TERMS IN AND TYPES OF ETHICAL THEORY

TELEOLOGICAL - This describes an ethical theory which judges the rightness of an action in terms of an external goal or purpose. So, according to a teleological theory, consequences always play some part, be it small or large, in the determination of what one should or should not do. Not all teleological theories are consequentialist. John Rawls' theory of justice is teleological, but not consequentialist because it claims that consequences are only part of what must be considered when determining what policy is morally just. (Rawls)

Benefits - 1. There is room in some theories for good intentions, even if the action didn’t active the desired end. 2. Active attempt to connect morality with the “real” world. 3. By allowing for the consideration of consequences, teleological theories can adapt to different circumstances and situations. (Also see “utilitarianism”)

Problems - Depends on the theory. See “utilitarianism” for an example.

CONSEQUENTIALIST - Under a consequentialist theory, the consequences of an action determine its moral value. A key question in consequentialist theory is how to measure the moral worth of the consequences. Consequences can be good, neutral, or evil. Another relevant question is which consequences count (intended or actual). If only actual consequences count, then do all consequences count? Consequences can be distinguished by direct/indirect, individuals/objects affected, influence of complicating factors, etc.

All of these considerations go into shaping the ethical theory. For example, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were both act utilitarians. So they judged individual an action to be good or bad depending on the actual consequences of that action. Bentham defined good as pleasure and evil as pain. (Bentham) Thus when choosing an action, according to Bentham, one should the action which produces the greatest amount of pleasure compared to pain for all affected. Since pleasure and pain were the foundation for good and evil, “all affected” would include all sentient things. J. S. Mill differed from Bentham in that he believed that happiness and unhappiness were the basis for good and evil. (Mill) Under his evaluation then, while pleasure and pain were important considerations, they were only the basic minimum. This sets up an ability for Mill to claim that consequences to more sentient beings may be more important than those to less sentient beings and to characterize some pleasures as higher than others.

Benefits - 1. Consequentialism is grounded in actual effect. So, moral action always improves life on earth (in some manner). Acting morally can improve your lot in life. So, there is an incentive to act morally even if you do not believe in an afterlife. 2. Consequentialist theories are often attentive to the particulars of the situation. 3. These theories will allow for exceptions to the rule when warranted by the outcome. 4. Utilitarianism follows the cause and effect reasoning in science. It can be proven wrong or right by referring to empirical evidence, instead of a theoretical ideal. 5. All sentient beings understand pain and pleasure. Thus many have claimed that utilitarianism is transcultural. 6. On a related note, utilitarianism avoids the charge of speciesism in ethical theory by using a moral foundation that is shared by other species, thus requiring their consideration.

Problems - 1. Consequences are difficult to predict. Your actions may have good intentions and a high probability of causing good results. But, if something happens and the consequences are actually bad, then your action was morally wrong. Also, as the situation involves more people and alternatives, it becomes more difficult to determine which action would produce the best consequences. How can we ever know that we actually chose the “best” alternative. There is no opportunity for comparison of actual cases, just similar ones. 2. "Does the end always justify the means?" A consequentialist theory would justify many actions that we normally would consider wrong, if it turned out that the consequences were good. 3. This theory undermines trust in others and intimate relationships since we can never be sure that the consequences might not justify a betrayal of trust and in many of these theories, each individual is treated the same regardless of one's relationship. So, for example, one’s duty to prevent pain to a stray cat would be equal to one’s duty to prevent pain to one’s own cat.

 

DEONTOLOGICAL - This type of theory claims that there are features within the actions themselves which determine whether or not they are right. These features define the extent to which the actions conform with recognized moral duties. For example, driving while drunk violates the duty to “above all do no harm.” The duties derive from various sources, such as religion, biology, psychology, metaphysics, culture, language, etc. Depending on the deontological theory, these duties may be absolute (no exceptions), prima facie (can only be overridden by a more important duty), or conditional (only hold under specified circumstances).

Deontological theories do not consider consequences to be important when determining whether or not an action is ethical. It doesn’t matter if the drunk driver made it home safely. Driving drunk was still wrong because the intention to drive drunk was wrong (or to drink alcohol when one knows one needs to drive).

Immanuel Kant's ethical theory is deontological. He claims that actions are only morally right when they are done out of duty. He sees moral duties as unchanging laws for human conduct. He believes that morality is derived from the ability to think rationally, which enables beings to be free. If one is not free, then one cannot be held responsible. Thus only free individuals are moral agents and all free individuals are capable of acting out of reason. Kant’s moral theory is largely focused on protecting and promoting the free action of rational beings. Three formulations of his categorical imperative are derived from this moral foundation: (Kant)

Benefits - 1. Right and wrong actions are easily determined by considering one's duties. In some cases, these are explicitly spelled out (i.e. religion). However, the use of judgement is usually necessary to determine which duties apply and how. 2. Unlike utilitarianism, the end does not justify the means. Deontological theories provide a sound basis for inalienable rights and inherent value. 3. Since duties do not change, there is a greater sense of security/predictability in the accepted behavior of others. Right and wrong don’t vary with the consequences, although there may be a various according to circumstances (i.e. in the case of conflicting duties). 4. Good motives are valued, even if the outcome wasn’t what you expected..

Problems - 1. There is no agreement on a single standard for morality. 2. Ignoring consequences can cause pain and suffering. 3. The imposition of a specific moral belief system on others has been a cause of significant harm throughout history. Some deontological theories are not equipped to respect diverse beliefs. However there are some deontological theories that incorporate respect for the beliefs of others. There are even some religious-based theories which, while espousing one true way also respect diverse beliefs amongst individuals (i.e. Buddhist ethics).

RELATIVISM/SUBJECTIVISM - This type of theory denies that there is any uniquely right moral theory, standard, or value. Everything is subjective. For example, Jean Paul Sartre claimed that each individual creates his or her own morality based solely on one's own decisions about what is valuable. There are no moral standards to turn to that have any more authority than those that you create. Things (including other people) only have value because you gave them value. (Sartre)

Benefits - 1. Adjusts for changing factors in society and allows for true multiculturalism. 2. Each individual is fully responsible for his/her own moral beliefs since he/she chose to create and value them.

Problems - 1. This leads to social anarchy. Moral theories are tools that are supposed to help people live together with some degree of harmony and security. But, if you accept that morality is truly relative, you have to accept that there is no standard by which you can judge the moral beliefs of others.(ex. The Nazis, KKK, etc.) 2. What is the meaning of morality if it lacks any standard to judge such claims other than individual choice?

VIRTUE BASED THEORIES - Teleological theories consider the goals of actions. Deontological theories focus on acting in accordance with moral duties and obligations. Virtue based theories focus on the character of the person. According to virtue based theories, ethics is about what sort of person one should strive to become. The qualities that one should develop in oneself are called virtues (ex. honesty, fairness, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, prudence, integrity, bravery, etc.).

One should act in ways that develop these virtuous qualities within oneself. For example, Aristotle claimed that in order to become an honest person, one should tell the truth. (Aristotle) Eventually it becomes a habit. Along, the way one learns how to tell the truth appropriately, without being brutally honest all of the time or lying whenever it is easier to do so. There are many virtues that one ought to develop through practice over one’s lifetime. Becoming virtuous is excelling at all of the virtues that make a good human being, health care professional, etc. It is a learning process that continues throughout your life.

Benefits - 1. This type of theory recognizes that individuals and circumstances are unique. For example, the virtue of compassion may be expressed by two people in two different ways. Similarly, running into a burning building may be courageous action for a fire professional but foolhardy for an untrained individual with no protective equipment. 2. Virtue ethics allows each individual to use his/her own judgement when making difficult moral decisions, yet recognizes certain common goals. 3. Mistakes are expected and recognized as learning opportunities.

Problems - 1. Some argue that too much is left to individual judgement, thus opening the door to bias and prejudice. 2. Similarly, virtues can be interpreted very differently. For example, consider the many ways that fairness may be interpreted. 3. Virtue ethics depends on modeling for some of the education. However, one may choose a poor role-model and therefore develop a false sense of virtue.

Other terms in ethics:

Rights - Rights are claims that you deserve something from someone or some group.

Rights can be legal, contractual, or moral. Primarily, we are discussing moral rights in this class. These types of rights are derived from moral theories or beliefs and entail duties/obligations for others. For example, if a moral theory contains the principle that you should respect the autonomy of other individuals, then you have a duty to respect the autonomy of others and they have a right to your respect of their autonomy.

Rights are also categorized as positive and negative. This categorization indicates the kind of claim and obligation that the right entails.

Positive Right - If I have a positive "Right to X," then that means that society has an obligation to provide me with X. This is also called an entitlement right.

For example, if the right to health care is a positive right of all American citizens, then American society must provide health care to all American citizens.

Negative Right - If I have a negative "Right to X," then that means that society has an obligation to prevent undue interference from my obtaining and keeping X if I choose to do so. Essentially protective measures must be provided to ensure fair access to X and to prevent X from being unfairly taken away. This is also called a freedom right.

For example, if the right to health care is a negative right of all American citizens, then American society must prevent undue interference with citizens' access to and use of health care services.

Rights, duties, obligations, and responsibilities can also be categorized as universal, prima facie or conditional -

Any right, duty, etc. that is universal must always be observed. There are no exceptions to universal rules.

Prima facie duties, rights, etc. must always be respected unless two or more of them conflict. In that case the moral agent must decide which is the most important in this situation and act in accordance with that, while respecting the overridden right/duty/etc. to the greatest extent possible.

Any right, duty, etc. that is conditional may be overridden by a more important consideration or may not apply to a specific situation. Conditional rules allow for exceptions based on the relevant conditions.

Moral Agent - an individual who consciously acts and can therefore be held responsible for his/her actions. Newborns infants are not considered moral agents because they lack the capacity for agency. Usually capacity for agency includes, consciousness, sense of self, ability to reason (degree depending on what is necessary for the task at hand), and the ability to interact and form relationships with others. However, there are ongoing debates about the criteria for agency and the importance of agency for moral worth. Another issue is the extent to which freedom is necessary for one to be a moral agent. Sartre argued that you are a moral agent as long as you are capable of making a choice, even if the only choice you have is whether or not to continue to exist.

Motive - A motive is what caused the agent to choose this action. For example, if a person was moved by compassion to act, the motive was compassion. Motives may be conscious or unconscious. David Hume argued that all actions are motivated by emotions. Reason can direct the motivating force, but cannot cause one to act. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, argued that to be moral, an action must be motivated by the rational decision to do the right thing. Emotional motives, like love, interfered with moral action according to Kant.

Intention - An intention is the desired purpose or aim of the agent’s action. Intentions are conscious. People disagree about the degree to which intentions matter in determining whether an action is right or wrong. For example, imagine two people, Ann and Jan. Each hits their husband with the car, killing him. Ann intended to kill her husband. Jan intended only to back out of the driveway. She hit her husband by accident. Most would agree that Ann’s action is morally worse than Jan’s because of the intention. Utilitarians would disagree however. In their theory, the only thing that counts is what actually occurred, not what one intended. For a utilitarian, Jan’s action would be as bad as Ann’s.

References:

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics, Welldon, J. trans. Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY: 1987).

Bentham, J. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in Warnock, M ed. Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham: together with selected writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, Meridian/New American Library (New York, NY: 1974).

Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature, Penguin Books Ltd. (London: 1969).

Kant, I. Fundamental Principle sof the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. by T. K. Abbott, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY:1987).

Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism in Warnock, M ed. Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham: together with selected writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, Meridian/New American Library (New York, NY: 1974).

Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA:1971).

Sartre, J. Existentialism and Humanism, Mairet, P. Trans. & Intro. Eyre Methuen Ltd. (London, UK: 1973).