1. 3 Theories of Ethics (V-C-R)
  2. T1: Virtue Ethics
  3. T2: Conduct Ethics
    1. T2A: Utilitarian Theory
    2. T2B: Hedonism
    3. T2C: Egoism
    4. Summary of Conduct Ethics
  4. T3: Rights Based Ethics
    1. 3 Generation of rights
    2. John Rawls
  5. Case study: Sardar & ICS
  6. Case study: Ethical justification?
  7. Descriptive Questions (200 words each)

In the previous part (E1/P1), we looked at the types of judgments and pre-conditions for ethical scrutiny. In this part, we shall look at various theories of ethics, their merits and demerits.

3 Theories of Ethics (V-C-R)


1. Virtue Ethics We judge a person’s virtue rather than his ‘conduct’
2.Conduct Ethics We focus on ‘conduct’ rather than ‘person’. Further

  • If we focus on course/means/action: Deontological
  • If we focus on goal/end/outcome: Teleoglogical / consequentialism.
3.Rights based Ethics We give ‘rights’ to an individual. By xyz action, whether ‘rights’ of Mr.ABC are violated or not? On that parameter we’ll evaluate the action

T1: Virtue Ethics

Focus more on virtues of the agent rather than consequences of his actions.

Plato Gave four  Cardinal virtues of a “good man”: Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, Justice.
  • Proposed “Golden Mean”. Which means avoiding extreme good and extreme bad.
  • Avoiding altruism (Maximum happiness to others while ignoring yours) and avoiding hedonism (maximum pleasure for yourself).
  • Buddhist philosophy of “Madhyama-pratipad” proposes the same ‘middle-way’.
  • Although it can’t be applied to all cases. e.g. if someone alleges “you’re a mad-man”, you can’t say “I’m half-mad”!

T2: Conduct Ethics

Theories of Ethics: Deontological Ethics

Teleological: Consequentialism Deontological: Non-consequentialism
Examples: (1) Utilitarianism (2) Hedonism (3) Egoism Examples (1) Varnashram dharma (2) law of Karma (3) religious scripture
Focus on “End/Goals/Consequences”
  • Focus on “means/methods/actions”
  • Also known as Duty based ethics
We’d have gained independence sooner, had we used violence against the British, and sooner we gained independence, faster we’d have become a 1st world country, so, use of violence is right, because end goal is noble. Gandhi: We don’t want to gain independence through the use of violence. Because even though self-rule is a noble goal, violence is not the right ‘mean/instrument’ to achieve it.
  1. It may justify robbing a bank, IF the looted money is to be used for charity.
  2. It may justify pirating coaching class material, because it’ll lead to greatest good for greatest number of people.

In both 1 and 2, we are focusing on the ‘end’.

Kant: ‘Piracy’ as a ‘process’ is wrong. Because it violates the ‘right to property’.  Anyways, we’ll discuss Kant in detail, in separate lecture on Syllabus topic #5: Moral Thinkers.
It’s ok to lie, to save someone’s life. Difficult to justify because by lying we’re violating the other person’s ‘right to knowledge’.
Gives motivation to work, even when the result is uncertain or far away. e.g. Lord Krishna advising Arjun to fight in the war against the Kaurav.

Anyways, it’s not important to get into finer nuances of each and every thinker and theory, we just have to see its application in case studies. So, while solving a case study, try to see it through the glasses of various theories.

T2A: Utilitarian Theory

utilitarianism & lynch mob

Utilitarianism: if lynching makes 99 people happy and one person unhappy, is it good?

  • Utilitarianism says you should work for greatest happiness for greatest number of people.
  • A lynch mob kills a person believing a committed a crime.
  • In this case say 100 people’s happiness minus 1 dead guy’s unhappiness = 99 units of happiness. So, is it an ethical action after all it led to maximum happiness for maximum people?
  • Thus, in traditional “Act Utilitarianism” theory, lynch mob is justifiable.
  • But, What if we make a rule out of above case I.e. “it is ok for people to kill other people.” If this rule is held valid then people will fear coming out of their home => economy & society will collapse=> not maximum good for maximum people.
  • Therefore, by application of ‘Rule utilitarianism‘, we can prove “lynch mob” is ethically wrong.


Utilitarianism is not same as altruism.
Altruism You should put other people’s happiness before your own happiness.
Utilitarianism You should strive for maximum people’s happiness, you’re also part of that crowd. So, your own happiness also matters as a unit.
Hedonism You should maximize your own pleasure.


Utilitarianism: Merits and demerits
Merits Demerits
  • Democratic way of decision making. Who should become PM? Ans. The one whose party gets maximum votes.
  • Ensure distributive justice. Take higher taxes from the rich and use it for the welfare scheme of the poor.
  • Minority voice / opinion is not considered. Because utilitarianism concerned with benefit to majority.
  • Utilitarianism would not agree with the fundamental rights given to minorities.
  • Orthodox views are validated. e.g. in the times of Raja Ram Mohan Rai, people thought Sati system was right.
  • Not every happiness is quantifiable or comparable: is reading Shakespeare equivalent to happiness of eating two Macdonald burgers? So, which “happiness” should government provide to citizens? Although thinkers later qualified the levels of happiness. Reading Shakespeare is ‘sublime’ happiness so it can’t be equivalent to even 100 mac-burgers.

You’ve to keep the merits and demerits of each theory in mind, to ensure its proper application in case studies. E.g. if a case study involves minority rights or feminism, it may not be right to bend the utilitarianism principle to justify your stand.

T2B: Hedonism

  • Hedonism says maximize your own pleasure/happiness.
  • Among Indian philosophical schools, Charvaka school (Lokayatmat) advocates the same.
Hedonism Strive for Pleasure in all forms. Pleasure is the only truth of life.
  • Absence of pain is the greatest pleasure.
  • Sustainable pleasure is (1) freedom from fear (2) freedom from bodily pain
  • Sustainable pleasure obtained by (1) Knowledge (2) friendship (3) Modest Life
Gandhism opposite of Hedonism because it preaches Complete control over senses, Bramhcharya.


Hedonism: Merits and Demerits
Merit Demerits
  • Focus on maximum happiness
  • if we stop defining Hedonism as “gross sensual pleasure” and focus on ‘long lasting sustainable’ pleasure then it is refined hedonism.
  • Refined hedonism:  appreciating art, investing in personal relations, cultivating hobbies.
  • Similarly Epicureanism also encourages us to live happy, modest, good life and invest in friendship.
  • Drug abuse gives short term pleasure, hedonism would justify it.
  • It’s ok to spend salary on lavish lifestyle rather than saving it for pension.
  • Health and financial prudence gives long term happiness at the expense of short term discomfort. But a Gross Hedonist wouldn’t like it.
Promotes consumerism:  boost to economy, employment generation. If everyone pursues ascetic lifestyle, who’ll provide food to the families of Chinese workers in apple factory?
  • Law of marginal utility: you’ve to consume more and more to get same amount of pleasure.
  • This, consumerism leads to exploitation of natural resources which is not good for environment and sustainable development.
  • Greed becomes need.

Moral Skepticism

According to Sophists (Greece) and Charvaka (Ancient India)- Ethical studies have no logical foundation because

  1. There are no fixed / objective criteria to separate moral act from immoral act, therefore, men are incapable of pursuing moral path
  2. If men pursue moral path, it’ll not be in their best ‘self-interest’.
  3. External forces determine a man’s action, so rarely a man has free will to choose his own action.

And this thought process leads to next theory of ethics – Egoism

T2C: Egoism

Egoism says maximize your own self-interest. Because (1) it is in human nature to avoid pain (2) it is irrational for a man to ignore his self-interest.

  • It is ok to sleep till late, even if you miss important business meeting.
  • You should walk up early, if there’s an important business meeting.
  • Similarly, A girl wanting to become fashion-model will deny herself the pleasure of good food (Hedonism), to remain thin and slim.
  • If parents sacrifice personal comforts for better education for children, if businessman gives part of his income in philanthropic causes, if a soldier sacrifices his life for protection of the nation -how does Egoism interprete them?
  • Egoism says in all such actions are unconsciously selfish. e.g. philanthropy – hidden objective of gaining fame and respect. Although hidden motives are difficult to verify.
Egoism: Merits and Demerits
Merit Demerit
Egoism can lead to happiness for others also e.g. Mukesh Ambani’s decision to run a refinery at Jamnagar is driven by his own self-interest of profit generation but it also generates employment for lakhs of people. Capitalism works parallel to this.
  • Labour exploitation. Not always environmentally sustainable or socially inclusive. Trickle down doesn’t  always work.
  • In a resource scare country, will not work.  And increase the divide between the rich and the poor.
You’re running a mobile company with profit motive, but at the same time you’re doing a social service by helping people in their need to ‘communicate’ with others.
  • Mobile tower radiation harming entire society in the long term.
  • If everyone looking @his self-interest, who’ll care for future generation aka no more sustainable Development.
If everyone tries to maximum his own self-interest, still there will be resistance by others, so ultimately an ‘equilibrium’ will be established wherein its win-win for all. If everyone tries to maximize his own self-interest, it’ll lead to disaster. e.g. Prisoner’s dilemma

The demerits of egoism encouraged Mathematician John Nash (movie: A beautiful mind), to work on “Game theory”. He died in 2015, May. So consider that homework, for some ethical case study involving game-theory.

Summary of Conduct Ethics

Theory Thinkers Meaning Merits Demerits
  1. Jeremy
  2. Bentham
  3. John Stuart Mill.
Maximum happiness for maximum no. of people
  • Democratic Decision Making
  • Minority unheard
  • Orthodoxy
  1. Charvaka
  2. Epicurus (Refined)
Maximum pleasure for yourself
  • Refined hedonism: long term sustained pleasure
  • Consumerism boom to economy
  • Consumerism vs. environment
  • Greed becomes need
  1. Greek Sophists
  2. Hobbes
  3. Nietzsche
Maximum self-interest Capitalism, trickle down Prisoner’s dilemma

T3: Rights Based Ethics

  • We give ‘rights’ to an individual. By xyz action, whether ‘rights’ of Mr.ABC are violated or not? On that parameter we’ll evaluate the action.
  • In China, a person from rural area can’t move to Shanghai without permit. So, his right to self-development is violated.
  • In N.Korea, ordinary citizens are denied internet service, so their right to knowledge id violated, although the State may justify it saying internet-ban is necessary for maintenance of law and order or to prevent the brainwashing of the North Koreans by Western powers.
  • When “rights” are given, it imposes accountability on the government.  e.g Freedom of expression =>Media => Check on corruption.
  • Right to education => enlightened citizenry =>they exercise RTI and thereby make government answerable.
  • Human rights: ensures feudalism doesn’t come back.
  • So, How do we judge an action using rights based theory? Our thinking of rights based ethics begins with the liberalism.
Negative Approach Positive Approach
  • Freedom of expression: State is ‘denied’ from encroaching in individual sphere.
  • Most of our fundamental rights are negative.
  • State is enabled to empower the citizenry. e.g. Freedom of movement is a negative right, but if the state constructs more highways and railways to enable faster movement of goods and people, the state is enabling the citizens to enjoy their rights.
  • Same way right to education=> Government making more sarkaari schools.


3 Generation of rights
1st Gen
  • Negative rights. Usually political rights e.g. right to vote, civil liberties.
  • But these were found to be inadequate. e.g. women got right to vote but they found it did not lead to their real development. This gave birth to 2nd generation rights
2nd Gen
  • Enabling rights, developmental rights, positive rights.
  • e.g. Social security, right to health, education
3rd Gen
  • Environmental rights: Kyoto protocol, Rio+20 and subsequent sustainable Development goals (SDG)
  • Group rights, cultural rights e.g. ensuring protection of the culture of North East people.

John Rawls

Leading thinker of this school is John Rawls.  As such not much point doing Ph.D on him, all you should remember is he tried to reconcile between Liberty (capitalism) and Equality (Communism)

Liberty  give maximum liberty to people without encroaching on other people’s liberties.
  • If Ambani is earning Rs.1,000 crore, if that leads to the poor getting Rs.10 crore (say through taxation and trickle down), then it is ethical. This is akin to Gandhi’s “Antyodaya”.
  • This is different from Capitalism – because they’d not like taxation.
  • This is different from communism, because they’d want wealth of Ambani to be equally distributed among all poor.

For Case studies, keep in mind- rights based approach should be used for major themes only e.g. speech, health, education. For trivial individualist things, e.g. ‘lying, stealing’ better to apply other theories for your answer.

Case study: Sardar & ICS

During the British era, ICS (Indian Civil services) officers were responsible for arrest and persecution of Sardar Patel and many other freedom fighters. Yet, after independence, Patel decided to continue ICS service under a new name “IAS” and retained those ICS officers in it, despite the opposition by the other members of Constituent assembly. Discuss the ethical dilemmas that Sardar Patel would have faced before arriving at this decision.

Case study: Ethical justification?

Is following course of action ethically justifiable? Yes / No and Why?

  1. It is ok to remove organs of a convict on death row without his consent, IF we transplant them to needy children from poor families.
  2. It is ok for government to run opium farms, provided they sell it to foreign countries  use the money for benefit of the poor.
  3. We should legalize prostitution because it’ll lead to less exploitation of the women in the hands of pimps and policemen.
  4. Government should ban cigarettes and alcohol from movies since it influences young audience to begin smoking and drinking.
  5. Women in armed forces should be posted only in the desk jobs, since they’re physically less fit to serve in frontline field posts.

Descriptive Questions (200 words each)

  1. Discuss in brief, major theories of Ethics. Which of them, in your opinion, answers the moral Dilemma better than others?
  2. Utilitarianism, though logically consistent, has internal-contradictions. Do you agree? Justify your stand?
  3. Define “Betrayal”. Narrate a historic example of betrayal and discuss the underlying ethical currents.
  4. Moral value of an act is not wholly dependent on its consequences. Discuss with a historic example.
  5. A universal theory of Ethics is impossible to frame since the moral choices depend on culture, religion, region and time-period. Do you agree, Justify your stand.
  6. According to Charvaka and other moral sceptics- Ethics has no logical foundation and perception is the only source of knowledge. Do you agree, Justify your stand.

In the third part (E1/P3) we’ll look at values, role of family-society-Edu. Institutions in inculcating human values and ethics in public and private relations. Visit Mrunal.org/Ethics for more study material on Ethics.