Ethical frameworks

In carrying out your project, you will almost certainly not intend to do anything so obviously wrong as lying or stealing. But there will probably be ethical issues, and you will need to think about how to address them

Identifying the rights and wrongs of a particular course of action, even involving an ‘obvious’ example such as telling lies or stealing, is often far from straightforward. When tackling ethical questions, it can be very helpful to have some thinking tools at your disposal – ways of reasoning known as ethical frameworks. Professional ethicists have identified and described several ethical frameworks, and here we describe three of the most commonly used.


One way to decide whether an action is right or wrong is to consider what the consequences might be. This approach to ethical issues is called consequentialism. According to this way of thinking, an action is right if it leads to a good outcome, even if there might be other reasons for thinking that the action could be wrong. This does raise the question of what we mean by a ‘good’ outcome. The form of consequentialism known as utilitarianism answers this by saying that the best action is one that leads to the greatest amount of happiness and the smallest amount of unhappiness. Using a utilitarian approach, each situation and possible course of action has to be considered afresh; there are no absolute rules. If you asked a utilitarian ‘Is it wrong to lie?’ the answer would probably be ‘It depends…’ If telling a particular lie led to an overall increase in happiness then it would be OK, but if it led to greater unhappiness then it would be wrong.

Rights and duties

Another approach to ethics uses the idea of rights and duties. The starting-point here is that people have certain rights, for example the rights set out in the Constitution of the USA or in various documents produced by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Political discussions often refer to ‘rights’ when debating whether particular legislation should be introduced or changed. An important aspect of this way of thinking is that, if someone has a right, then other people have a duty – a responsibility – to ensure that their right is respected. For example, if people have a right to food and shelter, then other people (eg governments, charities, individuals) have a duty to make sure that food and shelter are available. According to this framework, an action is wrong if it deprives people of their rights, and an ethically right action is one that involves upholding other people’s rights.

Virtue ethics

The ethical framework known as virtue ethics provides another approach to ethical reasoning. The focus here is on personal characteristics and behaviour rather than rules or consequences. When considering an ethical issue, a key question is ‘What would a virtuous person do?’ – which raises the question of what we mean by ‘virtuous’. Think about someone whose character you admire, such as a teacher, a family member or a public figure. You might say that such a person is kind, patient, courageous… These characteristics of kindness, patience and so on are virtues. 

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects’ in October 2016.

Statistics and maths, Careers, Psychology
Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects
Education levels:
16–19, Independent research projects, Continuing professional development