Ethical dilemmas are an inescapable part of life, affecting everyone from all walks of life and in all professions. While ethical theories may not provide straightforward answers, they serve as invaluable tools that guide you towards making more informed decisions.
From the earliest days of our lives, we find ourselves grappling with ethical questions. As children, we ask questions like, “Is it fair to take the last biscuit?” or “Why can’t I cheat on a test if others are doing it?” As we mature into adulthood, these questions evolve into more complex scenarios that often have significant consequences, such as decisions about layoffs, medical treatments, or even geopolitical issues. The point is, ethical questions are an unavoidable part of human existence, and sometimes, causing harm might be morally justifiable. The challenge lies in discerning when it is acceptable to cause harm and when it is not.
Ethical theories offer robust frameworks for moral reasoning, serving as compasses that help us navigate the often murky waters of ethical decision-making.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics is one of the oldest ethical theories and focuses primarily on character development. According to this theory, virtues lie between two extremes. For instance, courage is the mean between cowardice and recklessness. This theory provides a holistic approach to ethics, considering the individual’s character as a whole rather than isolated actions. However, virtue ethics struggles when virtues conflict, such as honesty versus kindness, leaving the individual in a moral quandary.
Utilitarianism, a consequentialist theory, evaluates actions based on their outcomes. It aims to maximise overall happiness and minimise suffering. This theory has been widely applied in various fields, including economics and public policy. But it can be criticised for potentially justifying actions that benefit the majority at the expense of a minority, raising questions about social justice and equality.
Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory emphasises the role of intentions in ethical actions. He introduces two key principles: the principle of universalisability, which asks us to consider what the world would be like if everyone acted in the same way, and the principle of treating people as ends rather than means, which underscores the intrinsic value of human life. While these principles offer a strong moral foundation, they can be vague and difficult to apply in real-world situations, especially those that involve competing interests.
Moral relativism argues that ethical norms are culture-specific and that what is considered moral in one culture may be immoral in another. While this theory acknowledges the rich diversity of moral perspectives across different cultures, it fails to account for actions that seem universally immoral, such as genocide or slavery, leaving it open to criticism.
Bernard Gert offers a nuanced approach that identifies some actions as morally indeterminate. His theory is based on commonly accepted moral rules but allows for exceptions, making it more adaptable to the complexities of real-world ethical dilemmas. For example, Gert’s theory would consider actions like breaking a promise to be generally immoral but would allow for exceptions if breaking that promise would lead to a greater good. This adds a layer of objectivity and realism to ethical decision-making, making it a valuable addition to the ethical theories discussed.
While ethical theories may not offer definitive answers, they do provide valuable frameworks for moral reasoning. They encourage you to question inherited beliefs and societal norms, thereby enhancing your personal freedom and ethical acumen. Ethical dilemmas may not have easy solutions, but a systematic approach to ethics can help you navigate them with greater confidence and integrity. By understanding various ethical theories, you can make more informed decisions, develop a nuanced ethical perspective, and perhaps even contribute to a more ethical world.
Sophie Reynolds is an ethicist and writer, exploring the complexities of moral dilemmas in modern society.