Ethical Theories Compared

Ethical Theories Compared


This is a quick overview of some relations between utilitarian, deontological, and Aristotelian ethical theories. For links to many excellent internet resources on these ethical theories and others, see Lawrence Hinman's Ethics Updates site.

Rosalind Hursthouse's Comparison

Here is a brief indication of the way Rosalind Hursthouse describes the relationships between the three kinds of theory in the first section of her essay "Virtue Theory and Abortion":

  Consequentialism Deontology Virtue Theory
example Mill's utilitarianism Kantian ethics Aristotle's moral theory
abstract description An action is right if it promotes the best consequences. An action is right if it is in accordance with a moral rule or principle. An action is right if it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.
more concrete specification The best consequences are those in which happiness is maximized. A moral rule is one that is required by rationality. A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is, one who has and exercises the virtues.  A virtue is a character trait a human being needs to flourish or live well.


Classification of Ethical Theories


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A More Detailed (But Very Tentative) Comparison

Here are some suggestions about how some of the chief ethical theories would address various issues.  This is all pretty tentative, in part because different ethical theories tend to focus on different issues, so it's not always easy to determine how one theory would address the issues that are the chief concern of another theory. Also, many of the categories in the table are not strictly parts of the moral theories, but rather views on other topics (such as personal identity or the nature of rationality) which seem to mesh well with a particular ethical theory.

  Consequentialism Deontology Virtue Ethics
example utilitarianism Kantianism Aristotelianism
model of practical reasoning means-ends reasoning:  how do I get what I want/what's good? how do I determine what's rational? what habits should I develop?
personal identity (what is essential to the self?) will & reason + desires will & reason (desires are thought of as outside forces with the potential to thwart rationality) will& reason + desires + character traits
rationality getting what you want doing what reason requires (at a minimum, not having inconsistent or self-contradictory  policies) having the kinds of desires which reason determines are best
central question what ought I to do?
(act orientation)
what ought I to do?
(act orientation)
what's the best sort of person to be?
(agent orientation)
primary object of  evaluation consequences (states of affairs) acts people (agents)

(for most consequentialists, maximum happiness or something similar)
right action itself (? or possibly states of affairs brought about by right action?  or states of affairs in which people who act rightly are rewarded?) whatever results from the actions of good people?  happiness?   acquisition of goods internal to practices (MacIntyre)?
the right actions that maximize the good BASIC NOTION the sort of thing a virtuous person would do in the situation
virtue being disposed to maximize utility (for simple versions of consequentialism, there will be just one big virtue; more complex versions might have many) positive attitude toward doing one's moral duty(?) BASIC NOTION

(but may be analyzed, e.g. as those dispositions necessary for the attainment of happiness)

Last update: April 16, 2001.
Curtis Brown  |  Introduction to Philosophy  |  Philosophy Department  |   Trinity University