Summarise the key distinctions between deontology, utilitarianism, and virtues ethical theories and explain how each theory approaches the concept of morality differently?

Commentary:

So, right off the bat, the big mistake I made with this assignment was that I messed up the word count. I used Word’s word count function but didn’t exclude footnotes. This resulted in a grossly inflated 1600 words for a 1500 words assignment, but taking out the footnotes was more like 1100 words.

Once I discovered the mistake, it was already way too late and I was hard at work on my second and third assignments. I spent a sleepless weekend trying to decide what to do. Given that this is an ethics class, my own ethical position and I am not a hypocrite, I decided pretty quickly to fess up! Emailed the lecturer and explained the issue and received a fairly reassuring response.

Ultimately, the result was a Distinction: 75%.

Abstract

This paper explores the different approaches of the principal theories of Ethics.  Virtue ethics focuses on the person who pursues morality.  Deontology is concerned with the moral acts of a person.  Utilitarian ethics deals with calculating the outcomes of a moral decision.  Each of these theories approaches the task of being a “good person” differently.  Whilst each of these approaches provide a framework for moral decision making, virtue ethics is perhaps the most holistic in that it deals with a being a “good person” including how that person’s good traits are exemplified in good behaviour. Deontology can lose sight of or simply ignore the outcomes of an action whilst utilitarianism can be so concerned with the best outcome for all that it disregards the “rightness” of an act or behaviour.  Virtue ethics gets to the source of the behaviour with arguably a focus on the person doing the act for the good of all.

Introduction

It could be argued that the codification of ethical behaviour started with early law codes such as “the righteous laws of Ningirsu”[1] or the Hammurabi Law Code[2], pre-Abraham, however, legality should not be confused with morality or ethical behaviour.  Laws may be a baseline for moral behaviour, but many laws permit behaviours that would be considered by many to be immoral or unethical.[3]

The philosophy of virtue ethics was first articulated by Aristotle in Ancient Greece whereas deontology was introduced by Immanuel Kant in the 19th century and utilitarianism was introduced by Bentham and Mill at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th century.[4]

This paper proposes the key distinctions between each of the three principal theories of ethics and then examines the way each approaches the subject of morality.

Distinctions and Morality Approaches

The key distinction between virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism is in the focus of the theory.  Virtue ethics focuses on the agent or person, deontology focuses on the act being performed and utilitarianism (a form of consequentialism) focuses on the outcome or consequences of the act performed by the agent.[5][6]  The moral life revolves around two questions: what should I do and who should I be?  Deontology and utilitarianism focus on the former, whilst virtue ethics focus on the latter.[7]

Eudaimonia

Core to both the theories of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is the concept of eudaimonia or the pursuit of happiness.[8]  Aristotle posits that “eudaimonia, the human good, is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue (arete), and if there is more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete, and in a complete life.”[9]  In essence, virtue ethics argues that happiness arises from living a life that accords with one’s arete or virtue (note 2 Pet 1:5[10]) or from disposing oneself virtuously to right action.[11]  Utilitarianism, by contrast and as expressed by Mill, pursues eudaimonia in outcomes[12].

Agent to Consequence

Bentham and Mill shift the focus from the Agent to a focus on the end or consequence of an action.[13]  The pursuit of happiness in Utilitarianism as developed by Bentham and Mills was about maximising the happiness and minimising the pain of the greatest amount of people.[14]  Bentham and Mills were a product of the thinking of their time where the pursuit of happiness was enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man[15] and the United States Declaration of Independence.[16]

Law, Obligation and Duties

By contrast, deontological ethics focuses on law, obligation and duties (rules).[17]  Kantian ethics emphasises the concept of duty and the importance of always telling the truth regardless of consequences.  Kant in his ethics believed he defended Matt 7:12: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”[18]  Deontologists argue that regardless of consequences, actions are inherently right or wrong.[19]

Deontologists weigh up competing rules with three “measures”.  Rule of thumb is a quick assessment with no moral weight whereas, an absolute rule carries significant weight and would override all other rules.  The third “measure” is the prima facie approach where all rules are binding until proven otherwise and can be temporarily overridden if they come into conflict with a weightier rule.[20]

What is “Morality”?

Morality can be equated in a non-Biblical sense with being a good person and having a good life.[21]  According to Boyd and Thorsen, “Morality concerns the principles and teachings about right and wrong that organise a group of people.”  It is the collection of values that order the way we live.[22]  Ethics refers to the study of morality.[23]

Deontology and Morality

In simple terms, deontology focuses on what is “right” rather than what is “good”.  The focus is on morally right and wrong actions without a focus on the consequences of those actions.  For example, it is right to tell the truth regardless of the consequences of doing so.[24]

A 2016 study found a strong link between religiosity, impersonal deontology linked with sanctity and purity and a disregard for collectivistic moral foundations.  It found that deontology as a function of religiosity can be antisocial.[25]  This illustrates that deontological thinking does not focus in any meaningful way on social or collective morality.

Deontology, therefore, regards morality as founded in right acts regardless of motivation or outcome.

Utilitarianism and Morality

Utilitarianism is interested in whether our actions are morally justified by their outcomes.[26]  It is suggested in utilitarianism that the only moral calculus in ethical decisions is the well-being of people and animals.[27]  What is “well-being”, depends on the “brand” of utilitarianism.  Hedonistic utilitarianism holds that pleasure equates to well-being. Desire theory utilitarianism holds that what you desire is the foundation of it being good for the person or animal.[28] 

Therefore, the only morality of utilitarianism seems to be either pleasure or desire.

A Virtue Ethics Approach to Morality

Aristotle’s eudaimonia seems to have contradictory approaches to morality in that he defines it as both “the life of a good man” and “the life, good for a man”.  This seems to be resolved in the argument that “man cannot attain the good life, the good for man, unless he is a good man”.[29]  From another perspective, virtues are not just good character traits, they are exemplified in the way we act and the outcomes of those acts.[30] 

Aristotle argues that “one can’t truly have any virtue without enjoying it… so that the surest way to [a man’s] own good is to lead the best life possible.”[31]

Virtue Ethics as formulated by Aristotle therefore suggests that a moral life consists of leading the best life possible, exemplifying a range of virtues.

Conclusion

The moral life is grounded in a framework of ethics.  These ethics can be focused on the outcomes of actions, the actions themselves, or the person engaging in the actions.  Aristotle proposed a moral life based in a virtuous person.  Kant believed that morality was composed of the acts that a person engages in, regardless of their motive or the outcomes of those acts.  Bentham and Mills argued for a morality based in achieving the “best” outcome for all. Ultimately, it could be argued reasonably that virtue ethics is more holistic than utilitarianism and deontology because it gets to the source of both behaviours and the outcomes of those behaviours by focusing on the virtues that motivate a good life exemplified in doing good.


[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 36.

[2] Bright, A History of Israel, 59.

[3] Scott B. Rae, Introducing Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 16.

[4] Drascek Matej, B. A. Rejc, and A. D. Mesner, “Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical Decision-Making: JBE,” J. Bus. Ethics 172.4 (2021): 804, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04489-2.

[5] Kyle D. Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 18.

[6] Matej, Rejc, and Mesner, “Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical Decision-Making: JBE,” 804.

[7] Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality, 51.

[8] Matej, Rejc, and Mesner, “Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical Decision-Making: JBE,” 804.

[9] W. F. R. Hardie, “Aristotle on the Best Life for a Man.,” Philosophy 54.207 (1979): 35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3750190.

[10] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. Note translated as “virtue” and “excellence” in various versions of the Bible. Note “Moral Excellence” in Jay P Green Sr and George V. Wigram, The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1982), 703.

[11] Timothy McDermott, “Beginnings and Ends: Some thoughts On Thomas Aquinas, Virtue and Emotions,” Stud. Christ. Ethics 12.1 (1999): 37, https://doi.org/10.1177/095394689901200105, https://doi.org/10.1177/095394689901200105.

[12] Antis Loizides, “Mill on Happiness: A Question of Method,” Br. J. Hist. Philos. 22.2 (2014): 302–21, https://doi.org/10.1080/09608788.2014.888331.

[13] Mark Philp and Georgios Varouxakis, Happiness and Utility: Essays Presented to Frederick Rosen (UCL Press, 2019), 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvf3w1s5.5.

[14] Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality, 28.

[15] “Avalon Project – Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789,” n.d., https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp.

[16] “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription | National Archives,” n.d., https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

[17] Matej, Rejc, and Mesner, “Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical Decision-Making: JBE,” 804.

[18] Craig A. Boyd and Don Thorsen, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy : An Introduction to Issues and Approaches, ProQuest Ebook Central. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 87.

[19] Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality, 20.

[20] Felder, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality, 24.

[21] Rae, Introducing Christian Ethics, 10.

[22] Boyd and Thorsen, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy : An Introduction to Issues and Approaches, 9.

[23] Boyd and Thorsen, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy : An Introduction to Issues and Approaches, 8.

[24] Boyd and Thorsen, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy : An Introduction to Issues and Approaches, 11.

[25] Csilla Deak and Vassilis Saraglou, “Valuing Care Protects Religiosity from the Antisocial Consequences of Impersonal Deontology,” J. Empir. Theol. 29 (2016): 185.

[26] Beatrix Himmelmann and Robert Louden, Why Be Moral?, ProQuest Ebook Central. (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc, 2015), 35.

[27] Krister Bykvist, Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed, ProQuest Ebook Central. (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010), 33, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.theoref.idm.oclc.org/lib/dtl/detail.action?docID=601666.

[28] Bykvist, Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed, 34.

[29] Kathleen V. Wilkes, “The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Mind 87.348 (1978): 554, http://www.jstor.org.theoref.idm.oclc.org/stable/2253690.

[30] McDermott, “Beginnings and Ends: Some Thoughts On Thomas Aquinas, Virtue and Emotions,” 45.

[31] Wilkes, “The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle’s Ethics,” 563–64.

Bibliography

Boyd, Craig A., and Don Thorsen. Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy : An Introduction to Issues and Approaches. ProQuest Ebook Central. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. 4th ed. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Bykvist, Krister. Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed. ProQuest Ebook Central. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.theoref.idm.oclc.org/lib/dtl/detail.action?docID=601666.

Deak, Csilla, and Vassilis Saraglou. “Valuing Care Protects Religiosity from the Antisocial Consequences of Impersonal Deontology.” J. Empir. Theol. 29 (2016): 171–89.

Felder, Kyle D. Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Green Sr, Jay P, and George V. Wigram. The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance and Lexicon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1982.

Hardie, W. F. R. “Aristotle on the Best Life for a Man.” Philosophy 54.207 (1979): 35–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3750190.

Himmelmann, Beatrix, and Robert Louden. Why Be Moral? ProQuest Ebook Central. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc, 2015.

Loizides, Antis. “Mill on Happiness: A Question of Method.” Br. J. Hist. Philos. 22.2 (2014): 302–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/09608788.2014.888331.

Matej, Drascek, B. A. Rejc, and A. D. Mesner. “Moral Pragmatism as a Bridge between Duty, Utility, and Virtue in Managers’ Ethical Decision-Making: JBE.” J. Bus. Ethics 172.4 (2021): 803–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04489-2.

McDermott, Timothy. “Beginnings and Ends: Some Thoughts On Thomas Aquinas, Virtue and Emotions.” Stud. Christ. Ethics 12.1 (1999): 35–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/095394689901200105, https://doi.org/10.1177/095394689901200105.

Philp, Mark, and Georgios Varouxakis. Happiness and Utility: Essays Presented to Frederick Rosen. UCL Press, 2019. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvf3w1s5.5.

Rae, Scott B. Introducing Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016.

Wilkes, Kathleen V. “The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle’s Ethics.” Mind 87.348 (1978): 553–71. http://www.jstor.org.theoref.idm.oclc.org/stable/2253690.

“Avalon Project – Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789,” n.d. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp.

“Declaration of Independence: A Transcription | National Archives,” n.d. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

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