Life, the Universe, and Everything

A Course Blog for GET1029/GEK1067

Category: Morality (page 2 of 3)

Podcast Episode #03 (W03)

W03 Q/A Part 3: Consequentialism; Trolleys, Warlords, and other Oddities

On to Consequentialism, introduced at Slide #17, the basic stance saying that the moral status of an action is all about the the value of its outcome for the world, i.e., we have only one duty—to act so as to bring about the best overall outcome for the world. But depending on how what the theorist counts as better or worse outcomes for the world, you get different kinds of Consequentialisms. In the class, I mentioned three (Slide #18):

Utilitarianism = Consequentialism where the goodness of outcome measured in terms of overall happiness.

Hedonic Utilitarianism = Consequentialism where happiness measure in terms of pleasure/pain.

Preference Utilitarianism = Consequentialism where happiness measured in terms of preference satisfaction.

So, in answer to these:

So consequentialism is utilitarianism?

Is consequentialism similar to utilitarianism?

is it right to say that consequentialism is something like the utilitarian approach?

Watch the direction of your “is”–Utilitarianism is a type of Consequentialism but not all versions of Consequentialism need be Utilitarian. Ok, on to the questions. But don’t forget the other posts I’ve made that cover a lot of relevant ground as well (see this and this).

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W03 Q/A Part 2: Deontology, and the intentions behind our actions

As I mentioned in W03 (Slide #11) I’m not introducing “Deontology” and “Consequentialism” as fully worked out theories, but only to help you appreciate a critical divide in the way we can think about the moral domain. The reason why this divide occurs is because our own intuitions are themselves divided, even within ourselves–think of the majority reactions to Trolley and Transplant (Slide #23). For the purposes of the class material, your job is to grasp that critical divide. Many of your questions are interesting and important in their own ways–don’t get me wrong–but make sure you don’t let them distract you from the main points I’m making.

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W03 Q/A Part 1 Terms of Evaluation; Belief vs. Truth

Let’s start with the terms of normative moral evaluation (W03 Slide #8). Not sure if you noticed but for right and wrong, only blameworthiness is involved. Praiseworthiness is not mentioned at all. Praiseworthiness only comes up in the next category of Supererogation. This should alert you to an important feature (and it’s commonsense) too of morality—the whole point is to escape blame. When we do our duty we are doing what’s required, that’s all. Praise is an extra. So the answer to:

So for Morally Right, if X is required would you then be praiseworthy for doing it?

Is “no”.

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Actual, Expected, and Intended Outcomes in Consequentialism

he In W03 Right and Wrong, I mentioned that to resolve the issue about knowledge posed by the Tandey case, some Consequentialists prefer to talk in terms of the expected outcome of an action, rather than actual outcome. In this post, I will expand on this idea. But before that, let’s make sure we are on the same page.

The basic version of Consequentialism introduced in W03 says that the moral status of an action is all about the value of its outcome for the world; we have only one duty—to act so as to bring about the best overall outcome for the world. A couple of points to note. First, this outcome (or “consequence”) includes everything that the action brings about, which, incidentally, includes the action itself. Second, Consequentialists are interested in the value of the outcome for the world, i.e., in other words, whether this outcome is good or bad for everyone (or everything within the relevant domain). Since it’s “everyone”, the agent himself is, of course, included too; the point here is just that the good outcome can’t just be good for the agent or those he cares about, but in some sense good “for everyone”.

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Intentions in Deontology and Consequentialism

So you’ve been introduced to the difference between a Consequentialist and a Deontological perspective on the question–“What actions are morally right/wrong?” in W03 Right and Wrong. Something that might have occurred to you is this: What exactly is the significance of intentions to the two major perspectives? (As I work through the Q/A for W03, I see similar questions raised.)

Often enough, many students will think that the difference between the Deontological and the Consequentialist perspectives is that while the agent’s intentions matter to the former, it doesn’t matter to the latter. That’s not quite right.

In response to one student, Mr Jeremias Koh (one of my previous tutors), wrote a long reply in which I was copied. I thought that it is very good and so decided to reuse large parts of it, with his permission, plus additional material in the post I created that semester. The below is an updated version.

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Virtue Ethics

So the Deontologist thinks that the action is right which conforms to categorical norms. The Consequentialist thinks that the action is right which brings about the best outcome for the world. But what about Virtue Ethics? In this post, I’ll say a bit more about Virtue Ethics but keep in mind that we aren’t focusing on it for the purposes of the module.

Let’s begin with terms that we use to appraise the character of people. Not just a specific action at a specific time, but a person as an entity that displays a pattern of conduct over time, and from whom we can expect more of the same. Think appraisals like “he is a brave person“, “he is a kind fella“, “she is compassionate“, “she is a filial daughter“, “he is an honest broker“. (These are just examples.) The important point is that when we say such things, we often don’t just mean that the person has done one or two brave or kind or compassionate thing, but that the person has a brave or kind or compassionate disposition. For instance, a compassionate person can be expected to do certain sorts of things in a range of circumstances–when she sees a stranger in dire straits she steps forward to contribute some cash, when she sees a child lost in the mall she tries to calm her down and helps contact the parents, and so on.

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An Exchange with a Student

An email from a student (X), who gave me permission to share with the class.

Hi Prof. Loy,

This is X and I am one of your students in GET1029 this semester. I have some doubts that I don’t know if I should bring it up during tutorial but it’s keeping it awake at night so I thought I might just write an e-mail to ask you first.

1. The first topic discussing value theories have a big assumption that, everything in this world intrinsically contains value, ie something must be good or bad. So as a nihilistic person myself, who believes in that the illusion of well-being is merely a biological mechanism to ensure the survival of a life being, my stand is that why aren’t we scrutinizing this assumption? Because it is in my opinion a very strong argument against all three theories that we have discussed, as it directly challenges the ground that these theories stand upon.

2. And let’s say I accept the assumption that everything contains intrinsic value. One of the “worries” of the Objective List Theory is that different people may have a different list of things that constitute well-being, and different weightage/mixtures for the same list. My question is that, could it be that well-being might not have a universal benchmark, but is instead defined by the perception of each individual? So, the bigger question is that, is it acceptable for a philosophical theory to accept that the “one, whole story” about well-being just does not exist?

I would very much appreciate if you would allow me to pick your brain on these issues that I have!

Best Regards,


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Podcast Episode #02 (W02)

W02 Q/A Part 4: Ethical Hedonism

To recap (W02 Slide #21):

Ethical Hedonism = Pleasure is the only intrinsically good thing (pain is the only intrinsically bad thing).

And if we frame this as a theory of well-being, we get–

Pleasure/Pain Theory of Well-being (PPT) = Ah Beng is doing well =df Ah Beng experiences pleasure rather than pain (or, a positive balance of pleasure over pain).

And this is a specific instance of a general kind of theory in which well-being consists in experiencing certain mental states, e.g., pleasure and the absence of pain. Ok, on to your questions.

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