Ethical Theories and Principles

ethical reasoning requires that we bring to bear ethical theories or principles there are lots of ethical theories and principles out there on which we can draw in our ethical reasoning one of the standard approaches is what's called consequentialism and in consequentialism what matters are the consequences of an action by contrast there are also Duty based or de ontological approaches where consequences don't really matter what really matters is whether we've got an action that is guided by our obligation our moral duty and there are strategies for assessing the consequences of actions within consequentialism and strategies for assessing what our duties are in dialogical theories and we could spend an entire semester going into the intricacies of these different approaches now that's just to of various other approaches that are also social contract theory virtue ethics which goes back to Aristotle and some more recent feminist approaches to ethics that take seriously considerations of justice in particular and then finally there's a kind of shorthand approach that's been developed it's really been developed for use by physicians and medical ethicists and it focuses on four principles which are supposed to represent our common morality so I'm gonna say a few words about each of these different approaches in this video one of the original proponents of a consequentialist approach to ethics is John Stuart Mill and Mills approach is referred to as utilitarianism so what mill argued is that the correct action to perform is the one that produces the most utility and the least disutility of all of the available actions before us utility is a difficult notion to understand one way to think about it is to think about it in terms of happiness so the correct action to perform to the utilitarian calculus is the action that produces the most utility the most happiness and/or the least unhappiness or disutility utilitarianism is an entirely comparative approach in other words you need to think through all of the available courses of action and then compare the consequences of those actions against each other to determine which one produces the most utility and the least disutility in addition to consequentialist theories there are non-consequentialist theories that is theories according to which consequences don't matter so much as virtues or duties or obligations the standard example of a non-consequentialist theory is Immanuel Kant's theory which is known as data logical ethics or Duty based ethics for Kant what one needs to do is identify which of the possible available actions is the one that is in accordance with our ethical duty and he's got a variety of tests there what's referred to as the three formulations of the categorical imperative a variety of these tests that need to be applied in order to determine what our ethical obligation is in a particular case Immanuel Kant's theory which is known as a ontological ethics requires that we apply three specific tests to a possible course of action in order to determine whether that action is in fact morally obligatory or ethically the duty that we need to undertake the big difference between mill and Conte is that for mill Consequences matter and for Kant consequences don't so this means that it's possible on a utilitarian analysis where it's clear that a lie will yield the greatest amount of utility and the least amount of disutility that the morally correct action is to tell a lie whereas for a cotton ethicist it's almost always going to be the case that truth-telling is the moral obligation and so telling a lie is ethically inappropriate so a Kantian and utilitarian approach can very easily come into conflict now for some people the concern with a utilitarian approach is that it takes things like truth-telling and promise keeping to lightly because we're just concerned about the consequences of a particular action in a particular situation whereas one of the challenges people have with a deontological approach is that we always have to tell the truth or we always have to keep a promise even if that may at the end of the day generate poorer or worse outcomes so consequentialist approaches and dalta logical approaches are the standard approaches out there there are other ways of approaching ethical theory there are other ethical theories that have been envisioned but these are the two that the two general approaches that most of us need to be familiar with in order to engage in at least a basic level of ethical reasoning some people gravitate toward a consequentialist orientation that is some people feel that consequences always really do matter and so therefore the idea that we've got moral obligations that don't consider consequences is entirely foreign to them similarly there are other folks who so strongly believe in particular ethical principles or ethical obligations that they think they apply no matter what the consequences these two orientations to the world sort of consequentialist and a non-consequentialist orientation can be very much in conflict in particular situations and the most important thing we can do in ethical reasoning is to try to understand where we've got some common ground and where we differ and it might be the case that a consequentialist and non-consequentialist can agree on a particular outcome although the reasoning is going to be different but it's really important to make the reasoning explicit within the world of bioethics or biomedical ethics starting in the 1970s there was an attempt to generate a a simplified version if you like of ethics that referred to a common morality and the common morality according to the authors of this approach Beecham and Childress is that there are four ethical principles that we are committed to in our everyday lives those are the principles of autonomy or respect for persons beneficence or the obligation to do good non-maleficence or the obligation not to do harm and justice the obligation to treat eat everyone equally and fairly so autonomy beneficence non-maleficence and justice are the four principles according to the common morality one of the challenges is that it's not always clear what justifies those ethical principles as ethical principles and of course we could always go back to Immanuel Kant or to John Stuart Mill to identify moral reasons to advance those particular principles but nonetheless the principles approach or principle ism as it's sometimes called has taken off over the last forty years and has become a kind of shorthand way to engage in ethical reasoning so I have one concern with this approach that's worth pointing out right up front and it's that sometimes the ethical principles those those words function sort of like magic words that is I just tell you autonomy is what matters and you're supposed to just back down but that sometimes means we're operating at the first or second level of moral response rather than actually engaging in ethical analysis in other words the principles can stand in for ethical analysis and that's deeply problematic a second concern that I have with principled ISM is that those four principles might not exhaust the ethical principles to which we ought to be committed as part of our common morality and just as an example of this in 2005 the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization for UNESCO put forward a Charter on bioethics and human rights within which there are at least 15 ethical principles that are recommended and these include principles like autonomy and justice but also principles like community and solidarity and respect for diversity and respect for the environment so some of these principles are the same but others extend beyond the four principles that Beechum and Childress laid out for us in their account of common morality and so it might be the case that we've got to admit more ethical principles into principled ism in order to be able to function a third concern about principled ism is that when we've got a conflict between two or more of the ethical principles that is when it's possible to respect a person but at the same time that respect for persons or that protection of autonomy yields actually doing some harm to that person what we end up with is a conflict between autonomy and non-maleficence and how to proceed when we got that conflict is not always clear an example of that might be we might have in terms of respect for autonomy we might have an obligation to tell the truth but at the same time telling the truth might actually yield some very negative consequences for the individuals involved and in that case where we've got both autonomy and non-maleficence on the table we're not sure how to proceed so the principles can help us with our ethical reasoning but they oughtn't to stand in for ethical reasoning it's important to familiarize yourself with the details of utilitarianism and downto logical or non-consequentialist approaches to ethics and with the various nuances associated with principled ism or other ethical theories that are out there we've provided a small slide deck that can help start that exploration but we strongly encourage you to look broadly to look to a number of internet resources in order to be able to make sure that you can wrap your head around what it is that these approaches look like in practice and how we might decide between them

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