Group of Jain nuns. They attach white cloths over their mouths so as to not accidentally inhale an insect.  Photo: Arjunstc–Arjun

Group of Jain nuns. They attach white cloths over their mouths so as to not accidentally inhale an insect. Photo: Arjunstc–Arjun


This TOK class will be one of those rare times when lecture discussion will be order of the day. It is important to provide TOK students with some formal language and at least a brief introduction to some of the theoretical frames that have arisen over the centuries to make sense of ethical conundrums.

I entice students shamelessly by emphasizing it is "naive in the extreme, and grading suicide" to attempt a final TOK essay, with an ethically-themed prescribed title, in the absence of three or four conventional ethical frames.

Since the
Vera Drake: saint or serial killer written assignment is looming; and will require some 1200 words of students' best efforts at sophisticated ethical analysis, I usually have their initial attention. The fact is that students usually care passionately about ethical matters. The spontaneous discussion around the theoretical frames often gets very lively.


Mention to students that they have already encountered Exorcising cultural relativism in Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and, of course, The Seven Deadly Sins was thinly disguised virtue ethics.  As always the role of Intuition in ethics is a worthy application of our in-depth exploration of this enigmatic Way of Knowing. So, three down out of seven already... We are ready to go!

Pdf. of the seven ethical frames

No single theoretical approach to a complex ethical scenario seems to suffice. When tackling analytical writing in the ethical realm, it is worth unpacking the situation utilizing several of the following, sometimes overlapping, approaches:

1. DEONTOLOGICAL: Based on obeying rules. Involves obligation and duty. 

Golden Rule
Hippocratic Oath
Obey the Rule of Law
Don't lie
Pay Parking tickets
Don't marry your brother or sister

Eat kosher

Kant's Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, Will that it should become a Universal Law"  This is very strict. A Categorical Imperative is an absolute, inescapable, rational, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and all times. 

2. UTILITARIAN: Based on the cold Consequences and discerning resulting benefits or harm. The "greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number" appears seductive; but it can sometimes entail dire consequences for individual victims.  Happiness, especially in an entire population, is not exactly easy to measure! 

3. INTENTIONALITY: In apportioning blame or responsibility, intention comes into play. But there is a difference between unlucky, unforeseen consequences and negative outcomes that the result of irresponsible choices that entail a high chance of perfectly foreseeable bad consequences.  And it also works the other way... If it is your general inclination or personality disposition to do the right thing; without dilemma or moral struggle, can you take any credit for an ethical decision?

4. VIRTUE ETHICS: Based on positive character traits such as honesty, compassion and generosity. Aristotle had a compelling take on this with his "Golden Mean." For example: the virtue of Courage lies between vices of fear and recklessness. 

5. INTUITION: Based on a powerful personal feeling that can instantly appear in the moment and may defy formal explanation

6. RELATIVISM: The same action may be right in one cultural setting and very wrong in another. 

7. VEIL OF IGNORANCE: A thought experiment that can serve justice. (This ethical frame, of course) also could be placed in the Human Sciences Area of Knowledge.)

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance.

Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. 

Here are two very rewarding videos on the Veil of Ignorance. The first outlines Rawls' thought experiment and its application in measured fashion with some delightful political collage. (A smug looking cut-out of a pre-presidential Donald Trump pops up.) The second video is a short and satisfying, quick-fire summary.