Moral Philosophy and Ethical Theories

Moral Philosophy is a branch of philosophy that contemplates what is right and wrong. It explores the nature of morality and examines how people should live their lives.

Ethics are the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conduct of an activity. Morals are concerned with principles of right and wrong behaviour and the goodness and badness of human character. Morality governs private, personal interactions while Ethics governs professional interactions. Ethics and morals relate to right and wrong conduct and are often taught to be the same however they are different.

Ethics refer to rules provided by an external source e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions while Morals refer to an individual ‘s own principles regarding right and wrong. Many morals are common as they stem from basic human emotions.

There are 3 Branches of Moral Philosophy

  1. Meta-ethics

This Branch asks the big picture question such as “What is Morality?” “What is Justice?” “Is there Truth?”

  • Normative Ethics

This branch answers questions of what we ought to do. It provides a framework for deciding what is right and wrong. There are 3 common frameworks;

Consequentialism (Utilitarianism)


Virtue Ethics

  • Applied Ethics

This branch addresses specific, practical issues of Moral Philosophy such as war and capital punishment. It also tackles specific moral challenges that people face daily, such as whether they should lie to help a friend or coworker.

The Focus of this article is on the Normative Branch of Moral Philosophy

  1. Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether or not something is right by what its consequences are. For instance, most people would agree that lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would help save a person’s life, consequentialism says it’s the right thing to do.
  • Deontology is duty ethics, so it compares a person’s ethics against some duty or imperative. Deontology emphasizes the character of actions.
  • Divine Command Theory

In this Theory, the action performed is in accordance to the order or decree given by God.

e.g., Sabbath

Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics is a philosophy developed by Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. It is the quest to understand and live a life of moral character.

This character-based approach to morality assumes that we acquire virtue through practice. By practicing being honest, brave, just, generous and so on, a person develops an honorable and moral character.

According to Aristotle, by honing virtuous habits, people will likely make the right choice when faced with ethical challenges.

Aristotle and The Highest Good

In book one of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he claims every action is aimed at some good yet these aims vary between individual and context. 

According to Aristotle the highest good must fit into three criteria:

  • it is desirable for itself
  • it is not desirable for the sake of some other good
  • all other goods are desirable for its sake.

Furthermore, Aristotle later includes that the highest good must be acted upon because if one does not act to achieve any aim then they will never achieve it. In other words, the highest good is a solitary nucleus, which all other goods are acted upon for.

For Aristotle this highest good is happiness or eudaimonia (which translates to living well). He argues this by going through the list of what many may consider the highest good of actions; for example, pursuing wealth, honor, or wisdom. Yet, these do not fit the criteria he is trying to fill. Instead, he examines all these aims and realizes happiness is the highest good because it is what living well consists in and the latter aims are sought because they promote living well, not because they are what living well consists in.

Eudaimonia vs Euphoria

Euphoria can be described as the short spike of happiness that we feel during certain moments while the lasting happiness is called eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is a more balanced approach where the happiness does not rely on isolated, powerful events but yields from every day events. Little things like conversations, encounters with people, a walk in a park, hearing a bird sing, a train being on time, a drink in a pub, a beautiful sunset. It is a mental attitude to appreciate little things and creates a robust and content state mind.