Every day we are confronted with questions of right and wrong. These questions can appear to be very simple (Is it always wrong to lie?), as well as very complicated (Is it ever right to go to war?). Ethics is the study of those questions and suggests various ways we might solve them. Here we will look at three traditional theories that have a long history and that provide a great deal of guidance in struggling with moral problems; we will also see that each theory has its own difficulties. Ethics can offer a great deal of insight into the issues of right and wrong; however, we will also discover that ethics generally won’t provide a simple solution on which everyone can agree (Mosser, 2013).
Let’s explore Three Classical Ethical Theories – Utilitarianism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics!
Let’s Begin with Utilitarianism!
A natural way to see whether an act is the right thing to do (or the wrong thing to do) is to look at its results, or consequences. Utilitarianism argues that, given a set of choices, the act we should choose is that which produces the best results for the greatest number affected by that choice.
Definition of Utilitarianism
After helping their mother clean the attic, John and Mary are told they can each have a cookie. When they open the cookie jar, only one is left. What do you think would be the fairest solution for John and Mary?
Those who follow utilitarianism suggest that there is an obvious solution that is fair, and it may be one that appeals to common sense as well: John and Mary should share the cookie. Since each has an equal right to it, they should split it in half. They may not get what they want—each wants the entire cookie—but both are better off with half a cookie than with no cookie. Dividing the cookie produces the greatest good for the greatest number. This is the fundamental principle of utilitarianism: One should choose to do that which produces a better outcome for the largest number of people.
Challenges to Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism gives us what seems to be a clear and fairly easy principle to apply to ethical problems and so determine the right thing to do in specific cases. It also seems to be an idea that appeals to common sense and is often regarded, therefore, as one that most people use even when they don’t realize they are applying a specific ethical theory. As we go along, we will see in many cases that utilitarianism does do this, providing clear solutions to ethical challenges that are simple, easy to explain, and easy to justify; it seems to be an obvious, common-sense response to those challenges. Unfortunately, we will also see that it can produce—as it may do in the case of the explorer—results that conflict with our sense of right and wrong. We will also recognize that it isn’t always easy to determine what, exactly, is the “greatest good,” or how we can decide what the relevant group is when we consider the good for the “greatest number.” We may also discover conflicts between...