Kagan: Normative Ethics, Chapter 3
- consequentialists believe that there is only one factor that has any moral significance
in determining the status of an act: the goodness of an acts consequences.
Consequentialists also find a place for the familiar rules of common sense morality as
well- to keep ones promises, not to lie, etc
- alternatively, most people believe that there are several other normative factors with
intrinsic moral significance. In principle, this means that an act might be morally
forbidden even if it yields the best results
- Kagan gives an example: there are 5 sick patients, each needing a transplant of some
sort or else they will die. None can be a donor to another, as their tissues aren’t
compatible. However, Chuck is at the hospital for a checkup and he is a perfect match
for all 5 donors. If Chuck is chopped up, he will die but save the lives of 5 others. If
Chuck doesn’t donate his organs, he will live but 5 people will die. Is it morally
permissible to kill Chuck?
- according to consequentialist theory, it would be. But to most, it’s obvious that it would
not be. Hence, Kagan identifies a second relevant normative factor: the moral status of
an act not only depends on the goodness of its results, but also on whether or not it
involves doing harm to someone.
- the organ transplant case suggests that most people believe that this second
normative factor outweighs the factor of good results.
- common sense morality recognizes a constraint against doing harm, but
consequentialist theories leave no room for this
- Kagan defines deontological moral theories as those which incorporate constraints,
which erect moral barriers to the promotion of the good. Deontologists are those which
believe in additional normative factors that generate constraints, and also assess an act
in terms of its intrinsic character.
- another contrast between consequentialists and deontologists is that deontologists
believe in the priority of right over the good (even though killing Chuck might produce a
greater good, we still shouldn’t do it because it isn’t right). Consequentialists believe that
the good is prior to the right.
- Kagan says that consequentialism is an inadequate moral theory because it permits
too much. This is partly to do with the fact that the theory doesn’t take into account other
normative factors and constraints. 3.2 Thresholds
- how much weight should the normative factor of harm have?
- what if killing an innocent person didn’t just save 5 lives, but hundreds, thousands, or
even millions? Is it permissible to kill the innocent person with so much at stake?
-absolutists would say that it isn’t permissible, even with so much at stake. Most people,
however, would say that the constraint against doing harm can itself be outweighed if
enough is at stake. At some point, when the amount of good that needs to be done is
great enough, the constraint is overridden, and it is morally permissible to act. These
people are called moderate deontologists. They believe that the constraint has a
threshold: if enough good is at stake- if the threshold has been reached or passed- then
the constraint is no longer in force, and it is permissible to harm the person. Moderate
deontology is thus a genuine alternative to consequentialism.
- where is the threshold for the constraint against harming located? Wherever the line is
drawn, moderate deontologists still face the question as to why the line is drawn there.
Wherever it is, it will have to be fairly high. The level of the threshold should depend on
the size of the harm that needs to be done to bring about good results, and will be
sensitive not only to the size of the harm but also the kind of harm involved (i.e. harm to
someone’s property vs taking someone’s life).
- many acts involved the risk of doing harm, even driving a car. What level of risk of
harm is ruled out by the constraint? The level of the threshold is, at least in part, a
function of the size of the harm. Further, the level of the threshold might also be in part
a function of the level of risk. Perhaps acts that run a high risk of causing harm have a
high threshold, while acts that run a low risk have a low threshold. When the risk is low,
the threshold is low and easily met; such acts need only produce a little good in order to
be justified. But acts with significant levels of risk will normally be forbidden: here the
threshold will be high, and so it will rarely be met.
- absolutists reject the existence of threshold for the constraint.
3.3 The Scope of Constraint
- What constitutes doing harm? The natural proposal is: we harm someone when we act
in such a way as to affect their interests adversely. If someone is worse off as a result of
our act, then we have harmed that person. This can be done by adding something bad
into their life or by removing something good; by interfering with the addition of
something valuable, or by interfering with the removal of something bad (i.e. not
allowing a cancer patient to go into chemo) - The question here is how much worse off the person will be- when have we really
violated the constraint?
- Suppose the George is trapped under a fallen tree and he will die unless we free him
by cutting off his trapped leg. Have we violated the constraint? Is the relevant test
whether the person is 1) worse off overall than he would have been otherwise (global
interpretation)? Or 2) whether the person is worse off in some regard than he would
have been otherwise (local interpretation)?
- on the first interpretation, the bottom line is considered: if we save George’s life by
amputating his leg, we haven’t harmed him. The loss of the leg is a lesser evil than
losing his life- our act doe