Ethics map

a map of some main ideas and thinkers in morals and ethics

Major arguments in morals and ethics

Overarching questions include: what should I do? What sort of person should I be? How do I respond to others? What is the good life? What is the good? What is virtue? What is the difference between moral and ethics? (Adorno)

  • Some short books introducing issues in ethics (with my comments):
    • Blackburn, Simon. Ethics : A Very Short Introduction. University Press, 2003. (topically organized; starts with challenges to ethics-including relativism-, then moves to some issues in applied ethics, and finishes with ethical theories. Little engagement with continental philosophy. Not a comprehensive mapping of the field)
    • Bowie, Andrew. German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010. (confined to thinkers from Germany, but includes some heavyweight ethical thinkers. Does justice to the analytic/continental split. Excellent summaries of the philosophers included)
    • Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.(You can also listen to the CBC Massey lectures called ‘The Malaise of Modernity’ that led to the book. Looks at some contemporary worries and traces them to the ethical implications of individualism and authenticity)
    • MacIntyre, Alasdair C. A Short History of Ethics : A History of Moral Philosophy From the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. ed., Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. (takes a historical approach to ethical ideas. Less emphasis on 20th C and continental views)

See where some of these ideas fit on an arts and ideas timeline.

Normative ethics

There is some sort of ‘moral standard’


Teleological; moral status determines by consequences; reason usually the instrument; video introduction about Consequentialism

  • Virtue: ‘Proper function’ of humans to be fully human; Virtues makes us fully human; Plato (Meno, Republic); Aristotle; McIntyre; Ethics of ‘being’ rather than simply doing; Arete - everything has a proper function, and doing that function is virtuous.
  • Situational Ethics: The good depends upon the context of the situation (Tillich, Bonhoeffer)
  • Egoism: Do only what is in your self interest
  • Utilitarian: Do the best for the happiness of all by quantifying consequences. A response to 18th-19th C law, where acts of great human suffering had little penalty, but small suffering (e.g. prostitution) had huge penalty. Applies Enlightenment science ideal to quantify happiness, which leads to problems. A video introduction to utilitarianism
    • Act: act in a way to maximize the intrinsically valuable. Can lead to justification of slavery and other problems. (supported by R. M. Hare)
    • Rule: A set of rules to maximize the intrinsically valuable. Can lead to rule worship.
    • Bentham initiator of utilitarianism (perhaps hints of it in Aristotle). Hedonistic: pleasure = good. Asks us to imagine all the actions possible, predict consequences for everyone, select the ‘most good’.
    • Mill: Utilitarianism (1861). Not all pleasure is equal. Virtue, not pleasure, is good.

Non-consequentialism / De-ontological

‘Duty’ of finding and doing the right act regardless of consequences; for example, in Plato’s Crito consequences were not justification for Socrates escaping prison.


Exploring the meaning, ontological commitments, and justification of ethical discourse; a moral epistemology. It studies systems of moral standards, not specific behaviours; a level of abstraction above normative ethics.


Ethical discourse has cognitive content. Often based on ideas attainable moral knowledge based on facts that have truth values.

  • Subjectivism: Normativity/fact based upon choice/preferences
    • Individual
    • Cultural
      • Coherentist argument that beliefs justified if they cohere with the beliefs of others (Geoffrey Sayre-McCord)
      • Sumner: Selections from Folkways
      • Rachels: “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”
        • Discussion questions:
          • What are the challenges of moral relativism?
          • What solutions does Rachels provide? Are these solutions adequate?
          • Are there other solutions to moral relativism we’ve encountered in this course?
          • Do moral relativists really exist? If not, then why is the idea so pervasive?
      • Rorty’s pragmatic morality: Kant vs Dewey: the current situation of moral philosophy
  • Objectivism: There are normative standards that are bigger than preferences; Moral Realism
    • Naturalism: Normativity found in natural facts
    • Non-naturalism: Moral discourse cannot be reduced to natural facts. Ethical terms are primitive and cannot be reduced.
      • GE Moore: Principia Ethica (1903). ‘good is good’ and ‘good cannot be defined’. Ethical terms cannot be translated into other term.
      • Supernaturalism: Normativity from a God. The good is what god commands or what he would command
      • Intuitionism: Ethical judgements are found within intuition (Richard Price; Robert Audi)


There can be no moral knowledge. There is no cognitive element in ethics. With non-cognitivism there is no normative ethics.

  • Emotivism: Ethics is expression of emotion or desire; ‘x is good’ cannot be true or false, just can be described as an emotion or desire; not a proposition but an expression of emotion (AJ Ayer; JL Mackie - error theory to combat cognitivism); Hume
  • Imperativism: command based system
  • Power/Will/Decisionism: moral values are an arbitrary expression of the will or power.
  • Factors beyond human control
    • Biological determinism (Dawkins)
    • Moral Luck: Video on moral luck; Nagel: “Moral Luck”;
      • Discuss: how does the argument about moral luck relate to the theories we’ve discussed thus far in the course? How might these other approaches (for example, Kantian deontology) respond to the problem of moral luck? How might you apply moral luck to the ethical problem of poverty? (or to an applied ethical problem of your choosing?)
  • Nihilism: There are no values, morals or ethics. Anything is permitted and all actions equal (As explored in Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor)
  • Ethics beyond or before knowledge
    • Wittgenstein: ethics cannot be spoken of. A Lecture on Ethics
    • Levinasian Ethics: Ethics comes from an encounter with another person; (See Levinas’s obituary). Ethics and Infinity: the face and responsibility
    • Event Ethics: events create truths that require one to be responsible to. Badiou: Ethics : An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
      • The problems: individual rights, even human rights, ‘identity politics’ (the problem of Lévinas turning into the issues of ‘difference’ but what is really interesting is when we come together).
      • These all assume a standard way of the way the world works (job, private property, ‘growth’, etc), thus placing those things as normal with an unspoken power. They don’t allow the possibility for another possible world (which might be better).
      • His solution: ‘The Event’ (love, art, math, politics) that creates a new truth.
      • Ethics is living in constant response to that truth.
      • We are part of the creation and maintenance of truth.
      • video summary of Badiou’s book

Applied ethics