Different ethical theories

19 Mar 2014

We all act in certain ways. Our acts and the ultimate reasons behind them are what constitute our morals. We act according to goals we intend to reach, such as increasing happiness (ours and that of others), reducing harm suffered by sentient beings, and benefiting the worst-off. Some people also act according to certain norms, such as keeping promises or telling the truth.

In different societies and social groups there are usually different assumptions about how humans should live. Accordingly, moralities vary according to place and time.

We may simply accept the way we’ve been taught to live since birth; however, many people question these assumptions over time, and consider the morals they have been taught. Even those who do not have such a critical attitude may eventually find their different moral assumptions to be in conflict, and have to face, at some points in their lives, situations in which they have to decide what to do when their moral assumptions conflict. For example, someone may believe that we should never break a promise and that we should always try to help the needy. If a situation arises in which they have to decide between helping the needy or keeping a promise, then they would face a moral dilemma.

When we think through such dilemmas we are reflecting on our moral situation, and we call this reflection “ethics”. Ethics is different from morals. Morals are actions and the reasons behind them. Ethics is the critical reflection on morals. The aim of ethical thinking is to detect contradictions among different moral claims and to consider what to do about them. For example, if we claim that we should respect all those who can suffer and that we can exploit women or nonhuman animals, then that is a contradiction we must try to resolve.

General ethical approaches

Ethics is the analysis of the reasons why we should act in certain ways rather than others. There are many different ethical theories, which differ according to the way in which they require us to act and in the arguments that support them. The most widely accepted ethical theories are outlined below.


Consequentialist theories state that there are things, actions, states of affairs, etc. that are good, or better than others, and claim that we should act in ways such that these things occur. According to consequentialist views, we should act to bring about better situations. For instance, we may think that what is best is a world in which there is as much happiness and equality as possible. Then we would think that the best way to act is to bring about a world with more happiness and equality.


Deontology claims that there are certain actions that are forbidden and others that are required, no matter what consequences follow from them. For example, suppose that by telling one lie we could ensure that no more lies would ever be told. According to deontology, the first lie still should not be told because lying is forbidden.

There are many different forms of deontological views. Some of these concern actions that we should not carry out. Some claim that we should not kill, others that we should not lie, others that we should not break promises, etc. Others are about actions we should carry out. Some claim that we should help others to make their lives better, that we should strive to protect others from suffering harms, or that we should follow rules of etiquette, etc.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics supposes that what matters most is not the concrete actions we should or shouldn’t carry out, but, rather, developing what we consider a good or virtuous moral character. These views claim that in order to know how to act we should ask ourselves how someone virtuous would act rather than acting in accordance with the best outcome for the situation, or considering moral requirements or prohibitions. In practice, though, this view may prescribe the same courses of action as either of the previous two theories do.

Different ethical theories

According to the utilitarian ethical view, the best outcomes are those in which the sum of the wellbeing or happiness of each individual is maximized. In other words, if the positive or negative wellbeing of all individuals could be added together, that total is what should be maximized.

According to egalitarian ethical views, one outcome will be better than another if the situation is improved for those in the worst situations, even if the total sum of wellbeing or happiness does not increase.

Other theories exist within one of the following constructs:

A situation is considered to be good if no one is below a certain level of happiness, and bad (that is, in need of improvement) if anyone’s happiness is below that minimum level. This is called sufficientarianism.

Our moral concerns should be primarily determined not by what is just, but by our caring relations with others. This is called care ethics and, according to some views, would be an instance of virtue ethics.

What is right according to one theory may be wrong according to another. Some theories may themselves be internally inconsistent, and thus have to be rejected. An example of such inconsistency is a theory that takes into account all humans but not those without complex cognitive capacities.

Even among consistent ethical theories we find disagreements. Different people have different views. There may be no way to solve the disagreement among them in definite terms. But an ethical theory can still be useful in helping us decide how to act in most situations.

Although people have different intuitions and preferences for ethical views, one feature is that the most widely accepted theories support the moral consideration of nonhuman animals.

References (more references on concrete ethical theories in the different sections presenting them)

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Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958) “Modern moral philosophy”, Philosophy, 33 (124), pp. 1-19.

Bennett, J. (1981) “Morality and consequences”, in McMurrin, S. (ed.) The Tanner lectures on human values, 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bentham, J. (1907) Introduction to the principles of moral and legislation, Oxford: Clarendon [accessed on 26 December 2013].

Brook, R. (2007) “Deontology, paradox, and moral evil”, Social Theory and Practice, 33, pp. 431-440.

Gert, B. (1970) The moral rules: A new rational foundation for morality, New York: Harper & Row.

Harsanyi, J. (1973) Can the maximin principle serve as a basis for morality?: A critique of John Rawls’s theory, Berkeley: Center for Research in Management Science.

Hooker, B. (2000) Ideal code, real world: A rule-consequentialist view of morality, Oxford: Clarendon.

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