strategies for decision making 1

This weeks reading:

Introduction to Moral Theory

Moral reasoning focuses on questions of value and obligation. What is the right thing to do? How ought we to live? What duties do we have to ourselves and each other? What is the nature of goodness and badness?

What is unique about moral judgements is that they are prescriptive: they tell us what we ought or ought not do. Contrast this with descriptive judgements, which simply tells us what is or isn’t the case. Morality, in other words, commands us to act or forbear in certain ways.

Whenever we make moral decisions, we do so on the basis of a moral theory. A moral theory is like a worldview: it is an interpretive framework through which we view moral issues. Moral theories provide guidance for our actions and offer criteria for evaluating the nature of right and wrong actions.

Moral theories can be divided into two basic categories: subjectivist and objectivist. Subjectivist moral theories see morality as something that we invent. There is no fact of the matter about morality, according to the subjectivist. Objectivist theories, by contrast, view morality as something that we discover. For the objectivist, morality is “out there” in the world waiting to be discovered and understood by us. The study of ethics, therefore, is akin to the study of science. Both deal with mind-independent phenomena.

Under each category fall a variety of moral theories. For the purposes of this class, we will look at four: moral relativism, utilitarianism, deontology, and natural law theory.

Moral Relativism

According a version of subjectivism known as moral relativism, judgments about value and obligation are relative to the individual or culture. Moral claims are like preference claims, neither are objectively true. Thus, for the relativist, morality is something that varies from person to person and culture to culture.

Despite its appeal at the popular level, moral relativism is not seriously entertained by most moral philosophers today.

Review this supplemental article on Moral Relativism.


Utilitarianism, also called consequentialism, is a type of objectivism that views morality in terms of yielding the best overall consequences. For the utilitarian, morality is about maximizing good consequences and minimizing bad ones. Thus, the utilitarian judges all actions according to the principle of utility: we ought to yield the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people. When it comes to the meaning of “good,” utilitarians differ. Some (like John Stuart Mill) analyze goodness in terms of happiness, while others (like Jeremy Bentham) analyze it in terms of pleasure.

Still, all versions of utilitarianism have in common the idea that morality is about maximizing what is good and minimizing what is bad for the greatest number of people.

Review this supplemental article on Consequentialism (utilitarianism).


Whereas the utilitarian approaches morality from the perspective of maximizing the best overall set of consequences, deontology is an objectivist moral theory that focuses on following moral rules or principles. For the deontologist, morality consists of doing your duty, and your duty consists following rules that admit of little to no exceptions. Immanuel Kant, perhaps the best known proponent of this way of doing ethics, famously held that it is wrong to tell a lie even if it means saving a life.

While not all deontologists believe in exceptionless rules (W.D. Ross, for example, argued that rules exist on a hierarchy), all believe that the moral thing to do consists of rule-following.

Review this supplemental article on Deontology.

Natural Law Theory

As the name suggests, natural law theory (sometimes called virtue ethics) is an objectivist moral theory that bases morality on nature. By “natural” or “nature” is meant proper functioning. Something is good if it functions as it should, and bad if it doesn’t. Thus, a good pencil is one that writes well, whereas a bad pencil is one that doesn’t. Our ascriptions of goodness and badness, according to the natural law theorist, are based on our understanding of something’s proper function.

As human beings, our function is to reason. Thus, natural law theory evaluates actions as good or bad based on whether they are in accordance with reason, i.e. whether it is rational. For an action to be in accordance with reason, in turn, is for it to make proper use of our body parts. For example, smoking is wrong because it damages the lungs.

Natural law theory has a rich history. It roots date back to Plato and Aristotle, and it was given renewed analysis during the medieval era by St. Thomas Aquinas. Like the other ethical theories considered so far, there are many different versions of natural law theory (both as a moral and a legal theory). All, however, have in common the idea that goodness can be traced back to something’s proper function.

Review this supplemental article on Natural law theory.

In sum:

Relativism: morality is a matter of opinion.

Utilitarianism: morality is about maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Deontology: morality is about fulfilling your duty.

Natural law theory: morality is about fulfilling your function.


Making Moral Arguments

This week’s lesson covered four different moral theories. In your assignment for this week, you will be working with a group to describe the four moral theories:

Consider the following moral theories:

Moral relativism



Natural law theory (This is the moral theory my slide is focusing on)✔

Each group will create a presentation of the four theories. You will be placed in groups by your instructor and provided a group discussion forum in which to discuss the project. With your group members, create a Google Slides document that allows for collaboration across the group.

Each member of the group will be responsible for outlining and explaining one moral theory. Color code your individual contributions using slides with different colored backgrounds.

Your slides should contain at least the following:

A description of the moral theory you have chosen.

An explanation of the decision-making procedure that it describes.

An application of the decision-making procedure to a specific moral issue of practical relevance (e.g. the morality of telling a lie).

An evaluation of the merits or demerits of the moral theory. Does it offer a plausible account of right/wrong action? Are there any problems that it faces? What are these problems?

You should be as detailed as possible when putting together your presentation. Your presentation should contain an introductory slide, which should contain the name of the group members and the details of their contributions.

When turning in your presentations, each member of the group will submit the entire group’s final presentation as a single document.

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