If you could save many people from great harm or save only one person from harm, many of us would think that we should try to save as many as possible. The thought is saving more lives and preventing more harm is morally better than saving fewer or preventing less harm. This is the thought behind consequentialist moral theories, of which utilitarianism is the most well known. According to utilitarianism, our actions should minimize pain and suffering, and promote happiness as much as possible. This is a natural thought and there are strong reasons in support of the idea that we should try to maximize good outcomes.
Still, there are some interesting complexities in applying the basic idea. For instance, how do we identify which consequences are the morally relevant ones? And how do we determine who is affected and thus for whom the consequences matter morally? Utilitarianism says we should be impartial, that is, recognize the equal moral worth of all persons affected. How then should we think about our moral duties and responsibilities to particular persons, such as family and friends?
Rather than consequences, Kant, the major proponent of deontology, argues that a morally right act, is one that respects persons and expresses a “universalizable” rule, that is, a rule that each of us would want and think all persons should follow. The reason Kant thinks that persons are deserving of respect is because persons are rational and capable of being self-determining (autonomous). Persons can choose how to act, can choose the reasons on which to base their actions, rather than acting just on impulse, instinct, or desire. Therefore, morality should embody a principle of respect for persons as capable of exercising their own will and reason. Thus, the basis for morality is not so much a desirable outcome, but an underlying principle of respect.
Unlike Utilitarianism and Deontology which consider how to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of particular actions, virtue theory considers how actions contribute to shaping character. The focus in virtue theory is, how to become a good person and develop a virtuous character. Aristotle, an ancient philosopher who is a proponent of virtue theory, says that it takes practice, and that our practice should be guided by the called “the doctrine of the mean.”
Contemporary virtue theorists build on Aristotle’s ideas, but also introduce the importance of social virtues and the value of community in shaping character.
According to Social Contract theory, ethical norms and rules derive from an implicit agreement that self-interested, rational persons make. The agreement is to live by rules that make it possible for people to live together without fear of one another. Social contract theory envisions ethics as the rules and norms that allow for social cohesion and cooperation with as much individual liberty that is possible without encroaching on the rights and well-being of others.
A pluralistic ethical approach says to consider different ethical theories as not necessarily competitors, and only one is right, but as tools in an ethics toolkit; each offers an angle or perspective on the complex subject matter of ethics.