Unit 2: Theoretical Frameworks for Ethical Analysis
In this unit, we examine classical and contemporary theories of ethics, and the frameworks decision makers use to resolve ethical dilemmas. Five primary frameworks include: virtue ethics (Aristotle), Deontology (Immanuel Kant), Utilitarianism and the common good (John Stuart Mill), The Golden Rule, and the Fairness approach (Rawls). Each framework aims to identify problems, gather facts, and assess solutions, but the method for assessing the viability of available solutions differs.
While policy makers prefer certain approaches to problem solving, one approach may not be appropriate or feasible for all of the dilemmas they face. They need to know how to apply a variety of approaches to a given situation.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 5 hours.
2.1: Ethical Decision-Making Frameworks
There is no one agreed upon standard for ethics. Different people adopt different ethical frameworks that guide their decision making. It is important to know something about a few of the most influential frameworks to understand how politics has evolved, nationally and internationally, throughout the centuries. These frameworks are ways of approaching decision making and looking at the world. They do not provide specific answers, but color how someone will come to an answer.
2.2: Virtue Ethics
Plato (c. 423–348 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC), the Greek philosophers, examined what it means to live virtuously, or in ways that will promote human flourishing (eudaimonia) or living a good life. These thinkers provided the foundation for what we call virtue ethics.
Aristotle considered courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom the most important virtues. Likewise, cultivating one's character involves learning to avoid the opposing vices: cowardice (or brashness), injustice, intemperance, and ignorance. These theories about virtue focus on the development and state of one's character. So, rather than simply learn moral rules, the virtue theorist focuses on learning to become a moral person, to develop a virtuous character.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the German philosopher, believed that issues of morality depend on our intentions rather than the consequences of our actions. Even if we are completely ineffective in our efforts to do good, the good will is praiseworthy in itself. In other words, our intention is more important than the outcome. Kant uses the word, maxim, to identify the intentions or principles we use to guide our actions. For example, "Always put others first" or "Do whatever it takes to get ahead." People follow maxims to help them choose an appropriate action or response.
We derive the term, deontology from the Greek word for duty, deos. Deontological ethics is based on duty. Since Kant based his ethics solely in the concept of duty, or "doing the right thing", rather than consequences, his ethical theory provides the main foundation of deontological ethics.
Kant's categorical imperative is about acting according to the right maxims. The morally-correct maxims are those which accord with our duty, rather than our inclinations. Kant ultimately claims that an action is morally correct, not only if it aligns with our duty, but if we do it for the sake of duty.
2.4: The Utilitarian Approach
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the English philosopher, was the first major philosopher to espouse the principle of utility and utilitarianism. He examined the moral consequences of our actions in addition to the intrinsic quality of the act.
Bentham believed that the right thing to do, individually and collectively, is to maximize the balance of pleasure over pain, and happiness over suffering, to promote the greatest good for the greatest number. He stated that it is preferable to act in ways that uphold "the greatest benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness ... to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness."
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), also an English philosopher, and Jeremy Bentham were both utilitarians, but they had different ideas about the specifics of utilitarianism. We could describe Bentham as a hedonistic utilitarian, and John Stuart Mill as an idealistic utilitarian, because Mill believed some pleasures are higher and more ethical than others.