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Module 1 Introduction
Transcript of Module 1 Introduction
Key ideas of utilitarianism:
it is a consequentialist ethical theory -- the rightness or wrongness of an action is based on the total happiness produced as a result of the action, not based on the good or bad intentions of the actor.
the highest value, according to Mill, is happiness, or utility
humans are capable of experiencing qualities of happiness that are far more valuable than other non-rational creatures, and those are the most important pleasures that should weigh heavily in our calculations -- not the pleasure we get from eating doritos or receiving a back massage, but the pleasure we feel in rewarding friendships, or when we accomplish our goals (for instance)
human nature is defined by our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, happiness is the thing universally prized by all of us, though we often do not understand how to attain it
right actions maximize happiness for the greatest number of people, wrong actions do the reverse
Module One, Moral Theories and Perspectives
Challenges in Ethical Theory
There are serious limits to the ambitions and power of scientific approaches to morality, but what are the challenges to the philosophical approach?
first, there's the problem of moral skepticism -- how do we know that there are any right or wrong actions, obligations, etc? isn't it possible that we just made morality up for social reasons?
response -- this is called "amoralism" in ethics and there is no knock down argument against it, the best we can offer are reasons to think that it's an unappealing view because it would be very difficult to be a consistent amoralist -- you'd have to think you could never be wronged, for instance
Challenges continued ...
second, even if there are moral norms, there aren't any universal norms, since what's right depends on the cultural standpoint.
response -- this is called "relativism" in ethics and there are several knock down arguments against this, because the view typically involves two contradictory beliefs: that there are no universal norms, and that nobody should judge the norms of another person's culture
Challenges concluded ...
third, even if there are moral norms, and even if they might be universal, how will we ever be able to know that we know what they are?
response -- this is called "epistemological subjectivism" and it is by far the most difficult problem in theoretical ethics, the best response is to refrain from claiming that we can have certain knowledge about morality and to stress the difference between normative and descriptive modes of argument, evidence, and reasons for belief
Instead of looking for "certain" moral knowledge, philosophical ethics generally seeks to understand how our various ethical commitments cohere and conflict with one another, and develops theories of personhood, rights, and value that could warrant (or challenge) our deepest ethical beliefs.
Ethical Theory background:
Kant's ethical theory is often referred to as "deontological", meaning that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its adherence to moral laws. But whether Kant is a deontologist is controvrsial among Kant scholars, so many people just refer to his ethical theory by his name -- as Kantianism.
Key features of Kantianism:
the highest value is what Kant calls a "good will" (the intention of a knowing, rational agent to do the right thing) -- the good will is the only thing that is good in itself without exception. Other things (power and talent, for instance) are corruptible and are capable of being used for bad purposes. Important note: in order to exercise good will, one has to have knowledge. This is related to the value of informed consent.
for Kant, human nature is defined by our rational nature, all of us have the ability to reflect on our reasons for doing things and to act according to the best reasons we have -- when we do so we are free/autonomous
right actions are determined by universal moral laws combined with the intention we have in acting according to the law (we'll get into these in the context of specific bioethical arguments that are Kantian.
an implication of Kant's ethics: if you tell the truth because you know it's the right thing to do, then you've acted rightly; if you tell a lie or tell the truth to get praise then you've acted wrongly
Theoretical vs. Scientific Study of Ethics
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Ethics
Methodological Considerations in Ethics
Scientific studies of ethics have descriptive aims.
Their purpose is to describe views that people hold about morality, including what people believe they have a duty to do or refrain from doing, and to describe correlations between ethical views and other characteristics.
might study the connection between people who have lost loved ones and their beliefs about the permissibility of the death penalty
might study the age at which most children hold themselves morally accountable for their actions
might study ways that certain moral norms of sharing and altruism serve to protect the survival of the species
Theoretical studies of ethics have prescriptive aims.
Their purpose is to answer questions about what people
to do, and what makes for ethically better and worse actions. In contrast with scientific approaches, the aim of theoretical approaches is to question prevailing assumptions about ethics, and to consider reasons why individual and social changes to our ethical beliefs might be warranted.
feminists and critical race theorists
question prevailing views about about gender and race, developing arguments that our beliefs have often been ethically wrong
question the legitimacy of political leaders rescinding rights to privacy or free speech in states of war or emergency
question whether we should develop technology to clone humans if doing so would put the welfare of cloned human beings at risk
Bioethicists are not advancing scientific arguments, and so do not rely on empirical methods.
Different scholarly questions employ different kinds of methods.
Descriptive, scientific questions employ empirical methods (devising experiments, testing hypotheses, gather sense data, and comparing results with findings by other people).
Prescriptive, theoretical questions employ argumentative reasoning and analytical methods (determining inconsistencies in prevailing values, drawing implications from basic ethical principles to everyday personal and professional ethical questions, and developing criticism of practices from the perspective of core ethical commitments.
Ethical theorists do not rely on polling or empirical experiments to justify their positions. Why not?
polling: people may form a consensus that is ethically problematic (the consensus view in the 19th century that slavery was ethically permissible). Consensus doesn't prove validity in ethics.
empirical experiments: these are useful in describing what the world is like, or what we are like from a sensory data standpoint, but empirical investigation cannot justify beliefs about what we should be like, or transformative arguments about what the world ought to be like.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Prussian (German) Philosopher
One of the most important and influential philosophers in modern ethical theory, whose work on universal human rights, support for personal freedom of choice and autonomy, and commitment to the values of respect and human dignity continue to shape biomedical ethical debates today.
His major ethical works include The Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and The Metaphysics of Morals (1797).
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
One of the most important ethical and political philosophers of modern times, Mill's development of the ethical theory of utilitarianism attempts to ground ethics in more scientific terms. In contrast with Kantianism, Mill's core idea, the principle of utility, measures the rightness or wrongness of actions based on the consequences of actions, rather than intentions. According to what he called the greatest happiness principle, we ought to do that which maximizes the greatest good/pleasure for the greatest number. In bioethics, concern for minimizing pain and maximizing well-being is often defended on utilitarian grounds.
Mill's chief political work, a text called On Liberty (1859) develops the idea of the harm principle, also important in bioethics, according to which persons are free to do what they wish as long as it doesn't inflict harm on others. For Mill, the harm principle is an important way to prevent others from overriding the personal beliefs and choices that we each have a basic right to decide when it only concerns ourselves.
Ethical Theory background:
William David (W.D.) Ross (1877-1971)
Ross's chief ethical text, The Right and the Good (1930), rejected consequentialism, arguing that maximizing the good is only one among several obligations people have. Ross developed seven duties which he considered to have genuine moral weight in our consideration of what we ought to do, but that can be overridden by other considerations. In fact, the seven duties can even contradict one another in different cases.
Many bioethicists who find utilitarianism and Kantianism too removed from everyday contexts rely on Ross's six duties when assessing dilemmas.
duties of fidelity (to keep promises, contracts, tell the truth)
duties of reparation (to rectify past wrongs)
duties of gratitude (to reciprocate acts of beneficence)
duties of beneficence (to improve conditions in the world and in persons)
duties of nonmaleficence (to do no harm)
duties of justice (to distribute benefits according to merit)
duties of self-improvement (to improve our own condition)
Beyond Mill's development of the harm principle, other ethical theorists have argued in favor of other conditions under which we may rightly limit the liberty of others. In all cases, the presumption in favor of liberty is still strong, such that there has to be sufficient reason to outweigh the basic right people have to their liberty.
Under what circumstances and for what reasons can we justifiably limit the liberty of a person? These are the most common answers -- though they are very controversial and contradict each other.
1.Harm Principle: we can restrict freedom to prevent harm to another person. Preventing someone from murdering another person by limiting liberty is justified, or morally obligated. Is it just permissible or is it morally required?
2.Offense Principle: we can restrict freedom to prevent someone from offending a person. Preventing someone from acting indecent in public. Where do we draw the line? Who decides? Is offense just a form of harm? How could this come up in a medical context?
3.Paternalism Principle: we can restrict freedom to prevent someone from harming him or herself. If someone wants to take addictive pain killers but doesn’t really need them medically. Why are you in a better position to judge what is right for that person? What gives you the right to override their preferences?
4.Extreme Paternalism Principle: we restrict freedom to benefit another person, or restrain information provided to people because you think that you know best. Why are you in a better position to judge what is right for that person? What gives you the right to override their preferences?
5.Legal Moralism Principle: we can restrict freedom to prevent someone from acting immorally. If I think birth control is immoral can I restrict someone else from taking it? Why am I in a privileged moral position?
6.Social Welfare Principle: we can restrict freedom to benefit others. If someone is terminally ill but has a healthy liver but doesn’t want to donate it upon death can I override that preference in order to save the life of a person who needs a liver transplant? What are the limits on this? Problems in general with utilitarian thinking.
Chapter 1, General Introduction, pages 1-50