Free «Normative Ethics: Deontology vs. Consequentialism» Essay Sample


Normative ethics refers to the section of moral philosophy dealing with what makes an action to be morally right or wrong. Therefore, it is concerned with the formulation of rules that human beings should abide by to make their actions, way of life, and acceptable institutions in society. There are three categories of moral philosophy: normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta-ethics (Finnis 16). Applied ethics alleges that scenarios can have both right and wrong actions. On the other hand, meta-ethics focuses on the causes or origin of right and wrong, while normative ethics proposes that individuals’ behavior can either be right or wrong. Some human actions that are judged to be right or wrong include lying, honest, and stealing. Actions must have already occurred before the observer can judge them to be right or wrong because the judgments is  based on the effects of the actions on the parties involved. Moreover, other factors are also taken into consideration when deciding the morality of an action. For instance, although killing is wrong, it could be right in instances where the law allows one to kill like in euthanasia.

The main concern of normative ethics is how moral standards are determined and justified. This can be explained by two broad theories: - deontological and consequentialism. It is a human weakness that people first observe the outcome of an action before they can give it a name and believe that this name is the only determinant of the action (Finnis 21). Mostly, human-beings are controlled by their instincts or morality. Even though they might not want to do something, they end up doing it. For instance, when they lust for material things, they become morally weak and could steal to fulfill their desire. Similarly, a wrong action will draw attention once it has already happened but it would not realize it when it hasn’t happened. This can be explained by the analogy of a falling rock. Regardless of its speed, location or motion, the rock will remain to be a rock. The term “falling rock” implies that it is moving from an upper location to a lower one. However, if a person looking at the rock is standing upside-down, he may say that the rock is flying upwards. On the other hand, an observer travelling parallel to the same rock will say that the rock is not in any motion. Therefore, this implies that the term “fall” is used relative to the speed and location of the observer. Similarly, the morality of an action varies depending on the normative theory used to explain the action. For instance, while deontology is concerned with respect to the rules, consequentialism is concerned with the result of the action. Therefore, a wrong action under consequentialism could be right under deontology. This paper discusses consequentialism and deontology as ethical theories. Additionally, it seeks to prove that as much as both of them are inadequate, consequentialism is a better approach to govern moral philosophy.



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According to Driver, deontology is mainly concerned with duties, rules and obligations. It determines the morality of an action by considering how it adheres to the rules and obligations. It is non-conseqentialist in the sense that it denies the thesis that the consequences of an action determine whether it is right or wrong (Driver 32). It states that these consequences do not necessarily determine the morality of an action. Deontological theory insists that morality should help in creating law and order in the society. Therefore, an action is right or wrong depending on how it obeys the law. Right actions are those which help to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities of an individual in the society. Consequently, the approach believes that the rightness of an action is more important than its goodness.

The deontological theory also suggests that ethics and morality should be understood as systems of the law that are meant to guide and govern people’s conduct. Moral rules in the society or institutions are presented in the form of imperatives or commands. As a result, Driver asserts that there are three relevant kinds of rules: those that forbid an action; those that consider an action to be an obligation; and those that consider an action to be permissible. Forbidding an action, rules provide human-beings with a duty to avoid acting in a certain way. For instance, do not steal. When a rule makes an action obligatory, it provides one with the duty to act in a certain way. For instance, love your neighbor (Driver 62).

Deontological ethics is agent-relative and not agent-neutral. In some instances, a moral rule can refer to an agent. For instance, parents are presumably supposed to take care of their children even if it is not clear on how to do it. The key issue is that some actions can only be done by a particular agent. According to the deontological theory, moral duties are absolute to the extent that they do not admit any exceptions. For instance, Kant argues that it is wrong to make a false promise regardless of any good consequences which can be brought about by the lie (Kant 15).

On the other hand, consequentialism presupposes that an action can only be termed to be right or wrong depending on its outcomes or results. Therefore, a morally right action will have good consequences. It suggests that one should do actions that maximize the best consequences. An action itself does not matter as long as it leads to the best consequences. Consequentialism can be divided into various groups depending on the type of consequences they result into. Utilitarianism is one example of the consequentialism theories. It states that human-beings should always perform actions that bring about the greatest pleasure to those affected by these actions. For instance, in a democratic country, the rule of law should be determined by an action which would bring about the greatest pleasure. John Stuart Mill alleges that the pursuit of pleasures is more valued than other actions (Finnis 41). Hedonism is another form of consequentialism. It considers pleasure as the only intrinsic good. Some consequences matter more than others, and, therefore, an agent can choose actions that will bring the most favorable consequences.

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Nonetheless, both theories are not completely objective concerning the ways of determining the moral philosophy of an action. To begin with the deontological theory, it does not provide a clear way to solving conflicts caused by moral duties. There is no formula that one should follow in order to choose a moral duty. For instance, every parent has an obligation to provide his family with basic needs. However, there is no definite formula on how to get the money to take care of the family. Therefore, a parent can do whatever he can to get some money to feed his family. It is commonly said that the best option will be that with the lesser evil. But, this is not different from the consequentiality perspective. Kant proclaimed that “a conflict of duty is inconceivable.” (Kant 42). Although this might be the right conclusion, it is difficult to produce a reason to believe it because fulfilling one duty could affect another duty. For instance, an angry mob kills a thief; they might have eliminated cases of theft in the community, but they would also have taken away a human life.

Similarly, deontology does not cater to the grey areas in situations when action’s morality is questionable. The deontology theory is based on absolute principles and conclusions which do not necessary work under real circumstance (Landau 31). Naturally, moral questions have some grey areas that can make it difficult to give definite answers: they have a slim difference between right or wrong. Additionally, it is not clear what kinds of duties are automatically qualified as those that one should follow regardless of the consequences. For instance, actions that used to be considered wrong during the 17th century might not necessarily be wrong in the 21st century. As the society develops, new ideas come up and human beings are forced to adjust to remain relevant. Moral obligations also differ depending on factors such as religion, culture or age group. As one grows or changes his peers, his moral obligations change too. Therefore, when one grows older, his/her moral obligations may change. And even if some actions were to be abandoned, who would say that the actions were moral in the past. These uncertainties make deontology unreliable.

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Consequentialism on its part cannot also be entirely reliable, because it does not consider intentions or motivations. Even if one performed an action with the best intensions, but it resulted in sour consequences, it would still be considered morally wrong. Conversely, an action performed with the worst intentions, but leading to positive consequences, would be considered morally right. It is unfortunate that actions of an individual, who is destined to do evil, but coincidentally led to good consequences, are encouraged while actions of those dedicated to doing good are condemned because they, unfortunately, led to bad consequences. For consequentialism, the final outcome is more important than the intensions of the person committing the act.

According to consequentialism, an action is judged when it has already happened, and there is nothing that can be done to reverse its outcomes (Landau 76). The best theory should seek to realize consequences of an action before it is done so that any wrong doings can be corrected before they happen. Generally, consequentialism has been criticized for committing ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ (Tanner 1). It assumes that the term ‘good’ can be quantified by natural properties. This makes consequentialism ethics incoherent. It has also been accused of not taking into account those affected by an action. For instance, Nagel argued that that consequentiality cannot criticize any abuses of human-rights in time of war, if the war results in a better situation in the country (Nagel 203). Morality and justice are closely related, and war could result to good or bad consequences.

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Ultimately, neither of the two ethical theories can be objectively used to measure morality. According to Margolis, ethical judgments are defective. He adds that “a moral principle entails a non-ethical procedure by which empirical properties may be constructed as morally significant,” (Margolis 553). The society can come up with explanations to back up the morally of an action, and this could change an action from right to wrong. Nonetheless, it would be much better to opt for consequentialism over deontology as discussed below.

As Margolis puts it, every end-in-view should be taken serious because it is a means to some other end-in-view. Ideally, the consequence of one action as well as the action itself can lead to another consequence. Therefore, it is important to strive to provide the best actions so that the future activities cannot be adversely affected. Determining the morality of an action today would mean that the future generations would base the morality of the same action based on the decisions we make today. In case an action is pronounced to be right when it is actually wrong, it will be difficult to reverse the decision in the future because people’s action are based on the norms of the society. Therefore, consequentialism is the best option, because it can eventually ensure that every action is morally right.

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The fundamental nature of consequentialism can be appreciated by considering the fact that its ultimate moral is to produce the best possible outcomes. This theory is supported by such theorist as Kai Nielsen who argues that consequentialism can agree with commonsense and is superior to deontology (Nielsen 52). Since the consequentialist approach calls for taking an action that can result in the best consequences, there is a dilemma; whether it will support one with the lesser evil. Consequences are judged based on the amount of happiness they bring about. Good consequences have greater happiness.

Consequentialism can give the best explanation of moral instincts as compared to deontology. In fact, it can explain most moral instincts that have caused so much trouble for deontologists (Portmore 17). For instance, Bradley allude to the idea that it is wrong to kill one individual in order to save five others, but it is Ok to kill one individual if this will help save million others (7). In such a case, it is not specified what makes one action morally right and the other one wrong. Consequently, it is impossible to think of any explanation to such a point of view. On the other hand, the consequentialism ethical theory explains that the morally right action is one which results in the greatest amount of happiness. In such a case, consequentialist theory does state that saving one million people has better consequences than saving five.

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Additionally, unlike in deontology where morality can change over time, consequentialism is impartial, because the morality of an action cannot change. If an action is wrong, under no circumstance it can be interpreted to be right (Bergstrom 76). If other factors are equal, a morally right action of the future generation will remain morally right and have the same weight as an action of the present generation. The deontological theory has arbitrary claims. It has absolutely no sound justification. Similarly, if the means are supposed to justify the results, it is not clear on how one should know what means are just and which ones are not.

Unlike deontology, which cannot solve moral dilemmas because it does not consider the grey areas, consequentialism can solve moral conflicts (Landau 43). Sometimes in life, there are some issues which have different moral rulings that can result in moral conflicts. It is necessary that human beings are capable of handling such conflicts. Consequentialism gives human beings the ability to solve such problems. Although it might be difficult to identify a solution in practice, it still remains a solution. The consequentialist approach always believes that there are solutions for every moral dilemma.

Generally, it will be a shadowy world, if all moral decisions are left in the hands of citizens. Deontology states that it is what people believe in, should be considered to be right which is not true. Deontologist consider the morally of an action based on how well the person followed the rules and laws, which are basically put in place by the members of the society (Driver 32). Every human-being has his own values and preferences. Therefore, it is necessary that people choose an ethical theory that will give everyone a chance to do what he or she loves doing as long as it results in the best possible consequences. People were created differently, and we cannot all do things in the same way. We should appreciate our diversity as long as the outcomes of our actions are right. On the contrary, deontology seems to be rigid because it requires everyone to act in a certain way. This means that morality is determined by what most people believe to be right when it is not right. For instance, assuming that most people believed that slavery was right, deontologists would argue that it was actually right. On the other hand, consequentialists would argue that since slavery resulted in bad consequences, it was morally wrong. Comparing the two explanations, consequentialism becomes the best option.

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Consequentialism supports an encompassing common insight (Finnis 84). The rationale of any moral action is to lead to a better society. Consequently, if an individual’s action would lead to a poor future for all people affected, it would be considered to be morally wrong according to the consequentialism theory. Essentially, every action has the capability of becoming a moral action depending on its effects on the people. In contrast, deontology only deals with how the actions relates to the rules and obligation set by the society.


According to normative ethics, actions can either be right or wrong. Generally, two thinking approaches: - namely deontology and consequentialism, emphasize different aspects of moral philosophy. According to deontology, an action is morally right if a person performing it sticks to the rules and obligations. In contrary, the consequentialists approach judges the morality of an action based on its outcomes: a morally right action is that, which leads to the best possible consequences. As it has been demonstrated, both approaches have their own limitations and cannot be entirely depended on to make an objective decision.

Deontology does not consider grey areas. It does not also provide definite ways of dealing with ethical dilemmas. Similarly, it is difficult to quantify what is morally right and what is wrong. On the other hand, consequentialism judges an action, when it has already happened, which makes it useless in creating a better society. It does not also consider other factors such as motivation and intension, which can affect an action. Nonetheless, consequentialism is the best approach because it is naturally aimed at creating a better society. If an action can lead to bad consequences, it should be avoided, and this will create a more appealing world to live in.


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