Good or Bad?: How Ethics Can Help Us Decide

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Good or Bad? : How Ethics Can Help Us Decide
Frances M Gierbolini
PHI208: Ethics and Moral Reasoning
Instructor: Victor Reppert
March 12, 2013

Good or Bad? : How Ethics Can Help Us Decide
One of the more popular approaches to determining good from bad is to apply utilitarian ethics. This essentially means that if given a choice between two acts the act that benefits the majority should be chosen. Philosophers use the term “utility” to express this idea, and “utility” is defined as the “satisfaction one gets from something” (Bowles, 2010, Section ‘Utilitarianism,’ Para. 2). When considering whether an act is good or bad using the utilitarian approach one would consider whether the consequence of the act has a positive or negative impact on the majority of those affected. There are pros and cons to using utilitarian ethics when considering morality and both will be discussed here; however, in my opinion, it is better to approach solving moral issues by applying deontology and virtue ethics.

Ethics provides us with the tools to determine what is right or wrong and good or bad. As Bowles indicates, “[e]thics, or moral philosophy, investigates how we can evaluate our behavior in terms of right and wrong, good and bad—in short, how we determine what we should do, what we should not do, and how to tell the difference” (Bowles, 2010, Section 2.1, Para. 1). Ethics also provides us with a way to identify our values and categorize them in order to apply them to the appropriate situations. Aristotle’s indicates that there is no ethical theory that can offer a set “decision procedure;” however, ethics can “help show what is attractive about the virtues, and they also help systematize our understanding of which qualities are virtues” (Aristotle’s Ethics, 2001, Section 5.2, Para. 1). In order to accomplish this it is necessary to have a standard of values to measure our goals and actions against. From a utilitarian perspective, the consequences of actions and whether they will benefit the majority should determine the standard that we use to weigh decisions.

There are many that consider utilitarianism an easy and useful approach to making ethical decisions. “We can usually distribute goods, services, or even our time in a number of different ways; often it seems to be a "no–brainer" that the best approach is to choose in such a way as to satisfy as many people as possible, by making them as happy as possible, compared to any other available choice” (Mosser, 2010, Section ‘Utilitarianism,’ Para. 5). For most of us, it would appear to be common sense to consider the consequences of our actions before making a decision. The problem lies in the plausibility of someone being capable of predicting the future and all the different possible consequences. Also, utilitarianism takes this a step further in asking us to consider the consequences to the majority rather than just ourselves. When dealing with ethical decisions this would seem a rational way of approaching the question of whether the act will be good or bad. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to put into practice when it is necessary to consider the needs of the majority especially when they may conflict with yours, or your family’s, needs. A possible solution was suggested in the form of the distinction between “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism.” Act utilitarianism only evaluates an individual act, whereas rule utilitarianism evaluates the kinds of acts and suggests that, as a rule, one acts only in the interest of the greater good even if act utilitarianism may have justified the act based on the individual’s pleasure. It is a possible guideline for utilitarian ethics; however, in my opinion, it is not practical especially when considering the problem of minority groups being oppressed by the majority (Bowles, 2010).

One of the arguments against utilitarian ethics concerns the process of calculating the outcome, or the...
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