Category Archives: Ethical Theory

Utilitarianism…the greatest overall good..

So, let’s start with a definition:  the morally good thing is the thing that increases the net good, all persons considered.  That’s utilitarianism, in my own words :).

Now, a real life example — the North Carolina bathroom bill — or, ‘potty law’.  That law more or less requires public bathrooms to be restricted to persons of the “biological sex on the birth certificate”.

What the law was responding to was local laws in Charlotte, NC — that included protections for trans rights.  What would mean, in terms of bathrooms and other gender-segregated facilities like locker rooms, is that trans women would be permitted to use the women’s room, and trans men would be permitted to use the men’s room.

This — of course, set the pervert-hunters aflame– because, of course, it meant that teenaged boys could “claim” to be trans for a chance to go into the girls’ locker room… or that an adult man could put on a dress and hide in wait for women/ girls in the women’s room, in order to assault them.  There was also a general sentiment that somehow trans persons would be more likely to attack in the bathroom.

The claim of the potty law supporters is that the “vast majority” of people are “on their side”.  Let’s just assume that’s true for the sake of argument, then look at the evidence and do some moral reasoning.

Of the 14 or so states that include full protection for trans rights.. none of them have reported even ONE incident of a trans person attacking anybody in a bathroom.  On the other hand, about 70% of trans people (.3% of the US population) has reported specifically either being attacked or intimidated in a bathroom.  Of the 40% or so of trans students who have dropped out of high school, most of them reported fearing for their physical safety or other bathroom worries.

Now — for the utilitarian calculation… Assuming the assertion that the majority supports this bill, the bill prevents no proven harms, but causes a lot of pain for trans persons.  So, keeping the bill has a net decrease in pleasure, so it’s immoral to keep.

Notice, this isn’t “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” — which would end up favoring even some small perception of “good” (like perception of safety) for the “vast majority” of people supporting the law.

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Ethical Theory…

First, a definition — ethical theory is kind of like a formula for ethical behavior or to make ethical decisions… when you APPLY it to a problem.

There are more or less four kinds of ethical theory — theories that look at consequences, theories that look at motivations,  holistic theories that ask ‘what are the elements of being a good person’, and contractual theories.

Consequences: — (or consequentialism) — look at the outcomes of the theory, is the result of the action going to make something “better”.  Better can mean either improving a situation by increasing “good” — OR, decreasing “bad”.  The most commonly discussed consequentialist theory is utilitarianism.  It defines “good” as more or less pleasurable.. so, an action is good if it overall increases pleasure or decreases pain.

To make a decision based on utilitarianism, you simply need to look at all the possible pain and pleasure coming from the action, then do the thing that provides the greatest net increase in good/ decrease in pain.  Note, this MAY be different from the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’… because, an action may be very good for a small number of people…

What this theory does well is to help a person choose between existing options to do the thing that will do the largest possible net good… so, it tells you which particular action is the best.

Motives — (deontology, Kant.. for the most part) — asks, is the person’s motive or reason for action good.  Kant’s reasoning works like this — The only absolutely reliably good thing is a good will — or good motive.  He then developed the Categorical Imperative as a test to see if a person’s motive for action (or will.. ) is a good one.

To make a decision based on motives, Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires that, if others knew your motives, they would agree to the action — and, it asks if you would want to live in a world in which others acted as you want to act?  This is generally speaking the “universal” formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

Kant continues to give other examples of his Categorical Imperative — one of the really important ones is the means/ ends formulation — which directs you to always treat others as an ends, and never as ONLY a means.  Translated, you should not use people to get what you want — you should not withhold information that would make them disagree with the “plan” (i.e. lie to them) — because, what you’re doing is ignoring the fact that they’re an autonomous person (one who has the ability to make decisions about their own life).

You can see how this is a version of the universal formulation — if the action you wanted to take were “universal” — including knowledge of your motives, would that be acceptable?

What Kant’s theory does well is to eliminate possible actions  — the problem is that it does not suggest one course of action as the “best”possible thing to do.  To narrow down the one course of action among all the permissible ones (the ones that pass the Categorical Imperative), you may use any criteria you’d like.

Holistic theories — The general idea here is to ask what a “good” person does?  So — for example, a virtue theory would ask what a good person would do in a particular circumstance?  The answer, is that they would be virtuous, and a list of virtuous characteristics would follow.  Feminist ethics of care are similar, in that they ask what a good person would do, and the answer centers around making good choices for their family and those in their immediate circle of care.

Contractual — These are theories that are more or less ‘good is what we agree is good’ — kinds of theories.  One major kind of contractual theory is the Social Contract theory — in which, whatever the society deems to be ‘good’ IS good.  Nothing is good objectively, in that there is nothing about the action itself that can determine what is or isn’t ‘right’.

Another version of the contractual theory are the multitude of professional codes of conduct.  So, for example, legal ethics centers on what it means to be a “good” lawyer.  That may include NOT breaking a client’s confidentiality if they tell you they’re guilty etc.

Both holistic and contractual theories are often said to be ‘incomplete’, in that they depend on another theory about what is or isn’t right to come to a final decision about the permissibility of an action.  On the other hand, they tend to capture how we, as human beings actually DO decide what’s right.

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Reading theory….

Thinking Cat (1)

No matter which course you’re taking, you’ll have to read articles about “theory” — in ethics, it’s ethical theory — in Intro to Philosophy it also includes theories about mind-body, free will, God etc..

The thing about these articles that is similar is that the philosopher has an idea, and they’re trying to put that idea down on paper — sometimes it works well, other times it’s a bit more difficult to understand what they’re thinking or trying to say..

So — some hints and tips..

  • Read all parts of the assignment, the introductions and conclusions — the foonotes etc.. because you’ll often find clues there.
  • Google the word, idea, or concept that seems central for another point of view on it…
  • Skim the assignment first trying to get the general idea.  Figure out how the parts of the article and argument go together.
  • Go back and read carefully — taking notes as you go… write down each major move in your own words, and why the philosopher thinks that’s a good move.  As you’re going, write down objections and questions you have — since those will be useful later.
  • When you’re done reading and taking notes, look at your notes — do they make sense?  If you had to use them to teach someone else what you just read, could you do it?  If not, go back and check to make sure your notes reflect what you read…
  • Then, think about ways that theory connects to the world around you — put it in context for you… (this is a good way to start a mid-term and final paper assignment… ).

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Evaluating Ethical Theory…


Ethics right wrong depends


Ethical theory is both simple and complicated — (that’s helpful, right? 🙂 ).

It’s simple because of it’s abstract nature.  It seems that if you plug information into the theory, you’ll get an answer concerning what you should do.  The problem is the information you plug into the theory… thus, it’s also complicated.

For every theory you evaluate, you should ask yourself a series of questions..

1) What information are you being asked to plug into the theory?  Connected to that question is the practical question of whether or not you have ACCESS to that information.  A related question is whether or not your information is reliable — as well as the question of whether or not you can (or need to) have a set of objectively ‘true’ set of information.

2) How are you supposed to use that information to make decisions?  Is it a matter of adding up happy and sad impacts?  Are you supposed to use your abilities to reason to make a conclusion?  Are you supposed to make agreements with others based on that information?

3) Is the core thing that’s supposed to be “good” REALLY good — or the best kind of “good”?  In one theory you’re supposed to be increasing happiness — but, is that really the best thing to increase?  Does it matter if you have good intentions but end up hurting someone?  Should you be following laws/rules/norms in a society in which those laws/rules/norms sacrifice one person for the good of others?  

4) Does the theory cohere with our own human nature (do we have one in the first place??) — or is it asking us to do something that is going to be impossible, based on our own instincts for self-preservation, protection of those near to us, etc.

5)  What would happen if everyone acted this way, in these situations?  This is NOT the question of whether or not everyone DOES act that way (this is an irrelevant question, by the way) — but, rather what would the world look like if everyone held this theory as their central value system?  Would that be an improvement in the situation, or would it cause problems across the society.  

For every ethical theory you evaluate, take these things into consideration — and, in the end understand that very few people just blindly follow one of these theories — as well as the fact that it’s often the case that the core question behind every moral problem may assume one theory or another as an underlying premise, because the data produced by the situation fits more easily into one theory than another — (that doesn’t make it right, it just is…).

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Feminism and ethics… the ethics of care..


So, feminism — The idea is pretty simple, a person’s sex or gender shouldn’t be the reason to get more benefits or carry heavier burdens than another person.  It’s evolved in many different directions, but in general feminism (now) sees male/female/ambiguous persons as worthy of equal consideration.

How this relates to ethics is a bit more complicated.  Feminists recognize that a person’s point of view is both inescapable AND informs their perceptions of the world.  SO, I’m a white, female, liberal, northern, heterosexual, hippie with a good education.  That means my point of view (or standpoint, as it’s often called) influences how I relate to the world and how I interpret the actions of others.

Everyone does this, there is NO ‘neutral’ point of view.  The problem is that the wealthy, educated, white, male, philosophers and scientists didn’t see this.  They assumed, because they only really talked/worked/collaborated with folks like themselves, that everyone was like them.  Thus, they came up with the idea of objectivity, they thought it was possible AND they thought they were objective.  People who didn’t think like they did were somehow deficient, irrational or otherwise non-functional.  Often that group included all women.

The ethics of care developed when feminists realized that the ‘objective’ point of view was flawed, because objectivity isn’t possible.  SO, anything that has objectivity as a founding premise has a flawed premise.  Systematic means of making moral choices fell into that category, thus they needed to be supplemented or replaced.  The proposed replacement is the Ethics of Care.

Now, don’t get me wrong here — feminists don’t outright reject ethical theory, because of the underlying ideas that we should maximize utility, have good intentions, try to be overall good people, or abide by the social contract — it’s just that they realize that there is another good way to make moral decisions that doesn’t also reject the way that women have been making moral decisions on behalf of their families for generations.

The practice of the Ethics of Care is relatively simple, the idea is that a person can and should make moral decisions within a context.  So, what may be a good decision at one point may not be so good later.  It requires a person to take all impacted persons into account and do the thing that is the best overall for the family, group or person — balancing interests and realizing that sometimes a family needs to make a sacrifice for the good of one person, just as one person may need to make a sacrifice for the good of the group.

The point of the Ethics of Care isn’t to imply that men cannot be moral in that way, only to recognize that traditionally women have been making moral decisions based on the principles of the Ethics of Care for a long time, along the way raising good men and women to go out into the world and do good things.  Until very recently, women have been the ones at home with the family and men have been out there in the ‘real world’ making money etc.. so, it’s traditionally been the case that women have made these decisions.  It would be against feminist principles to assume that men cannot make decisions using the Ethics of Care.

On a personal note, y’all should realize that I’m the main breadwinner in my family — my husband cooks, cleans, does photography etc… and is generally more responsible for the domestic tranquility than am I.  It’s the way things work out between us, and I’m happy that we can make it work that way, because he’s much better at all of that than am I :).

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Social Contracts and Rawls’ social safety net…


Rawls had two baisc concepts — 1) we should all be given the maximum amount of freedom possible to live our lives the way we’d like, as long as our freedom doesn’t impact other people.  2) Opportunities should be equally available to all, and inequalities in distribution ought to be resolved so that they benefit the lest well-off in society.  I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of it (see other sources for direct quotes).

I’d like to talk about the last part of 2).  It’s easy to see how this could be interpreted to imply the need for some kind of radical egalitarianism, a situation in which nobody has any more than anybody else.  That’s not quite the case.  What it means is that we ought to avoid situations in which some people have very little and others have a lot — UNLESS changing that would make things worse for everyone.

Think about this example — Brain surgeons (I seem to be writing a lot about that lately..).  Becoming a brain surgeon takes a combination of mental and physical skills that I don’t have.  It takes a long time to become a trained brain surgeon and it’s a very stressful proposition to have that much riding on your skills.  If you’re good, you’ll save a life and if you aren’t, you’ll kill someone.  That’s the kind of pressure I don’t want.

IF, as a society, we’ve decided that we need brain surgeons — we need to have a system that compensates them better than philosophy professors — because, it’s a more demanding training process and the job itself is more demanding.  Thus, we ought to pay them more.  IF we decided not to pay them more, we’d lose them to teaching philosophy and our society would be in need of them.  In other words, resolving the difference in income would create a situation in which society as a whole is less well-off.

On the other hand, it seems that we pay people like Justin Bieber and Myley Siris a lot of money — for what?  If we didn’t pay them, and others like them so much, would they continue doing their thing?? Probably, and if we lost Justin and Myley in the process, would our society be less well-off, I think not.

SO, we can justify either paying them less or taxing them a lot more to make their net-income more in line with other folks.  That’s the general idea.

What we do with that tax income is important — according to Rawls, we ought to spend it on a viable social safety net.  We should make sure that everyone has a decent place to live, food to eat, clothes on their backs, and their kids can go to decent schools.  Yes, even if they don’t work — everyone should get this.

We do need to be careful to balance what folks get from not working so that too many people don’t decide to do the no-work option, because then our whole society would be less well-off.

It does seem to me that we could do better than we do now (and other countries have done so).  It also seems to me that we’ve done a terrible job of insuring that there isn’t a huge gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, but that’s a post for another time.

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Virtue ethics, the mean and habit..


Aristotle had a pretty simple concept — to be a good person, you should do what good people do… but, what’s that?

To get more precise, he introduced the concept of the ‘mean’ between extremes.  So, to be a virtuous person, you should choose the middle path between excess and deficit.  For example, if you want to be courageous, you should figure out what falls between being a coward and what is foolish… to be honest, you should choose the action between being too blunt and dishonesty.

The thing is, this turns virtue ethics into a theory that is relative to the person.  For me, it would be foolish to run into a burning building without the proper training — and for a trained firefighter NOT running into that building (given the right circumstances and equipment) would be cowardly.

As for habit — the key here is to understand that one virtuous moment doesn’t make you a virtuous person.  Instead, you need to adopt the virtuous habits.  That means being reliably virtuous, because that’s the way you ARE.  You don’t have to think about whether to be honest, you just are.  You live your life trying to follow the virtuous path.

This leads to the question of whether you can step on and off that path — and that’s a good question.  It seems to me that nobody will be virtuous all the time.  We’re human beings, we have faults.  Sometimes we tell lies because we can’t face the implications of telling the truth.  Sometimes we’re cowardly because we’re afraid we can’t do the courageous thing… but, at the end of your life, if you’ve overall been a virtuous person, I think that’s what counts.

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