Ethical Theories | Definition, Principles & Examples

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What kind of moral values should we hold? How should we behave towards those around us or in our societies? Are we free to do whatever we like or are there constraints that we must consider important? How should we deal with practical social problems like stealing, killings (e.g. suicide, abortion, euthanasia, genocide, war, etc.), divorce, among others? These and many other similar questions are what ethics strives to find answers to.

Traditionally, ethics, as a main branch of philosophy, has been known to concern itself basically with enquiries, reflections and investigations about human conducts. It, thereby, asked questions about good and bad conducts, about the rightness and wrongness of actions and about being a virtuous or a bad person.

In recent times, the complexity of modern life has necessitated the broadening of scope and concerns of ethics in order to examine certain upcoming issues. Ethics, for instance, now raises questions about our moral obligations to the environment and non-human animals; whether what is moral is viewed the same way by men and women; the right way to act in businesses and professions; how we should treat or relate with those who are terminally ill; how we should relate with persons with different orientations like lesbians, gays and transgendered persons; what is morally required of us in making use of the Internet; and so many other questions about our contemporary world.

In traditional African societies, especially in kingdoms, empires, villages and family compounds, because of the communal way of living and strong family ties, children naturally learnt or imbibed moral values from the moonlight tales they were told and the general way of pointing their attention to good and acceptable moral conducts.

Today, the story is different, as individualism (which has mostly been engendered by working parents often too busy to have time for their children), divorce, wars and unrest in some parts of Africa, day-care centres, creches, boarding schools, and so on, have broken down much of family life; whereas, the family is supposed to be the custodian of moral values and ideals.

This breakdown in moral integrity has introduced so many social and political problems into many African societies. Effects of moral decline are evident all around us in forms of fraud, abductions, embezzlement and siphoning of public funds into private accounts, militancy, insurgencies, terrorism and different kinds of sexually-transmitted diseases, social unrest from time to time, religious and sectional crises, scams and all kinds of cybercrime. The list is endless! All these make it necessary, more than ever before, to examine more seriously our ideas about morality - and this is what ethics attempts to do.

Applied ethics is the branch of ethics which examines the moral status of practical social issues. It does this by using ethical theories which we have in normative ethics to judge practical issues of everyday life. When faced with making moral decision or passing judgment on any particular or definite moral issue, in most cases, we usually desire to know what the moral status of such an issue is.

For example, we ask whether it is always wrong to kill, cheat, lie, go for an abortion, assist with euthanasia (or other forms of medicide), use up the environment without thinking about the future generations, and so on. Also, we usually desire to know whether some of those practical moral issues are sometimes justifiable or absolutely condemnable.

Applied ethics deals with different social and political moral issues which, for the purpose of convenience, have been categorised based on their similar concerns. The groups include bioethics, gender ethics, sexual ethics, journalism ethics, infoethics, professional ethics, animal rights ethics, business ethics and environmental ethics.

Types of Ethical Theories

Basically, there are three types of ethical theories. These are:

  1. Consequentialist or teleological ethical theories - for this type of ethical theories to determine whether moral issues are right or wrong, we only need to examine their result, outcome or consequence. If an action produces a good result, then it is a good action; otherwise, it is a bad action. Examples of this type of theories are: utilitarianism, egoism, hedonism and altruism.
  2. Deontological ethical theories - theories in this category do not consider the outcome of a moral action to determine whether the action is right or wrong. Rather, they appeal to rules, logical consistency, principles and regulations to judge an action. Examples of this type of theories are Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, social contract moral theory and divine command theory of morality.
  3. Virtue ethics - theories of virtue ethics hold that whether a particular moral action is right or wrong does not depend on the action itself, rather, it depends on the character of the doer of the action known as the moral agent. Virtue ethics holds that good action can only come from a good person, while a bad person is not capable of a good action. An example of a theory of virtue ethics is Aristotle's doctrine of the mean.

Six (6) Major Ethical Theories

Ethical theories are the standards by which moral issues are weighed in order to determine whether they are right or wrong.

Some of the most popular ethical theories are:

1. Utilitarianism

In a nutshell, the utilitarian approach to ethical thinking takes the position that the rightness or wrongness of any action is dependent entirely on the consequences If it maximises the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

2. Egoism

Ethical egoism is the theory that holds that people ought to pursue their own well-being when making moral decisions.

3. Social Contract Ethics

This theory of ethics holds that morality consists of a set of rules, governing how people are to treat one another, that rational people will agree to accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition that others follow those rules as well. Put differently, it is held that since the social contract is an implicit agreement about the basic principles or ethics of a group, the web of such agreements forms the basic set of ground rules of the organisation or society.

4. Situation Ethics

Situation Ethics recognises no intrinsic morality. In it, situation is the ultimate criterion in judging an act to be moral or immoral. It accepts laws, not as prescriptive command, but only as illuminating guides. Situation ethics, therefore, recogni- ses no absolute and objective moral laws. However, it embraces love as the only absolute principle of moral conduct. Thus, the moral injunction in Situation Ethics is: Always do the loving thing.

5. Kant's Categorical Imperative

The categorical imperative of the modern philosopher, Immanuel Kant, states, on the one hand, that one must always act on the maxim which one can will to become a universal law.

On the other hand, the categorical imperative also avers that one should never use a human being, either in one's own person or in the person of another as a means to an end, but one should rather treat a human person as an end in itself. For Kant, in so far as rational beings take themselves to be rational, they necessarily recognise the categorical imperative as a constraint upon themselves.

6. Feminist or Care Ethics

This approach to ethics holds that gender matters to our construction of moral problems, our understanding of moral agency, our assessment of moral theories and practices, our articulation of central moral concepts, and much more besides.

Hence, feminist ethics emphasises care, responsibility, nurturance, com- passion, and so on, while it de-emphasises such concepts as duty, justice, rules, and selfishness, which are believed to be androcentric.

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