Ethical theory is an attempt to define morals and behavior necessary to live a quality life. Ethical theories try to give general rules to give answer to what is right and how to make decisions with ‘right’ or ‘good’ in mind. As with most things when generalizing, it is difficult to formulate a theory that can apply to every situation an individual may come across in life.
Ethical theories are necessary to act ethically. Ethical behavior is subjective based on individual perspective. Taking a life is unethical to most of the world. Some cultures believe in sacrificing animals and/or individuals for the sake of their beliefs. One ethical theory would say no taking of life is acceptable. Other ethical theory would say taking a life in the form of ritual sacrifice is okay. Is either wrong? Is either right?
Ethical theories can be formal and informal. Some are given names like Hedonism, Utilitarianism, Deontology, etc. but most people live generally ethical lives based on informal ethical theories. An individuals ethical theory is comprised of beliefs formed while growing up, laws existing in the region an individual lives, and facts learned from life experiences.
Ethical theories whether formal or informal are necessary to attempt to form a unified definition of right and wrong in a society and culture. That said there has yet to be an ethical theory formed to encompass all peoples and possible situations equally.
The difficulty of generalizing human behavior is found in the ethical theories Utilitarianism and Deontology. Utilitarianism states that an action resulting in good is essentially good without regard for intention. This means an action resulting from bad is unwaveringly bad. This gives a quick an easy way to judge actions as good or bad but not fairly so. If a Taxi driver takes a shortcut to get a passenger to her destination faster and abides all laws but runs over a pedestrian who unexpectedly runs into the road is the taxi driver a murderer?
Deontology suggests the opposite of Utilitarianism. It is the theory that an action with good intentions resulting in negative results is still a good action or the reverse where bad intentions with good results are still bad. In simple situations this seem s a fitting theory. When more complex situations arise the theory does not hold. Like with Utilitarianism there are too many unpredictable events that can alter planned actions to cause unforeseen results.
Ultimately ethical theories are something worth contemplating as until your ask yourself its easy to simply assume ethics are solid. In life things are not black and white. There is quite a bit of shade variation.
I am reminded of a situation I heard of in a psych course I took. A man’s wife is dying of a curable disease. Unfortunately they do not have health insurance and can not afford the medicine. The antidote available is locked in a doctors office. The man breaks into the doctors office and steal the medicine. The mans wife lives. The man goes to jail. Was the man wrong to break into the doctors office? Was the doctors office wrong to withhold a cure from a sick woman? Should the man be sent to jail? Should the woman be charged as a criminal? All valid questions and all answered differently depending on your own ethical conviction or theory.