What is a Moral Decision? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:19 Types of Morality
  • 2:20 Approaches to Moral…
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

What does it mean to live ethically? In this lesson, we will explore what it means to make ethical decisions and how it can be different for everyone.


You've just arrived at the beach with your daughter and her best friend, who is coincidentally the daughter of your best friend. You put your beach bag down and tell the girls, who are eager to play, that they can swim close to the shoreline but must stay away from the rocky enclave because the water is too rough. You also warn them to be extra careful because this is a private beach, which means there are no lifeguards on duty. The girls agree and leave you behind.

As you are setting up, you hear the girls screaming and can tell it isn't playful. You turn around to see that they didn't listen to you and were being swept out by a rip tide. As you are swimming out, you are having trouble yourself. You know you can save both of them, but it will have to be one at a time. Your daughter is a relatively strong swimmer, but her friend is struggling to keep her head above water. You think there is a 50% chance that your daughter could wait for you to return, but know her friend will drown if you leave her. What do you do?

This scenario is an example of a moral dilemma. This is when a person is put into a situation where they must make a moral decision. A moral decision is a choice made based on a person's ethics, manners, character and what they believe is proper behavior. These decisions tend to not only affect your well-being, but also the well-being of others.

Types of Morality

People base moral decisions on a variety of references including religious beliefs, personal values, and logical reasoning. From this reasoning come two different types of morality: absolute morality and relative morality.

Absolute morality is a more rigid belief structure that is based on the idea that there is a right choice for every moral dilemma, which holds true for all situations. A good example of this would be the Christian commandment, 'thou shalt not kill.' A person who believes in absolute morality would believe this to be true in all situations, even in the case of war.

Relative morality recognizes that different situations may call for different actions that might not always adhere to a person's original values. Let's use the same example, 'though shalt not kill.' A person who has relative morality would stick with this belief but might have a different opinion when it comes to war or abortion, depending on the situation.

Approaches to Moral Decision-Making

Over the years, philosophers have recognized five different frameworks for approaching moral issues. These approaches developed over many years, ranging from Ancient Greek times to the 19th century. Each of them is designed to deliver the most virtuous and just resolution to a moral dilemma. The five approaches are:

  • The Utilitarian Approach
  • The Rights Approach
  • The Fairness Approach
  • The Common-Good Approach
  • The Virtue Approach

The Utilitarian Approach addresses a decision by determining what is the most beneficial or causes the least amount of harm. The ethical action in this approach is the one that causes the most amount of good for the largest amount of people. The Rights Approach is aligned more with the notion that human beings have a right to choose freely and should not be manipulated. As a result, there is a list of moral rights that go into consideration when making a decision. This includes the right to choose what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, and the right to privacy, among others.

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