Ethical Lenses

As mentioned above, there are many different moral theories. As you confront particular moral problems or study applied ethics subdisciplines you will find that digging deeper into these theories is a crucial part of developing your applied ethics toolkit. Nonetheless, at the introductory level we can identify four fundamentally different approaches to moral reasoning that cover the essential ideas of many of these theories:

  1. Focus on consequences;
  2. Focus on action (and duties);
  3. Focus on character (and virtues);
  4. Focus on relations.

These are ethical orientations that are woven throughout various global ethical theories and traditions. As noted above, we are going to think of them as lenses that can be brought to the ethical question, what should I (or we) do? A focus on consequences prompts one to evaluate the outcomes of our possible actions, directing us to consider who will be affected in positive or negative ways. A focus on action (and duty) prompts one to think about the actions themselves, what motivates them, and what makes a particular action right or wrong, optional or required. A focus on character (and virtues) presents us with the challenge of figuring out what kind of person we want to be, what constitutes a good life, and the virtues and activities that are characteristic of good people. A focus on relations affirms the importance of relationships of various different kinds and looks at how they inform and constrain what one can and should do. In the next four chapters, we will look at each of these approaches in more detail.

Even as the four lenses offer a comprehensive set of approaches to thinking through ethical problems and issues, some moral concepts defy neat inclusion under one or another lens. We will discuss two important and influential examples—ahimsa and rights—in Part III (Chapter 8 and Chapter 9, respectively). As you read about the different lenses (and, indeed, the concepts of ahimsa and rights) you will notice that some of the theories offer different views about who or what should be considered when we make ethical decisions. This is captured by the idea of moral status (also sometimes called moral standing or moral considerability). Some theorists treat moral status as a matter of degree, maintaining that some beings have full moral status and their interests should count more in our ethical decision-making, while others still count but to a lesser degree. Other theorists treat moral status as an all-or-nothing kind of issue. What grounds moral status (as we have already seen in section 1.3) is contentious and we will return to it below as we survey the lenses and develop a sense of the ways in which questions about moral status arise.



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Applied Ethics Primer Copyright © 2021 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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