Ethics 101

Most of us are concerned to some degree with right behavior: ethics.  Whether at a conscious or unconscious level, we tend to stay close to certain families of ethical theory.  While there are hundreds of candidates, I want to briefly examine one religious ethic, Divine Command Theory, and two philosophical ethics, Utilitarianism and Kantianism.

(Gen 22 NIV) Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. {2} Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” {3} Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. {4} On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. {5} He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” {6} Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, {7} Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” {8} Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.{9} When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. {10} Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. {11} But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. {12} “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

To me, this is the most gruesome story in the Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament).  Abraham was called by a supposedly good God to sacrifice not only his son, but the son through whom his descendents were to be promised the land.  Even though the deed was putatively morally repugnant, Abraham (the superhero of the faith) obeyed God and was prepared to murder his son.

This is an example of Divine Command Theory: whatever God commands is good, whatever God forbids is evil.  When asked to explain their opposition to gay marriage, for instance, most of my students cite biblical prohibitions on homosexuality, often using the biblical term “abomination.”

How, then, do we know what God commands and forbids?  If, for instance, I heard a voice booming out of the sky, “SAM, GO YE FORTH AND SLAY THE CHAIR OF YOUR DEPARTMENT, FOR I, THE LORD, COMMAND IT!” I would more likely check myself into a psychiatric facility than commit murder, since I would strongly suspect some part of my brain would be broken, not that God had spoken to me.

OK, so why not restrict ourselves to what is written in our religion’s canonical scriptures?  The problem then is that there are plenty of other things in the Hebrew scriptures called “abominations” that most people knowingly and repeatedly violate, such as eating shrimp and pork, and wearing blended fiber clothing.   We cannot consistently pick and choose which of God’s commandments to obey.

Divine Command Theory therefore is not a rational ethic.  That’s not necessarily to dismiss it, for perhaps (as some would claim) the desire for right behavior is fundamentally not rational.  But it does mean that our rational skills to evaluate, prioritize, dismiss, or contradict certain behaviors are limited or non-existent.

So how about a rational ethic?  One historic way to approach ethics rationally is on the basis of consequences: do consequences matter or not?  If you answer yes, you are some form of teleologist (telos is Greek for end or point).  If you answer no, you are some variety of deontologist (deon is Greek for duty or purpose).

The most famous teleological family of ethics is Utilitarianism (note there are several varieties of such).  At its base, Utilitarianism is concerned with maximizing the hedonistic good: pleasure is good, pain is bad.  We often summarize Utilitarianism as the greatest good for the greatest number.  It’s as if goodness could be quantified into units and you seek to maximize that number of units: perhaps a small good multiplied over many people, or a vast good for one person.  This offers many advantages, for instance that you can quantify the possible ramifications of a decision and draw a decision analysis tree, yielding the decision that will statistically most likely most benefit the greatest number of people (or what will most benefit you as an individual, too).  Much of our medical practice is based on such a cost-benefit analysis.  Yet this approach can yield some results that make our skin crawl, like harvesting all of the organs and tissues of a perfectly healthy person–killing her–in order to save the lives of fifty other persons who will die without the transplant.  More broadly, within Utilitarianism, the end justifies the means, which would seem to justify behaviors that most other ethical systems would condemn.

Again, this does not mean that we should necessarily throw out Utilitarianism.  Perhaps our exposure to other ethical systems has simply blinded us to what is genuinely right such that if we’d been raised purely Utilitarian, we would have no objections.  On the other hand, other people have tried to tweak Utilitarianism, for instance differentiating between acts and rules, to remove the worst of the objections.

The most often studied of the deontological systems is Kantianism, with his famous Categorical Imperative: that we must only do those behaviors that everyone else could also do, and that we must always treat people as valuable in and of themselves and never only as a means to an end.  For Kant, the only criterion for evaluating the morality of an action is intention: if you intend in good faith to help someone especially someone you would not ordinarily be inclined to help (since we reflexively tend to help our friends), then your act is good, even if it has terrible consequences.  Likewise if you have malevolent intentions towards someone, your act is evil, even if it accidentally has good consequences.  For instance, if you are driving your car, sober and paying attention and your car in good mechanical condition, and a stranger towards whom you have no malice, but only equanimity, happens to step in front of you and dies from the impact, Kant would say you have done nothing wrong, it was a simple accident.  If you were not paying attention, or not sober, or had let your car lapse into undependable mechanical condition, and these things contributed to or directly caused the accident, you bear some responsibility.  And, obviously, if you intended to hit the person, your act was unequivocally evil.  We see this reflected in our legal system, wherein you would respectively be held innocent, be liable for manslaughter, and be guilty of murder.  Kant did not go back to the Categorical Imperative to evaluate every moral act; rather he generated “maxims,” sayings or rules, to guide life, that were consistent with the Categorical Imperative, such as “Never tell a lie.”

The duties given to us by Kantian maxims are simple and straightforward, yet perhaps they are too inflexible for real life situations.  For instance, what are you to do when you have conflicting duties, such as to tell the truth or to save a life and you cannot do both?  Kant held you could only have one duty at a time, but did not leave us an unambiguous way to sort out our duties–and our great temptation would be to evaluate them based on consequences, which would strike at the core of deontology.

If you’re confused now, that’s possibly a good sign, that you understand the complexities of what’s at stake.


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