Introduction to Moral Theory
Last Updated: July 10, 2011
MultiMedia Resources on Ethical Theory
- Lawrence M. Hinman
- Basic Moral Orientations
- The Moral Point of View
- What's your moral point of view?
- Are you an ethical relativist?
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).
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.
- 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?
- 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
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What is the moral issue that you are most undecided
about? Describe the pros and cons in regard
to this issue. How do you go about arriving at a decision
when it is unavoidable?
- 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.