(Deontological Ethics)

Human Experience:

The experience of human interactions is primary. We are social beings which entails obligations toward others, even when motivation may be lacking. People come to self-awareness in the midst of moral laws and rules: "do this" or "don't do that". Human beings are "citizens," orienting their life to structures of duty and obligation. We are obligated to do the right thing and avoid the wrong action, not based on assessing likely or hoped-for consequences.



One understands the moral life as doing what one ought to do. It may be obeying the moral law of God, or the moral law that one finds within oneself, or the structures of obligation that are required for communities to flourish. Some conventional notions of obligation are probably arbitrary. Some are likely to reflect the will of the powerful. But others are a way to express respect for others' dignity and to maintain community.


Christian Ethics:

God is believed to be the source of moral laws and rules. Human beings are ultimately accountable to God for the way we live. Often these laws and rules are believed to be communicated in the biblical tradition. Sometimes, however, the moral law is derived from respect for the divine image in each person. In these various understandings, Jesus is seen who did not come to abolish the moral law but to fulfill it. For some it is also possible to discover God's moral law in creation through reflection on human experience. In this tradition, the most influential way to understand sin is disobedience.


What are these laws and/or rules? Often, the Ten Commandments, Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, Paul's admonitions to young churches. But some Christians also emphasize moral rules which are not explicitly stated in the Bible, such as refusal to take up weapons for any purpose, "right to life," honesty, promise keeping, securing human rights for all people, protecting non-human life.



Covenant law in Judaism; Immanuel Kant; Calvin and the Reformed Tradition;

Mennonites and the Friends. In contemporary life, we see the ethics of rules and obligations institutionalized in courts of law, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and professional codes of ethics.


Questions and critical issues:

What is the source of moral rules or moral obligations?

Which moral rules or laws are absolute or most weighty?

What are the dangers of legalism, rigidity, and self-righteousness?




(Teleological Ethics)


Human Experience:

The experience of intentionality or purposiveness is primary. We direct our actions toward certain ends or goals. Human beings are builders, fashioners, creators, in the moral life.



One lives the moral life by seeking to realize certain ends, to achieve goals, or to bring about good consequences. The goal may be moral perfection or self-realization. Perhaps, as in Greek philosophy, the end is quite abstract, namely to seek the Good. Or in certain forms of utilitarianism, the goal of persons is to seek happiness or pleasure, and the greatest amount of good consequences with the least amount of bad consequences. In Marxist thought the goal might be a classless society. Or in capitalist economics it might be to maximize profits (or wealth)



Christian Ethics:

The biblical tradition does not convey the goal motif as much as it does the rule and virtue motifs. Some scholars have viewed the ethics of the Synoptic Gospels as a kind of moral perfectionism which disciples should strive to achieve. The Kingdom of God has often been interpreted as a goal for human community in history which Christians should work to bring into being (e.g. the Social Gospel)


Perhaps the most influential goal ethics in the Christian tradition is found in Catholic and Anglican traditions. Especially in Catholic thought, Christian ethics has been interpreted as realizing the natural end of human existence. God has created all things with a purpose. The theological task is to discover the purposes of God and to serve those purposes in all aspects of life. For example, the purpose of civil government is to serve the common good. In this tradition, the most influential way to understand sin is  “missing the mark, " i.e. aspiring to the wrong end.


In recent Christian thought, situation ethics has represented the utilitarian form of goal ethics. Love of neighbor means seeking the neighbor’s well being, which can only be known in the distinctive characteristics of each situation. Or in liberation thought, the goal is to achieve liberation from oppression in response to the liberating activity of God.


Examples in contemporary life:

Non-profit and profit organizations, time management workshops, politics, technology


Questions and critical issues:

What is the chief end or goal?

What is the relation of specific goals to the ultimate goal?

What is the relation of ends and means?

Can this ethic direct too much attention to goals; too little to persons and the present?




 (Virtue Ethics)


Human Experience:

The formation of the person in interaction with others is what is most determinative of the moral life. The moral experience of the person is primary. The "kind of person one is" influences the moral life more than rules, principles or goals. If the person does not have the requisite character traits, an emphasis on obligations or purposes has little impact. Descriptively, the formation of selfhood is central, and the other ways of theorizing about the moral life are derivative.



A The moral life is a matter of developing the kind of character that enables and empowers one to be moral and to act morally. Morality is more a matter of "being" than of "doing" although being expresses itself in actions. The challenge is to cultivate those moral qualities that shape a moral person in all one's activities and relationships. Desirable qualities are called virtues. In contrast, undesirable qualities have traditionally been called vices. Virtues are habits which become internalized through practice.


Christian Ethics:

Christian versions of virtue ethics are varied. Catholic thought adopted the Greek cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. But it also added theological virtues of faith, hope and love, which were gifts of God for relating persons to God. John Wesley may be seen as a theologian who stressed the virtue of love to be shaped through disciplined spirituality. Martin Luther was skeptical of any notion that human beings could or should intentionally cultivate virtues. Yet he stressed an ethic of freedom active in love as a heartfelt response to God's grace.


In biblical ethics, Paul is perhaps the clearest teacher of an ethics of character. Persons are to shape themselves in likeness to the Christ, i.e. to live in ways that are consistent with God's gracious promise in Christ. They are now new persons in which the gifts of the spirit are manifest. These may be called virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23) In the contemporary scene, certain types of feminist ethics lift up qualities of personhood: agency, freedom, caring, empowerment.



Greek philosophy, Catholic ethics, Lutheran and Methodist (with qualifications), Feminist" humanist, narrative forms of ethics. Institutionalized in families, schools, intentional communities, associations.



Which virtues and which vices?

What are OUR lists?

Where do these notions come from?

How do virtues get formed in us? What are strengths and weaknesses?


This material is from Dr. Dana Wilbanks, Iliff School of Theology, 2002. Slightly modified.