Human behavior can be evaluated from the perspective of ethics, but in some cases, it may be difficult to define an action as moral or immoral. Frequently, ethical considerations and legal regulations enter into a collision and significantly challenge decision making. Such a controversy between ethics and law can be observed in the case study that will be discussed in the given paper.
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During the shopping at the supermarket, a person notices a young woman trying to steal baby food. After, a quick evaluation of her appearance, it comes to mind that she is poor. She has two small children whom she needs to feed, and it is possible to assume that the sense of responsibility for these kids and despair serves as the major impetuses for her action.
The ethical dilemma arises because the witness of the theft feels empathy towards the woman, who simply may be a victim of adverse life circumstances, and the necessity to maintain the social order and comply with the law. To find the solution to this controversy, we will analyze the case from a few ethical perspectives.
Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism
From the utilitarian perspective, an action or decision may be considered ethical if it leads to the attainment of the greatest possible benefit. Overall, in every ethical theory, there are two major ethical principles: propriety and virtue. In utilitarianism, virtue does not depend on conformity with the morals and standards of behavior. Therefore, contrary to the deontological perspective in which propriety is a central component, propriety in the utilitarian framework is meant to maximize a known virtue or benefit and minimize suffering (Duwell 2014, p. 70).
The stance made in Aristotelian ethics is somewhat similar to the one suggested by utilitarianism. Aristotle states that all human actions have the sole purpose of achieving happiness, and the behavior may be considered virtuous only in case one aims to attain this highest goal (Duwell 2014, p. 40). At the same time, every individual has a personal understanding of happiness – it is a subjective notion. Virtue can be practiced only through activities that reflect individual interests and preferences. Thus, ethical virtue can be regarded as a product of practical activity aimed at the individual’s happiness.
From the utilitarian point of view, in the case of the woman in the supermarket, her actions have a purpose of minimizing suffering for both herself and her children and, from the perspective of virtue ethics, she steals the food because it is the only way for her to become a little bit happier. However, to make a fair decision on the case, we should also consider the principle of the common/collective good which is embedded in both virtue ethics and utilitarianism.
According to Mill’s basic principle of utility, an action can be considered ethical when it contributes to happiness, and unethical – when it interferes with the creation of happiness, whereas the benefits for every individual (or the public) involved in a particular case should be considered (Brink 2014, para. 2.2). From the Aristotelian perspective, virtuous or moral behavior is always correlated with attempts to develop the common good as well. In this way, the interests of the supermarket owners should be considered as they will suffer a loss due to theft. To resolve the conflict of interests, we should apply the principle of fairness or equity proposed by Aristotle. He claims that equity in the distribution of resources can be achieved if an appropriate balance between profit and loss is found (Aristotle 1931, VIII). The ability to allocate resources in a fair and balanced manner is a core of justice which, in its turn, is determined by Aristotle as universal ethical responsibility, a “complete virtue” (Aristotle 1931, VIII). Based on this assumption, it is permissible to let the woman take the food because, in this particular case, theft is associated with significant benefits for the woman and her children whereas the negative impact on the supermarket will not be severe.
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It is also important to mention that the framework of virtue ethics suggests that although the physical goods, such as health, body constitution, material wealth, are considered to be inferior comparing to spiritual goods, they are still the essential elements of happiness (Aristotle 1931). Since good physical qualities are important for an individual’s ability to lead a virtuous life, the woman and the children who are placed in an adverse socio-economic situation are deprived of the opportunity to become happy by doing well and living well. At the same time, Mill (2005) separates the concept of virtue from sensual pleasures or personal advantages but connects it to the lack of suffering. As we can assume, the woman is not driven by personal motivation and, thus, she does not seek pleasure but simply tries to support her children. Based on this, it is possible to say that the utilitarian perspective and virtue ethics may justify her behavior.
Contrary to utilitarianism, deontology, also known as the ethics of duty, suggests that the propriety of actions directly depends on the quality of those actions (Duwell 2014, p. 43). It means that a decision can be considered ethical only if it conforms to common rules, standards, and principles associated with professional or social duty. The righteousness of action is thus determined by the type of action rather than its consequences, no matter how adverse they may be.
Deontologists believe in the superiority of various moral obligations defined by relationships between people and different social agents. Thus, from the given point of view, as a good and obedient citizen, the woman in the supermarket should not steal food no matter how difficult her life situation may be, and the witness should necessarily report any case of crime no matter how small it is. Thus, when applied to resolve the ethical dilemma in the supermarket, deontology requires the witness of theft to inform the supermarket’s security or administration because otherwise the legal norms and standards will be violated. And if a person does not adhere to standards or the principle of duty, he or she behaves unethically.
The results of the case analysis reveal that the situation can be approached from different points of view and may lead to distinct outcomes in decision making. While deontologists consider any deviation from the norms of behavior unethical, utilitarianism and virtue ethics may be used to justify the actions even if they do not conform to legal standards. It is possible to conclude that the virtue and the common good approaches are most appropriate for ethical decision making in informal situations because they aim to meet individual preferences, needs, and interests of all parties involved in the case. The given perspectives suggest that virtue and mutual benefits can be maximized when particular individual circumstances are evaluated. The orientation towards individuality makes decision making based on utilitarianism and virtue ethics more flexible, fair, and humanistic.
Aristotle 1931, Nicomachean Ethics, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Brink, D 2014, ‘Mill’s moral and political philosophy’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Web.
Duwell, M 2014, Bioethics: methods, theories, domains, Taylor & Francis, London.
Mill, JS 2005, Utilitarianism, Web.