Phil. 283 A&V: Business
October 20, 1997
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All three are in practice around the world, a person can be only one of them, and each is morally right and morally wrong depending on how you look at it. I am speaking of course of the three major behavioral theories; Egoism, Utilitarianism, and Respect for Persons. Each of them is justified within itself, however when viewed from another theories' perspective, it may be morally wrong. To better understand the way this works, we will take a look at the three theories separately, and then I will defend the theory I think is most acceptable for everyone to live by.
To begin with we will take a look at ethical egoism. To basically sum up the belief of an ethical egoist, an action is right only if it produces consequences that promote the individuals self-interest better than any other alternative action would. What is meant by self interest may vary from individual to individual, but generally the list would include power, pleasure, money, security, reputation, and other such values. Self-interest cannot be used in terms of caring for others. That is, caring for others is not allowed under egoism, as the ultimate goal is to promote one's own self-interest. This is the one major implication (consequence) of this theory. An egoist cannot perform an action solely for the purpose of helping another individual, or because they care for that individual. If an egoist does something that happens to benefit another, that benefit is merely a byproduct of
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the promotion of the self-interest of the one taking the action. Simply put, under egoism, you cannot do something because you care. As far as application goes, this is a fairly easy theory to apply. The rules of application under egoism are simple, if an action promotes your self-interest, it is morally right and should be done. If an action does not promote your self-interest, it is morally wrong, and should not be done. Under egoism, the only thing you are concerned with is the outcome. Whatever happens on the way to the outcome has no significance. This is a case of the end justifying the means. The sticking point in the application of most theories is when two or more actions are morally right. Under egoism this problem is taken care of easily. If two actions promote your self-interest, you choose the one that benefits your self-interest the most. If two actions equally benefit your self-interest, you may choose either one. Under egoism, there are no moral dilemmas. This is because you cannot take the feelings of other people into account when weighing your options, whatever benefits your self-interest, no matter how many people it may hurt, is morally right. The last area of examination of the theories is the justification. The justification of from the egoist camp is probably the weakest, next to the utilitarian justification. Egoists say that we are all egoists, and that all of our actions are motivated only by self-interest. This is not a very powerful argument in my opinion.
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The next theory to be examined is that of Utilitarianism. Here is another all-or-nothing, clear-cut theory like egoism. Under utilitarianism, an action is morally right only if it produces consequences that contribute to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, more than another action would have. If an action would contribute less to human happiness than another action would, then that action is morally wrong and should not be carried out. The major implication of utilitarianism is that everyone's happiness counts the same. In other words, everyone is equal. This can be quite disturbing for some people because it means that you cannot give loved ones, or people you care about, special consideration when making a decision. To better understand this point, we must first look at how a utilitarian applies this theory. Basically, the action that produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people is the one that should be done, and is the morally right action. If for example, action "A" has five units of happiness, and action "B" has six units of happiness, action "B" is morally right, while action "A" is morally wrong. Once again, the means are of no consequence in judging the action. Even if "B" meant you had to kill five people to make six people happy, while action "A" could have meant planting a garden to make only five people happy, action "B" would still be the morally right action. To speak again about the implications of equality, consider the following
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hypothetical situation. You are married and have two children. Your neighbor has a spouse and three children. Your neighbor expresses his families wish to bulldoze your house so that they can put a swimming pool in for themselves. The morally right thing to do under utilitarianism would be to let your neighbors bulldoze your house, because the five of them would be happy, compared to the four in your family that would be happy to stay in the house. This theory is used widely in scientific experiments. An example would be the government exposing a group of soldiers to radiation without their knowledge, to use those results to better prepare the country for a nuclear attack. The justification for utilitarianism, as mentioned previously, is another weak one. Simply stated, we already do seek the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. This justification, along with that of the egoist, simply tell us that we already are one or the other, and fail to explain why we should practice the particular theory. This changes however with the last theory to be examined, respect for persons.
The last theory for our purposes is the respect for persons theory. This theory pretty much covers all the slack left over by the other two we have already looked at, and attempts to even things out a bit. The definition for respect for persons is that an action is right only if it treats human beings, yourself or others, as an end, respectfully, and not only as a means to an end. So as you can see
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already, this is the only theory we have seen so far that is concerned not only with the end, but the means as well. The cornerstone to this theory is that since we are all human beings who possess rationality, we deserve respect. The only implication to this theory is that some actions are intrinsically wrong. This differs drastically from the previous theories, where moral correctness was based arbitrarily on personal points-of-view. Under respect for persons, if an action requires you treat someone with no respect, that action is morally wrong, whether the lack of respect to the other individual comes as the end, or the means to the end. If it comes as a means to an end, then it makes the entire action wrong. To use an example from the utilitarianism theory; if the government uses soldiers without their knowledge in radiation tests to better the preparedness of the entire country, that action would be considered morally wrong, because they failed to treat those soldiers with respect. Although it may not seem as such a big deal to a normal, average, everyday sort of person, this may be the worst implication to an immoral person. As far as application is concerned, this is the most involved of the three theories. The backbone to the application process here is the "Negative Test." The negative test determines whether you are treating someone with respect by requiring you to ask yourself whether your actions, or lack thereof, will threaten the freedom or well being of another or yourself. With that in mind, the
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steps of the application process follow. The first step is to determine all of the possible courses of action you can take in a given situation. Next you should determine which action(s) pass the negative test. Although there may be more than one morally right action, the one that passes the negative test better should be the one performed. On the other hand, if an action fails the negative test, it is morally wrong and should not be done. In the situation where all the options you have fail the negative test, you should pick the lesser of the evils, that is, the one that fails the test less than the others. This action however, is still morally wrong. Unlike Utilitarianism, this test does not deal with set "units" of good or bad, under respect for persons each action is considered differently, with the type of good or harm being looked at. And finally, all actions fail the test equally, any may be done, although they are all morally wrong. There is sort of a safety valve in this theory called the principle of forfeiture. What this states is that if an individual treats others only as a means, then they forfeit their right to be treated with respect. When we take a look at the justification for this theory you will notice that unlike the previous two, this justification tells us why we should follow the theory. Simply put, because we are human beings we merit respect from ourselves and others, therefore we ought to respect ourselves and others.
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If it were up to me to pick a single theory for everyone to live by, it would undoubtedly have to be the respect for persons theory. Not just because it is the most politically correct sounding of the three, but because I have problems with the implications of the other two. The problem I have with egoism, is that I know
that I have feelings for other people, and that I care about other people. Although I may not be as caring as some people, I do have feelings, so I know that I cannot live by the egoist rule of "no actions out of caring." The problem I have with utilitarianism is the obsession with equality. I cannot see how someone could sacrifice someone they love in order to make some people happy that they don't even care about. We are all humans, with feelings and emotions, if we were all brainwashed to believe that we should treat everyone the same, no matter what the relationship, family-based society as we've known it since the beginning of history would collapse, and be replaced by an unfeeling, robot-like state. Respect for persons is the only theory that allows you to make a choice between actions, as long as they are morally right in terms of treating people with respect. This is important, because you have a chance to make a choice that may benefit someone or something you care about, regardless of how many people it makes happy, or if you further your own self-interest. Another reason for my choice is that this is the only theory concerned with the means as well as the end. If you harm someone in
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the process of doing something good for yourself, it should be wrong, however, under egoism it is morally right, and under utilitarianism, it may be morally right. Respect for persons is the only theory to lay down a set of what is wrong and what is right, whereas the other theories basically leave it up to the point of view of whoever is doing the action. For these reasons, and what seems to be a genuine attempt at a justification, I believe respect for persons to be the best theory.