Category Archives: Ethics

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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Filed under Business Ethics, Ethical Theory, Ethics, Intro to Philosophy, Medical Ethics

Do Animals have rights?



Yep, I live with that cat… her name is Tera.

The question is whether or not Tera has rights.

It’s clear that I have duties to Tera.  I’m responsible for her well-being, which includes food, a litter box, vet visits and affection.  I have these duties because I decided to take her, that particular cat, into my home.  Those duties continue until she dies or I find another arrangement for her (oddly enough, my ex-husband would like to have her, but she’s happy with me…so…).

The question is, tho — whether she has rights just because she exists?

For human beings, it seems pretty clear that we have rights.  We more or less articulated (i.e. invented) the concept of rights, with the implication that there are some rights that are basic to all human beings.  Exactly what those rights ARE is an open question, but it seems to me that there are at least some concepts within the umbrella of rights that apply to all human beings.

Is it the same for all animals?

I’m still not so sure.  I have plenty of vegetarian and vegan friends.  They decline to consume animal products to some extent.  The vegans will have nothing to do with products that have ingredients that started in animals.  The vegans are a different lot, more often than not they’ll consume some kinds of dairy, sometimes they’ll consume seafood or eggs etc.  For all of them, a juicy steak is right out, but after that they’ll make distinctions.

Maybe they’re right, we ought not eat animals.

I absolutely agree that I have duties to my cats, just as I have duties to my friends and family, but that’s because I made that individual commitment to those beings.  I don’t have duties to strangers (except in extraordinary circumstances) any more than I have duties to a cat across the world.  Or, maybe I’m wrong…

I do tend to agree that we ought not intentionally mis-treat animals.  Factory farms make me uncomfortable.  We have plenty of cosmetics, so we probably ought not test them on animals (and a lot of companies don’t)… but, I’m torn in terms of medical testing.

IF it’s the case that

a) we are humans

b) humans are animals

c) medical procedures tested on other animals can help humans

d) utilitarianism is the strongest support for animal rights (Singer’s a major utilitarian)

then .. it seems that medical testing could produce the greatest overall increase in utility, all BEINGS (humans and animals) considered.



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Filed under Applied Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Ethics

The Death Penalty, Sister Helen Prejean


Go listen to this — Sister Helen Prejean on Minnesota Public Radio

She’s the author of Dead Man Walking.

She’s brilliant, compassionate, and she has a lot to say about the death penalty.

I can’t say it any better than she does.  She’s been with men who have been executed.  She makes all the right arguments against the death penalty.  She grew up a privileged white girl in Louisiana, she found her calling as a nun and in particular to help the poor.  She wrote to death row inmates, they wrote back.  She formed a relationship with them.  She has a lot to say.

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Ethics


Removing life support while pregnant, or why Texas sucks…

This really happened…

In late November Ms. Munoz suffered a medical event that caused her to lose consciousness.  When her husband found her, she was unresponsive and most likely had brain damage.

Munoz was a medical professional who had made it VERY clear to those around her that she didn’t want to be on a ventilator if her prognosis wasn’t good.  That day in November her prognosis was grim.  The hospital in Texas put her on the ventilator anyway, because she was pregnant.

It took her family TWO MONTHS to get this decision reversed.  Two months the poor woman was subjected to treatment she had explicitly said she didn’t want, and she trusted her family to prevent exactly that from happening to her.  The hospital interpreted a Texas law that requires them to treat pregnant woman, because Texas is concerned with the unborn.  Even when there is no evidence of viability, even when the mother’s articulated wishes are otherwise, even when (as in this case) it’s likely that the fetus was so damaged by the medical event that it would not survive the pregnancy.  Nope, woman pregnant = woman’s choice about her medical care denied…

Way to go Texas.

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March 24, 2014 · 2:37 pm

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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