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How to always do the right thing: A few methods for making moral decisions (part 1)

Updated on March 2, 2013
The moral maze is a difficult one to walk. Any who claim otherwise are optimistic at best.
The moral maze is a difficult one to walk. Any who claim otherwise are optimistic at best. | Source

Why does it matter?

We have all experienced those moments of ethical indecision when we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. One choice is no 'better' than the other. In the end it isn't uncommon to end up picking one's final decision in such situations based upon irrational reasons. With no way of knowing how to make the decision, then obviously the end decision is flawed even if it is somehow the right choice. If you choose the right answer for the wrong reason then you don't really know why it is right and thus won't be able to consistently pick out this type of right answer in the future.

In this hub I shall introduce some of the more popular approaches to solving ethical quandaries and identify their pros and cons by applying them to real life ethical dilemmas.

Disturbingly, Jeremy Bentham's body was embalmed and is on public display at University College London.
Disturbingly, Jeremy Bentham's body was embalmed and is on public display at University College London. | Source
John Stuart Mill propounded the cultivation of the 'Higher Pleasures' of the intellect.
John Stuart Mill propounded the cultivation of the 'Higher Pleasures' of the intellect. | Source


The system of morality that we call Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This is a consequentialist approach, which basically means that the judgement of what do do in any given situation is decided using the consequences of that decision.

In this sense then, an action is judged to be morally good if the resulting consequences are good. Utilitarianism goes a bit further than this though in stating that the best choice in any given situation is that which leads to the maximum happiness/pleasure for the largest number of people and also the least suffering/pain.

It won't surprise you that this type of moral decision making is seen a lot in politics. It is after all a very democratic approach. Majority rule, as it were. So, how does this work in practice then?

Say you are in a hostage situation win which you along with an old man and his daughters are also hostages. The mad criminal in charge of the kidnapping of you all forces you at gunpoint to choose which two of the other three should live. You can:

A) Pick the old man and the oldest daughter

B) Pick the old man and the youngest daughter

C) Pick the two daughters.

How do you choose? How do you work out which of the three is going to experience the most happiness/pleasure following such a horrific experience?

In this situation the easiest way is to point out that the old man has a significant number of years fewer to live than his daughters. As they both will live maybe double the length of time he has left to him in an ideal world, then potentially they have double the capacity for future experiences of happiness and pleasure.

Tough luck, dad...

Emmanuel Kant


The Categorical Imperative

This Kantian system of ethics is deontological in nature, which basically means that an action is right (in this system) if it sticks to certain established rules within a moral code. In its simplest form, the 'categorical imperative' is the idea that if you want to know what the right choice in any situation is, then universalize the potential actions. For example....

Say you are walking down the street drinking a can of something terribly bad for you (as you do) and then you suddenly realize that you've finished but there is no litter bin around for you to dispose of the empty can. Your options are:

A) Hide it somewhere so no-one will no what a lazy litterbug you are.

B) Chuck it on the ground cos let's face it, you just don't give a damn.

C) ... or hold onto the can until you come across a bin.

So what does it mean to 'universalize' the action? Lets take these one at a time...

If we universalize A, that means that you say that for every situation where any person with a drink can does not have a bin immediately available to them they would choose to hide it somewhere so no one could see it, but it still wasn't disposed of correctly. If everyone did this it would seem ok to start with... then the world would pretty soon run out of places to hide junk. People would have to be hiding their junk behind other people's junk. It is not something which could continue indefinitely and frankly sounds awful. It's pretty evident that this cannot work.

If we universalize B, that means that in every instance of any person not having a bin to hand they would chuck their empty drink can on the pavement right then and there. You can imagine just how useable the pavement would be if everyone did that all the time. It again is not sustainable or realistic in every situation and so is never the correct choice.

If we universalize C? Well it's pretty self-explanatory isn't it? If everyone in every circumstance waited until there was a bin to use before throwing things away this situation can continue indefinitely. Also, the continuation of this action being taken itself won't lead to that action becoming impossible to perform. This is the right choice of action according to the categorical imperative.

To conclude

So there you have possibly the most important two examples of ethical decision making tools. The categorical imperative which states it must be the right thing to do in every context for it to be right in one, and Utilitarianism that says the happiness of the majority is the most important thing, and of course... that the ends justify the means.

In the next chapter of this little moral exploration I will look at the Virtue ethics of Aristotle and how those are relevant to living a 'good' life.

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    • Dan Barfield profile image

      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Thanks for the comment Laura! I'm glad my expanation of these two schools of thought came accross well. Knowing how to make a moral decision is something that people have struggled over as long as there have been hard decisions to make. Even if none of the methods people have come up with so far have met with universal approval, I think it's useful to know them and have the option of choosing one way or another in any given situation. In the end every decision is contextual I suppose...

    • Laura Schneider profile image

      Laura Schneider 4 years ago from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

      Wow, great introduction! As a science major in college, I learned only a little philosophy so I appreciate your succinct summary of these major teachings (and will follow up to learn more, also). It occurs to me that the US society, particularly politicians and others in places of power, are too often following your second, Kantian scenario A--hiding junk inappropriately. Eventually the junk overwhelms society. I look forward to reading more of your articles and learning more from you. Thank you!