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Ethical theories are the fundamentals of ethical analysis as they are deemed as the viewpoints from which guidance is obtained before a decision can be reached on an ethical issue. Each of the three theories emphasizes different points before reaching an ethically correct decision. The three approaches to ethics are ethical skepticism which states that ethical standards are relative to a person’s particular time and culture as opposed to the universal approach, and a deontological approach which states that people should identify and make use of a universal code in making ethical decisions and utilitarianism approach that states that decisions ought to be based on a comparison and an examination of the benefits and costs that may arise from the study. The paper will give a brief definition of ethics and the types of ethics before outlining the three main approaches to ethics: utilitarianism, deontological and virtue ethics
The field of ethics is also called moral philosophy and it involves systematizing, defending, and giving recommendations on the concepts of right and wrong. Ethical theories are divided into three general subjects namely: normative ethics, descriptive ethics, and meta-ethics.
Normative Ethics: Until the 19th century, this was the prevalent form of ethics. It involves itself with what is good or bad and the kind of actions that are wrong or right. Normative ethics involves how people should act on principles, how to apply rules, and how to make moral choices. This includes considering the importance of human freedom and human responsibility for moral decisions.
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Descriptive Ethics: This is moral anthropology or moral sociology which is a description of the moral code that prevails in a society. This is the study of how different people and societies answer moral questions. Descriptive ethics involves different approaches inside a society and its resolution of ethical issues.
Meta-Ethic: This is also called philosophical ethics or moral philosophy. This group of ethics attracts a lot of attention today because it seeks to make out the function and meaning of moral language and ethical terms; good and bad. Meta-ethics examines the logic used in arriving at what is a moral choice.
Utilitarian Approach: JS Mill
This is a moral theory that implements a fair choice to ensure that the least harm is done to the parties involved. A utilitarian approach to ethical values looks at the choices for taking certain decisions in light of the results of doing one thing against the other. This kind of approach requires that one decides what course of action ought to be done by evaluating the consequence of each action. By focusing on what the outcome of each action is, utilitarianism will demand that one decides on what course of action should be taken considering the benefits or harm of actions without regarding the cost of action. According to Carroll and Buchholtz (2009), utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine that the moral worth of an action is determined by the fact that the theory can be founded on the ability to predict the consequences of an action. A utilitarian will take the course of action that can benefit most people as ethically correct. In Mill’s own words, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morality, Utility, or the Greatness Happiness Principle…By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain…” (Diener, pp.25). This means that the ultimate determiner of the wrongness or rightness of an action is the effect of action or pleasure.
According to this theory, actions ought to be evaluated by their consequences. The moral thinking here is that humans will try to avoid pain and seek pleasure, otherwise called hedonism. Hedonism will equate good with pleasure. The principles of utilitarianism are therefore the consequential principle and its attractiveness is that it forces the decision-maker to think about the general welfare. The theory proposes a standard outside one’s self-interest to be used in judging the course of action. Its weakness however is that it ignores some actions that may be intrinsically wrong and does not handle the issue of rights in the right way (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2009).
Deontology Ethical Theory: I. Kant
The basics of this theory are on what makes something good or bad, right or wrong, and conforming it to a duty that is discoverable by reason. It is based on Kant’s categorical imperative; a duty-based ethical principle. One ought to choose the action that best conforms to one’s recognized duties. Deontological theory is different from the above theory because sometimes it may be that although the consequence of an act is good, some acts are simply wrong. This simply means that some acts are judged as ethical or not based on the actions of the actor. Kant’s ethics is reflected in this sentence on how humans should treat others, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your personal or that of any other, every case as end with all, never as means only” (Diener, p.23).
Deontology means a ‘duty’ or an ‘obligation.’ This is an approach to ethics that says that the act of rightness or wrongness for that matter does not wholly depend on the badness or goodness of their consequences. According to the deontology theory, people ought to adhere to their duties and obligations when analyzing an ethical dilemma and before making a decision. This will imply that a person will follow his/her obligations to society or another person as holding another person’s duty is considered ethically correct (Gulcan, n.d.).
Virtue theory is an approach to ethics that emphasizes character rather than consequences or rules as the main element of making ethical thinking. The theory is often described as an inner disposition to act in a moral and commendable way. Moral value does not arise due to nature but is rather adapted to nature to receive them. The virtue theory judges people by their character rather than by actions that may stray from their normal behavior. This theory is very distinct from the above two theories because when observing an unethical position, the virtue theory will consider the person’s reputation as well as the purpose for committing the act. It is widely accepted that Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics led to virtue theory and its concept of what humans live for (Diener, P. W. (1997).
According to Carroll & Buchholtz (2009), mainly focuses on the person being filled with virtues such as fairness, truthfulness, honesty, or benevolence. The system is mainly centered on a person’s heart while emphasizing the being. The idea here is that virtues are equally important and when the virtues are combined with principles, they form a foundation for effective ethical action as well as making sound decisions.
Ethics has an important place in our lives. In my case, I feel that the utilitarian approach is more applicable to me and what I have gone through today than the others. I feel that we must always do whatever we will to produce the greatest balance of happiness instead of unhappiness for all people whom our actions affect. Instead of arguing for the closure of a factory located in my neighborhood that employs about 50 people for polluting the environment, I convinced government officials that mechanisms were already put in place to reduce pollution to recommendable levels. This was a blatant lie but I quickly notified the manager to look into the issue and address it as soon as possible. I felt that if the company is closed, it will take longer to be re-opened and thus cause unemployment. It was a lie but am glad I saved a couple of jobs for some time before the situation is corrected.
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