When you hear the word ethics you probably think of things that are considered ethical in the society such as sustainable development, fair trade and all other overwhelmingly world embracing ideologies eco hippies are a bit too vocal about. But there's a lot more to the term than that! Ethics is a set of values that we used in our reasoning. It's closely related to moral which refers to understanding what is right and wrong. As it turns out, ethical thinking can be a lot more than just world embracing handwaving and pretentious strive for anything that is considered ethically desirable in the society. We can actually do ethical thinking from three different points of view covered in this post. 😊
When evaluating whether a decision is ethical or not from the consequentialist point of view, the main weight is in evaluating the consequences of the decision. What are the good and bad consequences? Also, it's important to identify all the parties affected by the decision. If you fail to identify all the parties involved, you might consider that getting peat out of swamps for energy is a good thing, because it will benefit people and there are plenty of swamps. However, this would ignore the fauna and flora of these swamps and that there could be a threat to the biodiversity of the swamps in question.
If we analyze the previous example more, we can easily conclude that even if we identified all the parties and the consequences caused to them, how can we measure the weight of the consequences? It's not easy to compare the benefit of cheap energy to the harm it causes to the nature. Which one is more important? Can the nature be harmed if we managed to produce enough energy for a small village for a year with the peat? What about if we could produce electricity for a big city or an entire state with the peat of one swamp? How much electricity is enough to justify depriving those poor little animals from their homes?
Consequentialism tries to maximize gain and minimize loss. In order to assess how meaningful the gains are in relation to the losses, it boils down to personal values. Which one is more important: cheap electricity or intact nature? And what about the timespan? Electricity lasts for an ephemeral moment, while the damage done to the biodiversity takes long to recover.
Rule based ethics
Rule based approach doesn't take the consequences into account at all. People not freezing in their houses because of peat powered electricity and animals losing their habitat is completely irrelevant. What counts more are existing rules governing the decision we are to make. If there's a law about it, following it is the ethical way to do things. This is really something you would wish all governmental offices to follow.
In rule based ethics the rules are same for everyone, universally. They don't depend on the situation. The problem is that it's difficult to change the rules, and as we all know, there are a lot of laws that are unfair, usually at least towards one group of people. In those cases, following the rules blindly isn't necessarily a good thing. Furthermore, if ethics is always defined by the rules, then questioning them becomes harder and harder.
The deepest question in virtue ethics is: who do I want to be? Finding out your own deepest values and aligning your actions and decisions so that they will all follow these core values is what virtue ethics is all about. It's also important to ask why. In virtue ethics, two different actions that would be either right or wrong from the point of view of the two other approaches to ethics, can both be right depending on the reason why they were taken. Not telling the truth might be justifiable if telling it would hurt the other person's feelings, for example.
Next time you are facing with an ethical problem, you can try to break it down from all these different points of view. They might provide you with different answers in which case you are dealing with an ethical dilemma. In such a case, it just boils down into picking the most important values to follow. 😊