How We Make Decisions

How We Make Decisions

A quick overview of normative ethics: Two main styles we use to make ethical decisions.



Two Thinking Styles We Use to Decide Right from Wrong

So, how do we decide on what is right and wrong? When we come to an ethical question, and we think through it, what are the “rules” that we use to come up with the answer? What’s the litmus test to determine morality? Generally, many philosophers think in terms of two different styles of thinking, that we use to choose between right and wrong.

Utilitarian Thinking: What is the end result? Utilitarians look at the consequences of the act. If the consequences of the act are ethical, then the act itself is ethical.

Duty (Deontological) Thinking: What is my responsibility here? Deontologicalists look at the act itself, and decide whether the act itself is ethical or unethical.

This is not to say that a person only uses one way of determining right and wrong. In fact, I’d wager to say that most people use a mixture of both styles. However, I’d also wager that we find a home in one of these two styles of thinking. I think that one of these will feel more at home. We might stray from that “home style,” but we always come back to it. The home style becomes our default, or our starting point.

The study of this “way of deciding,” is the field called Normative Ethics. Normative ethics explores how people make ethical decisions.


Utilitarian Thinking: What is the End Result?

Another method of deciding right and wrong has to do with the consequences. What will the consequences be? If the consequences of the action will be good, then the action is ethical.

This way of thinking has been commonly called utilitarianism, teleological ethics, or consequentialism. We weigh our moral responsibility by weighing future consequence. The morality of the action is determined only by the consequences.

When President W. Bush defended his invasion of Iraq, he frequently used a utilitarian rationale. “It’s worth the high price we pay now” he says, because of something that will happen later. Vice President Cheney defended waterboarding terrorism suspects with the utilitarian rationale: “It was okay, because it worked. American lives were saved.”

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an early theorist in utilitarianism. He said that it is always the common good that matters: “the greatest good for the greatest number” was his phrase defending utilitarian thinking. The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.

Critics of utilitarianism have labeled it as “the ends justify the means.” Critics ask the question, “who gets to decide what’s a good consequence?” Is it the person or group making the decisions who gets to decide what the best consequence is?  Who decides what is the common good? Often, minorities or individuals suffer when “the common good” is proclaimed. Further, utilitarianism is criticized because we can’t predict the future. It is impossible to say what all the consequences are.


Duty Thinking: What is My Responsibility Here?

The other ethical school of thought is about duty; we do things because we have a duty to do them. Depending on the author, this way of thinking is called duty-based or deontological thinking. Sometimes it’s called anti-utilitarian or non-consequentialism (non-consequences), because it kind of represents the opposite of utilitarian theories. The duty-based thinking is the belief that the act itself has worth in an of itself. It’s the act that is right or wrong, regardless of the consequences. In other words, some things are right, and they are always right; some things are wrong, and they are always wrong.

In duty-based or deontological thinking, we don’t care what the end result is. We simply do them because its our responsibility to do them. For example, we take care of our children, not because of some future scenario. We take care of our children because it’s the right thing to do. It’s our responsibility to care for our children, right here and now. If our child got sick, most of us would empty out our savings account to pay for the care of our child. Our role and responsibility of a parent of a sick child outweighs the future financial problems that will occur later.

A deontologicalist would follow a rule because the rule is correct to follow. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a proponent of deontological theories, said “do what is right, though the world should perish.” In other words, there’s no big whoop if you do the right thing because it is good for you down the road. Even a dog can do that. Kant says, The point in ethics, is to do the right thing no matter what the consequences are.

A problem with deontological theories is when our duties conflict. What happens, for example, if we run a company that’s in financial trouble? We can either declare bankruptcy or we can lay off people who have been with the company a long time. Both choices go against our duty–our roles conflict.

Critics of deontologicalism talk about how a strict obedience to rules can create more problems down the road. They abhor principles and policies that end up harming individuals and minorities. For many years, the policy of the U.S. government had been not to have any trade or interaction with Cuba, because of their communist ideology. That policy has done little to stop communism in Cuba, but it has created a lot of poverty there. It has hurt Cubans as well as American businesses. So, the consequences of that policy have been dubious.



Normative ethics asks whether there is a principle, a set of principles, or a way of thinking that can evaluate all behavior. Generally two styles of thinking are discussed in normative ethics.

Can you lie to a suspect? A utilitarian would say yes, since it might get you a confession. A deontologicalist would usually say no, because lying is wrong. Can you peek before you get a warrant? A utilitarian would say yes, because it would save you time in the long run. A deontologicalist would usually say no, because it upends the time-honored procedure.

Most people probably use a mixture of both, but probably find a home style with which they are more comfortable.


2010, Jim Ollhoff, PhD



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