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Three Authoritarian Moral Theories

By:   •  October 23, 2018  •  Course Note  •  990 Words (4 Pages)  •  143 Views

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Three Authoritarian Moral Theories

A theory is a systematic attempt to explain something.  For example, the theory of gravity explains the attraction of physical bodies.  If a theory is successful, we should feel that we finally have a good understanding of whatever the theory is trying to explain; for example, in the case of the theory of gravity, what causes bodies to be attracted to each other, as well as to predict when to expect this attraction, how much attraction to expect, etc.  An ethical theory attempts to explain proper moral behavior, usually by identifying the good, and then by going on to determine whether actions are right/wrong by deciding whether on not they are consistent with the accepted good.

Even though people may have strong intuitions (or pre-theoretical opinions) about which actions are morally proper without appealing to an ethical theory, it is only within a clear ethical theory that statements of ethics can be said justifiably to be true or false.  Many different moral theories have been proposed, but a number of theories try to explain the distinction between right and wrong actions by appealing to an authority who has the right to make the distinction.  In the following three (3) moral theories, the authority is, respectively, (1) the individual actor, (2) God, and (3) society.


Subjectivism, often associated with the great French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), is the view that each person decides what is right or wrong for himself or for herself, with no outside authority having the right to decide for another person what is the right thing to do.  Each individual follows their own feeling.  Rousseau once said that "What I feel is right is right, and what I feel is wrong is wrong."  Of course, he meant just for himself, and, according to subjectivism, you have the same authority over your own actions.  On this view, no one can ever be mistaken about what is morally correct for their own life, and arguing with others about the truth of a moral statement would be pointless, just like an argument about whether a certain food tastes good.  A moral claim would be true (or false) only for each individual who makes the claim.

Subjectivism is the theory that X* is right/wrong iff** the individual who does X feels or believes that X is right/wrong.

*X is a variable that ranges over all possible actions.  In the statement, the same action must be substituted for all occurrences of X

*'iff' = 'if and only if' (biconditional)


In the divine command theory, what is right or wrong in all matters of ethics is decided entirely by God and by God alone.  This view is adopted by many people who believe in God, and especially by those who consider the worship of God to be the main purpose of their lives.  In this theory, everything God commands you to do is morally binding and right, even if you cannot understand why.  Even if God commands you to kill your only child (as he commanded Abraham to kill Isaac), this is the right thing to do for you, or for anyone that God would command in same this way.

The Divine Command Theory can be expressed as X is right/wrong iff God commands or says that X is right/wrong.



The ethical theory known as cultural (ethical) relativism identifies the good with social conformity and assumes that the purpose of moral restrictions (taboos) is to maintain a cohesive and durable social unit.  To this extent, it does not really matter which rules a society enforces so long as everyone in the society follows them.  The rules may come from any source, and they have absolute authority over everyone in the culture with the only requirement being that they have general approval in the culture.


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