DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L132-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

2. Ethical concepts and ethical theories

Some philosophical ethics is broad and general, seeking to find general principles or explanations of morality. Much, however, focuses on analysis of notions central to ethics itself. One such notion which has been the focus of much discussion in recent years is that of autonomy (see Autonomy, ethical). The interest in self-governance sits alongside other issues concerning the self, its moral nature and its ethical relation to others (see Akrasia; Determinism and indeterminism; Evolution and ethics; Free will; Self-deception, ethics of; Self-respect; Will, the); and the relations of these selves in a social context (see Recognition; Solidarity; Vulnerability and finitude). Other topics discussed include the nature of moral ideals, and the notions of desert and moral responsibility (see Ideals; Desert and merit; Moral luck).

The question of what makes for a human life that is good for the person living it has been at the heart of ethics since the Greek philosophers enquired into eudaimonia (‘happiness’) (see Aristotle; Eudaimonia; Happiness; Life, meaning of; Plato; Socrates). Once again, a philosopher’s theory of the good will almost always be closely bound up with their views on other central matters (see Good, theories of the). For example, some of those who put weight on sense experience in our understanding of the world have been tempted by the view that the good consists entirely in a particular kind of experience, pleasure (see Empiricism; Pleasure). Others have claimed that there is more to life than mere pleasure, and that the good life consists in fulfilling our complex human nature (see Perfectionism; Self-realization). Nor have philosophers forgotten ‘the bad’ (see Evil; Suffering; Suffering, Buddhist views of origination of).

Moral philosophy, or ethics, has long been at least partly concerned with the advocacy of particular ways of living or acting. Some traditions have now declined (see Asceticism; MacIntyre, A.); but there is still a large range of views on how we should live. One central modern tradition is that of consequentialism (see Consequentialism). On this view, as it is usually understood, we are required by morality to bring about the greatest good overall (see Teleological ethics). The nature of any particular consequentialist view, therefore, depends on its view of the good. The most influential theory has been that the only good is the welfare or happiness of individual human and other animals, which, when combined with consequentialism, is utilitarianism (see Bentham, J.; Mill, J. S.; Utilitarianism). One of the most intractable problems for a consequentialism which requires maximizing the good arises if the good can be infinite in extent: can anything be said to be right or wrong if the good is infinite? (See Infinity and ethics.)

It is commonly said that consequentialist views are based on the good, rather than on the right (see Right and good; Rights). Theories based on the right may be described as deontological (see Deontological ethics). The towering figure in the deontological tradition has been the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (see Kant, I; Kantian ethics). Such theories will claim, for example, that we should keep a promise even if more good overall would come from breaking it, or that there are restrictions on what we can intentionally do in pursuit of the good, even if we are permitted to bring about certain bad consequences which we merely foresee rather than intend (see Double effect, principle of; Inviolability; Promising).

In the second half of the twentieth century there was a reaction against some of the perceived excesses of consequentialist and deontological ethics, and a return to the ancient notion of the virtues, in particular as it is articulated by Aristotle (see Aretē; Theological virtues; Virtue ethics; Virtues and vices). Work in this area has consisted partly in attacks on modern ethics, but also in positive statements of an ethics of virtue as well as further elaborations and analyses of the virtues and related concepts (see Charity; Forgiveness and mercy; Help and beneficence; Honour; Hope; Innocence; Integrity; Love; Prudence; Self-control; Trust; Truthfulness).

Citing this article:
Crisp, Roger. Ethical concepts and ethical theories. Ethics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L132-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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