If there were one particular ethical theory that would universally fit all situations, ethics would be an open/shut case. However, that simply isn’t how ethical theories work. While, some may have significantly more merit than others on a scale of universal application, there are some situations where relativism comes into play when deciphering which theory best suits a given situation. The relativism referred to here is of a personal nature. A person is the sum of their experiences and actions.
Additionally, even if a person has a straight-pointing moral compass, these past life experiences, combined with their current situation, can weigh heavily in deciding the morality of a decision when approaching issues that lay in a gray area. Take, for example, the story of an uneducated person from an underprivileged background, who’s only foreseeable chance at bettering their life is exceling in a specific sport they have a natural talent for. They have dedicate themselves to this sport and have trained tirelessly.
Though they have the ability to place at a high rank, they have never been able to win a race that enabled them to make a name for them self and launch their career. They keep coming close to winning, but ultimately, always end up falling short by an inch. Suppose this person was going to be competing in a major event, which if won, would yield a large cash prize, and would launch them into the spotlight via an endorsement deal with a major sportswear company. Now, imagine that a sports trainer approaches the athlete with a tempting proposition.
The trainer informs the athlete that he has a new performance supplement that will dramatically improve the athlete’s performance. The trainer tells the athlete that the supplement has been tested on animals and has, thus far, been proven safe. The trainer informs the athlete that the substance is not on the list of banned performance enhancing substances that competitions test for before an athlete partakes in an event. The trainer then tells the athlete, that all he wants is $5,000 of the winnings. If the athlete wins, he’ll owe the trainer $5,000; if he loses, he’ll owe nothing.
While both James Rachael’s ‘Theory of Egoism and Moral Skepticism’, and David Hume’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiment’ are applicable to this scenario, Hume’s theory is, decisively, the most ethical theory of choice in application to this particular situation. There are a couple of issues that come into play when making moral judgments about this situation. First, the athlete knows that performance enhancing substances are banned in competitions. The fact that this particular substance is not yet banned, is not proof of it’s acceptability for use.
Instead, it merely shows that the substance is so new, it has yet to be recognized and put on the list of banned substances. Given time, it will assuredly be on that list. Thus, the athlete knows that taking the substance to give him an advantage in winning would be looked down upon, and is questionable, in principal. Second is the issue of personal circumstance. This particular athlete’s ability to thrive is contingent on his success at making a name for himself in his sport. If he fails to do so, he will never foreseeably get a leg up and achieve financial stability.
The future of his life, as far as all foreseeable circumstances are concerned, depend on him winning this cash prize and endorsement contract. To him, these two things may make the difference between him having a financial springboard with which to better his situation, versus being stuck in a multi-generational financial cycle of poverty. The application of James Rachel’s’ Theory of Egoism and Moral Skepticism to the aforementioned scenario, specifically focuses on the ‘ethical egoist’ portion of Rachel’s argument.
The ethical egoist argues that people ought to act merely out of self-interest; that while humans have the ‘capacity’ to make decisions altruistically, there is no reason that we ‘should’ do so. This reasoning simplifies the decision-making for the athlete. Clearly, winning is in his best interest. Thus, taking the substance is the best decision. However, in order for this theory to succeed, the person must conceal their actions while encouraging others to act differently. Essentially, he must be a disingenuous, hypocritical, and manipulative liar. If the world were full of people like this, we would back-stab each other into extinction.
This is where the theory of the ethical egoism falls apart in regard to being a universal theory. If everyone acted solely with self-interest, society wouldn’t be sustainable. There has to be some sort of rule in place in regard to looking out for each-other’s best interests in order for society to function properly. David Hume’s Theory of “Moral Sentiment” achieves the balance of being able to make ethical judgments that are as altruistic as possible, while still looking at each decision on a case by case basis before deeming it ethical or unethical.
Hume poses the question of why one action can be right in some circumstances, yet wrong in others; while the act itself is the same in both cases. It comes down to sentiment, or one’s personal feelings about the circumstances surrounding an act. Once again, take into consideration, the originally stated scenario concerning the athlete. Under Hume’s theory, the ethical decision would be whatever the person felt was right, if, but only if, those circumstances made it morally acceptable. Take for instance, this same story, but with an athlete who is from a well-to-do family.
If he doesn’t become an athlete, he still has the viable option of attending college and pursuing another stable career that will provide him with a good life. The athlete from the well-to-do family has options, and his future stability is not hinged on being a successful athlete. Thus, if he chose to take the supplement in this scenario, it would be an unethical decision. However, when the scenario is applied to the impoverished athlete whose future stability is hinged on his success as an athlete, the decision to take the supplement is no longer unethical.
It is, after all, technically legal to take for competitions. Thus, he’s not technically doing anything “wrong”. Neither the well-to-do athlete, nor the impoverished athlete would, technically, be doing anything “wrong” by taking the substance. This is where the grey area comes into play. We have an action, that if committed by a financially well-to-do athlete would be considered selfish and unsportsman-like. Yet, if the same act were committed by an impoverished athlete, few people could hold back empathy and not be able to cut him slack for his choice.
This same act is now one that’s deemed acceptable, based merely on a distinct set of circumstances. It doesn’t mean that this an ultimate right, in the discussion of “rights” and “wrongs”; simply, that when discussing gray area issues, the moral of sentiment applies heavily in deciphering the “right” or “wrongful” nature of an action. In conclusion, we can see that while James Rachel’s theory of “ethical egoism” makes deciphering a verdict on “right” and “wrong” simple, the act of making choices based solely on self-interest is not sustainable for society.
All in all, deciphering the morality of a choice comes down to the particular circumstances that elicit an emotional response. When looking at issues critically, there is no fact-based evidence that clearly defines right from wrong in the action. However, because of our sentimental side, we are able to justify certain actions that would otherwise be considered wrong. Thus, David Hume’s “Theory of Moral Sentiment” has far better results when applied to this particular case
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