A Simple Introduction to Philosophies of Ethics
Ethics forms a vast area of philosophy that fills libraries, and the following discussion should not be seen as comprehensive by newcomers to the field but as an overview of three broad categories of commonly discussed ethics known as virtue, utilitarianism, and deontological ethics. These ethical approaches provide different perspectives for determining behavior, with each system providing coherent methods and critical issues.
Virtue Ethics, sometimes called “character ethics,” derives from Aristotle and Plato’s teachings, although it can also be traced independently in Eastern philosophy through Confucius and Mencius (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2018). According to Aristotle, the development of ethics is synonymous with the development of character and virtue but this understanding of virtue complicates in an assumption of virtue being a form of innate character trait or thoughts which compel the person to act generous, helpful, heroic, or in some other virtuous manner. As such a person who is generous might not be virtuous if she is generous because it is considered the proper social custom. In contrast, the virtuous person would be generous because she feels generous, denoting the innateness of virtue ethics. Aristotle refers to this innate virtue as “natural virtue” and failing to achieve natural virtue can occur in a variety of ways such as hypocrisy, intention, and even inexperience such as youth (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2018).
Virtue ethics divides into various forms (outside the scope of this overview) that focus on how the “sense” of right and wrong or virtue determines proper behavior, which opens the door to controversies of application as well as the extent to which virtue remains fixed by nature. All forms of virtue ethics assume there exist right and wrong actions, which give rise to even more problems concerning cultural and individual determinations of right and wrong. Is there a trait of generosity, and is it universal to all cultures? Are people born with less or more degrees of virtue traits than others? How do we apply such an inward-focused ethic? Questions such as this don’t discount virtue ethics, and many arguments answer them, but they do hint at practical application problems and whether a person is born into or with character traits that may or may not be virtuous, which may fix the behavior.
Utilitarianism is one of the most potent ethics commonly used in many situations, such as lawmaking which maximizes the benefit for the greatest number of people in developing codes. Unlike virtue ethics which link right and wrong to character traits and their development, utilitarianism defines as a form of consequentialism, determining right and wrong by “the consequences produced” (Driver, 2014). This application is known as the classical approach to Utilitarianism, which posits correct ethical action maximizes the most benefit for the greatest number. Classical Utilitarianism forms from philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who held a similar belief in the utilitarian ethic but differed on application.
Utilitarianism forms from the belief that right and wrong or good and bad are conditions of pain and pleasure. Bentham viewed utilitarian ethics as the measure of good (pleasure), which benefits the most people with no distinction between forms of pleasure, e.g., smoking pot is equal to reading a book. Mill would add a qualitative element to benefit (pleasure) assigning greater benefit to particular actions over others. As such, Bentham uses a form of quantitative utilitarianism whereas Mill uses a qualitative method, but both applications stress maximizing the benefit for the greatest number of people (Driver, 2014).
Though appearing practical as an ethic, this superficial view becomes lost in complex situations in which decisions become dilemmas, such as choosing individual freedom over the protection of society. For example, pornography presents a challenge when maximizing the benefit for society, and in this instance, Mill’s qualitative Utilitarian approach can be used to determine the quality of pornography’s benefit. However, classic utilitarian application complicates further because pornography can be seen in degrees according to type, and each type may need quantification and qualification. This example shows how classic utilitarian theory can prove difficult to apply, needing to define "what is good” or "beneficial" to maximize this benefit for the greatest number of people.
Deontological Ethics, also known as duty ethics, opposes Utilitarianism forming ethics based on what is “morally required, forbidden, or permitted” (Alexander & Moore, 2021). Deontology stands in opposition to virtue ethics on this same ground, assuming that particular ethics hold authority. Assuming a particular set of ethics holds authority, such as the ten commandments in the Bible, restricts all behavior to following those commandments as a duty. This duty means that murder under any circumstance is unethical because the person must uphold the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Deontology has the advantage of clarifying right and wrong behavior, but like utilitarianism and virtue ethics, complications arise from determining what positions hold authority. If one gives authority to a particular text or belief, they must justify this authority which proves difficult. As such, deontology is expansive with theories that attempt to prove ethics using reason alone to justify the authority of these ethics. Most notably, Immanuel Kant attempts to justify behavior in this way with his famous categorical imperative, “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Johnson & Cureton, 2022). As such,
All specific moral requirements, according to Kant, are justified by this principle, which means that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the CI [categorical imperative] (Johnson & Cureton, 2022).
Perhaps most important to understanding deontology is that its application requires an authoritative source of ethics or a system such as Kant’s, allowing ethical behavior's determination in all situations.
Ethical systems provide a means for making decisions that impact life more often than most people realize. Medical and legal ethics are important areas of study since these ethics furnish the means to resolve dilemmas and guidance for individual and organizational behavior. Most important to realize is that the application of ethics is not perfectly fitted for every situation and studying these systems provides further insight into complex decision making.
Alexander, Larry and Michael Moore, "Deontological Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/ethics-deontological/>.
Driver, Julia, "The History of Utilitarianism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/utilitarianism-history/>.
Hursthouse, Rosalind and Glen Pettigrove, "Virtue Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/ethics-virtue/>.
Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton, "Kant’s Moral Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/kant-moral/>.
Article Updated: 02/20/2022