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The following are the contents of the section:

1.Ethical Relativism

2. Teleology

  • Egoism
  • Consequentialism/Utilitarianism

3. Deontology

4. Virtue Ethics

5. Intuitionism

Usually, ethics has been viewed as the study of what kinds of actions are right and wrong, how the world is and how it ought to be, what kinds of decisions are made and what kinds of decisions ought to be made. Unquestionably ethics is very complicated at many levels. Because of this, it has generated theories of why people act the way they do as a result. Through the ages, there have emerged multiple common ethical theories and traditions. We will cover each one briefly below-

1) Ethical Relativism

Ethical relativism is the belief that there is no single ethical standard that applies to all people at all times. It is a doctrine that there are no absolute truths in ethics and that what is morally right and wrong varies from person to person or from society to society.

We can think of this position as coming in two flavors:

  • Conventionalism– the theory “that moral principles are [valid] relative to the culture or society”
  • Subjectivism– the theory moral principles are valid relative to “individual choice”

Ethical Relativism has become an increasingly popular view in the latter part of this century. A couple of possible reasons:

  •  The Decline of Religion.
  •   Observing Cultural Diversity.
  • Globalization and Postmodernism.

Ethical Relativism is contrasted with Ethical Absolutism or Ethical Universalismethical Objectivism is the view that what is right or wrong doesn’t depend on what anyone thinks is right or wrong. That is, the view that the ‘moral facts’ are like ‘physical’ facts in that what the facts are does not depend on what anyone thinks they are. Objectivist theories tend to come in two sorts:

  • Duty Based Theories (or Deontological Theories) – for details refer to Deontological Theory.
  • Consequentialist Theories (or Teleological Theories) – for details refer to Teleology.

Most ethicists reject the theory of ethical relativism.

Some claim that while the moral practices of societies may differ, the fundamental moral principles underlying these practices do not. For example, in some societies, killing one’s parents after they reached a certain age was common practice, stemming from the belief that people were better off in the afterlife if they entered it while still physically active and vigorous. While such a practice would be condemned in our society, we would agree with these societies on the underlying moral principle — the duty to care for parents. Societies, then, may differ in their application of fundamental moral principles but agree on the principles.

Ethical relativism is self-refuting. If the truth of moral propositions is relative then the truth of the proposition “the truth of moral propositions is relative” is also relative, which means it can be true for you but not for me, but as this proposition claims to be a universal truth, it seems self-refuting. It also appears to allow contradictory propositions like “the truth of moral propositions is objective, universal, and absolute” to be true.

Others criticize ethical relativism because of its implications for individual moral beliefs. These philosophers assert that if the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on a society’s norms, then it follows that one must obey the norms of one’s society and to diverge from those norms is to act immorally. This means that if I am a member of a society that believes that racial or sexist practices are morally permissible, then I must accept those practices as morally right. But such a view promotes social conformity and leaves no room for moral reform or improvement in a society. Furthermore, members of the same society may hold different views on practices

2. Teleology

The Greek word telos means goal, end, or purpose, and teleology is the study of goals, ends and purposes. A ethical theory is regarded as teleological to the extent that it defines and explains right actions in terms of the bringing about some good state of affairs.The two main types of theory brought under the rubric of teleological ethics are consequentialism and the varieties of ancient Greek virtue ethics.

Consequentialist theories are those that base moral judgements on the outcomes of a decision or an action. If the outcomes of an action are considered to be positive, or to give rise to benefits, then that action is held to be morally right. Conversely, if the outcome causes harm, then the action is held to be morally wrong. The judgement of right or wrong depends on the consequences of the decision or action. The two main consequentialist theories considered here are egoism and utilitarianism.


Ethical egoism is a normative moral theory that holds that human conduct should be based exclusively on self-interest. It is an individualistic theory that stresses personal good over common good by arguing that individuals make up society. However, ethical egoism does not necessarily call for rude or overtly selfish behavior, but with all things being equal, a person should look out for his own interests over those of others. Ethical egoism is sometimes viewed as being rooted in psychological egoism which is the view that people are psychologically-oriented toward seeking their own interests over the interests of others. Even if a person appears to act in the best interests of someone else, even that act is ultimately motivated by self interest.

Egoism is a form of ethical relativism in which right and wrong is relative to the interests of an individual.  Note that Egoism does not imply that right and wrong is relative to the beliefs of individuals.  Personal Belief Relativism, in contrast with Egoism, holds that what is right (or wrong) for an individual is determined by whatever ethical theory that person accepts.  Thus, if person X is a Christian fundamentalist, then the Bible sets the standard of right and wrong for X.  If person Y is a Marxist, then Marxism (understood as a moral theory) sets the standard of right and wrong for X.  What is right for X may be wrong for Y, and vice versa.  Egoism differs from Personal Belief Relativism in that it uses the same standard for each person (self-interest), and the standard applies regardless of the person’s beliefs.  Egoism implies that the right thing for X to do is what is in X’s self-interest, even if X finds that idea abhorrent.  Of course, there is a sense in which Egoism advocates a different standard for each person (my self interest versus your self interest, and so on).  That is why it is correct to say that Egoism is a form of relativism.

Egoism as a descriptive argument describes human nature as self-centred. In its strongest form, it argues that individuals only ever act in their own self-interest. Even where they appear to be acting in others’ interests, descriptive egoism explains that the person is really motivated by their own self-interest disguised by arguments (rationalisations) of ‘doing one’s duty’ or ‘helping others’. In fact, our motivation behind doing ‘good deeds’ may be to make ourselves feel good; to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others; or because we believe that, by helping others, others will help us. Even if we donate money to charity anonymously, we may still only really do this because it makes us feel good about ourselves. In contrast, egoism as a normative argument tells us that we should be acting in our own interests, as this is the only way that overall welfare can be improved. If everyone acts in their own self-interest, then society will become more efficient, which will be in everyone’s interest. It is therefore morally right to pursue one’s own self-interest.

Arguments for Ethical Egoism:

  1. Each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs and we know how to pursue them.
  1. In contrast, we know far less about the wants and needs of others and how to pursue them.
  1. Therefore, we are much better at pursuing our own interests than the interests of others.To put if more forcefully:  Pursuing the interests of others is an inefficient way of satisfying wants and needs and is prone to error.
  1. Thus, we will all be better off if we refrain from pursuing the interests of others.In other words, we will all be better off if we act Egoistically.
  1. Therefore, each of us should adopt the policy of Egoism and pursue our own interests exclusively.

Common Misconceptions about Egoism

  1. Immediate Gratification-Egoism is not the doctrine that we should indulge in as much pleasure we can in the short run, without a care for what happens to us in the long run.  Egoism does not imply this because, in order to calculate the hedonic agent utility of an action, you need to figure in all the pleasure and pains that would result, no matter how down the line in the future.
  1. No Altruism-Egoism also does not imply that we should never act altruistically. Rather, it implies that we may act for the benefit of others so long as that act also maximizes our own hedonic utility.

This interpretation of human behaviour is consistent with that set out in the biologist Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene: social animals share food because they are genetically programmed to do so since this optimizes the chances of survival of each individual in the group. What reinforces the ‘right’ thing to do is a feeling of satisfaction that comes with the optimal survival-strategy action. Thus, you help me now in the expectation that I will behave like you at some future time when I am in need and you don’t. This interpretation seems unpromising to say the least since ethics disappears altogether leaving behind a mere psychological theory about human nature.


Arguments against ethical egoism:

  1. Provides no moral basis for solving conflicts between people.
  2. Obligates each person to prevent others from doing the right thing if it is not in accord with the subject’s thinking..
  3. Has the same logical basis as racism.
  4. The egoist cannot advise others to be egoists because it works against the first egoist’s interest.
  5. No one person can expect the entire world’s population to act in such a way as to produce the most benefit (pleasure) for that one person.


The best known version of consequentialism is utilitarianism. This theory defines morality in terms of the maximization of net expectable utility for all parties affected by a decision or action. Although forms of utilitarianism have been put forward and debated since ancient times, the modern theory is most often associated with the British philosopher John Stuart Mill who developed the theory from a plain hedonistic version put forward by his mentor Jeremy Bentham.

There are several varieties of utilitarianism. But basically, a utilitarian approach to morality implies that no moral act (e.g., an act of stealing) or rule (e.g., “Keep your promises”) is intrinsically right or wrong. Rather, the rightness or wrongness of an act or rule is solely a matter of the overall nonmoral good (e.g., pleasure, happiness, health, knowledge, or satisfaction of individual desire) produced in the consequences of doing that act or following that rule.  An action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the performer of the action but also that of everyone affected by it.

The Utilitarian Approach assesses an action in terms of its consequences or outcomes; i.e., the net benefits and costs to all stakeholders on an individual level. It strives to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number while creating the least amount of harm or preventing the greatest amount of suffering. It holds that every entity’s interests should be considered equally when making the decision, and this includes those of other species since they also are capable of suffering.

Bentham developed a method of working out the sum total of pleasure and pain produced by an act, and thus the total value of its consequences; also called the felicific calculus.To determine an individual’s pleasure or pain from an action, Bentham suggested weighing:

(i) Intensity (pleasure’s strength),

(ii) Duration (how long pleasure would last),

(iii) Certainty (the probability action will result in pleasure),

(iv) Propinquity (how soon the pleasure might occur),

(v) Fecundity (the chance the pleasure would result in further actions),

(vi) Purity (the probability these further actions would be pleasures and not pains).

(vii) Extent, taking into account the effects of said decision on other people.


On the one hand, a major criticism of consequentialism, is that it is not concerned with motivations or intentions. An action performed with the best of intentions is deemed morally wrong by the consequentialist when the results are sour. Conversely, an action performed with sinister intentions is deemed morally right when it brings about positive results. That the actions of the person who seeks to do evil should be applauded while the actions of the person who seeks to do good should be condemned rubs most of us the wrong way.

on the other hand,utilitarianism is alleged to be faulty in the way it requires us to think about all kinds of actions – to apply the felicific calculus in disregard to any feared distaste of the result. For example, some issues or potential actions are (to a non-utilitarian) “morally unthinkable”- it will have something to say even on the difference between massacring seven million, and massacring seven million and one.

Another criticism that has been leveled at consequentialism is that it appear only to be useful when judging actions after they have already been performed and the results are in, rather than as a means of dictating what the right action is that a person ought to perform.

Further, it is impossible to apply – that happiness (etc) cannot be quantified or measured, that there is no way of calculating a trade-off between intensity and extent, or intensity and probability (etc), or comparing happiness to suffering.

If happiness was not measurable, words like “happier” or “happiest” could have no meaning: “I was happier yesterday than I am today” would make no sense at all – it can only have the meaning which we (or most of us, at any rate) know that it has if we assume that happiness can be measured and compared.

3. Deontology

It is sometimes described as “duty-based” or “obligation-based” ethics, because Deontologists believe that ethical rules bind people to their duty. The term “deontology” derives from the Greek “deon” meaning “obligation” or “duty”, and “logos” meaning “speaking” or “study”.

Deontology (or Deontological Ethics) is an approach to Ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions (Consequentialism) or to the character and habits of the actor (Virtue Ethics).

Types of Deontological Ethics:

  • Divine Command Theory: the most common forms of deontological moral theories are those which derive their set of moral obligations from a god. According to many Christians, for example, an action is morally correct whenever it is in agreement with the rules and duties established by God.
  • Duty Theories: an action is morally right if it is in accord with some list of duties and obligations.
  • Rights Theories: an action is morally right if it adequately respects the rights of all humans (or at least all members of society). This is also sometimes referred to as Libertarianism, the political philosophy that people should be legally free to do whatever they wish so long as their actions do not impinge upon the rights of others.
  • Contractarianism: an action is morally right if it is in accordance with the rules that rational moral agents would agree to observe upon entering into a social relationship (contract) for mutual benefit. This is also sometimes referred to as Contractualism.
  • Monistic Deontology: an action is morally right if it agrees with some single deontological principle which guides all other subsidiary principles.

Immanuel Kant, the theory’s celebrated proponent, formulated the most influential form of a secular deontological moral theory in 1788. The theory of deontology states we are morally obligated to act in accordance with a certain set of principles and rules regardless of outcome.

In Kant’s view, the sole feature that gives an action moral worth is not the outcome that is achieved by the action, but the motive that is behind the action.  And the only motive that can endow an act with moral value, he argues, is one that arises from universal principles discovered by reason.  The categorical imperative is Kant’s famous statement of this duty are as follows:

  • Act only in such a way that you would want your actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity (whether oneself or other), as both the means of an action, but also as an end.
  • Act as though you were a law-making member (and also the king) of a hypothetical “kingdom of ends”, and therefore only in such a way that would harmonize with such a kingdom if those laws were binding on all others.