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Can ethical theories tell us how to live our lives?

Education 04 Mar, 2020 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

When we deal with difficult decisions, we often feel that there is no clear answer that is right, but we sense intuitively that the decision is about the distinction between right and wrong.

Questions, deliberations and answers about how we should live have been around since the dawn of mankind. Many of us are familiar with moral codes laid down in various religions such as the Ten Commandments of Christianity which stipulates for example: ‘Thou shall not kill’, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’; the Surah Al-An’aam (Chapter six of the Qur’an which outlines a code for Muslims to live by such as ‘Give full measure and full weight with justice’, ‘Be good and dutiful to your parents’; and the Noble Eight Fold Path provided by Budhism such as ‘Right View’, ‘Right livelihood’, ‘Right concentration,’ etc.

However, ethical doctrines have also been provided by scholars and philosophers such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, and Confucius to name a few.

Ethical theories are frameworks that allow us to think about ethical questions. They serve as foundations of ethical analysis, the viewpoints from which guidance can be obtained along the pathway to a decision. They provide a platform from which we can explore and come to decisions which are grounded in an ethical framework. They are explanations of how one should settle questions of right and wrong behavior.

There are two fundamental problems in identifying the ethical standards we are to follow: On what do we base our ethical standards? How do those standards get applied to specific situations we face? These are what the theories of ethics seek to provide. From these theories one can deduce sources of ethical standards.

In this article I delve into the main teachings of one major ethical theory- utilitarianism- which opines that moral questions should be mainly considerate of consequences.

Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill argued that human beings are under the governance of two sovereign masters- pain and pleasure. People will seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Thus, the purpose of ethical decisions is to minimize the bad consequences and maximize the greatest good to the greatest number. From this perspective, the ethical action is the one that provides the most good or does the least harm, or, to put it another way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm.

Utilitarianism is an ethic of welfare. It is the idea that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons. It can be described by the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number". It was the objective of the main thinkers of this theory to invent an approach to policy making that was objective and not held hostage to feelings.

Laws should be passed only if they maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the majority of people. In government, this framework invites the public servant to consider the broader society and its well-being by arriving at decisions that best meet this criterion. The ultimate goal of utilitarianism is to promote human welfare by maximizing benefits to as many people as possible.

The entrepreneur must consider the consequences of business decisions on the full range of stakeholders including the management, the staff, the customers, the shareholders, the country, humanity and the environment. This theory prescribes that the overall purpose of ethics, what it was designed to do, is to ensure the overall welfare of society.

The best decisions are those that generate the most benefits compared to their disadvantages and benefit the largest number of people. The goal is to select the alternative that achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

In applying utilitarian ethics, one should identify all the possible courses of actions, estimate the direct and indirect costs of each option and select that which produces the greatest amount of good based on the cost-benefit analysis.

We consider another ethical theory in next week’s column.

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