A Summary of the Terms and Types of Ethical Theories

Updated on September 6, 2012

Do you have an Ethics class you need to take as a prerequisite or an elective? Here’s a summary of the terms, types, and critiques of ethical series that may help you successfully pass the course.

First, we need to define ethics. What is ethics? Ethics is a branch of philosophy addressing questions about morality.

Ethics is divided into two different ways of looking at the morality of humanity. They are Consequential and Non-Consequential.


In Consequential Ethics, the outcomes determine the morality of the act. What make the act wrong are the consequences. It says, it will be legitimate to lie in order to get out of a serious problem, such as to save a persons life. In other words a white lie is fine. So the essence of morality is determined by the result or outcome of the act.


In non-Consequential Ethics, the source of morality comes from something else: law, God’s law, moral law, sense of duty, and your definition of what is the virtuous thing to do. All those considerations are built into the act itself before you could think of consequences, before it makes it right or wrong. One classic example is this system is lying. Lying could be wrong because in one system, it’s a violation of the nature of speech. It’s wrong to use a lie to achieve a good end. Simply put, a lie is a lie, is a lie.

Thomas Hobbes [Egoism]
Thomas Hobbes [Egoism]
Jeremy Bentham [Utilitarianism]
Jeremy Bentham [Utilitarianism]
John Dewey [Pragmatism]
John Dewey [Pragmatism]

Egoism – Utilitarianism – Pragmatism

Egoism - Means, act in your own self-interest.

Utilitarianism - Do that which is moral only if the act produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

There are two brands of Utilitarianism:

1. Act Utilitarianism- Do the act. No consideration of before or after. Do what is called for now, and consider what action will produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

2. Follow the Rule- Means you can’t think of actions as isolated instances. We make decisions based on trial and error, on our experiences. Follow the pattern that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In fact, that’s almost the essence of legislative behavior of law.

Pragmatism- Means, whatever works. Pragmatism believes in the scientific ways of making decisions. Business schools are driven by pragmatism. Pragmatism says, you have to have numbers to prove anything. It’s quantitative not qualitative.



Non-consequential ethics says morality is determined by higher authority, some sense of duty, the nature of the thing, love, virtue involved, the right thing to do, or intuition. The source of morality comes before the act is done.

1. Intuitionism- Intuitionism says, each person has an in-built sense of right/wrong, a gut feeling, a hunch, and impulse.


  • Intuition varies from person to person
  • Intuition lacks solid evidence

Assumptions and values:

  • It assumes that each person is sovereign in making decisions. For example, “it’s my decision; mine alone, my sense of right or wrong.
  • The values are caring, giving, love, support, and justice but it is interpreted according to the assumption behind it. In other words, why do I care about you? Because it’s in my self-interest to care about you, not because you’re a human being.

2. Natural Law Ethics- Natural Law ethics says, respect your natural inclinations.

  • It says, the universe is governed by rational thinking. There’s an orderly way of things.
  • It may or may not include God. There’s just some order behind this.
  • Humans are governed by natural inclinations (natural law). According to ancient philosophers, we’re driven by these basic inclinations:

- Respect/ Preserve life

- Propagate human species (family)

- Search for truth (we want to know the truth)

- Have a peaceful society (we can’t live in chaotic social environment)

  • Ancient philosophers say we have the inclinations that are governed by the following hierarchy of laws:

- Eternal – Grand Plan

- Natural – Human conduct

- Moral – Human conduct (it governs the conduct)

- Physical – Sciences (our community, our government)

- Civil – Practical (our community, our government)

  • Thomas Aquinas says God is behind this eternal plan. However, the ancient laws say there is something orderly in the universe. Thomas Aquinas gave it a religious twist, he said we have a moral obligation to the natural law.


  • Positive view of Human. We are rational individuals. We need a rational, stable relationship, regardless of what’s right or wrong, or what social impact our behavior has on others.
  • Discounts human feelings, a natural law (rational is in control).

Aristotle and Plato
Aristotle and Plato

3. Virtue/Character Ethics


A great deal of our western culture is based on the virtue/character ethics ideal.

  • It says, everything has a purpose and function.

- the ultimate human goal is self-realization, achieve your natural purpose, or human nature by living consistent with your nature.

  • It asks, what is the moral decision based on? What kind of person (character) should I be become?
  • It says, cultivate virtues/character traits or habits. In short, morality is a learned behavior.
  • It also says, virtues are learned by…

- Imitation. At first, as a young child. For example, a child learns by imitating or we imitate others (i.e. teachers, leaders, etc.), and gradually we…

- Internalize the best way to act, not because we have to do it or because someone says you have to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do. Then you…

- Practice, and it becomes habitual. A virtue (love, care, give, bear, just) is a habitual way of acting consistent with your purposes or the purpose of the nature of the thing you’re involved with.

How would you define virtuous? Virtue is the “mean” between excess and defect (Golden Mean or Golden Rule).

The examples below come straight from Aristotle. For example, in the social setting, in a dangerous situation the excess way to act would be rash, the virtuous (means) way to act is with courage, and the defect would be to act with cowardice.

Social Settings
Social Relations
Obsequious (too friendly)


  • Develops character, not just obey laws (this is a strength). You develop an image of what the ideal person is.
  • Emphasizes human interdependence. The wise teach the young. It says, don’t be so foolish thinking that you can figure out things on your own, listen to your elders.
  • Emphasizes gradual maturity. We don’t all the sudden become the moral person in life, there’s no magic wand.
  • Holds up virtues as ideals, as well as determinants of morality. There’s a loophole, over a period of time, the definition of virtue varies in cultures, as in periods of time.

In Greek times, the definition of virtue is very “macho.” In Plato, the highest instance in life is being a warrior (physical fitness). In the middle ages in the Western world, the definition changes to Christian (following the example of Jesus). So who’s a good person today? A good person today is a virtuous person, a person who functions.

The problems? Definitions of virtue vary. For example, as in heroes. A hero could be a political hero, a war hero. It can be all kinds of heroes, with its own definition of virtue.

4. Male and Female Ethics

  • Women tend to live in a world of social relations, emotions. It contrasts with men who tend to live in a world of principle.
  • There’s a great need for female psychology and morality in society. If you leave it to men alone, we would live in a very competitive and individualistic world.

Immanuel Kant [Duty Ethics]
Immanuel Kant [Duty Ethics]

5. Duty Ethics (Immanuel Kant)

  • Immanuel Kant did not like a morality based on laws, church laws. He said you can’t depend on laws, because laws sometimes are made by capricious people. He said there’s one thing that human beings have in common, and that is the ability to reason. Pure reasoning is the source of morality.
  • He says here that morality has its roots/foundation in the condition of goodwill among people. In other words, the most basic thing about people is, they want to live in a good society, have relationships with other people.
  • He said we have an obligation to do the right thing. Duty Ethics say we have a duty to achieve good. How do you figure out what is good? He says your reasoning can figure that out.
  • People/actions are moral when they achieve the good/goodwill. He also says, to be moral, an action must be voluntary. You don’t get credit for an action, because…

- you have to do it

- you have a nice personality

- you are very pleasant

- punishment is feared

- of impulse

A moral action has to be done voluntarily. Morality is a conscious action according to his way of thinking.

  • He says, morality is discovered by pure reason not by law or consequences.

Duty Ethics is a very famous system. Here are the rules for Duty Ethics:

  • First, act only according to that maxim (rule), which can be a universal law for all people in all circumstances. In other words, using your pure reasoning. You can come up with what is the moral way to behave. It says, it makes sense to be truthful. This maxim is universal, and applies to everybody in all circumstances, there is no exception to the rule, as in the example a lie is a lie, is a lie (Categorical Imperative).
  • Second, how do you check to make sure that you have come up with a good rule? This calls for the principle of Reversibility. It says, the maxim (rule) is right if one would want to be treated that way themselves. It’s called the Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have others done unto you.”
  • Third, do not use others as a (mere) means to one’s end. This is called Practical Imperative. It says, find a rule that is the virtuous way of acting, the moral way of acting. Check it out, and whatever you do virtuous, do it not for your own selfish reasons (because it violates moral reasoning and behavior), but because it’s the moral thing to do. To use each other is immoral.


  • Like other systems, it places responsibility directly on the individual.
  • Insists on rules that are logical and applicable to all. It tries to be consistent.
  • He does not indicate which rules you should follow. What should I do? Figure it out for yourself, it’s up to you.
  • Too rigid? Would it be right to lie to your spouse? Yes. A qualified rule is something that is okay or not okay, except under certain circumstances. For example, is it wrong to take another person’s life? What about in self-defense, or in war, an abortion? This doesn’t allow for the situation or other consequences, and it’s highly irrational.
  • In the principle of reversibility, if I were going to be treated that way, doesn’t it imply the consequences of an action?
  • A qualified rule, as in “…except in the case of…” can be as valid as an unconditional statement).

6. Divine Command Ethics

  • In Divine Command Ethics, what makes it right or wrong? Because I said so!
  • · “God commands it”

- Divine authority

- Belief

  • Religious Traditions:

- Islamic (Koran)

In the Koran, it says, “… and the Lord has decreed, observe rights, help the needy, do not kill, do not fornicate, do not cheat.”

- Jewish/Hebrew- (Rabbinic Law before Christ)

In the Ten Commandments (Mosaic Law), the first four commandments deal with our obligations/ duties to God, our parents, and the command to worship…”remember the Sabbath,” etc.

In the last of the commandments, these have a “do not”, because of the value of each commandment. For example, Do Not kill- because of the value of life itself, Do Not steal – because the value of private property, Do Not commit adultery- because of the value of life, family and tradition.

However, the Rabbi’s had to interpret under what circumstances is it okay to do such an act as the commandment “Thou shall Not Kill.” In Hebrew kill means to murder, and according to Rabbinic Law, it’s okay to kill a slave, it’s okay to do the act of revenge, to stone people for adultery or prostitution. Adultery was considered a violation not because of sex reasons, but because it was a violation of a man’s property- his wife. When the Rabbis finished interpreting, they came out with 613 interpretations.

- Lex Talionis (Eye for an Eye). “Do unto others…” equivalent. It’s a very rigid notion.

- Christian – In Christianity, there are many branches:

Main line – Fundamental – Pentecostal

Jesus took the old law of the Hebrews (Jewish Law) and extended it. For example, in some of His teachings he said you’ve been told not to kill/murder, I say love your enemy. You’ve been told not to commit adultery, I’m saying don’t even look with lust. You’ve been told to love God and hate your enemies (taken out of the Old Testament), and I’m telling you to love your enemies. His purpose was to extend the Hebrew law and basing it on love.

The scripture is the basis Christians follow, and it is the teaching authority of a particular branch.


  • Based on authority of God. We use it in our thinking.
  • Differing Traditions. All claim to be God’s spokesman, or teaching for God.
  • Differing interpretations of Scripture by churches of what God’s law really is.

Joseph Fletcher [Situation Ethics]
Joseph Fletcher [Situation Ethics]

7. (Religious) Situation Ethics (Joseph Fletcher)

  • A method of moral decision based on the code principle of Christianity: Love. Now Joseph Fletcher says, “Sure God spoke to us, but there is a great tendency in these organized religions that are very autocratic and bureaucratic.” He says do the loving thing. Therefore, Fletcher tries to find the balance between Legalistic and Antinomian. The moral decision making can be:

- Legalistic: Church Law/Interpretation

- Antinomian: Strictly Existential ethics (meaning do at the moment what ever the hunch is to do).

Trying to find the balance, he comes up with Situational (or Middle ground). He teaches,

- Respect the teaching authority of religious leaders.

- Secondly, circumstances color and act.

- Therefore, apply the law of love to the situation at hand, “Do the loving thing.”

Then this becomes,

- Pragmatic, and

- Relative

A good example is a story of a woman in a concentration camp. The woman commits adultery with a guard in order to be united with her husband. Some will say this is adultery, a direct violation of a commandment, but Joseph Fletcher says the circumstances color the act; it changed the interpreters interpretation of what the loving thing is in that act, and that act was not a sinful act, but it was a loving act in order to be reunited with her husband.

In this story given as an example, what is consequential? What kind of consequences is produced here from this act? It could be very religious. If it is, you have to follow the rules, the laws of God but interpreted in special circumstances. What system of ethics would apply here?

Notes taken from an Ethics class at ESC in Florida by Prof. Konkel (2003)

©Faithful Daughter

All rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form or manner without the explicit written consent of the author and owner, Faithful Daughter.
All rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form or manner without the explicit written consent of the author and owner, Faithful Daughter. | Source


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    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Thanks Derick. You're welcome.

    • profile image

      Derick Oimo 

      3 weeks ago

      Thank you for this...it is very articulate and comprehendable keep it up

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      LMW, you are welcome.

    • profile image


      5 weeks ago

      Great information, it really helped me in my Ethics class. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image


      3 months ago


    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      6 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Thank you Basil

    • profile image


      6 months ago

      They are comprehensible.Really impressive

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      6 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Thank you!

    • profile image

      fadhili sawala 

      6 months ago

      i realy apreciate your writing

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      9 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Thanks Alex for stopping by and commenting!

    • profile image


      9 months ago

      Your notes are well organized and with understandable meaning.Thanks

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      10 months ago from Sunny Florida

      You are very welcome Robel.

    • profile image

      Robel Tsegaye 

      10 months ago

      THANK YOU! Faithful daughter. What a helpful and supportive note. Africa , Ethiopia

    • profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago

      Thank you, Faithful Daughter. I have to get to work on another hub and get it finished today, June 30. And you have the Best day Ever.

      Your Friend,


    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      You too Kenneth, have a great week also.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, Faithful Daughter,

      You are way too kind. But thank you for your kind words. I am very glad to have you following me. That makes me feel great. Have a wonderful Sunday night.

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Kenneth, thank you! You're a gifted writer as well and I'm glad to be following you here on HP. God bless!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Faithful Daughter,

      I was just speaking the truth about you. You ARE a gifted writer and I am sure that your gift will touch many lives as you have mine.

      Have yourself a quiet, peaceful day. Enjoy.

      And if you should need my help . . .just whisper and I am there.

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Kenneth, you give me too much credit, thank you again! I'm glad to have met you on HubPages as well.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Thank you so very much . . .Faithful Daughter!

      I appreciate your following and talent that you share with HP and the world. You have such a gift for writing, plus the gift of having such a high IQ that you should be thanking God each day that comes.

      I am so glad I met you on HP.

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Kenneth, thank you very much for your kind comment and the votes. I will be stopping by your page to check out you hubs soon.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, Faithful Daughter, Wow!

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing, to be quite frank with you.

      I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb. Interesting, in-depth, helpful, and very informative. Great job.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

      You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Thank you for stopping by and your comment.

    • step2cs profile image

      Douglas Lieth 

      5 years ago from NYC

      Very impressive organizational structure to you Hub. I especially like the explanation of the various philosopher's theories followed by criticisms. Very balanced and informative.

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      You are welcome.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thank you!!! I needed this information in plain (understandable) english! :)

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Thanks stopalltheclocks!

    • stopalltheclocks profile image


      5 years ago

      Really useful!

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida


      Thank you for reading and commenting. I find it interesting that the ethical theories apply to each and everyone with some variants here and there. I'm glad you stopped by.

    • RevLady profile image


      6 years ago from Lantana, Florida

      A great synopsis of the ever elusive definition "ethics." It was interesting and presented in a way that is comprehensible. Thank you for sharing this most worthy topic of inquiry.

      Forever His

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Thanks again Lifegate :)

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      6 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Congratulations on the A+. I figured that would be the end result with a hub so well written!

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Lifegate,

      It can be a little overwhelming when you get into it in depth, but I found the course interesting. However, the best part was when I got an A+ in the course :)

      Thanks for the visit and the comment.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      6 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA


      Great job--all I can say is, I'm glad I don't have an Ethics class I need to take as a prerequisite or an elective? But if I did, I'd be off o a good start, thanks to you!

    • Faithful Daughter profile imageAUTHOR

      Evie Lopez 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Hi Hyphenbird,

      It's been quite a while since I took these notes from an Ethics class I took in college, so I had to clean them up a bit. However, it was refreshing to go over some of the things I had already forgotten.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I feel like I have indeed just been to school. This is an actual tutorial on Ethics. You worked hard on this Hub and it certainly showed. The quality is excellent pus!


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