Ethics Updates


Introduction to Moral Theory
Last Updated: July 10, 2011

MultiMedia Resources on Ethical Theory

Online Surveys

A Survey of Internet Resources on Ethical Theory

Information on particular ethical theories,

Other Internet resources on ethical theory,

A Bibliographical Survey of Ethical Theory

Introductions to Ethics

There are a number of other good introductions to ethics that present this some of this same material in other ways. Among the best are James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3nd. ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 2002); Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 4th edition (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2002) and his anthology, Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings,, 3rd ed. edited by Louis P. Pojman (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997); and J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977). For a short but exceptionally nuanced view of the place of ethics in contemporary thought (including the social sciences and the humanities), see Frederick A. Olafson, Ethics and Twentieth Century Thought (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1973). For an excellent introductory approach that emphasizes moral realism and the development of moral sensitivity, see David McNaughton, Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).

Reference Works

There are several excellent reference works in ethics that may be helpful to those who wish to pursue the ideas presented in this book further. Among the most helpful are the excellent Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Lawrence and Charlotte Becker (New York: Garland Press, 1992); (The Beckers’ Encyclopedia has articles covering virtually all the major topics in ethics and has just appeared in a third edition.) Also see.A Companion to Ethics, edited by Peter Singer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991); A Companion to the Philosophers, edited by Robert L. Arrington (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1999); The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, edited by Hugh LaFollette (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2000); and R. G. Frey, Christopher Heath Wellman, eds., Companion to Applied Ethics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2002).. Also see Steven Darwall, Philosophical Ethics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998); Stephen L. Darwall, Allan Gibbard and Peter Railton, eds.,Moral Discourse and Practice: Some Philosophic Approaches (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Also see the series of anthologies edited by Steven Darwall on Consequentialism; Contractarianism, Contractualism; Deontology; Virtue Ethics (all published by Blackwell in 2002). For three philosophers representing three different moral traditions discussed in this book, see Marcia Baron,Philip Pettit,Michael Slote, Ethical Theory: For and against: Consequences, Maxims, and Virtues (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1999).

Histories of Ethics

Several histories of ethics are also available. Vernon Bourke, S.J.’s A History of Ethics (Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday, 1968) provides a solid, reliable historical guide. Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics, 2nd ed (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998)) is more tendentious and insightful. For a brief survey of contemporary Anglo-American ethical theories, see Mary Warnock, Ethics Since 1900, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966) and G. J. Warnock’s Contemporary Moral Philosophy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967). Frederick A. Olafson’s Principles and Persons: An Ethical Interpretation of Existentialism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967) is an exceptionally insightful treatment of existentialist ethics. Among the anthologies in this area, see J. B. Schneewind’s Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, 2 volumes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Michael Wagner, An Historical Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1990).

The Moral Point of View

On the definition of the moral point of view, see Paul Taylor's "On Taking the Moral Point of View," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, III (1978), 35-61 argues that six characteristics are necessary for a standard or rule to be a moral one: (1) generality, (2) universality, (3) priority, (4) disinterestedness, (5) publicity, and (6) substantive impartiality. Wallace and Walker's excellent anthology, The Definition of Morality (London: Metheun, 1970) contains reprints of important papers on the definition and limits of morality by Alasdair MacIntyre, William Frankena, Neil Cooper, Peter Strawson, Philippa Foot, Kurt Baier, G. E. M. Anscombe, David Gauthier, and others. For a more detailed presentation of Baier’s views, see Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958). For a strong defense of the rationality of the moral life, see Bernard Gert, Morality: A New Justification of Moral Rules (New York: Oxford, 1988). For a vigorous defense of the claim that the moral point of view is impartial, see Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality (New York: Oxford, 1991). Josiah Royce’s characterization of the moral insight is found in his The Religious Aspects of Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885); reprinted in part in Sommers and Sommers, Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, 3rd Edition (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1992).

For a sustained argument that the moral ballpark is smaller than often believed, see Peter A. French, The Scope of Morality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979). Shelly Kagan’s The Limits of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) provides a forceful critique of those who see morality’s demands as very limited. For an excellent discussion of the notion of moral health, see Martha Nussbaum, "Aristotle on Emotions and Ethical Health," in her The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 78-103.

Discussion Questions
  1. Imagine that you are a hospital administrator and that you have been asked to set up an Ethics Committee in the hospital. The Committee will deal with moral dilemmas that may confront hospital staff and advise in establishing ethical guidelines for the treatment of patients. (a) What kind of persons would you look for to fill this position? What values would you want them to hold? What types of moral sensitivity would you be looking for? (b) What basic moral principles would you advise the Committee to follow?
  2. Imagine that you have been charged with the same task described in Question #1, but this time for an advertising agency instead of a hospital. What would the differences be? If there are any differences, what conclusions would you draw about the way we define the moral ballpark?
  3. What are your own deepest moral values? What moral qualities do you look for in other people as well as in yourself? Are these values that you think everyone shares, or are some of your values ones that you feel are not always observed by our culture as a whole? How have your values changed, if at all? What influenced their development?
  4. A friend asks you to pick out a tie for him to wear at a social occasion. Is this a moral issue? Why or why not? If you refuse, is that immoral, or just rude? If you pick out the wrong tie (one that causes him shame or great embarrassment in public), is that immoral, or just a mistake? Does it make a difference if you pick out the wrong tie intentionally or accidentally? The same friend asks you to transport some merchandise across state lines so that he can avoid paying sales tax on it. Is this a moral issue? Why or why not?
  5. When (under what circumstances) is it right to tell a lie? Give some examples from everyday life. What does your answer reveal about the scope (or relevance) of morality in general?
  6. Recently, an undergraduate student from Rutgers published Cheating 101, a guidebook to help students learn how to cheat. What moral issues do you see associated with publishing such a book? Should the campus bookstore carry it? What or why not? Should the campus newspaper carry advertisements for the book? Similarly, should the campus newspaper carry advertisements for companies that will write students’ research papers for them? Again, what are the relevant moral considerations here? Are these issues in the moral ballpark? Why or why not?
  7. What is the moral issue that you are most undecided about? Describe the pro’s and con’s in regard to this issue. How do you go about arriving at a decision when it is unavoidable?
  8. We have suggested that ethics is about moral health. When you think of a morally healthful life, what sort of a life do you imagine? What would be some examples of lives that (at least in some respect) are not morally healthy? Give examples from your own experience.