WK 1: PHI110

What is Moral Philosophy?

Lecturers: Dr. Robert Sinnerbrink, Dr. Mianna Lotz, Professor Catriona Mackenzie

To introduce the unit, each of the unit lecturers gives an overview of their section of the unit. This is followed by general introductory remarks about moral philosophy.

Weeks 1-4:
Ancient Greek ethics. We focus on Epicureanism, Stoicism and Aristotle’s ethics.
Weeks 5-8:
Meta-ethics and metaethical questions. We focus on relativism, self-interest theories, and two main kinds of universalist ethical theories: Kantianism and utilitarianism.
Weeks 9-13:
Practical ethical issues/social philosophy. We focus on animal welfare, global justice, indigenous rights, refugees/asylum seekers.
Ethics and Moral philosophy

What is ethics? Why is morality important for our understanding of society? ‘Ethics’ (from the Greek ethos, meaning habit or custom) is an inquiry into how we should live, what we should do, what kind of person we should be. ‘Ethics’ is often used interchangeably with ‘moral philosophy’, meaning an inquiry into the principles, justifications, or reasons that should guide our action. Ethics or moral philosophy can mean an inquiry into what constitutes the good life for human beings (e.g. Greek virtue ethics); or an inquiry into what makes actions morally right, just, or obligatory for us (e.g. theories of moral rules or principles).

1. Happiness and the Good Life

Philosophy means philo (love of) sophia (wisdom), love of wisdom. Greek ethics examines the questions: how do we live well? What is the ―good life‖ for human beings?
Ethics means reflecting on this question through reason, and finding answers that we can put into practice. Different schools of Greek ethics presented different answers to the above questions:

  • For the Epicureans, the good life for us is the life aiming at pleasure (of the right sort);
  • For the Stoics, the good life is the life aiming at virtue (through reason) and being in harmony with nature;
  • For Aristotle, the good life aims at happiness (eudaimonia), the life of rational activity.

2. Happiness and Morality

  • Much moral philosophy inquires into what we mean by concepts like ―right‖ and ―wrong‖, ―justice‖ and ―injustice‖; it also inquires into the nature of moral duty or obligation.
  • Many moral philosophers argue that we should separate questions about morality (―the right‖) from questions about happiness or well-being (―the good‖).
  • E.g. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that moral philosophy is exclusively concerned with universal principles; we are moral, for Kant, not when we aim at happiness, but when we act out of a sense of our rational duty, which is universally binding on all.

3. Meta-ethics and Moral Psychology

Other questions arise when we think about the meaning of moral judgments, the kind of knowledge we can have about right and wrong, and the reality (or lack of it) that moral values have. For instance:

  • What gives morality its authority? Are moral values and beliefs objectively valid? Or are they merely subjective, depending on the feelings or beliefs of the individuals who hold them?
  • Are there any universal moral principles? Or are moral principles relative to particular cultures, valid in some cultures but not in others?

These questions can be described as belonging to meta-ethics (they are about the status of moral values, principles, and beliefs). Meta-ethical questions concern the epistemological status of moral claims (the knowledge we can have about morality), and the metaphysical status of moral values or principles themselves (the kind of reality they might or might not have).
Connected with these are issues in “moral psychology” – the psychological dimension of morality and our motivation to act morally. For example, can religion provide a basis for morality? Why should I be moral if it doesn‘t suit me? Is it rational to act against self-interest for the sake of morality?
4. Applied Ethics and Social/Political Philosophy
Ethics is practical as much as theoretical. General moral principles often apply to concrete social problems. Consider these examples:

  • The moral status of animals and the environment (animal rights, environmental ethics, climate change);
  • The obligations rich nations have towards poor nations (aid, debt, redistributing wealth or assisting countries in need).
  • The rights of indigenous peoples (redressing historical injustice or dispossession);
  • The right and duties of states in regard to refugees (the morality of accepting/rejecting asylum seekers);

What is right response to these questions? Can we show through reasoned argument what morally appropriate laws or policies might be?
Ethics, morality, social life, and politics prove to be closely interconnected. Greek philosophers, e.g. Aristotle, therefore regarded ethics as an element of political philosophy. Philosophers today make similar claims concerning the social and political implications of moral philosophy or ethics (e.g. Peter Singer).
Philosophy must be practical, not just theoretical. The most important question, for Greek philosophers, was: ‗how should I live?‘


Essential Reading for Week 1:
“Introduction”, from Simon Blackburn (2001), Being Good. Oxford University Press, Oxford; pp 1-8.


  1. Explain in your own words what Blackburn means by the ‘ethical environment’. Why would this environment be ‘strangely invisible’ (p. 2)?
  2. What are some of the features of our current ethical environment (or climate) which Blackburn picks out (pp. 3-4)? Can you think of your own examples?
  3. What does Blackburn mean by ‘moralizing’ (p. 3)? How is this different to seeking to understand the ethical climate?
  4. Blackburn thinks we might we tend to eschew thinking about morality entirely. Do you agree that people have such a tendency? If so, why do you think they do?
  5. After reading this text and listening to the first lecture, what are your thoughts about why reflecting on ethics is important? What difficulties are likely to be encountered in thinking about ethics?

From the blackboard discussions:

invisibleness of the ethical environment

RC: I believe that Blackburn’s concept of the ethical environment is best defined as what we, as a group, find acceptable or unacceptable (pg 1.). It is against this that we measure the health and progress of our society. I agree with Lilian that the ethical environment that Blackburn refers to is concerned with group standards. However I would further this by proposing that individual standards are secondary and this is where we run into some of the cognitive dissonance that Blackburn refers to later in his introduction.
The ethical environment is invisible because most people are unaware of the powerful influence that it exerts on their thinking.

My response: I definitely feel both Rosie and Lilian have covered most of the bases with their answers, however I feel the invisibleness could be expanded upon. I see the invisibleness of our ethical environment as two fold:
1. we choose not to see what frightens/overwhelms/threatens us and this is exemplified by human’s incredible ability for tunnel vision. Ever noticed when you see a new car brand you like that suddenly you can see them everywhere? That’s because you have lifted the blinders off your tunnel vision on that particular brand, not that suddenly there are a lot of those type of cars around. We live in a world of information overload where we tone down the impossible, the difficult and the noise to make life easier and smoother for ourselves. It is very difficult to be ‘present’ in the present.
and also
2. the ethical environment itself is an intangible concept, created of ideas, thoughts, emotions and responses. Because it is unseeable it becomes unknowable and invisible.

what is moralising?

SW: Moralizing is based more on one’s personal views and opinions of what is moral to them. This is different to understanding the ethical climate, as understanding involves considering the personal views and opinions of what is moral to others.

My response: I tend to agree with Sarah’s assessment but I do think semantics do play a part. What precisely is meant by the term “good” or “just”. Do these meanings differ from person to person or from culture to culture. When I visited Thailand, I had the pleasure of visiting a Thai family. While seated on the floor around the dining table, there became an uneasy silence. I realised it was because my culture had taught me to wait until the host began before starting to eat or drink whereas in their culture they felt they couldn’t start until after the guest had begun. These are cultural and societal values that define these words.

Do we eschew morality in everyday life?

EG: I wonder if one way of looking at it would be that people who go to the butcher are eschewing morality while Mark Zuckerberg isn’t.

My Response: That’s an interesting point, Eike. I always tell people eggs don’t come from the bums of chickens but from the supermarket. Same with meat. It makes it much easier to eat, knowing that it just appears in a little prepackaged container on to a shelf. Therefore, I guess I am eschewing morality on a daily basis.

Unsurprisingly, this makes me happy 😀

features of this current ethical climate

“we care much more about our rights than our ‘good’…” – so it’s more important to protect the rights of a dickhead than it is for us to be ‘good’. “We are much more nervous talking about our ‘good’. It seems moralistic, undemocratic or elitist. We are also more nervous talking about duty.” Whereas before we would protect our soul’s morality, now we protect our right for our soul to be private. We spend our moral energy protecting claims against each other. In the old days we would happily jeopardise our rights for societal morality whereas now we are willing to jeopardise our cultural morality for the rights of  the individual. People’s rights remain the same… because we as people are all the same. Morality, on the other hand, is constantly in a state of flux because it changes dependent on society, lifestyles, origin, country, religion and other factors.

reflecting on ethics

One should reflect on ethics because they are continually in a state of flux and dependent on external factors. Societies grow and change and ethics determines whether we, as a society, are moving in a direction that is giving the expected outcomes. Ethics are thought of by human beings, the worlds worst animal on the entire planet. human beings are not ethical by nature, but by nurture. Problems exist when you apply judgements on people or on their actions. Consider Dexter. Dexter is a vigilante, a serial killer and yet he is not judged as a ‘bad’ person because his actions lead to desirable outcomes. However, in the 1940s, the tv series Dexter would have mortified and horrified the general population.

fighting for evil

DG asked for someone to fight for evil. Here is my response:

Ok, so I’m Dexter, your friendly neighbourhood serial killer. I gain pleasure from killing and this feels good to me. I am living the good life because I am satisfying my own need to murder and maim, and I’m also consistent with mowing the lawn. When I see someone who is smiling and I don’t like, i like to knock them out, shove a needle into their neck and then slice them up into little pieces. Then I get great enjoyment from tying the bits up in garbage bags and dropping them off into the ocean.

I’d be happiest if I had a body a night, but sometimes life gets messy/tricky and I can only do one per episode/oops i mean week.

I’m content with my life (more Epicurean than anything else) and almost completely aware of my ethical environment and am satisfying its needs.
I am Adolf and I’m your friendly meglomanic. I believe there is an elite group of people who deserve to run this world and should run it the way I want it run. I honestly believe I will be saving the planet and my people by eliminating others. I am doing this for the good of the people, not just for myself. I am planning on exterminating the rest of the bad populations so that we can all flourish and grow.

I will take pleasure in looking at the big picture and delegating the actual work of dispatching the filthy, inferior races to other people because I’m busy concocting a plan for our future. For all our future.

Because of my plan, the world will be a better place to live and this gives me pleasure. Seeing my bidding done by others who obviously love me, validates my point of view and I know that I am living the good life. I am impenetratable and certain of my facts and point of view. I am happy. I am good.

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