Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part I. Principles and Reasoning
by Lisa Newton

IV. The Forms of Moral Reasoning

Contrasting forms of moral reasoning, or reasoning to conclusions on the problems of ethics, were mentioned in passing in the expositions of our decision procedures, above, and may be derived from the discussion so far. The first we may call consequentialist (or utilitarian or teleological) reasoning, in which ends are identified as good and means are selected that will lead to those ends; the second is generally called nonconsequentialist (or deontological) reasoning, in which rules are accepted as good and acts are judged right or otherwise according to their conformity to those rules. A third, complementary to those two but not yet included in the decision processes, is called virtue-based (or ontological) reasoning, in which the type of person one is, and the type of moral community one belongs to, determines the obligations to act. In consequentialism, the rightness of an act is linked with the goodness of the state of affairs that it brings about; in non-consequentialism, it is linked with its derivability from a rule; in virtue ethics, it is linked with the character of the agent.

1. Reasoning from Rule: Deontological Reasoning

We suggested above that moral principles usually take the form of an imperative, setting a duty sufficient in itself to justify action. An imperative serves as the major premise for a line of deontological, or nonconsequentialist, reasoning. Deontological reasoning states a duty, observes that the present instance, real or hypothetical, falls under that duty, and proceeds to derive the obligation to carry out that duty in this instance. For example, presented with a particularly nice necklace left unguarded on a patient's bedside table or on the jewelry counter at the department store, I might be very tempted to snatch it and run. But my duty not to do that is very clear:

  • (major premise) Thou shalt not steal.
  • (minor premise) To take this necklace would be stealing.
  • (conclusion) Thou (in this case, I) may not take the necklace.

Or if I take it anyway, and am confronted at the door by my supervisor asking if the removal were authorized, or by the store owner asking if I paid for that necklace, and I want very much to say "Oh, this is my necklace--I wore it in but the clasp broke which is why it's in my hand," again my duty is clear:

  • (major premise) Lying is wrong.
  • (minor premise) To say it's my necklace would be lying.
  • (conclusion) I may not say it's mine.

Connoisseurs of logical form will note a certain falling short of the strict subject-predicate form demanded by Aristotelean logic, but the point should be clear enough. In deontological reasoning (literally, reasoning from duty), we assume that we are obligated to do what is right, that there are moral laws which correctly demarcate what is right and what is wrong, and that we can deduce the moral status of a contemplated action by finding what moral laws apply to it. (By those laws, an act may have one of three moral statuses: it may be prescribed (obligatory), proscribed (forbidden), or permitted (neither prescribed nor proscribed).

There are problems with this approach. What, for instance, is the grounding of the major premises? Deontological reasoning starts with the assertion of duties, but those duties must be justified externally. In this case, we can go back to our basic principles and derive the prohibitions of stealing and lying without too much difficulty. Occasionally, however, in order to justify a premise, we are forced to fall back on consequentialist reasoning--the reason why we mustn't trade shares of stock on the basis of inside information cannot be traced directly from the original principles, but involves quite some understanding of the stock market and, ultimately, the assertion that (a very small minority of economists dissenting) insider trading is harmful to the market and thus to the free enterprise system. (Insider trading is usually represented as a violation of "justice." But of course it would not be "unjust" to deal as an insider if the rules permitted it. It would just be conducive to bad consequences, or so the general belief goes.)

2. Reasoning from Consequences: Teleological Reasoning

Note, however, that we could often just as easily couch the same moral argument in goal-oriented or consequentialist terms. In such an argument we treat the principles as values rather than as imperatives, and as ends to be achieved in society, rather than laws governing action directly. Moral argument then becomes an exercise in evaluating the means to the end of the best possible society. The good, as opposed to the right of right action, becomes the benchmark of moral prescription; that good is generally understood as the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons in the society in the long run. Action is right insofar as it brings about good results. The most familiar form of consequentialist reasoning is the "cost-benefit" analysis familiar from the business world: To find the right thing to do, you add up the benefits of each of the options, divide the benefits of each course of action by its costs, and select that option with the highest ratio of benefits to costs.

Can we deduce the same conclusions as above using consequentialist reasoning? Yes, somewhat more elaborately:

  • (major premise) If everyone took objects that don't belong to them, all trust in institutions would break down and the economy would collapse; therefore the practice of unauthorized taking objects is contrary to the greatest good of the society;
  • (minor premise) Taking this necklace in these circumstances would therefore be contrary to the greatest good of the society;
  • (conclusion) This act is not right and I should not do it.

We don't have to go through this procedure every time we find a necklace lying around within reach, of course. The experience of the whole human race is that respect for property, however property may be defined in different cultures, is essential for the stability of society, and therefore, on those grounds, such taking of property without payment or authorization is appropriately forbidden everywhere (as is lying on matters of personal, social or commercial interest). Once the act is prohibited, the reasoning proceeds exactly as it did in the nonconsequentialist framework. Most of us find rule utilitarianism (consequentialism that establishes rules and then reasons from them) easier to work with on a day-to-day basis than act utilitarianism (consequentialism that evaluates every individual act on the basis of its consequences). But any consequentialist will insist on the point that every legitimate major premise for such a moral syllogism is based on consequentialist reasoning; we need no divine commands, unverifiable intuitions, or arbitrary pronouncements to give us the principles from which we derive the moral status of the act in question.

3. Reasoning from Virtue: Ontological Reasoning

A third form of reasoning is customarily couched in the terms of virtue or character. In such argument we appeal to the principles as character traits rather than as goals or as rules, as virtues inherent in the moral agent rather than as characteristics of the act. Every time we act we simultaneously define ourselves (as the type of person who acts that way) and change ourselves (toward that type of person), whether for better or for worse. Our objective in moral action, by this reasoning, is not only to adhere to rule (a minimal prescription), and achieve good ends (chancy at best), but also, and primarily, to become a good person, especially the kind of person who performs right actions by habit and by desire. We go beyond cost/benefit and rule-adherence to aim at ideals of conduct and personhood.

Virtue ethics does not define, initially, just what virtues are worth pursuing most and by whom. In this lack of specificity it is no worse off than utilitarianism, which wavers among definitions of "happiness" (welfare objectively determined? felt pleasure? preference as expressed in the market?) or deontology, which is indifferent among several sources of "rules" (natural law? human law? the form of moral reasoning itself?) By tradition, humans should seek to become temperate, courageous, wise (prudent), and just; additionally, in our religious traditions, they should try to acquire faith, hope, and charity--not to mention honesty, kindness, patience, equanimity, magnanimity, modesty and a sense of humor. For moral action, it is essential to acquire just those virtues, i.e. become just the sorts of person, that will make immoral conduct impossible; for professional ethical conduct, it is essential to acquire the virtues appropriate to the profession. These should differ depending on the function of the profession in the community. Presumably, the physician will seek to acquire compassion (professional beneficence) before justice; the judge will seek justice first. The businessman will value prudence (professional wisdom) most highly, the military officer will cultivate courage. The Greeks always linked virtue to function--you are the right person for what you do when you have the character traits that permit you to do it well--and that link continues to make sense.

    Can we put the same examples in virtue ethics? Yes, even more easily:
  • (major premise) I aspire to be an honest person, I hate the idea of being a thief.
  • (minor premise) Taking this necklace makes me a thief.
  • (conclusion) Therefore I may not take this necklace.

Whatever its theoretical merits, it is worth observing that virtue ethics is as practically effective as we are likely to get. It is close to its subject and highly motivational; most of us in fact abstain from crime because we hold ideals (images) for ourselves that are incompatible with petty crime, not to mention its punishments.

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998

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