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Louis Pojman’s Ethics: Discovering Right And Wrong

1816 words - 7 pages

Utilitarianism is a theory which states that the purpose of morality is to achieve maximal goodness in a society. It is consequentialist rather than deontological in that the moral value of ethical decisions are to be judged in terms of their effects, rather than the intrinsic properties of the acts themselves. Those effects are deemed good which generate the most pleasure or happiness, or which minimize overall pain. There are two classical types of utilitarianism which will be under our consideration: act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Two objections to utilitarianism will be examined, as well as Louis Pojman’s responses to those objections in Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. It will be shown that Pojman presents an adequate defense of utilitarianism, and that utilitarianism succeeds as a worthwhile moral theory.
Act-Utilitarianism is the thesis that “an act is right if and only if it results in as much good as any available alternative” (Pojman 110). One conspicuous problem with the thesis is that it suggests that correct moral actions will often clash with our intuitions about basic moral norms. For example, Pojman refers to Richard Brandt’s criticism in which he points out that the act-utilitarian seems to be committed to helping the needy above one’s own family, repaying debts only if there is no better use for the money, and ending the lives of those who are a drain on others (Pojman 110). Rule-Utilitarianism is a response to this objection and an attempt to formulate a more plausible conception of the theory. Pojman’s definition is: “An act is right if and only if it is required by a rule that is itself a member of a set of rules whose acceptance would lead to greater utility for society than any available alternative” (Pojman 111). Rule-utilitarianism holds that the greatest utility is achieved by following a set of rules chosen for their propensity to bring human happiness. This answers the objection to act-utilitarianism that it contradicts our assumptions about basic moral obligations. A rule-utilitarian would argue that one’s special obligation to one’s family would be included in the set of rules chosen to promote utility. Where there is a conflict of rules, such as one’s obligation to one’s family conflicting with the rule that we should help others in need, a rule-utilitarian appeals to a hierarchy of rules to resolve the dispute. At the lowest level might be basic rules such as “help others in need when not inconvenienced” and “provide for the needs of your family”. The solution might be found in a second-order rule, such as “provide for your family before providing for strangers”. If no such rule can be found, or if second-order rules cannot commensurate, the agent appeals to the remainder rule at the top of the hierarchy, which is to use one’s best judgment (Pojman 112).
An important feature about rule-utilitarianism is that unlike deontological systems, the rules in the system are...

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