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«Moral Concepts And Theories (ESSAY #3) Introduction In considering issues in engineering ethics, a distinction is sometimes made between morals and ...»

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Moral Concepts And Theories

(ESSAY #3)


In considering issues in engineering ethics, a distinction is sometimes made between morals and ethics. When this

distinction is made, the term morals is taken to refer to generally accepted standards of right and wrong in a

society and the term ethics is taken to refer to more


principles which might appear in a code of

professional ethics or in a textbook in ethical theory. However, the terms moral philosophy or moral theory

would refer to a set of abstract moral principles as appropriately as the term ethics, so it may be more practical to use the words interchangeably. Both of the terms refer to standards of right conduct and the judgments of particular actions as right or wrong by those standards.

Moral and ethical statements must be distinguished from two other types of statements, namely those in etiquette and those in law. Referring to a rule of etiquette, we might say, "You should compliment your host or hostess after a good meal." Here we have used the word should, and this suggests that we have made an ethical judgment. However, there are at least two important differences between statements of etiquette and statements of ethics. First, moral and ethical statements are generally thought to have greater importance than statements of etiquette. Most of us probably feel that a violation of a rule such as "An engineer should protect the safety of the public" is much more serious than a violation of a rule such as "You should not eat peas with your knife." A second difference between ethics and etiquette is that ethical norms cannot be changed by books of rules or by authoritative bodies, but rules of etiquette may be.

Moral and ethical statements should also be distinguished from laws. The fact that an action is legally permissible does not establish that it is morally and ethically permissible. Suppose an engineer discovers that her company is emitting a substance into the atmosphere that is not currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Suppose further that the engineer reads some scientific literature that indicates the pollutant causes respiratory problems and may cause other more serious health problems. Should she reveal this information to the EPA? Whatever your views on this matter, it is clear that the mere fact that emitting the substance is legally permissible does not also mean it is morally permissible to do so. It does not settle the question as to what the engineer should do.

Just as legality does not imply morality, illegality does not imply immorality. It would be illegal to introduce very small amounts of a chemical into the atmosphere if doing so violates EPA standards, but one might make a good argument that there are cases in which it is not immoral to do so and that in fact the EPA standards in this case are too strict and fail to balance costs and benefits in a rational way.

If we wanted to draw a Venn diagram of the relationship between law and morality, it might look like the diagram on the following page. The shaded area covers those actions that are both legal and moral. The light areas cover those actions that are legal and not moral or that are moral and not legal.

Three Kinds of Statements in Ethics People often think of ethical reasoning as fuzzy and imprecise, and it is certainly true that the qualitative thinking that goes on in ethics is not susceptible to the same kind of precision that can be achieved in mathematics. Often, however, ethical thinking is unnecessarily confused, and much of this confusion is due to the failure to distinguish between three kinds of statements that are made in ethics.1 Factual statements are either true or false and refer to claims that can be confirmed or refuted by empirical observation. The claim that a product will produce accidents because of faulty design is a factual claim, although it can be crucial in a moral debate. For example, two engineers could agree on the moral principle that unsafe products should not be put on the market, but disagree as to whether Product X will produce accidents. We might describe this disagreement as to whether Product X should be marketed as a disagreement over professional ethics, but actually the disagreement hinges on different factual claims. Factual claims can be as controversial as moral claims, and it is absolutely crucial in a moral disagreement to first determine whether there is a disagreement over facts.

Conceptual statements are statements about the meaning or scope of certain terms. Discussions of conceptual issues can be very important in ethics. The best-known example of a conceptual issue is the question whether the fetus should be considered a human person. This depends on how we define the term person, and many people believe the abortion debate hinges on this definition. The definition cannot be settled by appeal to facts about the fetus, although these facts may influence our definition of person.

To take an example from engineering, let us suppose an American engineer is employed by a company that is doing business in a foreign country. A representative of a foreign firm tells the engineer that his product will not be considered for purchase unless the representative is given a substantial payment. Since the representative is not a government official, the payment would not be illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The engineer believes that paying bribes is wrong, but considers this to be paying extortion rather than a bribe. He defines bribery as paying money to get a person to give special (and inappropriate) consideration to his product.

He defines extortion as demanding money to do what one ought to (do or not to do) anyhow. Thus paying money to get the representative to consider your product, when he ought to consider it anyhow, is paying extortion, not bribery. Since he believes bribery is wrong but paying extortion is not wrong, he pays the fee to the representative.

1 Venn Diagram on the Relationship of Law and Morality In this example, you could disagree with the engineer's moral evaluation of bribery and extortion. You could also disagree with him regarding his definitions of bribery and extortion. Both of these disagreements might be called moral disagreements in a broad sense, but only the second is a moral disagreement in the strict sense. The first kind of disagreement is a conceptual disagreement. Thus we have a wider and narrower sense of the term moral.

Moral statements are statements that something is right or wrong. There can, of course, be disagreement over moral statements. We have just mentioned an example of a genuine moral disagreement, namely the disagreement over whether it is wrong to pay extortion. There are many other examples of genuine moral disagreements. For example, some people may not believe it is wrong to pay bribes in a country where this practice is generally accepted. Engineers may disagree over the morality of killing civilians, so that one engineer could work on a particular defense contract in good conscience and another could not. You can probably think of many other areas where two people can have genuine moral disagreements.

In discussing factual disagreements, appeal is made to factual or empirical considerations. In considering conceptual disagreements, arguments are presented about the appropriateness of one definition as opposed to another. In evaluating moral disagreements, appeals are made to broader and more basic moral principles. These principles are often organized into moral theories.

Moral Theories

In making judgments about right conduct, most of us recognize the value of moral consistency. The requirements of consistency take several different forms. (1) If a consulting engineer breaks confidentiality with her client because it is in her interest to do so but condemns another engineer for doing the same thing, we are inclined to say that she is inconsistent. She is not applying the same standards to herself that she expects everyone else to follow. (2) We also expect a person to be consistent with her own moral standards. If she keeps strict confidentiality one time and breaks it another time, even when there is no important difference between the two cases, we again say that she is inconsistent. (3) Finally, our moral beliefs must be consistent with one another.

Our moral beliefs about confidentiality must be consistent with our beliefs about bribery, whistle blowing, and the environment. Ultimately, we must know how our moral beliefs in professional ethics relate to our beliefs about abortion, the moral justification of racial and sexual quotas in hiring, euthanasia, and any other moral issue.

One way to think consistently in this way is to have a moral theory, i.e. a set of moral principles which systematically link moral beliefs to one another by means of a set of coherent moral principles. A theory in any area offers the opportunity to define terms in uniform ways and to relate a set of ideas to one another in a consistent manner. Moral theory does the same thing with moral ideas.

A moral theory can be conveniently divided into three parts. First, there is a moral standard, a criterion or test of

what is right or wrong. It has the general form:

"Those actions are right that possess characteristic X."

Thus, those and only those actions are right that possess some characteristic X. We could fill in X by a phrase such as, "producing the greatest total amount of human well-being" or "equally respect the humanity of each person." Obviously these expressions need further definition. What do we mean by human well-being? What do we mean by respect for the humanity of each person? These questions would have to be answered in an adequate moral theory.

Second, moral principles serve to categorize different types of actions as right or wrong. Moral principles have

the following form:

"Those actions of type Y are right (or wrong)."

Such actions are right because they conform to the moral standard by possessing characteristic X or wrong because they fail to conform. Examples of moral principles would be, "Bribery is wrong" and "Killing innocent people is wrong." These practices might be wrong because they fail to promote human well-being or because they fail to respect the humanity of each person. In any case, they serve to show the implications of the moral standard for a broad class of actions.

Third, moral judgments are statements about the rightness or wrongness of particular actions. Moral judgments

have the following form:

"Action Z is right (or wrong)."

Examples of moral judgments would be "John should not have bribed the foreign official to buy his product" or "John should not have agreed to work on the defense contract" or "Jane was right to have refused to sign that design." Moral judgments apply moral standards or moral principles to specific situations. They are thus the ultimate goal of moral reasoning.

Earlier, the need to test our moral views for overall moral consistency was given as one of the driving forces behind the search for a moral theory. From this standpoint it would be desirable to have a single moral theory in which all of our views could be encapsulated. However, moral philosophers have generally concluded that it is not possible to incorporate all of the moral views that are generally accepted in our culture into a single coherent moral theory. Rather, there seem to be two systems of moral concepts that are the most influential, although there are considerable areas of overlap. These two theories are utilitarianism and the ethics of respect for persons. Let us consider each of these.


The moral standard of utilitarianism is:

Those actions are right that produce the greatest total amount of human well-being.

Utilitarianism has great intuitive appeal to many people because human well-being seems to be such a natural goal of human endeavor. In order to be plausible, however, utilitarians must define well-being. Yet people define well-being, or what some might call the "good life," in different ways. For some it is physical pleasure, for others financial and professional success, and so forth. How do we resolve these conflicts?

One of the solutions that is most widely accepted by utilitarians is called preference utilitarianism. According to preference utilitarianism, those conditions are promoted that allow each individual within society to pursue happiness as he or she defines it. Each individual may use his or her own preferences as a guide to action. But of course each person must also promote those conditions that allow others to pursue their own preferences. So, from the utilitarian perspective, each person has a double obligation: to maximize his own well-being, however this is defined, but only insofar as this is compatible with promoting those conditions that enable others to maximize their own well-being, however they define it. Only in this way will the utilitarian ideal be realized.

At least two conditions must be met if an individual is to pursue her well-being. First, each individual must have the maximum degree of personal freedom; only in this way can she pursue well-being as she defines it. Second, she must enjoy the basic conditions of existence necessary to realize well-being, however it is defined. The most obvious such conditions are the conditions of physical well-being. For example, nobody can pursue their wellbeing if they are sick and cannot obtain medical care, or if they are subjected to unsafe working conditions, or are subjected to risk due to toxic emissions. Many non-physical conditions are also required for most people to realize their well-being, such as education and companionship.

A utilitarian analysis of a moral problem consists of three steps.

1. The utilitarian must determine the audience of the action or policy in question--those people who will be affected for good or ill.

2. The positive and negative effects of the alternative actions or policies must be determined.

3. The utilitarian must decide which course of action produces the greatest overall utility.

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