In my Philosophy 62 course my students and I have been reading out of Michael Sandel’s Justice. We have started the semester off discussing moral theories. I explained to my students, according to Sandel, that usually when we engage in moral reasoning our decisions will be based on which of these three we consider most: welfare, liberty, or virtue. Each of these considerations matches the popular moral theories of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and virtue ethics. So if I am presented with a decision of if we should legalize marijuana, my judgment will probably be based on if I consider the welfare of society, the liberty of people, or my character as most important. These moral theories also have their strengths as well as weaknesses.
I have also cautioned my students not to think that they will always consider the same thing all the time. At times we may consider welfare when making one decision. On the other hand we may consider liberty when we make another. I simply urge them to make sure they try to match their judgments and principles in logical ways.
After class one of my students asked me if I was a utilitarian because I had admitted to being a vegetarian. (Check out the video above of unique utilitarian moral dilemma known at the Trolley Problem) I confessed to her that I’m pretty inconsistent in relationship to my moral theories. I’m not the only one. Philosopher Peter Singer was criticized for being inconsistent in his moral theory although he was able to provide justification. When my sister calls me up for money, I do not think about giving it to her on utilitarian grounds, sometimes I just want to be a good sister. And so I perform my action as a virtue ethicist. When it comes to issues of sexuality, I do not consider virtue but rather liberty. Of course that principle distinction effects the decisions and judgments I make.
So which moral theory do you hold to the most? Do you think you are pretty consistent in your reasoning when you make moral decisions or have you seen inconsistent principles inform your actions? If you want to know if your moral intuitions are consistent try this philosophy experiment. To measure your moral judgments against others check out this philosophy experiment. If you want to play around with some moral dilemmas with others as a good discussion starter or as a way to practice and hear out loud moral reasoning, check out 10 most fascinating moral dilemmas. I also have free links to readings that my students will discuss this semester that is available on our course syllabus.