The Main Branches of Ethics

Take a Peek at the Facts of the 3 Main Branches of Ethics

Ethics is a philosophical discipline that studies the distinction between good and wrong, and also evaluates the moral consequences of human actions.
OpinionFront Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Aristotle was the first who used this concept in the title of his writing 'Nicomahica ethics'. But, reflections on morality existed from the beginning of the human life. For example, Jewish people got the God given Ten Commandments, and the entire Bible is a calling to a righteous way of living. Antic Babylon had the Hammurabi's code of laws, India had Manu's laws.

During centuries, ethics has developed three main branches: Deontological ethics, Teleological ethics and Virtue ethics.

Deontological Ethics

Deontology comes from Greek 'deontos' which means duty, obligation, and 'logos' which stands for knowledge, science. Deontology is the science that studies the moral obligations, its nature and its origins.

Jeremy Bentham was the first who used the term 'deontology' in his writing 'Deontology or Science of Morality' published in 1834. But, the founder of this branch is considered Immanuel Kant, German philosopher, one of the greatest thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment.

From Immanuel Kant's point of view, the morality of human actions is independent from feelings or the heart desires. Feelings and actions caused by natural instincts can't be the foundation of moral actions, because these can't obey the mind. He says that the value of our actions can't be measured by the obtained results nor by their consequences, because these things might be very different from what the mind had initially anticipated.

There is only one criterion of morality - if the action was committed or not in concordance with the duty. Duty is a commandment that must be respected in any empiric circumstances. For example, if a communist asks a person if his friend has spoken against the communist ideology, that person must answer telling the truth even if that implies the imprisonment of his friend.

Teleological Ethics

Teleological ethics was founded on the basis of Utilitarianism Ideology. The doctrine of Utilitarianism considers the consequences of that action as the main criteria for an action, therefore, if an action brings satisfactory results than the action is moral.

The founders of Utilitarianism were - Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a British philosopher, jurist and social reformer. He classifies an action (as being good or wrong) after its benefit. In his book 'An Introduction to the Principles of Morality and Legislation' he defines the Principle of Utilitarianism as the attribute of an object to cause good, satisfaction and happiness or to prevent pain and suffering. The greatest goal is to achieve the greatest happiness for as many people as possible. He even invented a mathematical formula for the calculation of the amount of happiness brought by an action is actually inapplicable. He sustained that all human beings are motivated only by the desire of obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain. Bentham lived in concordance with his ideas, and as a proof, he let his dead body to be used as a dissection piece, for the instruction of medical students. Thus, his body was mummified and nowadays it's still kept at the University College in London.

Jon Steward Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher who introduced an essential distinction between 'superior' pleasure and 'inferior' pleasure, and completed the Principle of personal happiness with the need of human solidarity.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue is a positive character feature which means the abiding chase of moral good. Virtue is represented by the concordance between the life of a person and the moral principles.

Socrates is one of the representatives of virtue ethics. In his vision, truth is the expression of being what it is. Man always desires good, but knowing what is right allows us to do the good actions we intend. People hurt themselves and the others because they are ignorant to the truth.

The supreme virtue is wisdom. But, wisdom takes diverse forms in relation with self (courage, frugality), with others (justice) and with God (reverence).

After Socrates, Plato classifies the fundamental virtues of the soul depending on its three constitutive parts:
  1. One part composed by desires and inferior pleasures with temperance as virtue;
  2. One part composed by superior pleasures, the noble ones with courage as virtue;
  3. One part represented by mind with wisdom as virtue;
All these tree virtues (temperance, courage and wisdom) converge giving birth to justice. There can't be happiness without virtue, but there can be virtue without instant happiness.