3.7 Summary and Further Discussion

The study of what constitutes the knowledge of good and right is known as moral philosophy; the actual application of these abstractions is ethics. There are three main groupings of the schools of moral philosophers, those who believe that:

1. Ethical laws are deduced by pure reason. This group includes the ancient Greek philosophers, to the extent that they discussed such things at all, and Immanuel Kant, whose categorical imperative was claimed to be the final and necessary conclusion of this reasoning process.

2. Ethical principles are decided upon. The positions within this group vary from the antinomian (there are no ethical norms) through the consensus view (including hedonism and utilitarianism) to the position that the law of love judges all moral actions and finally to situationism and the social contract view. The first of these is to an extent a denial of the existence of ethics; the last three assert that goodness is relative to certain calculations about resulting benefits of actions and that actions do not have this quality themselves.

3. Ethical norms are absolute, transcending both reasoning and decisions. This includes (but is not limited to) the view that an inner sense--conscience or intuition--exists that dictates ethical principles. It also includes legalistic absolutism (all-encompassing absolute norms) and hierarchical absolutism.

This text offered one such hierarchy as a comprehensive synthesis of the ethical theories examined under all three headings. Readers may well settle on other hierarchies, possibly subsets of this one, or on one of the other schools of thought. However, in examining specific issues, whether relating to technology or not, it is valuable to understand what ethical criteria are being used.

Discussion Questions

1. Under what circumstances is it right (or excusable) to lie? Give some examples and your reasons, based on your view of moral philosophy.

2. Under what circumstances is it right (or excusable) to break a promise? Give some examples and your reasons, based on your view of moral philosophy.

3. Normally, part of the duty of a citizen to society is to obey the laws of the land. When, if ever, is it better to break such laws?

4. In certain very rare medical circumstances associated with the birth of a child, doctors may be faced with the choice between saving the life of the mother or that of the child. Which should be saved and why? Would the same answer be given by all schools of moral philosophy?

5. Is it always right to report to authorities the crime of another person that you have witnessed? That you have heard about from a third party? Do your answers change if the criminal is your friend?

6. Suppose the law requires you to report certain types of activities as crimes, but you do not believe they are wrong. Do you have to report or not, and why? Does it make any difference whether your own views of the matter are based on moral philosophy? on political convictions? on religious beliefs?

7. Under what circumstances is it morally right or morally wrong to practice birth control? What difference does it make if the law of the land requires (forbids) this? Now repeat the question for abortion, for infanticide, for euthanasia.

8. The police have just revealed to you that your closest and dearest friend is under investigation for tax fraud. He is about to be arrested and, if convicted, faces a lengthy prison term. (a) You have been asked not to tell him because it is feared he may flee the country. What should you do? (b) As soon as you are told this, you realize that you have in your possession conclusive evidence that would convict your friend, information that the authorities could not possibly know about. What do you do? Does it make any difference to your answer if the friend is also your boss? your spouse? your child? the mayor? the pastor of your church?

9. You are the prime minister of a country at war, and your secret service has a spy at work infiltrating the enemy high command in an effort to discover its plans for a major offensive three months away. She has just reported, however, on less important plans for an attack that will be made in another place tomorrow. If you use the information, your country's forces will win tomorrow's battle, but your spy's activities will be unmasked and she will have to flee, abandoning the long-term plan. If you do not use it, many more soldiers will die the next day than necessary, but the spy will be able to continue in the hope of gaining a greater victory later. What does a utilitarian do and why? What does a traditional absolutist do and why? Can you give a hierarchical absolutist answer?

10. You see a young child drowning in a river. Being both an expert mathematician and a good swimmer you instantly calculate a 40-percent probability that you can save the child and a separate 70-percent probability that you can save yourself once you do jump in. What should you do if you are: (a) a utilitarian? (b) a situationist? (c) a traditional absolutist? (d) a hierarchical absolutist?

11. What effect does it have if the two probabilities in question 9 are reversed?

12. You are starving and have no money. You see a passer-by drop a wallet, and you pick it up. It contains over a thousand dollars in cash, some of which, you are convinced, this richly dressed person could easily spare. What do you do? Does it make any difference if the lost article was food instead of money? Does it make any difference if you are the mother of two young children who are closer to death from hunger than you are? Does it make any difference if you know that the owner of the wallet is a notoriously tightfisted individual whom you are certain would never reward your honesty? Does it make any difference if, in addition, he was once responsible for cheating you out of your home, property and money and thus is the cause of your destitution in the first place? What if the person is a known criminal and you are certain that the money is profit from selling drugs?

13. Your country has a severe famine due to a failure of an irrigation system and very little money. The government has a choice between spending all available funds to buy food, in which case it is estimated that the lives of 500,000 people will be prolonged for a year, after which time, there will be no funds left to prevent millions of projected deaths. Alternately, the available funds could be used to rebuild the irrigation system, allowing the 500,000 deaths in the short term but preventing the larger famine. Assuming that this is all the available information, what is the best course of action? Does it matter what ethical school you belong to?

14. What difference does it make if the famine is in one country and the money in a second? Which country should make the decision? What if the second country has only this money; it is earmarked to update its own irrigation system, for it is estimated that in the next year there is a 25-percent probability that this too will break, and the second country would then also experience famine on a similar scale to the first country? What difference does it make if a decision not to help means a 50-percent probability of a war, in which hundreds of thousands would surely die?

15. A man you know has been beating his wife. She kills him, not realizing that you have witnessed the crime, but otherwise successfully conceals her deed. Do you turn her in? Does it make any difference if she is your close friend? Does it make any difference that you have just realized you are in love with her and want to marry her? Does it make any difference if she has two young children and no relatives who could care for them? What effect does your school of ethical thought have on your answer?

16. You have evidence that a certain individual is a child molester. However, for the case of which you are aware, you have been sworn to secrecy and asked by the victims' parents not to involve the police. Now another child has brought charges against the same offender. Should you come forward with your information, despite your promise? Does it make any difference who the offender is, or what kind of work he does? Suppose the new complainant has confided to you that the charges now being advanced are false and being made for the purpose of revenge, with no knowledge of any other offences? Do you betray the lie, or the truth?

17. How do the various ethical schools handle the issue of tolerance? For example, can an ethical relativist tolerate a traditional absolutist? a hierarchical absolutist? What about the reverse?

18. Consider the Mount Carmel declaration. What ethical theory does it appear to be based on? Is there any evidence of a foundation for its statements; that is, are they based on higher principles, or do they stand alone? How does it envision that its goods be enforced as shoulds?

19. Rewrite the Mount Carmel declaration in the form of a hierarchy. What additions or deletions do you propose, and why?

20. Attack or defend the statement made in section 3.5 that the "inner voice" theory contradicts hedonism. Extend the discussion to the relationship between conscience and utilitarianism.

21. It is well known that tobacco causes a myriad of illnesses, many of which are very expensive to treat and a burden on society. Should the use of this product be tolerated, regulated, or forbidden? Why?

22. Repeat the analysis of the last question for (a) heroin (b) alcohol. What are the essential differences among these three?

23. (Research question--use the Internet or a library) Find a code of ethics that has been adopted by some recognized group or profession and analyse it. What are the presuppositions behind the code? What is its purpose? In what ethical school are its framers? What are the specific things required? forbidden? How would you rewrite the document?

24. To what extent ought freedom of religion be an absolute value? Consider cases where the practice of religion conflicts with the law. What if the religion demands that its adherents either convert others or destroy them?


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Web resources on Ethics:

The Ethics Centre for Engineering and Science http://www.cwru.edu/affil/wwwethics/index.html

The Institute for Business & Professional Ethics http://condor.depaul.edu/ethics/about.html

Bioethics Online Service http://www.mcw.edu/bioethics/

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises