Alphabetical Glossary of Ethical Theory
©R Bowie
(click on a letter)



A priori. A statement is a priori if it is knowable without any reference
to any experience we may have had. The statement “all bachelors are men,” is a priori
because we do not need to establish that they are all men by proving it because of the nature of the
word “bachelor”.

Abortion. In ethics the term is usually used to mean the termination of a pregnancy by artificially induced means. Ethical debates in abortion centre on whether an unborn human is a full or potential person and therefore receives full or partial rights, the extent of the mother’s rights, the father’s rights, whether women depend on access to abortion for full fertility control and therefore full emancipation into human society and the extent of autonomy in this area. Religious beliefs about life and the human being play a major part of the debate as does scientific factors such as the levels of pain felt by a foetus being aborted.

Absolutism. The belief in a value or good that always holds its value.
Expressed by the ancient stoics “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”
Absolutism as an ethical theory is contrasted to relativism.

Act Utilitarianism. A Teleological or consequentialist theory which
uses the outcome of the particular action to determining its rightness or goodness. General
rules can never force us to act if in a given situation better ends can be reached by doing
something different. Jeremy Bentham was an act-utilitarian. It contrasts with

Agape. Greek word meaning love but distinct from erotic love or familial love. Important for Christians as it is that kind of unconditional love which they must show their neighbours. It is also important for Joseph Fletcher’s Situation ethics which claims that moral decision making must centre around determining the most agape-loving thing to do in a situation.

Agnosticism. To believe that nothing is known or can ever be known
about the existence or nature of God or anything beyond the material world.

Altruism. Acting out of selfless concern for others. Christians are commanded to love their neighbour as themselves. In ethics altruism can be contrasted with selfishness or egoism.

Analytic statement. A classic term used by Kant meaning a statement that is true by definition. A statement is analytically true if the clauses or predicates within the statement say something necessarily true of all instances of the subject. Eg. all spinsters are women. It is not possible to be
a spinster if one is not a woman.

Areté. The Greek word for “excellence”; or “virtue”.; The virtue of an Olympic swimmer is in swimming well, and the virtue of a national leader lies in motivating people to work for the common good.

Argument. A set of statements consisting of premises and a conclusion.

Atheism. The belief that God does not exist. Philosophers who were atheists include Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Autonomy. To freely determine one’s own course in life . Etymologically, it is made up of autos meaning self and nomos meaning rule. Autonomy was central for Kant. Without autonomy people cannot be morally responsible for their actions. It is usually contrasted with “heteronomy” meaning the rule by others. To believe people are autonomous is a position opposed to Determinism.


Belief. A Belief is an opinion or suppostion. It can mean “know” (I believe 2+2=4),
or “think” (I believe you are telling the truth) but is more usually associated with religious
doctrines or dogmas and sometimes philosophical and ethical positions.

Belief System. A combination of the following: A fixed coherent set of beliefs, usually religious, which form a pattern of religious opinions and rules; ritual and habitual behaviour; group or community organizations and structures (hierarchy, leadership, buildings etc); with a basis in key texts such as the Bible for Jews and Christians and the Koran for Muslims. There is usually a sense of the other, the supernatural or the ultimate in these systems although not always. Secular belief systems such as humanism and communism do not have this transcendental aspect. See also Value system, World View.

Beneficient. To do good, to be actively kind.

Benevolent. To be helpful, friendly.

Bigamy. Marriage to a second wife when a previous marriage is in force. A crime in western countries but more common in Middle Eastern cultures.

Business Ethics The application of ethics to the roles and responsibilities of persons connected to the modern business corporation.

Bioethics or Biomedical Ethics. The application of ethics to biological sciences , medicine, genetics, healthcare and public policy with regards to these areas. Judaism and Roman Catholicism have strong traditions regarding Bioethics and issues such as abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technologies, organ transplantation and human cloning are all included in this topic


Calculus. A means of computing or calculating
something. usually used in ethics in reference to a moral calculus, a means of
calculating the right moral decision in a particular situation. The Hedonic Calculus is a Utilitarian example of this.

Capital Punishment.The use of the Death penalty as a punishment determined by a legally empowered Court. Traditionally there was some debate within the Christian tradition as to whether Capital Punishment was justifiable or not. Debates range over whether the commandment “Thou shall not kill” in fact only refers to murder to how it can be held alongside the Christian centrality of Love and the preservation of life. It is held as an effective deterrent and ultimate retribution where it is practised but those who oppose the death penalty site the dangers of potential miscarriages of justice and important of reform.

Cartesian Doubt. To act in a way which assumes none of the normal
assumptions people live by to discover and assess the reasons for those assumptions.

Categorical Imperative. An unconditional command which, for Kant, told us
our duty by pointing to actions which were good in themselves, and in the pursuit of the summum bonum (supreme good). For Kant this included his universalizability maxim “Always act in such a way that the maxim of your action can be willed as a universal law.”

Civil Disobediance. To disobey or resist the state because of a point of ethical principle. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King stand out as examples of leaders who practised Civil Disobedience against the British in India and civil rights for black in the USA respectively. Henry David Thoreau is associated with this and is influential essay “Civil Resistance”, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward … The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

Civil Rights. Legally enforced and protected rights belonging to people by virtue of their citizenship of a state. Examples of Civil Rights are freedom of expression and of religious belief. Ethical debates included whether these rights proceed from human rights or natural rights. Great Civil Rights activists include Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

Compatibilism. The belief that it is possible to maintain both determinism and
free will because while some aspects of our nature are determined, our ability to make moral decisions is not.

Conscience. . Acquinas called it “the mind of man making moral judgements.” It is variously understood as meaning the voice of God within us (Butler), our sense of moral right and wrong or our super-ego enforcing the rules of behaviour implanted within us when we were young (Freud). Ethical issues surrounding conscience include the conflict between state law or religious belief and individual conscience (Civil Disobedience), the justification of conscience as a reason for moral behaviour and the difficulties in defining and relying on conscience as a guide for moral behaviour. Cardinal Newman said “I toast the Pope but I toast conscience first.”

Consequentialism. Any ethical view which establishes the rightness or wrongness of actions by the good or bad produced by its

Corporal Punishment. The judicial, parental or educators use of violence/smacking/flogging as a valid form of punishment. Debates range over whether parents have right to smack, whether Courts can use physically forms of punishment, and whether teachers should be allowed to use it to maintain discipline. Advocators identify it as an effective form of retributive and deterrent punishment while those who oppose it claim it instils an ethic of violence and violates basic human rights.

Counter-Example. An example which undermines
or refutes the principle or theory against which it is advanced.

Cultural Relativism. The form of relativism which maintains that that which is good or bad, right or wrong, for a person varies in relation to the culture in which the person lives. These different values are equally valid because there are no moral absolutes (or nor discernible moral absolutes). For example, Polygamy is permitted in some Islamic societies but a criminal activity in most western societies. Neither position is more valid than the other. See also Relativism.


Decalogue. Name for the Commandments, the traditional core ethical values for Jewish and Christian moral laws.

Deductive. A deductive argument is an argument whose
conclusion follows necessarily from its premises. This contrasts
to various kinds of inductive arguments, which offer only a
degree of probability to support their conclusion.

Democracy. Rule by the people either directly (where each citizen votes on policy and so sovereignty rests with them) or representational (where citizens elect politicians and give them authority to make decisions of policy thereby giving sovereignty to the elected group).

Deontology. Actions are intrinsically right or wrong. They are right or wrong in themselves and irrespective of their consequences. They are traditionally associated with Kantian duty but can also be linked to ethical systems which uphold absolute moral norms and human rights. Deontologists hold that one cannot undertake immoral acts like torture of spyies even if the outcome is morally prefferable, such as the early ending of a war. It is contrasted with Teleological/consequentialist ethical theories.

Descriptive Ethics. A term for Ethics which does not advocate a particular moral outlook (as prescriptive ethics do) and does not seek to determine the rightness or wrongness of moral actions (as normative ethics do). Descriptive Ethics simply identifies and compares different ethical systems existing in different cultures. It is Anthropological in this sense.

Deterrence. The idea that the purpose of punishment is to persuade others not to commit moral or legal crimes.

Determinism. See hard Determinism, Compatabilism/Soft Determinism and Libertarianism and Free will.p>Divine Command Theory. The ethical theory that maintains that actions are right or wrong depending on whether they correspond to God’s commands or not.

Double-Effect. A theory used to justify the termination of a foetus if the intention is to save the life of the mother and the action has the a secondary effect of killing the foetus. Ectopic pregnancies, where the fertilised ovum lodges itself in the Fallopian Tube is an example of this. If the pregnancy continues the mother and foetus will die. The Double Effect theory morally justifies the removal of the Fallopian Tube because the intention is to save the mother’s life even though the effect of doing so leads to the death of the foetus.

Duty. A motive for acting in a certain way which indicates moral quality. It is important in Kantian Ethics where doing good means rationally determining and then following Duty. For W D Ross, the Prima Facie Duties are a set of ultimate moral obligations which if followed will ensure we are acting morally. Duty was also important for the Naturalist F H Bradley who also felt that being good meant doing one’s duty.


Emotivism. A Descriptive ethical theory which holds that all moral judgements are simply expressions of positive or negative feelings and that as such all moral statements are meaningless as they cannot be verified. Made prominent by Logical positivists and the Vienna Circle, in particular, A J Ayer and C L Stevenson.

Egoism. A moral theory that commonly states that each person
ought to act in his or her own Self-interest.

Empiricism. The theory that truth is verifies by testable sense experience. In Ethics it is linked to Naturalism where moral truths can be scientifically proven.

Ends and Means. Some moral systems evaluate the goodness and badness of actions solely by examining there means (actions), while others examine the consequences, the ends produced by those actions. See as Teleological ethics, consequentialism, utilitarianism and deontology.

Enlightenment. The intellectual movement in modern Europe from the sixteenth until the eighteenth centuries that maintained that human reason could understand the world and guide all human conduct.

Epicureanism. The ancient Greek movement which held that the good life is gained by the sensible and moderate pursuii of pleasure.

Ethics. Ethics (sometimes known as moral philosophy) asks includes the following sorts of questions: How should we live?, What is right and what is wrong?, What do we mean by the word right and the word good?, How can we measure goodness and badness?, Are some things always wrong or does it depend on the point of view or situation? Ethical theory examines the different philosophies or systems used to explain and make judgements about right/wrong/good/bad. Practical or Applied Ethics is more focussed on subjects that invite ethical questioning such as abortion and euthanasia. Ethics is from Greek word ethikos, from root ethos meaning character. Ethical Theory is subdivided into 3: Normative ethics, which asks whether actions are right or wrong; Descriptive or comparative ethics, which simply compares and describes differing ethical practices; Metaethics, the study of the meaning of ethical language, the definitions of words such as good, right, etc.

Eudaimonia. Aristotle uses this word for “happiness”; or “flourishing”. from
the Greek “eu“; meaning “happy” or “well” or “harmonious” and “daimon” meaning the individual’s spirit.

Euthanasia. Literally meaning a good death. Used to descibe the doctor assisted death for a patient with a pianful terminal condition, the switching off of life support machines for those in comas, the killing of the elderly or disabled. Ethical debates range over the right to take life ever, the right to choose the manner and time of death with dignity and the safe application of legalised Euthanasia. The Voluntary Euthanaisia Society advocates legal reform in Britain while the Roman Cathiolic Church opposes all forms of Euthanasia.

Extrinsic Good. Something which is good, not within itself but because of the goodness/badness of the effects it has.


Fate/Fatalism Fate is the concept that there is a force or law influencing or controlling human affairs. A religious variant of Determinism.

Freedom/ Free Will Freedom a pre-necessity of moral responsibility. You must arguably be free to act to be morally responsible for your actions. Libertarians hold that we are free to act morally.


Golden Rule Theory The maxim that we should act morally as we would expect to be treated. It is found in various ancient and modern sources, most notable Christian: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Thomas Hobbes held that we only act morally because we don’t want to be acted against in a immoral way. Moral behaviour has selfish roots.

Good / Goodness Ethics that questions definitions of the Good are known as Metaethics. Plato held that the good was an absolute that existed in a truer form than the things we perceive around us. Relativists hold that goodness is determined by the traditional value system of a given culture. Trying to define and determine what the good is the preoccupation of the student of ethics.


Hard Determinism. The belief that people do not have free will to act in moral situations, that all moral actions have uncontrollable prior causes. Determinism has the difficulty that if people are not free to act morally then it seems unreasonable to hold them responsible for their actions.

Hedonic Calculus. Bentham’s Utilitarian computation by which the good and bad effects of an action can be measured.

Hedonism. The belief that pleasure is the chief “good.”

Heteronomy. The opposite of autonomy. An autonomous person is self-determined, while a heteronomous person is not free to act but influenced or controlled by something outside of the person. For Kant if we are controlled by our emotions we are not acting morally because we are not free to make a rational decision. Etymologically, hetero is Greek for “other”; and nomos is Greek for “law”

Human Rights. See Rights.

Hypothetical Imperative. A conditional, “if”, command, such
as, “If you want to lose weight, go on a diet.” Some philosophers claimed that morality is only a system of hypothetical imperatives, while others, such as Kant, maintained that morality is a matter of categorical imperatives. See categorical imperative.


Idea/ Form Plato absolutes which he thought were the real things in the universe and were immortal and beyond our senses. For Plato the good life involved the pursuit of these Ideas or Form, using philosophical enquiry. By pursuing them we would eventually perceive goodness itself, the supreme Idea.

Ignorance. Acquinas thought that you were not morally responsible for your actions if you could not reasonably know that what you do is wrong.

Immoral/ immorality. An Immoral act is one that is considered bad or wrong.

Impartiality. A position which treats everyone equally or objectively. Impartiality is arguably an essential component of the moral point of view so that in judging moral actions or situations human beings should be treated equally.

Imperative. A command. Philosophers often distinguish between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives

Individualism. Theories which centre on the importance, rights or centrality of the individual as opposed to communitarianism which focuses on those of the group. Margaret Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society” to emphasis the importance of the individual in commerce. The United States embodies rights of the individual in its Constitution. In ethics the distinction between the two is important in discussions on the purpose of Justice. Individualism is also an issue in religious and cultural studies (compare American Individualism with the Japanese Group ethos, or the Christian search for individual salvation and the Islamic concept of the rights of the community).

Inclination. The word that Kant used to refer to our feelings, emotions, and desires which contrast with reason. Inclination was seen as physical, causally-determined, and irrational, while reason was portrayed as non-physical, free, and obviously rational.

Integrationist. A position which attempts to reconcile apparently conflicting tendencies or values into a single framework or system. Integrationist positions are contrasted with separatist positions, which advocate keeping groups (usually defined by race, ethnicity, or gender) separate from one another. The Apartheid regime in south Africa was Separatist. advocating separate communities for blacks and whites, separate public transport systems, etc.

Intention. In ethics questions can be asked about whether intentions make a difference to the moral value of the action. If they do than it could be argued that to give to charity to show off to gain praise is a right but bad action. For consequentialist theories of ethics intention is important as intention is what you hope to achieve by the action – Arguably all moral actions heaven element of this. For Kant, intention can make all the difference as acting out of feelings is wrong, while acting using reason to perceive duty is right.

Intrinsically Good. Good in itself, without reference to consequences. see extrinsically good.

Intuitionism or ethical non-naturalism. A Metaethical theory which states that moral truths are known by intuition, a special kind of perception.


Justice. Ethical debates in this area surround the definition of justice and how to make justice operate effectively in the community. There are two main theories. Individualistic theories maintain that communities are made up of individuals and therefore justice should preserve the rights of individuals. Individualism is characterised by Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society” and Thomas Hobbes’ theory that individuals make rules to live by for selfish reasons – that it is in their best interest. Communitarian theories hold that society is more than the sum of its parts and has some organic dimension. Plato recognised the importance of community in his city-state. Marx, MacIntyre and John Rawls developed communitarian theories of justice.


Kingdom of Ends. This term was used by Kant to describe a world in which people acted, not in a way which treated others as means but rather only as ends. he argued tat we ought to act as if all people did this in our dealings.


Law. A moral or legal code of conduct. It can be used to refer to Legislation of the state (Acts of Parliament in the UK), Church rules (Canon Law in the Catholic Church), moral guidelines either written in nature or the hearts of all people (Acquinas) or simply developed individually as part of a person value system. Ethical debates which mention law may be in discussions of whether natural or absolutes laws exist outside human created ideas, whether they should be applied universally or according to legal custom, and the reconciliation between laws of the state and moral laws. (see also Absolutism, Relativism, Natural Moral Law, Conscience.

Legalism. An ethical system which contains rules for every situation and/or the association of doing good with simply following those rules.

Libertarianism. The view that humans are free to make moral choices and are therefore responsible for their actions. An opposite stance to determinism.

Logic. The study or argument and reasoning. The study of whether certain conclusions follow from their premises and if so why.

Logical Positivism. The view that the only real things are those which are either empirically provable (we can test them) or logically necessary (1+1=2). All religious, superstitious and supernatural statements are meaningless. This philosophy was propagated by a group called the Vienna Circle and later came to be associated with A J Ayer and Emotivism.

Love. A key concept in Christian Ethics where people must love their neighbour as they do themselves. It is also important for Situation Ethics wherein it forms the central rule by which moral behaviour valued is assessed – what is the most loving thing to do. The kind of love here is Agape, meaning unconditional love, which is not dependant of any return and is very different from the love of family and erotic love.


Maxim. A moral rule which according to Kant was the subjective
that an individual uses in making a decision.

Means. Another term for actions. In Ethics, “means” are often contrasted with “ends” so that some ethical theories focus on the intrinsic goodness of an action while others look at the consequences of actions.

Medical ethics See Bioethics

Metaethics. The study of the meaning of ethical statements and terms such as “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong.”

Moral Ballpark. The issue or topic under investigation including moral choices, intentions, actions and consequences of those actions, and their rightness, wrongness, goodness or badness .

Moral Philosophy. See Ethics

Moral Rights. See Rights.

Moral Relativism. See Relativism

Morality. Morality comes from the Latin word Moralis – concerned with which actions are right and which are wrong, rather than the character of the person. Today morality and ethics are often used interchangeably.

Motives. See Intentions


Natural (Moral) Law. ethical theories which hold that there is a good natural order to the human world which ought to be adhered to. The Natural order is determined either by a deity or some other supernatural power. The origins of Natural law in the west go back as fat as the ancient Greeks (Sophocles, Antigone) but are famously developed by Thomas Acquinas who deduced that the fundamental natural law was to protect oneself and protect the innocent and that from these can be derived the rules, to live, to procreate, to create a civil society and to worship God. The Roman Catholic Church is a prominent exponent of Natural Moral Law today and this is manifested in its teaching against the use of artificial contraception.

Naturalism. The ethical theory that moral values can be derived from sense experience. Naturalists believe statements of fact (is) can imply statements of moral obligation (ought). The contrary Ethical position is Ethical Non naturalism or ethical non-cognitivism. See also naturalistic Fallacy.

Naturalistic Fallacy. G. E. Moore’s claim that good cannot be defined as it is simple and indefinable. Moore famously compared it to yellow, which, if defined was no longer yellow.

Nihilism. The belief that there is no value or truth, a belief in nothing (nihil).

Noncognitivism. The belief that moral judgements or exclamations do not have truth value and therefore cannot be known. An example of this is emotivism.

Nonconsequentialism Another word for Deontological Ethical theories.

Normative Ethics. See Ethics.


Objectivism. Truth is objectively real irrespective of individual or cultural viewpoint or value system. Things that are right and wrong are absolutely right and wrong.

Obedience / disobedienc. To follow orders or instruction. In ethics there are dilemmas about obedience to authority and when not to obey (civil disobedience and conscientious objection) and obedience to conscience.

Ommission, Sin of. The idea that we can do wrong through inaction as well as doing actively bad things. For example if we refuse to help someone clearly in need of help when we can give it to save their life then we are doing wrong through inaction. In some countries failing to stop at a Road Traffic Accident is a crime. Global justice issues in ethics identify the possibility that rich Westerners are continually doing wrong by failing to save the lives of those round the world who are starving by giving up their wealth to help the poor.

Original Position. A situation where a group of people must devise a set a rules guaranteeing quality for all members of that society without knowing what role they will have in that society.


Particularity. Can be contrasted with universality and impartiality. Ethical discussions debate how adequate recognition can be given to the particular which refers to close allegiances, friendships, loyalties and individual hopes and desires in life. These particulars are usually seen as morally irrelevant to the rational moral self.

Phenomenal. See noumenal.

Phronesis. According to Aristotle, Phronesis is
practical wisdom, the ability to make the right decision in
difficult circumstances.

Personalism. The ethic that demands that human beings are not treated as “means” (Kant) but are subjects. Personalism argues that human are interrelational social beings, part of the physical and spiritual world. Personalism affirms self conscious experience. Ultimately it puts the person in the centre of any moral or ethical dilemma.

Pluralism. The theory that here are many valid perspectives on an issue which individually hold part but not all of the truth. In ethics, moral pluralism holds that different moral theories each capture part of truth about moral life but not all of it. It is distinct from relativism as it does not necessarily give equal validity to all theories and nor does it rule out of the possibility that there is one truth, simply that the truth is spread throughout a number of theories.

Practical or Applied Ethics. The study of Ethical issues such as abortion, justice, as opposed to purely ethical theories like natural moral law and utilitarianism.

Prescriptivism. An ethical theory which contains that moral statements are not simply describing an opinion but have and intrinsic sense that others ought to agree and follow that moral view. Contrasts with descriptive ethics and to some extent emotivism.

Prima Facie. Meaning in Latin “at first glance. “; In ethics it is associated with W D Ross and his pirma Facie Duties. A prima facie duty which must be followed unless a stronger duty exists which may override it.

Proportionality / Proportionalism. The concept of proportionality is found in Thomas Acquinas’ consideration of the Just War theory. He argued that warring activity should be proportionate to the aggression made and not excessive to that aggression. It is present in modern formulations of the just war theory and questions actions like the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WW2. It is also found in the RC teaching on Euthanasia which holds that while Euthanasia is wrong, the excessive or overburdensom treatment of terminally ill patients may be wrong especially if the pain caused is disproportionate to the result of the procedure. Proportionalism as an ethical theory is a relatively new theory which tries to bridge the gap between the traditional Christian Natural Law ethic and the modern relativist Christian ethic, Situationism. It maintains that there there are basic moral laws which are only broken in extreme circumstances. See also Situationism, Natural Moral Law.

Psychologism Egoism. The doctrine that all human motivation is ultimately selfish or egoistic.



Rationalism. A theory popular in the 17th and 18th which holds that it is possible to determine what truly exists by reason alone, and that all things are explicable using reason. In more recent times it is associated with the rejection of religious beliefs, faith or any belief system considered irrational. See also Logical Positivism, Emotivism.

Realism. Traditionally, Ethical realism holds that moral facts exist. The term also describes the theory that in fact it is never possible to make good choices as sin is present in all people and therefore we ultimately have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Relativism. Relativism takes several forms. Descriptive ethical relativism maintains that different cultures and societies have differing ethical systems. Normative ethical relativism claims that each culture’s beliefs or value system are right within that culture, and that it is impossible to validly judge another culture’s values externally or objectively. As such there are no absolute moral norms. Some relativists hold that moral absolutes may exist but that they are unknowable. J. L. Mackie is a famous contemporary Relativist philosopher.

Reproductive Technologies. Technology which controls fertility and reproduction including artificial contraception and IVF.

Retribution. The theory that punishment should in some way repay the damage done by the crime.

Rights Entitlements to do something without interference from other people, granted by divine, natural or secular authority by virtue of being human or being the citizen of a state.

Rule Utilitarianism. Instead of looking at the consequences of a particular act, Rule Utilitarians first establish the best general course of action to follow in these circumstances and then always follows that course. So the general rule of driving on the left hand side of the road is established as the best rule to follow in Britain even though in a particular instance the left lane is slow moving while the other lane is empty. John Stuart Mill is an example of a Rule Utilitarian. See also Act -Utilitarianism and Utilitarianism.


Self evident truth. A truth which requires no external proof or justification.

Sexual Ethics. Ethical issues related to sex including pre-marital sex, extra marital sex, homosexuality, contraception, masturbation, contraception etc.

Skepticism. The ancient Greek skeptics were dedicated to the investigation of concrete experience and wary of theories that might cloud or confuse that experience. Conversely, modern skeptics are wary of the reliability of sense experience.

Situation Ethics / Situationism. An alternative Christian ethical theory promulgated by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960s that rejected legalistic codes of ethics in favour of a more relativist model. Fletcher argued that the morally right thing to do was that which was most loving in that particular situation. The love Fletcher meant was agape or unconditional love. The theory has been rejected by some Christian Churches, most notable the Catholic Church. Proportionalism is a more moderate form of situation ethics .

Slippery Sloap Argument . In ethics this is used to describe the dangers of theories which allow for moral laws to be broken in certain circumstances. The dangers are stated as being that once lesser moral laws are broken, greater ones are then broken an ultimate all moral absolutes are abandoned. Situation ethics is identified as a theory which could over step certain ethical boundaries. In applied Ethics, some argue that to legalise euthanasia would eventually lead to the justification of all sorts of of dubious moral practices including infanticide.

Social Contract. An arrangement whereby all members of a community agree to restrict their freedoms so as to allow the most liberty or everyone.

State of Nature. The original state which human beings live in. Identified by Hobbes as being a state of aggressive war which must be overcome by a social contract and conversely argued to be a state of pre-civilised paradise by Rousseau..

Subjectivism. An extreme version of relativism, which argues that each person’s values and beliefs are relative to that person alone and cannot be judged externally or objectively.

Supererogatory. To act above or beyond the call of duty. A supererogatory act is morally good and goes beyond what is required by duty.

Supernaturalism. See Divine Command Theory.

Syllogism. A form of deductive reasoning using the key terms “all” and “some”. For example, “all citizens of the EU are humans but only some humans are citizens of the EU.” “All .


Teleological Ethics. Ethical theories which establish the rightness or wrongness of a given act by consideration of the consequences. see consequentialism, Utilitarianism


Universalizability. A a moral law which can be obeyed every time everywhere. Kant maintained that the only maxims which are morally good are those which can be universalized.

Utilitarianism / the Utility theory. A teleological theory that maintains that an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Formulated by Jeremy Bentham and developed by John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism measures the potential goodness produced with the Hedonic Calculus and thereby draws conclusions about which action is the best. Deontological theories are contrary to this theory. Criticsprovides point out that it provides no justice for minorities and ignores the possibility of intrinsically bad acts like torturing babies. See also Act Utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism, Consequentialism..


Value system. A fixed set of ethical and moral beliefs and practices usually associated with a world view of truth, life and death. It may be part of a religious belief system or a secular ideology.

Values/Value Judgement. A Value is traditionally known as a good, a moral principle. A value jugdement is an estimate of the moral worth of an action.

Vice. To habitually do what is wrong.

Virtue/Virtue Ethics. To habitually do what is right. Virtue Ethics is a theory that claims that being good requires the practice of a certain kind of behaviours (virtethicsues). Aristotle advanced Virtue ethics and it has bee recently redefined by Alasdair MacIntyre. Debates range on how we determine what these ethical virtues are and whether being good is something we can practice at at all.


World View. A collective term from all systems of belief be they religious (Christian Hindu etc.), or secular (communist, humanist, vegetarianism). Usually world views have accompanying value systems.




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