Lecture 3:  Introduction to Ethical Theory II



Moral Objectivism: What is morally right or wrong doesn’t depend on what anyone thinks is right or wrong.


'Moral facts' are like 'physical' facts in that what the facts are does not depend on what anyone thinks they are. 


OK, but what are those facts?


2 Theories:  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.


This isn't very informative unless we also have a theory about what the best consequences are.


Utilitarianism 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.


Intrinsic vs. Instrumental Value


Instrumental Value - a thing has instrumental value if part of the reason you value it is because of what it may get you


Many things have only instrumental value

i.e., we only value them because of what they can get us

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 didn't get you anything else


Intrinsic Value


What, if anything, has instrinsic value?







Note:  Some things may have both intrinsic and instrumental value. 


Utilitarians on Intrinsic Value


What Utilitarians Think Is Intrinsically Valuable: 


Happiness (roughly)

Some other common suggestions: satisfaction, well-being, pleasure, welfare.

Use ‘utility’ as a word captures the idea we’re after here


Utilitarians combine the idea that utility is the only thing with intrinsic value with the basic consequentialist idea that we should do whatever has the best consequences


The Basic Utilitarian Principle


The Greatest Happiness Principle:  "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." (John Stuart Mill)


Note:  Mill doesn't just mean to refer the happiness of the person acting, instead, he means the happiness of everyone affected by the action. 


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.


Varieties of Utilitarianism


1. Cost-benefit Analysis

 Quantify all benefits and harms of an action in monetary terms

Quantify the cost of the action

Choose the action that is likely to produce the best overall return in relation to cost

Problem:  Reducing all outcomes to cost


This approach is really just a special case of Act Utilitarianism


2. Act Utilitarianism


Calculate the total cost and benefit (in terms of utility) of the possible actions available to you

Remember this is the cost and benefit to all concerned

Choose the action that produces the greatest overall return in terms of utility


3. Rule Utilitarianism


Some object that some very troubling sorts of acts could be justified on the act & cost-benefit approaches to utilitarianism


e.g., polluting an isolated area


For this reason, rule utilitarians focus on following rules that will, when generally applied, give the best return in terms of utility


i.e., focus is on the utility of the general rule, not of particular acts


Problems with Utilitarianism


1. How can we know all the consequences of an action?

2. How can we compare utility from person to person?

3. Do we include all generations?  All species?

4. Will utilitarianism lead us to repugnant conclusion?


E.g. should we pollute a small region if this will increase overall happiness?


Consequentialism vs. Deontology


Deontologists deny that what ultimately matters is are the consequences of actions or rules.


They claim that what matters with regard to whether an action is right or wrong is what kind of an action it is.


What matters is doing our duty by doing the right sorts of act.




A central element in many deontological theories is the idea of autonomy


Autonomy = self + rule


Roughly, the idea is that people must be respected as autonomous agents.

This means there are certain ways we must not treat people (no matter how much utility might be produced by treating them in those ways)

Text: deontology = “respect for persons” approach


Varieties of Deontology


The Golden Rule Approach


Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – Christian


What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man - Jewish


No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself – Muslim




A Problem with the Golden Rule Approach


What if you’re OK with being cheated?


Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you is a scary rule if you’re a masochist.


We seem to need a special shared viewpoint from which to assess what we do and don’t want done to us.


Kantian Deontology


Named for the great German philosophy Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


Note:  this approach combines both what the text calls the self-defeating criterion and the rights approach


Kant claims that all our actions should be judged according to a rule he calls the Categorical Imperative


The Categorical Imperative


Version 1: "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 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.


The Categorical Imperative


Version 2: "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 mere means to some end


Rights protect people from being used as mere means.


Problems with Deontology


1. If we don’t rely on consequences for moral justification, then why are the kinds of actions condemned by Kant (etc.) wrong?

2. When are people being used as mere means?

3.Isn’t it sometimes right to sacrifice one for many?


The Age Old Dilemma


In the end what matters more:  results or principles?


Consequentialists say ‘results’

Deontologists say ‘principles’


Neither view seems quite right, but then do we just make it up as we go along?


Remember what the road to hell is paved with…


The Good News


We don’t have to try settling this issue


But you should be aware of both ways of analyzing a problem situation