Can understanding ethical theory help us make better moral decisions? Yes, it can. Each of us makes these kinds of decisions anyway, based usually on what we feel is right. That “feeling” isn't really just emotional or intuitive. It's a culturally transmitted as well as a learned response to certain conditions we recognize as having ethical elements in them. Our responses to moral dilemmas are based on what we have learned from our culture, our families, our education, and our society. It might surprise you to know that many of the norms that we glean from these sources are the results of serious moral theorizing.
Ethical theory, which comes from the study of moral philosophy, is simply an organized way of approaching ethical decision making. A theory is a method of explaining something we observe in our lives, the formulation of which will then allow us to predict future such events and deal with them more easily. For example, management theories show us different approaches to managing organizations, employees, and business environments. They help managers understand better the variables involved in running an organization, and show them how best to cope with them. These types of theories are simply models of reality; thus, they are best tested in the real world to see if they work. The same is true of moral theory. Although a great deal of moral theory is so complex and esoteric as to be practically useless to most of us, the specific field of applied ethical theory is designed to be used in the real world. That's the theory we're going to discuss here.