Wednesday 7/17

Utilitarianism I





Having concluded our discussion of Moral Theology last time, we find ourselves in something of a bind.

  1. Either Moral Relativism is true or Moral Theology is true.
  2. Moral Relativism is not true.
  3. Therefore, Moral Theology is true.

Yet our Standards of Evaluation (Clarity, Coherence, and Reflective Equilibrium) were almost as unsparing with respect to Moral Theology. That is, the Standards dismiss Cultural Ethical Relativism and Subjectivism as possibly true moral normative theories, but if morality is not relative it must be absolute in some sense of the word. The usual place to find ethical absolutes is in religion, yet the Standards also reject Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory.

At this point it is tempting to throw one's hands up and protest that we simply have no idea whether any good reason can ever be given for the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. If we cannot have recourse to supernatural sources for moral norms, how shall we find them in the natural world? Didn't Hume, after all, teach us that we can't?

One response to is to argue that (1) is a false dilemma, which simply means that we have to find some further alternative to both Moral Relativism and Moral Theology.

Put simply, 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 went on today to catalog the rather interesting properties of Classical Utilitarianism. We argued in particular that CU's assumption that happiness is the sole intrinsic good (eudaimonism) may be problematic, since it can be argued that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good. Indeed, it would seem that such things as honor and friendship are also intrinsic goods, given our arguments. Responding to this objection often consists of changing the measure of utility. If happiness is not the sole intrinsic good, then we reject happiness as the measure of utility. Possible alternative measures are pleasure (hedonism), kinds of pleasure (qualified hedonism), best interests (idealism), or preferences (preferentialism). By changing how they measure utility, the utilitarian is able to meet the criticism that happiness is not the sole intrinsic good by developing what amount to alternative utilitarian ethical theories to CU. Utilitarianism thus shows us that the idea of utility is rich indeed.

So happiness may not be all that matters, but utilitarianism understood as an approach to developing ethical theory has available to it many alternatives. What all the resulting utilitarian theories share in common, however, is a commitment to the view that morality is fundamentally a matter of consequences. When we ask about the morality of an action, we are really asking whether it has good or bad consequences. Yet we must ask, are consequences really all that matter? We'll take up that question next time, in advance of the second examination.