Week One – Moral Theories (July 8 to July 12)

Morality is the examination of good vs. bad conduct or right vs. wrong actions.  There is no universal agreement about morality, whether or not there is a universally right answer to moral questions.  Some people believe that morality is OBJECTIVE. In other words, they believe that the answer to a moral question is the same for every person in every situation, place or time.  Others believe that morality is SUBJECTIVE, that is, the answers to moral questions differ from situation to situation, person to person, society to society.

The world has always been diverse, but today, more than ever, we find ourselves living in proximity to, working alongside, and able to communicate remotely with, people from many different cultures, religious beliefs, and backgrounds. If we disagree, how can such differences be resolved?

When you were a child, you learned elementary rules of conduct from your parents or other guardians.  And often, when you questioned those rules, you may have heard, “because I said so!”, as justification.  But while this approach might work for adult/child relationships, we as adults need to come up with better justifications for our moral reasoning and actions.

As an example, when you were a child playing with others on the playground, you might have observed another child doing something that you have been forbidden to do.  You might have warned the other child she shouldn’t be doing that.  When she asked why not, you might have replied “because my dad says you’re not supposed to!”, to which the other child might have responded, “your dad is not the boss of me!”.  In other words, the other child would not recognize your father’s authority.

Similarly, people often tell others how to behave and justify their commands with the claim that “God (or the Bible, the Koran, or other religious text) says I’m right.”  But what if someone

  • doesn’t believe in God?
  • follows a different religious tradition?
  • follows a different text?
  • doesn’t interpret the same text in the same way?

Here, as in the playground example above, appealing to an authority that someone else doesn’t recognize is not an effective justification for telling someone else how to live.

The one thing all people have in common is the ability to engage in higher reasoning.  Therefore, the best way to justify one’s own behavior or try to persuade others to change their behavior is to appeal to reason rather than to authority.  This is what moral philosophers do.  They come up with theories of morality, tool kits if you will, which can help us to decide moral questions.

Just as there are different ways of viewing morality, there are also different ideas about what justice entails, and philosophers have written about theories of justice as well.

This week we will look at 2 moral theories:  Utilitarianism and Deontology,  and 3 justice theories: Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, and Egalitarianism.

Basic Vocabulary for Moral Theories

ETHICS – The study of right and wrong

BUSINESS ETHICS – The study of right and wrong human behavior in the context of business

MORAL STANDARDS – concern behavior of serious consequence to human welfare, take priority over self-interest, should be evaluated based on the adequacy of the reason given to justify them

ETIQUETTE – rules for socially acceptable behavior (manners) that do not rise to the level of moral standards

LAWS – rules subject to civil or criminal enforcement that may or may not reflect moral standards

PROFESSIONAL CODES OF ETHICS – Rules that govern the conduct of members of a given profession. They may sometimes seem in conflict with personal morality

ETHICAL RELATIVISM – the belief that morality varies from culture to culture or person to person

CONSEQUENTIALISM – theories that right and wrong depend on the consequences of an action

ETHICAL EGOISM – theory that right and wrong depend on the consequences for oneself.

UTILITARIANISM – theory that right and wrong depend on the consequences for everyone involved

PRINCIPLE OF UTILITY – the right action is the one that results in the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness for everyone affected by that action

DEONTOLOGY – theory that morality consists of acting according to one’s duty

CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE – absolute (no exceptions) rule for fulfilling one’s duty

1ST FORMULATION – Act in such a way that you can will the maxim of your action to be a universal law.

2nd FORMULATION – Act so that you treat humanity (yourself and other people) always as an end and never merely as a means to an end.

Readings for Moral Theories

Please read the following pages for more thorough explanations of utilitarianism and deontology:

Notes on Utilitarianism by Professor Charles D. Kay

Notes on Deontology by Professor Charles D. Kay

Basic Vocabulary for Distributive Justice Theories

DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE – theories about how the world’s goods (tangible and intangible) are distributed.

UTILITARIANISM: Utilitarians want an economic system that will bring more good to society than any other system

LIBERTARIANISM:  Libertarians desire liberty – the freedom to live one’s life as one wants with minimal governmental interference. Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick states that “a [government] that taxes its better-off citizens to support the less fortunate ones violates the liberty of individuals by forcing them to support projects, policies, or persons that have not freely chosen to support.”

EGALITARIANISM: Egalitarians believe that every individual deserves the same opportunities as others. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. No one should be prohibited from any occupation or status in life because of the circumstances of their birth.

Readings for Distributive Justice Theories

Excerpt from “Rich and Poor” by Peter Singer (Utilitarian) 

Excerpt from “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” by Robert Nozick (Libertarian)

Excerpts from “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls (Egalitarian) with notes


You are an attorney, specializing in estate planning.  Your elderly client has asked you to make a change to her will.  In her existing will, all her money is to be used to build a homeless shelter in your town. Now though, she has recently acquired a kitten, and she is worried about what will happen to the kitten when she dies.  So, she asks you to write up a new will leaving all her money to Fluffy.  The new will is to state that after Fluffy dies, whatever money is left over can then be used to build the homeless shelter.  This will delay building the homeless shelter for possibly 15 or more years. You start to reason with her that Fluffy can be taken care of without leaving him all her money, but she doesn’t want to hear it.  You prepare the new will and take it to her for her signature on Friday afternoon.  Two members of her household staff witness the signature, but they don’t know what the document says.  You leave, intending to take the new will to your office on Monday morning. Your elderly client dies Saturday night. Legally, of course, you should take the new will to your office on Monday and start setting things up for the money to go to Fluffy.  But it occurs to you that you could just throw the new will in your fireplace and then go to your office on Monday morning and start setting things up for the homeless shelter as directed in the old will.

In one paragraph each, describe what a utilitarian might do and how the decision might be made, and describe what a deontologist might do and how the decision might be made. Email your paragraphs to me at lisa.bernasconi@sjsu.edu. The subject line should read: WEEK 1 ASSIGNMENT 1 OF 2. Your name should appear on the first line of the body of your email.


In one paragraph each, explain which of the three distributive justice theories is most appealing to you and why, and which is least appealing to you and why.  Refer to both the definitions and the readings. Email your paragraphs to me at lisa.bernasconi@sjsu.edu. The subject line should read: WEEK 1 ASSIGNMENT 2 OF 2. Your name should appear on the first line of the body of your email.