The ethical theory that moral judgements are “up to the individual” was based on the concept of self-realisation expounded by among others F.H Bradley (1846 -1924), who claimed that there is a ideal self to which each individual strives to achieve. It is also supported by the existentialist movement which tends to recommend that in matters like ethics the important thing is not what you decide but that you decide. Another theory that to an extent supports this theory is that of “emotivism” as propounded by the British philosopher A.J Ayer (1910 to 1989). Ayer held that Ethical assertions need not be verifiable as they have emotive meaning unlike scientific assertions, which should be independently verifiable.  The American philosopher contended that ethical statements were like imperatives. The Oxford philosopher R.M. Hare formulated a logic of imperatives, a system of espousing good and bad reasoning on an ethical position, which does not determine which is true or false.
Cultural relativism           implies what is right or wrong depends is relative to time and place. This relativism is inspired by several considerations namely:-

  • Firstly it acknowledges that human beliefs and practices varies from one time to another and one place to another.
  • Secondly it is a reaction against the arrogance of one culture over another which claims to have a monopoly of the truth like European nations did to slavery in the heydays of Imperialism in Africa with the Christian missionary enterprise. This being contrary to the act of an ardent Christian like St Paul who instructed a runaway slave to return to his owner unlike slavery being considered wrong in the 21st century in most parts of the world.
  • Third, in the area of ethics, relativism accommodates the fact that there are important moral differences between cultures which are difficult to resolve.

The logic behind this theory is that people from one part of the world or one time in history and another place or time in history are not superior or inferior to another, but simply different. Its primary assertion is that ethic’s is as dynamic as a society and ethical values move with changes in society.
This school of ethical theory contends that the circumstances surrounding a ethical problem makes a difference to the decision that is taken. To the “consequentialist” what is important is not ethical principles but the outcome of the ethical decision. The best known school of thought is Utilitarianism, traditionally the utilitarian holds an action is good as long as they are conductive to the “greatest happiness to the greatest number of people”. Philosophers associated with utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham (1748- 1832) and John Stuart Mills ( 1806 – 1873). Bentham asserts “humankind is subject to two masters pain and pleasure, which govern all we do”. An action is right or wrong depending on whether it harms people by making them suffer pain, whether physical or psychological.  This theory was further refined by G. E. Moore (1873- 1858) who introduced the concept of “ideal utilitarianism” giving greater status to intellectual pleasures. The concept of the law of diminishing marginal utility also comes into play, as the pleasure derived by an increase in pay of Kshs 10,000 to a cashier in a supermarket earning Kshs 20,000 is greater than the same increase to an accountant earning Kshs 200,000 in the same supermarket’s head office.
Religious morality is one school of thought in this family of ethical theory, which asserts that there are indeed actions which are right or wrong, and there are fundamental moral principles which stand true in all time and at all places, as given by a divine law giver, this is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Respect for persons – Kantian ethic’s of duty is another school of thought in this family of ethical theory, however unlike the above the emphasis is not on a divine law giver, but rather on human reason as the arbiter of right or wrong. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 to 1804)  believed that the essence of morality was found in reason, by a process of rational deduction. Kant’s key contribution is the formulation of the categorical imperatives stated as here below:-
First, “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

  • Second, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end”
  • Third, “that all maxims which stem from autonomous legislation ought to harmonize with a possible realm of ends as with a realm of nature. So act as if your maxims should serve at the same time as the universal law “

In principle the third  imperative synthesis the first two imperatives, meaning that we should so act that we may think of ourselves as “a member in the universal realm of  ends “ legislating  universal laws through our maxims (that is, a code of conduct), in a “possible realm of ends”. None may elevate themselves above the universal law, therefore it is one’s duty to follow the maxims.
NB: Kant’s theory has its roots in the philosophy of Aristotle (384 -322 BCE) who defined humans as rational animals and the French renaissance philosopher  Descartes (1596- 1650) who stated “I think, therefore I am”, he contended that humankind was distinguished from the animal kingdom because of the powers of reason.
The ethical theory that acknowledges the supremacy of rights is the “natural law theory”, its asserts rights rather than duty are primordial in determining ethical action. Duties can only be defined in terms of rights e.g. my right to property generates your duty not steal it or the public’s/stakeholders right to information generates the government’s or corporate entity’s duty to tell us the truth in its stewardship reporting responsibilities.
The most important philosopher to propound this theory was John Locke (1632-1704), he asserts “To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” Locke identifies two principle rights one the right to freedom to act and secondly the right to property including intellectual property, copyright and patent rights and property of one’s person.