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Group 4 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)

Reading Notes on Consequentialism by Ho Jack Yang. Definition and critique on 1a. and 1b. of Consequentialism

From 1a. A definition of plain consequentialism is given: “Of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences”, with a rejoinder that “if there is no one best action because several actions are tied for best consequences, then of course any of those several actions would be right”.

An argument for (plain) consequentialism is that, assuming happiness is the desired best consequence:

Premise 1) The only kind of consequence that is good in itself is happiness.
Premise 2) A morally right action is one with the best overall consequences.
Premise 3) The best overall consequence is that which maximises the overall amount of happiness.
Conclusion: A morally right action is one which maximises the overall amount of happiness.

While the reasoning appears straightforward, there are some problems to it, namely:

1) The person is not likely to know which action would produce the best overall consequences all the time.
2) There can be an infinite amount of choices in which one may adopt, either singly or in combination, to produce favourable/best consequences. The person cannot possibly know the exact combination of actions to produce such an outcome, and even if he/she did, he/she may not be able to perform them all.
3) Against Premise (3), happiness cannot be measured by any conventional instrument; also, it is near impossible to calculate the total/nett change of happiness from every being affected by the action (also, what is meant by beings? Humans, with the addition of animals?). It is hence difficult to ascertain whether an action's consequences truly maximises overall amount of happiness.
4) Against Premise (3), most actions usually have drawbacks on top of its positive effects that are also difficult to measure.
5) Against Premise (3), the reception towards the action and its consequence varies between person to person, which poses another problem in determining the overall amount of happiness.
6) Against Premise (3), it seems to be an a priori assessment of what consequence maximises overall amount of happiness; one cannot accurately predict outcomes of actions before acting on it.

Discussion question: are these problems/critiques of plain consequentialism valid?

From 1b. Something that interested me, "consequences" are defined as 1) the action(s) itself; as well as 2) what the action causes. So from a glance there seems to be 4 outcomes of “consequences”, that are:
1) Good consequences from both action itself and its causes (morally right)
2) Good consequences from action itself but bad from its causes (?)
3) Bad consequences from action itself and but good in its causes (?)
4) Bad consequences from both action itself and its causes (morally wrong)

Points (1) and (4) are straightforward, but (2) and (3) are those which may be problematic in determining whether they are morally right. So where do points (2) and (3) fall?

Mill, Utilitarianism (Sept. 23)

Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill—Reading Notes, group 4, OM

Chapter 1:

To begin Mill makes the following points:

- although humans may have spent a significant amount of time speculating about the criterion of right and wrong, they are and perhaps always will be controversial

- many philosophers have spent their lives trying to ascertain the said criterion

- there has not been as much agreement in criterion since Socrates listened to the old Protagoras about the theory of utilitarianism

- the study of morals differs from science in that science stems from some agreed upon truth, whereas philosophy strives to find the truth about which it is researching

- because our moral faculty only provides us with general principles of moral judgments we must make sense of the abstract morality without our perception of our concrete world

- he likes what Kant means when he says “So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings”, but he doesn’t believe that this gives us any means by which to decide our actions

Before he attempts to contribute to the understanding of utilitarianism he assumes:

- questions of the ultimate ends are not amendable to direct proof

- whatever can be proved to be good, must be shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof

- utility is equivalent with pleasure, which is the absence of pain

Discussion on Utilitarianism

- Utilitarianism is: the principle which holds that actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness

- Utilitarians think that the quality of pleasures is irrelevant, only the quantity is important

==== a comment from Christina ====
I just want to make sure there are no misunderstandings here! Mill actually focuses on quality rather than quantity, and he doesn’t think quantity is entirely irrelevant. He just thinks that pleasures differ in quality (kind), and that some are better than others. This doesn’t mean that quantity of pleasure is entirely irrelevant, only that you also have to take into account quality, and note that producing pleasures of a higher quality is perhaps better than producing a lot of the lower quality (though it’s going to depend on circumstances whether this is true or not).
==== end comment ====

  • ie: mental pleasures over physical pleasures

- he thinks that there are more worthwhile pleasures, such as the ones of the mind versus the ones of the body

- those with higher faculties have a higher propensity to be less happy, as they are less easily satisfied, but they would not trade their awareness for the alternative

- people’s capability of higher pleasures sometime decrease over time, due to worldly experience

  • pursuing sensual indulgences to the injury of health although they are perfectly aware that health is the greater good (the more pleasure)

- he argues that this is the only reason that someone would choose a lesser pleasure

  • ie: he has no capacity to choose the higher one
  • no man, who had the capacity to choose either would choose the lower one

- the quality of the happiness must be measured again the quantity of happiness

  • the quantity of happiness extends beyond the individual, to all those who the individual’s decision affects


- that this theory says that human nature is nothing more than pleasure seeking and hedonistic (like swines)

  • Epicureans argue back that the people who disagree with this theory, believe themselves that humans are capable of nothing else

- Happiness can’t be the purpose of all life because all men can live without happiness

- Sacrifice is not a greatest good for oneself, but it can lead to a greatest good for others

Mill, Utilitarianism (Sept. 25)

Chapter 4 Pg 17
Question: Why is general happiness, as an end, desirable and a basis for morality?
Premise One: The only proof of something being visible is that we can see it

Premise Two: Likewise the only proof of something being audible is that we can hear it

Intermediate Conclusion:The only proof of something being desirable is that people actually do desire it.

Premise Four: Every person seems to desire their own happiness

Premise Five: An individual attaining happiness is good for them

Premise Six: A higher aggregate of individual happiness is good for people on the whole

Final Conclusion: General happiness is to be desired and is good (moral)

One: Under this doctrine how do we quantitatively and qualitatively assess happiness? Why is it moral or immoral for a large group of people (a higher aggregate of individuals) to derive happiness or pleasure from the suffering of a single person? A distinction of higher and lower pleasures seems insufficient as it does not explain why a higher aggregate of lower pleasures is less desirable than the higher pleasure of an individual (only serves to say that one is better than the other, if you have the experience to know the difference).

Two: If there existed a Matrix-like machine where your needs for higher and lower pleasures were constantly met, and you had to option of plugging in, wouldn't it be a moral action to plug in? What makes virtual happiness/satisfaction less desirable/moral than that of reality?

Mill, Utilitarianism (Sept. 30)

Mill begins this chapter by saying that one of the biggest issues with the concept of Utility is that what is considered right or wrong has been derived from the idea of justice  (pg 20-21)

Mill decides to find the distinguishing factors of justice and injustice 

Concept 1

Premise 1: Unjust to deprive someone of something that belongs to them by law 

Premise 2: Just to respect legal rights, unjust to violate the legal rights of anyone

Premise 3: The law that allows these rights might be a bad law

Premise 4: opinions are diverse on the justice or injustice of the infringement of that law

Conclusion: There may be unjust laws, and law is not the ultimate criterion of justice.

Concept 2

Premise 1: It is just if each person gets what they deserve based on their actions 

Premise 2: A person should not be given what they don't deserve based on their actions

Premise 3: Understood that if a person does something right they deserve something good to happen and vice versa 

Conclusion: It is unjust for a person to deserve good if they have done a bad action and unjust for a person to deserve something bad if they have done a good action

Concept 3: 

Premise 1: It is unjust to violate an engagement with someone

Premise 2: Breaking an engagement with someone either knowingly or unknowingly 

Conclusion: It is just to break an engagement if it is overruled by a stronger obligation of justice

Concept 4:

Premise 1: Inconsistent to show favor to one person over another in matters where favor and preference do not apply

Premise 2: In cases where favor and preference may apply it is not unjust to show preference to someone familiar such as a friend or family 

Premise 3: Not unjust to seek out one person in preference to another as a friend

Conclusion: Where rights are concerned impartiality is obligatory 


There are many cases where people are deprived a right that they legally should have. Any examples, such as slavery?

Would it be just for someone who was forced to join a gang to be sent to jail even if they have done nothing wrong?


Later consequentialism (Oct. 2)

Reading Notes on Contemporary Utilitarianism by Ho Jack Yang. Summary and critique of Act and Rule Utilitarianism.

In the article “Contemporary Utilitarianism”, Mark Timmons explores the development of utilitarianism from the time of Bentham and Mill to present-day theories. He begins with arguments that have been raised to refute an initial form of utilitarianism, labelled act utilitarianism. Basically, as utilitarianism proposes that the only morally right action is to maximise utility by maximising happiness/welfare and/or reducing suffering, Timmons suggests that such a theory may conflict with widely-held moral beliefs of people, and hence it would fail as a theory to be adopted by people. An instance of this argument, using the alcohol abuser example in the text, is as follows:

Premise 1) Utilitarianism says the only morally right action is one which maximises happiness/welfare and/or reduces suffering.
Premise 2) According to utilitarianism, the physician is morally obligated to kill the alcohol abuser and save the three other patients since welfare of the three patients is maximised over the suffering of the alcohol abuser.
Premise 3) However, it is (believed) morally wrong to kill the alcohol abuser (possible reasons that can be given are that it is committing murder, he did not do anything to deserve this, etc), even if to save the three patients.

Conclusion: Utilitarianism must be wrong.

It seems that for act utilitarians to defend their position, they need to refute Premise 3, hence the responses of boldly denying any moral wrongdoing or by invoking possible long-term consequences and questioning assumptions made in the argument. However, these defences, especially the former, do not seem strong. For the latter, while it may temporarily hold, the tables can be easily turned on it since “long-term consequences” are anyone’s guess and is impossible to predict future events/utilities with precision; just as such consequences may yet prove act utilitarians right, they may also equally be able to prove them wrong.

The rest of the article hence seem to introduce forms of utilitarianism that revolve around changing Premise 1 to avoid these problems. An example is Rule Utilitarianism:

Rule Utilitarianism:
Premise 1) Rule Utilitarianism says an action is (morally) right if and only if it is mentioned by a moral rule whose associated utility is at least as great as the utility associated with any alternative moral rule applying to the situation.
Premise 2) Current prevailing moral rule condemns murder (ignore exceptions such as self-defense etc).
Conclusion: It is not morally wrong to not kill the alcohol abuser to save the 3 patients since while the latter’s welfare may be maximised (as approved by act utilitarianism), the act of murder to do so is already morally wrong.

Focusing on rule utilitarianism, a possible problem that may arise, in addition to those mentioned in the text, is that the moral rule has to be determined from somewhere, for example, people or societies in general. It might hence be likely that different people and societies have differing or outright different moral rules. For instance, honour killings prevalent especially in the Middle East where women who are deemed to have disgraced their male relatives are mandatorily put to death. The moral rule here is for men to defend their honour even at the expense of a female life. So if a man refuses to kill, is he immoral? While utilitarianism is to be universal and impartial, can there ever be a universal moral rule? Or, taking a step back, is my point of contention valid in the first place?

Question: After reading through the entire text, it seems that every form of utilitarianism (pluralistic, non-hedonistic, rule etc) has its flaws and critiques. That would probably be true for most, if not all, moral theories available. In this case, in a very real world we live in and that each theory becomes more and more complex, what exactly is expected of a person in making any (moral) decision? Every theory seems to limit one’s actions more and more. I’m all for trusting my gut feelings and rationality on a case-by-case basis and, in case of a dilemma, tossing a coin or die, but what would you prescribe?

Rule utilitarianism (Oct. 7)

Kant, Groundwork (Oct. 28)

In the reading Kant discusses the "formula of autonomy" which is the idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law.

Premise 1: A will that is dependent on laws may be affiliated to a certain law through a form of interest.

Premise 2: However, a will that is a 'supreme lawgiver' can't depend on interest.

Premise 3: To have a will that is dependent on interest there would need to be another law that restricts this interest of 'self-love' for it to be a valid and universal law.

Conclusion: Therefore, the categorical imperative in this situation is "the principle of every human will as a will which in all its maxims gives universal laws". This is because universal legislation in this case can be unconditional because it isn't based on any one interest.

Premise 1: Human beings are bound to laws of duty, however these laws are only those of his own giving, at the same time these laws are universal

Premise 2: Humans are only bound to act in conformity with their own will, but this will has been naturally designed to give universal laws.

Premise 3: If a human is seen only as subject to the law, then this draws interest, because it was not a law that originated from that humans own will, but they felt obliged to act in that certain way.

Conclusion: Because of the consequence of the law, all the work trying to find the supreme principle of duty was lost, because duty is a necessity of acting from a certain interest, and cannot be capable of being a moral command. Kant calls this the principle of autonomy of the will.

Premise 1: Kant discusses the kingdom of ends, where all different rational beings are unionized through common laws.

Premise 2: It is by laws that the universal validity of ends are determined.

Premise 3: If all the personal differences of rational beings are abstracted then all the ends can be combined in a systematic whole. And a kingdom of ends can be created.

Conclusion: All rational beings can "come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every cue at the same time as ends in themselves."


1) What if there is an anomaly? How can you imagine that would be treated in the kingdom of ends?

2) What do you think will happen if there is a situation where a law must be broken? For example if someone needs to steal a car to save another persons life.

Sydney Heschuk

Kant, "On a supposed right to tell lies..." (Oct. 30)

Kant's Critique of Practical Reason-Supposed Rights to Tell a Lie

According to the French Philosopher (who Kant is refuting)

Premise 1: it is a duty to tell the truth
Premise 2: the notion of duty is inseparable from the notion of right
Premise 3: a duty is what in one being corresponds to the right of another
Premise 4: where there are no rights, there are no duties
Premise 5: no man has the right to a truth that injures others
Conclusion: it is morally permissible to tell a lie to prevent someone from being hurt

This is based on: “to tell the truth is a duty, but only towards him who has a right to the truth”

Kant challenges this:
“to have the right to truth” is unmeaning, instead a man has the right to his own truthfulness. There is no way for us to have objective truth because we are the perceivers of the truth and it depends on our will and experience of the truth.

Kant strives to answer 2 questions:
1) In cases where he can’t avoid answering yes or no does he have the right to be untruthful?
2) In order to prevent a misdeed that threatens him or someone else, can he be untruthful in a certain statement in which an unjust compulsion forces him?

Premise 1: Speaking the truth in all circumstances sometimes has undesirable consequences
Premise 2: not speaking the truth to someone who unjustly compels me to speak does no harm to that person
Premise 3: not speaking the truth wrongs men in general in the most essential point of duty
Premise 4: this is called a lie
Premise 5: if lies are universalized, then declarations in general find no credit and all rights founded on contract lose their force
Conclusion: No man has the right to lie, even to someone who unjustly compels him to speak. It is a formal duty of every man to speak the truth, no matter the perceived consequences.

Premise 1: a lie is an intentionally false declaration towards another man
Premise 2: a benevolent lie is still a lie
Premise 3: if you lie you are responsible for the consequences (seen or unseen)
Premise 4: if you strictly adhere to the truth, public justice can find no fault in you
Conclusion: you should never lie, even if you think the outcome will be better if you do lie

1) When there is a murderer at your door asking where your friend is, why does one have to answer "yes or no"? Can you instead answer "I don't want to tell you"?
2) Is it possible to universalize the law of lying to a murderer who is intending to injure your friend? Is it logical? What are the unintended consequences?

Intro to Virtue Ethics (Nov. 4)

Premise One: Ethical and Moral theorists are fundamentally concerned with distinguishing right and wrong behaviour.

Premise Two: Consequentialist and Deontological theories of ethics are grounded in principles or rules that dictate whether an action is right or not.

Premise Three: A single inflexible or rigid rule will be insufficient to deal with the plurality of possible circumstances that might invalidate it.

Intermediate Conclusion: Traditional theories of ethics concerned with rules or duties are incapable of achieving what they set out to accomplish, that is a universal code of ethics and answering such questions as "how should I live?"

Premise Four: Humans seem to possess stable and fixed innate characteristics, virtues, that can be developed or discouraged through exposure to influences while growing up.

Premise Five: Humans will act according to these dispositions, not out of reflexive ignorance, but through rationally considered choice that this is the best way to act.

Premise Six: Some of these dispositions will be more conducive to morally right actions than others.

Final Conclusion: The best way to propagate morally sound actions is through the development of desirable virtues within individuals, and not to adhere to any given rigid code of ethics.


One: Why under this framework are some virtues are better (more conducive to morally sound action) than others?

Two: Is it presumptuous to presume a static character in each individual as well as innate traits that may dictate whether one is capable of morally sound action in the first place?

Notes on Eudaimonism

- The notion of there being a desirable end in of itself to our actions (that being the greatest happiness).

- If man's fundamental nature is rationality, then the good man is the rational one, and our virtues should be developed in accordance with reason.

Later virtue theory (Nov. 18)