Philosophy of Ethics

Moral Law and Moral Progress

Opinions alter, manners change creedrise and fall but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity

The Origin of Ethics

First studied as a branch of philosophy beginning in 500-400 BC in Ancient Greece

‘Philo’ means to love, or like

‘Sophia’ means wisdom

 To study philosophy requires analysis – it means not accepting something at face value

The Application of Ethics

To gain knowledge about the correct action to take in a practical situation true or reasonable moral principles should be applied.

Deciding on which action to take means:

Accepting a moral principle


Considering the relevant facts


An ethical, practical solution to a problem or question

A true or reasonable moral principle can explain why we ought to do such and such in a practical situation.  Unless we have recourse to a unique principle, or at least a consistent set of principles, we have no explanation at all.

Torbjorn Tannsjo Understanding Ethics 2010


Ethical Theories

• Virtue Ethics: the basic question in ethics is not what we ought to do but what kind of person we ought to be
• Deontological Ethics: There are duties and prohibitions binding on us all irrespective of the consequences of following them
• The Ethics of Rghts: each moral subject has certain rights that no-one is entitled to violate.
• Egoism: We should always act to maximise our own benefit
• Utilitarianism: We should always act to maximise the universal benefit


Classic Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Bentham’s best known claim implies an act is morally right if that act causes ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’

An action is judged pragmatically by its effects. The results of an action determine its rightness

In the utilitarian view, it may be considered ethical to harm one person for the benefit of the larger group

John Stuart Mill 1806 – 1873

Mill was a valuational hedonist: pleasure and the absence of pain were the only intrinsic ends

Argued an act was right in the proportion in which it contributed to the general happiness

An act was wrong in the proportion in which it contributed to general unhappiness or pain

Mill acknowledged the same act can make some happy but cause others pain. Both sets of consequences should be valued simultaneously

This belief could be used to reason that journalism might hurt the subject, but further general welfare.

In utilitarian theory, no-one’s happiness is more valuable than another’s.

Ethical Egoism

In ethical egoism we have no duties to anyone but ourselves.

Every individual ought to maximise his or her own happiness.

If people’s goals are in conflict, each individual ought to maintain his or her own goal.

Does an artist or photographer have a right to work according to their own goals in the system of ethical egoism?


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