Three Types of Ethical Systems

What You Should Do versus What Type of Person You Should Be

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What systems of ethics can you use to guide your choices in life? Ethical systems can generally be broken down into three categories: deontological, teleological and virtue-based ethics. The first two are considered deontic or action-based theories of morality because they focus entirely on the actions which a person performs.

When actions are judged morally right based upon their consequences, we have teleological or consequentialist ethical theory.

When actions are judged morally right based upon how well they conform to some set of duties, we have a deontological ethical theory, which is common for theist religions.

Whereas these first two systems focus on the question "What should I do?," the third asks an entirely different question: "What sort of person should I be?" With this we have a virtue-based ethical theory - it doesn't judge actions as right or wrong but rather the character of the person doing the actions. The person, in turn, makes moral decisions based upon which actions would make one a good person.

Deontology and EthicsĀ - Follow the Rules and Your Duties

Deontological moral systems are characterized primarily by a focus on adherence to independent moral rules or duties. In order to make the correct moral choices, you simply have to understand what your moral duties are and what correct rules exist which regulate those duties.

When you follow your duty, you are behaving morally. When you fail to follow your duty, you are behaving immorally. A deontological moral system may be seen in many religions, where you follow the rules and duties that are said to have been established by God or the church.

Teleology and Ethics - Consequences of Your Choices

Teleological moral systems are characterized primarily by a focus on the consequences which any action might have (for that reason, they are often referred to as consequentialist moral systems, and both terms are used here).

In order to make correct moral choices, you have to have some understanding of what will result from your choices. When you make choices which result in the correct consequences, then you are acting morally; when you make choices which result in the incorrect consequences, then you are acting immorally. The problem comes in determining correct consequences when an action can produce a variety of outcomes. Also, there may be a tendency to adopt an attitude of the ends justifying the means.

Virtue Ethics - Develop Good Character Traits

Virtue-based ethical theories place much less emphasis on which rules people should follow and instead focus on helping people develop good character traits, such as kindness and generosity. These character traits will, in turn, allow a person to make the correct decisions later on in life. Virtue theorists also emphasize the need for people to learn how to break bad habits of character, like greed or anger. These are called vices and stand in the way of becoming a good person.