Moral Theories

Through the ages, there have emerged multiple common moral theories and traditions. We will cover each one briefly below with explanations and how they differ from other moral theories.


Consequentialist theories, unlike virtue and deontological theories, hold that only the consequences, or outcomes, of actions matter morally.  According to this view, acts are deemed to be morally right solely on the basis of their consequences.  The most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism.


Deontological theories (derived from the Greek word for dutydeon) base morality on certain duties, or obligations, and claim that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong, that is, right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences that may follow from those actions.  What makes a choice or an action right is its conformity with a moral norm.  Thus, an agent has a duty to act in accordance with a moral norm, irrespective of the (potentially beneficial) effects of acting otherwise.

We might say that parents, for example, have an obligation to take care of their children.  On a deontological view, parents must fulfill this obligation, even if breaking the obligation were to result, for the parents, in some great benefit (increased financial savings, for example).

The deontological view holds that some actions cannot be justified by their consequences. In short, for the deontologist, the ends do not justify the means.

Indeed, Immanuel Kant, whose formulation of deontological ethics is perhaps the most well known, wrote that one must “act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.”  As with other deontologists (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for example), Kant held that the basis of our moral requirements is a standard of rationality.  In the case of Kant, the standard is a categorical imperative.  This single principle of rationality comprehensively includes all of our particular duties.

Objections to Kantian deontology:

(1)   Kant’s claim is that the moral status of our actions is determined solely on the basis of the rightness or wrongness of the action itself.  This means that it is categorically wrong to, for example, lie, in any circumstances, regardless of the consequences.  It seems implausible, however, to hold that lying is categorically wrong in all circumstances.  Imagine, for example, a situation in which a serial killer is on the hunt for your daughter.  While searching for her, the killer, whom you know to be the killer, encounters you and asks for information regarding your daughter’s whereabouts.  According to Kant’s deontological theory, you would be required to tell the truth.  Does this seem reasonable?

Justice as Fairness

Justice as fairness refers to the conception of justice that John Rawls presents in A Theory of Justice. This conception of justice concerns society’s basic structure—that is, “society’s main political, constitutional, social, and economic institutions and how they fit together to form a unified scheme of social cooperation over time.”1

Rawls constructs justice as fairness in a rather narrow framework and explicitly states, “Justice as fairness is not a complete contact theory.”2 Its purpose is to show how we ought to allocate a cooperative surplus of resources to individuals in society. As a result, justice as fairness relies on two implicit assumptions about the societies in question: first, social cooperation is possible and can work to everyone’s mutual advantage, and second, there exists a moderate surplus of available resources to be distributed. Justice as fairness cannot be used to determine the just distribution of sacrifices to be made by a society’s members when resources are scarce. More generally, it cannot help us identify just social policies in societies where background conditions (e.g., scarcity of natural resources, cultural barriers, war) have eliminated the possibility of mutually advantageous social cooperation.

The process for determining how the basic structure should be arranged is based on a thought experiment in which rational, mutually disinterested individuals choose principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance, a condition that specifies they do not know specific details about themselves (e.g., personal values, race, gender, level of income) or the society in which they live (e.g., societal stage of development, economic circumstances). However, when choosing these principles, the parties do possess general social, psychological, and economic knowledge, and they also know that the circumstances of justice obtain in the society to which they belong.

From this hypothetical initial situation, which Rawls calls the “original position,” these individuals will presumably endorse two principles of justice. The first, known as the equal liberty principle, is that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others,” and the second is that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and attached to offices and positions open to all.”3

Rawls’ primary argument for the two principles is that they would be chosen over any variation of utilitarianism, which he considers the strongest opposition to justice as fairness. Constrained by the veil of ignorance, the parties in the original position (as mutually disinterested rational agents) try to agree to the principles which bring about the best state of affairs for whatever citizen they represent within society. Since the parties are all unaware of precisely what social role they will occupy, they strive to maximize their individual shares of primary goods. These goods are defined as “things that every rational man is presumed to want” regardless of this person’s rational plan of life and include (among other things) rights, liberties, social opportunities, and income.4 Rawls argues, largely through the appeal to the maximin rule, that the parties in the original position would favor the equal liberty principle over variations of utilitarianism. He further argues that the parties would support using the difference principle to regulate the distribution of wealth and income instead of a principle of average utility
(constrained by a social minimum) because the difference principle provides a stronger basis for enduring cooperation among citizens.

The full application of justice as fairness can be regarded as a 4-stage sequence. The deliberations concerning the two principles occur at the first stage. With the two principles established, the parties then progressively thin the veil of ignorance and, as they acquire more specific knowledge about society at the subsequent stages, determine more specific principles of justice. At the second stage, the parties learn more about society’s political and economic circumstances and create a constitution that is consistent with the two principles. At the third stage, the parties agree to laws and policies which realize the two principles within the context of the agreed-upon constitutional framework. At the fourth stage, the parties possess all available information about their society and apply the established laws and policies to particular cases.

One of Rawls major tasks in presenting justice as fairness is to show that the society it generates can endure indefinitely over time. To achieve this aim, Rawls deploys the just savings principle, a rule of intergenerational savings designed to assure that future generations have sufficient capital to maintain just institutions. Additionally, Rawls argues that the society generated by the two principles is congruent with citizens’ good and that citizens can develop the necessary willingness to abide by these principles. As a result, the society generated by adherence to justice as fairness is stable and can be expected to endure indefinitely over time.

Notably, however, the arguments for the stability of justice as fairness that Rawls presents in A Theory of Justice do not prove convincing. Rawls does not account for reasonable pluralism, a critical aspect of any constitutional democracy with the guaranteed liberties that Rawls specifies. Thus, Rawls recasts his arguments for the stability of justice as fairness in Political Liberalism and strives to demonstrate that citizens, despite reasonable disagreement about many issues, will agree on a limited, political conception of justice through an overlapping consensus of their individual viewpoints.

  1. John Rawls, Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), xli (fn 7).
  2. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 15.
  3. Ibid., 53.
  4. Ibid., 54.


Utilitarianism states that actions are morally right if and only if they maximize the good (or, alternatively, minimizes the bad).  Classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (as well as many contemporary utilitarians) take ‘the good’ to be pleasure or well-being.  Thus, actions are morally right, on this view, if and only if they maximize pleasure or well-being or minimize suffering.

This approach is sometimes called hedonistic utilitarianism.  For hedonistic utilitarians, the rightness or our actions are determined solely on the basis of consequences of pleasure or pain.

Utilitarian theories may take other goods into consideration.  Preference utilitarianism, for example, takes into account not just pleasures, but the satisfaction of any preference.

Utilitarianism can also be divided along other lines.  Act-utilitarianism claims that we must apply a utilitarian calculation to each and every individual action.  By making this calculation, we can thereby determine the moral rightness or wrongness of each action we plan to take.

Rule-utilitarianism eases the burden that act-utilitarianism places on practical reasoning by establishing moral rules that, when followed, brings about the best consequences.  Rule-utilitarianism can be illustrated by the rule “do not kill.”  As a general rule, we would be better off, that is, the best consequences, or state of affairs, would be brought about, if we all followed the rule “do not kill.”

Objections to Utilitarianism:

There are a number of objections to utilitarian theories, both in their act- formulations and in their rule- formulations.

(1)  Act-utilitarianism, for example, seems to be impractical.  To stop to calculate the possible outcomes of every act we intend to make, as well as the outcomes of all of the possible alternatives to that act is unrealistic.  Moreover, it may hinder one’s ability to bring about the best consequences – for example, in cases where a quick response is vital (as in responding to a car wreck).

(2)  Others have objected to utilitarianism on the grounds that we cannot always predict the outcomes of our actions accurately.  One course of action may seem like it will lead to the best outcome, but we may be (and often are) mistaken.  The best it seems we can do, then, is to guess at the short-term consequences of our actions.

(3)  Objections to utilitarianism have also been made on the grounds that it is excessively demanding and places too large a burden on individuals.  Since utilitarianism says that acts are morally right if and only if they maximize pleasure or well-being, it seems that leisure activities, such as watching television, may be morally wrong because they do not maximize well-being.  Any person watching television could, after all, be doing something else – something that would maximize utility, like helping others or volunteering.

(4)  Finally, utilitarianism receives criticism because seemingly immoral acts and rules can be justified using utilitarianism (this criticism is applicable both to act- and rule- utilitarianism).   Genocides, torture, and other evils may be justified on the grounds that they, ultimately, lead to the best outcome.  Unjust rules – for example, laws that legalize slavery or apartheid – might also be justified on utilitarian grounds.

(3)  Virtue theories encounter problems with moral dilemmas in which two (or more) virtues conflict.  In other words, the requirements of one virtue may be opposed, or contradictory, to the requirements of another.  The requirements of honesty, for example, require us to tell the truth, even if it is hurtful.  The virtues of kindness or compassion, on the other hand, point to remaining silent, or perhaps even lying, in order to avoid harm.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics takes its philosophical root in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.   Virtue theories claim that ethics is about agents, not actions or consequences.  Living an ethical, or good life, then, consists in the possession of the right character traits (virtues) and having, as a result, the appropriate moral character.

Unlike deontological accounts, which focus on learning and, subsequently, living by moral rules, virtue accounts place emphasis on developing good habits of character.  In essence, this means developing virtuous character traits – dispositions to act in a certain way – and avoiding bad character traits, or vices of character.

Character traits commonly regarded as virtues include courage, temperance, justice, wisdom, generosity, and good temper (as well as many others).  This approach to normative ethics also emphasizes moral education.  Since traits of character are developed in youth, adults are responsible for instilling in their children the appropriate dispositions.

Objections to virtue ethics:

(1)  The first difficulty, which any virtue theorist must surmount is figuring out which characteristics count as virtues (and which count as vices).  Given that different cultures sometimes hold different traits of character to be virtuous, it seems that virtue ethical theories are susceptible to the difficulties involved with cultural relativism.

(2)  It also seems that virtuous characteristics can be exhibited even when the actions carried out are immoral.  Courage, for example, is often regarded as a virtue, but can there not be courageous bank robbers?  It certainly seems that a bank robber could exhibit courage while robbing a bank, yet we generally agree that robbing is morally wrong.

This consequence is problematic because the aim of any normative theory is to arrive at standards, or norms, of behavior for living a moral life.  In the case of the courageous bank robber, it seems that the bank robber lives according to the standard set by virtue ethics (that is, he acts courageously) but his behavior is nevertheless immoral.

It may be suggested in response to this objection that the courageous bank robber, though meeting the requirements of the virtue of courage, fails to live according to the standard set by some other virtue – for example, honesty.  This response, however, only serves to highlight another objection to virtue ethics – competing virtues.

Summary of Moral Traditions


Focuses on the consequences of an act to determine if the act is moral or immoral


Focuses on the act.  Certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong.

Virtue Ethics:

Focuses on the character of the agent.  A virtuous agent will act morally.