Short Essay on the Three Categories of Ethics

This is an assignment due today. Thought I’d post it. Rip it to shreds, my friends:

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Deontological ethics are those ethics based upon rules which have various sources such as Divine Command, Natural Law, Covenant and Rules, and Covenants and Contracts. The name of these ethics is derived from the Greek word deon which simply means something necessary. Thus, we should understand that deontological ethics are those rules which are seen as necessary for one reason or another, such as identity forming or because they are the will of God. They are seen as an obligation for the rule followers because it binds them to the rule-maker, which in some cases may be God or one another in a society. These ethics have a weakness in that they often produce rules which prevent good or better actions. Lovin gives the example of a Church steward who in following the letter of the law, is unable to make the local congregation more money on its investment. Or, following the Trolley Problem as introduced by Philippa Foot[1], actions are declared wrong regardless if by committing one ‘sin’ (or breaking one rule) better actions result. The results matter little in this genre of ethics, only the morality of the action. In the end, it simply doesn’t allow the individual or society to seek results, only to follow the rules[2].

In teleological ethics regards the “good” as an object of the goal. (Lovin, 22) As Lovin points out, the development of these ethics comes to fruition in the developments of the late 18th and early 18th century democracies. Simply put, it was the ethics of what causes the most happiness to those interested. It allowed societies to question antiquated rules and establish new norms to reflect the new sense of human destiny. These ethics involve achieving a goal, but as Lovin points out, the goals are often difficult to find. Others have noted that this idea of communal happiness has its drawbacks in that often times, rights or long standing rules which are meant to preserve order can be dispensed with because the communal happiness is in question[3].  Bentham is incorrect when he notes that our interests outpace our fears. Both drive one another, and in a teleological society, they can be driven against the minority[4]. Further, as Lovin seems to note, teleological ethics seems to multiply our consumerism in that the objects are multiplied. However, I also note that Lovin notes the positive aspect of teleological ethics, “(T)he principle of community suggest that we should choose those goals that enrich the lives of other people and enable them to live good lives of their own (31).” Perhaps in a teleological ethics of that principle, one can focus on the more positive interests and put their fears at bay.

Virtue ethics are based on the individual and their agency. Unlike the previous two, it is more individualistic and seems to be more situational. On these virtues, Lovin writes, “Virtues are the admirable qualities of persons that emerge from an examination of their narratives and that shape their moral lives (63).” Further, Lovin notes Aristotle who believes that virtue can be learned (64) and then writes that the rules which the individuals have learned have become inseparable from their personas (65). The focus then is not on rules or goals, but on the person themselves, so that once the person is a well-defined virtuous being, they would be expected to take part fully in either a deontological or teleological society. These particular set of ethics deal with individuality morality, which Lovin is able to connect several times to the Christian narrative (for example, 67, in which Lovin connects the Sermon on the Mount as a set of virtues) and to theological virtues. As Augustine, Aquinas and Lovin have noted, the essential moral virtues can be categorized as: temperance, courage, prudence, and justice (68). Of course, the weakness here is that virtues differ from culture to culture, and from time to time, something Lovin notes as well (67). A strength, however, is that these set of ethics seem to be able to be cultivated.

The weakness of the various categories of ethics are easily seen. Deontological ethics doesn’t allow to the result to be factors into the decision making process. It begins with the morality of the action, taken in the abstract, and forces one to align their actions in the concrete with the rule. In teleological ethics, while a good result is the desired goal, it refuses to allow the goal to be easily defined. Happiness for the community may be seen differently by the individuals. Further, with no concrete goal, the need to constantly expand the concept of happiness appears, giving a consumerism view to the community. In virtue ethics, the individual is in view, with the determined goal to make him or her a moral creature; however, the weakness here is that virtue is defined by the time and place of the individual. The strengths then, reverse the trend of moving further away and rejoin the three categories.

In virtue ethics, the morality of the individual is cultivated to produce a rational and reasonable creature who fits into the teleos of the society at large. If gives individuality to the society, in that the individual is the building block of a society. The teleos can now be said to rest on group-morality rather than individualistic pursuits. The moral creature is, in society, given a collective goal and purpose beyond commodity production. It is, then, the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness which the society is centered on. Once the individual is cultivated to be moral, and the teleos is declared to be right, then the deontological rules developed will serve as a social contract which protects the individual while maintaining the pursuit of the society.  A society cannot start with rules and build ethics, neither give itself a purpose which is then supposed to bring about ethics, and neither can an individual exist as moral without purpose and rules.

I close with Lovin’s final words, “So the moral life, instead of being a way to defend ourselves, becomes a way to love our neighbors and a way to love God as well.” The moral life, then, is made up of rules and purpose, but the individual’s response to morality, and for the Christian, the individual’s response to God’s morality.



[1] Philippa Foot, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect in Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978)

[2] I note in the Divine Command aspect, the example in 1st Samuel 16 should be ignored. In this passage God allows Samuel to break several rules to address the dangerous situation, which secured a better result over against the result which would have happened if Samuel had obeyed the rules.

[3] Scheffler, Samuel (Ed.) (1988). Consequentialism and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] I note the Patriot Act and Lovin’s words on 25, “We would not think we had achieved the good life if the price we had to pay for material security was the surrender of control over our future or the denial of beliefs and values we hold most dear.” Further, there is the value of individualism which is surrendered in our consumeristic society.

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Post By Joel Watts (9,925 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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