Monday, December 08, 2008

Ethical Decision-Making

When you have a choice, how do you choose? You choose with the help of your Conscience. The conscience has two roles. It links man to the Natural Law and reminds us of violations.

Natural Law

C.S. Lewis called the Natural Law the Law of Human Nature. It is cannon of universal goods and evils. Like Aquinas, he described it as mathematics – in every culture 2 + 2 equals 4. Similarly, in every culture victimizing the innocent is evil and helping the needy is good. These simple examples belong to a body of truths – the Natural Law, morality, or a moral system.

Thomas Acquinas believed Natural Law was both in harmony with and discovered by human rationality. We can realize Natural Law through reason. We can appreciate it through reason. Moral Law ultimately makes sense to man. But, our broken perspective sometimes makes this difficult.

If we were to summarize the Natural Law, as Lewis and Aquinas have, it is to minimize evil and maximize good. Obviously, we want to eliminate evil and institute good – but our brokenness limits us. Natural Law then is the flagship of our failure and a beacon our potential. It is also the promise of life to come.

Right versus Good

Contemporary ethics tend to blur right and good. Typically, right is the ethical "ought", and good is the "should". Ought is the decision outside of the situation, and should is the decision inside the context. They are theoretically the same, but practically different.

Consider how wrong action can have an essence of good without being right. This essence misleads the ethically weak to categorize wrong action as right action.

Moral dilemma

A moral dilemma occurs for two reasons. The first is because the actor has to choose between a wrong they want and a good they do not want. This is not a true dilemma. It is a struggle the actor wrestles in his own heart – and is typically founded in human selfishness.

This type of moral dilemma is typically covered with phrases like "I did what I had to do", "I have to look out for number one", "The ends justify the means", "There's no such thing as a right/wrong decision", and "It's not all wrong." When the consequence is minor, these decisions are overlooked by a degraded ethic.

The second type of moral dilemma is true dilemma. The choices available are bad, bad, or bad. They may be degrees of good, but no right option. Such a lose/lose scenario is not unheard of. Medical ethics are the best examples of lose/lose scenarios – and come out most in "applied" ethics.

In such dilemmas, actors choose between minimizing overall pain, minimizing competing pain, or minimizing personal pain. In simple Epicurus ethics, minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure is paramount. But maximizing pleasure is bedrock to selfishness.

Indeed, a robust body of ethics endures personal pain for a good – short circuiting pain to be a good itself. Firemen are the simplest example. They choose pain for good. The Epicurus perspective is most flawed in the projection of pleasure as tautologically good.

Aristotle discussed this. He said pleasure should be pleasurable for right reasons. A man raping a woman may feel physical pleasure, but will never feel honor, pride, or rightness from it; each buttress rightful pleasure. To that end, there are two pleasures – a rightful and an impersonating pleasure.


Teleology focuses on outcome. It is "the ends justify the means". Many feel beneficial outcomes overshadow pain/evil induced by choices. It is shallow excuse-making. It is the human condition – children exhibit it without needing a teacher. "No harm no foul" reflects this; you see it in lots of CIA movies.

Teleology's flaw plays out in rape, molestation, abuse, genocide, and holocaust. No one approaches a woman being raped, cheering her up by telling her some potential/brilliant outcome. Neither would one approach a child being molested or Jew in a gas chamber. No outcome justifies horror.

Spock said in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" and proceeded to kill himself for to save other lives. Was he wrong? He wasn't. This is a "normative" ethic. And, there is a difference between self-sacrifice and victimizing the innocent.

But couldn't it happen that a rape or genocide result in a good? Yes. And this is not a contradiction. It does not justify evil, nor diminish it. This dividend of good from the investment of evil is a testament to good and its power to overcome – not the power of evil to create good.

But Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, earthquakes, or plagues could result in greater good. That's true. But, conversely, those are not evils. They are outside the discussion of ethics altogether. Unless James Bond-style you cause an earthquake, then we should talk about that choice.

What's the opposite of teleology?

It is deontology; focusing on right action, motivation, and immediate impact. Fundamentally, deontology is duty. It is what you "ought" to do without consideration of pleasure or justifiable outcome. It is antithetical to selfishness. To deontology, the means are the ends.

Prince Charming, from the fairy tale, is an excellent deontological example. Chivalry is duty-minded. Soldiers can be deontological in their ethics – and teleological. The truth is, anyone CAN be dutiful to what is right. Those experience rightful pleasure in faithfulness to Natural Law.

What's the source of the Natural Law?

God is the author of the Natural Law. But that's a longer topic. However, if a godless universe's physical complexity is to interleave successfully with boundless life, the source of Natural Law must the same as that which enables the interconnectedness of things. To that end, Natural Law's universality is a necessity.


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