Overview of Ethics Theories

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : November 5th, 2020

Ethics is a branch of philosophy. It is a study of moral principles. Ethics is very easy to understand but scoring in IAS Mains Ethics paper is quite challenging. In this article, we provide a glimpse of major ethical theories, which are helpful for last minute revision.   

Ethics Theories

1. Descriptive ethics

    • What do people think is right?
    • It is the study of people’s views about moral beliefs.
    • It does not prescribe any specific action or value.
    • It analyses moral reasoning behind the moral action.

2. Meta-ethics

    • What does "right" even mean?
    • It focuses on what actually morality is.
    • It does not prescribe any particular action or value.
    • It just analyses the nature of ethical properties, statements and attitudes, etc.

3. Normative (prescriptive) ethics

 How should people act? It prescribes what ought to be the right action. There are different Normative theories, which are mentioned below:

Virtue Ethics

  • Justifies an action, only if it is
  • Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha etc.
  • It lays stress neither on the action nor the consequence (result) but on “character of the agent”.
  • Ex: being good and doing good (promotes harmony)


  • Kantian Ethics
    • Justifies an action, if it follows a rule or duty.
    • Justifies an act according to the motive of an actor.
    • Ex: We have a duty to act with fairness.


  • Justifies an action is right if the result is more favourable to the greatest number of people.
  • Ex: Democratic decision making.
Ethical Altruism:
  • Justifies action is right, if the result is favourable to all, except the actor.
  • Doing selfless service to people with no regard for personal benefit.
  • Ex: Gandhi, Mother Theresa etc.
Ethical Egoism:
  • Justifies an action is right if the result is favourable only to the person.
  • Ex: Corrupt officials, Unethical Businessmen etc.

4. Applied ethics

How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice? For example,


  • Application of moral knowledge to resolve current ethical problems related to cloning, abortion, euthanasia, GM crops etc.

Development ethics:

  • It studies the ethical implications of development models.
  • It is to help identify and make ethical choices about social development.

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