Major Ethical Systems

This chapter outlines the three broad categories of ethical systems normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta-ethics. Use the navigation arrows on the right and left side of the page to move forward through the eleven sections in this chapter. By the end of this reading, you will be able to define the three broad ethical systems and describe several approaches to ethics. Be sure you have a good understanding of the important approaches for Unit 1: deontology, consequentialism, and natural law.

Major Ethical Systems

When learning how to resolve ethical dilemmas, it is important to be able to articulate a justifiable rationale for why we believe one decision seems right and another seems wrong. Having a basic understanding of the major ethical theories will help us toward an ethical resolution learning how to articulate and justify the decision.

At times, some of the ethical theories may seem overly philosophical for our purposes; we may even wonder why we should study theories that were sometimes developed centuries ago when we are primarily dealing with present-day issues. In other instances, some of the ethical theories may seem overbearing. The theories we look at here, however, are important to help us understand why the decisions we make, or someone else makes, are ethical or unethical.

For example, a decision may be made that appears on the surface to be unethical, but when we are aware of the philosophical system used in the decision making, we can then understand the root of the decision and, at the very least, see its intended morality. This allows us to view ethical issues from different perspectives and assists us in making informed decisions.

This book is concerned primarily with normative ethics and understanding only the common normative ethical theories. By dissecting the normative theories of ethics, we can have a clear understanding on the moral decisions we ought to make, or the reason some people make the decisions they do. Ethical theories will be examined only briefly as the focus of this book is contemporary ethical issues facing law enforcement. The descriptions of the following ethical theories are very basic and address only the points required for a basic understanding in a law enforcement context. Examples of how a theory may relate to and assist law enforcement are included.

Overview of Ethical Theories

There are three categories of ethical theories:

  1. Normative ethics
  2. Meta ethics
  3. Applied ethics
Normative theories tell us not only what we ought to do, but also why we do things that in some instances may appear counterintuitive to what we think an ethical decision would be. Such theories are often called ethical systems because they provide a system that allows people to determine ethical actions that individuals should take. Evans and Macmillan define normative ethics as "theories of ethics that are concerned with the norms, standards or criteria that define principles of ethical behaviour". The most common examples of normative ethical theories are utilitarianism, Kantian duty-based ethics (deontology), and divine command theory, which are described later in this chapter. These systems are used by individuals to make decisions when confronted with ethical dilemmas.

Meta-ethics does not address how we ought to behave; rather, meta-ethics is related more to the study of ethical theory itself. Here the interest is in evaluating moral and ethical theories and systems. For example, moral relativism is a meta-ethical theory because it interprets discussions around ethics; a question asked within moral relativism is "is ethics culturally relative?" Evans and Macmillan define meta-ethics as "theories of ethics concerned with the moral concepts, theories, and the meaning of moral language. Pollock further defines meta-ethics as "a discipline that investigates the meaning of ethical systems and whether they are relative or are universal, and are self-constructed or are independent of human creation".

For the purposes of this book, meta-ethics will relate to the way we look at and understand normative ethical theories. More concisely, meta-ethics concerns an interpretation and evaluation of the language used within normative ethical theories.

Applied ethics describes how we apply normative theories to specific issues, usually related to work or belonging to an organization; for example, policies and procedures of organizations or ethical codes of outlaw bikers versus ethical codes of police officers. Evans and Macmillan define applied ethics as "theories of ethics concerned with the application of normative ethics to particular ethical issues". An example is knowing and practising the code of ethics for BC Corrections as an employee of BC Corrections or following the British Columbia Police Code of Ethics as a police officer.

With the overview of the three categories of ethical theories we will further analyze each ethical theory or system.

The normative ethical theories that are briefly covered in this chapter are:

  • Utilitarianism
  • Deontology
  • Virtue ethics
  • Ethics of care
  • Egoism
  • Religion or divine command theory
  • Natural Law
  • Social contract theory
  • Rawls's theory of justice
  • Moral relativism

Source: Steve McCartney and Rick Parent,
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