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An Excerpt from “Contemporary Aristotelian Ethics” by Arthur Madigan S.J.

Arthur Madigan’s Contemporary Aristotelian Ethics examines the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Spaemann in the context of twentieth-century Anglo-American moral philosophy. By surveying the ways in which these three philosophers appropriate Aristotle, Madigan illustrates two important points: first, that the most pressing problems in contemporary moral philosophy can be addressed using the Aristotelian tradition and, second, that the Aristotelian tradition does not speak with one voice. 

In the broad sense, a teleological ethics is an ethics of fulfillment, i.e., an ethical theory that focuses on what fulfills human beings (and in some versions, other sentient beings as well). In the broad sense, a deontological ethics is an ethics of obligation, i.e., an ethics that focuses on duties or obligations that we have to one another and / or to ourselves (and in some versions, to other sentient beings as well). If we understand teleological and deontological in these broad senses, one and the same ethical theory can have both a teleological aspect and a deontological aspect. In such a case the question would then arise about whether one of these two aspects was prior to or more basic than the other. This question has been formulated as the question about the relative priority of the right and the good. Is the right, what human beings ought to do and ought not to do, more basic than the good, what is good for human beings, what fulfills them? Or is the good more basic than the right? A teleological ethics would be an ethics in which good is prior to right. A deontological ethics, by contrast, would be an ethics in which right is prior to good. But so long as the terms are taken in their broad senses, it is possible to envision both a deontological ethics with important teleological features and a teleological ethics with important deontological features.

Alongside the broad sense, however, the Anglo-American ethics of our period also knew of stricter definitions of teleological ethics and deontological ethics, such that the two were mutually exclusive. Thus Frankena: “A teleological theory says that the basic or ultimate criterion or standard of what is morally right, wrong, obligatory, etc., is the nonmoral value that is brought into being. The final appeal, directly or indirectly, must be to the comparative amount of good produced, or rather to the comparative balance of good over evil produced . . . . Deontological theories deny what teleological theories affirm. They deny that the right, the obligatory, and the morally good are wholly, whether directly or indirectly, a function of what is nonmorally good or of what promotes the greatest balance of good over evil for self, one’s society, or the world as a whole. They assert that there are other considerations that may make an action or rule right or obligatory besides the goodness or badness of its consequences—certain features of the act itself other than the value it brings into existence, for example, the fact that it keeps a promise, is just, or is commanded by God or by the state. Teleologists believe that there is one and only one basic or ultimate right-making characteristic, namely, the comparative value (nonmoral) of what is, probably will be, or is intended to be brought into being. Deontologists either deny that this characteristic is right-making at all or they insist that there are other basic or ultimate right-making characteristics as well.” If we take teleological ethics and deontological ethics in these strict senses, there is no question of a theory’s being both teleological and deontological. A theory can be one or the other but not both.

The early utilitarians were also hedonists, and introductions to ethics in our period typically included discussions of hedonism. “Hedonism” is a highly ambiguous term. Frankena helpfully distinguishes four different things that people mean by it. One is that happiness and pleasure are the same thing. A second is that all pleasures are intrinsically good. A third is that only pleasures are intrinsically good. A fourth is that pleasantness is the criterion of intrinsic goodness.

Introductions to ethics typically distinguished between a purely quantitative hedonism, attributed to Jeremy Bentham, that recognizes differing quantities of pleasure and pain but not different kinds of pleasure and pain, and a qualitative hedonism, attributed to John Stuart Mill, that recognizes not merely different quantities of pleasure and pain but different types or species of pleasure and pain as well. They pointed out that the original utilitarian project of arriving at decisions by comparing the amounts of pleasure and pain that would result from different courses of action presupposed quantitative hedonism. Recognition of the qualitative diversity of pleasures and pains made this kind of calculation much more complicated if not impossible.

Moral philosophers in the period we are considering knew very well that utilitarianism is not the only form of teleological ethics and that Kantianism is not the only form of deontological ethics. Nonetheless, their introductory texts tended to focus on the utilitarianisms of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill as the principal (most important, influential, interesting) versions of teleological ethics and on the ethics of Immanuel Kant as the principal version of deontological ethics. They typically highlighted Kant’s insistence that genuine moral principles or maxims have to be universalizable, i.e., they have to apply to every rational agent. Without going further into the complexities of Kant’s categorical imperative, they might raise the question whether universalizability was a sufficient condition for something to count as a moral principle or maxim. They typically highlighted the utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. They might go on to note that some utilitarians thought that agents should evaluate each and every moral decision by direct reference to that principle (act utilitarianism) while others thought the principle should be used to develop and evaluate moral rules, which agents then ought to follow even if on occasion following them resulted in a less satisfactory result (rule utilitarianism).

While it is possible to draw a distinction between individual acts and general rules within deontological ethics, deontological ethicians have generally presented our obligations in the form of rules. This raises a variety of questions. What are these rules? Where do they come from, or what are they based on? What should we do if rules happen to conflict? In an attempt to answer this last question, W.D. Ross proposed the idea of a prima facie duty, i.e., a real duty that might on occasion have to yield to a higher or more important duty. The notion of prima facie duties invites the further question of how we know which duties take precedence over other duties. That question would take us into metaethics, which we will consider shortly.

There was something attractive or appealing about utilitarianism: both its egalitarianism and its acute sensitivity to the effect of action on the welfare of people at large. Still, the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number might seem to justify actions that many people would not think were justifiable, such as the sacrifice of innocent persons to benefit larger groups or to protect those groups from harm. There was something attractive or appealing about Kantianism: its insistence on respect for persons. Still, Kant’s ethics also appears to forbid any and all lying, even to people bent on committing murder. The combination of attractive points and difficulties in Kantianism and utilitarianism invites a number of questions. Is it possible to devise a form of teleological ethics that is not subject to the difficulties of utilitarianism? Is it possible to devise a form of deontological ethics that is not subject to the difficulties of Kantianism? Is it possible, despite the incompatibility of teleological ethics and deontological ethics, strictly understood, to combine what is attractive in teleological ethics with what is attractive in deontological ethics?

(excerpted from chapter 1)

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