Distinct Approaches to the Foundation of Normative Ethics

Ethics demands that one does what is morally acceptable to him/her, and those around them. One`s actions are considered either right or wrong. What one considers right in one contextual view might be wrong in another context. In normative ethics, this has been explored using two approaches. These approaches have been discussed by the various philosophers, who have their own views and approaches to what is right and what is wrong. This paper seeks to explore the philosophers’ ideas concerning right and wrong using an example of utilitarianism and act utilitarianism, which defines every individual act, as good or bad.

Normative ethics seeks to describe or determine the rightness or wrongness of an act. Normative ethics reasons out whether an act done is either morally right or wrong. This is done using two approaches of normative ethical theories, namely teleological approach and deontological approach. Theoretically, normative ethics attempts to bring to light what can be primarily used to reason out principles used as a basis for moral arguments. These normative principles express moral values that determine the criteria used to distinguish right from wrong. These principles are different and independent from formal principles, which determine principles of moral reasoning.

The teleological approach determines if an action is morally right or not, according to a how a person or people are affected by the consequences of the action. According to W.D Ross (1932), an act is considered to be good if it leads to good non-harmful consequences and vice versa. It is thus also referred to as consequentialism. This approach can be also approached by ethical egoism or utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, according to Richard Brandt, is a notion of what predicates the morality of an act. He says that these are functions that directly or indirectly determine the consequences of the well-being of those committing the act and nothing else.

On the other hand, the deontological approach seeks to affirm the human rights are respected as they are stated and what is supposed to be morally acceptable and right should be done even if it does not achieve the maximum expected outcome. Deontology claims that a principle of an act, and not its consequence, determines if an act is moral or not and this, according to Ross, is therefore what should be used when making judgmental decisions.

Professor Moore indicates that everyone has and should always have the motive to perform duties; and the motive should always be to produce good things. Any action done in contrary to that should be reconsidered; each action should end up producing the most positive result, if chosen over the others. Therefore, if one had made a promise, keeping the promise should come first before kindness. If one wants to fulfill a promise, it should not be because they are kind but because they know it is right to do so. Kindness will therefore just be the duty one has.

Donogan, on his side, insists that morality is a set of teachings given to a person that can be discovered by that person by virtue of being him. This is deduced from the Hebrew-Christian tradition. If one is, for example, a Christian, he/she considers moral what is religiously acceptable and required of him/her. All these are derived from the principle that it is unacceptable and unreligious not to respect any human being, oneself or any other, as a rational creature. It is not rational or morally acceptable to kill a human being, unless it is required and necessary.  Donogan also came up with ways of assessing human actions. Respect is the main principle that is the basis of making rational decisions.

Judith Jarvis Thomson in her book, Goodness and Utilitarianism, explains that one should always act with the intention of bringing about the best consequences. Thus, one who chooses to do this is a consequentialist. The author agrees with Ross since both of them share the same motive of coming up with the best consequences, but they differ in some ways. Ross (1932) provides one with an option of choosing the consequence and it boils down to an individual to determine if it is right or wrong, but for Thomson the best consequence should be the top agenda (Gutman, 2001). Thomson also talks about utilitarianism. She says that those, who take pleasure in another's ill fortune and suffering, are adding more bad than good to the world. She, however, does not say if it adds any good. This can be argued that pleasure adds up to the good in the world but what is the source of the pleasure? The author states that utilitarianism fails to appreciate the judgment that this is indeed not good and should therefore be considered morally wrong. Utilitarianism explains, however, that pain is bad and pleasure is good.

Sitting at the same table with Adolf Hitler does not prompt one to put poison in his drink. However, knowing who he would end up being by any means would not prompt one to even have time to think about it. Being an act-utilitarian, however, this would be a moral act. Seeing how much a person would suffer from the poison and the panic that is evident once he/she is aware that he/she has been poisoned might stir the person`s excitement and happiness. It is even better if he does not die and you reflect back on how he suffered and looked like at that time. That short period of time is the only time that makes one happy. But if you end up following him into his future and watching him transforming into the man he was stirs even more happiness. A person`s heart and beliefs make this act bring him/her pleasure.

According to Bernard Williams, a British philosopher, if utilitarianism is applied to certain cases, its consequences, in most cases, will go against personal instincts. This means that it will act against what we feel in the first instant. This cannot in any way appeal to remote effects fully. When one sees an instance, in most cases there is an inner feeling or urge to act in a certain way. But being utilitarian, one will opt to go against this urge and the consequences are never good. According to him, one who does not prevent an immoral act from occurring, is also morally responsible for the consequences, even if they did not commit the wrong act. They only failed to prevent it. He opposes utilitarianism, since he believes that ethical thinking cannot be systemized. He claims that utilitarianism endorses negative responsibility.

Brandt`s theory was that of rule-utilitarianism. This theory is based on the fact that an act is considered right if according to the set rules it leads to the greatest good. The rules followed in doing an act should end up bringing the end. The rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the correctness of the rule where it is an instance. One act done in following a rule is determined from following the rule continually. A rule-utilitarian would have chosen not to poison Hitler. This is because the rule they would conform to is the rule of poisoning a stranger you do not even suspect. Does poisoning such a person lead to elimination of all dictators? And is there a rule, according to which killing of such people eliminates such a form of ruling in the world? Having this in mind, a rule-utilitarian would have chosen to let Hitler live.

Ross, a deontologist, would have considered the consequences of letting him live and what would be the outcome of sparing his life. Here, to Ross the right thing to do would be to poison him. Letting Hitler live would be morally wrong to the world. This is because the amount of chaos destruction and death he brought to the world is morally wrong compared to just killing him alone. The consequences of poisoning and killing Hitler would have been less severe, as compared to sufferings and deaths caused by him.

Donogan arrives at this conclusion in almost the same way, using human reasoning. His human reasoning would only put it right as a way of saving millions if he poisoned Hitler. Poisoning Hitler, according to Donogan would be right, taking into consideration all the terrible things he did. However, according to Hebrew-Christian teaching, this is wrong, since killing is against beliefs and customs of the Hebrew-Christian society. Killing is only done in circumstances that one has no other option, which in this case there is. Knowing who Hitler is, however, changes everything, since it will be considered as an act that would make good for the whole society at large.

Ross and Donogan`s analysis would not differ in any way from that one of act-utilitarianism. This is because in act-utilitarianism, one would have chosen not to kill Hitler due to the primary consequence that would happen. Act-utilitarianism does not allow one to go with the hunch in them. In act-utilitarianism the act that in the future would bring more happiness would be killing Hitler, since it would only bring grief for a short time and then happiness for the whole world. Deaths and catastrophes would be prevented from occurring. In fact, maybe he even didn’t have people who depended on him, so his death might have been unnoticed.  This would not have been the same for rule-utilitarianism, since what is sought here is a series of events and not instances (Donogan, 1977). Here it would only be a single instance and this would mean that seeing only one instance doesn’t make a person to poison Hitler.

However, I would not have poisoned him. This is as the consequence of poisoning him I would feel guilty all my life. According to Ross, a good act has the best overall consequences. Killing him would have brought guilt and at some point arrest. It would have also brought grief to his family and friends at that time and they would live forever with vengeance boiling in their blood, wanting to prosecute the culprit, in case I was not discovered. This would have led to most of them deciding to be bad people in the future in search of revenge. This would have made more people bad, compared to a single man, Hitler. Letting him live would have let him become the man he ended up being, but this would have left me knowing that I did not commit murder. According to Donogan, this would have been the right act to do, since it is morally in line with the set of teachings I have acquired.

Negative responsibility is an ethical claim (Stanford university, 2006). The failure to prevent a bad act from occurring is the same as doing the act. According to Williams, this would have meant that failing to poison Hitler means that you as well committed the crimes committed by Hitler in the long run. Negative responsibility means that one should have poisoned Hitler in order to avoid all the bad things he ended up doing. Utilitarianism, however, does not fully provide one with this option, since it allows one to choose what to do and what not to do. Williams is against utilitarianism, since it makes one have the guilt of doing something they did not intend to do. One should do what he/she considers right and just not act according to beliefs or teachings he/she knows about but does not believe in. As for Williams, instinct would tell one not to kill but the knowledge of who he was would obviously make one poison Hitler as the best option since it has the least harmful consequences.

Consequentialism is the act of always doing good to ensure that the best consequences are always achieved. In this situation, therefore, a person would have chosen to spare the Hitler`s life hoping that he is a good man or hoping that he might end up being a resourceful person in the future. This would not have changed what Hitler ended up doing during his life. Sparing his life for the hope of achieving good would mean letting nature take its cause, and these, as we later came to see would have brought no good to the world at all. Consequentialism would have guided one according to what one would have hoped for, since at that particular time Hitler was still unknown and innocent. This means it would not give an ultimate solution. Thomson is therefore not right in this case. If she was right in any way, doing well to Hitler would have led to more good but this does not happen in this case.

In conclusion, these theories that explain right or wrong come from one`s thinking and beliefs. Utilitarianism is a belief that one depends on what he/she feels or intends to achieve. What is right or wrong is connected to an individual’s beliefs and personality. However, this may be influenced by what they are taught and how they are brought up. Knowing how to distinguish right from wrong greatly helps an individual in making right decisions when the need arises. Critical thinking is needed in these situations and so are correct decision-making skills.