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An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

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Ethical Choices An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

with Cases


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Ethical Choices An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

with Cases


Felician University


New York Oxford



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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries.

Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America.

© 2018 by Oxford University Press Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016

Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Burnor, Richard, author. | Raley, Yvonne, author. Title: Ethical choices : an introduction to moral philosophy with cases /    Richard Burnor, Felician College, Yvonne Raley, Felician College. Description: Second [edition]. | New York : Oxford University Press, 2017. Identifiers: LCCN 2016049781| ISBN 9780190464509 (student edition) | ISBN    9780190464516 (instructor’s edition) | ISBN 9780190464530 (course website)    | ISBN 9780190464547 (instructor’s manual (arc)) Subjects: LCSH: Ethics—Textbooks. | Ethical problems—Textbooks. Classification: LCC BJ1012 .B755 2017 | DDC 170—dc23    LC record available at

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Printed by LSC Communications Inc.

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To the reader, whose intrinsic moral worth has been and continues to be our most important reason for writing this book.

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preface xv guidelines xxiii


Chapter One Ethics and Values 5 Chapter Two Moral Relativism 25 Chapter Three Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency 46 Chapter Four Making Moral Judgments 70 Chapter Five Moral Psychology and Egoism 87


Chapter Six Consequentialist Ethics: Act Utilitarianism 111 Chapter Seven Consequentialist Ethics: Rule Utilitarianism 134 Chapter Eight Deontological Ethics 150 Chapter Nine Natural Law Theory 178 Chapter Ten Social Contracts and Rights 198 Chapter Eleven Virtue Ethics 223 Chapter Twelve Feminism and Care Ethics 249 Chapter Thirteen Ethics and Religion 276

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Chapter Fourteen Pluralism in Theoretical and Applied Ethics 301

glossary 337

index 348

viii B R I E F C O N T E N T S


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preface xv

guidelines xxiii


Chapter One Ethics and Values 5 I. Extraordinary and Ordinary Morals 5 II. The Nature of Values 8 III. Moral vs. Non-Moral Values 10 IV. Foundational and Instrumental Values 14 V. Explanation and Foundational Values 15

Chapter Assignment Questions 18 Case 1: Breastfeeding in Public 19 Case 2: The Real Price of Coffee 20 Case 3: Jurassic Kitty: Should I Clone My Cat? 22 Case 4: Sex Selection 23

Chapter Two Moral Relativism 25 I. Introduction 25 II. Three Views of Ethics 26 III. Evaluating Subjectivism 28 IV. Supporting Popular Relativism 30 V. Against Relativism 33 VI. A Matter of Tolerance 36


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VII. Can Relativism Supply What Objectivism Cannot? 38 Chapter Assignment Questions 39

Case 1: Arranged Marriage 40 Case 2: Female Genital Mutilation 40 Case 3: Religious Exemption and the

Death of Matthew Swan 42 Case 4: Women in the Middle East 43

Chapter Three Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency 46

I. Introduction 46 II. Personal Autonomy 47 III. Implications of Autonomy 51 IV. Moral Agents 52 V. Other Conceptions of Autonomy 56 VI. Relational Autonomy 59

Chapter Assignment Questions 61 Case 1: The Drunk Driver 62 Case 2: Elizabeth Bouvia 62 Case 3: Should the Drinking Age Be Eighteen? 64 Case 4: The Living Will 66 Case 5: Buy Now, Pay Later:

Student Credit Card Debt 68

Chapter Four Making Moral Judgments 70 I. Introduction 70 II. Conflicts 71 III. Characterizing Moral Claims 73 IV. Moral Reasoning 74 V. Moral Reflection 78

Chapter Assignment Questions 80 Case 1: Mr. Research 81 Case 2: Who’s Not Coming to Dinner? 82 Case 3: Who’s Responsible for Obesity? 84

Chapter Five Moral Psychology and Egoism 87 I. Introduction 87 II. Moral Character 89 III. Social and Cultural Influences 93 IV. Ethical and Psychological Egoism 96 V. Egoism and Moral Psychology 99

Chapter Assignment Questions 102 Case 1: Declaring Wages 103



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Case 2: The Scratched Bumper 104 Case 3: Job Competition 104 Case 4: Human Trafficking 105


Chapter Six Consequentialist Ethics: Act Utilitarianism 111

I. Introduction 111 II. Utility and Consequentialism 112 III. Utility and Mill’s Account 114 IV. Act Utilitarianism 116 V. Attractions and Problems 119 VI. Beyond Classical Utilitarianism 124

Chapter Assignment Questions 126 Case 1: Charity vs. iPad 127 Case 2: Sponsoring a Child 128 Case 3: Should Your Next Car Be a Hybrid? 129 Case 4: Factory Farming and Animal Suffering 130 Case 5: Torture Lite 132

Chapter Seven Consequentialist Ethics: Rule Utilitarianism 134

I. Introduction 134 II. Rule Utilitarianism 135 III. Rule vs. Act Utilitarianism 137 IV. Problems with Rule Utilitarianism 139 V. Justice and Rights Again 143

Chapter Assignment Questions 144 Case 1: Transgender Students at College 145 Case 2: Curbing Grade Inflation 146 Case 3: Universal Healthcare 148

Chapter Eight Deontological Ethics 150 I. Introduction 150 II. Ross’s Ethics 152 III. Kant’s Good Will 155 IV. Kant’s Principle of Ends 157 V. Kant’s Principle of Universal Law 160 VI. The Principle of Autonomy 164 VII. Attractions and Problems 166






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Chapter Assignment Questions 169 Case 1: A Demanding Honor Code 169 Case 2: The Ayala Case 171 Case 3: Internet Bride—Straight from Asia 172 Case 4: A Personal Decision 174 Case 5: Beefy Burgers and a Lean Future 175 Case 6: Suicide 177

Chapter Nine Natural Law Theory 178 I. Introduction 178 II. Natural Law Theory 179 III. Forfeiture 181 IV. Double Effect 183 V. Problems For Natural Law Theory 186

Chapter Assignment Questions 189 Case 1: Relieving Pain in a Dying Patient 190 Case 2: Birth Control 191 Case 3: Just War Theory and the

Killing of Noncombatants 193 Case 4: Permanent Vegetative State:

The Case of Terri Schiavo 195

Chapter Ten Social Contracts and Rights 198 I. Introduction 198 II. Locke 200 III. Hobbes 202 IV. Rawls 205 V. Assessing Social Contract Theory 208 VI. Assessing Rights 212 VII. Kinds of Rights 215

Chapter Assignment Questions 217 Case 1: Socrates’s Imprisonment 218 Case 2: Lord of the Flies 219 Case 3: Locke and Load: Lockean

Rights and Gun Control 220

Chapter Eleven Virtue Ethics 223 I. Introduction 223 II. The Heart of Virtue Ethics 224 III. Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics 226 IV. Critiquing Principle-Based Ethics 230 V. Classifying the Virtues 233 VI. Problems With Virtue Ethics 235



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Chapter Assignment Questions 239 Case 1: The Unlikely Rescue 240 Case 2: Video Games 241 Case 3: Compulsive Gambling and the Internet 243 Case 4: Moral Luck 245 Case 5: Democracy in Switzerland 247

Chapter Twelve Feminism and Care Ethics 249 I. Introduction 249 II. Feminist Ethics 251 III. The Care Perspective 253 IV. Foundations of an Ethics of Care 257 V. Care and Virtue 261 VI. A Blueprint for Reform 263 VII. Problems 264 VIII. A Concluding Reflection 269

Chapter Assignment Questions 269 Case 1: The International Gemstone Trade 270 Case 2: Parent Responsibility Toward

Their In Utero Child 271 Case 3: The Nestlé Boycott 273 Case 4: Absolute Poverty 274

Chapter Thirteen Ethics and Religion 276 I. Introduction 276 II. Kant on Autonomy and Religion 278 III. Divine Command Theory 281 IV. An Alternate Dependency Account 282 V. Objections and Elaborations 285 VI. Completeness 289

Chapter Assignment Questions 290 Case 1: By Divine Command? 291 Case 2: Religious Symbols and Public Schools 292 Case 3: A Question of Authority 294


Chapter Fourteen Pluralism in Theoretical and Applied Ethics 301

I. Kinds of Ethical Pluralism 301 II. Medical Ethics: Futility 303 III. Environmental Ethics: Anthropocentrism

and Ecocentrism 310





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IV. Business Ethics: Whistle-Blowing 317 V. The Personal Dimension: How Can I

Make Morally Right Choices? 323 Chapter Assignment Questions 326

Case 1: Infant Medical Futility 328 Case 2: Climate Change and Oil 328 Case 3: National Parks 331 Case 4: Surfer, Sailor, Whistle-Blower 332 Case 5: The Diesel Dupe 334 Case 6: The Snowden Leak 334

Glossary 337

Index 348


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We are pleased to be able to offer the second edition of Ethical Choices to both students and the general reader. In preparing this new edition, we have worked to preserve and improve upon what many reviewers have considered to be the special strengths of the book.

Many parts of ethics are not exactly easy to understand, but we haven’t wanted to add to your difficulties by poor writing. By adopting a deliberately informal style and conversational tone, we have sought to make this book clear, readable, and accessible regardless of whether or not you’ve previously studied ethics or phi- losophy. Since we don’t want you to feel that ethics is tedious, we have shortened unduly long sentences, removed jargon, and reduced the number of technical terms. Ideally, our hope is that when you read this book, your experience will be something like having a pleasant conversation with an especially intriguing friend.

This book differs from most ethics introductions in several useful and ap- pealing ways. Most of all, we intend this book to make ethics engaging for you. Not surprisingly, we find ethics captivating; we’d very much like you to find it so as well. Achieving this, it seems to us, requires that we relate ethical topics to your own life, experiences, and interests. For instance, each chapter includes at least one opening narrative or scenario meant to grab your attention, boost your interest in what follows, and illustrate what the chapter is about. Some of these stories are true; others are at least true to life; they often portray quite ordinary and everyday experiences. To further engage you in your ethics reading, each chapter is also followed by a number of practical cases. Again, many of these portray actual situ- ations; all of them invite you to discover how ethical theory can apply directly to moral problems. Most of these cases are not about global or national policy issues; instead, they describe problems and issues that you can probably relate to in your own life. It’s gratifying to us that, after examining a particular case, students have sometimes told us that they’ve just gone through a similar experience themselves.

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To aid you further in your study of ethics, we have included a number of helps:

• Immediately following this Preface are the Guidelines for a Case Study Anal- ysis. These propose a set of steps to follow as you analyze a case or even work through a personal moral problem. These are also discussed more informally in the last section of the book.

• Important terms appear throughout the book in boldface where they are first presented and explained. These “technical” terms will often be used again. Master these, as they are essential to your “internalizing” concepts and ideas you need to fully understand ethics.

• Each section of each chapter is usually followed by a set of questions For Discussion. Whether instructors select any of these as class discussion topics, you can consider how you would answer them for yourself. This will help you think more deeply about that section’s material; it may also reveal how that material relates to other issues that interest you.

• Each section is also followed by a brief Summary; whenever the section introduces important terms, there is a list of Key Terms together with their definitions as well. Both can help you reinforce your understanding of what you’ve just read; they can also be very useful for doing a quick review of that section and of essential terms and concepts.

• At the end of each chapter, you will find another set of questions labeled Chapter Assignment Questions. These are more comprehensive than the questions For Discussion but can serve several of the same purposes.

• Every chapter includes a collection of Additional Resources. Some of these are links to short YouTube-type presentations on parts of that chapter. Others take you to an interesting video clip or trailer relating to that chapter’s topics. A number are links to original works referred to in the chapter.

• Be sure to refer often to the book’s detailed Table of Contents and its Index; both can help you find material you need to look at or want to review.

• There is a glossary near the end of the book. This can serve as your first resource for reviewing and further clarifying the meanings of important terms.

• A website has been set up specifically for this book. The site provides sev- eral additional tools: (a) outlines of each chapter, (b) flashcards for learning key terms, (c) practice quiz questions, (d) PowerPoint presentations of each chapter’s material, and so on.

Do check out these helps for yourself. Also, thumb through the book to see how it’s laid out, where you can find help, and how you can best use everything it makes available to you. We think that many of these things can benefit you greatly.

Our best wishes are with you as you start your discovery of what the ancient, fascinating, urgent, and dynamic field of ethics is about!

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This book is primarily intended to serve as an introduction to ethics for college students who don’t have much familiarity with ethics or philosophy. (It can also serve as a handy review text for more advanced students and even for graduate stu- dents.) It provides a survey of major ethical theories and perspectives that we think is highly accessible even as it remains philosophically accurate and also attempts to stay up to date. The book’s underlying theme is that of choices. It invites readers to rationally evaluate a wide range of ethical perspectives, theories, and insights and to decide which they find to be the most compelling. It also encourages readers to apply what ethics has to offer to a variety of moral problems as well as to their own moral predicaments. What particularly sets this book apart from other ethics texts is its large number of student-relevant “real-life” cases, which can be used to help students make the transition from theory to application. In addition, each chapter includes at least one illustrative story or scenario (usually in its opening section) to pique the reader’s interest and set the stage for what follows.

This book takes the approach that has worked best with our students. We particularly aim at presenting ethics so that it will resonate with the experiences, beliefs, and thinking of today’s post-modern-minded students. For instance, it has become increasingly clear that teaching can be more effective when supplemented or even largely replaced by relevant stories and narratives that have affective as well as cognitive force.1 To use the text to best promote the reader’s engagement and understanding, therefore, we urge you to make systematic use of the book’s case studies. We also suggest that you draw upon the many narratives appear- ing in most chapters—along with the accompanying For Discussion questions—to jump-start class discussions. These will not only engage your students but also provide valuable opportunities for you to interject comments and even “mini- lectures” about the material. If you feel even bolder, you might try teaching pri- marily through class discussions that afford you plenty of opportunities to correct, reinforce, and extend what students have previously read in the text. We have pro- vided the For Discussion questions as suggestive starting points for leading such discussions.

There are several things to mention about the book’s cases. First, a few case discussions introduce material not presented in the main text (e.g., “Just War Theory,” “Locke and Load”). These allow you to take your students to a deeper level in thinking about issues raised by those particular cases. Second, cases have been deliberately matched to particular theories, chapter by chapter. Nevertheless, this does not preclude using one chapter’s cases with another chapter’s material.

1Joanna Szurmak and Mindy Thuna, “Tell Me a Story: The Use of Narrative as a Tool for Instruc- tion,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 10, 2013, accessed October 2, 2016, org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/SzurmakThuna_TellMe.pdf. Philo- sophical pioneers in the instructional use of stories include Kieran Egan and Gareth Matthews, among many others. Several other relevant resources are available online.

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In fact, many cases may be effectively used with several different theories. The book’s online website (see more in the following discussion) offers additional sug- gestions for pairing cases to chapters and theories. Third, the cases following each chapter proceed (more or less) from shorter and simpler cases to more challeng- ing and multi-faceted ones. Next, each case is followed by a collection of Thought Questions. Many of these provide opportunities for applying the concepts and theory introduced in the chapter to that case. Others extend or even challenge the theories. To encourage the comparison of different accounts, some allude to previous theories as well. All of these questions are designed to inspire students to think beyond their initial or “gut” reactions and to develop more carefully con- sidered and defensible viewpoints of their own. We have made no attempt to limit case problems to the easy or uncontroversial. As in real life, many of the prob- lems raised by the cases pose challenging moral dilemmas that admit to having no straightforward moral answer.

The Guidelines for a Case Study Analysis immediately follows this preface; you may want your students to follow these guidelines in doing their case analy- ses. If you’d rather they not take such a formal approach, you might assign just selected parts of the guidelines to ensure some structure to student analyses, or you might use them simply as a source of ideas when you create your own assignments. We have found the guidelines to be helpful to our students; never- theless, they may also be completely ignored. None of the book’s cases explicitly requires their use.

If you have used the first edition of this book, you will find that we have preserved and even added to its pedagogical tools. Many of these have just been mentioned or are discussed in the part of this preface directed to the reader. In addition, note that you can refer to each section’s Summary and Key Terms to de- termine or remind yourself what that section covers. Further, you should know that each section’s For Discussion questions tend to be informal and personal; the more substantive Chapter Assignment Questions, meanwhile, can be used for as- signments or to suggest assignment ideas. Further, you may find that some of the Additional Resources include videos and other types of presentations that might usefully supplement your classes.

Depending on the chapter, these might include videos or movie trailers re- lated to the chapter’s material, short presentations of portions of that chapter’s ma- terial, other texts that also cover the chapter’s material particularly well, or, when available, links to relevant online primary sources in ethics (e.g., Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan). You might want to use some of the primary source links to have students do readings in the original works (without having them buy a supplementary text). All of these resources enable readers to pursue many topics more fully as they wish.

As many reviewers approved of the text’s organization, we have largely pre- served that while adding some additional flexibility. On the most local level, each chapter still divides into clearly delineated sections. You may thus assign readings

Preface xix

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by section, or you might assign students to read only certain sections rather than an entire chapter. Sections that go beyond essential material or that are more spe- cialized or advanced are also still marked (by ** in their headings). These may be excluded from a course without jeopardizing student understanding of later sec- tions or chapters.

On a more global level, the book discusses more theories and cases than most courses can accommodate. It thus allows considerable leeway in what topics you want to include in a course. Most chapters are fairly self-contained, though some unavoidably must refer to preceding material. When such references are made, the relevant chapter and section is identified. This not only helps in reviewing earlier material but also allows you to entirely skip an earlier chapter and then assign one of that chapter’s sections as background for a topic introduced in a later chapter. Several chapters may simply be skipped entirely. Chapters that seem more dis- cretionary include Chapter Five: Moral Psychology and Egoism; Chapter Seven: Consequentialist Ethics: Rule Utilitarianism; Chapter Nine: Natural Law Theory; Ten: Social Contracts and Rights; Twelve: Feminism and Care Ethics; and Chapter Thirteen: Ethics and Religion. Another chapter you might elect to skip is Chapter Three: Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency, although some of this must be cov- ered if you wish to include Chapter Fourteen’s §II: Medical Ethics: Futility, since the latter relies heavily on concepts of autonomy and agency. A knowledgeable instructor can also present many of the chapters in different orders with relatively little inconvenience.


The book has been completely overhauled stylistically in an effort to simplify and streamline the presentation, to reduce the number of “key terms” and other tech- nical jargon, to standardize terminology, and to achieve a friendlier conversational tone. Occasional corrections have also been made (e.g., the discussion of Kant and absolutism has been corrected and further elaborated). Besides these, a number of other quite substantial changes have been made:

• Changes in organization: º Material from the previous Chapters One, Two, and Five has been re-

arranged, simplified, and consolidated into Chapters One and Four. Chapter One now begins with values, which we think provides a more intuitive route to understanding morality and ethics; our characteriza- tion of moral claims and an expanded discussion of moral thinking then appears in Chapter Four.

º The chapter on Moral Relativism (Chapter Two) now precedes the chap- ter on Personal Autonomy and Moral Agency (Chapter Three).

º The previous Chapter Six on egoism has been removed, though some material from that chapter has been incorporated in the new Chapters

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Five and Six. This change connects egoism to related topics in moral psy- chology rather than to consequentialist theories in general.

º The previous edition’s chapter on natural law and natural rights has been divided into separate chapters. The new Chapter Nine is devoted exclu- sively to natural law theory; the new Chapter Ten treats rights more com- prehensively as part of its exposition of social contract theory.

• Additional content: º Added to the generalist, principle-based pattern of “moral reasoning” of

the previous edition is a contrasting particularist pattern of “moral re- flection.” See the new Chapter Four, which now presents both patterns of moral thinking.

º A largely new Chapter Five explores major themes in moral psychology, some of which is related to ethical and psychological egoism.

º The largely new Chapter Ten, Social Contracts and Rights, presents the social contract theories of Locke, Hobbes, and Rawls while also expand- ing the previous edition’s presentation of rights.

º A synopsis of feminist ethics and its development has been added to Chapter Twelve, Feminism and Care Ethics.

º A largely new final Chapter Fourteen, Pluralism in Theoretical and Ap- plied Ethics, has been added. This chapter revises the previous edition’s presentation of ethical pluralism and adds three major new sections in applied ethics: §II Medical Ethics: Futility, §III Environmental Ethics: Anthropocentrism and Ecocentrism, §IV Business Ethics: Whistle- Blowing. The chapter closes with a revised section that discusses the ap- plication of ethics to one’s personal life.

• Added pedagogical tools: º Sixteen new cases have been written for this edition, making for fifty-

seven cases total. Most of the previous cases have also been updated to re- flect more recent developments; a few have been dropped, and a few have been altered significantly (e.g., “Guess Who’s Not Coming for Dinner,” “Climate Change and Oil”).

º Each chapter section is now accompanied by a set of For Discussion questions.

º A glossary of terms is now included at the end of the book.

A Companion Website at is available. This provides several resources for both students and instructors. Besides what is previously mentioned in “To the Reader”, instructors will also find sets of quiz questions, suggestions for alternate uses of the cases, and an additional applied ethics chap- ter on moral responsibilities toward future generations. More cases may be added from time to time.

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Our special thanks go to Robert Miller, Donald Casey, Irfan Khawaja, George Abaunza, and Vicky Burnor as well as to the many students, colleagues, and review- ers who provided suggestions, corrections, and criticisms of the many drafts that have ultimately culminated in this book. For their invaluable reviews, we would es- pecially like to thank Mark Alfano, Australian Catholic University; Luke Amentas, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY; Christopher Baker, Armstrong State University; Kate Bednar, University of Kansas; Jason Borenstein, Georgia Institute of Technology; Julien M. Farland, Anna Maria College; Bob Fischer, Texas State University; Dana R. Flint, The Lincoln University; Lisa Jorgensen, Vanier College; Shawn McKinney, Hillsborough Community College; Christian Perring, St. John’s University; Peter Simpson, The Graduate Center, CUNY; Daniel Star, Boston Uni- versity; Peter B. Trumbull, Madison College; Bas van der Vossen, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Andrea Veltman, James Madison University; and Julius L. Wynn, St. Petersburg College. Finally, we thank Felician University for its funding and support of this project over many years and in many ways.

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A case study analysis provides a powerful tool for sorting through and resolv-ing an ethical problem, regardless of its specific subject. A complete case analysis consists of the following five steps:

1. Summarize the main problem and its setting. What are the essential elements of the situation, and what is the ethical problem at issue? Summarize the case in your own words, writing as though you were ex- plaining it to someone who is not familiar with it. Some helpful questions: Who are the key players? Who is affected by the outcome? Are there other important facts that are being assumed and left unstated? While your summary need not be exhaustive, it should identify the salient facts for your reader. Be careful not to alter the facts of the case.

2. List possible ways of responding to the problem. What are the possible responses to the problem; that is, in what ways might a person (or a society) act if faced with the problem? List and briefly explain those that seem most likely (both good and bad). Include the actual responses made by those portrayed in the case itself. While some responses may be obvious, others may require you to think more carefully and creatively. Don’t neglect either! Also, be certain that you include the response that you actually think is best—what you ultimately will defend as right.

3. Identify moral principles and theories that most directly apply to the case.

Some ethical principles may be obvious, others may not be. Be careful, however, to include only moral principles so that you don’t confuse your analysis with legal or other types of non-moral principles. Don’t formulate principles so that they are not strictly true. Especially identify principles that support your responses in part 2.

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xxiv G U I D E L I N E S F O R A C A S E S T U D Y A N A LY S I S

In most cases, you will also want to show how various ethical theories relate to the case. This can often be done simply by stating a theory’s essential idea as a funda- mental principle (e.g., “Always act so as to maximize the resulting overall utility” or “Never treat a person as a means only”).

4. Identify and justify the one response that you think is morally best. Justifying your chosen response from out of the possible responses (listed in part 2) requires you to provide moral arguments in support of your response. Use the pat- tern of moral reasoning, or moral reflection, or both (see Chapter Four, §IV, §V). Try to offer the most compelling arguments you can. These arguments should in- corporate ethical theory as well.

5. Explain why the other possible responses are not as acceptable. A person who argues for his own view is merely biased. Moral thinking requires you to also see a problem from the perspective of others. Thus, your analysis should also address the most important remaining responses (from part 2), explaining why each is morally less desirable than your response in part 4. In arguing against other responses, you don’t have to show that they are all wrong; only that your response is better justified than any of the others.

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Introduction: Theory and Practice

What use is ethics—the study of morality? If you’re hoping for ethics to increase your paycheck, sell a product, or get a new job, you should probably look else- where.1 Still, this hardly means that ethics has no practical value. Ethics has to do with desperately important practical matters, including many our society struggles with: questions about genetic engineering, drone strikes, stockpiling and using weapons of mass destruction, fair taxation, campaign finance, and a host of social justice issues. It’s no accident that ethical theorists have often led the van- guard in achieving moral reforms. For instance, the nineteenth-century utilitar- ians deliberately formulated their theory to correct abuses in the criminal justice system of their time.

Yet ethics is not just essential for handling major social problems. The study of morality is important because morality itself is important. Without any func- tional morality, society would not even be possible. Imagine that no one bothered about the moral duty of truthfulness. Business and government would collapse since no agreement could be depended upon. Education and the news would become useless since their accuracy could not be trusted. Science would whither to mere “politics” and opinion. Even families and friendships would suffer since these require that we be truthful with each other.

Morality is not only essential to the possibility of human society but also to the quality of our lives. Imagine living in a world where morality has eroded to such

1Although businesses are increasingly discovering that morally right business practice—going beyond just the law’s requirements—makes for successful business.

2 PA r T I • I n T r o d u c T I o n : T h E o rY   A n d   P r A c T I c E

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a point that crimes have tripled, political and business abuses rock the economy many times a year, and even everyday life is much more dangerous and violent. In the words of the seventeenth- century philosopher, Thomas hobbes, life in such a world would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”2 Since morality is so important, its study and analysis—namely, ethics—is important as well.

Both morality and ethics impact our personal lives—every time we get angry at another driver, are hurt by someone, make a commitment to a friend, or sign a document. They have this sort of living practicality because they expose the ten- sion between what is and what ought to be, a tension we encounter daily. Studying ethics can aid us in dealing with this tension by helping us better understand what distinguishes right and wrong, how to think through moral problems, and how to address moral conflicts (among other things).

More profoundly, morality and ethics relate to the most important respon- sibility each of us has in life: the formation of our selves. Every choice we make contributes toward producing the moral personality that will define us in the next moment. As the twentieth-century existentialists emphasized, this power of choice—especially of moral choice—is an awesome responsibility.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his friends grapple with what they believe to be a central question of our existence: Why should I try to live a moral life? They fully recognize that moral living doesn’t always advance a person’s short- term interests. As their discussion draws to a close, however, Socrates forcefully summarizes a remarkable conclusion: only the morally just person can find happi- ness in this life. only the moral woman or man can achieve fulfillment as a human being right now. Those who neglect the moral good life will inevitably be beset with internal and external conflicts that will lead to an incomplete, debased, and frustrated existence.

If our fulfillment and well-being as persons depends so much upon the moral quality of our lives, then we each have pressing work to do. We need to do all we can to establish a satisfactory moral life for ourselves. But how do we do this? It would certainly help if we could have some account of what makes something just, good, or right in the first place. For that matter, it wouldn’t hurt if we could also be assured that there even are such things as the morally good and right.

Ethics addresses these concerns, primarily by developing ethical theories— accounts meant to explain what makes something morally good or right. These accounts tend to agree regarding much of the practical moral guidance they offer. They also differ and even conflict with each other in significant ways, but this should not be viewed as a serious drawback. It’s partly because of these conflicts, in fact, that ethics yields such a diverse set of moral perspectives and insights. These, in turn, can contribute markedly to our moral understanding as well as to guiding our moral choices.

2Thomas hobbes, The Leviathan (public domain, 1660), accessed August 18, 2016, http://, 78.




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The study of ethics is also deeply absorbing in itself. In pursuing this study, however, it’s important that we keep our balance. As Aristotle warns us, many get so caught up in the study of ethics that they forget the importance of simply living morally. The ultimate practicality of ethics, then, is available only to those who actually apply it. It would be hard to put this better than Aristotle himself does in his Nicomachean Ethics:3

But most people do not do these [things], but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving some- what like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. . . .

* * *

This book provides a wide-ranging introduction to ethics, including a survey of several major ethical theories. To understand those theories, it is helpful to first address some of the key concepts and distinctions that pertain to the moral realm. This is done in Part I, which also provides some direction for thinking about moral problems. Part I also explores a few important preliminary matters—about ourselves as moral beings, about the relationship between morality and culture, and about how people actually think and act when facing moral problems.4

3Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W. d. ross, Book II, chapter 4, accessed August 8, 2016,

4The Part I “preliminaries” belong to a field called “meta-ethics,” which addresses issues having to do with the possibility, nature, and application of ethical theories.

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Ethics and Values


Glaucon, one of those who discusses the moral life with Socrates in Plato’s Repub- lic (See the introduction to Part I), worries that people might often be better off if they just did whatever they wanted rather than try to act morally. he relates a Greek myth to explain his doubts:

Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feed- ing his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stoop- ing and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and re-ascended.1

Later, while sitting among the shepherds with the ring on his finger, Gyges happens to turn the ring inward and is amazed to find that he has become invis- ible. Turning the ring back outward, he reappears. having confirmed that the ring always works this way, he quickly makes his plans. he travels to the king’s court and uses the ring to secretly find and seduce the queen. he and the queen then kill the king. Gyges takes control of the kingdom and ends up enjoying great power and wealth—all thanks to the ring’s magic.

For a seemingly ordinary guy, Gyges sure goes off the deep end! obviously, he takes an actively immoral turn once he finds the ring. Glaucon relates this story because he can see no reason to live morally other than because society forces us to. As soon as society’s power of law and punishment is removed, “no man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked . . . wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he

1Plato, The Republic: Book II, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Public domain, 360 BcE), accessed August 31, 2016,

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is unjust.  .  .  .  ”2 Glaucon’s view seems supported by recent meltdowns in busi- ness and government. Businesses usually follow the letter of the law, but some business people still look for ways to “stretch” the law whenever they can. Since it’s often easy to hide one’s actions, people in government have also committed wrongs: lying, spying on allies and citizens, and discriminating against certain groups, for instance.

Are these sorts of moral breakdowns only committed by those on the sleazier side of humanity? After all, similar invisibility tools have appeared since Plato— for example, the ring in the Lord of the Rings and harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. In these stories, the characters apply the power of invisibility for good. Though none of this is reality, the comparison does reveal something about human nature. Specifically, people use the capabilities they have—whether actual (strength, tal- ents, knowledge) or magical (rings and cloaks)—to pursue their own goals and values. clearly Gyges’s values were not admirable. The same may be said of some people in business and government. others, meanwhile, want their lives and ac- tions to achieve some lasting good. To get more personal—how about you? Would your actions tend to be more moral or immoral if you could “get away” with doing certain things?

We’ve been assuming that we all know what “moral” means. But the term is used in several different ways. Morals often refer to what a person, group, or soci- ety believes people should or should not do: “drinking goes against my morals;” “Some countries’ morals are stricter than others.” Morals may also refer to a con- cept of objective right and wrong (what holds independently of people’s feelings and beliefs): “Murdering an innocent human being simply is wrong.” describing something as moral, meanwhile, typically says that thing is good or is right: “John is a very moral person;” “Lying is immoral.” To add to the confusion, morals and moral are often used interchangeably with ethics and ethical. Although this book occasionally uses these terms in each of these ways, it will most often use “moral” and “morality” objectively, as something that holds regardless of people’s beliefs.

next, we can divide the moral realm into two major (but interconnected) parts: that which is good or bad (discussed in ethics as value theory) and that which is right or wrong (discussed in ethics as deontic theory). Good and bad have to do with values—properties of things or people. A medical procedure might be good because it can save lives; a person, meanwhile, can be honest or dishonest, generous or selfish. Thus, Glaucon’s ultimate question is one about values: What good is a moral life? Right and wrong, meanwhile, describe what we should do. Gyges’s later actions, for instance, are wrong.

We should also mention a few things the moral is not. Although laws often require us to do morally right things, the moral is not the same thing as the law. nor does it have much to do with what may be prudent—that is, what is in our own interest. Furthermore, while religions often have substantial moral components, morality is distinct from religion and religious teachings.


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To further establish your intuitions about what morality involves, here are a few illustrations of moral issues as they might arise in everyday life:

• While renewing your driver’s license, you are asked if you’d like to be desig- nated as an organ donor. There is, in fact, a serious shortage of organs, and many die as they wait for a needed organ to become available. do you have a moral duty to become an organ donor?

• You like to play a “first-person shooter” computer game in your spare time.3 Lately, this has become a bit of an obsession—you even dreamed last night about taking down sharpshooters in a dark tunnel. You also think your five- year-old brother is playing the game on the sly. Although it has all seemed harmless, you now are feeling a little uncomfortable with how the game is affecting you and your brother. Should you change your pastime?

• At the store where you work, you notice Bill, one of the employees, stealing small amounts of money from the cash register. Bill is always lots of fun— your job would be pretty unpleasant without him. he’s also a friend—in fact, he helped get you your job. But the store manager, having recently noticed cash shortages now for several days, has threatened that no one will get an end-of-month bonus if the shortages continue. Should you report Bill to the manager?

Finally, let’s return to the notion of ethics. Ethics is concerned with both the morally good and right and with explaining what makes things good or right (among other things). Ethics is about the moral realm of thought, action, and ex- perience. roughly speaking, we can describe ethics as the systemic and reasoned study of moral right and wrong, good and bad, including the principles and claims that employ these concepts. Just as we refer to the natural world or the natural realm as including everything that science studies, we can usefully think of the moral realm as including everything that ethics studies.

rest assured that we will discuss and develop these ideas much further in the remainder of Part I (chapters one and Four).

For Discussion 1. What are your reactions to the Gyges story? How do you think people would act

(including yourself ) if they found such a ring? 2. Compare the Gyges story to the Lord of the rings or harry Potter stories. Which

story most accurately depicts human nature? 3. Consider one of the moral problems mentioned in the Part I Introduction. How do

you think we as a society should respond to that problem? Why? 4. Considering the organ donation, gaming, or stealing cases, what do you think

should be done? Why?

3In first-person shooter games, the computer portrays the player as a character under attack in an evil world. The goal is to stay alive while shooting as many enemies as possible.

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What is really important to you? What do you live for? What guides your deci- sions, plans, and projects? People give many different answers to these kinds of questions. Still, certain answers surface again and again: friendship, love, family, faith, self-determination, health, happiness.

These are called values—and we build our lives upon them. Since our values represent what is most important to us, most of our choices attempt to promote these values in our lives. We see this with Gyges—once he finds the ring, it im- mediately becomes clear that Gyges’s greatly values pleasure, power, and wealth. he doesn’t seem to place much value on honesty, loyalty, or even life. In contrast, Frodo in the Lord of the Rings most values friendship, kindness, and responsibility as evidenced by his closeness to Gandalf and the other hobbits, his kindnesses toward Gollum, and his commitment to destroy the ring whatever the cost. Es- pecially as he matures, harry’s uses of the cloak indicate his values of friendship, loyalty, and family.

Values are normative: they belong to some standard or norm by which other things are to be evaluated. Saying that a road is no good appeals to a standard about what roads should be like. By describing Jeff as honest, I am saying that he measures up to a high standard of truth-telling. In telling a patient that he has a poor heart, the doctor compares the patient’s heart to normal, functional hearts. Each of these value claims—statements that ascribe values (positive or negative) to things—refers to some standard and evaluates a thing relative to that standard.

Several interesting things can be said about values. As we’ve discussed, we usually act in keeping with our values.4 But this idea can be taken further. If

4My showing respect toward others is in keeping with my valuing persons, but my respect is an aspect of the act itself, not a result. no commitment to consequentialism is intended here.

Summary Ethics tries to answer questions like “Are there reasons for doing what is morally right?” “Can we know what is morally right? How?” “What makes something good or right in the first place?” The terms “ethical” and “moral” are often used interchangeably, but it can be helpful to think of ethics as studying the moral. Ethics has two major branches: one is about moral values (good/bad) and the other has to do with moral actions (right/wrong).

Key Terms

• Ethics: the systemic and reasoned study of moral right and wrong, good and bad, together with the claims that employ these concepts.

• Good and bad: have to do with values.

• Right and wrong: have to do with actions

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something is genuinely valuable, then you presumably ought to act to promote that good. Thus, genuine values support—and explain—what we should do. If health is genuinely important in itself, then you ought to do what preserves and improves your health. If living a sedentary life is bad for you, then you should exercise—in fact, you have a responsibility to exercise. If friendship is a genuine good, then you should cultivate relationships by being friendly toward others, sharing interests, and spending time with them. Values call for action.

claims or statements that tell us what we should or should not do, how we ought or ought not to act, are also normative. Each inherits its normativity from the value that supports it and so appeals to the standard that value belongs to. “Should” and “ought” claims are called prescriptive claims – they prescribe or pro- hibit specific things. “People shouldn’t lie” prohibits lying; “You ought to attend that lecture” or simply “Attend that lecture” tells you to do something. In sum, values are normative and are used in value claims; they also support prescrip- tive claims, which are also normative. The two kinds of normative claims—value and prescriptive claims—need to be carefully distinguished from mere descriptive claims.

A descriptive claim asserts something about how the world is, not how it should be. The distinction is quite important—for, as we are all aware, the way things are is not always the way they should be. descriptive claims don’t appeal to any standard and they don’t evaluate; they simply describe: “Jeff is six feet tall,” “I used to hate broccoli,” “over a billion people will remain in desperate poverty this coming year,” and even “If everyone did what is right, the world would be a hap- pier place.”5 regardless of their differences, these are all descriptive claims.

next, it may seem that values are things a person either just has or doesn’t have—and when people disagree, it’s because they have different values. however, people tend to share most values. Where they differ is not so much in which values they have but in the importance they assign to each. If you are asked what you value most, you might say that personal loyalty is especially important. Another person might say that he most respects being open and telling the truth. Both of you almost certainly value the other’s main value as well but to a different degree. Given that difference, you will sometimes act differently from each other—even in very similar situations. In the cash register story, you might feel that you must remain loyal to Bill and so should not report him—though loyalty might also re- quire you to confront him for his own good. The other person—even if he stands in the same relationship with Bill—would probably report him.

For Discussion 1. Given how you act, what values are most important to you? 2. Provide several additional examples of value claims, prescriptive claims, and de-

scriptive claims.

5This mentions the morally right, but merely describes (correctly or not) the result of everyone acting rightly. This claim does not say, by itself, that everyone should act rightly.

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3. What values support the prescriptive claims you thought of for question 2? 4. Explain how the values of safety, friendship, education, income, pleasure, and love

can each support prescriptive claims.

Summary Values are things we consider important, things we usually try to achieve and main- tain. Our values drive most of our choices and actions. While people share most values, people may place differing degrees of importance on those values. Values are norma- tive: they belong to some norm or standard. Values support prescriptive claims (which are also normative) because we usually should act in keeping with important values. Normative claims, meanwhile, must be distinguished from descriptive claims. Roughly, descriptive claims talk about the world as it is; normative claims about how it should be.

Key Terms

• Value claims: These ascribe values (positive or negative) to things on the basis of some standard.

• Normative claims: Appeal to some norm or standard; must be either value claims or prescriptive claims.

• Prescriptive claims: These say how we should act: what we should or should not, ought or ought not do.

• Descriptive claims: These say how the world is (was or will be) and even how the world could be but not how it should be.


So far, we have not limited our illustrations to just moral claims. Moral claims are only one of several different kinds of normative claims. Like other normative claims, moral claims (whether prescriptive or value) appeal to some standard. The standard in this case is a moral standard—a comprehensive set of foundational moral values (or sometimes, of foundational moral prescriptions) together with all that can be derived from these. Moral value claims evaluate people in moral terms. We might call someone a “good person,” meaning she acts in morally right ways most of the time. We describe murderers as “bad,” emphasizing their glaring moral failings. We can also describe people by particular moral traits (e.g., as loyal, caring, dishonest, or selfish). Moral value claims nearly always ascribe some value, good or bad, to persons or their personal characters. Moral prescriptive claims, meanwhile, talk about the rightness or wrongness of actions. Some examples:

• Workers ought to accurately report their income when filling out IrS form 1040. (prescriptive)

• Gyges stopped acting decently and became an extremely vicious person. (value)

• no one should physically injure another person. (prescriptive)

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• It’s a good thing for people to be generous. (value) • It was right for you to tell him that. (prescriptive)

It’s worth pausing here to make a useful distinction. In our terminology, every claim or statement (value, prescriptive, or descriptive) that is true holds for every- one. This simply means that it’s true; it doesn’t mean that I believe it or even know about it. unfortunately, there are many truths I don’t know and many more I don’t believe. Even when a claim holds for me and everyone, however, it may not apply to me. To apply, it must call for some response—often some action. Thus, true moral claims, unless specifically addressed to just some person(s), hold for all, but they don’t necessarily apply to everyone in every circumstance.6 For instance, the prescriptive claim about reporting income on form 1040 holds for all u.S. citizens but only applies to citizens who are required to file form 1040. Likewise, the pre- scription about not injuring others holds for everyone but can’t very readily apply to someone who is completely alone.

To make the nature of morals and morality clearer, it will help to distinguish the moral realm from other normative “realms” that have their own standards and give rise to their own value or prescriptive claims.7

The realm of etiquette has to do with what is acceptable social behavior. It refers to values such as being “well-mannered” at the table, “polite” at social events, “proper” at weddings and other formal occasions, “courteous” in driving, and even “decent” when texting or emailing. Values like these in turn yield normative claims of etiquette:

• Kevin shouldn’t noisily slurp his soup. (prescriptive) • Everyone in that family is polite. (value)

Etiquette develops, in part, from practical considerations like efficiency, safety, and hygiene. For instance, all human societies have rules about meeting people—probably because our determining if the other is a friend or foe can be very important. Etiquette also forbids talking with your mouth full, no doubt be- cause of the inevitable loss of clarity and the inconveniences of food falling out. Etiquette is also a matter of convention, and cultures often differ over what they consider acceptable. The values of etiquette for a particular culture make up that culture’s standard of etiquette. Being conventional, however, doesn’t diminish eti- quette’s importance. Etiquette plays a central role in achieving smooth social inter- action and avoiding unnecessary conflicts.

Although it is normative, etiquette doesn’t overlap a great deal with moral- ity. I am not a moral failure because I am bad-mannered or impolite. neverthe- less, etiquette—being impolite or discourteous, say—can have moral implications. In such cases, the breach of etiquette itself is not usually a moral wrong but is a

6Moral claims hold for all if they are universalizable; see chapter Five, §III. 7There are other types of normative values as well, including aesthetic values (e.g., well-designed,

balanced) and certain professional values (confidentiality, dependability).

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means to committing a moral wrong (e.g., expressing an insult). Etiquette becomes a moral issue when there is an accompanying intent to offend or demean the other person. Without such intent, the very same act might merely be embarrassing. Thus, the values of etiquette must be distinguished from moral values.

The realm of law: Law resembles the moral realm more closely than any other. Both moral and legal standards prohibit murder and stealing, for example. In fact, most moral values are mirrored by legal values; for example, justice and equality are both moral and legal values in our society. There may also be a moral duty to obey most (but not necessarily all) laws. despite their close relationship, however, law and morality differ in important ways. Laws are created by civil au- thority; without such authority, there can be no laws. Furthermore, laws only hold in certain jurisdictions; for instance, some Texas laws don’t hold in Indiana, and some u.S. laws don’t hold in Britain. In addition, laws come into and go out of ex- istence at definite times; moral values and prescriptions appear much more time- less. Even where the law normally does not hold, furthermore, moral values still do: honesty between family members remains morally important even though the law only rarely reaches into homes. Also, there are important legal prescriptions that have no moral basis. For instance, in the following pairs, neither claim is mor- ally preferable to its alternative:

• (a) All drivers should stay on the right side of the street. (b) All drivers should stay on the left side of the street. (It depends on the laws of the par- ticular country.)

• (a) no one may use a registered trademark that has been renewed within the past ten years. (b) no one may use a registered trademark that has been renewed within the past twelve years. (The number of years is partly arbitrary.)

Most important, it is possible for laws to be immoral. Laws establishing apart- heid or slavery, for instance, violate basic moral rights. It can even become one’s moral duty to violate such laws. In any case, it should be clear that laws and moral- ity differ.

The prudential realm: There is another wide range of normative values that differ from moral values. Prudential values include what is in our self-interest and what contributes to our well-being—what would be prudent. health, personal safety, and a decent education are all good for us. Thus, these prudential values support corresponding prudential prescriptions:

• Everyone should brush their teeth daily. • People shouldn’t associate with shady characters in dark alleys. • If Sandra wants to make it safely home in the heavy rain, she should slow

down. • If you want to do well in your new job, you should ask questions.

Since our interests are often too obvious to be worth mentioning, many prudential claims are expressed as simple prescriptions as in the examples about

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brushing teeth and avoiding dark alleys. Everyone recognizes that it’s in their in- terest to take care of their teeth and avoid getting mugged. other sorts of actions, meanwhile, are called for only under certain circumstances. For this reason, pru- dential claims are best expressed in an “if/then” (conditional) form: “If you want to do well in your new job, then you should ask questions.” Stated this way, pru- dential claims prescribe something (asking questions) that would be wise to do if our circumstances make the corresponding value or goal (doing well in a new job) relevant to our self-interest. For those who don’t have a new job, or any job at all, this prescription wouldn’t apply. Likewise, if Sandra isn’t driving through a downpour, she may not need to drive as slowly. That’s why it’s best to formulate prudential claims as conditionals; while the complete conditionals typically hold generally, their prescriptive parts don’t always apply to everyone. That depends on whether or not a person shares the conditional statement’s other part—its value or goal. of course, it’s also true that if you don’t want healthy teeth, then you don’t have any reason to brush daily. Since nearly everyone wants healthy teeth, we don’t normally bother adding “if you want healthy teeth”; that “goes without saying.” Whether full expressed or not, therefore, complete prudential claims are, strictly, conditionals.

In response to the Gyges story, Plato argues that living a moral life actually is in a person’s best interests, just like the saying “honesty is the best policy” sug- gests that it is prudent to practice honesty. nevertheless, specific moral acts do sometimes work to our disadvantage. Telling the truth or protecting a threatened child can put us at risk and even cause us personal harm. Thus, we can’t take moral claims to be automatically prudential. Further, many prudential claims are clearly not moral claims (e.g., while brushing my teeth tonight is certainly prudent, I’m not acting immorally if I skip tonight’s brushing).

For Discussion 1. Think of other familiar claims that belong to the realms of etiquette, law, or the

prudential. 2. Dividing into small groups, have each group work through about ten values from

the Values Exercise at the end of the chapter. Share and defend your categoriza- tion of each value.

3. Think of other prudential claims that are stated incompletely (i.e., they just state the prescription). Restate these claims in their complete if/then form.

Summary Values, along with the value claims and prescriptive claims they support, make up sev- eral distinct normative realms, including the moral, etiquette, laws, and the prudential. The bases of law and etiquette are social and conventional; the prudential primarily reflects human needs and interests; the moral seems to go deeper—perhaps being rooted in human nature itself. While these realms—particularly the moral and legal— share many claims, they differ not only in their bases but also in their functions.

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Values belong to law, morality, and other normative realms. But values can also be distinguished in another way. We value some things for their own sake; we value other things because they help us attain something else. Some things we value for both reasons.

A value that is desirable in itself is a foundational value. The idea is that cer- tain goods are intrinsically or essentially valuable: they have worth in themselves and do not depend upon other values for their worth. Pleasure, happiness, and love are often cited as examples of foundational values. For instance, we seem to value pleasure for its own sake—it’s intrinsically desirable. A more controversial example is life. It certainly seems that life has value in itself. Still, some claim that it isn’t mere life that is worth having but only a meaningful or happy life.

other things have no real worth in themselves, although they may be exceed- ingly useful for attaining something we do value. The clearest example of such a purely instrumental value is paper money. Money is useful for obtaining other things we desire, but it’s nearly worthless in itself. What good would a suitcase of money be on a deserted island? Likewise, an academic degree is valuable as a means to attaining recognition and employment; a driver’s license has value be- cause it gives the holder a legal right to drive. Instrumental values are derived values—their worth derives from the value of things they can help us obtain. By themselves, however, purely instrumental values are largely worthless.

Some values may be both foundational and instrumental—health and knowl- edge, for instance. Without decent health, it’s difficult to attain most other goods in life. Although health thus has instrumental value, it arguably also has founda- tional value—being a good thing in itself regardless of what else it makes possible. The same may be said of knowledge, which clearly is instrumental for attaining all kinds of goods but may also be desirable purely for its own sake.

Key Terms

• Moral standard: a comprehensive set of moral values along with the value and prescriptive claims these values support.

• Moral realm: applying “moral” in one of its senses, this is the subject matter of ethics. This realm includes everything that relates to people’s moral beliefs and practices.

• Realm of etiquette: based in practical considerations and social convention, etiquette typically varies somewhat from culture to culture.

• Realm of law: created by civil authority, laws exist and apply at definite times and places. Many, but not all, laws reflect moral claims.

• Prudential realm: prudential claims are best expressed in an “if/then” (con- ditional) form: if some value or goal is important and relevant to your circum- stances, then you ought to act in a certain way. Prudential claims usually hold for all but apply depending on one’s circumstances.

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deciding on questions about foundational value can be difficult. Although many people consider health and knowledge foundational, others see no value to either beyond the advantages they can enable us to obtain. Mere health or mere knowledge may be no good whatsoever. In any case, one thing seems clear: while there are plenty of instrumental values, there are far fewer foundational values. Foundational values may be quite rare. In fact, some theorists say there is only one foundational value or good, but which value that is remains a matter of sharp disagreement.

For Discussion 1. A car has instrumental value. What things is a car valuable for attaining? 2. Are health and knowledge foundational, instrumental, or both? 3. What is happiness? Is it a purely foundational value?

Summary We can characterize values as foundational, instrumental, or both. Foundational values have value purely in themselves; instrumental values derive their value from what they can obtain. Some values are both foundational and instrumental. Founda- tional values are rare, although they are particularly important.

Key Terms

• Foundational values: things that are intrinsically valuable in themselves; foundational values are not derived.

• Instrumental values: things that are useful for attaining something else of value. A purely instrumental value has no genuine worth in itself.


Although most values are instrumental, it is not possible for all values to be instru- mental. Instrumental values must derive their worth from something else; if noth- ing had foundational value, there would be nothing to give instrumental values their worth. It follows that all instrumental values ultimately derive their worth from foundational values. Furthermore, the worth of any instrumental value is explained by the foundational values from which it derives. If life has foundational value, then anything that maintains, promotes, or makes life possible also obtains value. Food, clothing, and shelter do these things, so their instrumental value is explained by (and derived from) the value of life. Likewise, since money is an ef- fective means of obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, its instrumental value is explained by its ability to serve these values, which in turn serve the foundational value of life. Foundational values explain and support all other values.

As previously seen, values also support and explain prescriptive claims. The reverse, meanwhile, is not generally true. It’s natural enough to say that an in- dividual ought to study hard because she values doing well in a class. Also, it’s

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reasonable to conclude that we ought to respect persons because persons are valu- able. But the reverse of these doesn’t seem to work. It is not very enlightening to suggest that doing well in class has value because one ought to study hard or that people are valuable because we should respect them. Typically, prescriptive claims don’t do much to explain why things have value.

Foundational values can thus explain other value claims and prescriptive claims. But since all moral claims are either value or prescriptive claims, it fol- lows that we should be able to explain all moral claims by appealing to some set of foundational values. Putting this another way, we should be able to consolidate the entire moral realm by showing how its claims can all be derived from certain foun- dational values. Since there aren’t many foundational values, this should greatly simplify the moral realm. This is what an ethical theory usually attempts to do—to explain every claim of morality based upon just one or a few foundational values.

The moral realm could derive from a small foundation of values in either of two ways.

• Appealing to foundational moral values: one way would derive all moral claims from foundational moral values. one important instance of this ap- proach is virtue ethics, which bases the moral realm upon a small set of foun- dational moral values called virtues. A virtue is a good character trait, like honesty or loyalty, that persons can have. Like any values, virtues in turn sup- port prescriptive claims: if something is a virtue, then we ought to act in keep- ing with it. Thus, the virtue of honesty supports the prescription, “A person should tell the truth.” Loyalty, meanwhile, supports the claim that Gyges should not have betrayed and murdered the king. In this way, virtues serve as the foundational moral values upon which the rest of morality is based.

other ethical theories also appeal to foundational moral values for their bases. There is an important drawback, however: because these theories start with moral values as their base, they cannot explain everything that belongs within the moral realm. In particular, they cannot explain the moral good of these foundational values themselves. Leaving certain moral values unexplained can be somewhat unsatisfying.

• Appealing to foundational non-moral values: The alternative is to base the moral realm upon one or more foundational non-moral value(s). This opens the door to a wider range of bases since non-moral values can include anything we might consider desirable. Further, grounding morality to some- thing external to it allows everything in the moral realm to be explained— even the most basic moral values. The drawback is that we might wonder how values unrelated to morality could shed light on the nature of morality!

Several important moral traditions have nevertheless taken this approach. To get a better sense of how this could work, let’s examine the tradition called hedonism, which claims that there is just one foundational value: pleasure (or hap- piness). Everything else has value only to the degree it derives its worth from this value. All other values are thus merely instrumental. Furthermore, since pleasure is valuable, it is our responsibility to maintain and promote this value in our own

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lives and in the lives of everyone else. We also ought to oppose whatever leads to suffering, since suffering diminishes pleasure. Building on these general pre- scriptive claims, hedonists attempt to derive—and so to explain—the entire moral realm on the basis of the one non-moral value of pleasure.

hedonism has psychological appeal, for we all seek pleasure and happiness while we strive to avoid pain. In addition, we clearly desire many things either because they bring us pleasure or help us avoid pain. We eat because we enjoy it and because it can become painful not to. We also eat to stay alive, which is obvi- ously needed to enjoy any pleasures at all. We work perhaps because we enjoy our work but also because it provides means to a comfortable rather than unpleasant existence. We even undergo painful experiences (e.g., various medical treatments) to avoid greater suffering later. People doing morally right things also commonly promote overall pleasure or happiness, while wrongdoing often causes pain. It thus seems a small step to infer that anything that promotes pleasure must be morally right whereas anything that leads to pain is wrong.

* * *

There are many ingenious ways of explaining and basing the moral realm upon foundational values—moral or non-moral. While each generates important theoret- ical problems, each also has its distinctive merits, and each furnishes valuable ethical insights. Much of the fascination and challenge of ethics arises from the attempt to counter the problems while still benefiting from the insights each way has to offer.

For Discussion 1. Which approach do you think is better: basing the moral realm on foundational

moral values or on foundational non-moral values? Why? 2. Do you think that hedonism could adequately serve as a basis for an ethical

theory? Explain.

Summary Instrumental values derive from and are explained by more foundational values. Pre- scriptive claims can also be derived from and explained by foundational values. Thus, we may be able to explain all moral claims by showing how they can be derived from one or more foundational values. One way to do this is to ground morality upon moral values, as virtue ethics does, though this doesn’t explain what makes these values morally good. Another way grounds moral claims upon non-moral values, as hedo- nism does, using the non-moral foundational value of pleasure. But we might wonder how a non-moral value could be the basis for morality.

Key Terms

• Ethical theories: typically attempt to explain every claim of morality by just one or a few foundational values.

• Hedonism: an ethical tradition that maintains that there is just one founda- tional good: pleasure (or happiness).

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Chapter Assignment Questions 1. Describe some moral problems you have found yourself in. What did you do? 2. What do you hope to gain from your study of ethics? Where do you think it will

be most useful to you? 3. Plato argues that living a moral life is in a person’s best interests. Argue both for

and against this claim. Does this force you to rethink what our “best interests” actually are?

4. §II maintains that “If everyone did what is right, the world would be a happier place” is a descriptive claim. Explain in your own words why it is descriptive and not normative.

5. Can you think of a situation in which obeying the law or acting prudently appar- ently has priority over any moral obligation(s) relevant to that situation? If so, can this be explained by appealing to some yet deeper moral claim?

6. Do you think that health is both a foundational and an instrumental value? How about knowledge? Explain.

7. Suppose you value earning a good grade in a course. Trace the grade’s instrumen- tal value all the way to some foundational value (e.g., happiness).

8. Aristotle suggested that the only foundational value is happiness. Does this seem true? 9. If you were constructing an ethical theory, what value(s) would you base your

theory upon?

Additional Resources “Plato: Ethics—The ring of Gyges.” Great Philosophers. Accessed September 2, 2016. the_ring_of_gyges.html.

Pojman, Louis P. and James Fieser. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. 6th ed. Belmont, cA: Wadsworth Publishing company, 2008, chapter 4.

Schiffman, Kelley. “Intrinsic and Instrumental Values.” Khan Academy. Accessed September 2, 2016. intrinsic-extrinsic-value. This video discusses the distinction between instrumental and “intrinsic” values (which we call “foundational values”).

Schiffman, Kelley. “normative and descriptive claims.” Khan Academy. Accessed Sep- tember 2, 2016. thinking/v/normative-and-descriptive-claims. This video explains differences between normative and descriptive statements.

Schroeder, Mark. “Value Theory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), edited by Edward n. Zalta. Accessed September 2, 2016. http://plato.stan-

Taylor, richard. Good and Evil. Amherst, nY: Prometheus Books, 2000. The chapters “Good and Evil” and “The common Good” provide a nice, nontechnical presentation that parallels much of this chapter.

Traer, robert. “right and Good.” doing Ethics. copyright © 2007. Accessed September 2, 2016. This article discusses the right versus the good.

“ucB Phil 160: ring of Gyres Presentation,” 4qjGp6TWqe4. This video is an illustrated telling of “The ring of Gyges,” with Lord of the Rings overtones.


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Values Exercise 1. consider the following values. (a) Which are purely foundational, which

purely instrumental, and which are both? (b) Briefly explain what each value means and identify its one or two (if more than one seems to apply) most ap- propriate categories:

M: moral PRU: prudential E: etiquette L: legal O: other For any value you label (o), try to explain the category you have in mind.



2. List the three values (not necessarily moral or from the list in question 1) that you consider most important. What prescriptive claims does each value support?

3. honestly assess yourself: do you truly live by the values you’ve identified as most important to you? Why or why not?

4. have you learned anything important about yourself from this values exercise?

Case 1

Breastfeeding in Public

Jessica, twenty-six, has just started back at college. Because her college offers great child services during class times, she brings her six-month-old with her each class day. One afternoon, as she sits in the cafeteria studying before her class, her baby starts crying. After a quick glance at her watch, Jessica unbuttons her shirt, exposes her breast, and begins to feed Joseph, who gurgles happily.

Two male students are sitting nearby. One notices Jessica and starts staring. Laughing uncomfortably, he gestures toward her to his friend. Another woman catches their reactions. “Leave her alone,” she tells the two guys. “Breastfeeding is


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totally natural and good for the baby.” One of the guys answers in Jessica’s hear- ing, “Maybe so, but this is public. Must I put up with some woman showing her breast in front of me while I’m trying to eat? That’s just more than I need to see. She shouldn’t make the rest of us uncomfortable in a public cafeteria; she ought to go somewhere private for that. Aren’t there any rules here?”


1. In most places in the united States women may legally breast feed in public. At work, they are also supposed to be allowed adequate time to breast feed. What do you think of these laws? Are they morally justified?

2. does Jessica have a natural moral right to breast feed wherever she needs to? Are there any places where women should not do this?

3. Would you be uncomfortable if a woman started breast feeding in front of you? do you think it is too private? What values come into play in this case? do you think breast feeding in public is bad etiquette?

4. If you witnessed the two guys’ behavior, would you interfere? If so, whose side would you take? What would you say and why?

5. In most Islamic countries, public breast feeding would be unthinkable. how much do you think culture and religion influence people’s thinking and values on this?

Case 2

The Real Price of Coffee

According to the National Coffee Association, half of all Americans drink coffee every day.8 Young adults average 3.2 cups of coffee per day. Most of this coffee is produced in developing nations, yet less than 10% of its annual yield goes back to the farmers.9 Much of the rest ends up in the pockets of the companies that process, package, and sell it, such as Kraft (Maxwell House), Proctor and Gamble (Folgers), and Nestlé (Nescafé). The low return on their investment is devastating for farmers in developing nations like Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, among others, where poverty is widespread and coffee plantations are a critical source of income. In Columbia, some coffee farmers have converted their farms to opium farms, which bring them a better income.

The coffee industry’s practices don’t just hurt the farmers. Rather than using the traditional method of growing coffee in shade, most coffee today is grown in full sun to increase yield. This has brought on the destruction of tropical rainfor- ests and a tremendous loss of biodiversity. According to Equator Coffee Roasters,

8“national coffee drinking Trends,” national coffee Association, accessed August 31, 2016, http://

9Brian c. howard, “Grounds for change,” E: The Environmental Magazine (november/december 2005): 26–37. Most of following information is taken from this article.

Case 1 (Continued)


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full-sun coffee production is “the second leading cause of rainforest destruction.”10 Furthermore, trees left for shade could provide additional income for coffee farm- ers by producing fruit, avocados, and wood; the ground underneath the coffee plants could also be used to grow vegetables and herbs.

Full-sun plantations also lack the natural fertilizers provided by plants and the natural pest control provided by rainforest animals. Thus, the coffee plants require chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These plantations are also prone to flooding and erosion, both of which could be avoided if the coffee plants were nestled between larger trees. Runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides pol- lute the surrounding rivers. The chemicals also harm farm workers, who often cannot read and so cannot follow the instructions for using the chemicals. Some- times the workers don’t even have the protective gear needed to guard them from chemical poisoning.

Birds are another casualty of the full-sun method. More than 150 bird species thrive in the rainforest of a traditional coffee plantation—over twenty times the number living on full-sun farms. Some species have declined by as much as 70%.

Many of these effects could be avoided if consumers would look for “eco- labels,” which can inform them about the coffee they buy. Consumers should particularly look for the label “organic,” which assures them that the coffee has been shade grown with few if any pesticides. A New York advocacy group, the Rainforest Alliance, also certifies coffee. It prohibits certain chemicals, requires that water and biodiversity be protected, and ensures that farmers plant new trees. One farmer says that following the Rainforest Alliance principles is “help- ing him farm in balance with nature, and greatly improve worker productivity and morale.”11 Consumers can also look for the fair-trade label, which guarantees farmers a certain minimum price for their coffee; a portion of the profits is also reinvested into their community.

According to the National Coffee Association, younger consumers are becom- ing both more aware and more concerned about the sustainability of coffee pro- duction. Yet, overall awareness of the ways it affects the world remains limited.


1. Is this a moral or economic issue? could it be both? What are some of the most important values involved here? do you consider any of this case’s non-moral values to be more important than its moral values? Why or why not?

2. does the fact that this issue involves international trade affect this case? how? 3. u.S. workers would never be allowed exposure to the kinds of risks these

foreign workers are exposed to. nor would any u.S. worker be paid so little. Is such exposure and low pay nevertheless morally oK for workers of other countries?

10Ibid., 30. 11Brian c. howard, “What do All Those Labels Mean?” E: The Environmental Magazine, (no-

vember/december 2005): 37.

Case 2 (Continued)

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4. To what degree should the rest of the world take action against farming prac- tices like these, which can harm farmers, others in the area (e.g., by chemical poisoning), and the environment? Formulate some moral claims supporting your view.

Case 3

Jurassic Kitty: Should I Clone My Cat?

In the past twenty years, the idea of pet cloning has moved from “rare freak show” to a fairly lucrative business venture. For about $50,000, you can get a copy cat, and for $100,000, a copy dog.12

Aside from being profitable, is kitty cloning ethical? Let’s first look at what clon- ing actually is. A “clone” is a genetic copy of a living organism. We routinely clone plants when we cut off a shoot from one to grow another. But that method doesn’t work for animals. Instead, scientists create a genetically identical twin by transfer- ring a cell nucleus from the body of one animal into the egg of another, a process called “nuclear transfer.”13 The resulting embryo is implanted into the womb of a host animal, which will, with luck, carry the clone to term. Beginning with Dolly the sheep in 1996, sixteen different mammalian species have been cloned so far, but science is far from even attempting to clone a human being.

The idea of cloning a departed pet should perhaps give one pause. Isn’t a pet supposed to be irreplaceable, special, one of a kind? As it turns out, that remains the case even when cloning is done: only 99.8% of the animal’s DNA is reproduced in the cloning process—the rest comes from the host egg. Given that the genetic difference between us and a chimpanzee amounts to less than 1%, the 0.2% ge- netic difference between a cat and its copycat could still be significant. Also, the copycat would gestate in a different kitty womb, thus introducing additional dis- similarities; the surrogate mom’s health and nutrition can also affect the clone’s coat pattern. Finally, the copycat would grow up in a different environment, pos- sibly also making its personality different.

Adding it all up, the copycat and the original probably wouldn’t be so much alike after all. Further, the cloning process is fraught with technical difficulties: fewer than 10% of the implanted eggs result in live births, and many clones die shortly afterward. Clones that survive can have genetic abnormalities. Mean- while, there are thousands and thousands of animals in shelters waiting to go to a good home.

Although there clearly are more constructive ways to spend $50,000, there’s another and more serious implication of animal cloning. As biodiversity steadily de- creases because of our irreverent—and sometimes downright ruthless— expansion of our human habitat, some scientists see cloning as a way to preserve endangered species. In line with this, the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species

12david Warmflash, “Miss Your deceased dog? Pet cloning dips Below $100,000,” Genetic Literacy Project, August 21, 2015, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www.geneticliteracyproject. org/2015/08/21/miss-deceased-dog-pet-cloning-dips-100000/.

13For further reading on the science of cloning and its difficulties, see Jose cibelli, “A decade of cloning Mystique,” Science Magazine (May 18, 2007).


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cloned a small African wildcat called Ditteaux (faux French for “ditto”) in 2003. Thinking on a much larger scale, Japanese scientists are working to resurrect the long-extinct woolly mammoth—so far without success. The San Diego gene bank has frozen samples of over 450 different animal species. One day, this “Frozen Zoo,” as it’s sometimes called, may be the last best hope for those species’ preservation.


1. What moral and non-moral values seem relevant to this case? Which of these are most important?

2. What moral and non-moral prescriptive claims seem relevant to this case? Which of this case’s facts (which descriptive claims) are most relevant to decid- ing whether pet cloning is ethical or not?

3. What moral and non-moral values apply to cloning endangered species but not pets? how important is the value of biodiversity? Is it important enough to make this sort of cloning morally acceptable or even our moral duty?

4. We don’t know what effects our resurrecting an extinct species would have on existing species. For example, what might happen if we resurrected an extinct insect species that has no natural predator today? What problems do such con- cerns suggest for our trying to restore extinct species?

5. What issues are raised by the idea of cloning a human being?

Case 4

Sex Selection

It isn’t science fiction any longer, and it’s already practiced in the United States and many other countries: you can now select your child’s sex. How does it work? The most common technique is preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD in- volves genetic screening of embryos (a technique originally developed to screen for genetic diseases). The embryos are created via in vitro fertilization (IVF), and only the embryos of the “desired” sex are implanted in the uterus. The remaining embryos may then be destroyed.

Clinics that currently offer sex selection advertise it as a way of “family balanc- ing.” If a family already has a child of one sex, they can deliberately choose to have a child of the opposite sex to “balance” out their family. For instance, Sharla and Shane Miller of Gillette, Wyoming, already had three boys: Anthony, Ashton, and Alec. Both grew up in families having more boys than girls. They initially looked into adopting a girl but then found a Web site that mentioned PGD. For $18,000, the chances of getting a girl were almost 100%. They opted for the procedure, and in November 2003 Sharla was implanted with two female embryos (identical twins).14 CBS News reported that twin girls were born in July of 2004. Both were healthy.

14claudia Kalb et al., “Science: Brave new Babies,” Newsweek, February 2, 2004.

Case 3 (Continued)


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One worry often raised about sex selection is that its widespread use could create the opposite of balance: too many boys or too many girls, depending on existing cultural preferences. The University of Illinois at Chicago released the re- sults of a survey in 2005 that appear to counter this worry. The survey, adminis- tered to 561 women being treated for infertility, showed that if sex selection were free, 41% of these women would take advantage of it. More important, the study showed that parents without children did not prefer one sex over the other.15

However, the study was carried out with a fairly small set of United States women (presumably all from the Chicago area), so we shouldn’t generalize too much from these results. In particular, the results are not likely to carry over to women in countries where there is a strong cultural preference for one sex.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal says that we can expect 10% to 20% more adult males in the next twenty years in China and India due to the ex- cessive use of sex selection.16 This bias is because a family must either provide an expensive dowry for their daughters or provide continued support for those who remain unmarried and stay with their families. Currently, the most prevalent method for sex selection is the already disconcerting practice of selective abor- tion. On the other hand, as PGD becomes more available and less expensive, it may only add to the gender imbalance in these countries and the world.


1. List some reasons a couple might have for choosing their next child’s sex, con- sidering parents in both the united States and in other countries (e.g., china or India). What value and prescriptive claims seem to be most relevant to people making such choices?

2. do you think that parents who would like to choose the gender of their child are motivated by appropriate or inappropriate values?

3. Which of the relevant values are moral values and which are non-moral? Which are foundational, and which are instrumental?

4. Suppose a family maintains that they can’t afford the dowry for a daughter, and so, for their own welfare, they must select for a male child. What do you think of this argument?

5. do you think that it was morally oK for the Millers to choose the sex of their twins? What are your reasons?

15Among other places, this information is available at Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez, “Sex Selec- tion Popular Among Infertile Women,” Medical News Today, accessed August 31, 2016, http://www

16“The Impact of Sex Selection in china, India and South Korea,” ScienceDaily, March 15, 2011, accessed August 31, 2016,

Case 4 (Continued)


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Moral Relativism


“No, Madame may not drive this way,” explained the officer who, with the nicest smile, had just waived them to a stop. Alison looked at her husband, Dave, sit- ting beside her in the car, who just shrugged. They had recently arrived in this town for the next leg of their tour of the world’s more exotic spots. “But you just let another car go by you a minute before,” Alison said, turning back to the po- liceman. “Don’t much speak English,” the policeman said, “but cannot drive this road.” Dave and Alison stared at the man, who was smiling still more broadly than before. “I cannot let drive. I sometimes only let officials.” Dave continued staring for a moment and suddenly gave Alison a knowing look. Pulling out his passport, he placed a five pound note on top. “Oh, then, it’s OK,” he said to the officer, “we are visiting officials. Here, see my papers.” Reaching in front of Alison and over to the window, he carelessly dropped the money out the window while holding open his passport. The policeman swiftly caught the fluttering money, pocketed it, and glanced for a moment at the passport. Then, still smiling, he stepped back and waved. “Good, Madame. You are official. You have right this way,” he said, not giving them a further glance. Alison drove a mile and then shot a curious look at her husband. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” he said, forcing a little laugh. “And just how much do you think we should act like Romans, anyhow?” Alison retorted. “Live and let live,” Dave muttered. “Let’s just forget about it.” “But I don’t like that sort of thing, and I hate to waste the money,” Alison said, more heatedly than she intended. As an afterthought, she added, “You know, Dave, men in this culture may have several wives. I wouldn’t be surprised if that policeman has a couple. And I didn’t care for the way he looked at me. I hope you won’t tell me that polygamy’s OK too!” Trying to laugh it off, Dave commented “Well, my dear, it has its attractions.” “That,” Alison spat out as she floored the accelerator, “is not funny.”

* * *

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People don’t always live by the same moral principles. When we compare soci- eties, we find a range of moral beliefs and practices. In Alison and Dave’s situation, perhaps the officer’s action was in keeping with his society’s customs. If so, could that make bribery morally right in his society? If bribery can be morally right in some societies, then why do so many—like this friendly policeman—still avoid any open acknowledgement of the practice? And what about polygamy? Although monogamous marriage is the law in most western countries, polygamy has been the practice of much of the world for thousands of years. But which is right— monogamous or polygamous marriage? Does this question even make sense, or is morality simply a matter of what most people in a society accept?

For Discussion 1. Even if this officer’s society accepts bribery, suppose Dave’s does not. Does this

make it morally right or wrong for Dave to bribe the man? 2. Which is morally better: monogamy or polygamy? Is this just your society’s view,

or can you provide reasons for your position? 3. The text asks why bribes are seldom acknowledged even in places they are widely

used. How do you answer this?


Our everyday use of moral principles (e.g., “Keep your promises,” “Do not kill”) strongly suggests that we take them to hold for everyone—that they are universal. In fact, the very notion of a moral principle is that it holds in general. It further seems that the same moral standard (see Chapter One, §III)—consisting of all that determines moral good or bad, right or wrong—must hold for everyone. Never- theless, this view—moral objectivism—has been challenged by an influential alter- native called moral relativism. There are two types of relativism that many people identify with today: popular relativism and subjective relativism (more simply, relativism and subjectivism, with both being opposed to objectivism).1 Let’s start with some definitions of each.

• Objectivism: There is only one universal moral standard.2 That standard— based on objective moral facts—consists of moral values and principles that hold universally: for all people and all societies.

• (Popular) Relativism: There can be different moral standards for differ- ent societies. Each standard—based on that society’s moral beliefs and practices—consists of moral values and principles that hold for all mem- bers of that particular society.

1There are much more sophisticated versions of relativism, which lie beyond the scope of this text (but see section VII). We will limit ourselves mainly to these two popular versions.

2Objectivism in ethics, and as we will use this term, is not related to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.

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• Subjectivism: There can be different moral standards for different persons. Each standard—based on that person’s moral beliefs and practices at a given time—consists of the moral values and principles that hold for that person at that time.

It’s important to understand what each of these views is about. None of them is talking about principles from other normative realms (e.g., from law or etiquette, which unquestionably vary across societies). Rather, each is talking exclusively about moral principles and values. Nor are any of them concerned with the rich diversity in the institutions, dress, religious beliefs, and non-normative values that distinguish various cultural traditions. Next, these three views are completely dis- tinct: each rules out the others. Finally, these views are meta-ethical: none takes any stand on what actually is right or wrong (e.g., on the morality of lying or po- lygamy) but are about ethics itself.3

Let’s start with objectivism, the claim that there is only one valid moral standard that holds for all human beings. Differences between cultures make no difference to the moral principles and values people ought to live by. Even if a society’s moral beliefs and practices are not the same as those of other societ- ies, the same moral values, rights, and obligations hold for them as for everyone else. There is one universal moral standard, regardless of what anyone believes or practices.

Objectivism does not mean that people must all act exactly the same way no matter what the circumstances are at the time. Given objectivism, the very same moral principles can lead to different obligations in different situations. For in- stance, suppose that the objective moral standard entails that lying is wrong and that human life has great moral value. It would follow that everyone normally has a duty to tell the truth and avoid harming others. But in a situation where telling the truth would lead to someone’s death, objectivism could require that we lie rather than risk someone’s life. Objectivism is binding upon all but need not be morally rigid—it can still adjust to circumstances.

Next, what is relativism? Popular moral relativism denies the universality of moral standards. Instead, it maintains that there can be different but equally valid moral standards for different cultures or social groups. It does insist, however, that all who belong to a given group are bound to their group’s moral standard whether or not they agree with its values and principles. What actually is right for everyone in that society is what the majority of that society accepts as right.

Subjectivism, finally, takes relativism even further, maintaining that there can be different but equally valid moral standards for different persons even within the same society. Thus, there’s no guarantee that the moral standards for any two people will match, nor is there any guarantee that a person’s present moral

3The choice between these three options must be made before we can do ethics, since two of these views make much of ethics nearly impossible.

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principles will be the same a year from now. Subjectivism makes moral standards entirely dependent on each individual (a subject) at any given time.

What do you think of these alternatives? Again, only one can be correct since each rules out the other. Interestingly, even people who think of themselves as rela- tivists or subjectivists still commonly adopt objectivism as their perspective when a moral issue affects them. Our task now is to determine—on rational grounds— which of these views is most plausible.

For Discussion 1. How much are your moral beliefs the products of your culture and society? Which

ones are? 2. Do you disagree with any particular moral belief or practice that is widely ac-

cepted by your society?

Summary There are three important views regarding moral standards: (a) There is only one uni- versal objective moral standard that holds for all (objectivism); (b) there can be differ- ent moral standards for different societies, depending on each society’s moral beliefs and practices (relativism); or (c) there can be different moral standards for different persons, depending on each person’s own moral beliefs and practices (subjectivism). Only one of these views can be correct, but one must be.

Key Terms

• Moral standard: consists of all moral principles and values that dictate what is morally good or bad, right or wrong.

• Objectivism: maintains that there can only be one universal moral standard.

• Relativism: maintains that there can be different moral standards for different societies.

• Subjectivism: maintains that there can be different moral standards for dif- ferent persons.


People often talk as though morality is a personal matter that depends solely on our own personal views. People often do have different beliefs and opinions about moral issues. It may even be that a person can feel so strongly about something being wrong that this actually makes it wrong for that person. For instance, some are persuaded that drinking is morally wrong. Because drinking violates that per- son’s conscience, it may be wrong for that person to drink, although it might not be wrong for anyone else. For those with sensitive consciences, the requirements of morality could be more stringent than for others.

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Still, it doesn’t follow that just any moral principle can vary from one person to another. For one thing, mere differences of opinion cannot show that moral principles themselves also vary between people. Some people’s opinions might simply be mistaken. Further, could it really be wrong for me to lie or commit murder but not for you?

To appreciate the implications of subjectivism, imagine that you have been standing in line at the theater. Suddenly, a strange man steps into the line right in front of you. How would you react? You would certainly object—telling him that he has no right to cut in front of so many people and that he should go to the end of the line. You might add that it’s not fair for him to cut in line when no one else has.

Note a few things about this very natural reaction. First, you are making moral claims here about fairness, rights, and what this man ought to do. In making these claims, you imply that the same obligations or rights hold for him no less than for everybody else. Moreover, you seem to assume that he—along with everyone else—already knows these things. All of this is part of the intuition that the same moral principles hold for everyone.

The man now makes an extraordinary reply: “I’m sorry,” he says politely, “for I see that the fairness and rights you have just appealed to must hold for you. Per- haps they hold for other people here as well. You have my sincere sympathy, for I can imagine how inconvenient these principles of yours must be—I bet you’ve been standing here for some time, right? What you must understand, however, is that these principles don’t happen to hold for me. Each of us is bound by our own set of moral principles, you know. You have a principle of fairness; fortunately for me, I do not. Please don’t misunderstand; I always do my best to live an up- right and moral life, and if fairness were one of my principles, I wouldn’t dream of cutting in front of you! However, it’s not one of my principles, and so I am per- fectly within my rights to cut in front of you. As you probably didn’t realize this when you started complaining, I assure you that I take no offense. I hope we’ve now cleared up this little misunderstanding. By the way, can you step back a little? You’re crowding me.”

This is the speech of a subjectivist. Would you stand for it? None of us really believes for a moment that this argument has any legitimacy.

There’s a deeper reason for rejecting subjectivism. Since it insists that each person can have a different moral standard, you can never assume that any moral principle that holds for you also holds for others. This would work against one of morality’s primary functions—to regulate how individuals relate to each other. How could morality fulfill this function if different principles held for different persons? People stand in lines because they accept the same principles of fairness. Eliminate that shared acceptance and you will instead find mobs and fights at the theaters! More important, without that shared acceptance, the value of fairness itself loses meaning, just as a dollar bill could no longer stand for anything if its value were to change from person to person. This is what subjectivism does to moral principles. Instead of giving us a different version of morality, it gives us something very close to no morality at all.

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What about differences in personal conscience? Many would agree that if drinking a beer would violate someone’s conscience, then it would be wrong for that person to drink a beer. But it’s also tempting to say that if drinking a beer isn’t really wrong for people in general, then it isn’t really wrong even for that person. The wrong arises, not because he drinks a beer, but because he violates his con- science. In any case, we don’t need subjectivism to handle matters of moral con- science. Both objectivism and relativism can also acknowledge the moral impact of conscience. Specifically, each could include the moral principle: “When a person feels strongly that some kind of act is morally wrong, then that person commits a moral wrong by acting that way.” If this way of handling conscience is satisfactory, then there’s no good reason to accept subjectivism.

For Discussion 1. Do you think that if someone strongly feels something is wrong as a matter of

conscience, then it is wrong for them? Explain. 2. Does the way you’d react to the man cutting in front of you show that you don’t

really accept subjectivism? How?

Summary Subjectivism can create conflicts with our strongest moral intuitions (e.g., the fairness of standing in lines). Worse, subjectivism effectively negates one of morality’s most im- portant functions. Although differences in conscience might seem to support subjec- tivism, these can be accommodated by both relativism and objectivism. Subjectivism does not look like an acceptable account of morality.


Let’s now turn to relativism. The following argument captures much of what per- suades many people to favor relativism.

1. Different societies exhibit differences in particular moral beliefs and practices. 2. The moral standard that holds for a society is determined by the moral beliefs

and practices most widely accepted in that society. –––––––––––––––––– Thus: Different moral standards hold for different societies; that is, relativism is true.

Looking at the first premise, it seems undeniable that societies sometimes be- lieve different things to be morally right or wrong. One famous story compares the ancient Callatian practice of cannibalizing their dead with the Greek preference for cremation. Although both societies were comfortable with their own practices, each found the other’s practice utterly repugnant. Within our own society, there are vehement disagreements about abortion. We also see that while some cultures

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practice polygamy, others consider it immoral. Given these differences in what people think is right or wrong, mustn’t we conclude that moral principles vary across social groups?

Although societies’ particular moral beliefs and practices often differ, it’s not so clear that they always differ over the underlying moral principles they accept. The disagreement about funeral practices, for instance, can be explained by ap- pealing to differing beliefs about death. The Callatians apparently believed that ingesting the dead person’s flesh allows the deceased a continuing life in the living person.4 Given such a belief, cannibalism certainly does serve as a powerful ex- pression of caring for the dead. The Greeks apparently held that only cremation could keep the body from suffering corruption; they also may have viewed “living” fire as the most fitting way to release the spirit from the dead body. Given these beliefs, cremation likewise appears to be a reasonable way to show respect for the dead. While the Greeks and Callatians differed regarding the descriptive claims they accepted about death (see Chapter One, §II), they both agreed to the same underlying moral principle: we ought to honor the dead. Their apparent moral disagreement thus turns out to be over their beliefs about death, not over moral principles.

What about our society’s division over abortion? Even here, there is more agree- ment over fundamental moral issues than first appears. Very few “ pro-choicers” would accept the killing of an innocent human being, for instance. Nor would many “pro-lifers” dismiss the right to control (usually) our own bodies. Given this widespread acceptance of both principles, what’s the dividing issue? The dif- ferences, once again, are usually over how people answer questions like “When do human beings first come into existence?” or “Is the fetus part of the woman’s body?” Although people’s answers have extremely important moral implications, they are not, in themselves, actual disagreements over any moral principles.5

It is thus a mistake to conclude that different moral principles must hold simply because societies differ in their moral practices and beliefs. Accepting dif- ferent descriptive claims of how the world is can lead to very different moral con- clusions about what is right, even when we start with the same moral principles. Cultural history strongly indicates that peoples of very different races, languages, and cultures (e.g., compare ancient China with present-day America) have still been amazingly alike in their moral beliefs.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that sometimes there are actual differences over moral principles. Polygamists differ from monogamists over at least one of the moral principles defining marriage. Let’s grant Premise 1, therefore, with the un- derstanding that differences over moral principles are not necessarily widespread.

4Joseph Rickaby, S.J., Moral Philosophy: Ethics, Deontology and Natural Law (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1918), accessed August 31, 2016, moral108.htm, ch. 8, sect. 2.

5An exception is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s qualification of the principle regarding letting an in- nocent person die, illustrated by her violin player thought experiment. See Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1.1 (Fall 1971).

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Does this make relativism true? Not yet, because so far we only have differ- ences in what societies accept. Relativism makes the stronger claim that there can be moral differences in what actually holds for different societies. What people accept and what actually holds can be very different! To establish relativism, there- fore, we must proceed to Premise 2 and show that what holds for a society is deter- mined by the beliefs and practices of that society.

What is curious about Premise 2 is that what holds in the world normally does not depend on what people accept or believe. In fact, what we normally want is ex- actly the opposite—for our beliefs to depend on what holds true about the world. Consider the following argument.6

1. Different societies have accepted different views about the earth’s shape (e.g., that it is flat or that it is round).

2. The actual shape of the earth for a given society is determined by the view about the earth that is most widely accepted in that society. –––––––––––––––––– Thus: The earth has different shapes for different societies; its shape is relative.

This would mean that the earth actually was flat for medieval Europeans; if they sailed too far, they would have fallen off the edge. But this is absurd; it’s ob- vious that people’s beliefs about the earth cannot determine what actually holds true about the earth. More generally, even widespread acceptance does not ensure truth, and claims like Premise 2 (going back to the moral argument) are usually not true. Unless a relativist can provide some special reason for thinking Premise 2 is true in the case of morality, we have no reason to accept moral relativism as true.

Pressing a little further, if the widespread acceptance of a moral principle could make it true, then we’d be driven to the surprising conclusion that no soci- ety’s majority could ever be mistaken about anything moral. Since the majority de- termines what is moral, the majority has moral infallibility!7 But we know societies can make mistakes about all sorts of matters, including morals. One such moral error was America’s widespread acceptance of slavery less than two centuries ago.

We thus have reason to reject Premise 2 of the relativist argument, which in turn undermines the argument itself. However, this only shows that we have no compelling reasons in support of relativism. This doesn’t prove it false. Thus, we must next turn to arguments that have been advanced against relativism.

For Discussion 1. Suppose an ideological/religious group of terrorists believe that they should kill

anyone belonging to an “inferior” ethnic group. Is this an instance of a genuine relativistic moral principle? Why or why not?

6This comparison is also made by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Phi- losophy, 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw–Hill Higher Education, 2009), section 2.3

7This point is made by Rachels and Rachels, Moral Philosophy.

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2. If different societies do have different moral beliefs and practices, why doesn’t it follow that different moral standards hold for each?

3. If you don’t think the flat earth argument is a good analogy to relativism, why not? What is the actual point being made by this analogy?

Summary Those attracted to moral relativism often maintain that different societies have differ- ent moral beliefs and practices. But these differences often derive from differences in how people view the world rather than from different moral principles. Furthermore, even if we grant that societies do accept different moral principles, it doesn’t follow that different moral principles hold for these societies. Thus, we have no good reason at this point for accepting relativism.


There are several arguments against relativism. Those we will examine all employ the same strategy. Each begins with the supposition that relativism is true. Each then shows how something unacceptable follows from that supposition. Because relativism leads us to something unacceptable, it then concludes that the cause of this result is relativism. In short, each argument indicates that we should reject relativism because our accepting it would commit us to something unacceptable. Here are four important arguments against relativism.

1. Making anything right: In keeping with the strategy just described, we look at what would follow if relativism were true—if a society’s actual moral standard were determined by that society’s beliefs and practices. Consider southern America in the early nineteenth century. That society had a distinctive culture with its own char- acteristic beliefs, values, and practices, including slavery. Now, if relativism is true, then the widespread acceptance of slavery was morally right for that society. This isn’t simply saying that they believed in it; it’s saying that the institution of slavery was morally acceptable according to the moral standard that held for them. But how can we grant that the enslavement, exploitation, abuse, and even murder of people of one particular race could ever have been morally right? This flies in the face of our deepest, clearest, and most widely held moral intuitions. There are matters in moral- ity we might be mistaken about but surely not about slavery being wrong. Since this is the case, we shouldn’t abandon such a strong moral intuition for the sake of some theory. Rather, we should reject that theory—relativism. Since relativism allows for slavery to have been morally right, there must be something wrong with relativism.

Tragically, there are many more examples of a similar nature. For instance, some cultures considered it morally acceptable for families to abandon infant girls to their deaths, since marrying a daughter was costly and a girl couldn’t help support the family like a boy could. Then there’s the long history of genocides up through the present day, including the Nazi murder of Jews, Gypsies, and mentally disabled.

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Assuming that we react to these examples with moral dismay, that gives us reason to reject relativism, which must approve such practices as being morally right for those cultures and societies. Nevertheless, the problem here is not just that relativism must approve of certain practices that we find horrific. The bigger problem is that relativism opens the door to any practice being morally right— human sacrifice, torture, child prostitution, or whatever. All that’s needed is for a practice to be widely accepted within some society. But this is something we clearly cannot accept. If there’s a morality at all, then it cannot be that absolutely anything could count as morally right. Thus, relativism must not be correct.

2. Moral Reformers: Of course, not everyone in these cultural groups has sup- ported slavery, infanticide, genocide, and the like. There have always been some who’ve actively opposed their society’s immoral practices. Abolitionists like Wil- liam Lloyd Garrison denounced American slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr. fought segregation. Such people are moral reformers—people who oppose, on moral grounds, some of their society’s beliefs and practices. Rather than approv- ing of such moral visionaries, however, relativism condemns them. For relativism, after all, the moral right depends on the majority view of a society. Since reformers oppose the majority view, relativism must judge them to be in the wrong. Many of the people we most admire—Martin Luther King Jr., Confucius, Jesus, Socrates, and others—should therefore be placed among history’s morally worst people, given relativism. Surely this is unacceptable.

3. Moral Progress: Moral reformers call upon a society to change its beliefs and practices—to make moral progress. “Making progress” means moving closer toward what the relevant standard says is best. But first, the possibility of moral progress requires that there be some objective moral standard toward which a so- ciety can progress. This is exactly what relativism denies. Second, relativism says that a society’s moral standard is what that society believes and practices. Thus, changing these things can never count as progress for that would be to abandon the very practices required by that society’s moral standard.

Relativism precludes the very idea of a society making moral progress: the notion simply makes no sense.8 But this can’t be right: it’s not unintelligible to say that our society has made moral progress by coming to oppose racial discrimina- tion. Even if a KKK member, say, refuses to call this progress, she must still grant that the claim makes sense so she can argue against it. Since it does make sense to speak of a society making moral progress by becoming fairer, more just, or morally better, relativism is mistaken.

4. Social Groups: Relativism says that your morality is that of the social group you belong to. Which social group, then, determines your moral standard? If you were an eighteenth-century Yavapai brave living in what is now Arizona, that question would be easy to answer. But you are not, and this question is vastly more difficult to

8One could make sense of a part of society “making progress” by coming closer to what the ma- jority of that society already accepts. But this is not what we mean in talking about a society making moral progress

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answer in our twenty-first-century society. Although the Yavapai no doubt shared a well-defined set of moral beliefs and practices, it’s no longer true that any single set of beliefs or practices neatly characterizes our whole society today. Imagine an American citizen who is a card-carrying union member as well as the child of Cath- olic parents who came into New York twenty years ago from Mozambique. What social group does this person belong to? Arguably, she is Catholic: does that put her under the moral standard of the world’s Catholics? Or should it be just that of American Catholics? Being a labor union member, she may well be a Democrat: is that her morality-determining social group instead? Suppose this person also pre- serves many of the values and practices of her Maravi ancestors. Does this make her moral standard that of the Maravis? What if Maravi moral values and beliefs conflict with those of most other twenty-first-century Americans or with Catholicism?

It’s quite common for a person today to belong to several distinct social/cul- tural groups, each group being distinguished by different values, beliefs, and prac- tices. Which social group defines that person’s morality? There’s no good reason to pick one group over any of the others. Since this is true of most people in modern societies, relativism can’t assign any definite standard to most people. Either no moral standard holds for them or several distinct standards (which may conflict) must all hold at once. Another possibility is that the Maravi–female–Catholic– union member counts as a subgroup consisting of herself. But this solution turns relativism into subjectivism, which we have already rejected. In sum, if relativism were true, then the moral standards for many people in today’s complex world would be undetermined. This provides yet another reason for rejecting relativism.

For Discussion 1. Name some of today’s moral reformers, or describe where you think our society is

either making moral progress or is morally regressing. 2. What practice(s) in your society would you want to reform? 3. What distinct social groups do you identify with? Do these groups differ in any

moral beliefs and practices?

Summary There are several serious objections to relativism. First, relativism can allow any im- moral practice—like slavery, discrimination, and genocide—to qualify as morally right. Second, it counts history’s greatest moral reformers among the worst people who have ever lived. Third, relativism can make no sense of moral progress. Fourth, relativ- ism seems unable to determine what moral standard holds for most people in today’s complex societies.

Key Terms

• Moral reformers: persons who, on moral grounds, work to change some of their own society’s accepted beliefs and practices.

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One more argument—intended to support relativism—needs to be considered. We will call this the argument from tolerance. This intriguing argument maintains not merely that relativism is true, but that we are morally bound to accept it.

Again, relativism asserts that each society can have its own unique moral stan- dard since there is no universal standard. No particular standard can be viewed as better or worse, morally speaking, than any other. It follows that no society’s moral standard can be judged by any other society’s standard. But this, relativists say, is the essence of tolerance—the moral value that obligates us to respect the moral beliefs and practices of other people regardless of how we feel about them. Since relativism rules out the possibility of judging any moral standard, it arguably supports tolerance. Since objectivism does not rule our judging particular moral standards (any can be evaluated by the one objective standard), objectivism appar- ently conflicts with tolerance. Since tolerance is so important, we ought to accept relativism rather than objectivism:

1. The important moral value of tolerance requires that we respect the beliefs and practices of other societies.

2. Relativism rules out the possibility of judging any particular society’s standard to be better or worse than others; objectivism allows for this.

3. Judging a group’s moral beliefs and practices is not compatible with respecting their beliefs and practices. –––––––––––––––––– Thus: we must accept relativism and reject objectivism.

How compelling is this argument? To start, Premise 2 is made true by the mean- ings of relativism and objectivism. We may also agree with the relativist’s claim, in Premise 1, that tolerance is morally important. This is not to say that only toler- ance is important or that it is the most important moral value. It simply is of great moral importance.

Finally, Premise 3 attempts to specify the sorts of behavior tolerance requires. It is certainly true that in respecting other peoples we must tolerate their cultures, beliefs, and practices. We may not attempt to destroy a society or its culture simply because it’s different. But does it follow that no one should even disagree with another society’s views or offer them reasons for thinking that different beliefs or practices are more defensible? No. In fact, engaging people in reasoned moral dialogue is one important way to show respect toward them. Imagine leaving a primitive tribesman ignorant about the dangers of drinking contaminated water. This doesn’t show him respect; instead, it disrespects his value as a person, unnec- essarily abandoning him to sickness or death. But the same can be said regarding a society’s harmful moral beliefs and practices.9 Tolerance is not compatible with

9For instance, consider harms caused by a society that sees no need to help an injured child, that finds nothing wrong with a sexual assault, or that practices discrimination.

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an effort to annihilate another society, but it is perfectly compatible with criticism and reasoned arguments that support moral judgments. These considerations un- dermine the argument’s claim in Premise 3. But Premise 3 is essential to the argu- ment successfully supporting relativism.

The argument from tolerance is, therefore, unsound. But there is an even clearer objection. We can get at it in either of two ways. First, consider how we un- derstand the principle of tolerance. We take it for granted that tolerance extends to all persons—that everyone should be tolerant and respectful toward others. After all, if tolerance did not ensure equal respect for all, then there would be little point to championing tolerance. But this amounts to treating tolerance as an objective moral value, holding universally. Since relativism rejects objectivism, relativism precludes exactly what we want—a universal value of tolerance.

The same point can be made another way. Given relativism, a society’s stan- dard depends on what its people accept. Because our society widely accepts toler- ance, we are bound to act in tolerance. But what holds for one society need not hold for others. In fact, there’s no guarantee (given relativism) that tolerance will be a moral obligation elsewhere. Suppose that there’s a social group whose people are strongly committed to intolerance, who consider it their moral obligation to do everything possible to destroy individuals or peoples with whom they disagree. Relativism, given its own position, must then acknowledge the moral legitimacy of these people’s intolerance no less that it acknowledges tolerance in other groups. But this shows that relativism is just as capable of supporting intolerance as it is of supporting tolerance.

Clearly, then, relativism is no special friend of tolerance. But what about objectivism—doesn’t that still conflict with tolerance, as the relativist has sug- gested? It seems not. For one thing, objectivism gives no society a license to carry out acts of moral imperialism upon another society. In fact, given that tolerance is objective, such acts would be forbidden by tolerance. Further, objectivism says nothing about our particular beliefs and practices being the right ones. Objectiv- ism offers nothing to support the moral conceit that we—or any other particular society—have exclusive access to the true moral standard. Finally, we have seen that we must accept objectivism if we want to treat tolerance as a universal value. Ironically, then, the relativist’s argument from tolerance turns on its head. We must accept objectivism to support tolerance; we must reject relativism because it undercuts tolerance.

For Discussion 1. What does tolerance mean to you? Do you agree with the text’s discussion of toler-

ance and its limitations? 2. Suppose your neighbor often locks his young child in a closet and then leaves the

house for hours at a time. How tolerant should you be about this? Explain. 3. The Hindu practice of suttee—burning the widow to death on the funeral pyre of

her deceased husband—began to be banned by Europeans in the early nineteenth century. Was this ban an act of intolerance by the Europeans?

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Moral relativism—at least the popular version—has a great deal against it. While this version is unacceptable, more sophisticated versions of relativism do not so readily fall prey to the previous objections. One such version is David Wong’s “pluralistic relativism.”10

Wong’s view grants that while there can be different valid moral standards for different societies, it’s still not possible for just anything to be morally right. Every valid standard must include the same core of objective moral requirements— requirements, for instance, that rule out torturing someone merely on a whim. Al- though this moral core must be part of every moral standard (the objective part), that core alone can never provide a completely adequate moral standard. Any society’s standard must also add certain less crucial moral claims reflecting the particular moral practices and institutions of that society (the relative part). Thus, there can be many equally valid or legitimate moral standards, all sharing the same objective core, but differing in other respects. How great can these differences be? Wong thinks that although moral standards probably all share most of their foundational moral values, they often differ in how they prioritize those values. For instance, one society might give greater value to kindness than to honesty; a second society might reverse these priorities. The former society would probably treat lying with greater leniency than the latter.

Wong’s limited relativism certainly deserves consideration. Yet we might still ask if we need even this milder form of relativism to accommodate the differences Wong is concerned about. We have already seen how personal differences in con- science might be brought under objectivism simply by adding an objective prin- ciple that people should not violate their own consciences. Paralleling this, could objectivism grant each society its own distinctive “social conscience” and then add

10David B. Wong, Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (Oxford: Oxford Uni- versity Press, 2006); David B. Wong, Moral Relativity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

Summary It may initially seem that relativism supports the principle of tolerance because it for- bids one social group to judge the moral standard of another. However, the principle of tolerance is usually understood as holding universally, which is not allowed by relativ- ism. Further, relativism supports intolerance just as readily as tolerance. Genuine sup- port for tolerance can be found only in objectivism.

Key Terms

• Tolerance: requires that we respect the moral beliefs and practices of others but doesn’t preclude rational disagreement or even taking action in certain cases.

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the objective principle that no people in any given society should ever violate their society’s social conscience? This seems a promising alternative, although those sympathetic to Wong would no doubt reply that this strategy could never suf- ficiently explain all the important moral differences that exist between societies.

For Discussion 1. What moral values and principles should be included in Wong’s common moral

core for all societies? 2. What sorts of things might be included in your society’s social conscience?

Summary There are more sophisticated versions of relativism than the popular version we have considered in most of this chapter. For instance, Wong’s limited relativism suggests that although societies may differ regarding how they prioritize moral values, all soci- eties share a common core of foundational values and principles. This account avoids allowing just anything to count as morally acceptable but still allows for several differ- ent but equally true moral standards.

Key Terms

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