A brief field guide to some metaphysical and ethical claims

__________________________________________ Author, article, or position considered

Check whichever position (s) apply to the above. Circle any details that apply, or add something not covered here.

Not everyone uses metaphysical and ethical terms in exactly the same ways.


____METAPHYSICS IS NONSENSE, incapable of being proved by sensory experience (which some critics consider all knowledge to be), a waste of time. Comte, Logical Positivists, analytic philosphers, destructive postmodernists (as distinguished from the constructive postmodernists of process thought).

____METAPHYSICS is occult knowledge and practice, a popular New Age understanding.

____METAPHYSICS is "the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted [so] everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme." Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.

____(Cartesian) DUALISM: There are two types of reality, matter (extended in space) and mind (thought, feeling, willing, etc. not extended in space, not occupying space), neither reducible to the other. (Qualitatively and quantitatively pluralistic: more than one type of reality and more than one unit of reality.) Descartes, Locke.

Traditional Western religions are metaphysically dualistic (and largely ethically dualistic, with a good God and an evil devil (derived from Zoroastrianism).

____ MATERIALISM (naturalism, atheism): There is only one type of reality, matter or lifeless energy, and mind is only an appearance of it. (Qualitatively monistic, quantitatively pluralistic.) Ancient atomists, Hobbes.

IDEALISM: Everything is mind (experience, living energy), and matter is only an appearance of it. (All varieties of idealism are qualitatively monistic, but there are both quantitatively monistic and quantitatively pluralistic types of idealism.)

____ Quantitatively monistic (acosmic pantheism): There is only one mind (God or Absolute), with the world a mere illusion. Hindu Vedanta , Hegel, Schopenhauer.

Quantitatively (numerically) pluralistic:

____Personalism: There is the divine person (God) and God-created finite persons; nature is God’s energizing, God acting as nature. Bowne, Brightman, Flewelling, Bertocci.

____Panpsychism: There are innumerable minds (experiences, living units of energy), ranging from the most simple subatomic realities to God. Each experience feels (prehends, takes in) all earlier experiences nonlocally, and generally unconsciously blends these with perfect possibilities for newness offered by God. Many collections of experiences (stones, tables, etc.) are nonliving, although they are composed of nothing but living experiences. An animal has a dominant mind (succession of experiences) coordinating the vast number of minds-experiences constituting the body. The panpsychism deriving largely from Whitehead is sometimes called panexperientialism, as well as process (or process-relational) philosophy (or, more broadly, process thought), referred to by Whitehead as the philosophy of organism. In relation to God’s including everything within himself and everything’s including God, it is called panentheism. In a non-process form, Leibniz; in process form, in varying degrees of development, some Buddhists, Peirce, James, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, and many other current thinkers, although still a minority view.


____EMOTIVISM: Ethical statements express preferences, but do not convey knowledge.

____ETHICAL RELATIVISM: There are no universally-applicable standards, but there are right and wrong for the societies accepting them. It makes ethical progress and comparisons impossible.

____ETHICAL NIHILISM: Extreme or individual relativism. There are no binding ethical principles.

____ETHICAL UNIVERSALISM: There are ethical standards applicable to all people, based on common human nature.

____ETHICAL ABSOLUTISM agrees on the universal applicability of ethical standards, but goes farther, saying that they are permanently established on the basis of something transcending the world, such as God or Plato's forms.

____ETHICAL EGOISM: One should put one's own interests first. Arguably, it need not necessarily be hedonistic.

TELEOLOGICAL, CONSEQUENTIAL, END-ORIENTED, AXIOLOGICAL, VALUE-CENTERED, emphasizing the good–desirable, worthwhile--as the key to ethical behavior; the ethical theory resulting is characterized by value fulfillment, and the right becomes one aspect of that fulfillment, namely the set of obligations to others that must be respected in reaching the good.

Such theories are termed axiological (stressing their value aspect) or teleological (stressing their orientation to final goals, ends [in Greek, telos], to pursuing the value of what is achieved). Utilitarianism is the basic form taken by teleological approaches. 1. Moral judgments depend on value judgments. 2. Seek the good. The good is the moral.

It does not necessarily follow that one is obligated to do the good. The good refers to value, the right to action.

TWO TYPES OF VALUES: Intrinsic (inherent), valued for themselves, as ends; Instrumental (instruments, tools), extrinsic, valued as means to something else.


____1.Naturalistic: Ethical judgments are reducible to nonethical, descriptive terms, empirical facts, this-worldly ends, e.g., pleasure.

a. Hedonistic (from Greek hedone, pleasure):

____ (1) Egoistic: Seeking one’s own pleasure.

(2) Universalistic:

(Traditional) Utilitarian: seeking the greatest happiness or pleasure for the greatest number (Bentham, J. S. Mill).

____ Act utilitarian: judging on the basis of the results of a specific act in specific situation.

____ Rule utilitarian: judging on the basis of everyone's following of a rule in question.

b. Nonhedonistic:

____ Emphasizing, variously, virtue, allocation of pleasure to the virtuous, knowledge, self-development or self-realization (usually identified with rational activity), power, evolution, a good will, contemplation, self-mastery.

2. Nonnaturalistic: Ethical judgments are not reducible to nonethical terms.

____ a. Theological utilitarianism: Good as that which agrees with God's will.

____ b. Ideal utilitarianism (allowing nonhedonistic values): G. E. Moore.

____ c. Preference utilitarianism: The good is that preferred by all involved: R. M. Hare.


When the right is taken to be the key to ethical behavior, ethics becomes oriented to ideas of obligation and duty, centering around the stating of principles of behavior, rather than the tracing of consequences. Such theories are termed deontological (stressing obligation), or formalistic (stressing principle). What is right to do is what one is obligated to do.

DUTY (from the Latin debere, to owe). OBLIGATION (from the Latin obligare, to bind).

1. Morality of an act is independent of its outcome.

2. Seeks the right, which is identified with moral obligation, which relates to duty, the ought, rightness, or fittingness. The right is the moral.

____STRONG form: goodness is irrelevant:

Kant's Categorical (as distinguished from hypothetical, if-then) Imperative ("Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law") provides the source of right action. Its first formulation states "Act as if the maxim of your action were to secure through your will a universal law of nature."

Its second formulation states "Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, as an end in itself, never as a means only." Actions that conform to these imperatives (i.e., right actions) and are, furthermore, done from a sense of duty, are the epitome of morally worthy actions. Right motive is the rational willing of one's duty for duty's sake.

____WEAK form: goodness is relevant but not decisive:

W. D. Ross’s theory of Prima Facie duties (which in case of competing duties may not turn out to be one's actual duties): Our duties are "part of the fundamental nature of the universe," with specific duties of fidelity to keeping promises, reparation to those whom we harm, gratitude to those who help us, justice recognizing merit, beneficence to improve the conditions of others, self-improvement in virtue and intelligence, and nonmaleficence not to injure others. Ross held that the right pertains to acts, the good to motives. Ross agreed with what G. E. Moore called the naturalistic fallacy, which maintains that ought cannot be derived from is, that one should not define ethical terms by means of nonethical terms; ethical intuitionism.

____Virtue Ethics, as revived in the 20th century, emphasizes agents–those who act–and what kind of person one is, one's character rather than the right thing to do. Virtues are understood as character traits that are morally valued, such as truthfulness, courage, compassion, and sincerity.

____The Ethics of Care and Feminist Ethics downplay rights and allegedly universal principles and rules in favor of an emphasis on caring, interpersonal relationships, and contexts.

____Narrative Ethics claims that stories, are not ethical because of their morals or because of their normative logic, but are ethical because of their function of binding teller, listener, witness, and reader to one another. This is a form of deconstructive postmodern thought, which questions the possibility of genuine knowledge of all sorts.

____Social Contract, Justice-oriented consequentialism of John Rawls, attempting to overcome objections to utilitarianism.

Philosophical and Other Resources

Created by Alan Anderson, Mar. 20, 2000