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Understanding the Tools

Understanding the Tools

A Brief Overview of Ethical Theory (Material for Instructors)

Applied ethics, or practical ethics, is the branch of ethics, or moral philosophy, that addresses concrete practical problems and controversial moral issues. As the name suggests, much work in applied ethics involves applying concepts, principles, and theories derived from ethical theory to concrete practical problems and controversial moral issues. This section provides a brief overview of ethical theory and brief summaries of the kinds of ethical theories that most often figure in discussions of topics in applied ethics. A list of recommended introductory texts and secondary sources is appended.


The term “ethical theory” is here used narrowly, to refer to normative ethical theory and theories. Normative ethical theory addresses general moral questions, such as what kinds of actions are morally right and what kind of person one should be. Thus, normative ethical theories make moral claims. Used more broadly, the term “ethical theory” refers not only to normative ethical theory, but also to metaethics, which addresses questions about morality and moral judgment (including questions about how morality relates to other things, such as rationality and human psychology, and whether there is a set of moral obligations, etc. that everyone should accept). Although the focus here is on normative ethical theory and theories, it should be noted both that normative ethics is widely thought to be continuous with metaethics, and that many ethical theories and theorists address both normative ethical questions and metaethical questions and, thus, make both moral claims and claims about morality and moral judgment.

What is an ethical theory?

What is an ethical theory? It is easiest to characterize ethical theories as a class in terms of their theoretical and practical aims or aspirations, keeping in mind that individual theories attempt to achieve these aims in diverse ways.

Ethical theories generally have two aims, one theoretical and the other practical.

First, like other theories, ethical theories have explanatory aims. And what they aim to explain is why right acts are right, why good things are good, why virtuous character traits are virtues, etc.

Second, ethical theories have practical aims. They aim to guide action. Few, if any, aim to offer an algorithm for making decisions. And virtually all stress that judgment, deliberation, and sensitivity to the complexities and salient features of particular situations play ineliminable roles in ethical decision-making. But ethical theories can help us to make progress on practical problems in other ways, as by clarifying relevant concepts; identifying overlooked complexities and difficulties; proposing methods for testing moral beliefs, rules, and principles; or defending claims about what is and what is not of ultimate value or of fundamental moral importance.

It should also be noted that ethical theories are not theories about how people should make decisions, either moral decisions or decisions in general.