Four Questions to ask of Ethical Theories

Here are four questions which we can ask of an ethical theory to try and decide what its strengths and limitations might be.

1) Are the fundamental assumptions made by the ethical theory correct?

Most ethical theories rest on a set of fundamental assumptions about the world. For instance, utilitarianism, in its hedonistic form, rests on an assumption that human beings pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Natural moral law rest on an assumption that there are clearly observable purposes to human life. We can ask a few questions about this. Firstly is the assertion backed up? Is there a reasonable argument to show where this claim about ‘how things are’ comes from? Is it observable or can it be proven in some other way? Is it a very convincing assumption or one that throws up a few problems? Perhaps there is evidence that counters the claim which needs to be dealt with if the assumption is to stand. Perhaps we can agree on what the purpose is of human life, or perhaps there are different views on the question. It might be that an assumption includes something which actually throws up more questions. So the hedonistic utilitarian needs to explain why it is that things that some people avoid because they give pain, others pursue as if it were pleasure. In short, there is some diversity on what gives pleasure and pain. Whether there is a lot of diversity or a little diversity influences how much of a problem it is for the theory. It might be we can find some exceptions but that in the main the assumption holds water. But if there are strong convincing alternatives then we might have a good reason for challenging the theory.

2) Does the moral theory encourage the kind of abilities or skills needed to do good (by its own definition)?

This is a more complex question but it really relates to the practicality of the theory. Is it something that could actually operate or is it just a theoretical system to judge moral actions afterwards? Some moral theories seem to require the person to have an extremely detailed ‘God’s eye view’ of the situation. This is true of some forms of utilitarianism but also situation ethics which requires you to have a really sound picture of everything that is going on in the dilemma and what the consequences will be of each option. Some seem to offer an interesting theory about ethics, which doesn’t actually encourage good action. So Plato’s theory of forms may be true but knowledge of the theory is not likely to help in actual moral decision making. On the other hand virtue theory is focused on developing character traits which will help a person be moral. A theory may not be practical but still could be true. Sometimes the rightness or wrongness of an action can only be established from a historical perspective which sees a whole picture unavailable to the people who actually had to decide what to do at the time. A particular theory may provide what we need to judge whether something was right or wrong, but does not actually encourage people to make the right decision – it doesn’t include the mechanisms within to help people make decisions. So this question can be asked of moral theories but we need to decide whether the answer is a blow against the moral theory, or if it just reveals what the theory is good for.

3) To what extent does the theory take account of human nature?

Of course we could have a big discussion about what human nature actually is (assuming it exists), but if we are faced with an ethical theory seems to go very much against what is reasonable for a human being to do then we might begin to question whether it is a good theory. One of the problems many people have with Kantian ethics is the fact that he sets human emotion or sentimentality aside. Yet many ethical thinkers and philosophical and religious systems today think that love is a key ingredient in moral decision making and realizing that we have some kind of emotional connection with another person, as a fellow human being for instance, matters. An example of this is revealed when an SS officer, clearing a ghetto and shooting Jewish civilians sees a small girl who is running with her teddy. She dropped the teddy and the SS officer, remembering his mothers teaching on helping children, bent over and picked up the teddy. He then couldn’t shoot her. In acting on his upbringing, and the sentimentality which surrounded that, he had affirmed that she was a person, and not some worthless creature. Emotion saved the girl. So encouraging people to push emotions to one side, in a Mr Spock Vulcan sort of way, may not actually be good for us. Some would argue that human beings cannot act dispassionately, that emotions are bound up with knowledge and experience so we cannot detach ourselves from them. Most ethical theories make some assumptions about human nature so exploring what this is can help in evaluating the theory.

4) Does the theory lend itself to certain kinds of moral dilemmas but not others?

#I sometimes feel that perhaps Kant would make a very fair judge, I would not put him in charge of a field-hospital in a war zone where he would have to make difficult decisions about limited supplies of medicines and other resources. Some moral theories seem to assume a world in which things are very much black and white and there will be an evaluation of the situation and there will be a good option and a bad option making the choice simple. But what about decisions where there are only two bad options? For instance an example I sometimes give (which is sadly based on a true event) is of the decision of a Damage Control Officer in a naval frigate which has a fire in one section that could spread to another section and destroy the ship. Ships are able to seal sections off and some vessels have powerful fire extinguishers which will put the fire out, but kill anyone in the area. Faced with this sort of decision, perhaps more common in war time, does the theory provide help in guiding the decision or does it object to both options. If it doesn’t help then we may question whether it is real-world proof. It’s a bit like the driver who is lost and asks for directions to his destination and the person says ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’. Here is where we are at when faced with a moral decision. Does the theory help or hinder.

So in evaluating moral theories, we need to ask theories questions, digging around inside them for answers. It might be that we end up with some questions about the theory but nothing seems to deliver a killer blow as none of the criticisms seem strong enough to really justify a rejection. We should be cautious about coming to a flippant conclusion and give disproportionate importance to the weakness we have identified. Most theories have critics and criticisms that can be made against them but they still can tell us important and interesting things about morality. But it may be we open up a big problem which must be fixed if the theory is to be used.

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