“Moral wisdom seems to be as little connected to knowledge of ethical theory as playing good tennis is to knowledge of physics” (Emrys Westacott). To what extent should our actions be guided by our theories in ethics and elsewhere? What is the underlying relationship between theory and life? Should theories really be used to guide our choices, our actions? I believe that theories do and should, to a certain extent, guide our actions for the basic reason that overtime they are proven to lead to improved outcomes.
However, we should follow only the theories that have been proven to accurately reflect what is really happening in the world. Theories become vulnerable when they try to explain the complexities of universal phenomena far beyond our understanding. It is then that we should not rely on theories; but should allow such things as our instinct and common sense, which are conditioned through cultural factors and experiences, to direct us toward right action. First I would like to discuss the important role ethical theories play in guiding our moral behavior.
Generally, ethical theories are used to govern nations to ensure orderliness and equality in society. Much of the world runs on a common set of laws that are based on ethical theories constituting what is morally right or wrong. If these laws are broken, for instance a person breaks into another’s house or commits a crime of rape and violence, he or she would be charged, and ultimately punished by the governing authority. So by simply following the law most people are already following ethical principles in their daily actions whether they realize it or not.
One ethical theory that many laws are based on is Kant’s categorical imperative. To begin with in ‘Kantian ethics’, moral decisions are to be performed in part out of a sense of duty; but in addition to duty, certain action should be taken because it is logical to do so. The guiding principle that determines the logic and therefore morality of any action Kant called the categorical imperative. He says that people are to act so that the maxim of action can be viewed as a universal law. For example, when I was a child, I was taught that lying and stealing were wrong.
As a child I always obeyed these rules – it is my ‘duty’ not to lie or steal and as Kant explains it both acts are illogical if all of us were to do them. Consequently, a Kantian follower will produce consistent decisions since they will be based on fixed principles. However, there are times when these fixed principles come into conflict with real-life situations where immediate consequences seem to outweigh the stated principle. It is in these situations that a knower should rely on personal experiences and common sense to guide his/her actions.
Sometimes we lie to protect the innocent and sometimes we steal to feed our children. Another prominent ethical theory is ‘Utilitarian ethics’. This theory is based on the maxim that the choice that yields the greatest benefit to the most people is the choice that is ethically correct. This method provides a logical and rational argument for each decision and allows a person to use it on a case-by-case basis. However, the problem here is that the future consequences are not always so predictable. Considering this, we can’t be certain that following the theory will lead us to the greatest benefit.
Furthermore, utilitarianism poses an assumption that people have the ability to compare various types of consequences against each other on a similar scale. However, comparing material gains such as money against intangible gains such as happiness is impossible. Yet, realistically, complexities such as this are present most of the time, thus this is where theories become incompatible or at least less helpful as guides to moral decision making. I can apply both of these theories to my own life. Just recently, I found out that a girl cheated in chemistry class.
She missed class intentionally in order to let a friend take photos of the test. This particular girl has had a long history of cheating; and since most students in the class value academic integrity and honesty, they felt their trust had been breached. According to Kantian ethics, cheating is morally wrong, a violation of principle and duty, thus both the cheater and helper would have to be punished. Everybody told me to report to the principal, but it was a difficult decision to make because I knew I had to expose the person who helped her take the picture.