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.

Natural Law

Natural law was espoused by Saint Thomas Aquinas, who viewed the world as being created by God and understood that humans are rational beings capable of using their intellect to comprehend the world. By extension, God enabled humans to reason in a natural way to make ethical choices. Aquinas viewed the first principle of natural law as: "good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided". Simply put, natural law asserts that what is good is natural, and what is natural is good. Unlike Thomas Hobbes' cynical view in the social contract theory, Aquinas viewed humans as being naturally inclined to do good rather than evil.

Because of the natural inclination toward doing good, Aquinas viewed morality as a universal set of rights and wrongs that are shared across cultures. He delineated two basic human inclinations:

  1. To preserve one's own life
  2. To preserve the human species

Followers of natural law would suggest that the decision is moral if it furthers human life or preserves one's own life. Should the decision go against human life or preserving your own life, the decision is immoral.

Q. How can natural law assist law enforcement in moral dilemmas?

Natural law can reaffirm in officers the importance of their job, that being to preserve their own life and the human species. Officers could be reminded that property is not as important as life and that their sole function should be public safety, rather than the protection of property, which is one of the common law duties of police officers.

Officers could also use natural law as a reminder of the importance to preserve their own lives when confronted with dangerous situations, and that is natural to want to protect oneself.

Criticisms of Natural Law

A problem inherent in natural law is defining what is natural. A proponent of natural law may deduce that homosexuality is unnatural because it does not preserve the human species. However, biologists have documented many different species that engage in homosexual behaviour. Many people consider homosexual behaviour as unnatural; however, it is seen among a variety of animal species, therefore the case for this being a natural activity is strong.