I have a problem with prescriptive ethics. In my opinion, one can only rightfully prescribe a manner of conduct when this manner is completely justified. To reconcile myself with, or to barter an accord between me and prescriptive ethical theory, in this paper I will examine the the justification of moral value in prescriptive moral theory and show that moral value cannot be attributed to conduct, when trying to find its moral value either intrinsically or extrinsically. In moral theory this dichotomy is represented by deontology and consequentialism.
By means of the thought experiment “Jim and the Indians”, formulated by J.J.C. Smart, in his book “Utilitarianism: For and Against”, this paper will examine some fundamental problems of these two moral categories. The thought experiment is this: Jim encounters a clearing with twenty captured Indians waiting to be executies. Their warden is overjoyed to meet Jim and proposes he kills one of the Indians. If Jim does so, the warden will release the other nineteen.
To examine some fundamental problems of deontology and consequentialism, this paper will consider their moral requirements based on Parfit’s model for structures of deontology. It will focus on the relevance of moral requirements. Moral requirements are relevance-restricting or non-relevance-restricting. The paper will elucidate on relevance of moral requirements in the examination of the categories.
It will start with deontology.
Deontology is the category of normative ethical theories that asserts that the morality of an action should be based on the action itself. A strict definition for deontology is hard to postulate since there are a lot of different theories claiming to be deontological. For the purposes of this paper it shall refer to deontological theories as having a relevance-restricting structure.
A theory is relevance-restricting if it makes not all of the consequences of the agent’s action relevant to its moral assessment. Deontology does not take the consequences of an action in account, it posits maxims for actions that are good in itself.
For the motivation of what actions are good in itself, deontological theory assumes that these actions are a rational response to particular truths. An example of such a truth is: killing people is bad.
An example of a deontological theory is Kant’s categorical imperative. For the purposes of this paper, it will consider the first formulation of the categorical imperative. The first formulation of the categorical imperative is: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” This imperative seems to exclude all conduct that is not preferable for the total state of affairs in the world, but the categorical imperative implies that one should align one’s will with one’s moral duty, and this is where it becomes problematic.
Evil deeds do not require bad intent. For instance, a Nazi might want to kill all Jewish people, because he is convinced that the extermination of the Jewish people would lead to a better world. He accepts the truth that a world without Jewish people is a good world.
Now lets test this believe with the categorical imperative: ”Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” The Nazi wants to rid the world of Jews people. Killing jews is an action that is good in itself because it is based on a seemingly rational truth: a world without Jewish people is a good world. Thus, according to the categorical imperative, in which he aligned his will with his moral duty, he is not only allowed to kill Jewish people, but required to.
It could be argued that some maxims are basic conditions for ordered civilisation. The Nazis had thrown away several of these. They did not conduct themselves as moral actors and therefore cannot rely on the categorical imperative.
This seems to be a strong argument against the reliance of Nazis on the categorical imperative, the problem is that its logic can be reversed and would still be applicable:
There is no consensus on the desirable state of affairs in the world. What truths deontological theory relies on are not rigid, while the rule that is justified by these truths is. For both parties the other is uninformed in his desires, and can therefore not rely on the categorical imperative.
It could be argued that killing people is bad in any way one can put it, but the Nazis can simply degrade the Jewish people to non-humans, and ik we look at history: they did. If they are convinced in this belief and act according to their will, they can rely on the categorical imperative.
In conclusion, the structure of deontological theory is relevance-restricting. It justifies its maxims or imperatives on seemingly rational or reasonable truths. It posits actions that are in itself good. The problem with these ‘truths’ is that they are not universal. One can disagree on what can be considered as a motivating truth. The state of affairs in the world is not rigid, therefore the perspective on morality can change. Maxims are rigid. The states of affairs in the world and perspectives on morality can change, maxims cannot. Therefore, maxims cannot account for this changing state of affairs in the world and deontological theory is not justified in having a prescriptive character, because the motivation for this character is untenable.
This paper will now move on to the second category of moral theories: consequentialism. It will examine this category and consider some of its flaws.
Consequentialism is the category of normative ethical theories that asserts that the morality of an action should be based on the consequences of that action. Again, a strict definition of consequentialism does not include all theories proposing to be consequentialist.
This paper will look at the definition of consequentialism defended and posited by David Sosa. Sosa defines consequentialism as:
“It is right for S to do A (S ought to do A-or S should do A) iff no total state of affairs that would be a consequence of S ‘s doing any alternative to A would be better than the total state of affairs that would be a consequence of S’s doing A.”
Consequentialism is non-relevance-restricting. A theory is non-relevance-restricting if it makes all of the consequences of the agent’s action relevant to its moral assessment. Consequentialism is non-relevance-restricting because it considers the “total state of affairs that would be a consequence S’s doing A”. S being the actor and A being the action in question.
When a moral theory is non-relevance-restricting it has a wide ‘scope of effects’. The ‘scope of effects’ are the consequences of an action to be considered in its moral assessment.
To illustrate why theories considered to be non-relevance-restricting are implausible, this paper will test it on “Jim and the Indians”. According to consequentialist theory Jim should kill the first Indian, in order to save the other nineteen. Trading one life for twenty lives, seems to constitute a better state of affairs in the world. But imagine, one of the Indians goes home and gets a son who will become a warlord who tortures, rapes and pillages uncontrollably. The consequence of Jim saving this man is him being able to have this warlord for a son, and Jim’s action is therefore immoral.
A moral theory should have to answer the question to what extent responsibility can be attributed to actions. To do this it has to posit rules that limit the ‘scope of effects’ and motivate why these limitations are the right limitations. It has to show what consequences are relevant to its moral assessments. Consequentialism is unable to do this since it has a non-relevance-restricting structure: all the consequences of an agent’s action are relevant to its moral assessment.
When consequentialist moral theory is structured relevance-restricting, it loses the ability to attribute moral significance to conduct with consciously indirect consequences, for example political decision making. Therefore, it is necessitated to have a non-relevance-restricting structure.
In conclusion, the structure of consequentialist theory is non-relevance-restricting. All of the consequences of the agent’s action are relevant to its moral assessment. Because of this requirement, consequentialism cannot rightfully attribute responsibility to actors. It is able to attribute moral value but is untenable when it tries to attribute this value to the actor of the conduct in question.
Thus, neither deontology nor consequentialism is justified in attributing moral value and can therefore not maintain a prescriptive character. Neither Nazi nor Jim can be prescribed by moral theory what conduct has moral value, its time for themselves to deliberate about ethics.
1. Derek Parfit. “Reasons and Persons”, p. 143
3. David Sosa. “Consequences of Consequentialism”, p. 101
4. Jared Rudolph. “Consequences and Limits: A Critique of Consequentialism”, p. 67
Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J. Gregor. 1998. Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987: 143-144
Rudolph, Jared. Consequences and Limits: A Critique of Consequentialism, p. 67
Sosa, David. Consequences of Consequentialism. Mind 102, no. 405 (1993): 101-22.
During the writing of this paper I have encountered a couple of problems. Firstly, the subject of the paper interested me greatly. Because of this, the first version of the paper used more words than the assignment allowed for and I had to rewrite it. Secondly, I had structured some parts of the text according to Parfit’s model for structures of deontology and that might have been a little bit to eager. In my presentation i’ve used all three moral requirements but i have reduced that to one in my paper, because this reduced my word count and served its purposes better. Also, I used the first person singular in the first paragraph of the paper as a means of ‘attention grabbing’. Without the use of it, my paper seemed a little bit to dull.
I am happy with how my paper turned out, but there is still a lot on the subject of normative ethics, prescriptive ethics, deontology and consequentialism that I want to write about. I am not done with ethics yet.