A Summary of the Terms and Types of Ethical Theories

A Summary of the Terms and Types of Ethical Theories

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.

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).
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