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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Hedonism

Hedonism is the belief that pleasure, or the absence of pain, is the most important principle in determining the morality of a potential course of action. Pleasure can be things like “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” but it can also include any intrinsically valuable experience like reading a good book.

Hedonism is a type of consequentialism, and it has several forms. For example, normative hedonism is the idea that pleasure should be people’s primary motivation. On the other hand, motivational hedonism says that only pleasure and pain cause people to do what they do.

Egotistical hedonism requires a person to consider only his or her own pleasure in making choices. Conversely, altruistic hedonism says that the creation of pleasure for all people is the best way to measure if an action is ethical.

Regardless of the type of hedonism, critics fault it as a guide for morality because hedonism ignores all other values, such as freedom or fairness, when evaluating right and wrong.

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Consequentialism

Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether or not something is right by what its consequences are. For instance, most people would agree that lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would help save a person’s life, consequentialism says it’s the right thing to do.

Two examples of consequentialism are utilitarianism and hedonism. Utilitarianism judges consequences by a “greatest good for the greatest number” standard. Hedonism, on the other hand, says something is “good” if the consequence produces pleasure or avoids pain.

Consequentialism is sometimes criticized because it can be difficult, or even impossible, to know what the result of an action will be ahead of time. Indeed, no one can know the future with certainty. Also, in certain situations, consequentialism can lead to decisions that are objectionable, even though the consequences are arguably good.

For example, let’s suppose economists could prove that the world economy would be stronger, and that most people would be happier, healthier, and wealthier, if we just enslaved 2% of the population. Although the majority of people would benefit from this idea, most would never agree to it. However, when judging the idea solely on its results, as classic consequentialism does, then “the end justifies the means.”

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