How Not to Choose a Moral Theory

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 2, 2011 in General Atheism

One day you begin to wonder if the moral theory you currently use is the right one. Maybe you’ve been a divine command theorist but you’re starting to doubt God’s existence. Or maybe you’ve been a utilitarian, but some friends have pointed out some rather nasty consequences for that view.

You have some time available to figure out which theory is best, so you do some research and discover that, at first glance, the leading theories of morality appear to be something like this:

Non-realism: All positive moral claims are false because they refer to objective moral values that don’t exist, just like all positive theological claims are false because they refer to gods that don’t exist. Or, more radically, moral claims aren’t even the kind of things that could be true. “Murder is wrong” really means something like “Murder??? Yuck!”

Relativism: Things are only “right” or “wrong” as defined within a certain culture or community, and there’s no way to say one culture’s judgments are “more correct” than another.

Moral subjectivism: Moral claims are true or false only in virtue of whether they reflect a person’s or people’s attitudes correctly. “Murder is wrong” means “I disapprove of murder” or perhaps “Most people in our culture disapprove of murder.”

Divine command ethics: Whatever God commands or approves of is right, and whatever God forbids or disapproves of is wrong.

Virtue ethics: Morality is not concerned so much with right and wrong with actions in particular, but with cultivating a virtuous character.

Kantian ethics: Morality is concerned with doing one’s duty, which is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Rawlsian contractarianism: Morality is a matter of justice, and justice is determined by how rational agents would structure society if they didn’t know what lot in life they would be born into.

Utilitarianism: A thing is right or good if it maximizes the ultimate good, whether that be happiness or pleasure or preference satisfaction.

So let us say you read a few arguments for and against each of these theories. Already you have done a more thorough study of ethics than perhaps 95% of people who have ever lived! But hey, you have limited time. You have a job to work and a significant other to care for. So you pick the theory that seems most plausible to you, and you move on, “feeling it out” as you go.

Most of us don’t actually change our behavior much when we change moral theories, but at least we feel more intellectually satisfied with our new choice.


Evaluating moral theories in a list like this can be misleading.

Why? Because these theories aren’t even allĀ about the same questions, or after the same thing.

For example, the kinds of moral subjectivism and moral relativism I mentioned above are proposals for how to define moral terms. The relativist and the utiltiarian might fully agree that if we define moral terms with reference to the well-being of conscious creatures, then one culture’s values can be “more moral” than another. The relativist might simply deny that moral terms should be defined that way, because there’s no non-arbitrary way to argue that moral terms should be about the well-being of conscious creatures rather than, say, hypothetical contracts between people. And the utilitarian might reply that all our words are defined arbitrarily: there is no essential meaning to certain patterns of sounds or scratches.

Or consider the type of non-realism that says all moral claims are untrue. This is called “error theory.” But the error theorist would not say that if you define “right” and “wrong” in terms of a person’s attitudes, you still can’t make true claims about right and wrong. Instead, the error theorist would claim that moral talk is aboutĀ intrinsic prescriptivity, and that since intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, therefore all moral talk is false. But some utilitarians and virtue ethicists would agree that intrinsic prescriptivity doesn’t exist, but would say that concept isn’t essential to the concepts of morality.

Note also that certain theories are dependent on a metaphysical framework that you might not find plausible. Consider Kantianism, for example. Do you agree with Kant about the split between between noumena and phenomena? Do you agree with his breakdown of 12 categories, which was a result of his acceptance of Aristotle’s logic, which was overturned by Frege? Do you agree that the subject matter of morality is abstract rules held totally apart from facts of nature? If not, then Kantian ethics probably doesn’t make sense, except in a massively revised form that you probably haven’t read about in such a short survey of moral theories.

The sad fact is that moral theories are very often about different things even if they all happen to use the moral vocabulary. Moreover, they often depend on very specific metaphysical systems, ones that you might not find plausible even if the moral principles resulting from a certain metaphysical system accords with your intuitions.

The only thing to do, unfortunately, is to spend even more time studying moral theory, so you know what these moral theories are actually about, and what other claims they presuppose. The above list of moral theories is not at all mutually exclusive or mutually exhaustive!

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