Skip to main content

Ethical Theories: A Summary of the Terms and Types


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 what is meant by ethics. Ethics is a branch of philosophy addressing questions about morality.

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


In Consequential Ethics, the outcome determines the morality of the act. What makes the act wrong is the consequence. For instance 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 the application of law, be it God’s law, moral law, a sense of duty, or the definition of what is seen as the virtuous thing to do. All these 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: the 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.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

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 SettingsExcessMean Defect









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.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I download this material to read more later?

Answer: You cannot download the article but you can save the link to this article to your desktop or print out the article on your printer.


Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on May 18, 2019:

Ama Kwansa thank you

Ama Kwansa on May 18, 2019:

Im in medical school and we taking a course in ethics in palliative care for patients about to die. This has been helpful. Thanks

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on February 13, 2019:

BAKAM, you are welcome! I wish you success in your studies.

BAKAM CHANCELINE on February 13, 2019:

good morning to the everyone,

thank you for this lessons on ethics, it is helping me to prepare for my first semester and moreover to develop personal skills.

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on January 01, 2019:

You are welcome Anweshan. And thank you for stopping by and reading this.

Anweshan on January 01, 2019:

Thank you so much for such precise and succinct notes.

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on November 06, 2018:

You are welcome Dr. Joseph

justin on November 06, 2018:

thank you

Dr Joseph

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on October 27, 2018:

Thank you D. J Amele!

D. J Amele on October 27, 2018:

Very helpful, and inspiring

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on October 15, 2018:

Thank you Liz. I'm glad it helped!

OBRIENAH LIZ on October 15, 2018:

wow this was so helpful thanx for sharing

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on June 21, 2018:

Thanks Derick. You're welcome.

Derick Oimo on June 20, 2018:

Thank you for is very articulate and comprehendable keep it up

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on June 05, 2018:

LMW, you are welcome.

LMW on June 05, 2018:

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

Bee on April 06, 2018:


Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on January 16, 2018:

Thank you Basil

Basil on January 16, 2018:

They are comprehensible.Really impressive

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on January 07, 2018:

Thank you!

fadhili sawala on January 07, 2018:

i realy apreciate your writing

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on September 26, 2017:

Thanks Alex for stopping by and commenting!

Alex on September 26, 2017:

Your notes are well organized and with understandable meaning.Thanks

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on August 25, 2017:

You are very welcome Robel.

Robel Tsegaye on August 25, 2017:

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

Kenneth Avery on June 30, 2014:

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,


Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on June 30, 2014:

You too Kenneth, have a great week also.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on June 29, 2014:

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.

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on June 29, 2014:

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 from Hamilton, Alabama on June 29, 2014:

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.

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on June 29, 2014:

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

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on June 28, 2014:

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.

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on June 28, 2014:

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 from Hamilton, Alabama on June 28, 2014:

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

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on May 08, 2013:

Thank you for stopping by and your comment.

Douglas Lieth from NYC on May 08, 2013:

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.

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on May 03, 2013:

You are welcome.

Elizabeth on May 02, 2013:

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

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on February 06, 2013:

Thanks stopalltheclocks!

Helen on February 06, 2013:

Really useful!

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on August 29, 2011:


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 from Lantana, Florida on August 29, 2011:

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

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on August 29, 2011:

Thanks again Lifegate :)

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on August 29, 2011:

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

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on August 29, 2011:

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.

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on August 29, 2011:


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!

Evie Lopez (author) from Sunny Florida on August 28, 2011:

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.

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on August 28, 2011:

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!

Related Articles