We are all raised to be good people – to act ethically and contribute to society. However, it’s not always easy to decide what is ‘ethical’, as different philosophies suggest different criteria to distinguish right from wrong. The criteria deemed necessary for an action to be considered moral is known as the criterion of rights. A criterion of rights is a standard upon which a decision or judgement should be based in order to ensure that people act morally,1 which in turn ensures all people have access to basic human rights.
Criterion of Rights
The Basic Idea
As long as there have been groups of people living together, questions about what is ethical or moral have existed. In order to form a cohesive society, there must be a consensus on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, in order to ensure people, behave accordingly and have access to human rights. A criterion of rights tries to identify the fundamental prerequisites for each individual to be able to – at the most basic level – enjoy a good life.3
The belief in basic human rights comes from philosophical doctrines that suggest there must be a rationally identifiable moral order that preexists any society or norms, and thus applies in every culture, time period and circumstance.4 The moral order is universal. It is believed there are objective ways to determine what is right and wrong; therefore, it is possible to come up with a criterion of rights.
While the basis of ethical philosophical theories is the same, there are multiple schools of thought, each with their own way of determining right and wrong. This branch of philosophy is called normative ethics. Normative ethics seeks to understand how basic human rights are conceived and justified.4
The three main theories on the criterion of rights, or how we ought to act, are virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism.
The founding fathers of virtue ethics are the famous philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Virtue ethics is concerned with the moral character of an individual, rather than their actions. A criterion of what is ‘right’ is determined by whether an exhibited behavior is how a virtuous person would behave. To be virtuous, one has to embody and possess the virtues, which makes them a good person.5 Virtue ethics was the dominant approach for Western moral philosophy until the enlightenment and experienced a revival in the late 1950s, when British philosopher Gertrude Anscombe wrote an article titled “Modern Moral Philosophy”.6 Her article widened the scope of what kinds of things examined compared to deontology and consequentialism, different ethical philosophies that will now be explained, such as moral character, vice, virtue, happiness and relationships with others.6
Deontological ethics, compared to virtue ethics, focuses on what one ought to do, rather than what one ought to be. Deontology proposes an objective criteria of rights. Following these rules is one’s duty, which is where the term deontology is derived from. The outcome of the action does not matter – the characteristic of the action itself needs to be moral.4 These universal criteria include rules like, “don’t cheat,” “don’t lie,” and “don’t steal.” Deontological ethics are most often associated with Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher whose ideas were prominent during the Enlightenment.7 He was the first to define deontological principles and claimed that people should “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.” 8 Kant meant what is right is determined before the outcome of an action. What is ‘good’ is what is always good and can thus be applied universally.
Consequentialist ethics, like deontological ethics, is centered around actions instead of the character of a person. Unlike deontology, however, consequentialism suggests that the criterion of rights must be inferred from the consequences of an action, as the name suggests. What is right is what makes the world a better place for the greatest number of people. It falls in line with classic utilitarianism by agreeing that the only thing that matters is the consequence of an action – anything else is irrelevant to the criterion of rights.9 While the term consequentialism was first put forward by Anscombe in her paper that criticized the philosophy, classical utilitarianism is defined by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Their criteria of rights were based on what makes people happy, brings pleasure, or is useful to the public – all consequences of behaviours.10
A criterion of rights is important because it determines whether an action is moral.11 Whichever philosophy of normative ethics you believe in will determine how you should behave. A criterion of rights suggests that there are requirements that are necessary and sufficient for behaving morally.
Due to its assumption that there are baseline characteristics of right and wrong, a criterion of rights emphasizes that every human should have access to the same basic rights. A criterion of rights is not influenced by gender, socioeconomic status, or cultural upbring. It is a theory of justice that treats all people equally and hopes to provide guidelines that everyone can follow. As criteria of rights are established for all actions universally, they are objective. They are easy to follow, and can be useful in establishing laws and rules that enable a society to function effectively.7
Each of the three main branches of normative ethics has different strengths. Virtue ethics focuses on fundamentally being a good person, which allows there to be room for error without condemning someone for being a bad person. Deontological ethics are very clear in their determination of what is right or wrong, which makes it the easiest branch to turn into law. It is easy to follow because it provides clear maxims of what to do and what not to do. The biggest strength of consequentialist ethics is that it focuses on what actually happens, instead of a priori beliefs about what ought to happen. Moreover, it treats all people equally as everyone’s happiness is considered when determining what action does the most good for everyone. What is right is what is good for all, not just what is good for the person committing the behavior.12
A criterion of rights opposes another theory of how to determine how we should behave: decision procedures. A decision procedure is a methodology that we employ when thinking of how we should act.11 Most early philosophers do not suggest that normative ethics are consciously considered before every single action. They are general guides for how people should try to behave and which principles should be the basis of their behavior. A criterion of rights spells out what is right and wrong regardless of whether the person knows in advance whether they will meet the requirements.9 A decision procedure, alternatively, uses available information to judge whether an action is moral or not.
One way to think of the difference between criterion of rights and decision procedures is by comparing it to the difference between rationality and bounded rationality. Some economists believe that people should behave rationally at all times irrespective of their circumstances and whether or not they know all the information about the effects of their actions. Perfect rationality is therefore similar to a criterion of rights. On the other hand, bounded rationality suggests people are rational within the limitations of cognitive power, time, and available information. Similarly, decision procedures are methods through which people use available information to determine whether an action is right. It can therefore be argued that decision procedures are a more realistic way to determine what is moral.
Each of the three main philosophies of normative ethics also have specific disadvantages. Under virtue ethics, the consequence of an action is irrelevant to the criterion of rights. Even if one’s actions have devastating consequences, if their character is virtuous, then they have acted ethically. Deontology, in its attempt to have clear universal rules, does not leave room for subjective circumstances. Lastly, while consequentialism dictates that someone who intends to act unethically but ends up bringing goodness to the world can be considered moral. Additionally, it can be difficult to determine which actions bring the most amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.
Applied Normative Ethics
To better understand the difference between the criterions of rights put forward by virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism, we can use a case study to show what action would be considered the ethical action for each branch of normative ethics.
Imagine you hear a knock on your door. A young woman, who looks very afraid, asks if she can hide in your basement because she is running from her abusive partner. After she hides in your basement, a few minutes later, her partner knocks on your door. He asks you if she is inside your house. Would you tell the partner that she is hiding in your basement?
According to virtue ethics, both letting the woman in and lying to her partner about her being there would be right because these actions exhibit some virtues like help and generosity. Yet, lying is not virtuous. While letting the woman hide in your house is virtuous, lying to her partner might not be ethical under virtue ethics.
The situation is even more complex with deontological ethics. It is not your duty to let the woman into your house, although it can be argued that it is people’s duty to protect and help others. While it might not be your duty to let the partner know his wife is hiding in your basement, lying is not ethical. Deontological ethics are based on universal rules and a common universal rule is to never lie. The situation would be even more complex if the partner was a police officer, as it is people’s duty to abide by the law.
For consequentialism, without knowing what happens next, we do not know whether or not letting her in or lying to her husband is good or bad. If letting her into your house and lying to her partner makes him go away and therefore protects her, then you have acted morally. However, if lying to him means that he causes pain to you, the woman, or your respective families, then you have not acted virtually under consequentialism.
These applications demonstrate that it can be difficult to know what action is right or wrong. The world is not as black and white as a criterion of rights suggests.
Related TDL Content
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While we might usually reserve ethical principles to humans, with society’s increasing dependency on technology, we might also have to learn to program technologies to behave in ethical ways. MIT Technology Review’s Senior Editor, Will Knight, reviews the research conducted by two professors that examines what kind of ethical dilemmas self-driving cars might run into if they were to be used in the real world.
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- Driver, J. (2009, March 27). The History of Utilitarianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/