An Ethics course is inevitably going to be a course in ethical reasoning, so it is reasonable to start with the kinds of ethical reasoning we find. Even a very crude survey of the kinds of reasons and arguments that people give on moral and ethical questions will show that at least most, and perhaps all, can be analyzed into three kinds of reasons, sometimes used alone and sometimes used in combination: consequence-based reasons, obligation-based reasons, and character-based reasons. To decide important questions we are constantly appealing to harms and benefits, to things we take to be requirements of some kind, and to what kind of person we would be. For instance, in explaining to a teenager why they should follow the speed limit, one might say that doing so protects from potentially fatal accidents (consequence), that speed limits are imposed by the law (obligation), and that a reasonable person will follow reasonable guidelines like posted speed limits (character). You can take practically any subject in ethics and analyze the reasons, whether for or against, into consequences, obligations, and character traits -- what comes from the action, what standards the action must meet, and what kind of person one is in doing that kind of action.
The fact that you can do this on every side, though, creates a problem. Consequence-based reasoning, obligation-based reasoning, and character-based reasoning can be very different kinds of reasoning. Since there are advantages to each, almost all of us use all three. But since they are so different, how do we keep them consistent? How do we compare them when they conflict? Something like this problem arises even if we stay within one family; for instance, even if we are only considering consequences, one thing might have both harms and benefits, so we'd have to figure out a way to compare them if we were ever to draw any consistent conclusions. The obvious way to do this is to think of one particular kind of consequence as fundamental, as the consequence that really matters, as the kind of consequence you always look toward if there are any doubts. All the other consequences get measured by that kind of consequence. And while I don't know that it is the only way, the nearly universal way of handling inconsistency when comparing reasons from different families is the much the same: pick one of the ways of reasoning as the fundamental one, the one on which all ethics is based.
This is one of the sources of ethical disagreement: people, in trying to be consistent, choose different kinds of reasoning as their preferred reasoning. Sometimes they pick based on what they find easiest to use. Sometimes they pick one because they think it does a good job of expressing their sense of why morality matters. Sometimes they don't so much pick one as fall into it because of how they were raised. But whatever the reason, almost everyone privileges one of the three families of reasoning over the other.
There are, then, three primary approaches to any ethical question. Whether these three are exhaustive is occasionally debated, but there is no doubt that they are the most common and influential. And they differ, sometimes considerably, because they privilege different kinds of reasoning.
Some people privilege consequence-based reasoning. They treat certain kinds of consequences as the most important thing in any situation. They may well talk about obligations or rules, but when you press them on why those obligations or rules matter, they will explain them as things we generally need to do to get good consequences or avoid bad consequences. They may well talk about character, but good character for them will turn out to be the kind of character that generally leads to the right kind of consequences. These people we call consequentialists. In older textbooks it is sometimes called 'teleology', but this is no longer common. 'Consequentialism' was originally an insult, but it fit well enough that even consequentialists started using it.
Other people privilege obligation-based reasoning. For them, there are certain rules or laws or duties or rights that are for some reason absolutely fundamental, and that everything else in ethics depends on. They might talk about good and bad consequences, but if they do so in ethics, they will still privilege the obligation, and take the distinction between good and bad consequences to depend on it. They might talk about character, but a good character for them will be one that generally leads you to fulfill your obligations. These people we call deontologists.
That leaves character-based reasoning. People who take character-based reasoning to be fundamental might talk about good or bad consequences, but where this is relevant to ethics, they will take the difference between good and bad consequences to be at least indirectly based on being a good or bad person -- for instance, they might take good consequences to be those a practically intelligent person would choose. When they talk about obligations, it will also, directly or indirectly, be based on character -- for instance, they might take an obligation to be what you have to do if you are to become a virtuous person. We call these people virtue ethicists.
There is not much rhyme or reason to these three names in particular. We could call them Consequentialism, Obligationism, and Characterism; or we could call them Teleology, Deontology, and Aretology; or we could call them Benefit Ethics, Rule Ethics, and Virtue Ethics. But as it happens, for purely historical reason, the three labels that are usually used are Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics.
It is important to note that in the wild people will sometimes use these terms loosely, so that, for instance, someone could is treated as being both consequentialist and deontological. There are reasons why you might do this, but it's not the most helpful way to understand how the reasoning works, so for our purposes we will take all three in the strictest way -- they are mutually exclusive, and cannot be mixed-and-matched. Nobody can be both a deontologist and a consequentialist in this sense; that would generally not solve the problem of how to be consistent across different kinds of reasons.
In any case, it is useful to be able to think through all three approaches for a number of reason. First, doing so may help develop your own view by pointing out things you had not yet considered. Second, you will certainly meet people from all three camps, and it is good to know how they might think about things. Third, it is sometimes helpful in cases of ethical disagreement, because disagreements in ethics often arise because people, while using the same words, use different approaches in understanding and applying them.
In philosophy, answers generally raise new questions. If I tell you that all ethical reasoning is directly or indirectly based on getting good consequences and avoiding bad ones, one of the obvious next questions is, "What makes the difference between a good consequence and a bad one?" After all, you could imagine some crazy person saying, "The best consequence is murder, so right and wrong, good and bad, depend on increasing murder and avoiding things that reduce murder." That's definitely consequentialist, but it's not a kind of consequentialism most people would accept. If someone answered the question a different way, you would get a different kind of consequentialism. Inevitably there will be many possible consequentialisms even when you've eliminated crazy ones like murder consequentialism. But there is one answer that is, overwhelmingly, the most popular answer to the question: "Good consequences are those that tend to or contribute to happiness, bad consequences are those that hamper happiness or increasing unhappiness." Consequentialists who put forward that answer are called utilitarians. For utilitarians, all of ethics comes down to happiness as a consequence, taken generally. This is where they get their name -- 'utility' in this context is a technical term for something that contributes to happiness. In this sense, we often say that utilitarians try to maximize utilities. Strictly speaking, they are trying to maximize happiness; but utilities are anything that fill the role of being a means to happiness.
Again, we have an obvious next question. If someone says that all of ethics comes down to increasing happiness and decreasing unhappiness, we can ask, "What is happiness in general?" It's certainly true that not everybody has the same theory of happiness, and utilitarians with different theories of happiness can have very different kinds of utilitarianism. There are many things that could go into your theory of happiness -- virtue, knowledge, pleasure, getting what you prefer, freedom, beauty, and friendship are all things that people have proposed. Preference satisfaction is a popular one today. But one kind of utilitarianism, which is usually called classical utilitarianism is especially useful to look at. It is very influential historically, it is relatively simple to understand (utilitarianisms can become very complicated very quickly), and even utilitarians who disagree with it will often use it as a reference point when explaining their own views. The classical utilitarian's theory of happiness is hedonistic. Hedonism in the strict sense is the theory of happiness that takes happiness to be pleasure without pain (to the extent that is possible), and nothing else. While you could be a hedonist without being a utilitarian, if you are a utilitarian and a hedonist about happiness, you are a classical utilitarian. The two most important classical utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and in understanding how utilitarianism works, it is helpful to look at both.
Jeremy Bentham as painted by Henry William Pickersgill
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was trained as a lawyer, and in a sense that is the root of his utilitarianism. He found British law extremely frustrating -- it was complex, it was haphazard, it was filled with things for which it was difficult to give any account based on general principles. It would become one of his lifelong projects to reform it, to make it rational and reasonable. But the only way you can make law better is if you have some notion of what 'better' means; you need an account of what it means to make progress in matters of law, and it seems reasonable to say that laws are better when they have better consequences for society at large. This brings us to utilitarianism. Consequentialisms in general tend to be forward-looking and reform-oriented -- if you are constantly thinking about the consequences, it starts making sense to consider what you can do to change things so that you get better consequences. In developing a version of what we call classical utilitarianism, Bentham held that we have our guide for progress in happiness, understood as pleasure without pain; we are all, he thought, aiming at this already, and when we get together in society, a condition for society working is that we all aim at improving the overall happiness. We are all, to some extent, classical utilitarians already. And those laws, customs, practices, and institutions will be best which best contribute to the overall happiness. Everything can be measured by a principle of utility. As he puts it in his most influential work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 1,
By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
If someone tells you that progress is to be measured by contribution to happiness, an obvious next question is, "Whose happiness?" You could rig up various answers to this, but the one that has tended to be most attractive to utilitarians, and certainly one of the simplest you could give is, "The happiness of whatever can experience happiness." If happiness is what matters morally and your dog can experience happiness, your dog's happiness matters morally. If cockroaches experience happiness, their happiness is relevant for the overall happiness. People often summarize the principle of utility with the slogan, "Greatest happiness for the greatest number"; it is important to grasp that in general utilitarians do not mean by this "Greatest happiness for the greatest number of human beings". Everything that can experience happiness will count. It could be that we have a theory of happiness in which only human beings experience happiness, of course. But for classical utilitarianism, happiness is pleasure without pain to the extent possible; and it seems quite clear that many animals can experience pleasure and pain. One of Bentham's most famous statements occurs as a footnote in the work noted above; speaking of non-human animals he says, "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"
It's all well and good to say that we measure things by their contribution to happiness, but in practice what does that really mean? Bentham notes that when we compare pleasures and pains, our comparison is not arbitrary. We can recognize that the pain from being punched hard in the face will be more intense than the pain from being poked in the side; we can recognize that the pleasure of conversation with old friends will last longer than the pleasure of gobbling down a small piece of chocolate. And it seems like these different ways we compare them can be quantified: you could, in principle, give an exact number to how intense or how long-lasting a pleasure could be, how certain it is, how quickly you will get it, how easily it leads to other pleasures, how many people share in it. Bentham tried to pin down exactly what they were, and Benthamite utilitarians made mnemonic for all the things you need to look at in order to compare pleasures and pains:
Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure —
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend.
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.
It's not wholly clear whether this list is really exhaustive. For instance, we can localize pleasures and pains, so there doesn't seem to be a reason why we should not try to increase cubic meters of pleasure, beyond the fact that we don't ever compare pleasures and pains this way. More seriously, these are all different kinds of measurements: intensity is measured in degrees, duration in units of time, propinquity or 'speediness' by a rate, extent by a number of animals, certainty by a percentage or fraction of possibilities. It's not obvious how it should all come together. But we do compare pleasures and pains even across measurements -- we'll judge, for instance, that there is more pleasure in A than in B because the pleasure in A is much longer-lasting, even though the pleasure in B is a little bit more intense -- so Bentham thinks that you can, in fact, put it all in a calculation. This aspect of Benthamite utilitarianism has come to be called 'the felicific caculus'. For any ethical problem, you could in principle measure up exactly how much pleasure and pain are involved and give an exact answer to exactly how good or bad something is. In practice, of course, we don't measure anything exactly but estimate on the basis of long experience, like someone measuring out lengths of cloth by eye rather than by ruler.
The focus on quantity leads Bentham to interpret the principle of utility in a very strict way. When Bentham looks at ethical systems other than his own, he diagnoses them as sharing a very serious, indeed fatal, flaw: asceticism. As he defines it in the Introduction, Chapter 2:
By the principle of asceticism I mean that principle, which, like the principle of utility, approves or disapproves of any action, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question; but in an inversive manner: approving of actions in as far as they tend to diminish his happiness; disapproving of them in as far as they tend to augment it.
The principle of asceticism is the opposite of the principle of utility, understood in classical utilitarian terms: it treats pain as good and pleasure as bad. Few if anyone accepts such a principle explicitly and directly. But the problem, Bentham thinks, is that the principle of utility requires that we never treat pain as good or pleasure as bad, but almost all ethical systems violate this, and therefore have parts that imply the principle of asceticism.
This is often not grasped even by utilitarians reading Bentham. On Bentham's account, self-restraint is no virtue; the virtue, if anything, is enlightened pursuit of pleasure. The only reason you can ever restrain yourself or others from the pursuit of pleasure is if the restraint will itself lead to greater happiness (through more pleasure or less pain) in the long run. The only reason you can ever impose painful action on yourself or another is if the painful action will itself lead to greater happiness overall. Bentham means this quite seriously. When he looks at the practice of observing Lent, for instance, in which people give things up that they like on the ground that the virtue of temperance is better than pleasure, he sees a practice that he thinks is wicked. It is a practice based on the lie of asceticism. If you are dieting, and you are doing so for any other reason that that the inconvenience will lead to greater happiness, you are doing something wicked. If you refuse to let your children do what they like for any other reason than that preventing them from doing it will actually contribute to their happiness or the happiness of others in a greater degree than the activity being prevented would, then you are acting wickedly.
The principle of utility as interpreted by Bentham, then, is very strict, and while it may seem limited at first, in reality it has extensive ramifications, demanding not merely the reform of society but the reform of ethics itself. A good example of this is Bentham's stance on torture (which is discussed in excellent detail in John Davies's "The Fire-Raisers: Bentham and Torture"). In Bentham's day, cities tended to have a lot of closely packed wooden buildings, with the result that arson could burn down significant portions of the city and kill vast numbers of people. So we could ask a question. Suppose you are trying to prevent an arsonist from setting more fires and killing thousands, which he will do soon, and suppose further that you know you can get his location very quickly by torturing someone else. Should we then torture that other person, whether they are an accomplice or an innocent person who is merely reluctant to provide us with the necessary information for our own purposes? And the Benthamite position is going to be obvious: With so many lives on the line, so much pain and suffering looming, what kind of monster would you have to be to refuse to torture someone just because it would make you feel guilty to do it?
This is a strict position. Not all utilitarians take the principle of utility so strictly. Indeed, I dare say most, even most classical utilitarians, do not. But how would we go about interpreting it in a way that did not have such results? The most obvious way would be to rethink how pleasure and pain are being taken into account in that 'greatest happiness for the greatest number'. One influential utilitarian who took this route is John Stuart Mill, to which we will turn in the next post.