Balanced and unbalanced ethics

Moral philosophy has three main schools of thought. Roughly speaking these are – virtue ethics, which focuses on how to be a morally virtuous person, deontology which focuses on deriving/discovering and following moral principles and rules, and consequentialism, which emphasizes looking at the outcomes of an action to determine its moral quality. Technically speaking, I lean towards the consequentialist camp; however I feel that a balanced and mature ethical approach to life only comes from considering all three schools of thought. I’ve tried to illustrate here the shortcomings of focusing only on one or two of the schools of thought.

Diagram of morality including various intersections between a rule, consequence and virtue focus.

Diagram of morality including various intersections between a rule, consequence and virtue emphasis.

Those with a background in philosophy might note that much of my description does reduce to consequences, but I wanted to illustrate in detail how use of both virtue and deontological reasoning are essential to achieve morally good outcomes. Do you agree? Have other thoughts? Let me know by adding your comments!

2 comments

  1. I’ve always had trouble understanding how virtue ethicists determine what it means to be a morally virtuous person. Do morally virtuous people commit actions that have good consequences, or do they follow moral rules? It seems to me that virtue ethics will reduce to either consequentialism or deontology. Would you be able to help me understand how virtue ethics is distinct from consequentialism and deontology?

    1. Hi Liam. While I would personally reduce virtue to consqeunce, and consider virtue to be something like “mental habits with known good outcomes”, most virtue ethicists would not do so. For them, virtue is usually the goal in and of itself, or at least they reject the notion that virtue can be reduced to something more foundational in a straight-forward way. Or to put it another way, though a virtuous person msy achieve good consequences or be in compliance with some moral rule, it would not follow (for a virtue ethicist) that they are virtuous because of these things. The virtue (for example good will towards others) is often framed as a desirable internal mental or spiritual state for the person to be in, instead of in reference to something external such as an outcome or rule. I’m not sure how much more could be said about virtue ethics generally without looking at specific versions, but SEP has a decent article. I am personally drawn to more empirical/explorative and intuitive forms of virtue ethics (eg. Plato), and haven’t found claims that we can reason our way to virtue ethics to be very compelling.

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