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An ethics framework

The word “ethics” refers to principles or standards that define behaviour, action or rules for action that is considered to be right, good and proper. A framework for organizing the enormous variety of ethical standards that have served in this role throughout human history can be developed from a simple schema of human action. Individuals, associations or the designated agents of organizations can each be characterized as actors, represented by the shadow person shown in Figure 1. Actors considering or initiating action do so under a set of constraints, represented by the rings encircling the shadow person. These constraints determine which action or behaviour is possible, and are of three kinds. First, some constraints determine the physical universe of possibility. Characters in science fiction novels may be able to dematerialize and transport themselves to other places, but human beings cannot. Constraints that determine the physical limits of possible actions represent technology. Second, law and policy limit the universe of possible behaviour and action that an actor will consider. Third, individuals and associations constrain their behaviour according to customary norms that often lack any legal or official sanction, yet may function very effectively to limit the universe of possible alternatives for action. For example, people from Western societies will spontaneously queue for service, although in most instances this norm lacks legal reinforcement. Together, these three types of constraint make up the opportunity set, the class of actions or behaviours that are effectively available to any potential actor.

Elements of human action

Eventually, the actor will select one possible course of action from the opportunity set and will engage in conduct. Conduct indicates the behaviour performed, including both physical motions and symbolic or meaningful behaviour. Conduct may be quite complex, and it is not unusual to characterize a long series of acts or behaviours performed over time as a single action. Because conduct is an active response to an actor’s opportunity set, it is indicated by an arrow in Figure 1. Clearly, the significance of behaviour and the interpretation of the relatedness of multiple acts depend heavily on the broader social context. There may be room for differences of opinion about what, exactly, constitutes conduct in a given instance. For the present purposes, conduct is inclusive of all acts understood as components in an actor’s performance of an action. One primary goal in offering this definition of conduct is to distinguish conduct from the consequences of the agent’s behaviour, which can be understood to be the effects of the action on the natural world, particularly on other people and associations, represented by the oval in Figure 1. The term “consequences” here designates especially changes in the health, wealth and well-being of affected parties (including the person who acts) that are caused by the initial action. As with conduct, there may be differences of opinion about what these consequences are, especially when consequences are indirect or are remote in space and time. Notwithstanding these possibilities for difference in interpretation, Figure 1 represents a very simple picture of human action as conduct performed under constraints and producing consequences or outcomes.

Three distinct ways in ethical principles can be developed to determine whether an action is right, good and proper. First, it is possible to see the ethical validity or correctness of an action as a function of its consequences. Increases in the health, wealth and well-being of people are generally characterized as benefits, whereas adverse effects on health, wealth and well-being are characterized as harms or costs. Right, good or proper actions will tend to be seen as those that have achieved the best balance of benefit and harm relative to other possibilities in the actor’s opportunity set. Second, it is possible to see the ethical validity or correctness of an action in terms of its consistency with an ideal set of constraints. These constraints may be articulated either as duties that the actor must discharge, or as rights held by others, which the agent must respect. Rights and duties are generally correlated, however, so that if one person has a right, others have a duty to respect it, while having a duty means that others have a right to expect that the duty will be discharged. Finally, it is possible to see the ethical validity or correctness of an action in terms of conformity to certain types of conduct. Instances or patterns of conduct that are ethically right, good and proper are virtues, while those that are wrong, bad or improper are vices. This third pattern of ethical evaluation lends itself particularly to expressions of ethical judgement that emphasize the character of the actor, so that not only is the act virtuous, but also the person who reliably acts in virtuous ways.

In summary, a simple analysis of human action indicates three patterns of argument or discourse for articulating, stipulating or defining actions as right, good and proper. Each pattern tends to place the focus or emphasis of ethical inquiry in a different place and many philosophers have developed entire moral systems based entirely on one of these three approaches. In many instances ethical disagreements arise from one party’s tendency to formulate a rationale for the evaluation of an action in language and concepts that emphasizes one of the three patterns, while another party emphasizes one or both of the other two. Nevertheless, it is possible for there to be significant differences in approach even within each of the three broad patterns, and many of history’s most notable moralists have tended to develop accounts of ethical evaluation that involve considerably detailed discussion of one framework. For simplicity, arguments that interpret the ethics of an action as a function of benefits and harms (or costs) will be called consequentialist. Arguments or claims that understand what is right, good and proper as determined by rights or duties will be called rights-based and statements that stress the conduct and character of the agent will be called virtue-based. It will prove useful to discuss each general approach in slightly more detail while discussing the main topic of intensification. ·

Types of ethical discourse

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