people merely as a
means and not as an end in themselves.
Despite these criticisms, Kant’s theory has been
influential because it embodies a large part of the
whole truth about morality. At a minimum, it
promotes many of the duties and rights that our
considered moral judgments lead us to embrace.
Furthermore, it emphasizes three of morality’s most
important features: (1) universality, (2) impartial-
ity, and (3) respect for persons.
Kant’s first version of the categorical imperative
rests firmly on universality— the notion that the
moral law applies to all persons in relevantly simi-
lar situations. Impartiality requires that the moral
law apply to everyone in the same way, that no one
can claim a privileged moral status. In Kantian eth-
ics, double standards are inherently bad. Ethical
egoism fails as a moral theory in large part because
it lacks this kind of impartiality. The first version of
the categorical imperative, in contrast, enshrines
impartiality as essential to the moral life. Kant’s
principle of respect for persons (the means- ends
imperative) entails a recognition that persons have
ultimate and inherent value, that they should not
be used merely as a means to utilitarian ends, that
equals should be treated equally, and that there are
limits to what can be done to persons for the sake of
good consequences. To many scholars, the central
flaw of utilitarianism is that it does not incorporate
a fully developed respect for persons. But in Kant’s
theory, the rights and duties of persons override
any consequentialist calculus.
So Kantian ethics has many of the most impor-
tant qualities that we associate with adequate
describing an action, an oversight that allows us to
word a rule in many different ways. Consider, for
example, our duty not to lie. You might state the rel-
evant rule like this: “Lie only to avoid injury or death
to others.” But you could also say “Lie only to avoid
injury, death, or embarrassment to anyone who
has green eyes and red hair” (a group that includes
you and your relatives). Neither rule would lead to
an inconsistency if everyone acted on it, so they
both describe permissible actions. The second rule,
though, is obviously not morally acceptable. More to
the point, it shows that we can use the first version
of the categorical imperative to sanction all sorts
of immoral acts if we state the rule in enough detail.
This result suggests not only a problem with Crite-
rion 1 but also a limitation on the usefulness of the
theory, a fault measured by Criterion 3. Judging the
rightness of an action is close to impossible if the lan-
guage of the relevant rule can change with the wind.
It may be feasible to remedy some of the short-
comings of the first version of the categorical imper-
ative by combining it with the second. Rules such as
“Kill everyone with dark skin” or “Lie only to avoid
injury, death, or embarrassment to anyone who
has green eyes and red hair” would be unaccept-
able because they would allow people to be treated
merely as a means. But the means- ends principle
itself appears to be in need of modification. The
main difficulty is that our duties not to use people
merely as a means can conflict, and Kant provides
no counsel on how to resolve such dilemmas. Say,
for example, that hundreds of innocent people are
enslaved inside a brutal Nazi concentration camp,
and the only way we can free them is to kill the
Nazis guarding the camp. We must therefore choose
between allowing the prisoners to be used merely as
a means by the Nazis or using the Nazis merely as a
means by killing them to free the prisoners.
Here is another example, a classic case from the
philosopher C. D. Broad:
Again, there seem to be cases in which you must
either treat A or treat B, not as an end, but as a means.
If we isolate a man who is a carrier of typhoid, we are

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  139
and finally into an oak. The end toward which the
acorn strives is the good (for acorns)—that is, to be
a well- formed and well- functioning oak. Natural
law determines how an oak functions— and indi-
cates how an oak should function. If the oak does
not function according to its natural purpose (if, for
example, it is deformed or weak), it fails to be as it
should be, deviating from its proper path laid down
in natural law. Likewise, humans have a nature—
a natural function and purpose unique among all
living things. In human nature, in the mandates of
the natural law for humanity, are the aims toward
which human life strives. In these teleological striv-
ings, in these facts about what human nature is, we
can perceive what it should be.
What is it, exactly, that human nature aims at?
Aquinas says that humans naturally incline toward
preservation of human life, avoidance of harm,
basic functions that humans and animals have in
common (sexual intercourse, raising offspring,
and the like), the search for truth, the nurturing of
social ties, and behavior that is benign and reason-
able. For humans, these inclinations constitute the
good— the good of human flourishing and well-
being. Our duty, then, is to achieve the good, to
fully realize the goals to which our nature is already
inclined. As Aquinas says,
[T]his is the first precept of law, that good is to be
done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided. All other
precepts of the natural law are based upon this; so
that all things which the practical reason naturally
apprehends as man’s good belong to the precepts of
the natural law under the form of things to be done
or avoided.
Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and
evil, the nature of the contrary, hence it is that all
those things to which man has a natural inclination
are naturally apprehended by reason as good, and
consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contrar-
ies as evil, and objects of avoidance. Therefore, the
order of the precepts of the natural law is according to
the order of natural inclinations.7
In this passage, Aquinas refers to the aspect
of human nature that enables us to decipher and
moral theories. And no one has explained better
than Kant why persons deserve full respect and
how we are to determine whether persons are get-
ting the respect they deserve.
The natural law theory of morality comes to us from
ancient Greek and Roman philosophers (most nota-
bly, Aristotle and the Stoics) through the theologian
and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).
Aquinas molded it into its most influential form and
bequeathed it to the world and the Roman Catholic
Church, which embraced it as its official system of
ethics. To this day, the theory is the primary basis
for the church’s views on abortion, homosexuality,
euthanasia, and other controversial issues.
Here we focus on the traditional version of the
theory derived from Aquinas. This form is theistic,
assuming a divine lawgiver that has given us the gift
of reason to comprehend the order of nature. But
there are other natural law theories of a more recent
vintage that dispense with the religious elements,
basing objective moral standards on human nature
and the natural needs and interests of humans.
According to Aquinas, at the heart of the tra-
ditional theory is the notion that right actions are
those that accord with the natural law— the moral
principles that we can “read” clearly in the very
structure of nature itself, including human nature.
We can look into nature and somehow uncover
moral standards because nature is a certain way: it
is rationally ordered and teleological ( goal- directed),
with every part having its own purpose or end at
which it naturally aims. From this notion about
nature, traditional natural law theorists draw the
following conclusion: How nature is reveals how it
should be. The goals to which nature inclines reveal
the values that we should embrace and the moral
purposes to which we should aspire.
In conformity with an inherent natural pur-
pose or goal— that is, according to natural law— an
acorn develops into a seedling, then into a sapling,

140 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
is that such inconsistencies cannot happen. The
natural law tradition gives a different answer: con-
flicts between duties are possible, but they can be
resolved by applying the doctrine of double
effect. This principle pertains to situations in
which an action has both good and bad effects. It
says that performing a good action may be permis-
sible even if it has bad effects, but performing a bad
action for the purpose of achieving good effects is
never permissible. More formally, in a traditional
interpretation of the doctrine, an action is permis-
sible if four conditions are met:
1. The action is inherently (without reference to con­
sequences) either morally good or morally neutral.
That is, the action itself must at least be morally
2. The bad effect is not used to produce the good effect
(though the bad may be a side effect of the good).
Killing a fetus to save the mother’s life is never
permissible. However, using a drug to cure the
mother’s life- threatening disease— even though
the fetus dies as a side effect of the treatment—
may be permissible.
3. The intention must always be to bring about the
good effect. For any given action, the bad effect
may occur, and it may even be foreseen, but it
must not be intended.
4. The good effect must be at least as important as
the bad effect. The good of an action must be
proportional to the bad. If the bad heavily
outweighs the good, the action is not permis-
sible. The good of saving your own life in an act
of self- defense, for example, must be at least
as great as the bad of taking the life of your
The doctrine of double effect is surprisingly ver-
satile. Natural law theorists have used it to navigate
moral dilemmas in medical ethics, reproductive
health, warfare, and other life- and- death issues, as
we will see in the next section.
implement the precepts of natural law: reason.
Humans, unlike the rest of nature, are rational crea-
tures, capable of understanding, deliberation, and
free choice. Because all of nature is ordered and ratio-
nal, only rational beings such as humans can peer
into it and discern the inclinations in their nature,
derive from the natural tendencies the natural laws,
and apply the laws to their actions and their lives.
Humans have the gift of reason (a gift from God,
Aquinas says), and reason gives us access to the laws.
Reason therefore is the foundation of morality. Judg-
ing the rightness of actions, then, is a matter of con-
sulting reason, of considering rational grounds for
moral beliefs.
It follows from these points that the natural
(moral) laws are both objective and universal.
The general principles of right and wrong do not
vary from person to person or culture to culture.
The dynamics of each situation may alter how a
principle is applied, and not every situation has a
relevant principle, but principles do not change
with the tide. The natural laws are the natural
laws. Further, not only are they binding on all per-
sons, but they can be known by all persons. Aqui-
nas insists that belief in God or inspiration from
above is not a prerequisite for knowledge of moral-
ity. A person’s effective use of reason is the only
Like Kant’s categorical imperative, traditional
natural law theory is, in the main, strongly abso-
lutist. Natural law theorists commonly insist on
several exceptionless rules. Directly killing the
innocent is always wrong (which means that direct
abortion is always wrong). Use of contraceptives
is always wrong (on the grounds that it interferes
with the natural human inclination toward pro-
creation). Homosexuality is always wrong (again
because it thwarts procreation). For Aquinas, lying,
adultery, and blasphemy are always wrong.
As we have seen, moral principles— especially
absolutist rules— can give rise to conflicts of
duties. Kant’s view on conflicting perfect duties

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  141
the chemotherapy is the method used to achieve
the good effect. The loss of the fetus is an indirect,
unintended result of the attempt to destroy the
cancer. The action therefore meets Condition 2.
The intention behind the action is to kill the can-
cer and thereby save the woman’s life— not to kill
the fetus. The woman and her doctors know that
the unfortunate consequence of treating the can-
cer will be the death of the fetus. They foresee the
death, but their intention is not to kill the fetus.
Thus, the action meets Condition 3. Is the good
effect proportional to the bad effect? In this case, a
life is balanced against a life, the life of the woman
and the life of the fetus. From the natural law per-
spective, both sides of the scale seem about equal
in importance. If the good effect to be achieved for
the woman was, say, a nicer appearance through
cosmetic surgery, and the bad effect was the death
of the fetus, the two sides would not have the same
level of importance. But in this case, the action does
meet Condition 4. Because the action meets all four
conditions, receiving the chemotherapy is morally
permissible for the woman.
Now let us examine a different kind of scenario.
Remember that earlier in this chapter, we applied
both utilitarianism and Kant’s theory to the antiter-
rorism tactic of killing a terrorist’s relatives. To stop
the murder of many innocent people by a relentless
terrorist, the authorities consider killing his wife
and three of his children and threatening to kill the
remaining four children. What verdict would the
doctrine of double effect yield in this case?
The good effect of this action is preventing
the deaths of innocent citizens; the bad effect is
the killing of other innocents. Right away we can
see that the action, in itself, is not morally good.
Directly killing the innocent is never permissible,
so the action does not meet Condition 1. Failing to
measure up to even one condition shows the action
to be prohibited, but we will continue our analysis
anyway. Is the bad effect used to produce the good
effect? Yes. The point of the action is to prevent
Applying the Theory
Traditional natural law theory and its double- effect
doctrine figure prominently in obstetrics cases in
which a choice must be made between harming
a pregnant woman or harming her fetus. A typi-
cal scenario goes something like this: A pregnant
woman has cancer and will die unless she receives
chemotherapy to destroy the tumors. If she does
take the chemotherapy, the fetus will die. Is it mor-
ally permissible for her to do so?
In itself, the act of taking the chemotherapy
is morally permissible. There is nothing inher-
ently wrong with using a medical treatment to
try to cure a life- threatening illness. So the action
meets Condition 1. We can also see that the bad
effect (killing the fetus) is not used to produce the
good effect (saving the woman’s life). Receiving
hypothetical imperative— An imperative that tells
us what we should do if we have certain desires.
categorical imperative— An imperative that we
should follow regardless of our particular wants
and needs; also, the principle that defines Kant’s
ethical system.
perfect duty— A duty that has no exceptions.
imperfect duty— A duty that has exceptions.
means- ends principle— The rule that we must
always treat people (including ourselves) as
ends in themselves, never merely as a means.
doctrine of double effect— The principle that
performing a good action may be permissible
even if it has bad effects, but performing a
bad action for the purpose of achieving good
effects is never permissible; any bad effects
must be unintended.

142 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
Evaluating the Theory
Traditional natural law theory appears to contain
no crippling internal inconsistencies, so we will
regard it as an eligible theory for evaluation. But it
does encounter difficulties with Criteria 1 and 3.
The theory seems to fall short of Criterion 1 (it
conflicts with commonsense moral judgments) in
part because of its absolutism, a feature that also
encumbers Kant’s theory. As we have seen, natural
law theorists maintain that some actions are always
wrong: for example, intentionally killing the inno-
cent, impeding procreation (through contracep-
tion, sterilization, or sexual preferences), or lying.
Such absolutes, though, can lead to moral judg-
ments that seem to diverge from common sense.
The absolute prohibition against directly killing
the innocent, for example, could actually result in
great loss of life in certain extreme circumstances.
Imagine that a thousand innocent people are taken
hostage by a homicidal madman, and the only way
to save the lives of nine hundred and ninety- nine
further terrorist killings, and the means to that end
is killing the terrorist’s wife and children. The bad
is used to achieve the good. So the action does not
meet Condition 2, either. It does, however, meet
Condition 3 because the intention behind the
action is to bring about the good effect, prevent-
ing further terrorist killings. Finally, if we view
the good effect (preventing the deaths of citizens)
as comparable to the bad effect (the killing of the
terrorist’s wife and children), we should infer that
the action meets Condition 4. In any case, because
the action fails Conditions 1 and 2, we have to
say that killing members of the terrorist’s family is
not permissible.
As suggested earlier, a Kantian theorist would
be likely to agree with this decision, and a rule-
utilitarian would probably concur. However, judg-
ing that the good consequences outweigh the bad,
an act- utilitarian might very well say that killing
the wife and children to prevent many other deaths
would be not only permissible, but obligatory.
Consider the following thought experiment, first
proposed by the philosopher Philippa Foot and
set forth here by the philosopher Judith Jarvis
Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley
rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead
five track workmen, who have been repairing the
track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at
that point, and the sides are steep, so you must
stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the
five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas
they don’t work. Now you suddenly see a spur of
track leading off to the right. You can turn the
trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the
straight track ahead. Unfortunately, Mrs. Foot has
arranged that there is one track workman on that
spur of track. He can no more get off the track in
time than the five can, so you will kill him if you
turn the trolley onto him. Is it morally permissible
for you to turn the trolley?*
If you were the driver of the trolley, which option
would you choose? Would you consider it morally
permissible to turn the trolley onto the one work-
man to save the other five? Why or why not? What
would the doctrine of double effect have you do in
this case? Does your moral intuition seem to conflict
with what the doctrine would have you do? What
reasons can you give for the choice you make?
*Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Critical Thought: Double
Effect and the ‘Trolley Problem,’” Yale Law Journal,
vol. 94, no. 6, May 1985. Reprinted with permission
from the Yale Law Journal.
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Double Effect and the “Trolley Problem”’

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  143
problematic. The kinds of moral principles that
we might extract from nature depend on our con-
ception of nature, and such conceptions can vary.
Taking their cue from Aquinas, many natural law
theorists see the inclinations of human nature as
benign; others, as fundamentally depraved. His-
torically, humans have shown a capacity for both
great good and monstrous evil. Which inclination
is the true one? And even if we could accurately
identify human inclinations, there seems to be no
reliable procedure for uncovering the correspond-
ing moral values or telling whether moral princi-
ples should be absolutist.
Like Kantian ethics, natural law theory is univer-
salist, objective, and rational, applying to all per-
sons and requiring that moral choices be backed
by good reasons. The emphasis on reason makes
morality independent of religion and belief in
God, a distinction also found in Kant’s ethics. At
the heart of natural law theory is a strong respect
for human life, an attitude that is close to, but not
quite the same thing as, Kant’s means- ends prin-
ciple. Respect for life or persons is, of course, a pri-
mary concern of our moral experience and seems
to preclude the kind of wholesale end- justifies- the-
means calculations that are a defining characteris-
tic of many forms of utilitarianism.
Natural law theory emphasizes a significant
element in moral deliberation that some other
theories play down: intention. In general, inten-
tion plays a larger role in natural law theory than
it does in Kant’s categorical imperative. To many
natural law theorists, the rightness of an action
often depends on the intentions of the moral agent
performing it. In our previous example of the preg-
nant woman with cancer, the intention behind the
act of taking the chemotherapy is to kill the cancer,
not the fetus, though the fetus dies because of the
treatment. So the action is thought to be morally
permissible. If the intention had been to kill the
is to intentionally kill one of them. If the one is not
killed, all one thousand will die. Most of us would
probably regard the killing of the one hostage as a
tragic but necessary measure to prevent a massive
loss of life. The alternative— letting them all die—
would seem a much greater tragedy. But many nat-
ural law theorists would condemn the killing of the
one innocent person even if it would save the lives
of hundreds.
Similarly, suppose a pregnant woman will die
unless her fetus is aborted. Would it be morally
permissible for her to have the abortion? Given the
natural law prohibition against killing the inno-
cent, many natural law theorists would say no.
Aborting the fetus would be wrong, even to save
the mother’s life. But most people would probably
say that this view contradicts our considered moral
The absolutism of natural law theory arises
from the notion that nature is authoritatively tele-
ological. Nature aims toward particular ends that
are ordained by the divine, and the values inher-
ent in this arrangement cannot and must not be
ignored or altered. How nature is reveals how it
should be. Period. But the teleological character of
nature has never been established by logical argu-
ment or empirical science— at least not to the satis-
faction of most philosophers and scientists. In fact,
science (including evolutionary theory) suggests
that nature is not teleological at all, but instead
random and purposeless, changing and adapting
according to scientific laws, blind cause and effect,
chance mutation, and competition among species.
Moreover, the idea that values can somehow be
extracted from the facts of nature is as problematic
for natural law theory as it is for ethical egoism and
utilitarianism. From the fact that humans have a
natural inclination toward procreation it does not
follow that discouraging procreation through con-
traception is morally wrong.
Natural law theory seems to falter on Crite-
rion 3 (usefulness) because, as just mentioned,
discovering what values are inscribed in nature is

144 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
moral principles embedded in nature itself. How nature
is reveals how it should be. The inclinations of human
nature reveal the values that humans should live by.
Aquinas, who gave us the most influential form of
natural law theory, says that humans naturally incline
toward preservation of human life, procreation, the
search for truth, community, and benign and reason-
able behavior. Like Kant’s theory, traditional natural
law theory is absolutist, maintaining that some actions
are always wrong. These immoral actions include
directly killing the innocent, interfering with procre-
ation, and lying. The theory’s absolutist rules do occa-
sionally conflict, and the proposed remedy for any such
inconsistencies is the doctrine of double effect. That
principle applies to situations in which an action pro-
duces both good and bad effects. It says that perform-
ing a good action may be permissible even if it has bad
effects, but performing a bad action for the purpose of
achieving good effects is never permissible. Despite the
double- effect doctrine, the theory’s biggest weakness
is still its absolutism, which seems to mandate actions
that conflict with our considered moral judgments.
In some cases, for example, the theory might require
someone to allow hundreds of innocent people to die
just to avoid the direct killing of a single person.
hypothetical imperative (p. 133)
categorical imperative (p. 133)
perfect duty (p. 133)
imperfect duty (p. 133)
means- ends principle (p. 135)
doctrine of double effect (p. 140)
Review Questions
1. What is the significance of a “good will” in
Kant’s ethics? (pp. 132–133)
2. What is the difference between a hypothetical
and a categorical imperative? (p. 133)
3. What is the moral principle laid out in the
first version of Kant’s categorical imperative?
(p. 133)
fetus directly, the action would have been deemed
wrong. In our everyday moral experience, we fre-
quently take intentions into account in evaluating
an action. We usually would think that there must
be some morally relevant difference between a ter-
rorist’s intentionally killing ten people and a police
officer’s accidentally killing those same ten people
while chasing the terrorist, though both scenarios
result in the same tragic loss of life.
Kant’s moral theory is perhaps the most influential of
all nonconsequentialist approaches. In his view, right
actions have moral value only if they are done with a
“good will”—for duty’s sake alone. The meat of Kant’s
theory is the categorical imperative, a principle that
he formulates in three versions. The first of the two
versions we discuss says that an action is right if you
could will the maxim of that action to become a moral
law applying to all persons. An action is permissible
if (1) its maxim can be universalized (if everyone can
consistently act on it) and (2) you would be willing to
have that happen. The second version of the categorical
imperative says that we must always treat people as ends
in themselves and never merely as means to an end.
Kant’s theory seems to conflict with our common-
sense moral judgments (Criterion 1) and has flaws
that limit its usefulness in moral problem solving (Cri-
terion 3). The theory falters under Criterion 1 mainly
because some duties generated by the categorical
imperative are absolute. Absolute duties can conflict,
and Kant provides no way to resolve these incon-
sistencies, a failure under Criterion 3. Furthermore,
counterexamples suggest that we have no genuine
absolute duties.
Natural law theory is based on the notion that right
actions are those that accord with natural law— the

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  145
8. Do you believe, as Kant does, that there are
perfect (absolute) duties? Why or why not?
9. According to the textbook, natural law
theory generates judgments that conflict with
commonsense morality. Do you agree with this
assessment? Why or why not?
10. Is natural law theory more plausible than
utilitarianism? Why or why not?
Explain how Kant’s theory could be applied in the
following scenarios to determine the proper course
of action.
1. Julie and Chan have been dating for three
months, and their relationship has slowly
blossomed into one of sincere affection and
trust. At the time they began dating, Chan had
a sexually transmitted disease, but he never
disclosed this information to Julie. Without
Julie’s knowledge, Chan sought treatment and
was eventually cured of the infection. Chan
has kept his secret from the beginning and has
no intention of ever revealing it to anyone.
How would Kant evaluate this situation?
Would he approve or disapprove of Chan’s
2. Imagine a World War II scenario in which
German soldiers strap innocent people to the
front of their tanks to dissuade Allied troops
from firing on the vehicles. If the Allies hold
their fire, their positions will be overrun, and
hundreds of their troops will be killed. The
Allied commander gives the order for his troops
to shoot at the tanks, knowing that the civilians
will perish. Should the Allies have killed these
Explain how natural law theory could be applied in
the following scenario to determine the proper course
of action.
3. A scientist is conducting an experiment using
one hundred adult subjects, hoping to finally
discover a cure for liver cancer. Conducting this
one last study is the only way to identify the
substance that can cure the disease and save the
4. What is the difference between perfect and
imperfect duties? (p. 133)
5. How does Kant distinguish between treating
someone as a means and treating someone
merely as a means? (p. 135)
6. How can the absolutism of Kant’s theory lead
to judgments that conflict with moral common
sense? (pp. 136–137)
7. How might the subjectivity of Kant’s theory
lead to the sanctioning of heinous acts?
(p. 137)
8. What is natural law theory? (pp. 139–140)
9. According to natural law theorists, how
can nature reveal anything about morality?
(pp. 139–140)
10. According to Aquinas, what is the good that
human nature aims at? (p. 139)
11. According to natural law theory, how are moral
principles objective? How are they universal?
(p. 140)
12. What is the doctrine of double effect? (p. 140)
13. How can the absolutism of natural law theory
lead to moral judgments that conflict with
moral common sense? (p. 143)
Discussion Questions
1. Which moral theory— Kant’s or natural law—
seems more plausible to you? Why?
2. What elements of Kant’s theory do you think
could or should be part of any viable moral
3. In what way is Kant’s ethics independent of (not
based on) religious belief? Is natural law theory
independent of religious belief? Why or why not?
4. According to Kant, why is breaking a promise
or lying immoral? Do you agree with Kant’s
reasoning? Why or why not?
5. How might your life change if you completely
embraced Kant’s theory of morality?
6. How might your life change if you adopted the
natural law theory of morality?
7. Would a Kantian and a natural law theorist
agree on whether having an abortion is moral?
Why or why not?

146 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
Mark Murphy, “The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics,”
in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2002
ed., ed. Edward N. Zalta,
/archives/win2002/entries/natural-law-ethics (1 March
Kai Nielsen, Ethics without God (London: Pemberton;
Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1973).
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic
Books, 1974).
Onora O’Neill, “Kantian Ethics,” in A Companion to Ethics,
ed. Peter Singer, corr. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
Louis P. Pojman, “Natural Law,” in Ethics: Discovering
Right and Wrong, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth,
James Rachels, chapter 9 in The Elements of Moral Philo­
sophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw- Hill, 2003).
Paul Taylor, chapter 5 in Principles of Ethics: An Introduc­
tion (Encino, CA: Dickenson, 1975).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, in Basic Writings
of Saint Thomas Aquinas, ed. and annotated by
Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945).
Robert N. Van Wyk, chapters 4 and 6 in Introduction to
Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s, 1990).
lives of countless people. But the experiment
causes long- lasting, horrible pain in the
subjects, and they will not be able to benefit in
any way from the study’s success. The researcher
would ordinarily never be able to enlist any
subjects for the study because of these two facts,
so to ensure the cooperation of the subjects,
he lies to them: he says that being a part of the
study will be painless and that it will increase
their life span. The study is completed, the cure
is found, and the subjects spend the next year
in agony. What would natural law theory say
about the scientist’s actions?
Stephen Buckle, “Natural Law,” in A Companion to Ethics,
ed. Peter Singer, corr. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clar-
endon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
C. E. Harris, chapters 6 and 8 in Applying Moral Theories,
3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997).
R E A D i N G s
From Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
Immanuel Kant
* * *
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or
even out of it, which can be called good, without quali-
fication, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judge-
ment, and the other talents of the mind, however, they
may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as
qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and
desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature
may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the
will which is to make use of them, and which, there-
fore, constitutes what is called character, is not good.
It is the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches,
honour, even health, and the general well- being and
contentment with one’s condition which is called hap­
piness, inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is
not a good will to correct the influence of these on the
mind, and with this also to rectify the whole principle
of acting and adapt it to its end. The sight of a being
who is not adorned with a single feature of a pure and
good will, enjoying unbroken prosperity, can never
give pleasure to an impartial rational spectator. Thus a
good will appears to constitute the indispensable con-
dition even of being worthy of happiness.
Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals,
trans. Thomas K. Abbott (edited).

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  147
reason as the governor of our will. Therefore we will
examine this idea from this point of view.
* * *
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides
this, there are many minds so sympathetically consti-
tuted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-
interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around
them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others
so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such
a case an action of this kind, however proper, how-
ever amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral
worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g., the
inclination to honour, which, if it is happily directed to
that which is in fact of public utility and accordant with
duty and consequently honourable, deserves praise
and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim
lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be
done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that
the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sor-
row of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot
of others, and that, while he still has the power to ben-
efit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble
because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose
that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and
performs the action without any inclination to it, but
simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine
moral worth. Further still, if nature has put little sym-
pathy in the heart of this or that man; if he, supposed to
be an upright man, is by temperament cold and indif-
ferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because in
respect of his own he is provided with the special gift of
patience and fortitude and supposes, or even requires,
that others should have the same— and such a man
would certainly not be the meanest product of nature—
but if nature had not specially framed him for a philan-
thropist, would he not still find in himself a source from
whence to give himself a far higher worth than that of a
good- natured temperament could be? Unquestionably.
It is just in this that the moral worth of the character is
brought out which is incomparably the highest of all,
namely, that he is beneficent, not from inclination, but
from duty.
* * *
There are even some qualities which are of service
to this good will itself and may facilitate its action, yet
which have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always
presuppose a good will, and this qualifies the esteem that
we justly have for them and does not permit us to regard
them as absolutely good. Moderation in the affections
and passions, self- control, and calm deliberation are not
only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute
part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they are far
from deserving to be called good without qualification,
although they have been so unconditionally praised by
the ancients. For without the principles of a good will,
they may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a
villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also
directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than
he would have been without it.
A good will is good not because of what it performs
or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some
proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition—
that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to
be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought
about by it in favour of any inclination, nay, even of
the sum- total of all inclinations. Even if it should hap-
pen that, owing to special disfavour of fortune, or the
niggardly provision of a step- motherly nature, this
will should wholly lack power to accomplish its pur-
pose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve
nothing, and there should remain only the good will
(not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of
all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would
still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its
whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitfulness can
neither add nor take away anything from this value.
It would be, as it were, only the setting to enable us
to handle it the more conveniently in common com-
merce, or to attract to it the attention of those who are
not yet connoisseurs, but not to recommend it to true
connoisseurs, or to determine its value.
There is, however, something so strange in this
idea of the absolute value of the mere will, in which no
account is taken of its utility, that notwithstanding the
thorough assent of even common reason to the idea,
yet a suspicion must arise that it may perhaps really be
the product of mere high- flown fancy, and that we may
have misunderstood the purpose of nature in assigning

148 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
must be well considered whether there may not here-
after spring from this lie much greater inconvenience
than that from which I now free myself, and as, with all
my supposed cunning, the consequences cannot be so
easily foreseen but that credit once lost may be much
more injurious to me than any mischief which I seek
to avoid at present, it should be considered whether it
would not be more prudent to act herein according to
a universal maxim and to make it a habit to promise
nothing except with the intention of keeping it. But it
is soon clear to me that such a maxim will still only be
based on the fear of consequences. Now it is a wholly
different thing to be truthful from duty, and to be so
from apprehension of injurious consequences. In the
first case, the very notion of the action already implies
a law for me; in the second case, I must first look about
elsewhere to see what results may be combined with
it which would affect myself. For to deviate from the
principle of duty is beyond all doubt wicked; but to
be unfaithful to my maxim of prudence may often
be very advantageous to me, although to abide by it
is certainly safer. The shortest way, however, and an
unerring one, to discover the answer to this question
whether a lying promise is consistent with duty, is to
ask myself, “Should I be content that my maxim (to
extricate myself from difficulty by a false promise)
should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well
as for others?” and should I be able to say to myself,
“Every one may make a deceitful promise when he
finds himself in a difficulty from which he cannot oth-
erwise extricate himself?” Then I presently become
aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means
will that lying should be a universal law. For with such
a law there would be no promises at all, since it would
be in vain to allege my intention in regard to my future
actions to those who would not believe this allegation,
or if they over hastily did so would pay me back in my
own coin. Hence my maxim, as soon as it should be
made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself.
I do not, therefore, need any far- reaching pen-
etration to discern what I have to do in order that
my will may be morally good. Inexperienced in the
course of the world, incapable of being prepared for
all its contingencies, I only ask myself: Canst thou
also will that thy maxim should be a universal law? If
Thus the moral worth of an action does not lie
in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of
action which requires to borrow its motive from this
expected effect. For all these effects— agreeableness of
one’s condition and even the promotion of the happi-
ness of others— could have been also brought about by
other causes, so that for this there would have been no
need of the will of a rational being; whereas it is in this
alone that the supreme and unconditional good can
be found. The pre- eminent good which we call moral
can therefore consist in nothing else than the concep-
tion of law in itself, which certainly is only possible
in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and
not the expected effect, determines the will. This is a
good which is already present in the person who acts
accordingly, and we have not to wait for it to appear
first in the result.
* * *
But what sort of law can that be, the conception
of which must determine the will, even without pay-
ing any regard to the effect expected from it, in order
that this will may be called good absolutely and with-
out qualification? As I have deprived the will of every
impulse which could arise to it from obedience to any
law, there remains nothing but the universal confor-
mity of its actions to law in general, which alone is
to serve the will as a principle, i.e., I am never to act
otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim
should become a universal law. Here, now, it is the
simple conformity to law in general, without assum-
ing any particular law applicable to certain actions,
that serves the will as its principle and must so serve
it, if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimeri-
cal notion. The common reason of men in its practical
judgements perfectly coincides with this and always
has in view the principle here suggested. Let the ques-
tion be, for example: May I when in distress make a
promise with the intention not to keep it? I readily
distinguish here between the two significations which
the question may have: Whether it is prudent, or
whether it is right, to make a false promise? The for-
mer may undoubtedly often be the case. I see clearly
indeed that it is not enough to extricate myself from
a present difficulty by means of this subterfuge, but it

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  149
be obtained by abstraction from any empirical, and
therefore merely contingent, knowledge; that it is
just this purity of their origin that makes them wor-
thy to serve as our supreme practical principle, and
that just in proportion as we add anything empirical,
we detract from their genuine influence and from
the absolute value of actions; that it is not only of
the greatest necessity, in a purely speculative point
of view, but is also of the greatest practical impor-
tance, to derive these notions and laws from pure rea-
son, to present them pure and unmixed, and even to
determine the compass of this practical or pure ratio-
nal knowledge, i.e., to determine the whole faculty
of pure practical reason; and, in doing so, we must
not make its principles dependent on the particular
nature of human reason, though in speculative phi-
losophy this may be permitted, or may even at times
be necessary; but since moral laws ought to hold
good for every rational creature, we must derive them
from the general concept of a rational being. In this
way, although for its application to man morality
has need of anthropology, yet, in the first instance,
we must treat it independently as pure philosophy,
i.e., as metaphysic, complete in itself (a thing which
in such distinct branches of science is easily done);
knowing well that unless we are in possession of this,
it would not only be vain to determine the moral ele-
ment of duty in right actions for purposes of specu-
lative criticism, but it would be impossible to base
morals on their genuine principles, even for com-
mon practical purposes, especially of moral instruc-
tion, so as to produce pure moral dispositions, and
to engraft them on men’s minds to the promotion of
the greatest possible good in the world.
But in order that in this study we may not merely
advance by the natural steps from the common moral
judgement (in this case very worthy of respect) to the
philosophical, as has been already done, but also from a
popular philosophy, which goes no further than it can
reach by groping with the help of examples, to meta-
physic (which does not allow itself to be checked by
anything empirical and, as it must measure the whole
extent of this kind of rational knowledge, goes as far
as ideal conceptions, where even examples fail us), we
must follow and clearly describe the practical faculty of
not, then it must be rejected, and that not because of
a disadvantage accruing from it to myself or even to
others, but because it cannot enter as a principle into a
possible universal legislation, and reason extorts from
me immediate respect for such legislation. I do not
indeed as yet discern on what this respect is based (this
the philosopher may inquire), but at least I under-
stand this, that it is an estimation of the worth which
far outweighs all worth of what is recommended by
inclination, and that the necessity of acting from pure
respect for the practical law is what constitutes duty,
to which every other motive must give place, because
it is the condition of a will being good in itself, and the
worth of such a will is above everything.
* * *
Nor could anything be more fatal to morality than
that we should wish to derive it from examples. For
every example of it that is set before me must be first
itself tested by principles of morality, whether it is
worthy to serve as an original example, i.e., as a pat-
tern; but by no means can it authoritatively furnish
the conception of morality. Even the Holy One of the
Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral
perfection before we can recognise Him as such; and
so He says of Himself, “Why call ye Me (whom you
see) good; none is good (the model of good) but God
only (whom ye do not see)?” But whence have we the
conception of God as the supreme good? Simply from
the idea of moral perfection, which reason frames a
priori and connects inseparably with the notion of a
free will. Imitation finds no place at all in morality,
and examples serve only for encouragement, i.e., they
put beyond doubt the feasibility of what the law com-
mands, they make visible that which the practical rule
expresses more generally, but they can never autho-
rize us to set aside the true original which lies in reason
and to guide ourselves by examples.
* * *
From what has been said, it is clear that all moral
conceptions have their seat and origin completely
a priori in the reason, and that, moreover, in the
commonest reason just as truly as in that which is
in the highest degree speculative; that they cannot

150 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
of this or that one, and not as a principle of reason,
which holds for every one.
* * *
Now all imperatives command either hypotheti-
cally or categorically. The former represent the practi-
cal necessity of a possible action as means to something
else that is willed (or at least which one might possibly
will). The categorical imperative would be that which
represented an action as necessary of itself without ref-
erence to another end, that is, as objectively necessary.
Since every practical law represents a possible
action as good and, on this account, for a subject who
is practically determinable by reason, necessary, all
imperatives are formulae determining an action which
is necessary according to the principle of a will good in
some respects. If now the action is good only as a means
to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical;
if it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as
being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself
conforms to reason, then it is categorical.
Thus the imperative declares what action possible
by me would be good and presents the practical rule
in relation to a will which does not forthwith perform
an action simply because it is good, whether because
the subject does not always know that it is good, or
because, even if it know this, yet its maxims might be
opposed to the objective principles of practical reason.
Accordingly the hypothetical imperative only says
that the action is good for some purpose, possible or
actual. In the first case it is a problematical, in the sec-
ond an assertorial practical principle. The categorical
imperative which declares an action to be objectively
necessary in itself without reference to any purpose,
i.e., without any other end, is valid as an apodeictic
(practical) principle.
* * *
Finally, there is an imperative which commands
a certain conduct immediately, without having as its
condition any other purpose to be attained by it. This
imperative is categorical. It concerns not the matter of
the action, or its intended result, but its form and the
principle of which it is itself a result; and what is essen-
tially good in it consists in the mental disposition, let
reason, from the general rules of its determination to
the point where the notion of duty springs from it.
Everything in nature works according to laws.
Rational beings alone have the faculty of acting accord-
ing to the conception of laws— that is, according to
principles, that is, have a will. Since the deduction of
actions from principles requires reason, the will is noth-
ing but practical reason. If reason infallibly determines
the will, then the actions of such a being which are rec-
ognised as objectively necessary are subjectively neces-
sary also, that is, the will is a faculty to choose that only
which reason independent of inclination recognises
as practically necessary, that is, as good. But if reason
of itself does not sufficiently determine the will, if the
latter is subject also to subjective conditions (particu-
lar impulses) which do not always coincide with the
objective conditions; in a word, if the will does not in
itself completely accord with reason (which is actually
the case with men), then the actions which objectively
are recognised as necessary are subjectively contingent,
and the determination of such a will according to objec-
tive laws is obligation, that is to say, the relation of the
objective laws to a will that is not thoroughly good is
conceived as the determination of the will of a rational
being by principles of reason, but which the will from
its nature does not of necessity follow.
The conception of an objective principle, in so far
as it is obligatory for a will, is called a command (of
reason), and the formula of the command is called an
All imperatives are expressed by the word ought
[or shall], and thereby indicate the relation of an
objective law of reason to a will, which from its sub-
jective constitution is not necessarily determined by
it (an obligation). They say that something would
be good to do or to forbear, but they say it to a will
which does not always do a thing because it is con-
ceived to be good to do it. That is practically good,
however, which determines the will by means of the
conceptions of reason, and consequently not from
subjective causes, but objectively, that is, on princi-
ples which are valid for every rational being as such.
It is distinguished from the pleasant, as that which
influences the will only by means of sensation from
merely subjective causes, valid only for the sense

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  151
arbitrary purpose may be considered as in itself contin-
gent, and we can at any time be free from the precept
if we give up the purpose; on the contrary, the uncon-
ditional command leaves the will no liberty to choose
the opposite; consequently it alone carries with it that
necessity which we require in a law.
Secondly, in the case of this categorical impera-
tive or law of morality, the difficulty (of discerning
its possibility) is a very profound one. It is an a priori
synthetical practical proposition; and as there is so
much difficulty in discerning the possibility of spec-
ulative propositions of this kind, it may readily be
supposed that the difficulty will be no less with the
* * *
In this problem we will first inquire whether the
mere conception of a categorical imperative may not
perhaps supply us also with the formula of it, contain-
ing the proposition which alone can be a categorical
imperative; for even if we know the tenor of such an
absolute command, yet how it is possible will require
further special and laborious study, which we post-
pone to the last section.
When I conceive a hypothetical imperative, in
general I do not know beforehand what it will contain
until I am given the condition. But when I conceive
a categorical imperative, I know at once what it con-
tains. For as the imperative contains besides the law
only the necessity that the maxims shall conform to
this law, while the law contains no conditions restrict-
ing it, there remains nothing but the general state-
ment that the maxim of the action should conform to
a universal law, and it is this conformity alone that the
imperative properly represents as necessary.
* * *
There is therefore but one categorical imperative,
namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou
canst at the same time will that it should become a
universal law.
Now if all imperatives of duty can be deduced
from this one imperative as from their principle, then,
although it should remain undecided what is called
duty is not merely a vain notion, yet at least we shall
the consequence be what it may. This imperative may
be called that of morality.
* * *
[The] question how the imperative of morality is
possible, is undoubtedly one, the only one, demand-
ing a solution, as this is not at all hypothetical, and
the objective necessity which it presents cannot rest
on any hypothesis, as is the case with the hypotheti-
cal imperatives. Only here we must never leave out
of consideration that we cannot make out by any
example, in other words empirically, whether there is
such an imperative at all, but it is rather to be feared
that all those which seem to be categorical may yet be
at bottom hypothetical. For instance, when the pre-
cept is: “Thou shalt not promise deceitfully”; and it is
assumed that the necessity of this is not a mere coun-
sel to avoid some other evil, so that it should mean:
“Thou shalt not make a lying promise, lest if it become
known thou shouldst destroy thy credit,” but that an
action of this kind must be regarded as evil in itself,
so that the imperative of the prohibition is categorical;
then we cannot show with certainty in any example
that the will was determined merely by the law, with-
out any other spring of action, although it may appear
to be so. For it is always possible that fear of disgrace,
perhaps also obscure dread of other dangers, may
have a secret influence on the will. Who can prove
by experience the non- existence of a cause when
all that experience tells us is that we do not perceive
it? But in such a case the so- called moral imperative,
which as such appears to be categorical and uncondi-
tional, would in reality be only a pragmatic precept,
drawing our attention to our own interests and merely
teaching us to take these into consideration.
We shall therefore have to investigate a priori the
possibility of a categorical imperative, as we have not
in this case the advantage of its reality being given in
experience, so that [the elucidation of] its possibility
should be requisite only for its explanation, not for its
establishment. In the meantime it may be discerned
beforehand that the categorical imperative alone has
the purport of a practical law; all the rest may indeed
be called principles of the will but not laws, since
whatever is only necessary for the attainment of some

152 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent
with my whole future welfare; but the question now
is, “Is it right?” I change then the suggestion of self-
love into a universal law, and state the question thus:
“How would it be if my maxim were a universal law?”
Then I see at once that it could never hold as a uni-
versal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict
itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that every-
one when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be
able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose
of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would
become impossible, as well as the end that one might
have in view in it, since no one would consider that
anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all
such statements as vain pretences.
3. A third finds in himself a talent which with the
help of some culture might make him a useful man in
many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable cir-
cumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather
than to take pains in enlarging and improving his
happy natural capacities. He asks, however, whether
his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agree-
ing with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also
with what is called duty. He sees then that a system of
nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law
although men (like the South Sea islanders) should
let their talents rest and resolve to devote their lives
merely to idleness, amusement, and propagation of
their species— in a word, to enjoyment; but he can-
not possibly will that this should be a universal law
of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural
instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills
that his faculties be developed, since they serve him
and have been given him, for all sorts of possible
4. A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees
that others have to contend with great wretchedness
and that he could help them, thinks: “What concern
is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven
pleases, or as he can make himself; I will take nothing
from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to
contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance
in distress!” Now no doubt if such a mode of think-
ing were a universal law, the human race might very
well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state
be able to show what we understand by it and what
this notion means.
Since the universality of the law according to
which effects are produced constitutes what is prop-
erly called nature in the most general sense (as to
form), that is the existence of things so far as it is deter-
mined by general laws, the imperative of duty may be
expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of thy action were
to become by thy will a universal law of nature.
We will now enumerate a few duties, adopting the
usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to
others, and into perfect and imperfect duties.
* * *
1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfor-
tunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in posses-
sion of his reason that he can ask himself whether it
would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take
his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of
his action could become a universal law of nature. His
maxim is: “From self- love I adopt it as a principle to
shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to
bring more evil than satisfaction.” It is asked then sim-
ply whether this principle founded on self- love can
become a universal law of nature. Now we see at once
that a system of nature of which it should be a law to
destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special
nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would
contradict itself and, therefore, could not exist as a sys-
tem of nature; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist
as a universal law of nature and, consequently, would
be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of
all duty.
2. Another finds himself forced by necessity to
borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to
repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him
unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time.
He desires to make this promise, but he has still so
much conscience as to ask himself: “Is it not unlawful
and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in
this way?” Suppose however that he resolves to do so:
then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus:
“When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow
money and promise to repay it, although I know that
I never can do so.” Now this principle of self- love or

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  153
of every rational being to be wholly free from them.
Thus the worth of any object which is to be acquired
by our action is always conditional. Beings whose exis-
tence depends not on our will but on nature’s, have
nevertheless, if they are irrational beings, only a rela-
tive value as means, and are therefore called things;
rational beings, on the contrary, are called persons,
because their very nature points them out as ends in
themselves, that is as something which must not be
used merely as means, and so far therefore restricts
freedom of actions (and is an object of respect). These,
therefore, are not merely subjective ends whose exis-
tence has a worth for us as an effect of our action, but
objective ends, that is, things whose existence is an
end in itself; an end moreover for which no other can
be substituted, which they should subserve merely as
means, for otherwise nothing whatever would possess
absolute worth; but if all worth were conditioned and
therefore contingent, then there would be no supreme
practical principle of reason whatever.
If then there is a supreme practical principle or, in
respect of the human will, a categorical imperative,
it must be one which, being drawn from the concep-
tion of that which is necessarily an end for everyone
because it is an end in itself, constitutes an objective
principle of will, and can therefore serve as a univer-
sal practical law. The foundation of this principle is:
rational nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessar-
ily conceives his own existence as being so; so far then
this is a subjective principle of human actions. But
every other rational being regards its existence simi-
larly, just on the same rational principle that holds for
me: so that it is at the same time an objective principle,
from which as a supreme practical law all laws of the
will must be capable of being deduced. Accordingly
the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as
to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in
that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never
as means only. We will now inquire whether this can
be practically carried out.
* * *
To abide by the previous examples:
Firstly, under the head of necessary duty to one-
self: He who contemplates suicide should ask himself
in which everyone talks of sympathy and goodwill, or
even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but,
on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays
the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But
although it is possible that a universal law of nature
might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is
impossible to will that such a principle should have
the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will
which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch
as many cases might occur in which one would have
need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which,
by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he
would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.
These are a few of the many actual duties, or at least
what we regard as such, which obviously fall into two
classes on the one principle that we have laid down. We
must be able to will that a maxim of our action should
be a universal law. This is the canon of the moral appre-
ciation of the action generally. Some actions are of such
a character that their maxim cannot without contradic-
tion be even conceived as a universal law of nature, far
from it being possible that we should will that it should
be so. In others this intrinsic impossibility is not found,
but still it is impossible to will that their maxim should
be raised to the universality of a law of nature, since
such a will would contradict itself. It is easily seen that
the former violate strict or rigorous (inflexible) duty;
the latter only laxer (meritorious) duty. Thus it has been
completely shown how all duties depend as regards the
nature of the obligation (not the object of the action)
on the same principle.
* * *
Now I say: man and generally any rational being
exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means
to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all
his actions, whether they concern himself or other
rational beings, must be always regarded at the same
time as an end. All objects of the inclinations have
only a conditional worth, for if the inclinations and
the wants founded on them did not exist, then their
object would be without value. But the inclinations,
themselves being sources of want, are so far from hav-
ing an absolute worth for which they should be desired
that on the contrary it must be the universal wish

154 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
Looking back now on all previous attempts to dis-
cover the principle of morality, we need not wonder
why they all failed. It was seen that man was bound to
laws by duty, but it was not observed that the laws to
which he is subject are only those of his own giving,
though at the same time they are universal, and that
he is only bound to act in conformity with his own
will; a will, however, which is designed by nature to
give universal laws. For when one has conceived man
only as subject to a law (no matter what), then this law
required some interest, either by way of attraction or
constraint, since it did not originate as a law from his
own will, but this will was according to a law obliged by
something else to act in a certain manner. Now by this
necessary consequence all the labour spent in finding a
supreme principle of duty was irrevocably lost. For men
never elicited duty, but only a necessity of acting from
a certain interest. Whether this interest was private or
otherwise, in any case the imperative must be condi-
tional and could not by any means be capable of being
a moral command. I will therefore call this the principle
of autonomy of the will, in contrast with every other
which I accordingly reckon as heteronomy.
The conception of the will of every rational being
as one which must consider itself as giving in all the
maxims of its will universal laws, so as to judge itself
and its actions from this point of view— this concep-
tion leads to another which depends on it and is very
fruitful, namely that of a kingdom of ends.
By a kingdom I understand the union of differ-
ent rational beings in a system by common laws. Now
since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards
their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the
personal differences of rational beings and likewise
from all the content of their private ends, we shall
be able to conceive all ends combined in a system-
atic whole (including both rational beings as ends in
themselves, and also the special ends which each may
propose to himself), that is to say, we can conceive a
kingdom of ends, which on the preceding principles
is possible.
For all rational beings come under the law that
each of them must treat itself and all others never
merely as means, but in every case at the same time as
ends in themselves. Hence results a systematic union
whether his action can be consistent with the idea of
humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in
order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a
person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable con-
dition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing,
that is to say, something which can be used merely as
means, but must in all his actions be always consid-
ered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose
in any way of a man in my own person so as to muti-
late him, to damage or kill him. (It belongs to ethics
proper to define this principle more precisely, so as
to avoid all misunderstanding, for example, as to the
amputation of the limbs in order to preserve myself as
to exposing my life to danger with a view to preserve
it, etc. This question is therefore omitted here.)
Secondly, as regards necessary duties, or those of
strict obligation, towards others: He who is thinking of
making a lying promise to others will see at once that he
would be using another man merely as a mean, without
the latter containing at the same time the end in him-
self. For he whom I propose by such a promise to use for
my own purposes cannot possibly assent to my mode of
acting towards him and, therefore, cannot himself con-
tain the end of this action. This violation of the princi-
ple of humanity in other men is more obvious if we take
in examples of attacks on the freedom and property of
others. For then it is clear that he who transgresses the
rights of men intends to use the person of others merely
as a means, without considering that as rational beings
they ought always to be esteemed also as ends, that is,
as beings who must be capable of containing in them-
selves the end of the very same action.
* * *
Thirdly, as regards contingent (meritorious) duties
to oneself: It is not enough that the action does not
violate humanity in our own person as an end in
itself, it must also harmonize with it. Now there are
in humanity capacities of greater perfection, which
belong to the end that nature has in view in regard to
humanity in ourselves as the subject: to neglect these
might perhaps be consistent with the maintenance of
humanity as an end in itself, but not with the advance-
ment of this end.
* * *

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Morality consists then in the reference of all action
to the legislation which alone can render a kingdom of
ends possible. This legislation must be capable of exist-
ing in every rational being and of emanating from his
will, so that the principle of this will is never to act on
any maxim which could not without contradiction be
also a universal law and, accordingly, always so to act
that the will could at the same time regard itself as giv-
ing in its maxims universal laws. If now the maxims of
rational beings are not by their own nature coincident
with this objective principle, then the necessity of act-
ing on it is called practical necessitation, that is, duty.
Duty does not apply to the sovereign in the kingdom
of ends, but it does to every member of it and to all in
the same degree.
* * *
of rational being by common objective laws, that is,
a kingdom which may be called a kingdom of ends,
since what these laws have in view is just the relation
of these beings to one another as ends and means. It is
certainly only an ideal.
A rational being belongs as a member to the king-
dom of ends when, although giving universal laws in
it, he is also himself subject to these laws. He belongs
to it as sovereign when, while giving laws, he is not
subject to the will of any other.
A rational being must always regard himself as giv-
ing laws either as member or as sovereign in a kingdom
of ends which is rendered possible by the freedom of
will. He cannot, however, maintain the latter position
merely by the maxims of his will, but only in case he
is a completely independent being without wants and
with unrestricted power adequate to his will.
From Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part
St. Thomas Aquinas
* * *
First Article.
Whether There Is an Eternal Law?
Objection 1. It would seem that there is no eternal
law. Because every law is imposed on someone. But
there was not someone from eternity on whom a law
could be imposed: since God alone was from eternity.
Therefore no law is eternal.
Obj. 2. Further, promulgation is essential to law.
But promulgation could not be from eternity: because
there was no one to whom it could be promulgated
from eternity. Therefore no law can be eternal.
Obj. 3. Further, a law implies order to an end. But
nothing ordained to an end is eternal: for the last end
alone is eternal. Therefore no law is eternal.
On the contrary, Augustine says: That Law which is
the Supreme Reason cannot be understood to be otherwise
than unchangeable and eternal.
I answer that . . . a law is nothing else but a dictate
of practical reason emanating from the ruler who gov-
erns a perfect community. Now it is evident, granted
that the world is ruled by Divine Providence . . . that
the whole community of the universe is governed by
Divine Reason. Wherefore the very Idea of the govern-
ment of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has
the nature of a law. And since the Divine Reason’s
conception of things is not subject to time but is eter-
nal, according to Proverbs 8:23, therefore it is that this
kind of law must be called eternal.
Reply Obj. 1. Those things that are not in them-
selves, exist with God, inasmuch as they are fore-
known and preordained by Him, according to Romans
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part,
Questions 91 and 94 (edited). Translated by Fathers of the English
Dominican Province, 1911.

156 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
that are of the law, comments as follows: Although
they have no written law, yet they have the natural law,
whereby each one knows, and is conscious of, what is good
and what is evil.
I answer that . . . law, being a rule and measure, can
be in a person in two ways: in one way, as in him that
rules and measures; in another way, as in that which
is ruled and measured, since a thing is ruled and mea-
sured, in so far as it partakes of the rule or measure.
Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine provi-
dence are ruled and measured by the eternal law . . . ; it
is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eter-
nal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted
on them, they derive their respective inclinations to
their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the
rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the
most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of
providence, by being provident both for itself and for
others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason,
whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act
and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the
rational creature is called the natural law. Hence the
Psalmist after saying (Psalms 4:6): Offer up the sacrifice
of justice, as though someone asked what the works of
justice are, adds: Many say, Who showeth us good things?
in answer to which question he says: The light of Thy
countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us: thus implying
that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern
what is good and what is evil, which is the function
of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on
us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the
natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s
participation of the eternal law.
Reply Obj. 1. This argument would hold, if the
natural law were something different from the eternal
law: whereas it is nothing but a participation thereof,
as stated above.
Reply Obj. 2. Every act of reason and will in us is
based on that which is according to nature . . . : for
every act of reasoning is based on principles that are
known naturally, and every act of appetite in respect
of the means is derived from the natural appetite in
respect of the last end. Accordingly the first direction
of our acts to their end must needs be in virtue of the
natural law.
4:17: Who calls those things that are not, as those that
are. Accordingly the eternal concept of the Divine law
bears the character of an eternal law, in so far as it is
ordained by God to the government of things fore-
known by Him.
Reply Obj. 2. Promulgation is made by word of
mouth or in writing; and in both ways the eternal
law is promulgated: because both the Divine Word
and the writing of the Book of Life are eternal. But the
promulgation cannot be from eternity on the part of
the creature that hears or reads.
Reply Obj. 3. The law implies order to the end
actively, in so far as it directs certain things to the end;
but not passively— that is to say, the law itself is not
ordained to the end— except accidentally, in a gover-
nor whose end is extrinsic to him, and to which end
his law must needs be ordained. But the end of the
Divine government is God Himself, and His law is
not distinct from Himself. Wherefore the eternal law
is not ordained to another end.
Second Article.
Whether There Is in Us a Natural Law?
Objection 1. It would seem that there is no natu-
ral law in us. Because man is governed sufficiently by
the eternal law: for Augustine says that the eternal law
is that by which it is right that all things should be most
orderly. But nature does not abound in superfluities as
neither does she fail in necessaries. Therefore no law is
natural to man.
Obj. 2. Further, by the law man is directed, in his
acts, to the end . . . But the directing of human acts
to their end is not a function of nature, as is the case
in irrational creatures, which act for an end solely by
their natural appetite; whereas man acts for an end by
his reason and will. Therefore no law is natural to man.
Obj. 3. Further, the more a man is free, the less is
he under the law. But man is freer than all the animals,
on account of his free- will, with which he is endowed
above all other animals. Since therefore other animals
are not subject to a natural law, neither is man subject
to a natural law.
On the contrary, A gloss on Romans 2:14: When the
Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things

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are called human laws, provided the other essential
conditions of law be observed . . . Wherefore Tully
[Cicero] says in his Rhetoric that justice has its source in
nature; thence certain things came into custom by reason of
their utility; afterwards these things which emanated from
nature and were approved by custom, were sanctioned by
fear and reverence for the law.
Reply Obj. 1. The human reason cannot have a full
participation of the dictate of the Divine Reason, but
according to its own mode, and imperfectly. Conse-
quently, as on the part of the speculative reason, by
a natural participation of Divine Wisdom, there is in
us the knowledge of certain general principles, but not
proper knowledge of each single truth, such as that
contained in the Divine Wisdom; so too, on the part of
the practical reason, man has a natural participation
of the eternal law, according to certain general prin-
ciples, but not as regards the particular determinations
of individual cases, which are, however, contained in
the eternal law. Hence the need for human reason to
proceed further to sanction them by law.
Reply Obj. 2. Human reason is not, of itself, the rule
of things: but the principles impressed on it by nature,
are general rules and measures of all things relating to
human conduct, whereof the natural reason is the rule
and measure, although it is not the measure of things
that are from nature.
Reply Obj. 3. The practical reason is concerned with
practical matters, which are singular and contingent:
but not with necessary things, with which the specu-
lative reason is concerned. Wherefore human laws
cannot have that inerrancy that belongs to the dem-
onstrated conclusions of sciences. Nor is it necessary
for every measure to be altogether unerring and cer-
tain, but according as it is possible in its own particular
Fourth Article.
Whether There Was Any Need for a Divine Law?
Objection 1. It would seem that there was no need
for a Divine law. Because . . . the natural law is a par-
ticipation in us of the eternal law. But the eternal law
is a Divine law . . . Therefore there was no need for a
Divine law in addition to the natural law, and human
laws derived therefrom.
Reply Obj. 3. Even irrational animals partake in
their own way of the Eternal Reason, just as the ratio-
nal creature does. But because the rational creature
partakes thereof in an intellectual and rational man-
ner, therefore the participation of the eternal law in
the rational creature is properly called a law, since a
law is something pertaining to reason . . . Irrational
creatures, however, do not partake thereof in a ratio-
nal manner, wherefore there is no participation of the
eternal law in them, except by way of similitude.
Third Article.
Whether There Is a Human Law?
Objection 1. It would seem that there is not a human
law. For the natural law is a participation of the eternal
law . . . Now through the eternal law all things are most
orderly, as Augustine states. Therefore the natural law
suffices for the ordering of all human affairs. Conse-
quently there is no need for a human law.
Obj. 2. Further, a law bears the character of a mea-
sure. . . . But human reason is not a measure of things,
but vice versa. . . . Therefore no law can emanate from
human reason.
Obj. 3. Further, a measure should be most certain. . . .
But the dictates of human reason in matters of conduct
are uncertain, according to Book of Wisdom 9:14: The
thoughts of mortal men are fearful, and our counsels uncer­
tain. Therefore no law can emanate from human reason.
On the contrary, Augustine distinguishes two kinds
of law, the one eternal, the other temporal, which he
calls human.
I answer that . . . a law is a dictate of the practical
reason. Now it is to be observed that the same pro-
cedure takes place in the practical and in the specu-
lative reason: for each proceeds from principles to
conclusions . . . Accordingly we conclude that just
as, in the speculative reason, from naturally known
indemonstrable principles, we draw the conclusions
of the various sciences, the knowledge of which is not
imparted to us by nature, but acquired by the efforts
of reason, so too it is from the precepts of the natural
law, as from general and indemonstrable principles,
that the human reason needs to proceed to the more
particular determination of certain matters. These
particular determinations, devised by human reason,

158 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
Consequently human law could not sufficiently curb
and direct interior acts; and it was necessary for this
purpose that a Divine law should supervene.
Fourthly, because, as Augustine says, human law
cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds: since while aim-
ing at doing away with all evils, it would do away with
many good things, and would hinder the advance
of the common good, which is necessary for human
intercourse. In order, therefore, that no evil might
remain unforbidden and unpunished, it was neces-
sary for the Divine law to supervene, whereby all sins
are forbidden.
And these four causes are touched upon in Psalms
118:8, where it is said: The law of the Lord is unspot­
ted, i.e. allowing no foulness of sin; converting souls,
because it directs not only exterior, but also interior
acts; the testimony of the Lord is faithful, because of
the certainty of what is true and right; giving wisdom
to little ones, by directing man to an end supernatural
and Divine.
Reply Obj. 1. By the natural law the eternal law is
participated proportionately to the capacity of human
nature. But to his supernatural end man needs to be
directed in a yet higher way. Hence the additional law
given by God, whereby man shares more perfectly in
the eternal law.
Reply Obj. 2. Counsel is a kind of inquiry: hence it
must proceed from some principles. Nor is it enough for
it to proceed from principles imparted by nature, which
are the precepts of the natural law, for the reasons given
above: but there is need for certain additional princi-
ples, namely, the precepts of the Divine law.
Reply Obj. 3. Irrational creatures are not ordained
to an end higher than that which is proportionate to
their natural powers: consequently the comparison
Fifth Article.
Whether There Is But One Divine Law?
Objection 1. It would seem that there is but one
Divine law. Because, where there is one king in one
kingdom there is but one law. Now the whole of man-
kind is compared to God as to one king, according to
Psalms 46:8: God is the King of all the earth. Therefore
there is but one Divine law.
Obj. 2. Further, it is written (Ecclesiastes 15:14)
that God left man in the hand of his own counsel. Now
counsel is an act of reason . . . Therefore man was left
to the direction of his reason. But a dictate of human
reason is a human law . . . Therefore there is no need
for man to be governed also by a Divine law.
Obj. 3. Further, human nature is more self- sufficing
than irrational creatures. But irrational creatures
have no Divine law besides the natural inclination
impressed on them. Much less, therefore, should the
rational creature have a Divine law in addition to the
natural law.
On the contrary, David prayed God to set His law
before him, saying (Psalms 118:33): Set before me for a
law the way of Thy justifications, O Lord.
I answer that, Besides the natural and the human
law it was necessary for the directing of human con-
duct to have a Divine law. And this for four reasons.
First, because it is by law that man is directed how to
perform his proper acts in view of his last end. And
indeed if man were ordained to no other end than that
which is proportionate to his natural faculty, there
would be no need for man to have any further direc-
tion of the part of his reason, besides the natural law
and human law which is derived from it. But since
man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness which
is inproportionate to man’s natural faculty . . . there-
fore it was necessary that, besides the natural and the
human law, man should be directed to his end by a law
given by God.
Secondly, because, on account of the uncertainty
of human judgment, especially on contingent and
particular matters, different people form different
judgments on human acts; whence also different and
contrary laws result. In order, therefore, that man may
know without any doubt what he ought to do and
what he ought to avoid, it was necessary for man to be
directed in his proper acts by a law given by God, for it
is certain that such a law cannot err.
Thirdly, because man can make laws in those mat-
ters of which he is competent to judge. But man is
not competent to judge of interior movements, that
are hidden, but only of exterior acts which appear:
and yet for the perfection of virtue it is necessary for
man to conduct himself aright in both kinds of acts.

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  159
Obj. 2. Further, every law is directed to the end
which the lawgiver intends for those for whom he
makes the law. But God intends one and the same
thing for all men; since according to 1 Timothy
2:4: He will have all men to be saved, and to come to
the knowledge of the truth. Therefore there is but one
Divine law.
Obj. 3. Further, the Divine law seems to be more
akin to the eternal law, which is one, than the natural
law, according as the revelation of grace is of a higher
order than natural knowledge. Therefore much more
is the Divine law but one.
On the contrary, The Apostle says (Hebrews 7:12):
The priesthood being translated, it is necessary that a
translation also be made of the law. But the priesthood is
twofold, as stated in the same passage, viz. the levitical
priesthood, and the priesthood of Christ. Therefore
the Divine law is twofold, namely the Old Law and the
New Law.
I answer that . . . distinction is the cause of num-
ber. Now things may be distinguished in two ways.
First, as those things that are altogether specifically
different, e.g., a horse and an ox. Secondly, as perfect
and imperfect in the same species, e.g., a boy and a
man: and in this way the Divine law is divided into
Old and New. Hence the Apostle (Galatians 3:24, 25)
compares the state of man under the Old Law to that
of a child under a pedagogue; but the state under the
New Law, to that of a full grown man, who is no longer
under a pedagogue.
Now the perfection and imperfection of these
two laws is to be taken in connection with the three
conditions pertaining to law, as stated above. For, in
the first place, it belongs to law to be directed to the
common good as to its end . . . This good may be two-
fold. It may be a sensible and earthly good; and to this,
man was directly ordained by the Old Law: wherefore,
at the very outset of the law, the people were invited
to the earthly kingdom of the Chananaeans (Exodus
3:8, 17). Again it may be an intelligible and heavenly
good: and to this, man is ordained by the New Law.
Wherefore, at the very beginning of His preaching,
Christ invited men to the kingdom of heaven, saying
(Matthew 4:17): Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is
at hand. Hence Augustine says that promises of temporal
goods are contained in the Old Testament, for which reason
it is called old; but the promise of eternal life belongs to the
New Testament.
Secondly, it belongs to the law to direct human acts
according to the order of righteousness: wherein also
the New Law surpasses the Old Law, since it directs our
internal acts, according to Matthew 5:20: Unless your
justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees,
you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Hence the
saying that the Old Law restrains the hand, but the New
Law controls the mind.
Thirdly, it belongs to the law to induce men to
observe its commandments. This the Old Law did by
the fear of punishment: but the New Law, by love,
which is poured into our hearts by the grace of Christ,
bestowed in the New Law, but foreshadowed in the
Old. Hence Augustine says that there is little difference
between the Law and the Gospel— fear and love.
Reply Obj. 1. As the father of a family issues dif-
ferent commands to the children and to the adults,
so also the one King, God, in His one kingdom, gave
one law to men, while they were yet imperfect, and
another more perfect law, when, by the preceding
law, they had been led to a greater capacity for Divine
Reply Obj. 2. The salvation of man could not be
achieved otherwise than through Christ, according
to Acts 4:12: There is no other name . . . given to men,
whereby we must be saved. Consequently the law that
brings all to salvation could not be given until after
the coming of Christ. But before His coming it was
necessary to give to the people, of whom Christ was
to be born, a law containing certain rudiments of righ-
teousness unto salvation, in order to prepare them to
receive Him.
Reply Obj. 3. The natural law directs man by way
of certain general precepts, common to both the per-
fect and the imperfect: wherefore it is one and the
same for all. But the Divine law directs man also in
certain particular matters, to which the perfect and
imperfect do not stand in the same relation. Hence
the necessity for the Divine law to be twofold, as
already explained.
* * *

160 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
that virtue is a principle of action, he mentions only
those things which are principles of human acts, viz.
powers, habits and passions. But there are other things
in the soul besides these three: there are acts; thus to
will is in the one that wills; again, things known are in
the knower; moreover its own natural properties are in
the soul, such as immortality and the like.
Reply Obj. 2. Synderesis is said to be the law of our
mind, because it is a habit containing the precepts
of the natural law, which are the first principles of
human actions.
Reply Obj. 3. This argument proves that the natural
law is held habitually; and this is granted.
To the argument advanced in the contrary sense
we reply that sometimes a man is unable to make
use of that which is in him habitually, on account of
some impediment: thus, on account of sleep, a man
is unable to use the habit of science. In like manner,
through the deficiency of his age, a child cannot use
the habit of understanding of principles, or the natu-
ral law, which is in him habitually.
Second Article.
Whether the Natural Law Contains Several
Precepts, or Only One?
Objection 1. It would seem that the natural law
contains, not several precepts, but one only. For law
is a kind of precept. . . . If therefore there were many
precepts of the natural law, it would follow that there
are also many natural laws.
Obj. 2. Further, the natural law is consequent
to human nature. But human nature, as a whole, is
one; though, as to its parts, it is manifold. Therefore,
either there is but one precept of the law of nature,
on account of the unity of nature as a whole; or there
are many, by reason of the number of parts of human
nature. The result would be that even things relating
to the inclination of the concupiscible faculty belong
to the natural law.
Obj. 3. Further, law is something pertaining to rea-
son . . . Now reason is but one in man. Therefore there
is only one precept of the natural law.
On the contrary, The precepts of the natural law
in man stand in relation to practical matters, as the
First Article.
Whether the Natural Law Is a Habit?
Objection 1. It would seem that the natural law is a
habit. Because, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says, there
are three things in the soul: power, habit, and passion. But
the natural law is not one of the soul’s powers: nor is
it one of the passions; as we may see by going through
them one by one. Therefore the natural law is a habit.
Obj. 2. Further, Basil says that the conscience or
synderesis is the law of our mind; which can only apply
to the natural law. But the synderesis is a habit. . . .
Therefore the natural law is a habit.
Obj. 3. Further, the natural law abides in man
always . . . But man’s reason, which the law regards,
does not always think about the natural law. Therefore
the natural law is not an act, but a habit.
On the contrary, Augustine says that a habit is that
whereby something is done when necessary. But such is
not the natural law: since it is in infants and in the
damned who cannot act by it. Therefore the natural
law is not a habit.
I answer that, A thing may be called a habit in two
ways. First, properly and essentially: and thus the nat-
ural law is not a habit. For . . . the natural law is some-
thing appointed by reason, just as a proposition is a
work of reason. Now that which a man does is not the
same as that whereby he does it: for he makes a becom-
ing speech by the habit of grammar. Since then a habit
is that by which we act, a law cannot be a habit prop-
erly and essentially.
Secondly, the term habit may be applied to that
which we hold by a habit: thus faith may mean that
which we hold by faith. And accordingly, since the
precepts of the natural law are sometimes considered
by reason actually, while sometimes they are in the
reason only habitually, in this way the natural law
may be called a habit. Thus, in speculative matters,
the indemonstrable principles are not the habit itself
whereby we hold those principles, but are the prin-
ciples the habit of which we possess.
Reply Obj. 1. The Philosopher [Aristotle] proposes
to discover the genus of virtue; and since it is evident

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whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as
man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natu-
ral law as something to be done or avoided.
Since, however, good has the nature of an end,
and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all
those things to which man has a natural inclination,
are naturally apprehended by reason as being good,
and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their
contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Where-
fore according to the order of natural inclinations, is
the order of the precepts of the natural law. Because
in man there is first of all an inclination to good in
accordance with the nature which he has in common
with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks
the preservation of its own being, according to its
nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a
means of preserving human life, and of warding off its
obstacles, belongs to the natural law. Secondly, there
is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him
more specially, according to that nature which he has
in common with other animals: and in virtue of this
inclination, those things are said to belong to the nat-
ural law, which nature has taught to all animals, such as
sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth.
Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, accord-
ing to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper
to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know
the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this
respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs
to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to
avoid offending those among whom one has to live,
and other such things regarding the above inclination.
Reply Obj. 1. All these precepts of the law of nature
have the character of one natural law, inasmuch as
they flow from one first precept.
Reply Obj. 2. All the inclinations of any parts what-
soever of human nature, e.g. of the concupiscible and
irascible parts, in so far as they are ruled by reason,
belong to the natural law, and are reduced to one first
precept, as stated above: so that the precepts of the
natural law are many in themselves, but are based on
one common foundation.
Reply Obj. 3. Although reason is one in itself, yet it
directs all things regarding man; so that whatever can
be ruled by reason, is contained under the law of reason.
first principles to matters of demonstration. But there
are several first indemonstrable principles. Therefore
there are also several precepts of the natural law.
I answer that . . . the precepts of the natural law are
to the practical reason, what the first principles of dem-
onstrations are to the speculative reason; because both
are self- evident principles. Now a thing is said to be self-
evident in two ways: first, in itself; secondly, in relation
to us. Any proposition is said to be self- evident in itself,
if its predicate is contained in the notion of the subject:
although, to one who knows not the definition of the
subject, it happens that such a proposition is not self-
evident. For instance, this proposition, Man is a rational
being, is, in its very nature, self- evident, since who says
man, says a rational being: and yet to one who knows
not what a man is, this proposition is not self- evident.
Hence it is that, as Boethius says, certain axioms or
propositions are universally self- evident to all; and such
are those propositions whose terms are known to all, as,
Every whole is greater than its part, and, Things equal to one
and the same are equal to one another. But some proposi-
tions are self- evident only to the wise, who understand
the meaning of the terms of such propositions: thus to
one who understands that an angel is not a body, it is
self- evident that an angel is not circumscriptively in a
place: but this is not evident to the unlearned, for they
cannot grasp it.
Now a certain order is to be found in those things
that are apprehended universally. For that which,
before aught else, falls under apprehension, is being, the
notion of which is included in all things whatsoever a
man apprehends. Wherefore the first indemonstrable
principle is that the same thing cannot be affirmed and
denied at the same time, which is based on the notion of
being and not­ being: and on this principle all others are
based . . . Now as being is the first thing that falls under
the apprehension simply, so good is the first thing that
falls under the apprehension of the practical reason,
which is directed to action: since every agent acts for
an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the
first principle of practical reason is one founded on the
notion of good, viz. that good is that which all things seek
after. Hence this is the first precept of law, that good is
to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. All other
precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that

162 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
Reply Obj. 1. Temperance is about the natural con-
cupiscences of food, drink and sexual matters, which
are indeed ordained to the natural common good, just
as other matters of law are ordained to the moral com-
mon good.
Reply Obj. 2. By human nature we may mean either
that which is proper to man— and in this sense all
sins, as being against reason, are also against nature, as
Damascene states: or we may mean that nature which
is common to man and other animals; and in this
sense, certain special sins are said to be against nature;
thus contrary to sexual intercourse, which is natural
to all animals, is unisexual lust, which has received the
special name of the unnatural crime.
Reply Obj. 3. This argument considers acts in them-
selves. For it is owing to the various conditions of
men, that certain acts are virtuous for some, as being
proportionate and becoming to them, while they are
vicious for others, as being out of proportion to them.
Fourth Article.
Whether the Natural Law Is the Same in All Men?
Objection 1. It would seem that the natural law is
not the same in all. For it is stated in the Decretals that
the natural law is that which is contained in the Law and
the Gospel. But this is not common to all men; because,
as it is written (Romans 10:16), all do not obey the gospel.
Therefore the natural law is not the same in all men.
Obj. 2. Further, Things which are according to the law
are said to be just. . . . But . . . nothing is so universally
just as not to be subject to change in regard to some
men. Therefore even the natural law is not the same
in all men.
Obj. 3. Further . . . to the natural law belongs every-
thing to which a man is inclined according to his
nature. Now different men are naturally inclined to
different things; some to the desire of pleasures, others
to the desire of honors, and other men to other things.
Therefore there is not one natural law for all.
On the contrary, Isidore says: The natural law is com­
mon to all nations.
I answer that . . . to the natural law belongs those
things to which a man is inclined naturally: and
among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act
Third Article.
Whether All Acts of Virtue Are Prescribed by the
Natural Law?
Objection 1. It would seem that not all acts of vir-
tue are prescribed by the natural law. Because . . . it is
essential to a law that it be ordained to the common
good. But some acts of virtue are ordained to the pri-
vate good of the individual, as is evident especially in
regards to acts of temperance. Therefore not all acts of
virtue are the subject of natural law.
Obj. 2. Further, every sin is opposed to some virtu-
ous act. If therefore all acts of virtue are prescribed by the
natural law, it seems to follow that all sins are against
nature: whereas this applies to certain special sins.
Obj. 3. Further, those things which are according
to nature are common to all. But acts of virtue are not
common to all: since a thing is virtuous in one, and
vicious in another. Therefore not all acts of virtue are
prescribed by the natural law.
On the contrary, Damascene says that virtues are
natural. Therefore virtuous acts also are a subject of the
natural law.
I answer that, We may speak of virtuous acts in two
ways: first, under the aspect of virtuous; secondly, as
such and such acts considered in their proper species.
If then we speak of acts of virtue, considered as virtu-
ous, thus all virtuous acts belong to the natural law.
For it has been stated that to the natural law belongs
everything to which a man is inclined according to
his nature. Now each thing is inclined naturally to an
operation that is suitable to it according to its form:
thus fire is inclined to give heat. Wherefore, since
the rational soul is the proper form of man, there is
in every man a natural inclination to act according
to reason: and this is to act according to virtue. Con-
sequently, considered thus, all acts of virtue are pre-
scribed by the natural law: since each one’s reason
naturally dictates to him to act virtuously. But if we
speak of virtuous acts, considered in themselves, i.e. in
their proper species, thus not all virtuous acts are pre-
scribed by the natural law: for many things are done
virtuously, to which nature does not incline at first;
but which, through the inquiry of reason, have been
found by men to be conducive to well- living.

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number of conditions added, the greater the number of
ways in which the principle may fail, so that it be not
right to restore or not to restore.
Consequently we must say that the natural law, as
to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rec-
titude and as to knowledge. But as to certain matters
of detail, which are conclusions, as it were, of those
general principles, it is the same for all in the majority
of cases, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge; and
yet in some few cases it may fail, both as to rectitude,
by reason of certain obstacles (just as natures subject
to generation and corruption fail in some few cases on
account of some obstacle), and as to knowledge, since
in some the reason is perverted by passion, or evil
habit, or an evil disposition of nature; thus formerly,
theft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural
law, was not considered wrong among the Germans,
as Julius Caesar relates.
Reply Obj. 1. The meaning of the sentence quoted
is not that whatever is contained in the Law and the
Gospel belongs to the natural law, since they contain
many things that are above nature; but that whatever
belongs to the natural law is fully contained in them.
Wherefore Gratian, after saying that the natural law is
what is contained in the Law and the Gospel, adds at once,
by way of example, by which everyone is commanded to
do to others as he would be done by.
Reply Obj. 2. The saying of the Philosopher is to
be understood of things that are naturally just, not
as general principles, but as conclusions drawn from
them, having rectitude in the majority of cases, but
failing in a few.
Reply Obj. 3. As, in man, reason rules and com-
mands the other powers, so all the natural inclinations
belonging to the other powers must needs be directed
according to reason. Wherefore it is universally right
for all men, that all their inclinations should be
directed according to reason.
Fifth Article.
Whether the Natural Law Can Be Changed?
Objection 1. It would seem that the natural law can
be changed. Because on Ecclesiastes 17:9, He gave them
instructions, and the law of life, the gloss says: He wished
according to reason. Now the process of reason is from
the common to the proper . . . The speculative reason,
however, is differently situated in this matter, from the
practical reason. For, since the speculative reason is
busied chiefly with the necessary things, which cannot
be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like
the universal principles, contain the truth without fail.
The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with
contingent matters, about which human actions are
concerned: and consequently, although there is neces-
sity in the general principles, the more we descend to
matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter
defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth
is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to
conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as
regards the conclusions, but only as regards the princi-
ples which are called common notions. But in matters
of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same
for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the gen-
eral principles: and where there is the same rectitude in
matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.
It is therefore evident that, as regards the gen-
eral principles whether of speculative or of practical
reason, truth or rectitude is the same for all, and is
equally known by all. As to the proper conclusions of
the speculative reason, the truth is the same for all, but
is not equally known to all: thus it is true for all that
the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two
right angles, although it is not known to all. But as to
the proper conclusions of the practical reason, neither
is the truth or rectitude the same for all, nor, where it
is the same, is it equally known by all. Thus it is right
and true for all to act according to reason: and from this
principle it follows as a proper conclusion, that goods
entrusted to another should be restored to their owner.
Now this is true for the majority of cases: but it may
happen in a particular case that it would be injurious,
and therefore unreasonable, to restore goods held in
trust; for instance, if they are claimed for the purpose of
fighting against one’s country. And this principle will
be found to fail the more, according as we descend fur-
ther into detail, e.g. if one were to say that goods held in
trust should be restored with such and such a guaran-
tee, or in such and such a way; because the greater the

164 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
is inflicted by the power of God on account of origi-
nal sin, according to 1 Kings 2:6: The Lord killeth and
maketh alive. Consequently, by the command of God,
death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or inno-
cent, without any injustice whatever. In like manner
adultery is intercourse with another’s wife; who is
allotted to him by the law emanating from God. Con-
sequently intercourse with any woman, by the com-
mand of God, is neither adultery nor fornication. The
same applies to theft, which is the taking of another’s
property. For whatever is taken by the command of
God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against
the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft
consists. Nor is it only in human things, that what-
ever is commanded by God is right; but also in natu-
ral things, whatever is done by God, is, in some way,
natural . . .
Reply Obj. 3. A thing is said to belong to the natural
law in two ways. First, because nature inclines thereto:
e.g. that one should not do harm to another. Sec-
ondly, because nature did not bring in the contrary:
thus we might say that for man to be naked is of the
natural law, because nature did not give him clothes,
but art invented them. In this sense, the possession of
all things in common and universal freedom are said to be
of the natural law, because, to wit, the distinction of
possessions and slavery were not brought in by nature,
but devised by human reason for the benefit of human
life. Accordingly the law of nature was not changed in
this respect, except by addition.
Sixth Article.
Whether the Law of Nature Can Be Abolished
from the Heart of Man?
Objection 1. It would seem that the natural law
can be abolished from the heart of man. Because on
Romans 2:14, When the Gentiles who have not the law, etc.
a gloss says that the law of righteousness, which sin had
blotted out, is graven on the heart of man when he is restored
by grace. But the law of righteousness is the law of nature.
Therefore the law of nature can be blotted out.
Obj. 2. Further, the law of grace is more efficacious
than the law of nature. But the law of grace is blotted
out by sin. Much more therefore can the law of nature
be blotted out.
the law of the letter to be written, in order to correct the
law of nature. But that which is corrected is changed.
Therefore the natural law can be changed.
Obj. 2. Further, the slaying of the innocent, adultery,
and theft are against the natural law. But we find these
things changed by God: as when God commanded
Abraham to slay his innocent son (Genesis 22:2); and
when he ordered the Jews to borrow and purloin the
vessels of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35); and when He
commanded Osee to take to himself a wife of fornications
(Hosea 1:2). Therefore the natural law can be changed.
Obj. 3. Further, Isidore says that the possession of all
things in common, and universal freedom, are matters of
natural law. But these things are seen to be changed by
human laws. Therefore it seems that the natural law is
subject to change.
On the contrary, It is said in the Decretals: The natu­
ral law dates from the creation of the rational creature. It
does not vary according to time, but remains unchangeable.
I answer that, A change in the natural law may be
understood in two ways. First, by way of addition. In
this sense nothing hinders the natural law from being
changed: since many things for the benefit of human
life have been added over and above the natural law,
both by the Divine law and by human laws.
Secondly, a change in the natural law may be under-
stood by way of subtraction, so that what previously
was according to the natural law, ceases to be so. In this
sense, the natural law is altogether unchangeable in its
first principles: but in its secondary principles, which,
as we have said, are certain detailed proximate conclu-
sions drawn from the first principles, the natural law is
not changed so that what it prescribes be not right in
most cases. But it may be changed in some particular
cases of rare occurrence, through some special causes
hindering the observance of such precepts.
Reply Obj. 1. The written law is said to be given for
the correction of the natural law, either because it sup-
plies what was wanting to the natural law; or because
the natural law was perverted in the hearts of some
men, as to certain matters, so that they esteemed those
things good which are naturally evil; which perver-
sion stood in need of correction.
Reply Obj. 2. All men alike, both guilty and inno-
cent, die the death of nature: which death of nature

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or some other passion . . . But as to the other, i.e. the
secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out
from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just
as in speculative matters errors occur in respect of nec-
essary conclusions; or by vicious customs and corrupt
habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural
vices, as the Apostle states, were not esteemed sinful.
Reply Obj. 1. Sin blots out the law of nature in partic-
ular cases, not universally, except perchance in regard
to the secondary precepts of the natural law, in the way
stated above.
Reply Obj. 2. Although grace is more efficacious
than nature, yet nature is more essential to man, and
therefore more enduring.
Reply Obj. 3. This argument is true of the second-
ary precepts of the natural law, against which some
legislators have framed certain enactments which are
Obj. 3. Further, that which is established by law
is made just. But many things are enacted by men,
which are contrary to the law of nature. Therefore the
law of nature can be abolished from the heart of man.
On the contrary, Augustine says: Thy law is written
in the hearts of men, which iniquity itself effaces not. But
the law which is written in men’s hearts is the natural
law. Therefore the natural law cannot be blotted out.
I answer that . . . there belong to the natural law,
first, certain most general precepts, that are known to
all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed
precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following
closely from first principles. As to those general prin-
ciples, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be
blotted out from men’s hearts. But it is blotted out
in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is
hindered from applying the general principle to a par-
ticular point of practice, on account of concupiscence
Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives
Philippa Foot
There are many difficulties and obscurities in Kant’s
moral philosophy, and few contemporary moralists
will try to defend it all; many, for instance, agree in
rejecting Kant’s derivation of duties from the mere
form of law expressed in terms of a universally legisla-
tive will. Nevertheless, it is generally supposed, even
by those who would not dream of calling themselves
his followers, that Kant established one thing beyond
doubt— namely, the necessity of distinguishing moral
judgments from hypothetical imperatives. That moral
judgments cannot be hypothetical imperatives has
come to seem an unquestionable truth. It will be
argued here that it is not.
In discussing so thoroughly Kantian a notion as
that of the hypothetical imperative, one naturally
begins by asking what Kant himself meant by a hypo-
thetical imperative, and it may be useful to say a little
about the idea of an imperative as this appears in
Kant’s works. In writing about imperatives Kant seems
to be thinking at least as much of statements about
what ought to be or should be done, as of injunctions
expressed in the imperative mood. He even describes as
an imperative the assertion that it would be “good to
do or refrain from doing something”1 and explains that
for a will that “does not always do something simply
because it is presented to it as a good thing to do” this
has the force of a command of reason. We may there-
fore think of Kant’s imperatives as statements to the
effect that something ought to be done or that it would
be good to do it.
Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Impera-
tives,” Philosophical Review, vol. 81, no. 3 ( July 1972): 305–16.

166 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
philosopher,5 and this can be the foundation of a
desire- dependent hypothetical imperative. The term
“desire” as used in the original account of the hypo-
thetical imperative was meant as a grammatically con-
venient substitute for “want,” and was not meant to
carry any implication of inclination rather than long-
term aim or project. Even the word “project,” taken
strictly, introduces undesirable restrictions. If some-
one is devoted to his family or his country or to any
cause, there are certain things he wants, which may
then be the basis of hypothetical imperatives, without
either inclinations or projects being quite what is in
question. Hypothetical imperatives should already be
appearing as extremely diverse; a further important
distinction is between those that concern an indi-
vidual and those that concern a group. The desires on
which a hypothetical imperative is dependent may
be those of one man, or may be taken for granted as
belonging to a number of people, engaged in some
common project or sharing common aims.
Is Kant right to say that moral judgments are cat-
egorical, not hypothetical, imperatives? It may seem
that he is, for we find in our language two different
uses of words such as “should” and “ought,” appar-
ently corresponding to Kant’s hypothetical and cat-
egorical imperatives, and we find moral judgments on
the “categorical” side. Suppose, for instance, we have
advised a traveler that he should take a certain train,
believing him to be journeying to his home. If we find
that he has decided to go elsewhere, we will most likely
have to take back what we said: the “should” will now
be unsupported and in need of support. Similarly, we
must be prepared to withdraw our statement about
what he should do if we find that the right relation
does not hold between the action and the end— that
it is either no way of getting what he wants (or doing
what he wants to do) or not the most eligible among
possible means. The use of “should” and “ought” in
moral contexts is, however, quite different. When
we say that a man should do something and intend a
moral judgment we do not have to back up what we say
by considerations about his interests or his desires; if no
such connection can be found the “should” need not
be withdrawn. It follows that the agent cannot rebut an
assertion about what, morally speaking, he should do
The distinction between hypothetical imperatives
and categorical imperatives, which plays so important
a part in Kant’s ethics, appears in characteristic form
in the following passages from the Foundations of the
Metaphysics of Morals:
All imperatives command either hypothetically or cat-
egorically. The former present the practical necessity
of a possible action as a means to achieving something
else which one desires (or which one may possibly
desire). The categorical imperative would be one which
presented an action as of itself objectively necessary,
without regard to any other end.2
If the action is good only as a means to something
else, the imperative is hypothetical; but if it is thought
of as good in itself, and hence as necessary in a will
which of itself conforms to reason as the principle of
this will, the imperative is categorical.3
The hypothetical imperative, as Kant defines it, “says
only that the action is good to some purpose” and
the purpose, he explains, may be possible or actual.
Among imperatives related to actual purposes Kant
mentions rules of prudence, since he believes that all
men necessarily desire their own happiness. Without
committing ourselves to this view it will be useful
to follow Kant in classing together as “hypothetical
imperatives” those telling a man what he ought to do
because (or if) he wants something and those telling
him what he ought to do on grounds of self- interest.
Common opinion agrees with Kant in insisting that
a moral man must accept a rule of duty whatever his
interests or desires.4
Having given a rough description of the class of
Kantian hypothetical imperatives it may be useful to
point to the heterogeneity within it. Sometimes what
a man should do depends on his passing inclination,
as when he wants his coffee hot and should warm the
jug. Sometimes it depends on some long- term project,
when the feelings and inclinations of the moment are
irrelevant. If one wants to be a respectable philoso-
pher one should get up in the mornings and do some
work, though just at that moment when one should
do it the thought of being a respectable philosopher
leaves one cold. It is true nevertheless to say of one,
at that moment, that one wants to be a respectable

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  167
It follows that if a hypothetical use of “should”
gives a hypothetical imperative, and a non- hypo thetical
use of “should” a categorical imperative, then “should”
statements based on rules of etiquette, or rules of a
club, are categorical imperatives. Since this would not
be accepted by defenders of the categorical imperative
in ethics, who would insist that these other “should”
statements give hypothetical imperatives, they must
be using this expression in some other sense. We must
therefore ask what they mean when they say that “You
should answer . . . in the third person” is a hypothetical
imperative. Very roughly the idea seems to be that one
may reasonably ask why anyone should bother about
what shoulde (should from the point of view of eti-
quette) be done, and that such considerations deserve
no notice unless reason is shown. So although people
give as their reason for doing something the fact that
it is required by etiquette, we do not take this consid-
eration as in itself giving us reason to act. Considerations
of etiquette do not have any automatic reason- giving
force, and a man might be right if he denied that he
had reason to do “what’s done.”
This seems to take us to the heart of the matter,
for, by contrast, it is supposed that moral consider-
ations necessarily give reasons for acting to any man.
The difficulty is, of course, to defend this proposition
which is more often repeated than explained. Unless
it is said, implausibly, that all “should” or “ought”
statements give reasons for acting, which leaves the
old problem of assigning a special categorical status to
moral judgment, we must be told what it is that makes
the moral “should” relevantly different from the
“shoulds” appearing in normative statements of other
kinds.7 Attempts have sometimes been made to show
that some kind of irrationality is involved in ignor-
ing the “should” of morality: in saying “ Immoral— so
what?” as one says “Not comme il faut— so what?” But
as far as I can see these have all rested on some illegiti-
mate assumption, as, for instance, of thinking that the
amoral man, who agrees that some piece of conduct is
immoral but takes no notice of that, is inconsistently
disregarding a rule of conduct that he has accepted; or
again of thinking it inconsistent to desire that others
will not do to one what one proposes to do to them.
The fact is that the man who rejects morality because
by showing that the action is not ancillary to his inter-
ests or desires. Without such a connection the “should”
does not stand unsupported and in need of support; the
support that it requires is of another kind.6
There is, then, one clear difference between moral
judgments and the class of “hypothetical impera-
tives” so far discussed. In the latter “should” is used
“hypothetically,” in the sense defined, and if Kant
were merely drawing attention to this piece of linguis-
tic usage his point would be easily proved. But obvi-
ously Kant meant more than this; in describing moral
judgments as non- hypothetical— that is, categorical
imperatives— he is ascribing to them a special dignity
and necessity which this usage cannot give. Modern
philosophers follow Kant in talking, for example, about
the “unconditional requirement” expressed in moral
judgments. These tell us what we have to do whatever
our interests or desires, and by their inescapability they
are distinguished from hypothetical imperatives.
The problem is to find proof for this further feature
of moral judgments. If anyone fails to see the gap that
has to be filled it will be useful to point out to him that
we find “should” used non- hypothetically in some
non- moral statements to which no one attributes the
special dignity and necessity conveyed by the descrip-
tion “categorical imperative.” For instance, we find
this non- hypothetical use of “should” in sentences
enunciating rules of etiquette, as, for example, that an
invitation in the third person should be answered in
the third person, where the rule does not fail to apply to
someone who has his own good reasons for ignoring
this piece of nonsense, or who simply does not care
about what, from the point of view of etiquette, he
should do. Similarly, there is a non- hypothetical use
of “should” in contexts where something like a club
rule is in question. The club secretary who has told a
member that he should not bring ladies into the smok-
ing room does not say, “Sorry, I was mistaken” when
informed that this member is resigning tomorrow and
cares nothing about his reputation in the club. Lacking
a connection with the agent’s desires or interests, this
“should” does not stand “unsupported and in need of
support”; it requires only the backing of the rule. The
use of “should” is therefore “ non- hypothetical” in the
sense defined.

168 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
he sees no reason to obey its rules can be convicted of
villainy but not of inconsistency. Nor will his action
necessarily be irrational. Irrational actions are those
in which a man in some way defeats his own pur-
poses, doing what is calculated to be disadvantageous
or to frustrate his ends. Immorality does not neces­
sarily involve any such thing.
It is obvious that the normative character of moral
judgment does not guarantee its reason- giving force.
Moral judgments are normative, but so are judgments
of manners, statements of club rules, and many oth-
ers. Why should the first provide reasons for acting as
the others do not? In every case it is because there is
a background of teaching that the non- hypothetical
“should” can be used. The behavior is required, not
simply recommended, but the question remains as
to why we should do what we are required to do. It is
true that moral rules are often enforced much more
strictly than the rules of etiquette, and our reluctance to
press the non- hypothetical “should” of etiquette may
be one reason why we think of the rules of etiquette as
hypothetical imperatives. But are we then to say that
there is nothing behind the idea that moral judgments
are categorical imperatives but the relative strin-
gency of our moral teaching? I believe that this may
have more to do with the matter than the defenders of
the categorical imperative would like to admit. For if we
look at the kind of thing that is said in its defense we
may find ourselves puzzled about what the words can
even mean unless we connect them with the feelings
that this stringent teaching implants. People talk, for
instance, about the “binding force” of morality, but
it is not clear what this means if not that we feel our-
selves unable to escape. Indeed the “inescapability” of
moral requirements is often cited when they are being
contrasted with hypothetical imperatives. No one, it
is said, escapes the requirements of ethics by having
or not having particular interests or desires. Taken in
one way this only reiterates the contrast between the
“should” of morality and the hypothetical “should,”
and once more places morality alongside of etiquette.
Both are inescapable in that behavior does not cease to
offend against either morality or etiquette because the
agent is indifferent to their purposes and to the disap-
proval he will incur by flouting them. But morality is
supposed to be inescapable in some special way and
this may turn out to be merely the reflection of the way
morality is taught. Of course, we must try other ways
of expressing the fugitive thought. It may be said, for
instance, that moral judgments have a kind of neces-
sity since they tell us what we “must do” or “have to
do” whatever our interests and desires. The sense of
this is, again, obscure. Sometimes when we use such
expressions we are referring to physical or mental
compulsion. (A man has to go along if he is pulled by
strong men, and he has to give in if tortured beyond
endurance.) But it is only in the absence of such condi-
tions that moral judgments apply. Another and more
common sense of the words is found in sentences
such as “I caught a bad cold and had to stay in bed”
where a penalty for acting otherwise is in the offing.
The necessity of acting morally is not, however, sup-
posed to depend on such penalties. Another range of
examples, not necessarily having to do with penalties,
is found where there is an unquestioned acceptance of
some project or role, as when a nurse tells us that she
has to make her rounds at a certain time, or we say that
we have to run for a certain train.8 But these too are
irrelevant in the present context, since the acceptance
condition can always be revoked.
No doubt it will be suggested that it is in some
other sense of the words “have to” or “must” that
one has to or must do what morality demands. But
why should one insist that there must be such a sense
when it proves so difficult to say what it is? Suppose
that what we take for a puzzling thought were really
no thought at all but only the reflection of our feel­
ings about morality? Perhaps it makes no sense to say
that we “have to” submit to the moral law, or that
morality is “inescapable” in some special way. For
just as one may feel as if one is falling without believ-
ing that one is moving downward, so one may feel
as if one has to do what is morally required without
believing oneself to be under physical or psychologi-
cal compulsion, or about to incur a penalty if one does
not comply. No one thinks that if the word “falling” is
used in a statement reporting one’s sensations it must
be used in a special sense. But this kind of mistake may
be involved in looking for the special sense in which
one “has to” do what morality demands. There is no

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  169
hypothetical imperatives as that of not lying if it harms
one to lie. In the Metaphysics of Morals he says that
ethics cannot start from the ends which a man may
propose to himself, since these are all “selfish.”9 In
the Critique of Practical Reason he argues explicitly that
when acting not out of respect for the moral law but
“on a material maxim” men do what they do for the
sake of pleasure or happiness.
All material practical principles are, as such, of one and
the same kind and belong under the general principle
of self love or one’s own happiness.10
Kant, in fact, was a psychological hedonist in respect
of all actions except those done for the sake of the
moral law, and this faulty theory of human nature
was one of the things preventing him from seeing that
moral virtue might be compatible with the rejection of
the categorical imperative.
If we put this theory of human action aside, and
allow as ends the things that seem to be ends, the pic-
ture changes. It will surely be allowed that quite apart
from thoughts of duty a man may care about the suf-
fering of others, having a sense of identification with
them, and wanting to help if he can. Of course he
must want not the reputation of charity, nor even a
gratifying role helping others, but, quite simply, their
good. If this is what he does care about, then he will be
attached to the end proper to the virtue of charity and
a comparison with someone acting from an ulterior
motive (even a respectable ulterior motive) is out of
place. Nor will the conformity of his action to the rule
of charity be merely contingent. Honest action may
happen to further a man’s career; charitable actions
do not happen to further the good of others.
Can a man accepting only hypothetical impera-
tives possess other virtues besides that of charity?
Could he be just or honest? This problem is more com-
plex because there is no one end related to such virtues
as the good of others is related to charity. But what rea-
son could there be for refusing to call a man a just man
if he acted justly because he loved truth and liberty,
and wanted every man to be treated with a certain
minimum respect? And why should the truly honest
man not follow honesty for the sake of the good that
honest dealing brings to men? Of course, the usual
difficulty about the idea that we feel we have to behave
morally, and given the psychological conditions of the
learning of moral behavior it is natural that we should
have such feelings. What we cannot do is quote them
in support of the doctrine of the categorical impera-
tive. It seems, then, that in so far as it is backed up by
statements to the effect that the moral is inescapable,
or that we do have to do what is morally required of us,
it is uncertain whether the doctrine of the categorical
imperative even makes sense.
The conclusion we should draw is that moral judg-
ments have no better claim to be categorical impera-
tives than do statements about matters of etiquette.
People may indeed follow either morality or etiquette
without asking why they should do so, but equally
well they may not. They may ask for reasons and may
reasonably refuse to follow either if reasons are not to
be found.
It will be said that this way of viewing moral
considerations must be totally destructive of moral-
ity, because no one could ever act morally unless he
accepted such considerations as in themselves suf-
ficient reason for action. Actions that are truly moral
must be done “for their own sake,” “because they are
right,” and not for some ulterior purpose. This argu-
ment we must examine with care, for the doctrine
of the categorical imperative has owed much to its
Is there anything to be said for the thesis that
a truly moral man acts “out of respect for the moral
law” or that he does what is morally right because it is
morally right? That such propositions are not prima
facie absurd depends on the fact that moral judgment
concerns itself with a man’s reasons for acting as well
as with what he does. Law and etiquette require only
that certain things are done or left undone, but no
one is counted as charitable if he gives alms “for the
praise of men,” and one who is honest only because it
pays him to be honest does not have the virtue of hon-
esty. This kind of consideration was crucial in shaping
Kant’s moral philosophy. He many times contrasts
acting out of respect for the moral law with acting
from an ulterior motive, and what is more from one
that is self- interested. In the early Lectures on Ethics he
gave the principle of truth- telling under a system of

170 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRAliTY
will recognize in the statement that one ought to care
about these things a correct application of the non-
hypothetical moral “ought” by which society is apt to
voice its demands. He will not, however, take the fact
that he oughtm to have certain ends as in itself reason
to adopt them. If he himself is a moral man then he
cares about such things, but not “because he ought.”
If he is an amoral man he may deny that he has any
reason to trouble his head over this or any other moral
demand. Of course he may be mistaken, and his life
as well as others’ lives may be most sadly spoiled by
his selfishness. But this is not what is urged by those
who think they can close the matter by an emphatic
use of “ought.” My argument is that they are relying
on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral “ought” a
magic force.12
This conclusion may, as I said, appear dangerous
and subversive of morality. We are apt to panic at the
thought that we ourselves, or other people, might stop
caring about the things we do care about, and we feel
that the categorical imperative gives us some control
over the situation. But it is interesting that the people
of Leningrad were not similarly struck by the thought
that only the contingent fact that other citizens shared
their loyalty and devotion to the city stood between
them and the Germans during the terrible years of
the siege. Perhaps we should be less troubled than we
are by fear of defection from the moral cause; perhaps
we should even have less reason to fear it if people
thought of themselves as volunteers banded together
to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity
and oppression. It is often felt, even if obscurely, that
there is an element of deception in the official line
about morality. And while some have been persuaded
by talk about the authority of the moral law, others
have turned away with a sense of distrust.
1. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Sec. II, trans. by
L. W. Beck.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. According to the position sketched here we have three
forms of the hypothetical imperative: “If you want x you
difficulties can be raised about the rare case in which
no good is foreseen from an individual act of honesty.
But it is not evident that a man’s desires could not give
him reason to act honestly even here. He wants to live
openly and in good faith with his neighbors; it is not
all the same to him to lie and conceal.
If one wants to know whether there could be a
truly moral man who accepted moral principles as
hypothetical rules of conduct, as many people accept
rules of etiquette as hypothetical rules of conduct, one
must consider the right kind of example. A man who
demanded that morality should be brought under
the heading of self- interest would not be a good can-
didate, nor would anyone who was ready to be chari-
table or honest only so long as he felt inclined. A cause
such as justice makes strenuous demands, but this is
not peculiar to morality, and men are prepared to toil
to achieve many ends not endorsed by morality. That
they are prepared to fight so hard for moral ends— for
example, for liberty and justice— depends on the fact
that these are the kinds of ends that arouse devotion.
To sacrifice a great deal for the sake of etiquette one
would need to be under the spell of the emphatic
“oughte.” One could hardly be devoted to behav-
ing comme il faut.
In spite of all that has been urged in favor of the
hypothetical imperative in ethics, I am sure that many
people will be unconvinced and will argue that one
element essential to moral virtue is still missing. This
missing feature is the recognition of a duty to adopt
those ends which we have attributed to the moral
man. We have said that he does care about others, and
about causes such as liberty and justice; that it is on
this account that he will accept a system of morality.
But what if he never cared about such things, or what
if he ceased to care? Is it not the case that he ought to
care? This is exactly what Kant would say, for though
at times he sounds as if he thought that morality is
not concerned with ends, at others he insists that the
adoption of ends such as the happiness of others is
itself dictated by morality.11 How is this proposition
to be regarded by one who rejects all talk about the
binding force of the moral law? He will agree that a
moral man has moral ends and cannot be indifferent
to matters such as suffering and injustice. Further, he

CHAPTER 6: NoNCoNsEquENTiAlisT THEoRiEs: Do YouR DuTY Á  171

To say that moral considerations are called reasons is
blatantly to ignore the problem.

I am grateful to Rogers Albritton for drawing my attention to
this interesting use of expressions such as “have to” or “must.”

Pt. II, Introduction, sec. II.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. by
L. W. Beck, p. 133.
11. See, e.g., The Metaphysics of Morals, pt. II, sec. 30.

See G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Phi­
losophy (1958). My view is different from Miss Anscombe’s,
but I have learned from her.
should do y,” “Because you want x you should do y,” and
“Because x is in your interest you should do y.” For Kant the
third would automatically be covered by the second.
5. To say that at that moment one wants to be a respectable
philosopher would be another matter. Such a statement
requires a special connection between the desire and the

I am here going back on something I said in an earlier
article (“Moral Beliefs,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,
1958–1959) where I thought it necessary to show that virtue
must benefit the agent. I believe the rest of the article can

Consequentialist moral theories are concerned with
the consequences of actions, for the consequences
determine the moral rightness of conduct. The pro-
duction of good over evil is the essence of morality.
Nonconsequentialist moral theories are concerned
with the moral nature of actions, for the right-
making characteristics of actions determine the
rightness of conduct. Virtue ethics, however, takes
a different turn. Virtue ethics is a theory of moral-
ity that makes virtue the central concern. When
confronted with a moral problem, a utilitarian or
a Kantian theorist asks, “What should I do?” But a
virtue ethicist asks, in effect, “What should I be?”
For the former, moral conduct is primarily a matter
of following or applying a moral principle or rule to
a particular situation, and morality is mainly duty-
based. For the latter, moral conduct is something
that emanates from a person’s moral virtues, from
his or her moral character, not from obedience to
moral laws. In this chapter we try to understand
both the main attractions and the major criticisms
of this virtue- centered approach to ethics and the
moral life.
Most modern virtue ethicists trace their theo-
retical roots back to the ancients, most notably to
Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.). His ethics is a coherent,
virtue- based view that interlocks with his broader
philosophical concerns— his theories about cau-
sation, society, self, education, mind, and meta-
physics. He says the moral life consists not in
following moral rules that stipulate right actions
but in striving to be a particular kind of person— a
virtuous person whose actions stem naturally from
virtuous character.
For Aristotle, every living being has an end
toward which it naturally aims. Life is teleological;
it is meant not just to be something but to aspire
toward something, to fulfill its proper function.
What is the proper aim of human beings? Aristotle
argues that the true goal of humans— their greatest
good— is eudaimonia, which means “happiness”
or “flourishing” and refers to the full realization of
the good life. To achieve eudaimonia, human beings
must fulfill the function that is natural and distinc-
tive to them: living fully in accordance with reason.
The life of reason entails a life of virtue because the
virtues themselves are rational modes of behav-
ing. Thus Aristotle says, “Happiness is an activity
of the soul in accordance with complete or perfect
virtue.” The virtuous life both helps human beings
achieve true happiness and is the realization of true
happiness. Virtues make you good, and they help
you have a good life.
A virtue is a stable disposition to act and feel
according to some ideal or model of excellence. It
is a deeply embedded character trait that can affect
actions in countless situations. Aristotle distin-
guishes between intellectual and moral virtues.
Intellectual virtues include wisdom, prudence, ratio-
nality, and the like. Moral virtues include fairness,
benevolence, honesty, loyalty, conscientiousness,
and courage. He believes that intellectual virtues
can be taught, just as logic and mathematics can
be taught. But moral virtues can be learned only
through practice:
C H A P T E R 7
Virtue Ethics: Be a Good Person

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  173
Like Aristotle, contemporary virtue ethicists put
the emphasis on quality of character and virtues
(character traits), rather than on adherence to par-
ticular principles or rules of right action. They are
of course concerned with doing the right thing, but
moral obligations, in their view, are derived from
virtues. These thinkers are, for example, less likely
to ask whether lying is wrong in a particular situ-
ation than whether the action or person is honest
or dishonest, or whether honesty precludes lying in
this case, or whether an exemplar of honesty (say,
Gandhi or Jesus) would lie in these circumstances.
Contemporary virtue ethicists are also Aristote-
lian in believing that a pure duty- based morality of rule
adherence represents a barren, one- dimensional
conception of the moral life. First, they agree
with Aristotle that the cultivation of virtues is not
merely a moral requirement— it is a way (some
would say the only way) to ensure human flourish-
ing and the good life. Second, they maintain that a
full- blown ethics must take into account motives,
feelings, intentions, and moral wisdom— factors
that they think duty- based morality neglects. This
view contrasts dramatically with Kant’s duty- based
ethics. He argues that to act morally is simply to
[M]oral virtue comes about as a result of habit. . . .
From this it is also plain that none of the moral vir-
tues arises in us by nature. . . . [B]ut the virtues we get
by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of
the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before
we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men
become builders by building and lyreplayers by play-
ing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts,
temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing
brave acts.1
Aristotle’s notion of a moral virtue is what he
calls the “Golden Mean,” a balance between two
behavioral extremes. A moral virtue (courage, for
example) is the midpoint between excess (an
excess of courage, or foolhardiness) and deficit (a def-
icit of courage, or cowardice). For Aristotle, then, the
virtuous— and happy— life is a life of moderation in
all things.
Modern virtue ethicists follow Aristotle’s lead
in many respects. Some thinkers take issue with his
teleological theory of human nature and his concept
of a virtue as a mean between opposing tendencies.
And some have offered interesting alternatives to
his virtue ethics. But almost all virtue theories owe a
debt to Aristotle in one way or another.

Years ago the New York Times reported that the
teaching of traditional virtues such as honesty
and civility was becoming more common in public
schools. The article highlighted Paul Meck, an ele­
mentary school guidance counselor who spent much
of his time teaching students about virtues and
values. Meck’s approach was to visit classrooms and
lead discussions on such topics as honesty, friendship,
and shoplifting. When he talked to younger stu­
dents, he played his guitar and sang lyrics that
underscored his points. “Whether through song,
discussion or simply a straightforward lecture,” the
reporter noted, “there is an effort afoot to awaken
the interest of youngsters in these subjects.”*
Would Aristotle approve of the methods cited
here (song, discussion, lecture)? Why or why not?
What type of virtue education would he approve
of? Which approach— Aristotle’s or the one men­
tioned in this news article— do you think would be
most effective? Give reasons for your answer.
*Gene I. Maeroff, “About Education; Values Regain
Their Popularity,” New York Times, Science Desk,
April 10, 1984.
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Learning Virtues in the Classroom

174 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
and feelings appropriate to the actions. Helen
avoids dishonest dealings, and she does so because
that is what a virtuous person would do, because
she has compassion and sympathy for innocent
people who are cheated, and because dishonesty is
not conducive to human happiness and flourishing.
What guidance can Helen obtain in her strivings
toward a moral ideal? Like most virtue ethicists, she
looks to moral exemplars— people who embody the
virtues and inspire others to follow in their steps.
(For exemplars of honesty, Helen has several moral
heroes to choose from— Socrates, Gandhi, Jesus, the
Buddha, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.) As the
philosopher Louis Pojman says of virtue systems,
The primary focus is not on abstract reason but on
ideal types of persons or on actual ideal persons. Dis-
covering the proper moral example and imitating
that person or ideal type thus replace casuistic reason
as the most significant aspects of the moral life. Even-
tually, the apprentice- like training in virtue gained by
imitating the ideal model results in a virtuous person
who spontaneously does what is good.2
A case can be made for virtue ethics based on how
well it seems to explain important aspects of the
moral life. Some philosophers, for example, claim
that the virtue approach offers a more plausible
explanation of the role of motivation in moral
actions than duty- based moral systems do. By
Kantian lights your conduct may be morally accept-
able even if you, say, save a friend’s life out of a sense
of duty alone (that is, without any sincere regard for
your friend). But this motivation— your calculat-
ing sense of duty— seems a very cold and anemic
motivation indeed. Virtue theorists would say that
a more natural and morally appropriate response
would be to save your friend primarily out of com-
passion, love, loyalty, or something similar— and
these motives are just what we would expect from a
virtuous person acting from fully developed virtues.
Some philosophers also remind us that virtue
ethics puts primary emphasis on being a good
act out of duty— that is, to do our duty because it is
our duty. We need not act out of friendship, loy-
alty, kindness, love, or sympathy. But in virtue eth-
ics, acting from such motivations is a crucial part
of acting from a virtuous character, for virtues are
stable dispositions that naturally include motiva-
tions and feelings. Contrast the action of someone
who methodically aids his sick mother solely out of
a sense of duty with the person who tends to her
mother out of sympathy, love, and loyalty (perhaps
in addition to a sense of duty). Most people would
probably think that the latter is a better model of
the moral life, while the former seems incomplete.
If moral rules are secondary in virtue ethics, how
does a virtue ethicist make moral decisions or guide
his or her conduct or judge the behavior of oth-
ers? Suppose Helen, a conscientious practitioner
of Aristotelian virtue ethics, hears William lie to a
friend to avoid paying a debt. She does not have to
appeal to a moral rule such as “Do not lie” to know
that William’s action is an instance of dishonesty
(or untruthfulness) and that William himself is dis-
honest. She can see by his actions that he lacks the
virtue of honesty.
But to Helen, honesty is more than just a charac-
ter trait: it is also an essential part of human happi-
ness and flourishing. In her case, honesty is a virtue
that she has cultivated for years by behaving hon-
estly and truthfully in a variety of situations (not
just in cases of lying). She has taken such trouble in
part because cultivating this virtue has helped her
become the kind of person she wants to be. She has
developed the disposition to act honestly; acting
honestly is part of who she is. She sometimes relies
on moral rules (or moral rules of thumb) to make
moral decisions, but she usually does not need
them, because her actions naturally reflect her vir-
tuous character.
In addition, Helen’s trained virtues not only
guide her actions but also inspire the motivations

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  175
virtuous person is the one who performs the right
action. But this is to argue in a circle and to give us
no help in figuring out what to do. To avoid this cir-
cularity, they say, we must appeal to some kind of
moral standard or principle to evaluate the action
itself. Before we can decide if a person is virtuous,
we need to judge if her actions are right or wrong—
and such judgments take us beyond virtue ethics.
Some argue in a similar vein by pointing out
that a person may possess all the proper virtues
and still be unable to tell right from wrong actions.
Dr. Green may be benevolent and just and still
not know if stem cell research should be contin-
ued or stopped, or if he should help a terminal
patient commit suicide, or if he should perform
a late- term abortion. Likewise, we know that it is
possible for a virtuous person to act entirely from
virtue— and still commit an immoral act. This
shows, critics say, that the rightness of actions does
not necessarily (or invariably) depend on the con-
tent of one’s character. We seem to have indepen-
dent moral standards— independent of character
considerations— by which we judge the moral per-
missibility of actions.
The virtue theorist can respond to these criti-
cisms by asserting that there is actually plenty
of moral guidance to be had in statements about
virtues and vices. According to the virtue ethicist
Rosalind Hursthouse,
[A] great deal of specific action guidance could be
found in rules employing the virtue and vice terms
(“ v- rules”) such as “Do what is honest/charitable;
do not do what is dishonest/uncharitable.” (It is a
noteworthy feature of our virtue and vice vocabu-
lary that, although our list of generally recognised
virtue terms is comparatively short, our list of vice
terms is remarkably, and usefully, long, far exceed-
ing anything that anyone who thinks in terms of
standard deontological rules has ever come up
with. Much invaluable action guidance comes from
avoiding courses of action that would be irrespon-
sible, feckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncooperative,
harsh, intolerant, selfish, mercenary, indiscreet,
tactless, arrogant . . . and on and on.)3
person and living a good life, a life of happiness
and flourishing. They say that these aims are obvi-
ously central to the moral life and should be part of
any adequate theory of morality. Duty- based moral
systems, however, pay much less attention to these
essential elements.
Many duty- based theorists are willing to concede
that there is some truth in both these claims. They
believe that motivation for moral action cannot be
derived entirely from considerations of duty, just
as appropriate motivation cannot be based solely
on virtuous character. And they recognize that the
moral life involves more than merely honoring rules
and principles. As Aristotle insists, there should be
room for moral achievement in morality, for striv-
ing toward moral ideals. But even if these claims of
the virtue ethicist are true, it does not follow that tra-
ditional virtue ethics is the best moral theory or that
an ethics without duties or principles is plausible.
Virtue- based ethics seems to meet the mini-
mum requirement of coherence, and it appears to
be generally consistent with our commonsense
moral judgments and moral experience. Neverthe-
less critics have taken it to task, with most of the
strongest criticisms centering on alleged problems
with applying the theory— in other words, with
usefulness (Criterion 3).
The critics’ main contention is that appeals to
virtues or virtuous character without reference to
principles of duty cannot give us any useful guid-
ance in deciding what to do. Suppose we are try-
ing to decide what to do when a desperately poor
stranger steals money from us. Should we have him
arrested? Give him even more money? Ignore the
whole affair? According to virtue ethics, we should
do what a virtuous person would do, or do what
moral exemplars such as Jesus or Buddha would
do, or do what is benevolent or conscientious.
But what exactly would a virtuous person do? Or
what precisely is the benevolent or conscientious
action? As many philosophers see it, the problem
is that virtue ethics says that the right action is the
one performed by the virtuous person and that the

176 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
do that in this particular case. You need to know
which virtue is more important in this situation,
but virtue ethics does not seem to provide a useful
The proponent of virtue ethics has a ready
reply to this criticism: some duty- based moral
theories, such as Kantian ethics, are also troubled
by conflicts (conflicts of rules or principles, for
example). Obviously the existence of such con-
flicts is not a fatal flaw in duty- based ethics, and so
it must not be in virtue approaches either. When
principles seem to conflict, the duty- based theo-
rist must determine if the conflict is real and, if so,
if it can be resolved (by, say, weighting one prin-
ciple more than another). Virtue ethics, the argu-
ment goes, can exercise the same kinds of options.
Some might observe, however, that incorporating
a weighting rule or similar standard into virtue
ethics seems to make the theory a blend of duty-
based and virtue- based features.
Hursthouse believes we can discover our moral
duties by examining terms that refer to virtues and
vices because moral guidance is implicit in these
Another usefulness criticism crops up because
of apparent conflicts between virtues. What
should you do if you have to choose between
performing or not performing a particular action,
and each option involves the same two virtues
but in contradictory ways? Suppose your best
friend is on trial for murder, and under oath you
must testify about what you know of the case—
and what you know will incriminate her. The
question is, Should you lie? If you lie to save your
friend, you will be loyal but dishonest. If you tell
the truth, you will be honest but disloyal. The vir-
tues of loyalty and honesty conflict; you simply
cannot be both loyal and honest. Virtue ethics
says you should act as a virtuous person would.
But such advice gives you no guidance on how to
A 2005 report from Voice of America told of
a dispute over the war in Iraq among highly
regarded war veterans. Democratic Represen­
tative John Murtha, a decorated Marine Corps
veteran who fought in Vietnam, was a strong
supporter of the military— but thought the
war in Iraq was a disaster and demanded that
U.S. forces be withdrawn from Iraq within six
months. Democratic Senator John Kerry, also a
decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, disagreed
with Murtha’s timetable for troop withdrawal.
He proposed that troops start to leave Iraq later,
in early 2007. Republican Senator John McCain,
a former Navy fighter pilot and POW in the
Vietnam conflict, supported the president’s view
that the troops should stay in Iraq until the job
was done.*
Assume that all these men were honorable
and had all the appropriate warrior virtues such as
courage and loyalty. If they were then compara­
bly virtuous in the ways indicated, how could they
have disagreed about the conduct of the war? Sup­
pose they all possessed exactly the same virtues
to exactly the same degree and had access to the
same set of facts about the war. Would it still have
been possible for them to disagree? Why or why
not? Do you think that any of these considerations
suggest that virtue ethics may be a flawed moral
theory? Why or why not?
*Jim Malone, “Waning US Iraq War Support Stirs New
Comparisons to Vietnam Conflict,” (Nov­
ember 22, 2005),
_English/VOA_Standard_3636.html (January 9, 2015).
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Warrior Virtues and Moral Disagreements’

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  177
dispositions and traits? Must we choose? It is hard
to see how a morality of principles can get off the
ground except through the development of dispo-
sitions to act in accordance with its principles, else
all motivation to act on them must be of an ad hoc
kind, either prudential or impulsively altruistic.
Moreover, morality can hardly be content with a
mere conformity to rules, however willing and self-
conscious it may be, unless it has no interest in the
spirit of its law but only in the letter. On the other
hand, one cannot conceive of traits of character
except as including dispositions and tendencies to
act in certain ways in certain circumstances. Hating
involves being disposed to kill or harm, being just
involves tending to do just acts (acts that conform
to the principle of justice) when the occasion calls.
Again, it is hard to see how we could know what
traits to encourage or inculcate if we did not sub-
scribe to principles, for example, to the principle of
utility, or to those of benevolence and justice.4
Kant would have us act out of duty alone, grant-
ing no bonus points for acting from virtue. Utili-
tarianism doesn’t require, but also doesn’t reject,
virtuous motives. Yet virtue seems to be as much
a part of our moral experience as moral disagree-
ments, moral errors, and moral reasoning. The
question is not whether we should care about vir-
tues but how much we should care and how we can
incorporate them into our lives.
Virtue ethics is a moral theory that makes virtue the
central concern. In virtue ethics, moral conduct is sup-
posed to radiate naturally from moral virtues. That is,
moral actions are derived from virtues. A virtue is a
stable disposition to act and feel according to an ideal
or model of excellence.
Most modern virtue ethicists take their inspira-
tion from Aristotle. He argues that humankind’s
greatest good is happiness, or eudaimonia. To achieve
Why does the ancient moral tradition of virtue
ethics persist— and not just persist, but thrive, even
enjoying a revival in modern times? Many thinkers
would say that virtue ethics is alive and well because
it is sustained by an important ethical truth: virtue
and character are large, unavoidable constituents
of our moral experience. As moral creatures, we
regularly judge the moral permissibility of actions—
and assess the goodness of character. If someone
commits an immoral act (kills an innocent human
being, for example), it matters to us whether the act
was committed out of compassion (as in euthana-
sia), benevolence, loyalty, revenge, rage, or igno-
rance. The undeniable significance of virtue in
morality has obliged many philosophers to con-
sider how best to accommodate virtues into their
principle- based theories of morality or to recast
those theories entirely to give virtues a larger role.
The rise of virtue ethics has also forced many
thinkers to reexamine the place of principles in
morality. If we have virtues, do we need principles?
Most philosophers would probably say yes and
agree with the philosopher William Frankena that
“principles without traits [virtues] are impotent
and traits without principles are blind”:
To be or to do, that is the question. Should we con-
strue morality as primarily a following of certain
principles or as primarily a cultivation of certain
virtue ethics— A theory of morality that makes
virtue the central concern.
eudaimonia— Happiness, or flourishing.
virtue— A stable disposition to act and feel
according to some ideal or model of excellence.
Golden Mean— Aristotle’s notion of a virtue as a
balance between two behavioral extremes.

178 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
5. What, according to Aristotle, must humans do
to achieve eudaimonia? (p. 172)
6. What is a virtue? Give three examples of moral
virtues. Give two examples of intellectual
virtues. (p. 172)
7. What important elements do virtue ethicists
think are missing from traditional duty- based
ethics? (p. 174)
8. How do virtue ethicists use moral exemplars?
(p. 175)
9. Does virtue ethics seem to offer a more plausible
explanation of the role of motivation in moral
actions than does Kantian ethics? If so, how?
(p. 175)
10. What is the chief argument against virtue ethics?
How can the virtue ethicist respond? (p. 175)
Discussion Questions
1. For Aristotle, what is the central task in morality
and how does it differ from the central task in
2. How does Aristotle’s conception of the virtuous
life differ from Kant’s?
3. Is Aristotle’s notion of the Golden Mean helpful
in identifying the virtues in any situation? Why
or why not?
4. Kant says that to act morally is to act out of
duty. How does this differ from the virtue ethics
approach? Are you likely to admire someone
who always acts out of duty alone? Why or
why not?
5. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of
act- utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Which do
you think is the better theory? How would you
combine the two approaches to fashion a better
6. William Frankena says that morality requires
both principles and virtues. Do you agree? Why
or why not?
Explain how virtue ethics could be applied in the fol-
lowing scenarios to determine the proper course of
happiness, human beings must fulfill their natural
function— to live fully in accordance with reason.
To live this way is to cultivate the virtues, for they are
rational ways of being and flourishing. Aristotle sug-
gests that a moral virtue is a Golden Mean, a midpoint
between two extreme ways of behaving. So he says that
the good life is a life in the middle, a life of moderation.
Virtue theorists think that acting out of duty alone
is a distortion of true morality. A full- blown morality,
they insist, must include motives, emotions, inten-
tions, and moral wisdom. Acting morally means acting
from virtue— from the appropriate motives and feel-
ings, taking all the factors of the situation into account.
Virtue- based ethics seems to meet the minimum
requirement of coherence, and it fits with our com-
monsense moral judgments and experience. But it
has been accused of not being useful. The main criti-
cism is that appeals to virtue alone (sans principles)
give us little or no guidance about how to act. Critics
argue that virtue ethics defines virtue in terms of right
actions and defines right actions in terms of virtue.
But this is circular reasoning and provides no help for
making moral decisions. Virtue theorists, however,
can reply that guidance in moral decision making is
in fact available— it is inherent in statements about
virtues and vices.
virtue ethics (p. 172)
eudaimonia (p. 172)
virtue (p. 172)
Golden Mean (p. 173)
Review Questions
1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of
Aristotle’s virtue ethics theory? (pp. 174–176)
2. What does Aristotle mean when he says that the
virtuous life helps us achieve happiness and is
happiness? (p. 172)
3. How does virtue ethics differ from duty- based
ethics? (p. 172)
4. In what way is Aristotle’s virtue ethics
considered teleological? (p. 172)

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  179
will ever know who stole the money unless you
report the theft to the authorities. Should you
turn your father in to the police? Should you
keep quiet about the matter? What would a
virtuous person do?
G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philoso-
phy 33, no. 124 (January 1958): 1–19.
Philippa Foot, “Virtues and Vices,” in Virtues and Vices and
Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1978).
William K. Frankena, “Ethics of Virtue,” in Ethics, 2nd ed.
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973).
Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in Stanford Encyclo-
pedia of Philosophy, Fall 2003 ed., ed. Edward N. Zalta,
– virtue/ (March 1, 2015).
Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Nature of the Virtues,” in
After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
Greg Pence, “Virtue Theory,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed.
Peter Singer, corr. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
1. You are walking across town, and a homeless
person bumps into you, takes your wallet, and
runs away. What would a virtuous person do
in this instance? Should the guiding virtue be
compassion? fairness? honesty?
2. You are a physician treating a terminally ill
woman who is in a great deal of pain that no
drug can relieve. She says she has lived a full
life and now wants you to end her anguish by
helping her die quickly and quietly. She has
no known relatives. The American Medical
Association’s code of ethics absolutely forbids
physician- assisted suicide, and the hospital
where she is a patient has a similar policy. But
you want to alleviate her agony and give her
a chance to die with dignity. What would a
virtuous person do?
3. Your father has stolen $30,000 from his
employer to pay for surgery that his sister
desperately needs. Without the surgery, she
will be dead within six months. Only you know
about his crime. You also know that no one
R E A d i n G s
From Nicomachean Ethics
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action
and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for
this reason the good has rightly been declared to be
that at which all things aim. But a certain difference
is found among ends; some are activities, others are
products apart from the activities that produce them.
Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the
nature of the products to be better than the activities.
Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences,
their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is
health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy
victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts
fall under a single capacity— as bridle- making and the
other arts concerned with the equipment of horses
fall under the art of riding, and this and every military
action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall
under yet others— in all of these the ends of the mas-
ter arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends;
for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are
pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities
themselves are the ends of the actions, or something
else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sci-
ences just mentioned.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross, books I and II,
(edited) (eBooks@Adelaide, 2004).



180 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at
is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference
whether he is young in years or youthful in character;
the defect does not depend on time, but on his living,
and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs.
For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge
brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accor-
dance with a rational principle knowledge about such
matters will be of great benefit. These remarks about the
student, the sort of treatment to be expected, and the
purpose of the inquiry, may be taken as our preface.
Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact
that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some
good, what it is that we say political science aims at and
what is the highest of all goods achievable by action.
Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the
general run of men and people of superior refinement
say that it is happiness, and identify living well and
doing well with being happy; but with regard to what
happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the
same account as the wise. For the former think it is some
plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or hon-
our; they differ, however, from one another— and often
even the same man identifies it with different things,
with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor;
but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those
who proclaim some great ideal that is above their com-
prehension. Now some thought that apart from these
many goods there is another which is self- subsistent
and causes the goodness of all these as well. To exam-
ine all the opinions that have been held were perhaps
somewhat fruitless; enough to examine those that are
most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.
* * *
Let us, however, resume our discussion from the point
at which we digressed. To judge from the lives that men
lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem
(not without some ground) to identify the good, or hap-
piness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love
the life of enjoyment. For there are, we may say, three
If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which
we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired
for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything
for the sake of something else (for at that rate the pro-
cess would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be
empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the
chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a
great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who
have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what
is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to deter-
mine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capaci-
ties it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most
authoritative art and that which is most truly the mas-
ter art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is
this that ordains which of the sciences should be stud-
ied in a state, and which each class of citizens should
learn and up to what point they should learn them; and
we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to
fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now,
since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since,
again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we
are to abstain from, the end of this science must include
those of the others, so that this end must be the good
for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man
and for a state, that of the state seems at all events some-
thing greater and more complete whether to attain or
to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end
merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to
attain it for a nation or for city- states. These, then, are
the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political
science, in one sense of that term.
* * *
Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of
these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been
educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject,
and the man who has received an all- round education
is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a
proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is
inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its
discussions start from these and are about these; and,
further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  181
in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of
each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is
done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory,
in architecture a house, in any other sphere some-
thing else, and in every action and pursuit the end;
for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever
else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that
we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and
if there are more than one, these will be the goods
achievable by action.
So the argument has by a different course reached
the same point; but we must try to state this even more
clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end,
and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and
in general instruments) for the sake of something else,
clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is
evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only
one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if
there are more than one, the most final of these will
be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in
itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is
worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and
that which is never desirable for the sake of something
else more final than the things that are desirable both
in themselves and for the sake of that other thing,
and therefore we call final without qualification that
which is always desirable in itself and never for the
sake of something else.
Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held
to be; for this we choose always for self and never for
the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, rea-
son, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves
(for if nothing resulted from them we should still
choose each of them), but we choose them also for the
sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we
shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one
chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for any-
thing other than itself.
From the point of view of self- sufficiency the same
result seems to follow; for the final good is thought
to be self- sufficient. Now by self- sufficient we do not
mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for
one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, chil-
dren, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow cit-
izens, since man is born for citizenship. But some limit
prominent types of life— that just mentioned, the polit-
ical, and thirdly the contemplative life. Now the mass of
mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, pre-
ferring a life suitable to beasts, but they get some ground
for their view from the fact that many of those in high
places share the tastes of Sardanapallus. A consideration
of the prominent types of life shows that people of supe-
rior refinement and of active disposition identify hap-
piness with honour, for this is, roughly speaking, the
end of the political life. But it seems too superficial to
be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend
on those who bestow honour rather than on him who
receives it, but the good we divine to be something
proper to a man and not easily taken from him. Further,
men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be
assured of their goodness; at least it is by men of practi-
cal wisdom that they seek to be honoured, and among
those who know them, and on the ground of their vir-
tue; clearly, then, according to them, at any rate, virtue
is better. And perhaps one might even suppose this to
be, rather than honour, the end of the political life.
But even this appears somewhat incomplete; for pos-
session of virtue seems actually com patible with being
asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the
greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was
living so no one would call happy, unless he were main-
taining a thesis at all costs. But enough of this; for the
subject has been sufficiently treated even in the current
discussions. Third comes the contemplative life, which
we shall consider later.
The life of money- making is one undertaken
under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the
good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the
sake of something else. And so one might rather take
the aforenamed objects to be ends; for they are loved
for themselves. But it is evident that not even these are
ends; yet many arguments have been thrown away in
support of them. Let us leave this subject, then.
* * *
Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask
what it can be. It seems different in different actions
and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and

182 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to
the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-
player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre- player
is to do so well): if this is the case, and we state the func-
tion of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an
activity or actions of the soul implying a rational princi-
ple, and the function of a good man to be the good and
noble performance of these, and if any action is well
performed when it is performed in accordance with
the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human
good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with
virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accor-
dance with the best and most complete.
But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swal-
low does not make a summer, nor does one day; and
so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man
blessed and happy.
* * *
Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral,
intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and
its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires
experience and time), while moral virtue comes about
as a result of habit, whence also its name ( e thike) is one
that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos
(habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral
virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists
by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For
instance the stone which by nature moves downwards
cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one
tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times;
nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor
can anything else that by nature behaves in one way
be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature,
then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us;
rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and
are made perfect by habit.
Again, of all the things that come to us by nature
we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the
activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it
was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got
these senses, but on the contrary we had them before
must be set to this; for if we extend our requirement
to ancestors and descendants and friends’ friends we
are in for an infinite series. Let us examine this ques-
tion, however, on another occasion; the self- sufficient
we now define as that which when isolated makes life
desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think
happiness to be; and further we think it most desir-
able of all things, without being counted as one good
thing among others— if it were so counted it would
clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even
the least of goods; for that which is added becomes
an excess of goods, and of goods the greater is always
more desirable. Happiness, then, is something final
and self- sufficient, and is the end of action.
Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the
chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of
what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if
we could first ascertain the function of man. For just
as for a flute- player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in
general, for all things that have a function or activ-
ity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the
function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a
function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner
certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is
he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and
in general each of the parts evidently has a function,
may one lay it down that man similarly has a func-
tion apart from all these? What then can this be? Life
seems to be common even to plants, but we are seek-
ing what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore,
the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be
a life of perception, but it also seems to be common
even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There
remains, then, an active life of the element that has a
rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle
in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the
sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And,
as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings,
we must state that life in the sense of activity is what
we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense
of the term. Now if the function of man is an activity
of soul which follows or implies a rational principle,
and if we say ‘a so- and- so’ and ‘a good so- and- so’ have
a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre, and
a good lyre- player, and so without qualification in all

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  183
to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would
have been of no use), we must examine the nature of
actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these
determine also the nature of the states of character
that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must
act according to the right rule is a common principle
and must be assumed— it will be discussed later, i.e.
both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the
other virtues. But this must be agreed upon before-
hand, that the whole account of matters of conduct
must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said
at the very beginning that the accounts we demand
must be in accordance with the subject- matter; mat-
ters concerned with conduct and questions of what is
good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of
health. The general account being of this nature, the
account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exact-
ness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but
the agents themselves must in each case consider what
is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the
art of medicine or of navigation.
But though our present account is of this nature
we must give what help we can. First, then, let us con-
sider this, that it is the nature of such things to be
destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case
of strength and of health (for to gain light on things
imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible
things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys
the strength, and similarly drink or food which is
above or below a certain amount destroys the health,
while that which is proportionate both produces and
increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case
of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For
the man who flies from and fears everything and does
not stand his ground against anything becomes a cow-
ard, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to
meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man
who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none
becomes self- indulgent, while the man who shuns
every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insen-
sible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by
excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.
But not only are the sources and causes of their orig-
ination and growth the same as those of their destruc-
tion, but also the sphere of their actualization will be
we used them, and did not come to have them by
using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising
them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.
For the things we have to learn before we can do them,
we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by
building and lyre- players by playing the lyre; so too
we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing
temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
This is confirmed by what happens in states; for
legislators make the citizens good by forming habits
in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and
those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in
this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.
Again, it is from the same causes and by the
same means that every virtue is both produced and
destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from play-
ing the lyre that both good and bad lyre- players are
produced. And the corresponding statement is true
of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or
bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For
if this were not so, there would have been no need of
a teacher, but all men would have been born good or
bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the vir-
tues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transac-
tions with other men we become just or unjust, and
by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger,
and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we
become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appe-
tites and feelings of anger; some men become tem-
perate and good- tempered, others self- indulgent and
irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the
appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states
of character arise out of like activities. This is why
the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it
is because the states of character correspond to the
differences between these. It makes no small differ-
ence, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of
another from our very youth; it makes a very great dif-
ference, or rather all the difference.
Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theo-
retical knowledge like the others (for we are inquir-
ing not in order to know what virtue is, but in order

184 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
very conditions which result from often doing just
and temperate acts.
Actions, then, are called just and temperate when
they are such as the just or the temperate man would
do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and
temperate, but the man who also does them as just
and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that
it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced,
and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; with-
out doing these no one would have even a prospect of
becoming good.
But most people do not do these, but take refuge
in theory and think they are being philosophers and
will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like
patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do
none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter
will not be made well in body by such a course of treat-
ment, the former will not be made well in soul by such
a course of philosophy.
Next we must consider what virtue is. Since things that
are found in the soul are of three kinds— passions, fac-
ulties, states of character, virtue must be one of these.
By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence,
envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation,
pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied
by pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of
which we are said to be capable of feeling these, e.g. of
becoming angry or being pained or feeling pity; by states
of character the things in virtue of which we stand well
or badly with reference to the passions, e.g. with refer-
ence to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too
weakly, and well if we feel it moderately; and similarly
with reference to the other passions.
Now neither the virtues nor the vices are passions,
because we are not called good or bad on the ground
of our passions, but are so called on the ground of
our virtues and our vices, and because we are neither
praised nor blamed for our passions (for the man who
feels fear or anger is not praised, nor is the man who
simply feels anger blamed, but the man who feels it in
a certain way), but for our virtues and our vices we are
praised or blamed.
the same; for this is also true of the things which are
more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced
by taking much food and undergoing much exertion,
and it is the strong man that will be most able to do
these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining
from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we
have become so that we are most able to abstain from
them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by
being habituated to despise things that are terrible and
to stand our ground against them we become brave,
and it is when we have become so that we shall be most
able to stand our ground against them.
* * *
The question might be asked, what we mean by saying
that we must become just by doing just acts, and tem-
perate by doing temperate acts; for if men do just and
temperate acts, they are already just and temperate,
exactly as, if they do what is in accordance with the
laws of grammar and of music, they are grammarians
and musicians.
Or is this not true even of the arts? It is possible
to do something that is in accordance with the laws
of grammar, either by chance or at the suggestion of
another. A man will be a grammarian, then, only
when he has both done something grammatical and
done it grammatically; and this means doing it in accor-
dance with the grammatical knowledge in himself.
Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues
are not similar; for the products of the arts have their
goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they
should have a certain character, but if the acts that are
in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain
character it does not follow that they are done justly or
temperately. The agent also must be in a certain con-
dition when he does them; in the first place he must
have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts,
and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his
action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable
character. These are not reckoned in as conditions of
the possession of the arts, except the bare knowledge;
but as a condition of the possession of the virtues
knowledge has little or no weight, while the other con-
ditions count not for a little but for everything, i.e. the

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  185
for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this
is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion.
But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken
so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to
eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer
will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much
for the person who is to take it, or too little— too little
for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exer-
cises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a
master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the
intermediate and chooses this— the intermediate not in
the object but relatively to us.
If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well—
by looking to the intermediate and judging its works
by this standard (so that we often say of good works of
art that it is not possible either to take away or to add
anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the
goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it;
and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work),
and if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any
art, as nature also is, then virtue must have the quality
of aiming at the intermediate. I mean moral virtue; for
it is this that is concerned with passions and actions,
and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermedi-
ate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appe-
tite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and
pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in
both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times,
with reference to the right objects, towards the right
people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is
what is both intermediate and best, and this is charac-
teristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also
there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now vir-
tue is concerned with passions and actions, in which
excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the
intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and
being praised and being successful are both charac-
teristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean,
since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.
Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil
belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythago-
reans conjectured, and good to that of the limited),
while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which
reason also one is easy and the other difficult— to miss
the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also,
Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but
the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice.
Further, in respect of the passions we are said to be
moved, but in respect of the virtues and the vices we
are said not to be moved but to be disposed in a par-
ticular way.
For these reasons also they are not faculties; for
we are neither called good nor bad, nor praised nor
blamed, for the simple capacity of feeling the passions;
again, we have the faculties by nature, but we are not
made good or bad by nature; we have spoken of this
before. If, then, the virtues are neither passions nor
faculties, all that remains is that they should be states
of character.
Thus we have stated what virtue is in respect of its
We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of
character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may
remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings
into good condition the thing of which it is the excel-
lence and makes the work of that thing be done well;
e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its
work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we
see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a
horse both good in itself and good at running and at car-
rying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy.
Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man
also will be the state of character which makes a man
good and which makes him do his own work well.
How this is to happen we have stated already, but
it will be made plain also by the following consider-
ation of the specific nature of virtue. In everything that
is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more,
less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the
thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an inter-
mediate between excess and defect. By the intermedi-
ate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from
each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all
men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is
neither too much nor too little— and this is not one, nor
the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is
few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object;

186 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
general apply more widely, but those which are par-
ticular are more genuine, since conduct has to do with
individual cases, and our statements must harmonize
with the facts in these cases. We may take these cases
from our table. With regard to feelings of fear and con-
fidence courage is the mean; of the people who exceed,
he who exceeds in fearlessness has no name (many of
the states have no name), while the man who exceeds
in confidence is rash, and he who exceeds in fear and
falls short in confidence is a coward. With regard to
pleasures and pains— not all of them, and not so much
with regard to the pains— the mean is temperance, the
excess self- indulgence. Persons deficient with regard
to the pleasures are not often found; hence such per-
sons also have received no name. But let us call them
With regard to giving and taking of money the
mean is liberality, the excess and the defect prodi-
gality and meanness. In these actions people exceed
and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds
in spending and falls short in taking, while the mean
man exceeds in taking and falls short in spending. (At
present we are giving a mere outline or summary, and
are satisfied with this; later these states will be more
exactly determined.) With regard to money there are
also other dispositions— a mean, magnificence (for
the magnificent man differs from the liberal man;
the former deals with large sums, the latter with small
ones), an excess, tastelessness and vulgarity, and a
deficiency, niggardliness; these differ from the states
opposed to liberality, and the mode of their difference
will be stated later. With regard to honour and dishon-
our the mean is proper pride, the excess is known as
a sort of ‘empty vanity’, and the deficiency is undue
humility; and as we said liberality was related to
magnificence, differing from it by dealing with small
sums, so there is a state similarly related to proper
pride, being concerned with small honours while
that is concerned with great. For it is possible to desire
honour as one ought, and more than one ought, and
less, and the man who exceeds in his desires is called
ambitious, the man who falls short unambitious,
while the intermediate person has no name. The dis-
positions also are nameless, except that that of the
ambitious man is called ambition. Hence the people
who are at the extremes lay claim to the middle place;
then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the
mean of virtue;
For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with
choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us,
this being determined by a rational principle, and by
that principle by which the man of practical wisdom
would determine it. Now it is a mean between two
vices, that which depends on excess and that which
depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the
vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right
in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds
and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in
respect of its substance and the definition which states
its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best
and right an extreme.
But not every action nor every passion admits of
a mean; for some have names that already imply bad-
ness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case
of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and
suchlike things imply by their names that they are
themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies
of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with
regard to them; one must always be wrong. Nor does
goodness or badness with regard to such things depend
on committing adultery with the right women, at the
right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of
them is to go wrong. It would be equally absurd, then,
to expect that in unjust, cowardly, and voluptuous
action there should be a mean, an excess, and a defi-
ciency; for at that rate there would be a mean of excess
and of deficiency, an excess of excess, and a deficiency
of deficiency. But as there is no excess and deficiency
of temperance and courage because what is interme-
diate is in a sense an extreme, so too of the actions we
have mentioned there is no mean nor any excess and
deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong;
for in general there is neither a mean of excess and defi-
ciency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean.
We must, however, not only make this general state-
ment, but also apply it to the individual facts. For
among statements about conduct those which are

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  187
by it mock- modest. With regard to pleasantness in
the giving of amusement the intermediate person
is ready- witted and the disposition ready wit, the
excess is buffoonery and the person characterized by
it a buffoon, while the man who falls short is a sort of
boor and his state is boorishness. With regard to the
remaining kind of pleasantness, that which is exhib-
ited in life in general, the man who is pleasant in the
right way is friendly and the mean is friendliness,
while the man who exceeds is an obsequious person
if he has no end in view, a flatterer if he is aiming at
his own advantage, and the man who falls short and
is unpleasant in all circumstances is a quarrelsome
and surly sort of person.
* * *
That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it
is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one
involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is
such because its character is to aim at what is interme-
diate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently
stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in
everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to
find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for
him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry— that
is easy— or give or spend money; but to do this to the
right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with
the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for
every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both
rare and laudable and noble.
* * *
and we ourselves sometimes call the intermediate
person ambitious and sometimes unambitious, and
sometimes praise the ambitious man and sometimes
the unambitious. The reason of our doing this will be
stated in what follows; but now let us speak of the rem-
aining states according to the method which has been
With regard to anger also there is an excess, a defi-
ciency, and a mean. Although they can scarcely be
said to have names, yet since we call the intermedi-
ate person good- tempered let us call the mean good
temper; of the persons at the extremes let the one who
exceeds be called irascible, and his vice irascibility,
and the man who falls short an inirascible sort of per-
son, and the deficiency inirascibility.
There are also three other means, which have a
certain likeness to one another, but differ from one
another: for they are all concerned with intercourse
in words and actions, but differ in that one is con-
cerned with truth in this sphere, the other two with
pleasantness; and of this one kind is exhibited in giv-
ing amusement, the other in all the circumstances of
life. We must therefore speak of these two, that we
may the better see that in all things the mean is praise-
worthy, and the extremes neither praiseworthy nor
right, but worthy of blame. Now most of these states
also have no names, but we must try, as in the other
cases, to invent names ourselves so that we may be
clear and easy to follow. With regard to truth, then,
the intermediate is a truthful sort of person and the
mean may be called truthfulness, while the pretence
which exaggerates is boastfulness and the person
characterized by it a boaster, and that which under-
states is mock modesty and the person characterized

188 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
In recent decades in North American social and moral
philosophy, alongside the development and discus-
sion of widely influential theories of justice, taken
as Rawls takes it as the ‘first virtue of social institu-
tions,’1 there has been a counter- movement gathering
strength, one coming from some interesting sources.
For some of the most outspoken of the diverse group
who have in a variety of ways been challenging the
assumed supremacy of justice among the moral and
social virtues are members of those sections of society
whom one might have expected to be especially aware
of the supreme importance of justice, namely blacks
and women. Those who have only recently seen the
correction or partial correction of long- standing racist
and sexist injustices to their race and sex, are among the
philosophers now suggesting that justice is only one
virtue among many, and one that may need the pres-
ence of the others in order to deliver its own undenied
value. Among these philosophers of the philosophical
counterculture, as it were— but an increasingly large
counterculture— I include Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael
Stocker, Lawrence Blum, Michael Slote, Laurence
Thomas, Claudia Card, Alison Jaggar, Susan Wolf and a
whole group of men and women, myself included, who
have been influenced by the writings of Harvard edu-
cational psychologist Carol Gilligan, whose book In a
Different Voice (Harvard 1982; hereafter D.V.) caused a
considerable stir both in the popular press and, more
slowly, in the philosophical journals.
Let me say quite clearly at this early point that
there is little disagreement that justice is a social value
of very great importance, and injustice an evil. Nor
would those who have worked on theories of justice
want to deny that other things matter besides justice.
Rawls, for example, incorporates the value of free-
dom into his account of justice, so that denial of basic
freedoms counts as injustice. Rawls also leaves room
for a wider theory of the right, of which the theory
of justice is just a part. Still, he does claim that justice
is the ‘first’ virtue of social institutions, and it is only
that claim about priority that I think has been chal-
lenged. It is easy to exaggerate the differences of view
that exist, and I want to avoid that. The differences are
as much in emphasis as in substance, or we can say
that they are differences in tone of voice. But these dif-
ferences do tend to make a difference in approaches to
a wide range of topics not just in moral theory but in
areas like medical ethics, where the discussion used to
be conducted in terms of patients’ rights, of informed
consent, and so on, but now tends to get conducted in
an enlarged moral vocabulary, which draws on what
Gilligan calls the ethics of care as well as that of justice.
For ‘care’ is the new buzz- word. It is not, as Shake-
speare’s Portia demanded, mercy that is to season jus-
tice, but a less authoritarian humanitarian supplement,
a felt concern for the good of others and for community
with them. The ‘cold jealous virtue of justice’ (Hume) is
found to be too cold, and it is ‘warmer’ more communi-
tarian virtues and social ideals that are being called in to
supplement it. One might say that liberty and equality
are being found inadequate without fraternity, except
that ‘fraternity’ will be quite the wrong word, if as Gil-
ligan initially suggested, it is women who perceive this
value most easily. (‘Sorority’ will do no better, since it is
too exclusive, and English has no gender- neuter word
for the mutual concern of siblings.) She has since modi-
fied this claim, allowing that there are two perspectives
on moral and social issues that we all tend to alternate
between, and which are not always easy to combine,
one of them what she called the justice perspective, the
other the care perspective. It is increasingly obvious
that there are many male philosophical spokespersons
for the care perspective (Laurence Thomas, Lawrence
Blum, Michael Stocker) so that it cannot be the pre-
rogative of women. Nevertheless Gilligan still wants
to claim that women are most unlikely to take only the
justice perspective, as some men are claimed to, at least
The Need for More Than Justice
Annette C. Baier
Annette C. Baier, “The Need for More Than Justice,” Canadian
Journal of Philosophy, supplementary vol. 13 (1988): 41–56. Pub-
lished by University of Calgary Press. Reprinted with permission
of University of Calgary Press.

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  189
she calls the justice perspective, necessary though that
was and is seen by them to have been to their hard won
liberation from sexist oppression. They, like the blacks,
used the language of rights and justice to change their
own social position, but nevertheless see limitations
in that language, according to Gilligan’s findings as a
moral psychologist. She reports their discontent with
the individualist more or less Kantian moral framework
that dominates Western moral theory and which influ-
enced moral psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg,
to whose conception of moral maturity she seeks an
alternative. Since the target of Gilligan’s criticism is the
dominant Kantian tradition, and since that has been
the target also of moral philosophers as diverse in their
own views as Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre,
Philippa Foot, Susan Wolf, Claudia Card, her book
is of interest as much for its attempt to articulate an
alternative to the Kantian justice perspective as for its
implicit raising of the question of male bias in Western
moral theory, especially liberal- democratic theory. For
whether the supposed blind spots of that outlook are
due to male bias, or to nonparental bias, or to early trau-
mas of powerlessness or to early resignation to ‘detach-
ment’ from others, we need first to be persuaded that
they are blind spots before we will have any interest in
their cause and cure. Is justice blind to important social
values, or at least only one- eyed? What is it that comes
into view from the ‘care perspective’ that is not seen
from the ‘justice perspective’?
Gilligan’s position here is mostly easily described by
contrasting it with that of Kohlberg, against which she
developed it. Kohlberg, influenced by Piaget and the
Kantian philosophical tradition as developed by John
Rawls, developed a theory about typical moral develop-
ment which saw it to progress from a pre- conventional
level, where what is seen to matter is pleasing or not
offending parental authority- figures, through a con-
ventional level in which the child tries to fit in with a
group, such as a school community, and conform to
its standards and rules, to a post- conventional critical
level, in which such conventional rules are subjected to
tests, and where those tests are of a Utilitarian, or, even-
tually, a Kantian sort— namely ones that require respect
for each person’s individual rational will, or autonomy,
and conformity to any implicit social contract such
until some mid- life crisis jolts them into ‘bifocal’ moral
vision (see D.V., ch. 6).
Gilligan in her book did not offer any explanatory
theory of why there should be any difference between
female and male moral outlook, but she did tend to link
the naturalness to women of the care perspective with
their role as primary care- takers of young children, that
is with their parental and specifically maternal role. She
avoided the question of whether it is their biological
or their social parental role that is relevant, and some
of those who dislike her book are worried precisely by
this uncertainty. Some find it retrograde to hail as a spe-
cial sort of moral wisdom an outlook that may be the
product of the socially enforced restriction of women
to domestic roles (and the reservation of such roles
for them alone). For that might seem to play into the
hands of those who still favor such restriction. (Marx-
ists, presumably, will not find it so surprising that moral
truths might depend for their initial clear voicing on
the social oppression, and memory of it, of those who
voice the truths.) Gilligan did in the first chapter of
D.V. cite the theory of Nancy Chodorow (as presented
in The Reproduction of Mothering [Berkeley 1978]) which
traces what appears as gender differences in personality
to early social development, in particular to the effects
of the child’s primary care-taker being or not being of
the same gender as the child. Later, both in ‘The Con-
quistador and the Dark Continent: Reflections on the
Nature of Love’ (Daedalus [Summer 1984]), and ‘The
Origins of Morality in Early Childhood’ (in press), she
develops this explanation. She postulates two evils that
any infant may become aware of, the evil of detach-
ment or isolation from others whose love one needs,
and the evil of relative powerlessness and weakness.
Two dimensions of moral development are thereby
set— one aimed at achieving satisfying community
with others, the other aiming at autonomy or equality
of power. The relative predominance of one over the
other development will depend both upon the rela-
tive salience of the two evils in early childhood, and
on early and later reinforcement or discouragement in
attempts made to guard against these two evils. This
provides the germs of a theory about why, given current
customs of childrearing, it should be mainly women
who are not content with only the moral outlook that

190 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
in Kohlberg’s stages, a progression in the understand-
ing, not of mutual care, but of mutual respect, where
this has its Kantian overtones of distance, even of
some fear for the respected, and where personal auton-
omy and independence, rather than more satisfactory
interdependence, are the paramount values.
This contrast, one cannot but feel, is one which
Gilligan might have used the Marxist language of
alienation to make. For the main complaint about the
Kantian version of a society with its first virtue justice,
constructed as respect for equal rights to formal goods
such as having contracts kept, due process, equal
opportunity including opportunity to participate in
political activities leading to policy and law- making,
to basic liberties of speech, free association and assem-
bly, religious worship, is that none of these goods do
much to ensure that the people who have and mutu-
ally respect such rights will have any other relation-
ships to one another than the minimal relationship
needed to keep such a ‘civil society’ going. They may
well be lonely, driven to suicide, apathetic about their
work and about participation in political processes,
find their lives meaningless and have no wish to leave
offspring to face the same meaningless existence.
Their rights, and respect for rights, are quite compat-
ible with very great misery, and misery whose causes
are not just individual misfortunes and psychic sick-
ness, but social and moral impoverishment.
What Gilligan’s older male subjects complain of
is precisely this sort of alienation from some dimly
glimpsed better possibility for human beings, some
richer sort of network of relationships. As one of Gilli-
gan’s male subjects put it, ‘People have real emotional
needs to be attached to something, and equality does
not give you attachment. Equality fractures society and
places on every person the burden of standing on his
own two feet’ (D.V., 167). It is not just the difficulty of
self- reliance which is complained of, but its socially
‘fracturing’ effect. Whereas the younger men, in their
college years, had seen morality as a matter of recipro-
cal non- interference, this old man begins to see it as
reciprocal attachment. ‘Morality is . . . essential . . . for
creating the kind of environment, interaction between
people, that is a prerequisite to the fulfillment of indi-
vidual goals. If you want other people not to interfere
wills are deemed to have made, or to any hypotheti-
cal ones they would make if thinking clearly. What
was found when Kohlberg’s questionnaires (mostly by
verbal response to verbally sketched moral dilemmas)
were applied to female as well as male subjects, Gilligan
reports, is that the girls and women not only scored
generally lower than the boys and men, but tended to
revert to the lower stage of the conventional level even
after briefly (usually in adolescence) attaining the post-
conventional level. Piaget’s finding that girls were defi-
cient in ‘the legal sense’ was confirmed.
These results led Gilligan to wonder if there might
not be a quite different pattern of development to be
discerned, at least in female subjects. She therefore
conducted interviews designed to elicit not just how
far advanced the subjects were towards an apprecia-
tion of the nature and importance of Kantian auton-
omy, but also to find out what the subjects themselves
saw as progress or lack of it, what conceptions of moral
maturity they came to possess by the time they were
adults. She found that although the Kohlberg ver-
sion of moral maturity as respect for fellow persons,
and for their rights as equals (rights including that
of free association), did seem shared by many young
men, the women tended to speak in a different voice
about morality itself and about moral maturity. To
quote Gilligan, ‘Since the reality of interconnexion
is experienced by women as given rather than freely
contracted, they arrive at an understanding of life
that reflects the limits of autonomy and control. As a
result, women’s development delineates the path not
only to a less violent life but also to a maturity real-
ized by interdependence and taking care’ (D.V., 172).
She writes that there is evidence that ‘women per-
ceive and construe social reality differently from men,
and that these differences center around experiences
of attachment and separation . . . because women’s
sense of integrity appears to be intertwined with an
ethics of care, so that to see themselves as women is
to see themselves in a relationship of connexion, the
major changes in women’s lives would seem to involve
changes in the understanding and activities of care’
(D.V., 171). She contrasts this progressive understand-
ing of care, from merely pleasing others to helping and
nurturing, with the sort of progression that is involved

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  191
becomes defined by responses to dependence and to
patterns of interconnexion, both chosen and uncho-
sen. It is not something a person has, and which she
then chooses relationships to suit, but something that
develops out of a series of dependencies and interde-
pendencies, and responses to them. This conception
of individuality is not flatly at odds with, say, Rawls’
Kantian one, but there is at least a difference of tone
of voice between speaking as Rawls does of each of
us having our own rational life plan, which a just
society’s moral traffic rules will allow us to follow,
and which may or may not include close association
with other persons, and speaking as Gilligan does of
a satisfactory life as involving ‘progress of affiliative
relationship’ (D.V., 170) where ‘the concept of iden-
tity expands to include the experience of intercon-
nexion’ (D.V., 173). Rawls can allow that progress to
Gilligan- style moral maturity may be a rational life
plan, but not a moral constraint on every life- pattern.
The trouble is that it will not do just to say ‘let this ver-
sion of morality be an optional extra. Let us agree on
the essential minimum, that is on justice and rights,
and let whoever wants to go further and cultivate this
more demanding ideal of responsibility and care.’
For, first, it cannot be satisfactorily cultivated without
closer cooperation from others than respect for rights
and justice will ensure, and second, the encourage-
ment of some to cultivate it while others do not could
easily lead to exploitation of those who do. It obvi-
ously has suited some in most societies well enough
that others take on the responsibilities of care (for the
sick, the helpless, the young) leaving them free to pur-
sue their own less altruistic goods. Volunteer forces of
those who accept an ethic of care, operating within a
society where the power is exercised and the institu-
tions designed, redesigned, or maintained by those
who accept a less communal ethic of minimally con-
strained self- advancement, will not be the solution.
The liberal individualists may be able to ‘tolerate’ the
more communally minded, if they keep the liberals’
rules, but it is not so clear that the more communally
minded can be content with just those rules, nor be
content to be tolerated and possibly exploited.
For the moral tradition which developed the
concept of rights, autonomy and justice is the same
with your pursuit of whatever you are into, you have
to play the game,’ says the spokesman for traditional
liberalism (D.V., 98). But if what one is ‘into’ is inter-
connexion, interdependence rather than an individual
autonomy that may involve ‘detachment,’ such a ver-
sion of morality will come to seem inadequate. And Gil-
ligan stresses that the interconnexion that her mature
women subjects, and some men, wanted to sustain was
not merely freely chosen interconnexion, nor inter-
connexion between equals, but also the sort of inter-
connexion that can obtain between a child and her
unchosen mother and father, or between a child and
her unchosen older and younger siblings, or indeed
between most workers and their unchosen fellow work-
ers, or most citizens and their unchosen fellow citizens.
A model of a decent community different from the
liberal one is involved in the version of moral matu-
rity that Gilligan voices. It has in many ways more in
common with the older religion- linked versions of
morality and a good society than with the modern
Western liberal idea. That perhaps is why some find it
so dangerous and retrograde. Yet it seems clear that it
also has much in common with what we call Hegelian
versions of moral maturity and of social health and
malaise, both with Marxist versions and with so- called
right- Hegelian views.
Let me try to summarize the main differences, as
I see them, between on the one hand Gilligan’s ver-
sion of moral maturity and the sort of social structures
that would encourage, express and protect it, and on
the other the orthodoxy she sees herself to be chal-
lenging. I shall from now on be giving my own inter-
pretation of the significance of her challenges, not
merely reporting them. The most obvious point is the
challenge to the individualism of the Western tradi-
tion, to the fairly entrenched belief in the possibility
and desirability of each person pursuing his own good
in his own way, constrained only by a minimal for-
mal common good, namely a working legal apparatus
that enforces contracts and protects individuals from
undue interference by others. Gilligan reminds us that
noninterference can, especially for the relatively pow-
erless, such as the very young, amount to neglect, and
even between equals can be isolating and alienating.
On her less individualist version of individuality, it

192 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
inclusion in the group of full members of a commu-
nity. The tradition of liberal moral theory has in fact
developed so as to include the women it had for so
long excluded, to include the poor as well as rich,
blacks and whites, and so on. Women like Mary Woll-
stonecraft used the male moral theories to good pur-
pose. So we should not be wholly ungrateful for those
male moral theories, for all their objectionable earlier
content. They were undoubtedly patriarchal, but they
also contained the seeds of the challenge, or antidote,
to this patriarchal poison.
But when we transcend the values of the Kantians,
we should not forget the facts of history— that those
values were the values of the oppressors of women.
The Christian church, whose version of the moral law
Aquinas codified, in his very legalistic moral theory,
still insists on the maleness of the God it worships, and
jealously reserves for males all the most powerful posi-
tions in its hierarchy. Its patriarchical prejudice is open
and avowed. In the secular moral theories of men, the
sexist patriarchal prejudice is today often less open,
not as blatant as it is in Aquinas, in the later natural
law tradition, and in Kant and Hegel, but is often still
there. No moral theorist today would say that women
are unfit to vote, to make laws, or to rule a nation
without powerful male advisors (as most queens had),
but the old doctrines die hard. In one of the best male
theories we have, John Rawls’s theory, a key role is
played by the idea of the ‘head of a household.’ It is
heads of households who are to deliberate behind a
‘veil of ignorance’ of historical details, and of details
of their own special situation, to arrive at the ‘just’
constitution for a society. Now of course Rawls does
not think or say that these ‘heads’ are fathers rather
than mothers. But if we have really given up the age-
old myth of women needing, as Grotius put it, to be
under the ‘eye’ of a more ‘rational’ male protector and
master, then how do families come to have any one
‘head,’ except by the death or desertion of one parent?
They will either be two- headed, or headless. Traces
of the old patriarchal poison still remain in even the
best contemporary moral theorizing. Few may actu-
ally say that women’s place is in the home, but there
is much muttering, when unemployment figures rise,
about how the relatively recent flood of women into
tradition that provided ‘justifications’ of the oppres-
sion of those whom the primary right- holders
depended on to do the sort of work they themselves
preferred not to do. The domestic work was left to
women and slaves, and the liberal morality for right-
holders was surreptitiously supplemented by a differ-
ent set of demands made on domestic workers. As long
as women could be got to assume responsibility for the
care of home and children, and to train their children
to continue the sexist system, the liberal morality
could continue to be the official morality, by turning
its eyes away from the contribution made by those it
excluded. The long unnoticed moral proletariat were
the domestic workers, mostly female. Rights have usu-
ally been for the privileged. Talking about laws, and
the rights those laws recognize and protect, does not
in itself ensure that the group of legislators and rights-
holders will not be restricted to some elite. Bills of
rights have usually been proclamations of the rights
of some in- group, barons, landowners, males, whites,
non- foreigners. The ‘justice perspective,’ and the legal
sense that goes with it, are shadowed by their patriar-
chal past. What did Kant, the great prophet of auton-
omy, say in his moral theory about women? He said
they were incapable of legislation, not fit to vote, that
they needed the guidance of more ‘rational’ males.2
Autonomy was not for them, only for first- class, really
rational persons. It is ironic that Gilligan’s original
findings in a way confirm Kant’s views— it seems that
autonomy really may not be for women. Many of
them reject that ideal (D.V., 48), and have been found
not as good at making rules as are men. But where
Kant concludes—‘so much the worse for women,’ we
can conclude—‘so much the worse for the male fixa-
tion on the special skill of drafting legislation, for the
bureaucratic mentality of rule worship, and for the
male exaggeration of the importance of independence
over mutual interdependence.’
It is however also true that the moral theories that
made the concept of a person’s rights central were not
just the instruments for excluding some persons, but
also the instruments used by those who demanded
that more and more persons be included in the
favored group. Abolitionists, reformers, women,
used the language of rights to assert their claims to

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  193
another, states and citizens, doctors and patients, the
well and the ill, large states and small states, have had
to be shunted to the bottom of the agenda, and then
dealt with by some sort of ‘promotion’ of the weaker
so that an appearance of virtual equality is achieved.
Citizens collectively become equal to states, children
are treated as adults- to- be, the ill and dying are treated
as continuers of their earlier more potent selves, so
that their ‘rights’ could be seen as the rights of equals.
This pretence of an equality that is in fact absent may
often lead to desirable protection of the weaker, or
more dependent. But it somewhat masks the question
of what our moral relationships are to those who are
our superiors or our inferiors in power. A more realistic
acceptance of the fact that we begin as helpless chil-
dren, that at almost every point of our lives we deal
with both the more and the less helpless, that equal-
ity of power and interdependency, between two per-
sons or groups, is rare and hard to recognize when it
does occur, might lead us to a more direct approach to
questions concerning the design of institutions struc-
turing these relationships between unequals (families,
schools, hospitals, armies) and of the morality of our
dealings with the more and the less powerful. One rea-
son why those who agree with the Gilligan version of
what morality is about will not want to agree that the
liberals’ rules are a good minimal set, the only ones we
need pressure everyone to obey, is that these rules do
little to protect the young or the dying or the starv-
ing or any of the relatively powerless against neglect,
or to ensure an education that will form persons
to be capable of conforming to an ethics of care and
responsibility. Put baldly, and in a way Gilligan cer-
tainly has not put it, the liberal morality, if unsupple-
mented, may unfit people to be anything other than
what its justifying theories suppose them to be, ones
who have no interest in each others’ interests. Yet
some must take an interest in the next generation’s
interests. Women’s traditional work, of caring for the
less powerful, especially for the young, is obviously
socially vital. One cannot regard any version of moral-
ity that does not ensure that it gets well done as an
adequate ‘minimal morality,’ any more than we could
so regard one that left any concern for more distant
future generations an optional extra. A moral theory,
the work force complicates the problem, as if it would
be a good thing if women just went back home when-
ever unemployment rises, to leave the available jobs
for the men. We still do not really have a wide accep-
tance of the equal rights of women to employment
outside the home. Nor do we have wide acceptance of
the equal duty of men to perform those domestic tasks
which in no way depend on special female anatomy,
namely cooking, cleaning, and the care of weaned
children. All sorts of stories (maybe true stories), about
children’s need for one ‘primary’ parent, who must be
the mother if the mother breast- feeds the child, shore
up the unequal division of domestic responsibility
between mothers and fathers, wives and husbands.
If we are really to transvalue the values of our patriar-
chal past, we need to rethink all of those assumptions,
really test those psychological theories. And how will
men ever develop an understanding of the ‘ethics of
care’ if they continue to be shielded or kept from that
experience of caring for a dependent child, which
complements the experience we all have had of being
cared for as dependent children? These experiences
form the natural background for the development of
moral maturity as Gilligan’s women saw it.
Exploitation aside, why would women, once liber-
ated, not be content to have their version of morality
merely tolerated? Why should they not see themselves
as voluntarily, for their own reasons, taking on more
than the liberal rules demand, while having no quar-
rel with the content of those rules themselves, nor
with their remaining the only ones that are expected
to be generally obeyed? To see why, we need to move
on to three more differences between the Kantian lib-
erals (usually contractarians) and their critics. These
concern the relative weight put on relationships
between equals, and the relative weight put on free-
dom of choice, and on the authority of intellect over
emotions. It is a typical feature of the dominant moral
theories and traditions, since Kant, or perhaps since
Hobbes, that relationships between equals or those
who are deemed equal in some important sense, have
been the relations that morality is concerned primar-
ily to regulate. Relationships between those who are
clearly unequal in power, such as parents and chil-
dren, earlier and later generations in relation to one

194 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF MoRALiTY
on care goes with a recognition of the often unchosen
nature of the responsibilities of those who give care,
both of children who care for their aged or infirm par-
ents, and of parents who care for the children they in
fact have. Contract soon ceases to seem the paradigm
source of moral obligation once we attend to parental
responsibility, and justice as a virtue of social institu-
tions will come to seem at best only first equal with
the virtue, whatever its name, that ensures that each
new generation is made appropriately welcome and
prepared for their adult lives.
This all constitutes a belated reminder to West-
ern moral theorists of a fact they have always known,
that as Adam Ferguson, and David Hume before him
emphasized, we are born into families, and the first
society we belong to, one that fits or misfits us for later
ones, is the small society of parents (or some sort of
child- attendants) and children, exhibiting as it may
both relationships of near equality and of inequality in
power. This simple reminder, with the fairly consider-
able implications it can have for the plausibility of con-
tractarian moral theory, is at the same time a reminder
of the role of human emotions as much as human rea-
son and will in moral development as it actually comes
about. The fourth feature of the Gilligan challenge to
liberal orthodoxy is a challenge to its typical rational-
ism, or intellectualism, to its assumption that we need
not worry what passions persons have, as long as their
rational wills can control them. This Kantian picture of
a controlling reason dictating to possibly unruly pas-
sions also tends to seem less useful when we are led
to consider what sort of person we need to fill the role
of parent, or indeed want in any close relationship. It
might be important for father figures to have rational
control over their violent urges to beat to death the
children whose screams enrage them, but more than
control of such nasty passions seems needed in the
mother or primary parent, or parent- substitute, by most
psychological theories. They need to love their chil-
dren, not just to control their irritation. So the empha-
sis in Kantian theories on rational control of emotions,
rather than on cultivating desirable forms of emotion,
is challenged by Gilligan, along with the challenge to
the assumption of the centrality of autonomy, or rela-
tions between equals, and of freely chosen relations.
it can plausibly be claimed, cannot regard concern
for new and future persons as an optional charity left
for those with a taste for it. If the morality the theory
endorses is to sustain itself, it must provide for its
own continuers, not just take out a loan on a carefully
encouraged maternal instinct or on the enthusiasm of
a self- selected group of environmentalists, who make
it their business or hobby to be concerned with what
we are doing to mother earth.
The recognition of the importance for all parties
of relations between those who are and cannot but
be unequal, both of these relations in themselves and
for their effect on personality formation and so on
other relationships, goes along with a recognition of
the plain fact that not all morally important relation-
ships can or should be freely chosen. So far I have dis-
cussed three reasons women have not to be content
to pursue their own values within the framework of
the liberal morality. The first was its dubious record.
The second was its inattention to relations of inequal-
ity or its pretence of equality. The third reason is its
exaggeration of the scope of choice, or its inattention
to unchosen relations. Showing up the partial myth of
equality among actual members of a community, and
of the undesirability of trying to pretend that we are
treating all of them as equals, tends to go along with
an exposure of the companion myth that moral obli-
gations arise from freely chosen associations between
such equals. Vulnerable future generations do not
choose their dependence on earlier generations. The
unequal infant does not choose its place in a family
or nation, nor is it treated as free to do as it likes until
some association is freely entered into. Nor do its
parents always choose their parental role, or freely
assume their parental responsibilities any more than
we choose our power to affect the conditions in which
later generations will live. Gilligan’s attention to the
version of morality and moral maturity found in
women, many of whom had faced a choice of whether
or not to have an abortion, and who had at some point
become mothers, is attention to the perceived inade-
quacy of the language of rights to help in such choices
or to guide them in their parental role. It would not be
much of an exaggeration to call the Gilligan ‘different
voice’ the voice of the potential parents. The emphasis

CHAPTER 7: ViRTuE ETHiCs: BE A Good PERson Á  195
to harmonize justice and care. The morality it theo-
rizes about is after all for all persons, for men and for
women, and will need their combined insights. As
Gilligan said (D.V., 174), what we need now is a ‘mar-
riage’ of the old male and the newly articulated female
insights. If she is right about the special moral apti-
tudes of women, it will most likely be the women who
propose the marriage, since they are the ones with
moral natural empathy, with the better diplomatic
skills, the ones more likely to shoulder responsibil-
ity and take moral initiative, and the ones who find
it easiest to empathize and care about how the other
party feels. Then, once there is this union of male and
female moral wisdom, we maybe can teach each other
the moral skills each gender currently lacks, so that
the gender difference in moral outlook that Gilligan
found will slowly become less marked.
1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press).
2. Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, sec. 46.
3. Laurence Thomas, ‘Sexism and Racism: Some Concep-
tual Differences,’ Ethics 90 (1980), 239–50; republished in
Philosophy, Sex and Language, Vetterling- Braggin, ed. (Totowa,
NJ: Littlefield Adams 1980).
The same set of challenges to ‘orthodox’ liberal
oral theory has come not just from Gilligan and other
women, who are reminding other moral theorists of
the role of the family as a social institution and as an
influence on the other relationships people want to
or are capable of sustaining, but also, as I noted at the
start, from an otherwise fairly diverse group of men,
ranging from those influenced by both Hegelian and
Christian traditions (MacIntyre) to all varieties of
other backgrounds. From this group I want to draw
attention to the work of one philosopher in particu-
lar, namely Laurence Thomas, the author of a fairly
remarkable article3 in which he finds sexism to be a
more intractable social evil than racism. . . . Thomas
makes a strong case for the importance of supplement-
ing a concern for justice and respect for rights with an
emphasis on equally needed virtues, and on virtues
seen as appropriate emotional as well as rational capac-
ities. Like Gilligan (and unlike MacIntyre) Thomas
gives a lot of attention to the childhood beginnings of
moral and social capacities, to the role of parental love
in making that possible, and to the emotional as well
as the cognitive development we have reason to think
both possible and desirable in human persons.
It is clear, I think, that the best moral theory has
to be a cooperative product of women and men, has

Beyond the moral theorizing of Aquinas, Kant,
Hobbes, and Mill, there is a different approach to
moral thinking and feeling that constitutes a seri-
ous challenge to them: feminist ethics. Feminist
ethics is not a moral theory so much as an alterna-
tive way of looking at the concepts and concerns of
the moral life. It is an approach focused on wom-
en’s interests and experiences and devoted to sup-
porting the moral equality of women and men.
Those who see ethics from this perspective are
reacting to some hard facts. One is that most of the
great ethical theorists (and many of their followers,
past and present) have assumed that women are
somehow morally inferior to men— less rational,
less important, less mature, or less moral. Coupled
with this bias is a trend that is even more alarm-
ing: most women throughout the world are in a
thousand ways second- class citizens (or worse). By
law, by religion, or by custom, they are the victims
of violence, stereotype, bigotry, coercion, forced
dependence, and social, political, and professional
inequality. Modern Western societies are as guilty
of some of these evils as many countries in the
developing world.
In the West, some ways of thinking and feeling
have been regarded as characteristic of women, and
these ways, whether distinctive of women or not,
have been largely neglected by moral philosophers
(who have traditionally been men). According to
the feminist philosopher Alison M. Jaggar,
Western moral theory is said to embody values
that are “masculine,” insofar as they are associ-
ated, empirically, normatively, or symbolically with
men. For instance, western ethics is alleged to prefer
the supposedly masculine or male- associated values
of independence, autonomy, intellect, will, wari-
ness, hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence,
product, asceticism, war and death over the suppos-
edly feminine or female- associated values of interde-
pendence, community, connection, sharing, emotion,
body, trust, absence of hierarchy, nature, immanence,
process, joy, peace and life.1
Some moral issues are more likely to arise from
women’s experiences than men’s, and these, too,
have been overlooked:
Issues of special concern to women are said to have
been ignored by modern moral philosophers, who
have tended to portray the domestic realm as an
arena outside the economy and beyond justice, pri-
vate in the sense of being beyond the scope of legiti-
mate political regulation. Even philosophers like
Aristotle or Hegel (1770–1831), who give some ethi-
cal importance to the domestic realm, have tended
to portray the home as an arena in which the most
fully human excellences are incapable of being real-
ized. . . . [Feminist philosophers] argued that the phil-
osophical devaluation of the domestic realm made
it impossible to raise questions about the justice of
the domestic division of labor, because it obscured
the far- reaching social significance and creativity
of women’s work in the home, and concealed, even
legitimated, the domestic abuse of women and girls.2
In the past few decades, feminist philosophers
and other thinkers (mostly women but some men)
have tried to shed light on all of these dark corners.
The result— still an ongoing project— is feminist
ethics and its grandchild, the ethics of care.
C H A P T E R 8
Feminist Ethics and the Ethics of Care

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  197
Feminists are a diverse group with contrasting
viewpoints, so it should not be a surprise that they
approach feminist ethics in different ways and
arrive at different conclusions. Still, some general-
izations are possible.
An emphasis on personal relationships. For the
most part, traditional moral theories have been
concerned with what we could call “public life”—
the realm in which unrelated individuals try to
figure out how to behave toward one another and
how to ensure that, among strangers, justice is
done, rights are respected, and utility is maximized.
The focus has been mostly on moral judgments and
theories pertaining to people as separate members
of the community, the polity, and the culture. But
feminist ethics narrows down the area of moral
concern to the interconnected and familiar small
group— to the people with whom we have close
personal relationships. The relationships of interest
are the ties of kinship, the bonds of friendship, or
the connections between caregivers and the cared-
for— the sphere of the domestic and the private.
This is the realm of intimate relationships, sexual
behavior, child rearing, and family struggles— the
place we all come from and perhaps never leave,
and where we live a large part of our moral lives.
Differing views on moral principles. Some feminist
philosophers resist the temptation to map out moral
actions according to moral principles. Whereas Kant
wants to reduce all moral deliberation to adherence
to a single rule (the categorical imperative), some
feminists demur. They argue that principles such as
autonomy, justice, and utility are too general and
too unwieldy to be of much use in the complicated,
multifaceted arena of the domestic, social, and per-
sonal. Many feminist philosophers, however, are
comfortable with moral principles and see them as
essential to moral reasoning. Some of these thinkers
are working within the context of traditional moral
theories and see these frameworks as compatible
with feminist ethics.

The increased contemporary focus on feminist eth-
ics is new, but important work in the area is not.
Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams explain:
Feminist approaches to ethics, as well as debates
about the gendered nature of morality, are not
recent developments. During the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, a wide variety of thinkers
including Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill,
Catherine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed topics related
to “women’s morality.” Each of these thinkers
raised questions such as: Are women’s “feminine”
traits the product of nature/biology or are they
instead the outcome of social conditioning? Are
moral virtues as well as gender traits connected
with one’s affective as well as cognitive capacities,
indeed with one’s physiology and psychology? If
so, should we simply accept the fact that men and
women have different moral virtues as well as dif-
ferent gender traits and proceed accordingly? If
not, should we strive to get men and women to
adhere to the same morality: a one- size- fits- all
human morality?*
What would be the social implications of scientific
proof that alleged feminine traits are entirely the
result of either biology or social conditioning?
*Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams, “Feminist Eth-
ics,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter
2016 ed. Edward N. Zalta,
CRITICAL THOUGHT: Feminist Ethics in History

198 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
apart . . . But real life is much messier and involves
humans who are often irrational, who have histories
of oppression, who only sometimes follow rules, and
who have a variety of complex needs. . . . Many femi-
nist ethicists appreciate the value of the nonideal and
make it a cornerstone of feminist ethics.3
The ethics of care is a good example of femi-
nist ethics. It is a perspective on moral issues that
emphasizes close personal relationships and moral
virtues such as compassion, faithfulness, kindness,
love, and sympathy. It contrasts dramatically with
traditional moral theories preoccupied with prin-
ciples and legalistic moral reasoning.
Much of the interest in the ethics of care was
sparked by research done by the psychologist Carol
Gilligan on how men and women think about
moral problems.4 She maintained that men and
women think in radically different ways when
making moral decisions. In moral decision making,
she said, men deliberate about rights, justice, and
rules; women, on the other hand, focus on personal
relationships, caring for others, and being aware
of people’s feelings, needs, and viewpoints. She
dubbed these two approaches the ethic of justice and
the ethic of care. Later she rejected the notion that
women and men have distinct traits or essences
that lead them to different styles of moral reason-
ing. She now denies that these two styles are inher-
ently linked to being male or female.
More recent research has raised doubts about
whether there really is a gap between the moral
thinking styles of men and women. But these find-
ings do not dilute the relevance of caring to eth-
ics. The ethics of care, regardless of any empirical
underpinnings, is a reminder that caring is a vital
and inescapable part of the moral life— a conclu-
sion that few philosophers would deny. If virtues
are a part of the moral life (as they surely are), and if
caring (or compassion, sympathy, or love) is a vir-
tue, then there must be a place for caring alongside
Contrasting attitudes toward impartiality. Recall
that the principle of impartiality is regarded as a
defining characteristic of morality itself. Impar-
tiality says that from the moral point of view, all
persons are considered equal and should be treated
accordingly. But in the domestic sphere we are
anything but impartial. We are naturally partial to
the people we care about— our family and friends.
Typically we would not think of treating our spouse
the same way we treat a store clerk or the bus driver.
We have moral duties to the former that we do not
have to the latter. Some feminists (most notably
care ethicists) make these duties central to their
moral outlook instead of ignoring them as Kant
and Mill would have us do.
A higher regard for emotions. As we’ve seen, Kant
has no place for emotions in his theory. Reading
our moral duties off the categorical imperative is
all that is required. But feminist philosophers have
greater respect for the emotional side of our lives
than many non- feminist ethicists do. Moral phi-
losophers of all stripes recognize the importance of
emotions. They understand that emotions can alert
us to moral evil, provide the motivation to pursue
the good, and enable us to empathize with the suf-
fering of others. (Moral philosophers also caution
that feelings without thinking are blind, and think-
ing without feelings makes for a sterile morality.)
An emphasis on the nonideal. Feminist thinkers
take issue with the tendency of traditional moral
theories to assume an idealized view of human
beings, their capacities, and their social interac-
tions. These philosophers charge that to the tra-
ditional theorist, the world consists of atomistic
individuals with perfect rationality living in an
idealized society without oppression, where moral
agents are unaffected by poor living conditions and
unjust institutions. As feminist philosopher Sarah
Clark Miller says,
Ideal theories commence and operate from the
best of what humans can be, conveniently overlook-
ing the ways in which we break down, fail, and fall

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  199
are permanently disabled will need care the whole of
their lives. Moralities built on the image of the inde-
pendent, autonomous, rational individual largely
overlook the reality of human dependence and the
morality for which it calls. The ethics of care attends
to this central concern of human life and delineates
the moral values involved. It refuses to relegate care
to a realm “outside morality.”6
Feminist ethics is an alternative way of looking at
the concepts and concerns of the moral life. It is an
approach focused on women’s interests and experi-
ences and devoted to supporting the moral equality of
women and men. The main elements of this approach
are an emphasis on personal relationships, a suspicion
of moral principles, the rejection of impartiality, and a
greater respect for emotions.
The ethics of care is a perspective on moral issues
that emphasizes personal relationships and the virtues
of compassion, love, sympathy, and the like. It can be
thought of as an essential element in virtue ethics. The
ethics of care is a reminder that caring is a crucial part
of the moral life. Many philosophers have acknowl-
edged this fact by trying to incorporate care into moral
theories containing principles.
feminist ethics (p. 196)
ethics of care (p. 198)
Review Questions
1. How does feminist ethics differ from Kantian
ethics? (pp. 197–198)
2. What attitudes did many of the great ethical
theorists have toward women? (p. 196)
principles of moral conduct and moral reasoning.
The philosopher Annette C. Baier, an early propo-
nent of the ethics of care, makes a case for both care
and justice: “It is clear, I think, that the best moral
theory has to be a cooperative product of women
and men, has to harmonize justice and care. The
morality it theorizes about is after all for all per-
sons, for men and women, and will need their com-
bined insights.”5
Here is the feminist philosopher Virginia Held
explaining the need for care in the moral life:
[T]he central focus of the ethics of care is on the com-
pelling moral salience of attending to and meeting
the needs of the particular others for whom we take
responsibility. Caring for one’s child, for instance,
may well and defensibly be at the forefront of a per-
son’s moral concerns. The ethics of care recognizes
that human beings are dependent for many years of
their lives, that the moral claim of those dependent
on us for the care they need is pressing, and that there
are highly important moral aspects in developing the
relations of caring that enable human beings to live
and progress. All persons need care for at least their
early years. Prospects for human progress and flour-
ishing hinge fundamentally on the care that those
needing it receive, and the ethics of care stresses
the moral force of the responsibility to respond
to the needs of the dependent. Many persons will
become ill and dependent for some periods of their
later lives, including in frail old age, and some who
feminist ethics— An alternative way of looking
at the concepts and concerns of the moral life;
an approach focused on women’s interests and
experiences and devoted to supporting the
moral equality of women and men.
ethics of care— A perspective on moral issues that
emphasizes close personal relationships and
moral virtues such as compassion, faithfulness,
kindness, love, and sympathy.

200 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
Explain how feminist ethics or the ethics of care could
be applied in the following scenarios to determine the
proper course of action.
1. Suppose your best friend is in the hospital
battling a serious illness and would deeply
appreciate a visit from you. But you are also on
spring break and, after a very stressful semester,
need to forget about all your commitments and
just relax. What might the ethics of care have
you do? What is a utilitarian likely to do?
2. You want to help your brother overcome a
serious addiction to drugs. You know that
because he is a member of your family, you have
a duty to help him. But your main reason for
trying to help is that you love him and care
what happens to him. Which of these two
motivating factors (duty and love) would Kant
approve of, and which would he reject? How
might the attitude of someone who embraces
feminist ethics differ from Kant’s response?
3. Imagine that your town has been hit by a
tornado, and you are in a position to rescue
only one of a dozen people who are nearby
and trapped in demolished houses. The victim
who happens to be farthest from you, but still
reachable, is your mother. Which of these
twelve people should you rescue? Who would
you rescue if feminist ethics was your preferred
moral outlook? Who would you rescue if you
were a strict act- utilitarian?
Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory
and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1982).
Carol Hay, Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting
Oppression (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture,
Society, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1993).
Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2006).
Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature
(Totowa, NJ: Allenheld, 1983).
3. What ways of feeling and thinking have been
regarded in the West as characteristic of women?
(p. 196)
4. What kinds of moral issues are more likely to arise
from women’s experiences than men’s? (p. 196)
5. What elements of the moral life does feminist
ethics emphasize? What elements does it
deemphasize? (pp. 197–198)
6. Why do feminist philosophers think an ethics
of care is needed? (p. 198)
7. What are the hard facts that have helped to
propel the rise of feminist ethics? (p. 196)
8. What are some of the fundamental elements of
the ethics of care? (p. 198)
9. What is Annette Baier’s claim about care and
justice? (p. 199)
10. What is Carol Gilligan’s thesis about moral
thinking? (p. 198)
Discussion Questions
1. What features of feminist ethics do you find
most plausible? Why?
2. Do you think moral principles such as justice
and rights have a place in any good moral
theory? Why or why not?
3. What part do you think emotions should play
in morality?
4. Do you believe there are innate differences in
the ways men and women deliberate about
moral issues? Or do you think any differences
are the result of cultural influences? Explain.
5. Do you believe there are situations in which
impartiality is important in moral reasoning?
If not, why not? If so, give an example.
6. Suppose you have an opportunity to either
(1) send $800 to Africa to save a dozen people
from starvation or (2) give the money to your
little sister to buy books for college. Which
would you do? Why?
7. What is the attitude of feminist ethics toward
moral principles? Compare it with Kant’s view.
8. Are there instances of moral decision making
in which moral impartiality is not appropriate?

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  201
Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams, “Feminist Ethics,”
in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2016
ed., ed. Edward N. Zalta,
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,
ed. M. Brody (London: Penguin, 1988).
Alison M. Jaggar, “Feminist Ethics,” in Encyclopedia of
Ethics, ed. Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker
(New York: Garland, 1992), 361–70.
Martha Nussbaum, “The Feminist Critique of Liberal-
ism,” in Women’s Voices, Women’s Rights, ed. A. Jeffries
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).
Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New
York: Basic Books, 1989).
R E A d i n G s
Feminist Ethics
Alison M. Jaggar
Feminist approaches to ethics, often known col-
lectively as feminist ethics, are distinguished by an
explicit commitment to correcting male biases they
perceive in traditional ethics, biases that may be mani-
fest in rationalizations of women’s subordination, or
in disregard for, or disparagement of, women’s moral
experience. Feminist ethics, by contrast, begins from
the convictions that the subordination of women
is morally wrong and that the moral experience of
women is as worthy of respect as that of men. The
practical goals of feminist ethics, then, are the follow-
ing: first, to articulate moral critiques of actions and
practices that perpetuate women’s subordination;
second, to prescribe morally justifiable ways of resist-
ing such actions and practices; and, third, to envision
morally desirable alternatives that will promote wom-
en’s emancipation. The meta- ethical goal of feminist
ethics is to develop theoretical understandings of the
nature of morality that treat women’s moral experi-
ence respectfully, though never uncritically.
Just as feminist ethics may be identified by its
explicit commitment to challenging perceived male
bias in ethics, so approaches that do not express such
a commitment may be characterized as nonfeminist.
Nonfeminist approaches to ethics are not necessarily
anti- feminist or male- biased; they may or may not be so.
The history of western philosophy includes a num-
ber of isolated but indisputable instances of moral
opposition to women’s subordination. Noteworthy
examples are Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759–1797) A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), John Stuart
Mill’s (1806–1873) The Subjection of Women (1869),
Frederick Engels’ (1820–1895) The Origin of the Fam-
ily, Private Property and the State (1884), and Simone de
Beauvoir’s (1908–1986) The Second Sex (1949).
In the late 1960s, however, as part of a general resur-
gence of feminist activism, an unprecedented explo-
sion of feminist ethical debate occurred, first among
the general public, soon in academic discourse.
Actions and practices whose gendered dimensions
hitherto either had been unnoticed or unchallenged
now became foci of public and philosophical atten-
tion, as feminists subjected them to outspoken moral
critique, developed sometimes dramatic strategies for
opposing them, and proposed alternatives that non-
feminists often perceived as dangerously radical. First
grassroots and soon academic feminist perspectives
were articulated on topics such as abortion, equality
of opportunity, domestic labor, portrayals of women
Alison M. Jaggar, “Feminist Ethics,” in Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed.
Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker (New York: Garland
Publishing, 1992). Reproduced by permission of Taylor and
Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

202 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
and seek to resolve those dilemmas in ways that will
repair and strengthen webs of relationship. Further-
more, Gilligan described females as supposedly less
likely than males to make or justify moral decisions
by the application of abstract moral rules; instead,
she claimed girls and women were more likely to act
on their feelings of love and compassion for particu-
lar individuals. Gilligan concluded that whereas men
typically adhere to a morality of justice, whose pri-
mary values are fairness and equality, women often
adhere to a morality of care, whose primary values are
inclusion and protection from harm. For this reason,
studies of moral development based exclusively on a
morality of justice do not provide an appropriate stan-
dard for measuring female moral development and
may be said to be male- biased.
Many feminists seized on Gilligan’s work as offer-
ing evidence for the existence of a characteristically
feminine approach to morality, an approach assumed
to provide the basis for a distinctively feminist ethics.
For some, indeed, feminist ethics became and remains
synonymous with an ethics of care. Just how an eth-
ics of care should be delineated, however, was far from
evident; nor was it clear whether it should supplement
or supplant an ethics of justice. Many feminists today
are exploring such questions, even though the con-
nection between women and care is challenged by
some psychologists who allege Gilligan’s samples to
be nonrepresentative, her methods of interpreting her
data suspect, and her claims impossible to substanti-
ate, especially when the studies are controlled for
occupation and class.
Regardless of empirical findings in moral psychol-
ogy, debate continues over whether the fundamen-
tal tenets of western ethics are male biased in some
sense: if not in the sense that they express a moral
sensibility characteristic of men rather than women,
then perhaps in that they promote a culturally mas-
culine image of moral psychology, discourage preoc-
cupation with issues defined culturally as feminine,
or in other ways covertly advance men’s interests over
women’s. Since feminism is essentially a normative
stance, and since its meaning is continually contested
by feminists themselves, all feminists are constantly
engaged in ethical reflection. In this sense, feminist
in the media, and a variety of issues concerning sexu-
ality, such as rape and compulsory heterosexuality.
A little later, feminists displayed increasing ethical
concern about pornography, reproductive technol-
ogy, so- called surrogate motherhood, militarism, the
environment and the situation of women in develop-
ing nations.
Despite the long history of feminist ethical
debate, the term “feminist ethics” itself did not
come into general use until the late 1970s or early
1980s. At this time, a number of feminists began
expressing doubts about the possibility of fruitfully
addressing so- called women’s issues in terms of the
conceptual apparatus supplied by traditional ethical
theory. For instance, a rights framework was alleged
by some to distort discussions of abortion insofar
as it constructed pregnancy and motherhood as
adversarial situations. Other feminists charged that
certain assumptions widely accepted by traditional
ethical theory were incompatible with what was now
beginning to be claimed as a distinctively feminine
moral experience or sensibility. Contract theory, for
instance, was criticized for postulating a conception
of human individuals as free, equal, independent
and mutually disinterested, a conception claimed by
some to be contrary to the moral experience of most
women. Even the requirement of impartiality, usu-
ally taken as a defining feature of morality, became
the object of feminist criticism insofar as it was
alleged to generate prescriptions counter to many
women’s moral intuitions. Some feminists began
to speculate that traditional ethics was more deeply
male- biased and needed more fundamental rethink-
ing than they had realized hitherto.
Such speculations were fuelled by the much-
publicized work of developmental psychologist Carol
Gilligan, whose 1982 book, In a Different Voice: Psy-
chological Theory and Women’s Development, seemed
to demonstrate empirically that the moral develop-
ment of women was significantly different from that
of men. Claiming that females tend to fear separa-
tion or abandonment while males, by contrast, tend
to perceive closeness as dangerous, Gilligan reported
that girls and women often construe moral dilemmas
as conflicts of responsibilities rather than of rights

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  203
Since most feminist ethics is done in a western con-
text, it is western ethics, particularly (though not
exclusively) the European Enlightenment tradition,
that is the most frequent target of feminist critique.
The feminist challenges to this tradition may be
grouped conveniently under five main headings.
Lack of concern for women’s interests. Many of the
major theorists, such as Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) and
Rousseau (1712–1778), are accused of having given
insufficient consideration to women’s interests, a
lack of concern expressed theoretically by their pre-
scribing for women allegedly feminine virtues such as
obedience, silence, and faithfulness. Some feminists
charge that many contemporary ethical discussions
continue the tendency to regard women as instrumen-
tal to male- dominated institutions, such as the fam-
ily or the state; in debates on abortion, for instance,
the pregnant woman may be portrayed as little more
than a container or environment for the fetus, while
debates on reproductive technology are alleged to
assume frequently that infertility is a problem only for
heterosexual married women, i.e., women defined in
relationship to men.
Neglect of “women’s issues.” Issues of special con-
cern to women are said to have been ignored by mod-
ern moral philosophers, who have tended to portray
the domestic realm as an arena outside the economy
and beyond justice, private in the sense of being
beyond the scope of legitimate political regulation.
Even philosophers like Aristotle or Hegel (1770–1831),
who give some ethical importance to the domestic
realm, have tended to portray the home as an arena in
which the most fully human excellences are incapable
of being realized. Feminist philosophers began early to
criticized this conceptual bifurcation of social life. They
pointed out that the home was precisely that realm to
which women historically had been confined, and
that it had become symbolically associated with the
feminine, despite the fact that heads of households
were paradigmatically male. They argued that the phil-
osophical devaluation of the domestic realm made it
impossible to raise questions about the justice of the
domestic division of labor, because it obscured the far-
reaching social significance and creativity of women’s
ethics is practiced both inside and outside the acad-
emy. Within the academy, its main practitioners are
scholars in philosophy, religion and jurisprudence.
These scholars represent a variety of philosophical
traditions, secular and religious, Anglo- American and
continental European; in challenging perceived male
bias in those traditions, they draw extensively on fem-
inist scholarship in other disciplines, such as litera-
ture, history and psychology.
Scholarly work in feminist ethics often is also
responsive to the ethical reflections of nonacademic
feminists as these occur, for instance, in much femi-
nist fiction and poetry. In addition, a considerable
body of nonfiction, written by nonacademics and
directed towards a nonacademic audience, presents
itself as feminist ethics. Popular feminist books and
journals frequently engage in ethical consideration of
moral or public policy issues and sometimes also offer
more general discussions of supposedly “masculine”
and “feminine” value systems. There are even grass-
roots journals of feminist ethics, such as Lesbian Ethics,
published in the United States, and Gossip: A Journal
of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, published in the United
Kingdom. Feminist Ethics, published in Canada, seeks
to combine academic scholarship with accessibility
to a general audience. One may note striking parallels
between many of the claims made by feminists inside
the academy and those on the outside.
Those who currently claim the field of feminist
ethics are mainly, though not exclusively, white west-
ern women. Nevertheless, a few male philosophers are
doing significant work in feminist ethics, and people
of color have produced a considerable amount of
writing, both fiction and nonfiction, that seems com-
patible with the moral and theoretical inspiration of
feminist ethics. It is predictable that women would be
more likely than men to identify themselves as femi-
nists, and both nonwestemers and western people of
color are less likely than western whites either to be
philosophers or, because of feminism’s racist history,
to be feminists. “Womanist” is a term that many Afri-
can American authors currently prefer to “feminist”
but they might not object to the description of their
work as feminist ethics if feminism could be cleansed
of racism and ethnocentrism.

204 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
by relying on empathic feeling rather than by appeal-
ing to rules.
Not all feminists endorse all of the above clus-
ters of criticisms— and even where they agree with
the general statement, they may well disagree over
its applicability in the case of specific philosophers
or debates. Despite such differences of relative detail,
feminists tend generally to agree on the first three
clusters of criticisms, whose correction seems not
only attainable in principle within the framework of
Enlightenment moral theory but even to be required
by that framework. However, there is sharp feminist
disagreement on the last two clusters of criticisms,
especially the fifth, which obviously contains clear
parallels with a number of nonfeminist criticisms
of Enlightenment ethics made by proponents of, for
example, situation ethics, virtue ethics, communitari-
anism and postmodernism.
Feminist ethics has sometimes been construed, both
by some of its proponents and some of its critics, as
a simple inversion of the criticisms listed above. In
other words, it has sometimes been identified with one
or more of the following: putting women’s interests
first; focusing exclusively on so- called women’s issues;
accepting women (or feminists) as moral experts or
authorities; substituting “female” (or feminine) for
“male” (or masculine) values; or extrapolating directly
from women’s moral experience. These characteriza-
tions of feminist ethics are sufficiently pervasive that
it is worth noting just why they cannot be correct.
1. Putting women’s interests first occasionally has
been recommended as a way of achieving a “ woman-
centered” ethics that transcends the covert bias of a
supposed humanism grounded in fact on male norms.
Whatever might be said for or against this recom-
mendation, however, it cannot be definitive of femi-
nist ethics. This is because the formula, as it stands,
raises more questions than it answers insofar as it fails
to specify not only which women’s interests should
be preferred over which men’s (or children’s) and in
what circumstances, but also what should be done
work in the home, and concealed, even legitimated,
the domestic abuse of women and girls.
Denial of women’s moral agency. Women’s moral
agency is said to have often been denied, not simply
by excluding women from moral debate or ignoring
their contributions, but through philosophical claims
to the effect that women lack moral reason. Such
claims were made originally by Aristotle, but they
have been elaborated and refined by modem theorists
such as Rousseau, Kant (1724–1804), Hegel, and Freud
Depreciation of “feminine” values. Western moral
theory is said to embody values that are “mascu-
line,” insofar as they are associated, empirically, nor-
matively, or symbolically, with men. For instance,
western ethics is alleged to prefer the supposedly
masculine or male- associated values of independence,
autonomy, intellect, will, wariness, hierarchy, domi-
nation, culture, transcendence, product, asceticism,
war and death over the supposedly feminine or female-
associated values of interdependence, community,
connection, sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of
hierarchy, nature, immanence, process, joy, peace and
life. Claims like this are common in both popular and
academic feminist writings on ethics.
Devaluation of women’s moral experience. Finally,
prevailing western conceptualizations of the nature
of morality, moral problems, and moral reason-
ing are also charged with being masculine insofar as
they too are associated with men, an association that
again may be empirical, symbolic or normative. For
instance, feminists have accused modem moral theory
of being excessively preoccupied with rules, obsessed
with impartiality and exclusively focussed on discrete
deeds. In addition, feminists have charged modern
moral theory with taking the contract as the paradig-
matic moral relation and construing moral rational-
ity so narrowly as to exclude emotions of assessment,
sometimes called moral emotions. All these charac-
teristics have been asserted to be masculine in some
sense. A feminine approach to ethics, by contrast,
has been supposed to avoid assuming that individu-
als ordinarily are free, equal and independent; to take
more account of the specificities of particular con-
texts; and to be more likely to resolve moral dilemmas

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  205
not imply, of course, that any women, or even femi-
nists, therefore should be regarded as moral experts
whose moral authority is beyond question. Not only
are there deep disagreements among women and
even among feminists such that it would be difficult
to know whom to select as an expert, but many pain-
ful examples of the failure of insight or principle on
the part of feminist leaders also demonstrate only too
clearly that no women, even feminists, are morally
4. There are also serious difficulties with thinking
of feminist ethics as the substitution of female or femi-
nine for male or masculine values. These difficulties
include problems with establishing that any values are
male or female in the sense of being generally held by
men or women, when both women’s and men’s values
vary so much, both within cultures as well as across
them. Similar problems confront attempts to estab-
lish that certain values are masculine or feminine in
the sense of being considered socially appropriate for
individuals of one gender or the other. Again, norms
of masculinity and femininity vary not only between
societies but even within the same society along such
axes as class and ethnicity: some social groups, for
instance, value physical health, strength or athletic
prowess in women; others value physical fragility,
weakness or incompetence. But even if certain values
could be identified in some sense as male or female,
masculine or feminine, the conclusive objection to
identifying feminist ethics with the elaboration of
female or feminine values is that the feminine is not
necessarily the feminist. Indeed, since the feminine
typically has been constructed in circumstances of
male domination, it is likely to be quite opposed to the
feminist. Personal charm, for example, may be valued
not only in women but also by them; even if charm
were, in these senses, a feminine value, however, it
would seem at least as likely to undermine feminist
goals as to promote them.
5. Similar problems apply to defining feminist eth-
ics as the systematic extrapolation of women’s moral
experience, exclusive of men’s. While no approach
to morality can be adequate if it ignores the moral
experience of women, it seems most unlikely that
women generally are similar enough to each other and
about conflicts of interest between women and even
how interests should be identified at all. Most obvi-
ously, feminist ethics cannot be identified with “put-
ting women’s interests first” simply because many
feminists would refuse to accept and, indeed, be mor-
ally outraged by what they would perceive as blatant
partiality and immorality.
2. Feminist ethics certainly is concerned to address
issues of special concern to women, issues that have
been neglected by modern moral theory, but it can-
not be identified with an exclusive focus on such
issues. This is partly because nonfeminists as well as
feminists have addressed these issues— and, indeed,
are doing so increasingly as feminism grows stron-
ger and more articulate. It is also because feminism
rejects the notion that moral issues can be divided
cleanly into those that are and those that are not of
special concern to women. On the one hand, since
men’s and women’s lives are inextricably intertwined,
there are no “women’s issues” that are not also men’s
issues; the availability or otherwise of child care and
abortion, for instance, has significant consequences
for the lives of men as well as women. On the other
hand, since men and women typically are not what
lawyers call “similarly situated” relative to each other,
it is difficult to think of any moral or public policy
(“human”) issue in which women do not have a spe-
cial interest. For instance, such “human” issues as war,
peace and world starvation have special significance
for women because the world’s hungry are dispropor-
tionately women (and children), because women are
primarily those in need of the social services neglected
to fund military spending, and because women ben-
efit relatively little from militarism and the weapons
industries. For these reasons, it would be a mistake to
identify feminist ethics with attention to some explic-
itly gendered subset of ethical issues. On the con-
trary, rather than being limited to a restricted ethical
domain, feminist ethics has enlarged the traditional
concerns of ethics, both through identifying previ-
ously unrecognized ethical issues and by introducing
fresh perspectives on issues already acknowledged as
having an ethical dimension.
3. Feminist ethics certainly is being developed by
feminists, most of whom are women, but this does

206 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
ethics must understand individual actions in the con-
text of broader social practices, evaluating the sym-
bolic and cumulative implications of action as well as
its immediately observable consequences. They must
be equipped to recognize covert as well as overt mani-
festations of domination, subtle as well as blatant
forms of control, and they must develop sophisticated
accounts of coercion and consent. Similarly, they
must provide the conceptual resources for identifying
and evaluating the varieties of resistance and struggle in
which women, particularly, have engaged. They must
recognize the often unnoticed ways in which women
and other members of the underclass have refused
cooperation and opposed domination, while acknowl-
edging the inevitability of collusion and the impos-
sibility of totally clean hands. In short, feminist
approaches to ethics must be transitional and nonuto-
pian, often extensions of, rather than alternatives to,
feminist political theory, exercises in non- ideal rather
than ideal theory.
3. Since most of most women’s lives have been
excluded from that domain conceptualized as pub-
lic, a third requirement for feminist approaches to
ethics is that they should be able to provide guidance
on issues of so- called private life: intimate relations,
sexuality and childrearing. Thus, they must articulate
the moral dimensions of issues that may not hitherto
have been recognized as moral. In addition, we have
seen that feminist approaches to ethics must provide
appropriate guidance for dealing with national and
international issues, strangers and foreigners. In
developing the conceptual tools for undertaking these
tasks, feminist ethics cannot assume that moral con-
cepts developed originally for application to the so-
called public realm, concepts such as impartiality or
exploitation, are appropriate for use in the so- called
private; neither can it assume that concepts such as
care, developed in intimate relationships, will neces-
sarily be helpful in the larger world. Indeed, the whole
distinction between public and private life must be
examined critically by feminist ethics, with no prior
assumptions as to whether the distinction should be
retained, redrawn or rejected.
4. Finally, feminist ethics must take the moral expe-
rience of all women seriously, though not, of course,
different enough from men that a single distinctively
female or feminine approach to ethics can be identi-
fied. Attempts to establish such an identification fre-
quently commit the fallacy of generalizing about the
experience of all or most women from the moral expe-
rience of some women; this seems to have been one
flaw at least in Gilligan’s earlier work. Again, even if a
distinctively feminine approach to morality could be
identified, perhaps in terms of symbolic or normative
connections with women rather than empirical ones,
there is no reason to suppose that such an approach
would be feminist. Indeed, given the feminist commit-
ment to a critical rethinking of cultural constructions
of both masculinity and femininity, there is good
prima facie reason to suppose that it would not.
Even though feminist ethics is far broader and more
open than it appears in the foregoing misconstru-
als, its goals are sufficiently specific, especially when
taken in conjunction with its criticisms of traditional
ethics, as to generate certain minimum conditions of
adequacy for any approach to ethics that purports to
be feminist.
1. First of all, feminist ethics can never begin
by assuming that women and men are similarly
situated— although it may discover that this is the
case in certain respects in specific contexts. In addi-
tion, not only does feminist ethics need constant vigi-
lance to detect subtle as well as blatant manifestations
of gender privilege, it must also be sensitive to the
ways in which gendered norms are different for differ-
ent groups of women— or in which the same norms,
such as a cultural preference for slimness or blond-
ness, affect different groups of women differently.
Ultimately feminism’s concern for all women means
that feminist ethics must address not only “domes-
tic” issues of racism or homophobia or class privilege
but also such international issues as environmental
destruction, war, and access to world resources.
2. In order to offer guides to action that will tend
to subvert rather than reinforce the present system-
atic subordination of women, feminist approaches to

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  207
Despite the scope and diversity of feminist ethics, cer-
tain current preoccupations may be identified. These
preoccupations are not definitive of feminist ethics,
but they are characteristic of its present stage of devel-
opment. (They are also, sometimes in different ways,
preoccupations of much contemporary nonfeminist
ethics.) They include concern with issues of univer-
sality and particularity, sociality and individuality,
moral emotion and moral rationality. These concerns
are not independent of each other and they may be
discerned underlying many contemporary feminist
approaches to practical issues, such as equality, health
care, or the environment, as well as being foci of femi-
nist reflection on such traditional philosophical issues
as moral subjectivity and moral epistemology.
Feminist challenges to traditional views of moral
subjectivity are not limited to assertions (contra Aris-
totle, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel) that women are as
capable as men of moral virtue or rationality. Instead,
many feminists have drawn on and extended non-
feminist criticisms of the basic model of the moral self
most characteristic of Enlightenment moral theory, a
model derived from Descartes (1596–1650) and por-
traying the self as disembodied, asocial, autonomous,
unified, rational and essentially similar to all other
selves. This model, of course, has been under attack for
over a century from, among others, Marxists, Freud-
ians, contemporary communitarians, and postmod-
ernists. Feminists often share many conclusions with
such nonfeminist critics of Enlightenment theory, but
they arrive at those conclusions by different routes, and
often they add to them the claim that the Cartesian
model is male- biased (as well as class- and possibly
race- biased), in that it reflects the interests and values
of European bourgeois men and either ignores diver-
gent interests and values or portrays them as less than
fully human.
One source of feminist challenge to the Cartesian
self is a growing philosophical interest in embodi-
ment. This itself springs partly from feminist outrage
over the male control and exploitation of women’s
bodies, partly from the feminist recognition that much
of the responsibility for physical reproduction and
bodily maintenance traditionally has been assigned
uncritically. Though what is feminist often will turn
out to be very different from what is feminine, a basic
respect for women’s moral experience is necessary to
acknowledging women’s capacities as moralists and
to countering traditional stereotypes of women as less
than full moral agents, as childlike or close to nature.
Furthermore, empirical claims about differences in the
moral sensibility of women and men make it impos-
sible to assume that any approach to ethics will be
unanimously accepted if it fails to consult the moral
experience of women. Additionally, it seems plausible
to suppose that women’s distinctive social experi-
ence may make them especially perceptive regarding
the implications of domination, especially gender
domination, and especially well equipped to detect
the male bias that feminists believe has pervaded so
much of male- authored western moral theory.
Most feminist, and perhaps even many non femi-
nist, philosophers might well find the general state-
ment of these conditions quite uncontroversial, but
they will inevitably disagree sharply over when the
conditions have been met. Not only may feminists
disagree with nonfeminists, but they are likely even
to differ with each other over, for instance, what
are women’s interests, what are manifestations of
domination and coercion, how resistance should be
expressed, and which aspects of women’s moral expe-
rience are worth developing and in which directions.
Those who practice feminist ethics thus may be
seen both as united by a shared project and as diverg-
ing widely in their views as to how this project may be
accomplished. Their divergences result from a variety
of philosophical differences, including differing con-
ceptions of feminism itself, which, as we have seen, is
[a] constantly contested concept. The inevitability of
such divergence means that feminist ethics can never
be identified in terms of a specific range of topics,
methods or orthodoxies. While feminist ethics is dis-
tinguished by its explicit commitment to developing
approaches to ethics that will respect women’s moral
experience and avoid rationalizing women’s subordi-
nation, attempts to define it more precisely or substan-
tively than this are likely to disregard the richness and
variety of feminist moral thinking and prematurely
foreclose the feminist moral debate.

208 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
Enlightenment moral psychology for its failure to rec-
ognize that, if autonomy exists at all, it is an achieve-
ment with complex material and social preconditions.
That people in fact have certain psychologi-
cal propensities of course does not entail that those
propensities are morally relevant, let alone mor-
ally desirable; on the other hand, an adequate moral
theory cannot be grounded in a psychology that
is descriptively inadequate. Many feminists claim
that much Enlightenment moral psychology is so
alien to the ways in which people in fact do act and
think morally that it cannot serve even as an accept-
able reconstruction of moral reasoning. For instance,
by failing to appreciate the moral significance of the
psychological characteristics noted above, it offers a
model of moral rationality that is unduly narrow in
disregarding emotion, and likely to generate morally
repugnant conclusions that ignore our responsibility
for the welfare of others, neglect the claims of conven-
tional morality, and undervalue the moral weight of
particular relationships. Some feminists go on to argue
that most Enlightenment models of moral rationality
are not only empirically and morally inadequate but
also serve, insofar as they are culturally accepted, as
oppressive norms for those social groups, including
perhaps some groups of women, whose moral think-
ing is stigmatized as amoral or immoral for failing to
conform to these models.
Morality on most Enlightenment views is a sys-
tem of rationally justified rules or principles that
guide action in specific cases. Many contemporary
feminists, by contrast, deny that morality is reduc-
ible to rules and assert the impossibility of justifying
the claims of ethics by appeal to a universal, impar-
tial reason. They charge that undue emphasis on the
epistemological importance of moral rules obscures
the crucial role of moral insight, virtue and character
in determining the right course of action. Some give a
feminist twist to this essentially Aristotelian criticism
by claiming that excessive reliance on rules reflects a
juridical- administrative interest that is characteristic
of modem masculinity— contemporary women, by
contrast, are claimed to be more likely to disregard
conventionally accepted moral rules because such
rules are insensitive to the specificities of particular
to women— both of which reinforce symbolic western
associations between women and the body. Philosophi-
cal reflection that begins from the body tends to high-
light features of human nature very different from those
emphasized by Cartesianism: temporality rather than
timelessness, growth and decay rather than change-
lessness, particularity rather than universality, sociality
rather than isolation. These features, in turn, tend to
generate concerns for ethics different from those that
dominated much Enlightenment theory: inequality,
dependence and interdependence, specificity, social
embeddedness and historical community now must all
be recognized as permanent circumstances of moral
life, never to be avoided or transcended by focusing
on equality, independence, autonomy, generality,
isolated individuals, ideal communities or the uni-
versal human condition. It does not escape feminist
authors that concern with precisely the former
circumstances has been claimed by many to be dis-
tinctively feminine— preoccupying women in virtue
of their social situation, associated symbolically with
women or defined culturally as appropriate to women.
Conceiving moral subjects as embodied also has
psychological implications: insofar as their identity is
significantly constituted by their specific social rela-
tionships (relationships determined at least in part by
the social meaning attributed to bodily characteristics
such as parentage, age or sex), moral subjects con-
ceived in this way are revealed as likely to be moved
by considerations of particular attachment as much
as abstract concern for duty, care as much as respect,
solidarity as much as dignity, responsibility as much
as right. Many feminists currently argue that much
Enlightenment moral psychology is inadequate inso-
far as it fails to take adequate account of these propen-
sities, conceiving them at best as morally irrelevant, at
worst as morally subversive. In addition, noting the
ways in which the psyche is shaped by social practices,
especially childrearing and other gendered practices,
many feminists criticize the common Enlightenment
assumption that people are essentially alike, rational
and autarchic. Noting the significance of fantasy in
our lives, they deny that consciousness is transparent
and unified and that individuals always know their
own interests best. In general, they challenge much

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  209
both to their concrete particularity and their intrin-
sic shared value— the ideal expressed in Enlighten-
ment claims about common humanity, equality and
impartiality; developing “particularist” epistemolo-
gies that recognize the moral validity of immediate,
emotion- laden responses to particular others while
avoiding subjective relativism; and finding ways of
simultaneously acknowledging and criticizing the
claims of conventional morality— known colloqui-
ally as living with contradictions. They are exploring
these approaches in the context of developing femi-
nist perspectives on many of the most pressing moral
issues of our time.
situations. Some feminists assert, therefore, that
a morality of rule devalues the moral wisdom of
women and gives insufficient weight to such suppos-
edly feminine virtues as kindness, generosity, help-
fulness and sympathy.
Though many feminists continue to defend vari-
ous versions of Enlightenment moral theory, many
others are concerned not merely to criticize them but
also to develop alternatives to them— alternatives
that will avoid their perceived shortcomings while
meeting the conditions of adequacy identified earlier.
Thus, contemporary feminists are exploring ways
of thinking about moral subjects that are sensitive
The Ethics of Care as Moral Theory
Virginia Held
The ethics of care is only a few decades old. Some
theorists do not like the term ‘care’ to designate this
approach to moral issues and have tried substitut-
ing ‘the ethic of love,’ or ‘relational ethics,’ but the
discourse keeps returning to ‘care’ as the so far more
satisfactory of the terms considered, though dissatis-
factions with it remain. The concept of care has the
advantage of not losing sight of the work involved in
caring for people and of not lending itself to the inter-
pretation of morality as ideal but impractical to which
advocates of the ethics of care often object. Care is
both value and practice.
By now, the ethics of care has moved far beyond its
original formulations, and any attempt to evaluate it
should consider much more than the one or two early
works so frequently cited. It has been developed as a
moral theory relevant not only to the so- called private
realms of family and friendship but to medical prac-
tice, law, political life, the organization of society, war,
and international relations.
The ethics of care is sometimes seen as a poten-
tial moral theory to be substituted for such dominant
moral theories as Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, or
Aristotelian virtue ethics. It is sometimes seen as a
form of virtue ethics. It is almost always developed
as emphasizing neglected moral considerations of at
least as much importance as the considerations cen-
tral to moralities of justice and rights or of utility and
preference satisfaction. And many who contribute to
the understanding of the ethics of care seek to inte-
grate the moral considerations, such as justice, which
other moral theories have clarified, satisfactorily
with those of care, though they often see the need to
reconceptualize these considerations.
Some advocates of the ethics of care resist generalizing
this approach into something that can be fitted into
the form of a moral theory. They see it as a mosaic of
insights and value the way it is sensitive to contextual
nuance and particular narratives rather than making
the abstract and universal claims of more familiar
moral theories. Still, I think one can discern among
Virginia Held, “The Ethics of Care as Moral Theory,” in The Ethics
of Care (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 9–20. © 2006 by
Oxford University Press, Inc. By permission of Oxford University
Press, USA.

210 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
better ascertain what morality recommends. Even
anger may be a component of the moral indignation
that should be felt when people are treated unjustly
or inhumanely, and it may contribute to (rather than
interfere with) an appropriate interpretation of the
moral wrong. This is not to say that raw emotion can
be a guide to morality; feelings need to be reflected on
and educated. But from the care perspective, moral
inquiries that rely entirely on reason and rationalistic
deductions or calculations are seen as deficient.
The emotions that are typically considered and
rejected in rationalistic moral theories are the egoistic
feelings that undermine universal moral norms, the
favoritism that interferes with impartiality, and the
aggressive and vengeful impulses for which morality
is to provide restraints. The ethics of care, in contrast,
typically appreciates the emotions and relational
capabilities that enable morally concerned persons
in actual interpersonal contexts to understand what
would be best. Since even the helpful emotions can
often become misguided or worse— as when excessive
empathy with others leads to a wrongful degree of self-
denial or when benevolent concern crosses over into
controlling domination— we need an ethics of care,
not just care itself. The various aspects and expres-
sions of care and caring relations need to be subjected
to moral scrutiny and evaluated, not just observed and
Third, the ethics of care rejects the view of the dom-
inant moral theories that the more abstract the reason-
ing about a moral problem the better because the more
likely to avoid bias and arbitrariness, the more nearly
to achieve impartiality. The ethics of care respects
rather than removes itself from the claims of particu-
lar others with whom we share actual relationships. It
calls into question the universalistic and abstract rules
of the dominant theories. When the latter consider
such actual relations as between a parent and child,
if they say anything about them at all, they may see
them as permitted and [indicative of] a preference
that a person may have. Or they may recognize a uni-
versal obligation for all parents to care for their chil-
dren. But they do not permit actual relations ever to
take priority over the requirements of impartiality. As
Brian Barry expresses this view, there can be universal
various versions of the ethics of care a number of
major features.
First, the central focus of the ethics of care is on
the compelling moral salience of attending to and
meeting the needs of the particular others for whom
we take responsibility. Caring for one’s child, for
instance, may well and defensibly be at the forefront
of a person’s moral concerns. The ethics of care rec-
ognizes that human beings are dependent for many
years of their lives, that the moral claim of those
dependent on us for the care they need is pressing,
and that there are highly important moral aspects in
developing the relations of caring that enable human
beings to live and progress. All persons need care for
at least their early years. Prospects for human prog-
ress and flourishing hinge fundamentally on the
care that those needing it receive, and the ethics of
care stresses the moral force of the responsibility to
respond to the needs of the dependent. Many per-
sons will become ill and dependent for some peri-
ods of their later lives, including in frail old age, and
some who are permanently disabled will need care
the whole of their lives. Moralities built on the image
of the independent, autonomous, rational indi-
vidual largely overlook the reality of human depen-
dence and the morality for which it calls. The ethics
of care attends to this central concern of human life
and delineates the moral values involved. It refuses
to relegate care to a realm “outside morality.” How
caring for particular others should be reconciled with
the claims of, for instance, universal justice is an
issue that needs to be addressed. But the ethics of care
starts with the moral claims of particular others, for
instance, of one’s child, whose claims can be compel-
ling regardless of universal principles.
Second, in the epistemological process of trying
to understand what morality would recommend and
what it would be morally best for us to do and to be,
the ethics of care values emotion rather than rejects
it. Not all emotion is valued, of course, but in con-
trast with the dominant rationalist approaches, such
emotions as sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and
responsiveness are seen as the kind of moral emo-
tions that need to be cultivated not only to help in
the implementation of the dictates of reason but to

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  211
actual relations that are trusting, considerate, and
caring and concerning those that are not.
Dominant moral theories tend to interpret moral
problems as if they were conflicts between egoistic
individual interests on the one hand, and universal
moral principles on the other. The extremes of “self-
ish individual” and “humanity” are recognized, but
what lies between these is often overlooked. The eth-
ics of care, in contrast, focuses especially on the area
between these extremes. Those who conscientiously
care for others are not seeking primarily to further
their own individual interests; their interests are
intertwined with the persons they care for. Neither
are they acting for the sake of all others or humanity in
general; they seek instead to preserve or promote an
actual human relation between themselves and par-
ticular others. Persons in caring relations are acting for
self- and- other together. Their characteristic stance is
neither egoistic nor altruistic; these are the options
in a conflictual situation, but the well- being of a car-
ing relation involves the cooperative well- being of
those in the relation and the well- being of the rela-
tion itself.
In trying to overcome the attitudes and prob-
lems of tribalism and religious intolerance, dominant
moralities have tended to assimilate the domains
of family and friendship to the tribal, or to a source
of the unfair favoring of one’s own. Or they have
seen the attachments people have in these areas as
among the nonmoral private preferences people are
permitted to pursue if restrained by impartial moral
norms. The ethics of care recognizes the moral value
and importance of relations of family and friendship
and the need for moral guidance in these domains to
understand how existing relations should often be
changed and new ones developed. Having grasped the
value of caring relations in such contexts as these more
personal ones, the ethics of care then often examines
social and political arrangements in the light of these
values. In its more developed forms, the ethics of care
as a feminist ethic offers suggestions for the radical
transformation of society. It demands not just equal-
ity for women in existing structures of society but
equal consideration for the experience that reveals the
values, importance, and moral significance, of caring.
rules permitting people to favor their friends in cer-
tain contexts, such as deciding to whom to give holi-
day gifts, but the latter partiality is morally acceptable
only because universal rules have already so judged
it. The ethics of care, in contrast, is skeptical of such
abstraction and reliance on universal rules and ques-
tions the priority given to them. To most advocates of
the ethics of care, the compelling moral claim of the
particular other may be valid even when it conflicts
with the requirement usually made by moral theories
that moral judgments be universalizeable, and this is
of fundamental moral importance. Hence the poten-
tial conflict between care and justice, friendship and
impartiality, loyalty and universality. To others, how-
ever, there need be no conflict if universal judgments
come to incorporate appropriately the norms of care
previously disregarded.
Annette Baier considers how a feminist approach
to morality differs from a Kantian one and Kant’s claim
that women are incapable of being fully moral because
of their reliance on emotion rather than reason. She
writes, “Where Kant concludes ‘so much the worse
for women,’ we can conclude ‘so much the worse for
the male fixation on the special skill of drafting legis-
lation, for the bureaucratic mentality of rule worship,
and for the male exaggeration of the importance of
independence over mutual interdependence.’ ”
Margaret Walker contrasts what she sees as femi-
nist “moral understanding” with what has tradition-
ally been thought of as moral “knowledge.” She sees
the moral understanding she advocates as involving
“attention, contextual and narrative appreciation,
and communication in the event of moral delibera-
tion.” This alternative moral epistemology holds that
“the adequacy of moral understanding decreases as its
form approaches generality through abstraction.”
The ethics of care may seek to limit the applicabil-
ity of universal rules to certain domains where they are
more appropriate, like the domain of law, and resist
their extension to other domains. Such rules may sim-
ply be inappropriate in, for instance, the contexts of
family and friendship, yet relations in these domains
should certainly be evaluated, not merely described,
hence morality should not be limited to abstract rules.
We should be able to give moral guidance concerning

212 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
groups to be brought up in, yet these sorts of ties may
be important aspects of who they are and how their
experience can contribute to moral understanding.
A fifth characteristic of the ethics of care is the con-
ception of persons with which it begins. This will be
dealt with in the next section.
The ethics of care usually works with a conception of
persons as relational, rather than as the self- sufficient
independent individuals of the dominant moral the-
ories. The dominant theories can be interpreted as
importing into moral theory a concept of the person
developed primarily for liberal political and economic
theory, seeing the person as a rational, autonomous
agent, or a self- interested individual. On this view,
society is made up of “independent, autonomous
units who cooperate only when the terms of cooper-
ation are such as to make it further the ends of each
of the parties,” in Brian Barry’s words. Or, if they are
Kantians, they refrain from actions that they could
not will to be universal laws to which all fully rational
and autonomous individual agents could agree. What
such views hold, in Michael Sandel’s critique of them,
is that “what separates us is in some important sense
prior to what connects us— epistemologically prior as
well as morally prior. We are distinct individuals first
and then we form relationships. In Martha Nussbaum’s
liberal feminist morality, “the flourishing of human
beings taken one by one is both analytically and nor-
matively prior to the flourishing” of any group.
The ethics of care, in contrast, characteristically
sees persons as relational and interdependent, mor-
ally and epistemologically. Every person starts out
as a child dependent on those providing us care, and
we remain interdependent with others in thoroughly
fundamental ways throughout our lives. That we can
think and act as if we were independent depends on
a network of social relations making it possible for us
to do so. And our relations are part of what constitute
our identity. This is not to say that we cannot become
autonomous; feminists have done much interesting
work developing an alternative conception of auton-
omy in place of the liberal individualist one. Feminists
A fourth characteristic of the ethics of care is that
like much feminist thought in many areas, it recon-
ceptualizes traditional notions about the public and
the private. The traditional view, built into the domi-
nant moral theories, is that the household is a pri-
vate sphere beyond politics into which government,
based on consent, should not intrude. Feminists have
shown how the greater social, political, economic, and
cultural power of men has structured this “private”
sphere to the disadvantage of women and children,
rendering them vulnerable to domestic violence with-
out outside interference, often leaving women eco-
nomically dependent on men and subject to a highly
inequitable division of labor in the family. The law has
not hesitated to intervene into women’s private deci-
sions concerning reproduction but has been highly
reluctant to intrude on men’s exercise of coercive
power within the “castles” of their homes.
Dominant moral theories have seen “public” life
as relevant to morality while missing the moral signifi-
cance of the “private” domains of family and friend-
ship. Thus the dominant theories have assumed that
morality should be sought for unrelated, indepen-
dent, and mutually indifferent individuals assumed
to be equal. They have posited an abstract, fully ratio-
nal “agent as such” from which to construct moral-
ity, while missing the moral issues that arise between
interconnected persons in the contexts of family,
friendship, and social groups. In the context of the
family, it is typical for relations to be between persons
with highly unequal power who did not choose the
ties and obligations in which they find themselves
enmeshed. For instance, no child can choose her
parents yet she may well have obligations to care for
them. Relations of this kind are standardly noncon-
tractual, and conceptualizing them as contractual
would often undermine or at least obscure the trust
on which their worth depends. The ethics of care
addresses rather than neglects moral issues arising in
relations among the unequal and dependent, rela-
tions that are often laden with emotion and involun-
tary, and then notices how often these attributes apply
not only in the household but in the wider society as
well. For instance, persons do not choose which gen-
der, racial, class, ethnic, religious, national, or cultural

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  213
economics students to be less cooperative and more
inclined to free ride than other students.
The conception of the person adopted by the
dominant moral theories provides moralities at best
suitable for legal, political, and economic interac-
tions between relative strangers, once adequate trust
exists for them to form a political entity. The ethics of
care is, instead, hospitable to the relatedness of per-
sons. It sees many of our responsibilities as not freely
entered into but presented to us by the accidents of
our embeddedness in familial and social and histori-
cal contexts. It often calls on us to take responsibility,
while liberal individualist morality focuses on how we
should leave each other alone. The view of persons as
embedded and encumbered seems fundamental to
much feminist thinking about morality and especially
to the ethics of care.
Some conceptions of the ethics of care see it as con-
trasting with an ethic of justice in ways that suggest
one must choose between them. Carol Gilligan’s sug-
gestion of alternative perspectives in interpreting and
organizing the elements of a moral problem lent itself
to this implication; she herself used the metaphor of
the ambiguous figure of the vase and the faces, from
psychological research on perception, to illustrate how
one could see a problem as either a problem of justice
or a problem of care, but not as both simultaneously.
An ethic of justice focuses on questions of fair-
ness, equality, individual rights, abstract principles,
and the consistent application of them. An ethic of
care focuses on attentiveness, trust, responsiveness to
need, narrative nuance, and cultivating caring rela-
tions. Whereas an ethic of justice seeks a fair solution
between competing individual interests and rights,
an ethic of care sees the interests of carers and cared-
for as importantly intertwined rather than as simply
competing. Whereas justice protects equality and free-
dom, care fosters social bonds and cooperation.
These are very different emphases in what moral-
ity should consider. Yet both deal with what seems of
great moral importance. This has led many to explore
how they might be combined in a satisfactory morality.
have much experience rejecting or reconstituting
relational ties that are oppressive. But it means that
from the perspective of an ethics of care, to construct
morality as if we were Robinson Crusoes, or, to use
Hobbes’s image, mushrooms sprung from nowhere, is
misleading. As Eva Kittay writes, this conception fosters
the illusion that society is composed of free, equal, and
independent individuals who can choose to associate
with one another or not. It obscures the very real facts
of dependency for everyone when they are young, for
most people at various periods in their lives when they
are ill or old and infirm, for some who are disabled, and
for all those engaged in unpaid “dependency work.”
And it obscures the innumerable ways persons and
groups are interdependent in the modern world.
Not only does the liberal individualist conception
of the person foster a false picture of society and the
persons in it, it is, from the perspective of the ethics of
care, impoverished also as an ideal. The ethics of care
values the ties we have with particular other persons
and the actual relationships that partly constitute
our identity. Although persons often may and should
reshape their relations with others— distancing them-
selves from some persons and groups and develop-
ing or strengthening ties with others— the autonomy
sought within the ethics of care is a capacity to reshape
and cultivate new relations, not to ever more closely
resemble the unencumbered abstract rational self of
liberal political and moral theories. Those motivated
by the ethics of care would seek to become more admi-
rable relational persons in better caring relations.
Even if the liberal ideal is meant only to instruct
us on what would be rational in the terms of its ideal
model, thinking of persons as the model presents
them has effects that should not be welcomed. As
Annette Baier writes, “Liberal morality, if unsupple-
mented, may unfit people to be anything other than
what its justifying theories suppose them to be,
ones who have no interest in each others’ interests.”
There is strong empirical evidence of how adopting
a theoretical model can lead to behavior that mirrors
it. Various studies show that studying economics,
with its “repeated and intensive exposure to a model
whose unequivocal prediction” is that people will
decide what to do on the basis of self- interest, leads

214 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
others in need of being cared for. She writes that “far
from being extraneous impositions . . . considerations
of justice arise from within the practice of care itself
and therefore are an important part of the ethic of
care, properly understood.” The ethics of care must
thus also concern itself with the justice (or lack of it) of
the ways the tasks of caring are distributed in society.
Traditionally, women have been expected to do most
of the caring work that needs to be done; the sexual
division of labor exploits women by extracting unpaid
care labor from them, making women less able than
men to engage in paid work. “Femininity” constructs
women as carers, contributing to the constraints by
which women are pressed into accepting the sexual
division of labor. An ethic of care that extols caring but
that fails to be concerned with how the burdens of car-
ing are distributed contributes to the exploitation of
women, and of the minority groups whose members
perform much of the paid but ill- paid work of caring
in affluent households, in day care centers, hospitals,
nursing homes, and the like.
The question remains, however, whether justice
should be thought to be incorporated into any ethic
of care that will be adequate or whether we should
keep the notions of justice and care and their associ-
ated ethics conceptually distinct. There is much to
be said for recognizing how the ethics of care values
interrelatedness and responsiveness to the needs of
particular others, how the ethics of justice values fair-
ness and rights, and how these are different emphases.
Too much integration will lose sight of these valid dif-
ferences. I am more inclined to say that an adequate,
comprehensive moral theory will have to include the
insights of both the ethics of care and the ethics of jus-
tice, among other insights, rather than that either of
these can be incorporated into the other in the sense
of supposing that it can provide the grounds for the
judgments characteristically found in the other. Equi-
table caring is not necessarily better caring, it is fairer
caring. And humane justice is not necessarily better
justice, it is more caring justice.
Almost no advocates of the ethics of care are will-
ing to see it as a moral outlook less valuable than the
dominant ethics of justice. To imagine that the con-
cerns of care can merely be added on to the dominant
One can persuasively argue, for instance, that justice is
needed in such contexts of care as the family, to pro-
tect against violence and the unfair division of labor or
treatment of children. One can also persuasively argue
that care is needed in such contexts of justice as the
streets and the courts, where persons should be treated
humanely, and in the way education and health and
welfare should be dealt with as social responsibilities.
The implication may be that justice and care should
not be separated into different “ethics,” that, in Sara
Ruddick’s proposed approach, “justice is always seen
in tandem with care.”
Few would hold that considerations of justice have
no place at all in care. One would not be caring well for
two children, for instance, if one showed a persistent
favoritism toward one of them that could not be justi-
fied on the basis of some such factor as greater need.
The issues are rather what constellation of values have
priority and which predominate in the practices of the
ethics of care and the ethics of justice. It is quite possi-
ble to delineate significant differences between them.
In the dominant moral theories of the ethics of justice,
the values of equality, impartiality, fair distribution,
and noninterference have priority; in practices of jus-
tice, individual rights are protected, impartial judg-
ments are arrived at, punishments are deserved, and
equal treatment is sought. In contrast, in the ethics of
care, the values of trust, solidarity, mutual concern,
and empathetic responsiveness have priority; in prac-
tices of care, relationships are cultivated, needs are
responded to, and sensitivity is demonstrated.
An extended effort to integrate care and justice is
offered by Diemut Bubeck. She makes clear that she
“endorse[s] the ethic of care as a system of concepts,
values, and ideas, arising from the practice of care
as an organic part of this practice and responding to
its material requirements, notably the meeting of
needs.” Yet her primary interest is in understanding
the exploitation of women, which she sees as tied to
the way women do most of the unpaid work of car-
ing. She argues that such principles as equality in
care and the minimization of harm are tacitly, if not
explicitly, embedded in the practice of care, as carers
whose capacities and time for engaging in caring labor
are limited must decide how to respond to various

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  215
grudgingly, though fairly, issue an allotment to those
deemed unfit.
Care is probably the most deeply fundamen-
tal value. There can be care without justice: There
has historically been little justice in the family, but
care and life have gone on without it. There can be
no justice without care, however, for without care no
child would survive and there would be no persons to
Care may thus provide the wider and deeper eth-
ics within which justice should be sought, as when
persons in caring relations may sometimes compete
and in doing so should treat each other fairly, or, at
the level of society, within caring relations of the thin-
ner kind we can agree to treat each other for limited
purposes as if we were the abstract individuals of lib-
eral theory. But although care may be the more fun-
damental value, it may well be that the ethics of care
does not itself provide adequate theoretical resources
for dealing with issues of justice. Within its appropri-
ate sphere and for its relevant questions, the ethics of
justice may be best for what we seek. What should be
resisted is the traditional inclination to expand the
reach of justice in such a way that it is mistakenly
imagined to be able to give us a comprehensive moral-
ity suitable for all moral questions.
Many advocates of the ethics of care argue for its rel-
evance in social and political and economic life. Sara
Ruddick shows its implications for efforts to achieve
peace. I argue that as we see the deficiencies of the con-
tractual model of human relations within the house-
hold, we can see them also in the world beyond and
begin to think about how society should be reorga-
nized to be hospitable to care, rather than continuing
to marginalize it. We can see how not only does every
domain of society need transformation in light of the
values of care but so would the relations between such
domains if we took care seriously, as care would move
to the center of our attention and become a primary
concern of society. Instead of a society dominated
by conflict restrained by law and preoccupied with
economic gain, we might have a society that saw as
theories, as, for instance, Stephen Darwall suggests,
is seen as unsatisfactory. Confining the ethics of care
to the private sphere while holding it unsuitable for
public life, as Nel Noddings did at first and as many
accounts of it suggest, is also to be rejected. But how
care and justice are to be meshed without losing
sight of their differing priorities is a task still being
worked on.
My own suggestions for integrating care and jus-
tice are to keep these concepts conceptually distinct
and to delineate the domains in which they should
have priority. In the realm of law, for instance, jus-
tice and the assurance of rights should have priority,
although the humane considerations of care should
not be absent. In the realm of the family and among
friends, priority should be given to expansive care,
though the basic requirements of justice surely should
also be met. But these are the clearest cases; others will
combine moral urgencies. Universal human rights
(including the social and economic ones as well as
the political and civil) should certainly be respected,
but promoting care across continents may be a more
promising way to achieve this than mere rational rec-
ognition. When needs are desperate, justice may be
a lessened requirement on shared responsibility for
meeting needs, although this rarely excuses violations
of rights. At the level of what constitutes a society in
the first place, a domain within which rights are to
be assured and care provided, appeal must be made
to something like the often weak but not negligible
caring relations among persons that enable them to
recognize each other as members of the same society.
Such recognition must eventually be global; in the
meantime, the civil society without which the lib-
eral institutions of justice cannot function presume a
background of some degree of caring relations rather
than of merely competing individuals . . . Further-
more, considerations of care provide a more fruitful
basis than considerations of justice for deciding much
about how society should be structured, for instance,
how extensive or how restricted markets should be . . .
And in the course of protecting the rights that ought
to be recognized, such as those to basic necessities,
policies that express the caring of the community for
all its members will be better policies than those that

216 Á  PART 3: THEoRiEs oF moRALiTY
Instead of seeing the corporate sector, and military
strength, and government and law as the most impor-
tant segments of society deserving the highest levels
of wealth and power, a caring society might see the
tasks of bringing up children, educating its members,
meeting the needs of all, achieving peace and treasur-
ing the environment, and doing these in the best ways
possible to be that to which the greatest social efforts
of all should be devoted. One can recognize that
something comparable to legal constraints and police
enforcement, including at a global level, may always
be necessary for special cases, but also that caring soci-
eties could greatly decrease the need for them. The
social changes a focus on care would require would be
as profound as can be imagined.
The ethics of care as it has developed is most cer-
tainly not limited to the sphere of family and personal
relations. When its social and political implications are
understood, it is a radical ethic calling for a profound
restructuring of society. And it has the resources for
dealing with power and violence . . .
Insofar as the ethics of care wishes to cultivate in per-
sons the characteristics of a caring person and the
skills of activities of caring, might an ethic of care be
assimilated to virtue theory?
To some philosophers, the ethics of care is a form
of virtue ethics. Several of the contributors to the vol-
ume Feminists Doing Ethics adopt this view. Leading
virtue theorist Michael Slote argues extensively for
the position that caring is the primary virtue and that
a morality based on the motive of caring can offer a
general account of right and wrong action and politi-
cal justice.
Certainly there are some similarities between
the ethics of care and virtue theory. Both examine
practices and the moral values they embody. Both
see more hope for moral development in reforming
practices than in reasoning from abstract rules. Both
understand that the practices of morality must be
cultivated, nurtured, shaped.
Until recently, however, virtue theory has not
paid adequate attention to the practices of caring in
its most important task the flourishing of children
and the development of caring relations, not only in
personal contexts but among citizens and using gov-
ernmental institutions. We would see that instead of
abandoning culture to the dictates of the marketplace,
we should make it possible for culture to develop in
ways best able to enlighten and enrich human life.
Joan Tronto argues for the political implications
of the ethics of care, seeing care as a political as well
as moral ideal advocating the meeting of needs for
care as “the highest social goal.” She shows how unac-
ceptable are current arrangements for providing care:
“Caring activities are devalued, underpaid, and dis-
proportionately occupied by the relatively powerless
in society.” Bubeck, Kittay, and many others argue
forcefully that care must be seen as a public concern,
not relegated to the private responsibility of women,
the inadequacy and arbitrariness of private charities,
or the vagaries and distortions of the market. In her
recent book Starting at Home, Noddings explores what
a caring society would be like.
When we concern ourselves with caring relations
between more distant others, this care should not be
thought to reduce to the mere “caring about” that has
little to do with the face- to- face interactions of caring
labor and can easily become paternalistic or patroniz-
ing. The same characteristics of attentiveness, respon-
siveness to needs, and understanding situations from
the points of view of others should characterize car-
ing when the participants are more distant. This also
requires the work of understanding and of expending
varieties of effort.
Given how care is a value with the widest pos-
sible social implications, it is unfortunate that many
who look at the ethics of care continue to suppose it
is a “family ethics,” confined to the “private” sphere.
Although some of its earliest formulations suggested
this, and some of its related values are to be seen most
clearly in personal contexts, an adequate understand-
ing of the ethics of care should recognize that it elabo-
rates values as fundamental and as relevant to political
institutions and to how society is organized, as those
of justice. Perhaps its values are even more funda-
mental and more relevant to life in society than those
traditionally relied on.

CHAPTER 8: FEminisT ETHiCs And THE ETHiCs oF CARE Á  217
The ethics of care, in my view, is a distinctive ethical
outlook, distinct even from virtue ethics. Certainly it has
precursors, and such virtue theorists as Aristotle, Hume,
and the moral sentimentalists contribute importantly
to it. As a feminist ethic, the ethics of care is certainly
not a mere description or generalization of women’s
attitudes and activities as developed under patriarchal
conditions. To be acceptable, it must be a feminist ethic,
open to both women and men to adopt. But in being
feminist, it is different from the ethics of its precursors
and different as well from virtue ethics.
The ethics of care is sometimes thought inad-
equate because of its inability to provide definite
answers in cases of conflicting moral demands. Vir-
tue theory has similarly been criticized for offering no
more than what detractors call a “bag of virtues,” with
no clear indication of how to prioritize the virtues or
apply their requirements, especially when they seem
to conflict. Defenders of the ethics of care respond
that the adequacy of the definite answers provided by,
for instance, utilitarian and Kantian moral theories is
illusory. Cost- benefit analysis is a good example of a
form of utilitarian calculation that purports to provide
clear answers to questions about what we ought to
do, but from the point of view of moral understand-
ing, its answers are notoriously dubious. So, too, often
are casuistic reasonings about deontological rules. To
advocates of the ethics of care, its alternative moral
epistemology seems better. It stresses sensitivity to
the multiple relevant considerations in particular
contexts, cultivating the traits of character and of rela-
tionship that sustain caring, and promoting the dia-
logue that corrects and enriches the perspective of any
one individual. The ethics of care is hospitable to the
methods of discourse ethics, though with an emphasis
on actual dialogue that empowers its participants to
express themselves rather than on discourse so ideal
that actual differences of viewpoint fall away.
* * *
which women have been so heavily engaged. Although
this might be corrected, virtue theory has characteristi-
cally seen the virtues as incorporated in various tradi-
tions or traditional communities. In contrast, the ethics
of care as a feminist ethic is wary of existing traditions
and traditional communities: Virtually all are patriar-
chal. The ethics of care envisions caring not as practiced
under male domination, but as it should be practiced
in postpatriarchal society, of which we do not yet have
traditions or wide experience. Individual egalitarian
families are still surrounded by inegalitarian social and
cultural influences.
In my view, although there are similarities between
them and although to be caring is no doubt a virtue,
the ethics of care is not simply a kind of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics focuses especially on the states of charac-
ter of individuals, whereas the ethics of care concerns
itself especially with caring relations. Caring relations
have primary value.
If virtue ethics is interpreted, as with Slote, as
primarily a matter of motives, it may neglect unduly
the labor and objective results of caring, as Bubeck’s
emphasis on actually meeting needs highlights. Car-
ing is not only a question of motive or attitude or vir-
tue. On the other hand, Bubeck’s account is unduly
close to a utilitarian interpretation of meeting needs,
neglecting that care also has an aspect of motive and
virtue. If virtue ethics is interpreted as less restricted
to motives, and if it takes adequate account of the
results of the virtuous person’s activities for the per-
sons cared for, it may better include the concerns of
the ethics of care. It would still, however, focus on the
dispositions of individuals, whereas the ethics of care
focuses on social relations and the social practices and
values that sustain them. The traditional Man of Vir-
tue may be almost as haunted by his patriarchal past
as the Man of Reason. The work of care has certainly
not been among the virtuous activities to which he
has adequately attended.

Ethical Issues

C H A P T E R 9
our most fundamental moral principles, and much
more. For many women, the abortion controversy
is personal, involving judgments about their own
bodies, their own health and happiness, and their
own inner turmoil provoked by life- and- death
decisions. Uncritical acceptance of particular moral
perspectives on abortion seems to be the norm for
people on all sides of the debate. Often, discus-
sion of the issue is reduced to shouting; informed
reflection, to knee- jerk conclusions; and reasoned
argument, to cases built on assumptions never
In this chapter, we try to do better, relying
heavily on critical reasoning and striving for a more
objective approach. We begin with a review of the
(nonmoral) facts of abortion— biological, medi-
cal, psychological, semantic, and legal. Then we
consider how the moral theories discussed in pre-
vious chapters can be applied to this issue. Finally,
we examine a range of common arguments in the
debate, from liberal to conservative as well as some
intermediate positions.
Abortion (also called induced abortion) is the delib-
erate termination of a pregnancy by surgical or
medical (with drugs) means. The unintentional ter-
mination of a pregnancy (due to a medical disorder
or injury) is known as a spontaneous abortion, or mis-
carriage. An abortion performed to protect the life or
health of the mother is referred to as a therapeutic
abortion. Therapeutic abortions are usually not
thought to be morally problematic. (The Roman
If somehow you had unobstructed access for a
single day to all the public and private dramas pro-
voked by the issue of abortion, you might see scenes
like this: a forty- year- old mother of five agonizing
over whether she should terminate her pregnancy
(which is both unexpected and unwanted); anti-
abortion activists shouting “Thou shall not kill!”
at a woman hurrying inside a clinic that performs
abortions; a frightened sixteen- year- old rape vic-
tim having an abortion against her family’s wishes;
a Catholic bishop asserting on the eleven o’clock
news that abortion in any form is murder; the
head of an abortion rights organization declaring
in a CNN interview that anti- abortion activists are
violent and dangerous; a politician getting elected
solely because he favors a constitutional amend-
ment to ban virtually all abortions; two women
who have been friends for years disagreeing bit-
terly about whether a fetus has a right to life; and
state legislators angrily debating a bill requiring
any woman seeking an abortion to watch a fifteen-
minute video titled “The Tragedy of Abortion.”
Such scenes are emblematic of the abortion
issue in that they are intensely emotional and usu-
ally accompanied by uncritical or dogmatic think-
ing. Passions surge because abortion touches on
some of our deepest values and most basic beliefs.
When we grapple with the issue of abortion, we
must consider whose rights (the mother’s or the
unborn’s) carry the most moral weight, what
the meaning of human being or person is, when—
if ever— the unborn achieves personhood, how
having an aborti on affects the health and mind
of the mother, how much importance to assign to

Abortion methods vary depending largely on
the stage of a woman’s pregnancy. Within the first
seven weeks or so, drugs can be used to induce an
abortion. A combination of mifepristone ( RU- 486)
and prostaglandins (hormonelike agents that pro-
voke uterine contractions) can force the embryo
out of the uterus and through the vagina. This
approach, sometimes called a medical or medication
abortion, has an extremely high success rate.
With a method known as menstrual aspiration
(or manual vacuum aspiration), an abortion can
be performed in the first three weeks. In this pro-
cedure, a physician expands the opening of the
uterus (the cervix) and uses a syringe to draw out
the embryo from the uterine wall. Up until twelve
weeks of pregnancy (the period when most abor-
tions are performed, also called the first trimester), a
method called suction curettage (or dilation and suc-
tion curettage) is often used. A physician widens the
cervix, then inserts a thin, flexible tube through it
and into the uterus itself. A vacuum device attached
to the other end of the tube then provides suction
to empty the uterus. A method often used after
twelve weeks is dilation and evacuation. After the
cervix is opened up, forceps and suction are used
to extract the fetus. A nonsurgical technique used
in some late abortions involves inducing the con-
tractions of labor so the fetus is expelled from the
uterus. To force the contractions, physicians often
use drugs as well as saline injection, the substitution
of saltwater for amniotic fluid in the uterus.
Like any medical procedure, abortion poses
some risk of complications. Its risks, however, are
relatively low. Fewer than 0.05 percent of women
who have a first- trimester abortion suffer from a
major complication. The risk of death for women
who have an abortion at eight weeks or earlier is 0.3
deaths per hundred thousand abortions. The risk of
death for abortions performed at eighteen weeks or
later is 6.7 per hundred thousand. The health risks
linked to abortion are directly related to the timing
of the procedure. The earlier in the pregnancy an
abortion is performed, the lower the risk.
Catholic stance, however, is that induced abortion
is always wrong, though the unintended death of
the fetus during an attempt to save the mother’s
life is morally permissible.) But induced abortions
are intensely controversial and are the focus of the
ongoing moral debate.
Throughout our discussion of abortion in
this chapter, we will use the word fetus to refer to
the unborn during its entire development from
conception to birth. But technically, the term
indicates a particular phase of this development.
Development begins at conception, or fertil-
ization, when a sperm cell enters an ovum and
the two merge into a single cell called a zygote.
The zygote contains a complete set of forty- six
chromosomes, half of them from the mother,
half from the father— all the genetic informa-
tion needed to make a unique human individual.
Over the next few days the zygote inches down
the fallopian tube toward the uterus, expanding
as cells divide. In three to five days it reaches the
uterus, where it grows in a tiny orb of cells called a
blastocyst. By day ten the blastocyst fully implants
itself in the lining of the uterus, and from implan-
tation until the eighth week after fertilization it
is known technically as an embryo. In the embry-
onic phase, most major organs form (though the
brain and spinal cord will keep developing during
pregnancy), and the embryo grows to just over an
inch long. At about the third week the embryo
first acquires a human shape; by the eighth, doc-
tors can detect brain activity. From the end of
the eighth week until birth (approximately week
forty), the embryo is known in medical terminol-
ogy as a fetus.
In the abortion debate, certain other aspects
of fetal development are thought by some to be of
special significance. For example, usually at about
sixteen to twenty weeks, the mother can feel the
fetus moving, an event known as quickening.
At about twenty- three or twenty- four weeks, the
fetus may be able to live outside the uterus, a state
referred to as viability.


• Nearly half (45 percent) of all pregnancies
among U.S. women in 2011 were unintended,
and about four in ten of these were terminated
by abortion.
• Nineteen percent of pregnancies (excluding mis-
carriages) in 2014 ended in abortion.
• Approximately 926,200 abortions were performed
in 2014, down 12 percent from 1.06 million in
2011. In 2014, some 1.5 percent of women aged
fifteen to forty- four had an abortion.
• The abortion rate in 2014 was 14.6 abortions
per thousand women aged fifteen to forty- four,
down 14 percent from 16.9 per thousand in
2011. This is the lowest rate ever observed in the
United States; in 1973, the year abortion became
legal, the rate was 16.3 per thousand.
• Seventeen percent of abortion patients in 2014
identified as mainline Protestant, 13 percent as
evangelical Protestant, and 24 percent as Catho-
lic; 38 per