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How do we decide what is morally right to do?

How should I live 

  • This is a central question we all face. Morality is intended to to assist us in making such decisions and guide our actions. 
  • Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy that discusses theories of what we should do.
  • Practical ethics discusses the application of these theories to particular issues. 


What are the three normative ethical theories? 

  • Utilitarianism 
  • Kant's deontological theory
  • Aristotles virtue ethics 
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Hedonist Act utilitarianism

In its simplest form, utilitarianism is defined by three claims.

  • Act consequentialism: acts are morally right or wrong depending on their consequences and nothing else. An act is right if it maximises what is good. 
  • Value Theory: the only thing that is good is happiness. 
  • Equality: No one's happiness counts more than anyone elses. 

This is known as hedonist act utilitarianism. By putting the first two premises together we see that the theory claims that an action is right if it maximises happiness, i.e if it leads to the greatest happiness of all those it affects. Otherwise, the action is wrong. Our actions are judged not in themselves; e.g what type of actions they are (lying, helping someone, etc ) but in terms of what the consequences they have. Actions are morally right if they bring about the greatest happiness.  

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Greatest happiness

If an action leads to the greatest happiness of those it affects, no other action taken at the time could have led to greater happiness. So an action is right only if out of all the actions you could have done it leads to the greatest happiness. 

Just causing some happiness, or more happiness than unhappiness isn't another to deem it morally right. 

Act utilitarianism seems to provide a clear and simple way of making decisions: consider consequences of different actions you perform and choose the one bringing about the most happiness. It makes complicated decisions easy. The only thing that matter is happiness and surely everyone wants to be happy. We can figure out empirically how much happiness actions cause, and so we can solve moral issues by empirical investigation. 

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