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Ethical Theories; a Brief Overview

Ethical theories are theories that attempt to explain how to attain the ultimate good based on ethical principles. Ethical principles are various factors that are used as a guide in determining whether an action can be considered right or wrong. Examples include beneficence, least harm, justice and respect of autonomy. There are several philosophers whose theories emphasized on one principle more than the other but all in all the theories hope to achieve all principles at the same time. Two major theories include utilitarianism and deontology.

The main idea behind utilitarianism is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by whether the action brings happiness to the majority. Acts are right if they maximize the general amount of happiness (Shaffer- Landau, 454). The main weakness of this theory is that there are actions applauded by the majority that do not promote the ultimate good. A good example is slavery which was practiced by the majority yet it was a violation of a person’s right.

Deontology is the opposite of utilitarianism in that it does not look at the consequences of an action rather it looks at how a person ought to act. A person is bound by his duty to others when faced with an ethical problem. Therefore if a person was to kill another, this would be going against his/her duty towards another person, which is to protect life. How our actions affect the good of others has relevance to what we should do morally (Darwall, 4)


Darwall, S. (2003). Deontology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd (pg 4)

Shaffer-Landau, R. (2007). Ethical theory: Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd (pg 454)