absolute: A principle that is universally binding and thus can never be overridden, as in “I have an absolute duty not to take my own life.”

absolutism: The view that there is only one correct answer to every moral problem; truth is objectively real, final, and eternal.

absurd: The view expressed by Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and others that life is irrational, paradoxical, or contradictory.

ad hominem (argument): In an ad hominem argument one arguer attacks the other arguer personally, instead of attacking his ideas.

aesthetics: The branch of philosophy that studies beauty, art, and related concepts, such as the sublime, the tragic, the comic, and so forth.

agnosticism: A belief that we cannot have knowledge of God and that we cannot prove that God exists or doesn't exist.

altruism: Unselfish regard or concern for others; disinterested, other-regarding action.

amoral: Literally not moral. The term may be contrasted with nonmoral (that area in which moral categories cannot be applied) and with immoral (evil, wrong, etc.) Choosing which sock to put on first in the morning is a nonmoral act; that is, it is one that does not involve moral values. Killing a person, where such killing goes against the moral and social standards of one's society, is immoral. Killing a person without concern or regard for concepts like “good” or “bad” is amoral.

a posteriori: Based on a Latin word meaning “later”; knowledge that is obtained only from experience, such as sense perceptions.

a priori: Based on a Latin word meaning “preceding”; knowledge that is not based on sense experience but rather is innate and known simply by the meanings of words or definitions.

autonomy: From the Greek for “self-rule”; self-directed freedom. The autonomous individual arrives at his or her moral judgments through reason, not mere acceptance of authority.

categorical imperative: Kant's command that all agents should always act in such a manner that the maxim of their actions can be universalized.

causal thesis: The view that there is no indeterminacy, that every act and event in the universe is caused by antecedent events.

Communism: A political-economic philosophy, held notably by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century, that holds to (1) economic determinism — that the way a society produces its wealth determines all else — and (2) the notion.

compatibilism: The thesis sometimes referred to as “soft-determinism.” Compatibilism holds that an act can be entirely determined and yet be free in the sense that it was done voluntarily and not under external coercion.

contradictory: When one statement denies another, such that both cannot be true; an example would be the contradictory pair of statements: “It is raining” and “It is not raining.”

deontological ethics: From the Greek word deon, meaning duty or obligation, deontology is a normative ethic that stresses doing actions that are our duties, regardless of whether they produce good results.

determinism: All events and actions are caused, according to the theory of determinism.

divine command theory: The theory that holds that moral principles are defined in terms of God's commands. Thus, a morally good action agrees with God's commands.

dualism: The view that there are two types of substances, or reality, in conscious beings, mind and matter. According to many philosophers, these two substances interact with each other, the body producing mental events and the mind leading to physical action.

egoism: There are two components to egoism. Psychological egoism is a descriptive theory about human motivation, holding that people always act to satisfy their perceived best interests. Ethical egoism is a prescriptive or normative theory about how people ought to act; they ought to act according to their perceived best interests. The British empiricist Thomas Hobbes held this view.

ethical relativism: According to relativism, moral judgments depend upon cultural acceptance.

hedonism: Psychological hedonism is the theory that motivation must be explained exclusively through desire for pleasure and aversion for pain. Ethical hedonism is the theory that pleasure is the only intrinsic positive value.

heteronomy: Kant's term for the determination of the will on non-rational grounds. It contrasts with autonomy of the will, in which the will is guided by reason.

hypothetical imperatives: These imperatives are of the form “If you want X, do action Y.” Utilitarian moralists would view such principles as moral.

intrinsic worth: Something has intrinsic worth if it is good in itself. This can be opposed to something that has extrinsic worth or instrumental value as a means to something else.

libertarianism: Libertarianism is the theory that human beings possess free will and the ability to do otherwise, whatever the causes of their actions.

materialism: According to materialism, only matter and its properties exist. Even consciousness and various mental states are physical according to this doctrine.

metaphysics: Meta means “beyond”; the study of ultimate reality beyond empirical experience. This branch of philosophy includes free will, causality, the nature of matter, immortality, and the existence of God.

monism: The metaphysical view that all reality is one substance, rather than two or more as with dualism.

natural law: The theory that an eternal, absolute moral law can be discovered by reason.

nihilism: From the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing.” Nihilism is the view that there are no valid moral principles or values.

noumenal: Kant's idea of reality “in itself,” as opposed to “phenomenal” reality, which is how it appears to us. This includes our transcendent self and what is beyond the appearances.

Ockham's razor: This is sometimes called the “principle of parsimony,” which states that “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” William of Ockham, after whom the principle is named, said that we should accept the simplest scientific hypothesis that does away with any unnecessary material.

pantheism: The view that all existing things are attributes of God.

perfect duties: Kant divides duties into perfect and imperfect. These duties — like not lying and not taking your own life — are for Kant absolute, specific duties.

prima facie: Latin for “first glance”; in W. D. Ross's view, it stands for a duty that will remain a duty unless another duty overrides it. Such prima facie duties contrast with actual duties.

relativism: There are two parts to relativism. Cultural relativism is a descriptive thesis stating that moral beliefs vary across cultures. Ethical relativism is an evaluative thesis stating that the truth of a moral judgment depends upon whether a culture recognizes the principle in question. (The truth of cultural relativism does not imply the truth of ethical relativism.)

skepticism: The view that certain knowledge is impossible. Universal skepticism holds that we can know nothing at all; local, or particular, skepticism holds that we are ignorant in important realms (e.g., David Hume on metaphysics or A. J. Ayer on theology or metaphysics). Moral skepticism holds that we cannot know whether any moral truth exists.

subjective truth: Truth according to some perceiver; according to Soren Kierkegaard this is a truth that is more important than objective truth, since it is a truth for which one can live passionately.

supererogatory: In ethics, an action that is “beyond the call of duty.” Such an action would not be morally required, but possesses enormous value as a heroic action; e.g. saving the life of another.

teleological ethics: Aristotelian ethics and utilitarian ethics are both teleological, since intrinsic value is not located in actions themselves, but in the consequences to be attained by them. For Aristotle, this value to be attained is happiness.

utilitarianism: The moral theory that says an action is moral if and only if it is the best of the alternatives available to the agent.

virtue: A good character trait, typically involving a disposition to feel, think, and act in certain morally good ways.

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