What’s the link between George Bush and the ACCA exams next month?

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George W Bush is a controversial figure.  Two years after leaving office, his policies during his presidency of the United States still stir controversy, both within the USA and around the world.

He has just published his autobiography.  Perhaps surprisingly, he appears to be rather frank in his admission that he personally authorised the use of “water boarding” techniques, in which the subject believes themselves to be drowning.

Although no permanent physical damage occurs in this process, it’s designed to be traumatic. The current US president, Barak Obama has banned its use.

The justification given by the former president for authorising the use of torture was that he believed that the information extracted from the subjects of this process saved lives elsewhere.

We’re not commenting on whether we agree with this or not as an ethical standpoint.

For people taking an ethics exam, such as ACCA paper P1, this could be an interesting example of ethical stances and especially the difference between deontological and teleological (consequentialist ethics).

President Bush’s viewpoint is an example of utilitarian teleological ethics.

In teleological ethics, the rightness or wrongness of the action is assessed by investigating its consequences.  Utilitarianism looks at the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.  So if great, but non-lethal, suffering of one person saves the life of another, it’s justifiable, even if the act itself may be repugnant to some people.

Compare that with deontological ethics and particularly the three maxims of Emmanuel Kant.

In deontological ethics, water boarding is probably never justifiable.

Deontology looks at the rightness or wrongness of the action itself, regardless of its consequences.  It would be possible to express a duty (“imperative”) if it passes the three maxims of Kant:

Consistency: Would it be possible for everybody to follow the rule of “no waterboarding”?  The answer here seems to be yes.

Respect for human dignity: Does the rule respect the dignity of others.  A no torture rule easily passes this test.

Universality: Would it be possible for somebody to understand that breaking the rule would bring the disapproval of society as a whole?  Again, the answer here is yes.  If torture were universally accepted as wrong, it would be possible for a violator of that rule to anticipate society’s disapproval.

There are no conclusions to this article.  It’s just pointing out an example of the two different ethical approaches and how we are each prone to prefer one over the other in different circumstances.

It could be a good example for people taking the P1 exam to use if asked to explain the differences in the deontological and teleological approaches to ethics.

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