Criticisms Against Ethical Theories

1. Criticisms leveled against Consequentialism. Consequentialism is based on the consequences of actions. It is sometimes called a teleological theory, from the Greek word telos, meaning goal. According to consequentialism, actions are right or wrong depending on whether their consequences further the goal. The goal (or, “the good”) can be something like the happiness of all people or the spreading of peace and safety. Anything which contributes to that goal is right and anything which does not is wrong.

Actions are thought to have no moral value in themselves (no rightness or wrongness), but only get moral value from whether or not they lead to the goal. John Stuart Mill was a famous consequentialist. Consequentialists would say that killing people is not right or wrong in itself, it depends on the outcome. Killing an innocent child would be a bad thing because it would decrease the happiness of its family and have no good results. Killing a terrorist would be a good thing because, although it would upset his family, it would make people safer.

The main criticism of consequentialism is that it would allow any action in pursuit of a good cause, even actions that most people would say were clearly morally wrong, such as torture, killing children, genocide, etc. 2. Criticisms leveled against Deontology The word deontology comes from the Greek word deon, meaning duty. According to this theory, it is your duty to do actions which are right and not do those which are wrong. Actions are thought to be right or wrong in themselves. For example, killing people and lying are wrong, sharing with others who are in need is right.

Immanuel Kant was a famous deontologist. E. g. While trekking in the Andes you come across a guerilla leader who has captured 20 local villagers. The guerilla says if you will shoot one hostage he will let the other 19 go free. If you refuse to shoot, he will kill all 20. In the thought experiment the guerilla leader is telling the truth and you have only two choices: to shoot, or to refuse. Choose to shoot, and you are a consequentialist, motivated by saving the 19 innocent people.

Choose to refuse, and you are a deontologist, motivated by the fact that it is always wrong to kill an innocent person. The main criticism of deontology is that it is selfish, a way of avoiding getting your hands dirty (in a moral sense) while still allowing terrible things to happen. For instance, in the thought experiment you would not have shot anybody but 20 innocent people would still die. You could have prevented this outcome if you weren’t afraid to take any guilt on yourself. 3. Criticisms of Utilitarianism • Distastefulness.

By far and and away the most common criticism of utilitarianism can be reduced simply to: “I don’t like it” or “It doesn’t suit my way of thinking”. For an example of this, here’s something from someone who might prefer to remain nameless. “Producing the greatest good for the greatest number is fine as long as you are not hurting someone you really love in the process. For instance, with the trolley situation, I would rather kill 5 people on the main track than my mother on the spur track. Utilitarianism runs into problems when sentiment is involved!! “

Utilitarianism is alleged to be faulty in the way it requires us to think about all kinds of actions – to apply the felicific calculus in disregard to any feared distaste of the result. For example, some issues or potential actions are (to a non-utilitarian) “morally unthinkable”: Utilitarianism does indeed have something to say on this issue – otherwise it would suggest that the life of this extra individual was of no importance. I suggest it as a virtue of utility, that it does not arbitrarily discount value depending on some detail of the situation: all interests count -simply and fairly.

The fact that opponents of utilitarianism admit that they won’t even consider some situations seems to me to be most damning to their credibility, and indicative of their general irrationality on matters ethical. The argument from distaste is often expressed as a suggestion that utilitarianism doesn’t provide enough support for individuals’ rights. But what is a right, and what is its justification? If the justification of a right depends on its tendency to promote happiness and prevent suffering, then it is entirely redundant since this is the sole purpose of utility.

And if rights aren’t justified in these terms, how are they justified – what on earth are they actually good for? Of what use are they? It is generally found that the proponent of ethical rights has very unclear thinking as to what rights are and why they (should) exist – and it is therefore of unclear importance that utilitarianism does not support them. Doesn’t utilitarianism imply that, if we found a drug which had the sole effect of producing happiness, we ought to mass produce and consume it?

And, since happiness is just an emotion which can be chemically induced, isn’t it a bit silly to make it the highest order objective? It is quite strange that many people will accept “the pursuit of happiness” as one of life’s fundamental entitlements, yet should suddenly develop ascetic inclinations as soon as the quarry appears obtainable. It seems they don’t have a problem with someone trying to achieve happiness, rather they are only concerned when that someone has a reasonable prospect of success in their attempts.

Perhaps their fixation with unhappiness would be satisfied by personally abstaining from joy – but, if it goes further such that they would attempt to prevent individuals from attaining happiness even at no cost to others, then (from a utilitarian point of view) such people are despotical and a menace to society. It is possible that many people’s aversion to the idea of everlasting happiness is caused by incomplete consideration of the issue. It could be that people have become so jaded by mistaken claims for the desirability of various intentional objects that they believe that drug-induced happiness simply would not be durably satisfying.

Since any notion of happiness worthy of the name includes that of satisfaction, it follows that a truly happy person cannot be dissatisfied, so this problem can never arise. Happiness, in the utilitarian sense, includes the exemption from suffering. A charge of triviality for pleasure can perhaps be made, if our only frame of reference is the knowledge of felicific states currently achievable, but it is altogether less plausible against the depths of suffering currently experienced by the world’s less fortunate beings. • Impossibility.

The second most common criticism of utilitarianism is that it is impossible to apply – that happiness (etc) cannot be quantified or measured, that there is no way of calculating a trade-off between intensity and extent, or intensity and probability (etc), or comparing happiness to suffering. If happiness was not measurable, words like “happier” or “happiest” could have no meaning: “I was happier yesterday than I am today” would make no sense at all – it can only have the meaning which we (or most of us, at any rate) know that it has if we assume that happiness can be measured and compared.

“one should face the fact that goods are not necessarily intersubstitutable and consider the case, for instance, of an intransigent landowner who, when his avenue of limes is to be destroyed for the motorway, asks for 1p compensation, since nothing can be compensation. ” [2] (One is reminded of the story of the mother handing out home-baked cookies as a special treat to her family. The youngest child, on finding his cookie to be slightly smaller than the others, smashes it up and storms out in tears. In his disappointment, he interprets a fine gift as an affront, and he would rather make things worse than better – but then he’s only a child.

Adults, of course, have much less obvious and more subtle means of smashing their cookies. ) Initially, it seems very odd that the landowner should ask for a penny. If nothing can be compensation, why does he not ask for nothing? What use is this tiny amount of money? Far from suggesting that the trees are invaluable, it suggests that any money he could get for them is worthless to him! But, we may still ask, why the penny? And then we realize: it’s a token; a chip in a psychological game (often called “Poor me! “).

One can imagine the penny being carried about by the ex-landowner, and produced to evict pity from those unfortunates he manages to convince to listen to his story. That will be his best effort at compensating himself. Now suppose the scenario is amended slightly: imagine the landowner’s daughter is dying from a terminal disease; that the motorway’s supporters offer to pay for the new and expensive cure (which the landowner could not otherwise afford) in exchange for the land; and that they will not proceed without his permission. Are we still to presume that “nothing can be compensation” for his trees, not even the life of his daughter?

Or will the landowner decide that his daughter’s life is more important than his pretty view? It seems likely. But suppose not – suppose he chooses to keep the trees and lose his daughter. Does this show that the value of the lime avenue isn’t convertible? Of course not, just that he values the trees more than his offspring. If the two different values were inconvertible, he would have no way to decide one way or the other – no way to choose between them. The fact that people can and do weigh-up and trade-off values, for all types of things, shows that it is both possible and practical to do so.

In the original scenario, the sensible thing to do would be to ask for enough money to buy a new bit of land, and to plant a new avenue of limes on it; but, since the principle of utility does not imply the absence of fools, this criticism has no effect, and we needn’t consider this matter further. • Impracticality The third most common criticism is that it is too difficult to apply – that we cannot calculate all the effects for all the individuals (either because of the large number of individuals involved, and/or because of the uncertainty).

The principle of utility is, essentially, a description of what makes something right or wrong – so in order for it to fail, someone must give an example of something which is useful but obviously wrong. The principle does not imply that we can calculate what is right or wrong – completely accurately, in advance, or at all! It does not harm the principle of utility at all merely to comment that it is difficult for us to work out what is right – it is merely a lament against the human condition.

The idea of practicality is often used to suggest a problem exists in the theory, when it fact it does not. For example: “how far does one, under utilitarianism, have to research into the possibilities of maximally beneficent action, including prevention? ” [3] The answer is simple, and entirely obvious: as far as it is useful to do so! That is, far enough so that we get the optimal trade-off between planning and implementing, so that we maximize our effectiveness as agents.

The does imply that, in some cases, it may not be best to apply the felicific calculus at all: if the problem is one that we have faced many times before, and always reached the same conclusion; or if the case presents itself as an emergency, and isn’t open to extended consideration; we can forego the calculus and act immediately. • Insufficiency (of scope) One argument which some people propose as being more sensible than other criticisms, is that utilitarianism is “fine, so far as it goes”, but that it fails to consider some sources of value, and that it will therefore produce the wrong results when these different sources conflict.

There is potential for confusion here – sometimes “utilitarianism” is used to specifically for “hedonistic utilitarianism”; and, sometimes, it means a particular class of ethical theory (something like “value-maximizing consequentialism”) … under this meaning, an ethical theory which held the existence of plastic forks as supremely valuable, and therefore tried to maximize their number, would be “plastic fork utilitarianism”. [5] So, theories which have other intrinsic values than happiness and exemption from suffering can be accommodated within a utilitarian scheme.

As for those other things that are suggested as having value, there are a few worth mentioning: “life”, “friendship”, and “knowledge” among them. I think it is notable that these things are valued, but that they also generally create happiness… I suggest the reason that they are valued is precisely because they promote happiness. But, if they didn’t, would we still value them? Does someone who suffers too much still value their life? Surely not, or else there would be no suicides. Do we value a friendship if we get no pleasure from it?

On the contrary, it is more likely that we would define our friends as those people about whom we enjoyed being. And is it worthwhile learning and philosophising, if our knowledge is never of any use at all? Or, rather, is it just so much meta-physical stamp collecting? The case against these “other” goals is quite clear. 4. A Critique of Ethical Egoism Ethical egoism, like all exclusively subjective philosophies, is prone to constant self-contradiction because it supports all individuals’ self interests.

It also can lead to very unpleasant conclusions, such as choosing not to intervene in a crime against another. Egoists have difficulty judging anything that does not deal with them, which is one reason why ethical egoism is so impractical for people who are very aware of the world. The very legitimacy of the theory is often called into question because it prevents its own adherents from taking reasonable stances on major political and social issues and cannot in itself solve these issues. 5. Criticisms against Ethical Relativism

A common argument against relativism suggests that it inherently contradicts, refutes, or stultifies itself: the statement “all is relative” classes either as a relative statement or as an absolute one. If it is relative, then this statement does not rule out absolutes. If the statement is absolute, on the other hand, then it provides an example of an absolute statement, proving that not all truths are relative.

However, this argument against relativism only applies to relativism that positions truth as relative–i. e.epistemological/truth-value relativism. More specifically, it is only strong forms of epistemological relativism that can come in for this criticism as there are many epistemological relativists who posit that some aspects of what is regarded as “true” are not universal, yet still accept that other universal truths exist (e. g. gas laws). However, such exceptions need to be carefully justified, or “anything goes”. Another argument against relativism posits a Natural Law. Simply put, the physical universe works under basic principles: the “Laws of Nature”.

Some contend that a natural Moral Law may also exist, for example as argued by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006)[35] and addressed by C. S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” (1952). [36] Dawkins said “I think we face an equal but much more sinister challenge from the left, in the shape of cultural relativism – the view that scientific truth is only one kind of truth and it is not to be especially privileged. “[37] Aside from the general legitimacy of relativism, critics say it undermines morality, possibly resulting in anomie and complete Social Darwinism.

Relativism denies that harming others is wrong in any absolute sense. The majority of relativists, of course, consider it immoral to harm others, but relativist theory allows for the opposite belief. In short, if an individual can believe it wrong to harm others, he can also believe it right–no matter what the circumstances. The problem of negation also arises. If everyone with differing opinions is right, then no one is. Thus instead of saying “all beliefs (ideas, truths, etc. ) are equally valid,” one might just as well say “all beliefs are equally worthless”. (see article on Doublethink).

Another argument is that if relativism presupposes that “all beliefs are equally valid,” it then implies that any belief system holding itself to be the only valid one is untrue, which is a contradiction. An argument made by Hilary Putnam,[38] among others, states that some forms of relativism make it impossible to believe one is in error. If there is no truth beyond an individual’s belief that something is true, then an individual cannot hold their own beliefs to be false or mistaken. A related criticism is that relativizing truth to individuals destroys the distinction between truth 6. Criticism of Virtue Ethics:

According to critics, a major problem with the theory is the difficulty of establishing the nature of the virtues, especially as different people, cultures and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue. Some proponents counter-argue that any character trait defined as a virtue must be universally regarded as a virtue for all people in all times, so that such cultural relativism is not relevant. Others, however, argue that the concept of virtue must indeed be relative and grounded in a particular time and place, but this in no way negates the value of the theory, merely keeps it current.

Another objection is that the theory is not “action-guiding”, and does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. Thus, a virtue theorist may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues (e. g. compassion and fairness, among others), but does proscribe murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, and the theory is therefore useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation.

Virtue theorists may retort that it is in fact possible to base a judicial system on the moral notion of virtues rather than rules (modern theories of law related to Virtue Ethics are known as virtue jurisprudence, and focus on the importance of character and human excellence as opposed to moral rules or consequences). They argue that Virtue Ethics can also be action-guiding through observance of virtuous agents as examplars, and through the life-long process of moral learning, for which quick-fix rules are no substitute.

Some have argued that Virtue Ethics is self-centred because its primary concern is with the agent’s own character, whereas morality is supposed to be about other people, and how our actions affect other people. Thus, any theory of ethics should require us to consider others for their own sake, and not because particular actions may benefit us. Some argue that the whole concept of personal well-being (which is essentially just self-interest) as an ethical master value is mistaken, especially as its very personal nature does not admit to comparisons between individuals.

Proponents counter that virtues in themselves are concerned with how we respond to the needs of others, and that the good of the agent and the good of others are not two separate aims, but both result from the exercise of virtue. Other critics are concerned that Virtue Ethics leaves us hostage to luck, and that it is unfair that some people will be lucky and receive the help and encouragement they need to attain moral maturity, while others will not, through no fault of their own.

Virtue Ethics, however, embraces moral luck, arguing that the vulnerability of virtues is an essential feature of the human condition, which makes the attainment of the good life all the more valuable. • Cultural diversity Some criticize virtue ethics in relation to the difficulty involved with establishing the nature of the virtues. They argue that different people, cultures, and societies often have vastly different perspectives on what constitutes a virtue. For example, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and industrious.

This conception of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies. Alasdair MacIntyre responds to this criticism, by arguing that any account of the virtues must indeed be generated out of the community in which those virtues are to be practiced: The very word “ethics” implies “ethos. ” That is to say that the virtues are, and necessarily must be, grounded in a particular time and place. What counts as virtue in fourth century Athens would be a ludicrous guide to proper behavior in twenty-first century Toronto, and vice versa.

But, the important question in virtue ethics as to what kind of person one ought to be, which may be answered differently depending on the ethos, can still give real direction and purpose to people. • Lack of moral rules Another criticism of virtue ethics is that it lacks absolute moral rules which can give clear guidance on how to act in specific circumstances such as abortion, embryo research, and euthanasia. Martha Nussbaum responds to this criticism, by saying that there are no absolute rules. In a war situation, for example, the rule that you must not kill an innocent person is impractical.

According to Nussbaum, it is the virtues that are absolutes, and we should strive for them. If elected leaders strive for them, things will go well. On the issue of embryo research, Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that people first need to understand the social situation in which although many people are negative about embryonic stem-cell research, they are not upset with the fact that thousands of embryos actually die at various stages in the IVF (in vitro fertilization) process. Then, says MacIntyre, people need to approach the issue with virtues such as wisdom, right ambition, and temperance.

Thus, some virtue ethicists argue that it is possible to base a judicial system on the moral notion of virtues rather than on rules. 7. Critiques of Normative Contractarianism Many critiques have been leveled against particular contractarian theories and against contractarianism as a framework for normative thought about justice or morality. (See the entry on contemporary approaches to the social contract. ) Jean Hampton criticized Hobbes in her book Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, in a way that has direct relevance to contemporary contractarianism.

Hampton argues that the characterization of individuals in the state of nature leads to a dilemma. Hobbes’ state of nature as a potential war of all against all can be generated either as a result of passions (greed and fear, in particular) or rationality (prisoner’s dilemma reasoning, in which the rational players each choose to renege on agreements made with each other). But if the passions account is correct, then Hampton argues, the contractors will still be motivated by these passions after the social contract is drawn up, and so will fail to comply with it.

And if the rationality account is correct, then rational actors will not comply with the social contract any more than they will cooperate with each other before it is made. This critique has an analog for Gauthier’s theory, in that Gauthier must also claim that without the contract individuals will be stuck in some socially sub-optimal situation that is bad enough to motivate them to make concessions to each other for some agreement, yet the reason for their inability to cooperate without the contract cannot continue to operate after the contract is made.

Gauthier’s proposed solution to this problem is to argue that individuals will choose to dispose themselves to be constrained (self-interest) maximizers rather than straightforward (self-interest) maximizers, that is, to retrain themselves not to think first of their self-interest, but rather to dispose themselves to keep their agreements, provided that they find themselves in an environment of like-minded individuals. But this solution has been found dubitable by many commentators. (See Vallentyne, 1991) Hampton also objects to the contemporary contractarian assumption that interaction is merely instrumentally valuable.

She argues that if interaction were only valuable for the fruits of cooperation that it bears for self-interested cooperators, then it would be unlikely that those cooperators could successfully solve the compliance problem. In short, they are likely not to be able to motivate morality in themselves without some natural inclination to morality. Interestingly, Hampton agrees with Gauthier that contractarianism is right to require any moral or political norms to appeal to individuals self-interest as a limitation on self-sacrifice or exploitation of any individual.

In an important article, “On Being the Object of Property,” African-American law professor Patricia Williams offers a critique of the contract metaphor itself. Contracts require independent agents who are able to make and carry out promises without the aid of others. Historically, while white men have been treated as these pure wills of contract theory, Blacks and women have been treated as anti-will: dependent and irrational. Both ideals are false; whole people, she says, are dependent on other whole people.

But by defining some as contractors and others as incapable of contract, whole classes of people can be excluded from the realm of justice. This point has been taken up by other critics of contractarianism, such as Eva Kittay (1999) who points out that not only are dependents such as children and disabled people left out of consideration by contractarian theories, but their caretakers’ needs and interests will tend to be underestimated in the contract, as well.

David Hume was an early critic of the validity of social contract theory, arguing against any theory based on a historical contract, on the grounds that one should not be bound by the consent of one’s ancestors. He also questioned to what extent the fall-back “state of nature” which underlies most social contract theory is actually historically accurate, or whether it is just a hypothetical or possible situation. Others have pointed out that, with an assumed initial position which is sufficiently dire (such as that posited by Hobbes), Contractarianism may lead to the legitimization of Totalitarianism (as Hobbes himself foresaw).

Some commentators have argued that a social contract of the type described cannot be considered a legitimate contract at all, on the grounds that the agreement is not fully voluntary or without coercion, because a government can and will use force against anyone who does not wish to enter into the contract. In Rousseau’s conception of the social contract, even individuals who disagree with elements of the social contract must nevertheless agree to abide by it or risk punishment (they must be “forced to be free”).

It is argued that this idea of force negates the requirement that a contract be entered into voluntarily, or at least to permit individuals to abstain from entering into a contract. In response, it has been countered that the name “contract” is perhaps misleading (“social compact” has been suggested as an alternative), and that anyway individuals explicitly indicate their consent simply by remaining in the jurisdiction. Either way, social contract theory does seem to be more in accordance with contract law in the time of Hobbes and Locke (based on a mutual exchange of benefits) than in our own.

Other critics have questioned the assumption that individuals are always self-interested, and that they would actually want the benefits of society supposedly offered by the contract. A further objection sometimes raised is that Contractarianism is more of a descriptive theory than a normative guide or a justification. 8. Critiques of Rights Theory Critiques of rights come in two forms. The first is an attack on the substance of doctrines that give rights a central place. These critiques allege that the content of such doctrines is, in one way or other, malformed or unjustified.

Here we find, for example, the criticism that natural rights doctrines are “so much flat assertion,” and that utilitarian rights tend to be implausibly weak. The second form of critique attacks the language of rights itself. The objection here is that it is inappropriate or counterproductive to express at least some kinds of normative concerns in terms of rights. We should, according to the second form of critique, reduce or avoid “rights talk. ” • Critiques of Rights Doctrine.

Marx attacked the substance of the revolutionary eighteenth century American and French political documents that proclaimed the fundamental “rights of man”: liberty, equality, security, property, and the free exercise of religion. Marx objected that these alleged rights derive from a false conception of the human individual as unrelated to others, as having interests can be defined without reference to others, and as always potentially in conflict with others. The rights-bearing individual is an “isolated monad… withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and

separated from the community. ” (Marx 1844, 146) The right of property, Marx asserted, exemplifies the isolating and anti-social character of these alleged rights of man. On the one hand, the right of property is the right to keep others at a distance: the legal equivalent of a barbed wire fence. On the other hand, the right of property allows an owner to transfer his resources at his own pleasure and for his own gain, without regard even for the desperate need for those resources elsewhere.

Similarly, Marx held that the much-celebrated individual right to liberty reinforces selfishness. Those who are ascribed the right to do what they wish so long as they do not hurt others will perpetuate a culture of egoistic obsession. As for equality, the achievement of equal rights in a liberal state merely distracts people from noticing that their equality is purely formal: a society with formally equal rights will continue to be divided by huge inequalities in economic and political power. Finally, these so-called “natural” rights are in fact not natural to humans at all.

They are simply the defining elements of the rules of the modern mode of production, perfectly suited to fit each individual into the capitalist machine. Communitarians (Taylor, Walzer, MacIntyre, Sandel) sound several of the same themes in their criticisms of contemporary liberal and libertarian theories. The communitarians object that humans are not, as such theories assume, “antecedently individuated. ” Nozick’s “state of nature” theorizing, for example, errs in presuming that in