There is more than one "best" state of affairs

Why our intuitive thinking about morality matters

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2011

7 Pages, Grade: 69


The inferences we draw by employing a deontological assessment of morality may be flawed and at times exceedingly categorical, but does this insight in any sense legitimize its devaluation as an essential ethical theory? In what will follow, I intend to stress the levels of moral enquiry on which consequentialism defaults which will lay the argumentative foundation for depicting the merits deontological ethics comprises with this particular regard. Thereby, we should concentrate in particular on contrastive connotations of moral goodness and what the distinct types of goodness entail for our understanding of ethical theory. Considering the fact that by its very nature both theories are imperfect and in some cases even self-undermining it is highly counterproductive and illegitimate to dismiss one of them in favour of the other one. As a consequence, I will argue that deontology which relies on backward-looking justifications works best as a counterbalance to the forward-looking consequentialist approach. The idea is to show that this concept isn't an artificial limitation of consequentialism, but contrarily mirrors the way we intuitively think about morality to a greater extent than consequentialist ethics does. Even more, the following line of argument will expound the practical advantages an application of deontology necessarily possesses, an aspect that was often used to criticize this theory.

Let us take a closer look at some underlying problems of consequentialist thought. One such problematic aspect is that consequentialism at its core excludes any form of supererogation which refers to acts "above and beyond the call of duty" (Stanford). As a result, consequentialists equate morally required and morally laudable actions. But what does this assumption imply if we examine its effect on a practical ground? Strikingly, there is hardly a situation in which agents cannot achieve a “better state of affairs” (p.62, Foot, 2002) by committing a certain amount of their time and effort to help for example physically or mentally disadvantaged people. There can be no doubt about the praiseworthy nature of such acts, but the problem is that consequentialism necessitates us to seek these laudable ends provided that a better state of affairs from an “impartial standpoint” (p. 141, Hurley, 2009) will be achieved. Let us then imagine that individuals would employ this impartial standpoint on a permanent basis. At this point, it serves our enterprise to address the consequentialist argument Peter Singer (p. 573, Singer, 1972) puts forward: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it”. But what does this rationale entail for the individual? Irrespective of one’s own preferences and “interpersonal” (p.174, Hurley, 2009) obligations one is required to seek the “best overall state of affairs” (p. 5, Scheffler, 1994), perhaps most notably by improving the lives of the poor and miserable. Crucially, this rationale reveals the exceeding demandingness individuals inevitably face in trying to contribute to the goodness of consequences. Whereas acting in such a way seems to be a highly desirable virtue, it is inadequate to regard this as something the individual is compelled to and that is why this categorical rejection of the supererogatory clearly undermines consequentialism. What we should deduce is that there is no point in dismissing the distinction between morally laudable and morally required acts for the reason that even if we may justify such a move in some cases, we cannot approve of a universal obligation of the individual to pursue the best overall state of affairs. Contrarily, we should be left leeway to achieve the best state of affairs from an individual and most importantly interpersonal perspective which allows us to sustain the integrity of our human relationships. In the course of this work, we will find out how a viable balance between these two different states of affairs can be established, but for the moment let us consider another defect in our common consideration of the goodness of consequences.

There is one essential facet of consequentialism that is originally treated as an argument in its favour and this is the impartiality a consequentialist is meant to adapt in his assessment. The underlying assumption is that each person counts for one as it is most significantly rooted in the rule of law. However, it is undeniable that individuals are partial to people they have a special relation to. The contrary would entail that we don't discriminate between our beloved ones and people we have no special relation to, but we obviously do. As we now can see there is a “highly personal character of duty” (p.21, Ross, 2002) which consequentialists disregard. At this stage, we need to stress that human ties, such as friendship or love, aren't compatible with calculations regarding the goodness of consequences. We don’t employ utility or any other value calculations neither before visiting a close friend nor in retrospect. Such human relationships aren't goods that we can measure because their value is subjective to the person concerned and above all not generalizable. In fact, individuals display an inner reluctance to generalize their personal relationships in terms of an objective value. They rather tend to accentuate the intrinsic value of these bonds. In illustration, one can take up the example of us deciding between visiting a friend who lives at a distant place and meeting a work colleague who wants to share a new business concept. The realisation of the business concept proposed by the colleague could bring us a great financial benefit and enable us to visit our friend more often in the future. However, we have to consider that we haven't visited our friend for a long time and cannot decline him or her another time. Accordingly, we have a strong moral obligation to our friend which has nothing do with the goodness of consequences. Thus, such a relationship reflects a fundamentally different moral dimension which is independent of the consequentialist framework. If we decided to ignore the uniqueness of personal ties and their concomitant inner logic wouldn't we then in first place undermine these ties and eventually be in danger of dismantling them by ourselves? Where consequentialism defaults, a deontological approach might offer a solution and this is what we now have to enquire into.


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There is more than one "best" state of affairs
Why our intuitive thinking about morality matters
University of Essex  (Department of Philosophy)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
365 KB
morality, intuition, deontology, consequentialism, best state of affairs, rightness, goodness, justification, legitimacy, assessment, duty, benefit, intrinsic value, framework, impersonal, interpersonal, human relationships, moral dilemmas
Quote paper
Alexander Borodin (Author), 2011, There is more than one "best" state of affairs, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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