Six Types of Ethics Walk Into a 2x2

Ethics is fundamentally about answering the question "how should you live your life". Implicit in that question is the question "what is good?" as well as the rest of the mess that lives on the other side of Hume's guillotine. Mostly we when we think of ethics we think of a preacher exhorting us to give to charity, or a parent teaching a child not to lie, but "go to college so you can succeed in life" is just as much an ethical statement as "don't lie".

Often people divide ethics into two or three groups: teleological (consequentialist), deontological (rule based), and virtue ethics. Westerners intuitively use, but often don't think about a fourth system "role based" ethics. To these I would like to add two more types of ethical patterns I see people use: "exemplar" ethics and "script" ethics. These are not groups of ethical systems, but fundamental patterns of thought about how to reason within and about ethical systems. Metaphorically speaking, an ethical pattern might be similar to the concept of "case law" where as a specific ethical system might be similar to the concept of "the laws of the united states".

The six ethical patterns I described vary in how situational they are. Much as physics aims to find things which are and must be universally true, while biology aims to find things which happen to be true some ethical systems aim for a universal ethical context from which all actions could theoretically be derived while others are specifically fit for a single place and time. The former frequently are difficult to apply in practice while the latter do not display internal awareness of the specificity of their fit.

A second way in which the six differ is in their focus on ethics at a societal level or an individual level. Ethics focused on societal problems are more focused on the emergent behaviors of an entire society adopting an ethical system. Conversely some ethical patterns tend to focus on the ethical behaviors of individuals as a stand-alone criteria.

Teleological (Consequentialist) Ethics

The popular system of Consequentialism at the moment is Utilitarianism which is the idea that one should perform the act that creates the most cumulative good 1 across all people. In almost all cases modern utilitarian's reduce good to "pleasure" and bad to "suffering" with heavy argument about what value creating or destroying life should be given. Though this pleasure = good is pretty obvious and coherent to most WEIRD folks, there are plenty of times and populations this would not have been true for. Utilitarianism has pretty demanding requirements, and when taken to extremes leaves little room for anything else.

Another version of Consequentialist ethics that comes up with some frequency is straight, unadulterated hedonism. In this case the "good" that one should optimize for is their own pleasure, either in the long term or the short term. Hedonism is absolutely and clearly an ethical system. The fact that it may not seem good or noble is simply an artifact of a person holding differing ethical system. Arguably these are all the same thing with a different perspective on what makes up identity.

Teleology tends to be popular with people from a math and science background, I suspect because it requires a very minimal amount of reasoning in the messy and ambiguous space of "shoulds and ougts". In a sense it provides the minimum possible ought as an assumption, and everything else is derived from that using traditional logic. The principal that this is a good way to do things is, itself, a rule of thumb in traditional logic, but there is no obvious reason that it would (or wouldn't) apply here.

For me, one of the largest downsides of teleological ethics is that it judges you for things that are out of your control. If you try your hardest to save a puppy that fell in a well, but the puppy later mauls a man, from a strict utilitarian standpoint you have done something morally reprehensible. In addition, because people can't predict the future outcome of their actions nearly as well as they think they can, this leaves a ton of room for fancy and convoluted justifications. Most would soften the strict standpoint to "attempt to do what maximizes utility", which strictly speaking makes it into Deontological ethics with only one rule.

Deontological (Rule Based) Ethics

Rule based ethics are based on the principle that there is a list of known rules, which you should follow unswervingly. You should follow these rules even when the outcomes are obviously and manifestly unpleasant or bad. For instance, if there is a rule "don't lie" and you have the opportunity to save a life by lying, you should still not lie.

I have several problems with this sort of ethical system. The first is the obvious question: where did you get this list of known rules? Most deontological systems I know of use basically the only coherent answer I can think of to this which is "from god". If you believe in an absolute and ultimate god that is both the definer of good and evil and dictated a set of rules, then it seems like following those rules would be a sane basis for a morality system. If not then whatever those rules were derived from would probably make a better, or at the very least more fundamental basis for an ethical system.

There is some wiggle room here for specifics, for instance the buddhist monks have a very detailed list of rules. They essentially present them as "These rules were designed by someone so much smarter than you, and so much better informed that deviating from them is almost definitely wrong". Strictly speaking that means it's not deontological, but in practice it's treated as if it were. Some of the rules are clearly quite situational, and some have pretty clearly been abandon because the original situation no longer applies. (Such as the minimal bathing requirement)

Most however, such as the Biblical or Sharia law, are seen as coming directly from god, and being an end in and of themselves. There are some clear problems with this approach in that it does not allow for a world that changes. At a minimum, this means many of the rules will become extraneous which is a pretty mild disfunction, at the worst it will cause some of the rules to become almost uninterpretable.

Another major issue with any explicit rule based system is that though it reduces the need for constant interpretation and analysis, it typically replaces it with the need for similarly overwhelming amounts of memorization. Though some sets of rules are quite short (the ten commandments, the five precepts) most are very very long. They also, unexpectedly, seem to produce even more interpretation and commentary than teleological systems, which is surprising and backwards seeming to me.

Virtue Ethics

Plato is probably the most famous proponent of "virtue ethics". The core idea behind which is that there are (multiple) virtues that an individual should attempt to embody. This can appear to be a nice compromise between teleological and deontological perspectives. Because there are multiple virtues pursued most of the more ridiculous utilitarian outcomes 2 are avoided. Because the virtues are minimally defined they allow for arbitrary amounts of situational thought and flexibility.

This flexibility comes with a bit of fogginess, one of the key weaknesses in virtue ethics. For instance, most systems of virtue ethics site justice as a core virtue, but interpreting what is just is almost always left as a task for the user. This leaves plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree about what the correct act is in a situation, without even invoking the task of balancing the different virtues.

Virtue ethics tends also to be concerned with what kind of person you are and become more than with what you do. That is a fairly dramatic difference, and results in a very different style of ethics evolving from its grounding assumptions. Virtue ethics tends to struggle with the tools and trials of actually adopting the ethical system, rather than the details of what should happen in a specific situation. In my experience, this is the greater challenge for most people is doing what they already know is right rather than puzzling out hard to compare situations.

My personal belief is that the strengths inherent in the flexibility outweigh they weaknesses of fogginess. This leaves room for wisdom, and in truth the other systems when honestly applied tend to have a similar amount of fogginess, simply better hidden in semantics or shifted to "is" questions.

Exemplar (Role Model) Ethics

Though it is not usually held up as a type of ethical pattern, I think that the imitation of a person (real or fictional) as a role model is both a common and potentially wonderful ethical pattern. If you have ever seen the phrase "What would Jesus do?" you have seen someone, at least nominally, advocating this style of ethical system. This is arguably also a default inbuilt ethical system, as children are inherently motivated to imitate those around them, particularly parents.

Though exemplar ethics is unappealing to me personally, this style of ethics has a lot to recommend it for some people. I believe that humans have a huge portion of their intelligence that is inherently designed to model the behavior of other humans. We are able to understand very subtle balances of motives, and character traits from only a few observed examples intuitively. For those who are more capable or comfortable with this style of thinking the instruction "Do what would do in your situation" is a very practical ethical pattern. Conversely a teleological approach like "Consider every action you might take, weigh their long and short term consequences, and perform the optimal one" is something that is going to be impractically challenging and burdensome for most, as is "memorize this 700 page list of rules, and then follow them".

Part of the human skill in modeling other people, and in imitating them is inherent wisdom about which part of an action should be imitated, and which parts are contextual. For instance if I see someone light the stove to boil water to prepare an herb, then when I imitate them in my home I will not light the stove but instead will use the electric kettle. This is very useful in providing the sort of flexibility and room for context that allows an ethical system to stay current even as the world evolves around it. It also provides a lot of space for disagreement.

Of course, the selection of the role model is central to the actual applied version of one of these ethical systems. Popular choices are religious figures such as Jesus, Mohamed, or Buddha. Sometimes secular figures are used, typically great political figures who have who have effectively been deified in their national history. Common examples include Ghandi, George Washington, or a personal favorite of mine Ben Franklin. Occasionally explicitly fictional or amalgamated charicters are used like Superman or Rosie the Riveter.

In some more subtle cases those with role model ethics have explicit exceptions within their space. Something like "Be like Ben Franklin, except where parenting is concerned". Regardless these sorts of ethical systems tend to explicitly ignore the deep philosophical questions of "Why is being like Superman the right way to be?", though in reality all ethical systems, regardless of pattern need to simply take something as axiomatic.

Role Based Ethics

A form of ethics that westerners somehow often miss is "role based ethics". This is the core of the ethical system that was championed by Confucius, as system that lands somewhere between role model ethics and rule based ethics. This system of ethics is very much based on an idea that you are occupy a specific role at a specific time (such as father, warrior, or employee) and that this role dominates what ethical behavior looks like for you. Typically the role you filled would come with its own set of rules, virtues, or exemplars.

This was often advocated by cultures and systems which used hereditary roles, roles that you were born into and which could be virtually impossible to escape. Mostly to a modern western sensibility these would seem abhorrent. Role based ethics is core to the Indian cast system, and was deeply ingrained in the institution of slavery, and instrumental in the concepts of peonage.

However, even in modern western ethical judgement there is a great deal of role based ethics. Most often this centers around professional obligation, and is usually talked about in the context of the Principal Agent Problem. Probably the easiest example is that of a criminal lawyer. A lawyer is expected to do everything they legally can for the benefit of their client's case even when that plainly violates most ethical intuitions. For example: a lawyer would be expected to use a technicality to prevent his client from being imprisoned for murder even if they know their client did it, and even if they have every reason to suspect that their client will do it again.

An interesting trait of role based ethics is that it occasionally acts as a superstructure over several other ethical systems, which are generally of another type. In some cases the other systems may be of diverse types: for instance a the role of "general" might come with a teleological ethical system centered around the outcome "win the war, while ensuring the safety of the homeland" while the role of "infantry" might come with a rule based ethical system largely themed around obedience. This is probably one of the greatest strengths of role based ethics.

Script Based Ethics

Perhaps the least formally recognized styles of ethical system is the "life script". This often comes in the form of general advice from the society. At its most crude "Go to College, Get a Job, Get Married, Get a house with a mortgage, Have some kids, Retire and explore the world" can actually be seen as an ethical system. It is core advice about how one should live a good life. I would also place unordered goals (like a bucket list) that are taken seriously in this category.

One of the reasons I think that these scripts are rarely seen as ethical systems is because they usually focus on the success and gratification of the individual who ascribes to them. We as a culture have a tendency to not think of these sorts of "me first" systems as being ethical systems at all, but as I discussed this is simply a strong ethical disagreement. Life scripts are ignored for about the same reason that hedonism is.

These plans are usually pretty loose, leaving a lot of space for improvisation. The broadest outlines are typically free floating in the culture (like the one I outlined above, which is the free floating plan in the urban and suburban American culture, or specifically passed down through families. In many cases the messy details are explicitly left to the adopter to design, or are designed by their parents. Perhaps the greatest strength of these ethical patterns is that while they are extremely contextual they tend to recuse themselves quickly3 when the context they worked well in no longer applies.

The Very Messy Amalgam and a Very Messy Metaphor

I have never actually met anyone who lived purely by only one of these systems. In reality people consciously or unconsciously adopt many of the systems simultaneously. Often this works out pretty well, in a lot of cases all of the systems in a specific culture produce similar or compatible answers. For instance catholic might live by the ten commandments and also the exemplar system "what would Jesus do", and never find them in conflict. When people do find their systems in conflict they often see it as a deep and paralyzing ethical dilemma. In some cases they have clearly prioritized one ethical system, or parts of some ethical systems over others and can navigate freely.

One can stretch this into a pretty good metaphor: If life is a Journey, then your context would be the territory that you are moving through and actions are the movement itself. Deontological ethics could be seen as a series of fences placed through that territory which are not to be crossed, some of them in the form of "cattle chutes" that force you down a particular path. Teleological ethics could be envisioned as a compass that points to a "true north" you hope to always move towards. Virtue Ethics could be seen as a set of rules-of-thumb for travelers, such as "try to follow the path of a river to find the sea". Role Model Ethics can be seen as map of dubious quality, which specifically only covers the path that one cartographer passed along. You may or may not be anywhere near that path, but large features like mountains are often observable. Script EthicsCould be seen as a set of trail markers with sign posts attached. Finally to stretch the metaphor Role Based Ethics can be seen as a specialized instructions based on special equipment, I.E. if your carrying a ladder you should go ahead and climb over specific walls, but treat brambles as if they were walls.

Typically people who hold to just one of these ethical systems so strongly that it lets them violate other systems strike those around us as immoral and creepy. The person who thinks it's ok to rob the rich and give to the poor is a classic trope, but when we actually encounter people who are willing to unilaterally rob or murder in pursuit of a teleological greater good we generally don't like them. Similarly the person who won't lie, even to avoid grievously hurting other peoples feelings in low stakes situations is not usually seen as an ideal. Each of the systems has this problem, though often to a lesser extent: those dedicated to virtues are often seen as "prissy", those dedicate to a role model are "cultish".

A 2x2 to place ethical systems on

These broad ethical systems have two traits that I consider particularly salient: How Universal vs Contextual they are, and how Individual vs Societal they are. Universal systems tend to have the associated disadvantage of requiring a lot of very rigorous though about how they should be applied in a specific situation, this often is paralyzingly slow, and leaves a lot of room for mistakes and biases. Conversely highly contextual systems often have a tremendous amount of thought by people smarter than you baked right in, and better yet that thought has often been tested against actual reality and refined into deep gnosis. The obvious downside is that when removed from context it tends to break.

Individual ethical systems work well when only one person follows them, and see the good as largely a personal pursuit. These systems are designed to get to good outcomes without, or perhaps even despite the involvement of the community. Conversely more societal systems see ethics as something that is organized on a group level, and which demands cooperation and universal adoption. Good outcomes are not determined by your own ethics alone, but also by your neighbors, and the rules are designed to get a whole community to a good outcome.

Ultimately, I found trying to place the ethical systems on the 2x2 to be a great exercise, but don't feel particularly confident in my placements. I may return to this at some point and try to place specific instances of ethics, and then re-draw the systems to surround all of the instances that they encompass. I bet it will turn up a totally different looking 2x2.

  • 1. or the least bad
  • 2. such as getting everyone high on heroin for the rest of their life
  • 3. Like in a generation or two