A Brief Guide to Theories of Ethics
Writer Ian Welsh describes the difference between morality and ethics as such: "morals are how you treat people you know. Ethics are how you treat people you don’t know." Whereas morals guide your sense of right and wrong within
your personal life, ethics guides your sense of right and wrong as a member of a society or culture. Sound ethics are what make you a good statesman, businessperson, scientist, engineer, or any other sort of professional. The term "ethics" comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning "character," and both morals and ethics can be seen as the chief criteria by which we judge the quality of our own, or another's, character.
Throughout this course, we will be examining various definitions of morality and ethics, but it might be useful to establish some brief definitions of the main branches of normative ethical study now so that you'll be prepared for discussions moving forward. The three we will be examining are virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology:
Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
In the first book of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle lays out his thoughts regarding the purpose of man in civilized
society. He argues that a man's main purpose is to achieve eudaimonia, a word that can be translated as "happiness,"
"well-being," or "human flourishing." Essentially, Aristotle argues that the ability to reason is the one thing that sets us apart from the animals; therefore, to exercise reason – to pursue eudaimonia – is an "activity of the soul in accordance
with virtue." This ability to reason allows us, among other things, to make the most appropriate choices about right and wrong.
Aristotle also argues in "The Aim of Man" that statecraft is the art that allows us to achieve the greatest amount of "human flourishing" because it encompasses all other arts and sciences. Our goal as citizens is to exercise reason to execute the ethical choices that will bring the greatest happiness to the state and, because we are citizens of the state, to ourselves as well. In order to foster our ability to make such difficult choices, we must nurture certain intellectual virtues within ourselves. The five most important of these intellectual virtues include art or technical skill (techne), scientific knowledge
(episteme), prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis), intelligence or intuition (nous), and wisdom (sophia). The four secondary virtues are resourcefulness or good deliberation (eubolia), understanding (sunesis), judgment (gnome), and cleverness (deinotes). There are also a number of moral virtues, including courage, temperance, liberality, munificence, high-mindedness, right ambition, good temper, friendliness/civility, sincerity, wittiness, modesty, and just resentment. Our goal is to achieve a balance of all these intellectual and moral virtues so that we are not simply purely intellectual or purely moral beings. Furthermore, we don't do this in pursuit of Heaven or to be closer to God (Aristotle, an empiricist, was not a deep believer in the afterlife), but because it's the right way to live.
Ultimately, for Aristotle, the ethicality of our actions are weighed by these virtues, and a person's worth is judged based on their adherence to these virtues. In other words, it's not only the good or bad of the action that is being judged, but the
good or bad of the actor. Hence the name "virtue ethics."
Utilitarianism and Consequentialism 1Machiavelli, a political theorist whom we will study later in this semester, argued that the "ends justify the means." In
other words, the ethicality of an action is judged based not on the action itself, but on its results. If good comes from the action, it was an ethical action. This school of ethical thought is known as Consequentialism. Machiavelli, for instance, tells the wise prince that he should be miserly with his money because if he is generous, his people will take advantage of him, thus bankrupting the kingdom. For the sake of economic stability, the most ethical course of action is to be miserly. One example of a Consequentialist philosophy is utilitarianism. The philosophy of utilitarianism, as laid out by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and later expanded upon by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and others, is called the "Greatest Happiness Principle," which states that an ethical action is one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Some have argued that, in that sense, it shares similarities to Aristotle's estimation that the pursuit of human
1 Most political historians see this as a mistranslation, though the notion that the ends justify the means certainly exists throughout
flourishing is connected to the overall flourishing of the state (indeed, Mill referred to Aristotle as a "judicious utilitarian").
Others fervently deny this claim, pointing out that Aristotle's philosophy focuses on the virtue of the agent, whereas utilitarianism focuses on the virtue of the action, and specifically, its consequences.
Consequentialism, and utilitarianism specifically, has been criticized on many grounds, including its disregard for justice – some eighteenth century Americans argued in support of slavery on the grounds that it provided a good consequence for the greatest number of Americans; the impossibility of predicting consequences accurately before an action is taken; the fact that happiness is difficult to quantify, and that the term "happiness" itself is subjective; and the fact that consequentialism (and utilitarianism) can objectify individuals as one more resource to be used. Kant and Deontology
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an Enlightenment thinker who, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, laid
out the "categorical imperative," which states that one should "act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." In other words, could the action you're about to take be universalized? If anybody else, in similar circumstances, could take this same action and it would be the correct action every time, only then is it a just action. Put into contemporary practice, this means, for example, that medical professionals should be happy for their treatments to be performed upon anyone, since all humans are due dignity and respect, and that patients must never be treated merely as useful for society.
Kant also argued that one should "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means" (we'll see this discussion of "ends and means" throughout several of our readings this semester, most notably Machiavelli's "Qualities of the Prince"). Put simply, Kant is advising readers not to use and abuse others. For instance, slavery is wrong because it treats people as a means to an end. Kant argued that the reasoned motives and autonomy of each individual must be equally respected. Kantian ethics falls into a branch of ethics known as "deontology," which can be described as ethics based on a strict code of conduct. Whereas consequentialist ethics argues that we judge the ethicality of an action based on the quality of its outcome, deontological ethics argues that we judge the action itself, regardless of outcome. If our moral code tells us that lying is wrong, then lying is always wrong, even if you did it to spare somebody's feelings. The current debate regarding torture is a good example of deontology – many opponents of torture argue that it's always ethically and morally wrong,
even if it leads to information that stops an act of mass murder, because its use makes ours a baser, less civilized society.
2Here is a useful chart illustrating the differences between these three branches of normative ethics:
Consequentialism Deontology Virtue Theory
Mill's utilitarianism Kantian ethics Aristotle's moral theory example
An action is right if it An action is right if it is in An action is right if it is what a
abstract promotes the best accordance with a moral virtuous agent would do in
description consequences. rule or principle. those circumstances.
The best consequences A moral rule is one that is A virtuous agent is one who
are those in which required by rationality and acts virtuously, that is, one
happiness is can be universalized who has and exercises the more
concrete maximized for the (anyone would be right to virtues. A virtue is a character
specification greatest number of act in this way given similar trait a human being needs to
people. circumstances) flourish or live well.
2 A version of this chart first appeared in Rosalind Hursthouse's essay "Virtue Theory and Abortion" (1990).