How to be Ethical? The Three Main Theories

Revised  1/31/2018

Virtue Ethics

This is the classical view

(Socrates, Confucius, Hume, …)




To be ethical:

Develop a good character

Develop virtuous character traits

This suggests –

Listing some good traits

(like what?)

Asking, “How to improve in these traits?”

But *how* does this make someone ethical?

In software development & engineering terms,

we need to go from specs to implementation

Does an ethical person get there by

1) Following the right rules (deontological ethics)?


2) Getting positive results (consequentialism)?

Let’s find out more . . .

Consequentialist Vs. Deontological Ethics

Let’s explore the




Two core approaches to ethics

Do the results determine if something is ethical?

Consequentialism (consequentialist ethics)

(utility means usefulness)

Compare to:

“The ends justify the means”

Do the rules determine if something is ethical?

Deontologism (deontological ethics)
Gr. deon=duty,

Compare to:

“The ends cannot justify the means”?

              Well, do they or don’t they?

Related concepts: Kantian categorical imperative, subjectivity, intent and universalizing intent

Some examples to consider

1. (a famous one) Suppose an out-of-control train is hurtling down the tracks, you happen to be at the switch, and if you operate the switch it will hit one person but if not it will hit five. What do you do?


3. Section 5 of

4. “Don’t lie”: but what if that leads to harm to someone?

5. What about punishing “pre-crime” as in the movie “Minority Report” ?



Is this an example of a deontological or consequentialist approach to ethics?

Consequentialist and deontological ethics: both imperfect
                 Pain and suffering should be compensated
                 Attempted murder is not unethical (no consequences)
       Deontological ethics:
                 No compensation for pain and suffering
                 Attempted murder is unethical
(Obviously, defenders will cite various “ifs” and “buts”)
       So what should we do?
What about virtue ethics for these two questions?
More details on ends and means

Ends vs. means:

Which is the focus of deontological ethics?

Which is the focus of consequentialist ethics?

Which of the following are:

Laws about the awarding of damages

Safeguarding privacy and security in IT

Tax laws

Parking and speeding laws

Laws about violent crime

The golden rules

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you

Do not do unto others as you would not have others do unto you

Do unto others as they would have you do unto them (promoted by e.g. J. Gray Cox)

The 10 commandments

Problems with deontological ethics

(i.e. the means are all-important,

the ends are not,

associated with philosopher

Immanuel Kant)

It is intrinsically paradoxical to ignore consequences


“ ‘Better the whole people should perish’

than that injustice be done” (Kant 1780, 100)

We can short-circuit this

Kantian absolutism with

‘threshold deontology’

Threshold deontology

   Tolerate some adverse ends,

   – but –

   switch to consequentialism

   if appropriate

Any examples?

How about awarding of damages in US civil law?

Problems with consequentialism

(see e.g.

“The ends justify the means” attitude causes problems

What is a good or bad consequence?

A dictator of a totalitarian country

has a different idea than

the Declaration of Independence!

Or as the SEP puts it:

“What is Good?

Hedonistic Vs. Pluralistic


…and yet…

moral intuition

often fits consequentialism

better than it fits deontologism

What do you think?

And how should we think about some of our examples?

(The golden rules, the 10 commandments, privacy and security issues in IT, tax laws, parking and speeding laws, laws about violent crime)

Theory of copyrights and patents

– persuade people to create by protecting their IP

– let others benefit by not over-protecting the IP

– how to balance those two?

– How is this deontological? Consequentialist?

Suppose someone is injured by a rare side effect of a drug?

– should they be compensated, or not?

– what is the consequentialist argument?

– what is the deontological argument?

– what is your argument?


3 Responses

  1. […] (1) deontological and/or utilitarian approaches as these relate to the case (for hints, see; […]

  2. […] (1) deontological and/or utilitarian approaches as these relate to the case (for hints, see; […]

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