Condensed version of the study of ethics

Lynne Fowler Eighinger

November 1998

This is a condensed version of the study of ethics. I posted it to the list since there were many requests for the information privately. For those not wishing to read, please delete and I apologize for the length of this post.

There are various ideas to approach ethics: subjectivist theory of morality, Consequentialism, Utilitarianism, Natural Rights, and Denotology and Virtue Ethics. The people to study in your own development of knowledge of ethical standards are Aristotle, Immanual Kant, and Kohlberg.

Subjectivist theory of morality is fairly self-explanatory. The manner in which moral judgments are made are expressions of taste. This is based in the concept of egoism and that decisions are basically made for selfish reasons (caution, selfish doesn't necessarily connote negative actions). There is psychological egoism claiming that a persons motive from which he/she acts is purely self-interest. Ethical egoism claims that the only moral requirement incumbent upon anyone is to pursue his own self-interest, however, it does not mean the person necessarily has to do so.

An important note is that any and all ethical decisions are wiser when considering the long term effects.

Consequentionalist believe the only morally right act is that which will produce the best consequences for all effected.

Principle of Utilitarianism (hedonistic or preference-based): always act so as to bring about the greatest net good for all of those affected by your actions (choosing the greatest amount of good or the least amount of bad.) This is a secular moral view.

Deontological theory - what makes a decision or an action morally worthwhile or right is not the effect it has or the consequences it produces but rather the fact that it was the right decision to make, the right thing to do. Kant's theory is based on what he calls the categorical imperative - Always act so as to treat others as an end and never ONLY as a means. Always respect the automony of others.

Virtue Ethics - (the former theories discussed are principle-based and are built around a central rule/principle. These principles do not recommend a clear course of action in "real life" situations. This theory is complicated and difficult to describe in a paragraph. It's founded in the ability to resist what appears to be good in the short term for the sake of what is really good in the long term (resisting immediate pleasure for the sake of more important goods.) This necessitates a person to cultivate practical wisdom, train and redefine natural human responses and feelings in order to develop good moral character and developing insight into how best to live. The virtues Aristotle outlines are courageous but not rash, temperate but not foolish, liberal but not stingy, proper pride but not vanity and be righteously indignant but not malicious.

The Canonical View of Social Responsibility is the claim that business social responsibility ends with profit maximization and obeying the law.  This theory is a form of psychological egoism. This view is one that, I believe, warrants discussion.

The following principles are tests to determine whether a decision can be considered ethical. At least 7 of the 10 should be satisfied before a decision should be made. Again, the considerations must be for the long-term good.

Egoism - is the action contemplated in the long-term self-interests of yourself and/or of the organization to which you belong?

Personal Virtues - is the action contemplated honest, open and truthful? Is it one you would not mind being reported widely in the media?

Religious injunctions - is the action contemplated kind and does it build a sense of community, a sense of all working together toward a commonly-accepted goal?

Government requirements - is the action contemplated in violation of any laws (the law represents the MINIMUM moral standard of our society)?

Utilitarian benefits - does the action contemplated result in the lessor harm for the society of which you are a part.

Universal rules - is the action contemplated something you would like to see others take when faced with a similar dilemma?

Individual rights - does the action contemplated abridge any agreed-upon and accepted right of others?

Economic efficiency - does the action contemplated seek to maximize profits subject to legal and market constraints?

Distributive justice - is the action contemplated one which harms the least among us in any way? (This means children, animals, etc. in terms of education, income, etc.)

Contributive liberty - does the action contemplated interfere with the right of all of us for self-development and self-fulfillment?

(Only one of the last two can be satisified. A decision either harms the least amongst us OR it allows for anyone/everyone's self fulfillment and development.)

Finally, the issues to consider when approached with an ethical decision are:
1.   What are the ethical issues in this case? Identify the multiple points of view and identify the facts if they are known (especially if there are laws involved.) Who's involved or hurt by this case?
2.   Whose rights are involved?
3.   What are the fair treatment issues? (social justice issues)
4.   What solution strategies are available? How does that strategy measure:
         Reduction of harm
         Maximization of benefit
         Respect of rights
         Fair treatment of the parties involved
5.   What are the potential consequences of the solution strategies?  Who will be most affected by your choice? Are there unintentional consequences that have not been considered? Will the positive outcomes outweigh the negative ones?