Chapter Four :  Ethical Theories
Section 2. Intentions or Consequences


There is a terrorist with a gun pointed at a group of innocent hostages being held by the terrorists.  There is the declaration that he will kill them.  Someone nearby has a gun and points it at the terrorist and shots.  The would-be hero misses the target and kills one of the innocent hostages.  Now is the act of the would-be hero good or bad.  Is it the intention behind the act or the result of the act that makes it good or bad?

If something is good is it good because of what it is or because of what it results in?

This question sets out a basic question in ethical inquiry and concerning which there are two major braches or schools of thought.  There are a number of ethical theories that can be categorized according to how they address this question.

Here is another view of the same issue.

Intrinsic vs. instrumental value

Something is said to have intrinsic value if it is good ``in and of itself,'' i.e., not merely as a means for acquiring something else.

Something is said to have instrumental value if it is good because it provides the means for acquiring something else of value.

Something could have both an intrinsic and instrumental value.

Love is generally considered an intrinsic value.

Wealth is generally an instrumental value because it provides the means for acquiring something else of value.

Health is both an intrinsic value and an instrumental value.


Happiness, the nature of moral judgments, and the difference between intrinsic and instrumental value

Happiness is not an easy thing to figure out!

It seems pretty clear to most people that happiness is an entirely subjective category -- unable to be so defined as to cover all people. It it quite common to believe that it is impossible to say that there is some one thing, or even a group of things that will bring happiness to everybody. To the contrary -- it seems obvious to most people that what makes one person happy might make the next person miserable. If there is anything that seems to vary from person to person, it seems to be this thing called happiness.

According to utilitarians, happiness can be best understood in terms of pleasure and pain. Jeremy Bentham is credited with bringing this modern form of "hedonism" to popularity during the early 1800's. It is sometimes referred to as "quantitative hedonism", because Bentham argued that the best way of settling on the best action in any given situation is to figure out what action will bring about the most happiness -- or the most pleasure. All pleasure is, according to Bentham, qualitatively the same. In other words, there are no pleasures that are intrinsically more morally important than any others. And this means that we distinguish between pleasures in terms of their amount. And as it suggests in the text, the amount can be determined by looking at those pleasures in a few different ways. We'll see this in a document below.

The Nature of Moral Judgments
It is important to note something here: Bentham defines moral obligations in terms of pleasurable and painful consequences. He would reject the following evaluation of an action:

Well, it's morally wrong, but because it increases pleasure more than pain, we ought to do it.

This would make no sense to him, because morally right wrong refer only to the maximization of utility. At this point, he's doing metaethics.

Intrinsic vs. Instrumental goods

Utilitarians claim that there is one and only one thing that has intrinsic value or worth -- happiness (pleasure). All other things are good to the degree that they contribute to this end. For example, going to the dentist is good only because it contributes, long term, to the health of my teeth, and reduces, again long term, the pain that I will experience. "Intrinsic" value means that something has value in itself, or that we want it for its own sake -- not because it can bring us something else. Bentham and Mill agree with ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, that happiness is that which has intrinsic worth. The utilitarians also believe that nothing else has intrinsic worth.

 So no we apply these last distinctions to the prior question of how do we determine what is the good or good about any action and we have the two major groupings of ethical theories: consequential and instrumental and the non-consequential and intrinsic.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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