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Ethical Theories

Natural Law


There seem to be laws governing how the world works the angles of a
triangle always add up to 180 degrees. We believe these laws are
universal and will be applied just the same in the past/present/future.

The angles in a triangle will

always add up to 180 degrees

Some people believe this is also true for morality right and wrong,
good and evil, follow a natural law which is universal and never changes. This is
therefore an absolutist ethical theory.

Aristotelian ideas:
In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote:
That which is natural is unchangeable, and has the same power
everywhere, just as fire burns both here and in Persia

True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal

application, unchanging and everlasting

Aristotles causes:
The efficient cause brings about the end; the final cause is
somethings reason for existence
St Paul:

A law that is written in the hearts of Gentiles

Aquinas and Natural Law

Thomas Aquinas (13th Century), in his Summa Theologica, combined
Aristotles ideas of cause and purpose with his own Christian beliefs
that everything exists for a reason, coming to the conclusion that God
brought everything into existence for a purpose:

Aristotle said something could be called good if it fulfilled its

Aquinas said something could be called good if it did what God
intended it to

To find out what God wants us to do we can look at the Bible and
church teaching, and apply reason. Aquinas put forward the primary precepts, which he
believed to be the main natural purposes of human existence. They are absolute:

Self-preservation and preservation of the innocent

Continuation of the species through reproduction
Education of children
Living in an ordered society
Worshipping God

Ethical Theories
The secondary precepts are things we should not do because they go against the primary
precepts, e.g. homosexual relationships go against the primary precept for reproduction.

Real and apparent goods

Real goods are acts which follow the primary precepts, and are actions with a good
intention and a good consequence (good interior and exterior acts). Apparent goods are
acts you think are good but are actually not, e.g. watching television instead of doing
Acts are intrinsically good or bad in themselves a good act glorifies God and fulfils His
purpose, and a bad act does not.

and weaknesses


Everyone can be following a common

rule, and there will therefore be no
cultural differences or

All people have the same basic

principles of preserving life,
reproduction, education etc so life is
reasonable for everyone

Gives guidance to people in

everyday situations if they have a
moral dilemma and dont know how
to act


Do humans have a single nature

between them? A single moral law
for everyone may not work

Humans have different/changeable

natures e.g. different sexual
orientations in society

Primary precepts could be wrong

Jesus was opposed to legalistic


Ethical Theories

Act Utilitarianism
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the first to put forward the
theory of utilitarianism, based on the idea of the greatest good
for the greatest number of people. Bentham was a democratic
reformer and focussed on rights for the majority rather than the
Bentham was a hedonist, and claimed that nature has placed
mankind under the guidance of two sovereign masters, pain and
pleasure. He rejected egoistic hedonism and said that everyone
should be considered equally.
Principle of utility:
Utility means usefulness. The principle of
utility is somethings tendency to produce pain
or pleasure, happiness or unhappiness

Hedonic Calculus
Bentham devised the hedonic calculus as a means of measuring the potential
pleasure/pain that could be caused by an action:

Intensity of affect on people

Duration of action
Certainty or uncertainty
Propinquity or remoteness
Chance of similar outcomes (pain/pleasure)
6. Chance of opposite outcomes (pain/pleasure)

Criticisms of Bentham

Focuses on the majority, and the majority could be wrong, e.g. if sadistic guards
torture a prisoner for their own pleasure
In reality people can never wholly take emotion out of their decisions and will be
egoistic, not democratic
Minority groups will nearly always be in the wrong
Difficult to calculate
Not always time to calculate

Ethical Theories
Rule Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill (1808-1873) wrote Utilitarianism (1861). Adopted Benthams ideas and
defended the theory of utilitarianism. His approach was qualitative, not quantitative, and
focussed on the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
He defined pleasures in two tiers:
Higher pleasures:
Higher pleasures are intellectual pleasures, which are exclusive
to humans. These include art and philosophy
Lower pleasures:

Lower pleasures, such as food and sex, are animalistic


We need both higher and lower pleasures, but Mill believed out of choice we would take
the higher as this is what sets us apart from animals: it is better to be a human being
dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
The term rule utilitarianism comes from the fact that with this theory certain actions,
such as killing, stealing and lying are adopted as rules, as they seem to cause more pain
than pleasure in the majority of circumstances (this is more deontological than

Act Utilitarianism

Maintain that the good action is

the one that leads to the
greatest good in a particular

Flexible, being able to take into

account individual situations at a
given moment

However, has the potential to

justify almost any act

It may be impractical to suggest

that we should measure each
moral choice each time

It is reasonable
to link morality
with the pursuit
of happiness
and the
avoidance of
pain and misery

Rule Utilitarianism

Establishes the best overall rule

by determining the course of
action which, when pursued by
the whole community, leads to
the greatest result

difficulties encountered in act

However, it may still permit

certain practises (e.g. slavery)
that appear to be morally
unacceptable because minority
interests are not protected

It is natural to
consider the
of our actions
when deciding
what to do

Ethical Theories
Kantian Ethics
Deontological ethical theories are concerned with what our duty is;
Kant believed that is was our duty to follow the moral law. He said
that actions were intrinsically right or wrong, and we should use our
reason to decide how to act in a situation we should act in a certain
way because it is morally right to do so, not because this fulfils our
Kant believed that we should not let our feelings influence our
decision we must follow the absolute moral law in all circumstances.
He said that it is never our duty to do something it would be
impossible for us to do, and therefore that ought implies can. Moral
statements, according to Kant, are prescriptive.
Analytic statements:

A PRIORI: Cannot be proven to be false. Because of its

nature you know exactly what something is. That word
tells you everything you need to know about it.
Eg. A circle is round

Synthetic statements: A POSTERIORI: Proven as true/false through evidence:

Eg. All flamingos are pink (you are only saying this
through your experience of pink flamingos)
Kant said that moral statements were a priori synthetic moral knowledge is gained
through reason and is therefore a priori, but as they may be right or wrong they are

The Summum Bonum

Kant described this as the ultimate end; the supreme good that humans must seek to
achieve. It is a state in which human virtue and happiness are united. As it is impossible
for humans to reach this state within our lifetime Kants conclusion was that we must
have immortal souls. Although Kant rejected the traditional arguments for the existence
of God his theory assumes the existence of a God and an afterlife. Therefore morality
leads to God.

Good Will and Duty

Kant argues that the highest form of good is good will; to succeed in
this good will is to do ones duty, and to do ones duty is to do actions
that are morally required. We do our duty for the sake of the duty
itself, not for any possible consequences of doing so. Happiness is
also good, and is a reward for acting through good will, but our duty

Good will
forth like a

Ethical Theories
is to aspire to the highest good for its own sake. We should always follow our duty even if
it can cause pain. A moral person must be a rational being, who uses their reason to
decide how to act.

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration
and wethe starry heavens above me and the moral law within me

Ethical Theories
The Categorical Imperative
The categorical imperative helps us to know which actions are obligatory and which are
forbidden. It tells us what we ought to do. The moral law is categorical in that it
prescribes actions irrespective of the result. It is different from hypothetical statements in
that they dictate a necessary action to achieve a certain result, but the categorical
imperative is absolute and must be applied to everyone.
1. The Universal Law: Do not act on any principle that cannot be universalised. Moral
Laws must be able to be applied to all situations without
exception. If an action can be considered right for me, it must
be right for everyone. Kant argued that to allow exceptions
would ultimately harm someone and have a negative effect on
2. Ends in themselves: You can never treat a person as a means to an end, using them
exploiting/enslaving them. You must treat
them as ends in themselves. Humans are
rational and the highest point of creation,
and so demand unique treatment. We
have a duty to develop our own perfection and to seek the
happiness of others, therefore we should not promote
happiness if it prevents anothers happiness.
3. Kingdom of ends:

Kant requires moral statements to be such that you act as if

you, and everyone else, were treating each other as ends. You
cannot act on a rule that assumes that others do not treat
people as ends. You cannot create a maxim if the rule would
make society intolerable.

Kant believed that humans were free to make rational choices. If people were not free,
the possibility of making moral choices would be denied. This ability to freely rationalise,
or reason, is what Kant described as the difference between humans and animals. We
have to be free to do our duty, which is to follow the categorical imperative, but if our
choices are not free then we cannot truly be moral agents.


The categorical imperative prohibits

acts which would commonly be
considered to be immoral


Kants system cannot resolve

conflicting duties

Universalisability generalises

Ethical Theories

Kant distinguishes between duty and


Kants theory gives humans intrinsic

worth, which cant be sacrificed for
the majority

different but similar moral dilemmas

which might have had different
outcomes if considered differently