A Deontologist, a Consequentialist, and a Virtue Ethicist Walk Into a Bar…

One of my philosophy professors asked an interesting question today, and after giving it some amount of thought, I think I have an answer.

His question was this: Who do you think would win in a bar fight between a deontologist, a consequentialist, and a virtue ethicist?

First, a quick recap:

  1. Deontology – simply put, these are the rules guys (and gals). Deontologists purport that there are certain universal moral truths that should guide our behavior and how we interact with others.
  2. Consequentialism – when considering whether an action is right or moral, we have to consider the outcome(s) of our actions, both intended and unintended. All actions have consequences.
  3. Virtue Ethics – good and bad, right and wrong, ethical and unethical – these are determined largely by one’s character. Moral people engage in moral thoughts and activities, so it is incumbent upon each of us to be the best person we can possibly be.

Each of these schools of thought have their advantages and disadvantages, and when taken in concert, create a bit of circular logic.

Aristotle believed that since each person’s thoughts and actions were under their own control, an individual could learn to be a good (or better) person. However, the issue with this line of thinking is two-fold.

First, if the individual is left to decide what is moral, then it is in fact his or her cultural and environment that is coloring their decision. In an often-used example, 200 years ago it was viewed as morally acceptable to own slaves. So, by extension, it was possible to own slaves and still be considered a moral, upstanding individual. Obviously this is wrong, but I can only say “obviously” because our culture has changed to the degree that we now understand (but don’t yet fully embrace, apparently) the inherent worth of each individual, regardless of race (or gender or sexual orientation).

Second, we are using the term to define itself, i.e. “A moral act is one that a moral person would engage in.” This is akin to saying, “The sky is blue because it is blue.” We are not defining anything here, really.

One of the ways around this line of thinking is to impose certain qualifications, such as “lying is always wrong, unless it lessens someone’s pain.” However, as we do this, we move further and further away from character in an infinite regress of “except for this” and “not counting that.” We begin to dilute the original meaning behind virtue ethics, reducing it to a series of best-case scenarios that become increasingly difficult to keep track of.

This is where deontology enters the picture. By having a hard-and-fast set of rules to guide human behavior, we make value judgements concerning morality much easier to deal with. Or do we?

We again run into the problem of having to qualify each moral judgement with some sort of disclaimer. “You should never break a promise” is a moral way to act, but what if you promised your buddy that you’d golf with him, and then one of your kids is in an automobile accident. Do you skip golf to care for your injured child? Deontologically speaking, you couldn’t – you’d made a promise to go golfing, and to break that promise would be morally unacceptable.

This leads to another issue – namely, where do you draw the line when devising your qualifications to all of these moral behaviors? Do we make exceptions for family only? Close friends? Co-workers? People who are less fortunate than yourself? And on top of that, who exactly is responsible for making these qualifications? Is it the individual? That won’t work – we’d have different standards for each individual, thus defeating the original purpose of having a set of set-in-stone rules in the first place.

And this brings us to utilitarianism, and the idea that moral acts can only be judged moral based on their outcomes. Consequentialism deals with this aspect specifically – what are the consequences of my actions, how do they affect not only me but those around me?

The issue with this line of reasoning is that you very quickly run into situations where immoral acts can lead to moral outcomes. The infamous Trolley Problem is the most famous example of this – is it okay to take the life of one individual to save five others? What if you personally know the one person? Is it then right to sacrifice the five individuals on the other track to save the one person you know?

Recent years have witnessed a return to a form of Aristotle’s original value ethics as the predominant method of determining good versus bad, but in all truthfulness this just leads us back to the top of the circle, ready to start the cycle anew.

So, back to the question at hand – who would win in a bar fight between a deontologist, a consequentialist, and a virtue ethicist?

I know which horse I’m putting MY money on – what are your thoughts?

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