Ethical Theories and Conflict Resolution

Ethical Theories and Conflict Resolution
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Ethics, which has its history from the Greek word ethika, has to do with norms, custom and behaviour of humans if they are to function in an organized and well-ordered society devoid of conflicts. Let us examine some key ethical theories and how those theories attempt to resolve conflicts amongst humans.


The proponent of this ethical theory is the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The theory was further improved upon by John Stuart Mill. The theory is based on the consequences of our actions; such actions being deemed to be morally right if they brought about the greatest happiness to the greatest number. If we acted all the time with this theory at the back of our minds, it appears that we should experience a harmonized and selfless society according to the exponents of the theory. However, there is a slight difference between Bentham and Mill’s variations of utilitarianism. While that of the former was materially oriented, the later was intellectually inclined.

The problem with the utilitarian ethical theory is the allowance that makes that the interests of some members of the community (or group) could be ignored insofar as the interests of the majority are protected. This is unlikely to be suitable for conflict resolution. In fact, it might even provide veritable grounds for conflicts. This is because the minority whose interests have not been sufficiently protected sometimes constitutes into rebel (or opposing) groups. This has been the case in many African countries where different rebel organisations are in armed combat with their state governments. Those rebel groups are often in the minority who often feel neglected or marginalized in terms of accessibility to resources or in the scheme of things. This makes the utilitarian theory taken as a singular instrument of conflict resolution sometimes difficult to employ in the resolution of conflicts at whatever level.

Ethical Theory by Immanuel Kant

Kant’s ethical theory is founded on the ‘goodwill’ principle. Kant, in his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, explained that there nothing that is good without qualifications except the ‘goodwill’. This means the goodwilll is good in itself; it does not require anything or anyone to make it good. The ‘goodwill’ is not derived from the consequences of good actions, as that could potentially lead to the corruption of it. Rather, the sustenance and purity of the goodwill is derived from when actions are based on duty and not from the consequences of human actions. It is only actions carried out and defined within the framework of the goodwill that is morally praiseworthy.

The goodwill, according to Kant, is not corruptible. On the possibility of the goodwill not producing desired positive moral outcomes, the problem is not with the goodwill but with moral agents. The operatives in the application of the goodwill are highlighted within the framework of the hypothetical and categorical imperatives. For the purpose of this write-up, it would not be necessary to delve into further discussions on those imperatives.

The application of Kantian ethics in conflict resolution is cumbersome and most probably impracticable. This is mostly because of the inflexibility of the Kantian theory in resolving conflicts. Something else, people generally tend to evaluate successes or otherwise of negotiating by the outcomes of such negotiations not merely that negotiations adhere to some kind of duty or to some inflexible theory. The problem with the inflexibility in the application of the Kantian theory in conflict resolution is more pronounced when we realise that in negotiating how to resolve conflicts, there is often the need for give and take and this amounts to flexibility of positions by conflicting parties in order to achieve peace.
This is not tenable in the use of Kantian ethics in resolving conflicts.

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Prima-Facie Theory by DAVID ROSS

The prima-facie is an ethical theory that is based on intuition. The moral agent makes his decisions in his order of priorities. It would seem from the start that, Ross’ efforts were geared towards resolving the problems experienced with Kant’s ethical theory: hence he made a definite distinction between prima facie duties, according to Ross would be that duty you ought to do or perform impulsively, however, if for some reasons or circumstance a more pressing and impulsive duty calls, the moral agent out to ignore the former and do the latter. What is important is that the moral agent is convinced that he is fair and just.

The problem that may be associated with the implementation of prima-facie theory, is the barometer with which to weigh or get the proper prima-facienes or duties that seem to conflict and need the same attention. This could of course potentially provide veritable grounds for conflict between parties. This is because often times people do have competing interests needing equal attention and parties to a conflict could also have competing interests. In such circumstances, it becomes difficult to resolve disputes between conflicting parties.


This is the ethical theory which states that one acts only in his own self interest. This self interest needs not be immediate. It could and may be projected towards the future. There is the need here to make a demarcation between psychological and ethical egoism. Psychological egoism is descriptive and perhaps empirical while the ethical version is normative.

Ethical egoism could be in the individual, personal and universal forms. The individual egoist expects everyone to act in his own self interest. The personal form is not so interested in how others act but he acts in his own self interest alone. The problems inherent in these various forms are in individual egoism; it is not possible for everyone to act in the interest of one particular individual. The personal variation makes interpersonal relationships almost impossible and the universal version leads to conflict of interests. Whatever the variation of ethical egoism, it is most unlikely to be of much use in conflict resolution. This is because we live in a plural world with different people with varied interests. Those interests often times conflict but where people merely focused on their own interests, such individualised and self-centred interests must inevitably conflict with that of others who merely focused on the realisation or actualization of their own interest. The implementation of the theory of egoism would put people’s interests against the interests of others and communities against communities. This would create conflicts and so not useful as an instrument of conflict resolution.

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Justice as Fairness by John Rawls

John Rawls’ ethics is founded in his perception of justice, which is, for

anything to be just or right it must be fair. According to him:

the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons who are concerned in furthering their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality, as defining the fundamental terms of their association. This way of regarding the principles of justice, I shall call justice as fairness.

Rawls went on to explain what he meant by “justice as fairness.” According to him, in justice as fairness, the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not of course thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.

The components of Rawls’ theory are:

No one knows his place in society, his class, position or social status.

Nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the likes.

The parties do not know the conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.

The principles of justice should be established behind the veil of ignorance and this ensures no one is advantaged or disadvantaged by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances.

These components put everyone in the original position at the initial situation. Rawls’ postulation could be interpreted to mean that every member of the society has the same basic rights and duties. Inequalities should only be tolerated in as much as it benefits everyone, especially those who are least advantaged in the society. On the face of it, this ethical theory appears useful in resolving conflicts. This is because it recognises the basic rights of everyone; this also implies that the basic rights of individuals must be respected. But duties constitute part of the theory.

What we need to ask is how duties are to be discharged by all. Duties are discharged through responsibility. This is because there are no rights without responsibilities. It appears Rawls took human rights for granted. Unfortunately, not everyone is responsible. Not all state and community leaders are responsible; it means irresponsibility could bring about conflicts which are not resolvable with the use of Rawls’ theory of justice.

African Traditional Ethics

African ethics (also known as African traditional ethics) is communal in outlook; it defines moral precepts and values which Africans abide by consciously or unconsciously in their day-to-day living. Those moral precepts are defined and founded on communal values. This means that what is considered good or bad is what the community considers as such.

This further implies that the realisation and actualization of the self is expected to be through and within the community and not outside of the community. This is better understood within the framework of community-individuality. The phrase, community-individualit, was first used by Iroegbu to describe a way of life which has always been in place in traditional African communities since time immemorial. He used the phrase to explain the relationship that exists between the community and the individual in the African context. In this sort of relationship it might appear contradictory to emphasise the superiority of the community and simultaneously speak of individual autonomy. However, in traditional African societies it is very common to speak of the harmony between the pervading role of the community and the importance of individuals.

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Gyekye explains as follows for the Akan people of Ghana:

There is enduring tension in the Akan philosophy of the individuals. For while it offers a clear, unambiguous statement on the value of the individual, at the same time, it makes an equally clear and unequivocal statement on the value of community. It attempts to strike a balance between individualism and communalism. It rejects the notion that are antithetical. It attempts to integrate individual desires with societal ideas.

This is achieved by ensuring that the interests of the individual are protected within the community, and at the same time, ensuring that individual interests do not undermine community interest. How would African ethics be used to resolve conflicts?

In conflict resolution the community plays a major role. This is particularly true in African countries where communities play important roles in the lives of her members. This means that even in situation of conflict amongst members or between communities, community leaders play significant roles. The role of community leaders has been quite successful in resolving conflicts because of the respect people in that community have for their leaders. Most conflicting parties often abide by the decisions arrived at by community leaders who are usually the community elders.

Community leaders have been so successful in resolving conflicts that government organs often appeal to them for assistance in resolving conflicts within communities and between communities. This means that community-integrated approach is most probably the best way to resolve conflicts in the African continent.


Whatever the ethical theory that is applied in conflict resolution, in general, there is an important factor that must be addressed in the process of resolving conflicts, and this is the need for truth before reconciliation. Truth in this context would mean that conflicting parties would need to sincerely state what their grievances are, where and how they think they have been wronged and how they have wronged the other party (ies). It is only after parties have expressed these issues honestly that there can be genuine reconciliation. Otherwise, reconciliation attempts not based on truth and justice would be merely superficial and such reconciliation would certainly not endure for a long time. The consequence would be a resurgence of conflicts within a short period of time, which of course, leads to another disruption of peace. A certain way of having enduring peace is to resolve conflicts in a way that is just.

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