Joel Adair- Honor’s
Resolving Problems in Engineering Ethics: Precept and Example
1.0 Studies of Ethics
There have been many theories developed through the centuries concerning the principles and applications of ethics. Each has a unique approach to determining ethical behavior based on the ideology upon which the theory is founded. Some of the theories have their roots in religion, others in philosophy and logic. While a thorough study of the important ethical philosophies is far beyond the scope of this work, a short discussion of some of the more prominent theories is in order to assess some of the tools available for ethical problem solving in engineering applications.
1.1 Teleological Theories
Classical ethical theories can be categorized in two major divisions, the first being teleological. These theories measure the worth of an action by its results: The best action produces the greatest good for the most people. The emphasis is on determining what is good, rather than what is right (Ward, 1998). Consequently, it is possible to select a course of action which is harmful or unjust to an individual or group, as long as the benefits to others outweigh these negative effects. As long as the action produces more good than harm, it is ethically correct, according to teleological theory.
Evaluating an action based solely on its results creates difficulty, in that it is troublesome – often impossible – to ascertain all of the many consequences. The complexities of an issue due to such considerations as the interrelationships between people and systems and uncertainties in the many variables make it problematic to predict accurately the consequences of an action. Thus, teleological theories are limited in their usefulness for guiding a person through an ethical dilemma.
Furthermore, adherents of these theories do not seek to evaluate the process used to reach a goal or outcome. The common philosophical question of "Do the ends justify the means?" is not an issue in teleological theories because the means are irrelevant. Since the results are the only measure of the value of an action, any methods, no matter how questionable, can be justified to achieve any desirable objective.
Act-Utilitarianism, advocated by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), is the most strict teleological theory. As explained by Edward Gehringer, professor at North Carolina State University, this theory states that the greatest good is achieved by the act that produces the greatest amount of happiness – the only intrinsically good thing – for the greatest number of people (1998). It stresses that in evaluating an action, a person must consider everyone affected, not just the person or people directly involved in the situation. For instance, the decision to use a particular energy resource requires a determination of the effects of its consumption on future generations, as well as those of the present-day society that will directly benefit from the use of the resource. Needless to say, accurately predicting these results can be extremely challenging.
A further difficulty with Act-Utilitarianism is its focus on the uniqueness of specific choices. Because each situation is different, actions that were ethical in situation "A" might not be the proper choice for actions in situation "B," even though the scenarios could be nearly identical. If there is a small difference that has an effect on the amount of "goodness" produced, the proper course of action might be radically different. As Professor Martin of the Department of Philosophy at Chapman University explains:
Like Act-Utilitarianism, Rule-Utilitarianism seeks to obtain the greatest happiness for the most people, but it does this in an indirect manner. Rule-Utilitarianism requires that there first be an established set of rules, laws, or other behavioral standards. These might be commandments established by God, laws enacted by the people, or guidelines created by a professional society. Whatever the source, the objective of these standards is to prescribe behavior that will result in the greatest good for the people and proscribe behavior that does not promote happiness for the majority. Ethical behavior, then, is behavior which is in harmony with the established rules. The maxims that could only serve as general guidelines to the Act-Utilitarians are the basis for Rule-Utilitarianism. Thus, explains Professor Martin, according to the Rule-Utilitarians, "we ought to keep promises and avoid bribes, even when those acts do not have the best consequences in a particular situation, because the general practices of promising and not bribing produce the most overall good (compared to other practices)" (1996).
Richard Brandt is one of the key contemporary promoters of Rule-Utilitarianism. In his theory, Brandt disagrees with Mill’s opinion that happiness is the only intrinsically good thing, stating that certain "rational desires" are also good. These include such things as friendship, love, understanding and appreciation of beauty (Martin, 1996). Thus, an action is ethical if it increases any of these intrinsically good things better than other actions.
1.4 Deontological Theories
The other major category of ethical theories is deontological theory. Deontological theories are diametrically opposed to teleological theories in that they stress doing what is right, no matter what the consequences may be. Rather than measuring the value of an action by its consequences, deontological theories assert that an action is intrinsically right or wrong. The rightness of an action is usually felt more than it is measured or analyzed, as in teleological theory.
The following sections will explain the various standards used by each of the deontological theories to measure the "rightness" of an action. Though each has a unique motivation, each judges actions based upon their adherence to some critically important ideal. In each case, the principle around which the theory is based is seen as intrinsic and vital to humanity. Furthermore, because principles are intrinsic, it is usually a person’s conscience that tells them when they have violated the ethical law. Thus, ethical behavior is seen as a fundamental ingredient of human existence.
1.5 Duty Theory
The first deontological theory to be discussed is Duty Theory, developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The characteristic argument of this theory is that ethical behavior is initiated by duty, or an undeniable sense of what ought to be done, as dictated by the conscience intrinsic to every individual. William Turner, contributor to The Catholic Encyclopedia, writes:
1.6 Justice Theory
Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921- ) has expanded upon Kant’s philosophy to create another theory commonly referred to as the Justice Theory. To apply this theory, Rawls suggests:
In this original position, behind the veil of ignorance,
what will the rational choice be for fundamental principles of society?
The only safe principles will be fair principles, for you do not know whether
you would suffer or benefit from the structure of any biased institutions.
Indeed the safest principles will provide for the highest minimum standards
of justice in the projected society. (Kay, 1997)
Of course, the difficulty with applying this theory involves the fair amount of imagination needed to place one’s self "in an original position behind a veil of ignorance." It is not simple to let go of one’s biases, prejudices and attitudes in order to rationally determine the proper course of action that will ensure equitable results for everyone involved. However, if this difficulty can be overcome, this theory seems to have a considerable amount of power to produce ethical behavior.
1.7 Rights Theory
In the 1600’s John Locke (1632-1704) first presented his Rights Theory. The theory quickly became popular, heavily influencing the American and French revolutions. In fact, the inalienable rights discussed in the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – are nearly identical to the rights that Locke considered essential – life, liberty, and the property generated by one’s labor (Martin, 1996). According to P. Aarne Vesilind of Duke University, the theory has been the dominant ethical ideology in the United States and most of Western civilization for 200 years. It has become so much a part of our culture that many people wrongly consider the study of ethics to be merely a discussion of human rights (1998).
Mike W. Martin of Chapman University explains that Locke’s view of rights ethics was highly individualistic. That is, rights are entitlements that protect us from another’s unwanted interference with our lives (1996). The most basic of these rights are given to us merely by virtue of our being human, but they require an organized society to uphold them. This implies a social contract between members of society to respect and honor an individual’s rights. Creating such a contract forms an ethical society from what would be a chaotic collection of individuals each seeking his or her own personal welfare with no regard for others’ rights (Vesilind, 1998). Thus, in seeking to secure our own rights – an individualistic concern – we simultaneously must promise to protect the same rights for others.
Unfortunately, the modern interpretation of rights ethics is probably not what Locke or any of the early subscribers to the theory intended. Locke maintained that natural rights are given to mankind by God (Vesilind, 1998). Coupled with this belief was a strong foundation in reverence for God and His creations and strong adherence to Judeo-Christian virtues. Today, society has departed from the connection to Diety and the associated moral standard, and rights ethics has been warped in to a mindset that states, "I have the right to do anything I want." For rights ethics to be a useful guide, one must apply it in the manner in which it was originally intended, bounded by moral standards.
A. I. Melden (1910 – 1991) developed the theories of rights ethics along slightly different lines. In his version, he argues that "having moral rights presupposes the capacity to show concern for others and to be accountable within a moral community…. Melden’s account allows for more ‘positive’ welfare rights, which he defined as rights to community benefits needed for living a minimally decent human life" (Martin, 1996). The support of this theory is evident in government welfare programs, the intent of which are to provide a minimum standard of living for those who cannot provide it for themselves. However, like Locke’s version of this theory, it must be closely intertwined with virtue. If it is not, the systems of distributing welfare needs are certain to be corrupted.
1.8 Virtue Theory
All of the ethical theories discussed previously come from modern times; yet, the study of ethics as a philosophy has taken place for millennia. Looking back to ancient times, the writings of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) are the earliest secular treatises we have concerning ethical theory. Aristotle’s Virtue Theory is a significant contribution to the study of ethics, and will receive considerable attention here.
At the center of Aristotle’s theory is the concept of the "chief good." He explains this as "some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake." (Darwall, 1996). The chief good is not a means by which to achieve something else; it is an end unto itself. We desire the chief good simply because it is desirable. Stephen Darwall, professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, writes, "Aristotle remarks that there is broad agreement that the chief good is eudaimonia, which Ross translates ‘happiness,’ but is better understood as ‘flourishing.’... Aristotle gives a general, positive argument for the claim that the good life is a virtuous life" (1996).
The line of reasoning Aristotle uses to conclude that virtuous living allows one to obtain the chief good is intriguing. He begins by noting that among all living things, humans are unique, and, therefore, must have a unique function. This ability cannot be merely living, since this is common to all living things. Our function is not perception, since this is shared with the animals. Our one unique gift is the ability to reason, since this is the one function of which mankind alone is capable. Aristotle then defines virtue as "excellence in reason." Excellence in reason comes about when three components of virtue are present: First, a person must exhibit virtue of thought, or be capable of discerning right and wrong. Second, a person must exercise virtue of action and do what is right. Finally, a person must then have virtue of feeling, or receive pleasure from performing a virtuous action (Clancey, 1998). A person who characterizes these qualities exhibits excellence in reason, according to Aristotle, and will, therefore, obtain the chief good.
It is also of interest to note that Aristotle concludes that virtues are developed through application. Interpreting Aristotle, Professor Darwall writes,
While Aristotle’s theory explains learning to be virtuous as being somewhat akin to learning to play a musical instrument by practicing and habituating skills of musicianship, there is a notable difference. The value of playing an instrument is in the product – a beautifully played piece of music. The value of virtuous activity is in the action itself. Professor Darwall continues:
One other important point needs to be made regarding Aristotle’s virtues: Virtue is the "mean" between two opposing vices. Any character trait, if carried to the extreme, becomes a vice. Virtue is the balance of character traits found between opposite extremes of vice. For example, Aristotle views courage as the mean of confidence and fear. A person may possess too much confidence, leading him to foolishly underestimate a threat to life or safety. Conversely, a person may possess too much fear, leading him to react to danger with cowardice. Courage is the virtue between the extremes of these two vices. The difficulty lies in finding the mean, rather than exhibiting the vices on either extreme. Aristotle says that this is possible by applying a "rational principle." However, this rational principle seems to presuppose that a person already possesses a foundation of moral virtue. This brings Aristotle back, once again, to the importance of upbringing. It seems that a virtuous lifestyle must be initiated by an outside source, usually a parent. Once the beginnings of virtue are inculcated into a person’s mentality, the pattern of virtuous living is self-sustaining, assuming that the person recognizes rational principles and chooses to follow the virtuous path.
Alasdair MacIntyre, a contemporary ethicist, has renewed the interest in the application of virtue ethics in the realm of professional ethics. He states that the virtues that are important to the professional can be categorized in four groups. The first is self-direction virtues, such as self-understanding, humility, moral judgement, courage, self-discipline, perseverance and integrity. To these he adds the category of public-spirited virtues, such as beneficence, generosity, and compassion. The third category is team-work virtues, which include characteristics such as collegiality, loyalty, and leadership. The final category, entitled proficiency virtues, includes competence, diligence, creativity, and self-renewal (Martin 1996). MacIntyre maintains that these virtues are the building blocks of professional ethics, and that a professional will seek to develop these if she seeks to be successful.
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Other local references:
Malden Mills employee letters