Each moral theory holds a specific approach in how to handle life’s decisions. Throughout history, a few moral theories have surfaced and have been analyzed for their strengths and weaknesses. A moral theory often shapes a person’s attitude toward others, belief system and life choices.


Utilitarianism is a moral theory that implements fair choices in an effort to ensure the least amount of harm is done to all parties involved. The utilitarianism approach requires that you decide what course of action needs to be done and evaluate the outcomes of each action. By focusing on the outcome of each action, utilitarianism demands that you decide on what course of action based on the benefits or harm of the actions without regard to the cost of the action. For example, Julie walks into a hostage situation. There are 20 hostages and she is told that if she shots one hostage, she will save the lives of the other 19. Utilitarianism would support Julie’s killing of one of the hostages because the other 19 lives are a greater benefit, regardless of the fact that the cost would be one person’s life.


Deontology focuses on the consequences of your actions and believes that when faced with life choices, you should operate according to responsibility and obligations. A deontologist believes that morality is a responsibility for everyone as well as a duty. For example, if a man steals three loaves of bread and a gallon of milk to feed his family, it would be supported by deontology because of the moral responsibility and obligations of the man to care for his family. Sometimes deontologists are unable to determine certain courses of action as moral or not. A coffee shop owner who requires his employees to dress in black cannot be identified with the deontology theory simply because the requirement is the owner’s preference and whatever governs such preference is neither moral nor immoral.


Virtue is very distinct from other ethic theories in that it looks at a person’s individual character, not necessarily his actions. When observing an unethical position, the virtue theory considers the person's reputation and purpose for committing the act. If a high school student is temperate, modest, witty and intelligent and plagiarized on a class writing assignment, the virtue theory would analyze the student's past personality traits and interpersonal skills in order to determine whether the student is truly guilty.


Relativism is a theory that deems your moral obligations and beliefs to be based on the individual environment. For example, in American culture cannibalism is considered taboo, while in other cultures the act of consuming other human flesh is accepted as a sacrifice or ritual. Relativism determines morals and ethics according to the society that is being observed. Relativism argues that every society and culture believes differently and thus, each culture must be evaluated according to its particular cultural patterns and influences.

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