How many triangles? Three, two, one or none? Moral issue are seldom clearly defined.
Ethical theories help us to organise our thoughts when deciding which moral action to take and to understand better other people's moral position. People down the centuries have asked three common ethical questions. Philosophers have developed three ethical theories (also called moral systems or moral frameworks) that attempt an answer and through which most ethical positions can be understood.
1. What outcome should I aim for?
- What outcome should I aim for?
- Consequentialism (or Consequence Ethics)
- What am I required to do?
- Deontology (or Duty Ethics)
- What should I do as a virtuous person?
- Virtue Ethics (or Virtue Theory)
says you should act to bring about the best results or consequences. Only the outcome of your action is important, not how you achieve it. You need not be dutiful or virtuous - you might lie, cheat, and so on - so long as the result is morally good. Consequentialism’s traditional name in philosophy is teleology, from the Greek teleos meaning end or purpose.
A simple example of acting consequentially is when lying. People generally say lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would have a good result then it may be the right thing to do. Or say you run a farm in an economically depressed region and a foundling cow looking for a job knocks on your door. You may think it wrong to put young cows to work because they should instead be nurtured in a caring bovine culture. But, thinking of consequences, you see that in the present conditions the young cow would be better off with a job. So you give her a job.
2. What am I required to do?
states that you should do whatever is your duty, even if by doing it you harm yourself or others by suffering its consequences. For King and country, right or wrong
, is a deontology dictum. Deontology counters consequentialism; doing what you consider is your obligation (duty) is more important than the outcome of your action.
Suppose you are a rancher of mice. You hate shooting cats but, thinking deontologically, accept you have a duty to protect murids, regardless of your action's impact on anything else. Again, thinking deontologically, you release laboratory animals because you see your duty is to free animalkind from humanity; on the other hand, you might be certain it is your duty to prevent animal liberation and defend the status quo. Moral theories can work both ways!
3. What should I do as a virtuous person?
claims that making good ethical decisions is based on being a virtuous person and holds that possessing admirable personal qualities - such as compassion, kindness, respect, toleration, honesty and courage - makes you virtuous. Thus virtue ethics tries to bring in the qualities of being human to influence your ethical considerations. Virtue ethics (also called virtue theory or value theory) flourished in ancient Greece and Aristotle (BC 384 - 322) is often cited as its main philosophical representative. Virtue ethics expired in the fourth century AD when moral theories alleged to be given by God supplanted it. However, the 20th century brought it back to life and modernised it. Modern virtue ethics does not emphasise specific moral traits but says you should be virtuous in all aspects of your life and be a good person all the time.
Being a virtuous person you might, for instance, approve or reprove individuals and companies and support only those that do not harm animals and nature. Do they advance or oppose virtue? Are they progressive, admirable and responsible or insensitive, negligent and dishonest?
Ethical Theories Compared
This table highlights some of the features of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. Each theory focuses on a different attitude to morality, reveals insight into moral problems and suggests a different way for resolving moral questions. Consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics overlap with one another, each has its own faults, and comes in a number of alternative versions (not shown here).
Choosing an Ethical Theory
Consequentialism vs Deontology vs Virtue Ethics
||Achieving the best results.
||Carrying out my duty.
||Acting as a virtuous person.
||How can I make the best outcome?
||What are my duties?
||How can I make moral actions by being virtuous?
|Main Concern Is
||Good end results, not duty or quality of character.
||Doing my duty, regardless of end results or my character.
||Using my virtuous character, not consequences or duty.
||Produce the most good.
||Perform the right duty.
||Make good moral actions based on character.
||Buddhism. Christian ethics.
||1. Good end results for some, but bad for others.
2. You cannot always foresee end results.
3. End results might turn bad unexpectedly.
4. Not all ends justify the means to reach them.
|1. Duty without concern for outcome can be harmful.
2. Duties may clash with each other.
3. Duties are man-made so questionable.
4. Morality based on mindless duty is corrupt.
|1. Different cultures have conflicting virtues.
2. Your virtues may clash with each other.
3. Does not guide you clearly how to tackle moral problems.
4. Relying on personal character might prejudice your judgement.
Which ethical theory (consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics) should you follow to help you resolve an animal rights issue (or any ethical matter)? The answer may partly depend on your personality
. You might be more concerned about the consequences of your action than be oriented to notions of doing your duty, or vice versa. Or you might be more concerned about being righteous.
A second suggestion commonly put forward for choosing which ethical theory to follow is to use one that feels most natural for your particular set of circumstances
. It might be useful to use:
- A Consequence theory - for dealing with large numbers.
You might have to decide to save a majority of some animals at the expense of a minority of other animals - good consequences for some animals, bad consequences for other animals.
- A Duty theory - for dealing with conflicting obligations.
As a shepherd you believe you have an obligation to send livestock for slaughter to feed people. Hence your primary duty is to people and a lesser duty is to your flock.
- A Virtue theory - for dealing with personal decisions.
You would apply the range of your mental and emotional faculties to act as a virtuous person would act. You might reckon that as a virtuous person you should be compassionate to all creatures, not cause suffering, and therefore not eat animals.
There is a third accepted way for choosing which ethical theory to follow. The ethical theories outlined above sometime complement one another. Should two or all three of them support your moral judgement and proposed action then you can feel more confident of being on the right moral track. People may want to stop whaling because it will upset the ecosystem (consequentialism), or because whaling is illegal (deontology), or because enlightened people do not support whaling (virtue ethics). Consider each ethical theory in turn to find the best overall solution.
Even if you favour one ethical theory over the others, keep in mind all three theories so that you are better aware of how ethical disagreements can arise, that is when one person advocates one ethical theory that clashes with someone else advocating another ethical theory. A foxhunter or bullfighter might defend their actions as a preservation of tradition; alternatively, you might claim that no one sympathetic to animals would kill foxes or bulls for sport. This can be seen as a case of deontology versus virtue ethics.
Do Philosophical Ideas Work?
Generations of people acquire philosophical ideas and values without realising they are doing so and without knowing where their ideas and values come from. Many of our ideas and values originated from individuals who lived, thought and died before us, examples are John Lock and Karl Marx. Few things in human society are bigger than revolutions and revolutions are made of philosophical ideas. John Locke (1632 - 1704), English physician, public servant and philosopher, significantly helped lay the foundations of liberal society. In his lifetime his ideas about government, tyranny and the rights of man were pivotal in replacing the English monarch in the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. After his death Locke's ideas played a leading role guiding the American and French revolutions. The other pre-eminent thinker was a German emigre who settled in London and spent much of his time writing there at the British Library. Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) wrote the intellectual foundation of Communism that powered the Communist revolutions of Russia and China in the 20th century.
Billions of people today still live under the ideas of these two thinkers, ample demonstration of the power and pervasiveness of philosophical ideas. If you are not convinced, where might society's ideas of soul and man's place in animal life come from? (Clue: look to Aristotle and Darwin.)
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