I have always assumed, perhaps naively, that the basic goal of ethics is to provide judgements of possible outcomes of one's actions, and thus also advice on the way one should act. I just realised that others view this matter quite differently, and I wanted to clarify this somewhat.

Let me elaborate on how I understand ethics. Consider a person just about to make a decision. The decision leads to some possible outcomes, and suppose for the purpose of simplicity that the outcomes are known and well understood. The possible outcomes are evaluated using ethics; some will be considered better, some worse, and ideally it will be possible to compare each pair. Then, the "right" or "moral" thing for the person in question to do is to to choose the highest-ranked of the possible outcomes, and act accordingly. Note that by "outcome" I mean everything that happens after the decision is made, including all the costs and side effects.

For example, ethics could tell me that killing innocent people is wrong; then common sense would tell me that if I have my finger on a trigger of a loaded gun pointed at a person then my pressing the trigger would result in killing that person; therefore I should not press the trigger in this situation, all other things being equal. But if that person happened to be just about to kill two other people, then ethics would (arguably) also tell me that one dead person is not as bad as two dead people, and if experience told me that the only way to save the two is to kill that one person, then I would conclude that I should, after all, pull the trigger. Call this "outcome oriented ethics".

However, it I realised that some others seem to view ethics more as a set of "rules", "rights", and so on. Thus, I might have a rule saying "I shouldn't kill", which would require me not to kill another person. As the example above suggest, this rule should probably be extended with "... except to save a life" or something of this kind. Call this "means oriented" ethics. I suppose that if each rule produced by "means oriented" ethics was given a disclaimer "... unless it serves greater good to do otherwise", then it would reduce to "outcome oriented" ethics.

I have considered "outcome oriented ethics" as the natural way to go about ethics for most of my life, so I am confused. Is ethics as understood in (modern) philosophy "outcome oriented" or "means oriented" (or both, or neither)? Given that ethics is apparently quite a big chunk of philosophy, the answer is not very likely to be a simple "yes/no", so perhaps a more reasonable question is: How does "my" conception of ethics relate to what ethics actually is?

Let me end with a disclaimer: I am definitely not a philosopher, my interest in matters related to philosophy arises mostly from simple human curiousity.


7 Answers 7


You ask a very intelligent question, and you ask it very well. The debate over 'outcome oriented ethics' and 'means oriented ethics' is not new - in fact, entire schools of philosophy exist about this within the meta-field Normative Ethics.

For example:

Consequentialism refers to moral theories that hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action


Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, "obligation, duty"; and -λογία, -logia) is an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, or the rules and duties that the person doing the act strove to fulfill.

Deontological ethics was made famous by Kant's categorical imperative - which very sloppily stated is something like an ultimate rule that drives one's actions in every situation.

These are two of the very many sub-contexts beneath the heading of Normative Ethics. However, most of the other schools in Normative Ethics can be said to contain aspects of both Consequentialism and Deontology as they represent the polar extremes so to speak.

Your conception of ethics relates well to what Ethics actually is. However the last part of that sentence is tricky. Ethics doesn't have an is in the same way a rock has an is (even a rock doesn't have an is really, but that is a different conversation). Though, often thinkers in the field of ethics wish to end the discussion with the right answer, the bottom line is that ethics is a discussion for structuring what are considered the ideal moral and (in many cases) legal standards that we ought strive for.

Because this conversation is eternal and is often not related to that way; there is more stupidity and misused ideas in the field than in perhaps any other field of philosophy. Human beings go absolutely nuts when confronting uncertainty - and the idea of absolute moral laws which we can follow at all times is both tantalizing to the psyche, and dangerous. It is dangerous in that once we know what the truth is, we stop thinking about it, without realizing that often the thinking about and struggle for truth may itself be the truth.

However that said: Ethics is both the conversation and discussion that give rise to our moral ideals AND the prescription of and declaration of those ideals themselves.

note: The two quotes in this article came from the Wikipedia Ethics page, which is very well written and fairly easy (as easy as you get with scholarly philosophy).

  • As I mentioned in my own answer, there is also virtue ethics, which focuses on the qualities or nature of the agent themselves.
    – Malcolm
    Jul 21, 2014 at 16:33
  • 1
    @user1167442: "the idea of absolute moral laws which we can follow at all times is both tantalizing to the psyche, and dangerous. It is dangerous in that once we know what the truth is, we stop thinking about it, without realizing that often the thinking about and struggle for truth may itself be the truth." This makes me think of why I gave up on dogmatic religion. In particular, I realized that even if an "infallible" truth source existed in reality , our knowledge of its infallibility would not be infallible, and thus we could not actually ever treat it as such. Jul 17, 2017 at 8:11

First, it seems there is a bit of Morality mixed in with your ideas of what an Ethic is. Morality and Ethics are very different. An individual's Ethic is often aided by that individual's standards on morality. Morality has to do with established norms, and compliance with the expectations of a group who share a set of views, not so much common motivation or allegiance. If they did share a motive or sensed purpose, it would be possible to share Ethics. Religion, government, etc. play into morality. Ethics are individual.

Ethics are about individual will. They are defined by your self-perception.

Your individuality and your self-defined purpose govern your ethics. You are correct that Ethics has to do with choice, but choice itself is not completely focused on decisions or actions. Choice has to do with Will. Will has to do very much with self-perception and the desire to pursue a certain life course.

While I am not religious, I've appreciated Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That book was not completed because Dietrich was hung by Hitler before he could finish it. The partial version of the book was published by his close friend and confidant. He was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, because he believed that the killing of Jews was his own personal issue, meaning that Hitler was acting on Dietrich's own individuality and will - killing in his name. This meant that Dietrich could lie and aid in killing because someone was already lying and killing in Dietrich's name. He is famous for saying that it is better for a good man to lie than for an evil man to tell the truth. The concept of good and evil is moral, but the choice to lie is ethical. Giving false information might be the necessary course, or killing might be the necessary course, if someone is violating your individual will and doing what you believe to be unethical. It is to preserve your self and remain congruent with your motivations. Sun Tzu has a lot to say about Ethics in the book Art of War. Sometimes the truth is lying. Sometimes killing is giving life. Perhaps the most authentic path to your own deepest desire is to surround yourself with "enemies."

Ethics are the specific course you take in fulfilling your individuality.

Choices, actions, and states of being are within the sphere of will, and your ideals are shaped by your individuality being defined. There is no means other than the self being given dimension, in Ethics. Ayn Rand has a lot to say about this, in her various writing on The Virtue of Selfishness in various novels and collections of talks and essays. She is not the best example of how to craft individual Ethics, but she does excel in demonstrating the individual's need to completely give one's self to one's own interests.

So in your example, the one of choosing to kill, the better question is: Why do I care who lives or dies? Could I be doing something else right now? Is holding a gun or watching this situation the best way of investing this moment of my life? Is inaction in this circumstance the right decision for me, no matter who lives or dies? In the grand scheme of things, if I let the other two people die, then kill the aggressor, do I better fulfill something in my own sense of what ought to be? Sometimes inaction or harnessing the intentions of someone out of sync with your own motivations is better than intervening and "doing right."

Ethics are about what ought to be, not what is correct or incorrect.

The self focuses on creating an individuality of a specific and unique quality. When you reach the point of feeling in your deepest core what you must do before you die, then you can be Ethical. Everything you do must fit within the path you choose to the ideal footprint in time and perhaps infinity. Morality cannot guide you. Ethics is case-by-case, and completely designed to make your self authentically, and shape the world to your own liking, so you may be content with your own reality and the reality around you. What is consistent with your ideal death, or most sincere life path? Doing that is Ethical.

  • 2
    I find the fervor of your distinction between the terms 'ethics' and 'morality' interesting; I've read about some people making a minor distinction in scope between the two terms but never with quite the divide you draw. In my own experience with philosophy in reading and university, I've always heard it used interchangeably. I'd be interested to see any if there was a meta paper somewhere that gave numbers on how many people hold it to be one way or another... +1 nonetheless :)
    – stoicfury
    Jan 31, 2014 at 0:39
  • 1
    Thanks @stoicfury. Considering the nature of Ethics is important to me. Yes it is mostly unknown. And I find Ethics dangerous to 'study.' The unknowing but sincere are better off than students and masters. Too much consideration of Ethics is 'unethical.' We are better off free to self-create. I cannot call Ethics a subject. If an art or science it cannot be 'taught.' Morality is a subject, a History. But 'heroism' is not 'historical.' And yet distinct individuals do stand out of time and define norms. Law is a subject too, whereas practicing Law is highly individual until cases set precedents. Jan 31, 2014 at 20:36
  • Do animals have moral? I assume they have will.
    – Asphir Dom
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:43
  • Since morality is relative to culture, yes. In a form. See how wolves and lions keep their packs in line, and how monkeys and most other animals guard mates and become angry at violations of their felt boundaries. Jul 21, 2014 at 20:44
  • But I would not assume that animals have Will. At least not a sovereign Will. They have individuality, but in a more holistic sense - where they are aspects of the whole of Nature which is sovereign as a collective, whereas "humanity" is an entire Nature at a time, in each sovereign Individual. So Nature as a whole has Will, as does each other sovereign Individual, including "humans" -- I put "human" in quotes because here I mean the German term Mensch, which is "a person of integrity and honor" which starts to explain what I mean about a distinction between animal and "mensch" regarding Will. Jul 21, 2014 at 21:55

As described in this excellent essay, every ethical situation has three elements: an agent making a decision, the actions taken (or not) by that agent, and the outcome of those actions (or inactions). Thus, there are actually three different possible perspectives on ethics:

  • Outcome-focused is the perspective you are familiar with, and concentrates on consequences.
  • Rights-focused (or rules-focused) is the second type you refer to, and concentrates on actions and behaviors--what should be allowed, what shouldn't, etc.
  • Agent-focused (or virtue-focused) is the final perspective, and concentrates on the qualities of the moral agent themselves.

Let's look at an example you may be familiar with: say there's a train car with a dozen passengers headed off a cliff. You can redirect the car to a safe rail, but there's a person tied to the tracks. The question is, should you switch the car to the other tracks, or let it be?

An outcome-focused agent would decide what to do based on the consequences of their decision (how many lives will be saved?) A rights-focused agent would decide what to do based on a set of personal moral guidelines ("thou shalt not kill," the Golden Rule). A virtue-focused agent would base their decision on the kind of person they hold as an ideal (what would Jesus do?) Note that which perspective you take can influence your decision, depending on the circumstances, but doesn't necessarily determine it.

It should also be apparent that these three approaches are complimentary, not competing: since you can't have an ethical problem without an agent, actions, and consequences, all three perspectives play a role. Certain perspectives can be more useful in some situations than in others, but in general which perspective you choose to base your decisions on is largely a matter of preference.

  • I'm not sure agent focused ethics can be that cleanly separated from the other two without an existential or psychological context included.
    – dgo
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:06
  • @user1167442 You'd have to persuade me that consequence and rights focused ethics are any different in that regard...
    – Malcolm
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:37
  • I can see that. Here is a possible way of viewing what I mean: Consequentialism is clearly focused on observable outcomes - the results are visible to judge. Deontology is essentially focused on motives and actions - if the motives can be revealed, they are judgable. Agent focused ethics seems to imply that we need an ontological understanding of the moral agent. I can't see how we can focus on the essence of the moral agent apart from "actions" and "consequences" At any rate, I'm not attached to my view - the line just seems too sharp.
    – dgo
    Jul 22, 2014 at 16:19

It can be both, depending on which School you "follow".

To make it simple:

  • Ethics that put emphasis on the goal are called teleological. From telos, which is greek for end/goal/purpose.

  • Ethics that put emphasis on a set of apriori (see below) rules, and therefore emphasise on the means are called deontological. From deon which is greek for obligation.

To name an example: Kant concerned himself with deontological ethics. Simply put, he said you must have a set of rules which are true regardless of the situation in every case (categorical) and you have to follow them always in the same way (imperative). He says this, because in his opinion you have to have some sort way prior to the action, before you do something, to decide wether it's "good or bad" (apriori). If you have to think of the consequences that makes everything a lot more uncertain, because you can't always predict the outcome. This universal set of rules gives you the means, which are at the same time the end.

Now in your text you were describing a rather Utilitarian approach, which is the view that was advocated by Bentham, Mill, Kanitscheider etc. They state that you must consider the outcome of an action, which you should do in advance (They proposed a sort of ethical "calculus", in which you have to assign values to the possible consequences of an action and act accordingly). Of course you can evaluate the outcome only after the action has been completed, that makes it a posteriori. Of course if you think you might save some people but end up getting them killed afterwards your judgment was wrong, and therefore the action, according to the utilitarians. They strive to maximize/optimize the "pleasure" (in the sense of the good stuff in general) of humanity by weighing the goals.

On another note: you should check out Philippa Foots trolley problem thought experiment. Short version: imagine there is a train heading straight towards five people tied to the tracks. You are in the trainyard with a lever in front of you that changes the tracks, diverts the train, saving those 5 poeple. but on the other tracks there is also a person tied to the tracks, which wouldn't be harmed, if you don't intervene.

Now you have a choice:

  1. don't do anything. the 5 people will die, the one saved.
  2. pull the lever. Save the 5, deliberately killing the one.

Now depending on which ethics you follow, you might choose differently. I daresay Kant would have gone for 1. and Bentham for 2.

  • 1
    That is a sweet example. The answer is simple. Whatever you choose, you will be haunted by your choice forever.
    – dgo
    Jul 30, 2014 at 21:44
  • @user1167442: yeah, I'm happy I found it too. My last philosophy teacher once gave us an assignment to write an essay about a female philosopher in the field of ethics of the twentieth century of our choice, because we knew none. Fortunately in my research I came across Philipa Foot and loved the trolley paradox right away.
    – Matthaeus
    Aug 4, 2014 at 16:33
  • Which 20th century did you choose?
    – dgo
    Aug 4, 2014 at 20:22
  • 20th century CE
    – Matthaeus
    Aug 5, 2014 at 17:01
  • 1
    Good choice I think
    – dgo
    Aug 6, 2014 at 3:02

In German, we have a great epigram that sums up the controversy:

Der eine fragt: Was kommt danach? / Der andre nur: Ist's Recht? / Und dadurch unterscheiden sich / Der Freie und der Knecht. (Theodor Storm)

I attempt a translation:

One asks: What will happen then? / The other asks: Is it right? / And this then makes the difference / between the savage and the knight.

In my interpretation, the "Knight" (i.e. an idealized ethical acting human), considers what is wrong or right. Specifically, he will forgo a desirable outcome if the means to reach it are wrong. Silly? I give 2 examples:

  • Sexual satisfaction is by nature desirable. Yet the "Knight" restrains himself in cases where that goal could only be reached against the will of the partner.
  • A state of affairs where the judical system does not err, and sentences the guilty and only the guilty, is certainly highly desirable. One way to approach that goal would be application of torture or "truth drugs" towards suspects. Another one would be pro-active spying on everyone, and using the collected material at the courts as evidence.

This, I hope, exemplifies the grave difficulties with the "outcome oriented ethics". Just read your newspaper to get more real life examples.

There is a simple case for deontological ethics, especially for a system of (not too many) rules that say what one must not do, in conjunction with the final rule "Everything that is not wrong, is right.". Such a system promotes freedom (paradoxically, since it contains mainly of prohibitions), for the following reason: There are uncountably many possible actions, but only so many prohibitions. It follows, that most actions are considered right. (Unless, of course, there are nonsensical generic prohibitions like: "You must not do what the government doesn't want you to do." or some such.)

A very well known example for such a system are the biblical Ten Commandments. Note, that 8 out of the 10 are actually prohibitions: You must not: have other gods, swear, kill, steal, violate your neighbours property rights ... and so on.

Conversely, if only what is explicitly allowed is right, and everything else is wrong, then no matter how many allowances are there, most actions would still be forbidden, if only for the reason that nobody could foresee that someone would want to act in this way. Needless to say, nobody could have build up the internet, say, under such a tyranny.

  • The example about "sexual satisfaction" is about very egoistic "outcome oriented ethics" that doesn't care about how this outcome influences others. Bad example, as if outcome oriented ethicist is 3 years old and cares only about himself. The second example has similar flaw - being outcome oriented doesn't mean that ethicist's IQ is too low to see more complicated problematic/bad outcomes. (My 2 cents.)
    – zaa
    Mar 30, 2014 at 10:52
  • @zaarcis The first one is actually a pretty good example. First of all outcome oriented ethic systems, also called teleological ethics, are very diverse. For example epicurean philosophy contains a very egoistical/egocentric approach (maximize your lust), while Utilitarianism a more altruistic (maximize/optimize everyone's lust). His example rather refers to the latter. However his second example is probably not so good, yeah.
    – Matthaeus
    Jul 21, 2014 at 16:12
  • @Ingo: This is a matter of subjective interpretation, but i wouldn't use knight and savage, but rather yeoman and servant. Sure Freier also is a noble title and Knecht has a connotation of "lowliness", but in the end the main distinction here, even juxtaposition, is that the first one is free while the other one is a servant, a slave (also mentally maybe, according to the spirit of enlightenment, but that's just a conjecture).
    – Matthaeus
    Jul 21, 2014 at 16:17

Ethics is about the good and the means. I claim:

You cannot understand the goal apart from the means, nor the means apart from the goal.

First I will pick a scientific version: suppose that God were to write "God's Big Book of Facts", and attempt to communicate it to us. How would he do that? The Computational Theory of the Laws of Nature is an exploration of the question, and asks how God would communicate the grammar and sematics of the book. One possible conclusion is that a simulation might be the best way. A simulation, of course, has means and ends.

Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue argues that you cannot have morality without teleology; a given morality without a telos inescapably reduces to Emotivism he claims (which he maintains in the third edition), and Emotivism is nothing more than a façade for the Nietzschean imposition of power of the strong upon the weak. MacIntyre thinks you need both virtues—means—and teleology, which can also be describe under the rubric of 'common good'—this is your end.

Note that Aristotle, with his Four Causes, had no problem seeing the need for means and ends. If you do not know all four causes of a thing, you do not fully understand it, according to him. One would be moving, of course, toward eudaimonia.

  • Your claim strikes me as false. Suppose I say that world peace would be a good thing. I can make sense of this statement without first figuring out how to stop all wars, so here is a goal that can be understood with no reference to means. Or I could tell a child (and a god could tell a person, presumably) how to behave, and it would then know the means without knowing the goal. What am I missing? Jul 21, 2014 at 7:29
  • @Feanor, Then let's achieve world peace by killing all humans. Or all but one. That will achieve world peace.
    – labreuer
    Jul 21, 2014 at 18:06

Ethics is not about goals or means, it is about making decisions.

You can sometimes criticise a goal with respect to whether it can be achieved with means you regard as acceptable. For example, say you want to get a new computer today. You don't have enough money and can't get a loan so the only way you can get a computer is by stealing it. You think stealing is a bad means of getting stuff so you ditch the goal of getting a new computer today.

You can also criticise means by considering whether they allow you to achieve particular goals. So let's suppose that you decide to get a computer today by stealing it. If you steal the computer the police might find out about what you did and take away the computer. So then stealing as a means of getting a computer is not particularly good.

Now, you proposed that you could look at morality as being about assessing outcomes. You add up all the costs and benefits and then make a decision. This way of looking at morality doesn't really work.

The first problem is that in general the consequences of a decision can't be known in advance. Suppose you buy a computer and the computer salesman gets some commission and as a result he buys his four year old daughter a tricycle. The daughter then rides the tricycle into the road and gets creamed by an articulated lorry travelling at 90 mph. This is a bad consequence of your action, but it's not one that you could foresee. In general consequences can't be foreseen because they will involve other people making decisions and to make those decisions they will create knowledge. You can't know what knowledge will be created in the future because if you could predict it you would already have that knowledge.

The second problem is that there are many consequences you will never know about even after the fact. So you can't trace all of the consequences of your decision and then decide in retrospect whether it was good or bad.

You might say that you're not going to consider all of the consequences but at that point in substance you have given up the consequence criterion because the way you judge what consequences to count can't be solely about consequences.

So what's the alternative? Knowledge (useful or explanatory information), including moral knowledge, isn't derived from anything. The idea that it is possible to show that a particular idea is true or right or probably true or right is called justificationism and it is wrong. If you assess ideas using argument then the arguments have premises and rules of inference and the result of the argument may not be true (or probably true) if the premises and rules of inference are false. You might try to solve this by coming up with a new argument that proves the premises and rules of inference but then you have the same problem with those premises and rules of inference. You might say that some stuff is indubitably true (or probably true), and you can use that as a foundation. But that just means you have cut off a possible avenue of intellectual progress since the foundation can't be explained in terms of anything deeper. And in any case there is nothing that can fill that role.

We don't create knowledge by showing stuff is true or right or probably true or right, so how do we create knowledge? We can only create knowledge by finding mistakes in our current ideas and correcting them piecemeal. You notice a problem with your current ideas, propose solutions, criticise the solutions until only one is left and then find a new problem. We shouldn't say that a theory is false because it hasn't been proven because this applies to all theories. Rather, we should look at what problems it aims to solve and ask whether it solves them. We should look at whether it is compatible with other current knowledge and if not try to figure out the best solution. Should the new idea be discarded or the old idea or can some variant of both solve the problem?

As far as morality is concerned, you can criticise the means or the ends or anything else about a particular way of making decisions that seems problematic and then try to replace it with something that doesn't suffer from the same flaws. In the computer example from the start of my answer, whether you criticise the means or the ends doesn't really matter. In both cases you're going to end up concluding that you should earn some more money and then buy the computer. (Or you might decide to do without it but even in that case it doesn't much matter whether you chose to think about the issue initially in terms of ends or means.)

For more on moral philosophy see




  • Ethics is about decisions, true. But it is even more about how these decisions are made and executed, following which principles. And these principles are precisely about goals and means.
    – Matthaeus
    Jul 21, 2014 at 15:58
  • As I explained under some circumstances you can make a decision by reconsidering a goal, under others you may do it by reconsidering the means. Since either of those can be reconsidered as part of a decision morality is not directly about either of them since you need to have a way of making a decision about whether you should reconsider the goal or reconsider the means.
    – alanf
    Jul 22, 2014 at 9:40

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .