As mentioned above, there are a many, 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 tools. 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:
These are robust 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? Briefly, consequentialism answers the question by considering the consequences of the possible actions presented to one and whether they are good or bad. Deontology answers by looking at the action itself as well as the thought that motivates the action and whether they are right or wrong. Virtue ethics answers by looking to one’s character and identifying what the virtuous person would do. Relational ethics affirms the importance of relationships of various different kinds and looks at how these relationships inform and constrain what one can and should do. In the next four subsections, 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 the next chapter (4.12 and 4.13, respectively). As you read about the different lenses (and, indeed, the concepts of rights and ahimsa) 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 is contentious, so 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.