What Is Ethical Formalism?

Ethical formalism is a type of ethical theory that defines ethics based on a logic that holds if something is defined as right or wrong, then it is right or wrong 100 percent of the time. Ethical formalism places more emphasis on logic than on content.

With its greater emphasis on logic over content, the laws themselves are more important than judging what actions are humanitarian in ethical formalism, and the theory harbors strong critical connotations. For example, the German philosopher Kant was often criticized for his attempts at deriving concrete moral duties based on “universal laws.”

Ethical formalism is connected but not identical to formal ethics, a theory based on the more recent studies of Henry J. Gensler. They are similar in that both theories focus on formal aspects of moral dispositions. However, the system of formal ethics remains intentionally incomplete. Formal ethics views explicit features of moral judgments as necessary but insufficient for building a complete system. On the other hand, systems of ethical formalism view such formal aspects as necessary and sufficient.

Considered an absolutist system, ethical formalism states that there are no gray areas in moral judgment. An example of this is stating that abortion is wrong all of the time regardless of the reasoning.