Ethical decision making is a popular field of study. Whether the goal is to strengthen one’s personal moral compass or to behave in a more ethical manner at work, philosophers have developed many different ideas about how the process should proceed.

One popular school of thought is termed “individualism.” This approach argues that you should make decisions based on what ethically motivates you as an individual.

individualism approach to ethical decision making

This approach is contrasted with the “collectivism” model, which aims to allow a broader social ethic to influence one’s ethical decisions.

Individualism is often portrayed as more effective in achieving our moral goals than the collectivists’ approach, but are these depictions correct? Or have individualism and collectivism been unfairly pitted against each other?

How ethical decisions made through individualism: 5 examples

Ethical decision making is a process of reasoning out how to achieve your moral goals. Within individualism , there are two components:

  1. The ethical motivation(s) which drive our choices.
  2. The ethical judgments we apply to the situation to determine the best course of action for us.

Example 1: How to make ethical decisions about poverty

Poverty is a common moral issue with which many people struggle. Individualism says that you should make your ethical decisions based on what motivates you as an individual.

Poverty is a common moral issue with which many people struggle. Individualism says that you should make your ethical decisions based on what motivates you as an individual.

For example, many people are motivated by empathy to help the poor. When we imagine ourselves in their shoes, we feel compassionate about their suffering and want them to have better circumstances. And so, when we believe that there are opportunities to help the poor, we may be more likely to take them (e.g., donate money or time).

Example 2: How to make ethical decisions about harm

Another common moral issue is harm. For example, if you damage someone’s property, you may be motivated by a desire to correct the problem. Or perhaps you are angry with them and want to punish them.

In these situations, individualism gives us one clear answer: Don’t do anything bad. The temptation is there for us to respond with retribution or revenge, but we’re told that these can lead to negative consequences (e.g., violence). So harming someone without a good reason is unethical.

Example 3: How to make ethical decisions about fairness

Another common ethical consideration is fairness. Fairness is a broad principle that has two aspects: equality and impartiality.

Equality means that everyone should have the same chance to do whatever they want. For example, if you are competing against someone else for a job, or you are bidding against someone else buying your house, you should not be treated differently because of your race or gender.

Impartiality means that we shouldn’t treat people differently based on our personal feelings toward them. For example, there is a disproportionate number of female judges in our legal system compared with how many men are actually convicted of crimes. However, only doing gender-fair trials can discriminate against men who may be guilty, and may also be harmful to the female defendants’ mental health.

Individualism says that making decisions based on what motivates you as an individual will yield better results for society than relying on a broader social ethic. So, in practice, you should avoid biased decision making.

Example 4: How to make ethical decisions about human rights

Many issues connected with human rights are also highly political. In some cases, this is because you are dealing with an issue that is considered “controversial” and difficult to resolve, like abortion or euthanasia. In other cases, it might be because the issue has been used as a pretext to oppress others (e.g., slavery). For example:

Abortion: Should abortion be legal or illegal? Abortion can be both a woman’s right and her risk of death.

Euthanasia: Should a person be able to choose when they die? Is euthanasia an act of compassion or is it murder?

Human rights: Is torture ever acceptable against terrorists during an interrogation? Or is it always immoral and unjustified?

These kinds of decisions are typically made by politicians and should be decided solely on the basis of “rights and wrongs,” not whether some politician is more likely to support your position than another’s. So individualism says that you should make these kinds of decisions based on what motivates you as an individual, not a “favored pollster. “

Example 5: How to make ethical decisions about the environment

Environmental issues are often very political as well. For example, should we regulate the dumping of toxic waste in the ocean? Should we build new highways through environmentally sensitive areas? Should we use more energy in order to save us from global warming?

These kind of decisions can seem complicated. But individualism says that you should make them based on what drives you as an individual. Back to first do no harm , it is important to think about the consequences of your actions on those who can be affected.

What individualism means for society

Individualism can be traced back to early philosophers like Hobbes and Locke who thought that a society where everyone was free and equal would benefit society’s members. However, in the last few decades, the idea of individualism has been challenged as an ideal by behaviorists, egalitarians, and communitarians.

Behaviorists are attached to the idea that we should “think well.” Egalitarians believe that we should divide society into those whose needs are equal and those whose needs are unequal. Communitarians are concerned with people’s identity and loyalty to their group.

There are 4 major criticisms of individualism.

1. People’s needs are unpredictable

It is common for people to have different needs at one time. For example, you need a job to pay the bills and feed your family. At other times, you might need exercise or friends, or help with schoolwork. Bad weather and small children can also create a challenge. You also may not be able to predict how your needs will change in the future.

Individualists think that this makes it difficult for us to make ethical decisions based on what motivates us as individuals. For example, if you were the only person on a desert island, only you would have to decide if it was ethical for you to lie down and take a nap, or just go to school. But in the world we live in, there are many others who have different needs and desires from your own.

2. Our needs can’t be satisfied by ourselves alone

Individualists believe that we are naturally social beings who rely on other people to fulfill our needs. For example, there are many things we need that we can’t provide for ourselves. These include education, healthcare, nutrition and shelter. Individualists think that by having these needs met by other people, you can achieve a better quality of life than if you had to do everything yourself.

3. Our decisions are made based on what will benefit us and those we care about

Individualists believe that this is a much better idea than relying on someone else to make your decisions for you. It allows us to make ethical decisions that benefit both ourselves and others, which is not always possible if you are relying on someone else. For example, some jobs are not very attractive but they allow you to earn enough money to live on.

4. Our decisions can be improved through education and experience

Individualists think that giving people the freedom to make decisions for themselves will lead to better outcomes than making decisions for them. So they contend that a society that lets everyone make their own decisions will be more ethical than a society that tries to impose ethical standards on people.

Individualists also feel that each person will have the experience and knowledge to make better decisions after they are given the freedom to do so. For example, if you are free to learn all about bike riding but your parents don’t let you, then you probably won’t know enough to start biking when you get older.

Conclusion

Ethical decisions in the workplace should always be made by and for individuals. However, the ethical ideas that individualism advocates can help you think about how an individualist believes humans can achieve a better life. For example, you might realize that being kind to others has a greater effect on your personal life than being kind to yourself. Therefore in some areas of your life, it would be best to be selfish and in other areas, it would be better to be selfless.

Individualism is also about respecting the rights and choices of others. So you should use your individualism to think about how your decisions affect them as well. Then you can make ethical decisions that lead to a better life for everyone involved.

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