Ethics is a truly controversial field of discussion. Everywhere people are looking for ethical people. It is difficult for people to agree on what ethical behavior is in many situations. Since there is little consensus on what is ethical, it leads to people making poor choices or doing things they think are right yet are classified as unethical by others.
In this post, we will avoid the minefield of what is ethical and look at various models of ethical behavior. Instead of defining what is ethical, we will look at frameworks for how others define what is ethical.
Utilitarianism takes a quantitative approach to defining what is right and wrong. According to this school of thought, whatever brings the most good to the most people is ethical. An example of utilitarianism would be found in the story of people in a lifeboat. For the group to survive, somebody has to be thrown in the water. A utilitarian approach would state that throwing someone in the water is practical to save the group.
Naturally, utilitarianism loses track of the individual. The group or the collective is the main actor in the decision-making process, which can lead to the tyranny of the majority over the minority.
As it relates to ethics, Universalism is focused on a holistic approach to making decisions. Everyone’s needs are taken into account in this model. The focus is on being humane and making decisions based on duty. Returning to the lifeboat example, if Universalism is the ethical model, then somebody would willingly throw themselves into the water so that the majority of the group could survive. Being bound by duty, someone would sacrifice themself for others.
A related school of thought is virtue ethics, which states how people ought to be rather than the reality of how people actually are. People should be moral, happy, trustworthy, etc. Even though it is rare to find people with such traits consistently, all this is stated.
Of course, these schools of thought are highly idealistic and generally not practical. Universalism may be the best approach on paper but is the least likely to be put into practice as individual people generally put what is best for them first.
A legal model for ethics is found in rights such as those found in the US Constitution and human rights. IN this approach, the rights of people are the basis for ethical decision-making. Therefore, violating someone’s rights is an ethical violation.
Returning once again to the lifeboat example. It would violate someone’s rights to throw them in the water to die. However, it would also violate everyone’s rights if everybody died. As such, if the rights model is used in such a situation, there is no answer for the sinking lifeboat that needs to throw one person overboard.
This leads to one problem with the rights model, which is determining the ethical thing to do in a situation in which people both have equal rights to something. People can exaggerate their rights and downplay other people’s rights, leading to an impasse that seems to have no hope of being overcome.
The Common Good
The common good is a combination of the ideas behind Universalism and utilitarianism. IN this approach, decision-makers must take into account. This means that people must think about how their decisions impact the people around them. Decisions can be made at the individual level as long as they consider the larger collective.
Returning to the lifeboat, a person would decide about jumping in the water based on how it would affect others. When deciding who to throw in the water, the group may decide based on the level of responsibility a person has. A single man would be a better person to throw in the water than a single mother because the man is perceived to have fewer obligations.
The problem with the common good is broken down to who decides what the common good is. Whoever or whatever makes this decision has dictatorial power over the others.
The point was not to attempt to determine what is ethical. The reality is that everybody has fallen short in one place or another when practicing ethical behavior. It is possible that people sometimes deliberately make poor choices, but the other side of the story is that sometimes the best decision is hard to determine. The real goal should be to examine the thought process and be aware of the failings that led to poor choices in the past.