Introduction to Ethics Phil 140 @ Binghamton University, Win '11


Writing Prompt 3 – Deontology

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Writing Prompt #3
In Kant's deontological ethics, the morally relevant elements are the actions of rational individual moral agents and the intentions accompanying the actions of rational individual moral agents. Moral personhood is ascribed only to rational and autonomous individuals. For an action to be moral, an agent must intend to act from duty imposed by universal moral principles, given by reason, from the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative commands the agent: to act according to a maxim that they could will as universal law, and to always treat other humans as ends and not as means. In willing universal moral law, the agent wills moral law that is binding unconditionally. It is impossible for an agent to will a law universal if it results in contradiction by undermining autonomy, rationality or a good will. In asserting that actions have to be from duty, Kant means to say that the action cannot be merely in accordance with duty (e.g. because it is favorable to one's preferences). Instead, the action has to be done because it is good in itself. The idea of pure duty stems from Kant’s claim that the only thing unconditionally good is a good will; so in order for an action to be good, it has to be done with a good will (from pure duty).

Eva Kittay’s At the Margins of Moral Personhood, poses a serious challenge to Kant’s deontological moral theory. In Kant’s theory, moral personhood is ascribed to those who are rational and autonomous. Since congenitally severely mentally retarded persons cannot be said to possess rationality or autonomy, they are not ascribed moral personhood, and thus are pushed to the margins of Kant’s moral theory. Kittay, rightly so, thinks that this is a quite counter-intuitive conclusion to reach; she offers the example of her daughter, Sesha, who is classified as congenitally severely mentally retarded. Sesha brings joy into the life of her family. She is appreciative of those around her and has strong emotional bonds and ties to many people. She has a strong appreciation for music, especially Beethoven, and expresses joy when she anticipates her favorite parts of a musical piece. She certainly has memories of people, persons, places and events. However, it is not clear she has a rational faculty organizing her experience into a narrative, and she certainly does not qualify as autonomous. Nonetheless, she has many well developed human qualities and strong human ties, but in Kant’s theory she is not morally significant as other humans who are defined as persons.

The categorical imperative expresses as a universal law that one ought to always treat humans and humanity as an ends and not as a mere means. However, on Kant’s account, humanity only refers to those who posses certain attributes (rationality and autonomy). One can see how this becomes problematic. The categorical imperative issues no first order duty to respect the congenitally mentally retarded (and others who fall below the threshold of rationality and autonomy) as an ends. Of course, one might have a second order duty to care about the congenitally severely mentally retarded, stemming from duties of charity and love towards their family members and close friends who have close emotional relationships with the cognitively severely mentally retarded. However, it is unclear exactly how this second order duty would be that much different than a second order duty to care about a pet which a family has a close emotional relationship with. Many find Kant’s standard of moral personhood to be extremely problematic, because it puts the congenitally severely mentally retarded on similar moral footing to animals and many people consider it morally sound to kill animals for some other good, using them as a means and not as an end (e.g. nutrition). Defining moral personhood solely in terms of attributes such as rationality and autonomy results in the exclusion of those humans who may have incredibly meaningful and positive relationships with other humans, as well as, well developed human capacities for emotion and compassion. The privileging of rationality and autonomy, while they are incredibly important attributes, is done to the defect of the emotional, creative and passionate qualities in humans.

Most people deem the congenitally severely mentally retarded as worthy of equal respect and treatment as fully humans (as ends in Kant’s philosophy), however, since they do not fall under the normative categorization of moral personhood they are not entitled to the same normative treatment as other humans, leaving them open to all types of exploitation. Moral standards for personhood should not be based exclusively in terms of cognitive abilities because this strips many fully human but cognitively impaired of equal moral status to all humans. This does not mean that we ought not treat animals better as well, but that we ought to treat humans capable of playing meaningful social roles the same as those with higher cognitive endowments.


Writing Prompt 03 – Utilitarianism (Norman da Nubcaek)

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Utilitarianism is based off of the Greatest Happiness Principle which states that actions are considered moral when they promote utility and immoral when they promote the reverse.  Utility itself is defined by Mill as happiness with the absence of pain.  The main elements of this philosophy are one's actions and their resulting utility.  A person is considered moral when their actions tend to promote utility of the general public in accordance with the Greatest Happiness Principle.  However, just an action increasing utility does not necessarily imply a moral action.  In order for the action to be moral it must be the optimal choice in increasing utility and minimizing pain.  Since it is difficult to determine the superior of two vastly different results, Mill provides us with a system to determine which choice would have the higher quality.  This system has the proper judges of the actions determine which they prefer.  Whichever is preferred by a majority is considered the action with a higher quality result and thus would be more moral to perform than the action with a lower quality result.  In the result of a tie, both choices are considered equally moral.  The judges for the actions are those who have had sufficient experience to be able to give a preference.  They must have experienced the utility of outcomes to a certain extent in order to properly weigh them.

There are many issues with Utilitarianism, mainly on the Greatest Happiness principle, including the inability to see the future and perfectly determine the consequences of any action, the allowing of malignant practices for the sake of increasing overall utility, the allowing of defying of societal laws for the sake of increasing overall utility, and its disregard of motive.  The last one we can discard for now as it would turn this into a Deontology post instead.  An example taken from our readings is that of foot binding or bodily mutilation for the sake of beauty.  Depending on the views of society, this can be considered moral.  Imagine if the world's population were split 50-50, but with one side have 1 or 2 more people.  If everyone on the side with the extra people preferred mutilation for the sake of beauty (assuming that everyone was capable of proper judgment), then no matter what the other people thought, Utilitarianism would allow it.  This is also true even if there was a law placed by society as society's happiness is more important than its justice for Utilitarians.  As for the indeterminate future, when considering foot binding, it is generally done by mothers to ensure their daughters attain a proper husband.  The assumed utility produced would be caused by said attainment, but in the case that she is incapable of doing so, the mother's choice has become immoral as the utility desired was never attained and excruciating pain was inflicted upon the daughter.

The Greatest Happiness principle in general is good, but it has many flaws as any ethical systems does.  Due to our inability to perfectly predict the future according to our actions (assuming he future is capable of being altered with our actions), the results we desire are capable of, and often do, fall short of what was intended.  If unforeseen parameters caused all of our actions to backfire, even though we were attempting to act in accordance with Utilitarianism, we would all be considered immoral as our results only caused pain.  If this happened to everyone in the entire world, then no man could be considered moral.  The Greatest Happiness principle also allows for us to cause pain to others as long as a majority of the people become happier.  We could essentially just steal resources from smaller foreign countries and drive them to poverty as long as more people benefit than lose.  Things such as slavery, bullying, rape, racism, and murder could be justified under Utilitarianism as long as the majority prefers it.  Murderers could justify their action by simply killing all of those who opposed them.  Once their numbers became the majority, murdering became justifiable as moral.  Lastly, the Greatest Happiness principle eliminates the usage of the laws provided  by our government.  As long as the person's actions increase general utility, then it does not matter how many  laws are broken in the process.  We could all go speeding down roads and ignoring traffic signals/signs to our full enjoyment despite there being speed limits as long as few people cared and most people would be having a blast.

All of these examples display cases where the Greatest Happiness principle would "fail".  It fails in the sense that the standard of what is/isn't moral can be easily changed in society's eyes, and as long as the results produced are in accordance to what the majority prefer, then all preset laws and individual preferences would be considered invalid and can legitimize practices that we currently see as immoral.