Differing Ethical Systems
We can start by asking a very simple question: "Why study ethics?" Engineers and scientists come across a multitude of ethical decisions on a daily basis and because of their position in society, they shoulder a lot of public trust. By learning good ethical behavior, decisions often tend to lead to good consequences.
Even casual observation of how people act shows that many approaches to ethics exist. The approaches you choose depends upon the anthropology (or model for the human person) you have and the principles and reasoning methods you employ.
Principles and Methods
A complete anthropology should account for the psychology of development, particularly as it affects moral behavior. For example, at what point do children become fully responsible for their actions? A complete anthropology should also account for disorders like psychosis, depression, and compulsion. For example, at what point does addiction destroy the responsibility of adults for their actions? No single comprehensive theory accounts for all such questions, but whatever view you take affects your view of moral responsibility.
Some anthropologies are rooted at the level of what can be observed in the natural world. People represent no more than the sum of their atoms and molecules, and disappear completely at death. Ethical behavior is then understood in terms of human pleasure, survival of the species, and the like. While avoiding problems with appeals to the supernatural, such anthropology has problems justifying why people should do good in the face of unmerited suffering and uncertain rewards. Other anthropologies appeal to things beyond the observable world. The most well-known of these anthropologies originate in the world's long-standing religious traditions. Looking beyond what is observable can fill in the gaps that plague natural anthropologies. But differing supernatural anthropologies cannot be verified by systematic measurement, so that choosing among them becomes difficult.
Virtue Ethics: This approach focuses on building good ethical character by building habits toward acting with justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. Unlike many other ethical methods, virtue ethics is concerned with the effects a person's actions have on the inside as well as on the exterior world.
Egoism: Many people use this approach in practice, although frequently without admitting it. Basically, an ethical egoist promotes his or her own benefit. Not all egoistic behavior has to be selfish. Sincere concern for the welfare of others sometimes leads to great benefits for the self.
Utilitarianism: This approach holds that actions should lead to consequences having the greatest total balance of benefits over harms. There are many utilitarian methods that vary according to how benefits and harms are defined and to whether the balance applies to individual acts or to rules that govern those acts.
Deontology (pronounced DEE-on-TOL-uh-jee): This approach focuses on the general rules that govern duty or obligation, and demands that those rules be obeyed under all circumstances. These rules may come from divine command, the state, or reasoned argument.
Rights-based theories: This family of approaches holds that people inherently possess certain rights, and that duties flow from the need to respect these rights. The U.S. Declaration of Independence uses this idea when it refers to the endowment of people with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Problems can arise in defining rights, however - some people elevate their personal preferences to the status of rights.
Intuitionism: This approach holds that many important elements of morality can be sensed and known only by direct experience or intuition, as in the way we experience the scent of a flower or the feelings of love.
Casuistry (pronounced CAZH-oo-is-tree): This approach assesses an action by comparing it with two other "paradigm" actions, one that is clearly right and one that is clearly wrong. The goodness of the action depends upon which paradigm action it more closely resembles.
Contract ethics: This approach views goodness as defined by rational beings for mutual advantage. People enter into such contracts because they have more to gain from doing so than not.
As with most things in life, making an ethical decision becomes easier with practice. We will adopt virtue ethics as our primary ethical system for analyzing cases. By employing virtue ethics in making an ethical decision, decisions can often be simplified to an easier choice. This process not only saves time, but it also increases the likelihood of a good decision. As with most things in life, making an ethical decision becomes easier with practice. No one has created a surefire way to avoid ethical snares. The truly ethical life carries a lot of risk and requires that we shoulder a larger burden of responsibility for our actions. However, as with any other endeavor, recognizing and learning from our ethical mistakes leads to greater experience and wisdom with a steadily decreasing chance for moral failure.