A2 Philosophy and Ethics: Ethical Theory


Note document designed for: Edexcel - Religious Studies - Philosophy and Ethics - Unit 3 - Ethics- Ethical Theory. Bear in mind, before revising, that you may be given a choice into which ethical theory you tackle, may be asked to compare two (normally Natural Moral Law and Deontology) or may be given one specifically to focus on (again normally either Natural Moral Law, or Deontology).
Adam Cook
Note by Adam Cook, updated more than 1 year ago
Adam Cook
Created by Adam Cook about 9 years ago

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Ethical Theory.


Key Philosophers

Derived from the Greek word "deon" meaning "duty", deontology is an ethical theory based around the idea that there are intrinsic properties of actions. This is in contrast to consequentialist ethical theories, like utilitarianism, which states that the most important part of an action is the consequences. The most famous deontologist is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who thought that morals should not be influenced by feelings or "inclination" but instead should be focused with fixed / perscriptive statements like "I ought to".

Immanuel Kant

Kant was a (rather boring) philosopher who lived in a small German town called Königsburg in the late 18th century. He led a very structured life, so much so that people used to set their watches by his afternoon walks.Kant's key work on ethics was in his book: Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals in which he established real ethical duties and values.Kant was a rationalist, he thought that he could find a rational and universal basis for morals. He wanted to show that being moral was rational behavior.

Goodness and moral law

Kant believed that humans seek an ultimate end called the summum bonum (the supreme good). This is the state in which the highest virtue and the highest happiness are combined. Kant was not interested in arguments for God's existance and so therefore his argument assumes God. Kant thought that reaching the summum bonum must be guaranteed. Therefore he thought it reasonable to assume that God exists in order to support the idea that we can reach the highest good.Kant believed that moral law is objective and that its rules are real and binding. The logical definition that he provided to moral statements was synthetic a priori. "Synthetic" means that moral statements are not true by definition and so can be true or false. "a priori" means that they cannot be demonstrated through experience but are, instead, part of our understanding but rather arises as part of our reason.

"Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe... the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." - Kant

Moral Imperatives

For Kant, the basis of duty is what he calls "categorical imperatives". To explain this he distinguishes real ethics from "hypothetical imperatives" - instructions which have conditions attached to them. Kant seperates hypothetical imperatives into two halves the condition (Antecedent) and the instruction based off of that condition (Consequent). For example:Antecedent: If you want to get in shape Consequent: then you should get some exercise. Therefore a hypothetical imperative is the prescription of an action based on a hypothetical desired outcome. For Kant the whole point of ethics is that it is not based on our desires or circumstances. A moral law is a categorical imperative because it has no antecedent; there is no "if" part of the command. Duties are binding for their own sake.

The Categorical Imperative

For Kant to reject a true moral principle requires a logical mistake. Whenever we act, we act on a maxim, a rule or principle. Although it may be difficult to work out what that maxim is, it is always there. Kant speaks of moral actions as categorical imperatives but there is one underlying moral principle which he calls the Categorical Imperative. This is the test of a maxim to determine whether it truly is a maxim or not. Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative in three ways:1. For any maxim to be true, you must be able to allow that it could become a law for anyone.2. Never treat people just as a means; always see them as a valuable end in themselves.3. Act as though you assume that everyone is following the moral law.

Freedom and Accountability

Whilst the main purpose of deontology is to explain that humans have a moral duty to do what is good this caused a problem for Kant. This issue is: how can there be meaningful moral duties unless a person is shown to be free? It is possible to look at people as predictable and as such doubt that free choices are being made. This problem arises from the theory of casual determinism in which it is believed that a consequence is determined by its cause (if x happens, then y must happen). This applies in the natural world but does it apply to human behavior? As Kant's deontology required everyone to be their own moral agent and thus be accountable for their actions. Kant believed that in order for people to be able to held accountable for their actions they had to be able to make their own choices. To solve the problem of determinism Kant came up with two ways that we could envisage human behavior.1. If we observe other humans from an external point of view we may see that their actions appear determined e.g. I know that hungry people will eat pizza if it is offered to them.2. If we are in that situation ourselves we may see that we actually do have a choice e.g. if offered a pizza, I could reject it, even if I am hungry.Therefore, for Kant, as long as we view human behavior from the right vantage point, humans can be seen to be free and rational.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Kant's Deontology



• Kant's distinction between duty and inclination seems to be correct. What is right is not always what we want.• Justice for Kant would always be safeguarded for individuals, who are always "ends in themselves". He avoids the Utilitarian flaw of allowing the minority to suffer for the benefit of the majority. • Kant's appeal to human reason and universal values is sane and constructive. Surely it is best if we can give grounds for our ethics and share them with others.

• The refusal to consider consequences at all seems perverse; what if certain actions have horrendus or wonderful results? Surely, they should, to some extent, be taken into account.• Deontology leaves the individual with no flexability and no chance to consider individual circumstances. Intuitively we seem to accept that certain rules must have sensible exceptions. For instance, sometimes it is socially acceptable to lie to others, to tell someone that they look good even if you really don't believe that.• Is it really possible to "universalise" moral maxims? There are an infinite amount of possible moral choices; is it reasonable to suppose that the same rules can be applied consistantly in different circumstances?

Thomas Nagel: Modern Deontology

Thomas Nagel is a contemporary philosopher who has been influenced by Kant and wanted to show that deontology can still be relevant today. His main work on ethics is in The Possibility of Altruism."Common moral intuition recognizes several types of deontological reasons - limits on what one may do to people or how one may treat them. There are special obligations created by promises and agreements; the restrictions against lying and betrayal; the prohibitions against violating various individual rights, rights not to be killed, injured, imprisoned, threatened, tortured, coerced, robbed; the restrictions against imposing certain sacrifices on someone simply as a means to an end; and perhaps the special claim of immediacy, which makes distress at a distance so different from distress in the same room. There may also be a deontological requirement of fairness, of even-handedness or equality in one's treatment of people."In short: in daily life we assume that there are some fixed duties and expect others to comply with them.

Peter Singer: A modern critique

Peter Singer is a famous moral philosopher who has criticized Kant's moral ethics. His main critique is that Kant has removed sympathy and emotion from ethics."According to Kant, it is only when a person somehow loses 'all sympathy with the fate of others'', so that the person is no longer moved by any moral inclinations, but acts for the sake of duty alone, that 'for the first time his action has its genuine moral worth'." Singer also argued that the idea of "duty for its own sake" leads to a "closed system" in which people do not inquire into the reasons for our actions. This he regards as dangerous. Finally, without sympathy, Singer claims that the idea of duty can lead to "moral fanaticism" - the elevation of a perceived duty above all consideration of humanity.

Natural Moral Law

Natural Moral Law is an absolutist and deontological approach to ethics, prescribing fixed moral rules and real duties. The theory can be traced back to ancient ideas of natural morality: the view that humans have an inherent sense of right and wrong. Aristotle: "the natural is that which everywhere is equally valid."The Stoic philosophers emphasized the importance of rationality in the working of the world. Cicero: "True law is right reason in agreement with nature."Natural Moral Law is, however, best known as a Christian system of ethics. The Bible hints at such ideas as St. Paul argues that some morals are known from nature in Romans 1.

St. Thomas Aquinas

In Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that natural law resides in the purpose of nature, created by God. It is the destiny of humans to achieve union with God and Natural Moral Law helps them to achieve this. Aquinas argues that a very basic law is evident in nature and can be known through reason: "good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the law of nature are based on this."

Reason and revelation

God's law is perceived in two ways: firstly, through revelation (the Bible) the word of God is given. This stands in harmony with the second way of knowing: what can be discerned through the proper use of human reason. National Moral Law is a rational system of ethics but is supposed to find agreement with what is revealed in the Scripture.For Aquinas, a moral error is equivalent to an error in reason. If one is being truly rational, one will always discern what is right. Immoral lives are irrational and contradict the teachings of the Bible: "to disparage the dictate of reason is equivalent to condemning the command of God."

Real and Apparent Goods

Aquinas assumes that human nature is essentially good, however, if all humans naturally seek what is good, then why do they sometimes choose to do what is bad? He solves this by drawing a distinction between real and apparent goods; what is actually good and what appears to be good.A moral error involves choosing an apparent good, mistakenly supposing that it is really good. For example, if I eat ten hamburgers, I might think it's good because I'll enjoy it. However rational reflection will show that it is not a real good as it is unhealthy and could have negative consequences on my health. The same would go for stealing cars, adultery etc. They might appear good, but they actually are not.

The Primary Precepts

Aquinas goes on to develop the Five Primary Precepts of ethics in his Natural Moral Law. Ultimately, these are derived from his general assumption that humans are naturally motivated to do good and avoid evil.1) Firstly, the most basic and natural good is to seek self-preservation. This is necessary for all other moral goods.2) Secondly, once the human has survived, the next obvious natural good is reproduction.3) Thirdly, once more humans are being born, there is an obligation to nurture them through education.4) Fourthly, given that humans are able to learn, they must then learn to live together and live in society.5) Fifth and finally, since society is established, humans should turn to their ultimate source and give worship to God.

Interior and Exterior Acts

As with other deontological theories, intentions are important in Natural Moral Law. Aquinas described the action itself as the "exterior act" and the intention as the "interior act" so that both are part of the ethical action. Accordingly actions are only truly moral if they are good in both interior and exterior terms. The ultimate interior motivation for ethics should be giving glory to God. So, I should not give money to charity just to make people like me. I should do it to serve God.

Secondary Precepts

From one of the very general commands of the primary precepts, Aquinas then allows that secondary precepts will emerge - more specific rulings or applications. For example, suicide might be considered wrong because it breaks the first precept of self-preservation. Another example: the modern Roman Catholic Church has prohibited contraception on the grounds that it breaks the precept of reproduction. Natural Moral Law is still in use in the world today.


• Certainty: Being an absolutist system, it is a source of clear values and absolute certainty.• Universalism: Its focus on reason alone allows it to transcend the differences between cultures and focus upon common moral ideas shared by many • Purpose: Its emphasis upon the purpose of humanity gives people structure and meaning in their lives.


• No agreed moral law: a relativist objection. The world is full of different moralities not clear and common ethics.• No such thing as essential human nature: so argues the philosopher Kai Neilson. Science gives no justification for the view that humans have the same natural inclination.• Legalistic morality: the unbending absolutism of Natural Moral Law means that it is not understanding of individual circumstances.

James Rachels: Critical Perspectives on Natural Moral Law

The modern moral philosopher James Rachels has passed critical moral judgement on Natural Moral Law in his Elements Of Moral Philosophy. Rachels begins by observing that Natural Law is based upon "a certain view of what the world is like" - a view which involves rational order and purpose. If that world-view is challenged, then Natural Law is challenged. He observes that Christians (unlike Aristotle) have been willing to claim that nature even reflects what God has intended. For Rachels, Natural Law runs into two key problems. The first of these is Hume's "is-ought gap" the view that what is the case and what ought to be the case are logically entirely distinct. Natural Law mixes these two things together by saying that morals are present in nature. The second problem is the seemingly dated nature of Natural Law's outlook; it claims that the natural world reflects values, but this does not seem to be granted by modern science.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Aquinas' Natural Moral Law

"The Theory of Natural Law has gone out of fashion because the view of the world on which it rests is out of keeping with modern science. The world as described by Galileo, Newton and Darwin has no place for 'facts' about right and wrong."

Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics began with Aristotle who was a student of Plato amd, ultimately, rejected Plato's teachings. This disagreement gives rise to a fundamental dispute in moral philosophy: what is good?Plato gave a 'metaphysical' account of goodness. He regarded the good as something real - the ultimate reality which is the source of our being. Thus, our job is to contemplate the good. That is the ultimate aim of philosophy.Aristotle, meanwhile, criticised what Plato had said about goodness. He instead gave a naturalistic and psychological account of good - it is a part of our natural dispositions as human beings. This led Aristotle to the idea of purpose. Ethical life means living in tune with our natural purpose of rational and virtuous behaviour. This makes Aristotle's virtue ethics a 'teleological' system.

Aristotle's Ethics

Aristotle discussed this in his book Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of offering 'normative ethics' (claims about what is right or wrong) Aristotle put forward a system which is 'aretaic' (arête is Greek for 'excellence'), focused on the character of the individual. In other words aretaic virtue ethics focuses upon the desire to be a person of a certain quality.Aristotle thought that the purpose in our life is to become happy by practicing the 'skill' of virtuous behavior. The ultimate aim (telos - Greek) is called eudaimonia ('well-spirited' - so roughly, 'flourishing'), referring to the idea that the person practising virtue feels fulfilled and content.

"[Pleasure] is also thought to be the most important for the forming of a virtuous character to like and dislike the right things."

Qualities of Happiness and the Human

Valuing pleasure can be unclear: what is happiness? Aristotle distinguished between three types of happy people:• Pleasure seekers are driven by basic desires (food, sex).• Honour seekers are driven by their reputations (politicians).• Lovers of contemplation are philosophers and thinkers.Pleasure seekers follow the lowest form whereas contemplation lovers achieve what is best. The 'servile' masses prefer pleasure, but not philosophers. Humans have the distinctive power of reasoning, which makes them the 'rational animals' and so they should strive for what is better.The humans soul itself is divided into the rational and irrational parts. The key aspect of the rational human soul is its division into the scientific and calculative, which holds a priori knowledge and makes decisions.Virtue Ethics involves a person making full and harmonious use of the soul.

The Virtues

For Aristotle, the good life meant following the doctrine of the mean, the middle path between extremes. Being virtuous means being neither deficient nor excessive, but properly balanced. For instance, it is virtuous to have courage by avoiding a deficiency of courage (cowardice) and avoiding excessive courage (rashness). One learns to pick up the right balance of behavior through practice and habit.Aristotle distinguished between intellectual and moral virtues, setting out what he saw as 12 key moral virtues and their corresponding deficiencies and excesses.

Example:Modesty is a virtue. Those deficient in modesty are shameless, but those excessive in modesty are bashful.Wittiness is a virtue. Those deficient in wit are boorish, but those excessive in wit are guilty of buffoonery.

Elizabeth Anscombe

In 1958, after years of Virtue Ethics being unfashionable, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe wrote in 'Modern Moral Philosophy' that all of our modern morality is misguided. We have mistakenly supposed that goodness is a property of actions rather than of people. To resolve this mess, Anscombe proposed that we turn back to Aristotle and rediscover the idea of personal virtue.

Alasdair Macintryre

Having been inspired by ethicists like Anscombe, the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre wrote a hugely influential book After Virtue. Essentially, he considers the history of Virtue Ethics and attempts to produce one master version of the system which can work in the modern age.Macintyre observes that ancient societies developed a series of virtues agreed by their inhabitants. The high point of this claims Macintyre, was the Athenian Virtues of Aristotle. However, since the Enlightenment, rational philosophers have sought to give a single account of the cause of ethics, ignoring the most important aspect: individual practise.Macintyre argues that having a set of agreed virtues for our society could help to give life purpose and meaning. He suggests: courage, justice, temperance, wisdom, industriousness, hope and patience. Macintyre claimed that if we all willed to put such virtues into practice in our lives, it could give morality a fresh start.

Vices and Virtues of Virtue Ethics


• Virtue Ethics allows that we learn about ethics over time. That seems to be realistic. • Virtue Ethics is flexible, because it does not prescribe absolute duties. • The theory allows that ideas of virtue will vary among cultures.• Martha Nussbaum has argued that Virtue Ethics is compassionate and caring because it takes the whole person into account. It is interested in the well-being and fulfillment of the individual.


• The theory does not give clear moral rules and guidance, unlike Kantian ethics or Natural Moral Law. Robert Louden has claimed that Virtue Ethics cannot resolve moral dilemmas, because it does not tell us what to do.• Hugo Grotis argued that truth and justic are not middle ways, but ethical absolutes.• Virtue Ethics does not deal with the problem of people doing wrong, thinking that they are acting virtuously.• Some things are always wrong (Louis Pojman suggests torturing the innocent). We need moral systems which absolutely forbid these things, but Virtue Ethics doesn't.

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