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10: Right Action

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  • Our focus in this chapter will be normative ethics. Normative ethical principles aren’t intended to describe how things are, how people think or how they behave. Normative ethics is concerned how we should be motivated and how we should act. Our project here is to think critically about which normative ethical principles do the best job of explaining our assorted moral intuitions about the broadest range of possible cases. We will start with Utilitarianism, a view of right action based on the idea that happiness has fundamental value. We’ll then examine Kant’s ethics of respect for persons. On this view persons have intrinsic moral worth, and ethics is concerned with what respecting the value of persons requires of us.

    Both Utilitarianism and Kant’s ethics of respect for persons can be understood as aiming to formulate action-guiding normative ethical principles. Later in the chapter we will consider approaches to normative ethics that are not so concerned with identifying exceptionless “laws”of right action. Our understanding of right action doesn’t have to be expressible in terms of strict rules. Feminist ethics finds value in caring relationships. But taking relationships to be good doesn’t directly lead to specific rules for action as Utilitarianism might. Environmental ethicists have advanced various proposals for expanding the realm of moral relevance to include other species or systems of life as a whole. This is not to deny that people matter morally, but many environmental ethicists deny that people are all that matter. Accounting for the value of non- persons in addition to persons is likely to frustrate attempts to characterize right action in terms of simple formulas or “moral laws.”

    At the end of this chapter we will consider a pluralistic approach to understanding ethical motivation and action. The suggestion here will be that a substantive realist approach to normative ethics doesn’t require reducing all ethical value to one fundamental kind. Such a pluralistic account of ethical value undermines the quest for simple exceptionless or absolute moral principles. But it also suggests that substantive realist normative ethics doesn’t require these either.

    • 10.1: Utilitarianism
      Utilitarianism is based on the idea that happiness is good. Utilitarian thinkers have traditionally understood happiness in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. Utilitarianism’s best known advocate, John Stuart Mill, characterizes Utilitarianism as the view that “an action is right insofar as it tends to produce pleasure and the absence of pain.”
    • 10.2: Respect for Persons - Kant’s Moral Theory
      Like Utilitarianism, Imannual Kant’s moral theory is grounded in a theory of intrinsic value. But where the utilitarian takes happiness, conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain to be what has intrinsic value, Kant takes the only thing to have moral worth for its own sake to be the capacity for good will we find in persons. Persons, conceived of as autonomous rational moral agents, are beings that have intrinsic moral worth and hence beings that deserve moral respect.
    • 10.3: Ethical Pluralism
      Traditionally, ethicists have tried to analyze right and wrong action in terms of a single fundamental underlying kind of value. We can call this kind of approach ethical monism. For utilitarians that single value is happiness, for Kantian respect for persons theorists, it is the value of the person. Ethical Pluralism allows that there may be multiple kinds of fundamental and irreducible value in the world. Happiness and respect for persons might be among these, but there may be others yet.
    • 10.4: Review and Discussion Questions

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