Moral Philosophy: The 5 Most Important Ethical Theories (2022)

Moral Philosophy: The 5 Most Important Ethical Theories (1)

We all have beliefs about what is moral and what is immoral. But where do we get those beliefs from and how are they justified? In this article, we look at five of the most important theories in moral philosophy.

Moral Philosophy: Consequentialism

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The keyword in consequentialism is ‘consequence’. Consequentialism is an umbrella term that describes a moral philosophy where the most moral action is that which brings about desirable consequences. According to ‘act consequentialism,’ decisions and actions which bring about the most desirable consequences are the most moral (right) and those that bring about undesirable consequences are immoral (wrong). For example, lying to your significant other could help their self-esteem; in that instance, lying may be moral. However, we cannot always be sure about the ongoing or future effects of our present actions. There may be instances where telling the truth results in better consequences for you both. Because of this, act consequentialism depends on the context.

A question that we could ask about act consequentialism is: how can we make moral decisions without knowing the outcome of those decisions? Perhaps we merely intend to bring about the best possible outcomes, and that is what matters.

Rule consequentialism proposes that we can assess whether an action is moral or immoral according to whether the decision to act abides by certain ‘rules’ that generally lead to positive outcomes. Lying, for example, tends to lead to negative outcomes. Therefore, according to rule consequentialism speaking truthfully is a moral act, even if it results in an undesirable outcome.

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So far we have looked at two types of consequentialism that attempt to secure the best possible outcomes. However, negative consequentialism proposes that we ought to minimize harm rather than try and secure pleasure or the best possible outcome (which may in turn result from minimizing harm). Perhaps the most radical negative consequentialist is David Pearce, who proposes that we ought to eliminate all suffering from the Earth with the aid of technology and drugs. In his self-published memoir, he refers to this idea as the ‘hedonistic imperative’.

Problems with consequentialism lie in its subjective nature and its heavy reliance on our ability to predict what will bring about positive consequences.

Liberalism

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Liberalism is a moral philosophy that prioritizes human freedom. This philosophy was summarized by the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Liberalism is largely a political moral philosophy that aims to prevent governments from interfering with the lives of people, except for when the actions of people harm others. It is associated with civil libertarianism, a type of political thought that promotes civil liberties (individual freedoms). Taboo subjects like sex work and illicit drug use are generally seen to be acceptable forms of behaviour provided they harm no one else.

A problem often raised by critics is that liberalism may be short-sighted. Similar to consequentialism, we can question who is harmed and whether we can be sure of the carry-on effects of our actions and who they may affect.

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Virtue Ethics

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Virtue ethics takes its name from its emphasis on virtue. According to this moral philosophy, an act is moral if it contributes to a person’s virtuous character. Take stealing, for example:

  • Case 1: a person with no money steals cigarettes from a tobacconist because they are addicted to smoking.
  • Case 2: a person with no money steals from a grocery store to feed their friends and neighbors who are hungry.

A virtue ethicist may conclude that in Case 1 the theft that took place was out of desperation and as such cannot contribute to that person’s virtue or character development. However, in Case 2 the thief is stealing for the sake of a greater good, which is to improve the lives of his friends and neighbors. In Case 2 the thief is acting virtuously, whereas in Case 1 the thief only acts to serve their base instincts.

Stoicism is an ancient form of virtue ethics that has seen a rise in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It teaches adherents to critically assess their emotions and their knee-jerk reactions to events in the world and to uphold a virtuous character. If you are to act virtuously one must imagine what a virtuous person might do and then follow their example. Of course, virtue ethics could be potentially vague, given the intricacies of humanity and of the social contexts people live in.

Moral Absolutism

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If you believe that stealing is always wrong no matter the circumstances, you may be a moral absolutist. Moral absolutism claims that there are moral facts that never change. The Ten Commandments are an example of moral absolutism, whereby commandments such as ‘do not steal’ are examples of what moral philosophers call ‘divine command theory’. Interestingly, it is precisely this lack of flexibility that could raise problems for moral absolutism.

Take divine command theory, for example. If God is the sole decision-maker about what is moral and immoral, could God change his mind? That is to say, could God make an immoral act moral? Not only does this type of question challenge the omnipotent (all-powerful) characteristic of God, it could have radical implications no matter the answer. For if God can make an immoral act moral we can ask ‘for what reason?’. If that reason happens to be that God simply changed its mind, then all of morality comes from a whim and is without a satisfactory reason. However, if God cannot make an immoral act moral it suggests that even God must abide by moral laws. If that is the case, we can ponder whether God is necessary for morality at all. These are the types of questions that philosophers of religion have tackled for centuries.

Moral Nihilism

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have moral nihilism. Moral nihilism claims that there are no moral facts whatsoever. Some philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, have suggested that if there is no God (or even if there is no idea of God) then there can be no objective basis for morality, although some modern atheists dispute this, such as Sam Harris. Moral nihilism is often associated with moral decay and the downfall of civilization. However, moral nihilism in some way or another finds its way into other moral theories.

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One example of a moral philosophy that is arguably nihilistic is moral relativism. Simply put, moral relativism is the view that morality is determined by social convention and is differently understood across cultures and times. According to moral relativists, there is no proper or universal moral code.

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Another example of moral nihilism can be found in a moral philosophy called non-cognitivism. Moral non-cognitivism states that most (or all) of our moral statements and beliefs are not based on reason. Rather, they are based on preference and personal taste. Take Youtube comments for example. Non-cognitivists would likely suggest that many of the inflammatory remarks that people post about popular social issues are knee-jerk emotional responses that masquerade as moral judgments. Similarly, if you believe that X, Y or Z are moral simply because your parents or community told you so, you may have fallen into the trap of consensus rather than having formed a rational basis for your moral beliefs.

Perhaps the most pertinent question we can ask about moral nihilism is whether it is useful to us. Does knowing that there are no moral facts help us? Perhaps two questions are going on here; 1) is there an appropriate way to act? and 2) do morals exist? Moral nihilism says that there are no moral facts, but there may still be non-moral reasons to behave a certain way, and nihilist theories may help explain this.

The Key Questions of Moral Philosophy

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Moral philosophy largely comes in two forms: practical ethics and metaethics. Practical ethics has to do with deciding what is the right course of action in real-life situations. For example, biological ethicists determine how humans or animals should be treated in a scientific study, or how a study involving living things ought to be conducted. Metaethics, on the other hand, is what we have discussed in this article. Metaethics seeks to find a theoretical basis for our morality–what makes something moral or immoral and why.

What is your moral code? Where do you derive your moral beliefs from? On what basis are they justified? These are the questions we should ask as we develop our moral philosophy.

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By Casey ScottMA Philosophy, GDipEd English and Humanities, BA(Hons) Professional & Creative WritingCasey teaches philosophy and culture studies at a leading Australian university. His postgraduate research examined the metaphysics of biological concepts. He is a qualified English teacher with a degree in professional and creative writing and is about to begin his third degree in zoology and animal sciences.

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FAQs

Moral Philosophy: The 5 Most Important Ethical Theories? ›

There are a number of moral theories: utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue theory, the four principles approach and casuistry. Utilitarians think that the point of morality is to maximize the amount of happiness that we produce from every action.

What are the five main ethical theories? ›

Here, we take a brief look at (1) utilitarianism, (2) deontology, (3) social justice and social contract theory, and (4) virtue theory. We are leaving out some important perspectives, such as general theories of justice and “rights” and feminist thought about ethics and patriarchy.

What are the 5 theories of moral status? ›

Beauchamp and Childress cover five different perspectives on moral status, each of which appeals to some characteristics that serve as criteria by which one can distinguish between beings that have moral status and those that do not: (1) human properties, (2) cognitive properties, (3) moral agency, (4) sentience, and ( ...

What is the most important ethical theory? ›

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. It is a form of consequentialism. Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

What are the 4 main ethical theories? ›

Four broad categories of ethical theory include deontology, utilitarianism, rights, and virtues. The deontological class of ethical theories states that people should adhere to their obliga- tions and duties when engaged in decision making when ethics are in play.

What are the 5 sources of morality? ›

  • Five Sources of Ethical Standards. The Utilitarian Approach. ...
  • The Rights Approach. Other philosophers and ethicists suggest that the ethical action is the one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. ...
  • The Fairness or Justice Approach. ...
  • The Common Good Approach. ...
  • The Virtue Approach.

What are the moral theories of ethics? ›

There are a number of moral theories: utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue theory, the four principles approach and casuistry. Utilitarians think that the point of morality is to maximize the amount of happiness that we produce from every action.

Why ethics is also called moral philosophy? ›

At its simplest, ethics is a system of moral principles. They affect how people make decisions and lead their lives. Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society and is also described as moral philosophy.

What is moral status in philosophy? ›

Moral status is a concept of relating ethics to the treatment of people, animals, and the environment through a hierarchy. It encompasses the degree to which various living things deserve consideration.

What are the 7 principles of ethics? ›

This approach – focusing on the application of seven mid-level principles to cases (non-maleficence, beneficence, health maximisation, efficiency, respect for autonomy, justice, proportionality) – is presented in this paper.

What are the 6 Sources of ethics? ›

Sources of Ethics
  • Religion: 6.
  • Genetic Inheritance: 8.
  • Philosophical Systems: 8.
  • Cultural Experience: 8.
  • The Legal System: 9.
  • Codes of Conduct: 9.

What are the 4 sources of moral values? ›

Honesty: being truthful and sincere. Integrity: sticking to your moral and ethical principles and values. Kindness: being considerate and treating others well. Perseverance: persisting in a course of action, belief or purpose.

Where are the basic sources of ethical theories? ›

In terms of where ethics come from, they come from society and the collective beliefs and values of its citizens. But, more specifically, ethics also come from those individuals willing to make difficult choices and think about big questions: good and bad, right and wrong.

What is a moral philosophy example? ›

According to this moral philosophy, an act is moral if it contributes to a person's virtuous character. Take stealing, for example: Case 1: a person with no money steals cigarettes from a tobacconist because they are addicted to smoking.

What is the importance of moral philosophy? ›

Moral philosophy empowers us through its method and substance to reflect upon and talk about challenging moral issues. Studying ethics can even propel a personal journey, where we learn about ourselves and the way we think. We might even learn that others think in different ways.

What are three moral philosophies? ›

Moral philosophy is usually divided into three categories: metaethics, applied ethics, and normative ethics.

What are the main moral values? ›

The great moral values, such as truth, freedom, honesty, fairness, kindness, politeness, respect, virtues, perseverance, integrity, to know about one's duties, charity, compassion, etc. have one thing in common when they are functioning correctly, they are life protecting or life enhancing for all.

What is the full meaning of moral? ›

1 : concerned with or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior moral problems a moral judgment. 2 : able to teach a lesson of how people should behave a moral story. 3 : good entry 1 sense 13, virtuous They lead a moral life. 4 : able to tell right from wrong Humans are moral beings.

What is moral stand? ›

moral standing, in ethics, the status of an entity by virtue of which it is deserving of consideration in moral decision making.

What are the 8 ethical principles? ›

This analysis focuses on whether and how the statements in these eight codes specify core moral norms (Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-Maleficence, and Justice), core behavioral norms (Veracity, Privacy, Confidentiality, and Fidelity), and other norms that are empirically derived from the code statements.

What are the 7 types of ethics? ›

Types of ethics
  • Supernaturalism.
  • Subjectivism.
  • Consequentialism.
  • Intuitionism.
  • Emotivism.
  • Duty-based ethics.
  • Virtue ethics.
  • Situation ethics.

What are ethical theories examples? ›

27) define normative ethics as “theories of ethics that are concerned with the norms, standards or criteria that define principles of ethical behaviour.” The most common examples of normative ethical theories are utilitarianism, Kantian duty-based ethics (deontology), and divine command theory, which are described ...

What are the 3 main theories of ethics? ›

These three theories of ethics (utilitarian ethics, deontological ethics, virtue ethics) form the foundation of normative ethics conversations. It is important, however, that public relations professionals also understand how to apply these concepts to the actual practice of the profession.

What are the 6 types of ethics? ›

The principles are beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, justice; truth-telling and promise-keeping.

How many types of ethical theories are there? ›

Ethical theories are often broadly divided into three types: i) Consequentialist theories, which are primarily concerned with the ethical consequences of particular actions; ii) Non-consequentialist theories, which tend to be broadly concerned with the intentions of the person making ethical decisions about particular ...

What is moral philosophy? ›

In the normative sense, “morality” refers to a code of conduct that would be accepted by anyone who meets certain intellectual and volitional conditions, almost always including the condition of being rational.

What is the importance of ethical theories? ›

First, understanding ethical theory helps inform ethical decision-making. Second, it improves confidence and competence for making future ethical decisions. Third, it helps to understand how and why patients or colleagues may not share the same moral outlook.

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