Moral Theoretical Terms: A Basic Overview

Common terminology in moral theory.

Background for this Article

This guide to moral theoretical terms was prepared for a course called "Philosophy of Peace" which I taught at Queen's University in 2001. This document can be used for introduction to ethics purposes by activists, or by instructors in courses, especially where only a basic treatment of ethics is called for. Goes with "Overview of Moral Theories".

Note: If a term appears in italics, it is explained in a separate entry in this overview.

Consequentialist Ethical Theories

This term refers to the set of theories that only consequences of actions matter in deciding right and wrong, not the intrinsic nature of actions. So theft, for example, is morally wrong on this view due to what results from it, not its intrinsic nature. Note, however, that nonconsequentialist may also consider the value of consequences, only for the latter thinkers, outcomes cannot be the sole guiding consideration. Kant, however is a rigorist, or held to certain duties no matter the consequences. See Kantianism.

The view that we ought to realize the greatest good for the greatest number. It considers only good consequences to be of value (different kinds of values are considered, such as welfare, desire-satisfaction, etc.), and essentially tries to maximize what is of value, and minimize what is of disvalue (i.e., what is bad).

Ethical Egoism
In general, the view that we always ought to act in, and possibly maximize, our self-interest. "Enlightened egoism" claims that it is in our self-interest to serve others, as well as ourselves (see Contractarianism, and Ethical Particularism).

Ethical Particularism
The theory that one may act in favour of one's own particular group, such as one's country, school, church, relgion, political party, etc., without equally respecting groups different than one's own. It is, in a sense, a corporate version of Ethical Egoism.

Nonconsequentialist Ethical Theories

This word literally means "the science of duty," and refers to that cluster of theories which emphasizes rights and duties, especially ones that hold in spite of some or all consequences of observing them. Contrast with Consequentialism.

The tradition stemming from Immanuel Kant's writings. Kant believed that all rational beings have a special dignity because they are rational, and that we always ought to treat such beings as ends in themselves, and not as a means only (we should respect all people, and not merely use them manipulatively). He also said that we ought to follow principles of action which we can universalize, or conceivably require everyone to follow, so that the agent who universalizes a rule does not end up contradicting himself or herself as to what one ought to do. Kant held we must never lie, cheat, steal, break a promise, kill others, commit suicide or adultery.

Prima Facie Duties
Prima facie means 'On the face of it,' or literally 'at first blush.' A prima facie duty appears to be a duty in general, but in specific circumstances, it might not turn out to be our duty after all (e.g., we cannot always keep our promises in emergencies due to a conflict of prima facie duties). W. D. Ross, a quasi-Kantian, holds a theory of prima facie duties, including beneficence, nonmaleficence, promise-keeping, generosity, reparation, gratitude, just treatment, and self-improvement. He advocates deciding conflicts of prima facie duties on the basis of "intuition." Ross, unlike Kant, does not advocate observing certain duties no matter the consequences, but if there is no conflict of duties, then prima facie duties do indeed become absolute duties. Some critics reduce Ross' view to a form of consequentialism, where prima facie duties are justified, and, if necessary, mediated, with reference to consequences.

This theory claims that we all abide by an unwritten social contract: an agreement to be "moral" because it is (a) in everyone's self-interest that everyone treat each other that way (Thomas Hobbes), or (b) an expression of natural human compassion (Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

Revised Natural Law Theory
A traditional Roman Catholic moral theory rooted in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Many "basic human goods" such as theoretical knowledge, religion, practical reasonableness, friendship, play, aesthetic appreciation, life and health are held to have intrinsic value. This absolutist doctrine states that we must never act against a human good, but tries to justify killing in self-defence-and other things that are apparent violations of the goods-using the Principle of Double-Effect.

Stances Rejecting Universal Morality

Ethical Relativism
The nihilistic theory that there are no universal standards of morality, and that moral terms such as good and bad, etc., are only intelligible in a given cultural context. For example, the statement that killing humans for sport could be right for one culture and wrong in our culture is an ethical relativist statement.

Ethical Subjectivism
The view that there is no objective morality, and all moral terms derive their meaning only in relation to specific individuals.

Moral Epistemology

True or false, real or unreal regardless of what anyone thinks, feels, or wants to the contrary. We are objective knowers insofar as we become aware of reality just as it is, in this sense. Contrast with Subjective. Objectivity in ethics typically refers to Cognitivism.

Pertaining to an individual's unique view, feelings, desires, or other mental contents. If a view is subjective, then it is held by an individual, and may, according to cognitivism,, be incorrect, or need not rightly refer to any objective reality. Contrast with Subjective with Objective. At the same time, other thinkers hold that moral judgments are neither correct nor incorrect, as in noncognitivism, or correct only relative to individual world views, as in Ethical Subjectivism.

The view that we can know or at certain things to be really right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust.

The school which claims that we cannot know anything to be really good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.

A fundamental premise or belief in an ethical system which is taken to be a self-evident insight. It is not justified with reference to any other belief. Some philosophers contend that intuitions are necessary, otherwise one would end up with an infinite regression of beliefs justifying beliefs justifying beliefs...and so on, without any first belief that is independently justified (and hence, perhaps, no justification at all?). But which of philosophers' conflicting "intuitions" are we to consider "self-evidently correct"?

Reflective Equilibrium
There are various versions of this theory, which essentially means coming to a final view not immediately, by intuition, but by balancing a consideration of particular judgments (e.g., that an action is wrong) with general principles (e.g., that justice is important). Norman Daniels also adds 'background beliefs,' such as scientific or sociological beliefs, as additional factors to consider.

Skepticism in Ethics
Generally the same as Noncognitivism. Technically, however, one may be skeptical about whether one can have knowledge of moral truths or not.

Moral Metaphysics

Moral Realism
The view that moral realities exist objectively or independently of moral agents.

Ethical Nihilism
The view that nothing is really right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust.

Intrinsic Value
Value of a thing in itself, as opposed to instrumental (or, broadly, extrinsic) value, in which a thing is valuable only if it results in something else of value (e.g., a tool for building is typically of instrumental value). Friendship is often said to be intrinsically valuable, since it is often considered a good thing in and of itself, regardless of whether it leads to other benefits such as getting a connection for a securing job, etc.

Rights are construed, for the purposes of this overview, after the thinking of Joel Feinberg, who states: "To have a right is to have a claim to something and against someone, the recognition of which is called for by legal rules or, in the case of moral rights, by the principles of an enlightened conscience." Rights are often used to protect individuals against being exploited for a greater overall good, as certain forms of utilitarianism might seek to justify.

Moral Agent
One who is capable of acting using moral concepts such as right and wrong. S. F. Sapontzis claims one can be a moral agent without such concepts if one acts virtuously, say, or out of concern for others.

Moral Patient
One who is capable of being benefited or harmed. Some animal rightists claim that any such being should have moral standing, and be considered with respect in all ethical decision-making. It is often said that one need not be a moral agent (or, for that matter, rational, language-using, etc.) in order to count as a moral patient, or to have moral standing.

Moral Standing
Ascribed to a being who is counted or considered in a moral theory as being entitled to basic practical respect, possibly rights, being a beneficiary of utilitarianism, or an object of care.

The thesis that states of the universe, at any given point in time, could only occur one possible way, since they are absolutely predetermined by prior causes (physics, genetics, metabolism, psychology, reasoning, environmental influences, social conditioning, and so forth). This is said to apply as surely to human beings as it would to billiard balls. Some philosophers believe that determinism is incompatible with free will, for if we could never actually choose otherwise than we actually do, then how could we be responsible for our actions? Could not our entire lives, at least in principle, be predicted billions of years in advance by any suitably omniscient being? Would we be an inevitable, impersonal process, rather than an agent with specific choices, as we may seem to ourselves? Other philosophers claim that we are still free and responsible, so long as we act without undue constraint, or voluntarily, or as an expression of our characters. But if our volitions are, in turn, determined, then are our actions really "our own"? Other thinkers deny determinism altogether and believe that human beings, at least, can freely choose among competing possible courses of action, and are responsible for their choices. Still others deny determinism as antiquated and mechanistic, but hold that random indeterminism (as in the new physics) would also erase moral responsibility of agents, and we would manifest as a series of out-of-control flukes.

Miscellaneous Moral Theoretical Terms

Principle of Double-Effect
The Aquinian medieval doctrine that an action may have two effects: an intended one and an unintended one. We are responsible for what we intend, but the unintended result is just an accidental by-product of our action. For instance, in lethal self-defense, we aim to preserve our life, not kill the attacker. See also Revised Natural Law Theory.

A term coined in 1970 by Richard Ryder, meaning arbitrary discrimination on the basis of species membership; typically refers to human bigotry against nonhumans. Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation, defined it as arbitrarily favouring the interests of one species over those of another. Speciesism has been called analogous to racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and ableism in that it involves discrimination on the basis of characteristics that are not considered to be morally relevant.