Moral Theories

Moral theories are .. theories. Theories try to explain something; they try to help us understand something. The 'something' that moral theories try to explain is what it is for an action to be wrong, or permissible or obligatory: they try to state necessary and sufficient conditions for any of those: e.g., an action is wrong if, and only if, _____; an action is morally permissible if, and only if ____. Moral theories offer ways to fill in those blanks. 

A moral principle is often related to a moral theory, but states either a sufficient condition(s) for an action having some "moral status" or a necessary condition(s) for some action having some moral status. 


  • Sufficient condition(s): "If an action is ___, then it is wrong," or "If an action is ___, then it is morally permissible," or "If an action is ___, then it is obligatory."
  • Necessary condition(s): "An action is permissible only if ____," (="If an action is permissible, then it's ______") or, e.g., "Something is a person only if ______" (= "If something is a person, then ________"


Moral theories and principles are often premises in moral arguments. 

Here are some questions:

  • How do you develop a moral theory?
  • How to test a moral theory, to try to figure out if it is true or false (or closer to the truth, or likely false)?
  • What are some of the most popular moral theories, and popular because they are widely believed (and with good reason, we hope) to be closest to the truth?
Soon we will post a discussion of these questions and more. 

In the meantime, here are a few brief readings from 1000 Word Philosophy on some moral theories. 

Some arguably better theories:
Some arguably worse theories:
And on whether there are any truths or facts in ethics, general or particular, some writings on "meta-ethics":

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