One method of moral assessment is to apply a moral theory Moral theories also contain moral principles. This method is primarily a larger scale version of Applying Moral Principles. A wide variety of moral theories have been developed over the centuries. These include ethics based on religion, ethics based on virtues, rule based ethics, ethics that focus on consequences and many more types.
This method involves the following steps.
Step 1: Present and argue for the relevant aspects of the moral theory.
Step 2: Describe the relevant qualities of X.
Step 3: Show how X meets or fails to meet the conditions set by the theory.
Step 4: Draw the relevant conclusion regarding the status of X.
The first step can be the most difficult step. In some cases completing step one would involve creating and defending an entire ethical theory. This is the sort of thing that would be done in a book or dissertation and is obviously beyond the scope of an ethical essay.
In the case of a short paper or essay on ethics, the first step would need to be fairly condensed. Three approaches are suggested here. The first is to use an argument from authority in support of the theory. In this approach you are essentially claiming the view is correct because an expert moral philosopher presents the view. While this does complete the first step it is a fairly weak approach because ethics is hotly contested between many experts. Thus, resting your case on the expertise of one philosopher is not well founded. The second is to simply assume the theory for the sake of the argument. In this case, the argument would be made within the context of an established theory. Making such assumptions for the sake of developing an argument within a context is acceptable but also very weak. After all, you would simply be assuming a major point of contention-the correctness of a moral theory. The third way is to present a concise argument that supports the aspect of the theory needed to make your case. This requires more work than an argument from authority but tends to produce a far stronger case. Obviously it is considerably stronger than simply assuming that the theory you want to use is correct.
Assessing Moral Theories
Moral theories tend to be complex and hence their assessment is generally rather involved. However, there are some basic standards that any moral theory must meet.
· Moral standards and guides must be presented.
· These standards and guides must be supported by arguments (these arguments are also subject to assessment).
· The application of the theory must produce reasonable solutions to moral problems.
· The theory must be internally consistent.
· The theory must be coherent.
· The theory must be plausible.
· The theory must correspond to our moral intuitions or provide adequate grounds for abandoning our intuitions.
A theory that fails to meet these conditions would be defective. There are other standards that are used when assessing moral theories but these are more controversial and more complex than these general standards.
Examples of Theories
As mentioned above, there are many types of moral theories. One commonly accepted view is divine command theory. This is the view that ethics is determined by the will of God (or whatever supernatural entities are alleged to exist). On this view, what God commands is good and what God forbids is evil.
Another commonly accepted view is utilitarianism. This theory is most famously developed by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. On his view, actions are right as they promote happiness and are wrong as they promote unhappiness.
There are many other types of moral theories. Some of these are examined in detail during the second part of the course.
There are a variety of ways to counter this method. The first is to attack the theory being used. If the theory is flawed, then its employment would also be flawed. As with defending a theory, attacking a theory can require an extensive amount of work. If a person is writing a book or dissertation against a moral theory, then this amount of work would be fine. However, a full scale attack on a moral theory would go beyond the scope of an ethical essay or short paper. In such a situation, there are two concise ways to attack a theory. The first is to use an argument from authority and employ criticisms of the theory made by other thinkers. This can be further developed and strengthened by presenting the arguments used by the other thinkers. One disadvantage of this method is that the arguments will not be your own. The second is to present focused criticisms of the theory (as opposed to a large scale attack on the theory). This is most effective when the attacks are made on aspects of the theory that are especially relevant to the specific matter at hand.
A second method of response is to attack X by arguing that it lacks the relevant qualities needed to allow the theory to apply as claimed. For example, if someone is using religious ethics to argue against stem cell research, then this might be countered by arguing that stem cell research does not have the qualities that make it ethically forbidden on religious grounds.
A third way to respond to this method is to use a counter-theory. This is done by arguing that X is better assessed by a different theory. If it can be shown that the counter-theory is better, then the original argument would be shown to be defective.