Moral Theories III

These concepts appear to be a useful set of guidelines to help an individual make a decision when faced with an ethical dilemma. But in practice, respect for persons or the rights of the individual are often very difficult to balance with the rights of the broader society. For example:

Removing edible nut products from circulation due to the risk of cross-contamination and resulting allergic responses in a few people may be considered a threat to the basic Level 1 health rights of those individuals. But the cost of removing the products from circulation may be considered a much larger Level 2 economic threat to the broader community.

The respect for persons approach can also result in highly unlikely moral judgements that conflict strongly with the welfare of the larger community. For example:

Roads would likely be safer and there would be fewer deaths if there were traffic lights at every intersection. But the cost and inconvenience to the vast majority of the population would be unacceptable, even though the right to life of a few individuals would be compromised.

Comparing Utilitarianism and Respect for Persons

As we have seen, it is impossible to combine all our moral beliefs into one theory. Maximizing satisfaction for the broader group inevitably means individuals must give up something. Conversely, respecting the rights of individuals can conflict with promoting the amount of group satisfaction.

Given this contradiction, it is often best to analyze an ethical dilemma using both theories and seeing if they lead to the same conclusion. If they do not, then a decision has to be made as to which conclusion is the more valid.

That said, Western moral philosophers have adopted the position that respect for persons should normally take priority over the broader utilitarian approach, except when where the violation of individual rights is relatively minor.

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