PHIL 202 Ethics

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PHIL 202     Contemporary Moral Problems   Spring 2000

Introduction:  What we're doing in here and why.

  I. Philosophy:  love wisdom, the big questions with regard to the human condition.  Is there a God?  Do I have an immortal soul?  What am I doing here?  What should I be doing here?

 II. Other disciplines deal with these issues.

 A. Literature...philosophy is rigorous.  Evidence and arguments.

 B. Science deals with them...Anthropology, sociology, psychology...What people do.  What they think.  Why they think it...What philosophy is concerned about is how people should think.  How they should behave.  Irregardless of how people may feel about the world, what is the case?  And what are we supposed to do about it?

III. Terribly practical.  Euthanasia...Capital Punishment...

 IV. The Iceberg Problem

 A. Philosophy is systematic

 B. Q: Should you axe murder your roommate?

  A: No...but why not?  Because it's wrong to kill an innocent person except under certain extraordinary circumstances.

 C. Related questions...

  1. Is your roommate innocent?  Really a person?  Extraordinary circumstances?

  2. Why accept the principle?  (Ethics; the study of what, in general, makes actions right or wrong.)

  3. Is there a real right and wrong?

  4. Can we know?  Can we know anything?

  5. Are we free?

  6. What is the fundamental nature of human beings?

  7. Why should I bother to be good?  Justice?  God?

 D. Some of these questions we'll look at, some we won't.  In order to answer our questions about contemporary moral problems you need to go back and address these other questions.  Can't deal with them all in this course.  No consensus...but please don't think that there are no good answers, or that they're all equally good.

 E. What you will get...

  1. Acquaintance with arguments on both sides of tough moral issues.

  2. Ability to recognize and construct good moral arguments.

  3. Appreciation for the scope of the problems...not simple, not easy

  4. You have the rest of your life to chew on these're going to have to work out answers.  Your whole life is the lab for this course.

III. Class mechanics

 A. Topics:  ethics, abortion and three others to be voted on next time.  (Go down the list.)

 B. Text

  1. The real thing...classical readings and articles from journals...ideas seep out among lawyers, politicians, shape attitudes and law.

  2. Not long, but Hard.  Read before class, read after class, review for the tests.

 C. Class...Lecture and discussion

  1. Plenty of lecture (hard readings)(Vital to come and to take good notes.)

  2. Plenty of discussion.  Subject matter, moral intuitions, ability to make logical connections, all things open to everybody.  Living the good human life is not only for the specialist.  We should be able to get good discussion going...feel free to ask questions...I'll ask you questions...

  3. Notes on line.

 IV. Requirements

 A. Four multiple choice tests...material is very objective in the sense that it will all be who said what and why.

  e.g. Rogers held that a moral principle which could underlie the judgement that it was wrong to axe murder your roommate is the following:
   a. people don't like that kind of thing and it's stupid to do what people don't like.
   b. You will probably get caught.
   c. It's wrong to kill...
   d. none of the above.  Rogers held that in a diverse society no one can judge someone's else's actions right or wrong, so go ahead with the axe.

 B. Tests will be scored with 100 as perfect score...scale of grades on the syllabus.

 C. At the end of the semester I'll add up and divide by four. (!) No dropping the worst score.  No credit for improvement.  No additional work to raise your grade, etc.

  V. Etiquette (I hate this part.)

 A. Don't be late...If you must...(be unobtrusive)

 B. Don't leave early...If you must...(tell me and be unobtrusive).  When is the class over?  The nature of time...we can give a pragmatic answer...when I say it is...

 C. Talking...subtle.  I can't say be silent.  Occasional very quiet remark...Please don't talk much or loudly...It's really embarrassing to me to have to ask you to be quiet because no matter how nice I try to sound we all know I wouldn't be saying anything if you hadn't been so rude.

 D.  Eating (No bubble blowing!)

 E. Putting things up your nose and in your mouth.

  -----Office hours, 2-3 MWF------Questions?


The Problem of Relativism

---This is the only time I'll try to persuade you to take one side rather than the other.  It's stupid to take this course if you're a relativist.  If you want to stay in here, don't be.---

I. What is relativism?  "It's right for him, but it wouldn't be right for me."

A. What's not relativism...

1. Moral decisions are something each of us must make for ourselves.  (Necessary truth...if you're forced to act a certain way then you're not free and you're not responsible.)

2. Shouldn't blame people for acting according to their sincere moral judgements...even if we disagree with them.

3. We're in different situations.

4. The issue is just so difficult...judgement call.

B. Real relativism.  There is no real right or wrong, good or bad, thing you ought or ought not to do.

1. Cultural ethical relativism...ethics are just the traditions within our society.

2. Individual ethical relativism...right and wrong is just what I like or don't like.  E.g. existentialism.

 II. Why is it stupid to take this course if you are a relativist?  Our question is, "What ought I to do?"  No answer.

---A 2-part argument against relativism. 1.) There's no good reason to be a relativist, and 2.) The view entails consequences which you can't accept.---

III. Why be a relativist?

A. It's a benign philosophy because it encourages tolerance.  Tolerance is good.  You ought to be tolerant... CONTRADICTION!

B. The "anthropological" proof.  (Ruth Benedict)

Different societies actually hold different beliefs about values>there are no objective values.

 1. The proof from anthropological examples.  e.g. The dobu islanders.

 2. Problems with the proof.

  A. Do the examples really prove the premise?

  1. Maybe the issue is that they have different beliefs about the facts of the matter...If you thought what they thought, you'd act like they act...Friday the 13th, part 48.

  2. There are (or may be) some universally held moral beliefs.  Murder.  Incest.

  B. Does the conclusion really follow?  No, it's simply a non sequitur.  Just because different people or societies have different beliefs, doesn't mean there is no true belief...the shape of the earth...

C. Can I prove relativism wrong?  No.

 1. No inherent contradiction, no conflict between relativism and some empirical fact that everyone accepts.

 2. I've shown you that the argument for it isn't too good.

 3. Pragmatic argument--unacceptable consequences.

  a. no moral debate (this class)

  b. no moral progress

  c. bottom line:  anything goes.  Hitler, I give you an F because I don't like your face.  Can you really accept that?


  I. The principle of utility: The good action is the one which produces the most happiness overall.

 A. Not, "The greatest happiness for the greatest number."

 B. Hedonistic utilitarianism

 C. Bentham

  1. Quantifying happiness

  2. Stuffed

 II. Proving utilitarianism

 A. The only proof that something is desirable is that people actually do desire it.

 B. But don't people desire things other than happiness?

  1. Yes, but for the sake of happiness...

  2. Not that happiness is some separate object above and beyond these things.  Having them is happiness.

III. Problems with the theory (Mill raises these himself.)

 A. It is a pig's philosophy.

  1.Higher v. lower pleasures

  2. You're supposed to make everybody as happy as possible, and that's not going    to happen if you're living like a pig.

 B.  Godless? No.  God would want a world in which happiness is maximized. (Iceberg problem: Christian or Muslim (some schools of Judaism); there's an afterlife.  God is not interested in maximizing pleasure in this life, but overall. e.g. Suicide. Case #1 There's no afterlife, you're unhappy and your friends and family will be happy to be rid of you.  Case #2 There is an afterlife.  In order to live a happy eternity you need to do what God wants in this life. God does not want you to commit suicide. The rest is the same.)

 C.    It is too selfless.  (The utilitarian is not chiefly concerned with motive.)

 D.    Too hard to figure out what to do.  (We have all of human history to help.)

The BIG problem:      Utilitarianism seems to justify injustice.

I. Mill does discuss the idea of "justice" and moral rights.(what an individual is justified in claiming from society.)

A. Jumble of disparate principles

B. Peculiar Force comes from animal desire to protect self and retaliate, widened to include everybody by our capacity for human sympathy and our conception of intelligent self interest.

C. What gives people rights or justifies them is just the principle of utility.

D. But this seems to conflict with our almost indubitable intuitions.  (Note on intuitions.)  E.g. Tex and the innocent man.

Possible responses

I. In real life the act which seems unjust is almost certainly not going to maximize happiness.  (What if Tex executes the innocent man?)  And note that if an apparently unjust act A produces more happiness than act B, it's not necessarily the case that A should be done, unless there's no third option.

II. But note ‘almost' in the response above.  What if in this, presumably rare, case the  apparently unjust action really will produce the most happiness?  (Hiroshima) Bite the  bullet.  Intuitions can mislead. It was really the right thing to do.


  I. The only intrinsically good thing is a good will (not virtues, happiness, etc.).

 II. The good will acts from duty.

 A. Not self-interest (e.g. the shopkeepers)

  1. self-interest not necessarily evil, just not virtuous.

  2. comparison with Mill.

 B. Not natural inclination (e.g. the philanthropist)

III. To act from duty means to act from the right principle.

 A. rational

 B. universal (worst thing is to make an exception of yourself)

 IV. The first form of the categorical imperative: Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.

 A. What if everybody did that?  What if they did it to me?

 B. examples:  Making a promise with the intention of breaking it, cheating on a test (logical contradictions) failing to help someone in need (contradiction of will).

  V. Problems with the first form of the categorical imperative.

 A. It is notoriously difficult to formulate your maxim,

1. Same act can be described in different ways leading to different maxims and possibly different moral conclusions.

2.  How specific or general must I be?  General leads to conclusions which seem morally absurd, while specific allows me to make an exception of myself.

 B. The fanatic can universalize any crazy principle.

 VI. Second form of the categorical imperative: Always treat people as ends in themselves, never only as means.


  I. What it means to treat someone as an end in himself.  Don't we often have to treat people as means to our own ends?

 II. Two ethical principles follow:

 A. Justice:  Never treat someone as a mere means

 B. Beneficence:  Sometimes help further the ends of others.

III. Comparison with utilitarianism

 A. Easier to figure out what to do.

 B. Easier to do it.

 C. With respect to human beings...

  1. human beings have intrinsic value

  2. no human being will be sacrificed against his will for the good of all.

 IV. Problems with the second formulation (Rogers)

 A. How do we resolve a conflict of claims?

 B. Morally absurd consequences? The catastrophe situation.


  I. The goal is happiness, the happy life.  (Your own happiness.  Is this selfish?)

 II. Achieve happiness through fulfilling human nature.  (Rational, social, animal.)

 Natural law ethics.

III. Guide posts:  innate desires, for example...

 A. Self-preservation

 B. Procreation

 C. Society (So it's not selfish)

 D. Knowledge

---Being rational, we have to figure out how best to satisfy these natural desires---

 IV. The Doctrine of the Mean:  Realize innate desires in moderation...not too much, not too little.

 A. Examples:  Courage, Procreation, Anger, even Knowledge.  (Some things already immoderate.  No such thing as too little adultery.)

 B. Relative to the individual.

 C. Objective guide:  Are you the best example of you that you can be?

  V. Difficult to know how to act

 A. Education vital, but...

 B. Learn by doing.

 VI. To lead happy life, need to develop virtues.  Habits for moderation which leads to self-fulfillment.

VII. Appealing features

 A. Universal and objective standard for value, human nature.

  1. This doesn't mean everyone everywhere should act just the same.  (Delaware v. the Sahara)  At heart certain basic principles.  (Eg. incest.)

  2. So now you know what "unnatural" means.  Not...

   a. People don't want to do that

   b. It doesn't happen "in nature."

   c. hygiene is very natural!


   d. It will not promote the health and well-being of the human animal.

 B. Empirical (a mixed blessing)

 C. It synthesizes rather than analyzing:


Aristotle neither a consequentialist nor a deontological ethicist.  Approach is teleological in that we are aiming at the good life.  But the good life is achieved through developing the virtues which both lead to and stem from performing the good actions.  And you have to do the right actions from the right motive if you are to develop the virtues.

VIII. Problem: This may all be very well and good, but how does one solve a moral dilemma.

Aristotle: Assuming you're well brought up, you'll "see" the right way to go.  If you're not, find someone who is.

Critic: That's lame.  I want a principle that tells me how to answer moral questions.

Aristotle: Tough.  That's not how moral activity works.

Note on feminist ethics:

I. Critique of "male" emphasis on individuality, autonomy, justice and rights. (Really more a critique of modern ethics.  Aristotle not subject to this criticism.)

II. "Feminine" voice: emphasis on interconnectedness, relationships, responsibility to care for others.


I. Problem with current popular theories... too restictive.

A. Utilitarianism: There clearly seem to be duties (e.g. keeping promises) which have nothing to do with maximizing happiness.

B. There are in fact a variety of different sorts of duties which everyone with a moral sense recognizes.

II. Prima facie duties (lit. "at first glance")

A. Definition: An act is a prima facie duty if it is the kind of thing which we have moral reason to do, unless this moral reason is overridden by some more compelling moral reason.

B. versus actual duties.  The actual duty is the act that we really ought to do in a given situation, all things considered.

C. example: We have a prima facie duty not to lie, and a prima facie duty to protect the innocent wrongly persecuted.  The gestapo guy comes to the door.  We have two prima facie duties here.  Both are genuine and have moral force.  What should I do?  Actual duty (seems intuitively obvious) is to protect the innocent. (We still have a p.f. duty to tell the truth, it's just that in this situation it is not our actual duty.)

III. The (not necessarily inclusive) list of prima facie duties. Fidelity (keeping promises), reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, not injuring others.

A. Critic: But there doesn't seem to be any one underlying principle in which these duties are grounded or from which they are derived.

B. Ross: That's true, but why assume a priori (before any investigation, just as a starting assumption) that there must be some unifying principle?  Maybe there isn't one.

IV. How do we recognize prima facie duties?

A.  They are self-evident, i.e. we just recognize them intuitively, we just "see" them intellectually.

B.  Something suspect about intuition?  Well, no.  How do we recognize axioms of mathematics?

V. How do we recognize actual duties?  Much harder.  Can't ever be certain.  We can't know to what extent in fact a particular action actually satisfies various prima facie duties.  For one thing, we have  prima facie duties to benefit and not to injure and we can never know all of the actual consequences of our actions. Doesn't mean we should just flip a coin.  Weigh duties as carefully as we can.  Some action will emerge as the thing to do.  Have to hope for the best.

VI. Wouldn't it be better to begin with a moral theory, and test our intuitions against it?  Well, no.  What we actually do is test the theory against our intuitions, and this is probably the right way to go about things...if intuition is indeed really moral knowledge.

VII. So if we ask, who's right, Mill or Kant or Aristotle, Ross can respond, "All of the above."