Applying Ethical Theories to Business


  • Utilitarianism considers the majority affected by a certain action – general welfare is the most important
  • This is often seen as a good business policy as criticism frequently arises from businesses damaging the majority (for example workers in factories) for the benefit of the minority
  • This does however lead to the neglect of certain individuals sometimes leading to negative effects, for example a subsistence farmer having to give up his livelihood for a dam
  • The best business transactions can be said to be the ones which benefit all those involved – the consumer, the employee, the employer etc.
    • All stakeholders need considering, not just the majority benefit (Singer’s preference approach)
  • Economically utilitarianism seems to be a sensible approach due to the use of cost/benefit analysis 
  • However as so often is the case when criticising utilitarianism, one cannot ignore the fact that we cannot predict all consequences
    • The Ford Pinto Case, 1970’s 
      Ford wanted to create a small affordable car, each of which would cost $2,000
    • To save money making them the fuel tank was moved to the back, which led to a fault resulting in 8/11 explosions when tested & would cost Ford $11 per car to fix.
    • A cost benefit analysis was done; the estimated cost to fix was $137 million, the estimated cost of possible damages/lawsuits was $48 million – therefore Ford decided not to fix the fault
    • Over 500 were burn victims as a result of explosions, one case awarded $125 million in punitive damages
    • Cost/benefit had failed
  • The other obvious downside to cost benefit analysis aside from the inability to predict outcomes leading to inaccuracies, is that human life/health cannot be quantified as a monetary value – cost benefit cannot be used ethically and can barely be used economically

Kantian Ethics 

  • Kant believed that morality in all spheres of human life should be grounded in reason
  • Kant’s categorical imperative formulation relating to universalisation obstructs such acts as abuse of workers, lying to customers as these cannot possibly be made universal maxims
  • Kant also maintains that the highest form of good is acting from “the good will“; acting due to duty alone, not for any other motives
    • Therefore for businesses to cultivate a positive image or treat consumers well in order to maximise profits is not genuinely moral
    • Kant would argue that the only motive behind this should be one’s duty of being honest, fair, giving etc.
    • While this may be seen as idealistic, Kant has a point – why should businesses (which as established are merely the people behind them) be allowed to be calculative & cruel whilst appearing to be moral? Though it may not be the main or only motive as Kant would wish, acting due to duty should be part of business ethics
  • Another formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative states that one should never treat someone as a means to an end
  • This means that as all business transactions are essentially relationships; consumer – employee, consumer – business etc. no one must be used or taken advantage of in business


  • Modern Kantian John Rawls argued for a fairer society in terms of business and business ethics
  • Rawls argued that we can see how unfair and unbalanced the world is by stepping back and looking upon it behind “a veil of ignorance”
    • By this Rawls meant we should look upon the world as if we have not yet been born, as if we are being offered the chance to take the lottery of life and be born anywhere in the world
  • He asks would anyone actually want to be born into such a world? The answer is no as millions live below the poverty line, live without clean water or shelter etc.
  • By looking at the world in this way, we can then ask ourselves what would we do to make the world a fairer place? To make the birth lottery odds seem more favourable?
  • We can then go about correcting the inequalities in our world
    • This is seen as idealistic by some, though a simple look back through history shows us that there have been times when change has come about for no reason other than to create equality 
    • During WW2 many children from the inner cities of the UK were evacuated out to live in the countryside for their own safety
    • The wealthier people living in the country were horrified at the state of the evacuees and their living conditions back home
    • This spurred on the 1942 Beveridge report which promised an end to poverty and inequality – which was then fortified by the creation of the welfare state & then the NHS by the post-war labour party
    • People in a position of power saw atrocities in the world and sought to change them for the better

Virtue Ethics 

  • Virtue ethics from Aristotle shows that business cannot be separated from society as everyone is part of the wider community
  • Virtue ethics is concerned with the traits which make harmonious living possible, avoiding extremes and following the golden mean
  • Following this, ethics in business should be based upon avoiding corruption and abuse which would violate these principles as well as reaching eudaimonia
  • However; one of Aristotle’s initial ideas was based upon every human having a telos in his or her community
    • Aristotle’s functionality can be applied to a slave and a slave owner. The slave’s way of reaching eudaimonia is to be a good slave – not overwork, obey orders without grovelling
    • This suggests that slave labourers could be justifiable in business ethics as long as they do their job to achieve eudaimonia
    •  This is a part of virtue ethics rectified by modern ethicists such as Alasdair MacIntrye, who did not feel that Aristotle’s functionalism could translate to modern times

Religious Ideas 

Biblical Ethics 

  • St John Chrysostom“wealthy people steal money from society by hoarding it” 
  • In the Bible and indeed in early Christian society (and even with the development of Protestantism) the church was based upon the peasantry expressing their love for God
  • Wealth was seen as corruption – something which could not make a man and could even turn him from God
  • Despite this, corruption in the Catholic church flourished, with Bishops committing the crime of pluralism (multiple titles) and hoarding wealth
  • This was one factor which led to the spread of humanism and then Lutheranism – the people’s growing discontent with the Catholic church
  • Protestantism promised a more true to the Bible way of faith, away from the Pope who was criticised for the corrupt church

Natural Law 

  • Businesses have to work well and fairly in order to promote an ordered society
  • Scams, lying to customers or abusing workers would all be considered against this primary precept

The Protestant Ethic 


  • Max Weber, a sociologist, identified the influence of the church on early development of capitalism
  • He stated that developments in Protestantism such as Calvinism gave the population a need for evidence of election – if only a certain number of people went to heaven, a person wanted to be in that number
  • Those who are elected by God naturally act in a truly Christian way, for example they work incredibly hard and give back what they earn into the church and community
  • A chosen person would selflessly do this, meaning that in the 16th century onward people were eager to prove that they too were elected by God
    • Hard work was evidence of salvation

The Prosperity Gospel 


  • Joel Osteen, an American pastor, promoted the idea of the prosperity gospel; get rich, get healthy, get happy
    • You are not a sick person trying to get well, you are a healthy person trying to shake sickness
    • God didn’t create you to be average
  • Osteen argues to be a victor not a victim – obtain wealth health and maintain good relationships
  • He argued that there was no reason for people to live in squalor or accept poverty
    • Jesus himself however came from poverty, he was also victimised and abused
    • As well as this people’s traumas or situations often are not easily overcome by a change in mindset

What is Business Ethics?

“The one and Only Responsibility of a Business is to Increase Profits” – Milton Friedman 

  • Friedman argued that when it comes to the idea of ethics, business is no place for them
  • He stated that the point of a business is to turn a profit for the stakeholders, which is does by providing a service (which can be labelled a secondary responsibility)
  • In order to fully understand this quote, we must first ask – what is a business?
  • A business is not a physical thing. Think of Google. The Google HQ, though a massive building and a hive of activity, is not the business itself. A business is not one physical thing, one machine
  • A business is the people which make it up – the man who had the idea to begin it, his stakeholders, the workers etc.
  • If we accept that humans are expected to act morally and with ethics in mind – then why does this change for a business?
  • If a business is just a group of people – why are they exempt from the same expectations as the rest of humanity?
  • We can conclude that Milton Friedman is entirely wrong, as he makes the mistake of trying to identify a business as one single, physical entity.
  • A business is the people which make it up – and if humans are expected to act ethically then businesses have to as well 

The Relationship Between Business and Consumers 

  • In the digital age, consumers have far more control than ever before over the reputation of a business
  • While customer service and satisfaction has always been a priority, now it is even easier for tales of bad service to spread & damage a business’ reputation
  • Due to consumer outcry many companies have been forced to change their behaviour, for example Nike and Gap over child labour, in the face of boycotts & very negative press
  • This affects ethics as it is more important than ever for businesses to be ethical as the consumer has so much power their displeasure could sink an operation
    • Is this a negative thing? Does this lead to businesses only acting ethically to maximise profits?
    • Does motive even matter? Is it ok if a business acts morally regardless of the reason behind it

The Relationship Between Employers and Employees 

  • Employers & employees rely on a mutually beneficial relationship
  • If the employee is paid well, treated well etc. then they work for the company & fulfil their role
  • However, these such relationships do not always work out, whistle blowing is now far more acceptable
    • The Watergate Scandal of 1972 for example, a whistle blower risked his life to reveal the corruption and truth
  • Should whistle blowing be considered ultimately ethical as it reveals previously concealed unsavoury actions of a company? Or is it a misplacement of trust in the employee who betrays the employer?


  • “The reduction in the difference between one economy and another, trade all over the world, both within and between different countries becomes increasingly similar”
  • In recent years the rate of globalisation has increased rapidly due to:
    • Technological developments, especially in communications
    • Transport developments
    • Deregulation – increase in privatisation & countries able to own businesses in other countries
    • Removal of capital exchange controls so money can be moved more easily between countries
    • Free trade
    • Change in consumer tastes, expansion of the foreign market
    • Emerging markets in developing countries
  • All of this means that busniesses are freer to choose where they operate from, where to locate factories and select labourers
  • This has meant that much infrastructure has relocated to countries with more lax labour laws such as India
  • Globalisation brings several problems
    • Trade is often not fair, some of the richest countries such as the USA have trade barriers to protect their national interests
    • Increase in labour abuses – as laws improve in certain countries industry just moves to others
    • As well as lax labour laws the countries often have different restrictions on CO2 emissions, pollution etc. which leads to further abuse of the environment

Applying Ethical Theories to Environment


Jeremy Bentham 


  • Bentham centred his ideas on the notion of sentience 
    • The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?
  • His approach can be said to be sentient being centred 
  • This suggests that factoring in Bentham’s famous Principle of Utility, animals cannot be ignored when making ethical decisions
  • While problems such as deforestation and pollution were more recognised after Bentham’s time, this can be applied as such issues do negatively affect animal populations
    • Therefore we must limit actions which cause suffering to sentient beings, including humans and animals
  • Bentham does not qualify whether he considers human rights to be on a par with animal rights, which makes it difficult to apply Benthamite utilitarianism to environment
    • When using the Hedonic calculus to make an ethical decisions concerning the environment for example, would one factor in the pain caused to an animal as equal to the pain of a human? This would affect decisions
  • Modern utilitarians may apply a cost benefit analysis when making environmental decisions
    • This causes several problems; how can one quantify natural beauty or aesthetic pleasure compared to revenue?
    • Should environmental decisions be made based upon a formulaic system? One weakness of utilitarianism is that it is entirely consequentialist yet we cannot predict the consequences of our actions
  • However, Greg Craven in his book “What’s the Worst that Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate” successfully uses a cost benefit analysis in order to argue for action protecting the environment, suggesting that the theory could have some merit in making more general decisions in environmental ethics
  • (Greg’s argument)

John Stuart Mill


  • Mill took a more anthropocentric approach to the environment
  • He argued that biodiversity is actually maintained by humans, taking Kew gardens as an example the lavish grounds & plants do not arise naturally, without gardeners the place would succumb to grasses & weeds
    • While this is true in some environments where dominant species naturally arise and reduce biodiversity (grasslands, moors), this is definitely not the case across the globe, the rain forest being a clear example
  • Mill argued that nature is cruel, stating that the things humans are sent to prison for are “nature’s everyday performances”
  • He argued that the reason behind preserving the environment should be for human benefit
  • Mill notoriously viewed animals as lower than humans, labelling “lower pleasures” as animalistic drives
  • As a qualitative utilitarian, Mill recognised the significance of natural beauty and aesthetic pleasure, the beauty of the natural environment should be preserved due to this

Peter Singer 

Australian philosopher Peter Singer poses for an portrait at Yale University Press office in London

  • Peter Singer was strongly against speciesism and viewed animals and humans as equals
  • Speciesism draws an arbitrary line
  • He too took a sentient being centred approach
  • Singer also favoured his theory of preference utilitarianism – considering the preferences of all those involved
    • In the case of environment, this included animals
  • However animal preferences can be difficult to assume (the very fact of this already suggests speciesism does not draw an “arbitrary” line but whatever), as already argued by Mill animals often do not act with the preferences of others or even themselves (in the long term) in mind

Kantian Ethics 


  • Kant’s theory of ethics is generally seen as very anthropocentric due to his distinction that humans are separate from animals due to their faculty of rationality
  • However Kant makes the distinction that animals should not be abused and that there are moral limits regarding the treatment of animals
    • Animals must not be overworked or abused
  • Kant saw killing animals for food (human survival) as fine, but for sport as wrong
  • This originates from his belief that people who take pleasure in abusing, using and killing animals are likely to treat humans with similar disrespect due to their lack of empathy
    • While Kant states animals are not rational, he does not deny that they are sentient & so can feel pain, for a human to inflict such pain is to act without a moral conscience
  • On a wider level, abuse of the environment such as pollution or deforestation cannot be universalised under the first formulation of the categorical imperative, therefore making such actions unethical
  • Therefore while Kant notes that humans are superior due to their rationality and that the environment can and should be used to allow the survival of humans, he does not condone abuse of the environment, its resources or animals

Virtue Ethics 

  • Environmental virtue ethics does not ask why environmental preservation is important, for humanity or otherwise, but rather views what characterises an environmentally good person
  • To respect and protect the environment fits in well with the virtues and therefore allows humans to reach eudaimonia

Secular Approaches to the Environment

Libertarian Extension – Deep Ecology 


  • Arne Naess in his paper “The Shallow and the Deep, Long Range Ecology Movement” stated there were two types of ecology movements
    • 1. Concerned with pollution, the depletion of natural resources & the usefulness of the earth for humans; anthropocentric 
    • 2. Concerned with richness, diversity and the intrinsic value of the natural world; deep ecology 
  • Naess argued for the intrinsic value & worth of the natural environment
  • According to Naess every living organism, whether human, animal or vegetable has an equal right to live & blossom, which he called ecosophy 
    • By ecosophy I mean a philosophy of ecological harmony or equilibrium
  • Naess rejected any ideas that humans were more important because they had a soul, use reason or have consciousness
  • Nature does not exist to benefit humans, all organisms have a right to life regardless of their usefulness to humans

The Deep Ecology Platform 

  1. All life has value in itself – regardless of its usefulness/worth to humans
  2. Richness and diversity contribute to life’s well being and have value in themselves
  3. Humans have no right to reduce richness or diversity except to satisfy vital needs in a responsible way
  4. The impact of humans in the world is excessive and getting worse
  5. Human lifestyles & population are key elements of this impact
  6. The diversity of life can flourish only with reduced human impact 
  7. Basic ideological, political, economic structures must change
  8. Those who accept the forgoing points have an obligation to participate

Naess proposes that humans should:
– radically reduce the human population
– abandon all goals of economic growth
– conserve diversity of species
– live in small, self reliant communities
– “touch the earth lightly”


+ Notes the obvious negative effects of human activities on the earth
+ Diversity, richness & protection of species is important in maintaining biodiversity which sustains us and other species
– “Rapidly reducing population” is both inhumane and illogical; if all species have the same rights to reproduce & live why do humans adhere to different rules?
– Humans are different from animals and plants. Taking the arguments from Aristotle and Kant we can see that humans have rationality. This is not speciesist – if a cat developed higher levels of reasoning it too should be treated the same as humans
– The natural world does not follow ecosophy, take Mill’s argument that nature is inherently cruel, “crimes for which man are locked up are natures everyday performances”
– As well as this the immersion of a dominant species is a natural stage in biological succession – following primary succession & colonisation of barren land, biodiversity decreases as a dominant species emerges & takes advantage of the habitat

Ecological Extension – Eco-Holism 


  • James Lovelock developed the Gaia hypothesis in order to promote the unity of all organisms
  • The hypothesis challenges anthropocentrism & instead views humans as part of one whole – Gaia
    • The world is an ego-centric, self regulating biological organism
  • Lovelock saw the earth as a self regulating living organism
  • He argued that the almost intelligent maintenance of conditions needed for life to flourish on earth were not controlled by God but by Gaia
  • This rejects the Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest & suggests that Gaia alters the conditions of earth herself
  • According to Lovelock life cannot be destroyed
    • Humans may well be wiped out, but humans are just part of Gaia and Gaia herself would go on living, new species would develop & thrive
  • This challenges humans to see themselves as part of a whole with responsibility to respect that whole – if we abuse Gaia we risk our own survival
    • Civilisation is in imminent danger & has to use nuclear energy now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet


+ Recognises the importance of a change in human behaviour in order to survive & maintain the environment
+ Recognises symbiosis – the interdependence of all things
– Rejects evolution for which there is a multitude of evidence; the fossil record, genetic similarities, anatomical & biochemical similarities
– Takes the idea of a symbiotic organism as earth too literally; earth is literally a rock in space. There is no capacity for thought or action
– Commits a fallacy in rejecting anthropomorphism but basing the entire argument for protecting the environment on anthropomorphic goals, ie; if we don’t act humanity will die out. Following Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, it surely doesn’t matter whether or not we protect the environment, Gaia will remove us as the virus ailing her & go on to protect biodiversity

Conservation Ethics – Shallow Ecology 

  • Takes a different approach to the two above theories
  • Reviews the environment in terms of it’s instrumental value – the value given to it by humans
  • The environment is a means to an end, the conservation of it is important for the survival of the human race
  • Conservation ethics looks at the use of the environment in terms of its utility to humans
  • It is this ethic which the majority of environmental actions taken today are formed upon, such as the 1997 Kyoto summit
  • Biodiversity should be preserved as humans benefit from it
  • Shallow ecology accepts environmental damage if humans can stand to benefit from it
    • The clearing of rain forests can be justified to provide cheap beef & homes for humans, however it can equally be criticised as it disadvantages humans in the long run
  • Instrumental goodness does not have to relate purely to economic utility 
  • Many can gain social & personal benefits from biodiversity or preservation, such as swimming with dolphins, or botanical therapy


  • Michael La Bossiere argues that species should be allowed to die out as this is just part of the natural process of evolution & natural selection (corroborated by Chris Packham)
  • Humans have no obligation to prevent natural extinction,  but this does not give them a free hand to eradicate species, even when it would benefit humanity


+ Focuses on the environment in terms of humans which is the current and easiest way to both explain and understand the importance of maintaining the earth
+ Does not just focus on economic gain, but also on social impacts. This means that the environment cannot justifiably be destroyed simply for capitalism
+ Can and does promote protection of biodiversity, species and the environment
+ Based on instrumental value – is there really intrinsic value? If a rock was not used to build a house, provide shelter for animals etc. (all value placed upon it by other things) surely it would have no value?
+ Promotes scientific theories such as natural selection & evolution – surely meddling to prevent natural extinction is as troublesome as deliberately causing it? Humans would still be altering ecosystems & their natural passage
– Too subjective & confusing, taking the above example of deforestation
Some would argue there is intrinsic value 
– Seen as too anthropocentric 

The Religious Approach to the Environment


  • The foundation of ethical approach to the environment for Christians is the Bible
  • We are given dominion over all creatures
  • “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds in the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth'” – Genesis 1:26

Australian philosopher Peter Singer poses for an portrait at Yale University Press office in London

  • Peter Singer criticised this approach, labelling it anthropocentric 
    • According to Dominant Western tradition, the natural world exists for the benefit of human beings
  • However the creation story is up for interpretation, and many see it as celebrating the entirety of God’s creations
  • He seems to value the natural world, seeing all of his creations as “good” and instructing them to “go forth and multiply
  • This suggests that the natural world has intrinsic value because God created it
  • St Francis of Assisi amongst others understood that the natural world is inherently good & a sign of God’s goodness
    • Suggesting that while dominion values the role of human beings in the world higher than the role of other creations, the world can still have intrinsic value


  • Dominion, despite its recognition of the beauty & goodness in the natural world, advocates for its use by human beings however they choose
  • According to Singer this is the root of our environmental problems – that we view the world as something to be tamed & controlled for human use
  • The second creation account in Genesis 2 suggests that man is put in Eden to protect and preserve it, and thus to protect & preserve the natural world
    • The Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it” – Genesis 2:15
  • Humans may be the peak of creation, but part of this comes with the role of stewardship – as we are made in the image of God with rationality we have a duty to protect the earth
  • The world has intrinsic value as it is created and maintained by God, therefore it must be preserved & protected
  • As ultimately Christian ethics is rooted in a good relationship with God, to avoid dishonesty, exploitation & using the world for selfish gain (as happened in the garden of Eden) is beneficial
  • It shows God man is repenting & changing his ways

End Times Theology 

  • Some Christians follow Singer’s “worst case scenario” interpretation of creation & mankind’s role in the world
  • End times theologians believe that man has utmost dominion over the world, essentially meaning that they can do with it what they please
  • Believers in this theory have no concern of the consequences of mistreating the natural world – as God has promised the rapture & the eventual end of times, there will be another new world, the Kingdom of God, for all those who follow him
    • Therefore it doesn’t matter how humans treat this earth


  • Pastor John Hagee says that the environmental & social catastrophes of today are portents of the Rapture; when all Christians will be taken up into heaven
    • All over the earth graves will explode & their occupants will soar into the heavens

Secular Views on Conscience

Sigmund Freud’s Approach 


  • Sigmund Freud concluded that the human personality consisted of three areas;
    • 1. The Super-ego: The set of moral controls given to us by outside influences. Our moral code or “conscience”, often in conflict with the id
    • 2. The Ego: The conscious self, the part seen by the outside world
    • 3. The Id: The unconscious self, the part of the mind containing basic instincts & suppressed memories. It is amoral & only concerned with itself
  • For Freud, conscience is most clearly connected with the sense of guilt we feel after doing something deemed as “wrong” – doing something which goes against our conscience
  • Conscience is therefore just a construct of the mind, for religious people it comes from notions about God and the importance of adhering to his rules in order to achieve salvation
  • In non religious people it is formed from internalised authority, fear of feeling guilt we have previously felt when told we were doing something wrong by an authority figure
  • Freud did not believe in moral law & felt that morality is developed person to person based on their own experiences – it is culturally dependant which therefore explains relativity across the globe
  • Children learn moral behaviour from their parents, authority figures etc. and the super ego internalises the disapproval of others, creating the guilty conscience

Jean Piaget’s Approach 


  • Piaget developed upon Freud’s ideas of the socially constructed conscience by identifying different stages of conscience 
  • According to Piaget as a child grows so does it’s capacity to reason & therefore make moral decisions – morality & conscience depend on cognitive development 
  • Piaget identified two stages of moral development:
    • 1. Heteronomous morality: (between the ages of 5 & 10) conscience is still immature. Rules are no to be broken & punishment is expected if rules are broken. The consequence of an action will show if it’s right or wrong
    • 2. Autonomous morality: (approx. ages 10+) children develop their own rules and understand how rules operate in and help society. The child is less dependant on the moral authority
  • Lawrence Kohlberg followed Piaget’s ideas and identified the passage of moral development as we age
  • Kohlberg identified that people move from behaving in socially acceptable ways because they are told to by authority figures & want to gain approval, to keeping the law, and then to caring for others and having a respect for universal principles
  • Both Kohlberg and Piaget felt that conscience develops from socialisation
  • If authority figures preach destructive rules onto children as the moral truth, they will grow up believing this is the moral truth
  • This explains subjectivity in conscience, right & wrong and cultural relativity

Erich Fromm’s Approach 


The Authoritarian Conscience 

  • Fromm believed that all humans are influenced by external authorities; parents, teachers, Church leaders, who apply rules and punishments for breaking them
  • These rules and the consequences as well as the fear of the consequences are internalised by the person
  • A guilty conscience is a result of displeasing the authority, God can be that authority, creating a powerful fear & motivation for people to follow his laws
  • Disobedience results in guilt due to the internalised rules of the authority, which in turn weakens our own resolve, making us more submissive to the authority 
  • For example the way the National Socialists manipulated the consciences of the German people to feel guilty for not hating the Jewish people
  • The authoritarian conscience is an external force, it (generally) should not be followed or trusted, as it is formed only on the aims of the authority controlling the person

The Humanistic Conscience 

  • Fromm viewed the humanistic conscience as the internal, self assessing force in humans 
  • The humanistic conscience is much healthier, rather than reviewing actions based upon their ability to conform and please authority, it reviews human success, flourishing
  • We use our own discoveries in life, as well as the teachings and examples of others, to give us personal integrity and moral honesty
  • This is different to the enslavement of the authoritarian conscience, it should be listened to, and while not founded in God or an absolute moral code, is generally a good way of assessing the morality of actions



Religious Views on Conscience

Thomas Aquinas’ Approach


  • Thomas Aquinas viewed conscience as the natural ability to see right from wrong
  • He believed all people aim for what is good & avoid the bad, this he called the synderesis rule 
  • He felt that this was innate & sought good
  • He saw conscience in two parts, the synderesis and the conscientia
    • Synderesis: repeated use of what Aquinas termed “right reason” by which a person gathers basic knowledge on how to do good and avoid evil
    • Conscientia: the actual ethical judgement & decision made by a person based on their rationality
  • Conscience for Aquinas could distinguish right from wrong & lead us to make balanced moral decisions based on the situation using our rationality
  • Aquinas did note that conscience can be mistake, & he identified two different ways in which people can fall away from the guidance of the God given conscience;
    • “To err invincibly” – to do wrong through no fault of their own, for example if the conscience is not yet well developed & a person has not yet been made aware of a basic moral rule
    • “To err vincibly” – to stray from conscience & its guidance & to do wrong deliberately
  • Aquinas argued that one should always follow the conscience, by this meaning that one should always use basic moral principles & apply them to each situation
  • Aquinas by this did not mean that conscience is always right, if your basic moral principles are wrong then your actions will be wrong

Joseph Butler’s Approach 


  • Joseph Butler argued that the most crucial thing separating man from animals was the faculty of reflection, or the conscience
  • There is a principle of reflection in men by which they distinguish between approval and disapproval of their own actions… this principle in man… is conscience
  • Butler argued that conscience “magisterially asserts itself” spontaneously, “without being consulted
  • For Butler conscience has an authoritative and automatic element, conscience is the final say in moral decision making
  • He argued that conscience governed aspects of the mind
  • This he outlined through his hierarchy of needs;
    • Drives – the most basic of human impulses such as needing to eat, sleep, have sex. These influence us with no thought for consequence
    • Self love & benevolence – above drives are the principles of self love and benevolence which control the most animalistic parts of human beings. Benevolence for example may prevent a man from stealing another man’s wife even though the drive lust urges him to
    • Principle of reflection – closely linked to conscience, this causes us to evaluate our actions; “distinguish between approval and disapproval“. This evaluative measure means we can learn from actions, regret, rethink
    • Conscience – situated at the top is conscience, the final moral authority & decision maker which controls self love and benevolence, keeping them in check & ensuring sensibility in human decision making. Conscience harmonises these two principles & controls human nature
  • Butler believed that conscience came from God & was a person’s God given guide to right conduct & following his demands & guide lines
  • It must be followed if a person is to live a life close to God & be happy
  • Butler believed that conscience could not be wrong, but that humans could “blind” the conscience 
  • For example, convincing oneself that an amoral thing is the right thing to do would be to blind & ignore the conscience
  • For Butler, this corruption & self deception is worse than the evil acts which come from it – as people do not see the error of their ways & repent

Cardinal Newman’s Approach 


  • Cardinal Newman viewed conscience as the voice of God speaking in humans
  • Conscience is a messenger of God’s word
  • Conscience is the innate ability implanted in us before we can reason which shows right from wrong
  • It can be described as a “law of the mind” in that it gives guide lines on how to live a moral life
  • For Christians it is more than this, as it is also the word of God
  • There are no commandments to follow, no hint of threat or dictation
  • Conscience does not invent the truth but detects it, showing us the right path in any given situation
  • Newman argued that as we feel guilty after doing bad things, this is evidence of something we are beholden to, something to apologise & repent to
    • This is God
  • Newman believed that conscience superseded even the Pope, stating we should “toast conscience before the Pope
  • This does not mean Christians can ignore parts of scripture they disagree with as this is also the word of God, just that ones conscience should be consulted first & foremost whenever making ethical decisions
  • Conscience should always be obeyed as it is the voice of God instructing us to take the right path


Free Will – My Views

Do Humans Have Free Will? 


The non-secular determinist approach, though logical in some ways & even appealing in others, is not an entirely coherent way of approaching free will.
John Calvin is consistent both with scripture & logic to a certain extent, taking his idea of limited atonement & total depravity as a basis. The fall of man condemned all of humanity, & when Jesus died he died only for the sins of those who are elected for the kingdom of God. This seems logical as everyone else chooses instead to fall from God in some way or another – as God is omniscient he already knows who the loyal & chosen few are and so those are the people who obtain salvation.

However God’s omniscience has several implications, as pointed out by Boethius in the Consolations of Philosophy. Boethius notes that God cannot judge fairly in the afterlife if he is omniscient & so our futures are predestined – there is no free will, so how can God judge our decisions as we have not made them freely? Maurice Wiles also raises the question of God being either arbitrary or partisan due to his limited intervention across history – this is seemingly supported by Calvin who basically argues that God only loves his chosen few, going against scripture in multiple ways by denying God’s omnibenevolence & his forgiving nature.

Hard Determinism 

The hard determinist approaches of men such as Clarence Darrow seem infallible. It is perhaps Sam Harris who puts this best. He outlines the case of Hayes & Komisarjevsky, two criminals who stormed the Petit household, raping the mother & burning her two daughters alive. While such acts are abhorrent and would obviously be condemned not only by those close to the Petits, but by anyone who heard the case, Harris makes the point that the men had no other choice but to do what they did. Komisarjevsky was raped repeatedly as a child & experienced psychological damage for example, this and a multitude of other factors led to the crimes, and as eloquently put by Harris “if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him” – he would commit the exact same crime.

This is because everything which makes up a human can be combined in their DNA & past experiences, something which is undeniable in everyday life. If I drank a cup of coffee every morning but one day inexplicably decided to make tea, this would not be me exercising my free will. This decisions was predetermined when I read an article on the benefits of drinking tea over coffee, or even if I’d woken up after a strange dream leaving me craving tea. Darrow’s argument cannot be denied, would Leopold and Loeb have committed their heinous crime had all the correct factors not piled together? If they hadn’t developed such a codependency or related so much to the work of Nietzsche, there is a high chance the murder of Bobby Franks would have never happened.
However because all of these factors, plus even more distant ones such as the town they were born in, the coldness of their mothers all came together to create a perfect storm which could not be stopped – all of our actions are predetermined.

Soft Determinism 

Perhaps I simply do not understand soft determinism enough to do it justice, but it seems a rather redundant theory. One of the key distinctions made by compatibilists is that hard determinism need not be linked to fatalism – however this seemed to me to be directly implied with the philosophy of hard determinists!

Taking Clarence Darrow for instance, he far from taking a fatalist approach when considering the Leopold Loeb case, but rather argued that they should still be punished. Darrow merely defended the boys against the death penalty, stating that they should not be punished for vengeance (which is really all the death penalty achieves) due to something they had no control over.
This leads me on to more of a pro of hard determinism which is that the theory does not take a “whatever will be will be” approach. Of course if that is how some want to interpret determinism that is their prerogative, but the suggestions of prolific determinists such as Sam Harris are not that we abandon the justice system and let criminals roam free – it is merely that we focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution. This seems more common sense than anything else – a young man who has wound up dealing drugs in order to support his younger siblings has clearly been led to commit crime by his situation in life – what purpose would punishing him rather than leading him towards ways of living a more moral life serve?

But back to soft determinism, the biggest problem with the idea as whole is that it makes no attempt to define what is actually determined & how this affects free will. Surely even internal causes which lead one to commit voluntary acts can be determined? Just because I choose to go on holiday without external pressure does not mean that choice wasn’t predetermined by a multitude of factors just like anything else.
I see the best way to approach compatibilism is to view it as a theory proposing that the illusion of free will is beneficial to society despite all of our decisions being pre – determined. Otherwise I am inclined to agree with Kant – “compatibilism is a miserable subterfuge”.


The libertarian arguments seem to focus almost entirely on empirical evidence, which is interesting as this has time and time again been shown to be incapable of proving anything. The best empiricism can do is lead one to a probable conclusion; and even then the evidence used by libertarians can quickly be refuted.

Taking the example of Nazi Germany and the actions of the National Socialists. At first glance, it appears that free will (if slightly restricted) was present in this time. Nazi officials could either follow orders and commit terrible atrocities, or effectively choose death. While this may seem a Hobson’s choice of sorts, there is still a decision to be made, as Satre himself argues “I cannot not choose. Even if I chose to do nothing that is still a choice.” Therefore the evidence suggests we have free will.
However looking closer at this example, we can see that following on from Darrow’s argument it was already pre-determined which soldiers would choose life and which would choose death. Such self forming actions, though they do come out of moral dilemmas as argued by Robert Kane, are not exercises of free will. Say one soldier had seen his brother die earlier that day despite being terrified of death before, this may have led him to disobey orders and accept his fate when next challenged – a seemingly spur of the moment, life changing action was done due to previous factors aligning meaning the choice was inevitable. This shows that the evidence provided by libertarians in their attempts to justify free will do not overcome the arguments from hard determinists.

As well as this another significant weakness in Satre’s argument is his notion that we are born clean and untainted by the world, ready to form ourselves completely of our own volition – a tabula rasa as Locke described.
This is far from the truth, and is an idea formed from privileged. As a white man born in a wealthy country, Satre may well have felt that all of his decisions and the path he took in life had been made freely. A black girl born into poverty in Somalia may have disagreed with this notion, but due to the limitations immediately imposed upon her from birth she unfortunately would not have had the chance to challenge him on this thought.
Where we are born, our families, our wealth and social status are all factors which immediately affect us from birth and limit our decisions, actions and possible paths in life. The rest of our personality is developed as we grow, but our choices are undoubtedly affected by circumstance, and later on by experiences we have in the world, therefore meaning that our decisions are still predetermined.

Evaluating Virtue Ethics

Strengths of Virtue Ethics 

  1. Avoids using a formula – non normative
    – Unlike normative ethical theories such as Natural Law or Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics avoids creating rules & guild lines to follow
    – This is positive as it means people have to use their rationality in each situation to figure out how to adhere to the golden mean & act virtuously
    – It also means that when learning or following other’s examples we should not merely copy or blindly follow – there are no rules & every situation is subjective, we have to use our rationality & experience to find the right path
    – This causes true engagement with morality & how to become a virtuous person
    – It also allows for subjectivity in the world while avoiding the dubious morality that relativism can justify; the only criteria is to promote human flourishing
  2. Stresses the importance of being good
    – Virtue ethics shows us that acting virtuously is not only beneficial to our wider communities, but also to us
    – By acting virtuously we can achieve eudaimonia
  3. Virtue ethics shows us how morality works 
    – Virtue ethics shows us that we do not need a moral law giver such as God or a moral law
    – Instead we can see that through learning, emulating others and using reason we develop our own ethics & can apply them in the world
    – This removes all questions regarding the existence of God etc.
    – This also explains the subjectivity in morality
    – However for some people a subjective or human-based moral law is not a good thing, it means there is no real right or wrong
    – However the principles of virtue ethics are also compatible with religious belief, if that is how one chooses to interpret it
    – For example following the moral example of Jesus Christ, acting virtuously to achieve human flourishing in heaven
  4. Integration of all our concerns 
    – Virtue ethics allows us to consider many different aspects of life, from a personal & wider point of view when making ethical decisions
    – Whereas Kant advocates for duty & in certain cases rejecting one’s personal ties to family or friends, and Utilitarianism could suggest neglect of the individual, Virtue Ethics allows consideration for all of these factors
    – It does not attempt to discard emotions but also includes those
  5. An agent based theory 
    – Virtue ethics focuses on the acts of the person & their virtue
    – This can be seen as a strength when looking at Anscombe’s shopping list parable; other ethical theories are too focused on where ethics comes from & the simple acts themselves
    – For virtue ethicists the most important component is the person acting
    – Anscombe successfully points out that motive is also important when making ethical decisions, and MacIntyre builds upon this by adding that we must also consider consequence, as this is why many people chose to take certain paths
  6. A logical theory 
    – Virtue ethics promotes the use of phorensis (practical reason) in order to make ethical decisions
    – This is a strength as it is often how ethics works in modern society; using one’s reason to choose how to act in given situations
    – Virtue ethics uses this model & improves upon it by arguing that humans should do this while aiming to achieve human flourishing & promoting community values

Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics 

  1. Identifying virtues 
    – Are virtues culturally relative?
    – Can virtues always be considered good in all cultures, all situations?
    Robert Louden argued that certain people could argue that the act of rape benefits them as it develops their character
    Philippa Foot solves this by building on Aristotle’s ideas and stating that virtues are only virtues if used properly to benefit the individual & the community using reason
    – This means that the virtues are inherently subjective; one cannot use a virtue to achieve a dastardly end
  2. How can it be applied to moral dilemmas? 
    – Robert Louden also argued that as Virtue Ethics is non-normative it can’t be used to solve moral dilemmas, it gives no clear rules for action or any concrete answers
    – However the non-normativity of virtue ethics is a strength. Rather than simply following rules in ethical dilemmas, virtue argues that a person should engage fully with the matter & use their rationality to make a decision
    – As well as this, Louden’s point is diminished by the fact that almost all normative ethical theories are useless when dealing with ethical dilemmas: for example Kantian ethics argues duty always comes first, if one agreed to go for coffee but is then asked by a friend to babysit in an emergency, their duty is to go for coffee first
  3. An ethic of average (literally) 
    Susan Wolf argues that if everyone behaved in the same mediated way that virtue ethics demands, the world would be a very boring place with no variety
    – This is overcome by pointing out that the golden mean is not an ethic of average but one of balance in each individual situation
    – Aristotle clearly explains that we should use phorensis as the golden mean will most likely be different in any situation
    – As well as this a world without crime, murder, rape or abuse may be considered “boring” but it would certainly be a better one
  4. Virtues clash 
    – Which one is more important in what situation? Should courage always outweigh pragmatism?
    – Simply following the golden mean solves this
    – There is no clash in virtues, taking this example, if being courageous violates pragmatism then you are being reckless & not adhering to the golden mean
  5. Incorrect use of virtues 
    – Some virtues can be used to incorrectly perform immoral actions
    – For example, being courageous in the right amount but doing it to kill the enemy during war
    – However, if everyone in the world followed virtue ethics there would be no clashes like this as there would be no war
    – At the moment there is some dilemma due to non-virtuous people beginning conflicts
    – Put in such a difficult situation the best thing a virtue ethicist can do is adapt to the situation & attempt to still be as virtuous as possible

Modern Virtue Ethics

G.E.M. Anscombe and Virtue Ethics


  • Anscombe published a paper asking whether there can be any moral laws if there is no God, & what right & wrong mean without a lawgiver
  • She suggests the idea of eudaimonia, human flourishing, which does not depend on any God
  • Both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics do not depend on God, but both are act based, and ignore the person who acts
  • Anscombe also felt that such theories press to hard on the point of autonomy, ignoring the community aspect of morality 
  • Anscombe focuses on the motive of one’s act, stating that this is important in how they become virtuous
  • She assumes that humans want a moral life & this is the basis behind many acts
  • She uses the analogy of the shopping list to point out that the origin of ethics are relatively unimportant:
    • A man in a supermarket has the ingredients for a meal. Suppose he acts impulsively, grabbing whatever he wants & ignoring his list. He buys what he wants but when he gets home he cannot make the meal. It doesn’t matter who drew up the list as he ignored it, what mattered was the choices he made
  • Virtue ethics is concerned with whether or not people will use their rationality to make the right moral decisions

    + Addresses the problems of normative ethical theories; they either focus too much on the origin of ethics & not the ethical decision maker, or they are act based not agent based
    + Focus on motive & agent is strong, it is important to consider a person’s motives for acting & the results are due to their own decisions & use of rationality
    Alasdair MacIntyre argued that her assumption that people want to act morally is wrong. While virtues may be desirable, almost all people need a reason to be moral.
    – Following this, an aspect of consequentialism needs to be considered; outcome cannot be ignored, as it rarely is by the agent when making moral decisions

Alasdair MacIntyre and Virtue Ethics 


  • MacIntyre argues that normative ethical theories have only led to ethical conflicts, people regard there being no moral truths & one option is just as good as the next
  • Most people’s attitudes are based on emotivism, moral statements are neither true nor false but simply represent the feelings & attitudes of the speaker
  • People often speak and act as if emotivism were true, “boo to racism” becomes racism is wrong
  • MacIntyre wanted to restore ethics to the idea that true morality is working towards a person’s telos; in this case human flourishing
  • MacIntyre did not feel it would be possible to restore Aristotle’s idea on human function (that every human had a function & purpose in society to fill) & focused instead on the importance of community
  • It is the shared practises of a community which help to cultivate virtues
  • These virtues improve over time, from Aristotelian virtues to Christian ones
  • For MacIntyre, the most important virtues are “any virtues which sustain the households and communities in which men and women seek for good together
  • He argued against putting too much emphasis on reason and more on people, their characters & contexts of their lives
  • He also argued that an element of consequentialism is needed in virtue ethics in order to fully understand people’s motives in the first place, as many people act with the outcome of their action in mind

    + Rejects the individualism which can often damage communities
    + Focus on virtues which can benefit communities, acceptance of changing & developing virtues as a good thing
    + Balance of motive and outcome – it is important to consider both

Philippa Foot and Virtue Ethics 


  • Philippa Foot attempted to modernise Aristotle’s virtue ethics but while keeping his view of character & virtue
  • She recognised the importance of reasoning & practise of virtue & agreed that virtues benefit the individual by leading to flourishing
  • Foot argued that a virtue ceases to be a virtue when it is used to a bad end, for example, being courageous & murdering someone
    • This relates to the subjectivity of the virtues and the golden mean, while also linking in aspects of consequentialism
  • Virtues are only virtues if used effectively (using reason)
  • Developing on Foot’s ideas, one could therefore argue (again linking with Aristotle) that simply copying a virtuous person’s actions or learning a code – as many normative ethical theories advocate one does – one has to actually engage with the virtue
    • Part of being virtuous is fully understanding & evaluating what this means and applying it to real life situations
  • This highlights a strength of virtue ethics; unlike normative ethics it involves a real engagement with moral decisions rather than simply following a code

    + Clarifies what could be considered a weakness in Aristotle’s virtues & golden mean approach which is to only use virtues to good ends
    + Through this highlights the importance of consequentialism
    + Developed into the idea that to be virtuous requires one to use ones rationality & engage with morality fully
    – Lacking in terms of motive/act itself
    – More individualistic approach