What motivates a person to dedicate their life to a cause? Some people seem to have an intrinsic motivation and drive to commit their time and resources in support of a cause. Often, we might say that the person has a sense of duty toward it, that they are dedicated to it because they feel it is the right thing to do. Others do not do it out of a sense of duty, but instead are motivated by their own personal conscience and value systems. For whichever the case may be, causes seem to provide individuals with a real sense of purpose and therefore, open an avenue to a much more meaningful existence.
In support of the theory of ethics philosopher, Peter Singer, a cause has to have an ethical component for it to be considered not only worthwhile, but to provide meaning to life. Mr. Singer provides us with an example which I will paraphrase here. He argues that if we look at our commitment to a cause such as a football club, the less value we will see in it. The value of our commitment to a football club can, in a sense, be exchanged for any other thing we value which has no ethical component. When we analyse the limits of the ‘football cause’, we see that neither its purpose nor affect contributes much for the greater good of society or individuals in it. It may create pleasure and happiness for football lovers, but it does not account for the greater happiness for all. Its overall ‘worth’ can easily be reduced. The reason for this is that it has no intrinsic ethical component. In contrast, we can never reduce an ethical cause in such a way as it will always be worthwhile in itself. Their moral purpose makes them substantially more valuable than other causes.
We might assume then that dedication to an ethical cause is always a worthy and valuable action. Not just because it has the potential to contribute to the greater good of society, but also because it provides a valuable source of purpose for the individual. This is the great attraction, because the individual experiences a greater sense of purpose by being part of the cause and in turn, life becomes more meaningful. However, it is how we define moral action which influences the types of causes we may be attracted to or motivated to join.
In very simple terms, we can distinguish what drives a person to an ethical cause by two methods. First, we can look at the philosophical position of the person – this forms the foundation of the decision. Second, we can attempt to determine what affect working for a cause has on the individual’s sense of purpose and therefore, what meaning it might provide. Both have the moral component, but grounded in a different sense of reasoning and perspectives. In the broadest sense, we can say that the philosophical position which defines the act can be distinguished between those adhering to a type of utilitarianism, and those based on deontological principles. Within moral philosophy, the two principles have various levels of degree and form. For the purpose of this discussion, I will refer to the most common and simple definitions by which these principles are most commonly understood.
A utilitarian decides that an act is worthwhile and moral if the outcome of the act contributes to the betterment of the greatest number. In other words, acts are moral if they result in the increase of happiness and the reduction of suffering. Therefore, the ethical principle is concerned with consequences of actions and/or, the predicted outcomes. If an action will lead to greater happiness for someone or for many or if it will reduce the suffering of one person or many, then the action is considered right. On the other hand, we have the deontologist. For them, morality is grounded in an absolute set of rules which should not be broken. Therefore, moral acts are those which conform to these rules, immoral acts break the rules. Therefore, the morality or ethically right action can be viewed as objective and separate from the individual. Sometimes, but not always, deontology is linked with what is known as the Divine Command Theory. This is where our moral rules are believed to be situated within religious teaching and scripture. Correct ethics follows the moral code and conforms to the rules of the bible and religious authority.
In each case, these two philosophical approaches to morality are concerned with determining an ethical action. However, in many respects, they are diametrically opposed. The guidelines for morality for utilitarianism are usually assessed based on past and predicted consequences of an action, whereas the deontological response is to follow the action which is written or based on rules regardless of what the predicted outcome will be. The deontologist makes their ethical decision by conforming to the moral rules of the society at all costs. Being rules based, the motivation to conform to these rules comes from obligation and duty. An action is moral and right if it follows the rules. However, the utilitarian views an action as moral and right if it results in increased happiness and is therefore willing to shun rules or moral religious codes to make it happen. In this respect, it is goal based and is driven by the individual’s desire for positive outcomes.
Now that we have determined the philosophical foundation of our moral choices, we can determine how each position motivates an individual’s choice of ethical cause. To illustrate, one example will be driven by utilitarian principles, the other; deontological.
Greenpeace International is an example of an ethical cause which is goal based and therefore, has its foundations in the utilitarian philosophy of moral action. They promote peaceful and positive action to effect change to preserve our environment and wildlife. Their broad goal is to save the planet from environmental destruction. However, they do not always follow the rules as it is often reported that they illegally board whaling ships. For the utilitarian, the rules are not always priority. The right moral decisions are those which have the potential to increase positive outcomes and prevent suffering. Therefore, breaking the rules may be necessary to carry out what is morally right. Individuals who join Greenpeace are driven by an innate sense of responsibility for our planet. This sense of moral responsibility is not about following an objective moral law, but reflects morality based on an intrinsic set of values and a personal desire to make positive change. Therefore, the cause satisfies goal based outcomes and the personal values of the individual.
Another example of an ethical cause is the Right to Life movement. This cause has deontological foundations where moral or ethical actions are decided from rules, mores and religion. This example is one that clearly derives its purpose from Christian based principles. An action is ethically right if it follows the rules outlined in the bible or from church authorities. Therefore, scripture or religious teaching must be obeyed regardless of the consequences. Break these rules, and your actions are morally wrong. Individuals joining this movement may do so out of their sense of duty and obligation to the rules or to the church. They are motivated by their sense of doing what they consider to be right by conforming to these rules. By respecting the moral rule against killing under any circumstances, they believe that the cause contributes to the good of society. However, because the morality is absolute, the cause does not necessarily have outcomes which aim for increased happiness for all. However, for the deontologist, the cause fulfils the individual’s values in relation to God’s principles. The motivation comes from the belief that God’s rules are right and therefore, conformity to them must be right. Although such a cause obviously gives members an enhanced sense of purpose in their life, it is questionable whether they are expressing their morality through innate and intrinsic values or whether it is just an exercise in duty and obligation. It seems that the weakness in this approach to morality lies in the blind dedication to rules because we cannot say that conforming to rules regardless of outcome is either rational or good. The potential for negative outcomes for individuals and society is not eliminated at all because consequences are not the concern; it is adherence to the rules which is important. Therefore, this ethical cause does not necessarily contribute to a happier society. For the Right to Life member, the greater good is achieved through doing God’s work by saving a life. Therefore, the member certainly gains a sense of purpose from the activity, but the activity can only be considered worthwhile in the objective sense to those who are religious since the principle behind the cause is drawn from these moral rules.
In conclusion, we have seen how the different positions, the utilitarian and deontological, begin with different objectives to achieve a moral action. Duty and obligation are the sources of motivation for the deontologist; a desire to increase the greater good for the utilitarian. We can also see how these initial positions influence the type of ethical causes we might join. What is clear is that not all ethical causes can be deemed as equally worthwhile. Although each cause is attempting to make the world a better place, we can see that the each has the potential to produce very different outcomes. Moral action based on deontological methods has its limitations. The deontologist may join their cause out of their duty to either God or the rules. They may gain an increased sense of purpose through doing so, since encouraging conformity to the rules is the objective. However, it is questionable whether this method of moral philosophy could be preferred since it does not necessarily contribute in any way to the greater good of society. In fact, that is not even the goal.
The utilitarianism has a wider scope in that it has positive objectives for the greatest number of people. In addition, the freedom from ‘absolute’ morality makes moral decisions much more autonomous and adaptable to differing circumstances. For the utilitarian, one joins a cause out of an inner personal necessity or drive which needs to be satisfied; one based on conscience and individual concerns. Rules can be broken if it is possible to get morally satisfying outcomes by doing so. And, since it is a goal based principle, the application becomes worthwhile in a much wider, objective sense. This philosophical approach to ethics not only accommodates the individual’s moral conscience, but in principle, stands for offering a better society for the greatest number of people.