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Three Major Approaches to Ethnics, Goals, Rules, and Virtues


Ethics is a branch of philosophy that seeks to understand and evaluate moral behaviors and principles. Robin Lovin’s book “An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties and Virtues” describes the three major approaches to ethics goals, duties, and virtues. The first of the three approaches are goals-based approach, also called consequentialism or teleology. The second approach is the rule-based approach, also called deontology. The third is the virtue-based approach which evaluates the morality of actions based on the character traits or virtues displayed by an individual who acts. Robin Lovin’s book explores the varied strengths and weaknesses of each of the three approaches. Lovin’s exploration of the three approaches – goals, rules, and virtues- is a comprehensive framework for making ethical decisions in Christian ethics, drawing on the approaches to promote the flourishing of individuals and communities and reflect God’s love and justice in the world.

Goals-based approach

The goal-based approach, also called consequentialism or teleology, evaluates the morality of actions based on the consequences of each step. The overall goal of teleology is to minimize negative impacts and maximize the overall well-being of humans based on each activity. In Christianity, teleology is based on seeking the kingdom of God and fulfilling God’s purpose for humanity. According to Lovin, the goal-based approach assumes that the Bible sets some objective standards for humans to flourish. Lovin states that human actions are based and evaluated based on how well they contribute to or deviate from Biblical standards. People are supposed to aspire to achieve emotional well-being, physical health, spiritual fulfillment, and social harmony through Biblical teachings about God’s will and purpose for humanity.

The goals-based approach proposes that people make moral decisions based on a clear goal. The conclusion that best achieves the goal is the most ethical. Lovin states, “This approach to ethics asks, ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’ and ‘What actions will create that kind of world?'” (Lovin, 2010, p. 25). The strengths of this approach are that it encourages people to think deeply about the consequences of their actions. It compels people to think about the long-term effects of their decisions. Consequentialism is especially effective in helping people apply limits to things and activities that have pleasurable outcomes. It is effective in helping suppress the endless and stressful pursuit of pleasure. According to Lovin, people ought to seek agapism. Agapism is pursuing love for God and, by extension, man. In this case, people should evaluate their actions by targeting to achieve a result demonstrating their love for God and fellow men.

Consequentialism is compelling and vital in allowing decisions to be made flexibly. Lovin notes that since the goals-based approach focuses on guiding an individual to achieve a specific desired outcome, a person does not have to follow a strict set of rules in doing something. For instance, a Christian whose goal is to assist their neighbor can use many avenues, such as offering moral, material, and physical means to help people in need. The teleology approach is also practical in its emphasis on people acting for the common good and the welfare of others. Christianity is anchored in love and concern for others by Jesus Christ’s example.

There are a few criticisms and weaknesses of the goals-based approach. First, it can be too subjective because the desired outcomes can vary significantly from one person to another. Subjectivity can even allow room for adverse effects that do not necessarily promote moral or religious teachings. Secondly, when two more goals are desirable out of a single action or a set of related activities, it can be challenging to establish the most desirable or essential goal. According to Lovin, “Consequentialism, then, can be egocentric or universalistic, depending on whether it considers results only for the person making a choice or for everyone involved” (100). Human nature and ego push people to act in selfish rather than universalistic ways. Although Christianity teaches people to work in universalistic ways, the subjectivity of the goals-oriented approach allows people to disguise their desired outcomes and pretend to chase the common good of all, while the principal goals are selfish.

Rules-based approach

The rules-based approach to ethics is also called deontology. It evaluates the morality of actions based on whether an effort follows or adheres to a moral principle or rule. In the case of Christianity, ethical steps following deontology follow the moral principles and practices spelled out in the Bible and those that Christians generally agree on. The main goal of deontology is to promote universal moral obligations and duties that apply to all people regardless of their circumstances. In Christianity, responsibilities and duties are usually expressed as commandments or rules such as the Ten Commandments.

Deontology assumes that some objective moral norms should bind all human beings. In Christianity, the ethical norms apply to every Christian. According to Lovin, all human actions should be based on criteria such as honesty, human dignity, justice, and compassion. One of the strengths of deontology as it applies to Christians and ethics is the outright example set out through God’s character in general and Jesus Christ’s character in particular. The Bible insists on people following God’s will, while Jesus also stressed, taught, and became a living example of that will. It is, therefore, much easier to understand and pursue those norms because they are elaborately laid out in religion.

One of the areas for improvement of deontology is that it can be overly legalistic and rigid. People can focus excessively on the external and legalistic or formal fulfillment of the norms and ethics without such people experiencing internal transformation. For instance, if the will of God is for one to share with the needy as a way to show love and care, someone may share something little and inadequate to meet another person’s needs. Many people want to comply with a norm to be deemed ethical and virtuous; they need to focus more on internal transformation and lasting impact.

Deontology can also be weak when conflicts exist between different principles and rules. For instance, the norm of justice can imply social justice or justice to the self and seeking freedom. An action can be deemed unethical because it promotes individualism, but the same action can be considered ethical because it is self-preservation and liberty.

Virtues-based Approach

The virtues-based approach to ethics focuses on developing virtues or moral character traits. According to Lovin, virtues in Christianity can refer to developing the character of Jesus Christ or living a life that exudes the fruits of the spirit. It is about creating a character of patience, honesty, self-discipline, self-control, peace, goodness, gentleness, and kindness. Lovin states that a virtues-based approach aims to develop and cultivate habits of virtue to shape the attitudes and actions of an individual.

The virtues-based approach is about developing behaviors to help guide decision-making. The better someone’s behavior is, the better they align with making better and more ethical decisions. For instance, someone who has decided to be kind and developed that character trait or virtue over many years will most likely be considerate at all times and to many people, including strangers. Since acting kindly is considered ethical, that person will be deemed righteous by their character.

There are numerous strengths of people following a virtues-based approach. The first emphasizes the importance of developing personal character to aid in decision-making. Unlike the goals and rules-based approaches to ethical decision-making, the virtues-based process is more transformational for individuals. People have to believe in some virtues and practice them over many years for them to always and instinctively act following their virtues. Lovin observes that the virtues-based approach is more sustainable and authentic than other approaches to ethical decision-making. Christians can deliberately choose to become better people as they copy the character of Jesus and allow themselves to develop a variety of virtues. Instead of simply following rules or chasing some desirable outcomes, adhering to one’s integrity is replicable over diverse situations and to various people.

Virtues-decision-making also allows for great flexibility when making decisions and hence increases the likelihood of making ethical decisions. According to Lovin, one can select the most befitting virtue for different contexts and situations. For instance, when tempted to speak rudely to someone after an unfair act, they can practice self-control and gentleness even though they may have felt the justifiable urge to defend themselves.

Virtue-based approach to decision-making focuses on the long term. The approach focuses on the development of long-term characters and habits. It is about developing a lifestyle. The virtues-based approach can be taught to children in a more straightforward manner compared to the goal-based and rules-based systems. In Christianity, many people developed particular virtues because they observed and learned them from older Christians around them. Teaching ethics through virtues is more straightforward and natural than deontology and teleology.

A few things could be improved with the virtues-based approach to ethical decision-making. There needs to be more guidance on how one ought to act in some situations. Although kindness, honesty, and compassion are universally accepted, they should not apply in all cases. Sometimes working kindly, honestly, and compassionately with evil people with ill intentions can expose one to dangers such as being harmed. In Christianity, there are some situations where virtues have led people to follow the wrong doctrine, be taken advantage of, and ultimately fail to act ethically.

Additionally, a virtue-based approach to ethical decision-making is subjective. Although Christians largely agree on many virtues, such as honesty, kindness, gentleness, and patience, there are loopholes of uncertainty because what one considers a virtue is not necessarily what another considers a virtue. When virtues conflict, it becomes difficult to address specific moral dilemmas. For instance, when dealing with controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, sexuality, and gender issues, following virtues can lead to unethical decision-making, given their subjectivity and openness to abuse.


The three approaches to ethical decision-making (the goals-based approach, rules-based approach, and virtue-based approach) are all applicable guidance to helping humans make better ethical decisions for the furtherance of humankind. Robin Lovin’s book “An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties and Virtues” is instrumental in demonstrating each approach’s applicability, strengths, and weaknesses. As it applies to Christianity, goals-based decision-making means that people follow biblical teachings to make decisions whose outcomes bring happiness to most people. When a person achieves a desired end following the Bible, that decision is deemed ethical. The rules-based approach is probably the most dominant in Christianity because the Bible is considered a holy and unquestionable book. Hence, whatever it recommends as moral is more of a rule or command to be followed rather than a request. The virtues-based approach is effective in helping develop sustainable and naturally applicable ethical decision-making. A combination of all three approaches to ethical-decision making works best and brings about synergy- helping to take advantage of each approach’s strengths while addressing each’s weaknesses.


Lovin, R. (2011) An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, and Virtues. Abingdon Press.


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