Myths of Selfishness
Best Learning Game Award

Three Ethical Paths

What alternatives to egoism are available for moral thought? There are in fact many possible ethical systems, so many that it has become quite difficult to tackle ethical questions today. Fortunately, all the different approaches to ethics are to a considerable degree simply different focuses within the same general framework. Consider that any ethical situation consists of an agent taking an action which produces an outcome. Whichever system of ethics one chooses will have to deal with these same elements, although different approaches naturally prioritize different aspects.

Virtue ethics focuses on the nature of the agent, duty ethics (deontology) focus on the nature of the action, while consequentialism focuses on the nature of the outcome. In a very real sense, all major ethical discussions can be transformed between these three perspectives, although there are some boundary cases which are better dealt by the specific spins. For instance, Phillipa Foot's Trolley Problem shows that we cannot escape consequentialism in all instances since there are some ethical situations which can only be judged in terms of outcomes. But this does not mean that consequentialism has any prior status to validity, especially given the transformability of one system into another.

All three approaches have long histories. The agent-focussed approach is the oldest, dating back to Aristotle and Plato in the West and to Confucius and Buddha in the East. The action-focussed approach found its full flowering in the work of Immanuel Kant, the 18th century Prussian who many consider the greatest philosopher who ever lived; from the train of thought that Kant put in motion emerges modern moral concepts such as freedom and Human Rights. Finally, the outcome-focussed approach finds it roots in the writing of Machiavelli (who reported on the pragmatic requirements of leadership in the 16th century) and flowered in the utilitarian ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mills. While today the panoply of specific ethical systems is dizzying, by necessity they all represent variations on these three basic themes.

Part 13 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Could you explain what you mean by "consequentialism"?

Jeena: Yes, certainly - and apologies for skipping over the term (each of these pieces aims to be under 500 words, and I decided not to cross-link inside them).

In brief, consequentialism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is judged by its outcome. If its consequences are good, the action is good; if its consequences are evil, the action is evil. Because only the outcome is used to judge the moral worth of an action, it leads to the famous maxim "the ends justify the means", since consequentialism (in its usual forms) does not consider *how* an outcome is reached, only the outcome itself.

Two earlier posts here that deal with consequentialism will provide more context, namely Future Ethics, which deals with the specific problems with systems of ethics which are solely consequentialist, and The Trolley Problem which is a classic thought experiment by Phillipa Foot which shows that we all use something like consequentialism to make judgements in certain extreme situations.

Hope that answers your question!

Yes, thank you very much. It reminds me of the movie "Hot Fuzz" where inhabitants of a small village kill their neighbors for "the greater good"

Despite being a big fan of Simon Pegg, I didn't get on with Hot Fuzz. I think the aspect you mention was intended to be a reference to the original film The Wicker Man (not the remake). If you haven't seen this, I heartily recommend it - very powerful and disturbing movie!

Best wishes!

Hello there,

Great post topic. I think I'll chime in with two distinct observations.

1. The thought about the so-called trolley problem and the conclusion that consequentialism is inevitale is an interesting one.

On the one hand I'd also say that one critique of consequentialist thinking can come from Bernard Williams' 'one thought too many' thought experiment, which goes against consequentialism in terms of how psychologically destructive it would be to make quick decisions forcibly in those situations. I cannot say I comprehend the power of Williams' argument, but it's almost like the other side of the coin to the 'trolley' issue.

Another thought also from Catholic theology (since our Holy Father is visiting the UK), the doctrine of Double Effect (which is in the deontological camp) is the basic statement that there is a distinction between the intended action and the foreseen action. Another motivation to call it 'double' effect comes from its originator; Aquinas. Aquinas thought that all actions (since humans are all stained and sinful beings) contain a good and a bad aspect. Everything we do will have some bad import, but it is a matter of maximising the good.

2. On compatibility. Philippa Foot herself was a Virtue Ethicist, and a student of the strident virtue theorist, Gertrude Anscombe. Modern Virtue theorists have argued that the appeal of virtue theory is that it is compatible with other forms of ethical thinking. Or perhaps better stated, proponents of so-called 'other' ethical theories often have an aspect of their ethical system which is virtue-focussed.

Consider Kant for instance; Kant writes in various places the importance of tempering good dispositions, irrespective of the categorical imperative. The best way for the uneducated masses (i.e. Christians) to understand morality is through maintained good dispositions. The way to establish this can be by communal religious practice and enforcing of moral propositions like the decalogue. This is what Kant argues in 'Religion beyond the bounds of mere reason'.

It can also be said that JS Mill is a virtue theorist of a sort in distinguishing between higher and lower goods. There are goods which are part of human flourishing and the promotion of certain values toward a higher, or personal good. For instance, the virtue of good hygiene (which is much an issue for your 19thC person) maintains things like health and life expectancy, and keeping of a good disposition towards personal hygiene will lead to a higher good or happiness.

The opposition between Deontological and Consequentialist ethics is genuine, don't get me wrong; but virtue theory creeps in everywhere. You could even say that Nietzsche is a virtue theorist of a sort...

With Kind Regards,

Michael: thanks for this commentary! A lot of interesting points.

Firstly, on the subject of virtue ethics, my contention is that the three ethical paths are in principle transformable between one another. You counter that virtue ethics is involved in the other paths - my claim would be is that it need not be, but that it is a good thing that the people advancing the other paths recognise the value of virtue ethics, since this is the easiest form to communicate to people.

But surely we can recognise that one *could* maintain a pure duty ethics (deontology) or consequentialist stance - even though it may be unwise to do so. Indeed, what is international politics but pure consequentialism?

I haven't seen Bernard William's critique of the trolley problem - it sounds interesting. I agree with him that these spot decisions can be psychologically destructive - yet firefighters, police and soldiers must make such decisions. And not to act is still a decision of a kind. So I think that there is no escape from consequentialism in some circumstances, since it speaks in situations when other ethical paths are silent.

(Incidentally, I knew Foot was a virtue ethicist, but I didn't realise Anscombe was! You learn something new every day!)

The question of compatibility isn't crucial for me - since duty ethics and consequentialisms are also transformable (see Shelly Kagan's consequentialist versions of Kantianism, for instance). I see all three as compatible. As I say, the advantage of virtue ethics isn't its compatibility, which I claim is more widespread than just a trait of one of these three paths, but the ease in which it can be taught; the universal ability to understand moral problems in terms of virtues.

I really see all three paths as necessary. Virtue ethics is the most accessible, but the least able to be codified. Duty ethics is the most compatible with transformation into law. Consequentialism is how the toughest decisions must be made when all other considerations fail. My perfect ethical system would recognise the value of all three paths.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective!

PS: Mary Midgley argues that it is precisely a moral critique that Nietzsche pursues, and since he expressly rejects outcomes and duties, it must be understood as a particular form of virtue ethics, so on this observation you are in good company! :)

Finally I got to see this through my RSS collator.

I reply with two clarifications (errors are worse than lies) and one observation point:

1. Bernard Williams' 'One Thought Too Many' is construed as his death blow critique of utilitarianism. The Trolley problem came later. My point was that they are interesting in consideration together.

2. Is Anscombe a virtue theorist? This is an exegetical issue. I cannot say with good certainty that she is; however, the focus of her moral philosophy is exactly the issue that consequentialism and deontology are both untenable. Where her more speculative suggestions lay are toward Aristotelian philosophy.

Anscombe as a sophisticated moral philosopher coming after the likes of Moore and the English philosophers of the early analytic period; saw the need for a shift away from the emphasis on Kant and utilitarianism. Also (ad hominem point) as a good Catholic, one rarely strays from reading 'The Philosopher' (Aristotle). I'd say that it was due to Anscombe (inter alia) that the rediscovery of Aristotelian ethics came about. Foot was a student of Anscombe, let it be said.


I think its interesting how you stratify the different applications of deontological/consequentialist/virtue thinking. Deontological/rights approaches often take place in humanitarian discussions about the basic living conditions for persons. In a sense it is the hard line of ethics.

I find it curious (and provocative) that you suggest states act in a consequentialist manner; I'll need to think more about this, but when one thinks of the actions of George W. Bush, it looks very 'ends justifies the means'...I think corporations probably reason in this way, with targets and goals.

My personal view (in a sense, a 'non-philosophy' perspective) is that I probably think about virtues, or character traits as a motivating factor for many of my actions. It's interesting to stratify them in that kind of way, between persons, corporations (collective group forming a person), and states. I'm sure Aristotle would be proud.

As always I enjoy your posts and comments.


Michael: "Finally I got to see this through my RSS collator."
Huzzah! The system works. :)

Thanks for the clarification concerning Anscombe - I think, given what you say, that it is reasonable to consider her either a virtue ethicist, or an ally to virtue ethics. :) You make me want to track down some of Anscombe's work - do you have any recommendations for readings on her ethical work?

"I find it curious (and provocative) that you suggest states act in a consequentialist manner; I'll need to think more about this, but when one thinks of the actions of George W. Bush, it looks very 'ends justifies the means'...I think corporations probably reason in this way, with targets and goals."

Yes, it is my belief that both the modern State and the modern corporation pursue a consequentialist ethical policy of the form "the ends justify the means". Arendt's criticism of this approach is (to me, at least) utterly devastating. I accept a valuable role for consequentialism, but shorn of the other moral paths as a counterbalance it becomes an abomination. I claim that consequentialism may be necessary as a last resort, but when it is used as a 'first resort' it is the stepping point for horrific moral abuse.

"As always I enjoy your posts and comments."

Thank you; I have always enjoyed our exchanges. Although I have not taken a formal philosophy degree (all my studies in this area having been under my own remit) your philosophical studies have been contemporaneous to mine and as such I think of you (perhaps insanely!) as a "fellow alumni". It is for me as if we have been studying together in some sense in the "university of the web". :D

Best wishes!

Anscombe recommendations:

"Modern Moral Philosophy"

This article is compulsory reading for intemediate ethics classes, and in a sense, is in the background of many contemporary debates in analytic ethics.

It is normally attributed that the first modern use of 'consequentialism' was defined by Anscombe.

Another good recommendation from Anscombe, which I haven't read myself, but is seen as one of the groundbreaking works in normativity (how to define normativity is beyond me; its like a cross between ethics, language and philosophical psychology), is 'Intention'. I dont know too much about it, but it was very influential to a couple of my tutors when I was an undergraduate.

Many thanks for the tips! I'll certainly read the paper, and I'll keep an eye out for the book recommendation, although it looks like it has held its price rather well. In fact, Amazon has a copy at the low, low price of £1,081.00! I assume it's a first edition. :)


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)