Two Introductory lectures on ethical theory

by Daniel A. Kaufman


This semester, I am once again teaching all-online [hopefully for the last time].  Here are the two opening lectures for my Ethics and Contemporary Issues course, in which I give a brief overview of ethical theory.  Below them you will find the lecture notes that accompany the videos and which are also made available to students. The course is part of Missouri State’s General Education curriculum.


Overview of Ethical Theory, Part 1

In ethics, we explore questions of moral obligation and virtue.  In this sense, ethics is the study of a certain kind of value. 

Axiology = the study of value, generally.

Ethics = the study of moral value, with regard to action and character.

In Ethics, there are two primary areas of investigation [as well as any number of smaller areas, which I will not address here]: Virtue Ethics and Moral Theory.

Virtue Ethics: The focus is on character and personality. What makes for an admirable person? What is it to do “the person thing” well?

Moral Theory: The focus is on individual actions. What makes actions right or wrong, obligatory or prohibited?  Put another way: What is the common property that right/obligatory actions share and that wrong/prohibited actions share?

The most famous version of a Virtue Ethics is found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (340 BC), although virtually every major philosophical school in Ancient Greece had its own distinctive Virtue Ethics, esp. Hellenistic schools like the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Moral theory is primarily found in modern philosophy, by which I mean philosophy since the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Moral theory was the dominant form of ethical philosophy up into the mid-late 20th century, when Virtue Ethics made a comeback.

The reasons for the switch of emphasis from character to individual actions are many and complex, but one reason certainly has to do with the emergence of larger-scale, heterogenous/pluralistic societies – particularly nation states – in which population diversity made it less likely that there would be a single, agreed-upon conception of what an “admirable person” consists of or of value more generally.  Moral obligation/prohibition is more law-like and may be applicable without shared underlying values or at least, with much less dependence on them.

The most famous and most prevalent moral theories are those associated with the philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). A significant majority of philosophers working in this area of ethics subscribe to a version of one view or the other [and there are many contemporary versions of each]

The relationship between theories – whether moral or virtue – and practice is complex and indirect.  The picture of a simple application – i.e. one reads and digests the theory and then just “does what it says” in practice – cannot be correct.  Philosophical theories are highly general and abstract, while practice-scenarios are highly particular and context-dependent.

With regard to the issues in this class then, it won’t be as simple a matter as “Which theory do I think is the best” and then “What does that theory say I should do in this particular case.”  Rather, different theories will give different “reads” on the case at hand and will provide a backdrop against which to make a judgment on that case.

In the next lecture, I will offer a brief summary of these two moral theories: Mill’s (Utilitarianism) and Kant’s.  I also will say a few things about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics. 


Overview of Ethical Theory, Part 2

As I said in my previous lecture, the two dominant moral theories that one finds in philosophy are Utilitarianism and some version of Kant’s moral philosophy, as expressed in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. (1785) I’m going to give a brief characterization of each and then end with some closing remarks on Virtue Ethics.


Originating with Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and receiving a fuller, more mature treatment in J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861), Utilitarianism begins with the idea that happiness defined as “pleasure and the absence of pain” is the fundamental good at which all other goods aim.  That is, everything we pursue in life ultimately is for the sake of happiness, and happiness is not a means to any other end.

Given this account of what is ultimately good and valuable, Utilitarianism goes on to say that it is our moral obligation to maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness; that it is right to contribute to peoples’ happiness and wrong to undermine it.

Utilitarianism benefits from being both simple and intuitive. It is a form of Consequentialism [any theory in which the moral significance of an action lies in the goodness or badness of its outcomes]and can make sense of greater and lesser degrees of rightness and wrongness/obligatoriness and prohibitedness in terms of the greater or lesser amounts of happiness/unhappiness that an action causes. 

Utilitarianism also faces a number of substantial criticisms, three of which include:

  1. Impracticality: In order to know, prior to acting, whether an action is right or wrong, one must be able to predict whether its net effect will be to increase or decrease the general happiness. While this may be clear in some cases, in many cases it will not be. But that means that on many occasions, Utilitarianism cannot help us with the ethical decisions we have to make.
  2. Unfairness: On many occasions, regardless of what we do, the result of our actions is beyond our control. One can do everything right and still end up with bad results.  Similarly, one can act on malevolent intentions and things can turn out good.  It seems unfair that we should be morally judged for the goodness or badness of consequences that we may have little to no control over.
  3. Perverse Outcomes: Ethics, as a subject, is something we all have feelings and opinions about prior to any philosophical study of the subject. Specifically, we all already have a substantial sense of obligation and duty prior to studying ethics. Consequently, those feelings and opinions – that moral sense – functions as a constraint on the acceptability of any theory of ethics.  If a theory tells us that to many things which we normally consider wrong are in fact right [or vice versa] that counts against the plausibility of the theory.

Because Utilitarianism is concerned entirely with the general happiness, it often will yield what to us will seem perverse results.  If, for example, it turns out that Roman gladiator games created more happiness than unhappiness, Utilitarianism will tell us not only that they were right but that they were obligatory.  And yet, I doubt that there are too many people who will agree that forcing people to fight to the death for the entertainment of others is morally right, regardless of how much happiness it causes.

  1. Motive: Utilitarianism’s credibility is further challenged by the fact that it assigns no moral significance whatsoever to motives. And yet, those the following two actions produce identical consequences, it would seem that the first is obviously morally superior to the second, yet Utilitarianism cannot explain why.
  2. I save a girl from drowning in a lake, because I feel pity for her and her family and believe it is the right thing to do.
  3. I save a girl from drowning in a lake, because I hope that if I do so, I will become a local celebrity. Personally, I could care less whether she lives or dies.


A tight cluster of ideas about morality lie at the heart of Kant’ moral philosophy.

  1. Ought’ implies ‘can’. Meaning: one only is appropriately praised or blamed for things over which one has control.
  2. Moral imperatives [oughts and ought nots] apply universally and have categorical, rather than hypothetical force. Meaning: they apply irrespective of who one is, in what circumstances one finds oneself or what one wants.  This is what separates a moral imperative, such as “Don’t murder” from other imperatives, like “Don’t enter the pool area without footwear.”  The former applies to everyone, regardless of the circumstances or what one wants, but the second only applies to those people who want to enter the pool area.
  3. Morality is a feature of rational agency: that is, our actions being praiseworthy or blameworthy is the result of our capacity for rational deliberation and for genuine, self-directed action.

As a result of these considerations, Kant’s moral philosophy focuses entirely on the motives or intentions behind our actions, rather than the outcomes of them.  This is because Kant does not believe that we have much control over the ultimate results of our actions, but only over the reasons on which we decide to act.

Kant offers multiple formulations of his “Supreme Moral Principle,” but the one most commonly used to characterize Kantian Ethics is as follows:

“You must only act on motives that you rationally will everyone else to follow.”

Kant’s view is neither simple nor intuitive, so in that regard, it is at a disadvantage relative to Utilitarianism.  It also makes rightness/wrongness an all or nothing matter, so it cannot make sense of gradations of different degrees of rightness/wrongness, obligatoriness/prohibitedness.

The main objection to Kant, however, involves his refusing to grant moral significance to outcomes and thus to the idea that moral imperatives must be categorical.  A famous example goes as follows:

Suppose a person has escaped a would-be murderer and has arrived at your house terrified and covered in blood, asking if he can hide in your basement.  You grant his request, and 5 minutes later, the doorbell rings.  On opening it, you find another man covered in blood and holding a large axe.  He asks you if anyone is hiding in your basement.  What should you do.

According to Kant, there is a categorical imperative not to lie, as one could not rationally will that everyone should lie.  That means that you are obligated to tell the murderer the truth. This can’t be right, however, as doing so will result in the murderer finishing the job of killing his victim.  This strikes most people as an absurd or as I have been calling it, a “perverse” result.

Virtue Ethics

As indicated earlier, Virtue Ethics was the primary form of moral philosophy in Greek antiquity.  Focus shifted to moral theory in the modern era, but since around the middle of the last century, Virtue Ethics began to receive renewed attention and is now a robust area of study in philosophy.

The gold standard of virtue theory is found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (340B.C.) and is based in the idea that everything has a distinctive good or “flourishing state,” determined by its defining qualities or “essence.”  The defining quality/essence of a chair, for example, is that it is something to sit in, and so a chair that is good to sit in is, objectively speaking, a good chair.  Aristotle thinks that this analysis applies to everything in the world, including people, so whatever our distinctive good or flourishing state is, it is going to be determined by whatever our defining quality or essence is.

Aristotle sees the essence of human beings lying in a unique mixture of divine and animal elements: the capacity for both epistemic and deliberative reason and the capacity to act purposefully. [By ‘epistemic reason’, I mean the sort of reasoning employed in the pursuit of knowledge, and by ‘deliberative reason’, I mean the sort of reasoning employed in determining a course of action.]  Whatever the human good or flourishing state is, then, it’s going to involve excellence in the use of these faculties.

Excellence in deliberation results in right action, whatever that means in a given context.  If I am an engineer trying to figure out how best to design a bridge meant to carry heavy truck and train traffic, the result of good deliberative reasoning will be a bridge that is made of such materials and designed in such a way as to be able to sustain such loads without falling down. On a different front entirely, if I am a member of a parliament, trying to persuade someone from a different party to vote with my party on piece of legislation, the result of good deliberative reasoning may be a set of offers to compromise on other pieces of legislation that the other person wants, subsequently resulting in his cooperation.

What we normally call “moral” or “ethical virtue” involves excellence in deliberative reasoning in certain kinds of social contexts. Aristotle suggests that successful practical reasoning and right decision in these areas engenders a kind of practical wisdom, which is the ability to identify the appropriate course of action in a given set of circumstances. Being the result of rational deliberation [as well as practice, in the form of life experience], these virtues are characterized by representing moderation relative to respective extremes of “too much” and “too little,” both of which are vices.

For example, honesty is a virtue, but telling the truth too little is a vice, i.e. the vice of dishonesty, as is telling the truth too much, which is the vice of indiscretion. The virtue of honesty involves telling the truth when doing so is appropriate, given the circumstances.

One way that human beings can live good lives / come to a flourishing state of being, then, is through moral and civic virtue, both of which involve successful practical deliberation applied to purposeful action. 

Another way is through excellence in “epistemic reasoning,” by which I mean the kind of thinking the purpose of which is to acquire knowledge of one kind or another; to discover what is true and what is false.  Beyond the life of moral and civic virtue, then, the life of scholarship and intellectual pursuit are another way in which human beings can live good lives / come to a flourishing state of being.

The main challenge to Virtue Ethics in the modern era has to do with an increasing disinclination to think that things in nature have essences or defining characteristics.  Whether a life has been good or whether a person has achieved a flourishing state is thought of almost entirely subjectively today.  One might be surprised at the revival of Virtue Ethics then, in the last half century or so, but it has come largely as a result of frustration with the lack of progress in moral theory: specifically in a kind of stalemate that has settled between Utilitarians and Kantians. 

Another difficulty is that with Virtue Ethics, you really don’t get moral rules or principles or even obligations, in the Kantian sense of categorical commands.  What one ought to do is simply what the practically wise person ought to do, and this will vary from situation to situation, and that one ought to do it is nothing more than a hypothetical imperative, as it will only apply if a person cares about being virtuous or flourishing.  If one is looking for strong “oughts” one’s ethics, then, Virtue Ethics will likely disappoint.


18 responses to “Two Introductory lectures on ethical theory”

  1. Charles Justice

    Note that Bentham, who originated Utilitarianism, made his biggest mark in legislation. On the level of individual behaviour Utilitarianism seems absurd and plainly wrong. But on a larger scale, such as the scale for making legislation, it makes sense. With statistical analysis we can “see” the consequences of government policies, and the collective decisions of large numbers of people. We might also be able to tell ahead of time, that a well-intentioned piece of legislation will have bad consequences. On the level of the individual: intuition, social approval and disapproval, and the moral sentiments are better guides for what to do in the presence of uncertainty.

  2. I generally agree, but it is a bit more complicated than this. Singer, for example, leans towards a Benthamite version of Utilitarianism, because it is more conducive to making the case for animal welfare than the Millian version, which elevates “higher” pleasures over “lower” ones.

  3. RJB

    Thanks for sharing these! This is well-timed, as I am currently in the midst of a debate over the differences between ethics vs. morality, ethical vs. moral, unethical vs. immoral, etc. There seems to be little consensus. Here are some claims we’ve seen, some drawn from philosophy, but others drawn from how the terms are used by non-philosopher academics (e.g., psychologists), policy-makers (e.g, bodies that set standards for professions) and laypeople in ordinary language:

    1. Morality refers to specific actions and behaviors; ethics refers to frameworks and principles.
    2. Morality refers to codes specific to particular cultures and religions; ethics refers to universal codes.
    3. Morality refers to a person’s character, ethics refers to behaviors and consequences.

    As far as I can tell, none of these achieve a persuasive consensus, and many people just use the word interchangeably (as you seem to here from time to time). And some of them have clear counter-examples. For example, psychologists often refer to ‘moral reasoning’, which violates 1, people frequently talk about ‘moral principles’, violating 2, and virtue ethics are heavily focused on character, violating 3.

    Is there a distinction that has garnered some consensus? For some context, this matters to me and my co-authors partly because we want to present laypeople with scenarios where someone behaves badly, and we are wondering whether they would answer differently to the questions “How immoral is this?” and “How unethical is this?”.

    It also matters partly because I am writing a paper about what it takes to hold people morally accountable in a moral way. Or maybe that is holding people morally accountable in an ethical way. Or maybe holding people ethically accountable in an moral way. Or….

    In case it helps, the seven requirements for holding people accountable in what for now I’ll just call a “right” way are: (1) to hold the right parties accountable, (2) to the right extent, (3) on the right basis, (4) under the right standards, (5) with good judgment, (6) in a way that is effective in improving behavior, and finally, (7) to let someone else handle it if they can fulfill 1-6 more completely.

    Thanks to anyone who can point me in the right direction!

  4. Perhaps a starting point is to consider the Greek and Latin derivation of “ethics” and “morals” respectively. English borrowed both words and sometimes thinkers have found it useful to take advantage of the possibility to make finer distinctions. In respect to the con nations of ordinary usage, I have always taken “morals” to have a more internal or personal resonance and “ethics” to have a more public or collective one.

  5. To the author: may I ask what textbook(s) you use? I have yet to find one with which I am really satisfied. I have used books by Pojman (which I prefer) in the past and I am currently teaching from Schafer-Landau’s “The Ethical Life.”

  6. I don’t use textbooks. Just primary sources in the form of articles, saved as PDFs, and made available to students through Blackboard.

  7. The lecture notes I publish are in lieu of a textbook.

  8. Thanks for the reply. I recognize the appeal of assembling one’s own collection of readings. I have toyed with the idea before and your example gives me more confidence to go forward with it.

  9. Charles Justice

    I’ve noticed that many scholars want to make a distinction between ethics and morality, but most give it up and revert to using them as synonyms. Bernard Williams makes the distinction, eg. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Because my interest is in the origins of morality I distinguish morality and ethics along the lines of Bernard Gert’s analysis of moral rules, see Gert, Morality, it’s Nature and Justification. Gert makes the point that what he calls “the moral rules” are a set of simple, easy to understand, publicly known, behavioural prohibitions that can be summarized as don’t lie, steal, commit adultery, break your promises, or harm yourself or others. It’s a short list of don’ts that everybody knows. This is their strength – they are easy to understand and to follow. Ethics, on the other hand refers to doing the right thing, which is much harder to specify, since there is virtually unlimited ways to do things in a way that is permitted or allowed. The moral rules are a short set of rules that are easy to understand and follow; whereas,principles of good living and the acquisition of virtuous habits and dispositions are not so easy to understand or to follow. Ethical rules of living are essentially summaries: principles, and ideals that serve as general guidelines rather than rigid requirements; they correspond to ways of living and acting that we want to encourage in general for the good of our community. Ethics, then, corresponds to general ethical theories about what constitutes the good life and the public good. In general conversation people do not make this distinction, but I think it is useful to distinguish between moral prohibitions, which are specifiable, and ethical principles, which are always going to be more general and vague, owing to the greater difficulty of specifying right actions.

  10. The domain of ethics is the domain of value, generally, within the social sphere. The domain of morality is the much narrower one of ethical obligatoriness and prohibitedness.

  11. s. wallerstein

    Ethics seems much broader, as Dan says. You can say, I believe, that the Mafia has its own ethical code, but could you say that the Mafia has its own code of morality?

  12. Charles Justice

    Morality is equally in the social sphere. Obligations and prohibitions have to do with living in a group.

  13. Uh, that’s consistent with what I said. The moral is a subset of the ethical.

  14. Charles Justice

    My mistake, but the way you put it, it sounded as if you were contrasting ethics as more in the social sphere.

  15. Yes, in re-reading it, I see how I gave that impression.

  16. “Another difficulty is that with Virtue Ethics, you really don’t get moral rules or principles or even obligations, in the Kantian sense of categorical commands. What one ought to do is simply what the practically wise person ought to do, and this will vary from situation to situation, and that one ought to do it is nothing more than a hypothetical imperative, as it will only apply if a person cares about being virtuous or flourishing. If one is looking for strong “oughts” one’s ethics, then, Virtue Ethics will likely disappoint.”

    Yes; this is the background of a comment I made on a previous article (to the effect that one cannot be both Moral realist and Virtue Ethicist) which I was too busy elseways to follow-up on in time. I am working on an essay that, if completed, will make this a little more understandable.However, to be brief and clear – Virtue Ethics are about the person and who he or she is (and does accordingly), not about some moral law hanging around out there somewhere.

  17. I have some thoughts on the topic of “ethics” and “moral” here (page 5):

    I argue that ethics and morals are the same thing, but I know there are various shades of meaning in how the concepts are used. In my view, “one important reason for regarding morality and ethics as essentially the same is that both (however interpreted) involve justice as the central moral or ethical consideration. Concern for justice ranges across the public and the personal.”


  18. Thank you! Will check it out!