Choosing Your Moral Theory

In attempting to define what the”good” means you will use a normative theory.  In choosing the moral theory that best “fits,” you are trying to figure out what theory or set of practices guides you through life. It sounds cliche but you are looking for your moral north star. The guiding light that orients your moral universe.  This theory provides meaning to your considered moral beliefs. Of course, most humans never reflect on this process but students of philosophy do.  It is challenging to determine which of the available major normative theories best”fits”, but it can be an eye-opening and instructive discovery. Are you a virtue theorist a la Aristotle? As such, you would determine right and wrong by the kind of character you believe yourself to possess. In this practice, you primarily use your sense of self-esteem to guide your actions and frequently ground your beliefs in that understanding. You may frequently hear yourself say, “I’m just not that kind of person,” when confronted with a disagreeable choice. Your vocabulary is likely peopled with words such as nobility, courage, generosity, integrity and the like.

Or are you  principle-based theorist? All of the world’s religions promulgate a set of rules to guide behavior (e.g. think of the decalogue.). Modern professions are replete with codes of ethics (e.g. AMA or APTA codes)  Deontology begins in antiquity when Kung-fu-tzu (Confucius) articulated his influential “golden rule,” but Immanuel Kant is the best–even if most difficult– spokesperson for this approach. In this approach, you guide you behavior by your adherence to rules. You are a good person because you did what was right irrespective how you feel or the outcomes achieved. You stuck to your guns.  My favorite example of a deonotologist is Piggy from Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies”. Right is right and you have a duty to follow it. If you believe that adheriing to universally accepted rules of conduct, then you are a deontologist.

If neither one of these approaches fulfils your sense of moral reasoning, then you may like the sounds of consequentialism. This theory postulates that the good is achieved when you produce more beneficial outcomes for a larger percentage of individuals than any other alternative. The good becomes, then, a maximizing of the consequences.   The English political philosopher, Jeremy Bentham and his godson, the polymath, John Stuart Mill, are the two best spokesmen for this ethical theory, a theory they ultimately tagged utilitarianism.  Their approach views the good as a calculus maximizing pleasures over pains for the greatest numbers of persons involved. An ethical ends justifies the means approach.

So there you have it.  The three major normative approaches. I submit that you are one or the other. There are some minor theories and options but for the most part these three theories encompass the way humans practice ethics. Which one best “fits” you? Well, I bet you are saying: “er, all three?”

Reverend Frederick Neu speaks of maintaining a good “one-two punch” in ethics.  The pugilistic metaphor is helpful because you are probably finding it difficult to choose a  single theory. Sometimes you follow rules, sometimes your sense of character,  and at work in the ER, say, you always think like a consequentialist. Well, we probably do use different approaches for differing situations, but it is my argument that each person has a predominant ethical theory in the same way as you have a dominant hand. You may still be a switch-hitter but you sign your checks with the same hand.  Somewhat analogously, our choices in life reveal a  moral predilection, a dominant moral handedness, so to speak.  Another way of thinking about ethics is to take a page from contemporary political identities.  Many Americans today identify themselves as “independent” but their voting patterns are still predominately Republican or Democratic. We seem to fear self-identifying and confining ourselves. But is that sensible?  The problem is that we rarely reflect on where our morals come from. Most of us, just unthinkingly adopt the moral worldviews  of our parents and religions we were raised in. In and of itself, there is nothing terrible about this but philosophy is about reflecting and examining one’s ideas.  Ethical philosophers challenge us to reflect on those inherited beliefs to see if they are indeed the one’s we choose to adhere to.  I invite you to read more about these theories in learning about ethics. The place to begin is with the major theorists themselves. For virtue theory look at Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics“.  For deonotology try Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” and for consequentialism turn to J.S. mill’s “Utilitarianism”. For two very interesting modern views on morality, look at Alistair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” or Iris Murdoch’s “The Sovereignty of the Good.”  Enjoy.

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