Comparing Virtue Ethics vs. Consequentialist & Non-Consequentialist Ethics

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  • 0:00 Ethics
  • 1:03 Ethics and Consequences
  • 3:01 Virtue Ethics
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Virtue ethics, consequential ethics, non-consequential ethics...what do these words even mean? Well, you're going to find out, and discover the similarities and differences between them before testing your knowledge with a brief quiz.


It's a good thing to be good. How do we know? Well, there are quite a few philosophers who have put quite a bit of thought into this. In most systems of ethics, codes of moral behavior, philosophers agree that doing the right thing is the right thing to do. Furthermore, it's not good to be not good. To put that more simply, being wrong is wrong. But, how do we know if we're being good? Well, that's where things get a bit trickier. How do we know if what we are doing is right, or wrong, or somewhere in between? Can right be wrong? It can feel right. Or, at least alright. This is where philosophy seems confusing, but don't let yourself get overwhelmed. At the end of the day we still come back to that basic principle. Be good.

Ethics and Consequences

Sometimes we define right wrong, and sometimes wrong right, but one of the common ways to make this judgment is by looking at individual actions. After all, a moral decision only really exists once it is turned into either action or inaction, right? So this seems like a good place to judge morality.

When judging morality by actions, there are two main schools of thought. The first is called consequentialism, in which the morality of an action is judged by the consequences it creates. If your action has a positive outcome, then it was a moral action. If it has a negative outcome, it was an immoral action. An easy way to think about this is the phrase 'the end justifies the means.' Think of it like this: if you save a puppy, was that action moral? Well, if the puppy goes on to make some child happy, then yes. If it develops rabies and attacks the town, then no. The result of the action determines whether it was right or wrong.

When judging the morality of actions, there is one other school of thought. Non-consequentialism judges the reasons behind actions, not the outcome. So if your action is based on the best intentions, they are moral. This view of ethics relies on the idea of a moral duty, an obligation or responsibility to act on your moral beliefs. So, let's go back to that saving-the-puppy thing. You save the puppy because you believe it is the right thing to do. Your moral duty requires you to act, so it really doesn't matter what the dog does once you have saved it. You did your moral duty, so you acted morally.

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