Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy


Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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The British Utilitarians

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

It is helpful to see Bentham's moral philosophy in the context of his political philosophy, his attempt to find a rational approach to law and legislative action. He argued against "natural law" theory and thought that the classical theories of Plato and Aristotle as well as notions such as Kant's Categorical Imperative were too outdated, confusing and/or controversial to be of much help with society's ills and a program of social reform. He adopted what he took to be a simple and 'scientific' approach to the problems of law and morality and grounded his approach in the "Principle of Utility."

The Utilitarian Calculus

As with the emerging theory of capitalism in 18th and 19th Century England, we could speak of "pleasures" as "PLUSES" and "pains" as "MINUSES." Thus the utilitarian would calculate which actions bring about more pluses over minuses (or the least amount of minuses, etc.).

In measuring pleasure and pain, Bentham introduces the following criteria:

Its INTENSITY, DURATION, CERTAINTY (or UNCERTAINTY), and its NEARNESS (or FARNESS). He also includes its "fecundity" (more or less of the same will follow) and its "purity" (its pleasure won't be followed by pain & vice versa).

In considering actions that affect numbers of people, we must also account for their EXTENT.

As a social reformer, Bentham applied this principle to the laws of England -- for example, those areas of the law concerning crime and punishment. An analysis of theft reveals that it not only causes harm to the victim, but, if left unpunished, it endangers the very status of private property and the stability of society. In seeing this, the legislator should devise a punishment that is useful in deterring theft. But in matters of "private morality" such as sexual preference and private behavior, Bentham felt that is was not at all useful to involve the legislature.

Bentham also thought that the principle of utility could apply to our treatment of animals. The question is not whether they can talk or reason, but whether they can suffer. As such, that suffering should be taken into account in our treatment of them. Here we can see a moral ground for laws that aim at the "prevention of cruelty to animals" (and such cruelty was often witnessed in Bentham's day).

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

For Mill, it is not the quantity of pleasure, but the quality of happiness. Bentham's calculus is unreasonable -- qualities cannot be quantified (there is a distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures). Mill's utilitarianism culminates in "The Greatest Happiness Principle."

Excerpts from Mill's Utilitarianism (1861):

If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it; but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong that nothing which conflicts with it could be otherwise than momentarily an object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness -- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior -- confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

See John Lachs comments on Mill's utilitarianism. JS Mill also believed that the "pursuit of happiness" required a political and cultural environment wherein freedom of expression and choice of lifestyle was unimpeded as long as no immediate harm to others was involved. See excerpts from On Liberty.



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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)

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