In CORE 101, you completed the Approaches to Written Argument assignment, which asked you to analyze two or more 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.
This chapter deals with the following questions about ethical reasoning:
- What is meant by “ethics”?
- What is not “ethics”?
- What does it mean to be ethical?
- Do “ethical” and “moral” mean the same thing?
- What are values?
- What are some examples of ethical issues?
- How can I effectively apply critical reasoning to an ethical issue?
- When I debate ethical issues, what is my responsibility to people who are part of the dialogue?
- What are ethical judgments?
- How can I distinguish ethical judgments from other kinds of value judgments?
- What are ethical arguments?
- What is an ethical dilemma?
- What is the role of values in ethical dilemmas?
- What ethical dilemmas are more common in real life?
- What is an ethical violation?
- How does self-interest affect people’s ethical choices?
- What is the difference between good ethical reasoning and mere rationalization?
- What kinds of rationalizations do people make for their actions?*
- What fallacies are most prevalent in debates over ethical issues?
- How can I tell what is the “right” thing to do?
- What is moral relativism?
- What is the main weakness of moral relativism?
- What is universalism?
- What is consequentialism?
- What is utilitarianism?
- How does utilitarian reasoning operate?
- How has utilitarian reasoning been applied?
- What is the main weakness of utilitarianism?
- How do I apply utilitarianism in real life?
- What is deontology?
- What is duty-based ethics?
- What is rights-based ethics?
- What is the appeal of deontology?
- What is the main weakness of duty and rights-based ethics?
- How can I apply deontology in real life?
- What is virtue ethics?
- What is care ethics?
- How does virtue ethics operate?
- What kinds of questions are asked by virtue ethics?
- How has virtue ethics been applied in the real world?
- What is the main weakness of virtue ethics?
- How can I apply virtue ethics in real life?
- How do these theories fit into my ethics toolbox?
- How do I use ethical reasoning to make decisions?
- How do I recognize an ethical situation?
- How do I identify stakeholders?
- How do I identify the different perspectives and positions held by stakeholders?
- How can I research stakeholder positions?
- How do I identify the ethical actor?
- How can I use critical thinking in this process?
- What are criteria?
- How do I identify possible actions?
- How do I evaluate the possible options?
- How can mapping or diagramming help me to examine the consequences of decisions or positions with ethical consequences?
- What else should I consider before acting?
- Am I done after acting?
- Do people really do all this when making ethical decisions?
1. What is meant by “ethics”?
Ethics is the study of the standards of right and wrong that inform us as to how we ought to behave. These standards relate to unwritten rules that are necessary for humans to live amongst each other, such as “don’t hurt others.” We function better as a society when we treat each other well.
Ethics can also refer to the standards themselves. They often pertain to rights, obligations, fairness, responsibilities, and specific virtues like honesty and loyalty.
They are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons; as such, they have universal appeal. It’s never good to have a society that supports hurting others as a general rule; honesty and loyalty are positive attributes.
Can we think of instances when hurting others is condoned (such as in war) and where honesty or loyalty may be misplaced? Of course! That’s one of the reasons why ethics are so complicated, and what makes Core 202 such an interesting class.
2. What is not “ethics”?
We need to distinguish ethics from what it is not. It’s easier if you can remember that ethics doesn’t change:
- Ethics is not what’s legal. The law often puts into writing our ethical standards (don’t hurt others=don’t commit homicide) but it also usually reflects our cultural beliefs at the time. For example, hunting is legal in Virginia, but it would be difficult to say that everyone agrees that it is ethical to hunt. Some people will argue that hunting is ethical because it manages the wildlife population, while others will argue that it is never ethical because it creates pain and suffering.
- Ethics is not what you feel. In fact, most times our feelings are very egocentric: what’s best for me and my nearest and dearest? But making judgments based on these sentiments could be detrimental to society as a whole,
- Ethics is not religion. Religions may teach ethical standards, and you may personally use religion to guide your beliefs, but people can have ethics without necessarily belonging to a religion. Therefore, ethics and religion are not interchangeable.
- Ethics is not a political ideology. A political party may share your values and offer ethical arguments to supports its policies, but your decisions aren’t automatically ethical, just because you belong to one political party or another. In fact, many, if not most, political debates are built from arguments that claim one aspect of an ethical dilemma is more significant than another.
3. What does it mean to be ethical?
When we explore what it means to be ethical, we are looking at what is rationally “right” and “wrong.” We need to have such conversations so that we can live with other people in society. Philosophers would also argue that the best way to achieve our fullest potential is by being ethical.
In this course, we are not teaching you what to believe. We are building on the skills you learned in Core 201 to identify, evaluate, create and analyze ethical arguments.
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. A slightly more comprehensive answer would describe the difference; say from an ethical relativist positions definition, as hinging on ethical standards being subjected to the scrutiny of reason or rationality as its fundamental method.
5. What are values?
Frequently when used in discussions of ethics the term values is used to refer to the fundamental ideals that an individual relies on to describe praise-worthy behavior. A person’s values are the bedrock concepts used to determine their ethical decisions. Most generally speaking values represent aspirational goals common within your culture or society. Values such as honesty, benevolence, wisdom, duty, or compassion are universally recognized laudable and desirable features of a well-developed character. But which values are most important may differ from individual to individual, or across cultures. We could refer to the values of the feudal Japanese samurai culture placing the highest emphasis on the concept of personal honor. We could compare and contrast that with the European knightly virtues as a similar yet distinctively different set of cultural values. We could draw on political beliefs to describe the concepts of equality and freedom at the heart of democratic ideals, contrasting them with a constitutional monarchy that perhaps places the highest importance on duty and tradition as its central political ideals
6. What are some examples of ethical issues?
Ethical issues abound in contemporary society. Ethical issues involve questions of the ethical 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?
7. 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, and so on. 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 fallacies 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.”
8. 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. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. What are ethical arguments?
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.
12. 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 or values 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)
13. What is the role of values in ethical dilemmas?
Frequently, ethical dilemmas are fundamentally a clash of values. We may experience a sense of frustration trying to figure out what the ‘right’ thing to do is because any available course of action violates some value that we are dedicated to. For example, let’s say you are taking a class with a good friend and sitting next to him one day during a quiz you discover him copying answers from a third student. Now you are forced into an ethical decision embodied by two important values common to your society. Those values are honesty and loyalty. Do you act dishonestly and preserve your friend’s secret or do you act disloyal and turn them in for academic fraud?
Awareness of the underlying values at play in an ethical conflict can act as a powerful method to clarify the issues involved. We should also be aware of the use of value as a verb in the ethical sense. Certainly what we choose to value more or less will play a very significant role in the process of differentiating between outcomes and actions thereby determining what exactly we should do.
Literature and film are full of ethical 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.
14. What ethical dilemmas are more common in real life?
Rarely are we called on to fight zombies or Nazis, but that doesn’t mean we live in an ethically easy world. If you’ve ever felt yourself pulled between two moral choices, you’ve faced an ethical dilemma. Often we make our choice based on which value we prize more highly. Some examples:
- You are offered a scholarship to attend a far-away college, but that would mean leaving your family, to whom you are very close. Values: success/future achievements/excitement vs. family/love/safety
- You are friends with Jane, who is dating Bill. Jane confides in you that she’d been seeing Joe on the side but begs you not to tell Bill. Bill then asks you if Jane has ever cheated on him. Values: Friendship/loyalty vs. Truth
- You are the official supervisor for Tywin. You find out that Tywin has been leaving work early and asking his co-workers to clock him out on time. You intend to fire Tywin, but then you find out that he’s been leaving early because he needs to pick up his child from daycare. Values: Justice vs. Mercy
You could probably make a compelling argument for either side for each of the above. That’s what makes ethical dilemmas so difficult (or interesting, if you’re not directly involved!)
15. What is an ethical violation?
Sometimes we are confronted with situations in which we are torn between a right and a wrong; we know what the right thing to do would be, but the wrong is personally beneficial, tempting, or much easier to do. In 2010, Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel discovered that some of his players were violating NCAA rules. He did not report it to anyone, as it would lead to suspensions, hurting the football team’s chances of winning. He was not torn between two moral choices; he knew what he should do, but didn’t want to jeopardize his career. In 2011, Tressel’s unethical behavior became public, OSU had to void its wins for the year, and he resigned as coach.
Ethics experts tend to think that 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 motivation and the strength of will to repel temptation. One way to strengthen your “ethics muscles” is to become familiar with the ways we try to excuse or dismiss unethical actions.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. What kinds of rationalizations do people make for their actions?*
Rationalization is a common human coping strategy. An intriguing finding in research on corruption is that people who behave unethically usually do not see themselves as unethical. Instead, they recast their actions using rationalization techniques to justify what they’ve done. Common rationalization strategies:
Denial of responsibility
- The people engaged in bad behavior “had no choice” but to participate in such activities OR people turn a blind eye to ethical misbehavior.
- “What can I do? My boss ordered me not to tell the police.”
- “My neighbors’ children always seem to have bruises, but it’s none of my business.”
Denial of injury
- No one is harmed by the action, or that the harm could have been worse.
- “All’s well that ends well.”
- “Nobody died.”
Blaming the victim
- Counter any blame for the actions by arguing that the violated party deserved what happened.
- “She chose to go that fraternity party; what did she think was going to happen?”
- “If the professors don’t want students to say mean things in student evaluations, they should be more entertaining.”
- Compared to what other people have done, this is nothing, OR everybody does it, so it’s okay.
- “I sometimes come into work late, but compared to everybody who leaves early every Friday, it’s nothing to get worked up over.”
- “Everyone around me was texting; it’s not fair that I should be the one in trouble.”
Appeal to higher values
- It was done for a good, higher cause.
- “You should let me copy your homework; if I fail this class, I’ll lose my scholarship.”
- “I couldn’t tell anyone because I’m loyal to my boss.”
- If someone has done good things in the past, they should get a “pass” for misbehavior.
- “He’s done so many good things for the community, it would be a shame to punish him.”
- “She’s so talented, why focus on the bad things she’s done?”
19. 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.
* Modified from Anand, V., Ashforth, B. E., & Joshi, M. (2004). Business as usual: The acceptance and perpetuation of corruptions in organizations. Academy of Management Executive, 18(2). Retrieved from http://actoolkit.unprme.org/wp-content/resourcepdf/anand_et_al._ame_2004.pdf
20. How can I tell what is the “right” thing to do?
That’s the million dollar question in Core 202. Ethical theories describe the rules or principles that guide people when the rightness or wrongness of an action becomes an issue. In this section, you will read about some of the most common and important ways of approaching ethics. They all ask the question, “how can I tell what the right thing to do is?” but differ as to where to start and what to consider:
- Situation. Relativists say that rightness changes depending on the individuals and culture involved.
- Results. Consequentialists believe that you should judge rightness based on the predicted outcome. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialist perspective.
- Actions. Deontologists judge the rightness purely on the action itself. Duty-based and rights-based perspectives fall into this category.
- Actors. In actor-oriented perspectives, the person or entity making the decision- the ethical actor- must decide what a virtuous person or entity would do, and follow that path. The ethical actor may also be called the agent.
Next, we’ll learn more about each perspective and its challenges and benefits.
21. 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.
22. 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 whatever a 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.
23. What is 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 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. Consequentialism and deontology are universalist ethical theories.
24. What is consequentialism?
Consequentialists believe that an action is right or wrong depending on the results of the action. The act itself matters less than whether the effects are positive or negative. So for a consequentialist, no type of act is inherently wrong. The ethically right choice is the one that has the best overall consequences.
In addition, the more good consequences that occur from an act, the better or more ethical that act should be judged.
25. What is utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism is a specific type of consequentialism that focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number. After you identify your options for action, you ask who will benefit and who will be harmed by each. The ethical action would be the one that caused the greatest good for the most people, or the least harm to the least number.
26. 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?”
Utilitarianism stressed equality and fights against self-interest on the part of the ethical actor. As an illustration, let’s say you’ve volunteered to buy the paint for the fence that you and your three bordering neighbors share. The fence has to be painted one color: brown or white. You prefer white but your neighbors want brown. If you used a utilitarian approach, you would buy brown paint because three outnumbers one. Just because you are buying the paint does not give you any more weight in the decision.
27. 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.
We can see utilitarianism in action in many public health efforts. For example, children in public schools are required to receive certain vaccinations. This is mandatory because of the results: keeping people healthy and the greater good: individuals may object to the vaccinations, but the law focuses on the greater good for the greatest number.
28. 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?
29. How do I apply utilitarianism in real life?
When faced with an ethical dilemma, ask yourself:
- Which option would have better results?
- Which option would further the greater good?
- How can I maximize benefits for all involved?
- How can I minimize suffering for all involved?
30. What is deontology?
Deontology is a universal ethical theory that considers whether an action itself is right or wrong. Deontologists argue that you can never know what the results will be so it doesn’t make sense to decide whether something is ethical based on outcomes. You can consider it the opposite of consequentialism and utilitarianism in many ways.
Deontologists live in world of moral rules: It is wrong to steal. It is right to keep promises.
Deontology is also concerned with intentions. If you intended good through your action, then the action is good, no matter what actually happened as a result.
Deontology encompasses two kinds of approaches: duty-based and rights-based.
31. What is duty-based ethics?
Duty-based ethics says that there are universal moral norms or rules, and it is essential that everyone follows them. If you’ve ever said, “I did it because it was the right thing to do,” then you’ve employed 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.
When you think about duties, think about obligations that individuals must accept in order for society to work and be well. Your duties and obligations come from both your personal and professional lives. If you are a parent, you are obligated to take care of your children. If you see someone in distress, you have a duty as a human to try and help.
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.
32. What is rights-based ethics?
An outgrowth of duty-based ethics, rights-based ethics insists that you need to respect individual’s human rights and never treat people as a means to an end.
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.
Remember that deontology is a universal system, so that means any rights that you claim you also have to grant to all others. If you believe your family has a right to drinking water, then this means everyone in the world has that same right. If you believe that you have a right to marry the person you choose, then so does everyone else.
33. What is the appeal of deontology?
As we discussed in utilitarianism, a flaw with consequentialist thinking is that we can never really know what the results of an action will be. History is full of examples of “unintended consequences.” For example, in an attempt to raise standards and accountability in public schools, high stakes testing became common. To ensure that the tests were taken seriously, school districts held teachers responsible for their students’ scores; teachers whose students did well would get raises, while those who did poorly could be fired. The proponents of this policy predicted that children’s learning would improve. It seemed to be working: in Atlanta; students were showing extraordinary gains in the yearly competency tests. Then an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that teachers and principals were correcting the answers provided by students. This scandal rocked the Atlanta school system and as of 2015, eleven teachers were convicted on racketeering charges. This certainly is not what the high-stakes testing supporters had thought would happen!
Because of such examples, deontologists disdain the uncertainty of consequentialist ethics. The future is unpredictable; we should only make judgments on things we are certain about. We know whether an action is inherently right or wrong as we’re doing it.
Another good point about deontology is its emphasis on the value of every human. While utilitarians consider everyone equal, it’s more of a numbers game. But a deontologist insists that you treat everyone with respect and give everyone the rights you expect to have yourself. It works against our tendency to be self-centered.
Finally, deontology gives credit for intentions and motivations. You may do something for the very best reasons and it could turn out negatively. Does that condemn your action as unethical? A deontologist would say no. Accidents happen, results are uncertain, and you can’t be held responsible for the future.
34. 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.
Both also rely on absolute principles regarding duties and rights. But there’s no definitive list recorded anywhere. One person might say parents have a right to spank their children, but others will disagree. 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.
35. How can I apply deontology in real life?
When confronted with an ethical dilemma, consider:
- Which option is simply the right thing to do?
- What duties or obligations do you need to consider?
- Which option best respects the rights of all stakeholders?
- Which option treats people fairly and equally?
- Which option has the best motivation or intention?
- If applicable: Which option is supported by a professional code of conduct?
36. 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. A person might think of a religious figure, virtuous relative, or even a favorite comic book superhero, and use that person as a role model for how to behave.
37. What is care ethics?
Care ethics, or “ethics of care” places significance on relationships and humans’ interdependency on each other. It could be seen as related to virtue ethics because ‘caring’ is a type of virtue, and is universal because the impulse to care is present in all human societies.
In care ethics, the ethical actor considers what option would be, not just fair, but compassionate. Ethical decisions may be made because of emotional connections or attachments to others. Given a dilemma, you may choose one option because your loved one is involved, while another option may be more reasonable to you when the people involved are strangers.
Care ethicists argue that all of us have been or will be in a position of needing care, of being vulnerable, at various points in our lives. As such, society works best when we take care of each other. Virtuous people should want to help those who need help- not just to protect human rights, but because we care.
In The Hunger Games, the main character Katniss uses care ethics. When her younger sister, Prim, is selected for the Games and faces certain death, Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place: not because she thinks the Games are wrong (deontology), nor because she thinks she’ll win (utilitarianism) but because she loves Prim and will do anything to protect her. During the games, her feelings of care for Prim lead her to also act to protect Rue, a fellow contestant who reminds her of Prim.
38. 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.
39. 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 one ethical principle 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 certain virtues like compassion, honesty, and integrity 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?”
40. How has virtue ethics been applied in the real world?
Someone employing virtue ethics will consider what action will most help her become a better person. Virtue ethics arguments will discuss ideals as the motivation for acting. In December 2014, Senator John McCain delivered a floor statement to the US Senate, condemning CIA interrogation methods. He deplored the use of torture by our country:
Torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world (McCain, 2014).
41. 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.
42. How can I apply virtue ethics in real life?
When confronted with an ethical dilemma, consider:
- Which option would a good person choose?
- Would I feel comfortable if everyone knew I’d made that choice?
- Which option shows care for those that are vulnerable?
- What virtues and vices apply in this context?
- What is the proper application/ measure of virtues appropriate to this choice?
43. 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 in 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 gain 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.
44. How do I use ethical reasoning to make decisions?
Making good ethical decisions takes practice. Our instinct or “gut” can draw us to selfish choices, so we need to step back and think critically about ethical dilemmas rather than just jumping to our first solution.
We need to consider all the elements involved:
- Who is affected?
- Who is making the decision?
- What are the known facts and circumstances?
- How ethical are the possible actions?
The framework below can help guide you through this process. It is not a checklist of steps; rather, decision making is an iterative process in which learning a new fact may cause you to revise earlier thoughts on the situation.
45. How do I recognize an ethical situation?
Identifying an ethical situation will require you to research the facts of a situation and to ask whether stakeholders must consider questions about the moral rightness or wrongness of public policy or personal behavior. To help you identify and describe the nature of the ethical issue, ask the following:
- Does the situation require individuals to engage in ethical judgments? Do you find yourself thinking about whether an action is morally right or wrong or whether a person’s motives are morally good or bad? Could you debate what, morally, someone ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ do in the situation?
- Does the situation seem to pose an ethical conflict for one or more stakeholder? That is, does there seem be a clash between what a stakeholder ‘ought to do’ and what she ‘wants to do’?
- Does the situation pose an ethical dilemma for one or more stakeholders? That is, does it seem as if someone is pulled between competing ethical demands, each calling for behavior that would be ethical but with one action making it impossible to perform the other, equally justifiable action? Are there values that are in conflict?
You also should consider whether any professional codes are relevant to the situation. Often professional codes spell out the ethical or moral obligations of members of a profession. Compare any relevant professional code with the behavior of participants in that situation who may be bound by that code. Was their behavior consistent with that code? Were there any competing norms or codes of behavior that put participants in the midst of an ethical dilemma?
In an ethical situation, a difficult decision- perhaps multiple difficult decisions, will need to be made.
46. How do I identify stakeholders?
Usually, any complex topic features multiple stakeholders: people who have an interest in or are affected by the outcome of decisions revolving around the situation. These different parties are not all affected in the same way, and therefore, their perspectives on the topic will differ. Review how to identify stakeholders at: https://lcubbison.pressbooks.com/chapter/core-101-academic-argument-essay/#101_AA_obj_3_3
47. How do I identify the different perspectives and positions held by stakeholders?
A stakeholder’s perspective or position is based upon the stakeholder’s relationship to the situation. That relationship can be captured by asking questions about power, support, influence, and need in the context of the situation that the stakeholder has an interest in.
- Power—How much decision-making authority does the stakeholder have over the situation?
- Support—How strongly is the stakeholder for or against the idea?
- Influence—How much ability does the stakeholder have to affect the decisions made by other people?
- Need—For the stakeholder to benefit, what does she need to have happen (or not happen) in the situation?
Be sure to look for interests and perspectives that may be shared by different stakeholders, and be certain that you do not automatically side with the stakeholders who have the most power and influence. If you gravitate toward the parties with the most power and influence, you may end up ignoring the individuals or groups with the most need, the ones who may be badly hurt by an unethical decision.
48. How can I research stakeholder positions?
When you research an issue, look beyond yes/no, pro/con arguments in order to see the people involved in the situation. Remember that often there are more than the oversimplified ‘two sides’, so be open to identifying more than two stakeholders.
Make a list of the individuals and groups who affect or are affected by the issue. Add to the list as your research uncovers additional aspects of the situation that bring in additional stakeholders.
Analyze the positions held by each stakeholder, looking in-depth at their involvement. Go to the Appendix for a list of possible questions to research.
49. How do I identify the ethical actor?
Within that set of stakeholders, identify which is the one (or ones) in a position to take action. It could be an individual, a group, or an institution. Those are the ethical actors, who will exercise the decision related to the ethical situation.
The ethical actor may be you, but it’s also probable in this class that you will research case studies of ethical situations in the wider world. In such assignments, focus your attention on the people and entities that can and need to take action in order for this situation to be resolved. Avoid ‘victim blaming’- looking at stakeholders and condemning them for getting themselves into the current situation, or trying to rewrite history so that the situation wouldn’t exist. Concentrate on the facts of the case as they relate to the decision making process.
50. How can I use critical thinking in this process?
How can a person decide whether a certain act is ethical without being influenced by his biases? The thoughtful development of criteria is one method to keep biases from having an excessive influence on the group’s decision-making process. Criteria are carefully considered, objective principles that can be applied to a situation in order to reach measured conclusions.
51. What are criteria?
Criteria are the standards you apply to develop and evaluation whether a solution to a problem is ‘good’ or ‘right’. People apply criteria to solve both ethical and non-ethical problems.
Criteria need to be specific and measurable in some fashion to allow them to be used to judge whether a solution is likely to successfully address a problem. See the Appendix for more information on criteria.
52. How do I identify possible actions?
When you have identified who can act and what criteria is essential, you can now brainstorm options for actions. You can use the major ethical perspectives to help you:
What action would result in the best results?
What action would respect stakeholders’ rights?
What action would respect the ethical actor’s obligations?
What action would lead the ethical actor to being a virtuous person or organization?
What action gives extra consideration to those who are vulnerable?
If this is a professional situation, you should also check to see if there are any codes of conduct to consult.
If you think of other actions, apply the different ethical perspectives to them to see if they are ethical.
53. How do I evaluate the possible options?
Sometimes all the theories point to the same action, but usually there are differences. At this point, you need to consider the specific situation and the context of the ethical actor. Which perspective is most appropriate given these circumstances?
For example, there is a limited amount of medication available for a very infectious disease. How do you decide who receives the medication?
If the ethical actor is a government official deciding on a policy, one would probably turn to utilitarianism: what would be the best result for the most number of people?
If the ethical actor is a physician, she may turn to deontology: what are her professional obligations?
If the ethical actor is the mother of a sick child, she may give up her dose to save the baby.
54. How can mapping or diagramming help me to examine the consequences of decisions or positions with ethical consequences?
Like many ethical issues, the one you are examining may be very complex, with factors that include
- multiple stakeholders
- multiple ethical actors
- multiple ethical perspectives, and
- multiple actions
Because of the number of stakeholders, actors, perspectives, and agents, you may be considering a large number of options. You will have to
- formulate a full list of possible actions, taking into account both all the stake holders and all the ethical perspectives,
- examine each option to determine the benefits to various stakeholders,
- examine each option to determine the burdens and risks to various stakeholders, and
- evaluate the practicality, legality, and appropriateness of each action.
With so many factors and options to consider, you may benefit from mapping or diagramming the various options to keep track of the relationships between stakeholders, agents, and perspectives, and each action and its impact.
55. What else should I consider before acting?
You should do a critical thinking check to make sure you are not falling into any fallacious thinking or rationalizations to justify an option that is selfish or otherwise unethical. Would you be okay with your decision being widely known and associated with you?
56. Am I done after acting?
No. It’s essential to examine how the decision turned out and consider what lessons you may have learned from it.
57. Do people really do all this when making ethical decisions?
In an ideal world, yes! You may recall from Core 201 that critical thinking is a learned skill. Ethical decision making builds on that platform. At first, it probably seems clunky and artificial, but with practice you begin to internalize the analysis. Over time, you move away from instinctual, gut-level thinking to a using a more critical lens. We can, unfortunately, find plenty examples of ethical decision making gone bad (aka ethical violations). In 2001, GM discovered there was a defect in its Saturn Ion’s ignition switch, but released the new car model without fixing it. Over the next 12 years, GM engineers alerted the company that many of the models had the same defect, but GM executives decided it would be too expensive to fix the problem. It wasn’t until 2014 that GM admitted that the faulty switch was the cause of 31 crashes and at least 13 deaths, and recalled over 1 million vehicles. An investigation revealed that GM “made a business decision not to fix this problem”(Basu, 2014).
For a positive example of ethical decision making, listen or read the transcript of this interview with a newspaper editor who published the names of high schoolers who were using Twitter to bully classmates. See if you can identify the different aspects of ethical decision making from the editor: http://www.onthemedia.org/story/277595-identity-minors/
Basu, T. (2014, March 31). Timeline: A history of GM’s ignition switch defect. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/03/31/297158876/timeline-a-history-of-gms-ignition-switch-defect
McCain, J. (2014, December). Floor statement by Senator John McCain on Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Interrogation Methods. John McCain Website. Retrieved from http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2014/12/floor-statement-by-sen-mccain-on-senate-intelligence-committee-report-on-cia-interrogation-methods