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Ethics is the study of what are the right and wrong ways to act. The central question of ethics is "How should I live?"

Theories of ethics

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There are three main ways that philosophers usually approach this question.

First is the concept of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics believes that an action is right or wrong because of what it says about the character of the person doing the acting (that person's virtue). So if someone lies, virtue ethics would ask what it says about that person's character.

Deontology is the view that ethics is a matter of duty and rules. It says that what's important is to consider whether a person's actions are right or wrong. For example, it would be wrong to murder because the act of murdering is bad.

Consequentialism is the idea that what ultimately matters is the consequences of actions. If someone steals from someone else, consequentialism might say this is wrong because the person who was stolen from would be unhappy.

While each of these approaches may seem like good ideas, the problem arises when we consider situations in which they conflict with one another. Imagine for example a situation in which killing one person would save many people. A virtue ethicist would ask what kind of person would murder another person. Someone who subscribes to deontology might say that murder is wrong no matter what. And a consequentialist might say that the lives of many people outweigh the life of one person. Situations in which different ethical positions conflict are called moral dilemmas, and they are talked about to show why one ethical theory has strengths or weaknesses compared to another one.


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The debate between the three theories is called normative ethics, and it's a major branch of the study of ethics. Two other important branches that we will talk about are meta-ethics and applied ethics. Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics which asks what 'right' or 'wrong' even means. It is an inquiry into the concept known as value, which is what people take to be desirable, or good.


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  • Consequentialism: the ethical theory that good is defined by the consequences of actions.
  • Deontology: the ethical theory that good is defined by actions.
  • Ethics: the study of what are the right and wrong ways to act.
  • Good:
  • Moral agent:
  • Moral dilemma: a situation in which different ethical positions conflict.
  • Virtue: the character of a moral agent.
  • Virtue ethics: the ethical theory that good is defined by the character of a moral agent.