Rights: The University of Waikato Published 20 November 2007 Download

What are four common frameworks people use to make ethical judgements?


Michael Reiss: The most common frameworks are, first of all, a framework that is to do with consequences of actions. Technically it's often referred to as consequentialism. And for reasons that are not terribly important, the most common form of consequentialism is what’s called utilitarianism. But that is all about just looking at whether a particular behaviour or action would have beneficial consequences or harmful consequences, and overall trying to decide if the beneficial consequences, the benefits, outweigh the harmful consequences. And if you think they do then the action will be right.

So just to give one example, one might think that normally it was wrong to tell untruths, to lie, but in particular cases you would conclude it was the right thing to lie, because by telling the truth you caused more harm. And a very simple instance of this is that many of us, if asked by somebody who just spent a lot of money on buying a new set of clothing or whatever, What do you think of it? How do I look? - Many of us would probably say you looked great, even if in our heart of hearts we are not so sure that is the answer.

The second ethical framework that is often used is one based on rights and duties. So people tend to think that people have certain rights. You might, for example, have a right to freedom of speech. Or a right if you are a baby to be looked after by parents or relatives, or even the state if you haven’t got any parents. And then hand in hand with those rights, other people have duties. It’s not that you have a duty, but there are other people that have duties to ensure that you are able to enjoy your rights. So going back to the baby example, the baby has the right to be fed and loved and looked after, and of course it’s the parents who have the duty to do that.

Another framework is where you give a lot of weight to people making autonomous decisions. So the framework is valuing autonomy. This has become particularly important in medical ethics, where in many countries nowadays it's almost the one framework that trumps all the others. So if you don’t give informed consent for an operation you are not allowed, in many countries, as a doctor, to operate even if you know that that could save someone’s life. They are allowed to decline medical intervention.

And the fourth and final framework, which is not so commonly used, but is beginning to become a bit more popular, is the framework of what is called the virtue ethics. And this argues that what we want in life are people who actually do, in their characters and in their lives, embody such virtues as kindness, honesty, truthfulness, thoughtfulness, patience, whatever. Therefore virtue ethics would argue that when education works well, for example in primary school, part of it is to do - although the language sounds quite quaint and old fashioned - part of it is to do with developing children and so they are more virtuous.