Philosophical Foundations of Ethics

Immanuel Kant (2003) viewed ethics as a matter of duty or obligation. Kant explains categorical imperatives as moral laws which must always be followed, even at one’s own peril. He argues that humans are inclined to give in to pleasure and break moral law, but that “when they do obey the the law, they do it reluctantly (in the face of opposition from their inclinations)” (p. 145). Sussman (2009) asserts that Kant’s unfaltering position on lying is a prime example of these moral imperatives, “by a lie a human being throws away and annihilates his dignity as a human being” (Kant in Sussman, 2009, p. 225). Kant infamously argued that it is not even morally permissible to lie to an assassin to conceal the whereabouts of the intended victim.

Golden Mean

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) coined a philosophical principle known as the golden mean.  The golden mean is the desired middle ground one takes between two extremes.  For example, someone who is courageous is neither reckless nor cowardly.  Confucius (551-479 B.C.) also proposed a similar concept known today as the golden rule: do unto others as you’d have done to you.

Ethics of Care

Nel Noddings (1995) also focuses heavily on the importance of duty. She positions the concept of relational ethics as an obligation to be caring and compassionate to others even when we may not want to. Noddings reasons that ‘nurturing caring’ is motivated by feeling, but “In ethical caring, this feeling is subdued, and so it must be augmented by a feeling of our own ethical selves” (p. 138). She points out that reflection is essential in finding the correct path to caring. The carer must “be engrossed in the cared-for, and the cared-for must receive the carer’s efforts at caring” (p. 140). Noddings warns that the carer should be always on the lookout for potential suffering, even when it is not readily apparent.


Modern utilitarianism originated from British philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). They suggest individuals seek the greatest happiness for the aggregate whole. We determine right from wrong by what will yield the best consequences for the greatest good, preventing pain and promoting pleasure. However, later utilitarians expanded this ideology, noting that other values besides happiness possess intrinsic worth, such as friendship, health, knowledge, etc. Therefore, determining right and wrong is not simply through perceived happiness, it is assessed in terms of the total amount of value produced.

Veil of Ignorance

The veil of ignorance is a filter that ultimately leads to constructing fair and impartial decision making.  John Rawls (1971) asserted that for people to make decisions that are fair to all parties involved, individuals would need to wear a veil of ignorance which attempts to remove all personal bias, alliances, and assumptions before decisions can be made.  Basic facts about how the world functions are still retained, but the person needs to step outside of his or herself to make decisions without past influence.

In his book, A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls discussed the notion of fairness and justice. He argued that all individuals should operate suspended behind a veil of ignorance. In other words, race, gender, and ethnicity are disregarded when making ethical decisions, and all are considered equal. Today, this ethical principle can be applied to celebrities publicized or harassed in the news media. The media has been criticized for overly exposing celebrities as a result of their social status and fame. By not practicing this principle, the media may report on events around the world with biases imbedded in cultural and social beliefs. Therefore, practicing this philosophical view is intended to protect the weaker party and minimize risks.


Developed by Immanuel Kant, duty is the concept that there are universal and absolute principles which apply to all people in all circumstances, regardless of consequences.