Five Workable Ethical Theories

2 min readJan 29, 2019

According to Chapter #2 in the book “Ethics for the Information Age” written by Michael J. Quinn, there are five workable ethical theories. The author wrote very straightforward and clear definitions for each of them and you can look them through by yourself in Chapter #2.

· Kantianism

· Act Utilitarianism

· Rule Utilitarianism

· Social Contract Theory

· Virtue Ethics

These five ethical theories are considered the most workable and they share some common viewpoints. For example,

1. Objectivism, i.e. “moral good and moral precepts are objective”. In other words, morality exists outside the human mind.

2. The assumption that “ethical decision making is a rational process by which people can discover objective moral principles with the use of logical reasoning based on facts and commonly held values”.

3. Explicitly taking other people into consideration when defining what makes an action morally correct.

It is very important to know the differences among these ethical theories. We will distinguish them based on Figure 1 which is also from that book.

Figure 1: Comparison of the five workable ethical theories

Action vs Rule

Both act utilitarians and supporters of virtual ethics focus on the act itself or the consequences of the action in order to determine if the action is morally right. However, the ways how they consider the consequences of the action are different. Act utilitarians compute the total change in utility and they think that “an action is good if its benefits exceed its harms”. The supporters of virtue ethics focus on the agent. More specifically, they carefully examine if the action taken by an agent in a particular situation is characteristic of a virtuous person.

Kantianism, rule utilitarianism and social contract theory are based on rules. In other words, they determine if an action is morally right by checking if it is in accord with a correct moral rule. However, they have different ways of determining if a moral rule is correct. As explained in Chapter #2,

A Kantian relies upon the two Categorical Imperatives (two Formulations).

A rule utilitarian cares about “what the long-term consequences of everyone following the rule would be for the total good”. In other words, they consider whether adopting those moral rules could lead to the greatest increase in total happiness over all affected parties. A rule utilitarian applies the principle of utility to moral rules but an act utilitarian applies it to individual moral actions.

An adherent of social contract theory considers “whether rational people would agree to accept the rule, for everyone’s mutual benefit, provided that everyone else agreed to follow the rule as well”.

Hope this blog post can help clarify the differences among these five workable ethical theories.