Overview – Ethical Theories
Ethics is the study of morality – i.e. right and wrong, good and bad.
The syllabus looks at 3 ethical theories:
Each theory provides a framework intended to guide moral behaviour. We can apply these theories to ethical dilemmas such as ‘is it ok to steal?’
For utilitarian theories, what matters is the consequence of an action. If your stealing a loaf of bread, say, prevents your family from dying of starvation, then the annoyance of the shopkeeper is likely to be outweighed by your happiness that your family is still alive. So stealing the bread is morally permissible.
Kant’s deontological ethics takes a rule-based approach. According to Kant, there are certain moral laws that are universal. He provides two tests to determine what these laws are. Based on these tests, Kant would say stealing is always wrong, regardless of the consequences.
Aristotle’s virtue theory takes a different approach to both Kant and utilitarianism. Kant and utilitarianism both give formulas for what to do, whereas Aristotle is more concerned with what sort of person we should be. So, if a virtuous person would not steal in a particular set of circumstances, then it is wrong to steal in those circumstances.
Utilitarian ethical theories are consequentialist. They say that it’s the consequences of an action that make it either right or wrong.
The most obviously relevant consequences are pain and pleasure. Generally speaking, utilitarian theories look to minimise pain and maximise pleasure.
So, for example, a utilitarian might argue that it would be justifiable to murder an innocent baby Adolf Hitler to prevent the greater suffering caused by World War 2.
The syllabus looks at 3 different versions of ultilitarianism:
- Act utilitarianism: we should act so as to maximise pleasure and minimise pain in each specific instance
- Rule utilitarianism: we should follow general rules that maximise pleasure and minimise pain (even if following these rules doesn’t maximise pleasure in every specific instance)
- Preference utilitarianism: we should act to maximise people’s preferences (even if these preferences do not maximise pleasure and minimise pain)
“The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.”
– Jeremy Bentham
Act Utilitarianism is the simplest form of utilitarianism. It can be boiled down to three claims:
- Whether an action is right/good or wrong/bad depends solely on its consequences
- The only thing that is good is happiness
- No individual’s happiness is more important than anyone else’s
Jeremy Bentham is widely considered to be the first act utilitarian philosopher.
He created the felicific calculus to provide a way to calculate whether an action is right or wrong. It uses the following seven variables:
- Intensity: how strong the pleasure is
- Duration: how long the pleasure lasts
- Certainty: how likely the pleasure is to occur
- Propinquity: how soon the pleasure will occur
- Fecundity: how likely the pleasure will lead to more pleasure
- Purity: how likely the pleasure will lead to pain
- Extent: the number of people affected
So, for example, if two different courses of action lead to two different intensities of pleasure, then the ethically right course of action is the one that leads to the more intense pleasure. It gets complicated, though, when comparing intensity with duration, say.
Anyway, the felicific calculus should (in theory) provide a means to calculate the total happiness: add up all the pleasures and minus all the pains.
Act utilitarians would agree that the morally good action is the one that maximises the total happiness.
Note: many of the problems with act utilitarianism below inspired the alternative versions of utilitarianism (e.g. rule and preference). If you are writing an essay (i.e. 25 marks) on utilitarianism you can use these to argue against act utilitarianism but for an alternative type of utilitarianism.
Firstly, Bentham’s felicific calculus seems impractically complicated to use every single time one has to make a decision.
And how do you quantify and compare each of the seven variables? How do you decide between, say, a longer-lasting dull pleasure and a short-lived but more intense pleasure?
Of course, this assumes it’s possible to know how intense a pleasure will be in the first place! Are we supposed to hook everyone up to brain scanners every time we are faced with an ethical choice?
There are some things that just seem wrong regardless of the consequences.
For example, imagine a scenario where a nasty murder has taken place and an angry crowd are baying for blood. In other words, it would make the crowd happy to see the perpetrator apprehended and punished for his crimes.
But what if the police can’t catch the murderer? They could just lie and frame an innocent man instead.
If the crowd believe the murderer has been caught (even if it’s not really him) then they would be just as happy whether it was the actual perpetrator or not.
And let’s say the crowd is 10,000 people. Their collective happiness is likely to outweigh the innocent man’s pain at being falsely imprisoned. After all, there are 10,000 of them and only one of him (hence, tyranny of the majority).
In this situation an act utilitarian would have to say it’s morally right to imprison the innocent man. In fact, it would be morally wrong not to!
Certain people – namely, friends and family – are more important to us than others.
But act utilitarianism is concerned only with the greatest good for the greatest number. There are no grounds, then, to justify acting to maximise their happiness over some random person on the street.
That £10 you spend buying your mum a birthday present made her happy, sure, but it would have made Joe Bloggs in Mozambique happier.
The time you spent with your friends made them happy, but volunteering at the local soup kitchen would have increased the greatest good for the greatest number more effectively.
You get the idea. If we sincerely followed act utilitarianism we would never be morally permitted to spend time and money with our loved ones.
This objection can be used to show that act utilitarianism is too idealistic and doesn’t work in practice. Or, you could argue that certain relationships have a unique moral status and that act utilitarianism forces us to ignore these moral obligations.
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
“though the consequences in the particular case might be beneficial—it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which, if practiced generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of the obligation to abstain from it.”
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Rule utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of general rules rather than specific actions (act utilitarianism).
This provides a response to the tyranny of the majority objection to act utilitarianism above. Although in this specific instance punishing the innocent man leads to greater happiness, as a general rule it would lead to more unhappiness.
For example, if you lived in a society where you knew innocent people were regularly framed, you would worry that it might happen to you. There would also be no satisfaction in seeing criminlas ‘brought to justice’ as there would be no way to know whether they were guilty.
Sometimes we might prefer something even if it doesn’t maximise pleasure.
Robert Nozick illustrates this idea with the virtual reality machine.
Imagine you could be plugged into a virtual reality machine that produces the experience of a perfect life. In other words, it maximises your pleasure and minimises your pain. Once plugged in, you don’t know it’s virtual reality, you believe it’s completely real.
Many people would prefer not to enter the virtual reality machine even though they would experience more pleasure and less pain in doing so.
This can be seen as an objection to Bentham and Mill’s hedonism (the idea that happiness and pleasure are the only things of value). We realise there are certain things in life more important than simple pleasure. We have a preference for a real life, say, even if it is less pleasurable than a virtual one.
A related example might be carrying out the wishes of the dead. It can’t increase the happiness of the deceased to carry out their will (they’re dead). But if their preference was for their money to be donated to the local cat shelter, say, then it can be argued there is a moral obligation to honour these preferences.
Kant’s theory is quite long-winded, but it can be summarised as:
- The only thing that is good without qualification is good will.
- Good will means acting for the sake of duty.
- You have a duty to follow the moral law.
- Moral laws are universal.
- You can tell is a maxim is universal if it passes the categorical imperative.
- The categorical imperative is two tests:
- Contradiction in conception
- Contradiction in will
- Finally, do not treat people as means to an end.
Good will is one that acts for the sake of duty. This, according to Kant, is the source of moral worth.
So, if you save someone’s life because you expect to be financially rewarded, this action has no moral worth. You’re acting for selfish reasons, not because of duty.
However, if you save someone’s life because you recognise that you have a duty to do so, then this action does have moral worth.
Deontology (as in Kant’s deontological ethics) is the study of duty.
Kant argues that we each have a duty to follow the moral law. The moral law, according to Kant, is summarised by the categorical imperative.
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”
– Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
There are two kinds of maxims (rules): categorical and hypothetical.
Hypothetical rules are qualified by an ‘if’ statement, e.g. “you should do your homework if you want to do well in the exam.“
Categorical rules are not qualified by an ‘if’ statement, they apply universally. E.g. “you shouldn’t torture animals for fun” is a rule that applies to everyone, i.e. it applies universally.
Kant gives two ways to test whether a maxim applies universally. He also gives another formula for the categorical imperative, called the humanity formula.
For a law to be universal, it must not result in a contradiction in conception.
A contradiction in conception is something that is self-contradictory.
Example: we might ask Kant whether it is morally acceptable to steal. I.e., we might ask whether “you should steal” is a universally applicable maxim.
If stealing was universally acceptable, then you could take whatever you wanted from someone, and the owner of the object would have no argument against it. In fact, the very concept of ownership wouldn’t make sense – as everyone would have just as much right to an object as you do.
So, in a world where stealing is universally acceptable, the concept of private property disappears. If there is no such thing as private property, then stealing is impossible.
Therefore, Kant would say, the maxim “you should steal” leads to a contradiction in conception. Therefore, stealing is not morally permissible.
If a maxim leads to a contradiction in conception, you have a perfect duty not to follow that maxim. It is always wrong.
Assuming the maxim does not result in a contradiction in conception, we must then ask whether the maxim results in a contradiction in will – i.e. whether we can rationally will a maxim or not.
Example: can we rationally will “not to help others in need”?
There is no contradiction in conception in a world where nobody helps anyone else. But we cannot rationally will it, says Kant. The reason for this is that sometimes we have goals (Kant calls these ends) that cannot be achieved without the help of others. To will the ends, we must also will the means.
So, we cannot rationally will such goals without also willing the help of others (the means).
Of course, not all goals require the help of others. Hence, Kant argues this results in an imperfect duty. In other words, it is sometimes wrong to follow the maxim “not to help others in need”.
Kant gives another formulation of the categorical imperative:
“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity […] never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
– Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
Treating someone as a means to your own end means to use them. So Kant is basically saying don’t use people.
Example: tricking someone into marrying you.
If you pretend to love someone to marry them and take their money, you treat them as a means to make money.
According to Kant, it’s the deception that is the problem here as it undermines the rational agency of the other party. By withholding your true intentions, you prevent the other party from rationally pursuing their own ends (e.g. to find a loving partner).
But if you’re honest with the other party, the other party can make an informed choice on whether this fits with their ends. Their goal might be to get married to anyone, regardless of whether it’s love or not. In this case you can both (rationally) use each other for mutual benefit. You acknowledge each others ends, even if they are not the same.
Kant argues that ignoring a perfect duty leads to a contradiction in conception. As we saw in the stealing example, the very concept of private property couldn’t exist if stealing was universally permissible.
But by tweaking the maxim slightly, we can avoid this contradiction in conception.
Instead of my maxim being ‘to steal from others’, I could claim my maxim is ‘to steal from people with nine letters in their name’ or ‘to steal from stores that begin with the letter A’.
Both of these maxims can be universalised without undermining the concept of private property. They would apply rarely enough that there would be no breakdown in the concept of private property.
By defining maxims cleverly, it seems possible to justify any course of action using the categorical imperative.
There is a strong intuition that consequences (i.e. utilitarianism) are important when it comes to moral decision making.
This intuition can be drawn out by considering ethical dilemmas such as the trolley problem:
Is it right to kill one person to save five people? Kant would say no, a utilitarian would say yes.
But what about 100 people? Or the entire population of the world?
There’s a strong intuition that consequences matter. If you could stop a madman from detonating a nuclear bomb by killing him, surely it is justifiable to do so?
However, Kant would argue that we have a perfect duty not to murder (self-defence is another matter).
The problem with such rigid rules is drawn out further in the lies section of applied ethics. Kant argues that we have a perfect duty not to lie – even if telling a lie would save someone’s life.
These thought experiments draw out the absurd results of ignoring consequences in ethical decision making.
In other words, being motivated by duty is the only motivation that has moral worth.
So, imagine a close friend is ill in hospital. You pay them a visit because you genuinely like them and want to make sure they’re ok. According to Kant, this motivation (concern for your friend) has no moral value.
However, if you didn’t really care about your friend but begrudgingly went to visit purely out of duty, this would have moral value according to Kant.
But this seems absurd. Kant seems to be saying we should want to help people because of duty, not because we genuinely care.
Kant argues that it is never acceptable to violate a perfect duty.
But what if you find yourself in a situation where such a situation was unavoidable? For example, what if you had to either steal or tell a lie and there was no other option? Or, what if you accidentally made two separate promises that contradicted each other?
Kant might respond that a true conflict between duties is impossible.
But if there were such a conflict, then it seems that whatever choice you make will be wrong as it will mean violating a perfect duty.
Phillipa Foot argues that, despite what Kant says, moral imperatives are not categorical in the way he thinks they are.
- Hypothetical imperative: you should do x if you want y
- Categorical imperative: you should do x (all the time, whoever you are, without exception)
Foot describes various non-hypothetical (but not categorical) imperatives. For example, the rules of etiquette say “handshakes should be brief”, but there is no hypothetical condition for this rule. You can try to make the rules of etiquette hypothetical, e.g. “handshakes should be brief if you don’t want to seem weird”, but we still wouldn’t say that makes it OK for someone who doesn’t care how he’s perceived to hold peoples hands for 5 minutes when he shakes hands. So, etiquette seems non-hypothetical.
Yet despite being a non-hypothetical imperative, Kant wouldn’t say that “handshakes should be brief” is a categorical imperative in the same way that the laws of morality are. For one thing, Kant would say the rules of morality by themselves give reason to act a certain way, and thus apply to everyone and anyone all the time. For Kant, following the moral law is a matter of being rational. In contrast, you might not always have rational reason to follow the rules of etiquette (e.g. you don’t have reason to follow the rules of etiquette if you don’t care about looking weird).
However, Foot claims that Kant’s categorical imperatives are no more categorical than the rules of etiquette. For example, there is nothing irrational (as Kant would claim) about not following a rule like “don’t steal” if you don’t accept the rule in the first place. Similarly, it is not irrational to want other people to behave in a way that is different to how you yourself behave.
According to Foot, Kant’s categorical imperatives are no more powerful than non-hypothetical imperatives such as the rules of etiquette. In other words, there is no real difference between “you shouldn’t steal” and “handshakes should be brief”. The only difference, says Foot, is how we feel about each imperative: We feel that the rules of morality are somehow inescapable in a way the rules of etiquette are not.
Like Kant, Aristotle’s ethics are somewhat long-winded. Aristotle also makes a bunch of different arguments that can sometimes seem a bit unconnected.
The first thing to say is that Aristotle starts by answering a slightly different question to Kant and utilitarianism. Instead of answering “what should I do?” (action-centred) he addresses a question more like “what sort of person should I be?” (agent-centred). It’s basically the other way round: Instead of defining a good person as someone who does good actions, Aristotle would define good actions as those done by good people.
The following is a brief summary of his main points:
- Eudaimonia = the good life for human beings
- The good life for a human being must consist of something unique to human beings
- Human beings are rational animals, and reason is their unique characteristic activity (ergon)
- The good life (eudaimonia) is one full of actions chosen according to reason
- Virtues are traits that enable us to act according to reason
- The virtue is the middle point between a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess
- Virtues are developed through habit and training
You can have a good pizza, good friends, a good day. Aristotle’s ethical enquiry is concerned with the good life for humans (eudaimonia).
We often carry out activities for the sake of some further goal. For example, you might get a job so you can get money. You might want money so you can buy a car. You might want a car so you can visit your friend, and so on.
The good life, however, is not something we aspire to for the sake of some other goal. It’s valuable for its own sake.
Final end: something that is desired for its own sake
Aristotle uses two words, arête and ergon. These can be roughly translated as:
- Ergon: function/characteristic activity of a thing
- Arête: property/virtue that allows a thing to achieve its ergon
For example, a knife’s ergon is to cut things. A good knife has the arête of sharpness because this allows it to cut things well.
Aristotle applies these concepts to human beings. Our ergon, he says, is to use reason. Reason is what makes us unique from trees, plants, books, knives, animals – everything else in the world.
Eudaimonia is the word Aristotle uses for the good life for a human. It’s sometimes translated as ‘human flourishing’.
But what does Eudaimonia actually look like?
It can’t be to simply seek pleasure (i.e. act utilitarianism), says Aristotle, because this could apply to animals just as easily as humans. We want to know the good life specifically for human beings.
Nor can it be wealth, as wealth is only a means to an end. Eudaimonia is something we pursue for its own sake (a final end).
Finally, Aristotle argues, eudaimonia cannot be the same thing as honour (reward, praise, etc.). Because to be honoured, you must be honoured for something. Whatever this something is you are honoured for, this must be what is good, not honour itself.
Aristotle’s answer is that we achieve eudaimonia by living a life guided by reason (which is the ergon of humans). Aristotle says our actions are always guided by some reason (good or bad) and that a good life is one where we act according to good reason.
Though our ergon is to reason, Aristotle is not saying we should spend our lives doing nothing but idly thinking and reasoning. The qualities above – wealth, honour, pleasure, etc. – are part of a good life, but not the only part.
So, eudaimonia (i.e. a good life for a human) is a life that involves virtuous actions guided by reason (plus a bit of wealth and happiness).
Virtues are character traits/skills/habits we develop that help us act correctly (i.e. according to reason). For the sake of A level philosophy, you can think of virtue as meaning the same thing as arête.
So, just as a good knife possesses certain virtues (e.g. being sharp), a good human also possesses certain virtues. For some examples of these virtues, see the golden mean.
For Aristotle, virtues are not things you can just learn from books. You also have to act according to these virtues and make them habits. This is an important feature of Aristotle’s theory alluded to previously: his ethics are more concerned with character – i.e. agent centred – than individual action (i.e. action centred).
If this description helps, I see Aristotle as describing a positive feedback loop that looks something like this:
- Do virtuous acts
- Enjoy doing virtuous acts
- Develop a disposition/habit to act virtuously in future
So, acting virtuously is a kind of practical wisdom. This brings us to another of Aristotle’s words:
Phronesis: practical wisdom
As mentioned previously, virtue is not something you can just learn from books. The stuff you learn in books is very general, whereas acting virtuously varies depending on the specific circumstances. For example, being funny can be virtuous when you are relaxing with friends, but is probably inappropriate at a funeral. Knowing and applying this requires phronesis.
The most famous aspect of Aristotle’s virtue theory is his doctrine of the mean (also called the golden mean). This basically says that virtues are the intermediate or average (the mean) between two extremes.
For example, if you never stand up for yourself then you are cowardly (vice of deficiency). But if you go too far the other way and start fights with anyone for the slightest reason then you are reckless (vice of excess). The correct and virtuous way to act is somewhere in between these two extremes.
Some other examples:
|Vice of deficiency||Virtue
||Vice of excess
Again, what constitutes the mean in a specific instance varies according to context.
Aristotle says we should only praise or condemn actions if they are done voluntarily. In other words, you can’t criticise someone for acting unvirtuously if their actions weren’t freely chosen.
- Voluntary: acting with full knowledge and intention
- Compulsion: being forced to do something you don’t want to do – e.g. sailors throwing goods overboard to save the boat during a storm
- Ignorance: doing something you don’t want to do by accident – e.g. slipping on a banana skin and spilling a drink on someone
Aristotle says we should only judge a person’s voluntary actions.
Aristotle describes virtues in the middle of the two extremes (the doctrine of the mean) and that this varies depending on the situation. But this isn’t very helpful as a practical guide of what to do.
For example, Aristotle would say it is correct to act angrily sometimes – but when exactly? And how angry are you supposed to get before it crosses over from a virtue to a vice of excess?
Kant gives the categorical imperative as a test to say whether an action is moral or not. And even utilitarianism has the felicific calculus. But with Aristotle, we have no such criteria against which to judge whether one course of action is better than another. The doctrine of the mean doesn’t give actual quantities, only vague descriptions as “not too much” and “not too little”. If you genuinely don’t know what the correct course of action is, virtue theory doesn’t provide any actual guidance for how to act.
Aristotle could reply that virtue theory was never intended to provide a set of rules for how to act. Life is complicated – that’s the whole reason why you need to develop practical wisdom in the first place, so you can act virtuously in the many complicated situations that arise. Plus, we can still reflect whether an action is, for example, courageous or stupid. We could also ask questions like “how could I be more friendly in this situation?” that help us decide how to act. Just because virtue theory doesn’t provide a specific course of action, that does not mean it provides no guidance whatsoever.
Aristotle can be interpreted as defining virtuous acts and virtuous people in terms of each other, which doesn’t really say anything. He’s basically saying something like:
- A virtuous act is something a virtuous person would do
- And a virtuous person is a person who does virtuous acts
These descriptions are circular and so say nothing meaningful about what a virtuous person or a virtuous act actually is.
You could reply, however, that Aristotle describes the virtuous person in terms of eudaimonia and so the definition is not circular. Virtues are traits that enable a person to achieve eudaimonia.
We can imagine scenarios where applying two different virtues (e.g. justice and mercy) would suggest two different courses of action.
For example, if you’re a judge and someone has stolen something, you have to choose between the virtue of justice (i.e. punishing the criminal) and the virtue of mercy (i.e. letting the criminal go). You can’t choose to do both things, so whichever choice you make will be unvirtuous in some way.
Aristotle would reply that such conflicts between virtues are impossible. As mentioned in the no clear guidance objection, virtues are not rigid and unbreakable rules and the correct virtue and in what amount depends on the circumstances. Aristotle would say that practical wisdom would mean knowing what each virtue tells you to do and in what amount. So, for example, you could sentence a person according to justice, but show appropriate mercy if there are extenuating circumstances.