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Moral Dilemmas and Developmental Problems

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What was a recent moral dilemma that occurred in your life? How did you traverse it? One path would have been the Deontological approach which is to follow the rules. Another way would have been to consider the consequences of each decision and choose the one that produced the least objectionable result: Consequentialism. Or, the decision comes from a place of experience, a gut feeling, so-called Virtue Ethics. Moral dilemmas are often splattered within the extensive stream of problems we encounter in day to day life. However, these problems are often nontrivial to solve, since following the rules does not always deliver the desired outcome, and foreseeing the future is seldom possible. Thus, Virtue Ethics is superior to Deontology and Consequentialism because it minimizes inaction, results in fewer undesirable outcomes and provides a framework to live without explicit rules.

Consequentialism is inferior to Virtue Ethics because it often produces unsatisfactory results. Consequentialism is usually praised because of its outward-looking moral philosophy, so-called ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. However, this idea can produce objectionable outcomes. For example, imagine a government finds that enslaving five percent of the population would increase living standards for the majority of people. This is inhumane but Consequentialism suggests it should be done. Furthermore, the Consequentialist theory prides itself on providing action for each situation, but sometimes it fails to produce a solution. An example of this can be found in ‘The Apology’ by Plato. In the text, Aristotle is faced with two options – both have unforeseeable consequences. Aristotle has a choice between mocking the court of Athens by bringing “pitiable exhibitions into court” or facing death, which “no one knows whether death is really the greatest blessing a man can have” or whether “it is the greatest curse”. The outcomes of either decision are unclear, and thus consequentialism can not provide an answer. Virtue Ethics avoids these problems by emphasizing the morals of the character over the greatest good. It asks: what type of person would they be if they enslaved people and made a mockery of their country?, the answer, a morally unjust one.

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Deontology pales in comparison to Virtue Ethics because it often results in inaction. Deontology is well known for its simplicity and ease of use. It just requires one to follow the rules. However, it is this simplicity that manifests inaction. For example, suppose Noah is witnessing a mass shooting. He is armed and capable of taking out the shooter but the law says he must not kill. Deontology advises Noah not to break the law. However, in letting the shooter continue, many people could be injured or killed. In contrast, Virtue Ethics suggests Noah should asses the type of person he would be if he let the shooter continue. He does not want to be an enabler. Another example is Aristotle breaking unspoken rules. This was important because he exposed many powerful men who pretended to have knowledge when they did not. Ultimately this led to his death, but not without enlightening a generation of youth. Had Aristotle followed the unspoken rules, important issues in Athenian society would not have been discussed and thus progress would not have been made. It was not Deontology that led him down this path, but instead Virtue Ethics.

Virtue Ethics is often critiqued for its self-centeredness and its lack of action-guiding principles. However, these traits are what gives strength to Virtue Ethics as a superior moral philosophy. To start, critics claim that Virtue Ethics is a poor moral philosophy because Morality is about improving the experience of those around us, rather than focusing on ourselves. However, this critique fails to recognize that the virtues are other-regarding, such as kindness and compassion. A parallel can be found once again in ‘The Apology’ by Plato. Aristotle, claims that from virtue comes… all other goods things for mankind while on trial. From Aristotle’s perspective, Virtue Ethics is, by definition, other-regarding. Secondly, Virtue Ethics is often criticized because it fails to be action-guiding. However, it is this lack of rigidness that benefits Virtue Ethics, as shown in the prior examples. Also, it is through the development of character, life experience, that provides the actions needed for each unique situation. In ‘Crito’ by Plato, Aristotle examines his entire life when deciding whether he should escape jail. His life experience, seventy years living solely in Athens, was what enabled him to make the tough decision of staying. Altogether, the so-called weak points of Virtue Ethics turn out to be the very structures that allow it to rise above Consequentialism and Deontology as the superior moral philosophy.

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