Chapter  8: ETHICS

Post Modernism-Relativism  

 (NOTE:  You must read only those linked materials that are preceded by the capitalized word READ.) 

During the Twentieth Century the advanced technological societies of the West and some in the East experienced a decline in the number of people who practiced their religion regularly and accepted a morality based upon Natural Law Theory.  There was a decline in the belief that:

1.         there is a single reality and that humans can have knowledge of it.

2.         there is objective truth

3.         there are absolutes 

This decline can be attributed to a number of factors:

1.         the increase in information about other cultures and their various practices, beliefs and values,

2.         advances in what science and technology could provide for humans in improvements in their basic living along with an appreciation for material goods,

3.         the spreading influence of ideas from the existentialist and pragmatist movements

4.         the spread of democratic ideals 

In the Post Modern view there are no absolutes of any kind and there are no universal truths nor universal criteria for beauty and nor are there universal principles of the GOOD.  Thus, there is a return of relativism in the sphere of morality.  With that return there is also the threat of chaos which relativism spawns.  As reaction to this trend there is an increase in the numbers of people returning to religion and religious principles as the foundation for their moral lives.  The fastest growing religion in the world is Islam.  Islam is increasing in its population through a birth rate higher than average and through conversions.  Islam fundamentalism is growing in the number of adherents.  Fundamentalists of Islam and of Christianity and Judaism are all declaring their condemnation of the current state of moral decline and the rise of relativism and materialism. 

In moral theory there has developed a number of traditions that extol alternatives to the teleological and deontological approaches based upon reason and the belief that universal principles can be reached through the exercise of reason.  

The Existentialists called for an acceptance of the inescapable role of human emotions. 

The Pragmatists focused on the impossibility of reason reaching beyond the frailties of limitations of human reason. 

Feminist theoreticians have devised a number of approaches to ethics that have at least this much in common: the denial of previous theories as being biased and deluded.


Existentialism                  Existential Ethics   Nietzsche

Nietzsche on Master and Slave Morality

Nietzsche and Morality: The Higher Man and The Herd


Omonia Vinieris (QCC,  2002)     Nietzsche’s Will to Power

            Nietzsche’s ethical principle of the will to power makes a claim to the egoistic nature of humanity.  The doctrine asserts that all humans strive to forcibly impose their will upon others as a primal drive in their nature compels them to do so.  Man will relentlessly exercise his will over others as an example of his determination, spirit, and strength of character.  To demonstrate and acquire his power and influence is his inherent motivation to act, even if his actions essentially seem unselfishly provoked.  Nietzsche alleges that no true altruistic deeds exist because humans are wholly egocentric and self-seeking by nature.  We may give the impression that we are considerate, caring, and selfless as we may perform kind deeds for others that regard us as humane, but our innate intensions are truly self-absorbed and do not entail goodness or benevolence.  By this, Nietzsche does not suggest by any means that mankind is innately malicious out of its deceptive intentions, but rather that it is more rapt in its own aspirations or purposes of life.  These aspirations are to be esteemed as an example of human prominence and not mistaken for the malice and deterioration of mankind.

            Conversely, sympathy, generosity, and equality are all qualities that one associates with good moral character, not with contemptibility as Nietzsche does.  The noble spirit that Nietzsche speaks of would not embrace these traditional ethical traits.  To manipulate characters of fragility and frailty, to indulge in one’s supremacy, and to pamper one’s self with praise, are preferably what Nietzsche considers to be the intrinsic and admirable traits of the good.  Traditional ethicists revile these characteristics and see them as they may prompt the decaying of civilization.  Nevertheless, Nietzsche merely suggests that it is instinctive of humans to inflict their will to power.  Analogously, the Darwinist theory of evolution verifies such a claim as it is the survival of the fittest that determines what species endures and what species ceases to exist.  The fittest in accordance to Nietzsche’s ethical principles are the good and those who strive to dominate over inferior beings.  Perhaps this is precisely why many conventional ethicists would refute Nietzsche’s will to power.  It is evident that the fundamental institution of morals into society is to impede many of our natural propensities in order to avert the chaotic unruliness that may arise from them.

            Nietzsche distinguishes between noble (masters) and base (slaves) souls.  The concept of a noble soul originates from Nietzsche’s admiration of ancient Greek culture.  The ancient Greeks were an animated people who paradoxically welcomed the inevitability of death, facing the ordeals and hardships of life, whilst celebrating its magnificence.  The noble soul or master, according to Nietzsche, is a replica of the ancient Greek.  He grows comfortably amidst the suffering and toils of human pain as he confronts life.  This confrontation is natural and only drives him to grow and acquire more.  He may have to exploit the base soul for his own good, but this maltreatment of another being only supplements his pride and his will to power.  In this sense, affliction provides the master with the prospect of extensive growth, and does not hinder his path to power.

            On the contrary, the base spirit or slave trembles in the face of affliction.  He does not challenge the hardships of life, but rather seeks to assuage the pain which he finds intolerable.  Such a being seeks out consolation from others out of his apprehension and despicability.  He considers sympathy, benevolence, and equality to be the essential attributes of goodness because they falsely detract from the injustice and agony of life.  The slaves are inferior to the master in that they do not anticipate growing in a torturous, pain-inflicted world.  Nietzsche considers this base soul to represent the greater part of humanity today.  Thus, his ethical principle of the noble’s will to power over the base epitomizes a complete avant-garde reversal of the nature of bad and good in traditional ethical thought.


Nietzsche’s anti Ethics  from Stephen Darwall,  University of Michigan

Nietzsche submits this idea of morality to radical critique.  He believes both that the idea is philosophically insupportable and that when we understand its genealogy, we will see that what actually explains our having it are profoundly negative aspects of human life.  Morality is an ideology.  We can believe it only if we ignore why we do.  Central to Nietzsche’s thought is a fundamental distinction between the ideas of good and bad, on the one hand, and those of (moral) good and evil, on the other.  (Notice the title of Essay I.) The natural form ethical evaluation first takes, he believes is that of excellence or merit.  People who excel, who have merits we admire and esteem, thereby have a kind of natural nobility. 

A.  These are “rank-ordering, rank-defining value judgments.” 

We naturally look up to, we respect and esteem, those with merit.  He calls them “knightly aristocratic values”

B. The “primary” half of the pair is good.  Bad is what is not-good.  What is not worthy of esteem and respect.

C. The “good” features are naturally “positive”:  they affirm and sustain life, vigor, strength, etc., e.g. openness, cheerfulness, creativity, physical strength, agility, grace, beauty, vigor, health, wit, intelligence, charm, and friendliness. 

On the other hand, the “primary” half of the good/evil pair is evil.  The idea of evil is reactive.  It comes from the negation of good.  Indeed, Nietzsche believes that it derives from negating good (natural merit).  And the idea of  moral good is simply the negation of that negation.  It is what is not evil.   The original negation is due to resentment—a psychological process  through which the naturally weak suppress their anger at being slighted by  the strong who consider them of little merit.  Unable to express their anger honestly, they suppress it to an unconscious level, in the “dark workshop” of the human psyche.  It then comes to be expressed not as personal anger, but in an alienated, impersonal form, namely, as moral indignation and resentment.  The strong who disrespect the weak are seen, by virtue of their disrespect, as deserving moral disapproval—as being evil.  

We can see how this process is supposed to work in Nietzsche’s parable of  the lambs and the birds of prey .  The birds see the lambs as their  natural inferiors, as meat.  The lambs are angered by this, but can’t do  anything about it directly by expressing personal anger.  So they express their anger in an impersonal way.  They reproach the birds; they hold them morally responsible for what they lambs see as their evil conduct.  They project the ideology of morality, which is just the impersonal expression of their personal anger and hatred.  Nietzsche is saying that morality is born in denial. 

The problem from Nietzsche’s perspective is that, unlike the birds of prey, the naturally strong have been taken in by this ideology.  Through Judaeo-Christian religion, a “priestly caste” has taken over culture to such a degree that the ideology of morality is now the dominant view.  But in addition to being born in hatred and denial, Nietzsche believes both that the idea of morality is philosophically insupportable (for example, in its assumption of free will) as well as one that has terrible consequences for human culture—it is an ethic of weakness and illness that chokes off genuine human achievement.  


READ: The Ethics of an Immoralist  



a.      Some people feel that the will to power advocated by Nietzsche encourages people to be callous and cruel, ignoring humanity for the sake of gaining power.

b.      Theists argue that it is not the individual who obtains power according to to them; power is something dished out by God.  It is not up to man as to whether or not he will be powerful.  Additionally, God gives rewards for following His ways, not as a result of a power struggle.

c.      Theists can also argue that the will to power can be seen as merely a response to helplessness, as Nietzsche's method for wishing to attain control of a life that is really left up to God.

Sartre - Existentialist Ethics  Professor Zaldiva


READ:  Pragmatism Pragmatic Ethics by Hugh LaFollette  

For pragmatists the matter of ethics is approached practically.  Our practices are our habits. In pragmatic ethics there is the Primacy of Habits, which empower and restrict.  They explore the Social nature of habits and the relation of habit to will.  For them Morality Is a Habit and being fallibilists, pragmatists know that no habits are flawless.  They also hold that Morality is social and that Changing habits for moral reasons is necessary.

Features of pragmatic ethics

Employs criteria, but is not criterial

Gleaning insights from other ethical theories

Relative without being relativistic

Tolerant without being irresolute

Theory and Practice


“Embracing a Pragmatist Ethic

A pragmatic ethic is not based on principles, but it is not unprincipled. Deliberation plays a significant role, albeit a different role than that given it on most accounts. Morality does not seek final absolute answers, yet it is not perniciously relativistic. It does recognize that circumstances can be different, and that in different circumstances, different actions may be appropriate. So it does not demand moral uniformity between people and across cultures. Moreover, it understands moral advance as emerging from the crucible of experience, not through the proclamations of something or someone outside us. Just as ideas only prove their superiority in dialogue and in conflict with other ideas, moral insight can likewise prove its superiority in dialogue and conflict with other ideas and experiences. Hence, some range of moral disagreement and some amount of different action will be not be, for the pragmatist, something to bemoan. It will be integral to moral advancement, and thus should be permitted and even praised, not lamented. Only someone who thought theory could provide final answers, and answers without the messy task of doing battle on the marketplace of ideas and of life, would find this regrettable”


Feminist Ethics  

Alternative Paradigms: Care Ethics and Feminine Ethics 

READ: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Feminist Ethics  

Journal HYPATHIA  :


Feminist Ethics

This theory is based on the assumptions that the world is male oriented, devised by men and dominated on a male emphasis on systems of inflexible rules. The goal of feminist ethics is to create a plan that will hopefully end the social and political oppression of women. It is believed that the female perspective of the world can be shaped into a value theory.

Omonia Vinieris (QCC, 2002) on the  Feminist Theory of Care

            It has been conventionally thought by traditional thinkers of ethics that the moral development of females is slow-paced and secondary to that of males.   Standard ethical attitudes entail hostile, aggressive, and masculine principles of authority, supremacy, and social order.  Feminist opponents consider the latter to incite the debasement of women’s moral capabilities and to demoralize the conception of morality altogether.  The “ethics of justice” is often the terminology used to denote moral duty based on the masculine   traits of reason and aloofness.  Feminists strive for vindication by formulating a theory entitled the “ethics of care” to counter its antithetical parallel, the manly principle, “ethics of justice”.

            Ethics of care focus on the morality and integrity of women which primarily center on interpersonal relationships.  Feminine values such as gentleness, sympathy, and genuine caring are devalued and deemed irrelevant to the public world where self-rule and power thrive.  Carol Gilligan, a feminist theorist and psychologist, presumes that the morality of women is merely different from that concerning men’s and that it is not at all inferior as her male counterparts claim it to be.   She profoundly opposes the theories of moral development devised her colleague, Kohlberg, who only confined his study to males.  His study neglects a woman’s ability to possess self-legislated ethical dogma.

Gilligan, in attempt to refute Kohlberg’s philosophy, composes a scale to illustrate the different stages of a woman’s moral development.  In the first stage, the female is only concerned with herself as she is basically helpless and vulnerable and finds comfort in her seclusion.  She steers clear of any type of relation with others.  In the second stage of moral development, she acquires an awareness of others around her and clings on to various personal contacts that she develops.  She feels a sense of responsibility and devotion to care for them.  She essentially cares for and finds interest in the people she relates with.  She is naturally able to sacrifice herself for these people out of her innate goodness.  Finally in the third stage, she masters equilibrium between the first two stages.  She exhibits self concern for herself and others.  In order to essentially care for others, she must care for herself first, and perhaps the reciprocation of care between her and different people is an indication that she cares for herself.  This universal factor of ethical principle verifies a woman’s ability to control the moral principles concerning her, as it also exemplifies the potency she holds in concurrently providing for others.  

Gilligan further goes on to say that an ethics of care is an essential component of ideal moral thought.  Children must be taught to “value their hearts over their heads” (Gilligan) rather than disregard their natural emotions in fear of resorting to subjection which defies the traditional male-oriented “ethics of justice”.  In sum, women and children may exhibit more moral depth than men (Gilligan).

If women are to tolerate the impersonal and “rational” principles anchored in the “ethics of justice” they might as well become merciless, heartless brutes.  However, women are humane and acknowledge the fact that genuine impartiality requires emotive input in ethical reasoning and assessment.  In order to judge morally, we must identify emotionally with the individual to make sense of his or her motives that triggered their actions.  Yet, masculine or “traditional” ethical principles eschew the idea of involving emotion in moral judgment.  Sarah Hoagland comments that traditional ethics undermine rather than promote individual moral ability and agency because the direction of traditional ethics is impersonal and merely focuses on control and social organization.  Thus it does not uphold individual integrity as social organization is acquired through oppressive and authoritative means. 

Unfortunately, feminists realize that in their own quest to incorporate their “ethics of care” principle into the canons of society, society is much too fixated on the masculine tenets of competition and self-interest.  An environment based on interfamilial relations and mutual communication is one where an “ethics of care” ideology will be embraced by its people.  Human emotional responses are now a low key supplement to traditionalist ethical principles, as sensitivity and kindness were never equated with human goodness.  Yet, it still seems that rationale and intellect overpower these feminine aspects in a male-dominated world.    


Sharon Higgins (SCCC, 2005) on FEMINIST ETHICS

Feminist ethics and care ethics are similar in that both reject abstract rules or principles that judge the morality of certain actions. The feminist ethical focus is on social arrangements and practices instead. One goal of feminist ethics is to reduce or eliminate women being subordinate to men and for gender equality. This is approached by feminist ethics by critiquing practices and institutions that keep women subjected to men and to make society aware of how it is being done. Feminists support efforts to expose the domination of one group by another and view ethics as a continuous effort to help eliminate social inequality. Social equality is the main goal of feminist ethics and there are concerns about social equality occurring in healthcare because women still dominate in positions of nurses, while men dominate in positions as physicians, which leaves women as nurses subordinates on men.

Feminists have questioned the value of healthcare because if food and shelter were equally distributed to everyone, that would help eliminate the need for expensive health care because more people would be kept healthy.

There is controversy between feminists with assisted reproduction. Some feminists feel that the technology that permits otherwise infertile women to have children empowers them while other feminists argue that reproductive technology causes male dominance and can force women to have children.

There is not a lot of consistency with feminist ethics, there are many different opinions and claims from different feminists. This has caused feminist ethics to be criticized fro not being a coherent ethical theory like traditional ethical theories. The relevance of feminist ethics is questioned with traditional ethical theories because some argue that social equality is irrelevant when deciding to terminate life support.

Feminist ethics is about equality of women and to resolve conflicts that arise and to learn about the many different factors that influence the varied views of different feminists.


Kathy Krisman (SCCC, 2005) on CARE ETHICS

Care ethics is a strand of feminist care ethics. Like feminist ethics the basis for ethics rejects the idea of abstract principles. More accurately it is a conglomerate of beliefs of how values should be seen in people’s character and how they act. Carol Gilligan was a psychologist whose research on morals development contributed to the philosophical ideas of care ethics. She researched the idea that women have a different style of moral reasoning then men have. Women tend to focus on details and personal relationships. Away to resolve conflict for woman would be to avoid harming anyone and to keep everyone in the situation as happy as possible. Men on the other hand tend to analyze the situation and then use abstract rules to guide them in finding a conclusion. Care ethics share general ideas and a point of view as feminist care ethics, but does not concern themselves with feminism as much.

The main idea of care ethics is values not principles. Care ethics says it is not appropriate to think with rules of principles where a type of relationship is concerned. For example a mother should not use a principle to decide to help her child or a friend help another friend. Certain relationships likes these do not need a rule or principle to tell the person what the right decision is. Care ethics understand that situations are complex. The point to care ethics is to resolve the problem with everyone’s concerns in mind. They do not care who is wrong or being treated unfairly. Their main concern is to instill values such as the importance to personal relationships, the respect of individuals and the respect for responsibility. Care ethics sees there as being an obligation to teach all in our society to respond correctly to moral situations with the values above in mind.

When faced with medical issues, care ethics believes everyone should know everyone’s views who are involved in the conflict. Each side should present their concerns and the possibilities of care. Once all the information is provided it may be easier to come to a decision. The decision may be one that they arrive to together completely different from the original two conflicting decisions. Although the outcome is not for certain an educated, informed decision is arrived at. Each person in the situation might get a greater understanding of why the other has the beliefs they have. Care ethics is based on the traditional beliefs that traits like compassion, sympathy, kindness and willingness to take responsibility should be present in human character. Such things like medicine, nursing, and other simpler areas should have these values. We should rely on values of care and not on a principle or a rule to resolve our conflicts.

Although care ethics sounds like a good way to resolve conflict it too has its problems. It has been found that Gillian’s’ research on woman and men’s reasoning is a bit out dated. It has been found though that Gillian’s claims are not detrimental to care ethics. The importance of values is enough to show how care ethics can be used in life situations. Some feel that the basis of care ethics is what traditional philosophical ethics is about. Disclaiming any evidence that care ethics even exists. The biggest reason care ethics is criticized is because there is no obvious way to resolve conflicts. There may not be enough time in a situation to debate it and in the end no real decision can be concluded. The person having to make the decision may have their own reasons for why they choose the decision they do. Many will find the decision based on the care ethics to still be unfair.

Suggested Reading : on Feminist Ethics Rita Manning Just Caring



1. Some philosophers argue that the ethic of care is based on traditional women's values in a quest for new virtues.

2. Beings other than women may not agree because humans often only understand what they can relate to.

3. Gender free morality may be impossible, according to Nel Noddings. Traditional philosophers believed that women were inferior to men and female goddesses were involved in silence, obedience and service. These female roles can be shaped into an ethnic of care according to many women philosophers.

4. It is politically imprudent to associate women with the value of care. 

5. The theory ultimately disempowers women.

6. A  person cannot truly care for someone if she is economically, socially, and/or psychologically coerced to do so.

7. Criticizes the inconsistency of modernism but hold inconsistent norms themselves.

8. Stresses the irrational.

9. Feminists contradict themselves by relinquishing truth claims in their own writings.

10.Calls for behavior that is tailored to each individual situation. If this is the case, then there is no true theory of ethical behavior because you are changing your view of what is acceptable and what is not to suit your needs at the time. 

11.Feminist theories do not allow for the natural tendencies of men. They do to men exactly what they claim was wrongly done to women for centuries.

12. Cared based approach clouds the basic moral code. Emotions and feelings make it easy to break moral codes.


Post Modernism and its Critics         


Virtue Ethics | Ethics Defined

Virtue Ethics

VIEW:  Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38

VIEW: Moral Luck:  Crash Course Philosophy #39


These are three of many popular theories concerning the GOOD which hold for no single universal principle of the GOOD.  Instead they relate the determination of such a principle to be an exercise in POWER or self service which is put under a disguise of being a rational exercise of an unbiased mind.  What they have in common is a relativism.  The need for societies to have a moral foundation are not being served well by what are at their base appeals to power as the only basis for the resolution of conflict.  For these theories, morality collapses into self serving exercises. 

What are we left with then? 

Proceed to the next section.

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