UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Acts, agents and moral assessment Simak, Douglas B.


A perennial problem in moral philosophy concerns the formulation of an acceptable account of 'right action'. Act utilitarianism is one popular account, and much of its initial appeal involves the fact that it is taken to have practical application. However, it is the very attempt to apply act utilitarianism which raises questions about its tenability. These concerns become acute in the face of uncertainty about what constitutes tenability with respect to a moral theory. These issues relate to questions of methodology. One question concerning methodology involves the status of intuitions (in the sense of 'reflective judgements') in assessing moral theories and principles. Chapter one, Moral Methodology and Intuitions, examines the role of intuitions in theory assessment and, in particular, whether it is possible to avoid totally their employment. This question is explored with reference to the views of Peter Singer and John Rawls. The possibility of using the distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics to avoid reliance on intuitions is considered. Chapter two, A Formulation of AU, utilizes the distinctions among agent, action and motive to present act utilitarianism in the strongest possible light. This involves discussion of whether it is more plausible to understand act utilitarianism in terms of actual or probable consequences. Finding neither account satisfactory, a fundamental question relevant to both models is then explored—what is the purpose of moral classification itself? With certain provisions, however, we return in the end to an actual consequences model for purposes of further exploration. Chapter three, AU and the Issue of Self-defeatingness, examines the issue of whether act utilitarianism is self-defeating. While it is not strictly self-defeating, act utilitarianism does incorporate a certain 'brinkmanship' with valuable moral norms which damages its plausibility. The distinction between decision-making procedures and rightness-making characteristics becomes important at this point. Act utilitarianism's account of moral responsibility seems to reduce the moral agent to a utility conductor and maximizer. Chapter four, The AU Moral Agent: Utility Machine, focuses on this problem, as well as related issues concerning basic values and the acts/omissions distinction. Chapter five, AU and Moral Responsibility, examines Bernard Williams' criticisms of act utilitarianism in terms of its implications for negative responsibility and integrity. Two different interpretations by prominant philosophers of Williams' critical suggestions about utilitarianism and integrity are examined and both are. found to be inadequate. Chapter six, AU and Integrity, explores further the nature of act utilitarianism's threat to integrity. Act utilitarianism's construal of moral agency threatens the personal integrity of the moral agent by requiring the sacrifice of personal projects and commitments, and, with them, the near abandonment of the personal self. Since morality is supposed to be for persons, this is a crippling objection.

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