Rebirth of Reason

Intellectual Ammunition

The 4 Main Kinds of Ethics: An Introduction.
by Ed Thompson

Morality is about the kinds of things that need to be done in order to live well as a human being. When different ethics compete, they compete by taking different positions on what it means for us to live well as human beings. Sometimes, for instance, guarding and defending the welfare of animals, or the “welfare” of nature, is taken to be what it is that is needed for us to live well as human beings.

Other times it has been supposedly understood that always doing whatever you feel like doing is what is needed for us to live well as human beings. At still other times it has been supposedly-understood that a following just a few key rules would make everything right.

The purpose of this short essay is to introduce the 4 main ways that we can think about morality and to get a glimpse at how those 4 mutually-exclusive and altogether-exhaustible views result in radically different ethical recommendations.

The reason why morality is such a confusing subject (even, or especially, in our universities) is because some key philosophers have led folks' thoughts away from what it really means to be moral. There are 4 main theories of morality (4 Ethics; in the general sense) which have surfaced in our culture due to the influences of these key philosophers:

(1) An ethic based on building one’s character via virtue -- e.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (and -- not coincidentally! -- Ayn Rand's Objectivist ethics of rational self-interest)

(2) An ethic based on one’s widest and highly-variable personal feelings; rather than an ethic based on any reasoning, per se -- e.g., David Hume's noncognitive ethics

(3) An ethic based on the adoption of universal rules; rules that are never meant to be broken, regardless of specific consequences -- e.g., Immanuel Kant's deontology

(4) An ethic based on a supposedly-defined “good” and on the supposedly-knowable and widest – i.e., individual and social; present and future -- consequences (regarding this supposedly-defined “good”) of each of our chosen actions -- e.g., Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism

Depending on which moral view you currently adopt, morality can feel somewhat easy or it can be very, very hard – if not, impossible -- to do. It can be something that makes you feel deeply satisfied with how your life is going on Earth; or something that makes you feel fatally ashamed of your own existence or being. Critical reflection on these issues reveals much insight to inform our moral evaluations.

Apparently, we had it 99% right the first time – with Aristotle -- and we have mucked it up ever since (until Rand’s thoughts emerged on the ethical scene). Upon a closer inspection of how it is that these 4 views can arise in one’s mind in the first place, it is found that they arise from a selective focus.

(1) In the case of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the focus is on one’s habitual actions and on one’s nature as a human being; it can be characterized as “agent-focused” morality; this dual-focus reveals why Aristotle’s -- and, by extension, Rand’s -- ethics could be characterized as either Virtue Ethics and/or as Natural Law Ethics (though this last has been ideologically kidnapped by various Judeo-Christian religionists)

(2) In the case of Hume’s noncognitive ethics, the focus is on one’s moment-to-moment feelings; it can be characterized as “sentiment-focused” morality

(3) In the case of Kant’s deontology, the focus is on “pre-established” universal rules; it can be characterized as “action-focused” morality

(4) In the case of Bentham’s utilitarianism, the focus is on the widest possible consequences in relation to assumed and presumed “goods” or “values”; it can be characterized as “beneficiary-focused” morality

All other types or kinds of ethics – e.g., such as the so-characterized ‘feminist’ Ethics of Care (a “noncognitive” ethic) -- fall into one of these 4 original kinds. Talk of morals is often perpetually confusing and can be ultimately nihilistic. This is exceptionally tragic.
My aspiration in writing this essay was no less than to set the stage – and the boundaries – for all further (rational) discussion on the matter.

[available upon request]
Sanctions: 3Sanctions: 3 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (33 messages)