Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Utilitarianism

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 Philosophy

Moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy that contemplates what is right and wrong. It explores the nature of morality and examines how people should live their lives in relation to others.

Moral philosophy has three branches.

One branch, meta-ethics, investigates big picture questions such as, “What is morality?” “What is justice?” “Is there truth?” and “How can I justify my beliefs as better than conflicting beliefs held by others?”

Another branch of moral philosophy is normative ethics. It answers the question of what we ought to do. Normative ethics focuses on providing a framework for deciding what is right and wrong. Three common frameworks are deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.

The last branch is applied ethics. It addresses specific, practical issues of moral importance such as war and capital punishment. Applied ethics also tackles specific moral challenges that people face daily, such as whether they should lie to help a friend or co-worker.

So, whether our moral focus is big picture questions, a practical framework, or applied to specific dilemmas, moral philosophy can provide the tools we need to examine and live an ethical life.

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Deontology

Deontology is an ethical theory that uses rules to distinguish right from wrong. Deontology is often associated with philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that ethical actions follow universal moral laws, such as “Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Don’t cheat.”

Deontology is simple to apply. It just requires that people follow the rules and do their duty. This approach tends to fit well with our natural intuition about what is or isn’t ethical.

Unlike consequentialism, which judges actions by their results, deontology doesn’t require weighing the costs and benefits of a situation. This avoids subjectivity and uncertainty because you only have to follow set rules.

Despite its strengths, rigidly following deontology can produce results that many people find unacceptable. For example, suppose you’re a software engineer and learn that a nuclear missile is about to launch that might start a war. You can hack the network and cancel the launch, but it’s against your professional code of ethics to break into any software system without permission. And, it’s a form of lying and cheating. Deontology advises not to violate this rule. However, in letting the missile launch, thousands of people will die.

So, following the rules makes deontology easy to apply. But it also means disregarding the possible consequences of our actions when determining what is right and what is wrong.

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Consequentialism

Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether or not something is right by what its consequences are. For instance, most people would agree that lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would help save a person’s life, consequentialism says it’s the right thing to do.

Two examples of consequentialism are utilitarianism and hedonism. Utilitarianism judges consequences by a “greatest good for the greatest number” standard. Hedonism, on the other hand, says something is “good” if the consequence produces pleasure or avoids pain.

Consequentialism is sometimes criticized because it can be difficult, or even impossible, to know what the result of an action will be ahead of time. Indeed, no one can know the future with certainty. Also, in certain situations, consequentialism can lead to decisions that are objectionable, even though the consequences are arguably good.

For example, let’s suppose economists could prove that the world economy would be stronger, and that most people would be happier, healthier, and wealthier, if we just enslaved 2% of the population. Although the majority of people would benefit from this idea, most would never agree to it. However, when judging the idea solely on its results, as classic consequentialism does, then “the end justifies the means.”

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