How to Know What the Right Thing to Do Is
The Moral Point of View suggests that sometimes people have to set aside their own interests and act in the best interests of others. This notion of doing what’s best for others – at least some of the time – underlies ethical behavior. It is also important in understanding why ethical reasoning methods work as they do.
Individuals adopt different points of view on a daily basis. One might say it is acceptable to pick up a ten-dollar bill that someone else drops and keep it for themselves. Others may say the money doesn’t belong to them; they haven’t earned it so have no right to it and should return it. Each has a different point of view that we might broadly label as self-interested versus concern for others.
Given that different views are possible, how are we to know whether one point of view is “better” than the others? Alternatives have to be identified and choices have to be made but from what perspective? We need to understand how each perspective affects the choices.
Frohlich and Oppenheimer address these issues and point out that in decisions with a moral content, let’s say when our actions affect others, we must identify them as decisions that “should be taken from a moral point of view.” They characterize decisions with moral content “as those in which the alternatives have consequences which affect the values of persons other than the decision maker.” The authors are quick to point out that their analysis only requires that consequences to others be built into the analysis.
Some theorists point to moral and intellectual virtue as a valid choice. We are to develop positive traits of character through practice and repetition to be a good person -- a moral person. Others turn to rights/duties/justice considerations. Frankena among others conceive of the moral point of view as that when one is willing to universalize one’s judgments so that they apply to everyone.
Consider this case scenario. Following a protest march in a small town where passions were inflamed, some people throw bricks through the window of store fronts and loot merchandise. The townspeople are furious as many of them have been directly affected and they want the guilty brought to justice now. The authorities decide to lay blame on a repeat offender who is known to the townspeople to have committed thefts in the past. A citizen comes forward and says the man was with her that day and couldn’t have committed the crime. Still, the police search for the man to bring him to justice. The citizen decides to hide the man on her property, risking her own well-being for him. The citizen acted ethically; acted in accordance with the moral point of view. Why? Because the innocent have a right not to be falsely accused. Because it is wrong to treat someone as a tool to serve one’s ends even if it brings more happiness to the townspeople.
The moral point of view underlies ethical behavior and is an integral part of ethical reasoning methods such as Kantian Rights Theory, which holds that under the Formula of Humanity, people must always be treated as an end, not merely a means. The Formula of Universality says that actions should have a universal perspective to them; you would will them to be a universal law. Surely, as an ethical society, we wouldn’t want the innocent to be sought out and punished for something they didn’t do.
Utilitarianism also applies in a limited way so as not to rationalize actions based on the consequences, which may be harmful to others (i.e., the innocent man). We wouldn’t want the authorities to say the harm to the innocent man is outweighed by giving the townspeople what they want – revenge – and, possibly, to avoid further protests or worse. One version of utilitarianism that makes sense is Rule Utilitarianism, which holds that certain rules should never be violated regardless of the outcomes, i.e., never falsely blame the innocent.
Ethical decision-making is challenging at best; downright difficult at worst. Whenever our needs conflict with others, we should look to the moral point of view to ensure our actions meet this basic test of morality and apply it to the ethical reasoning methods to ensure the best choice is made.