Ethical Theories

Ethical theories such as cultural relativism, situation ethics, natural law, kantian ethics, utilitarianism and religious ethics

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  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 09-01-12 15:25

Cultural Relativism

  • majority of people believe an action is moral - accepted as moral
  • depends on society's norms and attitudes and the majority belief


  • depends on circumstances - flexible
  • helps us to understand different cultures
  • non judgemental
  • straight forward
  • majority - most people are happy (utilitarianism + democratic)


  • majority is not always right - sometimes the minority is
  • what is right may not be necessarily acceptable
  • not consistent, people like rules
  • if people belong to different cultures and societies - which society does it refer to? Therefore rules of conduct differ from place to place
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Situation Ethics

  • the moral decision is determined by the situation and circumstances
  • based on Christian unconditional love - agape
  • Joseph Fletcher and Paul Tillich
  • agape is the only absolute rule
  • other rules can be overridden if they got in the way of love
  • Tillich - it is more of an "ultimate concern to do the right thing"
  • rules might be useful, but should offer guidance only
  • Agape love is selfless (Paul - 1 Corinthians 13)

Advantages: follow one simple principle - easy to understand, freedom to differ from decisions of others without feeling the need for justification for a decision - flexible, enables emotional and rational responses, based on love - key feature of most morality systems

Disadvantages: easily broken - multitude of rules replaced by one, difficult to define love - no objective basis, moral vagueness, hedonism, individualistic, people like rules, gives people too much responsibility

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Natural Law

  • Thomas Aquinas
  • Final cause - purpose of something
  • Purpose tells us how to act 'right' however the purpose may not be clear - casuistic
  • Roman Catholics
  • Not concerned with the consequences
  • Primary and Secondary Precepts: G.E.R.L.S (worship God, educate the young, reproduce, preservation of life and living in a society)

Advantages: firm moral guidance, flexible to acommodate different cultures - secondary precepts are reasoned by the society, universal moral code - most people believe in preserving life, based on reason (open to everyone), people like boundaries and rules

Disadvantages: difficult to relate complex decisions to basic principles - consequences matter in terms of humans flourishing, relies heavily on reason - implies human beings capable of reasoning accurately, uncaring - does not take into account the situation (e.g. ****), casuistic - final purpose may be wrong

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Kantian Ethics

1. Categorical imperative, 2. universalizability, 3. duty based, 4. do not use people as a means to an end but as ends in themselves, 5. no compassion, 6. maxims, 7. proper intention, 8. based on reason, 9. no consequences, 10. Golden Rule

Positives: clear criteria to assess what is moral, treats everyone fairly and justly (corrects utilitarian assumption that the minority can suffer as long as the majority are happy), compassion and emotions are misleading - not taken into account, gives humans intrinsic worth - humans can never be treated as an ends to themselves (cannot be enslaved and exploited)

Negatives: conflict between different duties, would work if everyone had the same view of the final purpose and end of humans, consequences are naturally relevant, are any two moral dilemmas the same? maxims can conflict with one another

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Act Utilitarianism

  • strong - no exceptions
  • hedonistic (individual or smaller community first)
  • does not distinguish between higher and lower pleasures
  • hedonic calculus (happiness sums)
  • maximise pleasure, minimise pain
  • Quantitive
  • "human beings are under the governance of two sovereign masters; pain and pleasure" Bentham
  • Teleological
  • peoples motives cannot be measured, but their consequences can
  • Principle of Utility

Advantages: clear, mathematical method, popular approach as humans do seek pleasure and avoid pain, looks at consequences of an action - natural, common sense involved - ethical code accessible to everyone

Disadvantages: difficult to predict consequences, potential to justify any act, difficulty in defining pleasure, no defence for minoirities, impratical

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Rule Utilitarianism

  • ability to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures
  • prioritises cultural and spiritual kinds of happiness over physical pleasures
  • "happiness" rather than "pleasure"
  • John Stuart Mill
  • weak - more flexible as can add rules
  • less need for the hedonic calculus - seek higher pleasure instead


  • able to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures
  • considers community first
  • recognises the 'tyranny of the majority' the majority will always prevail


  • difficulty in defining what constitutes happiness, no defence for minorities, invoke rules - becomes more deontological rather than teleological
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Preference Utilitarianism

  • Hare, Singer, Brandt
  • includes animals - environmental ethics (Singer)
  • people who do not want to be happy can fulfill this
  • "Equal preference counts equally, whatever their context" Hare
  • Better balance between pleasure and pain


  • appeals to minorities
  • preferences more equal
  • easier to know what people prefer themselves - they know this


  • impratical - cannot take into account what everyone's preference is
  • animals - cannot ask if animals are happy
  • hard to determine, preferences change, impossible to decide
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Religious Ethics (Christianity)

  • Divine Command theory: God's will is arbitrary, God commands something for good reasons - source of moral obligations
  • Euthyphro's Dilemma
  • Church writings, Pope
  • 10 Commandments (Matthew 5: 27-30), parables, WWJD
  • Situation Ethics
  • Christian community
  • Natural Law
  • Agape - "love thy neighbour as yourself" Matthew 25: 37b-39), love is all faith and knowledge 1 Corinthians 13
  • The Holy Spirit - conscience (Galatians 5: 22-23)
  • prayer
  • miracles
  • relevation (prayers answered)
  • Newman - conscience = voice of God
  • Kantian Ethics: do not use people as a means to an end - God created man in his own image Genesis 1, Matthew 5 27-30 (thoughts count, not just actions)
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