Principles for Decisions

Ends-Based thinking. Known to philosophers as utilitarianism, this principle’s
maxim is, 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 the assessment of consequences, a forecasting
of outcomes. Philosophers typically refer to utilitarianism as a teleological principle,
from the Greek word telos, 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
Rule-Based thinking. Often associated with the German philosopher Immanuel
Kant, this principle is best known by what Kant called the categorical imperative. He
out it this way: “Act only on the maxim [guideline] you want everyone else to follow.”
In other words, behave in such a way that your actions could become a standard for
everyone else to follow.” Rule-based thinkers ask, “If everyone in the world followed
the rule of action I am following, would it produce the greatest, worthiest
character?” This mode stands directly opposite utilitarianism. Arguing that we
cannot know all the consequences of our actions (as the ends-based principle asks
us to), 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 Greek word deon, meaning “obligation” or
Care-Based thinking. Putting love for others first, this principle’s most famous
maxim is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It
partakes of a feature philosophers call reversibility. Reversibility test your actions by
putting yourself in the other person’s position and imagining how you would feel if
you were the recipient, rather than the perpetrator, of those actions. In our culture,
this idea is often associated with Christianity, but in fact it is nearly universal
among human societies. It appears in every one of the world’s great religious
teachings. For example, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, it is said, “One going to take a
pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”
While 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.
Adapted from Kidder, Rushworth, How Good People Make Tough Choices. Simon &
Schuster, 1995.