• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Emergentist Approach to Ethics - Part 2


Flower represents the principles of Moral Development Theory found in Emergentism, Emergence, and Christian Ethics
Petals Emerge like an individual's Moral Development

Ethical Problems Increase Exponentially with Scale


A single person may struggle with deciding between right and wrong; but as the number of people involved in ethical decision-making increases, the factors involved are compounded with each additional individual causing an ever-increasing complexity and difficulty of moral reasoning processes. Yet incredibly, there is a marked tendency for people to try to solve ethical dilemmas at larger and larger scales of organization. There is hubris in the approach to ethics that seeks to solve problems on a grand scale without first addressing the complexity of ethical reasoning encountered at the level of the individual. The societal or global-scale ethical problems we are observing today are the result of a lack of moral training (Colson, 2011). This training must begin at the individual level. How many students today are taught about the following concepts?


Behavioral-focused Approaches

When considering an ethical problem, the individual's first, and most basic, question is; "what is best for me?" This mode of reasoning is called ethical egoism (Fedler, 2006) and is based on the principle that everyone should act to maximize his or her own benefit. Ethical egoism is a reasonable starting point for any decision-making process, and it does not take much imagination to consider countless examples of circumstances where an individual would move beyond his or her own self-interest. Should a woman risk her own life to save a drowning child? Should a rich man devote his time and wealth towards helping those less fortunate than himself? These seem like simple answers, but there is a trap here. Psychological egoism claims that even these selfless and altruistic acts all serve purposes that are ultimately self-serving. Because it is nearly impossible to determine the actual motive behind any action, these claims difficult to refute, yet psychological egoism is a dead end. It does not account for the transformation of character (a change in the fundamental values and motivations) that occurs in healthy moral development. As we grow and mature, we can discern many more levels of ethical reasoning.


Moving beyond egoism, the individual may consider the obligations he or she owes to other people. This perspective views some actions as inherently moral such as fairness and justice and considers it the ethical duty of every person to act in accordance with these principles. Deontology is the moral method that focuses on the nature of the action itself rather than the outcomes or the potential for personal benefit (Fedler, 2006). For the deontologist, it is not necessary to ensure fairness in the world, just that the individual acts in a fair manner. Similarly, deontologists do not attempt to define what justice is; instead, they prescribe the steps to take to achieve a just outcome. To follow a set of rules or standards lies at the heart of the deontological perspective. Therein lies the danger of this approach. Difficulties soon arise in determining what set of rules to follow, and a focus on following any set of rules to the exclusion of all other considerations often leads to irrational outcomes.


In contrast to the deontological perspective, consequentialism argues that actions are not to be judged by some inherent quality, but by the outcomes they produce (Felder, 2006). At a fundamental level, any action that results in a “good” outcome is good, and any action that results in a “bad” outcome is bad. This begs the question; how does one define good and bad outcomes? The consequentialist must, by definition, engage in an endless series of calculations comparing the relative outcomes of various actions and weighing them against each other. Pleasure may be “good” and pain may be considered “bad,” but many other outcomes will also enter the calculations such as beauty, freedom, safety, equality, and health. The only rule the consequentialist follows is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. However, this principle inevitably leads to diabolic trade-offs. The greatest good for the greatest number implies that a smaller number of people will incur bad outcomes. The ethical snare of consequentialism is that it may lead to the consideration of any means (no matter how immoral) to achieve a desired end. This approach ignores the possibility that some actions are always wrong, regardless of the outcome.

Virtue and Virtu

To base moral reasoning only on a consideration of personal benefits, actions, and outcomes, is to focus solely on what a person does; and to entirely miss who a person is. Virtue ethics is concerned less with the questions about what actions to take, and more with questions about the development of moral character. The goal of virtue ethics is to develop the moral character so that the individual is freed from the dogged obedience to a set of (often arbitrary) rules, as well as avoids the snare of consequentialism that may call for atrocities to be committed in the name of the "common good."

The western tradition of virtue ethics derives from concepts of ancient Greek philosophy including arête (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing). A virtue, in the Aristotelian sense of general moderation described by the golden mean, is considered to be a trait of an individual's character, lying deeper than the level of shifting social values and organizational norms. However, virtue alone is not the panacea for moral thought and ethical reasoning. Badaracco (1997) explains that there is a narrow path between competing ethical decisions. That may all appear to be right, yet lead to profoundly different consequences. The path to success during these moral dilemmas lay in carefully treading the line between the Machiavellian concept of "virtu," (a combination of vigor, confidence, imagination, shrewdness, boldness, practical skill, personal force, determination, and self-discipline) and the Aristotelian concept of virtue.


Isaiah Berlin uses the famous example of a physician to explain the Machiavellian perspective; “to be a physician means to burn, to cauterize, to amputate, if that is what the disease requires” (p. 59). In other words, if a leader is facing an important ethical decision, half-measures represented by the balanced Aristotelian concept of virtue will prove insufficient. The decision maker cannot stop half-way through the process due to personal qualms. In Badaracco’s (1997) view, “there is no reconciliation of virtue and virtu; they remain in permanent tension” (p.119). Despite the promise of virtue ethics to deliver a reliable method for generating ethical decisions, centuries of examination have produced no successful attempt to define virtues that have universal applicability. Virtues themselves are culturally relative, and this has contributed to the decline of virtue ethics along with the relative ascendance of deontological and consequentialist ethics in the modern era.


Moral Intuition vs. Moral Reasoning

It is evident that people can navigate through dozens of ethical situations nearly every day with varying degrees of success. How is it possible that in such a complex environment we are usually able to negotiate our moral existence? Zollo, Pellegrini, & Ciappei (2017) explain the concept of synderesis, which has ancient origins in Christian scholastic theory and is concerned with the divine natural inclination of people to be able to discern right from wrong. Synderesis is an innate habit of moral intuition that naturally inclines people towards good and away from evil. It is an antecedent to moral reasoning and offers proper moral judgments without deliberative effort and is the mechanism that enables people to make many ethical judgments quickly and with generally good accuracy.


This contrasts sharply with the view of bounded ethicality proposed by Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2013) which examines unethical behavior that arises without intentionality. They claim that these pre-rational intuitive thoughts give rise to "blind spots" in our ethical decision-making process that lead people to engage in behaviors they regret. Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2013) place significantly more credibility to rational moral reasoning and offer substantial evidence that "our intuitive System 1 (intuitive judgment) responses are more likely to be immoral than our reflexive System 2 (ethical reasoning) thoughts” (p. 154). The issue here is whether our pre-rational thoughts and feelings that well up within us are the source of immoral behavior, as bounded ethicality suggests, or if those same thoughts and feelings are an innate guide (or even a gift from God) to moral behavior. While the resolution to these conflicting points of view is beyond the scope of this paper, one aspect from the study of ethics is readily apparent; at the scale of the individual person, the moral reasoning process can be immensely complex. Whether considerations of a dilemma are viewed from the perspective of egoism, deontology, consequentialism, virtue or virtu, all the ethical dimensions that are contained in every single person are certainly compounded as the scale increases from individual, to organizational, and ultimately to societal levels with ever increasing magnitudes of social consequences.


Continue on to an Emergentist Approach to Ethics - Part 3

Go back to an Emergentist Approach to Ethics - Part 1

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