Ethical Systems in Criminal Justice

Plato argued that the idea of “goodness,” or the summum bonum of values, is a virtue even higher than justice (Souryal, 2006). This goodness lights up the minds of human beings and helps them make moral judgments. The idea of natural law, or self-preservation, appealed to both Plato and his student Aristotle, who sought universal qualities in human nature (Souryal, 2006). Originating from the Stoics, natural law signifies a search for moral absolutes that is identified as natural (Pollock, 2007).

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, “provided the first systematic study of ethics in the history of the Western world” (Albanese, 2008, p. 15). In this book, Aristotle proposed the ethics of virtue that is concerned with cultivating virtuous habits. Aristotle suggested the intermediate path, or the golden mean, which strikes a balance between extreme behaviors. He prescribed 10 moral virtues or excellences that are to be cultivated: (1) courage, (2) temperance, (3) prudence, (4) justice, (5) pride, (6) ambition, (7) having a good temper, (8) being a good friend, (9) truthfulness, and (10) wittiness (Albanese, 2008). Because Aristotle’s ethics of virtue was based on the cultivation of habits over time, it did not address the specific issue of ethical dilemmas and moral judgments (Pollock, 2007). There are several ethical systems that explain the ethicality of a moral judgment. Broadly put, the ethical systems can be deontological (nonconsequentialism) or teleological (consequentialism). A deontological ethical system is concerned with the inherent nature of an act, whereas a teleological ethical system is concerned with the consequences of an act (Pollock, 2007).

Deontological Ethical Systems

The most prominent deontologist is Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who propounded ethical formalism. Kant proposed the rational basis of moral decisions and identified that an act based on duty was truly moral. He called this the categorical imperative or the supreme principle of morality, something that one must do, a duty (Close & Meier, 2003; Pollock, 2007). The next is the Golden Rule. This system, found in diverse cultures, proposes the common principle “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Although the reason for this behavior might be based on the consequences of the action, this system is often treated as deontological because it sets forth a fundamental moral principle (Close & Meier, 2003). Religious ethics or the Divine Command Theory believe that God’s word is perfect and that morality is derived from the words of God, whatever the religion of an individual might be (Close & Meier, 2003; Pollock, 2007). The emphasis is on following God’s commands rather than focusing on the consequences of the actions.

Teleological Ethical Systems

The most common teleological ethical system is utilitarianism, founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). This concept was also found in the works of Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873; Albanese, 2008). Utilitarianism focuses on the good or happiness of the majority. Happiness is measured by Bentham’s pleasure– pain principle or the hedonistic calculus, whereby pleasure is sought and pain avoided (Albanese, 2008; Pollock, 2007). An action will be judged by the total amount of pleasure or happiness that will be created as opposed to the total amount of pain or unhappiness that will be created (Close & Meier, 2003). Because the emphasis is on the consequences of an act, utilitarianism justifies bad actions as long as the result is good; in other words, the end justifies the means. Determining whether a specific act is morally right or wrong constitutes act utilitarianism (Pollock, 2007). Rule utilitarianism proposes that an act is morally right if it can be universally applied as a rule that is morally right.

Another teleological system is ethical egoism, which proposes that an action be judged by the greatest good that is produced for the person taking the action. The sole consideration is for the benefit to the egoist. Ethics of care, a feminine ethical system discussed in the works of Carol Gilligan, has found application in restorative justice and rehabilitation of offenders (Pollock, 2007). The focus is on relationships, the needs of the victims, and on reintegrating offenders into society after they have accepted responsibility for their actions. This can be said to be a teleological system, because it is concerned about the consequences of the actions, whether it would serve the needs of those affected by the decision.

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