Which theory is the best one?

If you were hoping that this module would end with an admission that there really is one best theory that is the most reasonable to believe, now is the time to start being disappointed. Certainly some are better than others, but there isn’t one that’s the best. Each theory has advantages, and each one has flaws. 

Cultural Relativism: “It’s permissible because my culture says it’s permissible.”

seems intuitive at first, but is actually incoherent and self-contradictory

Religious Authoritarianism: “It’s permissible because God commands it.”

simple to explain, but hard to interpret or apply

Sentimentalism: “It’s permissible if it merits a feeling of approval.”

easy to use, but no way to know if your feelings are ‘merited’

Utilitarianism: “It’s permissible if is causes more pleasure than pain overall.”

reliable, but only cares about consequences

Kantianism: “It’s permissible if it’s done out of duty.”

reliable, but only cares about intentions

Egoism: “It’s permissible if it satisfies my interests.”

easy to use, but doesn’t consider anyone else

Natural Rights Theory: “It’s permissible if it respects peoples’ natural rights.”

considers other people, but sometimes rights conflict with no way to choose between them

Ethics of Care: “It’s permissible if it promotes relationships between people.”

accommodates complex human relationships, but gives inconsistent results, and can’t judge the actions of others

Virtue Ethics: “It’s permissible if a virtuous person would do it.”

takes character into account, but may be dependent on one of the other theories to recognize virtue


Which theory you subscribe to depends on your worldview. Which kinds of things matter to you? Do you care more about consequences, character, relationships, or something else? Who should count morally: anything that can feel pain, only rational beings, only humans, only people you care about, only yourself? Does your worldview include natural rights? Does it include duties? I can’t tell you what the right answer is. It’s up to you to choose the one that is most consistent with the other beliefs in your worldview. And if you’re thinking that you want to choose more than one, or combine them, that’s fine, but you still have to be consistent. If you care about rights sometimes and duties other times, you need to be able to explain why, and in which situations it’s appropriate to switch.

There are lots of cases when several theories will all give the same answer to a moral question. The important thing is that when you answer a moral question, you can explain why your answer is what it is. Philosophy is about having reasonable beliefs, and you should be able to explain what makes your moral beliefs reasonable.