A Critique of Three Ethical
Jim Sutherland, PhD
Elements of Three Ethical Schools
• Three main ethical schools are (1 the utilitarian
(consequentialist) (2 deontological and (3 virtue theory.
• "(H)uman conduct is subject to a threefold evaluation from
a moral point of view. First, the end the agent seeks to
realize must be good, intrinsically worthy of human pursuit.
Second, the motive of the agent must also be good, so that
the end is sought because it is worthwhile, the mark of a
good character. Third, the means to the end must be good,
conforming to the standard of what is right, since neither a
good end nor a good motive is compatible with a bad
means. For conduct to be morally praiseworthy it must be
good in all three respects, not least because end, motive
and means are not finally separable."
David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, ISBN: 0801052289, p. 11.
Different Emphases of the Schools
• ―[A] consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because
of the negative consequences produced by lying--though a
consequentialist may allow that certain foreseeable
consequences may make lying acceptable. A deontologist
might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any
potential 'good' that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist,
however, would focus less on lying in any particular
instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or
not tell a lie said about one's character and moral behavior.‖
Elements of Ethical Theories
• These schools incorporate elements have within them
some principles found in the Scriptures. A major difference
is that Christianity is more comprehensive and internally
• John Dancy notes that a moral theory should have ethical
principles, reasons for these, useable ways to apply these
principles and inner consistency. John Dancy, ―An ethic of
prima facie duties,‖ A Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer,
ed., ISBN: 0631187855, p. 219
– Christian ethics has all these elements. Principles derive from a
good, loving, all-knowing Father God. They are for the good of His
creation and for His glory. The principle of love facilitates wide-
ranging moral decisions.
• This school is most concerned about the greatest good for
the greatest number of individuals.
• "Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from
deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or
wrongness of an act from the character of the act itself
rather than the outcomes of the action, and from virtue
ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather
than on the nature or consequences of the action itself."
• They try to determine the best course of action by asking in
advance the consequence of that action. Among variations
are those who opt for the greatest good for the greatest
number, but the "good" cannot be agreed upon. Others
propose asking what an impartial moral agent would do.
Questions arise as to whether immediate good or longer-
term good is the better measurement, and still others try to
balance the greatest good with the rights of the minority.
The individual has no intrinsic value. Yet others measure
the greatest good to be that for the individual, not of the
group or society--and this is aptly called "egoism."
• Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) considered happiness to be
minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure—essentially
hedonism. He was confident that the amount of pleasure
could be carefully calculated and the best decision made.
Holmes, p. 45
• John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had ―happiness‖ for his
―good‖. His and Bentham‘s ethics are ―eudaimonic‖—a full
life being the goal. Holmes, p. 29
• Hedonistic egoism is concerned only about what is best for
self. Utilitarianism is concerned about maximizing the good
for the greatest number. Holmes, p 34
– American Bernard Madoff swindled people out of perhaps 20 billion
dollars. He had many homes, boats, jewelry and an international
lifestyle. His only apparent concern was for himself and his family.
He was ordered to pay restitution and was given a sentence of 150
years in jail.
• Jean Paul Sartre advocated the construction of individual
ethical systems. There is no God and no moral absolutes.
Holmes, p. 73
• "Other utilitarian-type views include the claims that the end
of action is survival and growth, as in evolutionary ethics
(the 19th-century English philosopher Herbert Spencer); the
experience of power, as in despotism (the 16th-century
Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli and the 19th
-century German Friedrich Nietzsche); satisfaction and
adjustment, as in pragmatism (20th-century American
philosophers Ralph Barton Perry and John Dewey); and
freedom, as in existentialism (the 20th-century French
philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre)." ―Consequentialism,‖
• An ―ideal observer‖ or impartial observer is needed to
determine the consequences, so that personal bias and
prejudices don‘t interfere.
– This person would have to know all the consequences of a
particular decision. Finding such a person may be impossible.
– It would be ideal to have someone who was good and who knows
everything to show what is right. It be even better if that ideal
observer would also enable the one seeking the good to have the
power to do the good? God is therefore the ideal moral agent to
decide the best consequences.
Problems with Utilitarian Ethics
• Consequentialism concerns humans only--it is completely
horizontal, not vertical. Man is the measure of all, and the
more that are satisfied, the better the rule or principle.
• All these discussions presume there are no absolutes.
Good is located in outcomes, or in the doer or in the act
• Is the good that which brings good consequences? How
long must we wait to determine if the consequences are
good, and for whom? How do we determine what is good,
by which to evaluate the act?
Difficulties with Utilitarianism
• Holmes noted that the fundamental problem with this
school is that is gives value to individuals. Why should the
greatest number be satisfied? Why do people have value?
• Another major problem concerns the treatment of the
minority, if the goal is to please the majority.
– For example, many treaties with the American Indians were broken
for the benefit of the white majority. Australian aborigines were shot
Knowing and Doing
• Even if we knew what is best, we may not have the will to
– Rom. 7:18b-19 For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot
carry it out.19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil
I do not want to do-- this I keep on doing.
– Aristotle and Augustine and David Hume (1711-1776) argued that
passions and the will, not just reason, enter into ethical decisions.
Holmes, p. 138
Consequential Elements in Christianity
• Christians are concerned about the consequences of
decisions, particularly regarding God‘s name.
– 1 Peter 4:11 If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the
very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the
strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised
through Jesus Christ.
– 1 Corinthians 10:31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you
do, do it all for the glory of God.
– Matthew 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that
they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
From ―Is‖ to ―Ought‖
• As Elizabeth Anscombe has revealed, utilitarianism cannot
connect what is good with what we ought to do. It lacks the
value structure. Holmes, p. 72
– If the greatest good for a village is to dig a well to obtain clean
water, utilitarianism can offer no compelling reason why we ought to
dig the well.
– Christians have ample reasons to dig the well. What are some of
• This is rule-based ethics. We act according to certain
principles that are considered right. The selection of rules is
• These rules are more or less absolute.
Rules From Nature
• Some look to natural law for ethical principles.
• Deriving principles from nature has produced Taoism,
whose doctrines are esoteric.
– "The...Tao is that underlying force that flows through nature and that
guides and moves every object in the way that is natural to it.
– ―[T]he way in which the Tao flows always leads toward harmony,
health and peace (Lewis and Travis, 297). By aligning ourselves
with that underlying flow, we will experience such things in our
lives." The Compact Guide to World Religions, Dean C, Halverson,
ed., p. 220, ISBN: 1556617046
– Immortality (longest life) has been a goal of Taoism.
Laws from Nature
• It‘s difficult to extract rules from nature.
– Early Greeks felt that nature taught that the goal of life is happiness
and pleasure, perhaps because we all naturally want to be happy.
Or, because Greek philosophers did not have to struggle as much
as the common person.
• However, life is difficult, and pleasures fleeting, especially for the
poorest of the people.
– Survival of the fittest seems to be a principle in nature. This can lead
to a power ethic, whereby we try to control as much of our
environment as possible, to survive and thrive.
Innate Moral Principles
• ―Moral intuitionism,‖ or living according to principles natural
to most persons, seems to come closest to a correct
deduction of principles from ―nature‖.
– In fact, the biblical concept of ―common grace‖ encompasses the
fact that most people agree that murder and adultery and stealing
within an in-group is wrong. This is God‘s grace to keep societies
from collapsing, and for life to go on.
– However, as Holmes notes, moral intuitionism has limits. "Right and
wrong" change according to a given moment in a culture (and
across cultures). Morality by majority differs according to the
majorities in question. And they also lack universal application due
to the differences among the majorities. And they do not cover all
situations or new situations. Holmes, pp. 64-70
Limits of Moral Intuition
– For example, is borrowing from another person good, and if so,
under what circumstances?
– What powers should government have?
– What does nature say about whether a dowry should be paid to
marry? Or what does nature say about who pays the dowry--the
husband (Africa), or the wife (India)?
– Attitudes toward homosexuality have changed in America, so that
now several states allow homosexual marriage. Morals change in a
culture, usually from higher standards (biblically), to lower
Kant’s ―Universal Prescriptivism‖
• Emmanuel Kant maintained that there are no moral
– He proposed acting in such a way that anyone in that situation
acting in that way would do well. This guards against self-interest.
• So ―autonomous will‖ and reason became the highest authority. One
should act regardless of personal feelings. Holmes, p. 49, 73
– However, he felt that these universal prescriptions could change
with time. Virtues were ―considered, firm and continuously purified
principles.‖ Holmes, p. 138
• But how can a principle be both firm and continuously changed?
Kant and Moral Absolutes
• Kant in effect wanted to make us like God, not only knowing
good and evil, but deciding what good and evil are.
– "[T]here is a difference between deontological ethics and moral
absolutism. Deontologists who are also moral absolutists believe
that some actions are wrong no matter what consequences follow
from them. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that the only
absolutely good thing is a good will, and so the single determining
factor of whether an action is morally right is the will, or motive of the
person doing it. If they are acting on a bad maxim, e.g. "I will lie",
then their action is wrong, even if some good consequences come
of it. Non-absolutist deontologists, such as W. D. Ross, hold that the
consequences of an action such as lying may sometimes make
lying the right thing to do." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontological_ethics
Deontology and Absolutes
• A particular deontological ethic may or may not allow
ethical absolutes--principles true in themselves for all time.
Because various principles are offered, they are in reality
sub-absolutes. One says that we should treat animals as
well as we treat humans--that this is good and right.
Everyone gets to pick the sub-absolute.
• Christians should believe in absolute truths--principles that
are always right. Many professing Christians do not. We
may not agree upon their application, but in basic form,
Bible-believing Christians believe that God has given moral
absolutes to us.
• God provided approximately 612-613 laws in the Old
Testament. Reformed theologians usefully categorize them
as ceremonial, civil and moral laws.
– Knowing the OT law enabled Jews to understand what was superior
(essentially, to be morally mature, Rom. 2:17-20).
– Wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of
Solomon—Protestant classification) contains principles applicable
• The New Covenant (Testament) is normative for Christians,
of course. Wholehearted love to God and to other people is
the operative principle. Christ also gave at least 22
commands to be taught to His disciples.
Absolutes Mediated by the Spirit
• 2 Corinthians 3:6 He has made us competent as ministers
of a new covenant-- not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the
letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
– Christians aren‘t to rigidly and legalistically apply biblical absolutes.
Christ didn‘t give the woman caught in adultery the death penalty,
as prescribed by the Law, but told her to go and sin no more (John
– Legalism is frequently found in younger church movements and
congregations that try to be orthodox, but which go too far in
prescribing behavior. Some standards are extra-biblical. These may
include prohibiting drinking alcohol even if not being controlled by
Keeping the Principles
• Montaigne (1533-92) said that people aren't able to live up
to the morality of "classical antiquity" nor of Christian
standards. The alternative--obey the state and find your
own morality. J.B. Schneewind. "Modern moral philosophy―, p. 148, ch. 12 in A
Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer, ed. ISBN: 0631187855
– He was right, a Christian cannot keep biblical morality in his/her own
strength. Obeying the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount is
impossible apart from God‘s enablement.
• We have hope, however, that by God‘s power we can at least approach
Christian maturity and perfection (Col. 4:12; 2 Cor. 13:9)
• Galatians 5:16-18 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the
desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is
contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.
They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you
want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
Who is Accountable?
• If someone rejects what the Bible says about what is right
and wrong, is that person still going to be judged by biblical
– Jesus says that "anyone" who calls a brother a fool is in danger of
hell. Matt. 12:36--men will have to give account on Judgment day
for "every careless word they have spoken."
– Romans 2:6 God "will give to each person according to what he has
done." Whether or not people believe in Him, He will judge them.
Rules Without Goals?
• "Morality, [Alasdair MacIntyre] complained, has been
reduced to following an array of rules without any overall
goal for one's life.― Holmes, 127
– MacIntyre is right. We need much more than rules to follow, which
quickly become tiresome. As noted elsewhere, the organizing
principle around which rules guide us is to love God and people.
Loving God, we should want to bring glory to God (1 Cor. 10:30), by
becoming more and more like Him. This means being conformed to
Christ‘s character, who is one with the Father (John 14:7-9). Christ
is our standard of perfection (Eph. 4:13).
Importance of Character
• "It is a deep fault of non-virtue theories that they pay little or
no attention to the areas of life which form character." Greg
Pence, ―Virtue Theory,‖ ch. 21 in Singer.
– An excellent point—dispassionate, rational and neutral moral
positions are prized in utilitarianism. But how can a character be
shaped unless we know what qualities are desired?
Virtue Theory Defined
• This ethical school holds that a person‘s character—or
essential moral identity--is the chief ethical issue. This
outweighs reasoning ability and determining the best ends
(utilitarianism), or finding the best set of ethical principles
absolutes, or sub-absolutes (deontology). What a person is,
is more important than what that person does or believes.
– Giving an offering in church on Sunday could be motivated by
desiring more comfortable pews, by wanting a reputation as a
generous person, by obeying the principle that the one who is
taught should support the teacher, or by really trying to practice the
virtue of generosity.
• Greek philosophers tended to focus upon character traits in
– Plato believed that virtue preceded the ability to know what is good.
He favored these virtues: justice, wisdom, self-control and courage,
to which Aquinas added faith, hope and love. Holmes, p. 132
– Aristotle believed virtue to lie in between excesses.
• Courage comes between cowardice and foolhardiness, generosity lies
between stinginess and being wasteful, etc. Holmes, p. 136
• Greeks hoped that virtue led to happiness, but as Socrates
illustrates, this was unsure. Wikipedia, sv. ―Virtue Ethics‖
• For Kant the greatest virtue seems to have been good will.
• For Machiavelli, exercising power seemed to define virtue—
whatever the prince did was right.
• The American Benjamin Franklin tried daily to practice 13
virtues. He picked one to focus upon each week.
– They are temperance, order, resolution, frugality, moderation,
industry, cleanliness, tranquility, silence, sincerity, justice, chastity
and humility. www.school-for-champions.com/character/franklin_virtues.htm
Buddhist Virtues and Lists Generally
• Perhaps the most difficult list of virtues is the Buddhist 8-
fold path, requiring perhaps thousands of lives to somehow
attain. These are essentially life-denying in their full
– Right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
• The main problem with this and every list is in finding the
power to live them. Where is it?
• Another difficulty is in determining the best virtues. Which
list is best? Is there a principle?
Shift Toward Virtue
• ―The word ‗aretaic‘ is derived from the ancient Greek word
arete, meaning excellence or ‗virtue.‘ The aretaic turn is a
movement in contemporary moral philosophy and ethics to
emphasize character and human excellence or virtue, as
opposed to moral rules or consequences.‖ Wikipedia, sv. ―aretaic turn‖
• The "heart" is the source of our behavior.
– Proverbs 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the
wellspring of life.
• It is the source of speech, Matt. 12:34, and if our speech is
perfect, so is our heart, Jam. 3:2.
• It's the source of good and evil.
– Luke 6:45 The good man brings good things out of the good stored
up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil
stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth
Love as the Greatest Virtue
• Why is love the greatest virtue? God defines what is good,
as He has the omniscience to make that decision. Serious
moral philosophers have failed to agree over a period of
two thousand years that there even are right and wrong
behaviors, let alone what these might be.
• God is our standard of good. He is love (1 John 4:8, 16).
God said that the greatest virtue and behavior is love (1
Cor. 13:13; John 13:34, Matt. 22:35-40). Love existed
among the Trinity before humans existed (John 17:24).
Jesus gave a "new commandment"--that of love, John
13:34. Among communicable attributes of God is love.
• In lists of virtues found in the Bible, love is shown to be the
culmination at 2 Pet. 1:5-8. It is listed first among virtues at
Power Behind Virtue
• Romans 5:3-5 And not only this, but we also exult in our
tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about
perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and
proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out within our
hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
• Philippians 1:9-11 9 And this is my prayer: that your love
may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of
insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best
and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11
filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through
Jesus Christ-- to the glory and praise of God.
– Love may come as a result of prayer.
Discernment in Love
• Knowing what is best in a given situation depends upon
understanding what love means in a situation, with the
insight given by God. Knowledge assists us in knowing the
shape of love in a given situation.
Discernment in Love – An Example
– A man had been out of work 2.5 years. He admitted that he'd turned
down 3 jobs during that time. I gave him counsel by email several
times, but the man basically derided the counsel. He seemed to
want to meet, but I told him that I'd have to talk with his brother—his
only relative, to gain insight into how best to help him.
– He refused to allow me to talk with his brother. He wanted a
"comfortable" place to stay and a good-running car for free. He
wanted a contact at a university where he graduated from, since he
had a master's degree in counseling, so I provided access to the
head of Human Resources, who was a friend.
– All he was asked to do was to apply for a specific job posted online
at the university's website.
– He didn't do that, but gave general qualifications and mentioned his
need that a car be provided for him for any job offered.
Jesus and Virtue Ethics
• Virtue is encompassed in the person of Jesus Christ, who
in turn is in nature God, Phil. 2:6. So Christian virtue is a
recovery of the imago dei, which was corrupted by the sin
of Eve and Adam. Today becoming like Christ is the
standard for Christian maturity, Eph. 4:11-13, since He is by
nature, God. Maturity means that we can discern good
– Hebrews 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use
have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Can’t Clean a Fish That Isn’t Caught
• It is impossible to become like Christ without being first
– We must have the supernatural power of God to overcome the sin
principle within us, both from original and from personal sin (Jer.
17:9; Rom. 7:18-20).
– Good fruit can only be faked for so long, then it begins to spoil. By
fruit is a Christian known. Christian ethics are impossible for the
unregenerate person to understand, truly desire, or attain. Why?--
because it is the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18), who conforms
us by degrees into Christ's image. Having the Spirit is a sign of the
new birth. (Romans 8:9 You, however, are controlled not by the
sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if
anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to
Christ.) Trying to live without a regenerate heart is like trying to
drive a truck with a bad engine. Knowing what is good, and being
good, are distinct.
Elements of the 3 Schools are in Christianity
• Christians believe in infallible, not majority-determined
moral absolutes (deontology), and in virtue ethics--the
character and motive of the doer is very important (acting
through love). Christians also value the outcome--doing all
to the glory of God.
– Christianity demonstrates the truths of each school, while avoiding
their inherent weaknesses.