Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Moral Philosophy

Moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy that contemplates what is right and wrong. It explores the nature of morality and examines how people should live their lives in relation to others.

Moral philosophy has three branches.

One branch, meta-ethics, investigates big picture questions such as, “What is morality?” “What is justice?” “Is there truth?” and “How can I justify my beliefs as better than conflicting beliefs held by others?”

Another branch of moral philosophy is normative ethics. It answers the question of what we ought to do. Normative ethics focuses on providing a framework for deciding what is right and wrong. Three common frameworks are deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.

The last branch is applied ethics. It addresses specific, practical issues of moral importance such as war and capital punishment. Applied ethics also tackles specific moral challenges that people face daily, such as whether they should lie to help a friend or co-worker.

So, whether our moral focus is big picture questions, a practical framework, or applied to specific dilemmas, moral philosophy can provide the tools we need to examine and live an ethical life.

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Moral Absolutism

Moral absolutism asserts that there are certain universal moral principles by which all peoples’ actions may be judged. It is a form of deontology.

The challenge with moral absolutism, however, is that there will always be strong disagreements about which moral principles are correct and which are incorrect.

For example, most people around the world probably accept the idea that we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. But beyond that, people from different countries likely hold varying views about everything from the morality of abortion and capital punishment to nepotism and bribery.

Moral absolutism contrasts with moral relativism, which denies that there are absolute moral values. It also differs from moral pluralism, which urges tolerance of others’ moral principles without concluding that all views are equally valid.

So, while moral absolutism declares a universal set of moral values, in reality, moral principles vary greatly among nations, cultures, and religions.

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Deontology

Deontology is an ethical theory that uses rules to distinguish right from wrong. Deontology is often associated with philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that ethical actions follow universal moral laws, such as “Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Don’t cheat.”

Deontology is simple to apply. It just requires that people follow the rules and do their duty. This approach tends to fit well with our natural intuition about what is or isn’t ethical.

Unlike consequentialism, which judges actions by their results, deontology doesn’t require weighing the costs and benefits of a situation. This avoids subjectivity and uncertainty because you only have to follow set rules.

Despite its strengths, rigidly following deontology can produce results that many people find unacceptable. For example, suppose you’re a software engineer and learn that a nuclear missile is about to launch that might start a war. You can hack the network and cancel the launch, but it’s against your professional code of ethics to break into any software system without permission. And, it’s a form of lying and cheating. Deontology advises not to violate this rule. However, in letting the missile launch, thousands of people will die.

So, following the rules makes deontology easy to apply. But it also means disregarding the possible consequences of our actions when determining what is right and what is wrong.

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