Deontological Vs Teleological Ethical Systems Assignment Of Contract

1. Deontology's Foil: Consequentialism

Because deontological theories are best understood in contrast to consequentialist ones, a brief look at consequentialism and a survey of the problems with it that motivate its deontological opponents, provides a helpful prelude to taking up deontological theories themselves. Consequentialists hold that choices—acts and/or intentions—are to be morally assessed solely by the states of affairs they bring about. Consequentialists thus must specify initially the states of affairs that are intrinsically valuable—often called, collectively, “the Good.” They then are in a position to assert that whatever choices increase the Good, that is, bring about more of it, are the choices that it is morally right to make and to execute. (The Good in that sense is said to be prior to “the Right.”)

Consequentialists can and do differ widely in terms of specifying the Good. Some consequentialists are monists about the Good. Utilitarians, for example, identify the Good with pleasure, happiness, desire satisfaction, or “welfare” in some other sense. Other consequentialists are pluralists regarding the Good. Some of such pluralists believe that how the Good is distributed among persons (or all sentient beings) is itself partly constitutive of the Good, whereas conventional utilitarians merely add or average each person's share of the Good to achieve the Good's maximization.

Moreover, there are some consequentialists who hold that the doing or refraining from doing, of certain kinds of acts are themselves intrinsically valuable states of affairs constitutive of the Good. An example of this is the positing of rights not being violated, or duties being kept, as part of the Good to be maximized—the so-called “utilitarianism of rights” (Nozick 1974).

None of these pluralist positions erase the difference between consequentialism and deontology. For the essence of consequentialism is still present in such positions: an action would be right only insofar as it maximizes these Good-making states of affairs being caused to exist.

However much consequentialists differ about what the Good consists in, they all agree that the morally right choices are those that increase (either directly or indirectly) the Good. Moreover, consequentialists generally agree that the Good is “agent-neutral” (Parfit 1984; Nagel 1986). That is, valuable states of affairs are states of affairs that all agents have reason to achieve without regard to whether such states of affairs are achieved through the exercise of one's own agency or not.

Consequentialism is frequently criticized on a number of grounds. Two of these are particularly apt for revealing the temptations motivating the alternative approach to deontic ethics that is deontology. The two criticisms pertinent here are that consequentialism is, on the one hand, overly demanding, and, on the other hand, that it is not demanding enough. The criticism regarding extreme demandingness runs like this: for consequentialists, there is no realm of moral permissions, no realm of going beyond one's moral duty (supererogation), no realm of moral indifference. All acts are seemingly either required or forbidden. And there also seems to be no space for the consequentialist in which to show partiality to one's own projects or to one's family, friends, and countrymen, leading some critics of consequentialism to deem it a profoundly alienating and perhaps self-effacing moral theory (Williams 1973).

On the other hand, consequentialism is also criticized for what it seemingly permits. It seemingly demands (and thus, of course, permits) that in certain circumstances innocents be killed, beaten, lied to, or deprived of material goods to produce greater benefits for others. Consequences—and only consequences—can conceivably justify any kind of act, for it does not matter how harmful it is to some so long as it is more beneficial to others.

A well-worn example of this over-permissiveness of consequentialism is that of a case standardly called, Transplant. A surgeon has five patients dying of organ failure and one healthy patient whose organs can save the five. In the right circumstances, surgeon will be permitted (and indeed required) by consequentialism to kill the healthy patient to obtain his organs, assuming there are no relevant consequences other than the saving of the five and the death of the one. Likewise, consequentialism will permit (in a case that we shall call, Fat Man) that a fat man be pushed in front of a runaway trolley if his being crushed by the trolley will halt its advance towards five workers trapped on the track. We shall return to these examples later on.

Consequentialists are of course not bereft of replies to these two criticisms. Some retreat from maximizing the Good to “satisficing”—that is, making the achievement of only a certain level of the Good mandatory (Slote 1984). This move opens up some space for personal projects and relationships, as well as a realm of the morally permissible. It is not clear, however, that satisficing is adequately motivated, except to avoid the problems of maximizing. Nor is it clear that the level of mandatory satisficing can be nonarbitrarily specified, or that satisficing will not require deontological constraints to protect satisficers from maximizers.

Another move is to introduce a positive/negative duty distinction within consequentialism. On this view, our (negative) duty is not to make the world worse by actions having bad consequences; lacking is a corresponding (positive) duty to make the world better by actions having good consequences (Bentham 1789 (1948); Quinton 2007). We thus have a consequentialist duty not to kill the one in Transplant or in Fat Man; and there is no counterbalancing duty to save five that overrides this. Yet as with the satisficing move, it is unclear how a consistent consequentialist can motivate this restriction on all-out optimization of the Good.

Yet another idea popular with consequentialists is to move from consequentialism as a theory that directly assesses acts to consequentialism as a theory that directly assesses rules—or character-trait inculcation—and assesses acts only indirectly by reference to such rules (or character-traits) (Alexander 1985). Its proponents contend that indirect consequentialism can avoid the criticisms of direct (act) consequentialism because it will not legitimate egregious violations of ordinary moral standards—e.g., the killing of the innocent to bring about some better state of affairs—nor will it be overly demanding and thus alienating each of us from our own projects.

The relevance here of these defensive maneuvers by consequentialists is their common attempt to mimic the intuitively plausible aspects of a non-consequentialist, deontological approach to ethics. For as we shall now explore, the strengths of deontological approaches lie: (1) in their categorical prohibition of actions like the killing of innocents, even when good consequences are in the offing; and (2) in their permission to each of us to pursue our own projects free of any constant demand that we shape those projects so as to make everyone else well off.

2. Deontological Theories

Having now briefly taken a look at deontologists' foil, consequentialist theories of right action, we turn now to examine deontological theories. In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different from the states of affairs those choices bring about. The most familiar forms of deontology, and also the forms presenting the greatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects—that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. On such familiar deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot make certain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of those exact kinds of wrongful choices will be minimized (because other agents will be prevented from engaging in similar wrongful choices). For such deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent; such norm-keepings are not to be maximized by each agent. In this sense, for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even a Good consisting of acts in accordance with the Right).

Analogously, deontologists typically supplement non-consequentialist obligations with non-consequentialist permissions (Scheffler 1982). That is, certain actions can be right even though not maximizing of good consequences, for the rightness of such actions consists in their instantiating certain norms (here, of permission and not of obligation). Such actions are permitted, not just in the weak sense that there is no obligation not to do them, but also in the strong sense that one is permitted to do them even though they are productive of less good consequences than their alternatives (Moore 2008). Such strongly permitted actions include actions one is obligated to do, but (importantly) also included are actions one is not obligated to do. It is this last feature of such actions that warrants their separate mention for deontologists.

2.1 Agent-Centered Deontological Theories

The most traditional mode of taxonomizing deontological theories is to divide them between agent-centered versus victim-centered (or “patient-centered”) theories (Scheffler 1988; Kamm 2007). Consider first agent-centered deontological theories. According to agent-centered theories, we each have both permissions and obligations that give us agent-relative reasons for action. An agent-relative reason is an objective reason, just as are agent neutral reasons; neither is to be confused with the subjective reasons that form the nerve of psychological explanations of human action (Nagel 1986). An agent-relative reason is so-called because it is a reason relative to the agent whose reason it is; it need not (although it may) constitute a reason for anyone else. Thus, an agent-relative obligation is an obligation for a particular agent to take or refrain from taking some action; and because it is agent-relative, the obligation does not necessarily give anyone else a reason to support that action. Each parent, for example, is commonly thought to have such special obligations to his/her child, obligations not shared by anyone else. Likewise, an agent-relative permission is a permission for some agent to do some act even though others may not be permitted to aid that agent in the doing of his permitted action. Each parent, to revert to the same example, is commonly thought to be permitted (at the least) to save his own child even at the cost of not saving two other children to whom he has no special relation. Agent-centered theories and the agent-relative reasons on which they are based not only enjoin each of us to do or not to do certain things; they also instruct me to treat my friends, my family, my promisees in certain ways because they are mine, even if by neglecting them I could do more for others' friends, families, and promisees.

At the heart of agent-centered theories (with their agent-relative reasons) is the idea of agency. The moral plausibility of agent-centered theories is rooted here. The idea is that morality is intensely personal, in the sense that we are each enjoined to keep our own moral house in order. Our categorical obligations are not to focus on how our actions cause or enable other agents to do evil; the focus of our categorical obligations is to keep our own agency free of moral taint.

Each agent's distinctive moral concern with his/her own agency puts some pressure on agent-centered theories to clarify how and when our agency is or is not involved in various situations. Agent-centered theories famously divide between those that emphasize the role of intention or other mental states in constituting the morally important kind of agency, and those that emphasize the actions of agents as playing such a role. There are also agent-centered theories that emphasize both intentions and actions equally in constituting the morally relevant agency of persons.

On the first of these three agent-relative views, it is most commonly asserted that it is our intended ends and intended means that most crucially define our agency. Such intentions mark out what it is we set out to achieve through our actions. If we intend something bad as an end, or even as a means to some more beneficent end, we are said to have “set ourselves at evil,” something we are categorically forbidden to do (Aquinas Summa Theologica).

Three items usefully contrasted with such intentions are belief, risk, and cause. If we predict that an act of ours will result in evil, such prediction is a cognitive state (of belief); it is not a conative state of intention to bring about such a result, either as an end in itself or as a means to some other end. In this case, our agency is involved only to the extent that we have shown ourselves as being willing to tolerate evil results flowing from our acts; but we have not set out to achieve such evil by our acts. Likewise, a risking and/or causing of some evil result is distinct from any intention to achieve it. We can intend such a result, and we can even execute such an intention so that it becomes a trying, without in fact either causing or even risking it. (It is, however, true that we must believe we are risking the result to some extent, however minimal, for the result to be what we intend to bring about by our act.) Also, we can cause or risk such results without intending them. For example, we can intend to kill and even try to kill someone without killing him; and we can kill him without intending or trying to kill him, as when we kill accidentally. Intending thus does not collapse into risking, causing, or predicting; and on the version of agent-centered deontology here considered, it is intending (or perhaps trying) alone that marks the involvement of our agency in a way so as to bring agent-centered obligations and permissions into play.

Deontologists of this stripe are committed to something like the doctrine of double effect, a long-established doctrine of Catholic theology (Woodward 2001). The Doctrine in its most familiar form asserts that we are categorically forbidden to intend evils such as killing the innocent or torturing others, even though doing such acts would minimize the doing of like acts by others (or even ourselves) in the future. By contrast, if we only risk, cause, or predict that our acts will have consequences making them acts of killing or of torture, then we might be able to justify the doing of such acts by the killing/torture-minimizing consequences of such actions. Whether such distinctions are plausible is standardly taken to measure the plausibility of an intention-focused version of the agent-centered version of deontology.

There are other versions of mental-state focused agent relativity that do not focus on intentions (Hurd 1994). Some of these versions focus on predictive belief as much as on intention (at least when the belief is of a high degree of certainty). Other versions focus on intended ends (“motives”) alone. Still others focus on the deliberative processes that precede the formation of intentions, so that even to contemplate the doing of an evil act impermissibly invokes our agency (Anscombe 1958; Geach 1969; Nagel 1979). But intention-focused versions are the most familiar versions of so-called “inner wickedness” versions of agent-centered deontology.

The second kind of agent-centered deontology is one focused on actions, not mental states. Such a view can concede that all human actions must originate with some kind of mental state, often styled a volition or a willing; such a view can even concede that volitions or willings are an intention of a certain kind (Moore 1993, Ch. 6). Indeed, such source of human actions in willing is what plausibly connects actions to the agency that is of moral concern on the agent-centered version of deontology. Yet to will the movement of a finger on a trigger is distinct from an intention to kill a person by that finger movement. The act view of agency is thus distinct from the intentions (or other mental state) view of agency.

On this view, our agent-relative obligations and permissions have as their content certain kinds of actions: we are obligated not to kill innocents for example. The killing of an innocent of course requires that there be a death of such innocent, but there is no agency involved in mere events such as deaths. Needed for there to be a killing are two other items. One we remarked on before: the action of the putative agent must have its source in a willing. But the other maker of agency here is more interesting for present purposes: the willing must cause the death of the innocent for an act to be a killing of such innocent. Much (on this view) is loaded into the requirement of causation.

First, causings of evils like deaths of innocents are commonly distinguished from omissions to prevent such deaths. Holding a baby's head under water until it drowns is a killing; seeing a baby lying face down in a puddle and doing nothing to save it when one could do so easily is a failure to prevent its death. Our categorical obligations are usually negative in content: we are not to kill the baby. We may have an obligation to save it, but this will not be an agent-relative obligation, on the view here considered, unless we have some special relationship to the baby.

Second, causings are distinguished from allowings. In a narrow sense of the word we will here stipulate, one allows a death to occur when: (1) one's action merely removes a defense the victim otherwise would have had against death; and (2) such removal returns the victim to some morally appropriate baseline (Kamm 1994, 1996; MacMahan 2003). Thus, mercy-killings, or euthanasia, are outside of our deontological obligations (and thus eligible for justification by good consequences) so long as one's act: (1) only removes a defense against death that the agent herself had earlier provided, such as disconnecting medical equipment that is keeping the patient alive when that disconnecting is done by the medical personnel that attached the patient to the equipment originally; and (2) the equipment could justifiably have been hooked up to another patient, where it could do some good, had the doctors known at the time of connection what they know at the time of disconnection.

Third, one is said not to cause an evil such as a death when one's acts merely enable (or aid) some other agent to cause such evil (Hart and Honore 1985). Thus, one is not categorically forbidden to drive the terrorists to where they can kill the policeman (if the alternative is death of one's family), even though one would be categorically forbidden to kill the policeman oneself (even where the alternative is death of one's family) (Moore 2008). Nor is one categorically forbidden to select which of a group of villagers shall be unjustly executed by another who is pursuing his own purposes (Williams 1973).

Fourth, one is said not to cause an evil such as a death when one merely redirects a presently existing threat to many so that it now threatens only one (or a few) (Thomson 1985). In the time-honored example of the run-away trolley (Trolley), one may turn a trolley so that it runs over one trapped workman so as to save five workmen trapped on the other track, even though it is not permissible for an agent to have initiated the movement of the trolley towards the one to save five (Foot 1967; Thomson 1985).

Fifth, our agency is said not to be involved in mere accelerations of evils about to happen anyway, as opposed to causing such evils by doing acts necessary for such evils to occur (G. Williams 1961; Brody 1996). Thus, when a victim is about to fall to his death anyway, dragging a rescuer with him too, the rescuer may cut the rope connecting them. Rescuer is accelerating, but not causing, the death that was about to occur anyway.

All of these last five distinctions have been suggested to be part and parcel of another centuries-old Catholic doctrine, that of the doctrine of doing and allowing (see the entry on doing vs. allowing harm) (Moore 2008; Kamm 1994; Foot 1967; Quinn 1989). According to this doctrine, one may not cause death, for that would be a killing, a “doing;” but one may fail to prevent death, allow (in the narrow sense) death to occur, enable another to cause death, redirect a life-threatening item from many to one, or accelerate a death about to happen anyway, if good enough consequences are in the offing. As with the Doctrine of Double Effect, how plausible one finds these applications of the doctrine of doing and allowing will determine how plausible one finds this cause-based view of human agency.

A third kind of agent-centered deontology can be obtained by simply conjoining the other two agent-centered views (Hurd 1994). This view would be that agency in the relevant sense requires both intending and causing (i.e., acting) (Moore 2008). On this view, our agent-relative obligations do not focus on causings or intentions separately; rather, the content of such obligations is focused on intended causings. For example, our deontological obligation with respect to human life is neither an obligation not to kill nor an obligation not to intend to kill; rather, it is an obligation not to murder, that is, to kill in execution of an intention to kill.

By requiring both intention and causings to constitute human agency, this third view avoids the seeming overbreadth of our obligations if either intention or action alone marked such agency. Suppose our agent-relative obligation were not to do some action such as kill an innocent –is that obligation breached by a merely negligent killing, so that we deserve the serious blame of having breached such a categorical norm (Hurd 1994)? (Of course, one might be somewhat blameworthy on consequentialist grounds (Hurd 1995), or perhaps not blameworthy at all (Moore and Hurd 2011).) Alternatively, suppose our agent-relative obligation were not to intend to kill—does that mean we could not justify forming such an intention when good consequences would be the result, and when we are sure we cannot act so as to fulfill such intention (Hurd 1994)? If our agent-relative obligation is neither of these alone, but is rather, that we are not to kill in execution of an intention to kill, both such instances of seeming overbreadth in the reach of our obligations, are avoided.

Whichever of these three agent-centered theories one finds most plausible, they each suffer from some common problems. A fundamental worry is the moral unattractiveness of the focus on self that is the nerve of any agent-centered deontology. The importance of each person's agency to himself/herself has a narcissistic flavor to it that seems unattractive to many. It seemingly justifies each of us keeping our own moral house in order even at the expense of the world becoming much worse. The worry is not that agent-centered deontology is just another form of egoism, according to which the content of one's duties exclusively concern oneself; even so, the character of agent-relative duties is such that they betoken an emphasis on self that is unattractive in the same way that such emphasis makes egoism unattractive. Secondly, many find the distinctions invited by the Doctrine of Double Effect and the (five versions of the) Doctrine of Doing and Allowing to be either morally unattractive or conceptually incoherent. Such critics find the differences between intending/foreseeing, causing/omitting, causing/allowing, causing/enabling, causing/redirecting, causing/accelerating to be morally insignificant. (On act/omission (Rachels 1975); on doing/allowing (Kagan 1989); on intending/foreseeing (Bennett 1981; Davis 1984).) They urge, for example, that failing to prevent a death one could easily prevent is as blameworthy as causing a death, so that a morality that radically distinguishes the two is implausible. Alternatively, such critics urge on conceptual grounds that no clear distinctions can be drawn in these matters, that foreseeing with certainty is indistinguishable from intending (Bennett 1981), that omitting is one kind of causing (Schaffer 2012), and so forth.

Thirdly, there is the worry about “avoision.” By casting our categorical obligations in such agent-centered terms, one invites a kind of manipulation that is legalistic and Jesuitical, what Leo Katz dubs “avoision” (Katz 1996). Some think, for example, that one can transform a prohibited intention into a permissible predictive belief (and thus escape intention-focused forms of agent-relative duty) by the simple expedient of finding some other end with which to motivate the action in question.

Such criticisms of the agent-centered view of deontology drive most who accept their force away from deontology entirely and to some form of consequentialism. Alternatively, some of such critics are driven to patient-centered deontology, which we discuss immediately below. Yet still other of such critics attempt to articulate yet a fourth form of agent-centered deontology. This might be called the “control theory of agency.” On this view, our agency is invoked whenever our choices could have made a difference. This cuts across the intention/foresight, act/omission, and doing/allowing distinctions, because in all cases we controlled what happened through our choices (Frey 1995). Yet as an account of deontology, this seems worrisomely broad. It disallows consequentialist justifications whenever: we foresee the death of an innocent; we omit to save, where our saving would have made a difference and we knew it; where we remove a life-saving device, knowing the patient will die. If deontological norms are so broad in content as to cover all these foreseeings, omittings, and allowings, then good consequences (such as a net saving of innocent lives) are ineligible to justify them. This makes for a wildly counterintuitive deontology: surely I can, for example, justify not throwing the rope to one (and thus omit to save him) in order to save two others equally in need. This breadth of obligation also makes for a conflict-ridden deontology: by refusing to cabin our categorical obligations by the distinctions of the Doctrine of Double Effect and the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing, situations of conflict between our stringent obligations proliferate in a troublesome way (Anscombe 1962).

2.2 Patient-Centered Deontological Theories

A second group of deontological moral theories can be classified, as patient-centered, as distinguished from the agent-centered version of deontology just considered. These theories are rights-based rather than duty-based; and some versions purport to be quite agent-neutral in the reasons they give moral agents.

All patient-centered deontological theories are properly characterized as theories premised on people's rights. An illustrative version posits, as its core right, the right against being used only as means for producing good consequences without one's consent. Such a core right is not to be confused with more discrete rights, such as the right against being killed, or being killed intentionally. It is a right against being used by another for the user's or others' benefit. More specifically, this version of patient-centered deontological theories proscribes the using of another's body, labor, and talent without the latter's consent. One finds this notion expressed, albeit in different ways, in the work of the so-called Right Libertarians (e.g., Robert Nozick, Eric Mack), but also in the works of the Left-Libertarians as well (e.g., Michael Otsuka, Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne) (Nozick 1974; Mack 2000; Steiner 1994; Vallentyne and Steiner 2000; Vallentyne, Steiner, and Otsuka 2005). On this view, the scope of strong moral duties—those that are the correlatives of others' rights—is jurisdictionally limited and does not extend to resources for producing the Good that would not exist in the absence of those intruded upon—that is, their bodies, labors, and talents. In addition to the Libertarians, others whose views include this prohibition on using others include Quinn, Kamm, Alexander, Ferzan, Gauthier, and Walen (Quinn 1989; Kamm 1996; Alexander 2016; Alexander and Ferzan 2009, 2012; Gauthier 1986; Walen 2014, 2016).

Just as do agent-centered theories, so too do patient-centered theories (such as that forbidding the using of another) seek to explain common intuitions about such classic hypothetical cases as Trolley and Transplant (or Fat Man) (Thomson 1985). In Trolley, a runaway trolley will kill five workers unless diverted to a siding where it will kill one worker. Most people regard it as permissible and perhaps mandatory to switch the trolley to the siding. By contrast, in Transplant, where a surgeon can kill one healthy patient and transplant his organs to five dying patients, thereby saving their lives, the universal reaction is condemnation. (The same is by-and-large true in Fat Man, where the runaway trolley cannot be switched off the main track but can be stopped before reaching the five workers by pushing a fat man into its path, resulting in his death.)

The injunction against using arguably accounts for these contrasting reactions. After all, in each example, one life is sacrificed to save five. Yet there appears to be a difference in the means through which the net four lives are saved. In Transplant (and Fat Man), the doomed person is used to benefit the others. They could not be saved in the absence of his body. In Trolley, on the other hand, the doomed victim is not used. The workers would be saved whether or not he is present on the second track.

Notice, too, that this patient-centered libertarian version of deontology handles Trolley, Transplant et al. differently from how they are handled by agent-centered versions. The latter focus on the agent's mental state or on whether the agent acted or caused the victim's harm. The patient-centered theory focuses instead on whether the victim's body, labor, or talents were the means by which the justifying results were produced. So one who realizes that by switching the trolley he can save five trapped workers and place only one in mortal danger—and that the danger to the latter is not the means by which the former will be saved—acts permissibly on the patient-centered view if he switches the trolley even if he does so with the intention of killing the one worker. Switching the trolley is causally sufficient to bring about the consequences that justify the act—the saving of net four workers—and it is so even in the absence of the one worker's body, labor, or talents. (The five would be saved if the one escaped, was never on the track, or did not exist.) By contrast, on the intent and intended action versions of agent-centered theories, the one who switches the trolley does not act permissibly if he acts with the intention to harm the one worker. (This could be the case, for example, when the one who switches the trolley does so to kill the one whom he hates, only knowing that he will thereby save the other five workmen.) On the patient-centered version, if an act is otherwise morally justifiable by virtue of its balance of good and bad consequences, and the good consequences are achieved without the necessity of using anyone's body, labor, or talents without that person's consent as the means by which they are achieved, then it is morally immaterial (to the permissibility of the act but not to the culpability of the actor) whether someone undertakes that act with the intention to achieve its bad consequences. (This is true, of course, only so long as the concept of using does not implicitly refer to the intention of the user) (Alexander 2016). And in assessing the culpability of risky conduct, any good consequences must be discounted, not only by the perceived risk that they will not occur, but also by the perceived risk that they will be brought about by a using; for any such consequences, however good they otherwise are, cannot be considered in determining the permissibility and, derivatively, the culpability of acts (Alexander 2016).

Patient-centered deontologists handle differently other stock examples of the agent-centered deontologist. Take the acceleration cases as an example. When all will die in a lifeboat unless one is killed and eaten; when Siamese twins are conjoined such that both will die unless the organs of one are given to the other via an operation that kills the first; when all of a group of soldiers will die unless the body of one is used to hold down the enemy barbed wire, allowing the rest to save themselves; when a group of villagers will all be shot by a blood-thirsty tyrant unless they select one of their numbers to slake the tyrants lust for death—in all such cases, the causing/accelerating-distinguishing agent-centered deontologists would permit the killing but the usings-focused patient-centered deontologist would not. (For the latter, all killings are merely accelerations of death.)

The restriction of deontological duties to usings of another raises a sticky problem for those patient-centered deontological theories that are based on the core right against using: how can they account for the prima facie wrongs of killing, injuring, and so forth when done not to use others as means, but for some other purpose or for no purpose at all? The answer is that such patient-centered deontological constraints must be supplemented by consequentialist-derived moral norms to give an adequate account of morality. Killing, injuring, and so forth will usually be unjustifiable on a consequentialist calculus, especially if everyone's interests are given equal regard. It is when killing and injuring are otherwise justifiable that the deontological constraint against using has its normative bite over and against what is already prohibited by consequentialism. (This narrowness of patient-centered deontology makes it counterintuitive to agent-centered deontologists, who regard prohibitions on killing of the innocent, etc., as paradigmatically deontological.)

The patient-centered version of deontology is aptly labeled libertarian in that it is not plausible to conceive of not being aided as being used by the one not aiding. Using is an action, not a failure to act. More generally, it is counterintuitive to many to think that any of us have a right to be aided. For if there were a strong (that is, enforceable or coercible) duty to aid others, such that, for example, A had a duty to aid X, Y, and Z; and if A could more effectively aid X, Y, and Z by coercing B and C to aid them (as is their duty), then A would have a duty to “use” B and C in this way. For these reasons, any positive duties will not be rights-based ones on the view here considered; they will be consequentially-justified duties that can be trumped by the right not to be coerced to perform them.

Patient-centered deontological theories are often conceived in agent-neutral reason-giving terms. John has a right to the exclusive use of his body, labor, and talents, and such a right gives everyone equal reason to do actions respecting it. But this aspect of patient-centered deontological theories gives rise to a particularly virulent form of the so-called paradox of deontology (Scheffler 1988)—that if respecting Mary's and Susan's rights is as important morally as is protecting John's rights, then why isn't violating John's rights permissible (or even obligatory) when doing so is necessary to protect Mary's and Susan's rights from being violated by others? Patient-centered deontological theories might arguably do better if they abandoned their pretense of being agent-neutral. They could conceive of rights as giving agent-relative reasons to each actor to refrain from doing actions violative of such rights. Take the core right against being used without one's consent hypothesized earlier. The correlative duty is not to use another without his consent. If such duty is agent-relative, then the rights-based deontologist (no less than the agent-centered deontologist) has the conceptual resources to answer the paradox of deontology. That is, each of us may not use John, even when such using of John would minimize usings of John by others in the future. Such duties are personal to each of us in that we may not justify our violating such a duty now by preventing others' similar violations in the future. Such personal duties are agent-centered in the sense that the agency of each person is central to the duties of each person, so that your using of another now cannot be traded off against other possible usings at other times by other people.

Patient-centered deontologies are thus arguably better construed to be agent-relative in the reasons they give. Even so construed, such deontologies join agent-centered deontologies in facing the moral (rather than the conceptual) versions of the paradox of deontology. For a critic of either form of deontology might respond to the categorical prohibition about using others as follows: If usings are bad, then are not more usings worse than fewer? And if so, then is it not odd to condemn acts that produce better states of affairs than would occur in their absence? Deontologists of either stripe can just deny that wrong acts on their account of wrongness can be translated into bad states of affairs. Two wrong acts are not “worse” than one. Such wrongs cannot be summed into anything of normative significance. After all, the victim of a rights-violating using may suffer less harm than others might have suffered had his rights not been violated; yet one cannot, without begging the question against deontological constraints, argue that therefore no constraint should block minimizing harm. That is, the deontologist might reject the comparability of states of affairs that involve violations and those that do not. Similarly, the deontologist may reject the comparability of states of affairs that involve more or fewer rights-violations (Brook 2007). The deontologist might attempt to back this assertion by relying upon the separateness of persons. Wrongs are only wrongs to persons. A wrong to Y and a wrong to Z cannot be added to make some greater wrong because there is no person who suffers this greater wrong (cf. Taurek 1977).

This solution to the paradox of deontology, may seem attractive, but it comes at a high cost. In Trolley, for example, where there is neither agency nor using in the relevant senses and thus no bar to switching, one cannot claim that it is better to switch and save the five. For if the deaths of the five cannot be summed, their deaths are not worse than the death of the one worker on the siding. Although there is no deontological bar to switching, neither is the saving of a net four lives a reason to switch. Worse yet, were the trolley heading for the one worker rather than the five, there would be no reason not to switch the trolley, so a net loss of four lives is no reason not to switch the trolley. If the numbers don't count, they seemingly don't count either way.

The problem of how to account for the significance of numbers without giving up deontology and adopting consequentialism, and without resurrecting the paradox of deontology, is one that a number of deontologists are now working to solve (e.g., Kamm 1996; Scanlon 2003; Otsuka 2006, Hsieh et al. 2006). Until it is solved, it will remain a huge thorn in the deontologist's side.

2.3 Contractarian Deontological Theories

Somewhat orthogonal to the distinction between agent-centered versus patient-centered deontological theories are contractualist deontological theories. Morally wrong acts are, on such accounts, those acts that would be forbidden by principles that people in a suitably described social contract would accept (e.g., Rawls 1971; Gauthier 1986), or that would be forbidden only by principles that such people could not “reasonably reject” (e.g., Scanlon 2003).

In deontology, as elsewhere in ethics, is not entirely clear whether a contractualist account is really normative as opposed to metaethical. If such account is a first order normative account, it is probably best construed as a patient-centered deontology; for the central obligation would be to do onto others only that to which they have consented. But so construed, modern contractualist accounts would share the problems that have long bedeviled historical social contract theories: how plausible is it that the “moral magic” of consent is the first principle of morality? And how much of what is commonly regarded as permissible to do to people can (in any realistic sense of the word) be said to be actually consented to by them, expressly or even implicitly?

In fact modern contractualisms look meta-ethical, and not normative. Thomas Scanlon's contractualism, for example, which posits at its core those norms of action that we can justify to each other, is best construed as an ontological and epistemological account of moral notions. The same may be said of David Gauthier's contractualism. Yet so construed, metaethical contractualism as a method for deriving moral norms does not necessarily lead to deontology as a first order ethics. John Harsanyi, for example, argues that parties to the social contract would choose utilitarianism over the principles John Rawls argues would be chosen (Harsanyi 1973). Nor is it clear that meta-ethical contractualism, when it does generate a deontological ethic, favors either an agent centered or a patient centered version of such an ethic.

2.4 Deontological Theories and Kant

If any philosopher is regarded as central to deontological moral theories, it is surely Immanuel Kant. Indeed, each of the branches of deontological ethics—the agent-centered, the patient-centered, and the contractualist—can lay claim to being Kantian.

The agent-centered deontologist can cite Kant's locating the moral quality of acts in the principles or maxims on which the agent acts and not primarily in those acts' effects on others. For Kant, the only thing unqualifiedly good is a good will (Kant 1785). The patient-centered deontologist can, of course, cite Kant's injunction against using others as mere means to one's end (Kant 1785). And the contractualist can cite, as Kant's contractualist element, Kant's insistence that the maxims on which one acts be capable of being willed as a universal law—willed by all rational agents (Kant 1785). (See generally the entry on Kant.)

3. The Advantages of Deontological Theories

Having canvassed the two main types of deontological theories (together with a contractualist variation of each), it is time to assess deontological morality more generally. On the one hand, deontological morality, in contrast to consequentialism, leaves space for agents to give special concern to their families, friends, and projects. At least that is so if the deontological morality contains no strong duty of general beneficence, or, if it does, it places a cap on that duty's demands. Deontological morality, therefore, avoids the overly demanding and alienating aspects of consequentialism and accords more with conventional notions of our moral duties.

Likewise, deontological moralities, unlike most views of consequentialism, leave space for the supererogatory. A deontologist can do more that is morally praiseworthy than morality demands. A consequentialist cannot, assuming none of the consequentialists' defensive maneuvers earlier referenced work. For such a pure or simple consequentialist, if one's act is not morally demanded, it is morally wrong and forbidden. Whereas for the deontologist, there are acts that are neither morally wrong nor demanded, some—but only some—of which are morally praiseworthy.

As we have seen, deontological theories all possess the strong advantage of being able to account for strong, widely shared moral intuitions about our duties better than can consequentialism. The contrasting reactions to Trolley, Fat Man, Transplant, and other examples earlier given, are illustrative of this.

Finally, deontological theories, unlike consequentialist ones, have the potential for explaining why certain people have moral standing to complain about and hold to account those who breach moral duties. For the moral duties typically thought to be deontological in character—unlike, say, duties regarding the environment—are duties to particular people, not duties to bring about states of affairs that no particular person has an individual right to have realized.

4. The Weaknesses of Deontological Theories

On the other hand, deontological theories have their own weak spots. The most glaring one is the seeming irrationality of our having duties or permissions to make the world morally worse. Deontologists need their own, non-consequentialist model of rationality, one that is a viable alternative to the intuitively plausible, “act-to-produce-the-best-consequences” model of rationality that motivates consequentialist theories. Until this is done, deontology will always be paradoxical. Patient-centered versions of deontology cannot easily escape this problem, as we have shown. It is not even clear that they have the conceptual resources to make agency important enough to escape this moral paradox. Yet even agent-centered versions face this paradox; having the conceptual resources (of agency and agent-relative reasons) is not the same as making it plausible just how a secular, objective morality can allow each person's agency to be so uniquely crucial to that person.

Second, it is crucial for deontologists to deal with the conflicts that seem to exist between certain duties, and between certain rights. For more information, please see the entry on moral dilemmas. Kant's bold proclamation that “a conflict of duties is inconceivable” (Kant 1780, p. 25) is the conclusion wanted, but reasons for believing it are difficult to produce. The intending/foreseeing, doing/allowing, causing/aiding, and related distinctions certainly reduce potential conflicts for the agent-centered versions of deontology; whether they can totally eliminate such conflicts is a yet unresolved question.

One well known approach to deal with the possibility of conflict between deontological duties is to reduce the categorical force of such duties to that of only “prima facie” duties (Ross 1930, 1939). This idea is that conflict between merely prima facie duties is unproblematic so long as it does not infect what one is categorically obligated to do, which is what overall, concrete duties mandate. Like other softenings of the categorical force of deontological obligation we mention briefly below (threshold deontology, mixed views), the prima facie duty view is in some danger of collapsing into a kind of consequentialism. This depends on whether “prima facie” is read epistemically or not, and on (1) whether any good consequences are eligible to justify breach of prima facie duties; (2) whether only such consequences over some threshold can do so; or (3) whether only threatened breach of other deontological duties can do so.

Thirdly, there is the manipulability worry mentioned before with respect to agent-centered versions of deontology. To the extent potential conflict is eliminated by resort to the Doctrine of Double Effect, the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing, and so forth (and it is not clear to what extent patient-centered versions rely on these doctrines and distinctions to mitigate potential conflict), then a potential for “avoision” is opened up. Such avoision is the manipulation of means (using omissions, foresight, risk, allowings, aidings, acceleratings, redirectings, etc.) to achieve permissibly what otherwise deontological morality would forbid (see Katz 1996). Avoision is an undesirable feature of any ethical system that allows such strategic manipulation of its doctrines.

Fourth, there is what might be called the paradox of relative stringency. There is an aura of paradox in asserting that all deontological duties are categorical—to be done no matter the consequences—and yet asserting that some of such duties are more stringent than others. A common thought is that “there cannot be degrees of wrongness with intrinsically wrong acts… (Frey 1995, p. 78 n. 3). Yet relative stringency—“degrees of wrongness”—seems forced upon the deontologist by two considerations. First, duties of differential stringency can be weighed against one another if there is conflict between them, so that a conflict-resolving, overall duty becomes possible if duties can be more or less stringent. Second, when we punish for the wrongs consisting in our violation of deontological duties, we (rightly) do not punish all violations equally. The greater the wrong, the greater the punishment deserved; and relative stringency of duty violated (or importance of rights) seems the best way of making sense of greater versus lesser wrongs.

Fifth, there are situations—unfortunately not all of them thought experiments—where compliance with deontological norms will bring about disastrous consequences. To take a stock example of much current discussion, suppose that unless A violates the deontological duty not to torture an innocent person (B), ten, or a thousand, or a million other innocent people will die because of a hidden nuclear device. If A is forbidden by deontological morality from torturing B, many would regard that as a reductio ad absurdum of deontology.

Deontologists have six possible ways of dealing with such “moral catastrophes” (although only two of these are very plausible). First, they can just bite the bullet and declare that sometimes doing what is morally right will have tragic results but that allowing such tragic results to occur is still the right thing to do. Complying with moral norms will surely be difficult on those occasions, but the moral norms apply nonetheless with full force, overriding all other considerations. We might call this the Kantian response, after Kant's famous hyperbole: “Better the whole people should perish,” than that injustice be done (Kant 1780, p. 100). One might also call this the absolutist conception of deontology, because such a view maintains that conformity to norms has absolute force and not merely great weight.

This first response to “moral catastrophes,” which is to ignore them, might be further justified by denying that moral catastrophes, such as a million deaths, are really a million times more catastrophic than one death. This is the so-called “aggregation” problem, which we alluded to in section 2.2 in discussing the paradox of deontological constraints. John Taurek famously argued that it is a mistake to assume harms to two persons are twice as bad as a comparable harm to one person. For each of the two suffers only his own harm and not the harm of the other (Taurek 1977). Taurek's argument can be employed to deny the existence of moral catastrophes and thus the worry about them that deontologists would otherwise have. Robert Nozick also stresses the separateness of persons and therefore urges that there is no entity that suffers double the harm when each of two persons is harmed (Nozick 1974). (Of course, Nozick, perhaps inconsistently, also acknowledges the existence of moral catastrophes.) Most deontologists reject Taurek's radical conclusion that we need not be morally more obligated to avert harm to the many than to avert harm to the few; but they do accept the notion that harms should not be aggregated. Deontologists' approaches to the nonaggregation problem when the choice is between saving the many and saving the few are: (1) save the many so as to acknowledge the importance of each of the extra persons; (2) conduct a weighted coin flip; (3) flip a coin; or (4) save anyone you want (a denial of moral catastrophes) (Broome 1998; Doggett 2013; Doucet 2013; Dougherty 2013; Halstead 2016: Henning 2015; Hirose 2007, 2015; Hsieh et al. 2006; Huseby 2011; Kamm 1993; Rasmussen 2012; Saunders 2009; Scanlon 2003; Suikkanen 2004; Timmerman 2004; Wasserman and Strudler 2003).

The second plausible response is for the deontologist to abandon Kantian absolutism for what is usually called “threshold deontology.” A threshold deontologist holds that deontological norms govern up to a point despite adverse consequences; but when the consequences become so dire that they cross the stipulated threshold, consequentialism takes over (Moore 1997, ch. 17). A may not torture B to save the lives of two others, but he may do so to save a thousand lives if the “threshold” is higher than two lives but lower than a thousand.

There are two varieties of threshold deontology that are worth distinguishing. On the simple version, there is some fixed threshold of awfulness beyond which morality's categorical norms no longer have their overriding force. Such a threshold is fixed in the sense that it does not vary with the stringency of the categorical duty being violated. The alternative is what might be called “sliding scale threshold deontology.” On this version, the threshold varies in proportion to the degree of wrong being done—the wrongness of stepping on a snail has a lower threshold (over which the wrong can be justified) than does the wrong of stepping on a baby.

Threshold deontology (of either stripe) is an attempt to save deontological morality from the charge of fanaticism. It is similar to the “prima facie duty” version of deontology developed to deal with the problem of conflicting duties, yet threshold deontology is usually interpreted with such a high threshold that it more closely mimics the outcomes reached by a “pure,” absolutist kind of deontology. Threshold deontology faces several theoretical difficulties. Foremost among them is giving a theoretically tenable account of the location of such a threshold, either absolutely or on a sliding scale (Alexander 2000; Ellis 1992). Why is the threshold for torture of the innocent at one thousand lives, say, as opposed to nine hundred or two thousand? Another problem is that whatever the threshold, as the dire consequences approach it, counter-intuitive results appear to follow. For example, it may be permissible, if we are one-life-at-risk short of the threshold, to pull one more person into danger who will then be saved, along with the others at risk, by killing an innocent person (Alexander 2000). Thirdly, there is some uncertainty about how one is to reason after the threshold has been reached: are we to calculate at the margin on straight consequentialist grounds, use an agent-weighted mode of summing, or do something else? A fourth problem is that threshold deontology threatens to collapse into a kind of consequentialism. Indeed, it can be shown that the sliding scale version of threshold deontology is extensionally equivalent to an agency-weighted form of consequentialism (Sen 1982).

The remaining four strategies for dealing with the problem of dire consequence cases all have the flavor of evasion by the deontologist. Consider first the famous view of Elizabeth Anscombe: such cases (real or imagined) can never present themselves to the consciousness of a truly moral agent because such agent will realize it is immoral to even think about violating moral norms in order to avert disaster (Anscombe 1958; Geach 1969; Nagel 1979). Such rhetorical excesses should be seen for what they are, a peculiar way of stating Kantian absolutism motivated by an impatience with the question.

Another response by deontologists, this one most famously associated with Bernard Williams, shares some of the “don't think about it” features of the Anscombean response. According to Williams (1973), situations of moral horror are simply “beyond morality,” and even beyond reason. (This view is reminiscent of the ancient view of natural necessity, revived by Sir Francis Bacon, that such cases are beyond human law and can only be judged by the natural law of instinct.) Williams tells us that in such cases we just act. Interestingly, Williams contemplates that such “existentialist” decision-making will result in our doing what we have to do in such cases—for example, we torture the innocent to prevent nuclear holocaust.

Surely this is an unhappy view of the power and reach of human law, morality, or reason. Indeed, Williams (like Bacon and Cicero before him) thinks there is an answer to what should be done, albeit an answer very different than Anscombe's. But both views share the weakness of thinking that morality and even reason runs out on us when the going gets tough.

Yet another strategy is to divorce completely the moral appraisals of acts from the blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of the agents who undertake them, even when those agents are fully cognizant of the moral appraisals. So, for example, if A tortures innocent B to save a thousand others, one can hold that A's act is morally wrong but also that A is morally praiseworthy for having done it.

Deontology does have to grapple with how to mesh deontic judgments of wrongness with “hypological” (Zimmerman 2002) judgments of blameworthiness (Alexander 2004). Yet it would be an oddly cohering morality that condemned an act as wrong yet praised the doer of it. Deontic and hypological judgments ought to have more to do with each other than that. Moreover, it is unclear what action-guiding potential such an oddly cohered morality would have: should an agent facing such a choice avoid doing wrong, or should he go for the praise?

The last possible strategy for the deontologist in order to deal with dire consequences, other than by denying their existence, as per Taurek, is to distinguish moral reasons from all-things-considered reasons and to argue that whereas moral reasons dictate obedience to deontological norms even at the cost of catastrophic consequences, all-things-considered reasons dictate otherwise. (This is one reading of Bernard William's famous discussion of moral luck, where non-moral reasons seemingly can trump moral reasons (Williams 1975, 1981); this is also a strategy some consequentialists (e.g., Portmore 2003) seize as well in order to handle the demandingness and alienation problems endemic to consequentialism.) But like the preceding strategy, this one seems desperate. Why should one even care that moral reasons align with deontology if the important reasons, the all-things-considered reasons that actually govern decisions, align with consequentialism?

5. Deontology's Relation(s) to Consequentialism Reconsidered

The perceived weaknesses of deontological theories have led some to consider how to eliminate or at least reduce those weaknesses while preserving deontology's advantages. One way to do this is to embrace both consequentialism and deontology, combining them into some kind of a mixed theory. Given the differing notions of rationality underlying each kind of theory, this is easier said than done. After all, one cannot simply weigh agent-relative reasons against agent-neutral reasons, without stripping the former sorts of reasons of their distinctive character.

A time-honored way of reconciling opposing theories is to allocate them to different jurisdictions. Tom Nagel's reconciliation of the two theories is a version of this, inasmuch as he allocates the agent-neutral reasons of consequentialism to our “objective” viewpoint, whereas the agent-relative reasons of deontology are seen as part of our inherent subjectivity (Nagel 1986). Yet Nagel's allocations are non-exclusive; the same situation can be seen from either subjective or objective viewpoints, meaning that it is mysterious how we are to combine them into some overall view.

A less mysterious way of combining deontology with consequentialism is to assign to each a jurisdiction that is exclusive of the other. One possibility here is to regard the agent-neutral reasons of consequentialism as a kind of default rationality/morality in the sense that when an agent-relative permission or obligation applies, it governs, but in the considerable logical space where neither applies, consequentialism holds sway (Moore 2008). Remembering that for the threshold deontologist, consequentialist reasons may still determine right action even in areas governed by agent-relative obligations or permissions, once the level of bad consequences crosses the relevant threshold (Moore 2012).

5.1 Making no concessions to consequentialism: a purely deontological rationality?

In contrast to mixed theories, deontologists who seek to keep their deontology pure hope to expand agent-relative reasons to cover all of morality and yet to mimic the advantages of consequentialism. Doing this holds out the promise of denying sense to the otherwise damning question, how could it be moral to make (or allow) the world to be worse (for they deny that there is any states-of-affairs “worseness” in terms of which to frame such a question) (Foot 1985). To make this plausible, one needs to expand the coverage of agent-relative reasons to cover what is now plausibly a matter of consequentialist reasons, such as positive duties to strangers. Moreover, deontologists taking this route need a content to the permissive and obligating norms of deontology that allows them to mimic the outcomes making consequentialism attractive. This requires a picture of morality's norms that is extremely detailed in content, so that what looks like a consequentialist balance can be generated by a complex series of norms with extremely detailed priority rules and exception clauses (Richardson 1990). Few consequentialists will believe that this is a viable enterprise.

5.2 Making no concessions to deontology: a purely consequentialist rationality?

The mirror image of the pure deontologist just described is the indirect or two-level consequentialist. For this view too seeks to appropriate the strengths of both deontology and consequentialism, not by embracing both, but by showing that an appropriately defined version of one can do for both. The indirect consequentialist, of course, seeks to do this from the side of consequentialism alone.

Yet as many have argued (Lyons 1965; Alexander 1985), indirect consequentialism collapses either into: blind and irrational rule-worship (“why follow the rules when not doing so produces better consequences?”); direct consequentialism (“acts in conformity to the rules rather miraculously produce better consequences in the long run”); or nonpublicizability (“ordinary folks should be instructed to follow the rules but should not be told of the ultimate consequentialist basis for doing so, lest they depart from the rules mistakenly believing better consequences will result”). For more information, please see the entry on rule consequentialism. Nor can the indirect consequentialist adequately explain why those who violate the indirect consequentialist's rules have “wronged” those who might be harmed as a result, that is, why the latter have a personal complaint against the former. (This is true irrespective of whether the rule-violation produces good consequences; but it is especially so when good consequences result from the rule-violation.) The bottom line is that if deontology has intuitive advantages over consequentialism, it is far from obvious whether those advantages can be captured by moving to indirect consequentialism, even if there is a version of indirect consequentialism that could avoid dire consequences problem that bedevils deontological theories.

6. Deontological Theories and Metaethics

Deontological theories are normative theories. They do not presuppose any particular position on moral ontology or on moral epistemology. Presumably, a deontologist can be a moral realist of either the natural (moral properties are identical to natural properties) or nonnatural (moral properties are not themselves natural properties even if they are nonreductively related to natural properties) variety. Or a deontologist can be an expressivist, a constructivist, a transcendentalist, a conventionalist, or a Divine command theorist regarding the nature of morality. Likewise, a deontologist can claim that we know the content of deontological morality by direct intuition, by Kantian reflection on our normative situation, or by reaching reflective equilibrium between our particular moral judgments and the theories we construct to explain them (theories of intuitions).

Nonetheless, although deontological theories can be agnostic regarding metaethics, some metaethical accounts seem less hospitable than others to deontology. For example, the stock furniture of deontological normative ethics—rights, duties, permissions—fits uneasily in the realist-naturalist's corner of the metaethical universe. (Which is why many naturalists, if they are moral realists in their meta-ethics, are consequentialists in their ethics.) Nonnatural realism, conventionalism, transcendentalism, and Divine command seem more hospitable metaethical homes for deontology. (For example, the paradox of deontology above discussed may seem more tractable if morality is a matter of personal directives of a Supreme Commander to each of his human subordinates.) If these rough connections hold, then weaknesses with those metaethical accounts most hospitable to deontology will weaken deontology as a normative theory of action. Some deontologists have thus argued that these connections need not hold and that a naturalist-realist meta-ethics can ground a deontological ethics (Moore 2004).


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The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war.

By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these controversial issues. The lines of distinction between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion is an applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also depends on more general normative principles, such as the right of self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"

Table of Contents

  1. Metaethics
    1. Metaphysical Issues: Objectivism and Relativism
    2. Psychological Issues in Metaethics
      1. Egoism and Altruism
      2. Emotion and Reason
      3. Male and Female Morality
  2. Normative Ethics
    1. Virtue Theories
    2. Duty Theories
    3. Consequentialist Theories
      1. Types of Utilitarianism
      2. Ethical Egoism and Social Contract Theory
  3. Applied Ethics
    1. Normative Principles in Applied Ethics
    2. Issues in Applied Ethics
  4. References and Further Reading

1. Metaethics

The term "meta" means after or beyond, and, consequently, the notion of metaethics involves a removed, or bird's eye view of the entire project of ethics. We may define metaethics as the study of the origin and meaning of ethical concepts. When compared to normative ethics and applied ethics, the field of metaethics is the least precisely defined area of moral philosophy. It covers issues from moral semantics to moral epistemology. Two issues, though, are prominent: (1) metaphysical issues concerning whether morality exists independently of humans, and (2) psychological issues concerning the underlying mental basis of our moral judgments and conduct.

a. Metaphysical Issues: Objectivism and Relativism

Metaphysics is the study of the kinds of things that exist in the universe. Some things in the universe are made of physical stuff, such as rocks; and perhaps other things are nonphysical in nature, such as thoughts, spirits, and gods. The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions. There are two general directions that discussions of this topic take, one other-worldly and one this-worldly.

Proponents of the other-worldly view typically hold that moral values are objective in the sense that they exist in a spirit-like realm beyond subjective human conventions. They also hold that they are absolute, or eternal, in that they never change, and also that they are universal insofar as they apply to all rational creatures around the world and throughout time. The most dramatic example of this view is Plato, who was inspired by the field of mathematics. When we look at numbers and mathematical relations, such as 1+1=2, they seem to be timeless concepts that never change, and apply everywhere in the universe. Humans do not invent numbers, and humans cannot alter them. Plato explained the eternal character of mathematics by stating that they are abstract entities that exist in a spirit-like realm. He noted that moral values also are absolute truths and thus are also abstract, spirit-like entities. In this sense, for Plato, moral values are spiritual objects. Medieval philosophers commonly grouped all moral principles together under the heading of "eternal law" which were also frequently seen as spirit-like objects. 17th century British philosopher Samuel Clarke described them as spirit-like relationships rather than spirit-like objects. In either case, though, they exist in a spirit-like realm. A different other-worldly approach to the metaphysical status of morality is divine commands issuing from God's will. Sometimes called voluntarism (or divine command theory), this view was inspired by the notion of an all-powerful God who is in control of everything. God simply wills things, and they become reality. He wills the physical world into existence, he wills human life into existence and, similarly, he wills all moral values into existence. Proponents of this view, such as medieval philosopher William of Ockham, believe that God wills moral principles, such as "murder is wrong," and these exist in God's mind as commands. God informs humans of these commands by implanting us with moral intuitions or revealing these commands in scripture.

The second and more this-worldly approach to the metaphysical status of morality follows in the skeptical philosophical tradition, such as that articulated by Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus, and denies the objective status of moral values. Technically, skeptics did not reject moral values themselves, but only denied that values exist as spirit-like objects, or as divine commands in the mind of God. Moral values, they argued, are strictly human inventions, a position that has since been called moral relativism. There are two distinct forms of moral relativism. The first is individualrelativism, which holds that individual people create their own moral standards. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, argued that the superhuman creates his or her morality distinct from and in reaction to the slave-like value system of the masses. The second is cultural relativism which maintains that morality is grounded in the approval of one's society - and not simply in the preferences of individual people. This view was advocated by Sextus, and in more recent centuries by Michel Montaigne and William Graham Sumner. In addition to espousing skepticism and relativism, this-worldly approaches to the metaphysical status of morality deny the absolute and universal nature of morality and hold instead that moral values in fact change from society to society throughout time and throughout the world. They frequently attempt to defend their position by citing examples of values that differ dramatically from one culture to another, such as attitudes about polygamy, homosexuality and human sacrifice.

b. Psychological Issues in Metaethics

A second area of metaethics involves the psychological basis of our moral judgments and conduct, particularly understanding what motivates us to be moral. We might explore this subject by asking the simple question, "Why be moral?" Even if I am aware of basic moral standards, such as don't kill and don't steal, this does not necessarily mean that I will be psychologically compelled to act on them. Some answers to the question "Why be moral?" are to avoid punishment, to gain praise, to attain happiness, to be dignified, or to fit in with society.

i. Egoism and Altruism

One important area of moral psychology concerns the inherent selfishness of humans. 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes held that many, if not all, of our actions are prompted by selfish desires. Even if an action seems selfless, such as donating to charity, there are still selfish causes for this, such as experiencing power over other people. This view is calledpsychological egoism and maintains that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions. Closely related to psychological egoism is a view called psychological hedonism which is the view that pleasure is the specific driving force behind all of our actions. 18th century British philosopher Joseph Butler agreed that instinctive selfishness and pleasure prompt much of our conduct. However, Butler argued that we also have an inherent psychological capacity to show benevolence to others. This view is called psychological altruism and maintains that at least some of our actions are motivated by instinctive benevolence.

ii. Emotion and Reason

A second area of moral psychology involves a dispute concerning the role of reason in motivating moral actions. If, for example, I make the statement "abortion is morally wrong," am I making a rational assessment or only expressing my feelings? On the one side of the dispute, 18th century British philosopher David Hume argued that moral assessments involve our emotions, and not our reason. We can amass all the reasons we want, but that alone will not constitute a moral assessment. We need a distinctly emotional reaction in order to make a moral pronouncement. Reason might be of service in giving us the relevant data, but, in Hume's words, "reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." Inspired by Hume's anti-rationalist views, some 20th century philosophers, most notably A.J. Ayer, similarly denied that moral assessments are factual descriptions. For example, although the statement "it is good to donate to charity" may on the surface look as though it is a factual description about charity, it is not. Instead, a moral utterance like this involves two things. First, I (the speaker) I am expressing my personal feelings of approval about charitable donations and I am in essence saying "Hooray for charity!" This is called the emotive element insofar as I am expressing my emotions about some specific behavior. Second, I (the speaker) am trying to get you to donate to charity and am essentially giving the command, "Donate to charity!" This is called the prescriptive element in the sense that I am prescribing some specific behavior.

From Hume's day forward, more rationally-minded philosophers have opposed these emotive theories of ethics (see non-cognitivism in ethics) and instead argued that moral assessments are indeed acts of reason. 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is a case in point. Although emotional factors often do influence our conduct, he argued, we should nevertheless resist that kind of sway. Instead, true moral action is motivated only by reason when it is free from emotions and desires. A recent rationalist approach, offered by Kurt Baier (1958), was proposed in direct opposition to the emotivist and prescriptivist theories of Ayer and others. Baier focuses more broadly on the reasoning and argumentation process that takes place when making moral choices. All of our moral choices are, or at least can be, backed by some reason or justification. If I claim that it is wrong to steal someone's car, then I should be able to justify my claim with some kind of argument. For example, I could argue that stealing Smith's car is wrong since this would upset her, violate her ownership rights, or put the thief at risk of getting caught. According to Baier, then, proper moral decision making involves giving the best reasons in support of one course of action versus another.

iii. Male and Female Morality

A third area of moral psychology focuses on whether there is a distinctly female approach to ethics that is grounded in the psychological differences between men and women. Discussions of this issue focus on two claims: (1) traditional morality is male-centered, and (2) there is a unique female perspective of the world which can be shaped into a value theory. According to many feminist philosophers, traditional morality is male-centered since it is modeled after practices that have been traditionally male-dominated, such as acquiring property, engaging in business contracts, and governing societies. The rigid systems of rules required for trade and government were then taken as models for the creation of equally rigid systems of moral rules, such as lists of rights and duties. Women, by contrast, have traditionally had a nurturing role by raising children and overseeing domestic life. These tasks require less rule following, and more spontaneous and creative action. Using the woman's experience as a model for moral theory, then, the basis of morality would be spontaneously caring for others as would be appropriate in each unique circumstance. On this model, the agent becomes part of the situation and acts caringly within that context. This stands in contrast with male-modeled morality where the agent is a mechanical actor who performs his required duty, but can remain distanced from and unaffected by the situation. A care-based approach to morality, as it is sometimes called, is offered by feminist ethicists as either a replacement for or a supplement to traditional male-modeled moral systems.

2. Normative Ethics

Normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. In a sense, it is a search for an ideal litmus test of proper behavior. The Golden Rule is a classic example of a normative principle: We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Since I would want people to feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people. Using this same reasoning, I can theoretically determine whether any possible action is right or wrong. So, based on the Golden Rule, it would also be wrong for me to lie to, harass, victimize, assault, or kill others. The Golden Rule is an example of a normative theory that establishes a single principle against which we judge all actions. Other normative theories focus on a set of foundational principles, or a set of good character traits.

The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one ultimate criterion of moral conduct, whether it is a single rule or a set of principles. Three strategies will be noted here: (1) virtue theories, (2) duty theories, and (3) consequentialist theories.

a. Virtue Theories

Many philosophers believe that morality consists of following precisely defined rules of conduct, such as "don't kill," or "don't steal." Presumably, I must learn these rules, and then make sure each of my actions live up to the rules. Virtue ethics, however, places less emphasis on learning rules, and instead stresses the importance of developing good habits of character, such as benevolence (see moral character). Once I've acquired benevolence, for example, I will then habitually act in a benevolent manner. Historically, virtue theory is one of the oldest normative traditions in Western philosophy, having its roots in ancient Greek civilization. Plato emphasized four virtues in particular, which were later called cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Other important virtues are fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper, and sincerity. In addition to advocating good habits of character, virtue theorists hold that we should avoid acquiring bad character traits, or vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. Virtue theory emphasizes moral education since virtuous character traits are developed in one's youth. Adults, therefore, are responsible for instilling virtues in the young.

Aristotle argued that virtues are good habits that we acquire, which regulate our emotions. For example, in response to my natural feelings of fear, I should develop the virtue of courage which allows me to be firm when facing danger. Analyzing 11 specific virtues, Aristotle argued that most virtues fall at a mean between more extreme character traits. With courage, for example, if I do not have enough courage, I develop the disposition of cowardice, which is a vice. If I have too much courage I develop the disposition of rashness which is also a vice. According to Aristotle, it is not an easy task to find the perfect mean between extreme character traits. In fact, we need assistance from our reason to do this. After Aristotle, medieval theologians supplemented Greek lists of virtues with three Christian ones, or theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Interest in virtue theory continued through the middle ages and declined in the 19th century with the rise of alternative moral theories below. In the mid 20th century virtue theory received special attention from philosophers who believed that more recent ethical theories were misguided for focusing too heavily on rules and actions, rather than on virtuous character traits. Alasdaire MacIntyre (1984) defended the central role of virtues in moral theory and argued that virtues are grounded in and emerge from within social traditions.

b. Duty Theories

Many of us feel that there are clear obligations we have as human beings, such as to care for our children, and to not commit murder. Duty theories base morality on specific, foundational principles of obligation. These theories are sometimes called deontological, from the Greek word deon, or duty, in view of the foundational nature of our duty or obligation. They are also sometimes called nonconsequentialist since these principles are obligatory, irrespective of the consequences that might follow from our actions. For example, it is wrong to not care for our children even if it results in some great benefit, such as financial savings. There are four central duty theories.

The first is that championed by 17th century German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, who classified dozens of duties under three headings: duties to God, duties to oneself, and duties to others. Concerning our duties towards God, he argued that there are two kinds:

  1. a theoretical duty to know the existence and nature of God, and
  2. a practical duty to both inwardly and outwardly worship God.

Concerning our duties towards oneself, these are also of two sorts:

  1. duties of the soul, which involve developing one's skills and talents, and
  2. duties of the body, which involve not harming our bodies, as we might through gluttony or drunkenness, and not killing oneself.

Concerning our duties towards others, Pufendorf divides these between absolute duties, which are universally binding on people, and conditional duties, which are the result of contracts between people. Absolute duties are of three sorts:

  1. avoid wronging others,
  2. treat people as equals, and
  3. promote the good of others.

Conditional duties involve various types of agreements, the principal one of which is the duty is to keep one's promises.

A second duty-based approach to ethics is rights theory. Most generally, a "right" is a justified claim against another person's behavior - such as my right to not be harmed by you (see also human rights). Rights and duties are related in such a way that the rights of one person implies the duties of another person. For example, if I have a right to payment of $10 by Smith, then Smith has a duty to pay me $10. This is called the correlativity of rights and duties. The most influential early account of rights theory is that of 17th century British philosopher John Locke, who argued that the laws of nature mandate that we should not harm anyone's life, health, liberty or possessions. For Locke, these are our natural rights, given to us by God. Following Locke, the United States Declaration of Independence authored by Thomas Jefferson recognizes three foundational rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson and others rights theorists maintained that we deduce other more specific rights from these, including the rights of property, movement, speech, and religious expression. There are four features traditionally associated with moral rights. First, rights are natural insofar as they are not invented or created by governments. Second, they are universal insofar as they do not change from country to country. Third, they are equal in the sense that rights are the same for all people, irrespective of gender, race, or handicap. Fourth, they are inalienable which means that I cannot hand over my rights to another person, such as by selling myself into slavery.

A third duty-based theory is that by Kant, which emphasizes a single principle of duty. Influenced by Pufendorf, Kant agreed that we have moral duties to oneself and others, such as developing one's talents, and keeping our promises to others. However, Kant argued that there is a more foundational principle of duty that encompasses our particular duties. It is a single, self-evident principle of reason that he calls the "categorical imperative." A categorical imperative, he argued, is fundamentally different from hypothetical imperatives that hinge on some personal desire that we have, for example, "If you want to get a good job, then you ought to go to college." By contrast, a categorical imperative simply mandates an action, irrespective of one's personal desires, such as "You ought to do X." Kant gives at least four versions of the categorical imperative, but one is especially direct: Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end. That is, we should always treat people with dignity, and never use them as mere instruments. For Kant, we treat people as an end whenever our actions toward someone reflect the inherent value of that person. Donating to charity, for example, is morally correct since this acknowledges the inherent value of the recipient. By contrast, we treat someone as a means to an end whenever we treat that person as a tool to achieve something else. It is wrong, for example, to steal my neighbor's car since I would be treating her as a means to my own happiness. The categorical imperative also regulates the morality of actions that affect us individually. Suicide, for example, would be wrong since I would be treating my life as a means to the alleviation of my misery. Kant believes that the morality of all actions can be determined by appealing to this single principle of duty.

A fourth and more recent duty-based theory is that by British philosopher W.D. Ross, which emphasizes prima facie duties. Like his 17th and 18th century counterparts, Ross argues that our duties are "part of the fundamental nature of the universe." However, Ross's list of duties is much shorter, which he believes reflects our actual moral convictions:

  • Fidelity: the duty to keep promises
  • Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them
  • Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us
  • Justice: the duty to recognize merit
  • Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others
  • Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence
  • Nonmaleficence: the duty to not injure others

Ross recognizes that situations will arise when we must choose between two conflicting duties. In a classic example, suppose I borrow my neighbor's gun and promise to return it when he asks for it. One day, in a fit of rage, my neighbor pounds on my door and asks for the gun so that he can take vengeance on someone. On the one hand, the duty of fidelity obligates me to return the gun; on the other hand, the duty of nonmaleficence obligates me to avoid injuring others and thus not return the gun. According to Ross, I will intuitively know which of these duties is my actual duty, and which is my apparent or prima facie duty. In this case, my duty of nonmaleficence emerges as my actual duty and I should not return the gun.

c. Consequentialist Theories

It is common for us to determine our moral responsibility by weighing the consequences of our actions. According to consequentialism, correct moral conduct is determined solely by a cost-benefit analysis of an action's consequences:

Consequentialism: An action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable.

Consequentialist normative principles require that we first tally both the good and bad consequences of an action. Second, we then determine whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. Consequentialist theories are sometimes called teleological theories, from the Greek word telos, or end, since the end result of the action is the sole determining factor of its morality.

Consequentialist theories became popular in the 18th century by philosophers who wanted a quick way to morally assess an action by appealing to experience, rather than by appealing to gut intuitions or long lists of questionable duties. In fact, the most attractive feature of consequentialism is that it appeals to publicly observable consequences of actions. Most versions of consequentialism are more precisely formulated than the general principle above. In particular, competing consequentialist theories specify which consequences for affected groups of people are relevant. Three subdivisions of consequentialism emerge:

  • Ethical Egoism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable only to the agent performing the action.
  • Ethical Altruism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent.
  • Utilitarianism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone.

All three of these theories focus on the consequences of actions for different groups of people. But, like all normative theories, the above three theories are rivals of each other. They also yield different conclusions. Consider the following example. A woman was traveling through a developing country when she witnessed a car in front of her run off the road and roll over several times. She asked the hired driver to pull over to assist, but, to her surprise, the driver accelerated nervously past the scene. A few miles down the road the driver explained that in his country if someone assists an accident victim, then the police often hold the assisting person responsible for the accident itself. If the victim dies, then the assisting person could be held responsible for the death. The driver continued explaining that road accident victims are therefore usually left unattended and often die from exposure to the country's harsh desert conditions. On the principle of ethical egoism, the woman in this illustration would only be concerned with the consequences of her attempted assistance as she would be affected. Clearly, the decision to drive on would be the morally proper choice. On the principle of ethical altruism, she would be concerned only with the consequences of her action as others are affected, particularly the accident victim. Tallying only those consequences reveals that assisting the victim would be the morally correct choice, irrespective of the negative consequences that result for her. On the principle of utilitarianism, she must consider the consequences for both herself and the victim. The outcome here is less clear, and the woman would need to precisely calculate the overall benefit versus disbenefit of her action.

i. Types of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham presented one of the earliest fully developed systems of utilitarianism. Two features of his theory are noteworty. First, Bentham proposed that we tally the consequences of each action we perform and thereby determine on a case by case basis whether an action is morally right or wrong. This aspect of Bentham's theory is known as act-utilitiarianism. Second, Bentham also proposed that we tally the pleasure and pain which results from our actions. For Bentham, pleasure and pain are the only consequences that matter in determining whether our conduct is moral. This aspect of Bentham's theory is known as hedonistic utilitarianism. Critics point out limitations in both of these aspects.

First, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be morally wrong to waste time on leisure activities such as watching television, since our time could be spent in ways that produced a greater social benefit, such as charity work. But prohibiting leisure activities doesn't seem reasonable. More significantly, according to act-utilitarianism, specific acts of torture or slavery would be morally permissible if the social benefit of these actions outweighed the disbenefit. A revised version of utilitarianism called rule-utilitarianism addresses these problems. According to rule-utilitarianism, a behavioral code or rule is morally right if the consequences of adopting that rule are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone. Unlike act utilitarianism, which weighs the consequences of each particular action, rule-utilitarianism offers a litmus test only for the morality of moral rules, such as "stealing is wrong." Adopting a rule against theft clearly has more favorable consequences than unfavorable consequences for everyone. The same is true for moral rules against lying or murdering. Rule-utilitarianism, then, offers a three-tiered method for judging conduct. A particular action, such as stealing my neighbor's car, is judged wrong since it violates a moral rule against theft. In turn, the rule against theft is morally binding because adopting this rule produces favorable consequences for everyone. John Stuart Mill's version of utilitarianism is rule-oriented.

Second, according to hedonistic utilitarianism, pleasurable consequences are the only factors that matter, morally speaking. This, though, seems too restrictive since it ignores other morally significant consequences that are not necessarily pleasing or painful. For example, acts which foster loyalty and friendship are valued, yet they are not always pleasing. In response to this problem, G.E. Moore proposed ideal utilitarianism, which involves tallying any consequence that we intuitively recognize as good or bad (and not simply as pleasurable or painful). Also, R.M. Hare proposed preference utilitarianism, which involves tallying any consequence that fulfills our preferences.

ii. Ethical Egoism and Social Contract Theory

We have seen (in Section 1.b.i) that Hobbes was an advocate of the methaethical theory of psychological egoism—the view that all of our actions are selfishly motivated. Upon that foundation, Hobbes developed a normative theory known as social contract theory, which is a type of rule-ethical-egoism. According to Hobbes, for purely selfish reasons, the agent is better off living in a world with moral rules than one without moral rules. For without moral rules, we are subject to the whims of other people's selfish interests. Our property, our families, and even our lives are at continual risk. Selfishness alone will therefore motivate each agent to adopt a basic set of rules which will allow for a civilized community. Not surprisingly, these rules would include prohibitions against lying, stealing and killing. However, these rules will ensure safety for each agent only if the rules are enforced. As selfish creatures, each of us would plunder our neighbors' property once their guards were down. Each agent would then be at risk from his neighbor. Therefore, for selfish reasons alone, we devise a means of enforcing these rules: we create a policing agency which punishes us if we violate these rules.

3. Applied Ethics

Applied ethics is the branch of ethics which consists of the analysis of specific, controversial moral issues such as abortion, animal rights, or euthanasia. In recent years applied ethical issues have been subdivided into convenient groups such as medical ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, and sexual ethics. Generally speaking, two features are necessary for an issue to be considered an "applied ethical issue." First, the issue needs to be controversial in the sense that there are significant groups of people both for and against the issue at hand. The issue of drive-by shooting, for example, is not an applied ethical issue, since everyone agrees that this practice is grossly immoral. By contrast, the issue of gun control would be an applied ethical issue since there are significant groups of people both for and against gun control.

The second requirement for an issue to be an applied ethical issue is that it must be a distinctly moral issue. On any given day, the media presents us with an array of sensitive issues such as affirmative action policies, gays in the military, involuntary commitment of the mentally impaired, capitalistic versus socialistic business practices, public versus private health care systems, or energy conservation. Although all of these issues are controversial and have an important impact on society, they are not all moral issues. Some are only issues of social policy. The aim of social policy is to help make a given society run efficiently by devising conventions, such as traffic laws, tax laws, and zoning codes. Moral issues, by contrast, concern more universally obligatory practices, such as our duty to avoid lying, and are not confined to individual societies. Frequently, issues of social policy and morality overlap, as with murder which is both socially prohibited and immoral. However, the two groups of issues are often distinct. For example, many people would argue that sexual promiscuity is immoral, but may not feel that there should be social policies regulating sexual conduct, or laws punishing us for promiscuity. Similarly, some social policies forbid residents in certain neighborhoods from having yard sales. But, so long as the neighbors are not offended, there is nothing immoral in itself about a resident having a yard sale in one of these neighborhoods. Thus, to qualify as an applied ethical issue, the issue must be more than one of mere social policy: it must be morally relevant as well.

In theory, resolving particular applied ethical issues should be easy. With the issue of abortion, for example, we would simply determine its morality by consulting our normative principle of choice, such as act-utilitarianism. If a given abortion produces greater benefit than disbenefit, then, according to act-utilitarianism, it would be morally acceptable to have the abortion. Unfortunately, there are perhaps hundreds of rival normative principles from which to choose, many of which yield opposite conclusions. Thus, the stalemate in normative ethics between conflicting theories prevents us from using a single decisive procedure for determining the morality of a specific issue. The usual solution today to this stalemate is to consult several representative normative principles on a given issue and see where the weight of the evidence lies.

a. Normative Principles in Applied Ethics

Arriving at a short list of representative normative principles is itself a challenging task. The principles selected must not be too narrowly focused, such as a version of act-egoism that might focus only on an action's short-term benefit. The principles must also be seen as having merit by people on both sides of an applied ethical issue. For this reason, principles that appeal to duty to God are not usually cited since this would have no impact on a nonbeliever engaged in the debate. The following principles are the ones most commonly appealed to in applied ethical discussions:

  • Personal benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for the individual in question.
  • Social benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for society.
  • Principle of benevolence: help those in need.
  • Principle of paternalism: assist others in pursuing their best interests when they cannot do so themselves.
  • Principle of harm: do not harm others.
  • Principle of honesty: do not deceive others.
  • Principle of lawfulness: do not violate the law.
  • Principle of autonomy: acknowledge a person's freedom over his/her actions or physical body.
  • Principle of justice: acknowledge a person's right to due process, fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of benefits.
  • Rights: acknowledge a person's rights to life, information, privacy, free expression, and safety.

The above principles represent a spectrum of traditional normative principles and are derived from both consequentialist and duty-based approaches. The first two principles, personal benefit and social benefit, are consequentialist since they appeal to the consequences of an action as it affects the individual or society. The remaining principles are duty-based. The principles of benevolence, paternalism, harm, honesty, and lawfulness are based on duties we have toward others. The principles of autonomy, justice, and the various rights are based on moral rights.

An example will help illustrate the function of these principles in an applied ethical discussion. In 1982, a couple from Bloomington, Indiana gave birth to a baby with severe mental and physical disabilities. Among other complications, the infant, known as Baby Doe, had its stomach disconnected from its throat and was thus unable to receive nourishment. Although this stomach deformity was correctable through surgery, the couple did not want to raise a severely disabled child and therefore chose to deny surgery, food, and water for the infant. Local courts supported the parents' decision, and six days later Baby Doe died. Should corrective surgery have been performed for Baby Doe? Arguments in favor of corrective surgery derive from the infant's right to life and the principle of paternalism which stipulates that we should pursue the best interests of others when they are incapable of doing so themselves. Arguments against corrective surgery derive from the personal and social disbenefit which would result from such surgery. If Baby Doe survived, its quality of life would have been poor and in any case it probably would have died at an early age. Also, from the parent's perspective, Baby Doe's survival would have been a significant emotional and financial burden. When examining both sides of the issue, the parents and the courts concluded that the arguments against surgery were stronger than the arguments for surgery. First, foregoing surgery appeared to be in the best interests of the infant, given the poor quality of life it would endure. Second, the status of Baby Doe's right to life was not clear given the severity of the infant's mental impairment. For, to possess moral rights, it takes more than merely having a human body: certain cognitive functions must also be present. The issue here involves what is often referred to as moral personhood, and is central to many applied ethical discussions.

b. Issues in Applied Ethics

As noted, there are many controversial issues discussed by ethicists today, some of which will be briefly mentioned here.

Biomedical ethics focuses on a range of issues which arise in clinical settings. Health care workers are in an unusual position of continually dealing with life and death situations. It is not surprising, then, that medical ethics issues are more extreme and diverse than other areas of applied ethics. Prenatal issues arise about the morality of surrogate mothering, genetic manipulation of fetuses, the status of unused frozen embryos, and abortion. Other issues arise about patient rights and physician's responsibilities, such as the confidentiality of the patient's records and the physician's responsibility to tell the truth to dying patients. The AIDS crisis has raised the specific issues of the mandatory screening of all patients for AIDS, and whether physicians can refuse to treat AIDS patients. Additional issues concern medical experimentation on humans, the morality of involuntary commitment, and the rights of the mentally disabled. Finally, end of life issues arise about the morality of suicide, the justifiability of suicide intervention, physician assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

The field of business ethics examines moral controversies relating to the social responsibilities of capitalist business practices, the moral status of corporate entities, deceptive advertising, insider trading, basic employee rights, job discrimination, affirmative action, drug testing, and whistle blowing.

Issues in environmental ethics often overlaps with business and medical issues. These include the rights of animals, the morality of animal experimentation, preserving endangered species, pollution control, management of environmental resources, whether eco-systems are entitled to direct moral consideration, and our obligation to future generations.

Controversial issues of sexual morality include monogamy versus polygamy, sexual relations without love, homosexual relations, and extramarital affairs.

Finally, there are issues of social morality which examine capital punishment, nuclear war, gun control, the recreational use of drugs, welfare rights, and racism.

4. References and Further Reading

  • Anscombe,Elizabeth "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy, 1958, Vol. 33, reprinted in her Ethics, Religion and Politics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).
  • Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, in Barnes, Jonathan, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
  • Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1946).
  • Baier, Kurt, The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics (Cornell University Press, 1958).
  • Bentham, Jeremy, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, edited by John Bowring (London: 1838-1843).
  • Hare, R.M., Moral Thinking, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
  • Hare, R.M., The Language of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed., E. Curley, (Chicago, IL: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).
  • Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), eds. David Fate Norton, Mary J. Norton (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr, James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985).
  • Locke, John, Two Treatises, ed., Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, second edition, (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984).
  • Mackie, John L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).
  • Mill, John Stuart, "Utilitarianism," in CollectedWorksofJohnStuartMill, ed., J.M. Robson (London: Routledge and Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1991).
  • Moore, G.E., Principia Ethica, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903).
  • Noddings, Nel, "Ethics from the Stand Point Of Women," in Deborah L. Rhode, ed., Theoretical Perspectives on Sexual Difference (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).
  • Ockham, William of, Fourth Book of the Sentences, tr. Lucan Freppert, The Basis of Morality According to William Ockham (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988).
  • Plato, Republic, 6:510-511, in Cooper, John M., ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
  • Samuel Pufendorf, De Jure Naturae et Gentium (1762), tr. Of the Law of Nature and Nations
  • Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (1673), tr., The Whole Duty of Man according to the Law of Nature (London, 1691).
  • Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trs. J. Annas and J. Barnes, Outlines of Scepticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Stevenson, Charles L., The Ethics of Language, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944).
  • Sumner, William Graham, Folkways (Boston: Guinn, 1906).

Author Information

James Fieser
University of Tennessee at Martin
U. S. A.

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