Truth Through Combat

A Brief Introduction to Ethics

I mentioned at our first meeting that bioethics relies on the application of ethical concepts to current issues in our field of study. Following up with that explanation, I wanted to provide some general guidelines to a few of the major ethical theories of our time. The following document is a short survey of three such theories: utilitarianism (a type of consequentialist theory), deontology, and virtue ethics. All of them will be relevant to us at some point, and each of them is best suited to different types of applications.
With this in mind, we’ll examine these theories in the following order:

1.      Utilitarian ethics

2.      Deontological ethics

3.      Virtue ethics


Utilitarian ethics – also known as consequentalism, or consequentialist ethics – measures the ethical value of an action or principle on the basis of its outcomes.  If an action or principle produces more benefits than drawbacks, then it is “right,” or “moral.”  If it produces more drawbacks than benefits, it is “wrong” or “immoral.”


Deontological ethics measures the act or principle itself for rightness or wrongness.  If an action or principle is right in itself – regardless of the consequences that it yields – then it is moral.  If it is wrong in itself – regardless of the consequences that it yields – then it is immoral. 


Consider an example: Imagine that there are five people in a hospital dying of various diseases of the major organs.  One is dying of heart disease, one of liver disease, two of kidney diseases, and one of lung disease.  A gunshot victim comes into the emergency room of the same hospital.  He is in serious condition, but can be saved by surgical intervention that should take several hours. 


Now, consider this question: Is it moral for the hospital to kill the gunshot victim, harvest his organs, and distribute those organs to the dying patients suffering from organ diseases?  Let’s look at this from the perspective of each of the two theories described above.


From the perspective of utilitarian ethics, it may well be moral.  Consider two ways of looking at the issue from the perspective of utilitarianism:


  • Act-Utilitarianism: in Act-U, we look strictly at this specific act, and ask ourselves whether performing the act would lead to greater benefits than it would drawbacks. It seems that it would: we can save five people by killing only one, therefore, it seems moral to perform this action – killing the gunshot victim and harvesting his organs – in order to save the dying patients in the other parts of the hospital.
  • Rule-Utilitarianism: In Rule-U, we look at the rule – or principle – that we would be espousing by performing the act in question.  In this case, the rule – or principle – would be something like this: When we can save more than one patient by killing one other patient, we should do so.  Next, we ask ourselves whether this rule – or principle – maximizes benefits over drawbacks.  Let’s take a look at this question from the perspective of the hospital: what if the hospital were to adopt a rule of killing patients in order to harvest their organs in situations where those organs could be used for multiple other patients?  Well, it seems the answer is obvious: no one would come to that hospital anymore!  Therefore, we need to work into our rule the drawbacks of the hospital no longer having any patients.  This would be relevant – from the Rule-Utilitarian perspective – to whether we would adopt this rule.  Therefore, it seems in this case we should not adopt the rule in question.

We now come to a very different kind of ethical theory, one that doesn’t care about consequences:  


  • Deontological ethics – What happens when we move away from the focus on outcomes and instead look at our actions themselves?  In deontology, an act or rule is either right or wrong in itself, regardless of the good or bad consequences that it generates.  So, a deontologist might argue that killing of innocent persons is wrong, period.  That would prevent us from acting to remove the organs of the gunshot victim, even if we could save five other people as a result.  Now, the deontologist still has to give an argument for such a killing being wrong – here, he has several strategies open to him:
    • Natural rights: he could argue that humans have certain natural rights, and that among these is a right to life.  This approach requires him to give some reasoning that justifies the notion of a natural right.  For example, it could be based on the natural faculties of humans: he could argue as follows – since humans have a universal desire to live, this is a desire that we should abide by.
    • Duty: the deontologist could argue that all humans have duties toward others, and that among these duties is respect for persons.  Respecting someone, furthermore, means not treating them as means toward another end.  So, in the hospital case above we would be treating that gunshot victim as a mere means toward our own ends, and therefore violating our duty of respect for others.  This is the view held by Immanuel Kant.

One last theory: 


  • Finally, we come to virtue ethics.  This view is rooted in the notion of character, and holds that instead of focusing on acts or rules, we should instead seek to improve our individual character.  Under this view, we put forth a list of valued virtues and seek to make them our own.  So, for example, we can imagine that “Justice” is a virtue, and therefore seek to make ourselves into a just individual.  How?  Presumably by practice – practice is the usual way that we become what we want to be.  We define a goal, and then proceed to develop it into a habit, thus embedding it into our character.  Or, we pick honesty as the virtue we want to have, and we attempt to develop ourselves into honest individuals by practicing honesty on a regular basis.  Thus, by developing honest habits we come to possess the virtue of honesty.  Now, how does this relate to our hospital example?  There’s no easy answer here, because the list of valued virtues is not easy to define; but we would ask questions like “Would an honest person do this?” or “Would a just individual kill one human in order to save several others?”



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