Need to know
You have already been thinking about ethics, and for a long time – in fact, since you were a child. Children are deeply engaged with ethical judgments and questions. ‘No fair!’ ‘You promised!’ ‘He’s cheating, so why can’t I?’ And their ethical questions often can’t be easily answered, because we adults often can’t easily answer ethical questions pertaining to our own lives and conduct.
Ethical questions come into play any time foreseen harms are in the mix. We can’t avoid these questions by resolving never to hurt anyone. This is impossible. It harms your child to take her to the doctor for a shot – not just the pain, but the anxiety and the deprivation of her freedom to keep playing at home. You need to let a couple of your employees go – no fault of their own, just a downturn in the business – but being fired still harms them emotionally as well as financially. Since harms are unavoidable, it can’t always be wrong to cause harm. Sometimes it can be morally justifiable. But how do you know?
Many ethical dilemmas about how to think and act ethically seem intractable. And perhaps they are. So it can be tempting to ignore or dismiss ethics. At the same time, we shouldn’t feel that ethics is only a knot of irresolvable complexities. The first word of reassurance here is that there is plenty that you can be clear about regarding ethics. It’s clear, for example, that there’s nothing unethical about making sure your child gets needed medical care, even with the often unavoidable anxiety, resentment and pain that can follow from fulfilling that parental duty. But what about the seemingly intractable cases? Is there a way to come to some resolution?
This guide can help you think systematically about ethics. The intent isn’t to show how every ethical dilemma can be resolved. Indeed, I’ll offer reasons for thinking that such a ‘complete’ theory of ethics – one that successfully addresses every possible ethical dilemma – is likely not on the cards. But thinking systematically can give you a sense of the lay of the land, and can point out the problems with approaches that both overpromise or underpromise what thinking about ethics can accomplish. We can’t expect proof or certainty in ethics. But we can compare the varying degrees of plausibility of leading ethical theories and approaches. Here we will look at virtue ethics, utilitarianism, Kantianism, relativism and an intriguing, underappreciated alternative.
Think it through
Consider the moderate and virtuous path
Virtue ethics sees value in articulating ethical virtues and trying to understand morality as fundamentally about developing one’s character so that one acts virtuously. And there is, or at least can be, a fact of the matter in assessing someone’s character, for the virtues as articulated by these theorists are understood to be objectively good character traits and to apply across cultures – attributes for every human to emulate.
The great virtue theorist in the Western tradition was Aristotle, author of the Nicomachean Ethics. His doctrine of the mean plays a key role in how he defines the virtues. For each character trait, Aristotle said, there is a mean between the extremes – the mean of courage between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, for example. The mean determines the virtue. Other virtues identified by Aristotle include temperance (between the extremes of intemperance and insensibility, regarding indulgence in pleasures), generosity (between wastefulness and acquisitiveness), and wittiness (between buffoonery and boorishness). A person of virtuous character is one who has the ability to enact the mean and avoid the extremes regarding these and other character traits.
Aristotle’s account is rich, insightful and of continuing value. But being virtuous in Aristotle’s sense isn’t entirely congruent with being an ethical person. Wittiness, for example, isn’t really an ethical virtue so much as a social skill. For Aristotle, this ability to be entertaining in the company of others was important to the kind of life he thought best exemplified his central concept of eudaimonia or human flourishing. But surely a person isn’t unethical for not being greatly skilled in social repartee? (Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), would likely even take issue with the idea that excellence in the social graces is necessary for one to flourish in one’s life. She argues that introspective persons flourish away from the crowd. They need quiet, solitude and time to reflect in order to be their best.) And is bravery invariably a virtue? Could a person be brave in risking his life in pursuit of some evil end?
Aristotelian eudaimonia requires a certain level of physical and economic wellbeing. This requirement reveals another way in which Aristotelian virtue theory doesn’t track being ethical all that well. A person down on her luck through illness or disability, through no fault of her own, is not unethical on account of such misfortune.
Suppose we restrict the virtues to those more clearly identified with ethical behaviour. There is then the problem of how virtue ethics can offer an understanding of what should be done when those virtues conflict – say, when the virtue of honesty conflicts with the virtue of kindness. And if there are virtues of considerateness of and generosity toward others, there is also surely a virtue of self-care. Those who don’t recognise or practise the latter virtue are in danger of not properly recognising their own worth. As with the collision between the virtues of kindness and honesty, it’s hard to know how to reconcile the virtues of care for others and for self.
Examine the consequences of your actions
The desire for a clearer decision procedure than that offered by virtue ethics is understandable. Utilitarianism, however, does offer just that. This system identifies the morality of an action with its consequences. To say that an action is morally acceptable is to say that it produces the best results of any of the options available to a person at a given point in time. ‘Best results’ is to be cashed out in terms of the amount of happiness the action produces, minus the amount of unhappiness. The goal of morality is to do the best one can to promote happiness and mitigate suffering and unhappiness.
Those dissatisfied with virtue ethics because of its vagueness can find here a determinate answer to the question of what one should do. Whichever choice produces the best results overall is the one utilitarianism requires. (There’s a determinate answer here because the two options will most likely have different outcomes regarding overall happiness; but this case illustrates that the person undertaking the action isn’t always in a position to know at the time of acting which action will produce the best outcome.)
Utilitarianism can be criticised because it’s concerned with the overall amount of happiness, and not with how that happiness is distributed. This can produce injustice. The best results might be actions that make large numbers of people very happy at the expense of the suffering of a few. Enslaving a few might greatly benefit the many.
If our job ethically is to promote happiness and alleviate unhappiness as best we can, shouldn’t each of us be doing more than we typically are toward this end? Peter Singer, the best-known contemporary utilitarian, says yes – much more, in fact. In his paper ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ (1972), Singer argues that those of us in affluent societies have a duty to help those in poverty or suffering from preventable illness by spending our wealth down to a level just above that of those whose suffering we can alleviate. It’s unethical to go out for an expensive dinner. The fleeting pleasures of that meal are far less significant – in terms of overall levels of happiness and unhappiness – than the lives we could save by instead donating that money to provide inexpensive mosquito netting that can save the lives of children who will otherwise contract malaria. And because in our own society people are dying for want of a kidney, you can save a life by donating one of yours. The utilitarian calculation then is that you must do so.
It feels as though something has gone seriously wrong here. Must ethics really be so focused on others distant from us in space or time, at the expense of our own projects, pleasures, family and friends? We commonly make a distinction between actions that are morally acceptable and those that are heroic or exemplary. Singer’s utilitarianism elides that distinction, turning what should be seen as exemplary efforts on behalf of others into moral duties. Questioning such a stringent approach to morality does not mean that we – citizens as well as policymakers and scientists – should ignore issues such as wealth inequality or global warming. It’s rather that we should question the sacrificial individualism demanded by Singer. We can surely find some middle ground that recognises the seriousness of the global crises of our time, and the need for collective action, without demanding that you focus your life and work primarily on these issues, on pain of moral failure. Read Singer, for his ideas are influential and important. But read Epicurus too.
Goodness requires good intentions
Some think that the problem here is the focus on consequences – which are often unknowable and outside a person’s control – when ethics is really about the intentions a person has in acting. According to Immanuel Kant and his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will. Even if one’s action has good consequences, it has no moral worth if not motivated by good intentions. Compare the grocer who gives correct change because he intends to do right by his customers with the grocer who gives correct change because he’s afraid of getting caught if he cheats them. The consequences of the two actions may be the same, but that of the second grocer lacks moral worth, because he would have been willing to cheat a vulnerable customer if he was sure he could get away with it.
It isn’t possible to do justice to the full complexity of Kant’s ethics here. Two key ideas will be emphasised. The first is the idea of universalisability: in order for an action to be morally acceptable, the intention a person has in undertaking that action must be something she could rationally endorse as an intention everyone could have in relevantly similar situations. Kant illustrates how this is supposed to work with the example of someone who secures a loan by promising to pay back the money without intending to actually do so. This person relies on the good faith and trust of others. Without a history of trust, the social assurances and institutions that allow him to be considered for a loan could not have evolved. And if his intentions to cheat became the norm – if everyone acted as he plans to – that system of trust would break down, and he could not secure a loan. Since he can’t rationally endorse that everyone act with these intentions, his own intention to make a lying promise is not universalisable.
The second Kantian idea to be considered here is based on his idea of the intrinsic worth of every person. Because of the inherent value of persons, it is wrong to ever treat a person merely as a means to one’s own ends. To do so would be to exploit them. We do of course use people for our own ends, and appropriately so. The manager uses those working under her to secure certain production goals, she in turn is used by her bosses to secure profits, and so on. These relations become exploitative if, in any of these cases, people are treated merely as useful tools. For no person is merely a tool. Kant is justly celebrated for his egalitarian recognition of the intrinsic worth and respect to be accorded to every person – the peasant working the fields having intrinsic worth equal to that of the king.
But as guides for ethical action, both these Kantian ideas have difficulties. The universalisability criterion seems to flag as immoral some actions that are clearly morally acceptable (leaving for work early to avoid a traffic jam) and to allow as morally OK some actions that clearly aren’t (cheating, where the intention is carefully crafted: ‘I will cheat only when I am sure I will not be caught, so there will be no breakdown of the system on which my ability to cheat depends’). And the formulation that one should never treat others merely as means to one’s own ends is terribly vague. Just what counts as treating someone in this way? We rely on people all the time – to deliver our mail, to stock the shelves of the grocery store, to drive the bus that gets us to work. Does such reliance count as using them as a means to our ends, and, if so, what constitutes using them merely as a means to those ends? A more important difficulty arises concerning intimate relationships. There can be emotional complexities in which both love and physical or emotional abuse are present. The loving recognition of one’s spouse might mean the spouse is not being treated merely as a means. But the abuse of that spouse would surely be morally unacceptable nonetheless.
The challenge of relativism
The theories so far discussed are not the only ones philosophers have offered and continue to discuss. You’ll need a good ethics text – such as Russ Shafer-Landau’s book The Fundamentals of Ethics (5th ed, 2021) – for a more complete picture. But it’s fair to say that, regarding all the attempts in the literature to offer a positive account of ethics as a set of objective and universal principles for differentiating morally right from morally wrong actions, each such attempt has more critics than adherents. The survey ‘What Do Philosophers Believe?’ (2014) by David Bourget and David J Chalmers, of professional philosophers’ views on which sort of theory they most strongly endorse, returned these results (where Kantianism is the leading candidate in deontology, and utilitarianism is the main player among consequentialist theories): deontology 25.9 per cent; consequentialism 23.6 per cent; virtue ethics 18.2 per cent; other 32.3 per cent.
A natural reaction: ‘So you’re saying all these theories have big problems. And there’s no consensus after millennia of debate. Then let’s give up! Isn’t it clear by now that there’s no such thing as some objectively true account of ethics?’
Ah, but giving up has big problems! The negative thesis that there is nothing objectively true in ethics is itself a philosophical claim that is subject to critical enquiry, just like the positive accounts. And this thesis doesn’t look very good either.
Suppose we deny any universal or objective morality and maintain that there are only the moralities of different cultures. If a culture approves an action, then it’s right for that culture. If it’s disapproved of in another culture, then it’s wrong in that one. And that’s all that can be said. There’s no overarching objective morality that can adjudicate these disagreements. Morality is only what a particular culture says it is. This is moral relativism – a commonly held view, perennially popular among college students.
Before I tell you the criticism we philosophers typically make when our students espouse this sort of relativism, let me acknowledge that there’s something right about what I expect motivates these students to land on relativism as their go-to explanation of morality. Often, they’ve become aware that the beliefs that have been inculcated in them as children – about religion and politics, as well as about what’s morally right and wrong – are not universally shared. They’re aware that they’ve accepted these beliefs uncritically. So far, so good. They are becoming good critical thinkers. And if they belong to a politically dominant culture or ethnic group, they are often also aware of a history of their culture’s or their group’s ethnocentrism and exploitative treatment of others. These students are right to recognise and condemn such ethical elitism and the wars, exploitation and atrocities that so often follow in its wake.
That said, there is a pretty powerful criticism of relativism. A genocide isn’t morally right just because the culture that practises it believes it to be so; nor are clitoridectomies that deaden the sexual pleasure of young girls acceptable just because a patriarchal culture demands it. Societies, and not just individuals, can be morally misguided and travel down tragically wrong pathways.
Besides, the students who criticise their own culture for its ethnocentric and patriarchal attitudes and practices aren’t really relativists. Since cultural belief determines morality, a relativist would by definition have to accept that her culture’s beliefs are morally correct! What these students really seem to believe in is universal principles of moral equality and human rights.
A nonbinary alternative
Utilitarianism and Kantianism assume that the question of the morality of an action falls into a binary classification: an action is either morally acceptable or morally unacceptable. A nonbinary account supposes that some actions – but not, by any means, all – may be morally indeterminate. In the indeterminate cases, there is no fact of the matter regarding a particular action’s moral acceptability or unacceptability. Such an approach might be more realistic than traditional theories that try to squeeze every human action into one of the two standard categories.
In his book Common Morality: Deciding What to Do (2004), Bernard Gert offers a nonbinary theory based on commonly accepted moral rules. Gert’s approach starts with common morality – with rules that arguably are universal, such as ‘don’t kill’, ‘don’t cheat’, ‘keep your promises’ – but with the proviso that these rules are also commonly understood to have exceptions, such as killing in self-defence. An immoral action is one that unjustifiably violates one or more of these moral rules. But some violations of the moral rules – such as the self-defence exception – can be morally justified. Gert’s decision procedure for a justifiable violation of a rule involves asking whether impartial rational persons would accept the consequences of it being public knowledge that anyone may violate that rule in the same morally relevant circumstances. Gert thinks that there will be universal agreement among such persons that some actions – say waking up in the morning and getting dressed – are morally acceptable because they violate no moral rule, and also that other actions, while they do violate a moral rule, would be universally agreed to be acceptable violations – for example, a doctor breaking a promise to meet a colleague for lunch when, on the way, she encounters an accident victim who needs immediate aid that she can provide.
Gert’s theory avoids moral relativism because its decision procedure provides clear-cut demarcations for most actions as, objectively, either morally right or morally wrong. Gertian deliberators will universally agree that it’s morally acceptable to eat lunch, and morally unacceptable to kill someone for their money. Gert’s account provides objective grounds for the moral criticism of some cultural beliefs and practices – something the relativist struggles to do. For example, attempts to morally justify the killing of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide were fuelled by ethnic hatreds that deprived apologists for the genocide of the impartiality that Gert requires for genuinely ethical deliberation.
However, in some cases, impartial rational persons in Gert’s hypothetical deliberative scenario will disagree about whether an action that violates a moral rule is a morally acceptable violation. In such a case, the action is neither morally right without qualification nor morally wrong without qualification. It’s in an indeterminate region that is indicative of the nonbinary nature of Gert’s account. (While some virtue ethics theories can be nonbinary, Gert’s theory has a clearer decision procedure for actions, and doesn’t see ethics as primarily about being or doing one’s best, but about avoiding unnecessary harms.)
The question is what proportion of actions end up, on Gert’s account, being in the morally indeterminate region. The more there are, the less helpful the theory will be in offering guidance for moral dilemmas. So this approach, like all the others, is not without its problems. But it indicates one of many ways in which moral theory continues to develop.
Key points – How to think about ethical dilemmas
- Consider the moderate and virtuous path. Aristotle encourages you to develop a virtuous character by acting moderately. Virtue – the mean between two extremes – is the foundation of goodness. But virtue ethics often has difficulty explaining how to act when virtues conflict, or when one must be chosen over the other.
- Examine the consequences of your actions. Utilitarianism enjoins us to produce the best overall results. But there are concerns about whether the overall happiness of the many could justify the misery of a few. And this approach needs to be balanced with considerations that respect personal aspirations and care for the particular people one loves.
- Goodness requires good intentions. Kant’s ethics focuses on the intentions with which one acts. It asks that one always act out of respect for others’ humanity, and that one act in such a way that one could rationally accept everyone acting as one is choosing to act. There are however problems with the latter (universalisability) criterion, and the respect condition is vague and hard to apply.
- Reflect on the challenge of relativism. Moral relativism locates the morality of an action within the society. But this, implausibly, does not allow for the possibility of an immoral society, or of immoral actions that are broadly accepted within a society.
- A nonbinary alternative from Bernard Gert. Like traditional theories, Gert’s systematisation of common morality accepts objective morality and takes most actions to be determinately right or determinately wrong. But it challenges more traditional defences of objective morality in asserting that there are indeterminate cases where there is no moral fact of the matter regarding an action’s rightness or wrongness. Such an approach can provide a useful guide only if the indeterminate cases are relatively narrow in scope.
Why it matters
Thinking systematically about ethics matters, but not because it’s likely to provide you with a definitive resolution as to which ethical theory is the best. All the theories surveyed here continue to have defenders who try to address recognised problems or to articulate alternatives that mitigate those problems. For example, there are versions of utilitarianism that focus not on individual actions (as Singer does) but on those general rules that would produce the best overall happiness or wellbeing, such as in Brad Hooker’s book Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-Consequentialist Theory of Morality (2000). And it’s important that philosophers try to find ways of addressing the sorts of problems discussed in this Guide, because no one theoretical approach has cleared the field of all comers.
In this regard, ethical theory is no different from the rest of philosophy. Some find, in philosophy’s lack of definitive answers to its own questions, an excuse to reject philosophical enquiry or to conclude that any one philosophical opinion is as good as any other. But this isn’t true. Some theories are more plausible than others, some have better arguments in their support, with better responses to objections or fewer internal problems. The lack of definitive answers is neither a reason to despair nor an excuse to settle into comforting but unchallenged beliefs. Rather, it offers the opportunity for exploration and intellectual growth.
For example, the student who believes that moral relativism is the best approach might discover, after looking more systematically at its implications and at her core beliefs, that her real concern is with the intolerance that characterises ethnocentrism and racism, and that she can consistently criticise intolerant cultures only by endorsing tolerance as an objective, non-relativistic value.
What’s required for systematic reflection about ethics is a tolerance for open-ended questions that don’t have tidy resolutions. This doesn’t mean that you have to steer clear of all commitments to ethical claims and judgments. I’ve noted that you can be quite sure about some of your specific ethical views, for example about the duty to keep your child healthy even when the visit to the doctor causes her short-term pain and anxiety. Not all ethical judgments can be made with that level of assurance, of course. But a more tentatively held ethical judgment can be tested against your other ethical beliefs, your life experiences, and your evolving understanding of ethical theory. In this way, the tentative judgment can be discarded, or more fully incorporated into your ethical worldview. Over time, you can develop the right sort of confidence to take your stand – the kind of confidence in which you still acknowledge the tentativeness of many of your judgments while also recognising the progress you’ve made.
Ethical reflection reduces your dependence on beliefs you’ve relied on unreflectively – those inherited from your upbringing, your environment, and other external forces that you had no say in acquiring. Perhaps, on reflection, you’ll decide to retain some of those beliefs. But this now becomes your considered choice. In this way, ethical reflection helps enhance your freedom.
Links & books
See the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the current state of thinking about many of the topics and theories discussed here; eg, the entries ‘Virtue Ethics’, ‘The History of Utilitarianism’, ‘Consequentialism’ and ‘Kant’s Moral Philosophy’.
For how to incorporate values into hard decisions, such as whether to stay in, or leave, a complicated relationship, see Ruth Chang’s TED talk ‘How to Make Hard Choices’ (2014).
Confucius was the founder of another important tradition of virtue ethics, surveyed in Stephen Angle’s book Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life (2022).
For guidelines on living an ethical, civically engaged life without feeling one has to meet the demanding expectations of virtue ethics or utilitarianism, see Todd May’s book A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us (2019) and the Psyche Guide ‘How to Be a Hands-on Citizen’ (2023) by Jon Alexander.
Both the following podcasts have many ethics-themed programmes:
Philosophy Bites is a popular podcast featuring short (15-20 minute) interviews with leading philosophers.
Hi-Phi Nation from Slate magazine is a philosophy podcast that’s driven by story and sound.
This Guide was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.