What is “good”? How does a person decide what is good? Over the course of history, various thinkers have tried to develop systems which guide human thought on this question. Some of the most important ethical theories are the “normative” theories — that is ethical theories which try to establish authoritative standards by which conduct can be judged. Under the general heading of “normative,” two of the most important schools of ethical thought are the “consequentialist” and the “deontological schools of ethical thought. (“Normative Ethics” n. d. )
Consequentialism is the school of thought which asserts that the morality of a given action is to be judged by the consequence of that action. If the consequences are good, the action is good. Consequentialism is generally divided into a number of theories, including: utilitarianism and ethical egoism. Utilitarianism holds that the right action is one that produces the greatest good/pleasure (and least pain) for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism has its root in the seminal figures of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick.
Classic utilitarians developed a system which is could best be described as “hedonistic act consequentialism. ” Their system was “consequentialist” in that its proponents claimed that an act is morally right if the act causes the greatest good. To calculate this, one had to compare the total amount of good that the act caused, minus the total amount of bad that the act caused. If the net total net amount of good was greater than this net amount of good for any other act that the agent might have performed, then the act was good.
Their system was “hedonistic,” in that they claimed that pleasure was the only true “good” and pain is the only true “bad. ” This system was summed up in the common statement, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number. ” (Kemerling, 2002; Hollinger, 2002, p. 31-34: “Normative Ethics,” n. d. ; Lee, 2000, “Utilitarianism”; Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006) As Mill articulated this system, utilitarianism was consequentialist rather than deontological because included certain key points of denial. Utilitarianism denied that the moral rightness of any act depended on anything other than the consequences of the act.
This left the utilitarian system open to attack because of the hedonism it advanced. (Hollinger, 2002, p. 34-36; “Normative Ethics,” n. d. ; Kemerling, 2002; Lee, 2000, “Utilitarianism”; Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006) From the beginning, critics of hedonism attacked utilitarianism. They criticized John Stuart Mill as trying to degrade the value of human life to an animalistic level. One of the more commonly used arguments was that vulgar acts, such as orgiastic sex might produce greater transient pleasure than some disciplined higher act such as studying fine poetry. (Hollinger, 2002, pp.34-36: “Normative Ethics,” n. d. ; Kemerling, 2002; Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006)
Mill tried to respond to these charges by setting up a distinction between lower and higher qualities of pleasure. (Mill, 1861, 56) This did not satisfy Mill’s critics, who contended that in the end, utilitarianism supported hedonism. Critics find these systems overly technical and confusing, and utilitarianism fosters an “end justifies the means” line of reasoning. Further utilitarianism does not accept the notion that some acts are absolutely ethically wrong, so that potentially it can be warped into a system justifying any means.
Hollinger, 2002, pp. 34-36; “Normative Ethics,” n. d. ; Kemerling, 2002; Lee, 2000, “Utilitarianism”) Egoism is the view that a moral person is a self-interested person. The primary exponents of ethical egoism, include Epicurus, Adam Smith, and Ayn Rand. Critics charges that the ethical system of Epicurus leads to an austere hedonism. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” would cause the most productive state of an economy to be reached by allowing all of the people in the economic unit each to pursue his own self-interest.
Ayn Rand professed a view of rational self-interest, saying that altruism was irrational. (Hollinger, 2002, pp. 28-31; “Normative Ethics,” 2002; Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006) Deontological ethical theory takes its name from the Greek root “deon,” meaning “that which is obligatory. ” It is ethical theory based on a concept of duty or obligation. Turning then to principled ethical systems, stem from Socrates, who felt himself duty bound to accept the ruling of the court in Athens, which had ordered him put to death.
From Socrates, one can move ahead to Immanuel Kant, whose philosophical system led to his system of the “categorical imperative”: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end, and never as a means only. ” To develop his “Categorical Imperative,” Kant looked to the roots of morality in humanity’s rational capacity and meticulously developed a system based on moral absolutes. He argued that these are inviolable duties, rules which must be followed absolutely and in every possible situation. (“Normative Ethics,” n. d. ; Hollinger, 2002, pp.37-39)
Another school of deontological thought is the contractarianistic school exemplified by John Rawls or Thomas Hobbes. This theory asserts that moral acts are those act that all people would agree to if they were completely unbiased. (“Normative Ethics. ” n. d. ) Finally, there are philosophers such as John Locke, also considered deontological, who presented the idea that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights. (“Normative Ethics. ” n. d. ) Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) set forth what is generally accepted as the most advanced theory of deontological or duty-based ethics.
Contrary to the consequentialism of Mill, Kant’s theory judges morality by examining the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than the goals sought or the ends achieved. To describe this in general terms, this deontological theory focuses on the inputs leading to actions rather than outcomes produced by those inputs. This does not mean that Kant did not care what the outcomes of his actions were. Like other men, he wished that things would go well. But Kant insisted that as far as the moral evaluation of our actions was concerned, consequences did not matter. (Hollinger, 2002, pp. 37-39; “Normative Ethics,” n. d. ; Kemerling, 2002)
In his philosophical studies, Kant tried to establish a rational principle that would stand as a categorical imperative for ethical judgments. He insisted that the imperative, or duty, had to be categorical, not merely hypothetical, or conditional, because true morality could not depend on such things as individual likes and dislikes, abilities, or opportunities. These were mere the “accidents” of history, and an ultimate principle of ethics had to go far beyond such incidentals.
Eventually, Kant developed his categorical imperative, which he articulated in several different versions, including: Always act in such a way that you can also will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law. and Act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means. The first version of the categorical imperative emphasizes an idea important to Kant’s thinking of the idea that any rule was valid only if it could be applied universally. The second statement of the rule stresses the importance of respecting persons as more important than things.(Kay, 1997)
Deontological ethical theories are strongest in the areas where utilitarian theories face the greatest difficulty. Ethical rules based on duty have the great advantage that the ends can never justify the means. For example, suppose a ruler wished to revive the Roman practice of public crucifixion of criminals. Even if it was determined that the general populace was so caught up in a blood lust that the pleasure of the masses who would watch the agonies of the condemned far, far out-weighed the suffering of the victim, the categorical imperative demands that individual human rights be acknowledged and held inviolable.
No matter how much the public wants this spectacle, it must be dismissed from our moral deliberations. (Hollinger, 2002, pp. 38-39: Kay, 1997) Putting Kant’s categorical imperative into practice, however, has presented a number of serious problems. First, the categorical imperative gives only absolute results. Actions are “good” or “bad. ” There is no room for “gray areas. ” For example, lying is always wrong — even the “polite lie” or the lie told for noble reasons. Second, duties often come into conflict, and the categorical imperative gives no means to resolve these conflicts.
Utilitarianism permits a ready comparison of all actions, and if a set of alternatives have the same expected utility, they are equally good. Conflicting duties, however, may require that I perform logically or physically incompatible actions, and my failure to do any one is itself a moral wrong. (Hollinger, 2002, p. 39: Kay, 2002) Because neither theory is satisfactory in its pure form, I am compelled to use a blend in real life. I follow a utilitarian approach in the sense of trying to maximize the good that I bring to people, but with an awareness that there are categorical situations beyond which I will not go.
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