Choosing Ethical Theories, Codes & Principles

The aim of taking a moral perspective on a particular area of practice or inquiry is to use various elements of the ethical toolkit—the theories, codes, principles and approaches presented here—to illuminate the issues, conflicts and questions that confront the thoughtful practitioner. There are a wide variety of ethical theories, principles and codes. To effectively teach a course you need to select a relevant subset of these tools.

Your task is to choose those theories that best highlight the experiences of ‘moral puzzlement’ that are most likely to confront someone exploring your area of inquiry.

There are two main forms of problem cases, which are generated by different ways of experiencing moral puzzlement:

  • Moral controversy: the discovery that other people (even within our own social group) have moral beliefs different from, and sometimes quite opposed to, our own.
  • Moral dilemma: cases where there seem to be equally good justifications for opposing moral conclusions.1

Once you have identified those particular moral controversies and dilemmas that are central to your area of inquiry, select those theories, principles and codes that best express the moral views that engender these conflicts. Note that you do not (and should not) limit yourself to theories. Moral principles are often extremely useful elements of an ethical toolkit.

Generally, you want to include a theory only if it clearly addresses one of the morally significant factors that drive moral puzzlement in your discipline. If, for instance, you are teaching a course in political economy, most cases of moral puzzlement are going to be generated by factors related to the legitimacy of institutions, and institutional constraints on the behavior of individuals. Here an agent-centered theory such as Virtue Ethics would have little to say about the primary factors that drive moral puzzlement in this discipline, and would be inappropriate. In contrast, the types of moral puzzlement found in medical practice are often connected to the behavior of individual agents, so an agent-centered theory would be very helpful. If there is a Code of Ethics for your area or profession, then that should clearly be included in your toolkit.

What to avoid: Philosophy 101, A cartoon

It might be helpful to begin by noting that students frequently encounter the following simplistic—and very misleading—picture of ethics (or moral philosophy) and of the various types of ethical theories. First, the ultimate question in ethics is “How should one live?” And, second, there are three broad types of ethical theories, each of which offers a different answer to this question: consequentialist theories, deontological theories, and virtue ethics. Consequentialist theories tell us to always do whatever would have the best consequences and are typified by the utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), which claim that right actions are those that result in the greatest balance of pleasure over pain (summed across all those who are affected by the action). Deontological theories tell us to always do our (moral) duty and are typified by the moral theory of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), which claims that right actions are those that conform to “the moral law,” which consists in rather simple, absolute moral rules (“categorical imperatives”) that derive from a single, fundamental moral law, the Categorical Imperative, and do not allow any exceptions for extraordinary circumstances or the greater good. Virtue theories focus on good character, rather than right action, and are typified by the ethical theory of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), which tells us to cultivate “the virtues,” those character traits that dispose us to act virtuously (courageously, temperately, etc.), because acting virtuously enables us—as individuals—to flourish as human beings.

However useful this “Philosophy 101” picture of ethics may be in some contexts, it is a cartoon of the real thing and should not be regarded as accurate. Choosing the paradigm instances of these three approaches simply because others do it, or it seems to offer the most comprehensive selection of moral theories is not a good idea.