Principles - Ethical Reasoning

1. Ends-based thinking. Known to philosophers as utilitarianism, this principle is best
known by the maxim Do whatever produces the greatest good for the greatest
number of people. It demands of us a kind of cost benefit analysis, determining who
will be hurt and who will be helped, and measuring the intensity of both. It is the
staple of public policy debate: most legislation, these days, is crafted with this
utilitarian test in mind. At the heart of this principle is an assessment of
consequences, a forecasting of outcomes. Philosophers typically refer to
utilitarianism, in fact, as a teleological principle, from the Greek word teleos, meaning
“end” or “issue” because you cannot determine the greatest good without
speculating on probable futures. Utilitarianism examines possible results and picks
the one that produces the most blessing over the greatest range.
2. Rule-based thinking. Often associated with the name of German philosopher,
Immanuel Kant, this principle is best known by what Kant obtusely called the
categorical imperative. Kant put it this way: “Act only on that maxim you want
everyone else to follow.” In other words, act in such a way that your actions could
become a standard others should obey. Rule-based thinkers ask, “If everyone in the
world followed the rule of action I am following, would it produce the greatest good
or [in Kant’s words] the greatest ‘worth of character’?” This mode of thinking stands
directly opposite utilitarianism. Arguing that we cannot know all the consequences
of our actions (as ends-based principle asks us to), the rule-based thinker believes
we should act according to fixed rules. The rule-based thinker says, never mind the
outcomes: stick to your principles and let the chips fall where they may. Based
firmly on duty—on what we ought to do rather than what we think might work—it is
known among philosophers as a deontological principle, from the Geek word deon,
meaning “obligation” or duty”.
3. Care-based thinking: Putting love for others first, this principle’s most famous
maxim is the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would like them to do to you. It
partakes of a feature philosophers call reversibility. Reversibility tests your actions
by putting yourself in the other person’s position and imagining how you would feel
if you were the recipient, rather then the perpetrator, of those actions. Often
associated with Christianity, it is in fact universal; it appears in every one of the
world’s great religious teachings. While some philosophers have disputed its
standing as a practical principle, it is for many people the first rule of ethics they
learn and has provided moral glue for communities over the centuries.
[ For a comparison of the expressions of the golden rule in world cultures,
see this website:]
4. Justice as Fairness: First articulated by John Rawls, an American philosopher, this
principle envisions a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and shows
how unity can endure within a group with diverse views. Cooperation should be fair
to all citizens. Citizens do not “deserve” to be born into a rich or a poor family, to be
born naturally more gifted than others, to be born male or female, to be born a
member of a particular racial group, and so on. Since these features of persons are
in this sense morally arbitrary, citizens are not at the deepest level entitled to more
or less of the benefits of social cooperation because of them. For example the fact
that a citizen was born rich, white, and male in itself generates no reasons for this
citizen to be either favored or disfavored by social institutions. This thesis does not
in itself say how social goods should be distributed; it merely clears the decks.
Rawls's positive distributive thesis is equality-based reciprocity. All social goods are
to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would be to everyone's
advantage. Justice then requires that any inequalities must benefit all citizens, and
particularly must benefit those who will have the least. Equality sets the baseline;
from there any inequalities must improve everyone's situation, and especially the
situation of the worst-off.
[Adapted from: Rushworth Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices. William
Morrow, 1995] and
“John Rawls” in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.
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