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Ethical Theories and the Infamous Trolley Problem, Part I

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the first of two articles examining various ethical theories.

Ethics often seems to be a fairly simple discipline on the surface. Ethics aims to maximize individual and societal well-being. However, when closely examining different philosophies of right and wrong or good and bad, ethical outcomes are usually much more complicated. Questions immediately arise as to the best ways to achieve these ethical outcomes.

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When sacrifices must be made, whose well-being matters most? And why? These are difficult questions to answer. Through rigorous intellectual inquiry, philosophers have worked out some basic ethical theories upon which at some level most points of view can be mapped. In this article, we will look at three of the most prominent theories: egoism, utilitarianism and deontology.

“In philosophy, egoism is the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s own action,” according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Egoism, therefore, is premised on the basis of self-interest. In its purest form egoism posits that actions which further a person’s self-interest are inherently the best choices. Henry Sidgwick was the first to formally introduce ethical egoism in 1874, but earlier philosophers, such as Yang Zhu in the fourth century BCE, have been identified as embracing egoist principles.

In Its Unqualified Form, Egoism Would Embrace Human Qualities Like Greed

We can recognize an obvious selfish bias in egoism. In its unqualified form, egoism would embrace human qualities like greed. Within the context of personal ethics, one’s own gains are the only variables that matter. If self-preservation is the most primal self-interest, then under an egoist theory there would perhaps be no circumstances under which the individual should be persuaded to sacrifice his or her own life for the benefit of others.

One of the most famous proponents of egoism was Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and capitalism. Capitalism is based on the principle that if everyone in an economic environment promotes their self-interests, the resulting competition will force all players to maximize efficiency and productivity. As a result, everyone benefits.

However, some philosophers – such as the controversial Ayn Rand — advocate a modified version of egoism called enlightened egoism. The basic premise of enlightened egoism is that individuals serve their own self-interest when they act in ways that serve the interests of others. Put another way, the motivation is still selfish, but by helping others it is propounded that mutual cooperation will ultimately benefit the actor more than if he or she had pursued behavior consistent with pure greed and selfishness.

Egoism is also the foundation for Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of trickle-down economics. His philosophy proposed that, if government just makes it easier for the private sector to grow and profit (i.e., but cutting regulations, lowering taxes, etc.), then everyone will ultimately benefit from the prosperity, from CEOs to line-level employees. Of course, the reality of trickle-down economics is a far cry from this utopian vision.

Utilitarianism Is a Moral Theory that Quantifies Happiness and Unhappiness

A second ethical theory is utilitarianism. “Utilitarianism is a moral theory that advocates actions that promote overall happiness or pleasure and rejects actions that cause unhappiness or harm. A utilitarian philosophy, when directed to making social, economic, or political decisions, aims for the betterment of society,” according to Will Kenton in Investopedia.

Utilitarianism contrasts with egoism in that it asserts that the most ethical conduct is measured by taking a simple inventory of well-being accomplished — or, alternatively, suffering avoided — for all those involved, without any special consideration for the individual actor. In this sense, utilitarianism is perhaps the most mathematically sound basis for ethical conduct.

Under utilitarianism, in order to maximize morality all one needs to do is measure the total amount of well-being produced — or suffering relieved — for all parties involved in every alternative option. Then choose the option with the best net yield.

Utilitarianism can be distinguished from egoism in that, under utilitarianism, the most ethical behavior may be that from which the actor receives no well-being whatsoever. In fact, the most ethical behavior may be that which brings suffering or a decrease in well-being to the actor. If other people involved would derive more net benefit than the harm created, then such behaviors are preferable under a utilitarian theory.

Utilitarianism would support the general idea of sacrificing one’s own life so long as 1) all lives are held in equal regard, and 2) the self-sacrifice serves to save at least two other lives. However, there is a distinction in utilitarian theory between quantitative well-being and qualitative well-being. Utilitarian theory permits the argument that all lives are not of equal value.

Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century English jurist and philosopher, was a proponent of utilitarianism. Bentham adamantly opposed the death penalty, slavery, physical punishment, and the subjugation of basic freedoms and rights. He also advocated the decriminalization of homosexuality. All such positions were based on the idea that such so-called offenses violated the utilitarian premise of maximizing well-being for all.

Deontology Asserts that Moral Behavior Is Influenced by the Duties Humans Have to Themselves and to Others

A third ethical theory is deontology, which asserts that moral behavior is influenced by the duties that human beings have to themselves and to others. Thus, from a deontological perspective individuals should do only that which conforms to their duties. The challenge in deontology is obvious: establishing a reasoned, objective definition of “duty” for the individual.

The two biggest proponents of deontology, Immanuel Kant and W.D. Ross, had different perspectives on the problem of duty. Kant suggested that reasoning should be the basis of establishing duty. This, of course, precariously presupposes that reasoning would lead to universal conclusions, notwithstanding the irrational influences of culture, religion, etc.

Ross, on the other hand, believed that “common sense intuition” should inform duty. Although this notion might seem entirely ambiguous, Ross at least provided some of his own “common sense” for his point of view. According to Ross, not causing harm to others was the highest priority, followed by lesser duties such as fidelity, justice, beneficence and others.

Suffice it to say that deontology leaves the individual awash in subjective and sometimes irreconcilable interpretations of “duty.”

But what happens when these theories are actually used in a sticky ethical thought experiment? In the second part of this article, we’ll look at the consequences of egoism, utilitarianism and deontology when applied to the infamous “trolley problem.”

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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