You've been thinking
about and discussing two ethical situations in class, the torture situation and
the attempted suicide situation. You've been asked to think about
what course of action would be (or would have been) right or wrong in those
You were not just asked, for example, what would be (or would have been) legally
correct in those situations (which would be a purely legal question). You were
not just asked what most people might do in that situation (a purely sociological
question). You were not just asked what might feel more pleasant or unpleasant
in those situations (a purely psychological question). You were instead asked
what course of action you thought would be the best (or worst) one to take
in those situations. That's the kind of question that ethics deals with.
How does one think about ethical questions? Do you just
go on your gut feeling and follow whatever your feelings tell you? Do you
just go on what people in authority have told you in the past? Do you just
go with what the law and courts have to say? How does one go about deciding
what course of action would be the best, or most right, course of action
in a given situation? Or rather, how should one even start to think about
questions like that? What methods of analyzing these questions would be most
helpful and would be most likely to lead to the best answers?
In the history of thinking about ethical questions in
the West, several methods for analyzing these questions have emerged. Many
of those methods can be classified under two main headings: Teleological methods
and Deontological methods. Below is a brief description of each of
these two methods of thinking about ethical questions. In our discussions
about ethical situations in class -- the torture situation and the attempted
suicide situation, as well as some others we'll be discussing in the coming
weeks -- you'll want to be able to identify which kind of thinking is being
used to come to the conclusions people come to. Are they using a primarily
teleological approach (TEE LEE uh LAWJ ih kul), or are they using primarily
a deontological approach (DEE AWN tuh LAWJ ih kul)?
So here's what each kind of method is:
Teleological methods, sometimes called consequentialist methods,
are based on estimating what the likely outcomes of a given course of action
will be, and then choosing the method that has the most positive consequences
and the fewest negative consequences. According to these methods, those actions
should be chosen which lead to more positive and fewer negative consequences,
and those actions should be rejected which lead to more negative consequences
and fewer positive consequences.
In class, for example, some of you who said that it
would be good to torture the person who had been arrested argued that the
outcomes would be better if we did torture him (lives saved, etc) than if
we did not (thousands killed, etc). That is using a teleological or consequentialist
kind of thinking to determine which course of action would be best.
John Stuart Mills Utilitarianism is
usually seen as the classical expression of consequentialist ethical thinking,
so is Joseph Fletchers Situation Ethics. Future lectures in
the course will focus on Mills utilitarian method as the primary example
of teleological ethical thinking. Mill's most famous book outlining this
method is titled Utilitarianism.
Fletcher's book on the subject, taking a somewhat different approach, is
or duty-based, ethical systems, on the other hand, are those that simply
claim, directly and simply, what
the fundamental ethical duties are. The
Ten Commandments (from Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew
Torah) would be examples of deontological ethical thinking. According
to the Ten Commandments,
these actions -- honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not commit
adultery, keep holy the sabbath, etc -- are stated as simply right things
to do or wrong things to do. They are said to be our clear moral duty.
The Ten Commandments do not merely suggest, for example, that you look
consequences of actions and then weigh the possible outcomes to determine
if an action is right or wrong. Instead they say that some actions are
just plain right and others are just plain wrong.
This is what characterizes deontological ethical methods: they simply state
that some things are right or wrong. Some things are your duty to do (Greek deon:
duty) and other things are your duty to avoid. Human Rights documents,
for example, are instances of deontological thinking. When The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948)
says, for example, that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude" (article
4), or that "No one shall be subjected to torture" (article 5), it
is saying these things are just plain wrong. When the UDHR says that "Everyone
has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his
country" (article 13), or that " Everyone has the right to freedom
of peaceful assembly and association" (article 20), or that "Everyone,
without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work" (article
23), it is saying that these things are simply right and good.
Human Rights documents, therefore, exemplify deontological
thinking. After all, rights and duties are just the mirror images of each
other. When these documents say that person A has a certain right,
that means that person B (or state B) has the duty to see that that
right is fulfilled. If person A has the right to not be tortured,
then person B has the duty to not torture them. Rights and duties
are just two sides of the same coin.
How does deontological thinking figure out exactly which
actions are right and which are wrong, though? Several different analytical
methods have been developed for determining what our ethical duties are.
Two of the more famous methods can be found in the writings of Natural Law
ethics and in the writings of Immanuel Kant, particularly his books titled Fundamental
Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals,
and his Critique
of Practical Reason. We will explore Immanuel Kants
ethical system as the primary example of deontological thinking. The Human
documents we will be examining in the coming weeks will also be examples
of deontological thinking.
Your assignment for this week will
be to read selections from Immanuel Kant’s
Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and
from John Stuart Mill’s
Then you will write out answers to Study
Questions for each reading, and
post them into the SQs folder in our classroom.
And then, in the classroom folder
for week one, you will discuss what you understand these Philosophers to
be saying, and how you think their ideas apply to the
situations we’ve been discussing.