Doing the Right Thing
Ethics is the study of what it means to ‘do the right thing.’ Sara Basse, A Gift of Fire
But how do we know what is “the right thing?”
There are 3 approaches to determining the “right thing” often found in ethics textbooks.
One is the deontological approach or framework. This framework is based on a set of rules such as company rules, government rules, or religious rules such as the Ten Commandments. If the action in question adheres to the rules, it is considered to be the right thing to do in that context.
Another common approach uses the utilitarian framework. There are many varieties of this approach, but the basic idea is that the right thing to do is the thing that brings the most utility, or happiness, to the most people. While the action may help some and hurt others, if the benefits to some outweigh the costs to others, the action is “the right thing.”
The third framework, virtue ethics, takes a completely different approach—it examines the background of our moral decisions and actions. For example, it asks how a person who is generous will see a situation and its moral demands differently from someone who is greedy. The “right thing to do” is the thing that would be chosen by the virtuous person.
Virtue ethics is often the easiest framework to initially grasp. Most of us have at least one person that we admire for making wise choices. This assignment begins with thinking about ethics by considering the virtues that that wise person might have to enable their wise decisions.
Moral Heroes Exercise
In her book Glittering Vices (2020), Rebecca DeYoung defines virtues as “excellence of character, habits or dispositions of character that help us live well as excellent human beings.” Using courage as an example of a virtue, she explains, “A courageous friend stands up for us when our reputation is unfairly maligned, despite the risk to his own personal or professional reputation.”
In addition to generosity and courage, here are some commonly-listed virtues:
Provide for others
In your own words, describe the meaning of “virtue.”
Who is the wisest, most virtuous, morally admirable person you know?
What virtues would you say characterize them? Name at least 5-6 of them. (Use your own terms OR choose from the virtue list above.)
Now try to rank those virtues in order of their importance. Does your hero have a “signature” or “defining” virtue that captures their overall character?
Can you tell a story that illustrates why this person is admirable or showcases what you mean by a particular virtue-attribution?
Respond to one of the following :
It is often said that the same data can be used to support a variety of conclusions. Suppose your moral hero was a data analyst who was asked to present data (using statistics, graphs, etc) in a way that supported a policy change that her company (and the analyst herself) thought would have a very positive impact on society. However, to do so, she would not be choosing what she truly believed was the most accurate presentation method. What would she do and why? (which virtue(s) previously ascribed to this individual would influence her decision?)
Assume that your moral hero was a website designer. He is asked to work on a website that allows people to get quick access to medical professionals for virtual appointments. Getting the site up and running in a timely fashion will make his company money more quickly, and give those who have trouble getting to a professional access more quickly. However, this would happen at the cost of not allowing time to determine how to make the site most accessible to people with visual impairments (differing levels of blindness, including color blindness). Retrofitting the site later would be harder than doing it originally. Does the designer push for delaying the debut of the site or getting it out as quickly as possible and why? (which virtue(s) previously ascribed to this individual would influence his decision?)
Consider the descriptions of the other two ethics frameworks described in the introduction to the assignment. Do you think that one of them would work better than virtue ethics for deciding the scenarios you chose above? If so, state that framework and give a brief description of how you would apply it to make the decision. If not, explain why neither of the other frameworks would be helpful.
DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. 2020. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Brazos Press.