Ethical theories are based on ethical principles. They each emphasize different aspects of an ethical dilemma and lead to the most ethically correct resolution according to the guidelines within the ethical theory itself. People usually base their individual choice of ethical theory upon their life experiences.
The deontological theory states that people should adhere to their obligations and duties when analyzing an ethical dilemma. This means that a person will follow his or her obligations to another individual or society because upholding one’s duty is what is considered ethically correct. For instance, a deontologist will always keep his promises to a friend and will follow the law. A person who follows this theory will produce very consistent decisions since they will be based on the individual’s set duties.
The utilitarian ethical theory is founded on the ability to predict the consequences of an action. To a utilitarian, the choice that yields the greatest benefit to the most people is the choice that is ethically correct. One benefit of this ethical theory is that the utilitarian can compare similar predicted solutions and use a point system to determine which choice is more beneficial for more people. This point system provides a logical and rationale argument for each decision and allows a person to use it on a case-by-case context.
There are two types of utilitarianism, act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism adheres exactly to the definition of utilitarianism as described in the above section. In act utilitarianism, a person performs the acts that benefit the most people, regardless of personal feelings or the societal constraints such as laws. Rule utilitarianism, however, takes into account the law and is concerned with fairness. A rule utilitarian seeks to benefit the most people but through the fairest and most just means available. Therefore, added benefits of rule utilitarianism are that it values justice and includes beneficence at the same time.
In the rights ethical theory the rights set forth by a society are protected and given the highest priority. Rights are considered to be ethically correct and valid since a large or ruling population endorses them. Individuals may also bestow rights upon others if they have the ability and resources to do so. For example, a person may say that her friend may borrow the car for the afternoon. The friend who was given the ability to borrow the car now has a right to the car in the afternoon.
The casuist ethical theory is one that compares a current ethical dilemma with examples of similar ethical dilemmas and their outcomes. This allows one to determine the severity of the situation and to create the best possible solution according to others’ experiences. Usually one will find paradigms that represent the extremes of the situation so that a compromise can be reached that will hopefully include the wisdom gained from the previous examples.
The virtue ethical theory judges a person by his character rather than by an action that may deviate from his normal behavior. It takes the person’s morals, reputation and motivation into account when rating an unusual and irregular behavior that is considered unethical. For instance, if a person plagiarized a passage that was later detected by a peer, the peer who knows the person well will understand the person’s character and will be able to judge the friend. If the plagiarizer normally follows the rules and has good standing amongst his colleagues, the peer who encounters the plagiarized passage may be able to judge his friend more leniently.