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Moral Theories.doc

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PHIL 435
Patrick Findler

Normative Ethical Theories What is a normative ethical theory? A norm is a rule or principle. An ethical norm is a moral or ethical principle. A normative ethical theory is a theory that attempts to specify correct moral principles. Toward this end, normative ethical theories attempt to answer the following basic questions: What makes an action (institution, policy, etc.) morally right or wrong? What makes a person morally good or bad? To illustrate, consider the theory called ethical egoism. Ethical egoism holds that what makes an action right is that it is in your self-interest. This answer implies the following moral principle: Any action that is in your self-interest is morally right. Now, I don’t think this is a correct moral principle. (Can you think of counterexamples to it?). But it helps to illustrate the 1 aims of a normative ethical theory is. The theory purports to tell us what makes actions right (or wrong). In doing so, the theory provides us with a moral principle, which we can then use as a basis for arguments about what is morally right (or wrong). For instance: 1. Any action that is in my self-interest is morally right. 2. Taking your wallet is in my self-interest. 3. Therefore, taking your wallet is morally right. (This is not a sound argument, of course, but it illustrates the role of moral principles in moral arguments.) Look carefully at the structure of this argument … The principle stated in premise 1 tells us what feature makes an action right. Premise 2 states that the act in question has this feature. And these points together logically support the conclusion that the act in question is morally right. Normative ethical theories are therefore important, because they provide the general moral principles we need to support our moral views. 2 We’ll now consider several of the most important and influential normative ethical theories. These theories do not agree on what makes an action right or wrong (or a person good or bad). So we’ll need to try to determine which of the theories is most plausible. 3 Utilitarianism This is perhaps the most influential moral theory of the past couple of hundred years. As we’ll see, Peter Singer offers a utilitarian argument against eating meat and experimenting on animals. 1. Utilitarianism – The Basic Idea The greatest happiness for the greatest number. We are morally required to maximize overall good. Different versions of utilitarianism offer different accounts of "the good". 2. Classical Act Utilitarianism This is the version of utilitarianism proposed by its founders, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. CAU is the view that: The right thing to do in any situation is the act that will produce the most pleasure (happiness) for all concerned. This view can be “unpacked” in terms of the following three claims: 4 (i) Consequentialism: Actions are right and wrong solely in virtue of their good or bad consequences. (ii) Hedonism: Pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good; pain is the only thing that is intrinsically bad. (iii) Equal Consideration: Everyone’s pleasure is equally important. 3. Objections to CAU One set of objections focuses on the hedonistic component of CAU. Nozick’s Experience Machine The “Laughing Students” objection Another set of objections focuses on the consequentialist component of CAU. The “Transplant” objection The general problem this objection illustrates is that CAU seems to permit – even require – unjust acts. A third set of objections focuses on the principle of equal consideration. 5 Kantian (Deontological) Ethics Consequentialist moral theories, such as utilitarianism, hold that actions are right (or wrong) solely in virtue of their good (or bad) consequences. German philosopher Immanuel Kant strongly rejects this idea. He holds that actions are right or wrong independently of their consequences. According to Kant, An act is right if and only if it is in accordance with our duty. But what is our duty? To answer this, Kant offered a fundamental moral principle, which he called the Categorical Imperative (CI). An imperative is a rule – e.g., Don’t lie, Keep your promises. To say that an imperative is categorical, is to say that it is unconditional and absolute. There are several different versions of the CI. One of the most important and influential formulations of the CI goes like this: Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. 6 So what makes an action right, according to Kant, is not that it has good consequences. Rather, what makes an action right is that it is in accordance with our duty. And the CI tells us that our basic duty is to always treat others as ends, and not simply as a means. To see what he means by this, we need to back up a bit. According to Kant, human beings have inherent worth or dignity – they have value in-themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, contribution to society, etc. Humans have this inherent worth because they are rational agents – that is, beings who can freely choose their own goals and guide their conduct in accordance with reason. Respecting the inherent worth of persons requires that we treat others
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