Ethical pluralism is the assertion that there is not one but many first principles of ethics. An example of a pluralist view is the assertion that it is wrong to lie, it is wrong to steal, and it is wrong to harm others combined with the assertion that there is no unifying principle that underlies these views. In contrast, utilitarianism is based on the assertion that all ethical decisions can be and should be derived from one principle: the principle of utility. Ethical pluralism stands in stark contrast to moral particularism which can deny that any moral principles exist[1].

Ross's View of Ethical Pluralism Edit

Ross[2] rejected utilitarianism in part due to a misunderstanding of utilitarianism:

The first form this attempt takes is the attempt to base rightness on conduciveness to the advantage or pleasure of the agent. This theory comes to grief over the fact, which stares us in the face, that a great part of duty consists in an observance of the rights and a furtherance of the interests of others, whatever the cost to ourselves may be. (chp 2).
Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation described the principle of utility for legislators and said that they should consider the good of the entire citizenry, and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism suggested that individuals must consider the general good to act morally (chp. 5). Ross also argued that pleasure is not the only motive for behavior but that "possession of a good character, or an intelligent understanding of the world, as good or better" (chp. 2). Mill described his view that people who pursue virtue, money, fame, and the like are ultimately pursuing it for the pleasure that results from the possession of these things (p. 52-55).

Ross made a compelling argument that when people abide by a promise, they do so because of that promise and for no other reason. The reader is left to infer that we should therefore discard a utilitarian theory that justifies behavior according to the resulting utility. Ross's argument implicitly assumes that the proximal motives of an act are or should be used to identify moral justification. An alternative might be that some people act in certain ways because it is the local custom but the moral justification for the behavior might lie elsewhere. In other words, some people do the right thing without understanding the entire lineage of ethical thought that justifies it.

Ross continued this examination of keeping promises by describing how he would deal with conflicts. He gave an example of promising to meet somebody for some trivial purpose and then later realizing that if he breaks that promise he can prevent a serious accident. He denied that the foundation for such an exception pertains to utility and instead argued that he has higher duty of reliving stress (of others). If we accept Ross's hierarchy of duties, his argument would stand, but if we question the basis by which that hierarchy can or should be constructed, we again see the usefulness of the principle of utility. Without an underlying first principle, the selection of and prioritization of principles would become increasingly subjective.

Ross presented a list of six types of duties without claiming that the list is exhaustive. Schaber [3] summarized these duties as follows (with added comments):

  1. duties of fidelity and reparation (promises, contracts, or compensating somebody for harm caused),
  2. duties of gratitude (returning a favor),
  3. duties of justice,
  4. duties of beneficence,
  5. duties of self-improvement, and
  6. duties of non-maleficience (do no harm).

Ross opposed the impartiality of utilitarianism (i.e., he opposed treating the happiness of all people equally)

The essential defect of the 'ideal utilitarian' theory is that it ignores, or at least does not do full justice to, the highly personal character of duty. If the only duty is to produce the maximum of good, the question who is to have the good -- whether it is myself, or my benefactor, or a person to whom I have made a promise to confer that good on him, or a mere fellow man to whom I stand in no such special relation -- should make no difference to my having a duty to produce that good. But we are all in fact sure that it makes a vast difference.
This challenge to the impartiality clause of utilitarianism is most effective as a criticism of utilitarianism as a personal ethic as opposed to utilitarianism as a political philosophy. A legislator should clearly treat people fairly and not disregard the well-being of a group of people. Ross would argue that the impartiality clause of utilitarianism would command that wealthy parents refrain from buying nice things for their children unless they first address the needs of starving children in far-away lands. He argued that people do show preferences (such as for family members) and that utilitarianism clearly does not describe what people do--implying that utilitarianism is therefore wrong.

At this point we see the need to identify criteria for the selection of a method for identifying moral principles. Based on Ross's example, we can choose from several alternatives:

  1. reject utilitarianism because it seems to contradict what we do,
  2. accept the principle of utility and follow the internally-consistent implications thereof to conclude that strong violations of the impartiality clause are immoral--even if the act is between parent and child, or
  3. identify some error in the analysis to prevent the dilemma.

Brad Hooker's Reply Edit

Brad Hooker[4] criticized ethical pluralism. Much of his article is also presented in the introduction to a subsequent book[5] that also contained a few revisions. The discussion here will follow the 1996 article, unless noted otherwise, because the article provided the structure for the argument against pluralism.

Hooker began his criticism of ethical pluralism by following four criteria to determine the strength of moral theories. The criteria says that theories must

  1. be internally coherent,
  2. be consistent with (our most defensible) existing moral beliefs after careful consideration,
  3. identify a general principle that unifies specific principles, and
  4. help to resolve difficult moral questions. (p. 531)

Hooker presented a variation of this list elsewhere [6]. Hooker referred to the second thesis above as reflective equilibrium (p. 532) and noted critics of it who argue that ethical beliefs vary by culture, thereby indicating the need to step outside our existing system of ethical beliefs (p. 532). After acknowledging the strength of these criticisms, Hooker gave a counter example by saying that some intuitional ethical beliefs cannot be discarded by adopting an external perspective (the example is of the unacceptability of torturing innocent people for fun; p. 533). Where Ross suggested that we know fundamental moral principle through intuition, Hooker avoided assuming how we know them and referred to such principles as convictions as opposed to intuitions (p. 533).

The three principles of Ross's pluralism, according to Hooker, are that there are many first principles of ethics, that these principles can sometimes conflict with one another, and that there is no system for resolving the priority of these conflicts (p. 534). A strength of Ross's system is that it can match our existing moral beliefs by simply listing them (p. 535).

The conflict between utilitarianism and Ross's pluralism is in the third thesis that Hooker presented: the suggestion that moral theories should be related by a higher-level theory (p. 535-536). Hooker argued that such a unifying theory might help to resolve the most enduring ethical debates.

Hooker's proposed solution is his version of rule-consequentialism in which actions are considered to be ethical when they abide by the ethical rule that, if internalized by most people, would result in the best outcome--with any ties being settled by deferring to existing morality (p. 537). For a more complete discussion of Hooker's rule-consequentialism, see his book: Ideal Code, Real World (2000), were he added the suggestion that there might be reason to adjust the distribution of well-being by favoring the worst-off.

Rule-consequentialism meet's Hooker's fourth criteria by suggesting that moral conflicts should be resolved by evaluating the consequences. Ross's system might allow for resolution of conflicts by applying ethical principles to the conditions that led to acceptance of those principles (p. 541), but Hooker noted two difficulties of resolving moral conflicts from within Ross-style pluralism. His example was that the principle of chastity might be in conflict with a principle of beneficence (providing pleasure to each other), but Ross-supporters cannot claim that beneficence always wins (p. 542). Perhaps Hooker was referring to the internal conflict between accepting ethical plurality in which each principle is independently self-evident and simultaneously declaring that one principle is the basis upon which all other principles should be judged. Hooker's second criticism of Ross-style resolution of moral conflicts is that Ross-style pluralists who insist that the first principles are ungrounded remove their ability to judge one principle according to another principle.

Links Edit

Schwind, Philipp (2011). In Defense of Prima Facie Duties [3]</ref>


References Edit

  1. Dancy, J. (1983). Ethical pluralism and morally relevant properties. Mind, New Series, 92(368), 530–547. [1]
  2. Ross, W. D. (1930). The Right and the Good. Clarendon Press. Partial text online
  3. Schaber, Peter (2005). Ethical Pluralism [2]
  4. Hooker, Brad (1996). Ross-style Pluralism versus Rule-consequentialism. Mind, New Series, 105(420). p. 531-552 .
  5. Hooker, Brad (2000). Ideal Code, Real World. Clarendon Press: Oxford
  6. Hooker, Brad (2000). Ideal Code, Real World. Clarendon Press: Oxford. Hooker added the suggestion that "moral theories must start from attractive general beliefs" (p. 4) and clarified the third thesis above by saying that the fundamental ethical principle should explain and justify moral convictions.


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