William K. Frankena, Ethics, second edition, 1973.


Egoistic and Deontological Theories


We may now begin our review of problems and views in the area of normative ethics, starting with the theory of obligation and then going on to the theory of moral value and, finally, to the theory of nonmoral value. The ultimate concern of the normative theory of obligation is to guide us in the making of decisions and judgments about actions in particular situations. A main concern, of course, is to guide us in our capacity as agents trying to decide what we should do in this case and in that. But we want to know more than just what we should do in situations before us. We also wish to make judgments about what others should do, especially if they ask us about what we or they should have done, about whether what we or someone else did was right or wrong, and so on. We are not just agents in morality; we are also spectators, advisers, instructors, judges, and critics. Still, in all of these capacities our primary question is this: how may or should we decide or determine what is morally right for a certain agent (oneself or another, possibly a group or a whole society) to do, or what he morally ought to do, in a certain situation?


Very often when one is puzzled about what he or someone else should do in a certain situation, what one needs is not really any ethical instruction, but simply either more factual knowledge or greater conceptual clarity. Certainly, a large part of the debate about what to do about drugs, pollution, or war arises because we are ignorant of much of what bears on these problems. On these issues and on many others, most of us would probably be clear about what should be done if only we knew all of the relevant facts. Again, in the field of education, much of our difficulty about decisions of policy is due to unclarity about what intelligence is, what liberty is, and so on. I stress these points because I think that moral philosophers cannot insist too much on the importance of factual knowledge and conceptual clarity for the solution of moral and social problems. The two besetting sins in our prevailing habits of ethical thinking are our ready acquiescence in unclarity and our complacence in ignorance -- the very sins that Socrates died combatting over two thousand years ago.

Still, as Socrates' discussion in the Crito shows, we are often also in need of ethical guidance. A moralist might try to provide this by making a long list of specific situations, describing them and then telling us what we should do in each case. This is what is known as casuistry and was common in the seventeenth century. Today some philosophers seek to do something like this by discussing the ethics of abortion, civil disobedience, punishment, violence. and war. In doing so, however, they characteristically tend, rightly in my opinion, to stress general principles, careful definition of terms, and logical reasoning, rather than specific cases and detailed answers. This is the most philosophers as such can be expected to do, and it can be very helpful. In a small introductory book like this, however, we must confine ourselves to working out fairly general theories about what is right or obligatory. In fact, the best way for us to proceed in working out such a theory for ourselves is to review some of the main theories of normative ethics that have been proposed.


Since, as we have seen, moral philosophy begins when people find their code of prevailing moral rules unsatisfactory, moral philosophers have always been critical of the notion that our standard must be the rules of our culture we live in. To this notion, they raise a number of objections, though they do not all stress the same ones. One objection is that the actual rules of a society are never very precise, always admit of exceptions, and may come into conflict with one another. For example, the rules forbid lying and killing but do not define these terms very clearly. In fact, the rules even permit or excuse certain kinds of lying (white lies, patriotic lies) and certain kinds of killing (capital punishment, war) but they do not have these exceptions built into them in any careful way. Again, two rules may conflict in a given situation. To take Socrates' example from Book I of the Republic, what is one to do if one has promised to return weapons to a man who comes back for them obviously bent on harm? In such cases, two parts of the code conflict and the code often does not contain a higher rule saying which takes precedence, such as Socrates appealed to in the Apology.

Another objection is that prevailing rules are generally literal, negative, and conservative, not affirmative, constructive, creative, or adaptable to new situations. The most serious objection, perhaps, is the fact that the rules of a society, even its so-called moral rules, may be bad, immoral, or wrong, being unjust or unnecessarily impoverishing of human life. Rules permitting slavery and racial discrimination, once widely prevalent, are a case in point. A final difficulty, of course, is the fact that moral rules seem to vary from culture to culture.


Having agreed on one ground or another that the standard of right and wrong cannot be simply the prevailing set of moral rules, moral philosophers have offered us a variety of alternative standards. In general their views have been of two sorts: (1) deontological theories and (2) teleological ones. A teleological theory says that the basic or ultimate criterion or standard of what is morally right, wrong, obligatory, etc., is the nonmoral value that is brought into being. The final appeal, directly or indirectly, must be to the comparative amount of good produced, or rather to the comparative balance of good over evil produced. Thus, an act is right if and only if it or the rule under which it falls produces, will probably produce, or is intended to produce at least as great a balance of good over evil as any available alternative; an act is wrong if and only if it does not do so. An act ought to be done if and only if it or the rule under which it falls produces, will probably produce, or is intended to produce a greater balance of good over evil than any available alternative.

It is important to notice here that, for a teleologist, the moral quality or value of actions, persons, or traits of character, is dependent on the comparative nonmoral value of what they bring about or try to bring about. For the moral quality or value of something to depend on the moral value of whatever it promotes would be circular. Teleological theories, then, make the right, the obligatory, and the morally good dependent on the nonmorally good. Accordingly, they also make the theory of moral obligation and moral value dependent, in a sense, on the theory of nonmoral value. In order to know whether something is right, ought to be done, or is morally good, one must first know what is good in the nonmoral sense and whether the thing in question promotes or is intended to promote what is good in this sense.

It should also be noticed, however, that teleologists may hold various views about what is good in the nonmoral sense. Teleologists have often been hedonists, identifying the good with pleasure and evil with pain, and concluding that the right course or rule of action is that which produces at least as great a balance of pleasure over pain as any alternative would. But they may be and have sometimes been non-hedonists, identifying the good with power, knowledge, self-realization, perfection etc. This fact must not be forgotten when we are evaluating the teleological theory of obligation. All that is necessary is that the teleologist have some view about what is good or bad, and that he determine what is right or obligatory by asking what is conducive to the greatest balance of good over evil.

Deontological theories deny what teleological theories affirm. They deny that the right, the obligatory, and the morally good are wholly, whether directly or indirectly, a function of what is nonmorally good or of what promotes the greatest balance of good over evil for self, one's society, or the world as a whole. They assert that there are other considerations that may make an action or rule right or obligatory besides the goodness or badness of its consequences -- certain features of the act itself other than the value it brings into existence, for example, the fact that it keeps a promise, is just, or is commanded by God or by the state. Teleologists believe that there is one and only one basic or ultimate right-making characteristic, namely, the comparative value (nonmoral) of what is, probably will be, or is intended to be brought into being. Deontologists either deny that this characteristic is right-making at all or they insist that there are other basic or ultimate right-making characteristics as well. For them the principle of maximizing the balance of good over evil, no matter for whom, is either not a moral criterion or standard at all, or, at least, it is not the only basic or ultimate one.

To put the matter in yet another way: a deontologist contends that it is possible for an action or rule of action to be the morally right or obligatory one even if it does not promote the greatest possible balance of good over evil for self, society, or universe. It may be right or obligatory simply because of some other fact about it or because of its own nature. It follows that a deontologist may also adopt any kind of a view about what is good or bad in the nonmoral sense.

Teleologists differ on the question of whose good it is that one ought to try to promote. Ethical egoism holds that one is always to do what will promote his own greatest good -- that an act or rule of action is right if and only if it promotes at least as great a balance of good over evil for him in the long run as any alternative would, and wrong if it does not. This view was held by Epicurus, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, among others. Ethical universalism, or what is usually called utilitarianism, takes the position that the ultimate end is the greatest general good -- that an act or rule of action is right if and only if it is, or probably is, conducive to at least as great a balance of good over evil in the universe as a whole as any alternative would be, wrong if it is not, and obligatory if it is or probably is conducive to the greatest possible balance of good over evil in the universe. The so-called utilitarians, for example, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, have usually been hedonists in their view about what is good, asserting that the moral end is the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. But some utilitarians are not hedonists, for example, G. E. Moore and Hastings Rashdall, and so have been called "Ideal" utilitarians. That is, utilitarianism is a certain kind of teleological theory of obligation and does not entail any particular theory of value, although a utilitarian must accept some particular theory of value.

It would also be possible, of course, to adopt teleological theories intermediate between ethical egoism and utilitarianism, for example, theories that say the right act or rule is one conducive to the greatest balance of good over evil for a certain group -- one's nation, class, family, or race. A pure ethical altruist might even contend that the right act or rule is the one that most promotes the good of other people. We shall, however, limit our coming discussion to egoism and universalism.


Deontological theories are also of different kinds, depending on the role they give to general rules. Act- deontological theories maintain that the basic judgments of obligation are all purely particular ones like "In this situation I should do so and so," and that general ones like "We ought always to keep our promises" are unavailable, useless, or at best derivative from particular judgments. Extreme act-deontologists maintain that we can and must see or somehow decide separately in each particular situation what is the right or obligatory thing to do, without appealing to any rules and also without looking to see what will promote the greatest balance of good over evil for oneself or the world. Such a view was held by E. F. Carritt (in Theory of Morals) and possibly by H. A. Prichard; and was at least suggested by Aristotle when he said that in determining what the golden mean is "the decision rests with perception,"1 and by Butler when he wrote that if:

. . . any plain honest man, before he engages in any course of action, ask himself, Is this I am going about right, or is it wrong?. . . I do not in the least doubt but that this question would be answered agreeably to truth and virtue, by almost any fair man in almost any circumstance [without any general rule].2
Today, with an emphasis on "decision" rather than "intuition" and with an admission of difficulty and anxiety, this is the view of most existentialists. In a less extreme form, act-deontologism allows that general rules can be built up on the basis of particular cases and may then be useful in determining what should be done on later occasions. But it cannot allow that a general rule may ever supersede a well-taken particular judgment as to what should be done. What is called "situation ethics" today includes both of these forms of act-deontologism.

Rule-deontologists hold that the standard of right and wrong consists of one or more rules -- either fairly concrete ones like "We ought always to tell the truth" or very abstract ones like Henry Sidgwick's Principle of Justice: "It cannot be right for A to treat B in a manner in which it would be wrong for B to treat A, merely on the ground that they are two different individuals, and without there being any difference between the natures or circumstances of the two which can be stated as a reasonable ground for difference of treatment."3 Against the teleologists, they insist, of course, that these rules are valid independently of whether or not they promote the good. Against act-deontologists, they contend that these rules are basic, and are not derived by induction from particular cases. In fact, they assert that judgments about what to do in particular cases are always to be determined in the light of these rules, as they were by Socrates in the Apology and Crito. The following writers are or were rule-deontologists: Samuel Clarke, Richard Price, Thomas Reid, W. D. Ross, Immanuel Kant, and perhaps Butler. People who take "conscience" to be our guide or standard in morality are usually either rule-deontologists or act-deontologists, depending on whether they think of conscience primarily as providing us with general rules or as making particular judgments in particular situations.

We may illustrate these different theories to some extent by using the example of Socrates in the Crito. If he had tried to decide his problem wholly by asking what would be for his own good, he would have been an ethical egoist. If he had asked merely whether his escaping or not escaping would have the best results for society in general, he would have been a kind of utilitarian -- what will later be called an act-utilitarian. Actually, his procedure is that of a rule-deontologist, since he simply appeals to certain rules. But, if he were to go on to defend those rules on the ground that having such rules and always acting on them is for the greatest general good, then he would be a kind of utilitarian after all -- what will later be called a rule-utilitarian.


We must now discuss these various normative theories, beginning with ethical egoism, which represents one rather extreme kind of reaction to the ethics of traditional rules. This is the ethics of what Butler calls self-love and of what Freudians call the ego; but it should be noted that an ethical egoist need not be an egotist or even an egoistic or selfish man in the everyday sense of these terms. Ethical egoism is an ethical theory, not a pattern of action or trait of character, and is compatible with being self-effacing and unselfish in practice. Even if an ethical egoist is consistent with his theory in the conduct of his life, he may still not do the things that we ordinarily call egotistic, egoistic, narcissistic, or selfish. Whether he does these things will depend on whether he thinks they are to his advantage in the long run, and he need not think this; in fact, he may think that modesty and consideration for others are, like honesty, "the best policy" for him to go by. He may, in other words, be quite an "enlightened" egoist.

Just what are the tenets of the ethical egoist? When he is considering the individual as a moral agent, he holds (1) that an individual's one and only basic obligation is to promote for himself the greatest possible balance of good over evil. What is not so clear is what the ethical egoist says about the individual as a moral spectator, adviser, or judge. He may say (2) that even in making second- and third-person moral judgments an individual should go by what is to his own advantage, or (3) that in making such judgments an individual should go by what is to the advantage of the person he is talking to or about. Tenet (3), however, seems to be inconsistent with the spirit of ethical egoism, unless it is based on the premise that judging as it prescribes is to the individual's own advantage, in which case (3) falls under (2). Hence I shall take an ethical egoist to be asserting tenets (1) and (2).

Ethical egoists may hold any kind of theory of what is good and what is bad, or of what the welfare of the individual consists in. They have often been hedonists, as Epicurus was, identifying the good or welfare with happiness and happiness with pleasure. But they may also identify the good or welfare with knowledge, power, self-realization, or with what Plato called the mixed life of pleasure, knowledge and other good things.

Here we must understand that the ethical egoist is not just taking the egoistic principle of acting and judging as his own private maxim. One could do this, and at the same time keep silent about it or even advocate altruism to everyone else, which might well be to one's advantage. But if one does this, one is not adopting a moral principle, for as we shall see, if one takes a maxim as a moral principle, one must be ready to universalize it. Also, as was suggested earlier, one must be willing to see his principle. actually adopted and acted on by everyone else, at least insofar as they have the ability and intelligence to do so, and even advocate that they adopt and act on it. Perhaps he need not publicly advocate all of his moral conclusions, e.g., that it is right to help slaves escape on the underground railroad; it seems to me, however, that if he is unwilling to share his basic normative_ premises, then he does not have a morality in the full sense. Hence, for our purposes, we must regard the ethical egoist as holding that everyone should act and judge by the standard of his own long run advantage in terms of good and evil.

Now, it has been argued that ethical egoism, as thus construed, is self-contradictory, since it cannot be to one individual's advantage that all others should pursue their own advantage so assiduously. As Kant would put it, one cannot will the egoistic maxim to be a universal law. This argument, however, does not show that ethical egoism is logically self-contradictory, for it is in no difficulty if what is to one person's advantage coincides with what is to that of all the others. If this is so, one can consistently will the egoistic maxim to be universally acted on. But, of course, this is empirically a very dubious assumption, since it postulates a kind of pre-established harmony in the world; and, if it is not true, then the position of the ethical egoist does seem to involve one in a conflict of will and thus seems to be a difficult position to maintain as a moral theory.

Partly connected with this difficulty is another. An important part of morality is the business of advising and, judging. Suppose that B comes to A for moral advice. According to the ethical egoist's tenets (1) and (2), A should determine what to advise B to do by considering what is to his own (A's) advantage to have B do. Or suppose that C and D are involved in some unpleasantness with one another and come to E for a judgment between them -- a moral judgment, not a legal one. Then, again, according to (1) and (2), E should base his judgment on a consideration, not of what is to C's or D's or the general advantage, but on what is to his own advantage. But surely we must regard such egoistically based advice and judgment as unsatisfactory and beside the point. It seems doubtful, therefore, that ethical egoism can serve as an acceptable basis for this important part of morality.

In any case, however, ethical egoism is advocating prudentialism as the whole story about the moral life. This seems paradoxical. For one thing, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, self-love, even of an enlightened kind, has generally been regarded as the essence of immorality, at least when it is made the primary basis of action and judgment, as the ethical egoist proposes. And, even if it be allowed that prudence is a virtue and that we do have a moral obligation to consider our own welfare, which may be debated, it is hard to believe that there are no other moral virtues or obligations that, are independent of prudence or our own welfare. Here the ethical egoist may, of course, reply that he is preaching a new moral gospel, and that we cannot simply take our prevailing moral gospel as true or as a basis for rejecting his, without begging the question. The answer to this, it seems to me, is that prudentialism or living wholly by the principle of enlightened self-love just is not a kind of morality. As Butler said, and as Kant would have agreed, prudentialism is by no means . . . the moral institution of life" even though it is "a much better guide than passion."4 This is not to say that it is immoral, though it may be that too, but that it is nonmoral. As Butler goes on to imply, "moral considerations" are not simply those of self-love. The prudential point of view is not the moral one. The moral point of view is disinterested, not "interested."

If this is so, then ethical egoism, even if it involves being ready to will the egoistic maxim as a universal law (a necessary but not sufficient condition of being a moral principle, as we shall see), must be construed as a proposal to replace what we know as morality with something else, namely what Butler calls "cool self-love." Now, it may be that we should all adopt this principle of cool or rational self-loye, whether as a morality or as a substitute for morality, but from what has been said it follows, I believe, that we should not do so unless there are very compelling arguments for doing so. What are the arguments that have been or may be given?

It will not do for an ethical egoist to argue that each of us should do what will or probably will promote his own greatest good because, if we do, the greatest general good will result. For one who reasons thus is basically a universalist, not an egoist. And we are interested in the arguments for egoism as a basic principle.


The main argument that has been used as a basis for ethical egoism is a psychological one, an argument from human nature. We are all so constituted, it is said, that one always seeks one's own advantage or welfare, or always does what he thinks will give him the greatest balance of good over evil. In Butler's terms, this means that "self-love" is the only basic "principle" in human nature; in one set of contemporary terms, it means that "ego-satisfaction" is the final aim of all activity or that "the pleasure principle" is the basic "drive" in every individual. If this is so, the argument continues, we must recognize this fact in our moral theory and infer that our basic ethical principle must be that of self-love, albeit cool self-love. To hold anything else is to fly in the face of the facts.

It is usual here to object that one cannot logically infer an ethical conclusion from a psychological premise in this way. This objection has some force, as we shall see in Chapter 6. But the egoist may not be doing this. He may only be contending that, if human nature is as he describes it, it is simply unrealistic and even unreasonable to propose that we ought basically to do anything but what is for our own greatest good. For, in a sense, we cannot do anything but this, except by mistake, and, as a famous dictum has it. "Ought implies can." Thus understood, the psychological argument for ethical egoism is at least reasonable, even if it is not logically compelling.

Thus, ethical egoism has generally presupposed what is called psychological egoism -- that each of us is always seeking his own greatest good, whether this is conceived of as pleasure, happiness, knowledge, power, self-realization, or a mixed life. But must we regard psychological egoism (not to be confused with psychological hedonism, which we shall discuss in Chapter 5) as true? That it is true is by no means agreed on by recent psychologists, though it is asserted by some Freudians. The question is not whether egoism is strong in human nature but whether we ever have any concern or desire for the welfare of others except as a means to our own, any concern for or interest in their welfare for its own sake, which is not derived from our concern for our own welfare. In dealing with this question, I shall borrow largely from Butler, whose discussion of psychological egoism is justly famous. (1) He maintains that the desire for one's own good presupposes or builds upon the existence of more basic desires for food, fame, sex, etc. If we did not have any of these "primary appetites," we would not have any good to be concerned about; our welfare consists of the satisfaction of such desires. (2) It follows, he says, that the object of these basic desires is not one's own welfare; it is food, fame, sex, etc., as the case may be. One's own good is not the object of all of one's desires but only of one of them, self- love. (3) He adds that in some cases the object of a basic desire is something for oneself, for example, food or the eating of food. But there is no necessity about this; the object may be something for someone else, for example, that he enjoy the sight of the ocean. In other words, there may be altruistic impulses. There may also be a desire to do the right as such. Whether there are such desires or not is a question of empirical fact. (4) As a matter of fact, he goes on, there, are such altruistic interests in the welfare or illfare of others (sheer malevolence, if it exists, is a desire that another experience pain for its own sake), as well as a desire to do the right as such. Our experience shows this. (5) Butler also reminds us that primary appetites such as sexual desire may even rebel against self-love, that is, may demand and obtain satisfaction even when we know this is not for our own greatest good. This is true even of altruistic impulses, for example, in cases of self-sacrifice. --

At this point it is usual for the psychological egoist to say, "Yes, we do things for others, but we get satisfaction out of doing them, and this satisfaction is our end in doing them. Doing them is only a means to this satisfaction. Hence, even in doing 'altruistic' things for others, like taking them to see the ocean, we are seeking our own good." To this Butler replies (6) that, of course, we get satisfaction out of doing such things, but we do not want to do them because of the satisfaction we expect to get out of them, we get satisfaction out of doing them because we wanted to do them. The psychological egoist is putting the cart before the horse. He confuses the object of B's desire (A's enjoying the ocean) with the satisfaction that results for B when this object is attained. Suppose B fails to get A to the ocean or that A does not enjoy seeing it. Then B will experience frustration, but it will not follow that this frustration is his goal; he experiences frustration because his goal is to have A enjoy himself.

The egoist may come back by saying, "Still, I always do what I want to do, even when I do something for someone else. And the satisfaction that results is my satisfaction. So I am the center of it all. Egoism is still true." But if this is all that psychological egoism is claiming, the altruist has nothing to fear. For what he means by saying that there is altruism in human nature is merely that we sometimes want to do something for others and that we are so constituted as to get satisfaction out of doing so. So long as the egoist grants this, the altruist has all he is contending for, namely, that, in David Hume's words,

. . . there is some benevolence, however small, . . . some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent.5

Already in Butler's day, John Clarke had an answer of sorts to Butler's kind of argument. He admitted that we get pleasure out of doing things for others and out of seeing them enjoy themselves, just as we get pleasure out of eating. He insisted, however, that we get these pleasures just because of the way we are made, not because we have some prior desire for food or for the happiness of others, and that we come to desire food and the happiness of others only because we have found pleasure in these things and wish to enjoy such pleasures again. In short, one's only object of desire and action is pleasure for oneself. This position does sidestep Butler's argument in a way, for Butler assumes that we must first desire food or the happiness of others if we are to derive enjoyment from them, or, in other words, that pleasure comes to us only via the satisfaction of desires for other things. On the other hand, Clarke allows that we are so built as to enjoy promoting or observing the happiness of other people, and to allow this is to recognize that there is a real altruism in human beings of a kind that psychological egoists seem to wish to deny.6

There is more that might be said on this much-debated issue, especially because there are other kinds of psychological egoism besides that discussed by Butler. But so far as I can see, the above line of argument at least shows that we need not accept psychological egoism of the usual sort, and that the psychological argument for ethical egoism is not even psychologically compelling.


Another rather extreme reaction to the ethics of traditional rules, but one which remains on the deontological side as against egoists and other teleologists, is act-deontologism. The main point about it is that it offers us no standard whatsoever for determining what is right or wrong in particular cases; it tells us that particular judgments are basic and any general rules are to be derived from them, not the other way around. It presents a kind of method for determining what is right, namely, by becoming clear about the facts in the case and then forming a judgment about what is to be done, either by some kind of "intuition" as intuitionists would call it or by a "decision" of the kind that existentialists talk about. Act-deontologism, however, offers us no criterion or guiding principle, but at most only rules of thumb.

If we had a distinct intuitive faculty which perceives what is right or wrong, and speaks with a clear voice, matters might still be tolerable. But anthropological and psychological evidence seems to be against the existence of such a faculty, as does the everyday experience of disagreement about what is right in particular situations. Besides, intuitionism involves meta-ethical difficulties, as we shall see in Chapter 6. It seems imperative, therefore, to find a more satisfactory theory, if this is possible.

The other kind of act-deontological theory, which makes "decision" rather than "intuition" central, is even less satisfactory. It leaves our particular moral judgments wholly up in the air, as existentialists think they are, subject to the "anxiety" of which they make so much. It does, indeed, tell one to take the "situation" one is in as his guide, and this must mean that one must look carefully to see just what his situation is, that is, one must be careful to get the facts about one's situation straight; but beyond that it has nothing to say, and it even insists that there is nothing else to guide one -- one must simply "choose" or "decide" what to do, virtually making one's action right by choosing it. In effect, this gives us no guidance whatsoever, for merely looking at the facts does not tell one what to do if one does not also have some aim, ideal, or norm to go by. Just knowing that a car is coming tells me nothing about what to do unless I want to cross the street alive or have some notion of what I should be about. Certainly one can hardly call such unguided decisions morality. One wonders how one could even build up any rules of thumb on such a basis.

The main argument for act-deontologism, apart from the objections to prevailing rules that were listed earlier, is the claim that each situation is different and even unique, so that no general rules can possibly be of much help in dealing with it, except as mere rules of thumb. Now, it is true that each situation has something new or unique about it, but it does not follow that it is unique in all respects or that it cannot be like other situationsm morally relevant respects. After all, events and situations are alike in some important respects, otherwise we could not make true general statements of a factual kind, as we do in ordinary life and in science. Therefore, there is no reason for thinking that we cannot similarly make general statements of a moral kind. For example, many situations are certainly alike in including the fact that a promise has been made, and this may be enough to warrant applying a rule to them.

On the other side, two lines of argument may be advanced against act- deontological theories. The first counts most against the more extreme ones, the other against them all. The first is that it is practically impossible for us to do without rules. For one thing, we cannot always put in the time and effort required to judge each situation anew. For another thing, rules are needed in the process of moral education. As R. M. Hare has said,

. . . to learn to do anything is never to learn to do an individual act; it is always to learn to do acts of a certain kind in a certain kind of situation; and this is to learn a principle. . . . without principles we could not learn anything whatever from our elders. . . . every generation would have to start from scratch and teach itself. But . . . self-teaching like all other teaching, is the teaching of principles.7

An act-deontologist might reply that the only rules needed are rules of thumb arrived at on the basis of past experience. But this means rules arrived at on the basis of past intuitions or decisions, and we have already seen reason to question generalizations reached on such bases. In any case, it seems clear that the rules passed on in moral education must be perceived by the younger generation, at least for a time, as something stronger than rules of thumb that they may use or not use at their discretion -- something more like the rules of prima facie duty that we shall come to in dealing with W. D. Ross.

The other line of argument is more technical. It holds that particular moral judgments are not purely particular, as the act-deontologist claims, but implicitly general. For the act-deontologist, "This is what X ought to do in situation Y" does riot entail anything about what X or anyone else should do in similar situations. Suppose that I go to Jones for advice about what to do in situation Y, and he tells me that I morally ought to do Z. Suppose I also recall that the day before he had maintained that W was the right thing for Smith to do in a situation of the same kind. I shall then certainly point this out to Jones and ask him if he is not being inconsistent. Now suppose that Jones does not do anything to show that the two cases are different, but simply says, "No, there is no connection between the two cases. Sure, they are alike, but one was yesterday and involved Smith. Now it's today and you are involved." Surely, this would strike us as an odd response from anyone who purports to be taking the moral point of view or giving moral advice. The fact is that when one makes a moral judgment in a particular situation, one implicitly commits oneself to making the same judgment in any similar situation, even if the second situation occurs at a different time or place, or involves another agent. Moral and value predicates are such that if they belong to an action or object, they also belong to any other action or object which has the same properties. If I say I ought to serve my country, I imply that everyone ought to serve his country. The point involved here is called the Principle of Universalizability: if one judges that X is right or good, then one is committed to judging that anything exactly like X, or like X in relevant respects, is right or good. Otherwise he has no business using these words.

This point is connected with the fact, noted earlier, that particular ethical and value judgments can be supported by reasons. If Jones makes such a judgment, it is appropriate to ask him for his reason for believing that the act is right or the object good, and to expect an answer like, "Because you promised to do it" or "Because it gives pleasure." If he answers, "Oh, for no reason whatsoever," we are puzzled and feel that he has misled us by using ethical or value terms at all. Moral and value judgments imply reasons, and reasons cannot apply in a particular case only. If they apply in one case, they apply in all similar cases. Moreover, in order to give a reason in a particular case, one must presuppose a general proposition. If Jones answers your question "Why?" by saying "Because you promised to" or "Because it gives pleasure," he presupposes that it is right to keep promises or that what gives pleasure is good.


It follows that act-deontological theories are untenable in principle. In choosing, judging, and reasoning morally, one is at least implicitly espousing rules or principles. This suggests rule-deontologism, which holds that there is a non-teleological standard consisting of one or more rules, though these need not be the prevailing ones. Usually rule-deontologists hold that the standard consists of a number of rather specific rules like those of telling the truth or keeping agreements, each one saying that we always ought to act in a certain way in a certain kind of situation. Here, the stock objection is that no rule can be framed which does not admit of exceptions (and excuses) and no set of rules can be framed which does not admit of conflicts between the rules. To this objection, one might say that an exception to a rule can only occur when it has to yield the right of way to another rule, and that the rules proposed may be ranked in a hierarchy so that they never can conflict or dispute the right of way. One might also say that the rules may have all the necessary exceptions built into them, so that, fully stated they have no exceptions. Thus, for example, the case of the white lie, if we accept it, is an exception to the rule "We ought never to lie," but if we formulate the "exception" as part of the rule and say, "We ought not to lie, except for white lies," assuming that we have a way of telling when a lie is "white," then it is no longer an exception. It must be confessed, however, that no deontologist has presented us with a conflict-and-exception-free system of concrete rules about what we are actually to do. To this fact, the deontologist might retort, "That's the way things are. We can't be as satisfied with any other theory of obligation as with this one, but this one isn't perfect either. The moral life simply does present us with unsolvable dilemmas." But, of course, we need not agree without looking farther.

W. D. Ross, who is a rule-deontologist, deals with the difficulty pointed out in this stock objection partly by retorting in the way just indicated, but he also has another answer. He distinguishes between actual duty and prima facie duty, between what is actually right and what is prima facie right. What is actually right or obligatory is what we actually ought to do in a particular situation. About what we actually ought to do in the situations of life, which often involve the conflicts referred to, there are and can be, Ross admits, no rules that do not have exceptions. "Every rule has exceptions," that is, every rule of actual duty has exceptions. But there still may be and are, Ross contends, exceptionless rules of prima facie duty. Something is a prima facie duty if it is a duty other things being equal, that is, if it would be an actual duty if other moral considerations did not intervene. For example, if I have promised to give my secretary a day off, then I have a prima facie duty to give her the day off; and if there are no conflicting considerations that outweigh this prima facie duty, then I also have an actual duty to let her take the day off. Accordingly, Ross suggests that one can formulate a number of moral rules that hold without exception as rules of prima facie, though not of actual, duty. That one ought to keep one's promises is always valid as a rule of prima facie duty; it is always an obligation one must try to fulfill. But it may on occasion be outweighed by another obligation or rule of prima facie duty. Or, to use a different phrase, the fact that one has made a promise is always a right-making consideration, it must always be taken into account; but there are other such considerations, and these may sometimes outweigh it or take precedence over it when they conflict with it.

This view does much to meet the objection. It shows how we may have a set of rules that have no exceptions, namely, by conceiving of them as rules of prima facie, not actual, duty. But, of course, it does not help us in cases of conflict, since it allows that prima facie duties may come into conflict in actual situations. Ross could clear even this hurdle if he could provide us with a ranking of our prima facie duties that would always tell us when one takes precedence over the others, but he does not believe this to be possible. It is at this point that he says, "C'est la vie," and refers us to Aristotle's dictum, "The decision rests with perception." Nevertheless, as far as it goes, Ross's conception of a set of rules of prima facie duty is an important one which I shall accept and use. The main difficulty about it, besides the one just mentioned, is that a deontologist like Ross cannot give us any criterion by which to tell what our prima facie duties are, or in other words, what considerations are always to be taken into account in determining what is morally right or wrong. We must at least try to look for such a criterion. Ross simply contends that his prima facie duties -- fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, etc. -- are self-evident, so that no criterion is needed: but to anyone who doubts the claim of self-evidence, which we shall discuss briefly in Chapter 6, this explanation will hardly suffice. Other rule-deontologists would say that their basic rules are not self-evident but arbitrarily decided on, divinely revealed, or deducible from metaphysics. Such claims also raise questions about the justification of moral judgments, which we shall take up in Chapter 6.

Ross's standard consists of a fairly large number of relatively concrete rules of prima facie duty. A deontologist who is dissatisfied with such a scheme might, however, offer as a more satisfactory standard a small number of more abstract and highly general rules like the Golden Rule, or Sidgwick's Principle of Justice, previously quoted, or Rashdall's Axiom of Equity: "I ought to regard the good of one man as of equal intrinsic value with the like good of any one else."8 He might then claim that more concrete rules and particular conclusions can be reached by applying these general principles. Such principles certainly capture some of the truth, for they entail a recognition of the Principle of Universalizability, but, as we shall see in discussing Kant, it may be doubted that they can actually suffice for the determination of our duties. In fact, Sidgwick and Rashdall argue that they must be supplemented by two teleological axioms -- the Principle of Prudence or Rational Egoism (already discussed) and the Principle of Beneficence or Utility (to be discussed in the next chapter). Thus they come to a position much like the one I shall be advocating. Here we must notice that even if one has only a few basic axioms of this kind, one must allow that they may come into conflict (unless one postulates a divinely regulated, universe in which this cannot happen, as Sidgwick does), and that one is not yet free from this difficulty in Ross's system. To be free from it we must find a view that has a single basic principle and is otherwise satisfactory. Can we find such a view?


A rule-deontologist can avoid the problem of possible conflict between basic principles if he can show that there is a single basic non-teleological principle that is adequate as a moral standard. One such monistic kind of rule deontology with a long and important history is the Divine Command theory, also known as theological voluntarism, which holds that the standard of right and wrong is the will or law of God. Proponents of this view sometimes hold that "right" and "wrong" mean, respectively, commanded and forbidden by God, but even if they do not define ''right" and "wrong" in this way, they all hold that an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God, or, in other words, that what ultimately makes an action right or wrong is its being commanded or forbidden by God and nothing else.

One who holds such a view may believe that we ought to do what is for the greatest general good, that one ought to do what is for his own good, or that we ought to keep promises, tell the truth, etc. Then his working ethics will be like that of the utilitarian, ethical egoist, or pluralistic deontologist. In any case, however, he will insist that such conduct is right because and only because it is commanded by God. If he believes that God's law consists of a number of rules, e.g., the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, then, of course, like the pluralistic rule-deontologist, he may still be faced with the problem of conflicts between them, unless God somehow instructs us how to resolve them.

Sometimes, when asked why we should do what God wills, a theologian replies that we should do so because God will reward us if we do and punish us if we do not, if not in this life then in the hereafter. This reply may be meant only to motivate us to obey God, but if it is intended to justify the claim that we ought to obey God, then it presupposes a basic ethical egoism, for then the theologian is telling us that, basically, one ought to do what is to one's own interest, adding that God makes it to our interest to do what He commands, thus leading us to the conclusion that we ought to obey God. For him, then, the basic normative principle is not obedience to God but doing what, is for one's own greatest good. In short, he is a teleologist of a kind we have already discussed, not a deontologist at all. Just now we are interested only in the theologian who really believes that what finally makes an action right or wrong is simply its being commanded or forbidden by God.

It should also be noticed that a religious person who believes that God only reveals the moral law to a mankind otherwise incapable of knowing adequately what is right or wrong is not a theological voluntarist. He will, of course, hold that the moral law coincides with what God tells us to do, but he does not assert that what it prescribes is right just because God commands it; he may even think that it would be right anyway.

It is not easy to discuss the Divine Command theory of right and wrong in a way that will satisfy both believers and nonbelievers. The latter find the theory hard to take seriously and the former find it hard to think that, if God commands something, it may still be wrong. We must remember, however, that many religious thinkers have rejected the Divine Command theory, at least in its voluntaristic form, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas and Ralph Cudworth.

One question that arises at once is, "How can we know what God commands or forbids?" Socrates asked this in the Euthyphro. However, it raises problems that cannot be discussed here. More to the point is another question asked by Socrates. Euthyphro suggests in effect that what makes something right is the fact that God commands it, and Socrates then asks him, "Is something right because God commands it or does He command it, because it is right?" Euthyphro answers that, of course, God commands it because it is right, and Socrates at once points out that, if this is true, then Euthyphro must give up his theory. Such an argument does not actually disprove theological voluntarism, but it does show that it is hard to hold consistently. Euthyphro's answer to Socrates' question seems to be the natural one, and it implies that what is right is so independently of whether God commands it or not, or, in other words, that God only reveals what is right and does not make it right or create its rightness merely by willing it.

Cudworth's kind of argument is more conclusive.9 Like others, he points out that, if theological voluntarism is true, then, if God were to command cruelty, dishonesty, or injustice, these things would be right and obligatory. If God were to order the exact opposite of what we generally take him to have ordered or of what we take to be right, then, by the hypothesis in question, this would be what we ought to do. Now, a voluntarist could reply, "So be it!" But such a position is hard to accept, and voluntarists are themselves reluctant to accept it. They usually reply by saying that God would or could not command cruelty, etc., because that would go against His nature, since He is good.

This answer may contain a circle. If, in saying that God is good, the voluntarist means that God does what is right or what He thinks is right, which is what we usually mean by being morally good, then he is in a kind of dilemma. He must either give up his voluntarism or say that God's goodness consists simply in the fact that He does what He himself commands or wills, which will be true no matter what He commands or wills, even if it is cruelty, etc.

To avoid this outcome a voluntarist may reply that, when we say God is good, we mean not that He does or tries to do what is right, but that He is benevolent or loving, and therefore would not order us to be cruel, etc. Such a line of thought would avoid the difficulty pointed to by Cudworth. But then we may ask how we know that God is benevolent or loving independently of knowing what He commands and whether He commands cruelty, etc., or not? To this objection a theologian may answer that God is by definition benevolent or loving, but then he is still faced with the problem of proving the existence of a Being that has the other attributes ascribed to God and is also benevolent or loving, and of doing so independently of knowing what this Being commands us to do. This problem, however, cannot be taken up here.

It may also be worth pointing out that what the theological voluntarist offers us as a guide to life is a kind of legal system, cosmic in scale and supernatural in origin, but still essentially a legal system. Since we ordinarily think that law and morality are rather different in character, we may then ask whether the action-guide of the voluntarist is a moral one at all. Theologians themselves sometimes even suggest that their religious system of life is "beyond morality" and should replace it, at least in the life of a believer. This raises the questions of what a morality is and what the moral point of view is, which we shall take up in Chapter 6, and also the question of whether God takes the moral point of view in telling us what and what not to do, which we cannot try to deal with.


Another example of a monistic kind of rule deontology is presented by Immanuel Kant. We must confine our discussion to what he calls the first form of the categorical imperative, "Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law." In this dictum, Kant is taking a principle, very similar to those quoted from Sidgwick and Rashdall, and offering it as the necessary and sufficient criterion for determining what more concrete maxims or rules we should live by. We have, in effect, already accepted the principle as necessary, the question is whether it is sufficient. If so, our search for a normative ethics is ended.

There are problems about the interpretation of Kant, but we may take him as saying, first, that when one acts voluntarily one always acts on a formulizable maxim or rule; second, that one is choosing and judging from the moral point of view if and only if one is or would be willing to universalize one's maxim, that is, if he is or would be willing to see his rule acted on by everyone who is in a situation of a similar kind, even if he himself turns out to be on the receiving end on occasion; and, third, that an action is morally right and/or obligatory if and only if one can consistently will that the maxim or rule involved be acted on by everyone in similar circumstances, and an action is morally wrong if and only if one cannot consistently will this. Here we are concerned primarily with the last contention, though we will also have a word to say about the second. Is Kant's criterion sufficient as well as necessary for determining what is morally right or obligatory?

Let us first take an example of how he applies it. In one of his illustrations he supposes that A makes a promise but is ready to break it if this suits his purposes. A's maxim then may be expressed thus, "When it suits my purposes I will make promises, intending also to break them if this suits my purposes." But A cannot consistently will this maxim to be universally acted on, says Kant.

. . .could I say to myself that everyone make a false promise when he is in difficulty from which he otherwise cannot escape? I immediately see that I could will the lie but not a universal law to lie. For with such a law [i.e., with such a maxim universally acted on] there would be no promises at all. . . . Thus my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law.10
Kant concludes, therefore, that it is wrong to make deceitful promises. By somewhat similar arguments, he believes he can also show, for example, that it is wrong to commit suicide, that we ought to cultivate our natural gifts or talents, and that we ought to help others who are in trouble.

It is often alleged that Kant is being a utilitarian in these arguments, not a deontologist as he purports to be. This is a mistake. He is not arguing that one must keep one's promises because the results of everyone's breaking them when convenient or advantageous to themselves would be so bad as to be intolerable. This is how a rule-utilitarian would run the argument. Kant, however, is contending that one cannot even will such a maxim to be universally acted on, because in so doing, one would be involved in a contradiction of will; one would be willing both that it be possible to make promises and have them credited (else why make them?) and that everyone be free to break promises to suit his own purposes. In other words, he is arguing, not that the results of everyone's always acting on the deceitful promise maxim are bad, but that the results are self-defeating, since if that maxim were universally acted on, we could not even have the institution of promise making which that maxim presupposes.

It must be admitted that Kant's arguments are not always as convincing as the one against deceitful promising. It must also be pointed out that he is not free from the difficulties due to conflicts between duties; it seems possible, at any rate, that keeping a promise might on occasion prevent one from helping someone in trouble. Possibly Kant could argue in this case that it would be right to break the promise and help the person in trouble, since one can will the maxim, "When breaking a promise is required in order to help someone I will break it," to be universally acted on in the situations specified, especially if it is also specified in the maxim that the promise is not crucially important and that the help is. Kant, however, does not take this line, and talks as if he can show that promises ought never to be broken. But this his argument does not suffice to show. As was just indicated, one may be able to will a specific rule that permits promises to be broken in a certain kind of situation to be universally acted on, even though one cannot will a more blanket one to become a universal law.

Thus Kant's arguments, even if good, do not prove as much as he thinks; and in the case just presented, this is just as well, since he thought he could prove too much. Even if we admit that his criterion rules out certain sorts of action as immoral (for example, deceitful promising which does not enable one to help another), must we agree that all of our duties can be established by his test? Take the duty to help others. It is true that if one adopts the maxim of not helping others in need and wills this to be a universal law, he is likely to find himself willing inconsistently to abrogate this rule, since he is likely himself to be in need sometime. Still, it is not hard to imagine a man whose fortune is fairly sure or one who is willing to be consistent and to take the consequences of his maxim's being universally acted on; if there are such people, Kant's test will not suffice to establish benevolence as a duty. Of course, one might conclude that it is not a duty just because it does not pass this test; but this seems a drastic conclusion, and, deontological as he was, even Kant could not draw it.

Is every maxim that does pass Kant's test a duty, as he sometimes seems to think? "When alone in the dark, whistle" -- this seems to be a maxim one can will to be a universal law, It not, "Tie your left shoestring first" clearly is. Yet, surely, neither of these rules can be regarded as a duty. One might reply here that such questions about whistling and tying shoestrings are not moral ones, and this is correct, but Kant does not tell us how to determine whether they are moral or not. It might also be argued that Kant was not regarding all maxims one can will to be universal laws as duties, but only holding that maxims one cannot will to be universal laws are immoral or wrong to act on. That is, Kant meant to say (a) that it is permissible to act on a maxim if and only if one can will it to be a universal law, (b) that it is wrong to act on a maxim if and only if one cannot will it to be a universal law, and (c) that it is a duty to act on a maxim if and only if one cannot will its opposite to be a universal law. I am, in fact, inclined to think this is what Kant meant and should have said. But even then his criterion of right and wrong is not sufficient, for it does not actually rule out all immoral maxims, e.g., the maxim of never helping anyone.

In any event, it seems to me that in order for one's maxims to be considered moral duties, it is not enough that one be able consistently to will one's maxims to be universally acted on. Much depends on the point of view from which one wills one's rules to be universally followed. One might do this from the aesthetic point of view or, more probably, from a prudential one. One might, for example, will honesty to be universally practiced because one regards everyone's being honest, including oneself (else one is not universalizing, but making an exception of oneself, which Kant is right in putting out of moral bounds), as being advantageous to oneself. "Everyone's being honest is the best policy from my point of view." If one uses such reasoning, one can hardly claim to be taking the moral point of view. There is more to the moral point of view than being willing to universalize one's rules; Kant and his followers fail to see this fact, although they are right in thinking such a willingness is part of it.

This brings us to utilitarianism, with which we shall begin the next chapter.


1 Nicomachean Ethics, end of Book II.

2 Joseph Butler, Five Sermons, New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1949, p. 45.

3 The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1907), p. 380.

4 Butler, Five Sermons, p. 16.

5 An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1930), p. 109.

6 For John Clarke's views, see L. A. Selby-Bigge, ed., British Moralists, Vol. II.

7 The Language of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), pp. 60-61.

8 H. Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), I, 185.

9 See D. D. Raphael, ed., British Moralists 1650-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), I, 105.

10 Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. L. W. Beck (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1959), p. 19. See selections in Frankena and Granrose, eds., Introductory Readings in Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), Chap. II.