Please help me get a better grasp on this topic.

Roughly, it seems that deontological ethics are grounded in consequences of following roles while virtue ethics are grounded in consequences of acting as a virtual person.

Why is that not considered "consequentialism"?

Are there narrow and broad understandings of "consequentialism"?

Are there there any efforts in philosophy to place deontological and virtue ethics as subsets rather than competitors of consequentialism?

  • Hi, welcome! Is there anything you've looked at to try to figure it out? Did you see, for example: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontological_ethics. Not an expert myself, but the two seem almost to be mutually exclusive - one being concerned with the usefullness of the ends, one being concerned about the appropriateness of the actions. Jun 30, 2014 at 20:26
  • In my research I encountered that these concepts are defined as separate and contradictory, yet arguments still compare consequences.
    – user897210
    Jun 30, 2014 at 20:51
  • For example, a deontological argument that says: "it is wrong to kill 1 person to save 100 people" seems to be just another way of expressing preferences of consequences... a rule-based rather than utility-based consequentialism, if you will.
    – user897210
    Jun 30, 2014 at 21:05
  • @user897210 see my answer but there's an error in your claim. A deontological argument does not say "It is wrong to kill 1 person to save 100 people." It says "It is wrong to kill 1 person." It could add regardless of whether it will save others, but it maintains it is wrong without looking at the consequences.
    – virmaior
    Jul 1, 2014 at 0:39

1 Answer 1


At the most basic level, they differ in terms of what they are analyzing. We'll work with your example (in part): It is wrong to kill someone.

A consequentialist theory tells you something is right or wrong based on either the intended or actual consequences. In its classical Utilitarian articulation, it also include a "harm principle" that prohibits harming others in the process of maximizing pleasure. But this harm principle is not justified in terms of maximization -- thus showing one potential problem for these theories. Looking at it "it is wrong to kill someone," the consequentialist says this when there is a negative consequence relative to the valuable commodity lost in killing someone. On such an account, it is conceivable that killing someone could be not merely licensed but morally praiseworthy or possibly even obligatory.

A deontological theory says actions are right or wrong based on whether or not they express the completion of duties or not. Looking at "it is wrong to kill someone," the deontologist tells us that it is wrong because killing someone violates a duty -- either to oneself or to others (possibly including God). On such an account, if killing is wrong as a violation of a fundamental duty, it is always wrong. (It could also be wrong on more contingent grounds -- I promised not to kill you until next week Tuesday so I have a duty to my word and to your promise).

A virtue account generally asks whether they allow the person to flourish and grow. Here, the virtue account tells us it is wrong to kill someone because of how this warps the character of the person and how it fails to demonstrate excellence in response to one's emotions or thoughts. There's a lot of different virtue theories so it's going to be hard to nail down what "virtue theory" says as to when/why it's wrong to kill someone.

Given these basic sketches, one could see virtue accounts a species of consequentialism centered on a certain idea of the person and its excellence. It's going to be much harder to draw deontology into a consequentialism but it can be done by suggesting that what we are maximizing is the completion of duty. But it won't be identical because you're still evaluating differently when looking at the morality of actions.

  • You wrote: "consequentialist says (wrong to kill) when there is a negative consequence relative to the valuable commodity lost in killing someone" One may say: I consider consequences of killing for utility to be unacceptable. Is that not a "consequentialist" position? I may be stumbling on the link between consequentialism and maximization of value/utility/etc. Is that a necessary aspect of consequentialism? Can somebody be a consequentialist that compares consequences of actions to his preferences? This may allow for a wide range of consequence-based moral systems.
    – user897210
    Jul 1, 2014 at 1:16
  • @user897210 - you can come up with complex versions of consequentialism, but it really changes nothing. It merely moves around where we are calculating. There are, for instance, rule-based versions where the rules are calculated to maximize benefit but the specifics are not. In other words, we make a rule that all killing is wrong because the net benefit of prohibiting killing outweighs the specific benefits afforded in some narrow set of killings. But calculating is the specific feature of consequentialist theories. So we're merely moving around when we calculate.
    – virmaior
    Jul 1, 2014 at 3:18
  • Or to put it another way, if at the end of the day you say killing is wrong for a reason that is not ultimately a calculation against some thing (happiness, suffering, chocolate bars, total # of jokes in the universe), then you're not talking about consequentialism anymore. (Bernard Williams thinks this is a defeeter for all consequentialists views because they ultimately are accepted when checked against things we value). This remains true even if you separate the calculations from specific actions.
    – virmaior
    Jul 1, 2014 at 3:19
  • You wrote: "it really changes nothing. It merely moves around where we are calculating". That is kind of my point. Deontology offers just another way of evaluating condequences. It says that particular consequences are to be categorically avoided. Deontology judges whether consequences would adhere to principles. Does it not? Murder is a consequence. murder is wrong = action is wrong if murder is the consequence.
    – user897210
    Jul 1, 2014 at 11:11
  • No, you're completely misunderstanding me on two points. What I was saying is rule-based utilitarianism is still utilitarian. Utilitarianism judges actions based on the goodness of their consequences. Deontology judges them based on whether their commission is correspondent with the appropriate principle regardless of consequences. "Murder" is not the consequence; it is the action and an intention. A person dying is a consequence but there may be others as well. None of the consequences matter to the deontologist as prima facie reasons for something to be right or wrong.
    – virmaior
    Jul 1, 2014 at 11:30

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