19 5.1 Moral Philosophy – Concepts and Distinctions

Before examining some standard theories of morality, it is important to understand basic terms and concepts that belong to the specialized language of ethical studies. The concepts and distinctions presented in this section will be useful for characterizing the major theories of right and wrong we will study in subsequent sections of this unit. The general area of concepts and foundations of ethics explained here is referred to as meta-ethics.

5.1.1 The Language of Ethics

Ethics is about values, what is right and wrong, or better or worse. Ethics makes claims, or judgments, that establish values. Evaluative claims are referred to as normative, or prescriptive, claims. Normative claims tell us, or affirm, what ought to be the case. Prescriptive claims need to be seen in contrast with descriptive claims, which simply tell us, or affirm, what is the case, or at least what is believed to be the case.

For example, this claim is descriptive:, it describes what is the case:

“Low sugar consumption reduces risk of diabetes and heart failure.”

On the other hand, this claim is normative:

“Everyone ought to reduce consumption of sugar.”

This distinction between descriptive and normative (prescriptive) claims applies in everyday discourse in which we all engage. In ethics, however, normative claims have essential significance. A normative claim may, depending upon other considerations, be taken to be a “moral fact.”

Note: Many philosophers agree that the truth of an “is” statement in itself does not infer an “ought” claim. The fact the low sugar consumption leads to better health does not imply, on its own, that everyone should reduce their sugar intake. A good logical argument would require further reasons (premises) to reach the “ought” conclusion/claim. An “ought” claim inferred directly from an “is” statement is referred to as the naturalistic fallacy.

A supplemental resource is available (bottom of page) on the distinction between descriptive and normative claims.

5.1.2 How Are Moral Facts Real?

When we talk about “moral facts” typically we are referring to claims about values, duties, standards for behavior, and other evaluative prescriptions. The following concepts describe the sense in which moral facts are real in terms of:

  • the degree of universality, or lack thereof, with which the moral claims are held, and
  • the extent to which moral facts stand independently of other considerations.

Moral Objectivism

The view that moral facts exist, in the sense that they hold for everyone, is called moral (or ethical) objectivism. From the viewpoint of objectivism, moral facts do not merely represent the beliefs of the person making the claim, they are facts of the world. Furthermore, such moral facts/claims have no dependencies on other claims nor do they have any other contingencies.

Moral Subjectivism

Moral (or ethical) subjectivism holds that moral facts are not universal, they exist only in the sense that those who hold them believe them to exist. Such moral facts sometimes serve as useful devices to support practical purposes. According to the viewpoint of subjectivism, moral facts (values, duties, and so forth) are entirely dependent on the beliefs of those who hold them.

Moral Absolutism

Moral absolutism is an objectivist view that there is only one true moral system with specific moral rules (or facts) that always apply, can never be disregarded. At least some rules apply universally, transcending time, culture. and personal belief. Actions of a specific sort are always right (or wrong) independently of any further considerations, including their consequences.

Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is the view that there are no universal standards of moral value, that moral facts, values, and beliefs are relative to individuals or societies that hold them. The rightness of an action depends on the attitude taken toward it by the society or culture of the person doing the action.

  • Moral relativism as it relates to an individual is a form of ethical subjectivism.
  • As it relates to a society or culture, moral relativism is referred to as “cultural relativism” and is also subjectivist in that moral facts depend entirely on the beliefs of those who hold them, they are not universal.

Note that some accounts of meta-ethical concepts do not use both “objectivism” and “absolutism” or use them interchangeably. The important relationship to keep in mind is that both objectivism and absolutism stand in contrast to relativism and subjectivism.

Here are several arguments in support of moral relativism. The “objection” following each one is an argument against moral relativism and in favor of moral objectivism.

  1. Because there are diverse cultural moral values, moral values are not objective and moral diversity is justified.
    • Objection: “Is” does not imply “ought.” Further, the fact that there are diverse cultural values does not necessarily imply that there are no objective values.
  2. Relativism is justified, because moral objectivists cannot demonstrate the foundation for the truth and universality of objective values.
    • Objection: That we cannot yet justify objective values does not mean that such a foundation could not be developed.
  3. Moral relativism fosters tolerance by respecting other cultures’ beliefs and practices.
    • Objection: This entails that we tolerate oppressive systems that are intolerant themselves. Further, this argument seems to confer objective value on “tolerance” and further still, “tolerance” is not the same as “respect.”

Here are some additional arguments against moral relativism:

  1. If values for right and wrong are relative to a specific moral standpoint or culture, anything can be justified, even practices that seem objectively unconscionable.
  2. Ethical relativism would diminish our possibility for making moral judgments of others and other societies. However, we do make moral judgments of others and believe we are justified in making these moral judgments.
  3. Ethical relativism says that moral values are determined by ‘the group’, but it is difficult to determine who ‘the group’ is. Anyone in the “group” who disagrees is immoral.
  4. If people were ethical relativists in practice (that is, if everyone was a ethical subjectivist), there would be moral chaos.

A supplemental resource is available (bottom of page) on moral relativism.


Do you think that there are objective moral values? Or do you believe that all moral values are relative to either cultures or individuals? Include your reasons.

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

5.1.3 How Do We Know What is Right?

The question at hand is about moral epistemology. How do we know what is right or wrong? What prompts our moral sentiments, our values, our actions? Are our moral assessments made on a purely rational basis, or do they stem from our emotional nature? There are contemporary philosophers who support each position, but we will return to some “old” friends we met in our unit on epistemology, Immanuel Kant and David Hume. They were hardly on the “same page” when it came to how and if we can know anything at all, and it’s hardly surprising that we find them at odds on what motivates moral choices, how we know what is right.

When we met Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in our study of epistemology, we read passages from his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic (1783). In that work, he applied a slightly less intricate and perplexing presentation of topics from his masterwork on metaphysics and epistemology, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). His next project involved application of his same rigorous reasoning method to moral philosophy. In 1785, Kant published Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals; it introduced concepts that he expanded subsequently in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). The short excerpts that follow are from Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals.

Recall that Kant’s epistemology required both reason and empirical experience, each in its proper role. Kant believed that human action could be evaluated only by the logical distinctions based in synthetic a priori judgments.

In the following excerpt, Kant explains that a clear understanding of the moral law is not to be found in the empirical world but is a matter of pure reason.

Everyone must admit that if a law is to have moral force, i.e., to be the basis of an obligation, it must carry with it absolute necessity; that, for example, the precept, “Thou shalt not lie,” is not valid for men alone, as if other rational beings had no need to observe it; and so with all the other moral laws properly so called; that, therefore, the basis of obligation must not be sought in the nature of man, or in the circumstances in the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in the conception of pure reason; and although any other precept which is founded on principles of mere experience may be in certain respects universal, yet in as far as it rests even in the least degree on an empirical basis, perhaps only as to a motive, such a precept, while it may be a practical rule, can never be called a moral law. Thus not only are moral laws with their principles essentially distinguished from every other kind of practical knowledge in which there is anything empirical, but all moral philosophy rests wholly on its pure part.

However, there is some correspondence between the study of natural world and of ethics. Both have an empirical dimension as well as a rational one. When Kant speaks of “anthropology” he refers to the empirical study of human nature.

…there arises the idea of a twofold metaphysic- a metaphysic of nature and a metaphysic of morals. Physics will thus have an empirical and also a rational part. It is the same with Ethics; but here the empirical part might have the special name of practical anthropology, the name morality being appropriated to the rational part.

So, while the nature of moral duty must be sought a priori “in the conception of pure reason,” empirical knowledge of human nature has a supporting role in distinguishing how to apply moral laws and in dealing with “so many inclinations” – the confusing array of emotions, impulses, desires that bombard us and contradict the command of reason. Our emotions (inclinations) are hardly the source of moral knowledge; they interfere with the human capability for practical pure reason.

Thus not only are moral laws with their principles essentially distinguished from every other kind of practical knowledge in which there is anything empirical, but all moral philosophy rests wholly on its pure part.When applied to man, it does not borrow the least thing from the knowledge of man himself (anthropology), but gives laws a priori to him as a rational being. No doubt these laws require a judgment sharpened by experience, in order on the one hand to distinguish in what cases they are applicable, and on the other to procure for them access to the will of the man and effectual influence on conduct; since man is acted on by so many inclinations that, though capable of the idea of a practical pure reason, he is not so easily able to make it effective in concreto in his life.

Kant sees his project on moral law, or “practical reason,” to be a less complicated project than Critique of Pure Reason, his “critical examination of the pure speculative reason, already published.” According to Kant, “moral reasoning can easily be brought to a high degree of correctness and completeness”, whereas speculative reason is “dialectical” – laden with opposing forces. Furthermore, a complete “critique” of practical reason entails “a common principle” that can cover any situation – “for it can ultimately be only one and the same reason which has to be distinguished merely in its application.”

Intending to publish hereafter a metaphysic of morals, I issue in the first instance these fundamental principles. Indeed there is properly no other foundation for it than the critical examination of a pure practical reason; just as that of metaphysics is the critical examination of the pure speculative reason, already published. But in the first place the former is not so absolutely necessary as the latter, because in moral concerns human reason can easily be brought to a high degree of correctness and completeness, even in the commonest understanding, while on the contrary in its theoretic but pure use it is wholly dialectical; and in the second place if the critique of a pure practical Reason is to be complete, it must be possible at the same time to show its identity with the speculative reason in a common principle, for it can ultimately be only one and the same reason which has to be distinguished merely in its application.

In the next section of this unit, we will see where Kant goes with this project and its “common principle” the applies universally. For now, keep in mind that Kant sees moral judgment as a reason-based activity, and that emotions/inclinations diminish our moral judgments. Many philosophers agree that making moral judgments and taking moral actions are rationally contemplated undertakings.

David Hume (1711-1776), as we learned in our epistemology unit, doubted that the principles of cause and effect and that induction could lead to truth about the natural world. Recall his picture of reason, his version of the distinction between a prior and a posteriori knowledge:

  • Relations of ideas are beliefs grounded wholly on associations formed within the mind; they are capable of demonstration because they have no external referent.
  • Matters of fact are beliefs that claim to report the nature of existing things; they are always contingent.

In both his Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) relations-of-ideas and matters-of-fact figure in his position that human agency and moral obligation are best considered as functions of human passions rather than as the dictates of reason. The excerpts that follow are from the Treatise (Book III, Part I, Sections I and II).

If reason were the source of moral sensibility, then either relations of ideas or matters-of-fact would need to be involved:

As the operations of human understanding divide themselves into two kinds, the comparing of ideas, and the inferring of matter of fact; were virtue discovered by the understanding; it must be an object of one of these operations, nor is there any third operation of the understanding. which can discover it.

Relations of ideas involve precision and certainty (as with geometry or algebra) that arise out of pure conceptual thought and logical operations. A relationship between “vice and virtue” cannot be demonstrated in this way.

There has been an opinion very industriously propagated by certain philosophers, that morality is susceptible of demonstration; and though no one has ever been able to advance a single step in those demonstrations; yet it is taken for granted, that this science may be brought to an equal certainty with geometry or algebra. Upon this supposition vice and virtue must consist in some relations; since it is allowed on all hands, that no matter of fact is capable of being demonstrated….. For as you make the very essence of morality to lie in the relations, and as there is no one of these relations but what is applicable… RESEMBLANCE, CONTRARIETY, DEGREES IN QUALITY, and PROPORTIONS IN QUANTITY AND NUMBER; all these relations belong as properly to matter, as to our actions, passions, and volitions. It is unquestionable, therefore, that morality lies not in any of these relations, nor the sense of it in their discovery.

Hume goes on to explain how moral distinctions do not arise from of matters of fact:

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object.

And so, Hume concludes that moral distinctions are not derived from reason, rather they come from our feelings, or sentiments.

Thus the course of the argument leads us to conclude, that since vice and virtue are not discoverable merely by reason, or the comparison of ideas, it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion, that we are able to mark the difference betwixt them……Morality, therefore, is more properly felt than judged of”

Hume’s view that our moral judgments and actions arise not from our rational capacities but from our emotional nature and sentiments, is contrary to several of the major normative theories we will explore. However, it is interesting to note that some present-day philosophers regard the domain of emotion as a primary source of moral action, and also that work in neuroscience suggests that Hume may have been on the right track.


Economist Jeremy Rifkin provides an absorbing and fast-moving chalk-talk on human empathy, as demonstrated by neuroscience. (10+ minutes) Note: Cartoon depictions of humans are unclothed RSA Animate[CC-BY-NC-ND]

Optional Video

Trust, morality – and oxytocin?[CC-BY-NC-ND] Neuro-economist Paul Zak believe he has identified the “moral molecule” in the brain. (16+ minutes)

An additional supplemental video (bottom of page) explores moral judgments and neuroscience even further.


What do you think about the connection between morality and the neurobiology of our brains? Do you think these findings affect arguments for or against ethical relativism?

Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion topic.

5.1.4 Psychological Influences

Various psychological characterizations of human nature have had significant influence on views about morality. We will see in this Ethics unit and the next on Social and Political Philosophy that particular conceptions of human nature may be at the center of theories about moral actions of individuals and about ethical interaction among individuals in social communities.

Egoism is the view that by nature we are selfish, that our actions, even our ostensibly generous ones, are motivated by selfish desire. Ethical egoism is the belief that pursuing ones own happiness is the highest moral value, that moral decisions should be guided by self-interest.

Another view of human nature holds that the primary motivation for all of our actions is pleasure. Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the highest or only good worth seeking, that we should, in fact, seek pleasure.

A different take on human nature is that we have innate capacity for benevolence (empathy) toward other people. (Recall the the mirror neurons in the Jeremy Rifkin video.) Altruism is the view that moral decisions should be guided by consideration for the interests and well-being of other people rather than by self-interest.

5.1.5 The Meaning of “Good”

In Ethics, we refer to what is “good” as a general term of approval, for what is of value, for example, a particular action, a quality, a practice, a way of life. Among the aspects of “good” that philosophers discuss is whether a particular thing is valued because it is good in and of itself, or because it leads to some other “good.”

  • An intrinsic good is something that is good in and of itself, not because of something else that may result from it. In ethics, a “value” possesses intrinsic worth. For example, with hedonism, pleasure is the only intrinsic good, or value. In some normative theories, a particular type of action may possess intrinsic worth, or good.
  • An instrumental good, on the other hand, is useful for attaining something else that is good. It is instrumental in that it that leads to another good, but it is not good is and of itself. For example, for an egoist, an action such as generosity to others can be seen as an instrumental good if it leads to to self-fulfillment, which is an intrinsic good valued in and of itself by an egoist.

As we look more closely at some major normative theories, the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental good will be among the considerations of interest. Understanding normative theories, also involves these questions:

  • How do we determine what the right action is?
  • What are the standards that we use to judge if a particular action is good or bad?

The following normative theories will be addressed:

  • Deontology (from the Greek for “obligation, or duty”) is concerned rules and motives for actions.
  • Utilitarianism, a consequentialist theory, is interested in the good outcomes of actions.
  • Virtue Ethics values actions in terms of what a person of good character would do.

Supplemental Resources

Descriptive and Normative Claims

Fundamentals: Normative and Descriptive Claims. This 4-minute video is a quick review with examples, on the differences between descriptive and normative claims.

Moral Relativism

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Moral Relativism. Read section “3. Arguments for Moral Relativism” and section “4. Objections to Moral Relativism.”

Moral Judgment and Neuroscience

The Neuroscience behind Moral Judgments. Alan Alda talks with an MIT neuroscientist about neurological connections with moral judgments. (5+ minutes)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Philosophy Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book