Welcome To Ethics!

This video & text introduces the main ideas we will explore in this course. Keep in mind that I have not edited the text …. these are my rough notes. Enjoy,

Welcome to Ethics Video


This chapter of lecture notes gives an overview of the major ideas we will explore in this course. You can find the video on lucidphilosophy.com or YouTube.com/teachphilosophy

Method Day 1: After syllabi and intros, begin discussion of the trolley dilemma. During discussion, highlight these principles and other moral distinctions relevant to student comments. Recommend video.


Ethical Philosophies

1. Ethical/Cultural Relativism: Supposing there is no objective truth and it is relative to culture, what does my culture endorse and prohibit? Right=cultural approves. Wrong= Cultural disapproves.

2. Subjectivism/Individual Relativism: Supposing there is no objective truth and it is relative to each person, what do I feel is right?   

3. Ethical Egoism: What is in my self-interest? What will produce the best consequences for me?

4. Utilitarianism: What is in the interests of everyone? What will produce the best consequences for everyone?

5. Deontology: What is fair? What is based on a pure motive? What respects the rights and dignity of everyone involved?

6. Virtue Theory: What kind of person will I choose to be? How do virtuous people think, feel, and act?

7. Intuitionism: What do I intuit is right?

8. Natural Law: What is in harmony with the order, nature, and purpose of the universe?

9. Religion: What does my religion endorse? What is God’s Will? Why?

10. Ethics of Care/Virtue Theory: What is the most caring of acts? What role do relationships (instead of principles) have in morality?   

11. Ethical Pluralism: Supposing it is impossible to reduce morality to one principle, how do we harmonize the plurality of principles?

12. Existentialism: Since I have free will, which ethical principles will I choose? Don’t hide behind my culture, feelings, religion, upbringing, genetics, or nihilistic tendencies. Choose to be responsible for my life.

13. Science and Facts: What role do science and facts play in ethical thinking and moral decision making?


Welcome to the study of Ethics. You can begin your study of ethics by reading a book like Russ Shafer Landau’s “The fundamentals of Ethics” and/or enrolling in a course like mine.  In this overview video, I will give you a sense for what the study of ethics is about, and I will especially emphasize understanding the major ethical principles at work in the minds of most people. In the end, I hope this course and book will enrich your intellectual understanding of ethics and also help you live the best life possible.  Much of the course focuses on ethical principles.


You can see the ethical principles listed on the screen as I go through them. Keep in mind that this part of the course, the major part, is very cerebral, analytic, and intellectual. We are not reading Aesop’s Fables to make you a better person nor are we training you to have good habits, rather we are exploring the ethical principles that not only shape the morality of most people, but also shape the laws in most countries… or at least the ethical principles people use to try to justify their moral and legal opinions. Since philosophy is a game of reason, we will look at the rational arguments for and against each principle.


Principle 1: Normative/Prescriptive Relativism. If we were debating slavery, a relativist of this type will argue Slavery is wrong if my culture disapproves of it and slavery is ok if my culture approves it.  Many people often take this position when they argue “ethics is all about how one is raised, one’s upbringing.” That is, they reason that if ethics is not objective, it’s completely up to each culture.  In this course, we will look at the problems with this type of prescriptive relativism, with attempting to justify your moral opinions by appealing to your culture. I guarantee that you will find deeper arguments both for and against your position than you ever considered before. Be humble and open minded and read/study the arguments.


Principe 2: Individual Relativism (subjectivism): Supposing there is no objective truth and it is relative to each person, what do I feel is right? So, let’s consider slavery again: Slavery is wrong if I feel it is wrong, slavery is ok if I feel it is ok. This is how subjectivists attempt to justify their moral opinions. This is different from the first type of relativism because this type is based on the individual instead of the culture. Many people say things like “it’s up to each person, or it’s all opinion, or it’s all about how you feel.” These people may be subjectivists.  Again, we will consider the strongest arguments for and against this position, and you may be surprised at the strength of argument against these first two principles. Now, if you disagree about the definition of relativism we philosophers use in normative ethics, you are probably confusing it with metaethical relativism or cognitive relativism, views we will briefly consider later in the course.


Principle 3: Ethical Egoism: What is in my self-interest; what are the best consequences for ME? According to ethical egoism, slavery is wrong if it is not in MY long term and objective self-interest, but it is ok if it is. In this course, we will again examine the strengths and weaknesses of basing your morality solely on what is in your self-interest.  This discussion can get rather abstract and many will confuse psychological egoism with ethical egoism, but the bottom line is, “is your morality all about self-interest? Should it be?” There are crude and deep answers on both sides of this debate, and you are in for some surprises.


Principle 4: Utilitarianism: Utilitarians consider what will produce the best consequences for everyone. Slavery is wrong if it doesn’t maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and right if it does. According to utilitarianism, it doesn’t matter what my culture says, what matters is whether it will maximize net happiness or not. It doesn’t matter what you feel is right, what matters is what truly maximizes greatest happiness… and this is why utilitarianism is not relativism. Utilitarianism is not relativism because it gives you independent criteria by which to judge the customs of your culture and the preferences of any particular individual. For example, if a utilitarian calculates that slavery will not maximize net happiness, then it is wrong no matter what a culture or individual believes and feels. It is not relativism in the sense discussed above.  Finally, utilitarianism is not egoism because it doesn’t matter if it is in your self-interest, what matters is what is in everyone’s self-interest. Egoism is all about me, Utilitarianism is about everyone.  We will examine the strengths and weaknesses of Utilitarianism, which is the major form of consequentialist ethics. By the way, most ethicists believe that Utilitarianism, Deontology, and Virtue Theory are the three strongest ethical approaches. Also, understanding U will not only help you better understand how people form moral beliefs, it will also help you understand the foundation of many laws in every culture on this tiny planet in this vast cosmos.


Principle 5: Deontological or Categorical Ethics. Deontologists focus on fairness, rights, and the dignity of every individual. In the case of slavery, they ask, Is slavery fair to everyone? Does it protect rights for everyone? Does slavery treat people as ends, not merely as means to ends? If the answer is no, then slavery is wrong according to deontologists. (See my slavery video for more on the historical arguments for and against slavery).  Deontology is an interesting and often misunderstood theory. Deontology, of which Kantianism and Ross’ intuitionism are major forms, is not relativism or individual relativism because it gives us a way to judge what a culture or individual feels is right. For example, slavery may be wrong because it violates the categorical imperative; it doesn’t matter if you feel it is right or if your culture feels it is right. Deontologists do not get their morality from culture or individual feelings, rather deontologists believe they get it from a deeper source of duty based on pure reason itself. They believe they are judging culture and feelings based on this deeper sense of duty that no culture can instill or take away, cultures can only cultivate or not cultivate it. Nor is deontology egoism since everyone counts in deontology, not just me. Nor is it utilitarianism since utilitarianism is basing morality on consequences  whereas deontologists focus more on the motive and the act itself.  Again, most philosophers believe deontology, virtue ethics, and utilitarianism are the three strongest theories and deontology too is the foundation of many laws, some of which conflict with utilitarian laws.  Interestingly, most people unkowingly use deontological arguments to argue against slavery and other gross injustices.


Principle 6: Virtue Theory. Virtue Theory is different from the other theories. It does not reduce morality to a principle, but outlines what it means to be a moral person. Virtue Ethicists explore what a human should be, not so much what a human should do. Virtue ethics begins with the question, “What sort of person should I be?”

In the case of slavery, do I want to be the sort of person who owns slaves and then finds reasons to justify or rationalize this practice… or do I want to be a different sort of person?  Virtue theory does not begin with the question, “what should I do?” The other theories begin with that question and then determine what sort of person I should be. Virtue theory reverses it and begins with the question, “What sort of person should I be?” After they paint a holistic and irreducible picture of the good person… in a transcultural way, they then define duty in reference to this picture. One beautiful aspect of virtue theory is it focuses on persons more than principles… and one major form is Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Of course, this may be a weakness as well, so we will explore the strengths and weaknesses of virtue theory.


Principle 7: Intuitionism: An intuitionist is a type of deontologist that believes we can immediately intuit right and wrong. An intuition is a truth you immediately grasp, no reasoning is required. This is the definition philosophers are using. For example, an intuitionist may argue slavery is just obviously wrong. The relativistic, utilitarian, and egoistic arguments supporting slavery are just wrong. Like jazz, you either get it or you don’t. By the way, that is one weakness of intuitionism. You either get it or you don’t…. it seems to cut off reasoning more than some of the other theories… but it has strengths too. Intuitionists usually believe you develop your intuitions over a lifetime of experience much like a great doctor, musician, or coach can develop intuitions over a lifetime… and they can then immediately intuit a truth that others cannot intuit or even intellectually discover. The main form of intuitionism we will explore is that of W.D. Ross, which will have strengths and weaknesses.


Principle 8: Natural Law: Natural law theorists focus on what is in harmony with the order, nature and purpose of the world. In the case of slavery, if the purpose of some humans is to serve others without pay, then slavery is good. If not, it is bad. Many popular moral arguments, as well as legal arguments, appeal to natural law, but there is much confusion about what it is. We will clarify it in this course. Notice Natural law is not relativism because it gives us a way to judge any culture and any individual belief.  It is closest to deontological ethics.


One criticism of natural law theory is that we can never infer what should be the case from what is the case. We can never infer an ought from an is alone. We will examine this and other criticisms of natural law theory. I can guarantee you that your first thoughts are probably not complete, the arguments for and against this and other theories have been developed over thousands of years and continue to be developed by highly intelligent people. If you think it is quite simple and silly, you probably haven’t understood their arguments.


Principle 9: Religion: many religious people are natural law theorists, but not all. Those that aren’t often use arguments based more on authority (e.g. authority of Bible, Koran, priest, rabbi). So, some slave owners quoted the Bible to support slavery and abolitionists often quoted the Bible to oppose it. There is much to say about religion; you can see some of it in my Slavery or Euthyphro videos. For now, keep in mind that religion is not prescriptive relativism of the kind we mentioned earlier because God tells you what is right and wrong and this may conflict with your culture or individual feelings and beliefs. Religion is not Utilitarianism because God may tell you the good act is the one that doesn’t maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The good act may create justice, not happiness. Religion is not necessarily egoism because God may require you to give up self-interest and help others…. Ayn Rand absolutely hates this aspect of religion.


In this course, we will not seek to prove or disprove God’s existence (we will not look at those arguments in an ethics course), rather we will think about the strengths and weaknesses of basing your morality on religion alone. I should also add that many religious people use other principles because they believe God gave them reason to discover right and wrong, not simply cite authorities. For example, there are religious utilitarians, virtue theorists, and so on. We will explore the relationship between religion and morality, which is deeper and more interesting than most people assume.


Principle 10: Ethics of Care: Most philosophers consider ethics of care a type of virtue theory because it does not attempt to reduce morality to a law, principle or an authority. It is focused on care, not intellectual principles. This is where we will also explore possible gender differences in morality and consider what people mean by feminist ethics.


Principle 11: Ethical pluralism: Throughout the course, we will consider ethical pluralism. Many of my students adopt this position. Pluralism is the rejection of monism; it is the rejection of the idea that ethics can and should be reduced to one principle like utilitarianism, or one principle like relativism, or even one approach like science. Pluralists seek to harmonize several principles to live the best life possible or to discover ethical truth.


Principle 12: Existentialism: Finally, Existentialism is partly the idea that none of these theories are true or false…. rather it is your choice on how you will live. Will you choose to be a utilitarian in the trolley dilemma? Will you choose to support slavery or oppose it? Whatever you choose to become, the existentialist wants to remind you that you have free will. Since you have free will, Don’t hide behind your culture, feelings, religion, upbringing, genetics, science, or nihilistic tendencies.  Choose to be responsible for your life. In each case, you are choosing one or more of the ethical principles mentioned above, whether you know it or not.   Become aware of it and own it.


For a couple of days, we will explore the role of science in ethics.  

We will explore the relationship between ethics and science. What are the problems with basing your morality on “survival of the fittest?” Are children born good or evil? Why is it impossible to derive an ought from an is alone? Why is it logically fallacious to derive a value from a fact alone? What is the naturalistic fallacy? Can science inform, but not ground, moral principles?

The relationship between science and ethics is interesting. Many people make one of two mistakes: 1) they mistakenly think science/facts play no role in ethics because ethics is all about values, opinions, feelings, or upbringing whereas science is about facts or 2) they mistakenly think that science can explain and justify all of ethics. We will explore both misconceptions and more


So, those are the ethical principles we will cover. In the first week, we will also explore the fundamentals of logic and then apply them throughout the course (e.g. the two ways to evaluate arguments, informal and formal fallacies, falsifiability). So, when you look at all the principles in this course, it’s not necessarily a matter of figuring out what is true or false. It’s also about which principles you will choose. Also, which principles have you unknowingly been choosing? Which principles ground our laws? How can they be harmonized? What should we do when they conflict? So, this course can clarify your thinking on the moral and legal issues that you knowingly or unknowlingly engage in on a daily basis.


Well, what about applied ethics? As we learn these principles, we will directly and indirectly explore issues in applied ethics: genetic engineering, cloning, war, animal welfare, abortion, euthanasia, death penalty. The theories we study will help us clarify our moral and legal ideas on these issues.


So, you may notice that most of the course is intellectual, we are exploring and evaluating ideas. It may feel like exploring the physics of swimming without ever getting wet. Understanding these ideas might enrich your life in practical ways, but only if you apply them… jump in the water.


To help you jump in the water, we will also spend three of the 16 weeks in this course on wisdom traditions (i.e. Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism). You will explain, evaluate, and apply this classic advice for living well. These three traditions may help you live a richer life and they will give a more experiential feel to the course. There may be some things the intellect just cannot understand, you must experience and live them. These three wisdom traditions will be our guide.

In short, my hope is you will put forth effort in this course in order to deepen your ability to think rationally and to deepen your  understanding of the nature of ethics, moral reasoning and law.  I believe you will more deeply understand yourself if you apply yourself in this class.  You will also find some material in the wisdom tradition section that bypasses the logical mind, so to speak, and gives you some other strategies by which you can immediately enrich your life and become aware in a different way.


Some misconceptions in ethics (This section is derived from Russ Shafer-Landau’s Book, The Fundamentals of Ethics).


Welcome to the study of ethics. In this video, I will briefly address some misconceptions. Indeed, most people who have not studied ethics are skeptical about our ability to rationally explore them. According to Russ Shafer-Landau, they are skeptical about morality for one of the following reasons:


Individuals constantly disagree about what’s right and wrong, and societies do too. If there were some objective truth in ethics, then we should expect all really smart people to agree on it. They don’t. So, there is no objective truth in ethics.

There are universally correct answers only if God exists. But God doesn’t exist, so ethics is just a “human construct.”

Science tells us the truth about the world, and science tells us nothing about what is right and wrong. And that is because nothing really is right or wrong.

If there were a universal ethic, then that would make it okay for some people to impose their views on others. But that’s not okay at all. Therefore, there is no universal ethic.

If there were objective moral rules then it would always be wrong to break them. But every rule admits of exception, no rule is absolute. That shows that we do make up the moral rules after all.


So, do you believe one of these? Each of these skeptical arguments is problematic. Indeed, I think they are very weak arguments. But, don’t trust me. Read an introductory ethics book or take my course, and consider all the arguments for and against each of these positions. In this course, you will deepen your views of these arguments and more. Your views will be challenged and enriched in ways you may not yet imagine. In short, what you think is obvious about ethics isn’t obvious when you think about it in a systematic, logical, and philosophical way.


Indeed, When you think about ethics, there are many mistakes you can make.. There are many logical mistakes you can make  when thinking about what is good and right. It’s important to avoid these errors and doing moral philosophy can help with this.


Much is at stake when you think of ethics because it’s about how you should live. It’s about the quality of your life  and your relations with others. It would be a terrible mistake to close your mind to new and challenging ideas, to ignore the many people who have thought hard and long about these central questions of existence.


I encourage you to resist the diagnosis that in ethics, anything goes.  Have an open mind and carefully read the book I recommend or take my course. As you will see, good moral thinking is disciplined thinking. There are many ways we can go wrong in our moral thinking, and doing so will have disastrous results. Though it may be hard to know if we got it completely right in ethics, it is often very easy to see when we have made a mistake. There are clear cases of people ruining their lives or doing morally horrific things. We should keep that in mind before siding too quickly with a skepticism that says that every moral view is as good as the other.

Again, People often adopt these and other skeptical views of ethics because they have not read or studied the ideas you will explore in this class. I encourage you to not go with what seems obvious since obvious beliefs are often false, but instead to carefully consider the ideas in this course or book.

Paul Stearns