MAJOR ETHICAL THEORIES
THEORYPROPONENT(S)EXPLANATION
UtilitarianismBentham, Mill, Singer, BrandtGreatest happiness for greatest number, with each one counting as one. Forms include: act, rule, preference, interest.
Kantian EthicsKant, ReganThe categorical imperative -- principle of respect for persons: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
ContractarianismHobbes, Rousseau, RawlsMorality is either created by the social contract or can be intuited by imagining a contractual situation between humans in a society.

In this table you can see three of the major types of ethical theories we will be dealing with early on in the course. By now you have read "The Basics of Ethical Theory" which includes my best explanation of these and other theories. This reading should provide you with a good foundation in the course as you go on through readings and issues in applied ethics. The names of these theories will arise over and over again, as will the concepts which underlie those names.

UTILITARIANISM Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), considered the founder of Utilitarianism, is here shown as he can now be seen. After his death he donated his body to the University College, London, to be dissected, embalmed, dressed and placed in a chair in the corridor of the college's main building. This bizarre request was granted. Bentham was an act utilitarian and political reformer. To learn more about Bentham's life and work, go to this article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. To read about his influence on political thinking, including prison reform and educational reform in Great Britain, see this shorter article. Like all philosophers, Bentham's views are based on a view of human nature. He begins The Principles of Morals and Legislation by claiming that "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." Bentham asserts, then, that pain and pleasure are the only motivators, telling humans what to do in their lives, both personally and morally.

John Stuart Mill, who follows after Bentham, takes utilitarianism in a new direction. Mill believes that there are higher and lower types of happiness. The higher, such as intellectual pleasures, are more difficult to attain, yet more rewarding. His famous explanation of the distinction is "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." from Utilitarianism. By this he means that we can tell that the higher pleasures have a greater degree of utility than the lower pleasures, because those who have experienced both will forfeit the lower for the higher, just as you will forfeit your drinking beer at the beach for reading philosophy in your home, at least on a day like today.

Mill is sometimes considered the first rule utilitarian, although he at times appears to be an act utilitarian. For example, Mill explains the Greatest Happiness Principle in appear act utilitarian terms: ". . . actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure." (from Utilitarianism). Later, in "On Liberty" (1859), he has a decidedly rule utilitarian emphasis on the importance of liberty, including freedom of speech, the right to privacy, a right to free trade, and severe limitations on the rights of society over the individual's autonomy. The rule in favor of liberty is grounded on utilitarianism, since Mill believes this rule will have a tendency to promote the greatest happiness. He asserts that "Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest."

As we begin to look at population control issues, the zone of privacy initially carved out by Mill will be an important consideration. Mill claims (in "On Liberty") that:

". . . there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest: comprehending all that portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation."

The zone of privacy is taken to protect the individual's bodily autonomy and his/her right to consensual sexual activity with other adults. It is obvious that many proposed population control measures would invade the zone of privacy. The zone of privacy covers both the individual's right to reproduce and his/her right not to reproduce, yet Mill asserts that state interference in these liberties has a tendency to create more unhappiness than happiness in the world, and thus should be prohibited.

Twentieth century utilitarians abound, but have expanded the types of utilitarianism they practice. One stark contrast can be seen between the interest utilitarianism of Peter Singer (Monash University, Australia), and the rule utilitarianism of Richard Brandt (University of Massachussets, Amherst). Singer believes that with every action we should consider the alternatives and choose the one which has the greatest net expectable utility, but that utility is defined in terms of interests. Interests here are not what people are interested in, but what is in their interest to have. For example, if I am capable of feeling pain, it is in my interest not to be caused pain. If I desire to go to college and college will have future benefits on my life, it is in my interest to go to college. In contrast, Brandt believes that we should choose that rule or set of rules that will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and our actions should conform to those rules. About the rules we are to ask two questions: 1) Will everyone be better off by recognizing these rules instead of other rules? and 2) Can people be expected to follow these rules? Brandt argues that act utilitarianism is problematic because it entails that after the boy next door has mowed my lawn, I shouldn't pay him the ten dollars I promised him if I can think of some way to promote greater happiness with the money. The rule utilitarian, in contrast, would say that the rule about keeping promises should be kept, regardless of the net expectable utility of the act (i.e. the balance of pleasure over pain that is likely to result from the action), because the rule against promise breaking causes more pleasure in the world than pain. Singer's response is simply that he would not make such a promise if he could predict in advance that there was something better he could do with the money.

KANTIAN ETHICS
This severe looking gentleman, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), is well-known as probably the most difficult philosopher to read, and also among the most brilliant and influential.

Kantian ethics is grounded in different beliefs about human nature. While the utilitarian focuses on the part of human nature that seeks pleasure and avoids pain, the Kantian emphasizes the aspect of human nature that is capable of making choices freely. Mill (above) takes great pains to emphasize the importance and greater value of the pleasures available to humans over the pleasures available to animals, but Bentham does not. Many later utilitarians (most notably Singer) argue that since pleasure and pain (or in Singer's case the fulfillment of interests) are the criteria for moral behavior, and since nonhuman animals are capable of feeling pleasure and pain (and thus of having interests), their interests should also receive consideration. We will explore this in some detail in a few weeks. Kant, however, does not believe that pleasure and pain are the appropriate ways of gauging the rightness or wrongness of an action. The action is right or wrong because of the intentions behind it, not because of the results. If our actions treat ourselves and others with respect for our humanity, then they are right. If our actions involve using others as a means, or even using ourselves as a means, then they are wrong.

What Kant believes to be essential to humanity is rationality and autonomy. Humans differ from animals in that they can make choices, moral choices. The human can abstract and reason. Though s/he can't get inside the minds of others, s/he can be reasonably well assured that they are there. Thus, when taking action with other humans, it is wrong to treat them like objects that don't have any ability to choose and think on their own. Kant believes that lying, even telling a "white lie," treats a human as a means to an end (an object), rather than an end in himself or herself.

Sometimes the Kantian and the Utilitarian will reach the same conclusion about the rightness or wrongness of a particular action, so it's not the case that you can distinguish one from the other by looking at their conclusions on moral issues. It is the process of reasoning about moral issues that distinguishes them. For example, Bentham was very much against capital punishment, although not all utilitarians are. When a utilitarian is considering the issue of capital punishment s/he will take into consideration the pain caused by the punishment (to everyone involved) and how it balances against the pleasure caused by the punishment. Considerations the utilitarian will take into account include: 1) Recidivism (is there some less painful way to insure that the crime for which this is the punishment will not be commited again by this same individual?), and 2) Deterrence (is this the best way to keep others from commiting this crime?). In contrast, the Kantian will not be concerned with recidivism or deterrence, because these concerns involve the consequences of the punishment, not its intention. The intention of any punishment should be to return to the offender the behavior s/he has made into a universal law. So, if the crime was murder, the offender has chosen murder as a universal law. For the Kantian, the question is one of dessert -- if the offender freely chose murder, then s/he is owed murder in return. Hence, both a utilitarian and a Kantian might argue in favor of capital punishment, or against it, but they wouldn't be arguing on the same grounds. The utilitarian might claim that capital punishment will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number because the unhappiness caused to the offender is outweighed by the deterrent effects of the punishment. If I carry out the punishment on one person, the net result would be fewer people being killed, because others will opt not to commit murder in order to avoid capital punishment for themselves. The Kantian would point out that this deterrent effect, if indeed it works (which is very much in doubt in criminal justice/sociological circles), could be had by killing someone who is innocent, so long as people in general were convinced that that person was guilty. Thus, the execution of the Rosenbergs, a couple who received capital punishment in the mid-1950's for allegedly selling the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, may have been an effective deterrent to spies, despite the fact that they now (in light of the opening of KGB records) appear not to have been guilty of this crime. The Kantian who argued in favor of capital punishment would say that those who are guilty of freely and knowingly commiting a crime comparable to the punishment of death deserve death, even if it turns out that more people are made unhappy by this killing.

In this book you will encounter a variety of Utilitarian and Kantian approaches to biomedical issues, including some that stretch the basic Kantian principles to include nonhuman animals. There are others, such as Paul Taylor, who change the principle of respect for persons into a principle of respect for nature, extending Kantian ethics out to reach all living organisms. His contention is that we should act in such a way that we always treat living biological organisms, whether human, nonhuman, plant or animal, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. Obviously, the ends (or goals) of unconscious biological organisms will be very different from those of conscious ones, but every organism has within it, encoded in its DNA, a blueprint or definition of flourishing that would be its end or goal. Taylor expresses this by saying that every living organism is a "teleological center of life." A telos is an end or goal, so he is saying that every organism has its own biological goals, and the principle of respect for nature is a principle of respect for those goals. This does not mean that we should never use a living organism as a means -- we would all die of starvation if this were morally required of us -- but only that we should never use them as a means only. We must, at the same time, respect the ends or goals of living organisms and promote their flourishing insofar as possible. Although Taylor's view is Kantian, it is not a version of Kantian ethics with which Kant himself would be likely to agree.

Contractarian Ethics
If you have taken political science, you have heard of Contractarian ethics. Though not as popular as Utilitarian and Kantian ethics, contractarian ethics are vital in political philosophy. Again, there are a variety of types, and once again that variety is grounded in beliefs about the nature of humans in general.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for example, believed that human beings are by nature competitive and acquisitive. They are naturally inclined toward seeking fame and fortune, and they are not, by nature, averse to the use of violence in obtaining these ends. Thus, he posits that life in the "state of nature" (before the invention of government) was "nasty, brutish and short." Human beings get together to contract with one another for their mutual protection, and this contract is all there is of morality. As long as the contract protects us and our property from all enemies, either foreign or domestic, we have no right to complain about its provisions. If protecting us requires restrictions on freedom of speech or religion, then the state has the right to mandate a certain religion, to ban books and break up assemblies, and so forth.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) had a much rosier picture of the nature of humans before civil society. Keep in mind that Hobbes, living as he did in early 17th century England, was confronted by a society very much in political turmoil. Rousseau, on the other hand, was influenced by the discovery of the enviable lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Although this had, of course, been discovered in the past (Columbus sailed the "ocean blue" in 1492, you'll remember), somehow the 18th century European imagination was very much caught up by the idea of the "noble savage," who happily communed with nature in the Americas, while the late 15th and early 16th century European mind seemed to see those "savages" as a source of labor and a naive and primitive group of people who did not seem to recognize the value of the gold and other natural resources which abounded in territory to which they had not laid "legal" claim.

Nevertheless, Rousseau believes that humans by their nature are not acquisitive or violent, but peaceful and solitary. Humans in the state of nature would wander around individually, taking care of their own needs, and they would feel a sense of natural pity whenever they heard the cries of pain or saw a face that looked like their own contorted with pain. The discomfort caused by this pity would move them to help each other, but then they would move on. They would also be driven by natural needs -- hunger, thirst, cold, fear and lust -- but not overly driven. For example, lust would occasionally drive them to intercourse with others, but as they would each live separately, the intercourse would create no bond between them, and they would each go on their way satisfied after the act. Women would bear children relatively infrequently, and thus could gather resources for themselves and their children with ease. Children would be dependent on their mothers for only about four years. Why would mothers care for their children? After birth, mothers would begin to care for their children because of a combination of the pain in their own breasts caused by engorgement and the pain caused by their natural pity upon seeing and hearing the child who looks like them experiencing pain. Fathers, however, would be long gone at this point, and they would not have anything to do with children.

When humans start to live in houses, however, all this human nature changes. Rousseau believes that there are two types of human nature -- what is natural to humans in the state of nature, and what is natural to humans in the civil state (or society). Once a human builds a house, s/he will need to start banding together with other humans to establish and protect territory. S/he will also set up a familial situation of interdependence, because when living together, women will have more than one child every four years. Men will see those children and grow attached to them through their own natural pity. Rousseau believes that the social contract only becomes necessary in this second, civil state, because prior to that state humans were not social at all. In contrast with Hobbes, Rousseau believes that democracy is necessary for a government's legitimacy. When we discuss Native American versus European attitudes toward land ownership and use, Rousseau's views will once again become important.

Although Kantianism and Utilitarianism are incompatible (one cannot simultaneously believe that Kantian ethics is correct and that Utilitarian ethics is correct), neither is incompatible with Social Contract theory. One could easily argue that there is a rule utilitarian basis for Hobbes' Social Contract theory, grounded on the fact that we choose the moral rules and the sovereign to enforce those rules because they have a tendency to promote the greatest good for the people in the society, with the least amount of pain. John Rawl's Social Contract theory is explicitly Kantian. Rawls believes that human beings are essentially: a) self-interested, b) rational, and c) autonomous. So, what is important about being human is that you can freely make choices in pursuit of your own interests. This is a very Kantian view of human nature. In Kant's work he discusses setting up a "kingdom of ends," in which each person is treated with respect. Rousseau tries to outline what this kingdom of ends would look like. He believes that the easiest way to do this is to imagine that you are in "the original position," rather than the state of nature. In "the original position," you know that you will be a person (rational, self-interested and autonomous) in this society, but you are behind a "veil of ignorance," meaning that you do not know anything about what you will be like, other than that you will be a person. He believes that, in this state, you would choose rules that left each individual as free as possible to pursue what s/he wants to pursue, so long as that pursuit doesn't interfere with the freedom of others. For Rawls, the utilitarian requirement that we pursue everyone's happiness equally is too strict of a requirement for morality to impose. We should leave others free to pursue their own happiness as we pursue our own, but we should not be required to sacrifice our own happiness if it is necessary to promote the greater happiness of others.

Copyright © 1998 by Louisa Moon