Philosophy 2800
Week Three

Three Ethical Theories

Suppose, for the moment, that we have decided moral objectivism is true.  (See notes from week one for a reminder about what objectivism is.)  All this means is that we think there are some objective moral facts.  We still need to figure out what those facts are.  What we're going to consider here are some theories that try to tell us how we can do that.  Even if you don't find any of the theories convincing, you'll probably find keeping them in mind helpful when you try consider a particular ethical issue.

The Theories:

1. Consequentialism
2. Deontological (Duty-based) Ethics
3. Social Contract Theories

1. Consequentialism

Consequentialists maintain that the moral status of an action (i.e., whether the action is morally right or wrong) depends on the action's consequences.  In any situation, the morally right thing to do is whatever will have the best consequences.

Notice that this theory isn't very informative unless it's combined with a theory about what the best consequences are.

Utilitarianism, the most influential form of consequentialism, provides us with such a theory.

The 'Founders' of Utilitarianism
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
The Basis of Their Approach:  ask what has intrinsic value and assess the consequences of an action in terms of intrinsically valuable things.
Instrumental Value - a thing has only instrumental value if it is only valuable for what it may get you (i.e., if it didn't get you that thing, you wouldn't value it) - e.g., money

Intrinsic Value - a thing has intrinsic value if you value it for itself (i.e., you'd still value it even if it won't get you anything else)

What, if anything, has intrinsic value?  Some common suggestions are:  knowledge, virtue, justice, love.  What do you think?  Are these things intrinsically valuable?

(Note:  it's conceivable that some things have both intrinsic and instrumental value.  Some would argue that knowledge is instrumentally valuable - 'knowledge is power' - but also intrinsically valuable (because it's a good thing to have knowledge even if it doesn't get you anything.))

What Utilitarians Think Is Intrinsically Valuable:  happiness
(Actually, not all utilitarians agree that happiness is quite the right way of putting this.  Some other common suggestions are satisfaction, well-being, pleasure.  We're not going to worry about this, however.)
This leads Utilitarians to present the following theory of what's right and wrong.
John Stuart Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle:  "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." (67)
Note:  When Mill speaks of happiness, he doesn't just mean the happiness of the person acting, instead, he means the happiness of everyone affected by the action.  In other words, utilitarianism is an impartial ethical theory.  It requires us to maximize the total amount of happiness (and minimze the total amount of unhappiness) to whatever extent is possible.

Notice too that Mill's rule is a little vague.  For one thing, it's not clear whether Mill means (i) an action is right if this sort of action tends to promote happiness or (ii) an action is right if this particular action will promote happiness.

If you believe in version i, you're a Rule Utilitarian.
If you believe in version ii, you're an Act Utilitarian.

2. Deontological ('Duty Based') Ethics

Deontologists deny that what ultimately matters is an action's consequences.  They claim that what matters with regard to whether an action is right or wrong is why the action was done. What matters is doing our duty.

There are many varieties of deontlogical ethics (e.g., The 'Golden Rule' - "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you").

1. Kantian Ethics
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the most influential deontologist.
Rejecting Consequentialism:  "A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes." Even if by bad luck a good person never accomplishes anything much, the good will would "like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself."
Kant's ethical theory is enormously influential and highly complex.  However, the following rough summary will do for our purposes.
Kant claims that all our actions should be judged according to a rule he calls the Categorical Imperative.  He formulates this rule in a couple of quite different ways.  Perhaps the two most important are:

(a) The Categorical Imperative (First Version):  "Act only according to that maxim [i.e., rule] whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

In other words, acts are right only if the rule you follow in acting is universalizable (i.e., if it could be made into a universal law).
e.g., telling a lie whenever you need to borrow money is morally wrong because this sort of act is not universalizable.  If everyone acted this way, the whole practice of promising to repay a loan would collapse.
Notice that, by taking a universal approach, Kant agrees with Utilitarianism that ethics should be impartial.  Everyone matters equally.
Is this something every moral theory should agree on?
(b) The Categorical Imperative (Second Version):  "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means."
In other words, we should always act so as to treat people as having intrinsic value, not just instrumental value.
e.g., telling lies is wrong because when you do so, you treat the person as a means to some end - you don't respect him or her as an intrinsically valuable, rational person.
This focus on the importance of seeing ourselves and others as autonomous, rational agents is a central feature of Kant's view.
A Big Question Raised by the Previous Two Theories:  In the end, what matters more:  consequences or principles?


3. Social Contract Theories

Basic Idea:  there is an implicit social contract between a citizen and the state he/she lives in such that the citizen is obliged to obey the moral and legal rules of the state (even when he or she would rather not).

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is one of the key thinkers in this tradition.

Hobbes' Version of the Social Contract

The State of Nature
Hobbes imagines what he calls the state of nature, a condition in which there are no laws and no government.

Everyone is free in the state of nature, but, everyone is also motivated by self-interest, it turns out to be a very unpleasant place.

'the struggle of all against all'.

Life there is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The way to escape is by giving up the absolute freedom of the state of nature and accepting limits on our freedom in exchange for others accepting the same limits on their freedom.

Governments are thus created as part of a social contract that gets us out of the state of nature. Only then does morality enter the picture according to Hobbes.

For Hobbes, a strong central ruler is required in order for the contract operate properly, but not all social contract theorists agree.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.)  in part based his decision to remain in Athens, an early Greek democracy, and accept a death sentence on the idea of a social contract.  He imagines the laws of Athens speaking and teling him that:

"We have given you birth, nurtured you, educated you, we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could. Even so, by giving every Athenian the opportunity, after he has reached manhood and observed the affairs of the city and us the laws, we proclaim that if we do not please him, he can take his possessions and go wherever he pleases. We say, however, that whoever of you remains, when he sees how we conduct our trials and manage the city in other ways, has in fact come to an agreement with us to obey our instructions. ..." (from Plato's Crito)

Group Work: Come up with a problem and a virtue for one of the three above theories.  (Each group will be assigned one of the theories in class.)

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