Moral Philosophy: A Crash Course
Some frameworks for thinking ethically
I’ve bumped into moral philosophy—and more specifically, ethical frameworks—multiple times in my life, first as an avid reader in high school and at Shimer College, then in a grad school ethics course at Cronkite, where we applied these frameworks to journalism in the digital age. Trying to assess ethical frameworks behind both arguments and decisions is second nature to me. It doesn’t necessarily help solve problems or get people to agree with one another, but I find it helpful to analyze thought processes and keep them in mind when trying to understand other people’s arguments. Sometimes it even helps find common ground. Lately I’ve found myself trying to explain (to glazed eyes) how philosophy might inform public debates. This post is an attempt to help elucidate this.
What Are Ethical Frameworks?
Ethical frameworks are different perspectives people use to figure out what course of action will lead to the outcome they find most moral. Some people do this very deliberately, some do it reflexively, and some might not think about ethical frameworks at all but simply do what seems right at the moment.
There are many ethical frameworks. Here are a few of them.
Deontology (from Greek: δέον, 'obligation, duty' + λόγος, 'study') is often called duty-based thinking or rules-based ethics. Decisions are made based on whether the action itself is right or wrong, based on a series of rules. One of the main thinkers in this category is Immanuel Kant, who devised the categorical imperative which instructs people to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This means that if you think habitual lying is bad, it would be unethical to lie, regardless of the consequences. One must act as if they are setting a standard for everyone else. People who ascribe to this moral philosophy do not like people taking shortcuts or breaking just rules.
Those who ascribe to deontological ethics aren’t swayed by whims or emotional fervor. If one believes that a specific action is wrong, they wouldn’t make exceptions because they don’t like the person (or the group a person is in). This can protect a vulnerable minority from suffering to benefit the majority. Since there are no exceptions to the rules, this ethical framework has a level of consistency that some find comforting. Others criticize deontology for being overly rigid, for ignoring context, and for its lack of concern for consequences.
Virtue (Latin: virtus) is moral excellence. Virtue ethics stem from Socrates and were further developed by Plato, Aristotle, and others. The emphasis is on being rather than doing. In this framework, morality stems from one’s character or identity, rather than their actions. Plato’s Republic identified the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics listed 11 virtues, including (among others) courage, temperance, liberality (generosity), magnanimity, friendliness, wittiness, truthfulness (honesty), modesty, and more.
Virtue ethicists tend to focus on the so-called golden mean or golden middle way, a desirable middle ground between two extremes (excess and deficiency). For example, modesty as a virtue lies between shyness (deficiency) and shamelessness (excess). Courage is a virtue, and both cowardice (deficiency) and rashness (excess) are not.
Those who ascribe to virtue ethics want to be virtuous, which is always nice. But whose virtues, and how are they defined? Virtue ethics is criticized for being squishy, and making it very easy to justify a lack of necessary action by claiming middle ground.
Teleology (Greek: τέλος, telos, 'end', 'aim', or 'goal,' and λόγος, logos, 'explanation' or 'reason), or consequentialism, is sometimes referred to as ends-based thinking. Is the belief that the morality of one’s actions depends on the consequences of those actions. Instead of focusing on rules, moral duty, or how virtuous the actor is (or thinks they are), what matters is the effect of their actions.
Just like virtue ethicists can choose which ethics to develop, consequentialists can choose the types of consequences they aim to achieve. For example, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism that focuses on generating the best outcome for the largest number of people.
Consequentialism is often oversimplified as “the end justifies the means,” or, as Ovid wrote in Herodotus, Exitus acta probat ("The result justifies the deed"). This line of thought is often criticized as, well, unethical. Consequentialists run the risk of making self-serving decisions. However, note that the means LEAD to an end. Consequentialists can think through all possible courses of actions and weigh the benefits and harms likely to result from each alternative, making a thoughtful choice between competing principles. The weakness of consequentialism is that it’s not always easy to predict the consequences of one’s decision. Consequentialism leads to a lot of hand-wringing.
Reciprocity ethics are usually not included in lists like these, but I didn’t want to write about egoism, and “the golden rule” does tend to come up in these types of discussions. If you remember from grade school, the golden rule is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This can be a good gut check, but in many cases, it’s not actually useful. For example, there are situations where there are multiple people, or groups, so you still need to find a way to weigh competing interests or various stakeholders when making a decision. At its best, the golden rule prevents immoral action. At its worst, it prevents people from taking a strong stance that could help people because doing so may seem impolite.
Tying it All Together
As mentioned, understanding other people’s viewpoints and inclinations doesn’t always help solve problems or even identify common ground. But in some cases, figuring out the ethical framework overlaying their thought process can inform a situation, allow you to understand perspectives that initially seemed alien, help you hone arguments others might understand better, and maybe even help find a solution everyone can live with. For example, a deontologist and teleologist might be able to join forces to rewrite a rule that can be applied consistently (with solid reasoning behind it), which might be more fruitful than, say, debating on exceptions. It may also give you insight on when to walk away—perhaps it may be necessary to part ways with a virtue ethicist insisting on middle ground, or someone focusing on the Golden Rule to avoid taking bold action, at the expense of one of the affected stakeholders.