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I took the picture above some years ago: the Nile somewhere between Luxor and Aswan.

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ETHICSPosted by Tore Nordenstam Thursday, May 21 2009 11:33:38

One of the standard manoeuvres in contemporary moral philosophy is to present Kant's ethics and utilitarianism as alternative ethical theories. New students get to know that there are two main types of ethical theory, those which are consequence-oriented and those which are not. The first type is called teleological ethics, the second one is called deontological ethics. As typical examples of teleological ethical theorists, one cites classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and their 20th century descendants from G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell to John Rawls ("rule-utilitarianism") and R. M. Hare ("preference-utilitarianism"). As typical examples of deontological ethical theorists, one refers to Immanuel Kant and a wide spread of moral philosophers from W. D. Ross in the mid-war period to various representatives of so-called virtue ethics (Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre etc.).

To illustrate and clarify the difference between teleological and deontological ethics, students are often submitted to exercises which ask for Kantian and utitilitarian solutions to philosophical dilemmas of various sorts, drawn both from literary classics like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and from other sources. A typical example will run on the following lines: There is unrest in the population. The government authorities think that order can be restored if a certain person is condemned for things which he hasn’t done. But the people believe he is the culprit. Would it morally right to sacrifice a human scapegoat in such a case? What would a utilitarian say to this, and what would a Kantian say? Usually, the exercises are presented in such a way that the students will tend to think that Kantians would always condemn punishing the innocent, whilst utilitarians might come to different conclusions, depending on how they estimate the long-term consequences of punishing the innocent.

This paedagogical practice presupposes that Kant’s moral philosophy can be properly regarded as an alternative to utilitarianism on the normative level. Kant, Bentham, Mill, Ross, Hare and so on are looked upon as producers of competing normative ethical theories. The basis for this practice is laid by the textbooks in the field of ethics. Selections from Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals are contrasted with selections from Bentham, Mill, Ross et al.

It has also been suggested that Kant’s ethics and utilitarianism should not be regarded as sharp contrasts. Rather, they should be regarded as complementary contributions to ethics. Here is an example from the field of applied ethics. Applied ethics is often seen as a field for the application of ethical theories (hence the very name of this branch of ethics), and the ethical theories most often referred to are ”Kantian ethics” and ”utilitarianism”. The American philosopher Ruth Macklin is one of the more well-known representatives of the branch of applied philosophy called medical ethics or, more generally, bioethics. She thinks that it is possible to speak of experts in the field of ethics. In order to qualify as an ethical expert, one must amongst other things be familiar with the main types of ethical theory, and she adds that ”The advantage of having a theory, as philosophers have argued at length, is that it enables particular judgments to be systematic and well grounded, instead of ad hoc.” She goes on say that in the field of medical ethics, the main theories are Kantianism and utilitarianism and that in practice, one finds a combination of those two theories. When one refers to the patient’s autonomy, dignity and self-respect, that is a Kantian element, and when one refers to benificial or harmful consequences in a long time perspective, that is a utilitarian element, according to Macklin.

My main objection to such lines of thinking is that they operate with versions of Kantian and utilitarian ethics which are so diluted that the result is hopelessly confusing and vague. It is not the case that only utilitarians can appeal to consequences when thinking about ethical matters. ”All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account when judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy”, as John Rawls has put it. The same goes for dignity. It is not the case that Kant is the inventor of the ideas of personal dignity and self-respect. All sound persons will take account of both dignity and consequences in their ethical acting and thinking. The difference between Kant and utilitarians is not that they speak of completely different things. But they have very different ways of handling considerations of dignity and consequences on the analytical level, due to their different programmes for moral philosophy.

Kantians and utilitarians will often find themselves in agreement on the normative level, and both Kantians and utilitarians can disagree with each other when it comes to problematic cases. But Kant and the utilitarians propose different analytical frameworks for ethics. Kant is particularly anxious to sort out the necessary ingredients in ethics from the rest, which leads to his division between pure ethics and practical anthropology and to his idiosyncratic distinction between the moral and the prudential. This interest is not on the utilitarians’ agenda, which means that from Kant’s point of view, utilitarian ethics is a confusing mixture of moral and prudential concerns. One might well find Kant’s research programme for ethics unattractive, but it is impossible to neglect it if one wants to do justice to Kant’s writings on ethics.

If one wants to consider the differences between Kant and the utilitarians rather than their similarities, one would do well to dwell on the notion of moral value. It is one of the pillars of utilitarianism that the moral value of actions depends entirely on their consequences for human welfare. According to Kant, moral value cannot be reduced to human welfare. Rightly or wrongly, he maintains that moral value is sui generis. Here there can be no question of a reconciliation between the two traditions. But I have a feeling that such reductionist issues are not really of much interest outside the field of academic philosophy.

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