The typical starting point for professional ethics is the question of the ‘right’ action: that is to say, what might be considered the correct course of action, and on what grounds in a particular circumstance?
This question is taken up by the different approaches of ethics: Normative, Utilitarianism, Consequentialist and Deontological.
- Normative ethics investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act. What is the rightness or goodness of an action? Normative ethics often invokes the fictional notion of the ‘everyman’ in order to speculate: what would a similar person under the same set of circumstances do?
- Consequentialism is more specifically concerned with outcomes. Crudely speaking, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a ‘good’ result or consequence.
- Similarly, Utilitarianism argues the proper course of action is one that maximizes positive effect. Being primarily outcome based, utilitarianism is the paradigmatic example of consequentialist moral theory.
- Deontological ethics aim to determine rightness by examining the intentions of a person acting, as opposed to the outcomes. Therefore, in deontological ethics, an act may be considered right even if the act itself produces a bad consequence. In this way, deontology can be considered as intention based.
But there are questions that complicate these positions and theories:
- Who is this everyman, what is reasonable, and what is normal?
- Can an unethical intention produce an ethical outcome, or vice versa?
- How are intentions and consequences evaluated, and who decides this?
- How are rightness and goodness assessed, and by whom?
Under interrogation, these ethical starting points can unravel into disputes of relativity and practicality. Therefore, applied ethics tries to translate these theories into real-life situations to assess what a person might be ethically obligated to do in a specific situation. Such obligations are explored as a means of determining public policy, as well as to guide individuals facing difficult decisions. Typically, within applied ethics, one must consider the consequences of a series of possible acts, and choose the one that produces the most good.
For example, Beauchamp and Childress (2001) introduce four principles upon which medical professionals could base their reasoning in moral dilemmas. The principles are ordered such that depending on the circumstances, any principle could outweigh the others. The principles include:
- Respect for autonomy i.e. the right of all individuals to make decisions regarding their own life.
- Beneficence i.e. the duty to try to do good to other people.
- Non-maleficence i.e. the duty to not harm to other people.
- Justice: the duty to treat all individuals equally in similar situations.
This is an excellent starting point for the ethics of any media project.