Ethics: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on ethics. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

What is ethics/moral philosophy?

“Moral philosophy is the study of what morality is and what it requires of us. As Socrates said, it’s about “how we ought to live” — and why. It would be helpful if we could begin with a simple, uncontroversial definition of what morality is, but that turns out to be impossible. There are many rival theories, each expounding a different conception of what it means to live morally, and any definition that goes beyond Socrates’s simple formulation is bound to offend at least one of them.” – Excerpt from The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels.

Additional Resources:

Thought Experiments

Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Dilemma

“Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car hurtling down the track at sixty miles an hour. Up ahead you see five workers standing on the track, tools in hand. You try to stop, but you can’t. The brakes don’t work. You feel desperate, because you know that if you crash into these five workers, they will all die. (Let’s assume you know that for sure.)

Suddenly, you notice a side track, off to the right. There is a worker on that track, too, but only one. You realize that you can turn the trolley car onto the side track, killing the one worker, but sparing the five.

What should you do? Most people would say, “Turn! Tragic though it is to kill one innocent person, it’s even worse to kill five.” Sacrificing one life in order to save five does seem the right thing to do.

Now consider another version of the trolley story. This time, you are not the driver but an onlooker, standing on a bridge overlooking the track. (This time, there is no side track.) Down the track comes a trolley, and at the end of the track are five workers. Once again, the brakes don’t work. The trolley is about to crash into the five workers. You feel helpless to avert this disaster—until you notice, standing next to you on the bridge, a very heavy man. You could push him off the bridge, onto the track, into the path of the oncoming trolley. He would die, but the five workers would be saved. (You consider jumping onto the track yourself, but realize you are too small to stop the trolley.)

Would pushing the heavy man onto the track be the right thing to do? Most people would say, “Of course not. It would be terribly wrong to push the man onto the track.” Pushing someone off a bridge to a certain death does seem an awful thing to do, even if it saves five innocent lives. But this raises a moral puzzle: Why does the principle that seems right in the first case—sacrifice one life to save five—seem wrong in the second?” – Excerpt from Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? by Michael Sandel.

Useful Resources:

Singer’s Drowning Child

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do? […]

UNICEF, Oxfam, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care, and these efforts are reducing the toll. If the relief organizations had more money, they could do more, and more lives would be saved.

Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?” – Excerpt from The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty by Peter Singer.

Useful Resources:

Nozick’s Experience Machine

“[Nozick] has us imagine a machine developed by “super duper neuropsychologists” into which one could enter and have any sort of experience she desires. A person’s brain could be stimulated so she would think and feel that she was reading a book, writing a great novel, or climbing Mt.Everest. But all of the time the person would simply be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to her head. If one worries that she would get bored by a life of pleasant circumstances, there is nothing that disallows her from simply having problematic events programmed in to keep things interesting. As this is a thought experiment, and Nozick doesn’t want readers to be distracted by details that don’t force them to test their intuitions, we are to imagine that the machine is reliable, in fact unbreakable, so these would not be technical or trivial reasons to fail to enter. Nozick asks the reader if she would enter the machine.

Nozick thought we would not enter, concluding that people would follow his intuition that such programmed experiences are not real. He argued that people don’t merely want to experience certain actions, but that they want to actually do them. Nozick suspects that we wouldn’t enter the machine because we don’t merely wish to experience being famous, but we want to be certain types of people who do certain types of thing. For example, I don’t merely want to experience that I am a great novelist, I want to genuinely be a great novelist.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Robert Nozick: Political Philosophy by Dale Murray.

Useful Resources:

Ethical Theories

Consequentialism

“Upon reflection, it starts to seem as though everything we do is in order to bring about some consequence. What does it mean to bring about a consequence? Here is one way to look at it: Bringing about a consequence is a way of changing the world, in a small or a large way. I want the world to be thus-and-so, but it’s not currently thus-and-so, so I will perform this action to make it thus-and-so.

The point is that we often, maybe always, do things to bring about certain consequences. Why would you do anything if you didn’t think it was going to have some result? This has led some thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, to reason, “All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient.” If all of our actions are done for the sake of bringing about some consequence, and the consequences are ultimately what we care about, then it makes sense to judge actions, that is, to determine the moral status of actions, based on their consequences. This view is known as consequentialism: That the consequences of an action are all that matter in moral assessment.” – Excerpt from the 1000 Word Philosophy article: Introduction to Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz.

Useful Resources:

Deontological Ethics

“According to deontology, certain acts are right or wrong in themselves. Deontologists tend to concentrate on those acts which are wrong. So, according to deontologists such as Kant or Ross, promise-breaking is wrong independently of its consequences. Its wrongness does not depend solely on any bad effects promise-breaking may have. A consequentialist—in particular an act-consequentialist — will tend to claim that one should act in whatever way will bring about the best state of affairs. Ross would suggest that it is counter-intuitive to argue that one ought to break a promise for a very small gain in overall good. Note that deontology is not the same as absolutism, according to which certain acts are wrong whatever the consequences. Ross could allow that in exceptional circumstances it is not wrong to break a promise.” – Excerpt from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich.

Useful Resources:

Divine Command Theory

“Philosophers both past and present have sought to defend theories of ethics that are grounded in a theistic framework. Roughly, Divine Command Theory is the view that morality is somehow dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires. The specific content of these divine commands varies according to the particular religion and the particular views of the individual divine command theorist, but all versions of the theory hold in common the claim that morality and moral obligations ultimately depend on God.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Divine Command Theory by Michael W. Austin.

Useful Resources:

Egoism

“Ethical Egoism claims that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively. Psychological Egoism, by contrast, asserts that each person does in fact pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively. Thus, these theories are very different. It is one thing to say that people are self-interested and that our neighbors will not give to charity. It is quite another thing to say that people ought to be self-interested and that our neighbors ought not to give to charity. Psychological Egoism makes a claim about human nature, or about the way things are; Ethical Egoism makes a claim about morality, or about the way things should be.

Psychological Egoism is not a theory of ethics; rather, it is a theory of human psychology. But ethicists have always worried about it. If Psychological Egoism were true, then moral philosophy itself would seem pointless. After all, if people are going to behave selfishly no matter what, then what’s the point of discussing what they “ought” to do? Whatever it is they “ought” to do, they aren’t going to do it. It might be naïve of us to think that our moral theories can matter in the real world.” – Excerpt from The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels.

Useful Resources:

Feminist Ethics

“Feminist Ethics is an attempt to revise, reformulate, or rethink traditional ethics to the extent it depreciates or devalues women’s moral experience. Among others, feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar faults traditional ethics for letting women down in five related ways. First, it shows less concern for women’s as opposed to men’s issues and interests. Second, traditional ethics views as trivial the moral issues that arise in the so-called private world, the realm in which women do housework and take care of children, the infirm, and the elderly. Third, it implies that, in general, women are not as morally mature or deep as men. Fourth, traditional ethics overrates culturally masculine traits like “independence, autonomy, intellect, will, wariness, hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence, product, asceticism, war, and death,” while it underrates culturally feminine traits like “interdependence, community, connection, sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of hierarchy, nature, immanence, process, joy, peace, and life.” Fifth, and finally, it favors “male” ways of moral reasoning that emphasize rules, rights, universality, and impartiality over “female” ways of moral reasoning that emphasize relationships, responsibilities, particularity, and partiality (Jaggar, “Feminist Ethics,” 1992).” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Feminist Ethics by Rosemary Tong and Nancy Williams.

Useful Resources:

Moral Realism/Anti-Realism

“‘Happiness is good.’ ‘We shouldn’t punish innocents.’ ‘Generosity is a good character-trait.’ Ethical realists say that ethical claims such as these are objectively true: their truth does not depend on anyone’s particular opinions, beliefs, preferences, or characteristics. That is, realists believe that there are right answers in ethics. They reject relativism, according to which there are only non-objective ethical facts, and they reject nihilism, according to which there are no ethical facts (a theory sometimes called ‘error theory’), and maybe even no ethical assertions of any kind (a theory sometimes called ‘non-cognitivism’).” – Excerpt from the 1000 Word Philosophy article on Ethical Realism by Thomas Metcalf.

Useful Resources:

Relativism

“Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.  It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Moral Relativism by Emrys Westacott.

Useful Resources:

Utilitarianism

“Bentham, an English moral philosopher and legal reformer, founded the doctrine of utilitarianism. Its main idea is simply stated and intuitively appealing: The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, the overall balance of pleasure over pain. According to Bentham, the right thing to do is whatever will maximize utility. By “utility,” he means whatever produces pleasure or happiness, and whatever prevents pain or suffering. Bentham arrives at his principle by the following line of reasoning: We are all governed by the feelings of pain and pleasure. They are our “sovereign masters.” They govern us in everything we do and also determine what we ought to do. The standard of right and wrong is “fastened to their throne.”” – Excerpt from Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? by Michael Sandel.

Useful Resources:

Virtue Ethics

“Virtue theory is largely based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and as a result is sometimes known as neo-Aristotelianism (‘neo’ meaning ‘new’). Unlike Kantians and utilitarians, who typically concentrate on the rightness or wrongness of particular actions, virtue theorists focus on character and are interested in the individual’s life as a whole. The central question for virtue theorists is ‘How should I live?’ The answer they give to this question is: cultivate the virtues. It is only by cultivating the virtues that you will flourish as a human being.

According to Aristotle, everyone wants to flourish. The Greek word he used for flourishing was eudaimonia. This is sometimes translated as ‘happiness’, but this translation can be confusing since Aristotle believed that you could experience, for instance, great physical pleasure without achieving eudaimonia. Eudaimonia applies to a whole life, not just to particular states you might find yourself in from hour to hour. Perhaps ‘true happiness’ would be a better translation; but this makes it sound as if eudaimonia were a blissful mental state at which you arrive, rather than a way of living your life successfully. Aristotle believed that certain ways of living promote human flourishing, just as certain ways of caring for a cherry tree will lead it to grow, blossom, and fruit.” – Excerpt from Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton.

Useful Resources:

Key Concepts

Animal Ethics

“What place should non-human animals have in an acceptable moral system? These animals exist on the borderline of our moral concepts; the result is that we sometimes find ourselves according them a strong moral status, while at other times denying them any kind of moral status at all. For example, public outrage is strong when knowledge of “puppy mills” is made available; the thought here is that dogs deserve much more consideration than the operators of such places give them. However, when it is pointed out that the conditions in a factory farm are as bad as, if not much worse than, the conditions in a puppy mill, the usual response is that those affected are “just animals” after all, and do not merit our concern.  Philosophical thinking on the moral standing of animals is diverse and can be generally grouped into three general categories: Indirect theories, direct but unequal theories, and moral equality theories.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Animals and Ethics by Scott D. Wilson.

Useful Resources:

Happiness

“What exactly does happiness involve? When people think about happiness in emotional terms, they tend to picture a specific emotion: feeling happy. So powerful is this association that happiness frequently gets reduced to nothing more than cheery feelings or ‘smiley-face’ feelings. This is a radically impoverished understanding of happiness: there’s much more to being happy than just feeling happy.

Think about those periods in your life when you were happiest. Not so much that day when you were elated over a special event, like the birth of a child. Rather, those times of relatively sustained happiness. Not everyone experiences such periods, but if you have, I suspect they looked something like […] good stretches of time wholly absorbed in something you love doing, feeling fully yourself and in your element. Energized, alive, and yet also, deeply settled and at peace—no doubts, no fretting, no hesitation. And yes, feelings of joy here and there, perhaps a good dose of laughter. But those feelings are not the most important part of the story.” – Excerpt from Happiness: A Very Short Introduction by Daniel Haybron.

Useful Resources:

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Value

“Suppose that someone were to ask you whether it is good to help others in time of need. Unless you suspected some sort of trick, you would answer, “Yes, of course.” If this person were to go on to ask you why acting in this way is good, you might say that it is good to help others in time of need simply because it is good that their needs be satisfied. If you were then asked why it is good that people’s needs be satisfied, you might be puzzled. You might be inclined to say, “It just is.” Or you might accept the legitimacy of the question and say that it is good that people’s needs be satisfied because this brings them pleasure. But then, of course, your interlocutor could ask once again, “What’s good about that?” Perhaps at this point you would answer, “It just is good that people be pleased,” and thus put an end to this line of questioning. Or perhaps you would again seek to explain the fact that it is good that people be pleased in terms of something else that you take to be good. At some point, though, you would have to put an end to the questions, not because you would have grown tired of them (though that is a distinct possibility), but because you would be forced to recognize that, if one thing derives its goodness from some other thing, which derives its goodness from yet a third thing, and so on, there must come a point at which you reach something whose goodness is not derivative in this way, something that “just is” good in its own right, something whose goodness is the source of, and thus explains, the goodness to be found in all the other things that precede it on the list. It is at this point that you will have arrived at intrinsic goodness (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a). That which is intrinsically good is nonderivatively good; it is good for its own sake.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value by Michael J. Zimmerman.

Useful Resources:

Justice

“Aristotle teaches that justice means giving people what they deserve. And in order to determine who deserves what, we have to determine what virtues are worthy of honor and reward. Aristotle maintains that we can’t figure out what a just constitution is without first reflecting on the most desirable way of life. For him, law can’t be neutral on questions of the good life.

By contrast, modern political philosophers—from Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century to John Rawls in the twentieth century—argue that the principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of virtue, or of the best way to live. Instead, a just society respects each person’s freedom to choose his or her own conception of the good life.

So you might say that ancient theories of justice start with virtue, while modern theories start with freedom. And in the chapters to come, we explore the strengths and weaknesses of each. But it’s worth noticing at the outset that this contrast can mislead.

For if we turn our gaze to the arguments about justice that animate contemporary politics—not among philosophers but among ordinary men and women—we find a more complicated picture. It’s true that most of our arguments are about promoting prosperity and respecting individual freedom, at least on the surface. But underlying these arguments, and sometimes contending with them, we can often glimpse another set of convictions—about what virtues are worthy of honor and reward, and what way of life a good society should promote. Devoted though we are to prosperity and freedom, we can’t quite shake off the judgmental strand of justice. The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep. Thinking about justice seems inescapably to engage us in thinking about the best way to live.” – Excerpt from Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? by Michael Sandel.

Useful Resources:

Pleasure

“The term “hedonism,” from the Greek word ἡδονή (hēdonē) for pleasure, refers to several related theories about what is good for us, how we should behave, and what motivates us to behave in the way that we do. All hedonistic theories identify pleasure and pain as the only important elements of whatever phenomena they are designed to describe.  If hedonistic theories identified pleasure and pain as merely two important elements, instead of the only important elements of what they are describing, then they would not be nearly as unpopular as they all are. However, the claim that pleasure and pain are the only things of ultimate importance is what makes hedonism distinctive and philosophically interesting.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Hedonism by Andrew Moore.

Useful Resources:

Responsibility

“You probably shouldn’t steal. Common sense tells us that stealing is wrong. But sometimes stealing seems less wrong, or not wrong at all, after we discover the cause of the stealing behavior. For example, if the fact that your family is starving causes you to steal a loaf of bread, many would say that you are not as blameworthy as someone who steals out of greed or spite. And imagine a kleptomaniac who cannot control her stealing behavior. We probably shouldn’t blame her for those actions (though we might encourage her to consult a therapist about her condition).

But why shouldn’t we blame the kleptomaniac? That is to say, how are we justified in holding the kleptomaniac morally responsible? One good reason not to blame the kleptomaniac is that she cannot help her behavior. She possesses a psychological problem that is out of her control. That’s why some defendants are acquitted on grounds of insanity. If you are not in control of your actions, you are not responsible for those actions.

But what if every one of our actions is actually out of our control. That is, what if only seems as if we have the freedom to choose between actions, but we are in fact as undeserving of blame as, say, the severely mentally ill?” – Excerpt from the 1000 Word Philosophy article on Free Will and Moral Responsibility by Chelsea Haramia.

Useful Resources:

Further Reading

The best way to get started studying ethics is to pick up an introductory textbook or a classic work of moral philosophy. The following books are a good place to start:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

Miscellaneous Resources

Lectures:

Wireless Philosophy

Philosophy Tube

The Philosopher’s Arms Podcast

Philosophy Bites Podcast

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


If you are interested in ethics, the following pages may also be of interest: