To begin, the three ethical theories we have discussed in class are consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Although all three theories are different from one another, they all encouperate small parts of each theory in the each other. The first ethical theory we will discuss now is consequentialism, which is ethical consequences based on the actions rather than the means themselves. A more specific approach to the ethical theory of consequentialism we focused on in class, would be utilitarianism. Utilitarianism itself is a subtheory of consequentialism that focuses on the maximization of utility. According to Jeremy Bentham, “The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, the overall balance, of pleasure over pain. According to Bentham, the right thing to do is whatever will maximize utility” (Sandel 2016 43). To maximize utility is to do whatever makes you happy regardless of the situations or the possible outcomes. A very similar take on utilitarianism are the two ethical theories of act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Although these two are sub theories of utilitarianism, they are both similar and different from each other in a few ways.
To explain, the first sub theory of utilitarianism we will discuss is act utilitarianism, which means for any person in any given situation, to act in a way that results in their maximum utility for that exact moment. An act utilitarian does not weigh the consequences, outcomes, or even think about the future at all. They are solely focused on what is right in front of them and what would make them happiest. For example, an act utilitarian wins the lottery for one-hundred million dollars. Before the moment of them winning the lottery, they have wanted several expensive items that they could not afford before, such as million dollar cars, multi million dollar mansions in several countries, and other luxury items like a private jet and lush vacations.
They would spend as much money as they please to obtain these desired goods as long as its less than their winnings and how much ever makes them as happy as possible. On the contrary, most people would want to conservatively spend their money right away with the means to save some for the future. Also, act utilitarians see this applicable in governmental and social policy: “Given a set of policy alternatives, which should be chosen? Act utilitarians say we should choose the one that provides the greatest overall benefits at the least cost, the one that maximizes utility” (Humber 1999 23). The small difference between the two is that the act utilitarian is spending their money to maximize their happiness in the moment with no regard for future consequences, the average person is also spending their money for their pleasures, but they weigh the consequences in the future. This leads us into the second form of utilitarianism: rule utilitarianism.
Rule utilitarianism is a more logical form that takes the facts and means of a situation and outlines the maximization of happiness over a period of time. A rule utilitarian is seeking the overall maximum utility only because they are doing what is going to make them happy over that period of time and not just happy for that moment. Although the rule utilitarian will not be as happy as the act utilitarian in the beginning, they will exceed the act utilitarianism utility in the long-run. Back to the example of an act utilitarian winning the lottery and how each utilitarian will manage their winnings. To reiterate, the act utilitarian will spend their money on whatever makes them happiest right away and not worry about the future. On the other hand, a rule utilitarian may spend a good amount of money at first, but they will do this while weighing the potential outcomes of their actions and how they impact themself in the future. To be more specific, the rule utilitarian will only buy one of those million dollar cars instead of two because you can’t drive two cars at once, or only buy one of the mansions simply due to the fact that all you need is one.
In contrast, the opposing side of utilitarianism, someone is given a situation, they’ll look at the choices/outcomes, and do what would make that individual sad or angry. An example of this would be choosing a solution that may result in high utility, but not be the most permissible solution. Say a CEO of a financially struggling Fortune 500 company gives raises to all of its employees. Yes this will increase utility for everyone, but giving everyone raises will only propel the company into further financial distress.
Further, the second ethical theory to draw from is deontology. To dive further into deontology would be to look at one of the more specific theories such as Kantianism. This theory was first developed by the transcendental idealistic philosopher Immanuel Kant, which states his theory as treating people as ends and not means to the end. To contradict utilitarianism, Kant believes such: “Since human beings have free will and thus are able to act from laws required by reason, Kant believed they have dignity or a value beyond price” (Bowie 1999 7). Kant views humans as rational beings who are worthy of being treated respectfully, and capable of developing moral guidelines for direction. With this, he further developed the idea of Kantianism into two sub parts: reason and freedom/morality.
To explore further, reason within Kantianism has its own two subsections of the categorical imperative and the hypothetical imperative. For categorical, the decisions made although different, result in the same outcome the only difference is how someone draws to that specific outcome. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts the distinction between the two into perspective: “The distinction between end that we might or might not will and those, if any, we necessarily will as the kinds of natural beings we are, is the basis for his distinction between two kinds of hypothetical imperatives” (Stanford Encyclopedia 2004). To put the idea of the categorical imperative into a real life situation could be dealing with banks loans.
If everyone applied for loans and made the promise to pay them back, and no one did, then there would be no money for future potential loans. For the individuals that don’t pay back their loan, the statement they are making is that they are above everyone and do not abide by the idea that we all live in one society. In reality, since the idea of bank loans is universalized, it makes sense since there is only a minority that don’t pay back the loan. Second, the hypothetical imperative is circumstantial, meaning if someone wants a certain result, they will act in a fashion to get that result. This can be explained by directing someone on how to build a fence. If the individual giving directions wants the fence built, they are not going to give the builder blueprints on how to build a treehouse. Now to circle back to the second sub part of Kantianism: Freedom/morality. This subpart is solely based on the individual’s choice of how to treat people such as an end or a mean to the end. Although dependent on the individual, it is the actors obligation to treat others in an ethical way.
On the other hand, someone who would disagree with Kant would act in some way along the lines of using people solely for what they have to offer and nothing more. To speak to that more directly, we can use the example of law enforcement and their use of undercover agents. The agency is using the undercover agent as a mean to get information from the criminal or the end. Although the agent is being used, it is for a greater good, which would be getting another criminal behind bars.
Lastly, the final of the three ethics theories we discussed was virtue ethics. To sum up virtue ethics would be to find a happy medium between the good and the bad. Virtue ethics is based on the action rather than the outcome or whether or not the action itself is good or bad. An example of this would be medical professionals discovering a new cure to a disease that would help their area of focus. The simple solution of discovering a new cure to improve patients well-being can be referred to as completeness. Completeness is an individual achieving the goal that they were originally working towards: “An end pursued in itself, we say, is more complete than an end pursued because of something else” (Hackett 1974 233). For these actions and outcomes to be complete, virtuous and ethical decisions are to be applied which can be developed through habituation.
Habituation can occur in the workplace when certain skills and guidance are given to an employee that is not suited for that specific job. In clearer terms, say a company sends four out of five branch managers to a leadership summit. The fifth branch manager is being replaced with an HR Rep and will undergo the same training as the other branch managers. Upon returning to their branches they will all implicate any new methods of management. By sending the HR Rep, he is now in a position to where they can virtuously lead the workplace. Part of what Aristotle is try to get at is that a community is required to succeed: “One has to think of oneself as amember of the larger community, the Polis, and the strive to excel, to bring out what was best in ourselves and our shared enterprise” (Solomon 1992 322).
Although all three ethical theories have similarities and differences, the one I think best suits me is virtue ethics. I say this because I see myself as a very fair and reasonable person that has a good idea what the desired happy medium is. In addition to being a fair, reasonable person, I see things as you get what you work for and nothing is given to you in life. You can be given every tool to succeed, but not taking advantage of the given opportunity you are failing yourself and those who have helped you along the way. I come from a family of immigrants that come to this country with nothing more than the clothes in their suitcase and money in their pockets. They worked tirelessly to provide for our family and future generations, like me, to be better off than they were. My grandparents idea of completeness is seeing their hard work pay off with my parents and theirs is with seeing me succeed in life while also having fun. My goal everyday is to make them proud as well as finding that medium of having fun while doing it.