Virtue ethics

Virtues (in the Aristotelian tradition) are qualities that humans alone bring to the world — and therefore explain, in some sense, why we are here.

Classical virtues include courage, honor, loyalty (to other people), applied intelligence, aesthetic sensibility, and sophrosyne (an ability to find the right balance when virtues conflict).

You act inconsistently with your purpose as a human being if you sacrifice one of the virtues.  Virtue ethics says that you should compromise a virtue only when necessary to preserve another virtue. 

Integrity is (literally) wholeness.  You lose integrity when your actions are not virtuous, because they conflict with who you are as a human being.

For a fuller explanation, watch the video Rational choice II (or read the transcript).  It is part of an online ethics tutorial that consists of the following 30-minute sessions:

Autonomy principle

The autonomy principle says that you shouldn’t interfere with freely chosen, ethical actions of other people without informed or implied consent.

This means, for example, that you shouldn’t kill others.  Serious injury, enslavement, and coercion violate autonomy when they interfere with freely chosen, ethical actions.  Respect for autonomy can be more precisely defined by the following principles:

Principle of joint autonomy.  You should not do anything that you are rationally constrained to believe is jointly incompatible with the freely chosen, ethical actions of a group of one or more other persons.  Throwing a bomb into a crowded street violates autonomy, even if there is no one person you know will be harmed by the bomb, because you know that someone on the street will be harmed.

Principle of interference.  Interfering with unethical behavior does not violate autonomy, because unethical behavior is not freely chosen action.  It has no coherent rationale and therefore cannot be distinguished from behavior that is not deliberately chosen.  For example, you can grab a mugger to prevent him from attacking a victim.  However, the interference must not go so far as to prevent ethical action, unless there is implied consent (see next point).  For example, you can’t lock someone in a closet to prevent him or her from cheating on income taxes, because this interferes with many ethical actions. Also, the principle refers to interference by an individual, not necessarily by the state.  Further argument is necessary to determine when and whether incarceration is justified, for example.

Principle of implied consent.  You can interfere with a person’s ethical action, without violating autonomy, when that person implicitly consents to a policy that is consistent with the interference.  You can tackle a distracted pedestrian who is about to walk into oncoming traffic, because the pedestrian already has a policy of not walking into traffic and therefore implicitly consents.  You can incapacitate a mugger, when necessary, to protect yourself from attack, even though this interferes with ethical as well as unethical actions, because the mugger already has a policy of self-defense and therefore gives implied consent.

Principle of informed consent.  You can expose a person or group of people to harm, without violating joint autonomy, when there is informed consent.  You can administer a vaccine to 1000 people even if you know that it will make someone ill, if all 1000 give informed consent. 

The autonomy principle doesn’t require you to give people anything they want; it only requires you not to interfere with free and ethical choices. Someone may want to use your car, but refusing to let them use it is not a violation of autonomy, because they can’t choose to use your car. They can only choose to ask permission use it. True, they can choose to use your car if it is unlocked and you leave your keys in it, but that choice would be unethical because it is illegal. Preventing them from getting into your car to drive it away would not be a violation of autonomy.

For additional explanation, watch the video Rational choice II (or read the transcript).  It is part of an online ethics tutorial that consists of the following 30-minute sessions:

Utilitarian principle

The utilitarian principle says your action is ethical only if you can rationally believe that it maximizes the total expected utility of everyone it affects.  It must create at least as much utility as any other option that satisfies the generalization principle and the autonomy principle.

Utility can be understood as happiness, or any other condition(s) you regard as intrinsically valuable.  It is the ultimate end (or ends) toward which all of your actions are means. 

Total utility is the algebraic sum of everyone’s utility, where negative consequences are regarded as having negative utility.

When the consequences of an action are uncertain but probabilities can be estimated, expected utility is the weighted average of utilities in all possible outcomes, where the weights are the probabilities of the outcomes.

An act that is consistent with the utilitarian principle can be said to pass the utilitarian test.

For a fuller explanation, watch the video Rational choice II (or read the transcript).  It is part of an online ethics tutorial that consists of the following 30-minute sessions:

Generalization principle

The generalization principle  requires that the reasons for your action be consistent with the assumption that everyone with the same reasons acts the same way. 

The reasons for your action are not psychological causes or motivations, but the reasons that you consciously take to justify taking the action. They must be sufficient and necessary, meaning that you would perform the action whenever all the reason apply, and you would not perform it if any one reason failed to apply.

An act that satisfies the generalization principle is said to be generalizable or to pass the generalization test.

Your act passes the generalization test only if you can rationally believe that the action would still achieve its purpose if everyone with the same reasons acted the same way.

For example, if you tell a lie simply because it is convenient to deceive someone, your reasons are: your lie will deceive someone, and the deception is convenient. This is not generalizable, because you cannot rationally believe that your lie would deceive anyone if people always lied when deception is convenient. People would assume you are lying like everybody else.

For a fuller explanation, watch the video Rational choice I (or read the transcript).  It is part of an online ethics tutorial that consists of the following 30-minute sessions:

How much sacrifice for a friend?

My cousin has been helping a friend with depression for 6 months. However, my cousin started school recently and has a very busy schedule of 6 courses and a job. She is reluctant to leave her friend alone with her suicidal thoughts, because she has no one else to turn to.  Yet she feels that she would be wronging herself to neglect her self-development. Should she sacrifice her time for her friend or focus on herself, given that she can’t do both?

Contributed by anonymous.

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Bribe for driver’s license

A few years ago, I registered for a driver’s license in my home country. I signed up for the compulsory classes and exams, which were expensive. After classes were completed, it was time for the driving test. Everything went smoothly, and I completed the test. When I went to retrieve my license, the official behind the counter told me that the results of the test would be released by the end of the day. However, if I wanted to pass, I had to give him a “tip” of a significant amount. He mentioned that everyone else gave him a “tip,” as anyone who did not would fail the driving test automatically. Should I pay the bribe?

Contributed by anonymous.

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Forgot to pay for food

My sister and her friends went to a private swimming pool at a fancy hotel. They had to pay an entrance fee but could stay as long as they wanted. The hotel serves food and drinks to pool guests, but they are not included in the entrance fee. My sister and her friends were in a hurry and left the hotel without paying for the food they ordered, which cost about $40. Later they remembered that they didn’t pay, but they let it go.

Contributed by anonymous.

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Standing up to hate

On 26 May 2017, three men tried to defend a pair of teenage girls, one wearing a head scarf, when a self-described white nationalist shouted anti-Muslim and racial slurs at them on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon.  The aggressor reacted by pulling out a knife and slashing all three men in the neck, killing two and seriously wounding the third.  Given the risk of standing up to hate, is there an ethical obligation to do so?

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Self-serving financial advice

As a business students, it has been drilled into our minds that the primary purpose of  business is to create value for shareholders.  A recent incident made me question this. My grandmother inherited some money from her father, and a banker convinced her to deposit it all into one of the bank’s mutual funds. This helped him to meet his sales quota, but even a freshman in business school knows that this is not a wise investment for a 65-year old. Wasn’t it unethical of him to take advantage of my grandmother’s trusting nature?

Contributed by a business student.

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Lying to parents

I overheard two girls I know having a discussion. One girl, whom I will call Maria, wanted to go out on the town alone. This was against her parents’ wishes, due to the risk involved. The girls agreed to tell their parents they were going to a mall together. Should I tell Maria’s parents what the girls are planning? If I do, the parents might ground Maria as well as lose trust in her.

Contributed by a high school student.

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