Archived Articles
Moral Decision - Making
How Do We Determine Right from Wrong?

The question of moral science is a huge topic.  Philosophers of old, as well as modern philosophers and ethicist, approach it from a variety of perspectives.  Allow me to introduce just a few of these. 

There are two primary and opposing camps to consider: Utilitarian theories and Deontological theories.  Utilitarian theories were introduced by David Hume who was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment.  His work was advanced by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Deontological theories were initially the work of Immanuel Kant.  Contemporary deontologists include Thomas Nagel, Thomas Scanlon, Roger Scruton and Frances Kamm. 

Utilitarianism is a theory holding that the proper or moral course of action in any situation is the one that maximizes utility, which is usually defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering.  Happiness has long been recognized as an important end for human beings.  Hume says that of all the determinations of morality, this circumstance or assurance of public utility is the most important. Wherever disputes arise, the best way to settle the question is by ascertaining, "...the true interests of mankind.”  He made a strong case for the proposition that the grounds on which we judge things to be good or bad is not some abstract external moral reality, but the manner in which the event in question affects us.  He argued, “Since morals have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows that they cannot be derived from reason.  Morals excite passions and produce or prevent actions.  Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.”  This is opposite of Kant’s theory which I will detail shortly. 

Hume studied under Francis Hutcheson who said when choosing the most moral action the best choice or virtue is in proportion to the number of people to whom a particular action brings happiness. In the same way, moral evil, or vice, is proportionate to the number of people made to suffer. The best action is the one that procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers—and the worst is the one that causes the most misery.

Bentham's book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation published in 1789 begins with a statement of the principle of utility:  “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.”

Mill added, “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”  With this in mind, Mill set out to both qualify and quantify happiness and he defined “lower” and “higher” pleasures. 

"Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs… A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question…”

As the theory advanced, utilitarianism was subdivided into smaller camps.  Take for example, Act utilitarianism and Rule utilitarianism.  The essential difference between these two is in what determines whether or not any given action is the right action. Act utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it maximizes utility; rule utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that maximizes utility.

Negative utilitarianism as proposed by Karl Popper argued that the principle 'maximize pleasure' should be replaced by 'minimize pain'. He thought "it is not only impossible but very dangerous to attempt to maximize the pleasure or the happiness of the people, since such an attempt must lead to totalitarianism.”  He claimed, “There is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure… In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.” 

Preference utilitarianism was first put forward by John Harsanyi.  Harsanyi rejects hedonistic utilitarianism as being dependent on an outdated psychology, saying that it is far from obvious that everything we do is motivated by a desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  According to Harsanyi, “preference utilitarianism is the only form of utilitarianism consistent with the important philosophical principle of preference autonomy. By this I mean the principle that, in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences.” 

There are, of course, plenty of critics of the utilitarian approach to morality.  Karl Marx says that the theory fails to take account of the changing character of people, and hence the changing character of what is good for them.  He describes the concept of a single utility for all humans as one-dimensional and not useful.  

Considering the utilitarian basis of morality as what brings about the greatest happiness or least pain for the most number of people, John Taurek asks whether "we should, in [certain] trade-off situations, consider the relative numbers of people involved as something in itself of significance in determining our course of action."  Taurek tells us, "The conclusion I reach is that we should not." He offers this example: "The situation is that I have a supply of some life-saving drug. Six people will all certainly die if they are not treated with the drug. But one of the six requires all of the drug if he is to survive. Each of the other five requires only one-fifth of the drug. What ought I to do?" He argues, “Each person in the situation can only lose one person's happiness or pleasures. There isn't five times more loss of happiness or pleasure when five die: who would be feeling this happiness or pleasure?”

Pope John Paul II, following his personalist philosophy, considered that a danger of utilitarianism is that it tends to make persons, just as much as things, the object of use. "Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used."  So what other options are there?

Utilitarianism can be contrasted with deontological ethics, which does not regard the consequences of an act as a determinant of its moral worth.  Central to any deontological moral theory is the idea that a given action is right or wrong under all circumstances.  This is diametrically opposed to the utilitarian theory that something is right because it achieves good or desirable outcomes. 

A utilitarian says that murder is wrong because it does not maximize good for those involved, but this is irrelevant to people who are concerned only with maximizing the positive outcome for themselves. Consequently, Immanuel Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives on which they are based rely too heavily on subjective considerations. As an alternative, Kant presented a deontological moral system.  His moral system is based on imperatives and autonomy of the will. 

Kant’s theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons. First, Kant argued that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action.

According to Kant, if our actions were entirely determined by our physical constitutions or natural instincts, they would simply be reactions.  He theorizes that autonomy is necessary in order for moral responsibility or judgement to apply to any action.  The word “autonomy” has Greek roots.  “Auto” refers to self-reflexive and “nomos” to law.  So the morally autonomous person, one with free will, is not one who is lawless, but one whose freedom is governed by laws he gives himself.  Therefore Kant argued for the idea of transcendental freedom — that is, freedom as a presupposition of the question "what ought I to do?" This is what gives us sufficient basis for ascribing moral responsibility to actions.

Also central to Kant’s theory is the concept of imperatives.  He defined an imperative as any proposition declaring a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary and he described two types: hypothetical and categorical.  If the choice of one alternative over another is made to attain a specific end, it is called a hypothetical imperative.  Hypothetical imperatives are tied to a particular context and to the needs and desires of natural creatures based on the need to survive or to increase pleasure or avoid pain.  Examples of hypothetical imperatives would be, “ if I wish to quench my thirst, I must drink something; or if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn.

The categorical imperative, on the other hand, declares an action to be morally necessary in and of itself without reference to any specific outcome or purpose.  That action which is moral and must be taken under every circumstance or situation in which that kind of action might take place is called the categorical imperative.  Under this theory, by way of example, it is never morally acceptable to lie, to commit arson or to enslave another.

Kant offers another version of the categorical imperative.  “Man,” he says, “is never merely a means to an end, but always an end unto himself.”  To use another person as a means or a tool is to deny that person the very moral autonomy on which “right” and “wrong” become possible.  To do so would mean that you qualify for the same treatment.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “ As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master.” 

In other words, to be moral, act in such a way that your action could be applied universally to every situation without contradiction; never use humanity as a means to an end, but always view people as an end in themselves; and always act as though your actions are legislating the laws for all. 

Does this have a familiar ring to it?  Both the utilitarian and deontological theories have been compared to the 'Golden Rule'.  The 'Golden Rule' (in its negative form) says: "Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself."  The 'Golden Rule' (in its positive form) says: "Treat others how you wish to be treated".  Kant's first formulation in the categorical imperative says: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."  Mill in his book Utilitarianism, stated, "In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality."  Perhaps the theories were well developed long before any of these philosophers and learned men existed. 

Consider Taurek’s example or those I have given below.  Into which camp would you most likely place yourself – utilitarian or deontological? 

The situation is that I have a supply of some life-saving drug. Six people will all certainly die if they are not treated with the drug. But one of the six requires all of the drug if he is to survive. Each of the other five requires only one-fifth of the drug. What ought I to do?

As portrayed in the recent book and movie “The Book Thief”, you are living in Nazi Germany and hiding a Jew in your basement.  Is it morally acceptable to lie to a known murderer who asks you the location of his prey? 

A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk?

Michael had several friends including Roger and Daniel. Roger has recently met and started dating a wonderful lady named Phyllis. He is convinced this is a long-term relationship. Unknown to Roger, Michael observed them at a restaurant several days ago and realized Phyllis is the wife of his other friend Daniel.  Michael is deciding whether to tell Roger that Phyllis is married when he receives a call from Daniel. Daniel suspects his wife is having an affair and since they and Michael share many friends and contacts, he asks if Michael has heard anything regarding an affair.  What are Michael’s moral obligations?

Tony, a data analyst for a major casino, is working after normal business hours to finish an important project. He realizes that he is missing data that had been sent to his coworker Robert.  Tony had inadvertently observed Robert typing his password several days ago and decides to log into Robert’s computer and resend the data to himself. Upon doing so, Tony sees an open email regarding gambling bets Robert placed over the last several days with a local sports book. All employees of the casino are forbidden to engage in gambling activities to avoid any hint of conflict of interest. Tony knows he should report this but would have to admit to violating the company’s information technology regulations by logging into Robert’s computer. If he warns Robert to stop his betting, he would also have to reveal the source of his information. What should Tony do in this situation? 

Alan works in the claims department of a major hospital. Paperwork on a recent admission shows that a traumatic mugging caused the patient to require an adjustment in the medication prescribed for her to control anxiety and mood swings. Alan is struck by the patient’s unusual last name and upon checking her employment information realizes she is one of his daughter’s grade school teachers. Alan’s daughter seems very happy in her school and he cannot violate patient confidentiality by informing the school of a teacher’s mental illness but he is not comfortable with a potentially unstable person in a position of influence and supervision over his eight year-old daughter.   What would you do next?