Wednesday 10/31

Principles of Moral Normative Analysis





Today we completed our discussion of moral normative theory by considering three major moral normative theories: Utilitarian Ethical Theory, which is really a cluster of consequentialist theories differing in assumptions about utility; Kantian Ethical Theory, which is our sole example of a deontological ethical theory; and Social Contract Theory, which is our principal example of contractarian ethical theory.

To be sure, the application of Utilitarian Ethical Theory, Kantian Ethical Theory, and Social Contract Theory to particular cases varies remarkably in strategy and, sometimes, outcome. It is important in this regard to emphasize that what a theory of morality says about morality shapes how we apply the theory, but it is never the case that a theory should be thought of as, say, a mechanism or black-box that churns out answers to moral problems by turning a crank.

Rather, moral normative theories provide analytical frameworks for circumscribing morally relevant features of particular cases. That is, they give us a scheme to help us think about and better understand the moral dimensions of a troubling case. They sometimes differ in what they say, but they also sometimes agree. The problem is what to do when there is a clear difference between these theories. For then we seem to be forced to make a choice between them, yet it is unclear which theory will ultimately prove itself true. Indeed, it can be argued that at the root of any moral dilemma lies a conflict between two or more moral normative theories.

Fortunately there are also large areas of agreement between Utilitarian Ethical Theory, Social Contract Theory, and Kantian Ethical Theory. In particular, we considered some of the moral principles which seem equally justifiable on Utilitarian Ethical Theory, Kantian Ethical Theory, and Social Contract Theory grounds: Nonmaleficence, Beneficence, Autonomy and its four exceptions (Harm, Weak Paternalism, Strong Paternalism, and Welfare), and Justice and four ways of interpreting it (Equality, Need, Contribution, or Effort). To be sure, this is a lot of material to keep straight. You may find that using the examples we discussed in class, though, helps to clarify the various principles.

The aforementioned are, of course, substantive moral principles. That is, they give us a way of codifying and interpreting the common ground between UET, KET, and SCT. It is important, however, to appreciate that in the end we cannot do away with moral normative theory. At the very least we have to be able to justify these substantive principles.

In addition to the substantive moral principles, we also took up the all-important principles of moral reasoning. The first, the Principle of Sufficient Moral Reason, merely makes explicit the assumption we've made all semester that it is possible to reason about ethics. The second, the Principle of Analogy, is an entirely different matter. As we shall see throughout the remainder of the semester, it is an immensely powerful principle permitting us to extend the conclusions of our theories in very many ways.