Ethics and Politics

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  • First (Order) Actions Ethics

Looks at the world - Actions types like Murder, cloning etc are morally acceptable. i.e My belief that this chair is blue

  • Second (Order) Actions

What is it that makes an action right and wrong i.e. What makes me believe that this chair is blue.

You can only test your second order ethics with reference to the first. If your belief that murder is OK is tested against the worldly acceptance of murder and find that murder


Aristotle and Ethics

The right action is the action that would be chosen by a virtuous person. A virtuous person as three characteristics

  • The person knows what is virtuous. Aristotle does nor accept there are rules. Their general claims have to be applied in specific situations and break down. How do you be kind and honest when giving an opinion. You have broken the rules. This is moral dilemma and you end up making up a rule or prioritize rules. Aristotle says you should maintain both truth and honesty by not making a rule but acting virtuously in the specific circumstances and acting accordingly.

  • The virtuous performs the virtuous action. Aristole believes you can be born with the potential, for example, benevolent but you have to work on the disposition to become benevolent. You have to execise and practice the benevolence and do it not because you have to, or be seen to be benevolent but because it is virtuous
  • A virtuous person performs the right acton for the right reason

If throughout your lifetime you act as above then you become virtuous.

Unity of the Virtues - Aristole believes all the virtues come together. They are prudence, temperence, justice and courage and if you have one you have all them all


For Kant a action is right if it is done out of reverence for the law or through duty. The difference is the person is acting out of intention not inclinaton. David Hume believes that everything that is done is out of self interest. There is no altruism. If you do the action because it makes you feel good then it is not a moral action says Kant. He defines a Categorical Imperative as a moral law that is not dependent on any other ulterior motive or end. e.g. Do not steal. Kant gives 6 accounts of the categorical imperative. Treat all people as an end not a means.


The right action is the one that does the most good for the greatest number of people. This is a consequentialist doctrine not one based on intenton or will. It is the consequences of your actions not your intent that is important. This tends to be how the judicial system works. Utilitiarianism would argue that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima would lead to the greatest happiness to the majority. However when we act we do not necessarily know what the outcome will be. So it should be the intended consequences not the actual. It's the moral action of the agent that is important. Turning it around if you did something wrong yet turned out for the good. Utilitarianism would say that if the intended consequences were bad the moral agent is bad.

Problems with Utilitarianism can be seen with genocide. The right to life might be denied if the majority would be happier if you were dead. More of a dilemma would be the allocation of resources in healthcare. Do we prioritize the old or the young, productive individual or feckless or one drug that saves one from a dreadful illness or many from a mild illness. However, it is a descriptive not a prescriptive theory.

Distributive Justice

John Rawls and Veil of Ignorance

In his Theory of Justice he sets out to choose the principles of justice for a society. How should goods be distributed that allow for the most equitable distribution amongst those in society. The Original Position is his way of choosing the principles of justice. A certain kind of people are put in a certain position and to judge the rules by which goods are distributed. They must be rational, self-interested and risk averse. They are put behind the Veil of Ignorance. By being self ignorant of your own circumstances you can draw a philosophical conclusion of the justice or injustice of the principle at stake. For instance if you do not know if your rich or poor or balck or white, old or young. The only knowledge they do have in the Thin Theory of Good, which are basic rules about humans psychology - like the need for food and warmth. By being self ignorant it enables them to judge the principles of justice becuase they are forced to be fair and your self interest is not going to work on behalf of one set of people but all people.

This leads us to the two principles of justice

1. Everyone is entitled to maximum liberty and equality. 2. Inequalities are permitted but only when it makes the worse off, better off.

In opposition to Rawls,Nozick holds a Lockian property theory. You own the labor of your own ability and everything that you mix with the labor. It underpins much of American Constitution and British law. He sees taxation as forced labor. For instance a brilliant sportsman is paid to play sport and gets rich but we then substract from his income and resistribute elsewhere. By definiton we have reduced his liberty and he has no rights over how that money is used. Also we willingly paid to make him rich so it is not unequal that he became rich. If we do not want him to have this level of inequality then we should no longer pay to watch him play sport

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