Honors Ethics

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Thursday, 09-07-17: Utilitarianism I



Today we jumped feet-first into what would ordinarily be the very middle of the semester by taking up the first of four major moral normative theories which attempt to provide a non-relative, non-theological ground for ethics. I realize this is a bit jarring. Rest assured we will return to discuss moral relative

Utilitarian Ethical Theory (UET) is a cluster of theories all of which start from the notion that the morality of an action is determined by its consequences. Crudely put, right actions have good consequences; wrong actions have bad consequences. Exactly how we determine the good in good consequences or the bad in bad consequences is a problem for axiology, or the study of value. We might argue, for example, that happiness is the sole intrinsic good, where intrinsic goods are those goods sought for their own sake and extrinsic or instrumental goods are sought for the sake of something else. If happiness is the sole intrinsic good, then those states of affairs which bring about greater happiness are intrinsically more valuable than states of affairs which do not. If, further, we seek to maximize happiness by our actions for the greatest number considered equally, we have the core idea of what we shall call Classical Utilitarianism (CU).

Taking Classical Utilitarianism as our starting point, today we fleshed out the theory and provided an example of its application--the promise breaking example. We then noted that Classical Utilitarianism has a number of important properties we do well to bear in mind as we work with it. In particular, we closed today by distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic (or instrumental) goods and considered arguments in favor of CU's assumption that happiness is the sole intrinsic good, so-called eudaimonism. We start next time by considering arguments to the contrary and consider how the clever utilitarian might respond.