Exploring Ethical Theories 1

When examining ethical theories, we have a number of options. We could simply describe the theory and identify the weak points (what it doesn’t seem to cater for) and the strengths (what it seems good at doing). So, for example, we might think that utilitarianism is particularly bad at defining the rights of a minority group because it tends towards the majority’s interests, but is good in public service management where tax spending should benefit as many people as possible, or as many of the more needy people as possible (through health, education and social care, for instance). A theory such as natural law seems very good a providing clear guidance for knowing what is right and wrong and guidance on how to build a strong community, but it seems to have quite a narrow view of what human nature is so doesn’t seem to be helpful for those who seem quite different from what is commonly believed to be the norm.

A second way to judge an ethical theory is by testing it on issues. This is popular in some AS/A2 level examination papers which might ask you to apply Kant to the question of a right to abortion on demand. In this kind of examination we see what bits of the ethical theory tell us about how we might decide what is right in the example dilemma, and then look to see what the ethical theory does well in that process, and what it falls short on.

Here is a third option which comes from Steven Tipton (Getting saved from the sixties. Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change (Los Angeles and London: University of California, 1984). Tipton provides an analysis of the exercise of authority and judgement. In other words, a basis on which we might pick apart two of the really important parts of moral decision making – what the source of authority is, and how we decide, or judge what to do, or what is right.

Tipton’s system is based around 5 basic questions which you can ask of a theory:

1) How is the theory oriented towards moral knowledge?
2) How does the theory pose the question “what should I do”?
3) How can an action be determined to be right by the theory?
4) What sort of character trait does the theory uphold?
5) How does the theory resolve disagreement?
6) To what extent does the theory  offer specific moral guidance on given acts?

You can ask these questions of any ethical system to try and pick apart the elements and workings of the theory in very specific and applied ways. This should throw up far more useful pieces of information about areas of strength and weakness in the workings of the theory and its presuppositions.

Tipton also proposes four styles in his ‘taxonomy’ (a kind of classification system) into which he groups ethical theories. Now you can consider an ethical theory under Tipton’s taxonomy and how well it holds up. He distinguishes between four ideal styles of ethical evaluation which ethical theories tend to fit into

a. Authoritative
b. Regular
c. Consequential (or utilitarian)
d. And expressive

These four styles constitute a taxonomy, a pattern of classification with a number of dimensions based on giving answers to questions. Ethical theories tend to fit into one or other category.

In each answer to a question, apart from the last, the order of answers reflect the kind of ideal style listed above (a-d).

What is the general orientation and kind of knowledge in the moral theory? Is it inspired by a truth revealed through faith, reason the consequences or intuition?

In posing the moral question ‘What should I do?’ is it really asking:

– ‘What does God command me to do?’
– ‘What is the relevant rule or principle?’
– ‘What do I want? What act will most satisfy it?’, or
– ‘What’s happening here and now and what is a fitting response?’

What are the ‘right making’ characteristics of a moral action from the view of this theory? Is it:

– right because the authority commands it
– right because it conforms to the relevant rules and principles
– right because it produces the most good consequences, or
– right because it constitutes the most fitting response to the situation?

Are there any cardinal virtues about a moral person, from the view of this theory?
Is it about…

– obedience to authority
– rationality in working out moral principles and acting on them
– efficiency in maximizing the satisfaction of all desires, or
– the sensitivity of feeling to the situation and response to the person?

How does the theory resolve disagreement? By:

– better understanding of the faith
– better reasoning
– better interpretation of the evidence, or
– better intuition in the social situation

How specific is the theory in prescribing guidance?

– does it contain clear commandments
– does it simply rule out actions which clash with reason
– does it prescribe less as you should follow your intuition and feeling, or
– does it give few prescriptions beyond looking at the results.

In this last case the answers given do not match the order of a-d above.

With Tipton’s system we can do a number of things:

1. We can ask an ethical theory the six questions Tipton outlines and consider how effectively the theory answers each. Does this suggest where areas of weakness or strength might lie? Tipton’s taxonomy offers language for criticising ethical theories.

2. We can see the extent to which the ethical theories fit into Tipton’s four groupings.

3. We can see if we can improve on both Tipton’s taxonomy and his groups.

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