What is "Good" - An Eight Week Ethical Study

6:00 AM

Early this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in an eight week study of ethics. In our philosophical adventure, we focused on the question of what it means to live a good life. Different philosophers have answered this question differently. For some, living a good life means being a good person, having a certain character, or doing the right things for the right reasons. For others it means producing good results, caring for those closest to you, or providing for the good of people you don’t know. 

Then there is the question of what we mean by “right” and “good.” Throughout the study, I wrestled with understanding what is “good.” What does it mean to be a good person? Is it self-sacrifice? Is it more concerned with the well-being of others? Or is it an internal process? Is morality meant to be something that is on display through actions? Or do morals come from a deep interconnection to the greater good of humanity?

Of all the ethical theories we studied, deontology resonated with me the most. What follows below is an excerpt from my final thesis upon completion of our ethical study. Enjoy!

Deontology in Theory
Immanuel Kant would argue that, “The moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it” (Immanuel Kant, Ethics: The Essential Writings, 198). Instead, he suggests that the “will of a rational human being” acting out of a sense of moral worth and duty is the only “unconditional good” (198). This approach is in stark contrast to some other ethical camps, namely utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory that thrives on the outcome that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Contrary to utilitarianism, deontology focuses on moral duty as universal law, regardless of consequentiality, circumstance, or outcomes. Kant subscribes to the categorical imperative: “never to act otherwise so that I could also will that my maxim should become universal law” (199).

Spoken plainly, with deontology, a rational being does not consider the consequences of an action, only what is morally obligatory. It recognizes that effects such as happiness can be achieved by means outside of the agent’s actions and therefore cannot be used as a measurement for morality. Instead, an agent acts purely out of moral duty. This is the human will – to choose, think, and act voluntarily – to meet a maxim that is universal; if it cannot be applied to every rational human being, then that maxim must be rejected.

Kant offers an example to help simplify deontology as an ethical approach when he speaks on false promises. He poses the question, “May I when in distress make a promise with the intention not to keep it?”(199-200). According to deontology, in this situation, one must ask, is my maxim universal? Essentially, would it be acceptable for any person in a similar circumstance to willfully make a promise that they do not intend to keep?  If yes, then everyone can be deceitful and make false promises when they find themselves in a difficult place. If no, then everyone must only promise what they intend to keep. Now, perhaps you read this and think, “Well, of course, the latter is the obvious, virtuous answer.” Nevertheless, I ask how often do we actually practice this?

Deontology in Action
I did a quick poll on twitter where people could respond anonymously to the question, “How often do you promise to call/text someone knowing that you most likely won’t get back to them?” The answer options were: often, sometimes, never. Remarkably, 80% of the respondents answered “never” while going on to say that they believe that you should never make false promises, while in reality, they do it all of the time. Isn’t that interesting? The immediate response to the poll was “Never!” Yet, many admitted to having done so. Is morality more about how we think we should act, or how we actually act? I suppose that is a different question for a different day…

How should we approach false promises? Are they merely little white lies, told in a moment to spare one’s feelings? Are they useful in the long-run? As an emotional being who frequently considers the happiness of others (often over myself) in the outcome in any situation, the deontological explanation of what is “good” spoke to me most as an ethical approach for experimentation. If I take away the consideration for outcomes, and live only by a categorical imperative, what would happen? Therefore, I decided to put the universal maxim to not make false promises into action.

When I was going through my divorce, I struggled to keep social commitments due to social anxiety. I would often schedule meetings and end up being late or cancelling because the anxiety was too strong. Deontology would assert that I assess the moral implication behind this – is it my intention to keep these appointments? If not, then my maxim to say “yes” to these appointments should be rejected and I should not make any appointments because I do not intend to keep them. And I can determine this by applying universality to it – would it be alright for everyone to schedule social meetings with the intention of being late or cancelling? No. Therefore, the universal maxim should be that we do not make appointments that we do not intend to keep. This is the maxim that I’ve put into practice in my everyday life. 

In my deontological experiment, learning to simply say "no" to an appointment I do not plan to keep has actually proven to be very rewarding. I learned that when I don't make false promises, my social hangouts are always more meaningful. And even more beneficial, I don't struggle with the anxiety that comes with an unfulfilled commitment. Instead, when I am with the people I love, there is joy and laughter rather than any feelings of forced morality.

I find the deontological approach to be very useful and more so in alignment with the moral, ethical reasoning that I hope to have rather than the ethical reasoning by which I always live. In deontology, the universal maxim is the unconditional good. But, I wonder if this universality is devoid of human emotion? For example, if a friend is really struggling and I choose not to speak with them due to anxiety, feelings of guilt could arise. Would it hurt that friend's feelings? Should I even be thinking of that friend's feelings? Deontology would suggest that a consequence such as someone's 'feelings' should not affect your moral reasoning. But, in practice, is this the “good” thing to do? Which, brings me back to my original question. What does it mean to be a good person? Is it self-sacrifice? Or is it more concerned with the well-being of others?

This is the point where I struggle with any absolute approach to ethical reasoning. I am searching for the balance between healthy self-sacrifice for the greater good and personal health. As I briefly mentioned above, with utilitarianism, the idea is that I must sacrifice my own self-interests for the greater good. But that causes some internal tension for me. However, deontology suggests that I, internally, must choose for myself what is right or just, regardless of consequence, regardless of others, based solely on a maxim of universal law. I can ask myself, would it be right for anyone in a similar situation to make this same maxim that I’m making in this moment? If the answer is no, then my maxim is not universal and it must be rejected. However, what if that decision will affect others adversely? And how do I take into consideration their feelings? A deontologist would suggest that those consequences don’t matter while a utilitarian will say only the consequences matter. 

Ultimately, what I’ve learned about myself is that I desire a balance between these two approaches. And if I were to decide on a deontological approach to ethical reasoning, I believe that the best maxim that is also a “good” moral decision is one that is based on honesty rather than false promises or absolutes.

Ethics: The Essential Writings, Ed. Gordon Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2010.

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