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

II. Decision Procedures for Ethics: ADAPT
an Approach to Moral Decisionmaking

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:

Stranded in Ethiopia during a protracted civil war, a French camera crew began filming the events and conditions in a nearby refugee camp. Its inhabitants had fled from the fighting between the Ethiopian central government and the province of Eritrea, where the war had disrupted all agriculture and commerce, and cut off the food supply.

There was no food for them in the camps. They were dying, starving to death. The crew filmed babies with the thinned reddish hair, dull eyes, and distended bellies of starvation; filmed parents, helpless, trying to comfort their dying children; filmed the burial parties consigning their bodies to the earth. Then they sent the film back to Europe, and excerpts started to show up on late night television.

World reaction was immediate. Whatever we thought of Ethiopia, Africa, or foreign affairs in general, we knew that those children had to be fed, immediately.

How did we know? We knew that human life is precious, that human pain is bad, and that starvation hurts. We recognize therefore imperatives to save lives that are threatened and relieve human pain wherever it occurs. These imperatives are qualified where the sufferers seem to have brought the suffering on themselves, for then they are seen somehow to deserve to suffer; where a person is faced with death following conviction for a capital crime, we may suspend completely our intuitive imperative to "save life." But children cannot have committed crimes, or be in any way responsible for that war and the conditions that follow from it. They are innocent sufferers and therefore deserve all the help we can give them.

Accordingly, we looked for ways to feed the children, In addition to the usual routes of charitable aid, churches etc., many of the world's popular music stars were brought together by an enterprising producer to hold a huge fundraiser, called "Live Aid," for the benefit of the starving children. An enormous amount of money was raised and directed toward famine-ridden Africa. The strength of the world's reaction to that famine, incidentally, was a major factor in the later United Nations decision to send troops into neighboring Somalia to protect food distribution channels, and the United States' decision to join that effort.

Was it a good idea? Not long after the big concert, questions were raised about the effectiveness of that and all such efforts. Was the money well spent? When food and supplies were bought, were they transported to the famine-stricken area as efficiently as possible? Were they distributed successfully to hungry people? In war-torn, gang-ridden countries, where no central government could maintain order, was all that food actually getting to the people who needed it? Especially after the warlord battles in Somalia started going sour, there was a strong reaction against such humanitarian efforts in the absence of strong local support.

The case of the starving children, as we may call the above, and all similar cases, is typical of the kind of moral adaptation that punctuates the normal routine of moral life. The sequence is characteristic:

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 community, 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 world.

Third, the discussion incorporates the moral assumptions that guide our lives, ordinarily without conscious thinking about. We do not have to reason out what we ought to do in most situations; most of the moral work is already done.

Fourth, proposals for action are put forward and policies adopted. Decisions are made, implementing the imperatives in a way appropriate to the situation that caught our attention.

And Fifth, the results of the action are tested against the results expected. The test results are fed back in to the data from the initial situation: Was the action taken in fact appropriate? Were the imperatives successfully implemented? Or should we go back to the drawing board, and introduce new proposals for action or policy?

Note: the decision process, on review, does not return to the starting point, but only asks after the effectiveness of the policy for action--we have agreed about the ends of the proposed action, and now we seek the most effective means.

From the above, we can put together a normal moral reasoning procedure, easily remembered in the acronym ADAPT:

  • Attention
  • Dialogue
  • Assumptions
  • Proposals
  • Test

(Note: allow me to apologize right now, for this and subsequent acronymic tricks of this sort. They give the appearance of slickness, I know, but they really do help us to remember.) These normal procedures are used whenever changes in our world require new policies in order to continue normal life in accordance with our ordinary commitments.

Now consider the following cases:

  1. You are a physician called in to confer with the family of a terminally ill man in a nursing home. He is conscious, in some discomfort, confused much of the time. He will not get much better, but his heart is strong, and he is not expected to die soon. His children (his wife is dead) are distressed at the length of time it will take him to die. They would like you to inject a fatal dose of morphine to hasten death, on grounds that his estate is being eaten up by the medical and nursing home costs.
  2. You are the production manager of a pharmaceutical company under a lot of competitive pressure. Your boss suggests that you could double productivity if you filled half the penicillin ampules with saline solution instead of penicillin. To be sure, the patients wouldn't get the penicillin prescribed, but most penicillin prescriptions are unnecessary anyway, so probably it wouldn't do anyone any harm.

In practice, cases A and B would probably not call forth any high-level moral reasoning. They are for you, we may suppose, new cases; but the Assumptions that have always worked for you will work here. Physicians do not kill their patients; children do not kill their parents to accelerate the inheritance; you do not deliberately adulterate product runs or market trash under a product's label. The answer is No; if asked for reasons, the normal ADAPT-level reasons will do: most basically, "That simply is not done, or not acceptable"; more personally, "I couldn't sleep nights," or, "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror when I shave tomorrow, if I did anything like that"; more spiritually, "My religion forbids me even to consider anything like that"; or more ominously, "I don't look good in stripes. And neither do you." The moral rules that back these up are clear to all: practice medicine only for the benefit of the patient; never tell lies, especially to customers.

Principles and reasoning based on consensus morality are not always in such good shape. Recall the Third Reich, and the fact that in Germany in Hitler's time, it was accepted practice, and in accord with the religious intuitions of the leaders of the country, and definitely in accordance with law, to kill Jews wherever you found them (in an orderly manner, of course). That is why we have to know ethics; to know when the principles and reasoning that we ordinarily use need to be re-examined, criticized, and maybe changed-- to know, in short, when ADAPT is not sufficient.

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

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