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WHAT DO WE EXPECT OF ACT-UTILTTARLANISM?

In recent years, act-utilitarianism has been distinguished from rule-utilitarianism. We may say (roughly) that act-utilitarianism is the thesis that a particular act (as opposed to a type of act or class of acts) is right if and only if its utility – that is contribution towards intrinsically good states of affairs – is no less than that of some alternative act. Rule-utilitarianism is (roughly) the thesis that an act is right if and only if it conforms to a rule somehow grounded in utility. The present paper concerns one type of argument sometimes used as an attempt to show that act-utilitarianism cannot be an adequate ethical theory. Arguments of this type are characterized by an emphasis on practical difficulties involved in, or paradoxes arising out of, the attempt to apply act-utilitarianism theory to concrete moral situations.

Three forms of this type of argument may be distinguished: “weak”, “strong”, and “generalized”. “Weak” forms are used to attempt to establish that, because of difficulties involved in determining which of the acts open to us at a given time would contribute towards intrinsically good states of affairs no less than would any alternative, the attempt to act as an act-utilitarian is impracticable or self-defeating. “Strong” forms are used to attempt to establish that any serious attempt to deliberate along act-utilitarian lines forces the deliberator into a vicious regress. “Generalized” forms employ a generalization test, “What would happen if everyone deliberated along act-utilitarian lines?” Arguments of these three forms are developed in the paper in some detail, and some standard replies are noted. The thesis set forth is that a systematic confusion runs throughout all the arguments and replies, and that the arguments do not establish what they were intended to establish.

Several logically independent procedures, all of which can and do find their way into ethics, are distinguished: providing accounts of right-making characteristics, providing decision-making procedures, providing accounts of the considered moral judgements of informed, mature persons in their disinterested, reflective moments, and some others. The author argues that, because the procedures are logically independent; a proposed ethical theory could provide, for example, a true account of right-making characteristics without providing, for example, a decision-making procedure. He then notes that all the arguments of the type he has been considering are used to attempt to discredit act-utilitarianism by showing that a decision-making procedure frequency associated with act-utilitarianism, viz., the procedure of estimating and comparing probable consequences of alternative acts, is impracticable or self-defeating as a method for picking out, from the alternatives open to us at a given time, the one or ones (under practically helpful descriptions) which would be pronounced right by the act-utilitarian account of right-making characteristics. The author points out that such arguments, even if valid, do not show that act-utilitarian account of right-making characteristics is false. Moreover, because most formulations of act-utilitarianism appear to be accounts of right-making characteristics, and because acceptance of the act-utilitarian account of right-making characteristics does not commit one a priori to the decision making procedure of estimating and comparing probable consequences of alternative acts, if it is not clear that such arguments are even relevant to the question of whether act-utilitarianism, as it is usually formulated, is true.

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