Essays on the foundations of morality and practical guides
to value and obligation

What Is Ethics?

Ethics: from Greek ta ethika, title of Aristotle's work and ethike philosophia "moral philosophy"

Studies in Ethics are divided into two major fields of inquiry:

  1. meta-ethics (what do 'good', 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong' mean, are there moral facts and how do we justify moral judgements?)
  2. normative ethics (what things and properties have value in themselves and how should we act?)

Below you will find Rational Realm essays of two types.

General Essays:
Short popular essays of a more general nature requiring no specialist knowledge
Specialist Essays:
Comprehensive referenced research papers on specialist subjects requiring a working familiarity with the subject

Rational Realm welcomes essay contributions for publication on our site. Please review our submission guidelines and contact us.

General Essays

  • Meta-ethics: An Introduction

    Meta-ethics is the area of philosophy in which thinkers explore the language and nature of moral discourse. In this introduction to the discipline, Leslie Allan outlines the key questions and areas of analysis in contemporary meta-ethics, summarizes the core concepts of the major meta-ethical theories, surveys their strengths and problems and lists their most well-know advocates.

  • Is Morality Subjective?

    Subjectivists claim that the absence of a theological or metaphysical grounding to moral judgements renders them all as simply statements about our subjective wants and preferences. Leslie Allan argues that the subjectivists' case rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of moral objectivity. He presents the view that subjectivists mistakenly counterpoise the ideal of moral objectivity with the expression of individual preferences. Being objective in moral deliberation, Allan argues, should be regarded instead as the antithesis of parochial and biased reasoning. This account of moral objectivity, he concludes, makes sense of a long-standing universalist tradition in moral philosophy.

  • Is Morality Subjective? – A Reply to Critics

    Leslie Allan defends his thesis that ethics is objective in the sense of requiring moral agents to offer impartial reasons for acting. Radical subjectivists have attacked this requirement for impartiality on a number of grounds. Allan attempts to demonstrate that their case rests on a number of confusions and oversimplifications.

  • Is Morality a Matter of Taste? – HSV Public Lecture

    For some secular-minded people, the human sciences appear to expose a person's moral judgments to be nothing more than an expression of their subjective preferences. In this HSV address, Leslie Allan reveals a central objective dimension to moral debates. He argues that by ignoring the place of impartiality in moral discourse, we misconstrue the nature of ethics and diminish our social effectiveness.

  • Can Morality Be Objective without God? – Discussing Religion Respectfully Address

    Some theologians claim that if God did not exist, there would be no grounding for our moral judgments. Leslie Allan challenges the presumption that moral objectivity consists in tapping into a realm of human-independent facts. He endeavours to show that moral judgments are expressions of human preferences taken from an impartial standpoint, leaving no room for a deity.

  • Toward Democratic Eco-socialism as the Next World System

    As humanity lurches forward into an era of potentially catastrophic, anthropogenic climate change that to a large degree is a by-product of the capitalist world system, we are faced with two existential questions. Firstly, how do we live in harmony with each other on a fragile planet of limited resources, which have become unevenly distributed? And secondly, how do we live in harmony with nature?

  • Why I Am a Humanist – Critical Thinkers Forum Public Lecture

    Leslie Allan shares how his early experiences shape his humanist outlook and how the three core principles underlying humanism illuminate the good life.

  • Vashti McCollum's Fight for Church–State Separation in Schools

    From the end of the Second World War, Vashti McCollum was the leading humanist and atheist at the forefront of legal battles protecting the separation of church and state in US public schools. Her long and bitter fight for the constitutional right to a secular education leaves a lasting legacy that we continue to enjoy to this day.

  • Henrietta Dugdale – Freethinker and Suffragist

    The story of Henrietta Dugdale, a leading light of the women's liberation movement in pre-Federation Australia. Dugdale challenged the suffocating patriarchal structures of the day with her provocative prose and political willpower. She campaigned tirelessly for equality and for the victory of reason over cruel religious dogma. With her fellow suffragists, she changed forever how women were treated in politics and society.

Specialist Essays

  • A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories

    With the increased sophistication and complexity of meta-ethical analyses in the modern era, the traditional ways of categorizing meta-ethical theories no longer function adequately. In this essay, the author categorizes the various meta-ethical theories along three dimensions. These dimensions focus on the linguistic analysis offered by each theory, its metaphysical commitments and its degree of normative tolerance.

  • A Defence of Emotivism

    Stevenson's sophisticated emotivism is widely regarded as a substantial improvement over its historical antecedent, radical emotivism. None the less, it has come in for its share of criticism. In this essay, Leslie Allan responds to the key philosophical objections to Stevenson's thesis, arguing that the criticisms levelled against his meta-ethical theory rest largely on a too hasty reading of his works.

  • Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

    Leslie Allan demonstrates how human rights are unproblematic for utilitarian moral theory and how, upon consideration, utilitarianism turns out to be the best theory for justifying human rights. Using case studies of historical and contemporary human rights conventions and recent psychological research, he argues how our concept of human rights is founded on the satisfaction of fundamental human needs and the consequences for human happiness.

  • The Principle of Double Effect

    Absolutist systems of ethics have come in for harsh criticism on a number of fronts. The Principle of Double Effect was formulated by Catholic ethicists to overcome such objections. In this essay, Leslie Allan addresses four of the most prominent problems faced by an absolutist ethic and evaluates the extent to which the Principle of Double Effect is successful in avoiding or mitigating these criticisms.

  • Contraception and Abortion: A Utilitarian View

    Conservative and liberal approaches to the problem of abortion are oversimplified and deeply flawed. Accepting that the moral status of the conceptus changes during gestation, the author advances a more nuanced perspective. Through applying a form of rules in practice utilitarianism within the context of overall population policy, he provides a compelling ethical and legal framework for regulating contraception and abortion practices.

  • Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

    The killing of a human being is judged with the utmost seriousness in most ethical and legal systems. The killing of an animal typically does not garner the same level of consideration, the act often being treated as a mere adjunct to human concerns. This essay explores the ethical principles and moral reasoning underpinning such a dualist approach to killing.

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