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What is Ethics?

Ethics concerns right or wrong behaviour defined in terms of moral choices. Ethics refers to principles by which to evaluate behaviour as right or wrong, good or bad. Aristotle considers ethics to include the good life which meant a life worth living or life that is satisfying.

Ethics is theorizing about right conduct and good life, whereas morals are the actual practice of right conduct and good life. For example stealing, lying, cheating, killing and indifference to the well-being of others are considered to be unethical. Preserving human life, concerns for others, honesty and truthfulness are considered to be ethical.

Ethics can be divided in two types – descriptive and normative ethics. Normative ethics describes the standard for the rightness and wrongness of acts whereas descriptive ethics is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. There are three important normative ethics theories:

1. Virtue Ethics

2. Consequentialism (prominently utilitarianism)

3. Denotological Ethics (prominently Kantianism)

Virtue Ethics:

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the formal rules for or the consequences of actions. The key elements of virtue ethical thinking are based on the approaches to ethical thinking of the ancient and medieval periods. The roots of the Western tradition lie in the work of Plato and Aristotle, but virtues are important also in traditions of Chinese moral philosophy. Virtue theory returned to prominence in Western philosophical thought in the twentieth century.

Virtue ethics includes an account of the purpose of human life, or the meaning of life. To Plato and Aristotle, the purpose was to live in harmony with others, and the four Cardinal Virtues were defined as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The Greek idea of the virtues was later incorporated into Christian moral theology. Proponents of virtue theory sometimes argue that a central feature of a virtue is that it is universally applicable.


Consequentialism refers to those moral theories, which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence.

Utilitarianism is a specific strand of consequentialist ethics. Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed up among all persons.

The more happiness or pleasure for the more people, the better. It is consequentialist because the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome, and that the ends justify the means. Utilitarianism can also be characterized as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics.

Utility – the good to be maximized – has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus sadness or pain). It has also been defined as the satisfaction of preferences. It may be described as a life stance with happiness or pleasure as ultimate importance. In general use of the term utilitarian often refers to a somewhat narrow economic or pragmatic viewpoint. However, philosophical utilitarianism is much broader than this; for example, some approaches to utilitarianism also consider non-humans (animals and plants) in addition to people.

Deontological Ethics:

Deontological ethics has also been called “duty” or “obligation” based ethics. Deontologists believe that ethical rules “bind you to your duty”, and they look at the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions. Deontological ethics looks at our fidelity to principle and disregards the consequences of a particular act, when determining its moral worth.

Kantianism (or Kantian ethical theory) is deontological, revolving entirely around duty rather than emotional feelings or end goals. The core concept is “duty”, or what one ought to do in certain situations. Kantianism states that truly moral or ethical acts are not based on self-interest or the greatest utility, but on a sense of “duty” and a sense of what is right and fair on a wider level (despite the possible consequences for the individual and their usefulness for others). Kantian theories are based on the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). Kant thought that human beings occupy a special place in the world, and that morality can be summed up in one, ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. A categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.
Kant argued against utilitarianism and other moral philosophy of his day, because for example an utilitarian would say that murder is OK if it does maximize good for the greatest number of people; and he who is preoccupied with maximizing the positive outcome for himself would see murder as OK, or irrelevant. Therefore, Kant argued, these moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as basis for moral judgments because they are based on subjective considerations. A deontological moral system was his alternative, a system based on the demands of the categorical imperative.

As an example of these categorical imperatives or duties, the philosopher W.D. Ross built upon Kant’s theory and listed a few basic duties. One should: tell the truth; right the wrongs that one has done to others; act justly; help others in respect to virtue, intelligence, and happiness; improve oneself with respect to virtue and intelligence; give thanks; and avoid injury to others. In Kant’s words; “Act so as to treat others as ends and not merely as means”.

Take corruption as an example. Virtue ethics will consider corruption as a break of several categorical imperatives, including to avoid injury and to act justly, because corruption is to favour certain people. Likewise, deontological ethics (Kantianism) will look at your commitment to principle (and disregard the consequences of a particular act), and will argue that corruption involves deception and undermines the rational and moral capacity of those involved, and therefore deem corruption as unethical. Consequentialist theories like utilitarianism, however, may see corruption as ethical. Some observers have argued that corruption is to “grease the wheels” and can make bureaucracies work more efficiently (which is useful to most people). Although this argument is rarely seen today (the immediate efficiency gain is ruined by the long-term damage made to the administrative system), the argument can exemplify a perspective from which corruption can be seen as ethical.

Modern Moral Philosophy

In the 20th century, moral theories have become more complex and are no longer concerned solely with rightness and wrongness, but are interested in many different kinds of moral status. W.D. Ross for instance, argues that moral theories cannot say in general whether an action is right or wrong, but only whether it tends to be right or wrong according to a certain kind of moral duty such as beneficence, fidelity, or justice. Other philosophers have questioned whether these principles or duties can be articulated at all at a theoretical level; some have moved away from the theories and principles of normative ethics towards descriptive morality and meta-ethics. Other philosophers are still defending moral theory on the grounds that it need not be perfect in order to capture important moral insight.

Modern moral philosophy is increasingly revolving around claims-based or rights-based ethics, which are ethical theories based on the fundamental principle of human rights and other rights or claims of the individual. Rights-based theories argue that people have a claim to certain freedoms and rights, like liberal theories which focus on people’s claim to freedoms like the freedom of speech, association, religion, etc. These modern theories are focusing on people’s claim to rights like human rights, civil rights, political rights and social/economic rights. One example is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Another example of rights-based theories is “welfareism”, which argues that people have a claim to a welfare state that can provide them with security, basic health services, education, jobs, housing, etc.