Fundamental Moral Unit

When making ethical decisions, the one consideration that a theory favors over all other considerations is called the Fundamental Moral Unit.

Discussion Questions

Western philosophy identifies the individual as the FMU; feminist theories tend to use relationship and maintaining the connections among people; Eastern and indigenous theories put natural or spiritual systems as the core to be maintained.

1. Give an example to show that you can use these different kinds of thinking to arrive at the same or similar answers for what is morally permitted.

2. Show how, in some instances, the answer to what is morally permitted would be different.

3. How can you use these different methods without just picking the theory that best yields the answer that reflects your personal opinion? Any solid normative judgment will have reasons that reflect the values of impartiality and universalization.

4. Western theories are said to emphasize rights and liberty over need and vulnerability. Explain how that connects to FMU.

5. Feminist theories are said to care for the most vulnerable. Show how that is consistent with a theory that uses relationships as its core concept.

6. Which of the three systems best recognizes non-human animals as having moral importance? Explain.

Case Studies

Welfare Reform

In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton and a Republican-led Congress passed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), also known as the “Welfare Reform Act.” This bill changed how government-funded welfare operated in the United States. PRWORA reduced the amount of federal spending for low-income families, placed a limit on the number of years a person could receive federal financial assistance, and required recipients to work within two years of receiving benefits. It also included legislation that limited the funding available to unmarried parents under the age of 18, enhanced legal enforcement of child support, and restricted funding for immigrants. Republican supporters believed these provisions would curb the number of out-of-wedlock births.

The bill ignited a decades-long debate about individual responsibility versus social responsibility and the role of the government in directly alleviating poverty. On the one hand, the bill was heralded as an important step toward helping welfare recipients achieve self-reliance and employment. Through this bill, Clinton aimed to “end welfare as we know it” by creating job opportunities that would help stop a cycle of poverty and dependency. Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his colleagues in Congress pressured Clinton to make the bill even more austere. They argued that reducing welfare funding reinforced core American values of individual responsibility, hard work, independence, and free enterprise.

Critics of the bill argued that it negatively affected the most vulnerable people in society. Several members of Clinton’s administration even resigned as a result of the bill. One of these detractors, Peter Edelman, argued that welfare reform would not solve the problem, but rather drive millions more people into poverty, many of them single mothers and their children. During the debate, Senator Edward Kennedy called the bill “legislative child abuse.” From this perspective, the government was essentially abdicating its responsibility to care for children and impoverished people who are systemically disadvantaged.

The bill was effective for getting people off of welfare at first, in part due to a booming economy in the late 1990s. By 2000, welfare caseloads were at their lowest level in 30 years. However, wages tended to be barely above the poverty line and did not provide long term financial stability. Financial instability was exacerbated by the economic downturn in 2008. In a 2016 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examining the effects of PRWORA and related policies, research showed several findings: “Employment increases…were modest and faded over time;” “Stable employment…[was] the exception, not the norm;” “Most recipients…never found work even after participation in work programs…;” “The large majority of individuals…remained poor, and some became poorer;” and “Voluntary employment programs can significantly increase employment without the negative impacts of ending basic assistance…”

The government’s role in supporting the poor through direct aid remains an active debate in the U.S. today.

Discussion Questions

1. In this case, who favors the individualistic fundamental moral unit? Who favors the community-oriented fundamental moral unit? Which viewpoint do you find the most compelling and why?

2. Regardless of your own political affiliation, do you think governments or societies have an obligation to care for disadvantaged or lower-income families? Why or why not?

3. Do you think everyone in your home country has equal opportunities to succeed in society? Why or why not? Do you think success is the sole responsibility of the individual or does government have a role to play? Explain your position.

4. How might individuals raised with different notions of the fundamental moral unit respond differently to the Welfare Reform Act?

5. How might awareness of the fundamental moral unit help us to better understand differences between political parties?


Responding to Child Migration

In the summer of 2014, the United States experienced a significant increase of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the country from Central America. The number of minors apprehended as they tried to enter the U.S. nearly doubled over the previous year from 35,200 to 66,120. The fastest growing segment of child migrants were those under 12 years old, increasing concern that vulnerable children were risking their lives on a dangerous journey to the U.S. to escape violence and poverty in their home countries. The influx posed a number of logistical and ethical dilemmas for state and federal authorities, and overwhelmed the capacity of authorities to process new migrants or even provide shelter for them.

The Obama administration responded with a multifaceted plan that included millions of dollars of emergency funding. The plan called for increased border enforcement, deportation of those deemed economic migrants, more detention facilities, additional immigration judges to process claims for political asylum as refugees, and new programs in countries of origin that would mitigate violence and economic hardship for minors as well as discourage or intercept migrants before reaching the U.S. Because facilities at the border were being overrun, the government also transported some migrants to other parts of the country. This drew protests from local communities that tried to turn back buses filled with migrant children. The administration’s response drew criticism from all quarters.

Human rights and refugee advocates, as well as many religious institutions, argued that the U.S. was neglecting its moral obligation to protect innocent and vulnerable children, many of whom were fleeing violence at the hands of criminal gangs and the drug trade. According to journalist Sonia Nazario, the influx of minors was not a crisis of illegal immigration but rather a refugee crisis: the violence in countries, such as Honduras, was prompting youths to flee their homes as a means of survival. Nazario argued that these refugees, similar to refugees in war-torn regions such as Syria, deserved legal and physical protection. She criticized the Obama administration for concentrating on border enforcement and interdiction of child migrants instead.

Others argued the opposite point: that the crisis was brought on by weak control of U.S. borders. According to Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, the ongoing crisis was “the best evidence yet that lax enforcement, both at the border and within the country, and talk of amnesty only bring more illegal immigration.” She and others promoting stronger limits on immigration urged the Obama administration to turn back those who entered the country illegally on the grounds that the only way to end this crisis was to stem the tide of migrants before they got to the U.S.

Discussion Questions

1. Does the United States have a moral obligation to accept migrants? Why or why not? Does the impetus for migration matter? For example, should we treat economic migrants fleeing economic hardships any differently than political asylum-seekers escaping political persecution and violence? Explain your reasoning.

2. What values are in conflict in the debate over the economic costs of immigration?

3. Does the U.S. have a special moral obligation to receive child migrants? Why or why not?

4. A faction of Americans protested against accepting minors into the country because of the potential burden and threat that the newcomers might pose to local communities. Do you think there are limits to the moral obligation of the U.S. (and other countries) in accepting migrants, even those fleeing violence? Why or why not?

5. Some commentators argue that if unaccompanied child migrants gain legal status upon reaching the United States, more children will be incentivized to make the dangerous trek to the U.S. Others argue we must protect the most vulnerable. In response to these concerns, what immigration policies would you advocate and why?

6. Does the United States have a moral obligation to help resolve the deeper reasons for mass migration to the U.S., such as economic inequality, the drug trade, and histories of encouraged migration, particularly if American behavior or U.S. policy contributes to these patterns of migration? Explain.

7. Ultimately, the surge in child migration to the United States in the summer of 2014 was controlled in part through cooperation with foreign governments to prevent the transit of minors across their territories. Some argued that the methods used by these governments were not humane and that children intercepted en route to the U.S. were forced to return to dangerous or even life-threatening situations. Do you think this was an ethically justifiable method to limit migration? Why or why not?


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the general ethics concept of fundamental moral unit. When making ethical decisions, the one consideration that a theory favors over all other considerations is called the fundamental moral unit. It is the primary basis for moral consideration. Societies or ideologies that are driven by individualism, rights, and liberty tend to identify the individual as the fundamental moral unit, while societies or ideologies that emphasize community, cooperation, and care for the most vulnerable tend to identify the relationship among people as the fundamental moral unit. The fundamental moral unit may also include the connections between human and other natural or spiritual entities in societies or ideologies with close ties to the environment or religion.

The ethics of a fundamental moral unit may be driven by the value system of a culture, yet one culture’s values may differ from those of another. To learn more about different value systems watch GVV Pillar 1: Values from the GVV video series.

To learn about related general ethics concepts, watch All is Not Relative, Causing Harm, and Moral Agent & Subject of Moral Worth.

The case studies on this page explore the relationship between policy and the fundamental moral unit. “Welfare Reform” questions whether the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 helped or hindered families in the United States by supporting the poor through direct aid. “Responding to Child Migration” examines the influx of children migrants to the U.S. in 2014 and the response from U.S. state and federal authorities. For a case study about the significance of the environment in making ethical decisions, read “Climate Change & the Paris Deal.” For a case study about the importance of freedom of expression for both individuals and groups in the wake of racially motivated offenses at Yale and the University of Missouri, read “Freedom of Speech on Campus.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: justice, moral absolutism, moral agent, moral pluralism, moral relativism, morals, self-serving bias, subject of moral worth, and values.

Additional Resources

For more information on concepts covered in this and other videos, as well as activities to help think through these concepts, see Deni Elliott’s workbook Ethical Challenges: Building an Ethics Toolkit, which may be downloaded for free as a PDF. This workbook explores what ethics is and what it means to be ethical, offering readers a variety of exercises to identify their own values and reason through ethical conflicts.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg

“There are so many considerations in making ethical decisions, but what consideration is most important? Different cultures and ethical systems have produced theories that favor one consideration over others. The consideration that a theory favors is called a Fundamental Moral Unit, or FMU.

Many of the classical Western philosophers from the Greek and Roman traditions favor the individual as the Fundamental Moral Unit. In these theories, the primary dictate is a negative statement: Do not get in an individual’s way in his or her pursuit of the good life.

Feminist theories tend to determine the best choice based on how well those choices strengthen the connections among people and how well the needs of the most vulnerable are addressed. The fundamental moral unit here is relationship between people and is based on the belief that care should be given to those who cannot take care of themselves.

Some Eastern theories promote the overall good of the community first and foremost. And some indigenous theories stress human’s connection with the world as a whole, with all natural systems and species having an equal right to co-exist. People who grow up in these traditions expect that they and others will sacrifice individual self-interest for the good of the group and the environment. The Fundamental Moral Unit here is called “aggregate good.”

Let us consider a decision you might encounter if you were a member of your local city council. There is a fifty-acre parcel of land in your city’s jurisdiction that was designated a hundred years ago to remain open space. Now the area contains some ancient Native burial grounds, but the tribe members a hundred years ago and the tribe members today are happy with the designated use as long as the woodlands around the burial mounds stay intact. A developer would like to build a shopping mall there. As a city council member, you get to decide how that land will be used today: should it remain a park or become a shopping mall?

If your choice is based only on the good that comes to individuals, you might be tempted to go with the shopping mall. The mall will provide jobs for many of the people in the community who are out of work and the additional income from the taxes from the new property owner and the businesses will allow the city to reduce taxes for individual homeowners.

What choices best advance the overall good of the community in which I live? The policy choice made previously to protect the land respected human connections to natural systems and was sensitive to the culture and history of a minority group. Affirming that decision helps all people in the community maintain trust in government.

We can see how the teachings from all of these traditions can help us in analyzing an important choice. And they can help us answer one more question: “Can I find a choice that does not cause harm to anyone or anything?” If a shopping mall is a good idea for the community, alternative building sites that do not cause harm are waiting to be found.”