Philosophical Investigations
INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREAT Philosophy and Ethics Print Email
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Philosophy: Group 3

Theme 8: Theories and Problems of Ethics

There is one compulsory theme, on the nature of the human being and then Ethics is one of eight optional themes (students choose one).


Part 1.1: Core Theme

What Is a Human Being?

One of the reasons we study philosophy is to search for a better understanding of ourselves both as individuals and as members of groups and wider communities. The Core Theme offers candidates the opportunity to do this from the more epistemological perspective of analytical philosophy as well as from the more ethical perspective of existential philosophy.

These perspectives ask quite different questions: How can I be sure I really know the other?
What specific meaning does the fact that we are conscious of being mortal give to our life?
For the sake of clarity the topics below are in two lists, but this should not exclude the
possibility of looking for links between the lists.
If the definition of .person. or .identity. in the first topic is the starting point for the
investigation of the Core Theme, it may be enriched by the study of specific individual and social experiences mentioned in the second topic, The Human Condition. Becoming aware of the .human condition. can inspire us to examine our characteristics: self-conscious beings, capable of using language and making value judgements; or, made of mind and body, we combine reason, emotions and experiences in our understanding of ourselves, others and the world.

Topics for Study

Mind and Body

. What is a person? The question of self, the relationship of mind and body.
. Manifestations of personhood: self-consciousness, language, agency, dreams,
imagination, intuition, passion, reason and emotion.
. Could animals or machines be persons?
. The universality of human nature and the diversity of individuals.
. The question of self: Is it possible to know oneself? To know others? Solipsism
and intersubjectivity.
. Freedom and determinism.

The Human Condition

. Interpretations of .human nature.: language use, sociability, empathy, aggression,
creativity, play, reason and autonomy.
. Interpretations of .the human condition.: our existence in time and space;
biological and social necessities; gender and social conditioning.
. Existential anxiety; meaning and meaninglessness.
. Freedom, responsibility and authenticity.
. Nihilism versus the invention of values.

IBOThe aim of studying the Themes is to enable students to engage in their own disciplined reflection on central philosophical issues. Whenever teachers use the work of established philosophers in teaching the Themes, the purpose is to develop the student.s own thinking rather than broadening their knowledge of philosophical theories and thinkers. A historical approach is to be discouraged at all times.

There is no prescribed supporting material for the Themes, and teachers can use a wide range of sources when studying the themes, including:
. philosophical and non-philosophical texts
. newspaper extracts
. films/movies
. television programmes
. paintings
. cartoons
. advertisements.



Through the study of ethical theories and problems this theme deals with ethical questions at a number of levels. It is concerned with practical decision-making and the way people should conduct their lives. This theme considers such questions as: What kind of a person do I want to be? How do I decide if a particular action is right or wrong? Ethics entails a reflection on experiences such as friendship, hospitality and love. It leads to an examination of power in relationships. How should I treat other people?

The theme goes on to ask if there are fundamental moral principles that apply in every situation. If there are, can we apply such principles consistently? Is breaking a promise always wrong? Is a moral decision affected by the situation in which it is made? Could it sometimes be right to lie? As we take our thinking further we go beyond the search for principles on which to base our actions and ask questions about the meaning and nature of moral judgements: What do we mean when we say something is right or wrong, or good or bad? Finally, in this theme, a study of applied ethics seeks to discover a rational approach to thinking about three important issues: biomedical ethics, environmental ethics and animal rights.

Topics for Study

Principles for Moral Actions. Normative Ethics

. Moral principles: do they exist? Are they universal or relative to a particular
. Virtue ethics: are some virtues more important than others?
. Self-interest versus the interests of others (ethical egoism).
. Doing the right thing and doing the good thing (deontological versus teleological
. The greatest good of the greatest number: utilitarianism as a basis for moral action.

The Nature of Moral Judgements. Meta-ethics

. The origins and nature of moral values.
. Moral sense: innate or acquired? Relative or universal? Subjective or objective?
. What is the significance of calling something right or wrong?
. Is moral behaviour found only in human beings?

Applied Ethics

. Biomedical ethics. (Editor's note: this corresponds to Genetic Engineering in this website).
. Environmental ethics.
. Animal rights.



Standard Level Written Papers (2¾ hours)

1 Paper 1 (1¾ hours) 50%
This paper consists of two sections: Section A, based on the Core Theme, and Section B,
based on the Optional Themes. It is recommended that candidates divide their time equally
between the questions on this paper.
1.1 Section A
. Candidates must answer one of the two structured questions based on the Core
. Each question will be based on stimulus material which could take the form of a
short extract from a text, or a visual stimulus such as a picture, a cartoon or an
. Each structured question is in three parts.
First part (approximately 50 words): candidates are asked to identify a central
philosophical concept or issue raised by the stimulus material.
Second part (approximately 250 words): candidates are required to compare and
contrast the philosophical concept or issue they have identified in the first part of
the question with another issue related to the Core Theme.
Third part (approximately 500 words): candidates must undertake a critical
discussion of a philosophical concept or issue related to the Core Theme.
. This section is worth 30 marks.

1.2 Section B
. The purpose of this section of the paper is to assess candidates. knowledge and
understanding of the Optional Themes. The questions will also assess the ability
of candidates to identify and analyse material relevant to the specific question
posed, and their ability to use language appropriate to philosophy as they
develop arguments and counter-arguments.
. Two essay questions will be set on each of the Optional Themes. Candidates are
required to answer one question. In order to develop their argument fully candidates
should write approximately 1000 words in response to the question chosen.
. Questions may take the form of a direct question, a quotation or a statement.
. This section is worth 30 marks.


2 Paper 2 (1 hour) 30%
2.1 This paper consists of essay questions based on the Prescribed Texts. One question
will be set on each text.
2.2 The purpose of this paper is to assess candidates. knowledge and understanding of
the Prescribed Texts. The questions will also assess the ability of candidates to
identify and analyse material relevant to the specific question posed on the text, and
their ability to use language appropriate to philosophy as they develop arguments and
2.3 Candidates are required to answer one question. In order to develop their argument fully
candidates should write approximately 1000 words in response to the question chosen.
2.4 Questions may take the form of a direct question, or a quotation or a statement.
2.5 The question chosen is worth 30 marks.

Higher Level

For first examinations in 2002

External Assessment 80%
Written Papers 4½ hours
Two written papers, externally set and externally assessed.

Paper 1 2½ hours 40%
Two compulsory sections, A and B.
Section A
Two structured questions based on the Core Theme.
One question to be answered.
Section B
Two essay questions based on each of the Optional Themes.
Two questions to be answered, each based on a different Optional Theme.

Paper 2 2 hours 40%
One essay question based on each of the Prescribed Texts.
Two questions to be answered.

Internal Assessment (Coursework) 20%
Two philosophical exercises, 1000.1200 words each, to be internally assessed
by the teacher and externally moderated by the IBO.
. A critical analysis of non-philosophical material
. A philosophical dialogue

Internal Assessment

Higher Level and Standard Level Coursework 20%

1 Introduction
Internal assessment is an integral part of the course of study in Philosophy at both Higher Level and Standard Level. It allows candidates to apply their knowledge and understanding of philosophical ideas and concepts through the critical analysis of non-philosophical material and the production of a short philosophical dialogue. The exercises have been selected because they reflect common activities used in teaching and doing philosophy.
The internally assessed component also allows candidates to be rewarded for doing
philosophy under ordinary conditions without the time constraints associated with written examinations.
2 Requirements
Candidates must produce two philosophical exercises of 1000.1200 words each. The word limit does not include bibliographical or other references.

2.1 Exercise 1: Critical Analysis
. This exercise consists of a philosophical analysis of non-philosophical material.
Candidates should identify an issue raised by the stimulus material and analyse it
in a philosophical way. The critical analysis must relate to a philosophical issue
or argument raised by the study of one of the Core Themes or Optional Themes,
or one of the Prescribed Texts of the Philosophy syllabus. Suitable material for
analysis includes:
• novels, plays, poetry
• films/movies
• TV and radio programmes
• newspaper articles
• Internet sites
• advertisements
• pamphlets
• propaganda.
. The analysis should focus on a limited extract. A newspaper article can stand
alone but where novels or plays are used no more than two pages should be
selected for analysis and in the case of a film/movie or play no more than two
scenes should be used. The emphasis should be on the depth and quality of the
philosophical analysis and not on the length of the extract nor on the intellectual
level of the source material.
. Candidates should select their own material for analysis in consultation with the
teacher. Each candidate should work on different material.

2.2 Exercise 2: Philosophical Dialogue
. This exercise requires candidates to write a philosophical dialogue on an issue of
their own choice. The choice of issue should be made in consultation with the
teacher. The starting point of the dialogue must relate to a philosophical issue or
argument raised by the study of one of the Core Themes or Optional Themes or one
of the Prescribed Texts of the Philosophy syllabus. The dialogue will allow
candidates to examine in detail an aspect of a theme or text which interests them.
. There are no restrictions on the characters which candidates can use in their
dialogues but the content must be clearly philosophical. Candidates can present a
dialogue between two famous philosophers from the same or different periods,
or between themselves and a famous philosopher. Alternatively, characters can
be entirely fictitious or the dialogue can be drawn from class discussion.
. Where a dialogue is based on classroom discussion, the written version of the
dialogue must be the work of the individual candidate.

3 Management of Coursework

3.1 Integration into Classroom Activities
The two exercises should be completed at intervals throughout the course. Work for
the exercises should be incorporated into normal classroom activities and be related
to the themes or texts being studied as part of the Philosophy syllabus. Work on the
exercises can be done in class but it may be completed at home.

3.2 Time Allocation
It is recommended that 20 hours of class time at both Higher Level and Standard
Level should be allocated to these exercises.
During the suggested 20 hours candidates will be able to complete more than one
exercise in each category. They will therefore have the opportunity to select their
best piece in each category, which will be submitted for final assessment.

3.3 Record Keeping
The following information should be provided for each exercise.
. Title
. Date submitted
. Part of the syllabus to which the exercise relates (theme or text)
. Number of words
. Bibliography and references.

Prescribed Texts (see Paper 2: 30%)

Martha Nussbaum Poetic Justice
Charles Taylor The Ethics of Authenticity
Hilary Putnam Reason, Truth and History
Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality, Part 1
Paul Feyerabend Farewell to Reason (section entitled .Notes on Relativism.)
A Theory of Justice, Chapter 1, sections 1.4; Chapter 2, sections
11.17; Chapter 3; Chapter 4, sections 33.35 and 39.40
John Rawls
Simone de Beauvoir The Ethics of Ambiguity
Hannah Arendt The Human Condition
Ludwig Wittgenstein The Blue and Brown Books (Blue Book section only)
Ortega y Gasset History as a System
Martin Buber I and Thou
Sigmund Freud Civilisation and its Discontents and Outline of Psychoanalysis
John Stuart Mill Essay on Liberty
Friedrich Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals
Immanuel Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Social Contract
(first three books)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
David Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
John Locke Second Treatise on Government
René Descartes Meditations
Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, la qq 75.88: Concerning man
Aristotle The Nicomachean Ethics, I, II, III (1109b30.1115a4), VI, X
Plato The Republic, Books V.IX
Confucius The Analects
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching


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Twelve TIPS for A grade essays Print Email
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Essay writing checklist AS and A2

You should produce summary sheets that help fulfil the criteria for A grade essays set out below. On this site you will find the materials to help you do this, for example, evaluative quotes from academics listed under each topic area.  It's important you use your own summary sheets as the filtration process of putting these together helps you learn.

1. Highlight key terms and phrases in essay title.

2. Repeat key essay title terms and phrases in essay.

3. List relevant technical vocab for inclusion in essay.

4. Discuss selected key authors, original/contemporary.

5. Contrast different views/theories/authors.

6. Learn and use key quotes.

7. Avoid vague generalization like the phrase"some people argue".

8. Practise writing for 35 minutes.

9. Practise first and last paragraphs.

10. Conclude with your view, especially with "discuss".

11. Check exam specification for likely future questions.

12. Use mind maps etc to explore links, key points.

Timing is critical. In the exam, you must never go over allotted time for each question. If you do, it is likely you are simply repeating yourself and so gaining no credit.

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ETHICALTHEORIES Summary Sheet Print Email
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The Meaning of ‘Good’




Alasdair MacIntyre


Good character based on virtues, acquired by habit and producing a flourishing character by the skill of practical reason (phronesis).

Is interested in defining good people and the qualities that make them good, the virtues. The way in which we behave lets others judge our virtues and vices. Rooted in Greek literature.

S: Looks at the fundamental issue of what it means to be human.

S: Based on character not calculation, natural disposition.

W: Virtues are relative to culture.

W: Demands that you define the virtues, but how you do this is far from clear.


St Thomas Aquinas


Based on observation of the natural world, of the function of human beings in order to flourish (eudaimonia).

S: Simple, don’t have to think just follow rules.

W: Immoral outcomes, eg HIV in Africa due to Popes rules.


Immanuel Kant


Based on a priori reason, not observation, according to the categorical imperative (universalisability).

S: God is removed, unnecessary, replaced by reason, allows us to think – dignity and freedom of the individual.

W: Rules based


Joseph Fletcher


An action that maximises agape (unconditional love) in a situation.

S: Not tied to a set course of action, flexible and practical.

W: Individual people have different ideas about what is the most loving action.


Jeremy Bentham

John Stuart Mill


The action (Bentham) or rule (Mill) that maximises the happiness of the greatest number.

S: Creates real social benefit and is used in UK legislation.

W: Immoral outcomes, you kill the innocent to satisfy the majority.

Naturalistic fallacy, just because it satisfies everybody we can still ask, is it good? Eg Southern Baptist America, lynching.

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Revision notes: Essay writing

In the examples below, colours are used in the following way to illustrate how to launch an essay effectively so as to maximise your marks.


Blue………………………ethical terms


Purple…………………….twists (ie qualifications,  contrasts subtleties)

Question 1

a. Explain what is meant by absolute and relative morality. (25)

Absolute moral theories generate rules which allow of no exception, whereas relative theories link the idea of goodness to something which changes over time, such as customs or what J.L.Mackie calls “forms of life”. An example of an absolute theory is Kantian ethics, which is a deontological, duty based approach. An example of a relative theory is Fletcher’s situation ethics, although strictly, this is not a pure relativistic theory as it contains one absolute, the principle of agape or unconditional love which stands at its centre. A contrast between the two theories will help to bring out their essential features.

b. Absolute theories are inflexible when it comes to deciding the rights and wrongs of euthanasia. (10)

Absolute theories tend, as argued above, to produce rules which allow of no exceptions, and Kant himself tried to argue in a famous essay, that it was never permissible to break a categorical rule, such as “thou shalt not lie”, even when faced with a crazy knifeman asking you to reveal the known whereabouts of your friend. However, it could be argued that this inflexibility is not quite as rigid as may appear at first sight, because, as James Rachels suggests, it is possible to have a qualified command which is still universalisable, such as “thou shalt not kill, unless someone is in intolerable pain”.

Kantian ethics creates its absolute rules by a process of universalisability: Kant asks us to universalise our actions in the sense of placing ourselves in another person’s shoes. Taking the third formulation of the categorical imperative, is it not possible to imagine a universal law saying that the only exception to the rule, thou shalt not kill, is when someone wills their own death and it is clear that the illness is terminal? Such an exception is provided, for example, in the state of Oregon, USA, by the Oregon rules.

Question 2

a. Describe the main features of a natural law theory of ethics. (25)

Natural law theory originates in Greek and Roman philosophy as elaborated by Aristotle or Cicero. It was then adapted by Aquinas in the thirteenth century in order to reconcile Greek philosophy, rediscovered by the fall of Toledo in 1085, and Christianity. It is Aquinas’ adaptation which will be considered here, as it still forms the essential Roman Catholic ethical viewpoint illustrated by papal encyclicals, and so provides contemporary input into debates on contraception, abortion and euthanasia. There are three main features which need to be considered: natural law theory is deontological, reasonable and naturalistic.

Natural law is first of all deontological, it creates an idea of the intrinsic goodness or badness of an action based on the idea of fitness of purpose. So in the Catholic catechism, homosexuality is described as “intrinsically disordered” because, following natural law, sex (the action) is separated from the natural purpose (procreation). Although deontological in outcome, the worldview is actually teleological, because everything is seen as having a natural purpose (telos) discoverable by reason, as Aristotle puts it in Nichomachean Ethics “every action has some good at which it aims”.

b. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of a natural law approach to abortion. (10 marks)

Natural law as developed by Aquinas and then applied to abortion by the Catholic Church creates a clear rule: abortion is wrong and equivalent to murder. Indeed the Catechism describes abortion as a “grave sin” punishable by excommunication from the church. On closer analysis, however, it can be seen that it is not natural law which necessarily creates this inflexibility, but the interpretation of natural law in the secondary precepts. Put another way, it is the general primary precepts which are supposedly absolute: the secondary precepts are, as Aquinas concedes when he argues polygamy may sometimes be acceptable, liable to change over time and according to circumstances.

However, as interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church, natural law does create a clear rule as abortion breaks the primary precept of the preservation of life. The advantages of this are simplicity and clarity. It is also clear that there can be no slippery slope whereby the sanctity of life, compromised here, starts to be threatened in other areas, such as the acceptance of euthanasia.

Situational ethicists such as Joseph Fletcher would ask us to consider the following scenario, in order to establish that natural law theory produces very unloving outcomes. A sixteen year old girl falls pregnant and fearful of her parents’ anger, goes late (at say eighteen weeks) to her GP. Her school career and general welfare are clearly threatened by having the child. Would it not be more loving for both mother and child if the foetus was aborted?

Question 3

a. Explain what Kant meant by the categorical imperative. (25 marks)

A categorical imperative is an unconditional command which allows of no exceptions, such as “thou shalt not kill”. This is contrasted with a hypothetical imperative, “you may kill if you are defending yourself” (notice the “if” provides a hypothetical situation where killing is allowed). Kant argued that his three formulations of the categorical imperative came out of reason, operating a priori, before experience, and, following Derek Norman’s description, produce three ways of universalising. We universalise our actions, our common humanity and the laws or rules we think everyone should follow.

b. Would Kant argue that everyone has the right to a child? (10 marks)

Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative states that for an action to be right we should treat all human beings not just as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves. This “principle of ends” implies that every human being should have rights, dignity and respect given to them, and forms one of the bases for human rights legislation. But does this imply that we should give every woman the right to have a child?

For most people who do not suffer from infertility, and are heterosexual, the issue does not arise (except in China where limits are placed on this right because of overpopulation). But to the homosexual couple or the infertile couple the issue does arise whether the state should allow access to fertility treatment, where a number of embryos are created in vitro, in a test tube (to give one example of how the right to a child may be worked out in practice). This raises the moral issue, is it acceptable to waste embryos?

Where a Kantian could universalise the idea of everyone having a right to a child, where the individual choice is respected, this issue does turn on the status of the foetus itself, whether it should be accorded special “rights” of its own. On this question a Kantian could argue in one of two ways: either that we universalise this right, or, placing ourselves in the position of one of the “wasted” embryos whose right to life is never realised, outlawing fertility treatment on these grounds.

Question 4

a. Explain the difference between Mill’s and Bentham’s version of utilitarianism. (25 marks)

Bentham and Mill’s versions of utilitarianism are both teleological theories because the goodness of an act is linked to consequences rather than something intrinsic to the act itself. However they differ on the thing which is linked to consequences: for Bentham it is the maximisation of pleasure which produces the greatest good, for Mill it is a more general idea of happiness. They also differ in their view of pleasure and whether it is the act itself or a more general rule which needs to be followed in order that the greatest good be maximised.

b. “Utilitarianism is the best approach to solving issues concerning genetic engineering”. (10 marks)

What are these issues concerning genetic engineering? Genetic engineering includes practices as diverse as cloning, gene therapy through stem cell research and the production of “designer babies” whose eye colour, intelligence and other features are pre-selected. Each of these three examples produces different moral issues. Here it will be argued that gene therapy has much clearer utilitarian gains, as measured by the welfare of society, in the curing of diseases at present causing pain and suffering, than for example designer babies, which could arguably produce some kind of genetic super-elite as portayed in the film Gattaca.

Question 5

a. Explain the main characteristics of the ethics of a religion you have studied. (25 marks)

Christian ethics is as diverse as the study of ethics generally. There are Christian relativists, such as Joseph Fletcher, and Christian absolutists, like Thomas Aquinas. Christianity can proceed by divine command or from the process of human reason (as Aquinas argued it should, following his theory of natural law). In this essay I take the view that there are common threads in all approaches, which in the end may be judged by the life of Jesus Christ, his character, teaching and actions, but that the variety in ethical approaches also reflects differences in culture and in the way the Bible is interpreted, but that a Christian relativist and absolutist will take very different standpoints on many key moral issues.

b. “Religious ethics is the best way of resolving issues of killing in war” (10 marks)

Christians have disagreed historically on approaches to killing in war, which may suggest that the “best way” may not be something Christians can easily determine. There are Christians, such as Quakers, who say that killing is never justified. They cite Bible verses such as “turn the other cheek” or “blessed are the peacemakers” to support their position. Other Christians consider that war is justified under some circumstances, and these circumstances are defined by just war theory, which finds its roots in the writings of non-Christian Romans like Cicero. This second view might cite instances such as the cleansing of the Temple, where Jesus resorts to violence to expel the money-changers, or the book of Joshua, where God appears to order the armies of Israel to utterly destroy the city of Jericho.

Glossary of key terms you should sprinkle liberally through your essays:

A priori before experience (as in Kant)

A posteriori after experience (as in Mill)

Absolute allowing no exceptions

Autonomy self-rule or freedom of

the individual

(Kant’s assumption)

Categorical imperative unconditional command

Deontological creating rules or duties, good is

intrinsic to action

Euthyphro’s dilemma Either an action is good because God commands it, or it is commanded by God because it is good. If the former, what do we do if God commands us to do something we think is morally wrong? If the latter, then goodness has nothing to do with God: he is morally redundant.

Hedonic pleasure based

Hypothetical imperative commands based on


good is external to action    (eg   good is linked to consequences in utilitarianism)

Natural law the goodness of an action is one

that is linked to its natural


Naturalistic fallacy the attempt to derive an “ought”

from an “is”

eg you oughtn’t to steal

(the“ought”) as it

makes people unhappy (the “is”)

Objective source of morality is outside me

eg God, or Kant’s “objective moral


Relativism Goodness is relative to culture,

belief, what J.L.Mackie calls

“forms of life”

Situation ethics Goodness depends on the

situation as long as we try to

maximise love.

Subjective source of morality is within me

eg feelings

Teleological goodness is extrinsic to the action

and lies in the end or purpose

Utilitarianism goodness of an action is one that

maximises pleasure (Bentham),

happiness (Mill) or preferences


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