OCR A2 Ethics Revision

Basics of theory


Meta-ethics: Ethical Naturalism/Non-Naturalism

Ethical naturalism suggests words such as "good" and "bad" are verifiable by sense experience. Non-naturalism is the idea that these words are indefinable/indescribable.

  • Words such as "good" and "bad" are real and provable.
  • The same way we use evidence to verify factual statements, we can verify ethical statements in the same way.
  • Therefore, we can look at genetic research and evidence such as the fact it saves lives and helps people, and the fact it is good can be proved.
  • G.E. Moore believed that ethical words were indefinable and could not be measured empirically.
  • He likened the word good with the colour yellow. We cannot explain it but only give example of yellow things.
  • Moore rejected naturalism because it equated moral things with natural things.
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Meta-ethics: Intuitionism

Intuitionism is a theory accredited to H.A. Pritchard and W.D. Ross. It  suggests that we understand basic moral principles using a special faculty called moral intuition.

  • H.A. Pritchard developed G.E. Moore's ideas and said that not only were ethical words indescribable, but so were ethical obligations. We always know when we should do a certain act.
  • Pritchard believed it was the joining of reasoning and intuition - everyone has a differently developed moral faculty however.
  • W.D. Ross agreed with Pritchard that "good" and "obligatory" are indefinable, but that our moral obligations are nevertheless apparent and must be followed.
  • Our intuition identifies prima facie duties and we make moral decisions based on these. When they clash, we choose the greater duty.
  • WEAKNESS: Ross does not tell us which are the greater/more important duties.
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Meta-ethics: Emotivism

Emotivism is a theory  developed by A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson. It claims that ethical statements are an expression of emotion and personal feeling.

  • A.J. Ayer suggests that a statement can be verified analytically or synthetically. Religious and ethical statements are neither and cannot be verified.
  • These statements are instead evincing emotions of approval/disapproval, which others do not feel. We simply express our like or dislike for something.
  • C.L. Stevenson looked at the meaning of words and how they affect others when used. Concluded they are intended to influence the views of other people.
  • This gives more meaning to moral debate as we are not simply stating our emotions but influencing others to see our point of view.
  • This is fundamentally what ethical disagreements are, conflicting beliefs and opinions.
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Meta-ethics: Prescriptivism

Prescriptivism was a theory developed by R.M.Hare. He believed ethical language was used in an attempt to make other people hold the same value and take a similar course of action in the same situation.

  • He believed ethical language was intrinsically prescriptive and implies what ought to be done.
  • He also believed ethical language was universal, as what is right for one person in one situation is right for all people in all situations.
  • Hare disagreed with subjective moral statements as he believed that only objective moral statements could be imperative and commanding.
  • Despite this, Hare didn't see his approach as expressing cognitive moral truths, but a way of expressing wishes and beliefs.
  • Prescriptivism isn't just about telling others what to do - we must also adopt any behaviour and action that we see fit for others to do.
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Meta-ethics: Strengths & Weaknesses

Ethical Naturalism

  • Gives factual meaning to statements. We are not dealing with "grey areas" in ethical debate.
  • G.E.Moore and the naturalistic fallacy. You cannot speak of facts and derive moral values. Cannot move from an "is" to an "ought".
  • THE OPEN QUESTION ARGUMENT - If it is reasonable to question whether a property exists, it cannot be a natural property. "Is it smooth" is unreasonable, whereas "is it good" is reasonable.


  • Doesn't attempt to take away the meaningfulness of a statement, but suggests that facts alone are not adequate.
  • Makes ethical debate difficult. If our intuition perceives things differently, it is difficult to know which is right and is difficult to argue against.
  • Moore doesn't attempt to explain this moral sense, but suggests you either agree with him or you don't.
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Meta-ethics: Strengths and Weaknesses 2


  • Ayer suggests that ethical statements are not just an expression of emotion and express "sentiment". They can be made without approval of a certain action.
  • Is it even a theory? If is all just emotion, it tells us nothing of ethics at all.
  • Stevenson questioned why one persons perspective and understanding of a certain matter is considered preferable to another.
  • James Rachels believed it was incorrect to remove reasoning from ethical judgements, as without this judgements become arbitrary and pointless.


  • Universal prescriptivism seems to have more significance as we expand our own judgements to the world around us.
  • It seems to give a better account of the true nature of ethical statements.
  • J.L.Mackie believes moral statements are not universal. In practice, people have different preferences and choices.
  • Differences such as culture are not taken into account in the universal element.
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Conscience: Where does it come from?

People believe various things create our conscience. This can affect the goodness or rightness of the conscience and link to religious belief.

  • GOD GIVEN: Some people believe that God gives us a gift to live moral lives either at birth or later on. This may be the voice of God or an ability.
  • INSTILLED BY SOCIETY: Others believe conscience is the result of society's expectations. Culture plays a large part in the development of our conscience.
  • INSTILLED BY OUR PARENTS: Our upbringing largely affects our conscience, which has led some people to consider parents as the moral teachers. We make our own decisions as we mature but our parents still affect this.
  • INSTILLED BY AUTHORITY: This can be police officers, teachers, parents and politicians who form an authorative body. This can be negative if we are influenced by the wrong people.
  • INNATE WITHIN US: This suggests there are no external factors that affect our conscience. It was given to us at birth and is wired in by our genetics. Everyone therefore should have the same conscience, and training and development may be required.
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Conscience: Religious Perspectives

Early Christian Concepts - A God-given ability to distinguish right from wrong. The apostle Paul said it can sometimes be flawed and weak. A good relationship with God leads us away from sin. Augustine of Hippo believed it was the voice of God.

Cardinal Newman & The Voice of God - Suggested conscience discovered ever-present truths. When someone follows their conscience they follow a divin law given directly by God. "A law that speaks to the human heart", and not following this and turning away from God results in feelings of guilt and shame.

Joseph Butler & Intuition - Conscience is the final decision maker. Directs humans away from self-love and towards benevolence. It comes from God and must be obeyed. If we are intuitively told the right action, no-one can do a wrong action.

Thomas Aquinas & Reason - Conscience is "right reason", and not a voice but reason making right decisions. Synderesis rule "do good, avoid evil" can be achieved when "conscientia" (distinguishing right from wrong and making good decisions) is followed. Bad actions are a result of faulty reasoning. Faulty principles=faulty conscience.

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Conscience: Secular Approaches

Piaget & The Developmental Conscience

  • Heteronymous morality, before the age of ten, when children take morality from parents and carers.
  • Autonomous morality, after the age of ten, our own moral reasoning becomes prominent as a result of an increased awareness of moraity and society.

Erich Fromm & 2 Consciences

  • Authoritarian conscience - reward and punishment for actions reinforces our understanding of morality and may cause guilt.
  • Humanistic conscience - A healthier and more positive attitude to conscience that suggests we are allowed to assess our successes as human beings. We moderate  our behaviour according to peer-assessment.

Sigmund Freud & Guilt

  • The id = seeks pleasure and satisfaction. The ego = seeks experience and reacts to the world. The superego = a moral policeman that constrains and censors the ego. Associated with guilt.
  • Conscience is a construct of the mind as early influences continue to affect us in later life. Religious/non-religious people have different conscience as they are raised differently. This is why there are so many ethical codes in society.
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Conscience: Key Issues

There still remain several questions about conscience:

1) If conscience is central to our identity, can we really rely on it?

2) If conscience is varied and individual, can it be used to make universal moral codes?

3) Corporate and collective consciences all agree over right and wrong. How many people does this require exactly? Can it still be wrong if everyone accepts it?

4) If the informed conscience is incorrect and we follow it, we sin. But not following our conscience is considered a sin anyway.

5) If the informed conscience contradicts the teaching of our own personal religion such as the Roman Catholic Church, what are we supposed to do?

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Conscience: Strengths & Weaknesses


  • Differing consciences are explained by Aquinas' concept of faulty reasoning.
  • The idea can be accepted by atheists, humanists and religious people alike.


  • Different religions have different opinions on ethical matters, how can they be hearing the same voice of God?
  • Secular approaches attempt to show where conscience comes from but don;t instruct us on how to use it.
  • Some people seem to have no conscience at all. If it is God-given how can they feel no guilt/responsibility/regret?
  • The superiority given to conscience seems problematic as if it is followed unconditionally it can lead to bad actions.
  • Sometimes people make decisions based on their emotions. Emotional detachment is difficult and perhaps impossible, but may be required.
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Free Will & Determinism: Approaches

Hard Determinism:

A strict and rigid belief suggesting all choices are determined. Free will is an illusion. Isaac Newton "all physical beings are governed by a series of unchangeable natural laws." We are exempt from moral responsibility if we have no other choice.


Complete opposite of hard determinism. Rejected hard determinism because it suggests we have no moral responsibiity or freedom to act. We sometimes are torn between two actions, both of which will work, but we still choose for ourselves. Some people are destined to follow in footsteps of those before them but still choose to be different.

Soft Determinism:

Attempts to combine hard determinism and libertarianism. Combines freedom and accountability. Freedom is doing what you want to do, free from coercion. Our values desires and experience determine our actions, but are so complex the outcome is practically random. They are determined, but also free.

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Free Will & Determinism: Predestination

No matter who we are or how we live our lives, we cannot change what God has already decided. This is called predestination.

If God determined at creation who will be condemned no one has free will, and therefore punishment and reward are unjust. People behave the way they do because God determined it.

  • Protestant Christians - believe God has already determined all things including who will be saved at the end of time.
  • Augustine of Hippo - In order for us to be good we need God's gifts of grace and mercy. God chooses who receives these for salvation.
  • John Calvin - Taught that man is inherently evil and incapable of choosing God. If God didn;t choose who woud be save, no-one would be.
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Free Will & Determinism: Religious Understanding o

In Genesis, Adam and Eve disobey God and eat from the Tree of Knowledge as a consequence of their free will. Free will seems necessary if we are to choose God/turn away from him.

  • Predestination contradicts this by saying there is no human free will.
  • The traditional belief in God's omniscience suggests that He knows everything of the past, present and future.
  • If this is the case, then free will seems to be irrelevant as we are unable to do anything other than what God has forseen.
  • A solution to this may be that God forsees our choices but does not cause them.
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Free Will & Determinism: Secular Approaches

The four approaches, psychology, genetics, environmental and social conditioning offer other views.

PSYCHOLOGY - John Watson said human behaviour can be changed and reinforced through both heredity and environmental factors. B.F. SKinner believed that reward and punishment were powerful tools. Both these remove moral responsibility.

GENETICS: Genes seem to control much of what we say and do. This makes moral responsibility impossible. Steven Pinker suggests moral reasoning is a result of natural selection.

ENVIRONMENT: Geography and climate play a part in influencing individuals and society's behaviour - hot climates = laziness, European = hard-working.

SOCIAL CONDITIONING: Our actons have a social cause and can be determined by society, upbringing, educationa nd other social settings. We cannot avoid the sociologically determined path. Thomas Sowell "the human self is infinitely plastic allowing humanity to be changed and ultimately perfected."

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Free Will & Determinism: Strengths & Weaknesses


  • Removes the concept of punishment for punishment's sake.
  • A murderer cannot be held morally responsible for his actions.
  • Determinists muddle contngently true things with necessarily true things.


  • Gives moral responsibility to each individual and justifies punishment.
  • There seem to be factors that limit our freedom.
  • When making moral decisions we are affected by our emotions, limiting our freedom.


  • Combines both approaches and accepts that some things are determined, but that we are still moreally responsible for our own free actions.
  • Doesn't give specific guidelines as to what is determined and what isn't.
  • Decision making seems too complex to work this out.
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Virtue Ethics: Aristotle

Aristotle believed every action is focused on an outcome, a teleological belief. Humans are motivated to acheive happiness, but it isn't just about pleasure, but obtaining qualities that enable people to live together in society.

  • The basis of morality was to have a firm foundation of positive character traits. There were two types of virtues: intellectual and moral.
  • Aristotle also believed in friendship as an important social virtue key to modelling the virtues. He believed in "Friendships of the Good" rather than "Friendships of Utility" or "Friendships of Pleasure".
  • He believed in four Cardinal Virtues which were Temperance, Courage, Justice and Prudence. These should be favoured and achieved.
  • Aristotle believed that if we practise and apply these virtues, your life and outlook would be better and you became closer to achieving eudamonia. Sincerity and comradeship can also assist us.
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Virtue Ethics: Agent-centered

Virtue ethics is agent centered rather than action or consequence-centered, as it focuses on the moral development of the person, including taking responsibility for bad actions that are caused in the process.

  • If we develop virtues we do morally good actions, which in turn benefit society. It is essential for just acts to be performed for the development of virtues.
  • Virtue ethics can seem subjective and selfish because it doesnlt focus on right actions, but the good acts that are essential to the theory actually benefit everyone around us.
  • Virtues must be developed through practice, perseverance and dedication. They must also be practised to maintain proficiency.
  • If I make these revision cards and don't look at them again before the exam, I will lose proficiency (and probably a few grades).
  • If people all practise the virtues it will in turn cause society to progress morally, be more stable and a more virtuous and just place to live.
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Virtue Ethics: Eudamonia and The Doctrine of the M


  • An idea that encompasses all forms of happiness including political, emotional and philosophical happiness.
  • It contains an element of justified and deserved happiness.
  • You must work tirelessly to achieve it.
  • Living alongside other people encourages it as the social context of acceptable behaviour encourages eudamonia and all people to flourish.


  • At some point between two vices exists a virtue. The vice of deficiency is a distinct lack of the virtue, the vice of excess is too much of the virtue.
  • It is not black and white however. Finding the virtue is the beginning, it must then be determined what actions should follow to achieve it.
  • Some actions do not have a mean and searching for it is therefore pointless, e.g. cheating, ****, murder.
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Virtue Ethics: Virtuous Role Models

Role Models in everyday

  • We look to role models to model our lives on and follow their examples.
  • Virtuous role models show traits and provide an example for our own development and progression.
  • They can provide inspiration and guidance in situations in which we are morally challenged.
  • They are not examples of perfect people, but they hasve achieved and display the virtues that we want to aspire to.
  • Virtuous role models can also be present in popular culture, and do not have to be real for us to aspire to their actions.

Jesus as a Role Model

  • Most people aim to live their lives like Jesus, filled with wisdom, patience and even righteous anger.
  • Some people wear wristbands saying "WWJD" to remind them to live virtuous lives.
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Virtue Ethics: Modern Perspectives

Elizabeth Anscombe : Like a honeyCOMB, Elizabeth Anscombe believed in community based ethics that other ethical theories disregarded in favour of autonomous actions.

Philippa Foot: Virtue ethics does not necessarily guaruntee happiness, but helps move (our feet) towards it.

Alisdair MacIntyre (MapIntyre): Believes people have lost their way with morality and ethics. Outdated virtues should be evaluated, and people should still aim for Aristotle's virtue theory whilst encouraging each other as a society to flourish. 

Richard Taylor/Religion Hater: Believes that religion encourages equality to the oint of meekness. We are not encouraged to strive to be better people, but to fit in.

Rosalind Hursthouse: Says that virtue ethics assists our practical REASONING and therefore we don;t need to be told what to do in any situation as we will automatically respond virtuously.

Michael Slote:  SLOTted in the words "admirable" and "deplorable" as a replacement for good and bad as he believes we defnitely know that we want to do the admirable action.

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Virtue Ethics: Strengths & Weaknesses


  • Appeals to both secular and religious morality.
  • They are compatible with religious belief. 
  • Focuses on personal development rather than blindly following rules.
  • It has an emphasis on practical reasoning.


  • If everyone is virtuous, there will be no variety or excitement in the world.
  • We are not told what to do if virtues clash with each other.
  • Virtues can be used incorrectly to perform immoral actions.
  • Is there a definitive point where a virtue becomes a vice?
  • Aristotle's virtue theory was focused on masculine virtues only.
  • It is difficult to apply to moral problems because it doesn't give clear instruction.
  • Some actions are always morally wrong but people may suggest that they need to do it for their moral development.
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Megan Lake


Really useful :D







brilliant thank youu!!



Thank you X3 very easy to understand and helpful!

Nazia Sultana


Really helpful



super duper!! deffo going to get a C with these :) couldn't be more chuffed

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