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Utilitarianism, Cultural Relativism, Social Contract Theory And Kantianism As The Ethical Theories

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There are several ethical theories that attempt to distinguish what is morally right and wrong. Some examples of these theories include Utilitarianism, Cultural Relativism, Social Contract Theory, and Kantianism. Utilitarianism focuses on the outcome of an action as the primary motivation and whether or not that conduct is ethical (Hill, Utilitarianism PowerPoint, Slide 3) The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t pay direct attention to whether an act is carried out with good or bad intentions. They also run into the issue that no-one can be certain about what consequences will result from a particular action, because the future is unpredictable. Cultural Relativism is the view that all ethical systems are all equally valid and no one system is superior (Hill, Ethical Relativism PowerPoint, Slide 7). However, this causes us to lose perspective and it becomes literally impossible to argue that anything a culture does is right or wrong. The Social Contract Theory states that people will band together in order to avoid being in a “state of nature” (Hill, Social Contract Theory PowerPoint, Slide 5). One issue with this theory is that the political authority itself does not require a contract for its legitimacy. In the theory of Kantianism, the basis of whether or not a course of action is morally permissible will depend on if it conforms to what he terms the moral law, the categorical imperative (Hill, Kantian Ethics, page 1). Some exceptions do exist, but the strength of those exceptions may be somewhat diminished by looking at the way the actual situations are presented and the way in which they are handled. In determining one's duty in a moral situation, his theory of morality seems to function as the most feasible.

Immanuel Kant was a famous philosopher during the 18th century Enlightenment era. His ethical system formed as a reaction to David Hume’s view of ethics. Hume believed that moral judgments express our feelings and that morality was based upon the sympathy we have for our fellow human beings (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.1). If humans possess the proper sentiments, they were moral; if they lack such sympathies, they were immoral. Kant opposed of this view and thought that ethics must be taken from a sense of duty dictated by reason. His view emphasizes the importance of rationality, consistency, impartiality, and respect for persons in the way we live our lives. This approach to ethics is known as deontological as it considers the actions themselves as opposed to the consequences.

Kantian philosophy is complex but, the basic ideas are surprisingly simple. His most basic presupposition was his belief in human freedom. In virtue of being a human being, you have rights, dignity, and intrinsic moral worth/value according to Kant (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.5). These moral rights and duties transcend all societies and all contexts, so Kant’s view doesn’t have the problems of cultural relativism, or individual relativism. He also says that a person is good or bad depending on the motivation of their actions and not on the goodness of the consequences of those actions. One can have moral worth only if they are motivated by morality. In other words, if a person's emotions or desires cause them to do something, then that action cannot give them moral worth. Moral worth only comes when you do something because you know that it is your duty.

Kant described two types of common commands given by reason. The hypothetical imperative, which dictates a given course of action to reach a specific end; and the categorical imperative, which dictates a course of action that must be followed because of its rightness and necessity (Hill, Kant’s Ethical Theory, Slide 5). The categorical imperative has two different formulations which he claims both say the same thing.

The first formulation states 'Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature. (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.9)' This means you are not allowed to do anything yourself that you would not be willing to allow everyone else to do as well. You are not allowed to make exceptions for yourself. For example, if you expect other people to keep their promises, then you are obligated to keep your own promises. The second formulation states, “Act as to treat humanity, both in your own person, and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means” (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.9). This formulation introduces the idea of respect for people. Individuals are not a means to an end, instead they are ends in themselves with their own goals and purposes.

Kant provided a few examples to test the categorical imperative. Consider one example, making a false promise. Can we consistently will the principle, “whenever in need of money make a false promise to get it?” We can’t, since a world where everyone acts according to this maxim would be inconsistent. This is easy to demonstrate. In such a world:

1. False promises would be useful because there would be persons to believe them; and

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2. False promises would not be useful because, in a short time, nobody would believe them.

On the one hand, it would contain the necessary preconditions for false promises to be successful—people to believe our lies—and, on the other hand, the normal and predictable result of universal false promising would be that no lies would be believed. Such a world is not even possible.

The categorical imperative commands actions in two different ways. It specifically forbids or requires certain actions, which are called perfect duties. Some examples of these would be do not lie, do not steal, etc. It also commands that certain general goals be pursued which are called imperfect duties. These include helping others, developing our talents, and treating others with respect. When we universalize a maxim that violates a perfect duty, we will have an inconsistent world. When we universalize a maxim that violates an imperfect duty, we will have an unpleasant world.

Now that we’ve explored the basics of Kantianism, let's compare it to other ethical theories such as Utilitarianism. Though both attempt to answer questions about morality and behavior, the two theories have many fundamental differences. According to Kant, we should look at our intentions. On the other hand, Utilitarian's believe that we should do actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness. The problem with this, however, is that it could involve using people as mere means and may lead to the sacrifice of lives for the greater good. Utilitarianism sometimes involves the sacrifice of an individual’s happiness or life in order to promote the greatest amount of happiness and the least amount of misery (Hill, Utilitarianism PowerPoint, Slide 5).

It is also easier to calculate an action as morally right in Kantian ethics than in utilitarian ethics. Kantian theory offers more precision than utilitarianism because one can generally determine if somebody is being used as a mere means, even if the impact on human happiness is ambiguous. Kantians “consider only the proposals for an action that occur to them and check that these proposals use no other as mere means”. Contrastingly, utilitarianism compares all available acts and sees which has the best effects. Although utilitarianism has a larger scope than Kantianism, it is a timelier process. The decision-making method of calculating all the potential costs and benefits of an action is extremely time consuming and leaves little time for promoting happiness, which is the Utilitarian’s goal.

Another ethical theory that I will contrast to Kantianism is Cultural Relativism. This theory states that every culture’s moral beliefs and rituals are no more true or false, better or worse than anyone else’s. Some of the main problematic consequences include social behaviors that must be understood in their cultural frame and, therefore, can be justified as 'legitimate in their own culture.” This justifies all forms of evil: dehumanization, rape, slavery, genocide, coercion, violence, tyranny, and war. Different people in different contexts need different moral codes. We can’t all have the same moral code because everyone lives in a different world with different demands, expectations, histories, symbols, and problems to overcome.

Another popular ethical theory is the Social Contract Theory. Some believe that social contract is a useful conceptual tool to understand the limits of political power and the scope of human rights. However, the process used in making this claim is seriously flawed. The theory says that morality exists only as the product of social contracts, yet we are left with no basis to assert that a contract or law is immoral (Hill, Social Contract Theory PowerPoint, Slide 7). The scope or breadth of the contract is not clear either, but it usually appears to be thought of as over-arching. In that way, it appears to be nearly, if not completely, identical with Kant's notion of a rational basis for morality. Everyone is essentially playing by the same rules. Social contracts also exclude non-parties from the moral community, thereby leaving out the rights of handicapped people, people in other societies, and animals.

As described above, it evident that, in Kant’s view, duty, good will, and moral worth is the critical aspects in determining ethical decisions taken. In his view, one could only settle on morally worth decisions when guided by goodwill and duty and, therefore, euthanasia is ethically wrong. On the other hand, the central principle of the ethical view is that actions taken should produce happiness and pleasure to a large number of people, and euthanasia is ethically preferable


  1. Hill, C. Ethical Relativism [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Online Web site:
  2. Hill, C. Kant’s Ethical Theory [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Online Web site:
  3. Hill, C. Kantian Ethics [Online book]. Retrieved from Online Web site:
  4. Hill, C. Utilitarianism [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Online Web site:
  5. Hill, C. Social Contract Theory [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Online Web site:
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Utilitarianism, Cultural Relativism, Social Contract Theory And Kantianism As The Ethical Theories. (2021, September 06). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
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