Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, seeks to address questions of morality: right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, etc.
Seeks to answer questions such as:
What is the Good?
What ought we to do?
Are there absolute moral values, or are said moral values relative?
We will be looking at several different philosophical approaches to answering these questions: egoism, hedonism, utilitarianism, and Kant’s deontic ethic
Consequentialism vs. Non-Consequentialism
Two types of ethics: consequentialist and non-consequentialist
Consequentialism says that no act is good or bad in and of itself, rather it is good or bad only in terms of its consequences
A non-consequentialist theory asserts that the empirical consequences of any given act have nothing to do with the moral worth of the act
In other words, actions are right or wrong in and of themselves, not because of any consequences that may result from it
The first three ethics are all consequentialist in nature; only the final ethic is non-consequentialist
Before discussing egoism, it is important to differentiate between two different forms of egoism: psychological and moral
Psychological egoism argues that every act is motivated by self-interest. Humanity doesn’t have a choice – we simply operate this way.
Moral egoism argues that every act ought to be motivated by self-interest. It concludes that acting in self-interest is the best motivator. We have a choice as to whether or not we behave in this manner.
Two key players in egoism – Plato and Thomas Hobbes
Plato believed no one would knowingly operate against their best interests, and those that did were clearly ignorant of what their best interests were
Plato claims that humans are often wrong about what their best interests are
That’s where philosophy comes in – it is the job of philosophy to teach individuals what their best interests are and bridge the gap between psychological and moral egoism
Plato believed that if people came to know which acts are truly in their best interests, then they would pursue those acts
The Egoism of Thomas Hobbes
He is a psychological egoist – believing that egoism is merely a biological fact. We don’t have a choice about the way we behave
Agrees with Plato that philosophy can clarify what truly is in one’s best interest
Hobbes’ view rules out the possibility of altruism
He claims that sacrifice is possible only if one perceives it to be in one’s interest to sacrifice one’s interests
Hedonism is the view that human action is – or ought to be – motivated by the pursuit of pleasure
Credited to Epicurus
He believed that the Good = Pleasure
Claimed that no act should be undertaken except for the pleasure which results, and no act should be rejected but for the pain it produces
Epicurus broke down desires into two main types: natural & vain desires
Vain desires include things such as decorative clothing, exotic foods, etc.
Natural desires break down even further into two subcategories: necessary (food, sleep, etc.) and unnecessary (sexual desires, etc.)
Natural necessary desires must be satisfied and are easy to do so. They result in a good deal of pleasure, and very minimal pain
Vain desires, however, do not need to be satisfied and are not easy to satisfy. Because they tend to have no limits, they very easily become obsessive; resulting in painful consequences
Natural unnecessary desires, such as intercourse, Epicurus advises to stay away from, if possible. While sex is pleasurable, it often leads to a relationship that frequently brings more pain than pleasure
A note: Epicurus’ definition of pleasure is negative. Pleasure is the absence of pain. This helps his philosophy from falling into crass sensualism (which is where some of his followers eventually took it). However, when taken to its logical conclusion, one could rightly conclude that the absence of life is better than any life at all. This is what Freud referred to as Θάνατος (Thanatos), the death instinct ( Θάνατος is Greek for ‘death’).
Utilitarianism is a theory of moral philosophy that is based on the principle that an action is morally right if it produces a greater quantity of good or happiness than any other possible action
It requires us to look at the consequences to determine the morality of an action and claim that the morality of the action depends on the amount of “goodness” that the action produces. In the case of both Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, good = pleasure
All utilitarianism involves a moral calculus as follows:
(Amount of Good Produced) – (Amount of Evil Produced) = “Utility” of the Act
Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism
Father of Utilitarianism
Later criticized by his wayward disciple, John Stuart Mill
Similar to Hedonism, as both center on pleasure as the good
However, Greek Hedonism is essentially egoist in nature; while Utilitarianism is social in nature
Bentham’s Calculus of Felicity
Like Hobbes, Bentham assumes that we humans are all governed by the desire for pleasure and the aversion to pain. He seeks to give advice on how one should pursue the goal of pleasure.
However unlike Hobbes, he did not rule out the possibility of altruism
His advice on pursuing pleasure is called the Calculus of Felicity , made up of seven categories intended to provide a rational analysis of pleasure. Whenever one considers performing any action one can analyze its value in terms of the Calculus of Felicity and contrast it with alternatives
Bentham’s Calculus of Felicity
Bentham claims that there are seven categories to examine when utilizing the Calculus of Felicity :
Intensity: How intense is the pleasure?
Duration: How long does it last?
Certainty: How sure is the pleasure?
Propinquity: How soon will it occur?
Fecundity: How many more?
Purity: How free from pain is the pleasure?
Extent: How many people are affected?
Note: It is this category that makes utilitarianism a form of social hedonism. One must consider the pleasures and pains of other people. This is what allows for the possibility of altruism in utilitarianism.
Bentham’s Calculus of Felicity
Bentham believed that his Calculus of Felicity was actually the schematization of something we do semiconsciously anyway
The 7 th category allows for altruism: if an act will bring a great amount of happiness to a great number of people, then I should perform it, regardless of whether or not it brings misery to me.
In fact, there is even a democratic bias built into it. When it comes to evaluating acts, Bentham subscribes to the “one person, one vote” principle
To quote Bentham, “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnishes more pleasure, it is more valuable than either.”
John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism
Wayward disciple of Bentham
Concerned that a utilitarian might actually conclude that a game of push-pin really was better than poetry
He sought to rewrite utilitarianism in such a way that he would be able to demonstrate that Shakespeare outranked push-pin
J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism
Part of the problem, according to Mill, is the Calculus generates a purely quantitative analysis, and pays no attention to the “quality” of the pleasure
Mill feared that over time, the Calculus of Felicity would gradually erode culture, leaving behind a society of belching, beer-swilling Nascar enthusiasts
In order to combat this “lowering” of culture, Mill differentiated between “lower desires” and “higher desires”
Lower desires (food, sleep, etc.) may be dealt with using the Calculus
Higher desires, on the other hand, may only be discussed in terms of quality – which Mill claimed no calculus could evaluate
Is Mill’s Utilitarianism Elitist?
Unlike Bentham’s utilitarianism, which was democratic in nature, Mill’s version is quite oligarchical (elitist; ruled by the few)
Mill has famously stated, “The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of the cultivated.”
If one must demonstrate “competence” before one is granted a vote, many issues would only allow a small minority the right to voice an opinion
Another problem? How does one define “quality?” Can we even come to a universally-agreed upon schema to determine what ranks as a “lower desire” and what is considered a “higher desire?”
Criticism of Utilitarianism – The Case of Sam
“ Sam, a basically normal, rather nondescript but ‘nice’ human being, goes to the hospital to visit his only living relative, his senile, sick aunt. His visit coincides with five medical emergencies at the hospital. One person needs a liver transplant, another a spleen transplant, another a lung transplant, another a new heart, and a fifth a new pineal gland. Each of the five patients is a tremendously important, much-loved person whose death would bring a great deal of grief and actual physical discomfort to a great number of people. Sam’s death, on the other hand, would be mourned by no one (except possibly his aunt in her lucid moments). The top members of the hospital administration, all strict utilitarians, lure Sam into an operating room, remove all his vital organs, and distribute them to the other needy patients, thereby operating (literally) in accordance with the principle of utility: the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.” Donald Palmer, Does the Center Hold , pg. 270-71
Utilitarianism doesn’t seem so appealing now, does it?
The reason this example is so disquieting is that it appears to go against our intuitive sense of justice
However, since this example is clearly compatible with utilitarianism, either something is wrong with our intuitive sense of justice or something is wrong with utilitarianism.
Which do you think it is?
Many contemporary utilitarians recognize this problem, and have created a distinction between “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism”
Act utilitarianism is the traditional form. It necessitates that one perform the specific act that will produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. In other words, the Calculus of Felicity is utilized to discover what specific acts should be done
Rule utilitarianism argues that the Calculus of Felicity should be utilized to determine the rules that, if followed would produce the greatest good for the greatest number
Even if a particular self-serving lie may go undetected (and therefore causes no one unhappiness), it is nevertheless not appropriate because lying and deceiving in general cause more unhappiness than happiness
Utilitarians believe that this distinction answers the Case of Sam