Ethical Realism

August 20, 2010

Moral Theories (Normative Theories of Ethics)

Normative theories of ethics or “moral theories” are meant to help us figure out what actions are right and wrong. Popular normative theories include utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, Aristotelian virtue ethics, Stoic virtue ethics, and W. D. Ross’s intuitionism. I will discuss each of these theories and explain how to apply them in various situations.


Utilitarianism is a very simple view that matches common sense – right and wrong can be determined by a cost-benefit analysis. We must consider all the good and bad consequences when deciding if an action is right. Utilitarians disagree about what counts as “good” or “bad.” Some think that fulfilling desires is good and thwarting desires is bad, classic utilitarians think that happiness is good and suffering is bad, and pluralists believe that there are multiple “intrinsic goods” that are worth promoting. An action will then be said to be “right” as long as it satisfactorily causes good consequences compared to alternative actions, and it will be “wrong” if it doesn’t.

Utilitarianism doesn’t discriminate or encourage egoism. It is wrong to harm others to benefit yourself because everyone counts.

What counts as “satisfactory” will not be agreed upon by all philosophers. Originally some philosophers suggested that only the “best” action we could possibly perform is “right,” but this is an extreme, impractical, and oppressive view. Why? Whenever you are taking a shower or spending time with friends it would probably be better to be doing something else, such as helping the needy, but it is absurd to say that you are always doing wrong whenever you are taking a shower or spending time with friends. Additionally, it isn’t clear that there is a “best” course of action always available to us. There might be an unlimited number of actions we can perform and at least one of them could be better than what we choose to do.

It should be pointed out that right actions and right moral decisions are two different things. An action is right when it produces good results even if it was made for the wrong reasons. For example, I could decide not to go to my job one day when doing so would just happen to cause a car crash. There is no way to expect a car crash to occur that day, but my action would be right insofar would cause positive results. People might then say, “You got lucky and ended up doing the right thing.”

To make the right moral decision for a utilitarian means to make a decision that is most likely going to actually be right (lead to good results) based on the available information I have. Choosing to go to work is usually the right decision to make despite the fact that there is a negligible chance that I will get in a car wreck. Such a decision can’t take far-fetched possibilities into consideration.

Utilitarianism is not necessarily meant to be used as a “decision procedure” to decide what to do. If we can clearly know that a course of action will produce highly good results and negligible bad results, then that action is rational. However, we aren’t always good at knowing what actions will produce good results and we can often be overconfident in our ability to do so. It is often wrong to choose to do something we believe will probably have good results if that behavior is risky and has a chance of hurting people. For example, a jury shouldn’t find someone guilty when someone has been proven innocent in the hopes that it will prevent a riot in the streets because people can’t know for sure that such a decision will produce the desired results, and they do know that the guilty verdict will destroy someone’s life.

To conclude, in order to know if something is morally preferable for a utilitarian, we must ask, “Will it lead to more benefits and less harms than the alternatives?” If the answer is, Yes, then it is morally preferable.

Applying Utilitarianism

Killing people – Killing people is usually wrong either because people have value (and they might not exist after dying), because everyone has a desire to stay alive, or because killing people makes other people unhappy.

Stealing – Stealing is usually wrong because it makes people unhappy to lose their possessions, they might need their possessions to accomplish certain important goals, and because the right to property makes it possible for us to make long term goals involving our possessions.

Courage – Courage is essential for morality because people must be willing to do what they believe will be right even at a personal cost. Sometimes doing the right thing requires altruism, such as when a whistle blower must tell the American public about corruption at the work place (despite the fact that they might be killed for doing so).

Education – Education is good because it helps us know how to be a productive member of society, it helps us know empirical facts that are relevant to knowing which actions are likely to benefit or cause harm (e.g. better parenting techniques or healthy eating), and it helps us think rationally to make better decisions.

Promising – It is wrong to break a promise because doing so would make other people upset and waste their time. People depend on the honesty of others in order to take business risks, plan on their retirement, and so on.

Polluting – It is wrong to pollute if the pollution will harm others. It is preferable to refuse to pollute if too many people doing so could also harm others, but we are not necessarily personally responsible for the harms caused by an entire civilization.

Homosexual behavior – Homosexual behavior does not automatically cause harm and it is something many people find pleasurable and part of living a happy life. Therefore, it is not always wrong. Homosexuality can cause someone harm from discrimination, but to blame homosexuality for the harms of discrimination is a form of blaming the victim just like blaming a woman who gets raped for being too weak.

Atheism –Atheism does not necessarily cause people harm other than through discrimination, but blaming atheists for discrimination is also a form of blaming the victim. Additionally, atheism is often a position one believes in because of good arguments, and it is appropriate for people to have beliefs based on good arguments. Being “reasonable” is “right” because it tends to have good results.


  1. Consequences might not be enough. – Utilitarianism requires us to do whatever promotes the good the most, but that could require us to be disrespectful or even harm certain people. For example, if we kill someone to donate their organs and save five lives, then it seems like our action maximized the good and wasn’t wrong. This result is counterintitive and it’s suggests that utilitarianism is incomplete because we might have rights that must not be violated, even to maximize the good.
  2. Utilitarians aren’t sensitive to heroic acts. – Utilitarians think we ought to maximize the good. If this is a duty, then it seems much too demanding. In that case we would probably be doing something morally wrong almost every second of the day, and we would rightly be blamed and punished for it. But it doesn’t seem wrong for me to do a handstand or spend time with friends just because I could be doing something better with my time. Additionally, heroic acts like jumping into a fire to save a child seems like they are beyond the call of duty rather than obligations. If it’s not a duty to maximize the good, then utilitarians will have to explain when we have duties and when we don’t. It’s not obvious that we can draw this line using utilitarianism.

Categorical Imperative

The categorical imperative asks us to act in a way that we can will to be a universal law. In other words, it asks us to behave in a rational way that would be rational for anyone. If it is right for me to defend myself when attacked, then it is right for everyone to defend themselves in self defense.

Robert Johnson describes the categorical imperative as a method to find out if an action is permissible using four steps:

First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents, and so as holding that all must, by natural law, act as you yourself propose to act in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim in such a world. If you could, then your action is morally permissible.1

I will describe each of these stages in more detail:

  1. First we formulate the “maxim” or motivational principle that guides our action. For example, I might plan on eating food because I’m hungry or decide to break a promise to pay a friend back because I would rather keep the money.
  2. Second, let’s transform the action into a universal law of nature. Everyone must act for the same reason that I will act on. Everyone will eat food when they’re hungry and break their promises to friends when they would rather keep their money.
  3. Third, let’s consider if such a maxim could even be a universal law of nature. Could everyone eat food when they’re hungry? Yes. Could everyone refuse to pay their debts when they’d rather keep their money? No, because that would undermine the whole point of having debts to be paid. No one would loan money out in that world. At this point we can already rule out the maxim of refusing to pay our debts out of convenience, so it’s an irrational and impermissible maxim and we have a duty not to act from that motive.
  4. Fourth, if the maxim passes the third step, could we rationally will the maxim to be followed by everyone in our circumstances? Perhaps I can will that people eat when they are hungry, but not necessarily in every circumstance, such as when there’s limited food that needs to be shared with others who are also hungry.

Johnson adds that we have a “perfect duty” to refrain from doing something that violates the third step in the sense that there are no exceptions. Whenever we are in the relevant situation, we must refrain from doing the act as much as possible. Since refusing to pay one’s debts when we prefer to keep our money doesn’t pass the third step, we have a perfect duty not to refuse to pay our debts for that reason. Kant also thinks we have a prefect duty not to commit suicide when we want to avoid suffering.

If we have a maxim that doesn’t pass the fourth step, then it’s an imperfect duty to refrain from doing it, which means we must refrain from doing it at least some of the time. Kant thinks we can’t always refrain from helping others, so we have a duty to help others at least some of the time.

I suspect that the categorical imperative is compatible with all other moral theories. For example, a utilitarian will have to believe that it is only rational to behave in a way likely to promote positive values, and such moral rationality applies to everyone.

Of course, the categorical imperative doesn’t require us to be utilitarians. There might be some actions that are right for reasons other than the likelihood of producing positive results.

The categorical imperative is often related to hypocrisy, the golden rule, and the question, “What if everyone did that?” First, our morality must not be hypocritical—what is right for me is right for everyone. Second, we can demand that someone treat others how she wants to be treated as long as she “wants” to be treated in a way that rationality permits. Third, we can demand that people don’t behave in a way that is wrong for others. If “everyone defended themselves from attack,” then people would be behaving appropriately. However, “if everyone steals to benefit themselves,” then they will be doing something wrong. When we ask, “What if everyone did that?” we are not asking, “Would there be bad consequences if everyone did X?” The categorical imperative does not necessarily concern itself with consequences and it doesn’t claim that something is wrong just because too many people doing something could become destructive.

In order to know if an action is morally acceptable based on the categorical imperative we must ask, “Is the action rationally appropriate for everyone else in the same situation?” If the answer is, Yes, then the action is morally acceptable.

Applying the categorical imperative

Killing people – Killing people is wrong whenever it would be inappropriate for someone to kill us, and we need to consider the motivational reason for killing someone. It would be wrong for people to kill us out of greed just to take our money, so it is wrong for everyone to kill out of green to take other people’s money. However, it would be right for someone to kill us if necessary to defend themselves from attack out of self-respect, so it is right for everyone else as well.

Stealing – Stealing is wrong whenever it would be inappropriate for someone to steal from us, such as when they want something without paying for it. However, if stealing is necessary to survive because no one is willing to share food, then it might be necessary to steal out of self-respect.

Courage – Courage is rationally necessary for us to be willing to do the right thing when the right thing is done at personal risk to oneself. Emotions must be disregarded if they conflict with the demands of moral reason.

Education – Education is a rational requirement insofar as ignorance puts others at risk. If we can rationally demand others to become educated because of the dangers of ignorance, then we are also rationally required to become educated.

Promising – Keeping a promise is a rational requirement insofar as we can rationally demand that other people keep their promises (out of respect for our humanity). It might be that breaking a promise is necessary from time to time (to respect our humanity), but only when it would be wrong for anyone in that situation to break the promise. For example, a enraged friend who asks for his gun you are borrowing should be denied the weapon. It is perfectly respectful to deny someone out of their mind a weapon because they will appreciate it later once they regain their reason. (Kant actually had something different to say about this issue.)

Polluting – Although “everyone polluting by driving cars” causes harm, it isn’t clear that polluting is always wrong. “Everyone committing their life to medicine” would end up causing harm, but we don’t want to say that someone is doing something wrong for committing her life to medicine. However, it might be wrong to cause pollution whenever we know that it will cause harm. If we can rationally demand a business to pollute less, then others can make the same demand on us.

Homosexual behavior – If having sex for pleasure can be rational for heterosexuals, then having sex for pleasure can be rational for homosexuals. Doing something to attain pleasure is not irrational as long as there’s no overriding reason to find it problematic.

Atheism – Someone can rationally believe in atheism if it is found to be a sufficiently reasonable belief just like all other beliefs. If it is rational to believe in theism if it is found to be sufficiently reasonable, and it can be rational to believe in atheism for the same reason.


  1. The categorical imperative isn’t meant to be a complete decision procedure. – Kant discusses the categorical imperative in the context of moral concepts rather than moral reality. Even if the categorical imperative exists, it’s not always clear how to use it to decide what we ought to do in each unique situation we find ourselves in. Many people disagree about how the categorical imperative applies in each situation.
  2. We don’t know that categorical imperatives can help us. – Kant’s theory requires that people can be motivated by categorical imperatives, but it’s not clear that we can. The problem is that we don’t know how we are motivated in each situation and we often deceive ourselves. If we can’t be motivated by categorical imperatives, then we need to know how practical they are. Will they help us be moral in any important sense?

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Aristotelian virtue ethics has two parts. First, Aristotle argues that our personal happiness (or “flourishing”) is the ultimate goal that we should promote. Second, he argues that we should learn to have habits and behave in ways that lead to our personal happiness. (To have the right habits and feelings is to be virtuous.) We can learn what behaviors cause happiness through our past behavior and we can learn to be sensitive to particularities in each situation. For example, we know not to attack people in most situations, but it might be necessary to attack people in self defense.

In order to know if something is morally acceptable for an Aristotelian we must ask, “Is the action based on a sensitivity to the situation? And does the action lead to personal happiness?” If the answer to these questions is, Yes, then the action is morally virtuous.

Two clarifications still need to be made.

First, Aristotle’s idea of “happiness” is distinct from pleasure and means something more like “good life” or “flourishing. Additionally, some of our goals could be morally justified for Aristotle as long as they don’t conflict with happiness. Pleasure, knowledge, and virtue in particular seem like worthwhile goals in general, even if they don’t cause happiness.

Second, Aristotle argues that virtue is the greatest form of happiness. Happiness is the ultimate goal or “ultimate and most final end,” but there can be other worthy goals or “final ends.” (Final ends are goals that are worth pursuing and desiring for their own sake.) Aristotle thought that becoming the best kind of person by developing our uniquely human capacities was the best way to be happy. In particular, we’re rational and political animals, so we need to develop our ability to be rational and our ability to get along with others. Being a political animal is manifested in how we care for others in general and desire to help others.

Aristotle, like most virtue ethicists, is skeptical about using rules to make moral decisions. It seems impractical to use rules and philosophical arguments to make decisions every second of the day, even if morality is ultimately grounded in rules. Instead of having rules, we need to learn to have an intuitive understanding of morality and develop “virtuous” character traits that cause appropriate behavior without a great deal of thought usually being required. A person who has an intuitive understanding of morality and has virtuous character traits has practical wisdom (the ability to achieve worthy goals) but not necessarily theoretical wisdom (the ability to know about the world through generalization and deduction).

Although Aristotle doesn’t think ethics is best understood in terms of rules, he finds that wisdom tends to be based on avoiding extremes and finding a moderate middle ground—the golden mean. A person with cowardice is afraid, even when she should not be afraid. A person with foolhardiness isn’t afraid, even when she should be. A virtuous person with courage will only be afraid when it’s appropriate to be.

Some people define courage as an ability to act despite fear. Perhaps there are times when we should endanger ourselves, even when it’s appropriate to feel fear. For example, it could be courageous to jump in a burning building to save a child, even though it might make sense to feel fear insofar as our own well being would be threatened. Aristotle argues that even the ultimate self-sacrifice isn’t necessarily incompatible with our personal happiness, but that is a very controversial point. However, even if it can be appropriate to feel fear and act despite our fear, courage is merely more complex than Aristotle stated because the fact that we feel fear doesn’t guarantee inaction.

Aristotle’s idea of finding the golden mean is a general rule, and we can use it make many other general rules. Virtues like courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom could be taken to imply various general rules of avoiding certain extremes. We shouldn’t eat too much food, we should eat, desire, and enjoy food when it’s appropriate, but not when it’s inappropriate, and so on.

Applying Aristotle’s virtue ethics

Killing people – It might be necessary to kill people in self defense because living is necessary to be happy (and we must promote goods that are necessary for our personal happiness), but killing people makes us unhappy because we are social animals and we care about people. We don’t like horrible things to happen to others.

Stealing – Stealing is necessary if it is necessary for our personal happiness, but stealing makes us unhappy insofar as we care about people.

Courage – Courage is necessary for us to take the risks needed to live a fully happy life. Courage is our habit to be afraid when it is necessary for our happiness and not afraid when it is necessary for our happiness.

Education – Education is necessary for our personal happiness not only to know how to best be happy, but also because the most intellectual forms of contemplation are the most positive experiences we can have. A “contemplative life” is the happiest sort of life we can live.

Promising – Keeping a promise is virtuous as long as we consider the situation at hand and keep the promise because it is likely to promote our happiness. In other words, keeping the promise might not be personally beneficial because we can also keep a promise out of respect (care) for the other person. We can’t be happy while hurting others.

Polluting – Polluting is wrong insofar as it hurts people and we care about people.

Homosexual behavior – Homosexual behavior is wrong when done immoderately (in an overly-dangerous way likely to lead to unhappiness), but it is right when done in a way that leads to one’s personal fulfillment.

Atheism – Atheism is right as long as the belief is not under our control or as long as the belief does not lead to our unhappiness. Atheists often can’t control their atheism just like they can’t believe in many other things that they find implausible (ghosts, ESP, bigfoot, etc.).


  1. It’s not just our personal happiness that matters. – First, it’s not obvious that happiness is the ultimate good. Perhaps our existence is more important. Second, it’s not obvious that we should only be concerned with our personal good or happiness. It seems plausible to think that everyone’s happiness should be taken into consideration.
  2. Caring for others isn’t always good for our happiness. – Aristotle thinks we care for others by our very nature, so we should take other people’s good into consideration. However, we don’t always care about strangers and it’s not obvious that we should nurture our empathy for stranger given Aristotle’s assumption that our personal happiness is the ultimate good. It can be painful to care for others because their suffering can cause us suffering, and we might have some control over how much we care for others and strangers in particular.

Stoic Virtue Ethics

Simply put, Stoic virtue ethics is a theory that true moral beliefs and thoughts tend to lead to appropriate emotions and actions. However, Stoic virtue ethics traditionally has five parts:

  1. It argues that virtue is the ultimate value that overrides all other values.
  2. It defines virtue in terms of having true evaluative beliefs, emotions based on those evaluative beliefs, and behaving according to those evaluative beliefs. (Evaluative beliefs are value judgments, such as “pleasure is preferable.”)
  3. It states that true (or well reasoned) evaluative beliefs and thoughts tend to give us appropriate emotions and actions. Positive evaluative beliefs lead to positive emotional responses and negative evaluative beliefs lead to negative emotional responses.
  4. It states that we can know what is “preferable” from our instincts, which was given to us from God (Universal Reason). In particular, we have an impulse to care for others both emotionally and through action, which indicates the fact that “caring for others is preferable.”
  5. It states that everything that happens is for the best because it was preordained by God (Universal Reason) and therefore there is no reason for us to have a negative emotional response.

The first three of these parts sounds reasonable, but the last two require us to accept the existence of the Stoic divinity, which is something contemporary philosophers find to be much too ambitious. What we need is a way to determine is truths about preferences. I have two different suggestions for finding them without referring to a divinity:

  1. We can prefer whatever is necessary to be virtuous. No matter what we value, we can’t promote the value unless we value life, consciousness, and freedom from pain.
  2. We can experience some values for ourselves, such as the value of pleasure and disvalue of pain.

I discuss these solutions in much more detail in my Master’s Thesis, Two New Kinds of Stoicism. My theories are known as “Neo-Aristonianism” and “Common Sense Stoicism.”

In order to determine if something is morally acceptable for a Stoic philosopher we need to ask, “What emotions are being felt and what beliefs are held? If the emotions are caused by rational beliefs, then it is morally acceptable.

Applying Stoic virtue ethics

Killing people – It is wrong to kill people insofar as killing people is motivated by inappropriate beliefs and thoughts, such as, “This person committed atrocities and deserves to die.” Such a belief could motivate rage and we could lose rational control of ourselves. Instead, we should dispassionately consider why killing could be appropriate based on rational preferences. For example, it might be appropriate to kill in self defense if necessary for our preference for survival despite the fact that we ought to care about all people and prefer for good things to happen to others.

Stealing – It is wrong to steal insofar as it is motivated by inappropriate beliefs and thoughts, such as, “I need to have more money.” It might be necessary to steal to act on sufficiently important rational preference, such as a preference to survive when stealing is needed to survive; but pleasure would not be an important enough preference worth promoting to warrant theft. For one thing we care for others and don’t like others to suffer theft, and the expectation of pleasure would not override the importance of helping rather than harming others.

Courage – The ancient Stoics believed that courage was a lack of fear. We can be cautious and prefer to live well without fearing death or losing our external goods. The Stoics believed that the fear of death was based on an inappropriate belief that death is an evil (despite the fact that it is dis-preferable).

Education – First, education can help us attain good reasoning, which helps us form better (well justified and accurate) beliefs. Second, well justified and accurate beliefs help lead to appropriate emotions and actions.

Promising – Keeping a promise is virtuous as long as we do so based upon justified preferences. We should not break a promise just because we are compelled to do something more pleasurable because that would overemphasize the importance of pleasure and de-emphasize the value of the person that would be disrespected or harmed.

Polluting – To pollute to the extent of harming others is often based on inappropriate selfishness, greed, and an inappropriate lack of care for others. The virtuous person will care for others and won’t want to harm them for money. It might be worth driving a car in a society where cars help live a better life despite the fact that the pollution ends up harming some people.

Homosexual behavior – Homosexual behavior insofar as it is based on a preference for pleasure is appropriate as long as it is compatible with our care for others. An inappropriate love of pleasure could cause inappropriate lust that would cloud our judgment whether we are talking about homosexual or heterosexual sex.

Atheism – Atheism is appropriate insofar as the belief is probably true based on the information available to us. For the Stoic philosopher, true beliefs are of primary importance. We should have a belief because it is true, not because it is pleasurable or because of our emotions.


  1. Does Universal Reason exist? – The Stoics require us to believe in Universal Reason, but not everyone believes in universal reason and it’s not obvious that Universal Reason really exists.
  2. The Stoic virtue ethics can dull our emotions. – It’s not entirely clear what emotions are appropriate for the Stoics, but some people think they would dismiss many appropriate emotions that enrich our lives. Grief, passionate love, and anger were often said to be inappropriate emotions by the Stoics, but many people aren’t convinced that they are inappropriate after all.

Ross’s Intuitionism

W. D. Ross‘s theoretical understanding of morality explained in The Right and the Good was not meant to be comprehensive and determine right and wrong in every situation, but he doesn’t think it is ever going to be possible to do so. He denies that there is one single overarching moral principle or rule. Instead, he thinks we can make moral progress one step at a time by learning more and more about our moral duties, and do our best at balancing conflicting obligations and values.

Ross proposes that (a) we have self-evident prima facie moral duties, and (b) some things have intrinsic value.

Prima facie duties

We have various prima facie duties, such as the duty of non-injury (the duty to not harm people) and the duty of beneficence (to help people). These duties are “prima facie” because they can be overriden. Duties can determine what we ought to do “nothing else considered” but they don’t determine what we ought to do all things considered. Whatever we ought to do all things considered will override any other conflicting duties. For example, the promise to kill someone would give us a prima facie duty to fulfill our promise, but it would be overridden by our duty not to injure others.

Ross argues that we have (at the very least) the following duties:

  1. Duty of fidelity – The duty to keep our promises.
  2. Duty of reparation – The duty to try to pay for the harm we do to others.
  3. Duty of gratitude – The duty to return favors and services given to us by others.
  4. Duty of beneficence – The duty to maximize the good (things of intrinsic value).
  5. Duty of noninjury – The duty to refuse to harm others.

Is this list complete? That is not obvious. We might have a duty to respect people beyond these duties, and we might have a duty to justice, equality, and/or fairness to praise, blame, reward, punish, and distribute goods according to merit. For example, it’s unfair and disrespectful to blame innocent people because they don’t merit blame—they weren’t responsible for the immoral act.

Self-evidence and intuition

Ross thinks we can know moral facts through intuition. What does it mean for these duties to be self-evident? It means that we can contemplate the duties and know they are true based on that contemplation—but only if we contemplate them in the right way. Ross compares moral self-evidence to the self-evidence of mathematical axioms. A mathematical axiom that seems to fit the bill is the law of non-contradiction—We know that something can’t be true and false at the same time.

Intuition is the way contemplation can lead to knowledge of self-evidence. We often use the word “intuition” to refer to things we consider “common sense” or things we know that are difficult to prove using argumentation. Ross thinks we can know things without arguing for them, and he thinks that anything “truly intuitive” is self-evident. Keep in mind that intuition doesn’t necessarily let us know that something is self-evident immediately nor that intuitive contemplation is infallible. Consider that “123+321=444” could be self-evident. We might need to reach a certain maturity to know that this mathematical statement is true, and recognition of its truth is not necessarily immediate. It requires familiarity with addition and some people will need to spend more time contemplating than others.

Intrinsic value

Many utilitarians agree with Ross that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. Pleasure is “good just for existing” and is worthy of being a goal. The decision to eat candy to attain pleasure “makes sense” if it has intrinsic value, and we all seem to think that eating candy to attain pleasure is at least sometimes a good enough reason to justify such an act. We have prima facie duties not to harm people at least to the extent that it causes something intrinsically bad (pain) and to help people at least to the extent that it produces something intrinsically good, like pleasure.

What’s intrinsically good? Ross suggests that justice, knowledge, virtue, and “innocent pleasure” are all intrinsically good. However, minds, human life, and certain animal life could also have intrinsic value.

How do we use Ross’s intuitionism?

First, we need to determine our duties and what has intrinsic value. Second, we need to determine if any of these duties or values conflict in our current situation. If so, we need to find a way to decide which duty is overriding. For example, I can decide to go to the dentist and get a cavity removed and this will cause me pain, but it is likely that it will help me avoid even more pain in the future. Therefore, it seems clear that I ought to get the cavity removed. However, if I have two friends who both want to borrow my car at the same time and I won’t be needing it for a while, I might have to choose between them and decide which friend needs the car the most or randomly decide between them if that’s impossible.

Applying Ross’s Intuitionism

Killing people – It is generally wrong to kill people because it (a) causes people pain, (b) prevents them from feeling future pleasure, and (c) destroys their knowledge. If and when killing people isn’t wrong, we will need an overriding reason to do it. Perhaps it can be right to kill someone if it’s necessary to save many other lives.

Stealing – It is wrong to steal insofar as it causes people pain, but it might be morally preferable to steal than to die. Our duties to our children could also justify stealing when it’s the only option to feed them.

Courage – Virtue has intrinsic value, and courage is one specific kind of virtue. Courage is our ability to be motivated to do whatever it is we ought to do all things considered, even when we might risk our own well being in the process.

Education – Knowledge has intrinsic value, so we have a prima facie duty to educate people and seek education for ourselves.

Promising – Keeping a promise is already a prima facie duty, but it can be easily overriden when more important duties conflict with it. For example, you could promise to meet a friend for lunch, but your prima facie duty to help others might override your promise when a stranger is injured and you can help out.

Polluting – Polluting violates people’s prima facie duty to noninjury, but polluting might be necessary for people to attain certain goods they need to live. In that case pollution could be appropriate.

Homosexual behavior – Homosexual behavior can be justified because it can help people attain pleasure, but we also have a prima facie duty to try not to endanger our own life or the life of others, so it’s better to take certain precautions rather than have homosexual sex indiscriminately. This is no different than the morality of heterosexual sex.

Atheism – Being an atheist doesn’t violate any of our prima facie duties, so it’s not wrong. Telling one’s parents that one is an atheist could cause momentary pain, but one’s prima facie duties to be open and honest seems to override that concern in most situations. Additionally, being open and honest in public about one’s atheism could risk one’s own well being, but it could also help create acceptance for atheists in general and help other atheists as a consequence.


  1. It’s not clear that intuitions are reliable. – I’ve mentioned before that both intuition and self-evidence has been questioned by philosophers. Many people have differing intuitions and argue different beliefs qualify as being “self-evident.”
  2. It’s not clear how we resolve conflicts in duties. – Many philosophers don’t think we can have duties that conflict. For example, utilitarians think we should maximize the good and no moral consideration that conflicts with that principle will count for anything. If our duties can conflict, then it’s not obvious how we can decide which duty is overridden by the other.


Philosophers have found ethical theories useful because they help us decide why various actions are right and wrong. If it is generally wrong to punch someone then it is wrong to kick them for the same reason. We can then generalize that it is wrong to “harm” people to help understand why punching and kicking tend to both be wrong, which helps us decide whether or not various other actions and institutions are wrong, such as capital punishment, abortion, homosexuality, atheism, and so forth.

All of the ethical theories above have various strengths and it is possible that more than one of them is true (or at least accurate). Not all moral theories are necessarily incompatible. Imagine that utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, and Stoic virtue ethics are all true. In that case true evaluative beliefs (e.g. human life is preferable) would tell us which values to promote (e.g. human life), and we would be more likely to have an emotional response that would motivate us to actually promote the value. We would feel more satisfied about human life being promoted (e.g. through a cure to cancer) and dissatisfied about human life being destroyed (e.g. through war). Finally, what is right for one person would be right for everyone else in a sufficiently similar situation because the same reasons will justify the same actions.


1 Johnson, Robert. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 May 2011. (Section 5, The Formula of the Universal Law of Nature.) Last updated 2008.

Updated 5/17/11: I clarified Kant’s categorical imperative.

Updated 6/21/11: I clarified Aristotle’s virtue ethics, added W. D. Ross’s intuitionism, and added objections to each theory.

Updated 6/22/11: I added more clarifications to Aristotle’s virtue ethics by distinguishing his idea from pleasure, relating it to flourishing, and briefly discussing final ends.

Updated 9/22/11: First, I clarified why Aristotle thought being virtuous would make us happy. Second, I made some clarifications when applying Kantian ethics.

Updated 12/17/12: I clarified that Kant’s categorical imperative might not be able to motivate us.

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  1. […] theory, morality, reasoning, theoretical virtues Someone once suggested that we might not need moral theories to reason about morality. I found this to be an intriguing idea despite not fully knowing how it […]

    Pingback by Moral Reasoning Without Moral Theories « Ethical Realism — August 26, 2010 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  2. sometimes I feel that the Idea of morality is basically an intrisically inbuilt mechanism in the human person..following the categorical imperative of Kant in the critique of practical reason..and combining it with the metapysics of Plato..society plays a role only to the extent of helping us realise the mechanism within us and the rest is upto us!!

    Comment by sakala — September 8, 2011 @ 2:32 pm | Reply

  3. Morality is in person not in act

    Comment by Hafiz salanta — March 9, 2012 @ 5:02 am | Reply

    • Moral theories tell us when an action is right or wrong. That is an ordinary thing to talk about. If you want to know if we should legalize marijuana how do you think we should answer that question?

      Virtue ethicists tend to think that virtuous people are of primary importance rather than actions, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t talk about right and wrong acts.

      Comment by JW Gray — March 9, 2012 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  4. Reblogged this on hellomarchand.

    Comment by stephmarchand — March 24, 2014 @ 8:25 pm | Reply

  5. Reblogged this on Adventures with Anashe!.

    Comment by anashebarton — January 12, 2015 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  6. I have a question about utilitarianism and personal preference along with egoism. I am still exploring where I stand so this may sound a bit dumbed down, but if I know that buying a last product on the shelf will harm or cause suffering to the person who won’t be able to do so, am I still following utilitarianism? As I am causing suffering to all the people who attempt to buy this product after me. Is this too much of an absolute belief? I personally feel like utilitarianism considers actions only in the grandiose sense of suffering and pleasure and fails to consider actions in everyday life (modern perhaps?) Furthermore, if I want to cause suffering to someone to prevent suffering in another I personally prefer, is that more egoism?

    Comment by ynzn — August 4, 2016 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

  7. Additionally, can I believe in the abject good of society and a desire to reduce suffering, but only in some cases? Would it be wrong to cause suffering to someone who causes suffering with an understanding and purpose? Probably yes under preferential utilitarianism, since they harm the community in which they preside under. Can an egoist in a moral sense still want to follow actions that reduce greater suffering in most situations?

    Comment by ynzn — August 4, 2016 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

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