Ethical Theories


Subjective Relativism

Cultural Relativism

  • The ethical theory that what is right or wrong depends on place and/or time


  • Different social contexts determine different moral guidelines
  • One society should not judge another by its own standards
  • The actual behavior of a society reflects its values better than what it says


  • Different views of right and wrong are not always acceptable

◦Just because they exist does not make them okay

  • Cultural relativism can be vague and subject to different interpretations
  • There are no guidelines for reconciliation between cultures in conflict
  • Cultures have to share many “core values”


  • Good actions are aligned with the will of God
  • Bad actions are contrary to the will of God
  • The holy book helps make the decisions
  • Also known as theological voluntarism

Plato’s Euthypro’s problem: “Is something right because God approves it or God approves soemthing because its right?”

Pros and Cons


  • We owe obedience to God, our creator
  • God is all good all knowing
  • God Is the ultimate authority


  • There are many holy books that disagree with each other
  • In a multicultural society its unrealistic to adopt a religion based morality
  • Some moral problems are not mentioned in the holy books
  • DCT is not base on reason
  • Are we certain that God exists?

Virtue Ethics

–> EX: Confucianism

Virtue-Ethicists tend to side with deontologists again consequentialists – though not always

Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.

Right thing is what the virtue person would do, which can be found by following the virtue.


  • Makes people consider basic virtues
  • Enhances moral developmental and training


  • Ignores consequences
  • Ignores situation
  • Too optimistic


The rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by its consequences

Action –> Result

Two branches of it:


” The purpose of morality is to teach you not to suffer and die but rather enjoy yourself and live.”

  • The right action is the one that promotes the greatest happiness of the agent (maximizes the agent’s utility)
  • What is right for me, it’s the best thing! If it makes me happy, then I should be doing it.
  • We have no duty except to do what is best for ourselves
  • There is only one ultimate principle of conduct, the principle of self-interest


  • It is practical since we are already inclined to behave in such way
  • The community can benefit when individuals put their well-being first
  • If you are rational and really understood your self interest, you would do no harm to others as you would see it would do harm to you


  • It has a negative effect on personal relationships
  • It could be detrimental for societies
  • Ethical egoism is a dorm of bigotry: what makes my interests more important than yours ?


  • Standard for the rightness of actions is beneficial consequences (more happiness for more individuals)
  • Differs from ethical egoism (another consequentialist theory) in appealing to beneficial consequences for everybody, not just oneself
  • Claims the virtue of simplicity

Principle of utility  (greatest happiness principle)

  • An action is right to the extent that it decreases the total happiness of the affected parties
  • An action is wrong  to the extent that it decreases the total happiness of the affected parties
  • Happiness may have many definitions such as: advantage, benefit, good or pleasure


  • It focuses on happiness
  • It is down-to-earth

◦It is practical

◦Well defined

  • It is comprehensive


  • The boundaries of an evaluation are not clear
  • It is not practical, too much work can go into every moral decision
  • Ignores persons’ innate sense of duty
  • It is susceptible to the problem of “moral luck”
  • We are forced to use the same scale or measure for all evaluations even if the consequences are completely different
  • It ignores the unjust distribution of good consequences


  • The rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by inherent features of the action itself, or by an inherently valid rule

Rule –> Ceremony

If an action is of the wrong kind, it is forbidden, no matter how good its consequences are

Rejects both utilitarianism and Ethical Egoism

“The end does not justify the means”

  • An example of it could be


  • –> right actions must be universalizable and must treat rational agents as ends, not mere mean

People’s wills should be based on moral rules

Therefore, it is important that our actions are based on appropriate moral rules

To determine when a moral rule is appropriate, Kant proposed two Categorical Imperatives

‘First formulation of the Categorical Imperative’

  • Act only from moral rules that you can at the same time universalize

◦If you act on a moral rule that would cause problems if everyone followed it then your actions are not moral

‘Second formulation of the Categorical Imperative’

  • Act so that you always treat both yourself and other people as ends in themselves, and never only as a means to an end.

◦If you use people for your own benefit that is not moral



  • It is rational, i.e. people can use logic to determine if the reason for their actions meet one of the categorical imperatives
  • It produces universal moral guidelines
  • All people are moral equals and deserve to be treated similarly


  • Sometimes a single rule is not enough
  • There is no way to resolve a conflict between rules
  • It allows no exceptions to moral rules


What is good and evil is derived from the rational nature of human beings. Good and evil are thus both objective and universal.

A body of legal or quasi-legal precepts that:

  • Are based in human nature, not convention
  • Can be ascertained by human reason
  • Set the standard for, and take precedence over, manmade laws
  • Often combine deontology & virtue ethics
  • Are sometimes theologically based

Natural Law Theory –> The doctrine of double effect

  • If an action has two results, one good one bad, it is permissible only if :

◦the good outweighs the bad

◦The bad is only foreseen, not intended


  • Simple clear way of defining ethics
  • Universal application


  • No account for situation
  • Does every act need to have a conclusion to be right or wrong ?
  • Human nature is not unchanging
  • Too strict for many consequentialists
  • Too permissive for many deontologists


“Morality consists in the set of rules, governing how people are to treat one another, that rationale people will agree to accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition that others follow  those rules as well.’

Principles of JUSTICE

Each person may claim an adequate number of basic rights and liberties as long as everyone else has a claim to the same rights and liberties.

Any social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions

  • They are associated with positions in society that everyone has a fair and equal opportunity to assume —–> VEIL OF IGNORANCE
  • The difference principle: they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society —–> MAXIMIN


  • It uses the language of rights
  • It explains why rational people act out of self interest in the absence of a common agreeement
  • It provides a clear ethical analysis of some important moral issues regarding the relationship between people and their government
  • It is a workable theory


  • If we don’t sign the contract why should we be bound by it?
  • Some actions can be characterized multiple ways
  • It does not have a way to resolve conflicting rights
  • It may be unfair to those who are incapable of upholding their side of the contract

Introduction to Ethics

Ethics is a branch of philosophy

Philosophy? Questions about the ultimate nature of reality, knowledge and value

3 main branches:

  • Metaphysics: nature of reality
  • Epistemology: nature of knowledge
  • Axiology: nature of value –> axia= value

-ethics (moral value)

-aesthetics (artistic value)

Ethical Theories

  • Relativism

Subjective Relativism


  • People can have opposite opinions
  • Opposing views do not need to be reconciled
  • Unpleasant debates are avoided


  • Can be used to rationalize bad behavior