Theories of Ethics

  • Mary McThomasEmail author
Living reference work entry



Theories of ethics provide frameworks from which to assess the probity of actions in a disinterested, consistent manner free from personal bias and self-interest. Public administration and public policy are often seen as practical disciplines, yet evaluations of ethical decision-making and good (not merely practical or efficient) policies rely heavily on normative theories of ethics. The different theories and ethical frameworks provide guidelines for determining the most ethical course of action. However, the different theories often lead to conflicting conclusions; thus, understanding the underlying philosophies is important when deciding which framework to utilize.

James H. Svara (2007) describes three distinct approaches to ethical decision-making: those which place emphasis on the proper moral character of the actor (virtue ethics), approaches that focus on the actions themselves with an eye to obligations and the application of rules (duty ethics), and approaches that judge the ethics of an action based on the results (consequentialism). This “ethical triangle” relies on three philosophies – virtue ethics, deontological or duty-based ethics, and consequentialism. However, there are additional and related theories of ethics that are important to explore as they influence our public philosophy and are integral to determining right actions and ethical policies. Thus, utilitarianism, rights-based theories, and the ethics of care will be discussed in addition to virtue ethics, deontological ethical theory, and consequentialism.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral agent with the idea that a virtuous person will not only have good intentions but, when trained properly, will reflexively act in an ethical manner. Virtue ethics is largely based on Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle’s ethical theory includes a process of habituation in which, through practice and repeated action, one is trained to be virtuous in the same way, for example, a musician is trained to be a virtuoso. Even those born with natural talent need training and practice. Similarly, even if human nature is generally good, individuals need the process of habituation to shape their character and to be truly virtuous. An individual of firm and unshakeable character will be able to make virtuous choices even when the laws are silent.

In a similar vein, Terry Cooper (2004) describes virtue as “character understood as the predisposition to behave consistently with one’s espoused values and principles” and states that it “is built slowly and consistently over time” (398). Cooper goes on to conclude that “virtue, or character, is clearly one of the elements of the normative foundations of public administration ethics” (398). In this understanding, an individual habituated slowly and steadily over time will be able to consistently perform in a virtuous manner, making ethical decisions and acting appropriately.

One of the criticisms of virtue ethics is that it requires a trainer. That is, in the same way the musician needs a teacher (initially at least), an individual needs some sort of guide or program in order to form a virtuous character. But who provides this guidance? For Aristotle, the state plays a key role in passing laws that will help its citizens to be good and aid in their character formation. In more particularized settings – such as professional ethics – parameters of expected and desired behavior can be provided through codes of ethics. However, both laws and ethical codes presume a universalized notion of right action that is correctly identified by the state or other governing body. A similar reliance on a universal notion of the good is found in deontological ethical theories.

Deontological Ethical Theories

Deontological ethics holds that individuals are obligated to carry out certain ethical duties and moral actions. As such, this framework provides an array of moral duties and obligations we owe to ourselves and others. Deontological ethics is based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s view, individuals should act in ways that are determined by universal rules of obligation. He termed this principle the “categorical imperative” – categorical because it is universally binding and imperative because it instructs individuals how to act (Kant 1994 [1785]). Using the categorical imperative, an individual can determine the morality of an act by her willingness to make it a universal law; that is, anyone else in a similar situation should act in the same way. Thus, if it is “right” for you to lie during business negotiations, it is equally ethical for others to lie to you in the same situation.

Duty-based ethicists believe that an ethical person is someone that binds herself by duties based on moral laws and considerations. Kant defines virtue as “the moral strength of a human being’s will in fulfilling his duty” (Ibid, 54). He disagrees with virtue ethics reliance on habituation, stating instead “if the skill is a habit… then it is not a skill proceeding from freedom and accordingly not a moral skill” (Ibid, 66). A virtuous action must be freely chosen as the actor willingly takes on certain moral obligations and duties.

What constitutes moral duties can vary. Kant provides a rather extensive list, while other theorists are more selective. For example, Stephen Darwall (2003) supplies seven duties which include, for example, the duty of honesty (a Kantian favorite), the duty of reciprocity and fair play (similar to rights-based theories), and the duty of special care (seen in care ethics). In this framework, ethical behavior is not judged by the consequences of actions but rather on the intention of the actor and the actions themselves. Regardless of the results that emerge, it is the action taken – and observance of the rules – that is considered important. In contrast, consequentialism judges the merit of an action by the outcome.


Consequentialist ethics places the importance of achieving a desired consequence above duty and moral obligation. In this perspective, the ethics of an action is evaluated solely by the outcome, not by the action itself or the intention of the actor. In common parlance, the end justifies the means. If a decision leads to a positive outcome, it was the right decision even if made for unethical reasons. Conversely, an action that leads to a negative outcome, even if the actor’s intentions were good, is considered problematic.

Consequentialist ethics can be divided into act consequentialism and rule consequentialism. Act consequentialism focuses on a singular decision in which one act at one time is chosen over other actions. Thus, ethical assessments made through the lens of act utilitarianism are limited to the act itself. If the consequences of an action are positive/negative, then the action was good/bad, regardless of the actor’s intentions. An example often given provides a rather extreme scenario in which an individual believes that a train is going to go off the track. As a result of this belief, that person throws the switch that sends the train to an alternate rail. However, she inadvertently sends the train to a rail that is broken. As a result, the train goes off the track. Even though her intention was good, the result was bad – therefore making the action bad. Conversely, a different individual switches the train’s route to purposely kill a family sitting on the tracks. This action inadvertently kept the train from proceeding on a broken track, saving 300 passengers. The intention may have been to kill the family of four, but the action saved 300 lives. It is, therefore, a good action.

In contrast, rule consequentialism takes into account the pattern of actions encompassed in a rule; thus, there is a greater focus on the impact over time if an act was consistently done and less on each individual action. Rule utilitarianism creates rules that are judged by the consequences of those rules when people follow them. Lying might be the best choice in one specific situation; but if lying is the rule, then contracts are undermined, and business and economic exchange as we know it is destroyed. Returning to the train example, the rule would be that it is, in fact, bad to switch train tracks in order to kill families even though the consequences in this particular case turned out to be good. The good consequences were an anomaly, and one the individual could not have foreseen. Therefore a pattern of making this decision would lead to bad consequences. The better rule is to not switch the track.

In either act or rule consequentialism, the focus is still on the action – not on the intention of the person. A “bad” person can do good things. If the result is good, the action is good. While an eye to consequences is important, if not crucial, for public administrators and policymakers, a purely consequential approach is not without its dangers. There are certain means that can never be morally justified. As a result, there is an appeal to avoid a purely consequentialist approach, calling instead for a combined perspective that includes deontological or virtue-based ethics (Pops 1994; Thompson 1992).


Utilitarianism is often seen as a form of consequentialism as utilitarians similarly judge the rightness of actions and goodness of social arrangements by their consequences. John Stuart Mill (2001 [1863]), in Utilitarianism, explains that “the end of human action, is …the standard of morality” (10). Thus, the morality of an action is judged by the consequences of that action. Part of this has to do with an attempt to avoid moral disagreements based on intangible notions that cannot be proven either way. Who gets to decide what is moral, just, or true? If we disagree about first principles – which we often do – how then do we come to an agreement about the rightness of actions? Utilitarianism attempts to bring math to philosophy in order to provide a metric that does not rely on intangible, metaphysical notions. They use the utilitarian calculus to weigh costs against benefits in order to determine which policy would provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

The calculus attempts to remove personal sentiment, bias, and irrational passion and provide an objective, dispassionate, and provable way of determining the best action. We see this formulaic approach in cost-benefit analysis approaches to public policy. Some calculations are very straightforward: Policy A would help 100 people, and Policy B – for the same amount of money – would help 1,000 people. Policy B clearly provides the greatest good. However, the utilitarian calculus also accounts for levels of pain and pleasure. For example, what if Policy A helps the smaller group of 100 people by saving their lives, while Policy B gives 1,000 people one free meal a week? At that point, it is no longer about bringing pleasure or avoiding pain to the greatest number of people. When the level of pain is death and the level of pleasure a free lunch, the people impacted by Policy A are given greater weight, possibly enough to swing the calculus in their favor.

Even with such calculations taken into account, a policy that kills one person in order to save two or more would be seen as ethical from a utilitarian point of view. But can the taking of a human life ever be justified? On one side, policymakers and administrators remind us that tough decisions have to be made, and if people are going to die, let us find the policy where the least amount of people will suffer. It is the best one can do in certain real-world situations and is, in fact, the most ethical solution. On the other side, rights-based theories of ethics argue that an individual’s rights – especially the right to life – should never be traded away. Such rights are inalienable and cannot be sacrificed for the good of others.

Rights-Based Theories

Classic liberal rights-based theories come out of the social contract tradition. Their premise is that each individual is born with inalienable rights. The role of government is to protect these fundamental rights. In this understanding, humans have rights by the mere fact of being born human. States do not create rights; they merely recognize they exist. States, therefore, cannot take fundamental human rights away. Classic social contract theorists, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, describe a state of nature in which humans are rights bearers prior to the formation of society. At some point – and for a variety of reasons, depending on the theorist – people come together to create a political body. At that time, they agree to give up certain powers to the state – such as the power to judge and punish. However, the power of the state still comes from the people, and this popular sovereignty can be bestowed in another form of government if the current form violates or fails to protect the citizen’s individual rights. In order to be legitimate and retain popular sovereignty, state power must be derived of the consent of the ruled, and the ruled must be the authors of the laws to which they submit. While the actual writing of the laws may be done by representatives, those representatives are democratically accountable to the people, and the resulting laws should be publicly acknowledged and indiscriminately applied.

In the US context, rights-based theory is clearly seen in the recognition of constitutional rights and the checks of a constitutional democracy in which fundamental rights may not be voted away by the majority. In public administration, this has been talked about in terms of the New Public Service model which reminds proponents of New Public Management (NPM) that those they serve are citizens and that any business model must privilege constitutional rights over efficiency (Denhardt and Denhardt 2002). In general, public administrators should adhere not to business values but to democratic values which recognize constitutional protections of individual rights. Rights-based theories are still the dominant paradigm in the United States. However, this framework has been challenged on a host of fronts including the call to recognize cultural rights and to appreciate communities as sources of identity and belonging. There has also been the criticism that the individualistic focus of rights-based theories discounts other more relational ethical frameworks, such as care ethics.

The Ethics of Care

The ethics of care was first introduced by Carol Gilligan, and her findings that moral evaluations based on justice and rights are only one type of ethical consideration and that connections of care and networks of obligations also motivate moral reasoning (Gilligan 1982, 1995). The exemplar model of an ethics of care is the parent/child relationship in which parents have special obligations to their children that are privileged over normal ethical obligations we owe all humans. While rights are envisioned as individually held and universally applied, networks of obligation presume relationships among groups of individuals that vary by situation. Instead of being universally applied, the ethics of care gives special dispensation to those in need, the vulnerable, and those within one’s particular network of care. While premised on the parent/child model, these moral obligations based on care extend to other humans, relationships, and networks.

Within this ethical framework, the focus is more on responding to needs and avoiding harm than on recognizing rights. It changes the moral language from asserting separate, individualistic claims to a focus on the interconnected activities and obligations born of relationships. Instead of asking “what is just?” proponents of care ethics ask “who is in need and how should we respond?” In this latter understanding, one may be morally obligated to help the vulnerable merely because they are in need, regardless of whether their condition rises to the level of injustice under a rights-based framework. Using an ethics of care, an action is judged by its ability to meet the needs of those for which one is responsible. When applied to public policy, that group for which one is obligated to consider is quite large, and when policies are based on who is in need, the beneficiaries and outcomes may be quite a bit different than when they are based on who has a right.


The above overview only scratches the surface of the varied theories of ethics and their intricacies, interpretations, and criticisms. Even in this thumbnail sketch, however, it is clear that different ethical frameworks lead to very different assessments of actions, decisions, and policies. Some focus on intention, others on results, still others on the character of the actor. They differ in their approach to duties, rights, and relationships and result in a different set of obligations. What they do all share, however, is a desire to operate within ethical guidelines. In order to establish these guidelines, theories of ethics urge us to assess our actions and decisions and continually ask “what is the right thing to do?”



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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California State University, Channel IslandsCamarilloUSA