Philosophy 433                                                 History of Ethics                       Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I Consequentialism and deontology. A reader of a contemporary textbook on ethics will often find the subject discussed in terms of a distinction between consequentialist and deontological ethics.  Consequentialism is said to hold that the rightness of acts is determined by the goodness of their consequences, whereas deontology denies this, holding that acts can be right or wrong in themselves--it can be right to tell the truth even if the consequences of doing so are bad, wrong to betray a friend even if that has good



One notable thing about conceiving of the subject in this way is that it supposes ethics to be primarily about the right or wrongness of acts, and it seems to take this to be determined either by their consequences, or by the nature of the acts themselves.  This emphasis must seem puzzling if we look from the perspective of the eighteenth century thinkers we have been studying, thinkers such as Hutcheson, Butler, Hume, and Kant.  For none of these philosophers is the question of what a person should do to be settled, simply, either by an examination of the nature of the acts involved (considered independently of motive) or of their consequences.


Hutcheson is perhaps the clearest case.  He holds the distinctive ideas of morality to be approbation and condemnation, ideas which we have only when we contemplate motives or actions as motivated.  Strictly speaking, only benevolence elicits (moral) approbation, and, while there is a sense in which moral sense approves of acts which have the best consequences, this is derivative. 

It is because we approve fundamentally of universal benevolence, and that this motive aims at the greatest happiness for the greatest number, that the morally best act is the one which actually realizes this state of affairs.


Another way of putting this point is to say that Hutcheson thinks that morality is concerned fundamentally with virtue and vice and only derivatively with the question of what a person should do.  The answer to the latter question is to be determined by the answer to the former.


Hume's official position is quite similar.  He writes that an action can have no merit considered in itself, or as having good consequences.  It is the motive or trait of character that has merit, and the acts this leads to acquire merit only derivatively.  Indeed, he is usually loath to say that an act has merit unless it is actually caused by a virtuous motive.


Butler also fits this general picture.  Conscience or the principle of reflection is a faculty through which we approve or disapprove of principles of action within us.  While I remarked that his arguments in the Dissertation read like a catalogue of the objections that deontologists make against consequentialists, his actual target is Hutcheson's thesis that benevolence is the sum of virtue, his claim, that we approve of the person who is determined to keep faith, be honest, etc., even when (he believes) these do not have the best consequences.


Finally, while Kant is often cited as a preeminent deontologist, it is important to appreciate that his view is not that certain acts are simply right or wrong in themselves, i.e. taking account only of what they intrinsically are, and considered independently, not only of consequences, but of anything else.  Indeed, Kant is himself very much in the eighteenth century tradition that takes character to be fundamental.


The Categorical Imperative applies primarily to maxims, to principles of action that are realized in the character of a moral agent.  And what seems most fundamental in Kant's theory (this comes out more explicitly in the Groundwork than in the Critique of Practical Reason), is an ideal of the moral agent as autonomous, as fully determining her conduct by a conception of practical law.  This, after all, is what forms the basis for the Categorical Imperative. 


II  Bentham: the first real consequentialist?  While Jeremy Bentham was not the very first moral philosopher to think of ethics as trying to answer the question of what to do independently of answering the question of what character or principles of action to have, he may have been the first to press this perspective to the logical conclusion it seems to take in the utilitarian, and, more broadly consequentialist, tradition. 


Bentham seems to have been the first to hold that the standard that determines the rightness of any act is simply the overall long run net happiness it will produce, as compared with that of other acts available to the agent at the time.


How did Bentham come to think of ethics in a way that led him to this idea, that is, to what is nowadays called act-utilitarianism? 


III Slouching towards Bentham There is actually a very interesting story to be told here, and it involves Hume.  When Bentham read Hume's Treatise, he "felt," he later wrote, "as if the scales had fallen from his eyes."  He "learned to see that utility was the test and measure of all virtue."  But Hume's view was that virtue is primary, and that acts acquire merit only insofar as they manifest virtuous character.  So how did reading Hume lead Bentham to the view that whether an act is right depends entirely on whether it

has the best consequences--i.e. on something that is utterly different from what its motive was or whether the act would be produced by a virtuous motive?


I propose the following SPECULATIVE HISTORY. 


While Hume's ethics look like Hutcheson's in respect of the thesis that virtue is primary and that acts are good only through their relation to virtuous motives, and that what makes a motive a virtue is that contemplating it produces a sentiment of approbation in observer, Hume also held, you will recall, that this sentiment is not a response simply to considering the motive in itself.  Rather, it arises through a sympathetic consideration of the effects of the motive.  The reason why

Hume thought that, as Bentham put it, "utility was the test and measure of all virtue," was that when an observer contemplates the pleasurable effects of a motive, she then feels a sympathetic pleasure which, because it arises (indirectly) from contemplating the motive, produces approbation of the motive.  And that is what makes such a trait a virtue.


Thus, for Hume, but not for Hutcheson, what makes a trait a virtue is that it has pleasurable effects.  It is not far wrong to say that this is what its distinctive merit as a motive, its being a virtue, consists in.  Whereas, for Hutcheson, whether a motive is virtuous depends on whether contemplation of the motive itself produces approbation without any view to its consequences.


IV Why acts?  Now this explains how Bentham would have drawn from Hume the thought that what makes a trait or motive a virtue is its utility.  But why does he make the further step to evaluate acts by their consequences since Hume does not?


Part of the answer must be that whereas Hume's object is more to describe our moral feelings and thought, Bentham's is with which acts to prescribe.  Bentham was a reformer, and he was primarily concerned to find a basis for determining what should be done.  Now in fact our actual moral feelings and thought comport pretty badly with act-utilitarianism.  But, if we were to think that the basis for our evaluations of character were utilitarian, and if we are concerned with what we should do, we may well wonder why, if utility is what the goodness of motives derives from, doesn't it also determine what a person should do.  That is, in any given circumstance, why shouldn't a person just do whatever is likeliest to have the best consequences.  This seems a very natural line of thought to take if one is concerned about what acts to prescribe and takes it as a premise that motives are good or bad in virtue of having, respectively, good or bad consequences.


Now, as we know, Hume, like Hutcheson, resisted this line of thought.  He steadfastly held that the merit of an act depends on its relation to motive and not to consequences.  But, unlike Hutcheson, he was in a very poor position to maintain this as a prescriptive thesis, other than as, say, a thesis that describes our actual thought and feeling.


Hutcheson held that the distinctive ideas of morality are approbation and condemnation, which underlie, respectively, our ideas of moral good and evil, and these attach properly to motives and character.  Moreover, this moral goodness is a distinct kind of goodness, not reducible to natural goodness.  A trait or motive is morally good, not because it leads to natural good, but because it produces approbation when contemplated intrinsically.  If we ask, then, what a person (morally) should do, we ask a question that engages an idea that must include the distinctive simple moral ideas of approbation and/or condemnation.  We could not therefore answer it without considering motive at some point, because these simple ideas arise only through contemplating the motives of moral agents.  Hutcheson, therefore, had a principled reason for resisting the line of thought that led to Bentham's act-utilitarianism.  The moral quality of an act cannot possibly be independent completely of the distinctive moral goodness that only the motives of a moral agent can have.


Hume, on the other hand, did not have this reason for resisting the line of thought leading to Bentham's conclusion.  He held that the line between moral virtues and estimable natural abilities was purely verbal.  Unlike Hutcheson, he thought there were no simple, distinctively moral ideas that distinguished moral merit from nonmoral merit.  So he could not hold that the reason why the question of what a person (morally) should do cannot be determined independently of motive is

that the question invokes an idea that must include the simple ideas of morality that can be produced only by contemplating motive and character.


So when Bentham read Hume's text with the eyes of a reformer, rather than through the eyes of its "anatomist" author, and saw that utility was "the test and measure of all virtue" he had no reason to resist the thought that it must, therefore, be test and measure of all action.


As neat as this story is, it oversimplifies.  There are also some other fascinating lines of thought that lead Bentham toward act-utilitarianism.  We shall begin to examine them next time


V The historical Bentham  Jeremy Bentham was definitely from a later generation than Hume and Kant.  Born in 1748, almost ten years after Hume's Treatise, he lived well into the nineteenth century, dying in 1832.  He published his Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789, nine years after it was completed.


Although he was philosophically acute, including in such areas as the philosophy of language, Bentham's interests were primarily in law and politics.  He viewed these institutions with the eye of a reformer, keen to see what solid arguments could be given for legal institutions without relying on unfounded intuition, and common law notions.  He was famous for the remark that the idea of natural rights is "nonsense on stilts."


VI   Bentham’s externalism.  The Principles begins with this famous passage:


"Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do."  Here Bentham announces the essentials of both his ethics and his psychology.  Human beings are only motivated by considerations of their own pleasure and pain. His psychology is thus that of egoistic hedonism.  But what we morally should do is another matter.  The morally appropriate course of action is always whichever one would achieve the greatest total pleasure, taking everyone into account.  His ethics, therefore, is universalistic hedonism.


This combination creates an obvious practical, if not theoretical, problem.  If the only psychologically possible acts for agents are those that will realize their own pleasure, then what can be the force of holding that, nonetheless, what they morally ought to do is what would realize the greatest happiness for all?  Something seems required to take up the slack between the individual's happiness and the happiness of all.  This is precisely the role Bentham reserved for legal and political institutions.  By shrewd legislation and administration, political officials can structure incentives so that individuals find that their own happiness lies on the same path as that of the happiness of all.  [Compare this with Hutcheson and Butler.  If an apt epigram for them was "what God hath joined together (self-love and benevolence) let no man rend asunder," Bentham's might be "what God or nature hath left asunder, let man join together."


VII  The principle of utility, what?  One way of beginning to get the flavor of his position is to examine what he means by "the principle of utility."  Recall that among the eighteenth century writers we have been reading, such as Hutcheson, Hume, Butler, and Kant, 'principle' refers to something that is realized in a person's psychology.  So Butler's principle of reflection is the psychological faculty for self-reflective disinterested and dispassionate self-criticism of one's other psychological principles.  And for Kant, a subjective principle of the will is the maxim on which a person actually acts or intends to act.


Here is what Bentham says about what he means by the principle of utility:


"The principle here in question may be taken for an act of the mind; a sentiment; a sentiment of approbation; a sentiment which, when applied to an action, approves of its utility, as that quality of it by which the measure of approbation or disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed." (2n)


Now this is actually quite complicated.  He doesn't say that this principle is one that approves of acts in proportion as they tend to produce happiness.  Rather, it approves of utility "as that quality of [the action] by which the measure of approbation of disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed."  That is, it approves of approving of actions on the ground of their utility.


One thing should already be noted here.  This "second-order" approval of approving of acts on the basis of their utility apparently assumes that the "first-order"

approval of acts is itself open to some kind of rational control.  The person who holds (has?) the principle of utility favors favoring acts that promote utility--he favors using the utility of acts as a measure for favoring acts.  He favors this measure as a rational basis for favoring acts and policies.