An Analysis of My Ethical Framework of Evaluating Individuals Actions Through Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics
During my time at the Academy I have had the opportunity to witness and even decide for myself on the ethical aspects of people’s actions. As a squadron commander I have to look at the situation surrounding people’s decisions when they do anything that is not allowed and one’s ethical view can play a big part in deciding how bad an act really was.
When evaluating individual’s actions I find my ethical framework to be a combination of utilitarianism (consequentialism) and virtue ethics. I have always felt inclined to side with utilitarianism when hearing about the different ethical theories. Utilitarianism sounds amazing on paper where everyone just tries to do whatever is best for society as a whole. However, when applied in real life I’ve seen it appears extremely impersonal and can create animosity from the people being judged based only on the result of an action that they never meant to commit, with no regard for their intentions.
For this reason, I believe that utilitarianism is extremely useful when an individual is evaluating an action that may happen in the future. However, it should not be the sole method of evaluating someone’s actions after they have already been committed. Once an act has been committed and it is being evaluated by other people on whether or not it was ethical I think it is important to take more of a virtue ethics viewpoint and take into account the person’s intentions. Someone who intended to kill someone with their car is certainly much different than someone who slipped on ice and accidentally killed them even though the outcomes were the same.
The second problem that I have with utilitarianism is it can become extremely time consuming to consider every possible pro and con of an action, to the point that by the time you have finally decided on an action the opportunity may have already passed. A possible solution to this issue of time is rule utilitarianism. Under rule utilitarianism “the principle is applied to the selection of a set of rules, which are in turn used to determine what to do in particular situations (Act v. Rule Utilitarianism). Using utilitarianism to create rules beforehand can drastically reduce the amount of time needed in an urgent situation while still acting in a way that will benefit society.
Even when an ethical dilemma is unforeseen and no personal rule has been created, we can rely on similar situations and rules that have been made in the past to reach the best decision possible for that amount of time. Even the rules of our society can be a good starting point for utilitarian rules, although personal rules on acts such as lying could certainly be more strict than what we see in common societal laws.
The last issue I have with strict utilitarianism is how it can be abused to commit atrocities if the benefits outweigh the cost. A common hypothetical situation is the harvesting of one person’s organs against their will to save the lives of four other people. Under utilitarianism this would technically be encouraged because the end product was better than the cost, although most people would agree that it is certainly not ethical. One form of utilitarianism that has been created to address this is called subjective utilitarianism.
Subjective utilitarianism combines the utilitarian goal of seeking out the greatest good with the focus on integrity seen in virtue ethics. This philosophy states that “explicit utilitarian reasoning is not necessarily the way to get the best utilitarian outcome, and other forms of moral reasoning may lead to greater utility” (Voytinsky 6). Under subjective utilitarianism, a basic moral code must still be followed when deciding on moral actions or else all humanity may be lost. A similar criterion was created by famous ethicist Michael Walzer for determining when it is okay to harm people to create a greater good effect in war. One of the requirements for such an act is that the negative effect is foreseen but not intended.
Furthermore the bad effect cannot be the means to the good effect. (Walzer 250) This requirement is intended to prevent people from purposefully committing atrocities in the name of some good, while still acknowledging that sometimes hard decisions must be made that could lead to suffering for a group of people.
Overall, I would argue that my personal ethical framework would be categorized as subjective rule utilitarian. I believe that people should establish a base of what is right and wrong founded on desirable virtues, which should automatically eliminate acts that would cause great harm simply for the sake of achieving some greater good. Next an individual should make rules for themselves based on what brings about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. This will not happen all at once as we could never consider every possible ethical dilemma we will be faced with.
Instead, it will be an ongoing process of experiencing situations and refining our rules based on our observations and applying rules to new situations. When time permits we may spend more time looking at the specific situation, while more urgent issues may be based more on similar precedent. Overtime we will become adept at creating rules and making decisions that offer the greatest good for society.