Part I: Theory

This part of the book deals with several moral theories, which are attempts to understand, explain, and determine moral actions and what makes for virtuous people.

Below are the major theories we address:

Religious Ethics – The notion that somehow or another the religious dimension of reality is intimately bound up or flows from the divine aspect of reality. We examine two flavors of religious ethics.

  • Divine Command Theory – This is the notion that the Cosmos was created by the divine and that the divine created the moral laws of the universe just as it created the physical laws that govern reality. The divine can create whatever laws it wants and this can vary from people to people, place to place, and time to time. We creations of the divine have no standing to judge the laws, we are only subject to them. Finally and most importantly, the moral laws are only knowable through divine revelation.
  • Natural Law – This approach posits that rationality is the governing feature of the Cosmos. As such, morality is discoverable by means of observation and reflection. Religious versions of this, such as Thomas Aquinas or al-Ghazali’s approaches, have a God-who-is-rational creating the Cosmos in accordance with reason. We can therefore determine what is moral outside of divine revelation, though we would expect those things to be in harmony with one another. Note that Natural Law need not be religious in nature however. All that is needed is a Cosmos which has a moral dimension and is governed by reason.

Consequentialism – This approach claims that the right-making feature of our actions is not the act itself nor the motivation, only the outcomes of the action. We examine the following approaches.

  • Epicurean Hedonism – Best articulated through Epicurus, this approach advocates for a life that seeks to fulfill our natural and necessary desires, which will result in a life free of pain and stress of the mind and body. There is also an element of early social contract theory here, as to live a good life you both need to inhibit others from preventing it as well as refraining from inhibiting for in others.
  • Ethical Egoism – Selfishness is the primary virtue. One should seek out one’s own long-term well being. We examine ethical egoism through the works and thought of Ayn Rand.
  • Hedonistic Utilitarianism – Associated with Jeremy Bentham, this approach seeks to maximize the most overall amount of pleasure in the world with each action. All pleasures and persons are equally weighted in our analysis, once normalized by the hedonistic calculus.
  • Utilitarianism – Associated with John Stewart Mill, this modification of Bentham’s approach claims that maximizing higher-order pleasures

Deontology – Morality consists of our duties in life. These duties must be followed regardless our motivations, intended or unintended consequences, and so on. For Kantian deontology, we can create or discover our moral duties by means of what’s known as the categorical imperative.

Virtue Ethics – While the other approaches are concerned with which actions are right and which actions are wrong, virtue ethics places a focus upon the character of the individual. As we humans are rational and social animals, we should aim for embodying eudaimonia, or flourishing and contentment, in ourselves and our societies. We do this by identifying and cultivating virtue.

In addition to these theories, there is a chapter on metaethics at the end of this section, written by Jan Franciszek Jacko. It is more technical in style and substance, going into more detail about discussions of the nature of ethics itself.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Phronesis by Henry Imler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.