A Comprehensive Argument for Same-Sex Marriage

Consequentialism (Lecture 1)

Introduction to Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the study of what is morally right or wrong, as opposed to factual or functional rightness or wrongness. Normative theories include consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.


Consequentialism defines the rightness or wrongness of an act based on the consequences that flow from it.

Consequentialism (Utilitarianism)

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were key proponents of classical utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism defines the good as maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering for the greatest number of people.

Bentham’s “hedonistic calculus” attempted to quantify happiness, considering factors like intensity, duration, certainty, and extent.

Mill distinguished between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, arguing some pleasures are more valuable than others.

Critiques of Utilitarianism

Defining and Measuring Happiness: Happiness is a subjective, psychological experience, making it difficult to define and measure.

Calculating Happiness: Utilitarian methods of calculating total or average happiness have been criticized as flawed.

Interpersonal Subjectivity: Comparing the subjective experiences of different individuals is problematic.

Equal Distribution: Utilitarianism may neglect the importance of equal distribution of resources and well-being.

Disregard for Justice and Rights: Utilitarianism can justify actions that violate individual rights or principles of justice.

Demandingness: Utilitarianism may demand too much, requiring individuals to constantly maximize happiness.

Counterintuitive Results: Utilitarianism can lead to conclusions that conflict with common moral intuitions.

Thought Experiments

The Experience Machine: Robert Nozick’s thought experiment challenges the idea that only happiness matters, suggesting people value authenticity and other non-hedonic goods.

The Trolley Problem: This thought experiment highlights the distinction between acts and omissions, and the moral intuition that there is a difference between actively causing a death and passively allowing it.

The Fat Man: This variation of the Trolley Problem explores the moral intuition that there is a difference between using someone as a mere means to an end and allowing an impersonal event to occur.


Consequentialism, particularly utilitarianism, has been highly influential, but it faces significant critiques that suggest it fails to capture the full range of moral considerations and intuitions. The course will continue to explore alternative normative theories, such as deontology and virtue ethics, to provide a more comprehensive understanding of moral philosophy.

The Clash Between Deontology and Utilitarianism (Lecture 2)

Deontology vs. Utilitarianism

Deontology and utilitarianism are the two major normative ethical theories.

Utilitarianism focuses on maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering, while deontology focuses on moral duties and rules.

Deontology avoids many of the issues and counterintuitive results that arise from consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is a form).

The Basics of Deontology

Deontology argues that the morality of an action is based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules, not its consequences.

Deontologists believe that there are certain absolute, universal moral rules that must be followed, regardless of the outcomes.

The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the intention behind it, not the consequences that flow from it.

Deontology rejects the idea that the ends can justify the means – even if an action leads to a good outcome, it can still be morally wrong.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant, the primary philosopher of deontology, proposed the concept of the categorical imperative.

The categorical imperative states that one should “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it become a universal law.”

Kant believed that moral truths could be discovered through rational analysis, not based on consequences or personal desires.

Kant argued that actions are only moral if they could be universalized without contradiction.

Criticisms and Modifications of Deontology

Formulation of the Maxim: The way the moral maxim is formulated can affect the outcome, leading to potential “false negatives.”

Consequences Can Make Things Worse: Deontology’s rigid adherence to rules can lead to outcomes that many find unacceptable, such as refusing to lie to an ax murderer about the location of a victim.

Differing Moral Weights: Deontology treats all moral duties as absolute and equal, whereas our intuitions suggest that some duties (e.g., not killing) have greater moral weight than others (e.g., not lying).

The Denial of Aggregation

Philosopher Robert Nozick argued against the ability to aggregate suffering or harm, stating that each person only experiences their own harm, not the collective harm of multiple people.

This challenges the utilitarian approach of maximizing overall happiness or minimizing overall suffering.


The debate between deontology and utilitarianism highlights the tension between rule-based and consequence-based approaches to ethics.

Both theories have strengths and weaknesses, and the choice between them often depends on one’s moral intuitions and how they prioritize various ethical considerations.

The Essence of Virtue Ethics (Lecture 3)

Understanding Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is a distinct normative theory that differs from consequentialism and deontology.

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral agent rather than the consequences of actions or the adherence to moral rules.

The key concepts in virtue ethics are:

  • Eudaimonia: A state of well-being, flourishing, or happiness that is the ultimate goal of human existence.
  • Virtue (Arete): Excellence of character that leads to eudaimonia.
  • Phronesis: Practical wisdom that enables the virtuous person to discern the right course of action in a given situation.

Cultivating Virtue

Virtue is not about specific actions but about the overall character of the person.

Virtues are cultivated through practice and habit, not through rational deliberation alone.

The community and moral education play an important role in shaping an individual’s virtues.

Virtues are the mean between extremes, the “golden mean” (e.g., courage is the mean between cowardice and recklessness).

Similarities with Other Wisdom Traditions

Virtue ethics shares similarities with other ancient wisdom traditions, such as Confucianism, in its emphasis on moral education, self-cultivation, and the role of social harmony.

The underlying virtues and the goal of eudaimonia have parallels in various philosophical and religious traditions.

Criticisms and Responses

Difficulty in Application: Virtue ethics lacks the clear-cut guidelines and codification of deontology and consequentialism, making it challenging to apply in specific situations.

Response: Virtue ethics emphasizes practical wisdom (phronesis) and moral sensitivity, which are essential for navigating complex ethical dilemmas.

Cultural Relativity: Different cultures may have different conceptions of virtues.

Response: Virtue ethicists argue that there is often a deeper, underlying agreement on more abstract virtues across cultures, even if the specific manifestations vary.

Conflicting Virtues: Situations may arise where the requirements of two virtues conflict.

Response: Virtue ethicists argue that practical wisdom (phronesis) can help resolve such conflicts by determining which virtue takes precedence in a given situation.

Egoism Objection: Critics argue that virtue ethics is ultimately self-interested, as individuals are pursuing eudaimonia for their own sake.

Response: Virtue ethicists counter that the cultivation of virtue is not about achieving eudaimonia for personal gain, but rather a natural expression of a virtuous character.


Virtue ethics offers a unique perspective on morality, focusing on the development of moral character rather than the adherence to rules or the maximization of consequences. While it faces certain challenges, virtue ethics provides important insights into the role of practical wisdom, moral education, and the cultivation of virtues in leading a fulfilling and ethical life.

The Debate Between Natural Law Theory and Legal Positivism (Lecture 4)

Natural Law Theory

Natural law theory is based on the idea that there are intrinsic moral values and principles that can be discovered through reason and are inherent in human nature.

The key proponents of natural law theory include Thomas Aquinas and John Finnis.

Aquinas proposed five primary precepts that constitute natural law: preservation of life, reproduction, education of offspring, social living, and worship of God.

From these primary precepts, Aquinas derived secondary principles that should guide human behavior and form the basis of a just legal system.

Finnis, a modern natural law theorist, argued that there are seven basic goods that constitute human flourishing, and practical reasonableness is required to pursue these goods.

Natural law theorists believe that the authority and validity of law is derived from its moral content and alignment with these inherent moral principles.

Legal Positivism

Legal positivism emerged as a reaction against the perceived unscientific approach of natural law theory, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Legal positivists, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, argued that the study of law should be separated from moral considerations.

The central claim of legal positivism is that the validity of law is determined by its source and the presence of certain conventional, man-made criteria, not its moral content.

Austin’s “command theory of law” defines law as the commands of a sovereign backed by the threat of sanctions or force.

Legal positivists argue that an immoral law can still be considered valid law, as long as it meets the formal criteria for legal validity, such as being enacted by the appropriate authority and enforced through sanctions.

The separation thesis, a key tenet of legal positivism, states that there is no necessary connection between law and morality, and legal obligations do not necessarily entail moral obligations.

The Debate and Implications

The debate between natural law theory and legal positivism centers on the question of what gives law its authority and validity.

Natural law theorists argue that law must be grounded in moral principles, while legal positivists contend that law can be valid without any necessary connection to morality.

The implications of this debate are significant, as it determines whether unjust or immoral laws can be considered valid or not.

Legal positivism’s rejection of the natural law view has been criticized for potentially legitimizing unethical or unjust laws, such as the laws of the Nazi regime.

The debate highlights the fundamental tension between the descriptive and the normative in the study of law, and the challenge of reconciling the “is” and the “ought” in legal theory.

The Sophisticated Legal Positivism of H.L.A. Hart (Lecture 5)

The Internal Point of View and the Rule of Recognition

Distinguishing Social Habits from Social Rules

Social habits, such as showering in the morning or evening, lack an internal point of view.

Social rules, such as the expectation to bathe regularly, are seen from an internal perspective and have a normative dimension.

Conventional Behavior vs. Obligatory Behavior

Conventional behavior, like etiquette rules, is seen from an internal point of view but with less intensity.

Obligatory behavior, such as moral and legal rules, is seen as more normatively binding.

Separating Moral Rules and Legal Rules

Moral rules and legal rules both impose obligations, but they differ in their level of organization and codification.

Legal rules are more systematic, with centralized enforcement and administration, while moral rules lack this formal structure.

Primary Rules and Secondary Rules

Primary rules impose duties and define acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Secondary rules provide a framework for creating, modifying, and enforcing primary rules.

The Three Types of Secondary Rules

Rules of Change: Empower individuals and public bodies to introduce, modify, and repeal primary rules.

Rules of Adjudication: Confer authority to resolve disputes and enforce violations of primary rules.

The Rule of Recognition: Determines the criteria for legal validity, establishing what counts as law.

The Importance of the Rule of Recognition

The rule of recognition is the core of Hart’s model, holding the entire legal system together.

It is a social convention that emerges from the internal point of view, not derived from natural law or fear of sanctions.

The rule of recognition establishes the authority of the law, even if individuals disagree with specific laws.

It is the basis for recognizing the legitimacy of the legal system, not the moral legitimacy of individual laws.

Addressing the Deficiencies of the Command Theory

Hart’s model recognizes the normative dimension of law, which the command theory of Austin and Bentham fails to capture.

Even in the absence of sanctions, people often follow the law due to a sense of obligation, not just fear.

The internal point of view and the rule of recognition explain this normative aspect of law, which is essential for understanding the nature of a legal system.

Theories of Criminal Punishment: Exploring the Normative Justifications (Lecture 6)

Historical Overview of Criminal Punishment

Criminal punishment practices throughout history have been extremely brutal, emphasizing corporal punishment and the infliction of pain on offenders.

These forms of punishment, such as stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake, and public shaming, were once considered normatively acceptable by our ancestors, even celebrated as a form of entertainment.

The modern prison system, with long-term incarceration as the primary form of punishment, is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the mid-19th century.

The Four Theories of Criminal Punishment


Retributivism holds that punishment is justified solely by the offender’s desert or just deserts, without consideration for consequences.

The punishment must be proportionate to the severity of the crime, adhering to the principle of “an eye for an eye.”

Retributivism faces challenges in defining and quantifying “wickedness” or the severity of a crime, as well as in justifying punishment for “mala prohibita” (victimless) crimes.


Deterrence theory argues that the fear of future punishment will deter potential offenders from committing crimes.

There are two types of deterrence: specific deterrence (deterring the individual offender) and general deterrence (deterring the broader public).

Concerns with deterrence theory include the potential to punish innocent individuals for the sake of deterrence and the inability to justify punishment for the “undeterred.”


Rehabilitation views criminality as a sickness that can be cured through treatment and reform, with the goal of reintegrating the offender into society.

While promising in terms of reducing recidivism, rehabilitation faces criticism for being perceived as too “soft” on offenders and potentially burdening society with the cost of treatment.


Incapacitation aims to prevent offenders from harming society by physically restraining them, typically through long-term incarceration.

This theory faces challenges in justifying punishment for offenders who are no longer a threat, as well as the potential for excessive measures like execution.

Connecting the Theories to Normative Ethical Frameworks

Retributivism aligns with deontological ethics, emphasizing the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action.

Deterrence theory reflects consequentialist thinking, focusing on the outcomes and consequences of punishment.

Rehabilitation resonates with virtue ethics, aiming to reform the offender’s character.

Incapacitation can be viewed through both consequentialist and deontological lenses.

The Justification of Punishment and the Prison System (Lecture 7)

Mixed Theories of Punishment

John Rawls’ Mixed Theory of Punishment

Rawls argues that we can mix consequentialist and retributivist thinking.

He divides punishment into two aspects:

  • Justifying the institutional practice of punishment using consequentialist logic.
  • Justifying the punishment of specific individuals using retributivist thinking.

This approach is seen as problematic as it is an arbitrary distinction, and the two forms of logic can contradict each other.

H.L.A. Hart’s Mixed Theory of Punishment

Similar to Rawls’ approach, Hart argues that different questions about punishment can be answered using different forms of logic.

However, this also faces the issue of logical incoherence.

Negative Retributivism

Guilt is a necessary but not sufficient condition for punishment.

After establishing guilt, consequentialist considerations can guide the reasoning.

This still faces the problem of the incompatibility of retributivism and consequentialism.

The Prison System as Punishment

Shift Away from Rehabilitation and Deterrence

Shift away from rehabilitation and deterrence theories towards retribution and incapacitation.

Empirical evidence suggested rehabilitation and deterrence were not effective.

Incapacitation through long-term incarceration became a favored approach.

The Rise of the Prison System

Imprisonment as punishment is a relatively modern phenomenon, emerging in the 19th century.

Prisons replaced earlier forms of corporal and public punishment.

The rationale for this shift is debated.

Critiquing the Justification of the Prison System

Retributivism: Prisons may not be the best way to inflict pain or achieve just deserts.

Deterrence: Prisons do not effectively deter crime or reduce recidivism.

Rehabilitation: Prisons do not facilitate meaningful rehabilitation.

Incapacitation: Prisons may not be the optimal form of incapacitation.

Foucault’s Perspective on the Prison System

Foucault argues the prison system emerged not due to humanitarian concerns, but as a more effective form of social control.

Foucault’s Concept of “Disciplinary Power”

Power is not top-down, but a dispersed network of relations.

Institutions like prisons, schools, hospitals shape individuals’ beliefs and behaviors.

This “disciplinary power” extends beyond just the criminal justice system.

The Prison as a Metaphor for Modern Society

Foucault sees prisons as emblematic of a broader societal mechanism of control and normalization.


Some argue there is no normative justification for criminal punishment at all.

Restorative justice approaches focus on repairing harm rather than punishing.

Example from medieval Iceland: No criminal punishment, only restitution.

The argument is that punishment, especially incarceration, does more harm than good and should be abolished in favor of restorative practices.

The Dilemma of Free Will: Determinism and its Implications (Lecture 8)

The Problem of Free Will

The lecture explores the problem of free will, which is a long-standing debate in philosophy, theology, and now, with the advancements in neuroscience.

The question being asked is whether we have free will or if our actions and choices are predetermined by prior events and causes.

Determinism vs. Free Will


Determinism is the idea that all events are caused by prior events, and any given event or state of affairs follows necessarily from these prior events.

This suggests that everything that happens, including our choices and actions, is predetermined and could not have been any different.

Free Will

The common definition of free will is the power or ability to do otherwise than one in fact does.

This implies that we have the freedom to make choices and that our decisions are not entirely predetermined.

The Conflict Between Determinism and Free Will

The lecturer argues that the concept of free will seems intuitively true, as we all have the subjective feeling of making choices and decisions.

However, the logic of determinism, where everything is caused by prior events, poses a challenge to the idea of free will.

The lecturer presents examples to illustrate the problem, such as the case of a person dropping a pen or a car accident caused by a chain reaction of events.

Neuroscientific Evidence and the Challenge to Free Will

The lecturer discusses experiments in neuroscience, such as the Libet experiments, which suggest that brain activity precedes and potentially predicts our conscious decisions.

Newer studies using fMRI scans have shown that brain activity can predict a person’s choice between two buttons up to 6 seconds before the conscious decision is reported.

These findings seem to further undermine the idea of free will, as they suggest that our decisions are influenced by unconscious brain processes, rather than being entirely under our conscious control.

Implications and the Broader Debate

The problem of free will has significant implications, as it relates to moral responsibility, praise and blame, and the justification of criminal punishment.

The lecturer acknowledges that this is an ancient and ongoing debate, with no clear resolution.

The discussion touches on the philosophical and theological aspects of the problem, as well as the challenges posed by the logic of causality and the potential role of randomness.

Conclusion and the Next Lecture

The lecturer suggests that the problem of free will is a difficult one to resolve, as it challenges our fundamental assumptions about the nature of human agency and decision-making.

In the next lecture, the lecturer will explore the implications of this problem for the concept of criminal punishment and the law.

The Debate on Free Will and its Implications for Criminal Punishment (Lecture 9)

Part 1: Compatibilism vs. Incompatibilism

The lecture explores the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists regarding the concept of free will and its compatibility with determinism.

Classical Compatibilism

Proponents, such as Hobbes and Hume, define free will as the unencumbered ability to act according to one’s desires and beliefs, even in a deterministic world.

They argue that as long as one’s actions are the result of their own desires and beliefs, and they are not prevented from acting on them, then they can be considered free and morally responsible.

Criticisms of Classical Compatibilism

The Source Model Problem: If our desires and beliefs are ultimately determined, how can we be held responsible for them?

The Alternative Possibilities Problem: If determinism is true, we could never have done otherwise, so how can we be blamed for our actions?

Other Compatibilist Theories

  • The Principle of Alternative Possibilities
  • Strawson’s Reactive Attitudes Theory
  • Daniel Dennett’s Control Argument
  • Frankfurt’s Hierarchical Theory of Free Will

Part 2: Implications for Criminal Punishment

The Relationship Between Free Will and Moral Responsibility

If there is no free will, the notion of moral culpability and the retributive theory of punishment become problematic.

Examples Challenging Retributivism

The cases of the man with a brain tumor and Charles Whitman demonstrate how criminal behavior may be the result of neurological factors beyond the individual’s control.

Burden of Proof

The lecture questions who bears the burden of proof in the free will debate, as the compatibilist position relies on a subjective feeling of free will, while the incompatibilist position is grounded in the logic of determinism.

The lecture concludes by leaving the audience to consider the implications of the free will debate for their understanding of criminal punishment and moral responsibility.

John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (Lecture 10)

Introduction to Justice

The question of how to fairly distribute resources in a society of scarcity is a fundamental and longstanding challenge.

Different ideologies and political theories have proposed various approaches to this question, such as equality, equity, power, need, and social responsibility.

These differing perspectives on justice have led to significant conflict and bloodshed throughout history.

Rawls’ Approach to Justice

Rawls rejects the traditional approaches to justice, which he sees as being shaped by pre-existing biases and ideologies.

Instead, Rawls proposes a thought experiment called the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” to determine the principles of justice.

The Original Position and Veil of Ignorance

In the original position, a group of reasonable people are tasked with agreeing on principles to govern a just society.

However, these people are placed behind a “veil of ignorance,” which means they do not know their specific identity, social status, talents, or other personal characteristics.

Rawls argues that from this impartial perspective, the people would agree to two key principles of justice:

The Two Principles of Justice

Equal Basic Liberties: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with similar liberties for all.

Difference Principle:

  • 2A: Social and economic inequalities are only justified if they work to the advantage of the least advantaged in society.
  • 2B: Offices and positions must be open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rationale for the Principles

Rawls argues that the rational, self-interested, and risk-averse people behind the veil of ignorance would choose these principles because they protect them from the worst-case scenario of ending up in the least advantaged position in society.

The first principle of equal basic liberties is prioritized, as it provides the fundamental protections everyone would want, regardless of their eventual position.

The difference principle allows for some economic inequality, but only to the extent that it benefits the least advantaged and provides necessary incentives, rather than allowing for extreme disparities.

Significance of Rawls’ Approach

Rawls’ theory represents a significant departure from previous conceptions of justice, rejecting utilitarianism and other ideological approaches.

By grounding his theory in a thought experiment that elicits impartial principles, Rawls aims to provide an objective basis for determining the just distribution of resources and social goods.

Rawls’ model has had a profound and lasting impact on moral and political philosophy, as well as influencing discussions in various other disciplines.

Nozick’s Libertarian Theory of Justice (Lecture 11)

Introduction to Nozick’s Libertarianism

Robert Nozick, an American political philosopher, is known as the counterargument to John Rawls’ theory of justice.

Nozick’s model is based on his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” which presents a libertarian answer to Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice.”

Nozick’s theory is grounded in the fundamental normative assumption that individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them without violating those rights.

Nozick’s Conception of Justice

Just Acquisition and Just Transfer

Nozick’s theory of justice is based on the principles of just acquisition and just transfer of resources.

Just Acquisition: Individuals can acquire ownership of unowned resources by mixing their labor with them.

Just Transfer: Individuals can justly transfer their holdings to others through voluntary, uncoerced transactions.

The Historical Entitlement View of Justice

Nozick rejects “pattern conceptions of justice” that evaluate the fairness of a distribution based on the end result.

Instead, Nozick proposes a “historical entitlement view of justice” that considers the entire history of how resources were acquired and transferred.

As long as the process of acquisition and transfer was just (i.e., voluntary and uncoerced), the resulting distribution is just, regardless of how unequal it may appear.

The Minimal State and the Limits of Government

Nozick argues that the only legitimate role of the state is to protect individual rights and facilitate voluntary exchanges, not to redistribute resources.

He rejects the idea that the government can justly intervene to ensure a more equal distribution of resources, as this would infringe on individual liberty.

Nozick believes that any forced redistribution of resources is unjust, as it violates the rights of individuals to their own labor and property.

The Wilt Chamberlain Example

Nozick uses the example of basketball player Wilt Chamberlain to illustrate his theory of justice.

If Chamberlain negotiates a contract where he receives an extra dollar for every ticket sold to see him play, the resulting unequal distribution of wealth is just, as it emerged from a series of voluntary transactions.

Nozick argues that even if the outcome seems highly unequal, it is just as long as the process respects individual liberty and involves no coercion.

Criticisms and Responses

Nozick’s theory has been criticized for its strict emphasis on individual liberty and its disregard for issues of inequality and social justice.

Libertarians argue that a truly free market will prevent the emergence of monopolies, and in cases where anti-competitive behavior occurs, the government can intervene to rectify the injustice.

However, critics question whether the concept of “voluntary” transactions is truly achievable in a society with structural inequalities and power imbalances.

Overall, Nozick’s libertarian theory of justice presents a unique and provocative perspective on the just distribution of resources, challenging traditional conceptions of fairness and the role of government.

Moral Relativism: A Challenging Perspective on Ethics (Lecture 12)

What is Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism is a perspective that challenges the notion of objective moral truths.

It holds that moral judgments are only true or false relative to a particular standpoint, such as a culture or historical period, and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over any other.

Moral relativism is not a normative ethical theory like utilitarianism or deontology; rather, it is a challenge to the underlying assumption of moral objectivity that those theories rely on.

Arguments for Moral Relativism

Argument from Cultural Diversity: The diversity of moral beliefs across cultures and throughout history suggests that there are no universal moral truths.

No Foundation Argument: It is impossible to prove the objectivity of moral claims, as Hume’s fact-value distinction demonstrates that moral propositions cannot be derived from purely factual premises.

Argument from Cognitive Relativism: Truth itself is not an objective property of statements, but rather is relative to one’s particular standpoint and the coherence of a claim with one’s beliefs, perceptions, and values.

Moral Relativism Promotes Tolerance: Recognizing the relativity of moral beliefs can lead to greater tolerance and respect for different cultural practices.

Arguments Against Moral Relativism

Relativists Exaggerate Cultural Diversity: There are in fact many universal moral norms, such as the taboos against murder and incest.

Relativism Ignores Diversity Within Cultures: Cultures are not homogeneous, and there is often significant moral diversity within a given cultural context.

Relativism Implies Acceptable Moral Wrongs: Moral relativism would seem to imply that even the most egregious moral wrongs, such as genocide, are acceptable if they align with a particular cultural perspective.

Relativism Undermines Self-Criticism: Moral relativism could prevent societies from critically examining and progressing their own moral beliefs and practices.

Relativism is Self-Refuting: If the claim that “all moral truths are relative” is itself a moral truth, then it contradicts itself and cannot be true.

Relativism Rests on an Incoherent Notion of Truth: Relativists’ conception of truth as merely coherence with one’s beliefs and values is at odds with the common understanding of truth as correspondence to objective reality.


Moral relativism presents a challenging perspective that cannot be easily dismissed. While the arguments against relativism have some merit, the core of the relativist position, grounded in Hume’s fact-value distinction, remains a powerful critique of the possibility of objective moral knowledge. Ultimately, the debate between moral relativism and moral objectivism continues to be a central and unresolved issue in ethical philosophy.

Supporting Same-Sex Marriage: A Comprehensive Argument (Lecture 13)

Exam Details

The exam will be held on April 29th, Monday, from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM at the GLC.

It is a limited open-book, in-class exam that will account for 90% of the grade.

Students can bring one A4 sheet of paper with notes on one side and a hard copy dictionary.

Last year, the exam was completely closed-book, but this year, the one-sheet allowance has been added to ease students’ stress.

Exam Guidance

  • Do not simply repeat the readings or lectures; show that you are thinking about them.
  • Use as many headings and sub-headings as possible to compartmentalize your answer, making it structurally clear.
  • Number your headings, and use sub-headings if necessary (e.g., 2.1, 2.3).
  • Consider including a short abstract to help the marker understand your overall argument.
  • Bold your headings and underline your thesis statement and conclusion.
  • Write a short, concise introduction that clearly states your thesis and road-maps the essay.
  • Proceed in a logical sequence, being as systematic and concise as possible.
  • Provide critical analysis and avoid simply regurgitating facts and arguments.
  • Do not insert irrelevant information just to demonstrate your knowledge.
  • Longer is not necessarily better; be as sharp and focused as possible.
  • If there is a counterargument, briefly reference and address it to strengthen your argument.

Exam Question and Sample Answer

The exam question is: “Drawing on the various ideas discussed in class, articulate an argument in support of gay marriage.”


Marriage has been traditionally defined as between a man and a woman. Thesis: In this paper, I aim to support same-sex marriage and its acceptance as an institution in society. My argument is three-fold:

  1. I will argue that same-sex marriage is supported by utilitarianism, as it would maximize happiness in society.
  2. In asserting that gender is determined, I will address the moral blameworthiness of the homosexual lifestyle and, therefore, marriage.
  3. I will draw upon principles from John Rawls’s theory of Justice to support same-sex marriage.

Conclusion: Owing to its goodness and justness, same-sex marriage should be legalized.

Argument 1: Utilitarianism

The government faces two options: legalization or allowing same-sex marriage to remain illegal. Legalizing same-sex marriage is preferable in terms of utilitarianism, as it will maximize happiness. Marriage is an important institution that benefits both individuals and society at large. Becoming married is a desirable, happy process for couples and families, and their union becomes recognized by the state.

However, challengers would point to other factors that decrease utility, such as the extension of marriage’s definition displeasing some religious or heterosexual individuals, as it erodes the sanctity of traditional marriage. In response, the utility gained by the individual homosexual couple substantially outweighs the decrease in utility based on an individual’s feelings. Additionally, a distinction based on a qualitative utilitarianism may be raised, where the species of utility gained by homosexuals is arguably of a higher order.

Challengers may also argue that marriage becomes devalued, and correspondingly, the utility of heterosexuals decreases. However, utilitarianism is individualistic and does not consider collective goals such as the worth of marriage. Furthermore, it is not empirically clear how the expansion of marriage decreases utility aside from the aforementioned feelings.

More convincingly, the utilitarian argument is overly focused on a cost-benefit analysis that is highly sensitive to context. In an extraordinarily homophobic society with only two homosexuals, utilitarianism would fail to support same-sex marriage, as the immense quantity of discomfort would outweigh the happiness associated with marriage. This illustrates utilitarianism’s weakness in not considering equal distribution of utility or recognizing rights and justice. However, a rule utilitarian approach,

such as “let those who love each other marry,” could defend same-sex marriage regardless of context.

Argument 2: Gender Determinism and Moral Blameworthiness

It is often claimed that homosexuality is an immoral lifestyle choice, and thus, same-sex marriage ought to be illegal, especially in the religious context of sin. However, the assumption of free will is a potential subject of critique, as it is an essential element for moral blame and sin. If an agent lacked free will, there is no sense in assigning moral responsibility to their actions, as there was no autonomous control.

It is argued that due to gender determinism, there is no free will in relation to a homosexual lifestyle or marriage. Gender is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and factors such as biological, hormonal, genetic, and environmental influences are beyond the control of the individual. As such, a person’s choice in leading a homosexual lifestyle is not freely made but is the product of a wide net of antecedent causes. Recent research from Stanford University suggests that artificial intelligence can accurately predict an individual’s sexuality based on facial features alone, further indicating the predetermined nature of sexual orientation.

Counterarguments may assert that the choice to be homosexual was subconscious but nonetheless forms part of one’s identity. However, it seems unreasonable to assign responsibility for subconscious activities over which one has no control or awareness.

Argument 3: Principles of Justice

Another perspective is the right of homosexuals to marry as a matter of justice under John Rawls’s original position. In this thought experiment, rational self-interested agents, placed behind a veil of ignorance about their own sexual orientation, would agree upon principles of justice that do not discriminate against any gender groups. This indicates that same-sex marriage should be legal, as everyone would agree to it in impartial circumstances.

Furthermore, current marriage laws are in breach of the underlying principles that Rawls asserts are inevitable derivations from the original position. Firstly, it would be agreed that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others. Current laws deny the right of marriage to same-sex couples, not affording the most extensive liberty possible. Secondly, it breaches the difference principle, as the social and economic inequalities are not to the advantage of the least advantaged in society.

A Rawlsian counterargument can be raised that allowing same-sex marriage breaches the first principle, as it impinges upon the liberties of others in a morally diverse society who oppose it. However, under Rawls’s original position, even the harshest of critics would rationally choose to permit same-sex marriage, as the state’s recognition is merely to provide an institutional framework in which the liberties of a morally diverse people are respected.


As argued, there are several reasons why same-sex marriage should be legalized. It leads to the greater good (utilitarianism), is not morally blameworthy (gender determinism), and a fair society by Rawlsian principles would permit it. While arguments against same-sex marriage can be raised, few are sustainable.