The Seven Major Ethical Systems

The word “ethics” is an English word derived from an archaic Greek word ethikos, which means “relating to one’s character.” Ethikos is also is derived from the root word ethos, a connotation of “moral nature” (Farhud 1). Another word that is closely related to ethics is morality. Although distinct, this word is interchangeably used as the term ethics. At its very basic ethics could be considered as the science of conduct.

In ethics, there are two primary subcategories, which are deontological and theological. The term teleology is derived from two Greek words telos, meaning “end” and logos meaning science” (Farhud 1). This theological system is primarily characterized by its special focus on the consequences presented by a given action. The moral obligation is drawn from what is the most desirable result of the greater good attained at the end of it. Ancient Greek philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are credited to have played an important role in developing and teaching teleological ethics. These great philosophers believed that humans were and are social animals that need constant communication with each other. The key to productive communication is ethics hence the importance of having an understanding of ethical systems.

The teleological system of morality accepts utility as the basis of morality. As per this viewpoint, actions are considered right only when they result or promote the greatest happiness, immoral when they lead to unhappiness. According to Benlahcene et al., “the teleological perspective holds that an act is morally right if it produces a greater level of good over evil than an alternative act, and it is morally wrong if it does the opposite” (33).

Ethical Egoism is a branch of teleological theory dictates that an act is ethical or unethical depending on the possibility of the act achieving self-interest s. According to egoism people ought to pursue things that have maximum benefits to themselves, regardless of the effects on others. The desires and interests of other people do not matter in regards to egoism; others are considered as just mediums through which personal interests are achieved. An act is therefore considered ethical if it leads to a desirable outcome than what an alternative action could have achieved (Baenlahcene et al. 34). Egoism is, however, not considered as a rational ethical route as it is self-serving and could result in unhappiness because it is self-defeating in itself.

Under the doctrine of utilitarianism, an action is regarded as ethical when it leads to the greater collective good. In other terms, an action is considered morally right when it maximizes happiness on a greater scale and not at a personal level. Happiness according to utilitarianism is “the sum of pleasures; pleasure is good and pain is bad.” Utilitarianism, therefore, implies that actions are only right when they result in the greatest possible happiness in the greater quantity. An example when a bus driver is driving a bus full of passengers he might be forced to hit a cyclist on the road in the event that avoiding hitting the cyclist could lead to the loss of many more lives. Saving the majority, results in greater happiness as the majority of people live against the life of only one individual.

Deontological ethics consider morality as having a great sense of duty. In order to an ethical decision, one has to simply act according to their moral obligation. When an individual follows their duty they are considered moral and immoral when they fail to act as morally dictated. Deontology requires people to “put duty first, act in a rational manner and give moral weight to the inherent equality of all human beings” (Cline). Deontological moral systems might be seen in numerous religions, where followers adhere to the guidelines and obligations that are said to have been laid out by God or the congregation. The two types of deontological ethics include rule deontology and act deontology. The two main sources of the deontological ethics system are philosophy and religion. Religion is notably the most important source of reference in relation to ethics.

Ethics of Virtue are based on the teachings of Greek philosophers and Aristotle’s work in particular. The source of ethics, in this case, is the human virtues that one acquires through practice (LaFollette 15). Hence, from this viewpoint, an individual should strive to practice virtues such as being brave or honest in everyday life to live an ethical and fulfilling life. As Aristotle described this approach, the goal is to practice being a moral person so that in that case, when one faces a challenging situation, this individual can make a correct choice (LaFollette 15). The practice of virtues is an essential aspect of the Ethics of Virtue.

Natural Law is the category of ethics that is derived from the idea that each human possesses the moral virtues that are intrinsic and guide people’s behaviors and reasoning (LaFollette 20). In general terms, under this approach to ethics, one views right and wrong as something that human beings understand naturally, and these moral virtues are not derived from society and its views or legal systems. This idea was first introduced by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

One implication of the Natural Law ethics is that the comprehension of right and wrong is universal and the same across the globe. Due to the fact that people are born with an inherent understanding of what is ethical, this knowledge or feeling should be the same across nations and ethnicities. However, Aristotle was the first to note that what is correct under the premise of natural law is not always acceptable under the legal system’s policies.

Next, the ethics of Religion are indoctrinated in the religions of the world, traditions, and customs that guided people since ancient times (LaFollette 50). Interestingly, many religions, although different in the way they are practiced, carry the same core principles of human moral behavior. For example, personal morality or treating others in the way that you want to be treated is the central principle of many world’s religions (LaFollette 51). When examining the relationship between ethics and religion, as opposed to other ethical systems, the obvious distinction is the source of morality or knowledge about right and wrong. With religion, this knowledge comes from a god or gods, who reveal the principles under which humans should live. Religious texts, such as the Bible, Koran, Torah, or any other, are the sources that present this knowledge to the people. Ethics, however, are based on reason and not a divided revelation from a god. Thus, the ethics of Religion are based on some divine revelation and do not require a person to reason why a certain thing is good or bad; but many of the principles of religion coincide with those of other ethics traditions.

Ethical Formalism is an approach that derives its principles from some type of formal source, for example, the laws or policies. Hence, the grounds of this ethics category are the legislations or formal standards that humans have set for one another. Kant is considered to be the philosopher who established formal ethics. The formalism approach only considers the form, such as the concept of good and bad, and does not examine how a person manifests this through their actions (LaFollette 51). Ethical laws are considered to be universal, and the content, which is how actions reflect this content, are not examined with this approach. Another important concept of Formalism is human will, which under this approach is capable of executing the formal laws regardless of the specific situation in which a person has to make a choice. However, in Kant’s view, the only action that can be considered moral is the one that comes from a person’s free will. Therefore, actions that are influenced by outsiders or other circumstances cannot be considered moral as they omit the act of free will.

Ethics of Care is another major ethical system that is based on two primary virtues, care, and benevolence. Hence, the social relationships between people should be based on caring and good intentions towards others (LaFollette 22). This approach is based on practice and helps create a world where people show and receive care, maintaining a balance in society. They strive to care for others can be based on the person’s recollections of when they were taken care of, for example, during childhood. This approach also means that the vulnerable populations receive support and care from the people who have the power and resources.

Overall, this paper describes the seven major systems of ethics, detailing their origins and practical application. Additionally, it examines the deontological and teleological approaches to ethics. The latter is based on the notion of utility, while the former is based on philosophy and religion. The different ethical systems emphasize varied sources of virtue, such as practice, caring, religious texts, and others. Ethics of Virtue and Care are based on the practice of what is morally correct, while Formalism focuses on form rather than execution.

Works Cited

Benlahcene, Abderrahmane, et al. “A Narrative Review of Ethics Theories: Teleological & Deontological Ethics.” Journal of Humanities and Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) 23.1 (2018): 31-32.

Cline, Austine. 3 Types of Ethical Systems. Web.

Farhud, Dariush D. “Ethics & Society.” Journal homepage: 1.1 (2019).

LaFollette, Hugh. Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. Wiley, 2020.

Schubeck, Thomas Louis. Liberation Ethics: Sources, Models, and Norms. Fortress Press, 1993.

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