What is Right?

Published 12 Apr 2017

It is the duty of every citizen to do the right thing at all times irrespective of what the circumstances are. In fact, there should be the natural desire in every citizen to do that which is right and refrain from doing the wrong thing. But the question that has always haunted us is how do one know what is right from what is wrong? How can one differentiate right actions from wrong actions? How do we measure our actions and decide which one is right from which one is wrong. Suppose I want to do what is right, how do I know what is right? This and many questions is what the branch of philosophy attempts to give answers to. This branch of philosophy is known as Ethics.

Ethics can then be said to be the branch of philosophy that critically examines our actions and inactions that are considered moral. It is a branch of philosophy that seeks to answer the questions that pertain to morality and man. It attempts to separate right from wrong, good from bad and what is moral form what is immoral. This it attempts to do by coming up with various theories propounded by different philosophers or schools or thought. These theories have a single aim which is to give criteria to ascertain right action from wrong actions. Such theories say that when the moral agent is faced with a moral decision, he or she should consider the options before him and then use some specified rules to judge his doing that action. The moral agent at such time should ask himself / herself if that action he/she is about to do pass the specified standards. These theories include Egoism, Utilitarianism, Altruism, Deontological ethical theory top mention a few from them. For the purpose of this essay, I will be considering three different ethical theories and how it can be applied.

Some people believe that man naturally should consider those that will be affected by our actions. They believe that in acting, the moral agent should weigh the effect of his action and that the right thing to do is to choose the one that will positively affect those around him. These people belong to the utilitarian school of thought. What then is Utilitarianism? Utilitarianism is the ethical view that says that in acting, the moral agent should always choose the action whose consequence produces the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people. It is an ethical theory that believes in that the greater the pleasure derived from an action by the greater number or persons, the more the action is right. Furthermore, utilitarianism also preaches that the moral worth is conferred on an action only when they produce pleasure over pain, happiness over sadness. The theory is associated with the British philosopher, John Stuart Mill. It is a theory that believes in aggregate happiness. There are different versions of Utilitarianism. Among others, we have hedonistic utilitarianism, preferential utilitarianism, act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, and so on.

The idea of utilitarianism has its origin in the Greek philosopher called Epicurus but was popularized by Jeremy Bentham who believes that the only values that are fundamental in this world are pain and pleasure. For him, these are the only two values that govern the activities of mankind.

Another ethical theory that is significant is the Kantian ethics. This is based on the ideas of the famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant. For him, an action should not be considered right because of its consequence. Kant is of the opinion that every action is inherently right or wrong. For Kant, an action should not appeal to pity or sentiments. A morally right action, thus, is one that is done out of a sense of duty with the right motive. The moral agent should not choose an action because there is reward. Morality is a duty for any citizen, therefore, if one does the right thing, he/she should net seek to be rewarded because that was what he was meant to do in the first place.
Furthermore, Kantian ethics holds that in acting, one must wish that the maxim of one’s action be universalized. In other words, in acting you must do to others what you will wish others do to you. Those that belong to this school of thought hold that one should treat one’s neighbor as an end in himself/herself and never as a means to an end. This is because each person should have the respect for humanity in them. When you treat man as a means to an end, you are violating humanity. Therefore, a moral agent holds it as his duty not to purposefully withhold the respect and dignity of his fellow man. A man’s has the duty to protect his fellow man right without questions and without seeking reward.

Summarily, when a moral agent is faced with a choice between two alternative actions, he/she should ask himself/herself what is my duty? What is it that I ought to do and should make sure that his motives are right. Then will the action be considered to be a moral action.

The final ethical theory I will be considering is the ethical idea of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. According to him, there are two different types of morality, which is the master morality and the slave morality. The first type of morality only comes from what he called the ‘noble man’. On the other hand, the slave morality is one that is being displayed reactively inside the weak man. In the case of master morality, actions are categorized into good or bad while in slave morality, actions are weighed and categorized into good or evil. According to him, all ethical statements are false, because any kind of connection between ethical statements and “moral facts” is deceptive. The major difference that exists between his idea of master morality and slave morality lies in the fact that Master morality is a positive approach where the idea of “good” and “bad” are the same to “noble” and “despicable” correspondingly. Also, the master morality creates value. On the other hand, the Slave morality is a negative approach used by the weak or powerless. The virtues are pity, benevolence, and meekness.

The above ethical theories are brought as answers to the ethical question as to what are we to do when we are in given situations. They are meant to be applied by the moral agent in our daily actions. The moral agent is to examine his actions by the various standards that is being held by these ethical theories.

The question we are to ask here then is “what will be the reaction of these ethical theories in our given situation?” To begin with, looking critically at it from the perspective of a utilitarian, to save the woman’s life is the right thing to do or it might be otherwise. Let us consider reasons for this claim. Since utilitarianism preaches the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people, looking at the situation we have, the number of personalities to consider is eight, namely the five children of the woman, the woman, you and the government – that is if we see the government as a single person. Given this, we might come to the conclusion that excluding the government, we are sure that the seven other personalities will derive the greatest amount of pleasure by you choosing to evade tax and saving the woman’s life. If this then be the case, you should go on and be the utilitarian by evading the tax and saving the woman’s life. On the other hand, if we are to look at the situation from the perspective that the government does not stand alone, income tax is meant to go back to fund services that will be enjoyed by the people of the state. If we are to look at it from this perspective, then we will be measuring the pleasure of seven persons against that of millions of people who will be deprived from enjoying the services that the income tax will provide. Thus, in this case, saving the woman’s life will not be the right course of action as it does not promote the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people.

However, as a person that belongs to the Kantian school of thought, one may also be confronted by two views. Firstly, as a doctor, you have the duty to save the woman’s life. Then looking at it critically, that is what you ought to do. That is one sense of looking at it. You are respecting and upholding the respect for the individual person. On the other hand, when we look at it again form the perspective of Kantian idea of duty, the same duty that you have as a doctor to save the woman’s life is the same duty that should make you pay your income tax. It is what you ought to do. You should not be told before you know that it is your obligation to pay your income tax to the government. Here we are faced with a dilemma. Which one are you to choose. Perhaps one of the criticisms brought by scholars against the Kantian rule is right. For them, Kant did not consider emotional attributes of man. There are certain situations that are complex. What are we to do when we are faced with such situations?

Finally, considering Friedrich Nietzsche’s ethical idea of master slavery, given this situation, he will not approve of the action to save the woman. This is because only slave morality appeals to meekness and compassion. Friedrich will maintain that master morality should values that are unshakable, regardless of situations or circumstances. It is only the weak that will neglect his values and be drawn be compassion and pity. The doctor for instance was drawn by pity to save the woman’s life. Nietzsche has been regarded as a moral skeptic. He believes that man is egoistic and altruistic nature is not in the realm of reality.


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