Dr. Ari Santas' Notes on

 Basic Concepts in Ethics

A. What is Ethics?

Definition #1: Ethics is a branch of philosophy

not much help, huh? There's an obvious question here:

What is Philosophy?

a good question! There are various competing answers, but I will only sketch for you a basic idea-- one that will hopefully give you insight into why anyone would ever spend any time with it.

old conceptions: it started out as cosmology and metaphysics, but later came to include all areas of inquiry

The Greeks (Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle)

The Medievals (church fathers)

The Moderns (modern science): some divergences

new conceptions: today, philosophy has no particular subject matter, nor does it necessarily espouse any particular beliefs

it's not something you have; but something you do

In short, philosophy is inquiry directed towards the resolutions of problems in whatever field they may arise

ethics, as a branch of philosophy, is therefore a form of problem-solving

Definition #2: Ethics is a branch of philosophy that inquires into the resolution of moral problems

B. What is a Moral Problem?

What distinguishes moral problems from nonmoral ones? And what is a problem?

a problem, quite simply, is the inhibition or thwarting of activity-- like a car getting stuck in the mud, or two countries disagreeing over land

a moral problem is such a thwarting that exists in the context of a moral situation as opposed to a nonmoral one.

What is a moral situation?  

Moral Situation

conflict of interest or value

Non-Moral Situation

no conflict

moral action

appropriate response to a moral situation

immoral action

inappropriate response to a moral situation

Definition #3: Ethics is the branch of philosophy that inquires into conflicts of interest and/or values (moral problems) in an attempt to solve them

a question remains, however, concerning the nature of this inquiry

what counts as good inquiry?

C. Rationality

If there's one rule to go by in philosophy, it's this: Be Rational, Reasonable in your inquiries

but what does it mean to be rational? Is it simply the offering of reasons?

offering reasons is certainly a necessary condition, but is it sufficient?

What about Rationalization?

What's the difference between Rationality and Rationalization?


begins with a question

proposes hypotheses and tests them against the evidence

inquiry is primary, conclusion secondary

change conclusions as evidence dictates

reasons are held independently of desires and interests


begins with a foregone conclusion

makes conclusions without testing against evidence

concl. is primary, inquiry secondary

hold conclusions tenaciously

reasons are turned into excuses for getting what's desired

D. Rationality Defined

Rationality consists in solving a problem by beginning with what you know, and moving to what you didn't know, but now do through the use of reasons and evidence

e.g., modus ponens (from 'if A then B' and 'A', infer 'B')

Rationalization consists in beginning with you want to believe and looking for any means to making it look rational, but not honestly considering the weight of the evidence.

Dialectical Rationality: when the problem is between two or more persons, rationality in solving it consists in beginning with what we agree on, and moving towards what we didn't agree on, but now do, by means of commonly held reasons and principles

this last kind of reasoning is the heart of moral reasoning-- finding a common ground and building on it to achieve new levels of agreement.

E. Ethics and Morality

morality, like ethics, involves dealing with moral problems; but it is not the same thing as ethical theory

morality, as I define it, is nothing more than a set of rules (social habits), implicit and explicit, for guiding behavior

but it is not something that is simply made up by anyone or for any purpose

it is a social institution, in fact, the most fundamental of all institutions

definition of morality: an institutionalized set of rules whose purpose it is to guide behavior towards the avoidance and/or resolution of moral problems

compare to the definition of ethics

if you recall that a moral problem is one that involves a conflict of interests or values, morality is simply a means to dealing with such conflicts

there are two ways in which ethics serves as a key element in the development of morality

first, presumably, there was a point in time when a given tradition had not formed yet, and if the rule had not been formed by mere fiat (too often the case), it had been created out of moral reasoning about which course is best to follow.

some of the first rules, no doubt, grew out of a rational realization that certain sorts of conduct were conducive to a good society

others, unfortunately, were designed for the benefit of the ruling class; but if there's any hope to revise or dismantle these arbitrary rules, rational principles will lead the charge

second, it is often the case that our traditions and our consciences cannot deal with a given problem

here is where moral reasoning and reflection can help:

1) there's a new problem to which old rules don't apply

2) the old rules are flawed, or conflict with one another

F. Means and Ends

When evaluating a rule or particular course of action, it's important to make a distinction between the end in view and the means to its achievement

an end is a goal, or aim-- it's what we're trying to achieve in our actions or policies

a means is what we do to to achieve our goals

Traditionally, the two have been associated with another pair of concepts: intrinsic and extrinsic goods

an intrinsic good is something that has value in and of itself (these have been designated as ends-in-themselves)


an extrinsic good (or, instrumental good) is something that is good only because it achieves something else (these have been designated means-to-ends)


many modern theorists have abandoned this distinction, but whether or not one holds it, it is acknowledged that means and ends most often operate on a continuum


G. Legal vs. Moral

an important distinction to make in the discussion of public policy and ethics in general is that between legality and morality

though the two are related and overlap, they are not the same

in general, the moral rules of a society are not the same thing as its laws—nor should they be

illegal----/---> immoral

possibly a bad law (e.g., Jim Crow, apartheid)

immoral----/---> illegal

not all rules should be legally enforced (promising)

legal----/---> moral

legal permissibility does not make it right (marital rape until recently)

a moral system must ask not only what the rules should be, but also how to go about enforcing them

that is the question of sanctions

H. Levels of Social Control

Getting people to follow the rules once we've figured them out is a problem in itself

it is often a philosophical problem inasmuch as there can be great disagreement over this question, and much inquiry needed

in fact, many of the issues that we'll be dealing with concern the extent to which law show be used to promote social ends

These are the basic kinds of sanctions (means of enforcement)

Legal Sanctions:

laws---------force & incentive (reward and punishment)

Moral Sanctions:

(a) norms-----social pressure (praise and blame)

(b) conscience--self pressure (pride and guilt)

These amount to 3 forms of social control:

forcing compliance by coercion and strong positive incentive;

pressuring compliance by peer pressure and stigma;

allowing internal feelings of the individual to guide them.

the question is, which ones do we use for which rules?

I. Normative and Descriptive Claims

Another important distinction to make in this study is that between claims that are descriptive and those that are normative (prescriptive)

some claims simply describe what is the case while others tell us what ought to be the case

Consider the following examples:

(1a) Sally slapped Johnny after he kissed her

(1b) Sally ought to slap Johnny after he kisses her

(2a) The abortion pill is illegal in the U.S.

(2b) The abortion pill ought to be illegal in the U.S.

Note that the truth of one does not support the truth of the other

if something is the case, it doesn't follow that it ought to be

you can't say 'x' is right simply because people are doing 'x'

and if it ought to be the case, there's no reason to believe that it is!

In other words, you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is', or vice versa

J. Why We Need Ethics

A good question is, why do we need philosophy? why ethics? why rationality?

why make all these fine distinctions?

why not simply let the laws of the land, tradition, and common sense deal with our problems?

Some may answer that philosophy is valuable in its own right, that deep thinking is its own reward. What say you?

I shall not try to defend this view, for there's a more practical reason:

using rationality in solving ethical problems makes it more likely that our solutions will be acceptable to those with whom we are in conflict.

basically, we need philosophical approaches to problems because many of them cannot be solved by an appeal to our "common sense" and intuition.

as we'll see, traditional rules and personal conscience, while very useful, is quite limited

Today, there are a number of social crises that traditional rules and ideas have not been able to solve:

racism and race relations

abortion and euthanasia

health care delivery


death penalty