OCR Religious Studies – Religion and Ethics

The Religion and Ethics exam paper in OCR A Level Religious Studies (H573/02) contains essay questions on the following topics:

Religious approaches to ethics

Ethics is about what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. And so, religious approaches to ethics say morality is grounded in religious teachings and God:

Natural law (Aquinas)

St. Thomas Aquinas’ approach to ethics is heavily influenced by the ideas of Aristotle covered in the philosophy of religion topic. Like Aristotle, Aquinas believes in a natural law that things have an inherent nature and an inherent purpose/telos/final end. According to this natural law, good means something achieves its telos, whereas bad means something doesn’t achieve its telos. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, the telos of humans is eudaimonia – although they have slightly different interpretations of what this means.


The word telos roughly translates to purpose. And according to natural law, what is good is for something to act in accordance with its nature to achieve its telos. A good chair, for example, achieves its telos of providing a comfortable place to sit. A good tennis player achieves the telos of winning tennis matches.

Both Aristotle and Aquinas saw the unique nature of human beings as rationality – the ability to use reason. It is this nature that makes humans different from all other things – animals, plants, chairs, etc. A good human being is one that acts in accordance with this nature and chooses their actions rationally. By doing so, they will achieve their telos.

For both Aristotle and Aquinas, the telos of human beings is eudaimonia. For Aristotle, eudaimonia means a good life achieved by acting virtuously (see the AQA philosophy notes for more detail on eudaimonia), whereas Aquinas puts a Christian spin on this idea. For Aquinas, eudaimonia means glorifying God by acting virtuously and, ultimately, achieving union with God.

Aristotle Aquinas
Good Achieving telos/purpose Achieving telos/purpose
Bad Not achieving telos/purpose Not achieving telos/purpose
Purpose (telos) of humans Eudaimonia
(a good life achieved by acting virtuously)
(glorifying God by acting virtuously)
Nature (ergon) of humans The use of reason/ratio The use of reason/ratio
Final cause of everything The prime mover The God of Christianity

So, in summary, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are a matter of natural law for Aquinas:

  • God created an orderly world with natural laws where everything has a telos.
  • According to this natural law, what’s good is for things to fulfil their telos. What’s bad is for things not to fulfil their telos.
  • God gave humans reason (ratio) so that they could understand this divine plan.
  • By using this capacity for reason, we can choose our actions in accordance with natural law and achieve our telos of eudaimonia (i.e. we’ll have a good life).
  • If humans disobey natural law and God’s plan, they won’t achieve their telos of eudaimonia (i.e. they’ll have a bad life).

4 tiers of law

Aquinas four tiers of lawAquinas describes 4 ‘tiers’ of law arranged in a hierarchy:

  • Eternal law: God’s divine plan – i.e. God’s ultimate understanding of good and bad as decided by His omnipotence and omnibenevolence.
  • Divine law: God’s laws as directly communicated to people – i.e. instances where God has explicitly revealed His laws to humanity. For example, in the Bible.
  • Natural law: What is good and bad for human beings as can be worked out using reason regardless of whether a person has knowledge of the Bible/divine law.
  • Human law: The laws of societies created by humans/governments. These laws should be derived from natural laws.

Each tier of law is determined by the tier above it. For example, the 10 Commandments revealed to Moses (an example of divine law) are a subset of God’s eternal law. Because of this hierarchy, Aquinas believes governments should derive the laws of society from natural laws. If a human law goes against a natural law, we shouldn’t follow the human law because the natural law is higher up in the hierarchy. In other words, it may be illegal to break such a natural law, but it would not be immoral (i.e. morally wrong).

The precepts

A precept is like a moral rule. According to Aquinas, the main precept is simply: To do good and avoid evil. 

“Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this.”

– Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part Question 94

(this main precept is sometimes referred to as the synderesis rule)

Aquinas' preceptsAquinas further argues that we can derive the following primary precepts from the main precept:

  1. Preservation of life
  2. Ordering of society
  3. Worship of God
  4. Education of children
  5. Reproduction

And from these primary precepts, we can also derive secondary precepts, which are more specific rules for behaviour. For example:

  • It follows from the primary precept of preservation of life that you shouldn’t kill someone if you find them irritating (a secondary precept).
  • The Catholic prohibition of contraception (a secondary precept) is derived from the primary precept of reproduction.
Double effect

Aquinas also talks about double effect, where a single action causes multiple effects. In such cases, what matters is that the intended effect is in line with the precepts.

Example: Killing in self-defence. Killing someone obviously violates the primary precept of preservation of life. But if a person kills someone in self-defence of their own life, there are two effects: 1. Killing the would-be murder, and 2. Saving your own life. As long as the person’s intention is 2 – to save their own life – then killing in self-defence is morally acceptable.

AO2 evaluation: Natural law

Issues for Aquinas’ theory of natural law:

  • Issues with telos/purpose: Aquinas’ natural law assumes there is an objective fact about the telos of human beings – that we have been created for the purpose/telos of glorifying God by acting in accordance with natural law. But what if God doesn’t exist and humans are just the product of physical laws and evolution? If this is the case, then humans don’t have an objective telos/purpose at all. This is the existentialist/atheist view that “existence precedes essence” – that humans came into existence into a purely physical and meaningless universe and then create their own subjective meaning/purpose/telos after the fact. If there is no objective telos, as the existentialists argue, then there is no natural law because natural law only makes sense in the context of a purpose/telos. In other words, if ‘good’ means in accordance with telos/purpose, but humans have no telos/purpose, then natural law’s conception of ‘good’ doesn’t make sense.
  • Outdated: Modern views on some ethical issues are at odds with Aquinas’ natural law. For example, homosexuality and contraception would be considered morally wrong because they are at odds with the primary precept of reproduction. However, modern society does not see homosexuality or contraception as morally wrong.
    • Reply: Aquinas may respond that this puts human judgement above God’s judgement. It’s not for humans to decide what is right and wrong – what matters is what God says is right and wrong. Human law is at the bottom of the 4 tiers of law and so societal beliefs/attitudes should not be prioritised over natural law.
  • Ignores scripture: Aquinas emphasises the use of reason to work out what natural law demands. However, humans are imperfect creatures (Augustine would say this is because of the Fall) and so we may reason that something is morally acceptable when it isn’t. For example, premarital sex is supported by the primary precept of reproduction, but the Bible says (or at least implies) it’s wrong.
    • Reply: Aquinas puts divine law above natural law in the 4 tiers of law. And so, if our reason suggests one thing but scripture says the opposite, then Aquinas would say to go with scripture.
  • Naturalistic fallacy (see below for more): Moore makes the metaethical argument that it is a fallacy to reduce moral properties (e.g. ‘good’ and ‘bad’) to natural properties (e.g. facts about telos/purpose). Moore argues moral properties are a completely different kind of thing to natural properties and so we cannot draw conclusions about what is good/bad from observations about what is natural/unnatural.

Situation ethics (Fletcher)

Joseph Fletcher’s approach to ethics argues that what is morally good is to act in the most loving way. The religious basis for this is the constant theme of agape/love in Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament. Orthodox religious ethics often emphasises universal moral laws (e.g. the 10 commandments), but Fletcher’s situation ethics argues that what is most loving (and therefore what is good) differs depending on different situations.


The Greek word agape translates to (unconditional) love. This is the word Jesus uses in the context of the ‘greatest’ commandments, one of which is:

“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

– Mark, chapter 12 verse 31 (KJV)

For Fletcher, this verse captures the essence of ethics. Specific rules, such as “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), are secondary to this general principle of agape/love. You shouldn’t kill people because, in general, it is not a loving thing to do. However, in the rare situation where killing is the loving thing to do, then that is what is ethically right. For example, Fletcher describes a situation where a group of Irish immigrants to America were hiding from natives who wanted to kill them. A baby was about to start crying, which would reveal the immigrants’ location and result in them all being killed. In this situation, Fletcher argues, killing the baby was the most loving thing to do as doing so would save the others and the baby would die anyway if the natives found them.

Fletcher argues that situation ethics allows for a middle way between two extremes in ethical thinking: Legalism and antinomianism.

Legalism Situationism Antinomianism
Strictly following laws regardless of the situation Following laws but understanding situations where agape requires us to ignore them No laws, doing whatever you want
Gives clear guidance but ignores the details of the situation Gives clear guidance and also allows for exceptions when the situation requires Allows people to account for the details of the situation but leads to chaos

The 4 working principles

Fletcher identifies 4 working principles – i.e. 4 general principles he assumes that underpin his situation ethics:

  1. Pragmatism: Moral truth should not be understood in a theoretical and abstract way but instead moral truth should be grounded in what works in reality.
  2. Relativism: Fletcher avoids absolute rules, such as ‘never steal’. The only thing that is absolute is love, and so what is morally right is relative to love and depends on the details of the situation.
  3. Positivism: The ultimate foundation for moral judgements is faith. We do not use reason or observation to deduce what is morally right, we instead choose to have faith in love and then work out what is morally right from there.
  4. Personalism: It is people who can love and be loved, and so moral value comes from people rather than rules.

The 6 propositions

Fletcher further identifies 6 propositions – i.e. 6 statements – that follow from agape and the 4 working principles above and summarise his situation ethics:

  1. Love is the only thing that is intrinsically good.
    • In other words, love is the only thing that is good in itself. Work, for example, is extrinsically good to make money, and money is extrinsically good to buy things, but love is intrinsically good – it’s good in itself and not for some other reason.
  2. Love is the ruling norm in ethical decision-making and replaces all laws.
    • This is the idea described above and illustrated with the baby example that specific rules are secondary to the general principle of love/agape. In the Old Testament, there are lots of specific laws, but Fletcher says these are less important than the general principle of love. There is some scriptural support for this in the New Testament, such as “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14).
  3. Love and justice are the same thing – justice is love that is distributed.
    • We might think that justice and love can conflict. For example, if someone steals something, justice says to punish the thief whereas love says to forgive them. However, Fletcher says it is not possible for justice and love to actually conflict because justice reduces to love – they are ultimately the same thing.
  4. Love wills the neighbour’s good regardless of whether the neighbour is liked or not.
    • Agape is not like the feeling of love we have for our family and friends. It is a decision to act for the good of others regardless of how we might personally feel about them. This attitude extends to all, even our enemies: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matthew 6:44)
  5. Love is the goal or end of the act and that justifies any means to achieve that goal.
    • This is illustrated by the example above: Even killing a baby (the means) can be justified if it ultimately achieves a loving outcome (i.e. the end).
  6. Love decides on each situation as it arises without a set of laws to guide it.
    • As described above, what’s morally right is not determined by rigidly following rules. Instead, we must instead decide our actions based on love according to the circumstances of the situation.

Conscience as a verb

The word conscience is typically used as a noun – it’s a thing that people have or don’t. It might be thought of as a part of the mind or soul that understands what is morally right and wrong. This is how Freud analyses conscience, for example – as a part of our mind.

However, Fletcher says we should understand conscience as a verb – it is a process of deciding what is right or wrong. Understood this way, it makes more sense to talk about consciencing rather than talking about conscience as a thing that constantly exists whether we’re using it or not (this is also more in line with how Aquinas analyses conscience).

AO2 evaluation: Situation ethics

Issues for Fletcher’s situation ethics:

  • Can justify immoral acts: There are some things that are just wrong regardless of the situation – torturing a baby, for example. However, Fletcher’s working principle of relativism forbids absolute rules and so is unable to draw a line in the sand on such issues. As such, situation ethics can justify immoral actions in extreme cases. For example, if a terrorist had hidden a bomb in a major city, situation ethics could argue that the most loving thing to do is take the terrorist’s baby and torture it until the terrorist reveals the location of the bomb.
    • Response: Yes, torturing a baby is horrific, but it is arguably less horrific than the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Fletcher could double-down on the theory here and argue that, while extreme, torturing the baby is the most loving and right thing to do. This is similar to what utilitarianism would argue.
  • Lacking clear guidance: Other theories, such as Kant’s deontological ethics, provide clear and unambiguous rules for behaviour, such as ‘don’t steal’. However, what exactly ‘the most loving thing’ looks like is vague and different people may have different subjective interpretations of agape. This makes situation ethics hard to follow in practice.
    • Response: Although the lack of black-and-white rules means situation ethics is harder to follow, it avoids the pitfalls of legalism. For example, although it is easy to follow a simple rule such as ‘don’t steal’, there are situations where stealing is the morally right thing to do (e.g. to feed your starving family when you can’t afford food). So, although the instructions are less clear, situation ethics is able to acknowledge the moral nuances of the situation.
  • Where does the situation end? For example, saving a baby’s life may seem like the most loving thing to do. But what if that baby grew up to be a serial killer? (This is similar to the difficult to calculate objection to utilitarianism below).
  • Contradicts scripture: Although a religious theory of morality, Fletcher’s situation ethics arguably ignores and even contradicts much of the Bible. For example, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) is quite clear, but situation ethics says we should ignore this clear instruction if we judge murder to be the most loving thing to do. As such, it is hard to see how situation ethics differs from some secular approaches to ethics, such as utilitarianism.
    • Response: The Bible is open to different interpretations. For example, Fletcher could point to specific verses that support situation ethics, such as Galatians 5:14. Further, situation ethics would emphasise a reading of the Bible as a whole rather than zooming in on isolated verses. Perhaps most importantly, there are many examples where Jesus appears to advocate for a situationist, rather than legalistic, approach to ethics. For example, in Mark chapter 3, Jesus heals a person on the Sabbath (the loving thing to do) but is criticised by the Pharisees who argue that this breaks specific rules about working on the sabbath. Further, in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their legalistic adherence to rules whilst ignoring more important principles such as “mercy and faith”.
      • Counter-response: But Jesus does also emphasise the importance of keeping the specific Old Testament laws (e.g. Matthew 19:17). Further, Fletcher’s 5th propositionLove is the goal or end of the act and that justifies any means to achieve that goal – appears to directly contradict Romans 3:8, which condemns those who say “Let us do evil [i.e. use evil means], that good may come [i.e. to achieve a desirable end]”.

Normative ethical theories

Whereas religious approaches to ethics say what’s right and wrong is grounded in God, normative ethical theories appeal to general (secular) principles:

Deontological ethics (Kant)

For a more in-depth explanation, see the Kant’s deontological ethics notes for AQA philosophy.

Immanuel Kant’s approach to ethics is deontological: It says there are universal rules/laws about which actions are morally right or wrong, such as “never steal”. And these rules should be followed in all circumstances, regardless of the consequences. Kant says we can work out what these moral rules/laws are by using reason.

Duty and good will

Kant says we have a duty to follow the moral law – i.e. to do what is right.

And good will, according to Kant, means to choose our actions for the sake of duty. This means to choose our actions because they are right thing to do and not for any other reason.

We might have a duty to help an old lady across the road, say. And so someone who helps the old lady across the road does the right thing. But if they only do the right thing because they want others to think that they’re a good person, or because they think the old lady will give them a reward, they only act in accordance with duty and not out of duty. The person who acts with good will helps the lady across the road acts out of duty: They do the right thing because it is morally right.

The categorical imperative

For Kant, moral laws are categorical – they apply to everyone regardless of circumstances.

A hypothetical imperative is one that only applies to certain people in circumstances. For example, “you should leave now if you want to catch the 3pm train” only applies to people who want to catch the 3pm train. But the moral law, says Kant, is categorical – it applies to everyone at all times regardless of circumstances.

When we act, says Kant, we act according to a maxim (i.e. a rule for behaviour). Kant describes various tests to see whether our maxim passes the categorical imperative and thus whether our maxim is morally acceptable:

Test 1: The universal law formulation

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

– Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

If an act can’t be made into a universal law without resulting in a logical contradiction, Kant says that action is morally wrong.

Example: Stealing. If everybody followed the rule ‘to steal other people’s property’, then nobody would have any property to steal in the first place! And so, in a world where stealing is made into a universal law, it is not even possible to steal. Thus, stealing is always morally wrong – no exceptions.

Test 2: Don’t treat people as a means (humanity formula)

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity […] never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

– Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

If an action means using another human being solely as a means to achieve your own goals, Kant says that action is morally wrong.

Example: Marrying someone for their money. If you pretend to love someone in order to marry them and get half their money, you are using that person solely as a means to make money for yourself. That person might have their own goals/ends (such as marrying a partner who genuinely loves them) but you are ignoring their goals/ends as a means to selfishly achieve your own goals/ends.

Another example: If you buy an apple from a shopkeeper, you are not using the shopkeeper solely as a means to get an apple because the shopkeeper is freely pursuing their own ends (e.g. to make money). There’s some sense in which both sides use each other as a means, but this is OK because both sides acknowledge the other’s ends (and so don’t use each other solely as a means).

Test 3: The kingdom of ends formulation

“Act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends.

– Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

Finally, Kant asks us to imagine a ‘Kingdom of Ends‘ where everyone acts according to the two tests above. In this ideal world, everybody only acts according to rules that can be applied universally and nobody treats another human being as a means but always as an end. We must imagine ourselves as a lawmaker in this ideal world – not our actual world – and consider whether our action could work as a law in the Kingdom of Ends. If such a law wouldn’t work in the Kingdom of Ends, then we shouldn’t do that action.

The 3 postulates

Kant also talks about the summum bonum, or highest good. This is a world of perfect justice where people behave with perfect virtue and are rewarded for doing so with perfect happiness. Kant says we have a duty to strive towards the summum bonum.

However, a duty to strive towards the summum bonum only makes sense if such a state of affairs is actually possible in practice. And so, Kant identifies 3 postulates we must assume that make the summum bonum possible:

  1. Free will: If we do not freely choose our actions, then we are not responsible for them, and ethics would be pointless. So, for Kant, ethics requires free will.
  2. Immortality: People who do good things are not always rewarded for them. For example, a person who lives a moral life may die young from cancer whereas a lifelong thief may live a long and happy life. This is unfair and unjust. For Kant, the summum bonum requires that good deeds are rewarded proportionally with happiness and this can only be achieved if people are immortal.
  3. God: God must exist in order to enforce this justice and achieve the summum bonum.

AO2 evaluation: Deontological ethics

Issues for Kant’s deontological ethics:

  • Ignores consequences (see AQA notes for more): Kant argues certain moral laws – such as ‘don’t steal’ or ‘don’t lie’ – must always be followed regardless of the consequences. For example, if a would-be murderer asks where his victim went, Kant would still say to tell the truth even if telling a lie would save the victim’s life. Similarly, if a poor person’s family was starving to death, Kant would say it is wrong to steal even if doing so would save their family’s life. However, many would argue that it is morally acceptable – morally good, even – to lie or steal in these situations but Kant’s excessively legalistic approach to ethics forbids this.
    • Kant’s response: The telling a lie to save a life example was put to Kant and he sticks to his guns (see AQA notes for more). Moral value comes from acting for the sake of duty (i.e. good will), not consequences.
  • Unclear link between universalisability and good (see AQA notes for more): There are many maxims that can be made universal laws and yet are morally wrong. For example, ‘to steal from shops with 7 letters in their name on Wednesdays’ could be made a universal law without failing the universal law formulation because it would apply rarely enough that it wouldn’t lead to a breakdown of private property.
    • Kant’s response: You have to consider your actual maxim, not some arbitrary one you’ve made up to justify your behaviour. The name of the shop and day of the week are morally irrelevant to the maxim.
  • Conflicts between duties (see AQA notes for more): What do we do if we have two duties that demand different actions? For example, Kant says we have a duty to keep our promises and also a duty never to steal. So what am I supposed to do if I promise to steal something for someone?
    • Kant’s response: Our duties are a matter of rationality/logic and so a true clash of duties is impossible. If you think there is a clash you have not reasoned about your duties properly. In the example above, the person should have realised they couldn’t make that promise as it contradicts their duty never to steal.
  • Challenges to the 3 postulates: Kant says we need the 3 postulates for morality to make sense. And one of these postulates is that God exists. So, does this make Kant’s deontological ethics a religious theory of ethics? Do we have any reason to follow the categorical imperative if we don’t believe in God?


For a more in-depth explanation, see the utilitarianism notes for AQA philosophy.

Utilitarian approaches to ethics are consequentialist: They say it is the consequences of an action that make it morally good or bad. So, whereas Kant’s deontological ethics says stealing is wrong in itself, act utilitarianism would say stealing is morally acceptable in situations where doing so would increase pleasure or reduce pain.

“The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals.”

 – Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism is described on the syllabus as a teleological theory of ethics because it defines morality in terms of the end goal/purpose of happiness.

Utility and the hedonic calculus

Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, understood utility (i.e. usefulness) as that which maximises happiness/pleasure and minimises unhappiness/pain.

He created the hedonic calculus (also called the felicific or utility calculus) as a way to calculate and quantify the utility of an action and thus to calculate and quantify how morally good or bad an action is. The hedonic calculus has 7 variables:

  1. Intensity: how strong the pleasure is
  2. Duration: how long the pleasure lasts
  3. Certainty: how likely the pleasure is to occur
  4. Propinquity: how soon the pleasure will occur
  5. Fecundity: how likely the pleasure will lead to more pleasure
  6. Purity: how likely the pleasure will lead to pain
  7. Extent: the number of people affected

So, let’s say we have two courses of action, A and B:

  • A results in a 7/10 intensity pleasure that has a duration of 20 minutes.
  • B results in a 6/10 intensity pleasure that has a duration of an hour.

The hedonic calculus would say the much longer duration of B – despite the slightly lower intensity – results in more utility and so is the morally superior course of action.

It gets complicated, though, when you have to predict and calculate all the other variables and compare them against each other (see below for more on this).

Act and rule utilitarianism

Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism calculate utility at different levels:

  • Act utilitarianism calculates utility at the level of specific actionsFor example, whether an act of stealing is right or wrong depends on whether, in that particular case, stealing increases or decreases utility/pleasure.
  • In contrast, rule utilitarianism calculates utility at the level of general rules. For example, we may calculate that as a general rule stealing results in a reduction of utility/pleasure. And so, even though there may be specific cases where an act of stealing increases utility/pleasure, it is still wrong to steal in those instances because it violates a general rule that increases utility.

AO2 evaluation: Utilitarianism

Issues for utilitarianism:

  • Tyranny of the majority (see AQA notes for more): Utilitarianism can justify actions that are clearly morally wrong if enough people get pleasure from them. For example, torturing one innocent person for the pleasure of 100 sadistic people who enjoy watching people in pain.
    • Response: Rule utilitarianism could potentially avoid this issue by arguing that the general rule ‘don’t torture innocent people’ leads to greater utility overall (e.g. because it results in a just and fair society which creates greater happiness overall) and so it is wrong to torture an innocent person even in rare cases where doing so would increase utility.
  • Hard to measure and calculate (see AQA notes for more): The hedonic calculus is impractical for several reasons: 1. It requires us to predict the future consequences of actions (what if you save a baby’s life but it grows up to be a serial killer?). 2. It is impossible to measure e.g. the intensity and fecundity of pleasure (are we supposed to put everyone in brain scanners and measure their happiness?). 3. It is not clear which beings to include (is a dog’s pleasure equal to a human’s, for example, or less? By how much?)
    • Response: Rule utilitarianism can potentially make calculation easier. Rather than having to perform the hedonic calculus every time we act, rule utilitarianism would require us to work out the utility of general rules that maximise happiness. Once these rules are worked out, we would just need to follow them rather than having to constantly work out the utility of specific actions.
  • Other values besides pleasure (see AQA notes for more): Robert Nozick describes a thought experiment where you can be plugged in to an ‘experience machine’ that simulates the most pleasurable life possible. Once plugged in, you can’t leave but you believe this is your real life. Despite maximising pleasure, many people would prefer not to go into the experience machine. This suggests there are other things we assign moral value to besides pleasure, such as being in contact with reality. Further, utilitarianism implies it is morally right to force everyone into the experience machine whether they want to go in or not, because doing so would maximise pleasure. But this seems unfair.
    • Response: Preference utilitarianism (see AQA notes for more) says we should maximise people’s preferences, not pleasures. As such, if someone would prefer not to go in the experience machine, that preference would be respected (even if it resulted in less pleasure).

Ethical issues

The syllabus looks at 3 different ethical issues and applies the ethical theories above to them:


Euthanasia means deliberately ending a person’s life to reduce their suffering. This may be achieved by active means (e.g. administering a lethal drug) or passive means (e.g. by withdrawing treatment or food) and may be a voluntary or non-voluntary decision. Such distinctions often determine whether someone considers an act of euthanasia morally acceptable or morally wrong (and also in many countries whether it is legal or illegal).

Of the ethical theories above, the syllabus specifically mentions how natural law and situation ethics may be applied to the issue of euthanasia.

Sanctity of life and quality of life

The principles of sanctity of life and quality of life may come into conflict on the issue of euthanasia.

Sanctity of life is the moral principle that all human lives are inherently valuable regardless of quality. This approach is generally associated with religious approaches to ethics for reasons such as:

  • Murder is wrong: For example, Exodus 20:13 says “Thou shalt not kill”.
  • Humans are made in God’s image: In the Bible, Genesis 1:27 says “So God created man in his own image”. This means all human lives possess some God-like divine component that is morally wrong to destroy.
  • Humans do not have a right to decide: Job 1:21 says “the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” As it is God who gives life, God is the only one who has the right to take life.

Quality of life is the moral principle that there are degrees to which human lives are valuable based on certain conditions. As such, whether a life is valuable depends on factors such as pleasure, pain, or autonomy. The quality of life principle is generally associated with secular approaches to ethics for reasons such as:

  • Utilitarianism: Utilitarian principles imply that some lives are more valuable than others because of different values of pleasure and pain. For example, if a person is experiencing constant and incurable pain with little or no joy or pleasure, the hedonic calculus may suggest that it is morally acceptable to end that person’s life so as to reduce the amount of pain in the world.

Voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia

Autonomy is another factor to consider in the ethics of euthanasia.

Voluntary euthanasia is when a person acts with full autonomy and free will to consent to someone ending their life. John Stuart Mill’s harm principle says “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” and can be used to defend voluntary euthanasia as this principle says that humans have a right to do whatever they want with their own body and mind (as long as it does not cause harm to another person), which includes destroying it.

Non-voluntary euthanasia is when a person cannot act with autonomy to consent to someone ending their life. For example, if a person is in a coma or persistent vegetative state, they are unable to express their desire to continue living or end their life. In such situations, it often falls to another person (e.g. a family member or doctor) to represent their interests and provide consent.

(although not specifically mentioned on the syllabus, there’s also involuntary euthanasia, which is when a person can give consent, does not give consent, but someone decides to end their life anyway. This is probably the least morally ambiguous category, given that it’s basically just murder)

Ethical theories applied to euthanasia

Natural law applied to euthanasia

In general, natural law (and the Catholic Church) would argue against euthanasia:

  • 4 tiers of law: The natural law is below divine law in this hierarchy. And, given the Bible says things such as “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), natural law would likely argue that euthanasia (at least active euthanasia) is wrong.
  • The precepts: One of the five primary precepts is preservation of life. Euthanasia is the opposite of preserving life – it’s deliberately shortening a life – and so this is another reason why natural law could argue euthanasia is wrong.

However, there are some exceptions/unusual cases where euthanasia may be morally acceptable:

  • Active euthanasia and double effect: If a doctor administers a high dose of painkiller to alleviate pain (effect 1) which accidentally causes the death of the patient (effect 2), then this is morally acceptable because the intended effect was not in violation of natural law.
  • Passive euthanasia and ordinary vs. extraordinary means: The Catholic Church says life should be preserved by ordinary means. For example, it is not acceptable to withdraw food or water for someone who is ill and wants to die. However, if preserving life requires extraordinary means – e.g. a risky or burdensome surgery – then it is morally acceptable to withhold such treatments even if doing so results in death of the patient.
Situation ethics applied to euthanasia

In general, situation ethics would permit euthanasia if the facts of the situation are appropriate:

  • Rejection of legalism: The guiding principle of situation ethics is agape/love for one’s neighbour and this takes precedence over legalistic adherence to rules. As such, there is no absolute rule that applies in all situations, such as “Thou shalt not kill”.
  • Relativism and personalism: A related consideration is Fletcher’s working principle of relativism; the rejection of absolute rules such as “Thou shalt not kill”. Instead, Fletcher works from the principle of personalism; that moral value comes from people rather than rules.
  • Proposition 5: According to Fletcher, agape/love is the end goal of ethics and this can be achieved by any means, which would include euthanasia. In other words, if the situation is one where euthanasia is the most loving thing to do, then euthanasia is morally acceptable.

AO2 evaluation: Euthanasia

  • Active vs. passive: When discussing whether euthanasia is morally acceptable or not, consider whether a person’s life is ended actively or passively and how this interacts with other ethical principles. For example, actively poisoning someone clearly violates various principles associated with sanctity of life (e.g. “thou shalt not kill”) but passively leaving someone to starve to death may not.
  • Autonomy: When discussing whether voluntary euthanasia is morally acceptable or not, consider the relative importance of autonomy. Should Mill’s harm principle be treated as an absolute principle? If so, this implies a perfectly healthy and otherwise happy person should be allowed to end their life simply because they’re having a bad day. There are also nuances when it comes to harming others: A person ending their own life may not physically harm another person, but their decision to end their life may cause deep emotional and psychological harm to their loved ones.
  • Sanctity vs quality: Taking either the principle of sanctity of life or quality of life to its extreme may lead to morally dubious outcomes. For example, can it really be right to artificially keep someone alive who is experiencing constant, incurable, and agonising pain for years on end, as sanctity of life implies? On the other hand, if we permit euthanasia based on subjective assessments of quality of life, it could lead to a slippery slope where people are permitted to end their lives when they shouldn’t. For example, a person with temporary and curable depression may be allowed to end their life when they could have gone on to recover and live a full and happy life.

Business ethics

Business ethics is about moral issues for corporations, their customers, and the wider society. The ethical issues for businesses mentioned on the syllabus are corporate social responsibility, whistleblowing, and globalisation.

Of the ethical theories above, the syllabus specifically mentions how deontological ethics and utilitarianism may be applied to business ethics.

Corporate social responsibility

Businesses primarily exist to make money for shareholders. But corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the idea that businesses have ethical responsibilities to stakeholders in the wider community. For example:

  • A responsibility to protect the environment
  • A responsibility to protect their customers
  • A responsibility to ensure the health and safety of employees

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) ratings are a way to quantify a company’s CSR efforts. For example, a company that uses sweatshops in poor countries would receive a lower ESG rating than a company that pays employees a living wage (all else being equal). Investors can invest in companies with good ESG ratings through indexes such as the FTSE4Good index, which is an index of UK (FTSE) companies that have high ESG scores.

Good ethics is good business

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

– Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith provides a pragmatic case for CSR, arguing that good ethics is good business. The good ethics is good business position is that, in the long term, acting in accordance with CSR is the most effective way to make money and thus that good business decisions are good ethical decisions. For example:

  • Customers: It may benefit a company in the short term to overcharge customers or cut corners to make a cheap product, but in the long term it will destroy the company’s reputation and customers will buy from a competitor instead.
  • Employees: It may benefit a company to overwork employees and pay them low wages in the short term, but eventually the employees will take their skills and go work for a competitor that pays them more and provides better working conditions.
  • Environment: It may be cheaper in the short term for a company to dump toxic waste into the local river, but eventually people will find out and the company’s reputation will be destroyed and no one will buy from them.
Ethical theories applied to CSR
Deontological ethics applied to CSR

In general, the categorical imperative implies businesses (through the people running them) have several ethical responsibilities over and above profit, such as:

  • To employees: Companies cannot treat employees solely as a means to make money as this would violate the second formulation. Instead, companies should treat employees as ends in themselves, which would mean paying them a fair wage and providing safe and humane working conditions.
  • To customers: Kant gives an example of how shopkeepers have a duty to charge a fair price to customers. But Kant uses this example to make a point about good will: A shopkeeper who charges a fair price because it is good for his reputation and thus his business is not morally praiseworthy because he only acts in accordance with duty and not because of duty. Kant says we should always choose our actions – whether in business or life in general – because they are morally right and not for some other reason. This is in contrast to Smith’s point above that we should behave ethically because it is good business – Kant says we should behave ethically because of duty, regardless of whether it is good or bad for business.
Utilitarianism applied to CSR

The hedonic calculus says we should maximise pleasure and minimise pain. And, in most cases, it’s unlikely that a business maximising its profit without regard for CSR would also happen be the most efficient way to maximise pleasure:

  • Act utilitarianism/hedonic calculus: For example, let’s say a company made a billion dollars in profit and could either use that money to 1. Grow the business and make more profit next year, or 2. Use that money to save lives in some poor country. It seems likely that option 2 would result in a greater increase in happiness (it saves people’s lives) than 1, which supports CSR.
    • Rule utilitarian response: However, capitalists argue that businesses pursuing profit has resulted in economic growth that has benefited society more in the long run. For example, competition to produce food more efficiently and increase profits has led to technological innovations that have reduced global hunger. If food companies had been forced to distribute their profits to hungry people rather than re-investing in their own businesses, it’s possible these technological innovations wouldn’t have happened and overall hunger would be greater today. It’s a bit long-winded, but you could make a rule utilitarian argument along these lines that allowing businesses freedom to pursue profits without CSR results in greater happiness overall than not having this rule.


Whistleblowing is when an employee discloses information about serious ethical wrongdoing at their company. This may be done privately or publicly:

  • Private: The employee reports wrongdoing to someone within the company (e.g. raising the issue with senior management).
  • Public: The employee reports wrongdoing to someone outside of the company (e.g. going to the news/media).

The ethics of whistleblowing involves balancing loyalty to the company with concern for the wider public good.

Ethical theories applied to whistleblowing
Deontological ethics applied to whistleblowing
  • Duty: Kant would say employees have certain duties to towards their employer, such as to carry out orders.
  • Categorical imperative: However, our duties as an employee cannot override our wider moral duties. For example, the first formulation implies that we must never lie because if telling lies was made a universal law then nobody would believe anyone. And so, if an employer orders an employee to lie to protect the company, Kant would say our duty to tell the truth takes priority.
Utilitarianism applied to whistleblowing
  • Hedonic calculus: Whether an act of whistleblowing is right or wrong must be calculated according to the specific circumstances. If the pleasure that results from an act of whistleblowing (e.g. legal intervention results in improvements in employee working conditions) outweighs the pains (e.g. job losses and fines for the company), then whistleblowing is morally acceptable. If whistleblowing results in a lot of pain and unhappiness without much pleasure in return, then whistleblowing is morally wrong.


globalisationHistorically, different countries have had their own separate legal systems, separate economies, and separate companies within those economies. But globalisation refers to the integration of economies, laws, and companies in different countries across the world. Big companies like Google, Amazon, BMW, and McDonalds don’t just operate within the economy they were founded in but instead operate all across the world.

Globalisation can have both positive and negative effects:

Positive effect of globalisation Negative effect of globalisation
Increased global competition enables companies to go where costs are lower and pass savings on to customers. Companies will go where laws are less stringent (e.g. environmental regulations, leading to increased pollution).
Economies of scale mean global businesses can reduce costs for customers. Smaller local businesses are unable to compete, creating monopolies.
Employers are able to select employees from a global talent pool and invest money in developing countries. Job losses in developed countries as employers outsource work to developing countries.
Employees in poorer developing countries are able to emigrate to economies where they are paid better. ‘Brain-drain’ prevents development in poorer countries and may reduce employee wages in developed countries.
Convenience and a reduction in cultural barriers (e.g. you can get McDonalds anywhere in the world). Local traditions, cultures, and languages are replaced by a homogeneous global corporate culture.
Ethical theories applied to globalisation
Deontological ethics applied to globalisation
  • Categorical imperative: In principle, globalisation doesn’t seem to violate any of the tests of the categorical imperative. There’s no contradiction that results from manufacturing goods in another country, for example. However, in practice, the reality of globalisation is often at odds with deontological ethics. For example, companies outsource manufacturing to sweatshops and countries with weak labour laws. Such business practices could be accused of using employees solely as a means to increase profit, which violates the second formulation.
Utilitarianism applied to globalisation
  • Hedonic calculus: The positive and negative effects of globalisation described above must be weighed against each other according to the hedonic calculus. For example, globalisation has lifted millions of people out of poverty (e.g. in China since 1970), but also concentrated wealth among a small group of companies and people leading to increased inequality. If the pleasures outweigh the pains, then utilitarianism would say globalisation is morally good.

AO2 evaluation: Business ethics 

  • CSR is hypocritical window-dressing: It’s often argued that companies don’t actually care about CSR and only act ethically for cynical reasons (i.e. to make more money). Business leaders make the calculated decision that being seen to care about CSR results in good publicity and reputation, leading to increased profit.
    • Utilitarian reply: So what? Everybody wins: The company is happy because they increase their profit and the wider public is happy because the company acts for the wider good.
      • Counter-reply: But in reality this just leads to virtue signalling (e.g. investing in marketing to look good) rather than genuinely virtuous acts that benefit society and increase happiness. For example, social media companies invest a lot of money highlighting their efforts to improve the mental health of users, but in reality social media negatively effects the mental health of many users (reducing overall happiness).
    • Deontological ethics reply: Good will is the source of moral worth. And so, if a company only acts in accordance with CSR duties (e.g. because they want to make more money), these actions do not have moral value. A company’s actions only have moral value if those actions are chosen because of duty (i.e. the company does the right thing because it is right, regardless of whether it makes more money).
      • Friedman counter-reply: Only people, not companies, can have moral duties and responsibilities.
  • Globalisation discourages ethical business: The examples in the right-hand column of the table above can be used to make this argument. For example, you may argue that globalisation leads to a race to the bottom – in terms of employee wages, employee safety requirements, and environmental laws – as companies move their operations to countries with the lowest ethical standards in order to reduce costs and increase profits.
  • Flourishing in a capitalist system: Capitalists (e.g. Smith) argue that people and companies should be free to pursue profit without government intervention (e.g. taxation and regulation). One argument for this is that individuals are much more efficient at pursuing their own flourishing than the government is at providing it for them. If a company provides a bad service or product, for example, people won’t buy from that company and it’ll go out of business. Or if a company treats its employees badly, then employees can choose to move to a company where they are treated better. People will freely and rationally pursue their own flourishing without the government taxing them and deciding what’s best for them.
    • Reply 1: On the other hand, there are many people who don’t flourish in a capitalist system. For example, employees in sweatshops in developing countries get paid very little, work long hours, and have few opportunities to improve their situation. Such people would flourish more if the government intervened on their behalf (e.g. by enforcing minimum wage laws and workplace regulations).
      • Counter-reply: Although some will be worse off than others, capitalism has generally improved living standards and encouraged flourishing. For example, modern sweatshop workers are still likely to have access to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, etc. – luxuries that even the richest people in the world didn’t have 50 years ago.
    • Reply 2: An alternative critique is to question what we mean by ‘flourishing’. Even if capitalism does make people better off in material terms, there is more to life than consumerism. Is consuming products and services – e.g. buying stuff off Amazon, playing video games, and watching TikTok all day – really flourishing?

Sexual ethics

Sexual ethics looks at ethical issues in sexual and romantic relationships. The particular issues mentioned on the syllabus are premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality.

The syllabus also mentions how all the ethical theories above may be applied to sexual ethics. As some of these ethical theories are religious in nature (i.e. natural law and situation ethics), a related issue to the extent to which religious ideas about ethics should inform laws and attitudes towards sex in an increasingly secular society. Another issue mentioned on the syllabus is whether sexual behaviours should be treated as entirely private or whether they should be subject to social norms and legislation.

Premarital and extramarital sex

marriagePretty much every culture has some idea of marriage between couples. In many Christian denominations, marriage is considered a sacrament (i.e. spiritually significant ritual). But even among secular cultures, marriage is treated as a significant contract. The weight given to marriage gives it an important role in sexual ethics.

Premarital sex

Premarital sex is when you have sex with someone before you are married to them.

Attitudes to premarital sex have changed over time. Religious teachings generally forbid premarital sex and these teachings influenced historical social attitudes. For example, a few decades ago, it was common to describe cohabiting couples who weren’t married as ‘living in sin’. But nowadays, religious attitudes are less influential and it’s more common than not for couples to move in together before getting married.

Ethical issues surrounding premarital sex:

  • Differences in degree: ‘Premarital sex’ covers everything from one night stands with random people right up to sex between a committed couple who’ve been together for years but just aren’t married. Are all instances of premarital sex the same, ethically?
  • Pregnancy: Before the pill, sexual encounters carried a higher risk of pregnancy so women may have been more likely to demand the commitment of marriage before sex so as not to be left to raise the child alone.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases: Having sex with a single partner reduces the risk of sexually transmitted infections. However, condoms have reduced this risk of premarital sex to some degree.
Extramarital sex

Extramarital sex is when you have sex with someone who isn’t your husband/wife when you are already married.

Although some religious cultures permit men to have multiple wives (e.g. David and Solomon had multiple wives in the Old Testament), religious teachings generally forbid extramarital sex. For example, one of the 10 commandments is “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Despite a general decline in religious belief, societal attitudes towards extramarital sex have remained generally negative. This consistent attitude may have a biological basis related to paternity and raising children.

Ethical issues surrounding extramarital sex:

  • Cheating: Is extramarital sex ethically worse than cheating on a long-term partner who you are not married to?
  • Open marriages: Is extramarital sex ethically permissible if both partners agree to an open marriage?
Ethical theories applied to premarital and extramarital sex
Natural law applied to premarital and extramarital sex

In general, natural law argues against premarital and extramarital sex:

  • 4 tiers of law: The natural law is below divine law in this hierarchy. On the issue of extramarital sex, one of the 10 commandments in the Bible is “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14), which suggests extramarital sex is wrong according to natural law. On the issue of premarital sex, although there are no Bible verses that condemn it specifically, there are many verses arguing against ‘sexual immorality’ and ‘fornication’ (e.g. Galatians 5:19) and so premarital sex is also wrong according to natural law.
  • The precepts: One of the five primary precepts is reproduction. A lot of natural law (and Catholic) thinking on sexual ethics is based on this – that sex should only be between a married couple and, as Pope Paul VI says, “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”. The precepts of ordering of society and education of children may also inform sexual ethics regarding extramarital and premarital sex, as marriage provides stability and structure for children.
Situation ethics applied to premarital and extramarital sex

As always, what Fletcher’s situation ethics says depends on the situation. Fletcher rejects legalism and as such there are no absolute rules regarding premarital or extramarital sex:

  • Agape applied to premarital sex: Situation ethics demands we do the most loving thing, which is not necessarily the same thing as the most pleasurable thing (i.e. utilitarianism). As such, Fletcher may draw a distinction between premarital sex between a committed couple who are in love and casual sex between two people who are just having sex for pleasure.
  • Agape applied to extramarital sex: In general, extramarital sex would not be the most loving thing to do. However, Fletcher acknowledges various situations where it would be morally acceptable. For example, he describes the situation of a married woman in a prison camp during a war who deliberately gets pregnant by one of the guards in order to be released from the prison camp and return to her family.
Deontological ethics applied to premarital and extramarital sex

Kant would argue against extramarital sex:

  • Second formulation of the categorical imperative: A marriage is a promise to remain faithful to your partner (among other things). Kant argues that to break a promise is to treat the person we made the promise to as a means rather than an end and as such violates the humanity formula of the categorical imperative. As such, extramarital sex is morally wrong according to Kant.
  • First formulation of the categorical imperative: Further, Kant may argue that if extramarital sex were made a universal law, then the very concept of marriage (as an exclusive agreement between two people) would become meaningless. As such, extramarital sex violates the universal law formulation too.

Kant also argues against premarital sex too, on the grounds that it means using another person (and yourself) solely for their body and objectifies them, which ‘degrades humanity’. His reasoning for this is a bit convoluted:

  • Second formulation of the categorical imperative: Premarital sex involves using the other person as a means for your sexual gratification. It treats them as an object.
    • Reply: But what about if both people voluntarily agree to this? Both partners are freely pursuing their own ends and so do not use the other solely as a means.
      • Kant’s response: We can’t even use ourselves as means – we can’t treat our own bodies as objects. It degrades our humanity.
        • Reply: So why doesn’t sex within marriage ‘degrade our humanity’?
          • Kant’s response: Because in marriage the partners give each other their entire “person, body and soul” and not just the sexual aspect. This leads to “a union of human beings” that does not degrade their humanity and objectify them.
Utilitarianism applied to premarital and extramarital sex

In general, utilitarianism permits both premarital and extramarital sex:

  • Hedonic calculus applied to premarital sex: Sex is pleasurable, and so utilitarianism would generally have no issue with premarital sex. There are obvious exceptions to this, however, such as rape, as well as consideration of longer-term consequences, such as the pleasures and pains of any offspring that results from sex.
  • Hedonic calculus applied to extramarital sex: With utilitarianism, there are no rules or principles over and above pleasure, and so no rules against extramarital sex. In calculating whether an act of extramarital sex is right or wrong, a person must weigh their pleasure from extramarital sex against their spouse’s pain at being cheated on. An obvious way to reduce this pain is to lie to your partner and say you didn’t cheat on them.


Both attitudes and the law with regards to homosexuality have changed over time. In the UK, homosexual sex was a criminal offence until 1967. In 2005, the law was changed to allow civil partnerships between same-sex couples and in 2014 this was extended to full marriage rights.

Religious teachings generally forbid homosexuality. For example, Leviticus 18:22 says: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Historically, social attitudes towards homosexuality have been similarly negative. However, modern secular culture generally makes no distinction between the ethics of heterosexual and homosexual sex. These changing social attitudes may have influenced religious attitudes, with modern religious teachings being generally more tolerant of homosexuality than in the past.

Ethical issues surrounding homosexuality:

  • Tolerance of homophobia: To what extent should secular cultures tolerate religious views that say homosexuality is wrong?
  • Marriage: If marriage is a religious institution, is it ethical (or even possible) for homosexual couples to marry?
  • Children: Although homosexual couples can’t (naturally) produce children, is it ethical for them to adopt children?
Ethical theories applied to homosexuality
Natural law applied to homosexuality

In general, natural law would argue against homosexuality:

  • 4 tiers of law: The natural law is below divine law in this hierarchy. And, given the Bible says things such as “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22), this suggests homosexuality is wrong according to natural law.
  • The precepts: One of the five primary precepts is reproduction. The fact that homosexual couples cannot (naturally) produce children is another reason why homosexual sex might be considered wrong according to natural law.
Situation ethics applied to homosexuality

In general, Fletcher’s situation ethics says homosexuality is morally acceptable:

  • Agape: The guiding principle of situation ethics is agape/love for one’s neighbour and this takes precedence over legalistic adherence to rules (such as Leviticus 18:22). It is hard to envisage many situations where rejecting homosexuality is the most loving thing to do.
  • Relativism and personalism: A related notion is Fletcher’s principle of relativism; the rejection of absolute rules such as “homosexuality is wrong”. Instead, Fletcher argues for personalism; the idea that moral value comes from people, rather than rules.
  • Propositions 2 and 6: Similarly, propositions 2 and 6 reject laws (e.g. “homosexuality is wrong”) in favour of the general principle of love applied to the specific details of the situation.
Deontological ethics applied to homosexuality

In general, Kant and deontological ethics are against homosexuality:

Utilitarianism applied to homosexuality

In general, utilitarianism supports homosexuality:

  • Hedonic calculus: With utilitarianism, there are no rules or principles over and above pleasure and so if someone is attracted to the same sex, and find having sex with them pleasurable, then there is no reason why homosexuality would be morally different to heterosexuality.

AO2 evaluation: Sexual ethics 

Should sex be treated as a private matter?

  • Mill’s harm principle: John Stuart Mill’s principle that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” – argues that people should be free to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Given that sex is (generally) a private matter that doesn’t affect anyone other than the people involved, the harm principle says that, ethically, anything goes between consenting adults. This can be applied to premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality – what business is it of anyone else what people get up to in the privacy of their own homes?
  • The Hart-Devlin debate on homosexuality: Mill’s harm principle (see above) influenced the recommendation of the 1957 Wolfenden Report that homosexuality be decriminalised and was a key argument made by Lord Hart in the debate that followed. Hart argued that it is not the job of the law to enforce morality, only to protect citizens from harm.
    • Lord Devlin’s reply: Devlin disagreed with Hart, arguing that the law should enforce commonly held moral standards – even regarding purely private matters – so as to preserve the moral fabric of society. He argued that a common morality is necessary for the welfare and stability of society and that “the loosening of moral bonds” is the first stage of societal disintegration. Devlin’s argument ultimately lost the debate and homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967.
Issues for natural law applied to sexual ethics:

  • Outdated and harmful: Some argue that natural law (and religious views on sexual ethics in general) has no place in our modern, secular, society. A common criticism along these lines is that religious attitudes towards homosexuality has led to unfair persecution of gay people.
    • Reply: However, some argue that secular approaches to sexual ethics are also harmful (though in different ways). For example, a common criticism of the secular and casual attitude towards sex is that it ‘cheapens’ sex, which weakens its ability to help couples form lasting bonds. Proponents of natural law may also point to the positive effects of marriage, such as improved educational outcomes and mental well-being of children.
  • Mill’s harm principle: Natural law suggests that extramarital sex is morally wrong even if both partners agree to an open marriage. However, Mill’s harm principle (see above) would argue that consenting adults should be free to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. If both partners are happy to have an open marriage, then it doesn’t harm anyone, so why is extramarital sex morally wrong? Similar arguments can be made against the natural law stance on premarital sex and homosexuality.
Issues for situation ethics applied to sexual ethics:

  • Ignores the Bible: The criticism described above that situation ethics contradicts scripture also applies in the specific case of sexual ethics. For example, the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) is clear and unambiguous but Fletcher says extramarital sex is acceptable if we judge it to be the most loving thing to do.
  • Lacking clear guidance: The criticism described above situation ethics lacks clear guidance can be applied to sexual ethics. Agape can’t be objectively quantified and is open to different subjective interpretations. For example, a man may justify extramarital sex as the most loving thing to do because he really loves his mistress and she loves him. But how can the love within the affair be compared against the love within the marriage? From the wife’s perspective, the most loving thing to do may be for her husband to honour their marriage. This confusion is exacerbated by the issue of where the situation begins and ends. For example, if the couple have children, does the husband have to consider the long-term effects on them too?
Issues for deontological ethics applied to sexual ethics:

  • Depends how you define your maxim: The criticism described above can be applied to premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality. For example, rather than applying the categorical imperative to homosexuality (which can’t be universalised because it would mean the human race would go extinct) you could say your maxim is to have sex with people (which could be universalised without making the human race go extinct).
  • Homosexuality can be universalised: Technological changes, such as IVF, separate sex from reproduction. As such, you could argue that homosexuality could be universalised without failing the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative.
  • Convoluted reasoning on premarital sex: Kant’s views on premarital sex are said by some to be a rationalisation of the conservative views of his era rather than a logical consequence of his theory. For example, does sex between an unmarried couple who love each other in “person, body and soul” necessarily mean they use each other solely for their bodies, degrading their humanity? And how exactly does marriage change sex from something that degrades humanity to something that doesn’t?
Issues for utilitarianism applied to sexual ethics:

  • Justifies immoral actions: Utilitarianism has no moral principles over and above pleasure, which can justify sexual behaviours that are morally wrong. For example, many people would argue that it is just wrong to cheat on your spouse, and yet the hedonic calculus seems to suggest extramarital sex against your spouse’s will is morally acceptable as long as they don’t find out and get upset. A more extreme example is gang rape: In theory, act utilitarianism could justify this if the pleasure of the majority outweighed the pain of the minority.
    • Reply: Rule utilitarianism could potentially justify general rules against extramarital sex, lying, and rape on the basis that these rules increase happiness.


The ethical theories above – natural law, situation ethics, deontological ethics, and utilitarianism – all take it for granted that moral properties – i.e. ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – are things that exist. They take these moral properties to give rise to moral facts, such as “stealing is wrong”. However, metaethics drills down into what moral properties actually are and whether they even exist.

Moral realist theories say mind-independent moral properties and facts do exist:

In contrast, moral anti-realist theories say mind-independent moral properties and facts do not exist:


For a more in-depth explanation, see the ethical naturalism notes for AQA philosophy.

Moral naturalism is a realist theory; it says that mind-independent moral properties (such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’) do exist. More specifically, naturalism says these moral properties are natural properties and so moral facts (such as “stealing is wrong”) can be known by making a posteriori observations of the world.

Examples of naturalist ethical theories we’ve looked at above are:

  • Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is meta-ethically naturalist because it says good = pleasure and bad = pain. Pleasure and pain are natural and observable properties and so good and bad are also natural and observable properties.
  • Natural law: Aquinas’ theory of natural law is meta-ethically naturalist because it says there are natural (God-given) facts about a thing’s purpose/telos and that what is good is for a thing to achieve this purpose/telos. By observing the world, we can understand our telos and thus what is good and bad.

All forms of moral naturalism are cognitivist; they say there are true moral statements, such as “stealing is wrong”. What makes this moral statement true or false depends on whether the act of stealing has the natural property of wrongness.


For a more in-depth explanation, see the ethical non-naturalism notes for AQA philosophy.
Like naturalism above, intuitionism is also a realist theory; it agrees that mind-independent moral properties (such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’) do exist. However, where naturalism says these properties are natural properties that can be known through a posteriori observation, intuitionism says moral properties are not part of the natural/physical world and can only be known using a priori intuition.

G.E. Moore argues for intuitionism. He argues that ethical naturalism commits the naturalistic fallacy (see AQA notes here for more detail) of reducing moral properties (e.g. good) to natural properties (e.g. pleasure) when, in reality, moral properties are basic and cannot be reduced to anything simpler. Moore draws an analogy between moral properties and the colour yellow: You can’t explain what yellow is by breaking it down into something simpler – you just have to show someone something yellow. Likewise, you can’t explain what ‘wrongness’ is by breaking it down into simpler, natural, properties – you have to give an example (e.g. torturing an innocent person).

However, if moral properties are not part of the natural world, this raises the question of how we know about them since it’s not like we can observe them like we can ordinary natural properties. Moore’s answer is a priori intuition: The fact that “torturing innocent people is wrong” is just self-evidently true when we reflect and think about it.

Note that intuitionism is also cognitivist; it says that moral statements are capable of being true (or false). The reason why the statement “torturing innocent people is wrong” is true is because the act of torturing innocent people has the non-natural property of ‘wrongness’.


For a more in-depth explanation, see the emotivism notes for AQA philosophy.

Whereas naturalism and intuitionism are moral realist theories, emotivism is anti-realist. This means emotivists believe that mind-independent moral properties (e.g. ‘good’, ‘wrong’) don’t actually exist.

Instead, according to emotivism, moral statements (e.g. “murder is wrong”), are not descriptions of properties of the world but are actually non-cognitive expressions of emotion. This means moral statements are neither true or false.

Cognitive statements
Non-cognitive statements
Descriptions of the world Not descriptions of the world
Are either true or false Are neither true or false

  • “Water boils at 100°c”
  • “Triangles have 3 sides”
  • “The Eiffel Tower is in Paris”
  • “The Eiffel Tower is in Berlin”

  • “Boooooo!”
  • “Hooray!”
  • “Ouch!”
  • “Don’t do that!”

Emotivism is sometimes referred to as boo-hooray theory. When football fans cheer when their team scores, for example, it’s not like they are describing the world in a way that is true or false. Instead, they’re just expressing their happiness that their team scored. Similarly, for emotivists, saying “giving money to charity is good” is like cheering for giving money to charity. Saying “Stealing is wrong” is like saying “Boooo! Stealing!” and expressing your disapproval.

AO2 evaluation: Metaethics 

Issues for moral realism:

  • Verification principle (see AQA notes for more): Ayer’s verification principle from the philosophy of religion page can be applied to moral statements: “Torturing innocent people is wrong”, for example, is neither an analytic truth nor is it empirically verifiable. As such, it (and all such moral statements) are meaningless.
    • Naturalism/utilitarian response: Utilitarianism could respond that “torturing innocent people is wrong” is empirically verifiable. We can empirically verify that torturing innocent people causes pain and thus that it is wrong.
      • Moore’s counter-response: Moore/intuitionism would respond that this argument/utilitarianism commits the naturalistic fallacy (see above) of reducing moral properties (wrong) to natural properties (pain).
  • Arguments against naturalism specifically:
    • Naturalistic fallacy: See above.
    • Open question argument (see AQA notes for more): Moore argues that if ‘good’ really did mean ‘pleasure’ (as utilitarianism claims), then “is pleasure good?” would be a closed question like “is a triangle a 3-sided shape?”
      • Response: Water is H2O, but it’s still an open question to ask “is water H2O?”. Similarly, ‘good’ could be the same thing as pleasure and yet it still be an open question whether pleasure is good.
  • Arguments against intuitionism/non-naturalism specifically:
    • Metaphysical queerness (see AQA notes for more): Mackie argues that (non-natural) moral properties would be metaphysically unlike any other properties we know of. For example, if ‘bad’ exists as a mind-independent property, then there would have to be something in the external world saying “don’t do this!”. Like, the act of stealing itself would have to have the property of ‘don’t do this’ built into it, which doesn’t make sense.
    • Epistemic queerness (see AQA notes for more): A related argument from Mackie questions how we could acquire knowledge of (non-natural) moral properties. For example, how could we possibly learn “stealing is bad” when ‘bad’ is this non-natural property? Unlike natural properties, we can’t see, touch, taste, or otherwise detect these supposed non-natural moral properties.
    • Cultural differences in moral values (see AQA notes for more): Different cultures have different beliefs about what is good and bad. For example, some cultures think polygamy is bad, other cultures disagree. Which is the more likely explanation: 1. One culture has discovered the fact that polygamy is ‘bad’, say, and the other culture hasn’t discovered this fact yet, or 2. There is no such fact and the different beliefs simply reflect different cultural practices? Mackie says explanation 2 is more likely than the explanation that, for some reason, some cultures have discovered the correct moral facts but other cultures haven’t.
Issues for moral anti-realism: 

  • Moral progress (see AQA notes for more): For example, in Plato’s era, people (wrongly) believed it was morally acceptable to keep slaves. However, today, we (correctly) believe it is morally wrong to keep slaves. If moral anti-realism is true, there are no moral facts and so no moral moral progress. But there has been moral progress (e.g. the slave example). So anti-realism must be false.
    • Response: This begs the question. It assumes moral facts/moral progress exists in order to prove moral facts exist. In other words, this is circular reasoning.
  • Arguments against emotivism/non-cognitivism specifically:
    • Counter-evidence: If you look at how people use moral judgements – in both philosophical and ordinary contexts – they seem to treat them as statements that are either true or false and not simply expressions of emotion. For example, Kant isn’t simply expressing his subjective disapproval of stealing with the categorical imperative, he takes the categorical imperative to show that it is objectively true that stealing is wrong. Similarly, if a person is considering whether to go vegetarian, they don’t ask themself how they feel about eating animals, they ask whether it is wrong to eat animals.
    • Moral reasoning (see AQA notes for more): Non-cognitivism doesn’t fit with various ways people use moral judgements. For example, if “eating animals is wrong” just means “boo! eating animals!” and is neither true or false, then it wouldn’t make sense for someone to argue “If eating animals is wrong, you should be a vegetarian.” (because the antecedent wouldn’t be capable of being true or false). But that argument does make sense, which suggests moral judgements are capable of being true or false.


Our conscience is the inner voice that tells us something is morally right or wrong. It makes us feel guilty when we do something bad and feel happy when we do something good. The syllabus looks at 2 different explanations of conscience:

Aquinas’ theological approach

As described above, right and wrong are a matter of natural law for Aquinas. And Aquinas explains our conscience as the result of ratio: Our ability to use reason to work out what this natural law is. He breaks conscience down into 2 components: Synderesis and conscientia.

According to Aquinas, we have this capacity to reason (i.e. ratio) about right and wrong because we are made in God’s image. So, this is a theological explanation of conscience.


Synderesis is our natural habit or capacity towards what is morally good. If you remember the main precept aboveto do good and avoid evil – this in some sense built in to our nature, says Aquinas. Just as plants have a natural inclination to grow towards the sun in accordance with their telos, so too do human beings have a natural inclination to behave morally and act in accordance with natural law. Aquinas describes synderesis as “the law of our mind”.


But synderesis doesn’t mean we automatically have perfect knowledge of right and wrong. Synderesis means we generally tend towards good, but we may be conflicted or confused as to how this actually translates to practical situations like euthanasia or extramarital sex. This is where conscientia is needed.

Conscientia is the use of reason (ratio) to work out what is right and wrong in practical situations. In the case of euthanasia, we may use conscientia to reason that euthanasia violates the primary precept of preservation of life and is thus morally wrong. So, for Aquinas, conscience is a process of reasoning (similar to how Fletcher describes conscience as a verb above) rather than some inner voice that automatically tells us what’s right.

We may sometimes make mistakes in our moral reasoning/conscientia. However, Aquinas says we must always follow our conscience regardless. To act against your conscience – even if the end result turns out to be the right thing – is a sin because it is to choose an action you believe to be wrong.

Vincible and invincible ignorance

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of mistake that lead to immoral behaviour:

  • Vincible ignorance: When a person makes a mistake because they are ignorant of a moral rule they should be aware of. As such, the person is responsible/blameworthy for their bad behaviour and commits a sin.
    • For example, a man may reason that it is morally acceptable to cheat on his wife because he confuses the apparent good of his pleasure with the real good of his marriage. This is his fault because it is within his power to use conscientia to work out what the correct moral rule is but doesn’t.
  • Invincible ignorance: When a person accidentally makes a mistake despite reasoning correctly about moral rules. As such, the person is not responsible/blameworthy for their bad behaviour and it is not a sin.
    • For example, a man cheats on his wife because she has an identical twin sister who tricks him into thinking she’s his wife. This is not his fault because he has reasoned correctly about the moral rules concerning adultery and has acted according to his conscience, but has made a mistake due to something outside his control.

Freud’s psychological approach

Whereas Aquinas sees our conscience as something grounded in God, Freud rejects the existence of God as a man-made idea. Instead, Freud explains our conscience in purely psychological terms.

Freud’s psychological theory emphasises the role of the unconscious mind. Different parts of the mind have different goals and desires. Our conscience is one part of our personality (the superego) that develops during the phallic psychosexual stage of development. However, the superego/conscience often comes into conflict with other parts of our personality.

Structure of personality: Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud saw personality as consisting of 3 parts: The id, the ego, and the superego. These 3 parts of personality have competing demands that often come into conflict with each other.

Age Principle
Id From birth Pleasure The primitive, biological, instinctive part of personality. Basic drives and desires. Unconscious.
Ego 1-3 years Reality The part of personality that balances the competing demands of the id and superego. Mostly conscious.
Superego 3-5 years Morality Our conscience: The part of personality concerned with morality and higher values. Mostly unconscious.

Our id is only concerned with pleasure and so wants to indiscriminately have sex with attractive people and kill annoying people, for example. But this obviously isn’t a suitable way to behave. As children, our parents and society tell us that such behaviours are morally wrong, which teaches us an ideal standard of behaviour that becomes our superego or conscience.

The ego is the part of the mind we are most consciously aware of. It sits between the id and the superego, balancing their competing demands. When we give in to our id and behave badly, the superego punishes the ego by creating feelings of guilt.

And so, according to Freud, our conscience/superego is just a product of our upbringing – parents, society, etc. – rather than a reflection of moral reality or God.

Psychosexual development

According to Freud, psychological development in childhood involves progressing through 5 psychosexual stages: 1. Oral, 2. Anal, 3. Phallic, 4. Latency, and 5. Genital. It is during the phallic stage (between 3-5 years of age) where the superego/conscience develops.

This is where the theory gets wild. The specifics differ between girls (Electra Complex) and boys (Oedipus Complex), but the general pattern during the phallic stage is:

  • The child develops a sexual attraction to their opposite-sex parent
    • Boys develop sexual desire for their mothers
    • Girls develop 1. A desire to have a penis (penis envy) and 2. A desire for their father (as he has what she wants – a penis)
  • This creates feelings of jealousy/hatred towards the same-sex parent because they have what they want
    • The boy wants to kill his father so he can have his mother for himself
    • The girl 1. Thinks the reason she doesn’t have a penis is because her mother took it, and 2. Sees her mother as competition for her father’s love
  • This creates feelings of anxiety
    • For boys this is because they fear their father will find out about their sexual desire for the mother and castrate them
    • For girls this is because they also love their mothers and fear losing her love
  • The child resolves these feelings of anxiety by identifying with their same-sex parent
  • Identifying with the same-sex parent means accepting and internalising their moral values
  • This forms the superego/conscience

AO2 evaluation: Conscience

Issues for Aquinas’ theological approach:

  • Synderesis is a naive view of human nature: Aquinas’ idea of synderesis says that all humans have an innate tendency towards the good. However, if we look back through history – all the wars, stealing, slavery, and so on – the evidence doesn’t support this.
    • Aquinas’ reply: People only do such evils because they are mistaken – e.g. because of vincible or invincible ignorance, or because they confuse apparent goods with real goods. Human nature is to tend towards good, but human nature is also fallen and imperfect and so we may reason incorrectly that things are good when they’re not.
      • Counter-reply: But there are plenty examples of people who know their actions are evil (so don’t make a mistake in reasoning/conscientia) and yet do them anyway. For example, there are many convicted serial killers who admit to being completely aware that murder is wrong and yet still did so anyway.
  • Ignores the influence of culture and environment: Aquinas argues that conscience is a purely rational process – that we can deduce the natural law via reason/ratio. But if this were the case, surely different cultures would all arrive at the same conclusions about right and wrong in the same way different cultures arrive at the same conclusions on other rational matters such as ‘1+1=2’. However, different cultures have different moral values. For example, some cultures are polygamous, others say polygamy is wrong. This suggests conscience comes from culture (as Freud claims and Mackie argues in the context of metaethics) rather than being a rational process of discovering what the natural law is.
    • Reply: Although there are differences in moral values between cultures, there are some beliefs that are universal. For example, all cultures have some moral code along the lines of ‘help your family’ and ‘don’t murder’. Aquinas could argue that this is because they have all used conscientia/reason to discover these natural laws.
  • Instinct, not reason: Aquinas argues that conscience/conscientia is a process of reason and that the feeling of guilt follows from acting against this reason. However, in practice, it often feels the other way round: the emotion of guilt comes first and then the realisation that what we did was wrong comes after. This suggests conscience is an instinctive and automatic faculty (perhaps similar to Moore’s intuitionism from metaethics) that tells us right from wrong, rather than a process of reasoning.
Issues for Freud’s psychological approach: 

  • Unscientific: Freud’s psychological theories and methods are often criticised as unscientific is because they were based on a small handful of case studies. For example, much of Freud’s support for the Oedipus complex comes from the case study of ‘Little Hans’. Not only is it a bit of a stretch to draw conclusions about all humans from one or two case studies, the way Freud interpreted these case studies was often highly subjective. For example, Little Hans had a phobia of horses, but Freud interpreted this as a displaced fear of his father.
    • Reply: Other psychologists have arrived at similar conclusions to Freud using more scientific methods. For example, from repeated and more objective experiments, Jean Piaget concluded that children develop a conscience (or ‘autonomous morality’) after around 10 years of age.
      • Counter-reply: This is weak scientific support. It’s a massive jump from Piaget’s observations to Freud’s causal explanation of the Oedipus complex, attraction to opposite sex-parent, and so on. Not only that, Freud says conscience/superego forms at around 3-5 years old (during the phallic stage), which is a bit of a gap to Piaget’s conclusion that conscience develops after around 10 years of age.
  • Unfalsifiable: The unconscious mind – e.g. the id – cannot be observed and so any predictions or explanations based on it cannot be proved or disproved. For example, if someone behaves morally, Freud would say it’s because of their superego. But if the same person behaved immorally in the same situation, Freud would say it’s because of their id. In other words, every possible outcome can be explained by unconscious processes and so there is no observation that could disprove these explanations. As such, Freud’s theories are often criticised as unfalsifiable (see the philosophy of religion page for a reminder of this term).
  • Gender bias: According to Freud, differences in the Electra complex and Oedipus complex mean women develop weaker superegos than men. If this were true, it would suggest women should be more prone to immoral behaviour than men. However, there is little evidence to support this and even evidence to the contrary (e.g. men commit more crimes than women on average).
  • Meta-ethical implications: Meta-ethically, Freud’s explanation of conscience is anti-realist: Our moral values just reflect whatever our parents/society believe rather than some sort of objective moral truth. However, moral anti-realism faces several issues (see metaethics AO2 above), such as that it cannot account for moral progress.

The OCR Religious Studies A Level is assessed via 3 exam papers:
OCR religious studies exam structure

<< Paper 1: Philosophy of Religion

Paper 3: Developments in Religious Thought >>>