Category Archives: Ethical Theory

Criticisms of Utilitarianism, Part 1: The Utility Monster

Philosopher Robert Nozick developed a thought experiment in which a hypothetical being–a utility monster–does not suffer diminishing returns from each additional unit of a resource that it consumes.  It may even receive greater utility as it consumes more.  Since the rest of us obtain less utility as we consume more, the thought experiment is intended to show that, according to utilitarian reasoning, we would have to allow the monster to consume everything, leading to our own demise.  Since this is morally repugnant, utilitarianism fails as an ethical philosophy.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a witty webcomic that I follow, approached this issue in a similar way.

How can a utilitarian respond?  Continue reading


Filed under Ethical Theory

The Dangers of Symbolism

A symbol has no meaning except in one’s mind.  It can change.  It can be replaced.  It can be forgotten. Continue reading

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Bad Religious Ethics, Cognitive Bias, Ethical Theory

Effective Punishment

Before we punish someone, we must understand our reasons for doing so:  What desires motivate us to harm him?  Is it good to pursue these desires?

Then we must understand our goals:  What is the punishment supposed to accomplish?  When can we end the punishment?

Finally, we must determine what actions to take:  What best fulfills our goals?  Is there an alternative to punishment that fulfills our goals?

These are the questions of the desire-belief theory of intentional action in which desires motivate us to act and beliefs tell us how to act in order to satisfy those desires.  If we fail to understand our desires or our beliefs, we are much more likely to cause needless harm and thwart our own desires.  With this in mind, consider some examples of ineffective punishment:  Continue reading


Filed under Essential Reading, Ethical Theory

Moral Language as Obfuscation

Moral language, as it is commonly used, disguises the beliefs and desires that produce moral positions.  If we do not understand our beliefs and desires, then we do not understand our morality.  If we do not understand our morality, then we are doomed to fight and argue fruitlessly with others over what it should be.  We have strong reasons, then, to see past moral language to understand what we mean by it.  When we do, we find that our moral disagreements stem from both differences in desires and differences in beliefs concerning how we satisfy those desires.  Continue reading


Filed under Bad Religious Ethics, Essential Reading, Ethical Theory

Response to John Myste: The Moral Sense

Commenter and fellow blogger John Myste has written of a “moral sense” both here and in the comments of his most recent blog post.  Since it is a sort of secular challenge to my ethical theory, I must respond to it.

Let’s begin with the full quote from his blog:

I know I have discussed this before, but people have a “moral sense,” and this, not reason, makes them moral. It is true for the most devout or the most secular. This sense, this intuition, this faith, drives them.

Trying to justify morality as a psychological curiosity makes sense. However, trying to justify morality as a rational decision is post hoc thinking at its best. The desire to be moral precedes the desire to explain why we are moral.

I suspect no one in history ever decided to be moral for the simple reason that he was seeking the path to happiness and he reasoned that this was the best one.  Continue reading


Filed under Ethical Theory, Responses

A Summary of Virtue Ethics for the Utilitarian

If you don’t want to read all three parts of my Virtue Ethics series, then this post should be sufficient for you.

Virtue ethics is concerned with our reasons for action, our character, and human flourishing through virtue.  Utilitarianism can share these concerns in its efforts to maximize happiness, so it is important to understand them.   Continue reading


Filed under Essential Reading, Ethical Theory, Summaries

Virtue Ethics, Part 3: Justice vs. Revenge

What is the difference between justice and revenge?

We can certainly point out that justice concerns the proper punishment for bad behavior while revenge can be any kind of punishment for any perceived slight.  If that’s the only difference, however, then it seems that justice is merely a type of revenge.

I propose a further difference, which concerns virtue ethics:  true justice is motivated by the desire to establish a better society; revenge is motivated by the desire to harm.  That is, of course, if we actually wish to make justice a noble pursuit instead of an expression of barbarism that conveniently has some social benefit. Continue reading


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Virtue Ethics, Part 2: Reasons for Action, Incentives, and Moral Responsibility

I have said that, since rational argument is typically insufficient to compel action, we must promote certain values–or virtues or, if you want to break it down further, desires–so that people have a motivation to do good.  And in my last post, I showed how my understanding of utilitarian happiness can mix with the virtue ethicist’s concept of flourishing, albeit without reference to human purpose.

But if utilitarianism, as a form of consequentialism, finds moral value in an action’s results, why should it share the concerns of virtue ethics?  In other words:  Why is one’s reason for action important as long as the action produces good results?  Continue reading


Filed under Ethical Theory

Virtue Ethics, Part 1 – Virtue, Flourishing, and Purpose

Where deontology focuses on rules and consequentialism (utilitarianism’s category) focuses on results, virtue ethics focuses on character.  Let’s apply this to the moral issue of torture.

A deontologist might say:  Torture is always wrong; any good that comes of it is irrelevant because the act in itself is bad.

A consequentialist might say:  Torture is sometimes acceptable because it can yield information that saves more lives or does less harm overall than not torturing someone would.

A virtue ethicist, however, would ask:  What does the torturer’s willingness to torture tell us about his character–the sort of person he is?  What are his virtues and his vices?  What are his intentions and his reasons for action?  What does he think of his own reasons for action?  If the torturer enjoys his work even though it causes harm, the virtue ethicist might determine that the torturer is a bad person and that the act of torture in this case is bad because it is done for bad reasons.  Continue reading


Filed under Ethical Theory

The Value of Secularism

If a country supports religious freedom and opposes the mixing of church and state, it has two options if it seeks consistency, the cornerstone of law and social stability:  support every religion or support no religion.  For several reasons, the more practical choice is to support no religion:

1.) It does not require debate over precisely what qualifies as a religion (and thus what the government does or does not promote).

2.) It does not force us to make endless exceptions for every rule a given religion does not like.

3.) It does not lead to conflicts among different religions’ rules.

4.) It does not require as much time or as many resources as the alternative.  Continue reading


Filed under Essential Reading, Ethical Theory