The words "moral" and "ethics" (and cognates) are often used interchangeably. However, it is useful to make the following distinction: Morality is the system through which we determine right and wrong conduct -- i.e., the guide to good or right conduct. Ethics is the philosophical study of Morality.
What, then, is a moral theory?
A theory is a structured set of statements used to explain (or predict) a set of facts or concepts.Ý A moral theory, then, explains why a certain action is wrong -- or why we ought to act in certain ways.ÝÝ In short, it is a theory of how we determine right and wrong conduct.Ý Also, moral theories provide the framework upon which we think and discuss in a reasoned way, and so evaluate, specific moral issues. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that we cannot draw a sharp divide between moral theory and applied ethics (e.g., medical or business ethics). For instance, in order to critically evaluate the moral issue of affirmative action, we must not attempt to evaluate what actions or policies are right (or wrong) independent of what we take to determine right and wrong conduct. You will see, as we proceed, that we do not do ethics without at least some moral theory.Ý When evaluating the merits of some decision regarding a case, we will always (or at least ought to always) find ourselves thinking about how right and wrong is determined in general, and then apply that to the case at hand.Ý Note, though, that sound moral thinking does not simply involve going one way -- from theory to applied issue.Ý Sometimes a case may suggest that we need to change or adjust our thinking about what moral theory we think is the best, or perhaps it might lead us to think that a preferred theory needs modification. Another important distinction:
Are moral theories descriptive or prescriptive ?
In presenting a moral theory, are we merely describing how people, in their everyday 'doings' and 'thinkings,' form a judgement about what is right and wrong, or are we prescribing how people ought to make these judgements? Most take moral theories to be prescriptive. The descriptive accounts of what people do is left to sociologists and anthropologists.Ý Philosophers, then, when they study morality, want to know what is the proper way of determining right and wrong. There have been many different proposals.Ý Here is a brief summary.
Theories of Morality
(1) Moral Subjectivism
Right and wrong is determined by what you -- the subject -- just happens to think (or 'feel') is right or wrong. In its common form, Moral Subjectivism amounts to the denial of moral principles of any significant kind, and the possibility of moral criticism and argumentation.Ý In essence, 'right' and 'wrong' lose their meaning because so long as someone thinks or feels that some action is 'right', there are no grounds for criticism.Ý If you are a moral subjectivist, you cannot object to anyone's behaviour (assuming people are in fact acting in accordance with what they think or feel is right).Ý This shows the key flaw in moral subjectivism -- probably nearly everyone thinks that it is legitimate to object, on moral grounds, to at least some peoples' actions.Ý That is, it is possible to disagree about moral issues. Ý
(2) Cultural Relativism
Right and wrong is determined by the particular set of principles or rules the relevant culture just happens to hold at the time. Cultural Relativism is closely linked to Moral Subjectivism.Ý It implies that we cannot criticize the actions of those in cultures other than our own.Ý And again, it amounts to the denial of universal moral principles.Ý Also, it implies that a culture cannot be mistaken about what is right and wrong (which seems not to be true), and so it denies the possibility of moral advancement (which also seems not to be true). Ý
(3) Ethical Egoism
Right and wrong is determined by what is in your self-interest.Ý Or, it is immoral to act contrary to your self-interest. Ethical Egoism is...
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