XI. Utilitarianism: An Influential Theory in Normative Ethics
A. Normative Ethics vs. Meta-Ethics: A reminder
1. Utilitarianism is not a theory about the meaning of moral terms. It is a very general theory about what is valuable and what we ought to do.
B. A bit of history
1. Early advocates of the theory included Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
2. Utilitarianism played an important role in political thinking in Britain and the United States in the 19th century. It continues to be of major interest to philosophers and political theorists.
C. The central ideas of Utilitarianism
1. An account of what is intrinsically valuable: pleasure (or happiness)
a. Utilitarians construe this very broadly
i. It includes bodily pleasures like those produced by good food and good sex. But it also includes the pleasures (or happiness) produced by having close friendships, seeing one’s family flourish, listening to good music, writing a poem, discovering a new scientific fact, helping someone in need of help, etc., etc.
ii. Utilitarians are hedonists, they are not cyrenaics.
iii. Pain and unhappiness are the opposites of pleasure and happiness. These are intrinsically dis-valued.
b. Intrinsic vs. instrumental value
i. Something valued intrinsically is valued for its own sake
ii. Something valued instrumentally is valued because it leads to something else which is intrinsically valued.
c. Utilitarians acknowledge that many things can be instrumentally valuable, but they insist that only pleasure (or happiness) is intrinsically valuable.
2. An account of how we should act: Utilitarians maintain that there is a single very general moral principle which can always be used to determine how to act. We should act so as to bring about the maximum total amount of happiness in the long run.
a. “Act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is a common, though misleading, formulation of the principle that Utilitarians advocate.
b. This version of the Utilitarian principle is sometimes called “Act Utilitarianism” to distinguish it from Rule Utilitarianism which we will consider a bit later.
3. Clarifying the principle
a. In seeking to maximize total happiness, Utilitarians do not focus on immediate happiness, but happiness in the long run.
i. Some examples:
Forcing a child to go to the dentist will often be justified by the Utilitarian principle because the pain the child feels in the dentist’s chair will be much less than the pain that the child would feel if he did not go to the dentist and his cavities produced toothaches.
Sometimes going to war against a tyrant will be justified by the Utilitarian principle because the suffering caused by the war will be less than the suffering caused if the tyrant remains in power.
ii. Sometimes it can be very difficult to know what will maximize happiness in the long run. Utilitarians do not claim that moral decision making is easy.
iii. What would a Utilitarian say about:
The decision of the US to enter WW II?
The decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki?
The decision to invade Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?
b. In calculating the amount of happiness that an action will bring about, the Utilitarians insisted that everyone’s happiness should be counted and counted equally.
The happiness of the King counts for no more (and no less) than the happiness of a beggar.
The happiness of a white person counts for no more (and no less) than the happiness of a black person.
The happiness of a man counts for no more (and no less) than the happiness of a woman.
i. Obviously, in the context of early 19th century political life, Utilitarianism was a very liberal, indeed radical, doctrine.
c. Utilitarians also insisted that in deciding how to act, a person should count other people’s happiness and their own happiness equally.
d. Some Utilitarians, including Bentham, insisted that all creatures capable of pleasure & pain (happiness & unhappiness) should be taken into account in Utilitarian deliberations.
i. This led a contemporary Utilitarian, Peter Singer, to write Animal Liberation in which he develops a sustained attack on the practice of raising and killing animals for our own gastronomic pleasure.
D. Some implications of Act-Utilitarianism. We’ll consider a range of implications of Act-Utilitarianism, starting with those that many people find acceptable and moving on to those that many people find unacceptable.
1. The Utilitarian case against slavery
2. The Utilitarian case against racial discrimination
3. The Utilitarian view on pre-marital sex; extra-marital sex
4. The Utilitarian view on homosexual sex
5. The Utilitarian view on legalizing marijuana
6. The Utilitarian view on giving to charity
7. The Utilitarian view on giving preference to members of one’s own family
8. The Utilitarian view on unjustly punishing a person to quell a riot
9. The Utilitarian view on Roman Circuses
10. The Utilitarian view on involuntary organ donations
E. Rule Utilitarianism as an alternative to Act Utilitarianism
1. Rule Utilitarianism shares Act Utilitarianism’s hedonistic account of intrinsic value
2. Rule Utilitarianism differs from Act Utilitarianism in applying the idea of maximizing total happiness to rules governing behavior, not to specific actions.
a. The Rule Utilitarian principle is: Act in accordance with the rule which, if universally accepted, would maximize the total amount of happiness
3. How Rule Utilitarianism tries to avoid some of the problematic consequences of Act Utilitarianism
a. Involuntary organ donation, Roman Circuses & unjust punishment: If we adopted rules allowing these, the fear and defensive behavior these rules would cause would lead to great amounts of unhappiness
b. A universally accepted rule specifying that everyone should take care of his or her own family’s needs first, before giving to others, would (??) maximize happiness
c. Other cases are left as exercises: YOU should try to figure out what a Rule Utilitarian would say about legalizing marijuana, pre- and extra-marital sex, etc.
XII. Kant and the Categorical Imperative
A. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804)
1. A central figure in the history of modern philosophy
2. His important books include the Critique of Pure Reason & the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 3. Never traveled more than 100 miles from his hometown of Königsberg (then the capital of East Prussia; now Kaliningrad, Russia)
B. Kant on the role of reason in ethics
1. Many people in Kant’s time (and today) thought that knowledge of the correct principles of ethics came from God
a. either via direct revelation (as in the Bible or the Koran)
b. or via a “moral sense” implanted in us by God
2. Kant disagreed
a. He thought that the correct moral principles could be derived by using the faculty of reason without any help from divine revelation
b. So for Kant, ethics is similar to logic and mathematics because the true principles of ethics can be discovered by reason alone
C. Kant’s “Categorical Imperative”
1. What it says
“Act only according to that maxim by which you can a the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
2. What it means
a. There is a “maxim” associated with each action we do or contemplate doing
b. The maxim is the rule we follow if we perform the action (or would be following if we were to perform the action)
c. Ask whether you would be willing to have everyone follow that rule on every occasion where the rule applies
i. If so, then in Kant’s jargon, you would be willing to have that action become a universal law
d. If the answer to the question asked in (c) is YES, then the action is morally permissible
e. If the answer is NO, then the action is not morally permissible
3. How it works: The example of lying
a. Suppose you are in a situation where it would be to your advantage to tell a lie
b. The maxim is: It is morally permissible to lie.
c. This maxim can’t be “willed to be universal law”
i. If everyone followed the maxim, then lying would become impossible
ii. For lying to be successful, people must generally believe that others tell the truth
iii. And if everyone followed the maxim, then people would stop believing this
4. Generalizing the example
a. Kant believed that a systematic normative ethics could be generated by using the Categorical Imperative
b. This would be a set of rules specifying what one was morally required to do and what one was morally prohibited from doing
c. These rules would focus on the nature of the action in question (e.g. keeping a promise, stealing, murdering, giving to charity) not on the consequences of action
i. Philosophers call normative ethical theories which focus the nature of the acts being evaluated, rather than on the consequences, DEONTOLOGICAL theories
ii. Ethical theories, like Utilitarianism, which focus on the consequences of the action are called CONSEQUENTIALIST theories
D. Critique of Kant
1. Kant assumed that for each action there is only one “maxim”
a. If the action is a lie, then the maxim is: It is permissible to lie.
b. But often an action can be associated with many different maxims
c. Example: The Case of the Inquiring Murderer
i. Lying might be associated with all of the following maxims
(a) It is morally permissible to lie
(b) It is morally permissible to lie when there is a high probability that it will save a life
(c) It is morally permissible to lie when there is a moderate probability that it will save a life
(d) It is morally permissible to lie when it will avoid substantial suffering
ii. Maxims (b), (c) and (d) all pass the Categorical Imperative test
d. So in this case, the Categorical Imperative test seems to lead to inconsistent advice
2. If this problem is a general one – applicable to most or all cases in which we want to know whether an action is morally permissible – then the Categorical Imperative test is useless.
3. Can this problem be avoided?
a. This is one of the questions tackled in a course like PHIL 108 – Introduction to Ethics
XIII. Virtue Ethics: A Revival of Some Aristotelian Ideas
A. From 1800 to 1960, Utilitarian Consequentialism and Kantian Deontolgy were the dominant normative theories among philosophers
B. In the last 50 years, there has been a growing movement, called “Virtue Ethics” which was inspired by Aristotle’s moral philosophy
1. Many contemporary philosophers have embraced versions of Virtue Ethics. Some of the leading figures in the Virtue Ethics movement are Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nusbaum & Rosalind Hursthouse
C. A Central Idea of Virtue Ethics: The focus of moral theory should not be on the evaluation of action but on the evaluation of a person
1. The most important thing a moral theory can tell us what is required to be a good or virtuous person
2. Utilitarianism evaluates actions by their consequences; Kantian ethics evaluate actions by appealing to moral rules
3. Virtue Ethics evaluates actions by asking: What would virtuous person do?
D. Hursthouse’s version of Virtue Ethics
1. Acts are right or wrong depending on whether a virtuous person would chose them
2. An person counts as virtuous if s/he has and exercises all the virtues
3. Virtues are qualities of character that a person needs in order to attain “eudaimonia” (= overall well-being or a good life)
a. Eudaimonia is the BASIC concept in this version of Virtue Ethics
b. Different views about what a GOOD LIFE is may lead to different views on which traits of character are virtues
and that moral education should be aimed at inculcating these virtues
F. In recent years, a number of psychologists and philosophers have argued that if virtues are taken to be robust character traits that lead people to be honest or courageous or compassionate in a wide range of appropriate circumstances, then Virtue Ethics is in trouble, because humans do not have robust character traits and there is no reason to think that we can acquire them
1. This debate is one of the most exciting examples of the way in which issues in moral theory have become intertwined with cutting edge research in the cognitive sciences