Monday 10/15

Deontology I

Note that since Quiz III took all of our class time last Wednesday, we'll begin where we left off, discussing Utilitarianism. We may not get to Deontology today, but I've provided the readings below regardless.

Readings

Texts

Notes

Cases

Synopsis

Today we concluded our discussion of Utilitarianism by asking, "are consequences all that matter?" In many respects this is a much more penetrating question to ask of the utilitarian than whether happiness is all that matters. As we saw, all the utilitarian need do is shift how utility gets measured, and there are many possible alternatives available--hedonism, idealism, and preferentialism among them. Asking about consequences is a much more direct challenge, since any utilitarian theory assumes consequences are what matter in moral deliberations to count as utilitarian.

For example, CU assumes that consequences are all that can be used to determine the morality of an action. Yet this is problematic because it gives rise to the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments we took up in class. The utilitarian response cannot be to jettison consequentialism, since that would be to give up on the very idea of Utilitarian Ethical Theory.

It is important to understand the Justice, Rights, and Backward-Looking Reasons arguments so as to appreciate the utilitarian response. Specifically, we found that the utilitarian responds to these arguments by changing from an act-evaluative theory to a rule-evaluative theory. Thus, instead of calculating the utility of alternative actions, we calculate the utility of all actions done according to a specified rule. That is, instead of considering the consequences of a particular action, the rule-utilitarian looks instead at the consequences which accrue from consistently acting according to a particular rule or policy.

Applying a Utilitarian Ethical Theory like Ideal Act Utilitarianism or Ideal Rule Utilitarianism (for example) to determine the morality of an action is non-trivial. To see what I mean, read the following two applications I wrote as examples.

What one discovers in considering these and other applications of utilitarian theories is that:

  • It is generally much harder to apply a theory than one might imagine; theories are not 'moral calculators' or 'black boxes' that spit out a judgment about an action given sufficient input;
  • Rule-utilitarian theories diverge significantly from act-utilitarian theories in terms of how they are applied. In applying act-utilitarian theories, we compare the utility of an action with the utility of each of its alternatives. In applying rule-utilitarian theories, we compare the total utility of a world as much like this world as possible, except that the rule in question is operative in the world, with the total utility of this, the actual world; and,
  • Different measures of utility--e.g., happiness, pleasure, best interests, or preferences--often result in very different implications for action.

Although it may be challenging to apply these various theories without straying from their basic assumptions, it helps considerably that utilitarian analysis is not alien to us: We do it all the time, we just haven't (until now) thought about it in these terms, or made the sorts of distinctions we must on careful investigation.

All that said, we concluded today by considering a series of cases to help illustrate the distinction between applying an act-utilitarian theory and applying a rule-utilitarian theory. Next time we consider an important alternative to the utilitarian proposal that morality is a matter of consequences.