An idiosyncratic introduction to ethics

Mary Magdalene reconsiders
Mary Magdalene reconsiders

by Jeremy W Bowman

1. Right and wrong

Almost everyone agrees that it is right to be charitable, right to try to prevent wars, right to do one's best for one's children, and so on; and that it is wrong to be a racist, wrong to torture innocent people, wrong to neglect one's pet animals, and so on.

Words like 'right' and 'wrong' are used a lot in everyday life, but they do not always have the moral significance they have in the above paragraph. For example, if a person makes a mistake such as getting an incorrect answer to an arithmetic problem, or if he thinks that the earth is flat, or if he takes aspirin instead of antacid for an upset stomach, then we say he is wrong. When he avoids such mistakes, we say he is right, but the rightness or wrongness of these last few examples has nothing to do with morality. We say that a human action is morally right or wrong if we think he should or should not do it, when we take the general welfare of humanity into account. The same idea of moral rightness is involved when we say a person ought to do something because everyone ought to do that sort of thing.

'Ethics' is the branch of philosophy concerned with this particular sense of right and wrong, in which human actions are evaluated from a general perspective, and are said to be moral (i.e. morally right) or immoral (i.e. morally wrong). There is no obvious distinction to be drawn between 'morality' and 'ethics', and most philosophical writers use the words interchangeably; they can also refer to the moral rightness or wrongness of a human action simply as its 'morality' or its 'moral worth'.

2. Moral disagreement

Perhaps everyone agrees that it is morally right to be charitable if one can afford to give one's money away, and so on, but not everyone agrees about whether it is right to eat meat, or to permit the sale of dangerous drugs, or to give in to the demands of terrorists, or to allow women to begin or terminate their pregnancies whenever they please, or to allow homosexuals to marry, or... (the list might be continued indefinitely). When we disagree about the morality of human actions like these, and then try to convince one another that our own view is correct, we have to appeal to the reasons we have for thinking that certain sorts of action are right or wrong. When we do, we often find that we have very fundamental differences about what is valuable in life, about what is worth striving for, and so on. We have different views on these matters because we have different conceptions of the 'meaning of life', of what sorts of things really exist, of what human beings are really like, of the meaning of abstract concepts like justice, and so on. These are 'deep' questions, which explains why ethics is a branch of philosophy.

When politicians or church leaders call for the teaching of ethics in schools, and mean simply that children should be given instruction in 'what is right and what is wrong', they either forget that people have disagreements of this deep sort, or else they think that one view of morality — usually their own — can unproblematically be presented as the uniquely correct view. The urge to impose one's own moral opinions on others is a standard feature of having them in the first place, but it is important to acknowledge the simple fact that people do in fact have different moral views. These differences are sincere, and the disagreements can be bitter. People are prepared to kill one another, and they are sometimes even prepared to sacrifice their own lives, for what they think is morally right.

So a first characteristic feature of the moral senses of 'right' and 'wrong' is that we usually feel that more is at stake in moral disagreements than is at stake in other sorts of disagreement. We may quite happily allow other people to believe whatever they like about factual matters such as whether God exists, whether the earth goes round the Sun or vice versa, whether vitamin C helps to cure colds, or whatever. But to have a moral opinion means, at the very least, to want other people to behave in certain ways. If other people sincerely hold different moral opinions from our own, they are likely to behave in ways that they think are morally right, but which we morally disapprove of. They will want to do things that we do not want them to do. This can mean trouble. But happily, philosophers enjoy disagreements, especially when the opposing views are sincerely and firmly held. One of the 'ground rules' of philosophical disagreement is that the participants do not resort to violence or threats. Instead, questions are asked, tentative answers are given, and further questions are asked, about why this or that view is correct.

For example, supposing it is morally wrong to torture innocent people for fun, why is it wrong? It is simply because it is against the law? Or because God doesn't allow it? Or because it is 'unnatural'? Or because it isn't 'nice'? Or because most people disapprove of it? Or because we should strive to eliminate suffering as much as possible? Or because in general, innocent people don't want to be tortured? Or because no reasonable person would accept a rule which permitted torture? Or is there simply no such thing as right or wrong? Or what?

3. Basic moral principles

I mentioned above that questions about God's existence, about the earth going round the Sun, about vitamin C helping to cure colds, etc., were 'factual' questions. What I meant was this: however difficult it may be to settle these questions in practice, a person's opinion on such issues is either true or false, and what makes it true or false is the way the world actually is. These questions are 'factual' because their answers depend on facts. It is a fact that God either exists or doesn't exist, that the earth either goes round the Sun or it doesn't, that vitamin C either does help to cure colds or it doesn't. However uncertain a person's opinion may be on such matters, his opinion is either correct or incorrect, and it is the 'facts' — the way 'reality is organised' — that makes it so.

We noted one difference between moral issues and non-moral issues above: our moral opinions guide the way we behave, and the way we would like other people to behave, and we usually have strong feelings about such matters. We tend to feel that 'less is at stake' with other matters. We may now note another distinctive feature of moral issues: they are different from factual issues. The eighteenth-century Scots philosopher David Hume was the first person to try to explain the difference clearly. We can understand Hume's point if we consider an imaginary moral disagreement between two people, A and B, say, one of whom thinks fishing is morally wrong, while the other thinks it is morally right, or at least morally neutral. Suppose each produces an argument in support of their view. Here is A's argument:

1. Fishing causes unnecessary suffering to fish.

2. One should always avoid causing unnecessary suffering.

Therefore, fishing is morally wrong.

In A's argument, two premises (the lines numbered 1 and 2) are offered in support of a conclusion (marked with the word 'therefore'). Any reasonable person who accepted the premises of this argument would have to accept the conclusion as well. Or, to put it another way, the conclusion follows from the premises. Any argument that is 'watertight' like this is called valid.

But consider what this argument would be like if the second premise (line 2) were missing. To someone who doesn't already accept that one shouldn't cause unnecessary suffering, the first premise (line 1) on its own wouldn't be enough to establish the conclusion. Suppose B is such a person. Perhaps B thinks fishing isn't immoral because God doesn't forbid it. He might offer the following argument in support of his opposing view:

1. God does not command us to avoid fishing.

2. One is only obliged to obey God's commands.

Therefore, fishing is morally permissible.

Once again, two premises are offered in support of a conclusion. And again, if someone accepted the premises, he would have to accept the conclusion as well. Now consider what B's argument would be like if the second premise (line 2) were missing. To someone who doesn't already accept that one should obey God's commands, such as A, the first premise (line 1) on its own wouldn't be enough to establish the conclusion.

What is wrong with the incomplete versions of both arguments is that their conclusions say something about how people ought to behave, while the supporting premises just say things about the way the world happens to be, as a matter of fact. In the incomplete arguments, a purely 'factual' premise is given in support of a 'moral' conclusion. Hume recognised that any argument of that form cannot be completely convincing, because it cannot be valid: it is always possible for a reasonable person to accept the premises, yet to reject the conclusion. Hume's point is often expressed loosely as the claim that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” (Hume 1739: 469).

Most present-day philosophers accept Hume's point, and focus attention on arguments that do include moral premises, as they must if they are to be valid. A's argument and B's argument above are both valid in this way. So why do A and B disagree?

It might be that B thinks cold-blooded creatures like fish do not feel pain, and so we do not have to worry about whether fishing causes any suffering. Or it might be that A does not believe in God, and hence thinks there are no such things as 'God's commands'. In either case, A and B would have a merely factual disagreement. They would differ over how the world happens to be arranged in fact.

But it should be clear from the second premises of their arguments that A and B's disagreement is quite a lot 'deeper' than that. A and B seem to have fundamentally different views about what makes actions morally right or wrong.

In both arguments, premise 2 is a basic moral principle, or in other words, a definition of what makes actions right or wrong. One principle says that we should always avoid causing unnecessary suffering, and the other says that we should only obey God's commands. But these principles do not always agree. Sometimes, one principle tells us to behave in a certain way, while the other principle tells us to behave in quite a different way, as in the case of fishing. It isn't possible for a reasonable person to accept both principles at the same time.

So if we want to give reasons for our moral views, which ideally means backing them up with arguments, we have to appeal to our basic moral principles. But different people will give different moral principles for their views.

4. Moral theories

If a person holds a moral principle like A's — that one should always try to prevent unnecessary suffering — then he will normally also believe that physical injury usually causes suffering, that plants and other inanimate objects don't feel pain, that mental anguish is a form of suffering, and so on. And if a person holds a basic moral principle like B's — that one should only obey God's commands — then he will normally also believe that God exists, that He takes an interest in what happens to us, that He is merciful, and so on. To hold a moral principle usually involves holding a set of further, interrelated claims as well. An interrelated set of claims like this is called a moral theory. A moral theory typically consists of a small number of basic moral principles (often just a single claim about what makes human actions morally right or wrong) as well as some other claims about why a person should try to do morally right things and try to avoid doing morally wrong things, and perhaps some other claims and assumptions about what human beings are really like, and what morality is all about. To a person who holds particular moral theory, its claims should explain why he himself thinks certain sorts of action are right or wrong, as well as why other people should think the same way as he does, and so on. A 'theory' is just a set of related claims about some specific subject-matter. These claims are related because they tend to stand or fall together as a group. For example, a person who does not believe in God cannot also believe that God is merciful.

In the next section, I shall describe one of the simplest moral theories, namely, utilitarianism. The first great utilitarian of modern times was Jeremy Bentham (Bentham 1823). Then I shall describe another moral theory, developed by the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (Kant 1785). These two moral theories are incompatible in a rather straightforward way: utilitarianism says that a human action is right if it promotes pleasure or happiness, and wrong if it leads to suffering or unhappiness. The consequences of the action are all that matters, and the motives have nothing to do with it. Kant's theory is almost a mirror-image of this: it says that a human action is right if the person who does it is acting for the correct reasons (he has the best sort of motives) and its consequences have very little to do with it. The two theories are incompatible, because actions done with the best intentions can sometimes lead to suffering, and actions done with wicked intentions can occasionally lead to happiness for everyone affected.

There are other moral theories, which can come into conflict in somewhat less obvious ways. One moral 'theory', if it deserves the name, says that there are no moral principles at all. Such a view was expressed by the character of the preacher in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath: 'There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. Some of it's nice, and some of it ain't so nice, but that's as much as anyone's got a right to say.' This idea is usually called moral scepticism. It may not deserve to be called a full 'moral theory', but it does deserve to be taken seriously, and many philosophers express their sympathies with this view by simply saying nothing at all on moral issues. The silence of these philosophers speaks as eloquently as the volumes written by other philosophers who are less sceptical about morality.

Another set of related moral theories says that actions are morally right if they are natural in some way, but it is very hard to say exactly what 'natural' means, or why 'natural' acts might be considered right, since nature is so full of cruelty. A variant of the idea is currently popular in America, though not among American philosophers. It says that if the majority of those who live in a society think a certain action is morally right or wrong, then it must actually be right or wrong, at least if done in that society. This sort of view is called moral relativism because it takes the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be relative to the society in which it is done. This view can be dismissed very quickly. Take any society in which morally terrible acts are approved of by the majority, such as Nazi Germany. Moral relativism says these terrible acts are morally right. Since we cannot conclude that such acts are right, we must reject the moral theory that says they are. In other words, we must reject moral relativism.

Many moral theories are compatible with the idea that we have moral 'rights', or in other words, that we all have duties to allow others to do certain things, or to try to achieve certain sorts of goals. Talk of moral rights is just a shorthand way of referring to these duties. If the duties are clear-cut enough, then we can say simply that the goals they would let others achieve are the things they have a moral right to. Some moral theories take the concept of a right to be very obvious and basic, and hardly worth explaining. Other moral theories reject the concept of moral 'rights' altogether.

It is hardly surprising that people disagree not only about the morality of certain sorts of action, and about basic moral principles, but also about the nature of morality, and about why people should do morally right things and avoid doing wrong things. There are, in other words, many different moral theories.

The sharpest contrast between moral theories emerges when we consider the difference between basic moral principles. Conflicting basic moral principles really are alternatives in the sense that a reasonable person can only hold one of them at any given time. I shall now move on to consider two very different moral theories, which have been constructed around two very different moral principles. The first is utilitarianism.

5. Utilitarianism

Parents often try to get their children to behave by calling attention to the consequences of their actions. We tell them that what they are doing will cause physical pain, or hurt other people's feelings. It sometimes works. Utilitarianism is a more sophisticated version of this simple idea. Utilitarians say that an action is morally right if it tends to promote pleasure or happiness, and wrong if it tends to promote the opposite of pleasure or happiness, namely, suffering or misery.

In evaluating an action's moral worth, the only thing that matters for a utilitarian is its effects or consequences. A utilitarian takes account of the consequences for all those affected by an action, each individual counting for the same in his 'calculation' (Bentham 1823: 17-48). The agent's motives are of no interest, unless they help us to judge his character, and hence help us to predict what he might do in the future, and hence enable us to make better guesses about what the future consequences of his future actions might be.

Since any action's consequences depend on the circumstances in which it is performed, it is crucial that the broader situation in which an agent acts be taken into account. Take telling lies, for example. Utilitarians do not condemn lying outright, because some lies have good consequences, that is, they promote pleasure or happiness. Only the lies that have bad consequences are morally wrong: these are the ones that promote suffering or misery instead. So the many polite falsehoods we tell each other every day are morally right, as long as they make everyone feel more comfortable. For another, more dramatic example of a lie, imagine that you live in Nazi-occupied Europe, and you are hiding a Jewish family in your attic. The Gestapo call you in for questioning, and you lie to them by denying everything. This may be dangerous, but if you get away with it, the overall consequences are happy, and the lies you tell them are morally right. Some lies are morally wrong, however. For example, we sometimes say things to one another of such importance that life plans are constructed on the assumption that they are true. When it emerges that these things are false, the emotional disruption that ensues can be severe, and painful. It all depends on the circumstances.

Utilitarianism offers answers to a very wide range of moral questions. These questions arise in all areas of human life, from matters of individual conduct to matters of public policy. As an example of how utilitarianism tells us how to behave in our 'private lives', consider the fact that most present-day utilitarians say we should be vegetarians (Singer 1979: 93-104). We are not thinking of our own health here, but rather the health and happiness of the animals we have to kill if we eat meat. As an example of how utilitarianism might guide public policy, consider J.S. Mill's principle that the laws and customs of society should allow everyone to do as they please, as long as they don't harm others (Mill 1859: 14). Mill was an English utilitarian of the nineteenth century, and his essay On Liberty is the 'manifesto' of classical liberalism.

For a more up-to-date example, consider how a utilitarian might deal with the question whether governments should ban the sale of domestically-produced arms to dubious foreign militias. If these militias would buy arms anyway from other arms manufacturers in other countries, and use them anyway for the same unpleasant purposes, then the issue for a utilitarian is simply which workers in which arms factories should benefit. It all depends on the circumstances, once again. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which a utilitarian would say it is right to sell arms to foreign terrorists, even if doing so made us feel rather disgraceful.

Utilitarianism can be an uncompromising moral theory, in that it sometimes tells us to do things that most of us would find impossibly unpalatable. For example, on a crowded lifeboat that only has room for one more adult or for two more children, it says we should rescue the children and leave the adult to drown, even if this adult were our dear old mother, say, and the children were complete strangers. Many ordinary people would regard this as an impossible demand. Surely it is not morally wrong to give precedence to the bonds of love, loyalty, or family attachment? To condemn one's own mother to death by drowning for the sake of following an abstract principle seems inhuman, even monstrous. Yet utilitarianism says we must do it. This conflicts with generally-held moral intuitions so starkly that utilitarianism is cast into doubt. This pattern of argument recurs again and again in moral philosophy. We shall meet it again in the next section, where we consider some further problems with utilitarianism, and in section 8, where we consider some objections to Kant's moral theory.

Utilitarianism does not regard any sort of action as morally right or wrong on its own, independently of its circumstances. In other words, utilitarians hold that actions do not have any intrinsic moral worth. However, evaluating an action's moral worth is a matter of calculating its actual consequences, and this is an entirely objective matter of finding out what will happen in the future.

The consequences of inaction (that is, of doing nothing) can be just as dramatic as those of action, so utilitarians do not distinguish between them.

6. Some problems with utilitarianism

Many students meeting utilitarianism for the first time express doubts about how a utilitarian might hope to measure quantities of pleasure or happiness, or hope to calculate all of the consequences of an action accurately. Our knowledge of such matters is surely very limited. But philosophers tend not to take this objection very seriously. Utilitarians are quite happy to accept that our moral judgements are very uncertain. They are just as uncertain as our judgements about what the future holds in store, about what gives people pleasure or makes them happy, and so on. They are all a matter of (educated) guesswork. If we knew everything about the future, and we knew all about how to measure quantities of pleasure or happiness, then we would know all about morality. Unfortunately we don't know all of these things, but so what? We have to muddle through as best we can. Life is complicated, and we are all bound to make mistakes. A utilitarian would say that we should accept these hard facts of life, do the best we can with the limited information we have, and hope that we are right, although there is always the possibility that we are wrong.

A second objection to utilitarianism is much more serious. It is also very simple. It says that utilitarianism often commits us to the sacrifice of a small number of innocent people for the benefit of a larger number of other people. Since this is morally unacceptable — it is plainly unjust — the theory that tells us to do such things must itself be mistaken. Therefore, this second objection goes, utilitarianism must be mistaken. For example, suppose four people are ill, and will soon die, unless they can get an organ transplant. One needs a new heart, another needs a new liver, and the other two need a kidney each. If one innocent, healthy person were killed painlessly, then his organs could be used for transplanting into the other four, which would prolong their lives. Overall pleasure or happiness would be promoted by killing this unfortunate organ donor, and a utilitarian would have to say it is right. But if utilitarianism says such actions are right, utilitarianism itself must be wrong.

A third objection to utilitarianism says that the moral 'integrity' of an agent is ignored or forgotten when we focus our attention on the ideal 'calculations' the theory requires. For example, take any one of the many unpalatable things utilitarianism says we should do. This third objection says that no one could regard himself as acting morally if he did what utilitarianism says he should do. His 'moral integrity' would be compromised.

The utilitarian can reply that his own understanding of moral integrity is very different from that of other people, especially those who judge moral rightness in terms of motives. This third objection may seem convincing to someone who agrees with Kant's moral theory, and with its conception of virtue, but a utilitarian's conception of virtue is very different. For him, a virtuous man is one who does not care what others think of him, but does what is best for everyone affected in the long run. He has to be tough-minded sometimes, and he shouldn't have prissy concerns about his actions 'not looking right'. The utilitarian's reply here may not seem very convincing till we remember that in some situations, such as during wartime, we have no choice but to make decisions along broadly utilitarian lines. Leaders of armies, and of nations, have to make difficult life-or-death decisions about large numbers of people based on limited information.

7. Kant's moral theory

Parents often tell their children that they should not do something, then back it up by asking 'What if everyone did that?' It sometimes works. And children are quick to learn the phrase 'that's not fair!', which can also work. Kant's moral theory is a more sophisticated development of the idea that morality has to do with rules that everyone ought to follow because the rules are fair.

The focus of Kant's moral theory is on motives rather than consequences. This brings it into direct conflict with utilitarianism. According to Kant, one cannot do the morally right thing for the wrong reasons, or the morally wrong thing for the right reasons. For example, take a shopkeeper who doesn't cheat his customers because he knows that rumours of his dishonesty would get around, and that would be bad for business. He would be acting out of selfish motives. Such motives would make the action morally wrong, according to Kant, even if it had happy consequences. But a utilitarian would say that such an action was morally right. As another example, take an off-duty surgeon who performs an operation (for free!) because he knows it is his duty to try to prolong life. But by sheer bad luck, suppose the patient dies. Kant would say that the surgeon did the morally right thing, despite the unfortunate consequences. A utilitarian would have to say that the surgeon did the morally wrong thing, although of course he couldn't be blamed for it, since he couldn't have known that the operation would turn out so badly. (Remember that utilitarianism says moral judgements are quite uncertain.)

So for Kant, doing the right thing means doing one's duty, and doing it because one recognises it as one's duty. It isn't enough to do one's duty because one enjoys doing one's duty: that would be selfish, a misguided attempt to do 'the right thing for the wrong reasons'.

Obviously, Kant must explain how a person is to recognise what his duties are, and this is where Kant's basic moral principle enters the picture. He calls it the 'categorical imperative', and it says that a person should only follow rules that he could want everyone to follow. An 'imperative' is just a claim that tells someone what they ought to do. The 'categorical' imperative is distinguished from merely 'hypothetical' imperatives, which tell someone what they ought do on the assumption that they want something. For example, 'if you want to stay healthy, you shouldn't smoke' is an imperative whose force depends on the assumption (or 'hypothesis') that you want to stay healthy. Kant thought that moral rules had to apply to everyone in the same way, so no moral imperative could depend on individual wants like this. Morality tells us 'categorically' what we ought to do, regardless of what we want.

In general, the process of discovering whether an action is morally right involves asking two questions:

1. Is the action done because the agent is following a rule of conduct?

2. If so, is that rule one that we could want everyone to follow?

If the answer to both questions is 'yes', then the action is morally right. If the answer to either question is 'no', then the action is not morally right.

For example, let us return to our shopkeeper. Suppose he does not cheat his customers because he believes it is his duty to act honestly in his business dealings. The answer to question 1 would be 'yes', because he is acting out of principle rather than for personal gain. The rule of conduct that he seems to be following might be 'one should never cheat one's customers'. Now let us ask the second question. Is this a rule we could want everyone to follow? If all shopkeepers cheated their customers, no one would buy things in shops, and there would be no shopkeepers. It wouldn't even make sense to talk about shopkeepers. On the other hand, if no shopkeepers ever cheated their customers, then shops would be trustworthy, reliable places to buy anything — we might even go to shops to buy things like houses or legal advice. This would be a very convenient world to live in, so we could certainly want everyone to follow a rule like that. The answer to question 2 would be 'yes' again. In other words, the shopkeeper's action is morally right.

In imagining what the world would be like if everyone followed the rule that 'one should never cheat one's customers', just a moment ago, we considered what the consequences of universal compliance with that rule would be like. Recent versions of Kant's moral theory (Rawls 1971) take imagined consequences into account like this, but in its purest form — the way Kant himself intended it — it is not the imagined consequences of everyone following a rule that matter. Instead, it is the imagined situation's unintelligibility. That is what I had in mind when I said that the word 'shopkeeper' wouldn't mean anything if we imagined shopkeepers always cheating their customers. The claim that 'shopkeepers don't care about honesty' is a sort of contradiction, because it couldn't possibly be true. It is difficult to see how it could be true once we see that we are trying to imagine a sort of impossibility.

Kant makes a similar point in arguing that people ought to keep their promises. If people didn't usually keep their promises, there could be no such thing as a promise, because the very institution of promising depends on expectations that people will keep their promises. If these expectations didn't exist, neither could promising (Kant 1785: 20-21).

Kant's own version of the categorical imperative, translated from German, goes like this: 'I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.' (Kant 1785: 19) A 'maxim' is just a rule of conduct, as described above. His arguments can be detailed and rather obscure, but it is clear from his own examples, which are quite revealing, that he was trying to develop the idea that morality has to do with motives and following rules, as opposed to promoting pleasure or happiness. His own examples include that it is morally right to refuse to commit suicide, right to develop one's own talents, and right to help others (Kant 1785: 39-41). His arguments follow the same pattern as that of the cheating shopkeeper above. It is easy to see 'where he is coming from': all of these actions involve dutifully resisting ignoble inclinations. The urge to kill oneself might come from an ignoble inclination to avoid unhappiness by 'taking the easy way out'. The urge to not bother developing one's talents might come from an ignoble inclination to be lazy by 'going with the flow'. The urge to not help others might come from an ignoble inclination to be selfish by 'looking after number one'.

However, Kant is not chiefly remembered for giving a rigorous expression to the idea that it is wrong to give in to inclinations. The main reason why he is taken so seriously, and why his theory remains influential, is that he thought the 'categorical imperative' entailed that we must treat other people as 'ends in themselves' rather than merely as 'means' to other ends. To see what he meant by this, remember what utilitarianism said about killing an innocent person to use his internal organs to prolong the lives of some other people. With utilitarianism, the unfortunate victim is a 'means' to the 'end' of pleasure or happiness. But with Kant's moral theory, which says we shouldn't follow rules that we couldn't want everyone to follow, we tend to imagine what things would be like if we were the victim. We probably shudder at the thought, and say that no one could want everyone to follow a rule that allowed innocent people to be killed in this way. In making our moral judgement, there is no impersonal 'end' (such as pleasure) beyond the people we imagine as complying with the rules in question. In this sense, people are 'ends in themselves', rather than 'means' to some further, impersonal end.

Kant's moral theory is an example of a 'deontological' moral theory, that is, a theory based on the concept of duty. Since talk of 'moral rights' is a shorthand way of referring to clear-cut duties, Kant's theory is compatible with such talk, and with the idea that morality has to do with not infringing people's rights. This idea is very familiar, and in the last few hundred years it has become the most popular way of thinking about morality in the Western world.

8. Some problems with Kant's moral theory

For Kant, doing the right thing means (1) resisting ignoble inclinations, and (2) following rules that we could want everyone to follow. But these two 'ingredients' can pull us in opposite directions. For example, suppose a white male employer is considering two applicants for a job. Suppose the applicant best suited to the job is another white male. The other applicant is a black female, who is slightly less well-suited to the job, but would still be perfectly adequate in the position. The employer may feel inclined to give the job to 'one of our own', namely, the white male. This would surely be an ignoble sort of inclination, and the first ingredient in Kant's theory would lead him to resist it by giving the job to the black female. It wouldn't be too difficult to come up with a rule we could want everyone to follow that favoured members of disadvantaged minorities like this. Many American universities have done as much in adopting policies of 'affirmative action'. But now consider the rule that 'jobs should be given to the best-qualified applicants, without reference to irrelevant factors like skin colour or sex'. This is surely a rule we could want everyone to follow, so the second ingredient in Kant's theory might lead him to give the job to the white male after all. What is he to do? It would seem that the theory is ambiguous. This is a first objection to Kant's moral theory.

A second objection to Kant's theory casts doubt on the idea that moral deliberation is essentially an 'inward-looking' exercise. Suppose that, according to Kant's theory, two possible courses of action seem to be equally morally right: each seems to require the same amount of resistance to inclinations, and each involves following a rule that we could want everyone to follow just as easily as the other. How is the agent to decide between them? In the equivalent situation, a utilitarian could (and would) say that the agent should pursue whichever course of action had the more desirable consequences. The utilitarian's moral deliberation would involve trying to discover more and more factual details about what the actual consequences of the two courses of action are likely to be. His pursuit of these facts might lead him to reflect upon history, science, statistics, and other 'worldly' fields of study. But unlike the utilitarian, the follower of Kant's theory cannot permit himself to pursue such lines of inquiry. He can do little more than wonder which of the two possible courses of action is motivated by the purer sense of duty. His field of study is not the outside world but himself. It is hard to resist the metaphor of a Narcissus looking at his own reflection, wondering whether his left or right profile best captures his 'good side'.

This is more than just an objection that the utilitarian can raise against Kant's theory. It is also a problem that can arise wholly within Kant's conception of morality. Suppose one action is of a sort that is widely recognised as being morally right, while the other is widely frowned upon. Then the first sort of action is likely to be the fashionable 'thing to do', and the profitable one as well, even if the only sort of profit involved is the 'gain' of popular approval. Should the follower of Kant allow himself to be swayed by the popularity, and hence profitability, of one course of action? Surely not: if he did, he would have to regard himself as merely supporting the fashionable cause, dutifully resisting his ignoble inclinations all the way to the bank. But if he didn't, he would have to regard himself as the lonely puritan bravely resisting the vagaries of popular opinion, a philosophical Gary Cooper facing his 'High Noon'. One way or the other, the deliberation involves the agent regarding himself and how his action 'looks', and that doesn't sound much like moral deliberation to anyone. A high-minded refusal to yield to inclinations does not look so high-minded if the agent actually gains from his own refusal. And a high-minded refusal to gain does not look so high-minded either, if it amounts to nothing more than a self-conscious shunning of popular opinion.

What I have been calling 'high-mindedness' — a determination to do duty for duty's sake — has less to do with morality than Kant seems to think. Moral deliberation can hardly be a narcissistic exercise in merely 'looking good' to oneself — or to anyone else, for that matter.

A third objection to Kant's moral theory develops this theme by finding fault with Kant's understanding of motivation. There is nothing mysterious about hypothetical imperatives, which say that we ought to do things because we want to achieve some goal, but what about the categorical imperative? Can anyone really do something because he recognises it as his duty, yet not want to do his duty to achieve some other, more worldly goal, such as being admired? If Kant's moral theory relies on an untenable understanding of the mind, then his entire theory might be constructed on shaky foundations.

As a fourth objection, consider what might be meant by everyone when we wonder whether a rule is one we could want 'everyone' to follow. Are we to think of everyone in our community, or all human beings, or all living creatures, or what? The categorical imperative is supposed to endorse some rules and not others, and our answer to this question will make a difference to which rules are endorsed. For example, suppose by 'everyone' we mean all human beings. Now consider the rule 'we should nourish our children as best we can'. Then by the categorical imperative, giving meat to our children is morally right, because doing so conforms to that rule, and that rule is endorsed by the categorical imperative: we could indeed want all human beings to follow it. But now suppose by 'everyone' we mean human beings and animals, including cows, pigs and chickens. The rule no longer enjoys the endorsement of the categorical imperative, since cows, pigs and chickens could hardly want everyone to follow it. This fourth objection, like the first, says that Kant's theory is unclear.

The conflict between utilitarianism and Kant's moral theory obviously cannot be resolved easily. The idea that morality has to do with promoting pleasure is an old enemy of the idea that it has to do with following rules. In Hellenistic times, a philosophical 'war' was waged between the Stoics and the followers of Epicurus that was strikingly similar to the one we have just been considering between Kantians and utilitarians. We can be sure that this sort of disagreement will continue for some time to come.

9. Morality and other human values

It is natural to think of morality as an unambiguous force for good, as the 'highest' guide to, and best way of thinking about, human behaviour. But where moral values come into conflict with values of other sorts, it is possible to see morality as a corrupting influence on other types of human endeavour. Now it may seem odd to think of morality as a 'corrupting' influence on anything. To see why, it is essential to understand that values can come into conflict with one another. For example, putting moral values aside for a moment, suppose a person regards long-term commitment to another human being as more valuable than sexual variety. He would be sort of person whose marriage would be 'corrupted' by sexual promiscuity. Conversely, suppose another person regards sexual variety as more valuable than long-term commitment. Then he would be the sort of person whose sexual promiscuity would be corrupted by marriage. (Remember that we are putting moral values aside for the moment.) As another example, consider what medical science currently tells us about the effects of alcohol on the heart and liver. If one values the health of one's heart, one should drink alcohol in moderation. But if one values the health of one's liver, one shouldn't drink alcohol at all. What promotes the health of one organ corrupts the other organ. So long as we remember that our moral, aesthetic and other values can come into conflict in much the same way, it needn't sound quite so odd to think of morality as a source of 'corruption'. The world contains a plurality of human beings, and since human beings differ from one another in respect of what they regard as valuable, it contains a plurality of human values. Similarly, any individual human being has various goals, desires, interests and needs that cannot all be satisfied together. His moral values are bound to conflict with some of his other values. When they do, his non-moral values might be said to 'corrupt' his moral values, and vice versa.

The quest for truth can be subverted by sincerely held moral commitments. For example, some psychologists deny that there can be any genetic or innate component in human behaviour. They would say that all of our beliefs and desires were acquired through exposure to the environment in which we were brought up. They sometimes argue for this factual claim by saying that to believe otherwise would be racist, and it might even lead us to adopt a Nazi-style program of eugenics, which would be morally wrong. Here, a well-meaning moral commitment subverts the quest for true beliefs about human nature, because by refusing even to consider alternative explanations, the favoured explanation is not properly subjected to testing. The willingness to consider alternative explanations is an essential element of proper scientific method.

Another area in which moral commitments can be a corrupting influence is in art. For example, a cinema critic might judge a film to be aesthetically bad because it paints women in a bad light, say, thereby encouraging sexist attitudes. But to someone who judges art on purely aesthetic criteria, this might seem like a form of philistinism, a disregard for what is aesthetically valuable because of a stronger attachment to what is morally valuable.

Something similar may be happening in the movement widely known as 'political correctness'. One of the aims of this movement is to get writers to use words in such a way as to shape the reader's moral sensibilities. For example, writers might be asked to substitute the term 'sensitive caring boy' for the word 'sissy'. As a less extreme (but more widespread) example of this sort of practice, consider the way many academic writers prefer the word 'she' to the traditional generic pronoun 'he', their aim being to undermine sexist prejudices. One might argue that this practice sacrifices clarity in writing for the sake of encouraging morally worthy attitudes. After all, one might argue, the pronoun 'he' is traditionally meant to refer to human beings in general, both men and women, and continues to do so among the ordinary reading public (including students) who have no special familiarity with the political agendas of academic writers. To these readers, the use of the pronoun 'she' may do little more than proclaim the worthy moral attitudes of the writer, at the cost of distracting attention from important issues that are supposedly under discussion. One might argue that this distraction is a sacrifice of clarity. Once again, moral commitments might be seen as a corrupting influence on other endeavours in life.

As a final example of the 'corrupting' influence of morality, consider the fact that many moral theories require that we treat all human beings equally, ignoring the special attachments we have to other people such as lovers, friends and family. Nepotism, for example, is usually thought to be a bad thing. But what if we regard loyalty as something valuable? What if we regard our lover as 'our own', and we believe in looking after our own?

If we value truth, beauty, clarity, love or loyalty, we may have to devalue moral rightness to some extent. But we needn't reject morality altogether to maintain our attachment to these other values. By acknowledging that these various values can come into conflict, we are reminded that life is complicated, and that we should not expect to find easy answers to important questions.


Bentham, Jeremy. (1823) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1973.

Hume, David. (1740) A Treatise of Human Nature; ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Kant, Immanuel. (1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Thomas K. Abbott. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Mill, John Stuart. (1859) On Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Rawls, John. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Singer, Peter. (1979) Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.