The last time my wife and I took our daughter to the zoo, we had a great time.
But while there, I couldn’t stop thinking. Even though this zoo was thoughtfully designed, it seemed that many of the animals, especially the larger mammals, had a certain sadness to them. I wondered if by going to the zoo, I was enabling something that possibly went against my values.
Having just reviewed the Integrity Guide where we explore some basic concepts of Applied Ethics, I realized I was considering this dilemma through the lens of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics refers to moral decisions that are made according to the virtues that a person holds.
In addition to virtue ethics, we cover two other approaches to ethical decisions in the guide:
Deontology refers to moral decisions that are made according to a set of rules or a code of conduct upheld by a religion, profession, country, or other shared group.
Utilitarianism refers to moral decisions that are made according to their “utility” or the happiness they produce; essentially, actions are moral as long as they produce good outcomes for the majority.
Armed with these new perspectives, my inner deontologist got me to consider how this zoo was not breaking any laws. In fact, they were going above and beyond what any governing rules expected of them as a zoo, with spacious, naturalistic habitats, enrichment activities, and a loving staff that seems to really care about the animals’ well-being.
Finally the utilitarian part of me chimed in. It started with an acknowledgment that the zoo is not ideal. It observed how the lives of these animals might be negatively impacted by it. But, it also got me to consider the number of people that a single zoo could inspire. If, as a society, more people learn about and appreciate animals, they might be more willing to help protect them in the wild, possibly even inspiring a future generation of Jane Goodalls. On a grand scale, wouldn’t all animals be better off if humans could see the majesty and importance of living beings beyond our own species?
Reflecting on this was a great reminder that few things are entirely right or wrong.
In everyday moral disagreements, hot takes and sound bites are entertaining, but they prevent us from thinking critically about our own view and from appreciating the many layers of an opposing view.
While I am not prepared to declare virtue ethics, deontology, or utilitarianism as the winning approach, having different lenses to approach the same dilemma allowed me to better appreciate and create space for the nuance of the issue.
To expanding perspective and appreciating nuance,
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