Ethical Systems: From Conclusions to Reasons

One of the most important things to remember about ethics is that, socially, it is not set in stone. There is no ethical system that is universally accepted, even though many of the systems agree on outcomes, at least in general. The differences usually come into play when reasons are considered, or in the case of specific applications, like euthanasia or abortion. For instance, most ethical systems agree that, most of the time, killing a random stranger is a bad idea. However, the thought processes behind the conclusion differs (sometimes radically) between the systems.

Ethical Systems

A consequentialist, someone who normally agrees with John Stewart Mill, the author of Utilitarianism, would suggest that such a random killing would lead to unhappiness; the victim’s family would suffer due to the loss and the taxpayers would suffer because of the increased pressure on the justice system, etc. This, weighed against the happiness caused to the killer (even assuming that the killer would experience pleasure at the death), overshadows it, and therefore the murder should not take place. This is because “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals ‘utility’ or the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.”

A virtue ethic, such as the one Aristotle outlines in his Nicomachean Ethics, would be more interested in whether or not killing cultivates a virtue. For instance, since the random killing is unlikely to be friendly or just, or to promote habits that sustain good character, a virtue ethicist would advise against it. Even in the case of bravery, a random killing would probably be considered unfavorably rash than truly brave, and is still likely to be advised against. Indeed, on the subject of “wanton aggression,” Aristotle said,

“Again, if someone is afraid of committing wanton aggression on children or women, or of being envious or anything of that sort, that does not make him cowardly.”

Deontological ethics is far more duty-based. Kant, author of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, is one of the prominent deontological thinkers. He would say that killing a random stranger would be wrong because killing is always wrong, for the reason that it cannot be willed as a universal moral law because of the logical contradiction that would entail. If we willed a world in which it was permissible to kill, we would end up with anarchy and mass murder. One of the formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

“requires that the maxims be chosen as though they should hold as universal laws of nature”.

Real Decisions

I would like to present a mathematical analogy to the aforementioned issues involving the universality of ethics and take a brief look at one of Mathematician and Phenomenologist Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. It can be reduced to the idea that any complete logical system will have internal contradictions. Though he was referring primarily to arithmetic, theorists have tried to apply this theory to other fields, including philosophy: Theories can either be internally consistent and make sense, or they can be complete and entail contradictions.

It is my belief that people are by nature inconsistent. As such, people make decisions based on different principles at different times. A woman may punish or reward her child out of love and later, while serving jury duty, choose to punish a criminal because she knows that if he is not put in jail, he might harm someone else. Later, the same woman might be kind to her grandmother – who has Alzheimer’s disease – simply because it’s the right thing to do, her duty.

Sometimes I am motivated by a desire to right by society at large. This is why I vote. At other times I am motivated by a desire to do right by my friends. This is why I do not cheat. Yet other times I am motivated by a desire to do right by myself. This is why I drive. There is no underlying principle, for me. Any system of principles that I adopted would end up with internal contradictions – if I cannot lie and I cannot aid in a murder, what do I do when presented with a situation where I must do one of the other? Something like choosing not to answer is a lie of omission and if I tell the truth and then attempt to head off the killer from his goal, I am then undoubtedly using violence. I am certainly not acting in a friendly fashion toward the killer.

The Proof

Decades ago, following Kohlberg’s psychological study, people thought that there was a clear progression in the way that people make ethical decisions – that people used higher order mechanisms as they matured. Later, Carol Gilligan presented the idea that there was a clear delineation between the way men and women do ethics; that men made decisions based on ideas of justice and rationality while women tried to work through problems, and made decisions based on caring. Now we know that the line is blurred.

A 2007 study by the University of Southern California determined that certain decisions create conflicts in most individuals between emotional aversion and rational necessity. Even when people decided that one course of action would logically be the right one,

“Most people waver or say they could not [do that action], even if they agree that in theory they should.”

There is an implication here that neither rationality nor empathy comprises wholly complete ways to make ethical decisions. 

Adding Context

Context is important. Not only is this something that I have been taught, it is something that I have experienced. All of the principles in the world will get you nowhere if they have no context; without context, they are without content – without meaning.

When we begin to teach children math, we may start with a principle – 2 + 2 = 4… but it is not until the child is given context that the rule becomes real to them. When you show the child two apples and two oranges and demonstrate that there are four pieces of fruit, he (or she) begins to understand.

In the same way, all of the lofty ethical principles in the world serve no practical purpose if they cannot be placed in context. Without a situation to which they can be applied, tested and grappled with as the child might turn the apple in his hand, the principles are moot; they cannot be understood, only recited by rote as a child might commit Shakespeare to memory without ever knowing what it is like to craft a story that lives and breathes like the bard’s.

I am of the opinion that a priori reasoning is worthless until it is tested in the world, if its purpose is to be useful for real-world situations. For instance, a priori reasoning has, in the past, concluded that the world is made of water, but this idea was later tested and found wanting. With math, it is possible to reason your way through a proof, but the proof is useless until you understand the bridge that your trigonometry – or your tolerance, for an ethical analogy – has built. Only then is it possible to understand the reason behind the logic.

Logic is cold and inflexible. The real world is not.


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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6 Responses

  1. Lara says:

    Have you ever read Bakhtin? His ethical systems are coming more to the forefront now as more and more people try to deal with context over dry logic ultimately disconnected from the real world. He emphasizes accountability and the need to choose and cultivate your values to be able to act on them. He believes that the world of ideas/values and the world of action are separate, that when we act we are by necessity not thinking of our values as we do. (As you’re writing, do you think, “I am writing, perhaps with the goal of making the world a better place”? Probably not. You just write.) The goal, then, is to reflect upon our values so that when we do act, we get closer to our ideals. There’s more regarding the Christian ideals of love, although you don’t have to be Christian to get behind what he’s saying.

    Anyway, I also had Michael Taber as a professor at SMCM, and your post reminded me, again, of how much I hate those stupid thought experiments (e.g., the 53937 variants of the trolley problem), so I wanted to comment. Very cool blog post.

    • Eleanor says:

      Thank you! I haven’t read Bakhtin, but that sounds like a really great way to live. Thanks for the recommendation — I’m going camping this week, and it sounds like something that would make great reading material while I’m not distracted by the bustle of life.

      What’s funny about our comment about what I think about when I’m writing is that I actually really do try to make the world a better place through my writing. My MA in Education had a class about the way that books impact students, and I’ve always tried to make it a point in my critique groups and with my own works to try and ensure that I work toward ensuring there are fewer books out there that are damaging for teens to read. No more women in refrigerators; no more stalkers-as-sweet-heroes.

      It’s one of the reasons I got out of law and into teaching — if SMCM taught me nothing else, if my degree GAVE me nothing else, it was an understanding that happiness matters, and so does having a net positive influence in the world.

      • Lara says:

        Same here. I’m also writing a novel (probably for more selfish reasons, but I hate gross tropes like the ones you mentioned for both selfish and moral reasons, so I guess it balances out). I read Bakhtin twice in grad school, once in a theory class and once in a class about the rhetorics surrounding difference. Bakhtin really loves Dostoevsky, and so do I, and so I ended up loving Bakhtin’s philosophy and literary criticism of Dostoevsky; both writers have influenced me tremendously as a writer and as a human being.

        It sounds like you’re writing fiction; what sorts of things do you write about? (I’ll have to click around the site more when I have more time.)

        • Eleanor says:

          I went on to law school instead of grad school, then wound up doing grad school in education, which is a lot more intellectually lazy as a field, I think — though the individuals involved really do rock ethical behavior impressively well. You can’t beat teachers for “a field filled with good people,” I think… but I do wish I’d gotten to read more interesting stuff.

          I write high fantasy. My St. Mary’s Project was actually called “Illuminating Ethics via Fantasy Fiction” — Schroeder was my adviser, and I’m pretty proud of it. I wrote a bunch of short stories that had a moral and then analyzed them in sequence. The introduction was all about how storytelling is one of the main ways we as a culture establish and pass on our ethical stances, and that genre fiction doesn’t have as much critical analysis directed at it as it should.

          If you’re ever looking for feedback on your novel, I highly recommend The Ubergroup as a writing group. It’s run on Scribophile, which is probably the best website for getting useful feedback I’ve ever seen.

          • Lara says:

            Cool, I’ll have to check it out!

            I had also written a short story collection as an SMP (Jerry Gabriel was my adviser).

          • Eleanor says:

            Super cool! It seems like we have a lot in common.

            Though, fun fact — I managed to get through a Philosophy degree without ever formally being assigned Neitzche, or taking a single English class.

Let me know what you think!