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Ethical Theories for Decision-Making

There are several ethical theories that provide guidelines that should be followed in the process of decision-making. The most popular ethical theories are utilitarianism, casuist, right, and deontology. All the ethical theories make demands on human beings but the nature of the demands varies. The utilitarianism theory makes the hardest ethical demands on human beings. According to utilitarianism, a human being should have the ability to predict the outcome of the actions (Ridley, 1998). This theory does not have alternatives and is very rigid in its demand. It postulates that it is the choice that brings the biggest benefit to the majority that is ethical.

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According to the theory, something may be right, but if it is not beneficial to most people, then it is not ethical. Regardless of the feelings of a person, their acts must be to the benefit of the majority even if societal constraints and legal implications stand in the way. This is according to one branch of the theory called act utilitarianism. However, there is another branch called rule utilitarianism that observes the laid out rules and the legal processes. Act utilitarianism is very harsh on its demands because it can make a person break the law or go against the social norms for them to be ethical. It places ethics above rules and social expectations and in most cases, it presents a situation of dilemma. For example, the law says that in case of an accident, the vehicles’ are not supposed to leave the point of the accident before the arrival of the law enforcement authorities. However, what should one do if a vehicle hits another from behind and as the owners wait for the arrival of the police, the vehicles block traffic along the road, and stuck in the traffic are ambulances ferrying fire victims to the hospital. According to the demands of the utilitarianism theory, the vehicle owners are supposed to pull the vehicle aside to ease the traffic and release the ambulances in order to save the lives of the fire victims. They will have acted to the benefit of most people meaning that they have acted in an ethical manner but the will have gone against the law. This is an example of the moral dilemma that the utilitarianism theory presents to human beings. One flaw that the theory has is that the prediction of the outcomes of the action may not be accurate meaning that it will still present a problem for human beings while making decisions.

There are two opposing views presented by Immanuel Kant and Hume, on whether human beings are naturally ethical. According to Kant, human beings have the natural predisposition to act ethically, but this predisposition is constantly worn out by intrinsic desires and passions that lead them. Therefore, Kant reasons out that the first reaction of human beings is ethical before internal and external influences creep in and affect their ethical desires. However, Hume disagrees with Kant saying that human beings are not naturally ethical and their ethical actions are determined by situations. This means that the ability of a human being is situational rather than natural (Waller, 2008).

In conclusion, the issue of ethics has never been conclusively exhausted in philosophical debates and it still presents problems even to modern-day philosophers due to the dynamism in the society in which ethics is supposed to govern. For the ethical theory that makes the hardest demands, utilitarianism presents the vast majority of ethical dilemmas due to its rigidity.


Ridley, A. (1998). Beginning Bioethics. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Waller, B.N. (2008). Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues (2nd ed). New York: Pearson/Longman.

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