Ethics [section ed: George Matthews]

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    This thread will be for discussions related to the Ethics section. This top post will include:

    • section goals
    • section TOC
    • chapter assignments
    • author guide (length, style etc)
    • how to participate
    • section “team”


    Here is a tentative outline for this section as I envision it at the outset. I am assuming this will all get refined and modified somewhat by authors and others involved in this project. But here’s a start at least.

    Each of the the following chapters would have a similar sort of framework involving the main presentation, some key arguments (perhaps integrated into the text, perhaps as sidebars or separate subsections), some account of important figures from the history of philosophy, and a few case studies which could either come from real stories that bring up relevant issues in ethics or could be made up examples or thought experiments to illustrate the main points.

    The order of exposition is not strictly historical but more “dialectical” in the sense that it seems to me at least to follow a certain logical development. (Sorry I spent way too much time reading Hegel as a grad student!)

    Chapter 1: It’s All Relative Isn’t It?

    This opening chapter would deal with the kinds of issues surrounding discussion of philosophical approaches to ethics that students tend to have at the outset (in my experience at least). In particular it would provide an overview of ethics as a discipline, a provocative example or two to raise the questions of how to live one’s life or what the right thing to do is, and address the following theoretical positions:

    • Ethical relativism: included here would be a discussion of the relationship between ethics and cultural norms as well as the question of the universality of ethical principles. Explicit philosophical positions covered would be cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism.

    • Ethics and religion: this section would deal with the relationship between ethical rules and other modes of social authority, in particular religion. It would deal with Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory as explicit positions in normative ethics. The reason to include it in this chapter is that even though religious approaches to ethics are often presented as foils to relativism, in my view they share with relativism the idea that there is some non-negotiable authoritative source of ethical rules which is not answerable to human reason.

    Chapter 2: Ethics and Self-Interest

    This chapter explores approaches to ethics that are suggested by the demise of traditional authority as a legitimate basis of ethical norms both in theoretical terms of the failure of the positions outlined in the previous chapter and in historical terms with the advent of modernity. Here I would include discussions of:

    • Psychological Egoism: is altruism even possible given that humans are animals who make our own decisions? Here Max Stirner might be the focus.

    • Ethical Egoism: is setting one’s own interests aside ever really such a good idea? This section could examine a range of positions from Ayn Rand’s arguments against altruism to quasi-Darwinian arguments about the value of competition, to arguments along the lines of Hayek that capitalist market mechanisms produce socially optimal outcomes.

    • Social Contract theory: Even though this would also be covered in the chapter on political philosophy it seems worth covering here as an account of morality as grounded in convention based on the self-interest of free and rational agents.

    Chapter 3: The Good versus the Right

    This chapter would look at universalist ethical theories focusing especially on utilitarianism and Kantian deontological ethics. Rather than treat each in a separate chapter I like the idea of treating them as attempts to articulate and defend widely accepted but differing (and often conflicting) universalist principles, “Do what benefits others,” and “Do the right thing.”

    • Utiltarianism: A consequentialist approach to ethics that treats ethical reasoning as an attempt to maximize benefit to all affected. Here Bentham and Mill’s contrasting approaches could be explored along with the major objections to utilitarianism.

    • Kantian deontology: Kant’s attempt to defend the idea that ethical action is an end in itself; the three formulations of the categorical imperative; the standard objections to Kant’s claim of the exceptionless character of moral rules.

    Chapter 4: Embodying Ethics

    This chapter would explore different ways of looking at the relationship of ethics to whole human beings. At least that is my sense of a common thread that might run between:

    • Virtue Ethics: Aristotle’s account of the socially situated nature of ethical action and judgment.

    • Moral Development and Gender: including a discussion of Kolhberg, Gilligan and more recent feminist approaches to ethics.

    • Buddhist ethics: perhaps this is biting off to much but it might be nice to include an account of a non-Western approach to ethics. I see Buddhist ethics as an attempt to articulate an ethics based not so much on a theoretical position one might take concerning ethics but on the attempt to embody ethics in practice in a very broad sense of that term.

    Chapter 5: Expanding the Circle

    This chapter would introduce applied ethics by looking at attempts to expand the scope of ethics beyond human beings. Thus it could include sections on the following topics that draw on positions previously discussed:

    • Animals and ethics: here there could be a discussion of the question of the ethical consideration of non-human animals, animal welfare, and animal rights positions.

    • Environmental ethics: here there could be a discussion of whether ethical consideration should extend to other species, all living beings, ecosystems, etc.

    Well that should be plenty to get the ball rolling. All comments, questions, objections welcome!


  • Oh man…somehow I missed the email notification that you had posted this. Or maybe I am not subscribed to this thread so I didn’t get it. At any rate, I just saw that this is here and I will reply more in full as soon as I have time as well as post the link to the larger book thread and invite others to comment as well. I’m so sorry I missed this!

  • @clhendricksbc No worries, I had just attributed the radio silence to mid-semester…

  • Finally getting back to this…the term is slowing down for us (next week is the last week!) so I’m able to pull my head above water a bit.

    I think generally this looks very good! Just a couple of questions:

    1. I don’t yet see how relativism, like religious ethics, has the idea of “some non-negotiable authoritative source of ethical rules which is not answerable to human reason.” Is it that ethical relativists think ethics requires such a thing and then say that it doesn’t exist?

    2. I am not sure I’m really following the thread of chapter 4. Maybe that’s because when I teach ethics I always do so by focusing on three “kinds” of theories: consequentialist, deonotological, and virtue ethics. I don’t separate the latter off as somehow connecting to whole human beings, but a sort of third kind of ethical theory. Still, I think I can see what you mean. But then I’m not certain that feminist ethics necessarily all fall into looking at ethics in the context of a whole human life. At least, I’m not seeing it right away.

    3. I agree that it would be great to get some non-Western ethics in there. I don’t know much about Buddhist ethics so I don’t have a lot to contribute about that, except to say that one would need to somehow delineate how it differs from the religious ethics discussed in chapter 1. And it would be interesting if we could look at some other form of non-Western ethics, though that’s an area I know little about.

  • I missed this table of contents earlier also and appreciate the encouragement to take a look. Here are a few questions:

    1. Like clhendricksbc, I’m also unsure about the use of “answerable to reason” in chapter 1. As I understand the view, Natural Law theorists (e.g. Aquinas) think that the natural law is an ordinance of reason. So characterizing their view as relying on something “not answerable to human reason” seems strange to me. Is “human” there to make room for the natural law’s reliance on divine reason?

    2. To what traditional sources of authority does the description of chapter 2 refer? I’m concerned about characterizing those sources of authority as failures because at least some of them (e.g. natural law) have modern/contemporary proponents.

  • @clhendricksbc

    RE: 1. what I am getting at there is the idea that relativism, like Divine Command Theory, assumes that moral judgments are based on pre-given precepts, and hence are not subject to reflective evaluation. Both are meta-ethical views that assume that the authoritative nature of value judgments must originate outside of the individual. One is indoctrinated into one’s culture according to relativists without any possibility of standing outside of culture to evaluate its dictates. Likewise, and more obviously so for DCT.

    RE 2. Maybe I am stretching it there to have everything neatly fit into four chapters! But the way I understand Aristotle’s virtue ethics is that the ethical agent is not anything like a modern isolated “subject” making rule based judgments about right and wrong, but is an agent situated in a political and social context, who has, hopefully, cultivated habitual ways of action and has learned how to make moral judgment based on this kind of experience.

    And that relates to your third point as well, about including Buddhist ethics here rather than under the heading of religion. Since Buddhism is non-theistic, and puts so much emphasis on moral precepts being something that have to be enacted through constant practice and cultivation of awareness, I thought it fit better here, rather than with approaches that see religion as a source of moral authority, rather than spiritual self-knowledge.

    Maybe thus whole narrative structure that I am suggesting here is a bit forced, but the basic idea is this:
    Section 1 deals with ethics as something learned and/or assimilated from authoritative sources.
    Section 2 takes the modern turn to self-interest as the orienting principle and looks at theories that argue that appeals to self-interest are necessary and sufficient for morality to have any bite.
    Section 3 considers universalistic moral theories that argue for the good of all (consequentialism) or what is intrinsically the right thing to do (Kant and other deontological theories) as the basis of moral judgment.
    Section 4 considers approaches that take into account how morality is but one part of human life embedded in real social relations (Aristotle, also modern communitarians), gender roles, and a larger spiritual quest for self-understanding and realization. (Or maybe its just a portmanteau category of “everything else that seems worth talking about in an introduction to ethics.”

  • @kmf.aho
    Yes, I see your point about Natural Law Theory and its explicit appeal to reason. But as I understand Aquinas, Reason is not to be understood as the reflective capacity of agents who are capable of autonomous action and thought, but as the capacity to read the book of nature as created by God and which provides us with a kind of template for what a moral life looks like. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but I see Aquinas as essentially appealing to a divinely given order of things as the ultimate source of the normative force of ethical rules.

    As for your question about chapter 2, I am thinking of the opening moves made by Hobbes in the Leviathan, where he essentially says, lets assume for the sake of argument that there is no religious authority to bind us, and there are no generally accepted and practiced cultural norms either. How would we run our lives in that case?

    And the failure I am referring to, is essentially the failure of appeals to authority as the basis of moral norms, as pointed out by Plato in the Euthyphro. That there are contemporary defenders of both Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory might be something worth mentioning in the text, but I am not as concerned with accounting for all of the details of contemporary moral debate as of telling a somewhat simplified, but hopefully not wildly inaccurate story of the development of philosophical ethics.

    Again I am not wedding to the overall narrative structure here, but this is an approach I have found helpful for opening up moral theory to undergraduates.

  • @geoslack Thanks for clarifying–your point about telling a developmental story rather than accounting for the contemporary debate is quite helpful.

  • Classes have ended for our Spring term and I finally can breathe again and think further about this!

    I think the structure here could work, though the more I think about it the more I wonder if it would be good to have a structure that hews more to what many textbooks already have, only because that is going to look familiar to lots of people and what we want to make sure to do is to have people look at this and think they can recognize how they might teach with it. I think the sections on self-interest and consequentialism/deontology fit that quite well, though it sounds like at least Karl and I had some questions about sections 1 and 4.

    I typically see sections on relativism including both cultural relativism and subjectivism, and the latter doesn’t quite fit the narrative about how part 1 fits together I think, even though subjectivism is in the relativism chapter. Subjectivism doesn’t quite fit what George describes in a reply last week as holding that the “authoritative nature of value judgments must originate outside of the individual.” Or maybe I’m still not quite getting the point! Which is certainly possible… :)

    And now that I think about it further, maybe it’s just part 1 that I am still struggling with. I have frequently seen Gilligan’s view of feminist ethics connected to virtue ethics, and maybe other feminist ethics could be connected to the “whole person” in some way too. I don’t know enough about Buddhist ethics to comment on whether I think that fits there!

    I’m going to ping a few people on our list who specifically said they had an interest in ethics to comment here as well. And possibly put a call out on social media for more volunteers that specialize in ethics if need be. What we are going to need to do soon is to find volunteer authors!

  • I’ll weigh in. I may have a different perspective from some: I teach philosophy at a college, not a university.

    To me, this seems like a lot. I suppose, since students won’t be paying for the text, that this might not matter much, but inasmuch as we shorten chapters to get more in, I’d suggest that we keep in mind the 13-week nature of courses.

    In my course, we tackle one philosopher per week, and read a short selection. I like hewing close to the primary source, although I confess I can’t say why. Nobody does it in physics, say, but we always read the greats in the classes I took, and so I get the students to read the greats in mine–mind you, it’s not a lot of the greats, just a little—10 pages, say. That’s usually more than enough for my students.

    Because reading the greats is hard, I do two things: I radically shorten them, and then I ‘translate’ them into plain, 21st-century English. (It’s barbarism, I know!). Then, I add exegetical comments in the margins, to clarify and contextualize the original.

    I’m not saying that we should do this–far from it, because my book fell stillborn from the press. But me, I would vote for integrating some primary sources in there.

  • I had some time to look at the outline and follow the discussion. Here are some comments:

    @adam I believe the idea is that this book should be modular and the selection of parts to be worked through should be up to the lecturer/reader. With that said, I think including original texts (where possible) with exegetical notes could work.

    As for the outline itself: I think one thing that could be added to every section is a critique, that is, aside from showing the successes of any particular approach, the difficult cases or unsolved problems should be introduced as well. I believe this would convey to the students the need for careful thought and create a habit of examining the ideas they’re learning about. (Of course whether it’s desirable to teach this attitude can be seen as an applied ethics issue in and of itself, but I can’t see a better option than majority consensus when writing a book as a group. I do think it’s a good idea myself.)

    As for a more specific critique:

    • If I understood geoslack correctly, the idea is to present ethical relativism as somehow postulating that there must be an authoritative source of ethical principles/laws. This might be a vocabulary difference between what I was taught, but I am pretty certain that a pretty significant portion of relativists (metaethical ones) would actually deny the existence of a set, “true” authority on what the right thing is. This seems to be actually what is said later in the explanation given by geoslack: “One is indoctrinated into one’s culture according to relativists without any possibility of standing outside of culture to evaluate its dictates.”
    • RE: Buddhism. The subject is vast, but I cannot agree with the statement “Buddhism is non-theistic”. There exist multiple branches of Buddhism and they have varied views regarding the supernatural. There is a whole category of beings, called devas, who have various supernatural powers. Some of them have physical bodies and inhabit various, stratified heavens. The majority of Theravada lay Buddhist practice aims at ensuring a more likely rebirth in one of those heavens by accumulating good karma, according to Trainor (Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, OUP, 2004), and Fowler (Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex University Press, 1999) asserts that being a monk is viewed as assuring better likelihood of a good rebirth. Also, in Tibetan Buddhism there exists the notion of supernatural powers of various rituals, such as exorcisms or symbolic sacrifice (, as well as healing rituals, complete with prayers to the Medicine Buddha. In conclusion, I think the “non-theistic” claim is at least misleading.

  • Thanks for the detailed responses. I’ll address the various issues people raise in a few days. It’s been an insanely busy semester for me and there are a couple of extra-curricular things I am doing this week as well that have been occupying my time. So sometime this weekend I’ll be able to respond.

    In the mean time, I should fess up that I have a whole bunch of material – sort of a free online ethics text that I’ve been working on and putting out in various forms over the last several years. And that’s the basis for my perhaps not-quite-standard presentation and taxonomy of positions in normative ethics that I’ve been outlining here. I haven’t mentioned it thus far because a) I didn’t want to slam it into a project that somebody else is leading, b) it seems like too much material to include here, c) I am trying to get one version of it ported over to a blog format for use in classes soon and didn’t really want to make a condensed version of it as well, and d) I wanted to leave space for others to contribute here, since this is maybe more of a collaborative project.

    Anyway, you can have a look at the current state of it here: I am using b2evolution blogging software (free and open source) for it as well as blogs that I use in other courses.

    More later,

  • Just a quick note on including original texts:

    There are a couple of things we could do. We could include some selections in the book itself or have a kind of accompanying set of public domain or openly licensed materials that people can include or not, or select portions of themselves.

    Whichever way we go we would want to be consistent for the whole book. I favour the latter option just for the sake of keeping the text relatively short and avoiding trying to figure out exactly which parts of original texts to excerpt (many people disagree on which parts of Plato, or Mill, or Kant to include!). But I’m open to being persuaded otherwise by a good argument! :slight_smile:

    The plan here is that the open textbook will be easily modifiable, so if people want to excerpt parts of the original texts and include within the textbook itself, that should be easy to do.

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    @clhendricksbc We have a couple of anthology projects on the go that could provide a model for creating an accompanying set of texts, if you do decide to go in that direction. It would be something that could serve other/future philosophy textbooks as well, I suspect!

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