Ethical Theory





Ethical Theory
(An Overview)

Acknowledgement:  This overview is derived, in part, from the work of David B. Ingram, and Jennifer A. Parks, in their book, Understanding Ethics.



There are several major theories of ethics including: Virtue Ethics, Natural Law Ethics, Social Contract Ethics, Deontological Ethics, Consequentialist Ethics and Feminist Ethics.  In this monograph each of these theories is summarized in a general manner, and their relative strengths and deficiencies identified.  The theories are subsequently synthesized in such a manner as to provide for thinking about ethics in comprehensive and unified manner; one that references the strengths of each theory, while compensating for their relative inadequacies.

Virtue Ethics

From the perspective of Virtue Ethics, you are your character.  Virtue Ethics is concerned with the characteristics of one’s personality/identity/routine behavior. Commonly acknowledged virtues are: generosity, courage, kindness, thoughtfulness, politeness, benevolence, honesty, loyalty, temperance.  Vices include: selfishness, cowardice, mean-spiritedness, thoughtlessness, rudeness, malevolence, dishonesty, infidelity.  A character trait is not an occasional behavior that can be turned on or off.  It is an integral component of one’s personality or identity.  Virtues or vices are qualities of one’s identity which have been formed early in life through instruction, training, role modeling and habituation.  They are so deeply embedded in one’s personality that their expression cannot be controlled. 

Good people, people who are virtuous, are not necessarily good rule followers, although they are likely to be.  Their goodness consists in their characteristic or habitual tendency to do good things that are not necessarily governed by moral rules or laws.  One can be selfish and mean-spirited and not violate any of the moral rules or anyone else’s basic rights.  One can follow the Ten Commandments and still not be a “good” person from the perspective of Virtue Ethics.  The Ten Commandments that relate to human interaction only require one to refrain from harming others, while a “virtuous” person would go beyond not harming another and would be naturally inclined to help others, that is, be benevolent.

Why be a virtuous person?  The three great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all agreed that a life without the virtues would be an unhappy life.  It is only from developing the virtues in one’s life that one can be happy, as these qualities or characteristics are essentially to interpersonal success in a societal setting, and therefore happiness, in one’s life.

But, what is happiness?  The Greeks agreed on a basic distinction between happiness and pleasure.  Pleasures (and pains) are fleeting states of mind, referring mainly to sensations and feelings.  Happiness, by contrast, is a more enduring state of fulfillment and well-being.  According to Aristotle, it is the be-all and end-all of life.  While people pursue money, health, family, and friends, these are only instrumental goals; instruments or means of attaining the ultimate or real goal of happiness; well-being.

Virtues are universally recognized as human excellences.  They are qualities that result in good things happening to an individual, goods that ultimately allow an individual to say they have and are living a good life, a happy life; a life that is meaningful, purposeful, fulfilling.

However, character is not something we can just turn on and off by choice.  It is so much of who we are—our very identity—that we cannot act outside of its parameters.  Why?  Because character is formed by years of role modeling and training.  It is not something we deliberately choose to have and then methodically practice.  Our character formation begins early in life under the tutelage of our parents, caregivers, and peers.  We sub-consciously imitate the individuals we respect as role models.  Interestingly, recent research suggests our peers have a much stronger effect on the development of our behavioral characteristics-virtues and vices--than do our parents.  If our environment offers role models who are virtuous, then we will develop the virtues; if they are not, we will develop vices.  Obviously, in many instances, there will be a mixture of virtues and vices in the role models we have during our early formative years, and, as a consequence, we may develop a mixture of virtues and vices.

It should be noted that we are not only shaping our behavior by emulating role models, we are also shaping what we want; the things we desire.  For virtue theorists, character is like an anchor that shapes your wants as well as you conduct.  While not traditionally viewed as a virtue theorist, this is what Immanuel Kant had in mind with his famous statement, “there is nothing good but a good will.”  In other words, it is the motivation that prompts one’s behavior that makes it good, that is, ethical, not the actual behavior itself.

So, is our moral behavior totally determined by our early experiences in life?  Not entirely, as we can become aware of our vices and reprogram our behavior.  How can one know what is virtuous and in which direction to proceed in any reprogramming.  Aristotle believed the answer could be found in living the life of moderation. He referred to this notion of moderation as the Golden Mean.  He believed that the virtues of life, those character traits that result in successful living, exist as midpoints between two extremes of behavior.  For example, courage (a virtue) exists as the mean between rashness (the tendency to act or behave without regard to any fear, that is, deficient fear), and timidity (the tendency to be so fearful as to not be able to act at all-excessive fear).  Therefore, a person desirous of becoming truly virtuous must identify the areas of their life where their typical actions do not comport with virtue, that is, the characteristics of behavior they have that are either excesses or deficiencies of (successful) behavior, and develop, through thoughtful practice and training, the corresponding virtue, or that behavioral quality that is in the midpoint between the two extremes--the Golden Mean. 

If one determines that one is stingy or wasteful, then the mean between these two extremes is being generous.  One should practice generosity until it becomes a habit.  If one determines one is self-deprecating or boastful, then one should attempt to develop a view of ones self that is between these two extremes, that is, the virtue of self-respect.

An issue with Virtue Ethics: Is it not possible for evil people, or people who are committing immoral acts, to be virtuous?  Consider the Islamic terrorist who perpetrated the bombings  of 
September 11, 2001 .  In the context of their religious assumptions, they were being virtuous, that is, manifesting the virtues that have been identified.  Such suggests that virtues can be vices when used in the service of evil.  This calls into question the value of Virtue Ethics as an all-inclusive ethical theory.

Natural Law Ethics

Natural Law Ethics is associated with the moral perspectives of the Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century.  Aquinas was a disciple of the philosophy of Aristotle, and wanted to infuse Aristotle’s views into Christianity, and create a synthesis between the two.  Of course, for Aquinas, happiness was not here on earth, as it had been for Aristotle, but rather happiness was the eternal bliss of heaven.  Aquinas accepted three basic tenets of Aristotle:

1.       In nature, everything has a purpose.  Lower forms of animals exist to serve higher forms.  For example, cows exist to provide food and clothing for humans.  Each kind or species strives to develop its own nature as completely as possible.  The distinctive nature of humans is our rationality.

2.      Failure to develop one’s distinctive nature is an imperfection—a vice, not an excellence.  Therefore, in nature everything ought to develop its potential.  Ought is a moral word and notion—it implies a good one should attempt to achieve.  Therefore, Aristotle (and Aquinas) believed that nature has a moral dimension as well as a factual, scientific one.

3.      Finally, Aristotle believed that nature and its moral laws are knowable through common sense and reason.  Since humans naturally possess common sense and reason, in principle, all can know nature’s moral rules or laws, and they are the same for all people no matter who they are or where or when they live.

Aquinas understood that ethics is not for Christians (or religious people) only, for all, regardless of their world view, must live together.  He understood that all (including those of other religious beliefs and those who were atheistic) could know what nature (reason/common sense) prescribes as good, and therefore right, behavior. This concept is known as the Natural Law Doctrine.

Aquinas was the intellectual precursor for a modern view of the Natural Law Doctrine.  Natural Law designates a standard of right and wrong that applies to all people simply because they share the same common nature—the capacity to reason.

In the words of John Locke, the great English philosopher of the 17th century, “Reason . . . teaches all mankind, who but will consult it, that being all equal and independent , no one ought to harm another in his Life, Liberty, or Possessions.”   Of course it sounds familiar to us Americans as John Locke’s philosophy permeated the thinking of our founding fathers.  In the years between Aquinas and Locke, the Natural Law Doctrine had evolved to include a notion of natural rights.  Every person has a natural right to freedoms, such as the right to not be harmed by another, to hold property and possessions, etc. just because they are human beings.  Locke, and Thomas Hobbes before him, believed that governments exist to help ensure these human rights, and that these natural rights function as moral limits upon what governments can do to their citizens.

Natural Law Ethics means that there are laws (natural laws) that are higher than human-made laws, because they are rooted in the very nature of humanity, which is universal to all societies.  It is the idea that some rights (natural rights) are bestowed on every human solely in virtue of our common humanity.  Such natural rights designate basic demands for liberty and life’s necessities.  They impose absolute limits on what any government can do to its citizens, and even entitle citizens to resist government when it oversteps its proper moral bounds. 

Natural Law Ethics faces a challenge however.  Consider the following example:

1.  Procreation is natural to all animal life, including human life, because without it there would be no life.

2. So, procreation is good.

3. Sex organs were made for a purpose; that purpose is procreation.

4. It follows from 1-3 that procreative sex is both natural and good.

5. Using sexual organs in ways that do not lead to procreation is unnatural and therefore not good.

6. Post-menopausal sex, oral sex, masturbation, sex between heterosexuals who cannot procreate, sex during times a female is not fertile, and homosexual acts do not result in procreation, therefore they are unnatural and wrong.

Do most people today acknowledge that human sexuality should only be used for the purpose of procreation?

Contractarian Ethics (Social Contract Ethics)

Social Contract Ethics, or Contractarian Ethics, is a theory grounded in the notion of human self-interest and human self-preservation.  To live in a society that is relatively stable and predictable, where each individual is able to pursue their personal best interests and goals, some minimal rules would have to be developed/acknowledged which would support mutually advantageous cooperation among the individuals of the society.

Thomas Hobbes was the first philosopher to advance this theory of ethics.  He did so in the 17th century in his famous treatise, The Leviathan.  Hobbes asks us to imagine the circumstance in which there was no artificial, human made conventions or rules; no laws enforced by a governing authority, and to consider what that circumstance would be like.  He calls this the state of nature.  Next, consider that the natural condition of humanity is one of continual and permanent needs and desires.  Yet, there is a relative scarcity of goods, there is never quite enough of everything to go around.  The state of nature idea is used to help understand how humans would behave if there were no society with agreed upon rules and sanctions, or no government with laws that were enforceable. According to Hobbes, since people fear misery brought on by lack of needed resources and also fear death, and since wealth and power are scarce resources, people, whose desire for security is unlimited, will naturally fight with one another to get as much wealth and power as they can.

Note here that the assumptions of Social Contract Ethics is different from those of Virtue Ethics and Natural Law Ethics.  Those ethical theories assume that humans naturally strive to reach a state of peace and psychological contentment, unfettered by material concerns.  Social Contract Ethics assumes just the opposite.  Because we can never have enough security, we are constantly striving for power and wealth, to help ensure our security.  This state of nature is not peaceful and harmonious.  To use Hobbes’ (famous) expression, it is a place where “life is cruel, brutish, nasty and short.”  Being the logician that Hobbes was, the state of nature could be laid out in a mathematical expression:  Unlimited fear of material insecurity plus scarcity of material things equals, “a war of all against all.”  

Hobbes is not saying that humans in a state of nature would attempt to kill each other all of the time.  However, he is expressing is the view that humans are competitive by nature, and giving the opportunity (absent moral rules and laws)  individuals would continually attempt to take advantage of one another to increase their power and/or wealth, and therefore sense of security.  Hobbes also believed that humans were essentially equal in strength, but if one could forcibly resist the attempts of another to take his or her material possessions, that physical strength could be overcome by individuals joining together to seize the other’s possessions. 

So, Hobbes, and other social contract theorists, conclude that it is in the best interests of rational humans to agree on some basic moral rules and laws they will follow to escape this state of nature, for it will be in their self-interest to do so.  These will be moral rules and laws that are enforceable, and for which there are sanctions and punishments for violation.  Hobbes thus justified the existence of governments, as they would exist to help ensure that humans abide by the rules and laws of society, thus ensuring a cooperative venture where each person could pursue their self-interests in a fair manner, and where benefits and burdens would be shared.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another social contract theorist, lived and wrote in the 18th century.  He emphasized that society is like a living organism, in which even the smallest part is essential to the well-being of the whole.  Because each is important in contributing to the social good, we must guarantee that our social contracts are as beneficial to the least wealthy and powerful among us, as they are to the most wealthy and powerful.  If one part of society is neglected the other parts will eventually feel its effects as well.   In contemporary America , we increasingly realize that problems plaguing our inner cities—drugs, crime, pollution, unemployment and lack of basic services, can, and often do, spread to the suburbs.

John Rawls is a contemporary American social contract theorist.  His book, A Theory of Justice, is thought by many to be the most important philosophical treatise written in the 20th century; a book that revived social contract theory.  It was published in 1971.  Rawls was a professor at Harvard until he died, in 2002.   According to Rawls, no one deserves the advantages or disadvantages with which s/he was born; these are just a matter of luck—the so-called natural (and social) lottery.  Innate abilities such as being intelligent are as undeserved as are innate disabilities, such as being mentally handicapped.  The same applies to the social circumstances of one’s family. It is strictly a matter of luck whether you are born into a poor family or a wealthy one.  Because of the inequalities stemming from the accident of birth, Rawls argues that society must be so structured as to minimize the effects of one’s birth circumstance.  That is because the inequalities stemming from the birth circumstance really do affect the ability of children to succeed.  Rawls believes that individuals born into the worst off circumstances should be given the same opportunities to succeed as those born into better-off circumstances.  And, he thinks that those born into favorable circumstances should be willing to give up some of their wealth, or advantages, to help those born into unfavorable circumstances.

As Hobbes indicated, life is about competition, and if life is not to be a free-for-all, a state of nature, then there have to be rules, and the rules must be fair.  The game cannot favor one person over another. Rawls’ theory sees life as a game in which people in society are pursuing their personal best interests in competing with others for resources: jobs, positions, power, prestige, wealth, and the other essentials to living the good life.  For the rules to be fair there must be equal opportunity for all.  The only way to ensure that there is equal opportunity is to ensure that society’s wealth is used to help those born into unfavorable circumstances have the basic needs of life such as health, education and general welfare, comparable to those born into favorable circumstances.

Rawls does not call for strict equality, because he realizes that inequality will eventually emerge even given equal opportunity, and that inequality is okay, as long as it developed from fair opportunity and everyone benefits from it. 

To determine how to establish the rules of society, the contract if you will, he asks us to imagine that we are going to enter a society but we do not know where, given the natural lottery, we will end up, that is whether we will be born to a rich or poor family, be born very intelligent or mildly retarded, or whether we will be born healthy or with a debilitating disability.  In this theoretical deliberation, we are standing behind Rawl’s “veil of ignorance.” 

In such a situation what rules would we, or any rational person, want to put in place to help ensure that we could survive and do well in society regardless of what the natural lottery deals us.  Rawls argues that humans are risk-adverse, and since we do not know what circumstance we will be born into, we will be chose rules that improve the condition of the worst off, as that could be us.  Rawls says we will design rules or principles that provide for inequality, but that favor the worst off.

His principles are:

1.          Equal Liberty – Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of liberties comparable with a similar system of liberty for all.

2.        Fair Opportunity – Persons with similar abilities and skills are to have equal access to the offices and positions of society.

3.        Difference – Social and economic institutions are to be arranged so as to benefit the maximally worst off.

Social Contractarianism is not an ethical theory based in theoretical games, but rather it is a real, on-going theory that results in the process of negotiation that characterizes every democracy.  Our system of creating laws exists to continually create a more fair, that is, just contract, among the citizens of the democracy, and in so doing to ever more closely approximate a truly just society.  One of the reasons we believe so strongly in democracy is that all citizens have an equal voice in helping to formulate its rules/laws.  When that is perceived not to be the case, then social unrest results and people will challenge the inequities and unfairness of the process and the resultant.

Deontological Ethics (Duty-Based Ethics)

Different theories of ethics offer different approaches to the moral life.  One argues for pursuing happiness, another that virtue is all that matters, another for following nature’s dictates, and another for self-preservation.  Deontological Ethics advocates doing your duty.  Deontology simply means duty-based.

Deontological Ethics is a prominent ethical theory. It is associated with Immanuel Kant, a German who lived from 1724-1804.  Kant thought in terms of absolutes.  According to him, morality is about absolute rules.  These rules are universal, meaning that they apply to everyone everywhere in all circumstances—without exception.  In arguing for such rules, Kant did not appeal to God or revelation, but rather to human reason.  Among his rules are such simple, somewhat intuitive ideas as: tell the truth, do not steal, do not kill, keep your promises, and so forth.

To Kant a duty is something you are required to do whether you want to or not; obligations that must be fulfilled.  However, Kant went even further. He also believed that the only thing that is completely good is a good will.   Not good will in the sense of “peace on earth,” rather he meant that one’s desires or wishes in acting must be good.  He believed that a good will is the only thing that is absolutely good.  His ideal was that you could not just look at behavior or its outcomes to determine whether an act is right or wrong.  A person may look like they did the right thing based on a positive outcome, but if the intention was not good, then for Kant, it was immoral.  Contra-wise, a person might act in such a manner that the outcome was bad, but if the person acted with a good will or with noble intentions, then the act was moral.  Kant rejected outcomes as a way of judging the morality of acts because things can turn out well even when done with ill motives; and, consequences can be bad even if an action is very well intended.

A recapitulation of Kant’s view:

·        Duties are absolute obligations that you must follow through regardless of your personal feelings or inclinations.

·        Duties apply to all of us in the exact same way with no exceptions.

·        The only thing good in itself is a good will; it is the only good that cannot be used for a bad person.

·        Your will determines the morality of an act—not the outcome.

Furthermore, he distinguished between hypothetical versus unconditional or categorical commands/imperatives.  Hypothetical imperatives are commands that take the form of if…then.  For example, if you want to go to college, then study hard and prepare yourself academically.  The then command is not a duty, unless you want to accomplish the if  hypothetical.  Hypothetical imperatives are not absolute.  They only apply if you care about a certain result.

Categorical commands or imperatives are different, however.  They are commands that all must obey; they should never, ever be violated.  His rules or duties of behavior such as not to lie, or steal or kill flow from his concept of a foundational Categorical Imperative. Kant expressed it, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”   Kant would ask in conjunction with any act one was considering, “could I will that everyone in the world do as I do?”  Or, “what would the world be like if everyone did what I am doing now—would I want to live in such a world?”

The moral point of view is generally understood to be that perspective where other people’s goals and interests count equally with one’s own.  Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a way of saying we should think about the welfare of all when we act.  We react negatively when others violate societal rules that have evolved because they consider the interest of all equally. Examples include people who drive on the shoulder to pass when there is a traffic jam, people who break lines to purchase tickets, and so forth.

There is another dimension of Kant’s view about a categorical imperative.  He formulated his categorical imperative a second way: “Act so that you treat humanity; whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as an end.”  What he is saying is do not use others, rather, respect others and do not treat others as things.  Some understand it to be Kant’s version of the “Golden Rule.”  His argument is that humans have two very important characteristics that require that we be treated as ends in ourselves rather than just means to the ends of others.  Those characteristics are: (1) Humans can think for themselves, and (2) Humans have an independent will.  Kant believes these two qualities—reason and will—put humans into a special category, the “kingdom of ends.”  Part of what it is to have reason and will is to be autonomous, to be self-governing.  To use others as a means to our ends is to violate there reason and will—their autonomy.

Consequentialist Ethics

Kant’s Deontological Ethics requires that we ignore outcomes and always act on duties—moral rules derived from the Categorical Imperative.  Kant was critical of using outcomes as a basis for morality as acts can turn out terribly even though one meant well, and other times they can work out for good, even though the agent intended evil or bad outcomes. Therefore, he believed that only intentions and duties were morally relevant in determining right and wrong.

Consequentalism is an ethical theory that determines good and bad, and therefore right and wrong, based on consequences, or outcomes.  A consequentalist believes that an act that results in the greatest amount of good, or the least amount of harm (for the greatest number of people) is a moral act.

An early and influential advocate of a version of Consequentialism was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).  His ethical theory is known as Utilitarianism, a variety of Consequentialism.  Utilitarians believe that morality is about creating as much happiness in the world as possible.  Bentham was a hedonist who believed that each person’s happiness is based on pleasure and pain—increased pleasure and decreased pain brings about happiness, whereas increased pain and decreased pleasure brings about unhappiness.  The moral task is therefore to create as much pleasure and eliminate as much pain as possible, not only for ourselves, but for others as well. 

Bentham’s ultimate moral principle is called the “principle of utility.”  Given a choice between alternative actions or social policies, one should do what results in the best overall consequences for everyone concerned.  Bentham also claimed that each person’s happiness or pleasure was of equal value, and should be weighed equally when deciding how to act. 

Another leading consequentialist was John Stuart Mill, who was a disciple of Bentham, but who differed with him on some important points.  Whereas Bentham thought that a “pleasure was a pleasure,” and it was the total amount of pleasure versus pain that was important, Mill suggested that we should not judge only the quantity of the pleasure but also the quality of it; some pleasures are better than others.  As Mill famously said, “it’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”  For Mill the quality of a pleasure is proportional to the degree to which it contributes to a person’s overall intellectual, moral, and aesthetic development.  So, for Mill, Utilitarianism needed to focus on the longer-term issue of pleasure and pain, not focusing on the relative amount of pleasure and pain in a given circumstance.

Mill believed the collective experience of humanity, as reflected in our traditions, ethical precepts, and laws (and to a certain extent, one’s own individual experience), determine what acts result in the best outcomes or consequences for all.  Laws against killing and stealing, and the like, have come to pass because over the ages humans have figured out that such result in bad outcomes.  Human laws and social customs are guides for us to follow so that we (collectively) achieve the best possible consequences. 

Feminist Ethics

The feminist “ethic of care” emerged when modern women began to become integrated into the academic world.  As you will have noted, all of the major theories of ethics reviewed have been advanced by men.  Women tend to view the world differently than men, and therefore a so-called Feminist Ethics has emerged.

The ethical theories discussed thus far have taken humans to be in conflict with one another; or at least isolated, independent, and self-sufficient.  According to these theories, you do not need other people to do your moral reasoning, in fact, other people get in the way.  Feminists argue that such assumptions and theories led us to competition, war and destruction. Rather than seeing our shared interests, traditional ethics tends to pit us against one another.

Feminist Ethics argues that what is missing are the most basic dimensions of human life:  caring for and about other people, the importance of nurturing, the deep inter-connectedness among human beings, and the way actions can hurt others we really care about.  A Feminist Ethics of Care deals with these issues because it understands each of us as being in need of care, nurturance, and love.  Feminists claim this ethic of care is a woman’s ethic because we see it most in women’s relationships with people who are dependent on them, specifically their families.

The ethics of care rejects absolute rules like those of deontological (Kantian) ethics, and they do so for reasons of context. They believe the context of ethical dilemmas matter.  It is your father’s feelings at risk, or your child’s joy—not just anybody’s.  When faced with an ethical dilemma, instead of asking the Kantian question, “what if everyone did that?” one figures out what to do in the context one finds oneself.  It may require breaking a promise or lying to maintain an important relationship and to respond to another’s need for caring on your part.  To sum up an ethics of care—relationships matter.  (As an aside, Confucianist Ethics would take very similar positions to Feminist Ethics.)

Limitations of Each Theory

Virtue Ethics and Feminist Ethics focus on how we ought to behave, and how we should think about relationships, rather than providing rules or formulas for ethical decision-making.  One must determine what it means to be courageous or caring (or to have any other virtue), in context.  What being caring or courageous means cannot be worked out objectively in advance, but depends on the circumstance.  Courage and caring may be great virtues in some circumstances but in others be destructive and lead to injustices.  The main problem with these two ethical theories is they do not offer particularly helpful guidelines for ethical action.  This problem is what ethicists refer to as contextualism. There are not universally applicable rules that apply to all people at all times, such as in Deontological Ethics; the ethical action varies from context to context, from culture to culture and from relationship to relationship.  This recreates the problem of cultural relativism—where there is no universal right and wrong, and no objective grounds for absolutely ruling out certain actions and behaviors.

Natural Law Ethics’ main claim was that which is morally right is whatever nature dictates. Traditionally,  Natural Law theorists appeal to nature because God created nature, and since nature works in certain ways, we should follow nature’s dictates because that is what God intended.  However, as noted, today there are natural law theorists who hold no theological persuasion.  If we carefully analyze the notion nature and natural,  we find it difficult to maintain that certain practices are unnatural. 

Just because things are a certain way does not mean they ought to be.  To claim such is to be guilty of what is referred to as the naturalistic fallacy—that is, “is” does not necessarily imply “ought.”  Fighting seems to come natural to humans, but should we say that is the way things should  be.  Some ethicists retort though, “if you cannot derive an ought from an is, then what can you derive it from?”

Technology has removed us so far from nature that it is difficult to distinguish what is natural from what is artificial.  We do not live in a state of nature any longer.  Nature did not intent for us to fly, or to use powerful drugs to heal our diseases and disabilities, nor to drive automobiles on highways at high rates of speed.  One starts making empty distinctions when one says that one thing is natural and another is not.

Whatever human beings do is natural.  By using our capacity for reason, and developing human knowledge, we are behaving as nature intended.  It is our nature to question, to think, to learn, to know and to advance ourselves, and our human civilization.  So all the ideas we have and everything we create is in some sense a component of our nature.  Science is natural for us.

However, these objections do not destroy Natural Law Theory, for out of it comes the belief that all humans have inherent value, and there are natural rights that flow from our shared human nature.

Social Contract Theory, in its emphasis on contract, seems to make human relationships of no inherent or essential value, rather only instrumental value.  The theory seems to see relationships as valuable primarily or only in terms of what one can receive from them.  It is a theory of reciprocity—I will help you, if (and only if) you help me.  While we may contract morally with some members of society, in general, we do not view our relationships with family and friends from a contractual perspective.  An additional problem with social contract theory is that it views people as free and equal.  However, this is not always the case.   Many people are vulnerable because they are not social equals—women, minorities, children, the elderly can be, and all too frequently are not, viewed as equal—nor free.  Social Contract Theory’s strength is that it argues that we should all see ourselves as free and equal to enter into and exit (implied, not necessarily explicitly written) “contracts.”  It explains why we live together in communities—to maximize benefits to ourselves.  However, it seems to fail when relating us to family, friends, and even enemies.

Duty Based Ethics has three main problems.  The first difficulty is Kant’s claim that outcomes are irrelevant to doing the right thing.  Sometimes this may be true, but it is not irrelevant that the choices one makes could harm people.   Kant claims that outcomes are impossible to predict, so attempting to achieve the best consequences is a moral mistake.  It is true that sometimes we cannot predict the outcome of an action, but frequently we can, making the idea that consequences are irrelevant an idea hard to take seriously.

Secondly, if duties, such as respecting the dead are universal and absolute, then it can be easy to fail to appreciate the many ways a duty can be interpreted.   One culture may choose to show respect in one way and another in a different way.  Possibly one culture could chose to show respect by eating the dead, but for another this would be a moral abomination.  Unless we want to say that there is only one-way to interpret a duty, and we have the correct way, it is not clear that duties can be applied without any consideration for interpretation and context.

Finally,  duties may conflict, and it is not always easy to determine which duty should take precedence.  A physician’s duty is to heal and preserve life, but there is also a duty to prevent pain.  In not a few cases today, if a physician pursues a course of saving a life at all costs, that is, there is not course of therapy that will heal or cure, s/he may only be prolonging pain and suffering.

Consequentialism suffers from a problem that is opposite to the one of duty-based ethics.  Consequentialism focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number.  While this is laudatory, it is also true that things other than consequences matter. To end up with the greatest good for the greatest number it may be necessary to commit a gross injustice to someone, such as accuse them of a crime they did not commit.  Or, use (manipulate) one person for the sake of another or others.  Better outcomes may come from such, but that does not make such actions morally right.  It is morally wrong to dishonor individuals’ rights, or to violate principles of fairness, justice, and equality.

Consequentialists are also forward looking in their ethical perspectives; considering future outcomes in making choices with potential for good or evil results.  However, sometimes our best reasons for choosing an act are based on the past, not on some future circumstance.  Suppose you have the opportunity to go something good for someone, and in considering the future consequences the action should be done for person X.  However,  person Y, while maybe not benefiting from your considered action as much, recently did something good for you that benefited you—s/he was there for you in the past.  Consequentalist calculations would not take that into consideration, as they are forward looking, and obligations to another for a benefit received in the past would not be considered determinative.

Harmonizing Ethical Theories

There are merits in each of these pure ethical theories.  However, there are problems with each, when taken alone.  Possibly the best approach to thinking about ethics is to take the strengths of each theory and attempt to harmonize them in such a manner as to form a synthesis. 

No ethical theory can ignore the basic facts of human nature.  Humans are not solitary animals, we live in groups, and we have certain behavioral characteristics that are species wide.  Natural Law Ethics acknowledges the importance of beginning with human nature—and the fact that we are both social animals and rational animals.  Our rationality and our sociability combine to make us moral animals, that is, animals that in relating to one another can cause harm or good; and animals who can think about such in a prospective manner.

Virtue Ethics comes into play then as we realize that as rational animals we do not just pursue pleasure and avoid pain, like other animals; we compare and evaluate actions in accordance with standards of pleasure and pain—we value things.  Because we can e(valuate) things, we can rank actions according to the degree of satisfaction or fulfillment they provide us.  Being rational enables us to break the hold of immediate desire and instinct; we are free to choose behaviors.  Virtue Ethics suggests that the end we should pursue is well-being or happiness. It further suggests that there are characteristics of human behavior that lead to human well-being.  These are the virtues or character traits that lead to the good life; virtues such as courage, temperance, considerateness, honesty, loyalty, caring, fair-minded, and the like.  Therefore, Virtue ethics is entirely in keeping with the natural law of governing our social and rational nature.  Virtues permit us to live peaceably, cooperatively and therefore successful with others.

Possibly one is a misanthrope, having a low opinion of humans, believing that all our ultimately self-interested and will take advantage of others when given the opportunity to achieve a need or desire.  Given an assumption that such may be the case, Social Contract Ethics helps us to understand that even if humans are not all or always paragons of virtue, we nevertheless must abide by certain rules of morality if we are going to avoid the state of nature.  If life in society is to be relatively stable, safe, and predictable—it is in our self-interest to acknowledge that morality and its precepts, such as do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not break promises, and the like, are in our (enlightened) self-interest as social animals living in community.

Reason is a necessary tool for calculating our long-term self-interest or happiness.  However, it also imposes logical consistency on our thinking.  Kant, and his Deontological Ethics, argues that we have to be consistent in the way we relate to others.  We cannot make exceptions for others or ourselves when it is convenient to do so.  Deontological Ethics helps emphasize that our notions of ethics must include impartiality.  In addition, duty-based ethics emphasizes that we cannot just treat others as means to our ends, but must recognize that as fellow human beings pursuing their ends, they deserve our respect.  Social Contract Ethics emphasizes that we must work with others, with rules of fair play, to achieve our respective goals of the good life.  However, Deontological Ethics emphasizes that this must be accomplished in such a way as to treat others as ends in themselves, and not just as means to our ends. They are rational evaluators who deserve respect as free, responsible moral agents. Thus, social cooperation requires reciprocity or mutuality—give and take in the adventure of life.  Respecting others requires holding others responsible for their actions. Thus, the idea of just desert—rewarding and or punishing people for what they have done—is a crucial component of any ethics.

If we ask why any of the moral ideas advanced above are crucial and relevant, and are critical to understand for a society of humans, we are forced to respond that they produce the best consequences—they provide for the greatest good for the greatest number.  Morality is necessary, good, expedient, not just for us as individuals, but for all human beings.  Why be moral?  Because it results in the greatest possible opportunity for me to live the good life, a life of well-being or happiness.  Morality promotes the general welfare, as it results in better consequences for all. 

Feminist Ethics does not offer a specific model for moral deliberation.  Feminist ethicists can appeal to aspects of virtue ethics, social contract ethics, deontology, or consequentialism. Feminist Ethics addresses a specific problem, the unequal treatment of women in all aspects of life.  Gender based discrimination and oppression has been and continues to be deep and pervasive, especially in less developed and more traditional societies.  Women have traditionally been relegated to the role of caregivers.  Care giving continues to be an extremely important dimension of family and social life.  Feminist Ethics helps us understand and appreciate the importance of caring.

In attempting to synthesize these theories into some sort of coherent whole, we are faced with the questions of: what exactly is human nature, what virtues are imperative to live the good life, what constitutes the good life,  what are our duties, and do they exist in a hierarchy, what should be included in the social contract and what should not, are some consequences to be preferred to others, how can women be treated as equal in society? 

Jurgen Habermas has suggested the answer to these synthesizing questions is found in Discourse Ethics.  Humans, based on human experience, enter into thoughtful discussion (discourse) of the goods of life, how best to achieve them, and what is the nature of the cooperative life of a society.  This is what happens in a free and just democracy where all, men and women alike, consider the issues, and the answers to the above stated questions that flow from considering various moral theories.  Thus, democracy is an imperative if a worldwide ethics is to be achieved.  Preceding Habermas in articulating this idea was the American philosopher John Dewey.  He, too, argued that human experience ultimately dictates our understanding of human ethics.  Moreover, that democracy is the only manner in which to achieve a society in which justice or fairness for all is the ultimate moral principle.     

A word, closely related to morality, is mores; meaning the standard customary or traditional behaviors of a particular culture or group of people.  Cultures decide, as a result of discourse, what behaviors are sanctioned in that culture.  However, to avoid falling into the trap of cultural relativism, it is necessary that all human beings inhabiting the earth, come to agreement, through thoughtful, informed, impartial discourse, what is good versus evil and therefore, what is right versus what is wrong.  This is increasingly occurring as our world continues to shrink into a genuine “global village,” and as democratic principles and the democratic spirit expand throughout the world.  A moral imperative exists for a world-wide democracy.