O'Connell, Sean - Reason and Ethics

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.


In Decisions and Dilemmas: A Primer in Ethical Theory, Sean O’Connell introduces principles of reasoning and categories of ethical argument. These are offered as an introduction to philosophy, specifically the subdomains of critical thinking and applied ethics (O’Connell, 1994). Each of these two models reflects the structure of concern. They are described in turn below.

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O’Connell’s introduction to critical thinking presents the following four principles that philosophers are said to use when evaluating arguments (presented in PAEI order):

P – The Principle of Rationality
A – The Principle of Objectivity
E – The Principle of Coherence
I – The Principle of Clarity

P – The Principle of Rationality
Claims must be supported by reasons, and only the best possible reasons. If there is no valid link to evidence that will back the claim, there is no reason to pay attention to it. Scepticism and the immediate rejection of weak arguments are implied.

A – The Principle of Objectivity
The reasoning should be good for everyone. No matter where you are, if you accept the premises, you can repeat the reasoning to arrive at the conclusions without disagreement. The reasoning is acceptable to all parties. The pre-emptive avoidance of dispute is implied.

E – The Principle of Coherence
Claims must be either true or false, not both. If a body of ideas sometimes affirms two incompatible truths (violating the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle), then a higher-order argument needs to be constructed to clarify this anomaly and rectify the entire body of thought. Synoptic or higher-order argument structures are implied.

I – The Principle of Clarity
Conclusions and their warrants should always be presented in the clearest possible language, so that consensus regarding their meaning and import can be reached. The mutual orientation of many agents around a common ground of shared representations is implied.

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In addition to these principles of informal reasoning, O’Connell further offers a typology of normative ethical theories that also falls along the lines of the structure of concern.

P – Teleological theories
A – Deontological theories
E – Virtue and Character
I – Contractarianism

P – Teleological theories
Acts and rules are defined as right or wrong by virtue of the outcomes they bring about. Includes utilitarianism and other consequentialist theories. It is easy to justify violating a rule or procedure in this framework if the most ethical outcome seems to require it.

A – Deontological theories
Acts are right or wrong to the degree to which they respect or violate moral rules or maxims. Defining the rule properly can be a delicate procedure, but once it has been accepted as right then it is always wrong to violate it. Following the rules becomes everyone’s moral duty, even if the consequences are unpleasant or sub-optimal at times. Following the rule has a value in itself which far compensates for the aversive outcome.

E – Virtue and Character
Virtue theories define ways of being that lead to the most satisfying kinds of human life. Rules, standards and the outcomes of actions are all of minor or conditional interest in the cultivation of a form of being that produces goodness. Unethical behaviours emerge out of vices or defects of the self that cause the agent misery and the desire to remedy them. Perfection of the self is the pathway to goodness, on this view.

I – Contractarianism
Immorality emerges naturally during periods of social disintegration and chaos, in the contractarian view. This is overcome by a collective commitment to compromise individual freedoms and live according to a set of rules that can be enforced. By this means the interests of all are integrated with each other in ethically appropriate ways. Contractarianism finds expression in both economics and political science as well as philosophy, and now supports a very elaborate literature.

At his point it may be worth pointing out that O’Connell’s four ethical categories here map closely onto the four categories of the Ethical Awareness Inventory, put out by the Williams Institute for Ethics and Management (WIEM). This inventory defines four ethical styles, where people judge moral goodness according to: P-Results, A-Obligation, E-Character, I-Equity.

Taken together, O’Connell’s two typologies provide a point of entry for analysing concern structure dynamics within these two sub-domains of philosophy.

Bibliography
1. O’Connell, S. (1994). Dilemmas and Decisions: A Primer in Ethical Theory. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada.
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