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Moral judgments

Most of our moral judgments concern particular things. People judge certain actions and certain people good or bad. There are many gradations. Acts and people may be heroic, splendid, admirable, acceptable, indifferent or horrible to mention just a few moral adjectives. When people disagree about a moral judgment, they try to justify their own views. They do this by constructing an argument that appeals to moral principles. The search for a first principle of morality has other sources. One stems from the great variety of things people call good.

People say that certain actions, people and even qualities are good. What makes them all good? What do they have in common? The Enlightenment produced two great and competing accounts of the foundations of morality—the Utilitarianism and Kantism. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) coined the term utilitarianism which “accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, which holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

Mill’s brief but brilliant treatise Utilitarianism is used by students of moral philosophy. Mill accepted the general position of Jeremy Bentham who used the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number. ” (Mill, 1957). The most important change that Mill made in utilitarianism was to add a qualitative standard. Human beings with refined faculties are not satisfied with the pleasures of the body; they seek the higher pleasures of the mind. The pleasures of the intellect, of feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments have a higher value than the pleasures of sensation.

Although Mill had referred to these higher pleasures originally to answer the critics of utilitarianism, his concern over higher pleasures led him to criticize the very foundation of Bentham’s doctrine of utility: he said that “it would be absurd that… the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone. ” Once an individual has lived on a higher level, he or she can never wish to sink into a lower level of existence. This is because of the human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

” (Williams, 1985). The Moral Law as the Absolute One of the great systems of ethics was formulated by Immanuel Kant. He criticized the traditional view of mind as substance, a view that assumes the individual can make her or his “self” and “mind” direct objects of knowledge. For Kant, the mind was active; it formed into a system of knowledge all materials presented by the various senses. Time and space were the forms of our sensible experience that, by means of judgment, were brought into unified and organized experience.

Mind was not separate mental substance; it was the organization and unity of personal human experience. According to Kant, our knowledge is based on our experiences as organized and understood by the mind. There is unity wherever there is knowledge, and knowledge entails a knower. Where there is memory, there must be something to do the remembering. The organization of experience is made possible by reason and understanding acting as a principle of organization. There is unity that transcends or is responsible for the continuity among the separate experiences. This unity we call the self.

The self is sometimes spoken of as the locus of the forms of knowing. Sometimes, too, the self and the mind are treated as if they were identical. In order to understand Kant, however, people must realize that the self is a moral as well as a knowing subject (Rachels, 1992). Interpretation of space and time Is one able to interpret space and time and the order and laws of nature as forms of the mind? People cannot perceive except in spatial and temporal terms. Does this mean that these are mind-dependent functions of a universal mind, or essentially subjective?

Kant gave attention to this problem. The mind, he said, imposes its own forms of organization or synthesis on the unorganized sensations it receives from an unknown source. The mind functions through the three faculties of sensibility, understanding and reason. The first set of forms consists of space and time. The second set is called the “categories,” the higher classes or divisions within which things are organized. These include such forms of relationship as quality, quantity, cause, effect, unity and plurality. The third set is the “ideas.

” When, as scientists, people marvel over the mathematical relations and harmonies of the world, they are merely projecting onto the outer world the relations and the harmonies of their own minds. (Williams, 1985). Kant reformulated the issue by introducing two distinctions: the first between analytic and synthetic; the second between a priori and a posteriori. The former involves the relation between the subject and predicate of a judgment, and the latter involves the status of a judgment as a whole. In an analytic judgment, the predicate is part of what is thought in the subject (“all triangles have three angles”).

It is governed by the principle of contradiction and is said to be necessary. In synthetic judgment, the predicate is not part of what is thought in the subject (“all triangles have three angles”); it is governed by the principle of contradiction and is said to be necessary. In synthetic judgment, the predicate is not part of what is thought in the subject (“the building is tall”) and the connection between the two, although subject to the principle of contradiction, is not wholly determined by it and depends on experience.

By a priori Kant meant a judgment that is universal and necessary and stems from the faculties of understanding and reason. An a posteriori judgment is based on experience and is contingent. The singular trait of Kant’s theory of knowledge is his claim that there are some fundamental judgments in science and philosophy that are both synthetic and a priori (“every event has a cause”). If these judgments create difficulties in metaphysics, they create the same ones in mathematics and physics.

Kant believed, therefore that if synthetic a priori judgments could be explained or justified in mathematics and physics, they would also be justified in metaphysics. This was Kant’s challenge to empiricism: there are judgments that are universal and necessary but not analytic and hence not certifiable by the principle of contradiction (Kant, 1959). The crucial transformation of Kant’s view at the hands of the logical empiricists was the collapsing of a priori into analytic; not only was Kant’s problem eliminated, but it became impossible to state the problem because one would have to speak of “analytic synthetic” judgments, which is absurd.

To illustrate this further, according to Kant, who had a powerful influence on modern thought, there are analytic propositions—propositions in which the predicate is “contained” the subject. For example: white swans are white; all bachelors are male. The predicate merely states something that is contained in the ordinary meaning of the subject; the predicate is a defining characteristic of the subject. In contrast with analytic statements, there are synthetic propositions, which cannot be verified by analyzing the statement. For example: this watch is gold; there is a chair in my office.

Synthetic judgments being two ideas together in a new relationship; propositions that tell us something about the world (and not about how one uses words) and must be verified empirically are called synthetic propositions. While Kant believed that most synthetic propositions could be verified sensorially, he held that there are some synthetic propositions that are a priori—that is, known to be true prior to experience and not dependent on experience for verification. An example of a synthetic a priori proposition, according to Kant, would be: every event has a cause.

Synthetic a priori propositions are necessarily true, yet they give information about the world (Kant, 1959. Meanwhile, Mill vigorously defended utilitarianism against the charge that it encourages selfishness. He maintained that the good of all, or the greatest happiness of the greatest number, must be the standard of what is right in conduct. Because people live in an unjust society, some have to sacrifice themselves for the happiness of others. Such sacrifice is not an end in itself; it is a means to the greater happiness of a larger number of people. Although all people may not actually seek happiness, they ought to do so.

This is in order to promote not individual pleasure but the greatest total happiness is the essence of Mill’s position (Mill, 1957). In order to fully appreciate Kant, one needs to read his ethical writings, especially The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason. Kant’s moral philosophy is sometimes called formalism, because he was looking for moral principles that are inherently right or wrong apart from any particular circumstances. These moral principles, or laws, according to Kant, are recognized immediately or directly as true and binding.

This approach, in contrast with the teleological theories (sometimes referred to as “consequentialist” because of their emphasis on ends or results), is one representative of normative ethical theories called deontological. Deon is the Greek word for “duty. ” Both the Judeo-Christian ethic and that of Kant primarily emphasize duty and obligation. Kant inherited the Christian reverence for divine law and the worth of the individual self. He also was profoundly influenced by the Greek and the eighteenth-century respect for reason. According to Kant, moral philosophy is properly concerned not with what is, but with what ought to be.

Each of us possesses sense of duty, the “I ought,” or the moral law, which is logically prior to experience and which springs from our inner-most nature. The moral law brings us into contact with the order of the universe itself, because the laws of nature and the laws of reason are essentially one. Next to the moral law, or the sense of duty, Kant emphasized the good motive, or the good will, as central. “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will.

” Intelligence and courage are usually good, but they may be used to promote evil. Happiness may be gained in ignoble ways: people may contribute to charity because they want publicity or lack the courage to refuse requests. The good will is the dutiful will, which acts solely out of respect for the principle of duty. If an individual acts from a good motive, the act is good regardless of the consequences. Kant did not say that consequences are not to be considered or that they are unimportant; he did say that the moral quality of the act is not determined by the consequences.

If the will or the motive is governed by reason and not by mere desire, it is absolute and unconditional that is, obeying it is one’s duty, admitting of no exceptions. This call to duty that comes from within is the moral law, or, to use Kant’s phrase, “the categorical imperative. ” He gives us three criteria, or formulations, of the moral law. The Principle of Universality “Act in conformity with that maxim, and that maxim, only, which you can at the same time will to be a universal law. ” Actions should spring not from desires or inclinations but only from principles that can be universalized.

Kant uses the example of the man who, after a series of misfortunes, contemplates suicide. When he attempts to universalize such behavior, he realizes at once that it cannot be approved. If everyone was to commit suicide, it would lead to the elimination of humanity. Kant universalized the general type of conduct and not the particular act under particular circumstances. The latter interpretation might lead to extreme laxness; the former leads to a rigorism that admits few if any exceptions to moral principles.

The Enlightenment produced two great and competing accounts of the foundations of morality. Immanuel Kant maintains that all of ethics reduces to a single principle, the categorical imperative. He articulates five versions of the principle, but he takes all to be equivalent. The two most important versions are: 1. Act so that the maxim of your action might be willed as universal law. 2. Treat everyone as a end, not merely as a means. The first means that you must act on the basis of principle; you cannot make an exception for yourself.

You must act, in such a way that everyone could act on your principles. The second means that every human being deserves to be treated with respect, as an independent moral agent; you must not use people as a means to your own ends. Kant derives the categorical imperative from general considerations about morality. A first principle, he warns, must be necessarily true; it must hold no matter what the world is like, for, as a moral assertion, it must hold no matter what the world is like, for, as a moral assertion, it does not describe the world.

It must be something one can know a priori, independently of experience. It must therefore be universal, applying to all rational agents capable of thinking and acting morally. And it must be categorical, of the form “Everyone ought to …. ” Rather than hypothetical (of the form “If you want… you ought to…”), for it must not depend on the goals people adopt for themselves, even general goals such as happiness. What all hypothetical imperatives have in common is simply the form of law, that is, the idea of acting on principle as a moral agent.

That leads to his formulations of the categorical imperative. You must act on principle; you must respect yourself and others as moral agents (Williams, 1985). The second great Enlightenment account of the foundations of morality rejects Kant’s picture completely. Utilitarianism, a moral theory mentioned in Plato’s dialogues, first advocated by Francis Hutcheson and brought to full development by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, can be summarized in two words: Maximize good. Utilitarians hold that all ethics and political philosophy reduces to that one maxim, the principle of utility.

The principle seems simple but has a number of far-reaching consequences. First, utilitarians evaluate actions by the extent to which they maximize good. They evaluate actions, therefore, solely by examining their consequences. In determining whether an action or kind of action is right or wrong, one needs to ask, “Is it for the best? What effect does it have on the amount of good in the universe? Utilitarianism is thus a version of consequentialism, the view that the moral value of an action depends completely on its consequences.

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