Rory Jones is a graduate of Southwestern University, where he majored in History and German, and Truett Theological Seminary, where he received an MDiv. Rory will begin his PhD in Sociology at Baylor University this fall.
What kinds of questions do you ask yourself when you are trying to make difficult decisions? When you are faced with a moral dilemma, how do you proceed? Are you focused on taking the right steps to get to the answer? Do you seek the solution that will do the most good for the most people in the end, regardless of what it takes to get there?
Each of us has developed a series of “life rules” over time that help us get by in the world. These “life rules” develop through our exposure to religious systems, reactions (both positive and negative) to the world around us, and through our family of origin. Life rules are not bad, but they must be assessed to determine if they align with the person we want to be or if they need to be cast off in favor of more robust life rules. Often, our evolving life rules are closely linked with the communities we identify with, so we must also consider how their influence shapes our current way of thinking.
A primary form of life rules are developed through deontology. Deontology, briefly defined, is the ethics of living by duty or obligation. Deontology asks us to consider only making the right decision, regardless of the broader impacts and consequences that are brought about by the decision. Deontology is not wrong, by any means, but it provides us such a limited way of interacting with the world. When we only consider the actions we are undertaking, we are legalistic and limited in perspective.
To give an example of deontological thinking, consider the following life rule: I will not steal. There are many iterations of this rule across cultures and belief systems. Generally, people agree that stealing is bad. It is punished in most societies, regardless of why it is done. But what happens when your family doesn’t have any money or food and you know that if you don’t steal a loaf of bread, they will starve? Is stealing okay in this situation?
Another form of life rules are called utilitarianism. This way of looking at the world asks us to consider the utility, or value, of a decision based on the outcomes that will occur. Utilitarianists choose the action that results in the most good for the most people. Utilitarianists are not as much concerned with the ethics of the action taken at the start if it can provide the most good in the end.
The utilitarian would say you should steal the loaf of bread, even if it means breaking your life rule about not stealing. Perhaps they would argue that the deontologist needs to revise their life rule to Walter White’s infamous life rule from Breaking Bad: “Everything I do, I do for my family.” The deontological pushback to the idea of utilitarianism is that it may sacrifice people for the sake of the rule in order to provide the most good. Think of any Ayn Rand novel and you can see the negative consequences of utilitarianism in action.
A famous example of the dilemma proposed as a conversation between deontologists and utilitarians was recently brought back in the popular eye by NBC’s The Good Place. This dilemma, the trolley problem, was featured in season 2, episode 5. Chidi, the character with a doctorate in philosophy, asks the group to consider the problem at hand:
You are driving a trolley when the brakes fail, and on the track ahead of you are five workmen that you will run over. Now, you can steer to another track, but on that track is one person you would kill instead of the five. What do you do?
Of course, the question begs a series of follow-up questions: Do we know any of the people on either track? What role does a person on the track by themselves play in society? Is that role so necessary that we should save the person? Why do the brakes fail in the first place?!
We aren’t given any of that information to base our decisions off of, however. Instead, we must make the decision in a split-second without the benefit of any of this extra knowledge. There are no easy answers to the trolley problem, which is why it is such a good ethical question. Ultimately, it shows us there are limits both to deontology and to utilitarianism.
This is why I think we should discuss a third way. It moves beyond thinking only deontologically or basing decisions on utililty. This way of being is called virtue ethics. Josef Pieper, in his 1968 work The Four Cardinal Virtues, writes about the four guiding classic Aristotelian principles we can use to make decisions that transcend distinctions of wrong or right and move toward trying to be a person whose whole life develops into a cohesive way of being in the world. The four classical virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Prudence is the virtue of virtues. It is, as Pieper says, the “cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical virtues.” (Pieper 1968) Classically, prudence is what it means to pursue goodness and virtue. Only the prudent person can have the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Justice is “the virtue which enables man to give each one what is his due.” (Pieper 1968) Justice depends on knowledge of truth, for injustice is a result of moving away from truth. Justice is owed to all human beings; to behave unjustly toward another is to devalue one’s own life.
Fortitude is the readiness to die for the things worth dying for. When we consider the nonviolent resistance movements of Gandhi and MLK, we are talking about fortitude. Fortitude is brave, deciding to take worthy risks, recognizing that some things are worth more than their life. The prudence to recognize those things worth more than life inspires people with fortitude to be willing to risk their lives for these things.
Temperance, unlike the image you have conjured up in your head about prohibition, is not about asceticism. Instead, temperance is about everything in a person: what they eat, drink and do, being unified as a whole. It is simultaneously selfish and selfless because it asks us to take the time to examine ourselves and our motivations, but to do so that we may be better participants in society and better enactors of justice for others.
I am not suggesting that studying these four virtues will give anyone an easy answer to the trolley problem. What I am saying, though, is that a virtuous life is worth living because it helps you move beyond a set of rules toward a way of being. It is not for the disinterested or indifferent. It requires consistent evaluation and pursuit of the justice of things, knowing when to be brave, and working all parts of your life in harmony with one another.
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- Pieper, Josef. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.