By Bill Frayer

What’s Right? What’s Wrong? (Part 2)


Last month I discussed the ethical framework proposed by Emanuel Kant. Kant suggested, with his categorical imperative, that ethical decisions should be made using clear rules to which everyone can agree: It’s wrong to lie. It’s wrong to steal, etc. This “rule-based” ethical framework is appealing because of its black and white clarity. Under Kantian ethics, you know what’s right and wrong, once you agree on the rules.

Of course, this model of ethics has a downside, as it does not account for the more ambiguous situations when it might be permissible to bend or break one of the ethical rules. There clearly are situations when it might be permissible, even ethically justified, to lie. Imagine you are visiting a friend in the hospital who is not well. She asks you, “How do I look?” Perhaps the truth is she is pale, emaciated, and looks to be on death’s door.

Yet, it would be the rare friend who would speak the truth in such a situation. You’d more likely either tell her she looks better. Telling the truth, in this situation, might be considered unnecessarily cruel. So most people would likely break the “Do not lie” rule and, well…lie. We call these kind of lies white lies because they seem justifiable.

This type of ethical reasoning is called Utilitarian Ethics. Utilitarianism emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as articulated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This way of thinking about moral decisions puts more weight on happiness and well-being than on inviolable rules. The operating maxim of Utilitarian Ethics is to act in a way where you will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. It is a way of using quantifiable reasoning to make a moral judgment. In the example above, if you tell your friend the truth, she will feel badly which may actually negatively affect her health, and you will feel badly for making her feel badly. But, on the other hand, if you lie and tell her she looks wonderful, she will feel good and so will you, the greatest good for the greatest number.

This type of reasoning is used to justify taxation. Forcing people to pay money is generally not a pleasant option. It can only be justified if you can provide a greater amount of good for more people as a result. Typically, taxing the rich to pay for programs which benefit more people is considered moral. Some people are getting hurt, but many more people are benefitting, so Utilitarian Ethics would deem this ethical, the greatest good for the greatest number.

But Libertarians who may use Kantian logic to suggest that minimal government is always best, find increasing taxes, even for social programs, ethically suspect.

Utilitarian Ethics are not always justified. Say a researcher has developed an experiment which will prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome which causes between 2000-3000 infant deaths each year in the US alone. The hypothetical experiment would, however, unavoidably cause the deaths of 10-15 infants. Using Utilitarian Ethics, it’s a no brainer. Sacrifice 10-15 infants once to prevent thousands of unnecessary SIDS deaths later. Yet, even if you find Utiltarian Ethics appealing, I doubt you’d approve this experiment. Kantian Ethics would kick in; it’s wrong to kill babies for any reason.

Most people would classify themselves as Utilitarians. We use this reasoning to justify such choices as euthanasia, abortion, use of medical marijuana, and telling occasional white lies. Next month, I’ll continue our discussion of Ethics and examine the concept of Ethical Development.

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