Category Archives: Ethical Theory

Animals and Ethics, Part 1

Animal rights supporters have essentially one argument:  Animals are sentient; therefore, we should not hurt them.

Sometimes they appeal specifically to animals’ ability to feel pain, but sentience implies this, so the first argument is sufficient.  Sometimes they appeal to rights, but rights are not natural or God-given; humans must agree to recognize them.  Sometimes they appeal to a human responsibility to care for the Earth and all of its creatures, but, like rights, humans must first recognize responsibility.

Therefore, I will consider only the merits of the moral claim that sentient beings should not be harmed.  Continue reading


Filed under Applied Ethics, Ethical Theory

Men of Principle

Men of principle are not necessarily praiseworthy.

Such men may have terrible principles that should not be promoted.

Such men often have little concern for moral reasoning; they believe that their one-size-fits-all solution is sufficient.

Such men are often uncompromising, unchanging, proud, and self-certain.  For them, pragmatism is a vice.

Such men may suffer needlessly and even make others suffer needlessly, all for the sake of consistently adhering to an idea.

Such men, in short, often put lesser desires before the greatest.

Why, then, do we praise them?  Continue reading


Filed under Bad Religious Ethics, Ethical Theory

Criticisms of Utilitarianism, Part 2: Rules Break Down

Philosopher David Lyons wrote that rule utilitarianism, which advocates that we adopt the rules of conduct that produce the greatest utility, would collapse into act utilitarianism because every rule would be adjusted for the sake of exceptions until the guiding principle of ethics were simply:  do whatever produces the greatest utility in the given situation.

How can a rule utilitarian respond?

Rebuttal 1:  Presumption of Perfect Knowledge

Part of what makes rule utilitarianism appealing is our imperfect knowledge.  We implement a rule to address cases that are similar precisely because the similarities are more significant, as far as we know, than the differences.  Because of our imperfect knowledge and the difficulty of quantifying utility, we simply cannot be effective act utilitarians.  If we could be, we would have no use for the inferior rule utilitarianism, so Lyons’ criticism is irrelevant.

Rebuttal 2:  Invalid Argument

Good rules contribute to social stability and cohesion, both of which increase utility.  We cannot discount this utility when considering the supposed collapse of rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism.  There may be a point at which the utility that a society loses through rule complexity, which can undermine stability and cohesion, outweighs the utility gained from it, which is limited to fewer and fewer people as the complexity grows.  If that is true, then some form of rule utilitarianism is still preferable to act utilitarianism.  Lyons ignores this possibility to reach his conclusion.  In this way, he seems to join many others in underestimating the scope and complexity of utilitarianism.

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Filed under 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