Close Menu

Other Ethical Theories


All theories of this sort reject utilitarianism's single standard of right conduct. [Cf. Mill, p. 5 “Yet...] Morality is, they say, defined by more than one standard and these are not necessarily consistent. They cannot be turned into one standard by “and”. (This is not relativism. The same standards apply to everyone.)

e.g. Bernard Gert identifies ten “moral rules” that he thinks define morality. (Morality, 1988.)

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not disable
  3. Do not cause pain
  4. Do not deprive freedom
  5. Do not deprive pleasure
  6. Do not deceive
  7. Keep your promises
  8. Do not cheat
  9. Obey the law
  10. Do your duty (1)

There is no hierarchy among them. None necessarily outranks any other all the time. Doing as these rules require is right; violating any one of them is (ordinarily) wrong. For example:

Among Gert's ten rules are “Obey the law” and “Keep your promises”. If I make a promise that turns out to be in violation of a law, I am not necessarily morally free to break the promise; nor am I necessarily morally free to disobey the law. Deciding what I should do may turn out to be hard.

Gert thinks that, in such a case, morality permits any course of action an impartial and rational person could publicly advocate—even impartial and rational persons might disagree.

Social Justice Theories

These reject utilitarianism's refusal to consider who is benefited or harmed. Who is benefited is, they say, as important as how much. Indeed, we should sacrifice some happiness overall to assure that the distribution is just.

These theories are closely related to Kant's. They differ in being concerned with what government and other large institutions should do rather than with what ordinary individuals should do.

e.g. John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, 1971) argued that the basic rules governing society should be designed to benefit most those least well off. (They should be the rules you would choose even if your worst enemy could determine where in society you would have to live out your life.)

e.g. Others (Gauthier, Morality by Agreement, 1986) have argued that, at a minimum, any social policy should not improve the condition of those already better off by making those already worst off worse off yet. The worst off should not have to pay for an increase in overall happiness. This would leave the better off free to improve their own condition so long as they did no harm.

Virtue Theories

These reject the utilitarian connection of the (objectively) right with the actual outcome of an act. But they are teleological rather than deontological. For these theories, the objectively right act is the one a person of a certain type (“the virtuous person”) would choose. Virtue is a complex of virtues, including justice, courage, temperance, and judgment. At this point, virtue theories become very different.

e.g. Lawrence Becker (Reciprocity, 1986) argues that each virtue can be defined by identifying a disposition to choose which, if embedded in the practice of a society, would contribute more than any alternative to overall happiness (or, as virtue writers prefer, “human flourishing”).

e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 1981) argues instead that the virtues must be defined by a historical process. They are what we (“this society”) have come to believe contribute to our happiness, given the actual conditions under which we live.

(If you would like to read more about virtue ethics, see the chapter “The Ethics of Virtue” in Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999. pp.175-193)



  1. a theory of how we should act (“moral relativism”) or
  2. a rejection of the very possibility of such a single theory (“meta-ethical relativism”).

As a theory of how we should act (e.g. “Do as your society says”), it is in fact consistent with some other moral theories (e.g. Becker above).

As a rejection of the very possibility of a single theory of the right, it is no more than a challenge to the ingenuity of theorists. There is no impossibility proof. And (as Rachel points out) most societies agree upon enough so that a certain minimum theory of the right at least seems possible.

Moral Minimum

There seem to be a few moral rules that everyone can agree on. These include: “Don't kill”, “Don't steal”, “Don't lie”, “Keep your promises”, and “Don't cheat”.

These all have exceptions, of course, and indeed probably should be written “Don't ______ [except …….]”. But we can in fact agree on many exceptions too.

The moral minimum makes life together possible and provides the starting point in the search for the further agreement that constitutes a good part of both moral and political discussion. (Rachels is good on this.) Professional ethics is part of that search for further agreement.

(For further reading on relativism, especially cultural relativism, see “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999. pp.20-36.

(1) Gert, Bernard. Morality: A New Justification of Moral Rules. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. pp.97-159.

Optional Further Reading

Becker, Lawrence. Reciprocity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. (2nd ed.)

Gert, Bernard. Common Morality: Deciding What to Do. New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Morality: A New Justification of Moral Rules. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, Notre Dame, ID: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. (2nd ed.)

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

2003 Ethics Across the Curriculum Workshop. Copyright Michael Davis