12 Principles of Ethics

by Walter Johnson; Updated September 26, 2017

The idea of ethical principles can be taken in two ways: as structural components of ethical theories or as products of ethical theory, that is, ethical behaviors. The concept of “ethical principles” is ambiguous, but understanding it is necessary to comprehend the basic moral theories of the western tradition.

Will and Ego

This is the “moral agent,” the person who is doing the moral action. The will can tend toward the good or toward evil.

The ego is not quite the same as the will. It can be understood as the free principle of action as well as the demanding, self-centered personality so beloved of psychological egoists.


In the Nietzschian theory, the “will” to power means that the superior intellects impose themselves upon the ignorant “herd.” for N. Machiavelli, power is the only real good worth striving for. For both, power can make the bad good and the good bad. People worship the superior and, therefore, the superior get to define what is ethical.

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Important in Greek and Roman ethics, friendship means far more than just “being friends” in the modern sense. Ancient concepts of friendship include civic trust, social unity and political agreement. Friendship, in short, is what maintains any social unity.


Aristotle deals with justice as either the distribution of goods according to merit or the respect given to individuals in society. The former leads to unequal results --since people's merits differ -- the latter, equality among citizens.


Both ancient and modern ethics deal with the concept of the soul, roughly speaking, the center of ego, will and intellect. For Plato and his many followers, the soul must be rightly ordered for both ethical and just relationships to develop. Reason and intellect must dominate both the ego and the will.


Some modern ethical theories begin from the idea of a “social contract.” A society is structured in the way that rational people would agree to before the creation of a society. This “pre-political” agreement -- that is, an agreement before a society is created -- is called a “contract.” Contract can also refer to reciprocity, where people in civil society maintain social peace and trust by carrying out all agreements.

Equality and Universality

In modern ethical theories, equality refers to the equal treatment of persons. This is a rejection of earlier “class” models of society, where people's honor differed according to what class they belonged to. The basic idea of equality is that people matter because they are people, not because they serve a specific function.

Both J.J. Rousseau and Immanuel Kant take universality as the center of all ethical judgment. If an action, to put it simply, cannot be willed as universal law binding on everyone, then it cannot be a moral action.


Grace is another word for the “power” of God. In Christian theology, grace is necessary to achieve blessedness because mankind is inherently fallen and evil.


The nation is the collective personality of a specific people. Just like the individual person, the collective person—the nation—should be sovereign and independent, not the subject of empires, whether political or economic


Labor has gone from a curse to the very center of human life. Labor is not just drudgery but is how man creates himself. Labor has ethical content for this reason.

About the Author

Walter Johnson has more than 20 years experience as a professional writer. After serving in the United Stated Marine Corps for several years, he received his doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska. Focused on economic topics, Johnson reads Russian and has published in journals such as “The Salisbury Review,” "The Constantian" and “The Social Justice Review."

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