This paper will analyze three major normative ethical theories: deontological, virtue-based, and teleological ethics, with emphasis placed upon the teleological theory and its sub-form utilitarianism. Utilitarianism will be briefly critiqued through a Christian lens, and the applicability, strengths and weaknesses of each theory will be evaluated.
Deontological ethics, also known as duty-based ethics, is concerned with what people do, not with what the consequences of an action might be. The Greek word ‘deon’ means duty, hence why it is known as a duty-basic ethic theory. Deontology holds that some actions are either right or wrong because of what they are, and that an individual ought to act accordingly.
Deontologists hold to moral rules that are binding, for instance, it is always wrong to murder people, to take advantage of the weaker, and to lie. Essentially, one ought to prevent themselves from doing morally evil things, and should strive to do what is morally good.
According to the deontologist it is morally wrong to murder a child because such an act would end the life of the innocent child. However, that this act could impact a family with sorrow, or deprive a distant future spouse joy is not considered by the deontologist. Similarly, to make up a lie about a person is morally wrong because it purposely deceives someone and not because it harms that other person’s reputation. It is that “Deontology maintains that the wrongness of (some) actions is intrinsic, or resides in the kind of action that it is, rather than the consequences it brings about” (New World Encyclopedia, 2015)
A major proponent of this ethical theory was the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who theorized that to act morally, one was to do so from duty. He argued that consequences were not the deciding factor in moral decisions, rather it was an individual’s motives that carried the most weight (Kant & Abbott, 1780: 7 – 11). For Kant, one was to begin acting from duty with the highest good in mind; that is an action must be good in and of itself without qualification (Kant, 1785, 9 – 22). Many things routinely considered good are not actually good without qualification, for instance, perseverance seems good, but it needs to be qualified. Perseverance would be good in one’s academic career and pursuits, but it would not be good in Hitler’s attempt to exterminate as many Jews as he could. As Kant himself penned: “Nothing in the world” could ever be “called good without qualification…” (Kant, 1785: 9 – 22)
Kant would argue that since humans are rational beings we would acknowledge that moral laws exist, and that we ought to obey them. Such laws would be broad, apply to all humans, and even to other rational beings: “The supreme principle of morality would have an extremely wide scope: one that extended not only to all rational human beings but to any other rational beings who might exist – for example, God, angels, and intelligent extraterrestrials” (Samuel, 2002: 2).
Nonetheless, like the other normative ethical theories, deontological ethics also has its strengths and weaknesses. It is good in the sense that it ascribes value to human life in terms of dignity, respect, and therefore provides a foundation for basic human rights. It further argues that specific actions are always immoral and ought to be prohibited independent of what the consequences may be. It also deals with an individual’s motives given that motive always a factor in a person’s moral decisions.
However, the weaknesses are there too. For example, deontological ethics is absolute as it is built upon a foundation of absolute rules. Kant would argue that to kill a person is always, absolutely wrong even if this person would kill your friends, or family. According to Professor Aaron Levine, “Deontology maintains that the relevant rules may not be violated under any circumstances” and there are no exceptions (Levine, 2012: 25). Many theorists mount arguments as to what they think should be considered exceptions. Moreover, due to the fact that deontological ethics does not take consequences of decisions into account, it may negatively impact happiness in the world. For instance, to kill someone is always, absolutely wrong, however that person might cause ultimate pain to millions of other people in the world. Deontological ethics may severely reduce world happiness as captured in the worlds of Alfred Ewing, “it is hard to believe that it could ever be a duty deliberately to produce less good when we could produce more” (Ewing, 1847: 188).
Subsequently, virtue ethics (from Greek: arête) stresses the importance of an individual’s character when she is deciding how to act morally and ethically (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015). It is also a theory with its origins firmly rooted in Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), a famous Greek philosopher, who argued that a virtuous person was one who had ideal character traits (Barnes & Griffin, 1997: 1-69). Still, over 2300 years since his time, Aristotle’s work is thoroughly studied, debated, and articulated, and no less so that within the realm of ethics.
Virtue ethics approaches ethical, moral decisions differently to deontological ethics. Deontological ethicists, as well as teleological ethicists, identify universal moral laws that apply in all situations involving the individual’s moral decisions. However, virtue ethics does not do this, rather it asks broader questions such as “How ought I to live?” or “What constitutes a good life?”
A deontological ethicist, for example, would say that stealing is always wrong independent of any good that could result form such an action, whereas a consequentialist would argue that stealing is wrong due to the negative consequences such an act could have. However, on virtue ethics, further factors are taken into account. For example, would stealing something provide personal benefit for the thief? If so, then it is not a moral and virtuous action. However, if the item is a gun, and is stolen because a man knows that it will be used by someone else to kill an innocent bystander, then his action may be deemed virtuous, and the right thing to do. Take a charitable actress. She is extremely wealthy and thus is being charitable towards the impoverished by building their communities schools. However, she only does this only because it is good for her reputation as a celebrity. This would not be seen as virtuous because she is doing this only for personal gain, even though she still did what many would call a good deed. This shows that whereas deontological and teleological ethics have universal moral laws, virtue ethics determines the right or wrong action on a specific case-by-case basis. According to epistemologist Linda Zagzebski, “The practically wise person is able to weigh the demands of all relevant virtues in a given situation and decide on the course of action that is most virtuous, all things considered” (Zagzebski, 1996).
However, virtue ethics is constructed upon a presupposition: virtuousness. One might wonder what exactly this means. A virtuous person is typically defined as being someone who simply lives and acts virtuously: it is “Having or showing high moral standards” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015). It includes characteristics that allow for a person to live well if followed, and it must be lived out in practice. Therefore, virtue ethics urges an individual to develop her character in order to lead a virtuous life, especially since virtuousness leads to goodness. However, given the obvious subjectivity to these terms we find a great deal of criticism of the theory.
A criticism of virtue ethics is that it makes one have to guess what a virtuous individual would do in any given situation. Moral philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse, known for her work on virtue ethics, is critical of this approach since we do not get anywhere in “terms of knowing what we ought to do” on a virtue-based theory (Giersson, 2000: 247). As she notes, there is no guidance on how to act morally, for instance, take the proverbial phrase: “Act as a virtuous person would act given the situation.” Although this phrase appears self-evident, on closer inspection it is not so clear. Why? Because it raises more questions as to the nature of what constitutes a virtuous person, what such behaviour looks like, and how virtuousness would relate to several factors of influence including the likes of circumstantial context, culture, and society. These are questions that need to be thoughtfully considered by those holding to the theory.
Secondly, another challenge is that what would be considered virtuous would be culturally subjective. By culture one means the ideas, customs, and social behaviours of a particular people or society. Obviously these differ greatly depending on where people are born, how they are brought up, what worldviews they adopt, how they are taught to behave in the world, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this would include different notions of what would constitute a virtue or virtuous actions. For example, what we would likely consider to be a moral good now might not have been considered similarly 200 years ago. Further, what is considered a moral good on behalf of the majority of the population in, say, democratic Canada would not be considered the same in other nations whose populations hold to different views.
Given these considerations we might ask who then gets to define what would constitute a virtuous moral behaviour, or a virtuous person? And where we would have disagreement as to what would constitute these things we are ultimately left to little more than having to assert our own subjective opinions over those of others. This remains a major criticism of virtue-based ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012).
Thirdly, teleological ethics (from the Greek word ‘telos’ which means goal) argues that the moral rightness of an action is determined by the maximization of happiness. Philosophers William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland explain that “[T]eleological ethics holds that the rightness or wrongness of an act is exclusively a function of the goodness or badness of the consequences of that act” (Craig & Moreland, 2003: 425)
If this follows, then it would suggest that teleological ethics is opposed to deontological ethics for several reasons. Deontology discounts the consequences of actions, whereas the teleology is based entirely upon consequences of actions. Teleology suggests that the end always justifies the means, whereas deontology argues that the end does not justify the means. Teleology is a consequence based ethics system, whereas deontology is purely duty-based. Teleology also asks what one’s motives are in the making of ethical, moral decisions. It also reaches further than deontology due to the flexibility of moral decisions, whereas deontology is strictly absolutist. It is widely known that moral decisions range from simple to complex. It is quite apparent that drunk driving is morally unacceptable because it may result in the loss of life. However, if faced with a decision on whether to save a baby in the mother’s womb, or save the mother who will die if she gives birth to the baby constitutes a complex moral conundrum.
Furthermore, teleological ethics comes, primarily, in the forms eudaimonia (human flourishing), and utilitarianism. With reference to eudaimonism Plato writes that: “The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature” (Robertson, 2012, no pagination). Thus, it is good things, such as happiness, pleasure, and virtuousness that provide the “resources sufficient” for humans to flourish, and such encapsulates the essence of eudaimonia. This is captured well by 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain” (Mills, 1863: 10). So, on such a view to steal a valuable item, or to assault someone would cause the “reverse of happiness,” and thus would be morally wrong. However, Mill’s brings us to utilitarianism, another form of teleological ethics, which argues that an act is morally right if it contributes to the overall happiness, or usefulness of society. This is antithetical to a form of consequentialism called ethical egoism. Ethical egoism is when an individual seeks good only for herself, while utilitarianism seeks good for the most people possible. According to James Rachels, a specialist in ethics, “Ethical egoism […] endorses selfishness” (Rachels, 2008: 534).
However, utilitarianism and its relation to Christianity is particularly striking. Utilitarianism does not always focus on the ultimate good, or an individual’s action is not necessarily good because the outcome is good. In 1 Samuel we read that “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7), thus God is more interested in our intentions, and our hearts. Utilitarianism also appears a hedonistic philosophy. Emphasis on Earthly pleasure is in opposition to what is truly good on a Christian worldview, as good things can become sinful. When good is connected with pleasure in such a way we may end up only doing good because it satisfies our fleshly desires. History and contemporary society testifies that people fall for pleasurable, sinful lifestyles. Utilitarianism is also subjective. What may be pleasing to one will differ to another, however, God does not change (Jam. 1:17) which means good does not change because of time, or human desire. Utilitarianism also tries to negate all pain, however, some pain is actually good. Through pain we learn from our mistakes, and it often leads to beneficial outcomes. On the Christian worldview God puts most attention on our holiness, which is often a result enduring pain, and refining our character to put to death fleshly desires. In James 1:2-4 we are told to “Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds,” because this produces perseverance, and maturity. However, the more worldly pleasure one receives, the more one will need to satisfy his craving. This suggests that one can never truly be satisfied, and thus a cycle is perpetuated (think of drugs, or the pursuit of luxury goods). Although it is admirable to attempt to rid suffering throughout the world, more needs to be taken into account that is neglected, especially seeing via the lens of an eternal perspective. Jesus tells us to think of treasures in the Kingdom of God (Mat. 6:19), and Paul tells us that our “momentary troubles” will be outweighed by “eternal glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). One can go further, Jesus, the very Son of God, came to “serve,” and die on the cross for our salvation (Mat. 20:28). This illustrates that the ultimate suffering of God reconciled mankind to him. Biblical revelation instructs us to approach life through an eternal perspective, which very much differs from living for the flesh in the here, and now.
In summary, this essay has analyzed three normative theories: what they are, their strengths and weaknesses, their differences, and their applicability. Further emphasis was put on the correlation between utilitarianism and Biblical based ethics, and this attempted to illustrate that they are opposed to each other; that we cannot live both ways. If successfully argued then we ought to choose one over the other.
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