Making Sense of Morality: Critical Theory Overview

Various ethics terms
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay


Naturalistic ethics remains a dominant moral approach in the west. But there are at least two other contemporary kinds of ethics. They are critical theory and its particular versions, as well as postmodernism. I will start with critical theory (CT), with a focus today on social justice.

Overview of Critical Theory

Social justice has a long and venerable history, including efforts such as abolishing British and American slavery; caring for the vulnerable, such as the poor, widows, orphans, and minorities; and caring for the sick, such as through building hospitals. Today, however, there seems to be a “new kind” of social justice that focuses on issues such as (1) economic justice through the redistribution of resources; (2) freedom from discrimination due to one’s gender identity, and to be given positive rights on that basis; (3) environmental justice; and (4) racism and reparations.

Three Key Positions

Some of the reasons for the influence of CT is that it taps into accepted views we have seen. First, it accepts materialism: reality is made of matter, without any essences. Second, everything is particular (nominalism). Third, in terms of knowledge, it accepts historicism.


Now, CT posits that there are two groups, the oppressors and the oppressed. A critical theory seeks to liberate people from domination and oppression and increase freedom in all their forms. Ethically, our fundamental duty is to liberate the oppressed. That is done by leveling power and redistributing resources (i.e., material solutions, since matter is what is real). This means an equality of outcomes, not opportunity.

For Further Reading

Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized