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Understanding Ethical Theories – Introduction to Ethics

Updated on July 13, 2011

Ethics is becoming increasingly important in almost all disciplines, such as medicine, business, environment and politics. I believe this is partly because technology is advancing in medicine and business, we are beginning to care more about the damage we are doing to the environment and researching into more sustainable fuel and the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in society is rapidly growing. The implication of these is that we come across moral dilemmas more frequently in professional capacities and in everyday life. I honestly don’t believe that studying ethics is going to make it easier to make some of these difficult decisions, in fact, understanding all the different possibilities and justifications for doing or not doing something may well make it harder to come to a conclusion about the right action.

So, why study ethics?

If studying ethics isn’t going to suddenly enlighten you on all the worlds’ problems and is going to make things more difficult, then why should one both studying it in the first place? Here are a few things to consider:

- Medical professionals, doctors and nurses, are going to come across cases all the time where there is some kind of moral dilemma. Perhaps they have to advise a family to turn the life support off a relative or to donate their organs. It’s important for them to be able to understand the kind of reasons a family might have for saying no, being sympathetic to their reasons and ultimately be able to give good ethically based reason why the family should do what you say.

- Making a decision about whether to take someone off life support (for example) is never going to sit easily on your conscience. I know if it was me I’d probably spend the rest of my life wondering if I had done the right thing, no matter how many people told me I did. I think learning and understanding ethics would just give you a bit more satisfaction that you had done the right thing, it would make it easier to sleep at night knowing that professional ethicists would have reached the same conclusions as me and that I was ethically justified in my decision.

- Whatever field you are in, it is important to be able to argue for what you believe is right but with good, logical arguments that back up your opinion. As a politician you often have to justify why you are making certain cuts or giving money to one group rather than another and if you can make rational arguments about why you’ve chosen that option and why it is ethically better than other options then people will have to respect your decision, even if they don’t agree with it.


A Brief Overview of the Main Ethical Theories


Aristotle’s ethics centre around what it is to be virtuous and why we should pursue a life of virtue. He says we should act in a virtuous way because this will enable us to reach Eudaimonia (which is basically translated as happiness). Happiness, Aristotle believes, is the ultimate end which everyone strives for. Importantly, he distinguishes happiness from pleasure. This is necessary because pleasure is an animal state (having enough food, drink, sex), and humans have higher capacities which separate us from animals, such as reason, rationality, intellect and wisdom. Happiness is unique to humans because it is the result of the proper functioning of these capacities which are also unique to humans.

Happiness relates to goodness because all our actions are aimed at a good – the goods or purpose of medicine is to achieve health, the good of eating is to satiate hunger. The reason we want health etc is to get (achieve) happiness. We use our high capacities, like reason, to identify the good in a particular choice, so when we use our reason well we act virtuously and become a virtuous person. It is important, he says, that virtue does not come naturally to us. Being a virtuous person is so valuable and worthwhile because we have to learn it and work at becoming virtuous. Acting virtuously becomes instinctive because we have repeated the actions over and over, knowing what the virtuous course is and choosing to do it.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant


Kant’s moral theory comes under the umbrella of Deontology, because it is a rule-based theory, based on what Kant believes are objective truths. He says that the potential consequences of your actions have no bearing at all on whether your action is good or bad because you can never know for certain what the consequences are. Kant developed what is known as the Categorical Imperative to help determine what we should or shouldn’t do. The first part of Kant’s Categorical Imperative is to always treat people as an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end. Treating people as a means to an end basically means using them as a way to get what you want, for example, lying to a friend so that they’ll lend you some money.

The second part of this Categorical Imperative is to test each of your maxims for universality. A maxim is like a rule or statement that you choose to live by like ‘it is ok for me to steal’ or ‘it is not ok for me to steal.’ So what Kant is saying here is that if you can apply all your maxims to everybody without contradiction or logical impossibility then they are acceptable to live by. Take the example of universalising the maxim that it is acceptable for me to steal. If it was allowable for everyone to steal then the notion of private property would cease to exist as everyone would just take whatever they wanted at any one particular time. What it means to steal would not be a usable definition and you could no longer logically apply that maxim.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill


Quite simply, the Utilitarian mantra is ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ They intend for happiness to be maximised and pain to be minimised, which may seem pretty intuitive and in line with the way many of us think. The first well-documented Utilitarian was Jeremy Bentham, who stressed the importance of considering the consequences of our actions before making a decision about how to act in any given situation, and then choosing the action which is likely to produce most happiness. What Bentham suggests is considering the amount of happiness produced both directly and indirectly from your actions, how many people the happiness is going to spread to, the intensity of the happiness, its duration and likewise the amount of pain.

John Stuart Mill was a student of Bentham and a devoted Utilitarian who, amongst other things, tried to be more specific about what Utilitarians mean by happiness and the quality of pleasure. Trying to dispel the claim that Utilitarians are no more than hedonists, Mill distinguishes between higher and lower pleasures and says that we should aim to pursue the higher pleasures. Higher pleasures and pursuits could include activities like bettering yourself at a hobby or skill, or reading a difficult book. Higher pleasures are things that won’t necessarily bring you immediate pleasure but will create a general satisfaction or contentment.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ethical theories, in fact it's just the tip of the iceburg. These are the three theories that I would judge to be the main ones and the most well known. There are endless publications and articles analysing and discussing these three theories if you want to learn more. If you want to learn about other ethical theories I would recommend reading Hume, Locke, Hobbes or even some works by Plato.


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