The Structure of Ethical Theories

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Followup ToAn Introduction To Ethical Theories
See Also: Shelly Kagan (1994). The Structure of Normative Ethics
Content Summary: 700 words, 7 min read

Are Ethical Theories Incompatible?

Last time, we introduced five major ethical theories:

Ethical Theories- Summary

At first glance, we might consider these theories as rivals competing for the status of a ground for morality. However, when discussing these theories, one has a distinct sense that they are simple addressing different concerns.

Perhaps these theories are compatible with one another. But it is hard to see how, because we lack a map of the major conceptual regions of normative ethics, and how they relate to one another.

Let’s try to construct such a map.

Identifying Morally Relevant Factors

There are two major activities in the philosophical discourse about normative ethics: factorial analysis, and foundational theories.

Factorial analysis involves getting clear on which variables affect in our moral judgments. This is the goal of moral thought experiments. By constructing maps from situations to moral judgment, we seek to understand situational factors that contribute to (and compete for control over) our final moral appraisals.

We can discern four categories of factors which bear on moral judgments: Goodness of Outcome, General Constraints, Special Obligations, and Options. We might call these categories factorial genres. Here are some example factors from each genre.

Ethics Taxonomy- Morally Relevant Factors (1)

While conducting factorial analysis, we typically ask questions about:

  1. Relative Strength. Does Don’t Harm always outweigh factors related to outcome?
  2. Explanatory Parsimony. Is Keep Your Promises redundant with Don’t Be Unfair?
  3. Subfactor Elaboration. What does Maximize Overall Happiness mean, exactly?

Constructing Foundational Theories

A foundational mechanism is a conceptual apparatus designed to generate the right set of morally relevant factors. An example of such a theory is contractarianism, which roughly states that:

Morally relevant factors are those which would be agreed to by a social community, if they were placed in an Original Position (imagine you are designing a social community from scratch), and subject to the Veil of Ignorance (you don’t know the details of what your particular role will be).

Thus, our two philosophic activities relate as follows:

Ethical Structure- Factors vs Foundations (2)

These two activities are fueled by different sets of intuitions.

  • Factorial intuitions are identified by appeal to concrete ethical dilemmas.
  • Foundational intuitions are often related to one’s metaethical dispositions.

Let us examine other accounts of foundational mechanisms. These claim that we should accept only morally relevant factors that…

  • …if everyone followed such rules, total well-being would be maximized (rule utilitarianism).
  •  … if the factor was universalized, became like a law of nature, no contradictions would emerge (Kantian universalization).
  • … can be attributed to a being acting purely in self-interest (egoism).

Localizing Ethical Theories in our Map

We can now use this scheme to better understand the space of ethical theories.

Proposition 1. Ethical theories can be decomposed into their foundational and factorial components.

Three of our five ethical theories have the following decomposition:

Ethical Structure- Deconstructing Ethical Theories (1)

Proposition 2. Factorial pluralism is compatible with foundational monism.

Certain flavors of consequentialists, deontologists, consequentialists insist on factorial monism, that only one kind of moral factor really matters.

But as a descriptive matter, it seems that human morality is sensitive to many different kinds of factors. Outcome valence, action constraint, role-based obligations all seem to play in real moral decisions.

Factorial monism has the unpleasant implication of demonstrating some of these factors as misguided. But philosophers are perfectly free to affirm factorial pluralism: that each intuition “genre” are prescriptively justified.

Some examples of one foundational device generating a plurality of genres:

  1. Rule Utilitarianism (rules that maximize societal well-being) could easily generate rules to keep one’s promises.
  2. Kantian Universalization might generate outcome-sensitive moral factors that are immune to contradiction.
  3. People in the Original Position might enter into a contract of general constraints (e.g., human rights).


Are ethical theories truly competitors? One might suspect that the answer is no. Ethical theories seem to address different concerns.

We can give flesh to this intuition by analyzing the structure of ethical theories. They can be decomposed into two parts: factorial analysis, and foundational mechanisms.

  • Factorial analysis provide the list of factors relevant to moral judgments.
  • Foundational mechanisms are hypothesized to generate these moral factors.

Ethical Structure- Factors vs Foundations (2)

Most defenses of foundational mechanisms have them generating a single factorial genre. However, it is possible to endorse factorial pluralism. There is nothing incoherent in the view that e.g., both event outcome and general constraints bear on morality.

This taxonomy allows us to contrast ethical theories in a new way. Utilitarianism can be seen as a theory about the normative factors, contractarianism is a foundational mechanism. Far from being rival views, one could in fact endorse both!