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In the current era, ethical theories are often divided between the consequentialist theories of utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and deontological ethics as epitomized by the work of Immanuel Kant. The late 19th Century also saw the origin of pragmatic ethics in the United States, especially in the work of John Dewey.
Main articles: Utilitarianism and Ethical egoism
See also: Consequentialism
Consequentialism refers to moral theories that hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism "The ends justify the means".
The term "consequentialism" was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe in her essay "Modern Moral Philosophy" in 1958, to describe what she saw as the central error of certain moral theories, such as those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick. Since then, the term has become common in English-language ethical theory.
The defining feature of consequentialist moral theories is the weight given to the consequences in evaluating the rightness and wrongness of actions. In consequentialist theories, the consequences of an action or rule generally outweigh other considerations. Apart from this basic outline, there is little else that can be unequivocally said about consequentialism as such. However, there are some questions that many consequentialist theories address:
What sort of consequences count as good consequences?
Who is the primary beneficiary of moral action?
How are the consequences judged and who judges them?
One way to divide various consequentialisms is by the types of consequences that are taken to matter most, that is, which consequences count as good states of affairs. According to hedonistic utilitarianism, a good action is one that results in an increase in pleasure, and the best action is one that results in the most pleasure for the greatest number. Closely related is eudaimonic consequentialism, according to which a full, flourishing life, which may or may not be the same as enjoying a great deal of pleasure, is the ultimate aim. Similarly, one might adopt an aesthetic consequentialism, in which the ultimate aim is to produce beauty. However, one might fix on non-psychological goods as the relevant effect. Thus, one might pursue an increase in material equality or political liberty instead of something like the more ephemeral "pleasure". Other theories adopt a package of several goods, all to be promoted equally. Whether a particular consequentialist theory focuses on a single good or many, conflicts and tensions between different good states of affairs are to be expected and must be adjudicated.
Main article: Deontological ethics
Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, "obligation, duty"; and -λογία, -logia) is an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, or the intentions of the person doing the act, as it adheres to rules and duties. This is contrast to consequentialism, in which rightness is based on the consequences of an act, and not the act by itself. In deontology, an act may be considered right even if the act produces a bad consequence, if it follows the rule that “one should do unto others as they would have done unto them”, and even if the person who does the act lacks virtue and had a bad intention in doing the act. According to deontology, we have a duty to act in a way that does those things that are inherently good as acts ("truth-telling" for example), or follow an objectively obligatory rule (as in rule utilitarianism). For deontologists, the ends or consequences of our actions are not important in and of themselves, and our intentions are not important in and of themselves.
Immanuel Kant's theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons. First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action.
Kant's argument that to act in the morally right way, one must act from duty, begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself, and good without qualification. Something is 'good in itself' when it is intrinsically good, and 'good without qualification' when the addition of that thing never makes a situation ethically worse. Kant then argues that those things that are usually thought to be good, such as intelligence, perseverance and pleasure, fail to be either intrinsically good or good without qualification. Pleasure, for example, appears to not be good without qualification, because when people take pleasure in watching someone suffering, this seems to make the situation ethically worse. He concludes that there is only one thing that is truly good:
Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.
Main article: Pragmatic ethics
Associated with the pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and especially John Dewey, pragmatic ethics holds that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes. Thus, we should prioritize social reform over attempts to account for consequences, individual virtue or duty (although these may be worthwhile attempts, provided social reform is provided for).
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The 20th century saw a remarkable expansion and evolution of critical theory, following on earlier Marxist Theory efforts to locate individuals within larger structural frameworks of ideology and action.
Antihumanists such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes challenged the possibilities of individual agency and the coherence of the notion of the 'individual' itself.[clarification needed] As critical theory developed in the later 20th century, post-structuralism sought to problematize human relationships to knowledge and 'objective' reality. Jacques Derrida argued that access to meaning and the 'real' was always deferred, and sought to demonstrate via recourse to the linguistic realm that "There is nothing outside the text"; at the same time, Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra mask reality (and eventually the absence of reality itself), particularly in the consumer world.
Post-structuralism and postmodernism argue that ethics must study the complex and relational conditions of actions. A simple alignment of ideas of right and particular acts is not possible. There will always be an ethical remainder that cannot be taken into account or often even recognized. Such theorists find narrative (or, following Nietzsche and Foucault, genealogy) to be a helpful tool for understanding ethics because narrative is always about particular lived experiences in all their complexity rather than the assignment of an idea or norm to separate and individuated actions.
David Couzens Hoy states that Emmanuel Levinas's writings on the face of the Other and Derrida's meditations on the relevance of death to ethics are signs of the "ethical turn" in Continental philosophy that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Hoy describes post-critique ethics as the "obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable" (2004, p. 103).
Hoy's post-critique model uses the term ethical resistance. Examples of this would be an individual's resistance to consumerism in a retreat to a simpler but perhaps harder lifestyle, or an individual's resistance to a terminal illness. Hoy describes Levinas's account as "not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilize sectors of the population to exert their political power; the ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless"(2004, p. 8).
Hoy concludes that
The ethical resistance of the powerless others to our capacity to exert power over them is therefore what imposes unenforceable obligations on us. The obligations are unenforceable precisely because of the other's lack of power. That actions are at once obligatory and at the same time unenforceable is what put them in the category of the ethical. Obligations that were enforced would, by the virtue of the force behind them, not be freely undertaken and would not be in the realm of the ethical. (2004, p.184)
In present day terms the powerless may include the unborn, the terminally sick, the aged, the insane, and non-human animals. It is in these areas that ethical action in Hoy's sense will apply. Until legislation or the state apparatus enforces a moral order that addresses the causes of resistance these issues will remain in the ethical realm. For example, should animal experimentation become illegal in a society, it will no longer be an ethical issue on Hoy's definition. Likewise one hundred and fifty years ago, not having a black slave in America would have been an ethical choice. This later issue has been absorbed into the fabric of an enforceable social order and is therefore no longer an ethical issue in Hoy's sense.
Main article: Machine ethics
In Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen conclude that issues in machine ethics will likely drive advancement in understanding of human ethics by forcing us to address gaps in modern normative theory and by providing a platform for experimental investigation. The effort to actually program a machine or artificial agent to behave as though instilled with a sense of ethics requires new specificity in our normative theories, especially regarding aspects customarily considered common-sense. For example, machines, unlike humans, can support a wide selection of learning algorithms, and controversy has arisen over the relative ethical merits of these options. This may reopen classic debates of normative ethics framed in new (highly technical) terms.
Main article: Applied ethics
Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. The discipline has many specialized fields, such as Engineering Ethics, bioethics, public service ethics and business ethics.
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Applied ethics is used in some aspects of determining public policy, as well as by individuals facing difficult decisions. The sort of questions addressed by applied ethics include: "Is getting an abortion immoral?" "Is euthanasia immoral?" "Is affirmative action right or wrong?" "What are human rights, and how do we determine them?" "Do animals have rights as well?" and "Do individuals have the right of self determination?"
A more specific question could be: "If someone else can make better out of his/her life than I can, is it then moral to sacrifice myself for them if needed?" Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and the practice of arbitration — in fact, no common assumptions of all participants—so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing. But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example, making ethical judgments regarding questions such as, "Is lying always wrong?" and, "If not, when is it permissible?" is prior to any etiquette.
People in-general are more comfortable with dichotomies (two opposites). However, in ethics the issues are most often multifaceted and the best proposed actions address many different areas concurrently. In ethical decisions the answer is almost never a "yes or no", "right or wrong" statement. Many buttons are pushed so that the overall condition is improved and not to the benefit of any particular faction.
 Particular fields of application
Relational ethics are related to an ethics of care. They are used in qualitative research, especially ethnography and authoethnography. Researchers who employ relational ethics value and respect the connection between themselves and the people they study, and "between researchers and the communities in which they live and work" (Ellis, 2007, p. 4). Relational ethics also help researchers understand difficult issues such as conducting research on intimate others that have died and developing friendships with their participants.
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See also: Nuremberg Principles and Geneva Conventions
Military ethics are intended to guide members of the armed forces to act in a manner consistent with the requirements of combat and military organization. While Just war theory is generally seen to set the background terms of moral debate, individual countries have more specific methods of upholding these ethical principles. In the United States, for example, the Department of Defense 5500.7-R (DoD 5500.7-R), serves as the primary regulatory source of ethical standards and conduct to members of the Armed Services (DoD, pg 1).
Military ethics involves multiple subareas, including the following among others:
justification for the initiation of military force
decisions about who may be targeted in warfare
standards for handling military prisoners
methods of dealing with violations of the laws of war
Public service ethics
Public service ethics is a set of principles that guide public officials in their service to their constituents, including their decision-making on behalf of their constituents. Fundamental to the concept of public service ethics is the notion that decisions and actions are based on what best serves the public's interests, as opposed to the official's personal interests (including financial interests) or self-serving political interests.
Main article: Moral psychology
Moral psychology is a field of study that began, like most things, as an issue in philosophy and that is now properly considered part of the discipline of psychology. Some use the term "moral psychology" relatively narrowly to refer to the study of moral development. However, others tend to use the term more broadly to include any topics at the intersection of ethics and psychology (and philosophy of mind). Such topics are ones that involve the mind and are relevant to moral issues. Some of the main topics of the field are moral responsibility, moral development, moral character (especially as related to virtue ethics), altruism, psychological egoism, moral luck, and moral disagreement.
See also: Evolutionary ethics and Evolution of morality
Evolutionary ethics concerns approaches to ethics (morality) based on the role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior. Such approaches may be based in scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology or sociobiology, with a focus on understanding and explaining observed ethical preferences and choices.
Main article: Descriptive ethics
Descriptive ethics is a value-free approach to ethics, which defines it as a social science (specifically sociology) rather than a humanity. It examines ethics not from a top-down a priori perspective but rather observations of actual choices made by moral agents in practice. Some philosophers rely on descriptive ethics and choices made and unchallenged by a society or culture to derive categories, which typically vary by context. This can lead to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics, etiquette, and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating "bottom up" to imply the existence of, rather than explicitly prescribe, theories of value or of conduct. The study of descriptive ethics may include examinations of the following:
Ethical codes applied by various groups. Some consider aesthetics itself the basis of ethics– and a personal moral core developed through art and storytelling as very influential in one's later ethical choices.
Informal theories of etiquette that tend to be less rigorous and more situational. Some consider etiquette a simple negative ethics, i.e., where can one evade an uncomfortable truth without doing wrong? One notable advocate of this view is Judith Martin ("Miss Manners"). According to this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.
Practices in arbitration and law, e.g., the claim that ethics itself is a matter of balancing "right versus right," i.e., putting priorities on two things that are both right, but that must be traded off carefully in each situation.
Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy, and decide what is worth valuing. This is a major concern of sociology, political science, and economics.
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