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Ethical Theories: Morals, Traditional, Care, and Virtue

Updated on June 3, 2016
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Morals: what are they?

Morals have been called the very fiber of our being. They have been called the inner guiding of how we treat others and ourselves; but where do they come from?

Are we born with morals?

Do morals allow others to judge people?

Morals are a result of a culmination of upbringing, environment, culture, and religion; or lack thereof. People make choices based on what they are told is the right thing to do, and some make choices on ‘gut instinct’.

As such; morals are relative to cultures and lifestyles. Some moral codes may be drastically different, or even shocking to others.

Most moral codes are instituted for control, social civility, and power. I believe moral codes are needed to coexist in a safer world with expectations and consequences. It is how we evolved from living as rule-less primal cave people. Moral codes create a 'social contract'.

However, others take their moral codes to a another level from societal cooperation and coexistence to full-fledged control over their citizens. Many incorporate religion into them as well.

These rules are a way of life for followers; it shapes their minds, influences their behaviors, and fosters a moral code that is different from other cultures.

Because of the many questions moral codes raise, it has generated theories of why people act the way they do as a result. Contracts, bias, feelings, and religion are all ingredients to the following compilation of ethical theories that have been created to try to explain human behavior.

Read on to learn about all of them, or scroll to the theory that interests you.



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Cultural Relativism

So as we take into consideration what morals 'are' we can look at what shapes them.

Cultural relativism is a theory that believes moral codes are established and vary by culture (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

Some areas of the world may believe women are lower than men: they should walk behind men and exist for procreation and men’s pleasure only.

Some cultures may worship them. Others may murder them.

Clearly we cannot agree that each of these things is okay if we are applying our own moral judgment.

The cultural relativism theory states that because morals are culture-specific, we should be tolerant of other cultures. We should live our way and let them live their way.

There are five principles of cultural relativism:

  1. different societies have different morals
  2. moral codes of cultures determine what is right for them
  3. one cannot judge another person’s morals as wrong because no moral truth is believed by all
  4. moral codes of each society are not special
  5. it is arrogant to judge other cultures because we should be tolerant

(Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

I prefer to 'live and let live' ...I also think most cultures have the same basic beliefs in right and wrong.

I believe tolerance is key to overcoming issues, but there is a key element missing in this theory: exceptions.

They exist in any rule, and should in all moral codes.

For instance, I don’t believe people should be killed; unless they are trying to kill me, my loved ones, or have committed murder of an innocent person.

I also believe all spiders deserve to die if they are in my house, I’m kidding, but I’m not.

See, my belief is that if the insect is in nature, in it’s own ‘house’, I should not harm it, but if it is in my house, and I find the fact that it could lay eggs in my flesh overnight a threat, I kill it.

In general, I don’t believe in killing. So to be tolerant of a culture that may believe murder is the answer to theft, adultery, treason, political challenge; I cannot turn the other cheek.

I have feelings for others.

My feelings stem from my nature to empathize with a situation. These feelings were much stronger after having my son.

Once I became a mother, any abuse to a child evoked strong, almost primal reactions that I attribute to another facet of my morals.

Children are innocent, and should never be harmed.

In cultures that may kill a child that is not the right gender, or because it is socially acceptable due to economic reasons, I cannot be tolerant of it, and I choose to judge them rather than tolerate them.

Although the theory of 'live and let live' is a nice train of thought, it does not contain a caboose. It does not take into consideration the exceptions of tolerance, or the empathetic feelings of people.

I think most people have a tendency to feel compassion for others, how can we apply this theory of morals and ignore the desire to help and protect our kind? This is my subjective opinion, which is a result of my culture, experiences, and upbringing.

This aligns with the basis of the theory of cultural relativism, but the theory is merely the first word of a sentence. Where is the rest? It does touch on differing morals, universal morals, and moral judgment in its entirety---because it omits feelings as well as exceptions.

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Ethical Subjectivism v. Psychological Egoism

The theory of ethical subjectivism bases its premise that all morals are based on feelings, that there is no such thing as “right or wrong”, we act on how we feel and thus that is the right thing to the person who feels something is right (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

Much like the theory of cultural relativism, this is a good start to attempt to explain morals.

People may generally feel a certain way about something fundamental like theft. In the case where a person feels it's wrong and does not steal--the theory is correct. However; it lacks the substance of a supporting conclusion.

I’ve felt angry when someone cut me off on the highway, but I did not ram them in the rear like I felt like doing, because I believe that behavior is wrong because it could harm someone. That belief was taught....and not driven by feeling.

So if my morals are based on feelings alone, my behavior can change radically throughout the day, never holding true to one moral code. With this theory, we'd have universal chaos.

Conversely, I believe that feelings certainly are a part of morals, but feelings evolved from experiences, upbringing, and religion. Not an acute feeling that results from chemical surges in the brain.

As this theory was picked apart, it was refined into a Theory of Emotivism. Emotivism is a spinoff theory of ethical subjectivism that believes a moral statement is a person’s attitude toward something, and they are only expressing their feelings about an issue, but they should not judge another person’s stance on the same topic (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

This theory is a ‘let’s agree to disagree’ approach.

While I can essentially concur with the approach to not shed blood over whether abortion is right or wrong because the end result is counterproductive and amoral in itself; I can also find flaws with it.

As with cultural relativism, if someone’s attitude toward genocide is that it is moral and acceptable, what morals do I possess if I do nothing to stop it and simply state “let’s agree to disagree while you commit mass murder”.

If I am against genocide, then my morals also urge me to prevent it to the extent of my power.

So if someone says it is morally okay to murder these people based on their race because I feel they are evil, I cannot stand by and say “to each his own”.

Both ethical subjectivism and emotivism support a ‘turn the other cheek’ approach and cultural relativism guideline of tolerance of others, without any thought or feelings for harm to people, or exceptions.

Psychological Egoism is a theory of human psychology that each person acts purely in self-interest (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

While this is not an ethical or moral theory it ties morals to the assertion that people will choose how to behave based on how it benefits them. The theory is based on people doing what they want to do because it makes them feel good.

The theory disagrees that any person is truly altruistic and giving to others without benefiting themselves (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

This theory differs from the theory of ethical subjectivism because while subjectivism argues people’s morals are based on feelings and attitudes toward something, this theory argues why people behave a certain way in relation to the benefit it generates for them.

While I agree that self-interest is a motivating factor in doing good, even if it’s for the sense of satisfaction one may get from volunteering, that sense of satisfaction in itself is tied to morals.

I volunteer. I do it because I like to help others and by doing so, I feel good for contributing to the lives of others in a positive way. If my own self-interest is ‘happiness for helping others” then I can argue that my morals are of good nature, not based on feelings, because my feeling are spawned by my morals.

If my beliefs were that others who are poor or needy deserve it, then I would not help them, because it did not give me satisfaction to help those who don’t deserve it according to my beliefs.

So this theory is flawed in the sense that it ignores the very foundation of its argument: if people do what makes them feel good; the source of what makes them feel good is not purely self-driven, because their feelings of satisfaction can be derived from the result of the happiness of others.

Alternatively, and in congruence with the argument, some people may only do good to secure a spot in heaven, or get their name on a list of donors.

In that case, I would agree, but again, with both theories of Subjectivity and Egoism, neither theory considers exceptions or feelings.

Natural Law

The ancient Greeks argued that all things have a purpose, to do good, and don’t interfere with others ability to reach their potential through inherent tendencies (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

Saint Thomas Aquine believed this was a foundation to a theory of morals but believed the purpose of all things was through God’s will and his “Divine Command” (Rachels & Rachels, 2010).

While the Greeks' view was to develop fully to one’s potential through goodness, learning, evolving, and not interfering with others ability to do so, Saint Thomas Aquine believed that it was necessary to educate and evolve spiritually to understand God, His will, and our purpose.

While both theories are rather vague in identifying a source for morals and decisions and lifestyles based on morals, I can agree to an extent with both of them.

The strength of both arguments is that all things have a purpose. I can believe in this assertion. For instance, Earth has an atmosphere that supports plant life through photosynthesis and carbon dioxide, in turn those plants produce oxygen and food for humans and animals, and animals provide food and life for humans.

There is a purpose used for each interrelated subject, but I also believe it’s the result of science, not God, that our Earth and life supply is the way that it is.

If I had to support Saint Thomas Aquine’s theory, I could only state that his theory would be an acceptable answer for less educated people, or people that need to feel like they have the answer to the ultimate question of why we are here, and a greater sense of purpose than to only better themselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

The weakness in both theories is there is little substance behind either. There is nothing that guides a person to understand moral choices or decisions. They are like a riddle in a fortune cookie “do good and not evil”. The message is basic, and wholesome, but it lacks the light in the dark tunnel of “is this right or wrong”.

In summary:

Morals are customized to each person holding them. I believe upbringing, culture, religious beliefs and personal experiences impact a person’s morals and the way they live.

I do not think any one person has the same set of morals, but I believe all the theories discussed are a good preface to the reasoning of morals. None of them fully encompass the reason or substance of morals because they do not embrace compassion or exceptions to rules.

So let's take a look at how these wrap into other theories of ethics.

Old School Theories About Women's Ethics

  • Aristotle said women are not as rational as men
  • Kant said women lack civil personality and should not have a voice
  • Jean Jacques-Rosseau said men are leaders, women are home-makers
  • Kohlberg argued that boys were superior in their ability to make a moral decision

---Obviously times have changed!!


Traditional Ethical Theories: Prejudice Against Women

Most of history’s philosophies were written by man. In turn, these theories are based on a man’s views, values, and mindset. The issue feminists find with this is that men and women think differently.

  • Aristotle said women are not as rational as men
  • Kant said women lack civil personality and should not have a voice
  • Jean Jacques-Rosseau said men are leaders, women are home-makers

(Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

The ironic piece to these very biased statements is that these philosophers demanded impartiality in their theories, yet they did not even write their theories with the equal views they demanded in their teachings!

Feminists argued that although they agreed women think differently than men, neither way is superior to the other.

Kohlberg, a researcher, proposed a moral dilemma known as the Heinz dilemma to an eleven year old boy and girl. His question asked if a man’s wife was dying and the drug he needed cost twice as much as the money he had available and the druggist refused to provide it to him, should he steal the drug and save his wife, or let her die.

The boy stated he should steal it and save the wife that life is worth more than money.

The girl responded through verbally expressing her thought process all of the consequences that could result in the theft and decided the man should try to talk to the druggist first to see if there was another option (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

Kohlberg argued that the girl seemed unsure and chose a lower staged decision based on relationships where the boy chose to act on impersonal principles of the value of life.

Thus, he concluded, the boy was superior in his ability to make a moral decision.

I disagree with this.

First, the boy weighed no options, he asked no questions and did not think of the consequences of the action. He did not respect moral rules to not steal and justified his answer without considering any harm to others.

The girl, however; thought like a philosopher! She wanted more information, she wanted to know if other options existed so she could find a way to save the wife, and not break the law. In my opinion, this was a more thorough and inclusive method to answer the question, it held no assumptions. It was intellectually advanced compared to the boy.

Feminists argue along the same line, that there was prejudice against women from the beginning as men are the decision makers when it comes to their overall assessment of women. That is not impartial. Theories written by men who already view women as inferior will not acknowledge them any differently. Feminists believe there is a certain virtue of ‘care’ and relationship values that influence their moral decisions and that it is not better, but different than men who are more geared toward business rules and being in the public than women due to social expectations of the time, and thus it influences their theories to be more impartial, less relationship focused, and does not encompass all human virtues by including female thought processes and morals.

The Social Contract: Are You Bound?

It has been said it takes a village to raise a child. What does this mean exactly? It means we naturally depend on others to help carry out our tasks in our lives.

One in today’s society cannot say that he or she raises his child without assistance. We rely on companies to produce diapers, formula, we rely on educational systems for learning; we rely on daycare facilities to tend to our children when we work in order to survive in our type of world. Most importantly we rely on friends and family to help us when we need it. Advice, care, and company assist us with our most important tasks in life.

This is the essence of the Social Contract Theory: cooperation among people to exist and survive for mutual benefits received as a result.

Thomas Hobbes was a British Philosopher. He theorized that without a contract among people, we would live in a state of nature.

That is a state of everyone for himself, in continued fear of a violent death (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

Although this is extreme, his thought process has validity. If people did not live civilly under the agreements that killing, stealing, and lying are wrong then people would kill, steal and lie freely. They would have no consequences to fear as a result of their choices. So why would they think twice?

Thomas Hobbes believed that because all people have the same basic needs to survive like food, clothing, and housing, that there is insufficiency in resources, that everyone is essentially equal in power and mind, and because most people care about themselves, that a social contract is necessary to live rationally and civilly without the fear of being a victim (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

His theory of a social contract states that people trade off the fear of living in a society of war where everyone acts in their own interests in exchange for a negotiated mutual benefit of working together, obeying laws and public opinion for the result of being able to live with less fear and experience the benefits of a social contract (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

It is much like a treaty among people in the sense that we all agree not to kill and if someone does, they have breached the contract and should be punished.

We set expectations for standards of life by accepting this contract. This theory is much like an Oligopoly in business. If two companies are the only companies that produce a certain good, they should work together on the pricing of that good, or a cycle of suffering will ensue.

For instance if one company increases its prices dramatically to gain profit, the result will be a loss of customers for him and a gain for the other. Even small price increases by one firm can result in harm because the other may ignore the increase to gain more customers. If one drops prices simply to gain customers, a price war will begin. This constant fear of one-upping that affects financials is the basis of the reason to work together; to remove the uncertainty. Social contracts provide this relief as well.

The Social Contract theory says in its most basic form, if you respect me, I’ll respect you. We enter into this contract because others benefit us as much as we benefit them. If we all agree to behave in a certain way and not break certain rules, everyone wins because they now live in a society with less fear. Proponents argue that people will agree to be a part of this contract because it does benefit them more than if they did not agree to it. The strength in this theory is that it promotes a happier more civil lifestyle of working together to achieve a common goal and benefit.

An additional strength of this theory is that if a person breaks the contract through some action such as murder, we are no longer bound to respect him or his rights entirely, and the theory supports punishment for breach of contract.

This consequence of a breach is a deterrent to breaking the rules, and provides leverage in allowing punishment. Thus a proponent of the theory would show that vindication is approved for rule breakers because they disrupted our contractual right to a civil life.

Finally, The Social Contract Theory, unlike Kant’s theory, permits exceptions to the rules. The theory specifically states that no moral heroism is required (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

So a person bound by this theory would not be expected to sacrifice himself for a greater number of people because not everyone would agree to that.

Thus the theory envelopes what everyone agrees to do, and agreement is required for a contract. The strength in this is the allowance of exceptions and proponents would argue the theory is not broad like other theories and is not as demanding.

A weakness in this theory is the absence of the creation of this contract. Contracts don’t have to be in writing, they can be oral, however; opponents argue that it does not exist.

There is no historical evidence of the genesis of the social contract. If there was evidence, we would not be bound by it because we didn’t agree to it. Opponents also argue there is no evidence people lived violently which was the catalyst for the need of a social contract. I don’t agree wholly here. I think there is plenty of evidence of primal troglodytes who lived impulsively, sacrifices, murder, and thievery enough to show we have become more civilized, as a result of reactions to violent and unwanted behavior.

Western films depict a visual of how social contracts might have been improved upon through the implementation of rogue sheriffs and harsh punishment for unwanted behavior. Slowly, those expectations of civil behavior evolved into a more democratic system of laws, rules, and punishment.

If agreement is required for a contract though, when did I agree to this? When did you? That is an argument against this Theory.

How can anyone be bound by a contract they did not agree to, or were given the opportunity to negotiate. Essentially we are forced into this contract whether we like it or not.

Most social contracts are culturally impacted, but it is not easy to leave a country to seek a different contract one can agree to. So we essentially accept it. But, if we take the time to review what our benefits are, and we weigh our options, it is a better choice. And our legal system affords us the opportunity to ‘add’ to the contract through petitioning for law changes and such.

The social contract theory is an intellectual way to describe a slowly evolving verbal contract that shapes our expectation of people, how we live together, what we can gain from being civil, and what happens if we don’t follow the rules. Although we don’t really have a choice to agree to the contract, we are afforded avenues to add to the contract, and we do truly benefit from agreeing to live by the terms of the contract we never agreed to.

What about you? What are your thoughts on moral codes, how we should or should not behave and how we should handle those who live in a way that our morals do not approve?

What are your thoughts on the theories presented to explain how social contracts came about and how they impact morals?

Stages of Ethical Development

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Ethics of Care

Ethics of Care disagrees with traditional ethical theories in that impartiality cannot exist because certain special relationships result in partiality and moral obligation (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

As such, the theories demanding equal treatment and obligation to all people without being partial is not possible. This theory states when love is involved, you cannot be impartial. It also believes we care about being loved, we love, and in turn, love is not a duty, it is a feeling that impacts our decisions.

The theory focuses on respecting these special relationships between siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives and noting that moral obligations are impacted by those relationships and those relationships will have a priority over other people.

A strength in this theory is that most of us have made moral decisions based on relationships. Where we would help a sister move from one house to another on a Sunday night, we would not for a stranger. Where we would put off furthering our education to spend more time with our child, we would not in order to spend more time with a stranger’s child. Is this wrong? I don’t think so. It is a decision based on feelings and love.

I think that we can all agree this is a truth. Even the law acknowledges it. There are certain crimes named “Crimes of Passion”. It has its own category that applies to people who commit a crime as a result of an uncontrollable feeling that resulted from something. For instance, if a man catches another man raping his daughter and he murders that man, his charges will be lesser than if he killed a convicted rapist who did not affect him emotionally. He acted directly from the feelings that were involved when he knew someone he loved, not impartially, was harmed. If the law recognizes this, why don’t all theories recognize it?

A weakness in this theory is that we will not always have close relationships that impact our moral decisions. Thus is seems this theory would suggest we have no obligation to those we do not love. Opponents argue that no one would help the needy or be involved in charities if we strictly followed the Ethics of Care (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). In this sense I agree, but proponents argue that we should marry the Ethics of Care with moral obligation in order to achieve a good balance on how to be as a person, while still recognizing complete impartiality is not possible, and that love does impact moral decisions.

It is important to recognize what makes us human is the ability to feel emotions. It is this intangible thing that drives us to do things, be things, but most importantly to love and want love. We cannot ignore this innate virtue when it comes to moral obligations. We should understand and acknowledge it, and merge it with practical approaches to morals and ethics to achieve the appropriate balance in making moral decisions.

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Virtue Ethics

Aristotle summed up virtues as an attribute of a person’s character created through a consistent action or choice in behavior (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010). However, these specific virtues are commendable qualities, not bad characteristics established with bad intentions or through addiction.

Edmund Pincoff attempted to clarify this definition by stating virtues are what we seek from others when choosing to develop a relationship with them (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010). For instance, if we seek a tutor, we want someone dependable, honest, conscientious, and fair. Thus these are virtues because we want these qualities in other people.

Some virtues identified by Aristotle are benevolence, dependability, honesty, thoughtfulness, tolerance, civility, compassion, and cooperativeness (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

He added that virtues essentially balance extremes of behavior (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010). For example, tolerance balances intolerance and over-acceptance, and courage balances cowardice and recklessness.

His principles advocated that virtues are identified as such dependent upon the reason behind the virtue, if intentions are bad when being courageous, then it is not a virtue because it is carried out in bad faith. The courage to kill co-workers out of vindication in the face of being killed or punished, is still not a virtue because of the intention of harming others.

Aristotle argued Virtue Ethics creates a better life for a person who chooses to be virtuous because we need them to cope with life situations, to maintain relations, to obtain civil living, and to set and that all people will need virtues in all times in life (Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2010).

This is much like the Social Contract Theory, but with oneself. If someone chooses to be a virtuous person who is compassionate, dependable, loyal, and honest, he benefits himself by establishing a good reputation, but also spawns reciprocity in the same type of treatment from others. This principle was based on Aristotle’s view that humans have a need for human interaction and virtues perpetuate a good lifestyle to maintain those relationships. He also believed impartiality was not possible. In Virtue Ethics, impartiality is permitted based on relationships with others and virtues can be tailored to those relationships.

Aristotle also opined that since we cannot always avoid situations that are dangerous, or that calls for honesty, generosity, or dependable communication, we must tap into Virtue Ethics in order to have a guide in how to respond, live, and treat others.

An argument for Virtue Ethics is that it requires people to be motivated by feelings, not duty. So it improves the quality of actions. People don’t stop by and see a friend having a hard time because he feels obligated to, it is because he has compassion, a virtue, and his friend recognizes that. In turn, the quality of relationships are improved because true feelings are motivating factors.

Another argument for Virtue Ethics is that because partial treatment is accepted, we can acknowledge that we love others more than some, and are virtuous in our actions to them without exception. It also argues that not all virtues are partial, some can be applied impartially so it removes unrealistic expectations that people should treat everyone the same because it is simply not possible when we foster and create stronger loving relationships with some and not with others. I believe this portion of the theory is its greatest strength. It takes into consideration feelings, improves quality of relationships and allows for partiality because naturally we love some people more than others.

However; Virtue Ethics leaves a lot to be desired, or more importantly; explained. Virtue Ethics begins stating vices are bad, virtues are good. Who decided what is good and bad? What was the genesis of the labeling? Theories should give us enough information to determine this on our own, without divine command or predefined good and bad categories.

It also does not explain why these virtues are actually virtues. We again, do not have a birth of how these behaviors are defined as virtuous. We see some benefit in some areas like honesty, but we do not see with clarity why dependability is virtuous. It’s nice to be dependable, but to be a virtue? The theory fails to clarify.

The biggest weakness of this theory is that it seems to only be a component of the overall guide needed to be ethical and moral. It also does not provide guidance on conflicting situations. If kindness and honesty are both virtues, but we face a situation where one of those virtues will be ignored, it does not allow for it.

For instance if a friend who states she has been striving to lose weight, while stuffing her face with chocolate and Doritos comes to you crying because her father called her fat, are you honest or kind? You cannot be both, thus you must choose to ignore one virtue, which defeats the purpose of having virtues.

Virtue Ethics are a nice complement to the larger picture of morals and ethics. It addresses how we should behave to have virtues, but it does not explain why virtues are considered such. It does not address conflicting situations, and it does not explain from where the labeling of virtues versus vices, and bad versus good stemmed from.

Ethical Theories

Conclusion

We see that many people have tried to define morals, values, virtues.They have tried to separate gender and acknowledge differences in culture.

In the end, these theories are human. Most of them only address part of ethics. Others are bias. Some are good, some-eh, they could be better. But they all have something that is fundamental to ethics: deep thought about what is right and wrong.

They also seem to make everything 'black and white'.

Life is not black and white.

Our circumstances are not defined. We don't know how we could possibly react to an atypical situation that involves ethics and morals until it happens.

Thus, the value in these theories is to review them, piece them together, come up with your own. In doing so, you are discovering yourself and what guides you to do the 'right' thing.

What are your thoughts on right and wrong? Morals? Ethical theories and how they integrate into your life?

References

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2010 ). The Right Thing To Do. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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