UTILITARIANISM IN PARTICULAR
The classification of the main streams of the normative-philosophic
landscape is partially based on whether they spring
from goodness, from rightness or from good character. Having
already discussed and rejected
motivism which primarily rests on
what is (believed to be) virtuous and praiseworthy (or a good
character), we will now first direct our attention to two other
sorts of normative theory traditionally distinguished.
One warning is called for
tho: the subdivision
here presented does not parallel
the three horizons of the ethical profile.
When comparing the two subdivisions all nonmotivist types of theory
can be located on the level of
performatory values, rights or
duties, or on the two levels of performatory and
intentional values, rights or duties.
We will start with consequentialism in general, which teaches
that the ultimate criterion of what one should (not) do (is
right, obligatory, and so on) is the performatory value which is
brought into being. In other words: the agent should produce the
best state of future affairs as seen from the standpoint of one
or more performatory values. An act is said to be 'right' in
consequentialism 'if and only if it, or the rule under which it
falls, causally produces, or is intended to produce, at least as
great a future balance of good over evil as any available
alternative'. From this definition alone it follows already that
(purely) performatory consequentialism is to be
distinguished from (performatory-)intentional consequentialism.
The former is exclusively concerned with the actual outcome of the
act; the latter is also concerned with the agent's intention, and
'er acting on the basis of
'er information and presuppositions.
In all consequentialist (and mixed) theories one should not
only consider the short-term, direct effects of an act but
also the long-term and indirect ones. This means that the
situation in which the act takes place should be considered over
a period long enough to establish to a sufficient degree what
all the consequences of the act at issue are. The total effect
of what is abstracted from a situation as being a 'single' or
'simple act' can only be determined when all the past, present
and future causally relevant features are taken into account.
For example, the direct effects of the act at issue may turn out
to be very much smaller (even naught) in a situation where
similar acts are seldom performed than in one where they are
frequently performed (in particular if there are the kind of
threshold-related effects we will deal with in the next section under
Decision-theoretical consequentialism). An
indirect effect of an action which does, perhaps, not have the desired,
direct consequences is the positive effect which setting a good
example may have in the long run. A person may decide to cast
'er vote, for instance, even when this one vote is not needed
(anymore), only to make clear to 'er fellow-citizens that there
are (nonegoistic) people in favor of the institution in question.
This will encourage those who think likewise and if
the institution can be justified on consequentialist grounds, the
indirect, long-term effect of such a vote has to be judged
favorable as well.
Some theorists characterize all versions of consequentialism
as not agent-relative; others propagate an agent-relative form
of consequentialism, that is, a form in which values are
'specified by reference to the agent for whom they provide
reasons'. We will return to this subject in the context of
goal-rights systems (in sections
8.3.1). At the moment it suffices
to consider only non-agent-relative consequentialism. Whether
a particular normative doctrine or theoretical complex which is
agent-relative or identity-dependent in some way is, then, still
to be termed "consequentialistic" is, perhaps, in the end merely
a question of definition.
If a single act is assessed on the basis of the consequences
it has in one particular case, ethical theorists speak of
"act-consequentialism"; if it is assessed on the basis of the
consequences of the adoption of a general rule of which it is
one particular instance, then of "rule-consequentialism".
In act-consequentialism an act is said to be right if it produces,
or is intended to produce, the greatest balance of good over
evil in the world, without reference to a rule.
Rule-consequentialism, on the other hand, emphasizes the central role of
rules in morality and claims that it is in
practise hardly possible
to judge what the separate consequences of single acts might be
every time. There is also a third variant, which is called
"general consequentialism" because it does not demand
that people follow certain rules, but rather that they ask themselves
in every situation what would happen if everyone were to do so
and so in this or such a situation.
It has already been mentioned that the general consequentialist appeals
to the principle that if an action is right for person A to do in 'er
situation, then it is right for everyone to do who is similarly situated
in relevant respects.
The general consequentialist thus makes an implicit use of the relevance
principle, or —as has been argued— a principle of
As noted in section
5.3.5 the relevance principle may
already be part of the consequentialist definition of bringing about
or producing a value and the general consequentialist does, then,
nothing else than to use it again in a wider context. It would serve
clarity, however, to recognize it explicitly. (The question of
universalizability we will briefly discuss in
the next division.)
The performatory values of a consequentialist theory, or the
principles based on it, may be either aggregative or distributive.
Aggregative principles deal with a value which is the
sum total of something, whereas distributive principles deal
with a value which represents a certain way of distributing
something (let's say "goods"). An aggregative value is, for
example, the (greatest) sum total of happiness in the world, and
distributive values are, for example, (distributive) equality or
relevance may be called "a
distributive value" too.
Utilitarianism, as a form of consequentialism with
the greatest happiness as sole principle, has no way to guarantee
that the distribution of goods among sentient beings or persons
will be an equal or proportional one (proportionate to their
needs and/or merits, for instance). Therefore, if an equal or
proportional distribution is a good thing in itself (with equality or
proportionality as a performatory value), utilitarianism fails.
To bring about an unequal or disproportional distribution
of goods among sentient beings or persons is wrong and an act of
injustice, assuming that disproportional refers to the
condition in which the differences cannot be justified as being
relevant. The consequentialist, however, starts, with the badness
of the inequality or irrelevance, whereas a nonconsequentialist
nonmotivist (a deontologist to be precise) would start from the
wrongness of what
'e calls "an unjust act".
Some ethical theorists claim that a pattern of distributing things could
be 'right' in itself, but this is a mistake: a pattern is good or
bad (or maybe neither); bringing about a pattern by a certain
way of distributing things is right or wrong (or neither). Here
the relationship between the right and the good resembles more
and more that between the chicken and the egg (with the
consequentialist representing the School of the Eggs and the
deontologist representing the School of the Chickens). If
equality is a distributive value, it is also in consequentialism
a value in itself, irrespective of what (else) it may be
conducive to, or not be conducive to.
Monism is a doctrinal ideal in
disciplinary thought, but if
we value justice or equality and relevance, then utilitarian
monism violates an important principle. Altho it has been made
plausible, or not implausible, that the greatest happiness
principle need not lead to gross inequalities in practise, it
remains a contingent matter in utilitarianism that gross inequalities
or injustices are absent (if so). A utilitarian who
could bring about more happiness in a human community by making
the rich richer and the poor poorer would have to do so
(assuming that the situation remains the same for all other
sentient beings). Not only would 'e have to do that on the happiness-
or utility-principle, 'e would not even have to regret the
inequality or injustice. It is also possible in a
pluralist theory that people
would, on balance, have to increase
certain differences in order to maximize an aggregative value,
but if equality is one of such a theory's values, increasing
these differences would still be prima facie wrong in that
particular respect, and therefore regrettable.
What applies to equality, relevance and justice also applies to
truth, which is not
recognized as an independent value either in utilitarianism.
Should in a particular situation lying have
more good than bad consequences in terms of happiness (for
example, because it makes the liar more happy than it makes the
person lied to unhappy), the act-utilitarian will have to lie.
Now, a rule-utilitarian would argue that a rule against lying is
very useful, that always telling the truth is for the greatest
general good, even if it yielded more bad effects than good
ones in a limited number of cases. But also this argument, altho
plausible, makes the wrongness of lying a contingent matter, for
if the rule did not happen to be utility-maximizing, it would
not be valid.
Antiutilitarians have been eager to point out that the utilitarians'
great anxiety about getting values like justice and honesty somehow
included in the eudaimonistic or hedonistic calculus is itself an
admission that justice and honesty, or equality, relevance and truth, are
indeed values besides happiness or utility.
There certainly is much more than a grain of truth in
this accusation, yet it may be equally plausible that certain
antiutilitarians do not only recognize some other values which
should be strived for, but also ignore some values which should
be strived for, namely conceptual and axiomatic clarity and
austerity. Even tho the utilitarian attempt at devising a normative
unitary field theory has failed, the attempt at finding such a
theory is in itself praiseworthy.