3.2 Moral philosophy

Normative ethical theories

  • The meaning of good, bad, right, wrong within each of the three approaches specified below
  • Similarities and differences across the three approaches specified below


  • The question of what is meant by 'utility' and 'maximising utility', including:
    • Jeremy Bentham's quantitative hedonistic utilitarianism (his utility calculus)
    • John Stuart Mill’s qualitative hedonistic utilitarianism (higher and lower pleasures) and his ‘proof’ of the greatest happiness principle
    • non-hedonistic utilitarianism (including preference utilitarianism)
  • act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

Issues, including:

  • whether pleasure is the only good (Nozick's experience machine)
  • fairness and individual liberty/rights (including the risk of the 'tyranny of the majority')
  • problems with calculation (including which beings to include)
  • issues around partiality
  • whether utilitarianism ignores both the moral integrity and the intentions of the individual.

Kantian deontological ethics

  • Immanuel Kant’s account of what is meant by a ‘good will’.
  • The distinction between acting in accordance with duty and acting out of duty.
  • The distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.
  • The first formulation of the categorical imperative (including the distinction between a contradiction in conception and a contradiction in will).
  • The second formulation of the categorical imperative.

Issues, including:

  • clashing/competing duties
  • not all universalisable maxims are distinctly moral; not all non-universalisable maxims are immoral
  • the view that consequences of actions determine their moral value 
  • Kant ignores the value of certain motives, eg love, friendship, kindness
  • morality is a system of hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives (Philippa Foot).

Aristotelian virtue ethics

  • ‘The good’ for human beings: the meaning of Eudaimonia as the ‘final end’ and the relationship between Eudaimonia and pleasure.
  • The function argument and the relationship between virtues and function.
  • Aristotle’s account of virtues and vices: virtues as character traits/dispositions; the role of education/habituation in the development of a moral character; the skill analogy; the importance of feelings; the doctrine of the mean and its application to particular virtues.
  • Moral responsibility: voluntary, involuntary and non-voluntary actions.
  • The relationship between virtues, actions and reasons and the role of practical reasoning/practical wisdom.

Issues including:

  • whether Aristotelian virtue ethics can give sufficiently clear guidance about how to act
  • clashing/competing virtues
  • the possibility of circularity involved in defining virtuous acts and virtuous persons in terms of each other
  • whether a trait must contribute to Eudaimonia in order to be a virtue; the relationship between the good for the individual and moral good.

Applied ethics

Students must be able to apply the content of Normative ethical theories and meta-ethics to the following issues:

  • stealing
  • simulated killing (within computer games, plays, films etc)
  • eating animals
  • telling lies.


The origins of moral principles: reason, emotion/attitudes, or society.

The distinction between cognitivism and non-cognitivism about ethical language.

Moral realism

There are mind-independent moral properties/facts.

  • Moral naturalism (cognitivist) – including naturalist forms of utilitarianism (including Bentham) and of virtue ethics.
  • Moral non-naturalism (cognitivist) – including intuitionism and Moore’s ‘open question argument’ against all reductive metaethical theories and the Naturalistic Fallacy.

Issues that may arise for the theories above, including:

  • Hume's Fork and A J Ayer's verification principle
  • Hume's argument that moral judgements are not beliefs since beliefs alone could not motivate us
  • Hume's is-ought gap
  • John Mackie's argument from relativity and his arguments from queerness.

Moral anti-realism

There are no mind-independent moral properties/facts.

  • Error Theory (cognitivist) - Mackie
  • Emotivism (non-cognitivist) – Ayer
  • Prescriptivism (non-cognitivist) – Richard Hare

Issues that may arise for the theories above, including:

  • whether anti-realism can account for how we use moral language, including moral reasoning, persuading, disagreeing etc.
  • the problem of accounting for moral progress
  • whether anti-realism becomes moral nihilism.

Set texts

Annas, Julia (2006), 'Virtue Ethics', in David Copp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 515–536

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Books 1 (1–5, 7–10, 13), 2 (1–7), 3 (1–5), 5, 6 (1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13), 7 (12–13), 10 (1–8)

Ayer, Alfred J (1973/1991), The Central Questions of Philosophy, London, Penguin, 22–29 and Ayer, AJ (1946), Language, Truth and Logic, 2nd Edition, New York, Dover, (esp. Chapters 1 and 6)

Bentham, Jeremy (1789), Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Oxford, Clarendon Press. Chapter 1 (The Principle of Utility) and Chapter 4 (Measuring Pleasure and Pain)

Diamond, Cora (1978), ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’ Philosophy 53: 465–479

Foot, Philippa (1972), ‘Morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives.’ Philosophical Review, vol 81, issue 3, 305–316.

Hare, Richard M (1952) The Language of Morals, Chapters 1, 5, 7, 10.2

Hume, David (1739–40), Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part 1

Kant, Immanuel (1785), Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Chapters 1 and 2

Mackie, John L (1977), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin, Chapter 1, Sections 8 and 9

Mill, John Stuart (1863), Utilitarianism, Chapters 1, 2, 4, 5

Moore, George E (1903), Principia Ethica, Cambridge University Press, Sections 6–14

Smart, Jack J C & Williams, Bernard (1973), Utilitarianism: For and Against, Chapter 2 (Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism) and Chapter 3 (Hedonistic and non-hedonistic utilitarianism)