Wednesday, 7/29

Principles of Moral Normative Analysis

Readings

Notes

Cases

Synopsis

Recall that 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 principle example of contractarian ethical theory.

As we have seen, 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.

Even so, it must be said that although they frequently have implications at odds with one another, there are still 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, help to clarify the various principles.

In discussing the Principle of Nonmaleficence, we considered a few of the troubling Trolley Cases, which pose challenges to our consistency in action and raise questions about how our proximity and human involvement affect our decisions. For more on the issue, here is a delightful BBC-4 animation and explanation.

Delving further into the principles, we took up the case Attractiveness Discrimination in Hiring in the Cases for Analysis collection. I was impressed with the quality of our discussion. We've many tools in our moral toolbox, as it were, and it was encouraging to see so many of them brought to bear on the case. I suppose that is rather the point of the class, at the end of the day.

Lecture Video