Untangling Ethics: The Three Moral Systems

Ever since the first humans started hitting animals with rocks, we’ve argued about who we should and shouldn’t be allowed to hit with rocks. From the Ten Commandments to the Code of Hammurabi, some of the earliest known writings were sets of rules governing human actions. Morality can be organized, discussed, and presented in countless different packages. However, there are three main systems by which all moral ideas can be categorized.

1: Intent-Based Morality

In 2013, a group of animal rights activists broke into a laboratory in order to release the mice and rats contained within. Now, these people mean well. They don’t hate science. They don’t hate humanity. They just believe that animals have intrinsic worth akin to humans. If you were to believe that, it would be heinous for you to sit back and watch people experiment on such innocent souls.

Intent-based morality would say that these activists did nothing wrong. They should be judged solely on their motives, which were to protect what they saw as dignified life.

Intent-based morality would say that a husband speeding on his way to bring his in-labor wife to the hospital shouldn’t be prosecuted. It would remove involuntary manslaughter as a crime and recuse anybody who meant well of any of the consequences of their actions.

While seemingly pure, this system can get foggy when we try to use it in practice. How would we know if someone has good or bad intentions? How do we know what counts as a good intention and what constitutes a bad one? Any serious ethicist approaching morality in this manner must reckon with those questions.

Fun fact: most young children seem to latch on to this system.

2: Action-Based Morality

Instead of judging intent, action-based morality asks if the act in question is right or wrong. This typically requires an established set of rules that dictate what actions are moral and which ones aren’t.

  • The animal rights activists are in the wrong because the action of breaking and entering is always wrong.

  • The animal rights activists are in the right because the action of freeing rats is always right.

Action-based morality leaves little room for considering context, special situations, or the consequences of an act. All it asks is what you did. It measures what you did against the rules and the moral weight of your action is decided. A plus of an action-based system is that decisions are consistent and generally bias-free. If everybody is evaluated by the same rulebook, then we don’t have to worry moral judgments changing from opinion to opinion.

However, action-based morality gets tricky when you try to reduce it. Take the act of shooting someone. Now, exactly which act makes it wrong? Is it that you pointed a gun? It’s hard to say that’s the evil act, since you could be doing the same act in a depopulated forest and that wouldn’t seem to be wrong. Is it the act of pulling the trigger? Well, if the barrel is pointed at a piece of paper with a bullseye on it, the same action seems to put you in the clear. Most explanations of why the act of shooting someone is wrong will bleed over into intent systems (“well, you were TRYING to harm someone”) or, as we’ll talk shortly, outcome systems (“your behavior resulted in someone dying”).

We can do our best to come up with more specific rules, but we’ll never finish this task. Virtually all actions have exceptions: special cases in which the rules around them stop working.

Note: Deontological morality can be understood as an action-based system.

3: Outcome-Based Morality

Outcome-based systems argue that we should use the consequences of behavior to evaluate its moral charge.

  • The animal rights activists were wrong because the outcome of their action hurt scientific progress.

  • The animal rights activists were right because the outcome of their action freed hundreds of imprisoned rats.

People are very free with criticizing “consequentialism”, but it’s easily the most intuitive moral system we have. We claim that murder is wrong because it hurts people. We see identity theft as immoral because it brings suffering. We see arson as more evil than jaywalking because it destroys things that have value to people.

One drawback of using an outcome-based system is that we have to decide which consequences matter more than others. Someone lies to his friend to make him feel better. Is deception worth the boost in his friend’s self-esteem? We have to pick between these outcomes if we want to assign a moral judgment.

So… Which One is Right?

While all of these systems provide separate outlooks, it’s almost impossible to stick to one in all things. Most people operate using a mix of the three. We often use intent to evaluate those close to us, rules to judge the actions of strangers, and outcomes to justify our own decisions.

To further understand these ideas, delve into what great philosophers have said on each of the subjects. Each one of these systems contains sub systems and subbity-sub systems. Learn as much about them as you can.

What system of morality makes the most sense to you? Let us know in the comments.