This isn’t going to be article telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. This isn’t an article that uses guilt to evoke emotions in you. This isn’t even an article that tells you how you should feel. I want you to consider your own views on what is right and wrong.
Not too long ago I wrote a post about how we should do our best to fight poverty by giving some of our earnings to charitable organisations who do good. If that alone wasn’t good enough to convince you, I even gave you the example of saving a drowning child in a pond where we agreed we would have saved them.
Singers argument that saving the drowning child is equivalent to giving up some of your income for poverty is an example of the consequentialist school of ethical thinking. This is the idea that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by considering the consequences by that action in question.
The strongest idea of consequentialism is that of utilitarianism which is a standard of judging an action by looking at how it affects other people. The right action is the one that creates pleasure for most people. We are assuming here that pleasure is good and pain is bad. This is straightforward, right?
The problem faced here is the demandingness it places on people as we see in Singers argument. It would be better for you to give your money away or work for a charity instead of going on holiday so going on holiday must be wrong. This is very idealistic thinking and may scare many people away.
Another issue is that of the non-compliance of others. It seems unfair to expect one to donate all of their stuff to help starving children when it is also true that if everyone donated a bit of their income poverty would be solved.
Can one then be held responsible for one’s failure to act? Your answer to this question will tell you a lot about how you view people’s actions.
Virtue ethics is a different view that takes some psychology and mixes it together with ethics to conjure up a way to determine our actions.
An action is said to be right if it is what a good person would do in the circumstances. In laymans terms, how righy an action is is determined by an individual's character, rather than a set of rules one should follow.
For example, you know you that you aren't the best person to handle pressure situations. You find yourself outside a burning building where people need to be saved. Knowing the kind of person you are means understanding that you would freeze inside the building and place yourself in danger. You realise the best course of action is not to run into the building to be a hero, even though people will die.
This view avoids the pitfalls of moral luck which holds no one should be held responsible for things that they have little or no control over. If we take two drunk drivers and one makes it home safely while the other hits a young child who dies, consequentialists see the first driver as not blameworthy while the second driver shouldn't be condemned. Virtue ethics places both drivers in the wrong.
This view is problematic because by placing responsibility in the hands of the individual, rather than providing rules to follow, we lose sight of what is good to our faulty thinking. It is easy to do something when you make it right in your mind. Virtue ethics can also be said to be a way for people to justify the acts that they do rather than using it as a guideline for making the correct decisions.
Finally, there is also deontology which sees a variety of factors playing a role in what is right and wrong, not just the consequences. 17th century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ideas on ethics can be simply be stated by the rule “act only in accordance to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.” In short, this view focuses on a set of strict rules that need to be followed for ethical behaviour.
Deontologists hold the view that doing harm is worse that allowing harm to happen even if the effects of both are exactly the same. Even more so, there will be situations were doing harm will lead to the greater good and this directly opposes consequentialism.
Does this mean it is okay to kill one person so that their organs will be given to 5 others to save their lives? Not so simple, is it?
The same issues of demandingness seen in consequentialism can be seen in deontological thinking but the difference here is that there does not have to be the need to maximise the good. This means that with the foresight of harm being done, it could be morally okay for one to make the decision to kill one person if others are to be saved.
Don’t think so much in these fancy philosophical terms but rather in the concepts they entail. I encourage you to consider which of these views appeals to you. It might explain how you feel about certain things.
This discussion of these ethical theories begs the question as to why we do nothing to actually enact meaningful changes? Can we objectively state what is right or wrong? Or is ethical thinking context dependent? Do we even care about doing the right or wrong thing even if we know what it is? I leave these questions to you because, honestly, my brain hurts.