A Framework for Judging Right from Wrong
I am a big supporter of teaching virtues and values to both college students and professionals. The reason is they lay a foundation for ethical behavior. In this blog I will explain why.
Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that govern our actions and represent the intention behind purposeful action. They are the foundation of the choices we make. We conceive of it as something that is important to an individual (personal values), a community (societal values), and to a profession (professional values).
Values have intrinsic worth but are not necessarily universally accepted. For example, the right of free speech that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is a community-wide norm that governs behavior in American society. In other countries, such as North Korea, citizens cannot practice free speech.
Moral values underlie what is considered right and wrong by an individual or community. It is the foundation of a person’s ability to judge between right and wrong. Moral values enable a person to make proper judgments in a specific situation. For example, cheating on a college exam is wrong while studying hard to ace the exam is right. Conversely, if someone values achievement and success over honesty, that person may opt to cheat on the exam in order to achieve the desired result. This relates to which value is “worth more” to the individual.
A person who values prestige, power, and wealth likely will act out of self-interest, whereas a person who values honesty, integrity, and trust will strive to consider the interests of others in deciding what to do. It does not follow, however, that acting in the best interests of others always precludes acting in one’s own self-interest. Indeed, the Golden Rule prescribes that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.
The Josephson Institute of Ethics identifies Six Pillars of Character that provide a foundation to guide ethical decision making. These ethical values include trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Josephson believes that the Six Pillars act as a multilevel filter through which to process decisions. So, being trustworthy is not enough—we must also be caring. Adhering to the letter of the law is not enough; we must accept responsibility for our actions or inactions.
According to “virtue ethics,” there are certain ideals, such as excellence or dedication to the common good, toward which we should strive, and which allow the full development of our humanity. These ideals are discovered through thoughtful reflection on what we as human beings have the potential to become.
Virtues are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues in Aristotelian ethics. A quote attributed to Aristotle is, “We are what we repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence is not an act. It is a habit.”
Virtue theorists place less emphasis on learning rules and instead stress the importance of developing good habits of character, such as kindness. Plato emphasized four virtues, which were later called cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Other important virtues are fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper, and sincerity. In addition to advocating good habits of character, virtue theorists hold that we should avoid acquiring bad character traits, or vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. Virtue theory emphasizes moral education because virtuous character traits are developed in one’s youth. Adults, therefore, are responsible for instilling virtues in the young.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre states that the exercise of virtue requires “a capacity to judge and to do the right thing in the right place at the right time in the right way.” Judgment is exercised not through a routinizable application of the rules, but as a function of possessing those dispositions/tendencies (i.e., virtues) that enable choices to be made about what is good for people and by holding in check desires for something other than what will help achieve this goal.
At the heart of the virtue approach to ethics is the idea of “community” and all who practice in it. MacIntyre relates virtues to the rewards of a practice. He differentiates between the external rewards of a practice (such as money, fame, and power) and the internal rewards, which relate to the intrinsic value of a particular practice. MacIntyre points out that every practice requires a certain kind of relationship between those who participate in it. The virtues are the standards of excellence that characterize relationships within the practice. To enter a practice is to accept the authority of those standards, obedience to the rules, and commitment to achieve the internal rewards. A good example is the medical community.
Virtue ethics examines the character traits of individuals. It differs from other ethical reasoning methods in that virtue ethics applies to both the individual decision maker and the decision itself. Other reasoning methods examine the thought process of those who make decisions with ethical connotations. For example, Rights Theory examines the rights and obligations to others in the decision-making process. If someone has an ethical right to be treated in one way, then I have an ethical obligation to do so in all dealings. However, the rights of stakeholders may conflict making the Rights Theory difficult to apply in some cases.
Utilitarianism looks at the costs and benefits of various possible actions and selects the one that maximizes the net benefits to stakeholders. This method suffers from the sometimes “ends justify the means” approach to decision making. I do not believe we should make decisions that can be justified using that reasoning because if we accepted it as the best ethical reasoning method then I could justify most decisions by saying more people are benefitted than harmed. It could create a rationalization for an unethical decision. In other words, the way we get to a decision is just as important, and even more important, than the final decision. For example, I might decide to promote someone in my organization based on what I believe to be good skills and results. However, if that person is seen as an excessively aggressive individual by most of the other workers, then making the promotion decision might harm more than who are benefitted by it, and that person should not be promoted or else it might harm productivity. The point I am making is each of us may have a different calculus in deciding what to do.
This brings me back to virtue ethics.
The Benefits of Virtue Ethics
I believe our society is suffering from a lack of ethical people who are sensitive to the views of others but, instead, act on self-interest. They may not be patient enough to listen to the other side with an open mind, debate the issues fully, and make the best decision for society. For example, Democrats are generally more supportive of illegal immigration but is that best for society given the stresses we deal with today? Are the added budget requirements – i.e., free health care and education – beneficial and desired by society?
Republicans lauded the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week overturning Roe v. Wade but is that in the best interest of society? Will more women be harmed than benefited. How should we consider the rights of the unborn?
To be clear, I am not promoting one side of these issues or the other. I’m just suggesting that values and virtues and, indeed, ethical behavior in civil society must return to the forefront of decision-making to avoid the growing rift between parties and what is tearing society apart.
The bottom line is ethics is easier said then done. What’s missing in society today is the desire of one side of the issue to examine the views of the other side rather than adopting a position that promotes the party’s political agenda.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on June 30, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.