All rational people believe human beings should act morally. But what, exactly, defines whether an action is moral or not? When people disagree on what is ethical, how should they determine the correct course of action, especially when several valid but conflicting ethical frameworks exist? I know of two philosophies that form a solid framework for ethical decision making: the categorical imperative and utilitarianism.
The categorical imperative, the primary focus of the framework, was originally proposed by 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to the categorical imperative, humans should always act in such a way that they can will the principle behind their actions to become a universal law. Humans should, therefore, consider the principles of their actions and decide whether those principles can and should be applied to everyone in every circumstance. If so, the action is morally acceptable.
Utilitarianism, the second piece of the framework, demands that humans should always act to produce the greatest possible outcome of good instead of bad for everyone affected. Utilitarianism is not a democracy. That is, it is not concerned with how many people would be positively affected by an action. It is instead concerned with the net satisfaction caused by the action. For example, if an action would bring two people a little pleasure but would bring a third person a significant amount of pain, the action is morally wrong, because the third person’s great unhappiness outweighs the others’ slight happiness.
Mentally sound individuals have the ability to reason and empathize. Because of this, all rational people typically arrive at the same basic conclusions concerning what is and is not moral. For example, dishonesty, murder and theft are generally considered unethical by all people in all cultures. Therefore, I believe that—in most cases—if everyone adhered to the categorical imperative, there would be little dispute regarding moral and immoral acts.
Unfortunately, because humans are flawed creatures, disagreement inevitably arises, even when both parties believe they are acting morally. Consider the debate on abortion. Every rational person knows that murdering an innocent life is immoral. The discord stems from a difference in alleged fact. Some people believe life begins at conception, while others say it begins at another point during pregnancy. The categorical imperative is not enough to settle this issue, because both sides believe murder is wrong, and this belief can be universally followed. We can use utilitarianism to make a decision when the categorical imperative is inadequate. It is important to recognize that utilitarianism should not be woven together with the categorical imperative; this would be nearly impossible, given that utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of an action, while the categorical imperative focuses on the principle behind the action. Rather, for my proposed framework, utilitarianism should be used only in the event that the categorical imperative proves insufficient to solve a moral issue, or that two parties disagree on whether a principle can and should be willed to be a universal law.
Though many ethical frameworks exist, I believe that one composed of the categorical imperative and utilitarianism is the most practical and also adheres to my principles. The categorical imperative is the primary focus of the framework, and utilitarianism is used only when the categorical imperative is insufficient to solve a moral issue. Both components are needed to address many ethical issues.