Ethics in Practice
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Ethics in Practice

An Anthology

Hugh LaFollette, Hugh LaFollette

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eBook - ePub

Ethics in Practice

An Anthology

Hugh LaFollette, Hugh LaFollette

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The fourth edition of Ethics in Practice offers an impressive collection of 70 new, revised, and classic essays covering 13 key ethical issues. Essays integrate ethical theory and the discussion of practical moral problems into a text that is ideal for introductory and applied ethics courses.

  • A fully updated and revised edition of this authoritative anthology of classic and contemporary essays covering a wide range of ethical and moral issues
  • Integrates ethical theory with discussions of practical moral problems, and includes three essays on theory written specifically for this volume
  • Nearly half of the essays are written or revised exclusively for this anthology, which now also features eleven essays new to this edition, as well as expanded sections discussing theory, reproductive technologies, war and terrorism, and animals
  • Content allows teachers to discuss discrete practical issues (e.g., euthanasia), focus on the broader grouping of topics (e.g., life and death), or focus on common themes which bridge sections (sexism, moral standing, individualism and community)
  • Section introductions not only outline the basic issues discussed in the essays, but relate them to theoretical perspectives and practical issues discussed elsewhere in the book.
  • Guides students with supporting introductory essays on reading philosophy, theorizing about ethics, writing a philosophy paper, and a supporting web site at

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Part I

Ethical Theory

Ethical Theory

In THEORIZING ABOUT ETHICS, I briefly outlined the most prominent ethical theories. In this section, I include essays elaborating and defending three of these: Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Theory. I also include an essay discussing Rights. Rights are usually associated with deontology, but more than a few consequentialists also appeal to rights. You will find that a number of the authors in this volume expressly discuss rights; having a better sense of what Rights are will make it easier to understand their essays.
William Shaw elucidates the “standard view” of consequentialism: We should act in ways that we reasonably predict will maximize the best overall consequences. Of course, unseen circumstances may lead even the best intentioned actions to have less than stellar consequences. However, the aim of a moral theory is to be action guiding, and our actions cannot be rationally guided by information we do not have and cannot be expected to have.
This theory reflects elements of most people’s understanding of morality. We clearly see concern with consequences at work in both essays on capital punishment (does it deter?). It is also explicitly employed in the discussion of cloning (BIOMEDICAL TECHNOLOGIES) and by Singer in his discussions of WORLD HUNGER and ANIMALS. Consequentialism also influences other authors’ thinking, in less explicit ways. Gardiner on the ENVIRONMENT and Wright, Cullen, and Beaver in PUNISHMENT evaluate the effects of various actions and policies without specifically using utilitarian principles. Hooker, on the other hand, explicitly employs consequentialist reasoning in his essay on EUTHANASIA, albeit in a form (rule utilitarianism) different from that advocated by Shaw.
To explore the subtleties of the theory, Shaw explains and responds to a variety of questions about and objections to consequentialism. These discussions are instrumental in articles discussing several particular practical issues in this volume. For instance, a familiar criticism of consequentialism is that it is too demanding: that under most conditions, it requires agents to make significant sacrifices of their own well-being in the quest to produce the best consequences. This criticism takes center stage in John Arthur’s criticism of Singer’s claim that we are morally obligated to help the poor of the world (WORLD HUNGER). Shaw explains why he thinks this objection to consequentialism is not telling. Shaw acknowledges this would be a forceful objection to consequentialism if it were an integral part of the theory. However, he thinks consequentialists have ready explanations for why they don’t buy such a stringent view of morality.
A second (related) criticism of utilitarianism is that it does not appropriately moral distinguish omissions from actions. According to most deontological theories, there is a critical moral difference between harms we perpetrate and harms we permit to happen. This challenge is explicitly discussed (and rejected) by Pojman (PUNISHMENT) and hinted at by Rachels (FAMILY AND SEXUALITY). A variant of this criticism is used by Husak to criticize current drug laws (PATERNALISM AND RISK).
McNaughton and Rawling explain the second major ethical theory: deontology. They identify three key features of these theories: options, constraints, and special relationships. Deontologists claim that individuals sometimes have options to pursue their own projects and interests, even if they thereby fail to promote the good (a view explicitly endorsed by Arthur in WORLD HUNGER). They also claim that individuals are morally constrained from harming others, even if in so doing they could thereby promote a greater good. Often this idea is expressed in the language of rights: that individuals have rights that limit what could be done to them, no matter what the benefits (or costs) to others. The idea of rights, developed in Rainbolt’s essay, plays a central role in many issues we discuss. For instance, Anderson argues that commercial surrogacy treats children and women as mere commodities and thereby violates moral constraints against their being used by others.
The third element is the moral significance of special relationships: the claim that people can (or should) be more concerned about their friends and family than about others – even if others have more substantial and more pressing needs. This is an issue Rachels explicitly rejects (FAMILY AND SEXUALITY).
Despite these commonalities, deontologists disagree about exactly which rights and options we have, to whom they apply, and precisely how strong they are. For instance, Hawk argues that the moral constraints against killing others are absolute. That is why he thinks war is never morally permissible (WAR, TERRORISM, AND RECONCILIATION). Clearly most deontologists disagree. To that extent, they deny that constraints are absolute. If constraints are not absolute, then deontologists should explain precisely when other moral considerations, say, the consequences of our actions, can override constraints against killing, truth-telling, and so on.
Other deontologists – most especially Tom Regan – argue that the same constraints that bar us from harming humans, also bar us from harming nonhuman animals, for example, by eating them or using them in experiments. Many deontologists would disagree. This illustrates my earlier claim (THEORIZING ABOUT ETHICS) that it is best not to think of theories as prescriptions for moral action, but rather as different ways of reasoning morally.
Rainbolt focuses on an important element of most deontological theories, namely, “rights.” He thinks rights talk fits much better with a deontological theory than with any other ethical perspective. This is certainly the most common view. However, some consequentialists (e.g., Singer) write as if they think there is a way for them to accept some version of rights. And John Stuart Mill, an early advocate of modern utilitarianism, thought consequentialism not only countenanced rights, but provided the best explanation for them (1979: especially chapter V). That view has been most recently defended by Wayne Sumner (1987).
As Rainbolt correctly notes in his opening paragraph, the notion of rights pervades any number of entries in this volume. The problem is that people often make frivolous claims of rights. Rainbolt seeks to carefully distinguish between frivolous and serious claims. One of the key distinctions he makes is between an active and a passive right. Although his use of this terminology differs somewhat from other authors, you will see the distinction at work in a variety of essays, including LaFollette’s discussion of animal experimentation (ANIMALS) and Pogge’s discussion of WORLD HUNGER.
Hursthouse describes the third major theory: virtue ethics. Virtue theory differs significantly from the other standard theories. While consequentialists and deontologists are concerned about what people morally ought to do and are forbidden from doing, virtue theory is primarily concerned about the kinds of character we should develop. Virtue theorists hold that any life worth living must be one in which people inculcate the virtues. The excellent person is one who not only does what the virtuous person does, but does so for the right reasons. She must also enjoy doing it.
This theory differs fairly dramatically from the first two. So much so, that you might wonder if such a theory can give us any guidance in knowing how to behave. Many virtue theorists think it can. For instance, in her essay on ABORTION, Hursthouse claims that the current debate is dominated by consequentialists and deontologists, and thereby unduly narrows the moral questions. She claims we should be asking not only what a woman should be permitted to do, but what a virtuous person would do. In a vaguely similar way, Hill argues that thinking about the virtues (human excellences) could lead one to cherish non-sentient nature in ways that would lead her to work to preserve nature for reasons not given on standard ethical grounds (ENVIRONMENT).
At least one author included here has serious misgivings about the adequacy of virtue ethics. Doris (PUNISHMENT) claims that our best empirical evidence shows that few if any humans have the character traits or virtues that are the centerpiece of this ethic. Therefore, trying to encourage people to develop certain virtues is unproductive. It would be far better, he argues, if we worked to change our environment in ways that are likely to make us act better.
These four essays do not cover all the theoretical territory. However, they do provide a broad map of the principal theories. And they do so in a way that helps the reader better see the interrelationship between theory and practice.


1 Mill, J. S. (1979) Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
2 Sumner, L. W. (1987) The Moral Foundation of Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



William H. Shaw
Philosophers use the term consequentialism to identify a general way of thinking about right and wrong and thereby provide a convenient label for a whole family of theories or possible theories in normative ethics. Consequentialist ethical theories maintain that right and wrong are a function of the consequences of our actions – more precisely, that our actions are right or wrong because, and only because, of their consequences. The only because is important since almost all ethical theories take consequences into account when assessing actions, and almost all philosophers believe that the consequences of our actions at least sometimes affect their rightness or wrongness. What distinguishes consequentialist from nonconsequentialist ethical theories is the insistence that when it comes to rightness or wrongness, nothing matters but the results of our actions.
When consequentialists affirm that the results or consequences of an action determine whether it is right or wrong, they have in mind, more specifically, the value of those results. That is, it is the goodness or badness of an action’s consequences that determines its rightness or wrongness. Different consequentialist theories link the rightness or wrongness of actions to the goodness or badness of their results in different ways. Rather than discuss these different possibilities, I shall focus here on the most familiar and widely discussed form of consequentialism, which I call standard consequentialism. It may also be the most attractive form of consequentialism. In any case, it is helpful to concentrate on one reasonably specific version of consequentialism. (Unless otherwise indicated, from now on when I write “consequentialism,” I shall have “standard consequentialism” in mind.)

Standard Consequentialism

In its standard form, consequentialism asserts that the morally right action for an agent to perform is the one that has the best consequences or that results in the most good. In this sense, it is a maximizing doctrine. We are not merely permitted or encouraged, but morally required, to act so as to bring about as much good as we can. Consequentialists are interested in the consequences not only of one’s acting in various positive ways, but also of one’s refraining from acting. For example, if I ignore a panhandler’s request for rent money, then one result of this may be that his family must sleep outside tonight. If so, then consequentialists will take this fact into account when assessing my conduct.
It could happen that an agent has several actions open to him, each of which will have equally good results. In that case, there is no single best action and, hence, no uniquely right action. The agent acts rightly if he or she performs any one of these actions. Another possibility is that an action might have bad consequences and yet be the right thing to do. This will be the case if all alternative actions have worse results. Finally, when consequentialists refer to the results or consequences of an action, they have in mind the entire upshot of the action, that is, its overall outcome. They are concerned with whether, and to what extent, the world is better or worse because the agent has elected a given course of conduct. Thus, consequentialists can take into account whatever value, if any, an action has in itself as well as the goodness or badness of its subsequent effects.

The good is agent-neutral and independent of the right

Standard consequentialism assumes that we can sometimes makes objective, impartial, and agent-neutral judgments about the comparative goodness or badness of different states of affairs. At least sometimes it will be the case that one outcome is better than another outcome – not better merely from some particular perspective, but better, period. Thus, for example, it is a better outcome (all other things being equal) when eight people have headaches and two people die than when two people have headaches and eight people die. Most people believe this, as do most philosophers, including most nonconsequentialists. However, some nonconsequentialists contend that this idea makes no sense (e.g., Thomson, 2001, pp. 12–19, 41). One state of affairs can be better for Fred or worse for Sarah than another state of affairs, they say, but it can’t be said to be just plain better. There is no such thing as being just plain better, only better along some particular dimension or better for someone or better from some perspective. Consequentialists disagree.
They take it for granted not only that the goodness or badness of an action’s outcome is an objective, agent-neutral matter, but also that this is something that can be identified prior to, and independently of, the normative assessment of the action. The point, after all, of consequentialism is to use the goodness or badness of an action to determine its rightness or wrongness. And circularity would threaten the theory if our notions of right and wrong infect our assessment of consequences as good or bad. Standard consequentialism thus assumes that we can identify states of affairs as good or bad, better or worse, without reference to normative principles of right and wrong.

Expected consequences, not actual consequences, are what count

According to standard consequentialism, then, an action is right if and only if nothing the agent could do would have better results. However, we rarely know ahead of time and for certain what the consequences will be of each of the possible actions we could perform. Consequentialism therefore says that we should choose the action, the expected value of the outcome of which is at least as great as that of any other action open to us. The notion of expected value is mathematical in origin and conceptualized as follows. Every action that we might perform has a number of possible outcomes. The likelihood of those outcomes varies, but each can be assumed to have a certain probability of happening. In addition, each possible outcome of a given action has a certain value; that is, it is good or bad to some specified degree. Assume for the sake of discussion that we can assign numbers both to probabilities and to values. One would then calculate the expected value of hypothetical action A, with (let us suppose) three possible outcomes, by multiplying the probability of each outcome times its value and summing the three figures. Suppose that the first possible outcome has a probability of 0.7 and a value of 3, the second outcome has a probability of 0.2 and a value of −1, and the third outcome a probability of 0.1 and a value of 2. The expected value of A is thus (0.7 × 3) + (0.2 × −1) + (0.1 × 2), which equals 2.1. A is the right action to perform if and only if no alternative has a greater expected value than this.
In reality, of course, we never have more than rough estimates of probabilities and values. Indeed, we are likely to be ignorant of some possible outcomes or misjudge their goodness or badness, and we may overlook altogether some possible courses of action. Nevertheless, the point being made is important. Consequentialism instructs the agent to do what is likely to have the best results as judged by what a reasonable and conscientious person in the agent’s circumstances could be expected to know. It might turn out...