Tuesday 2/19

Utilitarianism I

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Synopsis

Recall that our challenge at this point is to find a non-relative, non-theological moral normative theory, since neither alternative, Divine Command Theory or Natural Law Theory, is plausible in light of the Standards of Clarity, Coherence, and Reflective Equilibrium. Today we got started on the first of three major moral normative theories which attempt to provide this alternative.

Utilitarian Ethical Theory (UET) is a cluster of theories all of which start from the notion that the morality of an action is determined by its consequences. Crudely put, right actions have good consequences; wrong actions have bad consequences. Exactly how we determine the good in good consequences or the bad in bad consequences is a problem for axiology, or the study of value. We might argue, for example, that happiness is the sole intrinsic good, where intrinsic goods are those goods sought for their own sake and extrinsic or instrumental goods are sought for the sake of something else. If happiness is the sole intrinsic good, then those states of affairs which bring about greater happiness are intrinsically more valuable than states of affairs which do not. If, further, we seek to maximize happiness by our actions for the greatest number considered equally, we have the core idea of what we shall call Classical Utilitarianism (CU). We'll have much more to say about all these points next time.

Taking Classical Utilitarianism as our starting point, today we fleshed out the theory and provided an example of its application. We then considered the various properties of Classical Utilitarianism, noting in particular CU's assumption that happiness is the sole intrinsic good (eudaimonism).

We did not, alas, make as much progress today as I'd hoped. Nevertheless, I think it important to grasp the fundamental shift in understanding ethics Utilitarianism requires. Whether that shift stands up to critical scrutiny is a problem we'll take up next time. We'll begin by further exploring the basic properties of CU and describe some of the Reflective Equilibrium challenges the properties pose for utilitarians. Note that utilitarians are clever. They will have responses to these challenges, and in giving them they develop alternative utilitarian theories to the original CU.