Definition and 9 Theories of Ethics


Definition and 9 Theories of Ethics

Welcome to this discussion on Ethics. The contents of this topic will be examined in four sub-sections:

1. Definition of ethics

2. Value judgments

3. Ethical theories

4. Moral dilemmas.

The question of how the idea of ethics came about has been a recurring one. Is ethics an intrinsic part of human nature or is it an idea that developed out of socialization?

Stuart is of the opinion that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

However, men are not angels and angels do not govern men. The story of Alexander Selkirk’s solitary sojourn on ‘Mas a Tierra Island’ now popularly known as ‘Isla Robinson Crusoe’ easily comes to mind when one begins to ponder on whether or not it is possible to conceive of any ethical or moral principle when in isolation.

One ethical question which shows whether an action is right or wrong is, ‘who does the action hurt?’ If no one is hurt, probably then, no wrong has been done and going by the egoistic nature of man, that is, the desire to always follow one’s self interest, no one would under normal circumstances want to hurt him or herself.

The implication of this is that, without the ‘Other’, judgments about rightness or wrongness of human actions would be unnecessary.

Hence, whatever activities Alexander Selkirk engaged in on the island cannot be said to be right or wrong, moral or immoral. As humans, the obvious situation before us is that we do not live in isolation; we live with others.

There is a school of thought that holds that humans should be altruistic, that is, they should act in the interest of others.

Yet, another school of thought, the utilitarian school holds that not just the interest of the self or the interest of others should be put into consideration when we act, rather, we should consider the interest of everyone with preference to the highest number, hence, the popular maxim ‘the greatest good to the greatest number.’

The arguments among the egoists, the altruists, and the utilitarian’s on the rightness or wrongness of human actions will show that there are different approaches to the way we judge human actions to be either right or wrong.

By the end of this article, you would be able to define Ethics, Identify and explain some ethical theories, understand and resolve moral dilemma and apply ethical theories to real life situations


Definition of Ethics

Ethics has a very close link with morality. The idea of morality can be traced to when humans started living in societies and began to distinguish between good or acceptable and bad or unacceptable ways to relate with others.

It is these acceptable and unacceptable ways that developed into customs, ways of life and codes of conduct of a people which now constitute the interest and subject matter of ethics. What then is ethics? It refers to “a code or set of principles by which men live.”

It is a branch of philosophy also known as moral philosophy that prescribes how men ought to behave and live the ‘good life’. “Just as logic is the systematic study of the fundamental principles of correct thinking, and theology is the systematic study of the fundamental tenets of religion, ethics is the systematic reflection on our moral values or beliefs”.

This, therefore, gives us insights that ethics could only have come into existence when human beings started to reflect on the best way to live.

This reflective stage emerged long after human societies had developed some kind of morality, usually in the form of customary standards of right and wrong conduct. The process of reflection tended to arise from such customs, even if in the end, it may have found them wanting. Accordingly, ethics began with the introduction of the moral codes.


Value Judgments in Ethics

We can only arrive at judgments concerning wrongs or rights when the agent involved has an alternative or alternatives opened to him or her.

In other words, the agent must have the freedom to make choices. It is at this point we begin to ask why the individual choses to act in a particular way and not the other.

It is this, therefore, that warrants the apportioning of praise or blame as the case may be. When we do this, we invariably show that the agent or individual is responsible for his or her action. In a situation where no option is available and no room for choice is open, the agent or individual would act necessarily and his or her actions cannot be judged to be right or wrong, praiseworthy, or blameworthy. This is because the agent or individual was not responsible for the action taken and “no one should be punished for what he cannot help.”

Since it is our idea of right and wrong and the responsibility of the agent involved that leads us into making moral or ethical judgments, one would want to ask, how should we judge the actions of infants and the mentally deranged persons since they cannot be held responsible for their actions, knowing that they do not act based on rational judgments and therefore cannot make informed decisions and choices? Can we refer to their actions as moral or immoral? The answer is an obvious No! When we use the terms ethical or moral, we clearly as will be shown later, have certain agents in mind.

The terms ethical and moral are used only when the agent involved can be held morally responsible for their actions or conducts.

In this case, only responsible humans fall within this category. Animals cannot be said to have acted in a moral or an immoral manner and therefore cannot be held responsible for any of their actions.

Infants cannot be said to be moral or immoral and likewise the mentally deranged no matter what they do. This is because they do not have the knowledge of right and wrong and cannot rationally make a distinction between them.

A dog may kill another dog or harm a human being. This action may result in the entire community hunting around for the dog and probably killing it. However, the killing of the dog cannot be viewed as punishment because the dog cannot be placed on a scale of moral judgment.

Let us also consider this example; when a child puts off his or her clothes, jumps into the rain, begins to dance as he or she takes his or her bathe in public view, no one would frown at such an action, when a mentally deranged person does this, people will overlook it but, when a full grown and responsible adult male or female does this, the response of members of the society would certainly be quite different. This is because the actions of the child and the mentally deranged cannot be judged to be moral or immoral but amoral.

Let us take a clear look at the meaning of the terms moral, non-moral, immoral, and amoral. We have previously considered the meaning of the word moral which we said have to do with good or bad with reference to ethical codes or laid down rules.

We also said that the term is best suited for responsible humans. The term immoral is the direct opposite of moral. It means to be morally wrong or morally bad such that it could attract blame and punishment. Responsible humans are also the culpable agents involved here.

The literal meaning of the word ‘amoral’ is ‘non-moral’; this means that what is being referred to has nothing to do with morality since the agents involved cannot be held morally responsible.

The word is therefore best suited for animals, mentally deranged persons and human infants.

There are also, terms that have to do with manners and social etiquettes which are sometimes used in close relation to morals and ethics in our day-to-day life.

In fact, we sometimes make no distinction in their usage from when we are talking about morals, when indeed they are actually outside the realm of ethics or morals.

Ethics and morals as have been stated, are concerned with right and wrong, good, and bad conducts but matters of manners and social etiquettes are concerned with preferences, predilections, or tastes and could be described as non-moral.

There is a familiar practice in some parts of Nigeria for instance where children are scolded for eating or receiving presents with their left hand. There are practices also especially in the Yoruba speaking areas of the country where it is believe that males should prostrate to greet an elderly person while the females kneel down to do so.

These practices have nothing to do with right or wrong, good or bad because they are simply matters of preferences.

Therefore, a male who decides to kneel down to greet an elderly person and a female who decides to prostrate to do the same may not have conformed to the ethos of the social group in terms of way of greeting, but he or she cannot be said to have acted immorally.

Besides, there are some other cultures in the country especially that of the Hausa/Fulani speaking areas where males kneel down and do not bow down to greet.

Also read: Definition, Divisions, Theories and Problems of Epistemology

Ethical Theories

1. Absolutism

Absolutism according to Plato is the view that, “there is fundamentally one and only one good life for all men to lead”. This is because goodness is not dependent upon men’s inclinations, desires, wishes, or upon their opinions.

Goodness in this respect resembles the mathematical truth that two plus two equals four. This is a truth which is absolute; it exists whether any man likes such a fact or not. It is not dependent upon men’s opinions about the nature of mathematics or the world. Likewise, “goodness exists independently of men and remains to be discovered if men can be properly trained.”

This view holds that truth is absolute and unchanging, in other words, a moral truth certainly holds for all men no matter their views or orientation.

This position also holds that the analysis of the situations leading to human actions do not really matter, rather, what matters is whether that particular action has been upheld as wrong or right. The divine command theory is evidently an example of an absolutist theory. ‘Thou shall not kill’ which is one of the Ten Commandments of God given to the Judeo-Christians as found in the Bible is believed to be absolute. No matter the circumstances involved, killing is never to be permissible.

2.  Relativism

Relativism is the belief that ideas like right and wrong are not absolute but subject to individual interpretations. It advocates that another may consider an action that is judged right by one individual wrong. Killing which is absolutely wrong for an absolutist may be judged right by a relativist given certain conditions.

Abortion for example may be seen as absolutely wrong by the absolutists simply because it involves putting an end to the life of the unborn that is believed to have full right to life. However, for the relativists, this should not be the case because they believe that there are likely instances where an abortion becomes necessary, especially when the life of the mother who also has full right to life is at risk.

3. Situationism

Situationism is an ethical theory that is associated with Joseph Fletcher. It advocates that, the morality of any action is determined by the situation in which the action is performed and that it is not the nature of the act or the consequence that determines whether the act is right or wrong.

Therefore, there are no universal moral rules as each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. This theory is pragmatic in nature as it appropriates the notion of workability.

This means that provided a particular action works and is relevant to the particular situation then, the means by which that action was achieved does not really matter. It is believed that an action might be right in one situation but wrong in another.

Situationism prescribes that the moral choices and decisions we make should be founded on the basis of a specific circumstances that are motivated by love and not based on rigid laws. Love is believed to justify all actions no matter the means employed, so Justice is not in the letter of the law but in the distribution of Love.

4. Altruism

The term ‘altruism’ was invented by the Philosopher Auguste Comte from the French word altruisme. He also related it with its Italian equivalent altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning ‘other people’ or ‘somebody else’.

A particular human conduct is ordinarily portrayed altruistic when it is driven by an intention to profit somebody other than oneself. An individual, who without self-interest or any benefit donates his blood to save the life of a complete stranger who was involved in a fatal accident, performs an altruistic act. Altruistic acts include not only those undertaken in order to do good to others, but also those undertaken in order to avoid or prevent harm to them.

Suppose, for example, someone drives his car extra cautiously because he sees that he is in an area where children are playing, and he wants to insure that he injures no one, it would be appropriate to say that his caution is altruistically motivated. He is not trying to make those children better off, but he is being careful not to make them worse off. He does this because he genuinely cares about them for their sake.

5. Egoism

Thomas Hobbes is of the opinion that humans by nature are self-interested and any show of concern for others hides a true concern for us. For example, he believes that humans choose to move from the state of nature and to embrace the social contract which enjoined them to live in a society with rules because they are concerned with their own protection and for no other reason.

Egoism therefore, is the view that places self-interest at the centre of morality. It holds that a person has a moral obligation to pursue only those things that are best for him or her.

From this, we can see that egoism is the opposite of altruism which believes in the practice of doing things to benefit others, without expecting any benefit for oneself.

6. Teleologism

Etymologically, the term Teleologism is derived from the Greek word telos which means ‘end’. Teleologism is, therefore, an ethical theory that is concerned with the consequence or end result of an action rather than the motive behind the action.

Teleologism also known as consequentialism has been described as a theory that is “based on the notion of choosing one’s action so as to maximize the values to be expected as consequence of those actions.”

In the views of Jeremy Bentham and J. S Mill holds, there can be only one ultimate standard of conduct which is teleological and driven towards the promotion of happiness.

Mill’s support for this position is clearly seen in his assertion that, “the general principle to which all rules of practice ought to conform, and the test by which they should be tried, is that of conduciveness to the happiness of mankind, or rather, of all sentient beings: in other words, that the promotion of happiness is the ultimate principle of Teleology.”

By teleology, he means an ethical approach or evaluation of actions that is concerned with utility or a desired end result.

7. Deontologism

Deontologism, from its etymology from the Greek word Deon means that which is necessary or binding. It is an ethical theory which is based on the notion of choosing one’s actions according to standards of duty or obligations that refer not to consequences but to the nature of actions and motives that are held by those performing them.

Deontologists agree on the basic principle that an action is morally right if it is required by duty or permitted by duty. They are opposed to purely consequentialist moral thinking.

Some variations of deontologism are: act deontologism which holds that every judgment of moral obligation is a function of a particular act as demanded by one’s duty, and rule deontologism which holds that there is a non-teleological standard of duty consisting in one or more rules, such that one’s duty in any situation consists in acting so as not to violate any of those rules.

They are of the opinion that if an action is your duty, you ought to do it regardless of your desire-based interests. An agent who acts from duty is believed to be motivated by the legislative form of the maxim: The agent’s reason for acting is the fact that the action is morally required.

Deontologism is practically in conflict with teleologism as identified above because of the claim that the rightness or wrongness of an action does not depend on the aim or the end result of the action but that it depends on the kind of action taken.

Therefore, when an action is either right or wrong, it is either intrinsically wrong or intrinsically right. This is where the religious rule deontology takes its course from. 

Example is the absolutism of the divine command theory. This would prompt a person to ask if an action is right or wrong because God says so or that it is right or wrong because it is intrinsically right or wrong.

Deontologists favour the later. Deontologism therefore is a rigid non-consequentialist philosophy which is concerned with the notion of obligation and duty.

8. Kant’s Categorical

Imperative Immanuel Kant in his ethical theory of categorical imperative tells us what we ought to do, without any prior conditions, subjective wishes or qualifications. He expresses the first version of his categorical imperative by saying that everyone should act only according to the maxim by which he or she can at the same time will that it should become a universal Law.

 A maxim is a general rule that tells us what we should and should not do. What Kant implies is that we are to decide and use the maxim that establishes our actual moral obligations. Kant’s criteria for universalizing our maxims capture some of our everyday moral institution.

It also shares conformity with the Golden Rule of the Gospel. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

Kant further advocates in his categorical imperative, that we act so that we treat humanity, whether in our own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.

What Kant is emphasizing here is that each person has intrinsic worth and dignity and that, we should not use people or treat them like objects.

Kantianism is therefore a deontological theory of ethics which holds that moral rules should be universalisable and that it should be applicable to the generality of people.

9. Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism which is based on the principle of utility is the view that the goal of every action should be to promote the greatest welfare of the greatest number of people.

In the promotion of this greatest welfare of the greatest number of people, some believe that emphasis should be placed on the action in question and nothing more. This is the view that is referred to as ‘Act utilitarianism’.

Act utilitarianism is concerned with the consequences involved in any act. For instance, for a lie to be judged morally wrong, one should first weigh its consequences with reference to its ability to promote the greatest welfare.

If an assassin comes after one’s father who is hiding somewhere inside the ceiling which one is aware of and the assassin asked about his where-about, what should one’s response be? Remember that denying knowledge of the whereabouts of one’s father in this case is to not tell the truth which is equivalent to telling a lie in the view of the absolutists.

For the act utilitarian, there is nothing morally wrong in this act since it is intended to protect life and at the same time promote the welfare of the individual who is probably the breadwinner of his family. It is the performance of the act that advances the welfare of the greatest number of persons without giving considerations to societal, religious or legal constraints.

Rule utilitarianism on the other hand considers the general consequences of actions such as the rule that lying is a distortion of facts and is generally bad for the society.

In this case, rules are considered valid if and only if their consequences promote the general good.


Moral Dilemmas

It is very possible to run into serious ethical or moral dilemmas in our value judgments in the process of our conducts and interactions with people in the society.

A dilemma is a situation where we find it difficult to make a moral choice simply because the alternatives before us are all unsatisfactory. It is like trying to choose between two evils. A very good example is seen from the Bergmeier’s family that got scattered because of the World War II.

The man was taken as a war prisoner and confined at a prison in Wales while the wife was also captured and confined at a prison camp at Ukraine, and their children were scattered all over the places. Not too long, the man got his freedom and after a period of intense searching, was able to re-gather all his children.

However, unfortunately, none of them knew the whereabouts of his wife. News later filtered to the woman that members of the family had come together again and were seriously looking for her. All efforts to gain her release proved abortive as she did not meet the only two conditions for release; serious illness and pregnancy in case of women.

The woman was in a dilemma of choosing between committing adultery and remaining in prison. She finally chose one of the two evils. She arranged with one of the prison guards to get her pregnant, gained her freedom and joined her family.

 Also read: Philosophy and the Social Sciences


Conclusion on Definition and Theories of Ethics

Moral judgments about anything at all are usually value laden. The way individuals or societies judge human actions to be either right or wrong show the value they place on such actions. This is why we hear of taboos and we hear of praise or blameworthy actions. 

For an action to be judged wrong for example, it must have violated at least a part of the moral codes or laid down rules which usually attract blame or punishment.

We have described ethics (also known as moral philosophy) as a branch of philosophy that prescribes how men ought to behave and live the ‘good life’. We have also looked into some of the theories of ethics such as; Relativism which is the belief that ideas like right and wrong are not absolute but subject to individual interpretations; Situationism which holds that there are no universal moral rules as each case is unique and deserves a unique solution; Altruism which holds that a particular human conduct is driven by an intention to profit somebody else, other than oneself; Egoism which places self-interest at the centre of morality and holds that a person has a moral obligation to pursue only those things that are best for oneself; Teleologism which is concerned with the consequence or end-result of an action rather than the motive behind the action; Deontologism which is based on the notion of choosing one’s actions according to standards of duty or obligations; Categorical Imperative which holds that everyone should act only according to the maxim by which he or she can at the same time will that it should become a universal law, and Utilitarianism which advocates that every action should promote the greatest welfare of the greatest number of people.

Finally, we examined moral dilemma which is a situation that presents difficult moral choice simply because the alternatives before us are all unsatisfactory.

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