Ethical theory is both simple and complicated — (that’s helpful, right? 🙂 ).
It’s simple because of it’s abstract nature. It seems that if you plug information into the theory, you’ll get an answer concerning what you should do. The problem is the information you plug into the theory… thus, it’s also complicated.
For every theory you evaluate, you should ask yourself a series of questions..
1) What information are you being asked to plug into the theory? Connected to that question is the practical question of whether or not you have ACCESS to that information. A related question is whether or not your information is reliable — as well as the question of whether or not you can (or need to) have a set of objectively ‘true’ set of information.
2) How are you supposed to use that information to make decisions? Is it a matter of adding up happy and sad impacts? Are you supposed to use your abilities to reason to make a conclusion? Are you supposed to make agreements with others based on that information?
3) Is the core thing that’s supposed to be “good” REALLY good — or the best kind of “good”? In one theory you’re supposed to be increasing happiness — but, is that really the best thing to increase? Does it matter if you have good intentions but end up hurting someone? Should you be following laws/rules/norms in a society in which those laws/rules/norms sacrifice one person for the good of others?
4) Does the theory cohere with our own human nature (do we have one in the first place??) — or is it asking us to do something that is going to be impossible, based on our own instincts for self-preservation, protection of those near to us, etc.
5) What would happen if everyone acted this way, in these situations? This is NOT the question of whether or not everyone DOES act that way (this is an irrelevant question, by the way) — but, rather what would the world look like if everyone held this theory as their central value system? Would that be an improvement in the situation, or would it cause problems across the society.
For every ethical theory you evaluate, take these things into consideration — and, in the end understand that very few people just blindly follow one of these theories — as well as the fact that it’s often the case that the core question behind every moral problem may assume one theory or another as an underlying premise, because the data produced by the situation fits more easily into one theory than another — (that doesn’t make it right, it just is…).