Ethics: Deontological, Virtue, Consequentialism

Ethical theory plays an important role in how we carry out our lives, and to some extent it is one aspect of the foundational bedrock to how a society is built. There seem to be three main ethical theories, deontology ethics, virtue ethics, and consequential ethics. Each theory is concerned with a unique approach to ethical questions. Both deontological and virtue ethics stand in stark opposition of consequential ethics. Although the former two are different from each other, they contain the ability to overlap to some degree. But only slightly.

Consequentialist Ethics 

This form of ethics is many times employed by the utilitarian and can be found extensively written about by John Stuart Mill. Consequentialists approach ethics by determining the outcome of a choice. In other words, they base the criteria of a particular action or intention based solely on the consequence of such a choice. For someone who adheres to this form of ethical theory it is grounded in the overall good of a choice, meaning that a choice or action is morally acceptable if it leads to an increase in the overall good. The “good”, however, is determined differently among consequentialists. For the utilitarian, the good is defined in context of happiness, pleasure, desire and to an extent the welfare of the human person. On the other side you have pluralists, who take into consideration how such goods are distributed among beings.

In summary it is based of two principles.

  • Whether an act is right or wrong depends only on the results of that act
  • The more good consequences an act produces, the better or more right that act

This form of ethics is the basis for hedonism.

Deontological Ethics 

The ethics of deontology are not based on consequences, they revolve more around what is absolute, regardless of outcome. It assumes that a choice is either right or wrong, and cannot be salvaged be a potential outcome of a good. Example, it is always wrong to lie, regardless of if such a lie may produce a greater good. What makes a choice “right” is based off its conformity to moral norms, or rules. Deontological ethics are duty based, and focus on the rightness or wrongness of an action themselves, instead of there consequences (consequentialist) or the character of the actor (virtue). To a degree it is a form of moral absolutism. Immanuel Kant was know for the argument that it is always wrong to lie, even if it means lying to a murderer about the location of his victim.

Virtue Ethics 

Virtue ethics approaches moral questions in a different way then that of deontology and consequential ethics. Instead of concerning itself with right action, virtue ethics seeks to cultivate a good life, or seeks to answer “what kind of person should I be?” The first two ethical theories deals with specific ethical issues, while virtue ethics deals with the entire life of a person, and how to go about making the right choices all the time. Deontological ethics attempts to give us a rule book of what to do and not to do, while the question, How should I live?, is answered by Virtue ethics by saying, live virtuously or have a virtuous character. One of the important aspects of virtue ethics are the character traits of an individual. If one has the virtue of courage strongly apart of their character, then we would expect that individual to always act courageously in any situation, regardless of difficulty. As Aristotle says, “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act but a habit.” This is important to understand with Virtue ethics. It may take many years to cultivate the proper virtue, but when done correctly it becomes habitual. One can look at sin this way. When we consitently commit mortal sin, and it becomes habitual sin we don’t only separate ourselves from God, but we lose the sense of justice due unto that evil act, therefore it becomes easier to commit. By ordering our character to cultivate the proper virtue it allows us to make the correct choice in a variety of situations. It leads us to a holy life in the Christian context because it bases morality off of ones character instead of just robotically following a rule, for the sake of following a rule. This is not to say rules are bad, because they can aid us in determining virtue. One could also say that obeying such rules, commands and laws is done because that itself is virtuous. There is a particular order of things in the world, cultivating the proper virtues allows one to order their soul to the divine.

Think about it this way, it is wrong to fornicate. For the consequentialist the action of fornication depends on the outcome, if it increases happiness and pleasure for both parties then it is morally acceptable. For the deontologist, it is wrong to fornicate because the rule says it is wrong to fornicate. To the virtue ethicist, fornication is not virtuous, therefore even if the moral norm would change to say fornication is okay, the virtue ethicist wouldn’t engage in it.

But what about commands by God? Isn’t commandments by God a form of deontological ethics? I assume to a degree they are. But I think one must look at them in a different way then that of a simple rule. God commands things, not simply to determine things, but because their is a particular ordering of the universe that grows out of himself. By seeking virtue ethics in the Christian context, we seek to properly order ourselves toward sanctity and holiness. It appears that deontology ethics follows a law solely for the sake of following a law, what it lacks is the character, and as we are taught the Lord judges us based off what is in our heart. By cultivating virtue we become a properly ordered person, therefore, all the actions we choose are based of the virtue of our character, and not purely a checklist of what is right and wrong. One can only achieve holiness if they order their character to the divine through the cultivation of virtue. Not to mention that in a situation where the moral choice is not clearly defined, the person with the properly ordered virtue will more then likely make the proper choice.

Then again I am not trained in ethics, but It seems to me virtue ethics is more accurate at exploring the deeper complexity of the human person and divine ordering of things. Either that or its my typical Catholic bias toward Aristotle and Aquinas, as opposed to Kant, Ockham or Mill.

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4 thoughts on “Ethics: Deontological, Virtue, Consequentialism

  1. Agellius

    It seems to me that habitually obeying the commandments is a way of cultivating habitual virtue. After all, how can you know that you are cultivating virtue, without first knowing what is right and what is wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

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