Background and Resources

Subtopic 1: Ethics and Values

Activity 1.1

Activity 1.2

Activity 1.3

Subtopic 2: Bioethical Problems Identification

Activity 2.1

Activity 2.2

Activity 2.3

Subtopic 3: Methods and Strategies for Decision-Making

Activity 3.1

Activity 3.2

Activity 3.3

Module Summary

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Determinations of what constitutes a "good life" can be seen to follow from the thinking of three distinct methods. These methods are those of authority, utility, and critical assessment, with variations and hybrids evident in all three. This activity focuses only on the primary distinctions among them.

Activity 1.3
The method of authority can best be understood in terms of authorship. Ethical values are carried forward and preserved as concepts, or practical rules. The question is, who authors these rules? One who follows the method of authority is not the author. Religious teaching will trace a divine origin. Politics will claim a legislative genesis wherein all kinds of competing values and interests are mediated for the sake of economic, social, and political stability. In turn, both of these reflect an overall evolutionary drift within a culture, commonly called tradition, namely its folkways or mores. Within the history of philosophy, there are both critics and advocates of using authority as a basis for ethical decision-making. All appear to agree that appeals to an illegitimate authority  is never justified.  An illegitimate authority is one that rests in the subjectivity of another human being. However, religious thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas present compelling arguments on behalf of the authority of God, while others, like Plato and Kant will argue for the authority of truth, critically articulated through reason and intuitive understanding. The primary difference we find in these cases is that neither Plato, nor Kant will place authority in the hands of another being, but will relie instead on the veracity of their respective methods of understanding. It can also be said, that the authority of modern science lies in its method.

Utility, as a method for determining ethical worth, focuses on the ends one wishes to achieve through action. Accordingly, it is the value we place in those ends that ultimately determines the value of any adopted means. Philosophers have argued that within the domain of ethics the end never justifies the means, however it is a difficult argument to make. Most end up with claims that particular actions deemed morally or ethically right are ends-in-themselves. The practical philosophy of Kant is one such example. British philosopher G.E. Moore takes the opposite position, namely that it is impossible to avoid having ends justify means. In any case, the problem is how to identify a desireable end, whether it is one toward which an action aims, or is an action that is itself the end. What principles present themselves for sorting through all the possible ends that human beings may seek? British philosophy, commonly referred to as Utilitarianism,  is the primary representative of the method of utility for determining ethical values in our world today. It begins with the principle that one ought to always seek the greatest good for the greatest number. Some readings of American philosophy, or pragmatism, also follow this kind of thinking, evident in the view that a pragmatist will do whatever is necessary to achieve a fat bottom-line in business. Not provided is any substantive means for addressing the questions "What is the good?" or, "Who shall determine what's good?" The "good" ends up as a totally relativized notion that is at best determined along the lines of political agreement.

There are several different ways of understanding the critical method. The most common is that it involves an application of scientific thought to the solution of social and political problems, combined with certain generally accepted principles of right.  These are autonomy, non-maleficience (not harmful), benificience (beneficial, less risky), and justice taken to be fairness. The principle of autonomy holds that each individual's autonomy as a moral agent be respected, namely his or her capacity and right to author moral rules. Non-maleficience sets a limit on what kinds of rules are morally, or ethically justified, ruling out any that would bring about harm to both oneself and others. Benificience takes into account the balance between predicted benefits and risks in obtaining those benefits. Fairness considers the overall impact of ethical decisions on the quality of individual lives. Arguments that some ought to sacrifice more than others for the good of the whole simply do not wash.

Students will consider the results of Activity 1.1 in terms of whether the origins of the identified values are ethical or not-ethical, and if ethical, whether those origins are traceable to the method of authority, utility, or critical thought. Students will then regroup these values accordingly. The instructor will check these re-groupings and offer individual critical feedback, which he or she will then present in a general way to the whole class with the aim of refining overall student understanding of what constitutes an ethical value, and how it comes to be a part of one's belief system.

As a follow-up, the instructor will supply students with a well-publicized ethical issue or issues, e.g. abortion rights, euthenasia, death penalty, etc. Students will then consider how one issue of this kind might be settled using each of these methods separately.  This activity can be done either individually, or in small groups. Individuals or groups will then present their findings to the whole class for comparison and discussion. It is important that all students work with the same issue to assure a clear comparison of any differences that may appear.