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Philosophy Normative Ethics
by
Alan Thomas

Introduction

Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy that theorizes the content of our moral judgments or, as a limiting case, denies that any such theories are possible (the position of the so-called anti-theorists). While meta-ethics focuses on foundational issues concerning the semantics of moral utterance and how our moral views fit more broadly into a general conception of reality, normative ethics focuses on the major theoretical approaches to the content of moral reflection. It is shaped by the historical inheritance of the tradition of moral philosophy in the West in its focus on deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics as the major forms of normative ethical theory. These standard theories have been more recently complemented by the new field of feminist ethics, and innovations in ethical theory have added hybrid theory and contractualism to the list. All of these views continue to be the subject of intense debate and further refinement.

General Overviews

Given the range and diversity of the field, there is no single article that can comprehensively survey normative ethics. This suggests two alternative routes into the subject. Because of the role played by history in contemporary normative ethics, one route to an overview of the subject is via a historical study such as MacIntyre 1998. It is a strength, not a weakness, of this recently republished classic that the author has a very engaged point of view on his subject matter. More up to date and more comprehensive is the three-volume study consisting of Irwin 2007, Irwin 2008, and Irwin 2009. Alternatively, the second route into the subject draws on individual entries in the main reference overviews of moral philosophy. Comprehensive and very helpful recent reference overviews are Singer 1991, LaFollette 2001, Copp 2007, and Skorupski 2010. These reference overviews are divided fairly evenly between meta-ethical and normative topics.

Textbooks and Anthologies

There are several excellent textbooks and anthologies covering normative ethics. Recommended textbooks include Shafer-Landau 2010b, which is usefully supplemented by the readings in Shafer-Landau 2010a. Balanced more towards normative, as opposed to meta-ethical themes, is another highly regarded textbook, Timmons 2002.There is a helpful series of anthologies of key texts published by Blackwell, which includes Darwall 2003a, Darwall 2003b, Darwall 2003c, and Darwall 2003d.

  • Darwall, Stephen, ed. Consequentialism. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy 7. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003a.

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    An anthology of key texts focused on consequentialism. Covers the founding texts of consequentialism, with excerpts from Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, and Moore. Also includes recent philosophical work on consequentialism, including key papers by (inter alia) Scheffler, Parfit, Railton, Rawls, and Sen.

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  • Darwall, Stephen, ed. Contractarianism/Contractualism. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy 8. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003b.

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    An anthology of key texts focused on contractarianism and contractualism. Covers the founding texts of this tradition, with excerpts from Rousseau and Kant. Also includes recent philosophical work on contractarianism and contractualism, including key papers by (inter alia) Gauthier, Rawls, Scanlon, and Watson.

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  • Darwall, Stephen, ed. Deontology. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy 9. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003c.

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    An anthology of key texts focused on deontology. Covers the founding texts of deontology, with excerpts from Kant, Price, and Ross. Also includes recent philosophical work on consequentialism, including key papers by (inter alia) Nozick, Nagel, Kamm, and Korsgaard.

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  • Darwall, Stephen, ed. Virtue Ethics. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy 10. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003d.

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    An anthology of key texts focused on virtue ethics. Covers the founding texts of virtue ethics, with excerpts from Aristotle, Hutcheson and Hume. Also includes recent philosophical work on virtue, including key papers by (inter alia) Foot, McDowell, Hursthouse, and Slote.

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  • Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010a.

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    A set of readings to complement Shafer-Landau 2010b. Contains a selection of classic texts plus more recent authors such as Foot, Nozick, and Thomson

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  • Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010b.

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    Highly regarded, thematically organized recent textbook with a combination of meta-ethical and normative topics.

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  • Timmons, Mark. Moral Theory: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

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    A well-regarded textbook, more balanced towards the major normative theories than the meta-ethical issues also represented in Shafer-Landau 2010b.

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  • Timmons, Mark, ed. Conduct and Character: Readings in Moral Theory. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006.

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    A set of readings to complement Timmons 2002. A wide-ranging selection of readings, organized by theme, covering classic authors such as Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, more recent classics such as Ross and Sartre, and less well-known figures such as John Arthur and Ayn Rand.

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Reference Works and Other Resources

There are two main online blogs that discuss topics both in normative ethics and meta-ethics, namely, PEA Soup and Ethics Etc. Both have built up a reputation for reliable postings by professional contributors. Another reliable resource is Lawrence Hinman’s website Ethics Updates. Mark Timmons will edit a new series, the annual Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, that will publish papers delivered to the newly inaugurated Arizona Workshop in Norm ative Ethics. For general reference purposes, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent resource. Notable entries include Deontological Ethics by Larry Alexander and Michael Moore, Consequentialism by Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Virtue Ethics by Rosalind Hursthouse, and Feminist Ethics by Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism offers a particular interpretation of the commonsense intuition that it is always right to act for the best. Consequentialists interpret that remark in the following way: the reflective moral agent ought to take up an impartial standpoint, rank outcomes from best to worst, and act rightly where acting rightly brings about the outcome that is ranked the best. This account of rightness uses a value in its ranking of outcomes. One major issue dividing consequentialists is how to explain that value. The most familiar consequentialist views take this value to be utility and then offer different accounts of utility: simple hedonistic views take utility to consist in a mental state; more objective views identify the value concerned with the object of informed choice or with a selection from an objective list of human goods. (At that point these objective forms of utilitarianism shade over into ethical perfectionism.) There are, however, consequentialist but nonutilitarian views, suggesting that consequentialism and utilitarianism are related as genus to species. The limiting case is a view such as G. E. Moore’s that is consequentialist about rightness but also claims that goodness is indefinable. All of these different accounts of value, rightness, and outcomes are the basis for further evaluations of character, institutions, and practices.

Formulations of Consequentialism

Consequentialism has developed radically from its initial formulation as a form of hedonism that identified utility with pleasure in Bentham 1996. Already by the time of John Stuart Mill this simple hedonism was under pressure; in his seminal Mill 1962 John Stuart Mill argued that Bentham represented a foundationalist aim to place ethics on a scientific basis that needed to be balanced with a complementary emphasis on reforming the internal spirit of existing social institutions. Mill’s own view already marked a shift toward a more pluralist view of utility expressed in Mill 1987. Historically, the next classical text of utilitarianism is Sidgwick 1981. That work contains a thorough examination of the relationship between utilitarianism and commonsense morality. Sidgwick concludes that the practical use of reason is divided within itself and is unable to reconcile a dualism between the claims of utilitarianism and the claims of rational egoism. The option of a nonutilitarian formulation of consequentialism was explored in Moore 1993, another work of Cambridge philosophy influenced by Sidgwick’s (partial) critique of the rational egoist. In more recent work the classic defense of consequentialism is Parfit 1984. It is comparable to Sidgwick’s work in its scope and ambition, and makes important connections between the truth of consequentialism and our intuitive ideas about personal identity, continuity, and survival. A comprehensive account of consequentialism and its relation to contemporary formulations of deontology is found in Kagan 1989. A key issue for the correct understanding of the plausible versions of contemporary consequentialism is whether the theory aims to be a practical guide to decision or to be the true account of the nature of those properties that constitute rightness. Recent discussion of that issue all begin from the seminal paper Bales 1971.

  • Bales, R. Eugene. “Act-Utilitarianism: Account of Right-making Characteristics or Decision-making Procedure?” American Philosophical Quarterly 8.3 (1971): 257–265.

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    An important and much-cited paper that detaches the idea that consequentialism offers a decision procedure from the separate idea that it offers an account of right-making properties of actions. Bales argues that act-utilitarianism aims only at the latter.

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  • Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation. Edited by J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

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    The classic statement of hedonistic act consequentialism. Originally published in 1789.

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  • Kagan, Shelly. The Limits of Morality. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

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    Forthright and wide-ranging restatement of the case for consequentialism and a sophisticated critique of its deontological rivals.

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  • Mill, John Stuart. Mill on Bentham and Coleridge. London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.

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    One of the seminal documents of 19th-century thought, in which Mill explains his synthesis of two strands of Enlightenment philosophy and their models for the criticism of existing institutions identified with Bentham and Coleridge (where the latter is the preeminent English-language exponent of Hegelian social theory).

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  • Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism and Other Essays. By John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. London: Penguin Classics, 1987.

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    A further development of consequentialism from its origins in Bentham’s work, famously introducing a distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures that has been interpreted either as refining hedonism or as breaking with it. Originally published in 1861. Should be read alongside Mill 1962.

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  • Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Rev. ed. Edited by Thomas Baldwin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    Combines a consequentialist account of rightness as producing the most good with the claim that the property of goodness is simple and indefinable. Originally published in 1903.

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  • Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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    A later classic contribution to consequentialism including, inter alia, an extended discussion of hedonism, informed desire and objective list accounts of utility. Parfit’s overall argument is to ground the case for consequentialism on a reductionist view of personal identity.

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  • Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.

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    The classic source of the authority of the objective, or impartial, point of view. Originally published in 1907.

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Defining “Utility”

The distinction between utilitarianism and consequentialism turns on whether one can define goodness as utility; a related issue is the complex internal debate within the tradition as to what constitutes utility. For a sophisticated defense of the kind of hedonism associated with the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, see Feldman 2004. This contrasts markedly with the perfectionist account of well-being found in Hurka 1993, indicating the range and flexibility of utilitarian accounts of utility. Sumner 1996 defends utility, in the form of welfare, as the only basic value in a way that contrasts with the merely “formal” account of welfare defended in Griffin 1986.

Act Versus Rule Utilitarianism

Do formulations of utilitarianism apply to token actions or to rules, policies, practices, or action types? The classic discussion of this issue for recent normative ethics is Lyons 1965; a robust defense of rule consequentialism is Hooker 2000’s classic formulation of the position. Norcross 1997, by contrast, defends a refined version of act utilitarianism. An issue for the act version of the view and, arguably, for rule-utilitarian versions too is whether it is too demanding. Mulgan 2001 offers a sophisticated treatment of the issue.

Objections to Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is the dominant view in recent normative ethics and has, for that reason, been extensively discussed. The following critical studies are representative of the main lines of objection to the view: Smart and Williams 1973 argues that utilitarianism has an excessively strong view of negative responsibility and can make no sense of the value of integrity. Rawls 1999 takes the utilitarian tradition to be the main rival to his own view of justice and devotes various parts of his arguments to criticism of the utilitarian tradition. One particularly influential objection is that the utilitarian ignores the separateness of persons. Foot 1983 targets the fundamental utilitarian idea that we can talk about the goodness or badness of outcomes from no one’s point of view in particular, a thesis that Foot finds problematic and a departure from our ordinary way of thinking about the value of outcomes. Foot’s arguments may usefully be supplemented by the more meta-ethical discussion of Thomson 1993 that offers a complementary account of the uses of the expression “good.” Hurley 2009 is a sophisticated recent treatment of the issue of demandingness that argues that the purity of consequentialist principles is in tension with their ability to supply authoritative rational guidance for agents such as ourselves.

  • Foot, Philippa. “Utilitarianism and the Virtues.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 57.2 (1983): 273–283.

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    An influential critique of the idea that commonsense morality contains any counterpart of the consequentialist’s idea that an outcome can be valuable from no one’s point of view in particular.

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  • Hurley, Paul. Beyond Consequentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199559305.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A critique of consequentialism on the grounds of excessive demandingness that focuses on the tension between the purity of the content of an act-consequentialist view and its rational authority for agents such as ourselves.

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  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    In the course of defending his own contractualist view of justice, Rawls not only develops a critique of utilitarian theories of justice but also presents an influential wider critique of the utilitarian’s failure to take seriously “the separateness of persons.” Originally published in 1971.

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  • Smart, J. J. C., and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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    The classic pair of contrastive studies in which Jack Smart defends act utilitarianism and Bernard Williams presents a series of objections to both act and rule utilitarianism. Williams argues that utilitarianism can make no sense of the value of integrity and involves an excessively strong doctrine of negative responsibility.

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  • Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “Goodness and Utilitarianism.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 67.2 (1993): 145–159.

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    A critique supplementary to Foot 1983 that targets the idea of the goodness of an outcome by arguing that “good” is typically used “attributively” as in expressions such as “a good baseball player,” such that there is no basis in the meaning of “good” for the idea of an outcome that is good from no one’s point of view.

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Contractualism

Primarily developed by Harvard philosopher Thomas Scanlon, contractualism shares with a social-contract approach to ethics a general conception that the ethical fundamentally concerns social cooperation. However, it also shares with consequentialism the view that ethical thinking involves taking up the perspective of the impartial standpoint. These themes combine in a conception of acts as right if and only if they are not wrong. Acts are wrong if they would be forbidden by a set of principles that survive the test of reasonable rejectability. A set of principles may be rejected as unreasonable on various grounds; notably, contractualists suggest that any set of consequentialist principles could be rejected as unreasonably demanding. A particular focus of recent discussions of contractualism is the case of saving the one versus the many. (This issue is taken as a litmus test for distinguishing the view from consequentialism.) Contractualists claim that they can defend the commonsense intuition that one ought to save the many rather than one without aggregating moral values or claims; contractualism thereby respects the separateness of persons.

Formulations of Contractualism

The formulations of Scanlon’s contractualism begin with an early, influential paper in which he first presented the core idea, namely, Scanlon 1982. The full length presentation of his ideas, however, is his book Scanlon 1998. The core intuition that a set of valuable relations between people who are morally bound to each other allows one to connect the ideas of a wrong and the wronging of someone by another is defended by Kumar 1999 but contested by Brand-Ballard 2004. An aspect of Scanlon’s view that has received a great deal of critical attention is his idea that the numbers of people that one can save in a situation is relevant to the overall rightness of what one does, but not in a way that aggregates the claims of individuals (as consequentialism allegedly does). This claim is sympathetically analyzed in Kamm 2005 but is criticized, inter alia, by Norcross 2002 and Brooks 2002. Hirose 2004 independently argues that this alleged advantage of contractualism over consequentialism is illusory. An important part of Scanlon’s argument for his view is the rejection of what he takes to be its main rival, consequentialism, and in Scanlon 1998 he develops a sophisticated critique of the idea of welfare that is critically evaluated by Arneson 2002.

  • Arneson, Richard J. “The End of Welfare As We Know It? Scanlon versus Welfarist Consequentialism.” Social Theory and Practice 28.2 (2002): 315–336.

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    An assessment of Scanlon’s claim that there is no single concept that can play the role that the consequentialist demands of the idea of welfare, namely, to be univocal across its use in first-personal deliberation, the context of rational advice, and that which is distributed by justice.

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  • Brand-Ballard, Jeffrey. “Contractualism and Deontic Restrictions.” Ethics 114 (2004): 269–300.

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    Argues that contractualism’s “patient-based” focus and neglect of agency makes it inadequate as a defense of deontic restrictions (constraints).

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  • Brooks, Thom. “Saving the Greatest Number.” Logique et Analyse 45.177–178 (2002): 55–59.

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    Argues that the Kamm/Scanlon argument for saving the many rather than the one without combining claims does, in fact, combine claims.

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  • Hirose, Iwao. “Aggregation and Numbers.” Utilitas 16.1 (2004): 62–79.

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    Argues that the aggregative approach to the claims of others does not, as the contractualist claims, fail to respect each individual.

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  • Kamm, F. M. “Aggregation and Two Moral Methods.” Utilitas 17.1 (2005): 1–23.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0953820804001372Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A careful analysis of the precise nature of Scanlon’s “tie-breaking” argument for allowing the numbers of people one can save morally to count within his individualistic framework and a (qualified) defense of his approach.

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  • Kumar, Rahul. “Defending the Moral Moderate: Contractualism and Common Sense.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 28.4 (1999): 275–309.

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    Argues that the contractualist is best placed to show how respecting the individual is compatible with saving the greater number by locating this class of reasons within valued sets of relationships. This account connects moral wrongs to the wronging of one person by another.

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  • Norcross, Alastair. “Contractualism and Aggregation.” Social Theory and Practice 28.2 (2002): 303–314.

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    Analyzes Scanlon’s commitment to nonaggregation and argues that it both fails as an objection to consequentialism and depends on an indefensible distinction between killing and letting die.

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  • Scanlon, T. M. “Contractualism and Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism and Beyond. Edited by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, 103–128. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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    The early statement, in a single paper, of the core idea of Scanlon’s contractualism.

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  • Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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    The book-length formulation and defense of Scanlon’s view, which also contains an influential critique of consequentialism.

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Hybrid Theory

The influential moral philosopher Thomas Nagel and his former graduate student Samuel Scheffler originated hybrid theory. Impressed by the critiques of consequentialism that focus on its alleged impersonality, hybrid theorists insist that it is a mistake to conflate the impersonal and the objective points of view. Ethical objectivity imposes the constraint of impartiality on our moral commitments, but some personal commitments can be impartially underwritten. Hybrid theory aims to be an impartialist view that takes seriously the requirement to bring about the best outcome impersonally considered while also taking into account the demands of the personal point of view. This reconciliation takes the form of a theory in which agents are always permitted, but never required, to bring about the best outcome impersonally considered. They are not required to do so as they exercise an agent-centered prerogative that attaches undue weight to the reasons and values that arise from the personal point of view. In this way hybrid theory offers a rationale for so-called deontic options. However, the consequentialist part of this view is that it can find no rationale for the idea of agent-centered restrictions (also called “deontic constraints” or just “constraints”) on the grounds that they are paradoxical. They are paradoxical as you are not allowed to violate such a constraint even to prevent further future violations of the very same constraint.

Formulations of Hybrid Theory

The original formulation of hybrid theory is Scheffler 1994; it was developed in tandem with Thomas Nagel, and his different version of the generic view is presented in Nagel 1986. An important early reaction to Scheffler’s version of the view is Kagan 1984, and Scheffler’s belief that one could accommodate options but not restrictions (constraints) is also criticized by Hurley 1995.

  • Hurley, Paul. “Getting Our Options Clear: A Closer Look at Agent-Centered Options.” Philosophical Studies 78.2 (1995): 163–188.

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    Argues that the hybrid theorist’s attempt to incorporate options but abandon deontic constraints is undermined by the common origin of both in the same kind of moral reason, grounded in a person’s right to avoid interference.

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  • Kagan, Shelly. “Does Consequentialism Demand Too Much? Recent Work on the Limits of Obligation.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13.3 (1984): 239–254.

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    A notable critique of hybrid theory from a consequentialist perspective. It is argued that a combination of deontic options, but no deontic restrictions, permits an agent to do harm, in the interests of advancing that option, as opposed to merely refraining from harm. Scheffler responds to this criticism in the appendixes of Scheffler 1994.

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  • Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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    Nagel’s version of hybrid theory in chapters 8 and 9 applies on a case-by-case basis to particular reasons, as opposed to Scheffler’s version of the view, which applies to classes of reason. It forms part of a sophisticated phenomenology of different classes of moral reasons and values and the differing ways in which they can be related to the authority of the objective point of view.

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  • Scheffler, Samuel. The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

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    Canonical statement of Scheffler’s hybrid ethical theory, in which an agent is always permitted, but never required, to bring about the best outcome from the objective perspective. This revised edition has valuable appendices responding to the criticisms of the first edition by Phillipa Foot, Shelly Kagan, and Jonathan Bennett. Originally published in 1982 (Oxford: Clarendon).

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The “Paradox of Deontology”

An aspect of hybrid theory is its rejection of deontic restrictions, also known as deontic constraints, because of their allegedly paradoxical nature. The paradox is identified, but rejected, in Nozick 1974. The nature of the alleged paradoxicality is clarified by Lippert-Rasmussen 1990, and the paradox putatively dissolved in Hurley 1997. McMahon 1991 is an unusual defense of constraints from within a consequentialist framework.

  • Hurley, Paul. “Agent-Centered Restrictions: Clearing the Air of Paradox.” Ethics 108.1 (1997): 120–146.

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    Argues that skepticism about restrictions can only be derived from prior theoretical assumptions, namely, that ethical thinking is solely concerned with the bringing about of outcomes impersonally considered. There is nothing paradoxical about restrictions viewed from the standpoint of practical reason itself as opposed to the instrumental production of outcomes.

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  • Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper. “In What Way Are Constraints Paradoxical?” Utilitas 11.1 (1990): 49–70.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0953820800002260Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A paper that draws helpful distinctions between the different kinds of skepticism about deontic restrictions (constraints).

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  • McMahon, Christopher. “The Paradox of Deontology.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 20.4 (1991): 350–377.

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    This paper claims that restrictions can be defended even within a consequentialist framework that includes a maximizing conception of rationality, as they are grounded solely on the idea of treating another unfairly.

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  • Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

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    The classic presentation of the putative paradox (at pp. 28–35), although Nozick ends up defending deontic restrictions (constraints).

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Deontology

The deontologist believes that moral objectivity is grounded in our capacity for practical rationality and that there are rational constraints on conduct just as there are on thought. The dominant influence on contemporary deontology is the work of Immanuel Kant, which particularly influences normative ethics in North America. A great deal of the work listed as “neo-Kantian Ethics” in the section Neo-Kantian Deontological Theories moves freely from interpretation of the historical work of Kant and issues in normative ethics. Those who want to present a rationale for deontic restrictions (constraints) focus on one of three things: the agency perspective of a person considering the violation (an agency focus), the relation into which a violator places him or herself vis-à-vis the victim (victimization focus), or the implications for the victim (a patient-based focus).

Rationales for Deontic Restrictions (Constraints)

In the attempt to find a rationale for deontic constraints, normative theorists have appealed to two ideas: that of an agent-relative reason that makes essential reference back to the person whose reason it is, and the idea that agency is key to understanding constraints. McNaughton and Rawling 1993 forcefully argues that an evaluative basis for deontic reasons would make them vulnerable to consequentialist modeling; Mack 1998 argues that there is no interesting connection between agent relativity and deontic constraints. Brook 1991 examines the general idea of connecting constraints to agency in the way Mack suggests. Nagel 2002 shows that Nagel has moved away from his early formulation of the view that deontic constraints could be connected to a particular kind of action, namely, victimizing people. Darwall 1986’s account of constraints highlights the related idea of agent-centeredness as opposed to agent relativity.

  • Brook, Richard. “Agency and Morality.” Journal of Philosophy 88.4 (1991): 190–212.

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    Argues that basing deontic restrictions on agency fails to explain why one ought not to violate such restraints oneself. Agent-focused rationales for deontic constraints on the grounds that they permit intra-agent tradeoffs in which you are permitted to violate a constraint to prevent your own further violations of that constraint, resurrecting the paradox of constraints. So any rationale must be patient based.

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  • Darwall, Stephen L. “Agent-Centered Restrictions from the Inside Out.” Philosophical Studies 50 (1986): 291–319.

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    Develops a distinctive “agent-centered” rationale for deontic constraints grounded in the responsibility and integrity of the agent.

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  • Mack, Eric. “Deontic Restrictions Are Not Agent-Relative Restrictions.” Social Philosophy and Policy 15.2 (1998): 61–83.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0265052500001953Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Insightful paper arguing that it is a mistake to connect the idea of a deontic restriction to that of agent relativity in reasons. Each of us is specially responsible for our own agency and hence responsible for the nonviolation of constraints.

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  • McNaughton, David, and Piers Rawling. “Deontology and Agency.” Monist 76 (1993): 81–100.

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    Explains and defends deontic constraints as agent-relative in form and agent-focused in their justification.

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  • Nagel, Thomas. “Personal Rights and Public Space.” In Concealment and Exposure: And Other Essays. By Thomas Nagel, 31–52. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    In his later work, Nagel, following Kamm, treats deontic restrictions as grounded in inviolability and as a “generally disseminated intrinsic good.”

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Neo-Kantian Deontological Theories

Moral philosophy is dominated by its history in a way that other areas of the subject are not, and this is nowhere more true than in the remarkable dominance of Kant’s views, particularly in North America. The following works represent attempts both to reconstruct Kant’s views and to apply them to normative issues. Baron 1995 focuses on the idea that moral action takes the form of action from duty in finite rational agents such as ourselves; Herman 1993 offers a series of reconstructions in a Kantian framework of values that Kant is assumed to have neglected, and Hill 1991 applies ideas of a Kantian provenance to a range of normative issues in order to demonstrate the continued relevance of this tradition of normative theorizing.

  • Baron, Marcia W. Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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    A defense of Kant’s claim that moral action is done from duty and a subtle treatment of the idea of action done above and beyond duty’s requirements. A reconstruction of Kant’s views that emphasizes the role of sympathy.

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  • Herman, Barbara. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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    Influential essays on the idea of action from duty and the representation within neo-Kantian ethics of acting with integrity and the importance of the personal. Emphasizes the nonderivative value of rational agency.

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  • Hill, Thomas E., Jr. Autonomy and Self-Respect. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    Pursues the strategy of approaching moral problems without explicit use of Kant but drawing on Kantian resources oriented around the themes in the title of self-respect, autonomy, and their compatibility with an ethic of care.

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Deontological Normative Theories

The idea that duty is the guise in which the moral law appears to finite, practically rational agents such as human agents is formulated by Kant 1996; the working out of a systematic normative ethical theory on this basis is the work of Ross 2000. Fried 1978 is a more recent attempt at the systematic development of a rights-based deontological theory. A theory of this kind is applied to a range of moral problems in Kamm 1993, Kamm 1996, and Kamm 2007, and a rights-based version defended in Thomson 1990. A much discussed paper from a deontological perspective is Taurek 1977, which argues that given a choice between saving the one and the many, one may permissibly save the one.

  • Fried, Charles. Right and Wrong. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

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    A rights-based deontological theory in which rights are absolute and grounded in moral personality.

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  • Kamm, F. M. Morality, Mortality. Vol. 1, Death and Whom to Save From It. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    A systematic account of the badness of death, a rejection of Taurek’s view on saving the one rather than the many, and the weighing of harms and practical applications in medical ethics.

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  • Kamm, F. M. Morality, Mortality. Vol. 2, Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    A defense of a robust distinction between actively killing and passively letting die and a combined theory of permissible killings and defense of deontic constraints as grounded on the inviolable moral status of persons.

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  • Kamm, F. M. Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    Kamm’s “patient focused” defense of deontology restrictions on harming extended to a revised account of double (and triple) effect, the distinction between doing and allowing, and a revision of her earlier theory of permissible harms.

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  • Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy. Edited and translated by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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    The origin of deontological ethics; this recent translation of Kant’s key works in practical philosophy includes The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) in addition to the better known Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

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  • Ross, W. D. Foundations of Ethics. Oxford: Oxford Scholarly Classics, 2000.

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    Ross’s formulation of his deontological views in the list of prima facie duties: duties of fidelity, reparation, gratitude, beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, and self-improvement.

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  • Taurek, John M. “Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977): 293–316.

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    An extraordinarily influential paper that argues that moral philosophers have significantly misrepresented ordinary moral thinking about cases of where you can save either one or many. In life or death cases, given that death is the worst harm there is, it is morally indifferent whether you save the one or the many, as none of the latter can reasonably complain that he or she has been wronged qua individual.

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  • Thomson, Judith Jarvis. The Realm of Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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    A rigorously worked-out rights-based deontological theory. Focuses on claim rights, with particular attention to the resolution of conflicts of rights.

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Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics originated in Elizabeth Anscombe’s radical critique of moral philosophy contemporaneous with her well-known paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” (Anscombe 1958, cited under Formulations). Anscombe accused her contemporaries of investigating the conceptual remnants of a law-based conception of morality that made no sense without theistic belief, and of lacking an adequate moral psychology of virtue. Alasdair MacIntyre developed Anscombe’s historical thesis (see Anti-Theory). Other moral philosophers proceeded to develop an approach to normative ethics in which the most fundamental concept is that of a virtuous agent. Some versions of the view attempt to ground it in philosophical naturalism (Foot, Hursthouse); others view it as complementary to moral realism (John McDowell); some versions of the view relate it to value pluralism (Adams, Swanton), while the pressing question for all versions of the view is whether it can give an adequate account of rightness. Sophisticated responses to virtue ethics attempt to undercut its distinctiveness by modeling virtue within consequentialist or deontological frameworks.

Formulations

Moral philosophers were sent back to Aristotle 1976 by the critique of moral philosophy in Anscombe 1958. Foot 1978 and Hursthouse 1999 represent virtue-ethical views most concerned to work within an Aristotelian naturalism; more pluralist views are represented by Swanton 2003 and Adams 2006. McDowell 1979 connects virtue ethics to a distinctive form of moral realism. Slote 1992 attempts a systematic reconstruction of the whole of normative ethics on a virtue-ethical basis. A useful survey of the many different forms of virtue ethics is Oakley 1996.

Criticisms

An influential early criticism of virtue ethics is formulated in Louden 1984, which argues that virtue ethics could not reconstruct a core component of our deontic concepts. Johnson 2003 is a similar attack on virtue ethics, arguing that it must essentially be an incomplete view. That charge informs the critique of Hursthouse’s version of the view in Hooker 2002. Hurka 2000 reinforces the claim that the view is not self-standing by offering a reconstruction of virtue-ethics form within a consequentialist framework. Doris 2005 develops a very influential argument that the folk-psychological notion of a virtue is of less predictive value than the role played by the embedding of an agent in a social situation.

  • Doris, John M. Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    Draws on results from social psychology to argue that the folk-psychological notion of a virtue as a robust, situation-independent trait is simply false and therefore ought not to form the basis for a virtue ethic. Argues instead for a situation-dependent notion of character.

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  • Hooker, Brad. “The Collapse of Virtue Ethics.” Utilitas 14 (2002): 22–40.

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    A critique of Hursthouse’s version of virtue ethics arguing that it must essentially be supplemented by rule consequentialism.

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  • Hurka, Thomas. Virtue, Vice, and Value. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Undermines the distinctiveness of virtue ethics as a relatively foundational approach to normative ethics by presenting a consequentialist account of virtues as intrinsically good.

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  • Johnson, Robert N. “Virtue and Right.” Ethics 113.4 (2003): 810–834.

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    Influential critique of any virtue-ethical account of rightness presenting counterexamples of obligations that a completely virtuous person would not even need, such as the obligation to have a better character.

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  • Louden, Robert B. “On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics.” American Philosophical Quarterly 21.3 (1984): 227–236.

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    An early critique of Anscombe’s and Foot’s virtue ethics from a rival, Kantian perspective, arguing that their views are misguidedly reductionist about deontic concepts. Louden’s paper anticipates many of the more recent critiques of virtue ethics.

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Feminist Ethics

Feminist ethics aims to redress an imbalance in the historical traditions of normative ethical theorizing that we have inherited. It is argued that the vast majority of this work claims to offer truths about ethics that are gender-blind, but it is largely written by men. Some feminist ethics try to recover an emphasis on direct altruism and caring that is part of the tradition but neglected; others explore what a distinctively feminist ethic might involve. The main historical precursor of feminist ethics is the classic, Wollstonecraft 1975. The main dividing point in recent feminist ethics remains whether there is a distinctive, gender-sensitive ethical outlook, an issue discussed in Jaggar 1983 and Walker 2007. A valuable early anthology of feminist ethics is Card 1991; the editor, Claudia Card, has gone on to develop a wider critique of the kind of wrongs suffered by women in Card 2002. One suggestion is that feminist ethics can be developed into a distinctive kind of ethics of care, as suggested by some of the work in Baier 1995 and explicitly in Noddings 2003. A distinct strand of feminist ethics emerges from Carol Gilligan’s famous critique of Kohlberg’s developmental moral psychology in Gilligan 1993.

  • Baier, Annette C. Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics. Exp. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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    Collection of essays from a moral philosopher who relates an ethic of care to the wider historical tradition of normative theory; includes the seminal essays “What do Women Want from a Moral Theory?” and “The Need for More Than Justice.”

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  • Card, Claudia, ed. Feminist Ethics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

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    A valuable early anthology with papers by (inter alia) Annette Baier, Marilyn Friedman, Alison Jaggar, and Michelle Moody-Adams.

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  • Card, Claudia. The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195145089.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A generalization from a basis in feminist ethics to a general account of evil in a secular context that then applies that idea, reflexively, to some of the evils distinctively suffered by women, including violence in families and systematic rape in the context of war.

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  • Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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    Very influential critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s developmental moral psychology that argues that Kohlberg’s study was implicitly gender biased in a way that thematized female moral development as incomplete.

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  • Jaggar, Alison M. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983.

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    Careful examination of the major forms of feminist political theory and their ethical implications by a leading feminist philosopher.

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  • Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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    The foundational study for the claim that feminist ethics ought to be centered on the neglected ethical concept of care, or direct altruism.

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  • Walker, Margaret Urban. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A study that spans normative and meta-ethical issues in framing a distinctively feminist approach to normative issues.

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  • Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Edited by Miriam Brody Kramnick. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1975.

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    A foundational text for feminist ethics. Wollstonecraft concludes that the deformation in the moral character of the women of her time resulted from inadequate education and male oppression. With the opportunity for moral education, she argued, women ought to develop the same rational, human morality that is routinely provided for men. Originally published in 1792.

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Anti-Theory

Anti-theorists do not believe that moral thought requires philosophy reflectively to endorse its claims, a position explicitly defended in the canonical “anti-theoretical” text, Williams 1985. That book further argues that some of the distinctive forms of philosophical reflection distort the ethical thinking in which we actually engage, misrepresents it at the level of theory, and corrode the moral knowledge that we actually have. Normative ethical theorizing is rejected because of its lack of historical self-awareness about its own contingency and its implicitly rationalist commitment to abstraction. It took its cue from a historically informed critique of (then) recent moral philosophy, MacIntyre 1981. A later text that explicitly argues that philosophical justifications of morality ought to be rejected and replaced with the cultivation of sympathy and solidarity is Rorty 1989. Another aspect of the anti-theory movement in moral philosophy is particularism, as canonically formulated in Dancy 2004: the particularist claims that theory depends on the identification of general principles in ethical thinking but that there are no such principles available to ordinary moral thought.

  • Dancy, Jonathan. Ethics without Principles. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199270023.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A canonical statement of the views of the most influential particularist writer in early-21st-century moral philosophy. A sustained critique of the claim that ethical thinking requires an appeal to principles in any form.

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  • MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth, 1981.

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    Iconoclastic book that expanded the argument of Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” (Anscombe 1958, cited under Formulations) to a general indictment of the way in which contemporary moral theorizing lacks historical self-awareness, as opposed to a tradition-based model of practical reasoning.

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  • Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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    A rejection of a philosophical vindication of our ethical and political ideas that seeks their grounding in atemporal, universal, and essential features and looks instead to the cultivation of mutual solidarity against the background of a purely contingent form of historical community.

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  • Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana, 1985.

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    Includes extended critiques of all the major forms of normative ethical theorizing, with the overall aim of showing the limits of a philosophical vindication of our ethical ideas. The pervasive reflectiveness distinctive of a modern society explains the corrosion of the moral knowledge that we have; the impulse to develop an ethical theory expresses that reflectiveness but is blind to its actual motivations.

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LAST MODIFIED: 06/29/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0082

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