Deontological vs. Consequentialist: Battle of the Ethics

Does the end justify the means?

The topic of morals and ethics has always been a favorite discussion of mine.

In many if not most or all cases of when I first meet someone, I bring up a scenario that allows one to showcase their moral and ethical values. This helps me get a better feel for a person and what kind of mentality and perspective they have on life, but generally, I ask these questions because I always seek to expand my own understanding of the world and I always look for opportunities to be proven wrong and/or enlightened in unprecedented ways.

This post is another one of those opportunities, and I’d like for the comments section of this post to serve as the floor for discussion regarding today’s topic: deontological vs. consequentialist ethics. If anyone has a say regarding their stances on these types of ethics and/or what follows in this post, please do share your thoughts below in the comments below.

And without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know the difference between the two types of ethics or if you need a quick refresher/definition, I’ll gladly define the two here.

Deontological Ethics is an ethical position that determines one’s morality based on the character of their behavior rather than consequences of the their conduct itself. Simply put, character of the behavior > consequences of the behavior.

Conversely, Consequentialist Ethics is an ethical position that determines one’s morality based on the consequences of their conduct rather than the character of their behavior. Simply put, consequences of the behavior > character of the behavior.

Those probably don’t make a lot of sense by themselves, so here is an example to highlight both kinds of ethical stances:

There are two people, Jack and Bob. Bob has been falsely accused of a crime that he did not commit and is on the run from the police (he is completely innocent). Bob runs to the home of his friend, Jack, and explains the situation. Jack agrees to hide Bob. Shortly after, the police arrive to Jack’s house and demand to know if Jack had seen Bob as Bob is wanted for a crime. Jack lies to the police and sends them away.

Under consequentialist ethics, Jack made the morally correct choice. As a consequence of Jack’s untruthful conduct, Bob was spared from facing punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. A good outcome was produced, and thus, Jack committed a morally right act.

However, under deontological ethics, Jack made the immoral choice. He lied to the police and hid a wanted man, Bob, from the authorities. He ignored his moral obligation (under deontological ethics) to assist the police (and the law) in carrying out appropriate actions for the accused.

As I’m writing this post, I feel like this was the issue in Captain America: Civil War. For those who haven’t seen the movie/read the comics/heard the story, the conflict between the warring parties led by Captain America on one side and Iron Man on the other was regarding whether or not superheroes should act under official regulation. Captain America and his party sought the path of consequentialist ethics, and in spite of the regulations wanted superheroes to be able to act on their own to save lives or save the world even when regulation would prohibit such actions. Iron Man and his party, on the other hand, sought the path of deontological ethics, where superheroes would act strictly according to the regulations set forth by the authorities and not act on their own accord, even if it meant loss of innocent lives due to lack of action. This is just a passing thought, so feel free to correct me if this is an incorrect application of the ethics in entertainment.

Now that we’ve clarified both kinds of ethics, we can delve into them a little deeper. For the purposes of this debate, it won’t be argued that you can use the ethics case by case. In other words, I’d hope for us to discover which one of the two ethics is better to use consistently throughout one’s lifetime.

It’s easy to see the pros and cons of both kinds of ethics and naturally, I’m on the fence. However, for the purposes of this debate, I will lean more towards in favor of deontological ethics.

I’ll break down my stance into two parts: why deontological ethics and why NOT consequentialist ethics. I will be referring back to the Jack and Bob example.

Why say yes deontological ethics?

  1. Less risk involved in everyday matters. Had Jack made the right choice in deontological ethics, he may have been hailed a hero for bringing Bob to justice, despite the latter being innocent. Lying to the police can arguably be a crime and land Jack himself into trouble along with Bob if and when he is found.
  2. Less complications with conflict. If people had followed a strict, deontological ethics code and acted according to the law and did the right thing according to the law, it can reasonably said that the world would be a lot less complicated and even more peaceful. People would be acting according to the right of law and in the example of Jack and Bob, be helping the police catch crime (if there was any since everyone would be acting in accordance with the law) with no risk of a lying bystander.

Why say no to consequentialist ethics?

  1. Too much opinion involved. With consequentialist ethics and the consequences in mind, the topic of what is “deserved” is often if not most of the time or always brought to attention. It can certainly be argued that Bob does not deserve to face punishment for a crime that he didn’t commit but when the topic of “deserve” is brought into question, people will start formulating different opinion-based reasons and ideas for why someone deserves a certain treatment or not. When one says someone deserves something, that is opinion, not fact, and opinions can skew objective moral judgment.
  2. Little to no regard for the law. Laws keep citizens in check and impose punishments where deemed necessary. Keeping in mind that a “good” outcome in the consequentialist ethics sense is subjective, Bob could have very well committed a crime and Jack would have still hidden him from the police anyway because the “good” outcome in this new scenario is that Jack’s friend, Bob, gets to stay out of prison.

Hopefully you found this post informative and/or interesting to read. I didn’t want to fill this post up with too many thoughts of my own because I didn’t want to cover too many possible points for both forms of ethics. I sincerely wish to hear the arguments, stances, and reasons of others on Medium who choose one form of ethics over another, and if you’d like to be heard, the floor, the comment section, is yours. Discuss away!

🏆 Certified Overthinker, Truth Speaker 💭 Hobbies: Pondering, ruminating, contemplating, listing synonyms. 🧠 The mind is your strongest muscle.