Key ethics ideas

Key ethics ideas

These key ethics ideas will help you to understand theory of knowledge, and produce a powerful TOK essay and presentation. You should try to the terms as much as possible, and ideally link them to key TOK thinkers.


Absolutism means viewing actions or moral decisions as being inherently right or wrong within themselves. This is opposed to consequentialism or utilitarianism, which calculates the morality of an action via its outcomes. For example, stealing for an absolutist is always morally unacceptable, as it is deemed intrinsically wrong. For the consequentialist, on the other hand, it can be morally permissible if it leads to a positive outcome – for example, a starving family surviving because they took food illegally.


Altruism is the act of helping someone or something in a completely disinterested or selfless way – in other words, without expecting any kind of reward for what you are doing. It is possible to argue that altruism does not exist, because even when we do not expect to be repaid, we still experience a positive feeling of having carried out a ‘good deed’, so it can be argued that we acted in self-interest, rather than the interests of someone else.

Categorical imperative

The categorical imperative was one of the central idea of Immanuel Kant on moral philosophy. Rather than assessing the merit of an action via its outcome, Kant believed an action was inherently right or wrong within itself. This idea is known as a deontological approach to ethics (see below). Once the inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of an action was calculated, what follows in the obligation to carry out (or sometimes not carry out) that action. This obligation, for Kant, was absolutely binding – hence the term ‘categorical’. An example would be telling the truth. For Kant, any lie, no matter how benign or ‘white’, was inherently wrong, so whatever the situation, he believed that to tell the truth was a categorical imperative.


Consequentialism is an approach to ethics that is distinct from deontologicalism in that moral decisions and actions are judged by looking at their outcomes, rather than any inherent moral quality in themselves. In other words, the ends justify (or not) the means – an action can be taken that may bring about harm, but its ultimate results may overshadow that, and make it acceptable.


Deontologicalism, is a form of absolutism that was developed by Immanuel Kant. By adding the ‘categorical imperative’ (see above) to the idea of absolutism, he stressed the idea of duty when it comes to moral actions – it’s not enough merely to be aware of whether something is wrong or right, you have to act on that, and do so over a lifetime. One example, mentioned above, was the issue of lying. Is it ever morally responsible to lie – such as, perhaps, when we are given a gift we dislike, are asked our opinion about something that means far less to us than to the person asking, or we draw on euphemisms to ease the impact of a grandparent who has died? Or should we simply say that lying is always wrong, and always avoid doing so?

Descriptive/comparative ethics

Descriptive, or comparative, ethics is the study of people’s moral behaviour, without making any kind of judgement. It is therefore one of the central strands of anthropology, which studies the behaviour of people in cultures all around the world. A descriptive question in ethics might be, ‘how do people behave?’


Egoism is an ethical belief that we should behave only according to what suits our own self-interest. It is therefore in direct contrast with the idea of altruism. There are differences of opinion on how far this should go, but most believers in ethical egoism do not believe the well-being of others should be harmed by actions taken.

Golden Rule

The Golden Rule of ethics is that you should treat other people as you wish to be treated yourself. It is referred to as ‘golden’ because it is the foundation point of how almost every society works around the world, and is very hard to refute. It is similar to the concept of reciprocity, and is sometimes called the ‘law of reciprocity’.


Morality, the principles that govern what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, forms the subject matter of ethics. Although the two words are used interchangeably, they do not mean the same – much in the same way that ‘the past’ is not the same as ‘history’.


Nihilism is essentially the belief in nothing – that life has no meaning, that values are worthless, that we can know nothing for certain, that existence itself may not even be real. Ethical nihilists believe that morality does not exist, and any study of it is pointless.

Normative/Prescriptive Ethics

In contrast to descriptive ethics, normative (or prescriptive) ethics is the study of action, rather than just decision. A normative question in ethics might be, ‘how should people behave?’


Reciprocity forms the basis of most ethical systems in societies around the world, and basically mean that you give back to others what they give to you. This is an arrangement that can obviously be applied to other areas of knowledge (particularly in the human sciences) as well as ethics.


In contrast to universalism, being a moral relativist means you believe that assessing ethical issues and viewpoints is dependent on the cultural (or historical) norms of a particular society. In other words, what is right in our culture (dressing in a certain way, how we treat convicted criminals, abortion rights, sex before marriage – or not) may not be right in another culture, or vice versa. Relativism means that although different modes of behaviour and ways of viewing the world may be tolerated and respected, is also becomes hard to arrive at any definitive judgements and viewpoints about what is right and wrong.


Moral universalism is the idea that morality is not dependent on culture, time, or the other variables that form the basis of moral relativism. Choices, decisions, actions, and beliefs are therefore ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ regardless of whether they form part of a country’s traditions or religious framework. The implications of this, of course, is that ethical systems are based on objective knowledge, as suggested by Sam Harris in his TED talk on using a scientific approach to understand moral problems. Perhaps the most important document outlying a universal approach to ethics and the treatment of other people is the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


Utilitarianism is a particular type of consequentialism in which the outcomes of an action or position are calculated in a structured way in order to arrive at an answer on whether something is ethically acceptable. The word ‘utility’ was defined by Jeremy Bentham, the idea’s first proponent, as “the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.” This was added to later by John Stuart Mill, who assessed utility via quality as well as quantity of pleasure. Stuart Mill had a massive and wide impact on 19th century society, helping to pioneer the application of the scientific method in the human sciences, and move forward the struggle for female suffrage.