University of Kansas, Spring 2003
Philosophy 161: Introduction to Ethics, Honors

Class notes: normative ethics

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. EMP, chapter 6: “Ethical Egoism”
    1. section 6.1: “Is There a Duty to Help Starving People?”
      1. Ethical egoism says that each person ought to maximally advance his or her own self-interest.
      2. This theory is related to psychological egoism, but different in a crucial way.
        1. The phenomenon to which it refers—that of an individual maximally advancing his or her own self-interest—is the same phenomenon to which psychological egoism refers.
        2. But it refers to it in an entirely different way. Whereas psychological egoism is a descriptive theory (claiming that people do behave in a certain way) ethical egoism is a prescriptive theory (claiming that people ought [morally] to behave in a certain way). One can be an ethical egoist without being a psychological egoist, and vice versa.
      3. Some things to notice about ethical egoism:
        1. It does not just say that, from the moral point of view, one’s own welfare counts as well as that of others. Rather, it says that, from the moral point of view, only one’s own welfare counts, and others’ does not, when one is making a moral decision about how to act.
        2. Ethical egoism does not forbid one to help others, or require one to harm others. It just says that whatever moral reason you have to help others, or not harm them, must ultimately stem from the way in which so treating them helps you.
        3. Ethical egoism does not say that one ought always to do what is most pleasurable, or enjoyable. It acknowledges that one’s own self-interest may occasionally require pain or sacrifice.
    2. section 6.2: “Three Arguments in Favor of Ethical Egoism”
      1. first argument
        1. The first argument is based on the claim that “looking out for others” is self-defeating: that is, when we try to help others, it’s usually worse, overall (i.e., for all of us), than if we pursue our own interests.
        2. The problem with this argument is that it contradicts the core idea of ethical egoism, by resting ultimately on a principle of benevolence rather than genuine egoism. That is, it endorses ethical egoism only as a strategy for pursuing some other value—apparently overall well-being; it does not endorse ethical egoism as the fundamental principle of morality.
      2. second argument
        1. The second argument involves the observation that a purely altruistic approach to ethics would be overly demanding, by treating each person as a means, or resource, for other people, and thus fails to respect the integrity and independence of the individual human life.
        2. The problem with this argument is that there are other approaches to ethics that are, in a sense, “between” ethical egoism and pure altruism. For example, our ordinary, “common sense” approach to morality rejects ethical egoism without being as demanding as a purely altruistic approach would be.
      3. third argument
        1. The third argument is that ethical egoism provides the best explanation, and unifying principle, for the various moral duties that we think we have, such as the duty to tell the truth and keep our promises.
        2. One problem with this argument is that ethical egoism does not explain all of the moral obligations we think we have. It does not example, for example, why we one not to break a promise when it would be to one’s advantage to do so. A second, and deeper, problem with this argument is that it suggests that the only, or most fundamental, reason one has to treat other people well is that it would be beneficial to oneself to do so. This clashes with our intuitive conviction that even when treating others well is to our advantage, there are deeper, non-self-interested reasons, for treating them in that way.
    3. section 6.3: “Three Arguments against Ethical Egoism”
      1. first argument
        1. One argument against the theory is that the theory does not provide a way to adjudicate conflicts of interest. For example, if my interest is opposed to yours, then ethical egoism—by telling each of us to maximally pursue his or her own interest—does specify some compromise that we ought (morally) to agree to; it just tells each of us to do his or her best, and then whatever happens, happens. And yet many people think that a moral theory ought to resolve our conflict in some principled way. The thought here is not that a moral theory will provide a resolution to our conflict that each of us will be perfectly happy with (indeed any compromise is likely to be non-ideal for each of us, by requiring some sacrifice of interest); the thought is just that a good moral theory will have something more to say about a conflict of interest we have have than just telling us, in effect, to fight it out for ourselves.
        2. In reply to this complaint, the ethical egoist might say that this hope that many people have, for a morality that will settle conflicts of interest in some other way than saying “fight it out for yourselves,” is a misguided one: that the best account of morality (ethical egoism) just will not serve this function that many people (misguidedly) think morality ought to serve. Whether this reply succeeds depends, ultimately, on one’s view of how important this function (of providing principled resolutions of conflicts) is to the role that morality is supposed to play.
      2. second argument
        1. Another argument against ethical egoism is related to the first, in that it also involves ethical egoism’s refusal to offer a compromise in cases of conflicts of persons’ interests. But this argument differs from the first in that the complaint of this second argument is not just that ethical egoism refuses to adjudicate cases of conflict, but that ethical egoism actually has contradictory implications. The claim is that in telling me to maximally advance my interests, the theory is also implicitly telling you not to stand in the way of my advancing my interests; and this latter injunction conflicts with what the theory also tells you, namely, that you ought to maximally advance your interests (which, we have supposed, conflict with mine).
        2. This argument requires the assumption that when ethical egoism tells me to maximally advance my interests, it is also telling you not to interfere with that. But this does not follow from ethical egoism. What ethical egoism tells you to do depends entirely on your interests (just as what it tells me to do depends entirely on my interests). It simply tells you to maximally advance your interests, regardless of how that may affect my interests. The theory may counsel conflicting courses of action, but it does not tell any one of us that doing something (such as maximally advancing one’s own interests) is both right and wrong.
      3. third argument
        1. The previous two objections to ethical egoism are, in a sense, structural rather than substantive: that is, they are concerned not so much with the content of the theory, but with the way in which its structure prevents it from playing the role that many people think a moral theory should play (the role of providing logically consistent, principled resolutions of conflicts of interest). A third objection, though, is substantive: concerned with the content of the theory.
        2. This objection is very simple. It begins with the observation, or (if we regard it as at all controversial) the claim, that there is no morally relevant difference between oneself and others, generally. Then it moves to the inference that, because of this, one is not entitled to give special treatment to oneself in making moral decisions any more than one is entitled to give special treatment to members of one’s race or one’s sex. So, if this is true, then what ethical egoism allows—indeed, requires—each person to do (i.e., give absolute priority to oneself) is just flat-out immoral.
    4. true or false?
      1. If a person is an ethical egoist, then he or she is also a psychological egoist.
      2. If a person is a psychological egoist, then he or she is also an ethical egoist.
      3. If a person is an ethical egoist, then he or she believes that he or she ought never to compromise his or her own self-interest.
      4. If a person is an ethical egoist, then he or she believes that he or she ought never to advance others’ interests.
  2. EMP, chapter 7: “The Utilitarian Approach”
    1. section 7.1: “The Revolution in Ethics”
      1. According to utilitarianism, in any given circumstance, the right act is the one that produces the most welfare, for all creatures capable of faring well or badly, from now onwards into the indefinite future.
      2. So, utilitarians deny that the source of morality is to be found in
        1. divine commands
        2. other general rules (such as the ten commandments would be if they were not said to be God’s commands)
        3. natural law
      3. It is useful to think of utilitarianism as being a conjunction of (I owe this “factoring” of utilitarianism to Geoffrey Scarre)
        1. consequentialism: The rightness and wrongness of acts depends entirely on their consequences.
        2. welfarism: What makes consequences good is that people and other animals capable of faring well or badly are faring well: their welfare is raised or enhanced. Welfare is perhaps most often understood in terms of happiness, but there are other interpretations as well.
        3. universalism: The welfare of everyone capable of having welfare (capable of faring well or badly) counts, and counts equally.
        4. aggregation: The way in which everyone’s welfare counts is by being lumped together into one total.
        5. maximization: Once it’s (conceptually) lumped together into one total, welfare is to be made as large as possible: this is what right acts do.
    2. section 7.2: “First Example: Euthanasia”
      1. It is part of the Christian tradition, and widely believed, that intentionally killing an innocent person is unequivocally wrong.
      2. The utilitarian approach, though, involves weighing the costs and benefits of the specific act of euthanasia being contemplated and then doing it if, and only if, doing it has a greater balance of benefits versus costs than not doing it.
        1. In a typical case, the benefits of euthanasia involve the end of suffering for the person being euthanized.
        2. The costs involve less time that person has alive (if being alive is any benefit to them at all), less time for others to enjoy or benefit from that person being alive, and a possible lessening of the respect for life that we have in society.
        3. So utilitarians will approve of some acts of euthanasia and disapprove of others, depending on the intensity of the person’s suffering, how badly others want them to remain alive, the effects on other people’s respect for life, and any other consequences having to do with sentient creatures’ welfare.
      3. It is an interesting puzzle for those who believe that God both (1) is benevolent and (2) disapproves of euthanasia to explain what sort of good God wishes for us if it includes suffering that could be relieved by euthanasia. The resulting explanation would be an interesting challenge to, or non-standard interpretation of, utilitarianism's “welfarism” component.
      4. On social issues generally, utilitarians tend to be fairly liberal. This is because they tend to think that if some act (such as sex, or watching pornography, or doing drugs) doesn’t substantially affect other people besides the ones directly involved, the the way to maximize overall welfare (conceived of as overall happiness) is to let people do what they want, since people tend to want to do those things that make them happy.
    3. section 7.3: “Second Example: Nonhuman Animals”
      1. It is part of the Christian tradition, and widely believed, that animals have no moral standing: that the only moral reasons for not harming animals stem from the moral standing of humans. They are believed not to have moral standing because they are not rational (in the way that humans are), because they cannot speak (in the way that humans can), and/or simply because they are not human.
      2. Utilitarians, however, deny that these factors are relevant to moral standing. On the utilitarian view, something gets moral standing just by being able to suffer (or, put not so drearily, by being able to be happy).
      3. This does not mean, of course, that nonhuman animals are to be treated just like humans. Since the differences among humans and nonhuman animals result in differences in capacities or susceptibilities to experience enjoyment or suffering, and since enjoyment or suffering is ultimately what matters (according to utilitarians), many differences in treatment are acceptable. For example, it is not the case that we ought to provide education to cats, as we ought to provide it to humans, because (as far as we know) cats cannot benefit from education in the way that humans can. And we need not provide food and shelter to bears, because they (unlike humans) seem to do all right in the wild.
      4. Utilitarianism does imply, however, that there are some radical changes that must be made in contemporary western practices. For example, we must reduce the amount of suffering involved in animal experimentation and (on a much larger scale) factory farming.
  3. EMP, chapter 8: “The Debate over Utilitarianism”
    1. section 8.1: “The Classical Version of the Theory”
      1. Rachels focuses on three components of the theory:
        1. consequentialism
        2. welfarism (understood in terms of happiness)
        3. universalism (also known as impartiality)
      2. Each of these is examined and challenged in one of the next three sections.
    2. section 8.2: “Is Happiness the Only Thing That Matters?”
      1. Most utilitarians believe that a person’s welfare is determined by how happy he or she is, over the course of his or her whole life. This view is known as hedonism. Hedonism, then, is a specific version or interpretation of welfarism. Note that, as understood here, hedonism is not the view that “base” pleasure is all that matters, or that only short-term consequences matter. Hedonism as understood here encompasses all sorts of things that make people feel good, and takes the long term as well as the short term into account. Rachels presents two cases that challenge the plausibility of hedonism.
        1. One challenge to hedonism is conveyed in the example of the injured piano player who, because of her injury, becomes unhappy. According to hedonism, what’s bad about this situation is that the woman is unhappy. If she were not made unhappy by her injury, then the situation would not be bad; the injury itself, until it raises or lowers someone’s welfare (= happiness), is morally neutral. One might challenge hedonism by saying that the injury itself is bad, and that the woman’s reaction of unhappiness is simply an appropriate response to this already-bad situation.
        2. A similar challenge to hedonism is conveyed in the example of the person whose “friend” constantly ridicules him behind his back. If the person never finds out about this, and has his happiness impaired by his “friend’s” betrayal in no other way, then hedonism implies that the person is just as well off—is faring just as well—as if the other person were loyal and respectful. One might challenge hedonism by maintaining that one is harmed by being ridiculed to others, even if it never comes back and affects one’s own state of mind.
      2. The idea underlying these challenges to hedonism can be put like this: Is how a person feels—the “felt quality” of his or her experience, or how his or life feels “from the inside”—all that ultimately matters, as far as his or her well-being is concerned? Or, on the contrary, can a person’s well-being be affected by things that never have any upshot for the felt quality of his or her experience? A thought experiment to explore these questions: Nozick’s experience machine.
      3. In response to these challenges to hedonism, some utilitarians stand by it, as the best version or interpretation of welfarism. Others, finding the challenges to hedonism too serious to tolerate, adopt different accounts of welfare (such as objective-list accounts and preference-satisfaction accounts). We will not worry about these other views.
    3. section 8.3: “Are Consequences All that Matter?”
      1. The previous section dealt with challenges to utilitarianism’s welfarist component—or, to be more precise, with challenges to most utilitarians’ hedonistic interpretation of welfarism. This section deals with challenges to utilitarianism’s consequentialist component. Note that these challenges are logically independent of the previous ones: a person could accept welfarism and even hedonism while rejecting consequentialism, or accept consequentialism while rejecting welfarism or hedonism (or both).
      2. Rachels discusses three objections to consequentialism.
        1. One has to do with justice. The example of the person who must bear false witness in order to bring about the best possible results shows that a consequentialist theory may, on occasion, require a person to behave in a way that will bring about serious injustice.
        2. A second objection has to do with rights. Consequentialist theories permit people to violate others’ rights, as long as their so doing has benefits that outweigh the costs to the person whose rights are violated (and the costs to anyone else harmed by the rights violation, of course, if anyone else is harmed).
        3. A third objection has to do with what called backward-looking reasons. If you promise something to someone and then would rather not keep your promise, then consequentialism says you don’t have to keep it, as long as the inconvenience to you of keeping it is greater than the inconvenience the other person will suffer if you don’t keep it. Of course, in estimating the inconvenience of the other person, you have to take into account the fact that if you don’t keep your promise, then they may well be very disappointed, because you promised, but once you’ve taken the promise into account in terms of benefits and harms to the persons involved, the promise has no further moral weight (according to consequentialism). The fact that you promised is a backward-looking reason, and consequentialist theories—being concerned, of course, with consequences—are exclusively forward-looking.
    4. section 8.4: “Should We Be Equally Concerned for Everyone?”
      1. Whereas sections 8.2 and 8.3 dealt with welfarism (understood in terms of happiness) and consequentialism, respectively, this section deals with utilitarianism’s universalism, or impartiality: the view that everyone counts equally, from the moral point of view.
      2. Rachels discusses objections that challenge the plausibility of this component of utilitarianism.
        1. One objection is that utilitarianism's commitment to impartiality makes it too demanding. By requiring us always to maximize overall welfare, it implies that we are acting wrongly whenever we spend time or money on ourselves or other people close to us instead of on the most needy people that could benefit from our time and money (since they presumably stand to gain more from our time and money than other, better-off, people).
        2. A second objection to utilitarianism is that its commitment to impartiality forbids us to have and to act on strong personal relationships such as the ones that most people think are extremely important. It implies that one ought not to benefit one’s spouse or child if one can, with the same cost, benefit others more—even if the other people are strangers, and the benefit to them is only slightly greater than the benefit to one’s spouse or child.
    5. some cases to consider
      1. the deathbed promise: $2 million to the Yankees, as promised, or to famine relief?
      2. the trolley problem: cause one death in order to avert five?
      3. the transplant problem: as before, cause one death in order to avert five?
    6. section 8.5: “The Defense of Utilitarianism”
      1. One reply to the foregoing objections is to claim that the cases in which utilitarianism would require injustice, rights violations, or promise breaking are exceedingly rare, precisely because justice, respecting rights, and keeping promises are so important to human well-being. This reply claims, in effect, that although it is possible, in principle, for cases such as those described to arise, things are different in practice: in practice injustice, rights violations, and promise breaking tend to lower overall well-being. Therefore, utilitarianism tends to forbid such behavior and ultimately supports these common-sense moral commitments rather than undermining them. This reply, however, is not very successful, since there can still arise at least some cases in which utilitarianism conflicts with our common-sense moral intuitions; and no excuse for utilitarianism’s giving the “wrong answer” in these cases has been provided.
      2. Another reply to the foregoing objections is to propose a modified form of utilitarianism known as rule utilitarianism.  Whereas standard utilitarianism (also known as act utilitarianism) says that the right thing to do is whatever has the best consequences, in terms of overall welfare, rule utilitarianism says that the right thing to do is whatever would be required by the rules whose general acceptance would have the best consequences, in terms of overall welfare. To see how a rule utilitarian would respond to one of the objections above—the one having to do with promises, for example—we have to see whether a rule requiring the keeping of promises would, if generally accepted, do more harm that good. If it would (as seems likely), then promise-keeping is always required, even in those cases in which better consequences would result from the breaking of a promise. The upside of this reply, from the point of view of utilitarianism, is that it answers the foregoing objections pretty well; the downside is that it is really a different theory, with a different content from that of standard utilitarianism.
      3. A third reply is to stand by act utilitarianism (in contrast to the second reply’s retreat to rule utilitarianism) and, instead of trying to downplay the conflict between what act utilitarianism requires and what we think, intuitively, morality requires (as the first reply does), argue that the conflicts between the implications of act utilitarianism and “common-sense morality” show not (1) that something is wrong with act utilitarianism, but (2) that something is wrong with “common-sense morality.” On this view, our intuitive understanding of what morality requires may be in need of substantial revision, and we can see just what kind of revision it may be in need of by checking it against act utilitarianism.
  4. EMP, chapter 9: “Are There Absolute Moral Rules?”
    1. section 9.1: “Harry Truman and Elizabeth Anscombe”
      1. One approach to morality is to regard it as consisting of absolute rules—rules that must not be broken, no matter what.
      2. Another is to say that even if there there are any valid moral rules (whether absolute or not), morality ultimately depends on the consequences of various courses of action.
    2. section 9.2: “The Categorical Imperative”
      1. Kant observed, more explicitly than most theorists, that morality consists of imperatives, or commands, of a certain kind. This kind of imperative can be introduced by way of a distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
        1. Hypothetical imperatives are imperatives such as “If you want to be healthy then you should eat more vegetables” and “If you want to get to the movies on time you ought to leave now.” Imperatives such as these do not bind absolutely; that is, it’s not the case that you ought to eat more vegetables, period—it’s only the case that you ought to do so if you have an objective (getting healthier) that would be furthered by eating more vegetables. As a result, these imperatives are considered hypothetical imperatives: they are binding on you only on the hypothesis that you aim at the objective they serve.
        2. Categorical imperatives, in contrast, bind absolutely. If I tell you that you ought not to kill innocent people without their consent, then I mean it categorically: that is, without exception, or regardless of whether or not your objectives will be advanced by your compliance. Note, then, that whether an imperative is hypothetical or categorical is, in a sense, a function of how it’s meant. If someone tells you to do something, but then backs off upon finding out that you don’t have objectives that would be advanced by doing that thing, then the imperative is hypothetical. If the person tells you to do something, and tells you you have to do it even if it doesn’t serve any of your objectives, then it’s categorical.
      2. The point of distinguishing hypothetical and categorical imperatives is to set up the observation that morality consists of categorical, not hypothetical, imperatives. That is, you can’t escape your duty to be moral, your duty to comply with the commands of morality (whatever those commands of morality turn out to be), by pointing out that you don’t have objectives that would be served by your compliance. Rather, you have to comply, regardless of your objectives. Now this claim—that morality consists of categorical, not hypothetical, imperatives—is not a distinctively Kantian claim; on the contrary, Kant is just articulating an intuition about morality that just about everyone has about the inescapability of moral commands (again, whatever those commands turn out to be).
      3. The fact that morality consists of categorical imperatives poses a bit of a puzzle regarding how any moral command can be justified. For it’s fairly clear how hypothetical imperatives can be justified: their justification derives from the fact that the person being commanded aims at some objective; and if he doesn’t like the command, he is free to escape it by disavowing the objective. So the justification of hypothetical imperatives doesn’t seem all that problematic. But how can categorical imperatives be justified? How can someone legitimately tell you that you have to do something, regardless of your objectives? So, since moral commands are categorical imperatives, how can moral commands be justified?
      4. Kant, then, saw moral philosophy as essentially the search for some valid categorical imperative(s): that is, one or more commands that you would (rationally) have to comply with, regardless of your particular objectives. Of course, others before him had made their own proposals (though they didn’t necessarily conceive of them as categorical imperatives); utilitarians, for example, had said that one must always do whatever will have the best consequences, in terms of overall well-being. But Kant rejected this and other moral principles that had been proposed, and he proposed the following: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Because Kant was so attentive to the categorical character of moral imperatives, this statement is known as “the categorical imperative” (even though other moral theorists propose their imperatives as equally categorical).
      5. The categorical imperative as stated above is a translation from Kant’s German expression. As a result, and possibly as a result of Kant’s own writing style in German, the grammar of the English statement is oddly awkward. Here’s (in my view) a more ordinary-sounding (if slightly more wordy) rendering: “In any given situation, act only according to a maxim that you could, while acting on it, consistently also will to be a maxim that everyone would feel free to act on.”
      6. The meaning of the categorical imperative can be brought out by considering the steps that one would take to apply it in a particular situation:
        1. Figure out the maxim on which you would be acting. That is, figure out the rule or principle that you would be acting on. Some examples of maxims (for various circumstances) are “Eat when you’re hungry” or “make a false promise when it will help you get out of a jam” or “Hire the most qualified person for the job.” Your maxim could even be the utilitarian rule of “Do what will maximize overall welfare.”
        2. Imagine that everyone felt free to act on the maxim on which you’re thinking about acting.
        3. If the imagined outcome (when everyone feels free to act on this maxim) is acceptable to you—something you can will—then your act is o.k., morally. If not, then it’s immoral.
      7. Notice, then, the following structural difference between utilitarianism and Kantianism. To act in accordance with utilitarian morality, you look at all your options, and then choose the best one (where ‘best’ is understood in a certain way). To act in accordance with Kantian morality, you don’t have to survey all your options and then choose one that is somehow defined as the best; you just look at your options one by one—and you can go in any order you want—and all you have to do is find one that complies with the categorical imperative: that is, find one that passes the multi-step test described above.
    3. section 9.3: “Absolute Rules and the Duty Not to Lie”
      1. Kant interpreted the categorical imperative to imply that there were certain more specific absolute rules, such as a rule against lying. To see how one might have thought this, consider the maxim “Lie whenever it suits your purposes.” Now imagine what it would be like if everyone felt free to act on this maxim. In such a world people would not trust other people, which of course would be a bad thing; and to compound the problem, the lack of trust among people would mean that the maxim itself had become useless: for the only way for a lie to succeed is for people to trust the person telling it. As a result, one cannot regard, as acceptable, everyone’s feeling free to act on this maxim, and so it is immoral for anyone to act on it.
      2. But whether the categorical imperative really does imply blanket prohibitions on things like lying is a disputed question. (The fact that Kant said it did does not settle the question; the fact that he made up the categorical imperative does not mean that he gets to decide what it implies and what it does not. It’s up to each person, reasoning logically, to draw their own inferences—as sincerely as they can, of course—from the categorical imperative.) To see why, consider a maxim not as permissive as “Lie whenever it suits your purposes,” but a stricter one, such as “Lie whenever doing so would save someone’s life and have no effect on others, except possibly for inconveniencing a would-be murderer.” (One might think to formulate such a maxim in the special circumstances of the inquiring-murderer case that Rachels describes.) Would the world be such a bad place if everyone felt free to act on this maxim? It licenses lying in such rare circumstances that its universal adoption would not seem to result in the same problems that would result from the universal adoption of the more-permissive maxim considered earlier. So there is reason to doubt that the categorical imperative has the sweeping implications that Kant thought it did.
      3. The foregoing considerations bring out the following problems with Kant’s moral theory:
        1. The categorical imperative seems to give conflicting verdicts in regard to the same act, depending on how it’s described (i.e., what someone says is its maxim). (This is probably the biggest problem with the categorical imperative.)
        2. Kant seems to have been mistaken in claiming that the categorical imperative prohibits lying in all circumstances, or that it implies any such general rules.
        3. If Kant were right in claiming that the categorical imperative prohibits lying in all circumstances, then the categorical imperative would seem, to many people, to be overly strict.
        4. The way in which the categorical imperative is used to evaluate each of an agent’s options one by one (instead of choosing the “best” of the options, as utilitarianism and egoism do) raises the possibility of each of an agent’s options failing the test of the categorical imperative—which would seem to be a defect in the categorical imperative. (For more on this, see the notes that go with section 9.4, below.)
      4. Kant himself considered the problem of the inquiring-murderer case, and he tried to justify his absolute prohibition on lying with a second argument, having to do with the bad consequences that might result from lying. Although Rachels spends some time on this argument, it is such a peripheral (and, as Rachels says, weak) part of Kant’s approach to morality that we do not need to worry about it.
    4. section 9.4: “Conflicts between Rules”
      1. We saw above that the inquiring-murderer case shows that a moral theory including absolute rules (such as an absolute rule against lying) has, for that reason, some counter-intuitive implications. Another reason for doubting the plausibility of a moral theory including absolute rules arises from the possibility of conflicts between rules.
      2. To see what problem might arise from the possibility of conflicts between rules, note that if a moral theory prescribes more than one absolute rule, then it will be possible, at least in principle, for a case to arise in which the agent cannot avoid violating at least one of the rules. (Since the rules are absolute, neither will yield to, or be overruled by, the other.) Such a case would be one in which, regardless of what the agent chooses to do, the moral theory in question would imply that the agent is acting immorally. And this seems implausible: it seems that a moral theory must say, in any given case, that there is something that the agent could do that would be a (or the) moral thing to do.
      3. To better understand this phenomenon of conflicts between rules, note that it arises from the “structural” difference between utilitarianism and Kantianism noted earlier. The former says that the right act, in any given circumstance, is the one that has the best consequences (in terms of overall welfare). So no case can arise in which it doesn’t select some act (maybe more than one, if there’s a tie) as right. But Kantianism doesn’t select an act as right by surveying all the options and selecting the “best” one as the right one; instead, it looks at them one by one, and judges each one independently of the others. As a result, it’s possible for every one of them to fail the Kantian test, and thus for an agent to have no morally permissible thing to do in a particular circumstance.
    5. section 9.5: “Another Look at Kant’s Basic Idea”
      1. A basic idea at the core of Kant’s theory is that of impartiality: the idea that one must treat everyone equally, and not give oneself special permissions, when it comes to how one acts (that is, permissions that one would not be willing to extend to others). This is implicit in the thought that one should act only on those maxims that one would be willing for everyone to act on.
      2. As we saw when we considered the idea of impartiality in chapter 1, an idea at the core of the idea of impartiality is that of acting for reasons: if my hunger is a good reason for me to steal your lunch, then your hunger is an equally good reason for you to steal my lunch. In this way, impartiality can, in effect, be derived from the very idea of acting for good reasons. One way of regarding Kant’s theory, then, is as an impressive, but ultimately problematic (largely because of Kant’s insistence on deriving absolute rules from the categorical imperative), attempt to derive an entire moral theory from the simple idea of acting for reasons.
  5. EMP, chapter 10: “Kant and Respect for Persons”
    1. section 10.1: “The Idea of Human Dignity”
      1. The categorical imperative presented above—the statement about acting only on maxims that it would be o.k. for everyone to act on—is the fundamental principle of Kant’s moral theory. But Kant thought that the very same principle could be expressed in an entirely different form of words, as follows: “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.” This is, according to Kant, another formulation of the categorical imperative.
        1. It is important to understand what is meant by saying that this is another formulation of the categorical imperative. What is meant is that the two principles (the two formulations) have exactly the same meaning: that is, if one person accepted the first formulation as the fundamental principle of morality, and the second person accepted the second formulation as the fundamental principle of morality, then (assuming each understood his or her principle correctly) each would have the very same conception of morality: there would be no disagreement between the two persons in regard to what acts are morally permitted, what acts are immoral, and so on.
        2. We saw earlier that it is not up to Kant to say what the specific implications of the categorical imperative (in its first formulation) are in regard to questions such as lying: rather, it’s a matter of reasoning, and logic, to ascertain what the implications of that principle are. Similarly, here, it’s not the case that the two formulations of the  categorical imperative are equivalent just because Kant said they are; rather, it’s a matter of reasoning and logic (and analyzing the meaning of the two formulations) to ascertain whether they’re equivalent. Kant might have been wrong in saying that they’re equivalent (the jury is still out, I think, among Kant scholars), just as he might have been wrong (indeed, probably was wrong) in saying that the first formulation prohibits lying in all possible circumstances.
      2. So what is the meaning of this second formulation of the categorical imperative—the one having to do with treating humanity always as an end and never as a means—and why might it be thought true? That is, if we put aside its supposed equivalence to the first formulation, and try to apply it to moral issues directly, what are its implications, and why should we regard it as (morally) binding?
        1. Basically, the idea is that we must always treat humans (others obviously, but also ourselves) with respect, and as beings whose objectives are worth pursuing just because they are humans’ objectives: that is, what humans aim at, and their interests and welfare generally, are worth promoting, and nothing else is. So, you ought not to injure people, or lie to them, or manipulate them, because then you would be interfering with the achievement of their objectives, or with their well-being; indeed you are very likely treating them as an instrument, or tool, for your own objectives.
        2. Why did Kant think that treating humans as ends was so important? Because humans, he thought, are the only beings that have rationality: the ability to value things and make decisions accordingly. Inanimate objects, of course, cannot do either of these things, and lesser animals may engage in apparently purposeful conduct (such as a dog digging for a bone it buried); but only humans, Kant thought, exhibit genuine rationality. As a result, they (and only they) must always be treated as ends, and never as means only.
        3. Understanding the reasoning behind this formulation of the categorical imperative helps to clarify its meaning. Because of its basis in Kant’s treasuring of humans’ rationality, it may be understood as saying that you must always respect, and never interfere with or subvert, others’ rationality.  So, to repeat an example that Rachels gives: you must not lie to other people in order to get some money from them, because then you are subverting their rationality: you are preventing them from reasoning well about the situation (your need for money) by giving them false information. But if you tell them your reason for asking, then you are respecting their rationality, because you are giving them the information they need in order to make a (rational) decision on their own. (This also shows, by the way, that treating others as ends and never as means only does not rule out asking others for help; it just rules out manipulating or coercing others into helping you.)
    2. section 10.2: “Retributivism and Utility in the Theory of Punishment”
      1. The emphasis that Kant put on the rationality and “dignity” of humans, and what it means to treat someone as an end, can be seen in Kant’s attitude towards punishment. But before getting into this topic (which is the topic for the rest of the chapter), it is important to note that Kant’s moral theory is not especially preoccupied with punishment, and should not be thought of as primarily a theory of punishment. The reason for considering punishment at such length here is that in doing so, we can come to a better understanding of what Kant thought, and how he dissented from the utilitarian view, on the subjects of
        1. the moral importance of individuals’ well-being
        2. what it means to treat someone with respect
      2. Kant endorsed retributivism: the idea that those who have engaged in wrongdoing deserve to be treated badly in return.
      3. The retributivist approach to punishment can be understood by considering a rival view, that of the utilitarians. Here are the essential ideas of utilitarians’ attitude towards punishment:
        1. All harm to persons, including punishment, is inherently evil.
        2. Although this does not mean that punishment is always immoral, it does mean that punishment is permissible only when its benefits outweigh its costs. While its costs include the pain to whomever it is inflicted on (as well as the costs of administering the penal system), its benefits may include the following:
          1. making innocent people safer by getting dangerous people off the street
          2. deterring would-be wrongdoers
          3. rehabilitating wrongdoers
        3. If it were possible to “punish” and rehabilitate criminals nearly painlessly (such as with a very brief and pleasant, but nonetheless very effective rehabilitation program) so that they could be quickly caught and released, and would be law abiding thereafter, then that would be great: the displeasure and inconvenience that people experience when we punish them is inherently bad, and must be avoided unless they are necessary to secure even greater benefits.
    3. section 10.3: “Kant’s Retributivism”
      1. Kant believed several things about punishment that conflict with the utilitarian approach:
        1. Rehabilitation typically involves treating people as means, since it involves molding them into the kind of people that we would like for them to be, instead of helping them to become the people they might autonomously decide that they would like to be. There may be the occasional rehabilitative program that adequately respects individuals’ rationality, by helping them choose their objectives freely; but in general, rehabilitation is manipulation.
        2. Punishment should be inflicted simply because someone has done something wrong, and not for any further reason, or for anyone’s good.
        3. The degree or intensity of the punishment should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense, not determined by the question of how much punishment will do the most good, in terms of benefits versus costs.
      2. An interesting consequence of this retributivist view is that a wrongdoer ought to be punished even if he will never be able to harm anyone again. (Recall the example of the murderer being left on the island.)
      3. We just saw that, according to Kant, only the guilty may be punished. This is a very normal thing for someone to think, but Kant’s reasons for thinking this are worth noting.
        1. According to Kant, not punishing a wrongdoer would involve refusing to recognize that person as a rational agent who freely chose to do what he did. It would be, instead, to regard the person as having been incapable of choosing to do wrong or not. And it is disrespectful to treat someone as if it were not up to him to act in that way or not. In contrast, holding someone accountable is a way of showing respect.
        2. Kant also thought that punishing wrongdoers was a way of showing respect for them by treating the maxim that seemed to underlie their wrongdoing as a rule that was appropriate not only for them to act according to, but also for us to use in deciding how to treat them. It’s almost as if we’re saying to them, “O.k., you think that harming someone just for your own convenience is a good way to behave? Then we’ll do that to you.”
    4. purpose of digression into retributivism: Recall the purpose of this long digression into Kant’s retributivism: to better understand what Kant thought, and how he disagreed with utilitarians, on the subjects of
      1. the moral importance of individuals’ well-being
      2. what it means to treat someone as an end, or with respect
  6. EMP, chapter 11: “The Idea of a Social Contract”
    1. section 11.1: “Hobbes’s Argument”
      1. Thomas Hobbes, the first major social-contract theorist, proposed to understand morality by imagining what humans’ interactions would be like in what is called the state of nature: that is, circumstances in which there is no society, with its laws and morality, to constrain humans’ behavior; circumstances in which people interact simply with a view to advancing their own interests, heedless of legal and moral constraints. To understand what interactions in these circumstances would be like, we have to consider several factors:
        1. equality of need: we all need essentially the same things, and need them essentially in the same degree
        2. scarcity: the things we need aren’t very plentiful
        3. equality of power: we are all roughly equally powerful; none can dominate his or her fellows
        4. limited altruism: people aren’t very concerned for others (beyond a narrow circle of concern)
      2. Such circumstances, Hobbes claimed, would be a “constant state of war, of one with all.” Human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Some people think, though, that Hobbes had an overly pessimistic view of human psychology: that people in the state of nature wouldn’t behave as badly as Hobbes claimed they would.)
      3. To escape these circumstances, Hobbes claimed, the only rational thing for people to do is to form a social contract: a contract, to which each person is a party, establishing a government and laws, all for their common benefit.
      4. Hobbes had a moral theory that closely paralleled this political theory. For Hobbes, not just government, but also morality, was to have (1) its purpose explained, and (2) its content determined, by the idea of a social contract. On this approach to morality, morality is not a matter of doing God’s will or following abstract rules; rather, it has the following very pragmatic content: it just consists of those rules that rational people would accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition that others follow those rules as well.
    2. section 11.2: “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”
      1. Hobbes formulates morality in terms of a social contract by analogy with the political necessity of a social contract. But there is another (albeit related) motivation for a social-contractarian approach to morality: a puzzle known as the prisoner’s dilemma.
      2. prisoner’s dilemma game
      3. The specific story that gives this concept its name is explained by Rachels, and in many other books and articles. But the puzzle is not just about criminals trying to minimize their jail time. It is characterized by the following features, which occur quite commonly. (Note that these features are not exactly the ones that Rachels states on p. 150. But these are not in conflict with what Rachels says; they differ only in emphasis, drawing attention to things that Rachels leaves implicit.)
        1. Many people face a certain decision, which each person has to make independently, and each person has two options—a self-interested option and an altruistic option.
        2. Regardless of what others do, each person is better off choosing the self-interested option than choosing the altruistic option.
        3. Each person is better off if everyone chooses the altruistic option (even including himself or herself) than if everyone chooses the self-interested option. That is, everyone’s pursuit of his or own self-interest results in everyone’s interest being thwarted.
      4. Here are some real-life situations in which these features occur (real-life “prisoner’s dilemmas,” some from Derek Parfit):
        1. commuting: Each gets to and from work faster by driving than by taking the bus; but each would get to and from work faster if all (even including himself) took the bus rather than driving.
        2. polluting: Each benefits more from not buying a pollution-control device for her car than from the decrease on overall pollution that would result; but each would benefit more if all (even including herself) buy such a device than if all don’t.
        3. fighting: Each soldier in a group will be safer if he turns and runs instead of standing and shooting; but each would be safer if all (even including himself) stand and fight than if all turn and run.
        4. fishing: Each will make more money if he catches as much as he can instead of observing limits; but each would make more money if all (even including himself) observe limits than if all catch as much as they can (reducing the fish population below its minimum sustainable level).
        5. studying for a test that will be graded on a pre-set curve: Students can study a lot or a little. If everyone studies a lot (trying to beat his or her peers), then everyone’s extra efforts will cancel each other out and everyone will get the same grades as it they had studied only a little, and everyone will have done lots of extra work. It would be better for all (same grades, no work) if all don’t study at all. (This example assumes, of course, that they’re studying solely for the sake of the grade.)
      5. Here is how the prisoner’s dilemma leads to the social-contract conception of morality. To some extent, we all get along just fine if everyone pursues his or her own interests. But to a considerable extent—especially in (real or, more often, metaphorical) prisoner’s dilemma situations—the unfettered pursuit of self-interest is worse, in terms of everyone’s self-interest, than the observance of certain limits. The point of morality is to set these limits (so say contractarians); thus, morality consists of those rules that rational individuals would agree to abide by (assuming others do as well), for their mutual benefit. In effect, the prisoner’s dilemma represents a problem for which morality—as contractarians conceive of it—provides a solution.
    3. section 11.3: “Some Advantages of the Social-Contract Theory of Morals”
      1. It provides a fairly straightforward and unmysterious account of what the rules of morality are: the rules of morality are just those rules that are necessary for peaceful and cooperative living. If a rule does not contribute to this, it is not really part of morality.
      2. It provides a pretty clear account of why one ought to be moral: one ought to be moral because the rules of morality are to everyone’s benefit, which means they are to one’s own benefit as well as others’.
      3. It is not overly demanding: it implies that your obligation to follow the rules ceases once others stop following them (and you’d be a sucker to continue to follow them), or once following them becomes more costly to you than being “outside” of morality altogether would be.
      4. It seems to propose a happy compromise between objectivist approaches to morality (which leave one wondering where the objective content of morality really comes from) and subjectivist approaches to morality (which leave one wondering whether there isn’t something deeper in morality than just each person’s feelings and preferences).
    4. section 11.4: “The Problem of Civil Disobedience”
      1. It is often thought that what justifies civil disobedience (when it is justified) is that it is the last resort for achieving some beneficial reform: although unlawful activity is itself bad, the ends justify the means. This is essentially a utilitarian justification.
      2. Social-contract theory provides a different justification, which many people find preferable. It says that civil disobedience is justified (when it is justified) by the fact that those engaged in it are not bound by society’s “contract” because they are denied their fair share of the benefits that the “contract” and society are supposed to provide. Only when they receive those benefits are they then also bound by the laws that make them possible.
    5. section 11.5: “Difficulties for the Theory”
      1. The theory is often associated with the historical idea of a social contract, which (even in the case of, say, the U.S., with its constitutional convention) is largely or completely a fiction. But this objection is not very serious, since the theory can be reformulated in terms of the idea of an implicit contract—one to which people are bound just by participating in society, regardless of whether they’ve ever actually signed or otherwise explicitly consented to anything.
      2. The theory implies that we have no obligation towards beings with whom we have no need to cooperate, or possibility of cooperating, such as animals and mentally and physically disabled humans. This limitation on who matters, morally, is viewed by many to be a counter-intuitive and objectionable feature of the contractarian approach.
  7. EMP, chapter 12: “Feminism and the Ethics of Care”
    1. section 12.1: “Do Women and Men Think Differently about Ethics?”
      1. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg distinguished six levels of moral thinking, ranging from the Stage of Punishment and Obedience to the Stage of Universal Ethical Principles. Presumably these are stages through which individuals pass at they mature, but regardless of their adequacy in describing human development, the significance for us is that Kohlberg put them in a certain normative order, declaring each to be superior to its predecessor.
      2. Then, in experiments, Kohlberg found that boys tended to operate at higher levels of moral thinking than girls. The implication, of course, is that men are inherently better at moral thinking than women.
      3. Defenders of the view that women are just as good at moral thinking as men can reply in either (or both) of two ways to claims such as Kohlberg’s.
        1. First, they can deny the difference Kohlberg claimed to have detected—they can claim that boys and girls think about morality in basically the same way, and that women and men do, too.
        2. Second, they can admit that there is a difference, but claim that the difference does not make women’s moral thinking inferior to men’s.
      4. Carol Gilligan, Kohlberg’s most prominent critic, took the second route. She claimed that women’s way of thinking about morality, which emphasizes caring and personal relationships, is at least as valid as men’s way of thinking about morality, which emphasizes impartiality and impersonal principles.
      5. Are Kohlberg and Gilligan right that there women tend to emphasize caring and personal relationships more in thinking about morality? Experience suggests that they are. And there may be environmental and evolutionary-psychological explanations for this phenomenon.
    2. section 12.2: “Implications for Moral Judgment”
      1. Rachels considers the implications of the ethics of care for three areas of moral judgment.
        1. The ethics of care does a better job than traditional, principle-based, approaches to morality of explaining the special obligations that most people feel they have towards their family and friends.
        2. The ethics of care does a worse job than traditional, principle-based, approaches to morality of explaining obligations that most people feel they have towards needy people with whom they do not have personal relationships.
        3. The ethics of care does a worse job than traditional, principle-based, approaches to morality of explaining obligations that most people feel they have towards animals with whom they are not personally involved.
      2. It should be noticed that these are just three examples. Presumably a much more comprehensive examination would need to be done in order to compare the ethics of care to traditional, principle-based approaches to morality.
    3. section 12.3: “Implications for Ethical Theory”
      1. The ethics of care emphasizes emotions, dispositions, and character traits more than identifying right acts by applying abstract principles to specific cases.
      2. This makes the ethics of care an instance of what is known as virtue ethics.
  8. EMP, chapter 13: “The Ethics of Virtue”
    1. section 13.1: “The Ethics of Virtue and the Ethics of Right Action”
      1. For the last few hundred years, ethics has been focused on the question, “What is the right thing to do?” Answers to this question have been provided by many normative-ethical theories, including the ones we’ve studied: ethical egoism, utilitarianism, Kant’s moral theory, and social-contract theory.
      2. But ancient philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, focused in their ethical thinking on a different question: “What traits of character make one a good person?” In past few decades, a growing number of moral philosophers have advocated a return to this way of thinking, known as virtue ethics.
      3. It is important to avoid either understating or overstating the difference between virtue ethics and ethical theories concerned with right action. On the one hand, there is a big difference: they take the primary subject matter of ethics to be different thing (character traits vs. actions). On the other hand, there is some overlap in what they are concerned with: virtue ethicists claim that their views on character traits have implications regarding the rightness of certain actions, and other normative ethicists claim that their views on actions have implications regarding the goodness of certain character traits.
    2. section 13.2: “The Virtues”
      1. A virtue is a trait of character, manifested in behavior that is done as a matter of habit, that is good for someone to have. (Admittedly, this leaves unspecified what makes a certain character trait one that it is good for someone to have. This is a common problem with various forms of virtue ethics.)
      2. Some examples of things that virtually all virtue ethicists agree are virtues are benevolence, courage, honesty, and prudence.
      3. Virtue is often understood to be a mean between two extremes. For example, courage is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness.
      4. One problem that arises in offering a precise account of the virtues has to do with how narrowly or broadly their scope is to be defined. For example, consider a Nazi soldier apparently fighting quite courageously in defense of the Nazi regime. If courage is taken to have a narrow scope, then it might be said that the solder certainly has courage, but lacks some other virtue, one that (if he had it) would make him see the evil of the Nazi regime. On the other hand, if courage is taken to have a broad scope, then it might be said that although the soldier appears to have courage, he really lacks it, because he is fighting for an evil regime. Virtue ethicists are not agreed on whether virtues should be construed narrowly or broadly.
      5. A second problem that arises in offering a precise account of the virtues has to do with how demanding they are to be understood to be. For example, how generous does one have to be in order to have the virtue of generosity? And how honest does one have to be (possibly at the expense of other values, such as self-preservation) in order to have the virtue of honesty?
      6. A character trait is deemed a virtue if it helps a person to live well. This means thriving, or having a good life—not living well in the sense of complying with the moral law. Virtue ethics doesn’t favor living immorally; but it aims to replace talk of the moral law with talk of character traits. The sense of “living well” that virtue ethicists have in mind is similar to what many utilitarians (especially John Stuart Mill) mean by well-being. It is based on human nature, not social conventions.
    3. section 13.3: “Some Advantages of Virtue Ethics”
      1. pays due regard to motives: Virtue ethics focuses more on motives than on actions; in many cases this accords better (than do traditional, principle-based theories) with our intuitions concerning what’s important to us in our interactions with other people.
      2. avoids over-emphasizing impartiality: Virtue ethics does not give a central role to impartiality; again, this accords better with our intuitions (many of which are incompatible with a thoroughgoing ideal of impartiality).
    4. section 13.4: “The Problem of Incompleteness”
      1. Even though virtue ethicists regard the question of the rightness of various acts to be secondary to the question of the goodness of various character traits, presumably they still owe us an account of the rightness of acts. After all, “What’s the right thing to do [in a specific situation]?” seems like a legitimate question to ask of any normative ethical theorist, including a virtue ethicist.
      2. There seem to be two avenues of response open to a virtue ethicist.
        1. One is to say, “Oh, my theory is not meant to answer that question. If you want an answer to that question, you’ll need to supplement my theory with some action-oriented theory such as utilitarianism or Kant’s moral theory.”
        2. The other is to say, “Oh, my theory answers that question in the following way. The right thing to do is whatever a virtuous person would do.”
      3. But each of these answers seems incomplete.
        1. The first one is obviously incomplete: it admits that virtue ethics needs supplementing.
        2. The second one is also incomplete, in that we need some account of what a virtuous person would do. (For example, why a virtuous person would be honest—why honesty is a virtue—or how a virtuous person would balance the conflicting demands of, say, honesty and kindness.) It is hard to see how such an account could be provided without drawing on the ideas of traditional, principle-based, action-oriented theories such as utilitarianism, Kant’s moral theory, or social-contract theory.
      4. This is not to say, of course, that virtue ethics cannot be used to supplement a traditional theory; it is just to raise the question of whether virtue ethics can entirely displace traditional theories.
  9. EMP, chapter 14: “What Would a Satisfactory Moral Theory Be Like?”
    1. section 14.1: “Morality without Hubris”
      1. Rachels argues that we must not seen humans as the “center of the world”—but, rather, as one species among many.
      2. He also argues that we should regard ethics as based essentially on reason: “We ought to do what there are the weightiest reasons for doing” (p. 193).
    2. section 14.2: “Treating People as They Deserve and Other Motives”
      1. Rachels says that a practice of treating people as they deserve saves us from the dubious implications of an undiscriminating impartiality, and gives each person more control over how others treat him or her, which is obviously beneficial for everyone.
      2. He also points out that we should have (and should promote in others) motives aside from just doing the right thing, or doing the most good—the world would be a worse place if these were the only sorts of motives people had.
    3. section 14.3: “Multiple-Strategies Utilitarianism”
      1. Rachels’s basic idea is that while utilitarianism rightly identifies well-being as the ultimate moral goal, we should pursue this goal with many “strategies”—sometimes pursing maximal well-being directly, sometimes indirectly, by obeying certain good rules, acting on certain good motives, etc.
      2. He maintains that “The right thing for me to do is to act in accordance with my best plan” (p. 199).
    4. section 14.4: “The Moral Community”
      1. According to Rachels, the moral community—the group of people and other individuals deserving of moral consideration—is spatially and temporally extended, not limited to those close to us now.
      2. The moral community also includes many species aside from ours.
    5. section 14.5: “Justice and Fairness”
      1. The kind of utilitarianism proposed by Rachels seems more capable of condemning injustice than standard utilitarianism is.
      2. Rachels also says his theory would give a prominent place to considerations of fairness. It is unclear whether he thinks he has shown that this follows from his “multiple-strategies utilitarianism,” or is now claiming that it does so follow.
    6. section 14.6: “Conclusion”