Navigating the ethical minefield

Normative Ethics: a guest post by Woods Wizard

As we go through life, most of us find our ethics are guided by the field of Applied Ethics. That is, we use concepts of duty and legal/contractual obligations to guide our behavior. Witchcraft requires a different approach: one of normative ethics. Normative Ethics attempt to define, in general terms, what actions are morally right. In this discussion, I have divided normative ethics into five categories: Nihilism, Ethical Altruism, Utilitarianism, Ethical Egoism and Consequentialism.

With the exception of nihilism, all of the different ethical approaches have their place, and must be considered together. Of course the approach we use is dependent on our situation. A starving man is more interested in doing what he can do obtain food, without consideration of the general welfare of others, for example.

 

Nihilism

Ethical nihilism is the view that morality does not exist, therefore no action is preferable to any other. This is an extreme position of situational morality wherein a person refuses to judge any action or ethical code as morally right or wrong. Alternately, a nihilist might argue that all meaning is relative depending on the outcome. This point of view is actually a form of Consequentialism, discussed later. Ultimately, nihilism can be self-destructive. The nihilist argues therefore that actions are random, based on whatever emotion or motivation dominates the individual at the time. This can easily lead to the conclusion that one is not responsible for one’s actions, as no one action is preferable to another, or that the consequences of an action cannot be foreseen.

 

"Daienin Kannon". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daienin_Kannon.JPG#/media/File:Daienin_Kannon.JPG

Daienin Kannon: Kannon statue in Daien’i, Mount Kōya, Japan”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ethical Altruism

Ethical altruism holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self-interest. Practical altruism sacrifices one’s own interests to help others’ interests, so long as one’s own interests are equivalent to the others’ interests and well-being.

While there have been many good examples of altruism (Quan Yin is a popular one), it is a most difficult ethic to maintain. Not everyone can “belong to the world” as Mother Teresa described herself. Yet, at times all of us exhibit altruistic traits. We all have the desire to help those in need.

Yet, altruism can have a negative side. A suicide bomber, sacrificing his life for his cause, is still sacrificing self-interest for the “benefit” of others.  Any soldier sacrificing his life for the greater good can be considered an altruist, at least at the moment of sacrifice. In both these cases however, duty-based ethics dictate this altruistic behavior.

 

Utilitarian Ethics

In its simplest form, Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. Many utilitarian philosophers judge an action by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness (or good) of all those affected by it. As such, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. Something is ethical if the total “good” it generates, to include intangible forms of “good,” outweigh the negatives. Statements like “An (if) it harm none, do as ye will.” in the Rede are utilitarian. It prevents us from harming a large number of people to benefit what we may perceive as the greater good, or for our own benefit.

Two influential contributors to this theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, with goodness measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent.

Mill’s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the “greatest-happiness principle”. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. Mill’s major contribution to Utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Mill argued that intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures).  Mill distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Classical utilitarianism as espoused by Bentham can be hedonistic, but values other than, or in addition to, pleasure can be employed. G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903), presented a version of utilitarianism in which he rejected the traditional equating of good with pleasure. The test whether something is good can be applied to moral assessments and rules of conduct. According to utilitarianism, the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, although there is debate over how much consideration should be given to actual consequences, foreseen consequences and intended consequences. Witches face these same issues.

One of the biggest problems with utilitarian reasoning is that the reasoning itself is nothing more than a problem solving tool like mathematics or computer programming. If, as in computer programming, you put garbage in, you will get garbage out.  When we set the right objectives and incorporate valid assumptions, utilitarian reasoning can be a very powerful and necessary tool to help us reach our goals.

Utilitarian reasoning is by no means a philosophy where everyone can reach the same logical conclusion. Over the ages, people have had different ideas about what constitutes the highest good, and how to get there. For example, John Locke put a heavy emphasis on the preservation of an individual’s right to private property, whereas Karl Marx wanted to collectivize as much property as possible. Who is right? We would likely argue the concept that promoted the greatest freedom results in the greatest good, but both Marx and Locke would have arguments that their philosophies do that also.

Utilitarian ethics strive to avoid I win – you lose scenarios, but must also consider the three other possible win-lose combinations.

  • In a win-win situation, the utilitarian has many ways to act “good,” all of which create “good” out-comes. The most “ethical” choice is the one that yields the greatest overall good.
  • In lose-lose situations, one must select the lessor of evils. Either choice will cause harm (loss of a breast or loss of a life to cancer is a good example), and the Utilitarian choses the least harmful option.
  • In a short term lose, long term win situation, the Utilitarian makes a short term sacrifice in hope of achieving a greater long term gain. In this instance, the utilitarian must be very careful to ensure that his goal is beneficial for all, not just for himself.

A primary advantage of utilitarian reasoning is that it challenges us to think more broadly about the impact of our actions on the world around us, and encourages us to make ethical decisions on our own rather than rely on government or our social circle to think for us. This ties into Kant’s belief that true morality (ethics) came solely from reason. Kant stated: “I ought never to act in such a way that I could also will that my maxim become universal law.” In other words, whatever one decides, one must be willing to accept that decision is true for others, as well as oneself. Kant’s belief is critical for utilitarianists, for it helps to avoid the pitfalls of ethical egoism and consequentialism.

Another advantage of utilitarian thinking is that it gives us some flexibility. We can examine alternatives and decide on the most ethical course of action. The utilitarian viewpoint encourages us to think ahead and avoid the pitfalls the unethical people of the world lay for us.

 

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is the position that one ought to do what is in one’s own self-interest. Egoism elevates self-interests and “the self” to a status not granted to others. It is focused on the Self (or clan) while utilitarianism does not treat the Self’s own interests as being more or less important than the interests, desires, or well-being of others.

Ethical egoism does not, however, require harm to the interests and well-being of others when making an ethical decision. Egoism allows for others’ interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what is decided and acted upon satisfies Self-interest. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily purport that one ought always to do what one wants to do. It endorses selfishness, not necessarily foolishness.

American philosopher James Rachels, arguing the pros and cons of egoism over utilitarianism stated that

“each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be ‘our brother’s keeper,’ we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good.”

He also argued that

“All of our commonly accepted moral duties, from doing no harm unto others to speaking always the truth to keeping promises, are rooted in the one fundamental principle of self-interest.”

While Rachels was a proponent of ethical egoism, he also noted that the best objection to the theory is that it divides people into two types: themselves and others, and then discriminates against one type on the basis of some arbitrary disparity. This, to Rachels’ mind, provides the soundest reason why the interests of others ought to concern the interests of the self. He asks:

“What is the difference between myself and others that justifies placing myself in this special category? Am I more intelligent? Do I enjoy my life more? Are my accomplishments greater? Do I have needs or abilities that are so different from the needs and abilities of others? What is it that makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine…. We should care about the interests of other people for the very same reason we care about our own interests; for their needs and desires are comparable to our own.”

In his best known work, “The Moral Point of View,” Austrian philosopher Kurt Baier opines that ethical egoism provides no moral basis for the resolution of conflicts of interest, which form the only vindication for a moral code. Far from resolving conflicts of interest, claimed Baier, ethical egoism all too often spawns them. Baier also argues that egoism is paradoxical: that to do what is in one’s best interests can be both wrong and right at the same time, depending on one’s point of view. Although a successful pursuit of self-interest may be viewed as a moral victory, it could also be dubbed immoral if it prevents another person from executing what is in his best interests.

 

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is the class of ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This is the dark side to Normative ethics best expressed in the statement “the ends justify the means.”

A completely ruthless Consequentialist acts only for himself and has no feelings for others or society. He does not hesitate to rob, cheat, and steal whenever he feels he can get away with it.  Many people not considered criminals in today’s society employ consequential reasoning that only factors in their own gain and do not take into account the needs of other people. These people employ a short term win, long term lose situation: they are greedy, enriching themselves in the near term while inflicting greater overall costs to society. Short term win, long term lose situations are often created by people who lack the character to delay gratification who are motivated by personal power or who do not, for whatever reason understand the full consequences of their behavior.

 

So Which System is Right?

With the possible exception of Consequentialism and nihilism, the answer is all of them, dependent on the situation. Most of us think of what works best for ourselves (or our group) first (Ethical Egoism) and then (hopefully!) secondly consider what our friends will think or whether our actions are illegal (Applied Ethics).

From the perspective of many pagan paths where Deity-imposed Commandments are not part of our moral code, one more step is required: once an action is examined from egoism and applied ethics perspectives, consider it from a utilitarian point of view. Is the action going to provide the greatest good (or least harm) to all affected? Is there a short-term loss that will produce a longer term gain for all involved? For a Pagan, the action, once it passes egoism and applied ethical tests, ought to pass utilitarian reasoning as well.


 

About Woods Wizard

Woods Wizard always had a close spiritual connection with the earth, but didn’t identify as a pagan until about 10 years ago when a certain Celtic Deity came knocking.  Self-taught, he has spent the last five years organizing the Shadows of Nature: Guardian Steading (because coven implies agreement as to theology) and writing educational material for that group. Material in this guest blog is condensed from the ethics chapters of the Seeker book he wrote for the Steading.   He lives on eight acres of woodland and meadow outside of Spokane Washington and maintains a web page, Spokane Pagan Village Commons, for local pagan groups: www.spokanepagans.com  Woods loves trying to tie together mythology, history, archeology and science into an internally consistent theology – and sometimes it actually works!  He makes a living as a geologist.

 

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