18 Ethics – Overview and Coursework

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy concerned with the evaluation of human actions. It is the study of morality, or right and wrong. This branch of philosophy is concerned not only with theories for characterizing right and wrong actions but also with understanding and analyzing the meaning of and justification for ethical claims.

Recall that we concluded our work with Metaphysics by acknowledging that a conception of free will is necessary if we are to hold humans accountable for their actions. Most of us do, indeed, see ourselves as moral agents, and furthermore, we often evaluate the behavior of others, especially when we regard behavior as particularly good or bad. It is important to keep in mind, though, that our philosophical study of ethics does not advocate particular theories or standards; it seeks to understand the meaning of ethical concepts and the ethical theories that define right and wrong.

There is a fuzzy line between the discourse surrounding ethical theories and that of the concepts and ideas we will encounter in the module that follows on Social-Political Philosophy. One’s actions and behavior, after all, do not occur in isolation but rather in the context of society.


Successful completion of our study of this module will enable you to understand and explain:

  1. Distinctions between subjectivism and objectivism in Ethics.
  2. Arguments for and against ethical relativism.
  3. Deontology and Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
  4. Utilitarian reasoning for moral decisions.
  5. Virtue ethics.


The Course Content for this unit provides the primary reading material, links to any additional assigned reading or viewing resources, and assigned coursework. The unit concludes with a test. Material is presented in these subsections:

5.1 Moral Philosophy Concepts and Distinctions
5.2 Normative Theories: Kant’s Deontology
5.3 Normative Theories: Utilitarianism
5.4 Normative Theories: Virtue Ethics

Dates for completing all coursework are in the Schedule of Work.

Philosophers We Will Meet

In our investigation and readings for Ethics, we will encounter the work of these philosophers. You may select a name here to link to a short biography, or you may link to the same information at your first encounter the philosopher’s name in the Course Content sections.

David Hume
Immanuel Kant 
John Stuart Mill 
Jeremy Bentham 
Peter Singer 

Key Terms

It is important to understand the meaning and use of these terms.

Altruism: The view that moral decisions should be guided by consideration for the interests and well-being of other people rather than merely by self-interest.
Consequentialism: Any normative theory holding that human actions derive their moral worth solely from the outcomes or results that they produce. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory.
Deontology: The ethical theory that sees morality as doing one’s duty by following rules, without considering the probable consequences of one’s actions.
Descriptive Claim: A claim, or judgment, that affirms what is the case.
Ethical Egoism: The view that moral decisions should be guided by self-interest.
Eudaemonia: Happiness involving human flourishing through intellectual excellence and moral virtue.
Hedonism: The view that pleasure is the highest or only intrinsic good in life.
Instrumental Good: Something that can be used to attain, or that leads to, something else that is good.
Intrinsic Good: Something that is good in and of itself, and not because of something that may result from it.
Meta-ethics: Activities involving discussion “about” ethics, offering an account of moral language and its uses, and discussing the origin and meaning of ethical concepts.
Moral Absolutism: The view that there is one true moral system with specific moral rules, which may not be overridden for any reason. At least some moral values apply to everyone and every culture at every time.
Moral Objectivism: The view that moral facts exist in the sense that they hold for everyone.
Moral Relativism: The view that there are no universal standards of moral value, that 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 Subjectivism: The view that moral facts exists only in the sense that those who hold them believe them to exist.
Normative: Establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard or norm, especially of behavior.
Normative Claim: A claim, or judgment, that affirms what ought to be the case.
Prescriptive Claim: Same as “normative claim.” A claim, or judgment, that affirms what ought to be the case.
Utilitarianism: The view that an action is morally right if it produces at least as much good (utility) for all people affected by the action as any alternative action that could be done instead.
Virtue Ethics: Refers to theories that consider moral value of an action by examining the character and virtues of the person who performs an action.


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