In CORE 101, you completed the Opposing Viewpoints assignments, which asked you to analyze two arguments in order to compare the authors’ approaches. In CORE 102 you completed the Approaches to Oral Argument assignment, and in CORE 201, you completed an Argument Analysis. Now, in CORE 202, you will apply the analytical skills that you have been practicing and strengthening to an analysis of an argument that addresses an issue that involves ethical reasoning.

The Ethical Analysis assignment is designed to help you meet two objectives that are important for analyzing an ethical issue. It will help you to

  • apply critical reasoning to an ethical issue and
  • utilize reasons and arguments appropriate to debate over an ethical issue.

In addition, this project provides an opportunity to revisit an objective that was introduced earlier in the University Core A sequence:

  • use tone, mechanics, and style appropriate to an academic audience.

Apply critical reasoning to an ethical issue.

In order to analyze an issue in ethical terms, a critical thinker needs to distinguish ethical issues from non-ethical ones, determine what types of ethical concerns are raised by a situation, and recognize and remove obstacles to clear thinking about those questions. The following section will introduce you to the vocabulary and concepts that will allow you to develop and strengthen these skills.

Specifically, this section of the Handbook offers answers to these questions:

  1. What are some examples of ethical issues?
  2. How can I effectively apply critical reasoning to an ethical issue?
  3. When I debate ethical issues, what is my responsibility to people who are part of the dialogue?
  4. Do “ethical” and “moral” mean the same thing?
  5. What is ethical analysis?
  6. What are ethical judgments?
  7. How can I distinguish ethical judgments from other kinds of value judgments?
  8. What are ethical arguments?
  9. How can I best frame an ethical issue?
  10. What is an ethical conflict?
  11. What is an ethical dilemma?
  12. What does it mean to “take responsibility” in conflict or dilemma situations?
  13. What biases may affect critical reflection on an ethical issue?
  14. How does self-interest affect people’s ethical choices?
  15. What is the difference between good ethical reasoning and mere rationalization?
  16. What kinds of rationalizations do people make for their actions?
  17. What fallacies are most prevalent in debates over ethical issues?

1. What are some examples of ethical issues?

Ethical (sometimes also called moral) issues abound in contemporary society. Ethical issues involve questions of the ethical/moral rightness or wrongness of public policy or personal behavior.  Actions or policies that affect other people always have an ethical dimension, but while some people restrict ethical issues to actions that can help or harm others (social ethics) others include personal and self-regarding conduct (personal ethics).

Many of today’s most pressing issues of social ethics are complex and multifaceted and require clear and careful thought. Some of these issues include:

  • Should states allow physician-assisted suicide?
  • Is the death penalty an ethically acceptable type of punishment?
  • Should animals have rights?
  • Is society ever justified in regulating so-called victimless crimes like drug use, not wearing a helmet or a seatbelt, etc.?
  • What are our responsibilities to future generations?
  • Are affluent individuals and countries obligated to try to prevent starvation, malnutrition, and poverty wherever we find them in the world?
  • Is there such a thing as a just war?
  • How does business ethics relate to corporate responsibility?

To reach careful conclusions, these public policy issues require people to engage in complicated ethical reasoning, but the ethical reasoning involving personal issues can be just as complex and multifaceted:

  • What principles do I apply to the way I treat other people?
  • What guides my own choices and my own goals in life?
  • Should I have the same expectations of others in terms of their behavior and choices as I have of myself?
  • Is living ethically compatible or incompatible with what I call living well or happily?

2. How can I effectively apply critical reasoning to an ethical issue?

People care quite a bit about ethical issues and often voice varied and even sharply opposed perspectives. So when looking at how we debate ethical issues publicly, it is not surprising to find debate ranging from formal to informal argumentation, and from very carefully constructed arguments with well-qualified conclusions, to very biased positions and quite fallacious forms of persuasion. It’s easy to be dismayed by the discord we find over volatile issues like gun control, immigration policy, and equality in marriage or in the workplace, gender and race equality, abortion and birth control, jobs versus environment, freedom versus security, free speech and censorship, etc. But it is also easy to go the other direction and be drawn into the often fallacious reasoning we hear all around us.

Critical thinkers want to conduct civil, respectful discourse, and to build bridges in ways that allow progress to be made on difficult issues of common concern. Progress and mutual understanding is not possible when name-calling, inflammatory language, and fallacious discourse are the norm. Some mutual respect, together with the skill of being able to offer a clearly-structured argument for one’s position, undercuts the need to resort to such tactics. So critical thinkers resist trading fallacy for fallacy, and try to introduce common ground that can help resolve disputes by remaining respectful of differences, even about issues personally quite important to them. When we support a thesis (such as a position on one of the above ethical issues) with a clear and well-structured argument, we allow and invite others to engage with us in more constructive fashion. We say essentially, “Here is my thesis and here are my reasons for holding it. If you don’t agree with my claim, then show me what is wrong with my argument and I will reconsider my view, as any rational person should.”

3. When I debate ethical issues, what is my responsibility to people who are part of the dialogue?

When we evaluate (analyze) somebody else’s position on an ethical issue, we are not free to simply reject out-of-hand a conclusion we don’t initially agree with. To be reasonable, we must accept the burden of showing where the other person errs in his facts or reasoning. If we cannot show that there are errors in the person’s facts or reasoning, to be reasonable we must reconsider whether we should reject the other person’s conclusion.

By applying the common standards of critical thinking to our reasoning about ethical issues, our arguments will become less emotionally driven and more rational and our reasoning will become less dependent upon unquestioned beliefs or assumptions that the other people in the conversation may not accept. We become better able to contribute to progressive public debate and conflict resolution through a well-developed ability to articulate a well-reasoned position on an ethical issue.

4. Do “ethical” and “moral” mean the same thing?

For the purposes of this Handbook, the answer is ‘yes’. The terms ethical and moral are often used as synonyms, and we will adopt this convention and use these terms interchangeably. For most purposes this works fine, but some authors and teachers do see a distinction between these ideas. Usually when the terms are distinguished it is because “morals” can connote very culture-specific norms or expectations. Hence ‘the mores of the Azande” describes the moral norms of that particular tribe or culture, but without expectation that these norms are universally valid. When “ethics” is contrasted with “morals,” the writer is usually discussing certain normative ethical theories that maintain that certain principles, rules, or virtues have universal ethical validity.

5. What is ethical analysis?

Ethicist Judith Boss (2010) writes, “We engage in moral reasoning when we make a decision about what we ought or ought not to do, or about what is the most reasonable or just position regarding a particular issue. Effective moral decision-making depends on good critical-thinking skills….” (p. 275). We will use the term ethical analysis to refer to what Boss calls effective moral decision-making that employs critical thinking skills. Ethical analysis critically and reflectively examines different viewpoints and arguments on today’s ethical issues.  In the ethical analysis assignment, students will engage in moral reasoning with the aim of developing their ability to contribute to public debate.  Students will learn to frame a thoughtful thesis on an ethical issue and construct a reasoned argument in support of it.  A central requirement for effective ethical analysis, or moral reasoning, is the ability to identify ethical issues, ethical judgments, and ethical arguments. We have already discussed ethical issues. The sections below discuss ethical judgments and ethical arguments.

6. What are ethical judgments?

Ethical judgments are a subclass of value judgments. A value judgment involves an argument as to what is correct, superior, or preferable. In the case of ethics, the value judgment involves making a judgment, claim, or statement about whether an action is morally right or wrong or whether a person’s motives are morally good or bad. Ethical judgments often prescribe as well as evaluate actions, so that to state that someone (or perhaps everyone) ethically “should” or “ought to” do something is also to make an ethical judgment.

7. How can I distinguish ethical judgments from other kinds of value judgments?

If ethical judgments are a subclass of value judgments, how do we distinguish them?  Ethical judgments typically state that some action is good or bad, or right or wrong, in a specifically ethical sense. It is usually not difficult to distinguish non-ethical judgments of goodness and badness from ethical ones. When someone says “That was a good action, because it was caring,” or “That was bad action, because it was cruel” they are clearly intending goodness or badness in a distinctly ethical sense.

By contrast, non-moral value judgments typically say that something is good (or bad) simply for the kind of thing it is; or that some action is right or wrong, given the practical goal or purpose that one has in mind. “That’s a good car” or “That’s a bad bike” would not be considered to moral judgments about those objects. Goodness and badness here are still value judgments, but value judgments that likely track features like comfort, styling, reliability, safety and mileage ratings, etc.

The use of “should” or “ought to” for non-moral value judgments is also easy to recognize. “You ought to enroll early” or “You made the right decision to go to Radford” are value-judgments, but no one would say they are ethical judgments. They reflect a concern with wholly practical aims rather than ethical ones and with the best way to attain those practical aims.

8. What are ethical arguments?

Ethical arguments are another important aspect of ethical analysis. Ethical arguments are arguments whose conclusion makes an ethical judgment. Ethical arguments are most typically arguments that try to show a certain policy or behavior to be either ethical or unethical. Suppose you want to argue that “The death penalty is unjust (or just) punishment” for a certain range of violent crimes. Here we have an ethical judgment, and one that with a bit more detail could serve as the thesis of a position paper on the death penalty debate.

An ethical judgment rises above mere opinion and becomes the conclusion of an ethical argument when you support it with ethical reasoning. You must say why you hold the death penalty to be ethically right or wrong, just or unjust. For instance, you might argue that it is unjust because of one or more of the reasons below:

  • It is cruel, and cruel actions are wrong.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • It disrespects human life.
  • In some states the penalty falls unevenly on members of a racial group.
  • The penalty sometimes results in the execution of innocent people.

Of course you could also give reasons to support the view that the death penalty is a just punishment for certain crimes. The point is that whichever side of the debate you take, your ethical argument should develop ethical reasons and principles rather than economic or other practical but non-moral concerns. To argue merely that the death penalty be abolished because that would save us all money is a possible policy-position, but it is essentially an economic argument rather than an ethical argument.

9. How can I best frame an ethical issue?

In analyzing any ethically problematic situation or issue, developing a clear statement of the problem is often half the battle. You should state what the problem is, proceed to identify the most reasonable responses to it, and compare those alternative responses. If you improperly describe an ethical problem, you have little chance of successfully resolving it. We will later look at some examples of how to clarify and describe an ethical issue, utilizing ethical theories and principles. We will also see how “stakeholder analysis” works as an approach to ethical analysis. For now, one important distinction should be introduced between two kinds of moral problems, ethical conflicts and ethical dilemmas.

10. What is an ethical conflict?

Sometimes it can seem as if there is a clash between what we ‘ought to do’ and what we ‘want to do’ (perhaps what we think will make us happy). An ethical conflict is a term for that situation in which tension arises between a clearly ethical consideration (for example, abiding by a professional code of conduct) and personal desires (fame, fortune, or other forms of self-interest). Philosophers tend to think that in such cases, ethical considerations should always trump personal or self-interested ones and that to resist following one’s personal desires is a matter of having the right moral motivation—the motivation to do the right thing—and of having strength of will to repel temptation.

11. What is an ethical dilemma?

An ethical dilemma is a term for a situation in which a person faces an ethically problematic situation and is not sure of what she ought to do. Those who experience ethical dilemmas feel themselves being pulled by competing ethical demands and perhaps feel that they will be blameworthy or experience guilt no matter what course of action they take. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gives the example of a young Frenchman of military age during the wartime Nazi occupation who finds himself faced, through no fault of his own, with the choice of staying home and caring for his ailing mother or going off to join the resistance to fight for his country’s future:

He fully realized that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair…. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. (Sartre, 1977)

12. What does it mean to “take responsibility” in conflict or dilemma situations?

The ethical dilemma described above hinges on a tension between a more “particular” obligation or duty to a dependent and a family member, and the more “universal” obligation of the able-bodied to serve their country to defend it against military aggression. The philosopher Sartre describes the young man as “hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two. What could help him to choose?”

While we must always weigh special obligations we may have to family and friends with obligations to a wider community of persons, ethical dilemmas like this are, thankfully, pretty rare.  But literature and film are full of ethical conflicts and dilemmas, as they allow us to reflect on the human struggle as well as presenting tests of individual character. For example in World War Z, Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie version) has to make a similar choice as Sartre’s Frenchman: between serving the world-community of humans in their just war against Zombies, and serving his own immediate family. It adds depth and substance to the character to see him struggling with this choice over the right thing to do.

13. What biases may affect critical reflection on an ethical issue?

Some of the biases that affect critical reflection on an ethical issue are the same as those that affect reflection on any issue. They include

  • the bandwagon effect—if many people make a particular choice, you may unconsciously gravitate toward that choice and fail to examine the rationale for it as critically as you should,
  • belief bias—if from the outset you agree with the choice a person has made, you may be unable to examine the rationale for her choice as critically as you should,
  • in-group bias—if you identify with a group, you may have difficulty acknowledging the ethical claims of people with whom you do not sympathize (or perhaps are even hostile toward), and
  • obedience to authority—if you greatly respect someone (or some institution), you may find it difficult to question that person’s or that institution’s choices.

All of the above are cognitive biases. That is, they are ways of responding that are built into our brains and that we will engage in unless we become conscious of the way they may influence decision-making. In addition to these cognitive biases, you may have a philosophical bias. That is, you may be applying an ethical yardstick to an issue without being aware that there are other yardsticks. Several different ethical theories may be used to judge the “rightness” and “wrongness” of people’s choices. You may have never studied these theories, but you may have unconsciously adopted a rough-and-ready version of one. Among these theories are

  • utilitarian ethics—an action is right or wrong depending upon its consequences,
  • duty-based ethics—certain actions are by their nature (or by definition) good, and each individual should perform those actions and avoid actions that are by their nature (or by definition) bad.
  • rights-based ethics—each individual has a right not to be harmed; at the same time, each individual has a duty not to cause harm to others, and
  • virtue-based ethics—certain traits are virtuous, and each individual should aspire to develop those traits in order to behave in a way that is consistent with them.

If you are unknowingly following applying a simple version of an ethical theory, without first critically examining it and considering competing theories, then you are entering into the conversation with a bias.

14. How does self-interest affect people’s ethical choices?

In a perfect world, morality and happiness would always align: living ethically and living well wouldn’t collide because living virtuously—being honest, trustworthy, caring, etc.—would provide the deepest human happiness and would best allow humans to flourish. Some would say, however, that we do not live in a perfect world, and that our society entices us to think of happiness in terms of status and material possessions at the cost of principles. Some even claim that all persons act exclusively out of self-interest—that is, out of psychological egoism—and that genuine concern for the well-being of others—altruism—is impossible. As you explore an ethical issue, consider whether people making choices within the context of the issue are acting altruistically or out of self-interest.

15. What is the difference between good ethical reasoning and mere rationalization?

When pressed to justify their choices, people may try to evade responsibility and to justify decisions that may be unethical but that serve their self-interest. People are amazingly good at passing the buck in this fashion, yet pretty poor at recognizing and admitting that they are doing so. When a person is said to be rationalizing his actions and choices, this doesn’t mean he is applying critical thinking, or what we have described as ethical analysis. Quite the opposite: it means that he is trying to convince others—or often just himself—using reasons that he should be able to recognize as faulty or poor reasons. Perhaps the most common rationalization of unethical action has come to be called the Nuremberg Defense: ‘I was just doing what I was told to do—following orders or the example of my superior. So blame them and exonerate me.’ This defense was used by Nazi officials during the Nuremberg trials after World War II in order to rationalize behavior such as participation in the administration of concentration camps. This rationalization didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.

16. What kinds of rationalizations do people make for their actions?

Rationalization is a common human coping strategy. In addition to the Nuremberg Defense, some common rationalizations about ethical conduct or decisions are that it is not unethical if

  • no law was broken,
  • others do the same thing,
  • I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,
  • they ‘had it coming’ (the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy), and
  • it ‘would have happened to them anyway, sooner or later’.

17.  What fallacies are most prevalent in debates over ethical issues?

In addition to self-deception and rationalizations, we often find overtly fallacious reasoning that undermines open, constructive debate of ethical issues. Of the common fallacies described in CORE 201, those most common in ethics debate include ad hominem (personal) attacks, appeals to false authority, appeals to fear, the slippery slope fallacy, false dilemmas, the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy, and the strawman fallacy. Fallacious reasoning, especially the attempt to sway sentiment through language manipulation, is ever-present in popular sources of information and opinion pieces, like blogs and special-interest-group sites. It may take practice to spot fallacious reasoning, but being able to give names to these strategies of trickery and manipulation provides the aspiring critical thinker with a solid start.

Objective II. Utilize reasons and arguments appropriate to debate over an ethical issue.

To discuss ethical decision-making, you need to consider different ethical theories and what they imply. Without a systematic look at these theories, you may have a sense of what is right and wrong, but you won’t possess the language or the concepts necessary to carefully analyze an ethical issue. You also will be unable to explain to an audience how you went about evaluating whether people were making ethical choices.

To help you evaluate ethical issues, this section of the Handbook surveys broad approaches to ethics. In addition, it looks at several of the most widely discussed ethical theories.

The specific questions that this section answers are

  1. What are ethical theories?
  2. What is hard universalism?
  3. What is the main weakness of hard universalism?
  4. What is moral relativism?
  5. What is the main weakness of moral relativism?
  6. Is there a middle ground between hard universalism and relativism?
  7. What is deontology?
  8. What two requirements are built into deontology?
  9. How is deontology applied?
  10. What is duty-based ethics?
  11. What is rights-based ethics?
  12. What is the main weakness of duty and rights-based ethics?
  13. What is utilitarianism?
  14. How does utilitarian reasoning operate?
  15. How has utilitarian reasoning been applied?
  16. What is the main weakness of utilitarianism?
  17. What is virtue ethics?
  18. How does virtue ethics operate?
  19. What kinds of questions are asked by virtue ethics?
  20. What is the main weakness of virtue ethics?
  21. How do these theories fit into my ethics toolbox?

 1.  What are ethical theories?  

Ethical theories describe the rules or principles that guide people when the rightness or wrongness of an action becomes an issue. Sometimes ethical theories are called “normative.” You may recognize the word “norm” tucked inside “normative.” A normative ethical theory establishes the standards—the norms—that people apply in deciding how to act.

You will be reading about several very important ways of approaching ethics. One approach is called hard universalism and the other is called moral relativism.

You also will learn about several frequently-discussed ethical theories, such utilitarianism, duty-based ethics, rights-based ethics, and virtue ethics. By learning about these ethical theories, you will be able to evaluate complex ethical issues from different perspectives.

2. What is hard universalism?

Imagine that there is one never-changing and universal set of standard for deciding whether an action is ethical. That approach to judging behavior is called hard universalism. A person who follows this approach believes that guidelines for judging behavior are not affected by time and culture. What is right is always right, and what is wrong is always wrong—without exception and everywhere in the world.

One example of hard universalism is the belief that moral principles are handed down as divine commands: a god (or group of gods) gives humans a set of guidelines to live by. According to this view, the wrongness of murder and the rightness of loving one’s neighbor are timeless moral truths, backed up by the authority of a sacred text or a religious authority.

Two of the best-known ethical theories, utilitarianism and duty-based ethics, are considered to be hard-universalist theories.

3. What is the main weakness of hard universalism?

Philosophers have questioned the idea that rules handed down by gods determine what is good or right. What if the gods (or different religious scriptures or traditions) disagree? How can such disagreements be settled if different gods ‘throw their weight’ behind competing ethical guidelines?

Some philosophers argue that any system of hard universalism should be based on reason rather than religious authority. Yet hard universalism based on philosophical reasoning seems to share the weakness of divine command universalism because philosophers also offer different accounts of what makes actions right or wrong. If two different philosophers back the notion that there are timeless and universal truths, but each comes up with different timeless and universal truths, how are the differences to be sorted out?

4. What is moral relativism?

Moral relativism rejects the view that there are universal and never-changing ethical standards that can always be used to judge whether actions are right and wrong. Instead, a moral relativist might argue that ethical judgments are made within the context of a culture and time period. People in one culture or time period may judge an action to be ethical; people in another culture or time period may judge the same action to be unethical.

Some moral relativists even reject the notion that cultures determine what is right and wrong. Instead, these moral relativists argue that each individual must develop his or her own standards for determining what is ethical. These standards might be based on reason or on intuition, something like a ‘gut feeling’ that an action is ethical.

People may be drawn to moral relativism because it appears to be a tolerant view. They may feel that adopting moral relativism will eliminate the conflicts that may arise between people and cultures that reach different conclusions about what is right or wrong.

5. What is the main weakness of moral relativism?

Moral relativism may be embraced by people who value tolerance. However, you could argue that a moral relativist who treats tolerance as something that is unquestionably good has actually abandoned moral relativism. Critics of moral relativism sometimes ask this question: Is it logically possible to be a moral relativist and to simultaneously behave as if tolerance is a universal value.

Another apparent contradiction may arise when an individual’s (or culture’s) right to decide what is ethical runs up against another individual’s (or culture’s) right to do the same. This paradox can be illustrated by looking at  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was approved by the United Nations after World War II. Near its beginning, it states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” With this statement as a starting point, a number of principles follow: a universal right to be safe from enslavement, for example, or a universal right to education regardless of gender.

Taken as a whole, the Declaration argues that people have autonomy: the freedom to act in their own interests.

However, if what is right is whatevera culture determines to be right, then slavery is ethical in a slave-owning society or household. If what is right is whatever an individual determines to be right, then denying a girl access to education is ethical in a household whose head believes it is inappropriate for girls to be educated.

On the one hand, then, moral relativism does not impose value systems on people. On the other hand, it seems to grant humans autonomy—the freedom to act in one’s own interest—to people who would deny that autonomy to other people.

6.  Is there a middle ground between hard universalism and moral relativism?

Most philosophers are neither hard universalists nor moral relativists. Between these two views are various sorts of soft universalist theories.

Soft universalists recognize that values and customs do vary across cultures but argue that some values may be universal. For example, standards for determining well-being cut across cultural boundaries: universally, people desire to live and to be happy. Similarly, nearly all ethical traditions embrace a version of the “Golden Rule” that calls for treating others as you would like to be treated. Worldwide, almost all cultures believe that compassion, caring, and honesty are ethical virtues and that cruelty, insensitivity to suffering, and dishonesty are vices.

Soft universalists claim that they can endorse universal human rights as principles that all societies should respect and aspire to. They also may argue that genuine injustices in the world can and should be eliminated. For example, an advocate of soft universalism may maintain that elimination of slavery constitutes genuine moral progress.

7.  What is deontology?

Under hard-universalism, one approach to ethics is called deontology. This approach relies upon three principles for determining whether behavior was ethical.

First, ethical duties and the motivation to fulfill those duties should always outweigh competing motivations and desires.

Second, certain kinds of actions, like lying, are always wrong—for example, no situation justifies lying.

Third, a single, unarguable principle of reason exists that we can use to determine what our ethical duties are. Because this principle is unquestionable or undebatable, it is called self-evident.

Categorical imperative is the name for this single, self-evident principle. The name is meant to communicate the idea that this principle must be applied without any exceptions.

8.  What two requirements are built into deontology?

Although the categorical imperative is described as being a “single” principle, it actually includes two requirements that must be met for behavior to be ethical.

One requirement is that you treat people as if they are valuable for their own sakes. This means that you must treat people as having dignity or worth in their own right, rather than evaluating (and treating them) according to what use may be made of them.

Sometimes this requirement is stated this way: Treat people as an end in themselves and never merely as a means to an end.

The second requirement is that you should always behave the way you wish everyone else would behave, an idea captured in the “Golden Rule” that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. Imagine that you are deciding whether to commit an act. You realize that you would not want anyone else to commit that act. Applying this second requirement, you must choose a different course of action if you wish to behave ethically.

Following the second requirement generates standards for behavior that apply to all people at all times. That fact means that you can consider to deontology to be a kind of universalism.

9.  How is deontology applied?

Here are two examples that show how deontology is applied.

According to the Golden Rule, you should “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Applying the Categorical Imperative, this rule is ethical. It respects the dignity and worth of others, and it is universal in its application.

It is no longer convenient to honor this contract, so I will break it.

Applying the Categorical Imperative, this behavior is unethical. You are not respecting the dignity or worth of people that you have made promises to.

In addition, breaking a contract is a behavior that cannot be universalized. You may benefit from making yourself an exception to the principles of honoring contracts and speaking truthfully, but if everyone acted in this way, no one (including yourself) could rely on the commitments that people make when they sign contracts. A world where you cannot rely on people’s promises is probably not a world where you would wish to live.

As the two examples demonstrate, deontology treats everyone equally and embraces justice as an absolute goal.

Deontology often is seen as an overarching ethical theory that encompasses duty ethics and rights-based ethics; these theories are described below.

10. What is duty-based ethics?

Duty-based ethics maintains that you should follow an ethical code without considering the consequences of your actions. If an act is by its nature right, you should perform that act even if someone is harmed as a result. If an act is by its nature wrong, you should not perform that act even if someone might be helped. For example, if by definition stealing is wrong, you do not steal. If by definition lying is wrong, you do not lie.

The actions taken in the two scenarios below may benefit people who need help but would be wrong according to a strict application of duty-based ethics:

Your city has been hit by a hurricane that suddenly strengthened from a Category 1 to a Category 3 and took an unexpected path. No one was properly prepared. A storm surge has flooded the streets, and the electric system has failed. It will take several days to reopen roads and restore power. Your family includes young children. You run out of food and water. Stores have not yet reopened. You break into a store and take food and bottled water.

Duty violated: Stealing by its nature is wrong because you have a duty to respect the property rights of others.

Your recently-hired assistant has left an abusive relationship. She has rented an apartment without leaving any forwarding information at her previous address, she has changed her number to an unlisted one, and she has avoided mentioning her new place of employment on any form of social media. Somehow her former boyfriend has found out where she is working. He shows up and demands to see her. You tell him that no one of that name is working for you.

Duty violated: Lying by its nature is wrong because you have a duty to tell the truth.

A duty-based ethical system falls into the category of hard universalism: an ethical yardstick must be applied universally—for all people and at all times.

The duties themselves may be tied to professional roles, too. Teachers have a duty to grade students fairly; police officers have a duty to enforce the law; psychologists have a duty to respect the confidentiality of their patients. When you encounter codes of professional conduct—either written or unwritten—likely you are dealing with duty-based ethics.

11.  What is rights-based ethics?

A right is something you are entitled to. In terms of ethics, it is the treatment you should be able to expect from other people. For example, under most ethical codes, as a human you are entitled—have a right—to exist in safety.

Another way of stating this idea is that you have a right not be harmed by anyone. When the idea is put that way, it is apparent that duties and rights are closely related concepts. You have a right to exist in safety, which means that other people have a duty not to harm you.

Since duties and rights are so closely related, a version of a duty-based ethics can be created by identifying the rights that someone has a duty to respect.

Rights-based ethics are built upon four claims. Rights are

  • natural insofar as they are not invented or created by governments,”
  • universal insofar as they do not change from country to country,”
  • equal in the sense that rights are the same for all people, irrespective of gender, race, or handicap,” and
  • inalienable which means that I cannot hand over my rights to another person, such as by selling myself into slavery.” (Fieser, n.d.)

A noteworthy example of an argument grounded in rights-based ethics is found in the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson states that humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” By drawing attention to these rights, Jefferson provides the context for a lengthy list of the ways in which George III had not fulfilled his duty to uphold these rights.

12.  What is the main weakness of duty and rights-based ethics?

Both duty and rights-based ethics are forms of universalism because they rely on principles that must be applied at all times to all people. Some people object that the universalism of duty and rights-based ethics make these theories too inflexible.

In the case of duty-based ethics, people may object to the principle that people deciding on a course of action should ignore the circumstances in which they and other individuals find themselves. Duty ethics allows little room for context. In Les Misérables, was Jean Valjean wrong to steal bread to feed his starving sister’s children? Would it have been wrong to lie to a Gestapo officer asking where Jews were hidden or to slave-catchers in pursuit of runaways in the pre-war South? Some would say that the answers depend upon the circumstances and options available to us, rather than on it being the case that certain types of actions are always and necessarily wrong.

Duty-based ethics accepts as a principle that one should never use another person merely as a means to someone else’s ends. So it would never be justified to cause the death of one to save several. But is that action always wrong, as a duty ethicist would argue? Societies regularly sacrifice individuals. For example, people are drafted into armies and regularly sent into battle, even though it is certain that some of them will die. Is it ethical for a government to draft people and send them into harm’s way? Is this a case of treating a person as a means to an end?

We have seen that duty and rights-based ethics are ‘flip sides’ of the same coin. One theory emphasizes how people should behave toward each another; the other emphasizes that an individual should be confident that her human rights will be acknowledged and respected. So the above example could be rewritten from the perspective of the rights-based approach. A person has a right to be respected on her own account rather than treated as a means to an end, yet we see that societies regularly sacrifice their members. The universalism of rights-based ethics does not appear to allow for this societal choice.

13.  What is utilitarianism?

The utilitarian theory is one of the best-known ethical theories.

The utilitarian theoryis another form of universalism. It is based on a principle that applies to all people at all times. Unlike duty-based ethics, however, utilitarianism does not allow people to label categoriesof actions—like lying or stealing—as always wrong.

Instead, utilitarianism is based on the idea that an action is right or wrong depending on its consequences. To determine whether an action is ethical, utilitarianism applies something called the utilitarian principle. This principle claims that an action is right if, as a whole, it brings about the greatest happiness and the least amount of pain or unhappiness. If two actions are being compared, the one that should be chosen—the ethical one—would be the action that secures the maximum possible happiness for the greatest number of people. For this reason, the utilitarian principle is also called the greatest-happiness principle.

14.  How does utilitarian reasoning operate?

Early utilitarian thinkers sought to ‘scientize’ ethical decision-making. They developed a ‘calculus’ comparable to a modern cost/benefit analysis. This calculus weighed the consequences of an action in terms of its impact on all the sentient beings that might be affected. Sentient beings feel pain or pleasure, so the calculus could consider the effect an action might have on animals as well as humans.

The calculus took into account several factors, such as

■    the number of humans and animals that would benefit

■    the number of humans and animals that would be harmed

■    how intense any resulting pleasure would be

■    how long any resulting pleasure might last

■    how intense any resulting pain would be

■    how long any resulting pain might last

While such a calculus for resolving ethical problems may seem idealized, utilitarian thinking coincided with a genuine desire to eliminate unnecessary suffering through seeking to answer the question, “Which option will serve the greater good?”

15.  How has utilitarian reasoning been applied?

Utilitarian thinking led to many reforms. It helped bring an end to the mistreatment of animals, orphans and child laborers, as well as to the harsh treatment of adult laborers, prisoners, the poor, and the mentally ill. It provided arguments for abolishing slavery and for eliminating inequalities between the sexes. For John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of the theory, both logic and morality dictated that one person’s happiness should count as much as another person’s happiness. This principle was applied to people whether they were wealthy or poor, powerful or weak.

Today few people think an ethical calculus can tell us exactly how competing interests should be weighed. But the more general utilitarian approach to ethical reasoning is still immensely influential. The principle that each person’s happiness should be as important as any other person’s happiness requires a society to make decisions in which the interests of all its members are considered in a balanced, rational fashion.

16.  What is the main weakness of utilitarianism?

The utilitarian principle says that people should act to promote overall happiness, but this principle appears to justify using people in ways that do not respect the idea that individual rights may not be violated. That is, the utilitarian approach seems to imply that it would be ethical to inflict pain on one person if that action results in a net increase in happiness.

Here is a classic question that is posed to expose this potential weakness in the utilitarian approach to ethical reasoning: Why not kill and harvest the organs of one healthy person in order to save five patients who will go on to live happy lives?

The philosopher William James argued that it would be a “hideous…thing” if “millions [were] kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture,” but that situation would seem consistent with utilitarianism (James, 1891, n.p.).

James’s scenario inspired a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which the happiness of a society depends upon the suffering of one child. Some members of this society are unable to live with this fact and “walk away from Omelas.”

Utilitarian’s emphasis on consequences can also be a weakness. That emphasis can lead to “all’s well that ends well” thinking, allowing people to justify immoral acts if the outcome is beneficial. One must also ask, can we ever be sure of the consequences of our actions? If we take an action that we expected would have good consequences, but it ends up harming people, have we behaved unethically regardless of our intentions?

17.  What is virtue ethics?

Thinkers who embrace virtue ethics emphasize that the sort of person we choose to be constitutes the heart of our ethical being. If you want to behave virtuously, become a virtuous person.

Certain traits—for instance, honesty, compassion, generosity, courage—seem to be universally admired. These strengths of character are virtues. To acquire these virtues, follow the example of persons who possess them. Once acquired, these virtues may be trusted to guide our decisions about how to act, even in difficult situations.

18.  How does virtue ethics operate?

Virtue ethicists think that the main question in ethical reasoning should be not “How should I now act?” but “What kind of person do I want to be?” Developing virtues that we admire in others and avoiding actions that we recognize as vicious develops our moral sensitivity: our awareness of how our actions affect others. Virtuous persons are able to empathize, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes, and to look at an issue from other people’s perspectives.

Virtuous individuals are also thought to be able to draw upon willpower not possessed by those who compromise their moral principles in favor of fame, money, sex, or power.

19.  What kinds of questions are asked by virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics focuses more on a person’s approach to living than on particular choices and actions and so has less to say about specific courses of action or public policies. Instead, this ethical approach posed broader questions such as these:

  • How should I live?
  • What is the good life?
  • Are ethical virtue and genuine happiness compatible?
  • What are proper family, civic, and cosmopolitan virtues?

Because of the broad nature of the questions posed by virtue ethics, ethicists sometimes disagree as to whether this theory actually offers an alternative to the utilitarian and deontological approaches to ethical reasoning. How does someone who follows virtue ethics determine what the virtues are without applying some yardstick such as those provided by utilitarian and deontological ethics?

Utilitarianism and deontology are hard-universalist theories, each claiming that there is one ethical principle that is binding on all people regardless of time or place. Virtue ethics does not make this claim. Those who favor this theory may hold that there are certain virtues like compassion, honesty, and integrity that transcend time and culture. But they do not aim to identify universal principles that can be applied in all moral situations. Instead they accept that many things described as virtues and vices are cultural and that some of our primary ethical obligations are based on our emotional relationships and what we owe to people we care about. In the end, though, virtue ethicists will always ask themselves, “What would a good person do?”

20.  What is the main weakness of virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics may seem to avoid some of the apparent flaws of duty-based ethics and of utilitarianism. A person guided by virtue ethics would not be bound by strict rules or the duty to abide by a state’s legal code. Presumably, then, an individual who has cultivated a compassionate personality consistent with virtue ethics would not easily surrender a friend’s hiding place in order to avoid having to tell a lie, as would seem to be required by duty ethics. Nor would a person guided by virtue ethics be bound by the ‘tyranny of the (happy) majority’ that appears to be an aspect of utilitarianism.

On the other hand, some thinkers argue that virtue ethics provides vague and ambiguous advice. Because of its emphasis on the imprecise and highly contextual nature of ethics, virtue ethics is often criticized as insufficient as a guide to taking specific action.

21.  How do these theories fit into my ethics toolbox?

The ethical theories described in this section are powerful tools that should be included in a critical thinker’s ‘ethics toolbox’. Perspectives rooted on ethical theories often play very direct roles in ethical analysis. In addition, such perspectives can help you develop you own ethics-based arguments. Equip your ethics toolbox with all of these tools: your ethical intuitions and sense your conscience; your awareness of cultural traditions; and the insights you can gained from psychological studies and philosophical theories. These tools allow people with even opposing perspectives on today’s ethical issues to debate each other courteously and skillfully.



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Fieser, J. (n.d.). Ethics. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Ed. J. Fieser & B. Dowden. http://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics

James, W. (1891). The moral philosopher and the moral life: An address to the Yale Philosophical Club, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891. http://www.philosophy.uncc.edu/mleldrid/American/mp&ml.htm

Le Guin, U. (1975) Those who walk away from Omelas. The wind’s twelve quarters. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Sartre, J.P. (1977). Existentialism and humanism, trans. Philip Mairet. Brooklyn, NY: Haskel House, 35-36.


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