Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Thinking Ethically

By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

Moral issues greet us each morning in the newspaper and bid us farewell on the evening news. We are bombarded daily with questions about the morality of surrogate motherhood, the legitimacy of publicizing the names of AIDS victims, the ethics of exposing the private lives of political candidates, the justice of welfare and the rights of the homeless.

Dealing with these moral issues is often perplexing. How, exactly, do we think through an ethical issue? What questions should we ask? What factors should we consider?

The first step in analyzing moral issues is an obvious one: get all the facts. Some moral issues create controversies simply because people do not bother to check out the facts. This first step of analysis, although obvious, is also the most important one and the one that is most frequently overlooked.

But having the facts is not enough. Facts by themselves only tell us what is; they do not tell us what ought to be. In addition to getting the facts, resolving an ethical issue also requires an appeal to values. Three kinds of value systems have been developed by philosophers to deal with moral issues. One such system is called "utilitarianism."

Utilitarianism was developed in the nineteenth century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to help legislators determine which laws were the morally best ones. Both Bentham and Mill suggested that ethical actions are those that provide the greatest balance of good over evil. To analyze an issue using the utilitarian approach, we must first identify the various courses of action available to us. Second, we must ask who will be affected by each action and what benefits or harm will be derived from each action. And third, we choose the course of action that will produce the greatest benefits and the least harm. The ethical action is the one that provides "the greatest good for the greatest number."

The second important approach to ethics is one that has its roots in the philosophy of the eighteenth century thinker, Immanuel Kant, and others like him, who focused on the individual's right to choose for herself or himself. According to these philosophers, what makes human beings different from mere things is that people have a dignity based on their ability to freely choose what they will do with their lives, and they have a fundamental right to have these choices respected. People are not objects to be manipulated; it is a violation of human dignity to use people in ways they do not freely choose.

There are, of course, many different but related rights besides this basic one. These other rights can be thought of as different aspects of the basic right to be treated as we freely choose to be treated:

  • The right to the truth: People have a right to be told the truth and to be informed about matters that affect their choices in significant ways.
  • The right of privacy: People have the right to do, believe and say whatever they choose in their personal lives, so long as they do not violate the rights of others.
  • The right not to be injured: Individuals have a right not to be unwillingly harmed or injured, unless they freely and knowingly did something deserving of punishment or they freely and knowingly chose to risk such injuries.
  • The right to what is agreed: People have a right to what they have been promised by those who freely chose to enter a contract or agreement with them.

In deciding whether an action is moral or immoral using this second approach, then, we must ask: "Does the action respect the moral rights of everyone?" Actions are wrong to the extent that they violate the rights of individuals, and the more serious the violation, the more wrongful the action.

A third approach to ethics is one that focuses on the concepts of justice and fairness. It has its roots in the saying of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who wrote that "equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally." The basic moral question in this approach is, how fair is an action? Does it treat everyone the same, or does it show favoritism or discrimination? Justice requires that we treat people in ways that are consistent, and not arbitrary. Basically, this means that actions are ethical only if they treat people the same, except when there are justifiable reasons for treating them differently. Favoritism is giving benefits to some people without a justifiable reason for singling them out, while discrimination is imposing burdens on people who are no different from those on whom burdens are not imposed. Both favoritism and discrimination are unjust and wrong.

These three approaches suggest that once the facts have been ascertained, there are three questions we should ask when trying to resolve a moral issue: (1) What benefits and what harms will each course of action produce, and which will produce the greatest benefits or the least harm for the public as a whole? (2) What moral rights do the affected parties have, and which course of action best respects these moral rights? (3) Which course of action treats everyone the same except where there is a justifiable reason not to? Does the course of action show favoritism or discrimination?

This method, of course, does not provide an automatic solution to moral problems. It is not meant to. The method is merely meant to help identify most of the important factors that should be considered when thinking about a moral issue, and the questions that are important to ask. In some situations, the three approaches may conflict. The course of action that will produce the most benefits for everyone may also violate the rights of some or may be unjust to some, or perhaps several conflicting rights are involved. What should be done in such cases? When conflicts like these arise, we must weigh the various moral values identified by each of the three approaches and make up our own minds about which values are decisive. Are the overall benefits so large that limiting the rights of some is justified? Does our commitment to justice require us to forego the greatest good for the greatest number? Is this right or that one the more significant one? n the end, moral issues are issues that each person must decide for herself or himself, keeping a careful eye on the facts, and on the benefits, the rights and the justice involved.

For further reading:

Robert B. Ashmore, Building A Moral System, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987).

William K. Frankena, Ethics, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970).

Tom Regan, ed., Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1980).

Manuel Velasquez and Cynthia Rostankowski, Ethics: Theory and Practice (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985).