Ethical theories

This is yet another university essay, this time looking at normative ethical theories.

Outline the key features of the three main approaches to normative ethics (i.e., virtue ethics, deontological/duty/principle ethics, and consequentialism) and evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of these approaches.

In this essay I will outline the main differences between the various approaches to normative ethics. These are virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. I will first discuss the main features of virtue ethics, then an argument against it that I find it unable to counter. I will then look at the deontological position, again presenting an argument I feel undermines it. I will then discuss my normative preference, consequentialism, defending it against three of the more common criticisms. First, however, I will show how the normative theories are related.

The relationship.

The aim of any ethical theory is to guide action. Each action contains three components. The first is an agent, the person who acts. The second is the act that is performed. The third is the consequences the action brings about. W. David Solomon states that the three structures of ethical theory can be directly mapped on to this model, depending on which of these parts of action they focus on. ‘Virtue theories take judgements of agents or persons as most basic; deontological theories take judgments of actions as most basic; and consequentialist theories take judgements of the possible consequences as more basic.’[1] From this we see the main differences between the ethical schools to be their views on which part of an action is deemed to be most fundamental.

Virtue Ethics.

What constitutes a virtue ethic?

A virtue ethic is one in which the character of the agent is the most important aspect. ‘[V]irtue ethics specifies what is moral in relation to such inner factors as character and motive, and unlike most modern views, it treats aretaic notions like “admirable” and “excellent” – rather than deontic concepts like “ought,” “right,” and “obligatory” – as fundamental to the enterprise of ethics.’[2] Thus an act is judged to be right or wrong dependant on the nature of the agent displayed in that act. If an agent displays a virtue, such as courage or honesty, it is this display that values the act, rather than the following of rules or the outcome. The best act is that which shows or cultivates the best character for the agent, in that it exhibits the most virtue and the least vice. To qualify as a virtue ethic, it is this focus on the individual agent that is fundamental.

The Right and The Good.

‘The two main concepts of ethics are those of the right and the good.’[3] Any ethical theory will define what is right and what is good, and the relationship between them. In virtue theories, the good is defined first, as the possession or exhibition of the virtues, or excellence of character. The right is then whatever enables the good. If the possession of virtues is key, whichever actions lead an agent to cultivate such virtues are the right actions. If exhibition of virtues is fundamental, then the right action is that which shows the virtues.

What are the virtues?

The tradition of virtue ethics is rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, as in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. They commonly listed the ‘“cardinal” (major) ones of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice’[4]. Later, Thomas Aquinas added to the cardinal virtues the ‘“theological” virtues of faith, hope and charity’.[5] The possession of one virtue alone does not make a virtuous person. Different theorists will change the order and composition of the virtues to fit their beliefs.

How is a Virtue Displayed?

It is sometimes difficult to know when certain virtues, and courage in particular, are being displayed. There is the question of whether ‘the daring of the clever jewel thief’[6] constitutes bravery. It displays the hallmarks of courage in that the thief is presumably acting despite their fear of capture. This is often claimed not to be courage because the thief is obviously acting out of vicious motives. Then we have the example of ‘whether an officer in the Confederacy could be courageous during the American Civil War.’[7] Here, it could be said that he was fighting for a cause that he held to be good and true, and that therefore he may display the virtue of courage. However, it could be argued that the cause he was fighting for, including the continuation of slavery, was morally wrong. Therefore, he was not exhibiting a virtue, as it was serving an evil end. Again, each individual virtue theory will define the way in which it is using the terms for the virtues. It will also state how the virtues are related, for example by stating the extent to which courage must be guided by other virtues such as wisdom.

Can a virtue ethic be sufficient?

An ethical theory may be judged by whether it can do all the work of ethics. In this case, virtue ethics must provide appropriate explanations for the moral value of actions based on the nature of the agent. However, I feel that reference to the character of the agent alone is not sufficient to evaluate an act. If we are to describe the wrongness of torture, I feel we must find other justifications than to say it is an exhibition of vice on the part of the torturer. I would argue that the pain caused to the victim is a wrong in itself, and it is that which makes the practice immoral rather than the willingness of the agent to cause such pain. Therefore, a virtue ethic will not be sufficient to explain and guide our actions.

Deontological Ethics.

What constitutes a deontological ethic?

The term deontology comes from the Greek dean, meaning obligation or necessity.  Deontology is therefore the study of obligations. In practice this means that a deontological theory is one which provides a set of rules which must be adhered to. The right action is any that respects these rules, or, in extreme cases, breaks the least important. The directives in such a theory are often derived from firm principles into rights or duties, although it can also work the other way around. For example, the principle that it is wrong to kill gives a person a right not to be killed, and others a duty not to kill them. These principles may have any foundation, such as intuitionism, contractarianism, or theology. The defining feature of deontology is that the rules are adhered to.

The Right and The Good.

In deontology, the right is the act which is permissible. The good may be something honoured by the constraints of that particular theory. However, this is not necessarily the case, as the good and the right are defined entirely independently. ‘Deontologists believe… there is no clear specifiable relation between doing right [in observing the laws] and doing good [in acting to promote the best outcome]’.[8] Therefore, an action that is right may lead to an outcome that appears bad, and vice versa. In certain situations honouring the rights of a person will lead to the causing of pain or death.

The Constraints.

Davis finds there to be three typical features in the laws of a deontological theory that are of interest. First, they will tend to have rules that are negatively formulated. This means they will take the form of prohibitions, forbidding certain types of action, such as ‘do not lie’. That one is commanded not to lie, however, does not mean that you must tell the truth. The negative statement does not logically entail its positive counterpart.

The second feature of most deontological views is that the fundamental laws are narrowly framed and bounded. The commandments are limited to one specific type of behaviour ‘[s]ince it is kinds of acts that are deemed wrong’[9]. In this way, there are only certain behaviours governed by the theory, leaving the agent with substantial personal freedom. Therefore any act which does not break one of the rules can be seen as permissible. This leaves the option of supramoral actions, above those required by the constraints.

The third feature Davis outlines is that of narrow directedness. A deontological law is directed only against the action of an agent, ‘rather than to the full range of projected consequences of their choice and action.’[10] As the prohibitions are directed toward the action of that agent, they are not obliged to consider whether their honouring a rule in one case will promote the honouring of that rule generally. It is not the responsibility of the agent to consider the actions of others, or greater outcomes, as long as they honour the rules themselves.

Intention and Foresight.

The distinction between intention and foresight is common in deontological theories, the most famous formation of which is the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). If an act is performed with the intention of breaking one of the deontological constraints it is wrong.  If an act is performed with the intention of honouring one of the laws but has a foreseen side effect of breaking another one, it may be permissible if it is in proportion and there is no better method. For example, ‘it is said to be impermissible to end a war by intentionally killing ten civilians (Terror Bombing), but permissible to end the war by intentionally bombing munitions factories, even foreseeing that twenty civilians will certainly die as an unintended side effect (Strategic Bombing).’[11]

Should we live by the rules?

Deontological ethics provides a set of rules by which to live. However, I feel that this is not the best approach. I believe there are situations in which firm prohibitions would be inappropriate. If, for example, human life were deemed valuable, it would always be wrong for a deontologist to kill. However, in situations that require the killing of one person to save the lives of several others, I do not feel the rule is suitable. One option for the deontologist is to insert a “catastrophe clause”, whereby breaking the rules is permissible to prevent a catastrophe. Apart from raising the problem of deciding what constitutes a catastrophe, this switches the focus of the ethical theory to the outcome of action rather than the act itself. This is now a consequentialist theory.

Secondly, the deontologist may draw on the distinction between my directly killing against indirectly letting die, and claim that to be a morally significant difference. They would obey the rule, and let the five die. It appears to me, however, that there is no morally significant difference in my choosing to act or choosing not to act. Either way a foreseeable causal chain is created by my choice, and I find it better to cause the death of one than several. It appears here as if the deontologist believes that ‘[t]he important thing is not to produce the goods but to keep your hands clean.’[12] I would argue that I must kill the one person, as it would be in the greater interest. Therefore I find deontological systems to be inadequate in describing the best course of action, and therefore to be flawed.


What constitutes a consequentialist ethic?

A consequentialist ethic is one which takes the outcomes of an action to be fundamental to its moral valuation. An action is deemed to be right or wrong based on the outcomes thereof. The consequentialist will decide upon a value they wish to promote, and then choose those actions that are most likely to promote them.  Philip Pettit outlines two points a consequentialist would normally defend. The first is that ‘[e]very prognosis for an option, every way the world may be as the result of a choice of option, has a value that is determined… by the valuable properties realised there…’[13] where the value is determined by the consequential state of the world. The second is that ‘every option, every possibility which an agent can realise or not, has its value fixed by the values of its prognoses’[14]. This means that the value of a decision is defined as a function of the possible outcomes of that action. The methods employed to evaluate the possible outcomes of an action vary between individual consequentialist theories, often using calculations to balance potential negative and positive consequences, and systems for discounting these values based on the probability of their coming to fruition. Certain forms of consequentialism also have variable weighting dependant on the perspective of the agent.

The Right and The Good.

Utilitarianism, as the main form of consequentialism, defines the right purely in terms of what is good. The good, or utility, is a term that refers to something as being good to somebody. For example, classical utilitarianism takes pleasure to be the good, and pain to be the only evil, because they are good or bad for the person experiencing them. The right is then defined as that which creates the most good. Therefore, this example takes the right action to be that which creates the greatest pleasure and the least pain. Other possible forms of consequentialism may define the good in other ways, such as furthering one’s own goals in moral egoism. Again, the right action is that which promotes the good, although here it is not for the greatest number.


‘Rule-consequentialists believe the rightness of an act depends not on its own consequences, but rather on the consequences of a code of rules.’[15] This means that rule-consequentialists would evaluate the outcomes of kinds of acts, rather than particular acts, and decide which would give the greatest outcome if followed. The probable outcome of following a fixed rule or set of rules is that which is valued here. If I were to decide that freedom was of value, I would then evaluate which rules of action would be most likely to promote that value. These rules would then govern my action, making enslavement, for example, wrong in all situations.


In act-consequentialism ‘an act is right if its consequences are at least as good as those of any other alternative.’[16] This means that any particular act is evaluated, against other possible acts, in itself, rather than as a type of act. Where one is in an extreme circumstance, it may be necessary not to honour a value, or honour a rule that would generally promote that value. For example, suppose it were decided that telling the truth was good, and I was in an unusual position where telling a lie encouraged others to tell the truth. My lying would not honour the value of truth telling, and it could be argued that my lying as a rule would encourage others to lie and so neither honour nor promote honesty. However, on this occasion, it would be right to lie, as this would lead to the greatest promotion of honesty. Therefore, ‘it is the value of the consequences of that particular act that counts when determining whether the act is right.’[17]

The Consequences of Consequentialism.

Consequentialism is often claimed to lead the agent into committing terrible deeds. For example, in certain circumstances, saving a great number of lives may only be possible by torturing or killing an individual. For the rule-consequentialist this poses no significant problem, as they could easily argue that following a rule prohibiting torture or killing would likely provide the best outcome. However, this begins to look deontological, in that a principle has been ascribed to, which dictates a rule, which in turn must be followed. The act-consequentialist reply would be that ‘[o]nce it is clear that the charge is relevant only in horrendous circumstances, it ceases to be clearly damaging. After all the non-consequentialist will often have to defend an equally unattractive response in such circumstances. It may be awful to think of torturing someone but it must be equally awful to think of not doing so and consequently allowing, say, a massive bomb to go off in some public place.’[18]

Is Consequentialism Too Impartial?

Frey claims that most forms of consequentialism, particularly utilitarianism, are ‘said by some to produce clashes with our moral intuitions over the rightness of our showing partiality to our own projects and concerns and to members of or family without incurring the accusation of bias or selfishness or over regarding people as separate and so not treating a benefit to one person as compensation for loss to another.’ This discusses the claim that consequentialist ethical theories do not generally allow an individual preference. Where both virtue and deontological ethics allow an agent relative standpoint, consequentialism normally requires a detached view, where all needs and so on are treated as equal. This may lead, it can be argued, to an inability to maintain relationships, as all of the consequentialists’ efforts must go toward creating the greatest good for all, rather than their loved ones. ‘According to the standard caricature, everyone in a utilitarian scheme is in principle interchangeable for anyone else. Such impersonality is widely thought to rankle.’[19] However, from a pragmatic point of view, it is entirely reasonable to think of those closest to you primarily. You are more likely to know their needs and desires, and are probably more able to satisfy them. Therefore you would be most able to make the relevant value judgements for actions concerning those to whom you are close. ‘The utilitarian’s point here is that those special responsibilities are not moral primitives but rather that they are derived from broader utilitarian considerations.’[20]

A Demanding Mistress?

A further non-consequentialist claim is that, particularly under act-consequentialism, an agent ‘will have to calculate about every choice… identifying the different prognoses for every option, the value associated with every prognosis, and the upshot of those various values for the value of the option.’[21] This would lead to an entirely impracticable lifestyle, with the agent constantly computing the values and probabilities of every outcome rather than actively making decisions as it becomes appropriate. Here the non-consequentialist is confusing the decision making process for an act with the justification of an act. Consequentialism does not require that a possible action be entirely considered before it is performed. In the circumstances enjoyed by lovers embracing, ‘[a] condition of the embrace’s producing pleasure, and therefore contributing to the general happiness, is that it is relatively spontaneous, coming of natural and unreflective affections.’[22] This sort of behaviour can be justified by consequentialist principles, although it would be actively hindered were each act to be considered on a consequentialist basis. Therefore, although consequentialism may be demanding in that it prescribes a best course of action in all circumstances, it does not require that all actions be taken with the outcome directly in mind.


In this essay I have outlined and evaluated the three forms of ethical theory. First I discussed virtue ethics, which takes the character of the agent to be fundamental. I outlined what constitutes a virtue theory of ethics, the relationship between the right and the good, the common virtues, and how they are displayed. I then argued that virtue ethics is not sufficient, as it gives the wrong kind of description as to why actions are right or wrong.

I then described the common structure of deontological theories of ethics, based  on the actions of the agent. Again, I reviewed the interaction of the right and the good, then the nature of deontological constraints, and the common distinction between intention and foresight. I then put it that the following of rules is not adequate for some circumstances, and that the distinction between intention and foresight is not a morally significant one.

Finally, I outlined consequentialism, centred on the outcomes of the action. First I described what properties a theory must have to be consequentialist. I then looked at how the good relates to the right, and the two main forms of consequentialism, namely rule- and act-consequentialism. Finally, I defended consequentialist ethics against the three most common objections. It is due to the consequentialists’ ability to defend their theoretical structure sufficiently that I am inclined toward consequentialism as my preferred normative ethical form.


Nancy (Ann) Davis, Contemporary deontology, in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 1991), 205-218

R. G. Frey, Act-Utilitarianism, in Hugh LaFollette, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 2000), 165-182

Robert E. Goodin, Utility and the Good, in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 1991), 241-248

Brad Hooker, Rule-Consequentialism, in Hugh LaFollette, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 2000), 183-204

F. M. Kamm, Nonconsequentialism, in Hugh LaFollette, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 2000), 205-226

Thomas Mautner, Dictionary of Philosophy, (London: Penguin Group:1996)

Michael Slote, Virtue Ethics, in Hugh LaFollette, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 2000), 325-347

W. David Solomon, Normative Ethical Theories, in Warren Thomas Reich, ed., Encyclopedia of Bioethics, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan and Simon and Schuster Macmillan: 1995), 736-748.

Greg Pence, Virtue Theory, in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 1991), 249-258

Philip Pettit, Consequentialism, in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 1991), 230-240

[1] W. David Solomon Normative Ethical Theories in Encyclopedia of Bioethics p.738

[2] Michael Slot Virtue Ethics in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory p.325

[3] John Rawls A Theory of Justice cited Nancy (Ann) Davis Contemporary deontology in A Companion to Ethics p.206

[4] Greg Pence Virtue Theory in A Companion to Ethics p.252

[5] Ibid. p.252

[6] Ibid. p.254

[7] Ibid. p.254

[8] Nancy (Ann) Davis Contemporary deontology in A Companion to Ethics p.206

[9] Ibid. p.208 my emphasis

[10]Ibid. p.208

[11] F. M. Kamm Nonconsequentialism in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory p.215

[12] Philip Pettit Consequentialism in A Companion to Ethics p.232

[13] Philip Pettit Consequentialism in A Companion to Ethics p.232

[14] Ibid. p.232

[15] Brad Hooker Rule-Consequentialism in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory p.183

[16] R. G. Frey Act-Utilitarianism in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory p.165

[17] Thomas Mautner Dictionary of Philosophy p.5

[18] Philip Pettit Consequentialism in A Companion to Ethics p.234

[19] Robert E. Goodin Utility and the Good in A Companion to Ethics p.246

[20]Ibid. p.247

[21] Philip Pettit Consequentialism in A Companion to Ethics p.234

[22] Ibid. p.235

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