Term Paper: Ethics Is a Moral Philosophy

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Ethics is a moral philosophy that attempts to discover a systematic understanding of the nature of morality and what it requires of people -- which, in Socrates's words, would simply come down to "how we ought to live" -- and why (Rachels & Rachels 2009). But, who is to say how one ought to live? Every person or group has a unique vision of how they believe life ought to be lived. This is the complex nature of ethics and thus the reason why there have been many interpretations of ethics.

Many people see ethics as a personal matter, a set of beliefs and standards, developing over the course of many years, oftentimes shaped by parents or other authority figures, and oftentimes by cultural factors. Ethics may also be considered social principles, the rules or norms of one's society or groups within that society and culture. Other still might believe that ethics come from religious beliefs; for example, one may base their moral compass on the Ten Commandments or on Buddhism's five moral precepts. Basically stated, one person can have his or her set of values and another person has his or her own, and a group's ethics may be different from another group's ethics therefore ethics is very subjective.

Utilitarian ethics -- also called utilitarianism -- is the ethical theory that the "production of happiness and reduction of unhappiness should be the standard by which actions are judged right or wrong and by which the rules of morality, laws, public policies, and social institutions are to be critically evaluated" (West 2003). Utilitarianism is one of the foremost ethical philosophies to come about in the past two hundred years. It basically states that no action is right or wrong because it is a case of telling the truth or telling a lie; and the moral rule against lying is in itself not correct (2003). Lying is considered wrong because it often leads to bad consequences. "And the moral rule against lying can be subjected to empirical study to justify some cases of lying, such as to avoid a disastrous consequence in saving someone's life" (2003).

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) founded utilitarianism as an ethical thought, (West 2003) and he believed, as did many thinkers of the eighteenth century, that the production of happiness and reduction of unhappiness should be the standard for the judgment of right action and for the criticism of social, political, and legal institutions. While many other thinkers had the same thoughts, Bentham attempted to construct a whole system of moral and legal philosophy upon that basis, and his doctrine became the basis of a reform movement in the nineteenth century. James Mill, a follower of Bentham, refined some of Bentham's ideas, however, he never strayed from Bentham's core beliefs about utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine that states that actions are judged right or wrong based on the consequences of that action, not the motive. This brings us to the Greatest-Happiness Principle, which posits that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (Mill 2011).

In looking at the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill from a utilitarian perspective, BP's actions are completely wrong based on the fact that the oil spill caused the death of workers, injured many others, has severely damaged the one of the world's greatest ecosystems, taken jobs away from fisherman, reduced tourism in the area, and has destroyed the physical beauty of the area. The environmental disaster created by BP is still being harshly judged and they have tainted their reputation for what appears to be good. Their lack of ethical guidance, their inability to take responsibility for the disaster (blaming Transocean, the rig owner, as well as Halliburton), and the CEO Hayward's arrogant statements ("I want my life back") all contribute to the production of unhappiness as opposed to eradicating it. Utilitarianism is a very critical way of seeing BP's ethical business culture.

In Kantian ethics, there is the belief that the "motive" is the most important factor in determining what is right and what is wrong. Immanuel Kant, the founder of Kantian ethics, believed that a moral action is one that is performed out of a sense of duty. A "moral action" for Kant was based on a sense of knowing what one "ought" to do; a moral action is not based on reward ("what will I get if I do this?") or upon feelings ("I feel bad for him, so I'll do it"). To understand the role of the motive in Kantian ethics, one must only consider a very simple example: if one were to see an old man struggling to put a big bag of groceries into his trunk and he or she felt pity for the old man and helped him because of those feelings of pity, one would not be acting morally. Or, if you think this man might "tip" you for helping him (i.e. one is rewarded), this is also not acting morally. Helping an old man with his groceries because you believe helping the elderly is right and good is acting morally. Kant said: "It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will" (Kant 2010).

In Kantian ethics an action can have negative consequences and still be a moral act, which is contradictory to utilitarian ethics which judges acts mainly on the consequences that occur because of the act. So, for example, if one is helping the elderly man out of a sense of duty to help the elderly and in the process of helping him one drops the bag of groceries and everything falls onto the pavement and shatters, the action is still considered moral no matter the bad consequences. To apply this theory to the BP oil spill gives a whole other perspective on the disaster.

Kantian ethics would require BP to act responsibly, which would mean taking responsibility for the disaster, considering those who have been hurt by the disaster, and addressing the damage done to the local environment. While BP was very quick to advertise that it was paying those who were impacted by the oil spill, one has to consider the blaming and the arrogance exhibited by BP, thus making their so-called "good" actions devoid of meaning. However, a true Kantian approach to helping would come from a sincere feeling of responsibility as opposed to just wanting to improve an image. Some of the ads that BP came out with were are created for consumers to begin seeing BP in a better light; however, because of the way BP has acted (arguably irresponsibly), even the good they tried to do appeared to be out of a sense to help themselves or show that they feel bad when clearly they just want the whole thing to go away.

Kant believed that moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he called the "categorical imperative." Immoral acts violate the categorical imperative and are thus irrational. Kant argued that in order to determine the morality of any situation we must "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Wood 2007). That means that each individual agent regards itself as determining, by its decision to act in a certain way that everyone -- including itself -- will always act according to the same general rule in the future. Kant believed that this expression of the moral law offers a concrete and practical method for evaluating particular human actions of different types. Another version of Kant's categorical imperative of universal law is, "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." Whether or not these are equivalent terms, Kant was basically saying that the formal nature of the categorical imperative gives it universal authority (Blackburn ). The latter version also places more value on human life and sees human life as wholly deserving of moral respect and offers a more personal perspective on morality. John Rawls regarded Kantian ethics "not as a morality of austere command but an ethic of mutual respect and self-esteem" (Woods 2007).

When contemplating the BP oil spill and Kant's universal law, it is clear that the company did not consider the greater good of humanity as so many people were negatively impacted, their livelihoods taken away, because of the oil disaster. Trying to salvage oil, not acting fast enough, not putting money towards clean up immediately, are all ways of saying that they are looking out for number one. Van Ingram (2002) offers an interesting take on the "powers of rational beings," which refers to what human beings are able to do. Van Ingram discusses the forking path in the road, which… [END OF PREVIEW]

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