FoE Intro and Intro


Three main areas of Moral Philosophy:

  1. Value Theory
  2. Metaethics
  3. Normative Ethics


Although S.L. doesn’t mention this the other main area of moral philosophy is called “applied ethics” or “moral problems” as he calls them in the reader.


Political Philosophy is another major area of moral philosophy, although this is sometimes considered it’s own disciple.


In this course we will spend our time focusing normative ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics, and although we will not specifically cover political philosophy some of the issue we discuss will be related to central issues in political philosophy. Normative ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics are most commonly considered the three main areas of moral philosophy.


Normative Ethics:

  • Normative is defined as relating to or determining or prescribing norms
  • Normative ethics deals with questions relating to the prescription of norms i.e. it attempts to offer a theory that explains what one ought to do
  • A normative ethical theory tells us what actions are right and what actions are wrong
  • The most famous normative ethical principle that we are all familiar with is the golden rule, “treat others as you would treat yourself”
  • We will cover the three most popular contemporary approaches to normative ethics Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, and Social Contract Theory.


Applied Ethics

  • Applied ethics is the application of normative philosophical principles to moral issues that we face in society. Abortion, Euthanasia, Capital punishment, poverty, animal rights, etc. are examples of applied issues that philosophers have spent time on recent philosophical history.
  • In this class we will cover abortion, poverty, and animal rights.



  • Metaethics looks at the foundations of ethical inquiry.
  • In metaethics we ask questions like:
    • Are there any moral facts?
    • Is anything right or wrong?
    • What makes an action right or wrong?
    • Where do moral obligations come from?
    • Is God necessary for morality?


Good Luck!!!


Intro to Utilitarianism/ FoE Ch 9


Consequentialism – the goodness of an action is determined exclusively by its consequences.



  • Classical utilitarians and founders of the tradition include Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill
  • Utility is only thing that is fundamentally good
  • Act Utilitarianism– an action is morally required if and only if it maximizes utility
    • “Optimific” is used to describe actions that maximize utility
    • Utility:
      • “greatest good for the greatest number”
      • or more precisely the greatest net balance of happiness over unhappiness
      • not happiness for the most or the most happiness, without considering the suffering involved
      • Bentham talked about a utility calculus where we could literally add up the units of positive utility and subtract all the units negative utility and get an exact number of units of utility produced by each action
      • “pushpin (video games) is as good as poetry” Bentham
      • Mill thought there were higher and lower pleasures such than a strict utility calculus was not possible in the way Bentham imagined
      • The utilitarian calculus includes ALL the consequences of our actions to the end of time and every single sentient being that will be affected by them


How to apply consequentialist reasoning:

1) Identify what is intrinsically good.

2) Identify what is intrinsically bad.

3) Determine all of your options.

4) For each option, determine the value of its results.

5) Perform the action that yields the highest ratio of good to bad results.


Attractions of Utilitarianism

  • Impartiality:
    • Everyone’s interests count equally.
    • Justifies conventional moral wisdom:
      • Slavery, rape, and killing are wrong because they make people (very) unhappy.
      • Conflict resolution:
        • Utilitarianism gives us a method for making difficult moral decisions.
        • Moral flexibility:
          • Explains why moral prohibitions (against lying, stealing, etc.) may sometimes be broken.
          • In summary utilitarianism explains many of our most basic intuitions regarding what actions are right and wrong.


The Moral Community

  • The moral community consists of those whose interests we are morally obligated to consider for their own sake.
  • For utilitarians, the moral community consists of all beings capable of suffering.
  • Bentham “the question is not Can they reason?, Nor can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”
  • Utilitarians were way ahead of their time on women’s rights and animal rights


Agent Neutrality

Consequentialism is agent neutral in that it does not give any preference to the agents desire, preferences, happiness, or life. An agent may be obligated to sacrifice any or all of the above.


Assessing Actions and Intentions with a Utilitarian Framework

  • Morally praiseworthy actions are not necessarily the right actions according to utitlitarianism
  • Actions are evaluated on actual consequences
  • Intentions are evaluated on expected consequences not actual consequences
  • The right action is the action that maximizes actual utility
  • The right intention is the intention maximizes expected utility
  • This is a little strange in that you could have an action that would be the wrong action but still be morally praiseworthy
    • Example: You see a drowning man and decide to save his life. This is a morally praiseworthy action that turns out to be the wrong action because the drowning man is actually Hitler.
    • Example: you decide to steal someone’s car a morally blameworthy action that turns out to be the right action as that person was going to hit and kill someone while driving home drunk
    • “On this view there is no essential connection between the morality of an action and the morality of the intentions behind it” (FoE 124).




“Consequentialists say that our fundamental moral duty is to make the world the best place it can be. Utilitarians in particular understand this to mean that we msut contribute as much to the improvement of well-being as we possibly can. Though theorists differ, most claim that whether an action is optimific depends only on its actual (not expected) results. All results count, not just that occur in the short term. When we fail to maximize good results, we act wrongly, even if we had the best intentions. Though good intentions may earn us praise, they are irrelevant to an action’s morality. When we pass up a chance to do an action that would have had better results, we are doing something wrong. Always” (FoE 124).


Other types Utilitarianism

Preference Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is morally required if and only if is maximizes preference satisfaction
  • Peter Singer is a famous contemporary preference utilitarian

Rule Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is required iff it is dictated by a rule that if followed by everyone would produce the most happiness

Negative Utilitarianism

  • Df – an action is required iff it minimizes suffering.
  • Some have argued that this would morally obligate us to actively exterminate all sentient life, in the most painless way possible of course J. Others have take the less extreme view and merely argued that we obligated to make sure no new life comes into existence but not to destroy existing life

Expected Consequences Consequentialism

  • Df – an action is required iff it maximizes expected utility.


El ch 2 John Stuart Mill – Hedonism


First thing: Ignore the title “Hedonism” as that is not what Mill called this exerpt. This is the second chapter of Mill’s Utilitarianism which he called “What Utilitarianism Is”


Historical Information: Mill is writing a little after Jeremy Bentham has introduced utilitarianism to the general public but Mill is attempting to further popularize utilitarianism and address some of the main objections of the day as well as offer a slightly modified form of utilitiarianism.


In this reading Mill attempts to address the following three criticisms:

  1. Utilitarianism doesn’t actually provide a reason for acting morally i.e. for acting in a utilitarian way to maximize utility.
  2. Utilitarianism doesn’t account for the higher values of life, things like virtue and knowledge that are more important than pleasure. It is a doctrine “fit for swine” because it claims that the only thing that is valuable is crude physical pleasure.
  3. Utilitarianism doesn’t recognize the importance of acting virtuously or morally for the sake of virtue itself. On the utilitarian account virtue is nothing more than pleasure, which of course it obviously is not.


Three main arguments in the reading

  1. Mill’s Argument for Higher and lower Pleasures
  2. Mill’s Argument for the greatest happiness principle.
  3. Mill’s Argument for virtue as an end in itself i.e. that utilitarianism is not corrosive of the very foundation of morality


Mill’s Argument for Higher and Lower Pleasures


Mill’s Claim: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to 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”


Bentham vs. Mill – Higher and and lower pleasures?


Bentham “pushpin is as good as poetry”


The utility of all these arts and sciences, –I speak of those of amusement and curiosity, –the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnished more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.


Qualitative Utilitarianism vs Quantitative Utilitarianism

Bentham’s utilitarianism is quantitative in that he believes the only reason one pleasure is better than another is because it produces more pleasure. The things that normally get labeled “higher” pleasures are higher only because they produce more happiness and less suffering in the long run. On this view the value of certain moral virtues like temperance, kindness, etc. is in the long term happiness they produce.


On Betham’s view we could literally add up the pleasure produced by different activities and compare it.


Mill attempts to argue that certain pleasures are qualitatively different such that no possible amount of lower pleasure is greater than a certain amount of higher pleasure.


This argument is supposed to deflect the criticism that “utilitarianism is a doctrine worthy of swine” because it doesn’t value anything higher than pleasure and reduces the value of life to pleasure.


How do we know some pleasure are higher than others or which pleasures are higher?


Competent judges – A competent judge is someone who has experienced both.



“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.”


An a little later:

(i)            “few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals,”

(ii)          “no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool,” (iii)

(iii)         “no instructed person would be an ignoramus,” and

(iv)         “no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base”



However Mill’s account of higher pleasures leaves us with a number of questions:

  • What could Mill really mean by claiming that one pleasure is better aside from quantitative considerations like duration, permanency, safety, costliness etc?
  • If there are such things as higher pleasures it seems to provide an argument against hedonistic utilitarianism. (consider Nozick’s experience machine argument which is meant to be an argument against hedonism)
  • One commonly suggested solution is preference utilitarianism, this account could be used as an argument for preference utilitarianism, but of course preference utilitarianism doesn’t countenance the idea of higher and lower pleasures in the way Mill seems to be suggesting
  • I am left wondering if Mill has actually addressed the objection he sets out to address that “to suppose that life has no higher end than pleasure – no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit, – they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine.” Mill might be guilty of making a straw man argument here.
    • The objection seems to be about the purpose of life and Mill’s response seems to be about the fact humans are capable of a certain range of intellectual and emotional responses that animals are not capable of
    • If you think the purpose of life is something other than pleasure then an argument that shows that humans are capable of different kinds of pleasures than animals is an unsatisfactory response



Mill’s Argument for the greatest happiness principle


Let’s reconstruct Mill’s first Argument as follows:


(1) Seeing something proves that it is visible.


(2) So, desiring something proves that it is desirable.

(3) The only thing each person desires is his or her own happiness.


­­­(4) The only thing that is desirable for a person is his or her own happiness.

(5) So, each person should perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.


Normative vs Descriptive

“Visible” is a descriptive term, it describes things that can be seen. If something is visible it means it is possible to see it.


But “desirable” is normative term.  When we say that X is desirable we do not mean that it is possible to desire X but that one ought to desire X.


Mill makes the mistake of trying to derive the normative claim that we ought to desire happiness from the descriptive claim or observation we do in fact desire happiness.


This distinction between normative and descriptive claims was noted by David Hume and has come to be known as the “Is-Ought Gap” or more commonly in contemporary analytic philosophy the “fact-value distinction.”


He says:


In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.


For this class we will use the slightly more colloquial “Is-ought gap” to describe this mistake.


Examples of the Is-Ought Gap:


(1) Torturing babies for no good reason causes great suffering.


(2) So, It is wrong to torture babies.


The above argument is invalid. The conclusion does not follow from the premises.



The first claim is a descriptive claim about the effect of torturing babies and the conclusion of the argument is a normative claim about what we one ought not to do. But we cannot derive a normative claim from the descriptive claim.


A good rule thumb to remember when evaluating an argument is that the conclusion cannot contain a normative claim unless one of the premises contains a normative claim.


Exercise: With your partner, come up with three normative claims that could serve as a second premise that would make this argument valid.


Back to Mill’s argument:


(1) Seeing something proves that it is visible.


(2) So, desiring something proves that it is desirable.

(3) The only thing each person desires is his or her own happiness.


­­­(4) So, the only thing that one ought to desire is his or her own happiness.

(5) So, the only actions that one ought to perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.


Premise (2) is supposed to follow from (1) and (4) is supposed to follow from (1), (2), and (3). What is the formal mistake this argument makes? Is the argument for (2) unsound or invalid. Is the argument for (4) unsound or invalid.


Discuss with your partner.


(2) Is invalid as it does not follow from (1). Here Mill doesn’t properly respect the is-ought gap. He attempts to jump from an is-claim to an ought-claim or from a descriptive to a normative claim.


(4) is unsound because (2) which serves as a premise for (4) is false. The argument is actually valid but unfortunately for Mill (2) is false. If (2) were true then (4) would also be true.


(5), which is the central claim of utilitarianism is now is a rough spot. (5)’s problem begin with the fact that Mill has not successfully established that one ought to desire happiness, even their own happiness. (5) is supposed to follow from (4), but (4) is false so the argument for (5) is unsound. However (5)’s problems don’t stop there because the argument for (5) is also invalid. To move from (4) to (5) one would need some additional premise.


Exercise: Discuss with your partner and try to come up with an additional premise that could be used to derive the utilitarian conclusion, (5), from premise (4).


Mill’s Argument for virtue as an end in itself

“Virtue according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who lave it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness” (FoE 23).


The love of virtue is like the love of money, money is originally desirable as a means to an end but eventually people just desire money and it makes them happy to own money independent of any happiness it might bring.


Mill claims that certain things, like money, power, fame and virtue, become more than a means to our happiness but “principle ingredients (FoE 23)” to our happiness.


“The desire of it is nota different thing from the desire of happiness, any more than the love of music, or the desire of health. They are some of the elements of which the desire of happiness is made up. Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete while; and these are some of its parts” (FoE 24)”


Mill thinks he has successfully argued that the desire for virtue is really a desire for happiness due to a kind of association. He says,


“It results from the preceding considerations, that there is in reality nothing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so” (FoE 25).


And he concludes:


If so, happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge human conduct; from when it necessarily follows that it must be the criterion of morality” (FoE 25)


But, here Mill is again attempting to jump over the is-ought gap; he illicitly moves from a descriptive claim about virtue (how the desire for virtue is acquired) to a normative claim.


However aside from this problem I think this argument may also be another straw man. Mill seems to be arguing against the claim that “people do desire virtue as an end in itself” however I would assume the criticism of utilitarianism would be more along the lines of “people ought to desire virtue as an end in itself.


Because of Mill conflation of descriptive and normative claims he takes an argument that is making a normative claim and assumes it is making a descriptive claim.


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