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Lisa Newton

Ethical Decision
to Cases and
Concepts in Ethics

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Lisa Newton

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Ethical Decision Making:
Introduction to Cases
and Concepts in Ethics

Lisa Newton
Shelburne, VT

© The Author(s) 2013
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ISSN 2211-8101 ISSN 2211-811X (electronic)
ISBN 978-3-319-00166-1 ISBN 978-3-319-00167-8 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-00167-8
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2013934534


1 Cases and Decisions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
1.1 The Impaired Driver . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
1.2 Definitions and Distinctions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1.3 Definitions of the Terms of Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

1.3.1 ADAPT: An Approach to Moral Decision-Making . . . . . . . . 7
1.3.2 ORDER: Confronting Complexity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
1.3.3 DEAL: Carrying on Without Resolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

2 The Principles of Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
2.1 Beneficence: People are Embodied . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
2.2 Justice: People are Social . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
2.3 Respect for Personal Autonomy: People are Rational . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
2.4 The Human Condition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
2.5 The Basic Imperatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
2.6 Some Cases to Illustrate the Dilemmas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31

2.6.1 End of Year Bonus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
2.6.2 Baby Samantha . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
2.6.3 The Alcoholic in the Workplace . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33

3 Professional Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
3.1 What Constitutes a “Profession”? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
3.2 Professional Ethics and Market Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
3.3 Professionals in Business . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42

4 Some Considerations from Moral Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
4.1 Evolutionary Psychology: What Darwin Tells Us About

How We Think . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
4.2 Acquiring Morals: The Track of Education . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
4.3 Failing to Acquire Morals: What Can Go Wrong . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56
4.4 The Work of the Moral Psychologists: The Trolley Dilemma . . . . . . 57
4.5 Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61

Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63



How do we make ethical decisions, decisions that will stand up to challenges?
Consider the following case.

1.1 The Impaired Driver

You have stayed about an hour longer than you intended to at a very pleasant party with
your old college friends. While you were getting your law degree and starting prac-
tice, your roommate Marty made it big on Wall Street. He hosted the party in his huge
Riverside Drive apartment. All the old college ties were there—great memories, beer,
booze, marijuana… hadn’t seen that in awhile. Good stuff, too.

Realizing you’re late, you race to the parking garage, elevator to the third floor, hop in
your SUV, and tear around the turn toward the exit. Smash! Car parked in just the wrong
place. You hit it dead center. You back up, get out, note that there is extensive damage
to the other car—both doors on the driver’s side badly dented—but none to yours. What
should you do?

You know damn well what to do. There’s clearly damage, lots of it, so you have to
take out your cell phone, call the police, and wait there till they come. Watching you prop-
ping yourself up against your SUV, they’ll insist on the inconvenience of a breathalyzer
test. When they get the results of that, they’ll give you a chauffeured ride to the precinct
station and insist further on a urine test. When they get the results of that, you may get
to know the folks in the precinct very well before you see the sky again. You may very
well—probably will—lose your license to operate a motor vehicle. The fines will be sub-
stantial; you may lose your SUV. You may even go to jail. The damage to your reputation,
and to your position in your law practice, will probably be irreparable; depending on the
state, they may yank your license to practice law. That’s a lot to think about. Meanwhile,
you are the only occupant of this parking garage at this hour. You could just drive back to
Connecticut and not say anything to anyone.

What to do, indeed. The standard ethicist’s injunction, “Do the right thing,”
may entail a terrible cost, and it is the agent, not the ethicist, who has to absorb it.
Let’s think about it.

Chapter 1
Cases and Decisions

L. Newton, Ethical Decision Making: Introduction to Cases and Concepts in Ethics,
SpringerBriefs in Ethics, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-00167-8_1, © The Author(s) 2013

2 1 Cases and Decisions

How do we make decisions in these cases? This is as good a place as any to
introduce some of the terminology we’ll be using more systematically in the parts
that follow.

1. What course of action will cause the greatest good to the greatest number,
minimizing pain to all parties and maximizing happiness? We call this kind
of thinking consequentialist, or teleological (from the Greek word for “end”
or “goal”), since it judges the moral quality of the action by its consequences
or by the end it achieves. In classic Utilitarianism, as set forth by Bentham
(1823) and Mill (1863) the only consequences that matter are happiness and
unhappiness, pleasure and pain, for everyone affected by the act. Measuring
pleasure and pain for all parties, including your family, the owner of the
other car, even the world at large, it looks like your best course is to take off
for Connecticut without doing anything at all. Drive slowly so you don’t get
stopped. After all, the pain felt by the car owner upon finding his damaged car
is nothing compared to the pain that you and your family would feel if you lost
your ability to earn a living, let alone if you went to jail. Besides, his insurance
will probably cover the whole bill.

2. Yes, but think of it this way. That law is there for a purpose. What you are sup-
posed to do, as a citizen, right now, is call the police. That’s your duty. You’ve
enjoyed all the benefits of citizenship, now it’s time to honor your part of the
bargain. What if everyone who got into an accident just took off? Would
the world be a better place? Could you approve of a law that said, when you
find you’ve caused damage to life or limb or property, if it isn’t convenient to
stay around, just take off? If you can’t, and you probably can’t, then you have
no right to make an exception of yourself in this case. That rule is the sub-
stance of Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which he set forth in his
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785): Act so that you can simul-
taneously will that the maxim of your action (the reasoning that led you to do
it) should become universal law. In heading back to Connecticut without calling
the police, you set yourself above the law and contribute to a lawless society.
Kantian reasoning is called non-consequentialist, or deontological (from the
Greek word for “duty”), since it looks not at the consequences of the action but
at the law or duty that governs it.

3. Here’s another way to think about what you’re doing, or about to do. When
you get home, suppose you find your father, or the rector of your church, or
your older brother, or anyone you trust, love, and admire, sitting in the kitchen.
Somehow he knows what happened in that garage, and he asks you to explain
just what you did, confronted with that difficult situation, and your reason-
ing to your decision. Why did you do what you did? Well, how would you
explain it? How would you justify taking off like that, when you were clearly
in the wrong? If that scenario doesn’t suggest an approach to the problem,
put a reporter from The New York Times (or The Wall Street Journal, if you’re
that type) sitting beside him in another kitchen chair. The reporter is going to
describe the whole situation, including your reasons for acting as you did, in


the newspaper tomorrow, on the front page. What kind of person would you
look like in that story? Is that the kind of person you want to be? There are
certain traits that we value in ourselves and others, traits like honesty, integrity,
and courage, that we call virtues. Morality is not just about consequences, nor
is it just about laws and duties—often it’s about the sort of person you are, your
very being, so we call the reasoning that draws on these considerations virtue-
based or ontological, from the Greek word for “being.” Aristotle (4th century
BC) based his Ethics upon ontological reasoning; we’ve never really lost track
of it.

These are agonizing decisions, and they govern life—the future life of the per-
son who has to make them, and the way history will judge her or him. More com-
plex decisions are addressed in the discipline of ethics, and the rest of this chapter
will consider more complicated dilemmas; but we must not forget that the funda-
mental moral quantities are honesty, integrity, and courage, those that the impaired
driver must call upon right at the moment he finds himself alone in that garage
with a smashed car in front of him.

1.2 Definitions and Distinctions

One thing we know for sure about ethics, is that it concerns matters in conflict,
dilemmas, matters that people get upset about and argue about. What matters
might those be? Socrates (469–399 BC) took on this problem exactly, according
to Plato. He and a friend, Euthyphro, have agreed that the gods often disagree with
each other, and indeed, that there are regular wars in heaven. Now, Socrates won-
ders, what might cause the gods to get into violent quarrels? and he suggests the
following distinctions:

Socrates: What sort of disagreement is it, my good friend, that causes enmity and anger?
Let us look at it in this way. If you and I disagreed about the question, which of two num-
bers was the greater, would this disagreement make us hostile and angry with each other?
Shouldn’t we quickly settle a dispute of this kind by having recourse to arithmetic?

Euthyphro: Certainly.
Socrates: And suppose we disagreed about the relative size of two objects, shouldn’t we

quickly put an end to our quarrel by having recourse to measurement?
Euthyphro: Quite so.
Socrates: And I presume that we should settle a question of relative weight by having

recourse to weighing?
Euthyphro: Of course.
Socrates: Then what would be the subject of dispute about which we should be unable to

reach agreement, so that we became hostile to one another and lost our tempers? Very
likely you can’t say offhand; but consider, as I suggest them, whether the required
subjects are questions of right and wrong, honor and dishonor, good and bad. Isn’t
it when we disagree about these, and can’t reach a satisfactory decision about them,
that we become hostile to one another… you and I and all the rest of mankind? (Plato,
Euthyphro, 7A–7E).

1.1 The Impaired Driver

4 1 Cases and Decisions

We still use these distinctions, in just this form, but they’ve acquired new
names. There turn out to be three kinds of sentences, distinguished (just as
Socrates pointed out) by the way we verify them, i.e., the way we find out
whether they are true.

1. Logical, or formal, statements are definitions or statements derivable from
definitions, including the entirety of mathematical discourse (e.g., “2 + 2 = 4,”
or “A square has four equal sides”). Such statements can be verified by a for-
mal procedure (“recourse to arithmetic”) derived from the same definitions
that control the rest of the terms of the field in question (i.e., the same axioms
define “2,” “4,” and the procedure of “addition”; the four equal sides and right
angles define the “square”). True formal statements are analytic: they are true
logically, necessarily, or by the definitions of the terms. False statements in
this category are self–contradictory. (If you say, “2 + 2 = 5,” or start talking
about “round squares,” you contradict yourself, for you assert that which can-
not possibly be so—you conjoin ideas that are incompatible). A logically true
or logically valid statement can never be false, or disproved by any discovery
of facts; it will never be the case that some particular pairs of 2 do not add up
to 4, or some particular squares turn out to be circular—and if you think you’ve
found such a case, you’re wrong! “2 + 2 = 4” is true, and squares are equi-
lateral rectangles, as philosophers like to say, in all possible worlds. For this
reason we say that these statements are “true a priori”: we can know them to
be correct prior to any examination of the facts of the world, without having to
count up lots of pairs of pairs, just to make sure that 2 + 2 really equals 4.

2. Factual, or empirical, statements are assertions about the world out there, the
physical environment of our existence, including the entirety of scientific dis-
course, from theoretical physics to sociology. Such statements are verifiable by
controlled observation (“recourse to measurement,” “recourse to weighing”)
of that world, by experiment or just by careful looking, listening, touching,
smelling, or tasting. This is the world of our senses, the world of space, objects,
time and causation. These empirical statements are called synthetic, for they
“put together” in a new combination two ideas that do not initially include or
entail each other. As a result they cannot be known a priori, but can be deter-
mined only a posteriori, that is, after investigation of the world. When they
are true, they are true only contingently, or dependently, as opposed to nec-
essarily; their truth is contingent upon, or depends on, the situation in which
they are uttered. (As I write this, the statement “it is raining out” is true, and
has been all day. The weatherman tells me that tomorrow that statement will be
false. The statement “2 + 2 = 4,” like the rectangularity of squares, does not
flick in and out of truth like that).

3. Normative statements are assertions about what is right, what is good, or
what should be done. We know these statements as value judgments, pre-
scriptions and proscriptions, commands and exhortations to do or forbear.
There is no easy way of assigning truth value to these statements. The cri-
teria of “truth” that apply to formal and factual statements do not apply


to normative statements. This is why, when we disagree about them, we
become “hostile,” and “lose our temper” at each other; there is no easy way to
resolve the dispute. We can certainly say of such judgments (formally) that they
conform or fail to conform with other moral judgments, or with more general
and widely accepted moral principles. We can also say (empirically) that they
receive or fail to receive our assent as a society, as compatible or incompat-
ible with our basic intuitions of what is just or right (as determined by a poll
or survey). We may also say that a judgment succeeds or fails as a policy rec-
ommendation on some accepted pattern of moral reasoning, like adducing con-
sequences of that judgment and estimating how human wants will be affected
should it become law (see the section on Moral Reasoning, below). But the cer-
tainties of math and science are forever beyond the grasp of any normative sys-
tem, which is, possibly, as it should be.

One limit on normative reasoning is important enough to get clear at the outset.
You can’t get an “ought” from an “is”; you cannot derive any normative statement
from any collection of facts, no matter how emotionally compelling, without a pre-
viously accepted normative statement as premise. From the fact that a certain prod-
uct line is unprofitable, it does not follow automatically that the company should
abandon it; from the fact that the new medical technology can prolong the patient’s
life for another 6 months, it does not follow automatically that the patient should
elect to use it; from the fact, verifiable by poll, that the nation overwhelmingly does
not want to pay any more taxes, or approves of abortion, it does not follow that
taxes are wrong or abortion is right. Other things being equal, we may very easily
accede to the “ought” premise—that a company should do whatever will improve
the bottom line, that medical science ought to prolong human life, that in a democ-
racy, what the people prefer is or ought to be, law. But cases test these rules all the
time, and we want to be free to examine them when the situation seems not to fit
the intent of the rule. At these times we must be very clear on what is factual—
verifiable by survey, experiment, or observation—and what is normative.

These distinctions, universally valid, are part of every introduction to philoso-
phy. But why are they necessary to understand ethics? The most important reason
to be familiar with these distinctions is that occasionally disputes that seem to be
about values or moral principles are actually about facts or about the meanings of
words. Such disputes are resolvable, at least in principle, and they should be dis-
posed of before the discussion continues.

For as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, words have no value in themselves. They
are but tokens, and wise men do but reckon with them (for fools, they are money).
There is no point in arguing about the meaning of a word. Simply define your
terms to begin with, doing your best to place your definition within range of the
normal discourse of the field, and carry on your discussion from there. Only one
thing is essential: that you know when a dispute is about the meanings of words
and when it is about something more important, and that you agree at the outset
that whatever you decide to let the words mean, you will not let that agreement
influence the final decision.

1.2 Definitions and Distinctions

6 1 Cases and Decisions

How will we use the terms of moral discourse? Any text on ethical theory
has to open with the observation that of all matters in ethics, the meanings of the
terms has caused the most acrimony and dispute. Since the earliest of the Socratic
Dialogues, we have argued about the meaning of key terms like “morals,” “eth-
ics,” “virtue,” “piety,” “justice” and the others, all the others. Given the limited
purposes of this text, I will simply stipulate at this point how I intend to use the
key terms of ethics, observing only that my usage is not bizarre. More than that
will no philosopher claim.

1.3 Definitions of the Terms of Ethics

In what follows you may expect the following words to be used in general in these

Morals or Morality: the Rules and prima facie Duties that govern our behavior as per-
sons to persons. All you really need to know you probably learned in kindergarten. The
rules and duties are easy to know and to remember—but very hard to follow consistently.

Don’t hurt people (As your kindergarten teacher would have put it, Don’t hit.)
Be nice, create happiness (Help the teacher, be kind to the little kids).
Be fair, practice justice (Share your toys, don’t take the biggest piece of cake).
Respect the rights of others, honor their choices (Keep your hands to yourself!)
She would probably have added others:
Always tell the truth.
Be clean and neat, Take care of your health.
But essentially, the first four will do as a basis for morality.

Values: States of affairs that are desired by and for people and that we want to increase;
also called ends, or goals.

Health (as opposed to sickness).
Wealth (as opposed to poverty).
Happiness in general.
Freedom, Justice, Democracy, Rule of Law.

Virtues: Conditions of people which are desirable both for the people themselves and for
the good functioning of the society.

Wisdom (vs. ignorance, irrationality).
Courage (vs. weakness, unreliability).
Self–control (vs. greed, violence, indulgence).
Justice (vs. egoism, favoritism, deviousness).

Ethics: Properly speaking, the academic study of morals, duties, values, and virtues, to
find their theoretical links and relationships, and how they work together (or do not) in

Other understandings of the term ethics:
1. More generally, the whole field of morals, moral rules, duties, values and virtues—

the whole study of our attempts to order human conduct toward the right and the


2. More specifically, a professional ethic is a particular code of rules and understand-
ings worked out by the members of a profession to govern their own practice. (See
Appendix on the Professions, below).

Ethical Principles: Very general concepts that sum up a range of morals, values and vir-
tues, from which moral imperatives can be derived. We test our actions against Rules, our
rules against Principles.

Sometimes Ethical Reasoning is helped by a decision procedure, or tem-
plate, suggesting a pattern of steps to follow in order to solve puzzling prob-
lems. Here are three that we have found useful.

1.3.1 ADAPT: An Approach to Moral Decision-Making

People naturally want to do good and avoid evil. For the most part, we limit our
attention to morality to the observance of certain interpersonal rules—of courtesy,
helpfulness, and respect for privacy, for instance—that serve to make daily life
more livable. But sometimes a condition comes to light that interrupts, imposes
itself upon, daily life. Consider the following case:

Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans. Following the hurricane, which in itself
did not do as much damage as some had feared, the levees that protect the city broke,
and the city was immediately flooded. Many families, especially in Ward Nine and
others of the poorer districts, were stranded by the flood and in terrible danger—from
drowning, from disease (there was no potable water), from hunger, from lack of access
to health care, and eventually, from roving gangs. Somehow, they had to be gotten out of

Why hadn’t they left earlier? As the hurricane closed in on the city, the mayor had
ordered a general (voluntary) evacuation, either to areas outside the city or as a last resort
to the Superdome. Experienced residents sized up the relative dangers of hunkering (or
sheltering) in place, risking severe winds, or of being evacuated by school bus to unpre-
pared areas outside of town, to a mobbed Superdome, or to some distant city, while their
property stood empty and unprotected. Many stayed.

Then the flooding started, and the mayor had ordered a general evacuation. All the
usual means of transportation were useless. Only boats could be used for evacuation,
so the National Guard was put into boats to bring the people out. The entire nation was
watching, angry that the residents had not been brought out earlier; there was a lot of pres-
sure to get the job done.

Then the difficulties began. Some residents willingly climbed into the boats with a
small well-organized pack of personal goods. Others would not leave without their pets.
Some of these were coerced into the boats and wept miserably the entire trip. Some had
aged spouses or parents who were too sick to move. Some pointed out that the gangs
would ravage their houses if they left, and refused to leave. What were the Guardsmen
to do? Herd them in at gunpoint? Respect their free choice and leave them in the flood,
perhaps to die?

Eventually more facts came to light: the Superdome had turned into a living hell when
it lost electricity and water; the places out of town were sometimes no more than camping
places under bridges, in the broiling heat of summer; the distant cities were less than wel-
coming to second and third waves of refugees. Meanwhile, as municipal, state and federal
governments feuded over who bore the ultimate responsibility for the mess, Ward Nine
was abandoned to its fate; it will probably never be completely rebuilt.

1.3 Definitions of the Terms of Ethics

8 1 Cases and Decisions

The Katrina case, as we may call the situation, exhibits certain characteristics
that plague the moral life of the nation.

First: some condition is brought to light, some situation, or array of facts. This condition
captures our attention, alerts us to something that stands out from the background noise
of our lives as requiring our concern.
Second: that condition is discussed, the information is disseminated through the commu-
nity, a community dialogue is conducted where public opinion is actually formed. That
“community,” incidentally, may be as small as a family or as large, as in this case, as the
whole nation.
Third, the …