Western Theories of Ethics

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  • 0:00 Normative Ethics in…
  • 1:05 Deontology
  • 2:19 Consequentialism
  • 3:26 Virtue Ethics
  • 4:38 A Scenario
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What is right? What is wrong? There are countless ways to answers these questions, but, in this lesson, we'll look at some of the most dominant theories within Western philosophy.

Normative Ethics in Western Philosophy

How should people act? With that one question, you've just unlocked the door to thousands of philosophical debates. How should people act? What's a right action or a wrong one, and how do we know? How do we assign value to actions? Who's to say what's right or wrong? Questions of morality like these generate the field of philosophy called ethics. When those questions are specifically focused on the morality of actions, it's known as normative ethics.

Various societies around the world and across time have found their own ways to answer these questions, and this is true of European-based societies as well. Theories emerging from Europe or European-based cultures are known as the Western canon of philosophy. While there are many theories of ethics in Western philosophy, they can generally be sorted into three categories. Let's take a look at them and see if we can answer the question, 'What is the right thing to do?'


The first school of thought within normative ethics is something we call deontology. A deontological ethical theory is one which seeks to explain the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action. Is it wrong to lie? Is it right to help someone? Deontology states that people should do things simply because they are right and for no other reason. We're looking at the morality of the action itself, and that's it.

Deontology stems from the mind of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant introduced the concept of a categorical imperative into Western philosophy, which is an absolute moral requirement that must always be obeyed. According to Kant, these categorical imperatives were the basis of ethical action because they were always true, no matter what the circumstance. For example, Kant believed it was categorically unethical to lie. It didn't matter if lying could protect someone from harm, the action of lying was unethical and, therefore, a person shouldn't lie. It's worth noting that many religious rules are inherently deontological. The rule or commandments are absolute and cannot be bent or amended.


One of the big problems that some people have with deontology is that it can seem impossible to uniformly define a moral action based solely on inherent goodness. Who's to say what makes an action good? Critics of deontology argue that the only way to determine the goodness of an action is to examine its consequences. The field of ethics focused on the morality of the consequences of an action is named, appropriately enough, consequentialism.

Consequentialism isn't concerned solely with the goodness of actions themselves. To consequentialists, morality is all about producing a good consequence. Perhaps the most famous of the consequentialist theories is utilitarianism, founded largely by John Stuart Mill, which states that the moral action is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Consequentialism is a practical way to address the morality of actions in the real world, but it has its limitations as well. For one, it can often be majority-focused, leading to long-term subjugation of the minority's happiness or well-being.

Virtue Ethics

So far, our philosophers have said we can judge the morality of actions based on the goodness of the action itself or the goodness of the consequences of the action. But there's one more factor to consider: the goodness of the person making the action. The third branch of normative ethics is virtue ethics, which examines the virtue of the actor, not the action. Basically, an action is morally justified if the person doing it is virtuous. This is the only branch of normative ethics that really takes intention into consideration, and it also has the widest breadth. Instead of trying to find universal truths that can apply in every situation, virtue ethics focuses on a case-by-case basis, answering questions like, 'How should I live?', 'What are good family values?' and 'What defines a morally good life?'

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