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Ethical Theories and Major Moral Principles

Some people claim that everyone has his or her own ethics, in other words, ethics is individual. The amazing thing about ethical theory, however, is not that there are so many theories, but that there are really very few. Most of contemporary ethical theory is governed by two basic theories, with an additional five or six theories taking up the vast majority of the rest of the discussion. Over the course of the next few pages I will explain to you the basics of eight different ethical theories: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, contractarianism, feminist or care-based ethics, natural law theory, Confucian ethics, intuitionism and ideal observer theory, and virtue ethics. I will tell you about some of the major proponents of the theory, some of its variations, and give you some examples of how it might be applied in real life situations.

To begin with, you need to understand the idea of an ethical theory. An ethical theory is a theory about what makes an action or set of actions morally right or wrong. In ethical theory we generally look for a key principle(s) of right action, which can then be applied in concrete situations. For example, in Plato’s book, The Republic, Cephalus, an elderly business man, makes the claim that “right action consists in nothing more nor less than telling the truth and paying back anything we may have received.” (I.331 a). This is a moral principle which never really gets developed into an ethical theory, because Plato quickly shows that it has to be abandoned. He does this by applying the moral theory to a concrete situation, which demonstrates that these actions (telling the truth and paying back what you owe) are sometimes right and sometimes wrong:

Suppose, for example, a friend who had lent us a …

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…The opposite of integrity might be hypocrisy, where one’s actions do not match ones words and convictions.


Here you have some of the rudiments of basic ethical theories today. They are, of course, not the only ethical theories, but I wanted to give you a general picture of some of the most popular or common theories, what they believed and who believed them. You will probably find that you use some of each of these principles in your decision making, or that you sometimes use one and sometimes the other, depending on the situation.

Works Cited

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated and analyzed by H. J. Patton [New York: Harper

Richard II Essay: The Characters of Bolingbroke and Richard II

The Characters of Bolingbroke and Richard II

“What tongue speaks my right drawn sword may prove” is the sentence which concludes a short speech delivered by Henry Bolingbroke to King Richard II (1.1.6). These words are but the first demonstration of the marked difference between the above-mentioned characters in The Tragedy of Richard II. The line presents a man intent on action, a foil to the title character, a man of words.

When Bolingbroke first appears in the play, he is accusing Thomas Mowbray of treason and then states that he is ready to act upon his accusations, to draw his sword against Mowbray. He declares, “Besides I say and will in battle prove . . .” (1.1.92, emphasis mine). Richard yields to the request of trial by combat. It is a ruling on which he later reneges, pronouncing banishment on the two parties rather than allowing their confrontation.

This is a prime example of Richard using his authority by way of rulings and pronouncements rather than action, even to the point of disallowing an action. Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is quite ready to do battle no matter what the consequences. Moments before Richard puts a stop to the proceedings, Bolingbroke says, “. . . let no noble eye profane a tear / For me, if I be gorged with Mowbray’s spear” (1.3.58-59). Here is a man who is resolved in his intent.

To be sure, even in the ensuing banishment, Bolingbroke is not hindered. When he learns of the seizure of the estate of his dead father, John of Gaunt, by Richard, he comes back to England despite the …

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…essing anyone who was around or even just addressing himself. However, Bolingbroke is not a man of many words; he feels the need to physically atone for his part in the murder, “To wash this blood off [his] guilty hand” (5.6.50).

Nevertheless, as a man of action, Bolingbroke has achieved for himself the goal of retrieving his father Gaunt’s estates and much more. He, in the end, is king, King Henry IV. And though Richard as king was full of pomp and ceremony, those things were no match for ambition carried to its fullest. His strong words belied incompetence as a ruler, and he could not hold his position. It seems that it was inevitable that Bolingbroke would be the victor at last. Richard should have taken more note of his usurper, before he was such, this man he called “[Gaunt’s] bold son” (1.1.3).

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