Beyond Consequentialism

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A key challenge for education is to encourage children to act responsibly. If "spiritual literacy" does not involve an autonomous, rational soul capable of "reading and writing the world as God intended", it must refer to ethical and perhaps religious capacity in relation to contingent actions in a context free of moral absolutes.

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In relation to the former, Kant's Categorical Imperative supposed that actions are either right or wrong according to an absolute reason derived from the most basic templates of human sense making. According to Kant, therefore, right is rational irrespective of the apparent consequences of specific actions. In contrast, in an age lacking Kant's beliefs in both God and absolute reason, it is tempting to see an unethical pragmatism as the only alternative to the Categorical Imperative.

In this view, the doctor is not required to promote life or decrease death or even decrease killing by other people.

The doctor is, instead, required to honor the value of life by not causing loss of life cf. Pettit This kind of case leads some consequentialists to introduce agent-relativity into their theory of value Sen , Broome , Portmore , To apply a consequentialist moral theory, we need to compare the world with the transplant to the world without the transplant.

If this comparative evaluation must be agent-neutral, then, if an observer judges that the world with the transplant is better, the agent must make the same judgment, or else one of them is mistaken. However, if such evaluations can be agent-relative, then it could be legitimate for an observer to judge that the world with the transplant is better since it contains fewer killings by anyone , while it is also legitimate for the doctor as agent to judge that the world with the transplant is worse because it includes a killing by him.

This kind of agent-relative consequentialism is then supposed to capture commonsense moral intuitions in such cases. Agent-relativity is also supposed to solve other problems. Ross , 34—35 argued that, if breaking a promise created only slightly more happiness overall than keeping the promise, then the agent morally ought to break the promise according to classic utilitarianism. This supposed counterexample cannot be avoided simply by claiming that keeping promises has agent-neutral value, since keeping one promise might prevent someone else from keeping another promise.

In this way, agent-relative consequentialists can explain why agents morally ought not to break their promises in just the kind of case that Ross raised. Similarly, critics of utilitarianism often argue that utilitarians cannot be good friends, because a good friend places more weight on the welfare of his or her friends than on the welfare of strangers, but utilitarianism requires impartiality among all people. In this way, consequentialists try to capture common moral intuitions about the duties of friendship see also Jackson One final variation still causes trouble.

Imagine that the doctor herself wounded the five people who need organs. If the doctor does not save their lives, then she will have killed them herself. In this case, even if the doctor can disvalue killings by herself more than killings by other people, the world still seems better from her own perspective if she performs the transplant.

Critics will object that it is, nonetheless, morally wrong for the doctor to perform the transplant. Many people will not find this intuition as clear as in the other cases, but those who do find it immoral for the doctor to perform the transplant even in this case will want to modify consequentialism in some other way in order to yield the desired judgment.


This problem cannot be solved by building rights or fairness or desert into the theory of value. The five do not deserve to die, and they do deserve their lives, just as much as the one does. So consequentialists need more than just new values if they want to avoid endorsing this transplant.

One option is to go indirect. A direct consequentialist holds that the moral qualities of something depend only on the consequences of that very thing. Thus, a direct consequentialist about motives holds that the moral qualities of a motive depend on the consequences of that motive. A direct consequentialist about virtues holds that the moral qualities of a character trait such as whether or not it is a moral virtue depend on the consequences of that trait Driver a, Hurka , Jamieson , Bradley A direct consequentialist about acts holds that the moral qualities of an act depend on the consequences of that act.

Someone who adopts direct consequentialism about everything is a global direct consequentialist Pettit and Smith , Driver In contrast, an indirect consequentialist holds that the moral qualities of something depend on the consequences of something else. One indirect version of consequentialism is motive consequentialism , which claims that the moral qualities of an act depend on the consequences of the motive of that act compare Adams and Sverdlik Another indirect version is virtue consequentialism , which holds that whether an act is morally right depends on whether it stems from or expresses a state of character that maximizes good consequences and, hence, is a virtue.

The most common indirect consequentialism is rule consequentialism , which makes the moral rightness of an act depend on the consequences of a rule Singer Since a rule is an abstract entity, a rule by itself strictly has no consequences. Still, obedience rule consequentialists can ask what would happen if everybody obeyed a rule or what would happen if everybody violated a rule.

What's Wrong With Consequentialism?

They might argue, for example, that theft is morally wrong because it would be disastrous if everybody broke a rule against theft. Often, however, it does not seem morally wrong to break a rule even though it would cause disaster if everybody broke it. Luckily, our species will not die out if everyone is permitted not to have children, since enough people want to have children.

Such acceptance rule consequentialists then claim that an act is morally wrong if and only if it violates a rule whose acceptance has better consequences than the acceptance of any incompatible rule. In some accounts, a rule is accepted when it is built into individual consciences Brandt Other rule utilitarians, however, require that moral rules be publicly known Gert ; cf.

Sinnott-Armstrong b or built into public institutions Rawls Then they hold what can be called public acceptance rule consequentialism : an act is morally wrong if and only if it violates a rule whose public acceptance maximizes the good. The indirectness of such rule utilitarianism provides a way to remain consequentialist and yet capture the common moral intuition that it is immoral to perform the transplant in the above situation.

Suppose people generally accepted a rule that allows a doctor to transplant organs from a healthy person without consent when the doctor believes that this transplant will maximize utility.


Widely accepting this rule would lead to many transplants that do not maximize utility, since doctors like most people are prone to errors in predicting consequences and weighing utilities. Moreover, if the rule is publicly known, then patients will fear that they might be used as organ sources, so they would be less likely to go to a doctor when they need one.

The medical profession depends on trust that this public rule would undermine. For such reasons, some rule utilitarians conclude that it would not maximize utility for people generally to accept a rule that allows doctors to transplant organs from unwilling donors. Common moral intuition is thereby preserved. Rule utilitarianism faces several potential counterexamples such as whether public rules allowing slavery could sometimes maximize utility and needs to be formulated more precisely particularly in order to avoid collapsing into act-utilitarianism; cf.

Lyons Such details are discussed in another entry in this encyclopedia see Hooker on rule-consequentialism. Here I just want to point out that direct consequentialists find it convoluted and implausible to judge a particular act by the consequences of something else Smart Rule consequentialists can respond that we should not claim special rights or permissions that we are not willing to grant to every other person, and that it is arrogant to think we are less prone to mistakes than other people are.

However, this doctor can reply that he is willing to give everyone the right to violate the usual rules in the rare cases when they do know for sure that violating those rules really maximizes utility. Anyway, even if rule utilitarianism accords with some common substantive moral intuitions, it still seems counterintuitive in other ways. This makes it worthwhile to consider how direct consequentialists can bring their views in line with common moral intuitions, and whether they need to do so.

Another popular charge is that classic utilitarianism demands too much, because it requires us to do acts that are or should be moral options neither obligatory nor forbidden. If it is morally wrong to do anything other than what maximizes utility, then it is morally wrong for me to buy the shoes. But buying the shoes does not seem morally wrong. It might be morally better to give the money to charity, but such contributions seem supererogatory, that is, above and beyond the call of duty.

Of course, there are many more cases like this. When I watch television, I always or almost always could do more good by helping others, but it does not seem morally wrong to watch television. When I choose to teach philosophy rather than working for CARE or the Peace Corps, my choice probably fails to maximize utility overall.

If we were required to maximize utility, then we would have to make very different choices in many areas of our lives. The requirement to maximize utility, thus, strikes many people as too demanding because it interferes with the personal decisions that most of us feel should be left up to the individual. Some utilitarians respond by arguing that we really are morally required to change our lives so as to do a lot more to increase overall utility see Kagan , P. Singer , and Unger Such hard-liners claim that most of what most people do is morally wrong, because most people rarely maximize utility.

Some such wrongdoing might be blameless when agents act from innocent or even desirable motives, but it is still supposed to be moral wrongdoing.

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Opponents of utilitarianism find this claim implausible, but it is not obvious that their counter-utilitarian intuitions are reliable or well-grounded Murphy , chs. Mulgan , Singer , Greene Other utilitarians blunt the force of the demandingness objection by limiting direct utilitarianism to what people morally ought to do. Even if we morally ought to maximize utility, it need not be morally wrong to fail to maximize utility. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that an act is morally wrong only when both it fails to maximize utility and its agent is liable to punishment for the failure Mill It does not always maximize utility to punish people for failing to maximize utility.

Thus, on this view, it is not always morally wrong to fail to do what one morally ought to do. If Mill is correct about this, then utilitarians can say that we ought to give much more to charity, but we are not required or obliged to do so, and failing to do so is not morally wrong cf. Sinnott-Armstrong Many utilitarians still want to avoid the claim that we morally ought to give so much to charity.

One way around this claim uses a rule-utilitarian theory of what we morally ought to do.

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If it costs too much to internalize rules implying that we ought to give so much to charity, then, according to such rule-utilitarianism, it is not true that we ought to give so much to charity Hooker , ch. Another route follows an agent-relative theory of value. A problem is that such consequentialism would seem to imply that we morally ought not to contribute those resources to charity, although such contributions seem at least permissible. More personal leeway could also be allowed by deploying the legal notion of proximate causation. Thus, if an act is morally right when it includes the most net good in its proximate consequences, then it might not be morally wrong either to contribute to the charity or to fail to do so.

This potential position, as mentioned above, has not yet been developed, as far as I know. Yet another way to reach this conclusion is to give up maximization and to hold instead that we morally ought to do what creates enough utility. This position is often described as satisficing consequentialism Slote According to satisficing consequentialism, it is not morally wrong to fail to contribute to a charity if one contributes enough to other charities and if the money or time that one could contribute does create enough good, so it is not just wasted.

For criticisms, see Bradley Both satisficing and progressive consequentialism allow us to devote some of our time and money to personal projects that do not maximize overall good. A more radical set of proposals confines consequentialism to judgements about how good an act is on a scale Norcross or to degrees of wrongness and rightness Sinhababu Snedegar Opponents still object that all such consequentialist theories are misdirected.

When I decide to visit a friend instead of working for a charity, I can know that my act is not immoral even if I have not calculated that the visit will create enough overall good or that it will improve the world.

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