Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the study of how we should live our lives. For at least five thousand years, issues in ethics have been studied and debated by philosophers, theologians, scientists, physicians, artists, and people just like you. But, then, not thinking about moral issues is pretty hard to do. In fact, whether you want the job or not, you are an amateur ethicist, someone who spends a lot of time thinking about moral issues. What’s more, you have a moral theory — a view of what morality is and is not, what actions are right or wrong, and what things are good or bad. Even if you think that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that is a theory of morality. If you believe that all moral theories and moral theorizing are bogus, that is also a theory of morality. So the question of whether you should have a moral theory is irrelevant — you already have one. The really important question is: Which one should you have?
You take this question lightly at your peril because your theory of morality — whatever it is — helps you plot the course of your life. Whether valid or invalid, ideas about morality influence what you do and don’t do. A poor moral theory leads to poor moral judgments. A good moral theory helps you make good moral judgments. And the difference between the two paths can be vast.
Moral theories come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them have their own devotees who may insist that their view is the one that the rest of the world should adopt. So moral conflicts continually arise not only over specific moral judgments, but between rival conceptions of morality itself — between moral theories.
Such rivalries seem especially intense between moral theories that grow out of religious traditions and those that do not. Religious moral theories depend substantially on ideas about theistic or supernatural states of affairs. Secular moral theories leave out such ideas. Humanist moral theories are also secular but emphasize a respect or concern for the welfare and the rights of human individuals. The differences between religious and secular theories can be stark and often show up vividly in debates about abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, women’s rights, gay rights, teen violence, cloning humans, and more. In some cases, though, the differences are minimal, with references to the supernatural being almost the only contrasting element.
In any case, what we really need to know about both religious and nonreligious moral theories is whether they are worthy of our commitment and how we can tell that they are. This module will help you get your bearings so you can begin to answer these questions for yourself. We will get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. To do so, we will have to skip some fundamental issues that usually get attention in ethics courses — such as whether it is even possible to evaluate moral concepts and systems and whether moral statements are meaningless.