Ethical Systems


The picture above suggests a way to integrate ethical systems on the basis of the structure of action. Ethical reflection can begin with the acting subject, the action itself, or the outcome.  Another consideration is the field of application: What actions can be subjected to ethical considerations? (Sneezing or falling from a tree is not an ethical act.) Furthermore, does ethics only apply to actions between subjects, like in the case of lying, or does it extend to other objects, like trees, animals, landscapes, etc.?

The table below compares five different approaches to ethics: Relativism, Religious ethics, utlitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.




ETHICAL RELATIVISM – There are no universally valid ethical principles. All moral principles are valid relative to cultural rules. The human-made and historically determined rules and laws of society are the only standard.

S- Brings about tolerance of other cultures. Keeps societies from falling apart.

W- Confuses what ought to be done with what is currently done.

Some Cultures practice cannibalism, polygamy, or female infanticide. These practices are strictly prohibited in the U.S. Vice versa, same-sex marriages would be unthinkable in many other countries.

DIVINE COMMAND THEORY – Moral standards depend on God who is the creator of a divine law. These laws come to us originally through revelations and sacred texts. Acts that conform to the law of God are right; an act that is in violation of God’s law is wrong.

Ethics based on religion can be complemented by a natural law theory.  From this point of view, God also created the universe and it reflects a divine law, so that people who do not know anything about the religion can still understand God’s law, because nature has it build in. 

S- Standards are from a higher authority than humans. Gives reasons why humans should behave morally. Gives worth to all equally.

W- Can be arbitrary depending on interpretation. Can we know the true divine authority? What about non-believers?

The Christian religion refers to the Bible, which contains the Ten Commandments, as well as many other rules and guidelines. (Thomas Aquinas.)

The Quran also codifies the principles of law and serves as ultimate authority for Muslims.

UTILITARIANISM – Actions are judged right or wrong based on their consequences. Right actions are those that produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness. Each person’s happiness is equally important.

S- Promotes human well-being and attempts to lessen human suffering.

W- One person’s good can be another’s evil. Hard to predict accurately all consequences.

The U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in WWII believing it was worth the loss of life to gain the end of the war and stop the higher loss of life if the war continued.

Philosophers in this tradition are Jeremy Bentham, J.S.Mill.

DEONTOLOGY – Emphasis is on moral rules and duty. If the rule behind the action cannot be generalized, then it is not a morally justifiable rule. Emphasis on autonomy, justice and kind acts. People treated as ends, never means.

S- It provides a special moral status for humans. Moral rules are universal.

W- It says nothing about other living things. Can we extend a deontological ethics to nature? Rules can be very abstract.

Lying is always morally reprehensible.

Kant’s categorical imperatives.

The  emphasis on human rights for all people stems from a willingness to reason that justice and equal treatment ought to be applied universally.

VIRTUE ETHICS – Morals are internal to the acting person. Ethics is the result of reasoning; it seeks to produce good people who act well as a result of ethical behavior, and perhaps out of spontaneous goodness. It emphasizes living well and achieving excellence.

S- Moral behavior is internalized, therefore does not depend on external rules.

W- Offers no guidance for resolving concrete ethical dilemmas.

Judging people by their character. A political candidate with a genuine interest to serve the people deserves more recognition than someone who searches for personal gratification or social status.

Phiosopher in this tradition: Aristotle.


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