Ethics and Moral Theory

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The most appropriate moral theory to use to answer this question (of the three choices given, anyway), is utilitarianism, assuming that the business is large enough to have a significant effect on surrounding communities, human or otherwise, which we will do because that is the only situation even worth considering from a philosophical perspective. 

Given this assumption, I believe that utilitarianism is the most appropriate theory of ethics for the three choices given for understanding businesses’ responsibilities. This is because we are dealing with an entity that affects many different individuals, communities, and very likely species as well. Rule-based systems (such as those proscribed by deontological ethics) and individually-oriented virtues (virtue ethics) do not possess enough empathy or sympathetic understanding to properly describe responsibility in this situation. Rules are written by humans, for humans, to protect themselves from the actions of other humans. Virtues follow the same road. Hence, we are left with utilitarianism. 

I should first say that I believe that in fact human beings do have responsibilities to surrounding nonhuman communities and beings, as well as other human beings potentially affected by their actions, and that I take this perspective in my response to this question. I do not believe that this claim can be derived from some larger general principle, but it has been a common viewpoint throughout history. If nothing else, a powerful business or any other group of humans that takes no responsibility for the state of its surroundings will quickly destroy them, and starve or pollute themselves to death. On a more personal level, I know plants and animals and even insects to be sentient beings with preferences and lives and interests of their own, from both science and experience. It follows that businesses and the individuals that compose them have responsibilities toward nonhuman creatures and communities also. Certainly, businesses have responsibilities to their human customers, employees, and shareholders as well, again, because a business that takes no such responsibility will quickly collapse, or set the stage for the collapse or destruction of others. In short, businesses have responsibilities toward the entire community of life, at least in an ideal world. This is because life is interdependent with itself, and destroying parts of it also weakens or destroys other parts. If you wreck enough of it, you will die, or at least live a profoundly impoverished existence. It comes down to love of life, which is also the love of those other than yourself.

Given this supposition, properly understood and applied utilitarianism is the only rational choice for approaching the question because it is the most potentially inclusive framework of the three basic theories of morality presented, and within common understanding of the nature of rules (deontological ethics) and virtues (virtue ethics), the only one capable of even including nonhuman creatures. It is entirely possible to speak of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ and have that greatest number include beings other than human ones. The same cannot be said of rules or virtues.

I note in passing that my analysis implies something important: the choice of an appropriate ethical theory for describing a business’ responsibilities followed from an understanding of those responsibilities and to whom they applied, not the other way around. I believe this to be a general truth. Ethics is always grounded in the question: who or what is important? Why? Until you answer those questions, theories are pointless and grasping after wind, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. I also note that the ethics I advocated were rooted in a desire to survive physically, and also to have relationship, trust and communion. That is, they were inseparable from my biological being, those of others, and my deepest needs. They are physical and concrete. Every ethical system I have ever seen subscribes to this formula, in one form or another, though they differ in their range of application. I would like our physicality to be the open and acknowledged ground of ethical discourse. It already is that ground, but that ground is in my opinion too often divorced and ignored.

Autonomy – within an individual or group’s ability to apply it responsibly and ably - is profoundly important in life, or at least in life in our culture. It is perhaps one of the deepest human needs. In a culture like our own, where our autonomy to express what we believe to be the truth, and to affect things that we want to affect, is constantly undermined by the needs and power of rigid domination hierarchies (and it has been far worse in the past), maintaining autonomy as a person becomes incredibly precious. What unfree person can respect themselves and others, do anything worthwhile, or even survive? The number of slaves and servants who have been worked to death, spiritual or physical, in the course of human history is beyond all decent contemplation, and my heart and soul shriek at such happenings. 

At the same time, in a deep sense autonomy is worthless. What good is the freedom to be a self-enclosed world unto oneself? You can’t marry, have children, or engage with the world from any kind of spiritual perspective as a completely autonomous being who will brook no limits on that autonomy. Who, having estranged themselves from all responsibility and relationship, could possibly love their lives, be respected as a person, or indeed, want to live at all, except possibly a sociopath?

All this, while valuable rhetorically, does not really answer the question, and in some ways, I do not think it is answerable in any abstract way, outside of context and relationship. What is disrespectful of autonomy in one situation is not necessarily disrespectful of it in another. Leadership that is imposed and oppressive is disrespectful of autonomy; that which serves and is chosen and then followed is not. Me telling a peer “go get me a glass of water” when we are just talking is profoundly disrespectful of our relationship and their autonomy, but me telling my young son or daughter to do the same when they are watching me work on building a house is probably not, because they want to be helpful and they can be so by fetching me some water. In other words, how important autonomy depends – on situation, on relationship, on need. There are times when autonomy matters not at all (such as a time when a group needs to pull together to survive), and times when it is all important (conscientious objection to a badly chosen and unnecessary war). For the most part, these things are felt and understood intuitively, not reasoned out. If I had to make a general statement, I would say that limits on autonomy should be accepted whenever they are appropriate, and that appropriateness has to be judged by the person accepting the limits or not. Any more than that is a profound imposition.

This is how, in my view, the best professionals approach relationships with their clients. They encourage their clients’ autonomy and respect it at all times, except when it is obvious that the client cannot use that autonomy well, or when the client does not want it. In my view, in most cases we should not even be asking how we can ‘preserve’ a client’s autonomy. We should be asking why we think we have the right to limit it beyond reasonable and obvious considerations for others in the first place. They were free people before they started working with us. Why did that change when they came to see us? Of course, there are exceptions – a person checking into a mental hospital or beginning to suffer from a debilitating disease might very well benefit from our efforts to preserve or extend their autonomy – but in the main this is not our role, even in medicine or teaching. All healers and teachers throughout history have viewed themselves primarily as helpers with knowledge or beneficent elders, not superior beings who should regulate the lives of their charges for their own good. As a wise newspaperman once observed “The urge to save is often a false front for the urge to rule”. Our role is to help those who ask for it, or clearly need it and cannot ask for whatever reason. Responsibilities to employers and the law are secondary at best.

I take this point of view because I do not see the point or value of encouraging thoughtless submission or spirit lessness on the part of others, and because it kills my heart to see people think that they cannot make any decisions for themselves. I take it because it bugs me to see (and I have seen it, up close and personal) doctors who believe their patients are fools because they lack specialized medical knowledge that takes years of access to equipment and no small amount of money to acquire and talk to them in a manner befitting that estimation. In short, I take that point of view because I value freedom and know that I live in a society that values control a good deal more. I believe this to be shortsighted. 

This also is a question made less answerable by abstraction, and any full answer of how much risk a client should take is highly contextual. Consider: in the case of their own health, clients in effect do have, and probably should have, the right to do more or less whatever they want up to some very clear limits unlikely to be transgressed (infecting themselves with AIDS, for example). In the case of a highly public enterprise like freeway building, limits on risk are and ought to be a good deal stricter, because a mistake can cost thousands of lives in seconds. 

Given the inherent pitfalls in abstraction and generalization, I think that both client and professional have the right and duty to be responsible with their choices, and believe that they should act as such. I do think that clients generally should have the right to take as much risk as they want to take, assuming always that they understand that risk and that their taking it does not obviously impose upon or endanger others or threaten the stability or quality of life around them (conversely, I also think that professionals have a right and frequently a duty to withhold services or products they believe to be harmful, exploitative or dangerous, even if they would benefit some people in the short run). I think this because I think that people in a civilized context have to feel themselves to be the arbiters of their own lives to some degree in order for life to be bearable. Isolated as they are, they have to have autonomy. Also, I firmly agree with Benjamin Franklin that the net effect of shielding people from the effects of their folly is to engender a world full of fools, which helps no one and harms many. Finally, professionals are not in fact, and should not be in theory, the arbiters of people’s lives. Cults of professionalism, like all destructive cults, are profoundly dangerous and depend for their legitimacy upon a false sense of superiority. The sanctity of professional opinion is too often purchased at the expense of the people’s self-respect and capacity for independent action. 

All this said, I think that of the choices for ethical frameworks given, a mixture of highly involved utilitarianism and virtue ethics is best for evaluating this question. I say this for several reasons. The first is simply that I cannot think of a rule-based system sufficiently complicated to encompass or encode all possible situations that might call for a decision involving clients’ and professionals’ autonomy, whereas the mathematical framework of utilitarianism, namely differential calculus with interactions, does possess that complexity. Secondly, it seems to me that virtue is involved here. Virtues and their cultivation are important in the development of human beings, and experiencing the results, whether success or failure, of one’s risks in life is helpful in the cultivation of virtue. I do not know that I can express the fundamental reasons behind desiring a world containing virtuous humans in terms that amount to much beyond “I do not like or respect people who have no virtues. They do not help me survive or thrive, nor hold up any sort of example to follow”. In my opinion, no human being who amounted to anything ever had a life that was free of stress or strife, and I cannot imagine a human being that is truly resourceful, empathetic, generous and capable who didn’t gain those qualities through struggle to at least some extent.

To conclude: it is perfectly morally permissible for people to take the risks they feel are necessary for their well-being and that do not harm or endanger other people or other life in any clear or obvious way, as long as they are willing to pay the costs if it goes wrong. The alternative is a world where only a select few ever have control or initiative and must take responsibility for all the other people. This is a burden that few, if any, people have ever been able to bear ably or compassionately. As such, we should reject its existence on utilitarian grounds. This is not going to lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It is going to lead to misery for most and insanity for everyone else.