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Undermining Ethics through Duty
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 11 Nov 94
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Argumentation class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

When we reason about morality, about which actions are right and which are wrong, we use diverse standards of the good and methods of reasoning. For example, some people use the utilitarian standard of the greatest good for the greatest number; others regard the opinions of others as the standard of good; still others use the moral principles laid down in the Bible to guide their actions. Although investigating the validity of moral standards is certainly an engaging study, the differences between methods of moral reasoning, namely the distinctions between duty-based and "biocentric" reasoning, is often just as important to an individual's choices as the standard employed, because of the method's inherent effect upon the application of a moral code to real life. A duty-based ethic is one in which individuals are conceived of as having absolute, inherent moral obligations to some outside source (like God or society) to take or refrain from certain actions, regardless of an individual's particular goals and situation. A biocentric ethic, in contrast, is one in which moral behavior is gauged in relation to achieving certain ends, the final end of which is generally conceived of as the individual's "life" or "flourishing." A simple example of a duty-based ethic is the Ten Commandments, for each commandment is a simple, absolute injunction to abstain from certain actions, yet there is no rationale offered for the code, only the threat of God's wrath. A biocentric approach would link a moral precept (like one against killing) back to the individual's own goal of maintaining her life by indicating how killing others undermined her own life. Also in the biocentric approach, the formation of moral principles occurs in a delimited context, which restricts their applicability to more relevant situations than the duty-oriented approach. Suppose, for example, that a murderer is hunting you down, and the only way to save your own life is by killing him. If you adhere to the duty "thou shalt not kill," you will surely die, and if you choose to protect your own life, you will acting immorally. But in the biocentric approach, killing the murderer is no vice, since the principle that killing is immoral does not apply when not killing destroys one's own life. Of course, put in this type of situation, most people would choose to take an immoral action in order to survive, which is not a failing on their part, but rather a failing of the morality which utilizes duty.

Because most people learn to reason about ethics in a duty-based fashion, they accept the rules that society or religion lays down without investigating whether such rules are truly good ones. Parents will often not take time to explain why certain action are wrong; they resort the old standby of "because I said so!" Religions also rely heavily upon duty-based reasoning; the justification that religious leaders offer for moral rules is little more than conflicting claims about the revealed will of God. The difficulty of grounding a moral system in the facts of reality is one cause of the popularity of a duty-based ethic; nevertheless such a grounding is possible (as in Aristotle's Ethics), and we should not abandon attempts to ground morality simply because the solution is not self-evident. Biocentric reasoning encourages individuals to discover the motivations behind their own actions and to question the validity of common notions of morality. A biocentric method of reasoning is the only method by which morality can be validated, because unlike the duty-based approach, it encourages questions and explanations.

Since a moral code is completely useless if it is adopted but not actually used to guide an individual's choices and actions, it is obvious that the method of reasoning ought not inhibit the realization, in action, of the moral code. In order to be effective, the method of moral reasoning must, at the very least, facilitate understanding of the rationale behind the moral code's tenets, make the moral code applicable to as many life-situations as possible, and never create unresolvable conflicts between tenets. Duty-based ethics fail to fulfill all of these functions, while a biocentric approach at least has the potential to achieve these goals.

Willingness to take action and confidence to perform well depends upon an understanding of the purpose of an action. Consider a boss who orders employees to perform tasks without ever indicating his purposes or the final goal of their work. Employees would be bewildered by the orders and hesitant to follow them, because they could not judge for themselves whether the orders were the best means to the desired end or even what intermediate steps they might have to take in order to ensure the desired end. Humans are not simply automatons who can follow orders blindly; most have a driving need to understand exactly why actions should be taken and perform better when they do understand. The principle of understanding is no different in the realm of morality: people need to understand the rationale of their moral code in order to apply it effectively. If the justification for why an action is deemed good is couched in mystery or is non-existent, people will be uncertain that their actions are indeed moral and hesitant to follow the dictates of their moral code.

Duty-based ethics stifle understanding of the reasons for moral action because no clear explanation can be given of the origin and nature of duties. People will most often cite "inherent human nature," "the good of society," or "the will of God," but none of these concepts are clearly defined, and so none give clear answers to the question of the origin of duty. Thus duty, being that it is based on these amorphous concepts, is not the objective morality that it so often claims to be, but rather is determined by how religious leaders, politicians, and philosophers wish other people to act. Regardless of any good intentions of those who put forth theories of duty, the inescapable inability to form objective notions of duty renders the notion little more than the expression of the whims of cultural leaders.

People who do attempt to discover a rationale behind the duties they have been taught to uphold are much like employees who discover that their boss had no final product in mind after all, in that both discover that their actions had no discernable purpose. People who are willing to delve deeply into morality will discover that their whole moral code had no foundation at all, and upon discovering this fact, most will either blank out their minds to contemplating such questions about the foundations of morality or become frighteningly a-moral by deeming all moral codes invalid. Neither of these results is desirable, and both are direct results of duty-based ethics. Biocentric reasoning about ethics necessarily avoids this problem of understanding why certain actions are moral and others immoral because the very act of deciding involves investigating how an action relates to one's own "life" or "flourishing."

Another requirement for effective moral reasoning is that the methods employed ought not limit the applicability of a moral code to one's entire life. Since the purpose of a moral code is to guide all of our choices and actions, adopting a mode of applying ethics to life which leaves some important choices unguided by morality would be, at best, incomplete. Yet duty-based reasoning limits applicability of a moral code to a person's life, and leaves some choices untouched by moral considerations because of its focus on specific rules and obligations. Duty-based reasoning, since it offers little, if any, justification for its tenets, must rely on a set of rules and obligations to convey what is moral and immoral. No such system of rules will ever be able to serve as a complete and useful guide, because in order to be utilized, it must be simple and limited in scope, but in order to be universally applicable, it must be very complex. But even the most complex system of duties cannot remain to be applicable through changes in technology that will confront people with radically different situations than they have ever encountered. For example, traditional conceptions of copyright are going to be changed radically by the Internet, due to the impossibility of controlling the flow of information through the Internet. But most systems of duty do not attempt to be complete, which means that an individual can only use ethics when a given duty can be applied to the situation in which she finds herself. The lack of guidance in certain areas of life can prove to be disastrous to an individual's life, as well as to the lives of those who are affected by his actions.

Once again, biocentric reasoning avoids the problems of completeness and universal applicability to life because it allows people to solve moral puzzles for themselves by discovering which is the best means to their final end of "life" or "flourishing," even when no principles clearly apply. In biocentric reasoning, in order to gauge what is moral, an individual examines the actions that she could take, evaluates which one will best further her final goal, and then takes the action that does best further her final goal. This type of reasoning is universally applicable to an individual's life because the conception of what is moral is not limited to simple precepts and rules.

Finally, using the concept of duty to guide moral reasoning often results in conflicts between specific duties, and which means that being virtuous by upholding one duty will result in the sacrifice of another duty. For example, an attempted application of the two duties of "thou shalt not lie" and "think of the good of others before yourself" in a situation where, in order to act for the good of others, lying is necessary (like when secrecy is needed to protect lives) is going to result in blatant contradictions between duties. In such a case, one duty must be sacrificed for another, which entails a rejection of the notion that duties are absolute. Rejecting duties as absolute is just one step away from destroying the moral code altogether, since then an individual might very well decide to only fulfill a duty when it is convenient to do so. The corruption of the political leaders of the United States, the majority of whom profess to uphold Christian ideals, serve as exemplary examples of the failure of duty-based reasoning in this respect.

But using biocentric reasoning will never result in such intrinsic conflicts, since there is one clear, final end that must constantly be strived for. The actual means to achieving that end will never conflict, although an individual may encounter conflict in her understanding of what is moral. Even in this type of conflict though, there is a definite means of resolving the conflict: thoroughly examining one's intermediate goals and means and their relationship to the final end.

While some of the pitfalls of duty-based reasoning can be avoided, too many are inevitable to consider duty-based reasoning an effective way of applying ethics to real life. Considering the prevalence of duty-based reasoning, as well as its long-term inability to guide the choices that a person makes, it is no wonder that the a-morality of society has gotten so much attention recently. If we view the method of moral reasoning as a tool to apply ethics to an individual's life, it is imperative that the tools that we use do not undermine the very purpose of morality. And so the tool that we ought to use to reason about morality is not a duty based, but rather biocentric one.

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