Deontological vs. Teleological Ethical Systems


Deontology is concerned with the study of duty, thus it is a theory which explores issues “regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do” (Alexander & Moore, 2007). It would inherently follow then that his philosophical study would be applied to the realm of ethics. According to Joyce Pollock, deontological ethical systems pertain to behaviors that are evaluated by others. Under the realm of the deontological ethical systems fall the categories of: ethical formalism, religion, andnatural law (Pollock, 2004).

Ethical formalism is concerned with the motivation behind one’s actions; it can be characterized by the statement: “What is good is that which conforms to the categorical imperative” (Pollock, 2004 p.49) . For example, if a man performs CPR on a choking woman and in the process breaks her sternum, which then leads to her death, then ethical formalism would say that this man’s actions were inherently good because of his intent. Ethical formalism does not approve of “eye for an eye” type justification; therefore, issuing the death sentence for a murderer would still be judged as bad. In ethical formalism, there is no justification for murder because no good can come from taking a life intentionally, no matter what the circumstances are (Pollock, 2004).

Religion is another branch of the deontological ethical system. Religion is the most widely used system of ethics which people adhere to in order to determine their system of good and evil. Although religions vary widely, the majority hold similar views of what is wrong and right by determining that “What is good is that which conforms to God's will” (Pollock, 2004 p. 49). In Christianity, the Ten Commandments issue a list of God’s will for people’s actions. Among those forbidden are: adultery, murder, and theft. While these are considered evil acts, the Bible also makes concessions for those acts which were not done with ill intent and thus deserve to be forgiven. Thus, ultimately God is the only judge who is able to see man’s heart and make the final decision upon whether he is a good or bad man.

Natural law is an ethical system which determines a man’s actions according to what is instinctual. For example, if a woman kills a man who is in the process of harming her child to the point which she feels the child’s life is in jeopardy, then her action is justified as good because she was acting upon an instinct to protect her child. Natural law says: “What is good is that which is natural” (Pollock, 2004 p.49). Like religion, natural law basis its judgment upon situational circumstance.

Egoism is another law of ethics that falls within the deontological realm. Egoism says: “What is good is that which benefits me” (Pollock, 2004 p.49). Thus, the Constitution of the United States has a form of egoist ethics in it because it grants the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Hence, the capitalist who apprentices for a year and then leaves to start his own business and in the process takes half of the clientele with him would be deemed morally justified under the law of egoism, because his actions served his needs and happiness. Egoism places the needs and desires of the individual over those of society.


Contrary to deontological ethics, is teleological ethics, also known as consequentialism. This stands in direct opposition to deontological ethics because it determines behaviors to be good or evil based upon the consequences. Teleological ethics “holds that choices — acts and/or intentions — are to be morally assessed solely by the states of affairs they bring about” (Alexander & Moore, 2007). Those who adhere to this type of ethics hold the actions which benefit the greater good as valuable and morally right. Thus, the teleological ethical system is more concerned with the consequences of the act rather than the act itself in a sort of “let the end justify the means” mentality (Pollock, 2004). The teleological ethical systems encompass the theories of: utilitarianism, ethics of virtue, and ethics of care.

Utilitarianism says: “What is good is that which results in the greatest utility for the greatest number” (Pollock, 2004 p.49). The outcome of utilitarianism is to provide the an action which helps more people than it hurts. For example, the people who were stranded in Alaska following a plane crash employed utilitarianism when they decided to eat some of the people on board in an effort to ensure that more people would survive rather than die.

Ethics of virtues is another form of teleological ethics. Ethics of virtue says: “What is good is that which conforms to the Golden Mean” (Pollock, 2004 p.49). Rather than judging the consequence or the action, this ethical system looks at whether the person who is committing the act is on average a person who is virtuous (Pollock, 2004). For example, a doctor who prescribes hydrocodone for a nurse, with whom he works and is constantly complaining of back pain, is judged a good person, even though he failed to look into her history to see that the nurse was indeed abusing prescription medications. In this case the doctor employed ethics of virtue when he prescribed the medications because he judged the nurse based on the virtues that he attributed to her. The doctor would also be deemed justified under ethics of virtue because even though he may have contributed to her drug habit, he is generally a virtuous man who always tries to help others.

Lastly, is the ethics of care form of teleology. Ethics of care says: “What is good is that which meets the needs of those concerned” (Pollock, 2004 p.49). This system of ethics is largely concerned with the elderly, those who are sick, and those who cannot make decisions for themselves. For example, under this system, euthanasia is judged to be morally right when a person who is left in a coma is taken off life support by a loved one who feels that the quality of life is diminished in such a way that it is more painful to be alive than to continue to live.

Personal Ethics

I myself, like most, do not adhere to any one form of ethics solely. Although I do, for the most part, follow an ethical and moral system based upon religion. However, I feel that at times the church has misinterpreted what the Bible has said is good or bad, right or wrong, because it is written in shades of gray. Thus, when I employ my own sense of ethics, I think to myself: Is this good or bad according to the Bible? How would God judge my intent? Is my motive self serving? If so, does my happiness afford action at any expense? How would my action affect others? Does my choice bring about good for others? Is my behavior going to diminish or improve the quality of life for others and myself? In this light, it is safe to say that I adhere to an amalgam of these forms of ethics. In the end, I believe that this is in part the best code of conduct to live by because it considers the outcomes in entirety.


Alexander, Larry & Moore, Michael. (2007) “Deontological Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.), <>

Pollock, Jocelyn. (2004). Ethics in crime and justice: dilemmas and decisions.

University of California. (169).