An Introduction to five ethical theories

There are many ethical theories that can be used to analyse situations in everyday life as well as hypothetical ethical dilemmas. It can be useful to look at the situation through the lens of several theories as the most ethical way forward will usually be judged as ethical by several different theories.


Utilitarianism is a consequential or teleological ethics theory, so it is not concerned with how moral the action itself is, but the morality of the outcome of an action. Utilitarians aim to maximise the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals by assessing all consequences on all those affected by an action, in both the long and short term. In a Utilitarian assessment of an action, each individual is valued equally or given one ‘vote’ on the action.

Kantian deontology

Kantian deontology is a non-consequential ethical theory, which means it is judges how ethical the nature of an act is, rather than the product of the act. This theory is comprised of the moral law and the categorical imperative. The moral law is made up the idea that morality is; self-imposed, equal to reason, only applies to rational beings, not derived from consequences and universal. For an act to be considered ethical, it must pass the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative consists of three rules; the act must be universalisable, it must respect rational beings as ends in themselves and it must respect the autonomy of rational beings. The problem with Kant’s theory is that it is not easy to use for decision making as it does not provide guidance as to where to draw the line when calculating individual welfare against the society as a whole.

Rawls’ theory of justice

Rawls uses a Kantian approach to offer a contemporary alternative to utilitarianism based on free will, fairness and equality, not social utility. Rawls attempts to reach principles of distributive justice by assuming people are rational and value their own good. (Prasad, 2008) Rawls also believed that people would be objective if they pretended they were behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ where would not know anything about themselves or their circumstances when they were born. Rawls believed two principles could always be agreed behind the ‘veil of ignorance’. The first is that everyone should have equal liberty compatible with others. The second principle that could be agreed is that that positions are open to everyone and inequalities are only acceptable as long as they benefit everyone, especially the worst off.


Rights are entitlements that involve an obligation on others to treat an individual in a certain way, if that is what they wish. However, an individual’s rights are limited by the rights of others. These rights can be split into two categories, positive and negative rights. Negative rights allow an individual the right to be left alone, free of interference from others. Positive rights entitle an individual to be provided with things, opportunities and even goods, imposing a correlative duty on others.

Ethical relativism

Ethical relativism asserts that right and wrong are subjective and can be determined by each society or group of people independent of any others. There are two types of ethical relativism, descriptive and normative ethical relativism. Descriptive ethical relativism claims that different cultures have different moral values and this may be true. However, normative ethical relativism claims that each culture is right in itself and denies that rational or objective ethical judgements can be made on a particular culture’s values and morals. Normative ethical relativism is not accepted by contemporary ethical theorists as it claims there is no universal ethical standard and anthropologists have found this to be untrue because most cultures have underlying similarities.  Normative ethical relativism also claims that what is good will be socially acceptable within a given culture and what is bad will be socially unacceptable, which can cause unsolvable conflicts within the theory.


  • Beauchamp, T., Bowie, N & Arnold, D. 2008. Ethical Theory and Business. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall
  • Boatright, J. 1993. Ethics and the Conduct of Business. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall
  • Bowie, N. 1999. Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective. Malden, Wiley-Blackwell
  • Hoffman, M., Frederick, R & Schwartz, M 2001. Business Ethics, Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality. New York, McGraw-Hill
  • Tungdhat, E. 1995. The Moral Dilemma in the Rescue of Refugees. Social Research, Vol. 62 pp. 129-142
  • Van Hooft, S., Gillam, L. & Byrnes, M. 1995. Rights & Duties Sydney,  Maclennan & Petty

Image: Scattered puzzle pieces next to solved fragment by Horia Varlan


2 responses to “An Introduction to five ethical theories

    • Hi Esther, these theories can be used to solve a variety of ethical dilemmas. Do you have a specific ethical dilemma in mind or do you just want more general information on each of them?

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