some people who hold a mix of the three, and no doubt there are scores of
academics who would line up to argue that there are four or five or even three
and a half types. I will settle with three. Let me briefly describe each.
Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of an action in order to
determine whether the action is right or wrong. This might be looking
backwards from a good result in order to justify the decision or it might be
looking forward to justify an action based on the good the act will produce
or enable. The phrase, “the end justifies the means,” is certainly an apt
moniker for consequentialism. The virulent strain of consequentialism is
utilitarianism as postulated by Jeremey Bentham40 and John Stuart Mill. 41
The greatest good for the greatest number is the anchor principle for
utilitarianism. 42 A type of egoist subjectivism is a variant of utilitarianism
that asserts the greatest good for me is the right answer. In all strains of
consequentialism, the act itself is irrelevant; the consequence or result is the
norm that casts the act as right or wrong. As noted, the profit principle in its
most extreme form is consequentialism.
Deontology is sometimes referred to as command ethics. Deontological
ethics is focused on duty for duty’s sake. The normative framework for
deontologists is the command. In following the command there is moral
fulfillment and rightness. In a similar vein as consequentialism, the act itself
is not as important as following the command. Immanuel Kant is the
deontologist par excellence. 43 He is certainly not the first command ethicist44
but Kant has had enormous influence over theories that start and end with
duty. It is not hard to see shades of deontology in anyone who enforces
policies without a care to whether infractions are material or de minimis.
Virtue ethics is a framework which seeks excellence in character as the
anchor to right action. While virtue ethics is likely the most commonly
chosen framework from which to make corporate decisions that are not
driven by the profit principle, virtue ethics can be a slippery thing to get one’s
arms around. Aristotle is seen as the father of virtue ethics and Thomas
Aquinas as its medieval champion. 45 Aristotle described human action as
40. See JEREMY BENTHAM, THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS AND LEGISLA TION (1789).
41. See JOHN STUART MILL, UTILITARIANISM (1863).
42. “[S]o that that action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest
numbers; and that worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.” FRANCIS HUTCHESON, AN
INQUIRY INTO THE ORIGINAL OF OUR IDEAS OF BEAUTY AND VIRTUE. IN TWO TREATISES 185
43. ROGER SCRU TON, KANT: A VER Y SHOR T IN TRODUCTION (2001). See IMMANUEL KAN T,
GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYSIC OF MORALS (Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2009)
44. History is littered with heads of state who are command ethicists when they are
giving the command. They tend not to be champions of command ethics when they are on
the pointy end of a sword as the games of power turn, as they so frequently do.
45. TIMOTHY CHAPPELL ET AL., THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO VIRTUE ETHICS (Daniel