Tag Archives: Ethics

Moral Decisions – Some Examples (Part 8)

Continuing with my last post.

Clearly, combining consequetialism with deontology can have very harmful results (housing crisis of 2008 and Obamacare).  But what about virtue ethics.  Virtue ethics would suggest that our leaders utilize the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, as well as the love of neighbor, when considering moral decisions.

The virtue ethicists were either absent from the moral decisions regarding housing and health care, or drowned-out be the opposition.  You would think that they would rely on the virtues of justice and love of neighbor to at least understand the benefits to American citizens of affordable housing and health care.  But, you would also think that they would have the wisdom to understand the risks of such programs and the humility to suggest that such policies may not work and might have very harmful unintended consequences.  And, you would hope that in the face of severe opposition, that they would still have the courage of their convictions to stand up and be heard.

The courage aspect has been lacking in our leaders.  They may follow this third moral philosophy of virtue ethics, which I consider the toughest of the three to follow, but, without the virtue of courage, the philosophy loses its effectiveness.  And without an effective third philosophy, the remaining two moral philosophies, much easier to follow, expand to take its place.

Moral Decisions – Some Examples (Part 7)

Some final thoughts on the three moral philosophies.

I believe that both the Bush White House and the Obama White House were sincere in wanting to provide affordable housing or affordable medical care to as many Americans as possible.  Both of these aims are morally acceptable by most people.

These moral actions were initiated following one branch of moral philosophy: consequentialism.  Consequentialism is swift and effective – you don’t need to be concerned with the means to the end (either relaxing existing policies or lying), just the end result.

The moral actions were validated mostly by a second branch of moral philosophy: deontology. Deontology is also swift and effective – you don’t need to be concerned with the ends (affordable housing or affordable heath care), just the means to the end, accomplished by exercising one’s duty or obligation to support the White House’s consequentialism.

As such, the initiation of the actions by the consequentialists were each validated by the actions of the  deontologists.  Unfortunately, one party was concerned only with the ends and the other party was concerned with only the means.

But, as we have witnessed first hand, these two moral philosophies have been disastrous for the US.  While well-intentioned, they have been met with failure (or potential failure), and the failures have occurred within a matter of a few months of enactment.

Where does this leave us.  To be discussed in the next post.

 

Understanding Moral Decisions – Part 4

In my previous post I discussed a second philosophical approach to moral behavior – deontology (consequentialism being the first).  Deontology determines whether a situation is moral correct based on the rightness or wrongness of actions that brought about the situation (the means to the end).

This philosophy is less concerned with a specific goal in life and more concerned with making the right decisions based on duty, laws, and obligations.  For example, under this philosophy, giving money to a homeless person would be considered the right action to take (comforting others in need) even though the consequence may be that the homeless person purchases liquor or drugs that further his/her demise.

The first philosophical approach that I discussed – consequentialism – is concerned with the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of our actions (the ends and not the means).  Consequentialism would say that it is acceptable to lie or defraud someone if it would lead to an increase in the common good.

Both of these moral philosophies are based on actions.  Either actions that are concerned with the right or duty of one towards others, or actions to produce a certain outcome or consequence that increases the common good.  However, the third and final philosophical approach centers on character rather than actions.

Virtue Ethics is a philosophy that emphasizes the role of virtue and character rather than either doing one’s duty (Deontology) or acting in order to bring about good consequences (Consequentialism).  A virtuous person is someone who is moral or upright in all situations over a long period of time because that is his/her character and not due to a perceived obligation to do what is right or consider actions that lead to the greater good.

Both Aristotle and St. Aquinas are philosophers that support this theory.  Virtue Ethics places great importance on the virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, and love of neighbor.  They are much less concerned with identifying and putting into practice certain duties or obligations to act in a specific way, or to identify ways to increase the common good.  They are more concerned with questions like: “How should I live?” and “What is the good life?” and “What are proper family and social values?”  The current philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, who I mentioned in earlier posts, is a proponent of this philosophy.

One additional aspect of Virtue Ethics is that it is purpose driven.  There is an ultimate goal to life, which is happiness.  And the only means of reaching happiness is by acquiring the virtues.

More to come.

Understanding Moral Decisions – Part 3

In my previous post, I wrote about consequentialism, one of three moral or ethical philosophies for leading a good and moral life.  Consequentialism is concerned with the consequences of ones decisions, or the ends rather than the means to the ends.  The means to reach the ends are justified, no matter what they are, in this philosophical approach to life.  In other words, the greater good of a society is more important than the means of reaching the greater good.

Deontology, derived from the Greek word deon – meaning obligation or duty, is a philosophy based on actions that adhere to rules or obligations.  In many ways it is the opposite of consequentialism.  Deontology is not concerned with the consequences of actions but the motives behind those that carry out the actions, or what is “Right.”

Kant is one of the main proponents of this philosophy.  Kant believed that people should behave out of respect for the moral law.  He taught that people act out of respect for the moral law when they believe that they have a duty or obligation.  Deontologists believe that what makes a choice right is conformity to a moral duty or obligation.  Deontologists believe that the Right takes precedence over the Good, no matter what the Good may lead to.  The ancient Stoics, presented in my book, adhere to this theory of moral philosophy.  They believed that reason and knowledge would determine the appropriate duty or obligation to lead a moral life.  They believed that the consequences of our actions are out of our control.

A current example of deontology is the actions by Congress regarding Obamacare.  The Republicans thought that is was their duty or obligation to defund Obamacare.  As such, they tried to tie the defunding to the shutdown of the government and the raising of the debt limit.  Their duty to defund Obamacare had significant unintended consequences for the nation.  The same is true for the Democrats that passed Obamacare without really understanding the bill that they were voting upon. They believed that it was their duty or moral obligation to pass a bill providing affordable healthcare, not understanding the consequences of their actions.  Both parties were following the deontology approach to moral and ethical decisions.

So, what we have with Obamacare was consequentialism employed by the president and deontology employed by the Congress.  Unfortunately, both had good intentions but the unintended consequences are just now being felt by the nation.

Understanding Moral Decisions – Part 2

In my last post I mentioned that there are three philosophical approaches for those of us who want to make morally correct decisions: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.  Let me begin with consequentialism.

Consequentialism is a philosophy in which the morally right decision is one that focuses on the best overall consequence.  It is concerned with those actions that provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.  Until recently, consequentialism was labeled utilitarianism.  Both John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham were philosophers supportive of utilitarianism.   Of course, the first philosopher to propose such a theory was Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher mentioned in my book.  Consequentialism supports the idea that the ends justify the means.

I am not a supporter of this philosophy.  The main reason is the definition of the greater good that determines what are acceptable actions.  For example, a hedge fund that has been trading on inside information may consider such actions acceptable because they enhance the greater good of the investors of the fund.  That is true, if the greater good is defined as the wealth of the investors or shareholders, then such actions would be considered acceptable and supported by the philosophy.  Also, a communistic country may determine that a government mandated limit of one child per family is acceptable as it contributes to the greater good of the country.  That is true, if the greater good is defined as a target birth rate.

A very recent example is the president’s actions regarding Obamacare.  He genuinely believes that Obamacare is a universal good that should be available to everyone.  However, his determination to reach the ends of this goal overcame the means to the end.  He lied to all citizens about being able to keep your plan, your doctor, and receive a lower cost (all are the so-called means to the end).  This lie was justified to pass Obamacare legislation as well as win a second term as president.  Consequentialism would accept these actions on the grounds that the passage of Obamacare would enhance the common good.  Given the recent outcry by most citizens against this approach to leadership, it is safe to say that most people do not accept consequentialism as a valid philosophy.

I believe that this philosophy is dangerous and has been relied upon by too many leaders in the past to justify their actions.  The philosophy’s original premise can easily be manipulated to justify all means to support targeted ends.  Just as hedonism, a subset of this philosophy, is dangerous, the philosophy itself is dangerous, as witnessed by mistakes in the past by governments and institutions.  Finally, this philosophy can rob the individual of those actions needed to achieve happiness and the flourishing of society.  If individual actions are dictated by the need for the greater good, then those actions needed for personal happiness and the resultant flourishing of society may never occur.

More to come in the next post.

Understanding Moral Decisions – Part 1

If you are like myself, you must often ask yourself, “Why don’t people see things the way that I do?” or “What drives people to do what they do, which is very different from the way that I would do it?”  Philosophy can help us answer these questions.  Unfortunately, the world of philosophy is a forgotten discipline, having been de-emphasized in our educational system during the past several decades.  And, those that are in the philosophical world are too concerned with their own dense language and terms to provide much guidance and understanding to the rest of us.

I would rather go to the dentist that wade through the philosophical literature – past and present.  In fact, it is sad that to understand many philosophical books an introductory book must be read first to better explain what you are about to read!  As I tell my kids, the world of finance, which I know well, is simple to understand if you can get through all the buzzwords and terms; there are only a few concept that drive most financial decisions (e.g., present value, future value, cash flow, risk).

For those that do not want to live morally correct lives, there are many ways of deceit, lies, murder, theft, etc. that can be used to try and get ahead, or at least cope with life.  For those that are searching for the morally correct approach to life, fortunately there are only three philosophical approaches as to how we should lead our lives.  Let me try to explain these three theories of moral philosophy (or how we should conduct ourselves) as simply as possible: my explanations will be somewhat over-simplified, but that is what is needed to do get the point across.

What drives each of us to do what we do morally (or the decisions that we make) can be broken down into three broad theories:  1) Consequentialism, 2) Deontology, and 3) Virtue Ethics.  Each of these three approaches is very different from the other two.  Each approach has its own philosophers (ancient and modern) as supporters of the theory.

To be continued in my next post.