Which of these two main ethical systems do you favor?
Deontology — The morality of an action is determined by duty; adherence to given rules.
Consequentialism — The morality of an action is determined by the specific results of that action.
A deontologist will condemn a thief on the basis that he has broken the moral imperative that commands one not to steal. A consequentialist will condemn the thief on the basis that his actions, the forceful removal of another’s property, have caused real harm.
It may seem that both ethical systems follow their own method to arrive at the same conclusions, and most of the time this is probably so, but the difference is important.
You can easily imagine a scenario in which following a moral imperative brings about negative consequences. The classic example is strict adherence to the rule “Do not tell a lie” when a Nazi is knocking on your door to ask if there are any Jews hiding in your basement, and one happens to be. A deontological system must either insist that the right moral action in this context is the one that ends up bringing about a horrific result or else provide for a means of resolving conflicts between different imperatives. That they generally lack a clear means of doing the latter is a common criticism of these ethical systems. In fact, it is asserted by some, you discover when you peel the layers that these systems are actually resolving conflicts on a consequential basis, and are as such nothing more than consequentialism in disguise.
A major criticism of consequentialism, on the other hand, is that it is not concerned with motivations or intentions. An action performed with the best of intentions is deemed morally wrong by the consequentialist when the results are sour. Conversely, an action performed with sinister intentions is deemed morally right when it brings about positive results. That the actions of the person who seeks to do evil should be applauded while the actions of the person who seeks to do good should be condemned rubs most of us the wrong way.
Another criticism that has been leveled at consequentialism is that it appear only to be useful when judging actions after they have already been performed and the results are in, rather than as a means of dictating what the right action is that a person ought to perform.
Now can you guess which of the two philosophies I prefer? You’ll find out tomorrow when I defend that system.