PHIL 240A.  HANDOUT #6:  CONSEQUENTIALIST ETHICAL THEORIES

 

                Consequentialist ethical theories come in two forms, objective and subjective.  Each definition on this handout gives the objective form, with the subjective form in square brackets. 

 

                A (PURELY) CONSEQUENTIALIST Ethical Theory is a general normative theory that bases the moral evaluation of acts, rules, institutions, etc. solely on whether they would produce the best consequences [or solely on the whether the agent believes they would produce the best consequences], where the standard of goodness (or 'bestness') employed is a standard of non-moral goodness (or 'bestness').  (Where the evaluation is based on what actually would produce the best consequences, the theory is an objective consequentialist theory.  Where the evaluation is based on what the agent believes would produce the best consequences, the theory is a subjective consequentialist theory.) 

               

                A NON-CONSEQUENTIALIST Ethical Theory is a general normative theory that is not (purely) consequentialist.

 

UTILITARIANISM

 

                A UTILITARIAN Ethical Theory is a (purely) consequentialist theory according to which the morality of an act depends solely on some relation (specified by the theory) that it has to the maximization of overall (i.e., total or average) utility [or some relation to what the agent believes will maximize overall utility].  Utilitarians can differ on the definition of utility, giving rise to three varieties of Utilitarian theories. 

 

                HEDONISTIC UTILITARIANISM:  Like the normative hedonist, the hedonistic utilitarian claims that we can define the net hedonic value of a life =df the sum of all pleasures (which have positive hedonic value) and pains (which have negative hedonic value) contained in the life, where it is assumed that pleasures and pains can all be measured on a single scale.  The utility of a life is defined as its net hedonic value:  Utility of a given life =df net hedonic value of that life (e.g., Bentham and Mill [but note that Mill distinguished higher from lower pleasures]).  (NOTE THAT ALTHOUGH THE HEDONISTIC UTILITARIAN USES THE SAME DEFINITION OF 'NET HEDONIC VALUE' AS THE NORMATIVE HEDONIST, UTILITARIANISM IS NOT THE SAME AS NORMATIVE HEDONISM.  WHY NOT?)

 

                PLURALISTIC UTILITARIANISM:  Utility is defined in terms of whatever has intrinsic (non-moral) value, not just pleasure and pain--including, for example, knowledge, love, friendship, courage, health, beauty, states of consciousness other than pleasure and pain (e.g., Moore).  Utility of a life = the sum of all of these factors produced during the life, again measured on a single scale.

 

                PREFERENCE UTILITARIANISM:  Utility is defined in terms of the degree to which one's actual (non-moral) preferences are satisfied, whatever those preferences may be (e.g., Harsanyi).  Utility of a life =df the degree to which it satisfies the preference of the person whose life it is, whatever those preferences may be.

 

TOTAL UTILITY AND AVERAGE UTILITY

 

                1.  Of Acts

 

                Utilitarians can evaluate the TOTAL or AVERAGE Utility of any possible action as follows:

                (1) For any possible individual, i, the theory defines, in non-moral terms, the utility to i of each of the various possible alternative lives that i might lead.  These utilities are assumed to be representable as numerical quantities, and, at least in theory, to be measurable and to be interpersonally comparable.  (For example, in Hedonistic Utilitarianism, the utility of a life is a measure of the amount of happiness, or the sum or pleasure over pain, contained in the life.)

                (2) It is assumed that, on the basis of (1), for each possible action A and possible individual i affected by A, it is possible to define ui(A), the utility to i of i's life given that A is performed  (which may be positive or negative).  Again, ui(A) is assumed to be a measurable, inter-personally-comparable quantity.

                (3a) The TOTAL UTILITY of an act A is the sum of the utility to each possible individual i affected by the act, given that A is performed--that is, the sum, over all possible individuals i affected by the act A, of ui(A).

                (3b) The AVERAGE UTILITY of an act A is the average utility to each possible individual i affected by the act, given that A is performed--that is the sum, over all possible individuals i affected by the act A, of ui(A), divided by the total number of individuals affected by the act.

 

                2.  Of Systems of Rules and OF Social Practices

 

                Corresponding definitions can be given of the AVERAGE or TOTAL UTILITY of any system of rules or other social practice--that is, any rule or system of rules, custom or system of customs, or institution or system of institutions.  For the purposes of evaluating a social practice, P (i.e., a rule or system of rules, a custom or system of customs, or an institution or system of institutions), define the utility of P for a possible individual i, ui(P), as the utility to i of the practice P, given that P is generally followed or respected--that is, given that people (in the relevant social group) generally try to comply with the P.  The distinction between complying with a practice and trying to comply with a practice (which, in the case of rules, is the distinction between satisfying a rule and applying a rule (i.e., trying to satisfy it)) is an important one, which will be discussed in lecture.

                Given a definition of the utility to a possible individual i of a social practice P (ui(P)), the TOTAL UTILITY of social practice P is defined as the sum, over all possible individuals i affected by P, of ui(P).  The AVERAGE UTILITY of P is defined as the sum, over all possible individuals i affected by P, of ui(P), divided by the total number of individuals affected by P.

 

                When it is not important to distinguish between total utility and average utility utilitarianism, I will refer to maximizing overall utility to cover both kinds. 

 

ACT, RULE, AND SOCIAL PRACTICE UTILITARIANISM

 

                It is possible to rank acts, rules, and social practices on the basis of their overall utility.  However, a moral theory is a theory about what one ought to do.  We will distinguish three different kinds of Utilitarian moral theory as follows:

 

                ACT UTILITARIANISM refers to a family of Utilitarian theories according to which a moral act is one that maximizes (total or average) utility [or one that the agent believes will maximize (total or average) utility].

 

                RULE UTILITARIANISM refers to a family of Utilitarian theories according to which a moral act is one that is prescribed by the rule (or system of rules) that, if generally applied, would maximize (total or average) utility [or by the rule (or system of rules) that the agent believes would maximize (total or average) utility if generally applied].

 

                SOCIAL PRACTICE UTILITARIANISM refers to a family of Utilitarian theories according to which a moral act is one that is prescribed by a social practice (e.g., a rule or system of rules, custom or system of customs, or institution of system of institutions) that, if generally followed or respected, would maximize (total or average) utility [or that the agent believes would maximize (total or average) utility if generally followed or respected].

 

VARIETIES OF UTILITARIANISM

 

                On the basis of the above definitions, you should be able to define 18 different varieties of objective Utilitarian theory and 18 different varieties of subjective Utilitarian theory, corresponding to the possible combinations of the bracketed elements below:

                [Hedonistic/Pluralistic/Preference] [Total-Utility/Average-Utility] [Act/Rule/Social Practice]

                For example, one combination would be:  Hedonistic, Total-Utility, Act Utilitarianism.  This is historically the most influential type of Utilitarian moral theory.