|History of Modern Ethics|
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I. A reader of a contemporary textbook on ethics will often find the subject discussed in terms of a distinction between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Consequentialism is said to hold that the rightness of acts is determined by the goodness of their consequences, whereas deontology denies this, holding that acts can be right or wrong in themselves---it can be right to tell the truth even if the consequences of doing so are bad, wrong to betray a friend even if that has good consequences.
One notable thing about conceiving of the subject in this way is that it supposes ethics to be primarily about the right or wrongness of acts, and it seems to take this to be determined either by their consequences, or by the nature of the acts themselves. This emphasis must seem puzzling if we look from the perspective of the eighteenth century thinkers we have been studying, thinkers such as Hutcheson, Butler, Hume, and Kant. For none of these philosophers is the question of what a person should do to be settled, ultimately, either by an examination of the nature of the acts involved (considered independently of motive) or of their consequences.
Hutcheson is perhaps the clearest case. He holds the distinctive ideas of morality to be approbation and condemnation, ideas which we have only when we contemplate motives or actions as motivated. Strictly speaking, only benevolence elicits (moral) approbation, and, while there is a sense in which moral sense approves of acts which have the best consequences, this is derivative. It is because we approve fundamentally of universal benevolence, and that this motive aims at the greatest happiness for the greatest number, that the morally best act is the one which actually realizes this state of affairs.
Another way of putting this point is to say that Hutcheson thinks that morality is concerned fundamentally with virtue and vice and only derivatively with the question of what a person should do. The answer to the latter question is to be determined by the answer to the former.
Hume's official position is quite similar. He writes that an action can have no merit considered in itself, or as having good consequences. It is the motive or trait of character that has merit, and the acts this leads to acquire merit only derivatively. Indeed, he is usually loath to say that an act has merit unless it is actually caused by a virtuous motive.
Butler also fits this general picture. Conscience or the principle of reflection is a faculty through which we approve or disapprove of principles of action within us. While I remarked that his arguments in the Dissertation read like a catalogue of the objections that deontologists make against consequentialists, his actual target is Hutcheson's thesis that benevolence is the sum of virtue, his claim, that we approve of the person who is determined to keep faith, be honest, etc., even when (he believes) these do not have the best consequences.
Finally, while Kant is often cited as a preeminent deontologist, it is important to appreciate that his view is not that certain acts are simply right or wrong in themselves, i.e. taking account only of what they intrinsically are, and considered independently, not only of consequences, but of anything else. Indeed, Kant is himself very much in the eighteenth century tradition that takes character to be fundamental.
The Categorical Imperative applies primarily to maxims, to principles of action that are realized in the character of a moral agent. And what seems most fundamental in Kant's theory (this comes out more explicitly in the Groundwork than in the Critique of Practical Reason), is an ideal of the moral agent as autonomous, as fully determining her conduct by a conception of practical law. This, after all, is what forms the basis for the Categorical Imperative.
II. While Jeremy Bentham was not the very first moral philosopher to think of ethics as trying to answer the question of what to do independently of answering the question of what character or principles of action to have, he may have been the first to press this perspective to the logical conclusion it seems to take in the utilitarian, and, more broadly consequentialist, tradition. Bentham seems to have been the first to hold that the standard that determines the rightness of any act is simply the overall long run net happiness it will produce, as compared with that of other acts available to the agent at the time. How did Bentham come to think of ethics in a way that led him to this idea, that is, to what is nowadays called act-utilitarianism?
III. There is actually a very interesting story to be told here, and it involves Hume. When Bentham read Hume's Treatise, he ``felt'', he later wrote, ``as if the scales had fallen from his eyes.'' He ``learned to see that utility was the test and measure of all virtue.'' But Hume's view was that virtue is primary, and that acts acquire merit only insofar as they manifest virtuous character. So how did reading Hume lead Bentham to the view that whether an act is right depends entirely on whether it has the best consequences---i.e. on something that is utterly different from what its motive was or whether the act would be produced by a virtuous motive?
I propose the following Speculative History.
While Hume's ethics look like Hutcheson's in respect of the thesis that virtue is primary and that acts are good only through their relation to virtuous motives, and that what makes a motive a virtue is that contemplating it produces a sentiment of approbation in observer, Hume also held, you will recall, that this sentiment is not a response simply to considering the motive in itself. Rather, it arises through a sympathetic consideration of the effects of the motive. The reason why Hume thought that, as Bentham put it, ``utility was the test and measure of all virtue'', was that when an observer contemplates the pleasurable effects of a motive, she then feels a sympathetic pleasure which, because it arises (indirectly) from contemplating the motive, produces approbation of the motive. And that is what makes such a trait a virtue.
Thus, for Hume, but not for Hutcheson, what makes a trait a virtue is that it has pleasurable effects. It is not far wrong to say that this is what its distinctive merit as a motive, its being a virtue, consists in. Whereas, for Hutcheson, whether a motive is virtuous depends on whether contemplation of the motive itself produces approbation without any view to its consequences.
IV. Now this explains how Bentham would have drawn from Hume the thought that what makes a trait or motive a virtue is its utility. But why does he make the further step to evaluate acts by their consequences since Hume does not?
Part of the answer must be that whereas Hume's object is more to describe our moral feelings and thought, Bentham's is with which acts to prescribe. Bentham was a reformer, and he was primarily concerned to find a basis for determining what should be done. Now in fact our actual moral feelings and thought comport pretty badly with act-utilitarianism. But, if we were to think that the basis for our evaluations of character were utilitarian, and if we are concerned with what we should do, we may well wonder why, if utility is what the goodness of motives derives from, doesn't it also determine what a person should do. That is, in any given circumstance, why shouldn't a person just do whatever is likeliest to have the best consequences. This seems a very natural line of thought to take if one is concerned about what acts to prescribe and takes it as a premise that motives are good or bad in virtue of having, respectively, good or bad consequences.
Now, as we know, Hume, like Hutcheson, resisted this line of thought. He steadfastly held that the merit of an act depends on its relation to motive and not to consequences. But, unlike Hutcheson, he was in a very poor position to maintain this as a prescriptive thesis, other than as, say, a thesis that describes our actual thought and feeling.
Hutcheson held that the distinctive ideas of morality are approbation and condemnation, which underlie, respectively, our ideas of moral good and evil, and these attach properly to motives and character. Moreover, this moral goodness is a distinct kind of goodness, not reducible to natural goodness. A trait or motive is morally good, not because it leads to natural good, but because it produces approbation when contemplated intrinsically. If we ask, then, what a person (morally) should do, we ask a question that engages an idea that must include the distinctive simple moral ideas of approbation and/or condemnation. We could not therefore answer it without considering motive at some point, because these simple ideas arise only through contemplating the motives of moral agents. Hutcheson, therefore, had a principled reason for resisting the line of thought that led to Bentham's act-utilitarianism. The moral quality of an act cannot possibly be independent completely of the distinctive moral goodness that only the motives of a moral agent can have.
Hume, on the other hand, did not have this reason for resisting the line of thought leading to Bentham's conclusion. He held that the line between moral virtues and estimable natural abilities was purely verbal. Unlike Hutcheson, he thought there were no simple, distinctively moral ideas that distinguished moral merit from nonmoral merit. So he could not hold that the reason why the question of what a person (morally) should do cannot be determined independently of motive is that the question invokes an idea that must include the simple ideas of morality that can be produced only by contemplating motive and character.So when Bentham read Hume's text with the eyes of a reformer, rather than through the eyes of its ``anatomist'' author, and saw that utility was ``the test and measure of all virtue'' he had no reason to resist the thought that it must, therefore, be test and measure of all action. As neat as this story is, it oversimplifies. There are also some other fascinating lines of thought that lead Bentham toward act-utilitarianism. We shall begin to examine them next time
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