Ethical Theories

Ethical Theories and Their Use in Ethics Education

As shown earlier, one helpful way for leading an ethical case study discussion is to give students a guide, such as the “Seven Step Format for Ethical Decision Making” to help them think though the issues presented in a case. Moral theories are another tool to help an individual clearly and logically think about an ethical issue, and arrive at a decision that can be rationally defended. As John Rowan states in his preface to the textbook, Ethics for the Professions

“A moral theory is a mechanism for assessing whether a particular action or rule is ethically justified. More precisely, a moral theory can help us to sharpen our moral vision, it helps us determine whether an action or a rule is ethically right (meaning it is required and must be performed and followed), wrong (meaning it must not be performed or followed), or permissible (meaning it may be, but need not be, performed or followed.” (1)

Moral theories range from Utilitarianism which bases what is considered “morally right” on the consequences of an action, to deontological theories, which base concepts of what is considered “morally right” on universal laws that exist outside of a specific situation. While these approaches differ significantly, all moral theories have two things in common. For a moral theory to be helpful, it should provide us with the source of moral values (reasons why we should be moral), and it should provide us with a framework or strategy for ranking moral norms when we confront a dilemma. (2)

Many instructors of professional ethics are wary of including moral theory in their curriculum, and indeed, it is not necessary to if you are attempting to include only a small amount of professional ethics instruction in your course. Problems often arise when moral theories are presented in unhelpful or confusing ways; either students become overwhelmed when all the details of a theory are presented, or instructors present only the briefest synopsis of a theory that is too sketchy to provide any real benefit for the students. (3) However, moral theories are one way to assist an individual in setting aside the feelings, desires, and ambitions that often tend to skew one’s moral vision and look at a problem from a rational viewpoint. Any inclusion of moral theory in should help the student develop a more systemized, rational scheme of thought through which they can reflect on the ethical decisions they will be asked to make, either in the classroom when looking at case studies, or in their chosen professional field. (4) It should not lead to confusion.

The leaders of the workshop at IIT did not feel that it was necessary to teach moral theory to students. Instead they included, a day-long introduction to moral theory in the EAC workshops to help instructors gain enough background to feel confident that they did not need to know more to integrate ethics into their technical courses. This instruction also helped participants to see, as Michael Davis describes in his explanation of the workshops in Ethic and the University, “In particular, they [the instructors] should notice the dialectic of criticism and the correction by which seemingly radically different theories ended up (in the hands of an expert) giving much the same answer to practical questions.” (5) In other words, these theories offer some differing frameworks for thinking about ethical issues, and potentially for guiding discussions.

This module will very briefly introduce you to two major types of moral theories - teleological and deontological- and show varying methods of arriving at an ethical decision. For a more in depth look at these theories, see the suggested reading and web links to at the end of each section.

(1) Rowan, John and Samuel Zinaich Jr. Ethics for the Professions. Belmont, CA. Thompson Learning, 2002. pp.8.

(2) Lisman, C. David. The Curricular Integration of Ethics: Theory and Practice. Westport CT: Praeger, 1996. pp. 19.

(3) For example, Lawlor, Rob. “Moral Theories in Teaching Applied Ethics.” Journal of Medical Ethics. 33.6 (June 2007) 370-372.

(4) Rowan, Ethics for the Professions, 9.

(5) For a further explanation, see Davis, Michael Ethics and the University, 122-3.

Further Reading

Henderson, Bernard. “A Reminder on Recognizing Ethical Problems as Practical: Distinctions in Teaching Theory and Practice.” Teaching Ethics. 2:2 (Spring, 2002) pp.14.

This article discusses some of the differences that exist in how philosophers and practitioners discuss ethics, and how this difference can be bridged through the use of a common language and case studies whose ethical problems are easily understood, familiar, and relevant to the practitioner, so they can to relate to their own experiences during discussion of the case. The author then outlines his own approach in teaching applied ethics to police recruits and students in criminal justice studies.