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Deontological, Teleological and Virtue Ethics

Types of Ethical Systems

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Normative ethical systems can generally be broken down into three categories: deontological, teleological and virtue ethics. The first two are considered deontic or action-based theories of morality because they focus entirely upon 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.

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 Ethics
Deontological moral systems are characterized primarily by a focus upon adherence to independent moral rules or duties. Thus, in order to make the correct moral choices, we simply have to understand what our moral duties are and what correct rules exist which regulate those duties. When we follow our duty, we are behaving morally. When we fail to follow our duty, we are behaving immorally.

Teleology and Ethics
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 consequentalist moral systems, and both terms are used here). Thus, in order to make correct moral choices, we have to have some understanding of what will result from our choices. When we make choices which result in the correct consequences, then we are acting morally; when we make choices which result in the incorrect consequences, then we are acting immorally.

Virtue Ethics
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.

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