Ethics Unwrapped Blog


Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. It is a form of consequentialism.

Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. It is the only moral framework that can be used to justify military force or war. It is also the most common approach to moral reasoning used in business because of the way in which it accounts for costs and benefits.

However, because we cannot predict the future, it’s difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad. This is one of the limitations of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism also has trouble accounting for values such as justice and individual rights.  For example, assume a hospital has four people whose lives depend upon receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, a kidney, and a liver. If a healthy person wanders into the hospital, his organs could be harvested to save four lives at the expense of one life. This would arguably produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But few would consider it an acceptable course of action, let alone the most ethical one.

So, although utilitarianism is arguably the most reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, it has obvious limitations.

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Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning applies critical analysis to specific events to determine what is right or wrong, and what people ought to do in a particular situation. Both philosophers and psychologists study moral reasoning.

How we make day-to-day decisions like “What should I wear?” is similar to how we make moral decisions like “Should I lie or tell the truth?” The brain processes both in generally the same way.

Moral reasoning typically applies logic and moral theories, such as deontology or utilitarianism, to specific situations or dilemmas. However, people are not especially good at moral reasoning. Indeed, the term moral dumbfounding describes the fact that people often reach strong moral conclusions that they cannot logically defend.

In fact, evidence shows that the moral principle or theory a person chooses to apply is often, ironically, based on their emotions, not on logic. Their choice is usually influenced by internal biases or outside pressures, such as the self-serving bias or the desire to conform.

So, while we likely believe we approach ethical dilemmas logically and rationally, the truth is our moral reasoning is usually influenced by intuitive, emotional reactions.

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Moral Psychology

Moral psychology is the study of moral identity development, or how people integrate moral ideals with the development of their own character.

Moral psychology differs from moral philosophy in that it studies how we make decisions, rather than exploring what moral decisions we should make. It encompasses the study of moral judgment, moral reasoning, moral character, and many related subjects at the intersection of philosophy and psychology.

Moral psychologists are interested in answering a wide range of questions such as, “What types of thinking give rise to moral judgment, and how did they evolve?” “What levels of moral development are found in children and animals?” and “What role do intuitions play in moral judgment and decision-making?”

For centuries, philosophers have been contemplating fundamental issues such as “What does it mean to be a ‘good’ person?” without resolving them. So, by adding the tools of psychology to those of philosophy, we may be able to shine more light on such difficult questions.

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Moral Emotions

Emotions – that is to say feelings and intuitions – play a major role in most of the ethical decisions people make. Most people do not realize how much their emotions direct their moral choices. But experts think it is impossible to make any important moral judgments without emotions.

Inner-directed negative emotions like guilt, embarrassment, and shame often motivate people to act ethically.

Outer-directed negative emotions, on the other hand, aim to discipline or punish. For example, people often direct anger, disgust, or contempt at those who have acted unethically. This discourages others from behaving the same way.

Positive emotions like gratitude and admiration, which people may feel when they see another acting with compassion or kindness, can prompt people to help others.

Emotions evoked by suffering, such as sympathy and empathy, often lead people to act ethically toward others. Indeed, empathy is the central moral emotion that most commonly motivates prosocial activity such as altruism, cooperation, and generosity.

So, while we may believe that our moral decisions are influenced most by our philosophy or religious values, in truth our emotions play a significant role in our ethical decision-making.

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Moral Cognition

Moral cognition is the study of the brain’s role in moral judgment and decision-making. As a social science, it involves understanding the rationalizations and biases that affect moral decision-making. Moral cognition also involves the scientific study of the brain that is evolving along with technology.

Researchers who study moral cognition attempt to provide social and biological explanations for how our brains process information and make moral or immoral choices. Some scientist examine genetic and molecular influences, while others use neuroimaging to map the areas of the brain that direct people’s choices.

Moral thinking appears to be a complicated process. There is no single seat of moral activity in the brain. However, a network of various regions of the brain does consistently appear to be involved in moral decision-making.

So, the study of moral cognition does not aim to tell people what choices they should make. Rather, it attempts to explain how and why people make the moral choices that they do.

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Behavioral Ethics

Behavioral ethics is the study of why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Its teachings arise from research in fields such as behavioral psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology.

Behavioral ethics is different from traditional philosophy. Instead of focusing on how people ought to behave, behavioral ethics studies why people act as they do. Arguably, it is more useful to understand our own motivations than to understand the philosophy of Aristotle.

Research in behavioral ethics finds that people are far from completely rational. Most ethical choices are made intuitively, by feeling, not after carefully analyzing a situation. Usually, people who make unethical decisions are unconsciously influenced by internal biases, like the self-serving bias, by outside pressures, like the pressure to conform, and by situational factors that they do not even notice.

So, behavioral ethics seeks to understand why even people with the best intentions can make poor ethical choices.

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