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.”