This exercise is a one off to demonstrate consistency in ethics, but presumably it can be modified to cover other topics. Put simply it presents pairs of beliefs/principles that are inconsistent. The students are then given three strategies to choose from: reject one of the two principles so that there is no possibility of conflict, modify one or both principles to eliminate conflict or decide to live with the inconsistency (hopefully they will reject the third option!). This exercise works best if the principles can be modified to be made consistent, then it is more productive as the students both have to identify the point of contention which causes the inconsistency in the first place and ways in which it can be modified to make the principles consistent.

What is it in a nut-shell?

Pairs of inconsistent beliefs/principles.


Consistency in ethics

Consider the following pairs of moral principles. For each pair, ask:

  1. Is each one of these principles initially intuitively plausible, i.e. without giving the matter too much thought would you say that the principles are plausible? If yes, fair enough. If not, is it conceivable that someone else would find them initially plausible?
  2. Now consider both principles together. Are they compatible, i.e. could you hold that both are true without problems?
  3. Now consider the kind of conflict we have in each case. What exactly is the source of the problem? Could you modify one or both principles so that they no longer conflicted? To do this you may need to expand on what is meant by the terms employed in these claims (as we did in the previous two seminars), expand in more detail on the implications of the principles, modify their claims, etc.
  4. Alternatively, instead of modifying one or both of the principles, should you reject one of them? Which one would you reject? Why?

For questions 1 above students should be able to at least conceive of someone who thinks these principles are intuitively plausible even if they do not think so of all of them themselves. For questions 2 above students should be able to see that all these principles conflict. For questions 3 and 4 are now more difficult and details of the kinds of answers you may get are given below (although these can be vast topics so tutors may need to ‘think on their feet’ to incorporate student suggestions which are not included in this discussion). The main aim of this exercise is to see how arguments work (or do not work) together and to consider the ‘points of contact’ between different views, rather than to fully resolve the issues raised by the examples. So we are not so much asking the students to tell us what they, personally, think about these claims, but rather to understand the interplay of ideas behind these claims. It is important that you do not allow the discussions to become to wide and unfocused. Contributions should be made relevant to the discussion, i.e. is this a suggestion for modifying either of the claims or a suggestion for rejecting either of them?

Pain, suffering and death

Claim 1: “If an animal is terminally ill and in severe pain it is morally obligatory to kill it to prevent further suffering”

Claim 2: “It is never permissible to kill an innocent human being, even if she is terminally ill, in pain and requests death”

The underlying idea here has to do with the sanctity of life, is it ever permissible to take the life of another being? The two principles can be made compatible if we draw a distinction between the lives of humans and the lives of non-humans. The claim here could be that only human lives are sacred in such a way that we can never justify the taking of a life, not even if the person is in pain, is going to die anyway and/or asks us to kill her. By contrast the lives of animals are not sacred, so that, although killing them for no reason can be wrong, killing them when this is in the animal’s best interests (e.g. to avoid pain and suffering) is permissible. Alternatively, one could argue that all life is sacred. This would lead you to reject the first claim as it is never permissible to end life, no matter whose life, no matter what the circumstances. You may want to point out the severity of this principle, i.e. it would not allow for any killings at all. Another possible solution is to reject the second claim. You could argue that the same humanitarian reasons which lead you to put the animal out of its misery could justify euthanasia in the case of humans. Life is not sacred, rather it is one of many goods we value and it is possible to conceive of cases where one is better off dead.

Murder and capital punishment

Claim 1: “It is morally wrong to kill human beings”

Claim 2: “The state is obligated to punish criminals proportionally to their crime and capital punishment is the only appropriate punishment for murder”

Again we are dealing with the wrongness of taking life. Claim 1 is very general and could be made more specific, so that it could admit exceptions. For example, it could be modified to “It is morally wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being”. It is then compatible with the second claim as you could argue that someone who has committed a very serious crime is not innocent. Alternatively you could develop the definition of punishment. You could accept that in general it is wrong to kill human beings, but that in some cases the state in the legitimate pursuit of punishment can impose the death penalty. For example, the death penalty may be argued to be a legitimate punishment for having taken life. The criminal, by taking the life of his victim, has forfeited the right to his life. In addition, you could argue that the punishment has to be proportionate to the crime in order to fulfill its role as just vengeance for the crime committed. Another possible solution is to reject the second claim and argue that capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment exactly because it involves the killing of a human being. It is exactly because killing is wrong that the state cannot be seen to be sanctioning it in the form of capital punishment. The offender may have killed but two wrongs do not make a right and little would be gained by killing him in turn. It is also possible to reject the first claim if it is taken to mean that all killing is wrong. Arguably many kinds of killing are morally permissible, perhaps including capital punishment (other examples in this exercise raise the idea that killing in a just war or the killing of fetuses is permissible).

Abortion, rape and incest

Claim 1: “Abortion is morally wrong as it involves the deliberate killing of an innocent human being”

Claim 2: “Abortion is permissible in cases of rape or incest”

Like the two claims above, Claim 1 here is a general principle and Claim 2 could be an exception to that principle. We could modify Claim 1 so that it admits to exceptions. So, for example, although taking the life of a fetus is morally wrong other things are also wrong. These can include rape and incest and forcing a woman to carry a fetus that is the result of rape and incest. So the wrongness of killing the fetus in general has to be balanced against the wrongness of forcing the woman to carry the product of rape or incest. Arguably while killing the fetus is wrong in other circumstances in can be justified in cases of rape and incest. This is a case of arguing for the lesser of two evils. Alternatively one could reject the second claim to ensure the consistent application of the first one. If abortion is morally wrong then it is always morally wrong regardless of how the pregnancy came about. After all whether the fetus is the product of planning or contraceptive failure, or rape doesn’t really make a difference to the value of its life. If life is valuable then it is valuable regardless of its origin and although rape and incest are themselves moral wrong they do not justify the commission of a further wrong, that of abortion. Another option is to reject the first claim. Abortion is not morally wrong, but can be justified on a number of grounds, including rape and incest, but also the rights of the woman to self-determination, detrimental effects on her physical and mental health and that of her existing family, etc. This option rejects the first claim, but it also seeks to modify the second claim as it admits to more instances of permissible abortions than the second claim would like to accept.

Foetuses Cloning and IVF

Claim 1: Cloning is immoral, as its development requires the killing of fetuses

Claim 2: The death of some fetuses during IVF procedures is an acceptable by-product of a beneficial service that promotes life.

Now here we have to grapple with the idea of what, if anything, is wrong with killing fetuses. You could argue that the deliberate killing of fetuses is wrong, but can be counter-balanced by other considerations. When this killing is carried out as part of a process which seeks to affirm and promote life, like IVF, then it is acceptable. When it is part of a process which mocks life, like cloning, it is unacceptable. So the end in this case can justify the means. Since IVF is an appropriate end it justifies the death of some fetus to get the beneficial results of babies for infertile couples. However, cloning does not have the benefits of IVF and cannot justify the killing of fetuses. Alternatively you could reject the second claim, arguing that any practice or technology which requires the loss of life is unacceptable, even if the practice leads to the creation of life. Each individual life is unique and valuable so we cannot exchange one fetus for another. Although bringing more babies to life is a worthwhile cause, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of killing innocent fetuses. Another solution could argue that there is nothing wrong with killing fetuses in the first place. This could mean that the first claim is wrong; if there is anything wrong with cloning it doesn’t have to do with the killing of fetuses. It also means that we would probably have to modify the second claim to argue that there is nothing wrong with the death of the fetuses involved in IVF. IVF is a beneficial procedure, arrived at without a cost (as the killing of fetuses is not problematic).

Preserving Life and the Definition of Death

Claim 1: We must do everything we can to preserve life.

Claim 2: It is morally permissible to switch off the ventilating machines of patients with severe brain damage.

Now we have moved on from the wrongness of taking life to our obligation to preserve life. To make these two claims compatible you could argue that the first one is true, but that the second one does not involve allowing anyone to die as the patient is already dead. Indeed we do have an obligation to do everything we can to preserve life, but in the case of the patient with severe brain damage the patient is already dead. We are modifying the second claim to accord with a definition of death which relies on a judgment about brain death. Alternatively, you could argue that there is no obligation to preserve life, thus rejecting the first claim. Although we have an obligation to refrain from killing others, we have no obligation to prolong and preserve life (this is also relevant to our obligations to the poor example below). Some people will die without our assistance, but we have no obligation to provide this assistance. Thus, we have no obligation to provide breathing assistance to patients who need it. Another solution is to reject the second claim. We have an absolute obligation to preserve life where we can do so. A ventilator is one of the ways we have to prolong life and it should be made available to all those who need it. It is the role of medicine to provide the means of extending life and reducing suffering, not to pick and choose who should be left to die due to lack of medical attention.

Saving others and assisting the poor

Claim 1: If you can save someone from death at no risk and at little cost to yourself, then you have an obligation to do so.

Claim 2: There is no obligation on the part of the rich in the world to assist all the poor in need of help.

Now we are expanding on the idea of preserving life as the first claim discusses our obligations to save others (to make it easier on the person doing the saving there is no risk of harm or significant cost to his action). The problem is that the second claim generalizes the assumptions of the first claim. If we have an obligation to save others when we can easily do so, then given the number of needy people in the world, we have obligations to thousands, if not millions, of people in need around the world. Since there are people who are literally starving to death and dying for want of the most basic goods (e.g. basic health care) then we have an obligation to save them as well. One way of resolving the conflict is by modifying the first claim. Thus we could argue that although we have an obligation to save those who are near and dear to us, we do not have a corresponding obligation to millions of strangers around the world. Alternatively one could argue that the obligation is limited. Although we should help save some we cannot be expected to help save everyone. This is too burdensome and demanding on those doing the saving, and although it is not the fault of the poor that they are so numerous, it doesn’t mean that therefore the rich are obliged to save everyone. Alternatively one could reject the first claim. One could say that saving a person in need is praiseworthy, but not morally required, i.e. if you choose to do it we should give you credit, but you are not obligated to do it. Therefore, although you can choose to help others if you want to you are not obliged to do so, which explains how you can accept the second claim. Another solution is to reject the second claim. If there is an obligation to assist those in need then that obligation extends to everyone in need. The question of how many people need our assistance is a practical one and may vary from time to time and from place to place, but the underlying principle is the same: as long as there are people in need and you can help them without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value (i.e. no risk of comparable harm to yourself, no comparable cost), then you should do so.

Saving Others and Emergencies

Claim 1: “In a state of emergency/disaster, one ought to act in such a way as will save the greatest number of lives”

Claim 2: “It is morally wrong to sacrifice one life for the sake of another”

Notice here that the first claim implies that in seeking to save the greatest number of lives we should accept any cost which is lesser than the good we are trying to bring about. This means that the cost may include loss of life. In emergencies it can often be the case that many lives are lost to save one (e.g. think of the soldier who shields his comrades from the grenade with his body, or the medic who has to allocate scarce resources so as to save the most lives but cannot save everyone. The most popular example used in philosophy to illustrate this kind of problem is the least plausible and involves a runaway train. You control the junction box to divert the out of control train. If you allow the train to continue on its present course it will hit and kill a number of people, if you divert it, it will hit and kill one person). One way of making these two principles compatible is arguing that although one life cannot be sacrificed for another, one life should be sacrificed to save many (under certain conditions, e.g. you may want to specify that there are no other options, that the one life would be lost anyway, etc.). Alternatively you could reject the conclusion of the first claim and argue that it is never permissible to take a life, even when this leads to saving many. Each life is precious and unique and you cannot enter into calculations where you off-set one life against another. Another solution is to reject the second claim. You could argue that in many cases moral sacrifice is required and/or admirable. For example, a soldier has an obligation to protect civilians even at the cost of his life. Or Captain Oates is admirable for sacrificing his life to save his friends since he was going to die anyway (Captain Oates was injured during Scott’s disastrous South Pole expedition. Oates was suffering from severe frostbite and gangrene and was slowing the expedition down with potentially lethal consequences for everyone).

Terrorism and War

Claim 1: “Terrorism is morally wrong.”

Claim 2: “Government sanctioned violence during a war is morally permissible.”

The validity of these claims rests on how we want to understand the term ‘terrorism’ (again drawing on the importance of the lessons learnt in the last two sessions). The two claims are compatible if terrorism is defined as needless violence towards innocents and non-combatants for the purpose of causing terror. Terrorism is often politically motivated. War by contrast is conducted between two or more sovereign states, declared and carried out in accordance with international conventions and respecting human rights (e.g. prisoners’ rights, avoidance of non-military targets, protection for non-combatants). Some wars are claimed to be just as they are pursued to accomplish just causes (e.g. protect a sovereign state from unjust aggression, protect human rights, etc.). So you could argue that the two claims are compatible if you understand terrorism as unjustified violence and government sanctioned war as justified violence. Alternatively, you could reject the first claim. Violence is justified in order to achieve political aims relating to justice, regardless of whether it is perpetrated by individuals or groups, by official governments or by groups in opposition to the government. Terrorism is the wrong term, these people are freedom fighters who are using the only means available to them to oppose an unjust regime. In this sense they are fighting a just war. Another solution is to reject the second claim. Violence can never be justified, and certainly not in the pursuit of political claims. Governments, individuals and groups should rely exclusively on non-violent means of change, such as elections, democratic representation, peaceful demonstrations, economic sanctions, etc. There is no such thing as a just war, wars always end up hurting the innocent and governments cannot claim to be justified in their use of violence.

Obedience and the Law

Claim 1: “Citizens have an obligation to obey the laws of their country.”

Claim 2: “Citizens have an obligation to stand up to injustice.”

These two claims can be contradictory as some laws are unjust and arguably citizens should refuse to obey them, but at the same time there is a general obligation to obey the law. Examples of unjust laws (some of them controversial) include Nazi laws regarding the lower status of Jews, segregation laws in pre-civil war America, the ban on hunting, the poll tax, etc. One way of reconciling these claims is to argue that citizens have an obligation to respect the rule of law. This is a subtle interpretation of the first claim. Rather than respect for individual laws, which may be unjust and the result of corrupt or inefficient governments, there should be general respect for the rule of law, i.e. the idea that the law upholds justice. This explains why certain laws should be resisted when they fail to uphold justice and are laws simply in the practical sense of the word. This solution would require you to explain what is involved in the second claim. Civil disobedience involves peaceful resistance to unjust laws, with the intention of bringing the injustice to the public eye, but all the while accepting the rule of law and submitting to the punishments for breaking the law. Alternatively, one could reject the first claim. You could cast doubt on the idea that we are obliged to obey the law in the first place. Why should laws, whether they are the expression of the will of the majority or the formulations of a dictator, be binding for us? Another solution is to reconsider the second claim. You could argue that your obligation to obey the law is absolute (perhaps especially if particular laws have been passed and enacted in accordance with just procedures) and this means obeying laws that you don’t think are just. You could go as far as discussing the injustice and trying to remedy it, but breaking the law is a step too far and threatens the very foundations of justice rather than helping remedy injustices.

Social Benefits and Tax Fraud

Claim 1: “Claiming social benefit while working is immoral as it defrauds public funds.”

Claim 2: “Some amount of ‘creative accounting’ is part of big business and is justified by the huge benefit large corporations bring to the economy.”

These two claims appear contradictory if you subscribe to the idea that citizens have an obligation to pay taxes and benefit from society’s resources in a just and fair manner. If it is wrong to steal from the state in a small scale through benefit fraud, then it must be wrong to steal from the state in a large scale in the form of white-collar crime and tax evasion. However, you could reconcile them if you claimed that some accounting irregularities are the cost we pay for big business. Large companies employ a lot of people, regenerate whole areas, pour money into the local or even national economy and may even be involved in environmentally friendly or charitable causes. For this reason we should give them some leeway in how they conduct their business. Social benefit fraud, on the other hand, is theft and has no corresponding benefits. Alternatively you could reject the first claim. Working whilst on social benefit is the only way people can make ends meet given the high cost of living. After all large corporations do exactly the same thing when they avoid tax and we don’t think they have done anything wrong, so why should we blame individuals for making a really small profit? Another solution is to reject the second claim. Fraud is fraud regardless of whether it occurs in a small or large scale (if anything large scale fraud is worse!). Large corporations should be above reproach and operate in accordance with strict moral standards. When they evade tax they are stealing, and worst of all they are stealing from each and every one of us. In this they are no better than individuals who steal for their own benefit.

Profits and the Environment

Claim 1: “The only responsibility of a company is to make profits for its shareholders”

Claim 2: “Companies have a responsibility to be environmentally friendly even when this exceeds legal requirements”

These two claims seem contradictory as the obligation to protect the environment can often conflict with the obligation to make as much profit as possible. One way of reconciling them is claiming that in these environmentally conscious times it is good strategy for a company to respect the environments. The claim here is that companies should not behave in an environmentally friendly way because this is valuable in itself, but rather as means to further profit. Companies that respect the environment in this way do so because they believe this is the best way to make a profit, and presumably would stop being environmentally friendly if it no longer paid them to. Alternatively one could reject the first claim. One could argue that a company’s obligations are much wider than that and include responsibilities to its employers, to society, the environment, etc. Some companies have been set up with environmental and social agendas. Examples include the Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s. Another solution would be to reject the second claim and argue that companies only have obligations to their shareholders. After all shareholders have provided the start up capital and are taking the risk of investing their money into the company. Furthermore, companies pay taxes which should be used to off-set the environmental implications of business. Finally, individuals may choose to behave in environmentally friendly ways and may be subject to greater costs if they choose not to (e.g. higher road tax on a large vehicle) but they have no obligation to do more than this, so why should we assume that companies have such an obligation? CONCLUSION (relevant to all parts of this exercise): it is very important to allow time in this seminar to discuss the implications of the third option, i.e. living with inconsistency. By looking at these different arguments students should now be better able to identify where conflicts lie. The effect of recognizing such conflicts in what we believe is that we should want to do something about it, whether that involves reconciling our beliefs or rejecting some of them. The choice to live with this inconsistency, once it has been made apparent to us, is peculiar as it is at odds with rationality. Morality deals with issues we care about and which we consider important. More than in any other area of human thought, then, it is important that we get it right and that we are able to support our conclusions with good reasons and arguments. Holding inconsistent beliefs defeats that purpose and should leave us feeling unsatisfied with our reasoning.

Examples adapted from materials prepared for the IDEAL CETL "Introduction to Ethical Thinking" resource