Deontological ethics versus utilitarian ethics

It is not difficult to explain both the lasting appeal of these two theories of ethics, and at the same time why the dispute between them will never be resolved on the field where the moral philosophers of the two camps attempt to fight their way to victory.

Our ethical life is practical life, and to think through an ethical problem is an exercise in practical, and not theoretical, reason. As Hegel might have put it, it is a matter of Sittlichkeit, of pursuing the intimations of a concrete tradition of moral activity, and not of abstract moral reasoning.

Both deontological and utilitarian ethics are exercises in just such abstract reasoning. Each have (correctly) espied an aspect of our moral lives. This is what makes them plausible. But each have placed a one-sided emphasis on that aspect, at the expense of ignoring the concrete reality of how our moral lives are actually lived. Each sees what the other school is missing, and that is why, so long as these theorists fail to recognize the abstract nature of their theories, their disputes will be interminable.

5 comments:

  1. I'm curious as to why choose to use these two categories. Isn't utilitarianism just a specific school of maxims rather than a broad, fundamental category? This dichotomy just seems somewhat askew.

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  2. sn't utilitarianism just a specific school of maxims rather than a broad, fundamental category?

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    1. Sorry, blogger acting weirdly on Chromebook. In any case, to answer the question above: no, absolutely not. Exactly the opposite in fact.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism

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  3. So would you characterize deontological ethics as the opposite of consequentialism? I've had an affinity for deontology even before I encountered libertarianism.

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    1. Not quite the opposite -- that would be an ethics that said "Minimize utility!" -- but its main rival in academia.

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