What Are the Four Major Ethical Theories?

By Staff WriterLast Updated May 27, 2020 7:34:10 PM ET
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Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with morality and how it shapes behavior. Different branches of the study of ethics look at where our views of morality come from and how they shape our everyday lives. There are four major ethical theories: deontology (or duty), utilitarianism, rights, and virtue. Each one of these theories looks at our ethical behavior in different ways.

Deontology

The theory of deontology states that when we have to make ethical decisions, our first thoughts are on our duties and obligations. According to this theory, what we believe our duties are will drive how we act in different situations. For example, we may make a decision based on following the law or based on our loyalty toward friends or family members.A

The biggest hole in the theory of deontology is that there’s no standard for what a person’s duties and obligations are. Philosophers who don’t agree with this theory believe that everyone’s duties are different, so there’s no way to know what drives a person to make a particular decision.

Utilitarianism

According to the theory of utilitarianism, people choose their actions based on how their decisions will benefit the most people. You make a decision that will be best for everyone involved. There are two sides to this theory. Act utilitarianism says you will make decisions based on helping others, while rule utilitarianism says you will act out of fairness.

Those who don’t agree with this theory believe that nobody can predict outcomes, so we can’t know what the benefits of our actions will be. Comparing consequences can be hard, so some philosophers say that we can’t truly make utilitarian decisions.

Rights

The rights theory of ethics says that people make decisions based on the rights that their society agrees to. What the majority of people in that society believes is important will drive decisions. For example, the rights we Americans have in our Constitution should be factors in our decision-making according to this theory. Our rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, should help us decide how to behave.

People who don’t agree with this theory believe that a society’s rights are too complicated to figure out. They say it’s too hard to tell what most people think is important to the whole society, so it’s a messy idea to base decisions on. Societies that don’t have written laws like our Constitution make this theory less believable, according to some philosophers.

Virtue

The ethical theory of virtue states that we can judge a person’s decisions based on his or her character and morality. The way someone lives his or her life can explain any ethical decision according to this theory. For example, a person who lies and cheats to get ahead in life probably makes decisions based on advancing his or her own interests according to the virtue theory.

The biggest hole in this theory is that people can change their moral character, and the theory doesn’t take changes in morality into account. The virtue theory puts people in boxes based on their reputations at one point in time.

Consequential Ethics

These four theories fall into one of two categories. The first one, consequential ethics, states that outcomes determine ethical decisions. Therefore, the result of a situation makes that decision OK. For example, it’s ethical for you to tell a white lie if it achieves what you need or want it to.

The theory of utilitarianism falls into this category because the benefit of decisions is the biggest factor. The virtue theory can fit into consequential ethics because a person’s reputation can be based on the consequences of his or her decisions.

Nonconsequential Ethics

Nonconsequential ethics is the other side of the coin to consequential ethics. It says that people base their decisions not on the result but on the values and beliefs that they hold deeply. In nonconsequential ethics, you’ll decide on a situation based on what you believe rather than what may happen. For example, you won’t lie in a situation if you believe that honesty is important.

The theory of deontology falls under this type of ethics because people make decisions based on their duty to those around them. Likewise, the rights theory belongs in this category because the rights that society holds dear are important over any other factor. Virtue could also fit here because people of high moral character can decide based on their values.