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In his works Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts forth his thoughts on ethics. This is one of the well known works by this philosopher, and it continues to influence many ethical theorists even today. One of the messages that Aristotle puts across in this book is the fact that all humans aim at eudaimonia. This means that we all aim at happiness as the ultimate goal of all our actions. The following theories have all been influenced by Aristotle in one way or the other:
Kant’s Deontological Theory
Deontology is one of the approaches adopted in ethics which gauges the “badness” or “goodness” from the acts themselves or rules that govern the acts (Kay 3). This is as opposed to examining the consequences of the act itself or the character of the actor.
There are various justifications used to qualify Kant’s contribution to ethics as deontological. This scholar posits that it is only when a person acts from duty that their actions can be qualified as morally right (Kay 6). The consequences of the acts do not make them right or good; rather, it is the motivation behind the actor. A case in point is the Ten Commandments (Kay 5). Any act is judged to be morally right or wrong by considering whether the Ten Commandments were followed or not.
One of the strengths of Kant’s theory is the fact that he safeguards the justice of the individual (Kay 5). He regards the individual as an end in themselves, as opposed to means to an end. For example, he finds it morally repugnant to make one person suffer for the sake of the majority. However, many people take it that Kant errs in his refusal to consider the consequences of an act. Surely, we should take into consideration the effects that our actions have on other people in the society. This is the only way that the society can coexist harmoniously.
Mill’s Consequentialism Theory
Unlike deontologists, Mill holds that an individual’s action should be judged whether it is morally right or not based on its consequences (Haliquist 1). Mill holds that a morally right act is that which has positive outcomes (Haliquist 1). As such, the ends, according to this scholar, justify the means. Mill is a utilitarian consequentialism theorist. He holds that a person should engage in an act that brings about good returns for the majority. In our everyday thinking, we will consider an act to be morally right, from the perspective of this scholar, if it benefits many people as opposed to few. For example, it is morally right to sacrifice the life of one individual to save the lives of many (Haliquist 2).
A major weakness of this theory is the fact that it disregards the wellbeing of the minority for the sake of the majority. As such, it has no respect for the minority, using them as means to the ends of the majority. One of its strengths is that it admonishes self-centeredness and selfishness in the society. This in effect helps in maintaining the social fabric of the community.
Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
In his thinking, Aristotle emphasizes that we should always consider the character of the individual when determining whether or not their actions were morally right (Ess 12). This scholar explains his theory in the light of eudaimonia, which can also be viewed as “human flourishing” (Ess 12). Any form of act, especially in politics, should be geared by the motivation of the actor to achieve human “flourishness”.
In contemporary society, we consider as ethical and virtuous those acts that are carried out by individuals who possess the desire to improve the well being of humanity. This is regardless of whether rules were followed or not. For example, a person may hand out food to a desolate community, but one of the members is affected negatively by the food. The act is morally right since it was not the intention of the actor to harm that one person.
One of the strengths of this theory is the fact that it differentiates between the motivations of the action and their consequences. If the motivation was positive, as in the case above, then the act is regarded morally right regardless of the outcomes. However, a major weakness is that Aristotle ignored the means of achieving the ends. A person may have the right motivation, but break rules as they try to achieve their goals. The fact that they broke the rules nullifies their positive intentions in most cases.
The three theories explained above are the major ones in ethics. They possess some similarities in that they are all an effort to determine the morality or lack of it thereof in human actions. However, they differ in the criteria that they apply in gauging the morality of any action. Kant’s deontology focuses on the rules that were followed and the act itself; Mill’s consequentialism focuses on the outcomes while Aristotle’s virtue ethics looks at the character of the actor.
Ess, Charles. “Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.” Drury University: Philosophy and Religion Department, 2008. 12. Print.
Haliquist, Chris. Moral Theory: Consequentialism and its Competitors. 2008. Web.
Kay, Charles D. Notes on Deontology. 1997. Web.