11 Summary of Ethical Lenses

We have here surveyed four fundamentally different approaches to ethics that focus on different things: consequences; duties and actions; character; and relationships. Within each of these different approaches, there are different lines of thought. Consequentialist approaches might value different ends and have different views about who counts and how to count them. Deontological approaches may ground duties on social roles, past actions, or reason alone. Virtue ethics approaches have different ideals of the good life or living well. Relational approaches attend to different types of relations and how they inform what we should do.

Although the specific theories and concepts we have canvassed are well-known in philosophical ethics, the descriptions given here are simply the bare bones and significantly incomplete. In some cases, particularly the Bhagavad Gita (3.8.1 duties based on social role) and Confucianism (3.10.1 focus on personal relations), we have simply taken an idea that exemplifies the type of approach of interest to us while ignoring central ideas and theories associated with these texts. In these cases (and some others), the classification (as consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, or relational ethics) is controversial. The Asian traditions, in particular, are sufficiently vast and have sufficiently many different theories and schools within them that authoritative categorization under these lenses is impossible. Nonetheless, in their application to moral life, these differences between schools often boil down to focusing (more or less) on consequences, or actions, or character, or relations.

Although we have only offered a flavor of what is out there, we hope it is clear that ethics is, and always has been, a truly global pursuit and, moreover, that there is both remarkable commonalities across many cultural traditions along with striking differences. In a multicultural society that is struggling to move beyond its colonial past, it is important not to overlook voices that have valuable ethical insights and can add to our ethical discourse. Moreover, given the extraordinary ethical challenges that face the human species, we not only need every possible theoretical tool at our disposal, but we need every person to feel they have a place and a stake in the conversation.

At the same time, we now have a practical tool for thinking about ethical questions. As we noted at the beginning of this primer, ethics starts with the question, “what should I do?” Now, when considering your various options, you can apply each lens to see how it directs your attention to the consequences, the nature of the action and your motivations, your own character and who you want to be, and your various relationships and how they constrain and inform your options.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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