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Introduction, Workshop 3: The Collective Good

In "What We Choose: Ethics for Unitarian Universalists," a Tapestry of Faith program

All action is for the sake of some end; and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient. — John Stuart Mill, 19th-century British philosopher and civil servant

Many of us make our ethical decisions by trying to act in accordance with moral rules, such as "it is always wrong to kill another person" or "lying to someone is unacceptable." We follow these rules to the best of our ability, recognizing there are times when we fall short. This approach to ethics relies on the premise that there are moral truths underlying the ethical rules by which we live, and that it is our individual responsibility to be guided by and uphold these moral truths. For some, the seven Unitarian Universalist Principles are a set of moral rules that form the foundation of a rules-based approach to ethical living.

There are times when a rules-based morality does not adequately address the ethical dilemmas we face. For John Stuart Mill, an influential 19th-century British philosopher, whether or not moral rules are followed is not the important issue. What is important is the result or outcome of an ethical decision. Mills was a proponent of the school of ethical thought often referred to as utilitarianism or teleological ethics. This ethical system asks: What is the utility (the usefulness) of any particular decision we might make? What will be the outcome if we take (or do not take) a particular action? The goal in utilitarian ethics is to strive to attain the best possible outcome for the maximum number of people. Where a rules-based ethical system focuses on the individual's adherence to truth, a utilitarian ethical system focuses on communal welfare. In this system, individual needs matter less than the needs of the community and moral decisions are often driven by specific circumstances.

This workshop will introduce utilitarian ethics and examine some of the complexities inherent in a utilitarian ethical framework. We will consider: How do we determine what is morally "right" in a particular circumstance? How do we evaluate our options to determine which actions will truly benefit the largest number of people? Who "counts" in such a schema? How do we define "benefit"? Along with exploring reasons for adopting a utilitarian stance, we will consider a critique of such a stance, asking: If one takes the utilitarian/teleological form of ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion, could not any behavior be justified simply by staking claim to the greater good?

Before leading this workshop, review Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

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Last updated on Thursday, January 19, 2012.

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