What Is The Right Thing To Do?

If someone, in an attempt to exercise his right of self defense coerces anyone else into defending him then that would mean that the defender himself is a criminal invader of the rights of someone else. So, if X is aggressing against Y, Y may not use force to compel Z to join in defending him, for then, Y would be just as much a criminal aggressor against Z. This immediately rules out conscription for defense, for conscription enslaves a man and forces him to fight on someone else’s behalf.

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Is it always wrong to lie? Consider the case whereby A sets out to murder B and although C knows where B is but C lies to A in order to save B’s life. Under such circumstances would we still render the act of lying wrong or would it be justified to lie in such a case?

What do you think is the Right thing to do? Are moral values absolute or are they subjective? Are they universal or are they social conventions instead? Do natural laws exist or do they evolve with time? Who decides between Right and Wrong?

Without speck of a doubt, the ability to evaluate reasons for belief is one of the most fundamental critical thinking skills. It is the ability to reason indeed that differentiates human beings form other living organisms. However, one of the biggest dilemmas of moral reasoning remains to be its contradictory nature. We have the mental capacities to reason our belief in something; however, we are just as capable of analyzing it critically at the same time.

Question of what is right and what is wrong are not always black and white. At times it seems like the societies are governed by natural laws and social conventions whereby there is a distinct categorization of right and wrong. On the contrary, however, it occurs to us on a great many reflections that problems of morality are relative, and subjective.

To re strengthen our belief that reasoning about morality and the problems of morality are themselves contradictory in nature, we are going to cover a few case studies and then see if we reach any conclusion.

A many in history nevertheless have made attempts at defining moral ethics and an effort to address to its problems too has been made. According to Protagoras, a Sophist,” Man is a measure of all things.” The implication is that right and wrong or good and bad, according to Protagoras, must always be considered in relation to a person’s needs.

Sophists had travelled around the globe splendidly. It couldn’t have been anyone better but them to have realized that laws governing the city states and also the norms of a society could vary massively across boundaries. Hence their observation led them to raise questions based on morality and ethics that had to do with conception of what was natural and what was socially induced. Moreover, Sophists believed that there were no absolute norms for what was right and wrong. For instance the idea of ‘natural modesty’, to a Sophist who had travelled the world, was a matter of social convention. Had it been natural, it would have been something innate, something humans are born with. Since it’s seen to be taken differently across different places, not everyone everywhere is afraid or reluctant to show themselves off nakedly, that is not the case.

“Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.” [1]

However, other philosophers such as the legendary Socrates were of the view that some such norms were in fact absolute and universally valid. According to Socrates, “He who knows what good is will do good.”Hereby he meant to imply that a right insight will lead to right action and that the virtuous is one who does right. Therefore Socrates proposed that people’s reason and not the society, differentiates between right and wrong.

Aristotle had a slightly different take on the issue. He propounded the “Golden Mean” whereby he emphasized the need to keep a balance. Only by maintaining balance and temperance, so the Aristotelian school of thought goes, does one achieve a happy or “harmonious” life.

As seen hitherto answers to the problems of ethics and morality are not black and white in nature. There cannot be one absolute definition of Morals and Ethics and hence moral reasoning too cannot be chalked out in one specific manner.

Moral Reasoning:

“We are discussing no small matter but how we ought to live.” [2]

One way of explaining Moral Reasoning is by categorizing it into two broad categories:

i) Consequentialist Moral Reasoning

ii) Categorical Moral Reasoning.

Consequentialist Moral Reasoning locates morality in the consequences of an act. Example of Consequentialist Moral Reasoning would be ‘Utilitarianism’ according to which the right act is that which maximizes utility. Categorical Moral Reasoning on the other hand locates morality in certain duties and rights that have to do with the intrinsic quality of the act itself. Therefore, according to Categorical Moral Reasoning, Murder is a Murder and the act of murdering is wrong irrespective of the circumstances of the act.


This theory was proposed by David Hume (1711-1776) and defined further by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarianism stands by the slogan, “the greatest good for the greatest number.”According to Bentham the ultimate Moral Principle, namely the Principle of Utility, requires us to choose whatever action would have the best consequences. According to the utilitarian philosophy, we act in a way that maximized the overall level of happiness and pleasure over suffering and pain. In a nutshell, the right thing to do is to maximize utility.

However utilitarianism is not as perfect a philosophical concept as it sounds. Some of the objections raised against utilitarianism are that it fails to respect certain individual rights and fails to acknowledge the rights of the minority (lesser number of people).Hence it is argued that certain individual rights of the minority cannot be traded off for the sake of utility. Secondly, it is not possible to aggregate all values. For instance, how would you assign monetary terms to values such as the value of life, respect, etc? Even if we could measure such values then how possibly could we have captured them according to a single uniform measure of value?

Let us look at some of the cases concerned with morality in the light of Utilitarian approach and see for ourselves whether utilitarianism befits it:

Case1: Euthanasia

Mathew Donnelly, a physicist, had contracted cancer perhaps due to an over exposure of X-Rays. It cost him his jaw, upper lip, his nose, left hand, and two fingers from right hand. As if this wasn’t enough, he was also left blind. Donnelly’s physician told him that he had just about a year’s time left to live. Donnelly, however, was in excruciating pain already, and he thought against better judgment that he would rather die than continue life in such a state. In an urge to free himself of misery and pain, he asked his three brothers to kill him. Two of his brothers refused to do so while the youngest one, 36-year-old Harold Donnelly, shot Mathew to death with a 3.0-caliber pistol. The question in point is whether Harold did wrong. According to social conventions and moral traditions which essentially dictate that the intentional killing of innocent people is always wrong. Hence according to moral traditions, Harold was wrong. However, Harold is assumed to have shot his brother for a noble cause; he loved his brother and wanted to end his misery. Moreover, Mathew had himself asked to die. Therefore, in consideration of the consent (of Mathew), and noble motives (Harold’s love for his brother and wanting to alleviate him of the pain), the point in case asks for a lenient judgment.

Utilitarianism would have gone by whichever of the choices available to Harold at that point of time, had the best overall consequences. Utilitarianism would support that action which maximizes happiness for all concerned. Killing Mathew, a utilitarian would think, would free Mathew of misery and pain hence in this case a utilitarian would conclude that the greatest balance of happiness will be achieved for everyone concerned here, by euthanasia. Hereby euthanasia is morally right and justified.

Amongst the western States, Euthanasia is legal only in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Colombia. United States renders Euthanasia illegal and terms it as an act of murder hence Haorld Donelly was arrested and charged.

A question then arises whether Euthanasia be made legal provided its taken to be morally right by a utilitarian at least. On that point, John Stuart Mill says;

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their member, is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant…Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” [3]

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Thus utilitarian believes that laws prohibiting euthanasia contradict general welfare of the society, and restrict people’s right to control their own lives the way they wish to. When Harold killed his brother Mathew, he did so in order to end Mathew’s miserable life in a manner that Mathew had himself chosen. Since the consequences didn’t harm anyone, it shouldn’t be a problem for anyone either. Things are now changing, in 2005, 58% of Americans were of the view that doctors should be allowed to help patients die who are suffering from painful incurable disease.

Case 2 : Case of Queens Vs. Dudley and Stevens:

Queen’s Vs. Dudley is a 19th Century famous British Law Case. The case put a huge question on the validity of utilitarian doctrine. It involves the shipwreck crew of four. After being lost at sea for 19 whole days, Dudley, the Caption decided to kill the weakest among them, the young cabin boy Parker in order that rest of the crew members survive feeding on his blood and body. On the 29th of September 1884, 1300 miles away from Cape, Mignonette was found. Richard Parker, 17-year-old cabin boy was the youngest of all crew members on Mignonette. He was an orphan and had no family. It was Parker’s first voyage to sea and had gone against the advice of his friends. A wave hit the shaft, and Mignonette went down. The only food that the crew members had on them was two cans of preserved turnips. What was worse was that the crew members did not have any fresh drinkable water either. For the first three days, the crew members did not eat. On the fourth day, however, they opened one of the cans of Turnips and ate it. The next day, they cut a turtle and together with the second can of turnips, the turtle enabled them to survive for the next few days. For eight days, then, they remained of food and water again. The cabin boy Parker had by now gotten ill as he had drunk sea water. His condition was such that he appeared to be dying. On the 19th day, the captain Dudley proposed an idea that they should all draw a lottery to see who would die to save the rest. Brooks refused to do so and hence lotts weren’t drawn. Next day, there still wasn’t a sign of a life boat , and it was in the midst of harsh conditions that Captain motioned Stevens that boy Parker better be killed. Dudley told the boy his time had come and killed him with a pen knife, stabbing him in his jugular vein. For four days, the three of the crewmembers fed on the blood and body of Parker. At last, on the twenty fourth day of the shipwreck, they were rescued by a German ship which took them back to England where they were arrested and tried. Dudley and Stevens went on trial while Brooks turned State’s witness. It turned out that the captain and his companion weren’t guilty much, they claimed to have acted out of necessity. They defended their stance by saying that under dire circumstances better that one should die so that three could survive. The prosecutor wasn’t influenced; he said a murder is a murder hence the case went on trial.

This leaves us with following questions rather objections to the doctrine Utilitarianism:

Do we have certain fundamental Rights? If yes, then individual rights shouldn’t be traded off and need to be valued.

Does a fair procedure justify any result?

What is the moral work of consent? Would an active consent at either the time of drawing lottery or at the point of death make so much of a moral difference that an act that is considered morally wrong, taking away someone’ life for example, would turn morally permissible after the consent?

Shall the rights of a weaker being or a minority (in terms of count or numbers) be traded off for the sake of general welfare?

Case 3: Baby Theresa:

Publically known as ‘Baby Theresa’, Theresa Ann Campo was an anencephalic child, born in Florida in 1992.Anencephalic children are sometimes termed as ‘babies without brains’ as important parts of their brain including the cerebrum and cerebellum are missing and so is the top of their skull. There is however a brain stem, present in such infants, that allows for their autonomic functions such as breathing and heart beat. Even on accounts of survival (from stillbirth), such infants do not live long and for whatever time period they live, they would still never be conscious due to malfunctioning of brain components. Thus Baby Theresa’s parents volunteered her organs for transplant thinking other needy children could perhaps benefit from the eyes, kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs of Baby Theresa after the transplant. Physicians too thought that it was a good suggestion forwarded by the baby’s parents that her organs be volunteered so that other children who are in need may benefit. A huge number of children need transplants each year but there are never enough organs available. Since Florida law does not permit organ removal until the donor is dead, Baby Theresa’s organs weren’t taken. Nine days later, Baby Theresa expired and it was too late by then to use her organs for other children as her organs had been damaged. The newspaper stories of the time opened up a heated debate whether it would have been right to remove the baby’s organs in order to help other children. If we probe arguments for and against the case, we would come to realize that the problem of removing Theresa’s organs in order to help other children is not as simple as it sounds. The debate was boiled down to three main line of arguments namely; The Benefits Argument, The Argument that we should not use people as Means, and the third line of Argument from the Wrongness of Killing.

The Benefits Argument:

Knowing that baby Therese is an anencephalic infant who is incapable of being conscious and is going to die anyway, her parents proposed the idea that Theresa’s organs be used for transplant in order that other children be helped. Apparently, they reasoned as follows:

“If we can benefit someone, without harming anyone else, we ought to do so. Transplanting the organs would benefit the other children without harming Baby Theresa. Therefore, we ought to transplant the organs.” [4]

It is interesting to note how this very line of thinking has a division of opinions. On one hand, the contention that Therese wouldn’t be harmed is a mere ‘assumption’ hence the act of removing her organs, based on a mere assumption that she wouldn’t be harmed, while she is still alive would be unjustified. On the contrary, however, under such circumstances her parents were right thinking that mere physical existence wouldn’t benefit Theresa much provided that she would miss out on thoughts, feelings, connections with people and other normal human activities. Being an anencephalic infant, they must have thought, she is only virtually alive, and that being alive for a few days would not do her any good than ending a miserable life to save the lives of other children. Whereas those children who are in dire need of organ transplants would benefit greatly. Therefore, The Benefits Argument supports the proposition that Theresa’s organs be used for transplant to help other children.

We should not use people as Means:

This line of argument opposes the stance that Theresa’s organs be removed to help other children. It stands by the principle that people should not be used as means to benefit others. ‘Using’ people is usually used in the context of violating people’s autonomy. Either through manipulation and deceit or by forcing people to do something against their wish, ‘using’ others only to get our own personal benefits is wrong as it thwarts others autonomy.

In Baby Theresa’s case we wouldn’t be deceiving or manipulating anyone by removing her organs for transplant but we would indeed be using her organs to benefit others. In case you are thinking, that happens every time transplants are carried out, you are wrong. Transplants are carried out with the consent of people, and certainly not against their permission. Baby Theresa, however, is incapable of voicing her opinions or expressing her wish by any means hence the complexity of the case remains. Moreover, it can be argued that Baby Theresa does not have wishes in the first place and she is incapable of making any decision for herself therefore she is not really an autonomous being. Thus her parents’ decision on her part wouldn’t really be a violation of anyone’s autonomy. This leaves us with two ways of thinking about the problem. One, by questioning what would possibly be in the best interest of Baby Theresa, and secondly, if she could have told us what she wanted what would she have said? Unfortunately, Theresa does not have any preferences, and her interests, even if there were any, wouldn’t be affected much since she would die soon after birth no matter what. It all boils down to only one option then which is to do whatever we think is best.

Wrongness of Killing:

According to most Western traditions, killing someone is absolutely wrong. Since most western states are dominated by the religion of Christianity whereby ‘ intentional killing of an innocent being ‘ is out rightly wrong and punishable, ethicists who believe in traditional morality would disapprove and condemn an act of killing. To them, killing is always wrong. Nowadays, however, consequence of the act and the circumstances under which the act was committed too is taken very much into consideration. So, according to this way of perceiving things, killing might not always be wrong such as in the case of Baby Theresa. Another approach to the problem would be to think of Baby Theresa as already dead. This might not be as awkward as it sounds after all ‘Brain Death’ is now accepted at large as a criterion to pronounce someone legally dead. Eventually, Brain Death came to be accepted as ‘real’ death because such people couldn’t live conscious life due to malfunctioning of their brain cells. If brain death is redefined, to include anencephalic since they too lack any hope of conscious life as they do not have any cerebrum or cerebellum, then we would in effect regard anencephalic infants as born dead. Then removing their organs would not be regarded as killing them and hence the argument for wrongness of killing then stands void.


In the light of the cases mentioned above, we may conclude that solutions to the problems of ethics and morality are not black and white. As we proposed and opposed line of arguments for the cases under consideration we noticed how reasoning about such matters is often contradictory in nature. Moral Reasoning seems to fluctuate between being definite to vague. One of the biggest dilemmas of human ability to reason is that much as it helps them reach a decision, it engrosses them too at times with contradictions and recessions thus rendering the decision-making process all the more difficult.



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