The Case for Ethical Pluralism
Most ethics education at the university level encompasses discussions about moral right and wrong; good and bad decisions; motivations for actions; consequences; and our duties to others. There’s nothing wrong with these approaches and philosophical reasoning methods play an important role in ethics education. However, my view is by telling our students to select one method and apply it to an ethical dilemma, we are shortchanging the process because considerations from different methods have value in making an ethical analysis.
Ethical Pluralism holds that there is no single philosophical method that will always apply the answers. It provides a logical middle ground between saying “there is only one right answer” and “there is no wrong answer.”
By learning how to apply a diverse set of ethical theories, students can examine ethical dilemmas from a variety of perspectives and choose which one(s) make sense to guide the thought process, evaluate stakeholder interests, and decide what to do. These reasoning methods provide students with reasons/considerations that fall out of thinking about these methods. In this way, students can accept that there are utilitarian/deontological/justice/virtue considerations for doing something without committing to either framework as the one and only approach. I believe that in reality there is no one correct answer in ethics but a diversity of moral beliefs that cannot be reduced to a single principle. The goal should be to provide a moral tool kit for our students so that they can make decisions that are morally sound.
My approach in teaching ethics is to start with The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule provides a standard of behavior that can apply to all ethical decisions. It’s also an elegant approach to deciding between right and wrong; good and bad. What could be simpler as a measure of ethical behavior than to say: Treat others as you wish to be treated. Most of us want to deal with people who are honest and trustworthy; respect us for who we are and what we do; and treat us with compassion and empathy. We should treat others this same way.
I sometimes tell my students that The Golden Rule is a necessary but insufficient condition for all ethical decisions. It provides a basis for understanding those admirable traits of character of an ethical person – one who acts out of virtue -- and it ties decisions to this same standard. However, it doesn’t directly address how we wish to be treated. Each person may have a different standard. Perhaps some don’t care if they are lied to or used for another person’s self-interest because that is the way they treat others. Surely, we wouldn’t consider this to be a good ethical standard.
This is where the ethical reasoning methods come into play. We can get a better handle on how we wish to be treated by examining the possible outcomes/consequences of our actions (Utilitarianism), duty to others (Deontology), and giving others what they are entitled (Justice).
Consider the issue of world poverty. Even without knowing the statistics about poverty, most agree it is a serious moral issue. It is clear why it is, too. Poverty increases the likelihood that the life in question doesn’t go well. Think of a good life. Doesn’t it have plenty of resources? Isn’t it filled with opportunities? The answer to both questions is likely to be “yes.” A good life need not be filled with extravagance with respect to resources and opportunities, but it in most cases it seems there needs to be a moderate amount, certainly more than just enough to survive. Thus, using our luxuries to help others to climb out of poverty, especially in the developing world, is an ethical action. So long as we can live comfortably without these resources, don’t we have an ethical obligation to do so? This is point made by Peter Singer in many of his writings, and one with which I agree.
Utilitarians might say to do what’s best for all of society (developed and developing world) while not sacrificing one’s own needs. Maybe this means we should provide as much aid as possible while maintaining our standard of living because the benefits of bringing as many as possible out of poverty exceeds the costs of sacrificing our “luxuries.” Is this the “best” choice? The concept seems sound but do we actually have a duty to end suffering around the world even though we didn’t contribute to it? What if those resources are squandered by the government? How does this square with justice that requires we make those in need best off as possible and then inequalities are ethically permissible? Perhaps we devote our resources to helping the worst off in the world; bring them up to a minimum survival level; and then work on raising the level of all such impoverished.
The point is for students to not feel tied down to one ethical reasoning method as they navigate through life’s choices. They should be taught to draw on considerations from each as they reason through what the proper course of action is.