Crossroads of Philosophy and Economics

An Ethics Officer's Handbook



A scene from the movie Extreme Measures. Hugh Grant has discovered that Gene Hackman is performing lethal medical experiments on down-and-out streetpeople. The hope is to attain a medical breakthrough.

To defend his actions, Gene Hackman articulates a consequentialist argument: what matters are the results, not what I do. According to the utilitarian version of consequentialism, if taking one person's life will save two or more others, then we'll do it. The positive articulation: if an action, any action, brings the greatest good to the greatest number than it's good. Period.

Hugh Grant went for a distinct kind of ethics, one based on unwavering duties (technically called a deontological approach). This is straightforward, there are things that are right and things that are wrong. It doesn't matter what the consequences are, if you obey the rules, your actions are ethically justified. Solid duties include honesty (telling the truth), fidelity (remaining true to agreements and oaths), and the duty not to harm others. Since, the argument goes, Hackman the doctor has sworn to help others heal, and since Hackman the person has a duty not to harm others, he cannot justify sacrificing one individual, even if the motive is to save others. Allegiance to these duties explains Hugh Grant's comment at the end that he'd refuse to take the responsibility for one person's death, even if it meant saving the rest of the planet.