Unit 1 Study Guide: Murder, Morality, and the Value of Human Life

1a: Define ethics and moral philosophy.

    • Define ethics and moral philosophy.
    • Define and explain the differences among normative ethics, metaethics, and applied ethics.
    • Define virtue ethics, social contract theory, deontology, and utilitarianism.
    • Describe the components of an ethical dilemma.

The word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, which means custom or habit. Ethics describes the branch of philosophy that is concerned with morality, which is derived from the Latin word moralis, meaning custom. Many use ethics synonymously with morality, values, and moral philosophy.

The study of ethics reflects a systematic examination of our attitudes and beliefs about how people should treat others and act as members of their community. Today’s philosophers and scholars continue to debate many of the same questions that preoccupied ancient ethical thinkers. Philosophers often incorporate the study of ethics within larger philosophical systems that include theories of knowledge, reality, aesthetics (the branch of philosophy that relates to the principles of beauty and art), and politics.

Prescriptive or normative ethics tell us how to act and be. This type of ethical reasoning is prescriptive and practical. It provides practical guides or norms by means of which we know how to act; it tells us what is right and wrong. Ethics is a prescriptive study insofar as we don’t just do it as a matter of course. If we did, we wouldn’t ask what we ought or should do. Normative questions include: “Is it ever ethical for me to lie?” and, “Do I have a duty to help the poor and those less fortunate than me?”

Metaethics is the study of morality and moral judgments. Metaethicists use descriptive and theoretical approaches to understanding the commitments and assumptions that underlie our thinking about morality and moral actions. In short, metaethics is concerned with uncovering the origin and nature of moral principles, moral attitudes, moral judgments, and moral properties. That is, metaethics is concerned with what it means to say that we should or ought to act the way a normative theory tells us we should.

Applied ethics examines controversial issues. For example, applied ethics applies normative and metaethical concepts to issues such as abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, stem-cell research, environmental issues, capital punishment, same-sex marriage, drug legalization, discrimination, and specific rights, such as animal rights.

Note that we will discuss different theories about ethics in the study guide that follows, including virtue ethics, social contract theory, deontology, and utilitarianism.

Review these major ethical theories in Ethical Systems from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

1b: Apply a definition of ethics to moral and political concepts such as justice and others.

    • How did Plato and Thomas Hobbes define justice?
    • Define social contract theory.
    • Is justice a political or moral concept, or both?
    • Does absolute justice exist, or does the state determine justice through the laws its passes?

Philosophers define ethical concepts, such as justice, differently. For example, Plato (c. 423–348 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC), the Greek philosophers, defined justice as following the laws of the state, provided the city is structured in a way that creates "just" laws.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1689), the English philosopher who wrote about social contract theory, defined justice as acting in a way that is within your power. Hobbes claimed that political leaders get to define what justice means, as long as they are strong or powerful enough to get away with it.

Review Virtue Ethics from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

Review Social Contract Theory from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

    • How does Martin Luther King, Jr. define justice?
    • Is there an absolute justice or a natural law, which protects certain inherent rights of people?

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), was an American Baptist minister and political activist, who promoted equal rights for African Americans during the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968. He was assassinated in 1968 and is remembered for his ability to mobilize the American people to support civil rights, powerful speeches, and actions in favor of rights for all races. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for change in peaceful, non-violent ways. One of his most influential writings is his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.

Review Letter from the Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his lecture, Michael Sandel, discusses how the shipmates Dudley and Stephens raised questions about whether it is ethical to change our moral principles or norms in cases of extreme need or necessity. Which type of ethics should philosophers use to answer this type of question? Are some people better equipped to answer questions about ethical dilemmas than others?

    • Define necessity.
    • What is the difference between something we need and something we want?
    • Does necessity or need change our ethical principles when we make decisions? For example, is it okay to do things we need to survive that we might not otherwise consider morally or ethically permissible?

Review the lecture The Moral Side of Murder by Michael Sandel and the article R versus Dudley & Stephens from Wikipedia.


1c: Identify and describe the intrinsic value of philosophical investigation as an academic discipline.

    • What is the intrinsic value of trying to understand ethical theories?
    • Do ethical theories have any connection to real life?
    • What does it mean to live an ethical or virtuous life?

Ethical dilemmas are questions about what we should do in particular situations. Philosophers look for general principles about how we should make these decisions. For example, “Do not do anything that will harm other people.” But what about situations where we only have two bad options and the best action may involve harming another person. Situations, such as war and the death penalty, raise questions about whether we should kill someone, given our options.

Ethics and philosophy seek to understand what principles are best for handling difficult situations and the implications of those principles. No matter how technical or abstract these disciplines may seem, they always relate questions about what we should do in a particular situation.

Plato and Aristotle, the Greek philosophers, examined what it means to live virtuously, or in ways that will promote human flourishing (eudaimonia) or living a good life. These thinkers considered the most important virtues to be wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. In the same manner, cultivating one’s character includes learning to avoid vices, such as ignorance, cowardice (or brashness), intemperance, and injustice. Their theories about virtue focus on the development and state of one’s character. So, rather than learn moral rules, the virtue theorist focuses on learning to become a moral person, to develop a virtuous character.

Review section Major Ethical Systems, from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

Review Virtue Ethics from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

Martin Luther King, Jr. provides an excellent example of how our political leaders use discussions of philosophy and morality to support their causes.

    • Does Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter suggest any real consequences for understanding abstract philosophical concepts?
    • What terms did King use that we might consider to be philosophical or abstract? What importance did he give them in his letter?
    • How does understanding ethics and morality help us fix some specific problems today?

Review Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr.

1d: Use the works of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Aquinas, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to compare and contrast theories of ethics.


Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the English philosopher, was the first major philosopher to espouse the principle of utility and utilitarianism. He examined the moral consequences of our actions in addition to the intrinsic quality of the act. Bentham believed that the right thing to do, individually and collectively, is to maximize the balance of pleasure over pain, and happiness over suffering, to promote the greatest good for the greatest number. He stated that it is preferable to act in ways that uphold "the greatest benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness ... to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness."

    • Name the two governances nature places humankind. (Chapter I)
    • Define the principle of utility and explain the actions it refers to. (Chapter II)
    • Explain what Bentham meant by utility. (Chapter III)
    • Define consequentialism.
    • Define hedonism.

Review the following chapters from Bentham's work An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation:

Review the following resources that discuss Bentham's beliefs, and utilitarianism in general.


John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), also an English philosopher, and Jeremy Bentham were both utilitarians, but they had different ideas about the specifics of utilitarianism. We could describe Bentham as a hedonistic utilitarian, and John Stuart Mill as an idealistic utilitarian, because Mill believed some pleasures are higher than others. Review Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill to find clues to this difference. For example, in Chapter 2, Mill describes a “difference of quality in pleasures.”

    • What did John Stuart Mill mean when he described a qualitative difference among different types of pleasures?
    • How do we know which pleasures are higher?
    • Find three quotes that illustrate the difference between higher and lower pleasures.
    • What does Mill say about Socrates, the pig, and the fool?
    • Define the greatest happiness principle.

In addition to the readings about utilitarianism in the section on Jeremy Bentham, review the following materials on John Stuart Mill.

While Mill and Bentham did not use the following terms themselves, they may help you understand how we evaluate different pleasures. Consider these exercises as a guide to some important terminology.

    • How do we determine what brings most people the most happiness? How do we count?
    • What if an action brings happiness to some, and pain to others? How do we decide?
    • Define monetized utilitarianism.
    • Define and explain the difference between hedonistic and idealistic utilitarianism.
    • Define and explain the difference between act and rule utilitarianism.
    • Define and explain the difference between hard and soft utilitarianism.

Review Utilitarianism: The Greater Good from The Business Ethics Workshop.


St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the Italian priest and theologian, believed that natural law and eternal law (which are prescribed by God) go hand-in-hand. 

    • Define the natural law and the eternal law.
    • Did Thomas Aquinas believe that the natural law is the same for everyone?
    • Did Aquinas believe that the natural law can change?
    • Did Aquinas believe that people can remove the natural law from their hearts?

Review Summa Theologica: Part I-II (Pars Prima Secundae), Question 94, Articles 4-6 by St. Thomas Aquinas to answer these three questions (really three parts of one question) regarding Aquinas's views on natural law.

Note that Aquinas writes in an unfamiliar format so you need to read carefully. First, he lays out the objections to his own beliefs. So, the first text you read is the opposite of what Aquinas believes (see the headings: Objection 1, 2, and 3). Next he claims, “on the contrary,” where he begins to present his argument against these objections, as if he is saying, "they have got it all wrong!" Finally, he responds to each objection one-by-one, and offers his opinion on each issue.

    • Define consequentialism.
    • How does Aquinas’s concept of natural law differ from consequentialism?
    • What did Aquinas believe natural law is rooted in?
    • What are some different levels of precepts or commands in the natural law?

Review St. Thomas Aquinas on the Natural Law by Joseph M. Magee.

Review Natural Law from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

Review Religion or Divine Command Theory from Ethics in Law Enforcement.


Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, which we introduced in learning outcome 1b. above, is one of his most widely circulated and influential writings.

Review Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Review Natural Law from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

In his letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to a number of historical figures, including Adolf Hitler.

    • Why does King refer to Hitler?
    • What does King's reference indicate about legal and illegal actions?
    • How does this reference relate to King’s conception of the moral law?

1e: Identify and describe central issues and branches in ethics, including moral intuition, reflective equilibrium, and utilitarianism, consequentialism, deontology, and natural law.

    • What is a primary concern of deontological theory or deontological ethics?
    • Name the two types of duties Kant distinguishes.
    • Define hypothetical imperative and categorical imperative.
    • What three keywords demonstrate how Kantian deontology can provide helpful guidelines for law enforcement?

Consequentialism is an umbrella term that refers to several ethical theories that evaluate moral principles according to their consequences.

Utilitarianism is one specific form of consequentialism or consequentialist theory. Review utilitarianism and consequentialism in the sections about their founders, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in learning outcome 1d. above.

Deontology, or ethical theories based on duty, focus on our obligations. Derived from the Greek word, deon, duty dictates what we ought to do. Deontological ethical theories, are focused on determining the principles we use to define our duties. We classify deontological ethical theories as non-consequentialist. That’s because the morality of an action, in a deontological theory, is not determined by the consequences of that action, but whether or not the action was performed for the sake of duty.

Note that we explore the beliefs of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the German philosopher, and deontology in detail in Unit 3.

Review Deontology and Rawls’s Theory of Justice from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

    • Define moral intuition and reflective equilibrium.
    • Name some moral intuitions you consider to be fairly clear to right-thinking individuals. Do most people agree with you about these basic intuitions?
    • How do moral principles relate to moral intuitions?
    • What is the progress Rawls describes as reflective equilibrium?
    • How do we revise our moral principles in this process?
    • Define the veil of ignorance.
    • What two principles does John Rawls identify as being necessary for justice and fairness?

John Rawls (1921–2002), the American moral and political philosopher, coined the theory of reflective equilibrium which suggests we should continually re-evaluate our moral principles, against our judgements and intuitions, to ensure our entire moral system is consistent.

Many associate Rawls's philosophy with Immanuel Kant, because Rawls also argued that we should follow certain rules absolutely, out of a sense of duty, just because they are right. Like Kant, Rawls believed we have a duty and obligation to follow these rules and principles.

Review moral intuitions, moral principles, and reflective equilibrium in Tutorial U06: Reflective Equilibrium by Jonathan Chan, who explains that consistency is an important part of checking our moral decisions to make sure they are fair.

Review Rawls’s Theory of Justice from Ethics in Law Enforcement.

1f: Analyze how an ethical theory may influence policies in corporations and institutions and how an ethical theory may affect individual rights and liberties.

The Case of Civil Rights

    • Name the four steps to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s program.
    • Did King express his disappointment about certain groups of people? Who in particular?
    • Why did King have to write such a long letter?

In his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. says an oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the person or people they oppress. For this reason, King creates a plan for demanding freedom. He says the oppressed have to demand freedom for themselves, or it will never be granted. King proposes a four-step program the oppressed can use to make their demands heard.

Review Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Karen Dillard Case

    • Name the advantage students at Karen Dillard College Prep had and explain why it came about.
    • Was there something wrong with what happened?
    • What would a utilitarian have to say about this case?
    • Does utilitarianism provide the best framework to evaluate these actions ethically speaking?
    • Should the College Board have cancelled the scores of the students who had an unfair advantage?

Review the Karen Dillard case in Utilitarianism: The Greater Good from The Business Ethics Workshop.


The Ford Pinto Case

    • Describe what happened in the Ford Pinto case, the topic of debate, and the company’s decision.
    • Did the Ford Motor Company make the right decision? Was it the best decision on utilitarian grounds? Are utilitarian grounds sufficient to weigh this decision?

More specifically, we might say the Ford Motor Company’s decision involved a monetized utilitarianism.

    • Would a different kind of utilitarianism be a better approach?
    • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of utilitarianism as an approach to business ethics?

Review the Ford Pinto case in Utilitarianism: The Greater Good from The Business Ethics Workshop.

Unit 1 Vocabulary

      • Act utilitarianism
      • Applied ethics
      • Consequentialism
      • Deontology
      • Divine law
      • Eternal law
      • Ethical dilemma
      • Ethics
      • Ethics of care
      • Eudaimonia
      • Greatest happiness principle
      • Hard utilitarianism
      • Hedonistic utilitarianism
      • Higher and lower pleasures
      • Human flourishing
      • Idealistic utilitarianism
      • Immanuel Kant
      • Jeremy Bentham
      • John Rawls
      • John Stuart Mill
      • Just Law vs. unjust law
      • Justice
      • Legal and illegal action
      • Living a good life
      • Martin Luther King, Jr.
      • Metaethics
      • Monetized utilitarianism
      • Moral intuitions
      • Moral law
      • Moral philosophy
      • Moral principles
      • Morality
      • Natural law
      • Nature
      • Necessity
      • Normative ethics
      • Obligations
      • Plato
      • Pleasures
      • Practical reason
      • Principle of utility
      • Reflective equilibrium
      • Rights
      • Rule utilitarianism
      • Social contract theory
      • Soft utilitarianism
      • Speculative reason
      • St. Thomas Aquinas
      • Thomas Hobbes
      • Two governances
      • Utilitarianism
      • Utility
      • Values
      • Veil of ignorance
      • Virtue ethics
      • Wants

Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2019, 6:57 PM