Teleological, deontological, and virtue ethics: A comparison
Teleological ethics are also called consequence-based ethics. Teleological ethical systems emphasize the results of ethical decisions, versus the moral principles behind such decisions. Utilitarianism is an excellent example of teleological ethics. The stress in utilitarianism is doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, versus setting a precedent for all ethical actions. "It denies that moral rightness depends directly on anything other than consequences, such as whether the agent promised in the past to do the act now" (Armstrong 2011). What is good for the greatest number of people one day may not be the case several years from now, or even to morrow.
For example, no one would state that as an abstract moral principle, having to fire competent employees is a 'good thing.' However, bosses are often forced to do so, because of the financial limitations they are faced with, when a corporation is suffering during a recession. A utilitarian would state that not laying anyone off would result in the company going bankrupt, so it is best to fire some workers rather than eventually let all employees and shareholders suffer. Firing employees who are least useful and necessary to the company might be prioritized. However, a consequentialist would state that such a 'law' about whom to fire should not become corporate policy, because at other times it might behoove the company to fire individuals with the highest salaries, given the consequences of having to pay such lofty fees to employees who might not necessarily be worth the cost they extract from the organization.
Making decisions based upon anticipated consequences is how most individuals make decisions day-to-day, in the working world. Teleological ethics has the advantage of being data-driven, enabling the decision maker to justify his or her choice with specific facts, rather than theory. Theories, consequentialists argue, can cause people to be unnecessarily inflexible and ignore 'exceptions to the rule.' Furthermore, some theories sound very good in the abstract, but in reality do not function well when their principles obeyed in the absolute. For example, the moral principle 'do not kill' sounds eminently sound. However, what about killing in self-defense? Or entering a war, to protect the cause of democracy? Some general questions that a consequentialist might ask when making decisions include: who does this help? Who does this hurt? How many? What will be the severity of the consequences to the persons who are helped and harmed by these actions?
One of the problems in defining consequentialism, however, is what 'consequences' for what entity is under consideration. Who makes up the 'greatest number' is not always clear, and, critics allege, can be somewhat self-interested, or, at very least, can be highly subjective. I might decide that the best consequences are achieved for the greatest number of people if I prioritize the survival of my company over the jobs of a select few. However, massive layoffs by many companies who use such a rationalization can cause devastation to the greater economy and generate a deep recession, as unemployed people are not able to buy goods and services. "Consequentialists thus must specify initially the states of affairs that are intrinsically valuable -- the Good. They then are in a position to assert that whatever choices increase the Good, that is, bring about more of it, are the choices that it is morally right to make and to execute" (Alexander & Moore 2007). But what is 'the Good' is not self-evident to all persons, the system's critics argue. Critics state that an ethical 'system' with so little consistency is not really a system at all. "All acts are seemingly either required or forbidden" (Alexander & Moore 2007). Even terrible, immoral actions can be justified, provided they improve the fortunes of the majority, and have good consequences for the greatest number of people.
Furthermore, consequentialism's critics contend that it is actually a very inflexible theory, to argue that doing what is best in a given situation for the greatest number of people or the least painful for the greatest number of people is always superior: "There also seems to be no space for the consequentialist in which to show partiality to one's own projects or to one's family, friends, and countrymen, leading some critics of consequentialism to deem it a profoundly alienating and perhaps self-effacing moral theory" (Alexander & Moore 2007).
Deontological ethics, in contrast, stresses that the principle behind the decision, rather than its consequence should be the determinant of one's action, arguing that consequences are impossible to predict. According to a deontologically-based ethical system, the actor should make decisions as if he or she is setting a precedent for all time, not simply for that particular situation, versus a consequentialist who argues that ethical actions only have ramifications within the context of a specific situation.
A deontological ethicist would argue that it is vitally necessary that all workplaces uphold the same standards for all employees. If some favored employees are allowed to come in late and to leave early, while other employees are docked pay for precisely the same offense, anger and resentment will be generated -- far more than if everyone was held to a strict standard. Another component of deontological ethics is that the intention is what matters, rather than the consequences. Even if a bad act has an unexpectedly good outcome, according to the adage 'an ill wind does no one good,' that does not mean that the bad action is suddenly moral. McDonald's is a large corporation that sells food that makes people extremely unhealthy; the fact that it uses some of its profits to help sick children does not justify the fact that its product has caused other children to become unhealthy and obese.
The advantage of deontological theories is that they provide clear moral guidance when the outcomes of moral decisions are in doubt (which they often are). Instead of futilely trying to calculate what will be the best outcome for the greatest number, the moral actor has certain consistent laws to which he or she must adhere. The objective nature of these moral laws prevents the decision-maker from consciously or unconsciously using the ethical system to justify self-serving behavior. When making decisions, the deontological decision maker asks: what is my intention? If the decision I made were to be a law for all time, would it do good in similar future situations?
Critics of deontological ethics point out that sometimes always going 'by the rules' can cause situations to be worse, rather than better, and do rather than alleviate harm. Furthermore, "it is crucial for deontologists to deal with the conflicts that seem to exist between certain duties, and between certain rights" (Alexander & Moore 2007). Also, the 'correct' rules for behavior can be just as difficult to define as who is the majority that is supposed to be helped by utilitarian-minded action.
In response to the difficulties of both ethical systems, virtue ethicists stress the need to be a 'good person,' rather than to always apply a utilitarian calculus to decision-making or to create a correct code of laws to live by. "A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximise well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as "Do unto others as you would be done by" and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent" (Hursthouse 2007). For example, a boss might decide not to dock a good employee for frequently coming in late and leaving early, because he was aware that she was taking care of her dying husband at home. Realizing that she would…