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4.7 The Cheat Sheet: Rules of Thumb in Applied Ethics

The following tables summarize the theories considered in this textbook. The first includes the traditional theories and the second encapsulates the contemporary theories built to respond to cultural relativism.

Table 4.1 The Traditional Theories

Name Guidance for ethical action Focus of our efforts Typical questions asked in the effort to fulfill obligations Conception of the person implied by the theory Strengths and weaknesses Type of theory
Duty Learn the basic duties to ourselves and others, and obey them. The duties.
  • To whom do I have obligations?
  • What are the obligations?
  • How do the obligations weigh against each other?
We are rational actors. Gives clear guidance in many situations but is inflexible in the face of special cases. Nonconsequentialist
Fairness Treat people identically unless they differ in ways relevant to the situation. (Treat equals equally and unequals unequally.) Resist prejudice and personal feelings. Does everyone get an equal chance? (If they don’t, how are the differences justified?) We are rational actors. Promises egalitarianism, but can be difficult to implement in complex reality. Nonconsequentialist
Kant Learn the basic duties to ourselves and others, and obey them. The categorical imperative in two articulations: actions must be universalizable and treat others as ends and never as means.
  • Is the act I’m considering universalizable?
  • Am I being careful not to treat others as means to an end?
We are rational actors. Gives clear guidance in many situations but is inflexible, especially in the face of special cases. Nonconsequentialist
Rights theory Maximize freedom. Learn the individual’s basic rights, live them, and respect others’ right to live them. Does doing what I want impinge on the basic freedoms of others? We are distinguished by the possession of dignity. Allows individuality, but does little to resolve conflicts between individuals. Nonconsequentialist
Egoism Increase my well-being and happiness. Learn about my desires and welfare, and serve them What makes me happy over the long term? How can I get that? We are driven toward pleasure and away from pain. Good for me in the short term, but might not help us live together as a society. Consequentialist
Altruism Increase the well-being and happiness of others. Learn about others’ desires and welfare, and serve them. What makes others happy over the long term? How can I help them get that? We are driven toward pleasure and away from pain. Others benefit, but it may be difficult to justify devaluing yourself. Consequentialist
Utilitarianism Increase the well-being and happiness of everyone collectively. Learn about the desires and welfare of everyone, understood as an aggregate, and serve them. What brings the greatest happiness and good to the greatest number over the long term? How can I help us get that? We are driven toward pleasure and away from pain. The general welfare is served, but injustices at the individual level may persist. Consequentialist

Table 4.2 The Contemporary Theories Responding to Cultural Relativism

Guidance for ethical action Focus of our efforts Typical questions asked in the effort to fulfill obligations Strengths and weaknesses Reaction to cultural relativism
Eternal return of the same Be myself. Think through the eternal return. Would I do this if it had to be repeated in the same life, which recurred forever? Maximizes individual authenticity but provides no specific recommendations for action. Abandons morality altogether.
Cultural ethics Follow local customs and practices. Learn local customs and practices. What do the locals do? Helps you fit in but allows little hope for ethical improvement. Accepts the proposal that moral rules are just a particular community’s beliefs.
Virtue ethics Develop good moral character. Learn and practice the virtues. Am I acting with integrity and in accordance with values learned? Allows flexibility but provides little specific guidance. Tries to protect against cultural relativism by developing an adoptable but consistently moral character.
Discourse ethics Produce solutions to moral dilemmas. Talk it out: use rational conversation to reach a peaceful, consensual agreement. What do you think? How about this possibility? Provides a broad range of possible solutions but every conflict must be addressed from scratch. Replaces a culture’s moral rules with the attempt to fabricate new rules to function in specific situations.
Ethics of care Nurture and protect immediate relationships. Respond to the needs of those nearest us. Which solution preserves healthy and harmonious relationships among those involved? Humanizes morality but risks tribalism. Replaces a culture’s moral rules with loyalty to those whose lives touch our own.