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Group 14 page for Reading Notes

Please post your reading notes to this page. Please start each set of reading notes with the author, title of the work, and the sections of the work you're discussing in your notes.

Intro to Consequentialism (Sept 18)

Mill, Utilitarianism (Sept. 23)

Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 2 – pp.1-8

Argument for the Foundation of Morals: Utility/Greatest Happiness Principle

  1. For any given action, the purpose of that action is to meet some end (p.1)
  2. We deduct how moral an action is by applying general principles of morality to that action (p.2)
  3. One (or several) fundamental principles of morality must exist to underpin the idea of moral obligation (p.2)
  4. Actions influence happiness notably. Men’s sentiments are largely concerned with the effect that actions have on happiness. (p.2)
  5. Freedom from pain and pleasure (which is deliberate) are quantifiable forms of happiness (p.4)
  6. The most desirable outcome to an action is increasing deliberate pleasure and reducing pain (p.4)

Conclusion: Actions which promote happiness are morally good and actions which decrease happiness are morally bad. (p.4) Happiness is the source of moral obligation (p.2)


  1. Do you agree with premise 3? Can all moral decisions be condensed down to a single principle? If not, how does this effect the argument that happiness is the root cause of all moral decisions?
  2. Regarding premise 4, I took the idea of “men’s sentiments” to refer to potentially two things: a) an individual deliberating how an action will improve his own happiness and b) a collective group deliberating how an action will improve the overall happiness. Mill says sacrificing one’s own happiness for the happiness of others is “the highest virtue which can be found in a man” (p.8). Do you agree with this statement, and do you agree with Mill’s rationale (i.e. that the world is imperfect)?

Mill, Utilitarianism (Sept. 25)

Mill, Utilitarianism (Sept. 30)

Aly Thobani: Notes on Ch. 5 of Mill, Utilitarianism

Mill discusses and tries to find an appopriate description of what justice is. He realizes that although it is not considered a very ambiguous term, there are still many different interpretations of justice, and he decides to set about narrowing down an idea of justice by figuring out what is unjust. He finds five different classes of injustice.

1. There is a legal rights aspect to justice: "it is mostly considered unjust to deprive any one of his personal liberty, his property, or any other thing which belongs to him by law." (Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 21) Essentially, since it is unjust to violate a person's legal rights, it is just to respect an individual's legal rights.

2. There is a moral rights aspect to justice as well, that sometimes conflicts with the legal rights aspect. For example, unjust laws exist that "give to one person a benefit, or impose on another an evil, which justice condemns" (p. 21). Hence, law, cannot be the ultimate criterion of justice.

3. There is a desert aspect to justice: it is just for a person to get what he deserves (whether good or evil), and unjust for him to get or undergo something he does not deserve (whether good or evil). (p. 21)

4. There is a commitment aspect to justice: it is unjust to "break faith" with anyone: "to violate an engagement" or "or disappoint expectations ... if we have raised those expectations knowingly and voluntarily". (p. 21)

5. There is an impartiality aspect to justice. It is unjust "to show favour or preference to one person over another, in matters to which favour and preference do not properly apply" (p. 21). However, this is mostly in cases to do with giving a person his right. In less significant cases (he lists giving superior offices to family and friends over strangers, or preferring to be friends with one person over another), partiality is acceptable.

Mill then notes a distinction between moral duties of perfect obligation and those of imperfect obligation, and describes this as a main difference between justice and other branches of morality. Duties of perfect obligation are those in which a correlative right is inherent in a person or persons (e.g. saving a drowning child), and duties of imperfect obligation are those which are still obligatory, but do not have any specific instructions or rights residing in any specific people (e.g. giving to charity is obligatory but a person can fulfill the duty by giving to any charity at any time of the year). Mill notes that justice consists of duties of perfect obligation: "Justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which some individual person can claim from us as his moral right" (p. 23).

Note that Mill treats the idea of a right as residing in a person, and violated by the injury, rather than something that can be treated separately from a person. As well, when a person has a right, he has "a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it", through law or through education and opinion. Mill concludes from this that to have a right is to have something that society ought to defend the person of (p. 23).

Mill concludes by describing justice as "certain classes of moral rules" that have to do more with basic human well-being than other classes of moral rules, and rules of justice are therefore more absolutely obligatory than other moral rules. There is an overlap in the implementation of justice between simply being expedient and being actually sacred. However, Mill is convinced that because rights are inherent in the person, and this notion is essential to the idea of justice, justice is sacred and of more binding obligation "than any other rules for the guidance of life" (p. 24).

Further questions:

1) Mill specifies that he is speaking of rights that are inherent in humans. Does the sacredness of justice apply to other areas of nature as well? How much of the world is governed by justice?

2) Mill uses what society commonly considers to be just/unjust in order to pinpoint an apt description of justice. If justice is sacred, would it not be better to find a more reliable method that does not have to do with human opinion in order to find out what justice/injustice entail?

3) If people stopped existing, and there were therefore no people for rights to reside in, would rights still exist? Would justice still exist? Or does justice depend on human existence?

Later consequentialism (Oct. 2)

Contemporary Utilitarianism

Personal Summary & Conclusion:

The given excerpt considers objections against Utilitarianism and provides responses to these objections. The objections include punishment and medical sacrifice which revolves around the notion that sometimes in the realm of utilitarianism it becomes palpable to overlook individual rights such as fair trial in an attempt to increase the collective well being of the society. It also looks at distributive justice highlighting how in certain cases when solely focused on the aggregate happiness of the society the internal distribution of this happens becomes less important which could lead to certain groups and/or members of society suffering from the misappropriation of utility. It then moves on to the issue of promises and how sometimes it may seem right to break promises, using the famous example of the rich heir as a reference point. This objections essentially revolve around the idea that the moral theory of utilitarianism tends to ignore the separateness of persons. The text then goes on to highlight the over-demanding and supererogatory nature of utilitarian moral obligation. In this objection to the theory it is argued that moral obligations are supremely authoritative and because utilitarianism requires one to increase the aggregate happiness of the society, performing certain normative actions like pursuing ones self interest can be considered immoral as it does not consider the collective welfare of society.

The responses to these objections essentially hinge on a single sentiment. That critics are simply postulating false dilemmas where the actor, who is operating under utilitarianism, is forced to choose between two improbable solutions where as in the real world there would be a larger number of factors and solutions to consider ( Bold denial & Appeal to Remote effects).

The text then goes on to highlight other types of Utilitarianism that address the problems stated above (further explored below). These are Rule, Desire Fulfilment and Pluralistic Utilitarianism. Despite positing possible solutions to problems encountered by hedonistic utilitarian models these other forms of utilitarianism still ran into a similar problem, the inability to cater for the theories neglect of the separateness of persons.

Short Notes/Extracts/Summaries/conclusions from text:

In this excerpt the author considers certain developments in utilitarian moral thinking i.e certain objections to utilitarianism as the correct moral criterion of right moral action and various responses to these objections. Below are main concepts and arguments outlined in the text as well as excerpts to help summarize the content.


Punishment, Pg. 132

Utilitarianism implies that in a given situation a character sometimes has the moral obligation to proceed with the punishment of an innocent person inorder to increase the collective welfare of a large group. But, so the obligation goes, it would clearly be morally wrong to do so.

Medical Sacrifice, Pg. 132

Consider the following example, a physician ought to kill one patient to save three other patients. Doing this would be murder but under the umbrella of utilitarianism the aggregate welfare gained form the action of murder outweighs the losses and justifies the action morally.

Distributive Justice, Pg. 133, see illustration

"Utilitarian theory is generally concerned with total aggregate utility causing it to ignore considerations of equal distribution of benefits and burdens across the members of the society. In doing so, the theory runs afoul of our sense of fairness."

Promising, Pg. 134

Consider the following example, an individual on the brink of financial ruin has control over the inheritance intended for his friends heir. The heir in question has managed to surmount a large amount of wealth over the years making the inheritance relatively non-consequential to them. In the context of utilitarianism it would appear that the correct thing to do is to keep the money and break the promise of handing down the inheritance. Objections to this notion question if this could be right because breaking a promise seems inherently wrong.

Further Objections

The Overdemanding-ness Objection, Pg. 135

According to utilitarian standards of right conduct, we are often doing something wrong in pursuing our own self interests and thus neglecting the interests of others and the collective well being of society. Thus, many actions that strike us intuitively as morally optional are forbidden according to utilitarianism. This is because moral requirements are typically taken to be supremely authoritative in the they provide individuals with overriding reasons for action.

The Supererogation Objection, Pg. 135

Supererogation refers to an act that is more than necessary. It may be considered as performing above and beyond a normative course of duty to further benefits and functionality. According to Utilitarian assumptions this supererogatory actions would be considered morally obligatory due to the greater aggregate welfare they produce. In making actions above the call of duty of individuals obligatory one could argue that the theory is demanding too much from individuals.


Bold Denial, Pg. 137

This involves challenging the validity of appealing to moral intuitions about extraordinary cases and further arguing that we should not put too much weight on such intuitions.

Appeal to Remote Effects, Pg. 138

According to this response, once one begins to think through cases developed by critics of utilitarianism, "factoring plausible empirical assumptions about possible consequences of actions" e.g the effect of punishing an innocent person or killing a patient, it is no longer clear that the best course of action is the one often suggested by the critics.

Essentially this response suggests that the given situations might be providing utilitarians with a false dilemma and by that fact forcing them to chose between improbable modes of action.

Other Types of Utilitarianism,

Rule Utilitarianism, Pg. 139

"The rightness or wrongness of some individual actions depends upon whether it is mentioned in a correct moral rule that applies to the situation in question. A moral rule applying to a situation is correct if and only if the utility associated with the rule is at least as great as the utility associated with any other alternative rule."

i.e An action A is right if and only if A is mentioned in a moral rule whose associated utility is at least as great as the utility associated with any alternative moral rule applying to the situation.

Desire Fulfillment Theory of Welfare , Pg. 143

Its basic idea is that what makes a person’s life go better is the fulfilment of his/her desires and what makes it go worse is the non-fulfillment of her desires.

i.e An action A is right if and only if A would result in at least as much general desire fulfillment as any alternative action that the agent could perform instead.


Some restrictions must be placed on the desires of an individual such that they don't affect others. Restrictions must be placed on desires that do not contribute to his/her welfare.

Pluralistic Utilitarianism, Pg. 145

This version of utilitarianism has three main in components:

Reflective pursuit of ones reasonable projects
Realization of those projects
Certain personal and social relationships

According to Brink,

“There are moral constraints on valuable projects; in order for the pursuit and realization of a project to be of value, that project must, among other things, respect other people at least in the minimal sense of not causing significant and avoidable harm.”


Apart from hedonism are there other plausible core components of utilitarianism?

Is there a way to accurately aggregate the total welfare of a given population without failing to respect the separateness of persons?

Rule utilitarianism (Oct. 7)

1. ) The version of utilitarianism Brandt advocates is an “ideal moral theory”. An ideal moral rule being one that maximizes utility with both positive and negative utilities being counted.

"An act is right if and only if it would not be prohibited by the moral code ideal for the society; and an agent is morally blameworthy (praiseworthy) for an act il, and to the degree that, the moral code ideal in that soc¡ety would condemn (praise) him for it.” Pg 594

2.) Brandt argues that a a moral code is viable (“has currency”) in a society only if a large percentage of the adults in the society ascribe to its principles and it is recognized as the moral code of the society. Pg 595

3.) Further Brandt argues that for a moral code to be considered ideal it must fit a rough set of rules: Pg 597, 598, 599.

- The code has to be simple enough to be absorbed by human beings.

- It should consider would provide the highest long run happiness within the given institution.

- It should make considerations that people will act contrary to the moral code e.g. break promises etc

- It should weight the effect of guilt built into society by the system i.e effects of training process

Brandt also points out that the Moral rules in a society are not necessarily binding, and if so, only in as much as they maximize welfare.


How viable is this theory as a applicable moral rule? Are they any limitations to this argument?

Kant, Groundwork (Oct. 28)

Reading Notes: Kant p.89-93

Georgina S.

Principle: Formula of Autonomy:

  1. From the Universal Law of Nature: rational beings must act according to maxims which can also be made universal laws of nature
  2. A law that can also be made universal must not depend on fulfilling some interest, i.e. it must be unconditional (top p.91)
  3. If a rational being merely follows a law – he acts according to something that is not determined by his own will. Therefore, acting in the name of the law is conditional on something else telling him to act in a certain way (p.91)
  4. The principle of duty is lost. Rational beings cannot act from duty if the act serves to fulfil some interest (p.91)
  5. If the rational being creates a law that originates from his own will, it is unconditional. He only has to conform to his own will. (p.90-91)

Conclusion: A rational being must act according to maxims which can also be made into universal law AND these maxims must come from his own willing. (p.90)

N.B. This principle complements the Categorical Imperative

Principle: Kingdom of Ends: p.91-92

  • The kingdom refers to the society of rational beings connected through systematic common laws
  • Defines a member of this kingdom as someone who both gives the universal laws and adheres to these laws
  • Defines a sovereign as someone who only gives universal law but does not adhere to them
  • For this kingdom to exist it is required that each rational being under these laws must treat both themselves and others as an end in themselves, and never as a means
  • Kant acknowledges that this is an ideal - not actually what happens


  1. Formula of Autonomy: Can you act out of self-interest if you follow a law vs. if you create it yourself?
  2. The Kingdom of Ends Principle: Why do you think it is important that Kant defines this?
  3. If all rational beings are self-legislating, how could Kant answer the problem of conflict between two laws addressing the same moral issue?

Answer to q1

I think Kant argues that if rational beings have to create the laws themselves, then the laws cannot be dependent on an interest. If it were dependent on an interest, you would need another law “restricting the interest of its self-love by the condition that it should be valid as universal law” p. 90. Self-interest is not possible when you are legislating your own laws according to the UL/N because it must also be valid as a universal law. But, it is possible to act out of self-interest if you only follow laws and don’t create them yourself.

Answer to q2

As noted in the optional reading (Stanford philosophy) this argument promotes the idea of equality amongst lawgivers.

Kant, "On a Supposed Right to Lie (Oct. 30)

On A Supposed Right To Lie

Megan Simon

French Philosopher:

• It is a duty to tell the truth but only to those who have a right to the truth

• No man has a right to a truth that injures others

• Defines a lay as an intentionally false declaration towards another person

• No matter how well-meaning the lie was, it can be punishable

• Whoever tells a lie, however good his intentions may be held accountable and is legally responsible for the consequences of the lie and must therefore pay the penalty of them, however unforeseen the consequences may be

• If one strictly adheres to the truth, public justice can find no fault with you

Opposing Argument:

• Truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, the laws of which would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the least exception to them were admitted

• To be truthful in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency

• Every man has the strictest duty to truthfulness, whether they do harm to himself or others

• Truth is not a possession, you can not just decide who to grant and refuse truth to - the duty of veracity makes no distinction between persons whom we have this duty, and towards whom we may be free from it; but is an unconditional duty which holds in all circumstances


- Do you agree with Kant, that lying is always wrong?

- Do you believe that there are some situations where it would be morally right to lie?

Intro to Virtue Ethics (Nov. 4)

Megan Simon

Intro to Virtue Ethics: 2a-2d, 3a

- Moral theorists are concerned with right and wrong behavior

- Virtue ethics is concerned with the good life and what kind of person we should be "what is the right action?" (consequentialism) vs. "how should I live? what kind of person should I be?" (virtue ethics)

- Modern virtue ethics takes its inspiration from the Aristotelian understanding of character and virtue; Aristotelian character is about a state of being - a theory of action, since having the virtuous inner dispositions will also involve being moved to act in accordance with them

- A distinguishing feature of virtue ethics is that character traits are stable, fixed, and reliable dispositions - a person with a certain character can be relied upon to act consistently over time

- Our natural tendencies, characteristics we are born with, are shaped and developed through a long and gradual process of education and habituation

- Virtue is chosen knowingly for its own sake; the virtuous agent doesn't act justly merely out of an unreflective response, but has come to recognize the value of virtue and why it is the appropriate response (not enough to act kindly by accident - to act from the wrong reason is to act viciously)

- Uncodifiability of Ethic Thesis: the idea that ethics cannot be captured in one rule or principle -ethics is too diverse and imprecise to be captured in a rigid code, so we must approach morality with a theory that is as flexible and situation-responsible as the subject matter itself

- Consequentialist theories are outcome based, Kantian theories are agent based, and Virtue Ethics is character based

- Actions are not pointless because they have an aim; every action aims at some good - some things are done for their own sake (ends in themselves) and some things are done for the sake of other things (means to other ends)

- Aristotle claims that all the things that are ends in themselves also contribute to a wider end, an end that is the greatest good for all - eudaemonia (happiness, contentment, fulfillment - the name of the best kind of life, which is an end in itself a means to live and fare well)

- Virtues are justified because they are constitutive elements of eudaemonia which is good in itself

- The good life for humans is the life of virtue and therefore it is in our interest to be virtuous, it is not just that the virtues lead to the good life but rather a virtuous life is the good life because the exercise of our rational capacities and virtue is its own reward (virtues benefit their possessor)


- Do you agree with this theory?

- Who decides if one is acting virtuously?

Later virtue theory (Nov. 18)

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Theory and Abortion.” Pages 223-246 of Philosophy and Public Affairs 20.3 (Summer 1991).

Notes by Aly Thobani.

Deontological morality (224):

1. An action is right iff it is in accordance with a moral rule or principle.

2. A moral rule is one that (a) is laid on us by God, or (b) is required by natural law, or (c) is laid on us by reason, or (d) is required by rationality, or (e) would command universal rational acceptance, or (f) would be the object of choice of all rational beings.

Act-utilitarianism morality (225):

1. An action is right iff it promotes the best consequences.

2. The best consequences are those in which happiness is maximized.

Virtue theory morality (225-226):

1. An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.

a. A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is, one who has and exercises the virtues.

2. A virtue is a character trait a human being needs to flourish or live well. (Needs for eudaimonia.)

On abortion:

1. Whether women have a moral right to terminate their pregnancies is irrelevant to the question, "In having an abortion in these circumstances, would the agent be acting virtuously or viciously or neither?" (235)

2. Thus whether women have a moral right to terminate their pregnancies is irrelevant within virtue theory. (235)

3. Virtue is said to involve knowledge, which "consists in having the right [accurate, true] attitude to things". (235)

4. Thus "if the status of the fetus [whether it is a person or not, has rights, etc.] is relevant to the rightness or wrongness of abortion, its status must be known, as a truth, to the fully wise and virtuous person". (235)

5. The fully virtuous person is not supposed to have wisdom that is "recondite" [obscure] or that calls "for fancy philosophical sophistication". (235)

6. The status of the fetus is an "issue over which so much ink has been split", and could be considered recondite information, and so such information would not be known, as a truth, to the fully wise and virtuous person. (235)

C7. Thus "the status of the fetus … is, according to virtue theory, simply not relevant to the rightness or wrongness of abortion". (236)

8. The fully virtuous person would have knowledge of the familiar facts about pregnancies (e.g.: the female - and only the female - is pregnant for nine months; childbearing is painful, dangerous, and emotionally charged; human parents, both male and female, tend to care passionately about their offspring; family relationships are among the deepest, strongest, and longest-lasting relationships in our lives; etc.). (237)

C9. Thus familiar facts about pregnancies are relevant to the rightness or wrongness of abortion, according to virtue theory. (237)

10. "The premature termination of a pregnancy is, in some sense, the cutting off of a new human life" (237).

11. Thus, "to think of abortion as nothing but the killing of something that does not matter … is to do something callous and light-minded, the sort of thing that no virtuous and wise person would do" (237-238).

C12. Thus, according to virtue theory, to be morally right, one must consider abortion as the killing of something that matters, and as a very serious matter in itself.

13. "To go through with a pregnancy when one is utterly exhausted … is perhaps heroic" (239-240).

14. "People who do not achieve heroism are not necessarily vicious" (240).

C15. Thus, according to virtue theory, having an abortion in certain difficult situations is not necessarily morally wrong.

16. What gets one to be pregnant is, "except in the case of rape, one's sexual activity and one's choices, or the lack of them, about one's sexual partner and about contraception" (243).

17. "The virtuous woman … has such character traits as strength, independence, resoluteness, decisiveness, self-confidence, responsibility, serious-mindedness, and self-determination"; and "many women become pregnant … precisely because they lack one or some of these character traits". (243)

C18. Thus, even if having an abortion is the right decision in a certain situation, wrong decisions could have led one to that situation in the first place. (243)

The main conclusion, as seen, is that we can still, using virtue theory, answer questions of morality in situations that a perfectly virtuous person would not have gotten into in the first place (we are not "automatically stumped when we are considering circumstances into which no virtuous agent would have got herself" (244)). This is seen in conclusion C18. As well, we have seen in conclusion C12 that there must be situations in which abortion is morally wrong, and in conclusion that C15 that there must also be situations in which abortion is morally right or morally permissible, according to virtue theory.


1. Just because we don't yet know a definitive answer to a question such as "is a fetus a person", doesn't mean the answer doesn't exist and couldn't possibly become familiar information for a virtuous person to hold. So perhaps the status of the fetus is relevant to the rightness or wrongness of abortion.

2. This also means that for premises 8 and 9, if we decide that a fetus is not a "new human life", then to think of abortion as "nothing but the killing of something that does not matter" might not be callous or light-minded.

3. Premise 9 does not have any justification for why a virtuous and wise person person would not consider abortion to be nothing but the killing of something that does not matter. How do we know what a virtuous person would or would not do?