Ethics can be defined broadly as a set of moral principles or values. Each of us has such a set of values, although we may or may not have clearly expressed them. It is common for people to differ in their moral principles and values and the relative importance they attach to them. These differences reflect life experiences, successes and failures, as well as the influences of parents, teachers, and friends.
Ethical behavior is necessary for a society to function in a orderly manner. It can be argued that ethics is the glue that holds a society together. Philosophers, religious organizations, and other groups have defined in various ways ideal sets of moral principles and values. The following are different approaches, from ancient and modern traditions and philosophers, depicting their meaning and understanding of ethics and how it can be applied in ethical decision-making.
Utilitarianism was founded by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham toward the end of the 18th century. He believed that all human actions are motivated by a desire to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. The principle of utility expresses that actions were right if they tended to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. When faced with a moral dilemma, utilitarianism identifies right and wrong and also considers the consequences that may result. This can be regarded as an appropriate action, but offers no realistic way to gather necessary information to make the required decision. Confronting certain situations in life, there is no time to weigh all possible outcomes and decide the one that provides the greatest benefit to all; majority of predicaments allow just enough time for a person to act on impulse alone. To calculate the welfare of the people involved in or effected by any given situation, utilitarianism requires that all individuals be considered equally. Quantitative utilitarians would contemplate the pleasure and pain that would be caused and evaluate how both sides would be affected. Through this calculation of pleasures and pains, one could tell what was right or wrong.
John Stuart Mill, also a British philosopher, modified and expanded on Bentham’s principles. Mill’s approach insists on qualitative utilitarianism, which requires that one consider not only the amount of pain or pleasure, but also the quality of such pain and pleasure. An utilitarian must consider both the consequences of an action and the good and evil that accompanies it.
There are advantages and disadvantages in applying this approach to my own life. I know when I am faced with decisions I do find myself weighing all outcomes, what is right and wrong, and what consequences might result. For example, I encountered a dilemma at my summer job two years ago. I was an usher at a concert venue and I was faced with turning my friend’s nephew in for having marijuana on him. It was wrong for him to have the drugs with him but at the same time he would of gotten into a lot of trouble. Could I do that to my friend? Could I not do anything at all? As I contemplated this problem, I did take the utilitarianism approach in trying to decide what would be the best thing to do to handle this. In the end I did turn him in to my boss, as not only was that my job, but if anything happen as a result of using the drugs I would feel responsible for not notifying someone. The disadvantage to this is that there is not enough necessary information available and there is no scale on which to weigh the various considerations. Granted he was only sentenced to community service, how did I know that he consequences could not have been worse, like being sent to jail. I could of decided to handle it myself instead of turning him into my boss. This approach helps in deciding between right and wrong but when it comes to what the consequences actually are and how everyone in the situation will be affected, there really is no way of knowing.
The moral law, along with natural law, approach to ethical decision-making, views ethics as a set of rules that must be obeyed without any consideration of the consequences that will follow from doing so or not. It claims that it is impossible to measure right from wrong and prohibits the reliance on consequential calculations and use of any action that aims directly against good intentions. The works of philosophers Aquinas, Hobbes, and Kant coincide with these concepts.
Thomas Aquinas, an Italian philosopher and Roman Catholic theologian, believed happiness to be found in the love of God. His conception on right and wrong came from the blending of Aristotle’s teachings and Christianity. His theory on the difference between right and wrong can be regarded by the use of reason and reflection on experience.
Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, suggests that we are motivated by selfish self interests and because of that, we are better off living in a world of moral rules. Hobbes believes that these self interests are a way of saying that all of our actions are a product of our own beliefs, that people consider themselves to be better than anyone else other than God.
Immanuel Kant’s, an German philosopher, ethical system is based on the belief that everything happens for a reason. Our actions, of any sort, are directed by reason. Whether we need to reach a specific outcome or resolution, we choose the action that will accomplish that task or whether that action is the only means necessary and then that particular action must be followed.
I do not totally agree with this approach of moral and natural law. Having to always conform to certain set of rules without even thinking possible consequences and alternative approaches does not really appeal to me. I also believe that it is possible to measure what is right and wrong. It is based on our own beliefs and values that are instilled in each one of us that can answer this question. I always feel like I have the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. You always think of both circumstances, good and evil, and you as a person will decide what is morally and ethically appropriate for you. I don’t think relying on a specific set of rules and principles is the best way to handle dilemmas. I think it is a good framework and guidance to base your decision on, but to have to adhere to it on every decision I don’t agree on. For example, I am Catholic and ever since I went away to college certain aspects of my faith are I am starting to become against. My parents always follow the way of our Church and the values and principles that Catholics are suppose to obey. I tend to differ with them. We had this argument recently about topics that Catholics are for and against and my mother could not believe that I would go against them. Birth control and abortion was the main difference. She is totally against it in all situations. I disagree when it comes to rape or incest, I don’t feel a woman should have to go through the pregnancy in this specific situation. So this approach, having to rely on principles all the time and follow them accordingly to every situation does not agree with me.
It is helpful to read about these different theories but I do not think it is necessary in decision-making. Reading about these approaches does make you think about how you as person handles certain situations and whether you can improve your process. However, this only happens when you are required to read and study about these theories. If I never took this class, I would never have known the difference between utilitarianism and moral law and which one applies to me and my decision making process. Therefore, it is not required to read and learn about different approaches in order to handle situations.