Ethics Terms

Many of these terms are commonly used in the Defence Ethics Programme (DEP). This list also contains some technical terms that are important in applied ethics but are not commonly used in Defence or the Canadian government environment. The more technical definitions in the field of ethics are flagged by an asterisk (*).


Care Based Ethics

A care-based approach to ethics gives priority to the humane treatment that we are all owed as human beings while emphasizing the relationship dimension of human interaction . It also stresses the need to factor into ethical decision making the inequalities in power that are present in relationships in both the private and the public spheres of life. (See Ethics of Care*)

Competing Values Dilemma

The competing values dilemma represents a special case of an ethical dilemma and involves a situation in which two or more ethical values support competing options in an ethical decision making situation. For example, options involving loyalty to others compete with options involving professional integrity.

Compliance Ethics Programme

A compliance ethics Programme has at its core a rule-based ethics and represents a legalistic approach to ethics. This type of programme tends to develop elaborate and comprehensive codes designed to deal with as many situations as possible and emphasizes compliance with rules. It shows a preference for rules, regulations and policies as a means of encouraging ethical behaviour. It is the dominant approach adopted by the United States government through its Ethics in Government Act. (See Deontology*)

Consequence-Based Ethics

A consequence-based approach to ethics gives priority to the value we attach to the results of actions. It emphasizes that the effects of our actions on ourselves and others tend to play an overriding role in ethical decision-making. It claims that we should assess the probable good and bad effects of the different options open to us in a situation and use these assessments as the basis for deciding what should or should not be done. (See Utilitarianism*)

Cultural Relativism*

Cultural relativists appeal to anthropological data indicating that moral rightness and wrongness vary from place to place. They maintain that the concepts of rightness and wrongness are contingent on cultural beliefs and that these concepts are meaningless apart from the specific context in which they arise. They claim that patterns of culture can only be understood as unique wholes and that moral beliefs about normal behavior are closely connected in a culture. As a result, there are no absolute or universal moral standards that could apply to all persons at all times. For the cultural relativist, a moral standard is simply a cultural product. (T. Beauchamp)



The term derives from the Greek word for duty, deon . Deontology involves a ny ethical system that centers on duty (e.g., truth telling, promise-keeping) to assess the ethical values of action, as contrasted with ethical theories that appeal to a good end (See Utilitarianism*) or right character (See Virtue ethics* ).

Any position in ethics which claims that the rightness or wrongness of actions depend on whether they correspond to our duty or not. (Hinman)

Ethical systems that consider certain features in the moral act itself to have intrinsic value. For example, for the deontologist, there is something right about truth telling, even when it may cause pain or harm, and there is something wrong about lying, even when it may produce good consequences. (Pojman)

DEP Ethical Decision-Making Model

The DEP ethical decision-making model divides decision making into four stages: recognition, judgement, intent to act, and behaviour. It identifies five categories of factors that can be measured and that have been shown to influence ethical decision making: individual values, individual ethical approaches, organizational ethical climate, situational intensity, and individual moral development. The model was developed by the Defence Ethics Programme with the assistance of academic experts after an extensive review of the literature. It serves as the basis for a periodic CF and DND wide survey.

Doctrine of Double Effect*

The doctrine holds that there is a morally relevant difference between intending evil and foreseeing that it will occur as an unintended side effect of morally permissible acts.

Its purpose is to justify an action having good results but also having potentially harmful effects. (Pojman)

The United States seems to have adopted a modification to the doctrine of double effect so that one may undertake military operations aimed at legitimate objectives or targets even though the operations will also have foreseeable “bad” consequences. Such operations become permissible when they meet the following necessary criteria:

  1. the bad effect is unintended;
  2. the bad effect is proportional to the desired military objective;
  3. the bad effect is not a direct means to the good effect (e.g., bomb cities to encourage peace talks);
  4. actions are taken to minimize the foreseeable bad effects even if it means accepting an increase risk to combatants.



Ethical Decision-Making

In the social and management sciences, ethical decision-making is treated as a decision making process that includes ethical factors and gives them an overriding or constraining role in all situations requiring decision and action. A basic decision making process is considered to have a minimum of four stages:

  1. recognition,
  2. judgement,
  3. intention to act and
  4. action.

(See DEP Ethical Decision-Making Model)

Ethical Dilemma

A dilemma is a problematic situation for which there are two or more possible options to resolve it, but where each of the options is considered either equally valid and desirable or equally undesirable. In addition, there does not seem to be any other criteria available for choosing between the options. It is useful to distinguish between three types of ethical dilemmas:

  1. the uncertainty dilemma,
  2. the competing values dilemma, and
  3. the harm dilemma


Ethics in the Defence Ethics Programme is described as being concerned with:

  1. determining right and wrong;
  2. defining the principles and obligations that govern right action and practices of individuals and institutions in society;
  3. being a person of integrity; and
  4. choosing to do what is right.

The main approaches to ethics today that are included in the DEP are: care based, consequence based, rule based, self-interest based, virtue based, and a multiple-approach basis.

Ethics is a discipline that is long in tradition and rich in variety. Its development in Western civilization has been subject to two main influences over the millennia: the Greek tradition focusing on the “good life” and Judeo-Christian tradition stressing “doing what is right”. These two traditions in combination with historical and cultural factors have produced a multiplicity of ethical systems. In general, the discipline of ethics involves:

  1. establishing the validity of an ideal of human character to be achieved, ultimate goals to be striven for, and norms and standards for governing behaviour;
  2. analyzing and explaining moral judgements and behaviour;
  3. investigating and clarifying the meanings of moral terms and statements

(Denise, White, Peterfreund)

Ethics of Care*

An ethics of care has its roots in the work of feminist moral philosophers and, in particular, has been strongly influenced by the work of Carol Gilligan on moral development. It emphasizes the relational dimension of our lives and gives priority to the humane treatment that we are all owed as human beings. An ethics of care focuses on our responsibility for the well-being of others and ourselves and is keenly aware of the inequalities of power that are present in virtually all relationships. It places a premium on security from danger and harm. It is contrasted with a morality of justice emphasizing fairness and equality, which proponents of the approach claim is a dominant characteristic of ethical theories developed by male philosophers throughout the history of western civilization. It is only recently that an ethics of care has become a widely used basis for ethics in western societies. (Hinman; Ch. 10 contains an interview with Carol Gilligan talking about voice and ethical theory and a detailed “Bibliographical Essay” on the ethics of care and feminist moral theory.)


Ethos can be described as the “characteristic spirit and beliefs of community, people, system, literary work, or person”. Ethics is at the heart of this spirit and represents a core subset of the beliefs. (See Military ethos)


Harm Dilemma

The harm dilemma represents a special case of an ethical dilemma and involves a situation in which every available option worked out in an ethical decision making situation will cause harm or injury. For example, in military operations involving destruction of strategic points, it is often inevitable to cause collateral damages. The doctrine of double effect* has been used at times to justify morally taking action based on one of the options.


Military Ethos

The military ethos embodies the spirit that binds the military profession together. It is a living spirit that finds its full expression through the conduct of members of the profession of arms. It clarifies how members view their responsibilities, apply their expertise, and how they express their unique military identity. It establishes an ethical framework for the professional conduct of all activities and military operations.

The uniquely Canadian military ethos is made up of three fundamental components: beliefs and expectations about military service; Canadian values; and Canadian military values. It affirms core notions of military service: unlimited liability, fighting spirit, discipline and teamwork. It reflects that the legitimacy of the profession of arms in Canada requires that it embody the same values and beliefs as the society it defends and that the values of the profession must be in harmony with the values of that society. It defines the subordination of the armed forces to civilian control and the rule of law. Finally, the ethos places a special emphasis on the Canadian military values of duty, loyalty, integrity, and courage.

Ultimately, it is the military ethos, incorporating fundamental Canadian values, that differentiates a member of the Canadian profession of arms from ill-disciplined irregulars, mercenaries or members of another armed force that lacks defining values. (Chapters 1-2, Duty with honour . Ch. 2 contains a full and detailed articulation of the military ethos.)

Multiple-Approach to Ethics

See Pluralist approach to ethics. The DEP has used the expression ‘multiple-approach' and the literature tends to use ‘pluralist approach'.



The belief that there are multiple perspectives on an issue, each of which contains part of the truth but none of which contain the whole truth. In ethics, moral pluralism is the belief that different moral theories each capture part of the truth of the moral life, but none of those theories has the entire answer. For example, an ethics of character [See Virtue ethics*] must be completed by an ethics of action [See Deontology* and Utilitarianism*]. For example, although we may possess the virtue of compassion, we must both take into account the consequences of our compassionate actions and treat other persons as ends in themselves when we exercise that virtue. On the other hand, an ethics of action must also be completed by an ethics of character. For example, a person with good character will not apply moral principles mechanically but will be sensitive to the nuances of the situation. He or she will have developed a practical understanding of life that allows one to balance the potentially competing concerns about rights, duty, and consequences. (Hinman)

Pluralist Approach to Ethics

A pluralist approach to ethics acknowledges the reasonableness of a multiplicity of approaches to ethics but does not give priority to any one of them. It treats the different approaches to ethics as a network of checks and balances that may or may not be in agreement. A pluralist approach to ethics argues that in some situations all approaches to ethics may agree on the right course of action – for example, all would agree that the torture of innocent children for fun is wrong. However, in other situations, individuals must either individually or in a group work out the best approach to decide what they should or should not do. Thus, in this perspective, disagreement may lead to a more innovative way of dealing with a situation. A pluralist approach to ethical decision making allows us to draw on one or a combination of approaches to ethics: care based, consequence based, rule based, self-interest based, and virtue based (See Pluralism*).

Positivism (Legal Positivism)*

Intending to oppose natural law theory, legal positivism denies any necessary “connection between law and morality”. Some of its central theses among a loose cluster are:

  1. law is definable and explainable without moral and evaluative predicates or presuppositions;
  2. the law (for example, of England today) is identifiable from exclusively factual sources (e.g. legislation, judicial precedence).

Most versions understand positive law as products of human will. Some versions of logical positivism will go as far as to deny that there is knowable moral truth. (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

Preventative Ethics Programme

A preventative ethics programme adopts a two-prong approach to ethics: it combines a strong rules based component with a related values based component. Typically, a preventative programme begins by identifying areas of organizational practice that are considered to be exposed to high risks of non-compliance: for example, practices exposed to fraud. To encourage ethical behaviour, the programme emphasizes the importance both of the rules, regulations and policies governing those practices and of the related ethical values. A preventative approach served as the basis for the Australian Department of Defence's original Defence Ethics and Fraud Awareness Campaign (DEFAC) in 1991.

Prima Facie*

The phrase derives from the Latin meaning “at first glance”. When used in the discussion of an idea or a principle, it will imply that the idea or principle should be accepted as valid until something leads us to reject it or to limit its scope.

In ethics, this phrase is usually associated with the concept of duty. A prima facie duty has an initial presumption of obligation in its favour. It is a duty that is considered binding but may, upon closer inspection, turn out to be overridden by other stronger duties given a set of particular circumstances. (Hinman; Pojman)

Professional Ethic

The foundation of a professional ethic rests on a profession's existing traditions and values. Ethics tends to be understood in terms of the practices already present within the profession and of the attitudes, reasoning, and actions of its members. Although a professional ethic is open to change to address new issues, it tends to require that the profession's existing approach to ethics be the framework for all change. It typically includes formal and informal codes expressing rules and standards governing the conduct of members of a professional group: formal codes are written down and published in some form and informal codes are perpetuated through training and example.



Rights are entitlements to do something without interference from other people (negative rights) or entitlements that obligate others to do something positive to assist you (positive rights). Some rights (natural rights, human rights) belong to everyone by nature or simply by virtue of being human; some rights (legal rights) belong to people by virtue of their membership in a particular political state; other rights (moral rights) are based in acceptance of a particular moral theory. (Hinman)

A right is an entitlement to do, to demand, to enjoy, to be, to have done for us. Rights may be rights to act, to exist, to enjoy, to demand. We speak of rights as being possessed, exercised, and enjoyed. We also speak of our rights as being rights to – as in the rights to life, liberty and happiness – not as rights against , as has so often mistakenly been claimed. (T. Beauchamp)

In their strongest sense, rights are justified claims to the protection of persons' important interests. When the rights are effective, this protection is provided as something that is owed to persons for their own sakes. The upholding of rights is thus essential for human dignity. (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

Rule-Based Ethics

A rule based approach to ethics gives priority to rules, regulations and policies as a means of determining ethical behaviour. It assesses the right thing to do in a situation by checking for a rule that addresses or covers the situation. The law is considered an absolute in determining what should or should not be done. A rule-based ethics will prefer programmes that develop elaborate and comprehensive codes designed to deal with as many situations as possible and emphasizes compliance with rules. It. (See II – Deontology* and Utilitarianism*)


Self-Interest Based Ethics

A self-interest approach to ethics stresses the importance of valuing ourselves and of self-respect. However, this approach adopts a more radical stance when it gives priority to the individual from the point of view of the individual's own interest. A self-interest based ethics advises individuals to be primarily concerned with how the outcome of a particular decision might affect them personally.


Uncertainty Dilemma

The uncertainty dilemma represents the most general type of ethical dilemma. It refers to a problematic situation where doing what is right is not clear because there are equally valid reasons in support of the best two or more options worked out to resolve the situation.


Utilitarianism is an approach to morality that treats pleasure or desire-satisfaction as the sole element in human good and that regards the morality of actions as entirely dependent on consequences or results for human (or sentient) well-being. (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

The theory that the right action is one that maximizes utility. Sometimes utility is defined in terms of pleasure (Jeremy Bentham), happiness (J.S. Mill), ideals (G.E. Moore and H. Rashdall), or interests (R.B. Perry). Its motto, which characterizes one version of utilitarianism, is “The greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Utilitarian further divide into act- and rule–utilitarian. Act-utilitarians hold that the right act in a situation is one that results (or is most likely to result) in the best consequences, whereas rule-utilitarians hold that the right act is one that conforms to the set of rules that on the whole will result in the best consequences (as compared with other sets of rules). (Pojman)



Values are rooted in our culture and ways of life. They are part of the foundation upon which moral reasoning is based and serve as guides for decisions and actions. Some authors define them as enduring beliefs about what is considered to have important worth. They draw a useful distinction between values as means to obtaining something of worth (an instrument to an end) and values as something that is good in itself.

Values Based Ethics Programme

Values based ethics programmes adopt a comprehensive approach to ethics: they combine a comprehensive values based component with a related rules based component. They tend to stress the principles and attitudes that support ethics in the institution, while acknowledging the importance of the regulations, rules, and policies that are meant to constrain discretionary judgement in specific situations. These programmes tend to advocate transparency and usually state publicly the set of values by which they propose to operate and by which they accept to be judged. A values based approach has been adopted by the Canadian Federal government and is the basis for the Defence Ethics Programme.

Virtue Ethics*

One of the features of the concept of virtue is that it always requires some account of certain features of social and moral life in terms of which it has to be defined and explained. For example, virtue may be defined in terms of social roles or in terms of the good life conceived as the goal of human action. (MacIntyre)

A theory of virtue ethics was first put forward by Aristotle as aretaic ethics. Arete is from the Greek and means “goodness” [of function], “excellence” [of function] or “virtue”. For Aristotle, the individual is essentially a member of a social unit and a moral virtue is a habit of behaviour, a trait of character that is both socially and morally valued. (T. Beauchamp)

For Aristotle, the basis of ethical assessment is character. Rather than concentrating on the ethics of actions or duties, his understanding of ethics focuses on the character and dispositions of the agent. Aretaic ethics emphasizes being a certain type of person who will manifest who she or he is in appropriate actions. (Pojman)

Virtue Based Ethics

A virtue based approach to ethics gives priority to living a good life and to achieving excellence. In as much as it requires ethical decision making be based on what we achieve in life, a virtue-based approach has affinities with consequence-based ethics. However, rather than attach value to the results of actions, as does a consequence-based ethics, a virtue based approach focuses on the life-long goal to be achieved – being a person of good character. It starts with the idea that a person of good character will strive to do the right thing. Some of the virtues possessed by such a person are integrity, courage, compassion, and a sense of justice. (See Virtue Ethics*)


These definitions are based mostly on sources from the literature in the field of ethics. The following sources were particularly useful in producing the definitions:

  • Beauchamp, Tom L. Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy
  • Canto-Sperber, Monique. Dictionnaire d'éthique et de philosophie morale
  • Denise, Theodore, Nicholas White, Sheldon Peterfreund. Great Traditions in Ethics
  • Hinman, Lawrence. Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory
  • Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
  • Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Conceptual Foundations. (Canadian Forces Leadership Institute)
  • Pojman, Louis P. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong
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