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Ethics in Public Service – Part 2

1. Altruism.

2. Utilitarianism.

3. Types of and definition for sanctions.

4. Categorical imperative.

5. Ethical culture.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” – Bentham

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” – Bentham

Altruism is possessing unselfish concern for the welfare of others. It is recognized as being the opposite of selfishness.

This ethical perspective is a traditionally held virtue in many cultures and is a core component of the most traditional religious beliefs, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others.

As such, it is sometimes referred to as the “love your neighbor” perspective, due to the perspective representing the concepts behind the biblical (and others) instructions to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Altruism is quite different than possessing loyalty or having a sense of duty toward something or someone. The perspective of altruism is focused on a motivation to help others or a want to do good without reward, while duty or loyalty is focused primarily on a moral obligation toward a specific organization (employer, government, country), an individual (person, deity), or even an abstract concept (such as patriotism).

It is possible that an individual would feel both altruistic and duty-bound/loyal, while it is also possible that some may not feel either. The perspective of pure altruism is grounded in giving without regard to the receipt of reward, benefits, need, or recognition of the giving.

The concept of altruism has a lengthy history within philosophical and ethical teaching. The term was first used by Auguste Comte (1798–1857), a French sociologist and philosopher of science. Since then, it has become a major topic of study for psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and ethologists.

Utilitarianism is the perspective that those actions that produce the greatest good for the greatest number of persons are “good” actions. It also is known as the “consequentialist” or “teleological ethical theory.”

“The basic principle is that human beings judge morality of actions in terms of the consequences or results of those actions. Moral acts elicit good consequences—those that create happiness and are justifiable.

Immoral acts elicit bad consequences— those that induce pain and suffering and are unjustifiable. In this approach, actions may be moral or immoral based on the capacity to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people”.

This perspective is one of the easiest to subscribe to and has the most intuitive appeal for most people. This is because a “good” result or acquiring/maintaining well-being is such a natural ambition of everyday human endeavor. The sticking point with this perspective typically revolves around one’s concept of what is “good” or “successful”?

For some it may revolve around material items or pleasures, for others it may include financial or professional success. Therefore, “the greatest common good,” in fact, may not be so common.

Under utilitarianism, at least two conditions must be met if an individual is to pursue his own well-being. First, the individual must possess a maximum degree of personal freedom. Secondly, he must be capable of realizing well-being within the basic conditions of his existence, however well-being is defined.

For instance, it would not be possible for an individual to pursue his well-being if he was sick and unable to obtain proper medical care, or if he was exposed to unsafe working conditions. There may be other conditions that also would be required for a person to realize his well-being, such as education and companionship.

While the utilitarian perspective is very influential and popular, there are two major concerns with the utilitarian perspective on ethical decisions.

1. If one is to implement the utilitarian perspective, they must possess extensive knowledge of data and facts, and sometimes this information is simply not available. This is especially present in instances of negative utility of a decision, it is necessary to calculate the long-term effects of the decision on all affected members of the audience. Such long-term positive and negative consequences of an action or policy may not be identifiable or measureable. In these instances, utilitarianistic decisions are reduced to a “best guess” approach, which may not be equitable or satisfactory.

2. The second concern with utilitarianism is that utilizing this ethical perspective may lead to injustice for individuals, while attempting to make a decision that is “best” for the masses. This is represented in military decisions, for example, where a decision is made based on the benefit of the many, based on the sacrifice of a few.

For instance, in Stephen Spielberg’s movie, Saving Private Ryan, the character Captain Miller is seen discussing the application of utilitarian perspective as relates to military missions, “when you end up killing one of your men, you tell yourself it happened so that you could save the lives of two or three or ten others. Maybe a hundred others. … That’s how simple it is. That’s how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man.”

However, utility maximization at the expense of the individual presents serious ethical issues, which the utilitarian perspective is not well-suited to address.Greek philosopher. However, with regards to it being viewed as a specific school of thought, it is typically credited to Jeremy Bentham.

It was Bentham who surmised that nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. Bentham’s view of utilitarianism incorporated the Principle of Utility into decision making.


1. Recognition of the role of pain and pleasure as fundamental influences on human life, especially as concerns decision making.

2. Approves or disapproves of an action or decision based on the basis of the amount of pain or pleasure brought about by the action or decision (otherwise known as “consequences”).

3. Equates good with pleasure and evil with pain, as to consequentialism.

4. Pleasure and pain are capable of quantification and, thus, are measureable.

Bentham felt that man and society could co-exist based on common motivations he referred to as sanctions:

(1) physical sanctions, or the natural sensation of happiness and pain;

(2) political sanctions, the legal acts that can counteract immoral acts;

(3) moral sanctions, approval, or disapproval from those around a person; and

(4) religious sanctions, the blessing or condemnation by a supreme being, consistent with one’s faith.

The weakness of his theory was that the core principle was vague and did not account for individual rights. Belief in hedonism was the basis for Bentham’s work, as it was the most famous version of the utilitarian theory where the fundamental good is happiness.

Whichever action produces the greatest amount of happiness for the most people is considered the most moral act. Although this seems straightforward, many problems make the concept of happiness hard to employ.

First, the greatest happiness is achieved at the expense of the fewest people.

Consider this: It is not always possible to predict consequences for everyone involved. While we do make decisions based on consequences, this philosophy may lead to situations with no set of rules or standards.

Finally, happiness could appear to condone some actions with which most people would not agree, such as a person gaining happiness through child pornography, creating potential conflicts with individual human rights.

Although the concept is typically credited as being articulated first by Bentham, it is John Stuart Mill who, as a proponent of utilitarianism, wrote Utilitarianism in 1861, which was an interpretation and an attempt at more effectively explaining Bentham’s earlier theories.

Although entitled Utilitarianism, his conception of it was quite different from Bentham’s. Mill’s perspective has been known as “the greatest happiness principle,” in that it too formulated that one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, but the key was that such a decision must be made within reason.

Bentham treated all forms of happiness as being equal, whereas Mill believed that intellectual and moral pleasures were superior to more physical forms of pleasure. Mill distinguished between and establishes the importance of each of these through a witty statement made within his work Utilitarianism, “[i]t is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question”.

Immanual Kant was an eighteenth-century German philosopher who believed that individuals have certain obligations regardless of the consequences they evoke. His theory was based on the premise that moral actions occur out of obligation and are judged based on the intention and motivation for the action.

Kant believed that those who choose to follow the utilitarian approach are omitting a large part of ethics by neglecting their duty and the intention to do what is right. Kant summed up his feelings by stating, “It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except good will”.

Kant’s philosophy is sometimes referred to as The Golden Rule” perspective. It may be defined as the standard of rationality from which all moral requirements are derived. While the concept of a golden rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) has historically been found in one form or another within most major religious traditions, the concept of “categorical imperative” was the central philosophical concept developed by Immanuel Kant, introduced in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785.

To many this theory may sound religious or “theological,” but as an ethical perspective within the deontological field of ethics, it attempts to identify a concept of “right,” which is more universal than religion.

For instance, telling the truth is a moral obligation, not simply because it is instructed within almost all religions, but because it is almost universally understood what it is like to be lied to. “Moral actions are guided by duty and are based on ‘dutiful principles’ or laws.

The rules of conduct or laws to which Kant refers are maxims, such as ‘honesty is the best policy’ or ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Maxims should be universally accepted and commanding so people cannot make up rules as they go and so everyone will act the same way without exception.

There are two types of maxims: hypothetical and categorical.

Hypothetical maxims are conditional instructions that stress what ought to be done, such as, ‘If I want to get a job in criminal justice, then I ought to stay out of trouble.’

Categorical maxims are unconditional orders to state principles that need to be done, for example, ‘Tell the truth.’” In comparison, the hypothetical maxim would state, ‘If you want to stay out of trouble, tell the truth.’

In the study of ethics, categorical maxims provide a foundation for ethical decision making”.

Kant developed the categorical imperative, which is a fundamental principle that allows people to act consistently from situation to situation. The categorical imperative is divided into two formulations.

The first formulation is universalizability, which states that a justifiable action is when another person faces the same circumstances and acts in the same way. If a person makes a decision that he or she feels is morally justifiable, he or she knows 99 of 100 people would make the same decision.

The idea of universalizability also may be described as a person treating everyone the same way as he or she would want to be treated”. There are three premises that make up the categorical imperative.

The first premise is that an individual acts ethically if their conduct would, without condition, be the “right” conduct for any individual in a similar circumstance. The second premise is that an individual’s conduct is “right” if others are treated as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end.

The final premise is that an individual acts ethically when he acts as if his conduct was establishing a universal law governing others on how to act in a similar circumstance.

Hypothetical imperatives instruct an individual on which means best achieves his ends. They do not tell an individual which ends he or she should choose. The struggle in choosing ends is typically between ends that are “right” (i.e., charity) and those that are “good” (i.e., educating oneself). Kant taught that the “right” was superior to the “good.” Kant believed that “good” was morally irrelevant.

While this theory of ethical perspective is often referred to as The Golden Rule perspective, Kant stated in his work, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, that what he was attempting to teach was not the same as the Golden Rule because, under the Golden Rule, many things cannot be universal. He believed that the Golden Rule was instead the categorical imperative with limitations.

The Ethical Culture Movement was started in 1876 by Felix Adler. Ethical culture has its foundation on the premise that living with and honoring ethical principles is at the heart of what it takes to live a fulfilling and meaningful life, while helping to create a world that is good and positive for all individuals.

A fundamental key to the foundation of ethical culture was the observation that oftentimes disputes regarding religious or philosophical doctrines were distracting individuals from following through on living ethically and doing good.

This is why, consequentially, “deed before creed” has developed into an informal motto of the movement. Although those subscribing to ethical culture perspectives generally share common beliefs as to what constitutes ethical or unethical behavior, individuals are encouraged to recognize the complexities inherent in such matters, and, thus, remain open to continued exploration, education, and dialog rather than remain inflexible or unable to adapt.

The movement had the original aim of attempting to uphold through example the highest ideals of living, while attempting to support the weaker in attaining such ideals.

The original aims were:

• To teach the supremacy of the moral ends above all human ends and interests.

• To teach that the moral law has an immediate authority not contingent on the truths of religious beliefs or of philosophical theories.

• To advance the science and art of right living.

Members of the society were encouraged to adhere to whatever religious doctrine they saw most fit, choosing to confine societal attention to moral problems within life rather than religious ones. A central concept was the encouragement of the individual to always act so as to elicit the best in others and, thereby, in themselves.


While Ethical Culture has adapted and remained dynamic since its inception, there are a number of focal points that remain important.

These include:

Human Worth and Uniqueness: Each individual is believed to have inherent worth that is not dependent on the value of what it is that they do. Each is deserving of dignity and respect, and their individual gifts are to be celebrated and encouraged.

Eliciting the Best: “Always act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby yourself” is as close as ethical culture comes to having a Golden Rule.

Interrelatedness: In his formation of the concept, Adler used the term The Ethical Manifold to refer to how he believed “the universe to be composed of unique and indispensible moral agents (individual human beings), each of which has an influence on each of the others, which is unable to be measured or estimated, but which is inherently present nonetheless. This interrelatedness is at the heart of ethics. … Each has an effect on the whole.”

Although not every decision that one is presented with is an ethical one, it is helpful to have a foundation in the varying categories of ethical perspectives. Each category of ethical perspective identifies a different standard or view of decision making and each refers to some interest that is preferred or valued above others. However, because not all individuals share the same interest or preferences, there is a temptation to judge other’s choices and decisions as “unethical” or “wrong.”



August 22, 2017

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