A young woman is peeping off of a man's papers.
A young woman is peeping off of a man's papers.

Philosophers and theologians have developed a number of different ethical theories over the centuries, including consequentialism, deontology, divine command ethics and virtue ethics. People use ethical theories every day to make decisions about right and wrong, usually without knowing the name of the ethical theory they're using. Situations come up in which it can be hard to make a good decision, because every ethical theory has both strong points and weak points.

Everything Has Consequences

Some people base their ethical decisions on the likely consequences of their choices, an ethical position known as consequentialism. According to consequentialism, you should always strive to bring about good consequences, rather than simply obeying an arbitrary set of ethical rules. The strong point of consequentialism is that it provides a clear and easy-to-understand guideline. For instance, consequentialism would tell you not to drink and drive because it could have negative consequences for both yourself and other people. The weak point of consequentialism is that it can lead to conclusions that almost everyone would find unethical. For instance, even if the death of one person could save ten people through organ donations, hardly anyone would advocate killing a person for that reason.

Some Things Are Just Wrong

Some people believe that right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of the consequences. This approach to ethics is known as deontology. The strong point of deontology is that it is much harder to use it to rationalize an unethical decision than consequentialism is. For instance, you could argue that if you steal a million dollars but donate most of it to charity, you are doing more overall good than if you didn't steal the money. Deontology would not allow this argument -- stealing is wrong and that's all there is to it. The weak point of deontology is that it doesn't always address extreme situations where most people would be willing to grant an ethical exception. For instance, a deontologist who was also a pacifist could argue that it is always wrong to use violence, but most people would make an exception in cases of self-defense.

God Told Me To

Many people base their ethical decisions on the principles of a particular religion, often in the belief that they are obeying the will of God. This position is known as divine command ethics. The strength of this ethical position is that it can help a person overcome her own ethical weak points. For instance, a person with a lot of anger may choose not to act on that anger because Jesus said to turn the other cheek. The disadvantage of this ethical theory is that it is unclear whether an action commanded by God is supposed to be good for its own sake or solely because God is believed to have ordered it. If the action is good for its own sake, it must be explained in terms of one of the other ethical theories. If it is good solely because God commanded it, then the question becomes, What if God commanded something reprehensible?

Aspiring to Virtue

Virtue ethics is a less-common but very ancient approach to making ethical decisions. Instead of focusing on the decision being made, virtue ethics concentrates on the person making the decision. For instance, a consequentialist might argue that you should risk your life to save a drowning person because it would make him and his family happier if you saved him, but virtue ethics would say that you should try to rescue him because it is courageous and you should aspire to be a courageous person. The strength of virtue ethics is that it addresses the inner life of the person making ethical decisions rather than simply providing a guide for behavior. The weak point of virtue ethics is that different people have different ideas about which virtues a person should cultivate.