When trying to decide between that which is clearly right or wrong, most people know how they want to act. However, ethical dilemmas are particularly problematic because they often require us to choose between what is right and what is right. Having an ethical framework, or a method of deliberating ethical dilemmas, can help us choose the course that is the most ethical. These frameworks don't offer ethical answers; rather, they provide a general frame for beginning to uncover the ethical action in any given situation.
A consequences-based approach to ethics, the framework of utilitarianism calls on us to choose the action that seems to guarantee the greatest good for (or the least harm to) the largest number of people. It was championed in the late 18th century and early 1800s by two Englishmen named Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This framework may be particularly troubling because it requires us to try to be unbiased, and to valuate each human being in the same way. Many people may find it difficult to do the greatest good without any regard to doing good for specific people, such as yourself or your family members.
A rights-based ethical framework calls on us to do what most respects the moral rights of any people involved in an ethical decision. This approach also seeks to look at every person as an end, in and of themselves, rather than the means to an end. Thus, if you believe it is morally wrong to torture somebody, you cannot ethically torture a person if you want to observe a rights-based approach to ethics, even if doing so could save hundreds of lives.
Common Good and Duty
This approach seeks to make ethical decisions based upon what is best for the community. Proponents of this approach recognize the value of certain communities and institutions, and believe that it is worthwhile to uphold them, often at any cost. Oftentimes, people who adhere to a common good ethical framework seek to uphold institutions like the legal system, the education system, or the military, and may feel that it is appropriate to put a sense of duty to these institutions before personal desires.
The virtue-based ethical framework is based solely on the person who is faced with an ethical dilemma. Under this self-reflective framework, a person must decide what virtues that she should morally strive for as a human being. When presented with an ethical dilemma, she should choose the course of action that is most in line with these virtues. Thus, a virtue-based proponent who chooses to live honestly may decide to tell the truth even if doing so hurts other people or even herself.
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