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formalism (ethics)

Subject Philosophy » Ethics

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405106795.2004.x


E thics Ethical formalism holds that to decide whether one is morally obliged to perform or to avoid a certain act, one should not focus on the nature of act itself, but should rather elaborate a set of highly abstract moral principles or laws that can be applied universally, without regard to the particular persons and diverse circumstances in which ethical problems arise. The essence of moral philosophy is to justify abstract moral laws, and moral reasoning is typically rule-governed. The main proponents of formalism include Bishop Joseph Butler, Kant , and W. D. Ross . Sometimes formalism is used interchangeably with deontology . It is thus opposed to other ethical theories such as contextualism, existentialism, intuitionism, feminism , and ethical relativism , which claim that ethical thinking must attend to and judge particular cases. Formalism is the chief target of the contemporary anti-theory movement and virtue ethics , for virtue is generally regarded as being responsive to social and cultural contexts. β€œIt is, for instance, an easy consequence of our principles that moral formalism – i.e. a rigid adherence to the letter, with no appeal to the spirit, of the rules – will tend to be at a maximum in a static and isolated society.” Strawson, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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