Throughout one’s life, there are pivotal points where an individual faces ethical dilemmas. Usually an ethical dilemma indicates that a choice involves benefits for some and negative outcomes for others. There are three main ethical theories that describe methods for making decisions. Deontological (non-consequentialism) theory focuses on the act or action-not on the outcome and teleological theory (consequentialism) focuses on outcomes. (Fritszche, 2005). Virtue ethics centers on character.
Someone following deontological ethical theory will make a decision because the action is morally correct and ignore the consequences. (Fritszche, 2005). For example, this person will tell the truth even if the truth is damaging to others because the individual feels duty bound to tell the truth. Immanuel Kant wrote extensively and devoted his life’s work to what is known as deontological ethical theory. His theories are referred to as Kantianism. Kant proposed that there are universal ethical behaviors. Laws and the legal system are based on the ideas of rights and justice which falls under deontological theory.
The most popular teleological theory is known as utilitarianism where an action is ethical if the result is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Famous proponents of utilitarianism were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Cost benefit analysis is also a method of teleological theory. (Boatright, 2006). Governments often practice teleological theory in order to allocate funds, make military decisions, and to govern on a daily basis. We are currently seeing this with the financial bail out package in the United States and the government’s attempt to decide which allocation of funds will yield the largest benefit for the country’s economy. Corporations also use teleological theory in decision-making. For example, the choice to close a plant or to lay off employees is rooted in the desire for the greatest benefit for the most number of people as well as the desire to remain a viable business entity. If an organization has a large lay off, but is able to stay in business and still employ large numbers of people, many are benefited. Arguably, there are also people who are negatively impacted. A problem with teleological theory is defining what is good and who should decide what is good.
Virtue ethics theory is steeped in Aristotle’s idea of character and the good person. Aristotle proposed that there are virtues such as honesty, benevolence, loyalty, etc that a person should aspire to become. He also indicated that virtues are learned based on upbringing. Virtues only exist when they are observed over time, so virtues are excellence practiced regularly. Defining and agreeing on virtues may be problematic . (Boatright, 2006)
Most individuals have used these three theories at different times throughout life. There is not one theory that can comfortably be applied in all situations at all times. The theories also ignore spirituality. All of life does not necessarily fall under logic. In many instances, I have prayed over situations and meditated, and then, felt that I knew the answer. Others may have a certain “gut” feeling regarding the correct action. Paying attention to emotions during decision making provides clues for you on whether or not you are making a decision that you can live with. Ethical dilemmas provide opportunities for growth and examining who you are and why you think the way that you do.
I propose that you look at a dilemma from both the logical and spiritual perspective. It is not enough to rely only on logic or only on spirituality. We are both thinking and spiritual beings. Life offers abundant opportunities to use both logic and prayer.
Boatright, J.(2006). Ethics and the conduct of business.(5th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ:Pearson Education, Inc.
Fritzsche, D. (2005). Business ethics: A global and managerial perspective. (2nd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
by Sheri Kaye Hoff , MA, CGCL, Life Coach and Author