Ethics is a branch of philosophy that, at its core, seeks to understand and to determine how human actions can be judged as right or wrong. We may make ethical judgments, for example, based upon our own experience or based upon the nature of or principles of reason. Those who study ethics believe that ethical decision making is based upon theory and that these theories can be classified. What follows is a very brief description of four classes of ethical theories (See Garrett, Baillie, & Garrett, 2001):

1. Consequentialism
2. Kantian Deontologism
3. Natural Law
4. Virtue Ethics


Ethical theories that fall under the classification of consequentialism posit that the rightness or wrongness of any action must be viewed in terms of the consequences that the action produces. In other words, the consequences are generally viewed according to the extent that they serve some intrinsic good. The most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism (social consequentialism) which proposes that one should act in such a way to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

Kantian Deontologism

Deontologism is a position based, predominately, on the work of Immanuel Kant. Most simply, deontologism suggests that an act must be performed because the act in some way is characterized by universality (i.e. appropriate for everyone) or that it conforms with moral law (formal rules used for judging the rightness or wrongness of an act). According to this theoretical position, the rightness or wrongness of some acts are independent of the consequences that it produces and the act may be good or evil in and of itself.

Natural Law

This theoretical position suggests that one may, through rational reflection on nature (especially human nature), discover principles of good and bad that can guide our actions in such a way that we will move toward human fulfillment or flourishing. This position suggests that human beings have the capacity within themselves for actualizing their potential.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics consists of two differing approaches to ethics and can, therefore, be confusing to understand. Very briefly, the first approach to ethics in this theoretical orientation proposes that there are certain dispositional character traits (virtues) that are appropriate and praiseworthy in general and or in a particular role. More formally, virtue ethics represents a "systematic formulation of the traits of character that make human behavior praiseworthy or blameworthy" (Shelp, 1985, p.330).

The second approach to virtue ethics not only identifies the virtues, but focuses on their integration into what can be described as "practical wisdom" or "right reason." Practical wisdom is the phrase used to describe ones ability to choose patterns of actions that are desirable. These patterns of actions are informed by reasoning that is, in part, influenced by habits of emotional experience or virtues (Baillie, 1988), but also by the depth and breath of experience available to the human being as he or she is placed in society.
In the next section of this module you will have the opportunity to see the definitions of ethical principles. As you read the definitions, think about how the ethical theories that you have just studied are embedded within these principles.