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Ethical Theories: Introduction Nanoethics Lecture II

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1 Ethical Theories: Introduction Nanoethics Lecture II
Roderick T. Long Auburn Dept. of Philosophy

2 What Are Ethical Theories?
Explain what makes an action right or wrong Ethical theories vs. particular ethical judgments Analogy with scientific theories and observations

3 Some Kinds of Ethical Theory
Consequentialism Deontology Virtue Ethics Contractarianism Natural Law Relativism Divine Command Ethics

4 Consequentialism The rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by its consequences

5 Consequentialism Example: utilitarianism
The right action is the one that promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number (maximizes social utility)

6 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

7 Consequentialism Another example: ethical egoism
The right action is the one that promotes the greatest happiness of the agent (maximizes the agent’s utility)

8 Two Ethical Egoists Benjamin Tucker ( ) Ayn Rand ( )

9 Deontology The rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by inherent features of the action itself, or by an inherently valid rule

10 “The end doesn’t justify the means.”
Deontology If an action is of the wrong kind, it is forbidden, no matter how good its consequences are Rejects both Utilitarianism and Ethical Egoism “The end doesn’t justify the means.”

11 Deontology Example: Kantianism
Right actions must be universalizable and must treat rational agents as ends, not mere means (trade-offs forbidden) Immanuel Kant ( )

12 Kant’s Deontology Universalizability: must be possible to will the principle of your action for everybody without inconsistency. Lying violates universalizability because lying presupposes and exploits a general practice of telling the truth

13 Kant’s Deontology Ends, not mere means: don’t treat rational agents (others or yourself) as mere objects to be used or exploited. Personhood is the basis of ethical value and can’t be subordinated to other values. Mustn’t sacrifice the few even to benefit the many.

14 Virtue Ethics The rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by the character traits it expresses Emphasize what kind of person you should be

15 Virtue Ethics Examples: Aristotelianism, Confucianism Aristotle
( BCE) Confucius (

16 Virtue Ethics Virtue-ethicists tend to side with deontologists against consequentialists – though not always

17 Contractarianism The rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by whether rational people do, or under appropriate conditions would, agree to it Example: John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance (about which more later on)

18 Natural Law A body of legal or quasi-legal precepts that:
are based in human nature, not convention can be ascertained by human reason set the standard for, and take precedence over, manmade laws

19 Natural Law “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ …

20 Letter from Birmingham Jail
Natural Law “… Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

21 Natural Law Natural law theories
1. often combine deontology & virtue ethics 2. are sometimes theologically based (Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Martin Luther King) …

22 Natural Law … but not necessarily so (Hugo Grotius, Lysander Spooner)

23 Natural Law … but not necessarily so (Hugo Grotius, Lysander Spooner)

24 Example of a Natural Law Theory
The doctrine of double effect (Aquinas) – If an action has two results, one good one bad, it’s permissible only if a) the good outweighs the bad [consequentialist component] and b) the bad is only foreseen, not intended [non-consequentialist component] Actions individuated by their intentions

25 Example of a Natural Law Theory
So collateral damage OK (civilian deaths foreseen but not part of plan) Dresden/Hiroshima not OK (civilian deaths part of plan) Too strict for many consequentialists Too permissive for many deontologists

26 Relativism The rightness of an action depends on the approval of some person/group/culture. Allows conflicting moralities: such-and-such is right for group A (because group A approves of it) but wrong for group B (because group B disapproves of it).

27 Relativism (What most philosophers regard as) bad arguments for relativism: relativism will make us tolerant (but the Nazis were relativists) cultures disagree about moral values (but they disagree about scientific facts too) ethical disagreements can’t be settled (but what’s wrong with reflective equilibration?)

28 Divine Command Ethics What makes an action right is the fact that God commands it. (As opposed to the view that God commands things because they are right already.) A form of relativism?

29 Divine Command Ethics Problems for divine command theory:
- A perfect being would have good reasons for whatever she commands – but DCE seems to make that impossible - Is it possible to praise God if DCE is true? - God must already be good before she commands, so goodness isn’t reducible to divine commands

30 Divine Command Ethics Defense of divine command theory:
How could God be subject to moral standards he didn’t create? Reply: the standard of morality might be God’s nature rather than God’s will (Thomas Aquinas, c )

31 Ethical Theories and Ethical Standing
What has ethical standing? - individuals? - communities? - non-human animals? - plants? - the non-living environment?

32 Ethical Theories and Ethical Standing
Kantianism: rational agents only (cruelty to animals bad only because it tends to make you the sort of person who’ll be cruel to people) Contractarianism: only those beings that can enter agreements

33 Ethical Theories and Ethical Standing
Utilitarianism: those beings who can feel pleasure or pain (“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham) Virtue ethics: whatever beings a virtuous person would care about! Divine Command: whatever beings God cares about!

34 Applying Reflective Equilibration to Ethical Theories
Case study: Utilitarianism Advantage: simplicity (analogy with superiority of Newtonian over Aristotelian mechanics) Disadvantage: potential conflict with existing norms

35 Simplicity in Science: Aristotle vs. Newton
Apple falls, moon doesn’t: why? Aristotle: two kinds of matter with different principles of motion. Terrestrial matter has a naturally vertical motion; celestial matter has a naturally circular motion

36 Simplicity in Science: Aristotle vs. Newton
Newton: same laws of motion apply to both. Simplicity: if two theories explain the same phenomena equally well, the one that posits fewer explanatory principles is better.

37 Simplicity in Ethics: Utilitarianism
We ordinarily think beneficial results are one ethical consideration among others. Utilitarianism offers to explain the same range of ethical phenomena equally well by appealing solely to consequences. This would make it a superior theory – if in fact it explains them equally well. Does it?

38 A Question for Next Time!

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