Why think about Ethics?

Why think about ethics? Thinking about ethics can contribute to a better life. This publication is devoted to discussing complicated phenomena to promote dialogue and discussion about these subjects and to grow our collective understanding of who we are, who we would like to be and how we would like to get there.

But why do we think about ethics specifically, then? This entry is by no means to be exhaustive; we could probably write a book about why it is important to think about ethics. These are just a few things that come to my mind.

First, many people are more prone to feeling about morality than employing reflective thought about morality, which can have harmful personal and social consequences. One might feel strongly that they are justified in responding in anger to what someone has said or done, but they may be wrong about this. Acting out of raw unfiltered emotion can damage a relationship unintendedly, perhaps in deep ways. Alternatively, they might feel that something is wrong, but this might not be grounded in the truth. Please do not misunderstand us, feelings are important and sometimes contain value judgements, but they are no substitute for nuance and rational reflection about our (proposed) actions. We depend far too much on our gut and on our hearts rather than on our minds when dealing with ethics.

Second, some of life’s most exciting and essential questions are moral questions – the position of women, how we act towards those belonging to different cultures or religions, the duties of parents, the duties of children, the definition of happiness, the nature of virtue, just to name a few. If we want to live fulfilled lives as individuals and as communities, we ought to reflect on such issues in order to apply the fruit of these reflections to our lives to add meaning.

Third, while we may not reach perfect harmony about what is right and what is wrong, we can still make progress and understand each other just a little bit better. A student of ethics can progress in understanding important issues rather than be misled by opaque arguments that fall apart on closer inspection. Knowing how to judge arguments is valuable and usually worth the effort it takes. This kind of progress is crucially important because it increases our inventory of true beliefs, which is intrinsically valuable while externally useful. After all, we have considered these true beliefs in-depth, which helps us accomplish things of true value in life because we are more aware of what we actually value.

This section seeks to guide its readers in these reflections about true value by providing information about several ethical schools of thought and some more proponent thinkers. However, before we do so, it is essential to consider the following: what is ethics? According to the Oxford dictionary, ethics (plural) are moral principles that control or influence a person’s behaviour. Etymologically speaking, the word ethics comes from the Ancient Greek word ēthikós, meaning “relating to one’s character” which itself comes from the root word êthos, meaning “character, moral nature”. In this publication, ethics refers to a very broad inquiry: “how should one live”.

We think any of us stand to gain a great deal from learning more about this subject. After all, does any one of us truly know what they are actually doing? 


Virtue ethics 

The ancient Greeks extensively debated matters of ethics and how to live well-lived lives. This section will focus on Aristotle (384-322 BC), an Ancient Greek philosopher and polymath who wrote about an extensive range of subjects, including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, drama, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics, meteorology, geology, and government. He founded a school in Athens, where he began the wider Aristotelian method comprising deductive logic and an inductive analytic method which eventually laid the groundwork for the development of modern science. This section will explore Aristotle's views on ethics and what we can learn from them today.

Introduction to virtue ethics

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all considered virtues central to a well-lived life. Plato and Aristotle regarded the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional and social skills. Plato asserted that to be utterly virtuous; one must acquire an understanding of what goodness is through training in the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy. Aristotle rejected this line of thought and argued that what we need to live well, is a proper appreciation of how such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honour and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.

The principal idea with which Aristotle begins is that there are differences of opinion about what is best for human beings and that we must resolve this disagreement to profit from ethical inquiry. He insists that ethics is not a theoretical discipline: we are asking what the good for human beings is not simply because we want to know but because we will be better able to achieve our good if we develop a fuller understanding of what it is to flourish. In raising this question—what is good?—Aristotle is not looking for a list of items that are good. He assumes that such a list can be compiled rather easily; most would agree, for example, that it is good to have friends, experience pleasure, be healthy, be honoured, and have such virtues as courage, at least to some degree. The problematic and controversial question arises when we ask whether certain of these goods are more desirable than others. Aristotle's search for the good is a search for the highest good, and he assumes that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three characteristics

  • it is desirable for itself
  • it is not desirable for the sake of some other good
  • and all other goods are desirable for its sake.


Aristotle thought that everyone would agree that the terms "eudaimonia" ("happiness") and "eu zên" ("living well") designate such a worthwhile goal. The Greek term "eudaimon" is composed of two parts: "eu" means "well", and "daimon" means "divinity" or "spirit". To be eudaimon is to live in a way well-favoured by a god. However, Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology in his ethical writings, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards "eudaimon" as a mere substitute for eu zên ("living well"). These terms play an evaluative role and are not simply descriptions of someone's state of mind.

No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists of. However, unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. To resolve this issue, Aristotle asks what the ergon ("function", "task", "work") of a human being is, and argues that it consists in the activity of the rational part of the soul following virtue. One crucial component of this argument is expressed in the distinctions in his psychological and biological works. The soul is analysed into a connected series of capacities: the nutritive soul is responsible for growth and reproduction, the locomotive soul for motion, the perceptive soul for perception, and so on. The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists of. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence; therefore, living well consists of activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle's conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense, uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker has said what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time, his view is not too distant from a common idea. He points out that one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue. Aristotle's theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says not that happiness is a virtue but that it is a virtuous activity. Living well means doing something, not just being in a particular state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualise the virtues of the rational part of the soul.

At the same time, Aristotle makes it clear that to be happy, one must possess other goods, such as friends, wealth, and power. Moreover, one's happiness is endangered if one severely lacks certain advantages—for example, one is extremely physically unattractive or has lost children or good friends through death. But why so? If one's ultimate end should simply be virtuous activity, then why should it make any difference to one's happiness whether one has or lacks these other types of good? Aristotle's reply is that one's virtuous activity will be, to some extent, diminished or defective, if one lacks an adequate supply of other goods. Someone who is friendless, childless, powerless, weak, and ugly will simply not be able to find many opportunities for virtuous activity over a long period of time, and what little he can accomplish will not be of great merit. To some extent, living well requires good fortune; happenstance can rob even the most excellent human beings of happiness. Nonetheless, Aristotle insists the highest good, virtuous activity is not something that comes to us by chance. Although we must be fortunate enough to have parents and fellow citizens who help us become virtuous, we ourselves share much of the responsibility for acquiring and exercising the virtues.


All free males are born with the potential to become ethically virtuous and practically wise. In Aristotle’s time, women were viewed as “defective males”, hence he typically wrote from the male perspective. Thankfully, we know better now, and would broaden this statement to include women and other identities. But to become virtuous and wise, humans must go through two stages: during their childhood, they must develop the proper habits; and then, when their reason is fully developed, they must acquire practical wisdom. This does not mean that we first fully acquire the ethical virtues and then, at a later stage, add on practical wisdom. Ethical virtue is fully developed only when it is combined with practical wisdom. A low-grade form of ethical virtue emerges in us during childhood as we are repeatedly placed in situations that call for appropriate actions and emotions, but as we rely less on others and become capable of doing more of our own thinking, we learn to develop a larger picture of human life, our deliberative skills improve, and our emotional responses are perfected. Like anyone who has developed a skill in performing a complex and difficult activity, the virtuous person takes pleasure in exercising his intellectual skills. Furthermore, when he has decided what to do, he does not have to contend with internal pressures to act otherwise. He does not long to do something that he regards as shameful; and he is not greatly distressed at having to give up a pleasure that he realises he should forego.


But some of us find virtuous activity difficult due to internal challenges. Aristotle places those who suffer from such internal disorders into one of three categories: (A) Some agents, having reached a decision about what to do on a particular occasion, experience some counter-pressure brought on by an appetite for pleasure or anger or some other emotion, and this countervailing influence is not completely under the control of reason. (1) Within this category, some are typically better able to resist these counter-rational pressures than the average person. Such people are not virtuous, although they generally do what a virtuous person does. Aristotle calls them "continent”. But (2) others are less successful than the average person in resisting these counter-pressures. They are “incontinent”. In addition, (B) there is a type of agent who refuses even to try to do what an ethically virtuous agent would do because he has become convinced that justice, temperance, generosity and the like are of little or no value. Such people, Aristotle calls evil. He assumes that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, he portrays them as deeply divided because their—their desire for more and more—leaves them dissatisfied and full of self-hatred.

It should be noted that all three of these deficiencies—continence, incontinence, and vice—involve some lack of internal harmony. The evil person may wholeheartedly endorse some evil plan of action at a particular moment, but over the course of time, Aristotle supposes, they will regret their decision because whatever they does will prove inadequate for the achievement of their goals. Aristotle assumes that when someone systematically makes bad decisions about how to live their life, their failures are caused by psychological forces that are less than fully rational. Their desires for pleasure, power or some other external goal have become so strong that they make him care too little or not at all about acting ethically. To keep such destructive inner forces at bay, we need to develop the proper habits and emotional responses when we are children and to reflect intelligently on our aims when we are adults. But some vulnerability to these disruptive forces is present even in more-or-less virtuous people; that is why even a good political community needs laws and the threat of punishment. Clear thinking about the best goals of human life and the proper way to put them into practice is a rare achievement because the human psyche is not a hospitable environment for the development of these insights.

Golden mean

Furthermore, every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate (a "golden mean" as it is popularly known) between two other states, one involving excess and the other deficiency. In this respect, Aristotle says that virtues are no different from technical skills: every skilled worker knows how to avoid excess and deficiency and is in a condition intermediate between two extremes. The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to the degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle holds that this same topography applies to every ethical virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency. He is careful to add, however, that the mean is to be determined in a way that considers the individual's particular circumstances. The arithmetic mean between 10 and 2 is 6, and this is so invariably, whatever is being counted. But the intermediate point that an expert chooses in any of the crafts will vary from one situation to another. There is no universal rule, for example, about how much food an athlete should eat, and it would be absurd to infer from the fact that 10 lbs. is too much and 2 lbs. too little for me that I should eat 6 lbs. Finding the mean in any given situation is not a mechanical or thoughtless procedure, but requires a full and detailed acquaintance with the circumstances.

According to Aristotle, the study of the human good has therefore led to two conclusions: The best life is not to be found in the practice of politics; it is to be found in the practice of philosophy. But the well-being of whole communities depends on the willingness of some to lead a second-best life—a life devoted to the study and practice of the art of politics and to the expression of those qualities of thought and passion that exhibit our rational self-mastery. This school of thought has pros and cons, as it reminds us of the importance of aligning our actions with our morality (we are what we repeatedly do). However, the school of thought is also quite vague at times, and it can breed moral narcissism, as it can enable us to focus on our own ethical character over anything else. The next school of thought that will be discussed, “Utilitarianism”, will provide an example of philosophical standpoints that demand the diametric opposite.

Learning from virtue ethics

As mentioned above, virtue ethics defines good actions as those that embody virtuous character traits, like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. Virtue is a disposition to act, think and feel certain ways, and bad actions display the opposite and are informed by vices such as cowardice, treachery, and ignorance.

However, it is one thing to know what is right – it is another to actually do it. How did Aristotle advise us to live our virtues? By acting as though we already have them.

Aristotle explained that both virtues and vices are acquired by repetition. If we routinely overindulge a sweet tooth, we develop a vice, – gluttony. If we repeatedly allow others to serve themselves dinner before us, we develop a virtue – selflessness. Virtue ethics suggests treating our character as a lifelong project that can truly change who we are. The goal is not to form virtues that mean we act ethically without thinking but to form virtues that help us see the world clearly and make better judgments. A quote most of the internet attributes to Aristotle succinctly reads: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". Although he did not actually say this, it's a good indication of what virtue ethics stands for.

There are two practical principles that virtue ethics encourages us to use in ethical dilemmas. The first would be to use the Golden Mean. When we are trying to work out the virtuous thing to do in a particular situation, look to what lies in the middle between two extreme forms of behaviourThe second is to use our imagination. What would we do if we were an already virtuous person? By imagining the kind of person we would like to be and how we would want to respond, we can close the gap between our aspirational identity and who we are at the moment.

Some argue that virtue ethics is overly vague in guiding actions. They say its principles are not specific enough to help us overcome complex ethical conundrums. "Be virtuous" is not very practical. Others have expressed concern that not everybody agrees on virtues or vices. For example, stoicism or sexual openness can be a virtue to some and a vice to others. Finally, some people think virtue ethics breeds 'moral narcissism', where we are so obsessed with our own ethical character that we value it above anyone or anything else.


This section will provide more information on the second school of ethical thought that this publication will discuss, which will be utilitarianism, a school of thought that was initially conceived during the European age of Enlightenment. The section will provide an introduction to utilitarianism, an overview of how it works in practice, how to act on utilitarianism, introduce the works of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, and finishing arguments for and against utilitarianism we can use in our daily lives.

Introduction to utilitarianism

The core idea of utilitarianism is that we ought to act to improve the well-being of everyone by as much as possible .A more precise definition of utilitarianism is as follows: Utilitarianism is the view that one ought always to promote the sum total of well-being.

Sometimes utilitarian philosophers talk about “welfare” or “utility” rather than “well-being”, but these words are typically used to mean the same thing.

Utilitarianism is most commonly applied to evaluate the rightness of actions, but the theory can also evaluate other things, like rules, policies, motives, virtues, and social institutions. It is perhaps unfortunate that the clinical-sounding term “utilitarianism” caught on as a name, especially since in common speech the word “utilitarian” is easily confused with joyless functionality or even outright selfishness.

All ethical theories belonging to the utilitarian family share four defining elements: (i) consequentialism, (ii) welfarism, (iii) impartiality, and (iv) aggregationism.

  • Consequentialism is the view that one ought always to promote good outcomes.
  • Welfarism is the view that only the welfare (also called well-being) of individuals determines the value of an outcome.
  • Impartiality is the view that the identity of individuals is irrelevant to the value of an outcome. Utilitarians hold, more specifically, that equal weight must be given to the interests of all individuals.
  • Aggregationism is the view that the value of the world is the sum of the values of its parts, where these parts are local phenomena such as experiences, lives, or societies.

Utilitarianism’s rivals are theories that deny one or more of the above four elements. For example, they might hold that actions can be inherently right or wrong regardless of their consequences , or that some outcomes are good even if they do not increase the welfare of any individual, or that morality allows us to be partial towards our friends and families.

The early utilitarians— Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart mill, and Henry Sidgwick, were classical utilitarians. Classical utilitarianism is distinct from other utilitarian theories in that it accepts these two additional elements: First, it accepts hedonism.

  •       Hedonism is the view that well-being consists in, and only in, the balance of positive over negative conscious experiences. For readability, we will call positive conscious experiences happiness and negative conscious experiences suffering.

Second, classical utilitarianism accepts the total view of population ethics. The total view of population ethics regards one outcome as better than another if and only if it contains greater total well-being. Classical utilitarianism can be defined as follows: Classical utilitarianism is the view that one ought always to promote the sum total of happiness over suffering.

Utilitarianism and Practical Ethics

Utilitarianism is a demanding ethical theory that may require us to change how we act substantially. Utilitarianism says that we should make helping others a very significant part of our lives. In helping others, we should try to use our resources to do the most good, impartially considered, that we can.

According to utilitarianism, we should extend our moral concern to all sentient beings, meaning every individual capable of experiencing positive or negative conscious states. On this basis, a priority for utilitarians may be to help society to continue to widen its moral circle of concern. For instance, we may want to persuade people they should help not just those in their own country but also people on the other side of the world; not just those of their own species but all sentient creatures, and not just people currently alive but any people whose lives they can affect.

Utilitarianism generally endorses common-sense prohibitions despite having a radically different approach to ethics than common-sense morality. For practical purposes, a utilitarian's best course of action is to try to do as much good as possible whilst still acting in accordance with common-sense moral virtues like integrity, trustworthiness, law-abidingness, and fairness.

Acting on Utilitarianism

There are many problems in the world today, some of which are extremely large in scale. Unfortunately, our resources are scarce, so as individuals and even as a global society we cannot solve all the world’s problems at once. This means we must decide how to prioritise the resources we have. Not all ways of helping others are equally effective. By the lights of utilitarianism, we should choose carefully which moral problems to work on and by what means, based on where we can do the most good. This involves taking seriously the question of how we can best use our time and money to help others. Once again, utilitarianism urges us to consider the well-being of all individuals regardless of what species they belong to, what country they live in, and at what point in time they exist. With this in mind, a few moral problems appear especially pressing:

Global Health and Development: Those in affluent countries are typically one hundred times richer than the poorest seven hundred million people in the world. We can radically improve the lives of the extreme poor, such as by providing basic medical care, at very little cost.

Existential Risks: There will be vast numbers of people in the future, and their lives could be very good. Yet technological progress brings risks, such as from climate change, nuclear war, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, that could endanger humanity’s future. But if we can successfully navigate these risks, we can ensure a flourishing world for trillions of people yet to come.

There are three key means of helping those affected by the above moral concerns: donating money to effective charities or NGOs, working in an impactful career, and convincing other people to do the same. For example, donations to the most effective global health charities are expected to save a human life for under $5000 (5 lakh BDT); this money may go even further when donated to address factory farming or existential risks. Choosing which career to pursue may be even more important again since some careers allow us to do far more good than others. 

Arguments for Utilitarianism

No one can prove that utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. Nor can anyone prove it for any of utilitarianism’s rivals. What we can do is to consider the arguments for and against all plausible ethical theories, ultimately coming to an all-things-considered judgement about which is most compelling.

What Fundamentally Matters

Moral theories specify what fundamentally matters, and utilitarianism offers a particularly compelling answer to this question. Almost anyone would agree with utilitarianism that suffering is bad, and happiness is good. What could be more obvious? If anything matters morally, human well-being surely does. Moreover, it would be arbitrary to limit moral concern to our own species, so we should instead conclude that well-being generally is what matters. That is, we ought to want the lives of sentient beings to go as well as possible (whether that ultimately comes down to maximising happiness, desire satisfactions or other welfare goods) . Common-sense moral rules, such as those prohibiting theft and promise-breaking, can plausibly be given a utilitarian basis, as such rules generally promote overall well-being. If they did not, it would be hard to see what reason we would have to still want people to follow them. Following harmful moral rules would seem like a kind of “rule worship”, and not truly ethical.

The Veil of Ignorance

The Nobel Prize-winning economist John Harsanyi presents the second argument for utilitarianism. Harsanyi studied situations where individuals had to make decisions while facing uncertainty. In his work he suggested that morality is about taking the perspective of society as a whole, that the right moral view is the one which you would have chosen if you did not know who you were going to be in society, and that utilitarianism is that view.

More precisely, imagine you had to decide how to structure society from behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil of ignorance, you know all the facts about each person’s circumstances in society—their income, how happy they are, how they are affected by social policies, and their preferences and likes. However, you do not know which of these people you are. You only know that you have an equal chance of being any of these people. Imagine, now, that you are trying to act in a rational and self-interested way—you are just trying to do whatever is best for yourself. How would you structure society?

Harsanyi proved that in this situation you will structure society to promote the sum total of everyone’s well-being. In other words, if you are rational and acting in self-interest and were put behind the veil of ignorance, you would come to use some version of utilitarianism as the principle to decide about the structure and rules of society.

Avoiding Status Quo Bias

Opposition to utilitarian trade-offs—benefiting some at a lesser cost to others—amounts to a kind of status quo bias, prioritising the preservation of privilege over promoting well-being more generally.

Such conservatism might stem from the Just World fallacy: the mistake of assuming that the status quo is just, and that people naturally get what they deserve. Of course, reality offers no such guarantees of justice. What circumstances one is born into depends on sheer luck, including one’s endowment of physical and cognitive abilities which may pave the way for future success or failure. Thus, even later in life we never fully wrest back control from the whims of fortune and, consequently, some people are vastly better off than others despite being no more deserving. In such cases, why should we not be willing to benefit one person at a lesser cost to privileged others? They have no special entitlement to the extra well-being that fortune has granted them.

It is good for people to be well-off, and we certainly would not want to unnecessarily harm anyone. However, suppose we can increase overall well-being by benefiting one person at the lesser cost to another. In that case, we should not refrain from doing so merely due to a prejudice in favour of the existing distribution.

It is easy to see why traditional elites would want to promote a “morality” which favours their entrenched interests. It is opaque why others should go along with such a distorted view of what (and who) matters.

Track Record

While not constituting an argument per se, it is worth noting that utilitarian moral reasoning has a strong track record of contributing to humanity’s collective moral progress. The classical utilitarians of the 18th and 19th centuries had social and political attitudes that were far ahead of their time: As a progressive social reformer, Jeremy Bentham defended issues such as the separation of church and state; the abolition of slavery and of capital punishment; legal regulations to protect criminals and non-human animals from cruel treatment ; and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Indeed, his manuscripts on homosexuality were so liberal that his editor hid them from the public after Bentham’s death. They were only published two centuries later.

John Stuart Mill defended the provision of social welfare for the poor and of freedom of speech. He was the second MP in the UK Parliament to call for women’s suffrage and advocated for gender equality more generally. In his essay “The Subjection of Women”, Mill argued that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes — the legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

In a similar vein, Henry Sidgwick advocated for women’s education and the freedom of education from religious doctrines. Modern utilitarians like Peter Singer are outspoken advocates against pressing moral problems such as extreme poverty.

While the early proponents of utilitarianism were still far from getting everything right, their utilitarian reasoning led them to escape many of the moral prejudices of their time and reach more enlightened moral and political positions. Those of us living today are, of course, no less fallible than our forebears. To help overcome our own biases, our moral and political views may similarly benefit from being checked against utilitarian principles.

Objections to Utilitarianism

Critics have raised many objections to utilitarianism, to which advocates of the theory have responded in turn. Often, critics allege that utilitarianism runs counter to our common-sense moral intuitions. For example, according to utilitarianism, we should give the same moral consideration to distant strangers as to our friends and family, and many would regard this as highly counterintuitive.

Utilitarian philosophers often respond to such concerns by arguing that many of our moral intuitions, including our counter-utilitarian intuitions, are significantly misguided. They are, therefore, happy to considerably revise those moral intuitions in light of theoretical considerations. They hold that while intuitions about particular cases should be given some weight in our moral deliberations⁠—so, all else being equal, a moral theory is more plausible if it fits better with our intuitions⁠—they are only one component of the assessment of a moral theory.

The Demandingness Objection

Critics argue that utilitarianism is too demanding because it requires us to always act such as to bring about the best outcome. The theory leaves no room for permissible actions yet do not bring about the best consequences; this is why some critics claim that utilitarianism is morality only for saints. Very few people, including utilitarian philosophers, live their life in perfect accordance with utilitarianism. For instance, consider that the money a person spends on dining out could pay for several bednets, each protecting two children in a low-income country from malaria for about two years.

From a utilitarian perspective, the benefit to the person from dining out is much smaller than the benefit to the children from not having malaria, so it would seem the person has acted wrongly in choosing to have a meal out. Analogous reasoning applies to how we use our time: the hours someone spends on social media should apparently be spent volunteering for a charity or working harder at one’s job to earn more money to donate. 

To many people, these extreme obligations of utilitarianism seem absurd at first glance. According to common-sense morality, we are permitted to spend most of our income on ourselves, our loved ones, and on our personal projects. Insofar as charity goes, common-sense morality holds that while it is good and praiseworthy to donate, it is not obligatory.

The Rights Objection

According to common-sense morality and many non-utilitarian theories, there are certain moral constraints you should never, or rarely, violate. These constraints are expressed in moral rules like “do not lie!” and “do not kill!”. These rules are intuitively very plausible. This presents a problem for utilitarianism. This is because utilitarianism not only specifies which outcomes are best—those having the highest overall level of well-being—but also says that it would be wrong to fail to realise these outcomes.

Sometimes, realising the best outcome may require violating moral constraints against harming others— violating their rights. For example, suppose five people were waiting for an organ transplant and that you could save their lives if you killed one other person to harvest their organs. Intuitively, we would regard this as wrong, but utilitarianism would consider it morally required. In general, since there is no reason to expect common-sense moral rules to always coincide with the best ways to act according to utilitarianism, we should think it likely for them to conflict sometimes. 

Learning from Utilitarianism

Utilitarian ethics has an intellectual tradition spanning centuries, during which it has been cause for many heated debates among moral philosophers. On the one hand, critics of utilitarianism accuse the theory of disregarding moral rights and for being overly demanding, among other objections. On the other hand, advocates of utilitarianism have argued that the theory has attractive theoretical virtues such as avoiding status quo bias and offering a compelling account of what fundamentally matters. In addition, they make the case that if we had to decide about the structure of society behind a veil of ignorance, it would be rational for everyone to make their choices based on utilitarian principles.

The next school of thought discussed will be deontology, which as a theory, reasons from intentions, rather than from consequences, utilitarianism’s ultimate foil.


The third school of ethical thought discussed will be deontology. Deontology sought to rationalise moral absolutism, providing humanity with a structural blueprint for how to behave and how to do good. 

Introduction to deontology

The word deontology derives from the Greek words for duty (deon) and science (or study) of (logos). In contemporary moral philosophy, deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do (deontic theories), in contrast to those that guide and assess what kind of person we are and should be (aretaic [virtue] theories). And within the domain of moral theories that assess our choices, deontologists—those who subscribe to deontological theories of morality—stand in opposition to consequentialists. As mentioned earlier, consequentialists argue that one ought to promote good outcomes, and the theory is criticised for it being over-allowing, among other things.

Deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different from the states of affairs those choices bring about. The most familiar forms of deontology, and the forms presenting the greatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects. No matter how morally good their consequences are, some choices are forbidden. On such familiar deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot make certain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of those exact kinds of wrongful choices will be minimised (because other agents will be prevented from engaging in similar wrongful choices). For such deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent; such norm-keepings are not to be maximised by each agent. In this sense, for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even a Good consisting of acts in accordance with the Right).

Certain actions can be right even though they do not maximise good consequences, for the rightness of such actions consists in their instantiating certain norms (here, of permission and not of obligation). Such actions are permitted, not just in the weak sense that there is no obligation not to do them, but also in the strong sense that one is permitted to do them even though they are productive of less good consequences than their alternatives. Such strongly permitted actions include actions one is obligated to do, but (notably) also included are actions one is not obligated to do. This last feature of such actions warrants their separate mention for deontologists.

Agent-centred Deontological Theories

The most traditional mode of operationalising deontological theories is to divide them between agent-centred versus victim-centred (or "patient-centred") theories. Consider first agent-centred deontological theories. According to agent-centred theories, we each have both permissions and obligations that give us agent-relative reasons for action. An agent-relative reason is an objective reason, just as an agent-neutral reason. An agent-relative reason is so-called because it is a reason relative to the agent whose reason it is; it need not (although it may) constitute a reason for anyone else. Thus, an agent-relative obligation is an obligation for a particular agent to take or refrain from taking some action. Because it is agent-relative, the obligation does not necessarily give anyone else a reason to support that action. Each parent, for example, is commonly thought to have such special obligations to his/her child, obligations not shared by anyone else. Likewise, agent-relative permission is permission for some agent to do some act even though others may not be permitted to aid that agent in doing his permitted action. Each parent, to revert to the same example, is commonly thought to be permitted (at the least) to save his own child even at the cost of not saving two other children to whom he has no special relation. Agent-centred theories and the agent-relative reasons on which they are based not only enjoin each of us to do or not to do certain things; they also instruct me to treat my friends, my family, my promises in specific ways because they are mine, even if by neglecting them I could do more for others' friends, families, and promises.

The idea of agency is at the heart of agent-centred theories (with their agent-relative reasons). The moral plausibility of agent-centred theories is rooted here. The idea is that morality is intensely personal, in the sense that we are each enjoined to keep our own moral house in order. Our categorical obligations are not to focus on how our actions cause or enable other agents to do evil; the focus of our categorical obligations is to keep our own agency free of moral taint.

One specific kind of agent-centred deontology focuses on actions, not mental states. Such a view can concede that all human actions must originate with some mental state, often styled a volition or a willing; such a view can even concede that volitions are an intention of a certain kind Indeed, such source of human actions in willing is what plausibly connects actions to the agency that is of moral concern on the agent-centred version of deontology. However, to will the movement of a finger on a trigger is distinct from an intention to kill a person by that finger movement. The act view of agency is thus distinct from the intentions' view of agency.

On this view, our agent-relative obligations and permissions have certain kinds of actions as their content: we are obligated not to kill innocents, for example. Of course, the killing of an innocent requires the death of such an innocent, but there is no agency involved in mere events such as deaths. Needed for there to be killing are two other items. One we remarked on before: the action of the putative agent must have its source in a willing. However, the other maker of agency here is more interesting for present purposes: the willing must cause the death of the innocent for an act to be a killing of such an innocent. Much (on this view) is loaded into the requirement of causation.

First, causings of evils like deaths of innocents are commonly distinguished from omissions to prevent such deaths. Holding a baby's head underwater until it drowns is killing; seeing a baby lying face down in a puddle and doing nothing to save it when one could do so easily is a failure to prevent its death. Our categorical obligations are usually negative in content: we are not to kill the baby. We may have an obligation to save it, but this will not be an agent-relative obligation, on the view here considered, unless we have some special relationship with the baby.

Second, causings are distinguished from allowings. In a narrow sense of the word I will here stipulate, one allows a death to occur when: (1) one's action merely removes a defense the victim otherwise would have had against death; and (2) such removal returns the victim to some morally appropriate baseline. Thus, mercy-killings, or euthanasia, are outside of our deontological obligations (and thus eligible for justification by good consequences) so long as one's act: (1) only removes a defense against death that the agent herself had earlier provided, such as disconnecting medical equipment that is keeping the patient alive when that disconnecting is done by the medical personnel that attached the patient to the equipment originally; and (2) the equipment could justifiably have been hooked up to another patient, where it could do some good, had the doctors known at the time of connection what they know at the time of disconnection.

Third, one is said not to cause an evil such as a death when one's acts merely enable (or aid) some other agent to cause such evil. Thus, one is not categorically forbidden to drive the terrorists to where they can kill the policeman (if the alternative is the death of one's family), even though one would be categorically forbidden to kill the policeman oneself (even where the alternative is the death of one's family). Nor is one categorically forbidden to select which group of villagers shall be unjustly executed by another pursuing his own purposes.

Fourth, one is said not to cause an evil such as a death when one merely redirects a presently existing threat to many so that it now threatens only one (or a few). A time-honoured example would be the runaway trolley problem. One may turn a trolley or tram so that it runs over one trapped worker to save five workers trapped on the other track, even though it is not permissible for an agent to have initiated the movement of the trolley towards the one to save five.\

Fifth, our agency is said not to be involved in mere accelerations of evils about to happen, as opposed to causing such evils by doing acts necessary for such evils to occur. Thus, when a victim is about to fall to his death, dragging a rescuer with him too, the rescuer may cut the rope connecting them. Rescuer is accelerating but not causing the death that was about to occur without their prior involvement.

All of these last five distinctions have been suggested to be part and parcel of another centuries-old Catholic doctrine, that of the doctrine of doing and allowing harm. According to this doctrine, one may not cause death, for that would be a killing, a "doing;" but one may fail to prevent death, allow (in the narrow sense) death to occur, enable another to cause death, redirect a life-threatening item from many to one, or accelerate a death about to happen if good enough consequences are in the offing. As with the Doctrine of Double Effect, how plausible one finds these applications of the doctrine of doing and allowing will determine how plausible one finds this cause-based view of human agency.

Patient-Centred Deontological Theories

A second group of deontological moral theories can be classified as patient-centred, to be distinguished from the agent-centred version of deontology. These theories are rights-based rather than duty-based; and some versions purport to be quite agent-neutral in the reasons they give moral agents.

All patient-centred deontological theories are appropriately characterised as theories premised on people's rights. An illustrative version posits, as its core right, the right against being used only as means for producing good consequences without one's consent. Such a core right is not to be confused with more discrete rights, such as the right against being killed or killed intentionally. It is a right against being used by another for the user's or others' benefit. More specifically, this version of patient-centred deontological theories proscribes using another's body, labour, and talent without the latter's consent. One finds this notion expressed, albeit in different ways, in the work of the so-called Right-Libertarians (e.g., Robert Nozick, Eric Mack), but also in the works of the Left-Libertarians as well (e.g., Michael Otsuka, Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne). On this view, the scope of strong moral duties—those that are the correlatives of others' rights—is jurisdictionally limited and does not extend to resources for producing the Good that would not exist in the absence of those intruded upon—that is, their bodies, labours, and talents.

Just as agent-centred theories, so do patient-centred theories (such as forbidding the use of another) seek to explain common intuitions about such classic hypothetical cases as Trolley and Transplant (or Fat Man). In Trolley, a runaway trolley will kill five workers unless diverted to a siding where it will kill one worker. Most people consider switching the trolley to the siding permissible and perhaps mandatory. In Transplant, where a surgeon can kill one healthy patient and transplant his organs to five dying patients, thereby saving their lives, the universal reaction is condemnation. The same is true in Fat Man, where the runaway trolley cannot be switched off the main track but can be stopped before reaching the five workers by pushing a fat man into its path, resulting in his death.

The injunction against using arguably accounts for these contrasting reactions. After all, in each example, one life is sacrificed to save five. However, there appears to be a difference in how the net four lives are saved. In Transplant (and Fat Man), the doomed person is used to benefit others, and they could not be saved without his body. In Trolley, on the other hand, the doomed victim is not used. The workers would be saved whether or not he is present on the second track.

Immanuel Kant

If any philosopher is regarded as central to deontological moral theories, it is surely Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is a central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesised early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. The fundamental idea of Kant's "critical philosophy" – especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) – is human autonomy. He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality. Therefore, scientific knowledge, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent and secure because they all rest on the same foundation of human autonomy, which is also the final end of nature according to the teleological worldview of reflecting a judgement that Kant introduces to unify the theoretical and practical parts of his philosophical system.

The agent-centred deontologist can cite Kant's locating the moral quality of acts in the principles or maxims on which the agent acts and not primarily in those acts' effects on others. For Kant, the only thing unqualifiedly good is a good will. The patient-centred deontologist can cite Kant's injunction against using others as mere means to one's end. 

Deontology as a philosophical belief system is functional but flawed because the truth is not universal, it is mulitifaceted. How one person expresses love can be very different from others' expressions, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. Therefore, the old adage of "doing upon others as you would have others do to you", does not quite work in practice. To quote Rutger Bregman, a Dutch Anthropologist, why not simply ask? Deontology comes forth from moral absolutism, which has a clear opposite in the field of ethics, called moral relativism, which is the final school of thought discussed within this publication. 

Moral relativism

The fifth school of ethics discussed will be moral relativism, a relatively modern school of thought. Very briefly, it considers that people fundamentally disagree about what is moral. Moral relativism has been debated for thousands of years across many contexts during the history of human civilisation. Arguments of notability have been made in ancient Greece and historical India while discussions currently continue. This section will provide an introduction to relativist thought, an overview of multiple types of moral relativism (descriptive, metaethical, and normative) and it will discuss Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher famed for his work on moral relativism, amongst other things.

Introduction to moral relativism

Though moral relativism did not become a prominent topic in philosophy or elsewhere until the twentieth century, it has ancient origins. In the classical Greek world, both the historian Herodotus and the sophist Protagoras appeared to endorse some form of relativism (the latter attracted the attention of Plato in the Theaetetus). It should also be noted that the ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi put forward a nonobjectivist view that is sometimes interpreted as a kind of relativism.

Among the ancient Greek philosophers, moral diversity was widely acknowledged. However, the more common nonobjectivist reaction was moral scepticism, the view that there is no moral knowledge (the position of the Pyrrhonian sceptic Sextus Empiricus), rather than moral relativism, the view that moral truth or justification is relative to a culture or society. This pattern continued through most of the history of Western philosophy. 

Nonetheless, the increased awareness of moral diversity (especially between Western and non-Western cultures) on the part of Europeans in the modern era is an important antecedent to the contemporary concern with moral relativism. During this time, the predominant view among Europeans and their colonial progeny was that their moral values were superior to the moral values of other cultures. Few thought all moral values had equal or relative validity or anything of that sort. The main impetus for such a position came from cultural anthropology. Anthropologists were fascinated with the diversity of cultures, and they produced detailed empirical studies of them—especially "primitive," non-Western ones. In the beginning, anthropologists accepted the assumption of European or Western superiority.

However, this assumption began to be challenged in the twentieth century, especially by some social scientists in the United States. An early dissent came from the sociologist William Graham Sumner, who proposed a version of moral relativism in his 1906 Folkways. However, the most significant challenge originated with the anthropologist Franz Boas. He and his students explicitly articulated influential forms of moral relativism in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1947, on the occasion of the United Nations debate about universal human rights, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement declaring that moral values are relative to cultures and that there is no way of showing that the values of one culture are better than those of another.

Descriptive moral relativism

In general, the term 'relativism' refers to many different ideas. For example, in anthropology, it sometimes connotes, among other things, the rather uncontroversial notion that anthropologists should strive to be impartial and unprejudiced in their empirical inquiries. However, in moral philosophy, 'relativism' is usually taken to suggest an empirical, a metaethical, or a normative position. The empirical position is usually:

Descriptive Moral Relativism: As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

Sometimes what is emphasised is moral diversity rather than strict disagreement. Descriptive moral relativism is often thought to have been established by anthropology and other empirical disciplines. However, it is not uncontroversial: Empirical and philosophical objections have been raised against it. Hence, it is one focal point of debate.

Metaethical moral relativism

The metaethical (=the scope, nature and meaning of moral judgement) position usually concerns the truth or justification of moral judgments and has been given somewhat different definitions. Metaethical relativists generally suppose that many fundamental moral disagreements cannot be rationally resolved. They argue that moral judgments lack the moral authority or normative force that moral objectivists usually contend these judgments may have. Therefore, metaethical relativism is in part a negative thesis that challenges the claims of moral objectivists. However, it often involves a positive thesis, namely that moral judgments nonetheless have moral authority or normative force, not absolutely or universally (as objectivists contend), but relative to some group of persons such as a society or culture. 

This point is typically made with respect to truth or justification (or both), and the following definition will be a helpful reference point:

Metaethical Moral Relativism: The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal but is relative to a group of persons' traditions, convictions, or practices.

Normative moral relativism

Normative moral relativists believe not only the meta-ethical thesis but that it has normative implications on what we ought to do. Normative moral relativists argue that meta-ethical relativism implies that we ought to tolerate the behaviour of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards. Many philosophers do not agree, partially because of the challenges of arriving at an "ought" from relativistic premises. Meta-ethical relativism aims to eliminate the normative relativist's ability to make prescriptive claims. In other words, normative relativism may find it challenging to make a statement like "we think it is moral to tolerate behaviour" without always adding "other people think intolerance of certain behaviours is moral". Some philosophers, for example, Russell Blackford, argue that intolerance, to some degree, is necessary. As he puts it, "we need not adopt a quietism about moral traditions that cause hardship and suffering. Nor need we passively accept the moral norms of our respective societies, to the extent that they are ineffective, counterproductive, or simply unnecessary". That is, it is perfectly reasonable (and practical) for a person or group to defend their subjective values against others, even if there is no universal prescription or morality. 


One influential thinker on moral relativism is Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. He was a German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and linguist who is seen as one of the Western World's most influential modern thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche often wrote about morality. He viewed it as anti-nature; he argued that morality is relative to what we might consider the unbridled manifestation of wants, needs, and appetites. According to him, moral values are not universal and absolute but are, therefore, conditional construction of particular groups of people at particular times in history with particular goals in mind. Nietzsche argued that no one kind of morality is correct, neither is incorrect nor unacceptable for everyone; it is worth noting that Nietzsche considered one type of morality correct for one type of person while this specific morality is incorrect for others.

In 1882, Nietzsche famously predicted the decline of the Church, and it's impact on views of morality in Western Europe, stating that "God is dead", and "belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable". Everything that was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it, including the whole concept of European morality, is bound to collapse. While the concept of God was the ultimate expression of otherworldly values and their underlying instincts, belief in God nevertheless gave life meaning for a time. "God is dead" means that the idea of God can no longer provide values. Nietzsche refers to this crucial paradigm shift as a reevaluation of values. With the sole source of western values extinguished, the danger of nihilism looms. Nihilist positions include that human values are baseless, life is meaningless, and knowledge is impossible.

Nietzsche introduced the concept of Übermensch (German, it translates to "over human" or "higher human"). The übermensch represents a shift from Christian values, which typically focus on rewards in the otherworldly afterlife due to good deeds done while alive on Earth. The übermensch is a goal for humanity to aspire to, to transcend beyond human limitations while grasping this Earth with relish and gratitude, focussing on creating better lives for anyone here, in this life and this world. 


This publication presented virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontology, and moral relativism in some detail. Please consider that this publication is by no means exhaustive, these are some of the most complex ideas humankind has ever written about. There is much more knowledge out there, this entry was meant as an introductory guideline to familiarise the reader with some fields of ethical thought. We sincerely hope the reader learnt something interesting today, and continues their search for true beliefs elsewhere, for example on the freely accessible discourse website (LINK), where these theories are discussed in much more detail than they are here. 


Alexander, L., & Moore, M. (2007). Deontological ethics.

Bentham, J., & Mill, J. S. (2004). Utilitarianism and other essays. Penguin UK.

Bregman, R. (2020). Humankind: A hopeful history. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Crisp, R. (Ed.). (2014). Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

Ezung, A. (2021). The Idea of ‘Moral Relativism’ in the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 38(2), 213-227.

Gowans, Chris, "Moral Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition)

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. Penguin UK.

Harsanyi, J. C. (1978). Bayesian decision theory and utilitarian ethics. The American Economic Review, 68(2), 223-228.

Hills, A. (2010). Utilitarianism, contractualism and demandingness. The Philosophical Quarterly, 60(239), 225-242.

Hurd, H. M., & Moore, M. S. (2021). The ethical implications of proportioning punishment to deontological desert. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 15, 495-514.

Hutchins, R. M. (1952). Great books of the western world (Vol. 48). William Benton, Publisher: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Kamm, F. M. (2008). Intricate ethics: rights, responsibilities, and permissable harm. Oxford University Press.

Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, H.J. Paton (trans.), New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Katz, L., 1996, Ill-Gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud and Kindred Puzzles of the Law, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kenny, A. 2011. The Eudemian ethics. Oxford University Press.

Levy, N. (2003). Descriptive relativism: Assessing the evidence. J. Value Inquiry, 37, 165.

Louden, R. B. (1984). On some vices of virtue ethics. American Philosophical Quarterly, 21(3), 227-236.

Mill, J. S. (1882). On liberty: The subjection of women. H. Holt and company.

Mill, J. S. (1998). On liberty and other essays. Oxford University Press, USA.

Nagel, T., 1979, “War and Massacre,” in Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1883). Thus spoke zarathustra: A Book for All and None.. 

Quintelier, K. J., & Fessler, D. M. (2012). Varying versions of moral relativism: The philosophy and psychology of normative relativism. Biology & Philosophy, 27, 95-113.

Sidgwick, H. (2000). Utilitarianism. Utilitas, 12(3), 253-260.

Singer, P. (2019). The life you can save: How to do your part to end world poverty. The Life You Can Save.

Stojanovic, I. (2017). Metaethical relativism. In The Routledge handbook of metaethics (pp. 119-132). Routledge

If you want to share your ideas on Children in Street Situations and relevant topics, reach out to us

Nafis Rahman


David Dilrosun