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Why Ethical Reflection Matters

An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Published onAug 24, 2021
Why Ethical Reflection Matters

1 • Introduction

Imagine having a nice glass of wine on the terrace of your favorite restaurant, catching the last rays of summer sun. A long-time friend joins you because she recognized the restaurant in the picture you posted on social media. There you are, momentarily forgetting about your troubles and those of the world. But the next thing you know, your friend starts talking about ethics. What would you imagine her to start talking about? The topics that probably spring to mind are that the restaurant is serving too few vegetarian options or that it is bad (though in this case fortunate) that with all these social media around, there is so little privacy left. Or perhaps your friend feels guilty about spending money on a fancy dinner after reading about people starving in other parts of the world. Nothing spoils a leisurely moment more than talking about moral issues, or so it seems.

While vegetarianism, privacy and global poverty are indeed important topics in moral philosophy, ethics covers many other aspects of our lives as well. Many of our everyday decisions, even very mundane ones, are suffused with moral considerations; we constantly choose on the basis of things we value or care about, even though we might not always realize that is the case. A lot of the time, moral issues remain implicit, and we take values, such as friendship, for granted. When we do explicitly discuss these, we are often addressing a topic that somehow bothers us, however slightly. It bothers us because the norms and values we tend to take for granted can come into conflict with one another (may I spend my money the way I please, or do I have obligations toward others?) or can leave us empty handed when deciding what to do.

Moral philosophy, or ethics, which we take as synonyms, is the systematic and critical reflection on what is good and bad, right and wrong, morally speaking. It is concerned with articulating and examining moral reasons that concern us all because they govern our everyday interactions, whether we are aware of them or not. Ethics is concerned with examining both the internal coherence of our moral reasons and their strengths and weaknesses in justifying how we lead our lives and run our societies.

In this sense, moral philosophy is perhaps closest to political philosophy, which not only aims to understand what politics is about (a descriptive enterprise), but also reflects on what it should be (a normative enterprise). In this last respect, political philosophers have recourse to fundamental values such as freedom, equality and justice.

In what follows, we introduce the three most influential ethical theories. Philosophers have held different views about what is good and bad, right and wrong and how we should lead our lives. Three prominent theories are consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics, and each of these explains how the descriptive and normative enterprises relate to one another (§ 2). Next, we present these theories in more detail and situate them historically (§ 3). After that, we explain in what sense ethical reflection relates to our everyday lives, especially in light of the fact that academic debates can seem quite abstract and remote. Here, we also explain what distinguishes proper ethical reflection from moralizing (§ 4). We discuss a number of alternative approaches to ethics (§ 5) and end with a short reflection on the future of moral philosophy and the role we hope it will play with respect to the many societal challenges we are and will be facing (§ 6).

2 • Introducing three main ethical theories

Let us return to the example of social media. Perhaps you tend to ignore or shrug off worries about privacy on social media or about governments and companies violating it. “I have nothing to hide, so be my guest,” you might think. Does that mean that you don’t care about privacy? Not necessarily. Imagine someone posting a funny but very embarrassing picture of a friend on social media without their permission. Or what about a future employer asking you for access to your medical and financial records, for example to be better able to evaluate your character? If you think there is something wrong in these cases, you do care about privacy after all. In a similar manner, you might not be a vegetarian, but that does not mean that you do not care about animal welfare. After all, you probably criticize people who mistreat or neglect their pets and would be outraged if they were to eat them as well.

In such cases, philosophers typically ask “why?” What is the difference between a friend sharing personal information without consent and governments or big companies doing the same? What is the difference between treating pigs and cows as mere objects for consumption and mistreating or neglecting cats and dogs?1 Which difference makes for a moral difference? If we want to answer such questions, we need to systematically and critically reflect on what is good and bad, right and wrong, morally speaking. But doing so is not easy and requires that we first sort out what we value and care about and why. In contemporary moral philosophy, there are at least three influential theories or approaches—consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics—that each take a different approach to what is good and bad, right and wrong, and how we should lead our lives.2 As a result, these theories also have different ideas on why things like privacy and animal welfare matter to us and why they should.

The first main approach is consequentialism. According to this approach, consequences are the only thing that matters, morally speaking. To assess something, we only have to look at its consequences and not, for example, at the intentions of the agent. Think of money, which we can spend in a myriad of ways. To assess what is morally desirable, consequentialists say that we should simply do with money whatever generates the best possible consequences. Utilitarianism is a specific consequentialist theory that says that we should always try to generate the most utility, which can be understood hedonistically in terms of pleasure or more broadly in terms of well-being or happiness. What brings about the biggest sum of pleasure or happiness? Spending 50 euros on a nice dinner and a bottle of wine? Or spending the same amount on a charity that uses the money to relieve some of the dire needs of the global poor? Or think about our activities on social media. Perhaps, utilitarians argue, sharing pictures is a way of multiplying happiness. The loss of privacy this entails, then, is only a small price to pay. Alternatively, utilitarians could object to posting a confidential confession of a friend on social media because it causes more harm (her painful embarrassment) than joy (your and other people’s pleasure).

The second approach is deontology and focuses on rights that should be respected and duties that should be fulfilled, irrespective of their consequences. Deontologists typically make a distinction between what is good or valuable and the rights and duties that individuals have. Most deontologists would permit, for example, you’re spending your money in whatever way you choose even when you choose to spend it on something that does not contribute to something good or valuable (it is your money, after all), as long as it does not violate someone else’s rights (you cannot spend it to hire a hitman, for example). The same reasoning applies to social media: you may share your experiences with the world if you want to, but only to the extent that it does not violate someone’s rights. Posting a confidential confession or a funny picture of someone without her knowing and consenting is a no-go for deontologists, regardless of how much pleasure it generates. This would be wrong, not because it would upset her (this is what utilitarians care about), but because you are violating her right to privacy, which entails the right to disclose information about her as she pleases.

The third approach, virtue ethics, thinks about morality in the light of virtues like honesty, trustworthiness and friendliness, more or less stable dispositions that people develop over time and that together make the person’s life go well. According to virtue ethicists, the good, virtuous person leads a life that is worth living and that is fulfilled. The normative implication is clear: you should strive to become such a good, virtuous person. Posting embarrassing pictures of your friend or a confidential confession, a virtue ethicist could argue, reveals that you are not trustworthy. Such actions run counter to the kind of person you should try to become. When people succeed in becoming virtuous, they acquire what virtue ethicists refer to as “practical wisdom” (phronesis), the wisdom to act morally without the need to consciously reflect or deliberate. To find out which actions a virtue ethicist would prescribe (for example when it comes to spending money or behaving online), you may simply ask yourself what an exemplary, virtuous person would do. This strategy is the secular, ethical version of what Christians ask when in doubt: “what would Jesus do?” Note that each of these theories explains what matters to us and why we care about certain things in different ways. This has normative consequences. If, for example, utilitarians are right and the reason why posting a friend’s confidential confession on social media is wrong is that it causes harm, we can imagine scenarios in which this is actually not wrong: for example, when it does not harm your friend, because she does not care at all. Since nothing painful arises from your actions, consequentialists and utilitarians would not judge them to be wrong. According to deontologists and virtue ethicists, however, the wrongness of your actions does not consist in whatever harm they do and thus does not disappear if no harm was done. In this respect, different ethical theories provide different descriptions and evaluations of our actions and hence have different consequences for what we should do.

In addition, each of these theories identifies a class of moral reasons that we sometimes appeal to when making decisions or justifying what we do. We often justify ourselves, for example, by claiming that no harm is done (a utilitarian response); or we believe fiercely that there are no conditions under which a certain act, say killing an innocent person, is allowed (a deontological response); or finally, we often praise someone for being courageous or kind (a virtue- ethical response). Hence, utilitarian, deontological and virtue-ethical theories, though elaborated on and examined by moral philosophers, are not far-fetched theoretical inventions unrelated to our everyday lives. In the next section, let us examine each of these theories a bit further.

3 • Further explaining three main ethical theories

Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer

The core of the utilitarian approach is consequentialist: consequences are what matters morally (about our actions, institutions, policies). There are no absolute values or rights (such as privacy) and no absolute principles or rules (such as never betray a friend) we need to respect. All we should do is promote the good or maximize good consequences; that is, we should promote or maximize ‘utility’.

The good that has to be promoted, utility, can be and has been defined in quite a few different ways. It has been understood in terms of happiness and well- being, each of which has different possible interpretations and connotations as well. While some believe that your well-being and utility depend on whether your (subjective) desires are satisfied, others argue that there is an objective list of things that make you well off. Hedonic utilitarians in turn specify that the good that is to be maximized is happiness or pleasure. We should simply promote overall happiness, which is understood as maximizing the sum of pleasure minus pain. Jeremy Bentham (1789) was the first to articulate the well-known principle of utility—the greatest utility for the greatest number—which up to today serves as the core of utilitarianism. Something is more desirable, morally speaking, the more it promotes overall happiness.

Why is utilitarianism so influential? Happiness and pleasure are obviously desirable as they are things that all human beings strive for, while pain and harm are things all human beings aim for and have good reason to avoid. When we ask ourselves why we do the things we do and value the things we value, happiness is usually where we eventually end up. We value having nice dinners and meeting up with friends because we enjoy them. Even things that are not enjoyable in themselves are ultimately motivated by happiness. Why study? To get a degree. Why get a degree? To get a job. Why get a job? To lead a comfortable life that you can enjoy. Why enjoy? As John Stuart Mill (1863/2017, chapter 4) stresses, there is no further answer to this: “happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.” The utilitarian idea that happiness and harm (to someone’s well-being) matter morally is widespread and uncontroversial in our current society. However, when this idea became popular in 18th-century England, it was quite radical and progressive. At the time, many things were considered morally wrong that did not necessarily harm anyone and that we have since ceased to see as wrong, such as homosexuality. Or take Mill again, who already claimed over 150 years ago that women should have equal rights on the basis of a utilitarian concern for overall happiness.3 Utilitarianism has an obvious ethical appeal since it identifies considerations to which we can all relate with ease. Since I care about my happiness and not being harmed, it is easy to understand that the same holds for you and all other beings like us. So, if we want to act ethically and treat others right, utilitarians argue, we need to look out for their interests as we tend to do for our own interests. In fact, because their happiness matters as much as our own, morally speaking, we need to maximize the total sum of happiness, in which each counts for one and none for more than one.

An important question here is whose interests matter and who belongs to the circle of moral concern (Singer, 2011). If happiness and harm are the things that matter morally, then why stop with human beings? After all, a lot of animals can suffer too, and there is no good reason why their suffering should not matter morally either. As Peter Singer (1975) argues, why would the interests of sentient beings like cows, chickens, pigs and fish not matter as much as our own? As a result, we should stop eating meat and dairy products, since such diets contribute to animal suffering and are therefore immoral.

While the claim that happiness and suffering have moral relevance is uncontroversial, disagreement persists on what exactly they are and why we should attend to them. We often suffer pain and forgo instant pleasure to reach some higher goal, for example when we visit the dentist or when we refrain from a nice glass of wine before a sports match or job interview. Do all kinds of suffering and happiness matter equally? Whereas Bentham (1789) understood happiness hedonistically as the mental state of feeling happy and argued that only quantity matters, Mill (1863/2017, chapter 2) believed that quality matters as well. Enjoying a good novel is more worthwhile than eating a simple ice cream. If you agree with Mill, you could argue that the suffering and pleasure of human and non-human animals have different moral weight after all.

Utilitarians also disagree on whether we should maximize the consequences of every single action or rather stick to general rules or principles, such as “never betray a friend’s confidence.” So-called rule utilitarians argue that overall utility would be maximized if everyone followed such simple rules. According to so- called act utilitarians, every single action should maximize overall utility, but this has the problematic implication that it is perfectly fine to sacrifice some people’s interests for that greater good. If posting your drunk picture on social media generates more pleasure than pain, your privacy and embarrassment are outweighed by the fun other people have. In fact, an act utilitarian will claim that your friend (or even you) actually has a moral duty to make fun of you.

Deontology: Immanuel Kant

Deontologists, in contrast to utilitarians, believe that there are some things that we are never allowed to do, such as violating someone’s privacy. We should follow absolute rules and principles, but not because of the happiness this brings about, as rule utilitarians would argue. According to deontologists, we have certain rights and corresponding duties simply in virtue of being humans. We recognize being bound by these moral precepts as this is, well, what morality demands from us.

Probably the best-known defender of deontology is the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed, in contrast to many in his time, that in figuring out what to do morally, we should not turn to religion. Each and every one of us can, by virtue of our rationality, figure out what our moral duties are. Most of what we should or should not do is, as Kant puts it, regulated by so-called hypothetical imperatives. If we want to pass a course, we should study for the exam. The requirement (or imperative) to study is conditional (hypothetical) upon our desire to pass the course. Now, according to Kant, moral imperatives are, in contrast, unconditional or categorical in nature: they prescribe what we should do, regardless of our individual desires. Unlike other animals that pursue whatever their desires lead them to, humans possess the ability to reflect on those desires, whether they are worth pursuing and whether it is rational or moral to pursue them. Even if you know how much fun it would be to make fun of your friend online, you should refrain from it because you recognize that it is not the right thing to do. Morality has nothing to do with pleasure or desires but with your capacity to reason.

Kant provides several formulations of the categorical imperative. The first is known as the “universalizability principle:” “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785/1993, G 4:421). Imagine wondering whether meeting up with a friend is the right thing to do even though it means you have to break your promise to another, slightly less fun friend. According to Kant, you first need to identify the maxim, the general principle that underlies your action: “to break a promise.” Next, you should consider whether you could want everyone to act on that maxim. So you should ask what the world would look like if everyone broke their promises whenever something popped up they liked more. According to Kant, we cannot want this without contradiction. The very essence of promises is that we keep them, even when there is something we like more. Without this commitment, the whole idea of promises loses its meaning. So on purely rational grounds, you can come to understand the absolute moral principle that promises should be kept.

According to Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, you should “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, 1785/1993, G 4:429). When you make fun of your friend online, you are treating her merely as a means (to generate pleasure or collect likes on your social media accounts) instead of respecting her as an end in itself. Both formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative serve as a kind of “litmus test” for morality. Whatever passes is morally permissible; whatever does not pass, you have a moral duty not to do.4 While there is quite a lot of discussion among contemporary deontologists, for example about which rights and duties we do in fact have or how they apply to concrete situations, they do share a common ground: namely, that rights and duties are the core of morality, not the utilitarian or consequentialist calculus of moral costs and benefits.

Virtue ethics: Aristotle

The third main ethical theory is virtue ethics and dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (fourth century BC). Aristotle (338 B.C.E./1920) argued that the “goodness” of something always relates to its purpose (telos) or function (ergon). Your ear is “good” if it enables you to hear. Lionel Messi is a “good” or “excellent” football player because he excels in those things (speed, accurate passing, quick thinking) that serve the purpose of the game. Messi has developed those capacities that enable him to do what he is meant to do, namely help his team win games. When acting out this purpose, Messi flourishes, doing what he is good at and what makes him happy.

Now, Aristotle argues in his (338 B.C.E./1920) that humans are “good,” morally speaking, if they excel in what makes them human, which in his view relates to their reason (logos). Since ethics is part of practical philosophy, it is not concerned with theoretical knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) but with practical knowledge (knowledge to do good and become a virtuous person). Just like Messi trained himself to know what to do on the football field, so should we, through practice and habituation, develop the practical wisdom (phronesis) that enables us to know what to do, morally speaking. The character (ēthikē aretē) that we should develop does not consist in speed or physical prowess but in moral virtues like courage, friendliness and temperance. And just as Messi thrives on the football field, moral exemplars thrive in life because they achieve eudaimonia, which can be translated as “happiness” or “human flourishing.” Different virtue ethicists—Aristotle, but also contemporary authors such as Martha Nussbaum (1993-03-11) and Alisdair MacIntyre (1981)—may take different approaches within virtue ethics and disagree, for example, about which virtues are most relevant and how they relate to each other. However, all of them stress how crucial virtues are for answering what is perhaps the central ethical question: what is the good life? Because circumstances are always unique, virtue ethicists do not aim to prescribe specific actions or formulate universally applicable rules or principles. When you are a good friend, you know what the appropriate response is in a particular situation, for example when to post which pictures online (without having to weigh off utilities or check the categorical imperative).

Each virtue, Aristotle argues, is a mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess, each of which constitutes a vice. A courageous person balances between overconfidence and cowardice. When it comes to spending your money (on nice glasses of wine or poverty-alleviating charities), temperance forms the middle road between gluttony (spending all your money on indulgences) and total abstinence (never indulge in anything). The right path is that of moderation.

7 • Ethical reflection and everyday life

By now, you should have some grip on what moral philosophy is and how it relates to our reasons for doing what we do and should do. Ethical reflection matters because moral considerations permeate our lives. Nevertheless, reading moral philosophy can be a frustrating experience.

On the one hand, philosophical discussions in ethics often employ far- fetched examples and thought experiments that seem completely unrelated to our everyday lives. Kant (1785/1993), for example, claimed that it is never permissible to lie, not even when a murderer knocks on your door and asks you to tell him where your friend, his intended victim, is. Or what about the famous trolley-dilemmas in which we are asked to imagine situations in which you either do nothing but allow five innocent people to die or do something that kills another innocent person (Foot, 1967)? It is not the case that ethicists think these cases are likely to occur. Instead, they are discussing the strengths (and weaknesses) and (im)plausibility of competing ethical theories and their ability to guide us in our lives. How well do they connect with our moral intuitions, what are their implications, how sound is the advice they generate and how convincing are their arguments? This is a valuable exercise, especially when multiple incompatible theories make intuitive sense. However, when you turn to moral philosophy for practical advice, such discussions can be disappointing and frustrating.

On the other hand, philosophers who do have explicit practical advice and have firm ideas on what you should or should not do are often perceived as preachy and moralistic. They seem to take the moral high ground with advice that is often difficult to follow or that takes all the fun out of our lives. This reproach can apply to utilitarians (who tell you to stop spending your money on frivolous things and help eradicate global poverty instead), deontologists (who tell you to ignore the consequences of your actions) and virtue ethicists (who tell you to stop slacking and start developing your character). This could lead you to respond in several ways: “Who does this philosopher think she is, telling me what to do?” or: “What fun is left in leading an ethical life? Life is too short to worry about all those things!” As mentioned, we take ethical theories to be highly systematic and abstract elaborations that are grounded in everyday moral intuitions and considerations. Their often radical conclusions result from the willingness of philosophers to think things through and go where the argument leads them.5 However, it is always open to each of us to explain what, if anything, is wrong with the view or argument in question. This is why we have emphasized that ethics concerns us all and why we should be willing to think critically about the moral intuitions, beliefs and claims of ourselves, others and society. As in other philosophical disciplines, the appropriate attitude when we engage in such reflection is one of humility (“this is what I think but I might be wrong”) and openness (“others might be right”). As such, the kind of moralizing that ethicists are sometimes accused of embodies the exact opposite attitude, namely one of arrogance, overconfidence (hubris) and closed-mindedness.

The criticism of ethics as being either too far removed from everyday life or too moralistic has also been voiced within philosophy. Some philosophers, for example, have argued that these theories fail to capture the nature of everyday moral reasoning. How often do you pause to consider the maxim of your action and whether you can universalize it? Have you ever thought of trying to maximize the sum of pleasure and pain of all sentient beings in the world and thus live up to the extreme but perfectly consistent outcome of the utilitarian creed that all interests have moral weight?6 Others have pointed out that the prescriptions of ethical theories are often overdemanding and psychologically unrealistic. To what extent are ordinary human beings like ourselves actually able to follow the advice that follows from these theories? Again, think of Kant’s advice to never, under any circumstance, tell a lie. Or Singer’s utilitarian requirement to donate most of our money to charities that reduce global poverty (Singer, 1972). Who can live up to this? The final but perhaps most worrying criticism from within the discipline is that the very way in which ethics is practiced in mainstream theories is wrongheaded at its core. This has led to several alternative or non-mainstream approaches, to which we turn next.

8 • Alternative approaches in ethics

Deontological and consequentialist theories are characterized by a specific way of thinking that involves an impersonal point of view and strict principles or rules that are translated into action-guiding prescriptions.7 According to some philosophers, this fails to capture the nuances and complexities of our lives and the enormous role that our love (rather than duty) for particular things and people (rather than general principles and rules) plays in this respect (Williams, 1981; Frankfurt, 1982). In addition, impartial and universalizing approaches to ethics arguably neglect the extent to which our lives are shaped by our specific relationships with others and our individual, social and cultural histories (MacIntyre, 1981; Taylor, 1989).

According to some more radical critics, such as Margaret Walker (2007), this failure and neglect has led to a biased understanding of what morality and moral agency are all about. While navigating different responsibilities in life and taking care of people around you is clearly of moral relevance, it is hard to capture in the all-or-nothing vocabulary of rules, principles, duties and rights.8 The traditional emphasis on this vocabulary has already, for example, led to the mistaken idea that females are less morally developed than males.9 This criticism has been central to the development of an “ethic of care” (Gilligan, 1982; Tronto, 1993). According to feminist philosophers, more generally, we cannot do proper moral philosophy without attending to and being critical of existing and widespread power imbalances in our society. For example, traditional ethical theories pay little attention to the experience of people who do not feel at ease with the moral views of the society they live in because they belong to a repressed minority group. Recently, feminist philosophers have analyzed exactly those experiences in terms of, for example, moral disorientation (Harbin, 2016) and affective injustice (Srinivasan, 2018) and, hotly debated in the past decade, epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007).

By now, the multitude of approaches in ethics provide a more nuanced picture of the moral domain, with interpersonal relationships and the social dimension of our living together taking up a more central place. Empirical work in the behavioral sciences has also caused a surge of interest in the moral motivations behind everyday decisions and has prompted more realistic accounts of our moral psychology and agency. In the meantime, feminists and non-mainstream ethicists continue to offer highly critical analyses of our societies that, according to some of them, are fundamentally racist, sexist and ableist (discriminating on the basis of ability).

While this chapter is too short to do justice to these critical perspectives, we think and hope that they will continue to change the way ethicists and ordinary people think about morality. In fact, many of the challenges we face in today’s societies go beyond individual responsibilities and require more complex answers than the more traditional ways of thinking are able to provide. Asking what we, as individual agents, ought to do (donate more money to charities, change our diets, post pictures on social media, etc.) seems to ignore the frameworks that provide and structure these different options. Challenging those frameworks themselves can mean that we take a critical look at the role of companies who develop these technologies, the capitalist system they operate in and the impact that technologies like social media have on our relations with one another, ourselves and the world. In our concluding section, we go into this in a bit more detail.

9 • Where are we heading?

So what about the future of moral philosophy? Which topics will occupy moral philosophers of the future? First and foremost, the rapid advancement of technological innovation will inevitably continue to raise ethical issues. Of course, some of these can be insightfully examined from the perspective of the traditional accounts.10 However, evolutions such as the advent of artificial intelligence, the quickly increasing capacities of machines for self-learning and deep learning, the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality, the advantages and threats of big data and the permeation of social media into our lives all confront us with ethical issues that go far beyond our individual responsibilities. These technologies have social, cultural and political effects that are still difficult to envision, even for those most knowledgeable about them. Rather than merely providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools and options to lead our lives, they also change the world we live in and the ways in which we relate to that world, to ourselves and to others.11 With a smartphone, for example, you navigate your social and physical surroundings in completely different ways from before (or from someone without a smartphone).

Other issues, less directly related to technology, will remain or become relevant as well. How should we proceed as climate change unfolds (remember that it is already too late to avoid or stop it)? How can we avoid the polarization that permeates a lot of contemporary societies? How can we make sure that the interests of the poor are not overruled by those of the rich? What kind of duties do companies have toward their consumers and employees? While some of these issues will be about life and death, peace and war, others will be about the seemingly low-stakes decisions that make up everyday life. In any case, we hope that we have made it clear how ethical reflection might help in tackling the challenges we are facing, small and big, at both the individual and the systemic level. Even though there is no pause button in real life, taking the time to thoroughly reflect on and discuss with one another who we are and what our values entail is a necessary step in leading better lives and designing better institutions.


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