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Moral Theory

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Title: Moral Theory


1
  • Moral Theory

2
QUESTION What exactly are moral judgements about?
  • a. Permissibility, Optionality, and
    Obligatoriness
  • Permissible (right, acceptable, justified)
  • Optional Permissible to do and permissible not
    to do
  • Obligatory Permissible to do but not
    permissible not to do

3
b. The Moral Point of View
  • Morality is a normative viewpoint the concern of
    which is to impartially protect and/or promote
    the basic interests of all individuals.
  • A normative viewpoint is one that classifies
    actions, etc. in terms of their permissibility or
    in terms of their goodness.
  • Normative viewpoints are concerned with how
    things should be, and not necessarily with how
    things are.

4
Morality vs. Rational Self-Interest
  • These two points of view may conflict It may be
    permissible from the viewpoint of self-interest
    to break a promise, but it may not be permissible
    from the moral point of view.

5
Morality vs. the Law
  • The moral point of view can also conflict with
    the legal point of view. What is morally
    permissible need not be legally permissible
  • (e.g., going through a red light when no one is
    around).
  • And what is legally permissible need not be
    morally permissible
  • (e.g., failing to pull a drowning baby out of the
    water).

6
Descriptive vs. Critical Morality
  • The descriptive morality of a given individual or
    society consists of the moral norms reflected in
    the verbal and other behavior of that individual
    or society.
  • It is an empirical matter and is part of what
    social science studies. The descriptive morality
    of a given individual or society (e.g., of Nazis)
    may be deeply defective.
  • Critical morality is not a mere descriptive
    matter. It concerns the correct moral norms, and
    thus provides a basis for criticizing the
    prevailing descriptive morality of a given
    individual or society. We will be concerned with
    critical morality.

7
QUESTION
  • Are there any valid moral judgments (or are such
    judgments just matters of emotion with no room
    for error)?

8
Moral Nihilism
  • Moral nihilism denies that there are any valid
    moral judgments, and holds that there is no point
    in discussing, or reflecting about, moral issues.
  • Most of us, however, reject this view. Suppose,
    for example, that a fellow student beats you up,
    smashes your car, and steals your wallet.
    According to moral nihilism there is no moral
    issue, whereas most of us would say that he did
    something wrong. We would criticize his behavior,
    blame him for what he did, hold him responsible
    for compensating you for the damages, and think
    it appropriate that he be punished. According to
    moral nihilism, this would all be a mistake,
    since morality is an illusion.
  • (Moral nihilism is closely related to moral
    relativism, which holds that there are no moral
    judgments valid for all people, but we won't
    worry about the distinction between the two
    here.)

9
Moral Realism
  • Moral realism is the view that there are
    objective (i.e., mind independent) laws of
    morality that determine which actions are
    permissible (the laws of morality are often
    thought of as analogous to the laws of nature
    that determine which actions are possible, or to
    laws of mathematics).
  • According to moral realism there is an
    objectively correct moral view.

10
Moral Constructivism
  • Moral constructivism is the view that the
    validity of a moral judgment, for a given person
    or group of persons, is based on whether it would
    be endorsed after careful reflection (and not on
    whether it conforms to any objective law of
    morality).

11
QUESTION What is the point of moral reflection
and discussion?
  • If moral realism is true, then one should engage
    in moral discussion to find out about the
    objectively correct moral theory. Of course, even
    if moral realism is true, there is no guarantee
    that we will all agree, or even that all well
    informed experts will agree. Morality, like
    physics, may be very complicated, and we may not
    understand it very well. But careful
    investigation and discussion will at least
    improve our understanding, and reduce (if not
    eliminate) disagreement.
  • If, however, moral constructivism is trueand
    many people think it iswhy should one engage in
    moral discussion? Here are some reasons why Even
    if there is no objectively correct moral theory,
    we can still defend/criticize a person's moral
    view on internal grounds. That is, instead of
    criticizing a person's moral views on external
    grounds (i.e., because they do not correspond to
    objective reality), we can criticize them in some
    of the following ways

12
  • (a) A person's moral view might be based on a
    confused or ill understood notion. For example,
    someone might believe that abortion is wrong
    because the fetus is a "person". Or someone might
    hold that homosexuality is wrong because it is
    "unnatural". But what exactly is meant by
    "person" or "unnatural"? Forcing the person to
    clarify what they mean may lead them to change
    his/her mind.
  • (b) A person's moral view might be based on a
    false belief, or lack of any belief. For example,
    a person's view that killing animals is
    permissible might rest on the false belief that
    they cannot feel pain, or on the lack of any
    belief about the matter. Providing the relevant
    information may lead the person to change his/her
    mind.
  • (c) A person's moral view combined with certain
    plausible assumptions might have unforeseen
    implications that are incompatible with some of
    that person's particular moral judgments. For
    example, a person may hold that abortion is
    permissible on the grounds that it is not
    generally wrong to kill something that is unaware
    of its own existence and the fetus is so unaware.
    When it is pointed out that on that view
    infanticide is also generally permissible (since
    infants are also unaware of their own existence),
    the person may change his/her view.

13
  • So, even if moral constructivism is true,
    discussing moral issues can be useful.
  • (1) We still care about what morality says. The
    issue of the moral permissibility of abortion,
    strong affirmative action, capital punishment,
    etc., don't disappear if moral constructivism is
    true.
  • (2) By being reflective one may come to change
    one's view (e.g., to make one's view coherent in
    light of a criticism of the above type).
  • (3) Even if one does not change one's moral
    views, one will at least better understand one's
    own moral views and those of others, and be
    better able to defend one's own views (rather
    than simply being dogmatic).
  • In general we must be on our guard against
    blindly accepting the prevailing ideology. In the
    past all sorts of weird views were generally
    accepted, such as that earth is flat, that
    monarchy is the only acceptable form of
    government, that women are the property of their
    husbands, that blacks aren't human, etc. Some of
    our current views are surely just as mistaken.

14
Ethics vs. Political Morality
  • Moral theory is concerned with moral
    permissibility. For simplicity we can think of it
    as having two branches.
  • Ethical theory (or individual moral theory) is
    concerned with the moral permissibility of the
    actions (things done on a particular occasion)
    and practices (things done repeatedly over time)
    of individual agents.
  • Political moral theory is concerned with the
    moral permissibility of legal social structures
    (laws and systems of laws).
  • Although each of the following theories can be
    formulated as a theory of political morality,
    well only consider their formulations as ethical
    theories.

15
DIVINE COMMAND THEORY
  • a. This is the oldest moral theory.
  • The Divine Command Theory An action is
    permissible if and only if (and solely because)
    it violates none of God's commands.
  • A note on terminology "An action satisfies God's
    commands" means that it does not violate any of
    Gods commands.
  • Note that this theory does not make any specific
    assumptions about what God's commands are (e.g.,
    that they are as represented in Christian,
    Jewish, or Muslim holy documents). It simply
    appeals to God's commands as they truly are
    (whatever they are).

16
b. An assessment of the Divine Command Theory
  • Attractive features (1) If God exists, then (at
    least on a common conception) God is omnipotent,
    omniscient and perfectly benevolent. If God gave
    us commands, then it makes a lot of sense that we
    should obey them.
  • Unattractive features
  • (1) The theory presupposes that God exists. Many
    people deny this.
  • (2) The theory presupposes that God gave us
    commands. God might simply have created the world
    and left it at that. (Deists hold this view.)
  • (3) Why think that Gods commands determine what
    is morally permissible? That is, why think that
    it is Gods commands that make things permissible
    or impermissible? Would it be permissible to
    torture babies if God gave us no commands?
  • Note that the rejection of the Divine Command
    theory does not entail that God is not the source
    of morality, it only entails that Gods commands
    are not the source of morality. Cf. Natural Law
    Theory.

17
A. Gods Commands as Creating Morality (Divine
Command Theory)
18
B. Gods Commands Instruct us about Morality
(Natural Law)
God lets us know that killing innocent humans is
wrong by telling us Dont kill innocent humans!
19
UTILITARIANISM
  • a. Utilitarianism is the most well known
    goal-directed theory.
  • It arose primarily in Great Britain during the
    1600s and 1700s during which time social thinkers
    were beginning to challenge the traditional
    social, economic, and political systems (e.g.,
    monarchies) and their Divine Command
    justifications.
  • The utilitarian emphasis was on designing and
    justifying social structures in terms of
    promoting human wellbeing. The most famous
    proponents are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and
    John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
  • There are many versions of utilitarianism (e.g.,
    act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism), but we
    will consider only act utilitarianism, which is
    the most common one.
  • (Act) utilitarianism An action (practice) is
    permissible if and only if it maximizes social
    wellbeing.

20
UTILITARIANISM
  • b. There are different versions of utilitarianism
    that understand social wellbeing in different
    ways.
  • The notion of individual wellbeing (welfare,
    utility) can be interpreted in a number of
    different ways
  • (1) net pleasure over pain,
  • (2) happiness, or
  • (3) preference satisfaction. For simplicity,
    we'll usually understand well-being to be
    happiness.
  • Social well-being can be understood either as the
    total well-being for all members of society
    (adding together everyone's individual
    well-being), or as the average level of
    well-being in society.

21
UTILITARIANISM
  • There are further variations depending on what
    kinds of entity count as members of society. All
    sentient beings (i.e., that can feel pleasure and
    pain)? Only rational and self-conscious
    beings? Only homo sapiens? Only members of one's
    country? Only presently living beings, or also
    beings that will potentially exist in the future?
  • In general, we will not worry about these
    differences, except where relevant.

22
UTILITARIANISM
  • c. An example (a1 and a3, but not a2, are judged
    permissible)
  • Action John Mary Sue Total
  • a1 80 30 70 180
  • a2 40 60 60 160
  • a3 20 90 70 180

23
  • d. An assessment of utilitarianismAttractive
    features

24
  • (1) It takes a tough-minded approach to morality
    (worrying about the long-term consequences for
    human well-being).

25
  • d. An assessment of utilitarianismUnattractive
    features

26
  • (1) It is very demanding of the agent (very few
    actions are judged permissible). For example,
    normally it judges it wrong to watch television,
    go to restaurants, etc..
  • (2) It gives little protection from interference
    from others (it can permit others to kill,
    torture, lie to, and steal from us). For example,
    it judges it permissible for the sheriff to
    execute the innocent person if that avoids
    horrible riots.
  • (3) It is relatively insensitive to distributive
    considerations. It doesn't care how unequally
    well-being is distributed. All it cares about is
    the total (or average) well-being.
  • (4) It is insensitive to what the past was like
    (what promises or agreements were made, who did
    something wrong, who worked hard, who chose to
    take a risk, etc.).
  • (5) It presupposes that well-being is cardinally
    measurable and interpersonally comparable (i.e.,
    that there is a natural scale for precisely
    measuring everyone's well-being on the same
    scale).

27
  • e. An example that illustrates utilitarianism's
    insensitivity to distributive considerations
  • Action John Mary Sue Total
  • a1 0 105 100 205
  • a2 65 65 65 195
  • Utilitarianism judges a1 (with its unequal
    distribution) permissible, but not a2 (with its
    more equal distribution).
  • f. Satisficing utilitarianism The maximizing
    nature of utilitarianism makes it very demanding.
    It could be modified by requiring only that the
    social well-being be "satisfactory" (or adequate)
    according to some specified criterion (e.g., 50
    of the maximum possible, or an amount that would
    be sufficient for a minimally decent life for
    each person).
  • g. Libertarian-constrained utilitarianism This
    holds that an action is permissible if and only
    if (1) it violates none of the libertarian
    constraints, and (2) it produces as much social
    well-being as possible without violating the
    libertarian constraints. Adding the constraints
    provides greater protection from interference and
    introduces sensitivity to the past (past
    wrongdoings, past commitments).

28
LIBERTARIANISM
  • a. A well known constraint theory is
    libertarianism. It arose primarily in Great
    Britain during the 1600 and 1700s during which
    time social thinkers were beginning to challenge
    the traditional social, economic, and political
    systems (e.g., monarchies) and their Divine
    Command justifications.
  • The libertarian emphasis was on designing and
    justifying social structures in terms of
    protecting human rights of liberty. The most
    famous proponents are John Locke (1632-1704
    British) and more recently Robert Nozick
    (1938-2002 American). Although most advocates of
    libertarianism focus on political libertarians
    (the permissibility of legal structures), for
    simplicity well focus on ethical libertarianism.
  • Libertarianism An action (practice) is
    permissible if and only if it violates none of
    the libertarian constraints.

29
  • b. The libertarian constraints consist of
  • (1) personal body constraints against killing,
    physically harming, physically annoying, or
    moving an innocent person, without his/her
    consent
  • (2) physical property (other than personal body)
    constraints against destroying, damaging, or
    moving an innocent person's physical property
    without his/her consent
  • (3) spatial property constraints against moving
    on, or causing physically annoying things to move
    on, an innocent person's spatial property without
    his/her consent
  • (4) communication constraints (a) against
    breaking promises (and agreements) without an
    innocent promisee's consent and (b) against
    deception (e.g., lies, non-rational manipulation,
    or misleading statements or practices) without an
    innocent deceived party's consent and
  • (5) compensatory constraints against failing to
    provide compensation to people that the agent has
    previously wrongedwithout their consent.

30
  • c. Above, killing, harming, annoying, moving,
    destroying, damaging, etc., are to be understood
    solely in terms of the things that an agent
    brings aboutas opposed to what he/she allows to
    happen. An agent brings about X just in case X
    occurs, but would not have occurred had that
    agent "done nothing", i.e., not intervened in the
    "normal course of events".
  • pushing a non-swimmer into a lake brings about
    her death, whereas
  • watching as a non-swimmer who fell in the lake
    drowns is merely allowing her to die.
  • Above property is understood to be moral property
    (that which a person morally owns)not legal
    property (that which a person legally owns). Cf.
    Slavery.
  • The above constraints are to be understood so
    that people who violate these constraints lose
    some of their protection from the constraints. A
    note on terminology "An action satisfies the
    constraints" means that it does not violate the
    constraints.

31
d. An assessment of libertarianism
  • Attractive features
  • (1) It leaves lots of liberty to the agent (it's
    permissible to watch television).
  • (2) It gives lots of protection from interference
    from others (it's always judged wrong to kill or
    torture).
  • (3) It holds people responsible for their actions
    (sensitivity to the past).
  • Unattractive features
  • (1) It demands very little of the agent (i.e.,
    leaves the agent too much liberty). For example,
    it judges it permissible to allow the baby in the
    puddle to drown, or to refuse to give a starving
    person some food.
  • (2) It is totally insensitive to the long-term
    impact on society (it's too rigid). For example,
    it's wrong to kill one innocent person, even if
    that saves millions of lives.
  • (3) It is totally insensitive to distributive
    considerations.

32
OPPORTUNITY EGALITARIANISM
  • a. Opportunity egalitarianism, like
    utilitarianism, is a goal-directed theory.
  • Unlike utilitarianism, its goal is a kind of
    equality of opportunity for well-being rather
    than total well-being.
  • Although it has antecedents that go back at least
    to the 1600s, its most famous proponent is John
    Rawls, who published his extremely influential A
    Theory of Justice in 1971. (His theory is much
    more complex than the simple version that we are
    considering.)
  • Opportunity Egalitarianism An action (practice)
    is permissible if and only if it maximizes
    equality of initial effective opportunity for
    well-being.

33
  • Initial effective opportunity for well-being
    This is the effective opportunity for a good life
    that individuals face at the beginning of their
    responsible life. It reflects the real
    opportunities that individuals then have to lead
    fulfilling lives.
  • There are many versions of egalitarianism. Each
    has a different conception of what is to be
    equalized. For simplicity we are focusing on
    equality of effective opportunity for well-being.
    Unlike outcome egalitarianism, opportunity
    egalitarianism denies that morality requires
    outcomes (e.g., well-being) to be equal.
  • Any plausible version of egalitarianism will
    require the promotion of equality by benefiting
    someone (e.g., improving someones opportunity
    for well-being). It will not, for example,
    require the promotion of equality when no
    benefits and some are harmed.
  • For example, it will not require choosing giving
    everyone 2 (perfect equality) rather than giving
    some 3 and some 4 (less equal, but better for
    everyone). For simplicity, I have left this
    qualification implicit.

34
c. An assessment of opportunity egalitarianism
  • Attractive features
  • (1) It takes a tough-minded approach to morality
    (worrying about the long-term consequences for
    human well-being).
  • (2) It is sensitive to distributive
    considerations.
  • (3) It is sensitive to what the past was like
    (who worked hard, who chose to take a risk,
    etc.).
  • Unattractive features
  • (1) It is very demanding of the agent (very few
    actions are judged permissible). For example,
    normally it judges it wrong to watch television,
    go to restaurants, etc..
  • (2) Although the concern for equality gives more
    protection from interference from others to
    disadvantaged individuals than act utilitarianism
    does, it doesnt provide very much protection for
    advantaged individuals. Execution example.
  • (3) It presupposes that there is a natural scale
    for precisely measuring everyone's well-being on
    the same scale.

35
  • d. Satisficing opportunity egalitarianism The
    maximizing nature of egalitarianism makes it very
    demanding. It could be modified by requiring only
    that the degree of equality of opportunity for
    well-being be "satisfactory" (or adequate)
    according to some specified criterion (e.g., 50
    of the maximum possible).
  • e. Libertarian-constrained opportunity
    egalitarianism This holds that an action is
    permissible if and only if
  • (1) it violates none of the libertarian
    constraints, and
  • (2) it produces as much equality of opportunity
    for well-being as possible without violating the
    libertarian constraints.
  • Adding the constraints provides greater
    protection from interference and introduces
    greater sensitivity to the past (past
    wrongdoings, past commitments).

36
SATISFICING LIBERTARIAN-CONSTRAINED OPPORTUNITY
EGALITARIANISM
  • This is the theory that I believe (roughly
    speaking) to be the most plausible. There will be
    no test questions on this. This is included
    solely for your reference.
  • Satisficing Libertarian-Constrained Opportunity
    Egalitarianism An action (practice) is
    permissible if and only if
  • (1) it violates none of the libertarian
    constraints, and
  • (2) of those actions satisfying the libertarian
    constraints that benefit at least one person, it
    produces a satisfactory (relative to the
    circumstances) degree of equality of opportunity
    for well-being.

37
  • Attractive features
  • (1) It takes a tough-minded approach to morality
    (worrying about the long-term consequences for
    human well-being).
  • (2) It is moderately demanding.
  • (3) It provides strong protection from
    interference.
  • (4) It is sensitive to the equality of effective
    opportunity for well-being.
  • (5) It is sensitive to the past and holds
    individuals accountable for their past choices.
  • Unattractive features
  • (1) It provides too much protection from
    interference (e.g., wrong to forcibly remove the
    kidney of a privileged person when it would save
    thousands of lives).
  • (2) It recognizes no duty to help the needy when
    their neediness is their own fault.
  • (3) It presupposes that well-being is cardinally
    measurable and interpersonally comparable (i.e.,
    that there is a natural scale for precisely
    measuring everyone's well-being on the same
    scale).
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