Deeper Differences among Normative Theories

This comparison of virtue, deontological, and consequentialist normative theories suggests that the differences among them are deeper than might at first appear. Indeed it suggests that while they certainly differ with regard to which of the three kinds of practical judgments they take as most basic, there are other, and more fundamental, differences among them. To accept one of these normative theories is to accept a particular attitude toward the relation of an agent to his or her character and actions. If one adopts a virtue theory, one's own character comes to have an especially important place in one's practical thinking. It is of the first importance that one become a person of a certain sort. This view need not imply, as it may seem to, that one is committed to an egoistic or selfish life. One may be guided by a virtue theory to pursue a life dominated by generosity and concern for others. One may, indeed, strive to become completely selfless in the sense of always putting the needs of others ahead of one's own needs. But even if this is one's goal, it is also true that one's own character forms the primary focus of one's practical life. The apparent combination here of concern for self and concern for others may appear paradoxical, but it is surely not incoherent. Some of the greatest moral heroes—for example, Gandhi, Jesus, and Albert Schweitzer—seem to have combined these two concerns in their lives.

In a similar way, if one adopts a deontological theory, one's own actions come to play an especially important role in one's practical thinking. It makes a difference to one that one's actions are wrong. It is more important practically to an agent that he or she has told a lie than that a lie has been told. In cases where one's telling a single lie will prevent three others from telling lies, one will not decide what to do by simple arithmetic. Of course, a deontologist will not expect that others will have the same concern for her lie as she will have for it. She may recognize that for someone else, his telling a lie will have a different practical significance for him than her telling a lie will have for him. And just as she may not be prepared to tell one lie to prevent him from telling two, she will not expect him to tell one lie to prevent her from telling two. Indeed, she will recognize that from his point of view, his telling one lie is worse in an important sense than her telling two, just as from her point of view her telling one lie is worse than his telling two.

The special significance given to one's actions by a deontological theory need not imply that a deontologist is egoistic or, in the ordinary sense of the term, self-centered. In this way the deontologist is in a situation similar to that of the virtue theorist. The particular moral rules that one is required to follow may give the needs and interests of others parity with one's own, or, more likely, they may require one to put others ahead of oneself. What they cannot require is that one take up a particular attitude toward the rules themselves. The rules cannot, as it were, define their own condition of application—nor can they specify how they relate to one's faculty of practical decision making at the deepest level.

To a consequentialist, giving this special significance to one's character or one's actions may seem confused and possibly morally corrupt. Of course, consequentialists may be concerned with questions of character, but character cannot be their central normative focus. According to consequentialism, what is of primary ethical importance is that the amount of the intrinsically valuable be maximized. Determining the most effective means for maximization involves straightforward questions of efficiency. These questions may be neither simple nor easily answered, but structurally they are straightforward: Which of the possible courses of action will most likely maximize the amount of goodness in the world? In canvassing the possible means to this end, the consequentialist requires an agent to throw his own character and actions into the same category with other possible means. The kind of character one should develop depends upon the kind of character that will contribute most to the relevant goal. The actions one should perform depend similarly on consequentialist goals. For a consequentialist, one must put a certain distance between oneself—considered as the agent who must make practical choices—and one's own character and actions. One's character and actions have the same role in one's practical thinking as would any other possible means—one's wealth, for example, or influence—that are in a more usual sense external. More important, one's own character and actions have no more special role in practical thinking than do the character and actions of others. All are regarded as possible means to maximize intrinsically good things, and one's own actions and character may have special significance only insofar as they may be more easily—because more directly—manipulated by oneself.

One might think, however, that one feature of the agent's character cannot be treated as a mere means, even by a consequentialist. For any consequentialist theory, it will surely be important that persons have those states of character that dispose them to pursue or to favor intrinsically good things. It might be argued that this state of character cannot be treated by the theory as a mere means. But this argument underestimates the resources within consequentialism for distancing an agent from his or her character. Suppose an agent holds a consequentialist normative theory, C'', according to which the only intrinsically good things are states of human pleasure. Suppose also that this agent has a character such that he is disposed always to act in ways he believes will maximize human pleasure. This argument suggests that this agent will not be prepared to sacrifice for the goal of maximal pleasure his own disposition to pursue this goal. But why should this be the case? One might think that a case could never arise in which an agent could contribute most to maximizing pleasure by changing his character to that of someone unconcerned with maximizing pleasure. But this view is surely wrong. Suppose the agent discovers an empirical law according to which human pleasure is maximized only if agents are disposed not to pursue human pleasure but to pursue knowledge. But if this is true—and it is surely possibly true—the agent should act to change as many persons' characters as possible from pleasure-seeking to knowledge-seeking characters. Nor is there any reason why, on consequentialist grounds, this agent should make an exception in his or her own case. So even those features of human character that lead an agent to pursue the maximization of intrinsically good things are not given a special place by consequentialists. Every feature of the character of an agent may be regarded as a possible means to the maximization of the relevant goal.

This feature of consequentialist theories was first emphasized by Henry Sidgwick, the greatest of modern utilitarians. Sidgwick was convinced that if the utilitarian goal of human happiness was to be maximized, then it was necessary that most persons not be utilitarians. Indeed, he thought that what was probably required was that most persons hold deontological views and have their character shaped in accordance with such views. He proposed then, for utilitarian reasons, that utilitarianism be propagated as an esoteric view, and that only a few of the most able and intelligent members of society have their characters shaped in accord with it. These bearers of the esoteric view, in turn, would mold the characters of those less able and enlightened in accord with a deontological perspective. Had Sidgwick's enlightened few become convinced that maximal human happiness required that they, too, acquire "deontological characters," simple consistency would have required them to change their own characters appropriately. In this way, consequentialism might require that agents strive to bring about a world in which no one, not even oneself, has the kind of character that would dispose one to strive at the most basic practical level for consequentialist goods.

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