Intro to Ethics: Three Sets of Moral Questions

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 9, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


Welcome to my course on ethics. Today, let us consider the types of moral questions we might ask. I’ll use a specific situation1 to illustrate:

Artist's sketch of Baby Theresa

Artist's sketch of Baby Theresa

In 1992, an infant known to the public as “Baby Theresa” was born in Florida with anencephaly, a defect that caused her to be missing most of her brain.

Only the brain stem, which controls breathing and heartbeat, had formed. Her parents, knowing that Baby Theresa would not live long, and would never live a conscious life, offered her organs for transplant. Thousands of infants need transplants each year, and there are never enough available. Though Baby Theresa could never have her own life, she could perhaps save some others’ lives.

Unfortunately, Florida law did not allow organ removal until after the donor was dead. And by the time Baby Theresa died, 9 days later, her organs had deteriorated so badly they could not be transplanted to the children who needed them.

The news stories about Baby Theresa sparked a public discussion. Some said the doctors should have been allowed to transplant Baby Theresa’s organs because they could have benefited other children and this would not have harmed Baby Theresa, who had no conscious life anyway.

Others disagreed, saying that it is always wrong to use one person as a means to somebody else’s ends, that it would have been wrong to violate Baby Theresa’s autonomy. But Baby Theresa had no capability of autonomy. What should we have done, then? Should we have made our best guess at what Baby Theresa would have wanted had she been capable of autonomy?

Others said it is always wrong to kill, even if one’s life is unconscious and very short. But with only enough brain to keep the lungs and heart going, was Baby Theresa alive in any morally important sense?

Three sets of questions

These are questions of applied ethics. What ought we to do in a given situation? What is the right action, or the wrong action? What is the morally good outcome, or the morally bad outcome? What should be done?

Most of us are familiar with such questions, but there is a deeper layer of questions that is the domain of normative ethics. Normative ethics concerns itself with questions like: What rules do we use to decide what is right and wrong? What makes something right or wrong? Perhaps an action is right if it leads to the best consequences (consequentialism), or if it comes from a virtuous character (virtue ethics), or if it fulfills certain rights and duties (deontological ethics), or if it is faithful to the will of God (divine command ethics). But which is it?

And there is a still deeper layer, that of meta-ethics. Meta-ethics considers questions like: What do moral judgments mean? What is their nature? How should they be defended? In what way do moral values exist? How can we come to know moral truths?

The primacy of meta-ethics

In this course, I will spend an unusual amount of time discussing meta-ethical questions. Why? Because if our meta-ethical theories are wrong, then our assertions about normative or applied ethics are unfounded. For example, if it turns out that moral values do not exist, or that we cannot have knowledge of them, then all our claims in normative and applied ethics are nothing but white noise. Or, if it turns out that moral values exist as properties of physical objects, then perhaps we should not deploy a virtue or divine command normative theory about what makes something right or wrong.

Different answers to our meta-ethical questions will inevitably result in different answers to our questions of applied ethics. Perhaps if one meta-ethical theory is correct, then it follows that infanticide is permissible but the withholding of rights from apes is not. But if another meta-ethical theory is correct, then infanticide is wrong but it is permissible to withhold rights from apes. Thus, if we are to make correct moral decisions – if we are to create a truly better world – then it is critical that we first select the correct meta-ethical theory.

The purpose of this course on ethics is to explain these questions that moral philosophers consider, how they argue about them, what conclusions they have come to, and why.

  1. I’ve taken my example from the opening chapter of Rachels’ Elements of Moral Philosophy. []

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan October 9, 2009 at 7:12 am

I disagree with your position on ethics and metaethics based upon the difference between actual and conceptual existence. Metaethics is relevant if we care to show that ethics actually exist. However, I would argue that if ethics conceptually exist, then the topic of ethics is still important. The basis of this is that ethical considerations would still guide human thought, as the known non-existence of the actuality of ethics could not abolish the concept of “right” and “wrong”. This means that ethics would be importance for the purposes of clarifying moral intuitions and thus moral language and thought. Not actually showing an objective right and wrong though.

Honestly, I would imagine that the original existence of ethics was really just a dirty hack. And the problem with a metaphysical tendency in ethics, along with a metaphysical tendency in general, is that it tries to make these dirty hacks respond to some actual objective reality by making up definitions and applying them. This is silly because our metaphysical knowledge is tentative, contingent, and speculative, and thus to tie phenomenal realities which are clearly perceived to these metaphysical abstractions is to put the cart before the horse. The metaphysics emerges as a rationalization of perceptions, the perceptions don’t emerge as an application of metaphysics.

I am probably rambling by this point though.


IntelligentDasein October 9, 2009 at 9:19 am

Luke, I know you are more into Anglo-American philosophy, but I would love to see an ethics entry on existentialism. Kierkegaard’s religious vs. Nietzsche’s atheist ethics have a great deal to do with what this site is dedicated to. Both of them are two of the most influential philosophers that have ever lived and add a substantial amount to the conversation.


Paul October 9, 2009 at 10:20 am

Reginald Selkirk (hope I got the spelling right) wrote the following in another thread.

“More on this: in economics, is the market value of goods as “whatever the market will bear” also fiction? It is surely invented, and yet it seems the most real economic value I can imagine.”

I think, for the moment at least (subject to change as I learn more), this is a good analogy on my view of meta-ethics.


Chuck October 9, 2009 at 10:24 am

This sort of OT, but what would you say the Framers were thinking at the normative ethics level? Does the Constitution/Declaration contain unfounded assumptions? (And if so, what can be done about that?)


Penneyworth October 9, 2009 at 10:59 am

Question for you lewk: Let’s say there was a coherent way to know what it means for a particular ethics theory to be the “true” one. Then let’s say we discovered that it is in fact Desirism. Then someone invents a machine that can read the desires off all humans, and correctly reports what desires are good and which ones are bad. Furthermore, this machine is able to punish anyone in any way you see fit, say, by sending them a little electric shock when they form a bad desire in order to train them to form good desires only, and to eventually harmonize (as you put it) all human desires. The question is, would you turn that machine on (let’s say 60% of the world voted that it’s a good idea to do so), and thereby enforce this true set of ethics?

So, should “true” ethics be enforced on all? And if not, what’s the point of forming the theory?


Nice post, Ryan. ethics theories model human behavior, and trying to force human behavior to fit the model is putting the cart before the horse. Is that what you were getting at? u yewz big werds wtf!


Chuck October 9, 2009 at 2:35 pm

So we can know what is moral.


lukeprog October 9, 2009 at 11:23 pm


I will eventually get to those characters in my historical posts on ethics.


lukeprog October 9, 2009 at 11:26 pm


I would turn on the machine, I think. But it wouldn’t make the world perfect. A great many desires are not malleable, at least not by tiny electric shocks.


Chuck October 10, 2009 at 6:14 am

In using such a machine, wouldn’t you be thwarting a very strong desire in a very large number of people?


ayer October 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm

lukeprog: “I would turn on the machine, I think. But it wouldn’t make the world perfect. A great many desires are not malleable, at least not by tiny electric shocks.”

Wouldn’t turning on the machine thwart the overwhelming and (I would suspect) near-universal desire NOT to have one’s desires manipulated by a machine? It would thus thwart more desire than it would fulfill.


Penneyworth October 10, 2009 at 5:31 pm

The shocks could vary in intensity so that those less malleable desires could be punished more strongly (say the minimum needed for each case).

Would you still turn it on?


“So we can know what is moral.”

If you find a “true” moral rule that forbids an action, but the rule ought not be enforced, then isn’t it morally permissible, and therefore not a true moral fact?


lukeprog October 10, 2009 at 7:57 pm


I really don’t know. I’m not saying I’ve thought much about the calculations involved. It’s my gut instinct to turn on the machine, I’m not claiming that would be the moral thing to do.


wissam November 17, 2011 at 2:08 pm

On virtue ethics, what makes generosity a virtue and not a vice? Is generosity a virtue by definition or is generosity a virtue since it leads to human flourishing, or other?


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