Skip to main content

CHAPTER 3 MORALITY AND THE MORAL LIFE

Shafer-Landau: Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? (Divine Command Theory)

Here Shafer-Landau explains why it is futile to try to avoid the arbitrariness problem by saying that God is all good. Characterizing God that way renders the concept of the goodness of God meaningless.

Mill: Utilitarianism

In this selection Mill argues for utilitarianism, the teleological view that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” He equates happiness with pleasure, just as Jeremy Bentham, the doctrine’s early architect, did. But addressing a common criticism of Bentham’s version, Mill maintains that pleasures can vary not only in quantity, as Bentham thought, but also in quality—from lower pleasures (such as eating and having sex) to higher ones (such as pursuing knowledge and creating art).

Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

Kant holds that the core of morality consists in following a rational and universally applicable moral rule and doing so solely out of a sense of duty. An action is right only if it conforms to such a rule, and we are morally praiseworthy only if we perform it for duty’s sake alone. In his system, all our moral duties are expressed in the form of categorical imperatives. The moral law, then, rests on absolute directives that do not depend on the contingencies of desire or utility. Kant says that through reason and reflection we can derive our duties from a single moral principle, what he calls the categorical imperative. He formulates it in different ways, the first one being “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” To find out if the maxim corresponding to an action is a legitimate moral law, we must ask if we could consistently will the maxim to become a universal law applicable to everyone—that is, if everyone could consistently act on the maxim and we would be willing to have them do so. Perhaps the most renowned formulation of the categorical imperative is the principle of respect for persons. As he puts it, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” People must never be treated as if they were mere instruments for achieving some further end, for people are ends in themselves, possessors of ultimate inherent worth.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle explains that the moral virtues are different from the intellectual ones. Although the intellectual virtues can be taught directly, the moral ones must be lived to be learned. By living well, we acquire the right habits, which are in fact the virtues. A virtue is the midpoint (the “golden mean”) between the extremes of excess and deficit, and the extremes are the vices. The virtues are to be sought as the best guarantee to the happy life. Happiness is the one thing that is good in itself and not, like wealth or power, just instrumentally good (good as a means to something else). Happiness is about doing what is inherently valuable, which means fulfilling the function unique to human beings: acting through reason. To excel in the use of reason in all of life’s endeavors is to possess the virtues in full, and the virtues are the key to a flourishing, happy life.

Shafer-Landau: The Fundamentals of Ethics (Virtue Ethics)

In this excerpt Shafer-Landau critiques virtue ethics, arguing that virtue ethics and the divine command theory share a basic structure and thus the same weakness. We can see this by posing a familiar dilemma. Virtuous people either have, or don’t have, good reasons for their actions. If they don’t have good reasons, their actions are arbitrary. If they do have good reasons to support their actions, then these reasons, and not the actions themselves, determine what is right and wrong. The latter is the more plausible position.

Jaggar: Feminist Ethics

According to Jaggar, many feminist writers insist that the values and virtues inherent in most traditional moral theories typically reflect a masculine perspective and therefore present a one-sided view of morality.

Crosthwaite: Gender and Bioethics

Crosthwaite says that the notion of an autonomous moral agent in traditional moral theories should be replaced with a view of moral agents as embedded in a network of social and cultural relationships and ties of affection and empathy.

Held: The Ethics of Care

Held explores the moral perspective known as the ethics of care, identifying its central themes, showing how it relates to an “ethic of justice,” and distinguishing it from virtue ethics.

Baier: The Need for More than Justice

Baier argues that the best moral theory takes into account not just considerations of justice but also values of care. Such a theory would be a marriage of old male and the new female perspectives.

Confucius: Analects

Confucius urges people not merely to try to live according to li (propriety) and ren (social virtues) but to excel at such a life, to become a “superior person” (a junzi), a noble. Living by li and ren requires self-cultivation and action—learning the moral norms, understanding the virtues, and acting to apply these to the real world. Being a superior person, then, demands knowledge and judgment as well as devotion to the noblest values and virtues. Confucius’s central principle is the importance of social roles. He believes that if everyone conscientiously assumes his or her proper role, harmony, happiness, and goodness will reign in the land.