How Should We Live? A Very Brief Introduction to Ethics

“Every pursuit aims at some good.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

“Pride comes before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18

Introduction
Students in both my graduate level Corporate Integrity class and my freshmen level Core Texts class read quite a bit of philosophy. Some consider philosophy boring or impractical, but in some ways philosophy is the most practical of academic disciplines because it helps us think about the things that matter most in life.  Philosophy deals with the good, the true, and the beautiful (ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics), the necessary components of a life well lived. Ethics helps us think about what a good life looks like.

From a Christian perspective, a good life comes by grace through faith in Christ, but the gift of grace is not the end of the Christian life. Instead, grace should motivate right behavior. The field of ethics helps us think carefully about right behavior. What is good? How should we live? The major of schools of ethical thought help us answer these questions. Let me list four, describe them, and discuss their strengths and limitations.

1. Consequentialist Ethics. Sometimes called teleological ethics, consequentialism focuses on the outcome of a particular behavior. An action is good if it achieves a good end. There are two forms of consequentialism, egoism (act to maximize your own good) and utilitarianism (act to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number). Of course questions remain as to what goods should be maximized and for whom. Should we, for example, prioritize a growing economy or a clean environment? Should we sacrifice the needs of a wealthy minority for the needs of the poor majority? And how might we distinguish between needs and desires? Surely we desire many things that we do not genuinely need.

2. Rule or Duty Ethics. Sometimes called deontological ethics, rule or duty ethics focus on the obligations, rules, principles, laws, norms or duties that guide behavior. An action is good if it conforms to an accepted rule or duty. One classic expression of deontological ethics includes Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: treat people as ends not means, and act only on that principle that you would will to be a universal law. Another expression of deontology includes John Locke’s Social Contract Theory: if you choose to live in a society, you should respect the rights of others within that society. Deontology, however, raises obvious questions. How do we determine rules, duties, and rights? Are there ever exceptions to a rule? Can I tell a lie to save a life (as many did, for example, to hide Jews from the Nazis)?

3. Virtue Ethics. Sometimes called character ethics, this school of thought focuses on the development of virtue, the traits that lead to ethical decisions. An action is good if it embodies a virtue (integrity, trustworthiness, humility) and avoids a vice (greed, dishonesty, arrogance). Of course one might ask what virtues are most important, and whether or not it is possible for a vice sometimes to produce a good outcome.

4. Divine Command Theory. Here, an action is right if God commands it. There are two (mutually exclusive?) forms of divine command theory: (1) Plato – God only commands actions that are good, and (2) Ockham – Any action God commands is good. Plato’s view runs the risk of placing good over, God if it is something to which God is bound. Ockham’s view runs the risk of making good entirely arbitrary, such that humans could never know what was good apart from specific rules. Divine command theory raises some obvious questions. Which god’s command should be followed? How can one truly know God has commanded an action? Can God command something seemingly unethical (as when God commands Abraham to murder his son Isaac)?

Conclusion
No single school of ethical thought solves every moral dilemma. Some situations involve unavoidable moral complexity. Each school of thought contributes something to the conversation, but each has obvious limitations. Most people utilize a combination decision-making philosophies, but gravitate toward one in particular. It is wise to know one’s own ethical tendencies and to understand the strengths and weaknesses of that school of thought. To know what you don’t know requires humility, without which the good life (and God’s grace) will likely elude you.

Ethics Theology