Saturday, February 17, 2007

Consequentialism, deontology, and the aretaic turn

One debate that has dominated the attention of ethicists in the history of the modern era has been between consequentialism (the idea that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgement about that action) and deontology (that decisions should be made solely or primarily by considering one's duties and the rights of others).

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are famous for propagating utilitarianism, which is the idea that the fundamental moral rule is to strive toward the "greatest happiness for the greatest number". However, in promoting this idea they also necessarily promoted the broader doctrine of consequentialism: that is to say, the idea that the morally right thing to do in any situation is determined by the consequences of the actions under consideration.

In contrast to consequentialism, Immanuel Kant argued that moral principles were simply products of reason. Kant believed that the incorporation of consequences into moral deliberation was a deep mistake, since it would deny the necessity of practical maxims to the working of the will. According to Kant, reason requires that we conform our actions to the categorical imperative, which is an absolute duty. An important 20th-century deontologist, W.D. Ross, argued for weaker forms of duties called prima facie duties.

More recent works have emphasized the role of character in ethics, a movement known as the aretaic turn. One strain of this movement followed the work of Bernard Williams. Williams noted that rigid forms of both consequentialism and deontology demanded that people behave impartially. This, Williams argued, requires that people abandon their personal projects, and hence their personal integrity, in order to be considered moral.

G.E.M. Anscombe, in an influential paper, "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958), revived virtue ethics as an alternative to what was seen as the entrenched positions of Kantianism and consequentialism. Aretaic perspectives have been inspired in part by research of ancient conceptions of virtue. For example, Aristotle's ethics demands that people follow the Aristotelian mean, or balance between two vices; and Confucian ethics argues that virtue consists largely in striving for harmony with other people. Virtue ethics in general has since gained some adherence and has been defended by such philosophers as Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre and Rosalind Hursthouse.