3 Approaches to Ethics: Principles, Outcomes and Integrity

The social world is messy and ethics helps us muddle through.

Posted May 18, 2012

All of morality aims at the same thing but there are several basic ways to get there. If you prefer, each approach is like a different tool—a hammer, a nail, a level. Using the right tool for the right job makes it easier to do your work and increases the chances that you’ll wind up with a quality product.

If you can grasp the basic ideas of each of the different approaches to ethics, you will be in a better position to make a sound ethical decision. There are other ways in which moral philosophy and philosophers can be categorized, but establishing ethical theories into their three schools is a useful way to understand ethics.

The three schools are virtue ethics, consequentialist ethics, and deontological or duty-based ethics. Each approach provides a different way to understand ethics. An analogy to your personal wellbeing is this: What is the best way to achieve a healthy life? One is through good nutrition, another is through exercise, and a third is through a spiritual discipline, and yet another stresses public health measures. Each is vital but inadequate by itself. It is bringing these—and other—approaches together that you can live to the fullest.

Similarly, in ethics, no school answers all the problems raised by social living. In most cases, all three schools need to be considered in order to reach the best ethical decision. (It should also be noted that there are divisions and sub-divisions within each of the approaches.)


Virtue Ethics: How to Live Your Life

Key Questions Informing Ethical Decisions:

What kind of person do I want to be?

What virtues bring me closer to this goal; which vices prevent me from achieving it? Is my behavior consistent with being a moral person?

Some Main Principles

Aspiring to a set of virtues.

Avoiding a set of vices.

Integrity is a primary value.

Finding the right balance within and between values.


Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Alasdair MacIntyre (1929)

Consequentialist Ethics: Is It Good?

Key Questions Informing Ethical Decisions:

What impact is my behavior having on the world?

Am I doing more good or harm by my behavior?

Is my behavior making the world a better place?

Some Main Goals

Actions aim at bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Benevolence is a primary value.


David Hume (1711-1776)

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Deontological Ethics: Is It Right?

Key Questions Informing Ethical Decisions:

What are my ethical principles telling me I should do?

What does reason require of me regarding my treatment of others?

What duties do I owe?

How do I decide between conflicting duties?

Some Main Principles

Arriving at ethical principles through reason.

Reasons must be consistent and coherent.

Having a duty to others based on ethical principles.

Respecting the autonomy of others is a primary value.


John Locke (1632-1704)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

The three schools of ethics are tools for thinking about morality. Seldom do we use one approach exclusively. Each has its limits. You have to consider all three approaches to be a good person and do the right thing.

As an ethical person, you may reflect upon your own integrity (the virtue school), or try to do more good than bad (the consequentialist approach), or adhere to ethical principles (the deontological philosophy). We each are inclined to favor one approach over the other. But good ethical judgment often requires finding the right mix for the particular circumstances at hand.

The social world is messy and ethics helps us muddle through.