Glossary

I aim for most of the stuff I post here to be very accessible to a wide audience, but sometimes it makes the most sense to use some relatively obscure or technical term. By request from some pals, I’ll give definitions for such terms here as they appear on the site.

Consequentialism: A family of moral theories that take consequences to have fundamental moral importance. Strict consequentialists (aka unrestricted consequentialists, act consequentialists, etc.) believe that an action is right if it brings about (or is reasonably expected to bring about) the best consequences. Rule consequentialists believe that an action is right if it conforms to rules whose general observance would bring about the best consequences. Consequentialists disagree about what makes consequences the best. The most influential variety of consequentialism, utilitarianism, judges consequences according to their utility. Consequentialism is usually contrasted with deontology.

Contractualism: A type of social contract theory which identifies some aspect of morality with the terms of a hypothetical agreement between persons who are motivated to establish a mutually justifiable set of guiding rules or principles. John Rawls‘s theory of justice as fairness is an example of a contractualist account of social justice, while T. M. Scanlon‘s contractualism provides an account of interpersonal obligation. Contractualism is often contrasted with (although sometimes included within) contractarianism, a variety of social contract theory in which the parties to the hypothetical agreement are motivated by nothing more than rational self-interest. Contractarian political theories can be found in the work of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, and contractarian theories of interpersonal morality have been advanced by David Gauthier and J. L. Mackie.

Deontology: A family of moral theories that take rights and duties to have fundamental moral importance. Deontological views do not take consequences to be wholly irrelevant to questions of right and wrong; in fact the consequences of a kind of action are often part of an explanation of our rights and duties in respect of that action. But in contrast to consequentialists, deontologists do not consider the quality of the consequences produced by an action to be dispositive regarding the rightness of that action. On this view, there is no overarching requirement for moral agents to bring about the best consequences, and the fundamental commitment to respecting rights and duties may often require deontologists not to act in such a way as to bring about the best consequences.

Virtue ethics: A family of moral theories that takes the qualities of the moral agent to be morally basic. Roughly, for virtue ethicists the fundamental moral question is about what an agent should be like rather than what would bring about the best consequences or what duties one has. Virtue ethics is sometimes distinguished from virtue theories, which concern virtues of agents from the perspective of a consequentialist, contractualist or deontological morality. Virtue ethics and virtue theories have influenced the development of the capabilities approach.

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